Interfaith News Roundup - October 2016

Interfaith News Roundup

October 15,2016

September Was a Month of Celebrations and Blessings

On September 21 the world celebrated the UN International Day of Peace at hundreds of sites circling the globe. The theme this year was “The Sustainable Development Goals: Building Blocks for Peace.” On that same day, Pope Francis hosted leaders from the world’s religions to gather in prayer in Assisi on the thirtieth anniversary of the first such interfaith spiritual gathering, in 1986. Reuters reports that on September 21 “The head of the Roman Catholic Church closed a three-day meeting where about 500 representatives of Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Buddhism, Hinduism, Shintoism, Sikhism, Zoroastrianism and other faiths discussed how their members could better promote peace and reconciliation.”

In a final appeal from Assisi, which key representatives signed and gave to children from around the world, they vowed “to oppose every form of violence and abuse of religion which seeks to justify war and terrorism … No to war! May the anguished cry of the many innocents not go unheeded. Let us urge leaders of nations to defuse the causes of war: the lust for power and money, the greed of arms’ dealers, personal interests and vendettas for past wrongs.”

Let us urge leaders of nations to defuse the causes of war: the lust for power and money, the greed of arms’ dealers, personal interests and vendettas for past wrongs.

Weeks earlier the Vatican hosted an international conference on interfaith dialogue, where Pope Francis declared that “The world looks constantly to us, believers, to see what our attitude is towards the common house and to human rights.” He went on to challenge the conference: “The world also asks us to cooperate among ourselves and with men and women of good will who profess no religion, in order to give effective answers to the many scourges of our world,” including the scourges of war and hunger, abject poverty, ecological crises, violence, corruption and moral degradation, the crisis of the family, the economy, “and above all,” he said, “the lack of hope.”

Also in September, The Jewish Press announced that “Over 20 religious leaders from east Asia arrived in Israel Monday for a four-day summit in Jerusalem. Participants came from countries such as China, South Korea, India, and Japan, representing spiritual traditions of Taoism, Buddhism, Shintoism, Jainism, Sikhism and Zoroastrianism. Throughout the upcoming week, they will come face to face with Arab and Israeli religious leaders of Judaism, Islam and Christianity.” Something is taking off, it seems! East and West. Abrahamic and Dharmic.

Fethulla Gulen meeting Pope John Paul II in 1998 – Photo: Wikipedia, CC3.0

Fethulla Gulen meeting Pope John Paul II in 1998 – Photo: Wikipedia, CC3.0

In the midst of this good news, it would be remiss not to mention what is turning out to be the worst interfaith story of the year, the coup in Turkey and the subsequent scapegoating and oppression of the Gulen movement, sending many thousands of ‘traitors’ to jail. Imam Fethulla Gulen, whose Muslim movement focuses on service, education, and interfaith friendship, is accused of fomenting Turkey’s recently aborted coup. The ripples from the charge are widespread. Hundreds of Gulen schools in Africa, which teach an interfaith-friendly Islam, are being threatened by Turkish demands, and there are fears that if the peace-loving schools are closed down, radical terrorists will reap the benefits. An aging Imam Gulen is a pioneering interfaith activist and peacemaker who should be lauded and must be protected from extradition to Turkey from his home in Pennsylvania.

Responding to the Refugee Crisis

The toughest challenge in the world today is a refugee crisis that shows no signs of slowing down. This is not this season’s crisis but a long-term world-changer with tragic implications, particularly if we do not move forward immediately to consider the issues and what it will take to live up to the affirmation we are all one human family.

In a recent newsletter, William Vendley, secretary general of Religions for Peace International, brings us starkly face to face with what is brewing in refugee camps around the world:

   Dr. William Vendley, Religions for Peace International – Photo: Linked In

Dr. William Vendley, Religions for Peace International – Photo: Linked In

When I was in West Africa working with religious leaders, I found myself in a bare field as the brutal war in Liberia was winding down. It was just an empty field – no buildings, no facilities – yet there were several thousand persons encamped there.
People greeted me as I entered the camp, took me by hand to a large rectangle fashioned with sticks laid out flat on the ground. “Here,” they said, “here is our mosque.” And then, I was taken further into the camp to another rectangle of sticks lying flat on the ground, and invited in. “Here,” the people said, “is our church.” They had lost everything. But, they had their mosque and church. I experienced there – as I have so many places around the world recently – that religious communities have a living link with the Transcendent Mystery that grounds, strengthens and ennobles their lives, even in the hardest of times.”

Vendley’s introduction sets the scene for this particular RfPI newsletter, which is filled with such stories.

Major media has noticed that the nations of the world are in a flummox over refugees and precious little is getting done, except in religious communities. As politicians debate the number of visas, faith groups have picked up the welcome banner, encouraging more refugee engagement and providing local services. Some such ministries have been around for a long time. An interfaith coalition of congregations in Berkeley, California, advocating for the rights of low-income refugees and immigrants, is providing counsel to hundreds of families every year. A church in Ohio with the hashtag #wechoosewelcome is one of dozens of religious projects welcoming vetted refugees regardless of nationality or religion.

Making a Difference through Collaboration

“Collaboration” is more than a theme anymore. It is the way to get things done. Sometimes it can be as simple as a coat of paint. Colour in Faith is a movement started in Kenya where churches and mosques, often in close proximity, are both painted a bright, vibrant yellow as a signal of their solidarity and respect for each other. We’ll watch for other countries, when and if this powerful symbolic public gesture catches on!

The notion of never collaborating with ‘the enemy’ can be a terrible approach to conflict-resolution. For instance, the fierce struggle between Shia and Sunni Muslims in the Middle East should not lead you to conclude that they are always enemies. In India, Shias and Sunnis enjoy a long history of peace. In Lucknow a program called Shoulder to Shoulder is encouraging shared prayer among the two communities, which has increased the number attending prayers.

Brian McLaren, a major Christian intrafaith voice, has a new book, The Great Spiritual Migration: How the World’s Largest Religion is Seeking a Better Way to be Christian. It explores how love and practical peacemaking can happen collaboratively. Religion Dispatches has a fine review by Peter Laarman.

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  The House of Parliament in Papua New Guinea – Photo: Wikimedia Commons, CC2.0

The House of Parliament in Papua New Guinea – Photo: Wikimedia Commons, CC2.0

Grassroots interfaith collaborative social justice activism is taking off. Progressive clergy from a host of different traditions marched in 30 state capitols across the United States, countering the political voice of the Religious Right. The multi-sited march is called “The Revival: Time for a Moral Revolution of Values,” organized by The Revival. Their goal is “to support state-based fusion movements to combat extremism in state and national politics, and to be a catalyst for a resurgence of political activism in order to end poverty, racial inequalities, and the most pressing issues in our country.” You are invited to sign your name to their declaration, “A Moral Grounding in Scripture and Our Founding Creed.” And Young Evangelicals for Climate Change is bringing thousands of evangelicals Christians into the climate change movement.

Speaking of responding to climate change, the tiny country of Papua New Guinea was the first UN member to finalize a national climate plan under the Paris Agreement. A powerful witness to the family of nations!

Thousands of youngsters from minority religions in the U.S. suffer religiously motivated bullying in their schools. This includes Jains, Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs, and others. Local schools and the Department of Education are noticing and doing something about it.

Georgetown University’s “Bridge Initiative” is at the forefront in seriously researching Islamophobia and how to mitigate the disease. If you’re interested in the subject, this article from the Ignatian Solidarity Network is required reading.

In more Georgetown news, the Jesuit university in Washington DC, has appointed a Hindu priest to be a chaplain, a first for higher education in the U.S. The University enrolls about 300 Hindu students. Brahmachari Vrajvihari Sharan, the new chaplain, studied for the priesthood at Indian ashrams and received a PhD in Sanskrit at the University of Edinborough. Georgetown’s interfaith-friendly administration already has rabbis and imams on its chaplaincy staff.

If you want a model for happy, collaborative relationships among members of the Abrahamic faiths, consider the Hadassah Medical Center in Jerusalem, a wonderful, mind-bending example of what is possible. And for more good news, stories are appearing about Abrahamic faiths learning to share sacred space. The National Catholic Reporter tells of three large cities – Berlin, Jerusalem, and Omaha – each building sanctuaries to be used by Christian, Jews, and Muslims. Similar cooperation is showing up in smaller communities as well. Another sign that interfaith ferment at the grassroots is making a difference.

Religion and Society

PPRI Research has concluded a study of the “the non-affiliated. Their most startling finding was that the number of religiously non-affiliated has spiked since 1995, from 9 to 25 percent today. As a group, that makes ‘those who have nothing to do with religion’ larger than any religious tradition in the U.S. A majority of the losses have come from Catholic and Protestant traditions. The main reason for leaving a tradition: “stopped believing in the religion’s teachings.”

Do you approve using new biomedical technologies to cure the sick? Or to enhance our physical, intellectual capabilities? Or to genetically design a ‘superperson’? These questions are fraught with complex issues, many of them with ethical and religious ramifications. Pew Research asked the public about human-enhancement technology, and the answers are worth reading, especially in light of remarkable genetic technology being developed.

Congratulations Utah! The Cache Valley Youth Center, a correctional facility in Logan, asked their at-risk, court-involved youth, What does faith and hope mean to you, and how does it contribute to a successful life? The answers included, “Hope is the light that shows you the way out of the darkness that surrounds you.” Another wrote: “One’s greatest accomplishment comes after one’s greatest disappointment.” And another. “Being spiritual is loving what you can’t see.” Utah decided to build a 1,000-square foot interfaith chapel designed to serve the incarcerated young adults in their care. Ground was broken in July.  

As the Roman Catholic Church watches more millions of dollars go to civil penalties in sexual abuse cases, one wonders why an alternative to the hide/deny/dispute approach hasn’t come forward sooner. Now a Montana diocese uniquely is using a new conciliation process in sex abuse cases, with remarkable results!

Indonesia’s government is deeply invested in mandated interfaith dialogue nationally. But in the face of continuing riots where members of the Muslim majority are burning Buddhist sanctuaries and monasteries, the country’s National Police chief Gen. Tito Karnavian has called for much stronger support for interfaith dialogue.

Dicky Sofjan, who teaches religion and the politics of multiculturalism at the Universitas Gadjah Mada in Indonesia, is working with the U.S. State Department to create an early warning system designed to spot religious radicals and violent chatter in the same way a weather forecasting aims to spot tsunamis. The system is called the “Indonesian Interfaith Weather Station” and may be a huge breakthrough in grassroots intrafaith and interfaith peacemaking globally.

Religion in United States contributes $1.2 trillion to the economy, a new report from The Blaze suggests, much of it in human services of last resort. “The study found that American religion has an economic impact equivalent to the world’s 15th largest economy and that $1.2 trillion is more than “the annual revenues of the top 10 tech companies, including Apple, Amazon, and Google combined.” Fascinating article!

Michael Schulson’s brilliant essay in Religion & Politics may force you to rethink what you mean by fundamentalist or, as he put its, “moral tribalism.” He begins…

My friends are a model of religious pluralism. Put them all in a room, and they’d look like the Parliament of World Religions – a Buddhist, Muslim, Catholic, evangelical, and more, with plenty of atheists and agnostics in the mix. Many of them are in interfaith relationships. When you ask them about their beliefs, they’re likely to talk about family traditions or journeys of self-discovery. They are less likely to bring up absolute truth. Nor will they talk about a life-and-death battle for souls, or some struggle to transform the culture.
It’s a tableau of tolerance. But when you flip things around and look at politics, the picture suddenly gets pretty tribal. My friends are almost exclusively liberals. In contrast to all those interfaith couples, I can think of just one relationship that crosses partisan lines.

Schulson makes a strong case that in our ‘secular’ culture, religious people are embracing an interfaith-friendly pluralism as never before, but that our political lives have become an arena where conflicted dogmatic fundamentalists battle with each other. What a switch!

Those who believe that evangelicals are monolithic or always judgmental need to read the story of Church of the Highlands, a Baptist church in Louisiana, one of the most inclusive, interfaith-friendly congregations you’ve ever heard about.

The temple entrance at the Yazidi sanctuary in Lalish, Iraq – Photo: Wikipedia, CC3.0

The temple entrance at the Yazidi sanctuary in Lalish, Iraq – Photo: Wikipedia, CC3.0

And, if you are under the impression that South American religion is mostly Catholic and Evangelical, take a peak at Connections, translated from URI’s Latin Connexiones, an incredible example of interfaith in the southern Hemisphere.

The largest Yazidi temple in the world is being built in a village in Armenia, funded by a Yazidi in Russia. A museum and seminary will also serve the Yazidi refugees that have been so badly persecuted in the Middle East in recent years.





Header Photo: The basilica of St. Francis in Assisi – Photo: Wikimedia, Roberto Ferrari, Creative Commons 2.0