September 15, 2016
Interfaith News Roundup returns following a half-year hiatus, leaving us with a boatload of interfaith articles. The stories below are ones which stood out to your editor and tended to be underreported in the major media and most religious media. A few horror stories are noted, because the victims deserve to be known, and people of faith and practice need to know about gross injustice. After you’ve been gobsmacked, so to speak, with the bad news, what follows brings us back to hope and possibility again, in spite of the headlines you read this morning.
Muslim News You May Not Have Heard
The tragic news first. Indonesia, which is predominantly Muslim, is secular by constitution and interfaith in affirming six major religions. Human Rights Watch reports cultural homicide going on with the Gafatar people, practicing a syncretic religion that turns to all the Abrahamic traditions for its beliefs. A nightmare, with burning villages and worse. A story in the Jakarta Post details the oppression. And in Saudi Arabia, it is reported that an unnamed atheist was condemned to 2,000 lashes, ten years in prison, and a $5,300 fine.
Then in the hard-to-fathom category: Diyanet is a children’s magazine published by the Turkish Presidency of Religious Affairs, a government agency and the highest national religious body. Its April issue contains a series of cartoons glorifying Islamic martyrdom. In one box of the comics, a father says to his son: “How good it is to be a martyr...” And lest an American publication cast stones too quickly at others, let it be known, shamefully, that at least 74 Islamophobic organizations are active in the U.S., a figure that has gone up significantly in recent years. Since 2008 these groups have received $200 million dollars for their hate work.
The tragedy in Orlando where 29 people died in a gay bar has given rise to an absolutely unexpected development in religion in America: the public emergence of LGBTQ Muslims, who suffer from both Islamophobia and homophobia. Their remarkable courage in protesting the death of gay and lesbian Muslims, while facing two kinds of bigotry, gives the lie to those who categorically ‘blame’ Muslims and/or homosexuals for the ills of the age. NBC’s Angels Quietly Block Westboro Protesters at Orlando Funeral dramatizes this unexpected story. Religion News Service untangles the complexities of being a gay Muslim.
A growing intellectual, theological movement among Muslims in the U.S. and elsewhere is “waging theological battle,” challenging the Islamic State as an evil corruption of Islam. Laurie Goldstein’s story in the New York Times is illuminating as it details the fiery response of IS, threatening major Muslim voices with death for being apostate. Again, courage is the sub-theme. The Study Quran is a big threat to ultra-conservative Wahabism and its version of the holy book, which has dominated Muslim education globally for decades.
Grassroots interfaith activities have multiplied in the past year as episodes of violence continue springing up hither, thither, and yon. Dozens of communities are sponsoring vigils, protests, workshops, festivals, and mutual-protection relationships in the face of religious and racial bigotry as well as the amazing accessibility of assault weapons in the U.S. In Cotati, California, word went out to Sonoma County residents that a four-hour workshop on Islamophobia was being held. To the organizers’ astonishment, 400 attended and another 100 had to be turned away, many of whom headed to a local restaurant to take on the subject themselves.
In case you run into presidential nominees or others who disparage the ability of Muslims in the United States to become good, strong Americans, send them to the serious research on the matter. Turns out, U.S. Muslims are one of the best integrated religious minorities in the country.
Pope Francis Gains Momentum
Last April the pontiff published The Joy of Love (Amoris Laetitia). The Barnes & Nobel book store said this about the book: “Maybe you come from a happy family, a healthy family. Or maybe yours is a flawed family, a struggling family, a broken family. Maybe you’re scared to get married and have a family. No matter who you are, you are part of a family, and Pope Francis wrote this love letter to you...” His pastoral concerns for the family, though, did nothing to keep him from taking on the ills of the world this year, issue by issue.
Indeed, Pope Francis has been accused of being a “stealth reformer” in recent months with his softening attitude towards divorced Catholics and remarried Catholics. Then on an airplane trip back to Rome, he said in an impromptu press interview that Christians should apologize and ask forgiveness from gay people, for what has been done to them.
That made the headlines. Less noticed was that he went on to say that Christians “must apologize to the poor as well, to the women who have been exploited, to children who have been exploited by (being forced to) work. It must apologize for having blessed so many weapons.” Walking the talk, last March Francis did a footwashing for refugees from a number of different faiths. He proclaimed that we are all children “of the same God,” a belief that caused tremors among conservative Catholics and which earlier this year led the highly regarded evangelical Wheaton College to fire a distinguished theologian.
Francis has begun a study about ordaining women as Deacons of the Church, a revolutionary possibility. He called the 1915 death of 1.5 million Armenians a genocide, infuriating Turkey. He visited a Greek refugee camp and took 12 Syrians back with him to Rome. An historic April conference of 80 Roman Catholic theologians gathered at the Vatican looking to reject just war theory and return to nonviolence.
“Pope Francis aspires to be the ‘chairman of the board’ for religious moderates around the world, and two recent bits of blowback from hardliners within Hinduism and Islam could be taken to suggest that he is getting through.” So begins a brilliant piece by John Allen Jr. titled “Interfaith blowback means Francis has hardliners’ attention.” Allen details how Pope Francis has become interfaith’s most important, most effective voice in the world. Must reading.
“Interfaith chaplaincy” is taking on new meaning in Japan’s earthquake response programs, and it is being generated by the faith traditions themselves, locally, demonstrating a remarkable level of interfaith, ecumenical cooperation. It’s a classic example of how disaster can goad people towards good will and cooperation that would have been impossible in more stable times.
China has been reluctant to participate in any international interfaith involvement. So it is historic that China has become the 95th country represented in the United Religions Initiative of some 800 URI affiliates. The Qiaology Institute on Dialogue of Civilizations in Xi’an, capital of Shaanxi Province, became an official Cooperation Circle early this year. It holds a yearly “National Forum on Dialogue of Civilizations in China” to encourage understanding and peaceful coexistence of different cultures and religions throughout China and the world. Its 250 members include participants from Buddhism, Confucianism, Christianity, Taoism and Islam.
Stories of local interfaith collaboration are increasing. Fourteen clergy from Buddhist, Christian, Hindu, Jewish, and Unitarian Universalist traditions were arrested in Boston while protesting a new 16-inch steel gas pipe being constructed in the Roxbury district. And in Oklahoma, progressive United Church of Christ Easter worshipers were protected by a human interfaith wall when nasty criticisms were being thrown at Fellowship UCC.
On a personal level, individuals are also making a difference. Actor Michael Douglas has given a $1 million Genesis Award to programs around the world that support inclusion and diversity, including mentor-led learning groups for intermarried couples.
Institutional religion gets beaten up in all sorts of ways these days. So it is a breath of fresh air to find a wonderful piece about why we need religion and its institutions.
Finally, anyone interested in faith and interfaith responses to the ubiquitous violence in the world should read Larry Greenfield’s Call to Resistance and Recommitment. Dr. Greenfield is the executive director of the Parliament of the World’s Religions, and his powerful words are for all of us.