Interfaith News Roundup - October 2017

Interfaith News Roundup 

October, 15, 2017

Nations Behaving Badly

Myanmar’s genocidal behavior towards minority Rohingyas continues despite near universal international disapproval. Over half a million refugees have fled their homeland for refugee camps like the one above in Bangladesh. A recent article in BBC is headlined, “Who will help Myanmar’s Rohingyas?

Egypt, which has no laws against homosexuality, is nevertheless waging a violent crackdown of LGBTQ communities. The same sad story is being played out in Indonesia.

Earlier this month the U.N. voted to condemn nations which sentence homosexuals to death for being who they are. This win was muted by the fact that U.S. Ambassador Nikki Haley did not join the vote. (The White House later announced that the administration does not think LGBT individuals should be executed for who being they are but refrained from supporting the resolution out of concerns for its implied criticism of capital punishment, per se.)

Governmental staffers, it seems, can be as problematic as politicians. Internal U.S. government agencies, such as U.S. AID, have resisted helping Christian and Yezidi communities in Iraq, many of them returning home to find their homes totally destroyed. This resistance comes in spite of Congress and political leaders, including President Trump and the Vice President, who have condemned the genocide Iraqi Christians and Yezidis have suffered in recent years.

Pew Research Center, studying 199 countries, found that more than half have no official or preferred religion. They found ten countries where the state tightly regulates all religious institutions or is actively hostile to religion in general.  Twenty-two percent of the family of nations (27) have an official state religion, which is Islam in nearly two-thirds of them. An additional 20 percent have a favored religion, which is Christian in 13 countries. Go here for many more details.


Religious perceptions and relations across national borders turns out to be much more complicated than whether a country has an official religion, a preferred one, or none at all. In his new book, Heathen, Hindoo, Hindu: American Representations of India, 1721-1893, Michael J. Altman explores how America’s encounter with India helped shape the face of religion and race in the United States. American opinions of India, he suggests, were originally framed by Protestant missionaries, on one hand, and Ralph Waldo Emerson, on the other, who was deeply influenced by ancient Hindu sacred texts. Neither the missionaries nor Emerson had much understanding of India and Indians, but both helped shape America’s religious landscape.  For a fascinating conversation with Altman, see the interview in Religion & Politics.

In the category of incorrigible religion, Pat Robertson suggested that the recent terrible gun tragedy in Las Vegas was caused by disrespect for Donald Trump. Responding to this judgmental malarkey, Richard Mouw’s response offers a perfect, biblical retort to Robertson’s loose mouth: “I tell you, on the day of judgment you will have to give an account for every careless word you utter.” (Matt. 12: 36)

Religious Communities Behaving Better

It was three Republican U.S. senators who finally took down the ‘repeal and replace’ effort to gut medical insurance for some 20 million U.S. citizens. It called for some heroic behavior among a few leaders who refused to see those they represented thrown under the bus and who made a difference in the final count. However, it is worth noting that a letter to the Senate came from a group of 3,000 clergy and faith leaders playing their part in the bill’s defeat. “We are outraged” at the bill, they wrote, at taking away life-saving coverage from those who so recently have secured health insurance. Dozens of different traditions joined in the cause, proof positive that interfaith collaboration can be a positive force for justice.

Runners at the Via Pacis Rome half-marathon – Photo: Facebook, Rome Half Marathon

Runners at the Via Pacis Rome half-marathon – Photo: Facebook, Rome Half Marathon

“Via Pacis” was Rome’s first interreligious half-marathon, sponsored by the Vatican’s Pontifical Council for Culture. More than 2,000 runners participated, along with 4,000 more who joined in a 5 kilometer “fun run.” Besides Christians, those participating in the run included Baha’i’s, Buddhists, Hindus, Jews, and Muslims. Pope Francis thus continues his sponsorship of interfaith sports designed to foster “dialogue, coexistence and peace.” Priests, nuns, parents pushing baby strollers, and refugees participated, along with 20 Vatican employees.

A more important shift from the Vatican has not been noticed by major media but is unpacked in a wonderful essay by Joanne Pierce about “Local Variations in Catholic Services.” For the first thousand years of the Catholic church, local variations of the liturgy, the worship language of the faithful, were expected and approved. Gave the tradition its grassroots bona fides. In the intervening centuries a theological teeter-totter has prevailed between those who liked local variations versus those who insist on centralized authority, requiring that Mass be said precisely the same way everywhere. Following a couple of popes who trended towards the authoritarian approach, Pope Francis is encouraging local variations in Catholic worship, reflecting local concerns and language. No surprise, he’s receiving blowback from conservative Catholics.

And continuing good news from Rome: more than 40 Catholic institutions made the largest ever faith-based divestment of fossil-fuel stock on the anniversary of the death of St Francis of Assisi (Oct. 3). The investment being withdrawn is $5.5 trillion, which is sure to catch the attention to corporate coal and oil investors. 

As United Religions Initiative (URI) grows towards nearly 900 Cooperation Circles, one of its newest affiliates is Spiritual Directors International. SDI is a global learning community of spiritual directors and spiritual companions who serve and support the ministry and service of spiritual direction. At their core they are inclusive and open minded, their membership unified by a common concern, passion, and commitment to the ministry and service of spiritual companionship. In their words, “SDI believes spiritual companionship and deepening into the sacred transform individuals, society, and all creation.” Founded in 1989, the community has grown to include more than 6,000 members on six continents who represent more than fifty spiritual traditions.

Religion and bitcoin?! Good news or bad? Religion News Service reports that “Christ Coin has launched as the first Christian cryptocurrency. Built by Life Change, Christ Coin has a mission to meet the spiritual and practical needs of anyone, and unite Christians together as one community for the purpose of reviving hope, repairing lives, and rebuilding dreams. Built by a team of Christian entrepreneurs, Christ Coin is “groundbreaking in its ability to build a global Christian community via cryptocurrency.” Essentially, the service allows you to fund and finance your church’s life outside the usual ways we use money – banks, taxes, and all the rest. Buyer beware, I guess, is appropriate here.

Imam Abdullah Antepli – Photo:  The Islamic Monthly

Imam Abdullah Antepli – Photo: The Islamic Monthly

For the first time in three years, a Muslim, Imam Abdullah Antepli delivered the opening prayer at the U.S. House of Representatives Wednesday, October 4. His prayer began…

The Holy One,
As your creation, we call you by different names, experience you through multiple paths. Our human diversity is from you. As the creator of all, you made us different. Enable us to understand, appreciate and celebrate our differences. Teach and guide us to turn these differences into opportunities, richness and strength. Prevent us from turning them into sources of division, polarization, hate and bigotry.

The Most Merciful One,
This incredibly diverse nation of ours is one of the most successful attempts to understand your wisdom in creating us different. We are far from being perfect but came a long way in creating a multi-cultural, multi-religious and pluralistic society by making in America: “You will be judged by what you do, not by who you are” as one of our foundational promises…

 You’ll find the rest of the prayer in Michelle Boorstein’s report in the Washington Post.

** ** **

United Religions Initiative (URI) Leaders Meet in Sarajevo

How do you keep an organization aligned and on-purpose when you have nearly 900 affiliates groups (in this case called Cooperation Circles or CCs) located in 102 countries? URI’s Global Council usually meets over computers, but once a year they gather for ‘face time,’ spending a week of intense meetings together. Unlike many well-meaning interfaith organizations that end up with one or two religious traditions predominating, URI’s Charter requires each CC to include at least three different traditions.


So when 86 interreligious leaders gathered in Sarajevo last month, it was thoroughly international and multi-faith. In addition to Global Council members, participants included URI staff, Regional Coordinators, members of the President’s Council, and URI Foundation representatives. The Youth for Peace CC of Bosnia and Herzegovina hosted the event and wrestled with airlines and government officials to get visas for people coming from dozens of countries. They failed but once, when it was impossible to get a visa for a regional coordinator in Nigeria, given the conflict going on there.

Only eight of those attending were involved in URI’s Charter-writing and formation in the late nineties, indeed, some were attending their first global gathering. So getting acquainted and hearing URI’s history was part of the welcoming session at the Hotel Saraj, which included a walking tour of Sarajevo.

Much of the second day was devoted to exploring the 21 principles which define and govern URI. Successive days were devoted to Teambuilding, Strategic Planning (broken down into discussions about Growth and Impact; Capacity Building & Leadership; Global Connection & Visibility; and Organizational Sustainability), Major URI Projects, along with committee meetings regarding CC Approval, Finance & Operations, the President’s Council, the URI Foundation, Bylaws Review, and 2018 Elections. Most sessions included small-group discussion, making the whole week thoroughly interactive. As usual, most discussions hewed closely to the principles of Appreciative Inquiry, the methodology which shaped URI’s first global gathering in 1996 in San Francisco.

Work sessions were punctuated with prayer and meditation offerings from different religions led by leaders from around the world. Days began with “blessings” from the seven global regions where URI is active.

URI stories frequently crop up in TIO, which has been a CC since its founding six years ago. URI CCs are self-supporting and have their own agenda and goals. But every CC has pledged to pursue URI’s purpose: to promote enduring, daily interfaith cooperation, to end religiously motivated violence, and to create cultures of peace, justice, and healing for the Earth and all living beings. CCs also benefit enormously from the extraordinary infrastructure developed to support them and which made Sarajevo a success. In the wake of this work, dozens of remarkable stories emerge, some of which will show up in these pages.

Thanks goes to Don Frew, URI’s longest serving trustee and TIO board member, for providing the notes making this report possible.


Header photo: The Kutupalong Refugee Camp in Bangladesh for Rohingyas taken last March by John Owens/VOA – Photo: Wikipedia