Interfaith News Roundup - November 2017

Interfaith News Roundup 

November 15, 2017

Stunning News from Saudi Arabia

Mohammad bin Salman Al Saud – Photo: Wikipedia

Mohammad bin Salman Al Saud – Photo: Wikipedia

Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, on behalf of his father the king, has been drawing headlines around the world. As you may have read, 11 royal princes have been arrested on grounds of financial corruption, along with 200 government ministers and business magnates.

What you probably have not read is that Prince Mohammed has also brought the hammer down on the ultra-conservative Wahhabi clergy. Wahhabis have governed Saudi Arabia religiously and socially for generations, making it one of the most socially conservative nations on Earth. Not only have they kept the nation in puritanical lockstep. They publish and distribute religious literature to Muslim countries everywhere, books, pamphlets, and video which has helped ‘educate’ and inspire extremist Muslim movements, such as Al Qaeda and ISIS.

Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s religious liberalism is not a complete surprise. The government has been supporting KAICIID for the past five years, the best-funded international interfaith organization anywhere, headquartered in Vienna. Last year the clerics’ religious police in Saudi Arabia lost their ability to arrest people or question them for breaking religious rules. Many “shocked” Saudis disbelieved it at first. More recently women have been given permission to drive cars and to dance, signs that suggest just how conservative the nation has been till now.

The 32-year-old crown prince outlined his religious goals at a recent investment conference in Riyadh, saying the kingdom needed a “moderate, balanced Islam that is open to the world and to all religions and all traditions and peoples.” There has been considerable push-back to this liberalization. But so far clerics who do not promote respect for all religions – anathema from a Wahhabi perspective – can expect to be arrested and detained. The cultural transformation the prince is pursuing remains a mind-boggling challenge. If successful, however, the long-term results could mark the beginning of the end to the kind of extremism that has plagued Islam for the past century.

Nations Pursuing Interfaith Solutions

World Religion News reports that “Indonesia has recently granted its citizens freedom of religion by overturning a law that required all citizens to religiously identify as followers of only six officially recognized religions on their ID cards. A landmark court ruling by the country with the world’s largest Muslim population, the move is widely celebrated by those belonging to native faiths.” The country in the past has touted its interfaith posture but only recognized Buddhism, Catholicism, Confucianism, Hinduism, Islam, and Protestantism, leaving out the multitude of those who follow other traditions. The Constitutional Court’s nine-judge panel ruled that earlier laws were “unconstitutional, discriminatory, and unjust, and therefore not legally binding.”

K. Shamnugam, a minister of the Singapore government with portfolios for both law and home affairs, has come out with a broadside against religious extremism. “We have to build trust between different communities. Multiculturalism, multi-ethnicity and peace between religions do not come by themselves. It is the duty of governments, it is the duty of communities, the duty of religious leaders to actively work for it. It is a constant work in progress.” That said, one must note that freedom has its limits in Singapore; criticizing and disrespecting someone’s religion can land you in jail.

An international gathering participated in affirming the “Cordoba Declaration,” signed earlier this month by 30 leaders from different religious traditions in Latin America and the Caribbean. The Declaration identifies their region as “an area of interreligious coexistence.” The pledge of collaborative coexistence in an often-conflicted part of the world was generated by the Latin American Episcopal Council; the Latin American Jewish Congress; the Latin American Council of Churches; and the Islamic Organization for Latin America and the Caribbean. Signing with them were religious leaders Colombia, Chile, Guatemala, Mexico, Peru, Uruguay, and Venezuela.

Two supreme court judges in India’s state of Kerala championed a Hindu woman’s right to marry whomever she chooses. When Hadiya chose a Muslim and converted to Islam, her parents accused Shafin, her fiancée, of “love jihad.” Given the heritage of Western missionaries attempting to convert Hindus for several hundred years, Indians today are extremely sensitive about conversion. But the justices wrote: “We caution that every case of inter-religious marriage shall not be portrayed on a religious canvass and create fissures in the communal harmony otherwise existing in the God’s Own Country – Kerala.” They cited Article 25 (1) of India’s Constitution, which guarantees every citizen the right to freely profess, practice and propagate any religion and cannot be trampled upon by subversive forces or religious outfits. As the litigation proceeded, Hadiya and Shafin were legally married.

Religion for Good or for Ill

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A recent survey indicates that in more than ten countries, a majority agreed with the statement, “Religion does more harm in the world than good.”  Strongest agreement came from Belgium (68%), followed by Germany, Spain, Australia, Sweden, and Great Britain. In the United States, 39% agreed, suggesting that the country is less religious than pundits often claim. The real question is how you can meaningfully agree or disagree with the premise when you plop all religions into a single bucket. They are not all the same, and learning about them – about their gifts and their foibles – is more useful and far more interesting than trying to balance out ‘more harm’ or ‘more good.’

To that end, Harvard University is developing a new secondary world religions curriculum, and first reports are extremely positive. The courses, being taught in several high schools, are popular with students and a refreshing antidote to religious illiteracy. In a similar vein, but a very different context, a new global project to “bring mutual understanding and build trust where there is ignorance, fear and hostility” between different faith groups has been launched by the new Anglican Inter Faith Commission.

Woman in Eastern Orthodox Church, Tashkent, Uzbekistan – Photo: Adam Jones, C.c. 2.0 sa

Woman in Eastern Orthodox Church, Tashkent, Uzbekistan – Photo: Adam Jones, C.c. 2.0 sa

Pew Research Center has released a major, global  study of Orthodox Christianity, whose members have doubled this past century to 260 million believers today. Pew’s study is especially useful to those who think of Christians being either Catholic or Protestant. Did you know that for a thousand years Orthodoxy dominated the Christian world?

And turning from yesterday to tomorrow, the Way of the Future is a new religious tradition straight out of high tech. In a 2015 filing for nonprofit status, Anthony Levandowski, a self-driving automobile engineer and “Silicon Valley golden boy,” wrote that the new religion would “develop and promote the realization of a Godhead based on Artificial Intelligence and through understanding and worship of the Godhead contribute to the betterment of society.” It is not clear whether the “realization” of the Godhead might refer either to the discovery of a preexisting Godhead or to the work of building it. 

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Around the Interfaith Movement

Donna Bollinger is the new executive director of Religions for Peace-USA. You can read a profile here of her remarkable achievements.

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The Parliament of the World’s Religions is developing the plans for its Nov. 1-8 gathering in Toronto. More than 10,000 are expected to attend. The theme in Toronto: The Promise of Inclusion & the Power of Love: Pursuing Global Understanding, Reconciliation, and Change.

Religions for Peace-International has a new website – rfp.org – that does a good job of summarizing the global mission and activities of one of the world’s oldest and largest interfaith projects. And it’s full of interfaith news you probably won’t find elsewhere.

KAICIID will be launching its newest digital resources later this month, including tools that may revolutionize peacemaking the world over. TIO will offer a full report in December or January.

United Religions Initiative (URI) also launched a brand new website – URI.org –  a massive portal using dozens of stories “to bridge differences between people of all beliefs, to create community, and to solve local and global challenges.” To date, the URI network is made up of 894 Circles in 102 countries.    

But don’t let the numbers numb your brain. It’s important to hear the details. For instance, here’s the nutshell version of the three newest URI Circles:

Photo: Facebook

Photo: Facebook

  • Wipe My Tears Foundation (South Sudan): WTF aims to build connection, trust and harmony in the community, foster awareness on HIV/AIDS, disability, orphans and street children living free from violence, discrimination and empowered to make decisions affecting their lives
     
  • Student Aid Drop (Bulgaria): Fundraising, aid drops at refugee camps, raising awareness at university through different events, intercultural events
     
  • Dreamz Unlimited Foundation (India, Iran and other countries): Social development in which there is no base of caste, creed, color, or sex while providing help to the poor and disabled

Does interfaith religion do more harm or more good? Seems to depend on what part of ‘religion’ you’re talking about.