Interfaith News Roundup
September 15, 2017
A Troubled World
The BBC reports that 270,000 Rohingya have fled Myanmar for Bangladesh this past month. The Rohingya are a Muslim minority who for generations have lived in Myanmar (or Burma), a largely Buddhist country. In recent years they have suffered increasing oppression from the state, and the sudden uptick in numbers comes from their villages being burned, their people murdered. Myanmar has been condemned internationally, though it claims it is simply responding to Rohingya violence.
In particular, Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Khi is being criticized for her silence. The 15 years of house-arrest for defying the government won her the Nobel. Today she is a leader in the Burmese government and has been conspicuously unresponsive about the Rohingya persecution. Bishop Desmond Tutu has called the situation an “unfolding horror” and “ethnic cleansing.” In a letter to Aung San Suu Khi, a close friend, he wrote, “If the political price of your ascension to the highest office in Myanmar is your silence, the price is surely too steep.”
A teenage Christian in Pakistan has been arrested and supposedly confessed to ‘blasphemy,’ a capital crime, for burning pages of a Quran. He joins the many who have been so accused and prosecuted for breaking one of the world’s most pernicious religiously motivated laws. Lest we be too harsh with Pakistan, though, another story shows a different side: An official state funeral was held last month in Pakistan for Roman Catholic Sister Ruth Pfau, who devoted her life to ending leprosy in the country. She founded the country’s first leprosy hospital, celebrated when the United Nations declared the disease under control, and spent the rest of her life seeking to eradicate the disease. The annual number of leprosy patients has fallen to 531 from more than 18,000 30 years ago.
In India, the marriage between a Muslim and a 24-year-old woman from a Hindu family, who converted to Islam, was annulled in a judgment the Indian Supreme Court has confirmed. They sent the case to a special commission to see if her conversion was coerced, evoking outrage from human rights and feminist lawyers. The bride, who goes by her chosen name, Hadiya, is currently confined to her parents’ home.
Halal, food prepared as prescribed by Muslim law, is causing conflict in China. A food vendor started packaging food for Muslims by marking certain bags “halal” (indicating that they were not packaged with alcohol or pork), or “majority food,” for everyone else. Certain members of the “majority” are indignant that Muslims were getting special treatment in an officially atheist country. The vendor has since quit the practice.
In a culture of systematic disruption, history is taking its turn in the ring, with long-assumed facts and values getting reevaluated. A debate is raging in the U.S. about statues, monuments, and buildings named after racists, particularly officers who served the Confederacy and its defense of slavery during the U.S. Civil War. For instance, following “considerable prayer and discussion,” the Washington National Cathedral decided to remove stained-glass windows honoring Confederate generals Robert Lee and Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson.
This shifting historical perception isn’t limited to the Civil War. Statues venerating Father Junipero Serra, the Catholic monk who founded nine missions on the coast of California, have been vandalized repeatedly, most recently in Santa Barbara earlier this month. Typically, the statue’s hands are painted red, with “murderer” painted below. The Church, including Pope Francis, who elevated Serra to sainthood in 2015, defends Serra. But the First Nation peoples of the region see him and the missions he brought as a source of spiritual and physical subjugation and slavery.
Signs of Hope
China’s relationship with climate change, as with religion, comes with multi-dimensional sets of stories. But religiously motivated climate activism is a newcomer in these two arenas. The New York Times reports that a religious revival in China is fueling an environmental movement that is impatient and critical of the government’s slow response to pollution and global warming. Yang Shiwua, a Taoist abbot, speaks of the need for a revolution. But Buddhists, Christians, and Muslims agree that the environmental problems in China are a spiritual problem, a lack of reverence for nature. “Our morals are in decline and our beliefs have been lost,” says Abbot Yang. “The decadence of human beings has destroyed the environment in China,” Pastor Shen, a Christian, says.
A USA Today article notes that the majority of U.S. disaster-responders this past summer, working in conjunction with FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency), have been faith-based. The Seventh Day Adventists take a leading role in distributing water, diapers, and clothing, for instance, and United Methodists are expert in case management. Everyone knows about the Red Cross; many fewer know how Church World Service along with dozens of other groups, many Christian, but including Jewish, Buddhist, and Muslim efforts, significantly contribute to helping those worst hit by fire, floods, and hurricanes. A new mosque in Tampa, Florida opened its doors to 500 victims of Hurricane Irma as a shelter.
KAICIID, the large interfaith organization located in Vienna and funded by Saudi Arabia, is working closely with 116 National Scouting Organizations to promote an international “Scouts in Dialogue” program. Three new badges have been created for participants, including the Dialogue Badge: “To get the dialogue badge, Scouts should display characteristics of a Dialogical Scout, i.e. active listening, compassion, and openness.”
It took a Muslim mother to find a serious gap in the toy industry and do something about it. French businesswoman Samira Amarir has created a Barbie-lookalike named Jenna, which means ‘heaven’ in Arabic. The Jenna doll wears an abaya, a long cape, a hijab or headscarf, and can recite four quotations from the Quran. Samira says “When my daughter,” also named Jenna, “turned two years old, I was looking for a toy or a tool. The idea was to come up with a toy that would enable her to learn the Quran fast and easily while she plays.” Samira and her family moved from France to Dubai to market the doll, which has been released in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Bahrain, and the UAE.
There are 14,500 substance abuse facilities in the United States. World Religion News is publishing a series of stories titled “Faith in Recovery” exploring spiritual/religious contributions to this vast terrain. Last month, number four in the series summarizes seven of the best faith-based recovery programs in the nation. These include Alcoholics Anonymous, Celebrate Victory, Narconon, Teen Challenge USA, Chabad Residential Treatment Center, Yoga in 12-Step Recovery, and Seattle’s Union Gospel Mission. The article explores how to find the best program for a particular person.
In the category of ‘mixed blessings,’ scientists in Oregon have succeeded in altering the genetic code in an embryo by removing a gene connected to heart disease. They used a new technology called CRISPR (Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats). The results are positive for those with heart disease and could save lives in the future. But the same technology can be used in all sorts of genetic manipulation, with suggestions from some that “designer babies” are the future. Go here for a clear, even-handed history and update on these developments and the attendant ethical issues.
Last month’s solar eclipse generated a slew of stories about its spiritual significance. Traditionally, the moon and its eclipses have been treasured by Pagan communities. The long-debated notion that there was an eclipse during Christ’s crucifixion was revived in great detail. Muslims quoted Mohammed claiming that an eclipse is a sign from God and therefore a time for prayer and reflection. The Jewish Talmud – the rabbinical commentary on the Bible – describes an eclipse as “an ill omen for the world,” an opinion embedded in various Hindu stories. But for thousands from many faiths or none, the complete eclipse was a beautiful image of an amazing conjunction to be remembered forever.
NAIN Goes to San Diego
More than 200 interfaith activists gathered at the University of California, San Diego, for this year’s North American Interfaith Network’s NAINConnect, August 6-10. NAIN is a unique organization. It has no staff, a hard-working board, a tiny budget, and a traditional emphasis on including young adults, who tend to make up about 30 percent of those who attend each year. As usual, the programs featuring current “Interfaith Scholars,” who compete to receive scholarships, were among the best this year.
San Diego’s theme was “Harmony – Journey to One Heart,” and a jam-packed program provided an abundance of riches. The arts were given a significant role. Six dozen presenters led several dozen workshops and early-morning meditation each day. A powerful opening keynote came from Azim Khamisa, an American Muslim who lost his son in a gangland murder 22 years ago. He focused on forgiveness as a tool for creating love and unity from conflict. People were obviously moved by what served as a wonderful preface to a week devoted to creating hope and harmony in people’s lives.
More than 60 presenters from a host of different religions made the toughest part of the week deciding which of one of five workshops at a given hour you wanted to attend.
Visiting sacred sites is a regular feature of NAINConnects, and San Diego’s magical geography made this year’s visits particularly attractive. Besides churches and mosques, we visited the San Diego de Alcala Mission; San Diego’s stunning Mormon Temple; Balboa Park, where we enjoyed an outdoor interfaith concert (featuring TIO Correspondent Ruth Broyde Sharone’s work-in-progress, Interfaith: The Musical); and still had free time to shop and eat in “Old Town.”
San Diego’s team of leaders and volunteers went out of their way to provide this interfaith cohort another remarkable gathering. Chairing the event, Stephen and Abigail Albert did the heavy lifting. A group of interfaith leaders from Guadalajara, Mexico, which hosted last year’s NAINConnect, participated, as did a group of interfaith leaders from Edmonton, Canada, who will host the 2018 Connect, to be held July 31-August 3.
Header Photo: Michel Rathwell, C.c. 2.0