Interfaith News Roundup - January 2018

Interfaith News Roundup

January 15, 2018

Margari Aziza Hill – Photo:  RNS

Margari Aziza Hill – Photo: RNS

Aysha Khan of Religion News Service asked a dozen religious leaders across the U.S. about the coming year in terms of religion. Together they suggest that religion is much more entwined in the culture and news than used to be the case. Perhaps most encouraging are the words of Margari Aziza Hill, co-founder and co-director of Muslim Anti-Racism Collaborative, who sees next year as the advent of an interfaith mass movement. “2018 will be a year where interfaith work will be about recalibrating our nation’s moral and ethical social agenda. 2018 will be the year that churches, mosques, temples, synagogues, gurdwaras, and sacred spaces will work together to protect the most vulnerable. 2018 will be the year that faith-based organizing will no longer be an aberration.” Read more from her here.

Government Behaving Badly

With the sanction and instruction of its Supreme Court, Russian authorities stormed and occupied Kolomyazhskiy Assembly Hall, a Jehovah’s Witnesses sanctuary in St. Petersberg. Jehovah’s Witnesses are not recognized as a legitimate religion and all their property will be taken over in coming months.

A far-right authority in Beaucaire, a town in southern France, declared the end of pork-free lunches for students, an anti-Jewish, anti-Muslim policy, it is claimed. The silver lining is that religious freedom, the rights of children, and interfaith relations are all getting discussed with a new level of seriousness in France.

Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, right, addresses Parliament in Cairo on Feb. 13, 2016 – Photo:  RNS

Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, right, addresses Parliament in Cairo on Feb. 13, 2016 – Photo: RNS

The Egyptian Parliament is currently considering a law which would criminalize atheism. It is supported by religious authorities, despite the passage in the Qur’an saying “There is no compulsion in faith.”

One of the biggest geo-political, interreligious shifts this past year has been the ‘end’ of ISIS in Syria and Iraq, though the achievement has not been much celebrated, considering the largely global agreement that it needed to be destroyed. Not so quick, suggests Mark Jurgensmeyer, a leading global ethicist (and TIO contributor) who has spend recent weeks in the Mideast. Don’t count on the end of this mad extremism, he warns.

One of the most curious religious entanglements in politics is the connection between Donald Trump and evangelical Christians. Trump’s declaration regarding Jerusalem being declared the capital of Israel brought it to light. Evangelicals see the president’s declaration as an act of God, representing a divine sign regarding the second coming of the Jesus Christ. Meanwhile, Christian leaders in the “holy land” wrote Trump, saying his declaration “will yield increased hatred, conflict, violence and suffering in Jerusalem and the Holy Land, moving us farther from the goal of unity and deeper toward destructive division.”

Troubled Traditions

Krishna devotees chanting at 34th Street-Penn Station in Manhattan – Photo:  New York Times

Krishna devotees chanting at 34th Street-Penn Station in Manhattan – Photo: New York Times

Institutional religion is taking a beating, particularly in the United States. A lengthy New York Times story tells of the rise and fall of the Hare Krishna movement in the U.S., focusing on a real estate fight between local leaders and the Hare Krishna Society’s Governing Body Commission. Internal struggles are at the heart of much the decline. The article notes that many traditions are struggling, particularly in terms of the brick-and-mortar assets. “Facing dwindling attendance, churches, temples and synagogues have sold their properties to start fresh elsewhere, combine parishes or even sell their properties’ air rights to developers.” However, the Hare Krishna Society is thriving in India.

National Public Radio has a story about the decline of Catholicism in Boston since Cardinal Law, who died last month, resigned from the Boston Archdiocese following stories of clergy abuse he had hidden. The fabulously wealthy home he built for himself has been sold.

Proxy baptisms of people who have died has long been a part of Mormon practice, a sacrament to include in the Mormon fold as many people who have ever lived as possible. In the 1990s, when it was revealed that hundreds of thousands of Holocaust victims were baptized by proxy, the Jewish community took great umbrage, and in 1995 the Church of Jesus Christ Latter Day Saints made it an official policy that Holocaust victims (as well as celebrities) could not be baptized unless they had close family connections. A rigorous system has kept thousands of Holocaust victims from being added, though about 20 have slipped through the process, an excellent percentage a consulting rabbi suggests. Mormons believe that deceased non-Mormons will be given an opportunity in the next life to accept the baptism or not.

Pinpoints of Light

When deep-seated interreligious hatred dominates a community, large or small, the road to healing can be long and hard. Good news is limited to occasional anecdotes that symbolize what might be possible. Just such an anecdote comes from the city of Meerut, Uttar Pradesh, in India. Some years ago during a religious riot, a Jain gentleman, a member of an ancient, strictly vegetarian religious tradition, saved the life of Muslim neighbor. Scandalizing their neighbors, the two families became deeply engaged with each other, handling the biggest barrier in their relationship – food and how it is cooked and consumed – with grace. The downside: the friendship has endangered their families in the community at large.

Coptic Patriarch Tawadros and Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi at the Christmas Eve Mass – Photo:  Vatican Insider

Coptic Patriarch Tawadros and Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi at the Christmas Eve Mass – Photo: Vatican Insider

Egypt’s possible religious hammer against atheists, noted above, does not tell the whole religious story there last month. While too many world leaders help generate interfaith conflict, Egypt’s President Abdel Fattah al Sisi is modeling interfaith courage. On Christmas Eve he visited the new Cathedral of the Nativity and embraced its minority Coptic Christians, a community much-oppressed in Egypt this past year from fundamentalist Muslims.

At his arrival, the Copts exclaimed, “We love you, we are with you President, long live Egypt.” As he approached the altar he turned back to the people. “We too” al Sisi said, “love you. You are our people, we are one family, nobody can divide us. We cannot be divided. God is glad that we bring happiness everywhere, to all Egyptians, without exclusions... As long as Egypt is this, those who want to put us against each other will not succeed.” 

Most religion stories from Nigeria focus on Boko Haram, who have slain some 20,000 Nigerians, or the heightened tensions between Muslims in the north and Christians in the south. But like stars on the darkest night, exceptions to the conflict stand out. In the city of Kaduna, Pastor Yohann Buru is being held up in the press as a “pillar of unity” who promotes peace and coexistence in the community. Adamu Yusfu, Kaduna council chairman, says, “These are the kind of people we want in our society, people that promote peace among people irrespective of their religion, ethnicity and tribe.”

As usual, Christians and Jews, celebrating the recent holidays with Christmas and Hanukah, get the most attention each year during the season of lights. To find out what other traditions do during the November-January part of the year, here is a questionnaire, video, and backgrounder to fill you in.


Beautifully decorated deities of Krishna and Radharani at the Krishna Balaram mandir in Vrindavan UP India in 2004 – Header Photo: Wikimedia Commons