Interfaith News Roundup - April 2018

Interfaith News Roundup

April 15, 2018

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World Religion News reports that numerically, the top five religious are Christianity (2.3 billion), Islam (1.8 billion), the unaffiliated (1.3 billion), Hinduism (900 million), and Buddhism 400 million. None of these “religions” is a coherent single tradition, and there often tends to be greater conflict within each “religion” than between religions.

So, no surprise, fragmented traditions frequently have ‘ecumenical’ events where they assert their solidarity in spite of disagreements. Later this month the Global Christian Forum meets in Bogata, Columbia. About 250 leaders from dozens of different Christian communities will gather to consider the theme “Let mutual love continue.” From Catholic to Protestant to Pentecostal to all manner of independents, GCF is the most broadly representative Christian group in the world.

More fascinating fodder for those still confused about why a majority of conservative Christians support Donald Trump as their president. An emerging “Two Kingdoms” theology is being promulgated by Dallas megachurch pastor Robert Jeffress and others. It claims that God has one set of rules for individuals and another for governments, who are not instructed by scripture to be kind and caring. Jeffress, speaking about the 2017 refugee ban, said “While Scripture commands individual Christians and churches to show mercy to those in need, the Bible never calls on government to act as a Good Samaritan.” Incidentally, Jeffress prays for the day the United States becomes a Christian nation.

New research suggests that immigrant communities in the United States, which often have vital, enthusiastic congregations of newcomers, tend to atrophy and fade away when the next generation grows up. Thus the phenomenal growth of the ‘unaffiliated.’ Muslim mosques and Catholic churches both host large immigrant congregations suffering this phenomena. But a recent Pew survey shows that, “while America’s Muslim population has risen by 50 per cent in the last decade, 23 per cent of those raised as Muslim no longer identify with that faith … Americans are un-mosquing at an even faster rate than they are un-churching.”

The Middle East, Intrafaith Conflict, and Anti-Semitism

“I believe the Palestinians and the Israelis have the right to have their own land” declares Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in Jeffrey Goldberg’s Atlantic essay/interview. No Middle Eastern leader has ever affirmed Israel this way. Prince Mohammed, a reformer who has near complete control of Saudi Arabia, keeps doing and saying things that bear notice. Goldberg’s engaging essay surveys young Mohammed’s vision of a fossil-fuel free Saudi Arabia and the many ways he is already changing Middle Eastern culture.

In spite of these reforms, Prince Mohammed confronts protesters wherever he travels (most recently in northern California). They are protesting the three-year war between Saudi Arabia Sunnis and the Shia rebels, funded by Iran, who overturned the government of Saudi Arabia’s next-door neighbor, Yemen. There may be no better example of the potential nightmares of intrafaith relations (within traditions, as opposed to interfaith relations between traditions), than the hell that Yemen’s port city, Aden, is enduring. Up close, relations are much more complicated than the Sunni-Shia headlines. In the past two years, 25 imams and religious leaders in Aden have been assassinated, 15 within the past six months, and dozens are fleeing the country. AP’s recent story of the religious violence fills in some details, but unanswered questions litter this ongoing tragedy.

Intrafaith conflict, of course, doesn’t have to be the blood-in-the-streets violence Yemen is suffering, or even tradition versus tradition. Sometimes it is just two individuals. A Protestant-versus- Protestant conflict almost robbed America of one of its greatest social justice activists. In “New Documents Reveal How the FBI Deployed a Televangelist to Discredit Martin Luther King,” Lerone A, Martin details how J. Edgar Hoover enlisted the services of Elder Lightfoot Solomon Michaux, the nation’s first successful televangelist and a deeply conservative African American, to undermine and end the ministry of Dr. King.

The “normalization of anti-Semitism” has become a major issue worldwide and is generating considerable attention, often in the context of terrible crimes. Rachael Donadio addresses the issue in some depth in her Atlantic article, “The Meaning of France’s March Against Anti-Semitism.” Opposing anti-Semitism surely requires a deep understanding of the phenomenon, and this article helps. A new report suggests that, statistically, violent anti-Semitic events in 2017 were down 9 percent from the year before, but harassment and abuse events have sky-rocketed, particularly in the wake of the Trump administration and the ascent of dictators in numerous other countries.

China Stiffens its Antireligious Stance

A fascinating church-state story has been playing out in China, where control of who appoints Catholic bishops has been a long-festering issue between the Vatican and the Communist Party. According to 2015 Pew research, there are more than 70 million Catholics in China, about a third of them in underground congregations, the rest more affiliated with the state. (This is a guess; Chinese statistics about religion in general and Christianity in particular are widely divergent, with lots of guess-work.) Recently, it was reported that a “framework” was embraced with expectations of an announcement in coming months. It has caused a firestorm of debate.

Cardinal Joseph Zen – Photo:    Wikipedia

Cardinal Joseph Zen – Photo: Wikipedia

A Vatican-Communist Party framework could serve as a stepping-stone to reestablishing diplomatic relations, something opposed by those who fear the results of state control, including Hong Kong’s influential retired Cardinal Joseph Zen, who feels that the Vatican is on the verge of “selling out” the Catholic Church of China. Nevertheless, there has been great hope that the Vatican and China would come to terms and end the diplomatic standoff begun 68 years ago when relations were cut off.

The tightening of religious controls by the Communist Party in recent weeks suggest that, in fact, there is no imminent agreement in the works. And in another move to control religion, last month the Chinese government banned the sale of the Bible over the internet. Printing and distributing the Bible has long been forbidden except through state-approved stores.

The Many Shades of Inclusivity

Within the interfaith movement one often encounters a knee-jeck reaction regarding ‘fundamentalists.’ They are the bad guys, the ones who can’t see beyond their own truth, and would never sit down with us. Nelle Smith’s gentle essay “When You Argue with a Fundamentalist You Don’t Know What You’re Asking For“ is a perfect antidote to such liberal, progressive judgmentalism. It’s good medicine with sage suggestions for succeeding in dialogue with the ‘fundamentalist other.’

Om chanting workshop in Germany – Photo:    Bhakti Marga

Om chanting workshop in Germany – Photo: Bhakti Marga

Looking for a case-study of the complexity of interreligious relations and the unexpected emotional and theological nuances of interspiritual situations? Here it is. A new Hindu movement in Germany, the Bhakti Marga, is organizing sessions of chanting Om at Holocaust sites throughout Europe. “Hindus chant to ‘purify’ former Nazi concentration camps“ tells the story, including the intense positive and negative responses Bhakti Marga sit-ins are generating.

In India, the emergence of interfaith freedom is more down-to-earth. After a two-year struggle pitting Hadiya, a 26-year-old woman who married a Muslim, against her Hindu family, who claimed she was brainwashed into a “love jihad,” India’s highest court sided with Hadiya and turned over a lower court judgment against her. It stated, “the court has no right to annul marriage between consenting adults.” Sadly though, this win for interfaith freedom comes at a time when Hindu “radical nationalism” seems to be growing.

‘Religious freedom’ once meant the freedom to believe what you want to believe. But it has sure become more complicated in recent years, difficult in ways the keep easy definitions at bay. Patrick Hornbeck details a number of recent conflicts where the courts have been drawn in and easy answers are rare.

Photo:    Pxhere

Photo: Pxhere

The American Humanist Association sued and, three years later, has prevailed against the North Carolina Department of Public Safety. Late last month, a federal judge ruled that the North Carolina “prison system must recognize humanism as a faith group and allow its adherents behind bars to meet and study their beliefs.” The AHA took up the case at the request of inmate Kwame Jamal Teague, who is serving a life sentence for murder.

One of the joys of life, attest many interfaith activists, is being able to participate in the rituals and ceremonies of friends from different traditions. We find our own faith deepens through exposure to the ‘other’s’ spiritual practice. Episcopalian Kate Chance took the notion seriously. During Lent this year, she chose to pray regularly five times a day, as do Muslims. Here, she explains what she learned.

It doesn’t qualify as ‘news,’ but “The crumbling colonial-era churches of Pakistan“ is a beautiful if poignant and troubling interfaith architectural romp.

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Bud Heckman to Head the Tri-Faith Initiative in Omaha, Nebraska

Bud Heckman

Bud Heckman

Bud Heckman is an ordained United Methodist minister who brings more than 20 years of leadership in interfaith relations at a national and global level. He has enjoyed executive positions with Religions for Peace International, Religions for Peace USA, El-Hibri Foundation, and the International Shinto Foundation. He is the co-founder and convener of the Interfaith Funders Group and president of the Religion Communicators Council. In the midst of all this, Bud Heckman is a frequent contributor to TIO and serves as its treasurer.

On April 22, at a public gala featuring Dean Obeidallah and Scott Blakeman as the “Standup for Peace” comedy duo, Bud will be introduced in Omaha, Nebraska as the executive director of the Tri-Faith Initiative. The Tri-Faith Initiative was originated by three Abrahamic faith groups (Jewish, Christian, and Islamic) who have chosen to be in a purposeful relationship together and live as immediate neighbors. Co-locating together on one commons featuring an iconic circular bridge connecting them, they are deeply committed to practicing respect, developing acceptance, and building trust. The three members are the Temple Israel (URJ), Countryside Community Church (UCC), and The American Muslim Institute. By spring 2019, all three congregation’s buildings will be complete. A Tri-Faith Center will be the final building constructed on the land by late 2019, culminating an ambitious $65 million effort.

The shared Tri-Faith Center seeks to promote dialogue, transcend differences, foster acceptance, and build bridges of respect and trust among all religions. Programs developed through the Tri-Faith Initiative are intended to be a catalyst and model in Omaha and beyond for advancing understanding among people of distinct faiths. It will serve as a living laboratory of interfaith cooperation, a local hub of collaboration for social events, educational activities, and conferences, and a national and global hub of educational events and resources, including webinars and other digital programs.

TIO’s hearty congratulations come with deep appreciation that Bud will remain on the TIO Board. Expect to read stories about the programs Tri-Faith begins generating.