Interfaith News Roundup
March 15, 2019
Glimmers of Light from the Arabian Peninsula
Consider the news from Saudi Arabia these days. It has been accused in the death of Jamal Khashoggi. Tales about a relationship with The Inquirer (an American tabloid) are circulating. Its war in Yemen is a nightmare. It seems to be seeking nuclear technology from the US. In short, pretty bad press. But a glimmer of light is that the Middle East in general and Saudi Arabia in particular seem to be stepping away from the fundamentalist Wahabi version of Islam and taking a more interfaith-friendly stance. Last month Pope Francis was the first pope ever to visit the Arabian Peninsula, where he held an unprecedented Christian mass for 800,000 thousand in Abu Dhabi, capital of the United Arab Emirates.
Addressing Abu Dhabi’s Global Conference on Human Fraternity, the pope spoke about the importance of Christian and Muslim leaders working together for peace. CBN News reports that “Francis warned that the future of humanity was at stake unless religions come together to resist the ‘logic of armed power.’ He said, ‘There is no alternative: we will either build the future together or there will not be a future.’” The Arab News suggested that Francis might become the first pope to visit Saudi Arabia.
Meanwhile, the Saudi Gazette reports that a delegation of Saudi youth visited Lebanon last month to engage in interfaith dialogue and meet with leaders from a variety of faiths. It must have been a remarkable experience for young people coming from a country that forbids non-Muslim public worship and requires all citizens to be Muslim. And, as we’ve reported before, the Saudi government continues to pour millions of dollars into KAICIID, headquartered in Vienna and financially the largest interfaith project in the world. Window dressing or the beginnings of transformation? Time will tell.
Good News, Bad News
Earlier this month the Vatican announced it will be opening its Pope Pius XII World War II archives a year from now. Pius XII’s Vatican made no pronouncement against the Nazis during the war. In 2008 a British journalist, John Cornwell, published a book about him titled Hitler’s Pope. Access to the archives, one hopes, will bring some closure to the considerable debate over Pope Pius XII and how he used his influence.
Leaders of atheist, agnostic, and humanist organizations are meeting at three locations across the US this month. The came to get acquainted, share their community goals, grow their memberships, and talk about having a role, particularly around political issues, where they often find themselves in line with interfaith groups. In Southern California, when Rebecca Kitchings founded Inland Empire Atheists, Agnostics and Humanists, she expected to find a dozen groups. She found 70 such organizations. Today her Inland Empire group has 2,500 members.
This May the Vatican is sponsoring a conference on “Cultures of Unbelief.” For two years scholars have been studying the growth and nature of non-religion around the world. They estimate that 1.2 billion will self-identify as agnostic, atheist, or non-affiliated by 2060. Already 23 percent of Americans fall into this category. In the UK, 27 percent of those between 18 and 29 years of age self-identify as “no religion.” To provide some historical context, a similar conference was held at the Vatican in 1969, when then-Pope Paul VI said that atheism is one of the “most serious matters of our time.”
New polling suggests that 35 percent of those in Britain believe that Islam is a threat to British culture. It also found a disturbing rise of anti-Semitism on the left. Terrorist attacks in 2017 seems to have generated new levels of prejudice in a country that had been more liberal in the past.
More bad news about India’s growing religious nationalism. The New York Times reports that Indian authorities are leaving uninvestigated the murder of religious minorities, in particular Muslim beef eaters. A 104-page report from Human Rights Watch suggests that since Prime Minister Modi came to power, a vigilante crime wave has grown significantly.
Noticing the violence suffered by transsexuals, particularly African Americans, a number of progressive faith groups have begun organizing to support ending the violence. A social media campaign is being raised, called the Black Trans Prayer Book, at a website titled Transfaith.
The University of Wisconsin’s Center for Religion and Global Citizenry, an interfaith organization, has become an activist group championing ethics and justice at the University. In particular they go after abuse of minorities on campus and focus on interfaith leadership training. Their educational efforts extend beyond campus through partnership with congregations from a variety of religious traditions.
Conversations with Clergy is a new program being offered at Utah State University in Logan, Utah, a chance for students to explore their own faith and spirituality issues and meet with clergy from different religious traditions. Bonnie Glass-Coffin, the director of Interfaith Services at the University, is herself an ordained interfaith minister and notes that seeking conversions is not part of the program’s agenda.
Sexuality Preoccupying Christians
AP’s David Crory points out that the three largest Christian denominations in the US are seriously conflicted regarding sexuality issues – Roman Catholicism, United Methodism, and the Southern Baptists. The prolonged Catholic struggle with abuse by clergy and a lack of transparency is well documented. Recently the Houston Chronicle and San Antonio Express-News called out Southern Baptist congregations for a largely hidden history of sexual misconduct by clergy. And an international gathering of Methodists voted to forbid ordination of marriage of LGBTQ persons, a decision that may split up the historic denomination.
Global storm clouds over sexual abuse by Catholic priests have increased in recent months. Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, an internationally renowned Catholic leader, was defrocked last summer for years of sexual abuse. Then came a call for a similar judgment of five other archbishops, in particular Archbishop Anthony Apuron of Guam, who has been convicted of child abuse and rapes over a number of years.
Last month Cardinal George Pell of Australia was convicted of child sexual abuse more than 20 years ago. He was once the third-most powerful leader in the Vatican and its treasurer. The judgment was announced two days before the Vatican’s major conference of clergy abuse last month.
At that summit 190 bishops from around the world gathered to examine clergy sexual abuse and deceptively hiding the record when it occurs. The conference attracted considerable attention in light of how long the issue has been on the front burner, with very little actually getting done to turn things around. At a concluding address Pope Francis said “I make a heartfelt appeal for an all-out battle against the abuse of minors both sexually and in other areas, on the part of all authorities and individuals, for we are dealing with abominable crimes that must be erased from the face of the earth.”
There was great disappointment, particularly among abuse survivors, that nothing concrete was planned or presented to turn the problem around. The one achievement was establishing another taskforce to study and report abuse, particularly when local dioceses fail to do so.
If all this talk seems unending, a startling new story surfaced, received little press, but shines an astonishing, poignant light on why priestly celibacy needs serious rethinking. The Vatican recently confirmed that it has an official, secret set of rules for priests who father children, called “children of the ordained,” in spite of their vow of celibacy. The rules recommend that priests leave the priesthood to provide full-time care for their children, but there are no mechanisms to enforce this suggestion. Coping International, a website addressing the needs of the children of priests, has 50,000 users in 175 countries.
As noted above, last month the United Methodist Church chose, 53 to 42 percent, to strengthen their stance against ordaining LGBTQ persons and same-sex marriage. Twelve million Methodists world-wide complicate the situation, with more Americans supporting gay sexuality than those abroad, particularly in Africa, where Methodism is growing. Those who have watched the situation fester for decades predict that the denomination may split over the matter. The seven million American United Methodists are about half Republican and 35 percent Democrat.
Warms the Heart
She is blind, and her husband, though partially sighted, is legally blind. As English-speaking Muslims they were able to listen to audio tapes of the Quran. But they longed to be able to read the book themselves. Arabic braille Qurans have existed for more than 30 years, but very few are in English and are not known for their reliability. So two years ago Yadira and Nadir Thabatah decided to create a English Quran in braille. Using a well-respected English translation, they took eight months to set the text in braille and formed a nonprofit to distribute it. It takes six or seven hours to emboss one copy of the ten-volume publication, which costs about $250 to make. About 150 have been distributed to mosques across the US. They estimate that there are 50,000 blind Muslims in America, so the work has just begun!
Victor and Eilee Marsh, high-risk missionaries in Syria, have distributed more than 31,000 plush lion and lamb toys to Muslim and Yezidi as well as Christian children suffering the ravages of war. The toys include an audio component that plays music and friendly words in Arabic and Kurdish. They have also distributed more than 4,000 personal-care kits to women. “There’s been no other significant, successful approach to attacking the extremist ideology of hate brandished by ISIS,” says Victor Marsh. “This method – which is based in love, healing and truth – is proving effective among thousands of children and even adults. The response to these toys has been unbelievable.”