Interfaith News Roundup - June 2019

Interfaith News Roundup

June 15, 2019

All About Religious Freedom and Violence

“While the ‘religious freedom’ industry is busy protecting discriminatory bakeries and pharmacists who refuse to do their job, a humanitarian faces a hefty prison sentence for providing food and water to migrants in the desert.” Scott Daniel Warren went on trial last month for the crime of providing food, water, and clothing to migrants wandering across the desert, specifically a couple who were being chased by border agents in Arizona. Earlier this week a deadlocked jury failed to convict, which would have meant Warren could have faced up to 20 years of prison. The decision to try him again or not will be made in July.

The same set of issues are raised in an extended essay by Tom Gjelten in an NPR article titled “How the Fight for Religious Freedom has Fallen Victim to the Culture Wars.” It is a frightening article about how religious freedom has been politicized and how the meaning and precious value of religious freedom as historically understood and endorsed in America is being dismantled. That said, most Americans enjoy a level of religious freedom denied to more than 2 billion sisters and brothers around the world.

Myanmar (formerly Burma) continues its systematic oppression against the Rohingya Muslims, numbered at a million three years ago, and now approximately 400,000, the balance dead or fled to Bangladesh as refugees. This tragedy has been fomented by militant Buddhist priests led by the fiery xenophobe, Ashin Wirathu. Many gave a sigh of relief when he was charged with sedition, following defamatory remarks he made about the country’s civilian leader, Nobel laureate Daw Aung San Suu Kyi. Yet the radical, heretical Buddhist monk continues to travel the country inciting hatred and violence against Muslims. Muslims comprise less than five percent of the population but are accused of destroying the historically Buddhist nation.

India’s problems are not as radical, but Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s recent reelection poses serious problems for non-Hindus in India. The Christian Post reports that “since Modi was first elected as prime minister, India’s rank as one of the worst persecutors of Christians in the world went up from No. 28 in 2014 to No. 10 this year.” Indian Muslims, accused of eating beef – a Hindu sacrilege – are faring even worse.

Compare those vicious situations with what is happening in the Baltic nations, once under the Russian boot but independent today. Neopagan communities have grown and are thriving in Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania, all dominantly Christian nations for centuries. Paganism has deep historic roots in the region, though, and pagan traditions are surfacing today. They appeal especially to young people but are popular with their elders as well. The attraction of these ancient religions in recent years includes “fostering a connection to the land, old languages, and old gods … Tradition was a way of preserving a form of national identity and local memory in the face of an occupying power.”

The best news about religious freedom this year comes from the UN General Assembly declaration that August 22 has been designated the International Day Commemorating the Victims of Acts of Violence Based on Religion or Belief. “Any acts of violence against people belonging to religious minorities cannot be accepted,” said Jacek Czaputowicz, Minister for Foreign Affairs of Poland. He introduced the draft proposal on behalf of Poland as well as Brazil, Canada, Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Nigeria, Pakistan, and the United States. Czaputowicz noted that a third of the world’s population currently suffers from religious persecution. The 197-member Assembly passed the proposal by consensus.

Worse than being suppressed, perhaps, is being poor, displaced, and forgotten. The Norwegian Refugee Council deserves a nonprofit Oscar for “The World’s Most Neglected Displacement Crises,” this year’s report on the millions in the poorest countries who have essentially been forgotten by the rest of the world. In its preface to profiling the ten toughest countries for those who have been forgotten, we read “Millions of people affected by humanitarian crises fail to get the support they need and deserve. Only by drawing attention to these crises can we create change.” Amen. Read the details if you dare.

Catholic Problems Pile Up

Retired Italian Archbishop Carlo Maria Vigano, a leader in the conservative faction of the Catholic Church bent on taking down Pope Francis, accused the pope of being a liar. Vigano, in an interview with the Washington Post, claims that Francis knew about accusations of abuse against Archbishop Theodore McCarrick long before the pope claims to have known. Meanwhile the unending, herculean struggles between reform and the status quo in the Church is debilitating for all the goodness that still resides in Catholics and their communities.


Seventeen years ago the US Conference of Catholic Bishops proclaimed “zero tolerance” for priests that have been sexually abusive. Their conference this month was intended to give strength and rigor to ending abuse, to hold the leaders of priests liable for hiding crimes, and to support Pope Francis’ new rules obligating priests and nuns to report incidents of abuse or cover-ups to church authorities. But the US high clergy foundered over loud criticism of “bishops investigating bishops” without involving laypeople, a step they have shied away from.

However law enforcement in the US is going into high-gear regarding sexual abuse in religious communities and its cover-up. Attorneys general in more than a dozen states are accelerating their abuse investigations. “A nationwide Associated Press query of more than 20 state and federal prosecutors last week found they are looking for legal means to hold higher ups in the church accountable for sex abuse.” Michigan is one of the first of a number of states considering applying RICO – racketeering laws – to local Catholic dioceses, putting them into the same category as organized crime. “Church officials could face criminal consequences for enabling predator priests.” Thousands of phone calls from victims and their families have flooded in since law enforcement started paying more serious attention, starting in Pennsylvania last July.

Catholics are not in these sad circumstances by themselves. The largest Protestant denomination in the US, the Southern Baptist Convention, is finally wrestling with the tragedy of clergy abuse and cover-up, an area they have stayed away from historically on the grounds that each Southern Baptist congregation has the freedom to make up its own rules. No more. Delegates representing 47,000 congregations sat down at this month’s national gathering to hear compelling, tragic stories from Southern Baptist women. In response they made an amendment to their bylaws permitting the Convention to expel congregations which mishandle or cover up sexual abuse. They also created a committee to evaluate congregations brought up on such charges. No doubt, more stories will follow.

The Good Things Happening

For three days earlier this month 2,000 religious faith leaders, scholars, humanitarian activists, and policy experts gathered in Tokyo for the G20 Interfaith Forum. The group has been active for six years, mirroring the time and site of the G20 Summits national leaders attend each year. This year’s Interfaith Forum agenda included focusing on corruption, violence, the global refugee crisis, health care, and climate change. But the underlying theme was how to make more of an influence in the halls of power, embodied by the G20 Summit, where national interest always takes precedence over the common good.

Photo:    Unsplash

Photo: Unsplash

Last week the Pulitzer Center, funded by the Henry Luce Foundation, brought together 200 journalists, activists, policymakers, and educators to brainstorm religion and journalism at the National Press Club in Washington, DC. The emphasis was on promoting religion stories that don’t make it into major media, a goal TIO shares. Young journalists working in more than two dozen countries were featured, sharing the under-reported stories they are creating, brainstorming with seasoned religion journalists and thought-leaders, and building new international relationships.

Seventy-one religious groups and 5000 signatures in a letter are promoting the Equality Act in defense of LGBTQ persons. It has passed the US House of Representatives but faces a tougher challenge in the Senate. Forty interreligious leaders gathered in a vigil in Washington DC last month calling for the measure to pass. Thirty states still don’t have statewide nondiscrimination protections, which means LGBTQ individuals are at risk of being fired, denied housing, or refused service because of their sexual orientation or gender identity. Opponents of the bill include the Catholic Church, the Southern Baptist Convention, and the Church of Jesus Christ Latter Day Saints.

The four-page “Religious Declaration of Unprecedented Human Emergency” was launched earlier this month at a Washington, DC interfaith prayer breakfast of the National Religious Coalition for Creation. “The document clarifies two essential facts: humanity has an extremely short window of time in which to avert irreversible climate chaos, and religions around the world consider protecting God’s Creation a moral and spiritual imperative.” Go here for the story.

You can take both your practicing Jewish and Muslim friends to lunch at Abe’s Eats, which specializes in meats. Rest assured that they can both eat without worrying about their religious dietary requirements. Founded by Mohammad Modarres, an Iranian American entrepreneur in New York, the food is prepared according to the strictest Kosher and Halal dietary laws for a two-in-one qualified product. A peacemaker at heart, Modarres says he wanted “to build a more inclusive dinner table.” (His website, though, doesn’t mention vegetarians…)

Finally, if you are ready to escape it all and take a deep, deep dive into how religion has emerged over millions of years, and how our brains function regarding religion, check out the two-part series by Brandon Ambrosino: “How and Why Did Religion Evolve?” and “Do Humans Have a Religion Instinct?” Never has the big picture been bigger or more compelling.

Header Photo: Pixabay