Interfaith News Roundup - February 2014

Each month TIO shares a few of the more interesting interfaith stories from recent news.

Religious Violence Escalating Globally

Key Findings About Growing Religious Hostilities Around the World

Angelina Theodorou, Pew Research Center Fact-Tank, January 17, 2014

Pew Research Center has been tracking religious restrictions and hostilities around the world since 2007. Our new report found that a third of the 198 countries and territories studied in 2012 had a high or very high level of social hostilities involving religion, the highest share in the six years of the study. These hostilities – defined in the study as acts of religious hostility by private individuals, organizations or groups in society – increased in every major region of the world except the Americas. Here are some top findings:

  • The number of countries with religion-related terrorist violence has doubled over the past six years. In 2012, religion-related terrorist violence took place in one-in-five countries (20%), up from 9% in 2007. In March 2012, for instance, a rabbi and three children were killed by an Islamist extremist at a Jewish school in Toulouse, France.
  • Women were harassed because of religious dress in nearly a third of countries in 2012 (32%), up from a quarter in 2011 (25%) and less than one-in-ten (7%) in 2007. In Moldova, for instance, two men attacked a Muslim woman in the capital city of Chisinau, calling her a “terrorist” and tearing her headscarf. In 2012, 54 of the 198 countries in the study (27%) had governments that regulate the wearing of religious symbols or attire…
  • For the first time in the study, China experienced a high level of social hostilities involving religion, with multiple types reported during 2012, including religion-related terrorism, harassment of women for religious dress and mob violence. In November 2012, for instance, a Han Chinese man accosted a Uighur Muslim girl in Henan province and lifted her veil. In response, violent protests broke out as hundreds of Uighurs demonstrated against the incident.
  • The Middle East and North Africa was the most common region for sectarian violence; half of all countries in the region in 2012 experienced this type of violence. Globally,sectarian violence took place in nearly one-in-five of the world’s countriesin 2012 (18%), up from 8% in 2007. 

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Myanmar Muslims Suffering Religious Violence

In Myanmar, Buddhist Mob Group Kills Dozens of Muslims

Robin McDowell, Associated Press, January 16, 2014

A mosque being burned in northern Myanmar – Photo: AP Photo/Daily Eleven Media

A mosque being burned in northern Myanmar – Photo: AP Photo/Daily Eleven Media

YANGON, Myanmar — A Buddhist mob rampaged through a town in an isolated corner of Myanmar, hacking Muslim women and children with knives, a villager and a rights group reported Thursday, saying there could be more than a dozen deaths.

A government official said the situation was tense, but denied any deaths.

Myanmar, a predominantly Buddhist nation of 60 million people, has been grappling with sectarian violence for nearly two years. More than 240 people have been killed and another 140,000,mostly Muslims, forced to flee their homes.

Chris Lewa of the Arakan Project, an advocacy group that has been documenting abuses against members of the Rohinyga Muslim minority for more than a decade, said the violence occurred Tuesday in northern Rakhine state.

Lewa said tensions have been building in the region since last month, when monks from a Buddhist extremist movement known as 969 toured the area and gave sermons by loudspeaker advocating the expulsion of all Rohinygya.

A resident who spoke on condition of anonymity because he feared reprisals said an initial flare-up followed the discovery of three bodies in a ditch near Du Char Yar Tan village by several firewood collectors.

Ed. (March 2017): The original article connected to this no longer exists. Here is another article from about the same event. 

Blasphemy Laws Terrorizing Pakistan’s Religious Minorities

Pakistan’s Blasphemy Laws Are a Death Sentence for Religious Minorities

Kathy Gannon, Associated Press, January 29, 2014

LAHORE, Pakistan — The elderly man’s troubles started when two young men milling inside his homeopathic clinic casually asked him about his religion. He thought they were merely curious. In fact, they belonged to an outlawed militant group and were carrying hidden tape recorders.

Map: Wikipedia

Map: Wikipedia

Within hours, police officers showed up at Masood Ahmad’s clinic and played back the tape in which he explained the tenets of the minority Ahmadiyya sect, rejected by mainstream Muslims because it disputes the basic tenet of their faith that Muhammad is Islam’s last prophet.

Ahmad, who returned from Britain to his Pakistani homeland decades ago to open the clinic, was charged with blasphemy — which can carry the death penalty. The 72-year-old has been jailed since his arrest this month, awaiting a trial that could take months or even years to begin.

He is not alone. Just last week, a Pakistani court sentenced a mentally ill British man, Mohammad Asghar, to death on blasphemy charges after he allegedly claimed to be Islam’s prophet.

Pakistan’s blasphemy law is increasingly becoming a potent weapon in the arsenal of Muslim extremists…

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Bullied Sikh Children Promoting Peace

Sikhs Stand Up to Bullying as They Try to Build Understanding

Lauren Markoe, Religion News Service, January 30, 2014

A Sikh boy wearing a ‘patka.’ – Photo: Wikipedia

A Sikh boy wearing a ‘patka.’ – Photo: Wikipedia

SILVER SPRING, Md. (RNS) Throughout elementary, middle and high school, Prabhdeep Suri has been the only Sikh in his class, and it’s been obvious. Like all Sikh boys, he wore a patka, a head covering for his uncut hair that’s worn out of respect for his gurus. To his classmates, the patka was a license to stare, taunt, isolate, punch and kick him. It was a target to knock off his head. It was the reason they called him “Osama bin Laden” and “terrorist.”

“He came home crying three days out of five,” his mother, Harpreet Suri remembered. “They were taking his patka off almost every day.”

Bullying is a hot topic in the U.S. today, and affects children and teenagers who for any number of reasons appear or act differently. But unlike others who can hide their religion at school — by wearing a baseball cap instead of a yarmulke, or never mentioning that their family celebrates Ramadan — Sikhs literally wear their religion on their sleeves...

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The War on Christianity

Religion’s Followers are Dwindling in the Land of its Birth - Not a Crisis of Faith, But of Violence

Peter Popham, The Independent (UK), January 29, 2014

Almost fifteen hundred years ago, a wandering monk called John Moschos described the Eastern Mediterranean as a “flowering meadow” of Christianity. The religion had been born here nearly 600 years before but while, in the early years, it had been a persecuted, militant cult, under the patronage of the Byzantine emperors it had matured and mellowed. “The meadows in spring present a particularly delightful prospect,” Moschos wrote in his book The Spiritual Meadow, which became a 7th-century best-seller. “One part of this meadow blushes with roses; in other places lilies predominate; in another violets blaze out…”

This image is inspired by Byzantine Christianity, which dominated the Middle East and much of Europe for 1,000 years, until overtaken by the Ottoman Turks. – Photo: Wikipedia

This image is inspired by Byzantine Christianity, which dominated the Middle East and much of Europe for 1,000 years, until overtaken by the Ottoman Turks. – Photo: Wikipedia

Christianity, in other words, was now flourishing right across the region. No intolerant tyranny menaced it, no other religion contested its right to grow and prosper and develop in different ways. “The Eastern Mediterranean world was almost entirely Christian” in Moschos’s day, William Dalrymple wrote in his 1997 book From the Holy Mountain. “At a time when Christianity had barely taken root in Britain… the Levant was the heartland of Christianity and the centre of Christian civilisation… The monasteries of Byzantium were fortresses whose libraries and scriptoria preserved classical learning, philosophy and medicine against the encroaching hordes of raiders and nomads [and] the Levant was still the richest, most populous and highly educated part of the Mediterranean world.”

Today, the picture is dramatically different. Every corner of the MiddleEast is locked in more or less violent struggle, but whatever course the future takes, it is safe to predict that Christians will play only a marginal part in it – if they survive at all. Already, as the Prince of Wales recently pointed out, there is a smaller proportion of Christians in the region than in any other part of the world: just four percent, and falling fast. Sunni Muslim extremists see them not as “people of the Book” – members, like Muslims, of one of the three great Abrahamic religions – but as infidels, bracketed as the odious Other alongside Shias, apostates, atheists, Baha’is…

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Religious Leaders Complicit in African Homophobia

The Church’s Role In, and Against, Homophobia Across Africa

Gay Clark Jennings, Episcopal News Service, January 27, 2014

(RNS) – In the last month, many Westerners watched in horror as Uganda, and then Nigeria, enacted laws that are brutally repressive to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people.

The fate of a bill passed by the Ugandan parliament remains uncertain after President Yoweri Museveni refused to sign it, but news reports from Nigeria indicate that there have been mass arrests of gay men following President Goodluck Jonathan’s signing of the National Assembly’s anti-gay bill.

World leaders, including United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, have expressed their dismay. Many Christian leaders around the world, regrettably, have been largely unwilling to criticize Christian leaders in Africa who cheered the passage of these punitive laws.

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U.N. Human Rights Calls out Abuse by the Catholic Church

Vatican Comes Under Sharp Criticism for Sex Abuse

John Heilprin and Nocole Winfield, Associated Press, January 16

Former Vatican Chief Prosecutor of Clerical Sexual Abuse Charles Scicluna, waits for the start of a questioning over clerical sexual abuse of children at the headquarters of the office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, OHCHR, in Geneva, Switzerland. – Photo: AP Photo/Kenstone, Martial Trezzini

Former Vatican Chief Prosecutor of Clerical Sexual Abuse Charles Scicluna, waits for the start of a questioning over clerical sexual abuse of children at the headquarters of the office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, OHCHR, in Geneva, Switzerland. – Photo: AP Photo/Kenstone, Martial Trezzini

GENEVA (AP) — The Vatican came under blistering criticism from a U.N. committee Thursday for its handling of the global priest sex abuse scandal, facing its most intense public grilling to date over allegations that it protected pedophile priests at the expense of victims.

The Vatican insisted it had little jurisdiction to sanction pedophile priests around the globe, saying it was for local law enforcement to do so. But officials conceded that more needs to be done and promised to build on progress already made tobecome a model for others, given the scale of the problem and the role the Holy See plays in the international community.

“The Holy See gets it,” Monsignor Charles Scicluna, the Vatican’s former sex crimes prosecutor, told the committee. “Let’s not say too late or not. But there are certain things that need to be done differently.”

He was responding to a grilling by the U.N. committee over the Holy See’s failure to abide by terms of the U.N. Convention on the Rights of the Child which, among other things, calls for signatories to take all appropriate measures to keep children from harm…

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For a follow-up to the report and the Vatican’s strong reaction, see “Vatican Missteps and U.N. Blunders“ by Paul Vallely in the New York Times, February 11, 2014.

Pontiff Favors Hospitality in Building Interfaith Relations

Pope Francis Hosts Argentine Jewish Leaders at Vatican

Haaretz, January 17, 2014

Pope Francis hosts a kosher lunch at the Vatican for Argentine Jewish leaders. – Photo: World Jewish Congress

Pope Francis hosts a kosher lunch at the Vatican for Argentine Jewish leaders. – Photo: World Jewish Congress

Pope Francis on Thursday hosted a delegation of 15 Jewish leaders from his native Argentina for an informal kosher lunch at the Vatican’s Santa Marta guesthouse.

The conversation with the pontiff, who was born Jorge Mario Bergoglio in Buenos Aires, focused on strengthening interfaith dialogue, according to Claudio Epelman, executive director of the Latin American Jewish Congress.

Epelman is also the World Jewish Congressofficial in charge of dialogue with the Catholic Church.

It was an “extraordinary gesture by Pope Francis to take more than two hours out of his busy schedule for a conversation with Jewish leaders from his native Argentina,” said Epelman, who organized the lunch with Argentine Rabbi Abraham Skorka…

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U.S. President Champions Religious Freedom at Interfaith Event

Obama: Religious Freedom a U.S. Diplomatic Priority

Nedra Pickler, Associated Press, February 6, 2014

The President and Mrs. Obama worshiping in an African Methodist Episcopal church in Washington, DC – Photo: Wikipedia

The President and Mrs. Obama worshiping in an African Methodist Episcopal church in Washington, DC – Photo: Wikipedia

WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama told a non-denominational gathering of political leaders Thursday that freedom of religion across the world is important to national security and is a central tenet of U.S. diplomacy.

Speaking at the annual National Prayer Breakfast, Obama cast his message as an international call for human rights, singling out countries that he said have fallen short, particularly when it comes to extending protections and freedoms to all faiths.

He said some of that diplomacy is not comfortable, especially when dealing with nations that are strategically and economically important to the United States, such as China.

When meeting with Chinese leaders, he said, “I stress that realizing China’s potential rests on upholding universalrights, including for Christians and Tibetan Buddhists and Uighur Muslims.”

In the peace talks between Israelis and Palestinians, he added, “we have made clear that lasting peace will require freedom of worship and access to holy sites for all faiths.”

“More broadly I’ve made the case that no society can truly succeed unless it guarantees the rights of all of its peoples, including religious minorities, whether they are Ahmadia Muslims in Pakistan or Bahais in Iran or Coptic Christians in Egypt,” Obama said.

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German Pastor, Rabbi, and Imam Collaborate

Interfaith Prayer Building May Rise from Berlin Ruins

Melanie Sevcenko, Religion News Service, January 22, 2014



BERLIN – At a church near Berlin’s bustling Alexanderplatz, an evangelical pastor, a rabbi and an imam have conducted interfaith services on special occasions for the past two years. Now they plan to build a multifaith prayer building.

Billed as a landmark Jewish-Muslim-Christian prayer space, the building will combine a church, a synagogue and a mosque under one roof, next to one of Berlin’s busiest streets. Its organizers hope to make the German capital a meeting ground of world cultures and international relationships.

“Berlin is a multi-faceted city,” said Kandir Sanci, the imam of the House of Prayer and Learning, the association behind the project. “You find many people of all kinds of religions. I feel that the city is very engaged to support the various religions and make them feel at home.” …

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Taiwan’s Buddhists Increasingly Looking to Help Out Those in Need

Meeting Taiwan’s New-age Buddhists

Cindy Sui, BBC News – Taipei, January 29, 2014

Buddhists serve in a food program. – Photo: Daniel M. Shih

Buddhists serve in a food program. – Photo: Daniel M. Shih

The 63-year-old retiree used to practice her religion by praying at temples, but now she volunteers seven days a week at a recycling centre to raise funds for Taiwan’s Buddhist association Tzu Chi.

“I have no time to go to temples. Praying is not important. Coming here every day is like praying,” said Ms Hsiao.

This is not how most people practice Buddhism in Chinese-speaking or even non-Chinese Buddhist societies. Their faith is usually self-focused: praying for protection in their current life and to be born into a better life after they die.

But Taiwan is leading a quiet, yet powerfulmovement that has turned traditional Buddhism on its head, converting many Buddhists such as Ms Hsiao into doers, not just believers.

Burning paper money and incense is discouraged – it’s bad for the environment. Going to temples is low priority. Even praying too much is frowned upon.

The focus now is on what the Taiwanese call “humanistic Buddhism” – caring for others and for society. It returns Buddhists to the core principles of Buddhism – speaking good words, thinking good thoughts and doing good deeds…

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Can Atheists be Spiritual?

Sam Harris Reignites Long-running Debate

Chris Stedman, Religion News Service, January 30, 2014

Sam Harris – Photo: Wikipedia

Sam Harris – Photo: Wikipedia

Sam Harris, author of books like The End of Faith and one of the so-called “Four Horsemen of New Atheism,” has just announced his next book – resurrecting a long-running debate among atheists.

Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality Without Religion, set to be published in September, will explore nonreligious spirituality. In 2012 Harris wrote that his goal for this book was “to write a ‘spiritual’ book for smart, skeptical people — dealing with issues like the illusion of the self, the efficacy of practices like meditation, the cultivation of positive mental states, etc.”

With Waking Up’s impending publication, many in the atheist community debate whether it makes sense for atheists to use the word spirituality. But this isn’t the first time this question has come up in recent years…

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Crowds Flock to See Huge Statues of Buddha

Buddha Statues Get Bigger on Mainland China in Bid to Lure Tourists

He Huifeng, South China Morning Post, February 5, 2014

Tourists visit the popular Lingshan Grand Buddha at Wuxi, Jiangsu province, which stands 88 metres high. – Photo: Shutterstock

Tourists visit the popular Lingshan Grand Buddha at Wuxi, Jiangsu province, which stands 88 metres high. – Photo: Shutterstock

Local officials on the mainland are drawing inspiration from Buddha, but perhaps not in a way he might have intended.

Tourism bureaus and developers are racing to build ever-higher statues of Buddha, in an attempt to copy the success of the Lingshan Grand Buddha in Wuxi, Jiangsu province.

The 88-metre-high attraction drew about 3.8 million visitors last year, generating more than 1.2 billion yuan (HK$1.5 billion). Not a bad return on 725 tons of bronze sheet.

Hong Kong’s Tian Tan Buddha, at a modest 34 metres, would barely rise to the knees of the current behemoths such as the 208-metre-high Spring Temple Buddha in Lushan county in Henan province.

At least five others taller than Tian Tan are spread across the mainland and the list is set to grow, including a planned 88-metre-high statue of the bodhisattva Guanyin in Suzhou, Jiangsu province, a 99-metre depiction of the bodhisattva Ksitigarbha in Anhui province, and a 48-metre statue of Amitabha Buddha at Lu Mountain in Jiangxi province.

According to the New Weekly, the Aerosun Corporation, which built the Tian Tan Buddha on Lantau, is developing more than 10 such projects across the country this year.

China has a long history of Buddhist art and sculpture,..

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Scientists Embrace Interfaith Ministry

OUnI to Ordain Seven Eco-Ministers

Order of Universal Interfaith, February 9, 2014

Washington, D.C. - The Order of Universal Interfaith (OUnI), an interfaith religious society, has established a special ordination for Eco-Ministers to qualified scientists, ecologists, and environmentalists committed to a ministry supporting a sustainable and livable environment for people of all faiths and the spiritually independent.

OUnI’s board of directors looked to the example of the early Christian Church for its authority to offer this ordination, citing the example of the fledgling ecclesiastic body to care for its widows by selecting and ordaining leaders. The Order believes that the care of the environment is a moral obligation of all people and it deserves a special calling and the authority to reach out to the world.

Seven scientist-spiritual leaders will be ordained in early March in Scottsdale, Arizona…

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