Interfaith New Roundup - September 2015

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

Fleeing refugees, these from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, taken in 2008, are among the most vulnerable in the world. – Photo: Wikipedia, Julien Harneis

Fleeing refugees, these from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, taken in 2008, are among the most vulnerable in the world. – Photo: Wikipedia, Julien Harneis

Even as aspiring Republicans debate uprooting and deporting 11 million Americans without papers, the plight of more than a million Syrian refugees fleeing the violence have finally grabbed the world’s attention. European leaders seem to have been caught flat-footed over the arrival of hundreds of thousands of refugees by land and sea, with few solutions, much less shared policy. Peter Mellgard does the numbers to show how climate change will multiply the number of displaced persons exponentially. Not an easy read, but essential if you care about our children and grandchildren.

The global religious response to the explosion of refugees has also been slow in emerging. Dr. Munib Younan, Bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Jordan and the Holy Land, has published an open letter to world leaders and all people of conscience about responding to the tragedies millions of refugees are suffering. As the size of the problem continues to escalate, Bishop Younan’s plea seems to forecast challenges to come.

Muslim Tragedies, Muslim Miracles

The most poignant story this past summer, titled “Mothers of Isis,” tells how families in the West respond when their children convert to a radicalized Islam, decide to go to Syria to fight, and end up dead. Heartbreaking though this story is, the strength and passion of the grief-stricken mothers is a moving testament to the human spirit.

Four atheist bloggers in Bangladesh have been hacked to death with machetes by religiously motivated thugs in recent months. All four writers “had publicly criticized Bangladesh’s growing intolerance towards non-Muslims, secular Muslims, and atheists.” Murali Bulaji’s account of this tragic tale goes behind the horror, tracing the history of sectarian, interfaith conflict in Bangladesh and the diminution of religious freedom. He also charts the “anemic” Western response, either religious or political

Khaled al-Asaad, Syria’s treasured archeologist, was slain by ISIS. – Photo: Wikipedia

Khaled al-Asaad, Syria’s treasured archeologist, was slain by ISIS. – Photo: Wikipedia

Another dramatic story of good versus evil surfaced in Syria’s violent ‘caliphate.’ Khaled al-Asaad, 82, a distinguished Syrian archeologist and antiquities scholar, stayed in the ancient city of Palmyra where he’d worked for 50 years, when it fell to ISIS. This summer he was held by the authorities for a month and questioned about where valuable, historic artifacts from the city have been hidden. He refused to answer and last month was beheaded, then his body hung from a post. 

Even as the bad news accumulates, more hopeful stories are emerging as Muslims and others explore a slew of different approaches for responding to extremism. Progressive Muslims have taken to the internet to counter ISIS propaganda about the faith. And Reclamation Studios, a nonprofit in Indiana, has produced a number of films which examine Islam to clarify how it is utterly unlike ISIS claims.

Sheikh Hamza Yusuf, speaking in Doha, Qatar. – Photo: Wikipedia, Omar Chatriwala

Sheikh Hamza Yusuf, speaking in Doha, Qatar. – Photo: Wikipedia, Omar Chatriwala

YouTube is also seriously concerned about the flood of social media generated by ISIS and other terrorists designed to lure young people to Syria. It is working with Muslim leaders throughout the country to create videos about what it really means to be a Muslims in this country, as opposed to claims by fundamentalist wolves in sheep’s clothing. The Google-owned company’s effort is part of a world-wide surge of media to champion mainline, liberal, and progressive Muslims who want to counter a movement they take to be deluded, anti-religious, and evil.

Though not widely noted in the major media, Muslim scholars in United Arab Emirates, Egypt, and elsewhere have been calling for reform within the tradition. Sheikh Hamza Yusuf, who founded the first Muslim college in the U.S., speaking in the UAE, said that the house of Islam has been neglected and needs renovation: “The water taps aren’t working, the plumbing’s not working. The house is in disarray. It’s derelict. The house is dilapidated. You don’t destroy it, you don’t set it aside. You renovate it.”

Muslim religious leaders from the Central African Republic met in Vienna on August 27 to discuss how they can bring together Muslim communities from across the country in support of national dialogue and reconciliation. The meeting was convened by the International Dialogue Centre (KAICIID), the world’s best-funded interfaith organization, along with the Network for Religious and Traditional Peacemakers, the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), and the Forum for Promoting Peace in Muslim Societies.

KAICIID senior adviser (and TIO contributor) Mohammed Abu-Nimer stressed that without cooperation, the future of the Central African Republic is at stake: “Allowing disagreements and past issues to hinder progress means failure for this reconciliation process. Until the religious communities in the CAR can overcome their differences, both within and among the groups, no progress can be made. This is not easy, but it must be done, and done in a dialogical way.”

The SALAM Islamic Center of Sacramento, California – Photo: Northern California Islamic Council

The SALAM Islamic Center of Sacramento, California – Photo: Northern California Islamic Council

SALAM Islamic Center, a large mosque in Sacramento, California has awarded First Covenant Church, an Evangelical congregation, for exceptional interfaith and community service. First Covenant has been helping Muslim refugees feel at home since 2009. Read the full story to appreciate the possibilities in a Muslim-Evangelical friendship.

Father James Channan deserves an Interfaith Hero’s award. A Pakistani Dominican priest, Father James has been a leading Catholic interfaith advocate and a South Asian leader in United Religions Initiative for nearly 20 years. Today he is director of the Peace Center in Lahore.  In late July, he was interviewed by the international Catholic charity, Aid to the Church in Need, about the Pakistani Supreme Court’s decision to vacate judgment and death sentence against a Christian woman accused of blasphemy,” a charge Channan said was generated to settle “a personal score” and was “an act of revenge.”

Father James Channan – Photo:

Father James Channan – Photo:

Fr. James went on to talk about sensitive issues, such as 130 other Christians who’ve been accused of blasphemy in Pakistan today and the need for more interfaith dialogue if the Church is to survive. He identified important Muslim leaders who are his colleagues in the quest for a more interfaith-friendly Pakistan.

Preparing for Climate Change Agreement in Paris

A dozen faith leaders from different traditions were honored by the White House as exemplary leaders regarding climate change. For all the clamor about keeping religion and politics at arm’s-length, this low-key news event represents the kind of leadership the U.S. and the globe will require in the face of the coming devastation of an over-heated Earth.

An international group of Muslims has published The Islamic Declaration on Global Climate Change, based on Islamic teachings. It calls for an end to greenhouse gas emissions and a robust climate-change agenda for the major climate talks scheduled this winter in Paris. The Vatican, currently promoting Pope Francis’ recent encyclical on climate, sent its quick approval of the Muslim document.

David Suzuki, one of the most articulate eco-ethicists in the public eye, makes a strong case that there is a shift in global consciousness about Earth and its climate. It’s enough to make you hopeful!

Pope Francis is engaging political leadership at every level in promoting his campaigns for caring for the creation and opposing human trafficking. Sixty mayors from around the world came to the Vatican last month to discuss the issues. 

Other Interfaith News… heart-warming, constructive, and just weird!

Post-Traumatic Church Syndrome(2015) by Reba Riley is a funny, moving story of a woman raised in a fundamentalist Christian church where “absolute certainty” about their brand of theology was required. This requirement ended up wounding her deeply and finally inspired her to leave and explore 30 religions before reaching her 30th birthday. Antonia Blumberg’s interview with Riley includes a compelling excerpt from the book.

The Genesis Prize Foundation and the Jewish Funders Network has launched a $3.3 million matching-grant program to support interfaith marriages. Film star Michael Douglas is using a million-dollar award he received for championing Jewish culture to leverage the larger program.

The Medical Daily magazine reported on a London School of Economics study which found that for older people, religion may be more important for mental health and alleviating depression than volunteering, sports, or education. The study leaves many questions ripe for research. For instance, does this finding include the ‘spiritual but not religious’ community?

The U.S. Federal Bureau of Prisons, threatened by litigation from the American Humanist Association, made a sea-change in who can receive religious privileges. Forthwith, incarcerated Humanists will be listed alongside other religious groups and be able to meet with other Humanists, have special events, and be allowed certain study opportunities. 

When the 1993 Parliament of the World’s Religions opened the door to all traditions, participants over and over again talked about the rainbow of vestments, including turbans, robes, cassocks and so much more, delivered in every imaginable color. But most of us probably know next to nothing about vestments and what they mean. For a quick lesson, read “Why These 6 Religious Groups Wear What They Wear.”

Interfaith graduate studies are expanding. Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley began a Masters program a year ago, and last month Andover Newton Theological School and Hebrew College in Boston announced a joint graduate program in interfaith leadership. As reported in this issue, Elizabethtown College is the first in the nation to offer an undergraduate major and minor in interfaith leadership.

See if you can get on both sides of this disagreement. Declaring that “animal rights are more important than religion,” the Danish government has forbidden the religious slaughter of animals in accordance with kosher and halal rules, infuriating Denmark’s Jewish and Muslim communities. Ironically, the religious rules and the government’s rules are both intended to minimize animal discomfort and pain.

The official symbol of the Church of Jediism in the UK – Photo:

The official symbol of the Church of Jediism in the UK – Photo:

The Directorate of Religious Affairs in Turkey has declared Jediism, based on the Jedi warriors in the Star War movies, a threat to Islam and Christianity. Apparently, thousands of Jedis petitioned the government to build a Jedi temple in every Turkish university campus, following a government decision to build mosques on campuses across the country.

In a day when everything religious seems to be in flux, with new religions or quasi-religious organizations regularly appearing on the horizon, SoulCycle is a perplexing success story. Begun in 2006, SoulCycle is a business that offers spiritual resources without being a church, along with group therapy, creating community experiences through classes that cost $60 a pop, and making piles of money as it expands across the country. And all of it based stationary-bicycle exercise sessions called spinning!

So much has been written about Pope Francis (and it will only escalate in coming weeks during his trip to the U.S.), that it is hard to get an overview of what he has achieved in a few short years. Paul Brandeis Raushenbush, religion editor of Huffington Post, has stepped in with an brief, illuminating portrait of Francis and what he’s achieved, in an article titled “Why the Pope Matters. Especially in Today’s World.”