Interfaith News Roundup - December 2014

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

Graphic: Pew Research Religion and State

Graphic: Pew Research Religion and State

For anyone still thinking that religion will fade away, it’s interesting to note that one-third of the world’s national flags, 64 of them, have religious symbols on them. Christian symbols lead with 48 percent, 33 percent are Muslim, and the remaining 11 percent come from other religions. Also, 30 countries require their president or monarch be a particular religion, 17 of them in Muslim nations.

Meanwhile, in the U.S., seven states have language in their constitutions prohibiting people who do not believe in God from holding office (Arkansas, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee and Texas), despite a U.S. Supreme Court decision 53 years ago that prohibited such rules as discriminatory, based on Article 6 of the U.S. Constitution. Atheists are going to court to claim their rights as fully participatory citizens.

Middle East Matters

Somalian author Abdisaid Abdi Ismail couldn’t get The Rule of Apostasy In Islam: Is it True? published in his homeland but succeeded in Kenya last September. The book, which questions the death penalty for apostasy, has earned him the title of “Somalian Salman Rushdie” and made him a target of hard-line conservatives. Huge courage, Abdisaid! Now be safe.

Karen Armstrong’s New Statesman essay titled “Wahhabism to ISIS: how Saudi Arabia exported the main source of global terrorism,” is illuminating and chilling. “Although IS is certainly an Islamic movement, it is neither typical nor mired in the distant past, because its roots are in Wahhabism, a form of Islam practiced in Saudi Arabia that developed only in the 18th century.” Ironiclly, a week prior to Armstrong’s article a Saudi-funded KAICID conference of Abrahamic leaders met in Vienna to condemn ISIS.

In spite the struggles going on in Jerusalem, faith leaders are starting to collaborate. A day after the synagogue shooting during worship that left four dead, Abrahamic clergy met to publicly plead for peace in their city. (High rabbis and Muslim authorities were absent.) For more on their collaboration.

A head-scratching story surfaced in the UAE (United Arab Emirates) placing the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) and the Muslim American Society (MAS) on an official list of terrorist groups, a list including al Qaeda, Boko Haram, and ISIS. Progressive, moderate Muslims everywhere were stunned, and right-wing radio crackled with the story. Happily, Washington Post’s Adam Taylor unpacks the mystery, detailing the local politics in Qatar that led to the bizarre claims. The State Department said the U.S. government does not consider CAIR or MAS to be terrorist organizations.

More irony – just days before the UAE’s claims, CAIR Board chair Roula Allouch offered a moving interfaith witness at Muslim Friday prayers being held for the first time ever at Washington D.C.’s National Cathedral. (See the video on the right.) Case closed, and thank you CAIR and MAS for what you do.

Clergy Becoming Interfaith Activists

Local and national clergy from various religious traditions have been working collaboratively in Ferguson, Missouri since the tragic death of Michael Brown. They’ve come preaching nonviolence and championing justice for African Americans. Without them the violence could have been much worse. Protests over police violence towards unarmed black men are spreading across the country as TIO goes to post; see Matt Sledge’s story (including two dozen compelling photos) about thousands of New Yorkers marching on the NYPD offices on December 13.

Sixty imams and rabbis met last month for a “2014 Summit of Washington Area Imams and Rabbis,” the first step in creating a national movement to bridge the gap between their communities.

Sri Sri Ravi Shankar – Photo: Wikipedia

Sri Sri Ravi Shankar – Photo: Wikipedia

Sri Sri Ravi Shankar is well known as a respected Hindu spiritual teacher who oversees a global network of schools and charities. But who would have guessed that he could be found these days in Iraq, teaching meditation, championing Yezidi refugees, and doing humanitarian work? In other words, redefining courage for the sake of peace and justice.

Marketplace Ministries in Texas is sending out thousands of chaplains into the workplace. Most of them are Christian, but listening to unhappy or frustrated employees is the focus, and proselytizing is not on the agenda. Founder Gil Striklin says, “We’re there to take care of everybody, no matter if you're Buddhist or Baptist.”

A Very Busy, Interfaith Friendly Pontiff

Pope Francis may have been the busiest cleric on the planet last month. He vigorously chided European leaders for being unconcerned about unemployment and not caring for the migrants drowning in the Mediterranean in their attempts to reach Europe, 3200 so far this year.

Pope Francis earlier this year – Photo: Wikipedia

Pope Francis earlier this year – Photo: Wikipedia

On a journey to Turkey, he condemned the persecution of religious minorities in Syria and Iraq and called for Christian-Muslim dialogue. He met Orthodox Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I (a powerful gesture towards healing an ancient breach), and they jointly signed a declaration urging leaders everywhere to help the victims of the Islamic State group and pleading for the right of Christians to remain in the lands where they have been at home for 2,000 years.

Back at the Vatican, Francis gathered with leaders from half a dozen faith traditions to initiate an anti-trafficking campaign with the goal of ending slavery by 2020.

In another historic first, Pope Francis visited a Pentacostal church and apologized for past oppression.

The pope also welcomed (though he didn’t organize) a conservative interfaith conference at the Vatican on marriage and the “complmentariety” of male and female. Just goes to prove that interfaith is not a liberal, progressive conspiracy!

Grace Under Pressure

Indonesia’s new president, Joko Widodo, swore in a Protestant ethnic Chinese as the governor of Jakarta, the country’s capital. He made the decision in spite of loud complaints from Islamic hard-liners who said the job should go to a Muslim. Score one for moderate Muslims in this largest of Muslim countries.

The most poignant interfaith story last month was about Ed and Paula Kassig speaking at their Methodist Church about the execution of their son Abdul-Rahman Kassig, born Peter Kassig. Their few short words in the face of this violent tragedy are full of wisdom and love, a humbling lesson for us all.