Interfaith News Roundup

Religion had a “starring role” in the news in 2014. Religion News Service’s survey of the year lists more than 50 religion-related stories that made it into the major media. For a sterner view, Peter Laarman’s 2014 look-back focuses on five story-clusters of toxic religion, starting with fights over sacred land, with “religion playing the devil’s part in earthly affairs.”

Protesters in Ferguson – Photo: WikipediaHuffPost Religion awarded a 2014 People of the Year designation on the religious leaders of Ferguson, Missouri: “Women and men, black and white, clergy and lay people of all religious backgrounds provided both a pastoral and a prophetic presence in a community devastated and activated by the shooting of an unarmed young black man by the police.”

Last year’s ‘Ripley’s Believe or Not’ award, goes to the Trans-Universal Zombie Church of the Blissful Ringing. A new ‘religion’ in Slovenia, it has grown to 10,000 members in the kingdom of 2 million this past year. The Church was inspired by massive state and church corruption stories that have plagued Slovenia for a decade, and it has very serious values and goals.

Sadly, 2014 ended with the December 15 violent siege in a Sydney, Australia café and the massacre of students in Peshawar, Pakistan a day later. Then one week into the new year, gunmen invaded a magazine office in Paris, killed seven, and later died themselves, all in the ‘name’ of religion. In Nigeria that week, 150 to 2000 (government’s estimate vs. local reports) were murdered by Boko Haram. No need for links – the stories are all over the internet. The Guardian, it should be noted, wondered by seven deaths in France preoccupied the world, while the travesty in Baga, Nigeria barely got noticed.

Religion and Nationalism in Asia

Good educational news from violence-beleaguered Pakistan. The tragic school attack in Peshawar has inspired a growing national and now international commitment to start rebuilding the 1,000 schools the Taliban has destroyed in recent years. Read the story and join the cause.

The worries that India’s Prime Minister Nahendra Modi will push a Hindu nationalist agenda compromising religious freedom for all non-Hindus has gained currency in recent weeks. Modi told non-Hindu religious leaders that he doesn’t think commenting on the problem is worth his attention.

In Myanmar proposed laws essentially forbidding interfaith marriages are receiving a blast of criticism from women from various faiths, including Buddhism, the state religion.

Brian Grimm has written a fascinating analysis of religion in China, officially an atheist nation. He explores the positive influence religion, particularly Christianity, has on economic prosperity. (Did you know that credible scholars are suggesting “that China’s Christian population may become the world’s largest by 2030”?)

Middle East Wrestles with “Extremism” Militarily, Politically, and Theologically

The rulers of Saudi Arabia, the Saud family, is seeking to moderate Wahabism, the ultra-conservative branch of Sunni Islam which has dominated religion in the country since the 18th century. The hardline Wahabism of Saudi Arabia’s enemy, the ‘Islamic State,’ could well be a major factor in this liberalizing new attitude.

More remarkable evidence that allies and adversaries are mixing and matching: Iran has dedicated a monument honoring Jews for their support during the Iran-Iraq war (1980-88), with rabbis and imans sharing in the dedication ceremony.

President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi of Egypt – Photo: WikipediaGood news (or is it?) comes from Egypt. President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi started the new year with a blast at Islamic extremism and violence. In a New Year’s Day Speech, he said: “I say and repeat again that we are in need of a religious revolution. You, imams, are responsible before Allah. The entire world, I say it again, the entire world is waiting for your next move … because this umma is being torn, it is being destroyed, it is being lost – and it is being lost by our own hands.” The story’s shadow-side rears up when you read how al-Sisi’s revolution for moderation is being implemented with aggressive dictatorial power.

William Vendley, general secretary of Religions for Peace, sent a letter to the global RfP community and members of the Forum for Promoting Peace in Muslim Societies (in Abu Dai, UAE), about a shared declaration and strategic plan titled “Rejecting Violent Religious Extremism and Advancing Shared Well-being.”

Daniel Burke’s “Why Islam forbids images of Mohammed” is something all non-Muslims should read. He doesn’t absolve violent responses to image makers like cartoonists, but makes them much more explicable by unpacking the history and theology of image-making.

All Over the Map in North America

The Sikh float at this year’s Rose Bowl Parade. Photo: Zen Vuona, Twitter @zenReportA mid-December Secular Solstice was held a year ago and has caught fire. Half a dozen were held last month. Candles, music, and personal sharing mark the occasions, organized by and serving humanists who yearn for a community and ceremony without a religious context.

In an effort to educate Americans about the Sikh religion, Sikhs in America sponsored a float in the 2015 Rose Bowl Parade, held January 1 in Pasadena, California. The float recreates the first American Sikh sanctuary, a gurdwara in Stockton, California founded 102 years ago. The Times of India gave a glowing report.

Two public schools in a tough San Francisco neighborhood have had remarkable success with an all-school 15-minute meditation time. Less violence, 79 percent less suspensions, and improved academics since the program began. School administrators, skeptical at first, now are championing the cause.

Church attendance may be receding in North America and Europe, but that hasn’t diminished the desire of more than 200 million to take spiritual pilgrimages each year, reports Kimberly Winston. PBS has been broadcasting the well-reviewed, six-part series Sacred Journeys with Bruce Feilor this past month. Given PBS scheduling, they are apt to be rerun if you missed them the first time.

Parenting Without Godauthor Dan Eral has good advice not just for atheists, but for any parent who wishes to raise their children in a particular faith without condemning other faiths.

Stories keep popping up about extraterrestrial theology! The subject is beautifully surveyed in “Do Aliens Know It’s Christmas? How Possibilities of Life Elsewhere Might Alter Held Notions of Faith,”by Dennis Overbye in the New York Times. Talk about interfaith!

Pope Francis Keeps Leading in the News

Pope Francis continues to redefine religious leadership, and he’s not afraid to start at home. At the “traditional Christmas greeting” to the assembled cardinals serving in the Vatican, he offered a blistering critique of Roman Catholic governance, cataloging 15 serious “illnesses” in the Church, including gossipy cliques and “spiritual Alzheimer’s.” As commentators agreed, “This was historic…”

Five days earlier came news that the U.S. embargo of Cuba was ending, and that the pope had been a broker to the agreement. For anyone who has wondered whether religious leaders and peacemakers will ever be empowered, the pope is beginning to show us how. Michelle Gonzalz Maldanado’s essay in Religion Dispatches details the costs and benefits of this stunning achievement, and David Gibson of Religion News Service sets the story into historical perspective.

In recent days we’ve heard that Francis will be offering a major statement on climate change when he visits the Philippines this month, in the process probably becoming the most influential climate change activist on the globe.

Last month the Vatican released a news series of stamps (for the “the world’s tiniest state), including the one on the right.