Interfaith News Roundup - February 2015

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

Religion and Violence Stay Center Stage

If you care of about religion and violence in the world, listen to the 4-minute PRI interview with Sarah Chayes about her new book, Thieves of State: Why Corruption Threatens Global Security (W.W. Norton). In countries where governments are so corrupt that “there is no distance between the perpetrator and the victim” (and there are many), religious extremism becomes one of the only options oppressed people have. Religion is blamed: governmental corruption is the culprit.

Three-quarters of Americans heard about the January 7  attack at the Paris offices of Charlie Hebdo, a satirical magazine which has featured the Prophet Mohammed in cartoons. Sixty percent of American’s feel that the magazine has the right to publish such material, but 28 percent think it is not OK.

Apparently there are limits to free speech, even in France. Less than a month after France took to the streets in support of Charlie Hebdo, a comedian named Dieudonne M’Bala M’Bala found himself in court accused of inciting racial hatred. Blasphemy is not against the law in France, but Holocaust denial is, and Dieudonne, as he is known, has been accused of anti-Semitism in the past.

On a Sunday nine days after the Charlie Hebdo siege, it was blamed for the destruction of 70 churches in Niger, the death of 10, and looting and burning of 30 Christian homes. Niger is 99 percent Muslim, but until recently Christian-Muslim relations have been relatively good. Corruption has a major role in the story.

In much better news, Iran’s religious leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, has reached out to Muslim youth in the West via Twitter and the internet. He implores them to “learn about Islam from original sources” and not from terrorists. He isn’t insisting “that you accept my or any particular reading of Islam,” but warns young people not to be lured by the violence which is being used to “tarnish the image of Islam.”

Amitai Etzioni brings a refreshing perspective to the ongoing religion and violence discussion.  Claiming that “Islam is an evil religion” or “Islam is a peaceful religion” is a false debate Etzioni suggests, noting that all three Abrahamic religions have at times promoted violence as well as peace. Until this universal mixed-record is recognized, moderates have no way of understanding and collaborating to mitigate the violence.

Barack Obama brought interfaith insight to the religiously related violence in the world today at the National Prayer Breakfast in Washington, DC, earlier this month. Juliet Eilperin at the Washington Post reports that “At a time of global anxiety over Islamist terrorism, Obama noted pointedly that his fellow Christians, who make up a vast majority of Americans, should perhaps not be the ones who cast the first stone.

“‘Humanity has been grappling with these questions throughout human history,’ he told the group, speaking of the tension between the compassionate and murderous acts religion can inspire. ‘And lest we get on our high horse and think this is unique to some other place, remember that during the Crusades and the Inquisition, people committed terrible deeds in the name of Christ. In our home country, slavery and Jim Crow all too often was justified in the name of Christ.’”  His critics were outraged.

Continuing Global Struggle for Religious Freedom

Raif Badawi – Photo: Wikipedia

Raif Badawi – Photo: Wikipedia

Brian Pellot’s monthly survey of religious freedom stories for Religion News Service was stunning last month. Dozens of tales from around the globe noted and linked – good news and bad news piled on top of each other – a remarkable ‘portrait’ of the complexity, confusion, heartaches, and joy associated with religion today.

Seven religious freedom advocates have volunteered to take 100 lashes each to reduce the sentence of 1,000 lashes and ten years in prison for Raif Badawi, a liberal blogger in Saudi Arabia whose crime was blogging in support of a secular government.

President Obama had religion on his mind in India during his visit there late last month, and proved an interfaith champion. He said “Our nations are strongest when we see that we are all God’s children, all equal in His eyes and worthy of His love. India will succeed so long as it not splintered along the lines of religious faith...” The hosting government, who edited those comments out of video news coverage, has been accused in recent months of prejudice against non-Hindus.

Venerable Thubten Chodrow – Photo: Sravasti Abbey

Venerable Thubten Chodrow – Photo: Sravasti Abbey

Religious freedom in Malaysia has taken another serious hit. Since 2008 the Catholic Church and its newspaper have been in court opposing the law that the word Allah is forbidden in non-Muslim publications. Historically, Malaysian Christians in their native language have always used Allah to signify God. Last month Malaya’s highest court said no to the Church’s request.

And the Rest of the News

Icelanders will be able to worship at a temple being built honoring the Norse gods, Thor, Odin, and Frigg, the first such sanctuary since pre-Christian Viking times 1000 years ago. The temple will sit on a hillside overlooking Iceland’s capital, Reykjavik.

Andrea Jain’s interview about her new book, Selling Yoga: From Counterculture to Pop Culture (Oxford) should prove illuminating even for long-term practitioners of this much-debated phenomenon. She offers a non-judgmental history of an ancient practice whose “malleability” has allowed it to adjust and evolve to meet the needs of our ever-changing culture.

The Venerable Thubten Chodron, who grew up as Cherry Green, is a Tibetan Buddhist nun who founded Sravasti Abbey, outside of Spokane, Washington in 2003. The 260-acre retreat is a seminary to train men and women to become ordained clergy in the Tibetan tradition. Inspired and approved by the Dalai Lama, it’s the first such seminary in America. By including women in the ordination path, it is also a first for Tibetan Buddhism.

Records were broken in the Philippines when 6 million attended a mass celebrated by Pope Francis, the largest group ever assembled by a pope, and “more people than live in Frankfurt, Toronto, or Libya,” the Economist noted.

Terry Mattingly makes a strong case that journalism today continues to short-change readers about religion stories. So much more than there used to be, but not nearly enough?

Philip Clayton wrote a beautiful article about the death last month of Marcus Borg, a major Christian voice who, with colleagues like John Cobb, has given Christians a solid theological basis for being interfaith-friendly. You can hear Professor Borg talking about God in the 15-minute video on the left.