Interfaith News Roundup - May 2015

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

St. Nicholas Orthodox Church in Aleppo, Syria, whose Archbishop Yohanna Ibrahim was kidnapped two years ago, along with Greek Orthodox Archbishop Paul Yazigi, also of Aleppo. – Photo: St. Nicholas

St. Nicholas Orthodox Church in Aleppo, Syria, whose Archbishop Yohanna Ibrahim was kidnapped two years ago, along with Greek Orthodox Archbishop Paul Yazigi, also of Aleppo. – Photo: St. Nicholas

The ancient Syrian Orthodox Church is on the verge of disappearing from its homeland according to the New York Times. Representing a tradition that pre-dates the apostle Paul, ArchbishopJean-Clement Jeanbart of Aleppo, Syria, has been touring the U.S. calling for help. In Aleppo more than a third of the 170,000 Christians have left or been killed, and their churches and homes are being bombed on a regular basis. Except for Pope Francis, there has been little response in the West, politically, militarily, or religiously.

The Washington Post observes that Assyrian Christians have suffered a slow-motion genocide for decades, with the ‘Islamic State’ now accelerating the process in Iraq and Syria. Two-thirds of Assyrians, who trace their ethnic roots back 6,500 years, live in countries like the U.S., Sweden, and Australia. One of the earliest communities to become Christian, they are the last large community that speaks Aramaic, the language of Jesus, and fear losing the language as they are absorbed into new countries.

More Religious Turmoil

Pollsters from Tel Aviv University report that anti-Semetic acts spiked 40 percent this past year, with 766 registered instances. The highest number of violent cases came from France. The pollsters, USA Today notes, pointed to several reasons for the increase, “including the conflict last summer in Gaza between Hamas and Israel as well as a “general climate of hatred and violence” that has accompanied the sudden rise of Islamic State militants in Syria and Iraq. 

A French school sent a Muslim student home for wearing a full-length black skirt, causing a passionate debate in a country where being in school requires wearing nothing religious, leaving behind any religious self-identification at the classroom door. How much richer if French children were allowed to self-identify religiously and in the process taught to respect each other and learn about their different traditions personally?

Arafat Mazhar – Photo: You Tube

Arafat Mazhar – Photo: You Tube

Legislative proposals to ban the sale and consumption of beef throughout India (which Prime Minister Modi promoted when he campaigned for office) is generating escalating tensions between conservative Hindus, who approve, and more than 200 million Indian Muslims and Christians who depend on beef economically and nutritionally. Violating proposed laws in one state would be treated the same as homicide.

Arafat Mazhar is leading a death-defying campaign to reform blasphemy laws in Pakistan, which condemn to death anyone found to have “defiled the name of the Prophet Mohammed.” Prominent activist Sabeen Mahmud supported the long-suffering reform movement on the internet and was recently assassinated. Mazhar thinks he will succeed because he is working at the grassroots with local imams, approaching the subject on the basis of sound Muslim doctrine. If they hand out awards for spiritual, religious courage, you’d put Arafat Mazhar near the front of the line.

Reflective and Provocative

CNN’s Daniel Burke’s report on the devastating earthquake that hit Nepal last month, “How Hindus and Buddhists View Nepal's Devastating Earthquake,” is a step ahead of most media coverage for two reasons. The pictures of sacred sites before and after the fact say more than words can utter. Equally valuable is his analysis of how Buddhists and Hindus approach death, an excellent interfaith discussion, particularly for followers of the Abrahamic traditions.

“The decision comes on page 8. The sound of screaming is coming from behind a locked door in a warehouse. You have to do something. What do you do? If you try to break the door down, you turn to page 20. If you run to get the warehouse manager, you turn to page 33.”

Daniel Silliman’s description of the opening of Escape from the Haunted Warehouse is key to understanding all the Choose Your Own Adventure series of books. In the past 40 years, 250 million copies of 230 different titles have been sold and translated into 40 languages. The title of Silliman’s article explains why faith and interfaith folks should be interested: “You are Spiritual but Not Religious: the Secret Spiritual History of the Choose Your Own Adventure Books.”

In “How ‘Star Wars’ Answers Our Biggest Religious Questions,” Joel Hodge offers an illuminating theological reflection on George Lucas and the 35-year-old ‘Star Wars’ franchise, returning this December bigger than ever. Hodge teaches theology at Australian Catholic University. His insights are particularly provocative in light of the “nones” in our midst who have left religion but continue to yearn for and need “big stories to be told that deal with universal themes – good, evil, love, friendships, violence and the transcendent.”

What’s your ‘cosmic identity’? Philopsopher Nancy Abraam believes you have one. And in her new book, A God that Could Be Real: Spirituality, Science and the Future of Our Planet, she suggests that rather than God creating the universe, our “collective human consciousness” is creating God, which, she argues, brings a staggering responsibility. Wait. Don’t quit yet. Agree or not, or in part, Abrams has fascinating insights for us all to chew on, regardless of your perspective or religious/spiritual affiliations. She’s provocative and engaging, and refreshingly humble of heart and deeply caring in the mix.

Joseph Laycock’s discussion of a pagan invocation delivered in the Iowa House of Representatives is a fascinating, insightful exploration of the difficulty of achieving “pluralism” when religious exclusivists are part of the context, such as the Iowa legislators. Laycock might be less pessimistic about the possibilities if he had read Don Frew’s story in TIO about building friendships between Pagans and evangelical Christians.

We can probably agree – the relationship between religion and politics is a most complicated matter packed with all sorts of conflict and disagreement. In the midst of this cacophony, read David Gibson’s report on a recent conference focused on the possibility that religion and politics might be a force for peacemaking. Engaging discussion, particularly for anyone who thinks strategically about best futures.

In Other News …

New findings at Pew Research suggest that Brazil leads the world in religious freedom, followed by Federated States of Micronesia, Marshall Islands, Palau, and Suriname. Hats off! At the other end of the scale, the five countries which most restrict religious freedom begins with China, followed by Indonesia, Iran, Egypt, and Burma/Myanmar. Meditate and pray for the abused.

The Church of England has made a strong if nuanced decision to disinvest in all coal and tar sands oil businesses, the most polluting forms of energy production. Twelve million pounds will be reinvested. “The Church has a moral responsibility to speak and act on both environmental stewardship and justice for the world's poor who are most vulnerable to climate change,” said Rev. Canon Professor Richard Burridge, deputy chair of the Church’s Ethical Investment Advisory Group. They resisted a ban on all fossil fuels since there will be a continuing need as non-polluting alternatives develop.

Shamanism’s ancient roots in Siberia are resurging today, reports Aljezeera, in an article that defines shamanism as “the belief in good and evil spirits and rituals to appease them.” For centuries shamanistic communities suffered repression, first from Tibetan Buddhists and later from the Soviet Union. But with the decline of the USSR, shamanism, or Tengerism, as its practitioners call it, has made a comeback, not only the cold climes of Siberia but throughout Russia, and now is generating international attention as well.

Jordan’s King Abdullah (fourth from the left in the photo to your left) flew in winners of the competition for interfaith activities during the international World Interfaith Harmony Week. They included Paul McKinna (second from the right), frequent TIO contributor and creator of the Golden Rule poster (in 20 languages!), representing Toronto, which sponsored a week of activities including workshops, an evening of interfaith performing arts, and an interfaith ecology hike.