Interfaith News Roundup - June 2015

June 12, 2015

Christians Taking a Beating

Conservative Christians in the United States for several years have been lamenting their loss of religious freedom, typically freedom from something rather than freedom for something. Thus, selling wedding cakes to gays or lesbians becomes oppression to Christian business people who religiously object to same-sex marriage. For a more rigorous understanding of religious freedom and oppression, consider what is happening to Christians today in Syria and Iraq, reported here in recent months. The travesty is not limited to the Middle East.

In Angola, Pentecostal churches with an apocalyptic message are reaping their own apocalypse, a number of their members dying in conflict with government forces for causing social unrest by predicting the end of the world later this year. Gives new meaning to the notion of self-fulfilling prophecies.

The Protestant Church of Bandanaira on Banda Island, Indonesia – Photo: Wikipedia

The Protestant Church of Bandanaira on Banda Island, Indonesia – Photo: Wikipedia

More than 1,000 churches in Indonesia have been shut down over the past ten years despite the fact that Catholics and Protestants are among the six “official” religions of Indonesia, according to the country’s constitution. Anti-Christian pressure in predominantly Muslim communities is blamed for the oppression.

The ever-escalating government repression of religion in China has reached the top of government. Last month President Xi Jinping “asked religious groups to pledge their loyalty to the state and warned that religions in China must be independent of foreign influence.” Buddhist communities have felt the government’s stern hand. But the fact that there are more Christians in China today than Communist Party members suggests that its popularity is seen as a significant threat.

Between 2007 and 2014 the number of Christians in the United States decreased eight percent, to 71 percent, a figure which has statisticians spinning. Catholics and Protestants each lost between three and five percent, and Evangelicals one percent. Older members represent a significant segment among the drop-outs, who are becoming more secular, according to Pew research. Jonathan Merritt of Religion News Servicehas an insightful essay on what this means for Evangelical Christians and their judgments.

Two-wheeled Vehicles Making Religious News

Fifty riders and their bicycles were sprinkled with holy water and blessed earlier this month at Trinity-St. Paul’s United Church in downtown Toronto. This is the sixth year they’ve observed the ritual. Officient Ann Russell said, “Celebrating riding bikes is a way to follow the commandment to tread lightly on the Earth.”

The interfaith community responded in force two days after 500 bikers paraded in front of Phoenix’s Islamic Community Center brandishing weapons, cartoons of Mohammed, and placards saying “Stop Islam.” Two days later Arizona’s interfaith community gathered in solidarity and community-building at the Center. Its president, Usama Shami, has been receiving messages of support from around the world. “What this shows is that these bigots are the exception,” Shami told  The Huffington Post. “This hate is the exception. A lot of people don’t have the same faith, but when it comes to the freedom to worship, the faith community as a whole stands shoulder to shoulder.”

In Berlin, where relations between Jews and Muslims have not been going well, Meet2Respect is sponsoring a number of symbolic interfaith events, including a tandem bicycle ride, with hundreds of Muslims and Jews sharing bicycles built for two, featuring a number of rabbis and imams.

Social Justice

The highlands of Papua New Guinea – Photo: Wikipdia

The highlands of Papua New Guinea – Photo: Wikipdia

A shout-out and prayer goes to Lutheran missionary Anton Lutz in Papua New Guinea for championing women’s safety where women are being accused of sorcery and publicly axed to death. Most recent “witchcraft” murders blame women from a particular family for causing sickness in a local village. In 2013 the government criminalized such behavior, promising capital punishment for perpetrators. But bringing justice to the dense landscape of Papua New Guinea, one of the poorest countries on the planet, is tough.

Iranian oppression against the Baha’i’ continues unabated. The constitution endorses various religions besides Islam, including Christianity and Judaism, but not the Baha’i’, and the systematic oppression is relentless and continuous year after year. If you want examples of really losing your religious freedom, being a Baha’i’ in Iran should be the first witness.

Interfaith activists across the U.S. are actively campaigning and lobbying for an end to solitary confinement in prisons, the fate of some 80,000, some of whom have been in 23-hour solitary confinement for years. Activists from a variety of faiths are connecting to end this cruel, inhumane, and useless practice.

An impoverished nation in western Africa ruled with “an iron fist” of Yahya Jammehsince 1994, Gambia has volunteered to solve Southeast Asia’s migration crisis by welcoming thousands of Rohingya people, Muslims from Miyanmar/Burma are starving at sea in boats they hoped would take them to freedom. Gambia has challenged the world to get the boat-people to Africa. The good news is complicated by the average income being $1.25 a day or less for more than a third of Gambia’s population. Another complication – boat-people from Gambia, hoping to reach Europe, having been dying in the Mediterranean this year. 

Good News Stories

A model of the he temple being built in Bihar – Photo: Wikipedia

A model of the he temple being built in Bihar – Photo: Wikipedia

Muslims in the Indian state of Bihar are contributing land to build the largest Hindu sanctuary complex in the world, including 17 temples with a main hall seating 20,000. It is not the first Muslim-Hindu collaboration in western India but is certainly an extraordinary, friendly interfaith contrast to the Muslim-Buddhist and Muslim-Communist struggles going on in Asia.

The dedication service of new Interfaith Prayer Garden in Atlanta, Georgia – Photo: Mercer

The dedication service of new Interfaith Prayer Garden in Atlanta, Georgia – Photo: Mercer

University On a corner of its Atlanta campus, Mercer University, a distinguished Baptist-founded institution in Atlanta, has given land for an Interfaith Prayer Garden, including a labyrinth, a place for Muslims to prayer, and room for classes and picnics. Christian, Jewish, and Muslim clergy participated in the dedication.

Other Interesting News

As part of this year’s celebration of Buddha’s birthday in South Korea, 300,000 gathered in central Seoul and chanted together for peace and reunification of the Koreas. Twenty-three percent of South Koreans self-identify as Buddhist, and in North Korea, where religious practice is allegedly free but effectively forbidden, most of the population has Buddhist roots.

President and Mrs. Obama worshipping at an African Methodist Episcopal church in Washington, DC – Photo: Wikipedia, Pete Souza

President and Mrs. Obama worshipping at an African Methodist Episcopal church in Washington, DC – Photo: Wikipedia, Pete Souza

Eight “traditionalist” churches in Fountain Hills, Arizona, have banded together to oppose the “progressive” Christianity of Fountain Hill Methodist Church, whom they have demonized. The real issue, it seems, is how popular the Methodists have become, and the opposition seems to have increased their attendance.

Some good advice. “Have the kid conversation early,” before you get married, counsels a millennial Evangelical-Muslim couple who did so and are enjoying a happy family life.

Last month President Obama joined a panel of Catholic and Evangelical leaders at a conference addressing poverty. Poverty is a subject that tends to repel politicians, so it is fascinating to hear a standing president, accused by his opponents of lacking any spiritual, ethical character, sit down with Catholics and conservative Protestants and speak so powerfully about faith and poverty. He said the country is “at a moment ... where it may be possible not only to refocus attention on the issue of poverty, but also maybe to bridge some of the gaps that have existed and the ideological divides that have prevented us from making progress.”

Muslims in the Indian state of Bihar are contributing land to build the largest Hindu sanctuary complex in the world, including 17 temples with a main hall seating 20,000. It is not the first Muslim-Hindu collaboration in western India but is certainly an extraordinary, friendly interfaith contrast to the Muslim-Buddhist and Muslim-Communist struggles going on in Asia.