Interfaith News Roundup - November 2015

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

Interfaith Refugee Issues

“Braving masked ‘commandos,’ razor-sharp border fences and baton-wielding riot police, hundreds of thousands of refugees are fleeing war and misery by flocking to Western Europe in the largest mass movement of people since World War II. The World Post’s Sophia Jones and Syrian-American journalist Hiba Dlewati traveled with refugees – mostly Syrians – for three weeks in August as they made their way from Turkey through Greece, Macedonia, Serbia, Hungary, Austria and Germany. What they found was a modern-day underground railroad of sorts, made up of dedicated people defying the inaction of their governments by lending a helping hand to the men, women and children risking death for a better tomorrow. Here are the stories of a people in exodus – and those who guide them to safety.”

Migrants being stopped at the Greek–Macedonian border near Gevgelija by the Macedonian Police, 24 August 2015. Photo: Wikiped

Migrants being stopped at the Greek–Macedonian border near Gevgelija by the Macedonian Police, 24 August 2015. Photo: Wikiped

So begins a riveting series of stories about refugee life today.

The thousands living cheek-by-jowl in the refugee slum in Calais, France hope to get over barbed wire, through the Chunnel and into the UK. They come from dozens of countries and a host of religious traditions, many of which were in conflict ‘back home.’ For these refugees, an uneasy pluralism means that Sunni and Shia, Pentacostal and Orthodox, and many more communities can worship without fear in this remarkably resilient, muddy migrant camp without electricity, clean water, or sanitation. Go here for a six-minute video tour.

The Evangelical Church of the Rhineland, part of Germany’s small Protestant population, has taken a stand against converting Muslims, causing a huge ruckus in the Christian community: “A strategic mission to Islam or meeting Muslims to convert them threatens social peace and contradicts the spirit and mandate of Jesus Christ and is therefore to be firmly rejected.” The Rhineland’s stand against proselytizing has been strongly criticized by other Evangelical bodies. Between 800,000 and a million refugees, mostly Muslim, are expected to arrive this year in Germany, a welcome that is rumbling Angela Merkel’s government and most of Europe.

Faith and Interfaith Institutional Challenges

The flag of the Vatican City State – Photo: Wikipedia

The flag of the Vatican City State – Photo: Wikipedia

Religion Dispatches’ Patricia Miller makes a strong case that “Conservatives have officially become the Catholic Church’s Tea Party,” writing in the wake of the synod of cardinals and bishops gathered at the Vatican to discuss family matters last month. She quotes Thomas Reese in the National Catholic Reporter:

“Never in my lifetime have I heard of bishops and cardinals being so disrespectful of a pope, challenging his organization of this synod, even a few referring to him as a Protestant and threatening a fractured church if he goes against their wishes.”

Peter Montgomery gathers analysis of the Vatican’s ‘family’ summit from the New York Times, the Washington Post, and elsewhere, all of it evidence that the theological divide in Catholicism is considerable. Pope Francis’ huge popularity notwithstanding, his conservative bishops have made his quest to open the doors of the Church particularly difficult.

It is estimated that a third of Japan’s 77,000 Buddhist temples will close over the next 25 years. As citizens move from country-side to the city, and as established religion looses it influence, fewer and fewer sanctuaries can pay their bills. More than 12,000 temples do not have a resident priest these days.

Professor Mark Juergensmeyer – Photo:

Professor Mark Juergensmeyer – Photo:

Scheduled as a featured speaker, Professor Mark Juergensmeyer, a TIO contributor, dropped out of a distinguished Law and Religion symposium at BYU (Brigham Young University), when he learned that the university expels Mormon students who give up Mormonism and/or convert to another faith during their education. Juergensmeyer, a distinguished professor known for his work on religious freedom, said the lack of religious freedom at BYU regrettably left him no choice but to drop out. And after improving relations with the LGBTQ community in recent month, Mormon leaders are facing considerable blowback from the public and their own community, liberal and conservative, by the decision not to bless or baptize the children of same-sex couples.

The Reconstructionist Rabbinical College in Atlanta has made the decision to accept seminarians who are married to non-Jews, a significant break from tradition. Rabbi Malka Packer notes, “In Atlanta, I’ve met with many Jews with partners from other backgrounds. They are searching for Jewish community, meaningful experiences and deep connection. Many of these couples have felt rejection from Jewish leaders, their families and members of the Jewish community.” She calls for a more inclusive attitude, a win for interfaith families. On the other hand, the move has created considerable controversy.

Of concern to all religious traditions: “Millennials aren't going to the chapel when they get married” reports Yahoo News, noting that only 39 percent of young adults are getting married in a sanctuary or officiated by clergy. Both interfaith relationships and the growing number of ‘not affiliated’ are cited as influences in this development.

The saddest story of the month is institutional, though it represents a step forward; the World Health Organization is calling for an end to chaining mentally ill patients to trees or cement blocks, close to a worship area, where the sole treatment is prayer. The gruesome habit is used in countries too poor to provide health care.

Good News

Last month an interfaith summit in Chesapeake Bay on the U.S.’s Eastern seaboard brought together 90 government officials, faith leaders, and environmental activists to shine attention on the sacred nature of water and the importance of preserving rather than destroying it. This kind of cross-sector collaboration is the kind of grassroots work the global struggle against human-induced climate change will require in coming years.

Belgium is releasing an interfaith stamp that features photos of the country’s chief rabbi Albert Guigui, Imam Khalid Benhaddou from the Belgian port city of Ghent and the Bishop of Antwerp Johan Bonny. Rabbi Guigui said “A stamp, which is something used in such a widespread manner, can get the message out to all people. What is needed is to bring the interfaith cooperation and dialogue down from the level of the religious leaders to that of the everyday people.”

Omar Ali, an imam, and Zac Parsons, a non-Christian in Evansville, Indiana are making anti-extremist videos designed to go viral. Already thousands have seen their work and the contributions are adding up. Understanding why kids are attracted to extremist propaganda isn’t good enough, they say. You have to tell the story in ways that are compelling. A dozen have joined their team, and they’ve produced 20 videos to date.

The Council on Foreign Relations has posted an illuminating interview of Shaykh Abdallah bin Bayyah by William Vendley, secretary general of Religions for Peace International. The Shaykh is a distinguished Muslim philosopher and president of the Forum for Promoting Peace in Muslim Societies, and Shaykh Hamsa Yusef, a pioneer of Muslim higher education in the U.S., served as translator. Titles aside, this is must-reading for anyone who wants to drill down into the complex issues of religious extremism, peacemaking, and the world today. A video of the program is embedded to the right.

Coordinated hate-group protests planned at 20 mosques across the country last month evoked considerable concern. But faith and interfaith groups jumped on the news, organized, stood with their Muslim brothers and sisters across the country, and the protests fizzled.

Government policies in India, a non-sectarian country constitutionally, are promoting tensions between Hindus and minority religious traditions, including Muslims and Christians. This in turn has inspired the creation of interfaith hotlines across the country, social media bridge-building, and a resurgence of interfaith dialogue, particularly in universities.

Diana Butler Bass, in a Washington Post review of Oprah Winfrey’s new religious television series, writes that “‘Belief’ is not a standard world religions course that teaches the great global faiths by focusing on religious leaders, institutions, dogma or customary religious practices and rituals. Instead, the show delves into the territory of spiritual experience by telling the stories of people within various religious communities, presenting contemporary religion from the perspective of on-the-ground faith.” Catch it on the OWN channel.