Interfaith News Roundup

The Month’s Best Stories

The grassroots interfaith movement has been waiting since forever for mainstream media to pay attention to it. “Attention” is finally offered by Antonia Blumberg, whose “The Ever-Growing Religious Movement that Doesn’t Get Enough Attention” was published a week ago by Huffington Post Religion: “… the last 100 years reveal a growing interfaith movement in America – one that promotes peaceful and productive interactions between religious traditions,” she writes, and has been largely ignored. See how many of the organizations she surveys are in your mental rolodex.

An Algerian woman pictured in a 1917 issue of National Geographic Magazine. – Photo: WikipediaThe National Geographic Magazine may not be where you go for interfaith stories, but check out Simon Worrall’s illuminating essay on religious minorities in the Middle East, their history and the serious threats they face. NG’s photos are as compelling as the story. Learn about the Druze, Manichaens, Mindeans, Yazidi, Zoroastrians, and more, and about the chilling realities they face today. Did you know that the Samaritans, familiar to New Testament readers, are a living, breathing community today?

The Reason You Can't Always Hear the Moderate Muslim Voices” goes beyond blaming the media for ignoring voices of moderation. Atia Abawi details the strong relationships the U.S. has developed with wealthy Arab nations that provide us oil while promoting violent, extremist curricula for Muslim children around the world. “Islam today is being cannibalized by cancerous strains of fundamentalist religious ideologies that are promoted by wealthy and powerful Middle Eastern countries extinguishing moderate hopes in the Muslim world. … Many of these countries are considered American and Western allies.”

Jack Miles, editor of the new Norton Anthology of World Religions, takes on the barbarism of ISIS with a measured voice and the historical perspective that has been so absent in the media’s response to date. You want to understand the hatred between Shia and Sunni? Consider the atrocities in the wars between Protestants and Catholics in Europe, and how they finally ended.

Finally, Elizabeth Shakman Hurd has written a stunning broadside opposing this month’s launch of “an international coalition to combat religious persecution and protect religious freedom.” Agree with her or not, Hurd’s comparison of the “international religious freedom lobby” and ISIS will catch your breath and probably force you to rethink some basic assumptions.

Religious Institutions Struggling in the West, Growing in Communist Countries

A new poll suggests that a majority of Britons believe religion does more harm than good. Eight percent self-identify as very religious, with a whopping 60 percent identifying as not religious at all, up from three percent five decades ago. And more young people (30 percent) think there is value in religion than do those between 55 and 64 (19 percent).

Distinguished religion pollster Robert Jones notes that evangelical churches in America are suffering the same decline that mainline Christian traditions experienced in the 80s and 90s: “Since 2007, the number of white evangelical Protestants nationwide has slipped from 22 percent in 2007 to 18 percent today.” In the process, he suggests, support of the GOP in the south may diminish starting with the 2016 elections.

American Roman Catholics have similar problems. Pew Research reports that while the tradition in the U.S. has grown (mostly due to immigrant congregants), Catholic parishes are being closed. And only about 12 percent of Catholics regularly attend Sunday Mass. The New York Archdiocese is shuttering a third of its churches.

The Cathedral of Havana, in Cuba, was dedicated in 1777. – Photo: WikipediaBut in Communist countries? The Cuban government has sanctioned construction of the first new Roman Catholic sanctuary to be built in Cuba in 55 years. In China, both Buddhism and Christianity are surging (Pew Research estimates there are 67 million Christians in China), and the number of secret Christians in the Communist Party may signal a new tolerance. But don’t hold your breath – China’s repression of Buddhists, Christians, and Muslims is an ongoing saga; this past month the oppression of Christians in Zhejiang Province continued apace.

Hard-to-Believe Stories

It is tempting to leave out the nightmarish ‘religious’ stories, but white-washing the world does no favor to justice. The most tragic single story was of the Pakistani Christian couple accused of burning pages of the Quran in the kiln where they worked, being attacked by an enraged mob, tortured, and burned to death in the same kiln.

A village in the Central African Republic – Photo:WikipediaNew York Times blogger Jake Flanagan powerfully, poignantly details how the ongoing violence and terror throughout the Central African Republic has been drowned out by ISIS, Ebola, Boko Haram, and the weekly news cycle, which has left it behind. Out of sight, out of mind.

A different kind of violence, still disturbing, recently surfaced in Washington D.C. where protestors with bullhorns invaded several Catholic congregations during worship, shouting anti-Catholic slogans and handing out “fundamentalist” Christian tracts. Nor has His Holiness the Dalai Lama escaped. A rogue Buddhist sect, working in conjunction with Tibet’s Chinese authorities and condemning all Dalai Lamas for the past 500 years, have been shouting their protests outside of events featuring the current Dalai Lama. Distinguished Buddhist teacher Robert Thurman exposes the campaign as a politically inspired fraud.

Dogs have never been popular in Islam, and some sects consider them unclean and forbid touching them. But in Kuala Lampur, Malaysia, a predominantly Muslim nation, Syed Azmi Alhabshi loves dogs and decided to do something about it. He invited people to come to a park on a Sunday last month to learn to overcome their distaste for the animals and actually pet them. A thousand attended! But an immediate backlash evoked death threats as condemnations flooded the blogosphere. In quick response, “the federal government here issued a religious edict that deemed the touching of dogs went against mainstream Islamic doctrine.”

The upside? Social media is providing a platform for hundreds to defend Alhabshi’s project and to call for a more moderate, tolerant approach to religion. And this, just in: in neighboring Indonesia, the largest majority Muslim country in the world, announced new legislation protecting the religious freedom of all, and not just the six religions officially recognized till now.

Good News about Religious Freedom

Be thankful for the little achievements. An incarcerated atheist sued the Federal Bureau of Prisons for forbidding him to start a humanist discussion group, and the U.S. Federal Court agreed with him, citing equal protection of rights.

The Field Museum in Chicago has mounted a major exhibition, “Vodou: Sacred Powers of Haiti,” that undercuts the false, sensational allure of Hollywood-inspired “voodoo.” Field curator Alaka Wali says the exhibit “goes beyond the usual stereotypes to bring us into a wonderful and deep world of spiritual beliefs and ritual practices created and maintained by the Haitians during times of hardship and suffering brought on by enslavement and its consequences.” Antonia Blumberg reviews the exhibit in Huffington Post Religion.

On November 17-19, Pope Francis will preside over an international conference on the traditional family. Thirty speakers will “examine and propose anew the beauty of the relationship between the man and the woman, in order to support and reinvigorate marriage and family life.” In a first for such an event, it will be ecumenical and interreligious. Just as refreshing, it represents a tactical sea change in the cultural wars surrounding marriage and sexuality; that is, participants will be sharing what they most value rather than attacking those with a broader understanding of ‘traditional families.’ Regarding failed marriages, Pope Francis has also forbidden charging exorbitant fees to couples seeking annulments, calling it a “public scandal” and dismissing a church official known for doing so.

This story could fit into our hard-to-believe category. Instead, read it as heroic activity by a spiritually motivated volunteer. The background: in the past two years, more than 30 cities have passed measures restricting feeding poor people. Late last month Fort Lauderdale, Florida, passed a law forbidding giving free food in public places. Arnold Abbott, 90, World War II vet, civil rights activist, and a man of deep faith, disregarded the new law on Sunday, November 2, and was cited by the police, subject to 60 days in jail and a $500 fine. He went back out three days later, as he has for two decades, distributing food on a beach this time, with two pastors, and was cited again. Meanwhile, Chief Arnold, as his fans call him, is suing the city and deserves an award.

C. Welton Gaddy – Photo: Interfaith AllianceC. Welton Gaddy spent 15 years as a Southern Baptist Convention executive before the “fundamentalist takeover” of the tradition. He went on to become the unlikely champion of “interfaith activism and the separation of church and state.” Since 1998 he has been the president of the Interfaith Alliance, which calls itself “the only national interfaith organization dedicated to protecting the integrity of both religion and democracy in America.” Gaddy, a pioneering champion of religious freedom, is retiring. Max Perry Mueller interviews him in an article that surveys his remarkable career and commitment to interfaith relations and religious freedom.

Finally, for a pure feel-good story, read about the Jewish “guardians” who scour some of the tougher neighborhoods of London at night on motorcycles fighting crime, in particular protecting Muslims who live there and are sometimes subject to abuse.