July 2013

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


Egypt’s Religious Conflict Raises Questions
With Discontent over Egypt’s Islamist President, a More Skeptical Eye on Religion in Politics
Maggie Michael, The Associated Press, June 27, 2013

Demonstraters in Tahir Park, Cairo, November 2011 – Photo: WikipediaCairo – In a tiny mosque in southern Egypt, the cleric railed in his sermon against opponents of Islamist President Mohammed Morsi, comparing them to “the Devil, who rebelled against God and was kicked out of heaven.” Among the Muslim worshippers, a 42-year-old civil servant had enough.

Recounting the incident, Nasser Ahmed said he stood up and chanted, “Down with the rule of the Guide,” referring to the head of the Muslim Brotherhood, the conservative political powerhouse from which Morsi hails. Other worshippers in the el-Lawa Mosque joined the chanting. Some became so angry they rushed the cleric and tried to beat him up, Ahmed told The Associated Press.

The outburst during the Friday sermon earlier this month in the Luxor province village of Bouairat hasn’t been the only case of the faithful lashing out at preachers who stray into politics…

[Read More…]


Threats to Religious Freedom Increasing
New Report Finds that Arab Spring Adds to Global Restrictions on Religion
The Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, June 2013

Washington, D.C. — A new study by the Pew Research Center finds that the already high level of restrictions on religion in the Middle East and North Africa – whether resulting from government policies or from social hostilities – continued to increase in 2011, when most of the political uprisings known as the Arab Spring occurred. The findings run contrary to expectations expressed by many world leaders that the uprisings would lead to greater freedoms for the people of the region, including fewer restrictions on religious beliefs and practices.

Before the Arab Spring, government restrictions on religion and social hostilities involving religion were higher in the Middle East and North Africa than in any other region of the world. Government restrictions in the region remained high in 2011, while social hostilities markedly increased. For instance, the number of countries in the region experiencing sectarian or communal violence between religious groups doubled from five to 10.

The new study also finds that the Americas, Europe, sub-Saharan Africa and the Asia-Pacific region all had increases in overall restrictions on religion in 2011. Government restrictions declined slightly in Europe, but social hostilities increased. Asia and the Pacific had the sharpest increase in government restrictions, though the level of social hostilities remained roughly the same. By contrast, social hostilities edged up in sub-Saharan Africa, but government restrictions stayed about the same. Both government restrictions and social hostilities increased slightly in the Americas…

[Read More…]


URI Launches Interactive Anti-hate Effort
Global Interfaith Group has New Anti-hate Campaign
JoAnne Viviano, The Columbus Dispatch, June 28, 2013

The United Religions Initiative has undertaken a new Talking Back to Hate campaign that uses stories of courage in an effort to educate about and prevent hate speech, bullying and discrimination.

The global interfaith network seeks to respond to hateful speech and hostility with “positive dialogue and proactive, cooperative action,” said Debra Bernstein, associate executive director of the Initiative.

“Hate speech directed toward immigrants, religious, ethnic and other minorities has become so widespread, it’s become institutionalized,” she said in a news release announcing the campaign. “Bus and billboard ads, talk radio, and the insidious forms of hate speech on the Internet fuel prejudice and increasingly harmful actions,” she said.

The campaign’s website is posting stories of people who turned encounters with hate speech, bullying or discrimination into something positive…

[Read More…]


Weaning the World Away from Coal and Oil
More Churches Calling for Divestment from Fossil Fuel
Lisa Wangsness, Globe, June 30, 2013

An oil well in the Gulf of Mexico – Photo: Wikimedia]A growing number of mainline Protestant churches in New England are calling upon their denominations to divest from fossil fuel companies in an effort to cast unlimited coal, oil, and gas production as immoral as well as environmentally unsustainable.

The churches’ assets, usually congregational endowments or staff pension funds, are a minuscule share of the titanic fossil fuel industry. But proponents say religious divestment could underscore the damage greenhouse gas emissions are wreaking on the planet and make it socially toxic for the companies to continue business as usual.

“If ever there has been a David and Goliath situation, this is it,” said the Rev. Jim Antal, minister and president of the Massachusetts Conference of the United Church of Christ, whose board of directors voted last December to divest its assets from fossil fuel companies within five years, becoming the first religious body in the United States to do so.

But Antal said he believes that in this case, as in the biblical story, David will prevail…

[Read More…]


Kenyan Interreligious Collaboration Taking on Alcohol and Drug Abuse
Kenya’s Christians and Muslims Unite to Combat Addiction
Fredrick Nzwili, Religion News Service, July 3, 2013

Nairobi’s skyline – Photo: WikimediaNairobi, Kenya Fractious religious groups in this East African nation are uniting to tackle alcohol and drug abuse, amid concerns the substances could wipe out a cross section of the younger generation.

From Sunday schools to Islamic madrassas, the groups are providing preventative education, public awareness and life skills training. Some also offer addicts rehabilitation and psychosocial support.

The drugs of choice are mostly alcohol, heroin, cocaine, as well as the milder bhang (marijuana) and khat.

As Kenya’s economy has grown, the misuse has reached crisis level in cities and villages, prompting religious leaders to declare a national disaster.

In Central Kenya women have staged protests and destroyed local breweries, blaming increasing marriage breakups on alcohol and drug abuse.

“We have been taking a leading role for some time, since the community and the government have been in denial,” said the Rev. Wilfred Kogo, head of the Presbyterian Church of East Africa’s drug abuse division. “We are going beyond our own congregations to also educate our neighbors.”

Leaders say Kenyans are turning to drugs because of poverty, unemployment, ignorance and foreign influences. Advertisements that praise alcohol consumption may also be contributing to the epidemic…

[Read More…]


Tragic Religious News from Myanmar
Massacre of Muslims in Myanmar Ignored
Todd Pitman, Huffington Post, July 6, 2013

Meikhtila, Myanmar – Their bones are scattered in blackened patches of earth across a hillside overlooking the wrecked Islamic boarding school they once called home.

Smashed fragments of skulls rest atop the dirt. A shattered jaw cradles half a set of teeth. And among the remains lie the sharpened bamboo staves attackers used to beat dozens of people to the ground before drowning their still-twitching bodies in gasoline and burning them alive.

The mobs that March morning were Buddhists enraged by the killing of a monk. The victims were Muslims who had nothing to do with it – students and teachers from a prestigious Islamic school in central Myanmar who were so close to being saved.

In the last hours of their lives, police had been dispatched to rescue them from a burning compound surrounded by swarms of angry men. And when they emerged cowering, hands atop their heads, they only had to make it to four police trucks waiting on the road above.

It wasn’t far to go – just one hill.

What happened on the way is the story of one of Myanmar’s darkest days since this Southeast Asian country’s post-junta leaders promised the dawn of a new, democratic era two years ago – a day on which 36 Muslims, most teenagers, were slaughtered before the eyes of police and local officials who did almost nothing to stop it…

[Read More…]

More tragic news is accumulating from Myanmar, once known as Burma. Read The Hindu’s story of Buddhist monks acting to forbid interfaith marriage and the Religion Dispatches’ story about banning Time magazine because of its cover article on Wiratu, the “terrorist monk.”

Syrian Christian and Shiite Shrines Resisting Sunni Aggression
Two Syria Shrine Towns: Worlds Apart Yet United in Battle
The Convent of Our Lady of Sednaya – Photo: WikipediaPatrick J. McDonnell, Los Angeles Times, June 29, 2013

Sednaya is Christian and Sayyida Zainab is Shiite Muslim, both famous for their shrines.
And both say they face constant threat from Sunni rebels hoping to evict or kill them.

Sednaya, Syria — This prosperous hillside town north of Damascus appears a universe away from another capital suburb, Sayyida Zainab, a cluttered, frenzied urban patch off the road to the international airport.

Sednaya is a Christian mountain bastion ringed by monasteries; Sayyida Zainab is a lowland Shiite Muslim island in the midst of a largely Sunni Muslim nation.

But, in war-ravaged Syria, the two are in a similar position: Both are renowned shrine towns whose residents say they live under constant threat of attack — even annihilation — by Islamist Sunni rebels active in the outskirts of each locale.

And both are fighting back… 

[For More…]

For more news about the religious difficulties facing war-torn Syrians, see the June 25, 2013 testimony, Religious Minorities in Syria: Caught in the Middle, by Dr. M. Zuhdi Jasser, Commissioner on the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF). His report was to House Subcommittees on Africa, Global Human Rights, and International Organizations and the Middle East and North Africa.

Congregations Commit to Weekly Civil Disobedience in North Carolina
UCC Ministers, Members in North Carolina Join Moral Monday Protest
Anthony Moujaes, United Church of Christ, June 19, 2013 

UCC ministers outside North Carolina’s statehouse. – Photo: UCCDozens in the United Church of Christ faith communities in North Carolina are making a weekly pilgrimage to Raleigh, willing to be handcuffed as they advocate for change – and speak out against the state legislature. UCC ministers and members alike have been active participants in “Moral Mondays,” acts of civil disobedience from North Carolinians in response to a slew of proposed policies – from the state budget to education to voting rights – from a state legislature that they claim isn’t representing the public interest.

Almost 500 people have been arrested over the course of seven weeks, including 84 on Monday, June 17.

United Church of Chapel Hill pastor the Rev. Jill Edens, the Rev. Susan Steinberg, and congregation members Dave Otto and Kira Frescoln were among those handcuffed and taken to jail Monday as they rallied inside the statehouse. The congregation has been sending about 25 people each week to participate in the protests, which started on April 29...

[Read More…]


Intentional Interfaith Congregation Established
A Religion That Embraces All Religions
Samuel G. Freedman, New York Times, July 12, 2013

Rev. Steven Greenebaum Lynnwood, Wash. — Clad in proper Pacific Northwest flannel, toting a flask of “rocket fuel” coffee typical of Starbucks’ home turf, Steven Greenebaum rolled his Prius into a middle school parking lot one Sunday morning last month. Then he set about transforming its cafeteria into a sanctuary and himself into a minister.

He donned vestments adorned with the symbols of nearly a dozen religions. He unfolded a portable bookshelf and set the Koran beside the Hebrew Bible, with both of them nearby two volumes of the “Humanist Manifesto” and the Sioux wisdom of “Black Elk Speaks.” Candles, stones, bells, and flowers adorned the improvised altar.

Some of the congregants began arriving to help. There was Steve Crawford, who had spent his youth in Campus Crusade for Christ, and Gloria Parker, raised Lutheran and married to a Catholic, and Patrick McKenna, who had been brought up as a Jehovah’s Witness and now called himself a pagan…

[Read More…]


Astounding Results from ‘Sponsor a Child’ Research
Want to Change the World? Sponsor a Child
Bruce Wydick, Christianity Today, June 14, 2013

An orphan in Senegal – Photo: WikipediaWhat can an ordinary person like me do to help the poor?” When people find out at parties and social gatherings that I am a development economist (and yes, we economists do attend such events), often they ask me this question. For a long time my response was the same: “Perhaps sponsor a child?”

I suppose I gave this answer because I myself sponsored a child, and if I was supposed to know something about helping the poor, I should encourage people to do what I was doing. After all, child sponsorship makes sense: By focusing on youth instead of adults, it aims to nip poverty in the bud, providing children in the developing world access to education, health services, and, in some programs, spiritual guidance. But over time my autopilot response started to annoy me. The truth was that I hadn’t the slightest clue about the effect child-sponsorship programs had on children.

Dissatisfaction with my pat answer began to inform conversations with my graduate students. “Have you considered researching the impact of child sponsorship?” I would ask. One student was interested, and she followed the topic long enough to find out that no one had ever investigated the topic, despite 9 million children sponsored worldwide, and the more than $5 billion per year being channeled into sponsorship programs from ordinary people wanting to help… 

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