Interfaith News Roundup - May 2014

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

Religious Information Just Got a Lot More Detailed

ARDA Resources Offer Religion Data that Tell the Full Story

Religion News Service, May 7, 2014

What do Americans really think about issues such as evolution, abortion and the mix of religion and politics?

The answers can be difficult to discern and report amid the plethora of survey results that seem to come to contradictory conclusions, particularly when framed by policy advocates on all sides seeking to claim a national mandate for their position.

Fortunately, journalists, scholars, and the general public have a new tool to determine what trends are emerging as a national consensus on controversial topics in religion, and which findings may be the results of loaded questions or a lack of context.

The Measurement Wizard provided by the Association of Religion Data Archives allows users to browse available ARDA data from some 7,700 questions asked in more than 750 major national and international surveys to see for themselves the major findings on hot-topic issues in religion and public life.

The new resource allowing individuals to quickly compare and analyze survey findings on 114 topics in the news is but one of many ways ARDA allows users to provide in-depth reporting with deadline access to the best national and international data on religion…

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Medieval Punishments on the Docket in Brunei

Brunei First East Asian Country to Adopt Sharia Law which will See Alcohol Punished by Whipping and Adulterers Stoned to Death

Tara Brady, Daily Mail (UK), April 30, 2014

Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah – Photo: Wikipedia

Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah – Photo: Wikipedia

Brunei is to become the first East Asian country to adopt Sharia law despite international criticism.

Sharia punishments will include severing of limbs for theft and death by stoning for adulterers and will be introduced over a period of three years. 

The tiny state on the island of Borneo is ruled by Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah and relies on oil and gas exports for its prosperity.

Almost three-quarters of those who live in Brunei are Malay Muslims, but there are also Buddhist and Christian communities. 

The move was announced by the 67-year-old sultan. He said: “Today I place my faith in and am grateful to Allah the almighty to announce that tomorrow, Thursday, May 1, 2014 will see the enforcement of Sharia law phase one, to be followed by the other phases.”

From tomorrow people will face conviction by Islamic courts and fines or jail terms for offences like pregnancy outside marriage, failure to perform Friday prayers and propagating other religions.

A second phase comes into effect 12 months later covering offences for theft and alcohol consumption by Muslims, punishable by whipping and amputations…

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200 Girls Still Missing

Nigeria’s Religious War

Anthea Butler, Religion Dispatches, April 14, 2014

Women take to the streets in Nigeria to protest Boko Haram’s violence against children – Photo: Religion Dispatches

Women take to the streets in Nigeria to protest Boko Haram’s violence against children – Photo: Religion Dispatches

The pentecostal prosperity gospel that pervades Christian Nigeria is tested by a terrorist attack on a school, and the kidnapping of its students.

In a nightmarish act of violence, Islamist insurgents, members of Boko Haram, forcibly kidnapped 240 girls in the middle of the night on April 14th, burning their school. While a few girls escaped, 200 or so are still missing.

The name “Boko Haram” translates to “western education is a sin,” and the kidnapping of these young girls is a way to put the fine point on what the group detests: education. The kidnapping is also a way to let their enemies know what they want: an Islamic state in Nigeria.

While President Goodluck Jonathan and others have said the struggle with Boko Haram is not a religious war, as the terrorist group targets Christians as well as Muslims, it is impossible to deny the role of religion in the conflict. The fate of these young women who have been kidnapped, and the fact that the government has not been effective in rooting out Boko Haram, lies in religious understandings, and an ineffectual president resting on his Christian laurels.

President Goodluck Jonathan, a pentecostal, has held prayer meetings, called for councils, but remains remarkably silent on the kidnapping…

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Google “Nigeria, Boko Haram” to follow the stream of stories which have followed since this tragic report a month ago. Ed.

When Children Suffer from Being a Religious Minority

Education for the Voiceless: India’s Muslim Students Still Ignored and Underserved

Brianna Sacks, Huffington Post, May 2, 2014

Photo: Huffington Post

Photo: Huffington Post

MUMBAI, INDIA-- The bell rings, and nearly 700 Muslim students pour from Anjuman-I-Islam school’s worn, stone buildings onto a dusty quad. Their plain, blue-and-white, government-sponsored uniforms mask the reality that 97 percent of these secondary school students come from ghettos, slums and illiterate families. Despite the energetic chatter and overflowing classrooms, most of these students’ education will stop before they turn 15.

Muslims make up almost 14 percent of India’s vast population, yet remain the country’s most disadvantaged minority and religious group. They rank lowest in literacy, more live in slums than any other group and less than 1 percent hold public sector and government jobs.

“The separatism of Muslims gives them a lack of choice that makes them stay together in concentrated ghettos where there are not many state-sponsored schools,” explained Irfan Engineer, director of the Center for Study of Society and Secularism. “Muslims just aren’t in schools, comparatively.”

Statistics paint a dim picture, predicting that like most Muslims students in India, 40 percent of Anjuman’s students won’t make it past grade nine, the highest drop out rate of all religious and minority groups in India…

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Chinese Churches being Demolished

Wenzhou: Authorities Begin to Tear Down Sanjiang Church

Asia News, April 29, 2014

Church members protest government plans to demolish their new sanctuary. – Photo: Asia News

Church members protest government plans to demolish their new sanctuary. – Photo: Asia News

WENZHOU, CHINA – After a month of peaceful protests, Wenzhou authorities this morning began tearing down an official Protestant Sanjiang Church, which is registered with the Three Self Patriotic Movement.

Church members and clergy accuse the government of having infiltrated the church, which has been occupied since the end of March 2014 with phoney Christians to destroy the microphones placed inside the building to keep a record of every activity.

The church is currently surrounded by police officers, who are not allowing anyone to come near.

Ten other churches in Zhejiang province received demolition orders in what seems to be a campaign to undermine the local Christian community.

“I saw three or four excavators out front, demolishing the church, and three or four out back, demolishing the annex building. I also saw a small excavator going inside the church doing demolition work inside,” said one anonymous eyewitness who claimed there were around 100 police around the church, making it impossible to get near…

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More from Wenzhou

China Denies Declaring War on Christians after Mega-Church is Razed

Tom Phillips, The Telegraph (UK), April 29, 2014

The Sanjiang church in Wenzhou, a wealthy coastal city in Zhejiang province, with one of China’s largest Christian populations, was reduced to rubble. – Photo: The Telegraph

The Sanjiang church in Wenzhou, a wealthy coastal city in Zhejiang province, with one of China’s largest Christian populations, was reduced to rubble. – Photo: The Telegraph

SHANGHAI – Communist Party officials have rejected claims they have launched an orchestrated campaign to slow the spread of Christianity in China, after demolition teams razed a church in a city known as the “Jerusalem of the East.”

The Sanjiang church in Wenzhou, a wealthy coastal city in Zhejiang province with one of China’s largest Christian populations, was reduced to rubble on Monday night after excavators spent the day tearing parts of the building down.

Congregants accused the provincial government, which is controlled by Xia Baolong, an ally of Xi Jinping, the Chinese president, of promoting an orchestrated anti-church campaign in order to slow Christianity’s rapid growth.

China could be set to become the world’s largest Christian congregation by 2030, a leading expert told The Telegraph earlier this month.

Officials denied the demolition was an attack on Christianity on Tuesday and vowed to “aggressively push on” with a campaign against illegal buildings…

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Egyptian Politics Strong-arm Egyptian Religion

Egypt’s ‘Secular’ Gov Uses Religion as Tool of Repression

Mohamad Elmasry, Religion Dispatches, April 28, 2014

MINYA, Egypt — An Egyptian court here on Monday sentenced to death the spiritual leader of the Muslim Brotherhood and more than 680 other people after a swift mass trial on charges of inciting or committing acts of violence that led to the destruction of a police station and the killing of an officer. – New York Times, April 28, 2014

Supreme Constitutional Court of Egypt – Photo: Wikipedia

Supreme Constitutional Court of Egypt – Photo: Wikipedia

Egypt’s military-backed government has followed a pattern established by a long line of Egyptian political leaders who have exhibited public religiosity and presented themselves as men of God. Notably, the recently ratified constitution — drafted by a group of fifty people hand-selected by the nation’s military-installed president – did not do away with an article dictating Islam as the official religion of the state and Islamic Shari’ah as the primary source of legislation.

Three factors make the current Egyptian regime’s use of religion significant, however. First, the regime took power in a cataclysmic event apparently aimed at saving the country from a group, the Muslim Brotherhood, allegedly bent on exploiting religion for political gain; second, the post-coup government has suggested that secularism is a safer political path, as evidenced by its decision to ban religious parties; and third (and arguably most importantly) the regime has employed religion to justify a host of repressive policies…

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Buddhists’ Militancy Festering in Asia

Nirvanaless: Asian Buddhism’s Growing Fundamentalist Streak

Anuradha Sharma and Vishal Arora, Religion News Service, May 1, 2014

The Buddha surrounded by demons. (India) – Photo: Wikipedia

The Buddha surrounded by demons. (India) – Photo: Wikipedia

BANGKOK — To many Americans, Buddhism is about attaining enlightenment, maybe even nirvana, through such peaceful methods as meditation and yoga.

But in some parts of Asia, a more assertive, strident and militant Buddhism is emerging. In three countries where Buddhism is the majority faith, a form of religious nationalism has taken hold:

  • In Sri Lanka, where about 70 percent of the population is Theravada Buddhist, a group of monks formed the Bodu Bala Sena or the Buddhist Power Force in 2012 to “protect” the country’s Buddhist culture. The force, nicknamed BBS, carried out at least 241 attacks against Muslims and61 attacks against Christians in 2013, according to the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress.
  • In Myanmar, at least 300 Rohingya Muslims, whose ancestors were migrants from Bangladesh, have been killed and up to 300,000 displaced, according to Genocide Watch. Ashin Wirathu, a monk who describes himself as the Burmese “bin Laden,” is encouraging the violence by viewing the Rohingya presence as a Muslim “invasion.”
  • And in Buddhist-majority Thailand, at least 5,000 people have died in Muslim-Buddhist violence in the country’s south. The country’s Knowing Buddha Foundation is not a violent group, but it advocates for a blasphemy law to punish anyone who offends the faith. It wants Buddhism declared the state religion and portrays popular culture as a threat to believers.

Though fundamentalism is a term that has thus far been used mostly in relation to Christianity, Islam and Hinduism, some are beginning to use it to describe Buddhists as well…

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Pushback in Myanmar Over Interfaith Restrictions

Nearly 100 Myanmar Groups Slam Move to Restrict Interfaith Marriages

Rachel Vandenbrink, Radio Free Asia, May 6, 2014

Ninety-seven Myanmar civil society organizations have condemned the drafting of legislation restricting interfaith marriages they say harms women’s rights and ethnic unity, but a monk who spearheaded calls for the measure defended it as necessary to protect Buddhist women. 

The proposed Interfaith Marriage Act, expected to be completed this month, would require Buddhist women to seek permission from their parents and the authorities before marrying outside their faith. 

The civil society groups, including prominent women’s rights and ethnic rights organizations, issued a statement Monday saying that the drafting of the bill to restrict interfaith marriages “invites international ridicule” for its violation of women’s inherent rights to freedom of choice. 

Calls for the legislation, which a coalition of influential Buddhist monks have lobbied for since last year, were “based on discriminatory beliefs” and “not in accordance with the objectives of the peaceful coexistence of all faiths and the prevention of extreme violence and conflict,” they said. 

“The drafting of the Interfaith Marriage Act for the reason of preserving race, religion, culture, and traditions does not respect and acknowledge the reasoning abilities of Myanmar Buddhist women to think rationally and make decisions, and instead restricts and obstructs their freedom of choice to make decisions on issues directly concerned with their lives.” …

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England’s Religious Identity Debated

Cameron’s ‘Christian Country’: What the Numbers Say about Religion in the United Kingdom

Michael Lipka, Pew Research Center, April 24, 2014

The United Kingdom “should be more confident about [its] status as a Christian country,” Prime Minister David Cameron wrote in a recent opinion piece published before Easter.

His statement has since drawn strong opposition, including a letter to a British newspaper from a group of more than 50 scientists, writers and others. Cameron’s comments “foster alienation and division,” the letter says, asserting that they are also not true. “Surveys, polls and studies show that most of us as individuals are not Christian in our beliefs or our religious identities.”

Both may be correct, depending on the data source. By one definition, England, at least, is a Christian nation: The Church of England is the official state church of England. Looking at the religious affiliation of the population, however, a more complex picture emerges.

There are different ways to measure the U.K.’s religious makeup. A majority of the population identifies as Christian, according to 2011 census results. But some surveys, including the 2012 British Social Attitudes survey (which uses different question wording), find a lower level of affiliation with Christianity…

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U.S. Army Recognizes ‘Humanists’

Army Recognizes ‘Humanism’ As Distinct Religion

Jeremy Bender, Business Insider, April 23, 2014

Members of the U.S. Army can now proudly and officially list their religion as “Humanist,” after years of not being able to do so, according to the ACLU.

The Army’s faith code allows for designation of Wiccans, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, Jews, and over 100 denominations of Christians, among other faiths, but until now had few offerings for those who follow a non-theistic belief system.

However, this week, the Army changed its faith code to allow Humanists to identify themselves as such…

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Rome Taking on the Big Family Issues

Vatican to Debate Teachings on Divorce, Birth Control, Gay Unions

Henry Chu, LA Times, April 30, 2014

VATICAN CITY – Contraception, cohabitation, divorce, remarriage and same-sex unions: They’re issues that pain and puzzle Roman Catholics who want to be true to both their church and themselves.

Now those issues are about to be put up for debate by their leader, a man who appears determined to push boundaries and effect change.

On Pope Francis’ orders, the Vatican will convene an urgent meeting of senior clerics this fall to reexamine church teachings that touch the most intimate aspects of people’s lives. Billed as an “extraordinary” assembly of bishops, the gathering could herald a new approach by the church to the sensitive topics.

The run-up to the synod has been extraordinary in itself, a departure from usual practice that some say is a mark of the pope’s radical new leadership style, and a canny tactic to defuse dissent over potential reforms.

Within a few months of his election last year, Francis directed every diocese in the world to survey local attitudes on family and relationships and report back to the Vatican, a canvassing of a sort that few of the faithful can recall previously. The results are being tallied and synthesized behind the walls of the Vatican.

The exercise reflects Francis’ desire for less centralized and more responsive decision-making, mirroring his own self-described evolution from a rigid, authoritarian leader as a young man into one who consults and empathizes. His training as a Jesuit has taught the pope to cast as wide a net for information as possible, analysts say...

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Seeking Interfaith Peace at the River Jordan

Multifaith Bid to Save River Jordan May Inspire Peace

Fred Pearce, New Scientist, April 25, 2014

The River Jordan in better times – Photo: Wikipedia

The River Jordan in better times – Photo: Wikipedia

I met the rabbi in an Indian restaurant in north London. We took a short walk to the Wembley mosque, where our Muslim hosts and a clutch of Christians watched quizzically as the rabbi led Jews in Sabbath prayers amid the accoutrements of a Muslim place of worship. Then the meeting began.

People from three faiths had gathered to discuss the holiness of water and how to use their shared concern for the elixir of life to rehabilitate a Middle Eastern river reduced to a trickle of sewage effluent. That pathetic, putrid trickle, hidden behind military cordons, is what remains of the River Jordan, a river that has watered civilisations for 10,000 years, has been the scene of countless baptisms, was once the lifeblood of Palestine, and is sacred to half of humanity – Christians, Jews, and Muslims alike.

As we met in early April, the news media was reporting the near-collapse ofpeace talks between Israel and Palestine. The assembly wondered if ecological concerns about the river might help to break the political deadlock and result in the release of water into the Jordan Valley once more. Could hydrology and spirituality succeed where politics failed? …

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UCC Turns the Table on Same-Sex Marriage Law

United Church of Christ Files Landmark Lawsuit Against North Carolina to Protect First Amendment Rights of Clergy

Connie Larkman, United Church of Christ, April 28, 2014

The General Synod of the United Church of Christ (UCC) has filed suit against the State of North Carolina, arguing that the state’s marriage laws violate the First Amendment rights of clergy and the principle of “free exercise of religion.” 

In what is believed to the first-ever challenge by a national Christian denomination of a state’s marriage laws, the UCC filed the lawsuit Monday morning, April 28, in U.S. District Court in Charlotte, N.C.

Under Amendment One, which passed in late 2012, it is a crime in the State of North Carolina for clergy to officiate a marriage ceremony without determining whether the couple involved has a valid marriage license. United Church of Christ ministers, interested in conducting a religious marriage ceremony for same-gender couples, could face up to 120 days of jail and/or probation and community service if found guilty, since North Carolina marriage laws define and regulate marriage as being between only a man and a woman. As lead plaintiff in this lawsuit against the State, the United Church of Christ asserts that these laws are unconstitutional and violate clergy’s First Amendment rights…

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Interfaith Reconciliation in Cyprus

Religion Builds Bridges in Ethnically Split Cyprus

Menelaos Hadjicostis, Associated Press, April 19, 201

Agio Georgios Exorinos (Church of St. John the Exiler) – Photo: Patriamundi North Cyprus

Agio Georgios Exorinos (Church of St. John the Exiler) – Photo: Patriamundi North Cyprus

FAMAGUSTA, CYPRUS – An unexpected moment during the Good Friday service in a long-abandoned church in Cyprus’ breakaway north illustrated how religion is helping to bring together Christian Greek Cypriots and Muslim Turkish Cypriots on this ethnically divided island.

It came when Turkish Cypriot Umit Inatci handed the key of the church of Agios Georgios Exorinos in the medieval center of Famagusta to the city’s Greek Orthodox Metropolitan Vasilios, saying: “This is not gift, it’s something that is surrendered to its owner.”

Rapturous applause greeted the announcement by Inatci, who helped make possible the first Holy Week service at the 14th-century church in nearly 60 years...

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Welcoming Each Other for the Sake of Creation

Interfaith Leaders Launch Blessed Tomorrow to Catalyze People of Faith on Climate Change

Religion News Service, May 7, 2014

LONGWOOD, FLORIDA– Today marks the launch of Blessed Tomorrow, a new national interfaith coalition of religious leaders committed to inspiring and engaging people of faith to lead on climate solutions in their congregations, communities and homes.

Blessed Tomorrow brings together some of the nation’s most preeminent religious leaders from the Evangelical, Muslim, Jewish, Catholic and Protestant faiths who are personally dedicated to leading by example on stewardship within their organizations and engaging their faith communities to respond to climate change.

“Faith leaders and their communities have been at the forefront of moving America forward throughout our nation’s history. From abolition to human rights, we have been there to answer our call to care for all of God’s creation. Blessed Tomorrow builds on that tradition by bringing together a diverse group of leaders from across the country who are committed to making an impact on one of the greatest moral imperatives of our time — climate change,” said Joel Hunter, senior pastor of Northland, a Church Distributed, and founding leader of Blessed Tomorrow…

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