October 2014 News Roundup

So many interfaith stories of note are appearing each month that this file keeps getting longer and longer. So this month we’re going with a shorter format. You’ll hear about each story, and it will have a link for you to explore. A caveat – the following articles are representative, an interesting ‘taste’ of what is getting written out there, not the whole picture. Indonesia doesn’t show up this month’s collection; but google “Indonesia, interfaith” and 700,000 sites pop up in under half a second. You get the picture.

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Young British Muslims condemning ISIS. – Photo: IBT/Active ChangeThe best news this past month is that Muslims the world over, young and old, Sunni, Shia, Sufi, and more, clearly made public their abiding anger and sorrow at seeing their faith co-opted by violent groups that dishonor it so completely. Stories about French Muslims, particularly after the beheading of a French national, have been considerable. Young British Muslims initiated a #NotInMyName campaign. Islamophobia and fire-bombings of mosques are on an increase, mobilizing 2,000 German mosques to prayer and disavowal of violence along with solidarity meetings with German political and religious leaders.

Saudi Arabia’s top clerical council, quoting the Quran, issued a fatwa declaring that “terrorism is a heinous crime” under sharia and joined with other Arab states in a commitment to combat militant ideology. Most impressively, 120 distinguished Muslim scholars from around the world sent an open letter to the “fighters and followers” of ISIS, “denouncing them as un-Islamic by using the most Islamic of terms,” as Lauren Markoe wrote for Religion News Service.

It was not only Muslims who called out ‘religious’ terrorists and bigotry. In the U.S., 9/11 families launched an anti-Islamophobic campaign. And at the United Nations, President Obama again affirmed his belief that “Islam is a religion of peace.” Addressing young Muslims, he said “You come from a great tradition that stands for education, not ignorance; innovation, not destruction; the dignity of life, not murder.”

Salam Al Marayati’s “The Key to Defeating ISIS is Islam” in Huffington Post Religion developed a similar theme: “America needs Islam -- not to convert people to the religion, but as the antidote to the toxic and threatening ideology of ISIS … the message we as American Muslims can convey to Muslims worldwide in isolating ISIS: it is based on the Islamic theology of life against cults of death. It is also founded in the Quranic tradition of advancing civilization, not destroying it.”

Taking on “Religiously Related” Violence

Karen ArmstrongA number of heavyweights have addressed the complicated issue of religiously related violence. Karen Armstrong began her article “The Myth of Religious Violence” by writing: “The popular belief that religion is the cause of the world’s bloodiest conflicts is central to our modern conviction that faith and politics should never mix. But the messy history of their separation suggests it was never so simple.” Pope Francis, visiting impoverished Albania, a majority Muslim country, lashed out at any who put on the ‘armor of God’ to mask their own violence and oppression. In India the Dalai Lama, concerned not only about Hindu-Muslim tensions but about environmental degradation and oppression of women, convened “an unprecedented meeting of Indian faith leaders” to talk about the issues.

Serious peacemakers risk constant resistance, of course. In deference to China, South Africa refused the Buddhist leader a visa to attend an annual gathering of Nobel peace laureates. In response, five laureates from the Nobel Women’s Initiative announced a boycott, and subsequently the South African meeting was cancelled. Bishop Tutu characterized government policy makers as a “lickspittle bunch.”

Bad News All Over Again

A Shia shrine in Mosul is destroyed by ISIS forces. – Photo: BBCBesides war, public executions, and rape, the saddest stories this month come from Iraq/Syria about the continuing destruction of sanctuaries, shrines, tombs, memorials, and other places held holy by Christian, Muslim, and Yezidi communities, many of them ancient and historic.

Equally chilling are the stories of particular families and communities – a Yezedi village, an Orthodox Church, a Shia community, or, in one case, all the Christians in Baghdad who fear their death as they watch ISIS invasion creeping closer to their homes.

A Seventh-day Adventist pastor is Eastern Ukraine was abducted during Sunday communion by Ukranian separatists who said, “This is Orthodox land and there is no place for various sects here.” Three Italian nuns, aged 75, 79, and 82, having served for more than 50 years in Africa, were brutally murdered in Burundi. Thousands attended a requiem mass held in the Congo. And a tale sounding like George Orwell’s 1984 comes from China’s western province of Xinjian. A large portion of the region’s Muslims, ethnically Uyghars, have lived their for centuries and, like Tibetans, resist Chinese authoritarianism. A sweep of “illegal religious activity” led Chinese authorities to “rescue” (abduct) 82 children from Muslim schools and detain dozens of adults; hundreds of Uyghars have died in recent months struggling against the central government.

Practitioners of indigenous Afro-Brazilian religions – Candomblé and Umbanda – have long been opposed and oppressed by the Catholic Church in Brazil. The country’s recent growth of “fundamentalist evangelicals” have added to their woes, exposing them hate crimes.

Perhaps the most poignant religious story this past month comes from Iran: Six dancers, five men and a woman, along with their director, were sentenced to 91 lashes and prison time for posting a videotape of them dancing to Pharrell’s song “Happy.” The sentences were suspended as long as they don’t commit another affront to “public chastity” in the next three years.

Every one of this month’s bad-news articles is about diminishing religious freedom in the world. Sometimes freedom wins. You probably haven’t heard about Rev. Chhedar Lhomi Bhote, a Christian pastor in Nepal. In 2012 his home was burned by an angry mob and he was sentenced to 12 years in prison for having consumed beef. Nepalese law forbids Hindus, but not non-Hindus, from eating beef. It took two years of legal struggle, but last July Rev. Bhote was released from jail, a free man.

The best way to stay educated about religious freedom these days is to subscribe (for free) to Brian Pellot’s “On Freedom” blog, published by Religious News Service. He provides important coverage that the major media frequently misses.

Stories to Raise Your Spirit

Kailash Satyarthi – Photo: WikipediaThe best news this month was hearing that a 17-year-old Muslim woman from Pakistan, Malala Yousafzai, and Kailash Satyarthi, a pioneering Hindu opponent of child labor, were awarded with the Nobel Peace Prize. Malala, who suffered rape as a child and went on to become a spokesperson for education for all girls, has spoken at the United Nations and enjoys a wide following. Her partner laureate, Satyarthi, is less well-known in the West, but his work is responsible for removing more than 80,000 children from enslaved labor.

Prime Minister Modi visits President Obnama at the White House. – Photo: TwitterIndia’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi was on a political mission when he visited the United States last month, but a fascinating religious practice emerged about his visit. It occurred during Hinduism’s Navratri festival, honoring the mother goddess Durga, during which strict Hindus fast. Modi kept a liquid diet fast throughout his trip, state dinners and all. To get a profile of the Prime Minister that goes beyond the major media’s talking points, see Anantanand Rambachat’s thoughtful article in Religions for Peace-USA’s Special Edition of TIO this month.

Southside Presbyterian Church, Tuscon, AZ – Photo: SPCSouthside Presbyterian Church in Tuscon, Arizona, the first congregation in the 1980s to offer undocumented immigrants sanctuary in its facilities, assisted some 14,000 immigrants who feared deportation. They have revived the program, and other communities are joining the cause. Church World Service estimates that “close to 300 congregations out there throughout the country … are willing and ready to give sanctuary when needed.”

Last November, Sister Maureen Fiedler of the Leadership Conference of the Women Religious sent a letter asking Pope Francis to repeal the 15th century Doctrine of Discovery, “the papal sanctioning of Christian enslavement and power over non-Christians.” Renee K. Gadoua of Religion News Service explains the Doctrine succinctly:  

The Doctrine of Discovery is a series of papal bulls, or decrees, that gave Christian explorers the right to lay claim to any land that was not inhabited by Christians and was available to be ‘discovered.’ If its inhabitants could be converted, they might be spared. If not, they could be enslaved or killed.”

The nuns haven’t heard back from the Pope, but considering the news these days, one hopes that he will act soon.

Former President Jimmy Carter at a Habitat site in Nepal. – Photo: HFHHabitat for Humanity, building homes for people around the world, has had interfaith involvement in a number of its projects. But last month Habitat created an Interfaith Advisory Council to provide guidance to the Christian organization as it continues its good work.

Kudos to the John Templeton Foundation for providing $1.5 million in grants to U.S. seminaries to include science in their curricula, an attempt to mitigate the gap between faith and science, especially among clergy.

Let’s finish with a remarkable tale about the interfaith courage of a single individual, Kadra Mohamed, 22. She is a Somali American Muslim police officer in St. Paul, Minnesota. It surprises people and isn’t easy, but the hijab-wearing Officer Mohamed, raised as a refugee in Kenya, enjoys her work and is garnering high praise for her courage.