27 October 2014
CNEWA’s Rev. Elias D. Mallon and Bishop David Motiuk, Ukrainian Catholic Bishop of Edmonton, Canada, attend the conference on Eastern Catholic churches at the University of Toronto.
Recently, CNEWA Canada’s Antin Sloboda and I attended a conference at the Unviersity of Toronto which examined one of the documents of Vatican II: the decree Orientalium ecclesiarum, which recognized and underlined the importance of the Eastern Catholic churches. It was published almost exactly 50 years ago, in November 1964.
As part of the conference — sponsored by The Metropolitan Andrey Sheptytsky Institute — I delivered a paper looking at what has transpired over the last five decades, with special attention to CNEWA’s involvement with the Eastern churches:
While CNEWA sees itself primarily as “accompanying” the Eastern Catholic churches as a partner, many Eastern Catholic churches see themselves as accompanying their Orthodox brothers and sisters and the long, dangerous journey to peace, justice and even survival. In the long and often complicated discussions on shared communion between the Catholic and Orthodox churches in the sacramental body and blood of Christ, Eastern Catholics and Orthodox are now painfully experiencing communion in the suffering body of Christ, which is the churches in the Middle East. This communion is real and is experienced daily.
You can read that paper in full at this link.
29 September 2014
Tags: CNEWA Canada Ukrainian Catholic Church
In this image from July, demonstrators from various religions gather during a protest in Irbil, Iraq, against militants of the Islamic State. Last week, Muslim leaders issued two important documents condemning the use of violence and the actions of ISIS. (photo: CNS/Azad Lashkari, Reuters)
In the past week two important documents have been published from Muslim organizations which respond to the often-heard question: “Why don’t Muslims speak out against what is happening to Christians and other religious minorities in Iraq and Syria?”
The first document, “In the Face of Conflict,” is a statement of principles published on 26 September by King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz International Centre for Interreligious and Intercultural Dialogue in New York. Without mentioning any specific conflict or specific religion or faith traditions, the document condemns violence, terrorism and hate speech. It also condemns what it calls the “instrumentalization of religion to make war.”
A more interesting and more important document appeared 25 September 2014. It is an open letter to “Dr. Irahim Awwad Al-Badri, alias ‘Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi’” (who is the head of ISIS and self-declared Caliph) and “to the fighters and followers of the self-declared ‘Islamic State’” and it is signed by 126 Sunni leaders from around the world.
The lengthy letter is in the form of a traditional Islamic fetwa or legal decision. Far from being a statement of general principles, the letter deals with concrete events and persons. In the best of Muslim legal tradition, the letter uses principles from the Quaran and from the Sunna—the sayings and acts of the Prophet Muhammad—along with ideas from the great Muslim thinkers and commentators of the past, and from historical events.
At the beginning of this complicated and tightly reasoned letter there is an Executive Summary which contains 24 principles. Although each one is extremely important, some of the most notable and pertinent ones are:
- It is forbidden in Islam to ignore the reality of contemporary times when deriving legal rulings (#5),
- It is forbidden to kill journalists and aid workers (#7).
- It is obligatory to consider Yazidis as People of the Scripture (#11).
- The re-introduction of slavery is forbidden in Islam. It was abolished by universal consensus (#12).
- It is forbidden is Islam to force people to convert (#13).
- It is forbidden in Islam to torture people (#17).
- It is forbidden in Islam to declare a caliphate without consensus from all Muslims (#22).
Each of the points is derived from careful deduction according to the principles of Islamic jurisprudence (fiqh). While this may make the document difficult for the non-Muslim or the non-scholar to read, it is precisely what makes the document so magisterial and very important. It is a clear statement in the most Islamic terms possible that the Islamic State (variously IS, ISIS, ISIL) is neither a valid reinstatement of the Caliphate nor Islamic in any sense of the word.
13 August 2014
Tags: Syria Iraq Muslim
Children flee violence from forces loyal to the Islamic State (ISIS) in Sinjar, Iraq, on 10 August.
(photo: CNS/Rodi Said, Reuters)
Faced with the unrelenting reports about the sufferings of Christians and other minorities in Iraq and Syria, even Christians who are friendly toward Muslims can be perplexed and ask, “Why aren’t Muslims speaking out against these atrocities?” The answer is: Muslims have been speaking out in the strongest terms, condemning the crimes against humanity committed by ISIS (or, as it is increasingly called, IS) and others in the name of Islam.
So, why do we not hear more of this?
The first reason is because Islam is not a structurally centralized religion. Unlike, for example, Catholicism, there is no one person or institution that can speak with authority for all Sunnis or even all Shiites — to say nothing of speaking for all Muslims around the world.
The second reason is that there is a huge number of newspapers in Muslim countries throughout the world. Many, if not most, of these newspapers appear in languages unfamiliar to people in the West. Sometimes, it is not a question of Muslims speaking out, but of others just not hearing. Often, the “not hearing” happens because people do not have access to sources or just do not speak the same language. But the voices are out there. And an important media monitoring group has turned up the volume, to make sure more hear them.
MEMRI (The Middle East Media Research Institute), which could never be accused of being apologetic to Islam or Muslims, has just published a “Special Dispatch,” in which it gives a platform to several significant editorials written by Muslims in important Middle Eastern newspapers — condemning the atrocities taking place in Syria and Iraq in no uncertain terms.
In a scathing July 24, 2014 editorial on the issue, the London-based Qatari daily Al-Quds Al-Arabi stated that the targeting in Mosul of Christians, who have been part of the history and culture of Iraq for centuries, is the most extensive ethnic cleansing of modern times, and a black mark upon the reputation of Islam and the Muslims. The paper went on to call on moderate Muslims to condemn these terrible actions of the “cancerous” and “terrorist” IS, lest they become complicit in a crime against humanity. It also urged them to denounce extremist fatwas, such as the one by Sudanese cleric Muhammad Al-Jazouli, who cited a hadith permitting the killing of “infidel” men, women and children. The paper mentioned that this fatwa was widely published by MEMRI (view this clip on MEMRI TV here). It should be noted that, although the newspaper called this hadith “false” and “unreliable,” it actually appears in the Abu Dawud collection and is considered authentic.
Egyptian sociologist and human rights activist Sa’d Al-Din Ibrahim wrote in his weekly column for the Egyptian daily Al-Masri Al-Yawm that the IS’s barbaric, racist and murderous treatment of Christians, unprecedented in the history of the Arab East, is reminiscent of the Nazis and Tatars, and does great harm to Islam. He called upon the Arab League to condemn the IS’s actions.
Columnist Ahmad Al-Sarraf used a scathingly sarcastic tone to express his outrage. In his column in the Kuwaiti daily Al-Qabas, he told the Christians to leave the Arab lands, because the Arabs no longer have any use for progress, civilization, tolerance or coexistence, but only for backwardness, fanaticism and violence.
Read more at the MEMRI link. There are many more critical voices out there in the Arab world. They deserve to be heard.
8 August 2014
Tags: Syria Iraq Violence against Christians Muslim Islam
Two years ago, I wrote a piece on religious minorities in the Middle East. At the time the civil war in Syria brought the Alawites to the consciousness of the Western world. In my essay, I tried to cover briefly as many of the religious minorities as possible. Most people in the west had never heard of these groups and they were more curiosities than newsmakers.
But in the ongoing tragedy that is the contemporary Middle East, yesterday’s curiosities become today’s headlines. With the brutal onslaught of the forces of ISIS, Christians and other minorities have become targets for extermination. One of these minorities is the Yazidis. Though virtually unknown outside the Middle East, they are now front page news in the western media, as ISIS engages in an act of genocide against them. Who are these people? What do they believe?
Here’s a glimpse, from ONE magazine in 2012:
The Yazidis constitute one of the smallest and most interesting religious minorities in the Middle East. It is estimated that there are less than 100,000 of them living in parts of Armenia, Iran, Iraq and Syria. They believe that they are not descended from the biblical Eve and, hence, hold themselves apart from non-believers.
Though they believe in one God, that deity is not interested in the running of the cosmos. That task has been handed over to Mal’ak Tus (“peacock angel”), who together with six other angels manages creation.
Yazidis do not believe in the existence of evil but believe that purification occurs through the transmigration of souls, similar to what is believed in the religions of India. Influences of Zoroastrianism, Gnosticism, Judaism, Christianity and Islam can be found in the practices of the Yazidis.
Who could possibly be the next targets of Sunni extremism in the Middle East? There are a number of minorities who could be at risk. Read more in Religious Minorities in the Middle East from the March 2012 edition of ONE.
25 July 2014
Tags: Iraq War Iraqi Refugees Yazidi religious freedom
Jordan’s Prince El Hassan bin Talal is pictured in an orange garden outside his palace offices in the Jordanian capital, Amman. (photo: CNS/Dale Gavlak)
In a region and world of increasing polarization and intolerance, Jordanian Prince El Hassan bin Talal has for decades been a beacon of tolerance and understanding in the Middle East. As founder and chair of the Royal Institute for Inter-faith Studies and co-founder and chair of the Foundation for Interreligious and Intercultural Research and Dialogue, Prince Hassan has been the voice of conscience where conscience is being drowned out by religious extremism. He is also, not insignficantly, a descendant of the Prophet Muhammad.
Muslims are often criticized for not speaking up against the atrocities that are being committed in the name of Islam. Such criticism, while understandable, seems totally unaware of the incredible work the prince has done for decades. Yesterday he issued a statement, co-signed by several other religious and secular leaders in the region, condemning violence in the name of religion:
In recent days, we have read with horror about Christians being asked to leave the city of Mosul within 24 hours. We have also heard about the desecration of Christian holy spaces and their symbols — the bombing of churches and a cross being removed from St. Ephrem’s Cathedral, the seat of the Syriac Orthodox archdiocese in Mosul.
These actions are an appalling blot on the proud tradition of pluralism in a region that has been home to Chaldeans, Assyrians and other churches of the East for more than 1,700 years. Indeed, the destruction caused by the violence has engulfed all of the diverse populations that make up Iraq — the Turkmens, the Yazidis, the Sunnis and Shiites, Kurds and tens of thousands of Arab families who have been uprooted from the region in fear of their lives. These horrors continue to unfold on a daily basis and follow a brutal period of fighting in Syria. Today, the United Nations estimates that one out of every three Syrians is in need of urgent humanitarian aid. We cannot stand idly by and watch as the lives of the most vulnerable, our women and our children, are destroyed in the name of religion.
We have also viewed with concern the ongoing situation in Gaza and Israel, and leaving aside the horror of that situation for a moment, have been particularly distressed by how the name of religion has been invoked to justify the murder of ordinary people. Statements posted by young people on social media justifying the taking of innocent lives as “commandments from God” are a testament to how the pressure of living under the threat of violence can cause the minds and moral compass of not just the military and seekers of power, but also that of ordinary civilians, to atrophy. We should do all that we can to end the violence even as the numbers of casualties rise on a daily basis. Now, more than ever, we should all remember the quote of Malachi 2, verse 10: “Have we not all one father?”
In these troubling times, when we bear witness to a moral crisis of unparalleled dimensions, we should recall the Islamic concepts of “haq el hurriya” and “haq el karama,” the rights to freedom and to human dignity that are to be enjoyed by people of all faiths. To quote the words from the Quran: “We have honored the children of Adam and carried them on to land and sea” (Quran 17:70).
Read the entire statement here.
24 July 2014
Tags: Jordan War Religious Differences
Displaced Christians wait for humanitarian aid 20 July at a church in the Iraqi town of Hamdaniya, east of Mosul. (photo: CNS/Reuters)
The announcement that the caliphate was restored was issued by the extremist group ISIS (Islamic State of Iraq and Syria) on 29 June. I have been told by friends in the Middle East that the response of some young people was “What is the caliphate?” If that is the case with Muslims, how much more is it the case with non-Muslims throughout the world. What is the caliphate? What is the significance of it being restored? Is this something that should worry us?
I tried to answer a few of these questions in an essay published this week in America magazine:
For most people in the West the caliphate is an unknown. It sounds exotic — like something out of A Thousand and One Nights, a topic more suitable for National Geographic than The New York Times. However, ISIS and the newly proclaimed caliphate have taken over large sections of northeastern Syria as well as large sections of Iraq, including Mosul, the country’s second largest city. With efficiency and startling brutality ISIS has terrorized the Iraqi population, thrown the army into chaos and is marching on Baghdad where it threats to slaughter Shiites en masse.
Clearly the caliphate is back on the world stage. Contemporary information about the caliphate, mediated through the Western media, is a mixture of what ISIS thinks the caliphate was/is/should be, coupled at times with a historical reflection. As is the case in many ideologically motivated recreations of a historical past, the caliphate of ISIS relies on an idealized past, which, if it ever existed, did not exist for a very long time. While it is fair to say that the caliphate started with the death of the Prophet Muhammad in June 632 and continued until it was abolished by Atatürk in 1924, its form, authority and success differed greatly from place to place and time to time.
Read the full article, “Contesting the Caliphate,” in the current edition of America.
11 July 2014
Tags: Syria Iraq Islam Sunni Shiite
A Palestinian boy carries his belongings as he walks past the rubble of his family’s house which police said was destroyed in an Israeli airstrike in Gaza City on 9 July. The Israeli army intensified its offensive on the Hamas-run Gaza Strip, striking Hamas sites and killing dozens of people in a military operation it says is aimed at quelling rocket fire against Israel. (photo: CNS/Mohammed Salem, Reuters)
On 8 July 2014, the Justice and Peace Commission of the Assembly of Catholic Ordinaries in the Holy Land issued a statement entitled, “Call for a Courageous Change.” The document is in response to the increasing violence that has followed upon the murder of three Israeli teenagers and the revenge murder of a Palestinian teenager. The response of the Israeli government and the Palestinian organization Hamas has been to escalate the violence and revenge. Each side with some justification sees itself as the aggrieved partner seeking justice, which is often little more than blood vengeance. Each side — again with some justification — sees the other as the aggressor and occupier. As has so often been the case in the past, the conflict conceives itself as a battle of the righteous against the unrighteous and then feeds upon itself getting larger and more violent.
With clarity and courage, the commission analyzes what it sees to be the main forces driving the crisis. The commission also is very clear as to where it sees responsibility on both sides. The statement clearly mentions “the irresponsible language of collective punishment and revenge that breeds violence” and lays responsibility on “many in position of power and political leadership [who] remain entrenched, not only unwilling to enter into any real and meaningful process of dialogue, but also pouring oil on the fire with words and acts that nurture the conflict.”
Following in the path of Pope Francis, the commission in its statement attempts to “speak truth to power.” It recognizes that no side in this conflict is pure victim and no side is pure victimizer. The roles go back and forth. The statement’s critique of that common human trait to see where I am right and my opponent is wrong, while overlooking the instances where I am wrong and my opponent is right, traces its roots to the saying of Jesus, “Why do you observe the splinter in your brother’s eye and never notice the plank in your own” (Matt 7:3). The commission’s “Call for a Courageous Change” also throws strong light on one of the major problems in the conflict — namely, the mutual demonization of the other.
The statement makes a very important point that is often selectively overlooked in the media: “We need to recognize that resistance to occupation cannot be equated with terrorism. Resistance to occupation is a legitimate right, terrorism is part of the problem.” Throughout the entire document, however, there is the constant call for non-violent solutions and the commission condemns violence regardless of the side from which it originates.
In a region where polarization has become a way of life, “Call for a Courageous Change” is a light shining in the darkness. However, in a region where both sides have become “comfortable” with polarization, one wonders how much impact the document will have.
Read the statement here.
28 April 2014
Tags: Middle East Holy Land Israeli-Palestinian conflict Assembly of the Catholic Ordinaries of the Holy Land
A large crowd is seen as Pope Francis celebrates the canonization Mass for Sts. John XXIII and John Paul II in St. Peter’s Square at the Vatican on 27 April. (photo: CNS/Evandro Inetti)
News networks last weekend were filled with stories about the canonizations of Popes John XXIII and John Paul II. A commonly recurring theme was the hundreds of thousands of pilgrims who had come to witness this historic event in St. Peter’s Square. It seemed as if people from all over the world had converged on Rome.
But were they pilgrims or tourists? Anyone who has gone to Rome during the tourist season knows how crowded it can get with souvenir-hunting, camera-toting tourists, even in places like St. Peter’s Basilica.
However, that was not the case last weekend All of the many people interviewed were clear why they had come to Rome: the canonization of two popes. Tourism, if it played any role at all, was clearly secondary to the desire to witness and take part in a ceremony believers found holy. Rome was packed with pilgrims.
In a world of high speed transportation and tourism as a “mega-industry,” pilgrims and pilgrimages may seem quaint and a bit outmoded. Nevertheless, the draw of holy places is strong and ancient, going back thousands of years.
I wrote more about this phenomenon in a web-exclusive essay for the online edition of ONE:
Pilgrimage is deeply rooted in the religious imagination.
The desire to visit places — especially distant ones — that are seen as endowed with transcendence and spiritual power is evidenced in many of the world’s great religions. Since many faiths employ words denoting a journey — “road,” “walking,” “path” — to describe their religious practice, perhaps it is natural for the pilgrimage to provide a metaphor of that greater pilgrimage: the life of the believer. In fact, the notion of pilgrimage is deeply rooted in the three great monotheistic religions — Judaism, Christianity and Islam — but in very different ways.
To discover more about the importance of pilgrimage to these three religions, read Pilgrim People in the current online edition of ONE.
27 March 2014
Tags: Vatican Pilgrimage/pilgrims Pope Pope John Paul II Saints
In this image from 2011, a Christian cleric clasps hands with a Muslim sheik during a rally to demonstrate unity between Muslims and Christians in Cairo, Egypt.
(photo: CNS/Mohamed Abd El-Ghany, Reuters)
With mostly bad news coming out of the Middle East, it is encouraging to see that Christians and Muslims are working together in Lebanon to build peaceful relations.
Representatives from both faiths gathered this week in Beirut for the eighth Islamic-Christian Prayer Meeting, which had as its theme “Together Around Mary, Our Lady.”
The meeting took place on the Solemnity of the Annunciation (25 March), a national holiday in Lebanon and a day when both Christians and Muslims honor Mary, the mother of Christ. The meeting was organized by the St. Joseph University Alumni Assocation and the College of Our Lady of Jamhour.
Secretary of State Cardinal Pietro Parolin sent a message to participants, on behalf of Pope Francis. In the message, the pope encouraged Christians and Muslims to “work together for peace and for the common good, thus contributing to the full development of the person and the edification of society”, and entrusts the participants in the meeting “and all the inhabitants of Lebanon to the maternal intercession of the Virgin Mary, Queen of Peace and Protectress of Lebanon.”
“The Virgin Mary and Islamic-Christian Dialogue” was the theme of the address given by Rev. Miguel Angel Ayuso, secretary of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue, during the meeting.
The Vatican news agency VIS reported:
In his address, which focused both on the figure of Mary and on the mission of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue, Rev. Ayuso emphasized that the feast of 25 March was “a true example of the co-existence between Muslims and Christians that characterises Lebanese history, in the midst of so many difficulties, and which also constitutes an important example for many other nations.”
“Since Vatican Council II, the Catholic Church recognises that Muslims honor the Virgin mother of Jesus, Mary, and invoke her with piety,” he said. “Mary is mentioned various times in the Koran. Respect for her is so evident that when she is mentioned in Islam, it is usual to add ‘Alayha l-salam’ (‘Peace be upon her’). Christians also willingly join in this invocation. I must also mention those shrines dedicated to Mary which welcome both Muslims and Christians. In particular, here in Lebanon, how can we forget the shrine of Our Lady of Lebanon in Harissa?”
“Devotion creates sentiments of friendship: it is a phenomenon open to everyone. The cultural experiences that our communities can share encourage collaboration, solidarity and mutual recognition as sons and daughters of a single God, members of the same human family. Therefore, the Church addresses the followers of Islam with esteem. During the last 50 years, a dialogue of friendship and mutual respect has been constructed.”
With reference to the dialogue between Muslims and Christians, he went on to explain that the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue “seeks to establish regular relationships with Muslim institutions and organisations, with the aim of promoting mutual understanding and trust, friendship and, where possible, collaboration. In fact, there exist agreements with various Muslim institutions enabling the possibility of holding periodical meetings, in accordance with the programmes and procedures approved by both parties. With regard to the methods of interreligious dialogue and, therefore, the dialogue between Christians and Muslims, we must recall that dialogue is a two-way form of communication. ... It is based on witness of one’s own faith and, at the same time, openness to the religion of the other. It is not a betrayal of the mission of the Church, and much less a new method of conversion to Christianity. The document ‘Dialogue and Proclamation,’ published jointly by the Congregation for the Evangelisation of Peoples and the Council for Interreligious Dialogue in 1991, identifies four different forms of interreligious dialogue: the dialogue of life, the dialogue of works, the dialogue of theological exchange and the dialogue of religious experience. These four forms demonstrate that it is not an experience confined to specialists.”
Rev. Ayuso concluded by analyzing the role of Mary as a model for both Muslims and Christians.
“In the Apostolic Exhortation ‘Marialis Cultus’, promulgated in 1974 by Pope Paul VI, Mary is presented as ‘the Virgin who listens’, ‘the Virgin who prays’, ‘the Virgin in dialogue with God’. ... But there is also the image of a model of dialogue of seeking when, addressing the Archangel Gabriel, she asks, ‘How is it possible?’. Mary, a model for Muslims and Christians, is also a model of dialogue, teaching us to believe, not to close ourselves up in certainties, but rather to remain open and available to others.”
17 January 2014
Rabbi Joseph Potasnik, CNEWA’s Rev. Elias D. Mallon, Imam Khalid Latif, the Rev. Chloe Breyer and the V. Rev. Leonid Kishkovsky discuss current trends in religious freedom across the globe. (photo: courtesy of the United Nations)
If you want to know the state of religious freedom at the start of this new year, I got a revealing and sobering glimpse yesterday at the United Nations.
I took part in a panel discussion to observe Religious Freedom Day. It coincided with a Pew Report released earlier this week: “Religious Hostilities Reach Six-Year High.” The panel consisted of the V. Rev. Leonid Kishkovsky of the Orthodox Church of America; Dr. Brian Grim of Pew Research Center; Rabbi Joseph Potasnik, executive vice president of the New York Board of Rabbis; the Rev. Chloe Breyer, an Episcopal priest and director of the Interfaith Center of New York; Imam Khalid Latif, director of the Islam Center at NYU; and me, representing CNEWA.
The Pew Report employs two important ways of measuring religious freedom or lack thereof around the world: government restrictions and societal hostilities. Over the past several years each of the Pew Reports has shown increasing government restrictions and societal hostilities against (usually minority) religions. The most recent report shows an alarming increase in societal hostilities, including incidences where people have been killed for their faith.
In my paper, I offered several observations.
First, it seems to me that the notion of religion is not necessarily clear. When many people speak of religion they have an image of a Christian church with a clear organizational structure, with official spokespersons, etc. That is not the case with other — indeed, most — religions. Religions and faith traditions such as Islam, Hinduism and Buddhism, to say nothing of indigenous religions, are far less centrally organized than the average western, Christian church or denomination. Therefore, it is not always clear what a religion is or what its “borders” are. In its language about freedom of religion, the U.N. reflects this ambiguity by referring routinely to “freedom of religion or belief” without indicating what, if anything, the distinction might be.
Secondly, I noted that the majority of countries experiencing increased governmental restrictions and society hostilities were those that use some type of religious marker in their self-identification. In almost no country were these restrictions and hostilities directed at all religions; it is usually the religious freedom of only some religions that is compromised or threatened. The government isn’t always the only antagonist, either. In many, if not most, cases there are clear elements of religion vs. religion involved.
The problem is often one of conflicting rights. When the legitimate rights of one group or one individual conflict with the legitimate rights of another, there are few if any mechanisms to solve the conflict while at the same time respecting the rights and religious freedom of those involved. Further, the dichotomy of government/religion is too facile; governments and religion very often overlap.
These problems are both complicated and urgent. Even though the international community has spoken about freedom of religion since the 1948 U.N. Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the Pew Studies indicate that the situation is in fact deteriorating.
Perhaps the time is right for research into how competing rights claims can be settled for the sake of the common good without compromising people’s fundamental rights.
Tags: United Nations religious freedom Religious Diversity