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Since June 18, 2004, the first day U.S. drones killed people in what has been called the U.S. “global war on terror,” people of faith have questioned whether the use of lethal drones is justifiable.
Since then, the CIA has conducted an estimated 400 or more drone strikes in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia. Drone strikes are continuing in Syria and Iraq. Hundreds of civilians have been killed, according to the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, including women and children.These “targeted” killings are conducted remotely in countries against which we have not declared war. Lethal drone strikes occur without warning, target for death specific individuals who are secretly selected, and are operated remotely by individuals thousands of miles away.
The U.S. religious community questions the morality of such drone warfare.
Many people of faith who are not pacifists adhere to the “Just War” tradition as enshrined in international law, which assumes that war is always an evil, but that sometimes there is a greater evil that requires military force.
The criteria for that “sometimes” include: that the war be waged by a legitimate authority; that it is clear who is a civilian and who is a combatant; that civilians should always be immune from direct attack; that there be a reasonable probability of success; that the use of force be proportional to the goals of the conflict; that military force be used only in the face of imminent danger; and that war should always be a last resort.
Applying these criteria to the use of drones raises a number of disturbing questions.
What kind of authority from Congress does the Administration have to use lethal drones? Does this authority extend to targeted killings outside active war zones? Is it clear what the geographical zone of this war is? Should lethal drones be implemented by the CIA, as they are now, given that the CIA is by its very nature secretive?
Are lethal drones sufficiently capable of distinguishing between civilians and combatants? Why is the rate of civilian casualties so alarmingly high? Do drones cause more civilian casualties than traditional military methods?
What are the current and long-term goals of the use of lethal drones? Are drones likely to accomplish these goals or does their use create more hostility and serve as a recruiting tool for terrorist extremists? As other nations acquire the capacity for drone warfare, does that change the likelihood of accomplishing these goals?
Is the damage caused by drones to human life and property really proportional to the goals sought? Is the possibility of an attack on U.S. personnel sufficiently imminent to justify the use of drones?
Is the use of drones a last resort — have other options such as financial restraints, cooperative law enforcement, encouraging people to not join extremist groups, economic incentives, and mobilizing public opinion been fully exhausted? War should always be a last resort, but drones make it easier to rush into war. For the time being, the use of drones has very few up-front risks for the nations that use them. They are controlled several thousand miles from the battlefield and do not require any use of ground troops.
The use of lethal drones, therefore, raises questions of conscience for the religious community. People of faith including myself have a responsibility to shine a bright light on this doubtful means of conducting war. We are among those who must raise the questions, and we are doing just that by organizing the first ever Interfaith Conference on Drone Warfare, which will be held Jan. 23-25 at Princeton Theological Seminary. People from a wide range of religious backgrounds — including myself — will address these questions, and much more. All people of faith are invited to register for the conference.
The goal of beginning this conversation in the religious community is to study the use of lethal drones and then make policy recommendations to the U.S. government. We will call on religious communities to advocate that these policy recommendations become reality.
The Rev. George Hunsinger is Professor of Systematic Theology at Princeton Theological Seminary. Published with Permission.
Super Saver Registration is Extended ’til December 10!
With great enthusiasm, respect and gratitude to our host city of Salt Lake, we are meeting our registration goals and extending the Super Saver registration period of 60% – 70% savings to December 10!
What a thrill to see this building momentum for the 2015 Parliament! In this spirit we give thanks to all who are signed up, gearing up to register, proposing programs and sharing the opportunity to join us in Salt Lake City next year.
When we encounter systemic racism, we know where our moral obligation lies. We speak out. But what happens when prejudice finds its way into the most intimate setting, the dinner table? “Well, you know how they are. They can’t be reasoned with. Could you please pass the salt?”
Disparaging comments about another group are unfortunately common in many communities. When these kinds of off-hand remarks emerge in our own homes or in the homes of our friends, how are we supposed to respond? Abe’s Babes, a group of six Jewish, Muslim, and Christian women in Sydney, Australia, may have found an answer.
After experiencing this brand of “dinner table prejudice” in Sydney’s Muslim and Jewish communities, the group decided to confront the issue with a creative weapon: theater. Collectively, they wrote a play called The Laden Table, which tells of two meals – a Jewish family breaking their Yom Kippur fast and a Muslim family celebrating Eid. After seven years of hard work, the first professional production will take place in Sydney on the nights of July 30, July 31, and August 1.
After hearing prejudiced remarks about Muslims at a Jewish dinner table, Yvonne Perczuk, one of the founders of the playwriting group, felt deeply disturbed. Realizing that similar conversations were taking place in Muslim homes, she decided something had to be done about misconceptions harbored in both communities.
“The fear of the other, the fear of the unknown – all of those fears come out at the dinner table,” Perczuk said. “They come out in a spontaneous way so that’s where you hear the truths about how people feel.”
Based in part on her family background, Perczuk was particularly unsettled by this form of racism. “The sort of comments I heard at the dinner table really shocked me and upset me because my parents were Holocaust survivors,” said Perczuk. “It’s this kind of prejudice that they were victims of. When I heard it coming from my own community, I found it most distressing.” After some soul-searching, the idea to create The Laden Table emerged – a play that would highlight the problem of dinner table prejudice while involving members of both communities in a creative, collaborative project. Seeking out likeminded people with a theater background, Perczuk found her Muslim co-facilitator and “partner-in-crime” Nur Alam, along with Abe’s Babes’ original core members Raya Gadir, Jumaadi, Chris Hill, Ruth Kliman, and Marian Kernahan. The playwriting group decided on the name “Abe’s Babes,” a reference to its members’ shared Abrahamic religious heritage.
Creating the Play: A Constructive Response to Dinner Table Prejudice
“Our whole project is about making relationships better, fostering understanding,” said Nur Alam. For her and other members of the Abe’s Babes team, the interactions between participants during the process have been just as important as the final production. Every time the group completed a new draft of the script, they invited members from the Jewish and Muslim communities to Alam’s house for workshops, where they could read the script and give feedback over Alam’s own table laden with snacks. The project encouraged members of both communities who “would have never ever in their lives sat with a Jew or a Muslim” to talk and listen to each other’s stories. The process, Alam said, has gotten people to “share and to talk about their cultures and customs, and go, ‘Oh, I do that,’ ‘Oh, really? So do we.’” For some, the experience has been quite powerful. A Muslim contributor, for example, was in tears at one workshop after reading the script aloud. He hadn’t realized some of the experiences underwent by the other community, he explained, and could now better see their perspective. Ultimately, “the play’s been a living thing that’s been nourished by both communities,” Perczuk said.
Now that the play is finished, the team hopes members of Sydney’s Muslim and Jewish communities can connect over the experience of watching the production. “I’m looking forward to seeing members of both communities sitting in the audience and actually rubbing shoulders with people from the other group and experiencing the play together,” said Perczuk.
As the audience watches characters participate in and struggle with dinner table prejudice, the Abe’s Babes team hopes the play will challenge them to confront themselves about their own misconceptions and table talk. Raya Gadir pointed out that the theater may be the best setting for this to happen. “Growing up in an Israeli home, people were never afraid to confront each other with strong opinions,” she said. ” I realize that sometimes with all this confrontation people don’t listen actually to each other. They just say what they want to say. And in theater people are actually listening.”
Gadir went on to joke that, if the audience leaves in the middle of the play, Abe’s Babes can rest assured that the play made them think. “We’re not tiptoeing around things,” she said. “We want them to think about things. We don’t want to resolve anything.” As Alam described it, the goal of The Laden Table is to hold a mirror up to the audience. The play “creates a distance between you and yourself and you actually see how you behave and hopefully that gives you a new way of looking at yourself,” said Perczuk. Alam pointed out that, if even one person can see himself in the characters and, as a result, reexamines his own preconceived notions, the play will have been a success. “That one person is part of a family and, if those children at that table of that one person are not infected by the racism that they would normally be infected by, then it’s not only the one person. It’s all their family and all their children and hopefully their children,” Perczuk added. While the group cannot imagine having a “tsunami effect” they hope to create “a tiny drip,” as Marian Kernahan put it, which can make larger ripples. “This is what we hope will happen, that we can recognize our common humanity and create perhaps just a little bit of friendship and harmony in our society,” Kernahan said.
Where Do We Come In?
But how can we – as Jews, Muslims, and members of other communities – create our own ripple effect to confront dinner table prejudice? Alam said that, on a practical level, the first step to combatting prejudice in a communal setting is simply being conscious of it when it happens. “Recognize it for what it is. When you recognize the problem you can start doing something creative,” she said. But before coming up with new, innovative solutions, Alam suggests that a bystander simply disengage. “One of our sayings in the Quran is if you don’t like people sitting there gossiping, either ask them to stop it or just get up and walk away,” she said. Perczuk describes this approach as a form of passive resistance. “I’ve been in that situation and I’ve walked away guilty because I haven’t said anything at the time,” she said. “But I then think about it now and, if I had said something, it would have just created an explosion at the table and that’s not productive.” Perczuk suggests that, when you leave a situation in which another group is put down, the next step is to think of a constructive way to counter the overarching prejudice.
Ultimately, Abe’s Babes encourages other Muslim and Jewish communities to raise awareness about dinner table prejudice by engaging in projects like The Laden Table in their own cities. According to Ruth Kliman, the key is to get communities working together on a project that involves weeks or months of work, culminating in a final product they can take pride in together. “That journey is the essence of the whole thing,” she said. Kliman stressed how this process made the Abe’s Babes team into lasting friends, who meet weekly since the project began. “When we don’t see each other once a week, it’s terrible!” she said. Perczuk explained that an imaginative project like The Laden Table creates new friendships and enables people to engage with each other honestly without sidestepping controversy when talking about dinner table prejudice.
“I think if you actually want to challenge some of those negative stereotypes, if you want to confront the prejudice head-on, you need something where people actually touch one another, are working together, and find out about each other,” Perczuk said, “not simply by dialoguing but actually working on something creative, so there are sparks flying, there are tensions, and the real people come out.”
Compassion Week is a joint initiative of the Tenzin Gyatso Institute, Stanford University’s CCARE, The Charter for Compassion, and Dignity Health, and it coming to San Francisco in a few weeks time. It will include 5 days of events featuring conferences on The Science of Compassion and Compassion and Healthcare, and will a feature an all day event highlighting The Charter for Compassion.
Compassion Week brings together doctors, civic leaders, scholars, mindfulness practitioners, and society at large to address how holistically and economically practical an investment practicing compassion can be in all institutions and areas of living.
Speakers include: Arturo Bejar, lead engineer at Facebook, The Honorable Mayor Greg Fischer, Louisville, KY and other Mayors, Dr. Dan Siegel, Dr. Rick Hanson, Julia Kim, M.D., Karen Armstrong, Dr. Paul Gilbert, Michael Imperioli, Dr. Paul Ekman, Angelica Berrie, Tom William, Esq, Dr. Eve Ekman, Dr. Yotam Heineberg.
The Parliament of World Religions is a proud Sponsoring Partner of Compassion Week.
Empathy and Compassion in Society is a forum for anyone wishing to explore what compassion is, how to cultivate and enhance it, and what benefits it can bring to individuals, and modern society as a whole.
The conference will present well researched methods for cultivating empathy and compassion, show the benefits these methods have to enhance ones personal and professional life, and share concrete examples of organizations and public institutions that have effectively employed them.
Internationally renowned neuroscientists, psychologists, decision-makers, leaders and researchers will share their insights, methodology, and benefits observed from cultivating compassion. Innovators are also invited to submit case studies demonstrating how the implementation of a focus on compassion has been a force for change in their area of work.
Highlights this year include talks, Q&A, workshops, networking and panel discussions with Karen Armstrong, Dr Dan Siegel, Dr Paul Ekman, Arturo Bejar, Michael Imperioli, Dr Julia Kim, mayors who are leading the way with ‘Compassionate Cities’ initiatives, and other innovators in the field.
The conference is aimed at professionals from all walks of life, including management, policy, law, health and social care, business, the arts and philanthropy.
Empathy and Compassion in Society is a non-profit event sponsored by a partnership of charities. A free youth gathering for schools will take place November 12th, the day preceding the opening of the conference.
Rev. Robert V. Thompson, Former Chair of the Parliament of the World’s Religions, considers alternative methods of bringing about peace using creative thinking and being attentive to conflicts at their earliest stages.
This op-ed was originally published in Chicago Tribune on December 5, 2001
Because we Americans are suckers for the quick fix we want to believe the war on terrorism will be won through military action, improved intelligence, stemming the flow of terrorist money and stepped-up national security.
While most of us believe these policies will solve the problem, many of us are plagued by a palpable uneasiness and persistent ambivalence. We are, after all, an intensely empathic people. We care very much about the plight of the Afghan people and it is not OK with us that one more time, innocent people are being offered as a sacrifice on the altar of a just cause. Equally unsettling is the gnawing awareness that terrorism is the face rather than the heart of the problem. If we destroy terrorists in Afghanistan, where do we go next? Is it back to Iraq or on to Indonesia? And it is common knowledge that our war in Afghanistan will likely create hundreds or perhaps thousands of new terrorists. Where will it end?
Bill Ury, author of “The Third Side,” has extensive experience in creative non-violent conflict resolution. Ury says terrorism, for that matter any form of violence, is comparable to a virus. He says terrorism, like a virus, lies sleeping, spreads throughout the body and attacks, as if from out of nowhere. It flourishes when the world’s immune system is weak.
I asked Ury what might have been different had we had a strong global immune system prior to Sept. 11. He said, “Witnesses might have informed us of the terrorists’ plans. Peacekeepers the world over might have frustrated the terrorists and taken them into custody. Healers would have been healing the wounds of the Islamic world. Mediators would have been working hard to resolve the obvious conflicts like that of Israel-Palestine. Teachers would have been at work teaching other ways of dealing with differences and about the tragic futility of violence. Providers would have been addressing the conditions of poverty and oppression that often breed terrorism. Bridge-builders would have been building bridges between the Islamic and Western world. Arbiters, equalizers, referees would all have been at work.”
Every person has a role to play in strengthening the global immune system. Every human being can become a peace keeper, healer, mediator and teacher of non-violent conflict resolution. We can do this in our homes, schools, neighborhoods, religious communities, nation, and around the world. This is an infinitely greater challenge than flying a flag or singing the national anthem on key. We are now being called to this greater patriotism. One like that envisioned by Martin Luther King Jr., who said, “No nation can live alone . . . we are tied together in a single garment of destiny, caught in an inescapable network of mutuality.”
This wisdom, this greater patriotism is the awareness that a healed and renewed America cannot exist apart from a healed and renewed world. And history has taught us that if the people will lead, the leaders will follow. Copyright © 2001, Chicago Tribune
Rev. Robert V. Thompson – Parliament Chair Emeritus. A native of the San Francisco Bay Area, Bob Thompson graduated from Berkeley Baptist Divinity School (Graduate Theological Union) and was ordained an American Baptist minister in 1973. He served American Baptist Churches in Kansas, Ohio, and for 30 years, as Senior Minister of the Lake Street Church in Evanston, Illinois. During the 1980′s Thompson became an activist pastor focusing on issues such as homelessness, racial reconciliation and advocacy for LGBT rights. He is the author of A Voluptuous God: A Christian Heretic Speaks (CopperHouse, 2007) and a contributor to the book for preachers, Feasting On the Word, Westminster John Knox Press.
Spirit Unleashed: Reimagining Human-Animal Relations by Trustee Anne Benvenuti Nominated for Pulitzer (Excerpt)
Parliament Trustee Rev. Dr. Anne Benvenuti’s new book entitled Spirit Unleashed: Reimagining Human-Animal Relations has been nominated for the Pulitzer Prize in non-fiction. The book applies both scientific and religious perspectives to the relationship between humans and other animals.
Excerpt Published with permission of Wipf and Stock Publishers.
“One summer morning it was a bat. I had set out early for a trail walk, hoping to get some exercise for me and for the dogs and some mental focus before the day heated up. I had planned to write about having learned from Molly to love the non-human world. As I started out on the trail, I calmed my mind, stilled my thoughts and asked all the beings there to help me to stay awake and not drift into the lulling and dulling chatter of thoughts. After a few minutes of watching the woodpeckers and the cottontails, the rocks and the ragged cianothus and sage, I noticed a dead blossom lying in the middle of the trail. As I bent to look at it, I saw its fine and fragile wing-like structure. I picked it up and turned it over, still not knowing what it was. Then face-up in my hand, I could see that it was a dead bat. I observed that his little mouth was open, tongue out and the tiny fragile fingers of both hands were clutching his throat. I thought he may have died of some poison, or gagged on contentious catch. I probably never would have picked up a dead bat intentionally, having heard terrible tales of bat-contamination. I carried the little corpse over and set it on a noteworthy rock, hoping that I would find it there for further study upon my return. As I turned to go, a wing fell open, or did he move it? I returned to investigate.
I understood then that he might have been one of the many flying creatures who have some kind of problem midflight that causes them to crash land, resulting in shock and dehydration, on top of any injury or illness. They frequently need water and safety more than any special care. I have learned that a lot of animals die just so of shock and dehydration, and I have also learned that they understand your intent in relation to them very quickly. I assured him in that soft hypnotic voice that creatures tend to love that my intent was to do no harm and to do what good I might. I lifted him gently and watched him unfold and open entirely; beautiful wings made of a fine frame of bone and joint covered with translucent fabric that wrapped his body, webbing the entire back of his torso in an enclosure. I didn’t have my glasses, and, at this point was interested to know if he had teeth. I peered at him closely and saw the soft petals of his pointed ears, but I never did ascertain the presence of teeth, in spite of his open mouth. His furry belly fluttered with uneven breath as his arm bent at the elbow and he reached for his mouth again. Then my mind’s ear heard clearly the words, “I thirst.” Ah, that. I do not know how to care for a bat and I know precious little about them, but I do know thirst. I decided I would carry him to the creek with me and see about arranging something between him and the moisture he so desperately craved.
I studied him as I walked, awed by the intricate beauty and the fragile toughness of him. He had tiny glass beads of eyes. Had I not heard that bats had no capacity to see? It was hard to tell exactly without my reading glasses. His body was about an inch and a half long with fine pointed little ears at the top and a webbed tail, which he used to completely pull up the blanket of his fabric and enclose himself. His wings were about six inches in span, huge by comparison to his soft little body, graceful as a geisha’s fan in their folding and unfolding. His arms were just like mine, bending at the elbow, with hands and fingers just like mine, except for the size, about an eighth of an inch. Again he brought his hand to his dry tongue. Do you doubt for a moment that he spoke to me about his thirst?
I set him down in the moist sand about two inches from the place where the water lapped the shore and I let my fingers dribble water down in front of him. He drank it; he gulped water down. Then he rested, then drank more, and more. Rested, more water. With no warning, he unfurled his wings, fanned out into the water as if he had a gentle breeze in his sails, and swam away from me. Have you ever seen a bat swim? Have you ever even seen a picture of a bat swimming? Oh glorious and graceful sight, oh human delight! He hauled himself with infinite grace onto the underside of a rock. I watched. He climbed, revived by mere water, climbed up under the rock and then over it and then up again. My work was done. On the definite underside of a rock, wedged well against other rocks, he hung upside down, asleep. So this is the dreaded bat.
Love one little thing and you love the entire universe that holds it, as well as the essence from which it pours forth, and the pulse that beats in it, and the breath that heaves it, and the awareness that connects it. Save one little thing and you save your soul entire.
That tiny desperate thirst is indeed your own, and you are quenched beyond measure, awakened in the water, merely for being there, responsive. This is what I learned from Molly Brown, the little dog with great spirit, slowly over the many years of her patient instruction, that words hinder the communications of the heart, acting often as stoppers to the ears of empathy, which would otherwise hear every pulsing breathing body.
“God speaks to us secretly and in silence,” said John of the Cross. Perhaps the language of God is silence because only in silence can I listendeepluy; and God is not shallow. The whole world is here, waiting to be heard, but I am too busy producing private words and thoughts to listen to it. I am so lulled by my word-making that I don’t even know I am doing it most of the time. In silence, words are reborn and they become something expressive, something worthy of care. In silence, we learn love. You do not need information about bats to know a dry tongue and a hand reaching for a parched throat, but you are unlikely to see that reaching hand unless you are still.
Surprise! The whole world is a message under the words. What I learned by way of Molly Brown—she who would be understood and not just condescended to—is that the whole world is there, waiting to be known, interested in me, as I am interested in it, that we, multitudinous and embodied, are also inseparable and in Love.”
To Continue Reading Spirit Unleashed, check out the book on Amazon.com
Anne Benvenuti is a professor of psychology and philosophy, an integrative scholar, a licensed clinical psychologist, a priest of the Episcopal Church, a spiritual director, and a published poet, writer, and photographer. Her research interests include developing models for scientific investigation of qualia; explication of religious epistemology, especially with reference to the potential for neuro-scientific models of integrative knowing, policy implications of religious epistemology, and the clinical integration of spirituality, health, and ecology.
Bishop Malkhaz Songulashvili of the Evangelical Baptist Church of the Republic of Georgia’s recent visit to the Seminary Consortium for Urban Pastoral Education offices facilitated by SCUPE President and Parliament Trustee Shanta Premawardhana schooled Chicago Christians in lessons on radical solidarity with minority groups in need of compassion. By championing the rights of Chechan Muslims, LGBT citizens, masses of unemployed and female clergy hoping for ordainment, the Baptist Bishop unravels stereotypes associated with religious practices in the Russian Orthodox world.
by Tanya Sadagopan, Director of Continuing Education and Outreach
Seminary Consortium for Urban Pastoral Education (SCUPE). Republished with permission.
“Being a good Christian or a good Church isn’t good enough anymore. We must learn the ways of compassion. Something that we learned in the course of the struggle is that it is very important to have equal rights and equal opportunity for everybody, Songulashvili said.
Ordaining women as leaders, standing in solidarity with the LGBT community, and fasting with Muslims during Ramadan are marks of discipleship. There is clearly a great deal we can learn about justice and peace from Baptists in the Republic of Georgia.
In the context of a state Orthodox Church the people of Georgia longed for a church of and for the people. The Evangelical Baptists of the Republic of Georgia focus not just on high liturgy and sensual worship, but more importantly they do the work of justice and peace in an environment of increasing tensions with Russian government forces occupying foreign lands.
These radical Baptists are not afraid to speak out and stand up where others would not. They ordained women as clergy early in their history. They celebrate women as deacons, presbyters, and currently have one female bishop with another one on the way. They stand for equal treatment of people regardless of their sexual orientation. They are deeply engaged in the work of interfaith advocacy with persecuted Muslims both within Georgia as well as with Russian refugees.
All this work of justice and peacemaking takes place in the economic context where in some villages the unemployment rate is as high as 70 percent. In a time of great economic disparity, how can a church find so much energy and resources to do the ministry of Jesus on the ground? Perhaps it is their liturgical commitments and their spiritual practices of fasting and prayer that undergird the power of their practice of ministry. We have much to learn from the Evangelical Baptists of Georgia. But don’t take my word for it, read the story of their ministry below.
Bishop Malkhaz Songulashvili
Evangelical Baptist Church of the Republic of Georgia
Lecture given at the SCUPE offices on Tuesday July 29th, 2014
For the Baptist Church in Georgia we often have to find some analogies or stories to explain our identity. One such story goes like this.
Once upon a time, in the forest a lion decided to have a convention. So he invited all the animals and birds for the convention. Once they came he asked them to divide into two groups. Those who are beautiful should stay on the left and those who are strong should stay on the right. There was upheaval in the group and ultimately everybody found their place. In the midst there was an ugly frog. The lion asked, “Why did not you choose your place?” The frog said, “I do not know how to choose a place because I am both strong and beautiful.”That is the story of the Evangelical Baptist Church in Georgia.
On one hand we are orthodox in our liturgy, in our theology, and in our ecclesiology. But on the other hand we are strongly related to the European radical reformation. The church came into being about 140 years ago as a result of a search for meaning in the context where the Orthodox Church was a state church. There was longing to have a church to be closer to the people where the liturgy would be understandable for the congregation. Our identity was forged in the time of persecution. We were first persecuted by the Czars and then persecuted by Communists and then we were persecuted by religious nationalists after the breakup of the Soviet Union. So our identity has been forged in constant struggle with the culture which happened to be Russian Imperial, Soviet, and then Nationalist.
President of SCUPE Shanta Premawardhana and the Bishop’s wife Ala were among our guests.
Something that we learned in the course of the struggle is that it is very important to have equal rights and equal opportunity for everybody. In the 1930’s all the churches were closed down by comrade Stalin and all the male leaders and male laymen were sent to Siberia. All of them. And I think the Soviets made a dramatic mistake. If they wanted to get rid of the Baptist Church in Georgia, they should not have sent the men; they should have sent the women. Owing to the work of the women, the church not only survived, but it grew. When the Soviets came there were twelve ethnic Georgian Baptist churches. And when the Soviet Union collapsed there were a couple of thousand churches.
It was not because the Soviets favored the Baptists, but it was because of the energy the women brought to the life of the church. Therefore it was not surprising that we have not even discussed the question which is now being discussed by the Church of England and other churches whether women should be allowed into ordained ministry. It would be sacrilegious to speak of whether women had a right to be ordained. The church survived owing to the leadership provided by women. My grandmother was a sort of bible woman in Communist time who would go from a village to another and would stay overnight and would speak to the people. The Communists would not even notice. Because she was a women, she was not taken seriously. But now when I travel as a Bishop I often come across people who will say, “Son, I know who you are. I knew your grandmother. She was first to preach the gospel in our village or in our community or in our clan.” This is the difference that women make. Therefore since we are Episcopal by structure, we have women as bishops, presbyters, and deacons. In all three layers of the church we have considerable feminine representation.
Our ecumenical identity was forged by our encounter with Muslims. It happened in the aftermath of thefirst Russian-Chechen war when there was a huge influx of Chechen refugees into Georgia. Nobody wanted to deal with Chechen refugees out of fear of Russia. Our country was very poor. The government was very poor to do anything about it. So we decided to go forward and deliver some tokens of support to the refugee camp. We did not want to do anything more. We just wanted to affirm that we are Christians. We are so nice and we would like to present you some gifts.
I should tell you that in the Georgian psyche, the Chechen and Northern Caucasians have always been associated with terror. Georgia is a mountainous land and it also has beautiful valleys, very fertile valleys. We produce a lot of crops, and grapes, ecetera. In the north of Georgia, beyond the Caucasian mountain range, there are northern Caucasian tribes who are predominately Muslim. They have neither fertile lands nor anything else to support their economy. They were very creative to develop their own economy, which happened to be kidnapping. They would come on horsebacks to Georgia in the autumn, kidnap young lads and ladies and take them down to the Istanbul slave market. They would sell them and thus build up their budget for their plans. That was happening over and over and over again for centuries. Therefore we as Georgians had accumulated a lot of hatred, understandably for the Chechenian and Northern Caucasian people.
When we learned that the Chechenian people were coming to Georgia as refugees we did not know how to handle it. Reports were coming on a daily basis of their suffering. They did not have food or clothes. There were mainly children and women. Christmas was drawing nearer and I asked the congregation, “What should we do for the refugees from Chechenia.” There was silence in the congregation and I knew what the silence meant because I felt the same way that they did. If you hear that your traditional enemies are coming here and they are suffering, somewhere in the bottom of your heart you are somewhat delighted. But then we realized that Christmas was drawing nearer and we contemplated the Advent Season. We are fasting during Advent season and we thought we should do something for the refugees because we are Christians.
We went to the camp. We had collected whatever we could: tea, chocolates, and blankets. We went to deliver these goods before Christmas and then forget about it. But much to everybody’s amazement we got trapped in the camp. When we met for the first time, we realized that we are humans as they are. Immediately some sort of bond was forged. Before leaving the camp, we said out of politeness, “If there is anything we can possibly do, never hesitate to ask.” Immediately they produced shopping lists. In the lists they needed binding materials for the wounded, medicine, warm clothes for children, blankets, and tea.
The Bishop resides in Tbilisi. The refuge camps were near the Causasus Mountains.
We took these lists back to the church. Since we didn’t have money to purchase these items, we needed to do some fundraising. This was my first fundraising effort on the internet. So I go to my computer in my office and I open up my internet account. I write a letter to all my friends asking for $500 U.S. dollars to complete the purchases for everything we needed for the camp. That was Thursday. I go to my office on Friday and there is a pledge for $15,000 U.S. dollars. The next week we had $200,000 and within one month we had half a million U.S. dollars.
Thus began our relationship with the Muslim leaders. Because of the overwhelming fundraising response, together we built the much needed schools and hospitals. You see some of the children had never had a chance to go to school. If you are at war for 10 years, the children cannot go to school. So we found ourselves physically and emotionally involved in relief work for a number of years.
At that time, we did not realize that what we were doing would prepare us for what was going to happen later within our own country. Then several years later all the skills and knowledge we had accumulated in the course of working with the Chechen refugees was useful for working with the ethnic Georgian Muslims who were being persecuted by Russian Orthodox Christians right here at home.
What we found out is that Muslims were forbidden to pray on Fridays, that orthodox police were stopping people who were not wearing crosses and beating them, and the government organized the removal of a Muslim minaret in a small village. In our part of the world, you can be Muslim as long as nobody sees you. It is fine to have a place of worship, but as soon as you put up a minaret you are the target of abuse and attack. The same is true for various groups in our society that are sidelined by the majority culture. The Orthodox church says it is fine for you to be a part of the LGBT community as long as nobody knows about you. So invisibility is the only way to survive. But unless you are visible we cannot possibly feel as a dignified part of the wider society. This is how we found ourselves deeply engaged in advocacy work for the Muslim community in Georgia.
Read more about Bishop Malkhaz Songulashvili:
Sharing an update with the Parliament about his work in Liberia during the recent Ebola crisis, Ambassador of the Parliament of the World’s Religions, Victor Garpulee, gives us hope that in times of humanitarian emergency, commitment to the Interfaith movement is building support between neighbors. Here is his pictorial essay:
Victor’s Parliament of the World’s Religions group in Liberia demonstrates will and commitment to work with students, as well as religious, social, and other institutions to promote the Parliament’s Faiths Against Hate initiative, and eliminate violence and discrimination.
“The banner above is a working material of Parliament Liberia as we go in communities and institutions where there are people of difference faith to sensitize them about respecting people of other faiths.”
An awareness of the Ebola epidemic that is taking away the lives of the people of Liberia, Guinea and Sierra Leone.
The below letter shows how Parliament Liberia is demonstrating will to work with various institutions across the country.