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Pope Urges Interfaith Dialogue in Mideast, Defends Religious Freedom

Pope Benedict XVI signs his apostolic exhortation on the church’s concerns in the Middle East during his visit to St. Paul’s Basilica in Harissa, Lebanon, Sept. 14. The document summarizing the conclusion of the 2010 Synod of Bishops for the Middle East was presented by Archbishop Nikola Eterovic, general secretary of the Synod of Bishops, left. (CNS/Paul Haring)

by Francis X. Rocca
from Catholic News Service

BEIRUT (CNS) — Pope Benedict XVI signed a major document calling on Catholics in the Middle East to engage in dialogue with Orthodox, Jewish and Muslim neighbors, but also to affirm and defend their right to live freely in the region where Christianity was born.

In a ceremony at the Melkite Catholic Basilica of St. Paul in Harissa Sept. 14, Pope Benedict signed the 90-page document of his reflections on the 2010 special Synod of Bishops, which was dedicated to Christians in the Middle East. He was to formally present the document Sept. 16 at an outdoor Mass in Beirut.

A section dedicated to interreligious dialogue encouraged Christians to “esteem” the region’s dominant religion, Islam, lamenting that “both sides have used doctrinal differences as a pretext for justifying, in the name of religion, acts of intolerance, discrimination, marginalization and even of persecution.”

Yet in a reflection of the precarious position of Christians in most of the region today, where they frequently experience negative legal and social discrimination, the pope called for Arab societies to “move beyond tolerance to religious freedom.”

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Real Living is Encounter

Father Musa (rightmost) and others at the 2009 Parliament of the World’s Religions. Photo submitted by author.

by Father Gerald Musa

Why should I engage with people who hold religious beliefs which are different from mine and what difference does interreligious dialogue make when religious intolerance is on the increase?

These are questions I have often reflected upon and I have met friends who ask similar questions. However, I notice that it is hardly possible to avoid interreligious relationships because I was born into a mixed family of Christians and Muslims in Nigeria. My paternal relations are Muslims and my maternal relations are Christians and some of my best friends belong to other religious beliefs. My first name ‘Gerald’ is chosen from the Catholic ‘Saint Gerald Majella’ and my surname is ‘Musa’ which means Moses, an interreligious figure found in Jewish, Christian and Islamic scriptures. So all these factors put together have provided a basis and kindled my interest in interreligious relationships.

I think the most important reasons for which I have developed a passion for Christian-Muslim dialogue are my family and communal background. As a child growing up in a mixed community of Christians and Muslims, I have seen the best and the worst of interreligious relationships. In the communal farm work, no one asks if the other is a Christian or Muslim; in naming ceremonies and marriages everyone participates and contributes irrespective of religious beliefs. During the Muslim celebrations their Christian counterparts supported them with food ingredients and clothes with which to celebrate and the Muslim neighbours did the same for the Christians during Christian festivities. In the village what mattered most was everyone is somehow related to the other. On the other hand, I have personally witnessed riots between Christians and Muslims. The first was during my days in the minor Seminary when arsonists came in and set the school ablaze at a time when we were preparing for our final (high school) exams.

Through the years I have developed an inherent passion for interreligious dialogue and particularly, for dialogue with Muslims. From the various literature on dialogue and the attendance of conferences, my thoughts on dialogue are evolving and so I come to realize that disposition to dialogue is not a destination but a journey. One of the most remarkable pieces of literature on dialogue which I enjoy is Martin Buber’s “I and Thou.” For Buber, the I-Thou relationship is a dialogue and the I-It relationship is a monologue. The traits of the I-Thou relationship are mutual respect, equality and openness while the features of the I-It relationship are objectification and the manipulation of the other.

After ordination as a priest I have been officially engaged at different levels in interreligious dialogue. The first organisation in which I was involved was the Christian-Muslim forum and subsequently in the Nigeria Interreligious Council. Martin Buber says “All real living is encounter.” Through interreligious meetings and conferences I have encountered people with different religious persuasions. The most important conference which I attended is the Parliament of the World’s Religions which took place in Melbourne, Australia in December 2009. During this event, I came across prominent interreligious bridge builders such Hans Kung; Katherine Marshall of the Berkley Center for Peace, Religion and World affairs and the World Faiths Development Dialogue; Wesley Ariaraja of the World Council of Churches; Sakena Yacoobi of the Afghan Institute of Learning; Fr. Lawrence Freeman of World Community for Christian Meditation; and Precious Rasheeda Muhammad of the Council for a Parliament of the World’s Religions headquartered in the US. I also had the privilege of being on the same discussion panel with Sheikh Abdul-Aziz Bukhari, a leader of the Sufi faith in Jerusalem.

When I travelled from Brisbane to Melbourne for the conference, I was sure of where I was going – to the Presbytery of Beaumaris and Black Rock Catholic Parish. Fr. John Dupuche, the Parish Priest and a lecturer at the Australian Catholic University had offered me an accommodation, but I was surprised to see that he lived in the same house with a Buddhist monk, Venerable Lobsang Tendar, who is also an artist, and a Hindu Swami Samnyasanand, who is also a neurophysiologist. I could not work out how these three lived together under the same roof. In an interview with the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC), Venerable Lobsang Tendar says: “Every day we do meditation and sometimes in the morning and afternoon and this has really helped me.” This statement indicates that the three are united by the common ground of meditation.

I believe strongly that the path towards peace is in an authentic relationship with other cultures and faith traditions. This relationship begins when we are able to see the common humanity which we share, when we are open to encounter with others and when we make an effort to improve our knowledge on the meaning of dialogue. In 2001, when Pope John Paul II announced the International prayer meeting of world religious leaders which took place in Assisi, he said: “We wish to have Christians and Muslims come together to proclaim before the world that religion must never be a reason for conflict, hatred and violence.”  These words are still relevant for us today.

Fr. Gerald M. Musa was born in Gusau, Zamfara State, Nigeria and is a Catholic priest of Sokoto Diocese, Nigeria. Fr. Musa had studied philosophy at St. Thomas Aquinas Seminary, Makurdi and theology at St. Augustine’s Seminary, Jos, Nigeria. He undertook postgraduate studies in Communication at the Pontifical Gregorian University, Rome. Fr. Musa worked as Secretary of the Christian Association of Nigeria (Sokoto Chapter). He also worked as an executive member of the Muslim-Christian Forum and the Nigeria Interreligious Council, Sokoto, Nigeria.

He is currently at the stage of completing his doctoral thesis at the School of Journalism and Communication. He is writing on “Dialogue as Communication: Potentials and Challenges of Christian-Muslim dialogue in Nigeria.”

Fr. Musa has keen interest in intercultural communication and in communication for social change.

The Word of God vs. The Actions of Men

A Priest and Imam in Rwanda. Muslims and Christians in Rwanda are subjects in Alrick Brown’s documentary, Kinyarwanda.

by Alrick Brown

I am neither a Muslim nor a Christian; in fact I do not practice any organized faith. However, I have spent much time in Christian, Muslim, Jewish and Buddhist communities, in churches, mosques, synagogues and temples all over the world, from the Ukraine to New York, from Africa to Singapore. Through these experiences I have developed a healthy respect for religion and for spiritual practices and beliefs, a respect that brought me to the subject matter of my first feature film, Kinyarwanda – a film about faith, life, love and hope in midst of the 1994 Rwandan Genocide.

Kinyarwanda had its world premiere at the 2011 Sundance Film Festival. We received a standing ovation that night. Local and national papers advertised that the 2011 festival was filled with films about faith. One of the more powerful and well-received scenes in Kinyarwanda is a moment when Muslims and Christians seeking refuge from the violence pray their respective prayers under the same roof.

Kinyarwanda was made in collaboration with a Muslim Rwandan Genocide survivor, Ishmael Ntihabose. Ishmael was also the Executive Producer and the brains and heart behind the story. It was he who had the courage and vision to seek me out, an African-American, non-Muslim, to tell the untold story of how the Mufti of Rwanda risked his own life by issuing an edict forbidding Muslims from participating in the genocide. This effectively made the mosque in Kigali and the madrassa of Nyanza two of the safest places in the country during that horrific time. Muslims, Christians, Tutsis and moderate Hutus all sought shelter in those spaces, and priests and Imams worked together to save, preserve and inspire life.

Meanwhile, in many of the Catholic churches, masses of people were being slaughtered. This is not to demonize the Catholic Church—in fact, after such tragic acts the church has worked diligently to restore its name and has spoken openly about the unforgivable acts that took place within its walls.

This is also not to make heroes out of Muslims, because though mosques and Muslim villages were safer, some Muslims did participate in the killing while some Christians refused to participate.

Kinyarwanda is not about heroes and villains, good or bad, but about real people who made decisions for selfish or selfless reasons. This fact underscores one of the most important lines in the film and my stance on the matter. It is why I am at peace with all that I learned about these events, in spite of the complicated relationship I have personally had with religion.  In the film, while a discussion is going on about colonialism and the root causes of the genocide, a mention of Christianity versus Islam comes up. The Mufti intercedes and squelches negative remarks by an Imam about Christians, saying, “Don’t confuse the word of God with the actions of men.”

I have found both beauty and tragedy within the religions that I have experienced or studied. Religion was used during slavery in the Americas and abroad to justify unspeakable acts and to subjugate and mentally colonize millions of human beings. Religion was used to justify the killing during the Crusades, the taking of land and the de-humanization of Native Americans and Aborigines, to explain segregation, to point out the immorality of same-sex unions and abortion, and as a justification for war. But then there is the beauty. The beauty we see in the people who have found faith, who have found something beautiful to believe in, those who have a faith that helps them transcend their daily struggles and believe in something bigger than themselves; a faith that teaches us to heal, to forgive, to love, to accept, and to understand—even if we do not necessarily agree; a faith that has challenged the worst amongst us to change and to find light in the world and within ourselves.

Religion and God are not the cause of our problems.  We live in an interfaith world because, in the end, as portrayed in the film, we actually do live in and share one space, one world. Thus we all pray and worship under the same roof. And under that shared roof is flawed humanity.

Alrick Brown’s collective work has screened in over 60 film festivals worldwide; earning numerous awards and honors. Among them is the prestigious 2011 Sundance World Cinema Audience Award for his first feature Kinyarwanda. A highly sought consultant and educator on the art of cinematic storytelling, Alrick’s work has been described as cultural archeology because of his vision to unearth and tell stories that otherwise would not be told; stories that often focus on social issues affecting the world at large. He received his MFA from NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts where he’s taught both undergraduate and graduate film students.

Faith and Freedom: Religious Minorities in Egypt and the U.S.

By Calvin Skaggs

Documentary films root themselves in the ground of truthfulness. We filmmakers base our documentaries on the premise that if we look clearly enough at a subject and edit thoughtfully all the material we collect, we can put on film a new set of truthful insights.

Today few subjects need new insights more than religious conflict. Look at the headlines:

66 People Killed Exiting Church in Nigeria….Settlers Torch West Bank Mosque….Egypt’s Copts Fear Islamic State….Woman Jailed in Denmark for Wearing Niqab

As founder and president of Lumiere Productions—a film company that has been creating a diverse array of films that engage hearts and open minds for over 25 years—one of the premises of the films I make is the belief that true freedom of religion—the freedom to worship as one pleases, or not; to change religions if one chooses; and to publicly identify with one’s religion without negative repercussions professionally or economically—is a cornerstone of representative democracy.

Yet most minority religions cannot claim all three of these prongs, even in progressive democracies.

In the U.S., it is Muslims who are struggling to move us one step further toward true freedom of religion. Though 62% of Americans say they have never met a Muslim, recent polls show between 39% and 49% say they do not trust Muslims. Since 66% of the U.S. media coverage of Muslims focuses on fundamentalist or militant groups, Americans tend to associate Muslims with violence. As a result, as one Muslim said to me, when people find out you’re a Muslim, they want you to “apologize for something you didn’t do.”

In contrast to the U.S., where Christians tend to dominate the culture but are largely required to abide by our laws, some Muslim-dominated countries offer little pretense of freedom of religion. In Egypt, for example, one can see a jobs advertisement headed “Coptic Christians need not apply.” Indeed the 2011 Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life ranks Egypt in the top 5% of all countries with “both government restrictions and social hostilities involving religion.” In sum, religious minorities around the world suffer from mild to severe repression or persecution as they try to live their everyday lives and practice their faiths.

Lumiere’s film Faith and Freedom will show the hurdles such minority religions face and the ways they strive to leap them.

In order to allow our audience to empathize with how some practitioners of minority religions feel, we’ll go inside the lives of several members of two religious congregations–a Sunni mosque in Paterson, New Jersey, and a Coptic Orthodox Church in El-Matariya, Cairo, Egypt. We’ve chosen to explore individual lives in depth on the premise that being able to live one’s everyday life fully is the foundation of an open society. It means being able to live your life as you define yourself, not as others define you, and being able to assume a life free of unwarranted prying or interference by government or other institutions. As one of our characters from the Paterson mosque explains, “We’re being defined by others; we’re not being allowed to define who we are.”

Yet we believe that being allowed to define who you are is essential to true religious freedom.

The verité filmmaking we prefer doing will allow us to spend time with selected men and women who attend the Paterson, NJ, mosque and a handful of members of the Coptic congregation in El Matariya. We’ll see them at their jobs, on the basketball court, cooking and eating meals with their families, worshipping together or praying alone. The characters will be showing their own lives and telling their own stories.

We believe this kind of filmmaking can take viewers at least one step toward feeling what it is like to live in another’s skin, even one different from oneself. In an era in which Americans fear our economy might never recover and fear our political system grows ever more dysfunctional, in which greed plagues our bankers and pedophilia our priests, it is tempting to roll all our fears into one form: Islamophobia. The long-denied possibility of true freedom can also push Egyptian Copts to be even more fearful of Muslims, or Muslims of Copts. But once we can begin to conceive of, indeed to undergo the experience of living in another’s skin, then perhaps we can begin to overcome the fears all human beings seem to harbor.

Then perhaps our film will be a small bridge over the chasm of religious conflicts that divides each of our countries, and the world.

This is why I began producing films nearly two decades ago on the porous border between religion and politics in the U.S., the first example being a 6-hour documentary series on the rise of the American religious right after World War II: With God on Our Side. Since then I’ve produced other films on American evangelicals’ interaction with American culture and politics—for PBS, Channel 4 UK, Arté, and various U.S. cable channels. Producing other films having nothing directly to do with religion also led me to Afghanistan, Nigeria, and Russia, where religious strife simmered constantly behind the story I was telling, whether it was based in Kano, Kandahar, or Chechnya.

 

I make these films foregrounding or backgrounding religion because I want to understand how other people’s minds work. I want to get to the heart of how religious differences drive economic and political forces that seem to have little connection with religion. I also make these films because they fulfill me personally. They are premised on my belief that a person’s religious needs are at the heart of his or her identity, whether or not he or she exercises or nourishes the needs. They are also premised on my belief that the three Abrahamic faiths’ core principles dedicated to monotheistic worship, the cultivation of human spirituality, and the furtherance of human justice unite them far more than theological nuances differentiate and divide them.

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Calvin Skaggs, founder and president of Lumiere Productions, has produced or directed over 30 dramas and documentaries for television and theatrical exhibition. His first theatrical feature, On Valentine’s Day, was the official American entry in the Venice Film Festival; his hip-hop drama Fly By Night won the Sundance Filmmakers’ Trophy in 1993. He has executive produced two major documentary series for PBS—With God On Our Side and Local News—and produced numerous films for Discovery, PBS, HBO and Channel 4 UK. Before founding Lumiere, Skaggs earned a Ph.D. from Duke University, and served as Professor of English and Cinema at Drew University.

Interfaith Leaders Fast to Protest Solitary Confinement

Advertisement for the National Religious Campaign Against Torture’s 23-hour Fasting Solidarity event. Photo from Google Images.

by Chris Lisee
from Religion News Service

An interfaith coalition is urging Congress to end solitary confinement, which they said is a “harmful, costly, and ineffective practice.”

Muslim, Jewish, and Christian faith leaders joined the National Religious Campaign Against Torture to break a 23-hour nationwide fast on Tuesday (June 19) at a press conference following the first-ever congressional hearing on solitary confinement.

“We’re breaking our fast with a commitment that this issue is not over (and) that we’re going to even give more energy to our effort to make sure that no one has to spend time in solitary confinement,” said Richard Killmer, NRCAT’s executive director and a Presbyterian minister.

The earlier hearing before the Senate Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights and Human Rights called attention to economic, safety, and moral issues solitary confinement raises.

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Korean Churches Plan “Peace Train” Ahead Of 2013 Gathering

The '88 world "Peace Train" of Korean National Railroad. Push-pull type Saemaeul DMU, at Dong-Daegu station, Gyeongbu Line. Photo from Wikimedia Commons.

by Kristine Greenaway
from the Eurasia Review

Korean churches are developing plans for a “peace train” that would travel from Berlin through Moscow and Beijing to Busan, South Korea in time for the World Council of Churches’ (WCC) global assembly in October 2013.

The plan is to draw attention to the need for peace and reunification in the Korean peninsula, the churches said, and North Korea also would be on the route of the train, which would carry church and civil society representatives.

“Peace Together 2013, a committee of the National Council of Churches of Korea [NCCK], is working with the governments on the plan,” said Chae Hye-won, Director of the Committee of Reconciliation and Reunification of the NCCK.

A team of ten South Korean Christian leaders will begin a short version of the proposed 16-day trip on 28 May when they travel from Geneva to Beijing.

NCCK is also in early phases of discussion about how to work with the governments of North and South Korea to prepare a peace treaty to be signed in 2013 that marks the 60th anniversary of the ceasefire treaty that ended the Korean War.

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Forum Says Harmony Between Religions Can Be Forged by Differences

Christian and Muslim communities in Indonesia have met many times, as this picture from a 2009 collaborative meeting shows.

by Ryan Dagur
from UCANews.com

The governments of Indonesia and Italy say they are committed to taking interfaith dialogue to a higher level, with the aim of fostering global peace and respect for minority groups.

This was the message from the foreign ministers of the two countries at the opening of an interfaith forum yesterday in Jakarta.

Indonesia foreign minister Marty M. Natalegawa said that building bridges of mutual understanding is the best way to foster a global culture of peace.

“Message of peace in interfaith dialogue must echo outside assembly halls,” he said.

Italian foreign minister Guilio Terzi, agreed saying that interfaith dialogue must ensure protection for minority groups.

Government must reach out at the grass roots level and religious leaders must help promote respect towards different religious beliefs, Terzi said.

The forum called Unity in Diversity: The Power of Dialogue for Peaceful Cohabitation in a Pluralistic Society was organized by the Community of Saint’Egidio in cooperation with foreign ministries of the two countries.

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Immigrants Remaking Canada’s Religious Face in Surprising Ways

Image from Lalani & Associates

by Douglas Todd
from the Vancouver Sun

Canada is welcoming more than the global average of immigrants who are Christian, Sikh, Buddhist and non-religious.

The country, however, is taking in less than the global average of immigrants who are Muslim, Hindu and Jewish.

Those are some of the surprising findings of a sweeping global survey on immigration and religion conducted by the independent Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life.

The report, titled Faith on the Move, provides an enormous amount of data on the religious loyalties of the world’s 214-million immigrants, a group larger than the population of Brazil.

Canada, which has 7.2 million permanent residents who were not born in the country, is the fifth most popular destination for the world’s immigrants. This country of 34 million accepts twice as many immigrants per capita as the U.S.

The Pew Forum report, which describes migration patterns in every country of the world, makes clear that immigration is changing the religious face of Canada in unexpected ways.

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Global Voices of Nonviolence

by Lynne Hybels
from Huffington Post

In March of 2011 I walked up a rocky hillside near the Palestinian Christian village of Aboud. I had an olive tree seedling in a plastic bucket hoisted on my shoulder. With a chain link fence topped by razor wire as a backdrop, I scooped earth with my hands and planted the hearty little seedling. My American and Palestinian friends planted a dozen or so olive trees that day while Israeli soldiers watched from a distance. A week later, long after we Americans were gone, the Palestinian villages planted more seedlings, but the Israeli soldiers uprooted the trees and sent the villagers home.

The seedlings were planted to replace the ancient olive trees plowed down by Israeli bulldozers. Though the hillside was owned by the Palestinian villagers and the olive trees provided their livelihood, the land was cleared for the sake of Israeli security. But many people–including Israelis, Palestinians, and Americans–believe the destruction of the olive trees is unnecessary and unjust. So they replant the trees as an act of protest. If, as sometimes happens, the seedling are allowed to grow, so much the better; but if not, at least the empty holes dug by human hands will shout a simple message: This is wrong.

It will also say: Though I believe your actions are unjust, and I need to stand against them, I will not take up weapons against you. I will resist you, but I will not turn to violence. This form of nonviolent resistance, grounded in the teachings and example of Gandhi and MLK, is judged by detractors as weak or ineffectual. But nonviolent revolutions overthrew the British in India and the violent defenders of apartheid in South Africa. It shaped the Civil Rights movement in the US. Of the thirteen nonviolent revolutions in communist nations that occurred in 1989-90 only one failed–in China. We’ve recently seen the tragedy of brutal violence in parts of the Middle East, but also the impact of “people power” grounded in nonviolent resistance.

My personal introduction to nonviolence was through Christian Palestinian Sami Awad, director of the Bethlehem-based Holy Land Trust. Committed to developing young community leaders and to nonviolently resisting the military occupation of the Palestinian Territory, Sami finds his ultimate inspiration in Jesus’s command to “love your enemies.” You can’t love your enemy, says Sami, unless you know your enemy. So Sami traveled repeatedly to Auschwitz with a group of Jews, Muslims, and Christians. These trips helped him understand how every act of violence by a Palestinian perpetuates the Holocaust fear of destruction of the Jews. While Sami longs for freedom and justice for Palestinians, he also longs for Israelis to be healed of their fear. Only a steady and patient commitment to nonviolence can lead–however slowly–to that outcome.

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