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Georgian Baptist Bishop Says ‘Being a Good Christian Isn’t Enough”

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.

Bishop Malkhaz Songulashvili, Evangelical Baptist Church of the Republic of Georgia

Bishop Malkhaz Songulashvili at SCUPE -Bishop Malkhaz Songulashvili of Georgia visited SCUPE offices on Tuesday July 29th. Not only was it unusual for us to encounter a Baptist Bishop but one that was purple-robed and long-bearded, befitting his Eastern Orthodox context. The Bishop shared with us the courageous story of his Evangelical Baptist community and its advocacy work with Chechen Muslim refugees. Being Baptist means standing for the rights of all people, the Bishop said.

“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.


<Bishop Malkhaz Songulashvili speaking at SCUPE in July of 2014
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.


Map of the Republic of Georgia, 2014

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:

Christianity Today: “The Baptist Bearing Robes and Incense

Ecclesial Theology Blog: “Baptist ‘Receptive Ecumenism’ in the Evangelical Baptist Church of Georgia”


Engaging in Something Marvelous: a Non-Muslim Learns from His Ramadan Fast

Kevin Childress

By Kevin Childress

There simply was no diversity in the small southern town I grew up in. Virtually 100 percent of the population was white, middle-class Baptists. The most “exotic” people in town were a small number of Lutherans, including my close friend Laura and her family. Hearing how people talked about Lutherans, I wanted to defend them, and I started seeing myself as an outsider like them. From that time onward I have identified with outsiders.

As an adult, my life has taken me around the world (for example, I lived in Armenia for two years, working with the Peace Corps). I’ve been to Egypt, Turkey, Russia, India, and all over Eastern and Western Europe. And in all these places I have witnessed expressions of hatred and superiority that one group of people directs at another. No country is free of it. But in those same countries I witnessed extraordinary acts of kindness, sympathy and respect for outsiders.

When I finally got around to it in my 40s, I went back to school to formally study comparative religion (the comparison of doctrines and practices of the world’s faith traditions). It was something I had always wanted to learn more about, perhaps because of my commitment to respecting outsiders. I never wanted to solely study a particular religion, as it is the diversity in particular that most fascinates me, and what I wanted to center my work around.

Two years ago, I read a blog by Lisa Sharon Harper (a columnist with “Sojourners”) about her experiences as a non-Muslim fasting during Ramadan. The idea was appealing to me, as it clearly conveyed a message of respect for, and solidarity with, Muslims.

When I decided to fast last Ramadan, I posted something about it on my Facebook page. That was all I initially said about it to anyone. I prepared myself for fasting with what I thought was practical planning – figuring out schedules for when I would prepare and eat food. I am such an organized person (one of those people with a Master List of smaller “to do” lists), and I dove into it with enthusiasm. For a while it was pretty easy. And I learned a lot of tips. For one thing, it helps to have ready-to-eat food on hand. Late at night, I sometimes just didn’t have the energy to cook. And it’s important to be sure to eat when the time arrives – missing the mealtime window can make for a very uncomfortable day.

Some people say they gain spiritual insight during fasting. It might sound odd, but I have to say that during my fasting time, I found myself reading more poetry, and thinking about the world around me in poetic terms. I rarely ever write poetry, but during fasting I found myself writing haikus about the smell of summer rain, or the intricacies of a well-made shirt. I developed a kind of stillness in my mind that allowed me to “unpack” an idea, to hold it to the light and attempt to see it more clearly. Some people might joke I was simply experiencing protein deficiency or something, but I don’t think that was it. I think I was just a little closer to what I call the “eternal,” and what most people call God.

My post on Facebook attracted a bit of attention. Muslim friends sent me the obligatory “High Five” comments in the beginning, and checked in with me on occasion to see how I was faring. Muslims I hadn’t met before sent me friend requests, because they’d seen something about my fasting on their friends’ Facebook pages. As Ramadan went on, people started sharing with me how fasting was altering their views of the world and themselves, often (to my surprise and pleasure) using poetry as a means of communicating their feelings. One friend on Facebook quoted the Sufi poet Rumi, who compared the fasting person to a musical instrument ready to be played: “We are lutes, no more, no less.” I had often heard that fasting during Ramadan brought Muslims together, spiritually and emotionally (through their shared experience), and physically (in breaking the fast every evening). It was interesting to discover the same type of thing happening virtually.

My first invitation to attend an Iftar (the evening breaking of the fast) came from someone I had met on Facebook. At that Iftar, I met numerous people who in turn invited me to other Iftars. Thanks to these invitations, I could easily have gone to a different one every evening, and quite a few of them were interfaith iftars – some hosted by city politicians who weren’t even Muslim. And it was in the gathering together with people to break the fast that I knew I was engaging in something marvelous and important: around the table, as we met and got to know each other, we changed from strangers into neighbors.

As Ramadan continued, what started to be a problem for me were encounters with people who didn’t know I was fasting. I would show up at someone’s home and they would have this lovely lunch laid out. “I made lasagna because I know how much you love it,” a friend said. It reminded me of a time in Armenia when a poor village family had invited me over for a meal. In honor of my visit, they had killed their only goat, and fried its liver. They brought the dish to the table with such pride, and I remember feeling queasy just looking at it. But, in knowing what it cost them – and what it meant to them to serve me – I ate as much of it as I could. So when faced with the lasagna, I made a quick decision to eat it. Later I felt bad about breaking my fast, thinking I had failed. But then I realized I had sacrificed something that was important to me in order to offer my respect and regard for another person. Maybe I hadn’t failed after all.

For the rest of Ramadan, I fasted as much as I could, but I broke fast when situations like this arose. A Muslim would never make such concessions, of course – and they would rarely face such situations anyway, since most people know they are fasting. But for me, my fasting had been successful because it prompted me to be mindful of food, and to think about the function of food in society. The sharing of food can break the ice between strangers; it can be a gesture of hospitality, and an indication of trust and respect. And it certainly helps us to celebrate joyful moments in our lives, when people come together around a table to share a meal.

Beside fasting during Ramadan, there are countless ways a person can join in experiencing the faiths of other people. Guests are warmly welcomed at the Jewish Passover Seder, Christmas Mass, a Sikh Diwan, or the annual Hindu Diwali. But what I learned from my Ramadan experience is something that perhaps leaders and members of faith communities should keep in mind: for the people outside your doors who are interested in sharing your faith – they need to be invited. An implicit and generic “We are always open to visitors” isn’t really enough. Much better to issue an explicit and specific invitation, a “We invite you to join us next Tuesday” type of thing. Like a meal, the sharing of faiths requires a proper invitation.

About the author: Kevin Childress is the sole proprietor of SocialNet Works, LLC.  While his academic background is in Comparative Religion, his professional background is in Business, with more than a decade of experience in Information Technology, Public/Media & Donor Relations, Executive Management and Finance.  He has extensive knowledge of digital imaging, including video production and, of course, all avenues of social media.  A 22-year resident of Manhattan, Kevin has worked with religious and civic leaders in every borough of New York City.

What Would Muhammad the Prophet Do?

by Omid Safi

Author, Memories of Muhammad: Why the Prophet Matters

In the wake of the offensive “Innocence of Muslims” trailer that depicts Muhammad as a sex-offender, a womanizer, a child abuser, a violent fake prophet, and worse, we have heard from many different people.

We have of course heard from the con-artist and Islamophobic producers of the trailer. We have heard from Coptic authorities, and from President Obama and Secretary Clinton. We have heard from Muslims who have demonstrated peacefully; and we have heard from the far fewer Muslims who have reacted in a violent manner.

Virtually everyone has had an opinion about what this film says about Muhammad and how people should respond.

So . . . What would Muhammad have said about this trailer himself?

This question is not as far-fetched as it would seem at first glance.  Granted, Muhammad himself does not live in our age. However, for the majority of his twenty-three years as a prophet, he confronted almost constant assault, insult, persecution, exile, defamation, repeated attempts at his life, and even stoning. He was called a madman, demon-possessed, a threat to the social order, and many other hateful and offensive names. Those insults, and Muhammad’s responses to them, are a matter of readily available historical record. As such, it is not much of a stretch to ask:

How might Muhammad have responded to the “Innocence of Muslims”?

And what is the relevance of his response for Muslims who are so offended by this vitriol today?

Looking back over how Muhammad handled insults and persecution in his lifetime holds a particular relevance for us today.

I spent a few years of my life researching Muhammad’s life, teaching, and legacy.  I would like to share an excerpt from the resulting book, titled Memories of Muhammad: Why the Prophet Matters that gives particular insight in this regard.

While reading the excerpt below, please keep in mind the following context:

Muhammad and his community had been a beleaguered, persecuted community for some 13 years in the city of his birth, Mecca. They had been exiled from their homeland. The weakest and most vulnerable of Muhammad’s community had been beaten and tortured—some even killed. After 10 years in another city (Yathrib, renamed Medina), Muhammad had the opportunity to return triumphantly to the city of his birth, Mecca. Mecca, where the temple devoted to the One God built by Abraham was located, was about to be redeemed. It was Muhammad’s choice whether to exact revenge on those who had persecuted him, or seek another path.

Muhammad chose mercy. Muhammad decided that the redemption of Mecca, and the citizens of Mecca, had to be one bathed in mercy.

What follows is a small sample from my book, Memories of Muhammad:

The mercy of the return home would be shown in ways large and small.   On the way toward Mecca, Muhammad saw a female dog that had given birth to a new litter of pups.   Concerned that the commotion of an army of ten thousand might disturb them, Muhammad bid one of his own followers to stand guard over them, sheltering them. After all, the Qur’an (21:107) states that Muhammad was sent as a mercy to all the cosmos, all the creatures, and all the universes. These creatures too followed God’s will, and Muhammad was sent as a mercy to them as well.

The mercy that Muhammad showed the dogs of the desert—typically the most despised of all animals in Arabia—he also showed the Meccans who had persecuted him and his followers for a generation. By both Arab and Biblical tradition he reserved the right to march into Mecca and slaughter all the men and take their women as slaves.   Yet Muhammad declared general amnesty for all, establishing a paradigm for forgiveness in the moment of his utmost political power. It is one thing to preach nonviolence and forgiveness when one is politically inferior, entirely another to mercifully forgive when one has the power to demolish. On the way to Mecca, one of Muhammad’s companions named Sa‘d, who had been chosen as a standard-bearer, began rejoicing that this was “a day of war, and sanctuary no more.” Muhammad ordered Ali to take the flag from Sa‘d to make a point about the merciful nature of this day. His old nemesis Abu Sufyan, who had risen up against Muhammad so many times in war, feared for his safety, and yet Muhammad specifically declared Abu Sufyan’s house a sanctuary. There is a time to win people over in war, and there is a time to win people over by the charm of one’s personality. This was a time for mercy.

The law of revenge and retribution was laid aside, for as Muhammad said: “This is the day of mercy, the day on which God has exalted Quraysh.” On this day, Muhammad even forgave an ex-follower who had apostatized and return to paganism.

…The rest of the conquest of Mecca, the Opening of Mecca was also a tale of forgiveness and amnesty. Muhammad recited to them this merciful passage in the Qur’an:

God forgives you, and He is the Most Merciful of the merciful.

(Qur’an 12:92)

It is one thing to forgive a faceless enemy, another to have to reconcile with those who have persecuted us and our loved ones. Muhammad came face to face with Hind, who had devoured the liver of Muhammad’s uncle Hamza. When she declared her intention to embrace Islam, Muhammad simply said to her:  “Welcome.” When the son of his former nemesis Abu Jahl entered the area, Muhammad bid his companions to not speak ill of Abu Jahl, for “reviling of the dead gives offence to the living, and reaches not the dead.”

So where does that leave us today?

I wish to direct my remarks to people of good will, all of us who are committed to all of God’s children living together in peace and dignity.

No, I will not be one of those Muslims who will argue that Muslims should just “chill” or “stop being so sensitive.”

Far from it.

I get it. I get it that—as the Qur’an says—the Prophet is closer to us than our own selves.  I get it that for us as Muslims, our relationship to the Prophet is through a love, a devotion, a preciousness, and an honor that is worthy of the one that we acknowledge to be God’s Beloved and the last Messenger of God’s guidance for humanity. I get it that most of us are hurt, violated, upset, and even angry.

The moral and spiritual challenge before us is simply this:

How do we respond in the face of such anger?

How do we act godly, acknowledging that we are hurt, but refusing to allow pain and hurt to determine our actions instead of our highest spiritual aspirations?

My response is simple:

We turn back to the known example of Muhammad.

A handful of hateful zealots have produced a few minutes of rubbish insulting and mocking a person that they say to be our blessed Prophet. Yet we know our Prophet, and we know that what they mock is a figure of their own imagination. These producers and propagators of hate don’t know Muhammad like we know Muhammad.

These extremists want to lay a trap before Muslims, beginning another cycle of violence that will end with blood on all sides. Let us not fall into this trap.

The Prophet is beloved to us, as the Qur’an says, closer to the faithful than our own selves. According to the Qur’an 21:107, he is the very mercy sent to this world, and to all the worlds. Naturally, each and every Muslim in the world has the right to be outraged at this deliberate provocation.

Yet we, as Muslims, know that our Prophet himself was the target of repeated assaults and mockery, and even in his moment of triumph when he had the power to punish, he chose to forgive his enemies and set a higher moral example.

Let us live out the true meaning of our creed.  Let us be worthy followers of the Prophet, the real Muhammad, not the figment of the hateful zealots’ imagination.  And let us keep the possibility that by exemplifying the beautiful model of Muhammad, we can be participants in the redemption of a world gone mad on hate and vitriol.

If we are hurt that the world doesn’t know Muhammad and calls him every offensive insult imaginable, let us not forget that we know Muhammad.

Let us not forget Muhammad.

In this age where everyone has Muhammad on their lips and on their mind, let us be Muhammad-like.

Let us chose forgiveness not because it is easy, but because it is Divine.

God forgives humanity for our sins, and the Prophet forgave his enemies so that they can live in friendship and fellowship.

Let us offer forgiveness not because it is easy or cheap, but because the alternative is the carrying on of rancor and hatred.

Hate is too big a price to pay.

Anger is too poisonous of a substance to carry in our hearts.

Let us choose love and forgiveness.

Real forgiveness is not a one-way bestowal.

It is not simply granted.

But it has to start somewhere.

Let it start with us, for it leaves the door of redemption open to others.

Let us begin with offering forgiveness so that the wells of our own heart do not become poisoned with the bitterness of anger and hatred.

To be sure, those who insult the Prophet have serious work to do on their own hearts. There is real and genuine racism and xenophobia in this country and other countries, and that poison has to be vomited out of our system.  There are also real and genuine issues in many Muslim societies, and God-willing we will be participants in addressing these issues as well. As people of faith, we aim to be participants in restoring nobility to all of these societies as well, but let us begin with our own hearts.

Muslims from every country should be welcome to raise their voice and be heard, but let us do so in a way that honors the very example of the manners, the ethics, the path, and the being of the Prophet that we so adore.

To do this, we turn to the Prophet.

To do this, we turn to God to ennoble our behaviors through the Prophet.

May God ennoble our heart and souls through the Prophet.

May God make us worthy of being among the people of the Prophet.

A short supplication to this end:

Oh God, as our sights were not graced in this world
by the sight of Prophet,

grace our sights in the Hereafter
by the sight of Muhammad.

Oh God,

Bless Muhammad as you blessed Abraham.

Bless Muhammad as you blessed Moses.
Bless Muhammad as you blessed Christ.

Oh God, bless the community of Muhammad
by having us embody the manners of Muhammad.

Bless us by the manners of Muhammad in the times of ease

And bless us by the manners of Muhammad in the times of difficulty.

If we, as Muslims, can respond to this hatred with grace, with compassion, with forgiveness, with strength, then God-willing we will prove ourselves worthy followers of the Prophet.

It’s not just about what Muhammad would do.

It’s what he already did, over and over again.

Now the challenge before us is what we are going to do, and whether we can do it in a way that is Muhammad-like.


Omid Safi is a leading Muslim public intellectual in America. He is a Professor of Islamic Studies at University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, specializing in contemporary Islamic thought and classical Islam. He is the former Chair for the Study of Islam at the American Academy of Religion, the largest international organization devoted to the academic study of religion.

Omid is an award-winning teacher and speaker, and was nominated six times at Colgate University for the “Professor of the Year” award, and before that twice at Duke University for the Distinguished Lecturer award.  At the University of North Carolina, he received the award for mentoring minority students in 2009, and the Sitterson Teaching Award for Professor of the Year in April of 2010.

He is the editor of the volume Progressive Muslims: On Justice, Gender, and Pluralism. In this ground-breaking volume, he inaugurated a new understanding of Islam which is rooted in social justice, gender equality, and religious/ethnic pluralism. His last book was published by HarperCollins, titled Memories of Muhammad, and deals with the biography and legacy of the Prophet Muhammad.

He has been among the most frequently sought speakers on Islam in popular media, appearing frequently in the New York Times, Newsweek, Washington Post, PBS, NPR, NBC, CNN, and international media. He has recently been designated as the lead Islam writer for the Huffington Post, and blogs at

His website is, and he can be reached at

Bangladesh Parliament Passes Hindu Marriage Law

Hindus will now have documentation for their marriages in Bangladesh, a Muslim majority country. Photo from Google Images.

from The Hindu

Bangladesh’s parliament has passed a landmark bill aimed at protecting the rights of the Hindu community members, especially women from marriage-related cheating.

The new law — the Hindu Marriage Registration Bill 2012 — aims to provide legal and social protection to members of the Hindu community.

State Minister for Law, Justice and parliamentary Affairs Qamrul Islam moved the bill that was passed by voice vote, reported.

He said the law was being formulated since there was no such law in the country to register the marriages of Hindus.

Click here to read the full article

September 28th, 2012 at 11:55 am

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.”

Click here to read the full article

American Muslim Leaders Condemn Attacks

Photo from the Islamic Society of North America (ISNA): ISNA Condemns Violence in Egypt and Libya and Mourns the Death of U.S. Ambassador Stevens and other Americans; Denounces the Creation of a Profane Video of the Prophet Muhammad (“peace be upon him,” as Muslims say after his name). Imam Mohamed Magid is pictured in the center of the image. Photo from ISNA website.

by Laurie Goodstein
from New York Times

American Muslim leaders and organizations rushed on Wednesday to condemn the attacks on American diplomatic outposts in Libya and Egypt, issuing news releases and giving interviews that seemed aimed as much at an American audience as at Muslims overseas.

Referring to the anti-Muslim video at the center of the attacks that is believed to be American-made, they said that no matter how offensive the film, violence was unjustified and even un-Islamic. They stressed repeatedly that the film did not represent Americans’ attitudes toward Islam and Muslims. And they said they were appalled that a film that they said was so clearly intended to incite hatred and anger toward the United States had succeeded in doing so.

Imam Mohamed Magid, president of the Islamic Society of North America, an umbrella group of American mosques, denounced the violence at a news conference in Washington, appearing alongside a rabbi, a Baptist minister and the Libyan ambassador to the United States, Ali Aujali.

Mr. Magid said in a telephone interview that he and other American Muslim leaders had been contacting Muslim scholars in Egypt, Libya, Tunisia and Mauritania to tell them that those who made the film “do not represent the American people.”

He said, “Those who did this act of violence fall into the trap of the people who want them to act that way.”

Click here to read the full article

September 23rd, 2012 at 1:56 pm

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.

Muslims From Abroad Are Thriving in Catholic Colleges

From left, Hadil Issa and Nada and Marwa Alsaif at the University of Dayton, a Roman Catholic university. Photo by Ty William Wright for the NYT

by Richard Perez-Pena
from The New York Times

Arriving from Kuwait to attend college here, Mai Alhamad wondered how Americans would receive a Muslim, especially one whose head scarf broadcasts her religious identity.

At any of the countless secular universities she might have chosen, religion — at least in theory — would be beside the point.But she picked one that would seem to underline her status as a member of a religious minority. She enrolled at the University of Dayton, a Roman Catholic school, and she says it suits her well.

“Here, people are more religious, even if they’re not Muslim, and I am comfortable with that,” said Ms. Alhamad, an undergraduate in civil engineering, as several other Muslim women gathered in the student center nodded in agreement. “I’m more comfortable talking to a Christian than an atheist.”

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September 4th, 2012 at 10:55 am

Men and Women As Equal in Muslim Houses of God

Ms. Kadriye Avci Erdemli, Istanbul’s deputy mufti (the second most powerful official in charge of Islamic affairs). Photo from Religion News Service.

by Omid Safi
from Religion News Service

Many people who have set foot inside mosques have noticed with great dismay that the space allotted to women is rarely equal to that of men. This is true in many different countries, including the United States. The largest Muslim organization in the country, Islamic Society of North America, issued a document titled: “Woman Friendly Mosques and Community Centers.”

Now, one country is taking the lead in addressing this important—and embarrassing—shortcoming. It is not the United States, nor one in Europe. It is the same country that is increasingly been seen as a global leader among Muslims: Turkey.

Turkish mosques are among the most beautiful in the world, especially the ones in the grand Ottoman tradition. Now, Turkey is leading an official campaign to create equal prayer spaces for men and women. According to the Atlantic, Ms. Kadriye Avci Erdemli, Istanbul’s deputy mufti (the second most powerful official in charge of Islamic affairs) has stated:

“This is about mosques being a space for women. When a woman enters a mosque, she is entering the house of God and she should experience the same sacred treatment. In front of God, men and women are equal; they have the same rights to practice their religion.”

Erdemli sent 30 teams to all the mosques in Istanbul (reportedly housing more than 3,000 mosques), and they prepared a mandate called “”Beautification of Mosques for Women.”

Click here to read the full article

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.