Posted: Wed Jun 11, 2008 3:57 pm Post subject: INTERFAITH ISSUES
Dialogue among the Religions. The Vatican Prepares the Guidelines
Posted on Wed Jun 11 2008
by Sandro Magister
ROMA, June 11, 2008 - The plenary meeting that the pontifical council
for interreligious dialogue held at the Vatican last week was the first
of this pontificate, and took place with a new president - Cardinal
Jean-Louis Tauran - and with experts who were also newcomers to a great
And the aim of the plenary session was itself new: to develop new
guidelines for the bishops, priests, and faithful in relating to other
religions. This objective, Cardinal Tauran said, was decided "after many
years of hesitation over its appropriateness."
On Saturday, June 9, at the end of the three-day meeting, Benedict XVI
received the participants in the Sala del Concistoro. He encouraged the
publication of the guidelines because, he said, "the great proliferation
of interreligious meetings in today's world requires discernment." This
last word is used in ecclesiastical language to urge critical analysis
and the choices that stem from it.
In effect, the relationship with men of other religions has been and is
being practiced in different and sometimes contradictory ways within the
In the Muslim countries, for example, the most widespread practice among
Catholics is that of the silent testimony of Christian life. There are
reasons of prudence that justify this practice. But against those who
justify it always and everywhere, the congregation for the doctrine of
the faith published a doctrinal note last December 3, presenting instead
a thesis previously voiced by Paul VI in "Evangelii Nuntiandi" in 1975:
"Even the finest witness will prove ineffective in the long run if it is
not [...] made explicit by a clear and unequivocal proclamation of the
The guidelines that the pontifical council for interreligious dialogue
is preparing to publish will point in this direction. In introducing the
plenary assembly, Cardinal Tauran said:
"We know that the Holy Spirit works in every man and every woman,
independently of his religious or spiritual creed. But on the other
hand, we must proclaim that Christ is the Way, the Truth, and the Life.
God has revealed to us the truth about God and the truth about man, and
for us this is the Good News. We cannot hide this truth under a bushel
Speaking to 200 representatives of other religions during his recent
visit to the United States, Benedict XVI expressed himself no less
"It is Jesus whom we bring to the forum of interreligious dialogue. The
ardent desire to follow in his footsteps spurs Christians to open their
minds and hearts in dialogue. [...] In our attempt to discover points of
commonality, perhaps we have shied away from the responsibility to
discuss our differences with calmness and clarity. [...] The higher goal
of interreligious dialogue requires a clear exposition of our respective
This does not eliminate the fact that there is common ground for action
among men of different beliefs, as the guidelines will insist.
Introducing the plenary session, Tauran also said:
"The Ten Commandments are a sort of universal grammar that all believers can use in their relationship with God and neighbor. [...] In creating man, God ordered him with wisdom and love to his end, through the law written within his heart (Romans 2:15), the natural law. This is nothing other than the light of intelligence infused within us by God. Thanks to this, we know what we must do and what we must avoid. God gave us this light and this law at creation."
During the same days when the pontifical council for interreligious
dialogue was holding its plenary assembly at the Vatican, there were new
developments in relations between the Catholic Church and Islam.
In Saudi Arabia, in the holy city of Mecca, king Abdullah bin Abdulaziz
al-Saud inaugurated on June 4 a conference of 600 representatives from
the vast Muslim world, with the aim of "telling the world that we are
the voice of justice and moral human values, of coexistence and
To this end, Abdullah confirmed his desire to "organize meetings with
brothers belonging to other faiths," in particular Judaism and
Christianity. Islamism, according to the Saudi sovereign, "has defined
the principles and opened the road for a dialogue with the faithful of
other religions," and this road "passes through the values common to the
three monotheistic religions". These values "reject treason, alienate
crime, and combat the terrorism" practiced by "extremists among [our]
own people," who "have joined forces in a flagrant aggressiveness to
distort the rightfulness and tolerance of Islam."
Spoken by the king of Saudi Arabia - a nation of rigid Wahhabi Islamism
and the place of origin of Osama bin Laden and of most of the authors of
the attacks on September 11, 2001 - these words are of indisputable
significance. At the Vatican, "L'Osservatore Romano" emphasized them in
Moreover, King Abdullah said that he had gotten the "green light" for
his project of interreligious dialogue from the Saudi ulema, and that he
wants to consult with Muslims of other countries as well about the
possibility. At the conference in Mecca, he brought together in a single
room the sheikh of the al-Azhar mosque in Cairo, Sayyid Tantawi, a
leading Sunni authority, and the Shiite ayatollah Ali Akbar Hashemi
Rafsanjani, former president of Iran and member of the Assembly of
Experts, the center of the regime's supreme power.
In Israel, the proposals of King Abdullah were received favorably by the
Ashkenazi chief rabbi Yona Metzger, and the Sephardic chief rabbi Shlomo
The final statement of the conference, called "The Appeal from Mecca,"
announced the creation of an Islamic center for relations among
civilizations. This will organize moments of dialogue with
representatives of other religions, cultures, and philosophies, and will
promote the publication of books on this topic.
Another novelty in these days is the upcoming meeting that the experts
of the international magazine "Oasis" - backed by the patriarch of
Venice, Cardinal Angelo Scola, and with a focus on dialogue between
Christians and Muslims - will hold in Amman, Jordan, from June 23-24, on
the topic of the connections between truth and freedom.
Amman is the city where the al-Bayt Institute for Islamic Thought is
based, headed by prince of Jordan Ghazi bin Muhammad bin Talal. It is
the same institute that promoted the famous letter of the 138 Muslims
entitled "A common word between us and you" and addressed to the pope
and to the other heads of Christian confessions.
Next November, a meeting is planned in Rome between authorities and
experts of the Catholic Church, and a delegation of the 138 Muslims.
Meanwhile, one of the 138, Mustafa Cherif, a former education minister
and ambassador of Algeria, has published a commentary on two recent
events in his country in the monthly "Mondo e Missione" of the
Pontifical Institute for Foreign Missions.
The first of these events, which took place in early June, was the
sentencing of four Algerians for converting from Islam to Christianity.
The four are Protestant, but a similar sentence had been pronounced
previously against a Catholic priest, guilty of leading a prayer, at
Christmas, for a group of immigrants from Cameroon.
Cherif calls "incomprehensible and deplorable" the ways in which the
question of proselytism is addressed in Algeria, because "our vision of
law is founded on the Qur'anic principle: no imposition in matters of
And he adds:
"Moreover, our Catholic friends in Algeria, who have been here for fifty
years, have never tried to convert anyone, although they do have the
right to witness to their faith. This, in spite of the fact that the
current pope frequently recalls the central nature of the evangelizing
mission for the Catholic Church."
The second event Cherif comments on is connected to this previous
observation: the resignation, for reasons of age, of the archbishop of
Algiers, Henri Teissier, made official by the Vatican last May 24.
Cherif draws a portrait of the elderly archbishop as "one of those
moderate priests who seek the right balance, aware also of the reforms
needed within the Church, and not hesitating sometimes to express their
disagreements with the Vatican, especially over relations with Muslims."
As evidence of the "right balance" sought by Teissier, Cherif writes:
"Last December, the Vatican published a doctrinal note that reaffirms
the mission of evangelizing non-Catholics. [...] Sometimes, nonetheless,
after leaving to evangelize the world, many priests and pastors have set
themselves to learn from the people they have encountered and from their culture, without necessarily seeking to divert them from their original
religion. Archbishop Henri Teissier is one of those great men of faith
who respect the other."
Cherif adds that he met Teissier for the first time in Cordoba in 1974,
on the occasion of an international Islamic-Christian conference:
"It is important to recall that at that juncture, through the personal
intervention of Archbishop Teissier with the bishop of Cordoba, our
group of Muslim participants was authorized to hold our Friday prayers
in the mosque of Cordoba."
The "mosque" cited here is properly, and has been for centuries, the
cathedral church of the city.
The third interesting novelty is the criticism made against Benedict
XVI, but even more so against the Islamic world as a whole, by a
prominent Muslim intellectual, Mohammed Arkoun.
Arkoun, 80, born in Algeria, has taught at the Sorbonne, at Princeton,
and at other famous universities in Europe and America. Today, he is the
research director at the Institute of Ismaili Studies in London, founded
by Aga Khan.
Interviewed by John Allen, the Vatican analyst for the "National
Catholic Reporter," during a conference in Lugano, Switzerland, Arkoun
took his cue from the lecture in Regensburg:
"Pope Benedict has said that an intimate relationship between reason and
faith does not exist in Islamic elaboration and expressions. This
statement, historically speaking, is not true. If we consider the period
from the 8th century to the 13th century, it is simply not true. But
after the death of the philosopher Averroes in 1198, philosophy
disappeared in Islamic thought. To that extent the pope was right [...].
The fact is today, when one speaks with Muslims, they don't have any
idea about this history."
And the 138 who signed the letter are no exception, Arkoun continues: "I
don't know any historians of thought among them."
So the pope is mistaken to choose them as dialogue partners:
"The pope should create a kind of space of debate, instead of all these
so-called interreligious dialogues that have been going on since the
Second Vatican Council. I've participated in so many of them, and I can
tell you that they're absolutely nothing. It's gossip. There's no
intellectual input in it. There is no respect for scholarship in it. A
huge scholarship has already been produced devoted to the question of
faith and reason. All this is put aside and we ignore it. We just
congratulate one another, saying: 'I respect your faith, and you respect
mine.' This is nonsense."
And to the question of whether the young Muslim generations have a real
thirst for a new way of expressing their faith, different from that of
the "ulema on the television, " Arkoun responds:
"Of course. When [in Egypt] I give a lecture, the turnout is enormous.
The interest of people is very strong. Also the older generations are
happy, they feel they can breathe. People applauded when I said after
this affair with the pope [Pope Benedict's 2006 lecture at the
University of Regensburg] that Muslims should not go to the street
demonstrating against him, but they should run to the libraries. They
should know what has happened to Islamic thought after the 13th
(Huntsville, Ala.) -- The 2008 National Diversity and Interfaith Summit "Globalizing Human Values - Resolving Conflict in a Pluralistic World" is announced for Sept. 10-13 in Huntsville, Alabama. This 3 and 1/2 day summit brings individuals together from across the country for lectures, panel discussions and breakout sessions addressing human values from different faith and cultural perspectives.
Andrew Young, former U.S. Congressman and former mayor of Atlanta, will give the opening keynote. Young, who will also be featured at a reception, is a long-time champion of civil rights and is namesake of Andrew Young School of Policy Studies.
Other Summit speakers include well-known experts in the fields of human values, diversity and spirituality:
+ William Miller, author and internationally recognized expert on values-driven innovation for businesses;
+ Debra Miller, co-founder of the Global Dharma Center which focuses on spirituality in leadership and work;
+ Professor Yehezkel Landau, lecturer on Jewish-Christian-Muslim relations and Middle East peace issues;
+ Elizabeth Kiss, president of Agnes Scott College, former founding director of the Kenan Institute;
+ Dr. K.L.Sheshagiri Rao, chief editor, Encyclopedia Hinduism, Professor Emeritus at University of Virginia;
+ Deborah Levine, editor of the American Diversity Report, Founder of the Women's Council on Diversity;
+ Cynthia McCollum, president of the National League of Cities.
Additional speakers will represent the National Holocaust Museum, Aga Khan Foundation and the Interfaith Youth Corp.
Program details and registration information at http://www.interfaithmissionservice.org or 256-536-2401. Early registration is $150 for corporate participants and those seeking CEUs; $45 for students and seniors; $90 for all others. These discount rates apply through August 15, 2008. Continuing education credits are available for clergy, social workers, nurses and human resource professionals. This event will be held at Trinity United Methodist Church, 607 Airport Rd in Huntsville.
"Over time, we've gotten away from human values in our lives," said Laj Utreja, chair of the Summit. "Those in power have sought more and more while showing less and less regard for the other person -- leading to misunderstandings, and social and economic disparities. Before we reach the tipping point, we want to reintroduce the practice of human values in our conduct in business, in education, and at home."
The event is sponsored by Interfaith Mission Service, University of Alabama in Huntsville, Alabama Faith Council, One Huntsville Diversity Coalition, and Multicultural Center.
June 24, 2008
Survey Shows U.S. Religious Tolerance
By NEELA BANERJEE
Although a majority of Americans say religion is very important to them, nearly three-quarters of them say they believe that many faiths besides their own can lead to salvation, according to a survey by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life.
The report, the U.S. Religious Landscape Survey, reveals a broad trend toward tolerance and an ability among many Americans to hold beliefs that might contradict the doctrines of their professed faiths.
For example, 70 percent of Americans affiliated with a religion or denomination said they agreed that “many religions can lead to eternal life,” including majorities among Protestants and Catholics. Among evangelical Christians, 57 percent agreed with the statement, and among Catholics, 79 percent did.
Among minority faiths, more than 80 percent of Jews, Hindus and Buddhists agreed with the statement, and more than half of Muslims did.
The findings seem to undercut the conventional wisdom that the more religiously committed people are, the more intolerant they are, scholars who reviewed the survey said.
“It’s not that Americans don’t believe in anything,” said Michael Lindsay, assistant director of the Center on Race, Religion and Urban Life at Rice University. “It’s that we believe in everything. We aren’t religious purists or dogmatists.”
The survey confirms findings from previous studies that the most religiously and politically conservative Americans are those who attend worship services most frequently, and that for them, the battles against abortion and gay rights remain touchstone issues.
“At least at the time of the surveys in 2007, cultural issues played a role in political affiliation,” and economic issues less so, said John C. Green, an author of the report and a senior fellow on religion and American politics at Pew. “It suggests that the efforts of Democrats to peel away Republican and conservative voters based on economic issues face a real limit because of the role these cultural issues play.”
For all respondents, the survey’s margin of sampling error is plus or minus one percentage point. For smaller subgroups of religions or denominations, the margin of sampling error is larger, ranging from 2 to 11 points.
The nationwide survey, which is based on telephone interviews with more than 35,000 adults from May 8 to Aug. 13, 2007, is the second installment of a broad assessment Pew has undertaken of trends and characteristics of the country’s religious life. The first part of the report, published in February, depicted a fluid and diverse national religious life marked by people moving among denominations and faiths.
According to that report, more than a quarter of adult Americans have left the faith of their childhood to join another religion or no religion. The survey indicated that the group that had the greatest net gain was the unaffiliated, accounting for 16 percent of American adults.
The new report sheds light on the beliefs of the unaffiliated. Like the overwhelming majority of Americans, 70 percent of the unaffiliated said they believed in God, including one of every five people who identified themselves as atheist and more than half of those who identified as agnostic.
“What does atheist mean? It may mean they don’t believe in God, or it could be that they are hostile to organized religion,” Mr. Green said. “A lot of these unaffiliated people, by some measures, are fairly religious, and then there are those who are affiliated with a religion but don’t believe in God and identify instead with history or holidays or communities.”
The most significant contradictory belief the survey reveals has to do with salvation. Previous surveys have shown that Americans think a majority of their countrymen and women will go to heaven, and that the circle is wide, embracing minorities like Jews, Muslims and atheists. But the Pew survey goes further, showing that such views are held by those within major branches of Christianity and minority faiths, too.
Scholars said such tolerance could stem in part from the greater diversity of American society: that there are more people of minority faiths or no faith and that “it is hard to hold a strongly sectarian view when you work together and your kids play soccer together,” Mr. Lindsay said.
But such a view of salvation may also grow out of doctrinal ignorance, scholars said.
“It could be that people are not very well educated and they are not expressing mature theological points of view,” said Todd Johnson, director of the Center for the Study of Global Christianity at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary. “It could also be a form of bland secularism. The real challenge to religious leaders is not to become more entrenched in their views, but to navigate the idea of what their religion is all about and how it relates to others.”
The survey tried to determine how people’s religious affiliation and practice shaped their views of culture and politics.
As past surveys have shown, this report found that Americans who prayed more frequently and attended worship services more often tended to be more conservative and “somewhat more Republican” than other people. Majorities of Mormons and evangelicals say they are conservative, compared with 37 percent of Americans over all. (Twenty percent say they are liberal, and 36 percent say moderate.)
Respondents were evenly split on whether churches should express views about politics, with evangelicals and black Protestants favoring such activities far more than people of other faiths.
Nearly two-thirds of respondents favored more government help for the poor, even if it meant going deeper into debt. Sixty-one percent of respondents also said “stricter environmental laws and regulations are worth the cost.”
A majority said the United States should pay more attention to problems at home than those abroad, but in the area of foreign policy, 6 of 10 said that diplomacy, not military strength, was the best way to ensure peace.
Muslims open new house of worship
Calgary's new northeast landmark is Canada's largest mosque
Sunday, June 29, 2008
CREDIT: Leah Hennel, Calgary Herald
Allah Yar and his son Nasir Ahmad are Ahmadiyya Muslims who helped build a new $14-million mosque.
CREDIT: Leah Hennel, Calgary Herald
Safeer Khan, a member of the Calgary Ahmadiyya community, scrimped and saved to help build the $14-million mosque.
On a warm summer morning, the steel-capped dome and minaret sparkle against the blue Alberta sky as construction crews and landscapers scramble to put the finishing touches on the Baitun Nur mosque.
For Calgary's Ahmadiyya Muslim community, the mosque is a source of understandable pride and a landmark sign it is reaching out to all Calgarians.
"If this mosque is just a building, we have accomplished nothing," says Ahmadiyya spokesman Dr. Safeer Khan, a psychiatrist with the Calgary Health Region. "We want this to be a place all Calgarians can use and can feel welcome in. We want to learn about their faiths and tell them about ours in a supportive environment." Khan says this outreach is a way Ahmadis can say thank you to Canada for the religious freedom they have found here.
Located at 4353 54th Ave. N.E., south of Prairie Winds Park, the centre has a price tag of more than $14 million.
At least half was raised from its Calgary membership, which numbers about 2,000, the remainder coming from Ahmadiyya supporters across Canada.
Decades in planning and two years in construction, the mosque is reported to be the largest in Canada at 48,000 square feet. It will host its first evening prayers Wednesday, led by the group's global spiritual leader, Hadhrat Mirza Masroor Ahmad.
Next Friday's worship service will be broadcast to Ahmadiyya communities around the world, while Saturday's official public unveiling, replete with civic and provincial dignitaries, is set for 11 a.m.
The community's financial sacrifices have been remarkable. Homes have been remortgaged or sold, women have contributed treasured jewelry and children have broken into their piggy banks to help pay the bills.
With carpenters and painters wrapping up their work, Ahmadiyya volunteers moved into the mosque last week. One group worked around the clock for four days to assemble the thousands of small pieces of a massive, 400-kilogram chandelier now hanging within the dome above the prayer hall. Others with electronics expertise are completing wiring for the mosque's state-of-the-art audio/visual systems.
"It's a mixture of very traditional architectural styles and ultra-modern technology," says Naseer Ahmad, director of mosque projects for the Canadian Ahmaddiya community. Based in Vaughan, Ont., Ahmad has designed seven mosques, but the Baitun Nur project is his crowning achievement.
"We did everything we can to make it as environmentally friendly as possible. There are many, many skylights to minimize electrical use and to make sure there are no dark corners," he says.
The mosque's exterior is ringed with 99 gleaming Arabic words, each one highlighting an attribute of Allah's character as outlined in the Qur'an.
The centre is both a house of worship and a community gathering place. The prayer hall, where carpeting was being laid this week, has room for 1,000 worshippers, with overflow rooms for special occasions. Male and female worshippers will be in the same large hall, separated by a divider.
Other areas of the mosque have space for a library, play areas for young children, boardrooms and quarters for a live-in custodian. The building has a separate dining hall and commercial-style kitchen.
A 7,400-square-foot multipurpose hall, complete with stage and gym-style floor, will have a separate entrance and can be used for sports, banquets, weddings and social functions.
"We want to provide positive recreation opportunities for our young people, to let them blow off their energy in positive ways and keep them off the streets," says Khan. "But just as importantly, we want them to invite their non-Muslim buddies from school to come and use our facilities too." The Ahmadiyya movement was launched in 1889 in the Punjab region of the Indian subcontinent by Mirza Ghulam Ahmad. Khan says Ahmadis believe he was the promised messiah and mahdi (reformer) whose advent in later days was foretold in the Qur'an and by the holy prophet Muhammad. That belief has led to friction with other sectors of the Muslim world. In Pakistan, for example, Ahmadis are not allowed to call themselves Muslims. The Ahmadiyya movement has its global headquarters in London.
"For those of us who come from Pakistan, it's a sweet feeling to be able to build this house of God and have it recognized as such," says Naeem Chaudhry, president of Calgary's northeast Ahmaddiya community.
"We have a very strong emotional attachment to our mosques. If we have to sell our house to build it, we will do it. We've been meeting in community halls and have been scattered across the city for years. This will bring us together," says Chaudhry.
Chaudhry notes the majority of Calgary's Ahmadiyya community lives within a short drive of the new mosque.
After meeting in a former church on Mission Road S.W. and in community halls for years, members bought about 1.5 hectares in the Westwinds Business Park in 2001.
Like other Calgary construction projects, the estimated cost of the mosque continued to climb, bringing the community to a moment of financial truth.
"We had a meeting where we laid out the increased costs and asked people whether we should reduce the size of the building or delay starting construction until some time in the future," says Ahmad. "And the answer that came back was 'No, go for it . . . you build it and we will come up with the money that's needed, whatever it takes.' " Ground was broken in July 2006, with members reaching deeper into their pockets.
Local realtor Nasir Ahmad originally pledged $5,000 but credits God's grace in creating a robust Calgary economy which has allowed him to boost that contribution to nearly $50,000.
"This building is about sacrifices, but we are all so excited to be able to share it with all Calgarians. This place is for you and me," says Nasir Ahmad. "We have been separated across the city, but now it will be easy to worship and to share the message. Together is always better." Nasir Ahmad's father, 68-year-old Allah Yar, bears the scars of being shot four times by religious militants in Pakistan in 2000. With his son interpreting his Punjabi, Yar says he's thankful for being able to worship in a mosque.
"This is a real house of God," he says with a smile.
Taxi driver Shaukat Abbas says it is no coincidence boom times for Calgary's economy coincided with the mosque's construction.
"What I have now I received from God, so this is my chance to give something back," says Abbas. "We had the opportunity to take out second mortgages or sell our homes and give the profits to the mosque because the economy was good." Once the excitement of this week's opening celebration fades, Khan says the mosque's lasting value to the city will shine out like the dome and minaret on a sunny day.
"We want this mosque to say to the world, 'Please come and join us and together let's make a truly peaceful society in Canada,' " he says.
PREVIEW-Saudi Arabia to present new image at Madrid forum
Wed Jul 9, 2008 2:08pm BST
By Andrew Hammond
RIYADH, July 9 (Reuters) - Saudi Arabia hopes to showcase a new more liberal face of its austere version of Sunni Islam at an unprecedented forum that will bring together Muslim, Christian and Jewish clergy in Spain next week.
The three-day meeting will be opened next Wednesday by King Abdullah, who won the backing of Sunni and Shi'ite clerics to go ahead with the ground-breaking meeting in Mecca last month.
The interfaith idea has sparked interest from Jewish and Christian groups around the world, coming after the Saudi king held talks with Pope Benedict at the Vatican last year.
It marks a new direction for Saudi Arabia, whose "Wahhabi" Islam has come in for criticism internationally after the Sept. 11 attacks of 2001 in the United States, Riyadh's main ally and guarantor of security since the 1940s.
Fifteen of the 19 Arabs who killed some 3,000 people were Saudis, acting in the name of Saudi-born al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden.
Since then, Saudi rulers have embarked on a series of reforms to improve the image of a system in which the Saudi royal family rules in alliance with clerics who are given free rein to administer Islamic sharia law as they interpret it.
Abdulaziz al-Gasim, a pro-government reformist cleric, said the conference was part of efforts to reform Saudi Arabia's religious establishment, following changes in school textbooks, removal of radical preachers and planned judicial reform.
"These are big changes that you can't see the effect of right now but you will see it over the long term," he said, citing a break on the clerics' hold on society through the Internet and satellite television revolution in the Arab world.
"King Abdullah believes there is a problem with the traditional religious establishment," he said.
Saudi clerics have traditionally viewed other Muslims, particularly Shi'ites, as infidels and shunned contact with non-Muslims and many foreign social and cultural influences.
The Madrid meeting is expected to include not only Shi'ites, Christians and Jews but figures from outside the major monotheistic religions such as Buddhists.
Saudi media have said the Vatican's top inter-religious dialogue figure Cardinal Jean-Louis Tauran, Israeli and American rabbis, and intellectuals and writers such as Francis Fukayama and Karen Armstrong will attend.
But a Riyadh-based diplomat said the wide net being cast regarding invitees, even those from Saudi Arabia, suggested there was significant opposition among Saudi clerics.
"It's an international event with no potential for domestic reverberations," he said, adding that few members of the government-appointed Higher Council of Religious Scholars have indicated they will attend.
He said the list of invitees was governed by the desire to find Saudis who know the West and speak English rather than enjoy a reputation for knowledge of Islamic theology.
Saudi Shi'ite dissidents also complain, saying only a token number of Shi'ites from around the world were invited to the preparatory meeting in Mecca last month.
A group of Saudi clerics recently issued a statement describing Shi'ism as having "infidel precepts", in what was seen by some observers as a shot against the interfaith plan.
Hassan al-Maliki, an educator who helped remove some language against "infidels" in the Education Ministry's school curriculum, said clerical opposition to the conference was weak.
"Some in the Wahhabi establishment are saying in sermons and on the Internet this is a concession," he said. "The opposition is not strong, if the ruler wants it to happen it will."
A senior diplomat said the reality of entrenched clerical conservatism effectively reduces the interfaith dialogue to a public relations exercise.
"The king looks reasonable. He talks to the Pope, holds oil conferences, has interfaith dialogues," he said.
His Highness the Aga Khan and His Eminence D. Jose Policarpo, the Cardinal Patriarch of Lisbon and Chancellor of the University, today witnessed the historic signing of a Memorandum of Understanding between the Aga Khan University (AKU) and the Catholic University of Portugal (UCP). The agreement of academic collaboration was signed at the Ismaili Centre in Lisbon, by Professor Manuel Braga da Cruz, Rector of the UCP and Firoz Rasul, President AKU as part of efforts to foster international understanding and scholarly cooperation between diverse cultures and faiths.
Speech made by Professor Manuel Braga da Cruz, Rector, Catholic University of Portugal, at the Signing of Memorandum of Understanding between the Aga Khan University and the Catholic University of Portugal
(Please also see Related Material)
His Excellency, the Minister of Science Technology and High Education, His Excellency the Minister of Culture, His Highness Prince Aga Khan, His Eminence the Cardinal Patriarch of Lisbon, and High Chancellor of the Catholic University, Rector of the Aga Khan University, delegates of the two Universities, distinguished guests, ladies and gentlemen.
On behalf of the Portuguese Catholic University, I would like to say how pleased we are today with the signature of this Agreement concluding the process of dialogue and mutual knowledge during the last years. This is the natural consequence of a common discovery of our Universities. We are both confessional universities with a religious perspective of the world and life, so we are both ideologically orientated Institutions. We have both international dimensions in perspectives, extended for more than one continent and country. From Asia until Europe as in the case of the Aga Khan University and from Europe to Asia as in the case of the Portuguese Catholic University and looking both for all the world.
We have the conditions but also the common wish to start a noteworthy cooperation not only in the inter religious dialogue so this is even important to the Peace building in the international relations frame, but also in the promotion of Human dignity in the development of our societies in which so committed and engaged so many Institutions belonging to our religious confessions, working in the field of Education, and promotion of health services. Our intention with this agreement is to establish the basis to a future cooperation.
First of all in the perspective of studies in a comparative perspective, not only about our faith but also about the influence of our Faith in our countries, in our histories, in our international relations, in our civil life, in our law.
It’s also our purpose to promote, together, academic initiatives in order to reinforce our intervention in the field of Education. Preparing the future actors in the development of our societies with a strong ethical perspective and preparation namely in the Life Sciences.
This is a general agreement in which we would like to see increased the number of concrete initiatives to fulfil our purposes. We will have representatives of both Universities charged to push the sectoral efforts to the ends here established.
I hope that the common way crossed until now could continue to carry on the future with same openness and determination. So God will help us.
Speech by Firoz Rasul, President, Aga Khan University
Signing of Memorandum of Understanding between the Aga Khan University and the Catholic University of Portugal
(Please also see Related Material)
Your Excellency, Minister of Science, Technology of Higher Education,
Your Excellency Minister of Culture, Your Eminence Cardinal Patriarch of Lisbon,
Your Highness the Aga Khan, Chancellor of the Aga Khan University,
Honourable members of Parliament, Rector of the Portuguese Catholic University,
Good Morning and Welcome,
Today marks a historic day as the Aga Khan University or AKU, establishes its first intellectual relationship in Portugal with one of its premier centres of higher learning, the Portuguese Catholic University. The signing of this Agreement in the presence of the Cardinal Patriarch and His Highness the Aga Khan, the Imam of the Ismaili Muslims, is significant as it is but one embodiment of the larger relationship in Portugal between the Catholic Church and the Ismaili Imamat.
This collaboration between our Universities is based on a collective commitment to go beyond common boundaries to build bridges between diverse faiths and peoples by connecting different parts of the world together through the universal language of scholarship. The Memorandum of Understanding we sign today is the beginning of what we believe to be a long relationship in which we will learn with and from each other through cooperative academic pursuits.
This partnership is an opportunity to address shared concerns, identify common interests and foster greater understanding and to develop capacity to address the issues of global concern such as poverty alleviation, environmental degradation, the building of civil society, democracy, social inclusion and human development.
The collaboration between our universities will cover disciplines such as culture, law, religion, ethics, the life sciences, education as well as early childhood development.
An initial area of common interest - identify for cooperation - is the comparative study of the impact of religion on the evolution of legal systems as it relates to the law of the land and the bearing on civil society.
This specific programme will be led from AKU’s side by our Institute for the Study of Muslim Civilizations in London, England.
While the scope and modalities will be refined as we start work in our collaboration we expect to engage in joint research, training initiatives and programmes for the exchange of faculty and students. This would also include the joint organisation of symposia, lecture series, conferences, short courses and continuing education programmes.
The Aga Khan University guided by the vision of our Chancellor, His Highness the Aga Khan strive to achieve international standards and quality in educational programmes and services. The Universities Programmes are now delivered in 8 countries including Pakistan, Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda, United Kingdom, Afghanistan, Syria and Egypt. Our current disciplines include medical education, nursing, teacher education and human development and the study of Muslim Civilisations.
Celebrating our 25th anniversary this year, we are now moving to become a comprehensive University, with new campuses, for Faculties of Arts and Sciences in both Pakistan and Tanzania as well as for medical and nursing education in Kenya. Our plans also include graduate professional schools in law, architecture, management, government and public policy, economic growth, leisure and the media.
AKU’s rich data and understanding of local knowledge and cultures in several countries combined with the Portuguese Catholic University’s expertise in several fields of study such as food engineering and digital arts provides our two Universities with the opportunity to explore new frontiers of innovation and research.
The Aga Khan University and the Portuguese Catholic University are building this relationship on our strong value systems and ethical frameworks that underpin our common goal of equitable human advancement.
Through this partnership we will collectively project Portugal’s capabilities to contribute to capacity enhancement in countries of the developing world in Africa and Asia.
His Highness at a conference on a new economic partnership for the 21st century said, and I quote: “The key to building partnerships whether they are amongst social sectors or amongst countries is a profound spirit of reciprocal obligation. A readiness to share the work, to share the costs to share the risks, to share the credit, and in the end, what it will require the most is a spirit of mutual trust.”
It is on these principles that we build our partnership today and we are very excited and inspired to join the Portuguese Catholic University in this significant endeavour to contribute to improving the quality of life of the less fortunate by adding to human knowledge.
The Muslim-Jewish Tipping Point
July 14th 2008
Washington Post Blog
"Nobody believes you guys actually exist," I said to the group I was
eating dinner with.
I was sitting with the North American Board of Reform Judaism's
youth movement (called NFTY) at their summer leadership camp, Kutz.
These five teenagers were responsible for leading programming for
thousands of young Reform Jews across the country. This year's study
theme: Muslim-Jewish Relations. And these young leaders couldn't be
more excited it.
I do interfaith work with young people for a living, and even I was
taken aback by their enthusiasm.
"Tell me why this is so important to you?" I asked. The reasons
"Making new friends."
"Sharing lessons on what it means to be religious in a secular
Susan Sontag once wrote, "Whatever is happening, something else is
always going on." While newspaper headlines are dominated by stories
of hatred and violence between Jews and Muslims, there is a quiet
revolution taking place off the radar screen.
Last year witnessed an historic warming in Muslim-Jewish relations
in America. Rabbi Eric Yoffie, President of the Union for Reform
Judaism (the largest Jewish denomination in America, with 1.5
million members and 900 congregations), gave a well-received keynote
presentation at the annual convention of the Islamic Society of
North America (ISNA).
In the recent issue of Reform Judaism, the movement's magazine,
Yoffie writes: "The time has come to engage in dialogue with our
Muslim neighbors and to educate ourselves about Islam."
Professor Ingrid Mattson, the President of ISNA (an umbrella body
for the millions of American Muslims) responded in kind by traveling
to the URJ Convention and making these remarks:
"Muslims have instinctively turned to the example of Jews in America
to understand how to deal with the challenges we face as religious
minorities – whether these challenges involve securing the right to
religious accommodation in public institutions, or dealing with
workplace discrimination. At the same time, I believe that the
Jewish community will also benefit from having Muslim partners in
the struggle to uphold the constitutional separation of church and
state, to promote civil liberties, to extend religious accommodation
to minorities and to counter prejudice and hatred."
There are other Muslim-Jewish efforts afoot. Organizations like
Seeds of Peace, Search for Common Ground, Children of Abraham and
Abraham's Vision, have been nurturing this revolution for years.
Rabbi Marc Schneier's Foundation for Ethnic Understanding, which
played a profound role in advancing black-Jewish dialogue with
Russell Simmons, is focusing now on Muslim-Jewish issues.
We might actually be at a tipping point on this seemingly impossible
And I have a hunch that it's young Muslims and Jews, just like the
ones I met at the Kutz camp, who are going to push this thing over
"Archbishop of Canterbury: 'Christian doctrine is offensive to Muslims'"
By Steve Doughty ("Daily Mail", July 15, 2008)
London, UK - Christian doctrine is offensive to Muslims, the Archbishop of
Canterbury said yesterday.
Dr Rowan Williams also criticised Christianity's history for its violence, its
use of harsh punishments and its betrayal of its peaceful principles.
His comments came in a highly conciliatory letter to Islamic leaders calling for an alliance between the two faiths for 'the common good'.
But it risked fresh controversy for the Archbishop in the wake of his
pronouncement earlier this year that a place should be found for Islamic sharia law in the British legal system.
Dr Williams is also facing immense pressures from inside his own Church of England and Anglican Communion.
A gathering of Anglican bishops from around the world, which begins today, is on the brink of a devastating split over whether homosexuality and gay clergy should win their approval.
The Archbishop's letter is a reply to feelers to Christians put out by Islamic
leaders from 43 countries last autumn.
In it, Dr Williams said violence is incompatible with the beliefs of either
faith and that, once that principle is accepted, both can work together against poverty and prejudice and to help the environment.
He also said the Christian belief in the Trinity - that God is Father, Son and
Holy Ghost at the same time - 'is difficult, sometimes offensive, to Muslims'.
Trinitarian doctrine conflicts with the Islamic view that there is just one
Dr Williams added: 'It is all the more important for the sake of open and
careful dialogue that we try to clarify what we do and do not mean by it, and so I trust that what follows will be read in this spirit.'
He told Muslim leaders that faith has no connection with political power or
force, and that Christians have in the past betrayed this idea.
'Christianity has been promoted at the point of the sword and legally supported by extreme sanctions,' Dr Williams said.
Islam, he continued, has been supported in the same way and 'there is no
religious tradition whose history is exempt from such temptation and such
The Archbishop appeared to rebuke his colleague, Bishop of Rochester Dr Michael Nazir-Ali, who criticised his sharia lecture and who maintains that
Christianity is central to British law, politics and society.
'Religious identity has often been confused with cultural or national integrity, with structures of social control, with class and regional identities, with empire: and it has been imposed in the interest of all these and other forms of power,' he said.
The Archbishop said that faiths which reject the use of violence should learn to defend each other in their mutual interest.
'If we are in the habit of defending each other, we ought to be able to learn to defend other groups and communities as well,' he said.
'We can together speak for those who have no voice or leverage in society - for the poorest, the most despised, the least powerful, for women and children, for migrants and minorities; and even to speak together for the great encompassing reality that has no voice of its own, our injured and abused material environment.'
The Archbishop did not mention sharia at all in his closely-argued 18-page
letter. Dr Williams was heavily criticised by MPs and Downing Street after he suggested sharia law could have an established place in British life.
But his letter in reply to last year's Islamic approach, A Common Word for the Common Good, chimes with his view expressed in February that people of faith should be able to work together against secularism despite their differences.
Lambeth Palace hinted that Christians as well as Muslims should listen to Dr Williams' message.
Officials pointed to the Archbishop's call for 'religious plurality' to turn to
serving the common good and added: 'This is true even where truth claims may seem irreconcilable'.
Saudi-sponsored interfaith conference in Spain brings Muslims, Jews and Christians together
By PAUL HAVEN , Associated Press
July 16, 2008
MADRID, Spain - King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia was kicking off an interfaith conference in Madrid on Wednesday — an effort to bring Muslims, Christians and Jews closer together amid a world that often puts the three faiths at odds.
Spanish King Juan Carlos was also addressing the gathering — which the Saudis have billed as a strictly religious affair. There's to be no mention of hot-button issues like the war in Iraq, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Iranian nuclear ambitions or rising oil prices.
Abdullah has made reaching out to other faiths a hallmark of his rule since taking over the oil-rich kingdom following the death of his half brother in 2005. He met with Pope Benedict XVI late last year, the first meeting ever between a pope and a reigning Saudi king.
And in June, Abdullah held a religious conference in Mecca in which participants pledged improved relations between Islam's two main branches — Sunni and Shia. At that meeting Abdullah also rejected extremism, saying that Muslims must present Islam's "good message" to the world.
The three-day Madrid conference boasts a number of Jewish religious figures, including David Rosen, a prominent Irish-Israeli rabbi whose presence is being hailed as a sign the Saudis are serious about reaching out.
Rosen, however, is not listed as an Israeli in conference literature, prompting officials in the Jewish state to question the extent of the Saudis' commitment.
Some other Jewish officials invited to the conference are more controversial, including Rabbi David Weiss, whose group, Neturei Karta, objects to the creation of Israel on the grounds that it violates Jewish religious law.
At a 2006 gathering in Tehran hosted by hard-line Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Weiss made headlines by saying the number of Jews said to have been killed in the Holocaust was inflated.
Weiss was at one point scheduled to address this week's conference, but organizers said plans have changed. It was not immediately clear if Weiss would be attending the conference at all.
Monsignor Nabil Haddad, head of the Melkite Catholic community in Jordan and a participant at the conference, told The Associated Press that any event that allows the world's main faiths to sit down together is worthwhile.
"The conference provides a rare opportunity for strengthening mutual respect between the followers of the three main religions," he said.
Detractors counter that the Saudis are the last people who should be hosting a meeting on religious tolerance.
Wahhabism — the strain of Sunni Islam that is practiced in Saudi Arabia — is considered one of the religion's most conservative. Observers say the conference was being held in Spain partly because it would be politically unpalatable for Abdullah to allow Jewish and Christian leaders on Saudi soil.
Jul 24th 2008 | MADRID
From The Economist print edition
A new breeze may be blowing very softly from the Saudi sands
We must go on meeting like this: the ubiquitous Mr Blair with King Abdullah (Photo)
PEOPLE are used to the idea that the authorities of Saudi Arabia play a pivotal role in the world of Islam, both within Muslim lands and among Muslim minorities that are struggling to reconcile their faith with life in the West. Anywhere from Los Angeles to Kuala Lumpur, you can walk into a brand-new mosque and sense the influence of Saudi cash—over the architecture, the reading matter and the training and style of the imam. And there are many observers of global Islam who see that influence as baleful: promoting puritanism, intolerance of other forms of faith (including less conservative kinds of Islam), rejecting many of the artistic, literary and scholarly traditions that make the Muslim world so rich and varied.
Indeed there are scholars who ascribe many of the pathologies of today’s Muslim world, from violence to intolerance, to the alliance that formed in the 18th century between Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab, an ultra-conservative Muslim thinker, and the royal house of Saud. And there are some who blame Britain for using its influence in the 1920s to consolidate the power of the house of Saud and its clerical allies.
What people are not used to is the idea of Saudi Arabia and its monarch, King Abdullah, as a propagator of tolerance both within Islam, and between Islam and other faiths. Yet this month the king stepped up his effort to be a cultural and religious bridge-builder by convening a “World Conference on Dialogue”—as dreamily inclusive a title as anyone could ask for—in Madrid. The guest list included Tony Blair (now a ubiquitous figure on the inter-faith circuit), the American pastor-politician Jesse Jackson (who glad-handed everyone as though he was running for president of some global religious body) and saffron-robed Hindus as well as rabbis and Christian prelates. The Saudi visitor, standing beside King Juan Carlos of Spain in the sun-filled atrium of the Palacio Real, beamed like a benign grandfather as he took in a line of robed clerics and worthies.
Has the king—or even the whole kingdom—had a change of heart? One thing that shows no sign of altering is the Saudi monarch’s insistence that his own role, epitomised by his title as “Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques”, should transcend Saudi borders and extend to the whole Muslim world. He once chided a Chinese official who called the kingdom a great nation because of its oil. No, the king insisted, “we are great because of our religion.”
In truth, the kingdom’s influence in religious affairs has much to do with oil. Over the past quarter-century, the outpouring of Saudi money to the world’s mosques, madrassas and Muslim institutions has ebbed and flowed with the price of crude. There is not a single significant Muslim population in the world that has been untouched by Saudi funding, says Reza Aslan, an American writer on Islam, and the effect has “mostly been negative.”
Yet since taking the throne three years ago, the monarch has presented himself as an opponent of “extremism”, which he often describes as “deviancy” from Islam at its best; and he has urged his compatriots (including the ultra-conservative clergy that still holds a lot of power) to be ready for dialogue with other faiths.
Is this anything more than rhetoric? There is little sign of change on the domestic scene. Saudi Arabia bans churches (and all other non-Muslim houses of worship) on its soil and refuses visas to Israelis. Discrimination against Ismaili and Shia Muslims remains rife, although it has eased under the present king. The religious establishment continues to be obscurantist, even medieval. An Islamic judge recently sentenced a woman who had been gang-raped to dozens of lashes. Her crime? Being with an unrelated man in a car before the rape.
A more open question, perhaps, is whether there is some change in the role played in global Islam by Saudi-backed institutions, such as the Muslim World League (MWL), which formally hosted the Madrid meeting. Till recently, the MWL seemed like a bastion of the back-to-basics fundamentalism that draws second-generation Muslims in Europe away from the culturally rich forms of Islam practised by their Pakistani or Algerian parents.
So, is the MWL changing its stripes? Yes, partially, says Adel Toraifi, a Saudi columnist who has been critical of it in the past; it no longer produces the deadly mix of political grievance and hardline theology that it purveyed globally in the 1980s and 1990s. But “it’s not the Oxford University debating society either,” he concedes.
In fact, the MWL’s old-time credentials might just make it a plausible spreader of a gentler message. In the words of Vali Nasr, a scholar at America’s Tufts University, an initiative in the Muslim world “must be respected not in London and Washington but in Jakarta and Karachi, and the MWL has credibility in those places.” It can also be argued that King Abdullah has more credibility as an inter-faith conciliator than did his predecessor, King Fahd. Because he is devout and free of the playboy image that besets some other Saudi royals, he should be better-placed to stand up to reactionary clerics. As Mr Toraifi puts it, the king “is widely known as a pious person, so he doesn’t feel the need to appease the conservatives.”
Given that jihadist violence—seen by many people as a by-product of reactionary Saudi theology—has touched the kingdom itself, as well as cities like New York and London, the king has every incentive to use his influence to steer global Islam in a more moderate direction. But to succeed abroad, he may need to succeed more at home, and that looks very hard.
The moment of truth
Jul 24th 2008
From The Economist print edition
Illustration by Garry Neill
In many parts of the world, the right to change one's beliefs is under threat
AS AN intellectually gifted Jewish New Yorker who had reached manhood in the mid-1950s, Marc Schleifer was relentless in his pursuit of new cultural and spiritual experiences. He dallied with Anglo-Catholicism, intrigued by the ritual but not quite able to believe the doctrine, and went through a phase of admiration for Latin American socialism. Experimenting with lifestyles as well as creeds, he tried respectability as an advertising executive, and a more bohemian life in the raffish expatriate scene of North Africa.
Returning from Morocco to his home city, he was shocked by the harsh anonymity of life in the urban West. And one day, riding the New York subway, he opened the Koran at a passage which spoke of the mystery of God: beyond human understanding, but as close as a jugular vein. Suddenly, everything fell into place. It was only a matter of time before he embraced Islam by pronouncing before witnesses that “there is no God but God, and Muhammad is his prophet.”
Some 40 years on from that life-changing moment—not untypical of the turning points that many individuals experience—Abdallah Schleifer has won distinction as a Muslim intellectual. Last year he was one of 138 Muslim thinkers who signed an open letter to Christian leaders calling for a deeper theological dialogue. The list of signatories included (along with the muftis from Cairo, Damascus and Jakarta) several other people who had made surprising journeys. One grew up as an English nonconformist; another as a Catholic farm boy from Oregon; another in the more refined Catholic world of bourgeois Italy.
Sometimes conversion is gradual, but quite commonly things come to a head in a single instant, which can be triggered by a text, an image, a ceremony or some private realisation. A religious person would call such a moment a summons from God; a psychologist might speak of an instant when the walls between the conscious and unconscious break down, perhaps because an external stimulus—words, a picture, a rite—connects with something very deep inside. For people of an artistic bent, the catalyst is often a religious image which serves as a window into a new reality. One recurring theme in conversion stories is that cultural forms which are, on the face of it, foreign to the convert somehow feel familiar, like a homecoming. That, the convert feels, “is what I have always believed without being fully aware of it.”
Take Jennie Baker, an ethnic Chinese nurse who moved from Malaysia to England. She was an evangelical, practising but not quite satisfied with a Christianity that eschews aids to worship such as pictures, incense or elaborate rites. When she first walked into an Orthodox church, and took in the icons that occupied every inch of wall-space, everything in this “new” world made sense to her, and some teachings, like the idea that every home should have a corner for icons and prayer, resonated with her Asian heritage. Soon she and her English husband helped establish a Greek Orthodox parish in Lancashire.
Following the heart
In the West it is generally taken for granted that people have a perfect, indeed sacred, right to follow their own religious path, and indeed to invite—though never compel—other people to join them. The liberal understanding of religion lays great emphasis on the right to change belief. Earlier this year, a poll found that one in four Americans moves on from the faith of their upbringing.
America’s foundation as a refuge for Europe’s Christian dissidents has endowed it with a deep sense of the right to follow and propagate any form of religion, with no impediment, or help, from the state. In the 1980s America saw some lively debates over whether new-fangled “cults” should be distinguished from conventional forms of religion, and curbed; but in the end a purely libertarian view prevailed. The promotion of religious liberty is an axiom of American foreign policy, not just in places where freedom is obviously under threat, but even in Germany, which gets gentle scoldings for its treatment of Scientology.
But America’s religious free-for-all is very much the exception, not the rule, in human history—and increasingly rare, some would say, in the world today. In most human societies, conversion has been seen as an act whose consequences are as much social and political as spiritual; and it has been assumed that the wider community, in the form of the family, the village or the state, has every right to take an interest in the matter. The biggest reason why conversion is becoming a hot international topic is the Muslim belief that leaving Islam is at best a grave sin, at worst a crime that merits execution (see article). Another factor in a growing global controversy is the belief in some Christian circles that Christianity must retain the right to seek and receive converts, even in parts of the world where this may be viewed as a form of cultural or spiritual aggression.
A fighting matter
The idea that religion constitutes a community (where the loss or gain of even one member is a matter of deep, legitimate concern to all other members) is as old as religion itself. Christianity teaches that the recovery of a “lost sheep” causes rejoicing in heaven; for a Muslim, there is no human category more important than the umma, the worldwide community of believers.
But in most human societies the reasons why conversion causes controversy have little do with religious dogma, and much to do with power structures (within the family or the state) and politics. Conversion will never be seen as a purely individual matter when one religiously-defined community is at war or armed standoff with another. During Northern Ireland’s Troubles a move across the Catholic-Protestant divide could be life-threatening, at least in working-class Belfast—and not merely because people felt strongly about papal infallibility.
And in any situation where religion and authority (whether political, economic or personal) are bound up, changes of spiritual allegiance cause shock-waves. In the Ottoman empire, the status of Christians and Jews was at once underpinned and circumscribed by a regime that saw religion as an all-important distinction. Non-Muslims were exempt from the army, but barred from many of the highest offices, and obliged to pay extra taxes. When a village in, say, Crete or Bosnia converted en masse from Christianity to Islam, this was seen as betrayal by those who stayed Christian, in part because it reduced the population from which the Ottomans expected a given amount of tax.
In the days of British rule over the south of Ireland, it was hard for Catholics to hold land, although they were the overwhelming majority. An opportunistic conversion to the rulers’ religion was seen as “letting the side down” by those who kept the faith. Similar inter-communal tensions arose in many European countries where Jews converted to Christianity in order to enter university or public service.
In most modern societies, the elaborate discrimination which made religious allegiance into a public matter is felt to be a thing of the past. But is this so? In almost every post-Ottoman country, traces exist of the mentality that treats religion as a civic category, where entry and exit is a matter of public negotiation, not just private belief. Perhaps Lebanon, where political power is allocated along confessional lines (and boat-rocking changes of religious affiliation are virtually impossible) is the most perfectly post-Ottoman state. But there are other holdovers. In “secular” Turkey, the Greek Orthodox, Armenian and Jewish minorities have certain poorly observed rights that no other religious minority enjoys; isolated Christians, or dissident Muslims, face great social pressure to conform to standard Sunni Islam. In Greece, it is unconstitutional to proselytise; that makes life hard for Jehovah’s Witnesses or Mormons. In Egypt, the fact that building a Christian church requires leave from the head of state is a direct legacy of a (liberalising) Ottoman decree of 1856.
But the Ottoman empire is by no means the only semi-theocratic realm whose influence is still palpable in the governance of religious affairs, including conversion. In an odd way, the Soviet Union continued the legacy of the tsars by dividing citizens into groups (including Jews or some Muslim ethnicities) where membership had big consequences but was not a matter of individual choice. In post-Soviet Russia, the prevailing Orthodox church rejects the notion of a free market in ideas. It seeks (and often gets) state preference for “traditional” faiths, defined as Orthodox Christianity, Judaism, Islam and Buddhism. This implies that other forms of Christianity are “poaching” if they seek to recruit Russians.
Illustration by Garry Neill
But issues of conversion are also painful in some former territories of the British empire, which allowed its subjects to follow their own communal laws. Take India, which once aspired to be a secular state, and whose constitution calls for a uniform civil code for all citizens. That prospect is now remote, and the fact that different religious groups live by different family laws, and are treated unequally by the state and society, has created incentives for “expedient” conversion. A colourful body of jurisprudence, dating from the British Raj, concerns people who changed faith to solve a personal dilemma—like men who switched from Hinduism to Islam so as to annul their marriage and wed somebody else. In 1995, the Supreme Court tried to stop this by saying people could not dodge social obligations, or avoid bigamy charges, by changing faith. What India’s case law shows, says Marco Ventura, a religious-law professor, is the contrast between conversion in rich, liberal societies and traditional ones, where discrimination tempts people to make tactical moves.
And in many ways religious freedom is receding, not advancing, in India. Half a dozen Indian states have introduced laws that make it hard for people to leave Hinduism. These states are mostly ruled by the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). But last year Himachal Pradesh became the first state led by the more secular Congress party to bring in such legislation: such is the power of Hindu sentiment that even non-religious parties pander to it.
The state’s new law is billed as a “freedom of religion” measure, but it has the opposite effect: anyone wishing to switch faiths must tell the district magistrate 30 days before or risk a fine. If a person converts another “by the use of force or by inducement or by any other fraudulent means”, they can be jailed for up to two years, fined, or both. Local pastors say “inducement” could be taken to mean anything, including giving alms to the poor.
Supporters of such laws say proselytisers, or alleluia wallahs, are converting poor Hindus by force. It is true that Christian evangelism is in full swing in parts of India, especially in its eastern tribal belt, and that it enjoys some success. Officially, fewer than 3% of India’s 1.1 billion people are Christian. But some Christians say the real total may be double that. Christian converts, most of whom are born as dalits at the bottom of the Hindu caste system, often hide their new faith for fear of losing their rights to state jobs and university places kept for the lower castes.
But it is unlikely that many Hindu-to-Christian switches are forced. In states with anti-conversion laws, credible allegations of conversion under duress have very rarely been made.
Anyway, India’s arguments have more to do with politics than theology. Hindutva, the teaching that India is a Hindu nation and that Christians and Muslims are outsiders, has been a vote-winner for the BJP. Even in Himachal Pradesh, voters were unmoved by the Congress party’s attempt to ride the religious bandwagon; the BJP still won the latest elections.
The contest between theocratic politics and a notionally secular state looks even more unequal in another ex-British land, Malaysia, where freedom of choice in religion is enshrined in the federal constitution, but Islamic law is imposed with growing strictness on the Muslim majority.
Until the mid-1990s, say Malaysian civil-rights advocates like Malik Imtiaz Sarwar, the federal authorities enforced religious freedom; the National Registration Department, a federal agency, would comply when anybody asked to record a change of religion. More recently, both that agency and Malaysia’s top judges have deferred to the sharia courts, which enjoy increasing power in all 13 states of the Malaysian federation; and those courts rarely let a registered Muslim quit the fold. A recent exception was an ethnic Chinese woman who was briefly married to an Iranian; a sharia court let her re-embrace Buddhism, but only on the ground that she was never fully Muslim, so the idea of “Once a Muslim, always a Muslim” remained intact.
A more telling sign of the times was the verdict in the case of Lina Joy, a Malay convert from Islam to Christianity who asked a federal court to register the change on her ID card. By two to one the judges rejected her bid, arguing that one “cannot, at one’s whims or fancies, renounce or embrace a religion”. Too bad, then, for any Malaysians who have a moment of truth on the subway, especially if the faith to which they are called happens not to be Islam.
Yale hosts high-level Christian-Muslim dialogue
By Tom Heneghan, Religion Editor Sun Jul 27,
NEW HAVEN, Connecticut (Reuters) - Senior Christian and Muslim scholars and leaders are meeting in the United States this week seeking common ground in their different faiths to foster better understanding between Islam and the West.
Hosted by Yale University Divinity School, the conference is the first public dialogue launched by Muslim intellectuals in the Common Word group that appealed to Christian leaders last year for discussions among theologians to promote peace.
Most U.S. participants are Protestant theologians and church leaders, including some prominent evangelicals, but some Catholics and Jews also are taking part. The Muslims, both Sunnis and Shi'ites, hail from around the world.
Their conference comes just more than a week after King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia, home of Islam's strict Wahhabi sect, hosted an unprecedented meeting of Muslims, Christians, Jews, Hindus and Buddhists in Madrid and pledged to pursue interfaith dialogue.
"We have broken the ice of mistrust between the West and Islam with this initiative," said Mustafa Ceric, grand mufti of Bosnia. "In world affairs today, the rule should not be the argument of force but the force of argument."
Ceric, whose homeland in former Yugoslavia was torn apart by ethnic and religious strife in the 1990s, said it was time for serious dialogue among mainstream faith leaders after years in which violence by Islamist radicals has dominated the headlines.
Miroslav Volf, a Yale theologian co-hosting the sessions, agreed this and other recent interfaith encounters in Europe and the Middle East pointed to a growing interest in seeking more Christian-Muslim understanding. "There's definitely something in the air," the Croatian-born Protestant said.
The Common Word project, started last October by 138 Muslim scholars, says Christianity and Islam share two common core values -- love of God and love of neighbor. The group says discussions on this among experts can help defuse tensions between the faiths.
Christian leaders have responded positively to the appeal.
PLATFORM FOR MAINSTREAM ISLAM
The Common Word group, a multinational platform for mainstream faith in a religion with no central authority, will meet Anglicans in October and Pope Benedict in November.
"In the modern era, we have never had anything like this where such a large group of people from all kinds of religious, ethnic and cultural backgrounds agreed on an issue such as this," said Ibrahim Kalin, a spokesman for the group.
"The common understanding here is that we have different theological languages but the ultimate object of our discussion is the same," the Turkish philosopher said. "There is only one God but we approach God with different languages."
The Yale conference began on Friday with closed-door talks among 60 theologians about how the two faiths understand the concept of loving God and loving one's fellow man. It will expand to 150 in public sessions from Tuesday to Thursday.
An important aspect of the meeting is that evangelical Christians are among the participants. Some United States evangelical preachers denounce Islam as a false and violent religion but several evangelical leaders support this dialogue.
"One of the most interesting places of Christian-Muslim confrontation in the world is where evangelicals meet Muslims," said John Stackhouse, a Canadian evangelical theologian from Regent College in Vancouver.
"Evangelicals want other people to convert and in Islam, the worst thing you can do is convert."
While neither side denies the differences between their faiths, they agree that better understanding can help defuse tensions that often spill over into violence. "If you're just trying to get along and not fall in love with each other, that is a practical agenda," Stackhouse said.
The Common Word appeal did not address Jews but the group has invited some Jewish scholars to join the talks. "At the end of the day," Kalin said, "we are really talking about a Judeo-Christian-Islamic tradition."
Rabbi Burton Visotzky of New York's Jewish Theological Seminary was among the conference speakers on Friday. "If religious leaders can help move political issues to peace rather than war, then we've done God's work," he said.
I had the chance to speak to 3,000 young people at the United Church of
Christ's National Youth Event in Tennessee 10 days ago. I paused in the
middle of my talk to ask a question: "How many of you know someone from
a different religion personally - a Jew or a Muslim or a Hindu?"
Almost every hand in the room went up.
Faith formation, for these young people, is going to not only involve
the question: "What does it mean to be a Christian?" It is going to have
to include an additional element, "What does it mean to be a Christian
in a community/country/world of Hindus, Muslims, Jews, Buddhists, Sikhs,
secular humanists, etc?"
The great comparative religions scholar Wilfred Cantwell Smith predicted
this in his book, "The Faith of Other Men," based on his experience in
South Asia a half century ago: "The religious life of mankind from now
on, if it is to be lived at all, will be lived in a context of religious
Cantwell Smith was way ahead of his time. My bet is that many Americans
over a certain age still don't know someone from another faith. But
their children do. And it's not just an urban America experience. A good
number of the young people in the audience I spoke to were from rural
areas - small towns in Wisconsin, Texas, Pennsylvania. Religious
diversity has become an everywhere phenomenon in America. And it means
the first "Interfaith Generation" in America is growing up in front of
Scholars, educators and activists are recognizing this new phenomenon.
Three new publications (full disclosure: I contributed to two and was
interviewed for the third) seek to guide and equip our interfaith
Gustav Niebuhr, the former religion reporter for The New York Times and
currently a professor at Syracuse University, recently published an
excellent book describing and analyzing the religious dynamics of
contemporary America, with special attention to the growing interfaith
movement. He writes that he saw this movement emerging in America during
his two decades as a journalist, and watched it explode after 9/11,
"pressed by a new sense of urgency to encourage peaceful encounters
across religious lines." His book, Beyond Tolerance, is a lyrical read
and as good a window into America's religious diversity as you will
Reverend Bud Heckman, a long-time interfaith leader and one of the best
I know in the field, has put together an edited volume of "how-to"
pieces called Interactive Faith. It answers one of the most common
question that I hear when I talk about the importance of interfaith
cooperation: "I think bringing people from different religions together
is a great idea, now how do I do it?" This book has chapters on the
methodology of interfaith dialogue, arts, service and other such
programs. Reverend Heckman opens it with a lucid introduction on the
theory and practice of interfaith work. The field has long needed a book
like this. It belongs on the bookshelf of anybody in a religious, civic
or educational community who wants to start an interfaith project.
Rebecca Kratz Mays' edited volume, "Interfaith Dialogue at the Grass
Roots" answers another common question in a concrete way: "Is interfaith
dialogue only for religious leaders and scholars." The answer is, "No -
it's a movement that everyone can and should participate in." The pieces
in Mays' volume are examples of interfaith work in a variety of ways and
in a range of contexts, from the United States to Macedonia to
Indonesia. The pieces are well-written and introduced by one of the most
important scholars in the field, Leonard Swidler.
The interfaith generation is going to be asking a whole new set of
questions about what it means to be young and religious in this day and
age. A new literature is going to have to emerge to light the path for
them. These books are amongst the first in what promises to be an
exciting and important new field.
On July 15th the Interfaith Encounter Association's students' group
in Tel Aviv University hosted two special guests from the Science and
Research Foundation, founded by the Islamic thinker Harun Yahya -
Istanbul, Turkey. The two lecturers presented their view of the good
attitude of Islam towards Judaism.
First spoke Dr. Oktar Babuna who spoke about the fact that the Koran
sees faithful Jews as believers who submit to God, just as Muslims.
The Koran (5:44) acknowledges the divinity of the Torah and allows
for Muslims to befriend with Jews and eat their food.
Radicalism, which is the wish to promote significant and abrupt
change through hard line and uncompromising policy, existed in all
three religions and was always a result of lack in real religious
The Islamic moral forbids extremism. Any one who kills one human is
as if he killed the whole of humanity. The real roots of extremist
approaches are in anti-religious and materialistic views.
The way to counter extremism is through cooperation of the Abrahamic
religions to promote the faith in God and the morals that is derived
from that faith. There are, of course, differences between the
religions - due to differences in nature and circumstances - but the
common basic principles are a strong enough basis for joint
improvement of the world. Such common principles are for example:
prayer and its power, promotion of justice, support of God in his
The Koran (3:64) calls Jews for cooperation in the promotion of the
faith in one God. Jews, Muslims and Christians should be living in
peace and joint prosperity (Koran 5:69 and 3:64).
Followed Dr. Cihat Gundogdu who stressed that there is no such thing
as "Islamic terrorism"; since there is no way to reconcile the Holy
Book of the Koran with terrorism, even though some terrorists carry a
In all three religions, killing of innocent is a crime that brings
torment in Hell. The religions encourage love and compassion, while
terrorism comes from secular ideologies.
Karen Armstrong, in her book "The True, Peaceful Face of Islam,
stresses that the word "Jihad" does not mean "Holy War", but rather a
struggle. A struggle of the human with his urges.
Ramuz el Hadith Vol. 1, 8/48 says that even in war it is forbidden to
hurt elderly people, women or children. In 76/12 it adds: not even
trees or houses.
Suicide is strictly forbidden by Islam (Koran 4:29).
The Koran calls for respect to Synagogues as well as Churches
The Interfaith Encounter Association
P.O.Box 3814, Jerusalem 91037, Israel
Sr. Karmela Farrugia, Chair
Rabbi Dr. Dov Maimon, Vice-Chair
Ms. Rafiqa Othman, Vice-Chair
Mr. Adnan Trabsha, Vice-Chair
Ms. Saheer Siam
Mr. Dotan Arad
Ms. Nada Abu Zaidan
Former New York Times reporter looks at growth of interfaith movements. In 'Beyond Tolerance,' Gustav Niebuhr examines the ways various religions are reaching out to one another. But obstacles remain as many faiths preach that they are the one true way.
By Steve Padilla
Los Angeles Times Staff Writer
August 30, 2008
Conflicts between religions continue to rock the world, but when Gustav Niebuhr looks out on the religious landscape, he sees what he calls the "possibility of community."
Niebuhr, an associate professor of religion at Syracuse University, detects an encouraging (he calls it unprecedented) trend: people of faith reaching out to those of other faiths.
This is not to suggest conflicts between religions will end soon, if ever. Just this week, Hindu mobs destroyed more than a dozen churches and attacked Christians in India.
But in Niebuhr's work as a professor and, before that, a reporter on religion for the New York Times, he began noticing that, bit by bit, Christians, Jews, Hindus and Muslims were making efforts to learn about other faiths. Niebuhr explores the trend in his new book, "Beyond Tolerance" (Viking), and came to Southern California this month as part of a book tour.
He argues there is urgent need for interfaith work, given the way religion now sometimes splits, and endangers, the world in the way the Cold War once did. "Religion is to the 21st century what ideology was to the 20th," Niebuhr said.
The title "Beyond Tolerance" conveys one of Niebuhr's principle themes, and he discussed the work on a recent weekday before he spoke at All Saints Episcopal Church in Pasadena. Groups can tolerate one another, he noted, without really getting along. A lack of conflict doesn't necessarily mean cohesion.
"Tolerance is not enough because there's no educational component to it," Niebuhr said. "Tolerance doesn't bust down stereotype. Tolerance doesn't put a face on faith."
Niebuhr argues, with anecdotes and statistics, that thousands of believers from a wide variety of faiths are trying to reach across religious divides. He cites a 2000 study of 14,000 U.S. congregations by the Hartford Institute for Religion Research.
The report, "Faith Communities Today," found that 7% of American congregations had participated in some interfaith activity, such as holding a joint religious service. It also found that 8% had collaborated with another congregation on a community service project.
That may not sound like much, Niebuhr writes, but with an estimated 335,000 churches in the United States, that translates to 20,000 to 25,000 congregations teaming up for such work.
"But the original survey provided a baseline for a second, more intriguing one five years later," Niebuhr writes. "This time around, the institute reported that the number of houses of worship participating in inter-religious worship had tripled to more than 22%, while the number that joined in community service had risen more than fourfold to 38%."
Niebuhr concludes: "A cultural shift had taken place." In the interview, he put it this way: "People are not beyond redemption. People can learn. People can cooperate."
What's prompting the shift?
Mass communication has made it easier to reach out beyond one's own group. He notes that in the 1990s, Hindu temples on the East Coast began holding open houses so their neighbors could learn about them.
This practice has been taken up by many mosques and for some has become a yearly event. This month, "Open Mosque Day" was observed by many Islamic congregations in Southern California. Look at many mosque websites, Niebuhr said, and you'll often find an option called "take a tour."
The interfaith movement -- and "Beyond Tolerance" -- were not prompted by 9/11, but the terrorist attacks helped shape them. Niebuhr was in Manhattan that day and reported on the World Trade Center attack for the New York Times. "You were in the presence of a crematory," he said.
He found himself thinking of religious tolerance and acceptance -- ideas already brewing for years -- and decided that if "tolerance is all we can manage," the victims of 9/11 deserved better.
As Niebuhr researched his book, he encountered a variety of efforts to reach out. He ran across a nun who organized discussions of about six people from different faiths; it was a small effort, but it was her way of building understanding.
He also frankly describes the difficulty of reaching out. Niebuhr writes of an effort by a group of Buddhists and Roman Catholics to forge ties in Los Angeles.
He quotes from a report by the group: "It challenged us to articulate to one another what we took for granted among ourselves."
Niebuhr writes: "At times, the group -- a small one, numbering perhaps a dozen people -- had spent an hour or more puzzling over a single word from one of their traditions, trying to explain it to everyone's satisfaction."
Niebuhr says there's a precedent for interfaith work in the U.S., particularly from the 1960s, when clergy and congregations of different faiths banded together to promote civil rights. But the focus has changed. "This time the focus is on religion," he said.
Niebuhr readily acknowledges a basic problem: many faith traditions view themselves as the one true way to salvation or enlightenment.
The holy writings of various faiths say as much. So where can one find, he was asked, a scriptural basis for interfaith cooperation?
"You can start with Genesis," he replied. He cited this well-known passage, Genesis 1:27: "So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them."
Doesn't that show, he asks, that people should get along? Niebuhr didn't mention it, but a few verses later comes the line: "God saw all that he had made, and it was very good."
Niebuhr also recounts a conversation with the head of a Hindu temple in New York, who cited a verse in the Bhagavad Gita in which God promises to liberate all people, not just Hindus, from their sins.
Niebuhr collects anecdotes from across the country in his book, but includes moving scenes from Los Angeles. He recounts an interfaith service that brought together Buddhists and Catholics at the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels downtown.
He was immediately struck by the visual difference -- the Catholic priests in black, the monks in glowing saffron, a bright contrast to the cathedral's muted interior.
"The differences are OK," he said, thinking back on the scene. "The differences are good. But so is being together."
He also notes a fitting inscription on a cornerstone just to the right of the cathedral entrance. It would be easy to miss because the eyes are drawn up by the soaring walls.
The inscription is from Isaiah: "My house will be called a house of prayer for all peoples."
From Muslims in Europe to evangelical Christians in Africa, it is religious believers who are shaping the early 21st Century. Charismatic movements are sweeping throughout the Southern Hemisphere, while high birth rates among immigrants are provoking soul-seeking in the historically Christian West. For this List, FP looks at the fast-growing faiths that are upending the old world order.
QASSEM ZEIN/AFP/Getty Images
Islam Growth rate*: 1.84 percent
Adherents: 1.3 billion
Behind the trend: High birthrates in Asia, the Middle East, and Europe
Areas to watch: The world’s largest Muslim populations are in fast-growing countries such as Indonesia, Bangladesh, Pakistan, India, Egypt, and Iran. Islam also happens to be the fastest growing religion in Europe, where an influx of Muslim immigrants from North Africa, Turkey, and South Asia has sent shock waves into a mostly Christian and secular population whose birthrates have stagnated. The “Muslim question” has empowered anti-immigrant parties in France, Austria, Denmark, the Netherlands, and Germany, while sparking a fierce debate over the place of women in Islam and symbols of faith like the Muslim head scarf.
The Bahai Faith* Growth rate: 1.70 percent
Adherents: 7.7 million
Behind the trend: High birthrates in India
Areas to watch: Bahais are spread throughout the world, but a good chunk—around 1.8 million—live in India. The Bahai faith was founded in 1863 in Iran by Bahá’u’lláh, who claimed to be the latest in a line of prophets stretching from Abraham to Jesus Christ to Mohammed. The world headquarters of the Bahai faith are in Haifa, Israel. Today, Bahais often suffer persecution elsewhere in the Middle East, especially in Iran.
Sikhism Growth rate: 1.62 percent
Adherents: 25.8 million
Behind the trend: High birthrates in India
Areas to watch: Thousands of Sikhs were killed during the bloody partition between Pakistan and India in 1947, and at least 3,000 Sikhs were killed by Hindu mobs in New Delhi following the assassination of Indira Gandhi by a pair of Sikh extremists in 1984. Today, Sikhs are prospering. The prime minister of India, Manmohan Singh, is Sikh. Over 90 percent of the world’s Sikhs live in India; of those, a large majority are concentrated in the northern Indian state of Punjab. Canada, the United Kingdom, and the United States host growing Sikh minorities of several hundred thousand people each. In several isolated incidents after 9/11, turban-wearing Sikh men in Britain and the United States were mistaken for Muslims and attacked.
Jainism Growth rate: 1.57 percent
Adherents: 5.9 million
Behind the trend: High birthrates in India
Areas to watch: Jains are a small but relatively powerful minority in India, making up about half of one percent of the population. They tend to be concentrated in Rajasthan and Gujarat. Outside of India, some of the largest concentrations of Jains are in Leicester, UK; Mombasa, Kenya; and major cities in the United States.
Mario Tama/Getty Images
Hinduism Growth rate: 1.52 percent
Adherents: 870 million
Behind the trend: Surprise! High birthrates in India
Areas to watch: Most of the world’s Hindus live in India, and, to a lesser extent, Bangladesh, and Nepal. Significant Hindu minorities also live in Sri Lanka, Indonesia, Pakistan, and Malaysia. Since the 1960s, Hindus have become a growing presence in the United States, with as many as 1.5 million generally well-off adherents spread across the continent and prevalent in Texas, New Jersey, and Ohio. There are also several hundred thousand Hindus in the United Kingdom and South Africa, and there is a small Hindu minority in Russia, where its presence has aroused controversy in the Russian Orthodox Church.
PIUS UTOMI EKPEI/AFP/Getty Images
Christianity Growth rate: 1.38 percent
Adherents: 2.2 billion
Behind the trend: High birthrates and conversions in the global South
Areas to watch: Pentecostal movements in Latin America, Africa, China, and India. The fastest-growing individual church in the world is Misión Carismática Internacional in Colombia; the Pentecostal denomination began in 1983 in Bogotá and now boasts 150,000 members. Then there’s Orissa Baptist Evangelical Crusade in India, which reports some 670,000 adherents. And in China, tens of millions of Christians practice their faith under the watchful eye of a very suspicious—and often hostile—Chinese government.
*Growth rates over the period from 2000 to 2005; all figures from the nondenominational World Christian Database, a project of the Center for the Study of Global Christianity at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary.
*The entry on the Bahai faith was revised to reflect the concerns of readers. Originally, the item was entitled "Bahaism," and described the religion as "an offshoot of Islam." Additionally, the sentence on Israel was clarified to better reflect the fact that Bahais are treated well in that country, but face discrimination elsewhere in the Middle East.
Click here to see our archive of FP Lists
All times are GMT - 5 Hours Goto page 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9Next
Page 1 of 9
You cannot post new topics in this forum You cannot reply to topics in this forum You cannot edit your posts in this forum You cannot delete your posts in this forum You cannot vote in polls in this forum