Pandemic heightens dangers to international religious freedom

AMMAN, JORDAN — Christians and others practicing their faith experienced serious challenges to religious freedom around the world this year, heightened by dangers posed by the coronavirus pandemic.

The challenges ranged from institutionalized practices to violent killings and kidnappings. Others saw threats to religious freedom in pandemic lockdown restrictions.

In Iraq, where Pope Francis is set to make a pilgrimage next March, pandemic conditions permitting, Catholic leaders have expressed grave concerns for the conflict-ridden country’s brutally displaced Christians and other religious minorities, like the Yazidis.

About 150,000 Christians are left in Iraq; prior to a U.S.-led invasion in 2003, they numbered 1.5 million. Sectarian warfare followed, devastating the country’s historic and diverse Christian communities and culminated in the takeover by so-called Islamic State militants of their historic heartland in the Ninevah Plain in 2014. Christians fled, threatened with conversion to Islam or death, while Yazidis faced genocide and sexual enslavement by ruthless Islamist militants.

Catholic Chaldean Archbishop Bashar Warda of Irbil has warned of “a growing loss of hope” among Christians. But he recently told the Catholic charity Aid to the Church in Need: “To have His Holiness come to visit us now may very well be the thing that saves us. Certainly, this visit will provide real strength and courage to the Iraqi Christians to remain in our homeland and rebuild here.”


A message of hope in Muslim-majority Indonesia

What unites people of different faiths is universal humanity. To be religious is to be human, not the other way around

Just before Christmas, on Dec. 23, Indonesia’s President Joko (Jokowi) Widodo appointed six new cabinet ministers. What attracted the most attention from this event was the brief post-inauguration speech by the new minister of religion, Yaqut Cholil Qoumas. In his speech, Gus Yaqut, as he is commonly known, outlined his mission possible.

He stated that the first step in his mission is to make sure that religion is positioned as an inspiration, not an aspiration. Religion must no longer be used as a political tool in attempts to oppose the government or to seize power, nor for other purposes. Essentially, religion must promote the values of goodness and peace.

In support of this reconstruction of religion as a system of values, Gus Yaqut seeks to improve ukhuwah Islamiyah, a notion that stresses the importance of unity of all Muslims in carrying out their crucial task of peace building in the Muslim-majority nation.

More than that, Gus Yaqut is also determined to establish ukhuwah wathoniyah, — that is, unity of all Indonesians regardless of religious and ethnic differences. He explained why this is so important. Indonesia’s independence was achieved because of a collaborative struggle by all religions, not just the work of one single religion such as Islam.

Historically, there was no single fighter, and therefore there should be no single claim of one religion being more meritorious than other religions in the history of Indonesia’s independence from colonialism. 


What Jesus means to me as a Muslim

(RNS) — “So, what are you doing for Christmas? ” asked a pastor, a good friend of mine, after a recent interfaith panel discussion on Zoom that we’d both participated in. I responded, “Saving my money!”

He jokingly responded, “Oh, OK, I’ll make sure to hit you back up on Eid, and we’ll see how that money-saving is going.”

Then we had a nice conversation about holidays and rituals — why we Muslims don’t try having an Eid Santa (we agreed he could have the same beard!), and our favorite topic: Jesus (peace be upon him). 

Jesus (peace be upon him) is truly special to Muslims, and not in any superficial or ambiguous sense. One of the highest prophets and messengers of God, Jesus is mentioned in the Quran 25 times, with an entire chapter named after his honored mother, the Virgin Mary, to whom he was born miraculously, and who some Muslim scholars have deemed a prophet herself.

For Muslims, Jesus is also the chosen Messiah to return to this earth in its final days (though the implications of the term Messiah differ between Muslims and Christians), and distinguished in the hereafter with a special place in paradise. 

But in our talk this time, my pastor friend asked me something that I’d never been asked before: Do Muslims have any connection to Jesus beyond how he fits into Islam’s overall theological conception as a messenger of God? After all, Muslims don’t celebrate any holidays surrounding Jesus or pray to him. How often does Jesus come up in the average Muslim’s life?


The term ‘Judeo-Christian’ has been misused for political ends – a new ‘Abrahamic’ identity offers an alternative

Upcoming elections in the Netherlands and Germany in 2021 will test the strength of the radical right, which has a distinct vision of European identity. In contrast to those who view democratic values as essentially secular and universal, and not tied to specific cultural or religious roots, radical right parties typically say these values are anchored by the heritage of European or western civilisation. And they claim that this heritage is being threatened by non-European cultures, particularly Islamic culture.

My research into the international political world views of radical right parties reveals their widespread references to the “Judeo-Christian” roots of European values. The manifesto of the Alternative for Germany declares that the party:

Opposes Islamic practice which is directed against our liberal-democratic constitutional order, our laws, and the Judeo-Christian and humanist foundations of our culture.

Comparable claims can be found from Marine Le Pen in France and Nigel Farage in the UK.

What do these politicians mean by Judeo-Christian? This term’s definition is fuzzy at best, and historical analysis shows that it has long been used and abused for political ends.


Cameroon Muslims Join Christians in Christmas Prayer for Peace

By Moki Edwin Kindzeka December 25, 2020 08:38 AM

Map of Cameroon, showing the Northwest and Southwest (English-speaking) regions

YAOUNDE, CAMEROON – In Cameroon, thousands of Muslims are joining Christians in churches all over the country in Christmas prayers for peace in 2021. For the annual tradition this year, the Inter-Denominational Prayer for Peace group focused on Cameroon’s troubled western regions and COVID-19.

Muslims in Cameroon joined together with Christians Friday to celebrate Christmas and offer an annual prayer for peace.  

Cheikh Oumarou Mallam is president of the Islamic Superior Council of Cameroon and a member of the Inter-Denominational Prayer for Peace group.

This year, he says, they prayed for an end to COVID-19 and peace on the border with Nigeria, where security forces have been battling the Islamist militant group Boko Haram for close to 10 years.  

Goats are being distributed in Maroua, Cameroon, July 11, 2019, as part of an empowerment initiative designed to prevent locals from being recruited by Boko Haram militants. (M. Kindzeka/VOA)

Cameroon Says Boko Haram Infiltrates Top Business and Political LeadersThe revelation came after Cameroon’s military arrested a former lawmaker for allegedly supplying cattle to the Nigerian terrorist group

Mallam says they prayed especially for an end to the separatist conflict in Cameroon’s western regions, which has left more than 3,000 people dead and displaced hundreds of thousands.  

“Be loyal to your country,” Mallam said. “Compete for goodness through social work and community service to enhance people’s lives and improve the progress of the society.  Let us be united building our nation.  Let us be united for peace, safety, security, unity, reconciliation and prosperity.”

Anglophone rebels have been fighting in the western regions since 2016 to carve out an independent state from Cameroon’s French-speaking majority.  

The separatists have destroyed symbols of the state, such as schools and bridges, as well as mosques and churches.  

Reverend Father Humphrey Tatah Mbui is director of communications at the National Episcopal Conference of Cameroon’s Catholic Bishops. 

He spoke by telephone from the northwestern town of Bamenda, the capital of the troubled region.

“If there is any Cameroonian who has not learnt from the 4-year war{separatist crisis} that might, force, violence does not, will not, cannot and should not be able to solve the problem, then I wonder if that person will ever learn,” Mbui said. “What is going on is horrendous and therefore justice and peace should be the message that all of us should talk about.  We have everything to gain in peace than in war.”


Frasat Ahmad: Muslims don’t celebrate Christmas, but still commemorate Christ


It’s the most wonderful time of the year, right? Christmas has come. The Christmas trees, filled stockings, mistletoe and bright lights are spectacular. What’s not to like?

So how come Muhammad down the street is not soaking up the holiday joy? I don’t see his house decorated with lights, or a tree in his house.

Trust me, your Muslim neighbor isn’t a grinch. He or she just doesn’t celebrate Christmas, and here’s why.

As we know, Christmas is a religious affair celebrating the birth of Christ, whom Christians believe to be the son of God, and a part of God Himself. Unlike our Christian brethren, Muslims don’t ascribe to this belief. Muslims believe, as the Qur’an states, that “The Majesty of our Lord is exalted. He has taken neither wife nor son unto Himself.”

Muslims are also uncomfortable with the possible connections that Christmas may have with pagan traditions. Scottish anthropologist Sir James George Frazer writes, “The coincidences of the Christian with the heathen festivals are too close and too numerous to be accidental. They mark the compromise which the Church in the hour of its triumph was compelled to make with its vanquished yet still dangerous rivals.”


Young Muslim women are leading environmental movements grounded in their beliefs

Weeks prior to the lockdowns and closures that came with the COVID-19 pandemic, UN Secretary General António Guterres said 2020 would be a “pivotal year for how we address climate change.”

Revamped emission goals were expected from 196 countries, but with international meetings postponed due to the pandemic, the stark reality is that 2020 is one of the hottest years recorded.

Widespread action based on a deep connection between people and the Earth may be the space of hope. In researching what motivates Muslim women to connect with the Earth and lead environmental activism, I’ve discovered courage and deep conviction to be driving forces.

Young Muslim women are transcending boundaries to create spaces of activism. Their efforts are acts of worship that integrate social and political realities.

Islam and eco-consciousness

Historically, Muslim scholars coupled their study of nature to their understanding of Allah (God). The Qur’an articulates how eco-consciousness permeates every aspect of life and explains nature as a complete, complex, interconnected and interdependent system. It highlights the importance of recognizing and preserving the mizan, or balance.


I’m Muslim, But 2020 Has Made Me Want To Celebrate Christmas For The First Time

Many families like mine don’t celebrate what is a Christian festival after all. But getting through this turbulent year together changed everything.

December is a month like no other. The cold morning fog blankets the city before the night swallows the skyline as early as 4pm, when the streets become gold with festive lights. The air becomes mellow as rows of houses glisten and public squares fill with cheery spree shoppers in the lead-up to Christmas.

This is a magical time of year, especially for children. But as someone who lived two childhoods – a British one and a Pakistani one – it’s complicated.

My parents are from Pakistani descent, so at home I was raised with a Pakistani Muslim culture. Because our home would remain the same – there would be no lights, no holly hugging the mantelpiece, and no presents under a tree – every Christmas, I would immerse myself in our school’s version of Winter Wonderland. I can still picture the canteen dinners transformed into Christmas feasts, and the corridors decked with paper chains and tinsel.

Generally speaking, a lot of Muslims don’t celebrate Christmas – it’s a Christian festival after all, even if the holiday has grown beyond religion into a national cultural event. It’s become a time of year for everyone to reconnect with your loved ones, and spend time with people who care about you the most.

However, 25 December still marks a poignant day for families like mine. It’s the day Muhammad Ali Jinnah, the man who founded the country my ancestors call home, was born. So each year we celebrate the day with authentic Pakistani cuisine, cardamom chai and cake served with flavours belonging to another world. We consistently chose our Pakistani roots over Christmas; how could we share an event when our cultures were so misaligned?

But this year changed everything.


Step Back and See: Quran, Hadith, and Rumi

Recently I’ve been thinking about how dependent virtue is on vision. I mean the kind of vision that Rumi hints at above – a sight that includes insight. It’s the ability, for instance, to see the repercussions of our actions for ourselves and others, both now and in the future, as well as the ability to re-vision similar experiences in the past to help guide us in the present. When we are tempted by some returning desire, fear, vanity, or anger, what often saves us is the ability to step out of the heat of the moment and expand into this greater frame of reference, taking in a wider, deeper perspective. Isn’t virtue just a great view?

It’s true that sometimes we are not able to act from this elevated perspective; sometimes our short-sighted egos just won’t let us. But when the pull of that wider vision is powerful enough, we might be able to restrain ourselves from some ultimately unsatisfying indulgence, or direct ourselves to act upon something the eye of the heart has glimpsed. So much depends on stepping out of ourselves, detached, and taking it all in: witnessing.


How Muslims are challenging Islamophobia by refusing to condemn terrorism

When white supremacist Brenton Tarrant took the lives of 51 innocent people at Mosque in Christchurch, New Zealand in March 2019, it sent shockwaves around the globe.  Similarly, the killing spree by far-right terrorist Anders Breivik, which wiped out 77 people including children, still remains fresh in many people’s minds even though it took place almost a decade ago.  However, despite the atrocities these terrorists carried out, there was no demand for members of their religion to speak out and condemn such violent behaviour simply because they shared it.   While some might ask why they even would be expected to, for many in the Muslim community it highlights a clear disparity when acts of terrorism are carried out at the hands of so-called Islamic states and those who prescribe to their ideas.

In sharp contrast, Muslim figures are quickly asked to voice their condemnation in no uncertain terms on TV chat shows, in vox-pops, or in national debates, despite having nothing in common with the terrorist other than a claimed share of religion.  Additionally, terror attacks involving Muslims receive 357% more coverage than when the religion of the attacker is unknown. It’s an issue Asim Qureshi, writer and research director of human rights organisation CAGE, has decided to explore in his book: I Refuse To Condemn, as he believes that by not outrightly denounce these acts – while not championing them either – is a political act in itself and a way to resist anti-Islamic prejudice.  In his book, 18 essayists write about the different ways Muslims can resist what’s expected of them and exist beyond the monolith they’re portrayed to be. Asim explains that the idea came after being constantly asked to comment on terror attacks, which included an interview with Channel 4’s Jon Snow, where he was questioned on whether he condemned the actions of Jihadi John, the infamous ISIS killer. He told ‘I had a number of experiences being interviewed or being at events where people would ask me if I condemned terrorism. ‘I wanted to capture the lived experiences and feelings of scholars and activists from different communities, who have this demand made of them.  ‘My hope for this book is that it helps those who feel the pressure to condemn, find voices and experiences that they recognise, and find a pathway to resist that demand.