Hundreds of interfaith campus leaders gathered in Chicago to reimagine America as a potluck, where everyone is welcome — rather than a melting pot.
CHICAGO (RNS) — Amaris DeLeon grew up in a religious home but no longer identifies with any particular faith, calling herself “spiritual but not religious.” But she recognizes that religion can still play a role in bringing people together, especially in times of tension and conflict.
“People are desperate for a place to talk about things like politics where it’s not going to get too aggressive,” said DeLeon, a student at the University of North Florida, where she works with the school’s interfaith office. “Everyone has morals, everyone has these codes of value. And I think there’s so much more similarity than difference. We just have to look for it and be intentional about it.”
DeLeon was one of about 360 students and educators from 90 colleges and universities who gathered in Chicago over the weekend (Aug. 12-14) for Interfaith America’s annual leadership summit. Held in person for the first time in three years due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the event was a chance to connect with other interfaith leaders and receive training on how to help students from different backgrounds work together.
Descendants of those who experienced the Partition of Punjab in 1947 come together to share stories of interfaith collaboration after 75 years of religious animosity in India and Pakistan.
(RNS) — In September of 1947, after Tarunjit Singh Butalia’s Sikh grandparents’ ancestral home in West Punjab was set afire by mobs from a neighboring village, they had no choice but to flee. A Muslim couple in present-day Pakistan swore on the Quran to give them shelter and protect them as if they were family.
They survived, and seven decades later, Butalia, now executive director of the interfaith advocacy organization Religions for Peace USA, tracked down the Muslim couple’s son. The man guided him to the village where his parents, Ahmed Bashir Virk and his wife, Amina Bibi, were buried. Butalia knelt and kissed their graves.
Butalia is only two generations removed from the Partition of South Asia in August 1947, when the British, as they ended their colonial rule in India, imposed a national boundary across northern India that created Pakistan. In so doing they split the religiously diverse province of Punjab into West, or Lehnda, Punjab, and East, or Charda, Punjab.
The border added a geographical quotient to the existing religious distinctions made between Sikhs, Muslims, Hindus, Jains and Christians, resulting in nearly 15 million people being divided from their religious community. Many left their homes to seek wholeness again in the largest mass migration that the region has seen; others stayed and fought for their rights as minorities. More than half a million people died in revenge killings, riots and communal violence from all sides.
Butalia believes the kindness shown to his grandparents fostered his devotion to creating meaningful relationships and understanding between people of faith. The shared history of Muslims, Sikhs and Hindus at the time of Partition led him to his current position, as well as his work as a founding member of the Sikh Coalition for Interfaith Relations.
Moving beyond amicable consensus to productive discomfort
Early in 2020, before international travel became impossible, my wife and I visited friends who work on interfaith relations and theological education in Egypt. While there we had an unexpected opportunity to sit down with a group of Muslims and Christians for intensive study of our sacred scriptures.
Around the turn of the century, the practice of “scriptural reasoning” or “textual reasoning” was being promoted by theological students and faculty in North America and Europe. David Ford, Peter Ochs, C. C. Pecknold, and others built a tradition that continues in small groups and academic conferences around the world. In the West the initiative began with Jewish-Christian dialogue, later reaching out to include Islam as well. In the contexts in which I became familiar with it—from the reports of colleagues who worked in Bangladesh, during a visit to Oman, and then in Egypt, none of which has a significant Jewish presence—it is a Muslim-Christian collaborative venture.
While staying in Cairo we were invited to serve as hosts for a group that has gathered every month or two for a few years. It’s coordinated by Naji Umran, a Canadian missionary with Resonate Global Mission (the mission agency of the Christian Reformed Church in North America), and his Muslim colleague Hany al-Halawany, a lawyer and interfaith activist. We had been offered the use of a spacious apartment by American church educators Steve and Frankie Wunderink while they were away, a welcoming space for our conversation. Hoping we could emulate the warm hospitality we encountered in every Egyptian home and office we visited, we explored all the fruit shops and bakeries of Abaseya, our bustling central Cairo neighborhood, and laid a table with tropical fruits and Middle Eastern pastries.
Along with the two American visitors and the two organizers, the group that gathered included a Christian pastor and two sheikhs (synonymous with “imam” but more commonly used in Egypt). A few more had been expected, but the vagaries of Cairo traffic kept them from joining us. Issaq Saad is a Presbyterian pastor and a member of the interfaith council of the Synod of the Nile. Sheikh Shaher serves as a cleric and teacher at Al-Azhar Mosque and its affiliated university, world-renowned centers of Islamic life and learning. Sheikh Mohammed Hegazy leads a mosque in Qalyub, just north of Cairo.
“Pillars: How Muslim Friends Led Me Closer to Jesus” by Rachel Pieh Jones. Plough Publishing (Wal-den, New York, 2021). 264 pp., $ 17.99. “Islamophobia: What Christians Should Know (and Do) about Anti-Muslim Discrimination” by Jordan Denari Duffner. Orbis Books (Maryknoll, New York, 2021). 243 pp., $22. “A World of Inequalities: Christian and Muslim Perspectives,” edited by Lucinda Mosher. Georgetown University Press (Washington, 2021). 253 pp., $34.95.
I recommend all three of these timely books for anyone who wishes to understand the history and present reality of Christian-Muslim relations both within this country and around the world.
The title of Rachel Jones’ “Pillars” echoes the five basic pillars of Muslim faith: There is no god but God, prayer, almsgiving, fasting and pilgrimage.
The book is a personal journal, organized in five sections reflecting the pillars, of the author’s life in the heart of Africa, Somalia, where she and her husband moved to take part in a humanitarian effort to help the local Muslim inhabitants to learn more and achieve a better lifestyle.
She and her family endured many difficulties, from being looked down upon and excluded to fears of the violence that killed three of her Christian friends. But Muslim women come to her aid, teaching her how to interact with Muslim women and men, and bringing her family into their homes so she could better understand.
Jones and her Muslim friends journey together through the Muslim year, learning about each other through dialogue, listening to each other and, hesitatingly, praying together to the one God whom Christians and Muslims both worship.
This very personal story will introduce readers to Muslim religious traditions and, more importantly, to people with whom readers can relate and learn from.
“Islamophobia” details the present-day reality of a negative and largely false set of ideas about Muslims and Islam that has been part of Christian culture since at least the Crusades.
Ignoring what the holy book, the Quran, which is largely based upon the Hebrew Scriptures and the New Testament, actually states, Islam is portrayed as a religion that sees itself as having replaced Christianity and Judaism and is aimed at their destruction and creating a totalitarian structure to take over and rule the world.
Muslims are depicted as anti-women’s rights, as racists and evil slaveholders, as if Christians never “owned” slaves. While some Muslims might hold such views, and some Muslim societies have reflected them, this is not what the Quran teaches.
We Catholics, and Christians in general, have equally been guilty of such departures from the teachings of Jesus. So we must learn not to scapegoat Muslims by blaming them for the faults of our own history, and to a sad extent, the present.
The final third of the book, “Crafting a Christian Response,” provides the reader with a number of things Catholics and all Christians can do today to break the cycle of fear/hate of Muslims, both individually and communally.
Author Jordan Denari Duffner notes the good things that the Holy See has done but argues, correctly in my view, that more can and should be done.
Spontaneous interactions are rare during the COVID-19 era. Our conversations, except for those that occur with the people we live with, are decidedly deliberate. College publications ranging from The Harvard Gazette to The Daily Princetonian have highlighted college students’ loss of impromptu conversations and casual community during the pandemic.
The loss of one particular type of on-campus exchanges, however, deserves special attention: interfaith interactions.
Although Princeton is a secular institution, and many Princeton students do not identify as people of faith, the University’s campus is conducive to interfaith interactions. Princeton students come from a wide variety of faiths, including Sikhism, Buddhism, Christianity, and Islam, among many others. Official data about Princeton students’ religious affiliations is not readily available, but the recent frosh survey from the ‘Prince’ provides a glimpse into the Class of 2024’s religious composition. Of the 713 first-years who disclosed their religious affiliation on the survey, 38.3 percent identified as Christian, 8 percent as Jewish, and 4.9 percent as Hindu. For comparison, in the United States at large, 70.6 percent of individuals identify as Christian and 5.9 percent as holding a non-Christian faith. For students hailing from religiously homogeneous communities, their first meaningful interfaith interactions may well occur at Princeton.
Unfortunately, informal interfaith settings are difficult to recreate online. Take the Center for Jewish Life’s Shabbat dinners, which Princeton’s Jewish Chaplain, Rabbi Julie Roth, called “one of the high points of the week at the Center for Jewish Life.” According to Rabbi Roth, last academic year, from September to March, one thousand students attended a Shabbat dinner. Approximately five hundred of Princeton’s undergraduates are Jewish. These dinners, which were fruitful sites of interfaith dialogue, have been suspended during the pandemic, as have many other interfaith events. As Rabbi Roth noted, “we can’t really replicate that Shabbat dinner experience online.” She further explained that “the Princeton-affiliated chaplains still meet on a monthly basis, but we haven’t had as much interfaith programming in this Zoom environment.”
The notion of the Arab and Muslim world as a cauldron of perpetual religious strife – and thus a place to avoid – has been a difficult rap to beat. Yet many countries keep defying the myth. The latest may be Sudan. On Sept. 3, its prime minister, Abdalla Hamdok, signed an agreement to enshrine the principle of “separation of religion and state” in the constitution. In addition, political parties would not be established on a religious basis.
Sudan joins Tunisia, Iraq, Lebanon, and a few other Muslim-majority countries that are trying to curb their sectarian divisions or the strict imposition of sharia, or Islamic law, on civic and private life. Notions of political equality are rising up, led mostly by youthful protesters who rely on the Arabic term for citizens: muwatinun.
Sudan’s move toward secular governance comes out of pro-democracy protests that felled a dictator, Omar al-Bashir, in April 2019. His three-decade legacy of Islam as the de facto state religion is slowly being overturned in favor of a unifying “civilian state.” An interim constitution makes no mention of sharia. The transitional government has abolished the apostasy laws as well as corporal punishment or flogging of non-Muslims. It allows non-Muslims to drink alcohol. It has banned female genital mutilation, a practice tied to certain religious views of women.
KAMPALA, Uganda — The COVID-19 pandemic is testing the patience of some religious leaders across Africa who worry they will lose followers, and funding, as restrictions on gatherings continue. Some evangelical Christian leaders in Uganda have launched a campaign with the now-universal phrase of protest: “I can’t breathe.”
Their members vow to occasionally put on the burlap costumes they say resemble the sackcloth worn by biblical prophets.
“Uganda is a God-fearing nation but, unfortunately, due to the lockdown, the citizens of our great country cannot gather to seek God’s intervention,” Betty Ochan, leader of the opposition in Uganda’s national assembly, recently wrote in the local Daily Monitor newspaper. “The devil is taking dominance. If people do not worship God together, they are spiritually derailed.”
From Nigeria to Zimbabwe, people are speaking out — or sneaking out to worship — as they argue that limits on religion could lead to a crisis of faith.
“I am appalled that some people have the audacity to tell us how many hours we can spend in church,” said Chris Oyakhilome, president of the Lagos-based megachurch known as Christ Embassy. “How dare you. What in the world do you think you are?”
Church services in Nigeria resumed last month but are limited to an hour, a severe test for some in a country where worship can spill from a Sunday morning into the afternoon.
The Macdonald Center for the Study of Islam and Christian-Muslim Relations is the country’s oldest center for such study, opening in 1973.
The Macdonald Center challenges scholars, students, the media, and the general public to move beyond stereotypes and develop an accurate awareness and appreciation of Islamic religion, law and culture.
It is committed to the premise that through intensive study and academically guided dialogue, mutual respect and cooperation between Muslims and Christians can and must develop.
The Macdonald Center is an academic unit within Hartford Seminary dedicated to scholarly research, teaching, and publication. It is responsible for the focus area of Islamic Studies and Christian-Muslim Relations in the Master of Arts in Religious Studies program, a Graduate Certificate in Islamic Studies and Christian-Muslim Relations, the Islamic Chaplaincy Program, the Ph.D. in Islamic Studies and Christian-Muslim Relations, and global study tours.
Under the Seminary’s aegis, the Center edits the scholarly journal, The Muslim World, which is published quarterly and reaches subscribers in 65 countries.
Recently, my Muslim family joined a Hindu family and a Jewish family at a protest for racial equity near our home on the North Side of Chicago. A couple of days ago, my older son and I went to an event on the near South Side with fellow Muslims. As we talked about the verses of the Qur’an and the values of Islam that inspired our involvement, I made sure to point out the people wearing crosses around their necks, the clergy with collars or kippahs, the religious scripture prominently displayed on several signs. On the way back, I talked about how Sikhs were setting up makeshift kitchens to feed protesters, a sacred practice called langar.
I want my kids to know from an early age that racial equity is an interfaith movement. It is imperative across religious traditions, and therefore a site where people from different faiths meet, get inspired by one another, deepen their own convictions and advance a cause that we view as a sacred command.
I was considerably older than my children are now when I realized the powerful relationship between racial equity and interfaith cooperation. In fact, I remember the exact moment. It was early December of 1999 and I was at the Parliament of the World’s Religions in Cape Town, South Africa. I had gone largely for personal reasons, namely because my own spiritual journey had been deeply influenced by multiple religious traditions. But then Nelson Mandela spoke, and what he said changed everything.
He began by pointing out into the cape, towards Robben Island, where he spent over 25 years in prison and uttered these words: ”I would still be there if it were not for the Christians, the Jews, the Hindus, the Muslims, the Baha’is, the Quakers, those from indigenous African religions and those of no religion at all, working together in the struggle against apartheid.”
Marcel Proust famously said that the true journey of discovery was not in seeing new landscapes but in developing new eyes. It felt like Mandela had given me new eyes. In South Africa, a movement of racial equity had been a site for interfaith cooperation. I had taken a range of courses on race in college, but my explorations into faith had been largely private, and mostly about my own personal spirituality. The idea that racial equality could be advanced through interfaith cooperation was brand-new and totally inspiring.
ABU DHABI, UNITED ARAB EMIRATES – Interfaith leaders gathered on Monday in Abu Dhabi to mark one year since Pope Francis’ historic trip to the Arabian Peninsula, a visit that saw leading Muslim clerics gather alongside the pope to promote co-existence.
The United Arab Emirates has worked to promote itself over the past year as a beacon of religious tolerance, despite it’s hard limits on political speech. The majority of the country’s population are not Emirati Muslim citizens, but foreigners, millions of whom are Christian and Hindu.
Abu Dhabi hosted Monday’s meeting to showcase its continued efforts in promoting interfaith dialogue as it prepares to break ground this year on a compound that will house a mosque, church and synagogue side by side. The Abrahamic House of Fraternity project is due to be completed in 2022.
In the neighboring emirate of Dubai, an unmarked villa has already been turned into a synagogue.
The UAE and Saudi Arabia, along with other Gulf states, have been expanding their outreach to Christian groups, like evangelicals, and Jewish organizations. The effort coincides with a broader alignment of political interests and ties emerging between Gulf Arab states and Israel, which share a common foe in Iran.
A U.S. rabbi, a representative of the Catholic church and a trained sheikh from Egypt’s Al-Azhar, the revered 1,000-year-old seat of Sunni Islamic learning, attended Monday’s briefing where they discussed ongoing interfaith efforts.
Senior Rabbi at the Washington Hebrew Congregation, Bruce Lustig, insisted his participation on this visit was “apolitical.”