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Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)

Interfaith Listening teams itinerate September-October 2007

Apply now to host a 2007 Interfaith Listening team from the Philippines or India. The two teams are due to visit presbyteries and local communities from September 14 to October 8. Each team will be made up of a Christian and a Muslim. Learn first hand learn how people of different faiths live together and
respond to issues of common concern in those places! Check to see if your church, presbytery, or local educational institution would want to join you in hosting a team. Download the brochure. The announced deadline for applications is June 15. Applications are still be received. Act immediately!

Jewish and Presbyterian leaders agree to renew joint efforts

In a joint statement on December 4, 2006, the PC(USA) stated clerk and key leaders of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, the Reconstructionist Federation, and the Union for Reform Judaism said they believe they have turned toward a "new season of dialogue and understanding." They agreed to:

  • bring congregations together for fellowship and study and support congregations now in dialogue
  • join in public policy efforts
  • workt to articulate their positions on Israel and Palestine as clearly and faithfully as possible
  • assess a variety of Israeli and Palestinian organizations and projects that can be confidently recommended to congregations for their involvement and support

Reform Judaism's Eric Yoffie said, “It would be a mistake to say that we’re at exactly the same place on Israel. But the significant differences that generated so much anger in the Jewish community have been addressed, so we are all at this point anxious to move on.”

Additionally, three Presbyterian-Jewish dialogue consultations have looked at three key issues needing further attention -- land, covenant, and evangelism.

Presbyterians in mission relate to people of other faiths

Do you want to follow the work of Presbyterian mission around the world in interfaith efforts? Here are some sample people and institutions:

* John Butt at Payap University’s Institute for the Study of Religion and Culture in Chiangmai, Thailand

* Bernie and Farsijana Adeney-Risakotta, the contributions they make through their Yogyakarta,Indonesia, home and in the Indonesian Consortium for Religious Studies

* Brian Gilchrist in the Peace Commission office of the Ethiopian Evangelical Church Mekane Yesus, whose interfaith work raises hope for breaking cycles of violence

* Kirk Harris, a young adult volunteer who is an intern in the Nairobi, Kenya, offices of the Program for Christian-Muslim Relations in Africa

* The Evangelical School in Sidon, Lebanon, with a 97% Muslim student body, that has modeled the Christian values of cooperation, respect, and justice

* Yahya Tirta Prewita, a pastor in the Purwantoro Javanese Christian Church (Indonesia) and a PC(USA) 2007 International Peacemaker, who will describe the experience of interfaith groups -- including Christians, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, and adherents of Javanese religion -- to PC(USA) host congregations

* John Azumah, a minister of the Presbyterian Church of Ghana and a scholar who has written on Islam in Africa and who will be a panel speaker on relationships with Muslims at the World Mission '07: A Celebration of Grace conference for Presbyterians in Louisville on Octorber 2-6, 2007

Presbyterian Women's magazine looks at theological pluralism

Horizons, the Presbyterian Women's magazine (May/June 2007) published an article, "Exclusivism, Inclusivism or Pluralism?" (reprinted from Faith, Religion and Theology, a book by Catholic authors Brennan Hill, Paul Knitter, and William Madges [ISBS #0-89622-725-1]) that examines religious pluralism -- "the possibility that God may be working in and through other religions and religious figures in a way similar to God's working in Jesus." The authors conclude, "Whether the pluralist model is an acceptable Christian model and whether Christians can understand the uniqueness of Jesus differently than they have in the past are questions that still have to be decided. Perhaps the best way of deciding them is for Christians to engage in dialogue with other religions as openly and honestly as they can." Voices of Orthodox Women (VOW) writer Viola Larson has prepared a review reacting against the article.

General

The U.S.'s R-1 visas for religious workers under increased scrutiny

American Hindu temples are concerned about the increasing difficulty of obtaining the R-l religious worker visas they use to bring temple priests and artisans to the U.S. They indicate that proposed changes in the visa program will adversely affect their ability to service their members' religious needs. Last year the Boston Globe reported that Homeland Security had opened an investigation triggered by apparent false claims of many applicants for such R-1 visas. A Boston case of a visa fraud charge has caused confusion in a mosque and has hit the press. The highest user of R-1 visas, however, is the Catholic Church, which is also impacted.

United Methodists and British Muslim charity team up

The United Methodist Committee on Relief (UMCOR) will sign a partnership agreement with one of Britain's most influential Muslim charities, Muslim Aid, on June 26. The intention is to maximize disaster responses, enhance development, and hopefully establish a cross-cultural model for peacebuilding. The two groups first worked together in Sri Lanka after the December 26, 2004, tsunami.

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Possibility of restoration of a Latin prayer raises concerns

A predicted Papal authorization of the Latin Tridentine Mass for wider use caused David Rosen, president of the International Jewish Committee on International Religious Consultations (IJCIC), and John Pawlikowski, president of the International Council of Christians and Jews (ICCJ) to raise concerns since the mass includes a once-a-year prayer (the so-called Good Friday Prayer) for the conversion of the Jews. Others joined in the concern because they see a turning back from Vatican II. Pawlikowski, himself a Catholic priest, says that American bishops are cutting back on Catholic-Jewish dialogue and that a recent Vatican preacher "revived old charges about Jewish blame for the death of Christ without provoking a reaction from Benedict or his aides."

Rules for dialogue cited by Jewish rabbi

"Rules for dialogue" are often set by the majority community. Therefore, it is helpful to read some of the insights a rabbi, Arnold Resnicoff, shared recently -- based on his life as a chaplain and former U.S. director for interreligious affairs for the American Jewish Committee (AJC). He said chaplains begin by helping lonely, fearful people through trust relationships. We must not be afraid to talk to each other and must not worry about having our faith watered down by doing so. In dialogue, we learn not just about the other but about the presence of God in the other. Resnicoff offered specific advice:

  • Understand that religions are different and languages of faith are different, without making assumptions.
  • Share with one another what words hurt, based on gender or race or religion.
  • Focus on "getting through the day" -- leading to cooperation -- and not upon the end of days, about which we disagree.
  • Do not compare "our teachings" to "their actions" nor "our beliefs" to "their words."
  • Do not compare teachings out of context.

International Prize for Religious Harmony established


A new Guru Nanak Prize for interfaith harmony will be given in 2008 to individuals or organizations who have demonstrated extraordinary leadership, courage, and a capacity for inspiring others to embrace the vulnerability that is the key to religious dialogue. Nominations can be made until September 1, 2007.

Pope Benedict speaks of dialogue without compromise of religious identity

In a general audience (October 11, 2006), the Pope said that "the way of indulgence and dialogue, on which the Second Vatican Council happily set out, should certainly be followed firmly and consistently." "But," he said, "this path of dialogue . . . must not make us forget our duty to . . . highlight just as forcefully the main and indispensable aspects of our Christian identity. . . . [which] requires strength, clarity and courage in light of the contradictions of the world in which we live."

A Catholic News Service article discusses Pope Benedict XVI's approach to dialogue, saying it is based on honest mutual respect and more inclined toward analysis than toward events. He is interested in the questions of faith and reason, religion and violence, science, and freedom. He can be expected to put forward such questions as:

  • Is God absolutely transcendent for Muslims and therefore outside our categories, even rationality?
  • If Muslims have an understanding of the Qur'an that makes the revelation unadaptable, will they be able to engage the modern world? Can they evaluate the ways history interacts with faith?
  • Are there elements in the interpretation of the Islamic heritage that can be misused in violence?

The Pope's approach will lead toward dialogue of cultures and civilizations.

Disputation revived as a medium of dialogue, says Neusner

Jacob Neusner wrote A Rabbi Talks with Jesus in 1993 (ISBN #10-0773520465, ISBN #13-978-0773520462). Now, in 2007, Catholic News Service says that his book is one of the reasons Pope Benedict XVI decided to write Jesus of Nazareth (ISBN #10- 0385523416 and 13-978-0385523417). Indeed CNS says, "After the Gospel writers and the apostle Paul," it is Neusner whom the Pope most quotes. CNS credits Neusner with taking differences seriously as a starting point for dialogue and says the Pope has followed this model. This is disputation, in Neusner's view, and he declares, "Disputation went out of style when religions lost their confidence in the power of reason to establish theological truth," but he and the Pope have revived "the disputation as a medium of dialogue on theological truth." In a time of relativism and secularism, he believes this can strengthen both Judaism and Christianity.

Vatican's interreligious dialogue council to get its own leader

Not long after becoming Pope, Benedict XVI placed the Pontifical Interreligious Council for Interreligious Dialogue under the leadership of Cardinal Paul Poupard, the head of the Pontifical Council for Culture. But in May 2007 the Vatican's secretary of state said that the Vatican will name a leader of its own for the interreligious council. No time for the change nor a person's name was stated. The news has been greeted favorably by those who feared that the Vatican was downplaying interfaith relations or that it lacked the kind of expertise in Islam that Michael Fitzgerald brought the council when he was its head.

On September 12, 2006, during a visit to Germany, Pope Benedict XVI made a speech on faith, reason, and the university that caused widespread unrest among Muslims worldwide. The Thoughtful Christian curriculum has a study, "What Did the Pope Mean? Christianity, Islam, and the Struggle for Understanding" (#TC0085). The New Yorker (April 2, 2007) published an article, "The Pope and Islam," by Jane Kramer which Martin Marty (Sightings, April 9, 2007) summarizes:"As Kramer tells it, [the Pope] frustrates, and is frustrated by, Muslims, since those leaders with whom he would deal and the papacy with which they must deal are both closed systems, sure that they have an absolute hold on absolute truth. This means that they have little to learn from each other, and turn more militant in order to hold loyalties."

At the Vatican recently, Henry Kissinger spoke to the media. Catholic News Service that he affirmed the central point of Pope Benedict's September speech in Germany, saying, "I understand . . . the Holy Father supports a dialogue between religions, but he believes there need to be ground rules for a dialogue." The essential ground rule is the use of reason, "which means you respect the other side even when you do not agree with it." 

U.S. Catholic-Muslim dialogue starts with the local

Three regional Catholic-Muslim dialogue groups in the United States -- in the West, Midwest, and Middle Atlantic -- are rooted in local dialogues.The model, credited to John Borelli, follows the pattern of one Muslim and one Christian from each of various ongoing local dialogues coming together, with the addition of scholars, for two days each year of regional dialogue. Each region determines its own emphasis: the West Coast group, spirituality; the Mid-Atlantic, guidelines for interfaith marriages; and the Midwest recently, on revelation, about which they published a book.

AJC interreligious affairs director describes work

In 2006, Rabbi Gary Greenebaum became the American Jewish Committee's (AJC) U.S. director for interreligious affairs. His recent description of his work is online for listening. Greenebaum says longstanding relationships with mainline Protestants are being revived.

Episcopal Church looks at anti-Jewish prejudice in scripture interpretation

The Episcopal Church's 2006 general convention directed the collection and development of materials to address anti-Jewish prejudice "expressed in and stirred by portions of Christian Scriptures and liturgical texts." These are expected to include sermon tips and bulletin inserts to help provide context for texts. The Standing Committee on Liturgy and Music is to report back to the next general convention in 2009 but may have materials ready before then.

Study says Hispanics have more negative attitudes toward Jews

A new report, Hispanic Attitudes Toward Jews, concludes that Hispanics seem to have a more negative attitude toward Jews than the general public. Its author cites anti-Semitic elements in Latin American Catholicism among the possible reasons for this. A recommendation calls for more research.

U.S. anti-semitic incidents drop but concern remains

The Anti-Defamation League (ADL) reports that the number of anti-Semitic incidents in the U.S. has dropped, though violent attacks underscore an ongoing problem for Jewish community institutions, especially when Middle East conflict heightens. ADL's Abraham Foxman also underscores anti-Semitism in blogs, e-mails, web sites, and circulating conspiracy theories about alleged Jewish power.

Jewish decisions to ordain gays require decisions about ethics and law

The Jewish Theological Seminary in New York City recently decided to accept gay men and women, following a decision in December 2006 by the Conservative movement's highest policy-setting body. Conservative Jews now join Reform and Reconstructionist Jews in extending ordination. A Jewish Daily Forward article by Judith Hauptmann considers the ethical and legal thinking involved in a new decision.

Conference held on "Jesus in Jewish Culture"

An April conference in New York looked at "What's He Doing Here? Jesus in Jewish Culture." The.New York Sun says it showed that Jesus has occupied an important, if ambivalent, place in the Jewish imagination either as a great teacher who is to be respected but not worshiped or as an "ex-Jew." The Jewish Daily Forward says that, although there has long been a Jewish fascination with Jesus, interest in the historical Jesus as a Jew has been relatively recent. It concludes, "In taking Jesus and placing him in Jewish contexts, the conference was, in a sense, an attempt to take the foreign, the strange, and make it familiar. Ironically . . . . [m]ixing seemed to take the familiar and make it strange."

West Coast Catholics and Buddhists start new dialogue round

With a session on "Abiding in Christ, Taking Refuge in the Buddha," Catholics and Buddhists on the West Coast began a second dialogue round in January. See the Los Angeles Buddhist-Catholic Dialogue web site for notes from previous dialogue sessions and related articles.

Bipartisan bill would strengthen religious freedom in the workplace

The Workplace Religious Freedom Act of 2007 (WRFA) would strengthen the religious freedom provisions in existing federal civil rights law by requiring employers to accommodate employees' religious practices where they do not impose significant difficulty or expense. The Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance and Minnesota Public Radio show some of the implications of the issue. WRFA is supported by a Coalition for Religious Freedom in the Workplace that has come together to promote its passage.

Report lists religious freedom abusers

 
The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), in its 2007 report, added Iraq to the watchlist of countries whose violations of religious freedom need close monitoring. Others include Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Belarus, Cuba, Egypt, Indonesia, and Nigeria. The commission, as described in a State Department Q&A, is a bipartisan government agency that can create diplomatic leverage but has no policy-making role. In May 2007, two members were appointed to two-year terms: Don Argue (Evangelical Christian; former president, National Association of Evangelicals) and Talal Y. Eid (Muslim; founder, Islamic Institute of Boston) and two were named to complete terms in 2008: Leonard Leo (Catholic Christian; executive vice president, Federalist Society for Law and Public Policy Studies) and Michael Cromartie (Evangelical Christian; vice president, Ethics and Public Policy Center).

report issued by the USCIRF strongly criticizes federal U.S. immigration authorities for their handling of asylum seekers when they arrive at U.S. borders. Homeland Security officials say they are following the strict anti-terrorism laws.

The State Department itself issues an annual Report on International Religious Freedom. Its 2006 report listed Burma, China, Eritrea, Iran, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, and Sudan as countries of particular concern and Uzbekistan has been since added.

A document, Guiding Principles for Ethical Decisions Concerning Religious Freedom Around the World, sets out the PC(USA) position.

Pakistan Christians dismayed that national blasphemy law is not changed

A Pakistani Christian, Younis Masih, has been sentenced to death on the charge that he insulted the prophet Mohammed. Blasphemy against the Prophet is punishable by death according to a Pakistani law. Recently Pakistan's minority Christians were dismayed when amendments to the law, proposed in Parliament by a minority Parsi, were rejected as “repugnant to the injunctions of Islam.” No one has yet been executed under the law but twenty who faced blasphemy charges, including six Christians, were killed during their trials, and a judge who ruled for an acquittal was murdered. The National Justice and Peace Commission of the Roman Catholic church has charged that extremists are abusing the law while the government refuses to discuss the issue in a proper forum. (ENI # 07-0444) Many fear that neighbors can act on real or imagined grievances by pressing a blasphemy charge.

New Jewish-Muslim dialogue project

NewGround, a new equal-partnership Muslim-Jewish program for dialogue and community building, has understanding as its goal, not "political conversion." The California-based group has selected 18 young adult professionals who will meet twice monthly using a four-phase model: intra-faith discussion of issues that affect understanding the other; interfaith dialogue to learn about each other and to discuss common issues; joint civic engagement with social issues; and, finally, addressing the Palestinian / Israeli issue (which it does not want to ignore but in which it does not want to become ensnared).


Educational institutions

Small liberal arts college names Hindu religion department head

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Minnesota's St. Olaf College, a 3000-student institution famous for its sacred music, has appointed the first non-Christian to head its religion department. Anand Rambachan, a Trinidadian Hindu who is a long-time faculty member, has been involved in dialogue activities with the World Council of Churches though addressing its 9th Assembly on behalf of interfaith visitors and participating in discussion about the ethics of conversion.

New Christian-Muslim chairs offer new possibilities

The Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago has a new Center of Christian-Muslim Engagement for Peace and Justice and a new chair in Christian-Muslim Studies and Interfaith Relations. Harold Vogelaar heads the center, and Mark Swanson has been installed in the chair. Hartford Seminary's Duncan Black Macdonald Center for the Study of Islam and Christian-Muslim Relations has received funding for a contemporary Islamic studies chair.

New York seminaries offer Doctor of Ministry program with multifaith focus
 
Presbyterian-related Auburn Seminary and New York Theological Seminary (NYTS) have partnered to offer a multifaith-focused Doctor of Ministry program, with Paul Knitter as senior advisor and NYTS professor Dale Irwin as mentor for student projects.

Academic center for Jewish-Muslim relations opens

A new center for Jewish-Muslim relations in Cambridge, England, is said to be the first of its kind. Its co-founder, Edward Kessler of Cambridge's faculty of divinity, set up its sister center for Jewish-Christian studies eight years earlier. Amineh Hoti, the other co-founder, is the director. The new course begins in September, validated by the University's Institute of Continuing Education.

Interfaith relations and councils of churches

The World Council of Churches

Interreligious relations, dialogue, and cooperation work now have a WCC priority status. An activity plan places focus on:

  • deepening mutual trust through interreligious dialogue and cooperation
  • intra-Christian theological exploration to enable churches to re-articulate their self-understanding, building upon experiences gained in and through inter-religious dialogue (including attention to the issue of conversion)
  • identifying and addressing gaps in current dialogues on gender issues and conflict and on the interaction of youth and religious life
  • intentional accompaniment of churches in situations of tension and conflict

To follow some of the presentations on interfaith relations made at the 2006 Ninth Assembly, see:

Christian-Muslim relations are likely to dominate the agenda of the council's interfaith efforts, Hans Ucko writes in a Current Dialogue (issue #48) editorial. Ucko counsels a dialogue "built upon the self-definitions of the participants" and not conceived as "negotiation" between the parties based on some sense of "imminent disaster in the relationship."  

The WCC's role in Christian-Muslim relations is partially told by looking at individuals. WCC general secretary Sam Kobia, speaking about Religions Living Together at the June 2007 Kirchentag in Germany, said, "Living together . . . is about people and is not just an abstract concept . . . as if books about Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism or other religions could talk with each other from their library shelves." Kobia talked about the complexity of violence that is attributed to religion. He gave special attention to the risks taken by the WCC's long-time staff leader in Christian-Muslim relations, Tarek Mitri (pictured), who left the council to take a key government role in his home, Lebanon. Mitri has done this, Kobia said, to "live his conviction that dialogue and cooperation between religions is necessary for peace and justice in this world." A vice-moderator of the WCC central committee, Margaretha Hendriks-Ririmasse of Indonesia, has been involved in interreligious efforts to stem conflict in the Moluccas. At the conclusion of a story of interfaith peacebuilding written before the 2005 Christian Conference of Asia general assembly, she said people are easily provoked to violence when their religious sentiments are manipulated. "People all over the world need to work hard to reposition religion back to its proper place" -- offering inspiration for peace and reconciliation and giving direction and meaning in life.

The WCC-related Ecumenical Advocacy Alliance, Church World Service, Norwegian Church Aid, UNAIDS, and Religions for Peace have produced a resource, Scaling Up Effective Partnerships: A Guide for Working with Faith-based Organizations in the Response to HIV and AIDS, to be downloaded or ordered without charge. The guide reviews relevant teachings and structures of five of the world's religious communities -- Buddhist, Hindu, Jewish, Islamic, and Christian -- and has case studies, information, and practical guidance.

A new paradigm for Christian theological work calls for engaging competent, committed colleagues from other religious traditions as peers when Christians are doing theology. Such a process enables each to see when theological and hermeneutical formulations become damaging, argues the NCC's Shanta Premawardhana. For the past six years a multifaith "Thinking Together" group convened by the WCC, and including Americans, has explored this methodology as they have worked around several theological themes -- religion and violence, the theology of the other, and now conversion.PDF file requires use of Adobe Reader

The National Council of Churches


NCC interfaith work is based upon a policy statement adopted in 1999. To follow the NCC work, see:

A report at the end of 2006 lists highlights of some of the initiatives begun during the year:

  • new relationships with business executives, the NGO community, and governmental leaders (mostly through the Alliance of Civilizations initiative at the UN)
  • work toward a Muslim-Christian leaders' dialogue table
  • addressing theological questions (a panel of Christian theologians presenting papers on "Christian theology's engagement with religious pluralism: Biblical Texts and Themes" at the American Academy of Religion; panels on religious perspectives on the question of forgiveness / reconciliation at the "Congress on the World's Religions after 9/11" in Montreal)
  • completion of pilot projects in preparation for taking two programs --a "God Is One" six-week curriculum for local churches and a two-day experiential training program for interfaith dialogue leaders -- to local communities

To see more on these initiatives, read the December 2006 newsletter of the NCC interfaith office.PDF file requires use of Adobe Reader To see some of the papers from the AAR panels, scroll down to the bottom of the NCC interfaith home page on the web.

An invitation to hold an interfaith dialogue training event has been issued by the NCC Interfaith Relations Commission.The invitation reads:


Genuine interfaith dialogue requires training and we would like to bring a great training event to your neighborhood. Here's what you get: A two-day seminar of experiential learning and coaching for six sessions of interfaith dialogue. You will learn to: Listen without thinking what to say next; suspend judgment; appreciate others' beliefs; be critical of your own beliefs; and be aware of insights arising from dialogue. Our trainer: J. Jeffrey Spahn, Ph.D. (University of Chicago Divinity School) is the executive coach and designer of the dialogue based 'Leaders Leading Leaders' program for corporate executives. If you are interested, phone 212-870-2560 or e-mail.

FaithfulAmerica.com, a program of the National Council of Churches, fosters a web-based community for perople of faith who believe that their faith -- "however broadly or uniquely expressed" -- makes a difference and has a word to say about our government and our national priorities. Vince Isner is its director.

 

Vigorous interfaith activity around global warming has involved the NCC. A global warming statement, "The Path to Climate Sustainability," was issued by the Global Roundtable on Climate Change (GROCC), a coalition of some 150 organizations -- business, civic, religious, and educational -- that includes the National Council of Churches. The NCC can be expected to continue to address the concern. The NCC-related interfaith blog  (of February 9) quotes an article in the Chronicle of Higher Education that asks, "if religions are willing to stand by and witness the withering of the earth, has not something of their religious sensibilities become deadened, or at best seriously reduced?"

NCC Eco-Justice Programs and the Coalition on the Environment and Jewish Life (COEJL) are partnered through Protecting Creation: People of Faith Acting Together for Climate Justice. The NCC signed onto the Step It Up campaign that targeted last April 14 as a special action date. Additionally, a Great Warming Call to Action was signed by a wide spectrum of religious leaders that included the NCC's Bob Edgar. Also signing were Clifton Kirkpatrick, as president of the World Alliance of Reformed Churches, and leaders of the Islamic Society of North America and Reform Judaism. Faith in Public Life has a DVD, The Great Warming, available with a downloadable guide. Meanwhile, local Christians may be involved with the work of the Interfaith Power and Light initiative, which has programs in many parts of the country.

The initiatives of other religious communities are shown through actions such as the American Jewish Committee's (AJC) announcement that it will power its offices throughout the U.S. with renewable energy sources in a step toward achieving green building status and that it has placed an energy specialist on its staff.

 

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