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At the Realize the Dream march in Washington commemorating the 1963 March on Washington

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"[C]hange is coming by way of the tremendous pressure exerted on religion from the flattening of the earth. As the world shrinks, young people are exposed to -- and are easily able to interact with -- others who hold very different worldviews. Kids now have access to a wealth of information about religions other than the one in which they were raised. Brand loyalty no longer is a given when it comes to religion and that's creating a massive shift in what people accept as true about their particular faith and about faith in general."

— Paul Pardi, professor at Seattle Pacific University

                                    *See Pew research on Faith in Flux

 

Pew study raises questions about Jewish identity

A major Pew survey of the U.S. Jewish population indicates the number of people who say they are Jewish when asked about their religion has decreased by half since the late 1950s; 62% percent of U.S. Jews say being Jewish is a matter of ancestry and culture. A majority of all U.S. Jews say that remembering the Holocaust, leading an ethical life, and working for equality and justice are essential to being Jewish. Only 19% say observing Jewish law is essential, and the new research also indicates differences among Jews in their views toward Israel.

Figures concerning Conservative Jewish movement are especially disturbing. They have gone from accounting for 41% of American Jews in 1971 to now representing 18%. But Arnold Eisen (pictured), chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary, finds his greatest worry about the Pew Study results is the rising number of persons who are drifting away from any substantive Jewish attachment whatsoever. He says, "If Jews do not want to identify themselves by religion, let's meet them where they are." He also says, "We spend too much time counting Jews . . . and too little time (and money) making sure that high-quality Jewish experiences are widely available" in attractive forms. The Pew study analyzed non-Jewish Americans with a Jewish affinity, as well.
 

Should we speak of "exceptional" Muslims?

After a visit to the White House by Malala Yousafzai, the Pakistani young woman who has captured world attention in her promotion of education for girls, Religious News Service published commentary by Omar Safi, an Islamics studies professor in North Carolina. He takes exception to the word "exceptional" as a description of Malala. He says, "Those of us who have spent years of our life living in and studying Muslim majority societies know that no one has a monopoly on goodness, truth, and beauty, or ugliness, evil, and cruelty. These are human tendencies that percolate inside each and every single one of us."

American Sunni and Shi'a leaders reach agreement

The convention of the Islamic Society of North America (ISNA) held in Washington D.C. was the site of a September 1 announcement of the Washington Declaration, an "agreement of mutual respect and unity between Sunni and Shi'a Muslims" made by leaders of the two groups. ISNA's president called it a "moving moment in the history of Islam in America." The declaration is "for the protection of nations and societies from the menace of sectarian violence," and a committee to counter extremism was named. The declaration states that, though there are diverse schools of thought, Muslims are "one nation." Negative propaganda and name calling are forbidden, and "it is no one's right, without exception, to make religion a servant of politics." Key Muslim leaders discussed the declaration and an earlier Intra-Faith Code of Honor (introduced by the Muslim Public Affairs Council) with Iranian president Hassan Rouhani when he was in New York to address the United Nations. Rouhani spoke of radicalization within religion as one of the challenges facing the Middle East today.

Possibilities for defining the essence of Islam in America are explored

In presenting a lifetime achievement award to Sayyid Syeed, the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) has highlighted his leadership toward developing "confidence in our building a Muslim community in America" that can define the "essence of Islam for the new millennium." Syeed was formerly the secretary general of the Islamic Society of North America (ISNA) and now serves as its director for interfaith and community alliances. He was featured on the cover of Presbyterians Today this year together with his friend, Presbyterian former moderator Rick Ufford-Chase (see pictured, Syeed at left).

The task of exploring Islam in the U.S. is complex. Eighty-five percent of the paid imams in this country were born elsewhere, yet young American Muslims have questions that grow out of their rapid assimilation into U.S. society. Institutions for training of American-born imams include Hartford Seminary and Claremont Lincoln University, which place Muslim students in dialogical interchange with Christians and Jews. See a negative view of the award to Syeed and the general activities of Muslim organizations in the U.S. posted on Frontpage Mag.

Pope Francis addresses Muslims as brothers

Pope Francis described Muslims as "brothers" recently, calling for mutual respect between Christians and Muslims. Thereafter, Archbp. Michael Fitzgerald (pictured), former president of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue, commented on previous usage of the word "brother" for Muslims. He quoted the words of Pope Paul II who told Filipino Muslims, “I deliberately address you as brothers . . . because we are members of the same human family, whose efforts, whether people realize it or not, tend toward God and the truth that comes from him. But we are especially brothers in God, who created us and whom we are trying to reach in our own ways, through faith, prayer, and worship, through the keeping of his law and through submission to his designs.”

Jordanian prince opens conference on Arab Christians

Prince Ghazi (pictured), the chief advisor on religious and cultural affairs for Jordan's King Abdullah, opened a conference on "The Challenges Facing Arab Christians" by saying that Arab Christians are now suffering "merely because they are Christians." Yet these Christians are not strangers, foreigners, or colonialists in the region; they are "natives of these lands" with the same inalienable human rights as all citizens. At the same conference, World Council of Churches general secretary Olav Fykse Tveit said Christians in the Arab world "do not consider themselves as minorities, but rather want to understand themselves as full citizens. . ." Suheil Diwani, the bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Jerusalem, described the conference as an event that "sought to bring together the leaders of all the churches of the Middle Eastern Christianity and give them a voice that will be heard worldwide. By identifying, discussing and documenting these challenges, solutions can be found." Note that the PC(USA) General Assembly adopted a report on Christians and Muslims in 1987 which called for "equality of citizenship for all persons in the societies in which they live." See also the National Council of Churches statement of August 23 in which it expressed an expectation that the current government of Egypt move to rein in the extremist tendencies that have recently threatened Christians there.

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General


Is New York police surveillance of Muslims effective and/or legal?

A lawyer for New York City has argued at a hearing before a federal judge that undercover police officers should be allowed to record peaceful conversations between Musims talking politics because of the current involvement of other Muslims in terrorism. An extensive Associated Press (AP) news article on August 28, 2013, stated that the New York Police Department (NYPD) has designated mosques as terrorist organizations and placed informants in key leadership positions in mosques and other Muslim organizations. A report prepared with the participation of a City University of New York (CUNY) project entity charges that NYPD surveillance has impacted every aspect of American Muslim life, including participation in religious, community, and social activities. A voluntary attorney with one of the report's sponsoring bodies says, "The isolationism that comes with being a 'spied on' community means that American Muslims are getting a fundamentally inferior opportunity to exercise their constitutional rights.”  Some legal experts have said it is time to look into whether police practices are violating the law, and suits have been filed. The surveillance is said to have little or nothing to show for its efforts, though civic leaders have defended the program. See an earlier AP index of its reporting on NYPD surveillance of Muslims.

 

Pew studies look at Islam and Muslims worldwide

Two 2013 Pew Research on Religion and Public Life reports provide new ways of looking at Islam and Muslims. An August study on "The World's Muslims: Unity and Diversity" identifies the core matters on which almost all Muslims agree, then examines the great diversity that also exists within the Islamic community worldwide, finally looking at whether certain groups are defined as Muslim or not. An earlier report from late April studies "The World's Muslims: Religion, Politics and Society." It has chapters on shari'a, women, science and popular culture, and interfaith relations, among others.

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State Department takes step toward increasing its attention to religion

The trustees of the Council for a Parliament of the World's Religions (CPWR) say church-state policies "can either subsume or enhance interfaithadvancement in the United States and by extension, the world." Thus the vice-chairman of the CPWR trustees, Rob Sellers, a Christian professor of missions, says he has mixed feelings about a new endeavor. The State Department has named a Christian seminary ethics professor, Shaun Casey (pictured, right) to head a new office of Faith-Based Community Initiatives that will “focus on engagement with faith-based organizations and religious institutions around the world to strengthen U.S. development and diplomacy and advance America’s interests and values.” Sellers says this well-intentioned effort by the U.S., which claims to practice religious freedom, may inadvertently create ill-will. Elizabeth Shakman Hurd even raises questions about defining religion in her critique of the new approach for Foreign Affairs magazine.

Robert P. George (pictured, near right) has been sworn in as the new chairman of the government funded, independent, bipartisan U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF). The president also announced his intention recently to name a Muslim scholar, James Zogby, as a member of USCIRF. A Congressional hearing on June 13 heard that, fifteen years after the establishment of its establishment, the commission has little power. The ambassador-at-large for International Religious Freedom, Suzan Johnson Cook (pictured, far right), as a State Department official, was not at the hearing. Critics want religious freedom concerns integrated into foreign policy objectives.Thomas Farr of Georgetown University pointed to bureaucratic restraints and structural deficiencies, also saying that religion is viewed by recent administrations as a "private matter, with few legitimate public purposes."
Commentators note that, in the period just past, "religion and religion actors weren't primarily important if you were fighting an atheistic state." Now USCIRF consistently wants more attention to its recommendations for a list of countries of particular concern in relations to religious freedom issues.

USCIRF has already issued its 2013 report. In it USCIRF has called on the Secretary of State to begin keeping a comprehensive list of persons imprisoned for their religious beliefs, actually a requirement of a 1998 law. A mandated International Religious Freedom Report has been issued by the U.S. State Department for 2012. The USCIRF has recently issued a separate report on a particular concern, Nigeria.

New envoys would expand attention to religion from State Department

The State Department has named Ira Foreman as the new envoy to combat anti-Semitism, a position established by the Global Anti-Semitism Review Act of 2004. Immediately after the announcement was made, there was some criticism that the effort is closely linked with the Israeli government. Others pointed out Foreman's previous partisan stances. The appointment was announced on the same day that the State Department's 2012 religious freedom report documented an increased number of anti-Semitic incidents and Holocaust denials.

Meanwhile, the House of Representatives passed legislation in mid-September that calls for appointment of a special envoy for religious minorities in South Central Asia and the Middle East. The envoy would help develop policy options aimed to protect and preserve these communities as well as being an advocate in our own government and before other governments. Co-sponsors of the bill were Frank Wolf, a Presbyterian, and Anna Eshoo, a Chaldean Catholic of Assyrian and Armenian descent.

White House Faith-based Partnership council advises on human trafficking

The White House welcomed a report in April 2013 from the President's Advisory Council on Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships with recommendations for strengthening partnerships to combat human trafficking. The group is chaired by Susan Stern (pictured left), special advisor on government affairs for the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee. Obama's current appointees to the interfaith group include Episcopal Church presiding bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori, Lutheran Church in America outgoing presiding bishop Mark Hanson, Greek Orthodox Archbp. Demetrios, National Association of Evangelicals president Leith Anderson, and Nancy Wilson of the Metropolitan Community Church. Among others are a Latter-day Saint and a Buddhist.

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President Obama has said, "The particular faith that motivates each of us can promote a greater good for all of us. Instead of driving us apart, our varied beliefs can bring us together to feed the hungry and comfort the afflicted; to make peace where there is strife and rebuild what has broken; to lift up those who have fallen on hard times." The White House Office of Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships is now led by Melissa Rogers (pictured right), who formerly was the general counsel of the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty and director of the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life. Nevertheless, in the domestic as in the international arena, there is ferment about more being needed. In mid-July 2013 37 members of the House of Representatives from Obama's own Democratic party sent him a letter urging him to convene a religious diversity summit and do more to fight religious discrimination. Among other things, the summit could develop guidelines for local communities to use when dealing with religious divisions and other religious issues.

Hate crime reporting gets attention

Within the U.S., the FBI has decided to report hate crime data for incidents against Arabs, Buddhists, Hindus, Sikhs, Mormons, Jehovah's Witnesses, and Orthodox Christians, subject to approval by the FBI director. Previously the program covered Jews, Catholics, Protestants, Muslims, and atheists/agnostics. The new data collection is anticipated by 2015. The American Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC) will work to be sure the change is implemented, its spokeman said. Then, once there is an indication of the data, "it will be easier to plan solutions."

On the same day that a congressional recommendation on reporting of hate crimes was to be discussed by an FBI advisory board, the Hindu American Foundation issued a report with international implications -- on hate crimes against Hindus / Hindu human rights in "South Asia and the diaspora." It says the effort gives voice to Hindu minorities and educates U.S. and other officials.


California judge rules on question of yoga in schools

“We will have a society very soon where Christians will be the weirdest people,” said one parent who opposed the ruling by a California judge that the teaching of yoga in the Encinitas Union School District had a legitimate secular purpose and neither advanced nor inhibited religion. The judge had heard a case challenging that the schools had received a half-million dollar grant to start the yoga program from a foundation with a stated mission to spread the teachings of Ashtanga Yoga--and that this practice could not be separated from spiritual purposes. A lawyer at the trial had read from a foundation brochure that claims Ashtanga Yoga can lead to "greater awareness of our spiritual potential." The judge did have some concerns about the foundation, he said, but the supervision of the program was under the schools and not the foundation. Outside the courtroom, the Salt Lake Tribune pointed to a Hindu American Foundation effort begun in 2010 to "Take Back Yoga," which has become delinked from Hinduism. See also a Christianity Today article in which a Christian parent describes what she will teach her chidren, learning yoga in school, about her appreciation of the practice.

Christian immigrants to U.S. are majority but more now from other religions

The U.S. has granted permanent residence to an average of a million immigrants a year over the past two decades, according to a Pew report. In 1992, it was estimated that 68% of these were Christian; the figure now is 61%. Some 83% of unauthorized immigrants are Christian. Good graphs enable a quick survey of the report data concerning religious affiliations or geographic origins, and the full report is available.

Census of U.S. religions shows shifts

The Muslim population of the U.S., with a two-thirds growth, is the U.S. religious group that increased most between 2000 and 2010, followed by Latter-day Saints, according to the results of its census of U.S. religions released by the Association of Statisticians of American Religious Bodies (ASARB). The Jewish population of the U.S. numbers 2.3 million; of these, ASARB lists a one million attendance figure. Jews are the largest non-Christian group of the population in the northeast of the U.S., but others groupings are largest in other parts of the country -- Hindus in Arizona, Muslims in the south and much of the midwest, Buddhists in the west (see the map on page 16 of the summary findings). If members of the PC(USA) are tempted to think of themselves as belonging to the only Presbyterian body in the U.S., they will find twenty different Presbyterian denominations in the census (see the chart in the study's introduction ). See maps on the ASARB web site, where it is possible to explore data.


 

"Dharmic Faiths" describes the monistic religions associated with India

Christians who are accustomed to being known as being part of the Abrahamic faiths family may be at a loss to know how to describe comparably another family of religions, those often associated particularly with India. A vocabulary has emerged publicly in the U.K. with the establishment, for the first time, of a Council of Dharmic Faiths. The "Dharmic faith family" describes the monistic religions known as Hinduism, Jainism, Buddhism, and Sikhism. In the U.K., questions arose in the House of Commons concerning Zoroastrianism, which is dualistic but also has an ancient link to the Vedic people. It has been included as an associate member of the council.

Pew Study says many Americans mix multiple faiths

In a study that has implications for Americans' views about "interfaith relations," the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life documents that the religious beliefs and practices of Americans "do not fit neatly into conventional categories." Even a sizable proportion of those who attend religious services weekly also go to services outside their own faith. A significant number profess Eastern or New Age beliefs. The picture for persons in religiously mixed marriages is complex, with a high percentage religiously less committed. Other reports illuminate the general picture. A Pew study released in mid-February finds that the Millennial generation is considerably less religious than older generations, with one in four notaffiliated with any particular faith. An earlier Pew study had produced a view of diverse, fluid religious affiliation in which Americans are both devoted and tolerant. See survey-related materials. A survey donein follow-up charted more specific views of American Christians. A separate study on Religious Switching Among American Jews documented patterns within the Jewish community.

Boston University professor of religion Stephen Prothero (pictured above) has commented on the Pew surveys. He sees more commercialization than education happening in the "spiritual marketplace" and worries about melting at the "sharp edges of the world's religions." 

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Academic institutions
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Claremont Lincoln names well-known ecumenist to its board

 

Long-time ecumenists will be interested to learn that Claremont Lincoln University has named Joan Brown Campbell to its board. Campbell was formerly the general secretary of the National Council of Churches and later spent years providing religious programming at Chautauqua Institution, including an interfaith series. Claremont Lincoln is a graduate school that is multicultural and multireligious, in which a varied group of students bring their religious beliefs to the table.

Zaytuna College receives degree-granting authority

Zaytuna College, a tiny Muslim college located near most of the Graduate Theological Union's institutions in Berkeley, California, has newly received degree-granting authority from the state. Zaytuna was founded three years ago and is funded by donors and tuitions. It offers Islamic theology and law courses in addition to classical liberal arts classes.

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Interfaith relations and councils of churches

The World Council of Churches

A change in mode of dialogue is a feature of the Buddhist-Christian interface held in Bangkok, Thailand, in late May 2013. The consultation aim focused on collaboration and joint discernment of constructive approaches to life, justice, and peace growing from the participants' respective religious traditions. The methodology includes emphasis on hospitality, case studies, mutual spiritual enrichment, and participation of persons who have benefited from the insights of both traditions. The timing of the interface is significant, since it falls shortly before the WCC 10th Assembly in Busan, Korea. Peniel Rajkumar, an Indian Dalit theologian (pictured), is the program executive for the interface.

Since 1995, the WCC has been in a process of dialogue with the Iranian Centre for Inter-religious Dialogue. A recent sixth meeting was held in Bossey, near Geneva, Switzerland, in September 2012. It heard papers on "Inter-religious Dialogue and Society: Ways, Means, and Goals." The vice-president of the Islamic Culture and Relations Organization in Tehran commented that dialogue at the theological and philosophic level may result in gains in knowledge and insight about one another but that fruits of this personal encounter need to extend to members of the larger society. One of the participants in the event was Heidi Hadsell of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).

A significant international consultation, "Transforming Communities: Christians and Muslims Building a Common Future," was held in Geneva in November 2010, with about 60 persons present. One of the results was a "call for the formation of a joint working group which can be mobilized whenever a crisis threatens to arise in which Christians and Muslims find themselves in conflict." See more information and the documents from the meeting.

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Interreligious relations in the WCC focuses on:

• Accompanying churches in conflict situations. The WCC attempts to express solidarity with Christians while being concerned about how situations affect other faith groups. Recognizing that many conflicts today have some basis in religion, the project brings together advocacy and interreligious dialogue. When requested, the program will prepare churches in two countries to deal with conflict. An aide memoire lays out some of the issues.

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• Deepening mutual trust through interreligious dialogue and cooperation. In addition to its regular sponsorship and participation in direct dialogue experiences, the WCC issued a commentary on the Muslim letter, A Common Word Between Us and You, in March 2008 that it hoped would be a helpful to churches in their dialogue with the Muslim community.

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• Engaging in Christian theological explorations built upon experiences gained in dialogue. This concern examines how interreligious dialogue challenges Christian theology and self-understanding. The WCC organized a consultation in October 2008 together with a number of Christian world communions, the World Evangelical Alliance, and the Roman Catholic Church with the goal of providing space to share initiatives and theological resources for engaging with Muslims and of identifyingsubstantial issues in Christian theology in relation to Christian-Muslim dialogue.

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See a Minute on mutual respect, responsibility and dialogue with people of other faiths adopted by the Ninth Assembly of the WCC.

A British Anglican, Clare Amos (pictured), leads the council's interreligious dialogue and cooperation efforts.

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The National Council of Churches

Interfaith work in the NCC has remained on the agenda even as NCC programmatic involvement has decreased. It is based upon a policy statement adopted in 1999 and has been focused on:

  • articulation of a theology of interfaith relations
  • resources for the churches
  • interfaith formation of Christian leadership
  • creation of ecumenical opportunities for engagement with communities of other faiths

It has provided a series of brochures for guidance, "Interfaith Relations and the Church." A new message, "Honoring the Sacredness of Religious Others: Reaffirming Our Commitment to Positive Interfaith Relations," was presented for adoption at the November 2010 Gathering meeting of the NCC.

With the NCC as a key Christian convenor, a Jewish-Christian Leaders' Dialogue Table expects to bring together staff persons (or others with comparable functions) two or three times a year. A National Muslim-Christian Initiative in North America, composed of representatives of Islamic organizations and Christian churches, is co-convened by members of the NCC commission, and of major Islamic organizations in the U.S.

NCC Interfaith Relations is presently co-chaired by Peter Makari (pictured right above). Antonios Kireopoulos is the NCC associate general secretary responsible for interfaith work. Representing the PC(USA) in NCC interfaith work are pastors Sherri Hausser and Flora Wilson Bridges (pictured left). See the brochure, "Getting to Know Neighbors of Other Faiths," and the commission's internal handbook..

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On this web site:

A Model Statement of Interfaith Commitment: a locally-prepared statement

What's Happening Where We Live: local and regional news


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