The teacher and the teddy bear

Everyone is talking about the incident in the Sudan where schoolteacher Gillian Gibbons asked her 7-year-old students to pick their favorite name for a Teddy Bear. If you haven't heard about it, numerous news outlets are reporting on the situation; first one that crossed this editor's desk was the Washington Post reports here and here.

The Archbishop of Canterbury has released a statement:

Dr Rowan Williams said: “I can't see any justification for this at all.

“I think that this is an absurdly disproportionate response to what is at best a minor cultural faux pas and I think that it's done the Sudanese Government no credit whatever.”

From here.

Prof. Tony Blair?

Tony Blair, the former prime minister of Britain, will serve a one year fellowship appointment at Yale University where he will be helping lead a course of study on faith and globalization.

According to the Ecumenical News Service,

"Blair will serve as the Howland Distinguished Fellow during the 2008-09 academic year, the university announced on 7 March. Blair will work with the faculties of the Yale Divinity School and the Yale School of Management.

Yale President Richard C. Levin said: 'As the world continues to become increasingly inter-dependent, it is essential that we explore how religious values can be channelled toward reconciliation rather than polarisation. Mr Blair has demonstrated outstanding leadership in these areas.'

Concurrent with his Yale position, Blair - who was an Anglican but in 2007 converted to Roman Catholicism - is expected to launch later in 2008, the Tony Blair Faith Foundation. This 'will promote understanding between the major faiths and increase understanding of the role of faith in the modern world', the university, based at New Haven, Connecticut, said in its announcement.

The appointment was not lauded by all however. Ian Gibson, a former MP who served in the Commons during Blair's time as prime minster said of the news:

'It is a pity that Mr Blair did not think more deeply about issues of religious strife before he went and bombed Baghdad,' Gibson told the London-based Guardian newspaper in 2007. 'Now he wants to be vicar to the world? It is ridiculous.'"

Read the rest here.

The Keiskamma Altarpiece

The Chicago Tribune's photo essay on the Keiskamma Altarpiece is worth a visit.

Grace Cathedral offers a panel by panel view of this monumental artwork.

Religious response to credit shortage

Patrick Hynes, writing at Ekklesia, reports on some of the ways that groups in Britain are attempting to respond to the turmoil in the international financial sector:

"The much publicised ‘credit crunch’ refers to the way loans and other forms of credit are becoming difficult or more expensive to obtain. This crisis may bring harder times for us all, individuals and businesses alike. But access to credit has always been a daily problem for people who are poor, as they are often denied fair finance due to a lack of collateral. The notion of collateral, where property is used to secure a loan, ensures the poor will always be poor.

With no collateral there is no chance of a loan, the means to self-employment and therefore to own something as basic as a shelter. Someone needs simply to break through this vicious cycle of poverty, and thus enable people to earn a dignified living for themselves and their families."

As a result of the conditions described above, over the past decades, an international movement called "micro-finance" has developed to make small loans to individuals in the developing world who might not otherwise have access to the credit they need to start small businesses. After giving examples of how micro-finance works, and describing the challenges facing the movement at the moment, he reports on an organization that is attempting to respond:

Oikocredit is a simple solution to a big problem, but turning faith into hope for others is a tough challenge. The scripture guidance is simple enough: “To do justice, and to love kindness and to walk humbly with your God” . However a recent study found that people, even with deeply held convictions, find it hard to put their money where their values are.

“When it comes to choosing where to save most ethical consumers don’t live up to their principles”. The report’s author, Professor Alex Gardner said: “While they regularly recycle and are happy to pay more for ethical products, like Fairtrade coffee and organic food, they ignore their basic values when it comes to their banking choices.” Professor Gardener identified several main reasons: partly the complexity of money matters and apathy, but also that we are very attached to financial returns when we are privileged to have savings.

The question of how to make best use of resources is clearly challenging to us all. One possible danger is that we leave it to others, perhaps even to institutions to act collectively on our behalf.

Read the rest here and if you're interested, follow the links to find more information on these sorts of programs.

Karen Armstrong's TED wish

Earlier this year, author Karen Armstrong addressed TED conference participants with a plea for the world to embrace the Golden Rule as called for by faith traditions. Her speech was part of TED's annual conference, which features more than 50 keynotes from influential thinkers and leaders that are then distributed online over the course of the year.

People seem to think -- now equate religious faith with believing things. As though that -- we call religious people often "believers," as though that were the main thing that they do. And very often, secondary goals get pushed into the first place in place of compassion -- the Golden Rule. Because the Golden Rule is difficult. I -- sometimes, when I'm speaking to congregations about compassion, I sometimes see a mutinous expression crossing some of their faces because religion -- a lot of religious people prefer to be right, rather than compassionate.

Now -- but that's not the whole story. Since September the 11th, when my work on Islam suddenly propelled me into public life in a way that I'd never imagined, I've been able to sort of go all over the world -- and finding, everywhere I go, a yearning for change. I've just come back from Pakistan, where literally thousands of people came to my lectures because they were yearning, first of all, to hear a friendly Western voice. And especially the young people were coming, and were asking me -- the young people were saying, "What can we do? What can we do to change things?" And my hosts in Pakistan said, "Look, don't be too polite to us. Tell us where we're going wrong. Let's talk together about where religion is failing." Because it seems to me that with our current situation is so serious at the moment that any ideology that doesn't promote a sense of global understanding and global appreciation of each other is failing the test of the time. And religion, with its wide following here in the United States -- people may be being religious here in different way, as a report has just shown -- but they still want to be religious. It's only Western Europe that has retained its secularism, which is now beginning to look rather endearingly old-fashioned.

But people want to be religious and religion should be made to be a force for harmony in the world, which it can and should be -- because of the Golden Rule, "Do not do unto others what you would not have them do to you": an ethos that should now be applied globally. We should not treat other nations as we would not wish to be treated ourselves. And these -- whatever our wretched beliefs -- is a religious matter, is a spiritual matter. It's a profound moral matter that engages -- and should engage us all. And as I say, there is a hunger for change out there. Here in the United States, I think you see it in this election campaign: a longing for change. And people in churches all over -- and mosques all over this continent after September 11th, coming together locally to create networks of understanding. With the mosques, with the synagogue, saying, "We must start to speak to one another." I think it's time we moved beyond the idea of toleration and move toward appreciation of the other.

Armstrong won one of three annual TED prizes that are designed to fulfill a wish. Hers? The Charter for Compassion:

I wish that you would help with the creation, launch and propagation of a Charter for Compassion, crafted by a group of leading inspirational thinkers from the three Abrahamic traditions of Judaism, Christianity and Islam and based on the fundamental principles of universal justice and respect.

The speech of the video is here, and more information on how to nominate leaders and otherwise help fulfill Armstrong's wish is here.

The power of prayer

On Speaking of Faith (whose site won the Religion and Spirituality Webby award, it should be noted) this week, Krista Tippett has repurposed some interviews from 2003, before the program was syndicated nationally through Public Radio International, and used them to create a program that examines prayer as a global phenomenon that takes place in many religious and even nonreligious traditions.

Anoushka Shankar, the daughter of Ravi Shankar, talks about her background in Hindu prayer and meditation and how that was shaped growing up in England and California. Her prayer experience is largely set in the context of music, and she discusses Hindu chants and mantras. She also talks about her journey through faith; she put distance between her childhood faith and her relationship with music as a teenager, but as a young adult, came to realize that her music was infused with an intense spirituality.

Tippett also talks to Stephen Mitchell about the Psalms, about nonreligious prayer, and how he was drawn to the Book of Job's revelations about the nature of human suffering. He draws a parallel between the insights he gets from Job and koans from the Zen tradition. It doesn't matter, he says, whether prayer takes place in a sacred space or not, because prayer creates the sacred space. Mitchell's love of the poetry of prayer makes a nice contrast to Shankar's connection to music as prayer.

Finally, Tippett interviews Roberta Bondi, who says there is no "right" way to pray. Bondi has written several books about how she learned to pray, particularly in light of being a "rational, reasonable woman":

Ms. Tippett: Abbas and Ammas were Christians from all walks of life who, around the fifth and sixth centuries, retreated from a church, which they felt had been corrupted by its own power. They went into the deserts of Egypt and Syria to pray. Politicians, generals, and peasants sought their advice on matters both spiritual and secular. Abba and Amma are Semitic words for father and mother, and their insights were collected by their followers and passed down across centuries as the sayings of the fathers and mothers. The theology of the desert transformed Roberta Bondi's image of God. The Abbas and Ammas imagined a God more understanding, more compassionate than human beings ever are towards each other or towards themselves. They were Christianity's first mystics and psychotherapists rolled into one. Their eccentric, earthy sayings changed Roberta Bondi's way of thinking about religion. Still, she held prayer itself at a scholarly distance until a crisis of confidence early in her marriage to her husband, Richard. One day, as often, he was late coming home.

Prof. Bondi: I was sitting there on the couch and all of a sudden the Abbas from the ancient desert started saying to me, "Roberta, Roberta, we have something to say to you," and I said, "Shut up and leave me alone. I'm worrying." And they said, "Oh, oh, no. Come on now. Come on. Listen." "Shh, shh, I'm worrying. Leave me alone." And finally I said, "All right. All right. What do you have to say?" And they said to me, "Well, now, you know that the main thing we're doing out here in the desert is prayer, and you have spent a lot of time studying us and working on us, and you might consider whether this might be something for you." And I said to them, "Oh, come on now. Look, I am a rational, reasonable woman, and I'm an academic, and this is, what you're suggesting, just is not really for me." And the answer to that was, "Ho, ho, ho, you might also consider as part of this that you have put Richard into the place of God for you. You know how we say that no one or no thing can fill that hole in your life except God, that your identity rests only in God and that all other loves come out of that, and that no human being can ever fill that. Of course you feel the way you do." So I was very embarrassed, because I knew, of course, instantly that they were right.

Recurring themes in the three interviews include the resonance, intimacy, timelessness and creativity of prayer.

You can listen to the whole thing, as well as accessing resources such as transcripts, unedited interviews and an annotated guide to the program, here.

Of Messages and Flags

Tonight in the opening ceremonies of the Olympics, the flag of the United States will be carried by one of the nation's newest citizens, Lopez Lomong. Lomong has only been a US citizen for 13 months, having immigrated as child from the Sudan where he was one of the "lost boys", a forced migration of children caused by war and the persecution of christians and their communities in that nation.

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Chinese Religiosities

With the Olympics going on, much attention is gathering around China's policies on religion. Speaking of Faith took a look at China and its religious identity crisis of sorts a couple of weeks ago when Krista Tippett talked to professor and documentary director Mayfair Yang:

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Pentecostalism goes global

In the Times Literary Supplement this week, David Martin explores the history of the Pentecostal Movement and why it's spreading worldwide, citing Palin's nomination as a marker of the movement's growing significance in history. But Palin is but one example of Pentecostalism's far-reaching influence, as Martin describes, noting it's second only to Catholicism in attracting new adherents from Orthodoxy.

Pentecostalism is the contemporary religio-cultural phenomenon. It claims the exuberant gifts of the Spirit originally manifested on the first day of Pentecost as narrated in Acts 2, and it represents a global indigenization of the original Methodist “enthusiasm” that mobilized migrants in the Industrial Revolution. It creates autonomous social capital for (say) a quarter of a billion migrants trekking to the contemporary megacity. Mainstream Churches feel embarrassed and wary, just as established Churches did faced with revival in eighteenth-century Britain and later on the American frontier. The favela of La Pintana, Santiago, Chile, which nobody visits but social workers, Catholic priests and alcohol vendors, is honeycombed with tiny Pentecostal churches. You find those churches, with hundreds of different colourful names, anywhere from Manila to Accra and Johannesburg to Seoul.

After this introduction, Martin digests several books into one summary/review: Randall Stephens' The Fire Spreads, Michael Bergunder’s The South Indian Pentecostal Movement in the Twentieth Century, Asonzeh Ukah’s A New Paradigm of Pentecostal Power: A Study of the Redeemed Christian Church of God, and Ogbu Kalu’s African Pentecostalism.

On Stephens, whose book is a history of the origins of Pentecostalism in the U.S:

This was a time when the tastes of Methodists in the urban middle and upper classes of the wealthy New South often ran to Victorian Gothic and pew rentals, as well as to costly apparel, theatregoing, smoking and drinking. Rural Southern holiness advocates battled against what they saw as over-sophistication and moral decay, and some of the more radical preachers flaunted markers of difference and dissent. They disapproved, for example, of coffee, pork and wearing neckties. Yet although these attitudes were rooted in rural Southern values, holiness people reached beyond the South.

On Bergunder, whose book examines parallel developments in South India:

He offers an initial discussion of how far Pentecostal origins were really multi-centred, given the Indian and other revivals prior to, or parallel with, the events in Los Angeles. He argues it was the (mainly Anglo-American) Evangelical mission movement, for example in England the Keswick convention and the China Inland Mission, that laid down the global trails followed by Pentecostalism. There was already a vast and vague international network in place, serviced by itinerant preachers, who expected signs and wonders. Moreover, those who entertained immediate millennial expectations felt the need first to carry their witness to all nations, for which the gift of tongues seemed providentially provided.

On Ukah:

Asonzeh Ukah’s study of the Redeemed Christian Church of God is specifically focused on the arrival of prosperity teaching in Africa. The RCCG is one of the most successful and controversial of the new mega-churches, in part because it combines the organizational format of an international corporation with an ethos rooted in Yoruba tradition. Ukah brings out its extraordinary ability to fuse deep local roots in an African spirituality based on healing, protection against malign powers, prognostication, trance and visionary dreams, with a modern go-getting organization promoting itself through every marketing device

And finally, on Kalu, who takes a wider perspective on Nigeria, in particular, and Africa and provides some insight on the rivalry between Pentecostalism and Islam:

Kalu has reservations about the kind of “inculturation” sought by mainstream bodies and about a Western critique of Pentecostalism as “fundamentalist” when it is better understood as reviving the spiritual gifts of the New Testament.

Read the entire essay, with all four reviews, here.

The Abbot on "Temperance"

Christopher Jamison, the Abbot of Worth, in the Inaugural "Noah Lecture" has spoken about ways that people of faith might act to lead society out of the present financial and global climate crises. He points the finger of blame at our willingness to start believing that "greed is good" and says that we need to return to the basics of moral theology.

From a report in the Church Times today:

"Fr Jamison argued for a revival of the cardinal virtues: fortitude, justice, temperance, and prudence. ‘We need rules and laws aimed at reducing climate change, but they will not be enough.’

[...]He argued that the four virtues could be applied to the practicalities of energy policy and consumer choice. Thus, for example, the question needed to be asked: ‘Are human beings capable of running a virtuous nuclear power industry?’

The Abbot was critical of the way in which greed had infiltrated people’s mental image of their life and its needs. The commercial version of Christmas was a good example. ‘So Nike and the other great corporations now inhabit our imagination, the place where greed is generated. Once planted there, they can make us endlessly greedy. And that is what they are doing.’"

Read the short article here.

The full text of the Abbot's lecture is posted here.

From the UN, some notes on faith and tolerance

A bit more from the United Nations Interfaith Conference on Dialogue of Civilizations that we mentioned yesterday: While there has been some controversy about the event, spearheaded by King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia, it's mostly been about irony and the tension between freedom of religion and freedom of the press (remember that Danish cartoon?). As the Canadian Press notes:

Abdullah warned delegates Wednesday that human beings must "live together in peace or harmony, or they will inevitably be consumed by the flames of misunderstanding, malice and hatred."

"Terrorism and criminality are the enemies of every religion and every civilization," he said, adding that they have appeared because the absence of tolerance. Abdullah said constructive dialogue can revive "these lofty ideals."

The king made no mention of criticism from Human Rights Watch and others about Saudi Arabia's "intolerance" in refusing to allow the public practice of any religion other than Islam and restricting those who do not follow the strict Wahhabi interpretation of Islam.

From here.

On Thursday, a declaration unanimously affirmed by the attending nations affirmed "their rejection of the use of religion to justify the killing of innocent people and actions of terrorism, violence and coercion which directly contradict the commitment of all religions to peace, justice and equality," according to a Washington Post article that covered President Bush's comments at the event. For his part, Bush offered:

"One of my core beliefs is that there is an almighty God, and that every man, woman and child on the face of this Earth bears his image," Bush said. ". . . I know many of the leaders gathered in this assembly have been influenced by faith as well. We may profess different creeds and worship in different places, but our faith leads us to common values."


The president also emphasized that democratic systems are best suited to encourage tolerance among different faiths. "We strongly encourage nations to understand that religious freedom is the foundation of a healthy and hopeful society," he said.

From here.

And from TED, some other words on global compassion

Last May, we reported on Karen Armstrong's winning wish for a Charter for Compassion. TED -- Technology, Entertainment, Design conference -- now has the project under way, and reports that it is seeking translators to help get the word about this shared ideal. They have created a video, directed by the same fellow who created "Yes We Can," the short film that put music to Obama's stump speech.

Whatever else we believe in, most of us believe in the Golden Rule: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. When Karen Armstrong won the TED Prize, she wished for the Charter for Compassion, a document that affirms this core belief. The Charter will prove that most people around the world -- no matter our religion -- share this ideal.

To help start the project, we've created a beautiful short video about the Charter. Listen for powerful stories of one-on-one compassion, and reaffirm your own belief in the power of voices united to share the Golden Rule.

Originally, the team behind the charter project and some volunteers translated the film Spanish, Portuguese, French and German. Since making a call for translations, they have expanded that list to include Bulgarian, Chinese (simplified and traditional), Czech, Dutch, Italian, Brazilian Portuguese, Russian, Serbian, Swedish and Turkish. And they hope to find more languages to tell the story.

Information and the video are here.

"We were chased by all the religious people"


Every year, nearly four dozen Saudi women get together for a reunion. Eighteen years ago, on Nov. 6, 1990, they staged a public protest against their country's ban on women driving. For half an hour, they drove their cars in a convoy around the capital city of Riyadh until they were stopped by police.

The women paid heavily for their actions — all the drivers, and their husbands, were barred from foreign travel for a year. Those women who had government jobs were fired. And from hundreds of mosque pulpits, they were denounced by name as immoral women out to destroy Saudi society.
"It was so scary at that time, because we were chased by all the religious people," al Bakr says. "But then we decided that this is a very historical moment, so as many of us, we should get together and have a picture and just keep it. And we did, actually. We gathered in one of our friend's house and we took a historical picture, and I'm sure this picture is going to be in some museums somehow."
Yet opposition to women driving seems to be fraying. A Gallup poll last year found that 55 percent of Saudi men now want to let women drive. A handful of women caught driving this year were only briefly detained, according to press reports, and a university student was called a heroine after she drove her badly burned father to the hospital.

"I think now people are at ease talking about it," al Mana says. "It's not like it was 18 years ago — it was taboo."

Religious people using the state to deny some people a license based on who they are. It's not news, but it is reality, in more than one place.

Why we believe

Why do we adhere to our faith, and not another? Or indeed, why do we have any faith at all? Anthony Gottlieb , a former executive editor of the Economist suggests that even in the 21st Century we tend to inherit our faith from our parents.

If a Martian were to look at a map of the Earth’s religions, what he might find most surprising is the fact that such a map can be drawn at all. How strange--he might say to himself--that so many of the world’s Hindus are to be found in one place, namely India. And how odd that Muslims are so very numerous in the Middle East. With the disconcerting curiosity that is so typical of Martians, he might wonder what explains this geographical clustering. Do people move countries in order to be close to others of the same faith? Or do people simply tend to adopt the religion they grew up with?

The answer, of course, is the latter--on the whole. There are exceptions: Jews moving to Israel, for example, and there are many other cases of religious migration. Still, the huddling of the faithful is mainly explained by the fact that religion runs in families. If you have a religion, it is probably the same one as your parents. Earlier this year a survey by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life found that nearly three-quarters of American adults professed the religion in which they were raised. But instead of finding this glass to be three-quarters full, newspapers preferred to notice that it was one-quarter empty. It was the minority of Americans who either switched religions, or abandoned religion altogether, who were highlighted in reports of the survey (“Poll Finds a Fluid Religious Life in US”, ran a headline in the New York Times). Plainly it does not count as news that religion remains largely a family affair. Yet it should do, because of its largely unnoticed consequences. Some religious groups are dramatically outbreeding others, in ways that have an impact on America, Europe and elsewhere.

Read it all here.

The true leader of Iran uses his religious authority to steer a nation's course

Ayatollah Ali Khamenei is not a very familiar name to most Americans. But it is well known to Iranians. Khamenei, the successor to Ayatollah Khomeini is the real power in Iran, merging both religious authority with secular authority by virtue of his role within an explicitly theocratic state.

NPR has a long article today about how Khamenei's thinking is shaping the present course of the Iranian state. It summarizes his early influences, his rise to power, how he chooses to use his authority. A particularly interesting bit of the article talks about Khamenei's unwillingness to allow western thinking and paradigms to be used to undergird programs in Iran. Instead he insists on using purely Islamic based ideas.

There's a vignette included in the article that gives a sense of Khamenei's thinking by describing a surprise meeting between him and Bishop John Chane (the Episcopal Bishop of Washington):

"Last year, Chane was attending a conference on religion and politics in Tehran. 'Out of the blue, somebody came over and said, 'You're going to meet the supreme leader. Be out in the hallway in 10 minutes,'' he recalls.

Chane and a handful of other Westerners went to meet the leader in a room across town.

'It had a beautiful Iranian woven Oriental rug. There were chairs along the wall. ... And he speaks very softly, so it's not a matter of sitting around the table, you know, hammering out stuff. It was a very quiet conversation,' Chane says.

In that quiet voice, Khamenei spoke of his country's historic involvement with the West.

'He said it had been hurtful,' Chane says. 'It had inhibited its ability to become an independent nation. ... It was unwelcomed.'"

Read the full article here.

There's an interesting related article on the San Francisco Chronicle website that describes how muslim investors have managed to avoid ruin in the financial markets these past few months by their adherence to Islamic investment principles rather than those of western financial institutions.

A trip to the least religious nations on earth

Peter Steinfels' religion column in the New York Times yesterday features a sociologist who studied the religious attitudes of Sweden and Denmark--the least religious nations on the planet:

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International Women's Day and faith

Religion Dispatches reports on a movement organized by Muslim women to ensure that Muslim family law recognizes and operationalizes the equality of women within the family.

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Street child world cup

While we in the States are focused on the NCAA men's and women's basketball tournaments, the rest of the world is gearing up for the World Cup to be held in Durban, South Africa a year from now. Christian charities and others want to give a voice to street children, the "world's greatest football fans," through an initiative called The Street Child World Cup.

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Groups ask U.N. to reject call for ban of religious defamation

A large number of groups have called upon the United Nations to reject a proposal that would commit the U.N. to working to stamp out "religious defamation".

The proposal, which comes from a group of countries with large Islamic majorities in their population, has been proposed to ban speech such as the series of Danish cartoons that were understood to be criticizing the Prophet Mohammed.

However, according to an article in the Washington Post:

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Is homophobia the new anti-Semitism?

Writing for the Web site of the American Prospect magazine, Michelle Goldberg asks whether global homophobia is akin to anti-Semitism:

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God isn't going anywhere

The New Humanist on God is Back: How the Revival of Religion is Changing the World, by Economist journalists John Micklethwait (pictured right) and Adrian Wooldridge:

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PB, other Christians leaders praise Obama's Cairo speech

From Episcopal Life Online:

A diverse group of U.S. Christian leaders has written to President Barack Obama following his historic June 4 speech in Cairo saying they stand ready to support "robust U.S. peacemaking efforts to achieve Israeli-Palestinian peace."

Signed by Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori and more than 50 Catholic, Protestant, Eastern Orthodox, Evangelical and African American church leaders, the open ecumenical letter to Obama noted that "after decades of tragic conflict, many Israelis and Palestinians despair of the possibility of peace, yet with your determined leadership we believe the promise of two viable, secure and independent states can be realized."

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Reconciliation looks like this...

Last month Adriann Vlok repeated a simple action that he'd already done twice before. As a former minister of police under the old apartheid regime in South Africa, he demonstrated his desire to reconcile by washing the feet of those he had wronged.

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Supporting persecuted Pakistani Christians

From the Anglican Church of Canada:

Having listened to the concerns of Christian partners and correspondents in Pakistan, NIFCON (the Network of Inter Faith Concerns for the Anglican Communion) is one of the main sponsors of a petition being drawn up asking the government of Pakistan to repeal the law against blasphemy.

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Pakistan's Military Wins Swat Valley Radio War

While Global Anglicanism struggles, dialogues, weathers misunderstandings, fractures, and builds new connections, Global Islam faces similar strains and challenges. Some of our core dilemmas are even the same as we re-think the place of women (or try to hold them in their 'traditional' or 'scriptural' roles) and in different cultural contexts ask whether we can honestly acknowledgment other human differences in a broad Christian (or Muslim) faith community.

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2009 International Religious Freedom report issued

This week the State Department submitted to Congress its 2009 Report on International Religious Freedom as required by the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998.

As in previous years, the report outlines religious abuse, persecution and governmental restrictions on religious expression around the world. It picks out areas of particular concern to the United States, as well as areas that government sees as "improvement" from previous years. What is new is a summary of examples of cooperation between faiths that the State Department holds up as both examples for others to follow and as tangible signs of progress in bringing peace around the world. The report highlights both international examples of interfaith cooperation and initiatives within a given country.

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Church of Pakistan speaks about recent violence against Christians

The Church of Pakistan adopted a strong statement decrying the violence against Christians earlier this year in Gojra. It lays the blame specifically at the feet of those who are using religion for political ends and calls for six concrete steps to be taken in response.

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How the U. S. right promotes homophobia in Africa

From Public Research Associates:

Sexual minorities in Africa have become collateral damage to our domestic conflicts and culture wars as U.S. conservative evangelicals and those opposing gay pastors and bishops within mainline Protestant denominations woo Africans in their American fight, a groundbreaking investigation by Political Research Associates (PRA) discovered.

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"No turkey for me": another perspective on the day

No Turkey for Me: Confessions of an Indian Militant
By Johnny P. Flynn in ReligionDispatches

I am an Indian militant. It is a name I wear with some ambivalence, like “Indian,” not my choice, but the alternatives for the sake of political correctness do not have the same power or panache.

While most Americans celebrate Thanksgiving this year, we will celebrate the fortieth anniversary of the occupation of Alcatraz Island by Indian militants, around the time the term was coined. I was too young at the time, but supported those making the ironic statement about the quality of our own lands “given” to our ancestors, and the broken promise that any federal lands not in use will revert back to the Indians.

While you eat turkey, we will fast, or eat hot dogs . .

The Swiss vote to ban minarets

Yesterday, Swiss voters overwhelmingly approved a constitutional ban on the construction of any minarets in the country. The minaret is to a mosque what a steeple is to a church, a clear architectural sign of the building's use and purpose. Effectively the ban will have the effect of hiding any public sense of the presence of Muslim believers in Switzerland.

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Indoor storm in Copenhagen?

Ekklesia's blogger, Pascale Palmer, reports that storms are brewing within the conference center in Copenhagen:

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More from Uganda

The unfolding story of the proposed legislation in Uganda that would make some gay and lesbian relationships a capital crime has occupied a great deal of our attention in December.

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Soul-talk: ground for philosophical problems, intriguing opportunities

Philosophy prof Stephen T. Asma writes in The Chronicle of Higher Education that when it comes to the subject of the soul, his students at Columbia College Chicago are loading him up with the most interesting fodder.

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What constitutes religious progress?

Big Think ("not all information is equal .... expertise is invaluable and should be shared") visits with Robert Wright, author of the new chart-creeping tome The Evolution of God.

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Is belief an evolutionary advantage?

NPR explores the possible evolutionary advantage of believing in God:

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Britain extends formal charity status to Druids

Giving a "form of legitimacy" to Druidry, Britain has recognized the practice as worthy of charitable status - meaning it has met the tests for what constitutes a religion.

"There is a sufficient belief in a supreme being or entity to constitute a religion for the purposes of charity law," declared the Charity Commission for England and Wales in response to the Druid Network's application.

The decision will give the neo-pagan religion, known for its cloaked worshippers at Stonehenge ... and other sites, tax advantages and is expected to lead to broader acceptance.

"This has been a long hard struggle taking over five years to complete," said the Druid Network, which is based in England, in a statement on its website.

Druidry and various strains of neo-paganism have been long misunderstood and conflated, says Druid Network founder Emma Restall Orr, but ...

"The Charity Commission now has a much greater understanding of Pagan, animist and polytheist religions, so other groups from these minority religions — provided they meet the financial and public benefit criteria for registration as charities — should find registering a much shorter process than the pioneering one we have been through."

Saying you were at church, fingers crossed behind your back

Shankar Vendantam has been reviewing the literature on how church attendance numbers are derived, and he has some relevant commentary.

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Situation in Pakistan becomes even more worrisome

A few ago the Governor of a Pakistani province was killed by a Pakistani muslim because he claimed the Governor had committed blasphemy against the Prophet Mohammed. The assassin has become a national hero. And the already tense situation in Pakistan, especially for Christians has become even more worrisome.

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Weavers of community needed for our times

Today is the feast of St. Brigit celebrated for her wisdom and peacemaking. Mary Condren, writing in The Irish Times proposes that she is a saint needed in our time to inspire community activism and the re-weaving of communities:

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Archbishop of Canterbury laments Pakistan's blasphemy law

From the Anglican Communion News Service:

Archbishop of Canterbury Dr Rowan Williams writing in The Times newspaper:

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Help and a prayer for Japan

Here are some quick ways to show love and support for the people in Japan still reeling from Friday's devastating earthquake and its aftereffects.

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Miroslav Volf reflects on the killing of Osama bin Laden

Miroslav Volf reflects on the fear and relief reactions of the killing of Osama bin Laden:

Fear and relief

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Did worship spark civilization?

National Geographic wonders if we need to change our thinking about the role of religion and civilization:

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Evangelicals and evangelism: putting an end to us-versus-them

Carl Medearis says some strains of evangelical thinking create potentially destructive divisions between people and cultures.

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The effect of 9/11 on the perception of religion

Cathy Grossman of USA Today is covering Templeton-Cambridge seminars on Science and Religion convened by the Templeton Foundation. A recent article focuses on a presentation by R. Scott Appleby, a Catholic scholar at the University of Notre Dame, who who directs, "Contending Modernities," a program examining the interaction of Catholic, Muslim and secular forces in modern world.

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Religion links from all over

Riazat Butt, religion reporter for the Guardian, is traveling in Afghanistan with British army chaplains. One chaplain said to her:

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Christianity in China; it's complicated

How many Christians are there in China? It depends what you mean when you say "Christians". It depends if you're going to count recognized official congregations and/or the unofficial ones. And then there's the question of the houses churches which spring into existence constantly.

The BBC has an excellent essay on the whole situation which begins by pointing out that the Chinese government sees Roman Catholicism as a separate religion from "Protestantism".

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New Tunisian Government Promises ‘Dignity’ For Gays

Zack Ford, on Think Progressive, writes hopeful news for the country of Tunisia concerning human rights.

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Religious restrictions on the rise worldwide, Pew survey shows

A study released today by the Pew Forum shows that religious intolerance is on the rise globally, and that a majority of the world's population live in countries with "high government restrictions on religion or high social hostilities involving religion," a 5 percent increase percent over the previous year. The Guardian reports:

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An Obama Doctrine on religion?

Lauren Markoe of Religion News Service is among the commentators who believe that President Barack Obama yesterday laid out a kind of Obama Doctrine on Religion and Religious Freedom in his speech to the General Assembly of the United Nations. It's five key points, she writes, are

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Noh drama features Martin Luther

Ecumenical News International (ENI) reports that a professor at Japan Lutheran College is planning a Noh drama for the 500th anniversary of the Reformation:

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Building bridges with art

The Rev. Paul Gordon-Chandler tells of an interfaith effort to bring people together using art. From Episcopal News Service:

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2013 religion photos

Huffpost Religion has an article that highlights the year's most powerful moments in religion. The initial article has ten pictures (three of which involve Christianity, all of Pope Francis). At the bottom of the article is a slideshow of 101 images of "Faith around the World".

Images 8 & 9 features "Ashes to Go", administered by The Rev. Ethan Jewett, who at the time was the Curate of Saint Clement's Episcopal Church in Philadelphia.

History of religion in 11 objects

Religion professor S. Brent Plate offers interesting perspective on the importance of stuff to our religious understanding. From Huffington Post:

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Chinese Christians camp out to protect church from demolition

From the Washington Post:

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Promise of religious freedom not upheld in Egypt

The New York Times offers an update on the sorry state of religious freedom in Egypt:

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Ramadan poses a challenge for World Cup athletes

Ramadan begins today, posing a challenge for World Cup competitors who are Muslim. From Religion News Service:

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Nicholas Kristof on violence against Christians by Islamic fundamentalists

Nicholas Kristof writes in the New York Times about the troubling rise of violence against Christians by Islamic fundamentalists:

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The ministry of embattled Christians in North Korea

Doug Wallach, a student at Princeton University, writes at the Huffington Post about the plight and ministry of Christians in North Korea, who make up a tiny but determined portion of the country's population:

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