If Amy Coney Barrett Were Muslim

Relevant and pertinent thought experiment:

Amy Coney Barrett, President Trump’s nominee for the Supreme Court, has faced immense scrutiny of her religious beliefs, and we need to be vigilant against any religious bias or discrimination.

But I marvel at the hypocrisy of Republicans who are expressing shock and outrage over this, after the way the right has treated Muslims. President Trump responded to the alarm over Judge Barrett’s nomination by accusing Democrats of bias against Catholics and “basically fighting a major religion in our country.” This is rich from the man who is running against Joe Biden, a Catholic; who promoted a Muslim ban; and who told America, “I think Islam hates us.”

On Monday, the first day of the Senate hearings on Judge Barrett’s nomination, Josh Hawley of Missouri accused his Democratic colleagues on the Judiciary Committee of attacking Judge Barrett for being “too Catholic to be on the bench.” He is apparently living in the Twilight Zone, because this didn’t actually happen. Mr. Biden went out of his way to say Judge Barrett’s faith shouldn’t be considered a factor in her hearing.

I can’t help wondering: How would Republicans behave if Judge Barrett were a Democrat whose strongly held religious beliefs came from Islam instead of Catholicism?

We all know how it would go.

Republicans would demand she prove that she was not “working with our enemies.” That’s what Glenn Beck, the conservative radio host and conspiracy theorist, called for when Keith Ellison was elected as the first Muslim to Congress.

They’d probably use her faith to accuse her of hoping to create a “Shariah state” through judicial activism. That what conservative bloggers did in 2011 when Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey nominated Sohail Mohammed, a Muslim originally from India, for a seat on the Superior Court of Passaic County.

If Judge Barrett wore a hijab, Jeanine Pirro, the Fox News host, would question whether her religious beliefs were in opposition to the Constitution. That’s the ugly accusation Ms. Pirro levied against Representative Ilhan Omar of Minnesota in 2019.

The scrutiny of Judge Barrett’ connections to the People of Praise religious community — which opposes abortion, gay rights and marriage equality, and which believes that men are leaders of their families — has been intense. It’s fair to debate whether that kind of scrutiny is reasonable, and concerns that Judge Barrett has faced bias because of her religious beliefs are understandable.

What is clear, though, is that if a little-known Muslim group made headlines in connection with the nomination of a justice, Republicans wouldn’t have the same concerns about religious bigotry.

For example, former People of Praise members told The Associated Press that women in the group are expected to obey their husbands and provide sex on demand (the group said in a recent statement that “husbands should not be domineering nor should wives be servile”). If Judge Barrett were Muslim, these former members would probably be invited to appear on “Fox & Friends” to give voice to their concerns about the judge’s regressive stances.

Judge Barrett co-wrote a 1998 law review article about the moral and legal “bind” that death penalty cases might present Catholic judges. What if she had been Muslim and had written about Muslim judges instead? Would Ben Carson call her “schizophrenic?” In 2016, that’s how he described Muslims who embrace American values like democracy and the separation of church and state.

Earlier, in 2015, Mr. Carson wrote in a Facebook post, “I could never support a candidate for president of the United States that was Muslim and had not renounced the central tenant of Islam: Shariah law.”

That happens to be the same year Judge Barrett signed an open letter to Catholic bishops saying, “We give witness that the church’s teachings — on the dignity of the human person and the value of human life from conception to natural death; on the meaning of human sexuality, the significance of sexual difference and the complementarity of men and women; on openness to life and the gift of motherhood; and on marriage and family founded on the indissoluble commitment of a man and a woman — provide a sure guide to the Christian life, promote women’s flourishing, and serve to protect the poor and most vulnerable among us.”

If she were Muslim and had made these statements, Republicans would no doubt smear her as a woman oppressed by a barbaric Islamic culture that promotes misogyny.

It’s easy to imagine all of this, because it all comes from the playbook that has been used to attack Muslim elected officials, many of whom are in fact archetypes of moderation and secularism compared with Judge Barrett.

I am not critical of Judge Barrett’s nomination because of her Catholicism. I am deeply sensitive to religious bigotry and stereotypes. I’m a practicing Muslim living through an administration that campaigned for a Muslim ban. My community has endured two decades of hazing after the Sept. 11 attacks, and our loyalty is still deemed suspect. I would never wish that kind of judgment on a person of another faith.

Like most Americans, I am worried that Judge Barrett will use her seat to advance an extreme agenda that will be detrimental to the interests of a majority of people in this country. We fear that, if confirmed, she’ll help the religious right drag equal rights and progress back 50 years.

One thing is certain: If the Notre Dame law professor and darling of the religious right were Muslim, she would have had a much harder time becoming a judge, let alone a Supreme Court justice.

Wajahat Ali is a playwright, a lawyer and a contributing opinion writer.

Source: https://www.nytimes.com/2020/10/13/opinion/amy-coney-barrett-religion.html

Uncertain future for Egypt’s Salafists following Senate election defeat

No great loss (but extremely low voter turnout combined with government restrictions):

The failure of Egypt’s largest Salafi party to win any seats in the recent Senate elections raises questions about the prospects of the party as well as the future of political Islam in the country.

Al-Nour, founded following the 2011 uprising against autocratic President Hosni Mubarak, fielded 12 candidates who ran as independents in nine out of Egypt’s 27 provinces.

Eight candidates lost in the first round of the elections, which took place Aug. 11-12.

Four other candidates secured a place in the election runoff, which was held Sept. 8-9.

However, they lost too, pointing to what some analysts describe as a “drastic” change in voters’ moods.

“There is a noticeable change in the mood of the voters who are no longer ready to accept political parties with religious backgrounds,” Cairo University political scientist Akram Badreddine told Al-Monitor. “Ordinary people view the Salafists as representing the same political brand as the Muslim Brotherhood.”

Egypt’s Salafists have come a long way since the 2011 uprising, demonstrating a high degree of pragmatism.

They stayed away from politics for decades before the uprising, preferring to focus on religion and inviting people for prayer.

They have a strict interpretation of Islam and many have a low view of non-Muslims and see women as being subservient.

The Salafists have a strong following in the Nile Delta. They have their stronghold in the northern coastal city of Alexandria, where they control most mosques.

Come the 2011 uprising, the Salafists found a chance to advance their agenda in the new Egypt that was evolving then, like other Islamists did, including the Muslim Brotherhood, the movement of the late President Mohammed Morsi.

They formed several political parties, including Al-Nour, the political arm of the Salafi Invitation, by far the most important umbrella organization of the nation’s Salafists.

Having organized themselves into political parties, the Salafists had to tailor their strict worldview to realities on the ground.

They had to answer questions on issues taken for granted in developed countries, but still under debate in Egypt, such as the status of women and non-Muslims in society and whether visiting antiquities is a sin. The Salafists were debating whether visiting ancient sites was against the Islamic religion. Some Salafi figures called for covering the faces of ancient statues with wax. Others called for destroying them, considering them deities that date back to pre-Islamic times.

Salafi politicians tried to attune their answers to these questions to what the media in Cairo liked to hear.

Nonetheless, answers to the same questions by some Salafi sheikhs divulged a wide chasm between the new political class and moderates.

In 2012, a Salafi sheikh called for the destruction of the Great Pyramids of Giza. Another said Muslims should not congratulate Christians on Christian religious occasions.

Such views gratified a number of Egyptians, especially conservative ones. And many voters backed the Salafi parties in the elections that followed the 2011 uprising.

The Salafi parties Al-Nour, Construction and Development and Al-Asala won 128 seats in the first post-Mubarak parliamentary polls between November 2011 and January 2012 (112, 13 and 3 respectively) out of a total of 498 seats).

This made the Salafists the second-largest political force in parliament after the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party — now outlawed — which won 222 seats.

Al-Nour also won 45 seats in the Senate elections in January 2012, coming in second to the Freedom and Justice Party, which won 105 seats, out of a total of 270 seats.

“The Islamists saw their political heyday after the 2011 revolution because they were the most organized political force then,” Muneer Adeeb, a specialist in political Islam, told Al-Monitor. “The lack of strong secular parties and prevailing security and political conditions made the rise of the Islamists inevitable.”

The Salafists were allied with the Muslim Brotherhood all through the one year of Morsi’s rule.

Adeeb said, however, “This honeymoon ended because the Brotherhood wanted to exclude everybody else in its pursuit for fully dominating the political stage.”

This was why the Salafists welcomed the army-backed popular uprising against the Muslim Brotherhood and Morsi in 2013.

They even backed the post-Muslim Brotherhood authorities and President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi — who formally came to power in mid-2014 — apparently to evade the fate of the Muslim Brotherhood and to secure a continued presence on Egypt’s political stage.

Sisi, who has a hard line against political Islam in general and the Muslim Brotherhood in particular, also courted the Salafists in his bid to discredit Muslim Brotherhood propaganda about his hostility to the Islamic religion, analysts said.

Nonetheless, the Salafists’ courtship of the post-Muslim Brotherhood authorities failed to help the Salafists maintain their popularity, let alone attract new fans.

In the 2015 House of Deputies elections, Al-Nour, the only functional Salafi party, won only 12 seats out of a total of 596.

“This result should have acted as an early warning for the Salafists,” Badreddine said.

The failure of Al-Nour to win any seats in the recent Senate elections appears to be yet one more indicator of the collapse of the Salafists’ popularity.

This does not augur well for the party, especially with the nation’s political parties preparing for the House of Deputies elections in October.

It also gives insights into the looming demise of political Islam as a whole in Egypt, especially with the ongoing crackdown by the authorities on the Muslim Brotherhood, analysts said.

“My belief is that political Islam is on the way out, given the changes happening in this country,” Badreddine said.

The Senate elections were the first for the body to be held in Egypt since 2012. The upper house of the Egyptian parliament was dissolved in November 2013 and then excluded from the 2014 constitution. However, it was reinstituted by a package of constitutional amendments in 2019.

Nonetheless, the Senate elections were untimely for the Salafists. They were held after months of suspension of services at the nation’s mosques, the main sphere of activity for the Salafists, because of the coronavirus.

The Salafists were also negatively affected by hostile propaganda from the Muslim Brotherhood, which is angry about their cooperation with Sisi.

Voter turnout in the Senate elections and the runoff was also very low, 14% and 10.25% respectively, according to the independent elections commission.

“This voter turnout, along with the practices of the other parties participating in the elections, reduced our chances of success,” said Salah Abdel Maaboud, a senior Al-Nour official who ran as an independent in the Senate elections in the Nile Delta province of Menoufia.

Abdel Maaboud and his colleagues said they have started preparing for the House of Deputies elections in October.

He told Al-Monitor that the party has prepared lists of its potential candidates amid hopes of making up for some of the losses in the Senate elections.

“We hope we can achieve positive results in the elections,” Abdel Maaboud said. “This is possible if we communicate better with voters.”

Source: Uncertain future for Egypt’s Salafists following Senate election defeat

Douglas Todd: ‘Religious persecution’ claimed by more asylum seekers in Canada

Of interest, including the sensible perspective of Richard Kurland “Canadians don’t have to light their hair on fire.”:

A rising number of “irregular migrants” are arriving in Canada and saying they are victims of religious persecution.

Many of the roughly 60,000 of these migrants who found a way into Canada last year are claiming either political or, increasingly, religious persecution, according to an internal report by the Canadian Border Services Agency.

The report reveals that more than four out of five claimants who arrived from India, Iran and China had found an unauthorized way to get onto Canadian soil before they made their “inland” application for refugee status. A smaller number asked to be viewed as asylum seekers when they arrived at either a land border crossing or a Canadian airport. The report doesn’t clarify which proportion claim religious persecution.

A Vancouver immigration specialist, Richard Kurland, obtained the CBSA document through an access to information request. Normally, Kurland said, about four out of 10 irregular migrants are eventually granted refugee status in Canada, regardless of whether they maintain they have been victims of political or religious persecution.

The uptick in the number of applicants in Canada making claims of religious persecution appears to be a sign of the times.

The Pew Research Center has found that, since 2007, governments around the world have generally imposed greater restrictions on religious freedom.China and Iran, major source countries of migrants to Canada, are among the worst for imposing limits on the way citizens’ practice their faith.

Although China, an officially atheist state, says it permits religious freedom, it only allows five major religious groups to operate and they’re subject to control by the United Front and the Communist Party. House churches, underground Catholics, Falun Gung members and Uighur Muslims face harassment, imprisonment and even torture.

Iran, an Islamic republic in which 98 per cent of the population is Muslim (mostly Shia), formally recognizes Jews, Christians and Zoroastrians, but not Baha’is, who are frequently imprisoned and persecuted as “misguided” Muslims. Religious minorities in Iran often report feeling threatened — and apostasy, specifically conversion from Islam, can be punishable by death.

In addition, Pew gives some its worst marks for “high levels of inter-religious tension” and “violence by organized groups” to the large migrant-source countries of India and Nigeria. It also lists Egypt and Pakistan, both Muslim-majority states.

While India is a secular state with a reputation for religious tolerance, since it is the birthplace of Jainism, Hinduism, Buddhism and Sikhism, in recent decades there have been anti-Sikh, anti-Hindu, anti-Muslim and anti-Christian riots. There are also reports of vigilantism in regions run by the Hindu nationalist BJP Party.

Nigeria’s population of 200 million is roughly divided between Muslims and Christians. In recent years gun battles have burst our between young, often-educated members of rival Christian and Muslim sects, leading to dozens of deaths and the burning of mosques and churches.

No doubt there is severe religious persecution occurring in many places. But not all maltreatment narratives are believed by Canada’s border officials, who reject the majority of irregular applicants.

Regardless of the reasons irregular migrants have for claiming refugee status, Kurland emphasizes, “The big question is: ‘How many of the failed applicants are actually removed from Canada?”

Canadian officials, like those in other immigrant-receiving nations, typically only get around to forcibly removing about 15 per cent of failed claimants, he said. The rest find ways to work with immigration officials to stretch out their stays in Canada for years.

“It’s not Amazon.com. You can’t just pack them up and return them,” Kurland said.

What is the common pattern for recent irregular migrants? The reality is that most who end up in Canada first go to the U.S., Kurland said, before they illicitly cross the land border into Quebec or Ontario.

Most don’t apply for refugee status as they cross a land border or touch down at a Canadian airport, he said, because they justifiably fear being immediately deported.

(Government-assisted refugees are in a different category, since they come to Canada recommended and approved by the United Nations.)

There are weaknesses in arguing you were persecuted for religious beliefs, Kurland said.

The main drawback is border and immigration officials will likely ask why you didn’t escape persecution by moving to another region of your own country. So-called “internal flight” is a common way to avoid harassment, especially in India, Pakistan and Nigeria.

Despite the many inconsistencies involved in the way Canada and other immigrant-receiving countries deal with irregular migrants, Kurland believes we don’t have a terrible system. “Canadians don’t have to light their hair on fire.”

Since the worst applicants are returned to their country of origin, the many others who find ways to drag out their stays often end up contributing. Many marry, find sponsors and hold down jobs, eventually obtaining permanent resident status.

“They’re the ones who’ve beaten the Darwinian system.”

Source: Douglas Todd: ‘Religious persecution’ claimed by more asylum seekers in Canada

Bangladeshi blogger faces death threats for criticizing Islamic fundamentalism


Asad Noor, an outspoken Bangladeshi blogger, has been facing threats and intimidation from both state and non-state actors for supporting minorities and criticizing Islamic fundamentalism.

The atheist blogger crossed the Bangladesh-India border illegally on February 14, 2019, with the help of an agent after intelligence officers confiscated his passport. He has been living in India ever since.

“In my YouTube and Facebook videos, I have been criticizing Islam and Prophet Mohammad, referencing the Quran and the Hadith. At the same time, I am critical about political Islam. That’s why Islamists are angry with me,” Noor told DW.

“Local police frequently search our house (in Bangladesh) to try and arrest me … my family has been paying the price for my activism,” he added.

Alleged attack on monastery

In July, Noor published several video blogs protesting the persecution of Bangladesh’s minority Buddhist community in Rangunia, a town in the southeastern part of the country.

A local leader of the country’s ruling party Awami League (AL) sued the blogger in July 2020 under the Digital Security Act, accusing him of “hurting religious sentiments” and “running propaganda against the spirit of the liberation war.”

One of Noor’s video blogs featured the apparent vandalism of a Buddhist statue under construction in a Buddhist monastery in Rangunia. Noor claimed that the attackers were supported by forest officials and the local MP of the AL party because they wanted to evict the monks from the area.

After Noor published his videos, local Islamist groups protested against the blogger and accused him of damaging religious harmony between Muslims and Buddhists.

Police raided Noor’s family house in Rangunia and allegedly harassed his family members while he was in India. “On the early morning of July 18, police forcefully picked up my parents as well as four other family members, and kept them in illegal detention for nearly 48 hours,” Noor said.

‘Nothing to do with religion’

Both the Buddhist monastery and an AL leader claim ownership over the disputed land in Rangunia.

Abu Jafar, a former official in the disputed area, told DW that the land belongs to the government and “has nothing to do with religion.”

“The Buddhist monastery was built two years ago without any permission from the government. Some local political leaders also use some parts of the area without any permission,” he said.

Noor said he wanted to support the area’s minority Buddhist community and “save Rangunia from another Ramu incident.” He referred to the September 2012 attack on a Buddhist community in the southeastern town of Ramu. A mob of Islamist fundamentalists vandalized at least four temples and set fire to dozens of homes after a photo they considered defamatory to Islam was circulated online.

Life on the run

Noor’s stance against Bangladesh’s religious fundamentalists has triggered numerous protests in the past.

Hefazat-e-Islam, a radical Islamist group in the country, has called for the blogger’s arrest and the death penalty for blasphemy.

Noor was first detained in December 2017 while he was trying to travel abroad after an Islamic religious clergy sued him for creating and spreading content on social media that “hurt religious sentiments.” He was then released on bail in August 2018, only to be detained again one month later by the military intelligence agency.

The blogger was eventually released mid-January 2019 and decided to leave Bangladesh and continue his online activism. Now in India, Noor still receives frequent death threats from fundamentalists.

He said some bloggers critical of religious fundamentalism in the past had been hacked to death by religious fanatics.

“Although serial killings of bloggers have stopped, it doesn’t mean that Bangladesh has become a safe haven for bloggers. No one can guarantee that it will not start again,” Noor said.

Bangladeshi bloggers critical of religious fundamentalism have often faced attacks

Recaptured in India

After living in India for over 3 months, Noor was arrested on May 19 and detained in prison for six months. He awaits bail and hopes his court appearance will be rescheduled “when the pandemic crisis ends.”

“My fate might be decided then,” he said.

Paris-based rights organization Reporters Without Borders (RSF) has urged Bangladeshi authorities to immediately withdraw all charges against Noor and return his passport. The organization ranked Bangladesh 150th out of 180 countries in its 2020 World Press Freedom Index.

Human rights NGO Amnesty International released a statement on July 21 urging Bangladeshi authorities to “stop the harassment and intimidation of the parents of Asad Noor, who have been targeted because of their son’s human rights activism.”

It added, “human rights defenders must be able to carry out their important work freely and without fear.”

Source: Bangladeshi blogger faces death threats for criticizing Islamic fundamentalism

Mississauga Hindu temples’ outdoor hymns expose public divide during pandemic

Of note:

Hindu temples across Mississauga have begun broadcasting daily hymns outdoors for believers who are unable to gather in large groups and partake in three major Hindu festivals after the city granted them a noise bylaw exemption.

The exemption mirrors one made for Mississauga mosques in May, so they could broadcast a daily call to prayer during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan. At the time, a small Hindu group was opposed to the idea, but now say if Muslims are allowed an exemption, they should be too.

In late April, some Mississaugans voiced strong opposition to the city’s exemption for calls to prayer. A Facebook group called “Mississauga Call to Prayer on LoudSpeaker Unconstitutional,” which had 10,445 members on Thursday, was fundraising to pursue legal action against the city over the decision after it was approved.

Canadians United Against Hate released a statement asking city council to uphold the decision, saying many of those who were putting pressure on city hall were “Islamophobic and racist elements in Mississauga.”

The community debate in Mississauga exposes a divide over public space and sounds during a pandemic when people are reluctant to gather indoors.

“Initially we opposed calls for prayers during the holy month of Ramadan,” said Rao Yenbamuri, president of Hindu Forum Canada (HFC) – a seven-member Mississauga-based not-for-profit formed in March. A May 2 letter on the group’s website called it “a violation of our secular values.”

“We think that such a precedent would not be practical in a multifaith community, that’s the reason we opposed it,” he said in an interview with The Globe and Mail, adding that despite multiple attempts to communicate with politicians, the decision went forward. “So given these circumstances, we would like the same privileges to be extended to us.”

Amira Elghawaby, a journalist and human-rights advocate who sits on the board of Anti-Hate Network Canada, said many Canadian Muslims face Islamophobia and discrimination under the guise of secularism.

“We see that happening very prominently in Quebec with Bill 21,” she said, referring to a law that prevents many public servants from wearing religious symbols at work, “and we saw it happening in Mississauga and other jurisdictions in the country when the call to prayer was permitted during the month of Ramadan because of the pandemic.”

Ms. Elghawaby also said there was no need “to create us versus them narratives” between both communities.

“I think it’s important to understand that Canada is a country of diversity and diverse raising and diverse backgrounds of people, and all of that is what makes our country strong and rich,” she said. “And we all actually get stronger when our communities are able to fulfill their identities in ways that [are] meaningful to them.”

Kushagr Sharma, a volunteer for Mississauga’s Hindu Heritage Centre, says broadcasting the hymns will help build a sense of connection for many who felt isolated during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“A lot of seniors want to come to the temple, just to be there physically but not come inside,” he said.

“So a lot of people would come outside, do their prayers in their cars and leave. But they weren’t able to hear the hymns and the prayers that go on.”

Playing the hymns outdoors also ensures seniors and other vulnerable community members can feel safe, Mr. Sharma said. The temple is not affiliated with HFC and had no prior knowledge of its opposition to broadcasting calls to prayers during the month of Ramadan, he added.

The bylaw exemption allows the temples to broadcast religious hymns every night at 7 p.m., for five minutes, between Aug. 11 and Sept. 1.

Varsha Naik, executive director of the Regional Diversity Roundtable of Peel, and a long-time member of the Interfaith Council of Peel, said all faith communities need places where they feel safe to practise their respective religions.

“We need to ensure that nobody in the community gets isolated,” Ms. Naik said. “And especially with COVID-19, we need to create that sense of community, that sense of celebration.”

Source: https://www.theglobeandmail.com/canada/article-mississauga-hindu-temples-play-hymns-outdoors/

Poor and Desperate, Pakistani Hindus Accept Islam to Get By

Of note:

The Hindus performed the prayer rituals awkwardly in supplication to their new, single god, as they prepared to leave their many deities behind them. Their lips stumbled over Arabic phrases that, once recited, would seal their conversion to Islam. The last words uttered, the men and boys were then circumcised.

Dozens of Hindu families converted in June in the Badin district of Sindh Province in southern Pakistan. Video clips of the ceremony went viral across the country, delighting hard-line Muslims and weighing on Pakistan’s dwindling Hindu minority.

The mass ceremony was the latest in what is a growing number of such conversions to Pakistan’s majority Muslim faith in recent years — although precise data is scarce. Some of these conversions are voluntary, some not.

News outlets in India, Pakistan’s majority-Hindu neighbor and archrival, were quick to denounce the conversions as forced. But what is happening is more subtle. Desperation, religious and political leaders on both sides of the debate say, has often been the driving force behind their change of religion.

Treated as second-class citizens, the Hindus of Pakistan are often systemically discriminated against in every walk of life — housing, jobs, access to government welfare. While minorities have long been drawn to convert in order to join the majority and escape discrimination and sectarian violence, Hindu community leaders say that the recent uptick in conversions has also been motivated by newfound economic pressures.

“What we are seeking is social status, nothing else,” said Muhammad Aslam Sheikh, whose name was Sawan Bheel until June, when he converted in Badin with his family. The ceremony in Badin was notable for its size, involving just over 100 people.

“These conversions,” he added, “are becoming very common in poor Hindu communities.”

Proselytizing Muslim clerics and charity groups add to the faith’s allure, offering incentives of jobs or land to impoverished minority members only if they convert.

With Pakistan’s economy on the brink of collapse in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, the pressures on the country’s minorities, often its poorest people, have increased. The economy will contract by 1.3 percent in the 2020 fiscal year because of the pandemic, the World Bank predicts. And up to 18 million of Pakistan’s 74 million jobs may be lost.

Mr. Sheikh and his family hope to find financial support from wealthy Muslims or from Islamic charities that have cropped up in recent years, which focus on drawing more people to Islam.

In Jerusalem’s Old City, The Devout Adjust To Worship In The Coronavirus Era

Of interest and in sharp contrast to some congregations elsewhere who have ignored or defied public health measures:

“The air over Jerusalem is saturated with prayers and dreams like the air over industrial cities,” wrote Yehuda Amichai, one of the city’s beloved poets, in 1980. “It’s hard to breathe.”

Now it’s hard to pray.

In the historic walled Old City, the beating heart of a place sacred to millions around the world, a second wave of the coronavirus has challenged devout communities to rethink how to pray safely. This spring, Jerusalem’s revered religious sites closed partially or fully as prayer gatherings were blamed for some infections. Now Israel permits houses of prayer to operate under restrictions.

New customs accompany old worship rituals: a grid of prayer quadrants at the Western Wall. Only clergy permitted at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. “Place your carpet here” stickers on the floor of the Al-Aqsa Mosque grounds to keep worshipers distanced.

Here are some of the newest rituals surrounding Muslim, Christian and Jewish prayer in Jerusalem’s Old City.

Bring your own carpet

The Al-Aqsa Mosque, where tradition says the Prophet Muhammad journeyed to heaven, reopened in late May after Muslim authorities closed it to the public for more than two months — its first lengthy closure since the Crusaders captured it in 1099.

Worshipers are now asked to perform the wudu, the ritual washing of parts of the body, at home. Volunteers at the mosque provide hand sanitizer and masks. Participants are also asked to bring prayer carpets from home, to avoid touching the carpeted floor inside the mosque building.

“I have never used as many small carpets as nowadays,” said Mustafa Abu Sway, a member of the mosque advisory council, sitting next to his yellow carpet outside the mosque. “It just goes to the washing machine, because you don’t know what it has been contaminated with.”

Israel restricts prayer gatherings in Jerusalem — initially capped at 50 worshipers, then 19, and now 10 — but Al-Aqsa is hosting several thousand every Friday for the main prayers.

That’s partly to maintain a Palestinian presence at a compound also revered by Jews as the site where the Biblical temple once stood. Orthodox and right-wing Israeli Jewish activists are increasingly paying politically sensitive visits to the mosque grounds and lobbying to allow Jewish prayer there, which Palestinians see as hostile efforts to seize control at the site.

Muslim officials also believe they can hold prayers safely by spilling over into the mosque’s vast outdoor complex. Stickers on the floor show worshipers how to keep spaced at a healthy distance, with partial success.

“It would be a pity if everything is shut down. I mean, you need a place, a source of hope, a source of light, to invigorate people and give them a break,” said Abu Sway.

A recent sermon implored worshipers not to spread false rumors about the pandemic and to take it seriously. After prayers on a scorching Friday, thousands poured out of the Old City holding prayer carpets on their heads and refreshing frozen pops in their hands.

Celebrating Mass on Facebook Live

Nearby, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the traditional site of Jesus’ crucifixion, is closed due to the pandemic — except to the clergy who continue their daily rituals inside, behind its wooden doors.

A short walk away, St. Saviour’s Monastery hosts Jerusalem’s main Roman Catholic Mass, with a small women’s choir and no congregation onsite.

For months, Father Amjad Sabbara held a series of mini-Masses, with 19 participants each, so everyone in his Palestinian parish could attend a socially distanced Mass at least once a month. Now, with a second wave of infections afflicting Jerusalem’s Palestinian neighborhoods, congregants watch from home on Facebook Live.

“It’s better, you know, for the protection of the people and the families,” Sabbara says. “It’s better to stay in their homes. And in this way, we can pray together.”

It’s in their homes where his congregants need him most. Sabbara has set up a special counseling hotline and says he’s getting a lot of calls about family tensions from being cooped up at home during the pandemic.

On a recent Sunday, he offered his homily in Arabic and raised a golden goblet and round communion wafer, all in front of a web camera.

Somehow, two devoted churchgoers managed to slip into the closed, cavernous church. They were allowed to stay.

No kissing the Torah scroll

Jewish prayers continue at the Western Wall, a remnant of the ancient Biblical temple compound. But the outdoor prayer plaza is now divided into quadrants designed to keep worship groups small.

Nearby, at the Ramban Synagogue in the Old City’s Jewish quarter, longtime elementary school teacher Yehezkel Cahn, 71, oversees the morning prayers — for several dozen worshipers sitting six feet apart in designated seats — as if the synagogue were his classroom. He’s drawn cartoons with handwritten instructions: No wearing masks on your chin. No turning on the ceiling fan.

“Because the corona goes from his nose to my mouth,” Cahn says.

Another sign reads: “Don’t try to be a wise guy! You have no permission to use the prayer books of the synagogue.”

Cahn wears blue surgical gloves as he cradles the Torah scroll, turning his back as he passes a veteran white-haired worshiper. He says the man often forgets the synagogue’s new health rule against kissing the scroll, a traditional sign of respect performed by touching the scroll and then kissing one’s own hand as it is paraded around the congregation.

“I don’t want him to kiss,” Cahn says.

Cahn repeatedly looks at his watch, to usher in three shifts of morning worshipers in 45-minute slots. He’s keeping the prayer groups small. Inside the synagogue, he allows no more than 10 men. That’s the minimum quorum required by Orthodox Judaism for Torah readings and certain prayers — and the government’s latest restriction on indoor gatherings is 10 people. Whoever doesn’t get a seat indoors prays in the courtyard.

As with efforts by Jerusalem’s other major faiths, it’s an attempt to protect worshipers’ safety during the pandemic while permitting the uninterrupted rhythm of religious life.

Source: In Jerusalem’s Old City, The Devout Adjust To Worship In The Coronavirus Era

Pakistan: Ancient statue of Buddha destroyed as un-Islamic


Last Friday, an ancient statue of Buddha was vandalised in Takht Bahi, Mardan district (Khyber Pakhtunkhwa).

The statue was destroyed as “un-Islamic” by the workers who found it (pictured) whilst digging to lay the foundations of a house.

The ancient artefact belongs to the historic Gandhara civilisation which encompassed the region of modern-day north-western Pakistan, more or less Peshawar valley and the lower valleys of the Kabul and Swat rivers.

Gandhara is the old name for the Pakistani province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. It is highly revered by Buddhists and is deemed an important regional site of Buddhist civilisation.

On Saturday, videos of the destruction went viral on social media. They show a man breaking the statue with a big hammer, with other men expressing their approval and some taping the whole thing.

Pakistani media have reported that four people involved in the incident were arrested.

In 2017, two rare and ancient Buddha statues were found in Bhamala, an archaeological site in Hariput district. The largest statue ever found on the site depicts Buddha’s death whilst the second statue was a Buddha with a double halo.

According to Abdus Samad Khan, head of the province’s archaeology department, the vandalised Buddha statue was 1,700 years old; the broken pieces were recovered to assess their archaeological value.

Following the incident, various news channels and social media discussed the protection of others’ beliefs in the country.

Whilst the Pakistani constitution respects all religions and all faiths are sacred for their followers, many activists and leaders have come out against the destruction of the statue of Buddha. For Samad Khan, it was a “crime” and showed “disrespect for religion”.

Later, police arrested a local contractor and five other people suspected of breaking antiquity regulations.

Two rare and ancient Buddha statues were unearthed in Hariput district in 2017, noted Mansha Noor, executive secretary of Caritas Pakistan in Karachi,

“Breaking this ancient statue of lord Buddha shows ignorance of history and a lack of education,” Mansha said. “Our country is filled with minerals and hidden history. We need to educate our nation about other owners of this land.”

In ancient times, Gandhara was a trading and cultural crossroads linking India, Central Asia and the Middle East.

Source: PAKISTAN Ancient statue of Buddha destroyed as un-Islamic

Multiracial Congregations May Not Bridge Racial Divide

Interesting study and findings:

Twenty years ago, a sociologist at Rice University, Michael Emerson, directed a study of efforts by white evangelical Christians to address racial inequality. His provocative conclusion, summarized in his book Divided By Faith, co-authored with Christian Smith, was that evangelicals “likely do more to perpetuate the racial divide than to tear it down,” largely because they tended to worship in racially segregated congregations and viewed racial prejudice as an individual, not a societal, problem.

The book, published in 2000, captured wide attention in evangelical circles and was featured on the cover of the magazine Christianity Today.

Emerson then proposed an answer to the problem he had highlighted: If Christians of different racial backgrounds began worshipping together, he suggested, racial reconciliation could follow. In a 2004 book, United By Faith, a sequel to his earlier book, Emerson and a team of collaborators called for a new church movement.

“The 21st century,” they argued, “must be the century of multiracial congregations.”

Emerson, who is white, became personally committed to the cause, moving his own family into a mostly African-American congregation. He soon became a godfather of sorts for the multiracial church movement, consulting with congregations around the country on how to promote diversity in worship. The key, Emerson argued, was to do it with deliberate purpose.

“You put it into your mission statement,” he said in a 2019 interview with NPR. “You think about who is up on the platform during worship and who is put into leadership and the ministry. You think about the artwork and the books you’re using and the music you’re playing. Does it reflect all people or only one culture?”

For many, the multiracial church movement appeared to be a good idea, attracting both whites and people of color.

In Columbus, Ohio, Korie Little Edwards, who was attending a Black church, was one of those intrigued by the promise of more diversity in her worship experience.

“I bumped into someone who said, ‘Hey, I go to this multiracial church, and it’s down here in the city. Why don’t you check it out?'” Little Edwards told NPR. “And I thought, ‘Yeah, well, why not?'”

Little Edwards teaches sociology at the Ohio State University, but at the time her interest in the church was personal.

“I had this idea that, ‘Yeah, this would be really great,'” she said. “I thought, ‘This will be a place governed by Christian ideals, a place where people can come and connect with one another and support one another.’ I was thinking that multiracial churches could be an answer to racial inequality.”

In the years that followed, Little Edward’s interest in the multiracial church movement became professional. As a sociologist of religion, she wanted to see whether diverse churches could help break down racism, and she began visiting congregations and interviewing members and church leaders with a team of research assistants, identifying the strategies they followed and the problems they encountered.

A church transformed

In Fort Worth, Texas, a white Southern Baptist pastor named Randal Lyle heard about Michael Emerson and his multiracial church movement and resolved to diversify his own nearly all white church, Meadowridge Baptist. The obstacles were quickly apparent.

Lyle’s youth minister organized a basketball league for African American youth from the neighborhood. When he learned some were devout Christians, he invited them to visit Meadowridge, Lyle says, only to be rebuffed.

“A young man told him, ‘I’m not going there. That’s a white church,'” Lyle says. He and his staff took the comment to heart.

“Our church was probably like most,” he told NPR. “We’d say we would welcome anybody who wants to come here, but what we meant was, as long as they do things exactly how we do them.”

After reviewing Michael Emerson’s books and videos on the subject, Lyle realized big changes at his church would be needed. He changed the sign out front to say, “All Races United In Christ.” The staff bought new toys for the children’s room, making sure they reflected racial diversity. They changed the artwork in the church, and Lyle organized a choir.

“When I first came here, I said, ‘We’re not going to do choir,'” Lyle said. “But then we began to think, ‘This community is primarily African American and Anglo. Choirs are huge in an African American church.’ So we realized we need to have a choir.”

The effort proved largely successful. The membership at Meadowridge Baptist is now about one-third African American, and the number of Latino members is growing.

“I needed a different experience,” says Myrtle Lee, 73, who left the Black church she had been attending and joined Meadowridge with her two sisters. “I wanted to worship with everybody that I worked with. I work with not just Black people. I wanted to go to church with those same people.”

One of her sisters, Cecilia Rhodes, says it took a while to get accustomed to worshiping in a predominantly white church.

“Sometimes, there was stares,” she says. “People looking at you kind of strangely. And then I just made it my mission to hug. So I started hugging people.”

Curtis Hudson, who is African American, joined Meadowridge with his wife Andrea, who is white, shortly after they moved to the Fort Worth area.

“We were looking for a church, and what we found were either all white or all Black,” Hudson says. “And then Andrea did a Google search for ‘mullticultural churches,’ and this church came up. So we said, ‘Let’s check it out.'”

Meadowridge remains today one of the few intentionally multicultural churches in the Dallas-Fort Worth area.

“I’d love to say it’s not rare,” says Myrtle Lee. “I’d love to say that. But I think it is.”

A one-way movement

The number of multiracial churches has actually been growing in the United States. A recently completed survey of congregations by Michael Emerson, now at the University of Illinois at Chicago, and Kevin Dougherty of Baylor University found that the share of churches defined as “multiracial,” with at least one out of five members from a minority background, grew from six percent in 1998 to 16 percent in 2019.

During that time, however, those multiracial churches did not themselves become significantly more diverse. The African American membership share in these churches grew only slightly, from 16 to 21 percent and actually declined between 2012 and 2019. The white membership share in multiracial churches from 1998 to 2019 remained nearly unchanged at about 50 percent.

“Integrated churches are tough things,” says Keith Moore, a Black pastor in Montgomery, Ala., who works closely with local white pastors. “When you see both African Americans and Caucasian Americans [in a church], it’s more than likely to have a Caucasian pastor,” he says. “I think it’s sometimes more difficult for whites to look at a black pastor and see him as their authority. That’s a tough call for many.”

As a result, Moore says, African Americans ready to worship in a multiracial church are often forced to accept white leadership and a different worship style.

“You have to abandon some of your ethnic culture and become more palatable to the majority white culture,” Moore says, “give up some of the old traditional African American experience to fit in. So there is a sacrifice.”

Moore’s impressions, in fact, are supported by the research of Emerson and Dougherty.

“All the growth [in multiracial churches] has been people of color moving into white churches,” Emerson says. “We have seen zero change in the percentage of whites moving into churches of color.” Once a multi-racial church becomes less than 50 percent white, Emerson says, the whites leave. Such findings have left Emerson discouraged.

“For the leaders of color who were trying to create the multiracial church movement,” Emerson says, “they’re basically saying, ‘It doesn’t work. The white brothers and sisters just won’t give up their privilege. And so we’ve been defeated, in a sense.'”

The continuing power of race

In Columbus, Ohio, Korie Little Edwards found a similar pattern in her own research. After her personal interest led her to join a multiracial church, her subsequent study left her skeptical that such churches were making the difference in promoting equality that she had hoped to see.

“I came to a point where I realized that, you know, these multiracial churches, just because they’re multiracial, doesn’t mean they have somehow escaped white supremacy,” she says. “Being diverse doesn’t mean that white people are not going to still be in charge and run things.”

In her book The Elusive Dream: The Power of Race in Interracial Churches, Little Edwards argued that people of color often lose out.

“The pain people experience is not feeling like they’re accepted for who they are,” she told NPR, “not being able to be themselves, not being able to worship how they want to worship, feeling like you have to fall in line with what white people expect you to do.”

In their own churches, Little Edwards says, African Americans often dress formally and expect worship services to last about two hours on average. When they join diverse churches, they generally find the white members insisting on shorter services and favoring more casual dress.

Beyond style differences, Little Edwards says, Black people in a multiracial congregation may be reluctant to push for a leadership role and feel pressure instead to settle for a visible or symbolic position, as a greeter or usher or musician.

“What’s at work here is the power of whiteness,” she says. “And what whiteness says is that people who are white are understood to be dominant and understood to be in charge.”

Little Edwards herself continues to attend a multiracial church, but that feature is not what binds her to the congregation, and her view of the value of integrated churches has shifted somewhat.

“I would argue that the goal shouldn’t be diversity,” she says. “Rather, all churches are called to be places of justice, uplifting the oppressed. That is what the Christian faith is. All churches, regardless of their racial and ethnic composition, should be like that. And then you can move toward integration.”

Source: Multiracial Congregations May Not Bridge Racial Divide

Coren: The Hagia Sophia is now a mosque – and a victim of Turkey’s profane politics

Good column by Coren:

In 537 AD – as the story goes – Byzantine Roman Emperor Justinian first laid eyes on Hagia Sophia, The Church of the Holy Wisdom and the largest building in the world at the time, and declared edificial triumph over a biblical king: “Solomon, I have surpassed thee.” It was fair comment: The fourth church to be built on the spot in this city that was once called Byzantium and then Constantinople, the building he saw then was magnificent. Using stone from as far away as Egypt, more than 10,000 craftsmen spent six years constructing it.

We’re not entirely sure what Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is saying right now, but it’s likely he doesn’t particularly care what Justinian, King Solomon or anybody else might think. In a decision that has attracted international disapproval, the hardline nationalist announced last week that Istanbul’s 1,500-year-old Hagia Sophia, which has since become a museum, would become a mosque.

History is central to understanding the conflict. As the cathedral of the Patriarch of Constantinople before and after the Great Schism that divided Western and Eastern Christianity into Catholic and Orthodox, the Hagia Sophia became one of the most important Christian sites in the world. But in 1453, the Ottoman Turks took the city, and Sultan Mehmet II announced that the church would be known as the Great Mosque of Aya Sofya. The mihrab, indicating the direction of Mecca, replaced the altar; Mehmet’s successors made further alterations. Still, the Hagia Sophia remained sacred for Orthodox Christians the world over.

The Ottoman Empire declined in prestige over the centuries, and when the “sick man of Europe” finally passed on, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk – the founder of modern Turkey – initiated a relentless campaign of modernization and secularization. Part of his battle with the country’s conservative faithful was resolved in 1934, when the mosque became a museum; the Hagia Sophia has since become Turkey’s most popular tourist destination, with almost four million visitors a year. It seemed a glorious compromise.

On Friday, however, Turkey’s top administrative court annulled the Hagia Sophia’s museum status. Within hours, the Islamic call to prayer was recited, and the museum’s social-media pages were shuttered. Lina Mendoni, Greece’s culture minister and a world-renowned archeologist, responded to the announcement angrily: “The nationalism displayed by President Erdogan takes his country back six centuries,” she said, adding that the ruling “absolutely confirms that there is no independent justice” in Turkey.

The Russian Orthodox Church claims that its concerns were never given proper hearing when the transition was being considered, while other Eastern Orthodox leaders have condemned the decision. UNESCO, under which the building was protected as a World Heritage Site, urged Turkey to delay any change until further discussion had taken place.

None of that seems to concern Mr. Erdogan, since the Islamic traditionalists who have long called for this will guarantee him power in once-secular Turkey. That tension – between the temporal and the spiritual – is at the heart of this provocative and potentially dangerous move.

Turkey is home to a modern, non-religious, educated class that looks to Europe and liberal democracies. But for those outside that class – and they are now perhaps the majority – Mr. Erdogan and his systematic and sometimes brutal policy of Islamization represents the fulfillment of a long-awaited ambition. The President sees himself as leading the Muslim world, just as did the Sultans before him – even if it sows profound division – and this irresponsible if unsurprising action is central to that.

Turkey also does not have an impressive record of tolerance for Christians. Only about 300,000 now live there, comprising a meagre 0.3 per cent of the population. The Armenian Genocide between 1914 and 1923 in Turkey saw the murder and expulsion of 1.5 million ethnic Armenians, almost all of them Christian; despite the overwhelming evidence, the Turkish government refuses to acknowledge or take responsibility for that mass atrocity.

As a museum, the Hagia Sophia did not satisfy everybody, and there were Christians as well as Muslims who imagined a once and future religiosity. But for most, it had become a vibrant symbol of moderation and understanding, and a meeting place for all people from all faiths and backgrounds. That vision has evaporated.

It remains to be seen if this will further isolate Turkey, and exactly how Vladimir Putin – the leader of Eastern Orthodoxy’s super power – will choose to react. What we do know is that the world is a slightly darker and less gentle place than it was a week ago – one in which there is less of the spirit of Solomon’s famed sagacity, and more regression because of craven political nationalism.

Source: https://www.theglobeandmail.com/opinion/article-the-hagia-sophia-is-now-a-mosque-and-a-victim-of-turkeys-profane/