Blessed Are the Peacemakers: An Interfaith Dinner in Manila

Blessed Are the Peacemakers: An Interfaith Dinner in Manila

I hate cold calling. Contacting someone you don’t know and soliciting an offer they may not be interested in. But that’s exactly what I did.

I sent Dr. Potre Dirampatan-Diampuan an email asking if she would be available to speak about her experience as an interfaith peacemaker. Dr. D’s response blew me away. She not only made herself available to me but offered to plan an interfaith dinner to introduce me to several of her colleagues. She asked me for a date, called her friends, and made a reservation at a restaurant with a private room for us all to meet. 

And so on a rainy Sunday evening, Dr. D, six of her colleagues, and I gathered at a fancy Italian restaurant in Bonifacio Global City in Metro Manila. I was nervous, given that I had never met any of these women face-to-face and we would be discussing intimate topics such as faith, religion, peace, war, and violence. But as the women trickled in, they all greeted me warmly and conversation flowed naturally, as if we were old friends reuniting after much time apart. 

The six women Dr. D introduced me to were kind, welcoming, and intelligent. Between the seven of us, we represent Catholic, Protestant, Hindu, Muslim, and Baha’i faith traditions. Although we all have different experiences with religion and come from different ethnic backgrounds, we are united by our passion for interfaith cooperation. Each woman contributed a unique perspective in our discussion, yet seemed to be on the same page when answering my questions about the interfaith movement in the Philippines.

Interfaith Success in the Philippines

I received the most interesting answer in response to asking the group if they could identify a specific success in the Filipino interfaith movement. Each of the women explained in their own way that success is difficult to quantify in this type of work. For how can one truly measure changes in peoples’ hearts? Of course there are lengthy sociological questionnaires and interviews that can be done, but those are often expensive and time consuming. However, the women agreed that since the September 11th attacks and the arrival of international terrorism to the world stage people in the Philippines are more open towards interfaith dialogue because of a “perceived need” for it. 

A Return to Fear

Following the creation of many grassroots Christian-Muslim peace organizations in the Philippines, particularly in Mindanao (Southern Philippines) at the advent and during Martial Law in 1972 and throughout the entire country since 9/11, there is now an even stronger sense of awareness of interfaith dialogue among Filipinos. However, when violence strikes the Philippines, there is a reflexive “return to fear — uncertainty” and interfaith dialogue loses popularity.

And lately, the Philippines has gotten a double dose fear-inducing violence. President Rodrigo Duterte’s “war on drugs” has instilled fear in the guilty and innocent alike all across the country. Duterte has ordered his police forces to carry out executions of suspected criminals involved in the drug trade. These extrajudicial killings have numbered more than 7,000 since June 2016, with Duterte showing no signs of letting up (1). Because suspects are not arrested, given a right to legal counsel, or given a fair trial, the innocent are murdered alongside the guilty. 

The Philippines has long struggled with domestic terrorism, especially in its southern islands. Weak governmental control, rugged terrain, and a history of religious conflict between Christians and Muslims makes the island of Mindanao and islands in the Sulu Archipelago especially vulnerable to infiltration of militant groups (2).

The rise of Islamophobia and gaining popularity of nationalist politicians in the Western world has also taken its toll on interfaith relationships and peacebuilding efforts. Dr. D. says that sometimes it seems like for every ally the Muslim community makes, they make ten enemies. Misinformation, an unwillingness to learn about Islam, and a host of other factors contribute to the growth of Islamophobia as a global trend.

Women Serious About Education

But these interfaith women are strategically tackling obstacles of prejudice and ignorance by creating and implementing religious education programs for Filipino youth. 

Dr. Genevieve Balance-Kupang, an applied cosmic anthropologist, a trustee of Asian Social Institute and five non-governmental peace organizations, as well as the institutional researcher, teaches a course in introduction to world religions and belief systems at St. Paul College Pasig in Metro Manila. Her colleague and peace friend, Ms. Louniza Napay, has taught in both the grade school and high school departments at St. Paul College Pasig for 30 years.

Dr. Shakuntala Vaswani, a former botany professor, has been instrumental in creating and facilitating classes which teach both Hindu youth living in the Philippines about their own religion and educate non-Hindus about Hindu religion and culture in order to combat prejudice against Hindus. 

Dr. Potre Dirampatan-Diampuan, who is the United Religion Initiative’s Senior Interfaith Representative for the Philippines, also has extensive experience in both education management and creating peace education curriculum and works as a freelance lecturer. 

Dr. Marites Guingona Africa, is a lecturer on conflict transformation and Muslim-Christian dialogue at the Ateneo de Manila University and also works with grassroots organizations affected by conflict. 

Ms. Holly Grace Celeste was a technical educator for many years and also works with several Baha'i media groups in the Philippines. She also follows up with airings of radio programs on a community level, doing home visits and establishing classes which focus on moral education and transforming that knowledge into actions that serve local communities. 

As you can see, these women don’t just sit and talk about peace among religions, they are actively involved in building that peace from the ground up. Their intellect, commitment, and determination towards building a more peaceful Philippines is what gives me hope that a people living in country struggling with religious conflict, terrorism, and a militaristic government can learn to embrace their diversity and build a more peaceful future for their children.

Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called the children of God.
— Matthew 5:9
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Sources Cited

  1. https://www.hrw.org/report/2017/03/01/license-kill/philippine-police-killings-dutertes-war-drugs

  2. https://www.cfr.org/backgrounder/terrorism-havens-philippines

An earlier version of this article stated that Dr. Dirampatan-Diampuan was the Regional Coordinator in the Southeast Asia Region for URI. Her position has since changed and she is now the Senior Interfaith Representative for the Philippines at URI.

 

U Aye Lwin: A Voice of Reason in an Uncertain Burma

U Aye Lwin: A Voice of Reason in an Uncertain Burma

U Aye Lwin has a gift — he can look through the hatred, the lies, and the propaganda and see the truth. A “humble student of religion,” Mr. Lwin is humble indeed. He has a lot to brag about — he is a founder and co-member of Religions for Peace Myanmar, holds an esteemed position as an administrator in Yangon’s diplomatic school, and is a trustee of a historic mausoleum of a Sufi saint. But he doesn’t like to brag. Instead, he says, “I try to be a very humble Sufi.”

Search for Truth

Mr. Lwin’s humility pairs well with his wisdom. He is not poisoned with thoughts of seeking revenge on the government or extremist Buddhist monks who have been inciting violence against Muslims in his country. Instead, he looks towards the root causes of the rise of Buddhist nationalism in Burma. 

He explains that many Buddhist monks and adherents are convinced that their religion, culture, and way of life is in danger of extinction and that Islam is poised to take over their country. “This kind of information has been embedded in the psyche of most of us. So I wouldn’t say that it is Islamaphobia — it is misinformation that the Burmese people have regarding Islam.” 

Tracing this misinformation regarding Islam back to the 1962 military coup lead by General Ne Win, Mr. Lwin claims that distorting the religion of Islam and twisting historical facts was part of a calculated plan by the military to gain popular support and was crucial to the success of the coup. Since then, Buddhist nationalists have been citing the historical decline of Buddhism and subsequent rise of Islam in parts of Southeast Asia as evidence that Islam is an unrelenting threat in the region. 

These are what Mr. Lwin calls dangerous “half-truths.” He explains that, for instance, the decline of Buddhism in parts of Afghanistan and Bangladesh began centuries before the Prophet Mohammad was even born and thus before Islam even existed. “Half-truths are very, very dangerous. More dangerous than fabricated stories,” Mr. Lwin says. And when these half-truths become embedded in the culture and the psyche of the Burmese people, the spirit of tolerance dissolves. 

Reviving the Spirit of Tolerance

“What we are doing at Religions for Peace Myanmar is trying to revive the spirit of tolerance… Buddhism is a very tolerant, very peaceful religion.”

RfP Myanmar promotes religious education for children so that they can arm themselves with knowledge in the face of the onslaught of propaganda and "half-truths." The Interfaith Youth Network at RfP Myanmar advocates for peace building through organized activities and hands-on learning such as visits to religious sites and volunteering in local HIV/AIDS centers. They also teach youth about the electoral process in Burma, civil society, hate speech, and nutrition.

RfP Myanmar is also on a quest to remind people that in times of conflict, those most vulnerable are women and children. RfP’s Women of Faith Network is a diverse action-oriented group of women working to advance women’s involvement in the peacebuilding process as well as promote gender equality and prevent domestic violence in Burma. 

This year, the Interfaith Youth Network and Women of Faith Network joined forces to organize an interfaith event in Meikhtila, Burma to help clean up and plant trees at a Buddhist monastery where 800 Muslims sought sought refuge and were protected from violent mobs in March 2013. These kinds of activities are crucial to the peacebuilding process in areas with a history of violent religious conflict, like Meikhtila.

The Tolerant Mindset

Mr. Lwin’s mindset is equally as impressive as his work with RfP Myanmar.

“As a Muslim, I have a duty first to instill peace in my mind and my soul and try to have some peace in my heart before spreading the peace. As a member of the Islamic faith and a follower of Sufism, it is my duty to establish peace.” 

Recognizing the importance of inner peace, he says, “It’s no use talking about peace if your heart is heated with fire.” It is easy to tell that Mr. Lwin’s heart is not heated with fire at all. He takes special care to separate the perpetrators of intolerance and violence towards Muslims from their faith tradition, Buddhism. 

“I say often that in our country, religion has been hijacked.” Mr. Lwin recognizes that the hateful words and actions of extremist Buddhist monks in no way accurately reflect the values of the Buddhist faith. He is not bitter towards Buddhists or Buddhism in general. He even goes as far as saying that if true Buddhism prevails in Burma, the whole country will flourish, explaining that true Buddhism promotes tolerance and peace.

Judging from the current state of freedom of religion and the persecution of Muslims in Burma, it is clear that the country needs more men like Mr. Lwin. People who understand the complicated history of their country. People who constantly search for the truth. People who positively seek change in their communities. People who aren’t blinded with hatred and anger. People who seek peace within themselves. People who never stop seeking peace for others.

Celebrating Easter as a Religious Minority

Celebrating Easter as a Religious Minority

For the first time in my life, I know how it feels to have a religious holiday completely ignored. Perhaps ignored is not the right word. Not celebrated may be better.

Growing up as a Protestant Christian in the United States, my religious beliefs have been graciously accommodated for my entire life. All of the most important Christian holidays are also national holidays, meaning that I’ve never had to choose between going to school or work or observing a meaningful holiday. Grocery stores are always well-stocked with holiday decorations and ingredients for traditional holiday meals. In the winter, streets and houses are decorated with Christmas trees and in the spring, Easter bunnies and eggs. 

But in Thailand, there are no jellybeans, no chocolate eggs, and no Easter bunnies. Easter Sunday is not a national holiday. Grocery stores do not carry ham or lamb roasts. There are no decorations. In Thailand, no one really gives Easter a second thought.

My Experience

Observing Easter in Thailand tested me more than I anticipated. I missed celebrating the most important religious holiday of the year with my family. Knowing that they were all gathered at my house for a special dinner without me was sad. I also missed out on going to church on Easter weekend, which always reminds me what it is that I’m celebrating and helps prepare my heart for the big day. I missed saying “Happy Easter” to people. No one wished me a Happy Easter in Thailand. 

For the very first time in my life I celebrated a holiday as a religious minority. But unlike millions of religious minorities struggling across the globe, my day had a happy ending. I knew that my family was together and that they were celebrating in safety, without any threat to their lives. I was able to live stream my church’s Easter service on my laptop on Sunday evening, which lifted me up and made me feel close to home. I exchanged emails and Facebook messages with family members wishing them a Happy Easter, which made me feel less alone. I was able to pray and meditate on the meaning of Easter throughout the day, while I explored a waterfall and drove around a stunningly beautiful island with a friend. And at the end of the day, I said a final prayer and went to sleep feeling happy.

A Minority’s Experience

The experience of celebrating a holiday as a religious minority is influenced by a number of factors, the most important of which is religious freedom. 

In countries where religious freedom is a constitutional human right, celebrating your own religious holidays should not put you at risk of persecution or discrimination by the government or your employer. Although your right to celebrate is legally protected, you still may face discrimination from other members of your community, like an Arizona family whose homemade menorah was vandalized in their front yard during Hanukkah. (1)

In countries where citizens have limited religious freedom, celebrating religious holidays can be downright dangerous. In Burma, where religious tensions are high, violence can spike around the time of religious holidays. During Ramadan in 2016, a Muslim woman was killed, which started a deadly riot. (2) This puts religious minorities in the unjust position of having to make a choice between their personal safety, and that of their family, and observing important religious holidays.

A Refugee’s Experience

When I celebrated Easter alone and in a foreign country, I did so by choice. Many religious minorities who have escaped persecution in their home countries are not afforded this choice — they have their country out of necessity. 

Refugees who are also religious minorities in their new country must celebrate holidays without their congregation. They cannot go to their home church or temple to observe the holiday and reunite with friendly faces, like Razan Karoni, a Syrian Christian celebrating Christmas in Istanbul. (3) And many times, refugees are unaware of where their own family members are or if they are safe. 

So what did I learn from spending Easter alone in a Buddhist country? I learned that I have it really good. I live in a country that values and protects religious freedom and I may never know what it's like to be discriminated against because of my faith, because I am in the religious majority. I doubt that I will never truly know what it feels like to be a religious minority.

What You Can Do

There are plenty of ways that you can lend a welcoming hand to religious minorities where you live. Here are just a few ideas:

1. Wish someone a happy holiday.

Look up the dates of importance religious holidays for people of other faiths and mark them on your calendar. Wish your friends, neighbors, coworkers, and others in your community a happy Hanukkah, Passover, Eid, Ramadan, or Holi. A simple greeting can go a long way.

2. Invite a refugee family to celebrate a holiday.

Invite a refugee and their family to celebrate a holiday with you. Contact your local congregation and ask if there are any refugee families in the community that need a place to celebrate. You don’t even need to be of the same faith as demonstrated by Rachel Miller, a Jew from Boston who celebrated Passover with the Syrian Yazidi family that is living with them for the year. (4) Opening your home to someone can go a long way.

3. Host an interfaith holiday party.

The best way to show you care is to learn more about someone else’s faith. Arrange an interfaith event to celebrate your own holiday as well as learn more about your neighbors. Interfaith Seders (a special dinner that marks the start of Passover for Jews) have become especially popular in the US, taking place everywhere from Oklahoma to New York to California. (5, 6, 7)

Sources Cited

  1. http://www.phoenixnewtimes.com/news/in-holiday-hate-crime-vandals-turn-arizona-familys-menorah-display-into-swastika-8949797

  2. http://www.aljazeera.com/news/2016/05/rohingya-refugee-hunted-mob-myanmar-160522172852047.html

  3. http://www.politico.eu/article/no-christmas-for-syrian-christians-in-turkey/

  4. https://www.pri.org/stories/2017-04-10/syrian-yazidi-family-and-their-jewish-hosts-passover-refugee-story

  5. http://newsok.com/article/5544619

  6. http://theislandnow.com/great_neck-101/interfaith-seder-strengthens-bonds-jewish-catholic-students/

  7. http://www.davisenterprise.com/local-news/local-interfaith-passover-seder-celebrates-freedom-and-justice/

U Myo Win: Burma's Fearless Interfaith Leader

U Myo Win: Burma's Fearless Interfaith Leader

“Whatever you do, do it with a nationalist vision. When you are looking, look with a nationalist point of view. When you are listening, listen with a nationalist’s ears.”

These are the opening lines to a speech made by extremist Buddhist monk Ashin Wirathu that was uploaded onto YouTube in March 2013. This is what people like U Myo Win, an interfaith leader and educator in Yangon, are up against. But before I tell you about Mr. Win’s work, I’ll relay his take on how things got this bad in his home country.

Anti-Muslim Sentiment in Burma

Although Mr. Win does not claim that the military government and Buddhists are conspiring together to target Muslims, he highlights the intertwining roles of the two establishments. Mr. Win posits that the military needed a diversion in order to effectively take control of the country several decades ago. Muslims became the diversion and unfortunately the subject of much discrimination by the new government.

Mr. Win says that Buddhist monks and authorities are able to continue the military’s job with spreading anti-Muslim rhetoric by making emboldened claims that Buddhist religion, culture, and way of life are at risk of extinction due to “Islamization.” Despite the fact that Muslims comprise only 4% of the Burmese population, they do not hold important government positions, and that the building of new mosques is illegal, Buddhist extremists have managed to convince a large portion of the Burmese population that the country is truly at risk of becoming a Muslim majority country.

Why did the government need such a diversion? Because when they came to power, they requisitioned businesses, natural resources, and other sources of income in the country from the Burmese people. So instead of directing their anger and indignation at the government, many Burmese began to direct it at Muslims, with Buddhist monks fanning the flames.

Anti-Muslim sentiment and fear of Islamization is promulgated by various sources of propaganda throughout the country. The inflammatory speeches of prominent Buddhist nationalist monk Ashin Wirathu can be found on YouTube and Facebook, which also serve as a platform for his followers to engage in hate speech against Muslims. Leaflets are distributed to villages claiming that Muslims are systematically purchasing land under false names with money given to them by the Saudis, that Muslims have “heinous plots” to take over the country, and that parents must teach their children to not communicate with Muslims or buy goods from Muslims stores or their entire nationality will be at risk.

 Sign hung by the military government in the city of Mandalay. Credit: Matthew Goulding / Flickr

Sign hung by the military government in the city of Mandalay. Credit: Matthew Goulding / Flickr

The effect of the propaganda is magnified by the fact that Burma’s education system vehemently discourages critical thinking. U Myo Win describes education as “copy and paste, listen and repeat.” Analytical skills are not taught in school. This means that from a very young age, Burmese children are taught to believe everything they hear from authority figures, like the government or Buddhist monks, without questioning. 

U Myo Win’s Courageous Interfaith Work

So how has Mr. Win been able to educate over 4,000 community leaders about interfaith cooperation in such a hostile environment? It’s simple: he disguised it. Calling his courses “civil engagement training" and selling them as service learning was the key. But it’s not as if Mr. Win is lying; interfaith leadership at its core is civil engagement — coming together to promote sustainable social, economic, and educational growth within the community. 

Founded by Mr. Win in 2008, the Smile Education and Development Foundation is a non-profit based out of Yangon, Burma "dedicated to eliminating poverty and unjust living conditions, and to developing responsible and productive citizens.” They use education as a means to create and encourage community leaders to be effective change-makers.

 Mr. Win and his staff at the Smile Education and Development Foundation. Credit:  SEDF

Mr. Win and his staff at the Smile Education and Development Foundation. Credit: SEDF

In 2014, the Smile Education and Development Foundation organized the Interfaith Youth Tour, and were able to call it just that. Students from Buddhist, Muslim, Christian, Hindu and Sikh faiths traveled to seven different cities in Burma, visiting over 40 religious sites and engaging with over 60 religious leaders from different faith backgrounds. Bringing children together for experiential learning and unbiased religious education is a crucial step towards undoing the effects of years of hate-inspired propaganda. 

As a follow up to the Youth Tour, Mr. Win created the Interfaith Youth Services project, which asks those who participated in the Tour to commit four weekends in which they will plan and conduct service projects for different religious institutions. The goal of the project is to cultivate an interfaith network among students, while engaging them in humanitarian projects. 

 Students participating in the Interfaith Youth Services project. Credit:  SEDF

Students participating in the Interfaith Youth Services project. Credit: SEDF

In addition to working with youth, Mr. Win is also reaching out to more moderate Buddhist monks in the country. While some of them are receptive to his message of interfaith cooperation, many are still skeptical. But it’s a start.

Mr. Win’s interfaith work speaks for itself — he is a fearless leader, bringing an unpopular message to people in a hostile environment. Perhaps what makes him so brave is the fact that he grew up as a Muslim in an entirely Buddhist community. Nearly all of his friends were Buddhist. Out of 1,000 students at his primary school, Mr. Win was one of only two or three Muslims. 

But his status as a religious minority never stopped him from being class president and a motivated student leader. His motivation would take him all the way to York University, where he studied conflict resolution on a grant from the UK government. And because he believes in the power of the interfaith movement, Mr. Win brought that education back home to Burma. 

Reasons for Hope

When asked what total religious freedom would look like in Burma, he said, “We would have the freedom to do daily religious practices and right to celebrate out beliefs.” That means that people would be able to the gather in churches and mosques for services, wear religious garments, and speak freely and proudly about their religious beliefs without fear of retribution. While Burma is surely a long way from achieving this, Mr. Win is optimistic because at their core, these feuding religions have similar values when it comes to peace.

“[True] Islam is encouraging peace. Islam is encouraging harmony in society. The Prophet Muhammad said you have to practice the middle way. That’s very similar to Buddhists.” He says that there is no “other” in true religion — there is no “them versus us,” no “owner or guest” of a single religion. Win can recite Buddhist and Islamic scriptures that call for peace and tolerance, and they sound quite similar. 

And so in Burma, despite the deplorable state of religious freedom, despite the propaganda, despite the persecution, there still is faith in faiths.

What You Need to Know About Burma

What You Need to Know About Burma

Burma, now called Myanmar, is a country filled with complexities and stark juxtaposition. Burmese men wear western-style button up shirts tucked into their traditional longyis. Tea houses and cafes are filled with people watching a screening of a Hollywood film as they sip Burmese tea. Buddhist monks in their orange and crimson robes shuffle past Muslim women wearing hijabs. The country even has two names. 

 
 At night in Mandalay, everyone flocks to cafes playing action movies while sipping Burmese tea.

At night in Mandalay, everyone flocks to cafes playing action movies while sipping Burmese tea.

 

But behind all this contrast lies a country with a complicated past and a worrisome future. After interviewing three men promoting interfaith cooperation in their country, I concluded that writing about their work without giving readers a brief overview of the political and religious situation in Burma would be naive. What You Need to Know About Burma, introduces you to the history of religion in Burma, the rise of Buddhist nationalism and its effects on Burmese Muslims as well as the current state of religious freedom in the country. 

Diversity in Burma

Burmese identity is rooted in diversity. The country, about the size of the Texas, borders no less than 5 countries: Bangladesh, India, China, Laos, and Thailand.

Over 135 ethnic groups can be found in Burma. The largest officially recognized groups are the Bamar (68%), Shan (9%), Karen (7%), Rakhine (4%), Chinese (3%), Indian (2%), and Mon (2%). (1)

While 88% of the population identify as Buddhist, Burma is religiously diverse and contains practicing Christians (6%), Muslims (4%), Animists (0.8%), and Hindus (0.5%). (2)

Ethnic Groups in Burma

There are more than 135 ethnic groups in Burma. This graph shows the 7 largest.

Religious Groups in Burma

These are the most commonly practiced religions in Burma. People also identify as other religions or not religious.

Source: CIA

Source: Oxford Burma Alliance

History of Religion in Burma

Burma’s strategic location near trading ports and between several countries with distinct cultures, means that it has a rich religious history.

Animism, various forms of spirit worship, was the original religion of the Burmese people (3) until 1057, when King Anawrahta unified the state of Burma and proclaimed Theraveda Buddhism as its religion. (4) The arrival of Islam to the region can be traced back to the 9th century, when Muslim sailors, brought to the region by trade, settled in Burma. (5) Catholic and Protestant missionaries came to Burma several centuries later and after a series of wars, Burma became a British colony. 

 Buddhism is deeply engrained in Burmese culture. All Buddhist Burmese boys must spend at least one week at a monastery as novice monks before they reach adulthood.

Buddhism is deeply engrained in Burmese culture. All Buddhist Burmese boys must spend at least one week at a monastery as novice monks before they reach adulthood.

Burma was eventually incorporated into Britain’s Indian Empire and gained its independence alongside India in 1948. Following independence came a period of political instability, eventually resulting in a military coup in 1962. The country was ruled by a military junta until 2015. The military, however, still controls 25% of parliamentary seats and can reject any proposed constitutional changes. (6)

The Rise of Buddhist Nationalism

The political transition towards a more democratic country, beginning in 2011, intensified clashes and unease between religious and ethnic groups in Burma. During this time of instability, the country saw a rise in Buddhist nationalism. This particular brand of nationalism is best described by the slogan “To be Burmese is to be Buddhist.” (7)

In Burmese culture, religious leaders, especially Buddhist monks, have tremendous societal influence. Burmese monk Ashin Wirathu, who has been called “the Burmese Bin Ladin" has spearheaded the Buddhist nationalist movement. Through sermons, speeches, and social media, Wirathu claims that the country’s Buddhist values and way of life are at stake. Capitalizing on the fear of “Islamization,” he tells Buddhists “if we are weak, our land will become Muslim.” (8) Despite impassioned pleas from the Dalai Lama, himself, Wirathu has continued to justify violence against Muslims. (9)

 
 Credit: Facebook

Credit: Facebook

 

By and large, the government has allowed Wirathu to continue his crusade without significant consequences. Some claim this is because Wirathu’s anti-Muslim platform has significant support among Burmese citizens. (10, 11) Wirathu was recently banned from preaching for one year by Buddhist religious authorities in Burma for using his sermons to incite hatred and create chaos. (12)

Persecution of Muslims

Although there is no official state religion in Burma, the country identifies as a Buddhist nation. The rise of Buddhist nationalism has caused significant deterioration in relations between Buddhists and members of minority religions. To put it bluntly, the Muslims have it worst in modern day Burma.

Conflict between Muslims and Buddhists in Burma dates back to the 19th century, when the British encouraged workers from neighboring Bangladesh and India, many of them Muslims, to come to Burma. (13, 14) After the installment of the military junta, Muslims became a more attractive target for the government. (15)

There are many different groups of Muslims in Burma including, the Chinese-Muslim Panthay, Shan Muslims, Indian Muslims, and Rohingya Muslims. (16)

Rohingya Muslims have undoubtedly suffered the most, with the UN declaring them to be one of the most persecuted groups in the world. (17) In 1982, the military introduced a law that stripped all Rohingya Muslims of their citizenship, despite the fact that their presence in Burma can be traced back to the 15th century. (18) Since the late 1970’s, more than one million Rohingya Muslims have fled the country. Many of them live in squalor in refugee camps that regularly turn away foreign aid from NGOs. (19) Since 2012, more than 120,000 Muslims, mostly Rohingya, have been internally displaced and reside in more than 40 internment camps in Burma. (20) Both the UN and Human Rights Watch have accused the Burmese government of being complicit in ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity. (21)

 

The State of Religious Freedom in Burma

The United States Commission on International Religious Freedom has designated Burma as a “country of particular concern” when it comes to religious freedom. The USCIRF claims that "Although Burma has opened dramatically since the last nationwide elections, President Thein Sein’s government continued to restrict basic freedoms–including the right to freedom of religion or belief.” (22)

Burma currently has laws in place that restrict religious conversion, interfaith marriages and family planning, access to education, and the overall religious freedom of religious minorities. (23) Religious minorities also face many obstacles when it comes to building or repairing houses of worship, which is especially concerning given the fact that mosques and churches have been the targets of vandalism and arson for many years. (24)

Nationalist Buddhist sentiment is so strong in the country, that even its recently democratically elected leaders have resisted condemning violence and discrimination against religious minorities for fear of losing popular support. (25) In the last several years, small conflicts in communities between Buddhists and Muslims have escalated into violent clashes and riots throughout the country. Religious minorities are being targeted by the government as well as their fellow citizens. 

While Burma may be on the path towards building a sustainable democracy, the state of religious freedom in Burma is not good.

Sources Cited

  1. http://www.oxfordburmaalliance.org/ethnic-groups.html

  2. https://www.cia.gov/library/publications/the-world-factbook/geos/bm.html

  3. http://factsanddetails.com/southeast-asia/Myanmar/sub5_5c/entry-3036.html

  4. http://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-pacific-12992883

  5. http://rlp.hds.harvard.edu/faq/islam-myanmar

  6. http://www.usccb.org/issues-and-action/religious-liberty/upload/Myanmar-Religious-Freedom-Lags-2016.pdf

  7. http://rlp.hds.harvard.edu/faq/buddhism-myanmar

  8. http://www.nytimes.com/2013/06/21/world/asia/extremism-rises-among-myanmar-buddhists-wary-of-muslim-minority.html

  9. http://www.nytimes.com/2013/06/21/world/asia/extremism-rises-among-myanmar-buddhists-wary-of-muslim-minority.html

  10. http://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-30930997

  11. http://www.dw.com/en/hate-speech-myanmar-monk-banned-from-preaching-by-buddhist-council/a-37905421

  12. http://www.dw.com/en/hate-speech-myanmar-monk-banned-from-preaching-by-buddhist-council/a-37905421

  13. http://studies.aljazeera.net/en/reports/2016/09/muslim-minorities-peril-rise-buddhist-violence-asia-160908090547506.html

  14. http://www.religionandgeopolitics.org/myanmar/myanmar-violence-roots-buddhist-nationalism

  15. http://studies.aljazeera.net/en/reports/2016/09/muslim-minorities-peril-rise-buddhist-violence-asia-160908090547506.html

  16. http://rlp.hds.harvard.edu/faq/islam-myanmar

  17. http://www.ohchr.org/Documents/Countries/MM/FlashReport3Feb2017.pdf

  18. http://www.cfr.org/burmamyanmar/rohingya-migrant-crisis/p36651

  19. http://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/features/2017/03/fight-survive-rohingya-refugees-bangladesh-170313091106782.html

  20. http://www.cfr.org/burmamyanmar/rohingya-migrant-crisis/p36651

  21. http://www.cfr.org/burmamyanmar/rohingya-migrant-crisis/p36651

  22. http://www.uscirf.gov/sites/default/files/USCIRF_AR_2016_Burma.pdf

  23. http://www.usccb.org/issues-and-action/religious-liberty/upload/Myanmar-Religious-Freedom-Lags-2016.pdf

  24. https://freedomhouse.org/report/freedom-world/2016/myanmar

  25. http://www.usccb.org/issues-and-action/religious-liberty/upload/Myanmar-Religious-Freedom-Lags-2016.pdf

Intro to Interfaith Pt. 2: History of the Interfaith Movement

Intro to Interfaith Pt. 2: History of the Interfaith Movement

The year is 1893. American women would not have the right to vote for 27 more years, India would not gain independence from Great Britain for 54 more years, and slavery would not be officially abolished in all countries for 88 more years. But in 1893, against all odds, the interfaith movement began.

There are many historical developments that have helped shaped the contemporary interfaith movement. However in this piece, I choose to highlight three that I find particularly influential: the convening of the 1893 Parliament of the World’s Religions, the American Civil Rights Movement, and the terrorist attacks of September 11th, 2001. This article explains the significance of these events and how they have shaped the movement. 

1893: The Beginning

The beginning of the contemporary interfaith movement can be traced back to the Parliament of the World's Religions, a gathering of representatives from Eastern and Western faiths, held during the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago. (1) Although it was criticized and even boycotted by some, the Parliament marked the first time that people from Catholic, Protestant, Jewish, Hindu, Buddhist, Jain, Unitarian, Shinto and Zoroastrian faiths came together to meet in the spirit of dialogue. (2)

 The First Parliament of the World's Religions in Chicago, 1893.   Source:  Parliament of the World's Religions

The First Parliament of the World's Religions in Chicago, 1893.

Source: Parliament of the World's Religions

During a time rife with imperialism, expansionist policies and xenophobia, the convening of the Parliament was truly ahead of its time. Its contribution to the interfaith movement was the setting of a precedent for leaders of world religions to gather and discuss differences in their religions as well as shared values. (3) The Parliament inspired the creation of several other organizations that sought to bring attention to interfaith dialogue over the next several decades, many of them would be in direct response to the First and Second World Wars. (4 SOURCE)

1960's: Impact on the Civil Rights Movement

Another notable moment in the history of the interfaith movement is the involvement of various religious leaders in the American Civil Rights Movement. The ideas of justice and equality found in Hinduism, Judaism and several different denominations of Christianity formed a solid platform for the Civil Rights Movement. (5) Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was deeply inspired by Mahatma Gandhi's philosophies and practices of non-violence that stemmed from his Hindu faith. (6, 7) King also formed a special friendship with Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, a Polish-American Jew who was inspired to participate in the Civil Rights Movement by teachings of the Hebrew prophets. (8)

 
 Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel presents the Judaism and World Peace Award to Martin Luther King Jr. in 1965.   Source: Library of Congress

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel presents the Judaism and World Peace Award to Martin Luther King Jr. in 1965.

Source: Library of Congress

 

The American Civil Rights Movement is a key example of both interfaith dialogue and cooperation that led to the achievement of tangible social capital -- the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Both pieces of legislation have protected and promoted the rights of not just the Black Community, but of other marginalized groups and have paved the way for the passage of subsequent civil rights laws that now protect people of diverse races, sexual orientations and those with disabilities. 

2000’s: Response to September 11th

The 1990's saw a dramatic increase in interest in interfaith dialogue. (9) Those in the religious and scholarly communities began articulating the potential of interfaith dialogue to address issues of common concern, including environmental sustainability as well as war and conflict. (10)

The September 11th terror attacks quickly highlighted the important role interfaith dialogue in the United States and around the world. Suddenly it seemed more important than ever for the Western world, with social systems largely based on traditional Christian values, to truly understand Islamic beliefs. Likewise, it was important for Muslims to ensure that the perpetrators of the attacks were not seen as ambassadors for a religion that gives no justification for their actions. And so out of necessity, Muslims and non-Muslims started participating in a cautious, if even skeptical, dialogue. (11)

 Pope Francis, Rabbi Elliot Cosgrove, and Imam Khalid Latif speak during an interfaith prayer event at the  National September 11th Memorial and Museum  in New York City on September 25, 2015.   Source:  Barbara Wheeler-Bride / Busted Halo

Pope Francis, Rabbi Elliot Cosgrove, and Imam Khalid Latif speak during an interfaith prayer event at the National September 11th Memorial and Museum in New York City on September 25, 2015.

Source: Barbara Wheeler-Bride / Busted Halo

For many people, what started out as curious dialogue in the wake 9/11 has transformed into friendships and active interfaith cooperation. (12, 13, 14, 15) From 2000 to 2010, the number of religious communities that participated in interfaith worship doubled and participation in interfaith service activities tripled. (16) Since 9/11, interfaith initiatives have been endorsed and sponsored by the United Nations, (17)  World Health Organization (18) and World Bank (19) as well as the federal government of the United States (20) and countless others. (21)  The tragic September 11th attacks made clear that religious diversity and dialogue could no longer be ignored.

Interfaith Involvement in American Congregations

Source: David Roozen / Faith Communities Today 

Conclusion

Each of the three events and time periods I describe above are special in their own ways. The first Parliament of the World's Religions set a precedent for religious leaders of Western and Eastern traditions to come together in dialogue at a point in history where tolerance and multiculturalism were not priorities. The Civil Rights Movement became an avenue for religious leaders to find common ground and actively participate in interfaith cooperation that eventually yielded important legal protections for diverse groups of marginalized people. The terrorist attacks of September 11th, 2001 further magnified the importance of interfaith dialogue and has inspired a marked increase in interfaith cooperation in the United States and around the world. 

Learn more

So where does that leave us? What is the future of the interfaith movement? Intro to Interfaith Pt. 3: Activism will address these issues, so check back soon!

  • New World Encyclopedia - Slightly more detailed and comprehensive history of the interfaith movement
  • The Pluralism Project - Excellent overview of what transpired during the 1893 Parliament of the World's Religions
  • As Good As Anybody - Book that examines the relationship between Martin Luther King, Jr. and Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel and how they worked together for justice during the Civil Rights Movement

Sources Cited

  1. Patel, Eboo. Interfaith Leadership: A Primer. Beacon Press, 2016.
  2. "Academy For Cultural Diplomacy". 2017. Culturaldiplomacy.Org. http://www.culturaldiplomacy.org/academy/index.php?en_historical-examples.
  3. Ibid.
  4. SOURCE
  5. Higgs, Emily. 2017. "Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr., And Interfaith Cooperation In The Civil Rights Movement". Boniuk.Rice.Edu. http://boniuk.rice.edu/Gandhi_and_MLK/.
  6. Ibid.
  7. Harvey, Paul. 2016. "Religion And Civil Rights In America". Oxford Research Encyclopedia Of Religion. USA: Oxford University Press.
  8. Higgs, Emily. 2017. "Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr., And Interfaith Cooperation In The Civil Rights Movement".
  9. SOURCE
  10. Neufeldt, Reina C. 2011. "Interfaith Dialogue: Assessing Theories Of Change". Peace & Change 36 (3): 344-372. doi:10.1111/j.1468-0130.2011.00702.x.
  11. Goodstein, Laurie. 2011. "The 9/11 Decade: How Interfaith Groups Built Bridges". Nytimes.Com. http://www.nytimes.com/2011/09/03/us/sept-11-reckoning/interfaith.html.
  12. Ibid.
  13. Lawton, Kim. 2016. "Remembering 9/11, A Rabbi And Imam Nurture Interfaith Friendships". Religion News Service. http://religionnews.com/2016/09/09/911-a-rabbi-imam-interfaith-friendships/.
  14. Hirschoff, Paula. 2016. "Interfaith Amigos". Macalester.Edu. https://www.macalester.edu/news/2016/04/interfaith-amigos/.
  15. "The Faith Club | The Pluralism Project". 2017. Pluralism.Org. http://pluralism.org/profile/the-faith-club/.
  16. Roozen, David. 2017. American Congregations Reach Out To Other Faith Traditions: A Decade Of Change. Americans Congregations 2010. Hartford: Hartford Institute for Religion Research.
  17. "UN News - Religious Communities Must Embrace Shared Values To Foster Peace – UN Officials". 2013. UN News Service Section. http://www.un.org/apps/news/story.asp?NewsID=44149#.WKH0cW8rKHt
  18. World Health Organization,. 2008. Building From Common Foundations. The World Health Organizations In Primary Healthcare. Geneva: WHO Press
  19. "Global Faith Leaders And World Bank Group President Jim Yong Kim On Call And Commitment To End Extreme Poverty". 2015. World Bank. http://www.worldbank.org/en/news/speech/2015/04/09/global-faith-leaders-and-world-bank-group-president-jim-yong-kim-on-call-and-commitment-to-end-extreme-poverty
  20. "President’S Campus Challenge | Center For Faith-Based And Neighborhood Partnerships". 2017. Sites.Ed.Gov. Accessed February 13. https://sites.ed.gov/fbnp/presidents-campus-challenge/.
  21. "Sidebar: Initiatives And Actions Aimed At Reducing Religious Restrictions Or Hostilities". 2013. Pew Research Center's Religion & Public Life Project. http://www.pewforum.org/2013/06/20/arab-spring-restrictions-on-religion-sidebar2/.

Intro to Interfaith Pt. 3: Activism

Intro to Interfaith Pt. 3: Activism

What do Nobel Peace Prize winners Malala Yousafzai, the Dalai Lama, Nelson Mandela, Mother Teresa, and Martin Luther King Jr. all have in common? Faith. While religion is the cause of much conflict around the world, we can’t deny that many of the world’s most influential activists are people of faith.

Organizing Around Shared Values

So how do people from completely different religious backgrounds unite around common causes? The answer is shared values. Recognizing values that are shared across religions and cultures such as, serving others, treating others with respect, resolving conflict peacefully and caring for the environment is at the heart of effective interfaith cooperation. (1)

Scholars from diverse academic backgrounds claim that the "Golden Rule" is the "most agreed upon universal moral value.” (2) Nearly all world religions, including non-religious philosophies, teach followers to treat others how wish to be treated. This creates a space for people of different faiths to come together to honor this shared value through service.

By honoring the Golden Rule, we seek to create a world of equality; one where we seek to give others the same opportunities and living conditions as we would like for ourselves. The Golden Rule is reflected in many of the causes that interfaith groups organize to address: human rights, alleviation of poverty, peacebuilding, and environmental responsibility. The Golden Rule demands that we give to others what we want for ourselves, including dignity and human rights, fair economic opportunities, respect for human life, and a planet that is healthy and safe to live in.

Activism at the Local Level

While interfaith activism is centered around shared values, it is often practiced in different ways. People of faith participate in activism on a local level, through their congregations and religious communities. On a community and congregational level, interfaith dialogue often transpires through multi-faith prayer and worship services as well as cultural exchanges, such as sharing religiously significant meals. Activism typically occurs through planned interfaith service projects, ranging from cleaning up parks to facilitating blood drives. 

The rapid increase in the popularity of crowd-funding, however, has added a new dimension to interfaith activism on the community and congregational level. Muslims activists Linda Sarsour and Tarek El-Messidi launched a crowdfunding campaign that raised over $120,000 in a matter of days for a vandalized Jewish cemetery in St. Louis. (3) After a Texas mosque was destroyed in a suspicious fire, local Jews, Christians, and non-religious people raised over $1 million, surpassing the mosque’s $850,000 fundraising goal. (4) While interfaith activism has existed on a local, congregational level for some time, social media now has the potential to shed a national, and even international, spotlight on the actions of these faiths communities.

Activism at National and International Levels

Traditionally, interfaith non-profit organizations are responsible for facilitating activism on national and international levels. These organizations tend to focus on several key issues that affect all human life, regardless of faith. This includes, but is by no means limited to, environmental sustainability, peace and conflict, poverty alleviation, and human rights.

Non-profit organizations address these issues in diverse ways. Interfaith Power and Light developed an organizational model that engaged and educated hundreds of congregations on the spiritual obligation to preserve and protect the environment, which led to the passage of climate and clean energy laws in the state of California. (5) The Fellowship of Reconciliation promotes active nonviolence on a national and international level by providing nonviolence leadership training on a grassroots level and building and maintaining networks of peace organizations throughout the world. (6) OneVoice seeks to facilitate a just and lasting peace for Israel and Palestine by working with global policy makers, amplifying the voices of grassroots partners in Israel-Palestine, and running education programs for high school and college students on how to advocate for a just peace. (7)

As you can see, interfaith organizations tend to engage multifaceted approaches to achieve their goals. These organizations, as well as individuals and communities of faith, all play an important role in addressing issues that directly affect the human condition. Interfaith activism demonstrates the power of values that transcend religious difference and mobilize people to work together for the common good.

Sources Cited

  1. Interfaith Youth Core,. 2013. Facilitator's Tools: Interfaith Conversations On Shared Values. https://www.ifyc.org/sites/default/files/better-resources/SharedValues_small.pdf.
  2. Kinnier, Richard T., Kernes, Jerry L., and Dautheribes, Therese M. 2000. "A Short List Of Universal Moral Values". Counseling And Values 45 (1): 4-16. doi:10.1002/j.2161-007x.2000.tb00178.x.
  3. Hanau, Shira. 2017. "Muslims ‘Overjoyed’ As $130K In Donations Pour In For Vandalized St. Louis Jewish Cemetery". The Forward. http://forward.com/fast-forward/363765/muslims-overjoyed-as-110k-in-donations-pour-in-for-vandalized-st-louis-jewi/..
  4. Chappell, Bill. 2017. "Donations To Burned Texas Mosque Top $1 Million In Outpouring Of Support". NPR. http://www.npr.org/sections/thetwo-way/2017/02/01/512826283/donations-to-torched-texas-mosque-top-1-million-in-outpouring-of-support.
  5. "Mission & History". 2017. Interfaith Power And Light. http://www.interfaithpowerandlight.org/about/mission-history/.
  6. "How We Work - Fellowship Of Reconciliation". 2017. Forusa.Org. http://forusa.org/how-we-work.php.
  7. "Onevoice International". 2017. Onevoicemovement.Org. http://www.onevoicemovement.org/where.