Rev. Eric Roux: Europe's Religious Freedom Fighter

Rev. Eric Roux: Europe's Religious Freedom Fighter

I had never (knowingly) met a Scientologist before. The sum total of my knowledge of Scientology went something like: Tom Cruise, Brooke Shields, postpartum depression, and allegations of tax evasion. 

So admittedly, I was little nervous about meeting with Eric Roux, a reverend of the Church of Scientology, in Paris. But I shouldn’t have been. 

My conversation with Rev. Roux was one of the most interesting ones I’ve had during my last six months on the road. Rev. Roux is friendly, clean-cut, and intelligent. Nothing about him is scary or “cultish.” He is not some monster manipulator. He is simply a man of faith who wants the freedom to worship as he chooses. And he wants to ensure that you can do the same.

About Rev. Roux

When Rev. Roux was 20 years old, he read several books written by the founder of Scientology, L. Ron Hubbard, at the recommendation of his girlfriend. At the time, he had been exploring his own spirituality and reading about other religious and spiritual traditions, such as Christianity, Buddhism, Hinduism, and Greek philosophy.

 (Credit:  Eric Roux )

(Credit: Eric Roux)

“Scientology appeared to be the one that completely resonated with my aspirations,” he says. “Seeing that Scientology worked and was helping people, I had to ask myself what level responsibility I wanted to have regarding my new religion.” Rev. Roux then decided to join the clergy of the Church so that he could help others benefit from Scientology.

Scientology in France

However, in a country where 28% of people are not religiously affiliated and where the government has led a crusade against “cults” and “sects,” it’s not easy being a Scientologist. (1)(2)

Even the children of Scientologists cannot escape the assault on their religion. Rev. Roux says that children have come home from school telling their parents other students claim that Scientologists eat children. 

The French government targets so-called “sects” and “cults” by taking legal action against religious groups that “violate human rights, fundamental freedoms and other reprehensible behavior.” (3) The government had threatened to ban the Scientology in France after a number of legal skirmishes in 1997, 1999 and 2002 and has kept a close eye on it ever since. (4) In 2009, Scientology’s Celebrity Centre and bookshop in Paris were found guilty of coercing a woman into spending large sums of money on products sold by the Centre and was ordered to pay 600,000 euros in fines. (5) This marked the first time that the Church of Scientology as a whole, as opposed to individuals involved in an alleged crime, was prosecuted and convicted of a crime. 

During these difficult times for Scientology, “I began to see, to be confronted, with prejudice towards my religion much more than before,” Rev. Roux says. Specifically, he noticed that there seemed to be a large gap between what his religion was and what others perceived it as. People seem quick to label faith groups as “cults” when they do not understand what the faith stands for. It is an easy way of throwing up a wall between ourselves and people who are different. 

Rev. Roux found that the labeling of his religion as a “cult” was damaging and inaccurate. As he began to interact with people of other faiths, he was struck by how frequently the term is used to describe religious groups. In Spain he found someone who thought Scientology was not a cult, but Opus Dei was a cult. Other countries, however, believe that Opus Dei is part of the Catholic church and claim Scientology to be a cult. Rev. Roux met some Greeks who believed that Eastern Orthodox was not a cult, but that Catholics and Protestants were cults. He met Russians who thought that anyone who was not Eastern Orthodox was in a cult. Clearly, what some people called sects or cults were considered mainstream religions in some countries but not in others. He found that the definition of a “cult” was relative and was used to delegitimize the religious beliefs of others.

Fighting for Religious Freedom

However, the challenges of being a proud, practicing Scientologist in France did not relegate Rev. Roux to complacency; they motivated him to take action. After working as the Deputy Executive Director at the Scientology Celebrity Center in Paris, he worked with attorneys representing the Center in a fraud trial in 2009. He provided them with evidence for the case and an understanding of how the Church operates and communicated with the media throughout the duration of the trial. After the trial, Rev. Roux began to work in external affairs for the Church, which includes advocating for religious freedom for and better understanding of Scientologists.

But what is most inspiring about Rev. Roux is that he fights for religious freedom not just for Scientologists, but for all people of faith. Facing much prejudice and criticism for his beliefs opened his eyes to similar struggles of people of other faiths. “What I found out is of course we weren’t the only ones suffering from prejudice.”

A country that prides itself on secularism and the separation of church and state, France has witnessed a steady growth in religious diversity in the post-WWII era. In response, it has passed laws increasingly banning expression of religion in the public sphere, which I discuss in a previous article, Religious Freedom in France

A core value of practicing Scientologists is actively improving the conditions of their own lives and the lives of others, which served as motivation for Rev. Roux to begin a career advocating for religious freedom. (6) 

Rev. Roux chairs the Steering Committee of the European Interreligious Forum for Religious Freedom (EIFRF). (7) Created in 2013, EIFRF is a group of Muslims, Sikhs, Eastern Orthodox, Catholics, Protestants, Jews, Buddhists and other people of faith who work together to promote freedom of belief, religious tolerance, interfaith dialogue, and knowledge of religions in Europe. 

EIFRF lead regular roundtables, public lectures and conferences to discuss and take action related to international religious freedom. The organization also has a significant media presence and recruits experts to give opinions on legislation affecting religious freedom as well as sign letters sent to lobby governmental bodies and leaders. 

EIFRF recently worked with members of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe to pass a resolution protecting the freedom of religion of parents and children belonging to minority religions. 

The group has also continued to call attention to the disintegration of freedom of belief in Russia, whose government recently imposed a complete ban on practicing Jehovah’s Witnesses in the country, by coordinating a written declaration in which 28 parliamentarians from 14 different European countries have called on Russia to end the persecution of religious minorities.

Rev. Roux, himself, travels all over the world both as a representative of the Church of Scientology as well as a fervent religious freedom fighter. This past year, he has engaged in dialogue with Israel's Druze community, King Bassar of northern Togo, and spoken at countless conferences on religion in Europe.

 Meeting with King Bassar in northern Togo. (Credit:  Eric Roux )

Meeting with King Bassar in northern Togo. (Credit: Eric Roux)

To understand why Rev. Roux’s work to safeguard religious freedom is important, read my articles on the state of religious freedom in Europe and France

Appreciation and Belief

I am aware of the controversies related to the Church of Scientology. In fact, each person I’ve featured on my blog comes from a faith that has experienced its own fair share of controversies. My mission, however, is neither to promote nor condemn religious practices. My mission is to find people who are inspired by their religious beliefs to live altruistically and tell their stories. 

And I firmly believe that when it comes to religion, belief is not a prerequisite for appreciation. If I believed in and supported the practices of Scientology, then I would be a Scientologist, not a Christian. But I need not be a Scientologist to appreciate the work that Rev. Roux is doing to promote freedom of belief. Likewise, he can appreciate the work I do with my blog knowing that I’m inspired by my Christian faith without sharing my beliefs. Reaching this realization has given me a profound sense of peace, allowing me to learn from and appreciate people with different religious beliefs while standing steadfast in my own.

 

This article is part of the Religious Freedom Collection.

Religious Freedom in France

Religious Freedom in France

When you think of countries facing threats to religious freedom, you may think of Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan, or maybe even Russia. You probably don’t think about France. But you should.

A combination of increased immigration and pluralization of European society, terrorist attacks, and the rise of far-right nationalist political parties all pose threats to freedom of belief in Europe. Of all Western European countries, no where does this seem more so than in France.

In 2011, wearing of the niqab, a garment worn by Muslim women that covers their hair and all parts of their face with the exception of the eyes, was outlawed by the French government. (1) In 2015, a 15-year-old Muslim student was sent home from school for wearing a dress that was too long, with the skirt being described as an all too obvious public declaration of her Muslim faith. (2) By the end of summer 2016, fifteen communities in southern France banned the “burkini,” a swimwear garment worn by Muslim women to cover their bodies while they swim, due to security reasons. (3) In August 2017, after a several year legal battle, Muslim and Jewish public school students finally earned the right to be provided with non-pork kosher or halal meals at school. The court’s ruling has been considered highly controversial in France. (4)

These events seem to suggest an effort on the behalf of the French government to, at the very least fail to provide reasonable accommodations to people wishing to express their faith identity in public, and at the most to completely eliminate all traces of religion from the public sphere. To some people, especially Americans, these may seem like gross violations of human rights.

But addressing religious freedom in France isn’t as straightforward as one would think. The history of religion in France, social norms and attitudes towards religion, as well as recent demographic changes add a complex layer to evaluating and advocating for religious freedom in France. 

France’s Complicated History with Religion

Historical factors have influenced social and political norms regarding freedom and expression of religion, resulting in strong public support of separation of church and state in France.

The French Revolution

During the French Revolution, a movement to “dechristianize” France gained momentum. The Enlightenment ushered in a era of thought that focused on reason and science and questioned the wealth, corruption, and control of the Catholic Church in France. Attempts by the new French government to rid France of Catholic influence included deporting and arresting priests who continued to preach, outlawing public worship, closing churches and converting the buildings for other uses, and even implementing a new Revolutionary calendar to replace the Gregorian calendar. (5) Although these restrictions on religious freedom were, to an extent, reversed only two years after they were established in 1793, the foundation for separation of Church and State had been laid.

 Attempts to discredit the clergy and the Church during the French Revolution. (Credit:  French Revolution Digital Archive  / Stanford University)

Attempts to discredit the clergy and the Church during the French Revolution. (Credit: French Revolution Digital Archive / Stanford University)

Lacïcité

In 1905, the French Law on the Separation of Church and State was passed, marking the formal beginning of laïcité, or secularism, in France. In addition to Separation of Church and State, laïcité also embraces freedom of thought and belief as well as equality of all before the law (regardless of religious belief). As stated on the website of the French Government, “secularism guarantees believers and non-believers alike the right to freedom of expression of their convictions. It also ensures the right to have or not to have a religion, to change it or not to have one.” (6) But the concept of laïcité, as it has been interpreted in modern times, also relegates expression of religion to the private domain. In other words, if you want to express your religion you have every right to do so, but you shouldn’t do it in public, out of consideration for others. Given France’s history and complex relationship with the religion, it is not surprising that secularism has become deeply engrained in French culture and identity. 

Immigration and Pluralization

More recently, dramatic demographic changes in France during the post-WWII era have further complicated its relationship with religion and challenged the grip of secularism on French society. Whereas France was a primarily Catholic country for the past several centuries, 7.5% of France’s population now identify as Muslim. High birth rates among French Muslims compounded with low birth rates of non-Muslims in France also means that the country can expect to continue witnessing a change in its religious landscape in the years to come. (7)

 A march supporting rights of undocumented immigrants in France in 2008. Immigration and integration have become highly politicized. (Credit:  Philppe Leroyer  / Flickr)

A march supporting rights of undocumented immigrants in France in 2008. Immigration and integration have become highly politicized. (Credit: Philppe Leroyer / Flickr)

The introduction of devout populations into a traditionally secular and religiously homogenous society has caused intense conflict in France. Religion is very much a part of public life for people who come from Muslim majority countries. Faith is manifested in the way they dress, what they eat, and in a number of other ways. Adapting to living in a country where faith is not a part of public life, and indeed where the majority of people are not religious at all, must be frustrating and confusing at the very least. French non-Muslims who support and pride themselves on their country’s achievement of secularism must likewise find it difficult to understand why newcomers are disinterested, if not critical, of laïcité.

Impact on People of Faith

Those critical of bans on the wearing of religious symbols or clothing have claimed that the laws disproportionately impact Muslims, especially Muslim women. (8, 9) Some go even further to claim that politicians are using these laws and the concept of laïcité as a “mask for Islamophobia” and that the laws are intended to specifically target Muslims. (10) Indeed, current legislation and prevailing attitudes regarding secularism impact Muslims significantly as for many of them, their faith identities and traditions cannot be separated from their public lives.

However, all people of faith, including other religious minorities, are affected by restrictions on religious freedom the government has imposed in recent decades. In addition to Muslims, Sikh and Jewish students cannot attend public schools if they wish to wear turbans or yarmulkes. They were also affected by the unwillingness of public schools to offer alternative lunches that did not include meat or pork.

  Under the French law on secularity and conspicuous religious symbols in schools (2004), none of these children would be allowed to dress like this and attend a public school. (Credit:  Andryapriana  /  Pixabay ,  Sanyam Bahga  /  Wikimedia Commons ,  Kelly Sue DeConnick  /  Flickr )

 Under the French law on secularity and conspicuous religious symbols in schools (2004), none of these children would be allowed to dress like this and attend a public school. (Credit: Andryapriana / PixabaySanyam Bahga / Wikimedia CommonsKelly Sue DeConnick / Flickr)

Smaller and historically newer religious communities, so-called “cults” and “sects,” have also been directly targeted by the French government’s Interministerial Mission of Vigilance and Fight Against Sectarian Deviances, referred to by the French acronym, MIVILUDES. According to the Mission’s website, MIVILUDES “observes and analyzes the sectarian phenomenon, coordinates the preventive and repressive action of the public authorities against sectarian aberrations, and informs the public about the risks and dangers to which it is exposed.” (11) However, as France maintains no legal definition of “cults” or “sects,” the Mission has the power to investigate and interfere in the practices of nearly any religious group it chooses… and it has. (12)

In 2009, Scientology’s Celebrity Centre and bookshop in Paris were found guilty of coercing a woman into spending large sums of money on products sold by the Centre and was ordered to pay 600,000 euros in fines. (13) This marked the first time that the Church of Scientology as a whole, as opposed to individuals involved in an alleged crime, were prosecuted. Additionally, it is important to note that many religions encourage their adherents to donate money or purchase goods or services (the Bible commands Christians to donate 10% of their monthly income to the church), but no other religious group has been prosecuted for such acts in France.

Jehovah’s Witnesses have also been the target of the French government. In 1998, a 60% retroactive tax and other penalties were levied on donations made to Jehovah’s Witnesses, which threatened to financially crush the organization and its work in France. In 2012, the European Court of Human Rights found the tax to be illegal and ruled that the French government must pay back Jehovah’s Witnesses over 6.3 million euros. It took 14 years to resolve the matter in court and for Jehovah’s Witnesses to be rightfully reimbursed. (14)

Religious Freedom and the Future of France

There are many places in the world where the state of religious freedom is more dire than in France. In France, people are not being deprived of citizenship, forced to hold religious services in secret, beaten by police, or being targeted for genocide because of their faith. However, this does not mean that what’s happening in France does not have consequences.

For the sake of the French people, and arguably the country’s future, France must be held accountable for infringement upon religious freedom. 

The continued criminalization of religious expression in the public sphere will cause further conflict as France and Europe continue to diversify at a rapid pace in the coming decades. A growing Muslim population, migrant and refugee crises with no signs of being resolved, the continuation of open borders in Europe, and rapid globalization will continue to alter the religious landscape of France, making it ever more important for freedom of belief to be respected.

Furthermore, terrorism and the risks of radicalization aren’t going anywhere. Experts predict that as ISIS loses territory, it will increase its terrorist activity, of which France has been a main target (15). As it becomes obvious that homegrown terrorism and radicalization is the future of terrorist recruitment in the West, further alienation of French Muslims may only accelerate radicalization of young Muslim men in France. Thus, it is in the interest of France’s national security to allow and protect expression of religion.

But the most important reason to hold France accountable is that freedom of religion is a basic human right it has vowed to protect. A strong democracy requires freedom of the press, speech, and belief, and these freedoms are often intertwined. Jan Figel, EU Special Envoy for the Promotion of Freedom of Religion of Belief Outside the EU, put it best, “Freedom of religion or belief is a litmus test of respect of human dignity and human rights, if it is disregarded other freedoms are also disregarded.” (16)

A democracy that fails to uphold these values risks illegitimizing itself on the world stage. For France to be a model democracy, as it has been for over 200 years, it must recommit to protecting one of the most basic human rights.

Next week, I will introduce you to Eric Roux, an ordained minister in the Church of Scientology and a person of faith devoted to protecting freedom of belief in Europe.

This article is part of the Religious Freedom Collection.

Religious Freedom in Europe

Religious Freedom in Europe

Hijabs, burqas, headscarves. They always seem to be at the center of some debate. Is wearing a headscarf oppressive or an assertion of femininity? Should women wear them in private or in public? Are they signs of a failure to assimilate or a new brand of multiculturalism we must embrace?

 It's common to see women wearing headscarves in public religiously diverse Hong Kong. But in Europe, it's more controversial.

It's common to see women wearing headscarves in public religiously diverse Hong Kong. But in Europe, it's more controversial.

Debates like this are taking place in democracies all over the world, as countries struggle to adapt to their increasingly diverse populations. In Europe especially, states have been charged with the task of upholding religious freedom as well as public safety, walking a fine and ever more ambiguous line. 

This article is intended to explain the current legal protections in place for religious freedom in the European Union as well as highlight some of the recent controversies demonstrating that religious freedom may be under threat.

Religious Freedom in the European Union

The European Union is a political and economic union comprised of 28 member countries. The European Parliament along with the Council of the European Union and the European Commission make up the legislative branch of the EU.

 Though the European Union has faced criticism in recent years, it has been the driving force behind creating a peaceful, prosperous, and democratic Europe in the post-WWII era. (Photo:  pixel2013  |  Pixabay )

Though the European Union has faced criticism in recent years, it has been the driving force behind creating a peaceful, prosperous, and democratic Europe in the post-WWII era. (Photo: pixel2013 | Pixabay)

There are a few different ways in which the EU seeks to protect and preserve freedom of religion in member countries.

Article 9 in the European Convention on Human Rights proclaims that "Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion.” (1)

Article 10 of the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights states that "Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion. This right includes freedom to change religion or belief and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or in private, to manifest religion or belief, in worship, teaching, practice and observance.” (2)

Interestingly, there is no single constitution that EU member states must abide by. However, all member states have adopted the Treaty of Lisbon, which includes the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights and is a binding treaty.  

Weaknesses of the EU Approach

Conceiving of a legal system to impose some measure of uniformity on 28 different countries is difficult. These countries have different languages, cultures, histories, and systems of governance. Furthermore, the European Union is still a new organization, having been founded only in 1993. Given this, it is not surprising that the EU approach to safeguarding religious freedom has weaknesses.

One such weakness is the hesitation for EU courts to interfere in domestic debates regarding religious freedom. If a citizen believes their rights have been violated, they must first file suit and exhaust their appeals in their own country. Only then can they appeal to the European Court of Human Rights, which decides whether they will hear the case or not. If the Court decides not to hear the case, there is no other legal option for the citizen to pursue. But even if the Court does decide to hear the case, it doesn’t exactly have the best record of ruling in favor of protecting religious freedom.

 

 
 

Reverend Eric Roux, a member of the European Interreligious Forum for Religious Freedom, explains that the prevailing attitude in the governance of the EU is that it is the responsibility of individual member countries to protect religious freedom in their own domain. (3) 

This is demonstrated by the principle of “Margin of Appreciation,” which has been cited by the European Court of Human Rights on several occasions and means that the courts assign a large margin of appreciation for individual governments to decide how to apply religious context in their own domains. (4) This is problematic because it prevents uniformity both in identifying and responding to violations of religious freedom.

Furthermore, even though all 28 EU member states recognize the right to freedom of religion in their respective constitutions, the degree of clarity and specificity varies widely from country to country. For example, compare the constitutions of France and Poland:

FRANCE POLAND
No one shall be disquieted on account of his opinions, including his religious views, provided their manifestation does not disturb the public order established by law. (French Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, Article 10) Freedom of religion shall include the freedom to profess or to accept a religion by personal choice as well as to manifest such religion, either individually or collectively, publicly or privately, by worshipping, praying, participating in ceremonies, performing of rites or teaching. Freedom of religion shall also include possession of sanctuaries and other places of worship for the satisfaction of the needs of believers as well as the right of individuals, wherever they may be, to benefit from religious services. (Constitution of Poland, Article 53(2))

As France’s constitution is much less explicit than that of Poland, its citizens may have more difficulty proving that their religious freedom is being infringed upon and have less of a legal case against the government than Polish citizens.

Another issue that prevents uniformity in the protection of religious freedom among EU countries is the fact that Article 9 of the ECHR also states that freedom of religion is not absolute; it is subject to limitation when it may interfere with "the interests of public safety, the protection of public order, health or morals, or the protection of the rights and freedoms of others.” (7) This limitation is quite broad and can be interpreted in a multitude of ways, which has proven to be problematic in a number of EU countries. 

Germany 

In 2012, a Higher Regional Court in Cologne, Germany ruled circumcision of a male child for religious reasons by request of the parents constitutes “bodily harm” and is an infringement on the rights of the child. (8) This threatened both Jewish and Muslim communities in Germany, who have been practicing it for thousands of years, believing that circumcision of a male child is a sacred covenant God made to Abraham. Genesis 17:14 underlies the importance of keeping this covenant, as it states, “Any uncircumcised male, who has not been circumcised in the flesh, will be cut off from his people; he has broken my covenant.” (9)

The German Parliament ultimately passed a law allowing male circumcision to be performed by both doctors and qualified members of the religious community, but the 2012 ruling blew open a debate on religious freedom and a perceived lack of understanding of the significance of religious practices on behalf of various governments in Europe. (10)

 The German Bundestag has passed some of the most restrictive laws criminalizing Holocaust denial and promotion of Nazi ideology, but has faced backlash from Jewish and Muslim communities in Germany for its debate of the legality of male circumcision.

The German Bundestag has passed some of the most restrictive laws criminalizing Holocaust denial and promotion of Nazi ideology, but has faced backlash from Jewish and Muslim communities in Germany for its debate of the legality of male circumcision.

United Kingdom

In 2006, a British Airways employee was suspended after refusing to take off her crucifix at work. In Britain, the court initially ruled in the employer’s favor, declaring that the crucifix was not a “requirement” of the Christian. (11) This ruling, however, was later overturned by the European Court of Human Rights, who argued that the British court failed to adequately protect the employee’s right to manifest her religion under Article 9 of the European Convention on Human Rights. (12) Although this may seem like a win for religious freedom, the same court ruled against another woman for seemingly the same issue. This time, the court justified her employer's request for her to remove her crucifix because it constituted a “health and safety” risk. The woman was a geriatric nurse at a hospital and it was determined that the crucifix could be a vessel for germs and an object for patients to grab.

 British Airways says it changed its uniform policy in 2007 to accommodate the wearing of religious symbols. (Photo:  Francois Van  |  Unsplash )

British Airways says it changed its uniform policy in 2007 to accommodate the wearing of religious symbols. (Photo: Francois Van | Unsplash)

Hungary

In 2011, the Hungarian Parliament passed a law that changed the requirements for religious groups to be officially recognized by the state. Only 14 out of 358 religious groups recognized under a previous 1990 law maintain their status as officially recognized religions because the new law requires a group to prove that it has existed in Hungary for over 20 years and present 1,000 citizen signatures to the government. This has been an unfortunately effective tool of marginalizing smaller religious groups and giving favor to others. (13) This also reflects an alarming trend of intolerance in Hungary. In 2012, Maton Gyongyosi, a member of Hungary’s far-right and openly anti-Semitic Jobbik party, even suggested that the government should “tally up” the number of Jews in Hungary because they were a national security risk. (14)

 Intolerance has been on the rise in Hungary since the fall of the Berlin Wall. Far-right politicians have made several indenciery remarks inciting religious intolerance. Legislation doesn't seem far behind, either.

Intolerance has been on the rise in Hungary since the fall of the Berlin Wall. Far-right politicians have made several indenciery remarks inciting religious intolerance. Legislation doesn't seem far behind, either.

Conclusion: Reason for Concern

It is important to note that some of the court battles mentioned above were ultimately won by the defendants. This implies that the legal institutions of the EU may still be functioning as a mechanism to uphold freedom of religion. It is alarming, however, that parents who wanted to circumcise their infant sons and women who wanted to were crucifixes to work needed to even go to court in the first place to defend these rights. The cases in Germany and the United Kingdom suggest an emerging trend that European governments are lending too much weight to the part of Article 9 that states that the right to religious freedom is trumped by the interests of public safety, health, and the protections of the rights and freedoms of others. Recent events in Hungary, as well as the rise of other far-right nationalist political parties in Great Britain, France, Austria, and the Netherlands also illustrate the threat of rising intolerance to freedom of belief in Europe. 

In fact, nowhere are these trends more evident today than in France, a historically secular country that has been embroiled in controversy regarding expression of religion in recent decades. Read more the intricacies of advocating for religious freedom in France.

This article is part of the Religious Freedom Collection.

The Museum of World Religions: A Model for Religious Education

The Museum of World Religions: A Model for Religious Education

Museums. Expensive, time consuming, and oftentimes boring. What used to be effective tools of spreading culture and knowledge are now competing with the convenience the internet. 

Simply put, people no longer need to read books, let alone go to museums to learn about history, science, art, and culture. All of this information, and much more, is now available literally with the touch of a button on our 4G enabled smartphones.

 Wait in line for hours at the Louvre or Google image search the Mona Lisa?

Wait in line for hours at the Louvre or Google image search the Mona Lisa?

With the full disposal of the internet at our fingertips, museums now need to be creative. They need to offer visitors an experience, rather than just information.

In Taiwan, I found a museum doing just that. Taipei’s Museum of World Religions is an example of a museum offering an experience and a critical message that the world can no longer ignore. A message that requires experiential learning and dialogue. A message that cannot reach its audience through the internet alone. That message is promoting the knowledge and understanding of religions.

A visit to the Museum of World Religions is an experiential journey. Through the use of touchscreens, symbolic architecture and decoration, and interactive exhibits, the visitor is provided with an experience that cannot be offered by the internet, films, or books alone. While this is one aspect of the museum that underscores its relevancy in a quickly globalizing world, the museum’s message is its most important feature.

Understanding the teachings and practices of world religions seems more important now than ever before. Terrorism, religious extremism, war, migration, the explosion of social media, and the accelerated pace of globalization have made it impossible to ignore the influence of religion on human life. Religion is intricately intertwined with politics, conflict, economics and social issues. It has also demonstrated tremendous power to divide people, turn them against each other, and ignite violent conflict. But basic education that explains both the differences and similarities among faith traditions can transform religion from a barrier to a bridge of understanding.

Thus, the mission of the Museum of World Religions is to serve as “a correct form of religious education, to satisfy the public’s spiritual needs, and to provide a leisure place that serves both education and enjoyment.” But religion is a delicate topic. It needs to be treated with care and thoughtfulness, and the Museum of World Religions has done just that. In fact, several characteristics of the museum allow it to achieve its mission to spread knowledge and understanding about a topic as intimate and delicate as religion.

 The Museum of World Religions has been educating visitors about religion since it opened in 2001.

The Museum of World Religions has been educating visitors about religion since it opened in 2001.

Neutrality

A large part of the museum’s success is due to the neutral stance it takes on potentially dividing issues. Through its exhibits and educational offerings, the museum seeks only to promote the transfer of knowledge of world religions. In no way does the museum promote certain religions over others or compare them in biased ways. Equally important, the museum does not claim that people of faith are morally superior to non-religious people. It is through this type of neutrality that the museum is able to reach a wide audience.

The museum’s neutrality also insulates it against criticism and controversy. Rita Chen, the Deputy Director of International Affairs at the museum, explains that there was very little public criticism of the museum when it opened because of the neutral stance it employs. Visitors understand that the museum only seeks to educate, not proselytize.

Educational Resources

Another way the museum promotes religious literacy is through its offering of extensive Life Education curriculum resources, both for students and teachers. The core tenets of the museum's Life Education curriculum emphasize love and common values across religions. The substance of the curriculum is draws from museum exhibitions, reinforcing the knowledge students gain when they visit the museum.

Seeking to educate beyond its own walls, the Museum of World Religions creates free educational resources for students and teachers. The museum has created handbooks for teachers that demonstrate how to integrate exhibit content into their own lesson plans. Junior high students can also receive free workbooks which reinforce the material learned at the museum. Even libraries are eligible to receive free books from the museum.

The Museum of World Religions further promotes religious literacy by drawing attention to the many similarities of the world’s religions, without minimizing their differences. This is especially obvious in the “Hall of Life Journey” exhibit, which draws attention to the distinct, yet similar, roles that religion plays in the different stages of human life.

Religious objects, clothing, and images shed light on religious traditions practiced at birth, in childhood, adolescence, adulthood, and death. While the traditions themselves differ, they all address common aspects of the human condition. For instance, the baptismal dress and circumcision knife on display at the beginning of the exhibit represent two distinct traditions. However, the baptism of Catholic infants and circumcision of male Jewish infants both represent the celebration of birth and the forming of a covenant between the infants and God and a commitment by parents to raise their children in their respective spiritual traditions. 

The exhibit also shows videos that highlight religious traditions that are relatively constant throughout life as opposed to being dependent on specific life stages. One such example is the prayer room, where video showing people from different religions praying and meditating. Jews pray in Hebrew, Catholics pray with rosary beads, Muslims pray on rugs facing the city Mecca, Hindus and Buddhists chant mantras and meditate. These practices are clearly unique, and much but all are a way of communicating and connecting with the divine. 

After walking out of the Hall of Life Journey, I was struck by the commonalities that the major world religions as well as indigenous faiths share. Although we may differ in the religious texts that we study or the way we dress, pray, and worship, I left the museum with the sense that religion helps us cope with the changes we experience throughout our lives and gives us the opportunity to devote our time on Earth to a purpose or cause beyond ourselves.

The Museum of World Religions is a shining example of effective religious education. The unbiased tone behind the exhibits, thoughtful follow up with educational materials, and honest depiction of similarities and differences between faiths allows the museum to tackle a fragile and controversial subject with grace. If this museum were used as a model for religious education throughout the world, we would find ourselves equipped with the necessary knowledge and tools to transform religion from a source of conflict to a source of peace and understanding.

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.