The Mission of Morocco’s Ministry of Endowments and Islamic Affairs

The mission of Morocco’s Ministry of Endowments and Islamic Affairs was explicated in a September 2014 speech by its Minister, Ahmed Toufiq, to an Open Briefing by the U.N. Security Council’s Counter-Terrorism Committee.[1] To the right is his photograph.

Two other representatives of the Moroccan government made more general statements at the briefing: H.E. Mr. Nasser Bourita, Secretary-General of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Kingdom of Morocco; and Mr. Yassine Mansouri, Director General of the Directorate General of Studies and Documentation of the Kingdom of Morocco.[2]

This briefing was opened by the Committee’s Chair, Ambassador Raimonda Murmokaitë, the Permanent Representative of Lithuania to the U.N., who stated that the theme of this open briefing– countering incitement to commit terrorist acts motivated by extremism and intolerance–was prompted by the Committee’s 2013 visit to Morocco and identifying its national strategy to promote dialogue among civilizations as a good practice to be shared among other States. The Chair noted, “Whether in developing or developed States, religious leaders can play a pivotal role in creating an environment of peaceful coexistence. By promoting intra-religious and interreligious reflection and dialogue, governments can help build trust within societies and within public institutions.”

Minister Ahmed Toufiq’s Statement[3]

Minister Toufiq started with the assertion that many Islamic terrorist groups seek to take advantage of the following religious beliefs of most observant Muslims: (1) “religion gives meaning to life;” (2) “some events that have taken place in recent history are ambiguous and tend to disturb the conscience that believes in the ideal values of religion;” (3) “justice at all levels is a central value in religion;” and (4) “religion encompasses all the bases of life and . . . regulates [life] for both individuals and community.”

At the same time, he said, observant Muslims can be vulnerable to some Islamic terrorists’ messages due to (a) “a belief that “political legitimacy [is based upon a] commitment to the fundamentals of religion;” (2) Islamic terrorists’ “interpretation of [Islamic religious] texts in the absence of a respectable qualified [Islamic] religious authority;” and (3) the “absence of or shortcomings in [Islamic] religious leadership and supervision or religious services.”

In these historical circumstances, Morocco’s King Mohammed VI as the country’s Commander of the Faithful has pursued policies to prevent terrorism: adopting reforms and actions in accordance with religious fundamentals (defending religion, protecting life, guarding against harmful ideologies, preserving property and defending honor and dignity); and implementing reforms to enhance security, justice and living conditions and thereby consolidate solidarity and combat social marginalization and exclusion. These measures include the following:

  • Adherence to the Ash’ari doctrine that does not excommunicate people or impose death sentences for transgressing Devine Decrees;[4]
  • Adherence to the Maliki school of jurisprudence that encompasses a “rich variety of methods to derive rulings from their sources;” that has “flexibility in integrating local cultural practices within the sphere of Islamic Law;” that recognizes the “importance [of] . . . public interest [including] . . . a fatwa (ruling) . . . that the laws that are promulgated in Morocco all have religious legitimacy.”[5]
  • “Preservation of the spiritual dimension of Islam known for its mysticism (Sufism). . . [that calls] the soul to account as a means to reach ethical perfection . . . . [that raises] the awareness of the sanctity of the Other, [that] curbs unhealthy enthusiasm for racial and tribal belonging and [that] sets up institutions that provide assistance, protection, education and development.”[6]

The Commander of the Faithful also has established the High Council for Religious Affairs as a modernization of Morocco’s long-standing Order of religious scholars to “implement the fundamentals of religion, especially in mosques, the intellectual enhancement of the caretakers of religion and of the general public, which would definitely curb negative phenomena such as terrorism.” They do so “in conformity with the great principle known in Islam as ‘enjoining good and forbidding evil.’”

The High Council, therefore, takes “charge of issuing fatwas pertaining to political life and social activity, while people’s statements on religion remain mere opinions whose free expression is guaranteed so long as [they] do not violate the law.” The Council thereby has “demonstrated through legal proof . . . that there is no cogent proof for terrorism in religion.”

The Commander of the Faithful also has substantially increased the budget allocated to religious services, including “holding in-service training of imams under the supervision of the legal scholars; training young imams from among university graduates; [and] training spiritual guides from among female university graduates . . . to provide guidance to women and men in mosques, . . . schools, hospitals and prisons.”[7]

Conclusion

The above comments about Islam in Morocco were placed in broader context by the following statement in the remarkable website “Morocco on the Move” maintained by the Moroccan American Center, a group of three U.S. NGOs:

  • “Morocco has a long history of religious diversity and tolerance. Freedom of worship is guaranteed by Morocco’s Constitution, and in contrast to other parts of North Africa or even Europe, Morocco is internationally recognized for peaceful coexistence among the country’s Muslims, Jews, and Christians.”
  • “Morocco protected its Jewish citizens from anti-Semitic laws during World War II, and in 2009, King Mohammed [VI] became the first Arab leader to denounce the Holocaust, calling it ‘one of the most tragic chapters of modern history.’ Morocco has a vibrant Jewish community, with thriving synagogues and schools. Members of the Jewish community have played and continue to play key roles in Moroccan political life, such as serving as a senior royal advisor, an ambassador-at-large, and parliamentary candidates.”

Although, as noted in a prior post, the U.N. Human Rights Committee has pointed out weaknesses in Morocco’s freedom of religion, as a non-Moroccan and a non-Muslim, I am impressed by Morocco’s intelligent analysis of the threat posed by terrorists, especially from ISIS and Al Qaeda, Morocco’s crafting of responses to emphasize the true peacefulness of Islam and the leadership of King Mohammed VI. I also especially solicit corrections and elaborations of the above account.

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[1] Morocco’s involvement with the U.N. Security Council’s Counter-Terrorism Committee and other multilateral and bilateral efforts to combat terrorism was discussed in a prior post. Another such multilateral effort was its July 2015 hosting of the inaugural conference of the United Nations Counter-Terrorism Centre (UNCCT) – Global Counterterrorism Forum (GCTF) Border Security Initiative (BSI). (U.N. Counter-Terrorism Centre, Inaugural Conference of the United Nations Counter-Terrorism Centre-Global Counterterrorism Forum Border Security Initiative (July 2015).

[2] Talking Points of Ambassador Nasser Bourita (Sept. 30, 2014); Director General Mansouri, Speech to U.N. Security Council Counter Terrorism Committee (Sept. 30, 2014).

[3] Toufiq, Speech at U.N. Security Council’s Counter-Terrorism Committee (Sept. 20, 2014).

[4] According to Wikipedia, Ash’ari theology is an early theological and orthodox school of Sunni Islam that holds that interpreting the Quran and the Hadith should keep developing with the aid of older interpretations. While it depends on rationalism, it also holds that the unique nature and attributes of Allah cannot be fully understood by human reasoning and the senses.

[5] According to Wikipedia, Maliki is one of four major schools of religious law within Sunni Islam. Its sources for Islamic law (Sharia) are hierarchically prioritized as follows: Quran and then trustworthy Hadiths (sayings, customs and actions of Muhammad); if these sources were ambiguous on an issue, then `Amal (customs and practices of the people of Medina), followed by consensus of the Sahabah (the companions of Muhammad), then individual’s opinion from the Sahabah, Qiyas (analogy), Istislah (interest and welfare of Islam and Muslims), and finally Urf (custom of people throughout the Muslim world if it did not contradict the hierarchically higher sources of Sharia).

[6] According to Wikipedia, Sufism believes that it is possible to draw closer to God and to more fully embrace the divine presence in this life. The chief aim of all Sufis is to seek the pleasing of God by working to restore within themselves the primordial state of human nature (fitra) as described in the Quran. In this state nothing one does defies Allah, and all is undertaken with the single motivation of love (ishq).

[7] In May 2014, King Mohammed VI launched the Mohammed VI Institute for the Training of Imams, Morchidines, and Morchidates in Rabat, which will welcome students from Morocco, Africa, and the Middle East to promote religious moderation and tolerance in the region.

 

 

 

U.S. State Department’s Report on Moroccan Religious Freedom 

On August 10, 2016, the U.S. Department of State released its latest annual report on religious freedom in every country in the world for 2015. Here are the key points of what it said about Morocco.[1]

The Report on Morocco

Morocco with its population of 33.3 million people (July 2015), estimates that 99% are Sunni Muslim and 1%, Shia Muslims, Christians, Jews and Bahais.

“The constitution declares the country to be a sovereign Muslim state and Islam to be the religion of the state. The constitution guarantees freedom of thought, expression, and assembly, and says the state guarantees the free exercise of beliefs to everyone.”

“The law grants recognition to Sunni Maliki-Ashari Muslims and Jews as native populations free to practice their religion without any specific requirements to register with the government. The law requires [all other] religious groups not recognized as native, which includes non-Maliki-Ashari Muslims (i.e., Shia) and Christians, among others, to register before they are able to undertake financial transactions or conduct other business as private associations and legal entities.”

“Registered churches and associations include the Roman Catholic, Russian Orthodox, Greek Orthodox, French Protestant, and Anglican Churches, whose existence as foreign resident Churches predates the country’s independence in 1956 and which operate within the officially registered Council of Christian Churches of Morocco (CECM).”

“The constitution states the king is the protector of Islam and the guarantor of freedom of worship. It prohibits political parties, parliamentarians, and constitutional amendments from infringing upon Islam. The criminal code prohibits the use of ‘enticements’ by non-Muslims to try to convert Muslims to another religion. The minister of justice reaffirmed the freedom to change religions as long as no coercion was involved, but said Christian evangelism remained prohibited because missionaries had offered material inducements to the poor to convert them.”

“The government reportedly detained and questioned Moroccan Christians about their beliefs and contacts with other Moroccan Christians, including incidents in Rabat and Fes. The government also continued to deny registration to local Christian, Shia, and Bahai groups. Representatives of minority religious groups said fears of government surveillance led adherents of the Christian, Bahai, and Shia faiths to refrain from public worship and instead to meet discreetly in members’ homes. The government allowed foreign Christian communities to attend worship services in approved locations. The Ministry of Endowments and Islamic Affairs (MEIA) continued to control the content of sermons in mosques, Islamic religious education, and the dissemination of Islamic religious material by the broadcast media. The government continued to restrict the distribution of non-Islamic religious materials, as well as Islamic materials it deemed inconsistent with the Maliki-Ashari school of Sunni Islam. The government arrested several individuals for eating in public during Ramadan.”

“Although Jews said they continued to live and worship in safety, participants in a pro-Palestinian rally in Casablanca in October staged a mock execution of individuals dressed as Hasidic Jews. Christians reported pressure to convert from non-Christian family and friends. Two Muslim actors received death threats for appearing in a U.S.-made movie about the life of Jesus. Members of the Shia community said in some areas they were able to practice their faith openly, but most members of the community practiced discreetly. Bahais reportedly practiced their faith discreetly and avoided disclosing their religious affiliation.”

“The U.S. government promoted religious tolerance in its bilateral strategic dialogue [with the Moroccan government]. The Ambassador, embassy and consulate general officers, and visiting U.S. government officials met with senior government officials, including the minister of endowments and Islamic affairs, to discuss tolerance of minority religions. The Ambassador and embassy officers also met with Muslim religious scholars, leaders of the Jewish community, prominent Christian visitors, Christian foreign residents, leaders of registered and unregistered Christian groups, and other local religious groups to promote religious dialogue.”

Conclusion

With Sunni Muslim as the state religion under Morocco’s constitution and 99% of the population’s being Sunni Muslims, it would appear to this non-Moroccan Christian outsider that it would be easy and non-threatening for the Moroccan government to allow virtually unfettered religious freedom to all others (Shia Muslims, Christians, Jews and Bahias). However, Morocco does not do so. Therefore, I believe the U.S. government, while observing all diplomatic niceties, should endeavor to persuade the Moroccan government to provide more religious freedom to the other religious groups.

Any U.S. efforts at attempting to persuade Morocco should refer to Morocco’s ratification or accession in 1979 to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), which provides the following in Article 18: “Everyone shall have the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion. This right shall include freedom to have or to adopt a religion or belief of his choice, and freedom, either individually or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in worship, observance, practice and teaching.”

  1. “No one shall be subject to coercion which would impair his freedom to have or to adopt a religion or belief of his choice.”
  2. “Freedom to manifest one’s religion or beliefs may be subject only to such limitations as are prescribed by law and are necessary to protect public safety, order, health, or morals or the fundamental rights and freedoms of others.”
  3. “The States Parties to the present Covenant undertake to have respect for the liberty of parents and, when applicable, legal guardians to ensure the religious and moral education of their children in conformity with their own convictions.”[2]

That U.S. effort should also mention that under the ICCPR, Morocco as a state party has submitted periodical reports regarding its implementation of the treaty to the U.N. Human Rights Committee, which after review and consultation with the party issues its Concluding Observations on that implementation. The last such Concluding Observations by this Committee, which were issued on December 1, 2016, said the following about freedom of religion in Morocco:

  • “39. The Committee is concerned by reports that restrictions are placed on the practice of religions other than the official religion. It is also concerned about provisions in the Criminal Code that criminalize actions contrary to the Muslim religion and the introduction of new offences to the draft Criminal Code that further extend the limits imposed on freedom of religion and expression (arts. 18 and 19).”
  • “40. The State party should eliminate any legislative provision or discriminatory practice that is in violation of the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion and ensure that the draft revised Criminal Code now under discussion is fully in accordance with article 18 of the Covenant.”

Finally this outsider also suggests that discussions with the Moroccan government on this subject should refer to the January 2016 Declaration of Marrakesh about religious minorities in Muslim majority countries that was discussed in a prior post.

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[1] U.S. State Dep’t, International Religious Freedom Report for 2015: Morocco (Aug. 2016). The annual reports on the same subject by the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom do not comment on every country in the world and Morocco is one such country that is not covered. (U.S. Com’n Int’l Religious Freedom, Annual Report (April 2017) (Morocco is not on list of countries covered by report, pp. iii-iv).

[2] The ICCPR and other international instruments regarding religious freedom were briefly reviewed in International Law Regarding Freedom of Religion, dwkcommentaries.com (Jan. 1, 2012).

An Exciting Introduction to Morocco 

Last month my wife and I went on a wonderful two-week tour of Morocco with Overseas Adventure Travel. Here is the OAT map for the tour:

We were impressed by the country’s fascinating history and people, its beautiful architecture, cities and rugged Atlas Mountains, the immensity of the rolling Sahara Desert along its southern border and its current construction boom.

While there we also learned of Morocco’s recent re-establishment of its diplomatic relations with Cuba, a country about which I have written a lot, and of Morocco’s membership in the African Union, both related to Morocco’s lingering conflict over the Western Sahara, which was the subject of a recent U.N. Security Council resolution, all of which were discussed in recent posts.[1]

Also fascinating was the country’s religious profile. Its population of 33.7 million is 99% Sunni Muslim with 1% Shia Muslims, Christians, Jews and Bahias. In every town the mosques’ minarets were the instantaneously recognizable tallest structures.[2]

Our OAT tour guide told us that the current king, Mohammad VI, has been leading efforts to ensure that Muslims in Morocco are not encouraged to join extremists groups like ISIS or Al Qaeda. All imams have to complete an education course at the capitol at Rabat that is organized and administered by the government’s ministry of religious affairs (The Ministry of Endowments and Islamic Affairs of the Kingdom of Morocco) and that excludes the extremist ideologies promoted by ISIS and Al Qaeda.

We also were told that neither the government nor the Muslim leaders discriminate against Christians or Jews, and we visited a synagogue in Fez. On the other hand, we were told, the Christians and Jews are forbidden from preaching or proselytizing or evangelizing in public.

Previously I had learned that the five “pillars” of Islam are (1) shahada, declaring as a matter of faith and trust that there is only one God (Allah) and that Mohammad is God’s messenger; (2) salat, saying the Islamic prayer five times a day; (3) zakat, giving to the poor and needy; (4) slym, fasting during the month of Ramadan; and (5) haji, making a pilgrimage to the holy city of Mecca at least once in a lifetime.

Although in Morocco I only experienced hearing the call to prayer over a minaret’s loudspeaker, I came to see these pillars of faith as similar to various practices of Christian spirituality, as ways of reinforcing a believer’s connections with God (Allah), and as ways that help believers live in accordance with the will of God (Allah). These pillars and practices, in my opinion, also rest on the belief that no one is perfect, that all find it too easy to stray from the path of faithfulness and that all need reminders of God or Allah’s way.

I felt fortunate that my Minneapolis church (Westminster Presbyterian) has warm relations with a local mosque and that we have hosted at least two worship services including its leaders. [3]

After returning to the U.S., I conducted research and discovered more about the previously mentioned government ministry; Morocco’s positive relations with international anti-terrorism groups; the important Declaration of Marrakesh promoting respect for religious minorities in Muslim countries; the most current U.S. State Department’s assessment of Morocco’s religious freedom; and the nature of current U.S.-Morocco relations. These topics will be explored in subsequent posts.

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[1] Cuba and Morocco Re-Establish Diplomatic Relations, dwkcommentaries.com (May 7, 2017); U.N. Security Council Orders More Negotiations About the Western Sahara Conflict, dwkcommentaries.com (May 9, 2017).

[2] CIA World Factbook, Morocco.

[3] Interfaith Worship Service at Minneapolis’ Westminster Presbyterian Church, dwkcommentaries.com (Dec. 2, 2015); A Christian-Muslim Conversation About Forgiveness, dwkcommentaries.com (May 15, 2017).

 

Jesus, The Refugee

“When last we saw Jesus he had just delivered a withering homiletic critique of his neighbors in the synagogue in Nazareth. He had refuted their assumption that God’s intentions for the human family were reserved solely for them and their nation.”[1]

“The townspeople nearly throw Jesus off the cliffs outside Nazareth for saying that, but somehow he escapes.”

Jesus thereby “became a former person, a person without a home, rejected by his own people and expelled. It had happened to him before, when the Holy Family had fled to Egypt with the infant Jesus to escape the violence of King Herod. Now, when Nazareth runs him out of town, Jesus becomes a refugee again. He never returns to his hometown.”[2]

Then Jesus and the disciples walked the nine miles or so northeast of Nazareth to the village of Cana.

“When Jesus and the disciples arrived in Cana they were invited to a wedding feast [where he performed his first miracle by turning] six jugs of water  into wine.” This is the account of that event from John 2:1-11 (NRSV):

  • ‘On the third day there was a wedding in Cana of Galilee, and the mother of Jesus was there. Jesus and his disciples had also been invited to the wedding. When the wine gave out, the mother of Jesus said to him, ‘ They have no wine.’ And Jesus said to her, ‘ Woman, what concern is that to you and to me? My hour has yet to come.’ His mother said to the servants, ‘Do whatever he tells you.’ Now standing there were six stone water jars for the Jewish rites of purification and holding twenty or thirty gallons. Jesus said to them, ‘Fill the jars with water.’ And they filled them to the brim. He said to them, ‘Now draw some out, and take it to the chief steward.’ So they took it. when the steward tasted the water that had become wine, and did not know where it came from (though the servants who had drawn the water knew), the steward called the bridegroom and said to him,’Everyone serves the fine wine first, and then the inferior wine after the guests have been drunk. But you have kept the good wine until now.’ Jesus did this, the first of his signs, in Cana of Galilee, and revealed his glory, and his disciples believed in him.’

[This wedding scene has great significance because marriage] “is a recurring metaphor in scripture for the relationship between God and the people of God. The prophets used wedding language to describe God’s desires for the human family, especially for those who suffer. Isaiah’s words, directed to a long-ago people in exile, may have been read that day:”

  • ‘You shall no more be termed Forsaken, and your land shall no more be termed Desolate; but you shall be called My Delight Is in Her, and your land Married; for the LORD delights in you, and your land shall be married.’ (Isaiah 62:4)

“‘You shall no more be termed Forsaken, and your land shall no more be termed Desolate.’ The marriage scene in Cana offers a counterpoint to the violence Jesus experiences in Nazareth. It opposes his dehumanization. It reaffirms God’s love for one who has been subjected to hatred. ‘For the Lord delights in you.’ ‘Jesus did this,’ John says, ‘The first of his signs, in Cana of Galilee, and revealed his glory; and his disciples believed in him.’ (John 2:11)”

“The wine [provided by Jesus] signals something. The marriage feast with its abundant drink is a sign that God will not abandon the outcast children of God but will instead delight in them. God will contest those who seek to deny the humanity of others, in this case, Jesus, the former person from Nazareth. God uses the wedding feast to show that the degradation of humankind will be resisted, and that the resistance will be girded in joy.”

“Jesus changes the water into wine to signal God’s hospitality to those rejected by others and to reveal God’s delight in those deeemed to be former people.”

“At the wedding feast in Cana Jesus launches a movement. A movement of joyful resistance  against the baser impulses that run through each of us and through the principalities and powers of every time and place.”

“Yesterday a Jewish congregation in Illinois welcomed a Syrian family that had arrived in the U.S. on Friday, Holocaust Remembrance Day, the very day new rules excluding all refugees were issued. A day later the American Jews welcomed the Syrian Muslim family to their new town near Chicago with hugs and cheers and toys for the children. The members of the synagogue – and more than 100 were involved in supporting the family – then brought them to their new home, where they had prepared a feast, complete with a Syrian-style cake. ‘If this is the last group of refugees to get in,’ the [Illinois] rabbi said, ‘We will show them the best of America.'[3]

“It was the miracle of Cana all over again, and God’s intentions for the human family carried the day.”

“Today, in our time and in this land, the church still finds its calling in that same movement [of joyful resistance against the baser impulses].”

[We do so while recognizing that] “no religion or nation is innocent. . . . It’s what Europeans did to indigenous people and enslaved Africans. It’s happening now to Muslims and christians in Syria, in unprecedented numbers.”

“’Those of us who follow Jesus are no different from the refugees of our time. Once we were former people. Forgotten people. Displaced people. At the heart of our faith is the claim that God stands with those cast out who now dwell in the kingdom of memory, and the mandate that we stand with them, as well.”

[As 1 Peter tells us,] “’Once you were no people, but now you are God’s people,’ [and] goes on to say.

  • ‘Once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy. Beloved, I urge you as aliens and exiles to…conduct yourselves honorably…so that…they may see your honorable deeds and glorify God when God comes to judge.’ (I Peter 2:10-12)”

“Judgment is a word to be used sparingly and with great caution, but in the midst of one of the greatest refugee crises in history, we as a nation, and certainly those of us who follow the refugee named Jesus, will be judged by our response. Assuring the safety and security of our country is essential, but when we indiscriminately close our borders to mothers and fathers and children fleeing violence in their homeland and when we refuse entry to people solely on the basis of religion or national origin we are no different from and no better than those across history who have forced others to become former people.”

“’Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,’ Emma Lazarus said in her poem written in celebration of the Statue of Liberty, which she called the Mother of Exiles, ‘The wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me.'”

“Remember the ship called the St. Louis carrying Jews, forced from our harbors to return to Nazi Germany? Or Japanese-Americans driven from their homes and put in camps? Or the Dakota people expelled from this state and their land? Have we learned nothing from our history?”

“We live in a nation founded by people fleeing persecution. As people of faith we cannot remain silent in the face of policies that run counter to the biblical call to ‘welcome the stranger in our midst’ and that ignore the American commitment to offer refuge.”

Reactions

I found this sermon very moving although I had these nagging concerns. Jesus’ mother Mary already was at the wedding and thus it is fair to assume the residents of Cana had heard something about Jesus’ preaching, but they probably would not have heard about Nazareth’s expulsion of Jesus. If so, then the residents did not welcome Jesus as a refugeee. I assume that Cana was a small village and that most of the residents were at the wedding celebration. Therefore, when Jesus and his 12 disciples show up, there is nowhere else for them to go. These 13 additional guests placed an unexpected burden on the wine and food for the guests, yet the 13 were invited and welcomed. I also assume that in that time and place, as is true today, wedding guests are expected to bring gifts for the bride and groom, and Jesus and the disciples had no gifts in hand. Recognizing this faux pas and the burden they were placing on the bride and groom, Jesus provided extra wine as a gift and as a thank you for being included.

Are these concerns misplaced? I solicit comments from those who have greater knowledge about the Cana story.

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[1] This blog post is an edited version of Rev. Timothy Hart-Andersen’s January 29 sermon at Minneapolis’ Westminster Presbyterian Church, including his reference to his prior sermon that was discussed in an earlier post.  (the 1/29/17 sermon, Westminstermpls.org/2017/02/02/why-chan; the 1/29/17 bulltin, wp-content/uploads/2017/01; the bog about the 1/22/17 sermon, dwkcommentaries.com/2017/01/30/Jesus-inaugural-address.

[2] The phrase “former people” comes from historian Douglas Smith, who used the term to refer to the Russian aristocracy banished and persecuted after the Russian Revolution of 1917. (Douglas Smith, Former People: The Final Days of the Russian Aristocracy (Farrar, Strauss & Giroux, 2013).) Smith, by the way, before college, was involved in youth activities at Westminster Church.

[3] Kantor, Warm Welcome for Syrians in a Country About to Ban Them, N.Y. Times (Jan. 28, 2017).

Muslims’ Christmas Greeting to Their Christian Brothers and Sisters

On Christmas Eve, the StarTribune published a moving open letter from Minnesota Muslims to their Christian brothers and sisters.[1] As a Minnesota Christian, I thank them for this message and for their implicit endorsement of the Thanksgiving Day Interfaith Worship Service at Minneapolis’ Westminster Presbyterian Church and the recent Call to Compassion by Minneapolis’ clergy, including Imams. Here is the text of the letter.

“Out of our shared love for the Messiah, Jesus, Son of Mary, Peace Be Upon Him, we greet you with peace and joy during your celebration of his life.”

“The Bible refers to him as the Messiah and describes the annunciation, his miraculous birth and his numerous miracles.”

“The Qur’an refers to him as the Messiah, Jesus, son of Mary. It teaches about his miraculous birth and how his mother Mary was honored above all the worlds. Muslims are instructed to invoke peace upon him whenever his name is mentioned.”

“The Qur’an narrates the story of the angel who visited Mary, saying ‘O Mary, indeed God has chosen you and purified you and chosen you above the women of all the worlds.’ (Qur’an 3:42).”

“The angel said, ‘O Mary, indeed God gives you good news of a word from Him, whose name will be the Messiah, Jesus, son of Mary. He will be honored in this world and the Hereafter and he will be among those closest to God. He will speak to the people in the cradle and in maturity and he will be of the righteous.’ (Qur’an 3:44-45)”

“She said, ‘My Lord, how will I have a child when no man has touched me?’ The angel said, ‘Such is God; He creates what He wills. When He decrees a matter, He only says to it, ‘Be,’ and it is.’ (Qur’an 3:47)”

“The Qur’an describes how the baby Jesus, immediately upon birth, looked up to his mother and comforted her: ‘Do not be sad; your Lord has provided beneath you a stream. And shake toward you the trunk of the palm tree; it will drop upon you ripe, fresh dates. So eat and drink and be contented.’ (Qur’an 19:24-26)”

“The Qur’an describes many instances in the life of Jesus: how he preached the worship of God and compassion to people, how he healed the leper, how he healed the blind, and even how he brought the dead back to life.”

“Our two religions, Christianity and Islam, which both profess love and reverence for Jesus as a central figure in each of our religions, constitute over half of the population of the world.”

“Mercy and compassion, charity and love are the divine attributes that the Christmas season evokes among Christians. A mother’s devotion, a child’s love, and the promise of God’s mercy and grace in the coming of Jesus to us are sentiments that Muslims can share and appreciate.”

“In the Bible, we are told that Jesus, in response to a question about the most important commandment, is said to have answered: ‘You should love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul and mind. This is the first and great commandment. And the second is similar. You should love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.’ (Matthew 22:35-40) Jesus added that those whose hearts are filled with such love of God and neighbor live not far from the kingdom of God. (Mark 12:34)”

“Similarly, the Qur’an teaches us that to ‘worship God being sincere to Him in faith, to incline towards the truth, to establish prayer and to give alms to the poor is the essence of the religion.’ (Qur’an 98:5) ‘ … And you should forgive and overlook: Do you not like God to forgive you? And God is The Merciful Forgiving.’ (Qur’an 24:22)”

“The Prophet Mohammad, Peace Be Upon Him, taught: ‘None of you truly believes until he loves for his brother that which he loves for himself.’ (Bukhari & Muslim)”

“In the words of St. Paul, let us put on the armor of light which is the teaching of God that we are to love one another that we might together better confront the dark that lies within some human hearts which are far from God. (Romans 13:12)”

“As Jesus taught so movingly, let our lights so shine together before all people that they may see our good works which glorify our God in Heaven. (Matthew 5:16)”

“Jesus taught us that we should not live by bread alone but by every word of God. (Matthew 4:4)”

“Thus, we applaud the good hearts and loving deeds seeking to please God in His mercy and compassion that are befitting for us not only during this Christmas season but also every day of every year. Let all people, Christians and Muslims, who love Jesus, peace be upon him, come together to practice what he preached. Let peace and goodwill spread among us all.”

“We invite all our Muslim brothers and sisters of goodwill to join us in this open letter at this Christmas season and throughout the year as peace and joy, love of God and neighbor, are to be with us always.”

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[1] A holiday letter from Muslim leaders in Minnesota, StarTrib. (Dec. 24, 2015). The signers of the letter are Imam Asad Zaman, Muslim American Society of Minnesota; Dr. Odeh Muhawesh, Imam Hussain Islamic Center; Shaykha Tamara Gray, Rabata/Daybreak Bookstore; Dr. Tamim Saidi, Masjid Al Kareem; Fedwa Wazwaz, Engage Minnesota; Dr. Shah Khan, Islamic Center of Minnesota; Dr. Onder Uluyol, Islamic Resource Group; Zafar Siddiqui, Al Amal School; Imam Sharif Mohamed, Islamic Civic Society of America — Masjid Dar Al-Hijrah, and Owais Bayunus, Islamic Center of Minnesota.

 

 

 

 

 

President Obama’s Audience with Pope Francis

President Obama & Pope Francis
          President Obama &               Pope Francis 

On March 27th U.S. President Barack Obama had an audience with His Holiness Pope Francis at the Vatican followed by the President’s meeting with His Eminence Cardinal Pietro Parolin, the Vatican’s Secretary of State, and Archbishop Dominique Mamberti, its Secretary for Relations with States.

Afterwards the Vatican issued a press release that said, “During the cordial meetings, views were exchanged on some current international themes and it was hoped that, in areas of conflict, there would be respect for humanitarian and international law and a negotiated solution between the parties involved.”

The press release continued, “In the context of bilateral relations and cooperation between Church and State, there was a discussion on questions of particular relevance for the Church in that country, such as the exercise of the rights to religious freedom, life and conscientious objection, as well as the issue of immigration reform. Finally, the common commitment to the eradication of trafficking of human persons in the world was stated.”

Also afterwards at a joint news conference with Matteo Renzi, the prime minister of Italy, President Obama said the Pope and he “had a wide-ranging discussion.  I would say that the largest bulk of the time was discussing two central concerns of his.  One is the issues [sic] of the poor, the marginalized, those without opportunity, and growing inequality.”

“[T]hose of us as politicians have the task of trying to come up with policies to address issues, but His Holiness has the capacity to open people’s eyes and make sure they’re seeing that this is an issue.  And he’s discussed in the past . . . the dangers of indifference or cynicism when it comes to our ability to reach out to those less fortunate or those locked out of opportunity.”

The President continued, “[W]e spent a lot of time talking about the challenges of conflict and how elusive peace is around the world.  There was some specific focus on the Middle East where His Holiness has a deep interest in the Israeli-Palestinian issue, but also what’s happening in Syria, what’s happening in Lebanon, and the potential persecution of Christians.  And I reaffirmed that it is central to U.S. foreign policy that we protect the interests of religious minorities around the world.  But we also touched on regions like Latin America, where there’s been tremendous progress in many countries, but there’s been less progress in others.”

“I think the theme that stitched our conversation together was a belief that in politics and in life the quality of empathy, the ability to stand in somebody else’s shoes and to care for someone even if they don’t look like you or talk like you or share your philosophy — that that’s critical.  It’s the lack of empathy that makes it very easy for us to plunge into wars.  It’s the lack of empathy that allows us to ignore the homeless on the streets.  And obviously central to my Christian faith is a belief in treating others as I’d have them treat me.  And . . . [what has] created so much love and excitement for His Holiness has been that he seems to live this, and shows that joy continuously.”

“In terms of domestic issues, the two issues that we touched on — other than the fact that I invited and urged him to come to the United States, telling him that people would be overjoyed to see him — was immigration reform.  And as someone who came from Latin America, I think he is very mindful of the plight of so many immigrants who are wonderful people, working hard, making contribution, many of their children are U.S. citizens, and yet they still live in the shadows, in many cases have been deported and are separated from families.  I described to him how I felt that there was still an opportunity for us to make this right and get a law passed.”

The President added that the Pope “did not touch in detail on the Affordable Care Act.  In my meeting with the Secretary of State, Cardinal Parolin, we discussed briefly the issue of making sure that conscience and religious freedom was observed in the context of applying the law.  And I explained to him that most religious organizations are entirely exempt.  Religiously affiliated hospitals or universities or NGOs simply have to attest that they have a religious objection, in which case they are not required to provide contraception although that employees of theirs who choose are able to obtain it through the insurance company.”

The President said, “I pledged to continue to dialogue with the U.S. Conference of Bishops to make sure that we can strike the right balance, making sure that not only everybody has health care but families, and women in particular, are able to enjoy the kind of health care coverage that the AC offers, but that religious freedom is still observed.”

In addition, the President said we “actually didn’t talk a whole lot about social schisms in my conversations with His Holiness.  In fact, that really was not a topic of conversation.  I think His Holiness and the Vatican have been clear about their position on a range of issues, some of them I differ with, most I heartily agree with.  And I don’t think that His Holiness envisions entering into a partnership or a coalition with any political figure on any issue.  His job is a little more elevated.  We’re down on the ground dealing with the often profane, and he’s dealing with higher powers.”

“I do think that there is a potential convergence between what policymakers need to be thinking about and what he’s talking about.  I think he is shining a spotlight on an area that’s going to be of increasing concern, and that is reduced opportunities for more and more people, particularly young people — who, by the way, have more and more access to seeing what’s out there and what’s possible because they have access to the Internet or they have access to other media, and they see the inequality and they see themselves being locked out in ways that weren’t true before. And that’s true internationally, not just within countries.”

Moreover, according to the President, for the Pope “to say that we need to think about this, we need to focus on this, we need to come up with policies that provide a good education for every child and good nutrition for every child, and decent shelter and opportunity and jobs . . . reminds us of what our moral and ethical obligations are.  It happens also to be good economics and good national security policy.  Countries are more stable, they’re going to grow faster when everybody has a chance, not just when a few have a chance.”

The President concluded his press conference comments on the audience by saying the Pope is “hopefully, creating an environment in which those of us who care about this are able to talk about it more effectively.  And we are in many ways following not just his lead but the teachings of Jesus Christ and other religions that care deeply about the least of these.”

The President also separately stated the following after the audience:

  • “I think the theme that stitched our conversation together was a  belief in politics and in life, the quality of empathy, the ability to stand in somebody else’s shoes and to care for someone even if they don’t look like you or talk liked you or share your philosophy—that that’s critical. It’s the lack of empathy that makes it very easy for us to plunge into wars. It’s the lack of empathy that allows us to ignore the homeless on the streets. And obviously central to my Christian faith is a belief in treating others as I’d have them treat me. And what’s I think created so much love and excitement for His Holiness has been that he seems to live this, and shows that joy continuously.”

 

President Obama Speaks Out for Religious Freedom

President Obama
President Obama

On February 6th at the National Prayer Breakfast in Washington, D.C., President Obama affirmed that we are “all children of a loving God; brothers and sisters called to make His work our own.  But in this work, as Lincoln said, our concern should not be whether God is on our side, but whether we are on God’s side.”

It was important, Obama said, that “as Americans, we affirm the freedoms endowed by our Creator, among them freedom of religion. . . . [This] freedom safeguards religion . . . [and] religion strengthens America.  Brave men and women of faith have challenged our conscience and brought us closer to our founding ideals, from the abolition of slavery to civil rights, workers’ rights.”

In addition, the President declared, “promoting religious freedom is a key objective of U.S. foreign policy.” Therefore, the U.S. must take steps to challenge the threats to that freedom around the world. “We see governments engaging in discrimination and violence against the faithful.  We sometimes see religion twisted in an attempt to justify hatred and persecution against other people just because of who they are, or how they pray or who they love.  Old tensions are stoked, fueling conflicts along religious lines, . . . even though to harm anyone in the name of faith is to diminish our own relationship with God.  Extremists succumb to an ignorant nihilism that shows they don’t understand the faiths they claim to profess — for the killing of the innocent is never fulfilling God’s will; in fact, it’s the ultimate betrayal of God’s will.”

Specific criticisms for violations of religious freedom were directed by the President at China, Burma, Nigeria, Pakistan, Iran, Egypt, Syria and North Korea.

The President also made a personal confession of his own religious faith. He said, God had “directed my path to Chicago and my work with churches who were intent on breaking the cycle of poverty in hard-hit communities there. . . . [The] church fed me . . .[and] led me to embrace Jesus Christ as my Lord and Savior . . . [and] to Michelle — the love of my life — and it blessed us with two extraordinary daughters [and] to public service.  And the longer I serve, especially in moments of trial or doubt, the more thankful I am of God’s guiding hand.”

Earlier this year the President, proclaiming January 16th as Religious Freedom Day, emphasized that “America embraces people of all faiths and of no faith. We are Christians and Jews, Muslims and Hindus, Buddhists and Sikhs, atheists and agnostics. Our religious diversity enriches our cultural fabric and reminds us that what binds us as one is not the tenets of our faiths, the colors of our skin, or the origins of our names. What makes us American is our adherence to shared ideals — freedom, equality, justice, and our right as a people to set our own course.”

Samantha Power
Samantha Power

A similar statement about Religious Freedom Day was made by U.S. Ambassador Samantha Power, the U.S. Permanent Representative to the U.N. She said, “Protecting freedom of religion is a cornerstone of American foreign policy, carried out by prioritizing accountability for religiously-motivated violence, urging governments to adopt legal protections for religious minorities, and promoting societal respect for religious diversity. And at the United Nations, we work with our partners to fight for the world’s religious minorities, including adoption of the landmark Human Rights Council resolution calling on member states to combat intolerance, violence, and discrimination based on religion.”[1]


[1] The New York Times and Washington Post issued reports on the President’s speech at the National Prayer Breakfast. Earlier posts have discussed the work on international freedom of religion by the U.S. Department of State and by the quasi-independent U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom.