U.S. at U.N. Global Call To Protect Religious Freedom

On September 23, 2019, President Donald Trump did not speak at the U.N. Summit on Climate Change. Instead, after briefly attending that session, he chaired the U.N.’s Global Call To Protect Religious Freedom meeting that was organized by the U.S.[1] After Vice President Mike Pence’s introduction, the President delivered his remarks followed by comments from Secretary of State Michael Pompeo.

 Vice President Pence’s Remarks[2]

“it is my great honor to be here today with the President of the United States to reaffirm America’s commitment to what the people of our nation have always believed: that every person is endowed by our Creator with certain inalienable rights.  And Americans have always believed our first freedom is the freedom of religion.”

“And there’s no better time for a meeting like this on the world stage.  As we gather here at the United Nations, more than 80 percent of the world’s population live in nations where religious freedom is threatened or banned.”

“The regime in Iran brutally persecutes Christians, Sunnis, Bahai’i, and Jews. In Iraq, Iran-backed militias terrorize Christians and Yazidis who were nearly wiped out by ISIS’s recent campaign of genocide. The Communist Party in China has arrested Christian pastors, banned the sale of Bibles, demolished churches, and imprisoned more than a million Uighurs in the Muslim population.”

“In our hemisphere, the regime of Daniel Ortega is virtually waging war on the Catholic Church in Nicaragua.  And in Venezuela, the dictator Nicolás Maduro uses anti-hate laws to prosecute clergy, even as his media cronies spread anti-Semitism by trivializing the Holocaust.”

“Communities of faith across the wider world have also faced unspeakable acts of violence in places of worship, shocking the conscience of the world.”

“In October, 11 Jews were murdered in the Tree of Life Synagogue massacre in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.  In March, a gunman killed 51 Muslims at prayer in two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand.  And just a month later, suicide bombers murdered more than 300 Christians during Easter services at three Christian churches in Sri Lanka.”

“These attacks strike at the heart of everything free peoples hold sacred.  And the threats of religious freedom and the attacks on people of faith underscore why President Trump has taken such decisive action, since the very first days of our administration, to build and promote our nation’s proud tradition of advancing religious freedom.  And that continues today.”

“At the President’s direction, the United States created the Genocide Recovery and Persecution Response Program, and we’ve provided more than $370 million to aid ethnic minorities in faith communities persecuted by ISIS in Iraq and throughout the region.”[3]

“Earlier this year, at the President’s direction, the Secretary of State held the second annual Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom, inviting more than a thousand civil society and religious leaders, in 100 different nations, to the largest event of its kind in the world.”[4]

“And last year, at the inaugural ministerial, at the President’s direction, we established the International Religious Freedom Fund, which already has received nearly $5 million in pledges and given over 435 Rapid Response Grants to those persecuted for their deeply held beliefs.  And to date, this effort has helped some 2,000 victims of religious persecution around the world.”[5]

“As the President often says, America is a nation of faith, and we will always stand for the freedom of religion of every person, of every race and every creed, to live, to work, to worship according to the dictates of their conscience.

“And today, giving evidence of his passion for religious liberty, the President will announce additional steps that the United States will take to protect religious liberty and defend people of faith around the world.”

“Today, I ask all nations to join us in this urgent moral duty.  We ask the governments of the world to honor the eternal right of every person to follow their conscience, live by their faith, and give glory to God.  The United States has a vital role in this critical mission.”

“It is my high honor and distinct privilege to introduce to you a tireless champion of the freedom of religion and people of every faith in America and around the world, the 45th President of the United States of America, President Donald Trump.”

President Trump’s Message[6]

“The United States is founded on the principle that our rights do not come from government; they come from God.  This immortal truth is proclaimed in our Declaration of Independence and enshrined in the First Amendment to our Constitution’s Bill of Rights.  Our Founders understood that no right is more fundamental to a peaceful, prosperous, and virtuous society than the right to follow one’s religious convictions.”

“Regrettably, the religious freedom enjoyed by American citizens is rare in the world.  Approximately 80 percent of the world’s population live in countries where religious liberty is threatened, restricted, or even banned.”

“As we speak, Jews, Christians, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, Sikhs, Yazidis, and many other people of faith are being jailed, sanctioned, tortured, and even murdered, often at the hands of their own government, simply for expressing their deeply held religious beliefs.”

“Today, with one clear voice, the United States of America calls upon the nations of the world to end religious persecution.”

“To stop the crimes against people of faith, release prisoners of conscience, repeal laws restricting freedom of religion and belief, protect the vulnerable, the defenseless, and the oppressed, America stands with believers in every country who ask only for the freedom to live according to the faith that is within their own hearts.”

“As President, protecting religious freedom is one of my highest priorities and always has been.  Last year, our Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, hosted the first-ever Ministerial to Advance International Religious Freedom. In this year’s ministerial, Secretary Pompeo announced plans to create the International Religious Freedom Alliance — an alliance of like-minded nations devoted to confronting religious persecution all around the world.[7]

“I’ve appointed a special envoy to monitor and combat anti-Semitism.  We’re standing up for almost 250 million Christians around the world who are persecuted for their faith.  It is estimated that 11 Christians are killed every day for . . . following the teachings of Christ.”[8]

After reviewing some of the recent violence against religious people and buildings, the President said, “These evil attacks are a wound on all humanity.  We must all work together to protect communities of every faith.  We’re also urging every nation to increase the prosecution and punishment of crimes against religious communities.  There can be no greater crime than that.  This includes measures to prevent the intentional destruction of religious sites and relics.  Today, the Trump administration will dedicate an additional $25 million to protect religious freedom and religious sites and relics.”

“The United States is forming a coalition of U.S. businesses for the protection of religious freedom.  This is the first time this has been done.  This initiative will encourage the private sector to protect people of all faiths in the workplace.  And the private sector has brilliant leadership.  And that’s why some of the people in this room are among the most successful men and women on Earth.  They know how things get done and they know how to take care of things.”

“ I want to once again thank all of the survivors in the room for their courage and resilience.  You’re an inspiration to the world.  You remind us that no force on Earth is stronger than the faith of religious believers.  The United States of America will forever remain at your side and the side of all who seek religious freedom.”

“Today, I ask all nations to join us in this urgent moral duty.  We ask the governments of the world to honor the eternal right of every person to follow their conscience, live by their faith, and give glory to God.  The United States has a vital role in this critical mission.”

“It is my high honor and distinct privilege to introduce to you a tireless champion of the freedom of religion and people of every faith in America and around the world, the 45th President of the United States of America, President Donald Trump.”

Secretary Pompeo’s Remarks[9]

After thanking the many world leaders at the meeting, Vice President Pence and President Trump, Pompeo said, “The Bible says that ‘Whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise,  think about these things.’ [Bible, Philippians 4:8 (NRSV)]] And that’s what we are all doing here today.

“As you heard, religious freedom is under threat all around the world.” He then introduced  three individuals who talked about “their struggles on behalf of this first freedom, this important and unalienable right:” Dabrina Bet-Tamraz (Iran), rabbi Faiz Algaradi (Yemen) and Jewher Ilham (China).

Pompeo closed by mentioning “the International Religious Freedom Alliance the State Department announced in July. It is the most ambitious human rights project launched in a generation. We aim to bring together like-minded countries, faith leaders, civil society groups, and international organizations around the world to promote religious freedom in a more consistent, organized, and powerful way. The foundation of the alliance is Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which begins, ‘Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience, and religion.’”

“So if you’re a country that takes human rights seriously, understanding its many benefits for peace, security, and prosperity, please come join us. If you’re a country that stands for human dignity and for freedom of conscience, please come join us. And if you’re a leader simply moved by the stories you’ve heard from these brave survivors today, come join us. Turn your sympathy for them into freedom for others. Please reach out to our Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom Sam Brownback.”

“The United Nations is only as strong as its sovereign members determine it will be. Our belief in our principles is only as strong as our confidence to express them. I ask – indeed, I pray – that you will help be a voice for the voiceless by joining the International Religious Freedom Alliance. May God bless the survivors who are here with us today, may God bless the United States of America, and may God bless the nations who have gathered with us here this morning.”

Conclusion

Since the U.S. chose not to attend the U.N. Climate Change Summit, the U.S. possibly believed that it needed to organize another event at the U.N. that day so that it did not appear that the U.S. was avoiding the U.N. and instead that the U.S. had some positive news coverage. It also is another event consistent with the State Department’s Commission on Unalienable Rights.

The basics of the Global Call To Protect Religious Freedom are laudable, and it also is true that there is religious persecution in the world today. However, the unspoken political motivation of this presidential administration—appealing to its evangelical Christian supporters—also is apparent, and Democrats need to be cautious in criticizing this event.

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[1] Liptak, Trump will hold session on religious persecution instead of attending UN climate summit, CNN (Sept. 21, 2019).

[2] White House, Remarks by Vice President Pence at the United Nations Event on Religious Freedom/New York, NY (Sept. 23, 2019).

[3] White House, Remarks by Vice President Pence at Ministerial To Advance Religious Freedom (July 26, 2018).

[4] U.S. State Department’s Second Ministerial To Advance Religious Freedom, dwkcommentaries.com (July 21, 2019).

[5]  State Department’s First Ministerial To Advance Religious Freedom, dwkcommentaries.com (July 7, 2019).

[6] White House, Remarks by President Trump at the United Nations Event on Religious Freedom/New York, NY (Sept. 23, 2019).

[7] E.g., Banks, As religious freedom summit ends, State Department announces new alliance, sanctions, Nat’l Cath. Reporter (July 19, 2019)

[8]  State Dep’t, About Us—Special Envoy to Monitor and Combat Anti-Semitism.

[9] State Dep’t, Secretary Michael R. Pompeo at the United Nations Event on Religious Freedom (Sept. 23, 2019). h

U.S. State Department Unfairly Criticizes Cuban Religious Freedom

The State Department’s recent 2018 Report on International Religious Freedom, while not characterizing Cuba as a Country of Particular Interest or placing it on the Special Watch List, for the worst violators of religious freedom, nonetheless did have harsh words for the island.[1]

Cuban Religious Demography

Keep in mind that although “there is no independent, authoritative source on the overall size or composition of [Cuban] religious groups,” the report uses the following estimates of the sizes of different religious groups:

Category Denominations/Groups Number
Christian Roman Catholic (lower estimate, 6,660,0000) 7,700,000
Protestant:
Assemblies of God    150,000
Baptists    100,000
Jehovah’s’ Witnesses      96,000
Methodists      50,000
Seventh-day Adventists      35,000
Presbyterians      25,000
Anglicans      22,500
Episcopalians        6,000
Apostolic Movement        4,000
Quakers        1,000
Moravians           750
Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints           150
Other        8,250
Protestant Subtotal    555,000
Christianity Subtotal 8,255,000
Jewish         1,200
Muslims         3,000
Non-religious  2,840,800
TOTAL 11,096,000

In addition, the Report said, “Many individuals, particularly those of African descent, practice religions with roots in West Africa and the Congo River Basisn, known collectively as Santaria. These religious practices are commonly intermingled with Catholicism, and some require Catholic baptism for full initiation, making it difficult to estimate their total membership.”

The large numbers of different religious groups and of their estimated memberships, in and of themselves, tend to show religious freedom.

U.S. Report’s Executive Summary

“The constitution provides for freedom of conscience and religion and prohibits discrimination based on religion; however, the Cuban Communist Party, through its Office of Religious Affairs (ORA) and the government’s Ministry of Justice (MOJ), continued to control most aspects of religious life.  Observers said the government continued to use threats, international and domestic travel restrictions, detentions, and violence against some religious leaders and their followers, and restricted the rights of prisoners to practice religion freely.  Media and religious leaders said the government continued to harass or detain members of religious groups advocating for greater religious and political freedom. . . . [The Communist Party’s  Office of Religious Affairs and the Ministry of Justice] continued to use the law on associations to deny official registration to certain religious groups, such as a number of Apostolic churches, or failed to respond to long-pending applications, such as those for the Jehovah’s Witnesses and The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.. . . Human rights advocacy organization Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW) reported government harassment of religious leaders increased “significantly in parallel with” the churches’ outspokenness regarding the draft constitution.  According to CSW, some religious groups said the government increased its scrutiny of foreign religious workers’ visa applications and visits.  Some religious groups reported an increase in the ability of their members to conduct charitable and educational projects.  According to the religious advocacy group EchoCuba and CSW, the government gave preference to some religious groups and discriminated against others.”

 U.S. Report’s Methodology

This report purportedly adheres to the Department’s ’guiding principle’ of trying “to ensure that all relevant information is presented as objectively, thoroughly, and fairly as possible” and not attempting “to verify independently all information contained in the reports.” (Emphasis added.) But each of  its various paragraphs invariably start with the allegations of violations of this freedom followed by contradictory information. This structure thereby implicitly and improperly gives greater credence to the allegations.[2]

Another legitimate criticism of this country report is its failure to consider the island’s relatively poor economic circumstances, especially with the implosion of Venezuela, which has been the island’s principal ally and financial backer, and the report’s implicitly using as its gauge of propriety the status of churches in the prosperous U.S.

The report on Cuba also fails to acknowledge that the U.S. has had and continues to have various surreptitious programs seeking to undermine the Cuban government, which, therefore, has reasonable grounds to be suspicious of some supposedly religious ventures from the U.S.

Sources of Information

Moreover, most of the adverse allegations come from only two sources: Christianity Solidarity Worldwide (CSW) with headquarters in London and EchoCuba based in Miami, Florida without setting forth any analysis of the credibility of those organizations.

CSW’s website says its “vision is a world free from religious persecution, where everyone can practice a religion or belief of their choice” and that it has a “team of specialist advocates [who] work on over 20 countries across Africa, Asia, Latin America and the Middle East, to ensure that the right to freedom of religion or belief is upheld and protected.” https://www.csw.org.uk/about.htm Another page of the website describes various religious events on the island.

CSW was started in 1977 by Merwyn Thomas, who might have been a Roman Catholic priest and math teacher at Holy Cross College at Notre Dame, Indiana.[3]

EchoCuba, which was founded in 1994 or 1995 and is based in Miami, Florida says that it is “dedicated to strengthening the Cuban church and helping coordinate mission and social efforts from the United States in Cuba. It began as an organization dedicated to supporting the growth of the independent Christian church in Cuba in 1994, by supplying them with medical and humanitarian assistance.” But very little information about the group was uncovered on its own website or through Internet research.

On the other hand, the U.S. report only made the following reference to the Cuban Council of Churches (CIC): “Embassy officials met with the head of the Council of Cuban Churches, a government-registered organization with close ties to the government composed mostly of Protestant groups and associated with the World Council of Churches, to discuss its operations and programs.” (Exec. Summary.)

This, in this blogger’s judgment, is a major flaw in the U.S. report as the CIC was founded in 1941 and describes itself as “an ecumenical fellowship of churches and other Cuban Christian institutions, which confess the Lord Jesus Christ as God and Savior, in accordance with the Scriptures and seek to realize their common vocation for the Glory of God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. The CIC promotes spaces for encounter, celebration, reflection, formation and joint actions of the churches and other Christian institutions, for the service to our people, as a visible expression of the ecumenism to which we are called by God in Jesus Christ.” Today the CIC’s membership includes 28 denominations, 10 fraternal associations and 14 ecumenical movements and centers.[4]

Relevant here is the subsequent statement (on or about July 17, 2019) by the CIC in response to the recent announced intent to create the Evangelical Alliance of Cuban Churches by the Cuban evangelical churches that are not members of the CIC:[5]

We want to reiterate to our people and their churches that the . . . [CIC], as it affirms in its Constitution, works under its motto “United to Serve “which states:

  • “We are a fellowship of churches, ecumenical movements and other Christian institutions that confess the Lord Jesus Christ as Son of God and Savior, according to the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments, and seek to realize their common vocation, the glory of God: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. “
  • “Our mission is to provide spaces for meeting, celebration, reflection and formation of churches, ecumenical movements and other Christian institutions, as a visible expression of the unity to which God calls us in Jesus Christ, in the service of our people.”
  • “Encouraging the study, consultation and different areas of service in accordance with its purposes and functions; the cooperation of Christians in order to strengthen fraternal relations; enrich Christian life and witness; develop a sense of social responsibility and encourage participation in tasks of common interest for the evangelizing mission of the Church. “
  • “The Council, without authority over its members to determine issues of doctrine, government or worship, could be a mediating instance, provided that peace and goodness of the Body of Christ is sought, based on the best testimony to the world: the unity of the believers. “

“Therefore, it is not for the [CIC], to rule on doctrinal issues that have been put on the public stage, nor to represent on this or any other issue, before the Cuban people and its authorities, the churches and organizations , members or not.”

“In Cuba all denominations enjoy religious freedom and are equal before the law, therefore each church or religious organization establishes the relations it deems with the authorities, and gives testimony before them and the Cuban people as understood from their understanding of the Faith.” (Emphasis added.)

“The Council of Churches, in adherence to the values ​​that its Constitution proclaims and in its vocation of service, has carried out mediating efforts since its foundation. And it has done so by sovereign decision of its members, from its governing bodies, without supplanting it, any rights of others.”

“On the contrary, in most cases, these efforts have benefited not only the churches and member organizations of the CIC, and in some, all the religious denominations and their practitioners on the island. Suffice it to mention the import and distribution of Bibles, and in the early 90s, their decisive contribution in the cessation of all forms of religious discrimination in Cuba.”

“God calls for unity in Christ our Lord, to serve and bear witness to the Gospel. Since its foundation 78 years ago, the . . . [CIC] has shown its fidelity to this call. Our fidelity is only to Jesus Christ, our Lord. There is no other Lord, neither here in our beloved Homeland, nor outside it, to which we MUST serve and adore.”

“The . . . [CIC] reaffirms its commitment to continue working for the unity of the churches. Serving the people and the nation, seeking together and together the paths of peace, faith and hope, the dignity of the people and the care of Creation, that help us to build and live the signs of the Kingdom of God: equality and love for all and all in the midst of our beloved country.”

Conclusion

For approximately the last 17 years, my Minneapolis church—Westminster Presbyterian Church—has had a partnership with a Presbyterian-Reformed Church in Matanzas, Cuba on the north shore of the island east of Havana, and I have been on three mission trips to Cuba to visit this and other Presbyterian-Reformed churches on the island. In Havana I have visited Ebenezer Baptist Church and its Martin Luther King, Jr. Center and the offices of the CIC as well as the Seminario Evangélico de Teologia in Matanzas. As a result, I have gotten to know pastors and members of these churches and other religious institutions and have had the honor and pleasure to welcome some of them to my church in Minneapolis. On one of my trips, the Westminster group delivered a CD-ROM edition of the Talmud from our friends at Minneapolis’ Temple Israel to a scholar at the main synagogue in Havana, and on another trip we delivered an icon from Minneapolis’ St. Mary’s Greek Orthodox Church to the new Greek Orthodox Cathedral in Havana. I also have read about religion in Cuba and many of the essays by a Presbyterian-Reformed pastor, Rev. Sergio Arce, as reflected in my blog posts on the subject.

Therefore, I can testify from personal knowledge that despite limited financial and other resources, there is significant religious freedom on the island. In other words, the State Department’s recent report on religious freedom in Cuba paints an erroneous picture.[6]

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[1] State Dep’t, 2018 Report on International Religious Freedom: Cuba (June 21, 2019).

[2] State Dep’t, 2018 Report on International Religious Freedom (“Overview and Acknowledgements”) (June 21, 2019).

[3] Christian Solidarity Worldwide, Wikipedia.

[4] World Council of Churches, Cuban Council of Churches; Cuban Council of Churches (Consejo de Iglesias), About us.

[5] Council of Churches of Cuba, United To Serve (July 2019); The official Council of Churches declares its attachment to the new Constitution and defends that there is ‘religious freedom’ in Cuba, Diario de Cuba (July 17, 2019).

[6] See the following posts to dwkcommentaries.com: The Cuban Revolution and Religion (Dec. 30, 2011); U.S. Government’s Opinions on Religious Freedom in Cuba (Jan. 5, 2012); Cuban Religious Freedom According to the U.S. Commission on Assistance to a Free Cuba (Jan. 8, 2012); Cuban Protestant Leader: Cuban Religious Freedom (Apr. 4, 2012); Cuban Religious Freedom According to the Latest U.S. Report on International Religious Freedom (Aug. 3, 2012); Cuban Religious Freedom (U.S. State Department’s Report) (May 25, 2013); Cuban Religious Freedom (U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom) (May 27, 2013); Other Voices on Cuban Religious Freedom (June 19, 2013);  U.S. State Department’s Latest Report on Cuban Human Rights (Mar. 7, 2014); Other Details about Congressional Briefing by Cuban Religious Leaders Mar. 7, 2014); Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) Takes Actions Regarding Cuba (June 26, 2014); Cuban Government Meets with Religious Leaders (Nov. 19, 2014); Praise God for Leading U.S. and Cuba to Reconciliation (Dec. 22, 2014); The First Day of Pope Francis’ Mission to the Cuban People (Sept. 21, 2015); The Second Day of Pope Francis’ Mission to the Cuban People (Sept. 22, 2015); The Third Day of Pope Francis’ Mission to the Cuban People (Sept. 25, 2015); The Fourth Day of Pope Francis’ Mission to the Cuban People (Sept. 26, 2015); A Protestant Christian’s Reaction to Pope Francis’ Missions to the Cuban and American People (Oct. 26, 2015); U.S. State Department Statement on Cuban Religious Freedom (July 28, 2016); Cuban Religious Freedom in the Eyes of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (May 28, 2018); Cuban Religious Freedom in the Eyes of the U.S. State Department (May 29, 2018).

 

 

 

 

 

Cuba Religious Freedom in the Eyes of the U.S. State Department 

On May 29, 2018, the U.S. Department of State released its 2017 International Religious Freedom Report, which is required by the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998 (“the Act”) and which details the status of religious freedom in nearly 200 foreign countries and describes U.S. actions and policies in support of religious freedom worldwide.[1]

The State Department says its “guiding principle [in preparing this report] is to ensure that all relevant information is presented as objectively, thoroughly, and fairly as possible. Motivations and accuracy of sources vary, however, and the Department of State is not in a position to verify independently all information contained in the reports. To the extent possible, the reports use multiple sources to increase comprehensiveness and reduce potential for bias.”

At the report’s release, introductory remarks were made by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo (a former Republican U.S. Representative from Kansas and Director of the CIA), followed by a briefing for journalists by Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom Sam Brownback (a former Republican U.S. Senator and Governor of the State of Kansas). After reviewing these comments, the Report’s discussion of Cuba religious freedom will be covered.

Secretary Pompeo’s Introduction[2]

“This report is a testament to the United States’ historic role in preserving and advocating for religious freedom around the world. Religious freedom is in the American bloodstream. It’s what brought the pilgrims here from England. Our founders understood it as our first freedom. That is why they articulated it so clearly in the First Amendment. As James Madison wrote years before he was president or secretary of state, ‘conscience is the most sacred of all property.’ Religious freedom was vital to America’s beginning. Defending it is critical to our future.”

“Religious freedom is not only ours. It is a right belonging to every individual on the globe. President Trump stands with those who yearn for religious liberty. Our Vice President stands with them, and so do I.”

“Advancing liberty and religious freedom advances America’s interests. Where fundamental freedoms of religion, expression, press, and peaceful assembly are under attack, we find conflict, instability, and terrorism. On the other hand, governments and societies that champion these freedoms are more secure, stable, and peaceful.”

“So for all of these reasons, protecting and promoting global respect for religious freedom is a priority of the Trump administration. As our National Security Strategy so clearly states: ‘Our Founders understood religious freedom not as the state’s creation, but as the gift of God to every person and a fundamental right for a flourishing society.’ We’re committed to promoting religious freedom around the world, both now and in the future.”

“I am pleased to announce that the United States will host the first ever Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom at the Department of State on July 25th and 26th of this year. I look forward to hosting my counterparts from likeminded governments, as well as representatives of international organizations, religious communities, and civil society to reaffirm our commitment to religious freedom as a universal human right. This ministerial, we expect, will break new ground. It will not just be a discussion group. It will be about action. We look forward to identifying concrete ways to push back against persecution and ensure greater respect for religious freedom for all.”

Ambassador Brownback’s Briefing[3]

The Ambassador mentioned that Eritrea, Tajikistan, Saudi Arabia, Turkmenistan, North Korea  and Iran were “Countries of Particular Concer” and that Pakistan, Russia and Burma also raised serious issues.

Report’s Executive Summary: Cuba Religious Freedom

“The constitution provides for freedom of religion and prohibits discrimination based on religion. The government and the Communist Party, through the Communist Party’s Office of Religious Affairs (ORA), continued to control most aspects of religious life. Observers noted the government continued to use threats, travel restrictions, detentions, and violence against some religious leaders and their followers. In May the government officially informed the Assemblies of God (AG) it would not proceed with confiscation orders against 2,000 AG churches or demolish a church in Santiago under zoning laws passed in 2015; however, it did not provide written guarantees to this effect. Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW) [4] noted 325 violations of freedom of religion or belief during the year. CSW reported a “significant drop” in the reported cases of violations of religious freedom or belief in the year compared with previous years, which it attributed to the government’s verbal rescinding in May of the decree outlawing the 2,000 AG churches. The majority of CSW’s reported violations were related to government efforts to prevent members of the human rights organization Ladies in White from attending Catholic Mass, as well as government threats and harassment of members of religious groups advocating for greater religious and political freedom. Religious groups reported a continued increase in the ability of their members to conduct charitable and educational projects, such as operating before and after school and community service programs, assisting with care of the elderly, and maintaining small libraries of religious materials. Some leaders from Catholic, Protestant, and minority religious groups stated the religious freedom environment had improved compared with the previous year, pointing to progress made in a pending permit to build a permanent church structure, while some evangelical Christian groups said religious freedom had not improved for them.”” (Emphases added.)

“The Community of Sant’Egidio organized the Paths of Peace, an interreligious meeting, in Havana on October 4 and 5. Leaders of different religions and more than 500 participants attended the meeting, which focused on the importance of welcoming and integrating migrants regardless of their religious affiliation or nonaffiliation.”

“U.S. embassy officials met with ORA officials to discuss the registration process for religious organizations and encourage equal treatment in allowing nonregistered groups to practice their religion. Embassy officials also met with the head of the Council of Cuban Churches (CCC), a government-recognized organization with close ties to the government and comprising most Protestant groups, to discuss its operations and programs. The embassy met regularly with Catholic Church authorities and Jewish community representatives concerning the state of religious, economic, and political activities. Embassy officials also met with representatives from Muslim, Jehovah’s Witness, Santeria, and various Protestant communities. The embassy remained in close contact with religious groups, including facilitating exchanges between visiting religious delegations and religious groups in the country. In social media and other public statements, the U.S. government continued to call upon the government to respect the fundamental freedoms of its citizens, including the freedom of religion.”

The Report’s Comments About Cuban Government Practices[5]

Religious organizations and human rights groups stated the government continued to threaten, detain, and use violence against outspoken religious figures, especially those advocating for human rights and religious freedom or collaborating with independent human rights groups. Security forces took measures, including detentions sometimes accompanied by violence, which inhibited the ability of members of the protest group Ladies in White to attend Catholic Mass. Some members of independent evangelical Christian churches said government authorities closely monitored and detained, for unspecified periods of time, their leadership and family members. Representatives of the Patmos Institute, a religious freedom advocacy organization, said authorities also targeted Christians affiliated with the institute, including through threats, detentions, and expulsions from school and work. One leader, who stated the situation had improved from the previous year, cited the approved permit to build the first new church built in the country since 1959.”

“Some high level Catholic, Protestant, and minority religious leaders stated the religious freedom environment had improved compared with the previous year; however, some evangelical Christian groups said religious freedom had not improved for their groups. CSW’s annual report stated church leaders from all denominations reported consistent harassment and surveillance from state security and officials responsible for religious affairs. It also stated the government continued to severely restrict public religious events. The CSW report counted 325 violations during the year, compared with 2,380 violations in 2016 and over 2,300 violations in 2015. In its report CSW stated the “significant drop” in the reported cases of violations of religious freedom or belief in the year, compared with previous years, was due to the government’s verbal rescinding in May of a decree that had outlawed 2,000 AG churches. One leader, who stated the situation had improved from the previous year, cited the approved permit to build a new Catholic church in Pinar del Rio Province – the first new church built in the country since 1959.” (Emphases added.)

“According to CSW, human rights activist Jorge Luis Garcia Perez reported state security agents raided the home of Misael Diaz Paseiro on October 22 and confiscated two Bibles, a number of crucifixes and five rosaries. On November 4, police reportedly beat Diaz, tore his rosaries from his neck, and said ‘in addition to being a counterrevolutionary, you are also a Christian. You should look at us – we are revolutionaries and we don’t believe in your god. Our god is Fidel Castro.’ Diaz was imprisoned on November 22 and reportedly denied visits from a priest and access to a Bible. The Christian Post reported the government charged Diaz with ‘pre-criminal dangerousness’ and sentenced him to 3.5 years in prison.” (Emphasis added.)

“Reverend Juan Carlos Nunez Velazquez, an Apostolic Movement leader, lost an appeal on February 1 to overturn his sentence of one year under house arrest. Police arrested Nunez in 2016 for disturbing the peace because he failed to comply with police orders to reduce the size and volume of the speakers he used during Sunday sermons at his open-air church.”

“According to CSW, in February authorities twice interrogated an Eastern Baptist Convention pastor about his work, members of his congregation, and the activities of his church. The authorities also threatened to confiscate the property; however, at year’s end, the government had taken no action against the church.” (Emphasis added.)

“According to CSW and news sources, on April 27, airport authorities detained and interrogated Felix Yuniel Llerena Lopez, a 20-year-old student and evangelical Christian and religious freedom activist, upon his return to the country. The authorities informed Llerena Lopez he was being investigated for planning terrorist acts, possessing pornographic materials, and meeting with “terrorist” Cuban exiles opposed to the government. The authorities briefly detained Lopez’s mother, expelled Llerena Lopez from the university where he was a part-time student, and banned him from international travel. On October 2, authorities informed Llerena Lopez he would not be charged with any crimes and rescinded his travel ban; however, the university had not reinstated him at year’s end. CSW quoted Llerena Lopez as saying, ‘After five months of opposition, arrests, being expelled from university, intimidation, threats, and a false accusation, today I can say that solidarity and the dignity of not giving up on principles … triumphed.’” (Emphases added.)

“According to CSW, on November 6, police arrested and briefly detained Leonardo Rodriguez Alonso, a local Patmos coordinator in Santa Clara, without charges. CSW sources said on April 11, Rodriguez’s daughter, Dalila Rodriguez Gonzalez, was fired from her position as a university professor for not being ‘a good influence on students’ and because she ‘could damage their formation.’  According to Rodriguez Alonso, his daughter’s dismissal was revenge for his religious freedom advocacy.” (Emphasis added.)

“According to CSW, police physically assaulted members of the Ladies in White, a rights advocacy organization, while they were en route to attend religious ceremonies. On February 19, CSW reported that a police officer punched in the face Ladies in White member Magda Onelvis Mendoza Diaz as she was going to church. On August 13, a police officer in Havana reportedly choked Berta Soler Fernandez, and officers detained her for 24 hours; they subsequently released her without charge.” (Emphases added.)

“According to representatives of several religious organizations that had unsuccessfully sought legal recognition, the government continued to interpret the law on associations as a means for the MOJ to deny the registration of certain religious groups. If the MOJ decided a group was duplicating the activities of another, it denied recognition. In some cases, the MOJ delayed the request for registration or cited changing laws as a reason why a request had not been approved.”

“According to the members of Protestant denominations, some groups were still able to register only a small percentage of ‘house churches’ in private homes; however, most unregistered house churches continued to operate with little or no government interference. A number of religious groups, including the Jehovah’s Witnesses and the Mormons, continued to await a decision from the MOJ on pending applications for official recognition, some dating as far back as 1994. These groups said the authorities permitted them to conduct religious activities, hold meetings, receive foreign visitors, make substantial renovations to their facilities, and send representatives abroad. They also said state security continued to monitor their movements, telephone calls, visitors, and religious meetings.”

“According to CSW sources, on September 14, police disrupted an interdenominational Christian service in Santiago; local authorities had previously approved the service. Local authorities said the service was ‘counterrevolutionary’ and threatened to imprison event organizer Pastor Ernesto Lora if he organized a similar event in the future.” (Emphasis added.)

“According to CSW, on April 3, authorities in Las Tunas fined Reverend Mario Travieso of the Apostolic Church 1,500 pesos ($1,500) for building a wall next to his church that the authorities considered too high even though he had received written approval from his neighbors. Prior to imposing the fine, authorities had inspected his house in response to a noise complaint; they told him not to pray or sing with neighboring families.” (Emphasis added.)

“Many religious leaders continued to state they refrained from speaking about overtly political topics. Some said they feared criticizing the government could lead to denials of permits from the ORA, dismantling of religious buildings, or other measures that could limit the growth of their religious groups. The nongovernmental organization Outreach Aid to the Americas (OAA) reported some instances in which evangelical Christians not supporting Communist Party political activities experienced harassment and threats from government employers and educators.”

“According to the OAA, the Central University in Santa Clara expelled an 18-year-old student after he began attending Christian group meetings at the university. The OAA said university officials told the student he was expelled because his beliefs ‘were not compatible with the philosophy taught at the university.’”

“The OAA said from October 2016 to April 2017, the supervisors of an employee in a government-run company in Taguasco reportedly threatened the employee with termination after learning he had joined a Christian church in 2016. The man reported his harassment and threats to his pastor in April.”

The OAA stated in April school administrators had threatened to expel a 17-year-old student “enrolled in a pre-university course at the Ernesto Che Guevara Institute of Santa Clara if he continued to participate in Christian group meetings.”

“In May the government informed the Assemblies of God (AG) it would not proceed with confiscation orders against 2,000 AG churches or demolish a church in Santiago under zoning laws passed in 2015; however, it did not provide written guarantees to this effect.”

“Many religious groups continued to use private homes as house churches to work around restrictions on constructing new buildings. Protestant leaders’ estimates of the total number of house churches for Protestant groups varied significantly, from fewer than 2,000 to as many as 10,000. Religious groups said authorities approved many applications within two to three years from the date of the application, but either did not respond to or denied other applications arbitrarily.”

“Representatives from both the Catholic Church and the CCC [Cuban Council of Churches] said they continued to conduct religious services in prisons and detention centers in some provinces. The Protestant seminary in Matanzas and churches in Pinar del Rio continued to train chaplains and laypersons to provide religious counseling for prison inmates and to provide support for their families. The CCC continued to operate a training facility it opened in 2016, at which it offered courses on chaplain work as well as courses on caring for sacred religious objects, gender and women’s issues, and seminars for international students.”

“Representatives of religious groups reported their leaders continued to travel abroad generally unimpeded to participate in exchanges between local and international faith-based communities.”

“The majority of religious groups continued to report improvement in their ability to attract new members without government interference, and a reduction in interference from the government in conducting their services. According to local observers, in September authorities prohibited a Baptist journalist from traveling with an interfaith group of religious and civil society activists and journalists to a human rights training seminar in Brazil. The journalist’s employer reportedly accused the journalist of selling secret information and of committing treason. Several independent journalists and bloggers reported an increase in government harassment and prohibitions of travel of individuals who questioned government policies.”

“Some religious leaders reported obstacles preventing them from importing religious materials and donated goods, including bureaucratic challenges and arbitrary restrictions such as inconsistent rules on computers and electronic devices. Several groups said they could import large quantities of Bibles, books, clothing, and other donated goods. The Catholic Church and several Protestant religious group representatives said they continued to maintain small libraries, print periodicals and other information, and operate their own websites with little or no formal censorship. The Catholic Church continued to publish periodicals and hold regular forums at the Varela Center that sometimes criticized official social and economic policies.”

“By year’s end, the government had not granted the Archbishop of Havana’s 2016 public request to allow the Catholic Church to reopen religious schools and have open access to broadcast on television and radio. The ORA authorized the CCC to host a monthly radio broadcast, which allowed the council’s messages to be heard throughout the country. No other churches had access to media, which are all state-owned. Several religious leaders continued to protest the government’s restriction on broadcasting religious services over the radio or on television.”

“The ORA stated in August the law on associations was being revised, although it did not provide a timeline for when the revisions would be finalized, nor what the changes would be. Members of the AG continued to request the government pass reforms to the law that would validate and legalize the property the church owned, as well as allow the church to build new temples.”

“Several religious leaders said the ORA continued to grant new permits to repair or restore existing buildings, allowing the expansion of some structures and in some cases the construction of essentially new buildings on the foundations of the old. In August an ORA source stated the ORA had granted permission in 2015 for the Catholic Church to build an entirely new church on newly acquired ground in Pinar del Rio Province. The media reported in 2017 the construction was almost complete. Some religious leaders stated the government regularly granted permits to buy properties to be used as house churches, including in some cases when the titleholder to the property did not plan to live there. Other religious groups stated securing permission for the purchase or construction of new buildings remained difficult, if not impossible.”

T”he government continued to prevent religious groups from establishing accredited schools but did not interfere with the efforts of some religious groups to operate seminaries, interfaith training centers, before- and after-school programs, eldercare programs, weekend retreats, workshops for primary and secondary students, and higher education programs. The Catholic Church continued to offer coursework leading to a bachelor’s and master’s degree through foreign partners. Several Protestant communities continued to offer bachelor’s or master’s degrees in theology, the humanities, and related subjects via distance learning; however the government did not recognize any of these degrees.”

“Jehovah’s Witnesses leaders continued to state they found the requirements for university admission and the course of study incompatible with the group’s beliefs since their religion prohibited them from political involvement. As a result, Jehovah’s Witnesses remained ineligible for professional careers in the fields of law, medicine, among others.”

“Church leaders reported the government continued an unofficial practice of allowing civilian public service to substitute for mandatory military service for those who objected on religious grounds. Church leaders submitted official letters to a military committee, which decided whether to grant these exemptions. Jehovah’s Witnesses and Seventh-day Adventist leaders stated their members generally were permitted to perform social service in lieu of military service.”

“Some religious leaders said the government continued to restrict their ability to receive donations from overseas. They cited a measure that prohibited churches and religious groups from using individuals’ bank accounts for their organizations, and required existing individual accounts used in this way to be consolidated into one per denomination or organization. Larger, better organized churches reported more success in receiving large donations, while smaller, less formal churches reported difficulties with banking procedures. According to these religious leaders, the regulations allowed the government to curb the scope and number of activities of individual churches and to single out groups that could be held accountable for withdrawing money intended for purposes not approved by the government.”

“Religious groups continued to report the government allowed them to engage in community service programs, including assisting the elderly, providing potable water to small towns, growing and selling fruits and vegetables at below-market prices, and establishing health clinics. International faith-based charitable operations such as Caritas, Sant’Egidio, and the Salvation Army maintained local offices in Havana. Caritas in particular was very involved in gathering and distributing hurricane relief items.”

“According to the Western Baptist Convention (WBC), on July 6, members of a family that occupied a Havana property owned by the WBC more than 30 years ago broke into the WBC’s new office adjacent to where the family lived. The family reportedly stole the WBC’s documents, computers, furniture, and other property and refused to return it to the WBC. The ORA took no action, despite WBC’s requests for ORA’s intervention. In 1992, a court ruled the family’s residency in the property was illegal but did not require the family to leave.”

Conclusion

The Act requires the Secretary of State to make annual designations of counties that have “engaged in or tolerated systematic, ongoing, and egregious violations of religious freedom” as “Countries of Particular Concern,” and on December 22, 2017, then Secretary Rex Tillerson so designated these 10 countries: Burma, China, Eritrea, Iran, North Korea, Sudan, Saudi Arabia, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan, all of which in this Report are so identified.[6]

The Report’s discussion about Cuba surprisingly did not mention the recent annual report of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom and instead heavily relied on the annual report of Christian Solidarity Worldwide, which seems contrary to the Department’s stated desire to have multiple sources of information. Further research and a separate blog post about CSW seem necessary and then an overall evaluation of these reports about Cuba religious freedom.

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[1] U.S. State Dep’t, International Religious Freedom Report for 2017 (May 29, 2018); U.S. State Dep’t, Five things To Know About This Year’s International Religious Freedom Report Release (May 29, 2018); Secretary Pompeo To Release the 2017 International Religious Freedom Report (May 25, 2018). Earlier reports on international religious freedom by the State Department and the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom are identified in the “Cuban Human Rights” section of List of Posts to dwkcommentaries—Topical: CUBA. /

[2]  U.S. State Dep’t, Release of the 2017 Annual Report on International Religious Freedom (May 29, 2018).

[3] U.S. State Dep’t, Briefing on the Release of the 2017 Annual Report on International Religious Freedom (May 29, 2018).

[4] Christian Solidarity World claims that it it is independent of any government or political persuasion and says it has a “specialist team of advocates work on over 20 countries across Asia, Africa, the Middle East and Latin America, to ensure everyone’s right to freedom of religion or belief is defended, protected and promoted. Our vision is a world free from religious persecution, where everyone has the right to practice their religion or belief freely.” Its main office appears to be in London with other offices in Brussels, Belgium; Edinburgh, U.K.; Washington, D.C.; Casper, WY, U.S.; and Kaduna, Nigeria. In April 2017 the U.N. granted CSW  Consultative Status allowing it to participate in certain U.N. activities. Its Founder and Chief Executive is Mervyn Thomas, a member of the World Assemblies of God Religious Freedom Commission. (See Thomas, One Church, One Prayer; Williams, Christian Solidarity Worldwide gets UN recognition after lengthy wait (April 20, 2017).)

[5] U.S. State Dep’t, International Religious Freedom Report for 2017—Cuba (May 29, 2018).

[6] Compare U.S. State Dep’t,  Designations Under the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998 (Jan. 4, 2018)   with Cuba Religious Freedom in the Eyes of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, dwkcommentaries.com (May 28, 2018).  The six additional countries so designated by the Commission were Central African Republic, Nigeria, Pakistan, Russia, Syria, and Vietnam.

 

 

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).

What is Westminster’s Way of Faith?

Westminster Presbyterian Church
Westminster Presbyterian Church

June 12 was Heritage Sunday at Minneapolis’ Westminster Presbyterian Church when we celebrated the history of our church and honored those who have been members for 50 years or more. The sermon–“What is Westminster’s Way of Faith?”–was based upon Psalm 145 and Hebrews 12: 1-3.[1]

Readings from Holy Scripture

Psalm 145 states as follows (NRSV):

“I will extol you, my God and King,
and bless your name forever and ever.
Every day I will bless you,
and praise your name forever and ever.
Great is the Lord, and greatly to be praised;
his greatness is unsearchable.”

“One generation shall laud your works to another,
and shall declare your mighty acts.
On the glorious splendor of your majesty,
and on your wondrous works, I will meditate.
The might of your awesome deeds shall be proclaimed,
and I will declare your greatness.
They shall celebrate the fame of your abundant goodness,
and shall sing aloud of your righteousness.”

“The Lord is gracious and merciful,
slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.
The Lord is good to all,
and his compassion is over all that he has made.”

“All your works shall give thanks to you, O Lord,
and all your faithful shall bless you.
They shall speak of the glory of your kingdom,
and tell of your power,
to make known to all people your mighty deeds,
and the glorious splendor of your kingdom.
Your kingdom is an everlasting kingdom,
and your dominion endures throughout all generations.”

“The Lord is faithful in all his words,
and gracious in all his deeds.
The Lord upholds all who are falling,
and raises up all who are bowed down.
The eyes of all look to you,
and you give them their food in due season.
You open your hand,
satisfying the desire of every living thing.
The Lord is just in all his ways,
and kind in all his doings.
The Lord is near to all who call on him,
to all who call on him in truth.
He fulfills the desire of all who fear him;
he also hears their cry, and saves them.
The Lord watches over all who love him,
but all the wicked he will destroy.”

“My mouth will speak the praise of the Lord,
and all flesh will bless his holy name forever and ever.”

The New Testament Scripture (Hebrews 12:1-3 (NRSV)) reads as follows:

“Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God.”

“Consider him who endured such hostility against himself from sinners, so that you may not grow weary or lose heart.”

The Sermon

Rev. Dr. Timothy Hart-Andersen used his recent interviews of finalists for appointment as the church’s next Director of Choral Ministries as the entrée to his sermon because they all wanted to know “’Who is Westminster?’ They wondered about how we express our faith, how we worship, how we reach out to the community, how we make a difference in the city. They wanted to hear Westminster stories, those experiences and encounters with the Holy and the mundane that happen here, and have for many years, that make us who we are.”

In answering this question, Hart-Andersen realized that “the continuing life of a congregation depends upon telling and re-telling its narrative.”

“In their stories people find meaning that forms them. Their narratives – and I use the word in the plural because there never is simply one story – their narratives give them identity. Christian faith lives beyond any particular time in a congregation’s history and is passed along in the telling. Memories are formed and those memories impart meaning from one era to the next.”

“Westminster has nearly 160 years of stories. Some of us know some of them; no one knows them all. And yet, known and unknown, the stories continue to shape us as a people. We’re not always conscious of that dimension of worship and education, of mission and hospitality – how we pass on the faith we have received and in which we stand and by which we are saved. We’re not always cognizant of the movement of the people of God through time, not always aware how our faith is shared by those before us and with those who follow.”

“Not always, but today we are.”

“On Heritage Sunday we recognize the long-time members of Westminster. Two hundred twenty-two of you have been a part of this particular community of faith for at least fifty years. Two and a half generations ago you embraced the story of Westminster; over the years you have now become its story.”

“One generation shall laud your works to another,” says the Hebrew poet to Almighty God. And through the psalm we hear over and over that the people continue to pass on and sing of the stories of God’s deeds and works among them to the generations to come. The faithful people of one age pass their faith on to those of the age to follow. (Ps. 145:3)”

“You heritage members of this church have lauded the works of God from one generation to another. For half a century and more you have told the story and lived the story of our faith in ways that compel and transform. For five-plus decades you have worshipped and taught and sung and showed who we are as a people of faith, and we are grateful. We have heard you, and seen you, and followed you.”

“At the heart of Judaism lies the commitment to entrust the narrative of the people of God to the next generation. The formative history in that tradition is never forgotten. At a Bar-Mitzvah or Bat-Mitzvah, the coming-of-age ritual for young people, the story of the Jews is re-told. The heirs of the tradition then take it up and make it their own.”

“One generation lauds the work of God to another.”

“Baptism and confirmation serve the same purpose for us in the Christian community. At the font and in the teaching we tell the story of Jesus and watch as that story moves from one generation to the next. ‘For I handed on to you,’ the Apostle Paul says, ‘What I in turn had received.’ (I Corinthians 15:3)”

“Over the years the details of the faith story of this particular people called Westminster have changed. In the early days there were the pioneers from Wales and Scotland, eight of them who set up shop in the muddy little village on the Mississippi. They started this congregation and from the beginning they were aware of their role in helping build the city.”

“Years later, when immigrants from Europe began showing up looking for work and hoping for a better life for their children, Westminster responded. We fanned out into poor immigrant communities down on the flats along the river on Sunday afternoons and started mission schools for the children. “

“And God was in that work.”

“When we heard from fellow Presbyterians on the west coast that Chinese immigrants were being persecuted we invited them to come to Minnesota. The first Chinese to arrive in this town in the 1880s were welcomed and supported by Westminster. Our work increased after the passage of the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. For the next 80 years we maintained a Chinese ministry; some of you remember it.”

“And God was in that work.”

“When Abbott Hospital was given to the church in the last will and testament of William Dunwoody, we learned how to run it, and did so, for the next half-century. Some of you were born in Abbott when it was owned by Westminster, before the church spun it off 50 years ago. We helped train doctors and nurses. We served the medical needs of the residents of the city, especially women and children.”

“And God was in that work.”

“When Hmong families began coming to this city 100 years after the Chinese, in the 1980s, Westminster responded again. The Hmong were seeking refuge and a new life after war in Southeast Asia. We already had one Boy Scout troop at Westminster back then, Troop 33 led by Scoutmaster Dave Moore since 1965, but we went ahead and chartered another, the first Hmong Boy Scout Troop in the country. Thirty-five years later Dave – who joined Westminster in 1948 – is still leading it.”

“And God is in that work.”

“If the question is, ‘What is Westminster’s way of faith?’ the response may be found in our stories. There’s a pattern in how God’s work has been made manifest among us, when we take a look back. How have we pursued and lived and embodied the gospel of Jesus Christ in the life of this congregation and in this city over the years? Simply put, we have not closed ourselves off from the world around us. On the contrary, we have understood our faith to be a living faith and we have followed the gospel right into that world and worked with others to change it.”

“A telling presence in the city.”

“Whatever questions of justice are on the hearts of the people of this city and nation and world, especially the most vulnerable, they have set the direction for Westminster’s mission from the start.”

“In worship last week we announced the distribution of signs of support for our Muslim neighbors by wishing them a Blessed Ramadan. The question of how we will learn to live with people of other faiths is critical not only in this city, of course, but in the nation as a whole. It is on our congregation’s agenda.” [2]

“Our God is an incarnational God, not an abstract, detached, distant deity. Jesus comes to bring the divine into the world, to draw the universal into the particular, to step right into the real stuff of human life, the injustice and poverty, the exclusion and hopelessness which hold sway over much of the earth. The incarnation inserts Jesus into human history – real human history. His story of redemption and forgiveness and unconditional love is the one passed down through the ages, the one we have heard in our time, the narrative that forms us as a people.”

“Last Sunday I noticed [a young man] taking photos of the Blessed Ramadan signs [at our church]. He told me he was a Muslim, and was surprised to see the signs. ‘They give me hope,’ he said.”

“Not everyone was so pleased. Some of you may have heard that Westminster was in the news last week and we began to hear responses from some in the community who did not agree with our participation with the Minnesota Council of Churches effort to show respect to our Muslim neighbors. We received unkind phone calls and emails from a few, but we also heard that the signs were beacons of light in a world struggling in the shadows of religious misunderstanding, struggling to figure out how to live with religious diversity.”

“The memorial service honoring Muhammed Ali this week – which he planned himself – offered the same message: we can learn to live in peace with one another, in spite of differences in our religious traditions. We need not fear one another. We need not feel threatened by one another. We need not feel the desire to exclude one another.”

“This message is more important than ever this morning, [with the news] that the mass shooting at a gay bar earlier today in Orlando may have been linked to extreme Islamist ideology. I hope not, but if it is, we will need to strengthen our witness in supporting the Muslim community, being more present with the message of respect for our Muslims neighbors, the vast majority of whom reject violence. They will likely be on the receiving end of a backlash.”

“The tragedy in Orlando brings up the question of the full equality and acceptance of gay people in this country, something we have stood for and worked for at Westminster. We may need to step up and strengthen our witness in support of the gay community in light of this latest attack.”

“The tragedy also brings up the challenge of the easy availability of guns and weapons in America, another issue where this church has taken a stand. In the aftermath of this latest mass shooting we may need to strengthen our witness in support of efforts to end gun violence.”

“Today we are pursuing Westminster’s way of faith. We are creating the stories in our time that in another fifty years will be remembered by those who follow us. In some ways they’re not that different from the narrative of this church since the beginning. This is the race we are running, Hebrews tells us, with Jesus as ‘the pioneer and perfecter of our faith.’ It is a race for justice and peace in our time.”

“We are not alone in that race, Hebrews tells us. There is a ‘great cloud of witnesses’ surrounding us. Some of their names appear in the bulletin this morning. Some are seated among us wearing yellow carnations. Others have been here for many years but not yet fifty; and some in that great cloud are just getting started at Westminster.”

“I heard about one of them this past week. She was baptized here and is now six years old and has been attending this church and our church school all her life. Out in the city this week this Westminster first grader saw a Muslim woman in a burqa. Having been at church last Sunday, she turned to her mother and said, “Is she a blessed Ramadan? Can we say it to her?”

“One generation shall laud your works to another. You long-timers have done well in carrying forward the heart of who God has called our church to be and to do in this city. You have conveyed the hope of the gospel to those who came after you. We have received it and, together with you, we will pass it on. The future is full of promise.”

“Thanks be to God.”

Conclusion

This sermon tied directly to the one the prior Sunday for recent high school, college and graduate school graduates that was the subject of a prior post. Both sermons emphasized the interconnectedness of the generations of the faithful. Indeed, churches and other houses of worship are perhaps the only institutions where there are intergenerational groups of people learning and being together.

This was most evident in the June 12th sermon’s reference to the six-year old girl’s asking her mother if she should say “blessed Ramadan” to a woman in a burqa. It also was present in that day’s “A Time for Children,” when Associate Pastor Sarah Brouwer had the children face the congregation as we all sang together, “Jesus Loves Me.” I pray that the children were impressed that this favorite hymn is not just for children and that their parents and other adults are enriched by their religious faith.

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[1] The bulletin for the service and the text of the sermon are available online.

[2] As mentioned in a prior post about Westminster’s June 5th service, the church is participating in a project of the Minnesota Council of Churches to post signs at churches and homes announcing “To Our Muslim Neighbors: Blessed Ramadan.” These signs, said Rev. Peg Chemberlin, the Council’s executive director, are reminders that “Minnesota is respectful of religious differences.” Asad Zaman, executive director of the Muslim American Society of Minnesota, said, “If I see a sign, it tells me that the person believes this country belongs to everyone, that no one should be excluded. There is a vast reservoir of good will among people. The Blessed Ramadan signs allow that to be expressed.”

 

 

 

 

 

Political and Civics Lessons from President Obama at Rutgers University

On May 15, President Obama delivered the commencement address at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, New Jersey.[1] Below are photographs of the President and the graduates at Rutgers.

Obama @ Rutgers

Rutegers stduents

 

 

 

 

The press naturally focused on the following remarks that indirectly criticized Donald Trump, the presumptive Republican presidential nominee:

  • “When you hear someone longing for the “good old days,” . . . It ain’t so. The ‘good old days’ weren’t that great.”
  • “The world is more interconnected than ever before, and it’s becoming more connected every day.  Building walls won’t change that. . . . [To] help ourselves we’ve got to help others, not pull up the drawbridge and try to keep the world out. . . . Building walls . . . won’t boost our economy, and it won’t enhance our security either.”
  • “Isolating or disparaging Muslims, suggesting that they should be treated differently when it comes to entering this country . . . is not just a betrayal of our values . . . it would alienate the very communities at home and abroad who are our most important partners in the fight against violent extremism.   Suggesting that we can build an endless wall along our borders, and blame our challenges on immigrants — that doesn’t just run counter to our history as the world’s melting pot; it contradicts the evidence that our growth and our innovation and our dynamism has always been spurred by our ability to attract strivers from every corner of the globe.  That’s how we became America.”
  • “Facts, evidence, reason, logic, an understanding of science — these are good things. These are qualities you want in people making policy. Facts, evidence, reason, logic, an understanding of science — these are good things. These are qualities you want in people making policy. . . . In politics and in life, ignorance is not a virtue. It’s not cool to not know what you’re talking about. That’s not keeping it real, or telling it like it is. That’s not challenging political correctness.  That’s just not knowing what you’re talking about.”

Obama also continued with his civics lessons that were discussed in his final State of the Union Address and remarks at the Illinois General Assembly, a London town hall meeting and Howard University’s commencement ceremony that were discussed in earlier posts. Here are the similar remarks at Rutgers.

“America’s progress has never been smooth or steady.  Progress doesn’t travel in a straight line.  It zigs and zags in fits and starts.  Progress in America has been hard and contentious, and sometimes bloody.  It remains uneven and at times, for every two steps forward, it feels like we take one step back.”

“But progress is bumpy.  It always has been.  But because of dreamers and innovators and strivers and activists, progress has been this nation’s hallmark.  I’m fond of quoting Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., who said, ‘The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.’ It bends towards justice.  I believe that.  But I also believe that the arc of our nation, the arc of the world does not bend towards justice, or freedom, or equality, or prosperity on its own.  It depends on us, on the choices we make, particularly at certain inflection points in history; particularly when big changes are happening and everything seems up for grabs.”

“You are graduating at such an inflection point.  Since the start of this new millennium, you’ve already witnessed horrific terrorist attacks, and war, and a Great Recession.  You’ve seen economic and technological and cultural shifts that are profoundly altering how we work and how we communicate, how we live, how we form families.  The pace of change is not subsiding; it is accelerating.  And these changes offer not only great opportunity, but also great peril.”

Therefore, the new graduates need to participate in the political process. You need to vote. “And if participation means voting, and it means compromise, and organizing and advocacy, it also means listening to those who don’t agree with you.”

“If you disagree with somebody, bring them in and ask them tough questions.  Hold their feet to the fire.  Make them defend their positions.   If somebody has got a bad or offensive idea, prove it wrong.  Engage it.  Debate it.  Stand up for what you believe in. Don’t be scared to take somebody on.  Don’t feel like you got to shut your ears off because you’re too fragile and somebody might offend your sensibilities.  Go at them if they’re not making any sense. Use your logic and reason and words.  And by doing so, you’ll strengthen your own position, and you’ll hone your arguments.  And maybe you’ll learn something and realize you don’t know everything.  And you may have a new understanding not only about what your opponents believe but maybe what you believe.  Either way, you win.  And more importantly, our democracy wins.”

“Gear yourself for the long haul.  Whatever path you choose, you’re going to have some setbacks.  You will deal occasionally with foolish people.  You will be frustrated.  You’ll have a boss that’s not great.  You won’t always get everything you want — at least not as fast as you want it.  So you have to stick with it.  You have to be persistent.  And success, however small, however incomplete, success is still success. . . . Better is good.  It may not be perfect, it may not be great, but it’s good.  That’s how progress happens — in societies and in our own lives.”

“So don’t lose hope if sometimes you hit a roadblock.  Don’t lose hope in the face of naysayers.  And certainly don’t let resistance make you cynical.  Cynicism is so easy, and cynics don’t accomplish much.  As a friend of mine who happens to be from New Jersey, a guy named Bruce Springsteen, once sang, “they spend their lives waiting for a moment that just don’t come.”  Don’t let that be you.  Don’t waste your time waiting.”

“Throughout our history, a new generation of Americans has reached up and bent the arc of history in the direction of more freedom, and more opportunity, and more justice.”

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[1] White House, Remarks by the President at Commencement Address at Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey (May 15, 2016); Rutgers University, Commencement Address: President Barack Obama (May 15, 2016) (video); Harris, Obama Swipes at Trump, but Doesn’t Name Him, in Speech at Rutgers, N.Y. Times (May 15, 2016).

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.