My book Why Religions Work explores religious tolerance issues. It could not be more relevant at the moment with the world in its present state.
This blog has concentrated recently on the wonderful pilgrimages I have been on - to the Holy Land and to Turkey and more recently to Holy Georgia , Greece "In the Steps of St Paul" , Ethiopia and most recently my experiences in Iran.

"If I was allowed another life I would go to all the places of God's Earth. What better way to worship God than to look on all his works?" from The Chains of Heaven: an Ethiopian Romance Philip Marsden

Monday, 22 August 2011

Religious persecution - let's build bridges between faiths

Stories of religious persecution too often seem to take back stage to all the other demands on media time – the economy, health care, political issues of the day. But a short search across the Web soon brings up numerous examples of appalling religious persecution going on here and now across the globe; Muslims persecuting Christians, Christians persecuting Muslims, the persecution of Jews, etc. (Just a few stories and resources are given below). And it seems that whilst many of us have our deeply held prejudices and often inaccurate assumptions about religions, we are too often simply unaware of the individual and very human stories of suffering and tragedy at the hands of persecutors that are being acted out at this moment. Few will then give any further thought in their daily lives as to what they could themselves contribute to alleviating the misery of so many.

This is a hugely important issue. Not only do we diminish ourselves as human beings if we fail to care for the plight of our fellow beings. Religious persecution of course threatens our whole future security on this planet. And is it so very difficult to offer a hand of friendship and hospitality to a fellow human whatever his faith, color or culture?

There is a wonderful story in the Sep/Oct 2011 issue of Sojourners, of American Christian hospitality to Muslims awaiting completion of their own mosque. In Peace Be Upon Them - A Tennessee church welcomes its Muslim neighbors, author Bob Smietana writes:
“Two years ago, the pastor of Heartsong Church in Cordova, Tennessee, on the outskirts of Memphis, learned that a local mosque had bought property right across the street from the church. So he decided some Southern hospitality was in order.
A few days later, a sign appeared in front of the church. "Heartsong Church welcomes Memphis Islamic Center to the neighborhood," it read.
That small act of kindness was the start of an unlikely friendship between the two congregations, one that made headlines around the world. Members of the mosque and church have shared meals together, worked at a homeless shelter, and become friends over the past two years. When Stone learned that his Muslim friends needed a place to pray for Ramadan because their building wasn't ready, he opened up the doors of the church and let them hold Ramadan prayers there….. and so on – I recommend the whole article to my reader.

I recently finished reading the latest book by Gustav Niebuhr, the great nephew of Reinhold Niebuhr, one of America’s most distinguished theologians.Beyond Tolerance: How People Across America Are Building Bridges Between Faiths is a reprint edition of his book published just a year previously.
I posted my review on Amazon from which I quote below.

This is such an interesting, well- researched and important book on such a vital topic; it always saddens me that gems such as this seem to command relatively little interest as compared with the mass of best selling trivia so widely available. We should all care more about the serious issues that are going to affect the future of our families and our world.
Here we have a serious call for us to use our religious differences to forge peace rather than inspire hatred. Gustav Niebuhr calls for an end to what he calls the “rough trade in raw insults” between religions, for example as seen so often on the internet, and says that we need more than mere tolerance; we need a more committed effort to really get to know and respect our religious differences, to recognize that we can all learn from others, to understand that whatever those differences we are all of equal worth and value across class, race, ethnicity and religion. Respect, a warm acceptance, a mindfulness of everyone’s role in society, is called for, akin to the teachings of Gandhi on tolerance, respect and ahimsa.
Despite what much of the media would have us believe, we are seeing an increase in those who want to use our religious diversities constructively, to work towards a better future for us all. Indeed in 2004 there were apparently more than 1000 such organisations in the US building co-operative inter-religious bridges, and this number continues to grow rapidly. Neibuhr charts the history of some of the most significant of these initiatives to illustrate what has been and still can be done.
He tackles some tricky areas often seen as blocks to any real inter faith co-operation and explains why and how these may be overcome: for example the truth claims of the different religions; the history of the Christian view of salvation and the perceived need to evangelise and convert those of other faiths; the historically difficult relationship between Jews and Christians. We are told that in the US and elsewhere, and contrary to popular perception, those who think that only their religion is the ultimate truth are now in the minority. We are all made in God’s image and God must therefore surely want us all to work together and respect each other – and most if not all beliefs call for the love of neighbour regardless of tribe, race or nation; the so called Golden Rule.
Niebuhr cautions us to look beyond the media bias against inter-religious dialogues. He shows us that so much good work is going on at local level but that the media prefer to report on the bad and negative aspects of faith. In particular he gives evidence of US media bias against Muslims. He provides plenty of illustrative stories of cross religion initiatives, of religions coming together to serve others, of co-operating on social projects, sharing places of worship, assisting with rebuilding programmes of mosques, churches, synagogues, etc., as well as promoting dialogue. And he writes in some detail of the overlaps between our faiths seen for example in our teachings on compassion and hospitality.

We have to choose dialogue not violence. We have to believe, and have hope, the author writes, that human communication can matter. After all, denouncing religion is futile, and anyway our different traditions provide life -giving possibilities if we allow them to. Those who died on 9/11 deserve a monument dedicated to life and hope, not a war on terror. We have our basic humanity in common, we are all created by the same God in His image, and as per Isaiah 56:7, “mine house shall be called a house of prayer for all people.”
This important book goes a long way to help us understand just how much is going on in our communities towards inter-religious tolerance and understanding and how much more we can still do, with the potential for the force of ideas to counter the force of arms. The message throughout the book is that a bottom up approach is needed, driven by individuals. Our policies and laws can only do so much towards holding our societies together.
This is, as the strap line of the title makes clear, primarily about religion in America, where it is a source of public identity for many. But the interest in this book should not be so confined – the issues are, after all, global.
I like the way the final bibliography is sorted between the different categories of source material, a recent trend reflecting the range of such material that is now so readily available. There are some duplications of information within the text, and I found disconcerting the way the text sometimes jumped around in some chronological confusion – evidence of some late cutting and pasting of the manuscript perhaps! But this is a small point when measured against the importance of this interesting and well- researched book.
This should be compulsory reading and on the book- shelf of all those who have an interest in furthering peaceful relationship between faiths, for the building of a healed and better world for us all.

Other resources/stories - although of course beware any media bias! weblog on Christian persecution

The Iranian government continues its persecution of Iran's Baha'i community  
from which I quote:
“State Department spokesman Victoria Nuland recently voiced concern over the persecution of religious minorities in Iran: "While Iran's leaders hypocritically claim to promote tolerance, they continue to detain, imprison, harass, and abuse those who simply wish to worship the faith of their choosing," said Ms. Nuland. "We join the international community in continuing to call on the Iranian government to respect the fundamental rights of all its citizens and uphold its international commitments to protect them."”
gives many stories of church persecution across globe
for example:

and from Wikipedia on the persecution of Muslims “In January 2010, a report from the University of Exeter's European Muslim research centre noted that the number of anti-Muslim hate crimes has increased, ranging from "death threats and murder to persistent low-level assaults, such as spitting and name-calling," for which the media and politicians have been blamed with fueling anti-Muslim hatred.” From 
on The Persecution of Ahmadiyya Muslim Community


  1. So very often we get our information about the "other" from people just like ourselves, rather than the "other." If Christian wants to know what a Muslim really believes, ask a Muslim. If a Jew, ask a Jew. When my husband, a Muslim (I am a Christian), first came to the West he was shocked. His stereotypical belief was that all Americans are godless. He was shocked to find that the churches were full on Sunday. So shocked, he went to church with a professor for years. He went to learn, not to convert. His family, his brothers have also come and have come to hear me, a woman, a Christian preach. Interestingly, they have said Amen. It's about listening and learning and hospitality.

  2. I agree wholeheartedly - there is so much ignorance about religion - something I will be writing much more about. And this is why communities that are inclusive of the "other" rather than exclusive are also essential to real understanding. Thank you for the comment.