The tale of government restrictions on religious freedom in the post-Soviet space makes for depressing reading as the pace of imposing tighter controls on various minority religious communities continues largely unabated. The case of Russia perhaps prompts the greatest concern. There, various laws and regulations restricting religious freedom coupled with increasing social pressure among Russian Orthodox hierarchs, theologians, and institutions to conform to the present order of things within the Moscow Patriarchate have seriously choked religious expression. Increasing restrictions on so-called “extremists”—be they Jehovah’s Witnesses, Hare Krishna devotees, or Muslims who embrace the teachings of Said Nursi—shape the landscape. Recent amendments to the 1997 Law on Freedom of Conscience and Religious Associations, including the July 2015 provision which abolished the ability of unregistered religious communities to operate without state approval and the July 2016 amendment that restricted the ill-defined concept of missionary activity, are clear indicators of the limited ability of Russian citizens to exercise any semblance of genuine religious liberty.
Colombia is experiencing one of its greatest moments of contradiction in its history as a republic. Last year, the government signed a peace agreement with the oldest guerrilla movement in Latin America, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia, FARC), which is in the process of becoming a political party called the Common Alternative Revolutionary Force (Fuerza Alternativa Revolucionaria del Comun, FARC). At the same time, public opinion of state institutions is at an all-time low. Specifically, a recent Gallup poll found that 72 percent of Colombians disapprove of their Supreme Court, 83 percent disapprove of the judiciary system, 87 percent disapprove of the political parties, and 72 percent disapprove of President Juan Manuel Santos, winner of Nobel Peace Prize.
Every year, 30 times now since Pope John Paul II brought religious leaders together in Assisi in 1986, the lay Catholic Community of Sant’Egidio organizes an ambitious meeting that they call a prayer, or a pilgrimage, for peace. The meetings draw a cadre of recognized world religious leaders: Catholic, Protestant, Jewish, Muslim, Sikh, Shinto, Buddhist, and so on. World political leaders also attend. The meetings combine a never-ceasing flow of inspirational and aspirational words, warm and symbolic hugs among different leaders, some intellectual challenges and grist, moving personal witness, countless back channel efforts to address bitter conflicts, and pageantry: there is music and large candelabras that travel from place to place. This is a phenomenal organizational effort by a unique group that is deeply Italian in origin and verve but truly global in its reach and vision. Literally thousands of volunteers care for each invited guest, translate the events into at least six languages, smile when it rains, and facilitate networking by bringing people together.
On August 11 and 12, 2017, the country was gripped by the chaos and violence unfolding in Charlottesville, Virginia, as thousands of Ku Klux Klan members, neo-Nazis, and other white nationalists descended upon the town. The Charlottesville events not only brought our country's deeply rooted racism once more to the fore of national attention, but also highlighted ongoing anti-Semitic currents in our society.
On August 11, 2017, images of hundreds of torch-bearing men and women marching on the University of Virginia campus and shouting "You will not replace us," "Jews will not replace us," and "White lives matter" filled TV screens and newsfeeds across the country. The next day, more Klu Klux Klan members, neo-Nazis, and other white nationalists gathered in Charlottesville, Virginia, to hold a "Unite the Right" rally and ostensibly protest the removal of a Robert E. Lee statue from a city park. Counterprotestors appeared both days to challenge the white supremacist gathering, and violent clashes occurred. The events in Charlottesville culminated in tragedy when James Alex Fields, Jr., rammed his car into a group of counterprotestors, leaving Heather Heyer dead and injuring 19 others.
Many unsung heroes in international organizations contend daily with problems whose global and human impact is all too often distilled into mind-numbing statistics. Dr. Luiz Loures, a Brazilian physician who works in the United Nations AIDS program (UNAIDS), is one of them. His career has focused on the HIV and AIDS pandemic, starting when he practiced medicine in Brazil in the epidemic’s early days, now as a UN civil servant in Geneva. Lessons he draws from his experience are well worth taking to heart.
In June 2017, Georgetown University students attended the Jesuit Universities Humanitarian Action Network (JUHAN) 2017 Conference with support from the Berkley Center. The conference theme, "Principles in Crisis: Refugees and Responsibility," referenced the moral and ethical frameworks, as well as guiding principles, that motivate and channel the global response to human suffering. In these blogs students reflect on their experiences at the conference and what they've learned about compassion, solidarity, and action for refugee and migrant populations.
The spotlight is on the topic of female genital cutting (FGC—also called circumcision or mutilation). An ongoing Michigan court case involves a doctor accused of performing FGC on young girls; FGC is against the law in the United States (as it is in many countries), but this is a precedent-setting case as prosecutions are rare. Adding to the focus on this issue in the United States, a video widely circulated on social media showed a Washington D.C.-area imam defending FGC, arguing that it curtailed women's “hypersexuality.” Many Muslims were outraged because nowhere does the Qu'ran recommend FGC. For decades the global human rights and health communities have actively condemned the practice as abusing children's and women's rights and serving no health purpose whatsoever. Despite activism and senior religious voices condemning FGC, however, the practice persists, affecting over 200 million children and girls worldwide. The topic raises fundamental questions about why this practice is linked by many to religion and how states and activists can intervene most effectively to bring a cruel practice to an end while respecting the dignity of all concerned.
“Blessed are the peacemakers: for they shall be called the children of God.” Exemplified in Jesus’ compelling call in the Sermon on the Mount, working for peace is vital to many religious traditions. But what is involved? Who in our complex modern world is a peacemaker?
In the aftermath of the 2015 Paris terrorist attack, then French president Francois Hollande declared a national state of emergency that has been continuously extended over the course of more than 20 months. While scheduled to expire last week, the state’s extraordinary security powers were extended a sixth time until November 2017, despite consistent human rights complaints. Moreover, a new law threatens to make those powers permanent.