The world’s second and third largest democracies by population, the United States and Indonesia, are far apart, at opposite ends of the world. They wrestle today, however, with eerily similar questions about religious difference. Religious diversity is, for both societies, a founding principle and a source of national pride. Today, however, tensions among religious communities, especially when expressed through political processes, indicate that cherished patterns of religious tolerance simply cannot be taken for granted.
Zero hunger by 2030: that call, the echo of Sustainable Development Goal #2, was blessed by the General Assembly of the United Nations in September 2015. At the Rome headquarters of the UN World Food Programme (WFP), June 13 saw a sharp focus on the ethical and religious as well as practical dimensions of this goal. Pope Francis, in a first ever visit to WFP, echoed the call for Zero Hunger and reflected on what it involves. In parallel WFP's governors explored with WFP's leadership and an interreligious group how religious institutions and beliefs are involved in the global and local call to action to end hunger by 2030.
In September 2014 a group of religious leaders and scholars met for two days in New York to address what have become significant sources of tension in various United Nations settings: family, sex, reproductive health, and women’s rights. The diverse group was drawn from different world religions, widely different cultural traditions and, unusually for such settings, genders. UNFPA (the United Nations Population Fund) organized the meeting, with Norwegian government support. Their intense discussions zeroed in on sensitive language and still more sensitive topics. Speaking frankly about sex is rarely easy but in religious settings it tends to be especially difficult. But the group valiantly tackled the issues and emerged with a moving declaration. At its heart are insistent calls for what should NOT be done “in our name”, that is, in the name of religion:
On a May day in Copenhagen, the sun shining brightly, the greatest security risk seems to come from bicycles speeding along the streets. But not all is calm in the state of Denmark. Immigrants and refugees have provoked a national soul-searching about human rights, international responsibilities, national values, and the significance of religious freedom.
Washington DC faces meeting (and traffic) gridlock whenever world leaders gather. This week the “spring meetings” of the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank drew officials from every corner of the world. Meeting topics ranged from banking, food, and refugees to early childhood education and mental health. If you believe (as I do) that the heart of the matter is social justice, meaning that everyone everywhere deserves a fair crack at a decent and happy life, all these topics are vital. But the rounds of meetings and dark suited panels often felt far removed from the pain and hope they are truly about.
Religious literacy has taken on new importance for security and peace efforts focused on countering violent extremism. Groups such as Boko Haram, Al-Shabaab, and ISIS use Islamic rhetoric to recruit fighters or justify violent attacks (as do extremists in other religious traditions). Exploring the roles religion plays in a group’s organization and operations, as well as public perceptions, can point to actors or strategies to counter narratives and curtail recruitment.
Most girls look forward to school holidays, but for some girls in Kenya, this break from school is used for a ritual marking their transition from girlhood to woman. During August and December, many girls undergo what is known in Kenya as female circumcision.
Martin Luther King Jr.'s life and teachings are an inspiration for anyone who fights for social justice. Shaun Casey, a theologian and savvy political analyst, serves as the first Special Representative for Religion and Global Affairs in the US State Department. At a bold and somewhat improbable meeting of Christian religious leaders in Lagos, Nigeria that took place on January 18, Martin Luther King Jr. Day in the US, he linked King's lessons to Nigeria's fight against corruption. The State Department met the next day with a group of Muslim leaders (I was not present for that event).
News reports tell of desperate refugee journeys, as thousands flee the dangers and hopelessness of wars or hunger in leaky boats and other perilous means. Less in the news is a different face of the worldwide refugee crisis: over ten million people trapped interminably in camps that were designed only with emergency shelter in mind. The United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) calls it the protracted refugee situation. One of the most intractable is in eastern Africa, where millions live in a seemingly endless limbo.