Inflammation and stories on religion

Pope Francis will deliver an encyclical this summer on the subject of climate change. In preparation for the speech, the Vatican’s Pontifical Academy of Sciences held a heavily attended workshop on April 28 in Rome. Included among the guest groups were the Committee For A Constructive Tomorrow and the Heartland Institute.

Another prominent guest, Cardinal Peter Turkson, asserted that “irrespective of the causes of climate change,” Christians are obligated to help the poor. Therein lies a complicating factor: Christians must now consider altruism without unwittingly aggravating the causes of climate change.

This brings to light a much more generalized question regarding religion’s role in the alleviation of poverty, or lack thereof. Fundamentalist Christians, for example, would read the Bible and disregard any pontifical command to pay attention to climate change.

The picture becomes even cloudier when politics are factored in. Most Evangelical Christians and Mormons are conservative Republicans who believe that the scientific evidence supporting the phenomena of climate change is inaccurate and/or falsified.

Katharine Hayhoe, a climate scientist and Evangelical Christian, attempts to bridge the gap between science and evangelical faith. She is a member of a statistical minority; according to the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication, only 44 percent of evangelicals believe that global warming is both real and the result of human behavior. Some politicians even believe that God would not let human behavior destroy the planet.

Hayhoe debunks biblical arguments such as those saying that bad things still happen even with a Judeo-Christian God in existence because that God grants free will to His people. “That’s really what climate change is,” she explains, “It’s a casualty of the decisions that we have made.”

She goes on to hypothesize that many evangelicals fear the concept of climate change for two reasons. First, they erroneously believe that all scientists are atheists. Second, their typically conservative political viewpoints biases them against any and all potential “big government” interventions.

To make matters of religion and politics even more complicated, most Jews lean politically left and are beginning to take active steps as a community to alleviate climate change. The Reconstructionist and Reform movements tend to be the most liberal, followed by the Conservative and Orthodox Jews. Generally, the more traditional the sect is in its practice of Judaism, the less environmentally active that movement tends to be.

Consequently, researchers find a startling, ironic commonality between the most observant Jews and the most observant Christians. It appears that the more conservatively a religious sect’s people practice that religion, the less likely they are to take steps to stop climate change.

Adding fuel to that fire, it is the poorest populations that suffer the most from the effects of climate change. The one demographic that both Jewish and Christian ideologies make the most efforts to help is the very group that falls on the receiving end of their most devout groups’ inaction.

So what is to be done? Should the secular American population vote in politicians who choose religious freedom over environmental activism, or vice-versa? Maybe the next election cycle will bring forth more people like Katharine Hayhoe, but then again, maybe not. Only time and ballots can tell.

– Leah Zazofsky

Sources: Slate, The Heartland Institute, Yale Climate Connections
Photo: Telegraph

With allegations of sexual abuse by priests surfacing over the last 15 years, Catholicism has been portrayed negatively in the news. In turn, followers of the faith can have negative perceptions upon hearing that their beloved religious leaders have a darker, more tainted morality.

Despite the ignominy, moral Catholics continue to do volunteer work for the greater good. One of the least acknowledged organizations of the church is the International Catholic Migration Commission.

Founded in 1951, the ICMC is dedicated to the service and protection of geographically displaced people, namely refugees and migrants. It also serves people who have been internally displaced, or exiled from their homes while staying within the borders of their native countries.

Most importantly, the ICMC’s services are not restricted to members of the Christian faith. A photo on the organization’s website says it all. A smattering of huddled refugees take shelter under gold ponchos and blue blankets on the deck of a boat while it sails towards the sunrise, toward hope of a safe haven.

Its workers have proved their integrity time and time again. During the past 15 years alone, agents of the ICMC have been aiding and sheltering victims of the wars in Afghanistan and Syria.

Because the ICMC has reserved locations in many impoverished countries, its agents are often able to step in more quickly than governmental aid organizations. The work that they do in these crises is truly invaluable.

But the media will not cover it. Why? Because it is biased toward sensationalism. While members of other religious groups forge terrorist attacks upon developed countries whose people become a tad too liberal in their mockery, Christians are almost disturbingly accepting of attacks on their faith.

As a consequence of sensationalism and freedom of the press, the public views Muslims as the ultimate villains, Christians as ignorant bigots and Judaism as the only religious group that can do absolutely no wrong. All three biases are misplaced.

Furthermore, the media is talking out of two sides of its mouth. According to the Pew Forum 2007 survey, African Americans made up the most religious racial group, with 85% practicing some denomination of Christianity. Another huge swath of Christians is Hispanic. Yet the press likes to overlook these statistics, praising Obama as the first African American president and peddling the rights of illegal immigrants while mocking the religious practices and beliefs of Blacks and Latinos.

What lies at the root of these religious prejudices is the layman’s demand for ancient belief systems to conform and adapt to modern social issues. Religious leaders and followers of all faiths are then forced to reconcile what are sometimes conflicting imperatives.

Child molestation is unambiguously wrong. Subjugation of women by religious leaders is wrong. But giving the media of any nation as much moral authority as the American media effectively claims only works to throw decent people who happen to be religious in the middle of an incessant sociopolitical campaign.

Criticism of religious institutions, much like the racially slanted coverage of police shootings, only works to fuel conflicts in both the United States and developing nations. It inspires people to shoot police officers vigilante-style and rant about archaic beliefs while religious individuals in poorer countries continue to face discrimination and crimes against humanity.

Perhaps the solution ought not to be found among the hateful organizations that yell loudest, but rather among the unsung heroes like members of the ICMC. As the overlooked saviors of media-portrayed victims, they may be the most ironic and unexpected heroes of all.

– Leah Zazofsky

Sources: ICMC, International Catholic Migration Commission, Pew Forum, Pew Research, UNHCR, Voice of America
Photo: Flickr

Two more Muslims have been killed by the Buddhist mobs rampaging through the streets of Myanmar’s second largest city. Muslims make up only four percent of the predominantly Buddhist nation, and they often experience hatred and attacks that displace their communities.

Since 2012, over 140,000 Muslims have become homeless due to the violence inflicted upon them by Buddhist extremists. In order to grapple with these events, the Myanmar government imposed a 9 p.m. to 5 a.m. curfew beginning the day after the attacks that left two dead. The Mandalay region chief minister Ye Myint said four people were arrested in response to the deaths, showing they will not allow for this violence to continue.

Myanmar faces intense criticism for their lack of attention to the violence, leading National League for Democracy leader and famed humanitarian, Aung San Suu Kyi, to speak out. She took to Radio Free Asia to share her thoughts. “Unless the authorities seriously maintain the rule of law, violence will grow,” she said. Suu Kyi believes that social media hype has intensified the criticism and instability felt throughout Myanmar. She is not the only person in power to share those beliefs; Mandalay police chief Colonel Za Win Aungagreed is in agreement with her sentiments.

What concerns the international crowd is that Mandalay rarely experiences religious violence, this attack is the first sectarian violence in years. At one point in time, Mandalay represented a point of unity between Muslims and Buddhists where peace prospered and fear was rare.

The president is not taking these attacks lightly. In response to the attacks, President Thein Sein has formed a religious-affairs advisory group that is headed by a former religious affairs minister. This action demonstrates the dissent shown by the government toward the acts committed by the Buddhist extremists.

This was not always the case, however, considering the Religious Conversion Law. This law serves as a reminder of the intolerance for Muslims in the majority Buddhist population. In January of 2014, Buddhist monks murdered 48 Rohingya Muslims as revenge for the death of a Buddhist police officer. The brutality seen in Myanmar threatens its international strength as foreign aid looks closely at the religious intolerance taking place.

– Elena Lopez

Sources: Big Story, IBN, Liberty Voice, Wall Street Journal
Photo: The New York Times

religious organizations
For a long time faith-based organizations have played an important role in foreign aid. One of the great advantages brought by these organizations is their ability to connect their congregations in developing countries with their counterparts in industrialized nations. But is there really a difference between the contributions of secular versus religious organizations with regard to foreign aid?

Partnerships with faith-based organizations based in countries affected by poverty, natural disasters and other crises has been key in providing access for development agencies and NGOs in these countries. Some would even argue that without faith-based organizations the flow of aid would be halted to a minimum. This argument is supported by the notion that religious individuals or groups find it much easier to translate compassion into action.

However, this argument loses some of its strength if we consider aid not as a charity, but as an investment. What is more, there are certainly large secular organizations such as Doctors without Borders or Oxfam that have made a huge impact on poverty alleviation.

There is certainly a premise within religious indoctrination that drives to donate for charitable causes. It is even specifically included in the various religious customs and traditions. However, this does not necessarily mean that there would be no aid without faith-based organization.

According to Fiona Fox, founding director of the independent press office Science Media Centre, to improve people’s lives is as much the mission of science as it is of religion. There are countless individuals and groups who do not abide by any religion, and who work arduously to fight hunger and poverty.

In fact, an expanded definition of aid which includes the work of institutes such a the Welcome Trust and the Medical Research Centre dedicated to finding solutions to many health problems in the developing world shows that faith-based organizations do not stand alone in fighting the human plight.

It is difficult to support the idea that there would be no aid without religious organizations. However, it would also be unfair to assume that these organizations do not do their fair share of the work. In the end, it should not matter how much is contributed by a faith-based versus a secular organization, but taking note of the real impact and what kind of results are being generated by both.

– Sahar Abi Hassan

Sources: Center for American Progress, The Guardian 1, The Guardian 2
Photo: opbronx

This Tuesday the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) stated that refugees fleeing the western Rakhine state in Myanmar, also known as Burma, are suffering increasing instances of abuse. This is an ongoing humanitarian issue as violence in the Rakhine state began almost exactly two years ago when clashes and riots between the Rakhine Buddhists and Rohingya Muslims erupted. The roots of this crisis come from the fact that the Rohingya Muslims are a linguistic and religious minority who the Rakhine Buddhists have long resented.

Regardless of the long-standing tensions between these two groups, the initial cause of the riots happened in May of 2012 when a Muslim woman was raped and murdered. Hundreds of people have since died and thousands have been displaced. Many of those affected are innocent women and children.

Authorities are considered to have exacerbated the problem by not acting quickly enough to stop the violence. Few people have been prosecuted and some of the local police even partake in the riots. Human Rights Watch called on the Myanmar government to take action but they have denied any wrongdoing.

This crisis has come into the news again because of the worsening conditions of refugees. Mostly Rohingya women and children, these refugees are fleeing to places such as Thailand, Malaysia or Indonesia. A spokesperson for UNHCR said that “more than 86,000 people have left on boats since June 2012. This includes more than 16,000 people in the second half of 2012, some 55,000 in 2013 and nearly 15,000 from January to April this year.” These boats are overcrowded and there is little access to food or water. Sadly, at least 730 people have died trying to make this journey.

The problems continue once these refugees reach land. In Thailand and Malaysia, reports of smuggling have begun to emerge. The smugglers take the refugees to camps where they are forced to live in squalor and minimal space until their families can pay the ransom for their release. The refugees suffer from malnutrition and are often beaten; some even die.

Luckily, Thai authorities are working with UNHCR to remove these smuggler camps and to offer services to the refugees. This means rehabilitation centers that offer educational services and basic community activities.

Problems still persist though as the Thai government has refused to sign the 1951 U.N. Refugee Convention. This convention regulates the treatment of asylum seekers. In 2005 Thailand stopped registering refugees in an attempt to slow their arrival. However, this has not stopped the flow of refugees from Myanmar, causing many to be trapped in these refugee camps.

If the violence in Myanmar continues, as it has been for two years, the refugees will continue to leave their homes hoping to find safety elsewhere. What they find instead are smuggling camps and refugee camps as they wait with no legal status in either their home country or the country where they are trying to seek refuge. The UNHCR is trying to implement potential programs to help the refugee camps, but Myanmar as well as Thai and Malaysian governments need to work with this intergovernmental organization to to resolve this humanitarian crisis.

– Eleni Marino

Sources: Aljazeera, BBC News, UNHCR
Photo: Taipei Times

The Tzu Chi Foundation is a globally immersed Chinese Buddhist humanitarian organization that is originated and based in Taiwan. It was founded in 1999 by the Buddhist nun Cheng Yen and is a volunteer organization that provides aid to roughly 70 nations worldwide.

The foundation is present in all of the world’s five major continents and maintains offices in 47 different countries.

The organization’s website clearly delineates its goals and mission. The group’s four expressed goals are referred to as its “Four Major Missions” of charity, medical help and attention, education and humanity. It also focuses on four other venues: bone marrow donation efforts, environmental considerations, community volunteering and international relief.

Their four goals combine with these considerations to form “Tzu Chi’s Eight Footprints.”

Tzu Chi maintains consultative relations with the United Nations Economic and Social Council. Its members are often referred to as “blue angels” due to their signature blue uniforms. The group has built numerous villages, nursing homes, schools and hospitals across the world. It also maintains the Tzu Chi International Medical Association, which includes professional doctors who travel in times of international disaster to provide medical relief to victims.

The group also acted closer to home than many U.S. citizens may know or think. After Hurricane Sandy devastated parts of New York and New Jersey, Tzu Chi members personally dispersed $10 million total in $300 and $600 Visa credit gift cards to victims in the area.

Its efforts abroad are plentiful and very personalized, illustrating an admirable method of involved humanitarianism. For example, after the 2008 earthquake in Sichuan, China, Tzu Chi members brought blankets, nourishment and medical aid to the disaster-stricken area. The group also focuses on very impoverished areas in China and elsewhere, distributing rice, oil, blankets, clothes and medical services to those in need.

The organization ignores ethnic, religious, national or racial boundaries or restrictions, but instead spreads Buddhist principles of morality, kindness, humanism and selflessness. Furthermore, they provide both instant and long-term infrastructural solutions to community problems throughout the world.

Tzu Chi is making a difference one blue angel at a time.

Arielle Swett

Sources: Tzu Chi, The Register

Sharia Law Penal Code
While the country of Brunei planned to introduce severe Islamic criminal punishments to be put into effect by April 22, the country decided to postpone the laws.

The delay is “due to unavoidable circumstances,” according to Jauyah Zaini, the assistant director of the Islamic Legal Unit.

Brunei is a wealthy sultanate, due to its large reserves of oil and gas, and is ruled by the Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah, one of the richest men on the planet. The majority of the country is made up of ethnic Malays, with smaller groups of Chinese, Indians and indigenous groups in the country.

As a former British protectorate, Brunei’s civil courts are based on British law. Sharia law was mainly practiced for family complications, marriage, and inheritance. However, once implemented, the new penal codes will widen the scope of Islamic law to a broader range of possibilities.

The new Sharia criminal punishments are medieval, extreme, and potential violations of human rights. For example, the code allows, “stoning to death to punish rape, adultery, sodomy, extramarital sexual relations [for Muslims], defamation of the Prophet Mohammed, insulting any verse of the Quran and Hadith, blasphemy, and declaring oneself a prophet or non-Muslim.”

Robbery is punishable by amputation and drinking alcohol will result in flogging.

The United Nations is one of the few international organizations that has taken a stand in opposition against the new penal codes.

“Under international law, stoning people to death constitutes torture or other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment,” UN members said. “It is thus clearly prohibited.”

Sultan Bolkiah reasoned that the Sharia Penal Code would only pertain to Muslims as a “special guidance” from God. Muslims comprise around two-thirds of Brunei’s population of 420,000.

However, it is naïve to assume that the laws will not be applied to non-Muslims by law enforcement. Both non-Muslims and Muslims are prohibited from drinking alcohol in Brunei, and thus there is a high possibility that the other one-third of the population will be subjected to the penal codes.

Sultan Bolkiah called the penal code, “a part of the great history of our nation” in October and said that the new laws would not drastically change Brunei’s existing policies. Does this suggest that the penal codes are simply ceremonial and will not be enforced? Brunei still has the death penalty, but its last execution took place in 1957. Perhaps these codes are merely there to project an image of religious devotion.

Countries and international organizations should not wait to observe whether or not these penal codes will actually be enforced. These criminal punishments are a violation of human rights and all of Brunei’s citizens can potentially be subjected to the inhumane penal code.

— Sarah Yan

Sources: The Daily Beast, BBC, The Diplomat, BBC(2)
Photo: Military Photos

Bread for the World, a Washington D.C. based nonprofit organization, is urging government leaders and communities of faith to end hunger.

Every day, around 16,000 children die from hunger related causes. 1.5 billion people live in extreme poverty in developing nations around the world, but developed nations are not exempt from the problem of hunger – nearly 15 percent of those living in the U.S. have struggled with food insecurity at some point in their life.

Motivated by the belief that ordinary people can do “plenty” to end global hunger, Bread for the World seeks to empower U.S. citizens to voice their support of hunger-fighting policies to their elected representatives. A bipartisan “collective Christian voice,” their network includes thousands of individuals, churches and denominations – therefore creating an impact that reaches far beyond their local communities.

After analyzing policy, Bread for the World creates strategies to move toward their ultimate goal – to end hunger at home and abroad. The movements they create within churches, campuses and other organizations help build political commitment to overcome poverty. Bread for the World accomplishes their work with integrity, earning a four star Charity Navigator rating and spending an impressive 82.9 percent of their budget on deliverable programs and services.

Bread for the World Institute, the educational wing of Bread for the World, exists to conduct extensive research on food policy and provide information to Bread for the World’s advocacy network. Their studies empower constituents with information to ultimately change the politics of hunger.

For 2014, Bread for the World is focusing its efforts on reforming U.S. food aid, calling for the economically powerful U.S. government to use their resources more efficiently and effectively. Bread for the World estimates that with improvements and changes, 17 million more people could benefit from food aid each year without any additional costs to taxpayers.

Find more information and extensive educational materials, visit

– Madisson Barnett

Sources: Bread For the World, Charity Navigator
Photo: Food Tank

According to the Associated Press (AP), children who live in Villa 21-24, a dangerous slum in Buenos Aires, Argentina, are playing cricket in order to avoid a life of crime and poverty.

The Caacupe community center introduced the sport to the slum in 2009 to “integrate children to a game that traditionally was reserved for Argentina’s upscale private schools”.

Moreover, the AP said that Pope Francis, who is also known as the “slum pope”, was one of the founders of Caacupe and remains connected with its programs.

The community center is praised because children are given the opportunity to do something positive instead of giving into a lifestyle of drugs, crime and frustration.

Although the community center’s aim to help children out of poverty is benevolent, a closer examination is needed regarding Pope Francis and his role in Argentina while serving as a Bishop during the reign of a brutal military regime.

Vincent Navarro, who teaches Public Policy at Johns Hopkins University, is critical of Pope Francis despite some of his good intentions. This is primarily due to his silence during the Argentinean dictatorship in the 70’s and 80’s.

“The dictatorship, established in defense of the more privileged groups in Argentina, was especially brutal to any dissident and opponents of its reign,” Navarro said. “This silence reflected a lack of sensitivity to gross human rights violations carried out by dictatorships with close ties to the Catholic Church.”

Navarro said that the pope claimed that his silence should be excused since it was “a tactical and honest move”. Navarro also gives him credit for encouraging the Church to expand its involvement in fighting poverty and for indicating that poverty is the result of the exploitation under the capitalist system in return for profits.

However, a recent service that honored the fallen members of the Church who sided with the fascist military regime in Spain in the 30’s is another reason Navarro criticizes the Pope and the Catholic establishment.

“It is safe to assume that Pope Francis knows very well that the Catholic Church supported this military coup and dictatorship of General Franco, as evidence of this abounds,” Navarro asserted. “The Catholic Church was one of the major landowners in Spain and opposed the land reform initiated by the democratically elected Republican government.”

Although Pope Francis was one of the founders of the community center that is helping Argentinean children escape poverty today, the Counterpunch article written by Navarro uses historical examples to criticize his refusal to confront the repression of the military regime in the past.

– Juan Campos

Sources: Counterpunch
Photo: Yahoo

boko haram
Schools in northern Nigeria are again the targets of religious tension, after a fatal attack by Boko Haram on February 24.  The militant group set fire to the dormitories of a boarding school in the town of Budi Yani, Adamawa killing 29 young boys ages 11-18.

This is one of a growing number of attacks by the organization, which is responsible for roughly 1,700 deaths since their establishment in 2009. It is eerily similar to the burning of the College of Agriculture in Yobe State last September, during which 42 students were killed and 18 injured. Again on February 12, an estimated 50-90 civilians lost their lives in the village of Izghe in Borno state.

Tension is prevalent across the northern states of Borno, Yobe, Kano, Adamawa, Kaduna and Bauchi, where Boko Haram seeks to create a separate Islamic state, under the rule of Sharia law. Their sectarian stance is adamantly opposed to Western influence and Christianity, as indicated by their name, which translates to “Western education is sinful”.

Religious conflict between the predominantly Muslim north and the mainly Christian south arose in 1914, when British colonial rule created the West African nation. Demographics were not considered when the borders were drawn, combining culturally distinct and incongruous populations.

Boko Haram’s presence has been disastrous for Nigeria’s education system. Schools across the north are closing indefinitely, and even those that remain open are seeing extremely low attendance. Previously, State Commissioner of Education Mohammed Lamin frequently claimed that the government was winning the war on terror, and urged schools to reopen. However, many frightened parents remain unconvinced.

Aside from schools, Boko Haram also targets local banks, businesses, homes, churches and public buildings. Many families have fled to nearby Chad and Cameroon, choosing refugee status over sectarian violence.

Local chairman of Izghe, Maina Ularamu, says, “there is no protection. We cannot predict where and when they are going to attack. People can’t sleep with their eyes closed.”

The boarding school assault has been interpreted as an “open declaration of war,” according to Nigeria’s Senate President David Mark, along with other government leaders. The state of emergency declared in the region last year, as an attempt to end the insurgency through formal military deployment, will continue.

International efforts continue to be implemented against Boko Haram. France and the United States recently pledged their support for the Nigerian government, and leaders of neighboring Senegal, Niger, and Cameroon promise to help fight the militants on the ground. Nigeria’s President Jonathon will also soon be attending a security conference in Europe, where he hopes to garner even more awareness of the issue.

 – Stefanie Doucette

Sources: Al Jazeera, Al Jazeera, NPR, NPR, BBC, The Guardian
Photo: LA Times