Inflammation and stories on religion

When several U.S. Mennonite conferences convened in Elkhart, Indiana to found the Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) in 1920, their aim was modest in comparison to their current work. Originally focused on providing aid and assistance to famine-stricken Mennonites in Ukraine, Russia, and Turkey, MCC’s efforts now spread over more than 50 countries across five continents, and are no longer focused on aiding those of their own faith.

MCC works primarily by partnering with local organizations, both secular and religious, to distribute aid funded primarily by donations from Mennonite and Brethren in Christ Church communities in the United States and Canada. While MCC’s mission statement is inspired by and based upon Christian scripture, in practice their work is secular and is primarily focused on peace-building efforts, disaster relief, and sustainable community development.

The work done by MCC and its partners is as diverse as the needs of the specific communities in which they operate. Their food-relief programs include both aid and development based approaches. Last year the Canadian MCC supported over $1.3 million in food aid for people whose livelihoods have been disrupted by the ongoing conflict in Syria. Just one example of MCC’s more development-focused programs is a partnership with organization Global Service Corps that works towards educating Tanzanian farmers on sustainable agricultural methods that increase crop yield and prevent soil erosion and nutrient depletion. MCC funds similar agricultural education programs in 15 other countries around the world including Mozambique, Honduras, Palestine, and North Korea.

In addition to food relief, MCC also supports initiatives that provide easier access to safe drinking water, education for children, disaster relief, and HIV/AIDS related aid and education. One area of MCC’s work that has sparked some controversy, however, is their peace and justice related work in Palestine/Israel. MCC supports a number of Palestinian and Israeli organizations devoted to reaching a peaceful resolution of the Israeli and Palestinian conflict. Some of their partners are focused on ending what they view as destructive behavior on the part of Israel’s government, such as the Israeli Commission Against House Demolitions, and the Palestinian organization Stop The Wall. This has led to the Israel-based organization NGO Monitor decrying MCC as “promoting a radical pro-Palestinian agenda.”

While MCC’s efforts to end conflict and aid communities in Palestine/Israel have seemingly shed a negative light on the organization for some in this highly politicized arena, it is clear that their focus remains global. And, despite this wide focus, the Mennonite Central Committee continues to provide aid and funding to local organizations that have real tangible impact upon the lives of those less fortunate across the world.

– Coleman Durkin

Sources: Mennonite Central Committee, ReliefWeb, NGO Monitor
Picture: Mennonite Central Comittee

More than a year ago, Mohamed Merah, a French citizen of Algerian origins, shot seven people in three different assaults. Among the victims, three were military personnel shot during two different attacks in a two day span in the French city of Montauban, one was a teacher, and three were children, killed after Merah’s attack on a Jewish school in Toulouse.

Merah claimed to have an affiliation with Al-Qaeda, and was known by the French secret services for his extreme views and was considered a potential threat. Even though he had been under surveillance for some time, police forces were still unable to prevent Mohamed Merah’s attacks.

Since 9/11, radical Islam has become a major security concern for the U.S. and other countries. The World Wide Web and the ease of access to Islam extremists’ thoughts have played a major role in the spread of radical ideologies.

Recent discoveries at Merah’s older brother’s in-law’s house have shown that access to radical Islam propaganda is almost as easy as a simple click. In a hard disk belonging to Merah’s brother, a digital library composed of several thousands of texts was found. These texts are both a guide for newbie jihadist as well as a guide to salafi indoctrination.

The websites visited by the murderer show the role of the Web in the spread of the radicalization of Islam. The websites appear in the headlines of searches of key words such as “Sharia” and “Jihad.” They espouse a more radical Islam centered around a rigorous defense of the Jihad. Translated in many languages, these websites are capable of reaching a larger public and thereby pose a greater threat.

Internet surveillance has become a national security priority in countries all over the world. And even when sites are censored because they are deemed dangerous, they often reappear with a different name.

The Internet, by facilitating access to ideas worldwide, has been greatly beneficial to the public, who can now hope for more transparency and easier access to knowledge. Nevertheless, this facilitated access to ideas has also become the unfortunate tool of many terrorist groups, who use it for both recruitment, financial purposes and as a source for their propaganda.

To this day, no international standard has been established to regulate the content of the internet available to the public. Each country makes its own rules, and there is little to no regulation at an international level. The challenge now is to create an international standard in order to avoid abusive censorship and promote freedom of speech and the spread of ideas in a context of mutual respect.

– Lauren Yeh

Sources: Washington Institute, Islam Et Verite, The Independent, Huffington Post
Photo: AIM

Last Monday, the Brookings Institute hosted a panel of policy analysts and religious leaders to discuss recent changes in Cuba and, specifically, the role of the Catholic Church in Cuban reform.

Ted Piccone, a Brookings Senior Fellow, spoke with praise about the Church’s dynamic role at both the governmental and local levels in promoting dialogue about Cuba’s future. He also introduced Orlando Marquez, the senior editor of a major publication by the Archdiocese of Havana, who spoke about its increasing role in attacking poverty and mediating policy reform.

According to Marquez, the Cuban Church has a two-pronged approach. First, it is working locally to improve media access, establish public education, and grow businesses. Toward those ends, churches across Cuba have started publishing global news, forming partnerships to make educational programs available at every academic level, and working across sectors to offer enterprise development for Cuba’s farmers and entrepreneurs.

Second, the Church is engaging in dialogue with the government. In 2011, the conference of Cuban bishops negotiated the release of 75 political prisoners, a hard-won victory that garnered much international attention. They also urged the government to lift its crushing business regulations and tax policies on behalf of the many struggling businesspeople in their church provinces. Marquez says their impact was extraordinary.

“For the first time in about 50 years, the church has been recognized as a valid internal interlocutor,” he said. “This is new. This is very new.”

Marquez affirms that the influence of the Church as an interlocutor is key to continuing reform. The struggle for justice in Cuba, he says, is not about a battle between the ideologies of socialism and capitalism. Rather, it is a battle for the dignity of the human person, which is at the center of the Church’s ideology.

Tom Quigley, the former advisor on Latin America to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, expresses similar optimism about Cuba’s future and the Church’s role in it.

“The Church in Cuba, more than any other entity, is deeply serious about reconciliation between all sectors of the Cuban family,” he said at the Brookings panel. “It hasn’t been easy—not once over these past six decades—but there have been more advances than backward moves.”

–  John Mahon

Sources: Brookings, Christian Post
Photo: Translating Cuba