Religion in 2014 was marked by dramatic and at times nationalistic and violent turns throughout much of the world—enough to revive the age-old debate about the relation between religion and violence. As is our custom every January, this annual review compiled by RW editors looks at significant developments of the last year with an eye toward those that are likely to have some staying power in 2015 and beyond.
01: The rise of the Islamic State (IS) and its proclaiming of a new Islamic Caliphate was a major event in 2014, with an impact resonating beyond Jihadi ranks. The IS is more than a terrorist group; it is as keen at creating a new society (a kind of Islamic, totalitarian utopia) as at fighting its enemies fearlessly. The fact that not only militants from majority Muslim countries, but also from the West (both born Muslims and converts) have rallied to the IS has created a serious security concern in Europe and North America.
It has also made Saudi Arabia nervous because many of the basic tenets of IS ideology overlap with the official Saudi Wahhabi creed. Aside from denouncing IS, Saudi Arabia is forced to rethink its ideology in order to lessen similarities and avoid having the movement capture the imagination of too many Saudis, according to Al-Monitor (Dec. 3).
The development of the IS has also made divisions within the Jihadist camp visible. It is now competing with Al Qaeda. Some Jihadi groups plead allegiance to Al-Baghdadi, while others remain faithful to Al-Zawahiri. The ruthlessness and violence of the IS frightens even sectors of the Jihadi camp. The strong presence of foreign Jihadis (at least 15,000 people) helps the IS, but alienates many local Syrians whose rebellion against the regime was not motivated by dreams of a pan-Islamic State and who often resent the type of Islam advocated in their own land by foreign fighters (The Guardian, Dec. 25).
As long as it is able to convey an impression of growth and victory, IS influence is likely to grow. However, the air strikes targeting its command and supply structures may weaken it significantly. If this is the case, the IS will not disappear, but we are likely to see further splintering within the Jihadi camps and new groups emerge. The prospect of competing claimants to the Caliphate within the coming years cannot be ruled out.
02: For the Russian Orthodox Church (ROC), the Ukrainian crisis represents a major challenge, even more so as the long-awaited Pan-Orthodox Council may start in 2016 (see article in this issue). Although the ROC used to be supportive of Putin’s “Russian world” discourse, it kept unusually quiet at the time Crimea was annexed to Russia and refrained from taking the dioceses in Crimea directly under its oversight.
They remain in the jurisdiction of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church faithful to the Moscow Patriarchate with an autonomous status (UOC-MP). The UOC-MP is the largest Orthodox jurisdiction in Ukraine, but the second largest is the Kyiv Patriarchate (UOC-KP), which supports Ukrainian nationalism, but is not recognized by any other Orthodox Church. There have been cases of UOC-MP parishes and faithful joining the UOC-KP for patriotic reasons, while the Moscow Patriarchate also complains about church buildings being seized forcefully by supporters of the Kyiv Patriarchate in the Western areas of Ukraine.
If a united autocephalous Orthodox Church would emerge at some point, although such a prospect does not seem to be very near, it would imply a significant loss of power and influence for the Moscow Patriarchate in the Orthodox world. Thus, it is acting very cautiously to avoid paving the ground for such a move through inconsiderate steps.
03: While it is difficult to tease out a clear religious trend in the Republican victory in the midterm elections in November, the votes did show many religious conservatives gaining office.
Catholics turned out in greater force than in 2012 for the Republicans, and it could be that the U.S. bishops’ frequent warnings about the loss of religious freedom, as well as such celebrated cases as the Hobby Lobby Supreme Court decision, have galvanized a segment of Catholics to turn out for the Republicans in greater numbers. (November RW.)
04: Pope Francis is perceived more than ever as a reformist, following the turmoil around the Synod of Bishops on the family in October and then his hard-hitting annual address to the Roman Curia saying the Vatican bureaucracy is exposed to 15 spiritual diseases.
His image remains very positive in secular media, but his moves are disconcerting to many in the Vatican. Among Catholics worldwide, there are those to whom he gives hope and those who regret the resignation of his predecessor. While he has already stated that the reform of the Curia would be a slow process, and not one to be completed in 2015, the larger Synod on the family will gather in October 2015 and draw up formal proposals for Church action that will attract much attention. If indefatigable Pope Francis would suddenly die now, he would leave his successor with a heavy burden of expectations. (November RW.)
05: While there had been new hopes of progress for religious freedom in China, especially a possible breakthrough in Vatican-Beijing ties, seasoned observers warn that ongoing discussions are still far from an agreement (Ucanews, Nov. 24).
The Chinese government is offering nothing new; the key issue is that Chinese authorities want to keep the religious scene under control. This was confirmed last summer by a crackdown on more than 400 Christian churches in Hangzhou and the eastern Zhejiang province for tearing down or removing visible crosses (Reuters, Dec. 30). While most house churches have been able to continue gathering without much disruption, caution is advised, following announcements that the Chinese government intends to stop illegal religious activities.
Within two years, it intends to publish a list of all Buddhist and Taoist legal places of worship (Reuters, Dec. 27). For the time being, no mention has been made of other religious groups, but it might set a precedent for similar listings of other groups.
06: While few observers saw the election of Narendra Modi of the BJP as signaling a revival of the Hindu right in India, the last few months have brought new concerns that the pragmatic new prime minister has not clearly disassociated himself from his former associates in the religious-nationalist movement.
Nationalist voters had turned out for Modi in droves and observers are saying that he may be yielding to some of the Hindu rightist demands, which range from rewriting the textbooks to—at the extreme end—the expulsion of non-Hindus from India. The BJP’s participation in conversion ceremonies for Muslims and Christians in early December (see related article in this issue) is said to be one more sign of Hindu nationalist influence in Modi’s administration.