In This Issue
- On/File: December 2001
- Findings & Footnotes: December 2001
- Non-Greeks ascending to Mount Athos
- Bosnia becoming fertile field for Islamic militancy
- Extremism fomenting in multicultural Britain?
- Current Research: December 2001
- Mainline publishing— moving to niches or sidelines?
- Bin Laden’s reach extending beyond Islam
- Black Muslims sound uncertain note on Bin Laden
- The next American Muslims press for liberalization
- Christian solidarity movement serving gadfly function?
- Jehovah’s witnesses UN membership creates internal turmoil
01: Polygamy is gaining a hearing and, in some cases, a following among conservative Christians thanks to the Internet and specifically the Website TruthBearer.org.
The Old Orchard Beach, Maine-based website was founded by Mark Henkel for Christians in search of multiple marriage partners. The Internet has helped fuel the growth of polygamy beyond its fundamentalist Mormon base into conservative Christian and secular worlds, according to writer Kate Silver. Henkel says that while Mormon polygamy stresses the importance of procreation (due to doctrinal reasons), Christian polygamy views the practice as following God’s commands in Scripture.
Critics are noticing the phenomenon. The largest personal polygamy site, www.3coins.com, was recently started because all the other sites promote “patriarchal Christian polygamy,” says founder Michael Shone Sr.
(Source: Las Vegas Weekly, Nov. 26)
01: The New Believers (Sterling Publishing, 387 Park Ave. So., New York, NY 10016-8810, $29.95) by David I. Barrrett, is an exhaustive overview of new religious movements (NRMs).
In its 544 pages, Barrett looks beyond the traditional “cultic” boundaries used to define NRMs in order to explore movements as diverse as the charismatic renewal, the Alpha program (a Christian basics program popular in mainline and charismatic churches), and the Catholic Opus Dei order, as well as the more expected Unificationists and Raelians.
Each group receives a brief historical overview as well as a description of their beliefs, practices and current situation. Barrett, a student at London School of Economics, devotes the first part of the book to controversies over cults and new religions, such as brainwashing, or thought reform, and abuse. Although calling for less animosity between scholars and activists on these issues, he is most critical of the anticult camp that that holds to thought reform theories.
02: For the holidays, RW readers can obtain a copy of Trusting The Spirit: Renewal And Reform In American Religion for $15, including postage and handling (the regular price is $21.95, not including postage and handling).
The book, written by RW editor Richard Cimino, provides six case studies of Protestant, Catholic, Jewish and ecumenical groups attempting to revitalize their denominations and traditions. The book then analyzes the strategies employed to bring about religious revitalization.
Make out payments to Religion Watch and send to: P.O. Box 652, North Bellmore, NY 11710.
Mount Athos, famed as a stronghold of the Greek Orthodox faith, is seeing a growing number of foreign monks in its monasteries, reports the Swiss newspaper Neue Zurcher Zeitung (Oct. 31).
Since 1923, Mount Athos has enjoyed the status of an autonomous internal administration with its own governor. During the Cold War, Greek authorities sought to stop the settlement of monks from communist countries, and even after the fall of the Berlin Wall, factions of militant nationalist Greek monks wanted to keep the territory “Hellenic.”
In 1996, things began to change with the new governor Stavos Psycharis, writes Heinz Gstrein. His hands-off style of ruling gave renewed autonomy to the monastic communities (which gather together in their own monastic parliament). Now it is no longer necessary to go through the Greek administration in order to get a visitor’s visa for entering Mount Athos: the monastic republic now has its own visa office.
Over the past five years, the presence of the Greek State on Mount Athos has been minimal. Since 1996, an increasing number of non-Greek monks have been able to settle on the Holy Mountain, including Orthodox converts from Western and African countries.
— By Jean-Francois Mayer, a lecturer in Religion at the University of Fribourg (Switzerland) and a new Contributing Editor for RW
A small but growing number of militant Muslims are emerging in Bosnia, fueling “complex and ambivalent feelings toward the West” in this Balkan nation, reports the Los Angeles Times (Nov. 16).
Although grudgingly grateful to Americans for their help in ending the war with Serbians, Bosnians have clearly changed since the 1992-1993 conflict. “The effect of the war . . . in Bosnia was to make more and more people who were Muslim by nationality and tradition Muslim by faith,” says Mark Wheeler, director of the International Crisis Group’s office in Bosnia.
The dire days of war and killing made many Bosnians receptive to Islamic teachings — something eagerly supplied by Saudia Arabia and other nations who sent money and helpers to build new mosques and educate a new generation in the faith. “One legacy of the donations from the Arab world is that Bosnian Muslims are reluctant to probe too deeply into Arab activities in the country,” writes Alissa J. Rubin.
In Muslim majority areas of Bosnia — even more than in the rest of Europe — “the cultural and social environments foster a certain tolerance of Islamic extremism, allowing those who plot violence to move freely.” Since Sept. 11, at least 10 people — several of whom are Egyptians or Algerians — in Bosnia have been detained for possible links to terrorist groups.
England has become a center of militant Islam, enough so that this minority in the Muslim community is coming under increasing scrutiny, as is the policy of multiculturalism that may have encouraged this trend, according to two reports.
The Washington Post (Nov. 23) reports that the militant Islam coming out of England and other parts of Europe is appealing to a minority of young people who may have grown up in the West with no direct contact with Middle Eastern conflict. [Specialists are finding that candidates for Al Queda and other Muslim terrorist networks are often immigrants or the children of immigrants in Western European countries; see the special report in the November 12 issue of Time magazine.] These young people gravitate around radical Muslim mosques and leaders such as Abu Hamza al-Masri in London and Sheikh Omar Bakri in Ealing. Some have gone to fight for the Taliban and Islamic causes in other hot spots, while others communicate by e-mail with radical activists around the world.
In interviewing Muslim young adults in Britain, Sharon Waxman finds their visions for the future intertwined with dreams of a vast Islamic empire that includes Europe run by a caliphate or Muslim leaders. Waxman writes that as the Islamic rhetoric against the West has intensified in England, there have been new measures to restrict British Muslims suspected of sympathizing with bin Laden and other terrorist groups.
Britain was considered progressive in its multicultural program, taking a hands-off approach to how Muslims and other minorities run their communities. But this commitment to cultural diversity is now facing strong opposition, reports The Tablet (Nov. 10), a British Catholic magazine. The Home Secretary has made a proposal to require a test of English as a condition of citizenship. The British multicultural program, which “refuses to say that one race, culture, philosophy or lifestyle, including [the host country’s] is predominant,” has isolated a section of Muslim society from mainstream British values.
Thus, authorities have turned a blind eye to forced marriages in the Muslim community. A recent attack by a group of Asian youths on a church in Bradford (a Muslim center) “is another sign that the Muslim community in Britain contains significant numbers who are dangerously alienated.”
01: The small congregation is receiving new attention, judging by a spate of new studies suggesting that the size of churches may have little to do with their vitality.
In the current issue of Visions, (May/June) a newsletter of religion and demographics, Anthony Healy writes that research such as the new Faith Communities Today (FACT) survey from Hartford Seminary and the University of Arizona-based National Congregations Survey (NSC) point to “astounding numbers of small congregations that populate out inner cities, small towns, rural places, and even our growing suburbs.
Not only are these small congregations continuing to survive, they also “appear in many cases to be doing well, and even flourishing.” The FACT survey finds that about 61 percent of local religious bodies had less than 150 adults and children as regular participants, while the NCS found that half of all congregations had 75 or fewer congregations. A more recent study of 73 independent Protestant churches in different parts of the country by Hartford Seminary likewise finds a median weekly attendance of 110 people.
These small churches are not shrinking due to the growth of larger congregations. Small congregations have proliferated in recent years, suggesting that people are gravitating to both small and large congregations. Healy writes that these findings challenge traditional notions that small churches are naturally on the way to extinction while larger congregations serve an ever larger pool of members drawn to their services and programs.
Large congregations are still seen as the expected goal of denominations’ new church development programs, but Healy sees small congregations “increasingly becoming a force in American religion and drawing in people, too. Like megachurches, these too are new formulation churches,” in that these small congregations are often successful in “spawning numerous small bodies.”
(Visions, P.O. Box 94144, Atlanta, GA 30377)
02: The number of Jewish Americans identifying with a religion other than Judaism has more than doubled in the last decade, according to a new study.
The suvey is an update of the 1990 study of religious identification by City University of New York (CUNY). The Jewish Week (Nov. 2) reports that the study shows that 1.4 million Jews say they are Jewish due to parentage or ethnicity but align themselves with another faith community. In 1990, 625,000 Jews identified themselves in that manner.
The survey also finds that an additional 1.4 million Jews — another quarter of the population — say they are secular or have no religion at all, leaving just 51 percent of American Jews claiming they are Jewish by religion. Sociologist Egon Mayer, who conducted the study along with Barry Kosmin and Ariela Keysar, says the results “portend a kind of split between two facets of identity that historically were always unified.”
(The Jewish Week, 1501 Broadway, New York, NY 10036)
03: Although concerned about drug use, few clergy preach about the problem or have received training to deal with it in their congregations, according to a study by the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse.
The study polled 415 respondents among clergy and seminary presidents and found that Eastern Orthodox clergy had the highest percentage of clergy with some training on the issue (27 percent), followed by Catholics (17.9 percent), Protestants (13.1 percent) and Jews (2.3 percent). The Washington Times (Nov. 15) reports that the study found that clergy and seminaries may not be the only ones ignoring the faith factor in substance abuse.
It found that 43 percent of psychiatrists said they would not recommend their patients to consult clergy, despite the mounting research showing the beneficial effects of religious belief and drug prevention on recovery.
04: Intercessory prayer for infertile couples appears to dramatically improve the chances of pregnancy, according to recent research at the Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons.
The research, cited in Spirituality & Health magazine (Winter), involved 199 women attempting in-vitro fertilization in Seoul, Korea. The mothers were randomly placed either in a group where they were prayed for by Christians in the U.S., Canada and Australia, or in a non-prayer group.
Those women who were prayed for had a higher pregnancy rate; for women between 30 and 39, the pregnancy rate for the prayed for group was 51 percent, compared with 23 percent for the non-prayer group. The report, published in the Journal of Reproductive Medicine, tended to soft-pedal the findings, saying the Columbia researchers are “working hard to find biological or other phenomena” to account for the difference. The magazine notes that the reticence may be because the “last time the Columbia University College of Physicians & Surgeons made bi headlines in this field was when Richard P. Sloan, Ph.D., carefully documented for the Lancet how there is no proven connection between spirituality and health.”
(Spirituality & Health, 74 Trinity Place, New York, NY 10006-2088
05: Location is among the most important factors in the creation of megachurches, according to an analysis from the Faith Communities Today (FACT) survey.
Nearly 72 percent of the churches with average weekly attendance of at least 2,000 persons are located in an area spanning between Georgia and Florida to Texas and California. While the fact that megachurches are mainly located in the Sun Belt is not an unexpected finding, the FACT research on 600 megachurches, headed up by Scott Thumma, does back up some hunches while challenging others.
Thumma finds these large, multi-faceted congregations are pastor-driven, despite their emphasis on lay ministry and volunteerism. Seventy percent of all the megachurches reported that their growth took place during the tenure of the current senior pastor. On average, the senior pastor is 52 yours old and has served the congregation more than 12 years.
The megachurches also tend to support social ministry programs in their communities, with 78 percent hosting or contributing to thrift stores and provide temporary or permanent housing and shelter. As widely reported, the megachurches often had weak ties to their denominations; only 27 percent purchase educational or other materials from denominational sources.
(More information on the FACT study of megachurches is found at: http://www.hartsem.edu/denom/denom-frame.htm).
06: A “religious renaissance” is emerging in the major cities of Europe, according to Catholic theologian and sociologist Paul Zulehner of Vienna.
The German evangelical newsletter Idea (Nov. 19) reports that in examining surveys in all Western European cities with more than one million citizens, Zulehner finds significant change. In Brussels, Belgium, the percentage of people who call themselves “religious” has risen from 48 percent to 59 percent in the last decade. In Lisbon, Portugal, the figures jumped from 51 percent to 82 percent.
Vienna’s increase was more modest, going from 62 to 64 percent. The only exception to this pattern is found in Paris, which showed a decrease from 55 to 48 percent. Zulehner adds that parish life in big cities has stabilized, with the highest attendance shown among evangelicals (39 percent), Catholics (37 percent), Orthodox (14 percent),and Lutheran and Reformed Protestants (10 percent).
(Idea, P.O. Box 1820, D-35528 Wetzlar, Germany; website: http://www.idea.de)
Mainline Protestant publishing houses are facing serious financial problems as well as new challenges, reports the e-newsletter PW Religion Bookline (Nov. 20).
Hit by harsh pressures from economic forces as well as decline in their sector of American Christianity, publishing houses owned by mainline Protestant churches are responding to the turbulence of the times in a variety of ways.
The common view seems to be that in the long run the distinctive message these publishers have historically furnished will still be heard, though in a new form that will be determined through trial and error over the coming years.
Augsburg Fortress, publishing arm of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America, announced operating losses for the first three quarters of more than $4 million, news that followed a hiring freeze and staff reductions earlier in the year. In the near term, Augsburg will concentrate on reducing inventory and meeting sales forecasts for education and worship resources. At Pilgrim Press, the trade imprint of the United Church of Christ, publisher Timothy Staveteig said, “We have a viable financial future, but probably not in our present form.” Denominational publishers are faced with with either pressing forward on mission-related publishing, which may require subsidy, or strive for commercial profitability.
That might mean mergers to achieve economies of scale, or niche publishing on unconventional topics. For example, Pilgrim Press has concentrated on niche publishing and joined forces with other publishers in launching a new ecumenical curriculum with publishers and church leaders from Australia, Canada, the U.K. and the U.S. United Methodist Publishing House, which includes the trade imprint Abingdon Press and publishes more than 150 titles annually, is also responding to increasing denominational diversity. The house is working on forming closer relationships with congregations to find out exactly what they need.
The Presbyterian Publishing Corp., which includes the Westminster John Knox and Geneva Press imprints, has made staff cutbacks, scaling back of next year’s trade lists and closure of an office in the Netherlands. In late October, the house announced it had moved customer service in-house to control costs.
Davis Perkins, PPC president and publisher, said the house will focus more tightly on core competencies in academic publishing and seminary training materials. “We have always been a niche publisher, and have gotten into a bit of trouble when we’ve strayed outside,” said Perkins.
Non-Islamic extremist religious and political groups are latching on to and, in some cases, forming ties with terrorist Muslim groups and activity, according to two reports.
The Sept. 11 attacks have been used by far right groups to gain recruits and stir up anti-government and anti-Semitic sentiment, reports USA Today (Nov. 27). One human rights leader says that some groups have followed a strategy of blaming the Jews for the attacks, while also raising anti-Muslim feelings and blaming immigration for the events. The white supremacist World Church of the Creator shows on its Web site a photograph of the burning World Trade Center with a caption reading, “Friendship with Israel leads to this.”
Al Qaeda, Osama bin Laden’s terrorist network, is also linking up with militant anti-American non-Islamic groups that span the religious and political spectrum. Pacific News Service (Nov. 16) reports that the militant Islamic groups surrounding bin Laden are reaching out to groups such as neo-Nazis in order to “forge a united front to defeat what they see as an evil triumvirate poisoning the world: the United States, the consumerist West, and a Zionist lobby they say controls the whole affair.”
Lebanese Grand Mullah Mohammed Hussein Fadlallah, the leader of the anti-Israel Hezbollah organization, recently told European reporters that U.S. actions in Afghanistan were providing unrelated terrorist groups with a common reason to attack the United States. The anti-Semitism shared by neo-Nazis and Al Qaeda is creating an alliance which has been helped along by Ahmed Huber, a former Swiss journalist and now businessman who converted to Islam in the 1960s.
Huber considers himself a mediator between Islam and the far-right. He has become a major attraction at neo-Nazi National Democratic Party rallies, according to party officials. Huber himself has confirmed that he has had contact with bin Laden associates at an Islamic conference in Beirut. Reporter Paolo Pontoniere notes other Al Qaeda connections with the Real IRA, an Irish terrorist group known for car bombings, the Basque terrorist organization ETA in Spain, The Revolutionary United Front in Sierra Leone and the Liberation Tigers in Sri Lanka.
Black Muslims in the U.S., whether from the Nation of Islam or part of the mainstream Islamic world, are far from united when it comes to questions of terrorism and the influence of Osama bin Laden, reports the New Republic magazine (Nov. 19).
While black Muslims should be in a position to help correct fellow American misunderstandings of Islam, they are as divided in opinion about September 11 and Osama bin Laden as their immigrant and overseas Middle Eastern counterparts, writes Michelle Cottle. Louis Farrakhan and other leaders of the separatist Nation of Islam have been critical of the American counterattack on bin Laden, believing that the U.S. government is more interested in eradicating Islam. Polls have shown that the black community as a whole is “more critical than whites of the U.S. war on terror,” Cottle writes.
Even W. Deen Mohammad, who led a large breakaway group from the NOI and is among the most authoritative voices for mainstream black Muslims, has remained largely silent on bin Laden and terrorism after issuing a brief condemnation of the September 11 attacks. Imam Abdul Malik Mohammed, one of Deen Mohammed’s associates, has been among the more outspoken voices in calling for a united Black Muslim voice against any extremism and “ugly ranting and raving” against the U.S.
But Cottle concludes that the tendency of American whites to associate “genuine” Islam with Middle Eastern immigrants may make it difficult for even moderate Black Muslims to serve as “American ambassadors to their co-religionists.”
The younger generation of American Muslims, feel alienation from their mosques even as they feel a strong connection to Islamic teachings and the Muslim community, according to the San Jose Mercury News (Nov. 15).
The newspaper reports that Muslims in their 20s and 30s “are at the forefront of an emerging conversation about American Muslim identity. Many are trying to articulate a new vision of the faith . . . Some say they are alienated from the daily discourse of local mosques, which they describe as doctrinally rigid or politically overheated, pitting Muslims against the United States and the West.”
One Muslim says that the emphasis at the mosque is not to fall into the evils of the outside society. “But for us as the second generation, we’re part of that society. It would’ve been great to hear what we should do instead of what we shouldn’t do.”
Some maintain their faith through private devotions and conversation with friends, but “other Muslims in their 20s and 30s are turning to organizations that complement what goes on in the mosque.” One such group is the Bay Area-based American Muslims Intent On Learning And Activism (AMILA), which involves young Muslims in soup kitchens and visiting Muslims in prison.
Another new group led by young Muslims is Muslims Against Terrorism. AMILA leader Hina Azam says “We’re sick of hearing how bad the Jews are. But a lot of us feel they have to accept it because that’s what you get when you go to the mosque. You put up with stuff you don’t really like.” These young Muslims may hold political grievances about U.S. foreign policy, but they also tend to press for more internal soul searching within the Muslim community. Hatem Bazian, a 37-year-old Islamic scholar, says the American Islamic community must “develop Muslim scholars in this country — born and raised here — who want to be part of this society.
We have to see that which is good and that which is bad, and if something is bad–then fix it, don’t just condemn it. It’s a major psychological shift.”
The Christian solidarity movement calling for religious freedom for persecuted fellow believers around the world has suffered a setback since Sept. 11 and will likely have to change its strategy, reports Washington Monthly magazine (November).
The movement had the ear of the Bush administration as it pressed for sanctions against Sudan and other Islamic countries repressing religious freedom. But all that changed after Sept. 11 as Bush feverishly sought to build a coalition of Muslim countries, including Sudan, that would stand against Osama bin Laden and the Taliban.
The human rights drive had been put on the back burner, and Christian solidarity activists were not happy, writes Joshua Green. That doesn’t mean that the Christian solidarity movement is losing steam. It may become more influential and a thorn in the side of the government as it rallies American evangelicals to denounce the administration’s outreach to repressive Muslim states.
There are even signs of an alliance between the movement and liberals concerned that the administration is ignoring human rights in its war against terrorism. In any event, Green concludes that the solidarity movement could force the U.S. to lean on Muslim governments repressing religious freedom, which may help create conditions in these countries more conducive to democracy than militancy and terrorism.
Dissent and conflict appear to be growing in the ranks of the Jehovah’s Witnesses after it was revealed that the Watchtower organization was a registered member of the United Nations — a body long condemned by the religion.
In The Tablet (Nov. 3), a British Catholic magazine, Stephen Bates writes that when he reported that the Jehovah’s Witnesses had joined the UN as an accredited non-governmental organization in 1991, he didn’t expect the firestorm of protest and fury he would encounter from members.
For 80 years, the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society (WBTS) had condemned first the League of Nations and then the United Nations as the “Great Babylon” described in the book of Revelations. Bates’ revelation of the WBTS’s membership in the UN (which means that the group had to support the UN charter and be prepared to publicize its objectives) in the Guardian newspaper also had an impact on the church headquarters.
Two days after the article appeared, the WTBTS disaffiliated from the UN. The Witnesses’ message boards on the Internet were filled with hundreds of postings, “virtually all of them outraged with the elders of the Watchtower,” Bates writes.
When members approached their elders about the controversy, they were reproved for bringing it up, with some accused of apostasy and even disfellowshipped (a punishment where former members are shunned by family and friends still in the religion). Bates concludes that “There is a sense in this row…in which disaffected Witnesses feel they have been misled once too often.”
He notes that another confusing issue for members involved an unannounced change that softens the prohibition against receiving blood transfusions.
(The Tablet, 1 King St., Cloisters, Clifton Walk, London, W6 0Q2 UK)