In This Issue
- On/File: March 2002
- Findings & Footnotes: March 2002
- Israel policy change seen as step toward Jewish pluralism
- Muslim gains made in Africa
- Woman suicide bomber setting precedent for militant Muslims?
- Anti-semitism on upswing in France due to Mideast conflict
- Current Research: March 2002
- Hand-held computers increase religious access
- Muslims reassessing schools after Sept. 11
- Prisons spawning grounds for militant Islam?
- Black converts take place in American Judaism
- Catholics, Jehovah’s witnesses sheltering sexual abusers?
01: Although there have been several religions existing operating solely through the Internet, the Universal Church of the Interactive Network, at http://www.bloggerheads.com/religion/information.htm, is unique for viewing the Internet as sacred in itself.
Although there have been computer hoax religions, the UCIN appears to be genuine and relatively straightforward in its approach. The church upholds the “empowering potential of the Internet” that could help us achieve the “singular consciousness that many theorize will herald a golden age of interstellar contact.”
The main impediment to achieving this state is the greed and lust and conflict driving most Internet use. The church issues a series of directives modeled on the 10 commandments to help overcome negative use of the Internet. The first one: “Thou shalt not spam.”
02: Harold Camping, an evangelical radio broadcaster who caused waves of controversy over predictions of the world’s end several years ago, is the protagonist of a new phenomenon of calling Christians to drop out of their churches.
Camping, the head of the Family Radio Network, has deeply shaken the Reformed evangelical world with his teaching that most churches are teaching false doctrine and that Christians are called to “depart out” from them. Anecdotal evidence suggests that many conservative Reformed churches are losing some members to Camping’s radio crusade, with a few congregations disintegrating altogether.
Already, an “anti-Campingite” movement has started, with critics claiming that Camping is starting a cult with himself as the sole religious authority.
(Source: Wall Street Journal, Feb. 1)
03: The South Asian Shi’a Muslim movement, the Daudi Bohra, is considered one of the “most modern, forward thinking groups in the Muslim world,” while remaining largely traditional in belief and practice.
The community — two-thirds of which live in India and others in Pakistan and the U.S. — has been described as “fundamentalist” in that they hold to traditional Islamic values, but they have also successfully embraced Western education, gender equality and modern information technologies. The Bohras were the first Muslim group to take advantage of the Internet, using E-mail networks as a way to bring dispersed members together for discussion.
These social values are attributed to the fact that the Bohra are a mercantile community and recognize the need of adapting to the changing market. Although the Bohras have taken an apolitical approach to many issues, their distinctive identity and dress have drawn them into the larger Hindu-Muslim conflict in India.
(Source: Winter, Harvard Divinity Bulletin, citing the book Mullahs on the Mainframe by Jonah Blank)
01: Since the New Age movement emerged almost three decades ago, observers and participants have been proclaiming the death of the “New Age” label, yet it persisted. But when the flagship magazine of the movement, New Age Journal changes its name to Body & Soul in its March/April issue, it could well mean that “New Age” is really passé.
Although the editor doesn’t explain the name change, Body & Soul does fit the increasingly important role of holistic health in the overall New Age amalgam. In recent years a majority of the articles in theÂ magazine has covered alternative health and medical topics, leaving a diminishing role for alternative spirituality. In an article on Religioscope (http://www.religioscope/info/notes/2002_006_New_Agehtm), Philip Johnson notes that bookstores are using the designation “mind-body-spirit” rather than New Age.
Although charismatic and evangelical Americans are likely to have varied views on Islam, the current issue of Charisma (March) reveals how some mission strategists in at least the charismatic world are targeting the Islamic resurgence as a key point of “spiritual warfare.” The magazine interviews five missions specialists on Islam, most of whom criticize American churches for calling the religion peaceful when it is actually violent.
George Otis Jr., a missions speaker and filmmaker takes the most critical view, believing that Islam is “anti-Christ” and is a religion based on “evil spirits.” Although the recent outbreak of terrorism is seen as the most visible manifestation of such a “demon-inspired” faith, throughout the last decade (at least since the fall of communism) charismatic missionaries and evangelists in the Third World have targeted Islam as a battle ground for warfare against such spirits. The Charisma articles suggest that this view is gaining a hearing in the U.S.
For more information, write: Charisma, 600 Rinehart Rd., Lake Mary, FL 32746)
02: More than a book about “cults,” Misunderstanding Cults (University of Toronto Press, $35) actually deals with the scholars researching new religious movements and “cult controversies”. who not infrequently become involved inÂ wider public debates about minority religions. Over the past 30 years, the field has matured, as research has expanded at a fast pace.
Edited by Benjamin Zablocki and Thomas Robbins, the book offers a weighty contribution (more than 500 pages) to the process.of, in the words of the subtitle, “searching for objectivity in a controversial field.” The first chapter, authored by Israeli psychologist Benjamin Beit-Hallahmi, claims that an unhealthy consensus, “something like a party line,” has developed since the late 1970s among leading scholars (especially sociologists are meant here) in this field.
After this harsh judgment, the following chapters prove that scholars can disagree between each other, with the editors hoping to deflate polarization and find a “moderate” middle ground. A key issue has been the “conversion-brainwashing debate,” which has “polarized scholars for several decades,” notes David Bromley. Thus it is not surprising that some 250 pages are devoted to vigorous arguments and counter-arguments on that issue. What this reviewer found most attractive in the book are the chapters like the one by Susan Palmer, who reports humorously about her experiences “caught up in the cult wars.”
Questions raised by the role of scholars as experts in court cases and public debates are also considered. For people having a limited familiarity with the world of “cults”, the book will introduce them to the practical issues involved on these controversial issues.
— By Jean-Francois Mayer
03: Strength for the Journey by Diana Butler Bass (Jossey-Bass, $23.95), is part spiritual autobiography and part history.
Bass provides an interesting account of into her involvement with different Episcopal churches in different parts of the country. She covers the range from low church evangelical to charismatic to liberal high church (though there is little of conservative Anglo-Catholic). Butler comes to the conclusion that mainline Protestantism is being reborn as baby boomer members become “intentional” about their spirituality and social action and come to see the church as a community in tension with American society.
Although relying mainly on anecdotal information, She finds that many of the growing Episcopal churches — both liberal and conservative — are often on the outs with the local bishop and not very confident about the workings of the wider denomination. Also noteworthy are her chapters on the battles between old time members who see the congregation almost as an extension of their family heritage and newcomers who stress outreach to the community and the church as a new kind of family.
On Feb. 20, after several years of controversy, Israel’s Supreme Court ruled to allow the registration of local non-Orthodox converts as Jews on their identity cards.
Until now, only new immigrants converted by Reform or Orthodox rabbis abroad enjoyed that right. Secular and non-orthodox Jews praised the decision as an important step, but it should rather be seen as a symbolic one: it affects only identity cards and the population registry. It has no impact upon the issue of deciding whether conversions performed by Reform or Conservative Rabbis are valid under religious law. For instance, the registration as Jews in the population registry “does not obligate the Chief Rabbinate to recognize them as Jews in matters such as marriage and burial,” according to the Jerusalem Post, Feb. 21).
However, the change has potentially far-reaching implications “for diminishing the unchallenged power of the Orthodox rabbinical establishment,” comments the Chicago Tribune (Feb. 21). Orthodox Jewish groups deplored the decision, since they feel it might lead to confusion. The leader of the Orthodox Shas Party — who happens to be Interior Minister as well — already announced that it would examine the possibility of introducing specific mentions of “Reform Jews” or “Conservative Jews” on IDs, although a previous Supreme Court ruling would seem to bar such a move.
The decision underlines once again the lasting questions surrounding both Jewish identity and the nature of the Israeli State. The court president, Aharon Barak, wrote that “Israel is the state of the Jewish people”, leaving to each individual the right to decide to which stream of Judaism he or she wants to belong. According to the Washington Post (Feb. 24), the decision could encourage immigrants of mixed Jewish or non-Jewish parentage from the former Soviet Union to convert as Reform or Conservative Jews in order to become more easily assimilated into Israeli society.
— By Jean-Francois Mayer
Following the events of Sept. 11, observers are paying closer attention to the rapid growth of Islam in Africa.
Somalia has been considered a possible target of the “war against terrorism”, although more recent evaluations seem to take a softer line and to recommend surveillance only. Various reports indicate the vitality of Islam in various parts of the African continent.
In Somalia, the Muslim militants of Al-Ittihad are no longer involved in armed struggle, reports the Washington Post (Feb. 24). They are now active in social work as well as in schools.
According to the Chicago Tribune (Feb. 24), they are not the only ones: no less than 300 Quranic schools have appeared during the past decade, while no school has been opened by the weak transitional government or foreign aid agencies. The establishment of schools is seen as a positive contribution to that poor country, but questions arise about the future of children, given the kind of training they get there and the poor prospects for their future.
In Mali, a country rarely making it into the news, a correspondent from the Christian Science Monitor (Feb. 26) notices that the tide of Islam is on the rise. One indicator is the multiplication of Islamic associations: while there were only a few ten years ago, there are now more than 150. Moreover, Islam has become a channel for criticism against the alleged deficiencies of the government, as one can hearÂ every Friday in mosques around the country. Increasingly, there are people who feel that the imitation of the West has led them nowhere and think that religion can fill the void.
Another correspondent for the Christian Science Monitor (Jan. 10) earlier reported about the growth of Islam among Blacks in South Africa. It still remains a small force in black townships, but converts are no longer unheard of, and their number is clearly growing, especially among young men.
According to Muslim sources, there could be 10,000 Muslims today in Soweto alone. Muslim immigrants from other African countries help in the conversion work. But there are also tensions with the Asian Muslims of South Africa.
— By Jean-Francois Mayer
When Wafa Idris became the first Palestinian woman suicide bomber in late January, she set a precedent for women engaging in such acts of martyrdom in Islam, according much of the Islamic press.
The Middle Eastern Media Research Institute (http://www.memri.org) issues an in-depth review of the Arab and Muslim press, revealing overwhelming support for the 27-year-old Idris’ suicide. The few articles that examined Idris’ personal life and problems that may have led to the suicide bombing — such as social pressure over being divorced and childless — were soon overshadowed by tributes to her courage and faith.
The Egyptian Islamic weekly “Al-Sha’ab” editorializes that “It is a woman who teaches you today, oh Muslim women, the true meaning of liberation, with which the women’s right activists have tempted you . . . [which] is the liberation of the body from the trials and tribulations of this world..and the acceptance of death with a powerful, courageous embrace.”
Idris was often raised above the level of a regular martyr. The weekly “Al-Arabi” intones, “If it was the Holy Spirit that placed a child in Mary’s womb, perhaps that same holy spirit placed the bomb in the heart of Wafa, and enveloped her pure body with dynamite.” There was some debate about the protocol of women engaged in “jihad” or holy struggle for the faith (for instance, whether she should be accompanied by a chaperone, or whether women recuits should be accepted given that so many men are willing volunteers).
But most publications agreed that, in the words of the Israeli Arab newspaper, “Kul Al Arab,” Idris set a precedent, and that “after [a women suicide bombing] happens again, it will become routine and no one will talk about it any more.” On Feb. 27 it was reported that a second woman suicide bombing had taken place.
Conflict in the Mideast has sparked the growth of anti-Semitic activity in France, according to officials in that nation.
The Dallas Morning News (Feb. 11) reports that the “vicious conflict between the Israelis and Palestinians in the Middle East has apparently had a startling spillover effect in France, where officials report a sharp rise in the number of attacks on Jewish schools, synagogues and rabbis.” Such incidents were “extremely rare during the 1990s” — a period of relative calm in the Mideast.
For instance, in 1998 there was one serious anti-Semitic attack reported in France; by 2000, the National Human Rights Commission found 116 serious acts of violence against Jewish institutions, almost all of them taking place after the Palestinian uprising started in October of that year. Jewish leaders blame the burgeoning Arab population — numbering six million — who are angry about Israel’s treatment of Palestinians.
Muslim leaders have advised the imams at hundreds of mosques throughout France to preach on tolerance and brotherhood.
01: While the membership figures in Eastern Orthodox churches in the U.S. have long been considered inflated, a new study suggests the overestimates are greater than expected.
The study, authored by Alexi Krindatch of the Russian Academy of Sciences for the Religious Congregations project at Hartford Seminary, finds that the actual membership figure for Orthodox adherents (meaning baptized members who attend at least such major holy days as Easter and Christmas) is 1,200,000. This is in sharp contrast with the commonly accepted estimates ranging as high as four million members. The greatest discrepancies were in the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese, with the study finding actually 440,000 members while official figures claim one million.
Krindatch derives his figures by comparing church mailing lists with the nationwide circulation of denominational periodicals. Another misconception Krindatch dispels is the belief that Orthodox membership growth has come from the birth of children into the church rather than immigration. But immigration is still just as important a source of membership as births, and in some cases immigrants (such as from Serbia, Romania, Bulgaria, Macedonia and Egypt) are the major source of growth.
Krindatch also finds that assimilation to American culture (as seen in intermarriage rates, use of English in the liturgies) is strongest among those churches from traditionally Eastern Orthodox countries and weakest amongÂ Oriental Orthodox churches. The latter are the diaspora from churches that areÂ usually minorities in Muslim societies (such as the Coptic Church of Egypt and the Syrian Orthodox Church) and have generated communities that are more resistant to integration with American society.
(The study is available on the Hartford Seminary website: http://hirr.hartsem.edu/research/research_orthodoxpaper.html)
02: A new survey of worshippers at church services finds that while nearly a quarter of them had switched congregations in the past five years, not many were unchurched.
The U.S. Congregational Life Survey polled 300,000 worshippers during one Sunday last spring and found that of the one quarter who had switched congregations, only one-third of these were actually unchurched.
The Christian Century (Jan. 30-Feb. 1) reports that among the other newcomers were returnees (18 percent), those switching from other denominations (18 percent) and transfers from within the same denomination (57 percent).
Pocket-sized computers are increasingly used for reading sacred texts, reciting prayers and other religious activities, reports the New York Times (Feb. 7).
From saying a “virtual rosary” to receiving meditation guidance, hundreds of religious software applications are now available for hand-held computer devices. The Bible and other religious texts and calendars (such as saints’ days or Ramadan timetables) can be downloaded in many languages from Web sites created by programmers with religious interests or from more general sites, reports Debra Nussbaum Cohen.
The Pocket Zendo, described as like “having a little meditation hall, complete with master, in your pocket,” cues meditators to breathe in or out during their practice. One technologies analyst describes the use of palmtops as “just a step further in the process of democratizing access to religious information.”
The burgeoning Muslim school movement in the U.S. is facing new challenges about its teachings and curriculum, especially concerning negative portrayals of America and non-Muslims, since Sept. 11, reports the Washington Post (Feb. 25).
The growth of the Muslim population in the U.S. has generated a mushrooming of Islamic day schools, numbering anywhere from 200 to 600 institutions, with at least 30,000 students. Reporters Valerie Strauss and Emily Wax write that the Sept. 11 “attacks could serve as the catalyst in determining whether these schools and their students focus on the culture and politics of faraway Muslim lands or find within the Islamic tradition those ideas consistent with U.S. democracy and religious liberty.”
To this end, some Muslim educators are writing new curricula that incorporate tenets of Islam with a “broad minded worldview.” Textbooks from overseas that are often marked by their anti-American rhetoric are being replaced or re-edited. One school photocopies the pages needed for teaching while deleting those attacking Jews and Christians. The reporters note that these attitudes are also present among many teachers and administrators. On maps displayed in classes, Israel may be missing or crossed out, or teachers — many of whom are low-paid — will slip militant or anti-American comments into their lessons.
Another concern is that some schools are funded by overseas groups, such as the Saudi government, that stipulate a militant Islamic curriculum. Outside agencies, such as regional association of schools of colleges, have not confronted Islamic schools on such issues, which is why the growth of Parent Teacher Associations (PTAs) in these schools may be significant.
A second article in the Post notes that Muslim schools have traditionally had little or no parental involvement. These new PTAs at Muslim schools are likely to be change agents, representing the diverse range of nationalities (African-American, Middle Eastern and Asian) and Islamic perspectives of their students. The increasing parental voice in these schools often stresses traditional values (the main reason many parents choose these schools) while taking a more global approach taking the best from American and their own cultures.
Are U.S. and European prisons becoming prime recruiting grounds for militant Islam and even terrorism? In a report on Richard Reid, the suspected “shoe bomber” terrorist, in Time magazine (Feb. 25), it is noted that like many others, Reid was converted to militant Islam while in prison.
The magazine reports that since the early 1980s, “Bangladeshi and Pakistani imams, often associated with evangelist Islamic groups, have targeted young black inmates of British prisons.” The literature brought by imams into the jails ranged from the Koran to pamphlets highlighting the importance of jihad. The Minnesota Christian Chronicle (Jan. 24) cites a report in the British Guardian finding that moderate Islamic clergy tend to be pushed aside by radical Muslims in British prisons.
One cleric told the newspaper that some of the imams go into prisons would never be welcome in mosques outside of prisons because of their extreme views. Charles Colson of the evangelical Prison Fellowship Ministries says in the same article that U.S. prisons, particularly among African-American inmates, there is a “troubling shift in the kind of Islam preached in our prisons.” Colson adds that radical clerics are crowding out the efforts of more moderate, mainline Muslims.
Colson cites a New York Times article reporting that the sermons of U.S. prison imams are often inflammatory against the U.S. The Islamic Supreme Council, a small moderate Sufi-based organization, complains that their literature has been removed from American prison libraries by radical Imams who claim it is “un-Islamic.”
(Minnesota Christian Chronicle, 7317 Cahill Rd., Suite 201, Minneapolis, MN 55439)
African Americans are gaining a more prominent place in American Judaism, both as a group and as individual converts.
The Denver-based Rocky Mountain News (Feb. 22) reports that a Denver resident, Alysa Stanton, is the first black woman to be accepted in a major rabbinical program in the U.S., according to officials at the Hebrew Union College in Los Angeles (which belongs to Reform Judaism). “She converted to Judaism 16 years ago and chants the Torah at local synagogues.”
There are also modern groups of “Black Jews” who claim a Jewish faith or heritage while not being accepted as such by mainstream Jewish organizations. However, Black Jews are slowly gaining acceptance in the mainstream Jewish community. The Journal Star (Feb. 23) of Peoria reports on one such group, Beth Shalom B’nai Zaken Ethiopian Hebrew Congregation, in Chicago. The sixth rabbi of Beth Shalom, Rabbi Caper Funnye, is the first of the congregation’s rabbis to be a member of the Chicago Board of Rabbis.
He had himself undergone a conversion under Conservative and Orthodox auspices. In the view of the Ethiopian Hebrew Congregation, people of African descent who join Judaism are actually “reverting” to their ancestral traditions. While Rabbi Funnye and other Black Jews claim there might be more than 200,000 Black Jews in the United States, more conservative estimates put those numbers at about 50,000, although there is no way to know exactly, since it involves the problem of defining the boundaries of Judaism.
— By Jean-Francois Mayer, an RW Contributing Editor who recently founded Religioscope (http://www.religioscope.com), a website providing information and resources on religion.
Sexual abuse in religion, particularly within the Catholic Church, is again making headlines across the U.S. This time, the thrust of the charges is that religious institutions — from Catholic Church to the Jehovah’s Witnesses — have not implemented policies to protect the abused and still tend to keep such matters behind closed doors.
In an in-depth article on clergy sexual abuse in the Catholic Church in National Review (Feb. 11), Rod Dreher notes that since the emergence of sexual abuse cases in the mid-1980s things have not drastically improved much in how the church deals with such offenses. The spotlight now is on the Archdiocese of Boston, where priests admitting to sexual abuse were allowed to function as priests in parishes and were not reported to the police even when their activities came to light.
Dreher writes that although some bishops have made an effort to cooperate with the law in reporting sexual abuse cases, even newly written Vatican directives tend to restrict the right of bishops to move quickly against suspected pedophile priests. Another change since the late 1980s is that laity are more skeptical of the hierarchy and “no longer trust the bishops to do the right thing by their children.” Laity — both conservative and liberal — are not hesitant to “appeal to law-enforcement authorities and the secular media for remedy.”
In a Feb. 7 article for National Review Online (http://www.nationalreview.com/dreher/dreherprint02072.html), Dreher reports that many conservative Catholics are rethinking their view that sex scandals involving Catholic priests are the fault of moral and theological liberalism. This is because one of the leading traditionalist Catholic groups, the Society of St. John, is now under scrutiny for charges of sexual molestation by two of its leaders.
The society, a breakaway group from the traditionalist Society of St. Pius X, and the bishop supervising the group, Bishop James Timlin of Scranton, Pa., are being accused of foot-dragging and covering up these crimes. The two priests were reassigned, but not suspended, pending the outcome of an investigation into the case.
Meanwhile, recent allegations of sexual abuse in the Jehovah’s Witnesses by current and former members are posing more serious challenges to the Watchtower organization. There have been several court cases in the past few years where members have accused Jehovah’s Witnesses elders or leaders of sexual molestation. Now two cases are working their way through the courts that seek to indict the Watchtower organization itself for shielding and supporting child abusers. One case filed in January in Washington state seeks unspecified damages from the Jehovah’s Witnesses headquarters for policies that discourage abuse victims from reporting this crime to police.
Last year’s formation of Silent Lambs (http://www.silentlambs.org), an advocacy and support group for JW’s experiencing abuse, signals a new assertiveness on this issue. Founder of Silent Lambs, William Bowen, says that Jehovah’s Witnesses are “where the Catholics were on the abuse issue about 20 years ago.”
In an interview, Bowen told RW that the JW’s practice of discouraging members from going to courts to resolve issues — particularly when they involve fellow members — as well as disfellowshipping (or shunning) dissenting members makes the organization amenable to sexual abusers.
Those who experience abuse are told to “leave it in God’s hands,” while elders who may have committed such acts are forgiven and not reported to the police, according to Bowen. Since attempting to confront leaders over the issue can lead to shunning, many abused members choose to suffer in silence, he adds The Watchtower Society has issued a statement denying that the church has any sanctions against congregation members reporting abuse to authorities. The statement adds that the church complies with laws requiring elders to report such incidents to the authorities.