Lauren Markoe, Religion News Service

Lauren Markoe covered government and features as a daily newspaper reporter for 15 years before joining the Religion News Service staff as a national correspondent in 2011.

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Obama Visits U.S. Mosque for First Time in His Presidency

Screenshot via the White House

In times of rising Islamophobia, President Obama made a plea for religious tolerance at the first visit to an American mosque of his presidency. A lot of Americans have never been to a mosque, the president said as he began his speech, shoeless per Muslim tradition, in the Islamic Center of Baltimore’s prayer hall on Jan. 3.

To Fight ISIS, West Point Cadets Secretly Built a Facebook Page

Cadets who presented West Point's project. Image via Lauren Markoe/RNS

Last fall, 16 West Point cadets — none of them Muslim — signed up for an elective on counter-terrorism and created a Facebook page to appeal to young Muslims thinking about joining the so-called Islamic State group. The cadets aimed to convince those tempted by the terrorist cause to see jihad in Islam as a peaceful endeavor. For their project to succeed, the cadets knew, they would have to learn more about the faith, and build a social media platform that reserved judgment even on those who expressed admiration for committed terrorists.

Religious Groups Focus on Flint's Water Woes

Image via REUTERS/Rebecca Cook/RNS

Catholic Charities is giving out water and food. The Flint Jewish Federation is collecting water and water filters. And the Michigan Muslim Community Council has distributed more than 120,000 bottles of clean water for Flint, Mich. But these faith organizations are also focused on a longer-term goal: to make sure the impoverished city, where President Obama last weekend declared a state of emergency over its poisoned water, is never so neglected again.

Muslim Journalists No Longer as Rare in U.S. Newsrooms

Image via /Shutterstock.com

Rummana Hussain was one of those children whose Muslim parents envisioned her in a white coat with a stethoscope around her neck. Instead, she became a metro editor and reporter at the Chicago Sun-Times, where she covers criminal courts and remains the only Muslim member of the editorial staff. She knows “a couple” more Muslims at the Chicago Tribune, the state’s largest paper.

Remembering the Religious Leaders We Lost in 2015

Phyllis Tickle. Image via Karen Pulfer Focht/RNS.

They preached and inspired. They wrote and taught. Some lobbied in the halls of government. Others toiled to protect the environment and educate the young. Several died at the hands of persecutors. Here is a list of notable faith leaders — and one champion of secularism — who left us in 2015.

Webby Awards Cuts 'Religion' Category

Image via  / Shutterstock.com

The most coveted award for work on the Internet bestows honors in 231 categories, but “Religion & Spirituality” is no longer one of them.

A producer of the Webby Awards, now in its twentieth year, cited fewer submissions to the category.

“Unfortunately, entries in ‘Religion & Spirituality’ were decreasing each year,” Webby Award Produce Denise Gilley wrote to a past winner in the “Religion & Spirituality” category who had asked what had happened to it. The deadline for the 2016 contest is Dec. 18.

American Mosques Trying to Protect Bodies and Spirits From Hate

Image via REUTERS / Rebecca Cook

Following a surge of attacks on mosques and Muslims — a backlash against recent extremist attacks in Paris and San Bernardino — Islamic leaders have been installing more security cameras and hiring more security guards. But as they worry about the physical safety of their flocks, they are also paying attention to the spiritual damage Islamophobia can inflict.

Hate crimes penetrate Muslims deeply and widely, said Kameelah Rashad, Muslim chaplain at the University of Pennsylvania.

“It erodes their sense of identity and their sense of their spiritual selves,” she said.

Orthodox Rabbis: 'Christianity Is Neither Accident Nor Error'

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel and Cardinal Augustine Bea, who was instrumental to "Nostra Aetate." Image via American Jewish Committee / RNS

A statement by a group of Orthodox rabbis calls Christianity part of a divine plan in which God would have Jews and Christians work together to redeem the world.

Although signed so far by 28 rabbis mostly from the more liberal wing of the most traditional branch of Judaism, the statement marks a turning point for Orthodox Jews, who until now have limited interfaith cooperation to working on social, economic and political causes. But this statement puts Christianity in a distinct Jewish theological perspective — and an extremely positive one.

“(W)e acknowledge that Christianity is neither an accident nor an error, but the willed divine outcome and gift to the nations,” the seven-paragraph statement, issued on Dec. 3, asserts.

ISIS, ISIL, Daesh — Explaining the Many Names for Terrorists

Image via Public domain / Wikipedia / RNS

Q: Al-Qaida is al-Qaida. Hamas is Hamas. But the Islamic State can be “ISIS,” “ISIL,” and “Daesh.” Why so many names?

A: Put the group’s Arabic name into the translation machine, and you get different renderings in English.

The first part of the original name — Dawlat al-Islamiyah f’al-Iraq w Belaad al-Sham — is straightforward: “Islamic State in Iraq.” But you’ve got some room for disagreement on “Sham,” which can be “Syria” or “Greater Syria” or “the Levant.” Go with “Syria” and the acronym becomes “ISIS.” If you choose “Levant,” your acronym is “ISIL.”

You could also say the “Islamic State,” the name the group now prefers. But many call that wrongheaded or offensive or both. It is not a state. And there is nothing Islamic about it, said Imam Sayyid M. Syeed of the Islamic Society of North America.

“It’s misusing the name of Islam in such an ugly way,” he said.

Republicans Predict Iran Deal Will Gain Them Jewish Votes in 2016

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The head of a national Republican Jewish activist group predicted on Nov. 10 that dissatisfaction with the Iran nuclear deal will increase the GOP's share of the Jewish vote in 2016. His Democratic counterpart argued that Jewish Americans, who overwhelmingly vote for his party, are divided over the deal and prioritize other issues.

The debate took place at one of the largest annual gatherings of Jewish activists in the world — the General Assembly of the Jewish Federations of North America — just hours before an address to the group by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

“I say it with a broken heart and a lot of sadness,” said Republican Jewish Coalition Executive Director Matt Brooks on what he alleged is flagging Democratic support for Israel in recent years.

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