Religion is increasingly viewed as highly politicized, not least due to the way that it is frequently covered in the news. Numerous studies have shown that news stories with emotional cues tend to both gain audience attention and prolong audience engagement.
It may therefore come as no surprise that online debates about religion are packed with emotional cues that evoke strong reactions from those who participate in them. This sets the stage for passionate online debates.
Sunday afternoon, March 28, 1982. If you were an evangelical Christian living in Guatemala, watching TV, your heart would have been beating faster and tears of joy may have flowed down your cheeks.
A man was speaking so thoughtfully, with the Bible in hand. He was teaching the audience, “If there is no peace within the family, there would be no peace in the world. If we want peace, we need at first to be at peace in our hearts.” He went on, “Guatemala is the chosen people of the New Testament.”
That 55-year-old man was Guatemalan General Efrain Rios Montt, pastor of the Iglesia Verbo (Church of the Word), who had recently become president of Guatemala through a military coup.
On May 10, 2013, a Guatemalan court sentenced Rios Montt to 80 years in prison after finding him responsible for deliberate killings by the armed forces of at least 1,771 members of the Maya Ixil population during his 1982-83 rule.
Our ministry with the Mafraq Church helped us see the desperate need for volunteers and funds to help the Church continue this vital ministry. Thousands of Syrians continue to make their way to Jordan fleeing the violence. Already more than 500,000 Syrian refugees live in Jordan. The refugee camps are overcrowded. We visited the Zatari Camp that has become home to more than 130,000 people. As far as the eye can see, the visitor can observe row after row of tents and small mobile units. The main street is packed with refugees while numerous shops, vendors, makeshift hospitals, and NGO distribution centers have sprung up in response to the plight of the refugees.
Other refugees are finding temporary residence in rooms, apartments, and warehouses in towns and cities outside the camp. The number of refugees in Mafraq has even surpassed the number of Jordanian residents. Church volunteers distributed basic items such as mattresses, blankets, small gas cookers, and gas containers. In addition, we delivered food baskets containing $50.00 worth of groceries to each family we visited.
In recent weeks, Facebook and other social media have clearly demonstrated their capacity to do far more than just allow us to keep in touch with our family and friends. They have proven to be powerful organizing tools, capable of assisting in the creation of broad international movements for social change. Social media has proven to be a particularly powerful tool in countries in which basic democratic rights such as a free press and the right to assembly are severely restricted. At the same time, Facebook and YouTube are increasingly rendering international borders as meaningless. Western media coverage of the recent popular uprising in Egypt consistently emphasized the catalytic role of Facebook in galvanizing youth and young adults to take action against an entrenched regime that had long been viewed as impenetrable. In the days after Mubarak's departure, both the New York Times and The Los Angeles Times published lead stories describing the role of certain Facebook pages in not only serving as a call to action, but as a space in which emerging activists in Tunisia and Egypt were able to share lessons with each other. These young activists had not only managed to evade the reach of both nations' security police, they had also sidelined older opposition parties such as the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt.
Two weeks ago Sunday I awoke to my cell phone ringing at 6:45 a.m. In my sleepy delirium I answered it to hear the agitated voice of Isidra, a friend and "hermana" from our church in Flor del Campo, a marginalized neighborhood near the airport of Tegucigalpa.
There is the Islam of the dictators and their religious allies, used to keep people in their place, used to justify their own power, used to shame and threaten those who question their authority. And there is the Islam of the protestors, calling out to God in hopes of liberation. Whose prayers are heard? Which group has a more true vision of God?