Global Issues

ON Scripture: A Strange Summer Vacation

Candles lit at temple. Image courtesy Galyna Andrushko/shutterstock.com

Candles lit at temple. Image courtesy Galyna Andrushko/shutterstock.com

“What did you do on your summer vacation?” 

Even now students may be answering that question in essays at the start of this new school year. Maybe you wrote such a paper years ago. No matter what you did or where you went this past summer, it was almost impossible to escape the heaviness of the headlines. #BringBackOurGirls has become a distant refrain, almost forgotten beneath the crush of summer tragedies: 

Thousands of children traveled alone from Central American countries to enter the U.S. as refugees. Ebola deaths spread to more West African nations killing hundreds including many health workers. The forces of ISIS, intent on carving out an Islamic caliphate, took over major Iraqi cities and beheaded a U.S. journalist in SyriaRussia usurped Crimea and threatened the rest of Ukraine. The U.N. refugee agency announced in late August that “the number of refugees, asylum-seekers and internally displaced people worldwide has, for the first time in the post-World War II era, exceeded 50 million people.” Gaza has been reduced to rubble while Hamas rockets still fly toward Israeli cities. Michael Brown, an eighteen-year-old African American man who might have started college this week, was shot and killed by a white police officer in the waning days of August.  

After such a summer, how can we do anything but scoff at Paul’s words from Romans? 

From 30,000 Feet, Pope Francis Reaches Out to Beijing

Pope Francis and South Korean President Park Geun-hye on Thursday (August 14). I

Pope Francis and South Korean President Park Geun-hye on Thursday (August 14). Image courtesy Paul Haring/Catholic News Service

At Beijing’s oldest Roman Catholic Church on Wednesday, Mary Zhang, 54, eagerly awaited the arrival of Pope Francis—at cruising altitude.

“I’m very excited. It’s the first time the pope has flown over China,” said Zhang, a regular worshipper at the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception who volunteered to help clean the church.

“I really hope he can give a Mass in person in China one day. It’s a sign of a better relationship between the Vatican and Beijing, as flying over China was not allowed before.”

The pontiff, who landed in Seoul on Thursday for a five-day visit to South Korea, sent a telegram of greetings to Chinese President Xi Jinping as the papal plane flew over northeastern China, as Francis does with any country he flies over, in accordance with Vatican protocol.

The telegram, sent early Thursday, read, “Upon entering Chinese airspace, I extend best wishes to your excellency and your fellow citizens, and I invoke the divine blessings of peace and well-being upon the nation,” The Associated Press reported.

Popes have globe-trotted for decades, but none has visited China, a communist nation that crushed religion during Chairman Mao Zedong’s time. Today, China is more open but remains a “Country of Particular Concern,” according to the U.S. State Department’s latest International Religious Freedom Report, which last month described the continued harassment and detention of some Catholic clergy in China.

Baby Makes 3: More Unmarried New Moms Cohabiting

A mother and father holding their baby’s feet. Photo courtesy of Hannamariah via Shuttestock.

Nearly three in five births to unmarried women across the United States were to women living with their partner — marking the first time a majority of these births were to women in cohabiting relationships, according to a new analysis of federal data released Wednesday.

The increase was sharp; the percentage of nonmarital births within cohabiting relationships rose to 58 percent from 41 percent in just a few years, says the report, based on various data sources from the National Center for Health Statistics, collected between 2002 and 2013, the most recent available.

“What’s happened is the percent of nonmarital births within cohabiting unions has been increasing, but now it’s increased to the point where the majority of nonmarital births are to women that are cohabiting,” said Sally Curtin, the report’s co-author.

While the births in cohabiting relationships increased, the number, rate, and percentage of births to unmarried women overall declined during the same period.

In 2013, the total of 1,605,643 births to unmarried women was the lowest since 2005. The birthrate for unmarried women has steadily declined. 

Suicide a Risk Even for Beloved Characters Like Robin Williams

Robin Williams at the 1997 Cannes Film Festival. Photo courtesy of Featureflash via Shutterstock.

That a “universally beloved” entertainer such as Robin Williams could commit suicide “speaks to the power of psychiatric illness,” mental health experts say.

Williams, who died Monday at age 63, had some of the risk factors for suicide: He was known to have bipolar disorder, depression, and drug abuse problems, said Julie Cerel, a psychologist and board chair of the American Association of Suicidology.

People who are severely depressed can’t see past their failures, even if they’ve been as successful as Williams.

“With depression, people just forget,” said Cerel, who is also an associate professor at the University of Kentucky. “They get so consumed by the depression and by the feelings of not being worthy that they forget all the wonderful things in their lives.”

They feel like a burden on their family and that the world would be better off without them.

“Having depression and being in a suicidal state twists reality. It doesn’t matter if someone has a wife or is well-loved,” Cerel said.

Williams was certainly beloved, as shown by the outpouring of grief and sympathy on social media outlets Tuesday night.

Second American Ebola Patient Arrives in US

A small plane carrying Nancy Writebol, the second American Ebola patient from Liberia, arrived in the United States on Tuesday, making a brief refueling stop in Bangor, Maine, en route to Atlanta and Emory University Hospital.

The same plane, a Gulfstream jet specially outfitted with an isolation pod, brought the first American patient, 33-year-old physician Kent Brantly, to the medical center from Liberia on Saturday, WLBZ-TV reports. The plane was on the ground in Bangor for less than an hour.

Brantly, with Samaritan’s Purse, and Writebol, with Service in Mission, are medical missionaries who were infected with Ebola while working with patients in Liberia.

SIM USA said on Monday that the 59-year-old Writebol was in serious condition.

Six Questions for Kelly and Peter Shenk Koontz

Kelly and Peter Shenk Koontz near Kabul. Photo by Grace Royer.

Bio: Kelly and Peter Shenk Koontz spent the last three years serving in Kabul, Afghanistan, through a Mennonite Central Committee partner.
Website: MCC.org

1. What work were you doing in Afghanistan?
We worked with a Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) partner in Kabul as Peacebuilding Project Managers. Our job was to integrate peacebuilding within different sectors of the partner organization, including adult education, community development, and many others. Day-to-day, this primarily meant developing curriculum and planning and conducting trainings for a variety of contexts—including rural community development teams and university students in Kabul.

2. How would you summarize the biggest challenges in Afghanistan today?
In our opinion, the biggest challenge continues to be the ongoing violent conflict between the established government of Afghanistan and armed opposition groups, particularly the Taliban. The conflict in Afghanistan varies greatly by region, so some areas of the country experience relative stability while others experience violence on a regular basis. It is clear that there is no military solution to the conflict, and a negotiated agreement is the best way forward. However, many human rights groups fear that bringing the Taliban into the government will destroy important human rights gains—especially for women and minorities.

 

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Smiles from the Inside

Lynne Hybels, center, with Syrian refugees and staff at the Za'atari U.N. camp. (Photo by Christine Anderson.)

I'M DREAMING. Ten young men about my son’s age are singing me a Mother’s Day greeting to the tune of “Happy Birthday.” I recognize the melody, of course, but the language is foreign. Still, I’m delighted; I clap and laugh.

Oh, wait. It’s Mother’s Day 2014 and I’m not dreaming. In a refugee camp in Jordan, 10 young Syrian men are singing beautiful Arabic words to me and two other visiting American moms. It’s our last stop in an intense week of refugee visits; it feels good to be laughing.

The singing men, and the young Syrian women who joined us as we toured an educational compound in the Za’atari U.N. refugee camp, were bright university students in Syria before the war—future historians, mathematicians, teachers, agricultural engineers; some just months from graduating—when the violence of Syria’s civil war forced them to flee.

“But when you end up in a refugee camp,” one of the young men explained, “people treat you like idiots. Like you understand nothing.” Herein lies one of the great refugee tragedies. Living at the mercy of others and with little respect, no decision-making freedom, and no control over their future often fuels anger and hopelessness in young refugees.

Curt Rhodes, founder of Questscope, an NGO dedicated to empowering marginalized youth, says, “Perhaps the most dehumanizing thing that can be done to an individual is to take away his or her ability to make choices. ... [We must] increase their personal agency to make positive change in their lives and the lives of others like them.” Recognizing the innate human need to contribute positively to the future, Questscope trains young adult Syrians like the ones I met to be mentors, caseworkers, and teachers for younger children in the camp.

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Between Iraq and a Hard Place

THE DEEPENING CRISIS gripping Iraq is a clear and present danger to global security. The crisis is fundamentally political in nature, however, not military. It cannot be resolved through the use of force, least of all by external military action from the United States. In the past, U.S. intervention has been the problem in Iraq, not the solution. Indeed many of Iraq’s current problems can be traced to the consequences of the U.S. invasion and occupation.

The United States now has a responsibility to help the Iraqi people, having contributed so much to their current travails, but our involvement should be diplomatic and humanitarian, not military. We should work through the United Nations to exert pressure on the violent extremists who are threatening the region and to mobilize international support for political and diplomatic solutions to the conflicts.

A major center of concern today is the extremist group called the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, now identifying as the Islamic State. This group led the military takeover of Mosul and other Iraqi cities. It is a direct offshoot of the al Qaeda forces that emerged during the armed resistance to the U.S. invasion, but is now a rival to, and even more extreme than, al Qaeda.

Prior to 2003, al Qaeda did not exist in Iraq. It was only after the U.S. invasion, which shattered the state and sparked widespread violence and insurgency, that Islamist extremist groups were able to gain a foothold in Iraq. American actions fostered staggering levels of corruption and exacerbated growing Sunni-Shia sectarian tensions.

Islamic State extremists now control major cities and stretches of territory in Iraq and Syria. In recent months many hundreds have died in the fighting, hundreds of thousands have fled their homes, and sectarian violence has spread. Yet to date no coordinated international action has been taken to counter the growing danger or to save Iraq and Syria from further disintegration.

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Rabbi David Saperstein Nominated To Be US Ambassador For Religious Freedom

Saperstein's nomination has been praised by Russell Moore, president of The Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, and by Jim Wallis, founder and president of Sojourners, who will himself be lecturing in Huntsville in November 2014 as a guest of the Interfaith Mission Service.

Jobless Kabul and the Works of War

Photo: Abdulhai Safarali

Rustom Ali at his roadside shop. Photo: Abdulhai Safarali

Last week, here in Kabul, the Afghan Peace Volunteers welcomed activist Carmen Trotta, from New York, who has lived in close community with impoverished people in his city for the past 25 years, serving meals, sharing housing, and offering hospitality to the best of his ability. Put simply and in its own words, his community, founded by Dorothy Day, exists to practice “the works of mercy” and to “end the works of war.” We wanted to hear Carmen’s first impressions of traveling the streets of Kabul on his way from the airport to the working class neighborhood where he’ll be staying as the APVs’ welcome guest.

He said it was the first time he’d seen the streets of any city so crowded with people who have no work. 

Carmen had noticed men sitting in wheelbarrows, on curb sides, and along sidewalks, unemployed, some of them waiting for a day labor opportunity that might or might not come. Dr. Hakim, the APV’s mentor, quoted Carmen the relevant statistics: the CIA World Fact Book uses research from 2008 to put Afghanistan’s unemployment rate at 35 percent — just under the figure of 36 percent of Afghans living beneath the poverty level. That’s the CIA’s unemployment figure. Catherine James, writing in The Asian Review this past March, noted that “the Afghan Chamber of Commerce puts it at 40%, the World Bank measures it at 56% and Afghanistan’s labor leaders put it at a shocking 86%.”

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