China's Grim Religious Freedom Problem

A man waves a flag in May 1989 at China’s Tiananmen Square. Creative Commons image by Robert Croma

While last month marked the 25th anniversary of China’s silencing freedom in Tiananmen Square, this month China has been cementing this grim legacy — particularly regarding religious freedom.

From repressing Muslims to bulldozing churches and tearing down crosses, Chinese officials have been denying the internationally guaranteed right to believe or not believe. The simple proposition that individuals have the right to live out their beliefs openly and peacefully, without fear or intimidation, clearly frightens Chinese authorities, as evidenced by their repressive persecution of numerous faith communities.

During the just-concluded month of Ramadan, China denied Uighur Muslim students, teachers, professors, and government employees the freedom to fast and fulfill related duties. With Ramadan coinciding this year with the commemoration of the Communist Party’s founding, Chinese authorities used the occasion to identify fasting Muslims, particularly in Xinjiang province. Those defying the ban have been subject to threats, detention, and arrests.

In recent years, officials have shut down religious sites; conducted raids on independent schools, leading to multiple injuries and even deaths; confiscated religious literature; restricted private study of the Quran; monitored the sermons of imams and forced them to undergo political training; restricted Muslim dress and religious expression; banned children from being brought to mosques; and arbitrarily deemed religious gatherings and activities “illegal.”

Muslim Christmas celebrations gain a toehold

Photo courtesy Zeyna Ahmed

Zeyna Ahmed, with daughters Nadyah Abdul-Majid, 13, Hadyah Abdul-Majid, 11, during Christmas. Photo courtesy Zeyna Ahmed

A generation or two ago, when America’s Muslims were new immigrants who made up an even smaller minority of Americans than they do today, they viewed the lights, trees, carols, gifts, and festive spirit of Christmas as a threat to their children’s Islamic faith.

But these days, a growing number of Muslims celebrate Christmas, or at least partake in some ways, even if they don’t decorate their homes with trees and a light show. Indeed, many Muslim families have created their own Christmas traditions.

“I teach my three children, who attend public school and happen to be born into an interfaith Christian-Muslim family, that we absolutely do celebrate Christmas because we are Muslim,” Hannah Hawk of Houston wrote in an email. Rather than putting up a tree or lights, “we celebrate the reason for the season, Jesus, by studying all that is written about him in the Quran and by examining historical theories.”

Plea to Non-Christians: You Take Santa, Please

Hasloo Group Production Studio

Hasloo Group Production Studio

On behalf of Christians everywhere, this holiday season I’d like to extend an olive branch (some assembly required; batteries not included) to the non-Christian faith community.

More than 2,000 Christmases have come and gone, and it’s time. It just is. It’s time for one of you to step up and adopt-a-Santa, the Santa. Did I say “please”? Write him into the Ramadan tradition, or fold the jolly old elf into Hanukkah. Put some Kringle in your Karma. Let Rudolph’s nose illuminate the path, the way. How hard can it be?

I’m serious — we’re tired of him, because spiritually speaking, Santa Claus is a colossal pain in the wassail. 

Pope Pens Personal Message to Muslims at Ramadan’s End

Pope Francis in March. RNS photo by Andrea Sabbadini

Pope Francis in March. RNS photo by Andrea Sabbadini

In message published on Friday, Pope Francis took the rare step of personally expressing his “esteem and friendship” to the world’s Muslims as they prepare to celebrate the end of the Ramadan fast.

While it is a long-established Vatican practice to send messages to the world’s religious leaders on their major holy days, those greetings are usually signed by the Vatican’s department for interfaith dialogue.

In his message, Francis explains that in the first year of his papacy he wanted to personally greet Muslims, “especially those who are religious leaders.”

Francis’ predecessor, Pope Benedict XVI, had fraught relations with Muslims. In a 2006 speech he quoted a Byzantine emperor who said Muhammad had only brought “evil and inhuman” things to the world, sparking a worldwide crisis in Christian-Muslim relations.

Ramadan, a Shared Table, and Following Jesus

Breaking bread, Shaiith / Shutterstock.com

Breaking bread, Shaiith / Shutterstock.com

 Last night, my wife Janny and I had the honor of sharing a table with a gathering of local Muslims for an Iftar meal. It is currently Ramadan, which means the Muslim community around the globe fasts everyday day from sunrise to sunset. No food. No water. No tobacco. No sex. Each night they have a celebration feast to break their daily fast called the Iftar meal. It is sacred, joyous, and a time to sit with those they love to worship the One they love, Allah (which is simply the Arabic translation of God).  

It was into that sacred gathering that they expanded the table and pulled up a seat for us and a few other Christian and political leaders throughout San Diego. Their hope was simply to create space in their daily practice for their neighbors to experience life with them. They were both acknowledging city leaders who have been proactive in creating an environment of dignity and mutual relationship, and creating a space for new/renewed understanding of one another. Acknowledging our core faith differences, they made clear that it should in no way detract from our ability to share a common vision for the good of our city. We are neighbors who live, work, and play on the same streets with a common desire to see deep, charitable relationships, sustainable economy, and mutual understanding and a celebration of diversity.

As I often say, as followers of Jesus, we have no choice but to move toward relationships with those who are marginalized, dehumanized, and in need of love. We don’t compromise our faith by hanging out with people we may or may not agree with. No, in fact, we reflect the very best of our faith.

Survey: UK Muslims Give More to Charity than Jews and Christians

Photo courtesy RNS/Shutterstock.com.

Donating to charity. Photo courtesy RNS/Shutterstock.com.

When it comes to donating to charity, Britain’s small but fast-growing Muslim community comes out ahead of other religious groups, a recent survey shows.

Conducted by ICM, a London-based polling agency, the survey shows the U.K.’s estimated 280,000 Muslims report giving more money annually to charity than Christians, Hindus, Sikhs, and Jews.

The survey, conducted on behalf of JustGiving, an online giving platform, also found a 70 percent rise in giving over the past two years from among Muslims to the charity-giving site.

British TV Channel’s Call to Prayer Stirs Controversy

Photo courtesy RNS/guardian.co.uk.

Hassen Rasool, Muezzin of Channel 4′s Broadcast. Screenshot of Video. Photo courtesy RNS/guardian.co.uk.

With a stated aim to “provoke,” Britain’s best-known TV company, Channel 4, is justifying its live daily broadcast of the “adhan” — the early hour Muslim call to prayer — and sparking applause as well as anger.

The broadcasts, airing each morning at 3 a.m. Greenwich Mean Time, will continue throughout the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.

“We are focusing on the positive aspects of Islam and hoping to explain to a broader public what Ramadan is, and what it means for the 2.8 million Muslims who take part in the UK and provide a platform for different views and different voices,” said Ralph Lee, the network’s head of programming.

Tisha B’Av: An Unloved Jewish Holiday Alters its Rituals

Photo courtesy RNS.

Rabbi Marc Fitzerman views the destroyed temple as a call for introspection, not a call to rebuild. Photo courtesy RNS.

Most people have heard of Hanukkah and Passover and maybe Yom Kippur — the Jewish Day of Atonement. But Tisha B’Av?

Translated as the ninth day of the Hebrew month of Av, it counts as one of the most important days on the Jewish calendar. But even many Jews have not heard of this period of mourning, which requires a 25-hour fast to commemorate the destruction of the First and Second Temples in Jerusalem.

Tisha B’Av, many rabbis say, can be a tough sell, in part because a radical group of far-right Jews wants to rebuild the temple on the site of what is now the Al-Aqsa Mosque, one of Islam’s most revered sites.

Heat Poses Challenge to Muslims Fasting During Ramadan

Photo by Chris Detrick | The Salt Lake Tribune

Sharifa Al-Qaaydeh and her kids walk around their home Wednesday May 4, 2011. Photo by Chris Detrick | The Salt Lake Tribune

SALT LAKE CITY — Every day. For a month. From sunup to sundown. No food. No water.

No sweat?

No, plenty of sweat, especially this year.

With Utahns baking under energy-sapping, forehead-dripping, water-chugging temperatures, the state’s Muslims are swearing off that liquid life force during the heat of the day — and the morning, and the evening.

The annual 30-day fast known as Ramadan, one of Islam’s five pillars, began Tuesday and requires that believers forgo food and drink. At this time of year, that means 15 hours of parched throats and unquenched thirst.