Tuesday, October 09, 2007

Common Ground News Service Original Features: Report from Sudan and Youth News

Common Ground News Service
Report this from Sudan
Ellen Davis

Durham, North Carolina - Apostasy is the term applied to religious conversion by those who abhor it, who see conversion as a form of betrayal — of family, community, even nation. Underlying the accusation of apostasy is the understanding that religious conviction and practice are public matters. The supposition of many, across both East and West, that religion is a matter of personal salvation and therefore concerns only God and the individual, has not been widely shared by most peoples and cultures throughout history.

Both the term and the intense emotions that attach to it belong to the special mindset of the three monotheistic faiths, namely Judaism, Christianity and Islam.

One might reason that conversions from one monotheistic religion to another should not arouse hostility, since all monotheisms acknowledge the one God of Abraham and prohibit any other. Yet history consistently shows otherwise. The persecution of "apostates" began as soon as there existed more than one form of monotheism. The 1st century Jew, Saul of Tarsus — better known as St. Paul — had a successful career tracking down and imprisoning Christians, which was terminated only by his own blinding conversion experience. From the 4th century to the mid-20th century, the persecution, massacre or forced conversion of Jews were regular occurrences throughout Christianised Europe. This history of violence, including now the aggressive and militarised forms of proselytising practiced by a small number Islamic groups, is a major factor in the abhorrence of conversion within each of the three monotheistic communities.

There is, however, something new under the sun, namely religiously motivated cooperation among monotheists of different faiths. Sudan might currently be the last place on earth where one would expect to see creative forms of inter-religious cooperation, and at the same time, a diminution of hostility to conversion. Yet such cooperation is evident, especially since the signing of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement between predominantly Muslim Northern Sudan and the largely Christian South. One notable example is a campaign to promote public education about HIV/AIDS, jointly undertaken by the government and churches in Northern Sudan. This is a dramatic shift for the government, which for years denied that Sudanese Muslims suffered from the disease.

Pressure for such cooperation comes from within the Muslim community, both within Sudan and without. Sudanese Muslims are increasingly vocal about their own experiences with HIV/AIDS, and fear a holocaust such as other African countries now suffer. Syria and other Arab states have broken their silence about the reality of AIDS within their own populations.

This new cooperation is also made possible by the fact that many church groups are giving priority to the work of reconciliation. Christians in Sudan are reaching out in new ways, crossing boundaries between Muslims and Christians as well as between Christians of different tribes, in order to heal wounds left by more than 20 years of unabated war.

The churches of Southern Sudan have created much of whatever fragile infrastructure exists there. Church-based clinics, schools and flood-relief teams provide services to all residents, regardless of their religion. Schools offer a secular curriculum, focusing on reading, writing, language, math and computer competency. In many areas, even devout Muslim parents are choosing these schools over madrassas (Islamic religious schools), because they believe the modern curriculum promises the best future for their children.

The church-run schools are staffed by both Muslims and Christians. Classes in religion are taught with the children receiving instruction in their own traditions: education — not conversion — is the object. The headmistress of one church-run school, a Muslim, recently married a Christian in the same village; neither converted, since inter-religious marriage has been legalised by the new government of Southern Sudan. Even when the question of conversion does occur, it does not tear apart the community that has formed for the sake of education. If a child expresses a desire to convert, the parents are informed, and their wishes for the child are respected by the school.

These Sudanese Muslims and Christians are not religiously apathetic, nor are they religious relativists — most of them are strongly committed to their own traditions. Yet their very commitment is resulting in forms of cooperation that lower and even bring down walls of separation that the three monotheisms have often erected and reinforced. These educational initiatives are thus traditional and at the same time innovative, even revolutionary. In a place like Sudan, probably that strange combination is the only thing that might yet bring healing, build communities and create a future for a people who has seen far more war than peace.


* Ellen F. Davis, professor of Bible and practical theology at Duke University, is active in theological education in Southern Sudan. She has long been engaged in inter-religious study and dialogue. This article is part of a series on apostasy and proselytism distributed by the Common Ground News Service (CGNews) and can be accessed at www.commongroundnews.org.

Source: Common Ground News (CGNews), 9 October 2007, www.commongroundnews.org.
Copyright permission has been obtained for publication.


~Youth Views~ Iran-US relations: a path of disaster or a path of hope
Douglas Foote and Dives Diaves

Boston, Massachusetts/Twin Cities, Minnesota - When it comes to foreign policy toward Iran, Americans have been continually let down. Overreaching US intervention was one of the many roots of the Iranian Revolution in 1979, which in turn was a factor in making the Middle East a more dangerous place for Americans. This was demonstrated quite fiercely and memorably by the taking of American hostages. When George W. Bush took office, there was much optimism that he – with his pragmatic governing record – could be to Iran what Nixon was to China.

Since September 11, 2001, however, the United States has reverted from a multilateral foreign policy approach to aggressive unilateralism. Despite the conciliatory messages coming out of Iran following 9/11, and the shared strategic goal of eliminating the Taliban in Afghanistan, Bush and his advisors made the decision to view Iran as an adversary. The language coming out of the administration has been so harsh that many see military conflict with Iran as inevitable.

Thousands of miles away, another hard-line leader took office. Tehran mayor Mahmoud Ahmadinejad won the Iranian presidential election of 2005. Like Bush, Ahmadinejad is prone to making statements that are not conducive to diplomacy and negotiation, such as his public assertion that Israel should be "wiped off the map", the rollback of his moderate predecessor's open door policy toward international organisations, and his numerous condemnations of Bush which blur the line between policy criticism and personal attack.

The conduct and policies of both the Bush and Ahmadinejad administrations are detrimental to the already tense atmosphere in the Middle East. However, Iran and the United States – despite their differences in creed, culture and worldview – have a great deal to learn and benefit from each other.

Bush can benefit politically by taking such a hard-line stance against an Islamic nation in the wake of 9/11, and Ahmadinejad can shore up support for his regime by pointing out the evils of America's war in Iraq and support for the "Zionist entity" of Israel, but the poll results and cheering crowds are only fleeting gains. They ignore the possibility of a relationship that could have a positive, stabilising effect on the region for years to come.

There appears to be a gap in both countries between the peoples' wishes and governments' actions. According to a June 2007 CNN-Opinion Research Corporation Poll, only 30% of those polled were in favour of the Iraq War, and given the current climate, a military confrontation with Iran holds little sway.
Recently, Americans voiced their opposition to the administration and its policies at the ballot box and took control of the legislature away from Bush's Republican Party in an election that was seen largely as a referendum on the current administration's failed policy in Iraq. Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, an intellectual and military architect of post-9/11 Middle East policy, resigned in the wake of the new elections.

Similarly, Iran's population (two-thirds of which is under the age of 30), while generally considered socially restricted, has expressed its desire for change by way of protest, online publications, and elections.

A recent city council election in Tehran gave victory to two supporters of Ahmadinejad and 11 of his opponents. A poll conducted in May 2005 by the Amir Kabir University found a mere 5% to10% of respondents support the religious conservatives and 85% support a secular democracy, numbers that led columnist Thomas Friedman to call Iran "the ultimate red state."

Clearly, both the American and Iranian citizenry are focused more on solving the problems that currently exist than causing new ones.

There is a need for a change in attitude and shift in language in the Bush administration. While Iran is indeed a strategic competitor in the Middle East, this does not make them "evil". Even though the Iranian president may not express overwhelming gratitude towards more conciliatory language, the main audience should be Iran's youth, which is more liberal, democratically minded, and politically active than former generations. It is important to act strongly and fairly to solve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and to eliminate the emergence of radical individuals, regimes, and non-state actors that thrive on conflicts in the region.

In order for Iran to become a regional leader in one of the more tumultuous area of the world, Ahmadinejad must act in a way that engenders respect. Stop aid to Hezbollah in Lebanon and the Shi'a militias in Iraq. Involvement in two of the bloodiest conflicts of the decade – whether it is direct or not – is not something that garners favour with a populace that feels its domestic needs are not being addressed.

After 9/11, the Iraq invasion, the Israeli-Hezbollah War and all the other ongoing conflicts in the region, do we really need more talk of violence? These two men can either walk down a path of disaster or a path of hope, and we pray that they choose the latter.


* Douglas Foote, is a student of political science, communication and media studies at Tufts University and Dives Diaves is majoring in political science at the University of Minnesota. They co-wrote this article as part of the Soliya's intercultural dialogue program. This article is distributed by the Common Ground News Service (CGNews) and can be accessed at www.commongroundnews.org.

Source: Common Ground News (CGNews), 9 October 2007, www.commongroundnews.org.
Copyright permission has been obtained for publication.