Archive - October 2015

Responses to Oppression Sometimes Stop Me in My Tracks
Islam, Religious Freedom, and Getting the Word Out
Religion and World Order
Rescue Them! The Case for Coming to the Help of Religious Minorities in the Middle East
Umbrella Revolution Christian?
Religious Freedom Over There: Can It Span the Atlantic?
Pope Francis, Action, and Dialogue

Responses to Oppression Sometimes Stop Me in My Tracks

These days I and my colleagues at Notre Dame and at Georgetown are busily preparing for a major international conference in Rome on December 10-12 on Christian responses to persecution.  It arises from a research project that is sending fourteen leading scholars of global Christianity out to over 30 countries to look at these responses.  I anticipate that responses will be highly varied, ranging among heroic resistance; fleeing for life; diplomatic accommodation to repressive regimes; forgiveness; taking up arms; interreligious peacebuilding; and martyrdom. We want to be careful and even-handed even though — well, in fact, because — we also work out of moral concern and a desire for solidarity.

Sometime, though, I come across a response to persecution that stops me in my tracks and I stand in awe.  That is what happened when I read about the Archbishop of Saigon, Francis Xavier Nguyen Van Thuan, who was imprisoned in 1975 and held there for 13 years, nine of these in solitary confinement.  Here is his story.

Islam, Religious Freedom, and Getting the Word Out

co-authored with Areej Hassan

In a 2015 discussion at the Council on Foreign Relations about countering violent extremism, Shaykh Abdullah bin Bayyah said,

The problem is more a communication problem than it is actually a problem of rooting these truths in the tradition itself. That part is the easier part because there’s plenty of things that enable us to do that. But the problem is, how do we get this rootedness in the tradition for these concepts out to much larger audiences?

In this, Shaykh bin Bayyah expresses the experience we have had in studying Islam and religious freedom. We find that the Islamic faith has rich traditions, not least of all the overarching objectives of the Islamic faith, as well as sophisticated interpretive tools, to help Muslims in the modern day find ways to live authentically with their faith and peacefully in the diverse societies of their globalized world.

When it comes to religious freedom, the problem is not lack of content by Muslims supporting religious freedom from within their own faith tradition. Rather the problem is a lack of awareness of and access to these Muslim faith resources related to religious freedom.

It is true that restrictions related to religious freedom have increased in some Muslim-majority countries due, in part, to a strict or ignorant understanding of certain hadiths or Quran verses. This is not only problematic, from the perspective of many Muslims, but also ironic. Using these primary sources for the justification of very specific actions with little to no indication of a greater good to be expected from such actions, as has happened in many Muslim-majority countries, is at odds with the Islamic tradition. Islam’s theological and juridical traditions demonstrate that religiously motivated calls to action must be critically assessed, consistent with the greater objectives of the religion, and understood within the context of the existing environment, as underscored by classical jurists’ recognition of local custom as a factor when they strove to understand divine rulings.

Though there are many Muslims who recognize this and who address issues related to religious freedom critically in a manner more in line with the traditions of Islam, their works remain unavailable to many other Muslims. Their media are banned in some countries, and these media are available often in languages inaccessible to many and in publications marketed only to academic audiences.

It is for this reason that the Islam and Religious Freedom Project was created. The mission of this project is to increase availability and circulation of media on religious freedom-related topics by Muslims who engage with the Quran and hadith as well as the intellectual juridical approaches established by the Islamic tradition.

The Islam and Religious Freedom Project takes already-existing religious freedom media by Muslims, and then (to the extent copyrights allow) in three ways increases the availability and circulation of these media:

  1. More languages: The project includes media in, at present, 13 languages. We search across many languages for media, we commission translations of texts, and we subtitle videos.
  2. More media formats: The project creates audio-books from our pool of written media and we hope to expand soon into the creation of video presentations of texts.
  3. More media outlets: The project has created YouTube and SoundCloud channels for video and audio, respectively, and an important part of this project is promoting circulation of these media via Twitter, Facebook, and an e-newsletter. In addition the project has created and is constantly adding to a free online bibliography of Islam and religious freedom media at Zotero.

When it comes to Muslim support for religious freedom, this is what Shaykh bin Bayyah would call a “communication problem,” not a content problem.

To learn more, visit the Islam and Religious Freedom Project’s website at

Jennifer S. Bryson is Director of the Zephyr Institute in Palo Alto, CA and Areej Hassan is Project Manager of the Zephyr Institute’s Islam and Religious Freedom Project.

Religion and World Order

Take note of a fascinating symposium on religion and world order now presented online by the Berkley Center for Religion, Peace and World Affairs.

From Berkley’s website: “In advance of a workshop on religion and world order held at the Berkley Center on September 18, 2015, Center director Tom Banchoff circulated a discussion paper that served as a starting point for debate. His main argument is excerpted below, along with a range of responses. The workshop, cosponsored by the Chumir Ethics Foundation, was convened in the run up to the Congress of Vienna 2015, a gathering of global thought leaders to discuss and develop principles for a stable and just world.”

Here is my own response.  I take issue with Tom’s argument that international norms have become secularized and argue that they are more religious than they at first appear.

Here’s the excerpt of Banchoff’s piece:

“In the name of the Most Holy and Undivided Trinity…”

So began the General Treaty of the Congress of Vienna two centuries ago.

The role of religion in world order has changed markedly since. The forces that dominate international affairs today—nation-states, market economies, and international institutions—interact outside of any religious frame. The recent 109-page nuclear accord with the Islamic Republic of Iran, for example, is free of religious language.

It does not follow that religion plays no role in world politics. In fact its domestic salience has grown over the past several decades. Examples include the Religious Right in the United States and Israel, Hindu and Buddhist nationalism in Asia, and political Islam across parts of the Middle East, Asia, and Africa. Even in Europe, a bastion of secularism, a growing religious pluralism is impacting the political scene.

Nevertheless, religion’s influence continues to be felt within an international system that remains strikingly secular.

For most of human history political legitimacy has rested on some sacred foundation. The Mandate of Heaven in China, the caliphate within Islam, the Divine Right of Kings in the West—all are examples of rule legitimated in terms of some supernatural, transcendent, or timeless foundation. This religious frame also applied to external affairs. Relations among empires, kingdoms, and principalities—the closest analog to today’s international relations—unfolded within a higher, cosmic or sacred order. For most of recorded history it was routine to invoke God, or gods, in both the conduct of war and the negotiation of peace. The Congress of Vienna participated to a considerable degree in this age-old tradition.

By 1815, however, the religious frame was beginning to fade. The emergence of states out of the ruins of the Holy Roman Empire, the waning of ecclesial power and the Reformation, and the end of the religious wars in the Peace of Westphalia (1648) were critical milestones. The democratic and nationalist ideologies advanced by the American and French revolutions at the turn of the nineteenth century reinforced the secularizing trend. Against this backdrop the Holy Alliance that followed on the Congress of Vienna appears as a failed effort to revive the idea of Christendom—to forge a Europe of God-fearing rulers committed to “justice, love and peace.”

The world order that eventually emerged after two cataclysmic world wars, the onset of the Cold War, and decolonization was deeply secular in its foundations. The United Nations system has been built upon the principles of national sovereignty, national self-determination, and non-interference in the affairs of other states. It does not invoke God, gods, or any particular religious tradition. Today interstate diplomacy, transnational trade and finance, and international law have largely remained a realm of material interests and secular rules and norms.

This is not, of course, to argue that the institutions, rules, and norms that constitute the international system have nothing to do with religion. As recent scholarship has shown, principles of sovereignty and norms of human rights and humanitarianism have a considerable historical debt to religious ideas and practices. It does not follow, however, that those institutions are religious today in any meaningful sense. International leaders in politics, business, and civil society, are able to think, talk, and act across a range of transnational issues without reference to God or any particular religious tradition. That represents a significant historical break, the outcome of a centuries-long evolution.

There is no guarantee that this configuration will persist into the future. One can imagine a transformative turn in globalization—long awaited by many—that will take us beyond the nation-state to a global civil society, in which religious and other social and political forces can somehow forge a world polity. A more global civil society and emergent global polity would certainly allow more of a role for religion in the (re)construction of world order. Whether the result would ultimately be more harmony or more conflict is a matter for speculation.

Another, opposed set of changes to the international system would also allow a potentially transformative role for religion—not the formation and integration of a global polity but varieties of global disintegration. One can envision a range of transregional catastrophes, ranging from wars and pandemics to ecological disaster, that might have the double effect of unraveling the existing international system and generating large-scale religious awakenings. It is not hard to imagine that the intolerant and violent currents within those traditions would flourish in such apocalyptic scenarios.

The specter of such disasters, perhaps more real than often acknowledged, is reason enough to encourage a positive role for religion in the reform of world order today and in decades to come. The overlapping ethical principles of peace, justice, and solidarity articulated across major religious traditions will always be in some tension with norms of state sovereignty and economic self-interest that now ground the international system. Given that tension, one can imagine the emergence of a powerful, transnational coalition of religious and secular forces mobilized around ethical principles that works through governments, markets, and international organizations to advance basic civil, political, economic, and social rights, and peace on a global level. Such a development might gradually transform our existing world order from within—and for the better.

Rescue Them! The Case for Coming to the Help of Religious Minorities in the Middle East

Over the past few days, a couple of good pieces have appeared making the case for rescuing Christians – and, I would echo the point here — other religious minorities who are victims of ISIS.

Chloe Valdary at the Wall Street Journal makes an analogy of Christians in the Middle East to the Vietnamese “boat people” whom the U.S. rescued in 1975.  See here.  Here is her opening:

In 1975, as desperate Vietnamese sought to escape Communist rule, the U.S. embarked on what remains one of the greatest humanitarian rescue missions in history. Over the span of several weeks, Operation Frequent Wind, Operation Babylift and other missions by air or on sea saved and resettled tens of thousands of Vietnamese in the U.S., where they would become thriving American citizens.

Now another desperate population needs rescuing: persecuted Christians in the Middle East. Could there be an Operation Frequent Wind for them?

Then in The Weekly Standard, Elliott Abrams makes a similar case.  For him, the Jews are the right analogy:

The rescue of threatened Jewish communities has been a central public purpose of Jews living in safety. American Jews pressed their government to push back against repression in Morocco in the 19th century and in czarist Russia in the early 20th. They failed to get the doors open for many Jewish refugees from Nazi Germany, but they tried​—​despite rampant antisemitism, not least in the State Department. They succeeded in opening the doors of Soviet Russia, whence a million Jews fled to Israel.

It is in that context that the failure of the United States and the countries of Western Europe​—​all of which have overwhelming Christian majorities in their populations—​to protect or to accept as refugees many Middle Eastern Christians (and other minorities, such as the Yazidis and Baha’i) is worth exploring. To be sure, Jews have been an oppressed and endangered minority for a couple of thousand years, so the habits of rescue are deeply ingrained in liturgy and in communal life. Christians have had two pretty good millennia, and the idea that there are Christian communities being destroyed, and Christians being enslaved, raped, and murdered because of their faith, may be hard for many Christians in the year 2015 to understand.

I’m persuaded.

Umbrella Revolution Christian?

Almost exactly a year ago I posted a couple of pieces on the Umbrella Revolution in Hong Kong and its Christian, especially Catholic, influence.  Several pieces came out around that time with similar themes.  See here and here.

My colleague here in the political science department at Notre Dame, Victoria Hui, dissents.  See her interesting piece here.


Religious Freedom Over There: Can It Span the Atlantic?

Seventeen years ago, in 1998, the U.S. Congress mandated religious freedom in U.S. foreign policy through the International Religious Freedom Act. In recent years, Canada, Britain, Austria, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, and Norway have adopted foreign policies of religious freedom in one way or another. Might these democracies cooperate in their religious freedom policies?

This coming Thursday and Friday, October 8th and 9th, 2015, a policy dialogue will be held at Georgetown University to explore the potential for transatlantic cooperation in religious freedom policy. The first day will feature a keynote address by Peter Berger, the famous sociologist of Boston University, with comments by David Brooks of The New York Times and Walter Russell Mead, a prominent commentator on foreign affairs and professor at Bard College. Then, a succession of panels will explore issues surrounding cooperation across the Atlantic. The day will close with a keynote address by U.S. Ambassador for Religious Freedom David Saperstein. The second day will focus on how religious freedom plays in regions of the world, including the Middle East, India and the Far East, and Eastern Europe and the Orthodox world. If you’re in the area and want to come, please RSVP here.

Cooperation across the Atlantic, in my view, would be a good thing. Although I am a strong supporter of the U.S. promoting religious freedom around the world, the policy has had its flaws. Perhaps the best fruit of it is the annual reports on religious freedom around the world put out by the Office of International Religious Freedom at the State Department and the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom. These reports give exposure to the violation of this precious human right and provide a critical commodity for policymakers, activists, and scholars — namely, good information on what is happening on the ground around the world.

A more difficult question, though, is: How much more religiously free is the world today because of U.S. foreign policy? Is a single country more religiously free than it otherwise would be because of this policy? Maybe so; I would welcome positive examples. I doubt there are many, though.

I do not at all wish that religious freedom policy would fade. I want there to be more religious freedom and less religious repression in the world and I want the U.S. to be a force for freedom. I propose, though, that religious freedom policy would be much more effective were it multilateral — coordinated in a common front of western democracies. Together, they could wield more hard power — economic sanctions, for instance — as well as more soft power — diplomatic and institutional influence — for religious freedom.

The proposal is not without its difficulties. Would multilateral cooperation water down the pursuit of religious freedom so as to make it meaningless? Would there be fractiousness over strategy? Would there be all talk and little action?

Deeper differences will arise over different religious profiles among western democracies. Populations of Western Europe, Canada, and the European Union tend to be more secularized than that of the United States. They do not offer the same level of popular support for religious freedom (in the U.S., IRFA was passed with strong popular support and grassroots mobilization, as detailed here). Will there be resulting differences in how religious freedom is promoted? The European Union and some western European democracies often use the term Freedom of Religion and Belief (FORB) which is wider in its content, and arguably more watered down, than religious freedom. Western European countries have far more statist approaches to religion, often having government bureaucracies that manage religion as well as state churches, whereas the United States practices a more robust institutional separation between church and state. Would this difference affect what sort of laws and regimes western countries seek elsewhere? Western European states like Britain, France, and Germany host more distinct and less assimilated Muslim communities than the United States, where Muslims are more integrated. Will this affect cooperation in promoting religious freedom towards Muslim majority countries?

Still another challenge comes from a group of intellectuals, mostly American, arguing that religious freedom is a western invention and confined to western history and should not be spread to other countries. (See previous ArcU pieces here and here.) Even if one does not agree and sees religious freedom as a universal principle, as I do, we are still left to ask how a united western religious freedom policy will be received around the world. Will it foment a schism between the West and the Rest?  Or are there factions favorable to religious freedom that can be secured as allies in India, Indonesia, and Russia?

One of the most interesting aspects of the conference is its formidable coalition of sponsors. These can be understood as the confluence of two streams. The policy dialogue on transatlantic religious freedom policy is the brainchild of an international relations professor at Sussex University in the UK, Fabio Petito, who has long been a leader in the study of religion and international relations. He managed to secure a “Bridging Voices” grant from the British Council, which seeks to promote transatlantic dialogue on policy issues. The Center for Civil and Human Rights at the University of Notre Dame teamed up with him on the grant and they took on as additional partners the European University Institute and the University of Milan. This will be the second of two policy dialogues on transatlantic religious freedom policy, the first having been organized by Petito and taken place at Wilton Park, United Kingdom in February 2015. Generously co-sponsoring the dialogues are the International Center for Law and Religion Studies (BYU) and McGill University’s Birks Forum on the World’s Religions. All of these constitute the first stream of sponsors. 

If that is not enough for you, this entire coalition joins a second stream of sponsors led by the Religious Freedom Project at Georgetown University, who is hosting the event. RFP is taking on the event as the first in a year-long series of events on policy associated with the International Religious Freedom Act, which will produce a revised edition of The Future of U.S. International Religious Freedom Policy. RFP sponsors this series together with its partner, the Institute for Studies of Religion at Baylor University, and is also teaming up with The Review of Faith & International Affairs at the Institute for Global Engagement, and the Institute on Culture, Religion & World Affairs at Boston University.

Got all that?  Wait, there is more. Selected presentations will appear in the Review of Faith and International Affairs. The dialogue is also part of a semester-long exploration of the Global Future of Governance, under the auspices of Georgetown University’s Global Futures Initiative. 

Whew!  The sponsors themselves are a transatlantic coalition, and their ability to cooperate to bring about this promising event bodes well for the ability of governments to cooperate on religious freedom policy!

Pope Francis, Action, and Dialogue

Pope Francis’ visit to the U.S., and to our campus here at the Catholic University of America, shook us up, literally. They moved the earth and changed the physical infrastructure of the campus to make room for the 30,000 guests we hosted last week. Landscaping and bushes were moved and strategically planted to funnel the crowds; trees were temporarily trussed so as not to block the view. Every trash can and parking meter were removed, for security purposes (to avoid Boston Marathon bomber scenarios). Satellite dishes and cell towers filled the parking lots to service the crush of international media who followed Pope Francis’ every move.

The hallmarks of Pope Francis’ papacy are the Four Ps– people, poverty, the planet, and peace– and he notes these are deeply interconnected, not separate technical issues, but joined moral challenges.

Why so much attention to an old, poor priest from Argentina? He is a humble man in a selfie age, an antidote to the narcissism that blares at us from all sides, in every reality TV show, celebrity product, and Facebook overshare that crowd our lives. When “Who Wants to Be A Millionaire” is the most popular game show, Pope Francis prefers to be a “Servant.” Amidst a particularly mean-spirited U.S. Presidential primary race, in which candidates call immigrants rapists and criminals, Pope Francis declared himself the son of an immigrant family, and hugged an immigrant girl.

Actions speak louder than words, and Pope Francis’ actions spoke eloquent volumes. His trip itinerary was written 2,000 years ago in Matthew 25: “I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink (lunch with the homeless at Catholic Charities DC), a stranger and you welcomed me (visit with immigrants in Harlem at Our Lady of Angels School, and throughout the trip), naked and you clothed me, ill and you cared for me (visit to the Infirmary for elderly Jesuit priests in Philadelphia), in prison and you visited me” (visit with prisoners at Curran-Fromhold Correctional Facility). His schedule also mirrored the Sermon on the Mount, in his meetings with the meek, the poor, the merciful, the persecuted (the Syrian family he embraced and blessed at the World meeting of Families), those who mourn (in a particularly moving ecumenical prayer service at Ground Zero in New York), and the peacemakers (interestingly, the only hand shake he extended at Congress was to peacemaker, Secretary of State John Kerry). These actions touch us at a deeper level than mere words, and are accessible across lines of culture and creed. Gandhi famously meditated on the Sermon on the Mount daily, saying if this was what it meant to be a Christian, then he was a Christian.

Pope Francis’ trip resonated so strongly with so many, of all creeds and none, because the powerful language of his actions are widely accessible and respected. Some decry these encounters as “mere gestures,” but to do so is to miss that religious language is action. The language of the gospels is all action as well. Jesus heals the sick, feeds the hungry, ministers to the stranger and the outcast, builds peace in a war zone, and invites us to do the same. Pope Francis’ actions follow the path of Jesus of Nazareth, and like Jesus, he invites us to walk with him, and waves us on with a smile of encouragement.

Jesus talked with sinners, prostitutes, strangers, Roman rulers, Pharisees and hypocrites, the poor, the ill, women, children, working and hungry people. Likewise on his U.S. visit, Pope Francis talked with criminals, rulers, the poor, the ill, children, immigrants, an anti-gay marriage court clerk, and invited an openly gay journalist to read the First Reading at the Madison Square Garden mass. He repeatedly tells us dialogue, dialogue, dialogue is the only path to peace, and he models that for us by engaging in encounters and dialogue with a wide variety of actors. Pope Francis continually calls for dialogue among people who disagree, coming from different positions and backgrounds. Dialogue is often criticized as cheap talk, a substitute for “real action.” But for Francis, dialogue is not cheap talk, but deep and respectful listening to sometimes hard-to-hear themes. Dialogue is the start of deeper, more respectful relationships that are the lifeblood of peace.

In the crush of 30,000 people on our college campus, with the hum of cameras and satellite feeds to all corners of the globe, I was struck by the silence, by the quiet as people strained to listen to Pope Francis’ words. We live in an age awash in information, but short on wisdom. Why are so many people, from all creeds and none, listening to an old, poor, Argentinian priest? Because wisdom is in short supply these days, and wisdom never gets old.

© Daniel Philpott The views expressed in this forum are those of the individual contributors and do not necessarily represent those of Daniel Philpott, CCHR, or the University of Notre Dame.