Wednesday, November 30, 2005

Christian Peacemaker Team Members Held Hostage in Iraq

Four members of the Christian Peacemaker Team in Baghdad were kidnapped on Tuesday and are held hostage in Iraq. CPT is an ecumenical peacemaking agency associated with the Church of the Brethren, Mennonites and Quakers. Its members are deeply committed to non-violent peacemaking and are willing to put their lives on the line to make it happen.

Here’s what CPT Iraq web page says about CPT’s presence and work in Iraq.

“CPT initiated a long-term presence in Iraq in October 2002, six months before the beginning of the U.S. led invasion in March of 2003. The primary focus of the team for eighteen months following the invasion was documenting and focusing attention on the issue of detainee abuses and basic legal and human rights being denied them. Issues related to detainees remain but the current focus of the team has expanded to include efforts to end occupation and militarization of the country and to foster nonviolent and just alternatives for a free and independent Iraq.”

Seymour Hirsch the New Yorker journalist who broke the Abu Ghraib story quoted CPT’s Cliff Kindy in his article, "The Chain of Command." You can read that article here:

Back in the late 1980s in Chicago, I was very involved with friends from Christian Peacemaker Teams. Today, I had conversations with leaders of CPT in Chicago, Jewish and Muslim leaders, and colleagues at the World Council of Churches about our best strategies. Out of concern for the delicate nature of the situation, at this time we are not making any statements and discouraging statements by any Americans, including American Muslims and American peace groups. Instead we are leaning on Arab Muslim leaders to take the initiative on this.

I urge you and your faith community to engage in prayer for the peacemakers, their families and loved ones. More information about the situation and about the hostages themselves can be found at the Christian Peacemaker Teams website:

Tuesday, November 29, 2005

Advent Greetings from Bethlehem

This week I received letters of Advent Greeting from two friends in Bethlehem. One from Rev. Dr. Mitri Raheb, pastor of Christmas Lutheran Church in Bethlehem and author of Bethlehem Beseiged and the other from Elias Issa Halabi, a student at Bethlehem University, both of whom we met during our Jewish Christian Mission of Peace to Israel/Palestine. But before we get to those, here's a picture of the entrance to Bethlehem. It is disheartening to see the birth place of the Prince of Peace surrounded by a 30 foot tall concrete wall. On the other side of this wall is a military check point.

Entrance to Bethlehem.

This picture was taken during the Jewish Christian trip to Israel/Palestine Sept. 2005

From Rev. Dr. Mitri Raheb

Dear friends,

As the eyes of the world focus once again on Bethlehem as the Advent season begins, we encourage our brothers and sisters worldwide, as they meditate on Christ's birth here 2000 years ago, to be mindful of what is going on in Bethlehem today.

The psalm for the first Sunday in Advent is Psalm 24, which proclaims, "Gates, lift up your heads; open wide, eternal doors, here is the King of Glory!"

The mention of gates and eternal doors strikes us in Bethlehem as a chilling reminder of the events of the past few weeks. As the psalmist calls us to open wide the gates and doors to welcome Christ, our King, the Israeli Government has shut the gates and doors to our town and opened what they call a "terminal." This terminal is an early Christmas present to Bethlehem that seeks to keep locals in and foreigners out, with the inconvenience of waiting for entire busloads of visitors to be processed one-by-one and the intimidation from armed soldiers patrolling the queues from an elevated walkway.

Yet despite this latest insult to human rights and peaceful coexistence, over 120 friends and professionals from 23 countries came to Bethlehem in the beginning of November to build bridges and discuss together how two peoples with multiple identities can share this one land.

If you cannot come to Bethlehem this season, we invite you to visit our website to read these stories and more, so you may get a sense of the hopes and fears which suffuse life in Bethlehem today.

Many thanks for your ongoing prayers and support. We are praying for you, too.


The ICB Staff

Rev. Dr. Mitri Raheb
General Director: The International Center of Bethlehem & Dar al-Kalima Academy
Senior Pastor: Evang. Lutheran Christmas Church

Paul VI. Str. 109
Tel. +972 2 277 0047
Fax. +972 2 277 0048

Read also Mitri's letter to Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton

From Elias Issa Halabi

Greeting from the land of our lord Jesus Christ

Well, this is Elias Issa Halabi one of the student ambassadors from Bethlehem university. I just want to take this chance again to thank you for coming to Palestine and specially Bethlehem , this visit encouraged us and encouraged me in a way that I wanted to thank each of you individually .

One visitor asked me once: “how can I help you and help the Palestinian people “.and my simple answer was that for you coming here to Palestine and seeing what we are facing in a daily bases, check points .the separation wall, unemployment, daily suffering and mistreated by the occupation and then going back telling what you have seen, that’s the best thing you can help me and my people with. And of course that includes praying for the peace in our land, peace for Israel and the Palestinians.

Reconciliation is what both nations needs, and without reconciliation and without the dialogue we cant live together, and you already took part of that, and as I mentioned I am part of a reconciliation group which is trying to bring people together and talk about peace ….so please pray that I will continue having this courage because with all we see its hard to love the enemy as our lord asks us to do. But here comes the miracle that is needed ….

So, I just want to thank you again, and I hope we will keep in contact and will share some experiences together ….

God Bless You

Your sincerely:

Elias Issa Halabi

Wednesday, November 23, 2005

Thanksgiving: A Time to Consider Indigenous Religions

At the recent inter-religious colloquium in Geneva, I made the observation that our very definition of religion keeps some religious people from the table. I was referring to indigenous religious traditions that are conspicuously absent from these deliberations, because they are not defined as “major religions.” I reminded them that at the Critical Moment in Interfaith Dialogue conference in June, Yoruba leader Dr. Wande Abimbola gave the conference an impassioned plea to take indigenous religions seriously.

Thanksgiving is a good day for us to pay attention to indigenous religions. In this vein, I want to seriously consider a suggestion made by Robert Jensen, professor of Journalism at University of Texas at Austin, to make this a National Day of Atonement. (You can read his article here: In fact, indigenous people have offered such a model, he says. Since 1970 they have marked the fourth Thursday of November as a Day of Mourning in a spiritual/political ceremony on Coles Hill overlooking Plymouth Rock, Massachusetts, one of the early sites of the European invasion of the Americas.

It is important that we recognize that our so-called major religions have become so because of political power, which for the most part has come through conquest and the violence of empire-building. Many so-called indigenous religions have been destroyed and others relegated to the margins.

However, it is time to redefine the margins, writes my former New Testament professor R.S. Sugirtharajah, in an excellent collection he edited entitled “Voices from the Margin: Interpreting the Bible in the Third World” (Orbis, 2002). Marginality is not a position of weakness and self-deprecation, he says. Instead, it is a place pulsating with critical activity, a place alive with argument and controversy and place of creative discourse.

The margin too, I recall, is where Jesus almost always walked, ministered and related to people. Thrown out of synagogue and temple, he found his place among the people in the margin, teaching and healing along the road, field and sea shore.

This Thanksgiving, as our nation begins a season of self-indulgent feasting, let us take a moment to pause to remember the so-called indigenous nations, tribes, cultures and religions which were destroyed or marginalized in the enterprise of building this nation, and commit to stand with them in the margins, and thereby against the continuing enterprise of empire-building.

Tuesday, November 22, 2005

Christian Theology's Engagement with Religious Pluralism

Over 200 participants of the American Academy of Religion (AAR) meeting in Philadelphia gathered for a Special Topics Forum on Monday, Nov. 20th, to hear a distinguished panel of Christian theologians address the question of Christian Theology’s Engagement with Religious Pluralism.

The idea for this Special Topics Forum arose at last year’s AAR meeting at which I invited Christian theologians for an informal conversation regarding what I perceived to be the inadequacy of Christian clergy formation to deal with religious plurality in our local communities. Twenty two theologians gathered for that conversation, at which they suggested that we request such a forum from the AAR. With the intervention of my colleagues, Susan Harlow (professor at Meadville-Lombard Theological Seminary) and Kathy Talvacchia (consultant to AAR), AAR invited us to hold this forum.

Diana Eck (Harvard University and Director, Pluralism Project), Paul Rajashekar (Dean, Lutheran Theological School at Philadelphia), Damayanthi Niles (Eden Theological Seminary), Tony Ritchie (Society for Pentecostal Studies) and Francis Tiso (US Conference of Catholic Bishops) formed the panel. Barbara Brown Zikmund (Co-chair, NCC Interfaith Relations Commission) moderated the discussion.

We think of this as the first step in a longer process of theological work. As an immediate next step we will post the papers on a website and invite those who signed up for an electronic discussion. We will certainly explore the possibility that this might be a Group within the AAR which gives the discussion a longer life-span.

Sunday, November 20, 2005

How About an Evangelical - Ecumenical Dialogue?

Interfaith Relations stands squarely on the fault line of polarization between Evangelical and Ecumenical Christian communities. Ecumenical Christians have had almost a century of experience thinking through the theological issues of interfaith relations, an exercise Evangelical Christians have come to only rather recently. At our last meeting, the Interfaith Relations Commission suggested that we invite Evangelical Christians to a dialogue table where we can begin to think together on this critical question. Perhaps our Evangelical sisters and brothers can give us a passion for Evangelism that Ecumenical Christians seem to have lost somewhere along the way.

Conversations about holding the Interfaith Relations Commission meeting at Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, CA, and beginning such a dialogue table got underway as Barbara Brown Zikmund (Co-chair of the Commission) and Ann Riggs (Associate General Secretary for Faith and Order) and I met with Howard Loewen (Dean, Fuller Theological Seminary) and his wife Irene at the American Academy of Religion (AAR) meeting in Philadelphia.

Among other questions on the table for such a dialogue include:

1. How to influence independent Evangelical churches about the difficulties they create in Asia and Africa when they send missionaries without any cultural or religious sensitivity training and mess up the delicate interfaith relations that have been nuurtured for years. This has been going on since the early 1980s but is exacerbated since the South Asian tsunami.

2. How can we work together to reclaim the proper prophetic message of the book of Revelation when it seems to have been hijacked by a particular brand of apocalyptic theology (popularized by the "Left Behind" series) that perpetuates Christian Zionism, which is seriously detrimental to our work on peace in Israel/Palestine.

The Interfaith Relations Commissions will meet from February 2-4, 2006 at Fuller Theological Seminary, Pasadena, CA.

Friday, November 18, 2005

Thinking Together: A Cutting Edge Strategy

A cutting edge interfaith relations strategy, "Thinking Together" brings leaders and scholars of different religious traditions to theologize together. The Interfaith Relations Commission at it's meeting this September had a panel of Christian theologians reflect on the question, "Is it appropriate for Christians to theologize in the presence of and in participation with those of other religions?" And conversely, "Is there something inadequate about a Christians theologizing in the absence of those of other religions?"

At the initiative of the World Council of Churches' Office of Inter-religious relations, a group of religious leaders and scholars from several different religious traditions have met together for several years to reflect on the theologies of "The Other." The papers of this consultation will be published next year. The second cycle of the Thinking Together group now begun will examine the question of Conversion. This topic was prompted by the unexpected rise to prominence of this issue at the June "Critical Moment in Interfaith Dialogue" conference.

It is critical for Christian theology to take seriously the questions we reflected on at our Interfaith Relations Commission meeting. If we would use the paradigm of "Thinking Together" in our theologizing I believe that our theology would be tested, refined and more relevant to this pluralistic age.

Wednesday, November 16, 2005

Pictures from Geneva

On Monday, along with the "Thinking Together" group, I participated in an International Colloquium on "An End to Tolerance." Some of the documents from that event are at this web site:

On the dais are some of the "Thinking Together" group members: Rashied Omar (Joan Kroc Center for Peace Studies, Notre Dame University), Rabia Terri Harris (Muslim Peace Fellowship), Hans Ucko (World Council of Churches), Anant Rambachan (Professor of Religion and Philosophy, St. Olaf College). In the foreground is Mahinda Deegalle (Sri Lankan Buddhist monk from Bath, UK)

On Monday night we were treated to a performance of Whirling Dervishes. Although it was a performance, it was also a ritual act. A Sufi spiritual practice, whirling causes the practitioner to get into a trance. Mostly practiced in Turkey, mainstream Muslim do not regard the practice authentic Islam. It reminds me that Islam is as multi-faceted as any other religious tradition.

Monday, November 14, 2005

Group Counters Christian Zionist Influence on U.S. Policy Toward Israel

There are a couple important nuggets to think about in this article.

First, CMEP (Churches for Middle East Peace) an influential ecumenical body working for an peaceful solution to the Middle East crisis asserts that Bush may be the best hope for peace. Corrine Whitlach, Exec. Director of this organization is very astute about these matters, and when it comes from her, I want to take it seriously and explore it further. However, my immediate thought is whether Bush can disengage from his Christian Right base in order to be an effective agent for peace.

Second, the Christian Zionists are at it again. Read what Charles Kimball says about John Hagee -- "If you work for peace, you may be working for the Anti-Christ." This is not the first time I've heard John Hagee say outrageous things like that. Believe it or not, that's the perspective of Christian Zionists. That's why ecumenical Christians must vehemently oppose them.

Sunday, November 13, 2005

Religious identities : For better or for worse?
An interreligious encounter in Geneva

This weekend I am in Geneva, attending this event which has brought together over 100 young adult leaders. It is very clear that the younger generation processes interfaith questions very differently from my generation. They, for the most part, do not grow up in mono-religious environments in which most of us grew up. Their faith-formation happens in contexts of religious plurality.

As a basis for their discussions on religious identity, they used an excellent document put together by some of my colleagues, entitled "Fortresses into Well-springs: Soothing the Thirst for Spirituality, Affirming Human Dignity." Tonight (Sunday night) at a grand interfaith celebration at St. Pierre's Cathedral in Geneva, the young adults affirmed the "Common Commitment" at the bottom of the document.

You can read the document here:

Thursday, November 10, 2005

Interfaith Relations Newsletter: November 2005

The November issue of the the Interfaith Relations Newsletter was released at the General Assembly of the National Council of Churches meeting at Hunt Valley, Maryland. You can read a the newsletter at this link:

NCC General Assembly concludes its meeting at Hunt Valley, Maryland.

The 35 member communions of the NCC came together in General Assembly November 8-10, in Hunt Valley, Maryland (near Baltimore).

I want to highlight two important resolutions that the GA passed on Wednesday.

First, the Assembly unanimously declared that "any and all use of torture is unacceptable." Read the statement here:

Second, it passed a resolution on Protecting Civil Liberties. In the post 9/11 environment, where because of the repercussions of the USA PATRIOT ACT, many persons from Muslim, Sikh and other religious communities sufferred needlessly. Read about it here:

Today, Thursday, we had the first reading of a cutting edge document entitled, "Fearfully and Wonderfully Made" a policy on Human Biotechnologies. This will provide the Council a powerful platform from which to provide leadership to the churches as they navigate this critically important scientific development.

On Thursday evening, the Assembly joined in worship as we installed The Rev. Michael Livingstone as NCC's next president. Rev. Livingstone is strongly supportive of the work of Interfatih Relations amoung the NCC's member communions.

Wednesday, November 09, 2005

Dear Friends,

At an international confernce brought together by the World Council of Churches under the theme "Critical Moment in Interfaith Dialogue," an important perspective had to do with how interfaith dialogue needs to be "oriented towards and lead to concrete cooperation on issues of common concern in specific contexts."

Public policy (political, economic and other justice) concerns have become critically important in the interfaith conversations. International issues such as the rioting in Paris, July bombings in London, Israel/Palestine, Anti-conversion legislation in Sri Lanka; and domestic issues such as questions of torture (in Guantanamo Bay for one), immigration reform, the Living Wage campaign that NCC Poverty Mobilization group is working on, and even questions of how we respond to natural disasters like Katrina and Rita, have interfaith implications.

A participant in a recent workshop suggested that rather than call what we do "Interfaith Dialogue" we need to call it "Interfaith Negotiation!"

This blog will contain my reflection on this growing new understanding of interfaith relations. I hope you will regularly read it and comment on it, so that my work and our work together will be enriched.

Thank you.
Shanta Premawardhana