It’s a burning issue from Sweden and Denmark to Iraq and Pakistan. Two Koran-burning incidents by individuals in the two Scandinavian countries have ignited furious reactions in Iraq, Pakistan and much of the Muslim world, leaving Christian minorities there even more vulnerable to extremist hatred.

Published in Canada

By the authors’ count, the Quran has been translated into English 212 times since the 17th century — but never like this.

Published in Book News

THRISSUR, India - The Catholic Church in Pakistan has presented a series of demands to the government, calling for a fair and thorough investigation into the beatings and burning of a young Christian couple accused of desecrating the Quran.

Published in International

WASHINGTON - More than 120 Muslim scholars from around the world joined an open letter to the “fighters and followers” of the Islamic State, denouncing them as un-Islamic by using the most Islamic of terms.

Published in International
September 12, 2012

Unjust law must go

The photos were startling: a military helicopter, heavily armed soldiers and a mentally handicapped girl being rushed through a prison courtyard to board a flight to safety.

Rimsha Masih must have been terrified. A blanket shrouded her head to hide her face from the many fanatics in Pakistan demanding her death. But shielding her identity also had the powerful effect of exposing yet again the outrage of Pakistan’s blasphemy laws.

Masih was accused of burning pages of the Quran, arrested, charged with the capital offence of blasphemy and locked up for three weeks. Amid howls for justice and decency, a judge ruled the charges defied belief and granted her bail. Soon afterward, Masih’s jail cell was given to a Muslim cleric who had incited a crowd against her. He was arrested on suspicion of planting evidence on the girl in a plot to foment hatred for Christians and drive them from their homes.

Masih’s case quite rightly garnered international headlines. Even before the cleric’s plot was exposed, demands for her release were heard around the world. Her age is disputed (her family said she is 11 while a medical report puts it at 14) but it is clear she is a minor with the mental capacity of a much younger girl.

Her release and the arrest of her accuser are welcomed signs that, at some level, the condemnation by various governments, Church groups and lay organizations of Pakistan’s blasphemy outrages are being heard. The Canadian government and the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops, to name just two, have been commendably vocal in denouncing the blasphemy laws. They’ve been joined by a core of Pakistanis, both Christian and Muslim, who’ve advocated bravely for tolerance despite obvious risks.

Yet it would be a mistake to crow too loudly over one small victory.

Masih received bail but she is still facing the original charges and a conviction could still bring the death penalty. Many Pakistanis were outraged at her arrest but many others still call for death to her and her family. The judge acted humanely in granting bail but prosecutors still have not dropped the outrageous charges against the traumatized girl.  The army provided a helicopter and soldiers to fly Masih to safety but the government still shows no readiness to replace these vile laws with laws that guarantee dignity and respect for religious minorities.

A Pakistani study reveals that 250 blasphemy cases have occurred there since 1987 and 52 people have been killed after being accused, often falsely, of blasphemy. So Masih’s case is an international reminder of Pakistan’s obstinacy on this issue. The blasphemy laws must go.

Showing compassion to one traumatized, fraudulently accused, mentally handicapped child really is the least Pakistani authorities could do.

Published in Editorial

TORONTO - Faith is a difficult subject to bring up with our children, our own flesh and blood. How many of us would endure earnest talk of faith from friends? A combination of courage and psychopathology is necessary before most Christians can talk about faith with strangers. So, what chance does interfaith dialogue really have?

Brian Brown is not so easily dissuaded. The United Church minister and prolific author is convinced all we need is the right starting point.

“The most basic approach is to go to each others’ Scriptures,” he told The Catholic Register. “If we’re to understand what each other aspires to be, the place to begin is each others’ Scriptures.”

That’s the premise behind Three Testaments: Torah, Gospel and Quran. Brown has assembled Muslim, Christian and Jewish scholars to introduce modern, readable translations of the three texts. The scholars explain how the holy books of each community are used and understood within the faith they represent.

In the 21st century the three Abrahamic faiths do not occupy separate patches of the globe, or even separate social spheres. The three major faiths of the West rub shoulders daily, and we have the wars to prove it. For Brown, getting past the dialogue of caricatures, suspicion, fear and resentment is a matter of life and death.

“It’s an antidote to the burning of the Quran,” he said.

It’s not just terror attacks in far off capitals, or sick minds blowing up cars and shooting up theatres, that has Brown concerned. Ordinary Christians, Muslims and Jews have all been touched by the toxic stew of interfaith ranting, slander and innuendo.

“I had a person tell me they were a little afraid to go to the hospital in Niagara Falls because most of the doctors are Muslim. These are good, sensible Christian people who are influenced by those bomb makers and now need to hear from the Scripture authorities,” he said. “Eighty per cent of Christians — and I’m guessing 80 per cent of Muslims and Jews — are so negatively impacted by the bombers and bloggers that good, proper-thinking Christian people getting e-mails that are cockeyed develop strange notions about their Muslim neighbours or their Jewish neighbours.”

David Bruce, a United Church minister for 25 years who is now the lay Catholic director of The Good Neighbours’ Club for homeless men in Toronto, introduces the Gospel in Three Testaments. With doctorates from California’s Fuller Theological Seminary and Toronto’s University of St. Michael’s College, Bruce believes the Three Testaments approach works because it’s based on solid scholarship and aimed at ordinary, intelligent readers.

“Anybody who picks up a National Geographic and enjoys the articles should be able to enjoy Three Testaments,” he said.

It’s also successful because the book isn’t trying to cram three different religions into a single test tube of kind and fluffy thoughts.

“There’s an increasingly large proportion of Western Christianity that says there really isn’t any difference in the world religions if you boil it all down,” said Bruce. “We’re not saying that. We’re saying that there are real differences but that doesn’t mean we can’t stand side by side and listen to one another.”

The book is meant to be read by people of faith. It’s not an outsider’s sociological analysis of religion as a curious phenomenon among certain classes of people.

“All of this is written by believers to believers of other faiths,” said Bruce.

As such it’s the antidote to common distortions that hijack religion, said Brown.

“Scriptures are abused and can be made to say things. This project is a joint project of Christian, Jewish and Muslim scholars to run counter to that, to say, ‘Let the Scriptures speak for themselves.’ ”

The book is as much a cause as it is literature. Brown wants it read in seminaries and on university campuses. The book launch will take place in seven cities, beginning at Ground Zero in New York. New York launch events include a Sept. 9 interfaith rally in St. Peter’s Church next door to Ground Zero. In Washington Sept. 10-12 during the thick of the presidential campaign the Three Testaments launch at the Canadian Embassy will feature ambassadors, religious leaders and Amir Hussain, editor of the Journal of the American Academy of Religion who wrote the foreword to Three Testaments. In Dallas-Fort Worth Sept. 12-13 the book will be presented to the George W. Bush Presidential Library. In Los Angeles Sept. 14-15 the launch brings together Christians, Jews and Muslims for Temple Beth Am’s Shabbat service. The Jesuit University of San Fransisco host the Abrahamic faiths for an event Sept. 16-18. Kazi Publications, the most important Muslim publisher in America, hosts the Chicago launch Sept. 19-20. Toronto gets its turn Sept. 23-30 at the Royal Ontario Museum.

The book also has something to say to people who dismiss religious thinking or think religious people incapable of solving religious conflict, said Bruce.

“There is a stereotype out there that anybody who is actually committed to one of the three great Western faiths has somehow parked at least a section of their brains — they’ve put it in neutral. That’s just not the case,” he said. “In fact, the best scholarship in all three religions is by those who actually practise the faith.... It’s important for the three Abrahamic religions to hear each other on their own terms. When you bring them so close together in a single volume, they don’t really have any choice.”

Published in Canada: Toronto-GTA