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When U.S. President Barack Obama first addressed the Muslim world in its traditional heartland last year, his speech was laden with references to the past, to Islam and to the tensions plaguing the Middle East. Updating his speech on Wednesday on the far eastern fringe of that world, his upbeat remarks about Indonesia's democracy, development and diversity spelled hope for the future. (Photo: President Obama greets the audience after his speech in Jakarta November 10, 2010/Jason Reed)
But they were also veiled reference to autocratic Muslim countries. He held up Indonesia as an example for others to emulate, praising the progress it has made from dictatorship to a vibrant democracy tolerant of other religions.
Cairo and Jakarta offered contrasting backdrops to review Washington's relations with countries whose main link is a faith they practice in varied and sometimes contradictory ways. The speeches clearly reflected those differences. In Cairo, the president spelled out seven problems to be solved in the Middle East. The Jakarta speech praised three areas where he said the world's most populous Muslim nation enjoyed success.
"That is not to say that Indonesia is without imperfections. No country is," Obama said. "But here can be found the ability to bridge divides of race and region and religion – that ability to see yourself in all individuals."
(Photo: Pope Benedict at Santiago de Compostela Cathedral, November 6, 2010/Stefano Rellandini)
Pope Benedict, on a lightning trip to Spain, urged Europe on Saturday to re-discover God and its Christian heritage and also denounced the country's liberal abortion laws.
"Europe must open itself to God, must come to meet him without fear," he said in the sermon of a Mass for more than 20,000 people in the square of Santiago de Compostela, which has been a major pilgrimage destination since medieval times.
At a Christian-Muslim conference in Geneva this week, participants agreed to build a network for "peace teams" to intervene in crises where religious differences are invoked as the cause of the dispute. The idea is that religious differences may not be the real problem in a so-called religious conflict, but rather a means to mobilise the masses in a dispute that actually stems from political or economic rivalries. (Photo: Coffins of two of 52 killed in al-Qaeda-linked attack last Sunday on a Baghdad church, 2 Nov 2010/Thaier al-Sudani)
If outside experts could help disentangle religion from the other issues, the argument goes, that could help neutralise religion's capacity to mobilise and inflame, in the hope of leading to a de-escalation of the crisis.
(Photo: Christian and Muslim leaders at Nov 1-4, 2010 Geneva conference/WCC - Mark Beach)
Christian and Muslim leaders agreed on Thursday to set up "rapid deployment teams" to try to defuse tensions when their faiths are invoked by conflicting parties in flashpoints such as Nigeria, Iraq, Egypt or the Philippines. Meeting this week in Geneva, they agreed the world's two biggest religions must take concrete steps to foster interfaith peace rather than let themselves be dragged into conflicts caused by political rivalries, oppression or injustice.
Among the organisations backing the plan were the World Council of Churches (WCC), which groups 349 different Christian churches around the world, and the Libyan-based World Islamic Call Society (WICS), a network with about 600 affiliated Muslim bodies. They would send Christian and Muslim experts to intervene on both sides in a religious conflict to calm tensions and clear up misunderstandings about the role of faith in the dispute.
(Photo: Shavon Gardner, 17, sings with the Redeemed Christian Church of God youth choir at Redemption Camp in Floyd, Texas June 17, 2009/Jessica Rinaldi)
The following is a guest contribution. Reuters is not responsible for the content and the views expressed are the authors’ alone. Elizabeth E. Evans is a freelance writer, columnist and priest-in-charge at St. Marks Episcopal Church, Honey Brook, Pennsylvania.
By Elizabeth E. Evans
A large-scale study charting the religious habits of American teenagers has quietly been underway for almost a decade but has received relatively little media attention until now. As the data from the longitudinal analysis performed by the National Study of Youth & Religion is released, (NSYR) it could and should stimulate unsettling questions for Christian parents and churches alike.
(Photo: Demonstrators at the Amr Ibn El-Aas mosque in Cairo claiming a Christian woman had converted to Islam and was being held prisoner by a Christian church, September 5, 2010/Amr Abdallah Dalsh)
Militants may feel emboldened by an al Qaeda threat against Egypt's Christians, even if the network itself might struggle to mount such an assault.
The al Qaeda-linked Islamic State of Iraq, which launched an attack on a Baghdad church on Sunday that left 52 dead, has also threatened Egypt's church.
(Photo: Mourners at a 2 Nov 2010 funeral for victims of the attack on the Our Lady of Salvation Church/Saad Shalash)
With al-Qaeda declaring war on Christians in Iraq and no end to political instability in sight, Catholic experts on the Middle East fear the fate of the minority Christian community there will only worsen.
The pessimism followed the bloodiest attack against Iraq's Christian minority since the 2003 U.S.-led invasion. Fifty-two hostages and police were killed on Sunday when security forces stormed a church that had been raided by al-Qaeda-linked gunmen.
(Photo: Our Lady of Salvation Church in Baghdad, November 1, 2010/Mohammed Ameen)
Fifty-two hostages and police officers were killed when security forces raided a Baghdad church to free more than 100 Iraqi Catholics held by al Qaeda-linked gunmen, a deputy interior minister said on Monday.
Lieutenant General Hussein Kamal said 67 people were also wounded in the raid on the Syrian Catholic church, which was seized by guerrillas during Sunday mass in the bloodiest attack in Iraq since August. The death toll was many times higher than that given overnight in the hours after the raid.
(Photo: Bishops at Mass marking the end of the synod of bishops from the Middle East in St. Peter's Basilica at the Vatican October 24, 2010/Alessia Pierdomenico)
Pope Benedict called on Islamic countries in the Middle East on Sunday to guarantee freedom of worship to non-Muslims and said peace in the region was the best remedy for a worrying exodus of Christians.
He made his a appeal at a solemn mass in St Peter's Basilica ending a two week Vatican summit of bishops from the Middle East, whose final document criticized Israel and urged the Jewish state to end its occupation of Palestinian territories.
(Photo: United Nations General Assembly hall, 23 Nov 2006/Jérôme Blum)
The United Nations General Assembly passes a stack of resolutions every year and many of them go all but unnoticed. One such document just approved in New York established a new World Interfaith Harmony Week. High-minded resolutions put most news junkies to sleep, so it's probably no surprise this one got such scant media coverage (see here and here). But there's more to this one than meets the glazed-over eye.
The resolution, accepted by consensus on Wednesday, urged all member states to designate the first week of February every year as the World Interfaith Harmony Week. It asked them to "support, on a voluntary basis, the spread of the message of interfaith harmony and goodwill in the world’s churches, mosques, synagogues, temples and other places of worship during that week based on Love of God and Love of the Neighbour, or based on Love of the Good and Love of the Neighbour, each according to their own religious traditions or convictions."