FaithWorld

French, U.S. imams talk about being Muslim military chaplains

imams-threeBoth are Muslims. Both are chaplains. Both are in the military. But one is French and one is American. That alone ensured there would be enough to talk about when Mohamed-Ali Bouharb and Abu- hena Saifulislam met in Paris to discuss their work with chaplains and academics from the United States.
(Photo: Bouharb (l) and Saifulislam with CIEE’s Hannah Taieb. Note the Islamic crescents on Bouharb’s cap and Saifulislam’s sleeves, 7 June 2009/Tom Heneghan)

Muslim chaplaincies are relatively new additions to the armed forces in Europe and North America. Establishing their place alongside the traditional Catholic, Protestant and Jewish offices of religious services has not always been easy, even though both imams reported the top brass in their countries strongly supported the effort. While they tend to the spiritual needs of their co-religionists in the ranks, as other chaplains do, these imams also spend much time explaining their religion and its practices to their non-Muslim superiors.Both spoke of the obvious issues such as getting halal food or having time and space for Muslim prayers. Both had encountered questions from both within the forces and outside in the Muslim community asking why they had agreed to work as imams in the military. Their presentations were part of a seminar entitled “Religious Diversity in Everyday Life in France” organised by the U.S.-based Council on International Educational Exchange (CIEE) and the Institute for the Study of Islam and the Societies of the Muslim World in Paris.Bouharb, 32, is a French-born Muslim with Tunisian roots who studied Islam at a private Muslim institute in Paris and graduated from a special training course for imams at the Catholic Institute here. He is chaplain to the National Gendarmerie, which comes under the Defence Ministry. France only launched its Muslim chaplain corps in 2005 and it is still finding its way. “I first got a two-year contract. It’s just been extended by four years. Nothing is certain. We’ll see the results in 20 years,” he told the meeting on Sunday. Bouhard stressed how tricky the issues he faces can be as he discussed the delicate bridge function he has to play with the example of five French Muslim soldiers who refused to go to Afghanistan:

“If a Muslim soldier doesn’t want to go to Afghanistan for religious reasons, that’s his right. My role is not to convince him. But if he doesn’t want to go, he shouldn’t be in the army. That’s not a religious opinion. Sometimes the Muslim chaplain has to put aside his religious role and deconstruct what is religious and what is not. What I do is go see the soldier and ask him about his vision of Islam. I can help him to understand things better, but not to make a decision… If a soldier’s not clear in his mind (about shooting at Taliban), he might hesitate for a moment. That could endanger the troops around him…“To the commanders, I say I’m not the representative of a Muslim soldiers’ trade union. When those five refused to go, people said the Muslim chaplains weren’t doing their jobs. It was all over the media. But the chaplain’s duty is not to ensure the cohesion of the troops. (The doubting soldier) could endanger others. My religious duty is not to put those others in danger… We Muslim chaplains asked for a right to reply to the media but the Defence Ministry press office said it was not worth the effort… They were right. A few weeks later, all was forgotten.”

Another issue was whether Muslim soldiers due for commando training had to fast if the session occurred during Ramadan. “They get up at 3 a.m. and march for 25 kms with backpacks weighing 25 kilos. It’s very difficult to fast,” he said. Muslim soldiers asked him what to do. “I told them that, if you signed up to do this training, you have to respect that contract. You can stop your fast and catch up on those days after Ramadan is over.” Ten Qatari soldiers in France for advanced training could not understand why the session was not rescheduled, as it would be in their majority Muslim society, but Bouharb said it could not be and the Muslim soldiers had to adjust. “There is only one Islam, but there are many ways of expressing it,” he said.imams-twoSaifulislam, who emigrated to the U.S. from Bangladesh in 1989 and became a U.S. Navy imam 10 years later, had a slightly different approach. “If there is special training during Ramadan, I ask the commander if it can be moved to another date,” he said, stressing he was giving his personal opinion and not speaking in an official capacity. “I tell the Muslims that they’re away from home while on training so they can not fast and make it up later. It’s his or her call. I provide the counsel.”
(Photo: Bouharb and Saifulislam, 7 June 2009/Tom Heneghan)

He said there were about a dozen imams in the U.S. armed forces, which appointed their first Muslim chaplain in 1993. That compares to over 800 Christian and Jewish chaplains in the Navy alone, he said. “They don’t necessarily need us for the number of Muslim soldiers but to advise them on religious inclusiveness, like about how Islamic practices can affect a mission, before they deploy to Iraq or Afghanistan. They get training in cultural sensitivity.”Possibly because imams have served in the U.S. military for longer than in the French, the American Muslim chaplains seemed more integrated into the overall chaplain corps. Saifulislam said:

Ninety-nine percent of the people who come to me for counselling are from another faith. They come to you with issues, it could be about family, stress or violence. People can get more religious in boot camp, also in prison. I’ve also been trained in suicide prevention, PTSD recognition and crisis management. We also do grief counselling, regardless of the religion. Of course, we don’t perform services for other religions. You’re not going to see me baptise a baby! But we facilitate things. If someone comes to me as a Wiccan and asks for a place to pray, I help them. The Department of Defense recognises over 290 different religions and denominations. If a Muslim asks one of the other chaplains to help him get a copy of the Koran, he has to help him.”

Singing away theological differences in Nazareth

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(Photo: Pope Benedict with Galilee religious leaders, 14 May 2009/Osservatore Romano)

Talk about a picture being worth 1,000 words. There’s more than that behind this picture of Pope Benedict holding hands and singing a song for peace with leaders of other religions in Nazareth’s Basilica of the Annunciation on Thursday. This might seem like an innocent gesture to most people who see it. To some Vatican correspondents following the pope on his Holy Land tour, it was an unprecedented step that spoke volumes about the evolution of his theological thinking.This sing-along started at an interfaith meeting when a rabbi began singing a song with the lyrics “Shalom, Salaam, Lord grant us peace.” At some point, the 11 clerics on the stage stood up and held hands to sing the simple tune together. Never very spontaneous, Benedict looked a little hesitant but then joined in. It was something of a “kumbaya session” — a “religious version of We Are The World,” one colleague quipped — but it was good-natured and well meant. The pope has been preaching interfaith cooperation at every stop on his tour and it seemed appropriate that it culminate in a show of unity among the religions in Galilee.But wait a minute. This is the same Joseph Ratzinger who, when he was a cardinal heading the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, frowned on Pope John Paul’s pray-in with other religions at Assisi in 1986. He even declined to attend what became one of the landmark events of his predecessor’s papacy. Catholics cannot pray together with other religions, he argued, because only Catholicism was the true faith and all others were flawed to greater or lesser extents. Praying together carried the risk of syncretism, or mixing religions.Over the years, Cardinal Ratzinger made several critical comments about other religions, especially Buddhism and Islam (although he is changing there as well). He drew a sharp line between Catholics and other Christians in the 2000 document Dominus Iesus that called Protestant denominations deficient and not proper churches. They felt slighted and several said so openly. The only faiths Ratzinger seemed interested in were Orthodox Christianity and Judaism (ironically, given the cool welcome he got in Israel — but that’s another story).Things change when a cardinal becomes a pope. Suddenly, he was no longer just the Vatican’s doctrinal watchdog, he was the head of the world’s largest church and its smallest country. He was a spiritual leader, a temporal head of state, a major diplomatic figure and one of the most prominent — if not the most prominent — spokesman for religion on the planet. That’s a lot to juggle at the same time.

Flu fears impact worship services

Flu fears are already changing the face of some religious services, from Mexico where church gatherings are discouraged to the United States where wine shared from a common cup has been suspended in some parishes. We’ve already blogged about this but offer more detail from other places here.

FLU/

U.S. Catholic bishops have issued general guidelines saying clergy and lay ministers who distribute communion wafers “should be encouraged to wash their hands before Mass begins,  or even to use an alcohol based anti-bacterial solution before and after distributing Holy Communion.”

“They should instruct people who feel ill not to receive from the cup,” containing wine which Catholics believe becomes the blood of Jesus Christ during Mass.

Pew Forum report details changing U.S. religious affilations

The folks at the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life have come up with a new bit of intriguing number crunching. This time round they have taken a more detailed look at how Americans change religious affiliations in a new report entitled “Faith in Flux.” You can see the report here. It is a follow-up to Pew’s huge U.S. Religious Landscape Survey which was conducted in 2007.

archbp-dolanAmong the highlights which underscore the fluid nature of American faith:

* It finds that 44 percent of the U.S. adults do not belong to their childhood faith.

* Among the 56 percent who belong to their childhood faith, one in six say there was a point in their life when their religion differed.

Berlin campaign for religion lessons unites faiths

Berliners on Sunday voted against introducing compulsory religion lessons in schools. Social Democrat Mayor Klaus Wowereit has welcomed the result as a victory for “togetherness” and common values for Catholic, Protestant, Jewish, Muslim or aetheist children.

Campaign posterFor details on the result, look at the Reuters story.

However, as Pro Reli leader Christoph Lehmann said, the campaign to boost the status of faith-based lessons in the German capital — a city with a long secular tradition — has put the subject firmly on the agenda and made it a talking point.

Celebrities and politicians, even conservative Chancellor Angela Merkel,have joined the call for religion lessons. Perhaps she was trying to make amends with members of her predominantly Catholic Christian Democrats (CDU) who were angry with her for criticising the Pope in the row over a Holocaust-denying bishop.

Soldier says rabbis pushed “religious war” in Gaza

gazaOur Jerusalem bureau has sent a very interesting report about criticism within the Israeli army of the Gaza offensive in January. What caught my eye was that it brings up the issue of a religious war, a term usually used in relation to Muslims. (Photo: Israeli air strike near Gaza-Egypt border in southern Gaza Strip, 26 Feb 2009/Ibraheem Abu Mustafa)

The story starts off as follows:

Rabbis in the Israeli army told battlefield troops in January’s Gaza offensive that they were fighting a “religious war” against gentiles, according to one army commander’s account published on Friday.

GUESTVIEW: From “security” to compassion – a needed shift for Obama gov’t

The following is a guest contribution. Reuters is not responsible for the content and the views expressed are the authors’ alone. Libyan theologian Aref Ali Nayed is a senior advisor to the Cambridge Inter-Faith Programme and a leading signatory of A Common Word.

By Aref Ali Nayed

Being held in the early days of the Obama presidency, this year’s U.S.-Muslim World Forum in Doha last weekend was particularly luminescent with rays of hope. One was the very fact that its host, the influential Brookings Institution think-tank, invited faith leaders to discuss how to improve the dreadful state of relations between Washington and the Muslim world. The basis for discussion was A Common Word, an appeal by 138 Muslim scholars to Christian leaders to join in a dialogue based on the shared commandments to love God and love one’s neighbor.

That a theological and spiritual initiative is of keen interest to policy planners is indeed a fresh ray of light.  Basking in that hopeful light, moreover, I had the rare privilege for a Muslim theologian of listening to the U.S. CentCom Commander General David Petraeus expound there on a “network of networks” that constituted a “security architecture” for our Middle East region.

What would John Calvin say?

With the financial crisis erupting around the 500th anniversary of the birth of the Protestant theologian John Calvin, many people in the Netherlands — where his thinking played an important role in forming the local culture — are looking back at his influence and what he might say of the current crisis and the people involved. (Photo: Dutch Old Masters used skulls and stubby candles to portray the Calvinist idea of the vanity of greed/Robin van Lonkhuijsen/United Photos)

Several of the issues are described in my feature “Moral rebound finds Dutch exploring Calvin.” One of the most interesting elements was an online survey by the Protestant newspaper Trouw called “C-Factor.”

“Test how Calvinist you are, in your convictions, at work and in your love life,” it said in its challenge to readers. It asks 25 questions (sorry, only in Dutch) such as:

African Americans top U.S. religious measures-Pew

An analysis by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life suggests that blacks are considerably more religious than the overall U.S. population. You can see the whole report here.

While the U.S. is generally considered a highly religious nation, African-Americans are markedly more religious on a variety of measures than the U.S. population as a whole, including level of affiliation with a religion, attendance at religious services, frequency of prayer and religion’s importance in life,” the report says.

Its highlights include:

- Nearly eight in 10 blacks (79 percent) say religion is very important in their lives, compared with 56 percent among all U.S. adults.

Russian Othodox Church picks Kirill, better Vatican ties expected

The Russian Orthodox Church elected Metropolitan Kirill, 62, as its new leader on Tuesday, succeeding Alexiy II who died last month. The new leader of the 165 million-strong Church, the largest in the Orthodox world,  is seen as a moderniser who may thaw long icy ties with the Roman Catholic Church.

There was speculation before the vote that nationalists, anti-westerners and anti-Catholic forces among the clergy and monks might rally to block Kirill’s election. He seemed to take the possibility seriously enough to strike a conservative tone in recent days. In his address before the vote, Kirill spoke of “the assault of aggressive Western secularism against Christianity” and of “attempts by some Protestant groups to revise the teachings of Christianity and evangelical morality”. He also hit out at Protestant and Roman Catholic missionaries, saying they sought converts in post-Soviet Russia — a key point of discord with the Vatican. (Photo: Metropolitan Kirill before the vote, 27 Jan 2009/Alexander Natruskin)

But the vote showed his support was strong. Kirill received 508 votes from a total of 677 valid ballots cast. His rival, conservative nationalist Metropolitan Kliment, 59, polled just 169 votes and a third candidate, Metropolitan Filaret of Belarus, withdrew in favour of Kirill.