Religion news 18 August 2021

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Image credit: Zabihullah Mujahid presser via Tolo news

Taliban promise peace and women’s rights under Islam

Reuters is reporting that the Afghan Taliban want peaceful relations with other countries and will respect the rights of women within the framework of Islamic law. During their first official news briefing since seizing the Afghan capital, Kabul, the Taliban’s main spokesman, Zabihullah Mujahid, said: “We don’t want any internal or external enemies.” He added that women would be allowed to work and study and “will be very active in society but within the framework of Islam”. During their 1996-2001 rule, also guided by Sharia (Islamic law), the Taliban stopped women from working and administered punishments including public stoning. Girls were not allowed to go to school and women had to wear all-enveloping burqas to go out.

The Church Times says World Vision’s national director in Afghanistan is reporting that life in Kabul is returning to normal. Speaking from her office in the Afghan capital, Asuntha Charles, said the charity planned to stay in the country and continue its work with women and girls. She said the Taliban had already approached World Vision about starting educational projects. World Vision has been working in Afghanistan since 2001, with 70 per cent of its work already in Taliban-controlled areas before the latest advance. Ms Charles said schools were already segregated between male and female. “We have to work with the new government to say they should gain the trust of the communities, especially the trust of female colleagues, and they need to help them to use their capacities to help develop this country, because the sort of investment for the past 20 years — we cannot waste it. In a sense, we were already interacting with them, making sure that we follow humanitarian principles, without deviating … So, this new normal is not going to be really, really different from the previous times … We have to find a way of reaching out to them.”

The Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, has expressed his sorrow at the situation in Afghanistan and says the UK has an undeniable moral obligation to welcome refugees and keep families together wherever possible. In a series of Tweets he called for prayer and said: “The tragic failures we are witnessing in Afghanistan — and their devastating impact on its men, women and children — demand prayer and urgent humanitarian action …. Let us pray for God’s protection for those fleeing their homes and communities.”

Vatican News says two Jesuits and four Missionaries of Charity nuns are stranded in Afghanistan. The Missionaries of Charity, which St Teresa of Kolkata founded in 1950, arrived in Kabul in 2004 for humanitarian work. The two Jesuit priests and the Missionary of Charity nun are among many Indians waiting for the Indian government’s evacuation flights to get them out of the country. The Jesuit Refugee Service, which has indefinitely suspended its activities in Afghanistan, says the Taliban is not harming civilians at the moment. However, they have a list of all organisations and in some places have started door-to-door inquiries about personnel.

The World Evangelical Alliance says Christians are “now at even greater risk” in Afghanistan after the takeover by the Taliban. The alliance has expressed “deep concern” for the persecution of religious minorities, the suppression of women, and an increase in the drug trade and human trafficking. It is calling on churches and Christians to pray for Afghanistan, those attempting to flee, and “especially for Afghan Christians and others who are vulnerable”. “We are very concerned about the recent developments in Afghanistan and the dire prospects for all those who do not fit within the Taliban’s view of a society,” said Dr Thomas Schirrmacher, the alliance’s secretary-general.

The Scroll reports on an SOS from a gurdwara in Kabul where more than 200 Sikhs and Hindus are calling on India to help them to leave Afghanistan. Although Afghan nationals, they are all keen to leave the country, fearful of what Taliban rule would mean for religious minorities.

Faith-based groups continue to appeal for funds for Haiti

Faith-based non-governmental organisations are continuing to launch emergency appeals for Haiti in response to the 7.2 magnitude earthquake that devastated the south of the country on Saturday. World Jewish Relief is working with Haiti Survive to assess the extent of the damage and beginning to deliver critical assistance and emergency food packages, safe drinking water and temporary shelters to those in dire need. Longer term, they plan to support families directly impacted by the earthquake to rebuild their lives and livelihoods. Jewish communities are being urged to support the appeal by the Chief Rabbi, Ephrahim Mirvis, Rabbi Charley Baginsky, chief executive of Liberal Judaism, and Rabbi Jonathan Wittenberg, of Masorti Judaism. The Catholic Aid to the Church in Need (ACN), has approved a €500,000 aid package after talks with the Haitian Church about how to respond to the disaster. ACN International’s executive president, Dr Heine-Geldern, said: “We are conscious of the great efforts made by the church to offer signs of hope to the people in their desperate situation, after so many natural disasters and in the midst of the violence and extreme poverty. So, at this difficult time we cannot abandon this church, which is fighting to support its people.”

Bristol University under pressure over controversial academic

The government has written to Bristol University asking for details of how it intends to address the concerns of Jewish students after it was revealed that a controversial academic was due to teach two modules this coming year on terrorism and power, despite being under investigation for antisemitism. Two years ago, Professor David Miller, who teaches political sociology, was accused by Jewish students and Bristol’s Jewish Society of “antisemitic language, tropes and conspiracy theories” and they were further enraged by his reported comment that JSoc members were “pawns” of a “racist foreign regime”. He was initially placed under investigation and the Jewish News reports that the Board of Deputies has called for him to be suspended from his post as the investigation continues. The housing secretary, Robert Jenrick, has warned the university that “any inaction now risks the most serious damage to the reputation of your university”. Marie van der Zyl, president of the Board of Deputies, said the failure to suspend him “will cause the UK Jewish community to assume that either the university is not taking the behaviour exhibited by Mr Miller seriously or, perhaps even worse, that this entire investigation is a sham”. Bristol University says it cannot jeopardise the confidential process by commenting on the issue. Professor Miller has a support group which says he has faced two years of attempts to have him fired because of his work on the relationship between Zionism and Islamophobia.

First woman elected to US black Baptist mission organisation

The appointment of the first female president of a prominent black American Baptist foreign mission society has been described as an “absolutely historic moment among black Baptists”. The Rev Gina Stewart, a senior pastor in Memphis, Tennessee, and visiting professor at Samuel D. Proctor School of Theology at Virginia Union University, will serve three years as president and has already met other leaders to see how they can assist Haiti in the wake of the recent earthquake. The Rev Cheryl Townsend Gilkes, professor of African-American studies and sociology at Colby College, Maine USA, told RNS that Ms Stewart’s appointment is an “absolutely historic moment” and “represents the reaching of very high ground in the struggle for equity, justice, and inclusion for Baptist women”.

Church of Scotland says high suicide rate shows need for high quality support services

The Church of Scotland has expressed sorrow after new statistics showed there were 805 probable suicides in Scotland in 2020. The figures, released by the National Records of Scotland, showed that the suicide rate in the most deprived areas is three times the rate in the least deprived areas. Men accounted for 71 per cent of suicides in 2020. The figures also showed there were 1,190 alcohol-specific deaths registered in Scotland in 2020, 170 more than the previous year. CrossReach, the church’s social care council, which runs counselling services, said the past year had highlighted the need for high quality, easy access, community-based support to be available for anyone struggling with mental ill-health or mental wellbeing difficulties.

Pope Francis will not offer a public mass during Scotland visit

It has been confirmed that — contrary to some media reports — the Pope will not be holding a public mass during his brief visit to Glasgow in November. The Catholic News Agency reports that the Pontiff will be a guest of the UK government, which will be responsible for all the arrangements. He is expected to spend only one day in Scotland to meet world leaders and Catholic bishops as part of the 2021 United Nations Climate Change Conference Cop26.

Welsh synagogue’s missing stained glass windows turn up in award-winning garden shed

When a Cardiff synagogue shut in 1989 amid a steep decline in the local Jewish population, its majestic stained glass windows went missing. They have now resurfaced in a Wirral garden shed that has just been declared Best Budget Shed of 2021. Les Rowe, a former art teacher, bought the windows off eBay “many years ago” — but had waited for his chickens to die to free up space. He spent lockdown building the shed from recycled materials, including the windows. Jewish News says that after the synagogue closed, the windows were stored by a museum. The synagogue had offered them to relatives of those who had paid for them but when no one accepted the offer, the windows were sold to a salvage firm and the community lost track of them

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