Sunday, June 18, 2017

Islamic Relief Enables Canadian Muslims to Help Locally and Globally

Organization one of the fastest-growing NGOs in Canada today

Mennonites can help the world’s needy through Mennonite Central Committee. Lutherans in the can respond through Canadian Lutheran World Relief. 

Baptists, Presbyterians, Christian Reformed, Catholics and other groups have their own relief and development arms.

Canadian Muslims can also extend a hand to the world’s poor through their own agency—Islamic Relief Canada.

Founded in 1984 in Great Britain in response to the famine in Ethiopia, today Islamic Relief has chapters in a number of countries, and provides assistance in 40 developing nations around the world.

The Canadian chapter was founded in 2007. In 2009, it received $1.2 million in donations. Last year the figure was over $28 million, making it one of the fastest-growing international relief and development groups in the country.

A lot of the money it receives comes during Ramadan, which took place this year from May 26 to June 24. In addition to fasting and prayer, it’s a time when Muslims especially remember those who are hungry and needy.

“We get half of our annual income that month,” says Reyhana Patel, who heads up media and external relations for Islamic Relief.

For Muslims, one of the five pillars of their faith is the zakat, or the obligatory sharing with the needy. 

Most Muslims tend to give it during the month of Ramadan, since they believe giving during that holy month provides the giver with a double reward.

In addition to giving their zakat, Muslims also give another special donation in Ramadan during an iftar, the meal that breaks their daily fast.

The ancient formula for how much to give was two kilograms of either flour, wheat, barley or rice for each person in the household. In Canada today, Muslims typically make a gift of about $10 per person for everyone at the meal.

Some of that money is donated to Islamic Relief through what it calls Share Your Blessing. 

Through it, Canadian Muslims are invited to sign up to host an iftar with their family and friends, using the occasion to break the daily fast and raise money to help needy people around the world.

Islamic Relief provides a package of materials for each host to share with guests about its work, along with pledge forms so people can make donations. Last year, one iftar in Canada raised $90,000 for the charity.

Once misconception about the organization, Patel says, is where the money goes.

“Although most of our programs are in Muslim countries, our assistance is available to all, not just to Muslims,” she says, noting that the organization provided help after the Haiti earthquake, the typhoon in the Philippines and for people affected by the Fort McMurray wildfires. It also funds a program in Toronto for disadvantaged youth.

“We don’t only help Muslims,” she adds. “We give to whoever is in need, just like other NGOs.”

As well, she notes, “anyone can donate to Islamic Relief, not just Muslims.” All donations are tax deductible.

Current appeals include for the famine in Africa and Yemen, as well as for victims of inter-communal violence in Myanmar and refugees from the fighting in Syria.

Ongoing programs include orphan sponsorship, and health, education, medical and water projects.

In addition to donations, the organization also gets grants from the Canadian government for its work overseas. It is also part of the Humanitarian Coalition, which brings together Canada’s major relief agencies to respond to emergencies in the developing world.

For Idris Elbakri, past president of the Manitoba Islamic Association, supporting Islamic Relief is a good way for Muslims to help those in need.

“Through it Muslims in Canada can realize their obligation to help others both locally and globally,” he says.

Beyond the good work that Islamic Relief is doing around the world, it also means a lot to the Muslim community in Canada.

“The respect and recognition it gets from other NGOs, and the Canadian government, shows how Canadian Muslims are in the mainstream of Canadian values,” he says.

From the June 17 Winnipeg Free Press.

Sunday, June 11, 2017

Weird Religion, or What if Christianity Was Once Again Considered Dangerous and Subversive?

Christianity from the first three centuries might be the most instructive about how to live out Christian faith today

“Any religion is, by definition, crazy to a non-believer.”

That aphorism was coined by Jeffrey Weiss, formerly a religion reporter at the Dallas Morning News.

Dubbed Weiss’ law, it explains how weird other religions can look to people who are not a part of those faiths—things that people inside those belief systems view as completely normal.

I thought about Weiss’ law while perusing Larry Hurtado’s most recent book, Destroyer of the gods: Early Christian Distinctiveness in the Roman World.

Hurtado, a professor at the University of Manitoba from 1978-96, writes in the book that what we consider normal Christian belief and practice today was once viewed as strange and subversive in the first three centuries—the time before Constantine made Christianity legal and acceptable in the Roman Empire.

Or, as he put it, it was a time when there were features of early Christianity “that made it distinctive, odd, even dangerous in the eyes of some of that time.”

Back then, the Romans considered the new Christian faith not only weird, but also repugnant.

“There is a group, hated for their abominations, called Christians,” wrote the historian Tacticus.

Added another historian, Suetonius: “The Christians are a class of men given to a new and wicked superstition.”

Said a third, Lucian: “The poor wretches have convinced themselves they are going to be immortal and live for all time.”

And what were these superstitions and abominations? The idea that a man could die and rise from the dead, of course.

The practice of the Eucharist also caused concern—to the Romans, eating Christ’s flesh and blood sounded like cannibalism.

But there were other reasons, too. Christianity was seen as a threat to the state. By refusing to acknowledge the primacy of the emperor, as adherents of other religions did, Christians appeared disloyal and threatened the stability and legitimacy of the Roman Empire.

The new faith also upended behavioural norms. Christians were expected to live by high moral standards—men, for example, were required to be faithful to their wives at a time when it was widely accepted they could have one or more mistresses.

Another radical idea was how Christianity based its identity not on ethnicity or nationality but on a shared religious belief. As well, the new faith elevated the role of women, and rejected the practice of child brides and the killing of baby girls.

The result was that life for the earliest Christians was very difficult—including persecution and death. And even without that, “becoming a Christian held no social or economic advantage,” writes Hurtado. 

“Those who wanted to aspire for upward social mobility would have been advised to give Christianity a pass,” he adds.

For Hurtado, Christians today might do well to learn how the church before Constantine engaged the world.

“Christianity is no longer the socially dominant force that it once was,” he wrote. “Christians are again one kind of religiousness among many others. So, actually, it may well be those Christians and texts of the first three centuries that will be the most instructive about how to live out Christian faith in these circumstances.”

Sometimes I wonder: What would it look like today if Christians around the world put their faith first, before their nation?

What if they all practiced unconditional and non-judgmental love for any and all who cross their path?

If they lived by the highest ethical norms?

If they actively celebrated and promoted women as leaders?

If they were once again considered dangerous and subversive by the state?

I don’t know about you, but that would just be weird.

From the June 10 Winnipeg Free Press.

Sunday, June 4, 2017

Misogyny in Religion, or Things Only Christian Women Hear

Considering how they've been treated, why do so many women stick with religion?

Some days I am amazed that women who believe in God bother with religion at all.

For centuries they have been told by men to shut up, cover up and put up with countless rules and regulations governing how, where, when and why they may—or may not—participate in religious roles or rituals of one sort or another.

I honestly don’t know how so many of them managed to keep their faith. If the shoe were on the other foot—if men faced the same limitations and restrictions based on out-of-context interpretations of selected verses from ancient texts—most of us would be out of there in a minute.

But somehow, and for some reason, many religious women have hung in there. All I can feel is awe.

What got me thinking about how women have been treated by religious groups was the hashtag #thingsonly Christianwomenhear, which was popular on Twitter in April.

The conversation about the sexist and toxic things Christian women hear was started by popular Canadian Christian author and blogger Sarah Bessey.

According to Bessey, who is author of the book Jesus Feminist, it was just something she wanted to talk to her Twitter followers about.

But it quickly went viral, amassing hundreds of responses from women sharing things they had heard in churches or from church leaders.

Examples included: "You are an amazing leader! You'd make an excellent pastor's wife someday!"

“Women are too emotional to be leaders and pastors. It would never work."

"OK, you can teach this, but there has to be a male leader in the room when you do. We'll send someone." “

“Your clothes can cause boys to sin.”

“You have tremendous leadership gifts . . . it's too bad you weren't born male.” “

Wrote Bessey on her Facebook page: “This hashtag is pulling back the curtain on the everyday lived experiences of women within the church.”

She added that the responses were “illuminating, sad, infuriating, ridiculous, funny . . . we still need to speak about freedom and expose the lies and amplify the voices of women who have too often been silenced.”

In an interview she went on to say that “I love the church but I also know that we can’t fix what we refuse to acknowledge . . .I look forward to the day when women with leadership and insight, gifts and talents, callings and prophetic leanings are called out and celebrated.”

In a subsequent tweet, she stated: “Nobody is attacking the church. We're attacking the patriarchal spirit that has a death-grip on the throat of the beautiful bride of Christ."

There was pushback. Author and speaker Rebekah Lyons urged women this week to avoid making the hashtag a "megaphone for bitterness."

That prompted Christianity Today editor Katelyn Beaty to respond: “I don't know . . . it seems to me when men name structural problems it's prophetic. When women name structural problems it's bitterness?”

Of course, this isn’t true for every Christian denomination; many church groups are welcoming of women as leaders. But I bet some of those women also have experienced sexism while trying to follow God’s call in their lives.

And it’s not just a religious issue—women hear similar things in many parts of society. Another Twitter hashtag started about the same time was titled #thingsonlywomenwritershear. And women in Canada only make 87 cents for each dollar made by men.

About the same time this hashtag was getting traction, A Handmaids Tale was beginning its run on TV.

In the series, based on the book by Canadian author Margaret Atwood, men in the future theocratic country of Gilead use religion as a basis to subjugate women.

Just fiction, right? In fact, Atwood based her book, which was published in 1985, on real-life events throughout history such as the 17th century Puritans, the experience of women in some Muslim-majority countries, and the rise of the religious right in the U.S.

One can only hope that we have moved on from those experiences, that the imaginary country of Gilead will remain, in fact, a fantasy.

But as the comments some religious women hear today show, we still have a ways to go.

From the June 3 Winnipeg Free Press.