Monday, February 18, 2019

Canada to be New Home for Asia Bibi, Pakistani Christian Acquitted of Blasphemy

Asia Bibi—the Pakistani Christian who was acquitted of blasphemy—is coming to Canada.

The date of her arrival is unknown. But when she arrives she and her husband, Ashiq Masih, will be reunited with their two daughters already in the country.

It will bring to an end a case going back to 2009, when the young Catholic woman was accused by her Muslim neighbours of insulting the prophet Muhammad.

Laws against offences related to religion go back to the colonial period in Pakistan, but were expanded in the 1980s to include desecration of the Quran and blasphemy against the Prophet Muhammad—with a recommended penalty of death.

According to critics, the laws often are used to settle personal scores against members of minority religious groups—as happened to Bibi.

She maintained her innocence, but was sentenced to death in 2010.

Bibi languished in prison for eight years until fall, last year, when Pakistan’s Supreme Court overturned the conviction.

Following her acquittal, Bibi was set free. But death threats from radical religious hardliners forced her and her family into hiding.

In December, her daughters, ages 18 and 19, quietly slipped out of Pakistan and made their way to Canada.

In January Pakistan’s Supreme Court re-affirmed their decision to acquit her, clearing the way Bibi to leave.

According to family friend Nadeem Bhatti, a Canadian who is helping Bibi’s daughters adjust to a new life in this country, the girls are “excited” to see their mother again.

“They are trusting God she will be released soon,” says Bhatti, a Christian from Pakistan who fled that country 12 years ago to escape persecution.

The girls’ location is being kept secret out of concern for their safety, he says, noting that outside of a small group of supporters “nobody knows where they are.”

A Roman Catholic Church bishop emphasized that point in an interview with the Catholic Register, the oldest English Catholic publication in Canada.

According to the bishop, who wants to be anonymous so would-be assassins can’t find Bibi's family in his diocese, “it's real life and death stuff.”

Richard Walker, a spokesperson for Global Affairs, declined to make any comments on the case, but confirmed the Canadian government is working with other groups to bring Bibi to Canada.

For Bhatti, the challenges facing Bibi and her family are personal.

He is related to Shahbaz Bhatti, a Pakistani Christian politician and member of Pakistan’s National Assembly who was assassinated in 2011 by an extremist because of his support for persecuted Christians in that country.

Bibi’s family is not the first he has helped leave that country; Bhatti has helped several other Christian families escape Pakistan for a new life in Canada.

When he thinks about Bibi, he is filled with admiration and is glad her ordeal is almost over. “She is a very brave woman,” he states.

He also hopes her case will be a wake-up call for North American Christians about the plight of other persecuted Christians in Pakistan.

Until Bibi, “nobody talked about the persecution in the media,” he says of challenges facing Christians who are just 1.5% of the population in the Muslim-majority country.

Canadians, he says, “take for granted the liberty of free speech and the freedom of worship.

These types of freedoms “are not protected and enshrined in other countries,” he adds.

Bhatti is grateful that Bibi and her family will find refuge in this country.

At the same time, he is very concerned about the plight of thousands of other Pakistani Christians languishing in Thailand.

 “They are begging for help to get out,” Bhatti says of Christians who fled to that country in hopes of being resettled in the west.  

But proving religious persecution is hard when it is episodic and personal, not state-sponsored; they are having trouble getting their cases heard.

Now, Bhatti says, they are in limbo, unable to work in Thailand and afraid to go home, their only hope laying in intervention by western countries.

Bhatti hopes the Canadian government will help, that it will have the same “soft heart” for them that it had for Syrian refugees—and that it has for Asia Bibi and her family.

From the Feb. 16, 2019 Winnipeg Free Press. Photo from the Associated Press, via the Free Press..

Monday, February 11, 2019

Everyone Needs Someone to Believe in Them, Says (and Sings) Fred Penner

Fred Penner, World Vision President Michael Messenger,
Edgar Gonzales. (World Vision photo.)

Everyone needs someone to believe in them—that’s the new message from Winnipeg-based musician and children’s entertainer Fred Penner

Penner’s new single, “Somebody Believes,” was launched this week as part of International Development Week, February 3-9, a time when the relief and development sector celebrates how Canadians help people around the world escape poverty.

Penner, 72, wrote the song three years ago after hearing the story of Edgar Rodriguez, who had been sponsored as a child by World Vision.

“Today he’s a very successful man,” says Penner, who travelled to Zambia with World Vision 16 years ago.

“He became an accountant, married, is raising a family. And he attributes all of that to the World Vision experience.”

During his speech, Rodriguez used the phrase “somebody believed in me,” Penner says.

“I’m always on the lookout for a good phrase or line that could perhaps become a song,” he says. “That just struck a chord with me, literally and figuratively.”

Penner went back to his hotel room and, after an hour, wrote the song.

He played it occasionally at concerts, but “it never really had a life. It felt like it needed to go somewhere because the concept is so very important.”

That “somewhere” was World Vision.

“I thought, because this song came from a World Vision experience, that's where it needs to be rejuvenated,” Penner says.

He contacted World Vision, and the new music video is the result.

Recorded in Winnipeg at the Signpost Music, the song features local musicians such as the Bros. Landreth and Alexa Dirks (also known as Begonia).

The video features images of children helped by sponsorship through World Vision.

For Penner, “it's a pretty powerful and timely perspective” in the world today, where so many people feel powerless and anxious.

“If we don't give that kind of support to each other, and really act upon it, then what's the point of this journey?”

He hopes the song, which is for both children and adults, will inspired people to “pay it forward” to others. 

“Do something, even if you're small,” he says, noting that for the price of a cup of coffee people in Canada can help kids in a county like Zambia pay school fees so they can get an education.

“We have no real understanding of how much we really have, and how we can use our resources to make a difference in people's lives.”

As for Penner himself, the song is his own way to pay it forward.

“It’s a little overwhelming to me to know that I have been blessed with this kind of career, and such an enviable life,” he says.

Music is also an extension of his spirituality, and his Mennonite background.

“The spirituality that I was raised with was very strong,” he says of growing up and going to church in the Winkler area.

“I don’t know what I would have done if I had not had music and had that spirituality to hold me.”

As for how his spirituality impacts his life today, “I have a responsibility for other people in this world,” he says. “I am my brother's keeper.”

Of his music, he says “much of what I’m doing is not coming from me. There is a higher power, I am a vessel. The inspiration comes, and I’m prepared to offer it to the world in as many ways as I possibly can.”

His latest offering is his new song, “Somebody Believes.”

“Edgar was able to rise above poverty and injustice,” he says. “All it took was for someone to care, for someone to believe in him.”

When he ponders his legacy, Penner says he hopes he can look back and say he shared the message “we really can do better at being good people in this world, in understanding each other and accepting each other, and being more tolerant and giving to each other.”

That, and the importance of believing in others and what they can do and be, in Canada and around the world.

“Never underestimate your ability to make a difference in the life of another person,” he says. 

From the Feb. 9, 2019 Winnipeg Free Press.

Monday, February 4, 2019

“I still feel this is my denomination:" A Conversation with Gretta Vosper

In late January I interviewed Gretta Vosper, the self-described “atheist minister” in the United Church of Canada, about the unexpected decision by that church not to hold a hearing about her suitability for ministry.
I wrote about that decision in the Winnipeg Free Press and also for Religion News Service in the U.S.
Since you can never say everything that needs to be said in a short article, below find a transcription of our conversation.
Were you surprised when you were offered the settlement?

Gretta: I was very surprised. We certainly didn't expect any action at that point of time. I was totally convinced that, barring some miraculous intervention, I would end up outside of the church. Every indication suggested that that what was going to happen.

On the first day [of the hearing] there was someone present who had been a mediator on a couple of previous occasions when we had tried to find a settlement. He sought permission to try to do that again prior to starting and a formal hearing panel. They agreed. He spent all day Monday [working at it].

I went home Monday night feeling it was entirely futile and a waste of time and energy. [When we] came back on Tuesday something had shifted. I'm not aware of what [it was]. My lawyer may know, but he hasn't disclosed that to me.

Were you surprised that all the charges were dropped?

Gretta: Yes. It was unexpected. There are a number of things that that the church has the power to do when someone has been through a disciplinary review. If that person is allowed to remain in their position, often there's a supervisor given to that person so there is an ongoing relationship for a period of time.

After [a period of time] there's another assessment of how the situation is going. That supervisor can lift that supervisory requirement. But they [the Toronto Conference] didn't even choose to do that.

John: So there is no monitoring?

Gretta: No. There’s no monitoring. And that surprised me as well. Because if the if the church felt that the positions that I was espousing in my congregation were antithetical to what the church does, then it would seem that they would want to have someone fairly close to me watching. But that was a choice they didn't make.

John: Why do you think the settlement was offered?

Gretta: Part of me thinks that it may have been simply that the church had been betting on my backing down because of the financial burden [the legal bills]. And so when we were there the first two days it was very, very clear we were going to go the full length. 

My husband and I had talked about that. We understood the financial implications.

John: What have you paid in legal expenses?

Gretta: My legal fees have stretched to over $220,000. [Yet my husband and I] felt it was extremely important. So we decided to move forward. The Friends of Gretta Vosper [a fundraising initiative for her legal fees] was going to continue to fundraise.

We felt that even if there was an outcome that was not in our favor, it was important that the church go through that and make it very clear why [we were doing that].

John: Why do you feel so strongly about this?

Gretta: Everything I teach is consistent with the theological training that I received from the United Church [at Queens Theological College on the late 1980s]. I just simply choose to express it in a different way. 

I choose to use everyday language in order to share my beliefs and to engage the congregation, rather than speaking in archaic theological terms and having to follow with a phrase about what I really mean when I use that word.

It shouldn't be surprising if an individual who's trained in the liberal church determines that that language is unhelpful and chooses to use different language. And that's really what we do. 

I was taught the Bible was a human construction, and there is much wisdom in many texts, both ancient and contemporary.

We don't privilege that text [the Bible] anymore [and] suggest it has an authority beyond all other wisdom in the world. That's what I understood my theological training to be teaching me. I would not have been able to articulate that when I was at theological college, or even [for my first] few years in ministry.

But really that's the challenge. If the Bible is not the authoritative word of God for all time, why does it take such a central position in the church?

John: So in terms of the settlement, are there any terms or things you need to abide by or do?

Gretta: No. There are there are some things that were signed under a nondisclosure agreement, which was a challenging thing [for me] to do. Obviously, I'm not able to discuss those with you.

But there's nothing in that that influences what I am able to do, that has any impact on [my ministry]. I am able to function in ministry with all the rights and privileges that clergy have.

John: Why do you think the review was initiated?

Gretta: The review was instituted in 2015 because [the church worried] there was going to be a huge breach in the relationships that clergy have with one another, and that congregations [and individuals] have with the United Church, if I was allowed to stay.

John: What response have you heard to the decision?

Gretta: I'm aware of at least one individual who has challenged her congregation to consider ways to respond with vehemence against the decision. But I know there are . . . many who are relieved. There are many who will not say what their position is for fear of censure from the United Church.

John: It sounds like you see your battle almost as being a battle on behalf of all progressive clergy in the United Church. Is that the case?

Gretta: Yes. That's true. And that certainly was the impetus for carrying on . . . that ruling [against me, from the hearing] could have put all clergy at risk.

I think there has been a subtle steering of the denomination in a conservative direction that has been ongoing probably for the last 10 or 15 years. I think there are some things the United Church has done in the past [that are] at risk as a result of that.

The United Church generally has been a progressive church. So it's not that I'm fighting on behalf of a small group of people in that church. But that, you know, the social impact that the United Church has had around [things like] LGBTQ, a decision made so long ago, that led the church and also challenged communities around churches.

We've pushed policies around a number of things that put us on the cutting and sometimes leading edge of progressive thought in Canada, [things like] the conversation around Palestinians and the impact Israel and its policies has on those people—something some people call a slow genocide. 

The United Church has made statements on that [issue] much to the distress of many of its partners and members. It has not not faltered in that work.

But if it has, unfortunately, privileged and protected a very conservative interpretation of doctrine. Certainly when I was at theological college that was not being taught. 

I was one of the few in my year who actually had been raised with the new curriculum in the 1960s and so had never had a supernatural judging Father God and who had never believed that Jesus had died and risen to save me from m sins. I've never had any of that literal theology.

I was one of the few in my first year at the college who didn't have to have my entire conservative theology deconstructed so that it could be put back together in a in a much more contemporary way that was informed by critical scholarship.

I was fighting on behalf of that voice of the United Church.

John: You are known as the atheist Minister. Is that a moniker you chose for yourself or that has been applied to and how do you respond to it?
Gretta: Yes I did choose that myself. I took that label on and I was happy to do so. I was doing it within a theological milieu and I expected that my colleagues who are all theologically trained would understand what I meant by that. That proved not to be the case.

A lot of the negative commentary that takes place about me [comes] from colleagues who have chosen to interact exclusively with a caricature of who I am and what my beliefs are and who have never had a conversation with me or in fact read any of the things that I have written. 

So they take that label in the most negative way that they possibly could and they express their ire in relation to that.

John: Do you think the Toronto Conference offered the settlement because they just wanted this whole thing to be over? After all, it would have generated more publicity that the Church may have wished to avoid.

Gretta: Yes, I think so. We had booked three weeks for the trial, so it would have been three weeks of daily engagement. Then the decision coming down would have made a big deal too.

John: How do you think others in the church view you through all of this?

Gretta: There is this big, very big perception that I am constantly sending out press releases and trying to get media attention. I have not sent out press releases. I think my lawyer did a couple of times, including one about the settlement. 

But all of the interviews that I have given have pretty much come as yours did, simply a request from someone who wants to know what is going on and share it with the people that they write for.

John: The United Church is not officially saying anything about the settlement to the media, except to acknowledge it happened.

Gretta: It confuses me a little bit that the United Church doesn't realize how important this is. Interest in church and religion is dwindling. [But then] the general media connects and says they want to talk about what it is that's going on. I think the United Church has had an opportunity to really engage media, but they haven’t.

I think the interest in what is happening could have been leveraged by the United Church in a very positive way, had they chosen to do that. This is a moment in the United Church's history when it has much to engage about, and they don't seem to have any sense of that.

John: Why did you stay in the church despite all of this?

Gretta: I still feel this is my denomination. This is my heritage and to refuse to allow me to participate and continue in ministry felt like a betrayal.

I wanted to clarify what it was I was doing. Unfortunately, the disciplinary review completely stifled any conversation about what it is we're doing at West Hill and why we're doing it.

And that's the important piece here. I want people to know what it is that we're doing, why we feel so passionate about it, why we think that it's so important, why we think it's the work that the United Church has to do, and [why it] is perfectly placed to do that work. [By] not doing that work it’s abdicated its responsibility.

I talk about it because I think what we do is crucial. I think it's significantly important and I think that if we had the opportunity to have a conversation with people [in the United Church across] Canada they would find a serious and significant avenue for the work they do to provide for the needs of a fast-growing sector of Canadians who currently have no community that replicates the kind of social well-being and social connections that the United Church [provides].