Bible College Helps Some at Louisiana Prison Find Peace

ANGOLA, La. — Like most of his fellow inmates, Daryl Walters, 45, can expect to spend the rest of his days in the infamous prison on a former slave plantation here. Yet there he was on a recent evening, preaching the Gospel to 200 men in a spired church in the heart of the Louisiana State Penitentiary, talking salvation and joy to murderers and rapists and robbers who waved their arms to an inmate band’s Christian worship music.

Mr. Walters is a graduate of one of the most unusual prison programs in the country: a Southern Baptist Bible college inside this sprawling facility, offering bachelor’s degrees in a rigorous four-year course that includes study of Greek and Hebrew as well as techniques for “sidewalk ministry” that inmates can practice in their dorms and meal lines.

There are 241 graduates so far, nearly all lifers who live and work among their peers. Dozens of graduates have even moved as missionaries to counsel or preach in other prisons.

Beyond the bachelor’s degrees, the college has granted hundreds more certificates or associate degrees, producing a cadre of men who lead churches, provide informal counseling in their dorms and take on what many describe as their hardest task — informing fellow inmates when a loved one on the outside has died.

The graduates include 15 Muslims, who took the same Bible-based courses but minister to the 250 Islamic inmates.

Some 2,500 inmates attend church regularly, according to Cathy Fontenot, assistant warden — mostly Protestant or Roman Catholic but also Muslim, Jewish and Mormon services. The prison population is 75 percent black, with a small number of Latinos.

The prison college has received growing outside attention. A similar collaboration with a Southern Baptist seminary has started in Texas, where inmates with sentences of at least 10 years are eligible. In-prison Bible colleges have also been started or are under discussion in California, Georgia, Illinois, Mississippi and other states.

The American Civil Liberties Union has watched for signs that the seminary or the prison has crossed constitutional lines by using state money or coercion to promote religion. In the past, the group has sued Angola to force the removal of a biblical citation at the entrance and to give a Muslim graduate of the seminary access to materials from the Nation of Islam, the American Muslim group that is more entrenched in northern prisons.

Still, the seminary appears to be legal because it is paid for privately, is voluntary and admits non-Christians, said Marjorie R. Esman, the executive director of the A.C.L.U. in Louisiana.

One out of two Italians thinks Islam is dangerous

More than one in two respondents think that the Muslim religion should be neither seen nor practiced in schools, despite this separation many believe that the teachings of the church are still valid.

According to a recent survey by the marketing research company SWG conducted for The Festival for Politics (il Festival della politica) one out of two Italians thinks that “the Islamic religion is a danger to everyone”. The survey was carried out at the Festival which was presented on Saturday, September 7 in a session called “Francis I: the renewal of the church, a challenge to the policy” with Alberto Melloni, church historian and Antonio Ramenghi, director of Mattino di Padova (http://www.festivalpolitica.it/francesco-i-rinnovamento-della-chiesa.aspx).

The difficult relationship with the Muslim religion is illustrated in the SWG survey. Half of the sample is in agreement (33%) or strongly agrees (~17%) with the statement “Islam is a danger to everyone.” Ten years earlier, the survey reveals, this distrust was much less marked, so that the danger posed by the Islamic religion was perceived by 36% of the sample, 14% less than now. From here emerges the xenophobia of Italians, 55% of whom believe that Muslims should not be allowed to observe and practice their own religion in schools.

Since 2004 this figure has grown by more than 10%. Italy remains a country so strongly attached to their Catholic religion. More than six out of ten Italians think that the teachings of the church are still valid, 7% more than in 2012. In any case, the vast majority of Italians, more than 80%, declares its secularism by saying that the church should not in any way affect the laws of the State.

 

Mosques tighten their security as attacks follow the killing of Drummer Lee Rigby

Kashif Ahmed pointed to a hole in the middle of the mosque’s carpet where the smoke grenade landed. On 22 May this year Geoffrey Ryan kicked open the front door of the Al Falah mosque in Braintree, Essex, tossed the incendiary device inside, and brandishing two kitchen knives threatened to kill worshippers. Five hours earlier, Drummer Lee Rigby had been murdered on the streets of Woolwich, south-east London. Muslim convert Michael Adebolajo has been charged with the killing.

 

The mood among many Muslim communities in the aftermath of Woolwich remains fearful. In the months since then, Braintree’s only mosque has been strikingly modified. The front door is now protected by a security code, CCTV cameras monitor the entrance and police patrols frequently pass by.

 

Ahmed, who lives in nearby Chelmsford, believes community relations in Braintree have broadly improved since the attacks, citing gestures of support from local church groups, businesses and schools. During the recent month of Ramadan, police guarded the mosque every night for two or three hours to ensure that late-night drinkers could not cause trouble. “When people are drunk, everybody has a problem. Anybody who looks different – for example, if they have a funny haircut – can get targeted,” said Ahmed.

 

But the voice of dissent is again soon evident. Sheila, who has lived in south Harlow for 40 years, said some residents were worried about a perceived increase in the number of Muslims. “It’s getting bad, people have had enough,” she said. “I remember we managed to stop it [the Islamic centre] turning into a mosque. They were going to bring the dead bodies in, despite it being next door to the school. People don’t want that.”

 

Yet the truth is that the town’s Muslim population of 2,000 out of a total of 82,000 keeps a low profile. The Islamic centre is discreetly located on the town’s southern periphery, barely visible from the road. “I’ve been driving past it for three years and never even noticed it.

 

Yet the aftermath of the Woolwich attacks has drawn attention to the fact that the far right, particularly the EDL, is behind many of the attacks, with the group recently linked to a third of cases of Islamophobic abuse online.

 

Serving samosas to forge friendships: ‘The Big Iftar’ aims to help non-Muslims learn about Islam

A group of Muslims is hoping food can offer a path to racial harmony with “The Big Iftar”, a UK-wide initiative in which mosques around the country are opening to allow non-Muslims to join Muslims for a meal to learn about Islam. The Iftar is the meal served after sundown during Ramadan, the holy month we are currently midway through, when Muslims are required to fast between sunrise and sunset.

 

“It comes when myth-busting is more important than ever,” said Baroness Warsi, Minister for Faith and Communities. “Research earlier this year showed that less than a quarter of people thought Muslims were compatible with the British way of life.”

 

Following the murder of Lee Rigby in May, Muslims have come under attack from anti-Islam groups. “It’s about getting the message out that there is a nicer side to Islam,” said Altaf Choudry, 33. “A lot of people have been tainted with the wrong brush.”

 

Mark Buckley, 40, a Christian, welcomed the opportunity to engage with another faith. He said: “Just as Christians need to get out of their church walls, Muslims have to get out of the mosque walls and engage with people in the real world.”

The Muslim community of Cagliari: “We also want to welcome the Pope” Sulaiman Hijazi

May 16, 2013

Muslims also want to welcome to Cagliari “with joy” the news of the visit of Pope Francis to the city. “The Muslim world just saw the new Pope, and immediately hoped for a change in the Church, especially with regard to an interreligious dialogue,” said the spokesman of the Islamic community Sulaiman Hijazi.

“The majority of Muslims in Cagliari seem happy to welcome Pope Francis and hope that is the right time to build a more solid relationship between Christians and Muslims. “We are talking about people who come from war zones such as Palestine, Afghanistan and Pakistan and, therefore, need a kind of moral support which was missed by Pope Benedict XVI,” the spokesman said, adding “I think Pope Francis will give a renewal to the church.” Hijazi also asked “to be able to be present, along with the imam, to welcome him on his arrival in the city.”

Catholic bishops: Don’t let Boston attacks derail immigration reform

(RNS) Leading U.S. Catholic bishops on Monday (April 22) denounced efforts to use the Boston Marathon bombings to derail the push for immigration reform, saying it is wrong to brand all immigrants as dangerous and that a revamped system would in fact make Americans safer.

“Opponents of immigration … will seize on anything, and when you’ve got something as vivid and as recent as the tragedy in Boston it puts another arrow in their quiver,” New York Cardinal Timothy Dolan, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, told reporters.

“To label a whole group of people – namely, the vast population of hard-working, reliable, virtuous immigrants – to label them, to demean them because of the vicious, tragic actions of two people is just ridiculous,” he said. “Illogical. Unfair. Unjust.”

Dolan was joined on the conference call by Archbishop Jose H. Gomez of Los Angeles and Bishop John C. Wester of Salt Lake City, both top spokesmen for the bishops on migration, in pushing for passage of a landmark immigration reform bill introduced in the Senate last week.

In the wake of the April 15 attacks and the identification of two young men of Chechen origin as the suspects, some conservative politicians have argued that immigration reform should be put on the shelf.

Immigration reform advocates counter that having a better, more comprehensive system would have enabled authorities to maintain better records on immigrants like Tamerlan Tsarnaev, 26, who was killed after a shootout with police, and his brother Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, 19, who remains hospitalized.

That history of religious bias is also why the bishops are especially sensitive to efforts to brand all Muslims as suspect.

“They are going through now what we did in the 1840s and 1850s,” said Dolan, a student of church history. “Whenever a group is painted with a wide brush we begin to bristle.”

Oasis, a Center to support a dialogue between Christians and Muslims

April 25, 2013

A plaque commemorating Constantine’s edict on religious freedom is in the Palazzo San Giorgio in a church on via Torino which was built on the ruins of an ancient imperial palace in Milan. Oasis will have its headquarters in Milan; the foundation was founded in Venice in 2004 by Cardinal Angelo Scola. The objective is to promote an understanding between Christians and Muslims, to create spaces for dialogue, and to document the cultural importance that Christianity has had in the history of Islam. And vice versa, a hot topic in Milan, the city where the relationship between Christians and Muslims is not always easy. The opening took place on Monday, April 29 at 6:30pm in Piazza San Giorgio.

Scottish Church Opens Doors To Muslim Community

18 March 2013

 

A Scottish Episcopal Church in Aberdeen is now open for members of the local Muslim community to pray alongside Christians, a decision that has been hailed as an unprecedented example of inter-faith cooperation in the United Kingdom. Rev. Isaac Poobalan, rector of St. John’s Church in Aberdeen, made the decision to allow more than 100 Muslims to pray in portions of his church after witnessing dozens of Muslims praying outside of the nearby Syed Shah Mustafa Jame Masjid mosque due to overcrowding. Regarding his decision, Rev. Poobalan said, “Religion does not play a role when it comes to friendship and hospitality.”

 

Though similar arrangements have been made in the United States, this is thought to be the first time that an active church in the UK has been used as a place for Muslim worship. Said a spokesman for the Muslim Council of Britain, “I’ve never heard of this before, of any other case where active churches are also used as mosques.”

Pope Francis has a model for Muslim engagement in St. Francis of Assisi

(RNS) Just as many Catholics have connected Pope Francis’ humility and austere lifestyle with that of St. Francis of Assisi, those seeking clues on the new pontiff’s approach to Christian-Muslim relations see another example in the iconic namesake.

In a little known episode in 1219, St. Francis left the camp of the crusaders besieging the walled Egyptian city of Damietta and crossed enemy lines to meet with Malik al-Kamil, the young sultan of Egypt.

“I can’t believe that the choice of his namesake is only about deference to poor people, as important and admirable as that is,” said the Rev. William Hugo, a Capuchin Franciscan brother and priest in St. Joseph, Wis. “The story of Francis seeking out Al-Kamil would surely raise up in Pope Francis the desire to reach out and be in relationship with those suffering a separation or (who are) excluded.”

“We’re seeing the church interpret Francis in modern times as a bridge,” said Paul Moses, author of “The Saint and the Sultan,” a 2009 book which explores St. Francis’ pivotal engagement with Islam. “To Muslims ears, the choice of Francis for a name should sound good.”

Andrea Stanton, a religious studies professor at the University of Denver, said peace was Francis’ motive.

The Pope’s New Clothes: A Message from Rev. Jerry Campbell, Tamar Frankiel, Ph.D.and Imam Jihad Turk

As Jorge Bergoglio begins his new life as Pope Francis, we join in celebration with the Roman Catholic Church in the election of the first Latin American, first Jesuit pontiff. With the selection of the name Francis (in reference to St. Francis of Assisi) it appears Bergoglio seeks to ring the bells of St. Peter’s for global inclusion, care for the marginalized and — we sincerely hope — inter-religious cooperation.

This week, Pope Francis has acquired a new set of clothes. In accepting the papacy, he now is shrouded in the protection of the church’s political vestments.

As representatives of an interreligious university, we trust that Pope Francis will wisely recognize the transparency of his new clothes and hew to the naked simplicity of his namesake’s example. We hope he will dialogue with all who are committed to honesty, open inquiry, social equality, economic justice and understanding between the religions.

Jorge Bergoglio’s past has not been perfect, nor his public record spotless, for, after all, he is human. But for the new man he has become as Pope Francis — for his outlook, for his stamina, for his health — we pray. We join together with millions around the world to ask God to bless him and give him wisdom as he leads the Catholic Church into the possibilities of a better future.