Tanenbaum Peacemaker Father Sava Travels to the U.S.

Father Sava Janjic, a Tanenbaum Peacemaker in Action who has been tirelessly pursuing peace and reconciliation in Kosovo for decades, concluded his recent trip to the U.S. last week in Boston, where he presented at the Colloquium on Orthodox Christianity and Humanitarianism: Ideas and Action in the Contemporary World. The Colloquium was sponsored by the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America’s Office of Inter-Orthodoxy, Interfaith and Ecumenical Relations. Father Sava and Joyce Dubensky, Tanenbaum CEO, both had the privilege of sitting on the Colloquium’s “Experiences from the Frontline of Crisis Response and Delivery (Around the World)” panel on Friday, May 8, 2015.

Prior to his trip to Boston, Father Sava traveled throughout California with His Grace Bishop Maxim of the Western Diocese before spending a few days in Washington DC and New York. While in New York, Father Sava spoke to an intimate gathering at the Serbian Orthodox Cathedral of Saint Sava on Tuesday, May 5, about life in Kosovo and the plight of Kosovo Serbians.

Tanenbaum CEO Joyce Dubensky with Peacemaker Father Sava Janjic

Tanenbaum CEO Joyce Dubensky with Peacemaker Father Sava Janjic

During his talk at St. Sava, Father Sava touched on a number of topics. He lamented the “second class” treatment of Kosovo’s Serbs; expressed concern over ethnic and religious extremism; and described how his monastery, Decani Monastery, was vandalized late last year with graffiti by ISIS sympathizers. While the Serbian Orthodox Church does not get involved in politics, Father Sava told the audience that the church promotes the equal treatment of all citizens, engaging in interfaith dialogue to help foster communal bonds among Kosovo’s differing sects.

Despite difficult challenges and numerous setbacks for Kosovo, Father Sava believes it’s critical to maintain hope and to continue to strive towards peace and a better world. He refuses to give up on his people.

 

What the spring equinox means to Rufai Sufis

For people all over the world, the spring equinox is symbolic of renewal, rejuvenation and revitalization. For a group of Sufis in Kosovo, it is the mark of something much more. It is at this time that members of the Rufai branch of Sufism – Islamic mysticism – hold an annual ritual ceremony wherein they celebrate the birth of Ali ibn Abi Talib, the first cousin of the Prophet Muhammad and a revered figure in Islam. The ceremony also commemorates the celebration of the Persian New Year, Nowruz. The uniqueness of this ceremony is exemplified by music, chanting and dancing, fused with the clashing of cymbals and incantations of prayers in the languages of Arabic, Turkish and Albanian.

Photo Credit: Faisal Anwar

Photo Credit: Faisal Anwar

As men chant and sway in conjunction with one another, Sheikh Adrihusein Shehu, who presides over the practice today in Kosovo, removes an iron needle known as a zarf from the mihrab – the enclosed prayer space – behind him, blesses it with his lips, and inserts it slowly into the cheek of those taking partaking in the ritual.

The practice is said to be painless. Shehu’s eldest son, Sejjid Xhemal, expresses that “it is a good feeling, I feel spiritually stronger.” He also emphasized that those partaking are neither intoxicated nor in a trance, but that they are conscious of their practice.

During a tradition Nowruz ritual, a member of the Sufi sect pierces himself with a zarf - an iron skewer. [Credit: Ferdi Limani/Al Jazeera]

During a tradition Nowruz ritual, a member of the Sufi sect pierces himself with a zarf – an iron skewer. [Credit: Ferdi Limani/Al Jazeera]

The practice is rooted in an ancient tradition founded by a spiritual leader Pir Sejjid Amhed Er Rufai, whose practice is upheld until this day. “Our founder Pir Sejjid Ahmed Er Rufai made a miracle in his time to show others that God exists, and now we do this for tradition,” Xhemal said in an interview with Al Jazeera.

Friar Ivo, a celebrated Tanenbaum Peacemaker in Action and Catholic Franciscan interfaith worker in Bosnia, praised Sufism by stating that Sufi spirituality and practice is “very dedicated to peace and cooperation,” and that practitioners “are open to other religious experiences.” Friar Ivo expressed that despite Sufism having different branches, as a whole it should be should be celebrated.

In Kosovo, a relatively young country still recovering from political turmoil, Sheikh Shehu preaches a profound message of peace, tolerance and understanding, calling on his followers to look past incidental differences and to look towards transcendental commonalities.

“We all have faith, but in form we are different … one goes to church, one to synagogue, one to the mosque. But we are all going because of belief in God. We must turn toward love, who gives you the right to hate?” said Shehu in the interview with Al Jazeera.

Prior to the start of the Nowruz ritual. [Credit: Ferdi Limani/Al Jazeera]

Prior to the start of the Nowruz ritual. [Credit: Ferdi Limani/Al Jazeera]

In a world where we too often find the prevalence of darkness and hate, Shehu and his followers offer a radical and compelling message:
One of illumination and love.

Tanenbaum Peacemakers Imam Muhammad Ashafa and Pastor James Wuye Prepare Nigerians for Upcoming Elections

On February 7, 2015, exactly one week before Nigerians were set to head to the polls, Nigeria’s Independent National Electoral Commission postponed the Presidential and legislative elections for seven weeks (until March 28th). Concerned that Boko Haram’s violent insurgency in the North would jeopardize the safety of voters around the country, the Commission’s Chairman, Attahiru Jega, heeded the advice of national security officials – delaying the election and announcing a “major” multinational military operation against the terrorist organization. This decision has been widely criticized both in Nigeria and abroad; some worry the postponement will delegitimize the elections and others fear an increased likelihood of election-related violence.

Despite the danger posed by Boko Haram and the challenges posed by this politically charged environment, Tanenbaum’s Peacemakers – Imam Muhammad Ashafa and Pastor James Wuye, Co-Executive Directors of the Interfaith Mediation Center – remain undeterred in their work. Much like their efforts prior to the 2011 elections, these Nigerian Peacemakers are tirelessly preparing Nigerian communities around the country for the election and for conducting it in a peaceful manner.

Interviewed before the elections were postponed, Pastor James discussed the unique challenges posed by Boko Haram, as well as by national ethnic tensions.

Rather than targeting Christians and pitting Muslims against Christians, Boko Haram targets “everyone,” not a specific religious group. Also, many Nigerians are unwillingly being “conscripted, and some are abducted from their families” to become members of the group. As a result, Pastor James believes the insurgents have actually mitigated religious tensions in the country.

Pastor James says that if the opportunity arises he would sit down and talk with the insurgents about their demands. He noted that, prior to the recent offensive, the government’s response to Boko Haram included “soft diplomacy,” which involved an effort “to reintegrate the young men and women who are involved in this insurgency.”

As the elections approach, Pastor James is also concerned about ethnic tensions. Nigeria’s population of more than 149 million people is made up of over 250 ethnic groups. He and Imam Ashafa are urging their fellow Nigerians to respect the election results and refrain from violence as a means of voicing any displeasure. They are focused on the role of religious leaders in the country and believe it will be critical – and, indeed, many of them have been “calling on the populace not to make provocative statements and to play by the rules of the game.”

Pastor James is proud of his homeland and remains hopeful for its future. Yet he understands the challenges that lie ahead and the great need for Nigeria’s “religious leaders to come together as they have before.”

A Second King Hearing on Muslims, Conflicts Facing Female Muslim Atheltes, and More: News Roundup

In the news this week: a second King hearing, female Muslim athletes face wardrobe conflicts, Norway discovers unexpected school racism, and other stories.

Representative Peter King (R-NY) has scheduled a second hearing (Washington Post) on the “radicalization of the Muslim-American community" for June 15th. This hearing will focus on the radicalization of convicted felons by fellow inmates (CNN) while incarcerated. It is expected to draw much of the same opposition as the first hearing, specifically by those believing the hearings are a McCarthy style witch-hunt and assault on Muslims.
 
This week brought two cases of female Muslim athletes struggling to compete while respecting their religious traditions. The Iranian women’s soccer team (Washington Post) was disqualified mere minutes before a crucial Olympic qualifying match because they wore Islamic headscarves. The team designed special headscarves in an attempt to satisfy a new FIFA rule, but officials deemed the scarves illegal. The team plans on protesting the ruling. In the states, a female Muslim weightlifter (CNN) has motivated the United States Olympic Committee to review their attire policies. Athletes are mandated to keep their elbows and knees uncovered so that judges can see that a competitor’s elbows and knees are locked during a lift. The committee has committed to discussing whether the same determination can be made if an athlete sports a tight uniform.
 
The government of Norway commissioned a report to investigate religious racism in schools and was shocked by the results. Views and News from Norway reports that, “most worrisome for school and city officials was the high level of Jewish students, 33 percent, who reported harassment at least two to three times a month.”
 
A California man accused of attacking a Sikh taxi driver (Sacramento Bee) in November has been sentenced to 13 years in state prison. The conflict originally arose over a disputed fare, but when the driver decided to drop the issue the defendant continued by shouting racial slurs and punching the driver in the face repeatedly. A second defendant who had a lesser role in the attack was previously sentenced to felony probation.
 
The Huffington Post reports that, “the Department of Defense has recently established the first Hindu Military Chaplain program in American history. Army Captain Pratima Dharm, who currently works as a Chaplain Clinician at Walter Reed Medical Center Hospital, took on her new role as the Army's first Hindu Chaplain as of May 16.” This is particularly important to the changing demographics of the United States and its armed forces. There has been a significant increase in South Asian immigrants in the past decade, resulting in a greater number of Hindus in the military.
 
This week has also brought us substantial updates in the proposed California circumcision bans. The individual driving Santa Monica circumcision ban (USA Today) withdrew after the issue turned highly religious. She was quoted as distancing herself from the group responsible the San Francisco ban effort (LA Times), MGMbill.org. Speaking of MGMbill.org, its leader has taken heat for co-authoring a comic book that includes some arguably anti-Semitic language and imagery.