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“The Vicar of Baghdad”: Peacebuilding in Iraq’s Red Zone

On Thursday, July 3rd, Peacemaker Rev. Canon Andrew White spoke with fellow Peacemakers in Action during a monthly call. When asked about his safety, White’s voice reverberated through the technological static: “Peacemaking is not about making peace in comfortable, safe places.”

That is how Rev. Canon Andrew White lives his life: beyond comfort zones and within the lawless and chaotic Red Zone in Central Baghdad, Iraq.

Lovingly dubbed the “Vicar of Baghdad,” Andrew is a steadfast leader in Baghdad not only for his church, Saint George’s Episcopal Anglican Church, but also as head of the Foundation for Relief and Reconciliation in the Middle East, a relief and reconciliation program that supports the masses (Christians and Muslims alike) and coordinates reconciliatory efforts between Sunni and Shia leaders.

Andrew’s daily efforts, logistical challenges and reality are documented in “The Vicar of Baghdad”, a new three-part Vice Media special. Vice Media, known for being outspoken and bold in their news coverage, intimately portrays Andrew’s work on the ground. The candid look into Andrew’s daily life begins in a car; the camera shakes while lights flash red down a dimly lit street. From the passenger seat, Andrew narrates the situation, “It’s dangerous just sitting here.” These words color his actions, whether he is aware of it or not. He persists with his mission, guided by his peacebuilding practice and faith. Despite multiple kidnappings and death threats he does not sit still. Andrew is constantly on the move, visiting his parishioners and standing in solidarity with those in Iraq.

The Vicar of Baghdad has been filmed in 12-17 minute long installments. Each video is a window into the poverty, marginalization and hardships experienced in Iraq. With a backdrop of dry wit and humor, Andrew’s innate exuberance and the joy of his people are not fully dampened by their situations. The harsh environment does not mar his faithfulness, as he calmly proclaims, “My faith is everything.”

In recent days, the militant group the Islamic State, or IS, formerly called ISIS (Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant), continues to encroach upon Baghdad. According to Andrew, the country’s infrastructure is failing and people are dying daily. Iraq’s problems deepen with their presence and ongoing sectarian violence. Currently, Andrew and his people are surrounded by constant gunfights and dwindling outside communication. Unwavering, he continues to fight for peace and solidarity in Iraq.

Vice Media – The Vicar of Baghdad      

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Top five news stories you need to know.

Here are the top stories about religion that you need to know from May 17-May 23, 2014:

The Headwrap Expo: Shifting the Conversation • Orthodox Jewish woman says that school fired her for observing Sabbath • Vaccination exemption issues raising discrimination concerns • U.S. agency urges Myanmar to scrap proposed religion laws • Religious freedom linked to economic growth and innovation

The Headwrap Expo: Shifting the Conversation
On June 8  in Dearborn, Michigan, the 2014 Headwrap Expo celebrated interfaith dialog, fashion, and culture. Billed as “the art of headwrapping and scarf styling,” the Headwrap Expo was presented by the organization Beautifully Wrapped. The organization’s founder, Zarinah El-Amin Naeem, explained how the Expo is a celebration of “fusion — looking at how different cultural aspects, different things that people wear in different parts of the world are adopted across into other cultures.” Naeem explained how the Expo has broad cultural appeal and moves beyond fashion to address issues of unity. 

“It’s an intercultural, multi-faith event that brings together all these different groups…We have the Sikh Indians, we have Muslims, we have Christians, we have Jews, we have African Americans, African immigrants, everybody coming together. Once we’re there, we share, we talk about love, we have workshops, we have fashion stylings, fashion shows throughout the day. It’s a whole affair.”

Orthodox Jewish woman says that school fired her for observing Sabbath
Ellen Gastwirth, 41, was hired in 2005 as Director of Education at Temple Judea, a reformed  Jewish synagogue on Long Island. Gastwirth first encountered resistance to her Orthodox observance of the Sabbath when Rabbi Todd Chizner was hired the following year. Her requests for holiday time off were met with animosity. For example, in 2008, Rabbi Chizner questioned her observance by asking “What do you people do on that day that would prevent you from being here?” Harassment from the board of directors and the Rabbi led to the termination of her employment and a new Brooklyn Federal Court lawsuit.

Vaccination Exemption Issues Raising Discrimination Concerns
Two recent court cases address discrimination issues as they relate to objections to vaccination due to religious beliefs.

In Philips v. City of New York, parents argued that their children are unfairly discriminated against. While their children’s school district allows vaccination refusals based on religious beliefs, documentation is required that supports and explains the religious objection. Students that receive accommodation must stay home when another student at the school acquires an illness that is vaccine-protected. A federal judge rejected the parent’s claims, ruling that the First Amendment’s Free Exercise clause does not provide exemption from vaccination requirements.

In Valent v. Board of Review, Department of Labor, New Jersey Appeals Court ruled that a hospital employee who was fired for refusing vaccination is entitled to unemployment benefits. The hospital offers vaccine exemptions to employees for religious beliefs, however, they denied an exemption to the plaintiff because the employee did not object to vaccination due to religious reasons. The court ruled that this discrimination lacked justification and violates the First Amendment.

U.S. Agency Urges Myanmar to Scrap Proposed Religion Laws
In Myanmar, laws have been drafted that intend to protect Buddhists, the country’s majority, by regulating marriages and conversations between people of different faiths.

The U.S. State Department stated that the draft laws should be withdrawn and have “no place in the 21st century”. The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom believes that these laws encourage violence against Muslims, Christians, and other religious minority groups. Additionally, the Commission stated that if these draft laws are passed, Washington “should factor these negative developments into its evolving relationship with Burma (Myanmar).”

Religious Freedom Linked to Economic Growth and Innovation
The Interdisciplinary Journal of Research on Religion recently published a study that reviewed GDP growth in 2011 across 173 countries. GDP growth was compared to additional data including religious restrictions and the levels of economic and business related freedoms for each country.

Authored by researchers at Brigham Young University’s International Center for Law and Religion Studies and Georgetown University’s Berkley Center for Religion, Peace & World Affairs, the study concludes that countries that allow greater freedom of religion are more likely to have economic growth and innovation.

The Religious Freedom & Business Foundation commented on the report findings by stating, “As the world navigates away from years of poor economic performance, religious freedom may be an unrecognized asset to economic recovery and growth.” Additionally the foundation explained that hostility and restrictions based on religion can create “climates that can drive away local and foreign investment, undermine sustainable development, and disrupt huge sectors of economies”