From the March/April, 2010 issue of Touchstone

Uneasy Messenger by Jeff Walton

Uneasy Messenger

The National Council of Churches Struggles to Address Islamic Violence

by Jeff Walton

The National Council of Churches (NCC) has not always seemed sure of itself when addressing Islam. Eager to please its interfaith partners and to counter alleged Islamophobia in American society, it has often exercised self-censorship. Islam, in its account, is a religion of peace and justice—not a cause of war and oppression. At the same time, this American ecumenical body cannot dismiss the cries of partner churches overseas suffering persecution under Islamist regimes.

“My life could be in danger,” the Reverend Dr. Charles Amjad-Ali told the gathered church delegations at the NCC General Assembly in Minneapolis in November 2009. An Anglican from the (United) Church of Pakistan who now teaches at Luther Seminary in St. Paul, Amjad-Ali explained that his family had a Muslim background; thus, their conversion to Christianity made them apostates in the eyes of Islamic radicals. Amjad-Ali made these comments in the course of leading a Bible study on 1 Thessalonians 5, a passage that the Apostle Paul addressed to a church that was undergoing persecution.

Amjad-Ali noted that at least 234 people were currently being held in Pakistani jails for alleged blasphemy against Islam. Under Pakistan’s anti-blasphemy laws, these prisoners could face the death penalty. And not only prisoners’ lives are in danger: Sometimes Islamist-incited mobs don’t bother with the law, but take matters into their own hands. Amjad-Ali told of “nuns raped [and] people burned” in recent attacks on Christian villages.

He noted that the Apostle Paul wrote to the churches assuming that they would be under some degree of persecution. Then, strikingly, he argued that if today’s churches are not encountering resistance, then they are probably in some way compromising the gospel.

Skittish About Islam

As an ecumenical body of 36 member churches, spanning the mainline Protestant, Orthodox, and historically African-American denominations, the NCC regards itself as the most prestigious Christian organization in the United States. It frequently highlights its partnerships and dialogues with various Islamic organizations. At the same time, it has often shied away from criticizing militant Islam, seemingly fearing that any such criticism might provoke or justify reactionary discrimination against American Muslims. By comparison, the council seems less concerned about the threat posed by extreme elements within the Islamic faith.

While the NCC has sometimes been willing to draw attention to persecuted groups, it has been reluctant to fault governments—unless, that is, the governments were those of the United States, Israel, or other US allies. Regimes hostile to the United States, whether Communist or Islamist, have generally gotten a pass. (A 2004 report published by the Institute for Religion and Democracy, titled Human Rights Advocacy in the Mainline Protestant Churches, notes that, of seven human rights criticisms made by the NCC’s General Assembly in the years 2000–2003, four were against Israel, two against the United States, and one against Sudan.)

In its response to the violence against Christians in the Indian state of Orissa in 2008–2009, the NCC clearly named Hindu extremists as the aggressors. But its accounts of the Darfur genocide in Sudan (itself carried out against a Muslim people) portrayed those responsible as an unnamed force spurred by “ethnic and tribal hatred.” American and other Western governments were criticized for their ineffectiveness in protecting the Darfurians, but the fundamentalist Islamic government in Khartoum, which instigated and supplied the Arab Janjaweed militias carrying out the slaughter, did not receive the NCC’s ire. Similarly, the Islamist connection in the persecution of southern Sudanese Christians was also downplayed or unmentioned.

Encouraging on Pakistan

It has been surprising, therefore, to note the increasingly strong stance taken by the NCC over the past year against anti-Christian persecution in Pakistan. Perhaps this marks at least a partial turning point for the council. Having in the past been reluctant to name the persecutors of Pakistani Christians, the NCC has recently joined a World Council of Churches petition condemning Pakistan’s blasphemy laws. It also directly named Islamic fundamentalists as responsible for the attacks on Pakistani Christians.

In September 2009, the Episcopal Bishop of Lahore, Pakistan, the Reverend Dr. Alexander John Malik, visited the NCC, highlighting the Pakistani church’s concerns following attacks on Christian villages in the country the month before. During Malik’s visit, NCC General Secretary Michael Kinnamon released a statement noting the pressure Christian minorities are under around the world and declaring that the NCC’s member communions stood in solidarity with overseas Christians.

Discouraging on Fort Hood

But despite these encouraging signs, and even though Amjad-Ali’s Bible study was well-received by the General Assembly delegates, other events and messages at the Minneapolis meeting seemed to lapse back into the old pattern of self-censored restraint or willful diversion. For example, a statement adopted by the General Assembly about the Fort Hood massacre in Texas referred to the “tragic loss of life” and even to “extensive gun violence,” but made no mention of the context of the shootings or the stated Islamic motivations of the gunman. Instead, the statement cautioned that “anger and suspicion of the unknown individual can lead some to stigmatize an entire community of faith.”

Indeed, NCC officials seemed eager to use the attack mainly as an opportunity to denounce gun availability. In an address, former NCC President Michael E. Livingston cited the Fort Hood shootings as a consequence of loose gun control policies in Texas. Again, no mention was made of the gunman’s motivations. Instead, Livingston hypothesized that the gunman “may himself have been to some extent a victim,” presumably of an unjust military culture or workplace stress. The fact that other servicemen had not gone on a shooting rampage against their fellow soldiers, or that the gunman, Major Nidal M. Hasan, had yelled “God is great” in Arabic during his attack, apparently did not figure in the NCC’s analysis.

Time to Give Witness

If the NCC is to stand up for believers like Malik and Amjad-Ali, it will sometimes have to risk uncomfortable conversations with its Muslim interfaith partners. But in the process, it will give a witness to the persecuted churches. It will be acting not as a hand-wringing religious elite saying “tut-tut” to its own nation, but as a defender of “the least of these” in the far corners of the earth.

Jeff Walton directs the Anglican program for the Institute on Religion & Democracy. Prior to joining IRD, Walton served as a congressional staffer in offices that interacted with churches on human rights and religious liberty issues. He is a member of Restoration Anglican Church in Arlington, Virginia.

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