Even if the “Arab spring” had strong secular roots, the democratic uprisings in North Africa and the Middle East carried significant implications for Islam and minority religions. Parties and movements pressing for Islamic laws and public influence have gained more power as authoritarian and more secular-oriented governments have been overturned. This is taking place at a time when the growth of Salafi Islam is strong, as evidenced by the outcome of the recent elections in Egypt. Christians and other religious minorities, while in some cases opposed to their repressive governments, fear that the rise of Islamist influence will curtail their religious rights. In Egypt, pressure on and cases of violence against the Coptic Christian minority have reportedly increased, leading to speculation that Christian emigration will accelerate as has been the case in other Islamic countries.
Beyond the situation in the Middle East, awareness of issues related to persecution of Christians in different parts of the world has been growing-not only in America, but in Europe too. For years, both Evangelical and Catholic groups have published regular reports on cases of persecution against Christians around the world. But the topic is beginning to reach European public opinion at large, as well as the political arena, primarily in connection with concerns about trends within Islam.
While the demographic patterns of the world’s two largest religions have developed over decades, two studies in 2011 reveal how global Islam and Christianity are competing, often in the same regions of the world. Earlier in the year, a Pew Research Center’s study on Islam found 1.6 billion Muslims worldwide, representing 23.4 percent of the global population. The growth in Muslims is expected to increase 35 percent in the next 20 years ( a somewhat lower rate than in the last two decades), with a sharp growth in sub-Saharan Africa. In 20 years there may be more Muslims living in Nigeria than in Egypt.
In December, a study of global Christianity by the Pew Center found 2.18 billion Christians, representing nearly a third of the estimated global population of 6.9 billion people. The study confirms the dramatic shift in the distribution of Christians over the past century. Whereas the bulk of Christians were found in the Western countries a century ago, today only about one-quarter of all Christians live in Europe, 37 percent in the Americas. About one in every four Christians live in sub-Saharan Africa (24 percent), and about one-in-eight is found in Asia and the Pacific (13 percent).
In Israel, the growing rift between secular and Jewish Orthodox lifestyle that has been going on for years has turned into a major public discussion due to ever increasing attempts by religious groups to implement locally some aspects of their way of life in the public sphere. It raises once again the recurring issue of the role of religion in a State that started primarily as a secular project.
In the Buddhist world, the resignation of the Dalai Lama as the political head of the Tibetans in order to focus on his spiritual role and leave the secular aspects to a Harvard-trained legal scholar in the position of Prime Minister of the Tibetan government in exile has been widely reported, as well as a wave of self-immolations by monks protesting the current situation in Tibet. Less reported yet more significant trends concern further attempts to organize Buddhism across borders and the implications for the diplomatic rivalry between China and India. While a Chinese-backed foundation has plans for turning the birthplace of Buddha in Lumbini, Nepal, into a major pilgrimage spot and an “international peace city,” the first Global Buddhist Congregation gathered in New Delhi in late November in the presence of the Dalai Lama and decided to constitute a new body with a common platform for Buddhists worldwide, the International Buddhist Confederation, which will be headquartered in India.
Meanwhile in Europe, the killings perpetrated by Anders Breivik in July in Norway also touched off long-standing religious tensions. It is unlikely that Breivik represented a wave of “Christian terrorism” or fundamentalism, as first reported, and the killings were more likely motivated by political than religious beliefs. But the incident has revealed the connections between Breivik and a transnational European network of independent bloggers and authors critical of Islam.
The year 2011 also saw the politicization of anti-Islamic sentiment in the U.S. Earlier in the year, New York U.S. Representative Peter King chaired a series of controversial hearings in Congress alleging radicalization among a segment of U.S. Muslims. Meanwhile, the movement protesting the building of a mosque on “ground zero” in New York City also spread to other cities, with protestors claiming that mosques are receiving foreign funding and are in effect political organizations. Related to this was the growth of the anti-Sharia movement led by conservative activists, which was influential in 20 state courts banning Islamic law-even in those states with small Muslim populations. These movements have led to Muslims engaging in an anti-discrimination campaign.
Such conservative activism has also led many observers to revise their prognosis that the religious right has lost its potency in the U.S. since the election of Democrat Barak Obama in 2008. The kickoff of the Republican primary campaigning season in 2011 also showed the influence of conservative Christian politics in the platforms of such candidates as Michelle Bachmann, Rick Perry and Rick Santorum. The controversy over frontrunner Mitt Romney’s Mormonism was revived last year, especially among many evangelicals who claim that the religion is a non-Christian cult. The conflict among religious conservatives on their support of the Romney candidacy is likely to grow more intense as the elections approach in late 2012.
On the Catholic front, the introduction of a new translation of the Roman Mass marked the first major change to the liturgy in English since 1973. The changes to the liturgy are an attempt to more closely follow a more “poetical” form closer to the Latin original text and less emphasis on contemporary usage. The change is part of Pope Benedict XVI’s attempt to “reform the reforms” made by church “liberals” after the Second Vatican Council in the mid-1960s.
The mainline Protestant drive for gay rights received another boost with last spring’s decision by the Presbyterian Church (USA) to allow a “local option” in allowing gay partnered pastors to serve in congregations. The denomination joins the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America and the Episcopal Church in recently changing church policy to accept gay clergy, leading to a stream of defections of conservative congregations from these denominations.
Richard Cimino and Jean-François Mayer