Saturday, August 22, 2015

The Refugee and Migrant Crisis

Because of conflicts in the Middle East, there are more refugees today than in any time in the past few decades. They have been joined by thousands of migrants from northern Africa and elsewhere. As a result, there is a major crisis in many countries, especially in those to which people flee initially as well as those where they eventually settle.

According to the UN Refugee Agency, also known by its acronym, UNHCR, there were 19.5 million refugees worldwide at the end of 2014, 14.4 million under the mandate of UNHCR, about 2.9 million more than in 2013. All the following statistics are from the UNHCR.

During 2014, conflict and persecution forced an average of 42,500 persons per day to leave their homes and seek protection elsewhere, either within the borders of their countries or in other countries. Last year developing countries hosted over 86% of the world’s refugees, as compared to 70% ten years ago.

In 2014, the country hosting the largest number of refugees was Turkey, with 1.59 million. By the end of 2014, Syria had become the world’s top source country of refugees, overtaking Afghanistan, which had held this position for more than three decades. Today, almost one out of every four refugees is Syrian, with 95 per cent located in surrounding countries.

A Syrian refugee camp

The UNHCR report explains that last year, 51% of refugees were under 18 years old which is the highest figure for child refugees in more than a decade. Imagine these children growing up in camps!

An estimated 13.9 million people were newly displaced due to conflict or persecution, including 2.9 million new refugees. By the end of 2014, the number of people assisted or protected by UNHCR had reached a record high of 46.7 million people.

In addition, about 38.2 million people were forcibly uprooted people and displaced within their own country and are known as internally displaced people (IDPs). In the Syrian Arab Republic, the number of IDPs increased to 7.6 million, the highest number anywhere in the world. Iraq has also witnessed massive new internal displacement as a result of the Islamic State offensive. 

If these refugee statistics were not enough, Europe is now being flooded with refugees and other migrants, many of whom cannot find work at home and want to improve their living conditions. The latter are often called economic migrants in order to distinguish them from refugees. But this is a distinction without a difference. Many migrants are fleeing war, yet they are not labelled as refugees.

Germany expects to receive 800,000 migrants this year; that will be four times more than in 2014. More than 50,000 have already arrived in Italy thus far in 2015. Hundreds are believed to have died in leaky boats attempting to cross the Mediterranean.

Hundreds have tried to enter Macedonia from Greece, which has received 160,000 migrants in the first seven months so far this year and has now closed its border with Greece, Hungary has built a four-meter fence along its border with Serbia to curb immigration after more than 100,000 had already entered Hungary this year.

Thousands are camped out in Calais outside the Eurotunnel trying to get on trucks going to Britain. These are mostly men who have fled Africa and the Middle East and are desperately seeking a better life elsewhere. They risk life and limb by clambering onto the trucks.

Regardless of whether these people are called refugees or migrants, they pose a challenge to the countries where they are first received as well as tose where they eventually settle. By themselves, none of these countries is capable of handling the huge influx of migrants, who in some cases have literally washed up on their shores. They need to cooperate.

For years I have worked with an organization that helped to sponsor refugees. I also know what it means to be an economic migrant. My parents emigrated from the Netherlands shortly after World War II, primarily so that their children would have better educational and economic opportunities. 

When they left, the economic situation in Europe was not as good as it would later become. Nevertheless, they never had any regrets about immigrating to Canada. This experience has given me a different vision than many native-born Canadians of the challenges of migration. 

How should richer countries in the West deal with this influx? Is it fair to turn them away at the border, as some countries are doing? Other countries, because they are far away, do not have to process the migrants who are flooding into Europe, but that does not mean that they should not help them whether financially or by admitting them.

Canada, for one, could do much more, in particular by welcoming refugees. From 1975 to 1980, Canada accepted more than 55,000 Vietnamese, refugees. These became known as "Boat People." There were also thousands of Cambodians and Laotians in this group. Photos from that period are eerily similar to the ones who see today of those attempting to cross the Mediterranean.

I know some of these people personally; most have been very successful and have integrated well into Canadian society. Whether they were refugees, migrants or immigrants, all those who have arrived in Canada during the last few centuries have made enormous contributions to their new country.

Why can Canada not welcome a similar number, or even double that, from Syria? That would hardly make a significant dent in the millions of Syrian refugees, but it would indicate the willingness of Canadians to open their doors and their hearts to these desperate men, women, and children. 

Canada is a country that was built by immigrants from countries all over the world; many of them quite recently. In Toronto, more that 50% of the population was not born in Canada. Even the "First Nations," as they are called here, arrived from Asia thousands of years ago, although they might dispute being regarded as migrants or immigrants.

With the "Boat People," churches were in the forefront of sponsoring refugees. Today I would like to see not only churches but also synagogues, mosques, and temples do the same. Any faith worth its salt will seek to help those who are in desperate need. That is simply the right thing to do.

As Canadians, we can and must do more to help refugees and migrants! In fact, as people of faith, we are mandated to do so! So what are we waiting for?

Monday, August 17, 2015

The Canadian federal election: Who can we trust?

"All politicians are liars!" How often don't we hear this, especially during election campaigns? The cynical among us will wholeheartedly agree; while those who are more cautious will explain that this does not mean all politicians -- just most or, at least, many.

Do you trust politicians? This is always an important question during elections. According to a poll that was taken less than a year ago, politicians are rated as among the least trustworthy professions. Joining them at the bottom are telemarketers, car salespeople, and bloggers (I assume this means professional bloggers, not amateurs like me.)  See chart for ratings of other professions.

Most trustworthy and least trustworthy professions according to an Ipsos Reid poll (2014)

(The Ipsos Reid poll surveyed 4,026 Canadians in September, 2014, and has a margin of error of +/-2.8 per cent, 19 times out of 20, for Quebec respondents, and +/-1.8 per cent, 19 times out of 20, for Canada outside Quebec.)

There is an enormous literature, both scholarly and non-scholarly, that deals with the allegations that the mass public is losing confidence in politicians and in many aspects of the political system. This is a critical issue, especially during an election campaign. 

It is well-known that scandals can lower public regard for individual politicians and government leaders. What is less known, however, is how scandals influence our attitudes toward institutions and the political process. That is even more serious and is ultimately destructive of democracy. When we no longer trust our institutions, where can we go in order to effect change?

The current election campaign in Canada will be the longest in almost a century, It will also be the most expensive ever, thanks to Stephen Harper's early election call. It also promises to be the dirtiest. American-style attack campaign ads appeared even before the election was called.

The Conservatives have used ads that repeatedly trumpeted: Justin Trudeau is "just not ready." Unfortunately for Trudeau, if one slings enough mud, some of it is bound to stick. The Liberals have responded with an ad in which Trudeau portrays himself as "ready," but the damage has been done.

The Conservatives have the deepest pockets, which allows Harper to fly everywhere and make lavish promises, although these are conditional upon them being re-elected and producing a balanced budget, something Harper has never yet achieved during his decade in power. All this promised largess, of course, comes courtesy of government funds.

Even before the election was called, the Harper government  had sent out checks to families with children, What was not mentioned clearly enough was that much of this money would be taxed back next year.

Whenever Harper makes public appearances, his audiences are always carefully screened to keep possible dissenters far away. Everything is scripted and tightly managed. Harper is widely acknowledged to be a control freak, His public persona is stiff and formal, with not a hair out of place.

Control is the way he ran the Prime Minister's Office (PMO), as has become crystal clear at the trial of former Conservative Senator Mike Duffy. This trial is running concurrently with the campaign, to the consternation of Harper who cannot avoid questions relating to this trial.

Harper's former chief of staff, Nigel Wright, has tried to explain why he wrote a check for $90,000 dollars to help Duffy repay living and travel expenses that he allegedly owed, Most Canadians have already heard these sordid details, but non-Canadians may need some enlightenment. Hence this brief explanation.

What makes the Duffy trial so intriguing for Canadians but unnerving for Harper is the suggestion that Harper knew about this check all along. He claimed that he did not, but Wright's testimony and some of the volumes of emails that were sent between Wright and the PMO make very clear that some of the most senior staff in the PMO did know, and thus Harper probably knew, Was Harper, therefore, lying?

Many Canadians suspect he was. Even if it shown that Harper did not know because his staff kept him out of the loop, Canadians will still find it hard to accept that this control-freak would not know. The Duffy trial is not yet over, nor is the election campaign.

The Duffy case is the biggest scandal to hit the Conservatives during Harper's term in office. He became prime minister for the first time with the promise of  more transparency in government. His government was noted for being the most opaque ever, as the recent revelations about the PMO demonstrate yet again.

Not that the other main party leaders are entirely virtuous, The Liberals had their sponsorship scandal that Harper capitalized on. But now Harper's sins are the issue, largely because the Conservatives are in power and scandals are mostly associated with those in power. The list is too long for me to recite here; for that, check the literature of the opposition parties.

As Lord Acton famously put it, "Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely." To which Acton had added in his letter to Bishop Creighton, "Great men are almost always bad men."

What disturbs me especially about Harper is not just his duplicity or his controlling nature, many other politicians have been accused of the same vices, but that his evangelical Christian faith doesn't seem to play a significant role in his political life. If it did, how could lie so brazenly, much less promote the policies he does? Or does he simply prove the truth of Acton's observation?

Mulcair and Trudeau are Roman Catholics, but I would still hold them to the same high standard. In fact, all politicians should integrate their faith and political life. Then they might become regarded as trustworthy and respected once again. Until that happens, we will continue to believe that politicians are liars.

In this election look for men and women of integrity, people who are honest and trustworthy. These are the ones we should support with our votes. There are such people, but we may have to search for them. Canada needs many people of faith and who are trustworthy. Vote for them! Help them to get elected!


Sunday, August 9, 2015

How then shall we vote?

The other day I saw a candidates debate. No, not the one with Donald Trump, but the other one north of the border, in Canada, where a federal election is taking place on October 19. This is the first and perhaps only one in English this time that featured the four leaders of some of the political parties in Canada.

That evening the four included: Justin Trudeau (Liberal), Elizabeth May (Green), Thomas Mulcair (New Democrat), and Stephen Harper (Conservative). It was an informative debate in which no one was the clear winner, but no one lost, as can happen in debates when one speaker makes a notable gaffe.

The American debate the same evening included the top ten contenders for the Republican nomination for the presidential election that is still more than a year off, If people in Canada get bored during the longest election campaign in more than a century, Americans will probably become nuts by the time a new president is selected.

Americans and Canadians have the opportunity to vote, but this is a privilege that many people do not take advantage of. In the last federal election in Canada about 40% did not. When you realize that the current Conservative government was elected with the support of less than 40% of the voters, then about 24% of the electorate sufficed to elect a majority government. Is this democracy? That is why I advocate electoral reform: propotional representation would be the best alternative to the current one.

Unlike the US, Canada has many parties that vie for seats in Parliament. Many parties do not win any, but some, such as the Greens, have won seats, even if it is only one or two. The leaders of the three major national parties, Conservatives, Liberals, and New Democrats all have a good chance of becoming prime minister on Oct, 19. That is what makes this election unusual and even crucial.

From left to right: Stephen Harper, Thomas Mulcair, Elizabeth May, and Justin Trudeau

This year the election is largely a referendum on Prime Minister Harper, who has ruled Canada for a decade already. He is perhaps the most divisive figure in Canadian politics today. People passionately either like or dislike  him. He has a strong and committed base, but he will have to expand that support if he is to win a majority again and become prime minister for a fourth term.

I hope that does not happen. Canada cannot afford another Harper-led government. In the past decade he has uncrementally reshaped Canada into his own vision. He has changed Canada so much that it will take many years to undo the damage. Many Canadians share this opinion. They fervently want change.

Justin Trudeau and Thomas Mulcair have image problems, Trudeau has the advantage of a famous name: he is the son of former Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau. But he is still young (43) and inexperienced politicly, something his major rivals have capitalized on, saying that he is "not yet ready" to be prime minister.

Mulcair has a similar problem. He is the current leader of the opposition but is he ready to be prime minister? people ask. For this reason, he is being carefully scrutinized  not only by his political opponents but also by voters who have never yet voted for the NDP and wonder if they can govern well.

Harper's response to these charges made against him is to point to himself as the only one who is qualified be prime minister. His experience in office makes him the best and most suitable candidate. Therefore, he argues, Canadians should vote for his party.

Who then should Canadians vote for? Some principles that I have used in the past to help me to decide may prove helpful to others.

1. I generally vote for the person from the parties in my riding who can best represent me and be an advocate for the positions that I espouse. That may be easy some of the time but very difficult at other times. Let me give one example.

Some decades ago, when I first moved to Toronto, I voted for an NDP candidate who was opposed to nuclear weapons. She was a leader in the movement to rid the world of such weapons. I helped in her campaign and encouraged others to vote for her as well. This was an issue that was close to my heart. I even became a member of the NDP for a few years.

I also managed to discuss many other issues with her. Unfortunately, she was defeated in that election and even more soundly in the following one because of the collapse of the NDP nationwide. Since then, however, I have always been partial to the NDP because of their stance on many issues.

This chart is by a Canadian blogger living in Japan

2. I try to avoid parties that only focus on one issue. One such issue is abortion. While I am personally opposed to abortion, I am also opposed to the death penalty, Many pro-life people are inconsistent on these issues; they reject abortion but favor the death penalty.

We live in a pluralistic society which makes it difficult, if not impossible for Christians or any other group to be able to legislate against abortion or to overturn court decisions that that have ruled in favor of it. As much as we might regret it, secularism has made such inroads in contemporary society that it is not possible anymore to turn back the clock.

The larger parties in Canada refuse to discuss this issue since it is so controversial. The Greens, Liberals, and NDP are officially pro-choice while the Conservatives are not allowed to discuss this issue, even though many Conservative Members of Parliament are pro-life.

I also try to avoid such parties because they tend to neglect many other issues that I favor. Thus, I will vote for a candidate and a party that does espouse these issues, or as many as possible.

3. For ideas about the issues, I suggest that you read the Election Bulletin of Citizens for Public Justice. I intend to ask the candidates in my riding the questions that are raised in this bulletin. Even if you cannot or do noot want to pose these questions where you live, nevertheless, it will help you to formulate the issues in your mind and thus help you to decide how to vote. In the interest of full disclosure, I am a board member of CPJ.

Other tools include the Federal Election Resource 2015 published by the Canadian Council of Churches which provides a different list of question to pose to prospective members of parliament. The United Church of Canada has produced a similar kit, the 2015 Federal Election Kit, Other churches may have done the same, but I am not yet familiar with them.

The mission of CPJ to promote public justice in Canada by shaping key public policy debates through research and analysis, publishing, and public dialogue; and to encourage citizens, leaders in society, and governments to support policies and practices which reflect God’s call for love, justice, and the flourishing of Creation.

These are only a few such principles that I use. There are many more, but space does not permit me to elaborate. If you have suggestions, however, please send to me. The election period in Canada is long enough this time for some dialogue on this topic, and the one in the US is much, much longer with even more time available.

Which party am I going to vote for this time? I will probably vote NDP. But I am also partial to the Greens because of their unwavering stance on protecting the environment. The other parties are not as consistent, which is not surprising since they must please voters all over the country who have contradictory views on how to care for the environment. Unfortunately, a vote for the Greens would be wasted, There aere many Canadians who will vote for anyone but Harper.

I urge all of you, whether Canadians or Americans, to cast your vote during these elections. Vote carefully and responsibly; your vote is too important to waste.

Friday, July 31, 2015

Euphoria in Toronto

This is my first post for several weeks because I have been busy around the house with repairs, etc.  I intend to post regularly again, especially with the forthcoming federal election in Canada. Politics and faith are always important issues during elections. Today I want to deal with sports and faith.

Euphoria is the best way to describe the mood of the people of Toronto after the PanAmerican Games ended. Many were giddy with delight. Canadians had won a record number of medals, especially gold. The closing ceremony was spectacular. Hard on the heels of all this, there have been suggestions that Toronto submit a bid for the Olympics Games in 2024.

"What a Blast!" was the headline in The Toronto Star the day after the Games were over. It was a blast, and most Torontonians thought so too. They flocked to the venues. More than one million tickets were sold. Some, such as the opening and closing ceremonies, were quite expensive, but people willingly shelled out the money.

Toronto is a city that loves sports. It has several teams that have had a mixed success over the years, yet Torontonians have continued to flock to see their teams play during the season, in spite of their mediocre records.

The last time the Maple Leafs won the Stanley Cup was in 1967, long before any members of the current team were born. The Raptors in their history have never moved beyond the semi-finals. The Argonauts are a CFL team that provides employment for football players who are not good enough for the NFL. The most successful franchise has been the Blue Jays who have won the World Series twice (1993, 1992).

The euphoria stems in part from the lackluster performance of Toronto's sports teams, which function as Canada's as well (except for some cities that have NHL or CFL teams). Thus when the largest number of Canadian athletes ever sent to a multi-national sporting event, a total of 723 who competed in 36 sports.

These athletes were the best that Canada has produced in many years and thus it did not surprise many Canadians that Canada won a total of 217 medals: 78 gold, 69 silver and 70 bronze. In the first few days of the Games, Canada was in first place in the medal count, but after the first week the US took the lead.

The goal for Canada had been to end up in the top two, and in that they succeeded, but the glory of the medal haul was tarnished somewhat by the realization that the US, which placed first, had sent their B team, Never-theless, Canada's medals were well deserved by a nation that has only as one-tenth of the population of the US.

The medal goal for Olympics will have to be reduced, since Canada has never won one more than 26 medals in anyone Game, and that was in the Winter Games that were played at home in Vancouver in 2010. Canada's medals at the Summer Games reached a high of 44 in Los Angeles in 1984 when Canada sent a record of 407 athletes. The average number of medals for Canada at all the Olympic Games combined is less that 9 while the average number of gold medals has never reached higher than 2.5.

Before Toronto, Canada had never won more than 196 medals at the PanAm Games with an average of less than 113. The increased medals total at the PanAm Games is due to the fact that at of only 41 nations were represented in Toronto instead of the 88 that participated at Sochi.

While I do not want to put a damper on the euphoria, these statistics illustrate that while Canada is a large fish in a small pond at the PanAm Games, it is a minnow in the larger pond of the Olympics, Canadians excel at many sports, especially winter sports, but the competion at the Olympics is brutal and thus Canada is unlikely to win many medals.

One reason for Canada's increased medal count this year, aside from being the host country, was the "Own the Podium" program that was inspired by the failure of Canada to win any gold medals at the first two Olympic Games that were hosted in Canada, in Montreal (1976) and Calgary (1988).

The success of the program was evident in Vancouver in 2010, where Canada won 14 gold medals, which is the most that Canada has ever achieved. In the next Olympics, however, there is little chance that Canada will win that many gold medals even after Toronto.

The euphoria is already subsiding. Toronto is faced with gridlock almost on a daily basis, but the people of Toronto are happy that that problem did not get much worse during the Games when one lane of many major highways were reserved for the athletes, officials, taxis, buses and vehicles carrying three or more people. In fact, there are already proposals to convert these HOV lanes into toll roads in order to generate more funds.

As a Toronto resident, I shared the euphoria, yet I have some questions that I want to share. First, how much will this event eventually cost when all the bills are in?

The total cost of the 2015 Pan American Games in Toronto will be more than C$2.5-billion, roughly a billion more than the event’s organizing committee originally budgeted for. The increase is largely due to a series of projects, including a new waterfront district and a CFLstadium that the Ontario government built as part of the Games. Other sports facilities outside of Toronto were paid for by the province as well.

The province also helped to pay for the athletes'village that will be turned into condominiums, social housing and dormitories for students. It contributed as well to the cost for security, which turned out to be much higher than previously estimated. The total bill has still not yet been presented and may exceed 2,5 billion by far.

There was also money that was wasted. The Toronto Star cited the cost of washing rental vehicles before they were used for the Games. Some salaries and bonuses were deemed excessive as well. But that is small potatoes, as the saying goes.

There is a more fundamental question that I want to raise as well. What do these Games say about our sense of priorities as a society? Governments at all levels claim that they do not have the resources to pay for many much-needed services, yet when these Games came along, the purse strings were opened and money did become available.

A similar phenomenon can be noted in the run-up to elections. Politicians know how to find the necessary funds if it can help them gain power or retain it. Sports are popular and thus a vote-getter.

As I have stated previously in this blog, sports are a religion today. Are our priorities so skewed that we cannot properly provide for the poor and pay for the resettlement of refugees, to give just two examples, yet we can find billions for sports?

Why do governments lay off people in order to balance budgets, but can construct temples, aka stadiums, for the delight of those who can afford the price of the tickets. Like every religion, sports also need money to survive. But in this case, the funds come from the public purse.

Euphoria is fine, but let it be based on something tangible. The medals may be impressive for the athletes. Many worked hard to earn them. But I contend that the money that is used to fund sports could better be used for other purposes such as alleviating poverty. If that would happen, then Torontonians and indeed all Canadians could really celebrate!

P.S. Toronto should not bid for the 2024 Olympics, which are estimated to cost at least C$17 billion. The poor cannot afford it!

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

How could they do that? Some reflections on the final report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission

(This post will be the final one for a while because I need a break in order to do some work around the house. I hope to return as soon as possible so I can provide my insights on what is happening in the world today.)

By now most Canadians have heard about the six-volume report  of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which was set up to investigate human rights abuses in the Indian residential school system.

However, unlike similar commissions in other countries, this one was not motivated by civil war, internal unrest or dictatorship, but by the treatment of First Nations children and their attempted assimilation at these schools.

These residential schools were operated by churches, primarily Roman Catholic Church (60%), Anglican Church of Canada (30%), and Presbyterian Church of Canada (part of United Church of Canada after 1925) (10%). Approximately 30% of native children were placed in these schools.

In addition, many children attended day schools. The Indian Act in 1876 had made the education of First Nations children compulsory, and thus residential schools were the only option for some of them. About 150,000 children attended these schools in total. The last school closed in 1996.

The phrase that was often used over the years to describe the purpose of these schools was to "kill the Indian in the child." This unfortunate phrase has led to many to use the term "cultural genocide" as the TRC report also does. This does not mean genocide in the technical sense, but rather the forcible assimilation of the native population who were widely regarded as primitive pagans.

This policy was implemented by forcibly removing aboriginal children from their families, depriving them of their ancestral languages, and even through sterilization. The physical and sexual abuse that occurred was a natural -- if unwelcome -- development.

Today we may and indeed should disagree with the policy to "kill the Indian in the child" as racist, but it was part and parcel of the "Doctrine of Discovery." This doctrine was based on a papal bull in 1493 that was later used to justify European expansion in the Americas (as well as western expansion by the United States).

I object to the term "cultural genocide" since it implies that that this policy was intended solely to destroy the native population, one easily overlooks the other purpose which was to educate aboriginal children so that they could read and write and were thus able to function in the larger Canadian society.

What concerns me, especially as a Christian believer, now that this commission has concluded, is that the Christian churches have received such a bad rap. The press has for many years, as the result of previous reports, falsely portrayed (or at least implied) the staff of these residential schools as sadistic perverts who physically and sexually abused the children in their care.

The TRC report again minces no words in condemning the atrocities perpetrated at these schools. Indeed, there is no excuse for such behavior, which was practiced by some staff and even a few students.

While some staff may have abused the children, most did not. Many nuns and other staff were sincere people who loved children and teaching,  They were loving Christian men and women who would not deliberately have abused anyone, let alone a child.

That corporal punishment was frequently used to discipline children was typical for their time. Do not forget that the strap was not outlawed in Canada until 2004. The city of Toronto was a pioneer in the abolition of corporal punishment in 1971. In most other Canadian municipalities, the strap continued to be used until the 1990s.

Of course, there is no excuse for sexual abuse. Yet the sexual abuse of women is still practiced in the RCMP and the Canadian military, as recent media reports testify. That such behavior is tolerated at all today is shocking and unacceptable.

The intentions of the staff in residential schools were generally noble, even if the disciplinary methods they used are unacceptable by contemporary standards, and therefore we should be careful about judging them too harshly for that.

Similarly, we must not immediately condemn them for their acceptance of European superiority, as odious as that idea may be to us today. Rather, their ideas and practices must first be understood in terms of their age.

Inter Caetera, the Papal Bull issued by Pope Alexander VI, 1493

The Christian churches involved have previously apologized for their part in what had happened in the residential schools. The Anglican church did so already in 1993 in the person of Archbishop Michael Peers:
I accept and I confess before God and you, our failures in the residential schools. We failed you. We failed ourselves. We failed God.I am sorry, more than I can say, that we were part of a system which took you and your children from home and family.I am sorry, more than I can say, that we tried to remake you in our image, taking from you your language and the signs of your identity. I am sorry, more than I can say, that in our schools so many were abused physically, sexually, culturally and emotionally.On behalf of the Anglican Church of Canada, I present our apology.
The United Church of Canada first issued an apology in 1986 that was addressed to the First Nations, although it did not directly refer to the residential schools. It issued another apology in 1998 in which the Moderator, Rev. Bill Phipps, spoke on behalf of the General Council:
As Moderator of The United Church of Canada, I wish to speak the words that many people have wanted to hear for a very long time. On behalf of The United Church of Canada, I apologize for the pain and suffering that our church's involvement in the Indian Residential School system has caused. We are aware of some of the damage that this cruel and ill-conceived system of assimilation has perpetrated on Canada's First Nations peoples. For this we are truly and most humbly sorry.
The Vatican issued an expression of sorrow in 2009, though not yet the apology that the TRC in its report has asked for from the Pope (PM Stephen Harper was supposed to ask for that this week):
His Holiness [i.e. the Pope] recalled that since the earliest days of her presence in Canada, the Church, particularly through her missionary personnel, has closely accompanied the indigenous peoples. Given the sufferings that some indigenous children experienced in the Canadian Residential School system, the Holy Father expressed his sorrow at the anguish caused by the deplorable conduct of some members of the Church and he offered his sympathy and prayerful solidarity. His Holiness emphasized that acts of abuse cannot be tolerated in society. He prayed that all those affected would experience healing, and he encouraged First Nations Peoples to continue to move forward with renewed hope. 

These apologies were not all fully accepted by the First Nations people. The TRC makes 94 recommendations, including the apology from the Catholic Church. Central in these recommendations is the necessity of educating Canadians about what happened in the residential schools. It should become a part of the curriculum of all schools at all levels.

My hope is that this report not be put on a shelf to gather dust as has happened to previous reports. All Canadians need to learn the truth about these schools. But they also take part in the reconciliation process. Much work is required for reconciliation.

Among other things, Canadians collectively need to accept full responsibility for what happened at the residential schools. But that does not mean that all the staff at these schools need to be blamed for reasons that I have already outlined. They were children of their time. That does not exonerate them, but it does help us to understand why these Christian men and women did what they did. Not all of them had evil intentions; on the contrary, many were good people.

Nevertheless, all non-aboriginal Canadians must confess their involvement, even if very indirectly. Collectively we must share responsibility for what Canada at that time -- and until quite recently -- did to the aboriginal children at the residential schools. Only then will reconciliation be possible.

     Some good friends marching on behalf of reconciliation after the TRC report was published

Thursday, May 28, 2015

Does Islam Need a Reformation?

Does Islam need a Reformation? Yes, writes Ayaan Hirsi Ali, whose newest book, Heretic: Why Islam Needs a Reformation Now, has recently appeared on bookshelves everywhere. In it she calls for a wholesale Islamic reformation. and she proposes five ways that Muslims need to change their faith.

Hirsi Ali suggests that Muslims should disown the parts of the Qur'an that demand them to wage holy war. They should not go around forcing people to follow Islamic law or practices. They must reject Shariah and accept man-made laws rather than those that were created by God. They should rethink the status of Muhammad as infallible. And, finally, they must question whether the Qur'an is truly the word of God. Obviously, these are non-starters for most Muslims.

Hirsi Ali speaks as a former Muslim. She was born in Somalia. In order to avoid a forced marriage, she fled to the Netherlands, where she became a citizen and eventually a member of the Dutch Parliament. Later, when stripped of her Dutch citizenship (although it was later reinstated), she left for the United States where she currently resides. She is visiting scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, which has consistently tried to foster antagonistic relations between the US and the Muslim world.

She has been an outspoken advocate for the rights of women, especially Muslim women. That, together with her abandonment of Islam, has made her a target for violence by Islamic extremists. She lives with round-the-clock security. A journalist in Toronto who wanted to interview her was first interrogated by a security person (paid for by her publisher).

Hirsi Ali’s vicious attacks on Islam and her support for the war on terror, fought mainly in Muslim countries, have left her with few friends among Muslims, including women. Hirsi Ali once famously called Islam a "nihilistic cult of death" and has advocated a war on Islam.

Neoconservatives have rushed to her defense. It is ironic that, although liberals support her for her stance on women's rights, she is very critical of them for their unwillingness to get behind her through their refusal to take a stand against Islam and for secularism.

She argues that most Muslims do not understand their religion in violent terms. She divides Muslims into three broad categories: Mecca Muslims, the peaceful but largely passive and socially conservative majority; Medina Muslims, the militant believers who accept the call to wage religious war (a very small group); and Modifying Muslims, those who challenge Islamic orthodoxy. These are the ones who can and should reform Islam. However, this division is simplistic and does not account for the diversity that is evident everywhere in the Muslim world.

She devotes very little time in her book to explaining how the reformation she is looking for could be realized, or even what a reformed Islam would look like. She is intent instead of blaming the Islamic scriptures for the rise of Islamism. She adds that Muslims should not claim that their religion has been hijacked by extremists.

She also insists that mainstream Muslims have been unwilling to counter the violence of the extremists and that young Muslims in the West have no other choices than to embrace jihadism or leave their faith entirely. Both assertions are blatantly false.

Many commentators have remarked already that this book is dangerous in equating Islam with Islamism. If that is so, then she has no idea what the reformation of Islam means. Her solution involves the demise of Islam since the five changes she pleads for would tear the heart out of the religion practiced by the world's 1.6 billion Muslims.

Instead of using Hirsi Ali's polemical vision, those who also want to reform Islam can point to the changes that are already taking place within Islam. Since the days of the Prophet Muhammad, Islam has adapted itself in many cultures all over the world. There are many different forms of Islam, and thus people should not accuse all Muslims of -- to give just one example -- denying the human rights of women, even if some are doing that.

These rights are one of the negative issues that she focusses on, but there are many things that are are associated with Islam that are positive. The mistreatment of women is surely not unique to Islam. Similarly, religious violence can be found in every religion. Islam, contrary to her assertions that Islam is inherently violent, is a religion of peace, as its name affirms, even if some Muslims propagate violence.

The use of the word "reformation" is misleading since it suggests that Islam must be reformed the same way the Christian faith was with the Protestant Reformation. Martin Luther had no intention of creating a schism in the Christian church. He merely wanted to urge some much-needed reforms -- the famous Ninety-Five Theses. He pleaded for a return to the golden period in the history of the church before all these accretions had accumulated.

Luther had no intention of destroying Christianity. He did not advocate that Christians should renounce their faith in Jesus Christ as the Son of God. He retained the core of the Christian faith, even if later some theologians would question Christ's divinity. But don't accuse Luther of this.

Martin Luther nailing up the Ninety-Five Theses (1517)

Hirsi Ali's reformation does not resemble that reformation at all. On the contrary, her intention is to destroy Islam. Her so-called reforms would obliterate the Islamic faith. She has drunk so deeply from the well of modernity and secularism that nothing would be left of the faith she once shared as a child after her reformation. 

The emancipated woman who has been interviewed about her new book on many TV networks in North America is listened to mainly because of her notoriety. There are many other Muslim women who deserve that forum; they have much better ideas of the kind of reformation Islam needs. 

Hence, one can easily discern why so many Westerners, especially conservatives, have idolized Hirsi Ali. She is waging the same "War on Islam" that they are. In her book, she favorably endorses Samuel Huttington's Clash of Civilizations. That is sad because Huttington's book, unfortunately, has become a metaphor for our all-too-violent world.

What is urgently required today are sane voices that urge dialog not jihad. That is the only way that the West can deal with the Islamic State and Boko Haram. As I have advocated more than once in this blog, "Make love, not war!"

All religions must necessarily continue to reform. That has happened countless times in Christianity, and it is taking place in Islam right now, and indeed in every living religion. My own tradition within the Christian faith expresses it this way: "Ecclesia Refomata reformanda est" (the Reformed church must always be reforming). 

Does Islam need a reformation. Of course it does, but that reformation should be led by faithful Muslims, and not by the likes of Hirsi Ali. Outsiders are not welcome during reformations. Thus I am staying well away from any prescriptions for an Islamic reformation. My own faith needs a reformation as well. That is enough for me.

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

The changing face of Africa

Recently I went to Africa for a few weeks to meet with university officials and church leaders in a West African country. That was the reason why my blog has not appeared for a while. This week I am finally able to return to it and to prepare a new post. I hope to be able to do this regularly again. I hope that you will enjoy these posts. Please indicate this by liking this blog. I need feedback.  I find it helpful and encouraging. 

When one trudges through sandy African streets, it seems as if the continent never changes. Everything seems to remain the same year after year. But that is not true as I discovered on a whirlwind trip to Africa. I have been going to Africa for more than a decade and have taught in several countries. Africa is changing quickly, even if the changes are not always immediately apparent.

In the last decade, Africa has experienced enormous growth. Only two years ago, it was the fastest-growing continent in the world at 5.6% a year, Growth has been present throughout the continent, with over one-third of Sub-Saharan African countries posting 6% or higher growth rates, while another 40% is growing at between 4% to 6% per year.

The growth is unequally distributed in Africa

Unfortunately, this economic growth is unequally distributed not only among the 54 countries that comprise this huge continent but also within each country. There are still too many people who are living in dire poverty. The only reason they can survive is because of communities where they share with each other.

Even so, there is a growing, although still very small, middle-class. Most African cities have areas where these increasingly well-to-do people reside. Their homes are surrounded by walls, and they often have guards. They ride around in relatively new cars, and may even have with drivers.

Then there are the super-rich whose mansions are miniature fortresses. They own a multiplicity of the latest luxury vehicles. They may also have several wives. It is not considered wise or healthy, however, to ask how they acquired their wealth. Millionaires constitute only 1% of Africa''s 1.1 billion people; the super-rich are only a small fraction of that, but they run most of the continent's countries.

Even after the commodities prices plummeted in 2014, Africa fared remarkably well. Nigeria's economy had been expected to grow by 14%, but the IMF reduced its forecast to 10%. That is still amazing growth.

Africa is no longer as dependent as before on commodities. Manufacturing output has increased while services are growing even faster. Tourism is booming in many countries, with the exception of those West-African countries, such as Sierra Leone, Liberia and Guinea, that were directly involved with the Ebola crisis, But some neighboring countries have also seen tourism deccrease because of the Ebola scare, as I witnessed first hand on my recent visit.

Many African countries have witnessed a decline in their currencies in relation to the American dollar, but other countries in the world have experienced this as well. While such a decline makes imports more expensive, exports have become cheaper in dollar terms which benefits manufacturing.

Fiscal policies have also improved in much of Africa. Now, increasingly, African nations are saving money during good times so that they can spend it during more difficult times.  This is a big change from their behavior in their past.

Governments have also made it easier for investors.The mountains of red-tape inmost  Africa countries has been frightening. Corruption is fostered when red-tape flourishes; thus a reduction in red-tape will help to reduce corruption. There are many other factors, of course, that also influence corruption. These social factors will take longer to eradicate or at least to reduce.

Another feature of the changing face of Africa has been the growth of Christianity. This has been phenomenal. For example, Sub-Saharan Africa’s Christian population rose from 9% to 63% in the century between 1910-2010.

Together with the steady decline of Christianity in Europe and North America, the center of gravity of this faith has moved much further to the south. If decades ago the center could be found on the latitude of Madrid, today it is found near that of Timbuktu.

Christianity is now so large and powerful in Africa that it no longer accepts the charge that it is a Western religion that has been transplanted to Africa. African Christian scholars have assembled evidence to show that Christianity even reached Sub-Saharan Africa during the first centuries of the Christian era.

These scholars also dispute the Muslim claim of being original to Africa by pointing out that Islam arrived in Africa later than Christianity, and that Christianity has been more thoroughly indigenized that Islam. The latter still uses the Qur'an in its original Arabic (in fact, this is the only authoritative version), while the Bible has been translated in whole or in part into many of Africa's numerous languages.

Although there is supposedly religious conflict in Nigeria, where Boko Haram has created a lot of unrest through its massive killings, the capture of many women and children, and the displacement of more than a million people from north-eastern Nigeria, this conflict has ethnic roots. It is concentrated among the Kanuri people, even though the language that it uses is Hausa.

Today it has become a pan-Islamist movement that among other things wants to wants to create a caliphate, similar to that of ISIS, with which it is affiliated, in that part of Nigeria that it now controls. It would also like to spread to the neighboring countries of Niger and Cameroun, but they have already sent troops to fight Boko Haram. South African mercenaries have been enlisted as well by the Nigerian government in this fight.

In spite of the role of Islam, Boko Haram has not attracted the jihadists that are flocking to ISIS. Boko Haram thus does not pose the threat that ISIS does, except in a small part of Nigeria. This group is not the portent of a major religious conflict throughout Africa.

On the contrary, many African leaders are doing their best to reduce religious conflict. Even some Muslim-majority countries have made the promotion of peace betrween Christians and Muslims a national policy. This is a development that the people in the West should encourage. Both religions at their roots are interested in peace.

This is one of the reasons why my wife and I went to Africa. For many years, we have tried to start a program in Christian religious studies at a university in a Muslim-majority country. Such a program would contribute to better understanding and to peace relations. There are still some barriers that remain, but we continue to pray that the program will actually start in September.