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World Peace Summit held in Seoul, South Korea

More than 60,000 men and women from around the world gathered in the Seoul Olympic Stadium for the World Religions for Peace Summit. Among those attending were political and religious leaders and heads of NGOs from 150 nations.

More than 60,000 men and women from around the world gathered in the Seoul Olympic Stadium for the World Alliance of Religions for Peace summit. Among those attending were political and religious leaders and heads of NGOs from an estimated 172 nations. Thousands of cards are assembled in the background to image Roman Catholic Cardinal Gaudencio Rosales, of the Philippines, as he addresses the gathering.

Sam flashes peace sign at the opening ceremony of the World Peace Summit in Seoul.

Sam flashes peace sign at the opening ceremony of the World Peace Summit in Seoul.

A plea for world peace and an end to war

The three-day World Alliance of Religions for Peace (WARP) peace summit was held in Seoul, South Korea, 17 – 19 September. I was privileged to join several participants from Saudi Arabia. Our main goal in being present for this huge conclave was to network with other faith leaders from around the world. And that we did!

More than 60,000 people from 172 countries took part in the spectacular opening ceremony at Seoul’s Jamsil Olympic Stadium. (Be certain to watch the short video at the end of this article!) Just about all the world’s religions were represented, including the major Abrahamic faiths–Judaism, Christianity and Islam.

From the time we arrived in South Korea until the day we left, event staff were among the most hospitable I had ever met. Every detail regarding meetings, lodging, meals and transportation were meticulously well organized. These workers did their very best  at all times to make us feel comfortable and kept informed.

During the opening ceremony, event chairman Man Hee Lee urged global leaders to double down on their efforts to become “peace promoters and peace advocates.”

A congratulatory video message from Archbishop Desmond Tutu, the spiritual leader of South Africa and recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize in 1984, attracted much attention. In his message, he said, “I would like to congratulate both Chairman Man Hee Lee and the members of HWPL for hosting the World Alliance of Religions’ Peace Summit. Thank you for delivering the message of peace and the cessation of wars to the whole world.”

Alexander Rutskoy, former vice president of Russia, said, “As a part of the world, a citizen of Russia and as a friend of the Korean people, I want to support this work, offering my experience and knowledge, declaring our common ways to build peace and uniting nations and traditions.”

Present was a diverse line-up of attendees that included former and current heads of state, prominent religious leaders, academics, government legislators, Nobel Prize laureates, as well as community, youth, and women’s leaders from every continent.

Sam with Omani religious leaders.

Sam with Muslim leaders from Oman.

Middle East well represented

There were numerous delegations from the Middle East. Egyptian Grand Mufti Shawqi Abdel Karim Allam was among the list of high profile speakers set to deliver an opening address, but he was unable to attend at the last minute and was replaced by Doha (Qatar) International Centre for Interfaith Dialogue chairman Dr. Ibrahim Saleh Al Naimi.

The Qatari official stressed the importance of dialogue in his speech, describing it as the only way to address conflict among communities.

Bahrain sent a 20-strong delegation from the Bahrain Association for Religious Co-existence and Tolerance (BARCT).

BARCT chairman Yousif Buzaboon told the GDN that his group is now considering the idea of hosting a similar event in Bahrain. “We would certainly like to see such an important summit that promotes peace being held in Bahrain,” he said. “Bahrain is sending a strong message by having such a large delegation at this summit. We are showcasing the achievements of our country and welcome activities that promote peace and empower youth.”

Yemini Nobel Peace Prize winner Tawakkol Karman championed the cause of peace and women's rights.

Yemini Nobel Peace Prize winner Tawakkol Karman championed the cause of peace and women’s rights.

Seminars and focus groups

Throughout the three-day event there were various leadership seminars and focus groups discussing regional issues and various methods of conflict resolution.

In recent years, peacebuilding initiatives have been on the forefront of leading a country’s economic, social and political strength, laying the foundation for development and conflict management. Sustainable peace can, however, present its own challenges as it calls for a nation to gather its utmost efforts across a wide range of activities.

Among important efforts are establishing security on a nation’s borders, providing assistance to refugees, organizing elections of new governments and financing programs towards the protection of human rights. Preventive measures and integrated strategies are greatly needed to assist in the development of best practices , especially in postwar recovery and reconciliation.

Tawakkol Karman from Sana, Yemen, a journalist and the first Arab woman and youngest ever Nobel Peace Prize winner, declared that the Arab Spring has seen a wave of liberation for women throughout the Arab world.  “Women are no longer victims,” she said. “They have become leaders. They are at the forefront of the demonstrations. We will share a role in all aspects of life, side by side with men.”

More than 100 thousands participated in the peace parade ending at the Peace Monument at the Seoul Olympic park.

The closing of the Peace Summit saw more than 100 thousand people rally in the peace parade which culminated at the Peace Monument in the Seoul Olympic Park.

The closing ceremony included an hours-long Olympic-style show replete with fireworks, marching bands and celebrants. Korean theatrics created an emotional display of pomp and pageantry. At the end, many of us joined the Koreans on the field for photos and well wishes.

World peace parade

On the last day of the WARP Summit, a total of 200,000 people including summit participants, members of international NGOs and local citizens, participated in the “Walk for World Peace” near Seoul Olympic Park. This event, hosted by the International Peace Youth Group (IPYG), commemorated the final day of a successful “World Alliance of Religions Peace Summit.”

There were speeches by various youth leaders from many countries and all of them spoke of sufferings in their respective countries and the need for world peace to end the wars in their regions.

Chairman Lee said that world peace is attainable if all the leaders of various religions aggressively continue their efforts to attain world peace. He emphasized the role of religious leaders to encourage their communities to work closely together and also asked the media to promote peace messages around the globe.

Man Hee Lee welcomes participants to the Peace Summit.

Man Hee Lee welcomes participants to the Peace Summit.

Reservations and concerns

While I applaud the efforts of the World Alliance of Religions for Peace to have conducted this international Peace Summit, these efforts have seemingly been based on the leadership of one single man–Chairman Man Hee Lee.

In her statement lauding Man Hee Lee at the opening of the summit, Nam Hee Kim, chairwoman of the collaborative International Women’s Peace Group referred to Lee as “the Peace Advocate, heaven-sent for all humanity.”

In an “Action Plan” released to summit delegates it was said, “Leaders of religions around the world must join hands with the chairman of HWPL for the alliance of religions and frequently meet to achieve the unity of religions.”

Midway through the summit, Lee distributed a statement defending himself from accusations made by the conservative Christian Council of Korea (CCK). The CCK says Lee’s Shincheonji Church of Jesus and his organization Heavenly Culture World Peace Restoration of Light are “cultic.”

Lee himself denied that he had once claimed to have fulfilled the Second Coming of Jesus; however, several comments made by Lee at the summit were disturbing to me, especially his insistance that all delegates sign a statement that called for merging all religions into one single world religion. It read, in part, “Therefore, all religions must unite under God as one…. We pledge in the sight of God, all people of the world, and the Peace Advocate to become one under God through the unity of religion.… We hereby pledge with all reasonable endeavor, to take on this duty to establish peace and end all wars on this earth, and, as a united religion, to leave a world at peace….”

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Faith leaders from all major faiths and 170 nations met for discussions on war and peacemaking.

Faith dialogue very important

World peace is certainly a noble goal. And, without a doubt, dialogue among the world’s major religions and faiths is needed. Many of the conflicts and wars taking place today are caused by religious extremists who have hi-jacked faith for their own political purposes. Such is the case of ISIS (IS or ISIL) and other militant groups now committing horrible atrocities in the name of Islam.

During the past millennium we have seen such circumstances time and time again as even Christians annihilated Muslims, leading their warring military charges under the cross of Jesus in their Crusades to capture the Holy Land. War was conducted on numerous occasions by Catholics who sought to blot out the “heresy of Protestantism” or as World War II Nazis sought to destroy Judaism.

Such evil is also seen today as Israeli Zionists continue a 60-year war of ethnic cleansing, seeking to remove millions of Palestinian Christians and Muslims from the Holy Land or as normally peaceful Buddhists continue a slaughter of the Muslim minority in Myanmar.

The need for dialogue among peoples of faith is of utmost importance, but the it appeared that the predominant view of those attending the Seoul peace summit is that this should not entail eliminating any one faith group or merging all faiths into one.

There is a beauty in the diversity of faith and tradition. And as we met and discussed our beliefs with many faith leaders from around the world, one thing is certain: no faith on earth, based on its holy books, can justly call for the annihilation of innocent men, women and children who believe differently than they. Therefore, we must all do our part to stop the vicious conflicts and carnage being unjustly perpetrated today in the name of any religion or faith group.

Take a few minutes to watch the spectacular opening ceremony of the WARP Peace Summit in Seoul:

 

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October 9, 2014 Posted by | Human Rights, Interfaith, Religious Reconciliation | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 8 Comments

Praying to the God of Abraham

Left:  Muslim pray at the Kaaba in Mecca. Right: Jews praying at the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem.

Left: Muslims pray at the Kaaba in Mecca. Right: Jews praying at the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem. Both pleading to the God of Abraham.

Praying to Abraham’s God 

Sam, Shafik and Muhammad in front of the holy Kaaba in Mecca.

Sam, Shafik and Muhammad in front of the holy Kaaba in Mecca. (Click on photo to enlarge.)

Last night I was invited by three Muslim friends to join them in the holy city of Mecca.

I took this photo (above left) of my Muslim brothers praying at the Kaaba (a worship place built by Prophet Abraham). It reminded me of another photo (above right) I had seen of Jews praying at the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem (the foundation stones of the worship place built by Prophet Solomon).

These stone buildings are not objects of worship. They are merely places to focus one’s attention on the one and only God of the universe.

We must remind ourselves that both Jews and Arabs are genetically descendant from Prophet Abraham. They are “cousins.” They both pray to Abraham’s God.

Jesus’ teaching on prayer

As I joined hundreds of men and women in making the ritual tawaf (the prayerful circumambulation of the holy Kaaba), Scriptures came to mind reminding me that disagreements, no matter how difficult, must never lead to hatred. Hatred has no place in true faith.

While I praised God for his loving kindness, I tearfully prayed as the great Messiah Jesus taught us to pray, “God, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven… and forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.”

The context of Jesus’ prayer in the Gospel of Matthew, known to Christians as “the Lord’s Prayer,” outlines a heartfelt appeal to all of us (men and women) who make a public show of prayer. We are in essence told to humble ourselves in our relationships with others;  seeking not to offend but rather to make amends.

Praise to the God of Abraham

In many Christian congregations (especially the Methodist), congregants stand and sing the hymn “The God of Abraham Praise.” This old hymn has an interesting background

One night in 1865, the English hymnist Thomas Olivers was attract­ed to a service in a London Jew­ish syn­a­gogue where he heard an inspiring soloist, Le­o­ni, sing an an­cient He­brew mel­o­dy. His baritone voice was filled with deeply profound emotion. Olivers was im­pressed and immediately was moved to write a hymn to the same tune. The re­sult was the hymn, “The God of Abra­ham Praise.” This hymn is actually a par­a­phrase of an an­cient He­brew yig­dal, or dox­ol­o­gy:

The God of Abraham praise,
who reigns enthroned above;
Ancient of everlasting days,
and God of love;
Jehovah, great I AM,
by earth and heaven confessed:
I bow and bless the sacred Name
for ever blessed.

Films you should see

There are a number of award-winning films that have been released during the past few years that help one to understand what’s behind the conflict between Israel and Palestine–the heart of the Middle East crisis.

Below you will see the closing scene from a great film Language of the Enemy (2008) about the Israeli occupation of Palestine and its resulting calamity. In the film an American Jewish university student falls in love with a Muslim Palestinian doctor. The young man is tragically killed by Israeli soldiers. This scene depicts the heart-rending despair separating Jews and Arab Muslims. It ends with an agonizing cry “Abraham!”  If you haven’t seen this movie, get a copy and watch it.

I also highly recommend the award-winning films The GatekeepersFive Broken Cameras and the recently released Omar.

Unless we feel their pain we will never understand their suffering. Please join us in praying and working for peace and reconciliation in the Middle East. Our collective hope and faith is in Abraham’s God

September 13, 2013 Posted by | Human Rights, Religious Reconciliation | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Merry Christmas! ~ Sam and Family

Sam, Jana and JanulikChristmas in Slovakia 2010

Sam, Jana and Janulik
Christmas in Slovakia 2010

Merry Christmas!

_______________________

Dear Friends,

Jana, Janulik and I are wishing you all a very merry Christmas!

May your friends and families realize the joy, love and peace of God during this season, and may we all dedicate our lives anew to enlisting in God’s army of peacemakers around the world.

Our gift to you: Take a few minutes to enjoy this contemporary arrangement of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s poem “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day.”

My work here in the Middle East, in the field of religious reconciliation and Middle East peace continues. This morning I was thinking about all the new friendships I’ve made while being here. I thank God for all these new friends from so many different nations–Kenya, Somalia, Ethiopia, Sudan, Yemen, Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey, Palestine, Israel, Syria, Iraq, Myanmar, Bangladesh, India, Indonesian, the Philippines, China, Pakistan, Bahrain, Iran, UAE, Oman, Qatar, Kuwait and, of course, Saudi Arabia. I’ve learned a lot about all the different cultures and faiths here and in other parts of the world, and they are learning about America through me.

All of our peoples face difficult challenges today. There is so much political and economic unrest, but we do not live as those who have no hope!

During the next few days, I hope to join Jana and Janulik in the Carpathian Alps of northern Slovakia for a very white Christmas and New Year’s holidays. Pray that this will be possible.

Despite international wars  and conflicts, and despite the tragic gun violence in our own beloved America, we must not lose heart. As we celebrate Jesus’ birth, let us rededicate our lives to the peace work God has commisioned us to do.

To our Jewish, Muslim and Christian friends in America and around the world, we love you, and we thank you for your prayers, correspondence and encouragement during the past year!

May God’s perfect peace be ever present with you and yours!

Sam Shropshire

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December 24, 2012 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Sam and friends on the 2012 Hajj!

Abdulrahman, Abdul Rudy and Sam, dressed in Ihram, begin the rigors of the annual Hajj in Mecca, Arafat, Mina and Muzdalifa.

The incredibly difficult but rewarding Hajj

Less than two weeks ago, I was invited by two Muslim brothers, a Saudi doctor Abdulrahman, 25, and his Egyptian friend Abdul Rudy, 70, to accompany them on the intensely spiritual and difficult Hajj to Mecca, the Mina Valley and Mount Arafat in wastern Saudi Arabia. The only pre-requisite, they said, is that I must be able to walk. My response immediately was, “Of course I can walk!” (But I never had in mind walking over 25 miles in four days!)

The three of us left Jeddah Wednesday morning, October 24, dressed in traditional two-piece terricloth wraps called Ihram, heading for the holy City of Mecca. By faith, a Muslim who completes the Hajj is believed to be cleansed from all sins committed during his/her life—to be reborn as a newborn baby.

Understanding Mecca’s history

Muslims believe the prophet Abraham (Ibrahim), over 4,000 years ago, was instructed by God to bring his wife Hagar (Hajira) and their child Ishmael from Palestine to the dry and uninhabited Mecca Valley. It is said this was done to protect them from the jealousy of Abraham’s first wife Sarah. (For an outstanding narrative of Hajj history, please take time to watch the Discovery Channel documentary film at the end of this post.)

Abraham left them with only a limited supply of food and water, trusting God to care for them. However, after a few days Hagar and the child found themselves suffering from hunger and dehydration.

In desperation, Hagar ran up and down two hills called Safa and Marwa trying to see if she could spot any help in the distance. Finally, returning to the child, she collapsed beside Ishmael and cried out to God for deliverance.

Ishmael kicked his foot on the ground, and miraculously a spring of water began to gush up from the earth. Hagar and Ishmael were saved. Now that they had a secure water supply, they were able to trade water with passing nomads from the Well of Zam Zam in exchange for food and supplies.

Sam gets a look at the miles and miles of Hajj campsites in the Mina Valley. It’s all managed through a high-tech central command center operated by the Hajj Commission of Saudi Arabia.

We’re told, that after some time Abraham returned from Palestine to check on his family and was astonished to see them managing a profitable well.

The Prophet Abraham was told by God to build a shrine next to the well. Abraham and Ishmael constructed a small stone structure–the Kaaba (or Cube). It was to become the gathering place for all who wished to strengthen their faith in the one true God.

As the years passed, it’s said that Ishmael was blessed with prophethood, and he preached to the desert nomads a message calling upon them to surrender or submit to God.

After many centuries, Mecca, thanks to its continuing, reliable water supply, became a thriving city. But gradually, the people left their faith in the God and turned to polytheism and idolatry, worshipping many different gods of stone and wood. The shrine that had been built by Abraham and Ishmael became a house of pagan idols.

After many years, the Archangel Gabriel revealed the Qur’an to the Prophet Muhammed and told him that he should restore the Kaaba to the worship of the one true God of Abraham.

In the year 628 Prophet Muhammed set out on a journey with 1400 of his followers. This journey was the first Hajj pilgrimage in Islam, and would re-establish the faith of their patriarch Abraham. Today the Hajj commemorates both Abraham’s and Muhammed’s struggle against polytheism and paganism.

The rigorous routine of Hajj sacraments

More than 3 million Muslims gathered from around the world in the desert cities surrounding Mecca for the 2012 spiritual, but incredibly difficult, Hajj.

Many pilgrims fly to Jeddah, and then travel to Mecca by bus. Some of the wealthy are on packaged tours costing over $4,000. The poorer Muslims have saved all their lives just to pay for airfare. They manage to sleep either in modest tent camps or lay on cardboard or rugs along the streets of Mina.

En route to Hajj one repeatedly recites the prayer: “Here I am at Your service, O God, here I am at your service! You have no equal. Here I am at your service. All praise and blessings belong to You. All dominion is Yours, and You have no equal.”

Then pilgrims proceed to the famous Al Haram Mosque in Mecca, walking counter-clockwise around the Kaaba, where certain ritual prayers are said during and afterwards, offering praise to God.

Next the pilgrim goes to the walkway between the hills of Safa and Marwa, following the same trail as Hagar when she searched for help. The pilgrim walks back and forth, just as Hagar, seven times. These hills are now enshrined within the Mosque.

The pilgrim has now completed the Umrah and declares through prayer his/her intention to do the Hajj, before travelling (by bus or foot) some 20 kilometers to the Mena Valley, where one remains in prayer until the next morning.

To carry out the pilgrimage rituals, one needs to be in a special state of ritual purity called Ihram. One does this by bathing, making a statement of intention o God, by wearing the Ihram and by following certain strict guidelines. The terricloth Ihram has two purposes. (1) It is symbolic of spiritual purity. (2) It demonstrates that all Muslims are equal–there is no class consciousness.

A Muslim person during Hajj may not:

•Engage in marital relations
•Shave or cut their nails
•Use cologne or scented oils or soaps
•Kill or hunt anything for food
•Fight or argue (Very difficult when you’re fasting, in pain and being pushed and bumped by over 3 million people!)
•Women must not cover their faces, even if they would do so in their home country
•Men may not wear clothing with stitches

Abdulrahman on board the Hajj train bound for Arafat at the far end of the Mina Valley.

The next morning, pilgrims either walk several miles or get onboard a modern Hajj train bound for the Mount Arafat, where one stands in the open praising God. (We were only able to use the train on one occasion because of the huge masses of people trying to board the train.)

At the end of the day in Arafat, one travels back to their camp or hotel for rest and food before travelling about 5 kilometers by foot later in the night to Muzdalifa. One is to have gathered 49 stones to throw symbolically over three days at three pillars of Jamarat. These three pillars represent Satan’s temptation of Abraham. The casting of the stones is symbolic of one’s rejection of Satan. (In times past pilgrims would walk up to the natural earthen pillars to cast their stones, but today one walks through a massive four-tiered concrete structure. This prevents crowd congestion as millions make their way through the Jamarat.)

Then there is the long trip as millions of men, women and children make their way back some 8 miles to Mecca (many on foot). Upon arriving once again at the Al Haram Mosque one again performs the Tawaf, the seven rounds of the Kaaba.

After this, men’s heads are shaved as a symbol of humility and obedience to God. Women remove a lock of their hair.

Pilgrims then return once again to his/her hotel or campsite for three to four days and the two additional visits to Jamarat in Muzdalifa, casting 21 stones each time.

Finally, one does a farewell Tawaf in Masjid-al Haram in Mecca, asks God’s forgiveness, and the Hajj is finished.

Many foreign guests proceed by bus to the Prophet’s Mosque, six hours north in the holy city of Medina, but this is optional. A modern, high-speed train system between Mecca and Medina is now under construction.

Post Hajj happenings

Abdulrahman had his head shaved as did the Prophet Mohammad at the end of the very first Hajj.

A man who has completed the Hajj is called a Hajji, a woman who has completed it is called a Hajjah. As followers of Prophet Muhammad’s tradition, all Muslims who perform Hajj, reinforce their belief in his  teachings and follow his traditions which in the Muslim world are known as Sunnah.

At the end of the Hajj, Muslims from all over the world celebrate the holiday known as the Eid ul Adha (Festival of the Sacrifice). Many offer the sacrifice called a Qurbani. A lamb or sheep is slaughtered, and the baked meat is distributed to the poor. This is usually done by a local butcher under strict halal regulations, very similar to the kosher rituals of Judaism.

This festival commemorates the obedience of Abraham when he was ordered to sacrifice his precious son Ishmael. While this might sound unloving—I mean what kind of God would demand such a sacrifice?! It was really a test of Abraham’s faith.

Abraham knew that God had promised to multiply his descendents through Ishmael. In order for God’s promise to come true, Ishmael would not die. Abraham proved his faith, love and allegiance to the one true God of the universe. In the end Abraham did not have to kill his son as God provided him a ram to sacrifice instead. (Judaism and Christianity teach that Abraham was commanded to sacrifice his son Isaac.)

Today’s annual Hajj pilgrimage

The Saudi Arabian Ministry of Hajj, has been forced to institute a system of registrations and travel visas to control the annual flow of the millions of pilgrims. This system is designed to encourage and accommodate first-time visitors to Mecca, while imposing restrictions upon those who embark upon the trip multiple times. More than 3 million men, women and children from around the world made the pilgrimage to Mecca and Arafat this year.

Abdul Rudy and Abdulrahman (background) casts their stones at one of the three symbolic pillars at the Jamarat where it is believed the prophet Abraham was tempted by Satan. In this way Abdulrahman and Abdul Rudy testify that they choose to submit to God, denying the temptations of Satan and this world.

The Hajj is the fifth of the “Five Pillars of Islam”. All Muslims who are financially and physically able to perform Hajj are obligated to make the pilgrimage to Mecca at least once during their lifetime. Millions of poor Muslims from around the world scrape together all their lives the thousands of dollars needed to do the Hajj.

During the month of the annual Muslim Hajj, the city of Mecca receives as many as five million pilgrims. Various organizations dedicated to organizing and managing the Hajj, such as the Hajj Commission of Saudi Arabia, have been forced to reluctantly institute a system of registrations, passports, and travel visas to control the flow of the great numbers of pilgrims. This system is designed to encourage and accommodate first-time visitors to Mecca, while imposing restrictions upon those who embark upon the trip multiple times. The registration system has prompted outcries of protest among some pilgrims who have the wherewithal to make the Hajj on multiple occasions, but the Hajj Commission has stated that they have no alternative to prevent tragic accidents.

Pilgrims who complete the Hajj consider it one of the greatest spiritual experiences of their lives. The Hajj is seen in many cultures as one of the great achievements of civilization, because it brings together as much as one-fifth of the people of the entire world and focuses them upon a single goal: the difficult task of completing the Hajj. This is an achievement unparalleled in human history, and philosophers have said that only war can compare to the Hajj in terms of organization and scale.

Abdul Rudy and Sam with healthcare workers at the Saudi National Guard pilgrims’ clinic.

Abdulrahman, Abdul Rudy and I were fortunate to be invited to camp with a Saudi National Guard/Red Crescent Hajj healthcare facility in the Mina. Abdulrahman’s father, a cardiologist, was chief physician at the clinic.

Our camp was in the middle of all the Hajj happenings. Everyone welcomed me and treated me with great respect and honor.

In all, the three of us walked nonstop more than 25 miles—once all the way from Arafat to Muzdalifa and then on to the Kaaba in Mecca, about 13 miles! My feet were bleeding and blistered, and every joint in my legs and feet were swollen and in pain.

It has taken me several days to recuperate from the strenuous ordeal. I don’t know how much weight I lost in four days, but it was significant.

I feel closer to God because of what I have learned. My faith, a gift from God, is more precious to me than ever before.

One criticism of Hajj–plastic debris

I have read in the November 5 issue of The Saudi Gazette one criticism of Hajj, one that I wholeheartedly share. I quote from Shadiah Abdullah’s article entitled “Reflections on a journey of a lifetime”:

“It is understandable that there will be a lot of trash created as a result of the congregation of around three million people. What is not acceptable is how Muslims, whose part of faith is cleanliness, litter and sully their holy sites. The usage of tons and tons of plastic and other disposable utensils is the main culprit behind the accumulation of so much trash in the sacred sites.

“It is sad how we ignore the fact that Hajj is supposed to be an opportunity for us to live simpler lives where we respect the environment around us.

“A greener Hajj, where less plastic is used, is something that the Saudi authorities need to work on instead of introducing more cleaners and bigger waste dumps every year.”

Architect and historic preservationist Dr. Sami Engawi with his son Ahmad.

Preserving Islam’s historic buildings

Dr. Sami Engawi, a world-renowned architect and historic preservationist, is concerned about the over-development of Mecca as many Muslims seek to cash in on profits during the annual Hajj season.

Engawi who heads the Amar International Center For Architectural Heritage, wants to preserve Islamic culture by means of saving historic buildings in Mecca and Medina, the two holiest cities to Islam.

Engawi says historic Islamic buildings and culture are being destroyed and must be preserved. “Already many historic buildings and ruins dating back more than a thousand years have been torn down to make way for skyscrapers and hotels surrounding the Grand Mosque,” he says.  “There are plans to build many more tall luxury buildings and shopping malls adjacent to the mosque.”

In an interview with the BBC, Engawi speaks about the importance of preserving Mecca’s historic buildings and heritage.

Forever grateful to Abdulrahman and Abdul Rudy

I do appreciate so very much these two brothers who bore the burden of encouraging me, helping me along, to complete the Hajj! Abdul Rudy, the Egyptian brother from Azwan, age 70, was running circles around me. (Abdulrahman and I learned the age-old lesson: Never ask an African how far it is to walk somewhere. He’ll always say, “Don’t worry. It’s just a short ways down the road.”)

I was exhausted towards the end, once collapsing on the sidewalk, unable to muster the strength to walk another step. These two men will always be known to me as my “Hajj brothers.” They didn’t give up on this woefully out-of-shape, 64-year-old American man.

Towards the end of the Hajj a delegation of Indonesian pilgrims gathers around Sam in Muzdalifa for a celebratory group photo.

I had only three days to study about Hajj before our departure. Abdulrahman had given me a book to read. I did my best to understand where I was going and what I would be doing. But, in the end, there was so much that happened in these few days that I still did not fully understand all that was going on around me. I learned as I followed Abdulrahman and Abdul Rudy through the rituals.

I’m still reading even as I write this blog post—trying to figure out what was said in the Arabic prayers that were uttered constantly before, during the five-day event and at the end.

I’ve been living in the Mecca Region of Saudia Arabia now almost 11 months. Since being here the only American I’ve met is the newly appointed US  Consulate General Anne Casper. I have submerged myself in the Saudi culture, making friends with all social classes and many nationalities and have visited several different mosques. I’ve tried my hardest to understand everything I’ve seen. Much of it has been strange and alien to my Christian upbringing, but I’ve also experience grace and mercy as God is always exhalted in prayers and in the reading of the Quran as the “God of mercy, the purveyor of mercy.”

Let me end by stressing again that Hajj was an extremely difficult experience, not just for me, but for the millions of Muslims I met along the way. People did the Hajj with all their hearts, many suffering from physical difficulties of all kinds–most of all ailing joints! The Saudi government did a remarkable job of controlling and assisting the crowds. The Saudi National Guard healthcare workers were remarkable in caring for pilgrims with health problems of all kinds. And Saudi citizens did an incredible job of passing out free food and water and safeguarding foreigners.

One very important thing I learned from the many foreigners I met along the route was that regardless of international politics, they haven’t lost their love and respect for Americans. Just about all of them have some relative living somewhere in the US.

When it was pointed out that I was an American, people gathered around me for photos. They were grateful that an American would seek to understand Islam and make the Hajj along with them.

My prayer, my hope

So I ask my Jewish, Christian and Muslim brothers and sisters in America: Do you realize just how respected and loved by Muslims around the world you are?

In each of our Abrahamic faiths, Judaism, Christianity and Islam, we have our small minority of “crazies”; extremists who make the evening news because of their hate, bombing and killing. They cause a lot of misunderstanding. But they are few in numbers compared to the overwhelming many who love the God of Abraham and seek peace, freedom and justice in the world. As all the holy books teach, true justice is about compassion and harmony. It is not about revenge, which is selfish demanding that one get even for past wrongs.

May we all walk together in unity, seeking to make life better for all the world’s peoples. May the next generation of Jews, Christians and Muslims become a voice and force for compassion and understanding as we submit to the God we all claim to love and serve. May we rebuild our cities and nations with justice, religious tolerance and economic opportunity for all men, women and children. This is not a “suggestion” from God. It is our duty and obligation as we submit to God’s will and direction in our lives.

Let’s keep standing, keep hoping, and keep working in God’s cause!

Enjoy the sights and sounds of Hajj as documented by National Geographic:

 

My thanks to Abdulrahman and Abdul Rudy for making it possible for me to go on the Hajj, and thanks to my incredible wife Jana for making corrections to this post! ~ Sam

November 4, 2012 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

The truth about Muslim anti-West protests

This week’s Newsweek magazine cover featured raging Muslims, but how many were really angry?

What’s really behind the outrage?

Newsweek‘s recent cover-story featured the bold words “Muslim Rage” and depicted most of the world’s Muslims as angry with the US and the West. Here’s a different perspective of what is happening around the world — much of the information was given to me by the French arm of the activist think tank AVAAZ.

According to AVAAZ, there are a number of very important items we have missed in the midst of all the sensational, tabloid-like reporting.

Seven things you may have missed in the so-called “Muslim rage”

Like everyone else, many Muslims find the cheap, unprofessional Islamophobic video “Innocence of Muslims” trashy and offensive. Protests have spread quickly, tapping into understandable and lasting grievances about neo-colonialist US and western foreign policy in the Middle East, as well as religious sensitivities about depictions of the Prophet Muhammad. But the news coverage often obscures some important points:

1.  Early estimates put participation in anti-film protests at between 0.001 and 0.007% of the world’s 1.5 billion Muslims – a tiny fraction of those who marched for democracy in the Arab spring.

2.  The vast majority of protesters have been peaceful. The breaches of foreign embassies were almost all organised or fuelled by elements of the Salafist movement, a radical Islamist group that is most concerned with undermining more popular moderate Islamist groups.

3.  Top Libyan and US officials are divided over whether the killing of the US ambassador to Libya was likely pre-planned to coincide with 9/11, and therefore not connected to the film. An investigation by both the US and Libyan governments is underway.

Think-tank AVAAZ estimates that less than 0.007 of Muslims protested against the hateful anti-Muslim film during the past several weeks, but both Christians and Muslims are known for their few “crazies” who prefer violence over dialogue and peaceful protest.

4.  Apart from attacks by radical militant groups in Libya and Afghanistan, a survery of news reports on September 20 suggested that protesters had killed a number of people. The deaths cited by media were largely protesters killed by police.

5.  Pretty much every major leader, Muslim and western, has condemned the film, and pretty much every leader, Muslim and western, has condemned any violence that might be committed in response.

6.  The pope visited Lebanon at the height of the tension, and Hezbollah leaders attended his sermon, refrained from protesting the film until he left, and called for religious tolerance. Yes, this happened.

7.  After the attack in Benghazi, ordinary people turned out on the streets in Benghazi and Tripoli with signs, many of them in English, apologizing and saying the violence did not represent them or their religion.

Add to that the number of really big sensational news stories that were buried last week to make room for the front page, “angry Muslim clash” coverage. Maybe you didn’t even hear that in Russia tens of thousands of protesters marched through Moscow to oppose Russian President Vladimir Putin. Hundreds of thousands of Portuguese and Spaniards turned out for anti-austerity protests; and more than a million of Spain’s Catalans marched for independence.

Muslim rage or radical Salafist strategy?

Meet Sheikh Khaled Abdullah, the radical Salafist TV host who incited violence against US embassies because of the American anti-Muslim hate film.

The Amercan anti-Muslim film “Innocence of Muslims” was picked up and heralded with subtitles by far-right Salafists – radical Islamists. The film was a cheaply made, YouTube failure until a radical Egyptian Salafist TV host, Sheikh Khaled Abdullah began promoting it to viewers on September 8.

Most insulted Muslims ignored the film or protested peacefully, but the Salafists, with their signature black flags, were leading instigators of the more aggressive protests that breached embassies. Leaders of the Egyptian Salafist party attended the Cairo protest that broke into the US embassy.

Like the far-right in the US or Europe, the Salafist strategy is to drag public opinion rightwards by seizing on opportunities to fan radical anger and demonise ideological opponents. This approach resembles that of anti-Muslim US Charismatic Christian pastor Terry Jones (who first promoted the film in the west) and other western extremists. In both societies, however, the moderates far (far!) outnumber the extremists.

A leading figure in Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood (the more powerful and popular political opponent of Egypt’s Salafists) wrote to the New York Times saying: “We do not hold the American government or its citizens responsible for acts of the few that abuse the laws protecting freedom of expression.”

Objective, good reporting out there

Most print media and radio/TV journalism is about readership/viewership/listenership polls (ratings). The ones with the best ratings can charge higher prices for advertising. And, far too often, its about sensation and greed at the expense of truth. Whenever a lie is told or an exaggeration is promoted as “truth” the result is misunderstanding, alienation and, far too often, these lead to conflicts and even war.

A lonely band of journalists and scholars, however, have approached the protests with an intent to truly understand the forces behind them. Among them, Hisham Matar, who powerfully describes the sadness in Benghazi after US Ambassador Christopher Stevens was killed, and Barnaby Phillips, who explores how Islamic conservatives manipulated the film to their advantage. Anthropologist Sarah Kendzior cautions against treating the Muslim world as a homogenous unit. And Professor Stanley Fish tackles a tough question: why many Muslims are so sensitive to unflattering depictions of Islam.

And then there was our own blog that reported that all was well in both Mecca and Medina–the two most holy cities of Islam. The insulting Islamophobic film was barely mentioned in the news media in Saudi Arabia, and Saudi Muslims basically ignored the inflamatory film. Makkah Gov. Prince Khaled Al-Faisal urged Saudi youth to “confront the anti-Islam smear campaign by leading an exemplary life, following the teachings of the Qur’an and Sunnah.” The Saudi government early on condemned the violence and attacks on US embassies.

Finally, in Dearbon, Michigan, Muslim leaders joined by Christian pastors and leaders of other faiths, held a press conference. While condemning the anti-Muslim film, they clearly stated that freedom of assembly does not mean the freedom to be violent, to attack embassies or to kill innocent people. Here’s a recording from that press conference:

September 22, 2012 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Jeddah, Saudi Arabia organizes to stop plastic debris

Sam joined a Jeddah city councilman and professors from King Abdulaziz University in organizing an environmental committee for meeting the challenges of plastic debris overwhelming the Arabian peninsula.

Environmental awareness committee formed

Hundreds of camels die on the Arabian peninsula every year from ingesting plastic bags.

I am a proud founding member of a Jeddah municipal committee to study many of the environmental problems adversely affecting the Arabian peninsula. We will suggest solutions, improving life here for people and animals alike.

Saudi Arabia is a good country. Our committee has strong support from the Jeddah City Council and is made up of area professors and engineers with a common mission of correcting many of the harms now contributing to Saudi environmental degradation.

Having provided leadership in the United States for clean air, banning phosphate fertilizers, banning plastic retail carry-out bags, banning the hormone-disrupting chemical BpA (bisphenol-A) from baby bottles, etc., I am able to advise my Saudi colleagues on environmental matters.

Our committee will begin by researching several known challenges in our Jeddah community–one being plastic debris. Plastic bags and bottles cover the banks of the Red Sea, are scattered about through the deserts, line city streets, and fill public landfills.

Hundreds of camels and thousands of sheep and goats die annually from ingesting plastic bags. They are also killing marine life in the Red Sea and the Arabian Gulf.

Our faiths have a lot to say about the environment

If the Abrahamic faiths of Muslims, Jews and Christians believe God created the world, then it follows logically that we must honor God by caring for his creation. As believers in the God of Abraham we must respond to the damaging influences of over-consumption and pollution that are ruining planet Earth.

Believers are well equipped to respond to the many environmental crises—including the larger problem of climate change/global warming.

According to one Muslim source, many scientists and philosophers “agree man is considered as the major factor in disturbing the natural balance of the universe. Man interferes intentionally or unintentionally in the earth’s ecosystems by impairing its perfect order and precise sequence.”

The holy books speak about caring for creation

Plastic bags can be deadly for marine life which often mistakes plastic bags for food.

We read in the Qur’an, “There is the type of man whose speech about this world’s life may dazzle thee, and he calls God to witness about what is in his heart: yet is he the most contentious of enemies? When he turns his back, his aim everywhere is to spread mischief through the earth, destroying crops and cattle. But God loves not mischief” (Al-Baqarah: verses 204 and 205).

In the Torah we read, “The Lord God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it and take care of it.” (Genesis 2:15). The Torah also commands us, “You shall not pollute the land in which you live…. You shall not defile the land in which you live…” (Numbers 35:33-34).

We believers cannot by our own efforts, “save the earth.” Only God, who is the Creator, Sustainer and Redeemer of all creation, can do that. But we are expected to join God in maintaining his work. We seek to right many of the wrongs we’ve committed. In our homes, in our schools, at our places of work, in our times of recreation, and in our places of worship, we can begin to model creation care.

There are many hymns about creation and God’s love for nature, but these words penned by Edith Downing seem quite appropriate:

Sam’s efforts to ban plastic debris are known worldwide. Here’s an article from the The Sontagg, Dusseldorf, Germany. (Click image to enlarge).

O God, your heart is broken
by our abuse of earth.
We overuse resources
denying nature’s worth.
Forgive our selfish lifestyles
that feed on culture’s greed.
Urge us to take fresh courage
to tend our world in need.

Convert our hearts to caring
for creatures great and small.
Help us save birds for singing
their lovely mating call.
The evidence is mounting–
our planet is in pain–
more land and sea is shrinking
throughout the Earth’s domain.

We can now change direction,
with courage take a stand
to work against pollution
that harms both sea and land.
You count on us as stewards
to never hesitate
to act to save creation
before it is too late!

The Genesis Covenant

People of faith have a shared vision that all faith communities around the world can work together to halt climate change. The global climate crisis must bring out the best in all our faith traditions. The Genesis Covenant presents a shared action to make a public commitment to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from all our places of worship and facilities by 50% within ten years. The covenant states:

Sam holds a couple of loose plastic bags he found on the ground in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. Leaders of the Jeddah community are campaigning to rid the city of plastic debris that lines the streets.

“We are a growing community of faithful people from many religious traditions who have decided to work together to save the Earth.

We have put aside our religious differences to focus on what we share in common: an understanding that global climate change is threatening our world and a commitment to do something about it.

If you share those two beliefs with us then you are already a part of The Genesis Covenant. We are not an organization. We are a community of volunteers from all walks of life. We are people with strong personal religious convictions. We honor that in one another. We do not debate our differences. We celebrate what we share in common. We express our faith through action. We work together not just because we agree, but because we care. We are many traditions united for a single purpose.

Welcome to our community! Welcome to The Genesis Covenant. We are honored to have you with us.”

Demonstrate your personal concern

Here’s a simple way you can make a difference. When you do your grocery shopping refuse plastic carry-out bags. Show that you care about the environment by using reusable shopping bags. One reusable bag, when used consistently for a year, will replace hundreds of plastic bags.

The impact of plastic bags is long-lasting.  Because of the chemical composition, a plastic bag takes between 500 to 1000 years to decompose. In the US alone more than 100 billion of these plastic bags are distributed by retailers annually. And they are accumulating by the 100s of billions in our landfills, forests and waterways.

Not only are these ubiquitous bags an eye-sore in our communities, the consequences of these bags for marine life and animals are often tragic.

Many cities, states and nations are banning plastic carry-out bags. While bans on these bags are sweeping the United States, many other nations including China, France, Ireland, England, Kenya have either banned the bags outright or put restrictions on their use.

Oceans of plastic

Plastics have so polluted the earth’s oceans that there is now a swirling “soup” of plastic in the North Pacific gyre, at times the size of Africa. But the evidence of the plastic pollution of our waterways and oceans is evident throughout the planet. And it’s accumulating day by day.

The United Nations is encouraging the world’s nations to halt the distribution of plastic carry-out bags. “Some of the litter, like thin film single-use plastic bags which choke marine life, should be banned or phased-out rapidly everywhere. There is simply zero justification for manufacturing them anymore, anywhere,” says Achim Steiner, UN Under-Secretary-General and United Nations Environmental Program executive director.

Here’s an excellent film produced by ABC’s Nightline describing the ravages of plastic debris. Take a few minutes to watch this documentary:

September 19, 2012 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 5 Comments

I invite NASA to visit Saudi Arabia!

Mars landscape

Martian landscape looking eerily like that of the Arabian Desert.

The NASA rover Curiosity landed safely in the Gale Crater on August 00000

The NASA rover Curiosity landed safely in the Gale Crater on August 2012.

I just can’t help wondering about the universe

You ask, “What in the world? Sam, why are you desk-bound in Saudi Arabia mesmerizing about NASA and the universe? …and God?”

So, I confess. I’m a space buff—have been since 1970. That’s when I took a course in astronomy at Shelton College.

During the past month I’ve been closely following NASA’s Curiosity landing. What an incredible accomplishment—an SUV-sized rover that travelled three-and-a-half months to the red planet, descended like a fire ball through the atmosphere during what NASA called “seven minutes of terror” and then parachuted to the martian surface landing at nearly pinpoint accuracy in the Gale Crater.

NASA studies Mexican desert

Curiosity carries the biggest, most advanced suite of scientific instruments ever sent to Mars. The rover will analyze organic samples scooped from the soil and drilled from rocks. According to NASA scientists, the record of the planet’s climate and geology is essentially “written in the rocks and soil.” The rover is looking for the chemical building blocks of life (e.g. forms of carbon) on Mars and will assess what the martian environment was like in aeons past.

Now studying the planet Mars, one might think, means travelling there or exploring only by means of satellites, landings and robots, but that’s not the case. NASA has a Mars research program going on in Mexico’s Chihuahuan Desert, where the vast, scorching plain is said to be very much like ancient Mars.

The NASA scientists working in this largely arid and extremely hostile climate are looking for organisms able to survive on a minimum of nutrients, high salinity, soaring temperatures and high ultraviolet radiation.

My invitation to NASA

After hearing that, I say, “NASA, come to Saudi Arabia! I have something to show you here!”

Take a look at the following photo and the photo (inset) that was beamed back from Curiosity to the NASA Mission Control Center in Pasadena, California. It arrived just a couple of days ago. You’ll recognize the incredible similarities between the Arabian desert and Mars’ Gale Crater—pink reddish sand and dust with black volcanic formations and scattered stones. The Saudi mountains and desert landscapes look weirdly similar to the Martian plains and mountains.

Sam in full Saudi costume standing in the Arabian Desert near the holy city of Mecca, Saudi Arabia. The photo inset shows a Curiosity photo of the martian desert taken from the Gale Crater.  The similarities are striking. (Click on photo to enlarge.)

Here in Saudi Arabia the desert temperatures and climatic conditions are even more radical than those of the Chihuahuan Desert in Mexico. Temperatures sometimes sore to 140 degrees Fahrenheit, yet there still exists various forms of life in this grueling climate, including the infamous, giant camel spiders!

Some spiritual dimensions

Sam is proud of America’s accomplishments in space. This is his friend Astronaut Charlie Duke during Charlie’s 1972 Apollo 16 moon walk. Charlie was the 11th man to walk on the moon. Sam spent time with Charlie and his wife Dottie at their home in New Braunsville, Texas.

All the holy books of the Jews, Christians and Muslims have a lot to say about the universe. The prophet David wrote in the Psalms, “When I consider your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars, which you have set in place, what is man that you are mindful of him?” (Psalm 8:3 and 4). And in the Qur’an we read, “Consider (think about) the sky that is full of great constellations” (85:1).

I like gazing up into the Saudi night skies. The stars, planets and moon seem brighter than back home, and the sun appears twice as big as it sets over the Red Sea in the evening sky. By faith I stand in awe of God who is at this very moment millions of light years away among the galaxies, and at this same moment He is also here and is concerned about the plight of the men, women and children of earth.

We are taught in the Torah, the Psalms and the Gospels that we humans were created to fellowship with this God (Allah)—to glorify God—to enjoy God forever. Unfathomable! The wonder of it all!

The words of and old Swedish hymn come to mind, one we often sang when I was a child at my local Georgia church. It’s the famous, hymn many will recognize–“How Great Thou Art.” Here’s the first verse and chorus that seem appropriate:

O Lord my God, When I in awesome wonder,
Consider all the worlds Thy Hands have made;
I see the stars, I hear the rolling thunder,
Thy power throughout the universe displayed.

Then sings my soul, My Savior God, to Thee,
How great Thou art! How great Thou art!
Then sings my soul, My Savior God, to Thee,
How great Thou art! How great Thou art!

Yes, Eternal God of the heavens, how great thou art! (Incidentally, we often hear Muslims proclaim in their mosques or in daily life the words “Allah akbar,” meaning “God is great!” Also, remember the prayer we were taught as children–a grace we said before the family meal, “God is great. God is good. And we thank him for our food.” The Arabic equivalent of “God is great” is “Allah akbar”!)

Cosmology argues the existence of a divine, grand Creator

Plato and other ancient philosophers developed the cosmological argument for the existence of a divine Creator.

When we gaze into the night sky, beholding the cosmos of space, how can we not consider God’s existence and his greatness?

The “cosmological argument” for God’s existence derives its title from observing what we can see of the world around us. It begins with what is most obvious to us–the fact that things exist. It is then argued that the cause of those things’ existence had to be a “God-type” being–a Creator.

Beginning with Plato, these types of arguments have been put forth by renowned theologians and philosophers. And almost in reverse order of what one might expect, science seeminly caught up with theologians in the 20th century when it was confirmed that the universe had to have had a beginning.

In 1912, the American astronomer, Vesto Slipher, made a discovery noticing that the galaxies were moving away from earth at huge velocities.  These observations provided the first evidence supporting the expanding-universe theory.

Then the “Big Bang” was theorized by leading scientists. The theory was originally postulated in the late 1920s by Georges-Henri Lemaître, a Belgian Catholic priest and astronomer. The theory advanced the concept that our universe was expanding, having originated from one highly super concentrated mass. While the Big Bang theory does not provide any explanation for such an initial condition, it describes and explains the general evolution of the universe from that point forward.

But how did it all start? Do our Abrahamic faiths hold any answers?

The cosmological argument advances that since there was that scientifically accepted beginning, there then had to be a cause.  In the movie Star Wars the cause was called “the Force.” Muslim, Christian and Jewish philosophers of faith agree that the Force is none other than the Eternal One–God (Allah).

There are remarkable statements in the Torah, the New Testament and and the Qur’an that appear to confirm the Big Bang! The first words of Genesis read, “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.” In the New Testament book of Hebrews, (chapter 11, verse 3), we read these amazing words, “By faith we understand that the worlds were framed by the word of God, so that the things which are seen were not made of things which are visible.” When reading the Qur’an I came across this amazing verse, “Don’t the unbelievers see that the universe was once joined together, then God burst it apart. God made from water every living thing. Will they not then believe?” (21:30).

One of the primary objectives of NASA’s Mars probes has long been the search for water on the “Red Planet.” Water, NASA says, contains the building blocks of life.

Update: Curiosity measures wind and radiation

NASA announced November 18, 2012, that, aside from scooping and analyzing Martian soil, Mars rover Curiosity’s measurements of wind and radiation patterns on Mars are helping researchers better understand the environment near the surface of Mars.

Researchers with the Mars Science Laboratory mission have identified transient whirlwinds, mapped winds in relation to slopes, tracked changes in air pressure, and linked radiation changes to atmospheric changes.  The goal of the mission is to discover whether the environment in Gale Crater, where Curiosity landed earlier this year, could ever have been habitable for microbes.

All praise to God, the Lord of the worlds

Take some time to enjoy this classic National Geographic presentation Journey to the Edge of the Universe. And while watching, think about the words of that great hymn, “O Lord my God, when I in awesome wonder, consider all the worlds Thy Hands have made!”


September 3, 2012 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Ramadan ended with greetings of “Eid mubarak!”

New moon sighted–Ramadan ends

It’s official now! The new moon was sighted two days ago, ending the 30 days of Ramadan. Now we are in the middle of three-days of the public holiday called Eid-al-Fitr (Arabic: ‎عيد الفطر ‘Īdu l-Fiṭr). The holiday is most often simply called Eid. Foreigners and Arabs alike greet one another with the common greeting, “Eid mubarak!” (English: literally “Happy Feast!”).

In most Muslim countries celebrants dress in their best clothes and adorn their homes with lights and other decorations. Old wrongs are forgiven and money is given to the poor. Special foods are prepared and friends or relatives are invited to share the feast.

Eid is a joyous occasion. Its underlying purpose is to praise God and give thanks to him. More than 2.2 billion Muslims are celebrating Eid around the world!

Ramadan/Eid holiday season marked by generosity and giving

Eman Kaskas oversaw the distribution of food to needy Ethiopian families of Jeddah. Eman also conducted a fundraising dinner for the Dar al Aytam children’s outreach in Lebanon.

During my first Ramadan celebration, I often joined my Muslim brothers and sisters in fasting and prayer at our local neighborhood Al Takwa Mosque.  I also went along to help distribute food and other gifts to the poorer immigrant populations of Jeddah.

Eman Kaskas and the students of the British International School had collected more than two tons of canned meats and vegetables, soups, dates, spices, bags of rice and pastas for distribution. This very generous collection was distributed to Ethiopian immigrant families.

In a sense, Eid is a Christmas-like festivity. There are big family meals. Friends and family members gather to exchange gifts. On the eve of Eid shopping malls and stores are open late. Shoppers wait in long lines, in a hurry to purchase last-minute gifts, candies and cakes. (The traffic jams reminded me of trying to get to the Annapolis Mall on Christmas Eve!)

Numerous fundraisers were conducted throughout Jeddah and other Saudi cities during the past month to benefit various causes for children, the disabled, the poor and the elderly.

Dr. Safi and Eman Kaskas invited guests to a dinner at the Sands Hotel which raised thousands of dollars for the Dar al Aytam children’s home in Beirut, Lebanon. Close to a hundred guests gathered that evening to lend their support to this orphanage that was established nearly a hundred years ago to care for Lebanese orphans of World War I.

Since that time Dar al Aytam has expanded its programs to provide services to the mentally disabled as well as homeless children. Services are now available in more than 30 locations (Greater Beirut, The Bekaa Valley, Mount Lebanon, and in various other northern and southern locations).

Muslim Americans fearful during Eid

Some American Christians expressed solidarity with Muslims during this special holiday. The Rev. Peter De Franco and the congregation of St. Peter’s Episcopal Church in Clifton, New Jersey, used Eid as a time to show support for Muslim believers in their town.

In the US, where Muslims are a tiny minority population, celebrating Eid seems strange and different, especially to those who have wrongly targeted all Muslims as being “anti-American.”

This past Thursday, a Palestinian American was visiting his father’s grave at a Muslim cemetery in Evergreen Park, a suburb southwest of Chicago, when he noticed obcene graffiti written on the tombstones.

During the past month, seven Islamic centers, from California to Rhode Island, have been attacked.In one of the attacks, a mosque in Joplin, Missouri, was burned to the ground.

Many US Muslims are appealing to the media and their elected officials for help.

Unfortunately, on some occasions, a few individuals like US Representative Joe Walsh, instead of offering hope to their Muslim constituents, are instead fanning the flames of hate.

Speaking on August 8 at a packed town hall event in the Chicago suburb of Elk Grove, Walsh told his supporters, “I’m not sure of a lot of things, but one thing I am sure of is that there are people in this country, there is a radical strain of Islam in this country. It’s not just over there–trying to kill Americans every week.”  He continued, “And it is a threat that is much more at home now then it was right after 9/11. It’s here, it’s in Elk Grove, it’s in Addison, it’s in Elgin.”

Many Americans respond during Eid with love and support

Sam with Dr. Safi Kaskas in Jeddah. Safi is the president of the Association of Muslim Social Scientists in the US. Safi has spent years building bridges of faith and understanding between the world’s Christians, Muslims and Jews.

While it’s true that all three Abrahamic faiths (Jewish, Christian and Muslim) have their radical, violent elements; they are simply a noisy minority. They grab headlines by torching buildings or through inflamatory hate speech and through bombing and killing.

Some US churches and Christian organizations, including Sojourners, an evangelical Christian outreach, have expressed solidarity with America’s persecuted Muslims and are organizing support for both the Joplin mosque and the Muslim community in Ever Green.

The overwhelming majority of those who believe in the God of Abraham, are peace-loving, desiring freedom and democracy for all faiths.

Recent polls indicate that greater than 80% of Muslim, Christian and Jewish teenagers and young adults want peace–not war. They have dreams of good jobs, families, homes. They want the best for others and seek to build bridges between their faiths and to support those who are persecuted or wrongly treated.

My work alongside Dr. Safi Kaskas here in the Middle East is in the field of religious reconciliation.  Our work is vitally important to ongoing peace efforts, in the US, here in the Middle East and around the world.

May we all do our part to improve understanding–to reach out to men, women and children; families and individuals who may express their faith differently. And may we vigilantly confront Islamophobia, anti-Semitism and anti-Christian hysteria with good information, loving kindness and hope for a much brighter, more prosperous future for all God’s children.

While we continue to celebrate here in Jeddah during this festive, Christmas-like spirit of Eid, I was thinking this morning of Henry W. Longfellow’s Christmas carol–“I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day.” Longfellow described the bells “ringing, chanting” throughout the world–a message of peace. But, alas, he sighed:

  • And in despair I bowed my head
  • “There is no peace on earth,” I said,
  • “For hate is strong and mocks the song
  • Of peace on earth, good will to men.”

Here in Saudi Arabia I don’t hear church bells, but I do hear a very faithful, heartfelt call to prayer from many mosques five times a day. It’s a call to prayerfully thank God for his mercy and grace and a call to personal and world peace. Saudi Arabia is surrounded by wars and conflicts (Yemen, Somalia and Sudan to the south and east; the Sinai, Lebanon and Syria to the north; Iraq to the northeast; and now a “pending” war between Israel and Iran. There are conflicts in other parts of Africa, and in Asia and South America. It would be easy to give up–to curl up comfortably in our own corner of the world; deaf to those who cry for freedom, uncaring and unconcerned. But that is not what God has called us to do.

Longfellow ended his poem with a message of hope. As he thought of dismal world conditions of his time, he proclaimed:

  • Then pealed the bells more loud and deep:
  • “God is not dead, nor doth He sleep;
  • The wrong shall fail, the right prevail
  • With peace on earth, good will to men.”

I thank all my Quaker friends for holding us in the light over here. Your Muslim brothers and sisters here in Jeddah send you their love and greetings, and they join you in prayer for reconciliation and world peace.

Muslims celebrating Eid around the world:

August 21, 2012 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

US Congresswoman Bachmann stirs Islamophobia

Anti-Muslim conspiracy theory

American Muslims in Washington rally to express their love and devotion to being citizens of the United States.

Some of my readers will be surprised to learn that at one point in my life, years ago, I was a very dedicated young Republican. While I’m not proud of some of the positions I took back then, though I did make an effort to think my political positions through to a logical end. Some Republicans today make terribly specious arguments in arriving at whacky, potentially detrimental conclusions.

I’m making this personal confession because of news reports I’ve been reading that Michele Bachmann, along with four other Republican members of the US Congress Trent Franks, Louie Gohmert, Thomas Rooney and Lynn Westmoreland, have asserted that the Muslim Brotherhood has “infiltrated the US government at the highest levels.” The five congressmen have sent letters to five federal agencies demanding an investigation of the Muslim Brotherhood and Muslims working in government positions.

ADL enjoins inflamatory rhetoric

Robert G. Sugarman and Abraham H. Foxman, the national chair and national director of the Anti-Defamation League, believe these sweeping accusations by members of Congress against Muslim Americans are misguided and unfair. They said in a statement, “Absent clear evidence of direct ties between these individuals and the Muslim Brotherhood, such allegations foment fear and cast the kind of suspicion that undermines rather than advances American counterterrorism efforts.”

The ADL has written letters to these five members of the US Congress, expressing displeasure with their charges.

“Members of Congress have an essential role to play in raising legitimate concerns about threats to America’s security from international terrorist groups,” the ADL wrote. “Those efforts should not be tainted by the kind of stereotyping and prejudice that has too frequently accompanied the public debate…. We strongly urge you to reconsider your allegations and to refrain from promoting or trafficking in anti-Muslim conspiracy theories in the future.”

Huma Abedin, Aide to Secretary of State Clinton

US Secretary of State Clinton with aide Huma Abedin. Abedin was singled out for attack by Bachmann and four other US congressmen.

In their letter the five Republican congressmen singled out Huma Abedin, a longtime aide to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Abedin is married to former Democratic Rep. Anthony Weiner, who is Jewish and strongly pro-Israel.

Republican Senator John McCain, not mentioning Bachmann or the other lawmakers by name, pointedly criticized their letter.

“The letter alleges that three members of Abedin’s family are ‘connected to Muslim Brotherhood operatives and/or organizations,'” he said. “Never mind that one of those individuals, Huma’s father, passed away two decades ago. The letter and the report offer not one instance of an action, a decision or a public position that Huma has taken while at the State Department that would lend credence to the charge that she is promoting anti-American activities within our government.”

“These attacks on Huma have no logic, no basis and no merit,” McCain added. “And they need to stop now.”

McCain said that he traveled overseas with Clinton and Abedin when Clinton was a senator.

On being politically incorrect

Far too often, a few political leaders speak before they think. Facts don’t seem to matter. What does apparently matter to them is grabbing headlines with provocative anti-Muslim sound bites. But such ill-advised speculation is based on a closed-minded opinionating that “all Muslims are terrorists” or are “sleeper agents” just waiting for the their appointed time to blow up America.

Sensationalism may get such people in the news, but these irresponsible individuals are putting American religious liberty and personal freedom at risk, endangering and marginalizing people’s lives–in this case the lives of millions of US Muslims.

Extremism is common to all three Abrahamic faiths (Judaism, Christianity and Islam). Imprudent, incendiary rants are far too often effective at breeding further misunderstanding and paranoia–sometimes driving radical elements towards militias, violence, bombing, and killing. And many a home-grown terrorist has been born in reaction to hate speech and feelings of alienation.

Anderson Cooper exposé

CNN’s Anderson Cooper entered the fray by televising a brilliant segment on his “Keeping Them Honest” program. It caught my attention this evening here in Saudi Arabia. In his program, Cooper totally debunks Bachmann and company’s latest conspiracy theory.

In the interest of truth and religious reconciliation, I’m posting Anderson’s insightful piece here on my blog. Take a few minutes to watch Anderson’s investigation:

 

July 31, 2012 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Happy Ramadan! Ramadan Kareem!

Sam “breaking the fast” on the second evening of Ramadan with Dr. Wael Saykali and Dr. Safi and Eman Kaskas.

Celebrating my first Ramadan in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia

In all three major Abrahamic faiths (Judaism, Christianity and Islam) religious holidays play an important role in celebrating our faith in the God of Abraham. Here in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, I’ll be participating in my first Ramadan observance with my Muslim friends. There is an air of excitement as this holiday begins.

Ramadan (Arabic: رمضان‎ Ramaḍān; variations Persian: Ramazan‎; Urdu: Ramzān; Turkish: Ramazan) has arrived. It is being celebrated July 20th through August 18th. It is the ninth month of the lunar Islamic calendar, which lasts 29 or 30 days according to the visual sightings of the crescent moon.

Muslims around the world refrain from eating and drinking during the daylight hours. The thawab (spiritual rewards) of fasting are believed to be many, but during this special month, they are said to be multiplied. Muslims fast during this lunar month for the sake of demonstrating submission to God. They also offer more prayers and Qur’an recitations.

Families and friends enjoy Iftar meals and banquets 

Each evening at sunset, families and friends will gather for the fast-breaking meal (or “break-fast) known as Iftar. The meal starts with the eating of three dates — just as Muhammad used to do. Then it’s time for the Maghrib prayer, which is the fourth of the five daily Muslim prayers, after which the main meal is served.

Over time, Iftar has grown into large family dinners and even banquet festivals. This is a time of fellowship with families, friends and surrounding communities, but may also occupy larger spaces at mosques or banquet halls, where a hundred or more may gather at a time.

High school students from Jeddah’s British International School unload more than one ton of food they collected to be distributed to poor immigrant families in their city.

Generosity and sacrificial giving

Charity is very important in Islam, and even more so during Ramadan. The zakat is obligatory as one of the pillars of Islam; a fixed percentage required to be given by those with savings. The sadaqa is voluntary charity and is given above and beyond what is required from the obligation of zakat. Muslims believe that all good deeds are more handsomely rewarded during Ramadan than in any other month of the year. Consequently, many will choose this time to give a larger portion, if not all, of the zakat for which they are obligated to give. In addition, many will also use this time to give a larger portion of sadaqa in order to maximize the reward they believe will await them on the Day of Judgment.

In many Muslim countries, it is not uncommon to see people giving more food to the poor and the homeless, and even to see large public areas for the poor to come and break their fast. It is said that if a person helps a fasting person to break their fast, then they receive a reward for that fast, without diminishing the reward that the fasting person got for their fast.

Even in non-Muslim countries, no matter how small the Muslim population, a consistent increase in charitable donations to both fellow Muslims and non-Muslims occurs during these days. In the US, for example, many Muslim communities throughout the country, participate in contributing food, clothes and non-perishable food items to local food banks and homeless shelters.

Jeddah British International School students collected over a ton of food

Eman Kaskas with high schoolers from the British International School with some of the food that will be distributed to needy families during the 30-day Ramadan holiday.

The British International School of Jeddah offers the International Bachaluriate (IB) program—a high school college preparatory degree that is recognized around the world. An important part of the IB program is Creativity Action Service (CAS) similar to community service programs provided by many American high schools.  Students are required to do 150 hours of community service.

A major Ramadan “food drive” under the leadership of Eman Kaskas is a part of CAS’s program.  “I am always so touched by the community effort and the involvement of all the students including kindergarteners,” Eman says. “We have carried this out for the last 12 years. It keeps getting better year after year.”

This year students from Jeddah’s British International School collected more than ton of food that will be distributed during Ramadan to Jeddah’s poorer immigrant population.

Eman Kaskas, explains, “It’s my hope that these students will fully understand the message they are sending with their gifts.” She says, “It’s like a mustard seed that we are planting today, and I’m very grateful to know that we’re planting it in good soil.” She wants these students to remember when they have families of their own, that they have a responsibility to raise civicly-minded children who will make an important contribution to society.

Special days during Ramadan: Laylat al-Qadr and Eid ul-Fitr

Sometimes referred to as “the night of decree or measures,” Laylat al-Qadr is considered the most holy night of the Islamic year. Muslims believe that it is the night in which the Qur’an was first revealed to the prophet Muhammad by the Archangel Gabriel.

The Muslim holiday of Eid ul-Fitr (Arabic: عيد الفطر‎, festivity of breaking the fast), sometimes spelled in English as Eid al-Fitr, marks the end of Ramadan and the beginning of the next lunar month called Shawwal in Arabic. This first day of the following month is declared after another crescent new moon has been sighted. This first day of Shawwal is called Eid ul-Fitr. Eid Ul-Fitr, may also be a reference towards the festive nature of having endured the month of fasting successfully and returning to the more natural disposition of being able to eat and drink.

The following is a children’s Ramadan video that explains the spiritual significance of this Muslim holiday. Muslim children celebrate Ramadan in much the same way Jewish and Christian children celebrate Hanukkah and Christmas.
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July 21, 2012 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment