Waking Up in Budapest
. . . Facing the Global Challenge to Religious Freedom
by Paul Kendrick
Religious liberty a basic human right is in jeopardy around the globe. Even in America, where religious tolerance is a founding principle, anti-Islamic sentiment is widespread. But religious freedom has advocates in every culture, and for 102 years the International Association for Religious Freedom has helped many of them work together. I traveled to Hungary for an unprecedented three-day gathering of young adults prior to the IARF's biennial congress July 28 through August 2. In Budapest I met young people who helped me begin to make sense of global trends that threaten religious freedom.
I encountered peers who have faced religious persecution. One of my best friends, Zulifar, was an Indian Muslim. He had seen mosques destroyed, people injured, and Muslim politicians ridiculed by the Hindu majority in his country. Zulifar made very critical comments about domineering Islamic countries. Nevertheless, he believed in the inherent good of Muhammad's message and wanted to be able to worship freely. He helped me learn how to critique certain societies without indicting an entire religion.
My roommate for the week was an Armenian named Vaharam, who told me about the genocide Armenian Christians suffered at the hands of the Turkish Muslims in the last century. He was happy to participate in anything that might prevent genocide from ever occurring again. All I could do was admire his fortitude and make naïve comments that belied my privilege. Vaharam had just finished his mandatory stint in the army. one night I asked him, "What is being in the army like?" "It's not fun," he muttered with a mixture of amusement and annoyance towards someone who has never been conscripted.
My friend Gjoko from Mac edonia knew more about the U.S. military than I did. He had gotten a job working as a translator for U.S. troops stationed in Bosnia. Seeing that war up close motivated him to spend his life working for religious freedom in his country. He told me that to achieve what he wanted in Macedonia he would have to be "part Tito, part Mother Theresa." If anyone could balance these two impulses it would be Gjoko. He was six-foot-eight, but he was one of the most caring human beings I have ever met.
Hearing Transylvanian Unitarians speak of their struggle hit closest to home. Meeting in Budapest was particularly poignant for them because they consider themselves Hungarians but are forced to live under Romanian rule. Five of them sang a traditional Transylvanian song. It seemed cheerful, but the lyrics portrayed the despondency of being isolated from one's homeland. The pain and poverty of our Unitarian sisters and brothers was breathtaking. I promised to do what I can to see that my American Unitarian Universalist church does not forget them.
America was often pointed to as the root of so many of the world's problems. My friend Murad, a Muslim from Sri Lanka, engaged me in multiple discussions about whether Americans hate Islam. I argued that our action in Afghanistan was directed against a despotic government and a terrorist organization. While he did not romanticize al Qaeda or the Taliban, he kept insisting that young Muslims like him perceive our military action as an attack upon them. What really stung was when he told me that he wanted to immigrate to a western country. I suggested America, and he replied, "It is not safe for Muslims there."
I heard much criticism of our foreign policy, but I was also reminded of much that could make me proud of America. Sitting in a room at two in the morning with a borrowed guitar, I wanted to sing something everyone in the room would love but I was at a loss. I was surrounded primarily by Japanese friends and peers from India and Africa. My fingers nervously started plucking the opening guitar riff to the Temptations' "My Girl." Almost on cue the entire room raised their voices to sing, "I got sunshine on a cloudy day." Three Japanese men who spoke almost no English were singing the lyrics word for word. After a day of guilt and anger associated with my country, I felt overwhelming pride for a culture that could produce a song as beautiful and universal as this one.
My best friend at the conference, Michelle, grew up under the agonizing rule of apartheid in South Africa. We shared our views on religion as a vehicle for our respective countries' much-needed racial healing. We agreed that racial reconciliation is a spiritual process above all else. She said that while South Africa has deep wounds to heal, its people are on the whole willing to talk about it. I regretted the American taboo against discussing race, but felt renewed appreciation for Unitarian Universalist anti-racism efforts.
One encounter especially moved me. As I sat down to dinner with Chananel and Sasa I noticed that their nametags listed Israel as their country of residence. I assumed they were Jewish. Chananel had just finished his tenure in the Israeli army. Sasa, however, is a Muslim. Within the first few minutes of our conversation she mentioned the oppression she constantly received because of her beliefs. Then I assumed she was Palestinian, but I was wrong again. I asked whether she would be safe and at peace if the Palestinians were given an autonomous state. She replied: "No, my family's land is not in disputed territory. We live in the heart of Israel and that is where we want to continue to live." I hadn't considered the situation of Israeli Arabs before.
I was learning how intertwined religion and politics are in so many troubled regions and that there are no easy solutions to these conflicts. But I was also encountering hope. Sasa's revelation provoked quite a response from Chananel. He had lost family and friends to Palestinian violence, yet as we talked he was becoming more and more sympathetic to her family's predicament. Conversely, Sasa understood the anguish that suicide bombings have generated for the Jewish citizens of Israel. She opposed violence as a political means and became emotional as she tried to distance herself from Muslims who use religion to justify murder. She wasn't sure that I, as an outsider, understood that there are Muslims who desperately want peace and know that violence will not bring it. Chananel echoed that sentiment, in regards to Jews. If these two had the power of Sharon and Arafat things would be greatly improved.
Of course, there is a certain hope in the souls of young people, and it was contagious at the conference. Here were fifty young adults representing many places and faith traditions, grasping for understanding and solutions to our world's tendency to steal our religious freedom. And stealing is precisely what it is, for the ability to practice one's religion without harassment is an inherent right. No government gives us our religious freedom; they can only take it away. My visit to Budapest brought home to me the practical difficulties of getting the world to a place where governments do not manipulate religion for conflict in their perceived self-interests. Yet, as I thought of Gjoko, Vaharam, Zulifer, Michelle, Murad, Sasa, Chananel, and dozens of others, I felt the promise of my generation.
Paul Kendrick is a sophomore at The George Washington University in Washington, D.C. A member of the First and Second Church of Boston, he worked as an intern in the UUA's Youth Office this summer. For more on IARF, of which the UUA is a member, visit www.iarf-religiousfreedom.net.