Those dimensions of religious belief that seem to fuel violence were running wild around the world as 2010 bled into 2011.
• In Iraq on Nov. 1, an attack on a Syrian Catholic church killed 58 people, “the worst massacre of Iraqi Christians since the war began here in 2003,” according to Anthony Shadid in The New York Times.
• In Nigeria on Christmas Eve, violence between Christians and Muslims flared up again with bombings at three churches followed by violent reprisals, leaving about 80 people dead.
• In Alexandria, Egypt, on Jan. 1, an attack on a Coptic Christian church left 23 people dead, the worst attack against Christians in Egypt in decades. That set off violent retaliatory demonstrations by Christians.
• In Islamabad, Pakistan, the governor was assassinated on Jan. 4. He was an ardent advocate of a secular state, and his death was cheered by those favoring theocracy.
While much of this violence is connected to extremist elements in Islam, many of the world’s major religions get used by those advocating violence -- Jewish settlers in the West Bank attack Muslims near Hebron, Hindus clash with Muslims in India, Christians battled each other for decades in Northern Ireland.
Of course it does not take religion to fuel violence. But religiously motivated violence poses a particular challenge to those who adhere to a faith tradition.
One of the liveliest places for probing religious issues is the “On Faith” section of The Washington Post website. Religious thinkers wrestle there with how to respond to the latest uptick in religiously motivated violence.
Susan Brooks Thistlethwaite, a professor at the Chicago Theological Seminary, argues that “it is a problem of national and international political conflict in a world where religious identity is being manipulated especially by sowing violence in the hope of reaping hatred.”
When Shadid, the Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter and University of Wisconsin-Madison grad, was on campus in early December, he noted that attacks like those on the church in Baghdad have less to do with religious differences than with using Christians as a target to destabilize more moderate Muslim governments because extremists know this will generate reaction from the West.
Rabbi Brad Hirschfield, president of the National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership, said on the Post site that since religion is being used to justify violence, religion needs to be part of the solution.
Leading Islamic voices in the Middle East have been speaking out against the extremists, citing Islamic teaching that explicitly forbids these kinds of actions.
Akbar Ahmed, the chair of Islamic studies at American University in Washington, called on Islamic and Christian leaders to join together to visit churches and mosques and show that people of differing faiths can work together.
A glimmer of that kind of hope broke through in Egypt last week as Coptic Christians gathered to celebrate their feast of Christmas on Jan. 7. Thousands of Muslims gathered around Christian churches in solidarity with the worshipers and to act as human shields against further attacks by extremists.
None of these things will put an end to the misuse of religion as a justification for violence — a fact that crosses centuries, continents and traditions. But finding ways to counter religious warfare comes far closer to the heart of each faith tradition than simply being swept into the fear and hysteria that create so much grief.
Phil Haslanger is pastor of Memorial United Church of Christ in Fitchburg. firstname.lastname@example.org