Take a Stand Against Religious Bigotry

10293729_10202859461980687_821112228677246707_oLast Monday, I was saddened to read in the Philadelphia Inquirer that a severed pig’s head was found outside of Al-Aqsa mosque in North Philly. It is a mosque I know pretty well. As I have taught my “Religion in Philadelphia” and “World Religions” courses over the years, Al-Aqsa has been a regular field trip site to familiarize my students with the practices and beliefs of Islam. Additionally, I have visited the mosque during my participation in the annual Interfaith Peace Walk held each spring. My students and I have always felt very welcome at Al-Aqsa and I wish to offer my support.

Since the mosque desecration last week, a mosque in California was set on fire and Muslims across the country are fearful about the growing tide of Islamophobia.  It is now more important than ever for Americans to take a stand against religious bigotry. Religion Dispatches published my article last week titled “Donald Trump, Islamophobia, and the Philadelphia Pig’s Head Incident.” It offers some historical perspective on the incident, which took place in the city founded by William Penn as a haven for religious liberty. It also articulates what I believe is the key to interfaith peace: relationship building. Please share this article and offer your voice of support for victimized minorities here and around the world.

Tour Guide Confessions: Catholic Pilgrims, Bible Riots, and #PopeInPhilly


This past Friday, I had the privilege of leading a group of 50 Catholic pilgrims on a historical tour of Philadelphia. They are in town, of course, for the visit of Pope Francis.

Philly history tours typically include visits to the Liberty Bell, Independence Hall, and other sacred national sites related to the national founding period. However, knowing the reason that these tourists were in town, I decided to take a risk and head off the beaten path.

While the holy hoards of tourists headed south from our meeting place at the National Constitution Center through the grassy expanse of the National Mall, I paused for a moment to ask the crowd if they knew what two things the U.S. Constitution says about religion. One woman shouted, “One Nation Under God!” and another said “the Government should support religion!” However, most of them seemed to know that it said something about preventing the government from endorsing one religion (Congress shall make no law establishing a religion…) and guaranteeing religious freedom for all (…or prohibit the free exercise thereof).

As I steered the group eastward away from the crowds, I began to tell the story of the important role that Philadelphia’s religious history played in the constitutional debates about the proper relationship between religion and state. During the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, most American colonies had established religions. For instance, if you lived in Massachusetts, Puritans were in control. Religious non-conformists were either exiled or put to death.

Stopping in front of the Arch Street Friends Meeting House, I told the group that the Pennsylvania colony was different. William Penn, a Quaker, knew firsthand what it felt like to be persecuted for one’s beliefs. Due to his divergence from Anglican orthodoxy, Penn was imprisoned like scores of other Quakers in the late 1600s. When his father Admiral Penn granted William a massive tract of land in North America, Penn chose not to impose Quakerism as the official religion of the colony. Instead, his 1701 Charter of Privileges guaranteed religious freedom for all.

Early on, Philadelphia became a haven for Mennonites, Pietists, Lutherans, and also for Jews and Catholics as well. As we walked past Mikveh Israel, the second oldest synagogue in North America, I told the story of Philadelphia’s first Jews who established a cemetery and synagogue in the 1740s. Although the distance was too far to walk, I pointed them towards Old St. Joseph’s, Philadelphia’s first Catholic Church founded in 1733. At the time, Philly was the only place in British North America where it was legal to conduct a public mass.

Time was running short on the tour so we took a quick walk past Christ Church and Elfreth’s Alley on our way northward to the corner of 4th and New Streets. In the shadow of the Benjamin Franklin Bridge stand two prominent churches: St. Augustine’s Catholic  Church and Old St. George’s United Methodist Church. At this intersection, I told the Catholic pilgrims a story illustrating the limits of religious toleration in the city that Penn founded.

In 1844 Nativist rioters burned down St. Augustine’s Church, its rectory, and a library containing thousands of books. During that summer, churches were burned in other parts of the city, 25 persons were killed, and hundreds were injured. I told the group that the civil authorities put an end to the rioting with the use of military force, but few Protestant Christians intervened to stop the violence before it began. For instance, in the Methodist church archives across the street, there is no mention of the burning of St. Augustine’s Church. Perhaps Old St. George’s members were among the Nativist rioters? We can’t know for sure, but this possibility grieves the current members of Old St. George’s.

As a Methodist myself, it grieves me also. I challenged the group to think about what groups in our society are viewed as un-American or threatening in some way to the status quo. Half-jokingly, I offered an apology to my new Catholic friends on behalf of the Protestants who started the riots and also those who watched the events and did nothing to intervene. They warmly received my awkward attempt at trying to make them feel welcome. If William Penn were alive in 1844, I suspect he would have been saddened by the way that the Catholic newcomers were treated. In 2015, Penn’s legacy in Philadelphia continues to inspire and even Pope Francis acknowledged it in Saturday’s speech in front of Independence Hall. May the pontiff’s words about religious liberty inspire Americans to extend hospitality to all groups that are unfairly marginalized in both church and society.

Bio: David M. Krueger is an independent scholar of American religious history, a deacon serving at Arch Street United Methodist, and he also offers historical tours in Philadelphia. He has a PhD in religion from Temple University and is the author of the new book, Myths of the Rune Stone: Viking Martyrs and the Birthplace of America.

Also, be sure to watch the new documentary film on the Catholic history of Philadelphia. Visit http://urbantrinityfilm.com/.

King Abdullah, Student Exchange, and the Power of Interfaith Hospitality


*This was originally posted to the Germantown Mennonite blog on February 13, 2015. If you are re-posting this, please connect to the original URL: http://germantownmennonite.org/2015/02/13/king-abdullah-student-exchange-and-the-power-of-interfaith-hospitality/

Over the past three years, my family has had the privilege of hosting several Saudi students through a home-stay program affiliated with local universities. The current students we have come to know typically adhere to the strict Islamic guidelines of the Hanbali legal school. Most of them pray five times a day, attend the Friday Jumu̒ah services at local mosques, and faithfully adhere to prohibitions on pork and alcohol.

Yet despite their apparent conservatism, they have demonstrated remarkable openness to different ways of life. In our home, they see a strong and loving mother pursuing a career outside of the home and a father who spends the bulk of his day caring for the children. Needless to say, this domestic arrangement is not common back in the Kingdom.

Ever since the death of Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah on January 23rd of this year, media pundits have debated his legacy. Some have characterized King Abdullah as a reformer, citing his decision to allow women to work as supermarket cashiers and his founding of a co-ed university where men and women can study side-by-side. Others have argued that little had changed under his rule. Women are still not permitted to get driver’s licenses and, in early January, an activist was sentenced to ten years in prison and 1,000 lashes because of his criticism of Saudi clerics. Amnesty International has spoken out strongly against the royal family for its growing suppression of free speech and its frequent use of capital punishment. However, even if the internal politics in the Kingdom have not changed markedly in recent years, King Abdullah has perhaps sown the seeds for dramatic change in the future.

According to the Institute of International Education, 53,919 students from Saudi Arabia were studying in the United States during the 2013/2014 academic year – up from just over 3,000 per year a decade earlier. Since King Abdullah took the throne in 2005, as many as 200,000 Saudi students have been sent abroad for study. This is unprecedented in Saudi history. Most begin their adventures in the U.S. by enrolling in English-language instruction in order to prepare them for applying to graduate schools in business, medicine, engineering, and other fields. The King Abdullah Scholarship Program provides full tuition, travel expenses, and a generous living stipend that even includes yearly dental benefits of up to $5,000 per year. Much of this program was funded out of the king’s personal treasury.

Our students have attended worship services at both our local Mennonite and Methodist churches (both queer-friendly, I might add) and have come to appreciate Christian hymns. Additionally, I have had the pleasure of leading groups of Middle Eastern students on field trips to the U.S. Constitution Center and walking tours of some of Philadelphia’s oldest churches and synagogues. As we strolled past the historic Arch Street Friends Meeting House and the Mikveh Israel Synagogue, I introduced them to the history of William Penn and his “Holy Experiment,” to found a colony where religious minorities would be protected.

Although Philadelphia is an especially appropriate place for Saudi students to think about the freedom of speech and religion ensconced within the U.S. Constitution, the tens of thousands of students who now study throughout the United States will also no doubt be profoundly changed by their experiences. When these students return to Saudi Arabia one day, they will be catalysts for change, whether the Kingdom’s conservative clerics like it or not.

For those of us who care deeply about the plight of religious and ethnic minorities and gender equality throughout the world, King Abdullah should be remembered as one who planted the seeds for a hopefully more tolerant and pluralistic Saudi Arabia. The New York Times obituary is right to suggest that King Abdullah’s study abroad program could be his greatest legacy. The students with whom I speak grieve deeply the death of King Abdullah, but are overwhelmingly grateful for the opportunities he gave them to live abroad. I sincerely hope that his successor will continue the potentially risky endeavor of sending students to study in the U.S. and elsewhere.

In the aftermath of the recent Charlie Hebdo bombings in Paris, the vicious murder of three Muslim students in North Carolina, and the escalating inter-religious tensions throughout the world, it is critical that we find opportunities to practice interfaith hospitality. Having lived in a Christian enclave for much of my life, I am profoundly grateful for my Saudi friends and how they have challenged me to have a more expansive view of God. I enjoy how they have become honorary “uncles” to our two young boys. I love the laughter we share around the table as we collectively struggle to understand the peculiarities of the English language. I also love the chicken kabsa they often cook for us. Opening one’s home to persons from other cultures has the power to change both the hosts and the hosted.

For Christians, hospitality is a mandate of the faith and I think the verse in Leviticus 19:34 says it best:

The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God. NRSV.

-David Krueger