RIP Nicholas Winton, Holocaust hero

Written by Peter Smith on .

WINTON 1A remarkable era came to an end Wednesday with the death of Nicholas Winton, who rescued hundreds of Czechoslovak Jewish children from death at Nazi hands in the late 1930s and lived long enough to be an enduring witness to what one person can do to resist evil.

Mr. Winton died at 106 in his native Britain. Many had signed petitions asking that this last living "Schindler" be honored with the Nobel Peace Prize, but alas, as the award only goes to living persons, that chance has now passed.

"I did it merely because it had to be done and nobody else was doing it," Mr. Winton told me in 1998 in Prague, when I was working as a freelancer and covered a reunion with many of the graying "children" he had rescued.

He is credited with rescuing 669 children, most of them Jewish, by arranging transports to Britain and Sweden. 

At the time a young stockbroker, Mr. Winton went to Prague at the request of friends who were working with refugees as Czechoslovakia was coming under Nazi occupation. He bent rules, falsified papers and did whatever else he could to enable the escape of children whose parents couldn't or wouldn't leave themselves. He always said he was most haunted by the failure to get the last and largest transport out of the country; the train trip was canceled due to the September 1939 outbreak of World War II.

But to see some of those he rescued, click here for one of the most powerful pieces of television you will ever see (hint: after the 40 second mark).



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Methodist bishop cites highs, lows

Written by Peter Smith on .

photo 8In his second-to-last address as spiritual leader of Western Pennsylvania's 170,000 United Methodists, Bishop Thomas Bickerton offered a best-of-times/worst-of-times portrait of the denomination's status here.

There are "amazing stories of growth" in some churches, with some new ministries being launched. But at the same time, there are a "growing number of churches that are ending their ministry," he said. "These once vital and independently driven churches can no longer sustain a ministry and maintain a building and are closing their doors."

Some, he said, are closing gracefully, looking for a way to pass the torch to other ministries in their community. Others "can only see their immediate future and are unwilling to discuss how God might use them to usher in a new chapter of what it means to be church in that region."

Bishop Bickerton made the comments in his annual state of the church address before the annual meeting of the Western Pennsylvania Conference of the United Methodist Church, taking place this week in Grove City. The denomination has about 800 churches in 23 counties, and it's the largest Protestant body in the seven-county Pittsburgh metropolitan statistical area.

Bishop Bickerton, who was first elected to the position in 2004, is ending his tenure here next year.

He lamented there are cases in some churches of racism and opposition to women clergy, but he took heart that some of them are trying to do better.

He ended with a note of hope, saying he's seen "place after place that, on paper, don't look like they stand a chance. ... Yet they press on, you press on to be the church of Jesus Christ."


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Presbyterian membership down 5% again

Written by Peter Smith on .

The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) lost 5 percent of its members and more than 100 of its churches to other denominations in 2014, matching both of those figures from each of the previous two years.

Newly released statistics by the church show a membership of 1,667,767, down 5.25 percent from 2013 and 15 percent since 2011. Some 101 churches were dismissed to other denominations, bringing to 359 the number since 2012 with a growing wave of departures.

The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) has well under half the 4.2 million in the mid-1960s when its two predecessor denominations were at its peak, as were several other historic Protestant denominations that have since been in numerical decline. 

Many of the congregations have left to join more conservative Presbyterian bodies in reaction to liberal trends in theology and sexuality, such as the approval of the ordination non-celibate gays and lesbians in 2011. Earlier this year, the denomination also authorized same-sex weddings in its churches nationwide, and the Pittsburgh Presbytery added its assent to that move on Thursday.

While there are plenty of anecdotes of people joining Presbyterian congregations because of their progressive stances, the net result has been in the red.

The membership loss has also been compounded by the denomination's aging membership and low birth rate. 

The statistical report was underscored separately by a survey by the Pew Research Center released on Tuesday that found the denomination dropping to 0.9 percent of the American population in 2014 from 1.1 percent of the population in 2007.


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Countering religious violence a challenge

Written by Peter Smith on .


Usama Hasan says his heart sank when he saw English-language propaganda from the self-proclaimed Islamic State — and realized it was quoting the English translations he had done long ago of ancient religious texts.

Today, Mr. Hasan is senior researcher at the London-based Quilliam Foundation, which works to counter Muslim extremism from within the Muslim community.

But it was a long journey to that point for Mr. Hasan, who grew up the son of South Asian immigrants who were alienated by the increasingly secular and sexualized climate of England of the 1980s.

He told a University of Pittsburgh audience Friday he had memorized the Quran by age 11. He rallied around the ideology of Muslim supremacy, opposing against what he and his comrades perceived to be a decadent and oppressive West. He translated Arabic religious texts and helped spread the ideology of Salafism, a puritanical form of Islam, and even fought briefly in Afghanistan against Soviet occupiers.

But bit by bit, his extreme views faded. The idealism of the Afghanistan resistance crumbled as jihadis turned fiercely on each other. He began to see extremist Islam as oppressive of women and minorities.

The Sept. 11, 2001 murders of thousands of Americans deepened his soul-searching, as did the brutal murders of schoolchildren in Beslan, Russia, in 2004.

Then came “7/7” — terrorist bombings on the London transit system on July 7, 2005 by Quran-quoting suicide bombers.

“Not only was it an attack on my city, it was an attack on my religion, on its most sacred symbols,” Mr. Hasan said. “For me that was the last straw. I had begun speaking against extremism before, but after 7/7, I realized there was no time to sit back. We have to take on the extremists openly.”

Mr. Hasan spoke at the the conference, “Countering Violent Extremism in the United States and European Union,” held at the Twentieth Centurty Club in Oakland Thursday and Friday. It was organized through the European Union Center of Excellence and European Studies Center, part of Pitt’s University Center for International Studies.

The conference brought together leading scholars from North America and Europe in the growing field of countering violent extremism — which even has its own acronym, CVE, among those in the field — along with government employees and Muslims working to within their own communities, from Pittsburgh to London.

“It’s been a fantastic opportunity to learn from these people,” said Michael Kenney, associate professor of international affairs at Pitt and organizer of the conference. “We want to increase awareness without creating hysteria.”

Multiple speakers agreed there’s no easy way to identify a potential terrorist who claims to act in the name of Islam.

Of those radicalized in the West — still a small minority of Muslims and even rarer in the United States than in Europe — some are deeply religious, some aren’t. Some are converts, some aren’t. Some have criminal records, some don’t.

And experts pointed out that many people, like Mr. Hasan, embrace extreme ideologies without ever engaging in terrorism.

Mr. Hasan said Muslims need to do their part in cultivating a religion that comes to terms with modernity, including the scientific method and democracy.

“Islam is a beautiful religion and has many things to offer the world, but so does Western society,” he said.

Targeting Muslims and mosques with blanket suspicion, is counter-productive, speakers said.

“As much as looking at radicalization is important, we need to keep in mind the numbers are extremely low, and a focus on radicalization might actually increase biases against Muslim communities in the U.S.,” said Barak Mendelsohn, associate professor of political science at Haverford College near Philadelphia and a researcher into radical religious groups.

He said the United States may not be able to solve the roots of terrorist groups in the chaos of such lands as Syria, Iraq and Libya. But he said the nation needs a strategy.

“If the U.S. really wants to make a difference, it needs to think really hard about what it's doing in the Middle East,” he said.

Photo by Bill Wade/Post-Gazette
Moderator Michael Kenny, Associate Professor at the University of Pittsburgh, left, and Usama Hasan, senior researcher at the Quilliam Foundation in the U.K., and a former radical salafi activist, listens to another speaker April 10 at the Countering Violent Extremism in the United States and European Union conference by the University Center for International Studies and held at the Twentieth Century Club.


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