A look at religious groups in the news

Written by Father Joseph Wallace
As director of ecumenical and interreligious affairs, I’m often asked about different religious groups who are prominent in news stories of the day. Two such groups that I have been asked about recently are the Black Hebrew Israelites who were involved in the recent standoff at the Lincoln Memorial involving a group of students from Covington Catholic High School, and Abu Sayyaf, who were the perpetrators of the heinous and deadly bombings at the Cathedral on Jolo island in the Philippines last Sunday.

While the Islamic State (ISIS) claimed responsibility for the Sunday bombings at the Cathedral of Our Lady of Mount Carmel, that took the lives of 20 people and injuring scores of others during the holy sacrifice of the Mass, the real culprits — perhaps inspired by the hateful instigation of ISIS —was a fanatical group in the Philippines known as Abu Sayyaf. This was not the first bombing of this particular church by Abu Sayyaf.

A Philippine army member inspects damage inside the Cathedral of Our Lady of Mount Carmel following a bomb blast in Jolo Jan. 27, 2019. The explosion, just before morning Mass, killed at least 20 people and wounded dozens of others. CNS photo/Armed Forces of the Philippines via Reuters

These bombings seem to be connected to a recent referendum in a majority-Muslim area that approved the creation of the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in areas of southern Philippines. But voters in Sulu province, where Jolo is located, rejected it. The referendum was the result of a peace deal between the government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, another Muslim separatist group in the Philippines. Government officials have previously expressed hope that the vote could be a political solution to try to end decades of fighting between Islamist separatists and the Philippine army in this overwhelmingly Catholic country. It seems Abu Sayyaf does not want a peaceful solution that has dogged this part of the Philippines for decades.

Who is Abu Sayyaf? They are unofficially known as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant in the Philippines. They are a Jihadist militant and pirate group that follows the fundamentalist Islamic doctrine of the Wahhabi sect of Sunni Islam. They have been involved in bombings, kidnappings, assassination, extortion, rape, child sexual assault, forced marriage, drive-by shootings and drug trafficking. The group was estimated to have between 200 and 400 members, down from 1,250 in the year 2000. They were founded by Abdurajak Abubakar Janjalani in the 1990s. They too want an autonomous state but one that is ultimately ruled by them. Many have even questioned if they are truly adherents to Islam.

Two kidnap victims, Martin and Gracia Burnham, who were held by the group for over a year, reported that they “gently engaged their captors in theological discussions” and found that the Abu Sayyaf fighters were actually unfamiliar with the Qur’an. They said that the group had only “a sketchy” understanding of Islam, which they believed was “a set of behavioral rules, to be violated when it suited them.” An expert on the group, Mark Bowden, said, as “holy warriors, they were justified in kidnapping, killing and stealing. Having sex with women captives was justified by their claiming them as ‘wives.’”

The group involved in the Covington Catholic High School controversy are known as the Black Hebrew Israelites. They are sometimes also called Black Hebrews, African Hebrew Israelites or Hebrew Israelites. They were founded around the end of the 19th century by Frank Cherry and William Saunders Crowdy, who claimed that African Americans were descendants of the Hebrews mentioned in the Bible. Cherry established the Church of the Living God, the Pillar Ground of Truth for All Nations in 1886, and Crowdy founded the Church of God and Saints of Christ in 1896.

Many of the African American Christians in the past, due to slavery and discrimination, often identified themselves spiritually with the Israelites. However, in the late 19th century some claimed to be biological descendants of Israel. Today there are a number of groups who trace their origin to the late 19th century. Historian James Tinney has identified the classification of the organizations into three groups: Black Jews, who maintain a Christological perspective and adopt Jewish rules; Black Hebrews, who are more traditional in their practice of Judaism; and Black Israelites, who are mostly nationalistic and furthest from traditional Judaism. In late 2008, the Southern Poverty Law Center, described as black supremacist what it called “the extremist fringe of the Hebrew Israelite movement.”

They added that such groups “believe that Jews are devilish impostors and … openly condemn whites as evil personified, deserving only death of slavery.” They also said that “most Hebrew Israelites are neither explicitly racist nor anti-Semitic and do not advocate violence.”

Father Joseph D. Wallace is director, Ecumenical and Inter-religious Affairs, Diocese of Camden.