Mario Venegas knew the regime deemed him a danger to the state when he was detained, without trial, due to his role in the Movement of the Revolutionary Left, or MIR – a Chilean political organization. During dictator Augusto Pinochet’s regime in Chile more than 40 years ago, Venegas spent more than two years in four different concentration camps where he faced torture – both emotionally and physically.
His country ultimately expelled him and he fled to the United Kingdom. But he couldn’t find work in the U.K., and he was rejected from countless opportunities because he was marked as a “communist,” he said. He moved to the U.S in the hope of getting a better job and starting life over.
Mario Venegas never gave up – he completed his Ph.D. in chemistry at the University of London, and worked as a chemist in the U.S. while fighting with various organizations to end human rights abuses such as politically sanctioned torture. He is a long-standing member of organizations such as Amnesty International, a non-governmental organization focused on human rights, and the Chicago Torture Justice Center, or CTJC, a community center for Chicago police torture survivors, among others.
The cards expressed caring, the joy of life and the “the possibility of miracles.”
Some 40 volunteers gathered at the Chicago Freedom School in downtown Chicago Sunday to write letters to incarcerated LGBTQ members across the nation. The “holiday card party” was organized by Black and Pink, a prison abolitionist organization supporting LGBTQ prisoners. This is the seventh Black and Pink card party organized by the Chicago chapter.
The holiday card party in Chicago, part of a larger national movement across the United States, involved autonomous Black and Pink chapters working to send letters to every incarcerated LGBTQ person who is in the Black and Pink network. The Chicago chapter aimed to send out 685 cards.
Gabriel Guzman spent three years of his 10-year prison term locked up in a small box-like cell for more than 22 hours a day. His time in solitary was broken up into stints of about four months each. Some were brought after he took part in fights but others, he said, were unwarranted.
He had next to no freedom and prison guards controlled almost every aspect of his life, he said.
“Your life becomes dictated by rules, regulations and other people controlling it,” he said. “It’s not the same in all prisons, but in Lawrence (Correctional Center in Sumner, Illinois) they handcuffed us and escorted us to the showers. We had no freedom.”
Released about three years ago after completing his sentence, Guzman, 33, now volunteers in Chicago to help other inmates. He washes laundry and rugs for a living.
At any given time, some 61,000 prisoners are in solitary confinement in the United States. While this marks a drop from an estimated 80,000 prisoners in solitary in 2014, many experts and activists argue that solitary confinement is unnecessary as there are better and more humane alternatives.
Some 70 people rallied in Federal Plaza in downtown Chicago recently to end the war in Yemen. Chicago Area Peace Action, or CAPA, a grassroots organization that works to reduce and eliminate the danger of nuclear weapons and militarism, organized the rally.
Hassan El-Tayyab, the policy and organizing director at CAPA, emphasized the need for citizens to call Senator Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.), to urge her to co-sign a bill that would end U.S. military involvement in Yemen.
The U.S. Senate recently passed a resolution 63 – 37 to debate ending U.S. support for the Saudi-led coalition’s war in Yemen. The wide margin reflects growing discontent with U.S. involvement in the war, and the Trump administration’s handling of the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi by the Saudis in the Saudi embassy in Turkey.
“Yemen is the world’s worst humanitarian crisis,” U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said in remarks in Geneva earlier this year.
To some imams, a mosque that promotes LGBTQ-affirming beliefs is almost unfathomable. Homosexuality is shunned by many conservative Muslim communities in the United States and abroad.
Kifah Mustapha, the imam and director of The Prayer Center at Orland Park, supports the conservative view. A mosque that accepts homosexuality and actively promotes acceptance of it, is not following the Islamic faith, Mustapha said.
“Homosexuality is a major sin in Islam,” he said. “To walk around and to tell everybody your sins and to ask them to accept these sins is not okay. We will not accept someone coming in and saying that this sinful act (homosexuality) has to be a part of the mosque, it doesn’t work like that.”
But a rising trend is welcoming LGBTQ members in Muslim communities.
Mahdia Lynn, a 30-year-old bisexual transgender Muslim activist, saw the need for a safe physical space for LGBTQ Muslims to practice their faith in Chicago. She founded Masjid al-Rabia, a women-centered and LGBTQ-affirming mosque in 2016. It is the first mosque in Chicago to openly welcome LGBTQ Muslims and part of a growing movement of progressive Muslim activists who are trying to open Islam to the LGBTQ community.
Hannah Fidler – a Chicago-based musician, teacher, activist and organizer – spends time writing letters to incarcerated LGBTQ Muslims across the United States every week, as part of Masjid al-Rabia’s prison outreach program based in Chicago.
She writes to them about their favorite colors, commiserates on the tendency of many Muslim communities to reject those who identify as queer, and discusses their personal hajj pilgrimages. Fidler also tells them about current initiatives run by Masjid al-Rabia, Chicago’s first LGBTQ affirming mosque.
“There are a lot of people who have expressed that the letter writing program with Masjid al-Rabia reflects the first time in their entire lives that someone was willing to hold space for both their queerness and their Muslim-ness,” Fidler said in an interview.
Religious freedom as a First Amendment right is something that many American Muslims who immigrated from countries such as Albania, will never take for granted. The country had a communist government that declared atheism as the country’s official religion until 1990.
“If you were to wear a cross around your neck, you’d either be killed or go to jail. [If you] have a Quranic verse on your wall and you were found out, same thing,” said Hysni Selenica, an American Muslim whose family came from Albania, in an audio recording. “So I understand what I have, and I am going to practice my religion to the best of my ability.”
The recording is part of a growing archive initiated by the Chicago History Museum. The museum held a rough cut “listening party” Monday featuring audio stories of American Muslims from the city and suburbs. The audio party was a sneak peek into an exhibition that the museum plans to launch in Oct 2019 that will focus on the stories of American Muslims residing in the Chicago area. The exhibition will also include artifacts from American Muslims but its main focus will be on the oral histories of those interviewed for the recordings.
Jafar Farah, the founder and director of The Mossawa Center, a non-profit advocacy center for Palestinian Arab citizens in Israel based in Haifa, said that the harsh policies taken by the U.S. also led to the passing of the Jewish Nation-State Law in Israel. The law made the right to exercise self-determination in the State of Israel unique to the Jewish people, established the state’s official language as Hebrew while demoting Arabic to a “special status” and regulated the use of Arabic in state institutions.
Earlier this year, a Muslim woman donning a Shalwar Kameez, a traditional Indian outfit, walked down the aisle to marry a Christian man wearing a suit.
The celebration welcomed some 200 people from both the bride’s and groom’s families. It ended with the bride and groom saying “I do,” followed by the signing of their Nikkah certificate, an official Islamic marriage certificate. It was an interfaith wedding.
Muslim women are not allowed to marry non-Muslim men under most interpretations of Islamic law, but Ani Zonneveld, the imam who officiated the wedding, said that such marriages are becoming increasingly common and that she believes they should continue to take place. In fact, from her understanding of the Quran, interfaith weddings are not prohibited.
“It doesn’t say anywhere in the Quran that a Muslim woman cannot marry a non-Muslim man,” she said. “Yet, in practice, we as Muslim women were taught and told that we can only marry Muslim men. It’s just hogwash, a total lie.”