.- As a passionate soccer fan, Jennifer Bryson has been faithfully watching every game she can during the 2018 FIFA World Cup. But as a religious freedom expert, she’s found herself wondering how, and why, soccer authorities regulate the many religious expressions on display in the international soccer tournament.
“Sport is so relevant to religious freedom because it offers a shared civic space where people from diverse traditions come together and compete towards a common goal,” said Bryson, who is the director of the Religious Freedom Institute’s Islam and Religious Freedom Action Team.
Bryson watches for the moments when an athlete visibly prays in gratitude after a goal or makes the sign of the cross while coming onto the field, noting how the referees react to these religious expressions.
Between social media and worldwide television broadcasts, faith has been widely on display in this year’s World Cup in Russia. The Tunisian soccer team recited the Quran together in the team room, and Mexico’s soccer team celebrated Mass before their unexpected victory against Germany. A Nigerian athlete celebrated a win by waving his rosary. Egypt’s Mohamed Salah prostrated himself in prayer after scoring against Russia. A Catholic and an evangelical from opposing teams knelt down next to each other to pray after the Belgium-Panama match. Even the 2018 World Cup logo was inspired by the Russian tradition of icon painting, according to the FIFA website.
But in soccer’s recent history there have been several controversies over “demonstrative prayers” on the field.
Israeli soccer player Itay Shechter received a yellow card after he knelt on the field and prayed with a Jewish kippah after scoring a goal at UEFA Champions League game in Austria in 2010.
“For a Jewish player to get penalized for visible prayer in Austria was extra-controversial,” explained Bryson.
To defend Shechter’s right to pray, his coach, Eli Guttman said, “When a Christian player crosses himself after a goal, that’s also fine with me.”
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