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Foxhole Faith in Nagorno-Karabakh

Note: This article was written prior to the cessation of hostilities concluded between Azerbaijan, Armenia, and Russia.

The Armenian mountain stronghold of Shushi is under attack.

The second city of Nagorno-Karabakh, one of its oldest artifacts is a 15th-century Bible. Earlier in the conflict this year, its 19th-century cathedral was struck twice and damaged by missiles.

But Azerbaijanis—who call it Shusha—celebrate it also as a cultural heritage. Many of their famous poets and musicians hail from the once-mixed city.

As the six-week war progressed, Azerbaijan steadily retook the plains below. But facing the coming winter, its military faced a stark choice: impose a siege, or scale the mountain.

Without Shusha, President Ilham Aliyev said, the job is only half done.

Despite its Armenian-majority population, Nagorno-Karabakh was assigned to Azerbaijan in the 1920s by Joseph Stalin. Both nations became independent in 1991, and the mountainous enclave conducted a referendum to declare itself the Republic of Artsakh. Ethnic warfare gripped the region, with 30,000 killed and around 1 million displaced.

Population transfers largely emptied each nation of its opposite ethnicity.

At the time of the ceasefire in 1994, Armenians controlled roughly 20 percent of Azerbaijan. No nation recognized Artsakh, and internationally sponsored negotiations began—and eventually stalled.

But buoyed by a financial windfall from oil and gas exports to Europe, as well as advanced weapons from Israel and Turkey, in late September Azerbaijan pressed its military advantage. If successful, it will perch above Stepanakert, the capital city of Nagorno-Karabakh, only six miles away.

“After 28 years, the adhan [call to prayer] will be heard in Shusha,” celebrated Aliyev. “Our victory march continues.”

Armenian forces say the fighting continues.

“So far, Armenians have successfully pushed back all attempts to take over this homeland,” said Harout Nercessian, the Armenia representative for the Armenian Missionary Association of America (AMAA).

“We will never surrender Shushi.” But within the debate over whether the conflict with Muslim-majority Azerbaijan is a religious war with Christian Armenians, signs of faith, piety, and pleas for divine favor mark many of the partisans, including…

This article was originally published at Christianity Today, on November 9, 2020. Please click here to read the full text.

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Azerbaijan Evangelicals: Conflict with Armenians Is Not a Religious War

Church of Kish in Azerbaijan, by Asif Masimov

Vadim Melnikov once fought for the land of Noah.

Donning his Azerbaijani uniform 17 years ago, the ethnic Russian took his post to defend Nakhchivan, an Azeri enclave bordering Turkey and separated from their countrymen by the nation of Armenia.

Known in both the Armenian and Azeri languages as “the place of descent,” referring to Noah’s landing on nearby Mt. Ararat, Nakhchivan is a geographical reminder of the mixed ethnic composition of the Caucasus Mountains.

As is Nagorno-Karabakh, an Armenian enclave within Azerbaijan.

Its etymology is also a reminder of the region’s diversity. Nagorno is Russian for mountains, while Karabakh combines the Turkic for black and the Persian for garden.

Armenians call it Artsakh, the name of a province in their ancient kingdom. For the last three weeks, they have been defending their de facto control of the region as Azerbaijan fights to reassert its sovereignty.

As Melnikov did decades ago in Nakhchivan. Armenian soldiers crossed into Azeri mountain villages, before his unit drove them out.

This was one of the many border conflicts that followed a war of demography. But in the years before and after the 1991 independence of both nations, about 30,000 people were killed as hundreds of thousands on both sides fled or were driven to their lands of ethnic majority.

A 1994 ceasefire established the status quo, and the Minsk Group—headed by Russia, France, and the United States—preside over negotiations.

Despite the previous ethnic violence, Azerbaijan boasts that it remains a nation of multicultural tolerance. Of its 10 million population, 96 percent are Muslim—roughly two-thirds Shiite and one-third Sunni. Russian Orthodox represent two-thirds of the Christian population, while over 15,000 Jews date back to the Old Testament era.

Melnikov is part of the 0.26 percent evangelical community. And on behalf of their nation, eight churches and the Azerbaijan Bible Society wrote an open letter to decry the popular conception that this conflict pits Muslims against Christians. (Nearly 700 Armenian soldiers have been killed so far. Azerbaijan does not disclose military casualties.)

“The war which has been between Azerbaijan and Armenia during the last 30 years is purely political confrontation, it has no religious context,” they wrote.

“In fact, this history and [the] continuous attempts of Armenia to present this war as a religious one, can become a stumbling block for many Azerbaijani people, who hear [the] gospel nowadays.” An earlier letter by leaders of Azerbaijan’s Muslim, Jewish, and Russian Orthodox communities…

This article was originally published at Christianity Today, on October 21, 2020. Please click here to read the full text.

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Turks and Armenians Reconcile in Christ. Can Azeris Join Them?

By Սէրուժ Ուրիշեան (Serouj Ourishian)

Bahri Beytel never thought he would find Turkish food in Armenia.

An ethnic Turk and former Muslim, the pastor of Bethel Church in Istanbul skipped McDonalds and KFC in Yerevan, the capital city, in order to complete a spiritual mission.

Six years ago, prompted to take a journey of reconciliation, he went in search of an authentic Armenian restaurant—and found lahmajun, a flatbread topped with minced meat, vegetables, and spices.

One letter was off from the Turkish spelling. Smiling, he ordered it anyway, in English.

“Are you a Turk?” snapped the owner—in Turkish—after Beytel pronounced it incorrectly. “God spare me from becoming a Turk.”

The owner’s family hailed from Gaziantep, near Turkey’s border with Syria, which before the genocide was a mixed religious city with a thriving Armenian community. Ignoring the insult, the pastor explained he was a Christian, not a Muslim, and had come to ask for forgiveness on behalf of his ancestors.

Up to 1.5 million Armenians were killed between 1914–1923, as the Ottoman Empire crumbled. Once home to many diverse Christian communities, the modern state was built on a secular but ethnic Turkish foundation.

No Turk can be a Christian, the restaurant owner scoffed. He demanded the secret sign made centuries ago by believers in the catacombs.

Beytel drew the fish.

By the end of the conversation, the man gave him a hug, with a tear in his eye.

“If Turkey takes one step, the Armenians are ready to forgive,” said Beytel, of his time at a conference in the Armenian capital. “It was amazing to hear them call me brother.” There was more to come. One year later…

This article was originally published at Christianity Today, on October 21, 2020. Please click here to read the full text.

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Symbolic Armenian Church Shelled in Clashes with Azerbaijan

Ghazanchetsots (Holy Saviour) Cathedral in the city of Shusha

… The Armenian Foreign Ministry denounced the shelling as a “monstrous crime and a challenge to the civilized humankind,” warning Azerbaijan that targeting religious sites amounts to a war crime.

Azerbaijan’s Defense Ministry denied attacking the cathedral, saying its army “doesn’t target historical, cultural and, especially, religious buildings and monuments.”

A priest at the cathedral, who identified himself only as Father Andreas, expressed anguish over the attack.

“I feel the pain that the walls of our beautiful cathedral are destroyed,” he said. “I feel the pain that today the world does not react to what’s happening here and that our boys are dying defending our Motherland.”

Built in 1888, the cathedral suffered significant damage during ethnic violence in 1920. It was restored after fighting between Armenian and Azerbaijani forces in the 1990s and is the Armenian Apostolic Church’s diocesan headquarters in Nagorno-Karabakh, which it calls the Republic of Artsakh.

Standing 115 feet tall, it is understood to be one of the largest Armenian churches in the world.

“They are bombarding our spiritual values,” Artsakh Archbishop Pargev Martirosyan told ArmenPress, equating the incident with ISIS terrorism, “when we are restoring and preserving mosques.”

Located in Shusha, the cathedral is located far from the “line of contact” [about 25 miles] separating the two militaries.

It is also the site of Armenian-rebuilt mosques, with a special place in Azerbaijani history.

“Religion is an important element, but not the only element,” said Mark Movsesian, co-director of the Center for Law and Religion at St. John’s University Law School, during a Philos Project webinar briefing today. “But [this shelling] is hard to interpret except as…

This article was originally published at Christianity Today on October 9, 2020. I contributed additional reporting to the AP. Please click here to read the full text.

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Armenians Fight to Hold Ancient Homeland Within Azerbaijan

Fierce fighting has broken out in the Caucasus mountains between the Caspian and Black seas, pitting Christian Armenians versus Muslim Azeris.

But is it right to employ their religious labels?

“Early Sunday morning [Sept. 27], I received a phone call from our representative in the capital city,” said Harout Nercessian, the Armenia representative for the Armenian Missionary Association of America (AMAA).

“He said they are bombing Stepanakert. It is a war.”

One week later, the fighting continues. At stake is control over the Armenian-majority enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh, home to 170,000 people in a Delaware-sized mountainous region within Azerbaijan.

More than 200 people have reportedly died, though Azerbaijan has not released its number of casualties.

Administered by ethnic Armenians ever since a ceasefire was declared in 1994, locals call the region the Republic of Artsakh. Military skirmishes have not been unusual. There have been more than 300 incidents since 2015, according to the International Crisis Group.

This escalation is the most serious since 2016, with Azerbaijani forces attacking multiple positions along the 120-mile “line of contact.”

But the shelling of civilian cities represents a worrisome development.

As does the role of Turkey—and the Syrian militants it allegedly recruited—which has pledged full support for Azerbaijan.

Russia, France, and the United States—partners in the “Minsk Group” which has overseen negotiations between the two nations since 1992—have called for an immediate ceasefire. But Turkey has encouraged Azerbaijan President Ilham Aliyev’s refusal, conditioning a ceasefire on…

This article was originally published at Christianity Today, on October 6, 2020. Please click here to read the full text.

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Sri Lankan Sunday School Was ‘Willing to Die for Christ’ on Easter. Half Did.

Sri Lanka Sunday School
(Getty, via the Independent)

This article was originally published at Christianity Today, on April 25, 2019.

In most Sunday schools, the question is an academic exercise.

“How many of you are willing to die for Christ?” asked the teacher on Easter morning. Every one of the children dutifully raised their hands.

A few minutes later, the Sri Lankan class descended to Zion Church’s main service, passing through an outside courtyard where a stranger was speaking with church leaders. He had discovered there was no Easter morning Mass at the nearby Catholic church in Batticaloa, and was wondering when the service would begin here. He asked about the healing service.

Observers report he was sweating profusely. A pastor invited him to take off his backpack. Then, an explosion—many inside thought it was the generator.

Half the children died on the spot.

“All the children had responded [to their teacher’s question] by putting their hands up, and signaled their fresh dedication to Jesus by lighting a symbolic candle,” recounts a seminary leader [full testimony in sidebar below]. “For so many of those children, it would be their final act of worship.”

In total, at least 26 worshipers—including 16 children—were killed and 100 injured at Zion, a charismatic congregation in the Fellowship of Free Churches in Sri Lanka. Two Catholic churches in and near Colombo on the island nation’s opposite coast were also attacked by suicide bombers that morning, along with three hotels. The death toll currently stands at 253, revised down from 359.

But this is not the only Christian tragedy.

Sri Lankan authorities have now arrested 76 local Muslim extremists and one Syrian, placing the blame on the National Thowheeth Jama’ath (NTJ) movement. ISIS has claimed responsibility, calling it revenge for the massacre at a New Zealand mosque last month.

In response, gangs of young Christian men are now marauding Muslim neighborhoods. People have been assaulted. Shops have been destroyed. Hundreds of Pakistani refugees—mostly Ahmadis, a persecuted minority themselves—have fled the area around St. Sebastian’s, the Catholic church in Negombo where more than 100 worshipers perished.

“How we process this new reality and respond will determine the character and the witness of the Church of Jesus Christ in Sri Lanka,” Ivor Poobalan, principal of evangelical Colombo Theological Seminary, told CT…

Please click here to read the full article at Christianity Today.

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How Should Christians Respond to Christchurch Mosque Massacre?

Christchurch Mosque
Jorge Silva, REUTERS | A police officer is pictured outside Masjid Al Noor mosque in Christchurch, New Zealand, March 17, 2019

This article was first published at Christianity Today on March 18, 2019.

Last Friday, Muslim worshipers at two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand, suffered a terrorist attack at the hands of an avowed white supremacist. 50 people were killed, with another 50 injured.

Prior to the attack, the citizen of Australia posted a lengthy manifesto to social media, filled with anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim themes. He then proceeded to livestream the shooting. Some victims originally hailed from Pakistan, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Bangladesh, Indonesia, and Malaysia.

Given recent attacks on Christians in their places of worship, including many in Muslim nations, CT invited evangelical leaders to weigh in: How should Christians respond to Christchurch?

Richard Shumack, director of the Arthur Jeffery Centre for the Study of Islam at Melbourne School of Theology, Australia:

The thing that came to mind immediately is Jesus’ beatitudes. How should Christians react to Christchurch? With mourning, a hunger for justice, and peacemaking. Christians must mourn with their Muslim brothers and sisters, thirst for the perpetrators of this heinous crime to be brought to justice, and put every possible effort into brokering peace in an age of furious tribalism.

I also embrace wholeheartedly the poignant wisdom of Dostoevsky quoted by the Anglican bishop of Wellington, New Zealand: At some ideas you stand perplexed, especially at the sight of human sins, uncertain whether to combat it by force or by humble love. Always decide, “I will combat it with humble love.” If you make up your mind about that once and for all, you can conquer the whole world. Loving humility is a terrible force; it is the strongest of all things and there is nothing like it.

Mark Durie, Anglican pastor from Melbourne, Australia, and author of books on Islam:

Alexander Solzhenitsyn observed…

Please click here to read the full article at Christianity Today.

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Covenantal Theology: Can Muhammad’s Ancient Promise Inspire Muslim-Christian Peace Today?

Supreme Court of Pakistan
(Reuters)

This article was first published at Christianity Today, on December 21.

Christians esteem the biblical progression of covenants—Abrahamic, Mosaic, Davidic—finalized by Jesus as he ushered in the New.

But for the sake of religious freedom in the Muslim world, should they embrace a further covenant: Muhammadian?

Recent scholarship suggests the potential promise, newly fulfilled in Pakistan.

After eight long years on death row, Asia Bibi was acquitted of blasphemy by the Muslim nation’s Supreme Court in late October. The Christian mother of five had been sentenced for uttering contempt for Muhammad, the prophet of Islam, while attempting to drink water from a well.

The three-judge panel ruled that contradictions in accuser testimony and Bibi’s forced confession by a local cleric rendered the charges invalid. But in the official court document, one justice went as far as to partially base his judgement on how Bibi’s accusers violated an ancient covenant of Muhammad to the Christian monks of Mount Sinai—“eternal and universal … not limited to [them] alone.”

“Blasphemy is a serious offense,” wrote judge Asif Khosa, “but the insult of the appellant’s religion … was also not short of being blasphemous.”

He referenced a 2013 book by John Morrow, a Canadian convert to Islam. The Covenants of the Prophet Muhammad with the Christians of the World is an academic study of six treaties commanding the kind treatment of Christians, reportedly dated to the seventh century.

Each similar in scope, they command Muslims not to attack peaceful Christian communities, to aid in the construction and repair of churches, and even to allow self-regulation of tax payments.

It is “nothing short of providential,” Morrow wrote, that they have been “rediscovered” at a time of widespread Islamist violence against the Christians of the Middle East.

“For Muslims, it means a wake-up call, an awareness that they have deviated from the Islamic tradition,” Morrow told Patheos, a popular religion and spirituality website.

“[It] requires that Muslims not only tolerate Christians, but love them as their brothers and sisters.”

This resonates with…

Please click here to read the full article at Christianity Today.

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They Will Know We are Christians by Our Drinks

This article was first published in the April print edition of Christianity Today.

Muslim World Alcohol

The deadliest incident faced by the persecuted church last Christmas wasn’t radical Islamists. It was alcohol.

Liquor mixed with aftershave killed about 50 people at Christmas parties in a Pakistani village, and sickened about 100 more.

In Pakistan, as in many Muslim-majority nations where Shari‘ah law forbids drinking, alcohol is closely identified with Christianity. The nation’s primary alcohol producer, for example, riffs on the Bible in advertisements. Founded in 1860 by the British, Murree Brewery’s slogan, “Eat, drink, and be Murree,” echoes the repeated biblical idiom for short-term pleasures.

Perhaps as surprising as the existence of a Pakistani brewery is the fact that 12 Muslims were among the victims of the fatal Christmas parties. But in 2007, then–Murree CEO Minnoo Bhandara told The Telegraph that 99 percent of his customers are Muslims. And in the Middle East, alcohol sales increased 72 percent from 2001 to 2011, according to market research.

Still, in most Muslim countries only Christians may buy or consume alcohol. But not all do. Wilson Chowdhry, chairman of the British Pakistani Christian Association, estimates that about half of Pakistani Christian men drink. Roman Catholics are slightly more inclined; Protestants less so. But the women of both branches of Christianity, he says, are fully opposed.

Chowdhry, an evangelical, believes alcohol is licit for the Christian; but in deference to his wife, he does not drink. Common arguments in Pakistan will feel familiar to Americans…

Please click here to read the full article at Christianity Today.

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World’s Biggest Muslim Organization Wants to Protect Christians

Nahdlatul Ulama
From the Jakarta Post: President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo (center), accompanied by State Secretary Pratikno (second right), talks with Nahdlatul Ulama (NU) advisory board chairman Maruf Amin (second left) at the State Palace on March 31, during the International Summit of The Moslem Moderate Leader.(ANTARA FOTO/Yudhi Mahatma)

From my recent article at Christianity Today, published May 18, 2016:

Secretary of State John Kerry recently confirmed what most already knew: ISIS is committing genocide against Christians and other religious minorities in the Middle East.

Many Islamic leaders knew it too. In January, 200 Muslim religious leaders, heads of state, and scholars gathered in Morocco. They released the Marrakesh Declaration, a 750-word document calling for majority-Muslim countries to protect the freedom of religious minorities, including Christians.

Last week, another 300 Muslim religious leaders from about 30 countries did much the same. Gathering in Jakarta, Indonesia, the country with the largest Muslim populus and historically known for its religious peace, the leaders denounced extremism and addressed its causes.

Texas pastor Bob Roberts, who has been actively building relationships with Muslims, thinks this is a sign of things to come. Roberts was present at the Morocco conference but not Indonesia.

“Muslim majority nations are now making statements globally and nationally to push back on extremism, and you will see more of it,” the evangelical interfaith leader told CT. “This is sending signals to their citizens and the world that the tide is turning.”

The Indonesian conference was hosted by Nahdlatul Ulama (NU), the largest Muslim organization in the world, and was opened by the vice president of the officially secular country.

Please click here to read the full article at Christianity Today.

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An ‘Arab Spring’ Moment in India

P.V. Rajagopal

This blog does not venture outside the Arab world very often, but today I will share a story I helped edit for Lapido Media. Sunny Peter is the author and reports on an ‘Arab Spring / Occupy Wall Street’ moment from India.

Of course, India is the originator of much non-violent theory and practice, and has much to teach the above mentioned imitators.

The story that follows is especially informative. Some of the Arab Spring has turned violent. The Occupy movement seemed like a party. Both relied simply on filling up a space and waiting.

By contrast, this India achievement is much more proactive. It starts as a march, requiring substantial effort on the part of protestors. Then, as a march, it takes time. Not only does this maximize media attention, it leaves room for negotiation.

Please enjoy the story that follows, and click here for the original article on Lapido.

———————-

Recalling the spirit of Mahatma Gandhi, 50,000 mostly lower-caste Indians marched over 120 kilometers to secure a comprehensive government agreement on land reform. A ten point document in lieu of a promised National Land Reform Act was signed by India’s Minister of Rural Development Jairam Ramesh and movement leader P.V. Rajagopal in the presence of cheering protestors.

Rajagopal is the founder and president of Ekta Parishad, a non-violent social movement working for land and forest rights. Several hundred other Indian and international community-based groups, civil rights organizations, NGOs, and aid organizations also supported the march.

It was a struggle ‘for dignity, security, and identity’, according to Rajagopal in an Ekta Parishad press release.

The connection to Gandhi was deliberate. The march began on October 2, Gandhi’s birthday, which is also the International Day of Non-Violence.

Imitating Gandhi’s 1930 Salt March to the Sea, Rajagopal assembled landless, lower caste Dalits and tribal Indians from throughout the country in the city of Gawlior, 350 kilometers south of New Delhi. By October 28 over 100,000 protestors were expected to present their demands in the capital city.

Dalits are traditionally regarded as untouchables within a largely Hindu social structure in India. Although a majority of them are Hindus, in several provinces they have converted to Buddhism or other religions.

Recently, several smaller civil anti-corruption movements have disrupted New Delhi and other cities. Not wanting to see another mass descent on the capital, the Indian government began negotiations even before the march commenced.

The agreement was signed along route in Agra, over 200 kilometers away. As the crowd celebrated and dispersed, the government bought itself a six month window for implementation.

Jan Satygraha: Non-Violent Protestors

‘The deprived people are often silent spectators to their own misery,’ stated Rajagopal in a movement blog. ‘They often need someone to help them voice their concerns and fight for their rights.’

In rural India land is both a means of economic sustenance and a denominator for citizenship. A lack of property deeds is a cause of poverty, often preventing citizens from obtaining insurance for crops, loans from banks, and access to other government services.

Though few would dispute the need for a better system, even government statistics do not present uniform data for analysis. The 2009 Report by the Committee on State Agrarian Relations and the Unfinished Task in Land Reforms is a prime example.

The report quotes surveys from different government studies, including the 1997 Draft Plan Paper. It establishes 77 percent of Dalits and 90 percent of the indigenous tribes are either de jure or de facto landless.

Despite its internal contradictions, however, the report reveals the appalling social gap inherent in rural India’s entrenched feudal hierarchy.  Large landowners invariably belong to the upper castes, while cultivators belong to the middle castes. As for lower caste agricultural workers, they found representation in the march.

Without land title, Dalits and others are subject to exploitation. Once uprooted from their homestead, many move to the slum pockets of urban centers as unskilled laborers.

Some take to violence and join armed rebel movements. In 2006 Prime Minister Dr Manmohan Singh called such insurgencies the ‘single biggest internal security challenge ever faced’.

These challenges and statistics belie the fact that India’s socialist-leaning policies are enshrined in the constitution, which guarantees indigenous people the right to own the land they live on. Yet according to a 2001 report from the Indian Rural Development Ministry, only 1.3 percent of arable land has been redistributed.

Past pressures on the government have not succeeded in enacting reform. Rajagopal’s October 2 march follows up on earlier non-violent protests organized by Ekta Parishad.

Dalit March

A 2007 march consisting of 25,000 people also marched 350 kilometers to highlight the plight of landless Dalits. They disbanded following a government promise to study the issue. Two different committees submitted reports to the National Land Reform Council in 2009, but it never met to examine the recommendations.

This time, government signatory Ramesh assured his personal support for the demands, though he cautioned not everything could be implemented. Still, the promise of a national land reform policy within six months is a significant improvement. An Ekta Parishad press release states this could assure land title for up to 2.5 million people.

An extra 75,000 protestors makes a difference. It also reflects the philosophy of Rajagopal.

‘A country like India where problems are so many will demand larger mobilization to bring about basic change,’ he states on Ekta Parishad’s website.

‘We are trying to address change at the social and economic level. We are also interested in strengthening a process of participatory democracy and responsible governance.’

Responsible government is best assured through transparent institutions, but Rajagopal is prepared to continue the mobilization as necessary.

‘If nothing happens in six months we will assemble here in Agra and march to Delhi,’ he stated to the Indian press.

Considering the abysmal record of land reform over 65 years of independence, it remains to be seen how much the government can accomplish in six months.

If not, Agra is just a hiatus in a long struggle.

All photos courtesy of Ekta Parishad

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