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Will International Religious Freedom Survive the Trump Administration?

On June 2, as protests over the death of George Floyd raged across the United States, President Donald Trump elevated the stature of religious freedom within the State Department.

“Religious freedom for all people worldwide is a foreign policy priority,” read the executive order (EO) he signed, “and the United States will respect and vigorously promote this freedom.”

It received almost no media attention.

The provisions—long called for by many advocates of international religious freedom (IRF)—could overhaul a US foreign policy that has historically sidelined support for America’s “first freedom.”

That is, if the order survives a potential Joe Biden administration.

It is common for a new president to reverse EOs issued by their predecessor. In his eight years in office, President Obama issued 30 to amend or rescind Bush-era policies. In his first year in office, Trump issued 17 directed at Obama-era policies.

While IRF has typically enjoyed bipartisan support, current political polarization leaves few sacred cows.

Trump signed the EO after a visit to the Pope John Paul II National Shrine in Washington, DC. It was previously scheduled to coincide with the anniversary of the Polish-born pope’s 1979 return to his home nation, which set off a political and spiritual revolution that defied the Soviet Union and eventually ended the Cold War.

However, Washington’s Catholic archbishop called it “baffling and reprehensible” the facility would allow itself to be manipulated one day after Trump lifted a Bible in front of St. John’s Anglican Church across from the White House in the wake of the aggressive dispersal of protesters opposing police brutality and racial injustice.

The president’s gesture risked corroborating critics who argue that Trump’s religious freedom policies are a nod only to evangelical Christians concerned for fellow believers.

But while the Bible photo op divided evangelicals, should Trump’s IRF credentials definitively tilt the scale come elections in November?

“President Trump’s executive order will make the commitment to international religious freedom more robust,” said former congressman Frank Wolf, arguing the Trump administration has been markedly stronger on the issue than those of either party.

“If you care about religious freedom…

This article was first published at Christianity Today on June 30, 2020. Please click here to read the full text.

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Israel Orders Christian TV Channel to Stop Broadcasting

Israeli regulators on Sunday announced they ordered a US-based evangelical broadcaster taken off the air, saying the channel hid its missionary agenda when it applied for a license.

In his decision, Asher Biton, chairman of the Cable and Satellite Broadcasting Council, said he had informed GOD TV on Thursday last week that it had seven days to stop broadcasting its new Shelanu channel.

“The channel appeals to Jews with Christian content,” he wrote. “Its original request,” he said, stated that it was a “station targeting the Christian population.”

The decision was first reported by the Haaretz daily.

And today, Shelanu announced that its satellite provider, HOT, has dropped the channel altogether—likely due to Israeli pressure.

“In a free and democratic society such as Israel, we would have received approval for our new license, and if not, we would have won in court,” stated Ron Cantor, Shelanu’s Israeli spokesman, in a press release. “The only thing that could have stopped our channel from being aired was if HOT broke our relationship.”

If there is no public apology and clarification, Shelanu plans to sue Biton.

The channel said its existing license “stated unequivocally” that it would broadcast its content in Hebrew to the Israeli public. Most Christians in the Holy Land speak Arabic.

“Therefore it is not at all clear what was wrong beyond political considerations,” it said.

According to a copy of its original application and approval, obtained by CT, Shelanu identified itself as “a Christian religion channel broadcasting Christian content … for the audience of Israeli viewers … [in] Hebrew and English.”

Nowhere did the channel state…

This article was first published at Christianity Today, on June 30, 2020. Please click here for the full text.

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Can Hagia Sophia Become a Mosque? Turkish Court Will Soon Decide

Embed from Getty Images

After 85 years as a museum, the Hagia Sophia is poised to once again become a mosque. Might it also again become a church?

A Turkish court is scheduled to rule on July 2 if the iconic Byzantine basilica can be opened for Muslim worship.

Built in 537 by Emperor Justinian, in 1453 the Ottoman sultan Mehmet II converted the Hagia Sophia into a mosque. Five centuries later, the secularizing founder of modern Turkey, Kamal Ataturk, turned it into a museum.

UNESCO designated the Hagia Sophia as a World Heritage Site in 1985.

President Recep Erdogan has long stated his desire that the building would welcome prayer. In March, he led guests in silent Quranic recitation on the 567th anniversary of the conquest of Constantinople, dedicating the prayer to Mehmet II.

Last week, Erdogan found an unlikely supporter.

“I believe that believers’ praying suits better the spirit of the temple than curious tourists running around to take pictures,” tweeted Armenian Patriarch Sahak II, resident in Istanbul. “The site is large enough to allocate a space for Christians, [so that] the world…

This article was first published at Christianity Today, on June 29, 2020. Please click here to read the full text.

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Do Catholics Care about Persecuted Christians?

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For the first time, American legislation in defense of international religious freedom has reached into the Chinese Politburo.

Last week, President Donald Trump signed into law a bill to authorize sanctions against any officials in China’s top political body responsible for ongoing persecution against the country’s Muslim Uighur minority.

Passed by Congress with only one “no” vote, the action follows on the heels of this month’s release of the State Department’s 2019 Report on International Religious Freedom (IRF).

During the report’s public release, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo lauded the United States’s commitment.

“America is not a perfect nation by any means, we always strive towards that more perfect union, trying to improve,” he said.

“[But] there is no other nation that cares so deeply about religious freedom.”

Such commitment was marked this week by the US Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB). Each day from June 22–29 highlights an issue of concern, whether domestic or international.

Yesterday (June 24) the focus was on China.

Last summer, the government-affiliated Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association—representing about half of China’s estimated 12 million Catholics—condemned US criticism after the State Department’s second Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom advocated for the 800,000 to 2 million Uighurs and other Muslim minorities who have been arbitrarily detained in internment camps.

But one month later, the Chinese government permitted the first consecration of a Vatican-ordained bishop—a result of Pope Francis signing a controversial 2018 deal with Chinese authorities in an attempt to unite Rome with the underground Catholic church.

The US bipartisan consensus evident in the Uighur law reflects Pompeo’s assertion. First amendment rights guarantee freedom for all religions, and Americans generally desire for such liberty to extend worldwide.

But is there particular concern over Christian persecution? And is religious liberty eroding at home?

Two new polls suggest declining Catholic attention abroad, while the faithful grow more worried about the US. Aid to the Church in Need–USA (ACN–USA), an international papal agency that supports suffering and persecuted Christians in more than 140 countries, surveyed 1,000 US Catholics…

This article was first published at Christianity Today, on June 25, 2020. Please click here to read the full text.

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The Middle East Needs America to Reconcile

Lebanese Voices:

This post was submitted by Rev. Joseph Kassab, president of the Supreme Council of the Evangelical Community in Syria and Lebanon

Current demonstrations in the United States have exposed a rift in society, very similar to the gaps found in the Middle East. In both regions, governments have failed to guide their pluralistic societies toward harmony, peace, and reconciliation.

In the United States, these rifts take on the forms of black and white, rich and poor, and between non-integrated ethnicities. Economic prosperity and the high standard of living has papered over them for a long time, but only postponed the explosion.

As for the Middle East, underdevelopment and a deteriorating economy intensifies the contradictions, making them more violent. Our weak governments do not have the capacity as modern states to regulate conflict. In addition to rich and poor, our rifts occur as Shiite and Sunni, Christian and Muslim, along with various ethnicities that feel robbed of their homelands, with less sense of belonging to their country of residence.

At the grassroots level, the situations are substantially similar. But surprisingly, the similarity is beginning to extend to the level of leadership.

Three weeks ago, President Trump visited a church and lifted the Bible in an iconic photo op. Whether it was to appease his evangelical supporters or contain ongoing demonstrations and violence, he also hinted at involving the army in the restoration of calm.

Middle Eastern leaders often act similarly in their times of crisis.

When Saddam Hussein’s regime was threatened, he added the Islamic phrase “God is Great” to the national flag. He employed the army and chemical weapons against the Kurds, when they attempted to revolt against him. Religion and violence are the magic used to contain the anger.

Since government is responsible to guard national security, I believe it has the right to use the army if vitally necessary. But conversely, the United States should have the integrity to understand and permit this right when protests erupt and threaten the stability of other nations.

But it cannot be acceptable in any pluralistic country, and especially for the United States, to use religion as a weapon to solve its problems. It is the tool of ISIS, in their pursuit of “Islamic peace.”

The world recognizes America as a superpower, looking for it to lead the world by example. Many Americans are angry, whether demonstrating in the streets, or frustrated in their homes. Lifting the Bible is not the solution—living the Bible is.

These protests have much to teach us in the Middle East, where many governments rule by majority mindset. It can be difficult for God’s vision of justice and equality to result in full benefits of citizenship for underprivileged minorities. 

But when we witness massive crowds of white citizens protesting for the rights of blacks, it inspires us to believe that the American dream is still alive. The whole world is watching, some wishing the nation to fail. Others, like us, will find hope the US transcends its differences, and reconciles.

For our sake, then, America must be as great a democracy in times of trouble, as it is in times of peace. The Middle East also needs to breathe.

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Current Events Religion

Middle East Christians Grapple with Apocalyptic Pandemic

Imad Shehadeh sensed an apocalyptic felt need.

As chatter increased in the Arab world over the soaring coronavirus death tallies in China and Iran, the president of Jordan Evangelical Theological Seminary (JETS) in Amman began preaching on eschatology in lockdown.

“The coronavirus could qualify as one of the calamities that point to the end times, but could also just be a passing plague,” he said in a widely shared video series posted in March.

“We cannot be dogmatic, but at the very least [these] distresses have resemblance to much more severe events in the future time of tribulation.”

Diligently studying to incorporate aspects of all theological systems, Shehadeh aimed to keep the Cross central within a literal hermeneutic.

“The more we study prophecy,” he said, “the more we can see things in our world that others cannot, like a physician who knows immediately how to treat a wound.”

COVID-19 has left many bleeding.

Shehadeh previously wrote a four-volume commentary on biblical prophecy…

This article was first published at Christianity Today, on June 15, 2020. Please click here to read the full text.

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Trapped in Lebanon, Sudanese Students Find Refuge at Seminary

Image courtesy ABTS

While Liberty University came under criticism for allowing students the option to stay on campus during the coronavirus outbreak, many other schools were also faced with a dilemma concerning the 1.1 million students who came from abroad.

According to a Quartz survey of 36 universities who host a third of the United States’ international students, 26 told those students to leave campus.

Penn State gave three days notice. Harvard gave five. Duke, among others, offered emergency financial aid to help international students return home. Princeton allowed their residency to continue—until the end of the semester.

But Sudanese students at Lebanon’s Arab Baptist Theological Seminary (ABTS) did not have a choice—even with tickets in hand.

Lebanon was one of the first nations to implement COVID-19 restrictions. Its first case was recorded on February 21, and by March 9 schools were shut down.

Four days later, at a regularly scheduled seminary picnic, Bassem Melki prepared to break the news.

“It was a joyous atmosphere,” said the ABTS dean of students, “but I had sadness in my heart because I knew what I had to say.”

Founded in 1960 and located in the mountains overlooking Beirut, the seminary…

This article was first published at Christianity Today, on June 10, 2020. Please click here to read the full text.

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Vulnerable Gulf Migrants Offered ‘God’s Karuna’ in Bible Society Outreach

Corona and God's Karuna

This article was first published at Christianity Today, on May 29, 2020.

There is no social distancing in a labor camp.

Living in cramped conditions, sometimes 10 to a room, migrant workers in the Gulf are widely considered among the international communities most vulnerable to the new coronavirus.

Seeking a share of the region’s petrodollars as remittances for their poor families and communities back home, migrant laborers far outnumber the Middle Eastern region’s citizen population—as high as 80 percent in the United Arab Emirates (UAE).

And hailing primarily from Asian nations such as the Philippines, Indonesia, and India, they make up the great majority of the region’s more than 200,000 confirmed COVID-19 cases.

Yet from one of their languages emerges a homonym that may birth hope for the languishing workers.

“It is not corona, but karuna, which means mercy in Telugu,” said Prasad, a migrant worker from India, to the Bible Society in the Gulf (BSG).

“God is giving us the opportunity to turn to Him.”

There are 20 million Indian migrants worldwide, and 1.5 million are Telugu speakers working in the Gulf states. Many have lost their jobs or had their salaries reduced due to the economic shutdown.

The Bible society seized on Prasad’s observation to publish a new booklet in Telugu and English, appropriately titled God’s Karuna.

Its content reflects the upside-down nature of the COVID-19 world—and of God’s kingdom. There are frequent references to…

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

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GOD TV Dispute Has Israel Talking About Messianic Jews

God TV

This article was first published at Christianity Today, on May 22, 2020, in cooperation with the Associated Press. I contributed some additional reporting.

The Messianic movement, which emerged in its modern form in the 1970s, incorporates Jewish symbols and practices—including referring to Jesus by his Hebrew name, Yeshua—but is widely seen as a form of Christianity. All major Jewish denominations reject it, and Israel considers Messianic Jews to be converts to another faith.

Messianic Jews in Israel push back against the accusations.

“In Israel and in Jewish circles, conversion is a loaded word. It is understood as leaving something to become something else,” said Lisa Loden, co-chair of the Lausanne Initiative for Reconciliation in Israel-Palestine.

“Messianic Jews avoid the term, and maintain that they remain fully Jewish when accepting Yeshua as Messiah and Lord,” she said. “But the average Jewish Israeli does not distinguish between Jews who believe in Jesus and Christians.”

Both sides in the conflict are sincere, suggests Mitch Glaser, president of New York City-based Chosen People Ministries.

“GOD TV is attempting to honestly state what they are doing,” he said. “The religious Jewish people opposed to its Hebrew programming are trying to protect secular Jewish people from becoming converts, and therefore ‘lost’ to the Jewish community.”

Many Messianic Jews, however, are rejoicing at the opportunity to demonstrate their sincerity (of still belonging to the Jewish community) to their fellow Israeli citizens. Shelanu has stated 70 percent of its content will be locally produced.

And on a popular website for the community, some are even praising the “amazing free publicity.”

“If the show was produced by a US or European Christian organization, the argument is very strong that the aim is conversion,” said Jaime Cowen, an Israeli lawyer and former president of the Union of Messianic Jewish Congregations.

“The reality is that Jews believe all kinds of different things and are subject to all kinds of programming that pushes various views.

“This is a huge open door—as long as the government doesn’t shut it down.”

But this is exactly what one Christian Zionist has petitioned Israeli Prime Minster Benjamin Netanyahu to do, fearing that the GOD TV backlash will threaten Jewish-evangelical cooperation…

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

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Meet the ‘Gang Pastor’ Behind Cape Town’s Viral Coronavirus Cooperation

South Africa Gang Pastor
Courtesy of Andie Steele-Smith

This article was first published at Christianity Today, on May 21, 2020.

Somehow, an Australian-born investment banker in England went to South Africa and got mixed up with the “Americans.” The gang, that is, in one of Cape Town’s most dangerous shantytowns.

And with them, the Hard Livings and Clever Kidz.

Called by God into a life far from his Christian but comfortable existence, Andie Steele-Smith has recently won international acclaim as the “gang pastor” crossing rival lines. Serving the last five years in 2018’s second-highest homicide city, he has led murderers and drug lords to cooperate amid the coronavirus pandemic as a new distribution network for soap and emergency food delivery.

In addition to endemic crime, Cape Town counts 10 percent of the confirmed COVID-19 cases in all of Africa, and 60 percent of South Africa’s cases.

With both mass media and the masses desperate for good news amid the pandemic, his story has been told by the Associated Press, the BBC, CBS News, and even earned a quip (at the 12:30 mark) on Comedy Central’s The Daily Show with Trevor Noah, himself a South African from Johannesburg.

CT spoke with Steele-Smith, who attends Hillsong’s Cape Town campus, about his calling, the spiritual impact of his ministry, and whether “15 minutes of fame” makes the situation better or worse:

You started out as a successful investment banker. How did you end up in South Africa?

I grew up in a strong Christian home and church, but until I was about 40 years old, my life was all about building my own empire.

Around 12 years ago, I visited San Diego to buy a coffee company. Invited to what I thought was a megachurch, little did I know…

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

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Why We Opened a Christian University in Iraq Amid ISIS’ Genocide

Catholic University of Erbil
The Catholic University of Erbil (courtesy CUE)

This article was first published at Christianity Today, on May 7, 2020.

For 25 years, Stephen Rasche was a “bare knuckles” international lawyer. But in 2010, he offered his services to the Chaldean Catholic Church of Erbil in Iraqi Kurdistan and has increasingly dedicated his life to the preservation of this ancient community.

Under the leadership of Archbishop Bashar Matti Warda, in 2015 Rasche helped found the Catholic University of Erbil, where he serves as vice chancellor. Also the director of its Institute for Ancient and Threatened Christianity, Rasche lived this title as ISIS ravaged Iraq’s Christian homelands in the Nineveh Plains and many believers fled to Erbil.

After testifying on their behalf before the United Nations and the US Congress, Rasche allows them to represent themselves in his recent book, The Disappearing People: The Tragic Fate of Christians in the Middle East. The book has won a diverse range of endorsements, from leaders such as Matthew Hassan Kukah, bishop of the Catholic Diocese of Sokoto, Nigeria; Yahya Cholil Staquf, general secretary of Nahdlatul Ulama, the largest Muslim organization in the world; and Thomas Farr, president of the Religious Freedom Institute.

The US State Department’s Office of International Religious Freedom reports that less than 250,000 Christians are living in Iraq, most in Kurdistan or on the Nineveh Plains. Two-thirds belong to the Chaldean Catholic Church.

CT interviewed Rasche about the logic of establishing a university during a genocide, how its Catholic identity functions in a Muslim society, and his enduring optimism for Christianity in Iraq.

What led you personally to invest your life in this endeavor?

In 2010, Bishop Warda had just been made archbishop, and I went to pay him a visit of respect, asking if there was anything I could do to help. “Yes, in fact,” he said. “You Americans have made a big mess here, and you could stay and help me. I have 3,000 displaced families here from the south, they need help, and no one is helping us with them. We don’t have jobs for them, and there’s a whole range of things I would like to do.”

I assisted on and off on a pro-bono basis for the next four years, but by 2014 the situation looked really desperate. ISIS was maybe 30 miles away from Erbil. But in a visit just after Christmas, I sat down with the bishop and the priests who told me, “We are going to stay. Will you be with us here, and help us?”

Honestly, I was skeptical. But after some deep thinking, I tried to determine the right thing to do and if there was a calling in this for me.

Tell us more about that calling.

Being an international transactions lawyer involved a fair amount of bare knuckles litigation. And not a lot of it, quite frankly, was fulfilling…

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

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Report: ‘Tremendous Progress’ Ahead for Religious Freedom Worldwide

USCIRF 2020

This article was first published at Christianity Today, on April 28, 2020.

A new report aims to “unflinchingly criticize the records of US allies and adversaries alike” on religious freedom.

And there’s a lot to report, with more headlines each month confirming the Pew Research Center’s 10-year analysis that government restrictions and social hostilities involving religion have reached record levels worldwide.

Today’s 21st annual report by the US Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) identifies significant problems in 29 countries—but sees “an upward trajectory overall.”

“Our awareness is going to grow greater, and the problem will appear more pronounced,” USCIRF chair Tony Perkins told CT. “But as we continue to work on it, I think we will see tremendous progress in the next few years if we stay the present course.”

Created as an independent, bipartisan federal commission by the 1998 International Religious Freedom Act, USCIRF casts a wider net than the US State Department, which annually designates Countries of Particular Concern (CPC) for such nations’ violations of religious freedom, or places them on a Special Watch List (SWL) if less severe.

Last December, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced CPC status for Burma, China, Eritrea, Iran, North Korea, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Tajikistan, and Turkmenistan.

USCIRF now recommends adding India, Nigeria, Russia, Syria, and Vietnam.

And where the State Department put only Cuba, Nicaragua, Sudan, and Uzbekistan on the watch list, USCIRF recommends also including Afghanistan, Algeria, Azerbaijan, Bahrain, Central African Republic, Egypt, Indonesia, Iraq, Kazakhstan, Malaysia, and Turkey.

USCIRF’s mandate is to provide oversight and advice to the State Department. Aiming to make its recommendations more easily accessible to policymakers, this year’s report limits country chapters to two pages each and adopts the same evaluative criteria as the State Department.

To qualify, a nation must engage in or tolerate “systematic, ongoing, and egregious” violations of religious freedom. CPC status requires all three descriptors, while SWL status requires two.

In previous reports, USCIRF used a “Tier Two” category requiring only one qualifier. As a result, Laos is no longer listed.

Following 11 commission field visits, 5 hearings, and 19 other published reports, USCIRF’S 2020 annual report calls attention to religious freedom violations against all faiths, including:

  • 1.8 million Muslims in Chinese concentration camps
  • 171 Eritrean Christians arrested while gathering for worship
  • 50,000 Christians held in North Korean prison camps
  • 260 incidents of religious freedom violations in Cuba
  • 489 raids conducted against homes of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Russia
  • 910,000 Rohingya Muslim refugees in Bangladesh
  • 1 million Muslim residents excluded from the National Register of Citizens in India
  • 37 Shi’a Muslim protesters executed in Saudi Arabia
  • 5,000 Baptist calendars burned by authorities in Turkmenistan

Perkins spoke with CT about how nations move up (e.g., India and Nigeria) or down (e.g. Sudan and Uzbekistan) between lists, why the State Department doesn’t accept all of USCIRF’s recommendations (but should), and whether he has hope for the future with violations at “a historical high in modern times.”

Roughly how many countries are on your studied list?

The ones that are listed are the ones that we look at. There has been discussion if we should add Venezuela. There have been a couple of others we have considered.

Examining “Country X,” how do you evaluate if and where it belongs on your lists?

First, we begin with the statutory definition of a Country of Particular Concern (CPC). Our mandate is to identify countries with systematic, ongoing, and egregious violations of religious freedom—whether it engages in or tolerates such behavior.

One thing to be cautious of is that we don’t rank countries. It is not a comparison. Country X and Country Y may both be CPC-listed, but be miles apart on the egregious nature of their violations. We look at each country separately.

It is based upon reporting that we can validate and verify; visits that we make to these countries; and hearings we hold with expert witnesses to come in and testify. It is a combination of factors, and quite frankly it is subjective.

We try to make it as objective as possible, but it is hard to quantify some things—though we do so to the degree we can.

What happens if you disagree about the designations?

The nine commissioners…

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

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Cleared of Landmines for Easter, Jesus’ Baptism Site Now Closed by COVID-19

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

This article was first published at Christianity Today, on April 17, 2020.

For over 50 years, Jesus’ baptismal site was a casualty of war.

Now, it is a casualty of the new coronavirus.

Last week in time for Easter, the UK-based demining specialist HALO Trust group exploded in chain reaction the final 500 landmines at Israel’s Qasr al-Yahud monastery complex.

“We got the churches together, all eight different denominations, and then we got the Israelis and the Palestinians,” HALO Trust CEO James Cowan told the BBC.

“So all three major faiths, and we looked at how we could do this.”

Located six miles east of Jericho on the Jordan River, “Bethany beyond the Jordan” in 1968 was placed by Israel under military jurisdiction following the Six Day War. Fearing terrorist infiltration across the shallow riverbed, the army laid over 6,000 landmines and booby-trapped the churches.

Israel declared peace with Jordan in 1995, but the area remained closed.

In 2011, it was partially reopened, allowing access along one narrow path between the Jordan River and the Greek Orthodox St. John the Baptist Monastery.

And in 2016, HALO Trust, which works in 27 nations around the world, announced…

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

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The Holy Fire Must Go On

Holy Fire
Image courtesy of Cistern Films

This article was first published at Christianity Today, on April 10, 2020.

With the new coronavirus canceling Holy Week services around the globe, one of the most severe blows will be felt by Orthodox Christians. On the Saturday before Easter, which the Orthodox will observe on April 19 this year, thousands of pilgrims flock to Jerusalem’s Church of the Holy Sepulchre—the traditional location for Jesus’ crucifixion, burial, and resurrection—to witness the “miracle” of Holy Fire.

The historic church houses six ancient Christian sects—Greek, Franciscan, Armenian, Coptic, Syriac, and Ethiopian—which more or less cooperate in the administration of its affairs. By tradition, the Greek and Armenian bishops enter the tomb alone, but emerge with a divinely lit flame. The fire is shared candle-to-candle throughout the expectant and jubilant crowd.

Eventually it is transported to Greece in a special container, and then on to Serbia, Russia, and other nations in the Orthodox world.

Despite the social distancing restrictions in place due to the COVID-19 outbreak, Israel is nevertheless facilitating a scaled-back religious ceremony. And to avoid quarantine, foreign dignitaries will receive the flame at their airplane after it lands and immediately return home.

Mentioned obliquely in fourth-century sources, the first Western mention of the Holy Fire dates to Bernard the Wise, a monk from modern-day France who went on pilgrimage in 876 A.D. Disputed by many, its popularity with Orthodox communities worldwide makes the Holy Fire one of the world’s foremost Christian celebrations.

Local Christians are known to chant in Arabic: “We are the Christians, we have been Christians for centuries, and we shall be forever and ever. Amen!”

Filmmakers Reuben and Brittany Browning grew up in Israel and Palestine as children of Nazarene missionaries, traipsing around the holy sites. As adults…

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

Holy Fire is available for rent or purchase at Amazon and Vimeo. A teaser and trailer can be watched on Vimeo.

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Arab Christians Have Lost Easter Before. Here’s What They Learned.

Losing Easter Churches
House of St Ananias, Damascus

This article was first published at Christianity Today, on April 3, 2020.

Christians around the world are about to lose their usual Easter celebration—the highlight of most congregations’ annual life together.

Yes, there will be a livestream. Their pastor will likely call them. They may even chat on Zoom with friends and family.

But it will be different. The community of believers has been sundered by the new coronavirus. And threatened with it is Christ’s body, his bride, his temple for his presence in the world.

If there is any consolation, it is that this is not the first time.

“There are forces of nature—and forces of man—that challenge our ability to experience the presence of Christ,” said Gregory Mansour, the Maronite bishop of Brooklyn.

“[COVID-19] is different from persecution. But it is the same.”

A born-again Catholic led into personal relationship with Christ by the Navigators, Mansour later reconnected with his ancient Lebanon-based church. His clerical colleagues there received thousands of ISIS-fleeing Christians from Syria and Iraq.

“There was a deliberate desire to obliterate churches, hymnals, prayers, and people,” he said. “The only thing we had left was…

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

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Current Events Religion

When You Can’t Return Home

Can't Go Home

We had just prepared our letter to loved ones in America.

Corona is spreading everywhere, I wrote, but we are on lockdown, and perhaps safer here than we would be in the States. We have money, food, and good relations with neighbors. We plan to stick it out here.

And then the announcement was issued by the government: The airport and all borders are closing in 48 hours.

Suddenly, my stomach dropped. All my earlier confidence felt like bravado. Unspoken, there was always the assumption that if things get bad here, we can leave. Now, it would be impossible. And given the unprecedented nature of this virus in our modern world, who knows when the opportunity to travel would come again.

The nation we live in is not known for its stability. What if it gets really bad?

After dropping, my stomach turned. Should we quickly uproot and return to America? I hadn’t yet sent that letter.

The complications to normal life would be terrible. The airports would be crowded Corona-factories. And who would receive us back home save for parents who must be extra careful against the virus?

I didn’t want to leave. But what does wisdom suggest when faced with a last chance? The reasons against leaving are clear, but they were not what I needed.

My earlier bravado disappeared.

I longed for a deeper confidence.

Stepping away from our own story, here are four reminders that helped buttress my spirit. Perhaps they will also be an encouragement to others.

  1. You have a job. Some foreigners are tourists, and others were sent overseas by their employer. But for many, the choice to live in a foreign nation was deliberate. We earn our salary, we enjoy cross-cultural experiences, but we also believe that our work is helpful.

Remember that. Corona will change the nature of your job, but not its essence. Keep at it, for the good of your adopted country.

  1. You have allies. If the section above applies, we are likely not squirreled away in an expat compound in isolation from national neighbors. We have probably learned at least a little bit of language. In all likelihood, we have friends.

Remember that. Corona is devastating them also, but they know how to live here. Rely on them, encourage them, and fit into their cooperative networks.

  1. You have providence. With proper humility, you can likely look back upon your journey to your country as a series of circumstances that somehow all fell into place. We studied, we planned, we decided, but we may have also prayed.

Remember that. Corona is upsetting many circumstances, but nothing eternally known. God “determined the times set for humankind and the exact places where they should live.” Rest in this truth.

  1. You have a mission. Our jobs are not our life. What we do is helpful, but who we are is unique and transformative. As we learn from others, they do from us. If offered humbly, we have much to contribute.

Remember that. Corona changes nothing of your essence. “As the Father sent me [Jesus], so send I you.” Find the good you can do, and do it.

Finally, my stomach settled. But to keep our confidence from becoming a spiritual bravado, two final reminders are necessary.

One, we remain foreigners. We retain privileges. We are guests.

Two, we are all foreigners. We receive grace. We are ambassadors.

Corona reminds us all of the transience of life and the fragility of the world. Our norms have been shaken, our illusions shattered.

But we remain human, and beloved of God. Abroad or at home, we will all return to him. Our deeper confidence can only be this: “Well done, my good and faithful servant.”

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Iran Releases a Third of Christian Prisoners Due to Coronavirus Concerns

Azadi Tower Iran

This article was first published at Christianity Today, on March 23, 2020.

Forced by the new coronavirus, Iran took the tiniest of steps to placate global advocacy for religious freedom.

A temporary release of about 85,000 prisoners to curb the spread of COVID-19 disease included Ramiel Bet Tamraz, an Assyrian Christian serving a four-month sentence for holding illegal church meetings.

He was one of seven Christians set free, some on bail.

The release—which also pardoned 10,000 prisoners in advance of this past weekend’s celebration of Nowruz, the Persian new year—did not include four Christians recently granted a retrial.

Ramiel’s father Victor was the pastor of the Assyrian Pentecostal Church of Tehran until 2009, when it was shut down by the government for holding services in Farsi, the Iranian national language. Arrested in 2014 for conducting services at home, in 2017 he was given a 10-year jail sentence. Released earlier on bail with his wife Shamiram, they are awaiting the outcome of court appeals.

Ramiel’s sister Dabrina has advocated for her family all the way to the White House.

“Raising awareness always helps,” she told CT, prior to her brother’s release. “When the US and international bodies speak out and address persecuted Christians, they have an enormous amount of influence.”

According to the latest annual report of violations against Christians in Iran, 17 believers ended 2019 in prison on account of their faith. Culled from public statistics describing sentences from 4 months to 10 years, the report—released in January and jointly produced by Open Doors, Article 18, Middle East Concern, and Christian Solidarity Worldwide—warned the true number could be much higher.

Open Doors, which ranks Iran No. 9 among the world’s worst persecutors of Christians, reports at least 169 Christians were arrested from November 2018 to October 2019.

Compared to those who decline advocacy, Dabrina said…

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Despite a Murder and Visa Denials, Christians Persevere in Turkey

Turkey Korean Murder
Image: Source Images: Congin Kim / Annie Spratt / Unsplash

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

Five days after her husband’s murder, Jung Kyung-In named her newborn daughter “God’s Goodness”—in Turkish, not Korean.

Jung moved to Turkey with her husband, Kim Jin-Wook, in 2015. The Korean Christian couple found a place to live in an impoverished district of Diyarbakir in southeastern Turkey, 60 miles from the Syrian border.

Kim worked selling spices, but his real calling, as he understood it, was witnessing to the gospel. He took the Turkish name “Peace,” and his Christian friends in Turkey say he was a great evangelist.

“He shared the gospel in every corner of Diyarbakir without hesitation,” said Ahmet Güvener, pastor of the Diyarbakir Protestant Church, which has about 70 members. “He was not aggressive, but clear, and I think local people were uncomfortable with this.”

One day in November, Kim told Jung he was going out to evangelize. He was attacked on the street, stabbed twice in the chest and once in the back. Kim, 41, died of his wounds in a city hospital.

Authorities arrested a 16-year-old boy for the crime. He has allegedly confessed to the murder, saying he was trying to steal Kim’s phone.

Despite her grief, Jung saw this as an opportunity to testify. She wrote a letter to the boy accused of killing her husband.

“I do not understand why you did this, but I cannot be angry at you,” she wrote on her phone.

“Many people want the court to give you a heavy punishment. But I and my husband don’t want this. We pray that you become worthy of heaven, because we believe in the worth of people. God sent his Son Jesus, who forgave those who persecuted him. We also believe in that and we pray that you would also repent of your sin.”

Jung read the letter aloud to the local media. Her testimony was viewed online more than…

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Nigeria’s Government Agrees: Islamist Terrorists Target Christians

Nigeria Catholic March
Christians faithfuls march on the street of Abuja during a prayer and penance for peace and security in Nigeria in Abuja on March 1, 2020. – The Catholic Bishops of Nigeria gathered faithfuls as well as other Christians and other people to pray for security and to denounce the barbaric killings of Christians by the Boko Haram insurgents and the incessant cases of kidnapping for ransom in Nigeria. (Photo by Kola SULAIMON / AFP)

This article was first published at Christianity Today on March 2, 2020.

The Nigerian government now agrees with what church leaders have been complaining for years: Christians are the target of jihadist terrorism.

“In the wake of a renewed onslaught by our tireless military against Boko Haram and their ISWAP (Islamic State West Africa Province) allies in recent times, the insurgents have apparently changed their strategy,” said Lai Mohammed, the minister of information and culture, at a press conference last week.

“They have started targeting Christians and Christian villages for a specific reason, which is to trigger a religious war and throw the nation into chaos.”

In comments given exclusively to CT, the administration of President Muhammad Buhari clarified that this targeting is not new.

“Yes, Boko Haram is targeting individual Christians. In doing so, their target is all Nigerians, and their goal is to divide Christian brother against Muslim brother,” Mohammed, the information minister, told CT.

“What Boko Haram seeks—and always has sought—is to drive a wedge between Christians and Muslims in Nigeria.

“By targeting Christians, they seek to promulgate the falsehood that…

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Christians Defend Cultural Heritage in Muslim-Majority Countries

khachkars

This article was first published in the November 2019 print edition of Christianity Today.

Dozens of men with sledgehammers pound slabs of stone in an otherwise empty mountainous field. Filmed in 2005 by the prelate of northern Iran’s Armenian church, Bishop Nshan Topouzian, the clip purports to show the destruction of khachkars, ornately carved headstones from a Christian graveyard, some dating back to the 6th century.

The site is in Nakhchivan, an enclave of primarily Muslim Azerbaijan geographically separated from the country by primarily Christian Armenia. Iran shares its southern border in the ethnically tangled web of states that make up the Central Asian Caucasus. Russia is to the north, Turkey to the west.

The destruction of more than 2,000 khachkars—in addition to 89 churches, 5,480 cross stones, and 22,000 tombstones—has been labeled “the greatest cultural genocide of the 21st century” by Simon Maghakyan, an Armenian American activist and scholar whose research was profiled in the Guardian. He believes the move represents a campaign by the Azerbaijani government to wipe out its Christian heritage.

“The destruction of these khachkars seems to match in scale and tragedy ISIS’ destruction of Palmyra in Syria and the Taliban destruction of the Bamayan statues in Afghanistan,” said Wissam al-Saliby, advocacy officer at the United Nations for the World Evangelical Alliance.

“This issue goes beyond religious freedom. It is the heritage of mankind.”

But Azerbaijan denies Armenians ever lived in Nakhchivan, and cites similar cultural cleansing…

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