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Evangelicals Ask Pope Francis to Help Save Lebanon

Pope Francis, flanked by senior leaders of the various Christian Churches and communities of Lebanon. Kassab is 2nd from right.

Pope Francis has a message to consider from Lebanon’s evangelicals.

“We are not comfortable in our sectarian system, and thank God that we are not a part of the politics that led the country to collapse,” said Joseph Kassab, president of the Supreme Council of the Evangelical Community in Syria and Lebanon.

“We are not benefiting, and it hurts us like the vast majority of the Lebanese people.”

Last week the Catholic pontiff invited Lebanon’s Christian denominations to the Vatican for a time of prayer and reflection. Ten patriarchs, bishops, and church leaders gathered, as Francis encouraged them to speak with one voice to the politicians of their nation.

Lebanon has been unable to form a new government since its prior one resigned 11 months ago, following the massive explosion at Beirut’s port. As its Christian, Sunni, Shiite, and Druze political parties wrangle over representation, more than half the population now falls below the poverty line.

Following a default on national debt, personal bank accounts have been largely frozen as the Lebanese lira has lost over 90 percent of its value. The World Bank estimates the economic collapse to be among the world’s three worst in the last 150 years.

“We blame and condemn our Christian and Muslim political leaders equally,” said Kassab.

“We have to say this loudly.”

The nation’s longstanding sectarian system, however, works to recycle these leaders. Lebanon’s president must be a Maronite Christian, its prime minister a Sunni Muslim, and its speaker of parliament a Shiite Muslim.

The 128 parliament seats are divided evenly between Muslims and Christians, with one reserved for Protestants. But confessional distribution extends into ministerial and civil service positions, including the army, police, and intelligence services.

Each community seeks to maximize its interests, while being careful not to upset the sectarian balance.

“Positions are distributed by religious identity, not qualification,” said Kassab. “Francis called us to push our politicians toward the common good, but we are imprisoned in this system.” Closed door discussions were…

This article was originally published at Christianity Today, on July 8, 2021. Please click here to read the full text.

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Do Flags Belong in Churches? Pastors Around the World Weigh In.

Image: Illustration by Mallory Rentsch / Source Images: Anthony Choren / Karl Fredrickson / Joseph Pearson / Unsplash

This year, July 4 falls on a Sunday. As American churches consider how to recognize the holiday during the service, we decided to revisit a question CT posed to American church leaders back in 2013. Here’s what their counterparts from 11 different countries have to say in 2021. Answers are arranged from yes to no.

Egypt: Sameh Maurice, senior pastor, Kasr El Dobara Evangelical Church, Cairo

Yes, I agree in displaying the flag of my country in the church, the flag of my country only and not other countries, as it is a spiritual and not a political orientation.
The purpose of raising the flag is to keep my heart united with my people in prayer for the salvation of their souls. It’s to remember that I must stand in the gap for my people that they may know the Lord and see the light of the gospel, and to tell my country and my people how much I love them and pray for them.

Jordan: Hani Nuqul, pastor, Evangelical Free Church in Jabal Al Hussein, Amman

I strongly believe that each church building should post the flag on the building and in the sanctuary. As an elder and pastor, we made this decision a few years ago to do so in order to show our loyalty as citizens to the country of Jordan. We believe that by doing so, we are a good example and testimony to others and also following the teachings of the Bible.

As the Evangelical Free Church council, we have taken the decision to put the Jordanian flag in all local churches that belong to the council along with the church logo and flag.

This article was originally published by Christianity Today on July 2, 2021. I contributed additional reporting. Please click here to read the full text.

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Messianic Jews Say ‘Fake Rabbi’ Was Wrong Way to Reach the Ultra-Orthodox

Image: Illustration by Rick Szuecs / Source Images: Blake Campbell / Tanner Mardis / Unsplash / Ktoytor / Getty / Envato

How far can one go to “reach the Jews”?

The apostle Paul put himself “under the law” to give the gospel to his Hebrew brethren (1 Cor. 9:20).

Allegedly a Gentile, Michael Elkohen did the same to reach the modern Jews most fastidiously under the law—the Haredim, often known in English as “ultra-Orthodox.”

Approximately 1.2 million Haredim live in Israel, jealously guarding their traditions.

Dressed in black-and-white garb with a hat, long beard, and side curls, in 2011 Elkohen appeared next to an Iranian Christian on MorningStar TV and prayed for a Muslim world revival.

“When Jesus walked the earth, he was Jewish,” Elkohen told the host, Rick Joyner. “The church, the non-Jewish part of the body, is supposed to stir us to jealousy.”

For more than a decade, his would-be jealous Haredi neighbors were completely unaware. To the insular community in the French Hill section of Jerusalem, Elkohen was a beloved rabbi, scribe, and mohel—performing circumcisions.

In April, the Israeli anti-missionary organization Beyneynu sent shockwaves through the Haredi world with a report claiming that Elkohen was in fact a missionary from New Jersey, whose father is buried in a Mennonite cemetery.

“Other anti-Semites attack the Jews as individuals or as a people,” said Tovia Singer, a rabbi and founder of Outreach Judaism. “But the missionaries are attacking the Jewish faith and working to erase it from the planet.”

The spiritual damage is considerable.

Though there is no evidence anyone was converted in Elkohen’s community, Singer claims that the alleged missionary’s manuscripts and religious services are all invalid. And his presence at prayer may have falsely achieved minyan, the necessary quorum of 10 adults, prompting Torah readings that to Haredi Jews now constitute speaking God’s name in vain.

The 42-year-old Elkohen first moved to Israel with his family in 2006, obtaining citizenship after presenting papers as a Jew related to a famous mystical rabbi in Morocco. Having obtained rabbinical ordination through an online Orthodox US institution, in 2014 he went on to study at a yeshiva in the West Bank.

It was then he gained the attention of the anti-missionary organization Yad L’Achim, who confronted him. Confessing his evangelistic purpose, Elkohen replied that he had since “repented” and “chose Judaism.”

A few years later, Elkohen was living quietly among the Haredim when they rallied around him as his wife—who said she was descended from Holocaust survivors—died from cancer. The community raised money to support the husband and five children in need.

But in April, Elkohen’s 13-year-old daughter told classmates about Jesus.

Beyneynu investigated and felt it had to act. There are 30,000 missionaries in Israel, the organization estimates, and 300 organizations dedicated to evangelizing Jews.

Messianic Jews were quick to distance themselves.

Michael Brown, a popular radio host, author, and apologist, circulated statements from Jews for Jesus, Chosen People Ministries, and One for Israel that deplore deception.

“I know of no Messianic Jews who support what he did,” Brown told CT. “We are open and forthright about our faith.” Tsvi Sadan, an author, stated that Elkohen was “probably…

This article was originally published at Christianity Today on June 23, 2021. Please click here to read the full text.

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Lebanon’s Christian Schools Are Full of Muslims—and They Need Help

Image courtesy of NESN

The 2021 graduating class of the National Evangelical School in Nabatieh (NESN) is entirely Shiite Muslim.

While certainly not the image of a typical Christian school in the United States, it is hardly an outlier in Lebanon, where 35 evangelical schools average student bodies that are two-thirds Muslim.

Located 35 miles south of Beirut, Nabatieh originally had a 10 percent Christian population when American Presbyterian missionary Lewis Loe founded the school in 1925. Based in the city’s Christian quarter, NESN drew students from all sects until the civil war drove the once integrated communities apart. From 1978 to 1982, Israeli occupation forced the school to close altogether.

When the city was attacked again during the 2006 war, the school’s bomb shelter gave refuge to frightened children. Relative peace since then has allowed the shelter to become a storage room, but less than 40 Christian families remain in the city. Even so, NESN draws from surrounding villages to maintain a Christian share of 10 percent among its 100-some faculty.

But the new crisis facing Lebanon is financial. Year-end inflation for 2020 was 145 percent, as food prices surged over 400 percent. The World Bank judged the economic collapse to be one of the world’s three worst in the last 150 years.

Teacher salaries have lost nearly 90 percent of their value.

Three years ago, NESN’s 100-foot Christmas tree was Lebanon’s largest. This year—as debt equaled the entire operational budget minus teacher salary—the school could not afford even the Charlie Brown version.

A highlight of the school calendar, Christian elements are welcomed by the local Shiite population—including its substantial number of Hezbollah-affiliated families, said principal Shadi El-Hajjar.

Since he assumed leadership in 2013, the student body of 1,400 has more than doubled.

“We teach compassion, forgiveness, and love of enemies,” Hajjar said, “but as culture and practice, not religion.

“This makes us unique, and draws people to the school.”

It was not always this way.

Decades of appreciative tolerance…

This article was originally published on June 16, 2021, at Christianity Today. Please click here to read the full text.

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Algeria Returns a Historic Church, But Stops Christian Worship at 20 Others

Image: Zineb Tadj / EyeEm / Getty Images
Oran, Algeria

Algerian Christians finally have something to celebrate.

Amid a rash of church closures the past two years, the North African nation’s Council of State returned a historic worship site in Mostaganem, a port city on the Mediterranean coast, to the Algerian Protestant Church (EPA).

The EPA loaned the building, which dates to the French colonial era, to the Ministry of Health in 1976. But in 2012, when the site’s medical clinic changed locations, the local governor gave the facility to an Islamic charitable association.

The EPA sued, and the case was decided in its favor in 2019.

That year, however, marked an escalation against Protestant churches. Three of Algeria’s largest congregations were shut down, and the Mostaganem authorities failed to implement the court decision.

Now they have.

But with 20 other churches ordered to cease activities—and 13 sealed completely—Algerian Christians remain cautious.

“Just because we have the keys,” said Nourredine Benzid, general secretary of the EPA, “doesn’t mean the case is over.”

Benzid’s Source of Life Church in Makouda was among those closed in 2019. Located in the mountainous Tizi Ouzou district, the area is home to many of the nation’s estimated 100,000 Christians. By contrast, the Mostaganem church was…

This article was originally published at Christianity Today on June 10, 2021. Please click here to read the full text.

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Rockets, Riots, Sermons, and Soccer: Christian Views on the Conflict in Gaza and Israel

Palestinian Boys Play Game Of Soccer. (Photo By Abid Katib/Getty Images)

Bombs fall in Gaza as rockets target Israel.

Frustrated Arab rioters are met by extremist Jewish settlers.

And in the middle of it all, Danny Kopp sent his boys out to play soccer.

Numbers were down at the Jerusalem neighborhood park frequented by Jew and Arab alike, but his 13-, 10-, and 8-year-old sons still translated between the sides.

“These encounters, as small as they are, remind belligerents that coexistence is still viable,” said the chairman of the Evangelical Alliance in Israel.

“Wholesale vilifying is simply inaccurate.”

But it is easy to do, if attached to a favored narrative.

Since the outbreak of fighting on May 10, Israeli bombs have leveled almost 450 buildings in Gaza, including six hospitals, nine health centers, and the headquarters of the Associated Press. Hamas authorities count 232 dead, including 39 women and 65 children. More than 1,900 people have been injured, and 52,000 displaced from their homes.

But 160 of these have been militant fighters, said Israeli authorities. Hamas’s indiscriminate barrage has launched more than 4,000 rockets and killed 12 people—including two children—while injuring hundreds. Israel’s Iron Dome defense system has intercepted most rockets, but Iranian sponsorship of Hamas has led to a dramatic increase in missiles able to target Jerusalem.

Such long-range weapons represent 17 percent of the thousands of missiles fired this month. Nine years ago, they represented only 1 percent.

A ceasefire is now in place. President Joe Biden pledged to work through the United Nations and the Palestinian Authority to rebuild Gaza. The US would prevent such aid from restocking Hamas’s arsenal, while allowing the replenishing of the Iron Dome’s defenses.

The weapons evolve, though the animosity is familiar.

But what has shocked and saddened a dozen sources interviewed by CT—half Jewish and half Palestinian—is the ethnic violence that has torn through previously peaceful towns of coexistence. In Lod, Haifa, Nazareth, and elsewhere, Arab rioters have set 10 synagogues and more than 100 Jewish homes on fire, while looting or damaging hundreds more.

Israel called up 7,000 reservists to quell the violence. But reports say police have been far more lenient with Jewish settlers who have responded in kind, though with less damage. Video recordings, however, depict settler attempts to seize Arab Israeli properties.

The outbreak of violence is tied to Israeli legal proceedings to evict Palestinians from their homes in the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah. The families have resided there for generations, and the land dispute has alternate explanations. Protests were met with violence, which then spread to the al-Aqsa Mosque. Hamas fired rockets in solidarity.

And amid the backdrop of this quagmire, Kopp sent out his children.

On Saturday, he preached the same message to his mixed Jewish-Arab Narkis Street Congregation in Jerusalem, asking his flock to purposefully hear both sides.

“Jesus constantly broke out of his information bubble,” he said, “engaging every kind of person imaginable and on a consistent basis.”

Across the separation wall, however, Munther Isaac’s Sunday sermon had a different tone. “What is required is not…”

This article was originally published at Christianity Today on May 20, 2021. Please click here to read the full text. Additional reporting by Jeremy Weber.

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Christian Street Artist Honors Beirut Explosion Victims with 204 Illegal Portraits

Nine months later, Brady Black was fed up—and inspired.

Last August, one of the largest non-nuclear explosions in human history leveled Lebanon’s main port and thousands of homes.

Charities and churches scrambled to help, as 204 people were killed.

The government has done next to nothing.

But now, each victim has a portrait across from Beirut’s famed Martyrs Square.

“Families were protesting, holding up pictures of their relatives as they demanded justice,” said Black.

“They wanted them to be seen. So we made it loud.”

An American street artist resident in Lebanon since 2015, Black teamed up with Art of Change to illegally create the capital city’s largest informal portrait gallery. Run by a secular British artist and a Lebanese Muslim from the heterodox Druze sect, the art institute co-founders sponsored Black’s evangelical idea for “good mischief.”

Scouring the internet for every name and image that could be found, Black digitally drew each face with the utmost care—with one caveat. No matter the importance of the victim or the degree of fame achieved in their death, each was limited to one hour of his creativity.

An hour he bathed in prayer for the surviving family.

“People come up to me, frantically asking, ‘Where is my son?’” said Black of his installation.

“‘Come with me,’ I tell them. ‘I know exactly where he is.’” Each victim’s portrait is…

This article was originally published at Christianity Today, on May 10, 2021. Please click here to read the full text.

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ISIS Executes Christian Businessman Kidnapped in Egypt’s Sinai

Image: Wilayat Sinai / Telegram screenshot
Nabil Habashi Salama, a Coptic Christian kidnapped from Bir al-Abd in North Sinai, speaks before his execution in the propaganda video of an Egyptian ISIS affiliate.

The Islamic State has claimed another Christian victim.

And Egypt’s Coptic Orthodox Church has won another martyr.

“We are telling our kids that their grandfather is now a saint in the highest places of heaven,” stated Peter Salama of his 62-year-old father, Nabil Habashi Salama, executed by the ISIS affiliate in north Sinai.

“We are so joyful for him.”

The Salamas are known as one of the oldest Coptic families in Bir al-Abd on the Mediterranean coast of the Sinai Peninsula. Nabil was a jeweler, owning also mobile phone and clothing shops in the area.

Peter said ISIS targeted his father for his share in building the city’s St. Mary Church.

In a newly released 13-minute propaganda video entitled The Makers of Slaughter [or Epic Battles], a militant quotes the Quran to demand the humiliation of Christians and their willing payment of jizya—a tax to ensure their protection.

Nabil was kidnapped five months ago in front of his home. Eyewitnesses said during his resistance he was beaten badly, before being thrown into a stolen car. It may be that these were kidnappers, because in the video that shows Nabil’s execution, he said he was held captive by ISIS for 3 months and 11 days.

On April 18, he was shot in the back of the head, kneeling.

“As you kill, you will be killed,” states the video, directed to “all the crusaders in the world.”

It addresses all of Egypt’s Christians, warning them to put no faith in the army. And Muslims which support the Egyptian state are called “apostates.” Two other Sinai residents—tribesmen who cooperated with the military—are also executed in the video.

Peter said that in the effort to drive Nabil from his faith, his teeth were broken.

His daughter Marina joined in the tribute. “I will miss you, my father,” she wrote on Facebook. “You made us proud…

This article was originally published at Christianity Today on April 19, 2021. Please click here to read the full text.

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The Best Advice on Engaging Muslims, from Arab Evangelical Scholars

Image: iStock / Getty Images Plus

American evangelicals often find themselves frustrated in their approach to Islam.

Two options are consistently placed before them: a polemical argument few are educated enough to engage in, or an awkward dialogue urging friendship but emptied of theological significance.

Help, therefore, may come from abroad—where evangelicals interact with Muslims everyday.

A new book, The Religious Other: Toward a Biblical Understanding of Islam, the Quran, and Muhammad, answers both concerns. An anthology of recent academic contributions to Arab Baptist Theological Seminary (ABTS), located in Beirut, Lebanon, the publication delves into the details of the debate over how evangelicals should view the rival religion.

But it also promotes a “kerygmatic method,” based on the New Testament Greek word for proclamation and connoting among biblical scholars the core message of early church gospel preaching. The book applies the term to seek a middle ground between polemics and apologetics on the one hand, and syncretistic and common ground approaches on the other.

Built on a foundation of academic rigor, this method aims for a tone of love within a spirit of Jesus-centered proclamation.

CT interviewed Martin Accad, editor of the anthology and associate professor of Islamic studies at ABTS. Though he remains on faculty, he recently resigned from his leadership positions at the seminary to found Action Research Associates, seeking holistic application of the kerygmatic method within the troubles of sectarian Lebanese society.

Accad described the value of the book for evangelical engagement with Islam, but also how its principles can guide interaction with “the religious other” in both Lebanon and the United States:

Out of the 30 contributors to this book, only 9 are from the West, while 16 are Arab voices. What is the impact of this diversity?

Having so many Arabs is unusual for this type of book, especially those who are not of a polemical bent. Much of the agenda of missions and dialogue has been driven by Western questions, girded by the theology of the provider.

The contributions, therefore, de-objectify the conversation. We do not claim to be authoritative, but I hope that our voices will come with some authority, as we highlight our primary concerns in this part of the world.

“Toward” a biblical understanding suggests you have no definitive Christian conclusion about Islam, the Quran, and Muhammad. What message does the book want to give?

The primary goal of the book is theological, and is the crowning of years of work at ABTS. The Religious Other wants to explore what Islam really is. But I have come to the realization that a lot of what drives evangelical approaches to ministry among Muslims is polemical, rather than conciliatory and collaborative.

One of the book’s central hypotheses is that Islam cannot be oversimplified. Essentializing the “other” leads to conflict, because it fails to see them in their entirety, or as they perceive themselves.

There can be no definitive biblical understanding of Islam, because…

This article was originally published at Christianity Today, on April 9, 2021. Please click here to read the full text.

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Died: Ashur Eskrya, Champion of Iraq’s Displaced Christians

Image: Zowaa / ADM

Ashur Sargon Eskrya, president of the Assyrian Aid Society–Iraq (AASI), passed away today from COVID-19 complications.

A champion of the Assyrian Christian minority, he was also a central figure in US efforts to shelter refugees from ISIS and later rebuild the Nineveh Plains.

AASI was honored for its work with a Nobel Peace Prize nomination in 2016.

“Ashur has played a prominent role in being a voice for our people in international forums, speaking on behalf of us all especially on the subject of indigenous rights,” stated the official account of the Assyrian Democratic Movement (ADM), of which Eskrya was a senior member.

“He will always be remembered for his leadership.”

Fellow ADM member Jessi Arabou called him one of the Assyrian nation’s “biggest assets.” Born in 1974, Eskrya was a civil engineer and graduate of Baghdad University. He became a member in AASI in 2003, and assumed the presidency in 2010. Founded in 1991 to respond to the humanitarian crisis following the first Gulf War, the nonprofit…

This article was originally published at Christianity Today, on April 9, 2021. Please click here to read the full text.

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Convictions in Case of Christian Journalist Murdered in Turkey Fail to Satisfy

Hrant Dink, image courtesy of AMAA

Fourteen years later, there is some resolution for the family of the assassinated Turkish-Armenian journalist, Hrant Dink.

But not enough.

“The judgment given today is quite far from the truth,” said the family in its official statement on March 26.

“Not the evil itself but its leakage was punished.”

In 2007, Dink was shot four times in front of the Istanbul office of his bilingual newspaper, Agos. A proponent of reconciliation between Turks and Armenians, he aroused official opposition through his passionate focus on the 1915 genocide. Two years earlier he had been arrested and convicted of “insulting Turkishness.”

The killer, a 17-year-old unemployed youth, was given a 23-year sentence in 2011.

But one week before his death, Dink had written an article stating he felt “like a pigeon,” targeted by the deep state “to make me know my place.“

Around 100,000 people attended his funeral, chanting, “We are all Armenians.”

Last week, the Turkish judiciary put 76 people on trial, convicting 26 and handing out 4 sentences of life imprisonment. Two were given to the former director of police intelligence and his deputy, for murder and the subsequent cover-up. The family is not convinced this includes…

This article was originally published at Christianity Today, on March 31, 2021. Please click here to read the full text.

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Christianity Today Middle East Published Articles Religious Freedom

Sudan Confirms Religious Freedom with Nuba Mountains Rebels

Abdulmonam Eassa / Getty Images

Sudan has taken another step toward religious freedom.

This time, it is a confirmation.

On Sunday, the joint military-civilian Sovereign Council signed a peace agreement with the rebel Sudan People’s Liberation Movement-North (SPLM-N), based in the Nuba Mountains, where there is a significant Christian population.

“Freedom of belief and religious practices and worship shall be guaranteed to all Sudanese people,” stated the Declaration of Principles, “by separating the identities of culture, religion, ethnicity, and religion from the state.”

Prior to the revolution which overthrew 30-year dictator Omar al-Bashir in April 2019, Sudan was governed by sharia law. It also imposed an Arab identity on its multiethnic population, contributing to longstanding conflict in Darfur.

The region’s Sudan Liberation Army (SLA), led by Abdel Wahed el-Nur, is now the last remaining rebel holdout.

Three other armed groups signed a peace deal last September. In February, these were integrated into an expanded Sovereign Council and afforded places in the still to be formed parliament. Abdelaziz al-Hilu, leader of the SPLM-N, refused to join without…

This article was originally published at Christianity Today, on March 30, 2021. Please click here to read the full text.

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Christianity Today Middle East Published Articles Religious Freedom

To Further Muslim Faith in Religious Freedom, Can Women Succeed Where Men Have Not?

Image: Empower Women Media

Sitting around a dinner table in a fancy restaurant, Talia is uncomfortably nervous. Her two colleagues in pristine attire anticipate a delicious meal—and then exult in the immaculate but meager portions provided them.

Earlier in the evening, the disappointed Talia had noticed a confused villager with a picnic basket ushered out of the establishment. Later, she peeks outside. Beckoned to join a family gathering, Talia discovers all the delight of nature on offer.

A new world had opened, wide and wild.

The fictional scene is a compelling metaphor for religious freedom.

“The idea was to move people from an awareness of scarcity to a desire for abundance,” said Shirin Taber, director of Empower Women Media (EWM), of the nine-minute Portions, produced by fellow Iranian American Naji Hendrix and Nancy Sawyer Schraeder.

“Short films can shift hearts, and after only a few minutes, rigid opinions begin to thaw.”

The key lies in storytelling, which Taber believes is a better method than the declarations and sanctions that have traditionally been tried to advance religious freedom in the Muslim world.

Rigid opinions thrive in confrontation.

“Many people are singing to the choir, but few come up with strategies that can actually move the needle,” she said. “And notably, they don’t include women.”

Her own story proves the difference. Taber’s commitment to religious freedom was developed early. Her Muslim father…

This article was originally published at Christianity Today, on March 29, 2021. Please click here to read the full text.

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Streaming in the Desert: Middle East Discipleship On-Demand

Courtesy of SAT-7

Growing up in civil war–era Lebanon, Rita El-Mounayer’s family often had to hook up the television to a car battery.

Last month, her ministry launched the first Christian on-demand streaming service in the Middle East.

“Television was our only refuge during the war, and was a communal activity,” said the international CEO of SAT-7. “This is what we will miss with , but we have to be where the technology leads.”

SAT-7 is a pioneer in the field. Beaming Christian satellite TV programming into the Arab world since 1996, it now hosts channels specializing also in Turkish and Farsi.

In 2007, it launched a dedicated kids channel. Ten years later, a separate academy brand was created to provide schooling to Syrian refugees and later to assist with at-home COVID-19 education.

Each is now available at SAT-7 PLUS, through web and mobile apps accessible via Android or iOS. Approximately 20 percent of the broadcaster’s 25 years of content can be streamed, along with all current live programming.

“In Morocco, it used to be that viewers had to wait for days until the Christian teaching program was scheduled,” El-Mounayer said.

“Now, they can binge watch.” While the advantages for the ministry are obvious, the drawback lies in…

This article was originally published at Christianity Today, on March 18, 2021. Please click here to read the full text.

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Why a Shiite Martyr’s Funeral Was Surprisingly Christian

From Lokman Slim’s funeral, at his family home.

A Protestant mother. A Shiite son. A plea for vengeance on his killers.

But unlike many responses to political martyrdoms in Lebanese history, she yields it to God.

Last month in the Hezbollah-controlled south of Lebanon, unknown gunmen shot Lokman Slim in the head. It was a targeted assassination of a man dedicated to the hope that his small Middle Eastern nation might overcome sectarian divisions.

He was his mother’s son.

“I will not go and kill them, but ask God to avenge him,” said the grieving 80-year-old, Selma Merchak. “This comes from my faith in God as the great authority.”

But her next response reflects the family’s—and Lebanon’s—complex religious identity.

“And as it says in Islam: Warn the killer he will be killed, though it tarries.”

Born in Egypt, Selma’s Protestant lineage traces back to her grandfather in Syria, who found Christ through the preaching of the first wave of Scottish missionaries to the Middle East. As a child, she attended the American School for Girls—now Ramses College—founded in 1908 by American Presbyterians.

The family attended Qasr el-Dobara Church, located in Cairo’s Tahrir Square. And Selma continued in the Protestant educational heritage, graduating with a degree in journalism from the American University in Cairo, which by then had become a secular institution.

The Merchak family mixed freely in an Egyptian upper class that was open to all religions, vacationing often in Lebanon’s mountains. But in the chaos of Gamal Abdel Nasser’s nationalizing of the Suez Canal, in 1957 Newsweek relocated its regional headquarters to Beirut, and Selma went with it.

She reconnected with Muhsin Slim, her childhood friend from the family vacations. The Slims were an influential Shiite family known for its good relations with the Lebanese Christian elite. Muhsin’s father served as a member of parliament in the 1960s, and during the civil war advocated against the use of Lebanon as a staging ground for the Palestinian armed struggle against Israel.

Now a lawyer, Muhsin married Selma shortly after her arrival in Lebanon. Her Egyptian accent was the toast of the town, aiding the political career of her parliamentary husband.

While Muhsin would only “pray in his heart,” Selma said, she worshiped on-and-off at the National Evangelical Church in Beirut, the oldest indigenous Protestant congregation in the Middle East.

Lokman, their second of three children, was born in 1962. Registered as Shiites within Lebanon’s sectarian system, Muhsin and Selma raised them to be moral, but to make up their own minds about religion. Statues of Buddha were part of the décor of their 150-year-old home. On property located in what was once known…

This article was originally published at Christianity Today on March 15, 2021. Please click here to read the full text.

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At Mosul Church, Pope Asks Iraq’s Christians to Forgive ISIS and Rebuild

Copyright: MARCIN MAZUR

I contributed additional reporting to this AP article, including its conclusion below:

At Qaraqosh, Francis urged its residents to continue to dream, and forgive.

“Forgiveness is necessary to remain in love, to remain Christian,” he said.

One resident, Doha Sabah Abdallah, told him how her son and two other young people were killed in a mortar strike August 6, 2014, as ISIS neared the town. “The martyrdom of these three angels” alerted the other residents to flee, she said. “The deaths of three saved the entire city.”

She said now it was for the survivors to “try to forgive the aggressor.”

Francis wrapped up the day—and his visit—with a Mass at the stadium in Irbil, in the semi-autonomous northern Kurdish region. An estimated 10,000 people erupted in ululating cheers when he arrived and did a lap around the track in his open-sided popemobile, the first and only time he has used it on this trip due to security concerns.

On the makeshift altar for the Mass was a statue of the Virgin Mary from the Mar Adday Church in the town of Keramlis, which was restored after ISIS militants chopped off its head and hands.

“Religion is love, grace, forgiveness,” said Louis Sako, patriarch of the Chaldean Catholic Church, in advance of the visit. “Religion is a message, and humanity is its core.

“[And] as for us, we are staying until the end.”

But perhaps some Iraq Christians have a vision for even more.

“This is a time of healing for our country,” Farouk Hammo, pastor of Baghdad Presbyterian Church, told CT.

“But we are still praying for a visitation by the Lord Jesus—a revival—and it will happen.”

This article was originally published at Christianity Today on March 11, 2021. Please click here to read the full text.

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Pope Francis Secures Favorable Fatwa for Iraq’s Christians

Via Vatican News

Pope Francis, a “pilgrim of peace” to Iraq, has made history by becoming the first pontiff to meet a grand ayatollah: Ali al-Sistani, whose hawza (seminary) in Najaf, 100 miles south of Baghdad, is considered the foremost center of learning in Shiite Islam.

Two years ago, the pope met the grand imam of Egypt’s al-Azhar, considered the foremost center of learning in Sunni Islam. With Ahmed al-Tayyeb, Francis signed the “Declaration of Human Fraternity,” calling on both Christians and Muslims to embrace religious diversity with freedom and respect.

This weekend, Francis came to Iraq to support and encourage the nation’s beleaguered Christians, whose numbers have decreased from 1.4 million in 2003 to about 250,000 today.

But he also wished to sign a similar document with the reclusive leading figure in Shiite Islam, which represents 1 in 10 of the world’s Muslims—and 6 in 10 Iraqis.

The result with Sistani was more modest than with Tayyeb, but Francis did secure a very important fatwa (religious ruling).

“[Christians should] live like all Iraqis, in security and peace and with full constitutional rights,” said Sistani in an official statement. “The religious authority plays [a role] in protecting them, and others who have also suffered injustice and harm in the events of past years.”

Francis removed his shoes upon entering Sistani’s modest home. And while the ayatollah usually sits to receive visitors, he stood to welcome the pope.

Will the ruling make a difference? Will it have any impact in Iran, the neighboring theocratic Shiite state? And what really drives the regional conflict: religion or politics? In Muslim history, the answer is…

This article was originally published at Christianity Today, on March 7, 2021. Please click here to read the full text.

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Iraq’s Evangelicals Use Pope Francis’s Visit to Press for Equality

(Photo by AHMAD AL-RUBAYE/AFP via Getty Images)

Pope Francis traveled to war-torn Iraq today “as a pilgrim of peace, seeking fraternity [and] reconciliation.”

The trip’s official logo, written in three languages, comes from Matthew 23: “You are all brothers.” Iraq’s evangelicals, therefore, have asked for the pope’s help.

“The other churches don’t want us, and accuse us of everything,” said Maher Dawoud, head of the General Society for Iraqi National Evangelical Churches (GSINEC).

“But we are churches present throughout the world. Why shouldn’t the government give us our rights?”

Dawoud sent a letter to the Vatican, asking Francis to intercede—on behalf of evangelical Christians—with the Catholic church in Iraq, and ultimately with the government in Baghdad.

The World Evangelical Alliance (WEA) had gone straight to the United Nations, long before.

One year ago, the WEA filed a report with the UN Human Rights Committee, protesting the denial of legal recognition for Iraqi evangelicals. Fourteen other denominations are currently counted within the Christian, Yazidi, and Sabaean-Mandaean Religions Diwan (Bureau).

Now estimated at less than 250,000 people, Christians are a small minority of Iraq’s 40 million population, 97 percent of which is Muslim. Evangelical numbers are even smaller.

The Chaldean Catholic Church represents 80 percent of the nation’s Christians, with 110 churches throughout the country. Syriacs, both Catholic and Orthodox, constitute another 10 percent, with 82 churches. Assyrians, primarily through the Church of the East, have a 5 percent share, and Armenians, 3 percent. (Other estimates count 67 percent for the Chaldeans, and 20 percent for the Assyrians. Their identity and history are disputed.)

Evangelicals have 7 churches, Dawoud said. Representing the Baptist, Pentecostal, Nazarene, Alliance, Assemblies of God, and Armenian Evangelical denominations, the GSINEC has petitioned Baghdad for recognition since 2003.

While their churches are open and able to conduct services, they lack the authority to perform marriages, conduct funerals, and interact with the government. This prevents them from owning property, opening bank accounts, and producing religious literature.

It also keeps Protestants from invitations to official events—like the visit of a pope.

But not all of them. “I will ask Pope Francis to agree with me in prayer,” said…

This article was originally published at Christianity Today, on March 5, 2021. Please click here to read the full text.

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If Muslims Can Build Churches in Egypt, Has Persecution Ended?

Image: Egypt Cabinet of Ministers Media Center
An Egyptian government infographic depicting recent progress in legalizing Christian churches.

Egyptian Christians have long struggled to build their churches.

But now, they can have Muslim help.

Last month, Egypt’s Grand Mufti Shawki Allam issued a fatwa (religious ruling) allowing Muslim paid labor to contribute toward the construction of a church. Conservative scholars had argued this violated the Quranic injunction to not help “in sin and rancor.”

The ruling is timely, as the governmental Council of Ministers recently issued an infographic highlighting the 2020 land allocation for 10 new churches in eight Egyptian cities. An additional 34 are currently under construction.

Prior to this, two prominent examples stand out. In 2018, President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi inaugurated the Church of the Martyrs of Faith and Homeland in al-Our, a village in Upper Egypt, to honor the Copts beheaded by ISIS in Libya. And in 2019, he consecrated the massive Cathedral of the Nativity of Christ in what will become the new administrative capital of Egypt, alongside its central mosque.

This is in addition to restoration work at 16 historic Coptic sites and further development of the 2,000-mile Holy Family Trail, tracing the traditional map of Jesus’ childhood flight from King Herod.

And since the 2018 implementation of a 2016 law to retroactively license existing church buildings, a total of 1,800 have now been registered legally.

Persecution has long been a term applied to Copts in Egypt, ranked No. 16 on the Open Doors 2021 World Watch List of nations where it is hardest to be a Christian. But shortly after the mufti’s fatwa, which restated a ruling last given in 2009, the Grand Imam of al-Azhar gave a pronouncement of his own…

[But there are dissenting cases also.]

Ramy Kamel, a 33-year-old activist, was once dodging tanks near Tahrir Square, protesting for Coptic equality. Ten years later, he is in jail for “spreading false news” about Coptic discrimination, and “financing a terrorist group.”

Soad Thabet, a 74-year-old Coptic grandmother, was in the Upper Egyptian village of al-Karm, minding her own business. Ten years later, she is fighting for justice after having been stripped naked and paraded through town, with her Muslim attackers acquitted.

These examples show that the term persecution remains “appropriate,” said Kurt Werthmuller, a USCIRF policy analyst specializing in Egypt…

This article was originally published at Christianity Today on February 22, 2021. Please click here to read the full text.

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Who Will Save Algeria’s Closed Churches: the UN, US, or Hirak?

Image: STR / picture alliance / Getty Images
People in Algiers wave a big Algerian flag during a protest held today to mark the second anniversary of the mass demonstrations, commonly known as the Hirak Movement, that pushed long-time ruler Abdelaziz Bouteflika out of office in April 2019.

Algeria’s Christians hope that a one-two punch may reopen their churches.

Last December, a letter from the United Nations asked the North African government to give account. And in recent days, popular protests resumed after crackdowns and a COVID-19 hiatus.

Two years ago, Protestants cheered when the Algerian Hirak [Arabic for movement] forced the resignation of then 82-year-old president Abdelaziz Bouteflika, following his announcement that he would run for a fifth term in office. Protests continued, however, as the ruling clique was slow to make changes.

Hirak supports human rights, and I have no doubt they will help the churches,” said Youssef Ourahmane, vice president of the Algerian Protestant Church (EPA).

“And the letter from the UN shows something else is wrong, and now they will have to deal with it.”

Its language reads like a teacher scolding a recalcitrant student.

“Please explain in detail the factual and legal basis that justified the closure of the 13 places of worship and churches,” stated the 7-page letter, written in French.

“Please provide information on the re-registration procedure of the [EPA], and explain the reason why this has not been finalized to date.”

Signed by three UN experts specializing in the freedom of religion and belief, peaceful assembly, and minorities, the now-open letter represents the latest chapter of international advocacy for the persecuted Protestants of Algeria.

The nation ranks No. 24 on the Open Doors World Watch List of the most difficult countries for Jesus followers. Only three years ago, it ranked No. 42.

“2020 was a very difficult year for us Protestants, who have been deprived of our places of worship,” said Salah Chalah, president of the EPA. “[But] we love our country and we regularly pray for its prosperity.”

Algerian Protestants number between 50,000 and 100,000 believers, with the great majority concentrated in the Atlas Mountains regions populated with Kabyle, a non-Arab indigenous ethnic group.

Besides the 13 churches forcibly shut down, the UN noted 40 other Protestant places of worship threatened with closure. It also rebuked the “physical force” used against church members, as well as discriminatory treatment against Christians in airports and other border crossings.

In 2018, the Algerian government denied Christians were persecuted, stating churches were closed for “nonconformity with the laws.”

But in October 2019, Chalah was one of several kicked and beaten with batons while protesting the closure of the Full Gospel Church of Tizi-Ouzou, 60 miles east of the capital Algiers. Understood to be Algeria’s largest church, 300 of the congregation’s 1,200 members gathered in solidarity as 20 police officers sealed its doors.

“May everyone know that we have been beaten and abused for one reason only—our Christian faith,” Chalah said at the time. “And because that’s the cause of our pain…

This article was originally published at Christianity Today on February 22, 2021. Please click here to read the full text.