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Christianity Today Middle East Published Articles

Finding Common Ground in a Big Fish

Image: Tim Peacock

Twenty miles south of Beirut is a sandy beach called Jiyeh. It’s a rare interlude in Lebanon’s rocky coastline, and if you were out in the Mediterranean, crying for deliverance as currents swirled about you, waves and breakers sweeping over you, this is where you’d want God to command a fish to vomit you onto dry land.

And this is, in fact, the spot where ancient legend says that the Hebrew prophet Jonah was delivered safely to shore.

Jonah has long been honored here. Mosaics found in the ruins of a 1,500-year-old Byzantine church show the prophet who tried to run away from his mission to Nineveh getting turned around by a large fish. And today there is a Muslim mosque on the site with a shrine to Jonah.

The Hebrew story of the reluctant prophet is beloved not only by Christians but also by those who hold the Qur’an to be the final revelation of God. And chiseled on the shrine is the verse that he prayed from the belly of the fish, which Muhammad urged Muslims to recite when in trouble.

“The most common prayer of Muslims during times of crisis is the prayer of Jonah,” Emad Botros, professor of Old Testament at Arab Baptist Theological Seminary in Beirut, told CT. “We share a heritage with Muslims. And what is better to share than stories?”

Botros is one of a few scholars turning to Jonah as a site of common interest connecting Christians and Muslims. He has written a book, Jonah: Bible Commentaries from Muslim Contexts, the second volume in a series on reading the Bible in the context of Islam. He thinks the story of the prophet—along with other shared stories—can help start a conversation across the faiths.

“The prophets of old were the heroes of Muhammad,” Botros said. “Knowing his reflections helps us communicate our biblical stories more effectively.” The Qur’an’s account of Jonah—which Muslims believe was divinely revealed through the archangel Gabriel—is different from the version in the Hebrew Bible. In the Muslim version, the city he’s going to is…

This article was originally published in the December print edition of Christianity Today. Please click here to read the full text.

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Christianity Today Middle East Published Articles

Wiser than Solomon: Can Evangelicals Lead the Middle East Toward Creation Care?

Image: Sean Gallup / Getty Images

“Wisdom,” said Jesus, “is proved right by all her children” (Luke 7:35). But sometimes it takes generations to judge, as demonstrated by a new research study that threatens to tarnish the reputation of a legendary biblical paragon.

According to archaeologists at Tel Aviv University, King Solomon disregarded the environment.

Today, his spiritual descendants largely follow in his footsteps.

“We have so many working in evangelism, church planting, and leadership development,” said Michael El Daba, the Lausanne Movement’s regional director for the Middle East and North Africa (MENA). “Almost no one is working in creation care.”

Evangelicals are not alone. According to a 2021 report by the Institute for Economics and Peace, the MENA region demonstrated the least concern for climate change, including 10 of the 20 lowest-scoring nations. Only 18 percent of those surveyed in Egypt, for example, recognized it as a “very serious threat”—even as it exacerbates food insecurity.

Arab Barometer, a regional pollster, found that 68 percent of Egyptians reported running out of food before being able to get more. In half of the other MENA countries surveyed, majorities stated the same. And in 9 out of 10, majorities worried it might happen to them.

Temperatures in the region are rising twice as fast as the rest of the world, according to a study published last June in the Reviews of Geophysics. At current rates, Egypt will be nine degrees hotter by the end of the century. Iraq has already increased three degrees in the last 30 years.

Some of the damage is self-induced. The study identifies MENA as a “dominant emitter” of greenhouse gases, overtaking Europe and India. Resource extraction—as necessary as the hydrocarbons are for national economies and modern society—comes with a cost.

Just as it did with King Solomon’s mines.

Although his mines are not specifically mentioned in the Bible, copper is known to have been extracted from the Timna Valley, north of the Gulf of Aqaba in ancient Edom, a region conquered by his father David. Solomon used the minerals in the construction of the temple.

Over 4,000 acacia trees and 185,000 white broom bushes were cut down to smelt the copper, according to charcoal evidence located by the Tel Aviv researchers and published in the Scientific Reports journal. Their removal “irreversibly affected” the soil’s ability to retain moisture, sparking the desertification that continues today.

Some researchers question the association with Solomon, but contemporary abuses ensure the region grows only drier. To the north, the Jordan River’s historic discharge of 1.3 billion cubic meters of water into the Dead Sea has been reduced to as low as 20 million, according to a 2013 UN study.

A joint Israeli-Jordanian project to lessen pumping in favor of desalination aims to increase flow by up to 40 million cubic meters, but the region suffers everywhere. According to the World Resources Institute, MENA is home to 12 of the 17 most water-stressed nations in the world—and again, some of the harm is self-inflicted.

According to the World Bank, only 18 percent of wastewater in the region is reused.

“Preserving water is fundamental,” said Georges El Copti, pastor of St. Paul’s Anglican Church in Amman, Jordan. “We are part of creation, and we have to care for it.”

Copti was interviewed last month as part of the Middle East Council of Churches’ effort to promote the international “Season of Creation,” sponsored in part by the Lausanne/World Evangelical Alliance Creation Care Network (LWCCN). He spoke not only of the importance of raising awareness but also about the rainwater harvesting project at his church.

Collecting even the minimal yearly rainfall in the desert kingdom can supply 30 percent of a household’s annual water need, stated the Jordanian Ministry for Water and Irrigation. Copti’s efforts are contributing to his congregation becoming an “Eco church,” a recognition awarded by A Rocha International, an evangelical environmental organization active in 20 countries.

Since its beginning in the United Kingdom, A Rocha has led thousands of churches to commit to embedding creation care into their preaching, worship, and facility management. Spinoffs are developing in France, Ghana, New Zealand, and Switzerland—though not yet in the Middle East.

“Matter reveals God,” said Dave Bookless, director of theology at A Rocha International. “If we destroy nature, we are ruining opportunities for evangelism.”

Bookless, also a creation care catalyst for LWCCN, spoke last month in Jordan, concluding a 12-region tour to promote the Lausanne Congress conviction, ratified in 2010, that “creation care is a gospel issue within the Lordship of Christ.” The message has been…

This article was originally published at Christianity Today, on November 14, 2022. Please click here to read the full text.

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Christianity Today Middle East Published Articles

Pope Francis in Bahrain: A Royal Reminder of Religious ‘Freedom of Choice’

Image: Loredana Mantello / Getty Images

After greeting Pope Francis last week with a red carpet, a 21-gun salute, and a contingent of horses to accompany his humble vehicle, King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa highlighted one document to characterize his realm:

The 2017 Kingdom of Bahrain Declaration.

“[Bahrain is] a cradle of mutual coexistence between followers of different faiths,” he said, “where everyone enjoys, under our protection after that of God Almighty, the freedom to perform their rituals and establish their places of worship, in an atmosphere of familiarity, harmony, and mutual understanding.”

With Bahraini flags flying side by side with the Vatican banner, Francis was profuse in his praise. Enduring severe knee pain, he noted the country’s centuries-old “Tree of Life,” a 32-foot acacia that somehow survives in the Arabian desert.

Bahrain honors its roots.

“One thing stands out in the history of this land: It has always been a place of encounter between different peoples,” said Francis. “This is in fact the life-giving water from which, today too, Bahrain’s roots continue to be nourished.”

In the island nation the size of New York City, flanked on either side by Iran and Saudi Arabia, from November 3–6 the pope visited its 160,000 Catholic migrants—primarily from the Philippines and India—living among a population of 1.5 million, evenly divided between foreign workers and citizens.

From 111 nationalities, 30,000 gathered this past Saturday at the national stadium for Mass.

Bahrain is a Sunni Muslim monarchy ruling over a narrow majority of Shiites. Christians comprise 10–14 percent of the population, with up to 1,000 Christian citizens originally from Iraq, Palestine, and Jordan who were present at the time of independence. Alongside a 200-year-old Hindu temple, a renovated synagogue hosts prayer for Bahrain’s few dozen Jewish citizens.

But beside pastoral responsibilities, Francis came prepared to preach.

At the Bahrain Forum for Dialogue: East and West for Human Coexistence, his message was a near homily on the 2017 declaration. Addressing over 200 religious leaders from the Gulf, he urged their leadership and introspection. “It is not enough to grant permits and recognize freedom of worship,” Francis said. “It is necessary to…

This article was originally published at Christianity Today, on November 11, 2022. Please click here to read the full text.

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Audio Middle East

Don’t Forget Religion: The Middle East and Journalism

I recently was interviewed by Dr. Alfonse Javed, host of the podcast Our Urban Voices. We spoke about the necessity of religious literacy in reporting on this often-troubled region, and how I go about my job. It runs about 35 minutes, and the topics are listed by timestamp, below.

Additionally, Isabella Meibauer interviewed me (among others) on a similar topic for her article in IJNet, “Tips for Reporting Ethically and Accurately from Abroad.”

Please click here for the link to the podcast, and click here for the link to the article. It is our privilege as journalists to represent the perspectives of our sources. Thanks for your interest, from time to time, in what we think as well.

Timestamped Show Notes:

01:41 – Topic: The Importance of Representing all Views in Journalism

01:50 – Family, from America to Lebanon

03:39 – A Day in the Life of a Journalist

06:59 – Reporting Complexities Fairly

08:56 – Representing 2% of Population

10:04 – What is Sympathetic Reporting?

10:28 – Hope, Reflection and Prayer

13:28 – Handling an Accusation of Bias

16:22 – Religion Impacting News in the Middle East

18:05 – Religion a Factor in Community Relations

18:23 – Religion a Factor in Politics

20:37 – Christians in the Middle East and Diaspora

21:37 – Relations Between Christian and Muslim Communities in the Middle East

23:17 – Religious Identity and Neighborliness

24:02 – Surprised by Christians in the Middle East

25:26 – Christians in Egypt

27:10 – Learning about the Middle Eastern Culture

27:46 – Cheaper Way to ‘Travel’ to the Middle East

28:04 – Middle Eastern Hospitality

28:22 – Connecting Middle Eastern Christians to Americans

29:17 – Contacting Jayson Casper

30:45 – Joke: A Sheikh and Albert Einstein

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Christianity Today Middle East Published Articles

Christians Say Sayfo Martyrs Should Get Genocide Status

Image: Delil Souleiman / Getty

In the waning days of the Ottoman Empire, evangelicals laid down their lives for their Lord. Living in Nusaybin, once home to the ancient theological school of Nisibis, they were among the firstfruits of the Sayfo (“sword”) martyrs.

Overall, modern estimates posit half a million deaths of Syriac-Aramean Christians at the hands of Turkish and Kurdish soldiers, concurrent with the Armenian genocide that claimed 1.5 million lives. Today this Christian community, still speaking the language of Jesus, seeks its own recognition.

In June 1915, the Muslim-majority city—now located on Turkey’s southeastern border with Syria—had about 100 Syrian Orthodox families, and an equal number belonging to other Christian sects. The Protestants were rounded up with Armenians and Chaldeans, marched to the front of town, and shot dead.

The Orthodox families were promised peace by the local leader, but 30 men fled and sought refuge in the rugged mountains. A monk, trusting authorities, led soldiers to their hideout seeking to reassure the frightened band.

According to reports, along the way they turned on the monk, demanding he convert to Islam. Upon his refusal, they cut off his hands, then feet, then head. Returning to Nusaybin, the soldiers assembled the remaining Christians, leading them out of town. In joyful procession the believers sang hymns of encouragement: Soon we will be with our Lord Jesus Christ.

Refusing conversion, one by one they were shot, and then dumped in a well.

In 1919, then-Syrian Orthodox Archbishop Aphrem Barsaum filed a report to the prime minister of Britain, after the Allied powers displaced the Ottomans. Similar massacres had been repeated in 335 other villages in the archbishop’s jurisdiction, killing 90,313 Christians and destroying 162 churches. Collecting other reports, delegates to the Paris Peace Conference following World War II tallied 250,000 deaths.

“It is unjust when they speak only of the Armenian Genocide,” said Archbishop Joseph Bali, secretary to Syriac Orthodox patriarch Mor Ignatius Aphrem II. “We also need to be vocal about our people.” Fueled by a substantial diaspora, the Armenian tragedy has been recognized…

This article was first published at Christianity Today, on October 21, 2022. Please click here to read the full text.

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Christianity Today Middle East Published Articles

Evangelical Creation Care Expert Shares Lessons Learned from Global Tour

Image: Illustration by Mallory Rentsch / Source Images: WikiMedia Commons / Getty / Unsplash

If the world is at stake, stewardship of creation must be global. And with an evangelical passion akin to world missions, Ed Brown is preaching ecology to the nations.

One region at a time.

Following initial consultations in Jamaica in 2012, Brown became the Lausanne Movement’s catalyst for creation care and helped build out the Lausanne/World Evangelical Alliance Creation Care Network (LWCCN). The goal was to amplify a conviction forged two years earlier in Cape Town, South Africa, at the third Lausanne Congress: Creation care is a gospel issue within the Lordship of Christ.

Since then, LWCCN has conducted conferences in 12 regions drawing delegates from over 120 nations. Concluding earlier this month in Jordan for the Middle East and North Africa, Brown and his colleagues addressed local issues for a region experts warn is warming at twice the rate of the rest of the world.

And the UN is cued in. Its 27th climate change conference, COP27, begins November 6 in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt, with COP28 scheduled next year in the United Arab Emirates’s Abu Dhabi.

Brown served previously as chief operating officer for the evangelical Au Sable Institute of Environmental Studies, and today is a fellow at the Nelson Institute of Environmental Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He founded Care of Creation, Inc. in 2005, and is author of Our Father’s World: Mobilizing the Church to Care for Creation.

In Amman, he spoke with CT about the challenge of politics, the response of missionaries, and the drastic impact environmental changes will soon have on ministry to one’s neighbors.

Reflecting on your many meetings, did the message of creation care resonate with the international evangelical community?

Much more so than in the US. We found people hungry and eager to have us come. People in these countries live closer to nature, without the protections from nature that exist in the West. They are much more aware of climate change happening. You can’t hide from it.

We’ve seen this with the floods in Pakistan, and with Hurricane Ian it is coming home to America. But this has been true for people in the Philippines for decades. The weather is changing, and our message is that creation is groaning in a biblical sense.

What is it that they were hungry for, or lacking?

Everywhere we go, the Spirit has been speaking to people about caring for God’s creation. With a conference like this, people are discovering each other. I may be the only one in my church, they realize, but I’m not the only one in [my] country—and now we can communicate with each other.

There is also a thought that individuals and church leaders sensed that something wasn’t right, without knowing the biblical foundation about how the Bible speaks to the issue.

Can you give an example about how we have missed this message in Scripture? The central passage I use is…

This article was originally published at Christianity Today, on October 19, 2022. Please click here to read the full text.

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Christianity Today Middle East Published Articles

Egypt Church Fire Kills 41, Sparks Blame of Building Law’s Legacy

Image: Tarek Wajeh / picture alliance / Getty Image

As Egypt reels from the tragic church fire that killed 41 worshipers on Sunday, many search for where to put the blame.

“God forgive the fire department,” said Ishak Henin, a deacon at Abu Seifein Coptic Orthodox Church in Imbaba, a dense urban neighborhood of Cairo. “If they had come earlier, they could have saved more people.”

Egyptian authorities stated they arrived almost immediately after the 9 a.m. fire was first reported. Eyewitness testimony varied; some stated 15 minutes, others over two hours.

Abu Seifein means “the father of two swords” and is the Arabic moniker for second-century martyr Saint Mercurius, whose icon reflects his military origins.

But the word church may give the wrong impression to overseas audiences, as the sanctuary was located between ground floor shops and towering residences. Illegally repurposed in 2007 from one of many tightly packed apartment complexes, the now-charred chapel traced back to an era when Egyptian Christians were unable to obtain permits to build new houses of worship.

The law was changed in 2016, and a Coptic legal expert stated Abu Seifein was officially licensed in 2019. Since the latest batch in April, the slow-moving process has now legalized 2,401 churches and affiliated service centers.

Yet many remain in their original condition, below safety codes, and according to the law full legality can only come once all regulations are satisfied.

Abu Seifein’s four-story building housed two daycare facilities, and 18 children died in the blaze. Around 100 people were present at worship that morning; authorities stated most deaths—which included the local priest—were caused by smoke inhalation and the resulting stampede.

One family lost a set of five-year-old triplets, their mother, and grandmother.

The head of Egypt’s evangelical community was “deeply pained,” and offered condolences to Pope Tawadros, patriarch of the Coptic Orthodox Church. “We pray that God will give comfort and patience to the people,” stated Andrea Zaki, “and…

This article was originally published at Christianity Today, on August 18, 2022. Please click here to read the full text.

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Christianity Today Middle East Published Articles

The Surge in Arab Seminary Studies

Image: Courtesy of ETSC

Bassem Ragy did not need a master’s of divinity degree in order to do math.

Seven years ago, when his church’s preschool children presented their paltry Sunday school offering of 7 Egyptian pounds (then equivalent to $2), he recalled the equation of five loaves plus two fishes.

Now one of 69 members of the 2022 graduating class of Evangelical Theological Seminary in Cairo (ETSC), the newly-minted MDiv can preach Jesus’ miracle from the original Greek.

“When I see the work of our graduates, it gives me hope for the church’s future,” said Tharwat Wahba, ETSC vice president for church and society—and one of its many alumni. “We must keep up our momentum.”

The fishermen are multiplying.

In 1995, there were about 50 students at the Presbyterian institution. By 2005, seminary research had identified 311 affiliated churches, 127 of which lacked a full-time pastor.

By 2019, enrollment had grown to 300 students. Three years later, it reached 509. And now affiliated churches number 450, only 70 of which lack pastoral leadership.

Founded in 1863 aboard a felucca, a traditional Egyptian boat, in the Nile River, ETSC’s floating campus served mission stations and fledgling churches associated with the then-American Presbyterian movement. The seminary has steadily supplied synod pulpits ever since.

Wahba linked the explosive growth to a low point in modern Egyptian history.

While most Coptic Christians were cautious about the 2011 Arab Spring, many evangelicals seized the opportunity to minister to revolutionaries in Tahrir Square, hoping for the success of the democratic moment. But Islamist politicians quickly dominated the parliament, and in 2012 the Muslim Brotherhood captured the presidency.

Much of the Egyptian church felt under siege.

But the following year, ETSC—which had created a missions department back in 2002—made church planting and evangelism a required course for MDiv students. And in summer 2013, when a popularly backed coup removed Islamists from power, Egyptian evangelicals were already poised to serve society.

In 2015…

This article was originally published at Christianity Today on July 8, 2022. Please click here to read the full text.

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Christianity Today Middle East Published Articles

Pew: Israelis and Palestinians Find Favor in the Eyes of Americans

Americans prefer a less polarized Holy Land. But they themselves are as polarized about it as ever.

A new survey by the Pew Research Center—three years removed from when Donald Trump and Benjamin Netanyahu led the political scene—reveals rising favorability ratings for Israel and Palestine, across nearly every segment of Americans.

Most, however, still prefer Israel.

White evangelicals lead the way, with 86 percent viewing the Israeli people favorably and 68 percent viewing Israel’s government favorably, compared to 37 percent favorability for the Palestinian people and 14 percent favorability for their government.

Overall, 1 in 3 white evangelicals view both peoples favorably, but only 1 in 10 favor both governments.

These believers are out of step with the wider US, however.

Among Americans at large, the Israeli people have a 67 percent favorability rating, up from 64 percent. The Israeli government’s favorability rating increased from 41 to 48 percent. And a narrow majority of Americans now view Palestinians positively (52%, up from 46%), though less so their government (28%, up from 19%). Overall, 2 in 5 Americans view both peoples favorably (42%), but only 1 in 5 favor both governments.

“Americans naturally want to be favorable toward other peoples,” said Mark Tooley, president of the Institute on Religion and Democracy (IRD). “I’m surprised it is not higher.”

Theology may have something to do with the affinity. In a new question, Pew asked Americans if God gave the land that is now Israel to the Jews. White evangelicals agreed at a rate of…

This article was originally published at Christianity Today, on June 9, 2022. Please click here to read the full text.

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Exodus, Judges, or Nehemiah: Lebanon’s Evangelicals Assess Surprising Election Victory

Image: Marwan Tahtah / Getty Images

On the eve of Lebanon’s parliamentary elections last weekend, Resurrection Church of Beirut (RCB) called for a prayer meeting. The short meditation focused on Psalm 147: heal the brokenhearted and sustain the humble—but cast the wicked to the ground.

Mired in economic crisis, many Lebanese blame a corrupt political class.

Three years ago, a massive popular uprising shouted “all of them means all of them” against the traditional sectarian parties. But within a few months, protests fizzled as COVID-19, the Beirut port explosion, and a World Bank-labeled “deliberate” financial depression drove many to despair.

For many, emigration seemed the only answer.

Hikmat Kashouh called out to God.

“Confuse many in the election booths, and encourage others,” prayed the RCB pastor. “Cause them to vote for those you desire.”

One of Lebanon’s largest evangelical churches, only 35 members from the main Baabda campus prayed along with him. The turnout mirrored that of the nation, which initially reported that participation dropped to 4 in 10 eligible voters. Very few expected significant movement in the political map.

“For three years we have cried out to God, reflecting his love as we ministered to everyone regardless of religion,” said Nabil Costa, executive director of the Lebanese Society for Educational and Social Development, also known as the Baptist Society. “And then at the fourth watch of the night, when everyone was losing hope, God said, ‘I am still here.’” Most evangelicals, he said, supported…

This article was originally published at Christianity Today, on May 19, 2022. Please click here to read the full text.

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Middle East

Despite Drop in Deportations, Turkey Still Troubles Christians

Image: Chris McGrath / Staff / Getty

Last year, Protestant Christians in Turkey suffered no physical attacks.

There were no reported violations of their freedom to share their faith.

And there was a sharp reduction in foreign missionaries denied residency.

But not all is well, according to the 2021 Human Rights Violation Report, issued March 18 by the nationally registered Association of Protestant Churches (APC).

Hate speech against Christians is increasing, fueled by social media.

Legal recognition as a church is limited to historic places of worship.

And missionaries are still needed, because it remains exceedingly difficult to formalize the training of Turkish pastors.

“Generally there is freedom of religion in our country,” stated the report. “But despite legal protections, there were still some basic problems.”

Efforts to unite Turkey’s evangelicals started in the mid-1990s, and the APC began publishing its yearly human rights reports in 2007. Today the association, officially registered in 2009, represents about 85 percent of Christians within Turkey’s 186 Protestant churches, according to general secretary Soner Tufan.

Only 119 are legal entities.

And of these, only 11 meet in historic church buildings. The great majority rent facilities following their establishment as a religious foundation or a church association. While generally left alone, they are not recognized by the state as formal places of worship and thus are denied free utilities and tax exemption.

And if they present themselves to the government in pursuit of such benefits, officials often warn they are not a church and threaten closure. Sometimes the authorities even try to recruit informants. And some Christians who have refused have lost their jobs.

Other Turkish Protestants are simply harassed. “Dead priest walking,” said residents of Arhavi to a local pastor as…

This article was originally published at Christianity Today on April 6, 2022. Please click here to read the full text.

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Is It ‘Christian’ for Europe to Welcome Refugees from Ukraine but Not Syria?

Image: Together for the Family

As Ukraine continues to be battered by Russia, Syrian refugees know what to pray for better than most.

“This is what happened to us,” said refugee students at the Together for the Family center in Zahle, Lebanon. “We don’t want it to happen to others.”

Born in Homs, Syria, to a Baptist pastor, Izdihar Kassis married a Lebanese man and then founded the center in 2006. She shifted her ministry to care for “her people” when the Syrian civil war started in 2011. About 50 traumatized teenagers find counseling there every year, and 300 have graduated from the center’s vocational programs.

As the refugees discussed the “horrible” situation in Europe during the weekly chapel service, Kassis suggested intercession. Bowing their heads, the 40 children and 30 Syrian staff and volunteers knew better than anyone what to ask for.

But one child wanted to be sure the Ukrainians would know of their solidarity. He went outside into the cold and snow of the Bekaa Valley, where most of Lebanon’s 1.5 million Syrian refugees take shelter.

His sign proclaimed, “Praying for peace.”

Since the invasion, about 4 million of Ukraine’s population of 43 million have become refugees. Another 6.5 million are internally displaced.

Yet 11 years since its civil war, most of Syria’s 6.8 million refugees—out of a population of 20 million—still live in limbo. Europe largely shut its doors, certainly in comparison to its warm welcome of those fleeing Russian aggression.

Many have taken offense.

“There is the perennial double standard and selective outrage of global news media, Western governments (and, sadly, even Western Churches) when it comes to reporting on wars, conflicts and the plight of refugees,” stated Vinoth Ramachandra from Sri Lanka, a senior leader with the International Fellowship of Evangelical Students (IFES), affiliated with InterVarsity.

“If Ukrainians were not blonde and blue-eyed, would their plight have occasioned [this] outpouring of compassion?”

It is a fair question. Is European hypocrisy—even racism—on full display?

Arab Christians are not quick to judge.

Born in Syria, Joseph Kassab today heads the Beirut-based Supreme Council of the Evangelical Churches in Syria and Lebanon. He notes the more than one million countrymen taken in by Europe—Western Europe, primarily. Eastern nations, he said, are still recovering from the communist era and have not yet developed the same sense of human rights.

There should be no discrimination, yet even this he understands. The early church struggled to open its mission to non-Jews.

“Racism is in every society,” Kassab said. “But Europeans have been more welcoming to the Syrians than many Lebanese.”

Being Muslim is a factor, said Elie Haddad, president of Arab Baptist Theological Seminary in Beirut. But also important is that most are rural, uneducated farmers. Legitimate or not, people are uncomfortable with difference.

Europe is a bit hypocritical, but so is he.

“If a faculty member needs shelter, I will open my home,” Haddad said. “For a stranger, not so much.” One who did open his home is a Frenchman…

This article was originally published at Christianity Today on March 25, 2022. Please click here to read the full text.

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Arab Christian Scholars: Trade Minority Mindset for Abundant Life

Image: Illustration by Rick Szuecs / Source images:Joe Raedle / Staff / Carl Court / Staff / Getty / Frank Mckenna / Unsplash / Wikimedia Commons

A group of academic Christians in the Middle East has thrown down the gauntlet: The local church, bound in fear to its minority mindset, needs to walk afresh in the Holy Spirit.

“We must tell the truth and call for freedom,” said Souraya Bechalany, coauthor of “We Choose Abundant Life,” a document released last September that makes 20 recommendations. “We are powerful in Jesus Christ, but too often we don’t believe it.”

Bechalany, a professor of theology and ecumenism at the University of St. Joseph in Lebanon, joined 14 other scholars across the region to challenge local Christians to give up their self-understanding of being a minority and to work for the rights of citizenship for all in a changing society.

Local clergy, they say, have instead often wedded themselves to the regimes.

Surveying experience from the Ottoman Empire onward, the document laments how many Christians have taken refuge in sectarianism, turning their vision inward toward survival.

Arab nationalism provided an escape, as Christians took leading roles in developing a common political discourse independent of religion. So did relationships with Western churches, as Catholics and Protestants pioneered modern education and built hospitals to serve society.

But as the region’s nation-states increasingly sacrificed democratic norms in favor of political stability—whether secular or Islamic—church leaders tended in one of two directions: Ally with the authorities, or plead to patrons in the West.

“If we continue in this direction,” said Gabriel Hachem, a Melkite Catholic priest and editor in chief of the French-language journal Proche Orient Chretien, “there is no future for us in the region.”

For now, the regimes are winning, as the challenge of ISIS and political Islam have pushed Christians to support the pillars of authority in alliances of minorities. But in doing so, they sided against human rights and dignity. This is inherently unstable, Hachem said, and Christians suffer also.

Their rate of emigration is rapidly increasing. The ecumenical Abundant Life is the product of a three-year consultation involving…

This article was originally published at Christianity Today, on February 23, 2022. Please click here to read the full text.

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Can Lebanon’s Baptists and Maronites Cooperate Amid Crisis?

Elijah Brown, with Maronite Patriarch Bechara al-Rai.

The value of Lebanon’s largest denomination of lira is now worth $4. It used to be able to purchase a ticket to a Broadway show. Today, amid a currency crisis that has pushed poverty rates to 82 percent, it can buy a gallon of milk.

The minimum wage—pummeled by the world’s third-worst inflation rate—is now barely $20 a month. And the worst suffering is in the nation’s north, where 6 in 10 children are regularly skipping meals.

Lebanon’s Baptists called for help.

“We came to express our deep concern for the suffering of Christians, and everyone,” said Elijah Brown, the US-based general secretary for the Baptist World Alliance (BWA), who visited mid-January.

“You are in our prayers.”

His words were directed to Bechara Boutros al-Rai, patriarch of the Maronite Church, an Eastern Rite Catholic community. Expressing solidarity with the 81-year-old cardinal and leader of Lebanon’s largest Christian denomination was a priority to the local Baptist convention, and Brown came with an invitation.

The BWA will call America’s 40 Baptist colleges to a conference in the US focused on supporting Lebanese education. Cohost with us, Brown asked, in partnership with US Catholic universities.

“It is a way to strengthen one another,” he said, “sending a message of unity and nonsectarianism.”

Lebanon is divided roughly in thirds: Sunni Muslim, Shiite Muslim, and Christian. Evangelicals represent about 1 percent of the 6 million population, far behind Maronites, Greek Orthodox, and other sects.

But Protestant-heritage schools like American University of Beirut and Lebanese American University stand alongside the Catholic St. Joseph’s University and the Orthodox Balamand University, akin to the Ivy League elite. All have been suffering, as few students can afford tuition.

And it is similar for Lebanon’s children. Over 700,000 of 1.2 million students attend the Christian-dominated private school system—including 20,000 within 35 evangelical schools. But the economic situation has pulled 3 in 10 students out of school altogether, and 13 percent of families sent their children to work.

Lebanon’s Notre Dame University (NDU) is eager for partnership.

“We want to help develop the Baptist mission in Lebanon,” said Bechara Khoury, president of NDU. “Struggling with a very crucial situation, bridges with others will give us the oxygen we need.”

Fully accredited by the New England Commission of Higher Education, in 2020 NDU began a partnership with the Baptist SKILD program for students with special needs. It is an “added value” for the inclusive university, said Khoury, as 46 students receive support in their college studies.

The BWA provided $35,000 last year to SKILD, Beirut Baptist School, and other aid programs to support struggling Lebanese and Syrian refugees. While Brown promised to continue to raise the issues of Lebanon among Baptist donors worldwide, he assured the patriarch with a message of advocacy. He will press US lawmakers…

This article was originally published at Christianity Today, on February 4, 2022. Please click here to read the full text.

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The Secret to Deradicalizing Militants Might be Found in Middle Eastern Churches

Image: Illustration by Rick Szuecs / Source images: Sohaib Al Kharsa / Unsplash / Abid Katib / Staff / Getty

A Muslim man walked into the offices of a Christian pastor whose congregation in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley has been serving Syrian refugees since the outbreak of civil war.

“I’ve hated you for the past eight years,” the Muslim said, “and I’ve tried to turn my community against you. But three months ago, it was your American doctors who treated me and paid for my hospital stay.

“We hate these people,” he continued, “yet they come here and show us love. Tell me the time of your services; I want to follow Jesus. How great is your Christianity!”

This story, told to CT in October by the pastor, who asked that their names not be used for security reasons, is remarkable. But it is not unique. Evangelical ministers in the Middle East readily recount conversion narratives of the most militant, radicalized Muslims. A second pastor has described how a Syrian confessed that he started coming to church to kill him. Now a believer, the man serves other refugees as a member of the congregation. A third says his once-small Christian fellowship has grown to more than 1,500 largely due to converted refugees. Perhaps as many as 10 percent of them are former extremists.

These accounts and others like them have led Scott Gustafson, a PhD candidate with Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam’s Extreme Beliefs program in Amsterdam, to a realization: Evangelical Arab ministry succeeds where millions of dollars of security-based solutions have failed in turning militant Muslims away from violence.

“No one strategizes: Let’s deradicalize the extremists,” he said. “But it is a demonstrable side effect.” In the diverse academic field trying to find secular pathways out of extremism, this is…

This article was originally published in the December 2021 print edition of Christianity Today. Please click here to read the full text.

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Iran’s House Churches Are Not Illegal, Says Supreme Court Justice (Updated)

Image: Courtesy of Article 18

Update: The 9 converts to Christianity made eligible for release by November’s Supreme Court ruling remain in prison for their faith, according to Mansour Borji, advocacy director for Article 18. The judge had ruled that promotion of Christianity through house churches is not illegal.

But another case is contributing to the establishment of precedent.

A revolutionary court prosecutor in the city of Dezful, 450 miles southwest of Tehran, declined to bring charges against eight converts to Christianity. Four were arrested in April, with four others later added to the case.

Hojjat Khalaf, Esmaeil Narimanpour, Alireza Varak-Shah, Mohammad Ali Torabi, Alireza Zadeh, Masoud Nabi, Mohammad Kayidgap, and Mohsen Zadeh were facing criminal accusations for “propaganda against the Islamic Republic of Iran.”

The judge provided a written explanation on November 30. According to Middle East Concern, he stated that although apostasy is a crime according to Islamic sharia, it is not an offense according to the laws of Iran. Borji said the decision was unrelated to the recent Supreme Court ruling (below), as this case had not yet even made it to court.

“The prosecutor was simply not convinced with made up charges by intelligence officers with no shred of evidence,” he said. “But his reasoning is very important.”

This update was added by Christianity Today on December 21, 2021, for an article originally published on December 3. Please click here to read the full text.

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Trump or Netanyahu? American Evangelicals Support Israel, Yet Signs of Change

Image: Frédéric Soltan / Corbis / Getty Images

In the public spat between Donald Trump and Benjamin Netanyahu, who would American evangelicals support? A new survey suggests it might be the Israeli.

Polled shortly after the Gaza war last May, it also reveals a substantial generational gap in level of support for Israel and a lack of impact by pastors from their pulpits.

And it happens to release this week, following Trump’s explosive comments.

In excerpts from a recently released interview, the former president blasted the former prime minister for his statement of congratulations to Joe Biden after the 2020 election.

“Nobody did more for Bibi. And I liked Bibi. I still like Bibi,” stated Trump in an expletive-laced diatribe, using Netanyahu’s nickname. “But I also like loyalty … Bibi could have stayed quiet. He has made a terrible mistake.”

Netanyahu responded with praise for Trump. But in noting a friendship with Joe Biden, he also honored the longstanding partnership between the US and Israel.

During his presidency, Trump moved the American embassy to Jerusalem, acknowledged Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights, and negotiated with five Muslim-majority nations to normalize relations with the Jewish state.

American evangelicals joined Netanyahu in appreciation. According to a new online poll surveying a multiethnic panel of approximately 1,000 self-identified evangelical and born-again Christians, 35 percent say they became more supportive of Israel because of Trump’s policies. Only 11 percent became more supportive of Palestinians, while 53 percent had no change.

And overall, 68 percent of American evangelicals believe the Jewish people today have the right to the land of Israel, by virtue of the covenant God made with Abraham which “remains intact today.” (About 23% say they don’t know.)

The survey, conducted by professors from the University of North Carolina–Pembroke in conjunction with Barna Group, was released today but conducted in July, well before public knowledge of Trump’s falling out with Netanyahu.

The 15-year Israeli prime minister scored a 74 percent favorable rating, based on the share of evangelicals who gave him a score of 6 or greater on a 10-point scale. One in five (22%) gave him the top rating possible. The survey did not include a direct comparison. But given the fact that it included…

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

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Sunday Worship Comes to the Gulf

Image: Walter Bibikow / Getty Images
Etihad Towers and Emirates Palace Hotel in Abu Dhabi, UAE.

The United Arab Emirates (UAE) wants to create a more friendly financial climate. Christians, say local evangelical leaders, are among the unintended beneficiaries.

“The business of Dubai is business, even though they are committed Muslims,” said Jim Burgess, evangelical representative to the Gulf Churches Fellowship, referencing the UAE’s economic hub. “But worshiping on Sunday—our traditional day to celebrate the resurrection of Jesus—will be a great blessing.”

Seeking better alignment with international markets, the Emirates is adopting a Monday to Friday workweek. The weekend had previously begun with Friday, in deference to Muslim communal prayers. Christians aligned their corporate worship accordingly.

“It is a bit strange to worship on a Friday, but you get used to it,” said Hrayr Jebejian, general secretary of the Bible Society of the Gulf, who lives in Kuwait. “The [UAE’s] reasons are purely financial, but for Christians it will be like going back to normal.”

Of the UAE’s 10 million people, 88 percent are migrant workers. The Pew Research Center estimates 13 percent are Christians, coming largely from India, Indonesia, and the Philippines, in addition to Western expats.

It is necessary to keep and attract good talent. Alongside officially secular Lebanon and Turkey, the UAE is now the third Middle Eastern nation to keep the Western calendar. But it comes with a tweak. All public sector employees will be dismissed at…

This article was originally published by Christianity Today on December 14, 2021. Please click here to read the full text.

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Coup Reversal Divides Sudan’s Christians

Courtesy: Susanna al-Nour

As a young mother in Sudan, Susanna al-Nour struggled like many others with rising prices and shortages of goods. International support pledged after the 2019 revolution was slow to materialize. The government struggled to disburse promised aid. And tribal groups protesting in the east were blocking access to essential imports coming through the Red Sea city of Port Sudan.

And then this October things got worse.

Citing divisions among politicians, Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, the general heading Sudan’s mixed military-civilian Sovereign Council, launched a coup against the popularly selected prime minister, Abdalla Hamdok.

Phone and internet connections were cut, Hamdok was detained, and security forces raided neighborhoods to arrest supporters of his government, roughing up others. Thousands poured into the streets, including Nour’s husband, an evangelist and pastor’s assistant at Faith Baptist Church in the Soba area of the capital, Khartoum.

“With a small child, I couldn’t go because of the tear gas,” she said. “But it was necessary to demonstrate against the regime.”

Sudan’s Christians were then solidly in support of Hamdok, sources told CT. Two months later, sources no longer speak in consensus.

At the time, enraged and without communication, the nation went into a standstill. Nour’s online studies through a seminary in Lebanon became impossible. So did her husband’s student ministry—as most young people were marching to reverse the coup.

Back in 2019, Hamdok quickly became the symbol of the revolution. Chosen by consensus among the political and revolutionary groups that deposed the 30-year Islamist dictatorship of Omar al-Bashir, his leadership was one of the few unifying factors in a rapidly fraying partnership between civilians and the military.

And then he wasn’t…

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

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Iran’s House Churches Are Not Illegal, Says Supreme Court Justice

Image: Courtesy of Article 18.

Currently at least 20 Christians are jailed in Iran because their faith was deemed a threat to the Islamic republic’s national security. Of the more than 100 Iranian believers imprisoned since 2012, all have faced similar charges.

But a recent decision by a Supreme Court justice gives hope to them all.

“Merely preaching Christianity … through family gatherings [house churches] is not a manifestation of gathering and collusion to disrupt the security of the country, whether internally or externally,” stated the judge, Seyed-Ali Eizadpanah.

“The promotion of Christianity and the formation of a house church is not criminalized in law.”

Two years ago, nine converts from the non-Trinitarian Church of Iran in Rasht, 200 miles northeast of Tehran near the Caspian Sea, were arrested in raids on their homes and church.

Sentenced to a five-year prison term in October 2019, Abdolreza Ali Haghnejad, Shahrooz Eslamdoust, Behnam Akhlaghi, Babak Hosseinzadeh, Mehdi Khatibi, Khalil Dehghanpour, Hossein Kadivar, Kamal Naamanian, and Mohammad Vafadar are now eligible for release.

The ruling, announced November 24, is “unprecedented,” according to multiple Iranian Christians and international advocates.

“The judge’s main argument is what we have been saying for years,” said Mansour Borji, advocacy director for Article 18, a UK-based organization promoting freedom of religion in Iran that tallied the cases noted above from available public records.

“But it astonished us to hear it at such a high level.” It also cuts against the grain of international understanding. The US State Department’s latest religious freedom report on Iran…

This article was originally published at Christianity Today on December 3, 2021. Please click here for the full text.