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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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Books Christianity Today Middle East Published Articles

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.

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Interview: The Middle East Church Must Resemble Salt, not Rabbits

Image: Courtesy of The Middle East Council of Churches

Pope Francis will make the first papal visit ever to Iraq in March to encourage the dwindling faithful. War and terrorism have hemorrhaged the nation’s Christians, but he hopes they might return.

Meanwhile in Lebanon, Michel Abs, recently selected as the new leader of the Middle East Council of Churches (MECC), agrees with the pontiff. But in an interview with CT, he said that schools and hospitals have distinguished Christians, who he hopes might even increase in number—and quality.

And Protestants, he said, have a lever effect that raises the whole. Representing only 7 percent of the regional Christian population, they have a full one-quarter share in the council.

The MECC was founded in 1974 by the Protestant, Greek Orthodox, and Oriental Orthodox denominations. Catholics joined in 1990 to complete its diverse Christian mosaic.

According to the Pew Research Center’s 2010 Global Christianity report, Orthodox believers represent 65 percent of the Middle East’s Christians, with Catholics an additional 27 percent.

But it was the Protestants who helped give birth to the ecumenical movement that joined them together. The 1934 United Missionary Council became the Near East Christian Council in 1956, and the Near East Council of Churches in 1964.

It was renamed the Middle East Council of Churches when the Orthodox joined 10 years later. Today it includes Protestant church associations in Egypt, Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Palestine, Sudan, Iran, Kuwait, Algeria, and Tunisia.

Council leadership rotates between the four denominations. Last September, Patriarch John X. Yazigi of the Greek Orthodox Church nominated Abs for the Eastern Orthodox four-year term. (Protestants are next in line.)

“Despite the difficulties we face today, being one is the solution,” Abs said in his acceptance address last October.

“This vine that the Lord planted two millennia ago will continue to spread, to include ever-growing areas of the planet.”

A Lebanese Orthodox, Abs represents the ecumenical diversity of the Middle East. His father was educated by Protestants, and married a Catholic. An economist and sociologist, he is a lecturer at the Jesuit St. Joseph’s University in Beirut.

CT interviewed Abs about the regional influence of Christians, the nature of persecution, and the witness of the gospel in the Middle East:

Congratulations on your election as general secretary. From this position, how do you describe the current situation of Christians in the Middle East?

It has been a difficult decade. The emerging movement of fundamentalism has harmed both Christians and Muslims. Everyone is in danger. We have to deal with turbulent times with much wisdom and solidarity. We need a long-term vision.

But I don’t think we will be eradicated from this area. Maybe we will diminish in numbers, or increase later on, but numbers are not the most important thing, despite their importance and their psychological effects.

The quality of their presence is important too. Christians are known for the quality of what they do. With respect to others, they developed efficient institutions, like universities, schools, and media. This helps, but I am still concerned with…

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

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Word or Deeds: Shiite Firebrand Pledges to Restore Iraqi Christian Property

Muqtada al-Sadr

If Pope Francis can avoid the complications of COVID-19 travel and get to Iraq in March, he will hear a lot about stolen property. Muqtada al-Sadr, a leading Shiite politician fiercely opposed to the US military presence, has told Christians he will do something about it.

The issue is not new.

As Iraq’s pre-Gulf War Christian population of 1.25 million dwindled to about 250,000 today, opportunistic non-Christians laid claim to their unoccupied homes and lands. The city of Mosul, next to the traditionally Christian Nineveh Plains—where Pope Francis is scheduled to visit— located 220 miles north of Baghdad, provides telling examples of the problem.

In 2010, in the waning days of official US occupation, Ashur Eskrya’s father decided to sell his family home. Years of chaos had depleted the once 60,000-strong Christian population of Iraq’s second-largest city, representing 10 percent of its total. Property values were plummeting. Especially in hindsight, Eskrya felt fortunate to get 25 percent of its market value.

Four years later, his neighbor got nothing.

ISIS invaded Mosul, putting its Christian population to flight. In 2015, the International Organization for Migration (IOM) surveyed 240 individuals displaced by the fighting throughout Iraq. Nearly 9 in 10 (89%) had their homes confiscated.

A 2014 study estimated that ISIS made more money from selling stolen real estate than it did from oil revenue.

After the liberation of Mosul, some Christians returned, including Eskrya’s neighbor. While 42 percent had lost their property documentation altogether, according to IOM, the neighbor was able to enter a lengthy legal process and eventually regain ownership of his home.

But uncomfortable with the security situation, he returned to Erbil, 55 miles east of Mosul in Iraqi Kurdistan, where thousands of displaced Christians still reside.

He lives there today with his children, which is more than a third family can say.

This neighbor benefited from Mosul’s earlier oil boom, and lived in a home valued at $1.2 million in one of the plush city districts. But in 2006, his daughter was kidnapped and killed. In 2012, another daughter tried to emigrate through Syria, and was killed there. The parents eventually moved to Australia—with the deed to their home. But last year, they were stunned to receive news…

This article was originally published at Christianity Today, on January 21, 2021. Please click here to read the full text.

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After Israel, Will Morocco Normalize with Christians?

Image: Illustration by Mallory Rentsch / Source Images: Fadel Senna / Getty Images/ Nagesh Badu / Fabio Santaniello Bruun / Unsplash / WikiMedia Commons

An excerpt, which follows an introduction about the three nations which signed the Abraham Accords to normalize with Israel:

This month, the fourth, Morocco, was granted US recognition of its longstanding claim to the Western Sahara, a mostly desert region on the northwest coast of Africa, which seeks independence.

But absent from the accords is any emphasis on religious freedom, despite the Trump administration making it a central feature of its foreign policy. And in relation to Christians, each nation has a unique situation.

The Emirates is officially 100 percent Muslim, though it facilitates the worship of its majority population of migrant workers. And following normalization, the UAE relaxed its sharia-based laws.

Bahrain has a native Christian population of about 1,000 people, descended from communities in Lebanon, Syria, and India. Three years ago, its king signed a declaration esteeming individual “freedom of [religious] choice” as a “divine gift.”

Sudan’s Christians, though only 3 percent of the population, are indigenous citizens. And following the 2019 popular revolution, Sudan implemented religious reforms, including repeal of its apostasy law.

Morocco is in between.

Long lauded for its treatment of local Jews, Morocco’s constitution recognizes Judaism and considers the 3,000-strong community as an integral part of its society. And during last year’s visit by Pope Francis, King Muhammad VI interpreted his official title of “Commander of the Faithful” as “the Commander of all believers … [including] Moroccan Jews and Christians from other countries, who are living in Morocco.”

But the omission stood out.

“He didn’t mention us,” said Zouhair Doukali, a Moroccan Christian.

“I want the government to recognize all minorities, so that we can live as Moroccan citizens.”

Estimates of the North African nation’s unofficial Christian citizens vary widely, from 5,000 to 50,000. Foreign-resident Christians are estimated at about 30,000 Catholics and 10,000 Protestants, who enjoy religious freedom in legally registered churches.

But whereas the UAE and Sudan have been improving their religious freedom image, Morocco has moved backwards, according to a new report on blasphemy laws by the US Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF).

One of eight nations to have expanded blasphemy provisions since USCIRF’s last report, in 2018 Morocco doubled its fines and jail terms. It also expanded the law’s jurisdiction from only official publishers to include any individuals in public or online forums.

And proselytizing, described as “shaking the faith of a Muslim,” can be punished with up to three years in prison.

Open Doors ranks Morocco No. 26 on its World Watch List of the 50 countries where it is hardest to be a Christian.

But unlike the UAE, where conversion is illegal and can meet the death penalty, Morocco assigns no penalties for conversion. The government has said so publicly.

“There is no persecution in Morocco,” stated spokesman Mustapha El Khalfi, “and there is no discrimination on the basis of faith.”

Moroccan Christian sources agree there is no state persecution. Over the past decade, the government has largely left converts alone. And since all are assumed to be Muslim, there are no issues marrying other believers. (Marriage in Morocco is a matter of civil registration, whereas in some Arab states it has a religious character and Muslims may not enter into Christian marriage.)

Some Christians, however, want full human rights…

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

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Christmas Unites a Divided Iraq

A picture taken on December 30, 2016 shows people walking past Christmas and New Year’s decorations displayed outside a shopping mall street in Arbil, the capital of the autonomous Kurdish region of northern Iraq. / AFP / SAFIN HAMED via Getty Images

Seventeen years since the fall of Saddam Hussein, the fractious Iraqi nation—divided mostly between Sunni, Shiite, and Kurdish Muslims—remains unable to agree on a national day.

But they can agree on Christmas.

Last week, the parliament unanimously passed a law to make Christmas a “national holiday, with annual frequency.”

The latter phrase gave great “joy and satisfaction” to Cardinal Louis Raphael Sako, patriarch of the Chaldean Catholic Church. Last October, he presented an official request to Iraqi President Barham Salih to make Christmas a permanent public holiday.

“Today Christmas is truly a celebration for all Iraqis,” said Basilio Yaldo, bishop of Baghdad and Sako’s close associate. “This is a message of great value and hope.”

In 2008, the government declared Christmas a “one-time holiday.”

In 2018, the parliament amended the law to make Christmas for all citizens.

But after each occasion, it was not renewed.

“The declaration is beautiful, but it is very late,” said Ashur Eskrya, president of the Assyrian Aid Society–Iraq. “But our trouble is not in holidays, it is in…

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

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When Parents Become Therapists

7-year-old Elias Saadeh sat on the floor with a bar of chocolate. It was all is his mother could do to get him back to his online studies, and prevent another violent fit.

Partly quarantine stubbornness, COVID-19 had shut down the entire Lebanese school system mid-March. But it was also autism. Diagnosed also with ADHD, this was the first time Elias was in the 24/7 care of his parents.

“I have to pray for him every day,” said Rebecca Saadeh. “It is exhausting, but it is a war we need to fight.”

Elias, a kindergarten student at the special needs-inclusive Lebanese Evangelical School (LES), would usually be with specialists. In LES he was in a mainstream class with a personal shadow teacher, pulled out six times per week for Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) and other therapy sessions as part of the cutting-edge autism support offered by the school. And during summers, he would spend time at the home of his shadow teacher and other speech and occupational therapists.

“Now, it has been three months without anything,” said Saadeh. “Today we tried to have a Zoom lesson, and he pretended to be dead.”

LES, like schools across Lebanon, scrambled to provide online learning options. From day one they recorded lectures for the student body of 1,700. The 125 with special needs received additional individualized lesson plans. But students like Elias—and their parents—needed something more.

“We work hard to include the parents in all decisions,” said Samar Rahme, coordinator of the LES Student Support Department. “And as a Christian, I have witnessed miracles in some families.”

With Lebanon going stir-crazy in quarantine, miracles would be needed now. Zoom calls were arranged for the parents. Special tips and videos were sent home, guiding how to work with their children.

And on April 22, Rahme shared them with the world.

At the 8th annual National Day of Inclusion conference, 1,400 participants from 17 countries joined in a Zoom call dedicated to crisis care for struggling parents. A ten-fold increase over past gatherings held in person, national coordinator Nabil Costa encouraged all to keep the faith.

“Amidst some of our nation’s darkest days … the simultaneous spread of the coronavirus and a downward spiraling economy is driving our families into a severe survival mode,” said Costa, also executive director of the Lebanese Society for Educational and Social Development (LSESD).

“However, a commitment to the rights and protection of individuals is not meant to be of service only when all the circumstances align well.”

LSESD, also known as the Baptist Society, launched the National Day of Inclusion in 2013, in coordination with the British Council and the Ministry of Education. Two years earlier Costa founded SKILD—Smart Kids with Individual Learning Differences—to address a gaping need in Lebanon.

A handful of private schools like LES, and their counterparts in the Sunni and Shiite communities, offered inclusive education. But none in the public school system. It wasn’t until SKILD ran a national survey in 2014 that officials realized up to 13 percent of students had a potential learning disability.

The next year SKILD launched a pilot program with seven public schools. By 2018, there were 30, and their teacher training manual was adopted by the Ministry of Education.

“When I first started, principals would say we don’t have special needs students, and hang up the phone,” said Hiba Al Jamal, director of SKILD. “Now, they are calling us for help.”

There are an additional 50 inclusive private schools in Lebanon, and SKILD works with partner institutions to extend specialized care to as many as possible. While LES manages its own staff, SKILD provides teacher training and eight therapists in support of the 98 special needs students at Khalid ibn al-Walid school, part of the Muslim private education sector, under a reasonable contract.

“SKILD believes we are all in this together, and are very generous,” said Jinan Khaywa, director of the school’s Makassed Learning Abilities Center, who also shared tips at the National Day of Inclusion.

“And now during COVID, we are directing parents how they can be the therapists for their own special needs children.”

Another Muslim-led institution, ECIL, part of the Shiite Imam Sadr Foundation, is also seeking to expand training. The only Lebanese center serving special-needs children up to 3-years-old, the initiative to transfer their skills to other therapists is also driven by the crisis.

COVID-19 has worsened already bad economic conditions, and the Ministry of Health has yet to pay ECIL its budgeted share. Perhaps training workshops can bring in revenue, as they also seek online donations.

“Every little bit helps, and we trust God, of course,” said director Maliha el-Sadr, noting ECIL both employs and serves all religious communities. “The most important thing is that we support these children as if they are our own.”

But ECIL is not the only institution facing a shortfall. SKILD, which runs partially on donations, is operating at 30 percent capacity. LES had to let go all their full-time therapists, and 30 percent of their special education teachers. And some Makassed families must apply for whatever their Islamic philanthropic foundation can provide.

Special education is expensive. Jamal hopes it can continue. “Our mission is to reach out to the marginalized, and reflect God’s love,” she said. “God doesn’t make mistakes, so these children are here for a reason—and we must serve them.”

This article was first published in the October 2020 edition of Schneller Magazine, on page 8. Please click here to read it online, along with their other articles about Christian life in the Middle East.

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Sudan’s Partially Answered Prayers

Archbishop Ezekiel Kondo

Sudan is rejoining the community of nations.

After 30 years of pariah status under former dictator Omar al-Bashir, the nation has established relations with Israel, taken steps to improve religious freedom, and ensured removal of its US designation as a state sponsor of terrorism.

Archbishop Ezekiel Kondo of Sudan has witnessed the entire history.

Born in 1957 in the Nuba Mountains region, he was ordained an Anglican priest at the age of 31. In 2003, he became bishop of the diocese of Khartoum, Sudan’s capital city.

In 2014, Kondo became archbishop of Sudan within overall administrative unity with South Sudan. And in 2017, he was enthroned as primate of the newly created Anglican Province of Sudan.

A critic of religious persecution under Bashir, Kondo has associated his church with the conservative Global South Movement in the Anglican Communion, as well as GAFCON, which seeks “to guard the unchanging, transforming gospel of Jesus Christ and to proclaim Him to the world.”

CT spoke with Kondo about justice for the Palestinians, the need for a blasphemy law, and his ranking of Sudan’s religious freedom progress on a 10-point scale:

Your country has begun a process of normalizing with Israel. Are you in favor of this process?

I do support it, for the good of Sudan. Normalizing will be a good thing for development in economy, agriculture, technology, and other areas. It will open doors for relations with other countries.

And spiritually, it will enable [Sudanese] Christians to visit the Holy Land.

Are there Sudanese Christians against normalization?

I don’t think…

This article was originally published at Christianity Today, on November 16, 2020. Please click here to read the full text.

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France’s Free Speech Makes Arab Christians Squirm

French authorities insist that “Islam is in crisis.”

A teacher was beheaded in the streets last month. Three Catholics were knifed at church.

And around the world, Muslims are protesting religious cartoons.

The French reaction has been firm.

“We will defend the freedom that you taught so well, and we will strongly proclaim the concept of laïcité [secularism],” President Emmanuel Macron said of Samuel Paty, the slain teacher who used the infamous Charlie Hebdo caricatures of Muhammad in a class discussion about freedom of expression.

“We will not disavow the cartoons, even if others recoil,” Macron added.

And the official reaction has been swift.

A mosque that shared a video venting hatred toward Paty—prior to his murder—was shut down for six months. A Muslim charity linked to extremism was dissolved.

Meanwhile, a recent poll indicated 87 percent of the French believe that “secularism is in danger.” An additional 79 percent believe that “Islamism has declared war on the nation and the Republic.”

Muslim world leaders responded in outrage to Macron’s rhetoric.

Turkey’s President Recep Erdogan called for a boycott of French products. Mahathir Mohamad, former prime minister of Malaysia, said Muslims have the right to “punish” the French, and “kill” them for their past atrocities.

Ahmad al-Tayyeb, Grand Imam of Egypt’s al-Azhar, led the Abu Dhabi–based Muslim Council of Elders in a call to sue Charlie Hebdo. The crisis has renewed the Muslim cry for an international law to ban the defamation of Islamic symbols. Others would broaden it to ban defamation of religion in general.

CT spoke with eight Christian leaders in the Arab world about the controversy, as well as a representative of France’s evangelical community.

The latter—also sometimes beleaguered in France—stands with Macron. “French evangelicals, like moderate Muslims, support…

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