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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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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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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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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.

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Reaching Youth for Christ During Sudan’s Coup

Image: John Sagherian
An outdoor YFC youth meeting in al-Thawra near Wad Madani, Sudan

At 6:30 a.m. last Monday, John Sagherian and Elie Heneine went down to the lobby of their three-star hotel in eastern Sudan and found a crowd gathered around a TV. Filtering in, they heard the news.

The military had staged a coup in the capital, Khartoum, 90 miles to the northwest.

“Instantly, everything we planned for that day was up in the air,” said Heneine, a 27-year-old staff worker with Youth for Christ (YFC) Lebanon. “Oh well, youth work is very organic.”

Sagherian, the 74-year-old YFC regional director, had long been “dying to visit” Sudan. Two years earlier, he had identified a promising country director named Sabet, who since then had recruited seven other volunteer staff members. Sabet even ignored the capital, concentrating instead on the poorer hinterland.

The Lebanese team of two were finally scheduled to meet their new Sudanese colleagues later that day. As malaria had been among their concerns, they had taken 100 mg of medication every day for two weeks prior. The visa had also been a complication, requiring multiple layers of bureaucracy. But it was the BBC app that now troubled Joy, Heneine’s American wife of five months, as Sudan increasingly filled her news feed.

Heneine himself was at peace. Not only was he used to instability as a Lebanese Christian, but Sabet and others assured them everything was fine—despite the political tumult between the once-cooperating military and civilian leaders.

In 2019, the Sudanese army backed massive protests to overthrow 30-year dictator Omar al-Bashir. A spate of religious freedom reforms replaced his Islamist governance, normalization agreements were signed with the nation’s former enemy Israel, and the US removed Sudan from its list of state sponsors of terrorism.

The economy was struggling, but the World Bank was poised to help. Sudan was almost ready to rejoin the community of nations. But politicians were bickering, and a military coup had been suppressed only one month earlier.

In the background was disagreement over sending Bashir to the International Criminal Court to be tried for war crimes in Darfur. Deeper still were issues of army control of large sectors of the economy. And at an unspecified but fast-approaching date, the transitional Sovereign Council was supposed to switch to civilian leadership. Two days before the coup, the YFC team had traveled three hours over bumpy roads with multiple checkpoints to reach…

This article was originally published at Christianity Today, on November 3, 2021. Please click here to read the full text.

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Lebanon’s Christians Resist Exodus from Worst Economic Collapse in 150 Years

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

In 2019, as Lebanon witnessed an unprecedented uprising against its entire political class, evangelical sermons grappled with applied theology:

Whether to join in for justice or honor the king.

Two years later, amid an economic collapse the World Bank says is the worst in 150 years, Lebanese Christians face an even greater pastoral challenge:

Whether to stay and help or escape abroad.

The nation has largely made up its mind.

Estimates indicate as many as 380,000 people have left Lebanon. Every day witnesses another 8,000 passport applications. Food prices have increased 557 percent since the uprising, as the inflation rate has now surged past perennial basket cases Venezuela and Zimbabwe.

Once featuring an economically vibrant middle-class, Lebanon now has a poverty rate of 78 percent. The minimum wage of $450 per month has devalued to a mere $33.

“Ask first: Where can I love the Lord, obey the Lord, and serve the Lord—me and my family?” Hikmat Kashouh, pastor of Resurrection Church Beirut, preached in his recent sermon.

“Praying faithfully, we may come up with different decisions.”

Kashouh urged people not to emigrate easily, to seek counsel with church leaders, and to help the suffering whether they stay or leave.

Fellow evangelical pastor Walid Zailaa, however, was blunt in his assessment.

“Your presence is important. How can we enact God’s will if you are not here?” preached the pastor of Faith Baptist Church in Mansourieh. “If you want to search for a better life for yourself and your children, it is your right.

“But it says to God: You are not able to provide for me in Lebanon.”

Even the lions and tigers are leaving.

“Lebanon is not fit for man or animal,” said Bassam Haddad, who runs discovery Bible studies alongside relief efforts. “But I am optimistic—not for the country, but for God’s work.” Since 2012, his lay-led church services…

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

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Worried Christians ‘Wait and See’ After Sudan Coup

Image: AFP / Getty Images

Amid a near complete phone and internet blackout, Sudan’s Christians are on high alert following a military coup.

Yesterday the head of the North African nation’s transitional Sovereign Council, Gen. Abdel Fattah Burhan, arrested its civilian prime minister, Abdalla Hamdok, his wife, and other officials.

Hamdok, who called the arrests a “complete coup,” called for protests. The Forces of Freedom and Change alliance, which organized the original 2018 revolution that ousted 30-year dictator Omar al-Bashir, called for civil disobedience.

Thousands have filled the streets and were met with repression. Reports say 10 people have been killed and 80 injured.

CT spoke with an American ministry leader who was able to contact a Christian source in Sudan. The leader requested anonymity to preserve their ability to travel. The source was very careful in communication.

“All I can really say is that it is very important to pray for peace and security for all in Sudan,” said the leader, “and that the voice of the people would be heard.”

Meanwhile, a Sudanese Catholic leader felt secure enough to be specific. “The international community should…

This article was originally published at Christianity Today on October 26, 2021. Please click here to read the full text.

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Egypt’s President Promotes Religious Choice During Human Rights Rollout

Image: Mohamed el-Shahed / AFP / Getty Images
A neon sign portraying now President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi (center) between Coptic Pope Tawadros II (left) and Grand Imam of al-Azhar Shiekh Ahmed el-Tayeb (right) during a rally in Cairo in May 2014.

Committing Egypt to a five-year program of human rights reform, President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi did not mince words about religion.

“If someone tells me they are neither Muslim nor Christian nor a Jew, or that he or she does not believe in religion, I will tell them, ‘You are free to choose,’” he said. “But will a society that has been conditioned to think in a certain way for the last 90 years accept this?”

The comment sent shockwaves through Egyptian society.

“Listening to him, I thought he was so brave,” said Samira Luka, senior director for dialogue at the Coptic Evangelical Organization for Social Services. “Sisi is fighting not only a culture, but a dogma.”

Last month, the government released its first-ever National Human Rights Strategy after studying the path of improvement in 30 other nations, including New Zealand, South Korea, and Finland. The head of the UN Human Rights Council praised the 70-page document as a “key tool” with “concrete steps.”

Egypt’s constitution guarantees freedom of belief and worship and gives international treaties such as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights the force of law. But Article 98 of the Middle Eastern nation’s penal code stipulates up to five years in prison for blasphemy and has been used against atheists and Christians alike.

Will Sisi’s words signal a change?

Since his election in 2014, Egypt’s head of state has consistently spoken about the need to “renew religious discourse,” issuing a challenge to Muslim clerics. And prior to the launch of the new strategy, his comments even hinted at a broader application than atheism.

“We are all born Muslims and non-Muslims by ID card and inheritance,” Sisi stated. “Have you ever thought of … searching for the path until you reach the truth?”

Egypt’s ID card indicates the religion of each citizen. It can be changed to state Muslim in the case of conversion, but cannot be changed to Christian. Prominent public figures have called to remove the label, and debate ensued at the new strategy’s launch. Some argue the ID’s religion field is used by prejudiced civil servants and private businesses to discriminate against the minority religion.

Sisi’s timeframe of “90 years” roughly corresponds to the 1928 founding of the Muslim Brotherhood. And Luka’s “dogma” indicates a widespread social acceptance of interpretations of Islam that privilege the religion’s place in law and culture.

According to a 2013 survey by the Pew Research Center, 88 percent of Egyptian Muslims believe converting away from Islam should be punishable by death.

Calling for the application of sharia law, the Brotherhood won Egypt’s presidency in 2012, only to be overthrown by then-defense minister Sisi the following year after massive popular demonstrations.

Since then, Egypt declared the group to be a terrorist organization, and has moved to eradicate their influence from public life. Thousands—including unaffiliated liberal activists—are in prison or self-imposed exile. Bahey Eldin Hassan, director of the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies (CIHRS), called Egypt’s human rights situation “catastrophic.”

Concerned, President Joe Biden withheld $130 million of $1.3 billion in yearly aid to Egypt last month, conditioning it on the release of human rights and civil society activists.

Three days earlier—on September 11—Sisi launched the new human rights strategy to a national television audience. In addition to his comments about religion, he declared 2022 to be the “year of civil society.”

But a new law passed this summer to regulate NGOs was largely panned by human rights advocates. And Hassan stated that the 9/11 timing indicated the document’s primary audience. So too did the fact that the drafting committee was headed by the foreign minister.

“Before it was circulated in Egypt,” he said, “the strategy was published on the webpage of the Egyptian embassy in DC.”

A week later, charges were dropped against four NGOs.

Egyptian Christians, however, are far less critical…

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

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Good News for Iraq’s Christians: More Autonomy, Less Dhimmitude

Image: Courtesy of Archbishop Bashar Warda
Chaldean Catholic Archbishop Bashar Warda stands in front of the Catholic University of Erbil, located in the Iraqi Kurdistan capital city’s Ankawa district.

This week, the Christian enclave of Ankawa in Erbil, the capital city of Iraqi Kurdistan, was designated by the autonomous region’s prime minister as an official district, giving believers there administrative autonomy starting next week.

They will directly elect their own mayor, and have charge of security.

Prime Minister Masrour Barzani called Ankawa a home for “religious and social coexistence, and a place for peace.”

Archbishop Bashar Warda, the Chaldean Catholic archbishop of Erbil, called it an “important” and “strategic” decision.

“Our confidence in the future of Kurdistan makes us encourage Christians not only to stay,” he said, “but also to invest in this region.”

Ordained a priest in 1993, Warda was consecrated in his current position in 2010. With Iraq’s hemorrhaging of Christians since the 2003 US invasion, Warda’s bishopric in the autonomous Kurdish region soon became a providential band-aid.

Beginning in 2014, ISIS drove Christians from Mosul and their traditional homeland in the Nineveh Plains, and thousands took refuge in Erbil and other cities in the secure northeast. From 1.5 million Christians in 2003, the Chaldean Catholic church now estimates a population of fewer than 275,000 Christians.

Warda has long been investing to turn the tide.

In 2015, he established the Catholic University of Erbil, and has coordinated relief aid from governments and charities alike. The situation stabilized following ISIS’s defeat in 2017.

But freedom does not come from politics alone. Two years ago, Christians endorsed widespread popular uprisings against the political class. Violently suppressed, the movement’s main celebrated achievement was early elections under a new law designed to promote better local and small-party representation.

Polls open on October 10, and a quota gives Christians five of 329 seats in parliament. However, Warda’s Baghdad-based patriarch has called for a Christian boycott, fearing fraud.

Warda wants a Christian revival. Buoyed by the March visit of Pope Francis, he believes that ISIS broke the fundamental religious and cultural underpinnings of Islamic superiority. Christians no longer are seen as second-class citizens.

In an interview on the sidelines of the IRF Summit convened in Washington in July, Warda told CT about his welcome of missionaries, the Catholic way of witnessing to Muslims, and whether a revived Christian influence in Iraq will lead to future church growth.

Since the defeat of ISIS in Iraq, what challenge has been hardest for the church?

With all the displaced people, images of scattered tents immediately come to mind. But the hard part is not to provide them with food, sanitation, or medical supplies. This is not easy, but it is obvious.

The hard part is to restore their dignity. They understand that ISIS is a criminal gang. And they can bear the wounds of the innocent, knowing they had nothing to do with this dispute.

But their question is “Why?” yet also “What now?”

Men are the providers for the family. Sitting around doing nothing, they tell me, “Bishop, we don’t want money; we want a job. I want to deserve my food.”

Suppose there is aid sufficient to rebuild homes, churches, and schools and even to provide jobs. You have said that this is not enough. It does not establish the basis of citizenship and pluralism.

That is true. But without homes, churches, schools, and jobs, the people will leave the country. And then there are no citizens left.

With a rebuilt community, you can go to the government to speak about the constitution, defending the people’s full rights under the law. There is a link. First have the community; then talk about implementing ideals.

Before ISIS, when the community was stable, were you able to seek your rights?

For 1,400 years there was a sort of social contract: Islam is the religion of the nation, and you are the People of the Book. But know that Islam is the honorable religion of God, which means you are second. In the Quran it says…

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

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How a Jewish Evangelical Won Trust with Arab Muslim Leaders

Image: Courtesy of Joel Rosenberg
Crown Prince Mohamed bin Salman (right) greets Joel C. Rosenberg at the Royal Court in Jeddah on September 10, 2019.

Fans of Joel Rosenberg’s Middle East apocalyptic fiction can now read his real-time account of real-world peace.

Through behind-the-scenes meetings with kings, princes, and presidents, the Jewish evangelical and New York Times bestselling author had an inside scoop on the Abraham Accords.

For two years, he sat on it.

His new nonfiction book, Enemies and Allies: An Unforgettable Journey inside the Fast-Moving & Immensely Turbulent Modern Middle East, released one year after the signing of the normalization agreement between Israel and the United Arab Emirates (UAE), finally tells the story.

During an evangelical delegation of dialogue to the Gulf nation in 2018, the Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi, Mohammed bin Zayed (MBZ), told Rosenberg of his groundbreaking and controversial plans—and trusted the author to keep the secret.

Named after the biblical patriarch, the accords were Israel’s first peace deal in 20 years. In the five months that followed, similar agreements were signed with Bahrain, Sudan, Kosovo, and Morocco.

Might Saudi Arabia be next? Mohammed bin Salman’s (MBS) comments to Rosenberg remain off the record. But asked if his reforms might include building the kingdom’s first church, the crown prince described where religious freedom falls in his order of priorities.

Enemies and Allies provides never-before-published accounts of Rosenberg’s interactions with these leaders, in addition to Egypt’s President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi and Jordan’s King Abdullah. Included also are exchanges with former president Donald Trump and vice president Mike Pence.

CT interviewed Rosenberg about navigating politics and praying in palaces and about whether he would be willing to lead similar evangelical delegations to Turkey or Iran:

You describe your relationships, especially with the UAE’s MBZ, as ones of “trust.” How did you nurture that? Did you sense it was different than their official diplomatic connections?

I’m not sure I have a good answer for that. Why would Arab Muslim leaders trust a Jewish evangelical US-Israeli citizen?

In the case of King Abdullah, he had read my novel and decided to invite me to his palace rather than ban me from his kingdom forever. The book was about ISIS trying to kill him and blow up his palace. In our first meeting, we spent five days together, and it was not on the record. We were building trust.

I didn’t have that with any of the others. In every case, we were invited rather than us going and knocking on the door. With the case of [MBZ], his ambassador Yousef Al Oteiba had seen the coverage of our Egypt and Jordan trips. He has very good relations with these countries and was able to get the backstory, asking, “Who is this guy Rosenberg? How did it go? Should we do the same?”

I think it has much more to do with being a follower of Jesus Christ. They didn’t know me, but they seemed to trust that followers of Christ who call themselves evangelicals would be trustworthy. That we are genuinely interested in peace, in security in the region, and in a US alliance with the Arab world. And in terms of the expansion of religious freedom, all of them wanted to talk about these things.

They were making a bet that the evangelical community in the United States, while being deeply—though not uniformly—pro-Israel, still has a deep interest in peace and assessing their countries and their reforms fairly. It was the sincerity of our faith that led to trust.

But you still had to nurture trust. How?

I’m sure they vetted me, and in reading my work, they saw I have a deep respect for Muslims. I’m not infected with Islamophobia. I’ve traveled from Morocco to Afghanistan. And I’ve done what I can to strengthen Christian communities in the Arab and Muslim worlds. I’m not your classic…

This article was originally published at Christianity Today, on October 1, 2021. Please click here to read the full text.