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Christianity Today Middle East Published Articles

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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Americas Christianity Today Published Articles

Trump and Biden Disagree on Sanctions. So Do Evangelicals Outside the US.

Image: Anadolu Agency / Getty Images The headline reads: A New Era for America

If President-elect Joe Biden makes good on his campaign rhetoric, his sanctions policy will meet the approval of the World Evangelical Alliance (WEA).

Back in April, as even the strongest nations reeled from COVID-19, then-candidate Biden petitioned the Trump administration for sanctions relief on the hardest-hit nations—including Iran and Syria.

“In times of global crisis, America should lead,” he said.

“We should be the first to offer help to people who are hurting or in danger. That’s who we are. That’s who we’ve always been.”

In September, the WEA joined Caritas, the World Council of Churches, and others to similarly petition the United Nations’s Human Rights Council.

“We are deeply concerned about the negative economic, social, and humanitarian consequences of unilateral sanctions,” read their statement, ostensibly singling out the United States and its European allies.

“It is a legal and moral imperative to allow humanitarian aid to reach those in need, without delay or impediment.”

One month later at the UN, China led 26 nations—including sanctions-hit Cuba, North Korea, Iran, Russia, Syria, and Venezuela—to assert that the economic impact impedes pandemic response and undermines the right to health.

This is “disinformation,” said Johnnie Moore, appointed by President Donald Trump to serve on the independent, bipartisan US Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF).

He called the WEA statement “almost indefensible.”

“Sanctions against countries that imperil their citizens and the world is good policy,” Moore said. “It has proven to be an effective alternative to save lives, alongside diplomatic channels to coerce long-term positive behavior.”

Western nations had already issued fact sheets to undermine China’s claim.

Detailing food, medical, and humanitarian exemptions, the US and European Union (EU) demonstrated that sanctions target regimes and their supporters, not the general population. Christian Solidarity International, however…

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

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Christianity Today Middle East Published Articles

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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Americas Christianity Today Published Articles Religious Freedom

Polarized Americans Still Support Religious Freedom

Image: Mark Wilson / Staff / Getty
Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo address the State Department’s second religious freedom ministerial.

Last year, American support for religious freedom survived COVID-19.

The right to free speech held firm amid racial tensions.

And vigorous backing of the First Amendment endured a contentious presidential campaign.

So concludes the 2020 Becket Religious Freedom Index, which will monitor the resilience of the United States’ “first freedom” through the yearly challenges to come.

“Americans understand religion as a fundamental part of an individual’s identity,” said Caleb Lyman, director of research and analytics at The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty.

“It is no surprise that they support strong religious freedom protections in work and public life.”

Designing 16 questions across six categories, the annual index measures perspectives on the First Amendment. Now in its second year, in October it polled a nationwide sample of 1,000 Americans, scoring their support from 0 (complete opposition) to 100 (robust support).

The composite score is 66, a statistically insignificant decline from 67 in 2019.

Becket’s report recognizes that the religious impulse is natural to human beings, and therefore religious expression is natural to human culture.

Through their law firm, they defend religious rights. Through their index, they discover if Americans agree…

This article was originally published at Christianity Today, on January 4, 2021. Please click here to read the full text.

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Christianity Today Europe Published Articles

Azerbaijan Archbishop: Our Holy Mission Is to Keep Peace

Embed from Getty Images

The saying is clear: To the victor go the spoils.

And morally, with it comes the burden of peace.

In November, Christian-heritage Armenia surrendered to Muslim-majority Azerbaijani forces besieging the Caucasus mountain area of Nagorno-Karabakh. The ceasefire agreement ended a six-week war that cost each side roughly 3,000 soldiers, and left unsettled the final status of the Armenian-populated enclave they call Artsakh.

Azerbaijan, however, recovered the rest of its internationally recognized territory, including the historic city of Shushi. The first Karabakh war ended in 1994, and displaced hundreds of thousands from their homes on both sides.

Archbishop Alexander, head of the Russian Orthodox Church in Azerbaijan, reached out to CT to promote a process of reconciliation.

It will not be easy.

What is your vision for reconciliation?

We are both eastern Christian communities, and we have much in common.

At the same time, 1,500 years of separation between the Eastern Orthodox church and the Armenian Apostolic church has complicated relations. We have holy books and traditions in common, but we are not in fellowship.

Both of us have been living among Muslims since Islam was introduced in our region. But the manner of living has been very different. The Orthodox church in Azerbaijan found a way to live together with Muslims, but Armenians did not. Relations were not always…

This article was originally published at Christianity Today, on January 5, 2020. Please click here to read the full article.

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Christianity Today Middle East Published Articles

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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US Adds Nigeria to Top of Religious Persecution List, Removes Sudan and Uzbekistan

Embed from Getty Images

Only one country was added this year to the US government’s official list of the world’s worst persecutors of religion: Nigeria.

And the Christian Association of Nigeria made a statement, excerpted here from my joint article at Christianity Today:

“[We are] not happy that the US has placed Nigeria on a religious freedom blacķlist, because of the implications which include possible sanctions,” stated CAN president Samson Ayokunle.

“But at the same time, we are encouraged that the global world is aware of what is happening.”

Nigeria has religious freedom, CAN reminded, but it is denied in certain regional states—especially in the Muslim-majority north. Churches face discriminatory zoning procedures, and Christian professors are denied senior leadership positions, the group stated.

And while Muslims denounce terrorism by Boko Haram and its breakway faction, Islamic State West Africa Province (ISWAP), such violence is done in the name of Allah, stated CAN. Fulani herdsmen, meanwhile, kill in predominantly Christian farming communities.

“Pastors and their families are under attack,” stated Ayokunle. “Churches are being burnt and destroyed. They are taking over our farms and communities.”

The rest of the article contains additional Nigerian commentary, as well as the larger context for the State Department decision.

So while the Christian leadership of Nigeria fears the impact of the CPC designation by the United States, the job of securing religious freedom may be too big for Buhari alone.

“CAN has been consistently calling on the government to fix the security challenges before too late,” Ayokunle stated. “We call on the international community to help our government to wipe out these terrorists.”

This article was originally published at Christianity Today, on December 7, 2020. Please click here to read the full text.

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Christianity Today Europe Published Articles

Will Caucasus Conflict Come Also to France?

Image: Courtesy of Gilbert Léonian
Gilbert Léonian and his wife in front of their Paris church.

Throughout the six-week war in Nagorno-Karabakh, the Armenian diaspora rallied in support of an ancient Caucasus mountain homeland they call Artsakh.

Overall, they donated $150 million in economic and humanitarian aid.

In California, they blocked freeway traffic to protest the lack of news coverage.

In Lebanon, they hung banners against Azerbaijani and Turkish aggression.

And in France, they successfully lobbied the senate for a non-binding resolution recognizing Artsakh’s independence. (International law recognizes Nagorno-Karabakh as Azerbaijani territory.)

The symbolic vote angered Azerbaijan, which called for France’s removal from the Minsk Group, co-chaired with Russia and the United States and tasked with overseeing negotiations with Armenia since 1994. Turkey has petitioned for a leading role.

But the consequences go beyond regional politics. The controversy could threaten the French social peace, already riled amid President Emmanuel Macron’s campaign against Muslim “separatism.”

Azerbaijan, and especially allied Turkey, also have an extensive diaspora throughout Europe. And last month, their supporters led demonstrations in Armenian neighborhoods in Lyon, vandalizing the Armenian genocide memorial.

France then banned one of the more violent groups, the Grey Wolves.

To gauge the situation, CT interviewed Gilbert Léonian, a Paris-based pastor and president of the Federation of Armenian Evangelical Churches in Europe. Of the roughly 500,000 French people of Armenian origin in France, about 3 percent are evangelical, worshiping across nine churches.

(Like many French pastors across all ethnicities, Léonian studied at the well-known evangelical seminary in Vaux sur Seine, near Paris. He recalled reading CT in the 1970s, as he studied under the renowned theologian Henri Blocher.)

Léonian discussed relations between the ethnic communities, his fears for the fate of Nagorno-Karabakh churches, and his personal struggle to love his Azerbaijani and Turkish neighbors:

To what degree are the Armenian, Turkish, and Azerbaijani communities integrated into secular French society? Do they maintain their respective faiths?

The first Armenians arrived in France in the early 1920s, following the genocide of 1915–1918.

Others came to France in different migratory waves due to insecurity in their countries of origin: Lebanon, Syria, Turkey, Iran, and more recently, Armenia, following the 1988 earthquake.

Today in France, the Armenian population is mainly established along a south-to-north line from the Mediterranean port city of Marseilles, where the majority of original immigrants arrived and settled, through France’s second largest city of Lyons, and up to Paris.

The Armenian people are deeply religious, and were the first people to accept Christianity as their state religion, in 301 A.D., 12 years before Emperor Constantine’s Edict of Tolerance in 313 A.D. In France, 90 percent belong to the Apostolic [Orthodox] community, in 24 churches. Catholics represent 7 percent, in five churches. Very few Armenians call themselves atheists.

However, we are seeing a major secularization of religious practice, reflecting the general trend in Europe. For many Armenians, the church is more the place where the diaspora maintains its identity and culture, rather than a place where Christian piety is nurtured. There are about 800,000 Turks and 50,000 Azerbaijanis in France, and overall they try…

(Interview and translation by Jean-Paul Rempp.)

This article was originally published at Christianity Today, on December 8, 2020. Please click here to read the full text.

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Middle East Published Articles Schneller Magazine

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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Christianity Today Published Articles Reconciliation

Muslims Join Evangelical Theology Conference

It is not often that a Muslim appears at an evangelical theological gathering.

Al Mohler invited three.

The trimmed-down 72nd annual conference of the Evangelical Theological Society (ETS), held virtually this week, usually welcomes up to 2,000 top scholars to present on the most salient issues facing evangelical scholarship.

This year’s theme: Islam and Christianity.

“We are called to truth, and to understanding the world around us more accurately and thoughtfully,” said Mohler, president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary (SBTS), who also served as ETS program chair.

“That certainly includes our understanding of Islam, which has from the beginning represented an enormous challenge to Christian evangelism, apologetics, theology, and cultural engagement.”

Roughly 15 percent of the 130-plus events addressed these challenges, including the three official plenary sessions—in typical academic parlance:

  • “The Authority and Function of the Quran in Islam,” by Ayman Ibrahim of SBTS
  • “Through the Prism: The Trinity and the Islamic Metanarrative,” by Timothy Tennet of Asbury Theological Seminary
  • “American Christians and Islam: From the Colonial Era to the Post-9/11 World,” by Thomas Kidd of Baylor University

But it was the challenge of “cultural engagement” that led ETS to reach out to the Muslim panelists. Each was invited to share their view of evangelicals, and address the issues that concern them. It could “scarcely be more relevant and urgent,” said Mohler.

Three Christians joined them on the panel, focused on “Understanding Our Neighbor.” “We don’t resist the idea we must love Muslims,” said John Hartley, a research fellow at Yale, “but we…”

This article was originally published at Christianity Today, on November 20, 2020. Please click here to read the full article.

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Christianity Today Published Articles Religious Freedom

No Pandemic Pause in Persecution, Says Poland Ministerial

Image: Ralph Alswang / US State Department
The podium at last year’s religious freedom ministerial stage in DC. This year’s IRF conference was virtually hosted by Poland.

The cause of international religious freedom has gone more international.

Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, the third Ministerial to Advance Freedom of Religion or Belief was hosted this week outside the United States for the first time—in Poland.

Next year it will take place in Brazil.

Launched in 2018 by the US State Department, the ministerial brings together the world’s top diplomats to ensure religious freedom remains an integral focus of international foreign policy.

The focus is necessary: 80 percent of the world’s population lives in nations that restrict religious freedom, according to the Pew Research Center.

And the pandemic has only increased persecution.

“Malign actors have tried to use COVID-19 to restrict religious freedom,” said Sam Brownback, US ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom.

“The need to expand religious freedoms and protect religious minorities has become a global priority.”

The novel coronavirus took center stage at the two-day conference, hosted virtually by the Polish Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

The 2019 Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom drew about 1,000 delegates to Washington. This year’s event was hosted online by Poland due to the pandemic.

Gayle Manchin, chair of the US Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), said restrictions on religion began as early as March. She cited several examples…

This article was originally published at Christianity Today, on November 18, 2020. Please click here to read the full text.

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Christianity Today Middle East Published Articles

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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Christianity Today Published Articles Religious Freedom

Like ‘Water on a Stone’: UN Expert on the Hard Work of Religious Freedom

Image: United Nations
Ahmed Shaheed, UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief

Religious freedom requires global consensus.

Despite the best efforts of the Trump administration to prioritize the issue in its foreign policy, the Pew Research Center highlights that government restrictions on religion have hit an all-time high worldwide.

In 1948, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights included clear language on religious freedom, including the right to change one’s religious affiliation. But it was not until 1981 that the UN issued its Declaration on the Elimination of All Forms of Intolerance and of Discrimination Based on Religion or Belief.

Declarations are of little value without accountability.

In 1986, the UN created the position of Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief (FoRB). And in 2006, it created a process called the Universal Periodic Review (UPR), in which nations report on their human rights development every 4.5 years and are required to address the recommendations of the global community.

Ahmed Shaheed, the current special rapporteur, was appointed in 2016 after serving six years as the UN human rights watchdog on Iran.

Formerly a foreign minister of the Maldives, Shaheed was declared an apostate from Islam in his home nation following his efforts to restore democracy and advance human rights.

Prior to this month’s third Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom, CT interviewed Shaheed in April as COVID-19 upended the world about recent American efforts to advance international religious freedom (IRF), the balance involved with gender equality, and the best methods to secure the right to religious conversion in the Muslim world:

How has COVID-19 impacted global freedom of religion and belief?

The pandemic is unprecedented in how it is impacting everyone.

As special rapporteur, I have issued three statements so far. The first concerned the cremation of bodies of those who died from the virus—can it be made compulsory, and can relatives attend? Religious practices can be limited to some extent during a time of public health emergency, but I wanted to remind the authorities of their obligations under international law and to be respectful of religious and cultural beliefs within the law.

The second statement was on hate speech targeting minority Christians, Jews, and Muslims. They have been scapegoated and attacked with conspiracy theories claiming they are the ones who spread or even originated this virus. And besides scapegoating, in some cases they were denied access to health care facilities.

The third statement raised alarm specifically on anti-Semitism, which was spiking across the globe.

My statements also highlighted the role that faith-based communities can play at this critical time, in terms of virtual pastoral care and the preservation of community cohesion. And I have applauded how most religious leaders have responded to the humanitarian and socio-economic challenges we have witnessed.

Many American evangelicals have been supportive of the Trump administration’s advocacy for international religious freedom. From your perspective, has it created an atmosphere where there is greater worldwide respect and attention, or has it politicized the issue and been detrimental to the global cause?

I look at US policy in a comprehensive fashion, and not just the president’s remarks. The State Department’s IRF report—covering every nation in the world—and the work of the US Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) have played an invaluable role over the years. I’m happy that the Trump administration…

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

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Christianity Today Persecution Published Articles

Pew and IDOP Agree: Religious Persecution Is Worsening Worldwide

Dictators are the worst persecutors of believers.

This perhaps uncontroversial finding was verified for the first time in the Pew Research Center’s 11th annual study surveying restrictions on freedom of religion in 198 nations.

The median level of government violations reached an all-time high in 2018, as 56 nations [28%] suffer “high” or “very high” levels of official restriction.

The number of nations suffering “high” or “very high” levels of social hostilities toward religion dropped slightly to 53 [27%]. However, the prior year the median level recorded an all-time high.

Considered together, 40 percent of the world faces significant hindrance in worshiping God freely.

And the trend continues to be negative.

Since 2007, when Pew began its groundbreaking survey, the median level of government restrictions has risen 65 percent. The level for social hostilities has doubled.

Over the past two weeks, Christians prayed for their persecuted brethren around the world.

Launched in 1996 by the World Evangelical Alliance (WEA), the International Day of Prayer (IDOP) for the Persecuted Church is held annually the first two Sundays in November.

This year’s campaign was called: One With Them.

“Them” is the 260 million Christians worldwide who face persecution, according to Godfrey Yogarajah, executive director of the WEA Religious Liberty Commission. Eight Christians are martyred for their faith each day.

But Christians are not the only ones who suffer.

Ahmed Shaheed, UN special rapporteur for freedom of religion and belief, said that of the 178 nations which require religious groups to register, almost 40 percent are applied with bias.

“The failure to eliminate discrimination, combined with political marginalization and nationalist attacks on identities,” he said, “can propel trajectories of violence and even atrocity crimes.”

In addition, 21 nations criminalize apostasy. “Faith has to be voluntary,” Shaheed told CT, in an interview conducted in April. “There is no value in faith if it …”

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

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Christianity Today Europe Middle East Published Articles

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.

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Foxhole Faith in Nagorno-Karabakh

Note: This article was written prior to the cessation of hostilities concluded between Azerbaijan, Armenia, and Russia.

The Armenian mountain stronghold of Shushi is under attack.

The second city of Nagorno-Karabakh, one of its oldest artifacts is a 15th-century Bible. Earlier in the conflict this year, its 19th-century cathedral was struck twice and damaged by missiles.

But Azerbaijanis—who call it Shusha—celebrate it also as a cultural heritage. Many of their famous poets and musicians hail from the once-mixed city.

As the six-week war progressed, Azerbaijan steadily retook the plains below. But facing the coming winter, its military faced a stark choice: impose a siege, or scale the mountain.

Without Shusha, President Ilham Aliyev said, the job is only half done.

Despite its Armenian-majority population, Nagorno-Karabakh was assigned to Azerbaijan in the 1920s by Joseph Stalin. Both nations became independent in 1991, and the mountainous enclave conducted a referendum to declare itself the Republic of Artsakh. Ethnic warfare gripped the region, with 30,000 killed and around 1 million displaced.

Population transfers largely emptied each nation of its opposite ethnicity.

At the time of the ceasefire in 1994, Armenians controlled roughly 20 percent of Azerbaijan. No nation recognized Artsakh, and internationally sponsored negotiations began—and eventually stalled.

But buoyed by a financial windfall from oil and gas exports to Europe, as well as advanced weapons from Israel and Turkey, in late September Azerbaijan pressed its military advantage. If successful, it will perch above Stepanakert, the capital city of Nagorno-Karabakh, only six miles away.

“After 28 years, the adhan [call to prayer] will be heard in Shusha,” celebrated Aliyev. “Our victory march continues.”

Armenian forces say the fighting continues.

“So far, Armenians have successfully pushed back all attempts to take over this homeland,” said Harout Nercessian, the Armenia representative for the Armenian Missionary Association of America (AMAA).

“We will never surrender Shushi.” But within the debate over whether the conflict with Muslim-majority Azerbaijan is a religious war with Christian Armenians, signs of faith, piety, and pleas for divine favor mark many of the partisans, including…

This article was originally published at Christianity Today, on November 9, 2020. Please click here to read the full text.

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Will $335 Million Peace with Israel Secure Sudan’s Religious Freedom?

CT spoke with eight leaders—three Sudanese, four American, and one Palestinian—concerned with the course of religious freedom and regional stability.

Their reactions vary.

“Christians are very happy,” said Aida Weran, academic officer at Nile Theological College in Khartoum. “We see Sudan’s changes becoming reality.”

Weran is optimistic the deal with Israel will open the economy, foster technological growth, develop the agricultural sector, and alleviate poverty.

Originally from the Nuba Mountains in Sudan’s marginalized south, she is encouraged by the movement toward peace with militant rebel groups in her region, and in Darfur.

One reason the formation of parliament has been delayed, she believes, is that it must incorporate all holdout forces.

Normalization with Israel will cement Sudan’s transition to democracy, she believes. But many Muslims might vote against it.

About 4 in 5 oppose normalization (79%), according to the 2019–20 Arab Opinion Index released earlier this month. A similar share (81%) support Sudan’s revolution.

And 1 in 4 Sudanese (24%) named Israel as the greatest threat to their nation, topped only by the United States, named by 37 percent.

“Palestine is a sentimental issue, and the [Bashir] government promoted it aggressively,” said Tawfig Saleh, the Muslim founder of Unity International, a Sudanese NGO promoting religious freedom and coexistence.

“But we cannot move forward without good relations with our neighbors.”

Even so, Saleh doubts the poll’s finding of 79 percent opposition is accurate, especially now after Sudan’s removal from the US terrorism list. Also out of date, in his view, is…

This article was originally published at Christianity Today, on October 26, 2020. Please click here to read the full text.

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Azerbaijan Evangelicals: Conflict with Armenians Is Not a Religious War

Church of Kish in Azerbaijan, by Asif Masimov

Vadim Melnikov once fought for the land of Noah.

Donning his Azerbaijani uniform 17 years ago, the ethnic Russian took his post to defend Nakhchivan, an Azeri enclave bordering Turkey and separated from their countrymen by the nation of Armenia.

Known in both the Armenian and Azeri languages as “the place of descent,” referring to Noah’s landing on nearby Mt. Ararat, Nakhchivan is a geographical reminder of the mixed ethnic composition of the Caucasus Mountains.

As is Nagorno-Karabakh, an Armenian enclave within Azerbaijan.

Its etymology is also a reminder of the region’s diversity. Nagorno is Russian for mountains, while Karabakh combines the Turkic for black and the Persian for garden.

Armenians call it Artsakh, the name of a province in their ancient kingdom. For the last three weeks, they have been defending their de facto control of the region as Azerbaijan fights to reassert its sovereignty.

As Melnikov did decades ago in Nakhchivan. Armenian soldiers crossed into Azeri mountain villages, before his unit drove them out.

This was one of the many border conflicts that followed a war of demography. But in the years before and after the 1991 independence of both nations, about 30,000 people were killed as hundreds of thousands on both sides fled or were driven to their lands of ethnic majority.

A 1994 ceasefire established the status quo, and the Minsk Group—headed by Russia, France, and the United States—preside over negotiations.

Despite the previous ethnic violence, Azerbaijan boasts that it remains a nation of multicultural tolerance. Of its 10 million population, 96 percent are Muslim—roughly two-thirds Shiite and one-third Sunni. Russian Orthodox represent two-thirds of the Christian population, while over 15,000 Jews date back to the Old Testament era.

Melnikov is part of the 0.26 percent evangelical community. And on behalf of their nation, eight churches and the Azerbaijan Bible Society wrote an open letter to decry the popular conception that this conflict pits Muslims against Christians. (Nearly 700 Armenian soldiers have been killed so far. Azerbaijan does not disclose military casualties.)

“The war which has been between Azerbaijan and Armenia during the last 30 years is purely political confrontation, it has no religious context,” they wrote.

“In fact, this history and [the] continuous attempts of Armenia to present this war as a religious one, can become a stumbling block for many Azerbaijani people, who hear [the] gospel nowadays.” An earlier letter by leaders of Azerbaijan’s Muslim, Jewish, and Russian Orthodox communities…

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

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Turks and Armenians Reconcile in Christ. Can Azeris Join Them?

By Սէրուժ Ուրիշեան (Serouj Ourishian)

Bahri Beytel never thought he would find Turkish food in Armenia.

An ethnic Turk and former Muslim, the pastor of Bethel Church in Istanbul skipped McDonalds and KFC in Yerevan, the capital city, in order to complete a spiritual mission.

Six years ago, prompted to take a journey of reconciliation, he went in search of an authentic Armenian restaurant—and found lahmajun, a flatbread topped with minced meat, vegetables, and spices.

One letter was off from the Turkish spelling. Smiling, he ordered it anyway, in English.

“Are you a Turk?” snapped the owner—in Turkish—after Beytel pronounced it incorrectly. “God spare me from becoming a Turk.”

The owner’s family hailed from Gaziantep, near Turkey’s border with Syria, which before the genocide was a mixed religious city with a thriving Armenian community. Ignoring the insult, the pastor explained he was a Christian, not a Muslim, and had come to ask for forgiveness on behalf of his ancestors.

Up to 1.5 million Armenians were killed between 1914–1923, as the Ottoman Empire crumbled. Once home to many diverse Christian communities, the modern state was built on a secular but ethnic Turkish foundation.

No Turk can be a Christian, the restaurant owner scoffed. He demanded the secret sign made centuries ago by believers in the catacombs.

Beytel drew the fish.

By the end of the conversation, the man gave him a hug, with a tear in his eye.

“If Turkey takes one step, the Armenians are ready to forgive,” said Beytel, of his time at a conference in the Armenian capital. “It was amazing to hear them call me brother.” There was more to come. One year later…

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

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Gambia’s New Sharia-Friendly Constitution Fails. But Christians Are Still Concerned.

Chatham House: Shaping The Gambia’s Future: How to Build a Path to Sustainable Progress, President Adama Barrow, 18 April 2018, cht.hm/2JZwqH0

The Gambia almost had a new constitution.

Instead, the English-speaking, sliver-shaped West African river nation—known for Muslim-Christian coexistence—will return to the 1997 constitution instituted by former dictator Yahya Jammeh and amended by him more than 50 times to entrench his power.

One year before being deposed in 2016 by popular protests, Jammeh declared Gambia to be an Islamic state.

The new draft constitution would have imposed term limits on the president, guaranteed religious freedom, and forbidden any future declaration of a state religion.

Muslims comprise more than 9 in 10 Gambians, totaling 2 million. Lamin Sanneh, the Muslim-born Gambian theologian who died last year, praised his nation’s participation in a tradition of “pacifist Islam.”

Yet many of the nation’s Christians, who comprise only about 5 percent of the population, still feel like they dodged a bullet.

“Truly important positive changes were made in this [draft] constitution,” said Begay Jabang, a member of the Gambia Christian Council (GCC) campaign team, naming the separation of powers and the strengthening of the legislature. “This would have been a significant step forward given the history of our nation.

“But at the same time,” she said, “provisions were introduced in the judiciary that would have changed the face of our nation, moving it down the path of an Islamic state as Jammeh did before.”

The official GCC statement outlined the changes in detail, and was blunt in its assessment. “The deafening silence…

This article was originally published at Christianity Today, on October 12, 2020. Please click here to read the full text.