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Suing for Peace: Can Clerics Reconcile Armenia and Azerbaijan Better Than Courts?

Image: Courtesy of Mother See of Holy Etchmiadzin, Information Services
Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill I reads a joint statement flanked by Armenian Catholicos Karekin II (left) and Azerbaijan Grand Mufti of the Caucasus Allahshukur Pashazade (right) in Moscow on October 13.

After 17 tries, there is still no peace in Nagorno-Karabakh.

Almost a year ago, Russia brokered a November 2020 ceasefire to end the 44-day war between Azerbaijan and Armenia over the Caucasus mountain enclave. Azerbaijan reclaimed most of its internationally recognized territory occupied since 1994 by ethnic Armenians, who demand independence.

Armenia has been a Christian nation since A.D. 301. Azerbaijan is majority Muslim. But spiritual leaders have been no more successful than politicians or generals at securing reconciliation.

Yet that has not stopped Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill I from trying.

“Our religions have a unique peace-making potential,” he stated at last week’s tripartite summit of top clerical leaders. “No matter how difficult Armenian-Azerbaijani relations are at this stage, we believe that it is faith in God, and love, that can help heal the wounds.”

And they are many.

The post–Soviet Union conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh—called Artsakh by Armenians—killed 30,000 people and displaced 1 million. As Azerbaijan recaptured the territory—slightly larger than Rhode Island—last year, another 7,000 were killed. Mutual acrimony has characterized relations, with both sides accusing the other of destroying their religious heritage.

The first meeting of spiritual leaders was held in 1993. The 16th in 2017. Simply by bringing these leaders together…

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

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Christianity Today Middle East Published Articles

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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Vaccine Campaign at Zimbabwe Churches Praises What’s Done in Secret

Yvonne Binda stands in front of the congregation, all dressed in pristine white robes, and tells them not to believe what they’ve heard about COVID-19 vaccines.

“The vaccine is not linked to Satanism,” she says. The worshipers, members of a Christian Apostolic church in Zimbabwe, are unmoved. But when Binda, a vaccine campaigner and member of an Apostolic church herself, promises them soap, buckets, and masks, there are enthusiastic shouts of “Amen!”

Apostolic groups that infuse traditional beliefs into Pentecostal doctrine are among the most skeptical in the southern African nation when it comes to COVID-19 vaccines, with an already strong mistrust of modern medicine. Many followers put faith in prayer, holy water, and anointed stones to ward off disease or cure illnesses…

Integrated into the Zimbabwe Heads of Christian Denominations (ZHCD) in 1993, the Apostolic churches cooperate alongside the Evangelical Fellowship of Zimbabwe (EFZ), the mainline Zimbabwe Council of Churches, and the Zimbabwe Catholic Bishops’ Conference.

“God has given us science and intelligence, in addition to divine intervention in healing,” EFZ president Never Muparutsa told CT. “People must not shun vaccines based on 666-style conspiracy theories.”

Binda is one of nearly 1,000 members of various religious groups recruited by the Zimbabwean government and UNICEF to try gently changing attitudes toward vaccines from within their own churches.

Muparutsa, however, is hesitant about this approach.

As vice president of the ZHCD, he estimates 30–40 percent of evangelical and mainline Christians are “skeptical” about the vaccine, and told CT it is not his place to take sides. He “encourages” Zimbabweans to do as he and his family have done—but will not “promote.”

“That sounds like marketing,” he said. “I do not preach about vaccines; I preach about Jesus.”

This article was originally published at Christianity Today on October 15, 2021. I contributed additional reporting. Please click here to read the full text.

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Pew: US, France, and Korea Are Most Divided—Especially over Religion

Image: Illustration by Christianity Today / Source Images: Saul Martinez / Stringer / Brandon Bell / Mohamed Rasik / Getty Images

“Conflict” is a troublesome word to describe a society. But increasingly across advanced global economies—and particularly the United States—their societies believe it is the correct label.

If there is any good news, religious conflict lags behind.

The Pew Research Center surveyed almost 19,000 people in 17 North American, European, and Asia-Pacific nations this past spring about their perception of conflict across four categories: between political parties, between different races and ethnicities, between different religions, and between urban and rural communities.

The US ranked top or high in each.

A global median of 50 percent see political conflict, 48 percent see racial conflict, 36 percent see religious conflict, and 23 percent see urban-rural conflict.

But in the US, 9 in 10 viewed political conflict as “serious” or “very serious.”

Asian nations varied considerably. South Korea matched the US at 90 percent seeing serious political polarization, with Taiwan third at 69 percent. Singapore was lowest overall at 33 percent, while Japan was 39 percent.

France (65%), Italy (64%), Spain (58%), and Germany (56%) followed Taiwan.

In terms of race, the US ranked first again, with 71 percent seeing serious conflict. France was second at 64 percent, and South Korea and Italy third at 57 percent. Singapore again ranked lowest, at 25 percent.

South Korea had the highest perception of religious conflict, at 61 percent. France followed at 56 percent, and the US at 49 percent. Germany and Belgium registered 46 percent each. Taiwan was lowest, at 12 percent.

Nearly 1 in 4 French (23%) saw religious conflict as “very serious.”

Age plays a role in perception. Pew noted that adults under 30 are significantly more likely than those ages 65 and older to see strong religious divisions in Greece (60% vs. 24%), Belgium (62% vs. 38%), Japan (42% vs. 22%), Italy (49% vs. 30%), the US (58% vs. 42%), Spain (24% vs. 10%), and Taiwan (17% vs. 7%).

Conversely, Canadians under 30 are significantly more likely than Canadians ages 65 and older to say there is no strong religious conflict (78% vs. 65%). Religious diversity, however…

This article was originally published at Christianity Today, on October 13, 2021. Please click here to read the full text.

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Christians Welcome Coup in Guinea

Image: John Wessels / Getty Images
Guinean religious leaders gather at the Peoples Palace in Conakry ahead of the first session of talks with Colonel Mamady Doumbouya on September 14, 2021.

In its 63 years of independence, Guinea has had three presidents. Last month, the West African nation suffered its third coup d’etat.

This time, says the local Christian minority, their Francophone country might just get it right.

“Alpha Conde cannot return,” said Etienne Leno, a Christian and Missionary Alliance (CMA) pastor. “We are praying that the new military authorities—who we find to be wise and intelligent—will be led by God.”

On September 5, Colonel Mamady Doumbouya, head of the Guinean special forces, ousted the 83-year-old president. Once an imprisoned opposition leader, Conde became the nation’s first democratically elected head of state in 2010 and won a second term in 2015.

Leno originally found much hope in Conde’s mandate, which was ushered in after the international community aided domestic forces to remove the military junta that violently seized power in 2008. Conde improved the business, tourism, and energy sectors, restoring Guinea’s global reputation.

Local infrastructure was neglected, however, and the Oregon-sized nation lagged in domestic development. One-third of the economy was linked to the mining of bauxite, the primary resource for aluminum. Guinea boasts the world’s largest reserves, but foreign companies dominate the extraction.

Despite 7 percent annual growth, nearly 50 percent of the 13 million population lived in poverty. And by late 2019, 36 percent of the country believed Guinea was moving in the wrong direction.

And then Conde made his power grab. He pushed through a March 2020 referendum for constitutional changes to reset his term limits and in October won reelection again. Both votes were challenged by violently suppressed protests.

Almost a year later, Doumbouya had had enough.

He promised no political witch hunt as he “made love to Guinea,” but it was nonetheless clear that opposition would not be tolerated. As the colonel—sworn in on October 1 as Guinea’s interim president—assembled a national dialogue, protests in support filled the streets and Christians noted the surprising calm.

Five days after the coup, the Association of Evangelical Churches and Missions of Guinea (AEMEG)—affiliated with the World Evangelical Alliance—issued a televised statement recognizing the new authorities. Catholic and Muslim groups made similar announcements. “Relations are good in general,” Leno told CT. “Our message is…

This article was originally published at Christianity Today, on October 13, 2021. Please click here for the original text.

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Christianity Today Middle East Published Articles

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.

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Christianity Today Persecution Published Articles Religious Freedom

Pew: Religious Terrorism at Record Low, Government Persecution at Record High

Image: Carl Court / Getty Images
A man cries as he prays in the street near St. Anthony’s Shrine one week on from Easter terrorism attacks that killed more than 250 people, on April 28, 2019 in Colombo, Sri Lanka

Government restrictions on religion are at a global high.

Social hostility toward religion, however, is at its lowest level worldwide since ISIS.

So says data analyzed by the Pew Research Center in its 12th annual measurement of the extent to which 198 nations and territories—and their citizens—impinge on religious belief and practice.

The 2021 report, released today, draws primarily from more than a dozen UN, US, European, and civil society sources, and reflects pre-pandemic conditions from 2019, the latest year with available data.

Matching a peak from 2012, 57 nations (29%) record “very high” or “high” levels of government restrictions—an uptick of one nation from 2018. The global median on Pew’s 10-point scale held steady at 2.9, after a steady rise since the baseline of 1.8 in 2007, the report’s first year measured.

Regional differences are apparent: The Middle East and North Africa scored 6.0; Asia-Pacific scored 4.1; Europe scored 2.9; Sub-Saharan Africa scored 2.6; and the Americas scored 2.0.

But across the globe, restrictions are present.

Most common, according to Pew, is “government harassment of religious groups.” More than 9 in 10 nations (180 total) tallied at least one incident. Also common is “government interference in worship.” More than 8 in 10 nations (163 total) recorded incidents.

And nearly half (48%) of all nations used force against religious groups. China, Myanmar (formerly known as Burma), Sudan, and Syria tallied over 10,000 incidents each. For example, Pew noted…

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

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Moroccan Christians Welcome End of a Decade of Islamist Government

Man walking past voting wall, Marrakesh, Morocco

For the first time in his life, Rachid Imounan cast a vote—and overturned Morocco’s Islamist-oriented government.

He is not alone.

Turnout surged to 50 percent as liberals routed the Justice and Development Party (PJD), which led the North African nation’s parliament the past 10 years. Its share of the 395-seat legislature dropped from 125 to 13.

The PJD finished eighth overall.

“We thank Jesus, the Islamists are gone,” said Imounan, a church planter who lives in the southern city of Agadir. “God answered our prayers, and now we have the government we wanted.”

Aziz Akhannouch of the National Rally of Independents (RNI) was sworn in as prime minister by King Mohamed VI on September 11, after his party captured 102 seats. He is tasked with forming a coalition government to guide Morocco through its current economic downturn.

A constitutional monarchy, Morocco has held multi-party elections since its independence in 1956. But to stave off protests during the Arab Spring, in 2011 the king instituted reforms and transferred significant power to the prime minister.

Mohamed VI retains final say over several government positions, however, and is revered as “Commander of the Faithful” as a direct descendant of Islam’s founding prophet Mohammed.

Christians described “liberal” parties as those that favor freedom—excepting challenges toward the person and position of the king, whose authority is respected by all political entities. Islamists, meanwhile, wished to impose sharia law, cover women, and remove pork and alcohol from neighborhood supermarkets.

“Akhannouch is a businessman. Whether you worship the sun or the moon, he doesn’t care,” said Youssef Ahmed, one of Morocco’s few second-generation Christians.

“He won’t persecute anyone.” Open Doors ranks Morocco…

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

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Evangelicals Endorse Unprecedented Ecumenical Plea for the Environment

(TIZIANA FABI/AFP via Getty Images)

In their first joint statement ever, the spiritual leaders of Christianity’s three largest denominations addressed the United Nations.

“Listen to the cry of the earth, pledging meaningful sacrifices,” stated their appeal. “We must decide what kind of world we want to leave to future generations.”

Pope Francis of the Roman Catholic Church; Bartholomew I, ecumenical patriarch of the Eastern Orthodox Church; and Justin Welby, the evangelical Anglican archbishop of Canterbury, issued their plea this month to delegates attending next month’s UN climate summit in Scotland.

Noting that life on “the earth which God has given” has become an “urgent matter of survival,” the three leaders framed inaction as a severe injustice.

“The people bearing the most catastrophic consequences of these abuses are the poorest on the planet,” they stated, “and have been the least responsible for causing them.”

The Lausanne/World Evangelical Alliance Creation Care Network (LWCCN) “wholeheartedly endorsed” the statement.

“The environmental crisis represents the greatest challenge humanity has ever faced,” said Ed Brown, LWCCN co-catalyst for creation care, “and is a monumental failure to obey the clear command of Scripture to care for God’s creation.”

Francis, Bartholomew, and Welby urged corporations to seek “people-centered profits.” They called on nations to “stop competing for resources, and start collaborating.” But they also called on Christians to pray, celebrating…

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

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Crusaders No More: What Arab Christians and Muslims Think of Mascot Changes

Image: Illustration by Mallory Rentsch / Source Images: Courtesy of Valparaiso University / Subjug / Getty Images

Nestled in the Ozark Mountains of Missouri, Evangel University will no longer evoke the Middle East—or the Middle Ages.

Since 1955, the flagship Assemblies of God institution has cheered on its Crusaders, replete with helmeted knight and steed.

This semester, the university will soon announce its new mascot after considering almost 300 submitted suggestions—including 77 animal names, 69 military names, and 38 biblical names. The change was made in light of the school’s 55,000 alumni serving internationally.

“The world has changed significantly since the 1950s, when the Evangel community, intending to depict strength, honor, and commitment to the faith, first identified a Crusader as the school’s mascot,” stated interim president George O. Wood in March, when the decision was made to drop the name.

“Today, we recognize that the Crusader often inhibits the ability of students and alumni to proudly represent the university in their areas of global work and ministry.”

For some alumni, the change is a long time coming. The review process first began in 2007.

“When you want to share the love of Christ, you don’t want to identify with something that shuts down conversation,” said Emily Greene, class of 2008. “It is the equivalent of saying ‘jihadist’ to a US Christian, evoking a cruel persona.” Greene grew up as a history-loving missionary kid in Muslim-majority Kazakhstan. But her father…

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

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Dari TV Host: Afghanistan Will Now See ‘Pure Christianity’

Shoaib Ebadi

Afghanistan and its neighbor Iran share the Persian language. Now that the Taliban will rule from Kabul again, might the countries begin to also share a spiritual trajectory?

In 1979, the shah of Iran was overthrown in an Islamic revolution. The crackdown that followed ended the Western Christian presence in the nation. Yet today the Iranian church is one of the fastest-growing in the world, as the ruthlessness of the mullahs led many to sour on Islam and some to find new faith in Jesus.

Satellite TV ministry played a great role in spreading the gospel in Iran, and continues today across the border in Afghanistan. Christian ministry SAT-7 began broadcasting in 2002 in Farsi, the Persian dialect spoken in Iran, and in 2010 Shoaib Ebadi began its first prerecorded programming in Dari, the Persian dialect spoken in Afghanistan. His show Secrets of Life went live in 2014, and today is accessible across the whole nation.

The 55-year-old Ebadi was born in Afghanistan but became a Christian in 1999 as a refugee in Pakistan. The following year he emigrated to Canada, and today heads Square One World Media, producing Christian media in various languages around the world.

He told CT about the history of the Afghan church, the impact of the US military upon it, and his hope that “pure Christianity” might now gain a hearing in his homeland.

Some statistics put the number of Christians in Afghanistan at 8,000. Can you give us a brief history of the church?

There was a Protestant church building constructed in 1970 in Kabul during the time of the shah, but it was destroyed when the monarchy was overthrown in 1973. The Catholics had a church in the Italian embassy since 1933. But these churches were only for foreign nationals, not Afghans.

There were a handful of believers in the 1950s, as American professionals came to Afghanistan and opened an eye hospital and a technical college. Later on, in the 1990s, tentmaker missionaries came as English teachers and NGO workers. And I was in a fellowship of about 30–40 Afghan believers in Pakistan. Most eventually went to the West.

These are probably the first Afghans to know Christ in the modern era, but God only knows.

So how did the Afghan church develop after the Americans came in 2001?

Some of the believers from Pakistan, as well as other refugees who fled to Iran, went back to Afghanistan after…

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

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Christian and Muslim Leaders Agree on Legitimacy of Evangelism

Image: Courtesy of World Evangelical Alliance
Nahdlatul Ulama leader Yahya Cholil Staquf presents World Evangelical Alliance leader Thomas Schirrmacher with a festschrift at The Nation’s Mosque in Washington, DC, during the 2021 International Religious Freedom Summit.

The world’s largest Muslim organization accepts that Christians will try to convert its members. A new partnership with evangelicals seeks to ensure this does not lead to conflict.

Last week, the World Evangelical Alliance (WEA) signed a statement of cooperation with Nahdlatul Ulama (NU), an Indonesian association with an estimated 30 million to 50 million members. Established in 1926 to counter Wahhabi trends issuing from the Arabian Peninsula, its name means “Revival of the Religious Scholars.”

“Evangelicals very much aspire to proselytism, and so does Islam. So naturally there will be competition,” said NU secretary general Yahya Cholil Staquf. “But we need to have this competition conducted in a peaceful and harmonious environment.”

Staquf spoke from the stage of the 2021 International Religious Freedom (IRF) Summit in Washington. On its opening day, he and WEA secretary general Thomas Schirrmacher signed “The Nation’s Mosque Statement,” along with Taleb Shareef, imam of Masjid Muhammad, the first American mosque built by the descendants of slaves.

Calling for “the emergence of a truly just and harmonious world order,” the statement seeks a global alliance to prevent the political weaponization of identity and the spread of communal hatred.

Schirrmacher called the WEA’s cooperation with NU the product of deep theological dialogue, counter to the academic tendency to downplay truth claims. And as evangelicals, evangelism is at the heart of their effort.

“We are working together for the right to convert each other,” the German theologian said. “Religious freedom does not mean that we agree, but that…

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

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Summit Produces a ‘Pentecost’ Moment for International Religious Freedom

Image: Hailey Sadler / IRF Summit
Previous IRF ambassador David Saperstein speaks at the 2021 International Religious Freedom Summit in Washington.

One word floated forebodingly between parentheses throughout promotional material for the 2021 International Religious Freedom (IRF) Summit:

Invited.

Following the names of Nancy Pelosi, Antony Blinken, and Samantha Power, it indicated uncertainty if the key Democratic stalwarts would participate.

As the approximately 1,200 registered attendees arrived, the distributed official program still did not include the current House speaker, secretary of state, or USAID administrator.

However, Mike Pompeo, Blinken’s predecessor at the US State Department, had a keynote address from the stage.

“There were a lot of questions heading into this summit, with a lot of hesitancy from the Biden people,” summit co-chair Sam Brownback told CT. “But we worked hard to make it bipartisan.”

Unlike the previous two ministerial meetings held in Washington, DC (and a third held virtually in Poland), this year’s IRF gathering was organized by civil society, not governments.

Brownback, the US ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom during the Trump administration, was now a private citizen. He partnered with Katrina Lantos Swett, former chair of the US Commission on International Religious Freedom, who was appointed by former Democratic senator Harry Reid.

Brownback chased the Republicans, and Lantos Swett the Democrats. Their friendship, Pam Pryor, senior advisor to the summit, told CT, is the “gold standard” in bipartisan cooperation. In the end, Lantos Swett was relatively…

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

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Will Central Asia Become ‘Stans’ for Religious Freedom?

The Palace of Peace and Reconciliation in Nur-Sultan, Kazakhstan.

Now two of “the five ’Stans” are becoming bigger fans of—or, as Gen Z would say, “stanning” for—religious freedom.

“In Kazakhstan, all denominations can freely follow their religion,” said Yerzhan Nukezhanov, chairman of the committee for religious affairs, “and we will continue to create all necessary conditions for religious freedom.”

Speaking at the 2021 International Religious Freedom Summit in Washington, DC, Nukezhanov signed a memorandum of understanding with Wade Kusack, head of the Love Your Neighbor Community. It sets a three-year roadmap that will train local imams, priests, and pastors in religious dialogue, to culminate in the establishment of religious freedom roundtables in nine Kazakh cities.

“It is a front door approach in openness and transparency with the government,” said Kusack. “Mutual trust is built one relationship at a time.”

An ethnic Belarusian, Kusack is also the senior fellow for Central Asia at the Institute for Global Engagement (IGE), the American NGO which helped shepherd Uzbekistan’s efforts to improve its international religious freedom standing. In 2018, top Uzbek officials pledged reforms at the first Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom, convened by the US State Department.

Later that year, Uzbekistan was removed from designation as a Country of Particular Concern for the first time since 2005. Downgraded to Special Watch List status, by 2020 enough progress was made for the State Department to delist the nation altogether.

Developments in Kazakhstan were hailed as “proof of concept” for the engagement model of international religious freedom advocacy. Not listed by the State Department, the nation has been recommended for SWL status by the US Commission on International Religious Freedom since 2013.

Nukezhanov noted 2018 as the year his committee established a religious freedom working group, specifically to demonstrate openness to American concerns. That same year, Nikolay Popov was fined $600 for sharing his Christian faith—without a license. Popov, part of the Council of Baptist Churches in Kazakhstan’s Karaganda region, also…

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

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New Museum Stakes Claim for the Bible in US History—Right Next to the Liberty Bell

Image: Douglas Nottage / American Bible Society

America’s “most historic square mile” got a new resident on the Fourth of July weekend. Joining the Liberty Bell and Independence Hall in Philadelphia, the American Bible Society has opened a $60 million museum to highlight the role of Scripture in the founding of the United States.

“We are leveraging history to advocate for the Bible,” said Alan Crippen, chief of exhibits at the Faith and Liberty Discovery Center (FLDC). “The American story of liberty is unintelligible without knowledge of the Bible, and how it impacted our leaders.”

The new museum gives special space to William Penn and his “holy experiment” of Pennsylvania.

Alongside his Bible, the museum displays an original copy of Penn’s 1683 pamphlet, The Great Case of Liberty of Conscience Once More Briefly Debated and Defended. Informing Penn’s vision for governance, the charter of Pennsylvania guaranteed religious freedom and sought peace with the local Lenni-Lenape Native American tribe.

The FLDC’s six exhibits are more than a storehouse of artifacts, though. Interactive exhibits present six foundational American values: faith, liberty, justice, hope, unity, and love. An electronic “lamp” allows visitors to activate additional material, and store memories for retrieval at home.

The exhibits pose additional questions for contemplation or group discussion. The First Amendment section prompts: Do you agree that a just society requires freedom of religion and dissent? Another follows George Whitfield and asks: Do you agree that people can have a direct and personal relationship with God? “Exhibits are meant to be immersive, but not to proselytize,” said Crippen. “This question is meant…

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

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Evangelicals Ask Pope Francis to Help Save Lebanon

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“We have to say this loudly.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The spiritual damage is considerable.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Messianic Jews were quick to distance themselves.

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

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

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

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

Image courtesy of NESN

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

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

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

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

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

Teacher salaries have lost nearly 90 percent of their value.

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

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

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

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

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

It was not always this way.

Decades of appreciative tolerance…

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