Categories
Asia Christianity Today Published Articles

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.

Categories
Asia Christianity Today Published Articles

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.

Categories
Africa Christianity Today Published Articles

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.

Categories
Asia Christianity Today Published Articles

Symbolic Armenian Church Shelled in Clashes with Azerbaijan

Ghazanchetsots (Holy Saviour) Cathedral in the city of Shusha

… The Armenian Foreign Ministry denounced the shelling as a “monstrous crime and a challenge to the civilized humankind,” warning Azerbaijan that targeting religious sites amounts to a war crime.

Azerbaijan’s Defense Ministry denied attacking the cathedral, saying its army “doesn’t target historical, cultural and, especially, religious buildings and monuments.”

A priest at the cathedral, who identified himself only as Father Andreas, expressed anguish over the attack.

“I feel the pain that the walls of our beautiful cathedral are destroyed,” he said. “I feel the pain that today the world does not react to what’s happening here and that our boys are dying defending our Motherland.”

Built in 1888, the cathedral suffered significant damage during ethnic violence in 1920. It was restored after fighting between Armenian and Azerbaijani forces in the 1990s and is the Armenian Apostolic Church’s diocesan headquarters in Nagorno-Karabakh, which it calls the Republic of Artsakh.

Standing 115 feet tall, it is understood to be one of the largest Armenian churches in the world.

“They are bombarding our spiritual values,” Artsakh Archbishop Pargev Martirosyan told ArmenPress, equating the incident with ISIS terrorism, “when we are restoring and preserving mosques.”

Located in Shusha, the cathedral is located far from the “line of contact” [about 25 miles] separating the two militaries.

It is also the site of Armenian-rebuilt mosques, with a special place in Azerbaijani history.

“Religion is an important element, but not the only element,” said Mark Movsesian, co-director of the Center for Law and Religion at St. John’s University Law School, during a Philos Project webinar briefing today. “But [this shelling] is hard to interpret except as…

This article was originally published at Christianity Today on October 9, 2020. I contributed additional reporting to the AP. Please click here to read the full text.

Categories
Christianity Today Middle East Published Articles

Biden Said ‘Inshallah.’ Many Arab Christians Do Too.

Image: Illustration by Mallory Rentsch / Source Images: Win McNamee / Scott Olson / Getty Images

Unnoticed by many during the contentious first presidential debate, Joe Biden introduced a new Arabic word into the American lexicon.

Inshallah.

Technically, it is three words, in both Arabic and English: “in sha’ Allah,” or “if God wills.”

“If you take it literally, you won’t get the intent,” said Ramez Atallah, general director of the Bible Society of Egypt.

“It can also mean, ‘It will never happen,’ and this is probably what Biden meant.”

Asked by the moderator about his tax returns, President Donald Trump answered, “You’ll get to see it.”

To which the former vice president interjected, “When? Inshallah?”

Trump continued, and the moment was lost to almost all but Arabic-speaking viewers. Muslim Twitter users lit up in astonishment, wondering if they heard correctly.

Enchilada” was about as close as other ears heard.

But while one Muslim writer has humorously called inshallah the Arabic equivalent of “fuggedaboudit,” what should Christians make of the phrase?

“Everything is uncertain,” Atallah said. “We live in an unpredictable world, and no one is ever sure that what they plan will be accomplished.” He highlighted the biblical equivalent in…

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

Categories
Asia Christianity Today Published Articles

Armenians Fight to Hold Ancient Homeland Within Azerbaijan

Fierce fighting has broken out in the Caucasus mountains between the Caspian and Black seas, pitting Christian Armenians versus Muslim Azeris.

But is it right to employ their religious labels?

“Early Sunday morning [Sept. 27], I received a phone call from our representative in the capital city,” said Harout Nercessian, the Armenia representative for the Armenian Missionary Association of America (AMAA).

“He said they are bombing Stepanakert. It is a war.”

One week later, the fighting continues. At stake is control over the Armenian-majority enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh, home to 170,000 people in a Delaware-sized mountainous region within Azerbaijan.

More than 200 people have reportedly died, though Azerbaijan has not released its number of casualties.

Administered by ethnic Armenians ever since a ceasefire was declared in 1994, locals call the region the Republic of Artsakh. Military skirmishes have not been unusual. There have been more than 300 incidents since 2015, according to the International Crisis Group.

This escalation is the most serious since 2016, with Azerbaijani forces attacking multiple positions along the 120-mile “line of contact.”

But the shelling of civilian cities represents a worrisome development.

As does the role of Turkey—and the Syrian militants it allegedly recruited—which has pledged full support for Azerbaijan.

Russia, France, and the United States—partners in the “Minsk Group” which has overseen negotiations between the two nations since 1992—have called for an immediate ceasefire. But Turkey has encouraged Azerbaijan President Ilham Aliyev’s refusal, conditioning a ceasefire on…

This article was originally published at Christianity Today, on October 6, 2020. Please click here to read the full text.

Categories
Christianity Today Middle East Published Articles

God’s Word Is Like Manna in the Middle East

Image: Illustration by Sarah Gordon / Photo Courtesy of Anne Zaki

Anne Zaki is assistant professor of preaching and practical theology at the Evangelical Theological Seminary in Cairo. Raised in a Presbyterian home in Cairo, at age 16 she left the Middle East to travel alone to a progressive boarding school on Vancouver Island, Canada.

In 2000, she married a Syrian-Canadian pastor, and as a mother of four, she completed her master of divinity degree from Calvin Theological Seminary in 2009. Zaki was always confident she would return to Cairo, and the family relocated there nine months into the chaos of Egypt’s 2011 revolution.

CT spoke with Zaki about the transformative power of Scripture in her own life and in the Egyptian church.

How did Scripture shape your early faith?

I grew up in an environment that was saturated with Scripture. My father was a pastor. My grandfather was a pastor. After retirement, my grandfather came to live with us. I would wake up every morning to hymns and Scripture being read out loud. His prayers were incredible, almost as if he was echoing God’s words back to him.

Eight months before going to Canada, I had an experience of personal encounter with Jesus. I knew I was different. Even my family noticed the change.

But in my new school, for the first time I was being exposed to religions other than Christianity and Islam. And it wasn’t just exposure. It was a school that was set up to appreciate and promote diversity. I had my first big spiritual crisis. I had to ask myself: Why do I believe what I believe? Is it just because I grew up in it?

I sort of made a deal with God. I told him, If you really are who I have known you to be, who they told me that you are, then prove it to me through your Word without the influence of anyone else. So for me that meant no church, no youth group—not even Christian music. And during that period of six months, God’s Word was sufficient to reveal himself, to prove himself, to be his witness.

How did you sense God revealing himself to you through his Word? Can you explain further?

Every day, I would read a certain portion of Scripture, meditate on it, and pray it back to God. The things that didn’t make sense I would throw back at him, and we’d have a debate about them. Usually…

This article was originally published in the special September print edition on women’s voices in scripture engagement. Please click here to read the full text, where you can download the entire issue for free.

Categories
Americas Christianity Today Published Articles

Interview: To Elect Trump, Evangelicals Could Find Common Cause with Muslims

By Alisdare Hickson (link)

In a tightly contested presidential race, might Muslims swing the US election?

Referencing the release of President Donald Trump’s tax returns in Tuesday’s debate, former vice president’s Joe Biden’s “inshallah” [Arabic for “if God wills”] may have been a nod to the strong support he receives from this community.

But according to data from the fifth annual American Muslim Poll, Muslims make up only 1 percent of the American population, only 74 percent are eligible to vote, and only 57 percent are registered.

Why then do they occupy such an outsized space in the mind of many American evangelicals? And what should evangelicals better understand about the American Muslim community and their political preferences? CT spoke with Dalia Mogahed, director of research at the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding (ISPU), which commissioned the poll.

The level of support for President Trump has doubled among Muslims, from 13 percent in 2018 and 16 percent in 2019 to 30 percent in 2020. How to you interpret this finding? We are still trying to understand it ourselves. One thing is…

This article was originally published at Christianity Today, on October 1, 2020. Please click here to read the full text.

Categories
Africa Christianity Today Published Articles

Should Christians Join Burkina Faso’s Militias Against Terrorism?

US Army Africa (link)

What should Christians do when their government cannot protect them from terrorism? As the world’s first post-coronavirus coup shakes Mali, nearby Burkina Faso is experimenting with a controversial lesson in self-defense.

To gain perspective on Burkina Faso, CT interviewed Joanna Ilboudo, secretary-general for ACTS Burkina, a nonprofit Christian association dedicated to helping the nation’s widows and orphans without religious distinction. She in turn took the pulse of local Christian leaders and laity on behalf of CT.

Located in West Africa’s volatile Sahel region south of the Sahara Desert, the Colorado-sized Francophone country of 20 million had been home to one of the continent’s model nations for peaceful coexistence. Around 60 ethnic groups divide the population religiously into 61-percent Muslim, 19-percent Catholic, 4-percent Protestant, and 15-percent indigenous beliefs.

Muslims are located primarily in the north, east, and west border areas, with Christians located in the south and central areas. But schools are mixed and intermarriage is common, while 80 percent of the population works in farming.

Jihadist groups began attacking Burkina Faso in 2015, following the popular removal of a president in power for 27 years. The transitional government ended his policy of allowing terrorists to harass neighboring Mali from across the border.

Three jihadist groups proliferate, one affiliated with al-Qaeda, and have targeted grain fields and the educational system. But according to reports, only the Islamic State West Africa Province (ISWAP)—which has wreaked havoc in Nigeria—has specifically targeted Christian communities.

CT has repeatedly reported on the escalating church attacks.

Ilboudo’s ministry, whose French acronym translates to “Christian Action, All for Solidarity,” is another means to help the ever-increasing victims.

To gather Christian perspective on the government’s militia initiative, she interviewed a well-known theologian teaching in the largest theological college in Burkina Faso; a member of the national Assemblies of God executive board; a lawyer working with international diplomats; and a social worker in the field of education. She also conducted five focus group conversations, one specifically of women and another of youth this past spring.

The Burkina Faso government has approved a plan to arm civilians to fight terrorist groups. Please explain the basics.

Following the approval of the National Assembly of Burkina Faso, the groups to be formed are called Volunteers for the Defense of the Fatherland. Their mission is to contribute, when necessary and requested by the army, to the defense and protection of populations in the villages.

The law specifies that individual volunteers must obtain the approval of the local population in general assembly. It requires their patriotism, loyalty, discipline, neutrality, integrity, and sacrifice, even unto death.

What are the hopes for results, and are they achievable?

Without volunteers, the people in the villages have been taken by surprise by terrorists and unable to defend themselves. Now they are training…

This article was originally published at Christianity Today, on September 30, 2020. Please click here to read the full text.

Categories
Christianity Today Middle East Published Articles

How Lebanon’s First Female Militant Made Her Fight More Faithful

Image: Courtesy of Shiraz Awad

On July 31, Jocelyne Khoueiry passed away mercifully five days before seeing Beirut destroyed, again. A key player in the civil war that once tore the city apart, she spent the rest of her life trying to stitch it back together, and all of Lebanon with it.

The Beirut explosion on August 4 reminded many of the worst days of the 1975-1990 conflict. The Lebanese capital divided into a Christian east and a Muslim west, alternately shelled by militias and foreign armies vying for control.

But though far smaller in scale than the blast at the port, the deaths caused by Jocelyne’s 1976 hand grenade also shook the nation.

Born as one of two daughters in a Maronite Christian family of ten, Jocelyne grew up across the street from the Beirut headquarters of the Phalange.

Originally a Christian youth movement dedicated to an independent Lebanon, the Phalange took great offense at the state-within-a-state formed by the 300,000 Palestinians who were fleeing war with Israel. The 1969 Cairo agreement gave the refugees sovereignty to organize their own communities and continue the armed struggle, with the blessing—though not involvement—of their host nation.

The Khoueiry family provided some of the earliest fighters to the Phalange Christian militia formed in response, and a not yet 20-year-old Jocelyne enlisted with her brothers. In 1975, the civil war broke out in earnest, and several Lebanese Muslim militias sided with the Palestinians.

Jocelyne was not a practicing Christian; she preferred the Beirut nightlife. But on May 7, 1976, on a routine patrol on the roof of the Regent Hotel, she had a vision. She said the Virgin Mary appeared to her, and she saw herself kneeling in veneration. But she was also overcome with a sense of dread, and prayed that God would protect the six other female fighters stationed there with her.

On the way down from the roof, she saw advancing Palestinian militants.

The Regent sat on a dividing line between mixed and wholly Christian neighborhoods of Beirut, and Jocelyne’s squad was completely alone. While the Phalange militia’s men had anticipated defending a different hotel encampment, a 300-strong regiment of Palestinians attacked the female outpost instead.

The battle lasted six hours. Eventually, Jocelyne risked exposure by climbing back to the roof, and threw down a hand grenade that miraculously killed the Palestinian commander. The militia scattered, and the line was held.

Jocelyne became a legend. But in the years that followed, she contemplated…

This article was originally published at Christianity Today on September 14, 2020. Please click here to read the full text.

Categories
Christianity Today Middle East Published Articles

Satellite Ministries Cross Boundaries. That’s Their Promise and Peril.

Image: Illustration by Nicole Xu

GOD TV celebrated too soon.

The 25-year-old Christian broadcasting corporation was granted a license for a new Hebrew-language channel in Israel, and the CEO wanted to praise the Lord.

“God has supernaturally opened the door for us to take the gospel of Jesus into the homes and lives and hearts of his Jewish people,” said CEO Ward Simpson, former director of the Brownsville Revival School of Ministry, in a video posted online. “They’ll watch secretly. They’ll watch quietly. . . . God is restoring his people. God is removing the blindness from their eyes.”

It was a public relations disaster. An outcry from Orthodox Jews and anti-missionary groups led Israel’s Cable and Satellite Broadcasting Council to reconsider GOD TV’s seven-year license. Council chairman Asher Biton claimed the company had misrepresented the channel as something that offered content for Christians when it was really programming designed to convert Jews.

GOD TV scrambled to take down Simpson’s video and clarify its purpose. GOD TV would not try to convert Jews to Christianity. But it would preach Jesus as the Jewish Messiah, consistent with the beliefs of Israel’s approximately 20,000 Messianic Jews. It wasn’t enough. Eight weeks after GOD TV was awarded the license…

Additional reporting by Jeremy Weber.

This article was originally published in the September 2020 print edition of Christianity Today. Please click here to read the full text.

Categories
Christianity Today Middle East Published Articles

Old Scars and New Wounds: Christians Comfort Lebanon’s Trauma

To a traumatized child, a teddy bear can make a big difference.

But as the handful of Lebanese evangelicals trained in counseling are emphasizing in the aftermath of the Beirut explosion, so can an ordinary individual.

“I don’t think the sit-with-a-psychologist model works with a communal culture,” said Kate Mayhew, country representative for the Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) in Lebanon.

“A lay person might be fearful of doing harm. But there is a lot they can do.”

There is a lot that needs to be done.

An impact assessment conducted by Strategy& in the worst affected neighborhoods of Beirut found that 3 in 4 respondents were suffering anxiety two weeks after the blast.

Nearly 7 in 10 were experiencing disturbing dreams, and 6 in 10 reported difficulty doing household chores.

And according to UNICEF, 50 percent of its respondents said their children were showing signs of trauma and extreme stress. In the poverty-stricken Karantina district directly in front of the port, one child clutched a bag of distributed bread to his chest, rocking back and forth. Though by then…

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

Categories
Christianity Today Middle East Published Articles

Sudan Agrees with Rebels to Remove Islam as State Religion

In signing successive peace deals with entrenched rebel movements last week, Sudan drew upon the legacy of Thomas Jefferson.

“The constitution should be based on the principle of ‘separation of religion and state,’” read the text of an agreement between the North African nation’s joint military-civilian transitional council and the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement–North (SPLM–N).

“The state shall not establish an official religion.”

The declaration of principles further cements Sudan’s efforts to undo the 30-year system of strict sharia law under President Omar al-Bashir, during which Islam was the religion of the state.

The agreement was signed in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, four days after a more inclusive peace deal was signed with a coalition of rebel groups in the Sudan Revolutionary Front in Juba, South Sudan.

The Juba agreement established a national commission for religious freedom, which guarantees the rights of Christian communities in Sudan’s southern regions.

Sudan’s population of 45 million is roughly 91 percent Muslim and 6 percent Christian. Open Doors’s World Watch List ranks Sudan No. 7 among nations where it is hardest to be a Christian. The US Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) interpreted the agreement even more widely: to protect…

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

Categories
Christianity Today Middle East Published Articles

Controversial Religion Law Tips Montenegro Election

For the first time in his life, 82-year-old Bishop Amfilohije voted in an election.

His example led record numbers of citizens in Montenegro to do the same this past Sunday.

Spurred by what he perceived as government attacks on his beloved Serbian Orthodox Church, he launched an “anybody but them” campaign against the ruling Democratic Party of Socialists (DPS), which held power in the Eastern European country for the last 30 years.

“[Vote] for the saints, and against the lawless,” said Amfilohije one week before the August 30 election, according to Balkan Insight. Montenegrin President Milo Djukanovic is accused of running a corrupt government.

Preliminary results indicate a razor-thin victory for the bishop.

The opposition coalition won 41 out of 81 seats in parliament.

The DPS claimed the largest solo share with 30, but will find itself out of power for the first time in Montenegro’s 14-year history if all coalitions hold.

“This is the freedom that so many have long been longing for,” pastor Sinisa Nadazdin told CT. His Gospel of Jesus Christ Church is located in the capital city of Podgorica, and is one of the nation’s five registered evangelical churches.

“The myth of Djukanovic’s invincibility is finally broken.”

Montenegro is the 6th-least evangelical country in Europe, according to the Joshua Project. Believers were not united behind any particular party, but many welcomed the democratic message. “This is an opportunity to get some new blood into the system…

This article was originally published at Christianity Today, on September 3, 2020. Please click here to read the full text.

Categories
Christianity Today Middle East Published Articles

Researchers Find Christians in Iran Approaching 1 Million

Missiologists have long spoken of the explosive growth of the church in Iran.

Now they have data to back up their claims—from secular research.

According to a new survey of 50,000 Iranians—90 percent residing in Iran—by GAMAAN, a Netherlands-based research group, 1.5 percent identified as Christian.

Extrapolating over Iran’s population of approximately 50 million literate adults (the sample surveyed) yields at least 750,000 believers. According to GAMAAN, the number of Christians in Iran is “without doubt in the order of magnitude of several hundreds of thousands and growing beyond a million.”

The traditional Armenian and Assyrian Christians in Iran number 117,700, according to the latest government statistics.

Christian experts surveyed by CT expressed little surprise. But it may make a significant difference for the Iranian church.

“With the lack of proper data, most international advocacy groups expressed a degree of doubt on how widespread the conversion phenomenon is in Iran,” said Mansour Borji, research and advocacy director for Article 18, a UK-based organization dedicated to the protection and promotion of religious freedom in Iran.

“It is pleasing to see—for the first time—a secular organization adding its weight to these claims.” The research, which asked 22 questions about…

This article was originally published at Christianity Today, on September 3, 2020. Please click here to read the full text.

Categories
Africa Christianity Today Published Articles

Zimbabwe Evangelicals Defend Catholics from Government’s ‘Genocide’ Accusations

Never Muparutsa

Zimbabwe, in its 40 years of independent history, has “never enjoyed life.”

And as the Evangelical Fellowship of Zimbabwe (EFZ) stands in solidarity this week with maligned Catholic bishops accused of fomenting genocide, its president, Never Muparutsa, told CT the Southern African government is failing to honor its biblical responsibility.

There are too many poor, amid official repression.

An excerpt from the interview:

On June 1, we called for 90 days of prayer. On the 15th day, the president called for a national day of prayer, and we supported him. We don’t necessarily blame the president for all the problems, but there is a lack of leadership to bring everyone to the table.

And this is why you stood with the Catholics?

The Catholic letter was trying to provoke discussion, not give an insult. It pointed out problems like all of us were doing. But it received such a strong backlash.

We felt that given the situation in the country, if we just stand by and watch, we don’t know what will happen. We have journalists and activists in prison. There have been abductions with perpetrators unidentified, making us all vulnerable.

So this prompted us to stand with the Catholics, because an insult to one is an insult to all.

The 90 days of prayer will end on August 29. What are your hopes for Zimbabwe, in how God might move on behalf of the church and country?

We need a better future. We have suffered enough over 40 years, having never really enjoyed life. Zimbabwe has been given many natural resources and riches, and if our leaders are gifted enough, they can exploit these for the benefit of the people.

We are praying that the church will raise up disciples, who in the future will be good politicians. We blame ourselves. We have what we deserve, because we have not done a good job.

We want God to help us achieve the Zimbabwe we want, with freedom of speech, access to the wealth of the nation, and an uprooting of corruption.

This article was originally published at Christianity Today, on August 24, 2020. Please click here for the full text.

Categories
Christianity Today Middle East Published Articles

Turkey Turns Another Historic Church into a Mosque

The Turkish government formally converted a former Byzantine church into a mosque Friday, a move that came a month after it drew praise from the faithful and international opposition for similarly turning Istanbul’s landmark Hagia Sophia into a Muslim house of prayer.

A decision by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, published in the country’s Official Gazette, said Istanbul’s Church of St. Saviour in Chora, known as Kariye in Turkish, was handed to Turkey’s religious authority, which would open up the structure for Muslim prayers.

Like the Hagia Sophia, which was a church for centuries and then a mosque for centuries more, the historic Chora church had operated as a museum for decades before Erdogan ordered it restored as a mosque.

The church, situated near the ancient city walls, is famed for its elaborate mosaics and frescoes. It dates to the fourth century, although the edifice took on its current form in the 11th–12th centuries.

The structure served as a mosque during the Ottoman rule before being transformed into a museum in 1945. A court decision last year canceled the building’s status as a museum, paving the way for Friday’s decision.

And as with the Hagia Sophia, the decision to transform the Chora church museum back into a mosque is seen as geared to consolidate the conservative and religious support base of Erdogan’s ruling party at a time when his popularity is sagging amid an economic downturn.

Greece’s Foreign Ministry strongly condemned the move, saying that Turkish authorities “are once again brutally insulting the character” of another UN-listed world heritage site.

“This is a provocation against all believers,” the Greek ministry said in a statement. “We urge Turkey to return to the 21st century, and the mutual respect, dialogue and understanding between civilizations.”

Protestant believers agree. “The Hagia Sophia is…

This article was originally published at Christianity Today on August 21, 2020, in cooperation with the AP. I contributed additional reporting. Please click here to read the full text.

Categories
Christianity Today Middle East Published Articles

A Beacon of Hope in a Broken Beirut

Image: P. Clarkson

Sitting at his desk in the second-floor office adjacent to the historic National Evangelical Church of Beirut, Habib Badr calmly filled out the wedding registry. It was a ritual the almost 70-year-old had performed countless times over the course of his 35-year ministry.

The next day, there would be a funeral. A stalwart member of his congregation, the former head of reconstructive surgery at the American University of Beirut hospital during the years of civil war, had passed away of natural causes.

It seemed there were more funerals than weddings these days, Badr thought. But the nostalgic church would always draw young people ready to exchange their vows, even from the scattered Lebanese diaspora, in imitation of their parents a generation before.

There was something special about the lighting. On a clear day, parishioners could see the distant snow-covered peak of Mt. Sannine, towering over the capital below. Three years ago, the church replaced its eight ordinary windows. Bracketing the sanctuary pews with translucent glass depicting the three crosses of Calvary above colored stones, they aimed to remind worshipers of the ever-present Rock of Ages, upon whom the church is built.

Lebanese evangelicals don’t prefer stained glass windows with human imagery, Badr said. This serves to distinguish them from original Catholic and Orthodox heritages.

“To the missionaries, we say, ‘Go home,’” a Lebanese Greek Orthodox bishop had publicly proclaimed a generation earlier. “And to the Protestants we say, ‘Come back home.’”

But for Badr and his congregants, they were already home. The National Evangelical Church, the oldest Arabic-speaking Protestant congregation in the Middle East, was formed in 1848. Badr’s grandfather Yusuf was the first native pastor, installed in 1890.

And as if to emphasize, the circular window high above the pulpit—installed in 1998—pictured a cross above Mt. Sannine, with an image of the church in the foothills below. Originally constructed in 1869, the architecture was a blend of Scottish and Lebanese styles.

Every Sunday, the symbolism would resonate: A Reformed church, nestled like any other Lebanese home into the rugged mountainous terrain.

Badr’s wedding thoughts were abruptly shaken by a small tremor. Small earthquakes periodically rattle the small Mediterranean nation two-thirds the size of Connecticut, so the pastor stood and prepared to momentarily take refuge underneath his office doorframe. It was not a moment too soon…

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

Categories
Christian Century Published Articles Reconciliation

The Redemption of Interfaith Dialogue

Image: Ozgurdonmaz / Getty / Ben White / Lightstock

The Egyptian delegation of Muslim sheikhs settled in for the opening session of the interfaith conference. Their mainline Protestant hosts welcomed them to the hallowed halls of a historic New York seminary with pleasantries and platitudes about shared humanity and common values.

Then the moderator startled the senior scholars from Al-Azhar University, the foremost center of learning in the Sunni Muslim world, with what sounded like an ultimatum: “Anyone who believes their religion is the only way is not welcome here.”

Quietly, the Muslim men rose to leave. Their impromptu translator, Joseph Cumming, a delegate from Fuller Theological Seminary, quickly intervened. “No, no, don’t be offended,” he told them. “He is not referring to you—he is speaking about us.”

Cumming is an American evangelical who has been ministering in the Islamic world since 1982. Many evangelicals, he explained to the Muslim guests, have been very critical of interfaith dialogue. They argue it cedes too much ground, reducing religion to the lowest common denominator and undermining any commitment to absolute truth. Peace is made too high a priority with so much focus on agreement, avoiding the crucial differences over salvation.

Yet Cumming was there anyway. Despite what the moderator said, he believed it was possible—even important—for evangelicals to participate in interfaith dialogue without losing any of their passionate commitment to the truth of the Bible.

The Muslim scholars, reassured, sat back down. And the conversation continued. It continues still. That conference was nearly two decades ago, and Cumming has remained engaged in interfaith dialogue. He has dedicated the second half of his Christian ministry to maintaining respectful dialogue with Muslims and overcoming stereotypes between Christians and Muslims while remaining as passionate as ever about bearing witness to his faith in Christ. Cumming didn’t always think this way. He had to be converted to the possibility of interfaith dialogue. At first he thought it was just…

This article was first published in the July/August print edition of Christianity Today. Please click here to read the full article.

Categories
Christianity Today Middle East Published Articles

Can ‘Abraham’ Bring Peace to the Middle East?

In forging the first Arab-Israeli peace deal since 1994, President Donald Trump paid homage to a patriarch.

He named the historic normalization the “Abraham Accord.”

The familiar Bible character “is referred to as ‘Abraham’ in the Christian faith, ‘Ibrahim’ in the Muslim faith, and ‘Avraham’ in the Jewish faith,” explained David Friedman, US ambassador to Israel.

“And no person better symbolizes the potential for unity, among all these three great faiths.”

In signing the accord, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) joined Egypt and Jordan as the only Arab nations to make peace with Israel. Telephone lines are already being connected between the Gulf nation and the Jewish state, with preparations underway to exchange embassies.

It may open a new era. Fellow Gulf nations Bahrain and Oman signaled their support, while Saudi Arabia did not oppose it.

“This is a once-in-a-generation diplomatic achievement, but I predict it will be the first, not the last,” said Johnnie Moore, an evangelical leader engaged in behind-the-scenes advocacy. He and bestselling novelist Joel Rosenberg led an evangelical delegation to the UAE in October 2018 (as well as two delegations to Saudi Arabia), and Moore has personally visited three more times.

“The Abraham Accord,” he said, “will prove to be the moment when the grievances of the past no longer overpowered the promises of the future in the Middle East.” A hero of faith to both Christians and Jews, ‘Ibrahim’ is already a central figure in the UAE. The nation…

This article was originally published at Christianity Today, on August 17, 2020. Please click here to read the full text.