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If Muslims Can Build Churches in Egypt, Has Persecution Ended?

Image: Egypt Cabinet of Ministers Media Center
An Egyptian government infographic depicting recent progress in legalizing Christian churches.

Egyptian Christians have long struggled to build their churches.

But now, they can have Muslim help.

Last month, Egypt’s Grand Mufti Shawki Allam issued a fatwa (religious ruling) allowing Muslim paid labor to contribute toward the construction of a church. Conservative scholars had argued this violated the Quranic injunction to not help “in sin and rancor.”

The ruling is timely, as the governmental Council of Ministers recently issued an infographic highlighting the 2020 land allocation for 10 new churches in eight Egyptian cities. An additional 34 are currently under construction.

Prior to this, two prominent examples stand out. In 2018, President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi inaugurated the Church of the Martyrs of Faith and Homeland in al-Our, a village in Upper Egypt, to honor the Copts beheaded by ISIS in Libya. And in 2019, he consecrated the massive Cathedral of the Nativity of Christ in what will become the new administrative capital of Egypt, alongside its central mosque.

This is in addition to restoration work at 16 historic Coptic sites and further development of the 2,000-mile Holy Family Trail, tracing the traditional map of Jesus’ childhood flight from King Herod.

And since the 2018 implementation of a 2016 law to retroactively license existing church buildings, a total of 1,800 have now been registered legally.

Persecution has long been a term applied to Copts in Egypt, ranked No. 16 on the Open Doors 2021 World Watch List of nations where it is hardest to be a Christian. But shortly after the mufti’s fatwa, which restated a ruling last given in 2009, the Grand Imam of al-Azhar gave a pronouncement of his own…

[But there are dissenting cases also.]

Ramy Kamel, a 33-year-old activist, was once dodging tanks near Tahrir Square, protesting for Coptic equality. Ten years later, he is in jail for “spreading false news” about Coptic discrimination, and “financing a terrorist group.”

Soad Thabet, a 74-year-old Coptic grandmother, was in the Upper Egyptian village of al-Karm, minding her own business. Ten years later, she is fighting for justice after having been stripped naked and paraded through town, with her Muslim attackers acquitted.

These examples show that the term persecution remains “appropriate,” said Kurt Werthmuller, a USCIRF policy analyst specializing in Egypt…

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

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Middle East Published Articles Christianity Today

Who Will Save Algeria’s Closed Churches: the UN, US, or Hirak?

Image: STR / picture alliance / Getty Images
People in Algiers wave a big Algerian flag during a protest held today to mark the second anniversary of the mass demonstrations, commonly known as the Hirak Movement, that pushed long-time ruler Abdelaziz Bouteflika out of office in April 2019.

Algeria’s Christians hope that a one-two punch may reopen their churches.

Last December, a letter from the United Nations asked the North African government to give account. And in recent days, popular protests resumed after crackdowns and a COVID-19 hiatus.

Two years ago, Protestants cheered when the Algerian Hirak [Arabic for movement] forced the resignation of then 82-year-old president Abdelaziz Bouteflika, following his announcement that he would run for a fifth term in office. Protests continued, however, as the ruling clique was slow to make changes.

Hirak supports human rights, and I have no doubt they will help the churches,” said Youssef Ourahmane, vice president of the Algerian Protestant Church (EPA).

“And the letter from the UN shows something else is wrong, and now they will have to deal with it.”

Its language reads like a teacher scolding a recalcitrant student.

“Please explain in detail the factual and legal basis that justified the closure of the 13 places of worship and churches,” stated the 7-page letter, written in French.

“Please provide information on the re-registration procedure of the [EPA], and explain the reason why this has not been finalized to date.”

Signed by three UN experts specializing in the freedom of religion and belief, peaceful assembly, and minorities, the now-open letter represents the latest chapter of international advocacy for the persecuted Protestants of Algeria.

The nation ranks No. 24 on the Open Doors World Watch List of the most difficult countries for Jesus followers. Only three years ago, it ranked No. 42.

“2020 was a very difficult year for us Protestants, who have been deprived of our places of worship,” said Salah Chalah, president of the EPA. “[But] we love our country and we regularly pray for its prosperity.”

Algerian Protestants number between 50,000 and 100,000 believers, with the great majority concentrated in the Atlas Mountains regions populated with Kabyle, a non-Arab indigenous ethnic group.

Besides the 13 churches forcibly shut down, the UN noted 40 other Protestant places of worship threatened with closure. It also rebuked the “physical force” used against church members, as well as discriminatory treatment against Christians in airports and other border crossings.

In 2018, the Algerian government denied Christians were persecuted, stating churches were closed for “nonconformity with the laws.”

But in October 2019, Chalah was one of several kicked and beaten with batons while protesting the closure of the Full Gospel Church of Tizi-Ouzou, 60 miles east of the capital Algiers. Understood to be Algeria’s largest church, 300 of the congregation’s 1,200 members gathered in solidarity as 20 police officers sealed its doors.

“May everyone know that we have been beaten and abused for one reason only—our Christian faith,” Chalah said at the time. “And because that’s the cause of our pain…

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

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Christianity Today Middle East Published Articles

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

Image: Courtesy of The Middle East Council of Churches

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Hundreds of Churches Threatened by France’s Plan to End Muslim Separatism

Creator: Christophe Meneboeuf 

Frustrated by years of terrorism inflicted by radical Islamists, France’s parliament is debating a law to end Muslim separatism.

French evangelicals fear their churches will become collateral damage.

“This is the first time, as president of the Protestant Federation of France, that I find myself in the position of defending freedom of worship,” said François Clavairoly.

“I never imagined that in my own country something like this could happen.”

Officially named “the Law to Uphold Republican Principles,” the 459-page bill has been the subject of fierce debate this month, receiving over 1,700 proposed amendments.

The aim, interior minister Gerald Darmanin told parliament, is to stop “an Islamist hostile takeover targeting Muslims” that “like gangrene [is] infecting our national unity.”

With Muslims often crowded into the many impoverished banlieues of France’s major cities, officials fear imported extremist ideologies are leading the religious minority to avoid national integration. In addition, recent terrorist attacks have rallied popular demand for increased security measures.

In the last six years, France has suffered…

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

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Gambia’s Christians Take a Stand in the Public Square

St. Mary’s Cathedral in Banjul, Gambia. (Atamari)

For most Gambians, the conflict over the new constitution started in 2017, when President Yahya Jammeh was forced from power and the new president promised reform.

For others who take a long view, the struggle started in 1994, when Jammeh came to power in a coup, started rewriting the constitution, and revised it regularly to suit his political purposes.

But for Begay Jabang, it started with a women’s prayer meeting in Essex, England, in the summer of 2016. She felt God say to her: “Stop praying for yourselves, and start praying for Gambia.”

In response, she founded Intercessors Gambia and launched a 31-day campaign to pray and fast for her native country. Then, when Jabang flew to the Gambia to join in the national day of thanksgiving in March 2017 and celebrate the end of Jammeh’s presidency, she discovered other Christians had also been inspired to pray.

Many small prayer groups were urgently interceding for Gambia in its time of turmoil and asking God to intervene in the nation’s politics.

This is new for Christians in Gambia. They are a minority among the 2 million people in the English-speaking West African nation. Nine out of 10 Gambians are Muslims, and a mere 5 percent are Christians.

Many of the Christians have emigrated from the country, succeeding professionally in majority-Christian countries like the United States and Great Britain. Abroad or at home, they generally don’t get involved with politics.

There are historic exceptions, including Edward Francis Small, who launched an independence movement in the 1920s with his Aku tribe of freed former slaves. And Gambian Christians served in the colonial and early postcolonial governments. But recent generations of Christians have left political affairs to the Muslim majority.

Some attribute this quietism to the teaching of the missionaries who brought Christianity to the country with colonization and the transatlantic slave trade.

Other say the recent neglect has more to do with “brain drain.” The best and brightest at missionary schools would see that, until recent decades, there was no national university in Gambia and few economic prospects, so they would use their Christian education to leave rather than stay and focus on political or economic problems at home.

When Jammeh felt his power starting to slip, however, and declared that the state would no longer be secular but Islamic, a new political engagement was awakened in Gambia’s Christian believers.

“God showed us that all the glory is for him and that he has a purpose in Gambia,” said Lawrence Gomez, a Gambian leader of the region’s International Fellowship of Evangelical Students (IFES). “He is giving us time to rise up for our country.” Gomez is part of a growing group that feels…

This article was first published in the January print edition of Christianity Today. Please click here to read the full text.

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Montenegro’s Churches Get a Religious Freedom Do-Over

Image: Filip Filipovic / Getty Images
Priests and Orthodox nuns watch the funeral service for Metropolitan Amfilohije Radovic from the balcony on November 1, 2020 in Podgorica, Montenegro.

Europe’s second-newest nation made a second effort this week at greater religious freedom.

And evangelicals in Montenegro, the Balkan nation independent from Serbia since 2006, couldn’t be more pleased.

“This is a great blessing, we are out of the gray zone and drawn into legal existence,” said Sinisa Nadazdin, pastor of Gospel of Jesus Christ Church located in the capital city of Podgorica.

“We were permitted before, but now we know our rights and duties.”

Montenegrin evangelicals were pleased with the new law’s first iteration a year ago as well. But in between, the controversial text split Montenegro’s 75-percent Orthodox community, and nearly tore the nation apart.

Controversially passed last February by lawmakers aligned with the 30-year ruling Democratic Party of Socialists (which ran the regional government when the nation was part of Serbia), ethnic Serbian politicians stormed out of the session in protest.

At issue were not the general provisions of the law, which guaranteed the right to change religion, to establish religious schools above the elementary level, and to conscientiously object from military service.

Replacing a 1977 communist-era law, it also eased licensing procedures and permitted foreign-born leadership and international headquarters.

Rather, a clause in the religious freedom law required all religious communities to provide evidence of ownership for properties built prior to the 1918 integration of Montenegro into the Kingdom of Yugoslavia.

Critics interpreted it as a challenge to the Serbian Orthodox Church.

Failure to do so would transfer ownership of hundreds of ancient churches and monasteries to the state, to be regarded as part of Montenegro’s cultural heritage.

Church leadership rallied the faithful in protests throughout the year. The end result was a narrow electoral victory for an alliance of opposition parties, including the ethnic Serbian-led Democratic Front.

Their first priority was to change the religious freedom law.

“This is the ‘Year of Justice’ in Montenegro,” Vladimir Leposavic, newly appointed Minister of Justice and Human and Minority Rights, told CT.

“Our amendments are an example of how we will fight for the rule of law, with clear norms and nondiscrimination.” Seeking to strengthen the law further, the amendments also…

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

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Christianity Today Middle East Published Articles

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

Muqtada al-Sadr

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

The issue is not new.

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

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

Four years later, his neighbor got nothing.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He called the WEA statement “almost indefensible.”

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

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

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

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

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After Israel, Will Morocco Normalize with Christians?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Morocco is in between.

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

But the omission stood out.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Some Christians, however, want full human rights…

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

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Americas Christianity Today Published Articles Religious Freedom

Polarized Americans Still Support Religious Freedom

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

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

The right to free speech held firm amid racial tensions.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Azerbaijan Archbishop: Our Holy Mission Is to Keep Peace

Embed from Getty Images

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

And morally, with it comes the burden of peace.

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

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

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

It will not be easy.

What is your vision for reconciliation?

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

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

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

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

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Christmas Unites a Divided Iraq

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

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

But they can agree on Christmas.

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

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

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

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

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

But after each occasion, it was not renewed.

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

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

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

Embed from Getty Images

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Will Caucasus Conflict Come Also to France?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(Interview and translation by Jean-Paul Rempp.)

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

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Muslims Join Evangelical Theology Conference

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

Al Mohler invited three.

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

This year’s theme: Islam and Christianity.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Christianity Today Published Articles Religious Freedom

No Pandemic Pause in Persecution, Says Poland Ministerial

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

The cause of international religious freedom has gone more international.

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

Next year it will take place in Brazil.

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

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

And the pandemic has only increased persecution.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Christianity Today Middle East Published Articles

Sudan’s Partially Answered Prayers

Archbishop Ezekiel Kondo

Sudan is rejoining the community of nations.

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

Archbishop Ezekiel Kondo of Sudan has witnessed the entire history.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Are there Sudanese Christians against normalization?

I don’t think…

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

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Christianity Today Published Articles Religious Freedom

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

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

Religious freedom requires global consensus.

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

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

Declarations are of little value without accountability.

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

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

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

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

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

The pandemic is unprecedented in how it is impacting everyone.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Christianity Today Persecution Published Articles

Pew and IDOP Agree: Religious Persecution Is Worsening Worldwide

Dictators are the worst persecutors of believers.

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

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

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

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

And the trend continues to be negative.

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

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

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

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

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

But Christians are not the only ones who suffer.

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

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

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

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

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Christianity Today Europe Middle East Published Articles

France’s Free Speech Makes Arab Christians Squirm

French authorities insist that “Islam is in crisis.”

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

And around the world, Muslims are protesting religious cartoons.

The French reaction has been firm.

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

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

And the official reaction has been swift.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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