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Bibles Get American Pastor Tangled Up in Turkish Politics

Image: Ryan Keating
Pastor Ryan Keating and his family, in front of his cafe

Will the Turks create another Andrew Brunson?

On the Mediterranean island of Cyprus, they claim to have found his disciple.

Three months ago, American pastor Ryan Keating was detained for 11 hours by the self-proclaimed Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus, a state unrecognized by every nation except Turkey. Its police raided the café and wine shop that housed his church, and then proceeded to his home.

They confiscated dozens of Arabic and Farsi language Bibles.

Keating, 44, was released on nearly $20,000 bail, after local friends bonded deeds to their property, vehicles, and even a tractor.

Last month, Keating was charged with illegally importing Christian materials. His passport has been confiscated while he awaits trial. A fine has been assessed of at least $60,000—ten times the value of the Bibles, which he said is “wildly inflated” to begin with.

The raid, however, was based on the accusation that he did not have a permit to make wine. Yet Keating showed CT his 2018 license to operate the café, his 2019 license for winemaking from the municipality, and the additional requested paperwork from 2020, when his permit renewal was delayed by the customs department.

The interrogation focused only on his ministry.

“This country, its government, and our neighbors have been friendly to us,” he said. “But there are not insignificant pockets of hostile nationalism.”

Keating linked his arrest to the changing political environment. Last October, the pro-Turkey prime minister defeated the incumbent president to assume the territory’s top office.

“My case is an example of localized opposition,” Keating said. “But now, Turkish-style politics is being enforced in Cyprus.”

He was the victim of such politics once before. Resident on the island since 2017, Keating previously lived…

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

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Anticipating Biden’s Genocide Decision, Armenians Fear a Cultural One in Azerbaijan

Image: Press Service of the Republic of Azerbaijan
Azerbaijan President Ilhan Aliyev visits St. Astvatsatsin Church in newly controlled Nagorno-Karabakh with his wife and daughter in March 2021.

Armenian fears of a new genocide were put on hold following the fall of Shusha, the crown jewel of Nagorno-Karabakh, high in the Caucasus Mountains. Last November, Azerbaijani forces captured the city—known to Armenians as Shushi—after which a ceasefire ended the military hostilities.

But not the cultural.

Last month, satellite imagery allegedly revealed the destruction of Shusha’s Armenian Genocide Memorial. Constructed in 2009, it leaves a bitter taste during this year’s April 24 remembrance of the 1.5 million lives lost when Turks expelled Armenians from their homes a century ago.

President Joe Biden may recognize the atrocity by stating the word genocide in his commemorative speech.

But the horrors witnessed in Turkey reached also to Shusha, where Azerbaijanis massacred the local Armenian population.

“As in 1915, the Turco-Azeris are committing not only a human genocide against the Armenians, but also a cultural genocide,” said Rene Leonian, president of the Union of Armenian Evangelical Churches in Eurasia.

“Unfortunately, nations and international organizations are too passive to firmly condemn these abuses.”

They can now add the case of the disappearing church.

Following the war, video footage emerged of an Azerbaijani soldier shouting “Allahu Akbar” from the rooftop of the Holy Mother of God church in the town of Jabrayil.

In search of the simple stone-built chapel, the BBC discovered no trace whatsoever.

The escorting policeman first said it was destroyed in the war. He then changed his story saying the Armenians dismantled it before they left.

Presidential advisor Hikmat Hajiyev told the BBC the matter would be investigated, but then shifted the discussion to the nearly 30-year Armenian occupation.

It was not wholly inappropriate. The church in question was built on a military base, after Armenia seized the disputed Caucasus enclave during the first Nagorno-Karabakh war in 1993. Jabrayil became…

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

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Christianity Today Published Articles Religious Freedom

3 Fewer Hot Spots for Trump-Biden Handover on Religious Freedom

Image: USCIRF, from the cover of their 2021 report

As a new administration takes over leadership of America’s commitment to religious freedom worldwide, Gayle Manchin believes President Joe Biden is “very aware” of its importance.

But given global developments, the watchdog work of the US Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), which she chairs, sometimes feels like “treading water.”

Others agree. For example, an 800-page study released this week by Aid to the Church in Need concludes that 1 in 3 nations of the world do not respect religious freedom.

And in 95 percent of these, the situation is growing worse.

USCIRF, created to provide recommendations to the US government, released its 22nd annual report today. Its analysis identifies significant problems in 26 countries, down from 29 last year. It also marked a surge in worldwide antisemitism.

Following the commission’s advice, last December then-Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced the designation of Burma [Myanmar], China, Eritrea, Iran, Nigeria, North Korea, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Tajikistan, and Turkmenistan as a Country of Particular Concern (CPC). USCIRF’s 2021 report recommends that new Secretary of State Anthony Blinken add…

Last year, Nigeria was added as a CPC by the State Department. How did USCIRF’s work contribute to the decision?

USCIRF has a unique ability to focus on religious freedom, while the State Department looks at the relationship with a country in balance. But they take our work very seriously, and know the research and credibility behind it. They watch, and when the information is overwhelming—and when they are comfortable—they will join us in a recommendation.

But I never question when they don’t. There may be details going on that we are not aware of.

So how do you interpret the State Department additions of Cuba and Nicaragua to the SWL? Maybe they are not the most egregious violators of religious freedom, compared to others on the USCIRF list?

Both of these countries are continuing to trend worse. When we are able to travel again, these are nations we will reach out to for a visit, to get a clearer picture of what is going on. There is always a political aspect, from the government’s perspective.

But now that Cuba is without a Castro for the first time, there are things happening that may change. Of course, it could also be toward the negative, so we will continue to monitor.

What nations generated the most controversy and discussion among USCIRF commissioners?

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

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Christianity Today Middle East Published Articles

ISIS Executes Christian Businessman Kidnapped in Egypt’s Sinai

Image: Wilayat Sinai / Telegram screenshot
Nabil Habashi Salama, a Coptic Christian kidnapped from Bir al-Abd in North Sinai, speaks before his execution in the propaganda video of an Egyptian ISIS affiliate.

The Islamic State has claimed another Christian victim.

And Egypt’s Coptic Orthodox Church has won another martyr.

“We are telling our kids that their grandfather is now a saint in the highest places of heaven,” stated Peter Salama of his 62-year-old father, Nabil Habashi Salama, executed by the ISIS affiliate in north Sinai.

“We are so joyful for him.”

The Salamas are known as one of the oldest Coptic families in Bir al-Abd on the Mediterranean coast of the Sinai Peninsula. Nabil was a jeweler, owning also mobile phone and clothing shops in the area.

Peter said ISIS targeted his father for his share in building the city’s St. Mary Church.

In a newly released 13-minute propaganda video entitled The Makers of Slaughter [or Epic Battles], a militant quotes the Quran to demand the humiliation of Christians and their willing payment of jizya—a tax to ensure their protection.

Nabil was kidnapped five months ago in front of his home. Eyewitnesses said during his resistance he was beaten badly, before being thrown into a stolen car. It may be that these were kidnappers, because in the video that shows Nabil’s execution, he said he was held captive by ISIS for 3 months and 11 days.

On April 18, he was shot in the back of the head, kneeling.

“As you kill, you will be killed,” states the video, directed to “all the crusaders in the world.”

It addresses all of Egypt’s Christians, warning them to put no faith in the army. And Muslims which support the Egyptian state are called “apostates.” Two other Sinai residents—tribesmen who cooperated with the military—are also executed in the video.

Peter said that in the effort to drive Nabil from his faith, his teeth were broken.

His daughter Marina joined in the tribute. “I will miss you, my father,” she wrote on Facebook. “You made us proud…

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

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The Best Advice on Engaging Muslims, from Arab Evangelical Scholars

Image: iStock / Getty Images Plus

American evangelicals often find themselves frustrated in their approach to Islam.

Two options are consistently placed before them: a polemical argument few are educated enough to engage in, or an awkward dialogue urging friendship but emptied of theological significance.

Help, therefore, may come from abroad—where evangelicals interact with Muslims everyday.

A new book, The Religious Other: Toward a Biblical Understanding of Islam, the Quran, and Muhammad, answers both concerns. An anthology of recent academic contributions to Arab Baptist Theological Seminary (ABTS), located in Beirut, Lebanon, the publication delves into the details of the debate over how evangelicals should view the rival religion.

But it also promotes a “kerygmatic method,” based on the New Testament Greek word for proclamation and connoting among biblical scholars the core message of early church gospel preaching. The book applies the term to seek a middle ground between polemics and apologetics on the one hand, and syncretistic and common ground approaches on the other.

Built on a foundation of academic rigor, this method aims for a tone of love within a spirit of Jesus-centered proclamation.

CT interviewed Martin Accad, editor of the anthology and associate professor of Islamic studies at ABTS. Though he remains on faculty, he recently resigned from his leadership positions at the seminary to found Action Research Associates, seeking holistic application of the kerygmatic method within the troubles of sectarian Lebanese society.

Accad described the value of the book for evangelical engagement with Islam, but also how its principles can guide interaction with “the religious other” in both Lebanon and the United States:

Out of the 30 contributors to this book, only 9 are from the West, while 16 are Arab voices. What is the impact of this diversity?

Having so many Arabs is unusual for this type of book, especially those who are not of a polemical bent. Much of the agenda of missions and dialogue has been driven by Western questions, girded by the theology of the provider.

The contributions, therefore, de-objectify the conversation. We do not claim to be authoritative, but I hope that our voices will come with some authority, as we highlight our primary concerns in this part of the world.

“Toward” a biblical understanding suggests you have no definitive Christian conclusion about Islam, the Quran, and Muhammad. What message does the book want to give?

The primary goal of the book is theological, and is the crowning of years of work at ABTS. The Religious Other wants to explore what Islam really is. But I have come to the realization that a lot of what drives evangelical approaches to ministry among Muslims is polemical, rather than conciliatory and collaborative.

One of the book’s central hypotheses is that Islam cannot be oversimplified. Essentializing the “other” leads to conflict, because it fails to see them in their entirety, or as they perceive themselves.

There can be no definitive biblical understanding of Islam, because…

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

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Died: Ashur Eskrya, Champion of Iraq’s Displaced Christians

Image: Zowaa / ADM

Ashur Sargon Eskrya, president of the Assyrian Aid Society–Iraq (AASI), passed away today from COVID-19 complications.

A champion of the Assyrian Christian minority, he was also a central figure in US efforts to shelter refugees from ISIS and later rebuild the Nineveh Plains.

AASI was honored for its work with a Nobel Peace Prize nomination in 2016.

“Ashur has played a prominent role in being a voice for our people in international forums, speaking on behalf of us all especially on the subject of indigenous rights,” stated the official account of the Assyrian Democratic Movement (ADM), of which Eskrya was a senior member.

“He will always be remembered for his leadership.”

Fellow ADM member Jessi Arabou called him one of the Assyrian nation’s “biggest assets.” Born in 1974, Eskrya was a civil engineer and graduate of Baghdad University. He became a member in AASI in 2003, and assumed the presidency in 2010. Founded in 1991 to respond to the humanitarian crisis following the first Gulf War, the nonprofit…

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

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Convictions in Case of Christian Journalist Murdered in Turkey Fail to Satisfy

Hrant Dink, image courtesy of AMAA

Fourteen years later, there is some resolution for the family of the assassinated Turkish-Armenian journalist, Hrant Dink.

But not enough.

“The judgment given today is quite far from the truth,” said the family in its official statement on March 26.

“Not the evil itself but its leakage was punished.”

In 2007, Dink was shot four times in front of the Istanbul office of his bilingual newspaper, Agos. A proponent of reconciliation between Turks and Armenians, he aroused official opposition through his passionate focus on the 1915 genocide. Two years earlier he had been arrested and convicted of “insulting Turkishness.”

The killer, a 17-year-old unemployed youth, was given a 23-year sentence in 2011.

But one week before his death, Dink had written an article stating he felt “like a pigeon,” targeted by the deep state “to make me know my place.“

Around 100,000 people attended his funeral, chanting, “We are all Armenians.”

Last week, the Turkish judiciary put 76 people on trial, convicting 26 and handing out 4 sentences of life imprisonment. Two were given to the former director of police intelligence and his deputy, for murder and the subsequent cover-up. The family is not convinced this includes…

This article was originally published at Christianity Today, on March 31, 2021. Please click here to read the full text.

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Christianity Today Middle East Published Articles Religious Freedom

Sudan Confirms Religious Freedom with Nuba Mountains Rebels

Abdulmonam Eassa / Getty Images

Sudan has taken another step toward religious freedom.

This time, it is a confirmation.

On Sunday, the joint military-civilian Sovereign Council signed a peace agreement with the rebel Sudan People’s Liberation Movement-North (SPLM-N), based in the Nuba Mountains, where there is a significant Christian population.

“Freedom of belief and religious practices and worship shall be guaranteed to all Sudanese people,” stated the Declaration of Principles, “by separating the identities of culture, religion, ethnicity, and religion from the state.”

Prior to the revolution which overthrew 30-year dictator Omar al-Bashir in April 2019, Sudan was governed by sharia law. It also imposed an Arab identity on its multiethnic population, contributing to longstanding conflict in Darfur.

The region’s Sudan Liberation Army (SLA), led by Abdel Wahed el-Nur, is now the last remaining rebel holdout.

Three other armed groups signed a peace deal last September. In February, these were integrated into an expanded Sovereign Council and afforded places in the still to be formed parliament. Abdelaziz al-Hilu, leader of the SPLM-N, refused to join without…

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

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Christianity Today Middle East Published Articles Religious Freedom

To Further Muslim Faith in Religious Freedom, Can Women Succeed Where Men Have Not?

Image: Empower Women Media

Sitting around a dinner table in a fancy restaurant, Talia is uncomfortably nervous. Her two colleagues in pristine attire anticipate a delicious meal—and then exult in the immaculate but meager portions provided them.

Earlier in the evening, the disappointed Talia had noticed a confused villager with a picnic basket ushered out of the establishment. Later, she peeks outside. Beckoned to join a family gathering, Talia discovers all the delight of nature on offer.

A new world had opened, wide and wild.

The fictional scene is a compelling metaphor for religious freedom.

“The idea was to move people from an awareness of scarcity to a desire for abundance,” said Shirin Taber, director of Empower Women Media (EWM), of the nine-minute Portions, produced by fellow Iranian American Naji Hendrix and Nancy Sawyer Schraeder.

“Short films can shift hearts, and after only a few minutes, rigid opinions begin to thaw.”

The key lies in storytelling, which Taber believes is a better method than the declarations and sanctions that have traditionally been tried to advance religious freedom in the Muslim world.

Rigid opinions thrive in confrontation.

“Many people are singing to the choir, but few come up with strategies that can actually move the needle,” she said. “And notably, they don’t include women.”

Her own story proves the difference. Taber’s commitment to religious freedom was developed early. Her Muslim father…

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

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Beat, Pray, Give: Catholics Want More Done for Persecuted Christians

American Catholics are signaling a dramatic surge in concern about the persecuted church.

And prayer, alone, is no longer good enough, as more say money and arms are needed too.

Asked their opinion about Christian persecution worldwide in the fourth annual survey by Aid to the Church in Need–USA (ACNUSA), 67 percent stated they were “very concerned.”

Last year, only 52 percent said the same.

Similarly, 57 percent stated the level of persecution suffered by Christians is “very severe.”

Last year, only 41 percent said the same.

The increase is “heartening,” said George Marlin, ACNUSA chairman.

“Christian persecution around the world is very grave,” he said. “[Catholics] want both their church and their government to step up efforts to do more.”

They have already been praying: 7 in 10 stated prayer is a “very important” initiative to help—the same share as last year, and up from 64 percent in the first survey in 2018.

But now, 62 percent say it is “very important” to donate to agencies that support the persecuted, up from 53 percent last year. Half say they are “very likely” to do so, up from 35 percent. And 61 percent say they gave within the last year, up from 53 percent in 2020.

And while about half believe Pope Francis is “very engaged” on the issue of persecution (52%, up from 47%), they believe their local bishop lags behind. Only 3 in 10 (30%) find him “very engaged,” marginally improved from the perception of 27 percent the year before.

The local parish seems to them similarly disconnected, with only 28 percent perceiving it to be “very engaged,” up from 22 percent last year. It is not enough, per American Catholics: 2 in 3 said…

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

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Christianity Today Middle East Published Articles

Streaming in the Desert: Middle East Discipleship On-Demand

Courtesy of SAT-7

Growing up in civil war–era Lebanon, Rita El-Mounayer’s family often had to hook up the television to a car battery.

Last month, her ministry launched the first Christian on-demand streaming service in the Middle East.

“Television was our only refuge during the war, and was a communal activity,” said the international CEO of SAT-7. “This is what we will miss with , but we have to be where the technology leads.”

SAT-7 is a pioneer in the field. Beaming Christian satellite TV programming into the Arab world since 1996, it now hosts channels specializing also in Turkish and Farsi.

In 2007, it launched a dedicated kids channel. Ten years later, a separate academy brand was created to provide schooling to Syrian refugees and later to assist with at-home COVID-19 education.

Each is now available at SAT-7 PLUS, through web and mobile apps accessible via Android or iOS. Approximately 20 percent of the broadcaster’s 25 years of content can be streamed, along with all current live programming.

“In Morocco, it used to be that viewers had to wait for days until the Christian teaching program was scheduled,” El-Mounayer said.

“Now, they can binge watch.” While the advantages for the ministry are obvious, the drawback lies in…

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

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Christianity Today Middle East Published Articles

Why a Shiite Martyr’s Funeral Was Surprisingly Christian

From Lokman Slim’s funeral, at his family home.

A Protestant mother. A Shiite son. A plea for vengeance on his killers.

But unlike many responses to political martyrdoms in Lebanese history, she yields it to God.

Last month in the Hezbollah-controlled south of Lebanon, unknown gunmen shot Lokman Slim in the head. It was a targeted assassination of a man dedicated to the hope that his small Middle Eastern nation might overcome sectarian divisions.

He was his mother’s son.

“I will not go and kill them, but ask God to avenge him,” said the grieving 80-year-old, Selma Merchak. “This comes from my faith in God as the great authority.”

But her next response reflects the family’s—and Lebanon’s—complex religious identity.

“And as it says in Islam: Warn the killer he will be killed, though it tarries.”

Born in Egypt, Selma’s Protestant lineage traces back to her grandfather in Syria, who found Christ through the preaching of the first wave of Scottish missionaries to the Middle East. As a child, she attended the American School for Girls—now Ramses College—founded in 1908 by American Presbyterians.

The family attended Qasr el-Dobara Church, located in Cairo’s Tahrir Square. And Selma continued in the Protestant educational heritage, graduating with a degree in journalism from the American University in Cairo, which by then had become a secular institution.

The Merchak family mixed freely in an Egyptian upper class that was open to all religions, vacationing often in Lebanon’s mountains. But in the chaos of Gamal Abdel Nasser’s nationalizing of the Suez Canal, in 1957 Newsweek relocated its regional headquarters to Beirut, and Selma went with it.

She reconnected with Muhsin Slim, her childhood friend from the family vacations. The Slims were an influential Shiite family known for its good relations with the Lebanese Christian elite. Muhsin’s father served as a member of parliament in the 1960s, and during the civil war advocated against the use of Lebanon as a staging ground for the Palestinian armed struggle against Israel.

Now a lawyer, Muhsin married Selma shortly after her arrival in Lebanon. Her Egyptian accent was the toast of the town, aiding the political career of her parliamentary husband.

While Muhsin would only “pray in his heart,” Selma said, she worshiped on-and-off at the National Evangelical Church in Beirut, the oldest indigenous Protestant congregation in the Middle East.

Lokman, their second of three children, was born in 1962. Registered as Shiites within Lebanon’s sectarian system, Muhsin and Selma raised them to be moral, but to make up their own minds about religion. Statues of Buddha were part of the décor of their 150-year-old home. On property located in what was once known…

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

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Switzerland’s New ‘Burqa Ban’ Divides Voters, Including Evangelicals

Credit: Beau Giles

In a vote that divided Switzerland’s evangelical community, voters narrowly approved on Sunday a referendum to ban face coverings. The new law includes both the niqabs and burqas worn by a few Muslim women in the country, and the ski masks and bandanas used by protesters.

One of two political parties with ties to the Swiss evangelical community supported the Yes vote. The other took no position. The state-affiliated Swiss Reformed and Roman Catholic churches supported the No vote.

After initially supporting the measure, the Swiss Evangelical Alliance (SEA), which represents about 250,000 believers across 650 churches and 230 member organizations, instead issued an orientation paper outlining both the pro and con positions.

“Showing each other our faces … promotes trust and security,” the alliance stated. “But there are legitimate questions if prohibition would restrict religious freedom.”

The measure will outlaw…

This article was originally published at Christianity Today on March 11, 2021. Please click here to read the full text.

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At Mosul Church, Pope Asks Iraq’s Christians to Forgive ISIS and Rebuild

Copyright: MARCIN MAZUR

I contributed additional reporting to this AP article, including its conclusion below:

At Qaraqosh, Francis urged its residents to continue to dream, and forgive.

“Forgiveness is necessary to remain in love, to remain Christian,” he said.

One resident, Doha Sabah Abdallah, told him how her son and two other young people were killed in a mortar strike August 6, 2014, as ISIS neared the town. “The martyrdom of these three angels” alerted the other residents to flee, she said. “The deaths of three saved the entire city.”

She said now it was for the survivors to “try to forgive the aggressor.”

Francis wrapped up the day—and his visit—with a Mass at the stadium in Irbil, in the semi-autonomous northern Kurdish region. An estimated 10,000 people erupted in ululating cheers when he arrived and did a lap around the track in his open-sided popemobile, the first and only time he has used it on this trip due to security concerns.

On the makeshift altar for the Mass was a statue of the Virgin Mary from the Mar Adday Church in the town of Keramlis, which was restored after ISIS militants chopped off its head and hands.

“Religion is love, grace, forgiveness,” said Louis Sako, patriarch of the Chaldean Catholic Church, in advance of the visit. “Religion is a message, and humanity is its core.

“[And] as for us, we are staying until the end.”

But perhaps some Iraq Christians have a vision for even more.

“This is a time of healing for our country,” Farouk Hammo, pastor of Baghdad Presbyterian Church, told CT.

“But we are still praying for a visitation by the Lord Jesus—a revival—and it will happen.”

This article was originally published at Christianity Today on March 11, 2021. Please click here to read the full text.

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Pope Francis Secures Favorable Fatwa for Iraq’s Christians

Via Vatican News

Pope Francis, a “pilgrim of peace” to Iraq, has made history by becoming the first pontiff to meet a grand ayatollah: Ali al-Sistani, whose hawza (seminary) in Najaf, 100 miles south of Baghdad, is considered the foremost center of learning in Shiite Islam.

Two years ago, the pope met the grand imam of Egypt’s al-Azhar, considered the foremost center of learning in Sunni Islam. With Ahmed al-Tayyeb, Francis signed the “Declaration of Human Fraternity,” calling on both Christians and Muslims to embrace religious diversity with freedom and respect.

This weekend, Francis came to Iraq to support and encourage the nation’s beleaguered Christians, whose numbers have decreased from 1.4 million in 2003 to about 250,000 today.

But he also wished to sign a similar document with the reclusive leading figure in Shiite Islam, which represents 1 in 10 of the world’s Muslims—and 6 in 10 Iraqis.

The result with Sistani was more modest than with Tayyeb, but Francis did secure a very important fatwa (religious ruling).

“[Christians should] live like all Iraqis, in security and peace and with full constitutional rights,” said Sistani in an official statement. “The religious authority plays [a role] in protecting them, and others who have also suffered injustice and harm in the events of past years.”

Francis removed his shoes upon entering Sistani’s modest home. And while the ayatollah usually sits to receive visitors, he stood to welcome the pope.

Will the ruling make a difference? Will it have any impact in Iran, the neighboring theocratic Shiite state? And what really drives the regional conflict: religion or politics? In Muslim history, the answer is…

This article was originally published at Christianity Today, on March 7, 2021. Please click here to read the full text.

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Iraq’s Evangelicals Use Pope Francis’s Visit to Press for Equality

(Photo by AHMAD AL-RUBAYE/AFP via Getty Images)

Pope Francis traveled to war-torn Iraq today “as a pilgrim of peace, seeking fraternity [and] reconciliation.”

The trip’s official logo, written in three languages, comes from Matthew 23: “You are all brothers.” Iraq’s evangelicals, therefore, have asked for the pope’s help.

“The other churches don’t want us, and accuse us of everything,” said Maher Dawoud, head of the General Society for Iraqi National Evangelical Churches (GSINEC).

“But we are churches present throughout the world. Why shouldn’t the government give us our rights?”

Dawoud sent a letter to the Vatican, asking Francis to intercede—on behalf of evangelical Christians—with the Catholic church in Iraq, and ultimately with the government in Baghdad.

The World Evangelical Alliance (WEA) had gone straight to the United Nations, long before.

One year ago, the WEA filed a report with the UN Human Rights Committee, protesting the denial of legal recognition for Iraqi evangelicals. Fourteen other denominations are currently counted within the Christian, Yazidi, and Sabaean-Mandaean Religions Diwan (Bureau).

Now estimated at less than 250,000 people, Christians are a small minority of Iraq’s 40 million population, 97 percent of which is Muslim. Evangelical numbers are even smaller.

The Chaldean Catholic Church represents 80 percent of the nation’s Christians, with 110 churches throughout the country. Syriacs, both Catholic and Orthodox, constitute another 10 percent, with 82 churches. Assyrians, primarily through the Church of the East, have a 5 percent share, and Armenians, 3 percent. (Other estimates count 67 percent for the Chaldeans, and 20 percent for the Assyrians. Their identity and history are disputed.)

Evangelicals have 7 churches, Dawoud said. Representing the Baptist, Pentecostal, Nazarene, Alliance, Assemblies of God, and Armenian Evangelical denominations, the GSINEC has petitioned Baghdad for recognition since 2003.

While their churches are open and able to conduct services, they lack the authority to perform marriages, conduct funerals, and interact with the government. This prevents them from owning property, opening bank accounts, and producing religious literature.

It also keeps Protestants from invitations to official events—like the visit of a pope.

But not all of them. “I will ask Pope Francis to agree with me in prayer,” said…

This article was originally published at Christianity Today, on March 5, 2021. Please click here to read the full text.

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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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Christianity Today Middle East Published Articles

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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Christianity Today Europe Published Articles

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.