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Christianity Today Published Articles Reconciliation

Muslims Join Evangelical Theology Conference

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

Al Mohler invited three.

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

This year’s theme: Islam and Christianity.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Christianity Today Published Articles Religious Freedom

No Pandemic Pause in Persecution, Says Poland Ministerial

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

The cause of international religious freedom has gone more international.

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

Next year it will take place in Brazil.

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

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

And the pandemic has only increased persecution.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Christianity Today Middle East Published Articles

Sudan’s Partially Answered Prayers

Archbishop Ezekiel Kondo

Sudan is rejoining the community of nations.

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

Archbishop Ezekiel Kondo of Sudan has witnessed the entire history.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Are there Sudanese Christians against normalization?

I don’t think…

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

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Christianity Today Published Articles Religious Freedom

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

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

Religious freedom requires global consensus.

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

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

Declarations are of little value without accountability.

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

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

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

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

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

The pandemic is unprecedented in how it is impacting everyone.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Christianity Today Persecution Published Articles

Pew and IDOP Agree: Religious Persecution Is Worsening Worldwide

Dictators are the worst persecutors of believers.

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

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

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

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

And the trend continues to be negative.

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

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

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

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

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

But Christians are not the only ones who suffer.

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

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

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

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

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Christianity Today Europe Middle East Published Articles

France’s Free Speech Makes Arab Christians Squirm

French authorities insist that “Islam is in crisis.”

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

And around the world, Muslims are protesting religious cartoons.

The French reaction has been firm.

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

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

And the official reaction has been swift.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Asia Christianity Today Published Articles

Foxhole Faith in Nagorno-Karabakh

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

The Armenian mountain stronghold of Shushi is under attack.

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

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

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

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

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

Population transfers largely emptied each nation of its opposite ethnicity.

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

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

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

Armenian forces say the fighting continues.

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

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

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

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Christianity Today Middle East Published Articles

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

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

Their reactions vary.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Asia Christianity Today Published Articles

Azerbaijan Evangelicals: Conflict with Armenians Is Not a Religious War

Church of Kish in Azerbaijan, by Asif Masimov

Vadim Melnikov once fought for the land of Noah.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Asia Christianity Today Published Articles

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

By Սէրուժ Ուրիշեան (Serouj Ourishian)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Beytel drew the fish.

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

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

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

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Africa Christianity Today Published Articles

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

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

The Gambia almost had a new constitution.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Asia Christianity Today Published Articles

Symbolic Armenian Church Shelled in Clashes with Azerbaijan

Ghazanchetsots (Holy Saviour) Cathedral in the city of Shusha

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Christianity Today Middle East Published Articles

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

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

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

Inshallah.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Enchilada” was about as close as other ears heard.

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

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

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

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Asia Christianity Today Published Articles

Armenians Fight to Hold Ancient Homeland Within Azerbaijan

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

But is it right to employ their religious labels?

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

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

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

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

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

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

But the shelling of civilian cities represents a worrisome development.

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

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

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

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Christianity Today Middle East Published Articles

God’s Word Is Like Manna in the Middle East

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

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

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

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

How did Scripture shape your early faith?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Americas Christianity Today Published Articles

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

By Alisdare Hickson (link)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Africa Christianity Today Published Articles

Should Christians Join Burkina Faso’s Militias Against Terrorism?

US Army Africa (link)

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

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

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

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

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

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

CT has repeatedly reported on the escalating church attacks.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Image: Courtesy of Shiraz Awad

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Image: Illustration by Nicole Xu

GOD TV celebrated too soon.

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

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

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

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

Additional reporting by Jeremy Weber.

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

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

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

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

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

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

There is a lot that needs to be done.

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

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

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

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