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Christian and Muslim Leaders Agree on Legitimacy of Evangelism

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Summit Produces a ‘Pentecost’ Moment for International Religious Freedom

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

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

Invited.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Will Central Asia Become ‘Stans’ for Religious Freedom?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Image: Douglas Nottage / American Bible Society

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Evangelicals Ask Pope Francis to Help Save Lebanon

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“We have to say this loudly.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The spiritual damage is considerable.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Messianic Jews were quick to distance themselves.

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

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

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

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

Image courtesy of NESN

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

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

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

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

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

Teacher salaries have lost nearly 90 percent of their value.

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

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

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

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

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

It was not always this way.

Decades of appreciative tolerance…

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

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The American Mosque: More Suburban, Less Conversion

Image: ISPU, US Mosque 2020 Survey

The American mosque increasingly resembles the American church.

New data released in the US Mosque Survey 2020 reveals a plateau of conversions, a shift to the suburbs, and a challenge with “unmosqued” youth.

“Muslims and their mosques are becoming more integrated into American society,” said Ihsan Bagby, the lead investigator, “and more adjusted to the American environment.”

Released every 10 years, the survey aims to comprehensively dispel misconceptions about the locus of Muslim community in the United States.

How might the findings guide American evangelicals?

Begin with the contrast: the increase in the Muslim equivalent of church planting.

The survey counts 2,769 mosques in the US, an increase of 31 percent since the 2010 report. The prior decade had a growth rate of 74 percent, with 1,209 mosques counted in the 2000 report.

They increasingly appreciate a nice backyard.

The share of mosques in large cities has dropped from 17 percent in 2010 to 6 percent in 2020, while the share in small towns has dropped from 20 percent to 6 percent. The survey found that 8 in 10 Muslims now live in a residential or suburban area.

“As we begin to share the same neighborhood, engaging the Muslim community is no longer just the domain of missionary specialists,” said Mike Urton, the associate director of Immigrant Mission, a ministry of the Evangelical Free Church of America.

“It is now the domain of the local church.”

The now mostly suburban Muslims also “tithe” similarly to their Christian neighbors. Including contributions toward operating expenses and the obligatory zakat charitable giving to the poor, the survey calculated…

This article was originally published at Christianity Today, on June 14, 2021. Please click here to read the full text.

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Algeria Returns a Historic Church, But Stops Christian Worship at 20 Others

Image: Zineb Tadj / EyeEm / Getty Images
Oran, Algeria

Algerian Christians finally have something to celebrate.

Amid a rash of church closures the past two years, the North African nation’s Council of State returned a historic worship site in Mostaganem, a port city on the Mediterranean coast, to the Algerian Protestant Church (EPA).

The EPA loaned the building, which dates to the French colonial era, to the Ministry of Health in 1976. But in 2012, when the site’s medical clinic changed locations, the local governor gave the facility to an Islamic charitable association.

The EPA sued, and the case was decided in its favor in 2019.

That year, however, marked an escalation against Protestant churches. Three of Algeria’s largest congregations were shut down, and the Mostaganem authorities failed to implement the court decision.

Now they have.

But with 20 other churches ordered to cease activities—and 13 sealed completely—Algerian Christians remain cautious.

“Just because we have the keys,” said Nourredine Benzid, general secretary of the EPA, “doesn’t mean the case is over.”

Benzid’s Source of Life Church in Makouda was among those closed in 2019. Located in the mountainous Tizi Ouzou district, the area is home to many of the nation’s estimated 100,000 Christians. By contrast, the Mostaganem church was…

This article was originally published at Christianity Today on June 10, 2021. Please click here to read the full text.

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Fortress Europe: As Islam Expands, Should the US Imitate the ‘Christian’ Continent?

Image: loeskieboom / iStock / Getty Images

Within three decades, Muslims may comprise 14 percent of Europe.

The face of the historically Christian continent, tallied at 5 percent Muslim in 2016, may dramatically change by 2050 if high migration patterns hold.

And as Muslim families have a birth rate one child higher than the rest of the continent, the Pew Research Center projects nearly 1 in 5 people will be Muslim in the United Kingdom (17%), France (18%), and Germany (20%). Sweden is projected to become 30 percent Muslim.

And Austria, with its 20 percent projection, is on guard. The majority-Catholic nation recently published an online Islam Map, to identify mosques and other centers of politicized religion.

According to European religion experts, however, one-third of European Muslims do not practice their faith.

Conversely, this suggests that two-thirds of Muslims believe in and practice Islam. Contrast this with the median figure of 18 percent of Western Europeans (across 15 nations) who attend church at least monthly and the median figure of 27 percent who believe in God according to the Bible.

Could the fear of some European Christians be plausible: an eventual Eurabia?

Or is it Islamophobia to say so?

Or, to the contrary, should Americans look across the ocean and consider French separatism laws and Swiss burqa bans in pursuit of a shared secularism?

For concerned evangelicals, Bert de Ruiter has his own questions—about their own faith.

“If Islam is taking over Europe, is that a problem?” asked the European Evangelical Alliance’s consultant on Muslim-Christian relations. “Will God suddenly be in a panic?” Muslims will…

This article was originally published on June 3, 2021, at Christianity Today. Please click here to read the full text.

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Rockets, Riots, Sermons, and Soccer: Christian Views on the Conflict in Gaza and Israel

Palestinian Boys Play Game Of Soccer. (Photo By Abid Katib/Getty Images)

Bombs fall in Gaza as rockets target Israel.

Frustrated Arab rioters are met by extremist Jewish settlers.

And in the middle of it all, Danny Kopp sent his boys out to play soccer.

Numbers were down at the Jerusalem neighborhood park frequented by Jew and Arab alike, but his 13-, 10-, and 8-year-old sons still translated between the sides.

“These encounters, as small as they are, remind belligerents that coexistence is still viable,” said the chairman of the Evangelical Alliance in Israel.

“Wholesale vilifying is simply inaccurate.”

But it is easy to do, if attached to a favored narrative.

Since the outbreak of fighting on May 10, Israeli bombs have leveled almost 450 buildings in Gaza, including six hospitals, nine health centers, and the headquarters of the Associated Press. Hamas authorities count 232 dead, including 39 women and 65 children. More than 1,900 people have been injured, and 52,000 displaced from their homes.

But 160 of these have been militant fighters, said Israeli authorities. Hamas’s indiscriminate barrage has launched more than 4,000 rockets and killed 12 people—including two children—while injuring hundreds. Israel’s Iron Dome defense system has intercepted most rockets, but Iranian sponsorship of Hamas has led to a dramatic increase in missiles able to target Jerusalem.

Such long-range weapons represent 17 percent of the thousands of missiles fired this month. Nine years ago, they represented only 1 percent.

A ceasefire is now in place. President Joe Biden pledged to work through the United Nations and the Palestinian Authority to rebuild Gaza. The US would prevent such aid from restocking Hamas’s arsenal, while allowing the replenishing of the Iron Dome’s defenses.

The weapons evolve, though the animosity is familiar.

But what has shocked and saddened a dozen sources interviewed by CT—half Jewish and half Palestinian—is the ethnic violence that has torn through previously peaceful towns of coexistence. In Lod, Haifa, Nazareth, and elsewhere, Arab rioters have set 10 synagogues and more than 100 Jewish homes on fire, while looting or damaging hundreds more.

Israel called up 7,000 reservists to quell the violence. But reports say police have been far more lenient with Jewish settlers who have responded in kind, though with less damage. Video recordings, however, depict settler attempts to seize Arab Israeli properties.

The outbreak of violence is tied to Israeli legal proceedings to evict Palestinians from their homes in the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah. The families have resided there for generations, and the land dispute has alternate explanations. Protests were met with violence, which then spread to the al-Aqsa Mosque. Hamas fired rockets in solidarity.

And amid the backdrop of this quagmire, Kopp sent out his children.

On Saturday, he preached the same message to his mixed Jewish-Arab Narkis Street Congregation in Jerusalem, asking his flock to purposefully hear both sides.

“Jesus constantly broke out of his information bubble,” he said, “engaging every kind of person imaginable and on a consistent basis.”

Across the separation wall, however, Munther Isaac’s Sunday sermon had a different tone. “What is required is not…”

This article was originally published at Christianity Today on May 20, 2021. Please click here to read the full text. Additional reporting by Jeremy Weber.

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Just a Bill: Religious Freedom Consensus Rarely Voted into Law

Antony Blinken

Secretary of State Antony Blinken called out Saudi Arabia.

The Gulf kingdom “remains the only country in the world without a Christian church, though there are more than a million Christians living [there],” he stated yesterday.

Such high-level criticism of the key US ally is a departure from the foreign policy of the Trump administration, though the State Department has listed the oil-rich nation as a Country of Particular Concern on international religious freedom (IRF) since 2004.

Blinken also highlighted recent violations in Iran, Burma, Russia, Nigeria, and China. Positive developments were noted in Sudan, Uzbekistan, and Turkmenistan.

“Our promise to the world is that the Biden-Harris administration will protect and defend religious freedom around the world,” stated Blinken, releasing the 23rd annual International Religious Freedom Report, assessing the records of nearly 200 countries and territories.

“We will maintain America’s longstanding leadership on this issue, [and] we’re grateful for our partners.”

He named several entities, but one is glaring in its absence:

The US Congress.

Six years ago, 21Wilberforce, a Christian human rights organization, launched the International Religious Freedom Scorecard to hold America’s lawmakers to account.

“There is much room for improvement,” Lou Ann Sabatier, director of communication, told CT. “It is a long and arduous process for an IRF bill to become a law, and many do not make it out of committee.”

The latest scorecard, released this week and grading the two-year term of the 116th Congress, lists 91 legislative efforts in both the Senate and the House of Representatives.

Only two became law. The daughter of one of Congress’s chief IRF champions is not happy…

This article was originally published at Christianity Today on May 14, 2021. Please click here to read the full text.

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Divided They Stand: Evangelicals Split Up in Politics to Keep Ukraine Conservative

Image: Courtesy of Conservative Movement of Ukraine

Like many in America, evangelicals in Ukraine feel under siege.

It may be why people are starting to elect them—in record numbers.

“Ukraine has become the epicenter of a global spiritual battle,” said Pavel Unguryan, coordinator of Ukraine’s National Prayer Breakfast.

“Today, as never before, our nation needs unity, peace, and the authority of God’s Word.”

Their perceived threats are coming from all directions.

From the east, Russia recently amassed 100,000 soldiers on the border.

From the west, the European Union pushes LGBT ideology.

And from within, corruption is rampant.

On each issue, evangelicals align well with Ukrainian voters.

“The shortage of good leaders is so intense, parties are starting to recruit in the churches,” said Unguryan. “Honest and responsible politicians are easiest to find there.”

Last October, more than 500 evangelicals were elected to all levels of government. One even heads a major city—Rivne, in western Ukraine—as mayor.

With evangelicals comprising only 2 percent of Ukraine’s 40 million people, it is a significant achievement.

Two-thirds (65%) of the population identify as Orthodox Christians (split across three groups), 10 percent as Greek Catholic, and a further 8 percent as “simply a Christian.”

But the piety does not translate to politics. Ukraine ranks 117th out of 180 nations in Transparency International’s Corruption Perception Index—the second-lowest ranking in Europe.

As a result, 78 percent of Ukrainians distrust state officials, and 71 percent distrust politicians, according to a 2020 poll by the Razumkov Center.

But the church is trusted by 63 percent, second only to the army, trusted by 65 percent. Once reviled as a “sect,” evangelicals have benefited also from the overall social sense of refuge in the church.

“I see my career as the means to advance the values of Jesus, working for the sake of my fellow Ukrainians,” said Unguryan, elected to parliament in 2008.

“Why not go when God opens the door?” A Baptist from Odessa on the Black Sea coast, Unguryan chairs For Spirituality, Morality and the Health of Ukraine, an inter-party parliamentary caucus that includes more than…

This article was originally published by Christianity Today, on May 10, 2021. Please click here to read the full text.

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Genocide in Tigray? Ethiopian Christians Debate Orthodox Patriarch’s Claim

(Photo by J. Countess/Getty Images)

The head of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church in his first public comments on the war in his country’s Tigray region is sharply criticizing Ethiopia’s federal government, saying he believes its actions constitute genocide: “They want to destroy the people of Tigray.”

The United States ambassador hosted him today to learn more.

In a video shot last month on a mobile phone and carried out of Ethiopia, the elderly Patriarch Abune Mathias addresses the church’s scores of millions of followers and the international community, saying his previous attempts to speak out were blocked. He is ethnic Tigrayan.

The video comes as the conflict in Tigray marks six months. Thousands of people have been killed in the fighting between Ethiopian and allied forces and Tigray ones, the result of a political struggle that turned deadly in November. Dozens of witnesses have told the AP that civilians are targeted.

“I am not clear why they want to declare genocide on the people of Tigray,” Mathias says, speaking in Amharic and listing alleged atrocities including the destruction of churches, massacres, forced starvation, and looting.

“It is not the fault of the Tigray people. The whole world should know it.”

Our coverage included four evangelical perspectives, including:

Without naming the offending parties, the Ethiopian Gospel Believers’ Churches Council (EGBCC) has made clear statements in favor of the peace process, she said, and against the “destructive forces intent on destroying Ethiopia.”

Earlier, the EGBCC organized two separate weeks of prayer and fasting for the Tigray region, mobilizing resources on its behalf.

But Abebe noted that the conflict started when the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) first attacked the national army. While lamenting with the patriarch the sexual violence against women and other atrocities in Tigray, Abebe wonders why he has not spoken out against ethnic violence in other regions.

Perhaps he is a victim of a TPLF misinformation campaign?

“The patriarch’s statements were irresponsible,” Abebe told CT. “To throw around a term like genocide is a massive mistake that might embolden rebels across the country, when a critical election is just one month away…”

This article was originally published by Christianity Today on May 10, 2021. Please click here to read the full text.

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Christian Street Artist Honors Beirut Explosion Victims with 204 Illegal Portraits

Nine months later, Brady Black was fed up—and inspired.

Last August, one of the largest non-nuclear explosions in human history leveled Lebanon’s main port and thousands of homes.

Charities and churches scrambled to help, as 204 people were killed.

The government has done next to nothing.

But now, each victim has a portrait across from Beirut’s famed Martyrs Square.

“Families were protesting, holding up pictures of their relatives as they demanded justice,” said Black.

“They wanted them to be seen. So we made it loud.”

An American street artist resident in Lebanon since 2015, Black teamed up with Art of Change to illegally create the capital city’s largest informal portrait gallery. Run by a secular British artist and a Lebanese Muslim from the heterodox Druze sect, the art institute co-founders sponsored Black’s evangelical idea for “good mischief.”

Scouring the internet for every name and image that could be found, Black digitally drew each face with the utmost care—with one caveat. No matter the importance of the victim or the degree of fame achieved in their death, each was limited to one hour of his creativity.

An hour he bathed in prayer for the surviving family.

“People come up to me, frantically asking, ‘Where is my son?’” said Black of his installation.

“‘Come with me,’ I tell them. ‘I know exactly where he is.’” Each victim’s portrait is…

This article was originally published at Christianity Today, on May 10, 2021. Please click here to read the full text.

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Christianity Today Europe Published Articles

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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Christianity Today Europe Published Articles

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.