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A Royal Pickle: Jordanian Evangelicals and American ‘Help’

Heather Templeton Dill, president of the John Templeton Foundation, presents the Templeton Prize “Tree of Life” medallion to His Majesty King Abdullah II of Jordan, at the Templeton Prize Ceremony, Washington National Cathedral, November 13, 2018. (Photo credit: Templeton Prize-Clifford Shirley)

The pastor of the Amman International Church in Jordan had a problem.

Suspected intelligence agents were coming to church, asking questions, and attending Bible studies. His youth pastor was detained at the Israeli-Jordan border and denied reentry. Members of his church, some who had lived for years in Jordan, were suddenly denied visas.

“Politically speaking, we were the best protected church—half of our congregation were military or foreign service,” said Greg Griesemer, pastor since 2012.

“But after testing the waters with us, the government went more aggressively against the Jordanian evangelical churches.”

Griesemer eventually had to leave the country also, informed that the government had an alleged file accusing him of proselytizing Muslims. But he believed the government was checking to see if anyone would stand up for evangelicals in general, as the Vatican would do for Catholics. Unlike the historic churches of Jordan, evangelicals are not represented in the official national council of churches.

Despite a congregation filled with American citizens, appeals to the US embassy went nowhere, he said. And then quite unexpectedly, in came the cavalry.

Completely unrelated to local developments in Jordan, popular Christian author Joel Rosenberg had been developing a warm relationship with Jordan’s King Abdullah. An evangelical of Jewish background, Rosenberg writes political thrillers about the end times, weaving current events into a Biblical narrative of apocalyptic prophecy.

In one bestseller, the king and the Hashemite Kingdom were targets of a series of ISIS terrorist attacks. After reading the novel, Abdullah invited Rosenberg and his wife to Jordan for a five-day visit, and a friendship emerged. Later and at the king’s invitation, in November 2017 Rosenberg led a delegation of American evangelical leaders to see Jordan firsthand.

But not just any leaders. They included several who were politically connected, including close advisors to President Donald Trump. The group featured Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council, Jim Garlow, former senior pastor of Skyline Church in San Diego, who moved to Washington to minister to politicians, and Michele Bachmann, a former congresswoman from Minnesota, in addition to others.

Jordan was not their only priority. In the past 18 months Rosenberg also led the group to visit Egypt, the United Arab Emirates, and Saudi Arabia. Coming again with official invitations, he wished to forge better ties between evangelical Christians and Middle East governments and peoples. A key priority has been to support Christian minorities, who often feel under pressure in society, if not persecuted by Muslims of extremist ideology.

Also invited to participate was Mike Evans, leader of the Jerusalem Prayer Team and founder of the Friends of Zion Heritage Center, in Israel. A self-proclaimed Christian Zionist, he and several members of the delegation were well-known for their strong support of Israel.

Their reputation preceded them in Jordan, and some local evangelical leaders turned down invitations to meet. Though Jordan maintains a peace treaty with Israel, popular sentiment is strongly in favor of the Palestinians. They did not want to be associated with an ideology that would strain relations not only with Muslims, but also traditional Christian church leaders.

But Rosenberg’s delegation did come at the invitation of King Abdullah, and they had already met with several senior government officials, including the foreign minister and the chairman of Jordan’s joint chiefs of staff. Nearly 40 evangelical leaders and pastors did agree to sit down, representing many of the major denominations and ministries in Jordan. They included Emad Maayah, president of the Jordan Evangelical Council, and Imad Shehadeh, president of the Jordan Evangelical Theological Seminary, and they shared their perspectives and prayer requests in an off-the-record dialogue.

The pastors conveyed a deep sense of respect toward the king and appreciation for the freedom Jordan gives them and all Christians in the country. Some spoke reluctantly of issues they were facing, and Griesemer was also present to share his story. Notes were taken, discussed, and agreed to be shared tactfully with King Abdullah.

Mike Evans, a journalist by profession, took particular interest. During the delegation’s working lunch at the palace with the king later that day to conclude their visit, he spoke up first to relay the issues discussed. Others followed.

Photos were agreed upon, and a simple press release was issued by both palace and delegation.

In later, follow-up discussions with the palace Evans would mention a Jordanian pastor who was having his ministries shut down by the government, and how evangelical churches were losing the ability to offer volunteer visas to foreign staff.

Abdullah expressed surprise, that he had never heard of these troubles, and in front of the group assigned one of his closest advisors to look into it.

“Everyone was very encouraged,” Evans said. “I went back to the Jordanian believers, and told them I have good news.”

Such a response was fitting with the reputation of the king. Last year in November he was awarded the prestigious, $1.4 million Templeton Prize, celebrating exceptional contributions to “affirming life’s spiritual dimension.” First given to Mother Teresa, previous winners range from Billy Graham to the Dalai Lama. Abdullah was cited for his efforts to foster better inter-Islamic unity in rejection of terrorism, as well as leadership in fostering Muslim-Christian dialogue and peace.

Six weeks later came the salvo.

“For King Abdullah to receive the Templeton Prize for religious tolerance in view of this situation in Jordan is an absolute travesty,” wrote Evans in the Jerusalem Post. “It is the Templeton Prize for bigotry.”

What changed? Evans wrote that he worked with the king’s advisor for over a year, but things only got worse. The Jordanian pastor’s ministry was dismantled. Churches were being asked to submit membership lists to the government. It seemed fitting with a media campaign launched against evangelicals, as interpreted by some. A year earlier the Jordan Times published an article in which an Arab Christian leader called them “outlaws,” using an Arabic word frequently describing ISIS.

Frustrated, Evans went public, and Griesemer was pleased. He had pushed Evans to engage the press earlier.

“I value trying to work quietly through individuals and groups, but with the issue of Christian persecution the Jordanian government doesn’t care enough to deal with it until there is public pressure,” Griesemer said.

“It is clear the government was committed to its hypocrisy of waving the flag of religious freedom, but in the background persecute Christians.”

He cited a similar situation a decade earlier. Christian expats were being expelled from Jordan, some under accusations of proselytizing. In many cases no reason was given, though the government stated they were violating the terms of their residency visas. But once the press got involved, Griesemer said, international attention caused Jordan to backtrack and the wave of expulsions ceased, with some reversed.

Evans hopes a media strategy will be successful again, describing his obligation as the one who addressed these issues with King Abdullah, personally.

“I believe it can help the situation, because nothing else has,” he said. “I will speak up for them, no matter the cost.”

But who will pay it?

Imad Shehadeh, the seminary president, had to answer nonstop phone calls and messages about his role in the article. Evans did not check with us, he told them, and circulated published quotes in which he praised the king for winning the Templeton Prize.

“We are praying for protection and no further escalation,” said Shehadeh.

Evans believed he was doing Jordanian evangelicals a favor. In his article the only cases attached to names were ones where he had specific personal permission. But for everyone else, he anticipated their reaction.

“I don’t think they’ll be happy, and they are the ones who live there,” he said. “But they can always say, ‘We didn’t talk to him.’”

But Evans’ article also caught other members of the delegation by surprise. Joel Rosenberg said all conversations with the Jordanian Christians and palace were explicitly off the record. (Evans disputed this.)

“I was disappointed to see a friend of mine break our ground rules of confidentiality with both His Majesty and our Jordanian Christian brothers and sisters, and then publicly accuse King Abdullah of being a bigot,” Rosenberg said. “Nothing could be further from the truth, and it does not reflect the reality.”

After reading Evans’ article against the king, Rosenberg immediately reached out to the Royal Court as well as to Jordanian Evangelical leaders in an effort to limit the damage, even sending a personal note of apology to the king for the unfair attack by one of his delegation members.

In an interview with TMP, Rosenberg praised Abdullah as “far and away the leader of the pack” among other Middle East leaders working to protect Christians, allowing churches to operate openly, and promoting peaceful relations between Muslims and Christians.

“There is no question Jordanian Christians, like all Middle Eastern Christians, have challenges and problems, that is the reality of the region,” he said. “But my direct understanding from evangelical leaders throughout the Hashemite Kingdom is how much they appreciate the king and the freedom they have.

“Any argument by a few frustrated individuals has to be seen in the context of the respect Jordanian society has for Christians.”

Shehadeh spoke similarly, defending King Abdullah.

“Jordan is not a perfect country. No country is,” he said, describing Abdullah’s past interventions to solve Christian issues.

“But the king is in a very difficult position trying to work with people of opposing positions and has consistently done a remarkable job to bring sides together. Political leaders in other countries can learn a lot from him.”

The furor has now died down, Shehadeh described, thanks to Rosenberg’s response.

Award-winning journalist Daoud Kuttab, a committed Christian who lives in Jordan, also downplayed the long-term implications. Evans published in an Israeli newspaper, in English, so most of society was likely ignorant. But he published a response in the Jerusalem Post nonetheless, and called out Evans for shoddy journalism.

“It was a hit job,” he said. “Evans used partial information from renegade and non-mainstream people, without talking to all sides.”

Kuttab quoted the president of the Jordan Baptist Convention stating that only one evangelical church was closed down, but due to the attitude of the pastor Evans cited. (The pastor disputed this.)

“Sure there are problems,” Kuttab said, “but for Evans to call the king a bigot? He made evangelicals look like the reason.”

Evans, however, warned about becoming blind to the abuses of power, just to retain access. Why are Muslim leaders reaching out to them to begin with? Because of their connections to Trump.

“They want things from America, but I don’t think this can be one-sided,” he said. “We’re not official, and we don’t speak for the president.

“But we have influence, and we have to live with our own consciences. It is a matter of integrity and the word of God.”

Perhaps. But it is his call to make? Griesemer, the international church pastor, believes it is worth it, and that he himself paid a high price in having to leave his job, home, and community.

“Either be moderately persecuted in the dark, or speak out and maybe it gets better—or worse. Let God work out the details,” he said.

“I lived there for a decade. I had similar risks, though not the same.”

This article was first published at Religion Unplugged.


Middle East Published Articles Religion Unplugged

In Time for Orthodox Easter, A Turkish Declaration of Christian Unity

Turkey Christian Unity
The welcome package with the English and Turkish version © BQ/Warnecke

In the waning years of the Ottoman Empire, a delegation of imams approached the sultan in complaint. Western pressure forced the state to allow Christian churches to ring their bells.

“Do they all ring at the same time?” the sultan asked. No, he was told. “Then don’t worry,” he replied, “until they can agree.”

Perhaps apocryphal, the story illustrates the long history of division plaguing Christianity around the world.

The Ottoman empire is gone, and Turkey is now a secular state with official freedom of religion. Bells are hardly heard these days at all, though in smaller numbers the ancient Christian communities remain.

But from Istanbul – once Constantinople – where the “Great Schism” sundered Catholicism and Orthodoxy in 1054, a new book heralds a new beginning.

Christianity: Fundamental Teachings is a simple, 95-page presentation of the common beliefs of all Turkish churches. Its 12 chapters include descriptions of the nature of God, the salvation through Jesus, the work of the Holy Spirit, the inspiration of the Bible, and the role of the church.

But its most explosive page is the preface of endorsements.

The Orthodox Ecumenical Patriarch, The Armenian Patriarchate, the Syrian Orthodox Patriarchate, the Catholic Bishops Conference of Turkey, and the Associate of Protestant Churches all approve it, and recommend that it be widely read.

“You can’t find a page like this in all of church history,” said Armenian Bishop Sahak Mashalian, the principle scribe. “It is akin to a miracle.”

Please click here to read how it developed, at The Media Project.

Published Articles Religion Unplugged Religious Freedom

Religious Liberty: For the Health of the Whole World

From my recent article published at The Media Project:

Religious Liberty
(from: Set My People Free)

But for Durie, the issue is far greater than the right of one person to believe what they want – even as human rights always concern the individual, each and every one of which is sacred.

It is a lonely battle, he laments, though much depends upon it.

“This can be a disheartening, discouraging, and frustrating burden to carry,” he said. “But it is vitally important, not only for the believers themselves, but also for the health and honor of the whole world.”


Middle East Published Articles Religion Unplugged

Religious Freedom for the Muslim World: The Unlikely Activism of Kamal Fahmi

Kamal Fahmi

A few excerpts from my article for The Media Project.

Kamal Fahmi sat with Mazen, a Yemeni teenager at a community center in Taiz, Yemen’s third-largest city and cultural capital. Mazen’s father was there, who arranged the meeting.

Impressed with the boy’s intelligence and demeanor, Fahmi learned of their troubling problem.

Mazen didn’t want to study Islam in school.

Fahmi had heard this story before. Visiting Yemen as he had in nations across the region, converts were considered Muslim by birth and in all official paperwork. And for those underage, Islamic education came as part of the package, even if they didn’t believe in it.

Fahmi was sympathetic, but tried to downplay the problem. After all, born into a Christian family in Sudan, he had studied Islam in school also. Hold to your faith, he counseled, but pass the tests.

Yet something in the boy stirred him, as well as the nature of his family. Mazen was not a convert, and neither was his father. His grandfather was, decades earlier. Three generations of Christians, yet still considered Muslims. The injustice gnawed at him.

“They love their country, they are not criminals, they are not spies,” Fahmi said. “If anything, they have become better citizens.

“They should be free to follow what they believe.”

It is not only an issue in the Muslim world, of course:

Worldwide, 26 percent of nations criminalize blasphemy, including Russia, Italy, Myanmar, and the Bahamas. But apostasy law is more characteristically Islamic, with only India and Nigeria as non-Muslim-majority countries.

Please click here to read the full article at The Media Project.

Americas Published Articles Religion Unplugged

Small Town Offers ‘Sign’ of Welcome to Refugees in the United States

Mennonite Welcome Sign

This article was originally published at The Media Project.

Biking one day in the city of Harrisonburg, Virginia, nestled in a valley in the Shenandoah Mountains of the eastern U.S., 33-year-old Pastor Matthew Bucher tumbled and fell.

Bloody and sore, he found himself in front of the local mosque. He looked up and read a sign.

“No matter where you are from, we’re glad you’re our neighbor,” it read in English, Spanish, and Arabic.

Bucher understood because he had written that sign – in all three languages.

“Suddenly, I knew the hope the sign offers,” he said. “I was the one in need of help, switching roles.”

The sign was born 15 months earlier, during the August, 2015, Republican presidential debate. Anti-immigrant hectoring was a prominent feature, and Bucher led his small congregation at Immanuel Mennonite Church to do something about it. 

Rather than filling neighborhood yards with political signs backing one candidate or another, Bucher’s church created a sign of their own.

“I was shocked at the rhetoric used against immigrants,” he said. “So I thought to put out a sign of welcome. Spanish speakers in the church helped, as did Arabic friends.”

That first sign in front of his church two years ago has since multiplied into an estimated 100,000-plus throughout the country, said Bucher.

The sign is recent, but its heritage extends back almost four centuries. 

Mennonite Christians know what it means to be strangers. Driven from Switzerland in the 17th century, the persecuted Anabaptist community, from which the Mennonites descend, found refuge in Pennsylvania. One hundred years later many of those families relocated to the Shenandoah Valley.

Bucher, a Pennsylvania native, became the pastor of Immanuel Mennonite one year before the presidential debate. But from 2007-2011, he lived as a stranger himself, the only American in the small, Upper Egyptian city of Qusia, 170 miles south of Cairo. Teaching English in partnership with a Coptic Orthodox bishop, his sojourn was a transformative experience.

“I received hospitality in Egypt, and here in Virginia I have been accepted and trusted as a pastor,” he said. “I want to extend that (hospitality), just as Jesus did. He and his parents were cared for as refugees, too.”

Harrisonburg is a fitting place for hospitality. Census data states the population of 50,000 residents is 16.7 percent foreign-born. Students in the public schools come from 46 countries, including Iraq, Jordan, Honduras, Mexico, and Ukraine.

Yet there have been only four police officers killed in the line of duty in the town since 1959. Nicknamed “The Friendly City” since the 1930s, Harrisonburg is also an official Church World Service refugee resettlement community.

“Listening to the current American national dialogue. . . one would assume that mixing nationalities, religions and ethnic groups in such close quarters would produce enough emotional tinder to fuel a blaze of angry divisions and open fighting in the streets,” wrote resident Andrew Perrine in the Washington Post. “Yet it does not.”

Instead, Bucher’s signs have found a home. The green, blue, and orange background was chosen so as not to correspond with any national flag, and 300 signs were initially distributed through six area Mennonite churches in March 2016. Another 300 were sold later at a local fair, next to the church’s tamale stand. By October, one month before presidential elections, another 1,000 were printed.

They sold out within a week.

That month the church created a Facebook page. Overwhelmed by interest, in December they created a website. Signs sell for $21.95, including shipping, but a free download is provided to print locally.

Money from proceeds is donated to the Mennonite Central Committee, the local New Bridges Immigrant Resource Center, and the Roberta Webb Child Care Center hosted at Immanuel.

Anyone selling in their own communities (usually for $10 with local pickup) is encouraged to donate to the charity of their choice. Unless they just give them away, as did a 68-year-old Buddhist, Kathy Ching.

Ching arrived from China in 1974 and ran a restaurant in Lansdale, Pennsylvania, for 40 years. During that time she helped 15 employees immigrate to the U.S., but now says of President Donald Trump, “He’s not letting people in.”

“Why do they want to come to America?” asked Ching. “Because their own countries are in trouble, and they want freedom.”

She learned of the sign through a neighbor, and purchased four at St. John’s United Church of Christ.

Pat Rieker made them available. A longtime member of St. John’s, Rieker was so pained at the anti-immigrant sentiment in America she felt her health was suffering. Feeling she had to do something, she mobilized her church after seeing the signs at nearby Plains Mennonite.

“It made me feel I was spreading some kind of message of hope and inclusion amid an atmosphere of hate,” she said. “To me, this is not the message of Christianity.”

Plains Mennonite in Hatfield, Pennsylvania, was one of the first in the area to display and distribute the signs. Associate Pastor Paula Stoltzfus had family and friends in Harrisonburg and followed the campaign on social media. She informed the church, and with a history of welcoming refugees from Sudan, Iraq, and the Congo, it mobilized easily.

“It was an idea whose time had come, reminding us to be a good neighbor,” said Pastor Mike Derstine. “This should not be a political issue but an expression of our faith.”

Similar grassroots stories have now resulted in 70 volunteer distribution centers in 32 U.S. states. Two churches in Idaho have circulated over 500 signs. In Portland, Oregon, the sign appeared at a memorial for two men who were killed in May while intervening to stop a white extremist harassing a young Muslim woman.

In addition to the signs at the local mosque in Harrisonburg, Bucher has sold to the synagogue and several atheists. Though the initial distribution moved through Mennonite churches, he estimates they only total 30-40 percent of total reach.

“I never asked my friends what religion they are. It doesn’t matter,” said Ching. “We are of different religions, but we all have a good heart.”

Yet it is Bucher’s Anabaptist heritage and Christian commitment that drive his particular service. His church’s motto is: Real people following Jesus’ radical call to love and service.

One local Baptist church pastor asked to meet him, suspicious of a liberal agenda. In the tense discussion that followed a spilled glass of tea helped them break the ice. But the conversation only turned once the pastor became convinced this Mennonite really did love Jesus.

“We must speak of power and privilege, sure. But many on the other side cannot accept Trump or his followers, either,” Bucher said. “Stand against violence and bad leadership, yes. March and demonstrate, yes.

“But be transformed by the love of God. Change is hard, but it is what we are called to do together.”

Bucher tells a story from Lancaster, Pennsylvania, a traditionally rural Mennonite community now with a majority non-Mennonite city center. The municipality has resettled 20 times more refugees than the rest of the United States.

A lady put one of Bucher’s signs out on her lawn. She came home one day and found a Syrian on her front steps. Speaking no English, the hijabed woman took her neighbor by the hand and led her across the street into her own home.

Opening up the computer, she typed in Google Translate.

“Thank you so much,” read the neighbor. “Your sign made us feel welcome. We are glad this is what America is about.”


Middle East Published Articles Religion Unplugged

Copts Pick Up the Pieces: An Interview with Bishop Thomas

A condensed version of this interview was first published at The Media Project on May 4, 2017.

Bishop Thomas
Bishop Thomas

Coptic Christians, the Middle East’s largest Christian community, account for roughly ten percent of Egypt’s population and have endured generations of exclusion and restrictions. Their struggles for equality have been aggravated by a series of gruesome and deadly attacks carried out by ISIS criminals. The latest act was a pair of bombings on Palm Sunday targeting packed churches in Alexandria and Tanta, which took the lives of 45 Christians and wounded more than 100 others, according to Human Rights Watch. ISIS previously targeted Copts in Cairo in a December, 2016, bombing that killed 30 and in a January, 2017, attack in the Sinai peninsula that killed eight. ISIS has stated its intention to extirpate Christianity from the Middle East.

TMP Egypt contributor Jayson Casper spoke to Bishop Thomas, head of the Coptic Orthodox diocese of Qusia and Meir, 170 miles south of Cairo, to find out how Copts are reacting to the latest attacks and what they expect for the future. Born in 1957, Thomas became a monk in 1985 and bishop in 1988. In 1999 he founded Anafora, a retreat center along the Cairo-Alexandria desert road, which became a community dedicated to ecumenical welcome and human development. Fluent in English alongside his native Arabic, he is a key source of insight on the situation of Christians in Egypt.

The Easter holiday is a joyous occasion but Egypt and her Christians are going through a difficult time after the Palm Sunday bombings. How are Copts doing these days?

There was a blend of grief, shock, anger, and question marks about what’s happening. People recall similar incidents from the past – the December bombing at St. Peter and St. Paul Church in Cairo, the 2010 Alexandria bombing, and further back in history. There has been a development in the attacks against Christians, and people are comparing it to what is happening in Syria and wondering if this will come to Egypt.

But the church holds to Christian principles, giving the people a Christian message. Love, and conquer evil through good. If we believe in the forgiveness Christ gave to us, we have to give it to others. Think positively, and do not be afraid. Don’t generalize but be fair. We cannot put the work of Islamic extremists on normal Muslims who haven’t done anything.

And normal people from the families of the victims have made statements that are very powerful. The widow of the doorman at St. Mark’s Cathedral in Alexandria said she forgives them. There is the question: How can Copts forgive like this? We are trying to nurture a holistic faith in society. Believing our life is not limited to this world makes it becomes stronger.

It will be good to come back to the teachings of the church, but first I want to ask about what is seen in the media. Coptic reactions are portrayed as fear, anger, and disillusionment. Things aren’t getting better and the government isn’t taking care of us. Is this an accurate picture? How strong and widespread are these feelings?

The Copts have a clearer understanding because we know the growth of Islamic fundamentalism has to be dealt with in a deeper way than just police or military forces. Security measures are only a part. The foundation is the ideology, needing the reformation of education. Copts are angrier at the education system than the security situation.

We look at things realistically, even though we were hoping for a calmer, more peaceful situation with the new government after the Muslim Brotherhood regime. We hoped it would be more active in reform. Some Copts are disappointed, but we are aware it is a long-term change, needing the support of the private sector, NGOs, and the religious sector. The curriculum of al-Azhar has to be looked at, in how they portray Christians, as does the public school curriculum.

We see also two kinds of media. One is trying to understand the situation and sympathize in the tragedy. The other is condemning Christians and encouraging more of the same. This must be dealt with firmly. If someone encourages attacks on others this is a crime against humanity, and it must be declared as such.

These things are being discussed among the youth and on the Coptic street. Even still, we are saying we love and we forgive—Jesus told us to love our enemies and do good to them—so his love encompasses the whole world and our fight is not against flesh and blood. It is against evil principles and thoughts; it is a struggle of ideology. Humanity must be linked with religion, and not to a particular religious group. As Christians we view everyone within the circle of God’s love, so we must love everyone, even those who persecute and attack us. We are against evil, but not against human beings. Instead we pity them.

There are some voices in Egypt who are promote this idea, but will it always be within the elite? It has to be implemented at the grassroots through the educational system.

You mentioned the importance of ideology. The president has spoken many times about the importance of reforming religious rhetoric, it seems he is aware of the comprehensive nature of this issue, beyond a military solution. But we see crimes against Copts go unpunished and a failure to pursue educational reform. Do the Copts still have optimism the government will move in this direction so that it will reach the grassroots, over time? Or is their frustration it is either only talk and politics, or that the state is unable to address ideological reform?

There is a group of people who hope it will change, who say we should encourage the process of reformation. There is another who says it will not happen, it is too long-term and the ideology is fixed among too many scholars. Personally, I think those who are disappointed are thinking about emigration, and I think another wave will come very soon, which is very bad. Christians have to stay in Egypt and be empowered here.

The process of reformation goes beyond just a president. He is trying to do his best but the society has many layers, and the undercurrent is stronger than what the official government says. What we need is to focus more on the undercurrent, which requires lots of work.

This gives Christians the responsibility to build up society. We have to be more active in peacemaking. This is an art that needs training, and helps build trust in the community. But we must also address the power balance, which aids the stability of society. Christians abroad and the international community can help Copts achieve this. We must work on projects and fill professions that the society needs.

Such as?

In my area of Qusia we created a school that provides education in languages and an open, creative atmosphere, not dictation. Many Christians and Muslims started to come. It is run by the church, but society needs it, and it is unique in the area.

People meet and interact, but not in a religious framework. They come for the sake of their children, and discuss ethics and childrearing. We create many educational programs through this platform, and this gives us hope that these meeting points help give us status in society.

Similar things like hospitals and social events help society unite, and the church should take the lead. It presents us to society in a new way and counters disinformation against us.

But this problem is bigger than Egypt, and we have to look at it from a global perspective. Islamic fundamentalism and political Islam must be addressed. We have seen the results over several decades, in addition to the recent developments in Syria and Iraq and Lebanon and Palestine. The Middle East has been almost depopulated of its Christians, and in Egypt we are the largest community left. Will these conservative forces succeed in pushing our Christians to the West, or not?

Let’s return shortly to immigration, but first address some of the spiritual teachings you mentioned earlier. The wife of the doorman in Alexandria gave a phenomenal testimony of forgiveness, that came from her faith. But as we judge the Coptic mentality between anger and frustration and the church teachings to resist fear and hold on to joy, to what degree does the Christian message of hope truly permeate them as people?

One of the spontaneous reactions has been the full attendance of Sunday evening prayers, right after the Palm Sunday morning bombings. All during Holy Week our churches have been packed. People are praying with enthusiasm and demonstrating persistence that we are here, we’re staying here, and this is our faith. Through their actions they are demonstrating their hope.

No doubt there have been tears, but still they come. There is sadness in their hearts, but they still hold to the responsibility that God has given: We are not afraid, we love, and we ask for justice. These are the three folds the church has been teaching, and the people’s reaction has been a beautiful portrayal.

Many people see only the church teaching suffering and martyrdom, but within this there is justice, a very important aspect that balances with love. Love and forgiveness create peace and positive attitudes, but at the same time love is not weak, it is strong, that is why there is no fear. Love and justice must be intertwined. I love, but I ask for my rights. I’m a human being, and I must be dealt with in my home country like a citizen, with security and equal rights.

The heritage of martyrdom in the Coptic Church promotes acceptance and forgiveness. But what is its connection with justice?

There have been many saints who were martyred because they asked for their rights. St. George, St. Mina, St. Mercorious – they stood up for their faith, defending other people. This is why it was their fate to become martyrs. Martyrdom is not just someone putting a bomb in a church. It is mainly people declaring their faith, hold to their rights, asking for justice, but ending in death.

So I don’t see a contraction, and many in the Coptic community are asking what we must do to achieve justice. I don’t know how it will be implemented. Communication with scholars, writers, and journalists from the Muslim side, to empower the cause?

If I take an American example, in achieving justice for the black community there were three main aspects. The first is Rosa Parks, and how she was made able to ask for her rights. Our teachings can help prepare the individual and create many more.

The second is Martin Luther King, who was a man of faith, but also of truth. He was able to communicate love and Christian principles in a context of injustice. The church has to give the message.

The third, which is very much needed, is Elanor Roosevelt. She represents the political arena and media, which were not of the black community. If the Christians in Egypt make a better effort to reach out to the Muslim community, its intellectuals and scholars, and discuss with them in more openness to empower them to join in the faithful fight for justice, it will be a great help.

But it is also needs an international effort, for the ideology is global. If conservatism is strong in the world there must be collaboration in the reformation of thought and the interpretation of texts in light of citizenship and humanity. There is much work ahead of us, and if it is not undertaken we may end up in a worse situation.

Is there something that makes the Copts of Egypt different from the Christians of the rest of the region, something that has enabled them to survive and resist the temptation to violence?

We don’t want to blame the victims, which is important to state clearly. We stand in sympathy and solidarity with the people of Syria, Iraq, and the region. We have seen what happened in Sinai, when the Christians evacuated from the area. We don’t know if this will continue.

A faithful attitude of ‘love your enemies’ and forgiveness gives a positive message to the other side, but we don’t know what will happen. It is a big question mark. Allow me to be spiritual and say it is the hand of God that is protecting this people here for a reason. I don’t know why, but keeping the Christian community in stability in Egypt may give a message of stability to the whole Middle East.

Yet over the past few decades, as you mentioned, Coptic immigration to the West has increased dramatically.

And it will continue to increase, no one can say it will stop. This makes us weaker, because who emigrates? Those who are able – the rich, the educated, those able to make a living outside. But they leave behind the weaker ones. If someone wants to care for their family we cannot tell them stop, to stay. We can encourage them it will get better, but if they have decided to go, they will.

But we recognize the negative impact. Still, Copts in the diaspora help with financial support, educational programs, and are a voice in the international community. This is very much appreciated. The presence of Christians in the Middle East remains a big question mark these days. If things continue, I don’t know how long we can last.

Yet in Egypt we have a very strong belief in the promise found in Isaiah 19, that there will be an altar in the land of Egypt. This gives the Christians a very strong hope that we will always be here and nothing can break us. This belief gives us power and helps explain why the church is flourishing despite difficulties, attacks, and persecutions. The church is strong, and people are determined to stay and stand firm in their faith.

Thank you, Bishop Thomas.

Middle East Published Articles Religion Unplugged

Did the Bombing of Cairo’s Copts Also Hold a Message for Muslims?

ISIS destroys a Sufi shrine in Mosul, Iraq.

This article was first published at The Media Project.

When a bomb ripped through the women and children praying together at the St. Peter and St. Paul Church in Cairo on Dec. 11, the nation’s grief was expressed through a Muslim doll.

The suicide attack claimed by the Islamic State – Sinai Province took place on the national holiday of moulid al-nabi, the Prophet Muhammad’s birthday. The larger Islamic State has since called for bombings of Christian churches in the USA, with the aim of creating “bloody celebrations” there, as well.

Egyptians have begun trying to make sense of this latest wave of violence in Cairo, and the arousa doll has propelled expressions of grief. A popular cartoon depicted the arousa, traditionally given to Muslim girls, weeping in the black clothes of mourning. Behind her stood a somber crucifix.

Twenty-seven people died in the bombing, and their families have been changed forever. The Coptic community is approaching the Christmas season with fear wondering if another church will be targeted.

But does the timing of the attack suggest Muslims also have reason to be afraid?

The moulid, popular with most Egyptians and in particular the mystical Sufi trend, is rejected by many Salafi interpretations of Islam to which the Islamic State belongs.

It is a day for sweets, visiting family, and giving gifts. It is also a day Christian religious leaders congratulate their Muslim counterparts, reciprocated on Christmas.

But celebration of the moulid is condemned by Salafis as a religious innovation.

Coincidence or not, their extremists chose this day to escalate their insurrection and signal their willingness to inflict mass casualties.

“The message could be, ‘You love the moulid, and you like the Christians?’” said Sheikh Alaa al-Din Abul Azayim, head of the Azamiya Sufi order. “’Then on this day we’ll kill your friends – and you are next.’”

Please click here to read the full article at The Media Project.


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The Mural in the Garbage: An Artist’s ‘Perception’ of Cairo’s Coptic Slum

eL Seed Perception
eL Seed’s ‘Perception’ as seen from the St. Simon Monastery in Cairo’s Muqattam Mountains

This article was first published at The Media Project:

In 2013 the French-Tunisian eL Seed became the first Arab artist to collaborate with fashion mogul Louis Vuitton. His unique “caligraffiti” style emblazoned their classic Foulards d’Artiste monogram scarf, and embellished their iconic Alzer luggage case.

Blending traditional Arabic calligraphy with street-style urban graffiti, his reputation grew as his murals transformed walls around the world with messages of peace. Condé Nast Traveler feted eL Seed (pictured above) as one of the year’s leading visionaries, even as he mingled with artists, diplomats, celebrities, and billionaires.

Three years later he was picking through trash in a city dump.

I wrote recently about the community that inhabited this dump, the Zabbaleen of Manshiat Nasser, and the cave church that rose out of its squalor in the Muqattam mountains. eL Seed designed a massive mural that encompasses the walls of 50 apartment buildings, visible only from the monastery above.

The elaborate Biblical rock carvings hewn by a resident Polish artist have made the monastery one of Cairo’s lesser-known gems, but to get there one must still brave the pungent smells below. That is exactly what eL Seed did to obtain the approval of now 75-year-old Fr. Simon.

The article also tells the story of Abanoub, a 23-year-old Manshiat Nasser resident who Fr. Simon relied upon to help eL Seed adapt to the area and win support for his project. But when he was done, neither Abanoub nor the residents could read what was written. Here is how el Seed explains this, and the following concludes the article:

“You don’t need to know the meaning to feel the peace,” he said, “but when you get the meaning, you feel connected to it.”

Though he chooses sayings that have a universal dimension, eL Seed strives also for local relevancy. In Bishop Athanasius he identified a champion of the Egyptian church, who preserved the orthodox teaching of Christ’s divine nature from the heresy of Arianism. This history may be little studied by the Zabbaleen, but the gesture was not lost on Abanoub, a church hymnist.

Though almost exclusively Coptic, Manshiat Nasser has seen its share of Muslim-Christian tensions. In March 2011, not long after Mubarak’s resignation supposedly marked the end of the revolution, clashes with Muslim outsiders resulted in deaths on both sides. But Abanoub remarked that he didn’t sense eL Seed was a Muslim even for one minute, an expression often used by members of either faith to emphasize the humanity of the other.

“Even though he is a Muslim, he wrote the quote of a Christian saint,” Abanoub said. “I don’t know why he chose it or what it means to him. But for me, if we want to see Christ, we must see the world around us.”

And this is the gift of eL Seed to the Zabbaleen of Egypt. Though the focus will always be on the trash, he has added a mark of beauty and dignity.

“The mural makes us feel important,” said Abanoub. “We’re not just a bunch of garbage collectors sorting trash. No, because of him the world’s media is shining light upon our community.”

Please click here to read the full article at The Media Project.

Perception Manshiat Nasser
One of the 50 buildings of ‘Perception’, seen from the streets of Manshiat Nasser
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India through Egyptian Eyes

Mohamed Abla
Mohamed Abla

This article was first published at The Media Project.

Early Saturday morning, with a heavy heart Mohamed Abla traced his whimsical silhouettes with only a few looking on. Everywhere along his stretch of the 150 foot wall surrounding the famed Khan Market in New Delhi, folk art inspired images of children, animals, and birds burst into life. Previously drab and barren, the wall previously served as a garbage dump and public urinal. Over the past three years the Delhi Street Art group has been transforming similar locations of urban blight into monuments of community pride. But on this occasion their 62-year-old Egyptian guest felt compelled to add a sullen reminder.

He drew a stick figure of the Eiffel Tower, and enclosed it in a circle.

Paying homage to Paris through Jean Jullien’s image, Abla could have thought of Egypt. Five thousand kilometers from home, his native land has also witnessed terrorist atrocities hammering away at the effort to regain stability. For the past five years revolution has jolted the street and national psyche alike. But instead of lamenting Cairo, Abla ached for India.

“I felt that Indians were worried about terrorism,” he said, “having experienced it themselves in the past. Paris was a stark reminder.”

It can sometimes take the soft heart of an artist to commiserate with a people not one’s own. But Abla’s attachment to India runs deeper than just creative sentimentality. For the past seven years he has visited frequently, dazzled by the assortment of colour and smell, bewildered by the proximity of tradition and technology. His eyes and his canvas soaked in both big city and ancient village. He noted the simplicity of people and the grandeur of temples.

And his memories poured through his paintbrush.

“The eyes through which an artist sees another culture are always fascinating,” said Sanjay Bhattacharyya, India’s Ambassador in Egypt, opening the resulting exhibition at the Maulana Azad Center for Indian Culture, in Cairo. “Abla has shown us things we haven’t seen.”

Please click here to read the full article at The Media Project, including more paintings and the artist’s history.

Abla Artwork
Arabic: Delhi Streets