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Current Events Religion

Middle East Christians Grapple with Apocalyptic Pandemic

Imad Shehadeh sensed an apocalyptic felt need.

As chatter increased in the Arab world over the soaring coronavirus death tallies in China and Iran, the president of Jordan Evangelical Theological Seminary (JETS) in Amman began preaching on eschatology in lockdown.

“The coronavirus could qualify as one of the calamities that point to the end times, but could also just be a passing plague,” he said in a widely shared video series posted in March.

“We cannot be dogmatic, but at the very least [these] distresses have resemblance to much more severe events in the future time of tribulation.”

Diligently studying to incorporate aspects of all theological systems, Shehadeh aimed to keep the Cross central within a literal hermeneutic.

“The more we study prophecy,” he said, “the more we can see things in our world that others cannot, like a physician who knows immediately how to treat a wound.”

COVID-19 has left many bleeding.

Shehadeh previously wrote a four-volume commentary on biblical prophecy…

This article was first published at Christianity Today, on June 15, 2020. Please click here to read the full text.

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Current Events Religion

The Holy Fire Must Go On

Holy Fire
Image courtesy of Cistern Films

This article was first published at Christianity Today, on April 10, 2020.

With the new coronavirus canceling Holy Week services around the globe, one of the most severe blows will be felt by Orthodox Christians. On the Saturday before Easter, which the Orthodox will observe on April 19 this year, thousands of pilgrims flock to Jerusalem’s Church of the Holy Sepulchre—the traditional location for Jesus’ crucifixion, burial, and resurrection—to witness the “miracle” of Holy Fire.

The historic church houses six ancient Christian sects—Greek, Franciscan, Armenian, Coptic, Syriac, and Ethiopian—which more or less cooperate in the administration of its affairs. By tradition, the Greek and Armenian bishops enter the tomb alone, but emerge with a divinely lit flame. The fire is shared candle-to-candle throughout the expectant and jubilant crowd.

Eventually it is transported to Greece in a special container, and then on to Serbia, Russia, and other nations in the Orthodox world.

Despite the social distancing restrictions in place due to the COVID-19 outbreak, Israel is nevertheless facilitating a scaled-back religious ceremony. And to avoid quarantine, foreign dignitaries will receive the flame at their airplane after it lands and immediately return home.

Mentioned obliquely in fourth-century sources, the first Western mention of the Holy Fire dates to Bernard the Wise, a monk from modern-day France who went on pilgrimage in 876 A.D. Disputed by many, its popularity with Orthodox communities worldwide makes the Holy Fire one of the world’s foremost Christian celebrations.

Local Christians are known to chant in Arabic: “We are the Christians, we have been Christians for centuries, and we shall be forever and ever. Amen!”

Filmmakers Reuben and Brittany Browning grew up in Israel and Palestine as children of Nazarene missionaries, traipsing around the holy sites. As adults…

Please click here to read the full article at Christianity Today.

Holy Fire is available for rent or purchase at Amazon and Vimeo. A teaser and trailer can be watched on Vimeo.

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Current Events Religion

When You Can’t Return Home

Can't Go Home

We had just prepared our letter to loved ones in America.

Corona is spreading everywhere, I wrote, but we are on lockdown, and perhaps safer here than we would be in the States. We have money, food, and good relations with neighbors. We plan to stick it out here.

And then the announcement was issued by the government: The airport and all borders are closing in 48 hours.

Suddenly, my stomach dropped. All my earlier confidence felt like bravado. Unspoken, there was always the assumption that if things get bad here, we can leave. Now, it would be impossible. And given the unprecedented nature of this virus in our modern world, who knows when the opportunity to travel would come again.

The nation we live in is not known for its stability. What if it gets really bad?

After dropping, my stomach turned. Should we quickly uproot and return to America? I hadn’t yet sent that letter.

The complications to normal life would be terrible. The airports would be crowded Corona-factories. And who would receive us back home save for parents who must be extra careful against the virus?

I didn’t want to leave. But what does wisdom suggest when faced with a last chance? The reasons against leaving are clear, but they were not what I needed.

My earlier bravado disappeared.

I longed for a deeper confidence.

Stepping away from our own story, here are four reminders that helped buttress my spirit. Perhaps they will also be an encouragement to others.

  1. You have a job. Some foreigners are tourists, and others were sent overseas by their employer. But for many, the choice to live in a foreign nation was deliberate. We earn our salary, we enjoy cross-cultural experiences, but we also believe that our work is helpful.

Remember that. Corona will change the nature of your job, but not its essence. Keep at it, for the good of your adopted country.

  1. You have allies. If the section above applies, we are likely not squirreled away in an expat compound in isolation from national neighbors. We have probably learned at least a little bit of language. In all likelihood, we have friends.

Remember that. Corona is devastating them also, but they know how to live here. Rely on them, encourage them, and fit into their cooperative networks.

  1. You have providence. With proper humility, you can likely look back upon your journey to your country as a series of circumstances that somehow all fell into place. We studied, we planned, we decided, but we may have also prayed.

Remember that. Corona is upsetting many circumstances, but nothing eternally known. God “determined the times set for humankind and the exact places where they should live.” Rest in this truth.

  1. You have a mission. Our jobs are not our life. What we do is helpful, but who we are is unique and transformative. As we learn from others, they do from us. If offered humbly, we have much to contribute.

Remember that. Corona changes nothing of your essence. “As the Father sent me [Jesus], so send I you.” Find the good you can do, and do it.

Finally, my stomach settled. But to keep our confidence from becoming a spiritual bravado, two final reminders are necessary.

One, we remain foreigners. We retain privileges. We are guests.

Two, we are all foreigners. We receive grace. We are ambassadors.

Corona reminds us all of the transience of life and the fragility of the world. Our norms have been shaken, our illusions shattered.

But we remain human, and beloved of God. Abroad or at home, we will all return to him. Our deeper confidence can only be this: “Well done, my good and faithful servant.”

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Religion

Evangelicals Who Distrust Muslims Likely Don’t Know Muslims

Ramadan IHOP
How IHOP Became a Ramadan Favorite — image: Jason Hoffman/Thrillist

This article was first published at Christianity Today on September 12.

Earlier this week, a Baptist church in Michigan canceled an event titled, “9/11 Forgotten? Is Michigan Surrendering to Islam?” due to pushback from fellow Christians and politicians.

The pastor of Bloomfield Hills Baptist Church identifies as an Islamophobe and organized the gathering because he sees Islam as a growing threat in the US, The Washington Post reported.

While some fellow white evangelicals share his suspicions, research has shown that those who know Muslims in their communities tend to hold more positive views and are more likely to see commonalities between their two faiths.

“The personal relationships with Muslims, that’s a game changer,” Todd Green, Luther College professor and former Islamophobia adviser to the US State Department, told ThePost. “It tends to make you less Islamophobic.”

Yet surveys from various sources have noted the friendship gap between evangelicals and their Muslim neighbors. More than a third (35%) of white evangelicals knew a Muslim personally in a 2017 Pew Research Center release, fewer than any other religious group, and evangelicals surveyed rated Muslims more negatively than other faiths.

The Southern Baptist-affiliated LifeWay Research found in 2017 that 17 percent of those with evangelical beliefs reported having a Muslim friend, while the Foundation for Ethnic Understanding (FFEU) reported this year that only 22 percent of evangelicals say they interact frequently with Muslims.

FFEU, led by a rabbi seeking to improve Muslim-Jewish relations, also noted that 1 in 3 evangelicals with frequent interaction with Muslims viewed Islam as similar to their own faith compared to 1 in 4 evangelicals overall.

The latest research from the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding (ISPU), a prominent American Muslim organization, offers another look at the relationship between the two faiths.

The 2019 ISPU poll, released last spring, surveyed a representative sample of the US population along with a sample of Muslims and of Jews. The results may not offer as precise a picture of other religious subgroups due the higher margin of error, but still gives a valuable snapshot at broad trends between the faiths.

Here are five takeaways for evangelicals from one of the leading indicators of Muslim community sentiment in America.

1. White evangelicals lag behind in knowing and befriending Muslims; Jews excel.

When asked, “Do you know a Muslim personally?” 35 percent of evangelicals and 44 percent of Protestants said yes…

Please click here to read the full article at Christianity Today.

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Current Events Religion

When Islam is Not a Religion in America

Asma Uddin

This article was first published at Christianity Today on September 9.

Is Islam a religion?

This question is regularly posed by populists seeking to restrict Muslims in America. If Islam is not a religion—if it is a militant ideological system, for example—then some argue it is not subject to First Amendment protection.

At stake is the protection of religious liberty, writes lawyer Asma T. Uddin in When Islam Is Not a Religion: Inside America’s Fight for Religious Freedom. Her new book details recent legal cases involving Muslims, arguing that restrictions on one faith community affect the freedom of all.

Formerly a legal counsel with Becket, a leading religious liberty law firm, Uddin has worked with the US State Department to advocate against the former United Nations resolution on the defamation of religion, which was seen by many as an attempt at international cover for blasphemy laws. And through the Legal Training Institute, she has worked to extend the American understanding of religious liberty to several Middle Eastern, North African, and Southeast Asian countries.

Uddin, a Muslim of Pakistani descent, has worked on religious liberty cases at the federal and Supreme Court levels—including the Hobby Lobby and Hosanna-Tabor victories praised by conservative Christians—defending evangelicals, Catholics, Jews, Native Americans, and Muslims. Christianity Today, which recently editorialized on why religious freedom isn’t just for Christians, spoke with her on the sidelines of the recent US State Department Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom.

CT: American evangelicals are often concerned that Christians have their religious liberty threatened around the world, often in Muslim-majority nations. The focus of your book is Muslim religious liberty, threatened in the United States. What sorts of challenges do Muslims face in America?

Uddin: I think it’s important to point out that the book doesn’t just look at attacks on Muslims. The book looks broadly at the attack on religious freedom, seen through the prism of attacks on Muslims. I discuss violence against churches, synagogues, and Sikh temples.

But in terms of threats to Muslim religious freedom specifically, I look at the nationwide anti-mosque controversy, which started in earnest after the so-called “Ground Zero mosque” fiasco. From there, it spread to Murfreesboro, Tennessee, which was the first community to be affected while attempting to build a mosque. That’s where the claim was made that Islam is not a religion.

To this day, there are ongoing struggles to build mosques. It’s not just litigation, but also arson and fire bombing. There is even a question about Muslim cemeteries, to the point where American Muslims are unable to bury their dead. That’s the challenge we’re facing to our human dignity…

Please click here to read the full interview at Christianity Today.

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Religion

Why Muslims Love Mary

Muslim Mary
Annunciation, from Chronology of Ancient Nations by Al-Biruni, 1307.

This article was published in the July/August print edition of Christianity Today.

Mohammed, a pious PhD student from Egypt, sat guardedly in the “Community of Reconciliation.” Invited by David Vidmar, director of coaching for Peace Catalysts International, the middle-aged Muslim seemed soured on the idea of interfaith exchange at his northern California university.

Vidmar suspected Mohammed came to the jointly led Muslim-Christian dinners because he felt obligated to do da’wah, the Arabic word for spreading Islam. But over a shared meal and discussion about Mary, the Egyptian’s attitude shifted. “The deeper we got into the life of Mary and how Christians understand the virgin birth of Jesus, he became very enthused,” Vidmar said. “There are so many misunderstandings . . . it was wonderful to observe him see the similarities and be able to relax.”

Peace Catalysts is a Jesus-centered peacemaking effort, focused primarily on Christians and Muslims. Vidmar and his family worked for eight years with Uighurs in Kazakhstan and still wish Muslims would experience the love and forgiveness God reveals through Jesus. But now he works to help both sides experience heart transformation through deep and genuine friendship—and Mary proved a fruitful bridge.

“Since so many Muslims use the term ‘Jesus, Son of Mary,’ it would be helpful for evangelicals to think more deeply about this,” Vidmar said. “Muslims often excitedly tell me their favorite chapter in the Qur’an is Maryam, and women especially express appreciation for it.”

Mary is mentioned 34 times in the Qur’an—more than in the New Testament—and its only named woman. Islam upholds the virgin birth, the annunciation by Gabriel, and—mirroring the Ave Maria in Luke’s gospel—declares Mary to be “exalted above all women.”

Yet even Catholics have been slow to recognize the similarities…

Please click here to read the full article at Christianity Today.

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Current Events Religion

How Palestine Divides Messianic Jews

Messianic Jews
(Oded Balilty, AP)

This article was first published in the May print edition of Christianity Today.

Among Christians in America, Israel can be viewed as a fulfillment of prophecy, a democratic ally in a region of chaos, or an occupier oppressing stateless Palestinians. How to choose?

Given that 2 out of 3 US evangelicals have a positive perception of Israel, according to LifeWay Research, perhaps a better question is: How should evangelicals identify with the issues Israel faces?

Fortunately, there is a useful interpreter. “If the Christian community wants to understand Israel from a believing perspective,” said Jamie Cowen, an Israeli lawyer and a believer in Jesus, “going through Messianic Jews is best.”

However, the complexity of Israel divides even Messianic Jews in attitude toward Palestine, as illustrated by debate this year over an interview provocatively summarized as supporting ethnic cleansing.

“The only rights the Palestinians have are squatter’s rights,” Paul Liberman, executive director of the Alliance for Israel Advocacy (AIA), told The Intercept.

He described how the lobbying arm of the Messianic Jewish Alliance of America (MJAA) was pushing for a shift of US funding from UN–administered Palestinian aid ($364 million in 2017) to an Israeli-led effort offering money to relocate from the West Bank. The goal: eventual annexation of the territory in a one-state solution with fewer Palestinian citizens, maintaining Israel as a Jewish state.

First adopted by the MJAA in 2015, the idea reverberated within Messianic Jewish circles once TheIntercept highlighted efforts to harness evangelical influence in Congress and the White House.

“It is not a removal. It is an opportunity for a much better life,” said Joel Chernoff, CEO of the MJAA. “But the demographic issue is real.”

About 700,000 Jews and 1.5 million Arabs live in Judea and Samaria—the favored name in Israel for the West Bank. Chernoff desires more Jewish settlements there. And he believes many Palestinians already want to escape the territory’s corrupt Palestinian Authority. (A 2017 MJAA poll found half of residents were discussing a move abroad and were open to resettlement in exchange for about $5,000.)

The “ethnic cleansing” headline was a smear tactic by liberal and anti-Israel media, Chernoff said. The issue is not controversial among the MJAA’s 3,000 dues-paying members, 12,000 supporters, or 155 affiliated synagogues. But it is controversial to other Messianic Jews.

“There is not a consensus this is a good proposal,” said Monique Brumbach, executive director of the 75-member Union of Messianic Jewish Congregations (UMJC). “The Scriptures promised the land to the Jewish people. But there will always be other people within it.”

Nearly all Messianic Jews believe modern-day Israel is the fulfillment of biblical promises…

Please click here to read the full article at Christianity Today.

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Current Events Religion

Will Trump’s ‘Deal of the Century’ on Israel-Palestine Please Evangelicals?

Trump Deal Century Israel Palestine Evangelical
Image: Illustration by Rick Szuecs / Source image: Senior Airman Delano Scott / JBA via CT

This article was first published at Christianity Today, on April 12, 2019.

When it comes to Israel, nearly all evangelicals hold dear the biblical maxim: Pray for the peace of Jerusalem.

But what does it mean after a fiercely contested election?

President Donald Trump will soon propose his vision of practical exegesis.

Two years in the making, Trump’s “Deal of the Century” is slated to be released soon, now that Israel has reelected Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. His Likud party secured a virtual tie with challenger Benny Gantz’s Blue and White party, but Bibi’s right-wing coalition will push him over the top.

Neither leading candidate made the peace process with Palestinians a major plank of their campaign as the entire Israeli electorate has shifted to the right, emphasizing security over negotiation.

Other American presidents have tried and failed to advance official US policy of a two-state solution. But while Trump has brought a new energy—and unpredictability—to forge an elusive peace between Israelis and Palestinians, he may face two very skeptical partners.

Even so, Trump has shaken the system.

Last year in May, he moved the US embassy to Jerusalem.

In February, he stopped US funding to Palestinian aid programs.

Last month, he recognized Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights.

And more than any president prior, he has courted evangelical opinion. LifeWay Research shows that 67 percent of American adults with evangelical beliefs have positive perceptions toward Israel, with 80 percent believing Abraham’s covenant is for all time.

But while analysts have panned Trump’s decisions as decidedly one-sided against the Palestinians, he has dangled his own deal-making reputation as—at times—a warning to the Israelis.

“Israel will have to pay a higher price,” he said after ordering the embassy’s relocation, for the Palestinians “will get something very good, because it’s their turn next.”

What does Trump expect? And will it cost him his carefully cultivated evangelical support?

Details of his plan have not been publicly released, but in February US officials Jared Kushner and Jason Greenblatt toured Arab capitals seeking support.

A month later Greenblatt, Trump’s chief legal officer and special representative for international negotiations, checked in with US evangelicals in a special meeting at the White House.

Axios reported that several “raised concerns.”

CT surveyed 11 evangelical leaders—7 from the US and 4 from the Middle East—to take their pulse on expectations and gauge their red lines.

“Don’t divide Jerusalem, It would disappoint me if that was President Trump’s decision,” said…

Please click here to read the full article at Christianity Today.

Related: The attempt to bring Judeo-Christian politics to Israel

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Culture Religion

How to Grow in the Grief of Childhood Transition

Childhood Grief Transition

There is loss in leaving, and adults come to know it quickly. Experienced overseas workers learn how to make immediate friendships, grieve good-byes, and move on to the next wave of arrivals. There is a cycle, and most of us are transient. You get used to it.

But children get their hearts broken.

As they get older they learn the system also. Third-culture kids grow resilient overseas. But that first wave is painful, especially when life abroad is all they ever knew.

We stayed in the Arab world longer than many. Our oldest daughter arrived at age three and was twelve when it came time to leave. Her last year was difficult. Friends returned to their home country. Her grandmother in America passed away. And when we departed, she said goodbye to two local friends she met in kindergarten.

Anticipating a year in the United States before relocating elsewhere in the Middle East, we feared the pangs of middle school. But all was well. Teachers were welcoming; students were kind. There was only one problem: Our daughter didn’t make any friends.

Classmates invited her to sit at their lunch table. She preferred to read. Grades were fine, and she joined activities. Her smile never faded, and her spirit never wavered. At home all was normal, and at school all was fine. But nothing of friendship, and little effort to find it.

She knew she was leaving again, come end of school year.

At first we encouraged her to engage. “If you sit by yourself and read, people will think you’re a snob. Just join in, and learn how Americans talk, laugh, and play.” But she did, and she didn’t like it. “They were inappropriate,” she said, “and crazy.” This was without malice or judgment, but the conservative Arab culture left its mark. She was uncomfortable.

But it would be wrong to blame things wholly on society. It was her.

And it was ok. Natural. We comforted her and spoke of adjustments. Having lost friends once while abroad, why lose them again back home? And which place was home to begin with? But she was faithful in her responsibilities, accepting of her circumstances. As a family we grieved, mourning the past and anticipating the future. But this could not be the end of the conversation.

“Your choices are understandable,” we told her. “They are ok. We won’t push you.”

“But they are not best.”

Life involves pain, and there’s no way around it. If we seal ourselves off for a time to recover, we can then reengage. But if we steel ourselves to the world as a posture, we stop living. And worse, we stop giving.

“Others need us,” we counseled. “And we need them. If you make new friends, yes, you will leave them, and it will hurt afresh. But they will fail to experience God’s goodness through you if you keep yourself from their friendship.”

“Take your time; there is no guilt,” we comforted. “Just do not let yourself forget there is a better ideal God calls us to. He is patient, but also maturing you. Use this time to grow deeper into his image, love, and mission.”

We are still in process, and she has friends now. Probably just in time to leave—and grieve—once more. But next time it will be easier, and soon she too will know the cycles of overseas friendship.

Our daughter’s life lesson is also one for adults. These life cycles can mask God’s ideal just as easily as our daughter’s reticence. Happiness comes in communion; life flourishes when we give of ourselves.

Empty yourself, as God did for you. Then enter into the joy of his fellowship—overseas, anywhere, and forever.

 

(This reflection was written with the approval of our daughter and after her review. It was first published at IDEAS.)

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Current Events Religion

Francis of Arabia: Will UAE’s Warm Welcome Help Christians Feel More at Home?

Pope Francis UAE
(Pope Francis arrives at the Zayed Sports City in Abu Dhabi for Mass. Victor Besa / The National)

This article was first published at Christianity Today, on Feb. 6, 2019.

Pope Francis must love creating cognitive dissonance.

This week, he became the first Catholic pontiff to ever visit the Arabian Peninsula, the heart of Islam, where conversion to Christianity is illegal. Francis lauded his hosts in the United Arab Emirates (UAE), saying they “strive to be a model for coexistence.”

The Gulf nation’s crown prince received him with a 21-gun salute. Francis then railed against the “miserable crudeness” of war.

Human rights groups pressed him to address migrant worker issues. Francis rejoiced in “a diversity that the Holy Spirit loves and wants to harmonize ever more, in order to make a symphony.”

The mere existence of a Christian community to visit in the Gulf states may surprise many. In 2015, CT visited the Emirates and reported on its “thriving” church, populated by more than a million Christians—primarily economic migrants from Asian nations such as Indonesia and the Philippines.

The Pew Research Center counts them as 13 percent of the population. They worship in over 40 churches, served by over 700 Christian ministries.

And in a region where the Vatican cited a decline of Christians from 20 percent to 4 percent of the Middle East population in the last 100 years, the Emirati government provided a day off and 1,000 buses to bring Catholics to mass.

Attendance reached 135,000, billed as the largest Christian gathering ever held in the Arabian Peninsula.

If the pope does enjoy sparking controversy, he succeeded also among local evangelical leaders…

Please click here to read the full article at Christianity Today.

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Religion

Should Christians Quote Muhammad?

This article was first published in the January print edition of Christianity Today.

Christians Quote Muhammad

Christians breathed a sigh of relief last October when Pakistan’s Supreme Court acquitted Asia Bibi, a Christian mother of five on death row, of blasphemy charges against Islam. What many might not have noticed was the Islamic rationale.

Whether or not she spoke against Muhammad, Bibi was insulted first as a Christian, wrote the judge. And on this, the Qur‘an is clear: Do not insult those that invoke other than Allah, lest they insult Allah in enmity without knowledge.

The verdict also quoted Islam’s prophet himself: “Whoever is cruel and hard on a non-Muslim minority, or curtails their rights … I will complain against the person on the Day of Judgment.”

And finally, it referenced an ancient treaty that Muhammad signed with the monks of Mount Sinai: “Christians are my citizens, and by God, I hold out against anything that displeases them.… No one of the Muslims is to disobey this covenant till the Last Day.”

Today it can seem like Muslims violate this covenant the world over. But does the Bibi decision validate those who insist that Islam rightly practiced is a religion of peace? And should Christians join Muslims to share verses that comprise the Islamic case for religious freedom?

CT surveyed more than a dozen evangelical experts engaged with Muslims or scholarship on Islam who reflected on three key questions when considering interpretations of Islam that favor religious freedom.

[These questions are: Is it true? Is it helpful? Is it enough?]

Please click here to read the full article at Christianity Today.

Also: click here to read my related Christianity Today article about The Covenants of the Prophet Muhammad with the Christians of the World, the book which describes the Sinai treaty mentioned above, and others.

Finally, here is a sidebar from the Should Christians Quote Muhammad article, identifying sources in the Islamic tradition on which the evangelical scholars reflected.

Quranic verses regarding Christians:

• Q5:82 – You will find the nearest of them in affection to the believers those who say, “We are Christians.” That is because among them are priests and monks and because they are not arrogant.

• Q2:62 – Indeed, those who believed and those who were Jews or Christians or Sabeans those who believed in Allah and the Last Day and did righteousness—will have their reward with their Lord, and no fear will there be concerning them, nor will they grieve.

• Q22:40 – And were it not that Allah checks the people, some by means of others, there would have been demolished monasteries, churches, synagogues, and mosques in which the name of Allah is much mentioned.

• Q29:46 – And do not argue with the People of the Scripture except in a way that is best.

• Q2:256 – There shall be no compulsion in religion. The right course has become clear from the wrong.

Texts used in Supreme Court of Pakistan acquittal of Asia Bibi:

• Christians are my citizens, and by God, I hold out against anything that displeases them. No compulsion is to be on them … The Muslims are to fight for them … Their churches are to be respected. No one of the Muslims is to disobey this covenant till the Last Day (Covenant with the Monks of Mount Sinai)

• “Beware! Whoever is cruel and hard on a non-Muslim minority, or curtails their rights, or burdens them with more than they can bear, or takes anything from them against their free will; I [Prophet Muhammad] will complain against the person on the Day of Judgment.” (Abu Dawud)

• Q6:108 – “And do not insult those they invoke other than Allah, lest they insult Allah in enmity without knowledge. Thus We have made pleasing to every community their deeds. Then to their Lord is their return, and He will inform them about what they used to do.”

 

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Current Events Religion

Covenantal Theology: Can Muhammad’s Ancient Promise Inspire Muslim-Christian Peace Today?

Supreme Court of Pakistan
(Reuters)

This article was first published at Christianity Today, on December 21.

Christians esteem the biblical progression of covenants—Abrahamic, Mosaic, Davidic—finalized by Jesus as he ushered in the New.

But for the sake of religious freedom in the Muslim world, should they embrace a further covenant: Muhammadian?

Recent scholarship suggests the potential promise, newly fulfilled in Pakistan.

After eight long years on death row, Asia Bibi was acquitted of blasphemy by the Muslim nation’s Supreme Court in late October. The Christian mother of five had been sentenced for uttering contempt for Muhammad, the prophet of Islam, while attempting to drink water from a well.

The three-judge panel ruled that contradictions in accuser testimony and Bibi’s forced confession by a local cleric rendered the charges invalid. But in the official court document, one justice went as far as to partially base his judgement on how Bibi’s accusers violated an ancient covenant of Muhammad to the Christian monks of Mount Sinai—“eternal and universal … not limited to [them] alone.”

“Blasphemy is a serious offense,” wrote judge Asif Khosa, “but the insult of the appellant’s religion … was also not short of being blasphemous.”

He referenced a 2013 book by John Morrow, a Canadian convert to Islam. The Covenants of the Prophet Muhammad with the Christians of the World is an academic study of six treaties commanding the kind treatment of Christians, reportedly dated to the seventh century.

Each similar in scope, they command Muslims not to attack peaceful Christian communities, to aid in the construction and repair of churches, and even to allow self-regulation of tax payments.

It is “nothing short of providential,” Morrow wrote, that they have been “rediscovered” at a time of widespread Islamist violence against the Christians of the Middle East.

“For Muslims, it means a wake-up call, an awareness that they have deviated from the Islamic tradition,” Morrow told Patheos, a popular religion and spirituality website.

“[It] requires that Muslims not only tolerate Christians, but love them as their brothers and sisters.”

This resonates with…

Please click here to read the full article at Christianity Today.

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Religion

Bearing False Witness

Eid and Taqiyya
An Afghan refugee vendor waits for customers to sell his sheep at cattle market set up for the upcoming Muslim festival Eid al-Adha in Karachi, Pakistan, Thursday, Aug. 16, 2018. / AP

This excerpt was first published at Christianity Today on August 24.

So what if a Muslim invites you to a celebration? The lamb might be tasty, but should Christians be wary?

Statistics show they already are.

The 2018 American Muslim Poll from the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding (ISPU) found only 36 percent of white evangelicals believe Muslims are committed to the well-being of America.

And according to the Pew Research Center, 50 percent of self-identified white evangelicals believe there is a “great deal” or “fair amount” of support for extremism among Muslims living in America. This is often connected to a fear of Shari’ah law.

Yet according to the 2017l ISPU poll, only 10 percent said Shari’ah should play a legal role in their community.

Are the rest lying? Or are evangelicals predisposed to assume they are?

Taqiyya is an Arabic word that has come to mean “dissimulation,” said Martin Accad, chief academic officer of Arab Baptist Theological Seminary in Lebanon and associate professor of Islamic Studies at Fuller Theological Seminary. It is a contested allowance in Islam to conceal your true faith if under personal duress.

But in much anti-Muslim discourse, taqiyya has been redefined into a religious obligation for Muslims to lie to non-Muslims not simply for survival, Accad said, but to serve the expansionist agenda of their religious community.

Without knowing the term, the concept is creeping into Christian consciousness.

And Accad wants to nip it in the bud…

Please click here to read the full article at Christianity Today.

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Religion

How Sunday School Sparked Revival in Egypt’s Oldest Church

 

Habib Girgis
Habib Girgis, memorialized on the curtain separating the altar from the sanctuary of a Coptic Orthodox Church

This article was first published at Christianity Today on June 19, 2018.

My wife had just dropped off our kids at the local Coptic Orthodox Church we attend in Cairo and sat down with her Egyptian friend at the adjacent church-owned cafe. After initial pleasantries, she spoke of this current article I was then researching.

“Oh, do Americans have Sunday School also?” inquired the mother. “I never knew.”

My wife and I have lived in Egypt for nearly nine years and consider ourselves of evangelical faith. But we wish also to learn about ancient Christianity and, to the degree possible, worship within the Coptic Orthodox Church, which many Protestants here respectfully call “the mother church.”

We have been impressed by their biblical fluency. We have marveled at their forgiveness after martyrdom. But to entrust our own children to them?

We have been blown away by their care for the next generation. It takes two years of training to even teach a kindergartener.

It was not always so, and they have the Americans to thank—sort of.

This article is about Habib Girgis, the recently canonized Coptic saint who doubled as a humble educator. This past month the Coptic Orthodox Church celebrated the 100th anniversary of what he set in motion: the Sunday School Movement.

Girgis lamented the situation of his time, when Western missionaries were making inroads among the Copts.

But then again, they left fallow their own fields:

“Is there among us anyone who is capable of responding to those who ask him about his religion and why he is a Christian?” Girgis asked in a student lecture four years later.

“I am sure that most of us do not have an answer, except to say that we were born from Christian parents and hence we are Christians.”

Please read the article to see how Girgis sparked the solution, but spark it he did. Today the Coptic Church is among the most devout in the world. Here is testimony from one of Girgis’ disciples, who carried forward his teacher’s reforms once he reached the highest levels of the church:

Looking backward eight decades, the beloved Pope Shenouda III, known as “the teacher of generations,” described the solution with primordial imagery.

“Our teacher … started his life in an age that was almost void of religious education and knowledge,” said the patriarch, who died in 2012.

“Then, God said, ‘Let there be light,’ and there was light. And the light was Habib Girgis.”

Please click here to read the full article at Christianity Today.

And if you are interested in an earlier post, excerpting a book review on Habib Girgis, please click here.

Habib Girgis Sunday School

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Current Events Religion

Christians to “Maintain Presence” and “Avoid Victimhood,” Says Syria Expert

 

Syria Middle East Concern
Children playing in Beit Sakhour, a neighbourhood in East Aleppo largely destroyed in Syria’s ongoing conflict (World Watch Monitor)

Following up on my recent article for World Watch Monitor, here is Part II of my interview with Miles Windsor, head of advocacy for Christian charity Middle East Concern.

These questions and answers were cut for length from the original, but I am pleased to share them here for the consideration of readers.

 

If you have your own viewpoint on who Syrian Christians support, even if in a personal capacity, please share.

It is important to recognize the extent to which situational dynamics influence statements of political allegiance, including by church leaders. Most Syrian Christians are in areas controlled by the Assad regime. The conflict situation also heightens the extent to which communities rely on patronage, a significant factor in Middle Eastern society even in peaceful times.

So we should not be surprised that church leaders readily voice support for President Assad. That is not to suggest that such articulations are empty, but rather that nuanced interpretation is usually necessary.

 

It can be simplistic to suggest ‘what the Bible says’ Syrian Christians should do. But are there Biblical principles you would counsel for them in the midst of a complicated state of difficulty? Might there be multiple options of God-honoring response?

We must guard against simplistic or overly prescriptive approaches. There is biblical basis and precedent for a range of responses to danger and persecution. The Apostle Paul who explained that ‘everyone who wants to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted’ (2 Tim 3:11,12) is the same Apostle who fled from Damascus to escape murderous plots (Acts 9:23-25). Other times he challenged the injustice and brutality of an imminent public flogging based on his citizenship rights (Acts 22:25).

It can be tempting to offer reminders of basic principles such as “trust in God and his promises,” and “do not deny your faith.” Although well-intentioned, true, and important, such advice is usually obvious and can come across as crass over-spiritualization, especially if offered by outsiders.

Better is to defer to our Syrian and other Middle Eastern sisters and brothers who are ministering in the heat of conflict and refugee situations and whose profound theological reflection is now shaping their own ministry approaches.

For example, two themes that are regularly emphasized in relation to the Middle Eastern church are the importance of presence and the danger of victimhood. The importance of Christian presence in Syria is the prophetic role of the Church and the calling of Christ’s people as agents of reconciliation and transformation. The imperative of maintaining a witness to the love, hope, peace, and life of Christ in a context of hatred, hopelessness, conflict and death, helps to understand how vital it is for the salt and light of Christ’s people to permeate and help shape a post-conflict Syria.

To rise above the mentality of victimhood is to reject the vicious cycles of blame, demonization and revenge, to acknowledge the comparable suffering of many others, to build alliances with the majority which also strives for peaceful coexistence, and to reject the label of ‘minority,’ whether imposed by those seeking to control, or to protect.

These are rich seams to mine as Syrian Christians seek to respond in ways which honor God, but they should also be a challenge to the more comfortable and complacent parts of the global church!

 

Describe a little bit about how MEC can speak authoritatively on the subject.

An association of many Christians and Christian ministries in the Middle East and North Africa, Middle East Concern (MEC) supports those in the region who are marginalised, discriminated against or persecuted for being or becoming Christians. Through a wide network of church and ministry partnerships in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region, MEC seeks to provide support which is led by the priorities of MENA Christians. This support includes advocacy – challenging injustice and seeking to ensure that the voice of MENA Christians is heard and understood.

 

Please click here to read an excerpt of Part I, or here for the full article published at WWM.

 

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Current Events Religion

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.

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Current Events Religion

Happy Orthodox Easter, from the Egyptian President

EGYPT-POLITICS-RELIGION-COPTIC-SISI
President Sisi visits Pope Tawadros in advance of Easter 2014, via AFP.

Happy belated Easter, to Protestant and Catholic Christians who celebrated last week.

But having enjoyed either “Pascha” or “Paas” (or both), please do not be remiss in remembering your Orthodox brothers and sisters today.

After all, even the president of Egypt extends his greetings — and more.

I call on all of us to remember the teachings of Jesus Christ that lead humanity to the ways of love and peace,” he said, as reported by Ahram Online.

Abdel Fattah al-Sisi is a Muslim.

Muslims join Christians in acknowledging the virgin birth of Jesus, but not his resurrection. Most believe he never died, delivered from the cross and taken to heaven.

Many of Salafi orientation go as far as saying that Muslims should not even give Easter greetings, lest they encourage a theological error.

Christmas is a national holiday in Egypt, but not Easter.

Even so Christians are administratively equal. They are given vacation time, and recently have even been legally encouraged in pilgrimage to Jerusalem, as Muslims are to Mecca. 

Of course, Abdel Fattah al-Sisi is also a politician, and politicians can say many things to curry favor.

But one, give credit not only for what could have been tepid acknowledgement, but instead is near fervent preaching.

He calls Muslims also in the teachings of Jesus.

And two, give credit to Egypt that if he is only currying favor, he judges the 90 percent of Muslims as at least non-offended by Easter greetings to the 10 percent minority.

Therefore, follow his example, and greet also the Orthodox minority in your own nations. And when the time comes, greet too the Muslims.

Encourage them both, like Sisi, toward greater love and peace.

And Ekhristos Anesti, for those who believe.

Tawadros Tayyib Easter
The Grand Imam and a delegation from al-Azhar greets Pope Tawadros for Easter 2018, via the Coptic Orthodox Spokesman.

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Religion

Pope Tawadros’ Weekly Sermon, in English

Mideast Egypt Islamic State
Pope Tawadros II. Photo Amr Nabil

Pope Shenouda III of the Coptic Orthodox Church was known as the ‘teacher of generations.’ I had the privilege of attending the beloved 87-year-old deliver one of his Wednesday weekly sermons back in 2010.

Five years later, in post-revolutionary Egypt, I watched his successor Pope Tawadros continue the tradition. He preached on Esther, and for unrelated reasons, a mini-protest broke out.

Now in 2018, for the first time I have noticed the weekly sermon translated into English, provided by the Coptic Media Center.

I am not certain if this will become a new tradition, but if so it will be fitting. The Coptic Orthodox Church is international, with many English-speaking congregations in the US and Canada (and the UK).

For those interested in the spirituality of the Coptic pope, here is an excerpt from his text. Pope Tawadros spoke on Mark 10:46-52, the story of blind Bartimaeus.

It is entitled: What Do You Want Me to Do for You?

Lessons we can learn from the story of the blind man for our spiritual journey:

1. Be persistent in prayer: don’t stop asking God for help, with patience & confident faith. Continuous crying out (praying) demonstrates a strong need for help.

2. Jesus hears your prayer from amongst the crowds: your short & simple prayers are heard by Christ and He responds to them.

3. The #1 goal of Satan is to prevent you from reaching Christ: just as the people tried to prevent/discourage the blind man from reaching Christ, Satan does with us when we are praying. FOCUS on the goal: to reach Christ, & do not listen to thoughts of doubt – your own or others’.

a. Remember the miracle of the demon-possessed man who was also blind and mute? (Matthew 12:22) It reveals that sin denies a person 3 things: thinking about Christ, talking to Christ, and seeing Christ.

4. Throw away anything that stands between you and God: be ready to QUICKLY detach from things, habits, etc. God reveals to you to let go of.

5. The importance of your will: “What do you want Me to do for you?” shows that God not only respects your will, but that your CONSENT IS NECESSARY to allow God to work in your situation.

6. You are a partner with God: God will give you the ability to do what is needed to do, but you must participate with your faith, your repentance, your prayers, your persistence, and your will.

7. Be definitive in your prayer request to Christ: Imagine if the blind man’s response to Christ had been, “I want some money,” or “I don’t know what I want,” that would have been a wasted opportunity. Go to Christ prepared, knowing what it is you want Him to do for you.

8. Follow Jesus after He heals you: after Jesus heals/helps you, will you follow Him?

Click here for the full sermon on the Coptic Spokesman’s Facebook page.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Current Events Religion

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.”

 

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Current Events Religion

To Defend Mideast Christians, Can Advocates Critique Islam?

Advocates Critique Islam
Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images

This article was first published in the January print edition of Christianity Today.

What’s the best way for Middle Eastern Christians in America to help fellow believers back home? A single misspelled email address inadvertently revealed the breadth of this dilemma for activists in the diaspora.

The mishap sparked a spat this summer between two prominent US Arab groups: the Arab American Institute (AAI), a polling and policy organization led by James Zogby, and Coptic Solidarity (CS), which champions the religious freedom of Egyptian Christians and other minorities.

Zogby, who has a Lebanese Maronite background, was a scheduled participant in CS’s annual Washington conference, which leaders often use to advise DC’s foreign policy establishment on Middle East issues.

But two days before the June 15 conference, Zogby unexpectedly withdrew.

Zogby explained in an article weeks later that he withdrew after receiving word that some controversial anti-Muslim “hate groups” would be at the conference and that the title of a panel in which he was participating had been revised to suggest that violence and impunity are endemic in Muslim and Egyptian culture.

“The best way to reinforce the message of the haters of Christians in Egypt is by giving them the ammunition that Copts in the US are working with Islamophobes in Washington,” Zogby told CT. “I felt it important to call out CS for what I strongly believe is a wrong-headed and potentially dangerous path.”

Stunned by Zogby’s withdrawal and his public criticism, CS wrote an angry response, accusing Zogby of a “dhimmi mentality,” a reference to the secondary status of non-Muslims in the historic caliphate.

“He intentionally tried to hijack our event and tarnish our reputation,” Lindsay Griffin, CS’s director of advocacy and development, told CT.

According to organizers, participants had received the revised speaker list and panel names a full month before the conference. But Zogby didn’t. His email address was misspelled, so he never received a May 9 message outlining the changes that later led him to withdraw.

But while the spark that ignited the conflict between the groups was an honest mistake, the issues at the center of the dilemma are real…

Please click here to read the full article at Christianity Today.