Americas Christianity Today Published Articles

What Arab Leaders Think of USAID Funding Persecuted Christians

This article first published at Christianity Today on November 2, 2017.

USAID Christians
Vice President Mike Pence addresses the In Defense of Christians’ fourth-annual national advocacy summit in Washington, Oct. 25, 2017. Credit: AP, via VOA News.

Here are a few excerpts from my new article.

First, the reason:

Zalal Life distributed 300 food baskets and bottles of water. The government of Hungary donated $2 million in aid for reconstruction. The United Nations wasn’t there.

“People are not happy with the UN; they are using money for administration,” said Bahro. “The help is coming from churches and Christian organizations.”

Second, the condition:

“If the US can help Christian organizations directly, it will be good—if it can be done without discrimination,” he said.

“They must serve Muslims and other minorities also. We live together, and want to remain together in our communities.”

Third, the complication:

“Having the US transfer funds directly to persecuted Christians could be a good thing, but American politics will surely mingle in,” the Israeli Arab Christian said.

“They will want to brag about the aid to show their success, and to prove to the Christian Right that [President Donald Trump] delivers on his promises.”

Fourth, the danger:

Farouk Hammo, pastor of the Presbyterian church in Baghdad, agreed. “The bottom line is that we do not recommend direct aid from the States to Christians,” he said.

“It will agitate our Muslim brothers negatively against the Christian community.”

Fifth, the reality:

But the Jordanian leader respects Trump and is cautiously in support of the USAID policy change if done well, as it will empower the church to do the ministry.

“Maybe we will be targeted more,” he said. “But in some countries, it can’t get worse.”

Sixth, the possibility:

If USAID offered to help, Bitar would accept it—if it is not conditioned on any political agenda. He has little fear of local reaction.

“Muslims will be happy,” he said. “They like to send their children to schools run by Christians.”

Finally, the outcome:

Amid conflicting Christian reactions and unknown Muslim response, the policy change represents a new approach. Will it make things better or worse?

“Here in our area, the Kurdish Muslims trust Christians,” Bahro said. “In Arab areas, I don’t know.”

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



Americas Christianity Today Published Articles

What Arab Church Leaders Think of Trump Prioritizing Persecuted Christian Refugees

Ahmed Jadallah / Reuters Preparation for Qaraqosh’s first Sunday mass since the Iraqi Christian town was recaptured from ISIS (October 30, 2016).

This article was first published at Christianity Today on January 30, 2017.

Married in December to a Syrian woman with American citizenship, Fadi Hallisso went to Beirut to apply for a green card.

A Syrian Christian, Hallisso has worked with refugees in Lebanon since 2012. Funded by different American agencies, he was no stranger to the US government. He even testified about the situation in Syria to the US State Department and to Harvard Divinity School.

But this week, Hallisso was told he was no longer welcome to apply. The new US administration said so.

“It is very humiliating to be put in the category of potential terrorist,” said Hallisso. “Just because I carry a certain passport.”

As more details of President Donald Trump’s new security policies emerge—including a promise to prioritize Christian refugees for resettlement in America—much appears lost in translation.

“This executive order has created a new atmosphere very hostile to people in the region,” said Chawkat Moucarry, World Vision’s director for interfaith relations—and Hallisso’s uncle. “Unwritten rules seem to be implemented as a result.”

Is Trump’s executive order on refugees a de facto “Muslim ban”? Is it not? Is it prudent? Is it overdue? As American Christians debate these questions from the small towns of Middle America to the nation’s major airports, so also Arab Christians are trying to figure out what is going on.

“I read the executive order,” said Adeeb Awad, chief editor of al-Nashra, the monthly magazine of the Presbyterian Synod of Syria and Lebanon. He remarked…

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


Arabs: Disproportionate Troublemakers or Victims?

(via Mohammad Hannon/Associated Press)

Here is a sobering stat related by the Economist. Interpret it as you will:

Horrifyingly, although home to only 5% of the world’s population, in 2014 the Arab world accounted for 45% of the world’s terrorism, 68% of its battle-related deaths, 47% of its internally displaced and 58% of its refugees.

Surely there is no clear cut answer to the question in the title. But allow the raw numbers to sink in.

What can be done to change them?


Two Futures of the Arab World

Arab World

Writing in YaleBooks, Tarek Osman pens a long essay on how the region might develop – or devolve. There is an extensive recap of current ills, of which I will highlight two that are less noticeable on the nightly news:

Arab educational institutions have been failing for decades now. No Arab university appears in any serious ranking of international higher-education. The Arab world’s contribution to global research and development, in almost any scientific field, is negligible.

A region with over 300 million people does not have a single newspaper, think tank, or artistic establishment with global reputation, let alone clout. As the public space disappears and the major institutions that used to act as bulwarks of art and culture have crumbled, the mechanisms that in the early and mid-20th century generated major advances in Arab thinking, exposure to the world, and literary and artistic creation have been weakened.

This has reduced the size of the Arab intelligentsia, which has traditionally absorbed and championed political development, economic reform and the empowerment of civil society.

And, after lamenting brain drain to the West:

The Arab world suffers another form of emigration: inward. Scores of talented and liberal Arabs have come to believe that working totally out of the traditional boundaries of their societies will produce better futures for themselves and their families.

Many are isolating themselves from their own societies. They work in enterprises (especially in high-end services) that are connected to the global economy, much more than to the economies of their own countries; they live in gated compounds or leafy suburbs, away from the region’s pulsating cities; they send their children to foreign schools and later western universities; and even in entertainment they ensconce themselves in House of Cards, Breaking Bad and indie cinema.

Mentally, emotionally, and in their values they are becoming aliens in their own societies.

But eventually he transitions to a point of hope. It is fueled by the fact that private enterprise is taking the place of the government-run economy, with knock-on benefits:

Modern digital communications have given them (and others in lower social strata) immense, and unprecedented, exposure to lifestyles and modes of social interaction in other parts of the world. Large groups of young Arabs now expect to live much more fulfilling lives than these of their parents.

This has not only fuelled consumerist tastes; it has also forced some of the region’s regimes to at least pay lip service to concepts such as rule of law, fighting corruption, diluting economic concentration of power, enhancing transparency in decision making and installing checks on executive authority.

It was not a coincidence that all the Arab constitutions which have been drafted or amended in the last four years, have enshrined these concepts. Implementing these remains elusive. But these concepts have been forced on the national agenda in many Arab countries and that many Arab states felt compelled to address them, is a valuable step.

But the author is quite aware that these positive developments will not cover over the many obvious problems of the region. But worse, they may wind up being limited to an isolated few — based on socio-economics, not geopolitics. If so, here is his warning to the world:

Apart from the fragmentation of large parts of the region, this scenario will herald a graver consequence. Here, the Arab world will become irrelevant to the vast majority of human advances in science and technology, and to the new illuminations in human thinking and development.

In this scenario, the Arab world will increasingly become a burden on the world, primarily exporting problems to the global community. Many in the world, and especially in the Arab world’s giant neighbour Europe, will try to distance themselves from it, seeing it not as “a sick man” (as the Ottoman Empire was described in the nineteenth century), but as a “bomb” that the world should always ensure it does not explode – at least because of its large demographics.

International interaction with the Arab world will range from economic assistance or realpolitik cooperation with its strong regimes – different efforts to avoid the explosion of the bomb.

Therefore, what must be done now? The author does not conclude with much more than his previous descriptions, but here is his hope:

The endeavours of the Arab world’s genuine private sector, civil society, and innovative young thinkers and artists can save the Arab world such a painful outcome.

Let us wish them well. But what, if anything, can the outside world offer now, rather than later?

Your ideas are welcome.

Christianity Today Middle East Published Articles

Forgiving ISIS: Christian ‘Resistance’ Videos Go Viral in the Arab World

Myriam, photo from SAT-7
Myriam, photo from SAT-7

From my new article at Christianity Today, published March 17, 2015:

A prime example of Ghalab’s wish for loving children: 10-year-old Myriam from Mosul, Iraq.

Her family fled their home last July with hundreds of thousands of other Christians, finding safety in Kurdistan’s Irbil. Essam Nagy of SAT-7 Kids visited the refugee camps and connected with Myriam, a faithful viewer who praised God for not allowing ISIS to kill them.

Asked about her feelings toward those who drove her from her home, Myriam wondered why they did this. Then she said: “I will only ask God to forgive them. Why should they be killed?”

To date, more than 1 million people have seen her witness online. [Full video at the bottom]

SAT-7’s five channels reach an audience of 15 million in North Africa and the Middle East, though it’s impossible to measure how many people watched Myriam. However, numbers can be tracked through the social media campaign, which has reached 25 times its normal audience, with subtitles of the video provided in English, Spanish, Turkish, and Chinese. Word spread not only through SAT-7 affiliates, but also in the local secular press.

Pan-Arabic al-Arabia praised Myriam for confronting ISIS with love. “Everyone who listens to her is astounded,” echoed the Egyptian Youm 7. Leading Lebanese daily al-Nahar called for the clip to be shown in the nation’s schools as a lesson in humanity.

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

Here is the link directly to the YouTube video of Myriam.

And here is the second video featured, of a brother to two of the Coptic martyrs in Libya, calling in to SAT-7 to both thank and pray for the murderers of ISIS.


Orient and Occident Magazine

Orient and Occident Magazine is a publication of the Anglican Diocese of Egypt, North Africa, and the Horn of Africa. I have been working with the church on the project for a little under a year, and am proud to announce the first issue is now complete and online.

O&O is scheduled to be an online, quarterly, bilingual magazine. Its goal is to serve primarily Arab Christians of the region in providing articles that consider the intersection of the values of faith and the issues of society.

Many Christians have a strong sense of spirituality; many others are active in political life or defense of their community. Orient and Occident seeks to bring these worlds together – what practical difference should Christian values make for the good of all?

Love, peace, forgiveness, mercy, grace, justice. By no means are these Christian values alone. Orient and Occident also welcomes Muslim and non-religious writers to contribute – and seeks their readership – so that these values might increasingly find expression in the public lives of the region’s people.

Of course, there will be disagreement over how these values should be expressed. Orient and Occident will strive to welcome all opinions. It aims to take no editorial stand, except to insist on a perspective shaped by the values of faith.

The articles of the summer edition include:

  • It All Began Here (the Anglican Church and the Middle East)
  • Tunisian Christians and the Arab Spring (how they contributed, that they exist)
  • My Story with the Thug (necessary introspection of a societal crisis)
  • Political Choices and the Confusion of Believers (facing a presidential vote)
  • Religious Pluralism in Egypt in the Near Future (on Protestantism and Islamism)
  • The Truth No One Talks About (sectarian tension and its roots)
  • Two Cities (Augustine’s vision and Egyptian reality)
  • Caravan Reflections (contemplating a recent art exhibition)
  • Poisons We Love (on the dangers of sugar)
  • The Killer of Dreams (short story on parental expectations)
  • Two Faced (on political and religious hypocrisy)

In addition to articles, Orient and Occident features Christian bloggers from the Arab world. As these post new material to their site, O&O will automatically feature it in chronological order. Currently there are 17 bloggers featured, but we hope this number will grow as our magazine becomes better known.

Please click here to visit Orient and Occident, the English version. We hope you will enjoy it; please share widely to help this idea become better known.

Middle East

Erdogan in Egypt: Teenage Turkey Tests Her Limits

Erdogan with his image of prominence, popularity

I had the opportunity to witness the keynote address of Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan on September 13. Beginning a tour of Arab Spring nations, he met with military, political, and business leaders in Cairo, and then spoke generally to the nation from the historic Opera House, in a session hosted by Cairo University. The following are a few highlights from his speech, concluding with some personal observations:

  • For a lecture scheduled to begin at 4pm, Erdogan began speaking at 6:45pm. Attendees had been asked to arrive no later than 3pm for security.
  • The audience chanted continually during the speech, lauding Erdogan for his regional politics.
  • Erdogan praised Egypt and her revolution, as well as historic Egyptian-Turkish ‘sisterhood’.
  • A devout Muslim, Erdogan laced his speech with Quranic references, though in a different setting he praised the virtues of a ‘secular’ state which values religion.
  • He believed the spirit of liberation in the Arab world was spreading to America and Europe to sensitize the whole world against injustice.
  • Turkey and the Arab world will dismiss orientalist myths that the region cannot support democracy or strong economies.
  • In a nod to protestor concerns and as a prod to military leadership, Erdogan stated the coming elections should be held according to a set schedule.
  • Erdogan highlighted the dramatic increase in trade between Turkey and Egypt, and pledged it would only increase further in the future.
  • He declared that Egypt is Turkey’s key to Africa, just as Turkey is Egypt’s key to Europe.
  • Erdogan spoke of his efforts to get Syrian President Assad to reform, but stated he can no longer trust him in his pledges.
  • Alarmingly and surprisingly, Erdogan predicted that Syria will now face sectarian problems, which are played upon by foreign forces.
  • He stated that the illegitimate policies of Israel are the biggest obstacle to peace in the region, especially in her disregard for international law.
  • Erdogan prompted the greatest applause when he reiterated Turkey’s diplomatic efforts against Israel will continue until an apology is received for Turkish deaths aboard last year’s flotilla.
  • He also condemned as illegitimate the deaths of Egyptian officers in an Israeli raid across the Sinai border; he also offered his condolences to their families.
  • He expressed hope the Israeli people would realize their settlements are illegitimate, and that they are leading the nation into difficulties.
  • Erdogan pledged to hold Israeli leaders accountable while expressing he bore no ill will against the Israeli citizen, who like all must be respected on account of their creator.
  • He promised to always stand side by side with Palestine, hoping for an independent state in the framework of the United Nations.
  • Erdogan counseled the United States to reconsider its stance toward Palestinian statehood, to better accord with traditional concerns of justice in American foreign policy.
  • He believed Fatah and Hamas needed to keep from being divided and to love each other.
  • Erdogan predicted the Egyptian economy would rebound after elections, and promised that Turkey would stand by Egypt’s side forever.
  • Erdogan closed by announcing he cannot forget, and will never forget, what was accomplished in Tahrir Square.
Erdogan addressing the crowd

I have few strong opinions on Turkey. The nation has done well to craft for itself a strong economy and independent foreign policy. All is not perfect, of course: Turkey has major problems with her Kurdish minority, and human rights organizations complain about a lack of journalistic freedom and other issues. The Armenian massacre and the division of Cyprus are long unresolved issues still staining Turkish public image. Yet there is little denying the accomplishments of her democracy as well as her emergence from supervisory military rule.

I wonder, however, if Turkey in recent weeks has become like a teenager in an adult body seeking to assert his newfound power. Sometimes bravado is found right, as in Turkey’s early calls for Mubarak to heed the will of protestors. Sometimes bravado is found empty, as in Turkish impotence to stand up to Syria. Sometimes bravado takes on unwise enemies, as in Turkey’s threat to freeze EU relations if the presidency – assigned by rotation – is awarded to Cyprus. And sometimes bravado can be for its own sake, as in Turkey’s increased tension with Israel.

To be sure, Turkey’s diplomatic row with Israel is a matter of principle. Turkey opposes the Gaza blockade and the illegal settlements in the West Bank. Turkish citizens were killed by Israeli commandos in international waters, no matter how much provocation may have been directed at the soldiers. Yet the feeling is that Turkey’s response to Israel is measured and calculated. Is Turkey using her Israel policy to enhance her regional power?

Certainly Turkey is placing Israel in a no win situation. An apology conveys guilt, and admission of guilt can precede liability. Israel’s soldiers, though the initiators of overt hostility (as opposed to the symbolic hostility of breaking the blockade), were severely attacked. No nation will sell out its military to appease a demanding neighbor, unless her soldiers were clearly at fault (which remains disputed, of course).

Yet Turkey’s announcement of downgrading diplomatic relations came immediately on the heels of Egyptian outrage at her military leadership for failing to take a hard line with Israel following the death of her officers in a cross-border Israeli military raid. Turkey had already been lauded by many liberals and Islamists alike as a possible model for democratic transition. Shortly thereafter the Arab Spring diplomatic tour begins.

Beyond rhetoric, the main substantial element of this tour is the promotion of business. This seems shrewd. While the West and the IMF offer loans and the Gulf States offer cash influx, Turkey seeks job creation. It remains to be seen how much capital remains in Turkish hands, but this is the appropriate action of a growing economy, and may well serve to buttress Egypt’s economic needs as well. Is there more behind the courtship, however?

Though Egyptian populism celebrated Erdogan’s arrival, political leaders – both liberal and Islamist – were more cautious. Despite claims to historic ‘sisterhood’, Arab-Turk relations have not always been rosy. Is Turkey carpet-bagging on Arab Spring gains?

It remains to be seen if the Turkish teenager is ready for adulthood. Turkey has been an ally to the West, while maintaining relationships with Syrian and Iran. She has been an Islamic model, while maintaining relationships with Israel. Turkey’s efforts to craft a ‘Zero Problems’ foreign policy are coming apart at the seams, but this could simply be the teenager outgrowing his clothes (after significant muscle flexing).

Can Turkey stand as an independent actor on the world’s stage? Can she continue to risk offenses against entrenched Western positions? Is Turkey too big for her britches, or has she reached geopolitical maturity? Perhaps like a teenager, the only way to know is to test her limits.



Principled Foreign Policy

… defining it, of course, is difficult.

Most Arabs I have met have been quick to distinguish between the American people and the American government. That is, while much criticism exists toward American foreign policy, this does not prevent most Arab people from having positive relationships with the American individuals they meet. We, of course, can be the beneficiaries, even in the times we seek to make understandable the policies in question.

Arabs will ask, however, why do the American people allow US foreign policy to go unchecked? There is not a lot of anger behind this question, since they live under governments which take little regard for the will of the people. America, though, is different, and most wish they enjoyed the freedom Americans have to influence national political choices. The solution they propose is that the average American must not know, or be concerned about, what goes on outside US borders, beyond the impact it might have on the American economy.

Fair enough; it may or may not be true. I, however, counter with the idea that while the average American may or may not know the details of the impact of US foreign policy in the nations affected, most are concerned to believe that the US is a force for good in this world. That is, we care about democracy, human rights, and the economic improvement of impoverished areas. As long as US policy can be explained in this light, it can enjoy popular support.

There is now statistical evidence to support my assertion.

The University of Maryland administered a poll surveying American attitudes toward the recent uprisings in the Arab world. 65% believed that increasing democratization in the region would be mostly positive for the United States, and 76% believed it would be so in the long run. Perhaps most telling is the fact that 57% ‘would want to see a country become more democratic, even if this resulted in the country being more likely to oppose U.S. policies.’

It is worthy to note that these opinions focus on the principle – democracy – rather than on the events themselves. Only 51% believed the recent uprisings were likely to lead to increased democracy. Americans can be appreciated for their realism; the outcome in the Arab world is far from clear. Yet the results of this poll demonstrate that we are, at heart, a people that care for the good of the world, even if interpreted through the lens of our own values. Policy makers must determine first and foremost the national interest, but if they fail to convince the people their decision is also beneficial for the foreign nation in question, they are unlikely to win popular support. As the poll suggests, we desire the prioritization of our principles over our interest. Undoubtedly there were many reasons to enter World War I, but the rallying cry was ‘to make the world safe for democracy.’ This sentiment is still pervasive today.

Our reality may not always match our rhetoric, but the fact of our believed benevolence should be noted, both in Washington, and on the Arab street.