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Christianity Today Europe Published Articles

Azerbaijan Archbishop: Our Holy Mission Is to Keep Peace

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The saying is clear: To the victor go the spoils.

And morally, with it comes the burden of peace.

In November, Christian-heritage Armenia surrendered to Muslim-majority Azerbaijani forces besieging the Caucasus mountain area of Nagorno-Karabakh. The ceasefire agreement ended a six-week war that cost each side roughly 3,000 soldiers, and left unsettled the final status of the Armenian-populated enclave they call Artsakh.

Azerbaijan, however, recovered the rest of its internationally recognized territory, including the historic city of Shushi. The first Karabakh war ended in 1994, and displaced hundreds of thousands from their homes on both sides.

Archbishop Alexander, head of the Russian Orthodox Church in Azerbaijan, reached out to CT to promote a process of reconciliation.

It will not be easy.

What is your vision for reconciliation?

We are both eastern Christian communities, and we have much in common.

At the same time, 1,500 years of separation between the Eastern Orthodox church and the Armenian Apostolic church has complicated relations. We have holy books and traditions in common, but we are not in fellowship.

Both of us have been living among Muslims since Islam was introduced in our region. But the manner of living has been very different. The Orthodox church in Azerbaijan found a way to live together with Muslims, but Armenians did not. Relations were not always…

This article was originally published at Christianity Today, on January 5, 2020. Please click here to read the full article.

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Audio

Audio Appearances

As 2020 draws to a close, many people are saying ‘Amen.’ Amid all the terrible events, much has been left undone.

That is an overly dramatic introduction to a catch-up post.

Thank you to everyone who keeps up with the articles I write. But over the course of this last year I missed sharing two audio appearances for my work.

I did post about one of them. See here for my interview about the situation in Armenia.

But back in May I was a guest on The Underground Sessions: Intersection of Faith, Culture, and Politics.

The podcast is hosted by Millington Baptist Church in New Jersey, and they asked me to share my thoughts on the situation in Lebanon.

Please click here if you would like to listen in to the 41-minute episode.

Of course, the situation in Lebanon grew much worse since then. In August, explosive materials detonated at the Beirut port, and things have still not gone back to normal.

The radio show The Common Good picked up on my article for Christianity Today, about how I explained the blast to my children.

They did not interview me, but engaged with the material and reflected upon it.

Please click here if you would like to listen. The link directs to minute 56 of the show, where the Lebanon segment begins.

Some people have a face for radio. Who knows, maybe I have a voice for newspapers. But as this year comes to a close, amid all the troubles, I can say ‘Amen’ for the life I have.

Thank you for learning along with me.

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Audio

Interview: Pilgrim Radio and the Armenian Crisis

Two weeks ago, I was interviewed by Pilgrim Radio about the conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh, between Azerbaijan and Armenia.

But the primary angle was Turkish repentance. Recently for Christianity Today, I wrote about a movement among Turkish Christians to apologize for the Armenian genocide.

To do so it was necessary to provide context, and also reflect on current events.

Since recording, the conflict ended with a decisive victory for Azerbaijan.

But the story is not yet over. Armenians are leaving their ancient land, as Russia and Turkey work out a new geopolitical arrangement.

Please click here to listen to the recording on Pilgrim Radio, a Christian network operating in the American northwest.

Otherwise, here is the direct link on Soundcloud:

This is the third time I have presented on their program. The first was on the growth of Christianity in the Arabian Peninsula. The second was on Coptic forgiveness of ISIS for the martyrs in Libya.

Thank you for your interest, and I hope you profit from the listening.

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Asia Christianity Today Published Articles

Foxhole Faith in Nagorno-Karabakh

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

The Armenian mountain stronghold of Shushi is under attack.

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

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

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

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

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

Population transfers largely emptied each nation of its opposite ethnicity.

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

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

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

Armenian forces say the fighting continues.

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

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

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

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Prayers

Lebanon Prayer: Expression

God,

You created this world through the power of your voice.

You revealed your will through the light of your word.

You made us, God, to do no less.

Teach us to articulate well.

With our tongue we bless and curse.

From our heart, our mouth speaks.

We will give account for every word.

Some used these words against the French. Muslims rebuke the insult given their prophet.

Some used these words against the Turks. Armenians condemn the war waged on their people.

Some used these words against the Israelis. Lebanese question the lines drawn into the sea.

And perhaps they are right to do so.

Perhaps they please you in their stance.

Their voice is strong. Their will revealed.

But is there power? Is there light?

A word alone is only vapor.

And so some kill. And so some weep. And so some shrug.

What can be done against the mighty?

God, make us mightier still?

Maybe.

Your power is perfected in weakness.

But it is power still.

Power to hold the tongue. Let freedom rule, but honor reign.

Power to bless the enemy. Establish justice. Prevail with peace.

Power to negotiate well. An equitable share, of your free bounty.

God, let our words create.

An apple of gold in a setting of silver.

And let them speak of you. The very words of God.

Let Lebanon be known through them, an expression of your love.

Amen.


To receive Lebanon Prayer by WhatsApp, please click this link to join the closed comments group.

Lebanon Prayer places before God the major events of the previous week, asking his favor for the nation living through them.

It seeks for values common to all, however differently some might apply them. It honors all who strive on her behalf, however suspect some may find them.

It offers no solutions, but desires peace, justice, and reconciliation. It favors no party, but seeks transparency, consensus, and national sovereignty.

How God sorts these out is his business. Consider joining in prayer that God will bless the people and establish his principles, from which all our approximations derive.


Sometimes prayer can generate more prayer. While mine is for general principles, you may have very specific hopes for Lebanon. You are welcome to post these here as comments, that others might pray with you as you place your desires before God.

If you wish to share your own prayer, please adhere to the following guidelines:

1) The sincerest prayers are before God alone. Please consult with God before posting anything.

2) If a prayer of hope, strive to express a collective encouragement.

3) If a prayer of lament, strive to express a collective grief.

4) If a prayer of anger, refrain from criticizing specific people, parties, sects, or nations. While it may be appropriate, save these for your prayers alone before God.

5) In every prayer, do your best to include a blessing.

I will do my best to moderate accordingly. Thank you for praying for Lebanon and her people.

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Asia Christianity Today Published Articles

Azerbaijan Evangelicals: Conflict with Armenians Is Not a Religious War

Church of Kish in Azerbaijan, by Asif Masimov

Vadim Melnikov once fought for the land of Noah.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Asia Christianity Today Published Articles

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

By Սէրուժ Ուրիշեան (Serouj Ourishian)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Beytel drew the fish.

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

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

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

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Asia Christianity Today Published Articles

Symbolic Armenian Church Shelled in Clashes with Azerbaijan

Ghazanchetsots (Holy Saviour) Cathedral in the city of Shusha

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Asia Christianity Today Published Articles

Armenians Fight to Hold Ancient Homeland Within Azerbaijan

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

But is it right to employ their religious labels?

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

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

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

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

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

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

But the shelling of civilian cities represents a worrisome development.

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

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

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

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Christianity Today Europe Published Articles

Christians Defend Cultural Heritage in Muslim-Majority Countries

khachkars

This article was first published in the November 2019 print edition of Christianity Today.

Dozens of men with sledgehammers pound slabs of stone in an otherwise empty mountainous field. Filmed in 2005 by the prelate of northern Iran’s Armenian church, Bishop Nshan Topouzian, the clip purports to show the destruction of khachkars, ornately carved headstones from a Christian graveyard, some dating back to the 6th century.

The site is in Nakhchivan, an enclave of primarily Muslim Azerbaijan geographically separated from the country by primarily Christian Armenia. Iran shares its southern border in the ethnically tangled web of states that make up the Central Asian Caucasus. Russia is to the north, Turkey to the west.

The destruction of more than 2,000 khachkars—in addition to 89 churches, 5,480 cross stones, and 22,000 tombstones—has been labeled “the greatest cultural genocide of the 21st century” by Simon Maghakyan, an Armenian American activist and scholar whose research was profiled in the Guardian. He believes the move represents a campaign by the Azerbaijani government to wipe out its Christian heritage.

“The destruction of these khachkars seems to match in scale and tragedy ISIS’ destruction of Palmyra in Syria and the Taliban destruction of the Bamayan statues in Afghanistan,” said Wissam al-Saliby, advocacy officer at the United Nations for the World Evangelical Alliance.

“This issue goes beyond religious freedom. It is the heritage of mankind.”

But Azerbaijan denies Armenians ever lived in Nakhchivan, and cites similar cultural cleansing…

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

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Americas Christianity Today Published Articles

Senate’s Genocide Vote Not the Only Good News for Armenian Christians

Armenian Genocide Memorial

This article was first published at Christianity Today, on December 13, 2019.

Following years of frustration, Armenian Christians worldwide received a double blessing this week.

For the first time in its history, the US Senate recognized the Armenian Genocide. And after 11 years of practical vacancy, the Armenian community in Istanbul, Turkey, elected a new patriarch.

“It is very emotional for the Armenian world, and anyone who wants to see the truth incarnated,” Paul Haidostian, president of evangelical Haigazian University in Beirut, Lebanon—the only Armenian university in the diaspora—told CT concerning the resolution.

“But it is very obvious this was the opportune moment to be bipartisan.”

Led by Sen. Ted Cruz, a Republican from Texas, the unanimous passage yesterday drove his co-sponsor Sen. Robert Menendez to tears.

“I’m thankful that this resolution has passed at a time in which there are still survivors of the genocide,” said the Democrat from New Jersey, pausing for 20 seconds before being able to continue. “[They] will be able to see that…

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

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Christianity Today Middle East Published Articles

There’s No One Christian View on Kurds and Turks

Turkish Christians
(Image: Lefteris Pitarakis / AP. Clergy representing minority communities in Turkey gathered Sunday in a monastery in southeastern Turkey to pray for Turkish soldiers fighting in the cross-border operation against Syrian Kurdish fighters.)

This article was first published at Christianity Today on October 24.

As reports circulated that Turkey had violated its five-day pause in operations against the Kurds on the Syrian border, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s rhetoric intensified. If Kurdish fighters did not withdraw from their positions, as agreed between Erdogan and President Donald Trump, Turkey would “crush their heads.”

The front now appears quiet as Turkey has secured its “safe zone” in cooperation with Russia.

In America, as reported in the press, Christian opinion has been almost universal in its condemnation. But the Christian landscape in the Middle East, home to the oldest and some of the most enduring persecuted traditions in the faith, offers a complex array of responses.

CT has previously covered anti-Turkish sentiment from the Syriac, Assyrian, and Protestant communities of the region.

But there is an underreported—and contested—pro-Turkey and anti-Kurdish contingent as well.

Arameans:

“President Trump is right on Syria!” stated Johny Messo, president of the World Council of Arameans, in a press release. “These ‘heroes’ have oppressed vulnerable Arameans, taken their innocent lives, Kurdified their lands, and still use a tiny Christian group as their mouthpiece.”

The Arameans, though an ancient expression of Christianity, represent a 20th-century revival of identity tied to the ancient biblical land of Aram. Communities exist in Syria, Turkey, and elsewhere in the region, and have been recognized by Israel.

While the West has rallied behind the democratic Syrian enclave that permits religious freedom, Messo says what it commonly called Kurdistan is actually…

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

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Christianity Today Middle East Published Articles

Armenian Orthodox Leader: ‘We May Forgive One Day, But We Will Never Forget.’

Aram I Armenian Orthodox Church
(Image: Associated Press)

This article was first published at Christianity Today, on November 1.

The Armenian Orthodox Church is one of the oldest Christian churches in the world. According to tradition, Armenia was evangelized by Jesus’ disciples Bartholomew and Thaddeus. In 301 A.D., it became the first nation to adopt Christianity as its official religion.

An Oriental Orthodox denomination, the Armenians are in communion with the Coptic, Syriac, Ethiopian, and Malankara (India) churches. They differ with Catholics and Protestants over the 451 A.D. Council of Chalcedon decision to recognize Christ as one person with two natures: human and divine. Oriental Orthodox Christians declare Christ has one nature, both human and divine.

The Armenian Church is governed by two patriarchs, entitled Catholicos. One, Karekin II, is Supreme Patriarch for all Armenians and sits in Armenia.

CT interviewed Aram I, Catholicos of the Great House of Cilicia, which was once located in modern-day Turkey but since the Armenian Genocide relocated to Antelias, Lebanon, five miles north of Beirut. His jurisdiction includes the Armenians of the Middle East, Europe, and North and South America.

Aram I discussed the genocide, the US House of Representatives resolution this week to finally recognize it, and Armenians’ desired response from Turkey.

How do you respond to the US resolution recognizing the Armenian Genocide?

Yesterday I made a statement welcoming warmly this action taken. I believe it is very much in line with the firm commitment of the United States of America in respect to human rights. The rights of the Armenian people are being violated. After more than 100 years, we tried to bring the attention of the international community that the Armenian Genocide is a fact of history.

Whether we call it genocide or massacre or deportation, the intention is important. The intention of the Ottoman Turkish government at the time was to destroy [and] eliminate the Armenian people for political reasons. The presence of Armenian people in the western part of present-day Turkey and [historic] Cilicia was an obstacle to their project of pan-Turkism.

This is our legitimate claim: that the international community make a visible, tangible manifestation of their concern in respect to human rights, and recognize the Armenian Genocide. It was carefully planned and systematically executed by the government at the time.

Our people all around the world warmly greeted this action of the House of Representatives. It is our firm expectation that…

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

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Americas Christianity Today Published Articles

Will US Genocide Resolution Satisfy Armenian Christians?

Armenian Genocide Memorial
(from the Armenian Genocide Museum-Institute)

This article was first published at Christianity Today, on November 1.

Armenian Americans breathed a sigh of relief this week when the US House of Representatives overwhelmingly approved Resolution 296 to recognize the Armenian Genocide.

Around 1.5 million Armenians were killed between 1915 and 1923, as the defeated Ottoman Empire transitioned into the modern Republic of Turkey. Less than half a million survived.

The resolution also mentions the Greek, Assyrian, Chaldean, Syriac, Aramean, Maronite, and other Christian victims who lived in Asia Minor and other Ottoman provinces at the time.

If the House legislation is passed in the Senate and signed by President Donald Trump, the United States will be committed to commemorate the genocide, to reject its denial, and to educate people about it in order to prevent similar atrocities in the future.

But if Armenian Americans are finally pleased, the diaspora in the Middle East—much closer to the Turks and the lands taken from their ancestors—demurs.

“It certainly heals some small aspect of our century-long national wound,” said Paul Haidostian, president of the evangelical Haigazian University—the only Armenian university in the diaspora—in Beirut, Lebanon.

“There is some sense of relief. But it should not be exaggerated.”

Nor should it be underestimated, he told CT. All Armenians…

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

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Excerpts

A Christian Captain for Iranian Soccer

Andranik Teymourian
Andranik Teymourian

Yesterday I posted about religious contradiction in Saudi Arabia. Today posts a Guardian article about Iran, in the other direction:

The 32-year-old midfielder, known as Ando – or Samurai, due to his hairstyle – is not shy of showing his Christianity, often crossing himself on the field. In April, Teymourian, who has played for Bolton Wanderers and Fulham, became the first Christian to lead Iran’s football team as its permanent captain. “I’m happy that as a Christian I play in a Muslim team,” he said in a recent interview. “I have Armenian roots but I hold the Iranian passport and I’m proud of that, I hold my flag high. I hope I can enhance the good reputation of Armenian people in Iran.” Ethnic Armenians make up the majority of Iran’s estimated 300,000 Christians.

This is their situation:

Although Islam is Iran’s official religion, it recognises Christians, Jews and Zoroastrians as accepted religious minorities. They are permitted their house of worship and usual religious services, and have reserved seats in the Iranian parliament. In a country where alcohol and pigmeat are forbidden, Christians are allowed to distil booze and eat pork. There are at least 600 churches in Iran, including the sixth-century St Mary Church of Tabriz, mentioned by Marco Polo in his travel book. The adjacent province of West Azerbaijan boasts the ancient St Thaddeus Monastery, a Unesco world heritage site. When Hassan Rouhani came to power in 2013, he appointed Ali Younesi, a former intelligence minister, to serve as his special assistant in minorities’ affairs. It was the first time such a position had been created. Significant improvements have since been made but many big challenges remain.

Among them:

Iran also remains highly sensitive towards the issue of conversion. Muslims who convert to other religions risk being arrested. More than 90 are behind bars, including pastor Saeed Abedini, who holds an Iranian American citizenship. Muslims whose denominations are not accepted by Iran, such as Gonabadi dervishes, face persecution, with many of their members in jail.

Perhaps Iran is trying to polish up its image, especially vis-a-vis Saudi Arabia. In their regional battle for supremacy, everything counts. But being the captain of the national soccer team is a big deal. I’m guessing they don’t play political games with that. Iran Soccer Kiss Quran But here is an interesting question for Christians in the West:

As Iran’s national football team prepared to head to the World Cup last year, Andranik Teymourian stood next to his teammates while they lined up to kiss the holy Islamic book, the Qur’an, as part of the farewell ceremony. Although he is not a Muslim, the Iranian Armenian didn’t want to rock the boat and so performed the ritual for travellers, which is a quintessential part of Iranian culture. The cleric holding up the Qur’an could hardly disguise his amusement at the scene.

The description here doesn’t seem quite right. If it is ‘a quintessential part of Iranian culture’ surely he has done it already, before becoming captain. And if so, why would the cleric be in amusement? Or, did they previously allow him to decline, but as captain he thought best to do so and represent his team? More information is necessary, but let us assume the article is correct in both this description and in the sincerity of Teymourian’s Christian faith. There is always a mix between religion and culture, but Western Christians don’t often have to think too deeply about this, as the mix is in their favor. Perhaps this is changing, some would say. But for Christians within a different mix, where should the lines be drawn? Teymourian has been honored for his play and leadership. Did he do well, or compromise? What would you have done?