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Christianity Today Middle East Published Articles

Christmas Celebrations Canceled in Iraq After Deaths of 400 Protesters

Iraq Protests Baptist
Pastor Ara Badalian leads members of National Baptist Church in prayer at Baghdad’s Tahrir Square. Image: Courtesy of National Baptist Church

This article was first published at Christianity Today, on December 9, 2019.

Distributing food to protesters with 40 fellow church members under the Jumariyah bridge near Tahrir Square in Baghdad, Ara Badalian made a poignant observation.

“This movement is a flood, occupying the hearts of the youth and the poor, without any religious discrimination,” the pastor of National Baptist Church recalled to CT. “It has broken down all the walls that divided Iraqis.”

It is at the bridges—about a dozen span the Tigris River, which bifurcates the Iraqi capital—where most violence has taken place. The protest movement, which began in October, has resulted in more than 400 deaths, around a dozen of them security personnel. Over 17,000 people have been injured.

In response, the Chaldean Catholic Church decided last week to refrain from holding public celebrations of Christmas, trading tree decorations and holiday receptions for prayers of intercession.

“Instead of bringing hope and prosperity, the current government structure has brought continued corruption and despair,” Bashar Warda, the Chaldean archbishop of Erbil, told the United Nations Security Council last week.

“[Iraqi youth] have made it clear that they want Iraq … to be a place where all can live together as equal citizens in a country of legitimate pluralism and respect for all.”

Protesters have demanded the dissolution of parliament, widespread government reforms, and amendment of the sectarian-based 2005 constitution.

Ratified following the United States-led 2003 Iraq War, the current constitution gives the Middle East nation’s Shiite majority (55% of the population) the leading position of prime minister, as well as the influential interior and foreign ministries.

The Sunni minority (40%) receive the speaker of parliament and the defense ministry. The Kurds, who comprise only a third of the Sunni population but are concentrated in their own autonomous northern region, receive the presidency and finance ministry.

Islam is established as the religion of the state and the foundational source of legislation. Christians are among three religious minorities guaranteed religious freedom, though the constitution protects the Islamic identity of the majority.

While the protests have been cross-sectarian in Baghdad, they’ve paradoxically been strongest in the nine Shiite provinces in southern Iraq.

“People don’t want foreign interference from anywhere…

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Christianity Today Middle East Published Articles

Syrian Christians Brave Insecurity to Stay Behind and Help

Syria Open Doors
via Open Doors USA

This article was first published at Christianity Today, on October 18.

Though most of the fighting has stopped for now, Turkey’s incursion on Kurdish-controlled northern Syria has left another humanitarian crisis in its wake.

Local churches as well as Christian organizations like Open Doors and Preemptive Love Coalition have prioritized caring for the citizens who took the risk to stay behind and helping the displaced return.

Last Saturday night, after three days of Turkish bombing, the Alliance Church of Qamishli met to make a decision. Would they flee for safety, or remain and help?

To some degree they had no choice.

Fadi Habsouna, a father of two, was injured when missiles hit his home and ruined his shop. His wife is in critical condition. His grandfather’s home was destroyed by a bomb. The pastor housed them in church-owned property, and decided to remain to assist the family, and others suffering similarly.

The church agreed; only eight families would leave.

“These are extremely brave people who want to be salt and light in their communities,” said David Curry, CEO of Open Doors USA, who relayed this story from his field staff. “They want to maintain the presence of Jesus and reach out.”

Open Doors is better known for its advocacy work on behalf of the persecuted; Syria ranks no. 11 on its World Watch List of places hardest to be a Christian. Its local partners keep a low profile in order to provide on the ground assessment. But the crisis in Syria has driven them to humanitarian aid.

It is not the first time. Following the rise of ISIS in 2014, Open Doors helped 150,000 Christians located in camps along the Turkish and Lebanese borders. Now their community hubs are providing food, medical care, hygiene kits, and temporary shelter in the northeast Syrian towns affected by the Turkish incursion.

“Christians have to make hard choices,” Curry said. “Leave the communities they were raised in, move inland, or …”

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

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Christianity Today Middle East Published Articles

Should Christians Join Muslims in Breaking Ramadan’s Daily Fast?

This article was first published at Christianity Today, on June 22, 2017.

St. Andrews Iftar

For most American Christians, Ramadan is a novelty; something heard of, but rarely seen. For Middle Eastern Christians, it is everywhere.

For some, it is an annoyance. The month-long fast from sunrise to sunset can make for a cranky Muslim neighbor. Productivity tends to slow. Religiosity tends to rise.

But for other believers, it is an opportunity.

“The Evangelical Church of Maadi wishes all Egyptians a generous Ramadan,” proclaimed the flowery banner hung in the southern Cairo suburb. Such signage is not uncommon (and Muslims also display Merry Christmas wishes for Christians). But saluting “all Egyptians” is a statement.

“I want our brother Muslims to feel that we are one [as Egyptians], and it will make him happy in his heart,” said pastor Naseem Fadi. “We both celebrate Ramadan.”

Beside the need to have good relations with Muslims, Fadi also emphasized his biblical obligations. “Our faith tells us to love everyone,” he said. “And when we reach out to others, we teach them about ourselves.”

Across the Middle East, Christians join in the festive spirit—often by hosting an iftar, the traditional fast-breaking dinner…

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Diocese of Egypt (Anglican) Middle East Published Articles

The Egyptian Family House: Muslims and Christians, Holding Hands

Imam-Priest 1

Of all the slogans of the Egyptian revolution, ‘One Hand’ was among the most popular. At various times it was shouted by the thousands to indicate the unity of Muslims and Christians, or the unity of the people and the army, or more recently in the fight against terrorism.

But along this progression the utopian unity of Tahrir Square has faded. It has been challenged by political struggles and sectarian rhetoric, which have at times intermixed.

Perhaps, then, in recognition of the dual truths of religious unity and diversity, Bishop Mouneer Hanna of the Anglican diocese of Egypt opened the final session of the 2014 Imam-Priest Exchange with a different hand analogy.

‘Let us hold hands together,’ he said, ‘for the sake of Egypt.’

The Imam-Priest Exchange is one of the most dynamic projects of the Egyptian Family House, an entity created in 2011 by the Azhar and Coptic Orthodox Church. The Protestant and Catholic denominations are also vital participants, and the Anglican Church has taken the lead in training religious leaders in dialogue and practical partnership.

The Family House has a mandate to interact with government ministers through its committee work in education, media, youth, and religious discourse. But it is this latter committee which is actively preparing its second mandate: Taking the message of national unity to the grassroots.

For it is here that the real challenge of terrorism and sectarianism must be fought. No matter the international scope of these issues gripping the region, too many Egyptians are drafted into extremism.

‘This session coincides with a bloody period that Egypt is going through, killing Muslims and Christians together,’ said Sheikh Muhi al-Din Afifi, head of the Azhar’s Islamic Research Center. ‘We must spread a culture of citizenship, love, peace, and coexistence.’

The military aspect of this challenge is important, Bishop Mouneer emphasized. ‘But ideology is more important and this is why we are here today,’ he said.

‘I hope and trust this will not be our last meeting, but the beginning of our mutual work.’

Imam-Priest 2

November 3-5 witnessed the final of four sessions during which 35 imams and 35 priests from throughout the country lived together, attended training seminars, and visited local historical and religious sites. Their dialogue, so to speak, was not the formal discussion of religious doctrines, but rather the exchange of life, rubbing shoulders over meals and jokes.

They repeated the program experienced a year earlier by seventy others, to be repeated again in 2015 with seventy more.

The first session concerned how to get to know each other, followed in the second by how to live together. But as participants grew more comfortable the purposes grew more demanding. Session three was on how to cooperate, and session four on how to work together.

‘I beseech you to have joint work together throughout Egypt,’ said Afifi, ‘not just religious but also medical and developmental.’

It was not easy in the beginning. During the first session the 2013 graduates were brought back to testify of their experiences. Imams and priests demonstrated their newfound friendships, as just a year previously they had not known each other.

However, there remains challenges in these relationships. Some spoke that a priest would never be welcome in a mosque, nor an imam in a church. Some emphasized the glories of their own religion, and some described others as not really wanting to be there in the first place.

‘It is very hard work,’ said Saleem Wassef, the project director and a lay minister in the Anglican Church. ‘But I stress to them we are here to emphasize a culture of “me and you together,” rather than simply “me or you.”’

These grumblings, however, were outnumbered by testimonies of interaction. Fr. Mityas of Fayoum visited Sheikh Ali when his wife fell ill. Fr. Suriyal of Ismailia visited schools and hospitals with Sheikh Abdel Rahman. Fr. Kyrillos of Port Said solved sectarian problems with Sheikh Hassan. And Sheikh Hisham of Mallawi visits coffee shops with various priests of his city, asking people their impressions about men of religion.

These social appearances are to Bishop Mouneer one of the most important outcomes of the meetings.

‘We are not here to listen to lectures and visit locations,’ he told participants, ‘but each one after leaving here must look for the closest imam or priest near to him and make relationships, hold seminars, and walk in the street together.’

Imam-Priest 3

Indeed, as imams and priests left their hotel in Dokki they needed to go about four blocks to a main road where the bus could take them to their next location. Onlookers stopped conversations and turned to watch the unusual spectacle.

Some priests confessed they had all but stopped walking alone in the streets of their cities, being subject to insults and even spitting. But walking together makes a great difference.

‘Egyptians love men of religion,’ said Fr. Arsanious of Beni Suef, ‘and if they see a priest and an imam together it influences them to work together and overcome fanaticism.

‘These displays of love are like the leaven that spreads through the whole community.’

Fr. Arsanious wants to help open a regional branch of the Family House in his area. Fr. Mikhail and Sheikh Emad hope to begin work in the Cairo slum of Kilo Arba wa Nus.

If successful, they will follow in the footsteps of the previous class which opened branches in Alexandria, Luxor, Port Said, Ismailia, and Giza. This is where the real work takes place, outside the conferences, which will prove their lasting value. Will the friendships forged between imams and priests over the course of a year carry over into continued cooperation?

In expectant hope, Wassef trained them how to measure the fruit of their friendship. Are they working together as a team? Have they touched all classes of their local area? Have they incorporated others already at work in civil society? And have they written out a plan to accomplish the above, with deadlines?

‘We are working hard to exchange a culture of hatred with a culture of love,’ said Wassef. ‘This is for the welfare of our country, to change the minds of Muslims and Christians toward one another.

‘The project helps reach unreached places.’

Imam-Priest 4

This article was originally published at the website of the Anglican Diocese of Egypt.

 

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Aslan Media Middle East Published Articles

Muslims Care for the Heart of a Monk

A spiritual man, Fr. Mercurious knows the only guarantee is from the hand of God. At the same time, his surgery to prevent a heart attack was in the hands of Muslims.

A few weeks ago the forty year old monk in the Monastery of St. Makarious in Wadi Natrun had open heart surgery. Suffering from high cholesterol, his doctor advised this course of action at the earliest date possible.

With genetic propensity from his father, and narrow arteries from his mother, the simple diet of a monk was not enough to guarantee health.

Fr. Mercurious did not intend it to be so originally, though this had nothing to do with religious preference. Like many Egyptians, he inquired first if he could travel to the US or UK for surgery. When embassy procedures did not go anywhere, his doctor recommended a specialist hospital in 6 October City, a new development outside of Cairo.

The surgery went well. Muslim Egyptian doctors grafted veins from his arms and legs to bypass his arteries, which were blocked at 95%. They even gave him special deference due to his clerical disposition.

It is not a remarkable thing, really. Well trained doctors demonstrate their skills on a human being. Unfortunately, it is often not the sort of story heard about Egypt.

Fr. Mercurious related his operation in the context of the changing religious climate of Egypt. While admitting his isolation from the world, he keeps up with events through visitors to the monastery and their tales of political and social developments.

Before entering the monastery after university studies, Fr. Mercurious stated he had only the best of relations with all Muslims he knew. Yet in the past several years he had the impression that the number of ‘extremists’ was increasing.

Is this a function of real change in the character of Muslims, or of real change in the perceptions of his Christian visitors? Surely the two must be somewhat related.

Dr. Mohamed el-Menissy is a Muslim doctor who volunteered at the field hospital in Kasr el-Dobara Evangelical Church near Tahrir Square during clashes in November. In asking him about his experience – not his faith – he insisted over and over again that Muslims and Christians love each other in Egypt. He was near desperate to get this message across to the West. He even gave me the phone number of his Christian doctor colleague so as to confirm their friendship.

Of course Dr. Menissy is telling the truth of his experience, but does such single-mindedness betray a deeper reality frantically denied? Is he hoping the world to be right, if only by insisting it is?

Perhaps it is as simple as rightful offense at media – both Western and Arab – which focuses on problems to such degree it obscures reality, perhaps even to the extent of transforming it. Speaking to media, perhaps Dr. Menissy wanted to transform it back.

What purpose does this story serve, then? In highlighting a non-news event of a Muslim doctor operating successfully on a Coptic monk, do I help stem the tide of negative reporting? Or do I play into the narrative of distinction between Muslim and Christian?

Fortunately, I carry no such burden. I tell the story of the monk because he is my friend and it is interesting. I tell the story of Dr. Menissy because it fits in this context and honors his desire. Both show a slice of life that is worthy to be known more widely.

As for what these stories say about Muslim-Christian relationships in Egypt: They say the truth. It is not the whole truth, but it is an essential truth.

The next time a church burns, it is important to acknowledge this as the truth also. One story balances another.

Such complexity marks our own lives – we chafe at being reduced, simplified, or misunderstood. Let us grant the same grace to Egypt.

After all, as these stories show, she shows much grace to her own.

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Excerpts

Christians in Syria

Christian Children in Homs

From Middle East Concern:

Thousands of Syrians, including large numbers of Christians, have fled from their homes, especially in the Homs and Hama governorates and more recently Damascus and Aleppo. There have been reports of the targeting of Christians by both government and opposition sides.

Several prominent Syrian Christians have been killed recently, including Defense Minister General Dawoud Rajha (assassinated in an attack on the National Security Offices in Damascus on July 18) and Brigadier-General Nabil Zougheib (assassinated along with his wife and son at their home in a Christian neighborhood of Damascus on 21st July).

Most Church leaders point out that any such targeting is not religiously motivated but is either politically motivated or is criminal activity for economic gain. Many Christians fear that radical Islamist groups are becoming more influential, and that this may lead to increased hostility towards Christians and other minorities. They fear that they may become more vulnerable to criminal activity, including kidnapping-for-ransom incidents.

Throughout the ongoing unrest, Syrian Christians have faced a dilemma of allegiance. They regard the current regime as having been a protector for many years and fear that any replacement regime is likely to prove more hostile. Yet along with others in Syria, they know that open allegiance to either the government or to the opposition could bring retaliation from the other side.

I try to keep my eye on Syria, without pretending to know what is going on, or summoning the effort required to really gain an understanding. In general, I am wary of foreign interference, suspect there is already much going on, and have unfortunately become anesthetized to the constant reports of killing. But as ruthless as the Assad regime appears, once protests evolve into armed insurrection, it is hard to take sides.

That said, I found this account interesting. Middle East Concern focuses on the state of Christians in the region, and I haven’t followed them enough to know how objective is their reporting. This one, however, reads well.

I found it interesting especially to note that one of the inner circle assassinated recently was a Christian. It is generally understood that Assad’s Shia-offshoot Alawite regime pulled other minority groups into its ruling ‘coalition’. The last paragraph presents well the state Christians now find themselves in.

I don’t envy them. Surely Christians are complicit in many of Assad’s crimes. The assassinated general’s participation in the regime was likely as a member of the Christian religious sect, rather than as a member of the Christian faith community. The line should not be drawn too finely, but it is fair to ask the question:

Strictly from the perspective of their faith, what should Christians do now?

The sect behaved politically, finding stability and security – as well as likely economic advantage – in remaining close to the Assad regime. The community may have simply accepted this as the status quo, honoring the king as the Bible commands, even when unjust. They may have paid ill attention to these issues of justice, but this is the case with Christians everywhere who are part and parcel of a nation’s fabric, as appears the case in Syria.

But now? The sect must be weighing the political advantages of remaining in Assad’s corner versus abandoning ship before it is too late. This report suggests they have adopted a stance of neutrality, which may be the wisest political course of action. There are landmines on every side, though.

The faith community, however, must be troubled further. Theirs is not a political calculation but a determination of God’s will. They must honor the king: Does Assad still qualify or is the conflict sufficiently ‘civil war’ to deny them a proper object of honor? Furthermore, does Assad’s behavior deny this categorically?

The sect must pay attention to repercussions. If the rebels win will they harbor an anti-Christian agenda? Will they exact sectarian revenge? Will they enact an Islamist agenda that limits their citizenship?

But the community should be less concerned with these issues. They must be wise, of course, but the primary importance is to do what is right. Then, if they must suffer for their choices, they do so in firm conviction God has allowed it to establish their testimony.

Ah, but what is right? This is an estimation we must leave in their hands. We can only pray they have wisdom to decide from the position of their community, and less from the position of their sect.

Either way, may peace come to Syria.

 

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Personal

Statistics on Religious Perspectives in Egypt

On September 25 al-Masry al-Youm published a very interesting survey on religious perspectives conducted by the Information and Decision Support Center of the Egyptian Cabinet of Ministers. Here are a few of the significant findings; keep in mind that Christians make up between 6-11% of the population:

  • 73% of Egyptians are religious and pray regularly.
  • 38% are open to friendships with those of other religions, while 62% are not
  • 87% would not mind having a neighbor from another religion, while 13% would
  • 78% believe there are no problems between Muslims and Christians, while 19% say there are
  • 16% wish to omit the reference to religion on the national ID card, while 76% favor it
  • 58% stated they would not vote for a president of a religion different than their own, while 36% said they would
  • 37% stated they would not vote for a parliamentary candidate different than their own, while 60% said they would
  • 65% stated they would not be affected if a cleric endorsed a certain candidate, 16% said they would consider it, and 14% said they would follow it
  • 25% stated they support the Muslim Brotherhood, 25% said they are indifferent to it, and 21% said they opposed it

Please note there are other interesting statistics in the article, but I did not include them because the percentage totals seemed to be in error. Imagining this to be the error of the article, it should add an additional grain of salt to the above figures, beyond that which should be given to statistics in general.

Observations

Should the statistics presented be accurate, however, it sheds light on Egyptian society and political questions.

  • It confirms that Egyptians are very religious in nature, which has been documented elsewhere.
  • It confirms the statement that Muslims and Christians live peacefully as neighbors in mixed communities, but confirms also the suspicion that their relationships are not very strong.
  • Assuming, perhaps wrongly, that many Christians would be among the 19% claiming interreligious problems, it illustrates a large number of Muslims, though certainly the minority, agree with them.
  • It lends confirmation that religion and identity are strongly intertwined, as the percentage of religiosity roughly equals the percentage wishing religion to remain an official national designation.
  • It illustrates a high percentage of the population is uncomfortable with political leadership being in the hands of a different religion, yet mostly at the level of the head of state. In Islamic history, while the caliph was necessarily a Muslim, members of other religions have often served as high level functionaries in government. It appears the majority of the population translates this notion into acceptance of interreligious parliamentary representation.
  • It counters the notion that religious clerics exert a great influence on the voting patterns of the population. During the March 19 referendum passed overwhelmingly by the population, opponents complained that many clerics urged their communities to vote yes, even declaring such a vote to be an Islamic duty. While 14% acceptance of a clerical endorsement is still large, it by no means characterizes the Egyptian people.
  • It confirms the strong popular base of the Muslim Brotherhood while illustrating also a similarly large opposition to their program. Upcoming elections may well be determined by which group successfully mobilizes their supporters and recruits the middle ground. With committed and organized members, however, these statistics may confirm that the Muslim Brotherhood has an advantage in the competition.