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Despite a Murder and Visa Denials, Christians Persevere in Turkey

Turkey Korean Murder
Image: Source Images: Congin Kim / Annie Spratt / Unsplash

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

Five days after her husband’s murder, Jung Kyung-In named her newborn daughter “God’s Goodness”—in Turkish, not Korean.

Jung moved to Turkey with her husband, Kim Jin-Wook, in 2015. The Korean Christian couple found a place to live in an impoverished district of Diyarbakir in southeastern Turkey, 60 miles from the Syrian border.

Kim worked selling spices, but his real calling, as he understood it, was witnessing to the gospel. He took the Turkish name “Peace,” and his Christian friends in Turkey say he was a great evangelist.

“He shared the gospel in every corner of Diyarbakir without hesitation,” said Ahmet Güvener, pastor of the Diyarbakir Protestant Church, which has about 70 members. “He was not aggressive, but clear, and I think local people were uncomfortable with this.”

One day in November, Kim told Jung he was going out to evangelize. He was attacked on the street, stabbed twice in the chest and once in the back. Kim, 41, died of his wounds in a city hospital.

Authorities arrested a 16-year-old boy for the crime. He has allegedly confessed to the murder, saying he was trying to steal Kim’s phone.

Despite her grief, Jung saw this as an opportunity to testify. She wrote a letter to the boy accused of killing her husband.

“I do not understand why you did this, but I cannot be angry at you,” she wrote on her phone.

“Many people want the court to give you a heavy punishment. But I and my husband don’t want this. We pray that you become worthy of heaven, because we believe in the worth of people. God sent his Son Jesus, who forgave those who persecuted him. We also believe in that and we pray that you would also repent of your sin.”

Jung read the letter aloud to the local media. Her testimony was viewed online more than…

Please click here to read the full article 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

Judeo-Christian Politics… in Israel?

Judeo Christian Politics Israel
Image: Amir Levy / Stringer / Getty via CT

This article was first published at Christianity Today on April 11, 2019.

In one of the most tightly contested Israeli elections in years, Benjamin Netanyahu appears poised to remain prime minister.

His Likud party is projected to win 35 seats in the 120-member parliament, the Knesset, tied with challenger Benny Gantz’s Blue and White party; but coalition partners will likely boost the incumbent Bibi to a governing majority of 65.

But for Christians in Israel, could the most significant electoral development have come from a new party that won a total of zero seats?

“We are the only party to give Christian and Messianic candidates parity in the candidates’ list,” said Avi Lipkin, the Orthodox Jewish head of the Bible Bloc Party, known as Gush Hatankhi in Hebrew.

“For the first time in 2,000 years, Jews and Christians are … brethren and allies.”

In Israel’s proportional system, a party must claim at least 3.25 percent of the nearly 6.4 million eligible voters—so roughly 200,000 votes total—in order to enter parliament.

The Bible Bloc only won 367.

The significance lies in their getting started. As a new party, Lipkin explains they had limited time to build a base. To legalize a party, 100 members are needed. The Bible Bloc recruited 150: roughly half Jewish and half Christian, as reflected in their candidate list.

Heading the list was…

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

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Current Events

Forty Years Later, House Churches Threaten Iran’s Islamic Revolution

Iran Report Christians House Churches
Azadi Tower in Tehran (image courtesy of Article18)

This article was originally published at Christianity Today, on February 14.

Hundreds of thousands of Iranians flooded streets nationwide on Monday, in celebration of the 40th anniversary of the Islamic Revolution.

Not present were dozens of Christians with no freedom of movement.

“For 40 years, the Iranian government has harbored an intolerant view towards Christianity,” said Mansour Borji, advocacy director at Article18, a Christian human rights organization focused on Iran.

“Administrations have changed and the methods have varied, but the objective remains the same: to restrict Christians’ influence on all spheres of Iranian life.”

An in-depth report on violations against Iranian Christians in 2018 was jointly released last month by Open Doors, Middle East Concern, Christian Solidarity Worldwide, and Article18. It was a first-time collaboration for the groups—in order to amplify their voice, Borji said.

The report stated that according to public records, 29 Christians were held in detention in 2018 for terms of 6 months to 10 years (if formally sentenced at all). Eight were released.

The report emphasized that many more detentions of Christians remained undocumented.

Article 18 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) guarantees the freedom of religion, including the right to adopt a faith of one’s choice and to publicly practice and teach it.

Iran ratified the ICCPR in 1975, prior to the 1979 revolution which ended 2,500 years of monarchy.

But Christians are not the only victims…

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

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Current Events

Under the Law: Israeli Christians Worry About Secondary Status in Jewish Nation-State

Israel Nation State
Judaism and Christianity symbols on the Jerusalem old city gate – MyHolyShop

This article was first published at Christianity Today, on July 31, 2018.

In a legislative act both obvious and inflammatory, this month Israel cemented its nature as a Jewish state.

By a narrow vote in the Knesset, Israel’s legislature, the law entitled “Basic Law: Israel as the Nation-State of the Jewish People” was adopted to serve alongside over a dozen other “basic laws” that serve as Israel’s de facto constitution.

A key clause states that national self-determination is “unique” to Jews. Other provisions formally establish the nation’s flag, emblem, and anthem. Jerusalem is confirmed as the complete and united capital. The Sabbath and Jewish festivals are declared official days of rest.

But two other clauses have raised considerable concern. Jewish settlement is a “national value” to be promoted. And Arabic is downgraded from an official language to one with “special status.”

“This law outlines that Israel’s democratic values are secondary for non-Jews,” said Shadia Qubti, a Palestinian evangelical living in Nazareth. “It sends a clear message that my language is not welcome and consequently, neither is my cultural and ethnic identity.”

Her fears are echoed by an Israeli lawyer.

“While the idea of the law is straightforward—it’s hard to argue that Israel isn’t a Jewish state—the actual provisions are controversial, discriminatory, and possibly racist,” said Jaime Cowen, former president of the Union of Messianic Jewish Congregations…

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

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Current Events

Mideast Christians See Russia–not the US–as Defender of their Faith

 

Russia Middle East Christians
Image: John Holcroft

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

War was swirling in Syria. Rebels were pressing. And Maan Bitar was the only hope for American help.

“Because I am evangelical, everyone thinks I have channels of communication,” said the pastor of the Presbyterian Church in Mhardeh. “Syrians believe the United States has the power to stop the conflict—if it wants to.”

In the early years of the civil war, Bitar’s Orthodox neighbors were desperate to convince the US and its allies to end support of rebel forces. Mhardeh, a Christian city 165 miles north of Damascus, was being shelled regularly from across the Orontes River.

But salvation came from a different source. Russian airpower turned the tide, and Syrian government-aligned troops drove the rebels from the area.

Russian intervention on behalf of Mideast Christians has pricked the conscience of many American evangelicals. Long conditioned to Cold War enmity, the question is entertained: Are they the good guys in the cradle of Christianity? Or are persecuted Christians just a handy excuse for political interests?

“The news tells us Russian troops are bringing peace to the region, said Vitaly Vlasenko, ambassador-at-large for the Russian Evangelical Alliance. “Maybe this is propaganda, but we don’t hear anything else.”

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

But here also is testimony from Egypt, unfortunately cut due to word count:

“If Russia helps anyone to save them from death and danger [in Syria], we welcome this,” said Boules Halim, spokesman for the Coptic Orthodox Church. “Not just for Christians, but for humanity.”

Halim had no comment on Russian political developments with Egypt. But despite technically not being in communion over disagreements with the fifth-century Chalcedonian Creed, relations with the Russian Orthodox Church are growing increasingly strong.

Pope Tawadros has met Putin. Theological students are being exchanged. Russian monks are touring Egyptian monasteries.

“We are coming together in dialogue,” Halim said. “Better communication leads to better understanding.”

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Current Events

Spanning the Great Schism between Evangelical and Orthodox Christians

 

Spanning the Great Schism
Image: Benedetto Cristofani / Salzmanart

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

Three brief excerpts in the efforts to unite evangelicals and Orthodox believers.

Four years ago in Istanbul, a humble Turkish book partially reversed the 11th century’s Great Schism. Catholics joined Eastern and Oriental Orthodox—alongside Protestants—to publish a slim, 12-chapter treatise on their common theological beliefs.

“You can’t find a page like this in all of church history,” said Sahak Mashalian, an Armenian Orthodox bishop and the principal scribe of Christianity: Basic Teachings. “It is akin to a miracle.”

If this is contemporary, here is history…

“The Copts largely resisted conversion,” Suriel wrote, “[but it] awakened in them a spirit of inquiry and an impulse to reform.”

Missionaries supplied Girgis [Orthodox founder of the Sunday School Movement] materials, and the Bible Society of Egypt gave him free or low-cost Bibles for his students, said Sinout Shenouda, the Orthodox vice-chair of its board. “The Americans initiated the idea, and the Orthodox came to imitate,” he said. “It was competition, but useful in that it profited from the missionaries rather than just attacking them.”

So what about the future?

Evangelical principles seep into traditional churches. Evangelicals do too—and the cross-pollination continues.

“I don’t think it is possible to overstate the influence of evangelical converts to Orthodoxy in terms of missions,” said Alex Goodwin, annual giving director for the Orthodox Christian Mission Center (OCMC). “It has been transformative for many of us who are ‘cradle Orthodox.’ ”

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

 

 

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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

“Avoid Persecution-of-Christians Label,” 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)

From my new article for World Watch Monitor:

As the conflict in Syria continues, Jayson Casper sat down with Miles Windsor, head of advocacy at Christian charity Middle East Concern, to discuss where Syrian Christians’ allegiance lies, whether those who fled the country may return, and how Christians in other countries can help.

Jayson Casper: There has been much reporting about how Syrian Christians supposedly support the regime, the opposition, or are neutral. There is also reporting about how their stance may have shifted over time. What is your perspective on how the hard-to-define majority of Syrian Christians should be described?

Miles Windsor: The first point to stress is that within Syria’s sizeable Christian communities, there are both supporters of the Assad regime and supporters of opposition groups, so it’s important to avoid blanket generalisations. And a second basic point is that for most Syrian Christians, and indeed most Syrians generally, political allegiance is usually nuanced or qualified.

“Improved security alone will not be sufficient to facilitate large-scale return of IDPs”

Although there are Syrian Christians who support, and are active within, opposition groups, most Syrian Christians tend to favour the Assad regime. This is certainly the public position articulated by most Syrian church leaders.

Such support has historical roots. The Assad regime has traditionally granted a significant degree of freedom to the diverse religious communities of Syria.

 

Please click here to read the full article at World Watch Monitor.

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Current Events

Sectarian Cinema: Oscars Highlight Muslim Defense of Persecuted Christians

Watu Wote
(Image: Hamburg Media School)

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

Two years ago, the heroic actions of some Kenyan Muslims brought their majority-Christian nation together. The Oscar-nominated film depiction of that heroism may do so again—if many people watch.

Watu Wote is a fictional retelling of real-life horror. In December 2015, al-Shabaab terrorists stormed a bus headed toward the border with Somalia and demanded Christian passengers separate for targeted execution.

Muslim passengers responded, “If you want to kill us, then kill us. There are no Christians here.” The Christian women were given hijabs to wear, while the Christian men were hidden behind bags.

They knew the danger. One year earlier in a similar bus attack, Muslim militants killed 28 Christians who failed to correctly say the Islamic creed.

Filmed on location in Swahili and Somali, the 22-minute film was nominated for the Live Action Short Film category at the 90th Academy Awards.

“The film captures an issue close to Kenyan hearts, that apart from religious differences, we are all Kenyan,” said Timothy Ranji, bishop of the Anglican diocese of Mt. Kenya South. “The downside is that it will be watched by very few Kenyans…”

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

 

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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

Good Mourning America

Good Mourning America

This article was originally published at The Table, of Biola University’s Center for Christian Thought.

In the days leading up to our presidential election, it seemed quite clear that Christians were not happy. But the ennui went beyond politics toward a greater sense that America was changing.

The unhappiness was rooted in good reason. Our principles were lambasted as backward, our policy stances were labeled as bigoted, personalities were labeled as bigots, and our politics were lowered into bouts of bravado. There seemed little for Christians to celebrate, save the requisite reference to our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.

And then Trump won. Some rejoiced, while others cringed. But I suggest whether salve or acid, the underlying sentiment remains fundamentally unchanged.

With our eyes on the world and our changing national fortunes, we appear marked by vindication or frustration, tempted to pride or anger, either way ready to lash out ineffectively at our culture at large. Since apparently Jesus cannot keep us happy, perhaps with him we should try being sad?

But being sad is no cure all, either. Some of different temperament instead yield to depression, tempted to flagellation, ready to grumble unhelpfully at our Christian culture at large.

Being sad is an emotional response, much like being angry. Whether red, blue, or annoyed we are reacting to circumstances, and we should not be too harsh with ourselves. God has given us our emotions, and they are wonderful tools to tell us something is wrong, or at least, different.

For America is different, in her religious composition. Perhaps America is also wrong, in her moral choices. But God invites us first to examine ourselves, requiring of all a greater humility. But to get there, a step beyond sadness is needed, evoking a suffering we are conditioned to dread.

As American Christians, we must choose to mourn that which is different, and that which may also be wrong.

Mourning, unfortunately, carries with it the connotation of defeat, of finality. We know what it means to mourn over the death of a loved one, but here we must mourn over the death of an idea.

I posit that for so many Americans, our fundamental unhappiness stems from an inability to let go of our dream of a Christ-centered nation.

Nor should we. But to find peace we must understand what it means to mourn, to grieve. In the loss of a loved one, we recognize the fact that he or she is gone. The suffering comes not from the death primarily, but from every unfulfilled expectation, every lost hope, every dream for the future that will now never be. Mourning is the necessary surrender thereof.

America is changing, we Christians feel. But we have been reluctant to admit she has already changed. Denial is often the first resistance to grief, pushing off the uncomfortable mourning. Poll after poll bears out the fact, however, that Christianity is losing its national prominence.

Christianity Today recently ran a series analyzing the trends, and one of the most poignant is this: In a 1967 Gallop survey, two percent of Americans identified themselves with no religion; in 2015, a Pew survey finds the now-ascendant “nones” at 23 percent.

Nearly one-quarter of Americans have no religious affiliation. That is a fact very near to a flatline.

Proper mourning, however, must identify the body. Though we cannot be happy, Jesus is still Lord and Savior. It is not Christianity that has died, and neither the church. The polls bear out this fact as well.

A Gallop survey in 1940 found 37 percent of Americans saying “yes” when asked if they attend church weekly. In 2015, the number dropped all the way to an astounding, wait for it, 36 percent.

Church going Americans are as numerous now as they have long been. What has changed, then? Where have the nones come from? In 1972 a GSS survey found mainline Christians to be 28 percent of the population. By 2014, they were only 12 percent. And as the former standard bearers of Christian civil religion eroded, evangelical Christians have grown to 23 percent.

Nearly one-quarter of Americans are evangelical Christians. That too is a fact, but it is not a pulse. Christianity in America is not dead, but Christian America? Yes.

At this point, it must become personal. I have my story to tell, but that is not what I mean. Every death is mourned differently by every bereaved. Two sons of a deceased mother will each grieve uniquely, for they had different hopes, dreams, and expectations for the life they no longer share with her. One cannot say to the other, “I know how you feel,” no matter the similarity of experience, nor the true comfort they can exchange.

The author of the Christianity Today series reflects on these religious demographic changes and says it may not be a bad thing. As nominal Christian expression recedes it gives the church more opportunity to correctly present the gospel life of discipleship.

Perhaps he is right. Of the 70 percent (according to a 2014 Pew survey) of Americans who identify as Christian, he divides them into rough statistical thirds: Cultural, due to birth and inherited identity; Congregational, due to communal attachment; and Convictional, due to belief and practice.

I do not disagree with his assessment nor the necessity of distinction. An evangelical reading of the Bible emphasizes the eternal importance of personal faith and practice. But as one in his category of convictional Christians, I mourn over our separation from the whole.

Perhaps I am wrong to mourn. Many evangelicals of my youth warned instead to mourn over those who falsely understood themselves to be Christians just because they were born into a household that attends church that way. One must be “born again,” said Jesus. Perhaps those who emphasize this message find vindication they have fewer mainline Christians to mourn over?

Likely not. Their sentiment is genuine, and their concern is real. Their witness comes from the heart. They love their fellow man, and they love America beside. For many, transforming the former is a means to preserve the latter. Some need patience, to endure their zeal. Others give praise, as their lives have been changed.

I, however, rightly belong to all three of the author’s categories. I was born into a Christian home. I value belonging to a Christian people. I adhere to time-honored Christian convictions.

Evangelical faith cherishes and nurtures all three. But I find the statistics are ripping away two-thirds of those who might otherwise be counted with me. And with them is ripped away the Christian ethos of America.

This is the death that I mourn—the hollowed out corpse of a once Christian nation. With it dies the expectation of my country’s inherent goodness, the hope of nominals still near to the gospel, and the dream of enduring Christ-infused values.

But again, some might rejoice that true faith is made clear. “We should be less American, and more Christian,” is a statement increasingly heard from many in the pews. Once more, I do not disagree.

But another tool to postpone mourning is improper substitution. Less apt if comparing to the death of a loved one, consider the reaction if your dog dies, or your girlfriend breaks up with you. How many people offer false comfort with the well intentioned words, “Just get another one?” And perhaps you will, wanting the replacement to fit the hopes you had for the old. Rarely does it work.

The dream of a Christ-honoring culture cannot be replaced by substituting out America for a more singular Christian priority. Likely a needed corrective, but it does not address the pain.

Nor do the more common reactions of striving harder and fighting back. How many people have you met who numb the loss of a loved one by drowning themselves in activity? Even if done to honor the deceased, it leaves unaddressed the underlying grief.

Many evangelical thinkers have outlined their “what do we do now?” strategies. Some say we should embrace our role as a prophetic minority. Others suggest we must reclaim the institutions of cultural influence. Some recommend a renewal in the church. Others encourage a revived evangelism.

Each is likely a fine way forward. But not yet. Wait. Rest. Mourn. Identify the dream you had, cry, and humbly suffer. Then, let it go.

What Christians attained in America past may or may not have been God’s will. Undoubtedly it fell short of his ideal. In so many ways, it was good. And as long as we live here, we have obligations to seek her best.

But the fact at this moment is that America is moving on from her Christian heritage. Perhaps I am wrong, but it is sorrowful that something so precious is being lost, a glue that holds much together.

Yet a loss fully mourned brings healing. Healing brings wholeness. Christ brings completeness. From here, God can give us new hopes, dreams, and expectations for ourselves and our nation, fitting a new reality.

American Christians—triumphant or frustrated, depressed or angry, denying or striving, of any and all statistical categories—should dream with him. The nones are waiting, as is Jesus, our Lord and Savior.

 

 

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Religion

The Christmas Rabbits of C.S. Lewis

Watership Down
(via http://cromeyellow.com/watership-down-by-peter-diamond/)

Creation is alive with the spark of God, often witnessed in the innocence of children. For those made curious by the title, it is actually an amalgam of two oddly related God moments recently experienced through the pen of two celebrated English writers.

The first came through reading Watership Down to my children. The classic Richard Adams epic is the adventure of several rabbits who break away from their warren. A note of foreboding by the youngest of the herd has not been heeded, but his history of keen perception convinces his colleagues among the rabble.

At a resting place along the way, Dandelion comforts the tired rabbits with the tale of Frith, their god.

It is a “How the Elephant got his Trunk” story, for rabbits. Their chief ancestor engaged in friendly witticism with Frith, and eventually found himself in conversation with the deity while bottom-up stuck in hole.

Earlier in the story, Frith multiplied the rabbit’s enemies as the ancestor thumbed his nose at the request to curb his prodigious copulation.

Impressed by the ancestor’s pluck while still vulnerable, Frith blessed the rabbit’s bottom with quickness and speed, with which it can ever evade them—but must run.

It is a delightful creation account, but my oldest daughter remarked Frith isn’t a real god. He is too much akin to his creatures, and too involved in playful banter with his creation.

I explained that the stories of many gods are similar. They live with humans and interact with them.

My younger daughter then piped in, “That’s kinda like our story, too.”

I was struck by her use of the word “story.” To my daughter the Christian story is the implicitly true account of the universe, but her instinctive description of it is as narrative. Unlike her elder sibling, she didn’t mind the resemblance.

A few hours later I was reading a Christianity Today article about a recently discovered article of C.S. Lewis, called “A Christmas Sermon for Pagans,” originally published in a forgotten issue of the once popular The Strand magazine, but nowhere listed within Lewis’ extensive bibliography.

The article notes Lewis’ observation that despite post-Christian peoples sometimes being called “pagans,” they are nothing of the sort. True pagans inhabited a world full of mystery, magic, and wondrous creatures.

Comparing the two, Lewis wrote, is:

like thinking … a street where the houses have been knocked down is the same as a field where no house has yet been built. … Rubble, dust, broken bottles, old bedsteads and stray cats are very different from grass, thyme, clover, buttercups and a lark singing overhead.

The enchantment of pagan reality is superior to a dreary modernity, Lewis thought. He found danger in modern man’s machine-like approach to nature, even to humanity itself.

But Christianity is an interesting middle-ground:

It looks to me, neighbours, as though we shall have to set about becoming true Pagans if only as a preliminary to becoming Christians. … For (in a sense) all that Christianity adds to Paganism is the cure.

It confirms the old belief that in this universe we are up against Living Power: that there is a real Right and that we have failed to obey it: that existence is beautiful and terrifying.

It adds a wonder of which Paganism had not distinctly heard—that the Mighty One has come down to help us, to remove our guilt, to reconcile us.

In some sense, coming back to my youngest daughter, Christianity is the fulfillment of Frith.

[To note for those truly interested: G.K. Chesterton explored very similar themes in his The Everlasting Man.]

Islam, a post-Christian religion held by most Egyptians we live among, takes great offense at the Christian claim of incarnation. While Allah intervenes in human affairs and may extend his great mercy, it is not fitting that he would become a man, sleep, snore, and defecate.

Frith, meanwhile, created the universe from his droppings. The Muslim impulse is very similar to that of my daughter, where a real god should not be so intimately involved with his creation.

It took the younger child to see it right.

“Every evening, when Frith has done his day’s work and lies calm and easy in the red sky,” wrote Adams, “[the ancestor and his descendants] come out of their holes and feed and play in his sight, for they are his friends, and he has promised them that they can never be destroyed.”

The magic of our ancestors fed the stories of our childhood. Modern man has grown too sophisticated to believe them, and Christianity played a significant role. We are not to fear the world.

The pagans did. Post-pagans, with much Christian help, shook their fear and enslaved their former enchanter. What will set the world—and us—free again?

Christmas is coming.

In one corner there may be snark at notions of traveling stars and virgin birth amid inebriation and the best of consumerism.

In another corner there may be snark at the right number of wise men and the seasonal location of a manger, amid legalism and the best of consumerism.

This year, around the Christmas tree appropriated from our pre-Christian ancestors, be rightfully pagan. Feast. Revel. Sing.

Be also rightfully Christian. Share. Serve. Marvel.

As Lewis wrote to the pseudo-pagans of his day, this may be our “way back not only to Heaven, but to Earth too.”

It is a lesson far more easily grasped by children. Perhaps also, by rabbits.

Categories
Religion

Secondary Separation, in Islam

Secondary Separation Islam

In fundamentalist Christian circles there is an approach to the world known as ‘secondary separation’. While the Bible notes Christians are not of this world, there is tension when Jesus says they are also in this world, and should not expect to be removed.

Fundamentalism is one expression of this tension, that leans in the direction of withdrawal. A key verse is II Corinthians 6:17, “Come out from them and be separate,” quoting an Old Testament passage focusing on holiness.

Separation from the world is therefore a necessary Christian posture, though defining ‘them’ and ‘separate’ can be difficult. Fundamentalists take it a step further, saying that ‘them’ includes also those Christians who do not separate sufficiently.

This is secondary separation, and it has been most famously applied against Billy Graham. The renowned evangelist has been celebrated by most Christians for his gospel fidelity and salvation message.

But it that ‘most’ that offends this fundamentalist spirit. His crusades have cooperated with too many insufficiently fundamentalist churches, which they believe compromises the call to be separate.

In partnering with those who are not theologically pure, he risks endorsing their relative liberalism.

It is interesting to note a similar approach exists in Islam.

The posture of takfir is the process of declaring someone a kafir, an infidel. Longstanding Islamic jurisprudence says this should almost never be done to a Muslim, unless he or she openly renounces their faith.

But there is a verse in the Quran that provides Muslim fundamentalists, if the term is appropriate, a powerful retort. Sura 5:44 says, “And whoever does not judge by what Allah has revealed, then it is those who are the disbelievers,” using the plural of the Arabic word kafir at the end.

This verse has been applied by Muslim insurrectionists throughout the ages against their Muslim rulers who they accuse of not properly implementing sharia.

Certainly Muslims also struggle with the tension of their texts, and they are invited to provide proper interpretation.

But leave it to ISIS, the so-called Islamic State, to take it a step further.

Should it be necessary: There is little similarity between Christian fundamentalists and Islamic terrorists. But a devotion to God and a commitment to his way may sometimes prompt an antagonistic stance not only to the world, but also to fellow believers.

And from an article in Jihadica, “The Caliphate in Disarray,” there is also a similarity in secondary takfir.

Turki al-Bin’ali, the self-proclaimed ‘Grand Mufti,’ or chief cleric, of ISIS, was killed several months ago in a US airstrike. His death set off a wave of eulogies, but also counter-eulogies and accusations. Some even speculated his location was tipped off to the enemy that he be eliminated as leader.

Takfir is one of the issues that divides ISIS and al-Qaeda, with the latter being slightly more reticent to call non-affiliated Muslims non-believers. It is a sensible position if you are trying to recruit, not to limit your pool of applicants.

Then again, the number willing to die in their cause is considerably limited by their viciousness. Perhaps then it is best to recruit only the purest of the pure. But as seen with Christian fundamentalists, purity is easily nitpicked.

As a result: theological division among those who believe they have already most dedicated to God’s path through jihad.

Al-Bin’ali’s nemesis on this issue, the Meccan-born Ahmad ibn ‘Umar al-Hazimi, preached a rigorous approach to takfir. The following excerpt may be challenging in its Arabic references, but careful reading will establish a clear similarity with secondary separation:

In his lectures, he [al-Hazimi] espoused a controversial doctrine known as takfir al-‘adhir, or “the excommunication of the excuser.”

The notion of takfir al-‘adhir is derived from two concepts in Wahhabi theology. The first is the requirement of takfir; the second is the inadmissibility of al-‘udhr bi’l-jahl, or “excusing on the basis of ignorance.”

According to the founder of Wahhabism, Muhammad ibn ‘Abd al-Wahhab (d. 1792), it is incumbent upon all true believers to excommunicate—that is, to make takfir of—those deemed unbelievers, as well as to excommunicate those who fail to excommunicate them.

As Ibn ‘Abd al-Wahhab stated—and this is the line around which the Hazimi-Bin‘ali debate revolves—“Whoso fails to make takfir of the polytheists, or has doubts concerning their unbelief, or deems their doctrine to be sound, has [himself] disbelieved.”

The duty of takfir is generally accepted in Jihadi Salafism, but there is some debate over al-‘udhr bi’l-jahl, that is, over whether ignorance may serve as a legitimate excuse for holding errant beliefs, and so shield one from the charge of takfir.

For al-Hazimi, who follows the traditional Wahhabi view, al-‘udhr bi’l-jahl is categorically invalid, meaning that the ignorant heretic is to be declared an unbeliever.

Moreover, as he says, anyone who regards ignorance as an excuse for the heretic’s unbelief is also to be declared an unbeliever. Hence the idea of “the excommunication of the excuser.”

Perhaps in truth this is a tertiary takfir, with standard Wahhabism being the secondary. But herein is the problem: Once you start judging a fellow believer’s faith, where does the cycle stop?

Fortunately for Christian fundamentalists, it does not continue to the bombing of a Billy Graham crusade. But there is many a former fundamentalist who has become jaded when he or those he respected found themselves on the wrong side of a Christian fatwa. Sometimes it moves them to a more nebulous evangelicalism; sometimes they leave the faith entirely.

But they are not killed. ISIS, while flip-flopping repeatedly on the issue, did not hesitate to execute proponents of the at-the-time-minority outlook. Others died in airstrikes under what is described as ‘murky circumstances’. The article features more of the back-and-forth diatribe, which revealed also a discontent in ISIS over corruption, dishonesty, unfulfilled prophecies, and the loss of territory.

All the above is a reminder that the tension in religious faith is not only maddening for the sincere believer, but necessary. If God said both this and that, both are true no matter the apparent inconsistency or challenge of application.

It is easy to side with that (or this) most congenial to personal temperament, but mature faith must grapple with both and live accordingly.

In the world, but not of it. Judge by God’s sharia, but don’t judge. The challenge applies to more than we might at first imagine.

My article was first published at Patheos.

Categories
Current Events

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.

 

 

Categories
Religion

Wisdom and Foolishness in Abrahamic Faith

Wisdom Abraham

“Knowledge is power,” is an oft-repeated saying. In an information economy this makes perfect sense, and our educational system is geared to develop know-how.

Wisdom, on the other hand, sometimes seems a neglected virtue. It is the realm of philosophers, maybe, who have little to do with practical life. Or religion, often considered a private domain.

The Abrahamic religions, however, esteem the cultivation of wisdom over and above simple knowledge. Baghdad built the famed “House of Wisdom” when Islam represented the pinnacle of human civilization, translating classical texts that eventually reached the West.

Jewish writings nearly deified “Sophia” as a personification of wisdom. Along with Christianity, these traditions have produced philosophical minds among the greatest the world has ever known.

Which may make it surprising to hear St. Paul esteem being a fool for Christ. In view of the Greek tradition of his day, he said, Christianity is foolishness.

Paul is not subverting this tradition by any means, only highlighting how the wisdom of God in Christ is nonsense in the estimation of the world. Not non-rational, it simply reflects how God’s thoughts are higher than man’s.

Nonetheless, one of the tasks of faith is demonstrating its plausibility to the world. The effort is nobly undertaken by Richard Shumack, in one of the most contested of fields. His book, The Wisdom of Islam and the Foolishness of Christianity, was shortlisted as the Australian Christian book of the year in 2014.

A philosopher by training, Shumack is a professor at Melbourne School of Theology and part of the Ravi Zacharias International Ministry team. It can be said at the outset: he finds Christianity superior to Islam. Not surprising – he is a Christian.

Two things are noteworthy about his book, however. First, the absolute respect his gives the Islamic tradition, interacting in friendship with men he considers to be among the Muslim world’s top philosophical minds. There is great wisdom in their faith, he agrees.

And second, the difference in paradigm that makes all the difference. Islam conceives a legislative model between God and man; Christianity, a relational. Wisdom follows from both, he says, but the latter is preferable and better accords with the world.

Shumack does not presume to prove the truth of Christianity’s claims. Similar to Islam, the challenge of monotheism is dealt with elsewhere. But finding his Muslim scholar friends assert the philosophical superiority of Islam over an incoherent Christianity, Shumack was compelled to pick up the gauntlet. He fully admits, of course, that key Christian concepts appear to place Muslims at an advantage.

But in each chapter he builds his case sequentially. Certainty. God’s Hiddenness. Sin. Trinity. Incarnation. Cross. Revelation. Divine Ethics. Politics. Each is a problem to tackle in the Muslim-Christian conversation. On some points monotheists share similar challenges. On others, the Christian is on the defensive.

With deference and respect, at times Shumack tries to turn the tables. But for the most part he simply returns to his central thesis:

Islam makes sense if one sees God as creator, legislator, and master. But Christianity makes sense if God is in addition, father.

To many Muslims this is foolishness. God has no son; he is utterly different from his creation. But it is the central point of Christianity: God’s word made flesh, crucified, and resurrected.

Perhaps both are fools to the atheist or modern secularist, so let Muslims and Christians be friends. Shumack’s book is polemical but warm, inviting response from his Muslim philosopher-friend.

There is no reason religious debate cannot be so. The world is much in need of wisdom, and the Abrahamic faiths possess it in abundance.

Unfortunately, their mutual conversation often demonstrates the opposite, showing that living out wisdom is another question entirely.

If we be fools, let it be for the right reason, in the right spirit. Abraham left the security of his land and family, and nearly sacrificed his son. Today he is honored by over half of humanity, a blessing to the whole world.

May this be true of his descendants, Muslims, Christians, and Jews altogether.

Wisdom of Islam Foolishness of Christianity

Categories
Religion

Did the Muslims Conquer Jerusalem?

Syriac Conquest History
A Syriac hymn, manuscript dated to the 14th century.

Did the Muslims conquer the Middle East? History says they did, from both the Western and Islamic perspectives. Much of the self-understanding of modern civilization has been built upon this premise, the resulting Crusades, and eventual colonization by European powers.

Some fear there are signs of a renewed animosity between the Western and Muslim worlds, a quasi-religious competition, even as Christianity has lost much of its ethos and Islam has lost much of its power.

But new research into a third resource questions the history. Scholars and historians know Latin and Greek. Arabic is also readily translated and studied.

But not Syriac, the neglected lingua franca of 7th century life in the Levant, and the language of its native, non-imperial peoples.

The Institute of Advanced Studies recently published one scholar’s research:

Syriac literature was produced by—and conversely sheds light on—communities living on the borders of the Near Eastern polities, considered as a religious minority in the Zoroastrian Empire of the Sasanians, as heretics in the eyes of the Byzantine Orthodox (since the “universal” councils of Ephesus in 421 and Chalcedon in 531 that they refused), and as one of the religions of the book under Islamic powers.

Syriac thus offers a crucial “internal” source for the history of the Mesopotamian region reaching as far as South Arabia and the Far East from the late antique to the medieval era.

Shortly before the rise of Arab/Islamic empire, the Byzantine and Persian Sassanid empires were at war, taking and then losing Jerusalem and possession of Jesus’ True Cross.

The literature produced by Syriac Christian communities did not celebrate the triumph of the Byzantine empire, the author described, nor mourn the victory of the Zoroastrian Persians who briefly held the Holy City. They were rather nonplussed by regional politics, and awaited God’s ultimate redemption through one of their own anticipated champions.

So when the Arabs came:

It is striking to see that the second capture of Jerusalem in 636 by the Arabs, only a few years after its retaking by Heraclius, is hardly mentioned in the Syriac chronicles where it is a non-event.

Since the siege ended peacefully, after a negotiation between the Byzantine patriarch of Jerusalem and the caliph, and the city was not stormed by the Arab troops, the capture of the city is not mentioned in the most ancient Syriac sources.

Produced by the communities who were at the heart of the events, Syriac sources compel us to reconsider what “conquests” means.

Modern historians talk about the Sasanian and then Arab-Muslim conquests, but Syriac sources never use the word or concept. There were sieges, battles, military operations that could be catastrophic and dramatic for the local populations, but there were also negotiations and cities taken by treaty.

Contrary to Arab-Muslim sources that would subsequently create the genre of “futuh,” or “conquest” literature, in order to celebrate those who took part in the campaigns and the distribution of the booty, Syriac sources present a situation of occupation and change of rulership more than a conquest as such.

They invite us thus to reconsider the categories, and the agendas, that we have inherited from later Arab-Muslim sources.

There is also an interesting sub-discussion on how intra-Christian debate on the nature of Jesus’ crucifixion mirror some of the issues mentioned in the Quran.

I am wading into deep historical waters, and I am not the scholar to do so. New research often threatens to upend the academy, only to be counter-argued and put in its place. Perhaps the same will happen here.

But the language of local people is a useful counter-balance to official histories, written by either the winners or losers. In this case, both had a vested interest in labeling the actions a ‘conquest’.

Certainly the Muslims would go on to conquer further, only to be conquered later in turn. Such is the history of the world.

But lest it repeat itself unwarrantedly, both sides might do well to revisit their language and understanding of history.

For once again, the Syriac heritage stands in the middle. An ancient faith, outside of power. We have much to learn, and consider.

Image via https://hmmlorientalia.wordpress.com/2013/02/08/a-short-hymn-in-syriac-attributed-to-severos/

 

Categories
Current Events Religion

The Coptic Church in Japan

Pope Tawadros II leads mass prayers for Egyptians beheaded in Libya, at Saint Mark's Coptic Orthodox Cathedral in Cairo
(via Reuters/The Japan Times)

There may be three million Christians in Japan, one percent of the population. They now have a Coptic Orthodox Church among their options.

Egypt’s Pope Tawadros arrived on August 26 to consecrate Japan’s first Coptic Orthodox congregation, the Church of St. Mary and St. Mark.

Tawadros hailed the cooperation between Japan and Egypt, especially the new initiative to establish Japanese schools to better the education system. He praised the Japanese people for their renaissance following nuclear disaster, and their ongoing commitment to peace.

The church, he said, preaches love in every place. The church is a mother, who searches for her children wherever they are.

And the church does not stay still. As St. Mark traveled the ancient world to come to Egypt, so the church today comes to Japan.

The church was first built one year ago in Kyoto, on July 16. Around 100 people attended in the opening, including many nationalities of Eastern Orthodox rite. There are around 20 member families, though the church welcomes all and seeks to serve Japanese society. Language lessons in Arabic and Japanese are one expression of this desire.

The first mass, however, was held in 2004 by Bishop Daniel of the Sydney Diocese of Australia, to which the Japanese church belongs. St. Mary and St. Mark Church has also joined the Japanese Confederation of Christian Churches.

Nestorian Christianity was the first to reach Japan, perhaps as early as the 5th century. St. Francis Xavier is credited as the first modern missionary, in 1549. His efforts faced severe persecution, chronicled in the book Silence, by Shusaku Endo, and now made into a feature film starring Liam Neeson.

Protestants and Orthodox came in the 19th century. Interestingly, eight Japanese prime ministers have been Christians.

“God loves the world and everyone in it,” said Tawadros. “The church knows no geography.”

Coptic Japan
(via the Coptic Media Center)

UPDATED:

Perhaps the best evidence is the Japanese character of the church. In addition to a Japanese language mass, two of the three deacons consecrated by Pope Tawadros were Japanese.

Japan Coptic Deacons
(via Coptic Media Center)

Even so, they were identified by their Coptic/Christian names: Tawadros, Makarios, and Athanasius.

“We hope that God will bless them and they will become great servants of this church,” said Tawadros, interviewed in Japan by CTV.

“The church has a spiritual role to present salvation and encourage repentance, but it must also have a role in society according to the local needs,” he continued.

“This is the idea of St. Mark himself.”

Pope Tawadros was received in Japan by the Egyptian ambassador, toured the Tokyo Museum, and met the mayor of Tokyo.

His visit also attracted the attention of the Japanese media, with this clip presented by NHK, Japan’s national public broadcasting organization.

 

The Coptic Media Center provided translation:

Title: People: Egyptian Christian Church- First visit to Japan for the Pope of the Coptic church

Picture: Pope Francis & H.H. Pope Tawadros II

Reporter: The person here standing next to Pope Francis is the Coptic Orthodox pope, His Holiness Pope Tawadros II. The first Coptic Orthodox church was established in Japan and H.H. came to Japan for the first time. Yesterday, he conducted a holy liturgy.
What kind of holy liturgy was it, I wonder?

Beyond the doors, you can hear a unique sound of prayers. Last year in October, a Coptic church was established in Japan. H.H. Pope Tawadros II conducted a holy liturgy there. At the holy liturgy, there were 100 church members gathered from around Japan.

Mr. Michel Youssef (church member): This is the first Coptic church in Japan and we are very happy that H.H. Pope Tawadros from Egypt had come today.

Reporter: The Coptic holy liturgy style had been continuing from ancient times. Icons of saints are on the wall and that had been brought from Egypt. The ladies cover their heads with scarves and (the Copts) respect and follow the traditions. But on the other hand, Japanese is used in the holy liturgy, and the clergy use PC tablets in their holy liturgy and it shows that they are keeping up with the modern technology.

The Coptic Orthodox church was founded around the 1st century, it is said that 10% of the Egyptian population are Coptic Christians. The Copts (Coptic community) have spread overseas to other countries such as Japan and Canada. One of the background reason for this is the presence of a group of Muslims (in Egypt) that considers Copts like enemies.

Rosemary: I think when they hear hate speeches like “kill people from other religions” that turns into persecution (against Copts).

Reporter: Continuously churches have been attacked because I.S. terrorists’ main aim is to attack churches. Regarding this issue, H.H. Pope Tawadros II commented on this:

H.H. Pope Tawadros II (Japanese subtitle): Terrorism divides the Egyptian people but Egypt is a strong country. (Addressing to Japanese people): let’s meet in Egypt.

Tomorrow night we will broadcast a Coptic studies researcher from Göttingen university (Mr. So Miyagawa) who will talk about how the Coptic clergy gives out information for Copts around the world. Please look forward to it tomorrow night.

I will update this post further if the follow-up video becomes available.

 

Categories
Current Events

Want to Help Christians Stay in the Middle East? Start with Your Vacation

This article first appeared in the July print edition of Christianity Today.

Middle East Christian Tourism
(Credit: robertharding / Alamy)

Call Ann Fink crazy, but the intrepid grandmother has a tradition to uphold. She’s toured Israel, Jordan, and Egypt with 8 of her 13 granddaughters. Victoria, a preteen, is number 9.

“Her parents are not afraid,” said Fink, a Pennsylvania native, while visiting Egypt with Victoria. “We believe we can die at any time. Only God knows when and where.”

Neither tourist knew just how much visits like theirs support the region’s beleaguered Christians.

From a high-water mark of $7.2 billion in 2010, tourism revenue in Egypt has fallen by 76 percent following the unrest of the Arab Spring. The decline has devastated the economy and, with it, Egypt’s Christians.

Copts, an estimated 10 percent of the population, make up more than half of tour operators and more than a quarter of the tourism workforce, according to Adel el-Gendy, a general manager in the Tourism Development Authority. Christians have better connections to the West, he said, and are often more skilled with languages.

Gendy, a Muslim, has been assigned development of the Holy Family route—25 locations that, according to tradition, were visited by Jesus, Joseph, and Mary as they fled Herod’s wrath. Relaunched with government and church fanfare in 2014, the route is close to being designated as a World Heritage site by UNESCO, he said. But the project has struggled as tourists stay away.

The route runs through Old Cairo, which boasts churches dating back to the fourth century but feels like a ghost town. Souvenir shops are open, but their lights dim. “Our income has dropped by 90 percent,” said Angelos Gergis, the Coptic Orthodox priest at St. Sergius Church, built above a cave where tradition says the Holy Family stayed three months. “We are assigned to assist 100 poor families in the area, but we used to help so many more.”

There are no tourist fees at Christian religious sites, but many visitors leave donations. “You can see things in Egypt you won’t see anywhere else,” he said. “And if you have any sympathy for us, please come. Your visit does help…

Please click here to read the rest of the article at Christianity Today.

Categories
Religion

Islam and the Bigotry of Conviction

the-muslim-world

The Muslim World (TMW) is one of the leading academic journals covering Islam worldwide. Strange it would call its own history “bigoted”.

It was founded in 1911 by Samuel Zwemer, a founding father of Protestant missions in engagement with the oft-rival monotheistic faith. Now published by Hartford Seminary, like much of the Protestant mainline its original evangelistic fervor has faded.

Still I was startled to read the concluding sentence of an informative historical biography TMW published in commemoration of their 100th edition:

A century later, TMW has successfully broken ranks with religious provincialism and bigotry, and lives up to the present motto of the Seminary “exploring differences and deepening faith.”

Is this a fair account of all but TMW’s most recent scholarship?

The article notes the academic rigor exhibited from its beginnings to the present day, and despite this conclusion is charitable towards its earliest pioneers and the belief system that propelled them. But it chronicles the development of TMW from a Protestant missionary endeavor to a nonsectarian survey of Muslim-Christian relations. Begun by “the apostle to the Muslim world,” it is now edited by a Muslim.

Editors had to choose between faithfulness to its evangelizing mission to the Muslim world, and thus remain a primary resource for missionary activities, or tilt toward an academic oriented journal concerned with dialogue with Islam. …

To be sure, the journal might have faltered and disappointed many in its hundred years of existence; however, its faithfulness as a forum for academic articles on Islam (both current and past) and Christian-Muslim relations has survived.

Zwemer is called a “pioneering scholar of Arabic” and noted as a professor at Princeton Theological Seminary. He is said to have had “a keen knowledge and understanding of Islam and Muslims,” who included contributions from the “best minds of its times.”

But at the same time it appears to reduce his era of TMW to a historical record of peculiar mentality:

For posterity, the journal represents an invaluable source of missionary activities and scholarly papers on Protestant theologians’ and missionaries’ perception of and thought about the Arab and Muslim world. In that sense, TMW is a priceless wealth of information thanks to Zwemer.

A shift took place under the subsequent editor, one the author approves of. Edwin Calverley (1948-1953) did not necessarily break with the missionary heritage, but wished to reorient presentation:

Associate editor under Zwemer, his first editorial promised “nothing inaccurate, unfair or ill-mannered about Islam.” Calverley’s meticulous academic mind and concern for truth and his determination impressed his contemporaries. He sought to enable readers (missionaries and theologians) to discover what Muslims thought of themselves.

But the editor the article seems to respect most is Kenneth Cragg (1953-1960), the Anglican Arabist:

He led the journal toward a professional and academic authorship. There is no doubt that Cragg’s command of the issues at hand and his own expertise allowed him to make bold changes in the direction of the journal. He took seriously the conscience of Islam and Muslims’ sincere and deeply held set of convictions about the one and only God.

Unlike Macdonald, he did not see Islam as a Christian heresy or as a symbol of man’s perversity as Zwemer, or another way of salvation as liberal theologians. He saw Islam as a theological problem and not as a religious problem or a socio-cultural one.

Cragg asked both Christians and Muslims to show hospitality of mind and a proper attention to the religious other. He invited them to “enlarge [their] hospitality of heart and thought.” His bold and creative writing allows for Islam to speak for itself.

William Bijlefeld (1968-1992), however, followed with a definitive focus on Muslim-Christian relations as the journal’s reason for existence. The author notes his contributions dispassionately but provides a telling quote:

We may be liberated of much confusion and frustration if we interpret the concept of mission not in the sense of an attempt to ‘impose truth’ on others, but as an honest effort to reflect and realize in our time the Compassion of God who IS the truth.

This is still a Christian sentiment, but is it a proper understanding of the heritage of Zwemer and others? Did they see their efforts as imposing truth, as described? Would it not rather be one of deciphering and demonstrating, however polemic in orientation?

Here the stage is set for the author’s joltling conclusion, following two cursory paragraphs about most recent developments. The journal now accords with this long range plan:

Strong academic programs, creative scholarship in the study of Islam and Christian-Muslim relations; local, national and international initiatives in Christian-Muslim relations; and leadership to religious communities and congregations in interfaith and ecumenical relations.

For this let TMW be saluted. And in the drift away from Zwemer’s heritage no critique is needed. This is the development of much Protestant theology over the past 100 years.

It is worthwhile to review this history through the lens of a publication. And as mentioned, the author is by no means disrespectful. All of which makes his concluding sentence so surprising.

“Religious provincialism.” Very well, that can be seen as a fair enough term for Christian exclusivity. Such a belief may indeed influence one to interpret only through the light of one’s own faith.

But is this “bigotry”? Such a term suggests instead its application on the speaker. Christian exclusivity is a belief, as is the accompanying missionary mandate. That one imagines God will ultimately condemn the religious other has no necessary bearing on one’s treatment of that other in this world.

Zwemer and his colleagues confidently critiqued Islam and found it lacking. Perhaps they also devalued the Muslim mind for holding to it so tenaciously. But as best I know, they studied conscientiously and argued respectfully.

The author does not bring out anything otherwise. And if Zwemer bears even a tinge of bigoted guilt for his attitudes, the author commends later editors of similar Christian belief for their academic care and faithfulness in representing Islam.

Where then is the bigotry? Is it in this quote from Zwemer?

We hope to interpret Islam as a world-wide religion in all its varied aspects and its deep needs, ethical and spiritual, to Christians; to point out and press home the true solution of the Moslems; namely, the evangelization of Moslems; to be of practical help to all who toil for this end.

These words are taken from TMW’s first editorial. But Zwemer repeated them again in his final editorial in 1947. His call for mission held steady from first to last, and in yielding editorship it was stipulated the journal continue upon the same philosophy.

Did it continue with Cragg? The author quotes him from shortly before he became editor, writing in TMW:

Our readiness to make Christ known and loved is the direct measure and consequence of what, so known and loved, He means to us. An apology to Christian mission is no more, no less, than an apology for the Christian faith.

And Cragg was even clearer in his own book, The Call of the Minaret:

If Christ is what Christ is, He must be uttered.  If Islam is what Islam is, that “must” be irresistibly. Wherefore there is misconception, witness must penetrate: wherever there is the obscuring of the beauty of the Cross it must be unveiled: wherever men have missed God in Christ He must be brought to them again.

The language of Cragg reflects a different age than of Zwemer; does it reflect a different conviction? Either way, if either is bigotry then most Muslims must also be damned. So must everyone who holds to a conviction and wishes others to discover its value. In his labeling of the now-rejected heritage of TMW surely the author is calling the reader to the truth-as-he-understands-it. And should he not be praised for so doing?

Whatever your conviction, study well the convictions of others. Report them accurately. If you are motivated to do so to disprove and dispel, so be it. The effort is worthy, and closer will all parties come to the truth.

But let your motivation move deeper, and do so in respect, honor, and love for the one who holds opposite conviction. You are equals. You are human.

At core, I suspect both Zwemer and the author of this article to be of this character. That either one may betray the principle is understandable; conviction of truth can make blind to malpractice.

But it need not, and should not. Right conviction of truth not only commands the mind but also orders the heart. Love is the protective virtue. Christian faith is a primary source for both, though too many fail to draw them in balance. Perhaps other faiths share similar struggle.

The Muslim World was, and is, a chronicle of this struggle. Let all embrace it, read, and learn. Listen well, and speak freely.

This article was first published at the Zwemer Center.