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Christianity Today Middle East Published Articles

Researchers Find Christians in Iran Approaching 1 Million

Missiologists have long spoken of the explosive growth of the church in Iran.

Now they have data to back up their claims—from secular research.

According to a new survey of 50,000 Iranians—90 percent residing in Iran—by GAMAAN, a Netherlands-based research group, 1.5 percent identified as Christian.

Extrapolating over Iran’s population of approximately 50 million literate adults (the sample surveyed) yields at least 750,000 believers. According to GAMAAN, the number of Christians in Iran is “without doubt in the order of magnitude of several hundreds of thousands and growing beyond a million.”

The traditional Armenian and Assyrian Christians in Iran number 117,700, according to the latest government statistics.

Christian experts surveyed by CT expressed little surprise. But it may make a significant difference for the Iranian church.

“With the lack of proper data, most international advocacy groups expressed a degree of doubt on how widespread the conversion phenomenon is in Iran,” said Mansour Borji, research and advocacy director for Article 18, a UK-based organization dedicated to the protection and promotion of religious freedom in Iran.

“It is pleasing to see—for the first time—a secular organization adding its weight to these claims.” The research, which asked 22 questions about…

This article was originally published at Christianity Today, on September 3, 2020. Please click here to read the full text.

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Current Events

Saudi Arabia’s Neighbor Defends Religious Freedom of Individuals

This article was originally published by Christianity Today, on September 13.

Bahrain Declaration 2
Prince Nasser bin Hamad al Khalifa (center), with Bahrain Declaration attendees. Credit: Simon Wiesenthal Center.

The cause of religious freedom received a significant boost from the Muslim world today. The island Kingdom of Bahrain—connected by bridge to Saudi Arabia—has declared “freedom of choice” to be a “divine gift.”

“We unequivocally reject compelled observance,” states the Bahrain Declaration for Religious Tolerance, released September 13 in Los Angeles with Muslim, Christian, and Jewish leaders in attendance. “Every individual has the freedom to practice their religion, providing they do no harm to others, respect the laws of the land, and accept responsibility, spiritually and materially, for their choices.”

Prince Nasser bin Hamad al Khalifa of Bahrain signed as an official envoy of the Gulf nation’s king. Johnnie Moore, a board member of the National Association of Evangelicals, and Rabbi Marvin Heir of the Simon Wiesenthal Center also participated, joining ambassadors from Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Egypt, and Israel.

“The King is acting decisively, courageously, and seriously,” said Moore, noting also Bahrani sponsorship of a religious tolerance center in the capital city of Manama, as well as the sponsorship of a chair in religious coexistence at La Sapienza University in Rome.

“The declaration goes farther than any similar document that I’m aware of.” …

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

Bahrain Declaration
Prince Nasser bin Hamad al Khalifa, with a Coptic priest. Credit: Simon Wiesenthal Center.

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Current Events

Christian Convert Arrested in Egypt: Details and Background

Mohamed Hegazy, now known as Bishoy Armia, though not legally
Mohamed Hegazy, now known as Bishoy Armia, though not legally

From my recent article on Arab West Report:

Muhammad Hijāzī, born in Port Said in 1982, converted to Christianity in 1998 at the age of 16. Now 31, he was arrested on December 4, 2013 in the governorate of Minya on charges of espionage, inciting sectarian tension through evangelism, and unlicensed photography and journalism.

In 2007 Hijāzī became the first Egyptian convert to Christianity to petition the state to change the religion field on his ID card, and has changed his name to Bishoy Armia Boulos. According to his former lawyer, Mamdūh Nakhlah, had anyone else but Hijāzī been working in Minya, no charges would have been filed.

Nakhlah agreed to represent Hijāzī in his 2007 lawsuit, but later withdrew due to pressure from the church. His information now comes from overall familiarity with the current case, as well as contact with those in the area where he was arrested. Nakhlah believes the main charge of espionage is fabricated, but that there are enough convenient details surrounding the case to give the prosecutor a pretext to arrest Hijāzī.

Please click here to read the full article, speaking of these pretexts – including a media relationship with one of the figures involved in the production of the ‘Innocence of Muslims’ film that sparked protests throughout the region. The article also goes through the history of his efforts to register his religious change, which are still pending on appeal.

(photo from MCN via Google Images)

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Personal

Upper Egypt Imam Confronts Conversion

From Ahram Online, following up on a story in which Muslims surrounded a church in Kom Ombo, Aswan, to demand the release of a local woman they believed was held against her will, forced to convert to Christianity:

A sheikh addressed a crowd of men in Kom Ombo to explain the events and dispel any rumours that had been circulating.

“Some say that she had a relationship with a man [who convinced her to convert] and others claim that a woman used to visit her and talk to her about Christianity,” he began.

He said that a man from Cairo, a former Muslim and Christian convert, communicated with her via the internet and the phone.

Allegedly, the divorcee in her mid-30s, had expressed thoughts about converting to Christianity.

“He told her that no one will be able to help, not even Christians, except one priest in Cairo who is [expelled from the Church] because he’s been attempting to convert Muslims,” the sheikh said.

The crowd reacted angrily to this information, interrupting the Sheik.

“When we sat with [Church leaders] they told us that they [do not encourage] such acts and explained to us that this priest is expelled from the Church,” he continued.

“This is a mere financial issue, the [man] came and told her ‘I will help you’ in exchange for EGP 3,500’

“We will bring the man here so that everyone can take revenge on him,” he added.

The sheikh then talked to the crowds about Islamic values and presented some counter-arguments to issues in the Christian religion that affected the girl during her absence.

“The woman told us that she was not fully convinced of several things she was told [by Christians] including the concept of the Trinity,” he said.

“She came and talked to us clearly, she said ‘I do not know if I am right or wrong,'” he added.

“We asked her to write down every point of confusion and we replied to all her concerns – everything has an answer in our religion.”

The sheikh said that curiosity had prompted the woman to leave; it is not known exactly where she had been staying during the past week.

“The woman’s brother had found a Christian hymn on her phone; when we asked her about it, the she said that she had asked for it… She obviously was… You see, the devil manipulates people’s minds. She was curious,” he said.

As the sheikh spoke, men from the crowds raised questions and points of concern to them.

“Do people who [encourage others to convert to Christianity] work through the internet?” one asked.

“Look, so that you know, the nearest person on such a network is from Luxor and the rest are from Cairo and Alexandria, they log on with fake names and we can’t –” but he quickly reassures, “We will get to them all.”

“Because we have already found three of them,” he added.

Additionally, the sheikh responded to the crowds several times saying, “Anyone involved will be held to account.”

This is a fascinating transcript. Very often in Egypt conversions in either direction are due to non-religious reasons such as love affairs, escaping difficult family situations, or securing a better financial situation.

Here, however, this woman appears to have simply been attracted to Christianity, likely through her association with Christian friends.

That which the imam speaks of also likely exists. Both religions have those who promote conversion on the internet, as well as individuals working to gain converts. In Egypt, of course, only the Muslim efforts are welcome.

The church probably had nothing to do with the woman, but needed to present official denials anyway. To placate the people, the imam needed to promise investigations and justice, even retribution.

In the West we would say ‘that poor woman’, and so we should. There appears no conspiracy here, just an individual with religious curiosity and inter-religious friends. Such trouble.

But here, they say ‘that poor family’, over what this innocent curiosity has done to the community. Such a description would apply equally if a Copt was found exploring Islam, though the scope here is much wider.

In both responses there is virtue, but where in all this, if anywhere, is God most pleased? The Muslim and the Christian may have very different answers, let alone the Egyptian and the Westerner.

It is a shame, I think, we have to know about this incident at all. And I’m the one sharing it. It is just too descriptive of Egyptian reality on the subject of conversion.

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Arab West Report Middle East Published Articles

Egyptian Education and the Journey to Islam

Christiane Paulus
Christiane Paulus

From my new article on Arab West Report:

When it comes to Egyptian education and Islam, Christiane Paulus is both a critic and supporter. So much so, she adopted both.

Paulus is a German national, resident in Egypt since 1998. She is currently a professor of Islamic studies and Protestant theology at the Azhar University, through the medium of the German language. Her journey here is a story all its own.

Paulus studied Protestant theology and postmodern philosophy in Marburg, Germany, with the intention of becoming a Lutheran minister. But in 1988, before her final tests, she married her husband, an Egyptian Muslim. Unless he converted to Christianity, the church ruled she could not receive her preaching license, as both spouses needed to be of the faith.

Years thereafter Paulus remained in her Christian faith, even after moving to Egypt with her family.

Paulus does describe what she finds are the culturally derived faults of the Egyptian education system, with consequences falling directly on religious and political relations:

Dialogue, Paulus believes, is a subject of the social sciences – a discipline largely ignored in Egyptian education. Curriculum, methodology, and pedagogy have remained stagnant since the Nasser era, when a resistance to new ideas was the norm. Since then, however, both students and teachers have sought to escape the system. At the basic level this involves the reliance on private tutors; for those able it means enrollment in private or foreign schools.

Women, she noted, are in general educated relationally. This equips them for dialogue more readily than men. But in addition to educational lacking, the Egyptian culture is bound by concepts of honor and shame. Together with pride, this produces an atmosphere of ‘not talking’. An Upper Egyptian husband, for example, will ignore his wife and stay silent with her when upset. Outside the family, discord produces the same result. The first casualty of Egypt’s political division is a lack of communication between liberals and Islamists.

But her focus in presentation was on what drew her to Islam as a religion. Much of this was due to the influence of her husband and his family, but it was also from historical study:

In 2005 Paulus read a book by the Egyptian Muslim theologian Amin al-Kholy, an active intellectual in the early 20th Century. ‘Islam and the Connection to Christian Reform’ summarized his presentation on the Protestant Reformation, representing the Azhar at the 1935 Brussels conference on the religious sciences.

Kholy noted that the early Protestant reformers – prior to Luther – emerged from areas long occupied by Muslims. From Spain under the Reconquista, Lyon, and Monaco, figures such as Peter Waldus and William of Ockham adopted ideas originating in Islam, translated them into Latin, and began applying them to criticize European Catholic Christianity. The Muslim populations of these areas had been forcibly converted into Christianity but retained their Islamic beliefs in secret. A few centuries later, Islamic-cum-Protestant ideas such as no mediation between man and God, private reading of the Scriptures, and clerical marriage began to take hold.

But she remains critical of prevalent Islamic thinking as well, which generally leaves their received religious heritage unquestioned:

Of course, a great deal of irrationality has entered the Muslim world, too. Where education is lacking the religious discourse takes over everything. Contrary to the prevailing religious spirit, Paulus says each individual Muslim has the right to read and evaluate Islam’s religious sources – the Qur’an and Hadith – weighing their value. The condition is to keep the Islamic culture of discussion respectful, objective, and academic.

This individuality also comes out in Paulus’ decision not to wear a headscarf.

Paulus is a charming person who is clearly a deep and sensitive thinker. Her testimony was given in a presentation with brief time for questions and answers; otherwise, it would have been useful to probe many of her arguments further. Please click here to discover them by reading the whole article on Arab West Report, and here for an Arabic language article on Paulus.

But less interesting than arguments is the story of an individual human being, seeking to make sense of the world. Tomorrow I hope to post a link to another recent article I have written, this time in the other direction.

 

Related Posts:

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Personal

Christmas Conversion Conversations

Note: I wrote this piece shortly after Western Christmas, but a few lines needed more consideration, and we delayed publishing. Then, Alexandria happened, and I forgot all about it. Even so the theme, if not exactly the title, is fitting with what has taken place in this country.

——

One of the topics I am most interested to discover here in Egypt is how the Christian population might begin to love and serve their Muslim neighbors without agenda, especially those who are understood to oppose them, such as the Muslim Brotherhood or other Salafi / Wahhabi influenced groups. Characteristic of most Christians I have met here is an attitude of suspicion and a pattern of withdrawal. This is not to say that good relations do not exist between many Muslims and Christians, of course, but the general Coptic community perspective is negative.

Most of my Christian relationships here, however, have been with the Orthodox community. This is not unusual, as most Egyptian Christians are Orthodox, and we have been worshipping at the local Orthodox Church in our neighborhood. On Christmas we joined some foreign friends for a dinner celebration, and they invited two of their Protestant Egyptian Christians along. I love learning perspectives, and with them individually I raised this greater question.

The interesting angle is that each one almost immediately spoke of Muslims becoming Christians, though in a very disjointed manner. Neither one spoke of any personal involvement or activity to promote conversion, either on their part or of the church in general. Yet the topic of love and service prompted a conversation leap directly into the fact of religious identity change. Notably, there was little considered on how to get there.

With the first Protestant conversation developed toward the Muslim Brotherhood, and I asked if he thought they were an organization of crooks. I have heard this not infrequently among both Christian and Muslim Egyptians, who see them as businessmen who use religion to either line their pockets or make political gains.

This gentleman stated this was his perspective as well. I countered, though, that perhaps some of them were sincere. Perhaps many, even, were dedicated to God as they understood him, even if their ideology is to be rejected.

He did not disallow the possibility, but the thought shifted him in another direction. Unprompted by the flow of conversation, he stated that if a Muslim Brother was truly sincere, if he was truly trying to serve God, then God would make clear to him the path of Jesus upon which salvation rests. Up until this point, I did not know the denominational adherence of the gentleman, but this language was certainly Evangelical. I wondered if he might be an unusual sort of Orthodox, but when I asked if he was Protestant, he responded ‘Baptist’.

The second individual, a lady, never clearly revealed her particular denominational affiliation, but her history revealed a mixed heritage of Orthodoxy and Protestantism, some in America, with an admiration for both. Our conversation was much more in depth, and she spoke of the good old days in Egypt when there was both more religious tolerance and personal initiative in pursuit of development. She commented that many Christians have given up hope that things would get better, but that she, though tempted to do the same, felt that as a Christian she was bound to behave as if she had hope, and press on.

Her attitude intrigued me, and when I asked about tangible actions of love and service, she offered simple but poignant advice – interact with them, and do not disparage them. Apparently, she thinks the Christian community is failing here.

Perhaps I have grander ideas unformulated in my head, but the basic humanity expressed in her words is at least the minimum of what is called for, and any more could become a deprecating ‘strategy’. Yet while I as a foreigner might have an awareness of the need for community-wide responses of love, only an Egyptian can say what this would look like. So I pressed on – what love and service could Christians in general offer to those whose ideologies desire conservative application of sharia law?

Again, a jump occurred. I do not fault any Egyptian Christian for not having an answer; it is hard for them to imagine possibilities so opposite of their prevailing mindset. Her answer, though, was education, but through the means of Christian satellite television. She immediately began telling stories of Christians on these broadcasts who had formerly been Muslims. Though some were harsh in their manner of conversation about Islam, there were hundreds, she related, who were learning about the true nature of Islam and the comparable attractiveness of Christianity, Jesus specifically.

Many, perhaps most Egyptians are satisfied in their religion and content to let their neighbors believe their personal doctrines in peace. Yet it is not uncommon for believers of any religion to be interested in the conversion of others. This can be from genuine concern for eternal destiny or temporal happiness, or from a baser instinct of community ‘rightness’ as opposite the other. On the whole, however, Egyptians are aware of the high social cost faced by any convert in either direction.

Yet I was a bit confused by the speed of connection between the initiative of love and the result of conversion, offered independently in separate conversations. By any standard, Muslims in Egypt are not rapidly converting to Christianity, if at all, so it is not as if they are describing a trend. Why then would the conversation move so abruptly in this direction?

If the reason lies in denominational difference, it could be that Orthodox have been a minority in Egypt for hundreds of years, and as such are more focused on preservation of their community, rather than expansion. Not a few Orthodox I have met have also spoken of these satellite channels and the Muslim converts they portray. Most of these have also had some experience in the West with greater levels of freedom, and specifically religious freedom. Protestants, meanwhile, have comparatively greater Western exposure, and with it a more natural connection with the Evangelical focus on evangelism.

Perhaps the Protestant religious priority of evangelism, coupled with a generally perceived Coptic experience of religious difficulties, causes the jump. The presumably real stories of Muslim converts on satellite television nurture the evangelical dream, and talk of ‘love’ reminds such Protestants of their religious obligations, along which the path of conversion treads. That they do not know this path may reflect why the abrupt connection between love and conversion has few details of action.

Or it may be specifically that almost no one even considers loving the more conservative groups of Muslims. Therefore, if conversation suggests this, it will be God’s miracle to bring them to Christianity. As such, details of action are not even necessary, and have never been contemplated.

I certainly have had far too few conversations with Egyptian Protestants to confirm these musings. Yet the congruity of conversation in this instance was striking. Perhaps the best conclusion is found in the thought of the Egyptian lady of mixed denominational heritage. Interpreting her words, engage one another as neighbors, and respect one another’s views. In a society of much religious distrust, these simple ideals have become somewhat revolutionary. Is this sufficient, for either Muslims or Christians, to fulfill the words of Jesus to love the supposed enemy? Interestingly enough, Jesus’ words in context are unconnected to the issue of conversion. Instead, his followers are to imitate God, who sends rain to both the just and unjust. Certainly God desires all to become just, but sometimes his followers can run ahead of him. Or, more consistently with this text, jump.