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The Best Advice on Engaging Muslims, from Arab Evangelical Scholars

Image: iStock / Getty Images Plus

American evangelicals often find themselves frustrated in their approach to Islam.

Two options are consistently placed before them: a polemical argument few are educated enough to engage in, or an awkward dialogue urging friendship but emptied of theological significance.

Help, therefore, may come from abroad—where evangelicals interact with Muslims everyday.

A new book, The Religious Other: Toward a Biblical Understanding of Islam, the Quran, and Muhammad, answers both concerns. An anthology of recent academic contributions to Arab Baptist Theological Seminary (ABTS), located in Beirut, Lebanon, the publication delves into the details of the debate over how evangelicals should view the rival religion.

But it also promotes a “kerygmatic method,” based on the New Testament Greek word for proclamation and connoting among biblical scholars the core message of early church gospel preaching. The book applies the term to seek a middle ground between polemics and apologetics on the one hand, and syncretistic and common ground approaches on the other.

Built on a foundation of academic rigor, this method aims for a tone of love within a spirit of Jesus-centered proclamation.

CT interviewed Martin Accad, editor of the anthology and associate professor of Islamic studies at ABTS. Though he remains on faculty, he recently resigned from his leadership positions at the seminary to found Action Research Associates, seeking holistic application of the kerygmatic method within the troubles of sectarian Lebanese society.

Accad described the value of the book for evangelical engagement with Islam, but also how its principles can guide interaction with “the religious other” in both Lebanon and the United States:

Out of the 30 contributors to this book, only 9 are from the West, while 16 are Arab voices. What is the impact of this diversity?

Having so many Arabs is unusual for this type of book, especially those who are not of a polemical bent. Much of the agenda of missions and dialogue has been driven by Western questions, girded by the theology of the provider.

The contributions, therefore, de-objectify the conversation. We do not claim to be authoritative, but I hope that our voices will come with some authority, as we highlight our primary concerns in this part of the world.

“Toward” a biblical understanding suggests you have no definitive Christian conclusion about Islam, the Quran, and Muhammad. What message does the book want to give?

The primary goal of the book is theological, and is the crowning of years of work at ABTS. The Religious Other wants to explore what Islam really is. But I have come to the realization that a lot of what drives evangelical approaches to ministry among Muslims is polemical, rather than conciliatory and collaborative.

One of the book’s central hypotheses is that Islam cannot be oversimplified. Essentializing the “other” leads to conflict, because it fails to see them in their entirety, or as they perceive themselves.

There can be no definitive biblical understanding of Islam, because…

This article was originally published at Christianity Today, on April 9, 2021. Please click here to read the full text.

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Azerbaijan Evangelicals: Conflict with Armenians Is Not a Religious War

Church of Kish in Azerbaijan, by Asif Masimov

Vadim Melnikov once fought for the land of Noah.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

By Սէրուժ Ուրիշեան (Serouj Ourishian)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Beytel drew the fish.

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

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

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

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Christian Century Middle East Published Articles

16 Beirut Ministries Respond to Lebanon Explosion

(Photo by ANWAR AMRO/AFP via Getty Images)

One hour later at work, and Sarah Chetti might have been one of thousands in a Beirut hospital.

Director of the INSAAF migrant worker ministry in Lebanon, Chetti’s colleagues described shards of broken glass flying through the air, and the metal frames of doors ripped from their hinges.

It was a similar experience for the one staff member inside the Youth for Christ youth center not far from the blast. To avoid the “colossal damage,” he ducked to the floor. Re-welding was necessary just to lock up the next day.

Peter Ford was fortunate. Working quietly in his faculty office at the Near East School of Theology near downtown Beirut, the first small reverberations stirred his curiosity to investigate the problem.

Moments later, the huge blast blew in his window and spewed the glass across his desk.

Miraculously, the dozen evangelical churches and ministries in Lebanon contacted by CT reported no deaths and few serious injuries caused by the massive explosion. The official national tally is now over 100 dead, with over 5,000 injured.

If they had, there would be nowhere for the bodies to go.

Habib Badr of the historic National Evangelical Church was forced to conduct the burial of two elderly members (whose deaths were unrelated to the explosion) as Beirut’s hospitals and morgues were all full.

Two Filipinos, however, were killed in the blast. And amid the ongoing economic suffering of Lebanon, several migrant domestic workers have been abandoned by families no longer able to pay for their services.

“They are distraught, worried, and scared,” said Chetti. “Problems are piling up one after the other. I’m reaching out to each one individually and praying for them, assuring them things will be okay.”

But migrants are not the only foreigners who are suffering.

“Many of our youth are Syrian refugees, so this is churning up all that stuff for them,” said Scot Keranen, director of operations for Youth for Christ. “We’re just checking in on them, and that is really tough right now.” Lebanese trauma goes further back in history. But this explosion was…

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

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Christianity Today Europe Published Articles

Religious Freedom Comes to Europe’s Second-Newest Nation. But Christians Are Concerned.

"Crkva Gospa od Zdravlja" church, Kotor bay, Montenegro.
Orthodox Church in Kotor Bay, Montenegro

This article was first published at Christianity Today, on February 4, 2020.

Deep within the Orthodox heartlands of the Balkans, one might expect local evangelicals to celebrate the passage of Montenegro’s first religious freedom law.

Instead, as tens of thousands fill the streets to protest against it, the relative handful of believers find themselves on the sideline of a struggle between giants.

And the stakes could further shake the greater Orthodox world.

Europe’s 6th-least evangelical country is also one of its newer nations. Having achieved independence from Serbia in 2006 through a tightly contested referendum, Montenegro is now seeking autocephaly—spiritual independence—for its local Orthodox church, viewed as a schism by the Serbian Orthodox.

Protests have erupted in Belgrade also, with thousands rallying last month against Serbian “suffering” in Montenegro and other neighboring nations. Crosses, icons, and church banners peppered the demonstrations.

But in Montenegro, rather than waiting for a liberating tomos (decree) similar to the one issued to Ukraine by Archbishop Bartholomew of Constantinople, who is the ecumenical patriarch for Eastern Orthodox communities, the government is acting to register all of its religious communities.

The protesting ethnic Serbian citizens of Montenegro fear the religious freedom law is nothing but a trojan horse for an elaborate ecclesiastic land grab targeting Serbian Orthodox Church properties.

“The law is a step forward, as it helps us ‘small religious communities’ have a legal basis to operate,” said Sinisa Nadazdin, pastor of Gospel of Jesus Christ Church located in the capital city of Podgorica and one of the nation’s five registered evangelical churches.

“But none of us want to enjoy this benefit if it will create in Montenegro…”

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

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Christianity Today Middle East Published Articles

Jordan Evangelicals Push for Official Recognition

Jordan Evangelical Council
The King Abdullah Mosque in Amman, Jordan (via atlastravels.net)

This article was first published at Christianity Today on October 10.

Evangelicals in Jordan have a new leader. They just don’t have anything official for him to lead yet.

Five denominations, including Baptists, Assemblies of God, Evangelical Free, Nazarene, and Christian and Missionary Alliance (CMA) churches, met a month ago to elect Habes Nimat as president of the Jordanian Evangelical Council. They comprise 57 churches total.

“I would like to believe that they chose me because I am a team player,” said Nimat, who has led a CMA congregation in the capital city of Amman since 2017. “I have good relations with the evangelical society, the local society, and they know my work with Christians of all denominations.”

Established in 2006, the council is the fruit of nearly 100 years of evangelical outreach in Jordan. Numbering roughly 10,000 individuals, evangelicals remain a small minority among the 2.2 percent of Christians in Jordan’s overall population of 10 million, almost exclusively Sunni Muslims.

Nimat will need to rely on these good relations to achieve the most pressing evangelical concern—legal recognition of the council as an official Christian denomination.

Jordan currently recognizes 11 Christian denominations: Greek Orthodox, Roman Catholic, Armenian Orthodox, Melkite Catholic, Anglican, Maronite Catholic, Lutheran, Syrian Orthodox, Seventh-day Adventist, United Pentecostal, and Coptic.

They are organized into the official Council of Church Leaders (CCL), which functions as a government advisory body. The prime minister will confer with the CCL on whether or not to admit new representation.

“We have been working on registration for many years as one body,” said Nimat, “but so far, we have not heard an answer from them, neither positive nor negative.”

Representation on the CCL entitles the denomination to…

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

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Evangelicals Who Distrust Muslims Likely Don’t Know Muslims

Ramadan IHOP
How IHOP Became a Ramadan Favorite — image: Jason Hoffman/Thrillist

This article was first published at Christianity Today on September 12.

Earlier this week, a Baptist church in Michigan canceled an event titled, “9/11 Forgotten? Is Michigan Surrendering to Islam?” due to pushback from fellow Christians and politicians.

The pastor of Bloomfield Hills Baptist Church identifies as an Islamophobe and organized the gathering because he sees Islam as a growing threat in the US, The Washington Post reported.

While some fellow white evangelicals share his suspicions, research has shown that those who know Muslims in their communities tend to hold more positive views and are more likely to see commonalities between their two faiths.

“The personal relationships with Muslims, that’s a game changer,” Todd Green, Luther College professor and former Islamophobia adviser to the US State Department, told ThePost. “It tends to make you less Islamophobic.”

Yet surveys from various sources have noted the friendship gap between evangelicals and their Muslim neighbors. More than a third (35%) of white evangelicals knew a Muslim personally in a 2017 Pew Research Center release, fewer than any other religious group, and evangelicals surveyed rated Muslims more negatively than other faiths.

The Southern Baptist-affiliated LifeWay Research found in 2017 that 17 percent of those with evangelical beliefs reported having a Muslim friend, while the Foundation for Ethnic Understanding (FFEU) reported this year that only 22 percent of evangelicals say they interact frequently with Muslims.

FFEU, led by a rabbi seeking to improve Muslim-Jewish relations, also noted that 1 in 3 evangelicals with frequent interaction with Muslims viewed Islam as similar to their own faith compared to 1 in 4 evangelicals overall.

The latest research from the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding (ISPU), a prominent American Muslim organization, offers another look at the relationship between the two faiths.

The 2019 ISPU poll, released last spring, surveyed a representative sample of the US population along with a sample of Muslims and of Jews. The results may not offer as precise a picture of other religious subgroups due the higher margin of error, but still gives a valuable snapshot at broad trends between the faiths.

Here are five takeaways for evangelicals from one of the leading indicators of Muslim community sentiment in America.

1. White evangelicals lag behind in knowing and befriending Muslims; Jews excel.

When asked, “Do you know a Muslim personally?” 35 percent of evangelicals and 44 percent of Protestants said yes…

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

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Will Trump’s ‘Deal of the Century’ on Israel-Palestine Please Evangelicals?

Trump Deal Century Israel Palestine Evangelical
Image: Illustration by Rick Szuecs / Source image: Senior Airman Delano Scott / JBA via CT

This article was first published at Christianity Today, on April 12, 2019.

When it comes to Israel, nearly all evangelicals hold dear the biblical maxim: Pray for the peace of Jerusalem.

But what does it mean after a fiercely contested election?

President Donald Trump will soon propose his vision of practical exegesis.

Two years in the making, Trump’s “Deal of the Century” is slated to be released soon, now that Israel has reelected Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. His Likud party secured a virtual tie with challenger Benny Gantz’s Blue and White party, but Bibi’s right-wing coalition will push him over the top.

Neither leading candidate made the peace process with Palestinians a major plank of their campaign as the entire Israeli electorate has shifted to the right, emphasizing security over negotiation.

Other American presidents have tried and failed to advance official US policy of a two-state solution. But while Trump has brought a new energy—and unpredictability—to forge an elusive peace between Israelis and Palestinians, he may face two very skeptical partners.

Even so, Trump has shaken the system.

Last year in May, he moved the US embassy to Jerusalem.

In February, he stopped US funding to Palestinian aid programs.

Last month, he recognized Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights.

And more than any president prior, he has courted evangelical opinion. LifeWay Research shows that 67 percent of American adults with evangelical beliefs have positive perceptions toward Israel, with 80 percent believing Abraham’s covenant is for all time.

But while analysts have panned Trump’s decisions as decidedly one-sided against the Palestinians, he has dangled his own deal-making reputation as—at times—a warning to the Israelis.

“Israel will have to pay a higher price,” he said after ordering the embassy’s relocation, for the Palestinians “will get something very good, because it’s their turn next.”

What does Trump expect? And will it cost him his carefully cultivated evangelical support?

Details of his plan have not been publicly released, but in February US officials Jared Kushner and Jason Greenblatt toured Arab capitals seeking support.

A month later Greenblatt, Trump’s chief legal officer and special representative for international negotiations, checked in with US evangelicals in a special meeting at the White House.

Axios reported that several “raised concerns.”

CT surveyed 11 evangelical leaders—7 from the US and 4 from the Middle East—to take their pulse on expectations and gauge their red lines.

“Don’t divide Jerusalem, It would disappoint me if that was President Trump’s decision,” said…

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

Related: The attempt to bring Judeo-Christian politics to Israel

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How Should Christians Respond to Christchurch Mosque Massacre?

Christchurch Mosque
Jorge Silva, REUTERS | A police officer is pictured outside Masjid Al Noor mosque in Christchurch, New Zealand, March 17, 2019

This article was first published at Christianity Today on March 18, 2019.

Last Friday, Muslim worshipers at two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand, suffered a terrorist attack at the hands of an avowed white supremacist. 50 people were killed, with another 50 injured.

Prior to the attack, the citizen of Australia posted a lengthy manifesto to social media, filled with anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim themes. He then proceeded to livestream the shooting. Some victims originally hailed from Pakistan, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Bangladesh, Indonesia, and Malaysia.

Given recent attacks on Christians in their places of worship, including many in Muslim nations, CT invited evangelical leaders to weigh in: How should Christians respond to Christchurch?

Richard Shumack, director of the Arthur Jeffery Centre for the Study of Islam at Melbourne School of Theology, Australia:

The thing that came to mind immediately is Jesus’ beatitudes. How should Christians react to Christchurch? With mourning, a hunger for justice, and peacemaking. Christians must mourn with their Muslim brothers and sisters, thirst for the perpetrators of this heinous crime to be brought to justice, and put every possible effort into brokering peace in an age of furious tribalism.

I also embrace wholeheartedly the poignant wisdom of Dostoevsky quoted by the Anglican bishop of Wellington, New Zealand: At some ideas you stand perplexed, especially at the sight of human sins, uncertain whether to combat it by force or by humble love. Always decide, “I will combat it with humble love.” If you make up your mind about that once and for all, you can conquer the whole world. Loving humility is a terrible force; it is the strongest of all things and there is nothing like it.

Mark Durie, Anglican pastor from Melbourne, Australia, and author of books on Islam:

Alexander Solzhenitsyn observed…

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

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Should Christians Quote Muhammad?

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

Christians Quote Muhammad

Christians breathed a sigh of relief last October when Pakistan’s Supreme Court acquitted Asia Bibi, a Christian mother of five on death row, of blasphemy charges against Islam. What many might not have noticed was the Islamic rationale.

Whether or not she spoke against Muhammad, Bibi was insulted first as a Christian, wrote the judge. And on this, the Qur‘an is clear: Do not insult those that invoke other than Allah, lest they insult Allah in enmity without knowledge.

The verdict also quoted Islam’s prophet himself: “Whoever is cruel and hard on a non-Muslim minority, or curtails their rights … I will complain against the person on the Day of Judgment.”

And finally, it referenced an ancient treaty that Muhammad signed with the monks of Mount Sinai: “Christians are my citizens, and by God, I hold out against anything that displeases them.… No one of the Muslims is to disobey this covenant till the Last Day.”

Today it can seem like Muslims violate this covenant the world over. But does the Bibi decision validate those who insist that Islam rightly practiced is a religion of peace? And should Christians join Muslims to share verses that comprise the Islamic case for religious freedom?

CT surveyed more than a dozen evangelical experts engaged with Muslims or scholarship on Islam who reflected on three key questions when considering interpretations of Islam that favor religious freedom.

[These questions are: Is it true? Is it helpful? Is it enough?]

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

Also: click here to read my related Christianity Today article about The Covenants of the Prophet Muhammad with the Christians of the World, the book which describes the Sinai treaty mentioned above, and others.

Finally, here is a sidebar from the Should Christians Quote Muhammad article, identifying sources in the Islamic tradition on which the evangelical scholars reflected.

Quranic verses regarding Christians:

• Q5:82 – You will find the nearest of them in affection to the believers those who say, “We are Christians.” That is because among them are priests and monks and because they are not arrogant.

• Q2:62 – Indeed, those who believed and those who were Jews or Christians or Sabeans those who believed in Allah and the Last Day and did righteousness—will have their reward with their Lord, and no fear will there be concerning them, nor will they grieve.

• Q22:40 – And were it not that Allah checks the people, some by means of others, there would have been demolished monasteries, churches, synagogues, and mosques in which the name of Allah is much mentioned.

• Q29:46 – And do not argue with the People of the Scripture except in a way that is best.

• Q2:256 – There shall be no compulsion in religion. The right course has become clear from the wrong.

Texts used in Supreme Court of Pakistan acquittal of Asia Bibi:

• Christians are my citizens, and by God, I hold out against anything that displeases them. No compulsion is to be on them … The Muslims are to fight for them … Their churches are to be respected. No one of the Muslims is to disobey this covenant till the Last Day (Covenant with the Monks of Mount Sinai)

• “Beware! Whoever is cruel and hard on a non-Muslim minority, or curtails their rights, or burdens them with more than they can bear, or takes anything from them against their free will; I [Prophet Muhammad] will complain against the person on the Day of Judgment.” (Abu Dawud)

• Q6:108 – “And do not insult those they invoke other than Allah, lest they insult Allah in enmity without knowledge. Thus We have made pleasing to every community their deeds. Then to their Lord is their return, and He will inform them about what they used to do.”

 

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Africa Christianity Today Published Articles

Evangelical Ethiopian Helps End Orthodox Schism

Ethiopian Cross

This article was first published at Christianity Today, on August 14.

Ending 27 years of schism, Ethiopian Orthodox Christians in their homeland and in America reunited the two feuding branches of one of the world’s oldest churches.

Ironically, the push came from the Horn of Africa nation’s new evangelical prime minister.

“It is impossible to think of Ethiopia without taking note of the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church, which is both great and sacred,” said Abiy Ahmed at the July 27 ceremony in Washington, reported the Fana state-run news agency.

A member of the World Council of Churches, the Tewahedo church split in 1991 due to political manipulations.

After the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) removed the Derg military junta from power, Patriarch Abune Merkorios was forced to abdicate.

He later fled to the United States, where dissidents and diaspora Ethiopians formed a rival patriarchate. According to church tradition, the position is held for life…

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

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Christianity Today Middle East Published Articles

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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Friends of Zion’s Christians?

Friends of Zion's Christians
Christian pilgrims carry palm branches during the Palm Sunday procession on the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem. UPI/Debbie Hill

This article was first published at Christianity Today, on December 15, 2017.

American evangelicals rediscovered their brethren in the Middle East in recent years. The promise of the Arab Spring, followed by the threat of ISIS. Beheadings and other martyrdoms, followed by forgiveness.

Many decided we must become better friends, and work harder for the persecuted church’s flourishing in the land of its birth.

However, President Donald Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel is putting that new friendship to the test, as Middle East Christian leaders have almost unanimously rallied against the decision.

Trump’s decision would “increase hatred, conflict, violence and suffering,” said the patriarchs and heads of churches in Jerusalem in a statement in advance of his anticipated announcement.

The Coptic Orthodox Church warned of “dangerous consequences.” The head of Egypt’s Protestant community said it was “against justice” and “not helpful.”

But the strongest testimony may have come from Jordan, where the national evangelical council pleaded against “uncalculated risks” that “may well expose Christians in this region to uncontrollable dangers.

Despite these dire cries, many conservative US evangelicals rejoiced in Trump’s announcement…

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

 

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Are American Evangelicals Not Political Enough?

Trump Team
(Photo: NBC News)

It is certain that President Trump is something different. Having campaigned as an anti-establishment figure, he behaves as neither a Democrat or a Republican, but independent of all.

Perhaps that is not a bad thing. He wanted to drain the swamp.

But this last week, having watched from afar the character of figures he draws to his team, I wonder: Where are the evangelicals?

(Note: the main individual in this saga has just resigned. Some say his sole purpose was to force out another figure. In any case, I hope the following thoughts are still pertinent and helpful.)

Polls show that white evangelical Christians are the constituency with his highest approval ratings. That’s fine, it is a holdover from the traditional support they have given the Republican Party.

Many evangelical leaders rallied around him before and after the inauguration. That’s fine, it is a privilege and responsibility to advise the president.

Some have questioned the wisdom and Biblical fidelity in wedding the religious identity to the political, and I am sympathetic.

Others posit that a political alliance does not mean all allies share conviction and morality, and I agree.

But for all the energy evangelical Christians have poured into right-wing politics, where are their political operatives, from which Trump might draw?

He has drawn some, certainly. Vice-President Mike Pence. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos. Evangelical-friendly Ambassador for International Religious Freedom Sam Brownback. Perhaps there are others whose faith is not a key part of public profile, who quietly do their jobs.

But others, who are not quiet, seem far from evangelical propriety. Are there no better candidates?

Republicans complain that Trump is not accessing the institutional personnel of the party, of any stripe. And the president has a penchant for reality TV style engagement, something traditional evangelicals may be quite wary of joining, and ill-suited in aptitude.

Maybe evangelicals do populate the rolls of grassroots and upper level Republican party politics in proportionate numbers to their role in the tent.

But politics is hard work. Could it be that in the eight years of Obama many abandoned the effort and criticized only from outside the system?

It used to be that the Republican Party stood for a conservative social morality, limited government, an open economy, and a robust foreign policy. Evangelicals could easily identify with many aspects of this agenda, with respect for the religious left.

What does the Republican Party stand for now? Again, Trump is different.

So I do not wish to lay too much blame on evangelicals, and from Egypt I don’t know the lay of the land.

But while I advise no evangelical toward the Republican Party necessarily, nor even toward politics in general, I ask those inclined to redouble their efforts.

God has given believers much freedom in shaping their engagement with society. The number of God-honoring careers, political orientations, and policy options is nearly as diverse as his church worldwide.

But what he states as reality, which evangelicals must take as maxim, is that they are salt and light in a fallen world.

Better than draining the swamp, is to wade into it. Once there, sweeten.

Engage with the president, and pray for him. Join the alliances most suited to the common good. Be patient with the behavior of those made in God’s image, but not yet reflecting it.

Identify sin, wherever it is found. Take a stand on the issues with humble conviction. Cooperate as much as possible, compromising where appropriate.

In other words, be political.

Despite the common perception, perhaps American evangelicals are not political enough.

I am happy to hear from evangelical Republicans about the state of the faith within their party.

(But also: Consider this article on the Bible Study in the White House.) 

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The Peacemaking Palestinian Evangelicals of Israel

Salim Munayer
Salim Munayer

As Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu concludes cantankerous negotiations to finalise his right-wing cabinet, Palestinian-Israeli evangelicals are hoping for something better.

Alienated by campaign rhetoric stigmatising Arab citizens as an electoral threat, they turned in response to the source they know best: the Gospel.

In doing so, they seek to reverse a disturbing trend of isolation from society as a whole, and in particular their Jewish neighbors.

‘Are we not asked to be the salt and light of the earth?’ asked Revd Azar Ajaj, president of Nazareth Evangelical College, in an open letter shortly after the Israeli elections.‘How important, then, to show love to those who have been styled as our “enemies”. In fact we are asked to be peacemakers.’

And from April 16-18, he gathered 60 local and international leaders to discuss how.

The ‘Evangelicals and Peacemaking’ conference was sponsored in part by the Baptist Mission Society UK. It urged participants as Palestinian Christians in Israel to seek justice and reconciliation to create a state for all its citizens.

Present at the conference was Salim Munayer, head of Musalaha, which since 1990 has bucked the trends of intifadas and settlement building to call for peace between Israeli Jews and Palestinians.

The election rhetoric was quite discouraging, Munayer told Lapido Media.

Netanyahu rallied his supporters saying the Arabs were coming out to vote ‘in droves’. His foreign minister Avigdor Lieberman told Ayman Odeh, head of the Arab Joint List which placed third in total Knesset seats, ‘you’re not wanted here.’

Meanwhile the Joint List – a merger of secular, communist, and Islamist parties – included the symbolic presence of a politician calling for a caliphate in Jerusalem. It received the strong endorsement of Hamas.

Pressed between a regional rise in Islamism, mirrored by the gains of religious Zionism, Christians are being squeezed.

And as a result, they are withdrawing from both.

Separation

Evangelical leaders estimate their numbers in Israel are only around 5,000, among 157,000 Christians and 1.4 million Muslims. Israel’s population is 7.91 million, according to the 2012 census.

‘Most interaction between Palestinian Christians and Israeli Jews comes by necessity, not as a result of a relationship,’ Munayer told conference attendees. ‘We see them at school, at the bank, but much more must be done.’

And it has never been worse, according to his research co-authored with Jewish professor Gabriel Horenczyk from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. The October 2014 issue of International Journal of Psychology details how Christians have soured toward Jews.

In 1998, the predominant attitude of over 200 Arab Christian adolescents surveyed was of integration with Israeli Jewish culture. By contrast, the attitude toward Arab Muslim culture was one of separation.

But 10 years later, adolescents exhibited a primary posture of increasing separation from both.

‘Many of us have given up on trying to improve our relationship with both the Jews and the Muslims of Israel,’ Munayer said. ‘We say it is a waste of time, they are not going to change, they are becoming more religious, and they don’t want us.’

Munayer’s Musalaha is doing all it can to fight the reality of this withdrawal. It has created a three-hundred-page curriculum on reconciliation between distinct peoples, applying its principles during inter-ethnic summer camps and encounter groups.

But he increasingly aims to influence society as a whole, not only at the grassroots but also in academic engagement. Munayer received his PhD from the Oxford Centre for Mission Studies at Cardiff University, and is collaborating with a number of young Israeli Christian and Jewish scholars to further his research.

For example, in a survey of 700 Muslims, Christians and Druze, Sammy Smooha of Haifa University found only fifty per cent of Christians have Jewish friends they have visited at home. But 57 per cent have experienced discrimination, and thirty per cent reported receiving threats or humiliation.

These and other findings were presented at a January conference on Palestinian Christian Identity in Israel, co-hosted by Musalaha and the Hebrew University. It was unprecedented, Munayer said, for an Israeli university to sponsor such an event.

Bridges

And it is an Israeli Jew who is helping Ajaj take his baby steps toward peacemaking, moving beyond his simple convictions.

‘Very little is being done to build bridges with the Jews,’ he told Lapido Media. ‘I’m still in the beginning of the journey and I pray that good things come out of it.’

In October last year Ajaj participated in an interfaith dialogue at a Jewish conference centre. A rabbi from the village of Kiryet Tiv’on, ten miles from Nazareth, invited him to speak at his synagogue during Hanukah and explain the Ten Commandments on his radio program.

In May they begin a six-month experiment to bring eight from each community to discuss matters of faith and society.

‘We are classified as enemies, but we don’t accept this,’ Ajaj said of the national political discourse. ‘So we must encourage those who are silent to take action and express respect for the other.’

Ajaj hopes the April conference can empower Nazareth Evangelical College as a centre for theological education in peacemaking. But as a minority within a minority within a minority, there is only so much they can do.

To help, Ajaj recently invited leaders from seven different denominations to a conference on Christianity in the Holy Land. Several said it was their first meeting with an evangelical.

But with Christians withdrawing into a self-imposed ghetto mentality as Israeli Arab citizens are labelled a demographic threat, these evangelicals are calling for a halt.

‘If we want a better future built on respecting and loving the “other”, then let us take part in building it,’ Ajaj wrote. ‘Otherwise, those with other values will determine what this future will be.’

This article was first published at Lapido Media.

Categories
Christianity Today Middle East Published Articles

Facing ISIS, Middle Eastern Evangelicals Exchange Strategies

Christian refugees from Mosul find a home in Merga Souva Iraq. -- Gail Orenstein / AP Images
Christian refugees from Mosul find a home in Merga Souva Iraq. — Gail Orenstein / AP Images

From my article at Christianity Today, published October 14, 2014:

“God is allowing ISIS to expose Islam,” said Khalil’s fellow pastor, Atef Samy. “They are its true face, showing what Islam is like whenever it comes to power.”

But the savagery of ISIS, which has overwhelmed Kurdistan with more than 850,000 refugees, has prompted other Middle Eastern Christians to embrace their Muslim neighbors. This theme was heard often from members of the Fellowship of Middle Eastern Evangelical Churches (FMEEC), who met in Cairo last month for a conference on the dwindling Christian presence in the region.

“We must be a voice for Islam,” said Munib Younan, bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Jordan and the Holy Land. “We must not allow the West to see ISIS, the Muslim Brotherhood, or others like them as the face of Islam.”

Others were more reflective of the diversity among both Muslims and non-Muslims.

The article opens with a brief description of an evangelical relief trip to help refugees in Kurdistan, which I also wrote about here. It also describes cooperation attempts in the Egyptian Family House, uniting Muslims and Christians, which I hope to profile in a few days. There are other strategies described by those who attended a recent conference in Cairo, whose opinions on US-led military action I wrote about here.

But please click here to read the full article at Christianity Today.

 

Categories
Christianity Today Middle East Published Articles

Egypt’s Five Largest Denominations Unite for the First Time

Egypt Council of Churches
Egypt Council of Churches

From my recent article in Christianity Today, published February 22:

February 18, 2013 may prove a monumental day in the modern history of Egyptian Christianity. Heads of the five largest denominations – Coptic Orthodox, Catholic, Protestant, Greek Orthodox, and Anglican – created the Egyptian Council of Churches. Since the dawn of Catholic and Protestant missions in the 17th and 18th Centuries, Egypt’s Christians stand united.

“I believe history will record this day as we celebrate the establishment of a council for all churches of Egypt,” said Pope Tawadros II of the Coptic Orthodox Church, which boasts approximately 90 percent of all Egyptian Christians. “I think such a step was delayed for years.”

The rest is a brief summary, in which participants actively deny any political role for the council, closing instead with these words of faith:

“The Lord has answered prayers which have been offered for thirty years,” said Baiady. “Our diversity must become a source of richness rather than a struggle.

“Unity is built on fruitful, humble love which favors the other over the self.”

Please click here to read the whole article, containing quotes also from the Catholic and Anglican representatives. It is a good step, a formal admission to the unity asserted by most Christians I know here.

Categories
Personal

Statement of the Muslim Brotherhood and the Leaders of the Evangelical Church in Egypt

At head of table: Rev. Bayadi (L) and Dr. Badie (R)

This text is transcribed from documents received from the Coptic Evangelical Organization for Social Services, headed by Dr. Andrea Zaki, a chief participant in this meeting.

The text reads:

Based on a welcoming letter from Dr. Rev. Safwat al-Bayadi, President of the Protestant Community of Egypt and Dr. Rev. Andrea Zaki, Vice-President, sent to the General Guide of the Muslim Brotherhood, which addressed some public opinion issues at this critical stage in Egyptian history after the January 25th Revolution and gained the attention of the Guidance Office of the Muslim Brotherhood, and based on the two parties’ communication, the General Guide called for a meeting to gather the leaders of the evangelical church and the leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood. The meeting took place on February 28, 2012, at the headquarters of the Muslim Brotherhood. The General Guide has agreed to visit the headquarters of the evangelical church upon invitation.

The participants consented on the importance of the current historical moment Egypt is going through after the revolution, which requires everyone to take social and historical responsibility to advance the country. The participants emphasized that Egypt’s future depends on community cohesion and unity, and stressed on the basic values of the Egyptian society that represent its social and cultural identity and brings its citizens together.

The participants agreed on the following:

  • The sons of the country are all partners in one destiny and one future.
  • The joint struggle of all Egyptians of all segments of society, that was manifest in the January Revolution, represents the cornerstone of societal unity; the struggle reflects that full citizenship, based on equality, is the foundation of this society.
  • All sons of the country have the same rights and responsibilities as the constitution states. Equality among all citizens constructs societal unity; efficiency is the only criterion to hold a public position; and equality of economic opportunities is the basis of justice.
  • The Egyptian society is based on solidarity, interdependence and compassion among all people, which represents the bond that includes all citizens without discrimination. Therefore, education should promote the values of tolerance, solidarity and pluralism.
  • Respect for beliefs and sanctities is obligatory. Prevention of any contempt of others’ beliefs and the incitement of hatred is a compulsory social responsibility of loyal citizens.
  • Freedom of belief and religious practices as well as freedom to build or renovate religious houses – in light of the law and the right for citizens to resort to their own religious laws concerning their personal affairs along with other rights mentioned in the Islamic Sharia’ – are all considered part of the values of the Egyptian society and a base for its cultural authenticity.
  • The participation of all citizens in defending the country is the responsibility of all, and it is the crucible where all segments of society are melted and form national unity. This national unity is crucial to fighting all internal and external enemies of Egypt who want to drive a wedge between its societal segments.
  • The religious values are the motives of the renaissance. Therefore, everyone must mobilize these values to achieve a better future for Egypt.
  • Societal responsibility obliges all leaders, institutions and religious movements to fight against all types of strife, intolerance and discrimination, and consolidate the unity of society.
  • The Egyptian society’s identity represents the frame for all its people. All people have made contributions to this identity and deserve its legacy. Protection of societal values is considered the basis of cultural uniqueness and the responsibility of all citizens who contributed to building Egypt’s civilization together over time.

All participants of this meeting made emphasis on the importance of communication between the two parties to promote joint activities, especially among the youth, such as encouraging active participation, advocating for values and religious morals, and carrying the social responsibility of fighting the illness that affected the Egyptian society under the previous regime. This will guarantee everyone the right to participate in building a new Egypt that achieves the demands and dreams of the revolution.

Attendees from the Muslim Brotherhood:

  • Dr. Mohamed Badie (General Guide, Head of the Executive Office)
  • Mr. Mohamed Mahdy Akef (former General Guide)
  • Dr. Rashad Mohamed Bayoumy (Vice-General Guide)
  • Dr. Hosam Abo Bakr al-Seddik (Member of the Guidance Office)
  • Mr. Walid Shalaby (Media Counselor to the General Guide)

Attendees from The Evangelical Church in Egypt:

  • Dr. Rev. Safwat al-Bayadi (President of the Protestant Churches in Egypt)
  • Dr. Rev. Andrea Zaki (Vice-President of the Protestant Churches in Egypt)
  • Rev. George Shaker (Secretariat of the Protestant Churches in Egypt)
  • Rev. Soliman Sadek (Pastor of the Evangelical Church in Fagala)
  • Dr. Rev. Makram Naguib (Pastor of the Evangelical Church in Heliopolis)
  • Dr. Rev. Atef Mehanny (President of the Evangelical Seminary)
  • Dr. Helmy Samuel (Member of the Parliament)
  • Dr. Rafik Habib (Coptic Evangelical Organization for Social Services)
  • Rev. Refaat Fathy (Secretariat of the Evangelical Synod)
  • Dr. Rev. Sarwat Kades (Chairman of the Board of Dialogue of the Evangelical Synod)
  • Dr. Emad Ramzy (Secretariat of the Board of Directors of CEOSS)
  • Rev. Daoud Ebrahim (Member of the Council of the Presbyterian Church in Egypt)
  • Rev. Eid Salah (Member of the Council of the Presbyterian Church in Egypt)
  • Mr. Farouk al-Zabet (Head of the Congregation of the Evangelical Brethren Church)
  • Dr. Fready al-Bayadi (Member of the Council of the Presbyterian Church in Egypt)
  • Rev. Nady Labib (Head of Cairo Presbyterian Council)
  • Rev. Refaat Fekry (Pastor of the Evangelical Church in Ard Sherif)

Please click here to access the agreement in Arabic

Categories
Arab West Report Middle East Published Articles

A Christian Face to the Protests

Translation: Christian + Muslim = Egypt

Sunday, February 6 witnessed a peculiar exhibition amidst the drama unfolding in Tahrir Square. Christian Egyptians publically conducted a prayer service, honoring their fallen co-demonstrators who have died in the effort to topple the Mubarak government. Calling them ‘martyrs’, as is common Egyptian custom to designate all who perish in a cause or as a result of oppression, the opportunity was also used to demonstrate religious cohesion among all protestors. ‘Eid Wahida!’ – ‘One Hand!’ was the most popular chant uttered, exclaiming the essential unity between Muslims and Christians. Within context, a similar chant began when the Egyptian army took to the streets to restore order to society after the disappearance of the police, and was greeted with open arms by the protestors. They cried, ‘The people and the army are one hand.’ No less was the sentiment today confessed along religious lines.

This text was not composed based on first-hand experience, although the author was able to personally witness two days of previous demonstrations. Rather, it is compiled based on nearly eighteen minutes of footage posted on YouTube by the Coptic website Yar3any.com, and an additional two and a half minutes posted by BBC Arabic. It is also bolstered by the first-hand account of Dr. Amin Makram Ebeid, a board member of the Center for Arab West Understanding, which cooperates with Arab West Report.

It is noteworthy to begin by stating that each day’s protests have not been monolithic. Tahrir Square is a large area, and protestors have by necessity grouped together in several ‘stations’, each pressed up against the next. Other protestors ring the square in procession, and the chants that break out in one location soon dissipate into the cries of the next one over. Dr. Ebeid, who went specifically to attend the announced prayer service, had much difficulty finding the right location.

Nevertheless, the YouTube videos demonstrate that the crowd assembled was very sizeable. Christians, despite the Orthodox Church stance against participation, and the statements of Pope Shenouda on state television to end the protests and support President Mubarak, have joined in the thousands from the very beginning. During the service these were accompanied by many Muslims, who stood with their Christian co-demonstrators, holding the Bible and Qur’an aloft together.

This spirit of unity was exhibited by the service leaders. The popular Christian chorus ‘Peace, Peace’ had a line changed from ‘Peace to the people of the Lord in every place’ to ‘Peace to the Egyptian people’. Jesus was addressed as both ‘Yesua al-Masih’ (Jesus the Messiah, in Christian parlance) and ‘Eisa ibn Maryam’ (Eisa, the son of Mary, the preferred Islamic title). Some of the chants were political in nature, including the ubiquitous ‘Irhal’ – Leave! Others emphasized common human rights, proclaiming ‘Life, freedom, and the principles of humanity’, and the nationalistic ‘Egypt for all Egyptians’.

Excerpts from the spoken portions of the service included:

  • Egypt is free: Muslims, Christians, and those of no particular faith. Freedom and peace to everyone; we are looking for a civil state.
  • Let us pray together for the martyrs, help us to love each other and to love Egypt. Preserve Egypt, and its Muslims and Christians.
  • Quoting John 10:10 – I have come that they may have life and have it more abundantly. Christianity, Islam, and all religions want this; we are all together, we do not fear each other.

Many of these types of statements led to the repetition of Eid Wahida, Eid Wahida, and the Christians celebrated together with their Muslim partners. One statement, however, led to an odd proclamation. When the speaker proclaimed, ‘We stand with the martyrs, in a spirit of love, chanting for peace, standing for peace’, the crowd erupted in ‘Allahu Akbar’, the typical Muslim chant confessing ‘God is great!’ Apparently, as is possible theologically, both Christians and Muslims asserted this truth.

It seemed that this chant unnerved the service leaders somewhat, and they proceeded to lead the crowd once more in singing the popular Christian chorus, ‘Bless my country’. Other aspects of the service were more distinctively Christian, which did not seem to unnerve the crowd at large. One song declared ‘Son of God, you are our king’, despite the Muslim abhorrence at the thought that God might have a son. A prayer invoked ‘Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ’, despite the Muslim belief that Jesus was only a prophet, however elevated. Even so, it seemed the organizers were very careful to be Christian yet not offensive and supportive of the protests. A main line in the sermon quoted I John 4:18, proclaiming, ‘The Gospel says that perfect love casts out all fear; we saw this love on January 25[1] and on January 28.[2] Let us cast out all our fear in the name of the martyrs’.

Yet even so, Christian principles cannot simply serve the celebrated status quo. At one point the service leaders spoke the Lord’s Prayer, and after each line the people responded ‘Amen’. Upon the conclusion, however, the leader asked for God to forgive President Mubarak, and the people shouted, ‘No, no, no!’ Again, apparently, Christians and Muslims in attendance were united.

At this point it will be fair to introduce the service leader. He was Dr. Hany Kharrat, a psychologist and an elder in the Anglican Church. The flavor of the meeting was fully evangelical, lacking the gravity of the Orthodox mass, as well as its identifiable priestly leadership with its black robes and long beards. Instead, the service employed a guitar and was led by youth, representative of the makeup of the protests in general. It resembled a revival meeting in its fervor and participation. Yet it insisted on speaking on behalf of all Christians in Egypt, as Dr. Kharrat insisted, ‘All denominations of Egyptian Christians have come to share with you and to pray with you’.

This is less clear in conversation with official leadership. The bishop of the Anglican Church in Egypt is Bishop Mounir Anis, also a board member of CAWU. He has also taken a cautious approach to the protests, stating that most Christians fear that extremist elements will take these peaceful demonstrations in ultimately untoward directions. Instead of shouting slogans, he has encouraged his people to pray, which they have done in abundance. He believes people should be gracious to President Mubarak, though he supports a civilized transfer of authority. Otherwise, there might be chaos.

Rev. Radi Atallah is an evangelical pastor in Alexandria, who has worked extensively with local Muslims to secure dialogue and understanding, especially following the bombing in his city on New Year’s Eve. He also expressed concern that the protests were the organizational work of the Muslim Brotherhood, and worried they could go down a wrong path. Even so, he encouraged individual Christians to follow their conscience concerning participation. Meanwhile, the Egyptian Committee for Peace and Justice, associated with the Council of Catholic Patriarchs and Bishops, has stated that these peaceful demonstrations are as important as the nonviolent resistance of Gandhi in India and as the emancipation of American slaves. Ezzet Boules, a Coptic Orthodox activist living in Switzerland, believes that if Christians shy away from participation, it will lead only to their further isolation from society. Church efforts to prevent this, he believes, are counterproductive.

As such, the absence of Coptic Orthodox official representation at the Tahrir prayer service is noteworthy, especially given Bishop Anis’s comments that some were present at the pro-Mubarak rallies organized on behalf of the government. What should be made of their abstention?

The Coptic Orthodox Church represents the vast majority of Christians in Egypt, who represent perhaps 6-8% of the overall population. Since sectarian troubles began plaguing Copts in the 1970s, Pope Shenouda has taken a leadership role in speaking on behalf of the Christian community, seeking to secure its political rights and its protection against extremist Muslim elements. Though the relationship has been wobbly, Pope Shenouda has largely succeeded in crafting a positive political stance vis-à-vis the government of President Mubarak.

Having molded Coptic opinion behind his leadership, however, Pope Shenouda has faced accusations of turning the church into ‘a state within a state’, while President Mubarak has been accused of allowing the inflammation of sectarian tension when necessary to achieve political goals, either against the church or in larger society. Whether or not these opinions have merit, they do not mask the essential reality that all groups in society depend on the power of the state for police protection and preservation of order. Neither do they mask the Biblical reality that calls Christians to ‘honor the king’.

Therefore, though the reasons and motivations behind abstention may be many, it may be true that Pope Shenouda early on expressed sentiments similar to Hillary Clinton when she declared the Egyptian government to be ‘stable’, and when Vice-President Joe Biden declared President Mubarak to be a longstanding ally. Inertia in relationships is difficult to overcome. Falling on the wrong side of the state could be a great miscalculation.

Yet as a hierarchical organization, the Coptic Orthodox Church is built upon obedience and respect for the positions of its pope and bishops. In this regard some bishops have condemned the ‘spirit of insurgency’ that is pitted in some quarters against Pope Shenouda. The spontaneous and widespread Christian riots following the bombing of the church in Alexandria was interpreted by some as church leadership losing its grip on its youth. Youth participation in the Tahrir protests may rightly be seen as a second blow. Whether or not the Coptic Orthodox Church is right or wrong in its decision to abstain from the demonstrations, on February 6 they yielded ground to the evangelicals.

Long term, and even short term, this should not be understood as a significant challenge to Orthodox hegemony in Egypt. Although occasional flare-ups occur between the leaders of the Christian denominations, many ordinary Egyptian Christians dismiss the importance of distinctions. For these, when Christians represent less than 10% of the population, insistence on doctrinal divisions takes on less importance. They will not deny the specifics of their peculiar creed, but they will also not shy away from cross-participation in different congregations, and especially not from warm individual relationships of respect. A Christian, they believe, is a Christian.

In Tahrir, this has been extended to assert that a Christian, like a Muslim, is an Egyptian. What does this mean for the widespread fear that these demonstrations bear an Islamic stamp that will marginalize Christians in the end? Bishop Anis reflected the testimony that over time the composition of the protests has changed, and that some groups are trying to ‘take advantage of the youth’. Is this the case?

During the protests on February 1, the March of a Million, I witnessed one of the changes. As compared to the demonstrations on January 28, the Day of Rage, there was this time a large contingent of Muslim sheikhs, distinguishable by their deep crimson fez. Between 30 and 50 such individuals grouped themselves together in a section of the square, and led those around them in chants of ‘Allahu Akbar’ and calls for the implementation of God’s law (sharia). Yet they declared at the same time that this was a demonstration representing all of Egypt, and that God’s law grants freedom to Muslim, Christian, and non-religious alike. A sign upheld celebrated the fact that since the protests began, not one church in all of Egypt had been attacked.

After Islamic prayers there was a pause, and I sat down to discuss their message with Sheikh Mukhtar, one of the primary chant leaders. He is an employee of the Ministry of Endowments, which oversees mosques and religious establishments in Egypt. His particular position is as a ‘caller’ to Islam, that is, to full practice of Muslim religious requirements.

His testimony reflected anger at the government and its corruptions. He called for the deposing of all figures appointed by the government, including the Grand Sheikh of the Azhar, Ahmad al-Tayyib, the highest Muslim religious authority in Egypt. He bore no malice whatsoever toward Christians or non-practicing Muslims, but, emboldened by the successes of the demonstrations, now desired to take part. As an Egyptian, no matter an Islamist, he wished to display his share. He recognized, though, that leadership was in the hands of the youth, and he was a latecomer.

I asked him about his chanting of ‘Allahu Akbar’. I confessed that many either through ignorance or willful distortion seek to disfigure the Islamist position, especially in reference to these protests and this chant. Yet all the same, Allahu Akbar is an Islamic cry. If he was insisting that these demonstrations were Egyptian, and not Muslim, why employ it? Would it not only serve to confuse Westerners and scare Egyptian Christians? Would this not be against your own interests?

His reply initially suggested that he had never considered such a question. Among Muslims, the Allahu Akbar cry is near-instinctual, and does not necessarily convey a call to jihad. When there is a cause to rally behind, however, it is jihadic in all positive senses (and at times negative as well), and comes quickly to their lips.

Upon reflection, though, he stated that in this situation Allahu Akbar does not express a sense of belonging to a particular creed. Rather, it is a challenging directive against the government. It is meant to state deep, religious dissatisfaction against a power believed to have violated the Islamic principles of justice, equity, and good governance. Besides, in its meaning, he stated, a Christian should not disagree. God is great. Apparently, at the February 6 prayer service, many Christians agreed, and cried Allahu Akbar all the same.

The impression received across the board is that protestors are eager, even desperate, for validation. They know their movement is subject to suspicion, criticism, and accusation – certainly from the government but also from Western liberal supposed allies who fear an Islamist imprint. For the past several decades religion has been a dividing point between Muslims and Christians. Many, however, have insisted these difficulties are invented or engineered, not reflecting the essential national unity that exists between the two groups. Among the makeup of Tahrir protestors, this certainly reflects their reality.

Yet they go forward to make certain this message is heard. When Muslims bow during their prayer times, Christians have encircled them to offer protection. Now, when Christians conduct a prayer service, Muslims participate freely. Has protection been necessary? Yes, but have attacks been immanent? No. Are such sentiments sincere? Yes. Are they meant to be a picture representation before the outside world, and therefore at least partially staged? Perhaps. Should they be criticized for this? No. Should the outside world consider its guilt in assuming religious relations are bad, therefore making these exhibitions necessary? Probably.

What does all of this mean for the uprising? What does it mean for Christian participation? As throughout Egyptian society, opinions are divided. The question now appears to be congealing into a discussion for the long haul. Protestors have established control over Tahrir Square, and the government is in negotiations over demands and concessions. The atmosphere, only a few days earlier a war zone, is now conducive to church services. Things change rapidly, and wisdom is necessary. Will good come about, and if so, who should define it? What should a Christian do? What should an Egyptian do? These are monumental, historical days for a six thousand year old civilization. Rarely does life have such weight. When it does, what is demanded?

Perhaps the Western reader’s life does not bear such weight at the moment, but allow your mind to process the questions as if you shared in the Egyptian experience. How should you think? Who should you support? How should you pray?

We do not share in their struggles, but we share in their humanity. Where does the good of all lie?


[1] Police Day, on which the protests began.

[2] The Day of Rage, the Friday on which protestors emerged from the mosques and marched downtown.

Categories
Personal

Communion

Tonight I attended the weekly service at the local international evangelical church.  We attend there sporadically, maybe once every three months, as we have been worshipping at the Orthodox Church, hoping to learn more and participate in the primary church of Egypt.

Since it was the first Sunday of the month, as is typical in many evangelical churches I know, it was also communion Sunday.  It was the first time in awhile that I had taken communion, which is somewhat strange since this is offered every week in the Orthodox Church.  Due to doctrinal differences, however, but mainly to the fact that we haven’t been baptized Orthodox, while we are welcome to attend the service, we are not welcome to partake in communion.

It was an interesting experience for me after being away from it for so long, and witnessing a different tradition in the meantime.  Many thoughts ran through my head:

“Oh yes, the first Sunday of the month … communion Sunday.”

“The pastor said we would come to the front to take communion … something a little different.  Why is it that the churches who do communion less frequently (such as evangelical churches who often do this once a month) are the ones who find the need to ‘change up’ the method of distributing communion? Meanwhile, the church which does this every week, or even more than that, will never change the way it is done.  Ironic.”

“The Orthodox firmly believe that the elements become the physical body and blood of Jesus.  They believe they are participating in Jesus’ suffering on the cross as they take into themselves the holy body and blood of Jesus.  They can’t let a crumb drop to the ground so they cover their mouths with a napkin after the priest puts a piece of bread in their mouth.  And yet that is not my tradition.  I simply see these elements as representing Jesus’ body and blood.  Something He told us to do to remember His suffering.  So as I put the juice-dipped bread in my mouth, I asked myself, or rather, asked Jesus, ‘Who is right?  Are you pleased with this?  What is the point of this ceremony?’”

I have often struggled with seeing Jesus’ death on the cross in a real way.  Sure, I believe it happened and I believe He did it for me, and it was a horrible, painful thing for Him.  But I’ve rarely been able to really appreciate what He went through for me.  I think it comes from growing up in the church and Jesus’ death on the cross being part of my life from childhood … it has become so familiar.  So I understand my evangelical friends who try to “change up” the way communion is presented so that it doesn’t become rote and without meaning.  We don’t want to be passive and do things out of habit.  Making us get out of our seats and walk to the front of the church gets us somewhat involved, rather than waiting for the elements to be passed to us.  And yet, we can still remember Jesus’ death in a real way, as we wait for the elements to come to us in their silver plates and miniature cups.

Another experience I’ve had was in Jordan.  Jayson and I really enjoyed our times of communion at the church we attended there.  This evangelical church followed many Brethren practices, so we had communion every week.  It was a small, intimate service which included hymn-singing and a short challenge, followed by all of us, anywhere from 15-40 people, gathered around the Lord’s table, passing along a piece of bread and breaking off a bit for ourselves.  Then we would pass around the common cup of wine, drink a sip, and wipe off the cup for the next believer to partake.  There was something special about standing there in a circle, being able to see the faces of our fellow worshippers, reciting together the passages from Corinthians regarding Paul’s teaching on the Lord’s Supper and partaking from the same loaf of bread and common cup.  Maybe I felt more of the fellowship of the saints, rather than the suffering of the Saviour, but it was a special time.

And now, unable to be part of such a fellowship on a regular basis, does this keep me from remembering Jesus’ death?  How often should I specifically seek to remember his death?  He told us to “remember His death ‘til he comes.”  My tradition seeks to do this once a month.  Others partake of the Lord’s Supper each week.  Either method leaves room for forgetting Him in between, or doing this out of habit.  Lord, let me remember your death daily, thanking you and serving you for your sacrifice for me.

Postscript: Following a post a few days ago on a similar subject – This Also is True – an Orthodox reader from the United States commented with an impassioned and Biblical defense of their view of communion. For those interested in this subject, I encourage you to take a look and consider what he says. Unfortunately, we cannot provide a link directly to his comment, but if you click on the title above and scroll down, you will find the dialogue between us. Here or there, please feel free to join in, be it to reflect and consider, support, or challenge what he has to say.