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Christianity Today Middle East Published Articles

Died: Ashur Eskrya, Champion of Iraq’s Displaced Christians

Image: Zowaa / ADM

Ashur Sargon Eskrya, president of the Assyrian Aid Society–Iraq (AASI), passed away today from COVID-19 complications.

A champion of the Assyrian Christian minority, he was also a central figure in US efforts to shelter refugees from ISIS and later rebuild the Nineveh Plains.

AASI was honored for its work with a Nobel Peace Prize nomination in 2016.

“Ashur has played a prominent role in being a voice for our people in international forums, speaking on behalf of us all especially on the subject of indigenous rights,” stated the official account of the Assyrian Democratic Movement (ADM), of which Eskrya was a senior member.

“He will always be remembered for his leadership.”

Fellow ADM member Jessi Arabou called him one of the Assyrian nation’s “biggest assets.” Born in 1974, Eskrya was a civil engineer and graduate of Baghdad University. He became a member in AASI in 2003, and assumed the presidency in 2010. Founded in 1991 to respond to the humanitarian crisis following the first Gulf War, the nonprofit…

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

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Christianity Today Middle East Published Articles

At Mosul Church, Pope Asks Iraq’s Christians to Forgive ISIS and Rebuild

Copyright: MARCIN MAZUR

I contributed additional reporting to this AP article, including its conclusion below:

At Qaraqosh, Francis urged its residents to continue to dream, and forgive.

“Forgiveness is necessary to remain in love, to remain Christian,” he said.

One resident, Doha Sabah Abdallah, told him how her son and two other young people were killed in a mortar strike August 6, 2014, as ISIS neared the town. “The martyrdom of these three angels” alerted the other residents to flee, she said. “The deaths of three saved the entire city.”

She said now it was for the survivors to “try to forgive the aggressor.”

Francis wrapped up the day—and his visit—with a Mass at the stadium in Irbil, in the semi-autonomous northern Kurdish region. An estimated 10,000 people erupted in ululating cheers when he arrived and did a lap around the track in his open-sided popemobile, the first and only time he has used it on this trip due to security concerns.

On the makeshift altar for the Mass was a statue of the Virgin Mary from the Mar Adday Church in the town of Keramlis, which was restored after ISIS militants chopped off its head and hands.

“Religion is love, grace, forgiveness,” said Louis Sako, patriarch of the Chaldean Catholic Church, in advance of the visit. “Religion is a message, and humanity is its core.

“[And] as for us, we are staying until the end.”

But perhaps some Iraq Christians have a vision for even more.

“This is a time of healing for our country,” Farouk Hammo, pastor of Baghdad Presbyterian Church, told CT.

“But we are still praying for a visitation by the Lord Jesus—a revival—and it will happen.”

This article was originally published at Christianity Today on March 11, 2021. Please click here to read the full text.

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Christianity Today Middle East Published Articles

Pope Francis Secures Favorable Fatwa for Iraq’s Christians

Via Vatican News

Pope Francis, a “pilgrim of peace” to Iraq, has made history by becoming the first pontiff to meet a grand ayatollah: Ali al-Sistani, whose hawza (seminary) in Najaf, 100 miles south of Baghdad, is considered the foremost center of learning in Shiite Islam.

Two years ago, the pope met the grand imam of Egypt’s al-Azhar, considered the foremost center of learning in Sunni Islam. With Ahmed al-Tayyeb, Francis signed the “Declaration of Human Fraternity,” calling on both Christians and Muslims to embrace religious diversity with freedom and respect.

This weekend, Francis came to Iraq to support and encourage the nation’s beleaguered Christians, whose numbers have decreased from 1.4 million in 2003 to about 250,000 today.

But he also wished to sign a similar document with the reclusive leading figure in Shiite Islam, which represents 1 in 10 of the world’s Muslims—and 6 in 10 Iraqis.

The result with Sistani was more modest than with Tayyeb, but Francis did secure a very important fatwa (religious ruling).

“[Christians should] live like all Iraqis, in security and peace and with full constitutional rights,” said Sistani in an official statement. “The religious authority plays [a role] in protecting them, and others who have also suffered injustice and harm in the events of past years.”

Francis removed his shoes upon entering Sistani’s modest home. And while the ayatollah usually sits to receive visitors, he stood to welcome the pope.

Will the ruling make a difference? Will it have any impact in Iran, the neighboring theocratic Shiite state? And what really drives the regional conflict: religion or politics? In Muslim history, the answer is…

This article was originally published at Christianity Today, on March 7, 2021. Please click here to read the full text.

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Christianity Today Middle East Published Articles

Iraq’s Evangelicals Use Pope Francis’s Visit to Press for Equality

(Photo by AHMAD AL-RUBAYE/AFP via Getty Images)

Pope Francis traveled to war-torn Iraq today “as a pilgrim of peace, seeking fraternity [and] reconciliation.”

The trip’s official logo, written in three languages, comes from Matthew 23: “You are all brothers.” Iraq’s evangelicals, therefore, have asked for the pope’s help.

“The other churches don’t want us, and accuse us of everything,” said Maher Dawoud, head of the General Society for Iraqi National Evangelical Churches (GSINEC).

“But we are churches present throughout the world. Why shouldn’t the government give us our rights?”

Dawoud sent a letter to the Vatican, asking Francis to intercede—on behalf of evangelical Christians—with the Catholic church in Iraq, and ultimately with the government in Baghdad.

The World Evangelical Alliance (WEA) had gone straight to the United Nations, long before.

One year ago, the WEA filed a report with the UN Human Rights Committee, protesting the denial of legal recognition for Iraqi evangelicals. Fourteen other denominations are currently counted within the Christian, Yazidi, and Sabaean-Mandaean Religions Diwan (Bureau).

Now estimated at less than 250,000 people, Christians are a small minority of Iraq’s 40 million population, 97 percent of which is Muslim. Evangelical numbers are even smaller.

The Chaldean Catholic Church represents 80 percent of the nation’s Christians, with 110 churches throughout the country. Syriacs, both Catholic and Orthodox, constitute another 10 percent, with 82 churches. Assyrians, primarily through the Church of the East, have a 5 percent share, and Armenians, 3 percent. (Other estimates count 67 percent for the Chaldeans, and 20 percent for the Assyrians. Their identity and history are disputed.)

Evangelicals have 7 churches, Dawoud said. Representing the Baptist, Pentecostal, Nazarene, Alliance, Assemblies of God, and Armenian Evangelical denominations, the GSINEC has petitioned Baghdad for recognition since 2003.

While their churches are open and able to conduct services, they lack the authority to perform marriages, conduct funerals, and interact with the government. This prevents them from owning property, opening bank accounts, and producing religious literature.

It also keeps Protestants from invitations to official events—like the visit of a pope.

But not all of them. “I will ask Pope Francis to agree with me in prayer,” said…

This article was originally published at Christianity Today, on March 5, 2021. Please click here to read the full text.

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Christianity Today Middle East Published Articles

Word or Deeds: Shiite Firebrand Pledges to Restore Iraqi Christian Property

Muqtada al-Sadr

If Pope Francis can avoid the complications of COVID-19 travel and get to Iraq in March, he will hear a lot about stolen property. Muqtada al-Sadr, a leading Shiite politician fiercely opposed to the US military presence, has told Christians he will do something about it.

The issue is not new.

As Iraq’s pre-Gulf War Christian population of 1.25 million dwindled to about 250,000 today, opportunistic non-Christians laid claim to their unoccupied homes and lands. The city of Mosul, next to the traditionally Christian Nineveh Plains—where Pope Francis is scheduled to visit— located 220 miles north of Baghdad, provides telling examples of the problem.

In 2010, in the waning days of official US occupation, Ashur Eskrya’s father decided to sell his family home. Years of chaos had depleted the once 60,000-strong Christian population of Iraq’s second-largest city, representing 10 percent of its total. Property values were plummeting. Especially in hindsight, Eskrya felt fortunate to get 25 percent of its market value.

Four years later, his neighbor got nothing.

ISIS invaded Mosul, putting its Christian population to flight. In 2015, the International Organization for Migration (IOM) surveyed 240 individuals displaced by the fighting throughout Iraq. Nearly 9 in 10 (89%) had their homes confiscated.

A 2014 study estimated that ISIS made more money from selling stolen real estate than it did from oil revenue.

After the liberation of Mosul, some Christians returned, including Eskrya’s neighbor. While 42 percent had lost their property documentation altogether, according to IOM, the neighbor was able to enter a lengthy legal process and eventually regain ownership of his home.

But uncomfortable with the security situation, he returned to Erbil, 55 miles east of Mosul in Iraqi Kurdistan, where thousands of displaced Christians still reside.

He lives there today with his children, which is more than a third family can say.

This neighbor benefited from Mosul’s earlier oil boom, and lived in a home valued at $1.2 million in one of the plush city districts. But in 2006, his daughter was kidnapped and killed. In 2012, another daughter tried to emigrate through Syria, and was killed there. The parents eventually moved to Australia—with the deed to their home. But last year, they were stunned to receive news…

This article was originally published at Christianity Today, on January 21, 2021. Please click here to read the full text.

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Christianity Today Middle East Published Articles

Christmas Unites a Divided Iraq

A picture taken on December 30, 2016 shows people walking past Christmas and New Year’s decorations displayed outside a shopping mall street in Arbil, the capital of the autonomous Kurdish region of northern Iraq. / AFP / SAFIN HAMED via Getty Images

Seventeen years since the fall of Saddam Hussein, the fractious Iraqi nation—divided mostly between Sunni, Shiite, and Kurdish Muslims—remains unable to agree on a national day.

But they can agree on Christmas.

Last week, the parliament unanimously passed a law to make Christmas a “national holiday, with annual frequency.”

The latter phrase gave great “joy and satisfaction” to Cardinal Louis Raphael Sako, patriarch of the Chaldean Catholic Church. Last October, he presented an official request to Iraqi President Barham Salih to make Christmas a permanent public holiday.

“Today Christmas is truly a celebration for all Iraqis,” said Basilio Yaldo, bishop of Baghdad and Sako’s close associate. “This is a message of great value and hope.”

In 2008, the government declared Christmas a “one-time holiday.”

In 2018, the parliament amended the law to make Christmas for all citizens.

But after each occasion, it was not renewed.

“The declaration is beautiful, but it is very late,” said Ashur Eskrya, president of the Assyrian Aid Society–Iraq. “But our trouble is not in holidays, it is in…

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

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Christianity Today Middle East Published Articles

Why We Opened a Christian University in Iraq Amid ISIS’ Genocide

Catholic University of Erbil
The Catholic University of Erbil (courtesy CUE)

This article was first published at Christianity Today, on May 7, 2020.

For 25 years, Stephen Rasche was a “bare knuckles” international lawyer. But in 2010, he offered his services to the Chaldean Catholic Church of Erbil in Iraqi Kurdistan and has increasingly dedicated his life to the preservation of this ancient community.

Under the leadership of Archbishop Bashar Matti Warda, in 2015 Rasche helped found the Catholic University of Erbil, where he serves as vice chancellor. Also the director of its Institute for Ancient and Threatened Christianity, Rasche lived this title as ISIS ravaged Iraq’s Christian homelands in the Nineveh Plains and many believers fled to Erbil.

After testifying on their behalf before the United Nations and the US Congress, Rasche allows them to represent themselves in his recent book, The Disappearing People: The Tragic Fate of Christians in the Middle East. The book has won a diverse range of endorsements, from leaders such as Matthew Hassan Kukah, bishop of the Catholic Diocese of Sokoto, Nigeria; Yahya Cholil Staquf, general secretary of Nahdlatul Ulama, the largest Muslim organization in the world; and Thomas Farr, president of the Religious Freedom Institute.

The US State Department’s Office of International Religious Freedom reports that less than 250,000 Christians are living in Iraq, most in Kurdistan or on the Nineveh Plains. Two-thirds belong to the Chaldean Catholic Church.

CT interviewed Rasche about the logic of establishing a university during a genocide, how its Catholic identity functions in a Muslim society, and his enduring optimism for Christianity in Iraq.

What led you personally to invest your life in this endeavor?

In 2010, Bishop Warda had just been made archbishop, and I went to pay him a visit of respect, asking if there was anything I could do to help. “Yes, in fact,” he said. “You Americans have made a big mess here, and you could stay and help me. I have 3,000 displaced families here from the south, they need help, and no one is helping us with them. We don’t have jobs for them, and there’s a whole range of things I would like to do.”

I assisted on and off on a pro-bono basis for the next four years, but by 2014 the situation looked really desperate. ISIS was maybe 30 miles away from Erbil. But in a visit just after Christmas, I sat down with the bishop and the priests who told me, “We are going to stay. Will you be with us here, and help us?”

Honestly, I was skeptical. But after some deep thinking, I tried to determine the right thing to do and if there was a calling in this for me.

Tell us more about that calling.

Being an international transactions lawyer involved a fair amount of bare knuckles litigation. And not a lot of it, quite frankly, was fulfilling…

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

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Christianity Today Middle East Published Articles

Arab Christians Have Lost Easter Before. Here’s What They Learned.

Losing Easter Churches
House of St Ananias, Damascus

This article was first published at Christianity Today, on April 3, 2020.

Christians around the world are about to lose their usual Easter celebration—the highlight of most congregations’ annual life together.

Yes, there will be a livestream. Their pastor will likely call them. They may even chat on Zoom with friends and family.

But it will be different. The community of believers has been sundered by the new coronavirus. And threatened with it is Christ’s body, his bride, his temple for his presence in the world.

If there is any consolation, it is that this is not the first time.

“There are forces of nature—and forces of man—that challenge our ability to experience the presence of Christ,” said Gregory Mansour, the Maronite bishop of Brooklyn.

“[COVID-19] is different from persecution. But it is the same.”

A born-again Catholic led into personal relationship with Christ by the Navigators, Mansour later reconnected with his ancient Lebanon-based church. His clerical colleagues there received thousands of ISIS-fleeing Christians from Syria and Iraq.

“There was a deliberate desire to obliterate churches, hymnals, prayers, and people,” he said. “The only thing we had left was…

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

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Christianity Today Middle East Published Articles

Soleimani’s Death Doesn’t End Iran’s Influence on Middle East Christians

Soleimani Funeral
(via Fars News Agency)

This article was first published at Christianity Today, on January 28, 2020.

Middle East Christians might shrug their shoulders. They might even fret and worry. But perhaps Qassem Soleimani got what he deserved.

“We regret what happened. We do not want anyone to die, because Christianity wants the good of all,” said Ashty Bahro, former head of the Kurdistan Evangelical Alliance.

“But a person leads himself to his own destiny.”

Soleimani, head of Iran’s special operations Quds Force, was killed by a US rocket strike on January 3. It was a rapid escalation following the Iran-linked death of an American contractor, a retaliatory attack on the responsible Iraqi militia, and the storming of the US embassy in Baghdad.

According to the US State Department, Soleimani, who reported directly to Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei, was responsible for 17 percent of American deaths in Iraq from 2003 to 2011.

He also enraged Sunni Muslims by engineering the subsequent Iranian defense of Syria’s regime, led by President Bashar al-Assad. With Russia and the Iran-backed military wing of Lebanon’s Hezbollah, the shelling of rebel-held cities resulted in the displacement of thousands during Syria’s civil war.

But Soleimani was also acclaimed for his role in fighting ISIS, personally directing Iraqi militias from the front lines.

Thus, Middle East Christians have mixed feelings about his death—and the immediate aftermath.

Some Syrian believers see no benefit to anyone.

“Iran was working with the US government in certain agreements. Why did you destroy them?” asked Maan Bitar, pastor of the Presbyterian churches in Mhardeh and Hama, noting both the fight against ISIS and the nuclear deal.

“This will prompt a severe reaction that will hurt…”

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

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Christianity Today Middle East Published Articles

Christmas Celebrations Canceled in Iraq After Deaths of 400 Protesters

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“People don’t want foreign interference from anywhere…

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

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Americas Christianity Today Published Articles

US Catholics Now as Concerned About Persecution as Climate Change

Aid to the Church in Need Iraq
Decapitated statue of Our Lady in the destroyed St Addai’s Church, Karemles, northern Iraq, via ACN-UK.

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

American Catholics are growing more concerned about the fate of the world—and with it, Christian persecution.

More than 9 in 10 now identify persecution as either “very” or “somewhat” severe. This is roughly the same percentage as an identical poll last year, both sponsored by the US branch of Catholic charity Aid to the Church in Need (ACN). But over the last 12 months, the share choosing the “very severe” category rose from 40 percent to 46 percent.

And their level of concern went with it, rising 9 percentage points. Last year, 49 percent of Catholics described themselves as “very concerned.” This year, 58 percent.

The poll surveys 1,000 American Catholics across the spectrums of age, politics, and piety, conducted by McLaughlin & Associates.

It showed that intense Catholic concern is growing on several global issues. Those “very concerned” about human trafficking rose from 72 percent to 82 percent. Poverty climbed from 68 percent to 74 percent. The refugee issue jumped from 50 percent to 60 percent. And climate change nudged forward from 55 percent to 57 percent.

So while those unconcerned about Christian persecution fell by half (from 18% to 9%), overall the “church in need” only ranked No. 4 among the list of issues.

But last year, it was…

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

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Americas Christianity Today Published Articles

Christians Could Return to the Middle East, Thanks to Trump (Deportations)

Iraq Trump Deportation

This article was originally published in the October print edition of Christianity Today, co-authored with Griffin Jackson.

When Haitham Jazrawi started working at Kirkuk Presbyterian Church in Iraq in 1991, there were 72 families. Today, there are still 72 families—but only two of the originals remain. During his 26-year tenure as caretaker and then pastor, Jazrawi has seen a turnover of more than 300 families due to emigration.

Such an outward flow has been the norm in churches across the Middle East. In Iraq and Syria, countries ravaged by years of war and the terror of the Islamic State, roughly two-thirds of Christians have fled.

Among Jazrawi’s congregants, 50 percent are internally displaced from elsewhere in Iraq. “They come as refugees from inside our country,” said the Kirkuk pastor, “from the Nineveh Valley, from Nineveh, from other villages and cities.”

Soon, they may also come from outside of Iraq. With the Trump administration threatening to deport more than 1,400 Iraqis, hundreds of whom are Christians, a rare irony may present itself: the forced movement of Christians into the Middle East.

This summer, hundreds of Iraqis were behind bars in holding centers around the United States, slated for deportation to Iraq. The majority were Christians, and most were rounded up in Detroit in a massive June raid executed by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).

“Not only would they be breaking up families that have been here for decades,” said Nathan Kalasho, a local advocate for the detainees, “but they would be sending an already targeted minority to a country that no longer welcomes them…”

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

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Personal

Distributing Aid to Iraqi Christians

Zalal 7

Five days ago Iraqi Christians were displaced from their city – again. As Fox News reported, they had only recently returned to Teleskof following its liberation from ISIS.

Here are pictures from those trying to help.

The recent Kurdish referendum effort led the Iraqi government to reclaim disputed land held by the Peshmerga forces. Christians were caught in the crossfire, and my Christianity Today story has some of the details.

It also features Ashty Bahro, the head of Zalal Life Civil Society Foundation, and former head of the Evangelical Alliance of Kurdistan.

On the day the refugees fled to nearby al-Qosh, his organization was there to distribute 300 parcels of food and water.

The following pictures were supplied by Zalal Life.

Zalal 8
The license plate reads: Dohuk, Iraq. Bahro is a pastor in Dohuk, 25 miles to the northwest of al-Qosh.

Zalal 1
Bahro described the area as mountainous, with the journey taking about 40 minutes.

Zalal 2
Refugees gathered at the local St. Qarbakh church. Al-Qosh is roughly 30 miles north of Mosul and is home to what is believed to be the burial place of the prophet Nahum, who preached against the Assyrian Empire of his day.

Zalal 4
Containing cheese, meat, tuna, beans, and other foot items.

Zalal 5
Boxes filled with bread. Iraqi bread is traditionally flat and round, shaped similarly to a pizza.

Zalal 6

There is always a cost to war. There are always real people on both sides of charity.

Pictures help us visualize what we are too often able to overlook: Faces.

You don’t have to do anything. In most cases you can’t. Some are chosen to suffer, others are able to help.

Just remember the dignity of all.

UPDATE:

On October 30, Zalal Life was able to return and complement the emergency food supplies with 300 mattresses and blankets. Bahro specifically thanks Steadfast Global and L4L.

Zalal 10
It is not uncommon in the Middle East to see all sorts of vehicles piled high with supplies.

Zalal 11
I liked this picture because it shows a little more of the neighborhood near the church. Looks nice – that doesn’t always come through in refugee situations.

Zalal 13
And this one: Just because kids are so frequently cute.

 

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Personal

An Iraqi Refugee Leads Us Home

Iraqi Refugees
(via Time, Muhammed Muheisen—AP. Image is of Yazidis.)

Abu Rafi surveyed what once was a familiar scene.

Displaced from Qaraqosh, Iraq by the marauding ISIS forces, his family of ten fled to Kurdistan where he secured a two bedroom apartment.

Now with ISIS in retreat, he traveled back to see the wreckage.

Their home was robbed and burned. They used to host many friends; now the sofa and dining table are gone. They had a garden; it is ruined. Grandkids picked oranges, and ran barefoot on the green grass.

Now they are just memories, though the process of repair and repainting has begun.

From Kurdistan he lamented with Lilian Samaan, the American Bible Society’s strategic ministries advisor for the Middle East and North Africa.

“It’s okay,” he told her. “I have my daughters and son around me, alive and well. That is what matters most.”

Samaan asks us to empathize, but also more. We must recognize first that Arab refugees in America almost universally share this desire to go home.

“Their old home, their garden, their church, their priest, their community,” she said, “all that once was is now lost, all gone.”

We might want to help, she says, but it is not that simple. These were a proud people, violated thoroughly. Their honor has been damaged, and their need of assistance is a further source of shame.

“A gentle approach and a posture of learning, listening and asking the right questions,” she counsels, “will allow access to support in a dignified way.”

It is kind and wise advice, but also personal. Samaan is originally from Jordan – not a refugee but an immigrant who sees herself in many she now comes along side of.

What made the difference for her was respect.

“I was welcomed into homes, cherished like a daughter, and trusted like a friend,” she said. “At work and at church on the North Side of Chicago, my contributions and gifts were acknowledged and appreciated, as an immigrant.”

And if American Christians can go a step further, they might reverse their roles. Samaan urges the church to become disciples of those washing up on their shore.

“I believe the American church is in a privileged position to have such people of history and faith in its midst,” she said. It’s a golden opportunity to come alongside refugees from these areas, hear their story, acknowledge their pain, affirm their honor and resilience, and minister to them with presence and friendship.”

And in the process, learn.

“Can we become disciples of the minority church, the persecuted church?” she asked. “Can we allow ourselves to be vulnerable, to commune with a church that has suffered but survived persecution over many centuries, demonstrating patient resilience?

“It could be that this is a moment for us in the West to step aside, lay down our ideologies and agendas, and allow the Church in the East to propose its own solutions, and with our support, lead us.”

Abu Rafi will soon lead his family home. Can we, in spirit, join him?

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Asia Christianity Today Published Articles

They Will Know We are Christians by Our Drinks

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

Muslim World Alcohol

The deadliest incident faced by the persecuted church last Christmas wasn’t radical Islamists. It was alcohol.

Liquor mixed with aftershave killed about 50 people at Christmas parties in a Pakistani village, and sickened about 100 more.

In Pakistan, as in many Muslim-majority nations where Shari‘ah law forbids drinking, alcohol is closely identified with Christianity. The nation’s primary alcohol producer, for example, riffs on the Bible in advertisements. Founded in 1860 by the British, Murree Brewery’s slogan, “Eat, drink, and be Murree,” echoes the repeated biblical idiom for short-term pleasures.

Perhaps as surprising as the existence of a Pakistani brewery is the fact that 12 Muslims were among the victims of the fatal Christmas parties. But in 2007, then–Murree CEO Minnoo Bhandara told The Telegraph that 99 percent of his customers are Muslims. And in the Middle East, alcohol sales increased 72 percent from 2001 to 2011, according to market research.

Still, in most Muslim countries only Christians may buy or consume alcohol. But not all do. Wilson Chowdhry, chairman of the British Pakistani Christian Association, estimates that about half of Pakistani Christian men drink. Roman Catholics are slightly more inclined; Protestants less so. But the women of both branches of Christianity, he says, are fully opposed.

Chowdhry, an evangelical, believes alcohol is licit for the Christian; but in deference to his wife, he does not drink. Common arguments in Pakistan will feel familiar to Americans…

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

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Biola Middle East Published Articles

The Struggle for Enemy Love in the Arab Christian World

This article first appeared at The Table. For more articles featuring thoughtful Christian perspectives on the the nature and embodiment of love, growing through suffering, and acquiring humility, click here.

Love Your Enemies Arabic
Translation: Love your enemies, bless those who curse you, do good to those who hate you, pray for those who persecute you, and whoever strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also

 

I have long taken pride in the distinctive teaching of Christianity to love your enemy. It was not until I began learning Arabic I better appreciated what this called for.

Perhaps like many American Christians my pride was an identity marker more than a mark of Christ. I had never suffered for my faith, nor had any enemies to speak of. But in a pluralistic world of competing religious claims, widespread political polarization, and far-flung military adventures, ‘love your enemy’ became a mantra to lift me out of the morass and place my feet firmly on the moral high ground.

Only Jesus commands this, I thought; my Christian religion is different. I had always believed it was true. This was confirmation it was better.

The Sermon on the Mount allows us to cherish our ideals, with full admittance of the still mostly philosophical difficulties. Who has ever forced us to walk a mile? And beggars? They’re all in the big city. Turning the other cheek would be hard, but the envisioned moral strength? Powerful.

One morning years later I awoke surrounded by posters of smiling Arab pop stars. During vacation break from language school in Jordan I arranged for an immersion experience in the ancient city of al-Karak, home to a 12th century Crusader castle. One-quarter of the population remains Christian; one local family took me in and displaced their preteen daughter from her room.

But there at the door by the light switch a prominently placed sticker served as a reminder each morning as she left the room. Ahibbu ‘adakum. Love your enemies.

I went to the Arab world imagining a place where this command might be more practical. Muslims were not essential enemies, of course, and Jordan was well known as a place of coexistence. But perhaps they were theological enemies? In any case the region was characterized with tales of persecuted Christians. How would ordinary believers live the Sermon?

Ihsanu illa mubghideekum, the sticker continued. I was less familiar with this injunction. Baariku la’aneekum. Perhaps like many American Christians, Jesus taught me from the mountain. What I would come to learn is that Arab Christians quoted his Sermon on the Plain. Do good to those who hate you. Bless those that curse you.

The family I stayed with in al-Karak was well respected with no known enemies. But every morning their daughter entered a Muslim culture armed with instructions that have buoyed Arab Christians for 1400 years. Whether jizyah and jihad, or colleagues and citizens, they have been the minority ‘other’. American Christians, white-skinned at least, have little idea what this entails.

Going to Egypt, later still, I saw the results first hand.

I wished eagerly to explore the context. Both Matthew’s and Luke’s account end with the command to pray for those who treat you wrong, and more than other places in the Arab world, Egypt was understood to be a place of Coptic suffering. ‘It takes a presidential decree to fix a church doorknob,’ I was told. ‘Christians get attacked in their villages, and they are the ones put in prison.’ Over time I would learn that the reality is quite nuanced, but the sentiment is telling both for visceral incidents of suffering as well as the ethos they produce. Many have suspected that Christians of the region had bought a modicum of peace in exchange for evangelistic mission, beaten down by the task of communal preservation. I experienced Copts as simultaneously integrated in society and withdrawn into their churches. They would speak of Muslims as friends, but whisper of Islam as an enemy ideology.

But what of the celebrated Sermon on the Plain? How would they not just love, but also bless? Specifically and practically, how would they do good?

In one city south of Cairo I interviewed a man who provided a commendable, if telling example. Due to government difficulties in extending services to underdeveloped areas, Muslims and Christians have learned to take care of their own. Until recently Islamist groups had long provided a safety net for the majority, while the Orthodox Church ensured care for Christian widows and the Coptic poor. Neither group would profess denying help to the religious other, but both mirrored the reality of increasing emphasis on religious identity.

This man worked with a Christian agency that aimed to break the dichotomy and serve all. Unaffiliated with the church, Muslims were the employed majority as well as present on the board of trustees. By no means were they an enemy, but Christ’s love to the other was clearly among his motivations.

A jovial and cheerful man, he turned deadly serious on my next question: ‘To better reach your community, would you consider partnering with a Muslim organization?’ It seemed innocuous enough but touched a deeply sensitive nerve. ‘I swear by the Messiah,’ he answered angrily, ‘there is not one Islamic organization that also takes care of the Christians!’

He may be right; he was certainly the expert. But from the heart, the mouth speaks. Here was one of the best examples of a Christian doing good to people who many in his community would internally generalize as a sort of enemy. But despite his charity, he ultimately demonstrated an uncharitable spirit. Let there be little condemnation, but the question is fair though terribly hard: As I Corinthians 13 warns, did he risk becoming a resounding gong?

Nuance is necessary, for the other is not the enemy unless they press against you. For most Arab Christians the ordinary Muslim is an ordinary person, though the Islamist can be a threat in the desire to set his creed as the organizing principle of society. In a region with much religious conservatism, the line between Muslim and Islamist can be difficult to draw. This man railed against the latter, and perhaps with good reason. But it was clear his love for the other did not extend to love for the enemy. Instead of doing them good, whatever that could have meant practically, he was in existential competition.

In the years that followed Islamists rode a revolutionary wave into the presidential palace. Despite their conciliatory discourse with Western audiences, in Arabic some of their members and supporters uttered vile and vitriolic threats against their opponents, Christians included. One year later as Copts joined the masses that turned against the new political elite, they paid the price as their churches were burned throughout the country. Christians were praised for their patience, and rallied behind the military and millions of Muslims to oppose the Islamist enemy. In this case the term is at least rhetorically appropriate; once chosen as legislators and government ministers, they were now rejected as terrorists and an internationalist cabal.

Western opinion is divided over the veracity of this accusation, but as concerns local Christians it is largely irrelevant. Certainly they suffered; certainly they ascribed to widespread public messaging. But in the vanquishing of their enemy almost no voices of love were offered. These need not be in dissent; they might only be in pleas for due process or care for the relatives of the justly imprisoned. During Islamist rule many Christians worried and some chose to emigrate. Some, probably many, prayed for their new president. But if a few have since sought to bless the fallen Islamists who curse them still, their example has not moved the needle of Coptic opinion, where nary a tear has been shed.

How then is this spirit present in a ten-year-old girl who lost everything?

If Islamists in Egypt were a challenge, even a disaster, in Syria and Iraq they were a catastrophe. When the so-called Islamic State overran Mosul in July 2014, thousands of Christians left their homes and fled to Kurdistan. Among them was Myriam, who with her family lived in a half-built shopping mall. Interviewed a year later by the Christian satellite network SAT-7, her testimony went viral.

‘I will only ask God to forgive them,’ she said when asked how she felt about those who caused this tragedy. ‘Why should they be killed?’ Contrast her with the opinion of some Americans, who wonder why we have not yet bombed ISIS into oblivion.

Perhaps it is the depth of the loss that summons the breadth of compassion. Perhaps children are not chiseled as rigidly as adults. Beautiful testimonies of forgiveness have been offered by Egyptian Christians as well, whose family members were martyred by ISIS in Libya. Unjust suffering recalls a crucified Jesus, whose dying prayer to God was that sin not be accounted to his tormentors. From afar we recoil, and demand justice. Likewise, Egyptian Christians felt vindication when their government bombarded ISIS in Libya the next day.

Let them not be blamed on account of ‘love your enemy’. The children of Israel broke into song when Pharaoh’s army drowned in the Red Sea. David prayed for deliverance from his enemies and a psalm of exile wished their children smashed against the rocks. Romans established the role of government in the preservation of order and punishment of the wrongdoer. And one day, Christ himself will wield the rod of iron as his enemies are fashioned into a footstool. Outcry against suffering is natural and must be voiced for emotional health. Justice is real, necessary, and must never become the antonym of love.

But mercy triumphs over judgment, and love covers over a multitude of sins. The Christian ideal keeps no record of wrongs, and hopes all things. This seems impossible when facing an enemy of any caliber, let alone the Islamic State. It almost seems perverse. The higher calling of love must uphold the lower calling of justice, and demands great discernment in weighing Jesus’ instruction to be wise as serpents yet innocent as doves.

Arab Christians are in an unenviable position. The Egyptian church must navigate this wisdom-innocence paradigm with the utmost care. The Syrian-Iraqi church has been scattered. If they have not yet lived up to the fullness of ‘love your enemy’ it only serves to remind us how far we are from what they endure. That God has kept them from abject loathing is sign enough of the Spirit’s power. That they fill up in their flesh what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions is reason enough to humbly bow and support them in prayer.

Unfortunately, my proximity has not enabled the vision of practical suggestion. Lord willing, the eyes of a foreigner have helped some see afresh the demands of the gospel. Ultimately, application is up to them.

But over the years I have come to see the Sermon on the Plain as a better template than the Sermon on the Mount, especially if read in reverse.

Pray for those who mistreat you. If persecution is rare, mistreatment is not. If love if ethereal, prayer is grounding. With an act of the will I can choose to place my enemy before God. Perhaps I even begin with the imprecatory psalms. But rather than grumble or plot revenge, I turn the matter over to him.

Bless those who curse you. Once in God’s hands the prayer can change, even with rising of the nature of offense. No matter how difficult in our power, the Spirit’s power enables our will to progress further. The step is tangible, but nothing is yet asked of the heart. With gritted teeth I seek God’s grace not only for my hurt, but for the ultimate well-being of my enemy.

Do good to those who hate you. But again, God pushes the envelope as the severity of opposition increases. Anyone might curse me in a moment of frustration. Hatred takes time. But in answer to a decision that hardens a heart, my decision is to loosen my own. In asking God to bless my enemy, he transforms me to do it myself.

Love your enemies. Whatever practical action results, something mystical occurs. At least, I can only trust God that it will. Somehow, and whatever it means and feels like, love happens.

It is this love that is the hallmark of Christianity, not my initial congratulatory pat on the back that I was born into and believed in a superior faith. This is the love that can transform conflict. But it is also the love that can get trampled underfoot.

Why has the latter been the trend for Arab Christians over the past 1400 years, as their numbers have dwindled to near extinction? Have they not loved enough? Have they not stood for justice? Have they compromised too readily? Have they allowed their hearts to harden?

We cannot know, and we dare not judge. Bear well that the sermon passage ends with a plea: Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful. Look upon them with sympathy, and upon the region. They are brothers in sisters in faith, within brothers and sisters in humanity. Surely among them are the ungrateful and wicked, but as sons and daughters of the Most High, in imitation we are commanded to be kind.

And remember, the Sermon on the Plain places the Golden Rule smack within the section on loving your enemies. It is among the most beautiful verses in Arabic: Kama tureedun an yafal al-nas bikum, afalu antum aydan bihum hakatha. Do not let the foreignness of the language exaggerate further the foreignness of the concept. Enemies need love even more than the rest of us. Invite Arab Christians to help us learn.

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Excerpts

Redraw the Map: A Christian Call for Middle East Peace

Map of New Middle East

This article was published at Providence, on March 4, 2016.

The carnage is so severe, the atrocities so barbaric, and the impasse so intractable. Even when violence targets fellow Christians and their ancient communities, the morass of the Middle East can silence any moral response. Believers are tempted to throw up their hands in despair, for any proposed solution creates further uncomfortable complications.

If America stands with Assad in Syria we back his barrel bombs. If we side with the rebels we empower Islamism. If we stay neutral the killing continues, as friend and foe alike meddle on behalf of their favorite proxy. If we bomb only the Islamic State the core political issues remain. If we commit ground troops the specter of Saddam looms over all. Propaganda shrouds analysis in conspiracy, and regardless of action refugees pour out of a tinderbox ready to spark further war.

It is no wonder Christians are paralyzed to suggest anything.

Into the morass wades Terry Ascott, desperately seeking a way forward. And his solution tramples over one of the region’s most sacred cows, one only the Islamic State has dared address: Redraw the map.

Terry Ascott is the founder and CEO of the Arabic Christian satellite network SAT-7, though he is clear these remarks are personal in nature, unrelated to the work of the SAT-7, which I have written about in the past such as here and here.

I have also previously summarized an article from the London Review of Books that suggests the United States has conspired to create exactly the situation Ascott is calling for.

The article in Providence touches on the fact that a few others have suggested a solution in political division, but in purpose reflects Ascott’s Christian heart and rationale to stop the bloodshed. It also reflects his pessimism that the region can do this on its own.

Please click here to read the full article, and brainstorm with him.

 

 

 

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Christianity Today Middle East Published Articles

Christian TV Helps ISIS Survivors

This article was published at Christianity Today on January 7, 2016.

SAT-7 Myriam and Sandra
Myriam (L) and her friend Sandra reunite at school (via SAT-7)

Last spring, a 10-year-old Christian girl famously forgave ISIS for driving her family from their home in Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city. Myriam’s video interview with Christian broadcaster SAT-7 went viral, witnessed by more than 3 million people on television and social media.

When Myriam fled from ISIS, so did her friend Sandra. Sandra’s family first took refuge in Lebanon, while Myriam’s family headed for Erbil, the capital of the Kurdish region of Iraq. Eventually, both families settled into a refugee camp at Mar Elias Catholic Church in Erbil.

Myriam previously told SAT-7 she had three wishes. The first: For her message of forgiveness to reach the world.

Now her second and third wishes have also been fulfilled. She has returned to school, and Sandra has joined her. She now shares a desk with her childhood friend.

“I can’t describe the joy that I felt,” Myriam told SAT-7.

But the joy of school is unknown to most of the approximately 3.5 million internally displaced children of Syria and Iraq. World Vision estimates that 2.5 million Syrian children—including both the internally displaced and refugees—are not attending school.

Terry Ascott, CEO of SAT-7, told CT that without school, money, or dignity, these children are at great risk.

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

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Christianity Today Middle East Published Articles

Forgiving ISIS: Christian ‘Resistance’ Videos Go Viral in the Arab World

Myriam, photo from SAT-7
Myriam, photo from SAT-7

From my new article at Christianity Today, published March 17, 2015:

A prime example of Ghalab’s wish for loving children: 10-year-old Myriam from Mosul, Iraq.

Her family fled their home last July with hundreds of thousands of other Christians, finding safety in Kurdistan’s Irbil. Essam Nagy of SAT-7 Kids visited the refugee camps and connected with Myriam, a faithful viewer who praised God for not allowing ISIS to kill them.

Asked about her feelings toward those who drove her from her home, Myriam wondered why they did this. Then she said: “I will only ask God to forgive them. Why should they be killed?”

To date, more than 1 million people have seen her witness online. [Full video at the bottom]

SAT-7’s five channels reach an audience of 15 million in North Africa and the Middle East, though it’s impossible to measure how many people watched Myriam. However, numbers can be tracked through the social media campaign, which has reached 25 times its normal audience, with subtitles of the video provided in English, Spanish, Turkish, and Chinese. Word spread not only through SAT-7 affiliates, but also in the local secular press.

Pan-Arabic al-Arabia praised Myriam for confronting ISIS with love. “Everyone who listens to her is astounded,” echoed the Egyptian Youm 7. Leading Lebanese daily al-Nahar called for the clip to be shown in the nation’s schools as a lesson in humanity.

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

Here is the link directly to the YouTube video of Myriam.

And here is the second video featured, of a brother to two of the Coptic martyrs in Libya, calling in to SAT-7 to both thank and pray for the murderers of ISIS.

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Audio

Podcast: On the Middle East, Christians, and ISIS

The Way Home - Dan DarlingThis week I had the opportunity to appear on ‘The Way Home‘ podcast, hosted by Dan Darling. Darling is the Vice President for Communications at the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, and he invited me to share about current events in the Middle East and in particular how they are impacting Christians. Here is his introduction:

All of us have reacted with horror at the atrocities committed by the terrorist group ISIS upon Christians in the Middle East. How can Christians pray? How should we think about ISIS?

Today on The Way Home I talk with Jayson Casper, a Christianity Today journalist who has been covering this story. He called me from Cairo to discuss how Christians in places like Egypt, Jordan, and other countries are reacting to the atrocities of their brothers and sisters in Syria and Iraq and Libya. He also gives a thorough analysis of ISIS and Islamic extremism.

Our conversation lasted about half an hour, touching on various questions. Is ISIS Islamic? How are Christians responding? How should Western Christians pray?

Please click here to open a new window and listen to the podcast.