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The Immigration of Roots

Over the past several years, and increasingly over the past several months, Iraq has nearly been emptied of its historical Christian population. This short film by the newspaper al-Badeel explores how Egyptian Christians contemplate the issue of immigration. It is subtitled in English, and provides a very good overview of how many Copts view the subject.

Egypt, of course, has not faced nearly the same level of chaos and disintegration as Iraq. But the film is full of images of burned churches that remind of the difficulty the nation has endured. Egypt also comprises a far higher population – both overall and of Christian citizens – which make it better able to withstand a gradual emigration which has resulted in Coptic Orthodox churches the world over.

But emigration takes its toll, usually robbing a nation of its best and its brightest who can afford to move overseas and stand a decent chance at finding work. This theme is stated often by those interviewed, while the theme of religious persecution is generally nuanced though it lingers.

Have sympathy, and enjoy the window into a slice of Coptic consciousness. Alas.

 

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Other Stories from Kurdistan

The situation for refugees in Erbil, Kurdistan, Iraq is dire. I was pleased to be able to convey this perspective in a recent article for Lapido Media, highlighting the relief efforts of a local Cairo church, Kasr el-Dobara.

But there are other interesting stories to be told, more than could be honored in a reasonable word limit. Here then are a few other anecdotes that had to be cut in the editing:

KD Christian refugee

Coordinated with US airstrikes, Kurdish Peshmerga forces have begun to reclaim villages overrun by ISIS. But many displaced Christians in Erbil, the Kurdish Iraqi city which has received hundreds of thousands of refugees, have little confidence to return.

‘I don’t want to go back to the same neighbors who betrayed me,’ a roughly 60 year old blind man from Nineveh told Revd. Fawzi Khalil. ‘They surrendered me to the terrorists.’

Khalil is the director of relief ministries at Kasr el-Dobara Church in Cairo, Egypt, and is part of the church’s efforts to deliver much needed aid. He has spoken to dozens of individuals with similar stories; names and faces begin to blend together.

The man in the photo above is the blind man, supplied by Rev. Khalil. It is amazing to have met so many with such terrible stories.

KD Erbil refugees

Khalil explained that the majority Chaldean Catholic Church of Ankawa has done an excellent job of caring for Christian refugees. Erbil’s population includes roughly 160,000 Christians, and many have taken in their religious brethren.

As a consequence Erbil’s churches are packed, and the Mar Eliya refugee camp is located on the grounds of the church-run school. Nearby Mar Yousef camp is in a church itself, and hosts mostly Muslims and Yazidis.

The photo above, also from Khalil, pictures what these campgrounds are like. People and their scant belongings sit around idly. I was surprised by how green the area is. But from another photo, not all refugees are so fortunate:

SAT7 refugee camp

This photo is from SAT-7, whose Ehab el-Kharrat was quoted extensively in the original article. Many campgrounds are located in the desert, and according to Eva Boutros, who was also interviewed, many have inadequate water supplies. Dozens of children gathered around a sole faucet, she witnessed, trying to get clean.

But Boutros also told a story of other children, who enjoyed with her relief team a special break from the agony of refugee life:

One of the Christian refugees is named Soha. Age 22, she graduated from university and was looking forward to her new job in Mosul before the ISIS onslaught. Now she must care for her brother’s three children who have been separated from their mother.

‘Now, all I have is a mattress, a donated plate of food, and two pairs of clothing,’ she told Eva Boutros. ‘This is the end of my youth.’

Boutros is the director of volunteer ministry for Kasr el-Dobara, but accompanied a joint Orthodox-Catholic-Protestant team organized by the Chaldean Church in Heliopolis, Cairo.

This team brought tents, medical supplies, blankets, and children’s underwear, all donated by Egyptian companies.

But Boutros recognized many of the refugees needed something more, and took 280 young women, including Soha, shopping at the local mall.

‘It was fun for us, and fun for them,’ she said, describing a moment of happiness amid a desperate situation.

Perhaps her woman’s touch gives her greater memory for personal detail, as opposed to Khalil. But she praises a different source.

‘I remember each person, their face and their story,’ she said. ‘The Lord sent us to tell them, we are suffering with you.

‘They need you to hug them, stay with them, and listen, listen, listen.’ Kasr el-Dobara’s team included a professional psychiatrist, who spent hours counseling women and children in their trauma. Childcare specialists did their best to entertain the kids each evening.

Finally, here is an amateur video made by the Kasr el-Dobara team, showing their team in action and giving thanks to those who have donated.

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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.

 

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Personal

Striking ISIS: Egyptian Participation and Christian Angst

 

bombing-isis

Many Christian religious leaders in the Middle East expressed great reserve against the US plan to strike at ISIS in Syria. But one particular Egyptian politician, a Christian, argues forcefully for it—including Egyptian participation. Now that the bombs have begun to fall, his words are also worthy of consideration.

“We should go, if only symbolically with a few planes,” said Ehab el-Kharrat, a founding member of the Egyptian Social Democratic Party. “We must not give a message to our local terrorists that we are backing off.”

Egyptian President Sisi has promised coordination with the US-led coalition, but has not contributed any forces. He recently stated Egypt is neither for Assad nor the opposition, though it does maintain membership in the Friends of Syria group organized early against the regime. Sisi has, however, compared the Islamist forces fighting in Syria to the Muslim Brotherhood, accused of coordinating ongoing attacks in Egypt.

Kharrat believes Egypt, and the international community in particular, should have been much more forceful, from an earlier date, but narrowly focused. He says many in his party agree, though it has taken no official stand.

“The decision not to arm the Free Syrian Army was a serious mistake and we must do so now as soon as possible,” he said. “Assad is not the answer, he is a cruel dictator, worse than Mubarak, similar to Saddam.”

Kharrat criticized the Muslim Brotherhood and Salafis for understanding the procedures of democracy, but not its philosophy – unless they reject it to begin with. But leaning on Assad, like some Christians are at least reluctantly willing to do, does not work either. It has produced the ills Christians are currently suffering.

“Autocratic regimes give ground to breed Muslim extremists like bacteria,” he said.

Bishop Muhib Younan of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Jordan and the Holy Land agrees. “We have relied on secular autocrats who oppress others,” he said, “but must recognize also that democracy is a damaged concept.”

The trouble is that many Middle Eastern Christians, and certainly Egyptian Copts, feel trapped. Their experience with Islamists leads them to mistrust open democratic procedures that may bring them to power. But the secular states they have relied upon do not necessarily protect them beyond rhetoric.

Some in Egypt, such as Mina Fayek, a Cairo based blogger and activist, complain the Egyptian state has not yet rebuilt the churches attacked by Islamist mobs following the dispersal of the pro-Morsi Rabaa sit-in. The army promised it would be done; over a year later little work has progressed.

Others, such as Rami Kamel, a veteran Coptic activist, see both state and church inaction over the recent Gabl al-Tayr incident, where 22 Copts and three policemen were injured dispersing a sit-in protest over a missing woman believed to be kidnapped. “Sisi and the state will never go to the church,” he said, “because the church’s role has ended.”

But to imagine these sentiments as indicative of Coptic opinion would be greatly misconstrued. Christians are among Sisi’s greatest supporters.

If he follows through with his rhetoric, perhaps they should be. Commenting on the airstrikes in Iraq and Syria to the AP, Sisi said much more was necessary.

“The comprehensive strategy we’re talking about — part of it would be the security and military confrontation, correct, but it would also include fighting poverty,” he said. “We are also talking about improving education, which is important, as well as changes in the Islamic religious discourse.”

This coincides exactly with Kharrat’s opinion, though the second part awaits a demonstration of Sisi’s commitment.

“In Tunisia, Libya, Egypt, Syria, and all our states, the question of religion and politics must be resolved,” he said. “The only solution is a democratic and liberal system.”

As for Syria, Kharrat believes the practical only solution is to strike a deal with Assad to remove him from power, but assure him of non-prosecution, and the Allawites of non-persecution. Both Allawites and Christians must be incorporated into the new government, but only from outside the Baathist regime.

But the immediate task is to fight the Islamist rebels: ISIS, Nusra, and whoever else. Whether or not anyone else is left standing to take on Assad is a fair question, but not a few Christians, at least for now and however much they distrust America, are glad that ISIS is being hit.

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Lapido Media Middle East Published Articles

Church Relief Effort Highlights ‘1000s Left on Streets’ ahead of Iraqi Winter

Published September 23rd at Lapido Media:

Ehab el-Kharrat visiting refugee children in Erbil, Iraq (credit: SAT-7)
Ehab el-Kharrat visiting refugee children in Erbil, Iraq       (credit: SAT-7)

A former Egyptian member of parliament whose church is distributing aid to Iraqi refugees has spoken out about the gaps in humanitarian provision as the country heads into winter.

He expressed concern about underfunded UN campsites and thousands living on the streets.

Ehab el-Kharrat visited Erbil, a city in the Kurdistan region of Iraq that has attracted thousands of people fleeing conflict in the region.

His church, Kasr el-Dobara church in Cairo, works among relief heavyweights such as the UNHCR, Caritas, and Samaritan’s Purse.

It has sent a delegation to Iraq every ten days for the past two months, trying to stem the humanitarian tide. The congregation, which is made up of the middle and upper classes, has donated $180,000 to the relief effort with a further $120,000 from a fundraising trip to the United States.

So far it has distributed 2,500 mattresses with pillows and blankets, and it supports a network of 2,200 families that receive a food basket every two weeks.

This network is run in coordination with churches of Ankawa, a Christian neighborhood in Erbil. Ninety per cent of recipients are non-Christian – either Sunni Muslims also fleeing Islamic State, or else from the Yazidi minority.

Revd Fawzi Khalil is director of relief ministries at Kasr el-Dobara church.

He explained that the Chaldean Catholic Church of Ankawa has done an excellent job of caring for Christian refugees. Erbil’s population includes 160,000 Christians, and many have taken in fellow Christians.

As a consequence Erbil’s church grouds are packed. The Mar Eliya refugee camp is located on the grounds of the church-run school. Nearby Mar Yousef camp is in the church itself and hosts mostly Muslims and Yazidis.

Kharrat, a founding member of the Egyptian Social Democratic Party, described a pecking order of beneficiaries. After refugees living in camps in church grounds, the next most fortunate group is those taken in by Kurdish families, he said, followed by those in unfinished buildings but under the sponsorship of church groups. Kasr el-Dobara’s efforts are toward this group, primarily.

Underfunded

But thousands of Iraqis remain on the streets and in underfunded UN campsites in the desert. Kharrat noticed most tents were recycled from an earlier Syrian refugee camp, and are of deteriorating quality.

Erbil has a permanent population of 1.5m people, and UN figures show there are 1.8m displaced Iraqis. But according to UN-Iraq, the three established UN camps can host only eight per cent of the refugees.

Local families and churches take in the rest, but thousands sleep on the streets, under bridges, or in partially completed buildings, said Khalil.

In speaking to Kurdish officials, he related their complaint that under the Maliki government, Baghdad ‘failed’ to send Erbil its constitutionally guaranteed share of the budget. The new government, formed on 8 September, has promised to do so ‘but not yet delivered’, he said.

This has left the Kurdish regional government in a bind, as the UNHCR is a refugee agency, but those fleeing are technically considered internally displaced persons. With no agency possessing a clear mandate, the UN looks toward the government to lead.

Even so, UN documents detail over 346,000 people who have been reached to some degree, with Saudi Arabia touted as a particularly generous donor.

Grateful

But this effort has not impressed the Kurds, says Kharrat.

‘Kurds are grateful to the US in particular and the West in general,’ he said, ‘but are wondering why the Arabs are so slow – in both humanitarian and military aid.’

Khalil and Kharrat stated they were busy with their own work in the area but neither recalled seeing any Muslim groups among the refugees.

Islamic Relief, however, has been working in the Anbar province to the west of Baghdad. It also distributed food parcels to 1,500 Christian families displaced in Nineveh.

According to Eva Boutros, director of volunteer ministry for Kasr el-Dobara, the fact that Egyptian Christians have been present has made an impression on many.

‘Muslims and Yazidis appreciate very much that they are cared for,’ she said. ‘They know it is the church that is doing this in Iraq.’

But whether Christians, Muslims, or the UN, no one is doing enough. By December if no solution is found, the already tragic situation will turn catastrophic.

‘Hundreds of thousands are unprepared for winter,’ Kharrat said, anticipating average lows of three degrees Celsius.

‘Conditions are horrible. They survived the summer – the heat did not kill, but the freezing snow might.’

 

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Atlantic Council Middle East Published Articles

Christians Question Obama’s ISIS Strategy

Participants in the FMEEC conference in Cairo
Participants in the FMEEC conference in Cairo

From my recent article in MENA Source:

In his efforts to build a coalition to strike militarily Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) targets in Iraq and Syria, President Barack Obama has been careful to avoid an overly religious discourse. Part of his appeal, however, is for the protection of Christians and other religious minorities. In his speech on September 10, Obama promised “humanitarian assistance to innocent civilians who have been displaced,” mentioning specifically tens of thousands of Christians. But his concern pushed far beyond relief: “We cannot allow these communities to be driven from their ancient homelands.” It is a noble sentiment. Obama would do well to consider, however, the many Middle Eastern Christian voices who see beyond these words something ignoble.

“In the American culture you need an evil, to fight an evil,” said Fr. Michel Jalakh, the newly appointed Lebanese Catholic general secretary of the Middle East Council of Churches. “ISIS did not come from nothing, they have lots of money and a large army, who is giving this to them? How did they emerge in one year?” If there must be a military response, Jalakh desires it come from within the Muslim world itself. Still, he sees a much simpler solution. “It is enough to shut off the water faucet,” he said. “Many of America’s allies are helping ISIS.”

Jalakh was a participant in the September 8-10 conference of the Fellowship of Middle East Evangelical Churches (FMEEC), held in Cairo. FMEEC president Reverend Andrea Zaki, also general director of the Coptic Evangelical Organization for Social Services, did not express conspiratorial origins to ISIS, but feared a similar practical outcome. “Who will define the moderate groups?” he stated in response to arming Syria’s rebels. “I’m afraid that any militarization will go again to the radicals.”

Please click here to read the full article at MENA Source, including more quotes, both con- and somewhat pro-, sprinkled with a brief analysis.

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Christianity Today Middle East Published Articles

175 Leaders Urge US Support in Christianity’s Historical Heartland; Egyptian Churches Not So Sure

From the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission
From the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission

From my latest article in Christianity Today, published May 9, 2014:

More than 175 Christian leaders crossed denominational and political divides this week to urge the United States government to do more to help the rapidly diminishing, historic Christian populations of Syria, Iraq, and Egypt.

The solidarity pledge—signed by National Association of Evangelicals (NAE) president Leith Anderson, Focus on the Family founder James Dobson, Southern Baptist Theological Seminary president Al Mohler, and Samaritan’s Purse president Franklin Graham, among other prominent names—presented on Capitol Hill asks for the appointment of a special envoy on Middle East Religious Minorities, a review of foreign aid, and refugee and reconstruction assistance.

“These defenseless religious communities are facing an existential crisis, which threatens their very survival in the lands they have inhabited for centuries,” said Rep. Frank Wolf (R-VA), a longtime religious freedom advocate who helped create the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) in 1998. “The faith leaders … recognize that unless the American church begins to champion this cause, the foreign policy establishment will hardly lead the way. They are committing to be their ‘brother’s keeper,’ whether in Nineveh, Cairo or Homs.”

But Egyptian Christians have a longstanding reticence about outside help:

“We value so much the prayers and concerns of our Christian brethren around the world, and in the U.S. especially,” said Fawzi Khalil, pastor at Kasr el-Dobara Church in Cairo, the largest evangelical congregation in the Middle East. “But we don’t believe outside pressure would be best for our daily life with our Muslim friends. The government of Egypt with local Christian leaders are best suited to fix our problems.”

Please click here to read the full article at Christianity Today, including testimony from other Egyptian Christians and one US Copt who is a signatory.

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Personal

The Deeper Meaning in Oriental Orthodox Colors

If you’d like a look at me in action, a friend found this video from a few months ago. I simply stand, and mouth the words to the Nicene Creed along with the rest of the Syrian Orthodox congregation.

The occasion was the installment of Pope Tawadros; representatives of this sister Oriental Orthodox Church were in attendance. Before traveling back to their own countries in Syria, Lebanon, and Iraq, they had a joint service together in downtown Cairo.

My appearance is at about the 7:00 minute mark. It is worth a few minutes of your time, just to enjoy the different and vibrant color schemes of each church. In attendance with me was the former head of the Middle East Council of Churches, who I’m sure could explain the differences.

I remember at the time thinking I would write about the experience, but other projects placed it on the back burner until it was forgotten. But now I recall the fun, the boredom, the familiarity, and the small differences between these ancient adherents of the faith and their Coptic brothers I have come to know.

On the one hand, they seem utterly irrelevant. They are small, declining churches surrounded by violence and conflict. They have funny hats and peculiar beards. They did have a good time together, as did the small congregation of a hundred or so worshipers.

But of what value are these churches, these dresses, these colors, to the people of Syria, Lebanon, and Iraq? What difference does this faith make to those suffering, to societies in collapse, the remaining faithful?

Perhaps the question can be what good is this faith anywhere? Does it transform, does it serve, does it save? There is no peculiarity to the Arab world.

But this faith is ancient, and those privileged to existentially wonder about it from the comforts of Western experience would do well to learn. I only wish I knew what the lesson is.

Is that the point? There are Christians in this world in the lap of luxury, and others in the deepest poverty. There are some who preside over the greatest military power in history, and others who are stomped upon by the weapons of war.

The world has made it possible for these worlds to connect, only adding to the complication. But for centuries it was such, and each slice of the Christian world had only slight knowledge of the extended family.

So what good does it do Syria to have a Christian costume party in Cairo? What good does it do America to have a Christian rock concert in a movie theater? What good does it do you to see a transplanted American in their mix, who assaults you with these questions?? What good does it do them that I was there at all?

Of course, each of these questions presupposes the ‘good’ of Christianity is for this world. It is, right? I would so like it to be.

But the Oriental Orthodox churches remind amid their colors and pomp and circumstance that worship probably has very little relevance to what good this world needs. More poignantly for me and probably most readers here, what I as an individual need.

But with God you cannot say it is what he needs, either. So what is the point?

Still, I have no lesson. Can faith and humility be ok with this? They must, lest you throw it all away.

Here, there is no certainty, there is no peculiarity, there is no victory. God can grant them each at other times if he wishes.

Instead, we wonder, we reflect, we appreciate. If all is well, we share, we worship.

If we like, we wear funny colors, or do interpretive dance.

And if he leads, we welcome marauding militias, or sign petitions against hovering drones.

And if he leads, we fight against oppressive regimes, or lobby against oppressive taxes.

But in the end, together, we mouth the Nicene Creed.

We believe in one God…

And we trust, in the end, it will be good.

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Christian Center Opens in Iraq

From Ahram Online:

Authorities on Sunday opened what they billed as the first Christian cultural centre in Iraq in a decade, despite a dramatic decline in the country’s once significant Christian population.

The building was inaugurated in the northern city of Kirkuk, home to a diverse population of Arabs, Kurds and Turkmen, and is to host conferences and meetings to promote inter-faith communications between the city’s Muslim and Christian communities.

“This centre is the first of its kind in Iraq since 2003, it sends a message of peace, and promotes the language of dialogue,” said Louis Sakho, Chaldean archbishop of Kirkuk. “The communities of Kirkuk are one family,” he added.

Construction of the cultural centre, which lies next to Kirkuk’s Chaldean church, began in early 2012 and was completed at a cost of around $305,000, officials said.

Iraq’s Christian community is one of the oldest of its kind in the world, but they suffered persecution, forced flight and killings in the aftermath of the 2003 US-led invasion.

Before 2003 there were more than a million Christians living in Iraq. Now they number around 450,000.

Half a community lost in a decade, a nation ruined during the same period (and before). All from a demagogue’s pride, a superpower’s dismantling, and a divided people’s sectarianism.

Perhaps this small step will represent an effort to rebuild from anew, inclusively.

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