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The Holy Fire Must Go On

Holy Fire
Image courtesy of Cistern Films

This article was first published at Christianity Today, on April 10, 2020.

With the new coronavirus canceling Holy Week services around the globe, one of the most severe blows will be felt by Orthodox Christians. On the Saturday before Easter, which the Orthodox will observe on April 19 this year, thousands of pilgrims flock to Jerusalem’s Church of the Holy Sepulchre—the traditional location for Jesus’ crucifixion, burial, and resurrection—to witness the “miracle” of Holy Fire.

The historic church houses six ancient Christian sects—Greek, Franciscan, Armenian, Coptic, Syriac, and Ethiopian—which more or less cooperate in the administration of its affairs. By tradition, the Greek and Armenian bishops enter the tomb alone, but emerge with a divinely lit flame. The fire is shared candle-to-candle throughout the expectant and jubilant crowd.

Eventually it is transported to Greece in a special container, and then on to Serbia, Russia, and other nations in the Orthodox world.

Despite the social distancing restrictions in place due to the COVID-19 outbreak, Israel is nevertheless facilitating a scaled-back religious ceremony. And to avoid quarantine, foreign dignitaries will receive the flame at their airplane after it lands and immediately return home.

Mentioned obliquely in fourth-century sources, the first Western mention of the Holy Fire dates to Bernard the Wise, a monk from modern-day France who went on pilgrimage in 876 A.D. Disputed by many, its popularity with Orthodox communities worldwide makes the Holy Fire one of the world’s foremost Christian celebrations.

Local Christians are known to chant in Arabic: “We are the Christians, we have been Christians for centuries, and we shall be forever and ever. Amen!”

Filmmakers Reuben and Brittany Browning grew up in Israel and Palestine as children of Nazarene missionaries, traipsing around the holy sites. As adults…

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

Holy Fire is available for rent or purchase at Amazon and Vimeo. A teaser and trailer can be watched on Vimeo.

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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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Christ at the Checkpoint in the Age of Trump

 

ALcheckpoint3
Checkpoint between Israel and Palestine; credit: Andrew Larson

This article was first published May 25 at Christianity Today.

Fares Abraham grew up in the West Bank village of Beit Sahour, where tradition says the angels sang “Peace on Earth” to the startled shepherds. But his clearest memory is of his mother shot in the back by an Israeli soldier as she shuffled him and the neighborhood kids into her house during the first intifada.

Now in his mid-30s, the Liberty University graduate created Levant Ministries five years ago to mobilize Arab youth to fulfill the Great Commission.

And when he comes back home, he is at peace with his upbringing.

“When I was young, I asked myself if I should join the resistance or be a bystander,” he said to the 500 attendees—including 150 local Palestinian Christians—gathered in Bethlehem from 24 countries at the fourth biennial Christ at the Checkpoint (CATC) conference in 2016.

“But now I can go up to a checkpoint, look a soldier in the eye, and say, ‘I forgive you and love you in the name of Jesus.’”

Working also with global partners, Abraham believes the younger generations are pro-peace, becoming increasingly pro-justice the more their lives are transformed by the gospel.

It is a message communicated at CATC, though its anti-Christian Zionism is often criticized as anti-Israel…

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

CATC audience
Audience at CATC opening in 2016; credit: Andrew Larson

 

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Holy Sepulcher Will Reopen After Jerusalem Suspends Church Tax Grab

Immovable Ladder Holy Sepulcher

This article was originally published on February 27, at Christianity Today.

Israel suspended a controversial tax plan and property legislation today in response to the unprecedented Christian decision on Sunday to close the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat agreed to form a government committee to “formulate a solution” and negotiate with church officials.

In response, the leaders of the Roman Catholic, Greek Orthodox, and Armenian clergy will reopen the church on Wednesday, reports the Associated Press.

Barkat had stated that Jerusalem’s churches owed more than $180 million in taxes on church-owned commercial properties, and the municipality had frozen church accounts.

Meanwhile, legislation advancing in the Knesset had threatened to complicate the churches’ ability to sell their properties.

Now suspended, these actions were contrary to the historic agreement between churches and the various civil authorities which ruled Jerusalem, said Bishop Sani Azar.

His Evangelical Lutheran Church in Jordan and the Holy Land closed its Church of the Redeemer for one day in solidarity, pending consultations with sister churches in Jerusalem.

“All the churches are united, so this shows something is very wrong,” said Salim Munayer, head of the Musalaha reconciliation ministry in Jerusalem.

“It is an unbelievable step, though Christians in the West have a hard time understanding.”

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

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Friday Prayers for Egypt: Nation, City, River

Flag Cross Quran

God,

To present an idea, men come together. To discuss, they meet. Three conferences this week convened weighty issues.

Human contact helps relations. Human hubris may drive apart. But the ideas matter, and make a difference.

President Sisi presented the accomplishments of his four years in office. From national projects to economic reform, it may be the prelude to his reelection campaign.

God, give eyes to the people to see Egypt rightly. Where there is success, to celebrate. Where there is question, to examine. And whether or not he runs again, to vote.

The Azhar rallied for the sanctity of Jerusalem after US disruption of the status quo. Muslim and Christian, Palestinian and Arab, it aims to increase pressure from the international community.

God, give eyes to the world to see Israel rightly. Where there is negotiation, to encourage. Where there is posturing, to expose. And whether or not an embassy moves, to seek justice.

The Nile River commanded the attention of Egypt and Ethiopia. The two presidents met to revive deliberation on a steadily constructing dam.

God, give eyes to the nations to see water rightly. Where there is complication, to study. Where there is stalling, to speed. And whether or not consensus emerges, to drink.

Let the ideas settle. Let the conviction impact. Let the people reflect.

And in the end, God, reveal the right path forward. Let men meet and talk, but first pray. Be not absent, in any conference.

Amen.

 

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Friday Prayers for Egypt: Slow Boil

Flag Cross Quran

God,

The waters of Egypt are simmering. Lower the temperature.

The Nile is her lifeblood, and a dam in Ethiopia may impact historic share. But also threatened Sudan leans instead to Turkey, a Brotherhood-aligned adversary.

The Israelis are her neighbor, and a president in America complicates the status quo. But the New York Times published leaks that suggest a betrayal of Palestine.

The presidency is her backbone, and elections in March invite political review. But back-and-forth developments lend intrigue to potential candidacies.

God, give Egypt wisdom to navigate these challenges.

Provide water to all, and harness the river in widespread development. Keep the Red Sea from further militarization.

Provide transparency to all, and establish justice in fair negotiation. Keep the media from biased disinformation.

Provide agency to all, and validate a leader in contested consensus. Keep the politics from crass characterization.

God, give Egypt peace to impart in these challenges.

Christmas came, with a new cathedral named after the birth of such a prince.

May this spirit hover over the waters. Calm them, God. Peace, be still.

Amen.

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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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Friday Prayers for Egypt: Jerusalem Recognition

Flag Cross Quran

God,

Friends don’t always agree. But not all issues are the same. Jerusalem is, and has often been, historically different.

Changing longstanding US policy, the American president recognized the city as Israel’s capital, and began the process of moving the embassy.

The Egyptian president warned against it, and then spoke against it. Most of the world sides with him.

Parliament is now debating sanctions against America. The Azhar and the Coptic Orthodox Church will not meet with the vice-president during his upcoming visit.

Sporadic protests have broken out. Pressure may – or may not – be mounting.

God, the three religions of Egypt consider Jerusalem important to you. Consequently, it is to them. So it is to many in America.

But though they read you differently, do they read you correctly?

Guide all in proper conviction toward land, promise, people, and politics. Give consensus.

But God, in this your will has long been unrealized. Decades. Centuries. Millenia.

For those with conviction, no matter how proper, give them patience with the others. Give them fair arguments. Give them fairer attitudes.

And until realization comes, give love.

Help them to talk. Help them to pray. Help them to see themselves. Help them to see your principles.

Grant justice. Grant peace.

Where there is sincerity, spare the cynicism. Where there is callousness, call it out. May all speak from the heart.

May they stay friends. May they become friends. May they repent. May they be different.

God, this change is historical. Make it more so. Perhaps you are the only one who knows how.

Amen.

 

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The Piece of Jerusalem: Middle East Christians Explain Trump’s Embassy Gambit

This article was first published at Christianity Today, on December 5.

Israel Embassy Jerusalem
The United States embassy currently located in Tel Aviv may be moved to Jerusalem. (Image: Jack Guez / AFP / Getty Images, via the LA Times.)

President Donald Trump is expected tomorrow to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel.

Doing so would fulfill a campaign promise. It would upend decades of American foreign policy.

And it would simultaneously encourage and unnerve the Christians of the Middle East.

“I am obviously pleased, as an Israeli,” said David Friedman, a professor at the Messianic Jewish Theological Institute and former dean of King of Kings College in Jerusalem.

“Jerusalem is the capital of Israel, de facto, concretely. Our government sits there. So why should President Trump continue ignoring reality?”

But 65 miles north in Arab-majority Nazareth, another Christian educator has a dramatically different response.

“It is a bad idea,” said Botrus Mansour, a Baptist elder and co-chair of the Lausanne Initiative for Reconciliation between Israel and Palestine. “It will increase resentment and possibly spark unnecessary violence, making peace harder to obtain.

“America will lose any remaining legitimacy it had as a fair broker.”

Israel occupied Arab East Jerusalem in 1967, and passed a law in 1980 declaring the city its eternal, united, and undivided capital. The United Nations declared the act null and void, by a unanimous resolution in which the United States abstained.

Palestine also desires Jerusalem as the capital of a future state. So American policy has been…

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

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Friday Prayers for Egypt: Easter Visits

Flag Cross QuranGod,

Easter, and the national celebration of Shem al-Naseem the following day, were both quiet in an otherwise quiet week. But even quiet palpitations within can be heard and affect the national scene. For good, God, only for good.

Because all events are subject to your evaluation, even if natural to those involved. For some used Easter to celebrate politics, while others used politics to denigrate Easter. Judge between them, God, but only in mercy.

For political candidates visited the papal cathedral to join in on Easter; one in particular received a rousing ovation. All candidates were Muslims, who believe neither in Jesus’ death nor resurrection. Their presence can be seen as a great gesture of solidarity, or, a great exploitation of an electorate.

What is the proper place of Easter in Egypt, God? Should it be made equal with other religious feasts and become a national holiday? Or should it be left an oddity for minority Christians, neither prevented nor acknowledged? Is anything in-between viable, or a capitulation?

For a political movement opposed to these candidates put the holiday’s name in quotation marks. Criticizing a supposed normalization between the Orthodox Church and Israel, it described pilgrims going to Jerusalem to celebrate “what is called ‘the feast of the resurrection’.” The pilgrims did go but the church did not sanction; the rumor reported served only to discredit – church and Easter alike.

Show Egypt the level of value to give Easter, God, independent of belief. It cannot be easily shared, but can it be communally honored? Jesus unites Egyptians even as he divides. Help society to emphasis the former, with all appropriate allowance for the latter. Guard this balance, God, even as you guard the disputed truth.

But show also the believers in Easter the proper relation of their faith to society. At times they are honored; at others, marginalized. Give them wisdom in both situations.

Is the cathedral a place of political judgment, God? Or does your sovereignty demand the voice of faith in politics as in all else? As Muslims debate this issue, let Christians do the same. Lead each individual to the candidate of choice, and if a community coalesces, discern between them. For good, God, and with mercy.

Allow all holidays in Egypt to pass quietly, and their palpitations to be joyous. May all celebrations, national or otherwise, enrich the national scene.

Amen.