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Current Events

When You are Persecuted in One Place, Flee to Another. But Not to America

Flee to America

This article was first published at Christianity Today on November 5.

Zero.

The United States did not resettle a single refugee in October.

According to 30 years of records from World Relief, last month was the first time a calendar month went empty. For the past five years, the October average was 4,945 refugees resettled.

Among those impacted: persecuted Christians.

The humanitarian arm of the National Association of Evangelicals tracked the number of arrivals from the 10 countries identified by the US State Department as Countries of Particular Concern for violating religious freedom. The 5,024 Christians whose cases were accepted in fiscal year 2019 is a decrease of two-thirds from the 15,341 who were accepted in fiscal 2015. A maximum of 5,000 is allotted for victims of religious persecution in fiscal 2020—for all religions and countries.

Resettlements of non-Christians are also declining. For the same time period, Yazidi refugees from Syria and Iraq have declined 91 percent. Jewish refugees from Iran have declined 97 percent. And Muslim refugees from Burma have declined 76 percent.

“This isn’t just heartbreaking—it’s unjust,” stated Scott Arbeiter, president of World Relief, noting the State Department announced a limit of 18,000 refugees for fiscal 2020.

“I urge the administration to reconsider its approach and set a cap that better represents the compassion and hospitality of the American people.”

But Secretary of State Mike Pompeo defended the policy.

“Addressing the core problems that drive refugees away from their homes helps more people more rapidly than resettling them in the United States,” he stated, pointing out an estimated backlog of one million asylum cases.

“Helping displaced people as close to their homes as possible,” stated Pompeo, noting the $9.3 million the US has spent to alleviate humanitarian crises, “better facilitates their eventual safe and voluntary return.”

The Religious Liberty Partnership, birthed at a Lausanne Movement gathering and now numbering Christian organizations from 20 countries, has highlighted three biblical responses to persecution: accept and endure (2 Tim. 3:10–13); challenge and resist (Acts 22:25–29); or flee (Acts 9:23–25).

Jesus says the same in Matthew 10:23 (NIV): “When you are persecuted in one place, flee to another. Truly I tell you, you will not finish going through the towns of Israel before the Son of Man comes.”

But with Christian attention focused this past weekend on the International Day of Prayer for the Persecuted Church, the RLP document—reaffirmed with the Refugee Highway Partnership (RHP), a partner of the World Evangelical Alliance, in 2017—suggests that the clear choice of the local leaders who shepherd the displaced echoes Pompeo.

“Amongst church leaders across the Middle East, there is a strong consensus that indigenous Christians should…

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

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Current Events

Mideast Christians See Russia–not the US–as Defender of their Faith

 

Russia Middle East Christians
Image: John Holcroft

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

War was swirling in Syria. Rebels were pressing. And Maan Bitar was the only hope for American help.

“Because I am evangelical, everyone thinks I have channels of communication,” said the pastor of the Presbyterian Church in Mhardeh. “Syrians believe the United States has the power to stop the conflict—if it wants to.”

In the early years of the civil war, Bitar’s Orthodox neighbors were desperate to convince the US and its allies to end support of rebel forces. Mhardeh, a Christian city 165 miles north of Damascus, was being shelled regularly from across the Orontes River.

But salvation came from a different source. Russian airpower turned the tide, and Syrian government-aligned troops drove the rebels from the area.

Russian intervention on behalf of Mideast Christians has pricked the conscience of many American evangelicals. Long conditioned to Cold War enmity, the question is entertained: Are they the good guys in the cradle of Christianity? Or are persecuted Christians just a handy excuse for political interests?

“The news tells us Russian troops are bringing peace to the region, said Vitaly Vlasenko, ambassador-at-large for the Russian Evangelical Alliance. “Maybe this is propaganda, but we don’t hear anything else.”

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

But here also is testimony from Egypt, unfortunately cut due to word count:

“If Russia helps anyone to save them from death and danger [in Syria], we welcome this,” said Boules Halim, spokesman for the Coptic Orthodox Church. “Not just for Christians, but for humanity.”

Halim had no comment on Russian political developments with Egypt. But despite technically not being in communion over disagreements with the fifth-century Chalcedonian Creed, relations with the Russian Orthodox Church are growing increasingly strong.

Pope Tawadros has met Putin. Theological students are being exchanged. Russian monks are touring Egyptian monasteries.

“We are coming together in dialogue,” Halim said. “Better communication leads to better understanding.”

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Christianity Today Middle East Published Articles

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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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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Americas Christianity Today Published Articles

What Arab Leaders Think of USAID Funding Persecuted Christians

This article first published at Christianity Today on November 2, 2017.

USAID Christians
Vice President Mike Pence addresses the In Defense of Christians’ fourth-annual national advocacy summit in Washington, Oct. 25, 2017. Credit: AP, via VOA News.

Here are a few excerpts from my new article.

First, the reason:

Zalal Life distributed 300 food baskets and bottles of water. The government of Hungary donated $2 million in aid for reconstruction. The United Nations wasn’t there.

“People are not happy with the UN; they are using money for administration,” said Bahro. “The help is coming from churches and Christian organizations.”

Second, the condition:

“If the US can help Christian organizations directly, it will be good—if it can be done without discrimination,” he said.

“They must serve Muslims and other minorities also. We live together, and want to remain together in our communities.”

Third, the complication:

“Having the US transfer funds directly to persecuted Christians could be a good thing, but American politics will surely mingle in,” the Israeli Arab Christian said.

“They will want to brag about the aid to show their success, and to prove to the Christian Right that [President Donald Trump] delivers on his promises.”

Fourth, the danger:

Farouk Hammo, pastor of the Presbyterian church in Baghdad, agreed. “The bottom line is that we do not recommend direct aid from the States to Christians,” he said.

“It will agitate our Muslim brothers negatively against the Christian community.”

Fifth, the reality:

But the Jordanian leader respects Trump and is cautiously in support of the USAID policy change if done well, as it will empower the church to do the ministry.

“Maybe we will be targeted more,” he said. “But in some countries, it can’t get worse.”

Sixth, the possibility:

If USAID offered to help, Bitar would accept it—if it is not conditioned on any political agenda. He has little fear of local reaction.

“Muslims will be happy,” he said. “They like to send their children to schools run by Christians.”

Finally, the outcome:

Amid conflicting Christian reactions and unknown Muslim response, the policy change represents a new approach. Will it make things better or worse?

“Here in our area, the Kurdish Muslims trust Christians,” Bahro said. “In Arab areas, I don’t know.”

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

 

 

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Christianity Today Middle East Published Articles

Want to Help Christians Stay in the Middle East? Start with Your Vacation

This article first appeared in the July print edition of Christianity Today.

Middle East Christian Tourism
(Credit: robertharding / Alamy)

Call Ann Fink crazy, but the intrepid grandmother has a tradition to uphold. She’s toured Israel, Jordan, and Egypt with 8 of her 13 granddaughters. Victoria, a preteen, is number 9.

“Her parents are not afraid,” said Fink, a Pennsylvania native, while visiting Egypt with Victoria. “We believe we can die at any time. Only God knows when and where.”

Neither tourist knew just how much visits like theirs support the region’s beleaguered Christians.

From a high-water mark of $7.2 billion in 2010, tourism revenue in Egypt has fallen by 76 percent following the unrest of the Arab Spring. The decline has devastated the economy and, with it, Egypt’s Christians.

Copts, an estimated 10 percent of the population, make up more than half of tour operators and more than a quarter of the tourism workforce, according to Adel el-Gendy, a general manager in the Tourism Development Authority. Christians have better connections to the West, he said, and are often more skilled with languages.

Gendy, a Muslim, has been assigned development of the Holy Family route—25 locations that, according to tradition, were visited by Jesus, Joseph, and Mary as they fled Herod’s wrath. Relaunched with government and church fanfare in 2014, the route is close to being designated as a World Heritage site by UNESCO, he said. But the project has struggled as tourists stay away.

The route runs through Old Cairo, which boasts churches dating back to the fourth century but feels like a ghost town. Souvenir shops are open, but their lights dim. “Our income has dropped by 90 percent,” said Angelos Gergis, the Coptic Orthodox priest at St. Sergius Church, built above a cave where tradition says the Holy Family stayed three months. “We are assigned to assist 100 poor families in the area, but we used to help so many more.”

There are no tourist fees at Christian religious sites, but many visitors leave donations. “You can see things in Egypt you won’t see anywhere else,” he said. “And if you have any sympathy for us, please come. Your visit does help…

Please click here to read the rest of the article at Christianity Today.

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Christianity Today Middle East Published Articles

Should Christians Join Muslims in Breaking Ramadan’s Daily Fast?

This article was first published at Christianity Today, on June 22, 2017.

St. Andrews Iftar

For most American Christians, Ramadan is a novelty; something heard of, but rarely seen. For Middle Eastern Christians, it is everywhere.

For some, it is an annoyance. The month-long fast from sunrise to sunset can make for a cranky Muslim neighbor. Productivity tends to slow. Religiosity tends to rise.

But for other believers, it is an opportunity.

“The Evangelical Church of Maadi wishes all Egyptians a generous Ramadan,” proclaimed the flowery banner hung in the southern Cairo suburb. Such signage is not uncommon (and Muslims also display Merry Christmas wishes for Christians). But saluting “all Egyptians” is a statement.

“I want our brother Muslims to feel that we are one [as Egyptians], and it will make him happy in his heart,” said pastor Naseem Fadi. “We both celebrate Ramadan.”

Beside the need to have good relations with Muslims, Fadi also emphasized his biblical obligations. “Our faith tells us to love everyone,” he said. “And when we reach out to others, we teach them about ourselves.”

Across the Middle East, Christians join in the festive spirit—often by hosting an iftar, the traditional fast-breaking dinner…

Please click here to continue reading at Christianity Today.

 

 

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Prayers

Friday Prayers for Egypt: Qatar

Flag Cross Quran

God,

The Gulf has had enough. So has Egypt. So have others. Some hedge their bets. Some play both sides.

But it is a crisis, God. The tiny nation has been called out for supporting terrorism, within a region that is full of it, but usually sticks to innuendo. It also happens to host the largest US military base in the Middle East.

And the damage is far beyond diplomacy. A blockade is established on all entry and exit. The only airspace is through Iran.

Qatar is rich, and can ride out the damage. But for how long, and at what cost? What can bring resolution, in a culture bound by honor? In the eyes of many, Qatar has forfeited it.

But you know, God. Dangerous and deadly games are played in the region, by someone. Even the public rivalries are contentious, in media.

You value unity, God. At some level it is right for the region to maintain it.

You value diversity, God. At some level each nation must find its own way.

But you deplore duplicity, God. Many accuse in mutual recrimination.

And you deplore savagery, God. Many suffer in targeted destabilization.

Settle the region and every nation. Preserve sovereignty and good will. Promote peace and economic balance.

Hold accountable. If some are guilty let your judgment be true.

But all are guilty. Let your justice redeem.

God, the people have had enough. Have you? Do we witness your retribution, or more manipulation?

Put things right, God, on all sides. Honor Qatar. Honor all.

Amen.

 

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Americas Christianity Today Published Articles

What Arab Church Leaders Think of Trump Prioritizing Persecuted Christian Refugees

qaraqosh-christians
Ahmed Jadallah / Reuters Preparation for Qaraqosh’s first Sunday mass since the Iraqi Christian town was recaptured from ISIS (October 30, 2016).

This article was first published at Christianity Today on January 30, 2017.

Married in December to a Syrian woman with American citizenship, Fadi Hallisso went to Beirut to apply for a green card.

A Syrian Christian, Hallisso has worked with refugees in Lebanon since 2012. Funded by different American agencies, he was no stranger to the US government. He even testified about the situation in Syria to the US State Department and to Harvard Divinity School.

But this week, Hallisso was told he was no longer welcome to apply. The new US administration said so.

“It is very humiliating to be put in the category of potential terrorist,” said Hallisso. “Just because I carry a certain passport.”

As more details of President Donald Trump’s new security policies emerge—including a promise to prioritize Christian refugees for resettlement in America—much appears lost in translation.

“This executive order has created a new atmosphere very hostile to people in the region,” said Chawkat Moucarry, World Vision’s director for interfaith relations—and Hallisso’s uncle. “Unwritten rules seem to be implemented as a result.”

Is Trump’s executive order on refugees a de facto “Muslim ban”? Is it not? Is it prudent? Is it overdue? As American Christians debate these questions from the small towns of Middle America to the nation’s major airports, so also Arab Christians are trying to figure out what is going on.

“I read the executive order,” said Adeeb Awad, chief editor of al-Nashra, the monthly magazine of the Presbyterian Synod of Syria and Lebanon. He remarked…

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

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Excerpts

Conspiracy Theory Comes to America

american-conspiracy-theory
Via NPR: Gianluigi Guercia/AFP/Getty Images

Living in the Middle East one drinks deeply from the well of conspiracy thinking. It pollutes the mind, but also trains it.

So while Americans mused over the merits and demerits of Trump and Clinton, I feared the patterns I was watching develop.

To describe would require a full listing of faults, but I mean this post to be more humorous than serious. It excerpts from an article by Karl ReMarks, a noted Middle Eastern satirist.

In it he compares the United States with Arab nations. It is funny while being unnerving. Enjoy, so to speak.

On the secret services:

Let’s start at the beginning. During the campaign we were surprised to learn of the influence that the head of the American mukhabarat (state security, i.e. your FBI) can wield over the election process, simply by choosing to pursue a certain line of investigation. As you may know, this has been a constant feature of our politics since independence. Our surprise turned to astonishment when we started to witness the blossoming feud between the then-president-elect and the American mukhabarat, another important feature of Arab politics.

On top of that, we started to hear reports of foreign meddling in your elections, which some say may have influenced the result. Of course, we are quite familiar with that situation, too, not least because of the efforts of your own administrations over the decades. Yet it came as a surprise to hear talk of “foreign hands” and “secret agendas” in a country like America. We sympathize.

On the bright side, this was also the moment that the conspiracy theories started to spread. You know us; we’re quite fond of conspiracy theories—particularly when they involve plots by external powers—and consider ourselves connoisseurs of the genre. Your plots are a bit rough around the edges, we have to admit, but top marks for creativity. Was the election of Trump a Russian conspiracy? Was talk of the Russian conspiracy a liberal conspiracy to undermine Trump? Did the mukhabarat leak information to help Trump? Did the mukhabarat leak information to hurt Trump? Was media coverage of Trump’s mukhabarat conspiracy theories part of a liberal conspiracy theory to bring him down? They’re all so deliciously complex and open-ended, much like our own.

On the media:

Of course, another crucial aspect to this transformation is the president’s contemptuous attitude towards the media. My, the delightful similarities. From blaming the press for engaging in secret conspiracies to undermine him to threatening their access to his White House palace to refusing to take questions from certain reporters, President Trump reminds us of several of our own leaders. In fact, an Arab leader complaining about CNN coverage is pretty much a staple of our political life.

This took an interesting turn on Saturday when the president accused the media of manufacturing his feud with the mukhabarat and his Minister of Information Mr. Sean Spicer castigated the media for reporting the size of Trump’s inauguration crowd. The not-so-veiled threats by the president and Mr. Spicer to the media are very much in the spirit of Arab governance.

On protests:

And then there’s the unrest. In the lead up to the inauguration, we started to hear about youth protests against the new regime. Come on! This is bordering on plagiarism now. Please write your own plots and stop borrowing ours. Although, we usually wait for leaders to take power before we start protesting; we like your preemptive revolution approach.

A word of warning though, before embarking on this path. We tried the revolution thing ourselves, and it didn’t work out so well. Maybe you should just adapt to living in the new regime. We were always told that having a strongman in charge is the best solution for Arab countries, otherwise there would be chaos. Perhaps the American people are not ready for democracy after all. Let’s face it America, you look like an Arab country now.

Gulp.

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Excerpts

Arabs: Disproportionate Troublemakers or Victims?

arab-troublemakers-victims
(via Mohammad Hannon/Associated Press)

Here is a sobering stat related by the Economist. Interpret it as you will:

Horrifyingly, although home to only 5% of the world’s population, in 2014 the Arab world accounted for 45% of the world’s terrorism, 68% of its battle-related deaths, 47% of its internally displaced and 58% of its refugees.

Surely there is no clear cut answer to the question in the title. But allow the raw numbers to sink in.

What can be done to change them?

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Americas Other Published Articles

The Difficulty of ‘Do Unto Others’

Arabic Golden Rule
The Golden Rule, in Arabic

As Christians involve themselves – for good and for bad – in the divisive politics and cultural struggles of our nation, it is assumed they do so to preserve and advance a moral ethic consistent with Scripture.

Unfortunately, it can be easy to forget one of the central marks of this morality: ‘Do unto others, as you would have others do unto you.’

This command, and it is necessary to remember it is an active imperative, concerns many issues of the day. I would submit that current Muslim-Christian relations illustrate this selective memory, and the Middle East provides a useful mirror.

In the Arab world it is Christians who are the great minority. How do they describe their situation? Much like in America, there is considerable nuance.

It must be said at the outset that the comparison will not be exact. The US enshrines religious freedom for the individual and forbids a religious test for public office. While these concepts are not absent from the Arab world, they are mixed in with many constitutions that enshrine Islam as the religion of the state and sharia law as the basis of legislation. At the official level these articles can complicate matters considerably.

But what about the popular level?

To be certain there is a spirit that, while tolerating Christianity, strives to preserve and advance the Islamization of society. Some conservative Muslims argue that Christians should not be greeted on their holidays, lest it imply endorsement of false theology. Others warn their children against playing with Christians at school. And many Christians complain of discrimination that is mixed in with a general culture of nepotism.

But Christians the region over also speak of neighborly relations with normal people who happen to be Muslims. Post-Arab spring, many Arab governments are going out of their way to combat extremism that has crept into society. And as reflected in my recent article in Christianity Today, many Arab Christians are comfortable saying they and their fellow Muslim citizens worship the same God.

Yet the article also described an undercurrent of frustration, that Christians feel internally compelled to seek common theological ground in order to secure common societal acceptance. The more some push the distinctiveness of Christianity, the more they fear either government or popular response.

Within the diversity of these Arab responses there is also advice for America and the West: Limit the presence of Muslims in your midst.

The complaint is not so much against Muslims as a people, but of Islam as a religion. The more devout the practice, they say, the greater the enthusiasm to enact its superiority – not just in the afterlife, but to bring this world into conformity as well. As evidence, they simply point to their own societies.

Whatever is made of the ‘same God’ debate, Islam and Christianity are different religions. But different also is the historical fusion between these religions and their respective societies. It is good to learn from our Arab brothers and sisters in Christ about their experience with Islam where they are the minority. But the point here is not so much to arm with argument but to invite readers to flip the script and see within it a mirror to their own society.

How might American Muslims feel about our current social and political climate? Would they say most neighbors treat them well? Would they complain they have to accommodate their faith to a dominant culture? Would they state a concern over discrimination or a fear of rejection?

Many Arab Christians have responded to their challenges by withdrawing into their own communities. Are American Muslims tempted to do the same?

And what of the warning some Arab Christians issue about Islam? How similar is it to some Muslim warnings about decadent Western society and the Christianity that is powerless to arrest it? Or, others argue, the Christianity that is in league with colonialism or Zionism or consumer capitalism to radically alter the fabric of Muslim society?

Let every charge be answered, and every religious ideology be examined. But let every American Christian return to the imperative of Christ:

“Do unto others as you would have others do unto you.“

Consider the situation in which Middle Eastern Christians live and ask, how would you like this ‘you’ to be treated?

It is not argued that treating American Muslims well will necessarily make any difference to the Egyptian Copt, the Lebanese Maronite, or the Iraqi Assyrian. But any mistreatment of Western Muslims is often reported in the regional press, and gives fuel to those with an axe to grind.

The Golden Rule is not about quid pro quo. It is fulfillment of the law of Christ, who served those who loved him not. Please be mindful, for concerning Muslims it is often we who so rarely love.

This article was first published at Acts211.org.

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Lapido Media Middle East Published Articles

Egypt Exports Interfaith ‘Bridge’

Azadeh Ghotbi
Azadeh Ghotbi

IN IRAQ, ISIS zealots smash centuries-old artifacts and blow up churches. In Yemen, Shia militias plough through cities as Sunni neighbour Saudi Arabia rains down missiles.

Egypt is not without its own religious tension, but a timely interfaith art exhibition in Cairo intersects with perhaps the only potentially good news coming out of the region.

Iran may be rejoining the international community, and Iranian-born Azadeh Ghotbi is coming to London.

Born a Muslim, educated in a Catholic school and married to an atheist beside a Jewish bridesmaid, Ghotbi has lived in five countries across three continents.

Her parents fled the Islamic Revolution when she was a child.

Today,Ghotbi is one of 47 premier and emerging artists featured at the CARAVAN visual arts exhibition. Founded in Cairo in 2009, its yearly offerings travel the world, dedicated to the message of interreligious peace and cultural understanding between East and West.

‘I jumped at the opportunity to participate in this noble mission,’ Ghotbi told Lapido Media. ‘I highlight in my art that strength and beauty come through openness to the “other” and the cross-fertilisation of differences.’

Soar

[Change your viewpoint. Photo: Sixpillars.org]

Her piece is entitled Crossroads, and her message fits perfectly with the theme of the exhibition, The Bridge.

‘I have suffered the consequences of religious obtuseness,’ she wrote in her artist’s statement, ‘but have benefitted immensely among open-minded souls from diverse religious backgrounds.’

Ghotbi’s art has been exhibited in top galleries in Europe, the United Statesand Iran. The last of these has informed several pieces.

In the Name of Freedom interlocks the E’s to symbolize encaged rights and restrained voices. The Trappings of Theocracy is constructed with unpainted, faceless miniature figurines.

They are not Iran-centric, Ghotbi said, as oppression is not limited to one country.

But in Give Peace a Chance to Soar, she directly critiques her country of origin.

Faced straight on, the black letters of peace are hard to read behind the iron bars of a cage. But the inset of the letters is radiant turquoise, a colour she associates with the beauty of Iran, and only visible if you changeyour viewpoint.

‘As for the small fragile turquoise bird that represents hope, peace and freedom for us all,’ she explains,‘I left the cage door ajar for it!’

Ghotbi crafted Peace in 2013, eager for change.

Savvy

Two years later, Ghotbi is enthusiastic about the framework agreement signed by Iran and Western nations. As Tehran reduces its nuclear capabilities and allows comprehensive inspections, international sanctions will be gradually eliminated.

Sanctions have disproportionately hurt the poor and middle class, she said, while strengthening the political hand of the hardliners. The US Congressional Research Service reported a five percent contraction of the Iranian economy in 2013 along with a 56 percent currency devaluation and a 45 percent rise in the rate of inflation.

‘What Iran needs eventually is political change from within,’ said Ghotbi. ‘It’s youthful and highly educated population is quite savvy, but desperate for more freedom and better economic opportunities.’

CARAVAN founder Paul-Gordon Chandler echoes Ghotbi’s optimism.

‘I am very pleased about the deal going ahead,’ he told Lapido Media. ‘We have to work toward peoples coming together.

‘Opening up Iran, which it will do, allows more people to experience the “other”, on both sides.’

Indirect

An American, Chandler grew up as a minority Christian in mostly Muslim Senegal. He was deeply influenced by the local arts scene, but also disturbed by the tensions between the two faiths.

It was not until his ten years as an Episcopal priest in Cairo’s historic St. John’s Church that a vision began to form. Initially, CARAVAN was held only in Egypt, but over the past two years more than 300,000 have viewed the traveling exhibition in London, New York, and Washington, DC.

This year, The Bridge opened at the oldest church in Paris, the Eglise Saint Germain-Des-Pres, during the United Nations week for interfaith harmony. Following its current station in Cairo it will move to St Martin-in-the-Fields, Trafalgar Square from June 1 – July 31.

But CARAVAN is not intended only for the Western elite, as important as it is for them to see this example of cooperation between Arabs, Persians, Muslims, Christians, and Jews. The exhibition will travel also to rural areas in the United States, where misunderstanding of the Middle East is prevalent.

‘Art provides a context to address issues indirectly,’ Chandler told Lapido Media. ‘  It provides an atmosphere of contemplation and discussion that is neutral, when being direct causes tensions to rise.’

And in the Middle East, where spin-off projects are in development in Jordan, Tunisia, and Malta, the indirect approach of art can make all the difference.

Sheikh Abdel Aziz of the Azhar and Bishop Mouneer of the Anglican Church, observing the CARAVAN artwork.
Sheikh Abdel Aziz of the Azhar and Bishop Mouneer of the Anglican Church, observing the CARAVAN artwork.

According to Bishop Mouneer Hanna Anis, archbishop of the Anglican diocese of Egypt, structured efforts at dialogue between religious professionals have not impacted reality.

‘We have to be creative so that dialogue reaches the people,’ he said at the exhibition opening in Cairo. ‘Paul-Gordon has done this through art, to help build harmony between cultures, and to bring people together.’

The Middle East needs CARAVAN, Ghotbi believes, but art is not enough.

Education, jobs, and women’s rights are necessary to ease religious clashes between groups that used to coexist peacefully.

Chandler agrees, noting that transformation through art is a long term process.

‘Art doesn’t stop conflict, but that is not its function,’ he said. ‘It can’t change events but it can change people.’

However much the Middle East needs this message, it can also export the example. 47 artists are living testimony.

 

This article was first published at Lapido Media.

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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.

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Excerpts

The Case against Qatar

Qatar

A recent Foreign Policy investigative report details Qatari foreign policy. It describes a strategy of intervention-by-proxy, which keeps its hands clean officially while funneling money to groups it deems ideologically similar, that is, those they can trust.

Primarily, this has been the Muslim Brotherhood and various activist Salafi factions.

The article is long but worthy, and one interesting section describes how Qatar has helped the US disengage from the region. This was evident in Libya, when Qatar not only provided crucial Arab support for the operation, but also took the lead in sponsoring militia groups against Gaddafi.

But now that the US is reengaging the region, this time against the Islamic State (ISIS), officials are examining anew the sponsorship by Qatari individuals and charities which have gone to the al-Qaeda affiliated al-Nusra Front. Following three years or more of looking the other way, the dispute has become public:

In Syria, meanwhile, it wasn’t until the Islamic State gained prominence that Washington sat up and took notice. In March, David S. Cohen, the Treasury Department’s undersecretary for terrorism and financial intelligence, took the unprecedented step of calling out the Qataris in public for a “permissive terrorist financing environment.” Such stark criticism, counterterrorism experts say, is usually left for closed-door conversations. A public airing likely indicated Doha wasn’t responsive to Washington’s private requests.

But if initial requests were private, that means the US – for a long while, at least – tolerated and possibly approved of the general strokes of Qatari foreign policy. Two key aspects of Qatar’s leverage over the United States include its hosting of the US Central Command air base, as well as the usefulness of its network to liaison with otherwise disreputable characters. Discussions with the Taliban in particular have often flowed through Qatar. Without them, back-door channels would not be possible; hostages released might still be held.

Has the US, therefore, been a partner in the wanton destruction of Syria? President Obama has forcefully spoken against Assad, but has never decisively moved against him. The article deems the chaos there less to be a result of coordinated conspiracy, than uncoordinated incompetence:

In other words, there was no one winner. Qatar and other international powers haphazardly backed dozens of different brigades and let them fight it out for who could secure a greater share of the funding. They had few incentives to cooperate on operations, let alone strategy. Nor did their various backers have any incentive to push them together, since this might erode their own influence over the rebels.

Says one analyst:

“One of the things about Qatar’s foreign policy is the extent to which it has been a complete and total failure, almost an uninterrupted series of disasters,” says Hussein Ibish, a senior fellow at the American Task Force on Palestine. “Except it’s all by proxy, so nothing bad ever happens to Qatar.”

Except its reputation in much of the Arab world. Egyptians in particular have been furious at Qatar over its support for the Muslim Brotherhood. Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have signaled displeasure in manners unusual among Gulf monarchies.

Long ago Qatar made a bet on the Islamist factions becoming the prominent power players in the region. For a while they seemed vindicated; now they appear in retreat. Qatar has been publicly acquiescing to the criticism, sending away top Brotherhood figures it has long hosted, for example, but it is unclear if its long term strategies have changed.

Were Qatar and its allies-by-proxy simply outmaneuvered? How much of the Arab Spring was manipulated by the regional and international power struggles? What role did America have is a key question. Most Arabs view Washington as the chief puppet master, allowing its public allies – the Saudis, Turks, UAE, Qatar, and Israel, of course – to mess around with local sovereignty.

Or, did the US just pull back, and allow others to run the show? Either way, the result is a disaster, however many parties share in the blame.

One other controversial point converges with this article. Many Egyptians see the Muslim Brotherhood as one aspect of an Islamist agenda that includes and coordinates with groups like ISIS, on the far end of the spectrum. The point is not necessarily that the MB keeps its hands clean while sending out clandestine orders to others to ferment chaos – though this is certainly believed locally.

But if the Brotherhood is one part, and a key part, of Qatar’s proxy network, a linkage does seem to exist. This article does not make the accusation, and I do not wish to lend it weight in the mentioning. But it bears consideration.

Of course, Brotherhood sympathizers simply turn the equation on its head. They see Qatar as the good guy, standing with the people and the forces of democracy, against fearful Gulf monarchies, their own proxies, and the US.

God bless this part of the world. Maybe one day the oil will run out and they can all be left alone again.

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Excerpts

They Really Do Hate Us … at Least on Twitter

From AhramOnline, on research analyzing Twitter:

In the case of Egypt, the researchers analyzed more than 2.2 million Arabic tweets that mentioned the United States and found just three percent could be termed pro-American, with 23 percent neutral and the majority critical of the United States.

Ok, so they hate our foreign policy – no big news there. But the following is more disturbing:

By contrast, about 30 percent of those tweeting in Arabic about Hurricane Sandy expressed concern about Americans or defended Americans.

Only 30 percent? Ugh. I hope there is some confusion in reporting or answering, between ‘concern’ and ‘defended’. But this doesn’t reflect well, I’m afraid.

So how to interpret the general conclusion:

“Reactions to cases where the US is influencing Middle Eastern affairs are 95 percent to 99 percent negative,” Keohane said.

Is our foreign policy just really bad? Or are we inept at PR, at least in comparison to local outfits? The research showed these numbers hold no matter what side of the domestic divide these tweets support.

I generally think that ‘winning hearts and minds’ is an overblown concept. But in as much as it is a policy goal, the US is failing miserably … at least on Twitter.

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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.

Categories
Excerpts

Egypt for Expats… Ugh?

Expat Map

We like it here, but many people don’t, it seems. From the Washington Post, reporting on a survey by HSBC bank:

The worst of these 34 countries to be an expat is Egypt, which has seen xenophobia rise considerably since this summer’s military coup and wave of populist nationalism.

East Asian nations rank highest, and among the lowest are Western European. The Middle East doesn’t fare well in general:

Middle Eastern countries tend be worse places for expats, owing to legislation that makes it tougher for foreigners to own property and to formal and informal social restrictions that can cut back on quality of life. The exceptions are Bahrain and Qatar, two very wealthy and very small Gulf states whose governments work to attract the wealthy expats they see as crucial to building businesses there. It should go without saying that HSBC’s study does not consider “guest workers” in its measurements. Gulf states, particularly Qatar, have notorious reputations for mistreating migrant laborers from South and Southeast Asia, who work in difficult conditions and with few protections.

Egyptians often ask us: We all want to leave, why did you come here? Let’s just say we’re suckers for xenophobia and populist nationalism, and leave it at that.

Why does anyone live anywhere? God ‘determined the times set for them and the exact places where they should live.’ What is more important is how to live wherever you are. For our thoughts on that matter, please read the opening post to our blog, also titled ‘A Sense of Belonging‘, and this post also considering our expat status, ‘The Sole of Belonging‘.

What does HSBC know anyway? Egypt is great.

Categories
Personal

Orient and Occident Magazine

Orient and Occident Magazine is a publication of the Anglican Diocese of Egypt, North Africa, and the Horn of Africa. I have been working with the church on the project for a little under a year, and am proud to announce the first issue is now complete and online.

O&O is scheduled to be an online, quarterly, bilingual magazine. Its goal is to serve primarily Arab Christians of the region in providing articles that consider the intersection of the values of faith and the issues of society.

Many Christians have a strong sense of spirituality; many others are active in political life or defense of their community. Orient and Occident seeks to bring these worlds together – what practical difference should Christian values make for the good of all?

Love, peace, forgiveness, mercy, grace, justice. By no means are these Christian values alone. Orient and Occident also welcomes Muslim and non-religious writers to contribute – and seeks their readership – so that these values might increasingly find expression in the public lives of the region’s people.

Of course, there will be disagreement over how these values should be expressed. Orient and Occident will strive to welcome all opinions. It aims to take no editorial stand, except to insist on a perspective shaped by the values of faith.

The articles of the summer edition include:

  • It All Began Here (the Anglican Church and the Middle East)
  • Tunisian Christians and the Arab Spring (how they contributed, that they exist)
  • My Story with the Thug (necessary introspection of a societal crisis)
  • Political Choices and the Confusion of Believers (facing a presidential vote)
  • Religious Pluralism in Egypt in the Near Future (on Protestantism and Islamism)
  • The Truth No One Talks About (sectarian tension and its roots)
  • Two Cities (Augustine’s vision and Egyptian reality)
  • Caravan Reflections (contemplating a recent art exhibition)
  • Poisons We Love (on the dangers of sugar)
  • The Killer of Dreams (short story on parental expectations)
  • Two Faced (on political and religious hypocrisy)

In addition to articles, Orient and Occident features Christian bloggers from the Arab world. As these post new material to their site, O&O will automatically feature it in chronological order. Currently there are 17 bloggers featured, but we hope this number will grow as our magazine becomes better known.

Please click here to visit Orient and Occident, the English version. We hope you will enjoy it; please share widely to help this idea become better known.

Categories
Personal

Cultural Insights on Marriage and Children

Today I had a nice long visit with a fairly new Egyptian friend. Her name is Suzi and she is the mom of one of Emma’s classmates at school.  This was our third visit together, once at our house and twice at hers.  The kids all have fun playing together – Emma and her school friend, along with my Hannah and Layla, and the friend’s little brother who is the same age as Hannah.  While they played, we mostly chatted about life.  I thought I’d record some of the things I heard today as they provide an interesting insight into culture here.

Marriage Differences

One of the topics we spoke about was marriage.  It is common here for a man to come to a woman’s house to inquire about marrying her.  He may have known of her for a long time, or perhaps a friend mentioned her or he saw her in some spot and asked others about her.  There are a variety of ways that this meeting can come about, but it is still a norm for marriages to be “arranged” this way.  In most cases, it seems that the woman has full rights to say yes or no, but it is often the way a relationship begins.

That’s not to say there aren’t many, many relationships that start because people work together or go to school together or whatever, but this man coming to ask for a woman’s hand, while basically absent from the American culture, is still very present here.  Suzi was asking if it was harder or easier to get married in America and I said that it was harder because of the absence of the arranged marriage.  She seemed somewhat surprised to know that it doesn’t happen in the states.  I couldn’t just wait at my parent’s house for possible suitors to come calling; I had to meet people and take initiative without being too forward.  I told her it was tricky as it is a bit of a game to let someone know of your interest without being aggressive (as the woman). And meeting potential spouses in general can be challenging.  While I appreciate the American dating system as a whole, I thought it might be a bit easier to find a husband in this culture.

That being said, she asked if the man must have a house or apartment already purchased and furnished before proposing to someone.  He sometimes must have a car and enough money for a good amount of gold jewelry as well, that will be shown off at the engagement ceremony.  In this way, I said, things might be easier in America.  Many couples will start off living in an apartment and work together to afford a house after getting married.  Whatever the particular timetable, it is not expected that a man have all the material goods before he can even look to get married.  This is one reason that Egyptian men are getting married later in life as it is getting harder and harder to earn enough money to buy a flat and furnish it before proposing to a future bride.

Suzi’s story itself was quite interesting to me, and perhaps bizarre from the Western perspective.  She is married to her first cousin.  Her mom and his dad are sister and brother.  We talked about this a bit as I told her it is illegal in the states to marry your cousin.  (I guess I don’t really know if it’s illegal, but I think it is.)  I tried to explain that one reason is the possible genetic problems with the offspring, but she said they just trust God for the health of their children.

I have encountered this frequently in this part of the world—the idea of marrying within the same family.  Suzi said it makes sense as you know where the spouse comes from if they are from your family.  It is a risk to marry an outsider.  Her sister also married a cousin, and they have already, somewhat jokingly, arranged for Suzi’s daughter to marry the sister’s son, which is many years down the road considering they are both five now.

Even though Suzi married her cousin, she had never actually seen him until the wedding day!  His family has lived in Cairo his whole life and she grew up about 8 hours south and at one point when they were very young they saw each other, but not another time until the day of the wedding.  They got engaged over the phone and spent the following year planning things, and getting to know one another over the phone, before Suzi came to Cairo to get married to her cousin whom she had seen once in her life!  They have been married 7 years now and seem to be happy with the arrangement.

Children Sleeping

Another topic we covered was children sleeping.  We’ve talked about this each time we were together as Suzi cannot get over the fact that my girls go to bed at 7pm.  In Arabic there is a word specifically for “staying up late,” and Egyptians, in particular, are known for their love of the late night.  Especially in summer when kids are off school and the weather is so hot during the day, the streets will be busier at night with people enjoying a walk downtown or the view of the Nile.  As such we have to miss out on some of these late-night activities if we want to hold to the regular bedtime.

Today Suzi was trying to figure out how she could get her kids to sleep earlier.  As of now, her six-year old daughter sleeps at 2 or 3am, maybe midnight on an early night.  Apparently, she doesn’t struggle with being tired during the day, and is not too difficult to wake in the morning, but Suzi complained that sometimes she, as the mom, would like to go to bed earlier but can’t since her kids won’t.

How the kids fall asleep is another factor.  Suzi couldn’t get over the fact that I put Layla in her crib awake and she would just fall asleep.  She mentioned that they would rock their kids until they fell asleep and then lay them down.  I assured her that even in America, moms do different things with their kids, but I followed others who had success with this method and I really appreciated being able to not take the extra time to put the kids to sleep.

There are some downfalls to this, however, as my babies have always been used to sleeping in a crib. The few times I have wanted them to fall asleep on me or in another bed often didn’t work.  One nice thing about the sleeping habits of babies around here is that they can sleep anywhere!  Sometimes that could come in handy.

Besides the time factor, they have been working on getting the kids to sleep in their room without the parents.  Emma’s friend is scared to sleep without her mom and so Suzi will begin the night in the kids’ room before moving to her own room.  They have begun rewarding the kids for sleeping on their own.  The parents are ready to sleep and stay in their own room and let the kids be in theirs!  I suggested using a similar reward system to slowly move up the bedtime to a more reasonable hour.  I can’t imagine how the kids function going to bed so late, but besides that, I cherish those hours in the evening when the kids are in bed and I am still awake.  Somehow Suzi is cheerful and full of energy even though it seems she doesn’t get much time to herself.

Potty Training

Once we exhausted the sleeping topic, I thought I would ask about her method of potty training since I have heard very different ideas in the Middle East than I have in the states.  I asked her when she began potty training with her children and her answer was when they were about eight months old!  I guess when she noticed them going to the bathroom, she would quickly strip them and put them on a small child’s potty so they got used to the idea.  At night, of course, they would wear diapers as they had no control over nighttime toilet needs, but during the day, slowly, slowly, they would get used to the idea of using the potty.  It seems it may have been a long process but by the age of 1 ½, the children would be fully potty trained.

I asked why she did it this way, was it because diapers are expensive?  This is one of the reasons I heard in Jordan when I asked a friend who said she begins as soon as the child can walk.  Suzi said this is the way her mom did it except that she would begin as early as five months!  I shared with her that in the states, people may begin the process at 2 for girls, and 3 for boys (as a general figure).  She pointed out that kids will do what they learn and get used to.  This is what I had told her about sleeping: my girls are used to falling asleep on their own and sleeping early.  Her kids got used to using the potty at an earlier age and needed no daytime diapers by age 1 ½.

Two different cultures; two different ways of doing things.  We share so many things in common such as marriage and child rearing, but our methods vary greatly.  Who has it better?  Who does it better?  What can we learn from each other?