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Pew and IDOP Agree: Religious Persecution Is Worsening Worldwide

Dictators are the worst persecutors of believers.

This perhaps uncontroversial finding was verified for the first time in the Pew Research Center’s 11th annual study surveying restrictions on freedom of religion in 198 nations.

The median level of government violations reached an all-time high in 2018, as 56 nations [28%] suffer “high” or “very high” levels of official restriction.

The number of nations suffering “high” or “very high” levels of social hostilities toward religion dropped slightly to 53 [27%]. However, the prior year the median level recorded an all-time high.

Considered together, 40 percent of the world faces significant hindrance in worshiping God freely.

And the trend continues to be negative.

Since 2007, when Pew began its groundbreaking survey, the median level of government restrictions has risen 65 percent. The level for social hostilities has doubled.

Over the past two weeks, Christians prayed for their persecuted brethren around the world.

Launched in 1996 by the World Evangelical Alliance (WEA), the International Day of Prayer (IDOP) for the Persecuted Church is held annually the first two Sundays in November.

This year’s campaign was called: One With Them.

“Them” is the 260 million Christians worldwide who face persecution, according to Godfrey Yogarajah, executive director of the WEA Religious Liberty Commission. Eight Christians are martyred for their faith each day.

But Christians are not the only ones who suffer.

Ahmed Shaheed, UN special rapporteur for freedom of religion and belief, said that of the 178 nations which require religious groups to register, almost 40 percent are applied with bias.

“The failure to eliminate discrimination, combined with political marginalization and nationalist attacks on identities,” he said, “can propel trajectories of violence and even atrocity crimes.”

In addition, 21 nations criminalize apostasy. “Faith has to be voluntary,” Shaheed told CT, in an interview conducted in April. “There is no value in faith if it …”

This article was originally published at Christianity Today, on November 10, 2020. Please click here to read the full text.

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Current Events

Do Catholics Care about Persecuted Christians?

Embed from Getty Images

For the first time, American legislation in defense of international religious freedom has reached into the Chinese Politburo.

Last week, President Donald Trump signed into law a bill to authorize sanctions against any officials in China’s top political body responsible for ongoing persecution against the country’s Muslim Uighur minority.

Passed by Congress with only one “no” vote, the action follows on the heels of this month’s release of the State Department’s 2019 Report on International Religious Freedom (IRF).

During the report’s public release, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo lauded the United States’s commitment.

“America is not a perfect nation by any means, we always strive towards that more perfect union, trying to improve,” he said.

“[But] there is no other nation that cares so deeply about religious freedom.”

Such commitment was marked this week by the US Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB). Each day from June 22–29 highlights an issue of concern, whether domestic or international.

Yesterday (June 24) the focus was on China.

Last summer, the government-affiliated Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association—representing about half of China’s estimated 12 million Catholics—condemned US criticism after the State Department’s second Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom advocated for the 800,000 to 2 million Uighurs and other Muslim minorities who have been arbitrarily detained in internment camps.

But one month later, the Chinese government permitted the first consecration of a Vatican-ordained bishop—a result of Pope Francis signing a controversial 2018 deal with Chinese authorities in an attempt to unite Rome with the underground Catholic church.

The US bipartisan consensus evident in the Uighur law reflects Pompeo’s assertion. First amendment rights guarantee freedom for all religions, and Americans generally desire for such liberty to extend worldwide.

But is there particular concern over Christian persecution? And is religious liberty eroding at home?

Two new polls suggest declining Catholic attention abroad, while the faithful grow more worried about the US. Aid to the Church in Need–USA (ACN–USA), an international papal agency that supports suffering and persecuted Christians in more than 140 countries, surveyed 1,000 US Catholics…

This article was first published at Christianity Today, on June 25, 2020. Please click here to read the full text.

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Current Events

Iran Releases a Third of Christian Prisoners Due to Coronavirus Concerns

Azadi Tower Iran

This article was first published at Christianity Today, on March 23, 2020.

Forced by the new coronavirus, Iran took the tiniest of steps to placate global advocacy for religious freedom.

A temporary release of about 85,000 prisoners to curb the spread of COVID-19 disease included Ramiel Bet Tamraz, an Assyrian Christian serving a four-month sentence for holding illegal church meetings.

He was one of seven Christians set free, some on bail.

The release—which also pardoned 10,000 prisoners in advance of this past weekend’s celebration of Nowruz, the Persian new year—did not include four Christians recently granted a retrial.

Ramiel’s father Victor was the pastor of the Assyrian Pentecostal Church of Tehran until 2009, when it was shut down by the government for holding services in Farsi, the Iranian national language. Arrested in 2014 for conducting services at home, in 2017 he was given a 10-year jail sentence. Released earlier on bail with his wife Shamiram, they are awaiting the outcome of court appeals.

Ramiel’s sister Dabrina has advocated for her family all the way to the White House.

“Raising awareness always helps,” she told CT, prior to her brother’s release. “When the US and international bodies speak out and address persecuted Christians, they have an enormous amount of influence.”

According to the latest annual report of violations against Christians in Iran, 17 believers ended 2019 in prison on account of their faith. Culled from public statistics describing sentences from 4 months to 10 years, the report—released in January and jointly produced by Open Doors, Article 18, Middle East Concern, and Christian Solidarity Worldwide—warned the true number could be much higher.

Open Doors, which ranks Iran No. 9 among the world’s worst persecutors of Christians, reports at least 169 Christians were arrested from November 2018 to October 2019.

Compared to those who decline advocacy, Dabrina said…

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

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Current Events

Despite a Murder and Visa Denials, Christians Persevere in Turkey

Turkey Korean Murder
Image: Source Images: Congin Kim / Annie Spratt / Unsplash

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

Five days after her husband’s murder, Jung Kyung-In named her newborn daughter “God’s Goodness”—in Turkish, not Korean.

Jung moved to Turkey with her husband, Kim Jin-Wook, in 2015. The Korean Christian couple found a place to live in an impoverished district of Diyarbakir in southeastern Turkey, 60 miles from the Syrian border.

Kim worked selling spices, but his real calling, as he understood it, was witnessing to the gospel. He took the Turkish name “Peace,” and his Christian friends in Turkey say he was a great evangelist.

“He shared the gospel in every corner of Diyarbakir without hesitation,” said Ahmet Güvener, pastor of the Diyarbakir Protestant Church, which has about 70 members. “He was not aggressive, but clear, and I think local people were uncomfortable with this.”

One day in November, Kim told Jung he was going out to evangelize. He was attacked on the street, stabbed twice in the chest and once in the back. Kim, 41, died of his wounds in a city hospital.

Authorities arrested a 16-year-old boy for the crime. He has allegedly confessed to the murder, saying he was trying to steal Kim’s phone.

Despite her grief, Jung saw this as an opportunity to testify. She wrote a letter to the boy accused of killing her husband.

“I do not understand why you did this, but I cannot be angry at you,” she wrote on her phone.

“Many people want the court to give you a heavy punishment. But I and my husband don’t want this. We pray that you become worthy of heaven, because we believe in the worth of people. God sent his Son Jesus, who forgave those who persecuted him. We also believe in that and we pray that you would also repent of your sin.”

Jung read the letter aloud to the local media. Her testimony was viewed online more than…

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

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Current Events

Nigeria’s Government Agrees: Islamist Terrorists Target Christians

Nigeria Catholic March
Christians faithfuls march on the street of Abuja during a prayer and penance for peace and security in Nigeria in Abuja on March 1, 2020. – The Catholic Bishops of Nigeria gathered faithfuls as well as other Christians and other people to pray for security and to denounce the barbaric killings of Christians by the Boko Haram insurgents and the incessant cases of kidnapping for ransom in Nigeria. (Photo by Kola SULAIMON / AFP)

This article was first published at Christianity Today on March 2, 2020.

The Nigerian government now agrees with what church leaders have been complaining for years: Christians are the target of jihadist terrorism.

“In the wake of a renewed onslaught by our tireless military against Boko Haram and their ISWAP (Islamic State West Africa Province) allies in recent times, the insurgents have apparently changed their strategy,” said Lai Mohammed, the minister of information and culture, at a press conference last week.

“They have started targeting Christians and Christian villages for a specific reason, which is to trigger a religious war and throw the nation into chaos.”

In comments given exclusively to CT, the administration of President Muhammad Buhari clarified that this targeting is not new.

“Yes, Boko Haram is targeting individual Christians. In doing so, their target is all Nigerians, and their goal is to divide Christian brother against Muslim brother,” Mohammed, the information minister, told CT.

“What Boko Haram seeks—and always has sought—is to drive a wedge between Christians and Muslims in Nigeria.

“By targeting Christians, they seek to promulgate the falsehood that…

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

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Current Events

Nigerian Christians Marched Sunday to Protest Persecution

WhatsApp Image 2020-02-03 at 8.53.31 PM
Courtesy of CAN

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

Having finished his Sunday sermon from Psalm 18 on God as a stronghold who delivers his people from their enemies, Enoch Adeboye then led them to a cemetery.

It was an ironic yet appropriate choice.

Wearing a bright green tuxedo, the General Overseer of the Redeemed Christian Church of God (RCCG) in Lagos, Nigeria, marched three miles yesterday holding a placard that declared: “All Souls are Precious to God.”

Adeboye and his congregation, one of the largest in the world, answered the call issued by the Christian Association of Nigeria (CAN) for a three-day fast this past weekend, concluding in a prayer walk. Based on reports from its state chapters and local media, CAN estimates 5 million people marched in 28 of Nigeria’s 36 states on Sunday.

“Though we have protested before, this event took a new dimension,” CAN president Samson Ayokunle told CT.

“With one voice, we said ‘no’ to killings, ‘no’ to security negligence, and ‘no’ to the persecution of Christians in Nigeria. It is a wake-up call to the government.”

Launched on January 29 to protest the beheading of Brethren pastor Lawan Andimi, the chairman of a regional CAN chapter in Adamawa state, by Boko Haram two weeks earlier, the prayer was also a protest at the Nigerian government’s failure to stop the abductions and killings.

Terrorist attacks, as well as clashes between mostly Muslim herdsmen and mostly Christian farmers, resulted in more than 100 deaths in January alone.

“Lord, have mercy on Nigeria, let there be peace and security,” said Adeboye. “God sees all things and knows where the terrorists are hiding.

“We pray that God send his light to Nigeria and expose the evildoers in the country.”

In the perspective of CAN, these reach into the upper levels of government.

“O Lord, in Jesus Name, expose all the…”

Please click here to read the full article at Christianity Today, and here to read the op-ed submitted by Muhammadu Buhari, president of Nigeria.

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Current Events

The Top 50 Countries Where its Hardest to be a Christian

WWL-2020

This article was first published at Christianity Today on January 15, 2020.

Every day, 8 Christians worldwide are killed because of their faith.

Every week, 182 churches or Christian buildings are attacked.

And every month, 309 Christians are imprisoned unjustly.

So reports the 2020 World Watch List (WWL), the latest annual accounting from Open Doors of the top 50 countries where Christians are the most persecuted for their faith.

“We cannot let this stand,” said David Curry, president and CEO of Open Doors USA, during the 2020 list’s unveiling in Washington, DC, this morning. “People are speaking out and we have an obligation to hear their cry.”

The listed nations comprise 260 million Christians suffering high to severe levels of persecution, up from 245 million in last year’s list.

Another 50 million could be added from the 23 nations that fall just outside the top 50—such as Mexico, Chad, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo—for a ratio of 1 in 8 Christians worldwide facing persecution.

Last year, 40 nations scored high enough to register “very high” persecution levels. This year, it reached…

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

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Current Events

Pastor Turns Terrorist Hostage Video into a Testimony

Nigeria Hostage Video

This article was first published at Christianity Today, on January 13, 2020.

A hostage video released last week by Boko Haram did far more than issue another Nigerian plea for rescue.

It revealed a modern-day Shadrach.

“By the grace of God, I will be together with my wife, my children, and my colleagues,” said Lawan Andimi, a Church of the Brethren in Nigeria (EYN) pastor in the troubled northeastern state of Adamawa. “[But] if the opportunity has not been granted, maybe it is the will of God.

“Be patient, don’t cry, don’t worry. But thank God for everything.”

It is testimony even to his captors, said Gideon Para-Mallam, the Jos-based Africa ambassador for the International Fellowship of Evangelical Students (IFES).

“This is completely different from most hostage videos,” he said. “[Andimi] appeared as one who has already conquered death, saying to his abductors…”

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

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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

A Tale of Three Churches

New Capital Cathedral
U.S. Secretary of State Michael R. Pompeo visits the Cathedral of the Nativity in Cairo, Egypt, on January 10, 2019. [State Department photo/Public Domain]
This article was first published in the Summer 2019 print edition of Light magazine, produced by the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission.

In January, President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi of Egypt stood side-by-side with Pope Tawadros II, patriarch of the Coptic Orthodox Church. Inaugurating the Cathedral of Nativity, the largest church in the Middle East, he uttered two remarkable words that reverberated through the national broadcast to Muslim homes throughout the nation.

“Merry Christmas.”

If some Christians find this phrase under siege in America, they have no idea the power unleashed by the president’s words. Eight years earlier, emboldened by the Arab Spring and empowered by the Muslim Brotherhood presidency of Mohamed Morsi, ultra-conservative Salafi Muslims sparked nationwide controversy by declaring no pious Muslim could utter the words.

Their point was theological—Christmas celebrates God becoming man in Jesus, and a Muslim cannot congratulate a Christian neighbor for such blasphemy. But the impact was social. Easygoing Egyptians had long wished each other good greetings on respective religious feasts. Salafis are better practicing Muslims than we are, many would admit, and a chill began to spread in community relations.

When then-defense minister Sisi overthrew Morsi following widespread protests against his rule, he did so with Pope Tawadros—and the head of al-Azhar, the leading Islamic institution in Egypt—standing nearby in support. As president he became the first to attend a Christmas mass, a practice he has continued. He speaks strongly about the rights of Christians and their place in the nation. And in building a new capital city he made sure the centerpiece landmarks would be the region’s largest mosque and church, built side-by-side. There is no Merry Christmas controversy today.

But do Sisi’s words fall on deaf ears? Are the arms of the state too weak? Or might he be of double mind, grandiloquent in gesture, apathetic in implementation? Two other church examples counterbalance the cathedral…

Please click here to download the print edition; my article is on page 54.

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Current Events

Sri Lankan Sunday School Was ‘Willing to Die for Christ’ on Easter. Half Did.

Sri Lanka Sunday School
(Getty, via the Independent)

This article was originally published at Christianity Today, on April 25, 2019.

In most Sunday schools, the question is an academic exercise.

“How many of you are willing to die for Christ?” asked the teacher on Easter morning. Every one of the children dutifully raised their hands.

A few minutes later, the Sri Lankan class descended to Zion Church’s main service, passing through an outside courtyard where a stranger was speaking with church leaders. He had discovered there was no Easter morning Mass at the nearby Catholic church in Batticaloa, and was wondering when the service would begin here. He asked about the healing service.

Observers report he was sweating profusely. A pastor invited him to take off his backpack. Then, an explosion—many inside thought it was the generator.

Half the children died on the spot.

“All the children had responded [to their teacher’s question] by putting their hands up, and signaled their fresh dedication to Jesus by lighting a symbolic candle,” recounts a seminary leader [full testimony in sidebar below]. “For so many of those children, it would be their final act of worship.”

In total, at least 26 worshipers—including 16 children—were killed and 100 injured at Zion, a charismatic congregation in the Fellowship of Free Churches in Sri Lanka. Two Catholic churches in and near Colombo on the island nation’s opposite coast were also attacked by suicide bombers that morning, along with three hotels. The death toll currently stands at 253, revised down from 359.

But this is not the only Christian tragedy.

Sri Lankan authorities have now arrested 76 local Muslim extremists and one Syrian, placing the blame on the National Thowheeth Jama’ath (NTJ) movement. ISIS has claimed responsibility, calling it revenge for the massacre at a New Zealand mosque last month.

In response, gangs of young Christian men are now marauding Muslim neighborhoods. People have been assaulted. Shops have been destroyed. Hundreds of Pakistani refugees—mostly Ahmadis, a persecuted minority themselves—have fled the area around St. Sebastian’s, the Catholic church in Negombo where more than 100 worshipers perished.

“How we process this new reality and respond will determine the character and the witness of the Church of Jesus Christ in Sri Lanka,” Ivor Poobalan, principal of evangelical Colombo Theological Seminary, told CT…

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

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Current Events

US Catholics Now as Concerned About Persecution as Climate Change

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But last year, it was…

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

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Current Events

The Arrogance of Enemy Love: A Poem to ISIS

Arrogance of Enemy Love
An early 15th century Coptic prayer book from Ethiopia. View the full book at bit.ly/1XP8af8

This article was first published at The Table.

Many have been impressed by the forgiveness Coptic Christians have offered to their enemies. Beheaded, ambushed, churches bombed, shot in cold blood – they have not retaliated. Instead, though anger boils, they pray for their persecutors.

In the links above you can explore the opportunities I have had to write about this suffering community, and in one article I partially translated a poem circulated on social media that one Copt directed to ISIS. The Arabic original is here, and the full translation is below:

I will not speak (as some have done)

And curse your religion whatever its name.

I have come that it be known:

My fathers’ religion and what it proclaims.

My fathers’ religion has love at its heart,

The meaning of which will call you to peace.

My fathers’ religion, right from the start

Offers forbearance that conflict will cease.

Your hatred and killing in no way suffices

To stop us from loving and praying for you.

My father’s religion, oh dear Uncle ISIS,

Is not a weapon to pierce you straight through.

I wish that you could come to see

Or just one time the answer seek.

That while you bomb and murder, we

Stay strong as if a mountain peak.

My fathers’ religion of spirit consists.

It is not a body whose end is the dust.

And for the spirit—despite death persists—

Awaiting are loved ones residing in trust.

My fathers’ religion, if you could discern,

Offers each wounded the medic of life.

Tomorrow when you will repent and return,

You will come to know just who is the Christ.

 

It is a phenomenal sentiment. Which is why I was surprised – and then cut to the core – when my Egyptian friend helping me translate it called it: Haughty.

When I showed him my translation he said: Well done. It is even more arrogant than the original.

My friend is a Muslim, but non-practicing, with a respectful dismissal of religion in general. Perhaps one can say such a person of any background might be offended by strong claims of religious conviction. I have previously written critically when it is labeled bigotry.

I don’t think this is true of my friend. He has a generous heart and speaks tongue-in-cheek. But while I cannot judge the heart of the one who wrote the poem, I can discern the heart of the one who translated it.

And my friend is right.

It is my job to represent what I understand to be the reality of Egypt. This poem, I believe, is an authentic expression of the Coptic community.

But it is more than that. It is an expression of the way I would like the Coptic community to be. Many are not there. Many struggle. Yet many of them hold as an ideal that this is what their Christianity calls for.

So the poem represents also my conviction, but once again more. It represents my triumphalism, my sense of the moral superiority of Christianity. I have written about this before, and it is not necessarily damning. We all judge deficient that which we find to be false.

These days, much of the world says this should not be done with religion. Fair enough. It is hard to weigh between metaphysical matters. Even so, is it not right to let each religion be tested according to its merits, its morals, and its history? Few issues are as important, once one believes in an eternity.

But set all that aside. When I translated the poem I was rejoicing in more than my conviction, I was rejoicing in my identity. When I shared it in the article I was not just encouraging fellow Christian readers with the example of brothers-in-faith. I was encouraging also an us-versus-them mentality.

The ‘them’ is everyone else. There is nothing in it particularly against Islam, but Islam is the context. In Egypt, Christians are surrounded. In America, we are media saturated. I wish to be of generous heart toward Muslims and their faith. This too, with the yearning expressed in the poem, is part of what I understand to be Christianity.

But is that yearning for the glory of God, or the wholeness of my fellow man? Too often, it is the yearning for a pat on the back, the placement on a pedestal. And who better to offer, than a forgiving, grieving woman turned into an icon? Do I truly care for her in the loss of her son or husband? Or do I care for the message we can make out of her?

This is haughtiness. This is arrogance. My friend knows me well, and I’m afraid he exposed me. At the least, he helped God reveal.

Perhaps a bit of Arabic and Egyptian context is helpful. The opening line of the poem, my friend explained, recalls a verse from the popular poet Gamal Bakheet. “Their fathers’ religion, what is its name?” was written at the time of the 2011 revolution, and is a thinly veiled jibe at the Muslim Brotherhood. (See his Arabic recital here.)

The poem speaks of “our fathers’ religion” in the context of sublime values. It praises not only Islam, but also Christianity and Judaism – and even the non-monotheistic religions. And it criticizes those outsiders who want to bring something more defined, more exclusive, and more politically instrumental to Egypt.

My friend has no love for the Muslim Brotherhood, but his father – of whom he speaks respectfully – was a regional leader.

There is another context, even more illustrative. “Your fathers’ religion” is a common insult in Egypt. You can say it to anyone, regardless of their faith, to curse them and their whole ancestry.

In this light, the Coptic poem dips deep into Egyptian waters. It says it will not curse – but even in mentioning the phrase it practically does. It is a redirect, yes, to speak instead of “my fathers’ religion.” But it is soaked in the context from which it emerges. How many Copts have heard this expression hurled by wayward Muslims?

So let us salute them all the more, when they rise above and bless those who go far beyond insult. But remember, and be chastened by, the inherent temptation to pride.

The Bible tells a story of Abraham coming back from a battle, reclaiming his goods taken during a regional war. Upon meeting a friendly king he receives a blessing and yields a tenth of the spoils.

New Testament commentary establishes this king as a prefiguration of Jesus, establishing his covenant of grace as superior to the covenant of law that would be developed through Abraham’s descendants.

For the non-Christian reader, allow the logic to be complicated. But note the verse concerning Abraham and the king. “And without doubt, the lesser person is blessed by the greater.”

How easy it is, when we rightly note and idealistically contemplate the near-impossible calling to bless the enemy, to put ourselves in that superior posture. How easy it is to imagine ourselves in a greater community.

How easy it is to be haughty.

Is the poem a healthy encouragement and impassioned exhortation, or an arrogant celebration and smug self-validation? Only the poet knows.

The translator? The question hits too close to home. It is better to lean toward repentance.

How many of us should consider similarly?

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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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Middle East Published Articles World Watch Monitor

The Public Spectacle of a Slain Coptic Priest

Fr. Samaan Shehata
Fr. Samaan Shehata, with Pope Tawadros. From an image circulating on social media.

This article was first published at World Watch Monitor.

The images are horrific. Fr. Samaan Shehata, a 45-year-old Coptic Orthodox priest lay dead on the ground, stabbed and beaten by a young man wielding a meat cleaver.

Blood dripped down his face into his long, black beard. Dirt discolored his flowing, black robe. His cross pendant rested peacefully on his chest, eerily imitated in the cross-like stabbing etched onto his forehead.

Many details remain unknown, but early indications point to extremism. Fr. Samaan was from Beni Suef, visiting a family in Cairo 150 kilometers north in a lower-class, urban suburb of Cairo.

It may well be he was targeted only for the clothes he was wearing – in Egypt, a clear indication of his religious profession.

He was left a public spectacle. So far, no claim of responsibility, no message of intention. There are possible hints circulating of mental instability.

Perhaps. Outright murder is rare in Egypt. Despite the increased terrorism suffered by Copts in recent years, this killing is unusual. There is a chance it was random.

But few think so. Coptic social media immediately proclaimed Fr. Simaan a martyr, adding him to the growing scroll.

The image, however, may have lasting effect, reinforcing a decades-old message: The streets are not the place for priests…

Please click here to read the rest of the article at World Watch Monitor.

Categories
Excerpts

Copts in Egypt’s Textbooks

 

Copts Egypt Textbooks
Translation: Some pictures of the Roman persecution of Christians. Via Mada Masr.

There is a general understanding that Egypt’s Christians are marginalized in the educational curriculum.

An additional idea is that this came during an Islamization period in the 1970s, or perhaps during Nasser’s presidency.

A researcher examined this question and described them on Mada Masr. Here is his evaluation:

Based on an analysis of Egyptian history textbooks from 1890 until the academic year 2016/2017, it is clear that Egyptian history is narrated from a perspective that values an Arab Muslim identity over other perspectives and voices.

While the tone generally revers and paints Christianity in a positive light, the narrative as a whole is exclusionary in both explicit and subtle ways.

The article as a whole is insightful, and here is an example — of how textbooks changed:

Current history textbooks do not include explicit derogatory references to Christianity or Christians — as some of the earlier textbooks did. In fact, they include extremely positive mentions, albeit concise.

For instance, in explaining why ancient Egyptians embraced Christianity, a 2016 textbook explains that they were attracted by its values of justice, equality, mercy, empathy, tolerance, renouncement of worldly pleasures, and valuing of the afterlife.[11]

However, we need to also be cognizant of more subtle ways that might give value to one identity while diminishing or silencing others. In addition to continuing to use explicit and extensive Muslim referents as highlighted above, more subtle exclusions can also be found in current textbooks.

For instance, they use the word “Arab” to characterize countries such as Egypt and Lebanon even before they had been taken over by Arab Muslim armies. Such references give the historically inaccurate and false impression that these countries have always embraced an Arab identity, eclipsing the richness of their pre-existing civilizations and cultures.[12]

Additionally, several of these history textbooks have continued to address students as if they are all Muslim. For instance, an 1893 history textbook explains that the religious story of David and his son Solomon “must be learned by all Muslims.”[13]

Similarly, a 1988 history textbook encourages students to learn about the annual Muslim pilgrimage to Mecca by asking their relatives who might have performed it.[14]

In discussing civic engagement, current textbooks encourage students to be proud of our Islamic principles and values that encourage us to volunteer in the community and peacefully co-exist with others different from ourselves.[15]

In Egypt it is sometimes necessary to ask the religion of the researcher, often indicated by name. Ehaab Abdou — I believe these names are shared by Muslims and Christians alike.

What is important, however, is quality. The article is too brief to fully evaluate, but he claims a comprehensive scope of research. I don’t have the background in the subject to know if he left out damning specifics; other Egyptians, please weigh in.

The one thing I noticed is that he did not specifically state he evaluated textbooks in the Azhar educational curriculum. Copts sometimes claim this is a source of bias against them.

But on the whole, the article appears to be an evenhanded treatment of a controversial subject.

Few things are as important as the education of our children — and ourselves.

Categories
Audio Middle East

Podcast: How the Coptic Christian Church Endures

This ‘Quick to Listen‘ podcast was first published at Christianity Today, on December 15, 2016.

quick-to-listen-podcast

Egypt’s Coptic Christians are in a state of mourning after a suicide bomber killed at least 25 people at a Cairo church on Sunday.

“Egypt always tends to rally around Christians at moments like this,” said Jayson Casper, CT’s Middle East correspondent. “But over time, [ISIS is] trying to hammer and hammer and hammer the Christians in Egypt and put so much pressure on the internal government that it itself may collapse.”

But even when suffering does come, the Coptic Church “is equipped to deal with it,” said Casper.

“They can say, ‘This has always happened to us in our history. It is how God has treated us and he perseveres with us through it.’”

While the attack was the worst to target Copts since the 2011 New Year’s bombing of a church in Alexandria that killed 23 people, the population has been the victim of sectarian violence for years. In 2015, ISIS, who also claimed responsibility for the latest attack, beheaded 21 Coptic Christians in Libya.

Casper joined assistant editor Morgan Lee and editor-in-chief Mark Galli this week to discuss the fascinating and important history of Coptic Christians, how the Egyptian church relates to a changing government, and why this most recent attack is unique.

Please click here to listen to the podcast at Christianity Today (38 minutes).

Categories
Middle East Providence Published Articles

A Rough Stretch in a Season of Waiting: Egypt’s Christians and the Cathedral Bombing

cathedral-bombing
Photo by Omar Elhady, via Twitter (@ElHady).

This article was first published at Providence Magazine.

“There has been a bombing at the cathedral,” said the pastor at the local Methodist church in a lower-class area of downtown Cairo. “Several are dead, and we pray for our nation.”

It took me a moment to comprehend, but the gravity of his words indicated more than a simple illustration. I opened my cell phone to check the news and saw the bold headline: 25 dead and 49 injured in an attack on the Coptic Orthodox cathedral. The spiritual center of Egyptian Christianity had been mercilessly violated.

Only a few minutes earlier, the sermon considered John the Baptist and how his life of faithfulness ended with his head on a platter. Here again now was another modern Egyptian example of martyrdom, one more in a long line since the similar bombing of a church in Alexandria six years earlier. Several women sobbed quietly, as the men sat in stunned silence.

But a little later as they exited the service, the collective sense felt more like resignation. The men exchanged pleasantries and went home; the women lingered a little longer in conversation. What was unthinkable at the start of the Arab Spring had become unsurprising. In Alexandria 23 Copts died when a car bomb went off outside the church, but that attack, at least, soon gave way to the hope of a new revolution. The cathedral atrocity gives no inspiration, as Egypt remains muddled in a regional fog of war and terrorism.

In-between the two bombings were the 2013 revenge attacks on dozens of churches throughout the nation, as frustrated Islamists blamed Christians for the overthrow of the Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated President Mohamed Morsi. And the usual stream of sectarian incidents continued apace, as the state failed to hold accountable the mob violence of Muslims objecting to a church in their village, or an interfaith love affair, or any other typical but ill-justified collective form of Coptic punishment. It has been a rough stretch for Egypt’s Christians.

But not nearly as rough as the Christians of Iraq and Syria, or the Muslims of Libya, Yemen, and elsewhere have endured—and the Copts know this. They stand behind their Muslim Brotherhood-vanquishing president, and give much slack to a government they know is under tremendous pressure. Everywhere they turn it seems some new conspiracy is bent on dragging Egypt into the Middle East morass. The economy is in shambles, tourism is nonexistent, and save for the mandatory utterances of support following terrorism, they feel the international community never speaks except in censure. For this reason many have expressed favor at the election of Donald Trump. He likes our president, they say, and at least he’ll leave us alone.

For Copts are tired of being treated as pawns. A few days before the bombing, Foreign Policy ran a story entitled, “How Egypt’s Copts Fell Out of Love with President Sisi.” Even Chuck Colson’s Breakpoint piled on, ostensibly seeking to help by demanding the US president support Egypt’s Christians. “Meet the new persecutor,” said the article subtitle, “same as the old one.” Some on the left seem intent on buttressing the narrative of Copts in the way of a deserved Islamist democratic future. Some on the right seem intent on painting Muslims as sharia-inspired agents of Christian antipathy.

Both articles do well to draw on actual Coptic voices, and important ones. The news they convey is vital to learn in a world where, unless made a pawn, the Copt is often ignored. But they miss the nuance of the Coptic reality. Perhaps they can be forgiven for not knowing enough; perhaps they are guilty of pushing an agenda.

Back in Egypt, the Copts are well aware of incumbent discrimination and state weakness. But they cheer on a president who attends Christmas mass with the pope, and a military that rebuilds the churches Islamists destroyed. A new law for church building may or may not fully address the issues surrounding freedom of worship, but at least this regime—the first in 160 years—issued a law at all.

And following every tragedy, the common Muslim tends to open his or her bosom. Private taxi services Uber and Careem offered free rides to the hospital for blood donations. Many have missed the fact this bombing took place on the birthday of Islam’s prophet, a traditional day of merriment. The attack was therefore an assault on Muslims as well, Christians note. A popular cartoon draws the traditional holiday doll in the black clothes of mourning, as behind her stands a somber crucifix.

Thus between the kindness of the Egyptian soul and the sectarianism latent in an identity-driven society, the Copt is left waiting for national transformation. The rhetoric of the current regime seeks to revive a spirit of Egyptian nationalism, if only it can sludge through current challenges to reach a modicum of stability. Every maltreated Copt who fails to obtain justice is another reminder of how far the country has to go. And the cathedral bombing is another example of the powerful forces that stand against an idealized future.

But from the demonized past and lingering present, the Muslim Brotherhood condemns the bombing in one breath and blames it on regime-church collaboration in another. As long as this is the alternative, Copts find their best option in the preservation of a strong-handed government and a nominally secular society. Some in their community continue faithfully to agitate for human rights and a less political role for the church. Many agree but feel security and economy must be prioritized. Most hope for an open society of enlightened Egyptians, if only a generation away.

The Methodist church sermon that ended with John’s head on a platter began with the miracle that led to his birth. Elderly Zachariah and sterile Elizabeth likely long gave up hope of a child, the pastor surmised. Even so, “Your prayer has been heard,” said the angel. God is faithful, even when his people falter. John, the pastor noted, also doubted the one he baptized.

Where in this parable are Egypt’s Copts? Soon to be beheaded, or of pious prayers fulfilled? Likely somewhere in between, still inclined to pray for their nation.

Categories
Middle East Other Published Articles

Made to Feel Inferior: A Christian Family on Ordinary Life in Egypt

The hands of husband and wife, otherwise unidentified in the article

From my recent article for Aid to the Church in Need:

Life is not easy for Christians in Egypt, and the strain is taking its toll. Beyond the reports of churches burned and homes attacked, there is also a more subtle hardship affecting ordinary families. While not universal, mistreatment and discrimination are unfortunately all too common.

“Every day we leave our house, not knowing what will happen,” says Girgis, an Egyptian Catholic who preferred not to use his real name.

His wife, however, has the irritating stories:

“The other day, I was climbing into the (public transportation) van with my two children as usual,” Maria tells her story, “and I called out the name of my neighborhood just to confirm. But the driver said he wasn’t going there, so I got out to ride in the correct one.”

“But then a Muslim woman came on board and asked for the same neighborhood, and the driver let her in, taking the last place. I was outraged and complained, but the man replied, ‘I’m free to let in who I like and force out who I like.’”

Within the past year, similar incidents happened half a dozen times. It is not a daily occurrence, but it leaves a painful wound, especially when repeated with such regularity.

The wife gives other examples, and the following is her testimony from the conclusion:

“I try to be a Christian,” she said. “I try to be kind, but I also try to show the person this behavior is not appropriate.”

It often makes little difference. In fact, witnesses to her mistreatment usually downplay what happens, telling her it’s ok, or not to worry about it.

She does have good relations with Muslims in her apartment building; she even freely tutored a neighbor’s child in French, without charging the family. Yet, as a family, they have few if any real Muslim friends, the couple affirms.

Girgis views the situation of Egypt’s Christians as follows: “There are two types of persecution: Physical, when you are threatened with death, and mental, which is worse.”

“If you are killed, it’s over. But if you are subject to mistreatment it may drive you to kill yourself. We are made to feel inferior. This is the persecution that is present in Egypt.”

In saying so, Girgis made clear to me that the burning of churches and attacks on families are not best understood as persecution, but as the result of political and social struggles. Rather, it is the incessant needling as described in the interview they see as the persecution Egyptian Copts generally face.

I am happy to tell their story, for I have heard many similar complaints from others. It reveals a slice of life that is true.

My only concern is that their story be received as the only truth. I have heard other Copts tell me of generally warm relations with Muslims, and of friendships that are real and genuine. Within the article I hope this sentiment is expressed.

The reality is a mix, and the deep Coptic frustration with the sectarianism of many of Egypt – even if it doesn’t touch them personally – is worthy to convey. But somewhat paradoxically, it is very difficult to get sense of this sectarianism as an outsider. Within the Coptic community it sometimes feels like groupthink; within the Muslim community it is often denied completely.

Of course, there is no one community for either religion. One Muslim I know heads an NGO for combating religious discrimination. Another I know, from the same neighborhood as the wife in the article, told me he sees Coptic women everywhere and they get on just fine.

Some Copts may suffer a setback at work and attribute it to anti-Christian bias. And while some Muslims at least rhetorically, if not worse, make Christians feel inferior, many others are likely just ignorant of what others suffer.

The partial solution is to tell each others stories.

Alas, I made several attempts to conclude this post with a practical result of what comes next – and failed. It is strange; I am glad to convey this family’s struggle, and yet feel conflicted at the same time. I don’t want such an example to be used to misrepresent Egypt, even while this example does represent Egypt. Just not entirely. But what can an article convey? Go read a book! Or better, an encyclopedia. Perhaps you can enroll in a Middle Eastern Studies masters program instead.

But that is my burden. It is my job to help tell Egypt’s story correctly, and to do so within the criteria of each publisher. I trust that if you read this blog consistently you trust my effort to give the big picture. But in any individual article, published in any individual source – the work stands alone to be judged. Or rather, to judge Egypt. Please click here to read the whole article at Aid to the Church in Need, and judge accordingly.

And as for solutions? What comes next? I trust the telling of stories is helpful, but how?

Categories
Excerpts

Copts Protest to Deter Aggressors in Upper Egypt

From MidEast Christian News (behind paywall):

Dozens of Copts assembled in front of the governorate building, over incidents such as these:

Adel Wadie Fahmi said his house was seized by eight thugs, who forged contracts to prove ownership of the house land, and asked him to pay two million Egyptian pounds, roughly 300,000 USD, to give the house back to him. Fahmi said that he filed a report with the Samalout police.

The security services inspected Fahmi’s house and managed to arrest one of the thugs and Samalout prosecutor remanded him in custody for 15 days pending investigation, but Fahmi’s house has yet to be restored to him.

Medhat Lewis Guirguis said a group of thugs demolished a wall encircling a plot he owns, and when he objected they showed him a false contract of their ownership of the land. Said thugs called on Guirguis to pay 450,000 pounds to leave the land. Upon filing a report with Samalout police, five of the accused were arrested and imprisoned for 15 days pending investigation. Guirguis, however, has received new threats urging him to pay the required amount.

Other incidents are listed as well. The above is a good example of wishing you could be in all places at once. Many stories described as kidnapping reflect simply a young woman who has run away with a lover. Even when this is the case, however, there are often breaches of law that go ignored by authorities. If someone was there, they could better investigate.

So we are left with this investigation, which probably is only a recounting of the claims of those demonstrating. Might some be claiming sectarian discrimination over simple land disputes, perhaps even if they are in the wrong?

Maybe, but there is no joy in being a cynic. Rather, this demonstration is a warning about the real possibility of sectarian aggression against Copts, especially in Upper Egypt. The region has always been rather lawless; amid further decline, might some encroach further, taking advantage of lax enforcement and a slow or absent judiciary, to enrich themselves at the expense of Copts?

Do similar instances happen among Muslims, but are as infrequently reported in the regular press and altogether ignored in Christian-focused publications such as this one? Does Islamist dominance of the public square mean such incidences against Christians will be less rebuffed than normal? Why should it, are there not simple matters of right and wrong at stake? Do Islamists care only about advancing their fellow Muslims? Or should they not be men of principle more than the earlier administrations, and take a stand to investigate and stop such transgression?

So many questions. Would I be able to know better the answers if I was there? I am in Cairo, and there is so much here I don’t know, so why would it be different?

But I wish someone did, and there was a publication that could be trusted. Thank you, MidEast Christian News, for bringing these stories to attention, but I wish you investigated more thoroughly.