I contributed additional reporting to this AP article, including its conclusion below:
At Qaraqosh, Francis urged its residents to continue to dream, and forgive.
“Forgiveness is necessary to remain in love, to remain Christian,” he said.
One resident, Doha Sabah Abdallah, told him how her son and two other young people were killed in a mortar strike August 6, 2014, as ISIS neared the town. “The martyrdom of these three angels” alerted the other residents to flee, she said. “The deaths of three saved the entire city.”
She said now it was for the survivors to “try to forgive the aggressor.”
Francis wrapped up the day—and his visit—with a Mass at the stadium in Irbil, in the semi-autonomous northern Kurdish region. An estimated 10,000 people erupted in ululating cheers when he arrived and did a lap around the track in his open-sided popemobile, the first and only time he has used it on this trip due to security concerns.
On the makeshift altar for the Mass was a statue of the Virgin Mary from the Mar Adday Church in the town of Keramlis, which was restored after ISIS militants chopped off its head and hands.
“Religion is love, grace, forgiveness,” said Louis Sako, patriarch of the Chaldean Catholic Church, in advance of the visit. “Religion is a message, and humanity is its core.
“[And] as for us, we are staying until the end.”
But perhaps some Iraq Christians have a vision for even more.
“This is a time of healing for our country,” Farouk Hammo, pastor of Baghdad Presbyterian Church, told CT.
“But we are still praying for a visitation by the Lord Jesus—a revival—and it will happen.”
This article was originally published at Christianity Today on March 11, 2021. Please click here to read the full text.
Pope Francis, a “pilgrim of peace” to Iraq, has made history by becoming the first pontiff to meet a grand ayatollah: Ali al-Sistani, whose hawza (seminary) in Najaf, 100 miles south of Baghdad, is considered the foremost center of learning in Shiite Islam.
Two years ago, the pope met the grand imam of Egypt’s al-Azhar, considered the foremost center of learning in Sunni Islam. With Ahmed al-Tayyeb, Francis signed the “Declaration of Human Fraternity,” calling on both Christians and Muslims to embrace religious diversity with freedom and respect.
This weekend, Francis came to Iraq to support and encourage the nation’s beleaguered Christians, whose numbers have decreased from 1.4 million in 2003 to about 250,000 today.
But he also wished to sign a similar document with the reclusive leading figure in Shiite Islam, which represents 1 in 10 of the world’s Muslims—and 6 in 10 Iraqis.
The result with Sistani was more modest than with Tayyeb, but Francis did secure a very important fatwa (religious ruling).
“[Christians should] live like all Iraqis, in security and peace and with full constitutional rights,” said Sistani in an official statement. “The religious authority plays [a role] in protecting them, and others who have also suffered injustice and harm in the events of past years.”
Francis removed his shoes upon entering Sistani’s modest home. And while the ayatollah usually sits to receive visitors, he stood to welcome the pope.
Will the ruling make a difference? Will it have any impact in Iran, the neighboring theocratic Shiite state? And what really drives the regional conflict: religion or politics? In Muslim history, the answer is…
This article was originally published at Christianity Today, on March 7, 2021. Please click here to read the full text.
Pope Francis traveled to war-torn Iraq today “as a pilgrim of peace, seeking fraternity [and] reconciliation.”
The trip’s official logo, written in three languages, comes from Matthew 23: “You are all brothers.” Iraq’s evangelicals, therefore, have asked for the pope’s help.
“The other churches don’t want us, and accuse us of everything,” said Maher Dawoud, head of the General Society for Iraqi National Evangelical Churches (GSINEC).
“But we are churches present throughout the world. Why shouldn’t the government give us our rights?”
Dawoud sent a letter to the Vatican, asking Francis to intercede—on behalf of evangelical Christians—with the Catholic church in Iraq, and ultimately with the government in Baghdad.
The World Evangelical Alliance (WEA) had gone straight to the United Nations, long before.
One year ago, the WEA filed a report with the UN Human Rights Committee, protesting the denial of legal recognition for Iraqi evangelicals. Fourteen other denominations are currently counted within the Christian, Yazidi, and Sabaean-Mandaean Religions Diwan (Bureau).
Now estimated at less than 250,000 people, Christians are a small minority of Iraq’s 40 million population, 97 percent of which is Muslim. Evangelical numbers are even smaller.
The Chaldean Catholic Church represents 80 percent of the nation’s Christians, with 110 churches throughout the country. Syriacs, both Catholic and Orthodox, constitute another 10 percent, with 82 churches. Assyrians, primarily through the Church of the East, have a 5 percent share, and Armenians, 3 percent. (Other estimates count 67 percent for the Chaldeans, and 20 percent for the Assyrians. Their identity and history are disputed.)
Evangelicals have 7 churches, Dawoud said. Representing the Baptist, Pentecostal, Nazarene, Alliance, Assemblies of God, and Armenian Evangelical denominations, the GSINEC has petitioned Baghdad for recognition since 2003.
While their churches are open and able to conduct services, they lack the authority to perform marriages, conduct funerals, and interact with the government. This prevents them from owning property, opening bank accounts, and producing religious literature.
It also keeps Protestants from invitations to official events—like the visit of a pope.
But not all of them. “I will ask Pope Francis to agree with me in prayer,” said…
This article was originally published at Christianity Today, on March 5, 2021. Please click here to read the full text.
Seventeen years since the fall of Saddam Hussein, the fractious Iraqi nation—divided mostly between Sunni, Shiite, and Kurdish Muslims—remains unable to agree on a national day.
But they can agree on Christmas.
Last week, the parliament unanimously passed a law to make Christmas a “national holiday, with annual frequency.”
The latter phrase gave great “joy and satisfaction” to Cardinal Louis Raphael Sako, patriarch of the Chaldean Catholic Church. Last October, he presented an official request to Iraqi President Barham Salih to make Christmas a permanent public holiday.
“Today Christmas is truly a celebration for all Iraqis,” said Basilio Yaldo, bishop of Baghdad and Sako’s close associate. “This is a message of great value and hope.”
In 2008, the government declared Christmas a “one-time holiday.”
In 2018, the parliament amended the law to make Christmas for all citizens.
But after each occasion, it was not renewed.
“The declaration is beautiful, but it is very late,” said Ashur Eskrya, president of the Assyrian Aid Society–Iraq. “But our trouble is not in holidays, it is in…
This article was originally published at Christianity Today, on December 21, 2020. Please click here to read the full text.
Pope Francis must love creating cognitive dissonance.
This week, he became the first Catholic pontiff to ever visit the Arabian Peninsula, the heart of Islam, where conversion to Christianity is illegal. Francis lauded his hosts in the United Arab Emirates (UAE), saying they “strive to be a model for coexistence.”
The Gulf nation’s crown prince received him with a 21-gun salute. Francis then railed against the “miserable crudeness” of war.
Human rights groups pressed him to address migrant worker issues. Francis rejoiced in “a diversity that the Holy Spirit loves and wants to harmonize ever more, in order to make a symphony.”
The mere existence of a Christian community to visit in the Gulf states may surprise many. In 2015, CT visited the Emirates and reported on its “thriving” church, populated by more than a million Christians—primarily economic migrants from Asian nations such as Indonesia and the Philippines.
The Pew Research Center counts them as 13 percent of the population. They worship in over 40 churches, served by over 700 Christian ministries.
And in a region where the Vatican cited a decline of Christians from 20 percent to 4 percent of the Middle East population in the last 100 years, the Emirati government provided a day off and 1,000 buses to bring Catholics to mass.
Attendance reached 135,000, billed as the largest Christian gathering ever held in the Arabian Peninsula.
If the pope does enjoy sparking controversy, he succeeded also among local evangelical leaders…
Please click here to read the full article at Christianity Today.
Dr. Kamal Boraiqa is a lecturer at al-Azhar University and a member of al-Azhar Center for Dialogue, the al-Azhar Observer for Combating Extremism, and the Egyptian Family House. With a PhD from al-Azhar in Islamic Studies, he has served as an imam at the Santa Rosa Islamic Center in the United States and as a visiting scholar at the UK’s Birmingham University Center for the Study of Islam and Muslim-Christian Relations, and is a member of the African Union steering committee to link policy makers and religious leaders.
Dr. Kamal, as an al-Azhar scholar, what aspects of Pope Francis’ visit and speech resonated with you the most, especially in terms of your responsibilities in dialogue?
The meeting itself was a message to the whole world that the three heavenly religions – Islam, Christianity, and Judaism – are against violence, fanaticism, and radicalism. One who contemplates the speeches of Pope Francis and Sheikh Ahmed al-Tayyib will learn many lessons.
First, that faith is incompatible with violence, for violence is the negation of every authentic religious expression. Religious leaders are called, therefore, to unmask the violence that masquerades as purported sanctity and is based more on the “absolutizing” of selfishness than on authentic openness to the Absolute. We have an obligation to denounce violations of human dignity and human rights, to expose attempts to justify every form of hatred in the name of religion, and to condemn these attempts as idolatrous caricatures of God. Holy is his name, he is the God of peace.
Religion, however, is not meant only to unmask evil. It has an intrinsic vocation to promote peace, today perhaps more than ever. This is done through teaching the younger generations, because education becomes wisdom if it draws out of men and women the very best of themselves, in contact with the One who transcends them and with the world around them, fostering a sense of identity that is open and not self-enclosed.
Sincere dialogue is the only alternative to civilized encounter, lest we are left with the incivility of conflict. Wisdom seeks out the other, overcoming the temptation to rigidity and closed-mindedness. It is open and in motion, at once humble and inquisitive. It values the past and sets it in communication with the present, within suitable hermeneutics.
Pope Francis demonstrated this when opened his speech with “As-Salaam Alaikum.” This traditional Muslim greeting in Arabic means, “Peace be upon you,” and reflects his great respect and appreciation of the Muslim faith.
But he followed up also with a practical call. He said that in order to prevent conflicts and build peace, it is essential that we spare no effort in eliminating situations of poverty and exploitation where extremism more easily takes root. He also spoke forcefully about blocking the flow of money and weapons to those who provoke violence.
How does al-Azhar contribute to the fight against radicalism?
Al-Azhar’s strategy to combat radicalism is both local and international. Its system of education is built upon layers and layers of exchange through dialogue and the acceptance of difference of opinion and interpretation. Al-Azhar’s moderate curricula teaches and encourages the proper understanding of Islam that is far away from extremism. It reflects the true spirit of Islam and the essence of Islamic heritage in both rationality and rhetoric.
Spiritually, al-Azhar embodies Islamic moderation and tolerance, the two fundamental characters of the three monotheistic religions in general…
Please click here to read the full interview at Informed Comment.
The pope is here. Of course, Egypt already has a pope. But this one is different.
To most Egyptian Christians he is not. In the ancient world Rome and Alexandria were equals. But since then the Tiber has far eclipsed the Nile.
God, to you your church is one. Give humility to one and all, a spirit of brotherhood between servants of servants.
For joining them also is the heir of Constantinople. As the visible symbols of Christianity convene, fix their eyes on you the invisible. Give them wisdom for leading their flock. Give them encouragement for the small portion here.
Middle East Christians are under pressure, God. Evil men target them for death. Seductive dreams target them for immigration. Guide each one individually in the path you desire. But guide them together toward local flourishing.
For the sake of your name, God. For the sake of their peoples.
For with the three symbols is a powerful fourth. The Grand Sheikh of al-Azhar unites most of the world’s Muslims. He is the host, and their partner in peace.
May it be so, God. Certain forces wish to pit one religion against the other.
Some say it comes from texts. Some say it comes from power. Some say it comes from the devil.
Regardless, they say it should not be.
Strengthen their voice and witness, God. Unite them in purpose and friendship. May those who follow them follow their example. And with them, all peoples and nations beside.
For it is the state, God, with power to implement. Guide all who bear your sword, to wield it rightly.
And through men like these four, but only in accordance with your spirit and truth, may they hear from you.
The pope is here, God. May your peace come with him. May things thereafter be different.
Pope Francis, patriarch of the worldwide Roman Catholic Church, and Sheikh Ahmed al-Tayeb, Grand Imam of Al Azhar, the leading religious institution in the Sunni Muslim world, welcomed delegates at the October 3 opening of the sixth Anglican Global South Conference, esteeming the importance of their gathering.
Pope Francis expressed his “deepest appreciation” for his invitation to this “momentous event”, in remarks read by the Apostolic Nuncio in Egypt, Archbishop Bruno Musaro. Musaro assured delegates of Francis’ prayers as they discuss themes of “high significance” for both the Anglican Communion and the entire Christian community.
“Nothing is lost when we effectively enter into dialogue,” Musaro quoted from Francis’ encouragement to all people of goodwill, “Nothing is impossible if we turn to God in prayer.”
Sheikh Ahmed al-Tayeb’s remarks quoted from the Quran in his welcome to the Anglican delegates, noting how God created different peoples in the world so that they would know each other and build society.
Tayeb’s message was delivered by Sheikh Saeed Amer, chairman of the fatwa committee in Al Azhar. He esteemed the importance of the conference, hoping it would contribute to building increasingly positive Egyptian participation in the Global South.
Pope Tawadros II, patriarch of the Coptic Orthdox Church also extended his welcome to the delegates of the Anglican Global South. Through Metropolitan Bishoy he expressed his delight in the Christological agreement signed between the Anglican and Oriental Orthodox Churches in 2014, as well as the 2015 agreement on the procession of the Holy Spirit from the Father.
“[We] back you in your defense of the commandments of the Holy Scriptures,” said Tawadros to the Global South delegates, through Bishoy, while noting serious disagreements that exist between the Coptic Orthodox and the Anglican Church as a whole.
“Yet we carry on our dialogue with the Anglican Communion in order to encourage the Anglican conservatives to continue abiding to the true and genuine Biblical principles.”
Archbishop Mouneer Hanna Anis, bishop of Egypt and chairman of the Global South steering committee, welcomed the ecumenical and interfaith dignitaries, and thanked them for their participation in the conference opening session.
Friends in Philadelphia will soon have the privilege of a papal visit. But will Pope Francis preach in your particular church?
His equal in the faith visited us in Maadi.
A Catholic might not consider it so. A Protestant might insist we are all equal. But for Orthodox Christians, Pope Tawadros is patriarch of one of the five ancient sees of the church, in which Rome and Alexandria are equals.
“To advance in the church,” he said, “is not done in the ways of the world. It is to lower yourself beneath the feet of others.”
By holding to equality with Rome, or in serving as a patriarch at all, does the head of the Coptic Orthodox violate his own teaching? His sermon on Wednesday was on the topic of humility. His visit on Wednesday—perhaps—is evidence of it.
Pope Tawadros’ predecessor Pope Shenouda was beloved of the people. Charismatic and witty, his Wednesday sermon at the papal cathedral characterized this bond. To a full house that treated him like a superstar, he took questions from the audience and left them laughing, rebuked, and inspired.
Pope Tawadros is respected as an organized administrator and heady thinker. He is young in his position, but does not seem to have the same level of charisma nor to have won the same level of enthusiasm. Few could.
He initially tried to follow in Shenouda’s footsteps, but when I attended a few weeks ago the hall was only half-full. Furthermore, he replaced the question-and-answer period with the traditional evening prayer. He does have a call-in show on Coptic satellite television, but I have heard Copts complain that this medium is out of reach to many simple believers. Rich and poor alike, all loved Pope Shenouda.
The Coptic Cathedral is now under repair, and Pope Tawadros suspended the Wednesday service. Before this, however, it was interrupted by petitioners seeking resolution for their divorce cases. Speculation wonders if the two are connected, or if the pope feels weighed down by the burden of comparison.
There is no answer that can weigh the motivations of his heart. But the visit to Maadi reflects a new evolution of the Wednesday tradition. Rather than sitting centrally in the cathedral, he will visit his flock.
“To be humble does not mean you are less than others or to deny your gifts, talents, or abilities,” Tawadros said. “It is liberation from the power of the self.”
In order to stay humble Tawadros recommended a checklist of characteristics the Christian should continually review. Never elevate your opinion of yourself, but lower it. Be thankful, and search for the good in all things. Remember the final judgment, and constantly repeat, “Have mercy on me, a sinner.”
Tawadros’ advice centered on the creation of a humble spirit, but two other attributes are necessary, he said. The Christian should also cultivate an open mind and a wide heart. Together these three make it possible to live well and navigate the challenges of life.
After the sermon St. Mark’s Church demonstrated fidelity to Tawadros’ predilection for organized administration, in the form of crowd control. Young people from the scouts program lined the aisles and hallways, channeling all in attendance into a single line to meet the pope. There, he further demonstrated humility as near an hour transpired for each one to receive from his hand a commemorative picture of the occasion.
Meanwhile, I chafed. My seat was in the very back row of the balcony. The best seats were already taken, so I judged the next best viewpoint would be to scan the whole assembly. Had I considered it, I might have believed myself humble for choosing so lowly a place.
I have had the opportunity to meet Pope Tawadros, briefly. But at the end of a long evening I just wanted to get home. I was quite happy to skip the line and again, had I considered it, I might have believed myself humble for my patience in waiting to leave and allowing others to go ahead.
But patience wears thin. I could see below that the pope was receiving the crowd. What I could not see was the organization. The scouts in the balcony were not letting us go anywhere, and I didn’t know why. Just let us exit, I thought, and as others get in line below, I’ll slip out a side door.
A few fought their way past the scouts, and the balcony crowd started getting restless. We were told many times to sit and wait, but no one was explaining anything.
That might be a mark of deficient organization, as communication is a must. But my entire perspective changed once allowed down the balcony steps. Very efficiently, at each turn in the path stood the scouts. Smoothly and quickly we were ushered to Pope Tawadros.
As it turns out there was no opportunity to leave by another path. I took the picture from the pope, then a mug from the bishop. Just like that, and I was outside. Five minutes later I was home.
It could be said the entire evening was public relations. Rather than continuing in the pattern set by his popular predecessor, Tawadros sets his own terms. He will visit the churches in carefully controlled settings. He will deliver a sermon and distribute memorabilia. Copts love their religious leaders. He will create a desire in each church to receive a future visit.
If it is public relations, is it only PR? And is it wrong? Tawadros blessed the Copts of St. Mark. He both encouraged and demonstrated a humble spirit. He has the open mind to create a new pattern for Wednesday sermons, and the wide heart to check directly in on local congregations.
He has a hard job. If he lacks the charisma that is comfortable with the spotlight, he knows he cannot remove himself from it. Instead he will subject himself even to the scouts of the church.
Only God knows his heart, but God has so far chosen to elevate him to leadership of an ancient see. Many scoundrels have held similar posts in the past, so there is no guarantee. Let both Catholic and Protestant nod heads in sad memory of flawed saints and rank sinners.
Let them both also hold out hope and prayer for Pope Tawadros, to live and lead worthy of his calling.
“I must decrease, he must increase,” Tawadros quoted John the Baptist, speaking of Jesus. Standing long in the apostolic line of Alexandria, may the 118th successor of St. Mark do the same.