Africa Christianity Today Published Articles

Ethiopia-Tigray Peace Agreement Contains Biblical Mandate

Image: Phill Magakoe / AFP / Getty Images

The Ethiopian war in Tigray is over.

On November 2, federal forces and rebel authorities agreed on a “cessation of hostilities,” ending a conflict believed to have killed hundreds of thousands and displaced millions. All sides committed abuses, as documented by the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission and other international observers.

“No one has been clean in this war,” said Desta Heliso, a visiting lecturer at the Ethiopian Graduate School of Theology. “As Christians, we have to feel sorry about this.”

The peace agreement, however, provides for a biblical mandate.

Most negotiations concerned military realities. The two-year conflict in the Horn of Africa nation’s northernmost region—home to 7 million of Ethiopia’s 120 million people—vacillated in advantage between the two sides and between hostilities and humanitarian truce.

The United Nations stated 5.2 million Tigrayans need assistance.

But as federal forces pressed deeper into Tigray, peace talks sponsored by the African Union (AU) in South Africa concluded with an agreement for complete disarmament of the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) within 30 days. National troops may enter the regional capital of Mekele; assume control of all borders, highways, and airports; and expedite humanitarian aid.

Both sides agree to cease defamation campaigns, and the central government will ensure restoration of communication, transportation networks, and banking services.

But long-term peace may depend on the outcome of a minor clause included among the 15 measures. The federal government agrees to conduct a “comprehensive transitional justice policy” consistent with the AU framework.

Ethiopia will be the first experiment in implementation.

“The possibility for reconciliation is there,” said Heliso, who was formerly vice president of the Kale Heywet Church, one of Ethiopia’s largest evangelical denominations. “But some claims for justice will have to be given up for peace, painful as it might be.”

That may not be necessary. Adopted in 2019, the African Union’s 2019 Transitional Justice Policy (AUTJP) goes beyond criminal accountability—while ensuring impartial investigation—to set up measurable standards for…

This article was originally published at Christianity Today, on November 11, 2022. Please click here to read the full text.

Christianity Today Europe Published Articles

Azerbaijan Archbishop: Our Holy Mission Is to Keep Peace

Embed from Getty Images

The saying is clear: To the victor go the spoils.

And morally, with it comes the burden of peace.

In November, Christian-heritage Armenia surrendered to Muslim-majority Azerbaijani forces besieging the Caucasus mountain area of Nagorno-Karabakh. The ceasefire agreement ended a six-week war that cost each side roughly 3,000 soldiers, and left unsettled the final status of the Armenian-populated enclave they call Artsakh.

Azerbaijan, however, recovered the rest of its internationally recognized territory, including the historic city of Shushi. The first Karabakh war ended in 1994, and displaced hundreds of thousands from their homes on both sides.

Archbishop Alexander, head of the Russian Orthodox Church in Azerbaijan, reached out to CT to promote a process of reconciliation.

It will not be easy.

What is your vision for reconciliation?

We are both eastern Christian communities, and we have much in common.

At the same time, 1,500 years of separation between the Eastern Orthodox church and the Armenian Apostolic church has complicated relations. We have holy books and traditions in common, but we are not in fellowship.

Both of us have been living among Muslims since Islam was introduced in our region. But the manner of living has been very different. The Orthodox church in Azerbaijan found a way to live together with Muslims, but Armenians did not. Relations were not always…

This article was originally published at Christianity Today, on January 5, 2020. Please click here to read the full article.


Interview: Pilgrim Radio and the Armenian Crisis

Two weeks ago, I was interviewed by Pilgrim Radio about the conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh, between Azerbaijan and Armenia.

But the primary angle was Turkish repentance. Recently for Christianity Today, I wrote about a movement among Turkish Christians to apologize for the Armenian genocide.

To do so it was necessary to provide context, and also reflect on current events.

Since recording, the conflict ended with a decisive victory for Azerbaijan.

But the story is not yet over. Armenians are leaving their ancient land, as Russia and Turkey work out a new geopolitical arrangement.

Please click here to listen to the recording on Pilgrim Radio, a Christian network operating in the American northwest.

Otherwise, here is the direct link on Soundcloud:

This is the third time I have presented on their program. The first was on the growth of Christianity in the Arabian Peninsula. The second was on Coptic forgiveness of ISIS for the martyrs in Libya.

Thank you for your interest, and I hope you profit from the listening.

Asia Christianity Today Published Articles

Turks and Armenians Reconcile in Christ. Can Azeris Join Them?

By Սէրուժ Ուրիշեան (Serouj Ourishian)

Bahri Beytel never thought he would find Turkish food in Armenia.

An ethnic Turk and former Muslim, the pastor of Bethel Church in Istanbul skipped McDonalds and KFC in Yerevan, the capital city, in order to complete a spiritual mission.

Six years ago, prompted to take a journey of reconciliation, he went in search of an authentic Armenian restaurant—and found lahmajun, a flatbread topped with minced meat, vegetables, and spices.

One letter was off from the Turkish spelling. Smiling, he ordered it anyway, in English.

“Are you a Turk?” snapped the owner—in Turkish—after Beytel pronounced it incorrectly. “God spare me from becoming a Turk.”

The owner’s family hailed from Gaziantep, near Turkey’s border with Syria, which before the genocide was a mixed religious city with a thriving Armenian community. Ignoring the insult, the pastor explained he was a Christian, not a Muslim, and had come to ask for forgiveness on behalf of his ancestors.

Up to 1.5 million Armenians were killed between 1914–1923, as the Ottoman Empire crumbled. Once home to many diverse Christian communities, the modern state was built on a secular but ethnic Turkish foundation.

No Turk can be a Christian, the restaurant owner scoffed. He demanded the secret sign made centuries ago by believers in the catacombs.

Beytel drew the fish.

By the end of the conversation, the man gave him a hug, with a tear in his eye.

“If Turkey takes one step, the Armenians are ready to forgive,” said Beytel, of his time at a conference in the Armenian capital. “It was amazing to hear them call me brother.” There was more to come. One year later…

This article was originally published at Christianity Today, on October 21, 2020. Please click here to read the full text.

Current Events

The Middle East Needs America to Reconcile

Lebanese Voices:

This post was submitted by Rev. Joseph Kassab, president of the Supreme Council of the Evangelical Community in Syria and Lebanon

Current demonstrations in the United States have exposed a rift in society, very similar to the gaps found in the Middle East. In both regions, governments have failed to guide their pluralistic societies toward harmony, peace, and reconciliation.

In the United States, these rifts take on the forms of black and white, rich and poor, and between non-integrated ethnicities. Economic prosperity and the high standard of living has papered over them for a long time, but only postponed the explosion.

As for the Middle East, underdevelopment and a deteriorating economy intensifies the contradictions, making them more violent. Our weak governments do not have the capacity as modern states to regulate conflict. In addition to rich and poor, our rifts occur as Shiite and Sunni, Christian and Muslim, along with various ethnicities that feel robbed of their homelands, with less sense of belonging to their country of residence.

At the grassroots level, the situations are substantially similar. But surprisingly, the similarity is beginning to extend to the level of leadership.

Three weeks ago, President Trump visited a church and lifted the Bible in an iconic photo op. Whether it was to appease his evangelical supporters or contain ongoing demonstrations and violence, he also hinted at involving the army in the restoration of calm.

Middle Eastern leaders often act similarly in their times of crisis.

When Saddam Hussein’s regime was threatened, he added the Islamic phrase “God is Great” to the national flag. He employed the army and chemical weapons against the Kurds, when they attempted to revolt against him. Religion and violence are the magic used to contain the anger.

Since government is responsible to guard national security, I believe it has the right to use the army if vitally necessary. But conversely, the United States should have the integrity to understand and permit this right when protests erupt and threaten the stability of other nations.

But it cannot be acceptable in any pluralistic country, and especially for the United States, to use religion as a weapon to solve its problems. It is the tool of ISIS, in their pursuit of “Islamic peace.”

The world recognizes America as a superpower, looking for it to lead the world by example. Many Americans are angry, whether demonstrating in the streets, or frustrated in their homes. Lifting the Bible is not the solution—living the Bible is.

These protests have much to teach us in the Middle East, where many governments rule by majority mindset. It can be difficult for God’s vision of justice and equality to result in full benefits of citizenship for underprivileged minorities. 

But when we witness massive crowds of white citizens protesting for the rights of blacks, it inspires us to believe that the American dream is still alive. The whole world is watching, some wishing the nation to fail. Others, like us, will find hope the US transcends its differences, and reconciles.

For our sake, then, America must be as great a democracy in times of trouble, as it is in times of peace. The Middle East also needs to breathe.

Christianity Today Middle East Published Articles

In Shadow of Death, Palestinian Christians and Messianic Jews Relapse on Reconciling


Embassy Gaza
AP, via Japan Times

This article was first published at Christianity Today, on May 21.

Hanna Maher’s wife is nine months pregnant, due any day now, with only four hours of daily electricity. Her two older boys scurry about in the dark, kept ignorant by parents about the dead at the border.

But it is hard to be ignorant in Gaza.

A Norwegian charity estimates 56 percent of children in the Palestinian territory suffer from traumatic nightmares. Suicide, rarely seen culturally, is a growing concern. Maher, an Egyptian-born Baptist pastor, says some at the border see death as the best option.

Two million people are squeezed into a coastal strip roughly the size of Philadelphia. Exit is severely restricted on one side by Israel. The waiting list into Egypt is 40,000 names long.

Unemployment is over 40 percent. Clean drinking water is hard to come by. And on May 14, as tens of thousands massed near a chain link fence demonstrating for their “Right to Return,” Israeli snipers picked off dozens.

“Monday was a hard day. But at least it is quiet now,” Maher said. “It has been bad for years. But conditions now are the worst I have seen.”

Maher went to Gaza in 2011, and married his local Palestinian wife a year later. His congregation is the strip’s only evangelical church, with about 60 regular members. Overall, Gaza’s Christian population is about 1,000, mostly Greek Orthodox; in the last 10 years, it has declined by a third.

Maher provides food aid to about 120 families. His marriage preparation classes are a crash course in how to nurture a family amid poverty.

And he says local Christians are critical of just about everyone…

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


The Shape of ‘Terrorism’ Outside Cairo

Following on the heels of Morsi’s trial, it is difficult to see how the Muslim Brotherhood is called a terrorist organization from within the urban settings of Cairo. But this article from the Daily Beast describes the embattled position of police elsewhere:

“We never imagined that the violence could reach this point,” said Qadry Said Refay as he lay in the police hospital. The 37-year-old cop based in Fayoum, about 60 miles south of Cairo, had multiple head wounds, a broken right arm, and a deep, guttural cough.

On the morning of August 14, the same day the Brotherhood demonstrators were cleared away by Al-Sisi’s forces in Cairo, Refay reported for duty as usual in the ancient farming town near Egypt’s biggest oasis. The police station got a call: Brotherhood sympathizers were massing for an attack. Refay thinks there were thousands of them. Probably the numbers were smaller than that. But the four officers and 20 cops soon found themselves under attack by men with guns and Molotov cocktails closing in on all four sides of their little compound. After several hours the mob started coming over the walls and breached one of the gates.

I was sure I would lose my life,” said Refay.  In the middle of the fray he took off his uniform shirt, untucked his t-shirt, and put his gun in the back of his belt. He tried for a few seconds to reason with the attackers, but they swarmed over him. They took his pistol. They slashed his face with knives. “The last thing I can remember,” he said, “is one of them reaching to the ground, picking up a stone, and smashing it on my head.”

To what degree is the Brotherhood responsible for such violence? There is a culture of revenge in Upper Egypt that is far more intrinsically grassroots than any social support for political Islam.

At the same time, when security forces recaptured some of the villages seized by local Islamists, Brotherhood statements portrayed them as peaceful villagers under police attack. Surely it was bloody on all sides, and revenge from both cannot be discounted. But the Brotherhood publicly stood with those who raided police stations and committed the atrocities described above.

The burned-out police station, its walls pocked with bullet holes, was covered with graffiti—“This is the price for injustice. God will have victory,” and “Sisi, you are next.”

But one Brotherhood leader paints the picture as one of simple revenge, and his organization as a restraining force:

“Families in Upper Egypt are not accepting condolences,” said El Magd. “So they will take vengeance. So I think killing will start in Upper Egypt. And I don’t think the [Brotherhood] movement can control this. In Upper Egypt, if families don’t accept condolences for their dead, then they set their minds to vengeance.”

El Magd had the practice of tha’r in mind. “This cannot be controlled. Nobody can control Upper Egypt vengeance. And now everybody has guns. They have guns in Kirdasah.  I am not saying that it will be civil war. But at least Upper Egypt will go back to the ‘70s or ‘80s, where people were shooting at police officers just because they were police officers.”

Upper Egypt is hard to understand. What is the difference between a blood feud and terrorism? Does the distinction even matter?

Truth, justice, and reconciliation are urgently needed in Egypt. Will Morsi’s trial be the beginning of this process, or just one more obfuscation to keep it from happening?

Arab West Report Middle East Published Articles

Non-Traditional Justice in Upper Egypt

Throughout Egypt the justice system is known to be very slow. Though it has a long and respectable history, as the population exploded and litigation increased, many turn to non-traditional methods to avoid spending a year or more in court.

Sometimes, a non-traditional method can be thuggery. A landlord, for example, might expel by force a legal tenant and deal with the consequences later – whenever the court gets around to hearing the case.

Sometimes, a non-traditional method can be arbitration. Egypt, mindful of the slowness of its judiciary, has established a limited number of licensed arbiters, especially for commercial and business disputes.

Yet for many, especially in Upper Egypt, the non-traditional method of choice is the reconciliation session. Completely outside the law, two aggrieved parties turn to a respected man of the community, and set their dispute before him.

Reconciliation sessions have a deserved bad reputation, especially as pertains to sectarian conflicts. Rather than ruling by law, the police enforce calm in an enflamed village, and then Muslim sheikhs and Christian priests sit together to ‘reconcile’ their people. Perhaps a local dispute – where a Christian may very well be at fault – escalates and a Muslim mob distributes group punishment by burning shops and homes.

If the judiciary in Egypt is slow, the law is weak. The efficient solution is to engage the sheikhs and priests to determine monetary compensation for the Christians and then make a public display of reconciliation. Valuable as this may be, too often it covers over smoldering resentment and rarely punishes wrongdoers.

Yet far more frequent in occurrence are the ordinary instances of two parties settling their grievance amicably. This does not always mean a happy ending, nor is it free of questionable rulings. But where a flawed legal system is the norm, it works.

I encountered two examples recently which help give perspective. These examples hear from only one side, and both involve Christians exclusively. At the very least, they indicate how Christians are not simply the victims of reconciliation sessions, as often portrayed in the media. On the contrary, they are willing participants mirroring exactly their Muslim neighbors.

In the first example, a Christian family consisting of three adult brothers suffered tragedy when the third brother died young. That he also died unmarried added conflict to the tragedy.

What to do with his share of the family inheritance? To whom should he leave it? If the simple answer is to divide it equally, the equation is complicated by the fact he lived with one of the brothers as a semi-dependent.

Yet the other brother stated he paid ‘rent’ to the first brother to help offset costs. In the end, they took their problem to the church. The two priests of the village convened, heard the stories, and pronounced a simple 50-50 division between the surviving brothers. All were satisfied, and life carried on.

In the second example the dispute involved the church – that is, the priests themselves. The family of the priest in question inherited a large tract of land, complete with ownership papers establishing their right. Further distant relatives, however, received no share but believed they were entitled. Yet as the church was complicated in the conflict, the petitioning family decided to go to a Muslim village sheikh.

This particular Muslim sheikh is very well respected as a non-traditional ‘reconciler’ in the village, by both Muslims and Christians. He is said to deal according to the right, and not by religion or benefit. Yet he also draws a fee for his services; it is not simply a service provided. His authority comes only from village reputation. He has no license from the government.

This fee can reach up to several hundred dollars, and is traditionally paid by the disputant who first appeals to arbitration, win or lose. Trusting the judgment of the sheikh, who has been known by both parties since childhood, the landowning family agreed.

In the end, the sheikh ruled for the landowners – their names were on the legal documentation; it was a simple case. But in doing so the sheikh put himself in a quandary. The landless family was poor; they had no means to pay his fee unless they won the judgment.

In saying so, care here must be taken since the sheikh’s perspective is not known. Yet it is said of him he was on watch for any impropriety on the part of the landowners, so as to extract from them a fee for ‘contempt’.

Apparently, the landowner believed the sheikh was listening too favorably to the complainant’s cause, and not letting him speak. At one point he interrupted angrily, ‘Shut up, sheikh!’

With this highly culturally insensitive remark, the sheikh fined the landowner the several hundred dollars which should have been his fee from the original litigant. Whether or not this swayed his understanding of the case, he then ruled according to what appears to be justice.

Of course, the winning Christian family finds this an example of injustice, but once the non-traditional reconciliation session is begun, its judgments are final.

It is reported the sheikh has spoken privately to other members of the family, saying he will return the fee if the insulting party simply apologizes, or even has his landowning relative do so for him. Both refuse.

These examples are not complete pictures of non-traditional justice in Upper Egypt. They do not include the issues of vendetta, honor killings, or the messy intersection of these with sectarian conflict.

What they provide instead is a picture of the normalcy and unremarkable nature of Christian participation in reconciliation sessions. It is not simply the headline-making instances of miscarriage of justice that characterize the practice.

Swift justice and rule of law would be better. In their absence, however, non-traditional methods work reasonably well.

Related Posts:

Photo Credit: al-Masry al-Youm

Arab West Report Middle East Published Articles

Izbet Bushra

Following upon the text from yesterday which introduced our summary report, I post here the abstract for the paper which described our findings from the case study which informed it. Should you wish to read the full paper, it will provide a window into the vagaries and contradictions of Egyptian media reporting on incidents of violent conflict. The paper is an effort to sort through these reports to determine what really took place, but to go further and suggest paths for reconciliation. This was more or less the first case I received in Egypt with Arab West Report; until recently almost all subsequent activity was related to it.

On June 21, 2009 violent conflict broke out between Muslims, Christians, and security forces of Izbet Bushra, a small village located in the governorate of Beni Suef, approximately 120 kilometers south of Cairo. The issue at hand was Coptic prayer services being conducted in a private home, which caused offense to Muslim neighbors, who constitute approximately 60% of village population. Damage was done to the building as well as to other Christian homes, and people from both sides were injured in the altercation. Security arrested many and imposed curfew, after which Christians conducted a sit-in protest at the cathedral in el-Fashn, the location of the bishopric to which Izbet Bushra belongs. This was followed shortly thereafter by reconciliation session between all sides, which freed all perpetrators from custody and produced an oral agreement to compensate afflicted parties and authorize an official church in a different location in the village. Until today that promise has not been kept; security relates that sufficient tension has not yet been removed from the village.

These lines may represent a summarized timeline of the events following June 21, but they hardly represent the entire story. This paper explores the issue of Izbet Bushra in depth, seeking to discover the larger context behind the incident as provide integration of as many facts and testimonies as could be collected. This has been done through access to the many media reports published about village, as well as through investigative research undertaken by the Arab West Report team or by others commissioned on our behalf. The result is a thorough collection of data that rounds out the story, providing depth and color.

Unfortunately, a wealth of data also produces confusion. Testimony from the two sides is contradictory, as are the news reports which depended on these oppositional sources. Yet background can be provided in stating that the house used for public prayer services was not an innocent effort to conduct Christian worship. While it is true that no formal church building exists in Izbet Bushra, and that the procedures for obtaining permission to construct a church are burdensome and lack transparency, the Christians of the village purposely deceived both government administration and Muslim neighbors in declaring the building in question to be built as a factory. Upon its completion it was then first made into a residence for the priest and then employed in its lower hall for church services. While this fact makes more understandable the Muslim reactions, details even here and in the attack which followed remain unclear.

This paper first arranges all testimony, no matter how contradictory, into a narrative flow in order to give a timeline of events. It then records a best attempt at synthesis in order to distinguish from fact and speculation, offering a faithful and unbiased effort to understand exactly what took place. This recording is not done for its own sake, however, as our interest in Izbet Bushra lies ultimately in social reconciliation between the two parties. In this hope the paper concludes with suggestions for each religious community in order to seek for a solution to restore village harmony. These proposals are offered humbly, and we await the right opportunity in which we might engage village leaders to encourage them toward dialogue and reconciliation.

Click here to read the full paper.

Arab West Report Middle East Published Articles Reconciliation

Social Reconciliation

The end of February was a very hectic time for us. The peacemaking project I have written about here from time to time was coming to and end and all reports were to be submitted by the 28th. (If only it was a Leap Year!) While many reports were done, several still required editing, and everything had to be put online. In the end we made it, and you can see the results at, if you click on the ZIVIC-Conflict Resolution tag on the left hand column.

In the meanwhile, I thought it would be interesting to share the lessons we learned with everyone. Not only will this give a good picture about what we have done in Egypt since arrival, it will also give a thorough introduction into conflict in Egypt, of which a fair proportion is religiously based. In this spirit we will try over the next few weeks to provide the most interesting reports, and where applicable, give you the link to the full paper which was written. For faithful followers of Julie’s posts, don’t worry, we will intersperse these as well.

Today will begin this effort, and the text which follows is the abstract of the comprehensive paper summarizing our experiences over the last six months. The full paper length is about forty pages, so take care to download it when you have a moment to spare, or else save it for future reading, say, your summer vacation at the beach. For those interested, it will be a one way mind meld between me and you, as I tried to include almost everything I have learned since arrival in Egypt. I hope you enjoy; your comments are welcome.

In all nations of the world, conflict is normal, and Egypt is no exception. Violent conflict in Egypt, however, is not. Though the Egyptian population has always been a peaceful people, many are noticing the increasing violence exhibited throughout society, much of which is along religious lines. There is a growing religiosity that imbues both Muslims and Christians with a powerful sense of identity to their community of faith. While only in the rarest of cases does this push either group towards violence, it does contribute to an unfortunate culture of sectarian analysis, which interprets these events along religious lines. This tends often to deepen the sense of religious division, cultivating further cyclical patterns of aggression, sometime passive, against the other, be it physical in outright attack, or psychological, in accusations of disloyalty or persecution. Reporting styles of the media, with all its variety, generally tends to fuel this established pattern by either labeling an incident a sectarian event or else denying the religious dimension completely. Balanced and objective journalism disappears in the process.

This paper recognizes that these are the witnessed features of conflict in Egypt, but many other factors lie beneath the surface. Underreported are the population pressures and economic difficulties which push normal disputes over resource allocation past the threshold of traditional resolution mechanisms into the pursuit of violence. One of these traditional mechanisms is the ‘reconciliation session’, which in principle restores community harmony but in practice often complicates the situation. Whether in land registration, church building policy, or an overwhelmed judiciary the law of government is applied weakly in many parts of Egypt. This tends to an overreliance upon ‘reconciliation sessions’, which are often conducted with a lack of transparency mirroring other aspects of the state. Security practices, though naturally present following an outbreak of violence, are but another example. Any mistakes made or weaknesses perceived are denied, and these therefore un-admitted factors combine with underreported demographic changes to produce the painfully visible instances of violence which torment the Egyptian consciousness.

This paper explores these issues in more depth, but also seeks a way out. Using Johan Galtung’s methodology of conflict resolution following medical practice of diagnosis, prognosis, and therapy, this peacemaking project suggests better practices. The diagnosis is explained above. Prognosis involves proscribing corrective changes to the major sections of Egyptian society: Government, Church, Local Leadership, the Media, and Non-Governmental Organizations. Therapy then posits a procedure to lead into social reconciliation following conflict. First, root causes and contextual studies must be determined and addressed. Second, community leaders from all sectors must be identified and supplied with information. Third, these are then encouraged into dialogue through a mediator who both knows the area and is accepted therein. Fourth, pending these discussions to be focused on just negotiation and relational unity, supportive projects can be considered to assist in community reintegration. It is hoped that this will be a predominantly Egyptian initiative, for local problems demand local solutions. Yet the eyes of outsiders, Cairene or otherwise, may be helpful.

This paper is submitted for review by all, but a selected number of advisors have written their critique and added their observations. These are also presented for further evaluation, and the reader is welcomed to offer both constructive criticism and proposals. For such an endeavor a network is necessary; to the degree you are willing we invite you to join.

Click here for the full paper.


From the Heart the Mouth Speaks

To properly describe the peacemaking work we are trying to undertake here in Egypt would require much background information and many blog posts. It is our hope that over time we can give a proper picture of the many nuances and subtleties which inform our work, but we apologize that this will come piecemeal, and that in our effort to inform we may only further confuse. If this is so, please understand that we ourselves have a lot to learn, and we expect it may be many years until we develop the cultural eyes to appreciate situations as an Egyptian would. Until then, we will stumble along together.

Conflict does not take place in a vacuum. There are many social realities which contribute to a single incident that then is exasperated into a sectarian conflict. Among these is the general poverty of the Egyptian countryside. It has been recommended to us that in seeking to address what may properly be understood as improper mindsets and behaviors, it does little good to simply go to the area and hold a workshop on understanding the other. If such a message is to be delivered with any hope of success, it would be well to wrap it into a project that delivers some social benefit to the area, preferably one which addresses the realities which led to the conflict in the first place.

The benefit of a project in an area in which tension has developed between Muslims and Christians is that it can bring together these communities which, now at odds, have separated themselves. It is a general rule, or at least belief, that people will set aside differences when it comes to the mutual benefit of making money, or educating their children, or securing good health services, etc. Moreover, as people interact they discover their commonalities, realizing the demonized other is not so bad after all, and not so different from myself. Within a project, the message takes hold.

Undertaking the project, however, is difficult, for how are we to know what projects are beneficial to a community so distant from our own. Even our Egyptian partners and advisors do not understand their needs, for they are educated city people, far removed from the issues of the countryside. Given this, it has also been recommended to us that we actively seek to involve the non-governmental organizations, agencies, charities, and associations which are currently working in the area. They know the situation, and even if they are not currently involved in the village at hand, they are familiar with its context. To date, we have found one such organization which has a very good reputation in the area among both Muslims and Christians, having served many communities with both skill and tact.

There is only one problem, and though it is inconsequential for them, it may be a issue for us. This organization is Christian in its formation. It has been recommended to us that because of the sensitivities of foreigners working in religiously-related matters that we are seen as absolutely neutral in our orientation. It matters little our intentions, or even our behaviors; what counts is our appearance. This organization has a mixed Muslim-Christian board of trustees, and employs only Muslims as its field workers. The office staff, however, is entirely Christian, and they would admit themselves that though they deliver their services irrespective of religion, their motivation and orientation is Christian, and the organization is designed to stay that way. Though they are not connected to the church, they would be seen as Christian. Our advisors have not recommended we distance ourselves, though, for they are clearly capable and enjoy wide local support among all. They recommend simply that we work in addition with an organization that is Islamic in its orientation. This will provide the balance that is necessary for our own proper appearance as neutral. Otherwise, our ability to work in these areas may be compromised.

We have been negotiating a project with this organization, even taking a trip to the area to speak with them directly. The other day they were in Cairo and visited us to continue the conversation, and after many positive signals we explained to them the above, asking their recommendation for a similarly oriented Muslim group with which we could also partner. Now, it is granted that such a question could be seen as a threat, not religiously, but professionally. Projects require funding, and surely based on our negotiations so far they could be expecting our contributions, however limited. With the addition of another partner, their share, their influence, and their involvement would naturally decrease. Though not expecting their resistance to our question—they know the other area organizations, work in conjunction if not together, and recognize the value of partnership across religious lines—for the above reason the resistance could be explained. What was evidenced, however, went far deeper.

Up until this time, their representatives were jovial, full of mirth, life, and spiritual commitment. Nearly instantaneously, facial expressions changed, cheeks flushed, arms folded, and when extended ended in a finger pointing in exclamation, “I swear by the Messiah that there is not one Islamic organization that also takes care of the Christians!” They were accused of hypocrisy, speaking kindly to your face only to adopt their own priorities upon receipt of the donation. It was unfortunate in addition that both we and they had a subsequent appointment approaching which forced the rapid communication of ideas. Had we more time such sentiments could have been expressed with more nuance and explanation. While our partnership was not threatened—we ended with agreement to continue our planning—we were warned about seeking out a Muslim group.

It should be reiterated, this is a group that works closely with Muslims; it employs them and trusts them as influential advisors. They serve Muslims without any question of religious affiliation. Yet our question touched a nerve that, though our (Caspers’) experience is limited, seems to be indicative of many Christians here. They can and generally do have beneficial relationships with the Muslim majority. When it concerns the question of Islam, or Muslims as Muslims, however, the hardened heart becomes evident. There is a mistrust and a frustration that prevents genuine charity, both in its contemporary understanding and its original usage as ‘love’. While this organization is serving all, including Muslims, in a commendable manner, it appears that it is for the objective of creating a viable civil society that is inclusive of all, Muslims and Christians as fellow citizens. This is a noble objective, though it is true that some Muslims oppose it, believing Christians to properly be protected, second-class citizens in the Islamic order. This organization serves Muslims in the hope, at least in part, that they will demonstrate their own good will and valuation of communal life. They hope to win for themselves a secure place in society. As admirable as these goals are, and the means by which they hope to achieve them, are they motivated by love, by true Christian charity? Sad as it may seem, are they destined only to be a resounding gong?

Perspective is necessary. Though in Cairo there are many Muslims who share the ideals of civil society and citizenship rights for both Muslims and Christians, perhaps these are far fewer in the countryside. They may be correct; there may not be any Islamic organizations which also serve Christians. They may have tried to partner with some and been burned in the process. They themselves are affected by the perceived rising of religious tensions, and the rhetoric of some Muslims is downright offensive to Christian sensibilities. They must be commended for rising above their predispositions to serve as ably as they do. Surely we from the West cannot comprehend the difficulty of their position.

Perhaps also I am way off base; after all, I am judging from one response from only our second conversation. It is at times like this the foreigner must remember he does not belong, and therefore does not understand.

But I cannot budge from the ideal that God calls us to more than an overcoming of our predispositions against the other. He calls us to do good, as they are doing, but he also gives us a new heart. Lacking this new heart in its full expression, a condition from which we all suffer, our friends invoked the name of Christ in vain. Yet my words expressed here are no better, for they come not from a new heart, but from a new set of ideals. Though these ideals may come from Christ, they will be proved true only when issued from a heart of love that has experienced also the suffering they perceive. May God spare us all from any suffering, but may he preserve, renew, and employ us whenever it occurs.