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Americas Christianity Today Published Articles

The Road from Damascus: How an Evangelical Syrian Spoke at Harvard’s Commencement

Tony Alkhoury
Image: Courtesy of Tony Alkhoury

This article was first published at Christianity Today on November 7.

Following Turkey’s recent incursion into Syria and establishment of a “safe zone” in coordination with Russia, the beleaguered nation faces another refugee crisis. According to the United Nations, 6.7 million Syrians have registered with their High Commission for Refugees. Turkey hosts the largest share, with 3.4 million, followed by Lebanon with 1 million.

The United States: 21,645, according to official State Department figures, from the start of the Syrian civil war in 2011. Of those, 536 were admitted in the last 12 months.

Of the total, 21,245 are Muslim, compared to only 211 Christians, including five Protestants. Tony Alkhoury is not one of them. But his is a story of potential for those allowed in.

Born in Homs and an evangelical Christian, he is 1 of 450 Syrians in the US on an active student visa.

In Arabic, Alkhoury’s family name means “the priest.” Currently pursuing a PhD in practical theology at Fuller Seminary, in 2016 he began a unique cross-cultural ministry adventure—at Harvard University.

Through it drove the divinity student to the depths of depression, it ended with rapturous applause.

“I want to live, I want to love, and I want to be loved,” he told the student body, which selected him to deliver the commencement address this past May. “I want to fight to keep hope and make meaning of all the things that I do not have control over.”

In the prime of his life, Alkhoury witnessed the destruction of Syria. America might have been a refuge for many, until President Donald Trump’s travel ban.

Syrian visas reached a high point of 15,479 in 2016, the year of Alkhoury’s arrival. In January 2017, Trump issued his executive order banning citizens of initially seven Muslim-majority nations—challenged consistently in the courts and modified to include non-Muslim countries—and the number dipped to 3,024. In 2018, it fell to 41.

The meaning of it all, for which Alkhoury has long been seeking, has been years in the making.

Born in 1984 to Orthodox parents, he attended the local Alliance church in Homs. In 2005, he felt a call to full-time ministry.

Alkhoury became a youth pastor, volunteering also in peacemaking initiatives. Initially excited by the Arab Spring…

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

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Americas Christianity Today Published Articles

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…

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Asia Christianity Today Published Articles

How Should Christians Respond to Christchurch Mosque Massacre?

Christchurch Mosque
Jorge Silva, REUTERS | A police officer is pictured outside Masjid Al Noor mosque in Christchurch, New Zealand, March 17, 2019

This article was first published at Christianity Today on March 18, 2019.

Last Friday, Muslim worshipers at two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand, suffered a terrorist attack at the hands of an avowed white supremacist. 50 people were killed, with another 50 injured.

Prior to the attack, the citizen of Australia posted a lengthy manifesto to social media, filled with anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim themes. He then proceeded to livestream the shooting. Some victims originally hailed from Pakistan, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Bangladesh, Indonesia, and Malaysia.

Given recent attacks on Christians in their places of worship, including many in Muslim nations, CT invited evangelical leaders to weigh in: How should Christians respond to Christchurch?

Richard Shumack, director of the Arthur Jeffery Centre for the Study of Islam at Melbourne School of Theology, Australia:

The thing that came to mind immediately is Jesus’ beatitudes. How should Christians react to Christchurch? With mourning, a hunger for justice, and peacemaking. Christians must mourn with their Muslim brothers and sisters, thirst for the perpetrators of this heinous crime to be brought to justice, and put every possible effort into brokering peace in an age of furious tribalism.

I also embrace wholeheartedly the poignant wisdom of Dostoevsky quoted by the Anglican bishop of Wellington, New Zealand: At some ideas you stand perplexed, especially at the sight of human sins, uncertain whether to combat it by force or by humble love. Always decide, “I will combat it with humble love.” If you make up your mind about that once and for all, you can conquer the whole world. Loving humility is a terrible force; it is the strongest of all things and there is nothing like it.

Mark Durie, Anglican pastor from Melbourne, Australia, and author of books on Islam:

Alexander Solzhenitsyn observed…

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Personal

An Iraqi Refugee Leads Us Home

Iraqi Refugees
(via Time, Muhammed Muheisen—AP. Image is of Yazidis.)

Abu Rafi surveyed what once was a familiar scene.

Displaced from Qaraqosh, Iraq by the marauding ISIS forces, his family of ten fled to Kurdistan where he secured a two bedroom apartment.

Now with ISIS in retreat, he traveled back to see the wreckage.

Their home was robbed and burned. They used to host many friends; now the sofa and dining table are gone. They had a garden; it is ruined. Grandkids picked oranges, and ran barefoot on the green grass.

Now they are just memories, though the process of repair and repainting has begun.

From Kurdistan he lamented with Lilian Samaan, the American Bible Society’s strategic ministries advisor for the Middle East and North Africa.

“It’s okay,” he told her. “I have my daughters and son around me, alive and well. That is what matters most.”

Samaan asks us to empathize, but also more. We must recognize first that Arab refugees in America almost universally share this desire to go home.

“Their old home, their garden, their church, their priest, their community,” she said, “all that once was is now lost, all gone.”

We might want to help, she says, but it is not that simple. These were a proud people, violated thoroughly. Their honor has been damaged, and their need of assistance is a further source of shame.

“A gentle approach and a posture of learning, listening and asking the right questions,” she counsels, “will allow access to support in a dignified way.”

It is kind and wise advice, but also personal. Samaan is originally from Jordan – not a refugee but an immigrant who sees herself in many she now comes along side of.

What made the difference for her was respect.

“I was welcomed into homes, cherished like a daughter, and trusted like a friend,” she said. “At work and at church on the North Side of Chicago, my contributions and gifts were acknowledged and appreciated, as an immigrant.”

And if American Christians can go a step further, they might reverse their roles. Samaan urges the church to become disciples of those washing up on their shore.

“I believe the American church is in a privileged position to have such people of history and faith in its midst,” she said. It’s a golden opportunity to come alongside refugees from these areas, hear their story, acknowledge their pain, affirm their honor and resilience, and minister to them with presence and friendship.”

And in the process, learn.

“Can we become disciples of the minority church, the persecuted church?” she asked. “Can we allow ourselves to be vulnerable, to commune with a church that has suffered but survived persecution over many centuries, demonstrating patient resilience?

“It could be that this is a moment for us in the West to step aside, lay down our ideologies and agendas, and allow the Church in the East to propose its own solutions, and with our support, lead us.”

Abu Rafi will soon lead his family home. Can we, in spirit, join him?

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Americas Published Articles Religion Unplugged

Small Town Offers ‘Sign’ of Welcome to Refugees in the United States

Mennonite Welcome Sign
(via http://www.welcomeyourneighbors.org)

This article was originally published at The Media Project.

Biking one day in the city of Harrisonburg, Virginia, nestled in a valley in the Shenandoah Mountains of the eastern U.S., 33-year-old Pastor Matthew Bucher tumbled and fell.

Bloody and sore, he found himself in front of the local mosque. He looked up and read a sign.

“No matter where you are from, we’re glad you’re our neighbor,” it read in English, Spanish, and Arabic.

Bucher understood because he had written that sign – in all three languages.

“Suddenly, I knew the hope the sign offers,” he said. “I was the one in need of help, switching roles.”

The sign was born 15 months earlier, during the August, 2015, Republican presidential debate. Anti-immigrant hectoring was a prominent feature, and Bucher led his small congregation at Immanuel Mennonite Church to do something about it. 

Rather than filling neighborhood yards with political signs backing one candidate or another, Bucher’s church created a sign of their own.

“I was shocked at the rhetoric used against immigrants,” he said. “So I thought to put out a sign of welcome. Spanish speakers in the church helped, as did Arabic friends.”

That first sign in front of his church two years ago has since multiplied into an estimated 100,000-plus throughout the country, said Bucher.

The sign is recent, but its heritage extends back almost four centuries. 

Mennonite Christians know what it means to be strangers. Driven from Switzerland in the 17th century, the persecuted Anabaptist community, from which the Mennonites descend, found refuge in Pennsylvania. One hundred years later many of those families relocated to the Shenandoah Valley.

Bucher, a Pennsylvania native, became the pastor of Immanuel Mennonite one year before the presidential debate. But from 2007-2011, he lived as a stranger himself, the only American in the small, Upper Egyptian city of Qusia, 170 miles south of Cairo. Teaching English in partnership with a Coptic Orthodox bishop, his sojourn was a transformative experience.

“I received hospitality in Egypt, and here in Virginia I have been accepted and trusted as a pastor,” he said. “I want to extend that (hospitality), just as Jesus did. He and his parents were cared for as refugees, too.”

Harrisonburg is a fitting place for hospitality. Census data states the population of 50,000 residents is 16.7 percent foreign-born. Students in the public schools come from 46 countries, including Iraq, Jordan, Honduras, Mexico, and Ukraine.

Yet there have been only four police officers killed in the line of duty in the town since 1959. Nicknamed “The Friendly City” since the 1930s, Harrisonburg is also an official Church World Service refugee resettlement community.

“Listening to the current American national dialogue. . . one would assume that mixing nationalities, religions and ethnic groups in such close quarters would produce enough emotional tinder to fuel a blaze of angry divisions and open fighting in the streets,” wrote resident Andrew Perrine in the Washington Post. “Yet it does not.”

Instead, Bucher’s signs have found a home. The green, blue, and orange background was chosen so as not to correspond with any national flag, and 300 signs were initially distributed through six area Mennonite churches in March 2016. Another 300 were sold later at a local fair, next to the church’s tamale stand. By October, one month before presidential elections, another 1,000 were printed.

They sold out within a week.

That month the church created a Facebook page. Overwhelmed by interest, in December they created a website. Signs sell for $21.95, including shipping, but a free download is provided to print locally.

Money from proceeds is donated to the Mennonite Central Committee, the local New Bridges Immigrant Resource Center, and the Roberta Webb Child Care Center hosted at Immanuel.

Anyone selling in their own communities (usually for $10 with local pickup) is encouraged to donate to the charity of their choice. Unless they just give them away, as did a 68-year-old Buddhist, Kathy Ching.

Ching arrived from China in 1974 and ran a restaurant in Lansdale, Pennsylvania, for 40 years. During that time she helped 15 employees immigrate to the U.S., but now says of President Donald Trump, “He’s not letting people in.”

“Why do they want to come to America?” asked Ching. “Because their own countries are in trouble, and they want freedom.”

She learned of the sign through a neighbor, and purchased four at St. John’s United Church of Christ.

Pat Rieker made them available. A longtime member of St. John’s, Rieker was so pained at the anti-immigrant sentiment in America she felt her health was suffering. Feeling she had to do something, she mobilized her church after seeing the signs at nearby Plains Mennonite.

“It made me feel I was spreading some kind of message of hope and inclusion amid an atmosphere of hate,” she said. “To me, this is not the message of Christianity.”

Plains Mennonite in Hatfield, Pennsylvania, was one of the first in the area to display and distribute the signs. Associate Pastor Paula Stoltzfus had family and friends in Harrisonburg and followed the campaign on social media. She informed the church, and with a history of welcoming refugees from Sudan, Iraq, and the Congo, it mobilized easily.

“It was an idea whose time had come, reminding us to be a good neighbor,” said Pastor Mike Derstine. “This should not be a political issue but an expression of our faith.”

Similar grassroots stories have now resulted in 70 volunteer distribution centers in 32 U.S. states. Two churches in Idaho have circulated over 500 signs. In Portland, Oregon, the sign appeared at a memorial for two men who were killed in May while intervening to stop a white extremist harassing a young Muslim woman.

In addition to the signs at the local mosque in Harrisonburg, Bucher has sold to the synagogue and several atheists. Though the initial distribution moved through Mennonite churches, he estimates they only total 30-40 percent of total reach.

“I never asked my friends what religion they are. It doesn’t matter,” said Ching. “We are of different religions, but we all have a good heart.”

Yet it is Bucher’s Anabaptist heritage and Christian commitment that drive his particular service. His church’s motto is: Real people following Jesus’ radical call to love and service.

One local Baptist church pastor asked to meet him, suspicious of a liberal agenda. In the tense discussion that followed a spilled glass of tea helped them break the ice. But the conversation only turned once the pastor became convinced this Mennonite really did love Jesus.

“We must speak of power and privilege, sure. But many on the other side cannot accept Trump or his followers, either,” Bucher said. “Stand against violence and bad leadership, yes. March and demonstrate, yes.

“But be transformed by the love of God. Change is hard, but it is what we are called to do together.”

Bucher tells a story from Lancaster, Pennsylvania, a traditionally rural Mennonite community now with a majority non-Mennonite city center. The municipality has resettled 20 times more refugees than the rest of the United States.

A lady put one of Bucher’s signs out on her lawn. She came home one day and found a Syrian on her front steps. Speaking no English, the hijabed woman took her neighbor by the hand and led her across the street into her own home.

Opening up the computer, she typed in Google Translate.

“Thank you so much,” read the neighbor. “Your sign made us feel welcome. We are glad this is what America is about.”

 

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Americas Christianity Today Published Articles

What Arab Church Leaders Think of Trump Prioritizing Persecuted Christian Refugees

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Prayers

Friday Prayers for Egypt: Drowning

Flag Cross Quran

God,

Over 150 people are dead in a disaster off Egypt’s Mediterranean coast. An equal number of would-be migrants were rescued, but the majority remain unaccounted for.

Most on board the overloaded fishing boat were Egyptian, with a sizable segment of other nationalities. Turkey and Libya hold international focus as a launching pad of refugees to Europe, but Egypt has tended to stay out of the headlines.

The armed forces have intercepted many efforts, and tragedy has not been a media marker. Until now.

God, have mercy on the souls of those who perished. Put right the world of those who remain alive.

Put right the world.

Egypt is refining its legislative deterrent, upping the punishment for human trafficking. But the president also calls for greater investment in areas with people more likely to flee.

Help Egypt to right its own ship economically, even as she integrates refugees from elsewhere. Give wisdom to Europe in who she takes in. Give prosperity to her neighbors, that none need apply.

And give contentment to those dreaming of a better life elsewhere. May they know your peace, which can settle any soul. May they know your power, which seeks the good of all.

But for now, may those in transit know your comfort. May those who find them extend your grace.

Put right the world, God. Too many are drowning. Put right Egypt, may she rescue many.

Amen.