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Egypt’s President Promotes Religious Choice During Human Rights Rollout

Image: Mohamed el-Shahed / AFP / Getty Images
A neon sign portraying now President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi (center) between Coptic Pope Tawadros II (left) and Grand Imam of al-Azhar Shiekh Ahmed el-Tayeb (right) during a rally in Cairo in May 2014.

Committing Egypt to a five-year program of human rights reform, President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi did not mince words about religion.

“If someone tells me they are neither Muslim nor Christian nor a Jew, or that he or she does not believe in religion, I will tell them, ‘You are free to choose,’” he said. “But will a society that has been conditioned to think in a certain way for the last 90 years accept this?”

The comment sent shockwaves through Egyptian society.

“Listening to him, I thought he was so brave,” said Samira Luka, senior director for dialogue at the Coptic Evangelical Organization for Social Services. “Sisi is fighting not only a culture, but a dogma.”

Last month, the government released its first-ever National Human Rights Strategy after studying the path of improvement in 30 other nations, including New Zealand, South Korea, and Finland. The head of the UN Human Rights Council praised the 70-page document as a “key tool” with “concrete steps.”

Egypt’s constitution guarantees freedom of belief and worship and gives international treaties such as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights the force of law. But Article 98 of the Middle Eastern nation’s penal code stipulates up to five years in prison for blasphemy and has been used against atheists and Christians alike.

Will Sisi’s words signal a change?

Since his election in 2014, Egypt’s head of state has consistently spoken about the need to “renew religious discourse,” issuing a challenge to Muslim clerics. And prior to the launch of the new strategy, his comments even hinted at a broader application than atheism.

“We are all born Muslims and non-Muslims by ID card and inheritance,” Sisi stated. “Have you ever thought of … searching for the path until you reach the truth?”

Egypt’s ID card indicates the religion of each citizen. It can be changed to state Muslim in the case of conversion, but cannot be changed to Christian. Prominent public figures have called to remove the label, and debate ensued at the new strategy’s launch. Some argue the ID’s religion field is used by prejudiced civil servants and private businesses to discriminate against the minority religion.

Sisi’s timeframe of “90 years” roughly corresponds to the 1928 founding of the Muslim Brotherhood. And Luka’s “dogma” indicates a widespread social acceptance of interpretations of Islam that privilege the religion’s place in law and culture.

According to a 2013 survey by the Pew Research Center, 88 percent of Egyptian Muslims believe converting away from Islam should be punishable by death.

Calling for the application of sharia law, the Brotherhood won Egypt’s presidency in 2012, only to be overthrown by then-defense minister Sisi the following year after massive popular demonstrations.

Since then, Egypt declared the group to be a terrorist organization, and has moved to eradicate their influence from public life. Thousands—including unaffiliated liberal activists—are in prison or self-imposed exile. Bahey Eldin Hassan, director of the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies (CIHRS), called Egypt’s human rights situation “catastrophic.”

Concerned, President Joe Biden withheld $130 million of $1.3 billion in yearly aid to Egypt last month, conditioning it on the release of human rights and civil society activists.

Three days earlier—on September 11—Sisi launched the new human rights strategy to a national television audience. In addition to his comments about religion, he declared 2022 to be the “year of civil society.”

But a new law passed this summer to regulate NGOs was largely panned by human rights advocates. And Hassan stated that the 9/11 timing indicated the document’s primary audience. So too did the fact that the drafting committee was headed by the foreign minister.

“Before it was circulated in Egypt,” he said, “the strategy was published on the webpage of the Egyptian embassy in DC.”

A week later, charges were dropped against four NGOs.

Egyptian Christians, however, are far less critical…

This article was originally published at Christianity Today on October 18, 2021. Please click here to read the full text.

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Christianity Today Middle East Published Articles

Good News for Iraq’s Christians: More Autonomy, Less Dhimmitude

Image: Courtesy of Archbishop Bashar Warda
Chaldean Catholic Archbishop Bashar Warda stands in front of the Catholic University of Erbil, located in the Iraqi Kurdistan capital city’s Ankawa district.

This week, the Christian enclave of Ankawa in Erbil, the capital city of Iraqi Kurdistan, was designated by the autonomous region’s prime minister as an official district, giving believers there administrative autonomy starting next week.

They will directly elect their own mayor, and have charge of security.

Prime Minister Masrour Barzani called Ankawa a home for “religious and social coexistence, and a place for peace.”

Archbishop Bashar Warda, the Chaldean Catholic archbishop of Erbil, called it an “important” and “strategic” decision.

“Our confidence in the future of Kurdistan makes us encourage Christians not only to stay,” he said, “but also to invest in this region.”

Ordained a priest in 1993, Warda was consecrated in his current position in 2010. With Iraq’s hemorrhaging of Christians since the 2003 US invasion, Warda’s bishopric in the autonomous Kurdish region soon became a providential band-aid.

Beginning in 2014, ISIS drove Christians from Mosul and their traditional homeland in the Nineveh Plains, and thousands took refuge in Erbil and other cities in the secure northeast. From 1.5 million Christians in 2003, the Chaldean Catholic church now estimates a population of fewer than 275,000 Christians.

Warda has long been investing to turn the tide.

In 2015, he established the Catholic University of Erbil, and has coordinated relief aid from governments and charities alike. The situation stabilized following ISIS’s defeat in 2017.

But freedom does not come from politics alone. Two years ago, Christians endorsed widespread popular uprisings against the political class. Violently suppressed, the movement’s main celebrated achievement was early elections under a new law designed to promote better local and small-party representation.

Polls open on October 10, and a quota gives Christians five of 329 seats in parliament. However, Warda’s Baghdad-based patriarch has called for a Christian boycott, fearing fraud.

Warda wants a Christian revival. Buoyed by the March visit of Pope Francis, he believes that ISIS broke the fundamental religious and cultural underpinnings of Islamic superiority. Christians no longer are seen as second-class citizens.

In an interview on the sidelines of the IRF Summit convened in Washington in July, Warda told CT about his welcome of missionaries, the Catholic way of witnessing to Muslims, and whether a revived Christian influence in Iraq will lead to future church growth.

Since the defeat of ISIS in Iraq, what challenge has been hardest for the church?

With all the displaced people, images of scattered tents immediately come to mind. But the hard part is not to provide them with food, sanitation, or medical supplies. This is not easy, but it is obvious.

The hard part is to restore their dignity. They understand that ISIS is a criminal gang. And they can bear the wounds of the innocent, knowing they had nothing to do with this dispute.

But their question is “Why?” yet also “What now?”

Men are the providers for the family. Sitting around doing nothing, they tell me, “Bishop, we don’t want money; we want a job. I want to deserve my food.”

Suppose there is aid sufficient to rebuild homes, churches, and schools and even to provide jobs. You have said that this is not enough. It does not establish the basis of citizenship and pluralism.

That is true. But without homes, churches, schools, and jobs, the people will leave the country. And then there are no citizens left.

With a rebuilt community, you can go to the government to speak about the constitution, defending the people’s full rights under the law. There is a link. First have the community; then talk about implementing ideals.

Before ISIS, when the community was stable, were you able to seek your rights?

For 1,400 years there was a sort of social contract: Islam is the religion of the nation, and you are the People of the Book. But know that Islam is the honorable religion of God, which means you are second. In the Quran it says…

This article was originally published at Christianity Today, on August 8, 2021. Please click here to read the full text.

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Asia Christianity Today Published Articles

Will Central Asia Become ‘Stans’ for Religious Freedom?

The Palace of Peace and Reconciliation in Nur-Sultan, Kazakhstan.

Now two of “the five ’Stans” are becoming bigger fans of—or, as Gen Z would say, “stanning” for—religious freedom.

“In Kazakhstan, all denominations can freely follow their religion,” said Yerzhan Nukezhanov, chairman of the committee for religious affairs, “and we will continue to create all necessary conditions for religious freedom.”

Speaking at the 2021 International Religious Freedom Summit in Washington, DC, Nukezhanov signed a memorandum of understanding with Wade Kusack, head of the Love Your Neighbor Community. It sets a three-year roadmap that will train local imams, priests, and pastors in religious dialogue, to culminate in the establishment of religious freedom roundtables in nine Kazakh cities.

“It is a front door approach in openness and transparency with the government,” said Kusack. “Mutual trust is built one relationship at a time.”

An ethnic Belarusian, Kusack is also the senior fellow for Central Asia at the Institute for Global Engagement (IGE), the American NGO which helped shepherd Uzbekistan’s efforts to improve its international religious freedom standing. In 2018, top Uzbek officials pledged reforms at the first Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom, convened by the US State Department.

Later that year, Uzbekistan was removed from designation as a Country of Particular Concern for the first time since 2005. Downgraded to Special Watch List status, by 2020 enough progress was made for the State Department to delist the nation altogether.

Developments in Kazakhstan were hailed as “proof of concept” for the engagement model of international religious freedom advocacy. Not listed by the State Department, the nation has been recommended for SWL status by the US Commission on International Religious Freedom since 2013.

Nukezhanov noted 2018 as the year his committee established a religious freedom working group, specifically to demonstrate openness to American concerns. That same year, Nikolay Popov was fined $600 for sharing his Christian faith—without a license. Popov, part of the Council of Baptist Churches in Kazakhstan’s Karaganda region, also…

This article was originally published by Christianity Today on July 16, 2021. Please click here to read the full text.

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Christianity Today Middle East Published Articles

Algeria Returns a Historic Church, But Stops Christian Worship at 20 Others

Image: Zineb Tadj / EyeEm / Getty Images
Oran, Algeria

Algerian Christians finally have something to celebrate.

Amid a rash of church closures the past two years, the North African nation’s Council of State returned a historic worship site in Mostaganem, a port city on the Mediterranean coast, to the Algerian Protestant Church (EPA).

The EPA loaned the building, which dates to the French colonial era, to the Ministry of Health in 1976. But in 2012, when the site’s medical clinic changed locations, the local governor gave the facility to an Islamic charitable association.

The EPA sued, and the case was decided in its favor in 2019.

That year, however, marked an escalation against Protestant churches. Three of Algeria’s largest congregations were shut down, and the Mostaganem authorities failed to implement the court decision.

Now they have.

But with 20 other churches ordered to cease activities—and 13 sealed completely—Algerian Christians remain cautious.

“Just because we have the keys,” said Nourredine Benzid, general secretary of the EPA, “doesn’t mean the case is over.”

Benzid’s Source of Life Church in Makouda was among those closed in 2019. Located in the mountainous Tizi Ouzou district, the area is home to many of the nation’s estimated 100,000 Christians. By contrast, the Mostaganem church was…

This article was originally published at Christianity Today on June 10, 2021. Please click here to read the full text.

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Americas Christianity Today Published Articles Religious Freedom

Just a Bill: Religious Freedom Consensus Rarely Voted into Law

Antony Blinken

Secretary of State Antony Blinken called out Saudi Arabia.

The Gulf kingdom “remains the only country in the world without a Christian church, though there are more than a million Christians living [there],” he stated yesterday.

Such high-level criticism of the key US ally is a departure from the foreign policy of the Trump administration, though the State Department has listed the oil-rich nation as a Country of Particular Concern on international religious freedom (IRF) since 2004.

Blinken also highlighted recent violations in Iran, Burma, Russia, Nigeria, and China. Positive developments were noted in Sudan, Uzbekistan, and Turkmenistan.

“Our promise to the world is that the Biden-Harris administration will protect and defend religious freedom around the world,” stated Blinken, releasing the 23rd annual International Religious Freedom Report, assessing the records of nearly 200 countries and territories.

“We will maintain America’s longstanding leadership on this issue, [and] we’re grateful for our partners.”

He named several entities, but one is glaring in its absence:

The US Congress.

Six years ago, 21Wilberforce, a Christian human rights organization, launched the International Religious Freedom Scorecard to hold America’s lawmakers to account.

“There is much room for improvement,” Lou Ann Sabatier, director of communication, told CT. “It is a long and arduous process for an IRF bill to become a law, and many do not make it out of committee.”

The latest scorecard, released this week and grading the two-year term of the 116th Congress, lists 91 legislative efforts in both the Senate and the House of Representatives.

Only two became law. The daughter of one of Congress’s chief IRF champions is not happy…

This article was originally published at Christianity Today on May 14, 2021. Please click here to read the full text.

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Christianity Today Published Articles Religious Freedom

3 Fewer Hot Spots for Trump-Biden Handover on Religious Freedom

Image: USCIRF, from the cover of their 2021 report

As a new administration takes over leadership of America’s commitment to religious freedom worldwide, Gayle Manchin believes President Joe Biden is “very aware” of its importance.

But given global developments, the watchdog work of the US Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), which she chairs, sometimes feels like “treading water.”

Others agree. For example, an 800-page study released this week by Aid to the Church in Need concludes that 1 in 3 nations of the world do not respect religious freedom.

And in 95 percent of these, the situation is growing worse.

USCIRF, created to provide recommendations to the US government, released its 22nd annual report today. Its analysis identifies significant problems in 26 countries, down from 29 last year. It also marked a surge in worldwide antisemitism.

Following the commission’s advice, last December then-Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced the designation of Burma [Myanmar], China, Eritrea, Iran, Nigeria, North Korea, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Tajikistan, and Turkmenistan as a Country of Particular Concern (CPC). USCIRF’s 2021 report recommends that new Secretary of State Anthony Blinken add…

Last year, Nigeria was added as a CPC by the State Department. How did USCIRF’s work contribute to the decision?

USCIRF has a unique ability to focus on religious freedom, while the State Department looks at the relationship with a country in balance. But they take our work very seriously, and know the research and credibility behind it. They watch, and when the information is overwhelming—and when they are comfortable—they will join us in a recommendation.

But I never question when they don’t. There may be details going on that we are not aware of.

So how do you interpret the State Department additions of Cuba and Nicaragua to the SWL? Maybe they are not the most egregious violators of religious freedom, compared to others on the USCIRF list?

Both of these countries are continuing to trend worse. When we are able to travel again, these are nations we will reach out to for a visit, to get a clearer picture of what is going on. There is always a political aspect, from the government’s perspective.

But now that Cuba is without a Castro for the first time, there are things happening that may change. Of course, it could also be toward the negative, so we will continue to monitor.

What nations generated the most controversy and discussion among USCIRF commissioners?

This article was originally published at Christianity Today on April 21, 2021. Please click here to read the full text.

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Christianity Today Europe Published Articles

Switzerland’s New ‘Burqa Ban’ Divides Voters, Including Evangelicals

Credit: Beau Giles

In a vote that divided Switzerland’s evangelical community, voters narrowly approved on Sunday a referendum to ban face coverings. The new law includes both the niqabs and burqas worn by a few Muslim women in the country, and the ski masks and bandanas used by protesters.

One of two political parties with ties to the Swiss evangelical community supported the Yes vote. The other took no position. The state-affiliated Swiss Reformed and Roman Catholic churches supported the No vote.

After initially supporting the measure, the Swiss Evangelical Alliance (SEA), which represents about 250,000 believers across 650 churches and 230 member organizations, instead issued an orientation paper outlining both the pro and con positions.

“Showing each other our faces … promotes trust and security,” the alliance stated. “But there are legitimate questions if prohibition would restrict religious freedom.”

The measure will outlaw…

This article was originally published at Christianity Today on March 11, 2021. Please click here to read the full text.

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Christianity Today Europe Published Articles

Montenegro’s Churches Get a Religious Freedom Do-Over

Image: Filip Filipovic / Getty Images
Priests and Orthodox nuns watch the funeral service for Metropolitan Amfilohije Radovic from the balcony on November 1, 2020 in Podgorica, Montenegro.

Europe’s second-newest nation made a second effort this week at greater religious freedom.

And evangelicals in Montenegro, the Balkan nation independent from Serbia since 2006, couldn’t be more pleased.

“This is a great blessing, we are out of the gray zone and drawn into legal existence,” said Sinisa Nadazdin, pastor of Gospel of Jesus Christ Church located in the capital city of Podgorica.

“We were permitted before, but now we know our rights and duties.”

Montenegrin evangelicals were pleased with the new law’s first iteration a year ago as well. But in between, the controversial text split Montenegro’s 75-percent Orthodox community, and nearly tore the nation apart.

Controversially passed last February by lawmakers aligned with the 30-year ruling Democratic Party of Socialists (which ran the regional government when the nation was part of Serbia), ethnic Serbian politicians stormed out of the session in protest.

At issue were not the general provisions of the law, which guaranteed the right to change religion, to establish religious schools above the elementary level, and to conscientiously object from military service.

Replacing a 1977 communist-era law, it also eased licensing procedures and permitted foreign-born leadership and international headquarters.

Rather, a clause in the religious freedom law required all religious communities to provide evidence of ownership for properties built prior to the 1918 integration of Montenegro into the Kingdom of Yugoslavia.

Critics interpreted it as a challenge to the Serbian Orthodox Church.

Failure to do so would transfer ownership of hundreds of ancient churches and monasteries to the state, to be regarded as part of Montenegro’s cultural heritage.

Church leadership rallied the faithful in protests throughout the year. The end result was a narrow electoral victory for an alliance of opposition parties, including the ethnic Serbian-led Democratic Front.

Their first priority was to change the religious freedom law.

“This is the ‘Year of Justice’ in Montenegro,” Vladimir Leposavic, newly appointed Minister of Justice and Human and Minority Rights, told CT.

“Our amendments are an example of how we will fight for the rule of law, with clear norms and nondiscrimination.” Seeking to strengthen the law further, the amendments also…

This article was originally published at Christianity Today, on January 22, 2021. Please click here to read the full text.

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Americas Christianity Today Published Articles Religious Freedom

Polarized Americans Still Support Religious Freedom

Image: Mark Wilson / Staff / Getty
Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo address the State Department’s second religious freedom ministerial.

Last year, American support for religious freedom survived COVID-19.

The right to free speech held firm amid racial tensions.

And vigorous backing of the First Amendment endured a contentious presidential campaign.

So concludes the 2020 Becket Religious Freedom Index, which will monitor the resilience of the United States’ “first freedom” through the yearly challenges to come.

“Americans understand religion as a fundamental part of an individual’s identity,” said Caleb Lyman, director of research and analytics at The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty.

“It is no surprise that they support strong religious freedom protections in work and public life.”

Designing 16 questions across six categories, the annual index measures perspectives on the First Amendment. Now in its second year, in October it polled a nationwide sample of 1,000 Americans, scoring their support from 0 (complete opposition) to 100 (robust support).

The composite score is 66, a statistically insignificant decline from 67 in 2019.

Becket’s report recognizes that the religious impulse is natural to human beings, and therefore religious expression is natural to human culture.

Through their law firm, they defend religious rights. Through their index, they discover if Americans agree…

This article was originally published at Christianity Today, on January 4, 2021. Please click here to read the full text.

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US Adds Nigeria to Top of Religious Persecution List, Removes Sudan and Uzbekistan

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Only one country was added this year to the US government’s official list of the world’s worst persecutors of religion: Nigeria.

And the Christian Association of Nigeria made a statement, excerpted here from my joint article at Christianity Today:

“[We are] not happy that the US has placed Nigeria on a religious freedom blacķlist, because of the implications which include possible sanctions,” stated CAN president Samson Ayokunle.

“But at the same time, we are encouraged that the global world is aware of what is happening.”

Nigeria has religious freedom, CAN reminded, but it is denied in certain regional states—especially in the Muslim-majority north. Churches face discriminatory zoning procedures, and Christian professors are denied senior leadership positions, the group stated.

And while Muslims denounce terrorism by Boko Haram and its breakway faction, Islamic State West Africa Province (ISWAP), such violence is done in the name of Allah, stated CAN. Fulani herdsmen, meanwhile, kill in predominantly Christian farming communities.

“Pastors and their families are under attack,” stated Ayokunle. “Churches are being burnt and destroyed. They are taking over our farms and communities.”

The rest of the article contains additional Nigerian commentary, as well as the larger context for the State Department decision.

So while the Christian leadership of Nigeria fears the impact of the CPC designation by the United States, the job of securing religious freedom may be too big for Buhari alone.

“CAN has been consistently calling on the government to fix the security challenges before too late,” Ayokunle stated. “We call on the international community to help our government to wipe out these terrorists.”

This article was originally published at Christianity Today, on December 7, 2020. Please click here to read the full text.

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Christianity Today Middle East Published Articles

Sudan’s Partially Answered Prayers

Archbishop Ezekiel Kondo

Sudan is rejoining the community of nations.

After 30 years of pariah status under former dictator Omar al-Bashir, the nation has established relations with Israel, taken steps to improve religious freedom, and ensured removal of its US designation as a state sponsor of terrorism.

Archbishop Ezekiel Kondo of Sudan has witnessed the entire history.

Born in 1957 in the Nuba Mountains region, he was ordained an Anglican priest at the age of 31. In 2003, he became bishop of the diocese of Khartoum, Sudan’s capital city.

In 2014, Kondo became archbishop of Sudan within overall administrative unity with South Sudan. And in 2017, he was enthroned as primate of the newly created Anglican Province of Sudan.

A critic of religious persecution under Bashir, Kondo has associated his church with the conservative Global South Movement in the Anglican Communion, as well as GAFCON, which seeks “to guard the unchanging, transforming gospel of Jesus Christ and to proclaim Him to the world.”

CT spoke with Kondo about justice for the Palestinians, the need for a blasphemy law, and his ranking of Sudan’s religious freedom progress on a 10-point scale:

Your country has begun a process of normalizing with Israel. Are you in favor of this process?

I do support it, for the good of Sudan. Normalizing will be a good thing for development in economy, agriculture, technology, and other areas. It will open doors for relations with other countries.

And spiritually, it will enable [Sudanese] Christians to visit the Holy Land.

Are there Sudanese Christians against normalization?

I don’t think…

This article was originally published at Christianity Today, on November 16, 2020. Please click here to read the full text.

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Christianity Today Middle East Published Articles

Will $335 Million Peace with Israel Secure Sudan’s Religious Freedom?

CT spoke with eight leaders—three Sudanese, four American, and one Palestinian—concerned with the course of religious freedom and regional stability.

Their reactions vary.

“Christians are very happy,” said Aida Weran, academic officer at Nile Theological College in Khartoum. “We see Sudan’s changes becoming reality.”

Weran is optimistic the deal with Israel will open the economy, foster technological growth, develop the agricultural sector, and alleviate poverty.

Originally from the Nuba Mountains in Sudan’s marginalized south, she is encouraged by the movement toward peace with militant rebel groups in her region, and in Darfur.

One reason the formation of parliament has been delayed, she believes, is that it must incorporate all holdout forces.

Normalization with Israel will cement Sudan’s transition to democracy, she believes. But many Muslims might vote against it.

About 4 in 5 oppose normalization (79%), according to the 2019–20 Arab Opinion Index released earlier this month. A similar share (81%) support Sudan’s revolution.

And 1 in 4 Sudanese (24%) named Israel as the greatest threat to their nation, topped only by the United States, named by 37 percent.

“Palestine is a sentimental issue, and the [Bashir] government promoted it aggressively,” said Tawfig Saleh, the Muslim founder of Unity International, a Sudanese NGO promoting religious freedom and coexistence.

“But we cannot move forward without good relations with our neighbors.”

Even so, Saleh doubts the poll’s finding of 79 percent opposition is accurate, especially now after Sudan’s removal from the US terrorism list. Also out of date, in his view, is…

This article was originally published at Christianity Today, on October 26, 2020. Please click here to read the full text.

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Current Events

Will International Religious Freedom Survive the Trump Administration?

On June 2, as protests over the death of George Floyd raged across the United States, President Donald Trump elevated the stature of religious freedom within the State Department.

“Religious freedom for all people worldwide is a foreign policy priority,” read the executive order (EO) he signed, “and the United States will respect and vigorously promote this freedom.”

It received almost no media attention.

The provisions—long called for by many advocates of international religious freedom (IRF)—could overhaul a US foreign policy that has historically sidelined support for America’s “first freedom.”

That is, if the order survives a potential Joe Biden administration.

It is common for a new president to reverse EOs issued by their predecessor. In his eight years in office, President Obama issued 30 to amend or rescind Bush-era policies. In his first year in office, Trump issued 17 directed at Obama-era policies.

While IRF has typically enjoyed bipartisan support, current political polarization leaves few sacred cows.

Trump signed the EO after a visit to the Pope John Paul II National Shrine in Washington, DC. It was previously scheduled to coincide with the anniversary of the Polish-born pope’s 1979 return to his home nation, which set off a political and spiritual revolution that defied the Soviet Union and eventually ended the Cold War.

However, Washington’s Catholic archbishop called it “baffling and reprehensible” the facility would allow itself to be manipulated one day after Trump lifted a Bible in front of St. John’s Anglican Church across from the White House in the wake of the aggressive dispersal of protesters opposing police brutality and racial injustice.

The president’s gesture risked corroborating critics who argue that Trump’s religious freedom policies are a nod only to evangelical Christians concerned for fellow believers.

But while the Bible photo op divided evangelicals, should Trump’s IRF credentials definitively tilt the scale come elections in November?

“President Trump’s executive order will make the commitment to international religious freedom more robust,” said former congressman Frank Wolf, arguing the Trump administration has been markedly stronger on the issue than those of either party.

“If you care about religious freedom…

This article was first published at Christianity Today on June 30, 2020. Please click here to read the full text.

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Current Events

Israel Orders Christian TV Channel to Stop Broadcasting

Israeli regulators on Sunday announced they ordered a US-based evangelical broadcaster taken off the air, saying the channel hid its missionary agenda when it applied for a license.

In his decision, Asher Biton, chairman of the Cable and Satellite Broadcasting Council, said he had informed GOD TV on Thursday last week that it had seven days to stop broadcasting its new Shelanu channel.

“The channel appeals to Jews with Christian content,” he wrote. “Its original request,” he said, stated that it was a “station targeting the Christian population.”

The decision was first reported by the Haaretz daily.

And today, Shelanu announced that its satellite provider, HOT, has dropped the channel altogether—likely due to Israeli pressure.

“In a free and democratic society such as Israel, we would have received approval for our new license, and if not, we would have won in court,” stated Ron Cantor, Shelanu’s Israeli spokesman, in a press release. “The only thing that could have stopped our channel from being aired was if HOT broke our relationship.”

If there is no public apology and clarification, Shelanu plans to sue Biton.

The channel said its existing license “stated unequivocally” that it would broadcast its content in Hebrew to the Israeli public. Most Christians in the Holy Land speak Arabic.

“Therefore it is not at all clear what was wrong beyond political considerations,” it said.

According to a copy of its original application and approval, obtained by CT, Shelanu identified itself as “a Christian religion channel broadcasting Christian content … for the audience of Israeli viewers … [in] Hebrew and English.”

Nowhere did the channel state…

This article was first published at Christianity Today, on June 30, 2020. Please click here for the full text.

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Current Events

Do Catholics Care about Persecuted Christians?

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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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Americas Christianity Today Published Articles

Report: ‘Tremendous Progress’ Ahead for Religious Freedom Worldwide

USCIRF 2020

This article was first published at Christianity Today, on April 28, 2020.

A new report aims to “unflinchingly criticize the records of US allies and adversaries alike” on religious freedom.

And there’s a lot to report, with more headlines each month confirming the Pew Research Center’s 10-year analysis that government restrictions and social hostilities involving religion have reached record levels worldwide.

Today’s 21st annual report by the US Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) identifies significant problems in 29 countries—but sees “an upward trajectory overall.”

“Our awareness is going to grow greater, and the problem will appear more pronounced,” USCIRF chair Tony Perkins told CT. “But as we continue to work on it, I think we will see tremendous progress in the next few years if we stay the present course.”

Created as an independent, bipartisan federal commission by the 1998 International Religious Freedom Act, USCIRF casts a wider net than the US State Department, which annually designates Countries of Particular Concern (CPC) for such nations’ violations of religious freedom, or places them on a Special Watch List (SWL) if less severe.

Last December, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced CPC status for Burma, China, Eritrea, Iran, North Korea, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Tajikistan, and Turkmenistan.

USCIRF now recommends adding India, Nigeria, Russia, Syria, and Vietnam.

And where the State Department put only Cuba, Nicaragua, Sudan, and Uzbekistan on the watch list, USCIRF recommends also including Afghanistan, Algeria, Azerbaijan, Bahrain, Central African Republic, Egypt, Indonesia, Iraq, Kazakhstan, Malaysia, and Turkey.

USCIRF’s mandate is to provide oversight and advice to the State Department. Aiming to make its recommendations more easily accessible to policymakers, this year’s report limits country chapters to two pages each and adopts the same evaluative criteria as the State Department.

To qualify, a nation must engage in or tolerate “systematic, ongoing, and egregious” violations of religious freedom. CPC status requires all three descriptors, while SWL status requires two.

In previous reports, USCIRF used a “Tier Two” category requiring only one qualifier. As a result, Laos is no longer listed.

Following 11 commission field visits, 5 hearings, and 19 other published reports, USCIRF’S 2020 annual report calls attention to religious freedom violations against all faiths, including:

  • 1.8 million Muslims in Chinese concentration camps
  • 171 Eritrean Christians arrested while gathering for worship
  • 50,000 Christians held in North Korean prison camps
  • 260 incidents of religious freedom violations in Cuba
  • 489 raids conducted against homes of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Russia
  • 910,000 Rohingya Muslim refugees in Bangladesh
  • 1 million Muslim residents excluded from the National Register of Citizens in India
  • 37 Shi’a Muslim protesters executed in Saudi Arabia
  • 5,000 Baptist calendars burned by authorities in Turkmenistan

Perkins spoke with CT about how nations move up (e.g., India and Nigeria) or down (e.g. Sudan and Uzbekistan) between lists, why the State Department doesn’t accept all of USCIRF’s recommendations (but should), and whether he has hope for the future with violations at “a historical high in modern times.”

Roughly how many countries are on your studied list?

The ones that are listed are the ones that we look at. There has been discussion if we should add Venezuela. There have been a couple of others we have considered.

Examining “Country X,” how do you evaluate if and where it belongs on your lists?

First, we begin with the statutory definition of a Country of Particular Concern (CPC). Our mandate is to identify countries with systematic, ongoing, and egregious violations of religious freedom—whether it engages in or tolerates such behavior.

One thing to be cautious of is that we don’t rank countries. It is not a comparison. Country X and Country Y may both be CPC-listed, but be miles apart on the egregious nature of their violations. We look at each country separately.

It is based upon reporting that we can validate and verify; visits that we make to these countries; and hearings we hold with expert witnesses to come in and testify. It is a combination of factors, and quite frankly it is subjective.

We try to make it as objective as possible, but it is hard to quantify some things—though we do so to the degree we can.

What happens if you disagree about the designations?

The nine commissioners…

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Christianity Today Europe Published Articles

Religious Freedom Comes to Europe’s Second-Newest Nation. But Christians Are Concerned.

"Crkva Gospa od Zdravlja" church, Kotor bay, Montenegro.
Orthodox Church in Kotor Bay, Montenegro

This article was first published at Christianity Today, on February 4, 2020.

Deep within the Orthodox heartlands of the Balkans, one might expect local evangelicals to celebrate the passage of Montenegro’s first religious freedom law.

Instead, as tens of thousands fill the streets to protest against it, the relative handful of believers find themselves on the sideline of a struggle between giants.

And the stakes could further shake the greater Orthodox world.

Europe’s 6th-least evangelical country is also one of its newer nations. Having achieved independence from Serbia in 2006 through a tightly contested referendum, Montenegro is now seeking autocephaly—spiritual independence—for its local Orthodox church, viewed as a schism by the Serbian Orthodox.

Protests have erupted in Belgrade also, with thousands rallying last month against Serbian “suffering” in Montenegro and other neighboring nations. Crosses, icons, and church banners peppered the demonstrations.

But in Montenegro, rather than waiting for a liberating tomos (decree) similar to the one issued to Ukraine by Archbishop Bartholomew of Constantinople, who is the ecumenical patriarch for Eastern Orthodox communities, the government is acting to register all of its religious communities.

The protesting ethnic Serbian citizens of Montenegro fear the religious freedom law is nothing but a trojan horse for an elaborate ecclesiastic land grab targeting Serbian Orthodox Church properties.

“The law is a step forward, as it helps us ‘small religious communities’ have a legal basis to operate,” said Sinisa Nadazdin, pastor of Gospel of Jesus Christ Church located in the capital city of Podgorica and one of the nation’s five registered evangelical churches.

“But none of us want to enjoy this benefit if it will create in Montenegro…”

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Sudan Lets Christians March for Jesus Again

Religion Sudanese Christians
In this Monday, Dec. 23, 2019 photo, Christians march through the streets to celebrate the birth of Jesus in Khartoum Bahri, Sudan, north of the capital Khartoum. More than eight months after the army forced out long-ruling autocrat Omar al-Bashir, who upheld harsh interpretations of Islamic laws, Sudanese Christians are hoping for more religious freedom. (AP Photo/Mohamed Okasha)

This article was first published at Christianity Today, on December 28, 2019.

“Hallelujah! Today, we are happy that the Sudanese government has opened up the streets for us so we can express our faith,” said Izdhar Ibrahim, one of the marchers. Some Christians had been frightened before “because we used to encounter difficulties.”

The changes started in 2011, after South Sudan gained independence from Sudan following a long war and a referendum. South Sudan is mostly Christian and animist, a belief that all objects have a spirit. Al-Bashir’s government then escalated its pressure on the remaining Christians, human-rights campaigners and Christians say.

Al-Bashir, who came to power in an Islamist-backed military coup in 1989, failed to keep the peace in the religiously and ethnically diverse country.

Noah Manzul, one of the church elders, said the march was treated almost as if it were a “crime.”

Its return is “an expression of religious freedom,” Manzul said. “We can live our lives with ease.”

Manzul’s social work with homeless children and orphans got him into trouble under al-Bashir, when he was accused of trying to convert the children to Christianity, an allegation he denies. Activities like singing hymns in the teeming market outside the church were stopped, he said.

To be sure, some Christians said they were not impacted negatively by al-Bashir’s government, and officials at the time disputed that the government targeted Christians.

But Suliman Baldo, senior adviser at the Enough Project, which supports peace and an end to atrocities in Africa’s conflict zones, said the ultimate goal under al-Bashir was “to limit the influence of the church.” Under his rule, Christian church properties could be seized, Baldo said, adding some churches were demolished, and some preachers were arrested.

During past holiday seasons, many recalled, posters would appear on the streets warning against celebrating with the kofar, or infidels, a reference to Christians.

Now, the constitutional declaration that guides this transitional period no longer refers to Islam as the primary source of legislation in Sudan. A Christian woman was appointed to the nation’s interim ruling Sovereign Council.

And December 25 was declared…

Please click here to read the full article at Christianity Today, to which I contributed additional reporting.

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11 Nigerian Christians Executed in ISIS Christmas Video

Nigerian Christians
(Credit: AP Photo/Ben Curtis.)

This article was first published by Christianity Today on December 28, 2019.

In another filmed massacre, 11 Nigerian Christians were executed by the Islamic State West African Province (ISWAP) over the Christmas holiday.

Wearing the orange jumpsuits made familiar by similar executions of Egyptian and Ethiopian Christians in Libya, the first Nigerian victim was shot in the head by the black-clad terrorists who then slit the throats of the remaining ten. It is understood to be the largest group killed by ISWAP, a Boko Haram splinter group, so far.

“This message is to the Christians in the world,” stated the 56-second propaganda video, released December 26, in both Arabic and Hausa, according to The New York Times.

“Those who you see in front of us are Christians, and we will shed their blood as revenge for the two dignified sheikhs.”

The reference is to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the former ISIS caliph killed by US troops in an October raid in Syria, and Abu al-Hassan al-Muhajir, his purported successor, who was killed the next day.

The video offered no information about the victims, other than that they were recently seized in Nigeria’s northwest Borno state. But an earlier video was released by ISWAP in which captured aid workers appealed to Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari, as well as to the Christian Association of Nigeria (CAN).

Four aid workers were killed by ISWAP earlier this month. Dozens of others are believed to still be in captivity, including Leah Sharibu, a teenage girl kidnapped almost two years ago whose perseverance under pressure has inspired Nigerian Christians.

The International Crisis Group estimates the jihadist group consists of between 3,500 and 5,000 fighters.

“These agents of darkness are enemies of our common humanity, and they don’t spare any victim, whether they are Muslims or Christians,” stated Buhari, according to al-Jazeera.

Nigeria’s population of 200 million is evenly divided between Muslims and Christians.

Muslim victims have been many, agreed CAN in an earlier statement. But it stated the widespread killing in Nigeria’s north has predominately targeted Christians, who make up 95 percent of those currently detained by jihadists.

“The government has been paying lip service towards securing their freedom,” stated CAN, mentioning in particular…

Please click here to read this article at Christianity Today.

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In UN Speech, Trump Announces New Religious Freedom Initiatives

Trump United Nations
UN Photo/Manuel Elias Secretary-General António Guterres and Donald Trump, President of the United States of America, attend the Global Call to Protect Religious Freedom briefing. (23 September 2019)

This article was first published at Christianity Today on September 23.

Speaking before the United Nations today, President Trump praised the country’s religious freedom record and cited figures that suggest the rest of the world has much work to do, as he announced new funding to protect religious sites as well as business partnerships to fuel the cause.

“Our nation was founded on the idea that our rights do not come from government, but from God,” said Trump. “Regrettably, the freedom enjoyed in America is rare in the world.”

Trump said he had asked Vice President Mike Pence to double-check the figure of 80 percent of the world’s population living in areas that restrict religious freedom. According to Pew Research, 83 percent of the population lives in places with “high” or “very high” restrictions, mostly targeting religious minorities.

“Today, with one clear voice, the US calls on the nations of the world to end religious persecution,” Trump said.

Pence stated that Trump was the first world leader to chair a meeting on religious freedom at the United Nations.

Seeking international consensus on religious freedom, he called out Iran, Iraq, China, Venezuela, and Nicaragua for their violations and mentioned the terrorist tragedies that struck down Jews in Pittsburgh, Muslims in New Zealand, and Christians in Sri Lanka.

Under Trump’s leadership, Pence said, the United States passed the Genocide Recovery and Persecution Response Act to protect religious minorities in the Middle East, and the State Department’s International Religious Freedom Fund dispersed 435 rapid response grants since 2018, aiding 2,000 victims of persecution. A year ago, the Trump administration doubled its funding for Christians and religious minorities returning to Iraq.

“As President, protecting religious freedom is one of my highest priorities, and always has been,” said Trump, who today pledged an additional $25 million to protect religious sites and relics around the world that are under threat. He urged the global community join in “measures to prevent the intentional destruction of religious sites and relics,” including attacks on houses of worship…

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