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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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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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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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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…

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

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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…”

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

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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.

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When Islam is Not a Religion in America

Asma Uddin

This article was first published at Christianity Today on September 9.

Is Islam a religion?

This question is regularly posed by populists seeking to restrict Muslims in America. If Islam is not a religion—if it is a militant ideological system, for example—then some argue it is not subject to First Amendment protection.

At stake is the protection of religious liberty, writes lawyer Asma T. Uddin in When Islam Is Not a Religion: Inside America’s Fight for Religious Freedom. Her new book details recent legal cases involving Muslims, arguing that restrictions on one faith community affect the freedom of all.

Formerly a legal counsel with Becket, a leading religious liberty law firm, Uddin has worked with the US State Department to advocate against the former United Nations resolution on the defamation of religion, which was seen by many as an attempt at international cover for blasphemy laws. And through the Legal Training Institute, she has worked to extend the American understanding of religious liberty to several Middle Eastern, North African, and Southeast Asian countries.

Uddin, a Muslim of Pakistani descent, has worked on religious liberty cases at the federal and Supreme Court levels—including the Hobby Lobby and Hosanna-Tabor victories praised by conservative Christians—defending evangelicals, Catholics, Jews, Native Americans, and Muslims. Christianity Today, which recently editorialized on why religious freedom isn’t just for Christians, spoke with her on the sidelines of the recent US State Department Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom.

CT: American evangelicals are often concerned that Christians have their religious liberty threatened around the world, often in Muslim-majority nations. The focus of your book is Muslim religious liberty, threatened in the United States. What sorts of challenges do Muslims face in America?

Uddin: I think it’s important to point out that the book doesn’t just look at attacks on Muslims. The book looks broadly at the attack on religious freedom, seen through the prism of attacks on Muslims. I discuss violence against churches, synagogues, and Sikh temples.

But in terms of threats to Muslim religious freedom specifically, I look at the nationwide anti-mosque controversy, which started in earnest after the so-called “Ground Zero mosque” fiasco. From there, it spread to Murfreesboro, Tennessee, which was the first community to be affected while attempting to build a mosque. That’s where the claim was made that Islam is not a religion.

To this day, there are ongoing struggles to build mosques. It’s not just litigation, but also arson and fire bombing. There is even a question about Muslim cemeteries, to the point where American Muslims are unable to bury their dead. That’s the challenge we’re facing to our human dignity…

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

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A Tale of Three Churches

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

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

“Merry Christmas.”

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

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

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

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

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

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From DC to Mecca, Should ‘Human Dignity’ Be the New ‘Religious Freedom’?

Ministerial
Speakers address participants at a general session on Different Faiths Advancing Religious Freedom Together at the Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom at the U.S. Department of State in Washington D.C. on July 17, 2019. [State Department photo / Public Domain]
This article was first published at Christianity Today, on July 22, 2019.

In his opening remarks at the second US Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo welcomed almost 1,000 participants from civil society and more than 100 invited foreign delegations. He challenged every major world religion and secular society—and also invited them in.

“We all agree that fighting so that each person is free to believe, free to assemble, and to teach the tenets of his or her own faith is not optional,” said Pompeo. “Indeed, it is a moral imperative that this be permitted.”

But do all actually agree? A change in human rights language might make the difference.

And could Saudi Arabia improbably become the next champion…?

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

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Should Christians Praise Partial Religious Freedom?

Partial Religious Freedom
Image: Illustration by Cornelia Li

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

…The tension over praising limited gains is also a factor in Uzbekistan, a Muslim-majority secular nation whose citizens have the right to convert but which the United States has designated a Country of Particular Concern (CPC) since 2006 over religious freedom violations.

At the US State Department’s inaugural Ministerial for Advancing Religious Freedom in July 2018, Uzbek leaders outlined how they were streamlining registration for religious groups and reviewing a law that restricted religion. Last December, the Central Asian nation was removed from the CPC list—only the second nation to ever come off—and put on a watch list instead. But it ranks No. 17 on Open Doors’ list of countries where it’s hardest to be Christian.

Chris Seiple, president emeritus of the Institute for Global Engagement, has worked behind the scenes for 20 years to promote religious freedom in the nation he did his dissertation on. He says activists should publish a list of nations showing the most progress, not just the greatest offenders.

Relational diplomacy involves public praise for small, tangible steps to build trust while communicating practical ways to improve in private, he said. There is a secret to engaging authoritarian contexts: create a rumor so that reality follows…

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

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A Royal Pickle: Jordanian Evangelicals and American ‘Help’

2018+Templeton+Prize+Ceremony+HM+and+HTD+scroll+(Credit+Templeton+Prize-Clifford+Shirley)
Heather Templeton Dill, president of the John Templeton Foundation, presents the Templeton Prize “Tree of Life” medallion to His Majesty King Abdullah II of Jordan, at the Templeton Prize Ceremony, Washington National Cathedral, November 13, 2018. (Photo credit: Templeton Prize-Clifford Shirley)

The pastor of the Amman International Church in Jordan had a problem.

Suspected intelligence agents were coming to church, asking questions, and attending Bible studies. His youth pastor was detained at the Israeli-Jordan border and denied reentry. Members of his church, some who had lived for years in Jordan, were suddenly denied visas.

“Politically speaking, we were the best protected church—half of our congregation were military or foreign service,” said Greg Griesemer, pastor since 2012.

“But after testing the waters with us, the government went more aggressively against the Jordanian evangelical churches.”

Griesemer eventually had to leave the country also, informed that the government had an alleged file accusing him of proselytizing Muslims. But he believed the government was checking to see if anyone would stand up for evangelicals in general, as the Vatican would do for Catholics. Unlike the historic churches of Jordan, evangelicals are not represented in the official national council of churches.

Despite a congregation filled with American citizens, appeals to the US embassy went nowhere, he said. And then quite unexpectedly, in came the cavalry.

Completely unrelated to local developments in Jordan, popular Christian author Joel Rosenberg had been developing a warm relationship with Jordan’s King Abdullah. An evangelical of Jewish background, Rosenberg writes political thrillers about the end times, weaving current events into a Biblical narrative of apocalyptic prophecy.

In one bestseller, the king and the Hashemite Kingdom were targets of a series of ISIS terrorist attacks. After reading the novel, Abdullah invited Rosenberg and his wife to Jordan for a five-day visit, and a friendship emerged. Later and at the king’s invitation, in November 2017 Rosenberg led a delegation of American evangelical leaders to see Jordan firsthand.

But not just any leaders. They included several who were politically connected, including close advisors to President Donald Trump. The group featured Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council, Jim Garlow, former senior pastor of Skyline Church in San Diego, who moved to Washington to minister to politicians, and Michele Bachmann, a former congresswoman from Minnesota, in addition to others.

Jordan was not their only priority. In the past 18 months Rosenberg also led the group to visit Egypt, the United Arab Emirates, and Saudi Arabia. Coming again with official invitations, he wished to forge better ties between evangelical Christians and Middle East governments and peoples. A key priority has been to support Christian minorities, who often feel under pressure in society, if not persecuted by Muslims of extremist ideology.

Also invited to participate was Mike Evans, leader of the Jerusalem Prayer Team and founder of the Friends of Zion Heritage Center, in Israel. A self-proclaimed Christian Zionist, he and several members of the delegation were well-known for their strong support of Israel.

Their reputation preceded them in Jordan, and some local evangelical leaders turned down invitations to meet. Though Jordan maintains a peace treaty with Israel, popular sentiment is strongly in favor of the Palestinians. They did not want to be associated with an ideology that would strain relations not only with Muslims, but also traditional Christian church leaders.

But Rosenberg’s delegation did come at the invitation of King Abdullah, and they had already met with several senior government officials, including the foreign minister and the chairman of Jordan’s joint chiefs of staff. Nearly 40 evangelical leaders and pastors did agree to sit down, representing many of the major denominations and ministries in Jordan. They included Emad Maayah, president of the Jordan Evangelical Council, and Imad Shehadeh, president of the Jordan Evangelical Theological Seminary, and they shared their perspectives and prayer requests in an off-the-record dialogue.

The pastors conveyed a deep sense of respect toward the king and appreciation for the freedom Jordan gives them and all Christians in the country. Some spoke reluctantly of issues they were facing, and Griesemer was also present to share his story. Notes were taken, discussed, and agreed to be shared tactfully with King Abdullah.

Mike Evans, a journalist by profession, took particular interest. During the delegation’s working lunch at the palace with the king later that day to conclude their visit, he spoke up first to relay the issues discussed. Others followed.

Photos were agreed upon, and a simple press release was issued by both palace and delegation.

In later, follow-up discussions with the palace Evans would mention a Jordanian pastor who was having his ministries shut down by the government, and how evangelical churches were losing the ability to offer volunteer visas to foreign staff.

Abdullah expressed surprise, that he had never heard of these troubles, and in front of the group assigned one of his closest advisors to look into it.

“Everyone was very encouraged,” Evans said. “I went back to the Jordanian believers, and told them I have good news.”

Such a response was fitting with the reputation of the king. Last year in November he was awarded the prestigious, $1.4 million Templeton Prize, celebrating exceptional contributions to “affirming life’s spiritual dimension.” First given to Mother Teresa, previous winners range from Billy Graham to the Dalai Lama. Abdullah was cited for his efforts to foster better inter-Islamic unity in rejection of terrorism, as well as leadership in fostering Muslim-Christian dialogue and peace.

Six weeks later came the salvo.

“For King Abdullah to receive the Templeton Prize for religious tolerance in view of this situation in Jordan is an absolute travesty,” wrote Evans in the Jerusalem Post. “It is the Templeton Prize for bigotry.”

What changed? Evans wrote that he worked with the king’s advisor for over a year, but things only got worse. The Jordanian pastor’s ministry was dismantled. Churches were being asked to submit membership lists to the government. It seemed fitting with a media campaign launched against evangelicals, as interpreted by some. A year earlier the Jordan Times published an article in which an Arab Christian leader called them “outlaws,” using an Arabic word frequently describing ISIS.

Frustrated, Evans went public, and Griesemer was pleased. He had pushed Evans to engage the press earlier.

“I value trying to work quietly through individuals and groups, but with the issue of Christian persecution the Jordanian government doesn’t care enough to deal with it until there is public pressure,” Griesemer said.

“It is clear the government was committed to its hypocrisy of waving the flag of religious freedom, but in the background persecute Christians.”

He cited a similar situation a decade earlier. Christian expats were being expelled from Jordan, some under accusations of proselytizing. In many cases no reason was given, though the government stated they were violating the terms of their residency visas. But once the press got involved, Griesemer said, international attention caused Jordan to backtrack and the wave of expulsions ceased, with some reversed.

Evans hopes a media strategy will be successful again, describing his obligation as the one who addressed these issues with King Abdullah, personally.

“I believe it can help the situation, because nothing else has,” he said. “I will speak up for them, no matter the cost.”

But who will pay it?

Imad Shehadeh, the seminary president, had to answer nonstop phone calls and messages about his role in the article. Evans did not check with us, he told them, and circulated published quotes in which he praised the king for winning the Templeton Prize.

“We are praying for protection and no further escalation,” said Shehadeh.

Evans believed he was doing Jordanian evangelicals a favor. In his article the only cases attached to names were ones where he had specific personal permission. But for everyone else, he anticipated their reaction.

“I don’t think they’ll be happy, and they are the ones who live there,” he said. “But they can always say, ‘We didn’t talk to him.’”

But Evans’ article also caught other members of the delegation by surprise. Joel Rosenberg said all conversations with the Jordanian Christians and palace were explicitly off the record. (Evans disputed this.)

“I was disappointed to see a friend of mine break our ground rules of confidentiality with both His Majesty and our Jordanian Christian brothers and sisters, and then publicly accuse King Abdullah of being a bigot,” Rosenberg said. “Nothing could be further from the truth, and it does not reflect the reality.”

After reading Evans’ article against the king, Rosenberg immediately reached out to the Royal Court as well as to Jordanian Evangelical leaders in an effort to limit the damage, even sending a personal note of apology to the king for the unfair attack by one of his delegation members.

In an interview with TMP, Rosenberg praised Abdullah as “far and away the leader of the pack” among other Middle East leaders working to protect Christians, allowing churches to operate openly, and promoting peaceful relations between Muslims and Christians.

“There is no question Jordanian Christians, like all Middle Eastern Christians, have challenges and problems, that is the reality of the region,” he said. “But my direct understanding from evangelical leaders throughout the Hashemite Kingdom is how much they appreciate the king and the freedom they have.

“Any argument by a few frustrated individuals has to be seen in the context of the respect Jordanian society has for Christians.”

Shehadeh spoke similarly, defending King Abdullah.

“Jordan is not a perfect country. No country is,” he said, describing Abdullah’s past interventions to solve Christian issues.

“But the king is in a very difficult position trying to work with people of opposing positions and has consistently done a remarkable job to bring sides together. Political leaders in other countries can learn a lot from him.”

The furor has now died down, Shehadeh described, thanks to Rosenberg’s response.

Award-winning journalist Daoud Kuttab, a committed Christian who lives in Jordan, also downplayed the long-term implications. Evans published in an Israeli newspaper, in English, so most of society was likely ignorant. But he published a response in the Jerusalem Post nonetheless, and called out Evans for shoddy journalism.

“It was a hit job,” he said. “Evans used partial information from renegade and non-mainstream people, without talking to all sides.”

Kuttab quoted the president of the Jordan Baptist Convention stating that only one evangelical church was closed down, but due to the attitude of the pastor Evans cited. (The pastor disputed this.)

“Sure there are problems,” Kuttab said, “but for Evans to call the king a bigot? He made evangelicals look like the reason.”

Evans, however, warned about becoming blind to the abuses of power, just to retain access. Why are Muslim leaders reaching out to them to begin with? Because of their connections to Trump.

“They want things from America, but I don’t think this can be one-sided,” he said. “We’re not official, and we don’t speak for the president.

“But we have influence, and we have to live with our own consciences. It is a matter of integrity and the word of God.”

Perhaps. But it is his call to make? Griesemer, the international church pastor, believes it is worth it, and that he himself paid a high price in having to leave his job, home, and community.

“Either be moderately persecuted in the dark, or speak out and maybe it gets better—or worse. Let God work out the details,” he said.

“I lived there for a decade. I had similar risks, though not the same.”

This article was first published at Religion Unplugged.

 

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Current Events

Francis of Arabia: Will UAE’s Warm Welcome Help Christians Feel More at Home?

Pope Francis UAE
(Pope Francis arrives at the Zayed Sports City in Abu Dhabi for Mass. Victor Besa / The National)

This article was first published at Christianity Today, on Feb. 6, 2019.

Pope Francis must love creating cognitive dissonance.

This week, he became the first Catholic pontiff to ever visit the Arabian Peninsula, the heart of Islam, where conversion to Christianity is illegal. Francis lauded his hosts in the United Arab Emirates (UAE), saying they “strive to be a model for coexistence.”

The Gulf nation’s crown prince received him with a 21-gun salute. Francis then railed against the “miserable crudeness” of war.

Human rights groups pressed him to address migrant worker issues. Francis rejoiced in “a diversity that the Holy Spirit loves and wants to harmonize ever more, in order to make a symphony.”

The mere existence of a Christian community to visit in the Gulf states may surprise many. In 2015, CT visited the Emirates and reported on its “thriving” church, populated by more than a million Christians—primarily economic migrants from Asian nations such as Indonesia and the Philippines.

The Pew Research Center counts them as 13 percent of the population. They worship in over 40 churches, served by over 700 Christian ministries.

And in a region where the Vatican cited a decline of Christians from 20 percent to 4 percent of the Middle East population in the last 100 years, the Emirati government provided a day off and 1,000 buses to bring Catholics to mass.

Attendance reached 135,000, billed as the largest Christian gathering ever held in the Arabian Peninsula.

If the pope does enjoy sparking controversy, he succeeded also among local evangelical leaders…

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

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Current Events

Should Christians Quote Muhammad?

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

Christians Quote Muhammad

Christians breathed a sigh of relief last October when Pakistan’s Supreme Court acquitted Asia Bibi, a Christian mother of five on death row, of blasphemy charges against Islam. What many might not have noticed was the Islamic rationale.

Whether or not she spoke against Muhammad, Bibi was insulted first as a Christian, wrote the judge. And on this, the Qur‘an is clear: Do not insult those that invoke other than Allah, lest they insult Allah in enmity without knowledge.

The verdict also quoted Islam’s prophet himself: “Whoever is cruel and hard on a non-Muslim minority, or curtails their rights … I will complain against the person on the Day of Judgment.”

And finally, it referenced an ancient treaty that Muhammad signed with the monks of Mount Sinai: “Christians are my citizens, and by God, I hold out against anything that displeases them.… No one of the Muslims is to disobey this covenant till the Last Day.”

Today it can seem like Muslims violate this covenant the world over. But does the Bibi decision validate those who insist that Islam rightly practiced is a religion of peace? And should Christians join Muslims to share verses that comprise the Islamic case for religious freedom?

CT surveyed more than a dozen evangelical experts engaged with Muslims or scholarship on Islam who reflected on three key questions when considering interpretations of Islam that favor religious freedom.

[These questions are: Is it true? Is it helpful? Is it enough?]

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

Also: click here to read my related Christianity Today article about The Covenants of the Prophet Muhammad with the Christians of the World, the book which describes the Sinai treaty mentioned above, and others.

Finally, here is a sidebar from the Should Christians Quote Muhammad article, identifying sources in the Islamic tradition on which the evangelical scholars reflected.

Quranic verses regarding Christians:

• Q5:82 – You will find the nearest of them in affection to the believers those who say, “We are Christians.” That is because among them are priests and monks and because they are not arrogant.

• Q2:62 – Indeed, those who believed and those who were Jews or Christians or Sabeans those who believed in Allah and the Last Day and did righteousness—will have their reward with their Lord, and no fear will there be concerning them, nor will they grieve.

• Q22:40 – And were it not that Allah checks the people, some by means of others, there would have been demolished monasteries, churches, synagogues, and mosques in which the name of Allah is much mentioned.

• Q29:46 – And do not argue with the People of the Scripture except in a way that is best.

• Q2:256 – There shall be no compulsion in religion. The right course has become clear from the wrong.

Texts used in Supreme Court of Pakistan acquittal of Asia Bibi:

• Christians are my citizens, and by God, I hold out against anything that displeases them. No compulsion is to be on them … The Muslims are to fight for them … Their churches are to be respected. No one of the Muslims is to disobey this covenant till the Last Day (Covenant with the Monks of Mount Sinai)

• “Beware! Whoever is cruel and hard on a non-Muslim minority, or curtails their rights, or burdens them with more than they can bear, or takes anything from them against their free will; I [Prophet Muhammad] will complain against the person on the Day of Judgment.” (Abu Dawud)

• Q6:108 – “And do not insult those they invoke other than Allah, lest they insult Allah in enmity without knowledge. Thus We have made pleasing to every community their deeds. Then to their Lord is their return, and He will inform them about what they used to do.”

 

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Current Events

Covenantal Theology: Can Muhammad’s Ancient Promise Inspire Muslim-Christian Peace Today?

Supreme Court of Pakistan
(Reuters)

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

Christians esteem the biblical progression of covenants—Abrahamic, Mosaic, Davidic—finalized by Jesus as he ushered in the New.

But for the sake of religious freedom in the Muslim world, should they embrace a further covenant: Muhammadian?

Recent scholarship suggests the potential promise, newly fulfilled in Pakistan.

After eight long years on death row, Asia Bibi was acquitted of blasphemy by the Muslim nation’s Supreme Court in late October. The Christian mother of five had been sentenced for uttering contempt for Muhammad, the prophet of Islam, while attempting to drink water from a well.

The three-judge panel ruled that contradictions in accuser testimony and Bibi’s forced confession by a local cleric rendered the charges invalid. But in the official court document, one justice went as far as to partially base his judgement on how Bibi’s accusers violated an ancient covenant of Muhammad to the Christian monks of Mount Sinai—“eternal and universal … not limited to [them] alone.”

“Blasphemy is a serious offense,” wrote judge Asif Khosa, “but the insult of the appellant’s religion … was also not short of being blasphemous.”

He referenced a 2013 book by John Morrow, a Canadian convert to Islam. The Covenants of the Prophet Muhammad with the Christians of the World is an academic study of six treaties commanding the kind treatment of Christians, reportedly dated to the seventh century.

Each similar in scope, they command Muslims not to attack peaceful Christian communities, to aid in the construction and repair of churches, and even to allow self-regulation of tax payments.

It is “nothing short of providential,” Morrow wrote, that they have been “rediscovered” at a time of widespread Islamist violence against the Christians of the Middle East.

“For Muslims, it means a wake-up call, an awareness that they have deviated from the Islamic tradition,” Morrow told Patheos, a popular religion and spirituality website.

“[It] requires that Muslims not only tolerate Christians, but love them as their brothers and sisters.”

This resonates with…

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

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Religious Liberty: For the Health of the Whole World

From my recent article published at The Media Project:

Religious Liberty
(from: Set My People Free)

But for Durie, the issue is far greater than the right of one person to believe what they want – even as human rights always concern the individual, each and every one of which is sacred.

It is a lonely battle, he laments, though much depends upon it.

“This can be a disheartening, discouraging, and frustrating burden to carry,” he said. “But it is vitally important, not only for the believers themselves, but also for the health and honor of the whole world.”

 

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Giving Thanks, for Khartoum and Kennedy

Thanksgiving Khartoum Kennedy
via Mormon Newsroom and Mohamed Al Hammadi / Crown Prince Court – Abu Dhabi

Happy Thanksgiving to all American friends. Religious freedom is one item of gratitude, as well as positive signs it may be developing around the world.

Consider again these promising signs I’ve been privileged to report on the past two years:

Arab Gulf — Why Christianity is Surging in the Heart of Islam

Indonesia — World’s Biggest Muslim Organization Wants to Protect Christians

Morocco — Arab Christians and the Marrakesh Declaration

Egypt — Let My People Build

Bahrain — Saudi Arabia’s Neighbor Defends Religious Freedom of Individuals

Saudi Arabia — The Game of Thrones Christians Should be Watching

Italy — Muslims Work for Religious Freedom

 

Not all is rosy, of course, and some nations pretend nothing is wrong.

Sudan is one of them. But in recent engagement, the United States has religious freedom on the agenda for improvement of ties and removal of sanctions.

As Crux has reported:

A leading U.S. diplomat visiting Sudan said the United States is willing to work with the Sudanese government to help it achieve the conditions necessary to remove its designation as a “Country of Particular Concern” in the U.S. State Department’s annual International Religious Freedom Report.

Deputy Secretary of State John J. Sullivan was speaking on Nov. 17 at the Al-Neelain Mosque in Omdurman, located on the western bank of the Nile River, which separates it from the national capital.

Sullivan said “supporting human rights, including religious freedom, has been, and will continue to be, a critical part of the United States’ bilateral engagement with Sudan.”

The event at the mosque included leading Muslim and Christian clergy. Sudan is 97 percent Muslim, and the small Christian community has faced harassment, especially since the predominantly Christian and animist south of the country became the independent state of South Sudan in 2011.

The State Department’s 2016 International Religious Freedom Report cited reports of government arresting, detaining, or intimidating Christian clergy and church members, denying permits for the construction of new churches, closing or demolishing existing churches and attempting to close church schools, restricting non-Muslim religious groups and missionaries from operating in or entering the country, and censoring religious materials and leaders.

There is always room for cynicism, and perhaps frequently it is warranted.

Does the United States care more for counterterrorism and military contracts, and will let this item slide if progress is seen elsewhere?

Will Sudan put on a nice face and make superficial improvements, only to squeeze non-Muslim communities once the diplomats leave?

Maybe. But this Thanksgiving, let not cynicism be a landing place. Even the public rhetoric of religious freedom is something to celebrate. It sets a tone; attitudes can adjust over time.

And as the US ambassador told his Sudanese audience, it took a while in America.

“I am the grandson of Irish-Catholic immigrants who arrived in Boston, Massachusetts in the 1880s. At the time they arrived – and for many decades that followed – Catholics in the United States faced widespread prejudice based on their religion,” he said.

“When John F. Kennedy – another Catholic from my home state – ran for president of the United States in 1960, he even had to give a prominent speech to reassure the nation that his faith was compatible with the duties of the office of president.”

Sullivan said recalling such history “seems quaint” today, but added it took many decades – “it was not easy” – to reach the point where it is “nearly unthinkable” that one’s status as a Catholic in the United States would serve as a disadvantage to a person’s ambitions for life.

“The American experience in this regard underscores that respect for the human dignity of every person – regardless of religious belief or origin – is a key component of not only protecting human rights, but also fostering a society that can flourish, build upon each other’s strengths, and move forward together,” he said.

America has had flaws, too. She still has some, and may be developing others.

But today, around the table, give thanks to God for what exists — both at home and abroad.

Those who love God do not need freedom to follow their faith. But ample facilitation makes our world a better place.

Appreciate, and pray for more. And then, enjoy your turkey.

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Current Events

Friday Prayers for Egypt: Princes, Churches

Flag Cross Quran

God,

Help Egypt navigate her way in the world. Help her navigate her way at home.

Ally Saudi Arabia has launched new efforts to curb Iranian influence in the region, while securing power and reform in the kingdom.

There is war in Yemen and Syria. There are palpitations in Lebanon. There is ongoing regional instability.

And then there is Egypt, trying to recover. The president wants peace to prevail. He also has a powerful friend to placate.

God, help Egypt do what is right. Help her protect her interests. May they be the same thing, whatever it is.

Bring peace to the region. End foreign interference. Promote the good of the people. Support freedom and transparency.

May virtue persevere. May vice transform. Give all introspection, and respect for the other.

And if this applies also in Egypt, God, tally the scorecard correctly.

Recently a few churches in the nation have been closed. Some say it is for security reasons. Others speak of license.

A new law heralds a new era. An old issue resurfaces an ongoing frustration.

Egypt welcomes religious freedom for Copts. Sometimes their places of worship find trouble.

God, first and foremost, may the facts be known. What is causing the closures?

Maybe there are neighbors resisting a church in their village. Give power of law to the state; give empathetic consensus to the community.

Maybe there are authorities aligned with old mentalities. Give unity of vision to the state; give real reconciliation to the community.

Maybe there are activists making mountains out of molehills. Give clarity of communication to the state; give patient conviction to the community.

And if there are differing interpretations of your will, give wisdom and insight to all.

God, these issues are tricky, with much on the line. Help Egypt navigate safely, at home in your world.

Amen.

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Current Events

Religious Freedom for the Muslim World: The Unlikely Activism of Kamal Fahmi

Kamal Fahmi

A few excerpts from my article for The Media Project.

Kamal Fahmi sat with Mazen, a Yemeni teenager at a community center in Taiz, Yemen’s third-largest city and cultural capital. Mazen’s father was there, who arranged the meeting.

Impressed with the boy’s intelligence and demeanor, Fahmi learned of their troubling problem.

Mazen didn’t want to study Islam in school.

Fahmi had heard this story before. Visiting Yemen as he had in nations across the region, converts were considered Muslim by birth and in all official paperwork. And for those underage, Islamic education came as part of the package, even if they didn’t believe in it.

Fahmi was sympathetic, but tried to downplay the problem. After all, born into a Christian family in Sudan, he had studied Islam in school also. Hold to your faith, he counseled, but pass the tests.

Yet something in the boy stirred him, as well as the nature of his family. Mazen was not a convert, and neither was his father. His grandfather was, decades earlier. Three generations of Christians, yet still considered Muslims. The injustice gnawed at him.

“They love their country, they are not criminals, they are not spies,” Fahmi said. “If anything, they have become better citizens.

“They should be free to follow what they believe.”

It is not only an issue in the Muslim world, of course:

Worldwide, 26 percent of nations criminalize blasphemy, including Russia, Italy, Myanmar, and the Bahamas. But apostasy law is more characteristically Islamic, with only India and Nigeria as non-Muslim-majority countries.

Please click here to read the full article at The Media Project.