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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 Biblephoto opdivided 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
“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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
…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.
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.”
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.
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 scholarsreflected.
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.”