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Despite Drop in Deportations, Turkey Still Troubles Christians

Image: Chris McGrath / Staff / Getty

Last year, Protestant Christians in Turkey suffered no physical attacks.

There were no reported violations of their freedom to share their faith.

And there was a sharp reduction in foreign missionaries denied residency.

But not all is well, according to the 2021 Human Rights Violation Report, issued March 18 by the nationally registered Association of Protestant Churches (APC).

Hate speech against Christians is increasing, fueled by social media.

Legal recognition as a church is limited to historic places of worship.

And missionaries are still needed, because it remains exceedingly difficult to formalize the training of Turkish pastors.

“Generally there is freedom of religion in our country,” stated the report. “But despite legal protections, there were still some basic problems.”

Efforts to unite Turkey’s evangelicals started in the mid-1990s, and the APC began publishing its yearly human rights reports in 2007. Today the association, officially registered in 2009, represents about 85 percent of Christians within Turkey’s 186 Protestant churches, according to general secretary Soner Tufan.

Only 119 are legal entities.

And of these, only 11 meet in historic church buildings. The great majority rent facilities following their establishment as a religious foundation or a church association. While generally left alone, they are not recognized by the state as formal places of worship and thus are denied free utilities and tax exemption.

And if they present themselves to the government in pursuit of such benefits, officials often warn they are not a church and threaten closure. Sometimes the authorities even try to recruit informants. And some Christians who have refused have lost their jobs.

Other Turkish Protestants are simply harassed. “Dead priest walking,” said residents of Arhavi to a local pastor as…

This article was originally published at Christianity Today on April 6, 2022. Please click here to read the full text.

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Azerbaijan’s Churches Explain Their Evangelism

Image: Emad Aljumah / Getty Images

Emil Panahov has a vision.

“I want to see 96 percent of Azerbaijanis confess their faith in Christ, and revival often began when the king became a believer,” he said. “But our God is the president of presidents, so the government does not rule over me.”

He has a long way to go.

Panahov, founder of the Vineyard church in Muslim-majority Azerbaijan, arrives at his target by inverting his homeland’s estimated proportion of Christians: 4 percent. Most of these are Russian Orthodox, holdovers from when the Caucasus nation of 10 million was part of the Soviet Union.

But the Azerbaijan Bible Society estimates that 20,000 Azeris have become evangelicals, most within the past two decades. And the government—despite being panned for widespread human rights violations in politics—has earned local plaudits for its level of religious freedom, especially toward Christians and Jews.

Panahov’s own story supports his optimism. But is it wise? Orthodox, Catholic, and Presbyterian leaders offer a word of caution.

From an Azeri Muslim family with a communist father, in 1989 Panahov came to faith at the age of 12 through a local Russian Baptist church. But as he grew interested in the arts and dancing, the conservative Christian community could not accept such worldly activity.

Panahov fell away from the faith as he performed professionally around the world—until in 2007 he tore his meniscus. Doctors in Turkey, where he lived at the time, told him he would never dance again.

It was then he recalled Jesus—whom he said spoke a word of healing to him. But through his Turkish pastor, God also gave him a commission: Return to Azerbaijan, and share what God has done for you.

Panahov was reluctant, knowing his artistic passion was a spiritual offense. But trusting God, he went back and eventually found a new church home. Over the next seven years he worshiped comfortably, started a family, and even found work as a dance instructor. But then he heard again the voice that healed him: Go out and start a house church.

He left his fellowship with tears but knew to obey. In the beginning he met mostly with believing relatives, but four years later their number grew to the 50 required by the authorities for registration. Similar miracles have marked many in the movement, which according to Panahov counts 350 believers in 16 cell groups, spread throughout his Caspian Sea country.

And God has used his artistic talent. His team has drawn hundreds to gospel-themed performances in downtown Baku, the nation’s capital. Media and filmmaking have put the message on the internet. The Vineyard church baptized 64 new Christians during the pandemic, he said, and 36 during Azerbaijan’s victorious war with neighboring Armenia.

“Two years ago, the churches did not believe opportunities for evangelism could reach such a level,” Panahov said. “But I know it is from God, because I don’t have the brains for it.”

It is also from the government, which following many years of suppression now works with church leaders to legalize their fellowships. While noting a positive trend, the US Commission on International Religious Freedom still recommends Azerbaijan for inclusion on the State Department’s Special Watch List for religious freedom violators.

Of concern is the legislation that requires 50 people before legal registration. Many evangelicals celebrate the freedom they do have—and the movement of the Holy Spirit to far surpass this number. But some notice…

This article was originally published by Christianity Today on April 1, 2022. Please click here to read the full text.

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Iran’s House Churches Are Not Illegal, Says Supreme Court Justice (Updated)

The nine converts are officially acquitted. Branch 34 of the Tehran Court of Appeals agreed with the reasoning of the Supreme Court judge who ruled last November that the preaching of Christianity does not amount to acting against Iran’s national security.

On Monday, judges Seyed Ali Asghar Kamali and Akbar Johari accepted the converts’ lawyer’s testimony that their house church was “in accordance with the teachings of Christianity,” where they are taught to live in “obedience, submission, and support of the authorities.”

The precedent is strong, said Mansour Borji, advocacy director for Article 18, because the judges extensively outlined nine reasons in the acquittal, in line with the Iranian constitution and Islamic tradition.

But it may take time until the ruling becomes normative. One of the nine, Abdolreza Ali-Haghnejad, is already back in jail on a six-years-old separate charge of propagating Christianity, for which he was previously acquitted. And two others, Behnam Akhlaghi and Babak Hosseinzadeh, who made video appeals for freedom of worship, were charged with a separate crime of propaganda against the state.

Iranian Christians welcome the verdict, said Borji, but remain wary.

“This ruling is unlike any other of its type that I have seen,” he said. “[But] at least a dozen others … are still in prison—or enforced internal exile—following their own convictions on similar charges.”

This article updates a previously published piece at Christianity Today, from December 3, 2021. Please click here to read the full text.

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Iran’s House Churches Are Not Illegal, Says Supreme Court Justice (Updated)

Image: Courtesy of Article 18

Update: The 9 converts to Christianity made eligible for release by November’s Supreme Court ruling remain in prison for their faith, according to Mansour Borji, advocacy director for Article 18. The judge had ruled that promotion of Christianity through house churches is not illegal.

But another case is contributing to the establishment of precedent.

A revolutionary court prosecutor in the city of Dezful, 450 miles southwest of Tehran, declined to bring charges against eight converts to Christianity. Four were arrested in April, with four others later added to the case.

Hojjat Khalaf, Esmaeil Narimanpour, Alireza Varak-Shah, Mohammad Ali Torabi, Alireza Zadeh, Masoud Nabi, Mohammad Kayidgap, and Mohsen Zadeh were facing criminal accusations for “propaganda against the Islamic Republic of Iran.”

The judge provided a written explanation on November 30. According to Middle East Concern, he stated that although apostasy is a crime according to Islamic sharia, it is not an offense according to the laws of Iran. Borji said the decision was unrelated to the recent Supreme Court ruling (below), as this case had not yet even made it to court.

“The prosecutor was simply not convinced with made up charges by intelligence officers with no shred of evidence,” he said. “But his reasoning is very important.”

This update was added by Christianity Today on December 21, 2021, for an article originally published on December 3. Please click here to read the full text.

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Iran’s House Churches Are Not Illegal, Says Supreme Court Justice

Image: Courtesy of Article 18.

Currently at least 20 Christians are jailed in Iran because their faith was deemed a threat to the Islamic republic’s national security. Of the more than 100 Iranian believers imprisoned since 2012, all have faced similar charges.

But a recent decision by a Supreme Court justice gives hope to them all.

“Merely preaching Christianity … through family gatherings [house churches] is not a manifestation of gathering and collusion to disrupt the security of the country, whether internally or externally,” stated the judge, Seyed-Ali Eizadpanah.

“The promotion of Christianity and the formation of a house church is not criminalized in law.”

Two years ago, nine converts from the non-Trinitarian Church of Iran in Rasht, 200 miles northeast of Tehran near the Caspian Sea, were arrested in raids on their homes and church.

Sentenced to a five-year prison term in October 2019, Abdolreza Ali Haghnejad, Shahrooz Eslamdoust, Behnam Akhlaghi, Babak Hosseinzadeh, Mehdi Khatibi, Khalil Dehghanpour, Hossein Kadivar, Kamal Naamanian, and Mohammad Vafadar are now eligible for release.

The ruling, announced November 24, is “unprecedented,” according to multiple Iranian Christians and international advocates.

“The judge’s main argument is what we have been saying for years,” said Mansour Borji, advocacy director for Article 18, a UK-based organization promoting freedom of religion in Iran that tallied the cases noted above from available public records.

“But it astonished us to hear it at such a high level.” It also cuts against the grain of international understanding. The US State Department’s latest religious freedom report on Iran…

This article was originally published at Christianity Today on December 3, 2021. Please click here for the full text.

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Egypt’s President Promotes Religious Choice During Human Rights Rollout

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

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

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

The comment sent shockwaves through Egyptian society.

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

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

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

Will Sisi’s words signal a change?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A week later, charges were dropped against four NGOs.

Egyptian Christians, however, are far less critical…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Warda has long been investing to turn the tide.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Will Central Asia Become ‘Stans’ for Religious Freedom?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Algerian Christians finally have something to celebrate.

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

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

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

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

Now they have.

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

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

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

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

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Just a Bill: Religious Freedom Consensus Rarely Voted into Law

Antony Blinken

Secretary of State Antony Blinken called out Saudi Arabia.

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

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

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

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

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

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

The US Congress.

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

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

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

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

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

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Christianity Today Published Articles Religious Freedom

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

Image: USCIRF, from the cover of their 2021 report

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Credit: Beau Giles

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

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

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

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

The measure will outlaw…

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

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Montenegro’s Churches Get a Religious Freedom Do-Over

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Their first priority was to change the religious freedom law.

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

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

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

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Americas Christianity Today Published Articles Religious Freedom

Polarized Americans Still Support Religious Freedom

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

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

The right to free speech held firm amid racial tensions.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Sudan’s Partially Answered Prayers

Archbishop Ezekiel Kondo

Sudan is rejoining the community of nations.

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

Archbishop Ezekiel Kondo of Sudan has witnessed the entire history.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Are there Sudanese Christians against normalization?

I don’t think…

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

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

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

Their reactions vary.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Current Events

Will International Religious Freedom Survive the Trump Administration?

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

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

It received almost no media attention.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“If you care about religious freedom…

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

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Current Events

Israel Orders Christian TV Channel to Stop Broadcasting

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

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

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

The decision was first reported by the Haaretz daily.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nowhere did the channel state…

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

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Current Events

Do Catholics Care about Persecuted Christians?

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For the first time, American legislation in defense of international religious freedom has reached into the Chinese Politburo.

Last week, President Donald Trump signed into law a bill to authorize sanctions against any officials in China’s top political body responsible for ongoing persecution against the country’s Muslim Uighur minority.

Passed by Congress with only one “no” vote, the action follows on the heels of this month’s release of the State Department’s 2019 Report on International Religious Freedom (IRF).

During the report’s public release, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo lauded the United States’s commitment.

“America is not a perfect nation by any means, we always strive towards that more perfect union, trying to improve,” he said.

“[But] there is no other nation that cares so deeply about religious freedom.”

Such commitment was marked this week by the US Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB). Each day from June 22–29 highlights an issue of concern, whether domestic or international.

Yesterday (June 24) the focus was on China.

Last summer, the government-affiliated Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association—representing about half of China’s estimated 12 million Catholics—condemned US criticism after the State Department’s second Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom advocated for the 800,000 to 2 million Uighurs and other Muslim minorities who have been arbitrarily detained in internment camps.

But one month later, the Chinese government permitted the first consecration of a Vatican-ordained bishop—a result of Pope Francis signing a controversial 2018 deal with Chinese authorities in an attempt to unite Rome with the underground Catholic church.

The US bipartisan consensus evident in the Uighur law reflects Pompeo’s assertion. First amendment rights guarantee freedom for all religions, and Americans generally desire for such liberty to extend worldwide.

But is there particular concern over Christian persecution? And is religious liberty eroding at home?

Two new polls suggest declining Catholic attention abroad, while the faithful grow more worried about the US. Aid to the Church in Need–USA (ACN–USA), an international papal agency that supports suffering and persecuted Christians in more than 140 countries, surveyed 1,000 US Catholics…

This article was first published at Christianity Today, on June 25, 2020. Please click here to read the full text.