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Interview with Oleksandr Turchynov, Coordinator of Ukraine’s Conservative Movement

(Photo by Thomas Koehler/Photothek via Getty Images)

CT: How do you interpret Russian President Vladimir Putin’s intentions on the border, and how likely is a full invasion?

Turchynov: It is rather difficult to interpret, and it is even more difficult to treat him as someone whose actions can be explained with ordinary civilized values.

One aspect involves political and economic interests, such as the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline. At the same time, Putin is raising the stakes as a tactic, issuing ultimatums. His approach serves to further polarization and undermines both NATO and the European Union (EU) concerning the expansion of membership.

It is kind of a game, growing worse for everyone. But if the West and Ukraine were to consolidate their actions, Putin wouldn’t be able to prevail. Full-scale invasion is an extremely dangerous project—mainly for Putin himself. But he is capable of making inadequate decisions.

CT: How have discussions with US President Joe Biden changed the situation, if at all? How do you view the response from the West?

Turchynov: One of Putin’s purposes was a glorious moment of triumph by sitting with President Biden as equals at the table of negotiations. But sometimes it is necessary to talk to a terrorist, to distract him from his acts of terror.

Some Ukrainians wanted to hear a different response from the White House, for example by…

This article was originally published by Christianity Today, on January 4, 2022. Please click here to read the full text.

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On Ukraine-Russia Border, Evangelicals Endure as Invasion Looms

Image: Alexander Reka / TASS / Getty Images
A Christmas light installation in Luhansk, Ukraine, by a monument to the 2000th anniversary of the Nativity of Christ, on December 24, 2021

Ukraine celebrates Christmas twice, honoring both the Eastern and Western church calendars. Yet this season, Pentecostals spent the week leading up to December 25 in prayer and fasting while Baptists did the same from Christmas Day to New Year’s Day.

The reason: tens of thousands of Russian troops amassed on the border, threatening a full invasion.

Russian-backed separatists have held control of the Donbas region of southeastern Ukraine since 2014. This past November, the European Evangelical Alliance (EEA) declared Donbas “the area of Europe where the church suffers the most.” In total the conflict has killed over 14,000 people and displaced 2 million of the region’s 5 million people.

“Prayer is our spiritual weapon,” said Igor Bandura, vice president of the Baptist Union of Ukraine. “God can undo what the politicians are planning.”

This past Friday, US President Joe Biden warned Russian President Vladimir Putin that any further invasion of Ukraine would result in “a heavy price to pay”; Putin replied that any new sanctions would trigger a complete breakdown in relations. On Monday, Biden told Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky that the US and its allies would “respond decisively” to Russian aggression; Zelensky signaled appreciation for the “unwavering support.”

Trying to help years ago from the Russian side, Vitaly Vlasenko was labeled a spy.

Traveling 650 miles south from Moscow to Luhansk, Ukraine, at his own expense, the now–general secretary of the Russian Evangelical Alliance (REA) waded into a war zone.

By 2018, separtist leaders in Donbas had crafted laws to re-register churches, ostensibly under the principle of freedom of conscience and assembly. But two years prior, authorities in Luhansk declared Baptists and Pentecostals a security threat. Pastors had been murdered; churches were seized.

“Our brothers in Christ in Ukraine are crying out: ‘Why don’t you pressure Russia to stop this aggression?’” said Vlasenko. “We tell them we are a small minority with no standing and no clear information, and officially Russia is not a part of this conflict.”

It does not go over well, he admits. Relations between evangelicals in the neighboring nations have become strained, and some assumed the worst of his December 2018 trip to speak with rebel authorities about the registration process.

Only the KGB-connected could get access, Vlasenko heard.

In reality, Vlasenko said the visit was arranged through prior connections with the Russian Orthodox Church metropolitan in Luhansk. Your church received registration, the REA leader told his Orthodox counterpart; where is our Christian solidarity?

Without registration, churches were disconnected from the gas and electricity grid. All remaining evangelical churches were operating illegally, but some still had use of their facilities. But now it was winter, and cold.

The metropolitan agreed the situation was wrong and facilitated contact with the religious affairs official. Vlasenko was told registration would be given to all who completed procedures. He passed on the information to Ukrainian colleagues. But today, he said, relations are at a standstill.

“I understand they are in a difficult situation,” Vlasenko said. “Most churches have their headquarters in Kyiv, so how can they accept registration and explain this to their brothers in the [Ukrainian] capital?”

But Donbas churches face a choice: Continue to suffer, or continue in ministry. Vlasenko stays neutral, as he cannot advise them as a Russian.

Religious freedom problems in Donbas listed by the EEA include…

This article was originally published by Christianity Today on January 4, 2022. Please click here to read the full text.

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Suing for Peace: Can Clerics Reconcile Armenia and Azerbaijan Better Than Courts?

Image: Courtesy of Mother See of Holy Etchmiadzin, Information Services
Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill I reads a joint statement flanked by Armenian Catholicos Karekin II (left) and Azerbaijan Grand Mufti of the Caucasus Allahshukur Pashazade (right) in Moscow on October 13.

After 17 tries, there is still no peace in Nagorno-Karabakh.

Almost a year ago, Russia brokered a November 2020 ceasefire to end the 44-day war between Azerbaijan and Armenia over the Caucasus mountain enclave. Azerbaijan reclaimed most of its internationally recognized territory occupied since 1994 by ethnic Armenians, who demand independence.

Armenia has been a Christian nation since A.D. 301. Azerbaijan is majority Muslim. But spiritual leaders have been no more successful than politicians or generals at securing reconciliation.

Yet that has not stopped Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill I from trying.

“Our religions have a unique peace-making potential,” he stated at last week’s tripartite summit of top clerical leaders. “No matter how difficult Armenian-Azerbaijani relations are at this stage, we believe that it is faith in God, and love, that can help heal the wounds.”

And they are many.

The post–Soviet Union conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh—called Artsakh by Armenians—killed 30,000 people and displaced 1 million. As Azerbaijan recaptured the territory—slightly larger than Rhode Island—last year, another 7,000 were killed. Mutual acrimony has characterized relations, with both sides accusing the other of destroying their religious heritage.

The first meeting of spiritual leaders was held in 1993. The 16th in 2017. Simply by bringing these leaders together…

This article was originally published at Christianity Today on October 19, 2021. Please click here to read the full text.

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Azerbaijan Evangelicals: Conflict with Armenians Is Not a Religious War

Church of Kish in Azerbaijan, by Asif Masimov

Vadim Melnikov once fought for the land of Noah.

Donning his Azerbaijani uniform 17 years ago, the ethnic Russian took his post to defend Nakhchivan, an Azeri enclave bordering Turkey and separated from their countrymen by the nation of Armenia.

Known in both the Armenian and Azeri languages as “the place of descent,” referring to Noah’s landing on nearby Mt. Ararat, Nakhchivan is a geographical reminder of the mixed ethnic composition of the Caucasus Mountains.

As is Nagorno-Karabakh, an Armenian enclave within Azerbaijan.

Its etymology is also a reminder of the region’s diversity. Nagorno is Russian for mountains, while Karabakh combines the Turkic for black and the Persian for garden.

Armenians call it Artsakh, the name of a province in their ancient kingdom. For the last three weeks, they have been defending their de facto control of the region as Azerbaijan fights to reassert its sovereignty.

As Melnikov did decades ago in Nakhchivan. Armenian soldiers crossed into Azeri mountain villages, before his unit drove them out.

This was one of the many border conflicts that followed a war of demography. But in the years before and after the 1991 independence of both nations, about 30,000 people were killed as hundreds of thousands on both sides fled or were driven to their lands of ethnic majority.

A 1994 ceasefire established the status quo, and the Minsk Group—headed by Russia, France, and the United States—preside over negotiations.

Despite the previous ethnic violence, Azerbaijan boasts that it remains a nation of multicultural tolerance. Of its 10 million population, 96 percent are Muslim—roughly two-thirds Shiite and one-third Sunni. Russian Orthodox represent two-thirds of the Christian population, while over 15,000 Jews date back to the Old Testament era.

Melnikov is part of the 0.26 percent evangelical community. And on behalf of their nation, eight churches and the Azerbaijan Bible Society wrote an open letter to decry the popular conception that this conflict pits Muslims against Christians. (Nearly 700 Armenian soldiers have been killed so far. Azerbaijan does not disclose military casualties.)

“The war which has been between Azerbaijan and Armenia during the last 30 years is purely political confrontation, it has no religious context,” they wrote.

“In fact, this history and [the] continuous attempts of Armenia to present this war as a religious one, can become a stumbling block for many Azerbaijani people, who hear [the] gospel nowadays.” An earlier letter by leaders of Azerbaijan’s Muslim, Jewish, and Russian Orthodox communities…

This article was originally published at Christianity Today, on October 21, 2020. Please click here to read the full text.

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Armenians Fight to Hold Ancient Homeland Within Azerbaijan

Fierce fighting has broken out in the Caucasus mountains between the Caspian and Black seas, pitting Christian Armenians versus Muslim Azeris.

But is it right to employ their religious labels?

“Early Sunday morning [Sept. 27], I received a phone call from our representative in the capital city,” said Harout Nercessian, the Armenia representative for the Armenian Missionary Association of America (AMAA).

“He said they are bombing Stepanakert. It is a war.”

One week later, the fighting continues. At stake is control over the Armenian-majority enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh, home to 170,000 people in a Delaware-sized mountainous region within Azerbaijan.

More than 200 people have reportedly died, though Azerbaijan has not released its number of casualties.

Administered by ethnic Armenians ever since a ceasefire was declared in 1994, locals call the region the Republic of Artsakh. Military skirmishes have not been unusual. There have been more than 300 incidents since 2015, according to the International Crisis Group.

This escalation is the most serious since 2016, with Azerbaijani forces attacking multiple positions along the 120-mile “line of contact.”

But the shelling of civilian cities represents a worrisome development.

As does the role of Turkey—and the Syrian militants it allegedly recruited—which has pledged full support for Azerbaijan.

Russia, France, and the United States—partners in the “Minsk Group” which has overseen negotiations between the two nations since 1992—have called for an immediate ceasefire. But Turkey has encouraged Azerbaijan President Ilham Aliyev’s refusal, conditioning a ceasefire on…

This article was originally published at Christianity Today, on October 6, 2020. Please click here to read the full text.

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From Russia, Without Love: Ukraine Marks Orthodox Christmas with Biggest Schism Since 1054

ukraine russia tomos autocephaly

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

The Orthodox Church of Ukraine has been born again.

On January 6, it received the tomos of autocephaly—the documentation of its independence among Eastern church bodies—from one Orthodox heavyweight, the Patriarch of Constantinople, despite the vociferous opposition of another heavyweight, the Patriarch of Moscow.

To understand the significance of the biggest Christian schism since the Protestant Reformation, unfolding since last fall and formalized this weekend as Eastern churches celebrated Christmas Eve, a brief history is in order.

Founded in Kiev in 988 A.D., Vladimir the Great accepted Christianity on behalf of the Rus peoples, who would eventually constitute the nations of Russia, Belorussia, and Ukraine.

Tradition holds that the formerly pagan Vladimir wished to give a religion to his realm, and queried representatives of Judaism, Islam, and the different rites of Christianity.

Astounded by the majesty of the Byzantine mass, Vladimir chose Constantinople. In 1054, the Great Schism split Christianity—and the Rus remained in the Eastern Orthodox world.

Geopolitical winds shifted, however, and in 1686 the Patriarch of Constantinople—considered within Orthodox leadership to be the first among equals—placed the patriarchate of Kiev under the ascendant patriarchal church of Moscow.

In the modern era, geopolitical and religious winds continued to blow…

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

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Mideast Christians See Russia–not the US–as Defender of their Faith


Russia Middle East Christians
Image: John Holcroft

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

War was swirling in Syria. Rebels were pressing. And Maan Bitar was the only hope for American help.

“Because I am evangelical, everyone thinks I have channels of communication,” said the pastor of the Presbyterian Church in Mhardeh. “Syrians believe the United States has the power to stop the conflict—if it wants to.”

In the early years of the civil war, Bitar’s Orthodox neighbors were desperate to convince the US and its allies to end support of rebel forces. Mhardeh, a Christian city 165 miles north of Damascus, was being shelled regularly from across the Orontes River.

But salvation came from a different source. Russian airpower turned the tide, and Syrian government-aligned troops drove the rebels from the area.

Russian intervention on behalf of Mideast Christians has pricked the conscience of many American evangelicals. Long conditioned to Cold War enmity, the question is entertained: Are they the good guys in the cradle of Christianity? Or are persecuted Christians just a handy excuse for political interests?

“The news tells us Russian troops are bringing peace to the region, said Vitaly Vlasenko, ambassador-at-large for the Russian Evangelical Alliance. “Maybe this is propaganda, but we don’t hear anything else.”

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

But here also is testimony from Egypt, unfortunately cut due to word count:

“If Russia helps anyone to save them from death and danger [in Syria], we welcome this,” said Boules Halim, spokesman for the Coptic Orthodox Church. “Not just for Christians, but for humanity.”

Halim had no comment on Russian political developments with Egypt. But despite technically not being in communion over disagreements with the fifth-century Chalcedonian Creed, relations with the Russian Orthodox Church are growing increasingly strong.

Pope Tawadros has met Putin. Theological students are being exchanged. Russian monks are touring Egyptian monasteries.

“We are coming together in dialogue,” Halim said. “Better communication leads to better understanding.”


Friday Prayers for Egypt: Russia, Air and Chemical

Flag Cross Quran


For the first time in two years, Aeroflot returned to Cairo. Russia had suspended all air travel following a terrorist attack on a tourist carrier, and security precautions still prevent direct flights to the popular Red Sea resorts.

Let it not happen again, God.

But as Russian-Egyptian relations return to normal, give discernment in current affairs.

How should the government consider accusations of poison in the UK, and gas in Syria?

Let the truth be known, God, if only to the privy of world leaders. Let Egypt’s president act accordingly.

But give knowledge also to the world community.

Allow heads-of-state the discretion to maneuver. But disclose secret deeds done in darkness. Give no cover to illness in conduct.

None can stand on your holy hill, God. But the heart of a man may yet be made pure. May such men lead their nations well.

Help Egypt stand with many. As necessary, help Egypt stand alone.

Strong. In peace.




Why Aleppo Fell

(via Business Insider)

I can’t pretend to know the answer to why Aleppo fell, but Juan Cole tells us only part of it did. The more populous section, says the University of Michigan professor, may well have been glad to see the rebels go.

There had been 250,000 Sunni Arabs of a more religious mindset and from a working class background living there under rebel control since 2012. But next door in West Aleppo, which our television stations won’t talk about, were 800,000 to a million people who much preferred to be under the rule of the regime.

This numerous and relatively well off population took occasional mortar fire from the slums of East Aleppo. They weren’t in the least interested in saving the rebels from the Russians or the Iraqi Shiite militias or from the regime itself.

Syria is an incredibly diverse society, he says, guesstimating:

Alawite Shiites: 14%
Christians: 7%
Druze: 3%
Ismailis: 1%
Twelver Shiites: 0.5%
Kurds: 10%
Secular Sunni Arabs: 30%
Religious Sunni Arabs: 34.5%

And basically, the rebels alienated the people as they drifted further and further toward the better funded and more capable Salafi-Jihadi fighters.

But when the regime used heavy weaponry on the revolutionaries, the latter militarized their struggle. They weren’t able to get funding from democratic countries for their militias or for the purchase of weapons.

Many turned to Turkey and the Gulf countries like Saudi Arabia, and these patrons wanted them to adopt a clear Muslim fundamentalist identity. Most Syrians are not Muslim fundamentalists. But that is the mindset of the Saudi elite.

Maybe Western nations should have funded the struggle, then? Throughout the article Cole condemns Assad, Russia, and Hizbollah. He seems to harbor some sympathy toward the original revolution and the moderate factions.

But at the same time, this is how he describes the Muslim Brotherhood:

Many of the fighters in the rebel opposition were Muslim Brotherhood, a relatively moderate fundamentalist group in Syria which nevertheless does want to impose a medieval version of Islamic law on the whole country.

If this is moderation, what to make of that rhetoric overall? Nevertheless it was the al-Qaeda linked Nusra Front that subjected the Syrian regime to the most damage, and twice almost cut off Damascus from key supply lines before outside intervention relieved the pressure.

Why then did the Syrians not rally behind the rebels against the likes of Hizbollah (first) and Russian (second) intervention?

Most people in Syria don’t trust the Muslim Brotherhood and they really, really dislike the Salafi Jihadis.

He boils down to this:

So you get 70% of the people in the country who, having been given the unpalatable choice between the Baath regime of al-Assad and being ruled by Salafi Jihadis, reluctantly chose al-Assad.

That is why the Aleppo pocket fell.

I can’t say if he is correct or not. But amid the horrible images of Aleppo broadcast in the media, it is wise to consider a lesser heard explanation.

And then, look again at the photo above. No matter their orientation, there are still innocents among them. And even the less innocent are human, including the far from innocent.

War is sad.


Friday Prayers for Egypt: Russia, Give and Take

Flag Cross Quran


Russia is a strange ally. The week begins with the declaration her airliner was brought down by a bomb. It ends with agreement to build a nuclear reactor.

Help Egypt in the back and forth. Negotiate the give and take.

Egypt is maintaining caution in making any pronouncements on terrorism, waiting until the commission concludes. Russia had been with them, then with the UK stopped the tourist flow.

Is it pressure politics or necessary precaution? Rebuke Egypt if she is playing games. Protect Egypt if others are.

But rebuild the tourist sector, God, and with it Egypt’s professional reputation. Help her standardize operations and keep all safe. Thwart those intent on causing her harm.

And may building a reactor result only in good.

God, honor Egypt with the energy she needs. With nuclear comes risk, and maybe temptation. All assurances are given that intentions are peaceful. There is so much to gain, so much to go wrong.

Keep Egypt safe from error. Guard against negligence. Handle waste. Hinder sabotage.

Between now and completion, make Egypt ready.

In relationship with Russia, may Egypt both benefit and avoid entanglement. In all international affairs, help her stay sovereign. Help her do right.

May Egypt neither give nor take, God. May she bless. May she experience your example, and imitate.



Rudeness and Retort: The Russian Airline Crash in Sinai

(from Egyptian Streets, sharing a screenshot from the Washington Post)
(from Egyptian Streets, sharing a screenshot from the Washington Post)

The downing of a Russian tourist plane over Egypt’s Sinai has stirred the emotions of many. An editorial is allowed greater range of expression than that expected of sober journalism, but this analysis by the Washington Post is not only frightfully early, but incredibly rude:

The state media controlled by Messrs. Putin and Sissi have a nasty habit of blaming all disasters on the United States, no matter how far-fetched the theory required. So we won’t be surprised if Russians and Egyptians are told the CIA is somehow responsible for the tragedy in the Sinai. Those seeking a more rational conclusion must consider this somber point: The Egyptian and Russian regimes are far less adept at fighting terrorism than they are at lying.

The above is their conclusion, even though the authors admitted neither Putin nor Sisi have ruled out terrorism. In fact the editorial earlier stated:

As U.S. officials underlined, there are strong indications but so far no conclusive evidence that the plane was bombed.

The Washington Post story caused the independent grassroots publication Egyptian Streets to publish its own editorial demanding an apology:

I find this editorial one of the most sickening pieces I’ve read in my life. The Post, walking the line of most of the western media, believes it has such a high moral stance that it can pass on judgements about a government that lost 224 of its citizens in a plane crash, and another that will suffer severe consequences in its tourism industry due to it. Instead of showing solidarity and support for a country that is struggling to get back on its feet, the western media seems almost cheerful that this accident took place. They are taking the opportunity to politicize the misery, in an attempt to undermine the Egyptian and Russian governments – falling so low as to accuse them of being liars.

The author is clear the Egyptian government has many failings, but that it has indeed made great gains against terrorism. And if the Post wishes to chastise a nation for falsehood in connection with terrorism, it has a far better target:

Under the pretext of the war on terror, the United States and the United Kingdom occupied Iraq with no international mandate, hung its president, dissolved its ruling party, fragmented its military and shed millions of innocent Iraqi lives. The United States government lied about Saddam Hussein having weapons of mass destruction – and no US or UK official has been held accountable for this lie until today. Besides the destruction of the Iraqi State and the killing of over a million innocent civilians, the invasion has also fueled the creation of the very terrorists Egypt is fighting today.

So are the ‘locals’ quick to scapegoat anyone but themselves?

Egyptians are not hysterical people who would continuously blame all of their problems on the United States or the CIA, as the Post alleges. Egyptians have legitimate reasons to be wary of American foreign policy in the region, as they are suffering its catastrophic repercussions today.

I don’t know what is taking place behind the scenes. But the Egyptian government has stated that Western governments have not shared the intelligence being mentioned in the press. Is this also Egyptian blustering? If not, then why is critical evidence being released to the public before going to the sovereign nations responsible to sort out this tragedy? The inquiry the Post labels as stonewalling also includes Irish and French experts. Are these in on it also? Why the rush to judgment?

Of course, about the only good reason would be that they did share it, and Egypt still obfuscates. If it was a bomb, and if the governments are more concerned about their shelf-life than their citizens, countless lives of foreign vacationers could still be at stake. If Egypt was to bury its head in the sand, the media slap in the face might be needed. After all, neither Egypt nor Russia have the best record of transparency.

But such rudeness from a respectable publication?

To start with, it is beyond doubt that the Egyptian government has its flaws in managing the economy, its overflowing and corrupt bureaucracy, and its lack of respect for human rights. But things have come to a point where the western media needs to be put in its proper place.

That place is to report, to investigate, and to hold accountable. That day may come for Sisi’s and Putin’s handling of this tragedy. But until then, take care before calling someone a liar. And show respect to a nation in crisis.


Friday Prayers for Egypt: Probable Cause

Flag Cross QuranGod,

A week later, still not enough is known. What caused the Russian airliner to fall from the sky?

A joint Egyptian-Russian team has been studying debris and black boxes, but has yet to issue a final report.

But ISIS’s affiliate in the Sinai claimed – twice – that it brought down the plane, though it will withhold specifics until a time of its choosing.

And officials in the US and UK have stated that an onboard bomb is the most likely cause, garnished from intelligence gained in online chatter.

Since then tourists are being evacuated, airlines are changing flight paths, vacationers are being warned, and Egypt is growing angry. The damage to her tourist industry is immeasurable, already in a climate of economic stress.

God, make sense of it all soon.

May the truth be known. May precautions be taken. May all stay safe. May they vacation in peace.

But God, why are nations not cooperating? Are Egypt and Russia dragging their feet, afraid to confirm a terrorist act? Are the US and UK leaking suspicion for political pressure?

Comfort the families of those who have died. Facilitate the return of tourists who wish. Help experts share intel and information. Keep a bad situation from becoming worse.

God, responsible or not for this tragedy, root out the terrorism that claims and rejoices.

But God, settle everyone’s spirits. Let neither fear nor frustration influence sound judgment. Grant Egypt wisdom and leadership to guide through this crisis.

May all be known transparently. May all be safer in the end.

God, bless Egypt and all who visit.



Friday Prayers for Egypt: Russia, Floods

Flag Cross QuranGod,

It is sad to pray that a tragedy will have resulted from negligence. It is sad to pray about negligence that helped produce a tragedy.

In the space of a week, God, Egypt witnessed both. May the former not have long term consequence. May the latter bring long term change.

A Russian tourist plane crashed in the Sinai on its return trip home. Scores are dead, including children, with rescue operations ongoing. Initial reports suggest technical problems with the airplane.

But the crash occurred near the focal point of Egypt’s terrorist activity. Soon it will be clear, but God, may all have been a tragic accident.

Either way, God, comfort the families. Rescue those still alive. And for the sake of Egypt and her economy, may vital Russian tourism not be scared away.

Only a few days earlier exceptional floods swept through the city of Alexandria. Torrential rainfall overwhelmed a drainage system ill equipped and unaccustomed. The governor resigned, though he had inquired about capabilities in advance. Several people died, damage is extensive.

God, comfort the families. But hold responsible the officials high and low who failed in due diligence. May this tragedy result in a city stronger in infrastructure. May it result in a nation unwilling to sweep problems under the rug.

And God, may it not take tragedy to spur Egypt to action. Grant Egypt stability, but lift her from lethargy.

As people fail to vote and candidates fail to inspire, instill in Egyptians a sense of deep personal responsibility. May they engender reform to hold the rest accountable.

And where there is only accident, God, help Egypt to rally. Spare her further suffering and may better days come.



Friday Prayers for Egypt: Regional Balance

Flag Cross QuranGod,

Help Egypt to honor her neighbors, near and far. Help her to satisfy commitments, repay debts, and work for peace.

Help her toward a wise and sovereign foreign policy.

Egypt is alive economically because of Saudi aid. Egypt supports their offensive in Yemen. Saudi Arabia desires the fall of Syria’s Assad. Egypt backs Russian strikes against Assad’s enemies.

Egypt appoints a culture minister who speaks against Wahhabism. Saudi welcomes a pro-Brotherhood luminary.

There are interests in international relations, God, but there are also principles. There is balance of power, but also use of power. Hard as it may be to determine, there is right and wrong.

Right is to honor neighbors. Right is to satisfy commitments. Right is to repay debts.

Right is to work for peace.

On Syria, Egypt has called for a political solution. Is this right, God? Has too much wrong been waged that might must impose from the outside?

God, find a peaceful solution. Too many have died. Too many have suffered. Too many are implicated.

There is compromise, God, but there is also hypocrisy. There is the lesser of evils, but also evil. Help Egypt, her neighbors, and the international community to conduct themselves rightly.

Bring balance to the region, God. Bring peace, justice, and stability. Bless Egypt with sovereignty. May she use it to bless others.



A Christian Taliban

Ukraine Christian Taliban

In case anyone needed reminding, the use of religion to further militant political goals is not exclusive to Islam. The Intercept reports from Ukraine, where middle aged Dmytro Korchynsky has formed a private battalion, the Jesus Christ Hundred, dedicated to St. Mary, to fight the Russians.

In the 1990s he fought alongside Muslims in the Caucasus. Now he consciously borrows from them:

Korchynsky points approvingly to Lebanon. There, Hezbollah participates in government as a political party, while its paramilitary wing wages war independent of the state (and is thus considered, by the United States and the European Union, a terrorist organization). Korchynsky believes that sort of dual structure would be beneficial for Ukraine. He sees himself as the head of an informal “revolutionary community” that can carry out “higher order tasks” that are beyond the formal control of government.

That’s the theory. In practice, Korchynsky wants the war in eastern Ukraine to be a religious war. In his view, you have to take advantage of the situation: Many people in Ukraine are dissatisfied with the new government, its broken institutions and endemic corruption. This can only be solved, he believes, by creating a national elite composed of people determined to wage a sort of Ukrainian jihad against the Russians.

“We need to create something like a Christian Taliban,” he told me. “The Ukrainian state has no chance in a war with Russia, but the Christian Taliban can succeed, just as the Taliban are driving the Americans out of Afghanistan.”

The article is long and interesting, but here are his Christian foundations:

Just as Islamic extremists selectively highlight Quranic passages that endorse violence, the St. Mary’s Catechism opens with the words of Jesus from the Gospel of Matthew: “Think not that I am come to send peace on earth: I came not to send peace, but a sword.” The Catechism then adds its own interpretation: “Christianity should be treated like a sword, and not as a pillow.”

And like the jihadi emphasis on the glories of martyrdom and life in the afterworld, the Catechism explains that only those who follow the path prescribed by the Brotherhood shall receive the highest reward in heaven: “The end of the world is joyous, the destruction of the solar system will be a great celebration, and the second coming of Jesus to earth will be unexpected, and the terrible Final Judgment will become joyful. In the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, Amen.”

The battalion naturally has a chaplain. Here is how he came to fight:

When the fighting first started, he saw supporters of the separatist Donetsk People’s Republic bullying young girls on Ukrainian Independence Day simply because they wore traditional Ukrainian embroidery. One time, he says, the separatists brutally punished a woman for wearing the embroidery. They drove nails into her feet and forced her to walk through the street.

It was pure evil, he explains, and is why it’s now necessary to fight. Father Volodymyr invoked the words of St. Paul, who said, “if you do that which is evil, be afraid; for he bears not the sword in vain: for he is the minister of God, an avenger to execute wrath upon him that does evil.”

Here is the testimony of one of his fighters:

“Everything with us is based on faith in Jesus Christ,” says Partisan. “We believe that only a religious community can win in today’s world, and in a society where all our values have declined in importance, and only faith survives. War makes this evident. There is no place for atheists when there are mortars and rockets firing.”

In posting this story, I do not wish to claim an equivalency between Christianity and Islam, concerning violence. This topic is deep and nuanced, deserving of careful analysis. But the misuse of religion for any goal is as well known as the inspiration of religion toward any ideal. Drawing the lines between them is crucial.

And besides, Korchynsky does not claim an equivalency either:

I asked what distinguishes his organization from Islamic jihadists. The radical Islamists in Afghanistan and the Middle East are, according to Korchynsky, interested in destroying the world order. Not so with the St. Mary’s Battalion.

“We really like civilization,” he explained. “We want to have hot water in the bath and a functional sewage system, but we also want to be able to fight for our ideals.”

Maybe he has something to teach the Christian pacifists of this world, rightly divining the goals of jihadists through purer methods? Maybe not. Here is the article’s closing quote:

Korchynsky wants to move the war to Russian territory, and he says his people have already formed underground structures there. Like the Islamic State, one day his “brothers” will receive orders and begin their work.

“We will fight until Moscow burns,” he says.


Friday Prayers for Egypt: Russia, Gulf, Zamalek

Flag Cross Quran


As Egypt tries to bolster its foreign policy and economic stability, she can’t help but trip over her own feet. With help, that is, of someone tripping deliberately.

The president of Russia visited Cairo, pledging investment and a possible nuclear reactor. Egypt then mangled Russia’s national anthem.

The president of Egypt contacted the heads of Gulf nations, following alleged leaks of internal conversation on how to milk their financial support. All is well, they assured. But who released the tapes, or fabricated them?

Despite the slip-ups, Russia and the Gulf represent foreign policy advances. But domestically twenty Zamalek soccer fans died in a stampede brought on by poor crowd control, unruly behavior, and hasty resort to tear gas.

God, much has not worked well in Egypt for years, and entrenched patterns of behavior contribute to self-sabotage. Some call conspiracy in Zamalek, but comfort first the families. Then, establish those responsible, and hold them to account.

Help police to lay off the trigger, and help society learn how to queue.

Conspiracy, though, is clear with the leaks. If true, and you are revealing the private face of public leaders, then as often prayed bring all things into the light. May Egypt see clearly the character of her officials.

If false, then you are allowing still the manipulators to hide. Bring them into the light, and reveal the character of those who slither.

But either way, it sows discord. All men need sanctuary for private speech and planning. Leaks ruin trust, the most precious of commodities. May the source be found with minimal rupture, and may none turn against the other in suspicion.

Set Egypt’s ship right, God. Help her president, and give him wisdom. Even as far as Russia. Help Egypt to be strong in herself, in good relation with all around. Keep her from the dangerous game of intrigue, where few honorable principles can operate.

In it, God, it is easy to trip up. Especially when some are trying. Especially when Egypt, far too often, is clumsy.

Bolster her nimbleness, grant her stability. She is in dire need of training.



Allahu Akbar, Algeria

Algeria celebrates its World Cup victory over Russia.
Algeria celebrates its World Cup victory over Russia.

It has been a rather subdued World Cup so far in Maadi, Cairo. The cafes are full but by no means crowded. This World Cup has been a gem of a tournament, with average goals scored hovering around three per game.

But it is not attracting local attention in our neighborhood. Most space is empty when the matches begin. Throughout shisha smoking and backgammon hold more interest. Only a few hard core supporters cry out for a goal.

The television announcers are animated, however. A few days ago as the Russia-Algeria match crept to a close, with a 1-1 draw securing advancement for the North Africans, the Arabic boomed with each crucial clearance:

Allahu Akbar! Allahu Akbar!

But the final whistle prompted nary a cheer from the audience. There was no visible support for Russia, but little excitement for Algeria, either. While BeIn Sports, recently re-branded away from similarity to the al-Jazeera chain of stations, urged on their Arab (Muslim?) brethren, Egyptians present chattered, smoked, threw dice, or otherwise walked away at the completion of the match, as they have done for all others I have watched so far.

Egypt is not exactly a bastion for Arab nationalism, and the two national teams have a history of dislike, filled with riots and bus stonings. Algeria booted Egypt from qualification in the 2010 World Cup.

But Egypt perhaps should be such a bastion, for Nasser was the revered leader of Arab nationalism, and current president Sisi has been cast in his image. But Sisi has also fostered an Egypt-centricity against the alleged global machinations of the Muslim Brotherhood and world community. Right now, Egyptians just hope the wars engulfing their neighbors do not cross over their borders. There is a general pox on the Arab Spring in general and what it has wrought.

Algeria bears no crime in this analysis, but local Maadi residents have lent them little love.

It is still interesting to watch the ex-Jazeera broadcast celebrate. Americans are used to a local broadcast openly rooting for the home team, but would see as improper for an American announcer to openly cheer on England, say, against an African squad.

BeIn Sports is a creation of the Qatar media conglomeration, which apparently does not share the same sense of neutrality, or political correctness, or whatever this should be called. They also stand accused of overt support for the Muslim Brotherhood, earning them the animosity of millions of Egyptians. The recent sentencing of al-Jazeera journalists has been widely condemned internationally, but in local perspective the channel actively fabricated events.

Local residents highlight this video from an area near the bloody dispersal of the Rabaa sit-in, in which Islamist youth activist Abdel Rahman Ezz describes airplanes shooting live ammunition on the protestors. It is shown on the Rassd network, accused of being a Muslim Brotherhood arm, but whether or not such videos are tied to Jazeera journalists in question is a matter of contention. Certainly the judge believed so, or made it out to be, amid the hours of other completely non-related footage in their possession.

Whether or not al-Jazeera distaste plays into local soccer sensibilities is questionable, but as they have the rights to the Arabic broadcast of the World Cup, there is little other choice. Besides Algeria there is no other Arab team, and fellow Muslim Iran is also seen as Brotherhood-sympathetic, Shia in faith, and a poor team regardless. If anything, neighborhood Egyptians have been rooting for the Africans. Ghana in particular has won their favor, perhaps in direct competition to the United States with whom they were grouped.

Earlier that evening they were disappointed, as Ghana bowed out humbly while America advanced. But the reaction was still the same. Shisha, backgammon, and nonchalant departure. Maybe in the later knockout rounds, when powerhouse teams are likely to meet, local excitement will increase.

Perhaps. But even then, no matter how much God’s power is invoked by BeIn announcers in favor of Algeria versus Germany in their Round of 16 match today, Egyptians appear happy just for the distraction. Life has been hard, grand hopes have been crushed or exposed, and all they have left is Egypt.

And Egypt is not in the World Cup. Allahu Akbar, anyway.


Friday Prayers for Egypt: Russia, Rebellion, and Relevance

Flag Cross Quran


Egypt’s presidential race is shaping up, and its arms race as well. The relevance of each is to be determined.

Hamdeen Sabbahi, who finished third in the presidential race of 2012, declared his candidacy, claiming to represent both the January 25 and June 30 revolutions. Many then saw him as the best alternative between the old regime and Muslim Brotherhood candidates, but many wonder now if his popularity remains.

God, give him clarity and courage. May his campaign highlight issues between which the people must debate and choose. Strengthen and equip him to bear this challenge.

Abdel Munim Abul Futouh, meanwhile, who finished fourth in the previous race, declined to run. He lamented the unjust state of the nation and said he would not lend credence to a foregone conclusion. He had some support then as a revolutionary, independent Islamist, but some wonder now if he has any support at all.

God, give him wisdom and prudence. May his campaign of a sort rebuke any foul play by the current authorities. Convict him to be upright and influential now, even if he is saving himself for a later challenge.

And subsequently, the Rebellion Campaign, or Tamarod, splits. They brought the possibility of a presidential election to the people through a massive signature campaign and protest to remove Morsi, but with a choice upon them they begin infighting. Some back Sabbahi, others back the yet to declare army general Abdel Fattah al-Sisi. Millions backed Tamarod eight months ago, but having accomplished their goal, does anyone back them now?

God, give them perspective and chivalry. May their choice reflect the will of the organization, to the degree the organization exists. They have borne their challenge, shall they have another one?

Sisi, however, campaigned in Russia. He returned with the endorsement of the Russian president, but also with strengthened ties and negotiations for arms sales and military cooperation. This is seen as a counterbalance to the longstanding support given by the United States, implicitly protesting the widespread suspicion America is interfering in local developments.

God, give them leverage and diplomacy. May Egypt conduct its foreign policy with independence and find friends with mutual interests for the common good. This challenge is ongoing, and may not end soon.

Nearly everything in Egypt feels weighty, God, but does reality match? Is Sabbahi a real candidate or a willing foil to Sisi? Does Abul Futouh matter? Is Tamarod a discarded shell? Is Russia a replacement for America? Or is the status quo more or less immovable, with developments meant to dodge, distract, and squabble over scraps of relevance?

May it not be so. The heart is divided between selfishness and altruism; politics allows for both and no man is an angel. But may public leaders emerge having been proved as public servants. Satisfy the need for meaning and purify the desire for power.

Above all, God, make Egypt relevant, but only for good. Challenge her, and curb her rebellion. May she find the freedom that comes from doing right.


Arab West Report Middle East Published Articles

Independence of the Egyptian Judiciary

The Supreme Constitutional Court, under protest by Islamists, December, 2012.
The Supreme Constitutional Court, under protest by Islamists, December, 2012.

From my recent article on Arab West Report:

The Egyptian transition following the 2011 January 25th revolution has been fraught with controversy; among many has been the reform of the judiciary system. While the 1971 constitution guaranteed an independent judiciary, the following year President Sadat presided over the passing of law 46 which moved many judicial proceedings – including appointments, transfers, and inspections – to the executive branch through oversight of the Ministry of Justice. President Mubarak continued use of these privileges to ensure a regime-friendly judiciary.

Though the reform of the judiciary was not chief among the primary demands of the revolution, many reformist judges had long been seeking to expose these executive abuses. The tensions came to the fore during the transitional period, as the judiciary became a battleground between the revolutionary popular will and what was interpreted as pro-regime rulings from the court.

Though published recently, this article was written September of last year after Mursi assumed the presidency, but before his full-on clashes with the judiciary. In this light the following recommendations are noteworthy, as many anti-Islamists look to the courts to curb presidential power and prerogative:

The first guarantee [of judicial independence] is for security of tenure. Judges must understand their position is safe, not subject to removal for rulings issued against the government. Second, the judge and court system as a whole must enjoy financial security. All necessary resources must be made available for the smooth functioning of justice. Third, there must be sufficient guarantees for individuals in the justice system. A culture of rights ensures the public demand for judicial independence, making it more difficult for the government to infringe upon it.

Unfortunately, Binnie noted, the current Egyptian arrangement does not lend itself to judicial independence. First, the body tasked with inspecting judges is within the executive Ministry of Justice. This allows the executive branch to offer rewards to compliant judges – such as promotions or post-retirement ambassadorships – while penalizing judges who buck the system by assigning them judgeships in remote locations.

Second, there is a threat to the independence of the judiciary if there is not sufficient public confidence in the system. Binnie noted that even if independence is achieved, the courts can operate as an ‘old boy’s network’, appointing from their own circles rather than drawing from the diversity of society. The presence of women is particularly helpful, he noted, but a comment from the audience helped demonstrate his point. Egypt boasts only 42 women judges, but 39 of these are the daughters of established judges.

Third, the presence of a parallel court system undermines judicial independence. Even the best system will fail, Binnie noted, if the government can simply bypass it. With separate jurisdictions for military, security, and emergency courts – each able to try civilians – Egyptian justice suffers. Binnie noted that some drafts of the coming constitution do not sufficient guarantee rights during periods of national emergency, threatening to perpetuate the current system into the post-revolutionary era.

The constitution limited the use of military courts, but it did not eliminate their jurisdiction of civilians. Still, this has not been a practical issue since the end of direct military rule. Noting the importance of public confidence, it is at an all time low. Islamists have none at all, while non-Islamist revolution supporters still see it as in service of the regime in concept, if in particularity the identity of the regime is still under contention. Meanwhile, courts across the country issue rulings that send advocates of human rights up in arms.

But consider these examples, the latter of which was held as a pro-revolution step only a few months ago. If implemented now it would cause shockwaves:

In Egypt, moving from an autocratic tradition, enshrinement in the constitution is necessary. This must be done in detail, lest the situation resemble Russia where vagueness in wording has allowed erosion of judicial independence. Experts expect it may take years to reverse Russia’s political culture of judges as servants of the executive branch.

A positive example could perhaps be taken from the experience of Bosnia. Political leaders took the decision to sack all judges, and then require them to reapply for their positions in competition with new applicants. In the end, 70% of judges were reinstated, but two significant results were produced. First, this measure resulted in a great sense of public confidence in the governing system. Second, the judges themselves ‘bought into’ the new program from the necessity of keeping their jobs. It also reset their orientation, as most judges everywhere, Lund believes, desire independence.

As with much of the state infrastructure, bold reforms are necessary, but political conditions do not permit the unity needed for orchestration. It is a shame polarization has reached such a point.

Please click here to read the whole article on Arab West Report.