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Current Events

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

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

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

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

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

And could Saudi Arabia improbably become the next champion…?

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

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Friday Prayers for Egypt: Crown Prince Visit

Flag Cross Quran

God,

It was a high-profile visit, with high-profile rhetoric. The Saudi crown prince took his first foreign policy travels, spending several days in Egypt.

He spoke of economy. The joint megacity is a future boon.

He spoke of terrorism. Turkey and Qatar need isolation.

He spoke of religion. Copts are beloved and Azhar restored.

He spoke of culture. The opera was visited and is coming to Saudi.

God, these are words to consider. They are words many question. Guide Saudi Arabia between rhetoric and reality. Transform the kingdom to mirror your will.

But God, in this relationship, bless also Egypt.

May the projects respect sovereignty and prosper the nation.

May terrorism subside, no matter its source.

May the religious respect others and hearten the nation.

May culture inspire, no matter its form.

God, give peace between nations, both near and far. Raise the profile of Egypt; may her morals be high.

Amen.

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Current Events

Giving Thanks, for Khartoum and Kennedy

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

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

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

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

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

Morocco — Arab Christians and the Marrakesh Declaration

Egypt — Let My People Build

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

Saudi Arabia — The Game of Thrones Christians Should be Watching

Italy — Muslims Work for Religious Freedom

 

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

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

As Crux has reported:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Current Events

Friday Prayers for Egypt: Princes, Churches

Flag Cross Quran

God,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amen.

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Current Events

The Game of Thrones Christians Should be Watching

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman shakes hands with Lebanese Maronite Patriarch Bechara Boutros Al-Rahi during their meeting in Riyadh
Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman shakes hands with Lebanese Maronite Patriarch Bechara Boutros Al-Rahi during their meeting in Riyadh, November 14, 2017. Bandar Algaloud/Courtesy of Saudi Royal Court/Handout via REUTERS

This article was first published at Christianity Today on November 16, 2017.

Before the crown prince of Saudi Arabia stunned the world with his sudden arrest of dozens of fellow princes and millionaires on corruption charges, he stunned many Christians with his stated desire to moderate its version of Islam, commonly dubbed Wahhabism.

Saudi Arabia was founded in 1932 as an alliance between Bedouin warriors of the al-Saud tribe and strict Salafi Muslim scholars following Mohamed ibn Abd al-Wahhab. Discovering oil six years later, it also became one of the Muslim world’s wealthiest nations. The combination has led many religious freedom advocates to blame Saudi petrodollars for funding a worldwide rise in Islamist extremism.

But last month, Mohammad bin Salman said his conservative Muslim country would return to “what we were before: a country of moderate Islam that is open to all religions and to the world…”

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

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Friday Prayers for Egypt: Accountable

Flag Cross Quran

God,

It was too big a disaster. After 16 security personnel were killed in an ambush in the Western desert, several top police and military brass took the fall.

Among them, Sisi’s son’s father-in-law, the chief-of-staff. The message is powerful: All are accountable.

It was too big an opportunity. After contentious debate about two islands and free trade zones with Saudi Arabia, the kingdom announced a new megacity sharing territory with Jordan and Egypt.

Between them, there has been little public discussion. The absence is powerful: Who is accountable?

God, be with Egypt. May she do all things well.

Give the new leadership vision, wisdom, and execution. Help them win this war.

Give the new project efficiency, transparency, and success. Help it grow the economy.

In these and in all, let accountability filter through the state.

The bureaucracy is large, the private sector small. Help merit be rewarded, mediocracy released. There are many barriers, some of them good. People need their jobs.

But God, make them meaningful. May Egyptians work as unto you.

Let your pleasure find expression also in this world. Peace. Prosperity. Dignity.

Your final accounting is coming. Be merciful, now and then.

Amen.

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Current Events

Friday Prayers for Egypt: Qatar Continues

Flag Cross Quran

God,

Since last week there has been much written but little resolved. Qatar and the Gulf allies have traded accusations and attempted mediation. But now a line in the sand has been drawn.

A list of demands has been issued.

Egypt, joining Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, and others, have given Qatar ten days to close al-Jazeera, reduce Iran ties, shutter a Turkey base, and end support for terrorist groups.

God, with many details behind closed doors, only you can sort out fully the right and the wrong. But amid charges of meddling over several years of frustration, this crisis may be approaching a critical moment.

Keep the peace. Promote consensus. Honor sovereignty. Reveal the truth.

The region needs good journalism, God. Provide for transparency and accountability in an independent media.

The region needs a spirit of unity, God. Help Arab brothers recognize joint challenges and cultivate wise policies.

The region needs respect for diversity, God. Allow conflicting interests and disparate peoples to find welcome.

The region needs less violence, God. End outside support for terrorist groups and reform poisonous ideology.

A line is in the sand, and you count every grain. Let wise heads prevail, and you know every hair.

The stars are in the sky, and you call them by name. Call also the faithful lights of regional politics, and bid them to peace.

Amen.

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Current Events

Friday Prayers for Egypt: Saudi Islands

Flag Cross Quran

God,

Perhaps the story is over, perhaps the judiciary will still have a role. But two contested islands in the Red Sea have been ceded by Egypt to Saudi Arabia, after parliament ratified the president’s decision.

It was an unpopular vote; proponents insist it was the right one.

At issue is original ownership. Egypt has long administered the islands, but were they originally Saudi? Both sides have produced maps, documents, and other evidence to support their case.

And in the background is the role of Saudi Arabia in supporting Egypt. The president first announced the deal in conjunction with a massive Saudi aid and investment program. Many felt he ‘sold’ Egyptian land.

The Administrative Court sought to block the transfer, but parliament acted on its believed constitutional prerogative. The Constitutional Court has not yet spoken—it may or may not. If originally Saudi only parliament is necessary to ratify a foreign agreement. If originally Egyptian a national referendum is necessary.

God, sort out the complications. The islands are unpopulated, but strategic. And little is more valuable in Egyptian imagination than land.

If the vote to cede was genuine, then bless the courageous lawmakers for standing against the popular will. It is right to give back what belongs to another.

But opponents say the vote was manipulated by government pressure. If so then bless the courageous lawmakers for calling it out. It is right to resist machinations of power.

But was the vote right, God? You know. Bless Egypt whether yes or no, but bless her differently. Through rebuke or commendation, guide her to the right and good.

All land is yours, God. All souls belong to you. All peoples reflect your handiwork.

Determine the exact lines of the places you would have them. Your greater story is not yet over. Within it is Egypt, and may all end well.

Amen.

 

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Friday Prayers for Egypt: Red Sea Verdict

Flag Cross Quran

God,

The court has spoken, and the land is Egyptian. Perhaps.

Months ago the president and the Saudi king concluded an agreement that included return of sovereignty over two small islands in the Red Sea. Opponents called it an illegal transfer, as Egyptians died in war defending their home soil.

This week the High Administrative Court sided with opponents. The Supreme Constitutional Court may yet have a say, but the immediate question is parliament.

The speaker says they will proceed with discussion and vote anyway, with many backing the president. Other members say this is would be a violation. Another legal dispute may yet be pending.

Several rejoiced, others groaned, and some fear. What does it mean when branches of government are at odds with themselves? Normal balance of power in some systems, in Egypt discord can be threatening.

God, resolve and normalize. Settle the issue of ownership, and buttress the role of each branch.

Let there be confidence in the judiciary. Let there be representation in the parliament. Let there be leadership in the executive.

Together, and in conflict, help them know and serve their land.

Amen.

 

 

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Friday Prayers for Egypt: Two Islands

Flag Cross Quran

God,

Uninhabited but geo-strategic, Egyptian blood was spilled to defend Tiran and Sanafir at the entrance to the Gulf of Aqaba in the Red Sea. Thankfully, no blood was spilled defending them yesterday.

Right or wrong, thousands took to the streets, troubled by a government decision to recognize Saudi Arabian sovereignty over the islands. As the king arrived to sign multi-billion dollar aid and investment agreements, the decision bore the appearances of a sale.

The government released official documents to demonstrate historic Saudi ownership in a belated attempt at damage control. The government also long presided over popular understanding that they belonged to Egypt.

But the anger is hard to measure. Is it nationalism or revolution? Is it single issue outrage or pent up frustration? Is it sincere love of land or long awaited excuse?

Protests were prevented at many locations throughout the country, but permitted downtown. There were arrests, but no deaths. A follow up is scheduled for April 25, Sinai Liberation Day.

Is it state prescience to allow opposition to vent and permit a degree of protesting rights? Or is it state impotence to shut down the street completely?

God, there is much to ask of you. These two islands threaten to shift the equation, for good or ill.

Determine the border. Let public discussion turn on the truth of the matter, encompassing all legal and moral claims.

Establish transparency. Let government and society nurture openness, reforming policies for greater public trust and accountability.

Cultivate civic duty. Let rights and responsibilities seep into public practice, shaping both governance and protest after a long emphasis on stability.

Grant discernment. Let authorities respond rightly to international realities and public mood, coalescing with protesters seeking right outcomes through legitimate means.

God, define the above consistent with overall justice, redeeming Egypt from all errors contemporary and historic. Create a society where righteousness will rejoice and people will prosper.

Let these islands be an opportunity, God. Guide Egypt accordingly.

Amen.

 

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Friday Prayers for Egypt: Coming King

Flag Cross Quran

God,

As royalty comes to Egypt, prepare well the welcome. It is largely Saudi largess that has kept afloat the republic.

But may the need not be so great, God. Inspire investment. Attract tourists. Send global trade through the Suez Canal.

And until then, help Egypt act an appropriate ally.

For on some issues they differ dramatically. Bring peace to Syria, with or without Assad. Guide rightly on Islam, with conviction and respect.

And where they align, help them do right. Settle the issues of political religion with justice, transparency, and visionary acumen.

God, bless both president and king. In vastly different contexts they share the same trust. May they serve their people. May they honor you.

Speak to them, God, as they speak to each other. Help them find the good path forward in difficult times.

Amen.

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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.

Amen.

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Friday Prayers for Egypt: Hajj Stampede

Flag Cross QuranGod,

Have mercy on the more than 700 Hajj pilgrims trampled underfoot in Saudi Arabia. Have mercy on the two million still alive, witness to the disaster. May they reflect anew, and seek you with all their heart.

Eight of the dead are among the 62,000 Egyptians on the pilgrimage. For them and all nationalities beside, comfort their families and provide for their children. Many Muslims believe Mecca is the best of all places to die. Help them to balance their grief with acceptance of honor.

Help the Saudi authorities to review all procedures, God. May they do all in their power to ease and order the necessary rituals.

And apart from the Hajj, God, bless all Muslims as they celebrate their holiday. May they laugh, love, and long for you. Lighten their hearts from the troubles of the region; burden their souls to serve you and their peoples.

Have mercy, God. Forgive the dead and the living, and revive us all.

Amen.

Update: The Ministry of Endowments now lists 124 Egyptian casualties.

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Why Christianity is Surging in the Heart of Islam

Public baptism service in the Gulf, in front of Dubai's Burj al-Arab. Photo courtesy of Fellowship of the Emirates.
Public baptism service in the Gulf, in front of Dubai’s Burj al-Arab. Photo courtesy of Fellowship of the Emirates.

My article for Christianity Today was published September 11, 2015. Here is an excerpt:

Espada, an architect, is one of the millions of foreign workers transforming the former desert oasis into a global center for business and travel. The UAE’s Dubai is the fifth-fastest-growing city in the world; its population is now more than 80 percent migrant.

The great majority of migrant workers in the region come from India and Southeast Asia, sometimes suffering exploitation in labor camps to send a collective $100 billion back home. As an American, Espada is unusual.

But as a Christian, he is not. Today the Pew Research Center numbers Christians in the Arabian Peninsula at 2.3 million—more Christians than nearly 100 countries can claim. The Gulf Christian Fellowship, an umbrella group, estimates 3.5 million.

These migrants bring the UAE’s Christian population to 13 percent, according to Pew. Among other Gulf states, Bahrain, Kuwait, and Qatar are each about 14 percent Christian, while Oman is about 6 percent. Even Saudi Arabia, home to Islam’s holiest cities (Mecca and Medina), is 4 percent Christian when migrants are counted.

Together, they represent the largest Christian community in the Middle East outside of Egypt. But their experiences vary considerably.

In Bahrain and Kuwait, Muslims can enter church compounds. In Qatar, guards allow only foreigners. Saudi Arabia’s Grand Mufti (the nation’s highest official of religious law) has called for all churches in the peninsula to be destroyed.

Surprising to many observers is how many of these churches there are.

Please click here to read the full article at Christianity Today. Next post I’ll share some photos of church buildings.

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Exploiting Saudi Arabia’s Tension of Identity

Damage in a Shia Mosque in Saudi Arabia after a terrorist attack by the Islamic State
Damage in a Shia Mosque in Saudi Arabia after a terrorist attack by the Islamic State

The Washington Institute interprets the targeting of Shiites in Saudi Arabia as hitting at a vulnerable point in their religio-political ideology:

Over the past two weeks, the so-called “Islamic State” (IS) has claimed two attacks on Shiite mosques in Saudi Arabia’s Shiite-majority Eastern Province, one in Dammam and the other in Qatif. While the incidents might not have an immediate impact on the kingdom’s overall security, they are relevant to long-term IS strategy of weakening the Saudi government by exposing its alleged hypocrisy.

A nation-state is home to all its citizens. But …

By attacking the Eastern Province, IS seeks to place Riyadh in the position of defending or appeasing Shiites, at the expense of a Saudi Wahhabist state ideology that does not tread too far from that of IS (e.g., Saudi schools teach students that Shiites are unbelievers and not Muslims).

The article describes how official government response has been to condemn the attack and offer condolences to its victims. By international standards this is the absolute minimum requirement. Not mentioned is the bounty Saudi Arabia offered for information leading to the criminals.

But The Islamic State is not interested in the international standards:

From the Islamic State’s perspective, such actions highlight Riyadh’s rank hypocrisy, showing “true” believers in the “land of the two holy places” how the Saudi state is contravening both God and its own founding standards. By casting themselves as the true bearers of Islam, IS leaders hope to draw more recruits and supporters.

The Saudi government is in a tricky spot. A long time ago they made a deal with you know who. Is it now coming due?

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Current Events

The Muslim Brotherhood in England and Egypt

MB England EgyptLondon and Istanbul have become the new base of operations for the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood.

Following the ouster of Brotherhood President Mohamed Morsi in 2011 and their subsequent banning in Egypt in December last year, the organization is recalibrating abroad.

An early base of operations was Qatar, where the al-Jazeera network was widely perceived, even by its own staff, as being biased toward the Brotherhood.

But the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia joined Egypt in labelling the MB a terrorist organization, and their pressure on Qatar resulted in the expulsion of some leaders.

Now several office blocks on London’s A406 North Circular Road comprise one of the two main centres of operation, the other being Turkey.

An investigation into MB links to terrorism was completed by former Ambassador to Saudi Arabia, Sir John Jenkins in July 2014, but its results have not yet been made public.

And bar a few lone journalists keeping tabs on the story, there is little public accountability about the presence and growth of such a controversial movement in Britain.

The MB is accused of burning up to 50 churches and Coptic businesses following the violent dispersal of pro-Morsi sit-ins on August 14, 2013. In December, in an Asyut court 40 Morsi supporters were found guilty, while 61 others were acquitted.

Ian Black of the Guardian has followed the story, implying the inquiry is being leaned on by Gulf nations who have banned the MB.

Delay in its publication is attributed to their displeasure that the report clears the MB of terrorism.

Black quotes MB apologist Anas al-Tikriti, founder Director of the Cordoba Institute, who says Islamists like the MB must be seen as a middle ground in the fight against extremism. If allowed to govern, he says, they would liberalize and sideline their hardliners.

Shadi Hamid of the Brookings Institute debunks this theory, saying Islamists only ever moderate their behaviour under duress. Once enjoying democratic freedoms, they tend to revert to their original illiberal religious conservatism.

Tikriti, whose father was in the Iraqi Brotherhood, recently denied on Twitter being a member or lobbyist of the MB.

Al-Jazeera however describe the Cordoba Foundation as a Brotherhood front. And the Hudson Institute, in a study of UK-based Islamism, calls him one of their shrewdest activists.

But Ibrahim Mouneer, an MB senior leader in London, told the Times that if the group were banned it would result in increased terrorism at home, with moderate Muslims concluding that an irenic approach didn’t work.

Lapido Media has argued this purported dichotomy between Islamism and jihadism is a false choice, and the government should not be gulled.

According to Andrew Gilligan of the Telegraph, the UK inquiry will confirm that the MB is not a terrorist group and should not therefore be banned.

And a British security source told Lapido they prefer to turn a more or less blind eye within the law, believing this offers opportunities for ‘influence’.

But Gilligan provides extensive evidence the group is linked – directly and indirectly – with terrorist groups, in particular with Hamas, and is at least potentially outside the law.

Cordoba Foundation is named by Gilligan as one of 25 groups with Muslim Brotherhood links. The Muslim Charities Forum is mentioned also.

A June report by the UAE based The National linked Takriti, his family, and associates also to the Middle East Eye and Middle East Monitor.

The Egyptian foreign ministry has asked in vain that London shut down UK based pro-MB satellite channels and newspapers like Alarabi, al-Hewar, and al-Araby al-Jadeed, saying they incite terrorist activity in Egypt.

The BBC has examined this growing media outreach that fails to promote impartial journalism, and is said to be funded by Qatar.

According to the Washington Post, this incitement is clear in the MB’s other haven abroad, Turkey. It says the Masr al-An channel, funded and managed by the MB, warned that the families of Egyptian police officers would be ‘widowed and orphaned’.

Other Turkey-based pro-MB channels like al-Sharq, Mukammilin and Rabaa employ similar rhetoric, and even allowed one MB supporter to issue a fatwa during a live interview to assassinate Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi. Others advocate the killing of media figures and warn foreigners to leave Egypt lest they become legitimate targets.

The fatwa caused uproar, leading the Brotherhood on its English language Twitter feed @IkhwanWeb to condemn it and deny endorsing the channel.

The call to kill Sisi was made to audible applause by grinning Egyptian cleric Salama Abd Al-Qawi who said: ‘Doing this would be a good deed that would bring (the killer) closer to Allah.’

Although Al-Qawi was official spokesman for the Endowments Ministry during the presidency of Morsi, it is hard to pin down his ‘membership’ in the Muslim Brotherhood.

The MB is a hierarchical organization with strict guidelines for who is in and who simply is like-minded. Those who are members follow policy. Others aid and cooperate. The MB does not publish its membership list.

Many MB self-identify. And the period in power gave the opportunity to see new faces emerge. But without an admissions policy, it is very difficult to identify ‘members’.

MB-watchers have not seen the sheikh identified either way. But clearly he is at least a supporter and often featured in their broadcasts.

On January 25 this year a delegation of the Egyptian Revolutionary Council and the so-called Parliament in Exile, including leading MB figures, visited Washington and met State Department and White House officials.

They asserted that the revolution was non-violent and the only way to undo the coup. The State Department had previously said Egypt had given it no evidence of MB links to terrorism.

Just two days later the MB released a statement urging its supporters to prepare for a long and uncompromising jihad, stopping just short of an outright call for violence.

Charl Fouad El-Masri, editor-in-chief of Egyptian daily al-Masry al-Youm said: ‘Egypt’s Copts suffered during the Muslim Brotherhood rule greatly.’

Anglican Bishop of Egypt Rt Revd Mouneer Hanna Anis had his Suez church attacked by pro-Morsi supporters following the dispersal of the Rabaa and Nahda sit-ins in August 2013. He strongly suspects the MB to be behind Egyptian violence and terrorism.

‘They may not be directly involved in terrorist attacks,’ he told Lapido Media, ‘but they encouraged the flourishing of terrorist groups in Egypt.’

This article was originally published at Lapido Media, as a press briefing service.

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Current Events

Economic Aid to Egypt

Egypt Economic Aid

Curious about who is funding Egypt these days? American military aid gets all the press, but many have contributed to support Egypt’s economy. Daily News Egypt recently provided a detailed breakdown. Except for deposits made to the central bank, I have not listed loan agreements. In some cases it is not clear if the money has been received already or only pledged. For ease of access, here is a simplified list:

United Arab Emirates

  • $10.125 billion in grants, deposits, fuel shipments, and water and micro-enterprise projects

Saudi Arabia

  • $6.3 billion in grants, deposits, fuel shipments, and petroleum and electricity projects

Kuwait

  • $4 billion in grants, deposits, and fuel shipments

World Bank

  • $934.4 million in electricity, economic, and transportation projects

Arab Fund for Economic and Social Development

  • $412 million in energy projects

Joint European Aid

  • $260.7 million in clean water projects

European Union

  • $236.2 million in educational, economic, and various regional projects

France

  • $137.2 million in micro-enterprise projects

Italy

  • $78.5 million in agricultural projects

China

  • $24.4 million in economic projects

African Development Bank

  • $2 million in waste management and micro-enterprise projects

and finally…

Qatar

  • $7.5 billion demanded to be returned from assistance given under the Morsi administration

 

I suppose there is a fair question: How can anyone in Egypt still be poor?

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Current Events

The Case against Qatar

Qatar

A recent Foreign Policy investigative report details Qatari foreign policy. It describes a strategy of intervention-by-proxy, which keeps its hands clean officially while funneling money to groups it deems ideologically similar, that is, those they can trust.

Primarily, this has been the Muslim Brotherhood and various activist Salafi factions.

The article is long but worthy, and one interesting section describes how Qatar has helped the US disengage from the region. This was evident in Libya, when Qatar not only provided crucial Arab support for the operation, but also took the lead in sponsoring militia groups against Gaddafi.

But now that the US is reengaging the region, this time against the Islamic State (ISIS), officials are examining anew the sponsorship by Qatari individuals and charities which have gone to the al-Qaeda affiliated al-Nusra Front. Following three years or more of looking the other way, the dispute has become public:

In Syria, meanwhile, it wasn’t until the Islamic State gained prominence that Washington sat up and took notice. In March, David S. Cohen, the Treasury Department’s undersecretary for terrorism and financial intelligence, took the unprecedented step of calling out the Qataris in public for a “permissive terrorist financing environment.” Such stark criticism, counterterrorism experts say, is usually left for closed-door conversations. A public airing likely indicated Doha wasn’t responsive to Washington’s private requests.

But if initial requests were private, that means the US – for a long while, at least – tolerated and possibly approved of the general strokes of Qatari foreign policy. Two key aspects of Qatar’s leverage over the United States include its hosting of the US Central Command air base, as well as the usefulness of its network to liaison with otherwise disreputable characters. Discussions with the Taliban in particular have often flowed through Qatar. Without them, back-door channels would not be possible; hostages released might still be held.

Has the US, therefore, been a partner in the wanton destruction of Syria? President Obama has forcefully spoken against Assad, but has never decisively moved against him. The article deems the chaos there less to be a result of coordinated conspiracy, than uncoordinated incompetence:

In other words, there was no one winner. Qatar and other international powers haphazardly backed dozens of different brigades and let them fight it out for who could secure a greater share of the funding. They had few incentives to cooperate on operations, let alone strategy. Nor did their various backers have any incentive to push them together, since this might erode their own influence over the rebels.

Says one analyst:

“One of the things about Qatar’s foreign policy is the extent to which it has been a complete and total failure, almost an uninterrupted series of disasters,” says Hussein Ibish, a senior fellow at the American Task Force on Palestine. “Except it’s all by proxy, so nothing bad ever happens to Qatar.”

Except its reputation in much of the Arab world. Egyptians in particular have been furious at Qatar over its support for the Muslim Brotherhood. Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have signaled displeasure in manners unusual among Gulf monarchies.

Long ago Qatar made a bet on the Islamist factions becoming the prominent power players in the region. For a while they seemed vindicated; now they appear in retreat. Qatar has been publicly acquiescing to the criticism, sending away top Brotherhood figures it has long hosted, for example, but it is unclear if its long term strategies have changed.

Were Qatar and its allies-by-proxy simply outmaneuvered? How much of the Arab Spring was manipulated by the regional and international power struggles? What role did America have is a key question. Most Arabs view Washington as the chief puppet master, allowing its public allies – the Saudis, Turks, UAE, Qatar, and Israel, of course – to mess around with local sovereignty.

Or, did the US just pull back, and allow others to run the show? Either way, the result is a disaster, however many parties share in the blame.

One other controversial point converges with this article. Many Egyptians see the Muslim Brotherhood as one aspect of an Islamist agenda that includes and coordinates with groups like ISIS, on the far end of the spectrum. The point is not necessarily that the MB keeps its hands clean while sending out clandestine orders to others to ferment chaos – though this is certainly believed locally.

But if the Brotherhood is one part, and a key part, of Qatar’s proxy network, a linkage does seem to exist. This article does not make the accusation, and I do not wish to lend it weight in the mentioning. But it bears consideration.

Of course, Brotherhood sympathizers simply turn the equation on its head. They see Qatar as the good guy, standing with the people and the forces of democracy, against fearful Gulf monarchies, their own proxies, and the US.

God bless this part of the world. Maybe one day the oil will run out and they can all be left alone again.

Categories
Current Events

Friday Prayers for Egypt: Rabaa and the Gulf

Flag Cross Quran

God,

Old events and new repercussions affected Egypt this week. The semi-independent National Council for Human Rights spoke publically about its fact-finding mission on the August 14 dispersal of the pro-Morsi sit-ins at Rabaa and Nahda Squares, in which several hundred died.

Unrelated but poignant in timing, a row erupted in the Persian Gulf as Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Bahrain withdrew their ambassadors from Qatar. Largely at issue is Qatar’s support for the Muslim Brotherhood, which was designated a terrorist organization by Saudi Arabia, following Egypt’s lead.

God, a gulf is an apt description of perceived reality in the region. The report by the NCHR was not only rejected by Morsi supporters, it was criticized by some of its own members. They found the protestors had fired first at security, which then responded in ‘excess force’. Its criticism of the state is noteworthy, but little of its focus was on police abuses. The report has no power of law, but will those responsible for excesses be held accountable?

And God, none of the Gulf countries have strong reputations for promotion of freedom, democracy, or human rights. By contrast, most stand accused of being behind much of the terrorism in the world, at least via their citizens. There appears little principle in their spat, but much division. Its consequences, however, may be serious if there is escalation.

Help Egypt to choose her friends wisely, God. Or rather, to balance her interests. Many nations take interest in her stability/disruption, so give Egypt ability to put her own house in order.

And in this house, God, may August 14 not be swept under the rug. Much dirt has already been hid there, leading back to January 25, and beyond. Whether to protect power, interest, or principle, too many have treated cheaply the blood of Egyptians. May this accumulated stench rise to your nostrils, God, but be merciful in your judgment.

Do you not hold the kings of this world in the palm of your hand? Do the actions of bureaucrats escape your notice? What of those who plot chaos and violence? Bring justice to Egypt, God, and make your righteousness clear for all to see.

But if not, God, give eyes of discernment in the movement of events. Give faith to the people that your will shall prevail. Hold accountable all guilty; convict all who see themselves innocent. Lead the nation to repentance for all her ills these past three years, and many beyond.

There is a great gulf between self-perception and your divine standard. For the sake of Egypt and Egyptians, bridge it peacefully.

Amen.

Categories
Personal

Syria: Evidence, Prayer, and Activism

I confess to not following every detail that emerges about the crisis in Syria, and ask patience from those who have who can bring more to bear in this brief post. Please comment freely.

But in searching briefly for a presentation of the evidence tying the recent chemical weapons attack to the Syrian government, I was disappointed by this article on CNN:

A declassified report by the White House does not divulge all details of the evidence the United States is looking at. And it remains unclear what the “streams of intelligence” cited in the report may be and how they were collected.

It goes on to summarize the result of the evidence, presented by Secretary of State Kerry:

“We have declassified unprecedented amounts of information, and we ask the American people and the rest of the world to judge that information,” Kerry told lawmakers Tuesday.

It “proves the Assad regime prepared for this attack, issued instruction to prepare for this attack, warned its own forces to use gas masks.”

Physical, “concrete” evidence shows where the rockets came from, when they were fired, and that not one landed in regime-controlled territory, Kerry said.

“Multiple streams of intelligence indicate that the regime executed a rocket and artillery attack against the Damascus suburbs in the early hours of August 21,” the White House says in the declassified report.

“Satellite detections corroborate that attacks from a regime-controlled area struck neighborhoods where the chemical attacks reportedly occurred. … The lack of flight activity or missile launches also leads us to conclude that the regime used rockets in the attack.”

Here is an analysis of the evidence from Reuters, carried by Ahram Online:

No direct link to President Bashar al-Assad or his inner circle has been publicly demonstrated, and some US sources say intelligence experts are not sure whether the Syrian leader knew of the attack before it was launched or was only informed about it afterward.

While US officials say Assad is responsible for the chemical weapons strike even if he did not directly order it, they have not been able to fully describe a chain of command for the 21 August attack in the Ghouta area east of the Syrian capital.

It is one of the biggest gaps in US understanding of the incident, even as Congress debates whether to launch limited strikes on Assad’s forces in retaliation.

The strongest evidence, they say, comes from a link between Assad’s presidential circle and the scientific center responsible for chemical weapons:

Personnel associated with the Syrian Scientific Studies and Research Council (SSRC), which has direct ties to Assad’s entourage, were likely involved in preparing munitions in the days before the attack, they say.

A declassified French intelligence report describes a unit of the SSRC, known by the code name “Branch 450”, which it says is in charge of filling rockets or shells with chemical munitions in general.

US and European security sources say this unit was likely involved in mixing chemicals for the 21 August attack and also may have played a more extensive role in preparing for it and carrying it out.

But…

Much of the US claim that Assad is responsible was initially based on reports from witnesses, non-governmental groups and hours of YouTube videos.

Perhaps my disappointment is conditioned by the long wars in Afghanistan and especially Iraq, the case for which was built on faulty or misrepresented ‘streams of intelligence’. I understand that this work cannot be made public fully. I have a basic trust in the US government, but I also fear the behind-the-scenes maneuvering among world and regional powers, masquerading as concern over chemical weapons.

Here is an alternate explanation along with direct testimony, from Mint Press:

However, from numerous interviews with doctors, Ghouta residents, rebel fighters and their families, a different picture emerges. Many believe that certain rebels received chemical weapons via the Saudi intelligence chief, Prince Bandar bin Sultan, and were responsible for carrying out the dealing gas attack.

“My son came to me two weeks ago asking what I thought the weapons were that he had been asked to carry,” said Abu Abdel-Moneim, the father of a rebel fighting to unseat Assad, who lives in Ghouta.

Abdel-Moneim said his son and 12 other rebels were killed inside of a tunnel used to store weapons provided by a Saudi militant, known as Abu Ayesha, who was leading a fighting battalion. The father described the weapons as having a “tube-like structure” while others were like a “huge gas bottle.”

“They didn’t tell us what these arms were or how to use them,” complained a female fighter named ‘K.’ “We didn’t know they were chemical weapons. We never imagined they were chemical weapons.”

As stated above, this article places primary blame on Saudi Arabia, while reporting how different nations seek to influence events:

More than a dozen rebels interviewed reported that their salaries came from the Saudi government.

Ingersoll referred to an article in the U.K.’s Daily Telegraph about secret Russian-Saudi talks alleging that Bandar offered Russian President Vladimir Putin cheap oil in exchange for dumping Assad.

“Prince Bandar pledged to safeguard Russia’s naval base in Syria if the Assad regime is toppled, but he also hinted at Chechen terrorist attacks on Russia’s Winter Olympics in Sochi if there is no accord,” Ingersoll wrote.

“I can give you a guarantee to protect the Winter Olympics next year. The Chechen groups that threaten the security of the games are controlled by us,” Bandar allegedly told the Russians.

But it is not just Russia:

“They believed that Prince Bandar, a veteran of the diplomatic intrigues of Washington and the Arab world, could deliver what the CIA couldn’t: planeloads of money and arms, and, as one U.S. diplomat put it, wasta, Arabic for under-the-table clout,” it said.

Bandar has been advancing Saudi Arabia’s top foreign policy goal, WSJ reported, of defeating Assad and his Iranian and Hezbollah allies.

Although Saudi Arabia has officially maintained that it supported more moderate rebels, the newspaper reported that “funds and arms were being funneled to radicals on the side, simply to counter the influence of rival Islamists backed by Qatar.”

But rebels interviewed said Prince Bandar is referred to as “al-Habib” or ‘the lover’ by al-Qaida militants fighting in Syria.

Certainly there can be misinformation and invented testimony on all sides, but the reporter for Mint Press, Dale Gavlak, writes consistently for the AP and has contributed often to Christianity Today. I have met her once and appreciate her journalism. She states, however, she did not investigate personally in Syria, but relied on a local journalist.

In the end, is this much different than ‘streams of intelligence’? Yes, at least in part, for the journalist is named. Unfortunately, as seen above, not all of his sources are. But the two accounts are almost comically different. The first builds its case on the complexity of the attack, the second on the incompetence of the delivery.

So what should America do? Here I will pause, for I realize that geopolitical realities are messy and our ideals, perhaps, can rarely be realized. In fact, perhaps, they must often be compromised. Among the regional powers listed above, are there any with which our ideals can rest comfortably?

So shall we choose between the least bad options, using language with which President Obama has described the recommended missile strike? Or should we just stay out of someone else’s fight? If so, it is not as simple as saying we will stay out of a civil war, since so many other regional agendas are in play. Should we let them decide matters, and keep our ideals from having any influence at all?

Goodness. I hope we have moral men and women in our administration making these decisions. But I fear that as long as our intervention is portrayed in ‘humanitarian’ terms, we compromise these ideals by not being fully honest.

I fear a situation as in Libya, where a mandate was given to protect the people of Benghazi from Gaddafi’s anticipated assault. Not long afterwards US-supported NATO forces went far beyond their mandate to aid the rebels and facilitate the overthrow of the government, even though, reportedly, there were no ‘boots on the ground’.

But tough decisions must fall to someone, and I am glad the president has involved Congress. Our intervention must now be the choice of the American people, for good or for ill.

In the meanwhile, this call for prayer is apt, from Middle East Concern:

Syrian church leaders have welcomed and endorsed the call of Pope Francis for a day of prayer and fasting for Syria on Saturday, 7th September. The Pope condemned the use of chemical weapons, along with all other forms of violence, and renewed his appeal for urgent effort towards a negotiated settlement rather than military escalation. The Pope’s call has also been welcomed by other religious leaders, including the Grand Mufti of Syria.

The Syrian crisis is increasingly complex, with the chemical weapons attack of 21st August a particularly heinous example of the numerous atrocities perpetrated by a range of parties. Widespread violence between Government and various opposition groups continues, including in the major cities of Damascus, Aleppo and Homs. There are also conflicts between Kurdish groups and opposition groups as well as intra-opposition clashes.

The death toll continues to rise and the number of displaced people grows ever larger. The most reliable estimates suggest that at least four million are displaced within the country and that more than two million are officially registered as refugees in neighbouring countries (many more have not officially registered).

Syrian Christian leaders are appalled by the continuing violence and violations of human rights. Their consistent message is that a solution can only come through political dialogue and that all parties must prioritise the needs of the Syrian people.

Syrian Christians urge that we join in prayer for Syria at this time. They request our prayers that:

a.  Peace, justice, and reconciliation will be established in Syria

b.  Calls for renewed effort to find a political solution will be heeded by all those in authority and with influence

c.  There will be effective provision for those internally displaced and for refugees

d.  The international community will cease using Syria as a place to pursue their own agendas and act only in the best interests of the Syrian people.

But simply praying is not enough for everyone. Robert Miner is a friend of ours who lived for 26 years in Jordan, working extensively with the Program for Theological Education by Extension. With a small number of like-minded friends, he protested the possible strike at the American Embassy in Amman.

Robert Miner, in the middle
Robert Miner, in the middle

His petition declares:

Please take note that we strongly disapprove of the proposed US attack on Syria, which is soon to be discussed in the US Congress.

The cause of peace in Syria, as well as in the entire region, will in no way be furthered by an attack by the US and its allies on Syria, but will lead to further death, destruction, and the prolonged suffering of the Syrian people.

We demand the US withdraw its military and denounce these threats against Syria.

He also provides links to the White House, Congress, and in particular for Christians, a message of faith programed for delivery to your appropriate representatives.

May God give wisdom to all in determining the right course of action, and bring peace, justice, stability, and consensus to the Syrian people.