Christianity Today Middle East Published Articles

Christmas Celebrations Canceled in Iraq After Deaths of 400 Protesters

Iraq Protests Baptist
Pastor Ara Badalian leads members of National Baptist Church in prayer at Baghdad’s Tahrir Square. Image: Courtesy of National Baptist Church

This article was first published at Christianity Today, on December 9, 2019.

Distributing food to protesters with 40 fellow church members under the Jumariyah bridge near Tahrir Square in Baghdad, Ara Badalian made a poignant observation.

“This movement is a flood, occupying the hearts of the youth and the poor, without any religious discrimination,” the pastor of National Baptist Church recalled to CT. “It has broken down all the walls that divided Iraqis.”

It is at the bridges—about a dozen span the Tigris River, which bifurcates the Iraqi capital—where most violence has taken place. The protest movement, which began in October, has resulted in more than 400 deaths, around a dozen of them security personnel. Over 17,000 people have been injured.

In response, the Chaldean Catholic Church decided last week to refrain from holding public celebrations of Christmas, trading tree decorations and holiday receptions for prayers of intercession.

“Instead of bringing hope and prosperity, the current government structure has brought continued corruption and despair,” Bashar Warda, the Chaldean archbishop of Erbil, told the United Nations Security Council last week.

“[Iraqi youth] have made it clear that they want Iraq … to be a place where all can live together as equal citizens in a country of legitimate pluralism and respect for all.”

Protesters have demanded the dissolution of parliament, widespread government reforms, and amendment of the sectarian-based 2005 constitution.

Ratified following the United States-led 2003 Iraq War, the current constitution gives the Middle East nation’s Shiite majority (55% of the population) the leading position of prime minister, as well as the influential interior and foreign ministries.

The Sunni minority (40%) receive the speaker of parliament and the defense ministry. The Kurds, who comprise only a third of the Sunni population but are concentrated in their own autonomous northern region, receive the presidency and finance ministry.

Islam is established as the religion of the state and the foundational source of legislation. Christians are among three religious minorities guaranteed religious freedom, though the constitution protects the Islamic identity of the majority.

While the protests have been cross-sectarian in Baghdad, they’ve paradoxically been strongest in the nine Shiite provinces in southern Iraq.

“People don’t want foreign interference from anywhere…

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


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?


Christians in Syria

Christian Children in Homs

From Middle East Concern:

Thousands of Syrians, including large numbers of Christians, have fled from their homes, especially in the Homs and Hama governorates and more recently Damascus and Aleppo. There have been reports of the targeting of Christians by both government and opposition sides.

Several prominent Syrian Christians have been killed recently, including Defense Minister General Dawoud Rajha (assassinated in an attack on the National Security Offices in Damascus on July 18) and Brigadier-General Nabil Zougheib (assassinated along with his wife and son at their home in a Christian neighborhood of Damascus on 21st July).

Most Church leaders point out that any such targeting is not religiously motivated but is either politically motivated or is criminal activity for economic gain. Many Christians fear that radical Islamist groups are becoming more influential, and that this may lead to increased hostility towards Christians and other minorities. They fear that they may become more vulnerable to criminal activity, including kidnapping-for-ransom incidents.

Throughout the ongoing unrest, Syrian Christians have faced a dilemma of allegiance. They regard the current regime as having been a protector for many years and fear that any replacement regime is likely to prove more hostile. Yet along with others in Syria, they know that open allegiance to either the government or to the opposition could bring retaliation from the other side.

I try to keep my eye on Syria, without pretending to know what is going on, or summoning the effort required to really gain an understanding. In general, I am wary of foreign interference, suspect there is already much going on, and have unfortunately become anesthetized to the constant reports of killing. But as ruthless as the Assad regime appears, once protests evolve into armed insurrection, it is hard to take sides.

That said, I found this account interesting. Middle East Concern focuses on the state of Christians in the region, and I haven’t followed them enough to know how objective is their reporting. This one, however, reads well.

I found it interesting especially to note that one of the inner circle assassinated recently was a Christian. It is generally understood that Assad’s Shia-offshoot Alawite regime pulled other minority groups into its ruling ‘coalition’. The last paragraph presents well the state Christians now find themselves in.

I don’t envy them. Surely Christians are complicit in many of Assad’s crimes. The assassinated general’s participation in the regime was likely as a member of the Christian religious sect, rather than as a member of the Christian faith community. The line should not be drawn too finely, but it is fair to ask the question:

Strictly from the perspective of their faith, what should Christians do now?

The sect behaved politically, finding stability and security – as well as likely economic advantage – in remaining close to the Assad regime. The community may have simply accepted this as the status quo, honoring the king as the Bible commands, even when unjust. They may have paid ill attention to these issues of justice, but this is the case with Christians everywhere who are part and parcel of a nation’s fabric, as appears the case in Syria.

But now? The sect must be weighing the political advantages of remaining in Assad’s corner versus abandoning ship before it is too late. This report suggests they have adopted a stance of neutrality, which may be the wisest political course of action. There are landmines on every side, though.

The faith community, however, must be troubled further. Theirs is not a political calculation but a determination of God’s will. They must honor the king: Does Assad still qualify or is the conflict sufficiently ‘civil war’ to deny them a proper object of honor? Furthermore, does Assad’s behavior deny this categorically?

The sect must pay attention to repercussions. If the rebels win will they harbor an anti-Christian agenda? Will they exact sectarian revenge? Will they enact an Islamist agenda that limits their citizenship?

But the community should be less concerned with these issues. They must be wise, of course, but the primary importance is to do what is right. Then, if they must suffer for their choices, they do so in firm conviction God has allowed it to establish their testimony.

Ah, but what is right? This is an estimation we must leave in their hands. We can only pray they have wisdom to decide from the position of their community, and less from the position of their sect.

Either way, may peace come to Syria.


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