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Sudan Agrees with Rebels to Remove Islam as State Religion

In signing successive peace deals with entrenched rebel movements last week, Sudan drew upon the legacy of Thomas Jefferson.

“The constitution should be based on the principle of ‘separation of religion and state,’” read the text of an agreement between the North African nation’s joint military-civilian transitional council and the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement–North (SPLM–N).

“The state shall not establish an official religion.”

The declaration of principles further cements Sudan’s efforts to undo the 30-year system of strict sharia law under President Omar al-Bashir, during which Islam was the religion of the state.

The agreement was signed in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, four days after a more inclusive peace deal was signed with a coalition of rebel groups in the Sudan Revolutionary Front in Juba, South Sudan.

The Juba agreement established a national commission for religious freedom, which guarantees the rights of Christian communities in Sudan’s southern regions.

Sudan’s population of 45 million is roughly 91 percent Muslim and 6 percent Christian. Open Doors’s World Watch List ranks Sudan No. 7 among nations where it is hardest to be a Christian. The US Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) interpreted the agreement even more widely: to protect…

This article was originally published at Christianity Today, on September 5, 2020. Please click here to read the full text.

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Sudan Drops Death Penalty for Apostasy, Alcohol Ban for Christians

Coptic church and bell towers in Kosti, Sudan.

In one of a wide-ranging series of legislative reforms, apostates from Islam no longer face the death penalty in Sudan.

“We [will] drop all the laws violating the human rights in Sudan,” Justice Minister Nasredeen Abdulbari said Sunday during an interview on state television.

“We are keen to demolish any kind of discrimination that was enacted by the old regime, and to move toward equality of citizenship and a democratic transformation.”

In April 2019, following weeks of massive revolutionary demonstrations, Christians joined in cheering the military overthrow of longtime President Omar al-Bashir.

In his place was installed a joint military-civilian Sovereign Council slated to govern until 2022, with rotating leadership.

Importantly, current head General Abdel Fattah Al-Burhan endorsed the new revision. The move followed renewed protests demanding the government accelerate the pace of reforms.

A few days prior, Prime Minister Abdullah Hamdok, a civilian, replaced several cabinet ministers, fired the police chief, and criminalized female genital mutilation (FGM).

A UN-backed survey in 2014 estimated 87 percent of Sudanese women between the ages of 15 and 49 have been subjected to the procedure. The Miscellaneous Amendments Act—approved in April but only now publicized—also freed Sudanese women from…

This article was first published at Christianity Today, on July 13, 2020. Please click here to read the full text.

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Trapped in Lebanon, Sudanese Students Find Refuge at Seminary

Image courtesy ABTS

While Liberty University came under criticism for allowing students the option to stay on campus during the coronavirus outbreak, many other schools were also faced with a dilemma concerning the 1.1 million students who came from abroad.

According to a Quartz survey of 36 universities who host a third of the United States’ international students, 26 told those students to leave campus.

Penn State gave three days notice. Harvard gave five. Duke, among others, offered emergency financial aid to help international students return home. Princeton allowed their residency to continue—until the end of the semester.

But Sudanese students at Lebanon’s Arab Baptist Theological Seminary (ABTS) did not have a choice—even with tickets in hand.

Lebanon was one of the first nations to implement COVID-19 restrictions. Its first case was recorded on February 21, and by March 9 schools were shut down.

Four days later, at a regularly scheduled seminary picnic, Bassem Melki prepared to break the news.

“It was a joyous atmosphere,” said the ABTS dean of students, “but I had sadness in my heart because I knew what I had to say.”

Founded in 1960 and located in the mountains overlooking Beirut, the seminary…

This article was first published at Christianity Today, on June 10, 2020. Please click here to read the full text.

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Report: ‘Tremendous Progress’ Ahead for Religious Freedom Worldwide

USCIRF 2020

This article was first published at Christianity Today, on April 28, 2020.

A new report aims to “unflinchingly criticize the records of US allies and adversaries alike” on religious freedom.

And there’s a lot to report, with more headlines each month confirming the Pew Research Center’s 10-year analysis that government restrictions and social hostilities involving religion have reached record levels worldwide.

Today’s 21st annual report by the US Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) identifies significant problems in 29 countries—but sees “an upward trajectory overall.”

“Our awareness is going to grow greater, and the problem will appear more pronounced,” USCIRF chair Tony Perkins told CT. “But as we continue to work on it, I think we will see tremendous progress in the next few years if we stay the present course.”

Created as an independent, bipartisan federal commission by the 1998 International Religious Freedom Act, USCIRF casts a wider net than the US State Department, which annually designates Countries of Particular Concern (CPC) for such nations’ violations of religious freedom, or places them on a Special Watch List (SWL) if less severe.

Last December, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced CPC status for Burma, China, Eritrea, Iran, North Korea, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Tajikistan, and Turkmenistan.

USCIRF now recommends adding India, Nigeria, Russia, Syria, and Vietnam.

And where the State Department put only Cuba, Nicaragua, Sudan, and Uzbekistan on the watch list, USCIRF recommends also including Afghanistan, Algeria, Azerbaijan, Bahrain, Central African Republic, Egypt, Indonesia, Iraq, Kazakhstan, Malaysia, and Turkey.

USCIRF’s mandate is to provide oversight and advice to the State Department. Aiming to make its recommendations more easily accessible to policymakers, this year’s report limits country chapters to two pages each and adopts the same evaluative criteria as the State Department.

To qualify, a nation must engage in or tolerate “systematic, ongoing, and egregious” violations of religious freedom. CPC status requires all three descriptors, while SWL status requires two.

In previous reports, USCIRF used a “Tier Two” category requiring only one qualifier. As a result, Laos is no longer listed.

Following 11 commission field visits, 5 hearings, and 19 other published reports, USCIRF’S 2020 annual report calls attention to religious freedom violations against all faiths, including:

  • 1.8 million Muslims in Chinese concentration camps
  • 171 Eritrean Christians arrested while gathering for worship
  • 50,000 Christians held in North Korean prison camps
  • 260 incidents of religious freedom violations in Cuba
  • 489 raids conducted against homes of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Russia
  • 910,000 Rohingya Muslim refugees in Bangladesh
  • 1 million Muslim residents excluded from the National Register of Citizens in India
  • 37 Shi’a Muslim protesters executed in Saudi Arabia
  • 5,000 Baptist calendars burned by authorities in Turkmenistan

Perkins spoke with CT about how nations move up (e.g., India and Nigeria) or down (e.g. Sudan and Uzbekistan) between lists, why the State Department doesn’t accept all of USCIRF’s recommendations (but should), and whether he has hope for the future with violations at “a historical high in modern times.”

Roughly how many countries are on your studied list?

The ones that are listed are the ones that we look at. There has been discussion if we should add Venezuela. There have been a couple of others we have considered.

Examining “Country X,” how do you evaluate if and where it belongs on your lists?

First, we begin with the statutory definition of a Country of Particular Concern (CPC). Our mandate is to identify countries with systematic, ongoing, and egregious violations of religious freedom—whether it engages in or tolerates such behavior.

One thing to be cautious of is that we don’t rank countries. It is not a comparison. Country X and Country Y may both be CPC-listed, but be miles apart on the egregious nature of their violations. We look at each country separately.

It is based upon reporting that we can validate and verify; visits that we make to these countries; and hearings we hold with expert witnesses to come in and testify. It is a combination of factors, and quite frankly it is subjective.

We try to make it as objective as possible, but it is hard to quantify some things—though we do so to the degree we can.

What happens if you disagree about the designations?

The nine commissioners…

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

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Sudan Lets Christians March for Jesus Again

Religion Sudanese Christians
In this Monday, Dec. 23, 2019 photo, Christians march through the streets to celebrate the birth of Jesus in Khartoum Bahri, Sudan, north of the capital Khartoum. More than eight months after the army forced out long-ruling autocrat Omar al-Bashir, who upheld harsh interpretations of Islamic laws, Sudanese Christians are hoping for more religious freedom. (AP Photo/Mohamed Okasha)

This article was first published at Christianity Today, on December 28, 2019.

“Hallelujah! Today, we are happy that the Sudanese government has opened up the streets for us so we can express our faith,” said Izdhar Ibrahim, one of the marchers. Some Christians had been frightened before “because we used to encounter difficulties.”

The changes started in 2011, after South Sudan gained independence from Sudan following a long war and a referendum. South Sudan is mostly Christian and animist, a belief that all objects have a spirit. Al-Bashir’s government then escalated its pressure on the remaining Christians, human-rights campaigners and Christians say.

Al-Bashir, who came to power in an Islamist-backed military coup in 1989, failed to keep the peace in the religiously and ethnically diverse country.

Noah Manzul, one of the church elders, said the march was treated almost as if it were a “crime.”

Its return is “an expression of religious freedom,” Manzul said. “We can live our lives with ease.”

Manzul’s social work with homeless children and orphans got him into trouble under al-Bashir, when he was accused of trying to convert the children to Christianity, an allegation he denies. Activities like singing hymns in the teeming market outside the church were stopped, he said.

To be sure, some Christians said they were not impacted negatively by al-Bashir’s government, and officials at the time disputed that the government targeted Christians.

But Suliman Baldo, senior adviser at the Enough Project, which supports peace and an end to atrocities in Africa’s conflict zones, said the ultimate goal under al-Bashir was “to limit the influence of the church.” Under his rule, Christian church properties could be seized, Baldo said, adding some churches were demolished, and some preachers were arrested.

During past holiday seasons, many recalled, posters would appear on the streets warning against celebrating with the kofar, or infidels, a reference to Christians.

Now, the constitutional declaration that guides this transitional period no longer refers to Islam as the primary source of legislation in Sudan. A Christian woman was appointed to the nation’s interim ruling Sovereign Council.

And December 25 was declared…

Please click here to read the full article at Christianity Today, to which I contributed additional reporting.

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Arab Spring Again? Christians in Sudan and Algeria Cheer Regime Change

Bashir Bouteflika

This article was originally published at Christianity Today, on April 18.

…early signs are promising. On April 10, one day before Bashir’s arrest, the Sudanese Professionals Association (SPA) leading protests put out a call for Christian participation, acknowledging “you have suffered sectarian and psychological restrictions for years … [which have left you] without the right to worship freely.”

Shortly thereafter the SPA declared “Christ is the heart of the revolution,” and cited “blessed are the peacemakers.”

On April 14, Sudanese Christians responded.

Leaders from the Evangelical Presbyterian, Baptist, and Church of Christ denominations in Sudan appeared at a sit-in at military headquarters, offering hymns sung by both Christians and Muslims.

“This is a time to move away from the trenches of religious and ethnic discrimination and head towards an inclusive and unifying Sudanese national identity for all of us,” said Rafaat Masaad, head of the Evangelical Synods in Sudan.

“We must make a covenant that we will not withdraw or accept anything less than a new Sudan ruled by humanity and citizenship.”

Sudan, however, is not the only version of Arab Spring, Part Two. The military in Algeria removed their aged president on April 2 following widespread protests that began in February. The wheel-chair bound 82-year-old President Abdelaziz Bouteflika was attempting to secure his fifth term in office.

Unlike Bashir, Bouteflika was a beloved figure. A popular politician in his youth, he fell out of favor but returned in 1999 to put an end to the decade-long civil war that began when the military nixed an Islamist election victory that eventually killed up to 200,000 people.

A secularist of sorts, Bouteflika was an autocrat who allowed limited Islamist space of action. An Algerian Muslim Brotherhood figure was among the tentative opposition candidates against Bouteflika’s fifth-term ambitions. But al-Qaeda called from the outside for protests to impose an Islamic state, declaring Bouteflika was a friend of Christians and Jews.

The World Christian Database counts Christians as only 0.3 percent of the population, while Open Doors ranks Algeria No. 22 in its watch list, though one year earlier it ranked No. 42.

The Algerian Protestant Church, consisting mainly of former Muslims, and known by its French acronym EPA, was registered officially in 2011. But in practice it faces many restrictions, with houses of worship liable to be shut down.

“Since the beginning of the year, all the churches have begun to pray and fast for the elections,” said an unidentified Algerian Open Doors source, knowing the results are “unpredictable” but aiming for better legal standing.

“We hope that the Lord intervenes in our country.”

But on March 22, with the protests fully engaged, the EPA put out an official statement.

“We Algerian Christians, as equal Algerian citizens, fully share the aspirations and the legitimate demands of the Algerian people in their peaceful fight for a modern and democratic Republic,” it declared, “where the fundamental rights of the citizen will be respected and protected, no matter what their political and religious convictions may be.”

Will they receive their wish? Will Sudan? …

Please click here to read the full article at Christianity Today, with links to the supporting publications.

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Friday Prayers for Egypt: Slow Boil

Flag Cross Quran

God,

The waters of Egypt are simmering. Lower the temperature.

The Nile is her lifeblood, and a dam in Ethiopia may impact historic share. But also threatened Sudan leans instead to Turkey, a Brotherhood-aligned adversary.

The Israelis are her neighbor, and a president in America complicates the status quo. But the New York Times published leaks that suggest a betrayal of Palestine.

The presidency is her backbone, and elections in March invite political review. But back-and-forth developments lend intrigue to potential candidacies.

God, give Egypt wisdom to navigate these challenges.

Provide water to all, and harness the river in widespread development. Keep the Red Sea from further militarization.

Provide transparency to all, and establish justice in fair negotiation. Keep the media from biased disinformation.

Provide agency to all, and validate a leader in contested consensus. Keep the politics from crass characterization.

God, give Egypt peace to impart in these challenges.

Christmas came, with a new cathedral named after the birth of such a prince.

May this spirit hover over the waters. Calm them, God. Peace, be still.

Amen.

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Religious Freedom for the Muslim World: The Unlikely Activism of Kamal Fahmi

Kamal Fahmi

A few excerpts from my article for The Media Project.

Kamal Fahmi sat with Mazen, a Yemeni teenager at a community center in Taiz, Yemen’s third-largest city and cultural capital. Mazen’s father was there, who arranged the meeting.

Impressed with the boy’s intelligence and demeanor, Fahmi learned of their troubling problem.

Mazen didn’t want to study Islam in school.

Fahmi had heard this story before. Visiting Yemen as he had in nations across the region, converts were considered Muslim by birth and in all official paperwork. And for those underage, Islamic education came as part of the package, even if they didn’t believe in it.

Fahmi was sympathetic, but tried to downplay the problem. After all, born into a Christian family in Sudan, he had studied Islam in school also. Hold to your faith, he counseled, but pass the tests.

Yet something in the boy stirred him, as well as the nature of his family. Mazen was not a convert, and neither was his father. His grandfather was, decades earlier. Three generations of Christians, yet still considered Muslims. The injustice gnawed at him.

“They love their country, they are not criminals, they are not spies,” Fahmi said. “If anything, they have become better citizens.

“They should be free to follow what they believe.”

It is not only an issue in the Muslim world, of course:

Worldwide, 26 percent of nations criminalize blasphemy, including Russia, Italy, Myanmar, and the Bahamas. But apostasy law is more characteristically Islamic, with only India and Nigeria as non-Muslim-majority countries.

Please click here to read the full article at The Media Project.

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Sudanese Pastors Pressured to ‘Inform’ or Stand Trial

This article was first published by World Watch Monitor on December 16, 2016.

sudan-map

Forty-eight year old father of three Revd Yamane Abraha received an ultimatum in Khartoum following a trip to Ethiopia in the fall of 2015.

“(Sudanese government) security threatened me, saying I would have to appear in court either as a witness, or an accused,” the Evangelical Baptist Church of Khartoum pastor told WWM. “But my father was sick, so unlike others I couldn’t escape.”

Abraha was one of several Sudanese Christians gathered abroad to pray for their nation. Among them were Revd Hassan Abduraheem Kodi Taour and Revd Kuwa Shamal, Sudan Church of Christ pastors from the Nuba Mountains region.

Also attending was Czech Christian aid worker Petr Jašek. According to Middle East Concern, these three had helped facilitate financial assistance to pay for the medical treatment of a Darfurian university student who had suffered burn wounds when government security attacked a campus demonstration in Omdurman, north of the capital Khartoum.

Sudanese at the meeting suspected there were spies around their Addis Ababa hotel. Then shortly after their return to Khartoum, the police arrested Taour, Shamal and Jašek, in December 2015. They have now been in detention for a year. Detained along with them is Abdulmonem Abdumawla, also from Darfur, who helped facilitate the medical treatment for the student.

The four are charged with waging war against the Sudanese state, espionage, conspiracy to carry out criminal acts, and undermining the authority of the state through violence. Trial proceedings finally begun in August have been postponed repeatedly in recent months. They could face the death penalty.

Delayed escape

Abraha was not arrested until three months after his colleagues, on 13 March, and then held for only one day. Security ordered him to report back daily, and on 24 March told him he would have to appear in court in the role of his choice: testify against the others, or be charged along with them.

On 26 March his father died.

Abraha gathered his family and traveled eight hours east by bus to bury him in their hometown of Kassala, on the border with Eritrea. And there he dropped off the radar, ditched his cell phone, and waited.

Two weeks later he returned to Khartoum and set his plan in motion. Nervously he checked his surroundings before going to buy a ticket to Egypt.

With his wife he exchanged notes on paper serviettes, which they wet and discarded when read. Discreetly they packed their children’s belongings, lest they tip off authorities at school.

Abraha then checked with a friendly security officer that his name was not on a watch list. And on 20 April, he told his children they would have a family picnic near the airport. Relatives—and kids—were surprised to learn they were saying ‘goodbye’.

In Egypt, Abraha is now involved in training for discipleship and church planting, and supervises 15 house churches among Sudanese refugees.

Over 31,000 Sudanese in Egypt are registered with the UN High Commission for Refugees, according to its August 2016 report. Unofficial estimates can exceed well over one million.

Most have fled the ongoing violence in Darfur and the southern regions of Blue Nile and Nuba Mountains bordering South Sudan.

Recurring pattern

But Abraha’s story is not unique.

Barnaba Timothous, who fled to Egypt three years earlier, had also been pressed to testify against Christian colleagues. Doing student campus ministry, he was accused of taking foreign money.

“I was told that if I would cooperate nothing would happen to me,” he told WWM. “But if not, nothing would protect me from them.”

Some people criticized him for his decision to leave. He did so quickly, taking one bag and telling no one in his family. And though he stated he was not personally involved in ministry among Muslims, he refused to betray those he knew.

“I will not be involved in issues that hurt the body of Christ and bring suffering to innocent people, just because they follow Christ as savior,” he said.

“The Islamic government of Sudan is persecuting the leaders of churches and ministries. And now our students no longer trust each other, fearful someone might report them.”

Timothous, who has since been joined by his mother and sister, is now working amongst students at several university campuses in Egypt.

WWM has spoken with other Christian leaders who tell similar stories.

Excuse for crackdown

”The [Sudan] government wants sharia and is cracking down on the church,” said Kamal Fahmy, head of the religious freedom advocacy group Set My People Free.

He recalled President Omar al-Bashir’s threat, on the eve of South Sudan independence in 2011, to make Sudan a fully Islamic state, the removal of foreign NGOs thereafter, and the expulsion of South Sudanese in 2013.

“Authorities felt Pastors Hassan and Kuwa were shaming them, bringing a bad report,” Fahmy told WWM.

“In the rebel areas the church is doing humanitarian work and is not involved in the conflict, but it does expose the atrocities the Sudanese government is committing.

“It will find any excuse to accuse them.”

Pastors have been arrested, churches have been destroyed, and land has been confiscated, according to the US State Department’s 2015 Report on International Religious Freedom.

And on 6 Oct the European Parliament passed a resolution against Sudan, specifically naming the four detainees.

Noting the EU partnership with Sudan toward ‘better migration management’, the resolution ‘reaffirms that freedom of religion, conscience or belief is a universal human right that needs to be protected everywhere and for everyone … especially in the case of apostasy.’

But in January 2015, Sudan actually expanded its apostasy laws to include criticism of the Prophet Mohammad’s wives or early companions.

Fahmy, who recently penned an open letter to the UN with the Forum for Religious Freedom-Europe, links an oppressive religious climate to development issues, which he says “assaults the core of human nature”.

“Apostasy laws … have negative social and political consequences everywhere they are in force,” he wrote. “They create instability and inspire violence.”

“Without freedom to change beliefs there is no religious freedom,’” he told WWM. “Going to paradise is not compulsory.”

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A Conversation with al-Gama’a al-Islamiya’s Hani Nour Eddin – Part Two, Non-Violence

Hany Nour Eddin 1

For Part One of this conversation, discussing Hani Nour Eddin’s background, please click here. For the full interview on Middle East Institute, please click here. Part Two explores Nour Eddin’s views on violence, and here is an excerpt from the published interview:

Al-Gama`a al-Islamiya is committed to nonviolence and has apologized for its past. In fact, you organized a demonstration recently to condemn political violence. 

We saw that others had taken over the streets and were now using them to express their views. People might thinkthat they are the voice of Egypt. We wanted to say that the Egyptian street is not about violence and sexual harassment. Unfortunately, beautiful Tahrir Square has lost its symbolism. So we [demonstrated in] another place to avoid any contact with them. Our demonstration invited all to come and express their opinions, whether for or against the Islamist project, but with a commitment to nonviolence.

I noticed many of the speeches and chants were very Islamic, and quite severe. Instead of “no to violence,” the demonstration became about “yes to political Islam.” 

Our demonstrations often take the color of the people who attend. Maybe this is because of our weakness in usingthe media; we use a strident voice to make our point and show we are strong. We are Islamists, and we do not accept separating religion from anything else, and the street welcomes this. And so they chant, “Egypt will remain Islamic!”

The protest also honored Khaled al-Islambouli [Sadat’s assassin].

Islambouli is considered one of the symbols of al-Gama`a al-Islamiya when it was in a period of resistance to the regime. We all saw Sadat as a dictator, especially in his last years when he used oppression and closed mosques. Islambouli has an honored place among us.

Even if you now confess that what he did was wrong.

If we could go back in history and reevaluate, perhaps we would not have chosen the path of violence. But what happened was necessary due to the situation. Unfortunately, the circumstances demanded it.

But this is the test of your principles. If nonviolence is a principle—not a means, not a strategy—you must commit to it. 

Yes, this is right. It is a principle.

Unfortunately, for space issues Middle East Institute had to cut the conclusion, which seeks to test their commitment to non-violence through recent domestic and international examples. This part is posted here:

A few weeks earlier than your ‘No to Political Violence’ protest, Mohamed al-Zawahiri demonstrated at the French Embassy in Cairo against their military intervention in Mali. There, Ezzet al-Salamony, a leader in GI, spoke saying, “Why are they fighting us in our lands? It is we who should be fighting them in our lands!”

There are two issues here: One, Islamist support for the rebels in Mali, and two, the statement of Salamony itself. Do these violate your non-violent commitment?

I see what you’re saying. From what I know GI has abandoned violence and we will not return to it. We also agree we will not interfere in the politics of other nations. But as for that statement, he is the one responsible for it, and must justify himself.

Ok, but tell us about Mali, especially before the French intervention. Do you support the rebels from the north?

To a degree, but we do not have complete information about the nature of the Mali jihadists. Their primary slogan is the application of sharia law and building an Islamic state on the basis of it. Their situation is different; to what extent is there democracy or other means of change? We don’t know.

But we support the idea of an Islamic entity if it is true they are committed to Islam. At times some people will raise the banner of Islam but transgress it in how they behave. But yes, if they live as Muslims and seek to apply the sharia, yes, we support them.

But for the real situation between them and the Malian government, we don’t know.

But should you not condemn their jihad, as it is violent? Even if it is true the political system has not opened up the way it has in Egypt?

Again, we can’t evaluate their experience in jihad because we don’t know enough.

But you don’t know? It is clear to the world their rebellion is armed. They were marching on the Malian capital.

In the beginning it was not like this. They were a number of jihadi groups that gathered together and the government confronted them, but they began expanding their territory and announced themselves as a political entity.

But even this, expanding their territory in the north was at the expense of the legitimacy of the government. What gave them the right to seek autonomy or declare independence?

Yes, but their situation is different from that of Egypt.

But this is the point, we’re talking about a principle. In Egypt there is no necessity for violence – you have won by votes. But there the Islamist is in a position of weakness. Perhaps he is even suffering pressure. Is he allowed to resist violently?

(Laughing) I cannot condemn them before I know the circumstances which drove them to violence. Maybe it is violence in response to a greater violence upon them. What if my life or existence is threatened and there is no other way? But rebelling against a leader by forming militias? No, we must expend all peaceful and preaching means first, before resorting to violence.

Before? But your ‘Revisions’ were a complete condemnation.

The issue of jihad in Islam is legitimate, but it is not something to begin with. In our ‘Revisions’ we defined that jihad has stipulations that prevent it from resulting in even greater harm upon the people, the sharia, and the country. The jurisprudence in measuring jihad in Mali is different than the measure in Egypt.

But how can their situation be seen as worse than what you experienced here? There was a tyrant in Egypt, he oppressed you, he put you in prison, he killed you. He distorted the sharia and laughed about it. And even under all this pressure you condemned your own violent confrontation.

Because it did not result in any fruit.

So forgive me if this isn’t the right word, but does this show your condemnation of violence was opportunistic? You made a deduction violence is not working, so you give it up. You still believe in violence as a possible means of change.  

No, in the reality in which we live it is not a means of change.

But maybe it is in Mali?

It depends on their circumstances; we cannot judge them.

So your commitment to violence…

We commit ourselves. We cannot compel others to be so committed.

So it is not a general interpretation of Islam. It is just your situation?

Jihad is legitimate in Islam; no one can deny this. The question is if you are engaged in it legitimately according to its stipulations.

So what are the domestic stipulations for jihad? The one in Mali is against the ruler.

Will our scholars permit their action? I don’t know. It depends on the type of ruler; it depends on the struggle between him and the various Islamic groups. I don’t have enough information to say.

Ok. Sudan.

Our party sent a delegation to Sudan shortly after it was created, to establish relations. We consider Sudan to be deeply important to Egypt, economically, socially.

What about the status of President Bashir as an international criminal?

No, there are other factors at play in these accusations. We don’t believe the government is complicated in any criminality.

So in a sentence, how do you understand what is happening in Darfur?

It began as a local tribal conflict, and then the government intervened. After that it became somewhat of a separatist movement. It was necessary for the state to preserve its authority.

As in Mali?

(Laughing) For example.

Please click here to read the whole article at Middle East Institute.

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Is Coptic Evangelism in Africa Really on the Rise?

Bishop Antonious Marcos, missionary bishop for Africa. Behind him is a picture of the Coptic saint know as St. Moses the black.
Bishop Antonious Marcos, missionary bishop for Africa. He served first in Kenya and now in South Africa. Behind him is a picture of the Coptic saint known as St. Moses the black.

From my latest article on Christianity Today, published March 28, 2013:

Many Egyptian Christians wear their faith on their sleeve—literally. The cross tattooed on the wrist of Coptic Orthodox believers is a public display which marks their identity for all to see.

Such a quiet witness usually avoids reproach. But recently in Libya, radical Muslim militias detained dozens of expatriate Christians in Benghazi. Amid allegations that captors seared off such tattoos with acid, one Christian died from medical complications during the ordeal, and a Libyan church was repeatedly attacked.

Accusations of evangelism have been at the heart of a series of recent incidents of violence—including the first Coptic martyrs of the modern era—against Copts in Libya, Sudan, and Egypt. Which raises the question: Are Copts starting to recover their missionary heritage?

This article was co-written with a colleague from Sudan, who mentioned the following incident:

Last December, two Coptic Orthodox priests were arrested after baptizing a female convert from Islam. Since the arrests, stories about arrests of Westerners and other Christians attempting to spread the faith circulated in media linked to the state security apparatus, although the accuracy of the reports is hard to ascertain.

Though some Sudanese Copts have enjoyed business success under the Islamist government of President Omar al-Bashir, other denominations have seen their churches destroyed either by mobs or by the state, which cites the breaching of planning laws. With the independence of South Sudan removing the great majority of the nation’s Christians, Bashir has promised a 100-percent Islamic constitution.

Tensions are high also in some Egyptian villages:

There are signs Muslims feel threatened in Egypt as well. Recently churches have been attacked in Beni Suef and Aswan over female converts to Christianity alleged to be hidden inside. Generally this is understood as a Muslim community effort to save face when a woman breaks community traditions or runs away with a lover. Others think true faith might have a role.

“It is an untold story that every now and then a Muslim can be convinced and convert to Christianity,” said Youssef Sidhom, editor-in-chief of the Coptic newspaper Watani. “It is always done secretly, but somehow here it became public. In Upper Egypt especially, this creates a social scandal regardless of the direction of the conversion.”

But far from politically and religiously sensitive conversions in Muslim lands, the Coptic Orthodox Church maintains missionary bishoprics in sub-Saharan Africa:

The reality is the Coptic Orthodox Church remains committed to planting churches—just not in the direction of Muslims. In the 1970s, Pope Shenouda consecrated the first of two bishops for service in sub-Saharan Africa. Today, 65 churches serve more than 400,000 Copts in Kenya, Zambia, Congo, and other nations.

“The early riches of the Orthodox tradition are spreading again in Africa,” said Antonious Marcos, appointed missionary bishop to Kenya in 1976 and now based in South Africa. “Our church is a missionary church, because it was started by a non-Egyptian: John Mark.”

This was a very interesting article to research and write, showing a side of Coptic Christians often not well known in the West. As for the question in the title, are they recovering their evangelistic impulse: Well, they are accused, it seems some are, and reality is just as murky as with Christians around the world.

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

Categories
Current Events

Cultural Imperialism: Egypt, America, and Sudan

Salafi campaign banner in the shade of a church

Egyptian Salafi parliamentarian Mohamed al-Kurdi created a minor stir last week while testifying before the education committee. He declared his opposition to a USAID program to encourage English language teaching in government schools, beginning in grade two as opposed to grade four. Kurdi found this to be an example of ‘cultural imperialism’ and urged the government to cancel the grant.

The Salafi Nour Party, for its part, distanced itself from Kurdi, consenting to their member’s referral to a disciplinary hearing.

Amina Nossair, professor at the Azhar University, criticized:

‘We definitely should not neglect our mother tongue but I would remind Mr. Kurdi that learning foreign languages was advised by Prophet Mohamed.’

Nevertheless, through conversations with many Muslims in the Arab world, I have felt there is a palpable discomfort with the dominance of Western culture. Many of these conversations were conducted in English, so few would argue the language itself should be stricken from education.

Many other conversations, often in their language, have flipped the sentiment arguing Arabic is the language of God. Exasperation at Western culture is often awkwardly articulated as a desire for the reassertion of Islamic cultural dominance. In these cases the issue is seen as one of struggle, rather than respect for the uniqueness of each cultural expression.

But really, why argue in any direction? After all, who can resist the flow of culture? It is above us all.

Such a statement threatens to undo the reality of education as a shaper of values. It is this which Kurdi is addressing in reality, and reflects why the Salafi Nour Party maneuvered to receive the education file in the distribution of parliamentary committee leadership.

An example more akin to Western sensibilities may help win Kurdi sympathy, along with others frustrated over ubiquitous Pepsi commercials starring scantily clad Arab women.

Rev. Emmanuel Bennsion is the pastor for Sudanese ministries at the Anglican Cathedral in Cairo. Sudanese himself, he has lived the past twenty-four years in Egypt. Unlike many of his parishioners, however, he did not arrive as a refugee. In fact, he was a privileged student selected to study in Zagazig University in the Nile Delta.

‘Privileged’, however, is adjoined to the word ‘politicized’. Bennsion is a non-Arab Christian Sudanese from what is now the independent nation of South Sudan. He explains the independence movement is quite old, and the Arab leadership in the north moved to diffuse it as standard policy.

Bennsion stated Sudanese officials targeted bright students from the south to study in Egypt so as to assist in soft, low-key Arabization. During the 1970s up to 300 students a year were selected for the program. They would learn Arabic, gain a picture of Arab civilization from friendly interactions with colleagues, and increase their sense of belonging to Sudan-as-Arab nationality, even though they were ethnically, linguistically, and in some cases, religiously different.

Is this wise policy to unify a diverse population, or cultural imperialism of the sort which Kurdi would decry if applied in reverse?

Consider how many university students from around the world come to the United States. While many come of their own accord, seeking the best preparation for their fields, US policy actively facilitates many programs to give the best and brightest minds a taste of America. If they stay, we profit from brain drain. If they return, they have gained insight into American freedom and values, winning, perhaps, their hearts and minds.

Cultural imperialism, generous welcome, enlightenment sharing, or mere education? It is not a simple question.

Bennsion continues, however, to give what would appear to be a more sinister Sudanese cultural manipulation. All students wishing to enter government elementary schools must first complete two years of preschool in the ‘Kharwa’. Education here, he maintained, consisted entirely of Quran recitation and study of hadith.

This requirement could be avoided if the student entered a private school, but this was cost prohibitive for many. To receive a free education, all students, Christians included, needed to learn the Quran.

In Egypt, all schools teach religion, but separate Muslims and Christians into different classes, taught by approved members of the religious establishments.

Even so, many Christians complain that it is always the Christians who must leave the room, while Muslims remain behind in the normal classroom. Furthermore, the secular curriculum – science, math, and especially Arabic – is laced with Islamic concepts which all are required to learn.

Of course, Islam is the religion of the vast majority and a major shaper of cultural values. In Sudan, this was subjected upon a non-Islamic geographical region. In Egypt, there is no ‘Christian’ area, though Christians are everywhere. Should not Egyptian Copts simply adapt to their cultural setting?

How might your opinion of such issues shape your response to these American questions:

  • Teaching of Spanish versus English-only educational systems
  • Mandatory inclusion of ‘intelligent design’ theories in school textbooks
  • Providing financial vouchers to poor students to attend private/religious schools
  • Allowing Muslims students to absent themselves during class for prayers
  • Sponsoring school prayers or moments of silence before football games
  • Reciting the Pledge of Allegiance, including the phrase ‘under God

The parallels are not exact, but evaluation of the question shapes the search for consistency. What is the proper relation between culture, religion, and freedom? Must we allow for the other what we desire for ourselves? Or is this itself a sentiment derived from a particular cultural-religious framework?

Even if so, is the sentiment superior to cultural imperialism, whether in its Western or Islamic form? Or does appeal to the sentiment itself reflect a return to the zero sum ‘clash of civilizations’ narrative?

Kurdi, however lamentably, reminds us that while we may flail at unwanted cultural expressions, education plays a real role of determination. Egypt, much like America, is in struggle to set its course.

Sudan, meanwhile, has divided over the issue. Is this lamentable? So much depends on perspective, shaped by education, the common collection of which forms a culture.

 

note: This article was originally published on Aslan Media.

 

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