Posts tagged with: middle east

Russian Orthodox Metropolitan Hilarion of Volokolamsk, chairman of the Moscow Patriarchate’s Department for External Church Relations, met with Pope Benedict XVI at the Vatican on Oct. 16 after the session of the Synod of Bishops of the Roman Catholic Church.

In an interview for Acton’s Religion & Liberty quarterly, the Russian Orthodox bishop in charge of external affairs for the Moscow Patriarchate, Metropolitan Hilarion (Alfeyev) of Volokolamsk, warned that that the situation for the Christian population of Syria has deteriorated to an alarming degree. Hilarion compared the situation today, after almost two years of fighting in Syria, as analogous to Iraq, which saw a virtual depopulation of Christians following the U.S. invasion in 2003.

The Russian Orthodox Church has been among the most active witnesses against Christian persecution around the world, particularly in the Balkans, North Africa and the Middle East. In November 2011, Kirill, the Patriarch of Moscow and All Russia, visited Syria and Lebanon. In a meeting with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, Kirill said that he shared a concern with Assad about the “spread of religious radicalism that threatens the integrity of the Arab world.”

That sentiment has been expressed widely in Christian communities in Syria — some of them dating to apostolic times — as civil war has progressively taken a heavy toll. Now almost two years on, as many as 30,000 people may have perished. Despite having few illusions about the nature of Assad’s autocratic rule, many Christians feared that the Islamist groups, involved in what the West initially viewed as another “Arab Spring” uprising, would eventually turn on them. Indeed this is what has happened. Entire Christian villages have been depopulated, churches desecrated, and many brutal killings have taken place at the hands of the “Arab Spring” insurgents. Most recently, Fr. Fadi Haddad, an Orthodox priest, was found murdered with brutal marks of torture on his remains. Car bomb attacks are now being waged against Christian neighborhoods. (See these backgrounders on the Syrian crisis from the Congressional Research Service and the Council on Foreign Relations). (more…)

In an interview in Our Sunday Visitor, an official with the Catholic Near East Welfare Association said refugees from Syria into Lebanon are increasing “tremendously” because of the military conflict. Issam Bishara, vice president of the Pontifical Mission and regional director for Lebanon and Syria, told OSV about the “perilous situation in Syria and how the local and global Catholic Church is responding.”

OSV: What has life been like for local Christians in Syria?

Bishara: Christians or non-Christians, they are fleeing the shelling. The Christians would have an additional worry — they are not sure of the future. The experience of Christians in Iraq was horrible. If something similar happens to the Christians in Syria then they would be in a very difficult situation. Most of the Christians who fled Iraq went to Syria and Lebanon. The question is, what if the Christians in Syria were displaced? What we hear from them is that they worried about their future, about the form of the new regime and the new government — would there be a democratic regime, a fanatic Muslim regime? They’re not sure.

OSV: What is CNEWA doing to assist the refugees?

Bishara: We are assisting 2,000 families in the regions of Homs, the Christian Valley, Tartus and Damascus. We work through the infrastructure of the local church — the Greek Orthodox Church, which is the largest Christian community in Syria, and the Greek Catholics, the Melkites, and through the different sisters and the Jesuit fathers as well.

OSV: How has the Church responded?

Bishara: The Church has responded in a very good way. We are trying to utilize their social workers and priests and the sisters and try to raise funds and pass it through them. They are purchasing all of the commodities that we agree on and putting it in boxes and taking care of distribution. They are extremely accountable and very strict in terms of who gets what. We’re very happy with the way they are presenting their reports. We are in almost daily contact with them.

In an Aug. 2 report, the director of programs for International Orthodox Christian Charities affirmed this dire picture. “There is a palpable sense of urgency and people are worried about the growing violence throughout the country,” said Mark Ohanian. IOCC is working closely with the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate of Antioch and all The East and Syrian relief partner, Al Nada Association, in an effort to reach as many people as it can and to determine what the most immediate needs are for the growing number of displaced and vulnerable families. (more…)

A roundup at Notes on Arab Orthodoxy paints a grim picture for Christians — and clashing Islamic sects — in Syria. It’s a gut-wrenching account of kidnappings, torture and beheadings. One report begins with this line: “Over 40 young men (including a couple of doctors) from the Wadi area, were killed by the bearded men who are eager to give us democracy.”

The article also links to a report in Agenzia Fides, which interviewed a Greek-Catholic bishop:

The picture for us – he continues – is utter desolation: the church of Mar Elian is half destroyed and that of Our Lady of Peace is still occupied by the rebels. Christian homes are severely damaged due to the fighting and completely emptied of their inhabitants, who fled without taking anything. The area of Hamidieh is still shelter to armed groups independent of each other, heavily armed and bankrolled by Qatar and Saudi Arabia. All Christians (138,000) have fled to Damascus and Lebanon, while others took refuge in the surrounding countryside. A priest was killed and another was wounded by three bullets.

Read “Things Get Worse in Syria” on the Notes on Arab Orthodoxy site.

Despite the rise of globalization and democracy, violent persecution of Christians, Jews, and other religious minorities is still shockingly common in many parts of the world. The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom has released its latest survey of religious freedom and as Doug Bandow reports, it makes for grim reading:

(more…)

Acton’s director of research Samuel Gregg tackles the question of religious liberty in Islamic states this morning, over at The American Spectator. In a piece titled “The Arab Spring’s Forgotten Freedom,” Gregg describes the tensions between Christians seeking religious freedom in the Middle East and the Islamic states they inhabit, and then looks hopefully to the source of a resolution.

For at least one group of Middle-Easterners, the Arab Spring is turning out to be a decidedly wintery affair. And if confirmation was ever needed, just consider the escalation of naked violence against Christians throughout the region. The recent instance of Egyptian army vehicles crushing and killing Coptic Christians protesting against a church burning was merely one of numerous incidents that must make Middle-Eastern Christians wonder about their future under the emerging new regimes.

These trends appear to confirm that despite all the current freedom-and-democracy talk, much of the Islamic world continues to suffer from one particularly severe blind spot when it comes to human liberty. And that concerns the acceptance and protection of authentic religious freedom.

Gregg points out that the Christian population of the Middle East has plummeted since 1900 (when it was about 20 percent) for ethnic and for political reasons.

Islam confronts two specific dilemmas that raise questions about its ability to accept a robust conception of religious liberty.

First, from its very beginning, Islam was intimately associated with political power. That’s one reason why there is no church-state distinction in Islam that limits (at least theoretically) the state’s capacity to coerce religious belief or unreasonably inhibit religious-shaped choices.

Second, since approximately the 13th century, the dominant theological understanding of God’s nature within Islam has been one of Voluntas (Divine Will) rather than Logos (Divine Reason). And this matters because if you believe in a God that can, on a mere whim, act unreasonably, then it isn’t so problematic for such a Divinity’s adherents to engage in plainly unreasonable practices such as killing apostates.

If, however, God is Logos, the case for religious liberty is much easier to make insofar as a reasonable God would never demand compulsion in religion. Why? Because as St. Augustine wrote long ago, “If there is no assent, there is no faith, for without assent one does not really believe.”

Gregg sees hope, however, in thinkers like Turkish journalist and devout Muslim Mustafa Akyol, whose recent book Islam Without Extremes makes the Islamic case for religious freedom. Though most Western religious thinkers do little to plead the cause of persecuted Middle Eastern Christians, Gregg thinks the central cause of the persecution, and thus the ultimate solution, is to be found in Islamic thought.

In the end, non-Muslims can’t resolve Islam’s religious liberty challenge. Only theologically educated, historically informed and believing Muslims can do that. In the meantime, those reading the Arab Spring as a uniformly-positive event might like to consider that it appears to be doing little to secure the freedom, if not the very existence, of ancient Christian churches, many of which were founded by people who in all likelihood knew Christ or his first disciples. The loss of such a civilizational and religious heritage would be immeasurable — and not just for Christianity, but for the future of liberty within the Islamic world itself.

Mustafa Akyol happens to be speaking today at a luncheon hosted by the Cato Institute. Acton’s executive director Kris Mauren will be providing commentary. If you are in Washington, D.C., you won’t want to miss it!

The Brotherhood of St. Moses the Black, an Orthodox Christian organization that provides information about “ancient Christianity and its deep roots in Africa,” is holding a conference Aug. 26-28 in the Detroit area. In a story in the Observer & Eccentric newspaper about the upcoming conference, a reporter interviewed a woman by the name of Sharon Gomulka who had visited an Orthodox Church several years ago on the feast day of St. Moses the Black (or sometimes called The Ethiopian). She watched “as white worshippers kissed the image of a dark-skinned man.” They were reverencing the image of the saint.

“I didn’t realize it was his feast day and I didn’t know about venerating icons. I had a paradigm shift of the many Caucasian people kissing this black man,” Gomulka told the paper. “And I began to question what kind of church is this? Who are these people that color does not seem to truly matter?”

Well, they’re Christians as she later came to find out. Historian Christopher Dawson reminds us in The Historic Reality of Christian Culture: A Way to the Renewal of Human Life (1960) that the Church’s origins in the Middle East and North Africa, and its expansion further East, points to its universal nature:

The Church itself, though it bears a Greek name Ecclesia, derived from the Greek civic assembly, and is ordered by the Roman spirit of authority and law, is the successor and heir of an Oriental people, set apart from all the peoples of the earth to be the bearer of a divine mission.

Similarly, the mind of the Church, as expressed in the authoritative tradition of the teaching of the Fathers, is neither Eastern nor Western but universal. It is expressed in Western languages — Greek and Latin — but it was in Africa and Asia rather than in Europe that it received its classical formulation. Greek theology was developed at Alexandria and Antioch and in Cappadocia, while Latin theology owes it terminology and its distinctive character to the African Fathers — Tertullian, Cyprian and above all St. Augustine.

While these men wrote in Latin, it was not the Latin of the Romans; it was a new form of Christian Latin which was developed, mainly in Tunisia, under strong Oriental influence.

Dawson’s reflections should not be taken as a mere historical curiosity. This history speaks to what the Church is, and has always been. All the more reason to be alarmed at the ongoing persecution of Christians in Egypt and the Middle East — communities that have in many case been continuously rooted in these lands since Apostolic times. The Christians in Kirkuk, Iraq, have been targets of bombers in recent weeks. “This is only happening because we are Christians,” said Chaldean Archbishop Louis Sako. “Maybe the people responsible want to empty the city of Christians.”

Historian Philip Jenkins in books such as The Next Christendom: The Coming of Global Christianity (2002) and The Lost History of Christianity: The Thousand-Year Golden Age of the Church in the Middle East, Africa, and Asia–and How It Died (2008) has worked to deepen English-speaking Christians’ awareness of these ancient roots in places like Syria, India and China.

In a 2008 interview with BeliefNet.com, Jenkins was pessimistic about the hard-pressed Christian communities in the Middle East, whose populations are rapidly dwindling:

By far the largest change is in the Middle East, the region between Persia and Egypt. As recently as 1900, the Christian population of that whole region was almost ten percent, but today it is just a couple of percent, and falling fast. Particularly if climate change moves as rapidly as it some believe, the resulting tensions could reduce Christian numbers much further. Egypt would be the most worrying example here. Might that 1,400 year story come to an end in our lifetimes?

Europe is nothing like as serious an issue. The number of active or committed Christians certainly is declining, but the churches don’t face anything like what is happening in the Middle east. There is no plausible prospect of a Muslim regime anywhere in Western Europe, or of the recreation of the social order on the lines of Muslim law. Realistically, people of Muslim background will constitute a substantial minority of the European population, rather than a majority, and it is far from clear that most will define themselves primarily according to strict religious loyalties. European Christianity may be in anything but a healthy state, but Islam need not be its greatest cause for concern.

Matters are very different in other countries of Africa and Asia, where Muslims and Christians are in deep competition. We could imagine wars and persecutions that could uproot whole societies.

If there’s one thing that these Christian communities have experience with in the last 2,000 years, it’s wars and persecutions. Jenkins might be wrong about extinction, but there’s no question about decline. According to another estimate, the Middle East’s Christian population shrank from 20 percent to 10 percent during recent decades. Yet, the surest way to speed the decline, or realize extinction, is for the global Church to ignore the plight of their brothers and sisters in this part of the world.

More history from Jenkins, echoing Dawson:

During the first century or two of the Christian era, Syria, Egypt, and Mesopotamia became the Christian centers that they would remain for many centuries. Christian art, literature, and music all originated in these lands, as did most of what would become the New Testament. Monasticism is an Egyptian invention.

By the time the Roman Empire granted the Christians toleration in the early fourth century, there was no question that the religion was predominantly associated with the eastern half of the empire, and indeed with territories beyond the eastern border. Of the five ancient patriarchates of the church, only one, Rome, clearly stood in the west. The others were at Constantinople, Antioch, Jerusalem, and Alexandria – three on the Asian continent, one in Africa. If we can imagine a Christian center of gravity by around 500, we should still be thinking of Syria rather than Italy … Much early Christian history focuses on the Roman province known as Africa, roughly modern Tunisia. This was the home of such great early leaders as Tertullian, Cyprian, and Augustine, the founders of Christian Latin literature.

shearlThe new issue of Religion & Liberty, featuring an interview with Nina Shea, is now available online. A February preview of Shea’s interview, which was an exclusive for PowerBlog readers, can be found here.

Shea pays tribute to the ten year collapse of communism in Eastern Europe, which began in the fall of 1989. The entire issue is dedicated to those who toiled for freedom. Shea is able to make the connection between important events and times in the Cold War with what is happening today in regards to religious persecution. Her passion on these issues is unmatched. Her experience and expertise on issues of religious persecution definitely shine through in this interview. I encourage readers to pay attention to her work.

Mark Tooley offers the feature piece for this issue, “Not Celebrating Communism’s Collapse.” It is an excellent look back at the religious left and their grave misjudgments about the true danger of Marxist dictatorships. Tooley declares, “Communism’s collapse did further discredit the Religious Left, and the political witness of mainline Protestantism and ecumenical groups like the WCC and NCC has arguably, and thankfully, never quite recovered from the events of 1989-1990.” Tooley is president of The Institute on Religion and Democracy in Washington, D.C. and author of Taking Back the United Methodist Church.

In this issue I offer a review of Steven P. Miller’s Billy Graham and the Rise of the Republican South, which appeared first on the PowerBlog.

“Repressions” is a series of voices that speak to the danger of an ideology that reduces man to merely a material creature, while violently squelching the spiritual. Because of the danger of an all controlling state, the Framers of the U.S. Constitution considered religious liberty the “first freedom,” the foundational freedom upon which others are built. They understood that religious freedom is the hallmark to a truly free and virtuous society, and is also meant to act as an important wall from encroachment by the state into our lives.

The issue also pays tribute to a well known figure, especially among evangelical Christians, Francis Schaeffer (1912-1984). Scaheffer, who spoke out against the godless totalitarian state also powerfully reminds us: “I believe that pluralistic secularism, in the long run, is a more deadly poison than straightforward persecution.”

Blog author: rnothstine
posted by on Friday, February 26, 2010
Nina Shea

Nina Shea

In the next issue of Religion & Liberty, we are featuring an interview with Nina Shea. The issue focuses on religious persecution with special attention on the ten year anniversary of the fall of communism in Eastern Europe. A feature article for this issue written by Mark Tooley is also forthcoming. Tooley is president of the Institute on Religion and Democracy in Washington D.C. In regards to Shea, the portion of the interview below is exclusively for readers of the Powerblog. In this portion of the interview Shea discusses Egyptian Copts, Sudan, President Barack Obama’s record on religious freedom and Iranian dissidents. Below is a short bio of Shea:

Nina Shea has served as an international human-rights lawyer for over twenty years. She joined the Hudson Institute as a senior fellow in November 2006, where she directs the Center for Religious Freedom. For the ten years prior to joining Hudson, She worked at Freedom House, where she directed the Center for Religious Freedom, which she had founded in 1986.

Since 1999, Shea has served as a Commissioner on the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, an independent federal agency. She has been appointed as a U.S. delegate to the United Nation’s main human rights body by both Republican and Democratic administrations. She recently spoke with Religion & Liberty’s managing editor Ray Nothstine.
(more…)

Protection and justice for the Egyptian Coptic community is an issue that is very close to my heart. That is a major reason that this week’s Acton commentary highlights the grave difficulty of their situation. The inspiring news is that the international Coptic community has united to peacefully magnify their outrage of the violent shooting that took place on January 6; the date Coptic Christians celebrate Christmas Eve. I’d like to point out to our Powerblog readers one especially moving video by John Abiskaron called Coptic Justice. The short film chronicles the peaceful protests in Los Angeles on January 10.

I lived in Egypt for over two years and one thing that is especially telling about the people is how so many are very poor but filled with joy. Many of the poorest Egyptians are Christians too because of persecution by the Islamic majority and government. Living in Egypt was really the first time my eyes were opened to the heartbreaking poverty that plagues much of the globe. It was a very humbling experience and one that truly physically connects you to the deep thankfulness of your own opportunities and circumstances.

My first visit to the Zabaleen community in Cairo could only be described as almost utter disbelief. I didn’t want to believe people actually lived like that. And in a deeper spiritual sense you feel connected to them because the crosses many of them wear is a physical reminder that they are brothers and sisters in Christ. The Zebaleen are also a very proud and independent people and they have worked on many entrepreneurial endeavors with their task at trash collecting to better their own community and lives.

It is vital that Egypt receive greater pressure from the United States to vastly improve the treatment of Copts. It is important because it is a task that can be accomplished largely due to the amount of foreign aid Egypt receives from the United States. Egypt is very dependent on that aid and as Nina Shea will also reiterate in her upcoming Religion & Liberty interview, it is aid that must be leveraged for Coptic justice and protection.

Blog author: jspalink
posted by on Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Society is changing as economic freedom and diversification gradually creep into the Middle East. Dr. Samuel Gregg, director of research at the Acton Institute, explores the effects of free trade on nations including Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates and, in turn, the effect those nations are having on their neighbors.

The diversification of economies, notably the development of new products and services for export, allows nations to grow out of reliance on oil production as the main source of capital. The emerging economies create an entrepreneurial atmosphere open to all and encourages foreign investment. The result is a rise out of poverty and more open foreign relations.

Read the full commentary here.