Category Archives: Mark L. Movsesian

Center Announces New Student Fellows

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L-R: Prof. Marc DeGirolami, Stephanie Cipolla ’16, John Boersma ’15, Prof. Mark Movsesian

As the academic year begins, we’re delighted to announce the appointment of our student fellows for 2014-2015, John Boersma ’15 and Stephanie Cipolla ’16. John and Stephanie have already been helping with the daily Scholarship Roundup posts, but they’ll be taking on other responsibilities as well. We’re glad to have them with us and look forward to the year ahead.

For more information about the new fellows, please click here.

Int’l Moot Court Competition in Law & Religion (Venice, March 2015)

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Nice Place for a Moot Court Competition

Here’s a great opportunity for law students. The Fondazione Studium Generale Marcianum in Venice (above) is hosting a new, international moot court competition on the subject of law and religion. The competition, which will take place in Venice next March, will draw teams of students from American and European law schools:

The goal of the Moot Court Competition is to bring together in Venice, for a limited period of time and in an intensive way (9-11 March 2015), a group of law school students in order to make them discuss a case with professional jurists. The students, coming from European and American Law Schools, will participate as teams. They will deal with a case at the intersection between law and religion, a central issue for the entire world and indeed a crucial theme for the Marcianum.

The initiative will bring together scholars and students of different backgrounds to have them address the very same case from two different standpoints. Some scholars will sit as the Supreme Court of the United States; some as the European Court of Human Rights. Teams will argue the same case before one of the two boards of judges. After a verdict, a roundtable will gather some scholars to debate the case as well as the way the two moot courts have addressed it.

This approach will give the students an opportunity to measure themselves with a case related to fundamental rights, developing reflective and argumentative skills and, at the same time, it will offer them, and the other participants, the occasion to highlight the different cultural points of view of the two Courts, enhancing the comparative perspective.

I’ll serve as one of the judges on the moot American court, along with Professor Bill Kelley of Notre Dame and Judge Richard Sullivan of the Southern District of New York. Professors Louis-Leon Christians (Catholic University of Louvain), Mark Hill (Cardiff University) and Renata Uitz (Central European University Budapest) will make up the European panel. Professor Silvio Ferrari (Milan) and Brett Scharffs (BYU) will serve as keynote speakers.

For details on the competition, as well as entry requirements, please click here.

Web Story on Movsesian Lecture at Lanier Theological Library

For those who are interested, here’s a story about my lecture this month at the Lanier Theological Library in Houston, on the human-rights crisis facing Mideast Christians. Once the library posts the video, I’ll link that too. Thanks again to LTL for hosting me!

Where the Queen Prays in Scotland

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Crathie Kirk

As everyone knows, Scotland votes tomorrow on whether to remain part of the United Kingdom. In Scotland last Sunday, Queen Elizabeth made a statement most have interpreted as a commentary on the situation. Scots should think very carefully about the future, she said.

I’m sure the Queen meant that Scots should vote “No.” How could she have meant otherwise? What interests me, though, is that she made the statement after services at Crathie Kirk, a parish of the Church of Scotland. In fact, she regularly worships at Crathie Kirk when she’s in Scotland, at her Balmoral estate.

Now, Queen Elizabeth is the Supreme Governor of the Church of England, the Mother Church of the worldwide Anglican communion. The Church of Scotland is not Anglican, but Presbyterian. Relations between the two churches are cordial (though they have not always been so), but the Queen is not a Presbyterian. She’s an Anglican. So why does she regularly worship in the Scottish Kirk? Are there no Church of England parishes near Balmoral? Couldn’t she fly in a vicar from London?

As far as I can tell, this arrangement is one of those historical accommodations that have ripened into custom. The Treaty of Union of 1707 — the treaty Scots may overturn tomorrow — requires the British Monarch to preserve the Church of Scotland. The Monarch takes an oath to that effect upon accession to the throne. Sometimes the Monarch attends meetings of the Church’s General Assembly. Usually she sends a representative.

It’s thus quite natural for British Monarchs to feel that, whatever their official role in the Church of England, they have a place in the Church of Scotland as well. In the nineteenth century, Queen Victoria caused a scandal when she received communion in the Church of Scotland, but she maintained that as the country’s — that is, Scotland’s — Queen, she had every right to do so. Since then, every reigning Monarch has worshiped at Crathie Kirk.

So, there it is. In England, the Monarch is an Anglican; in Scotland, she prays with the Presbyterians. How very British. I mean that in a good way, and I use the term advisedly. After tomorrow, it may mean something else.

The Cynical Mr. Cruz

This week in Washington, a major conference took place on the persecution of Mideast Christians. The conference brought together Christians from around the region, including many church hierarchs. Many of the attendees had experienced Islamist persecution firsthand. The overarching theme was unity, and the overall purpose was to raise awareness about what Christians in the region are going through.

On Wednesday, Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) addressed the gathering. Rather than focus on the plight of Christians, the subject of the conference, he decided to take the opportunity to lecture the crowd on its failure sufficiently to support Israel. After saying his purpose was to highlight the suffering of Christians, he abruptly and unaccountably segued to the story of Israel’s founding in 1948. “And, today,” he continued, “Christians have no greater ally than the Jewish state.” At this point, some in the crowd – some, not all – began to boo and tell him to “move on.” Instead, Cruz dug in, accusing the crowd of being unchristian and consumed with hatred for Jews. “If you will not stand with Israel and the Jews,” he told the crowd, “then I will not stand with you.” And he left the stage.

When I first read the story, I shook my head at Cruz’s naiveté. Rightly or wrongly, Israeli policy towards Palestine is a sore point for many Mideast Christians, not a few of whom are Palestinians. Some Christians have been forced by circumstance to reach accommodations with Assad in Syria and Hezbollah in Lebanon, two foes of Israel. And, although Israel does not persecute Christians – it would be obtuse to suggest it does – many Christians in Israel feel that they are not particularly welcome, either. There are repeated reports of kids defacing churches and harassing Christian processions in the Old City of Jerusalem, for example. It would be convenient to blame these incidents on Islamists, but the perpetrators typically turn out to be students from ultraconservative yeshivas. And there are complaints that the government is quietly trying to push Christians out by denying building permits, professional licenses, etc. William Dalrymple’s classic book about Mideast Christians, From the Holy Mountain, details these complaints.

This week’s conference was not the place to discuss all this, and the organizers clearly wished to avoid criticizing Israel. In fact, the conference wasn’t about Israel at all. So, most attendees were stunned by Cruz’s comments and embarrassed at the reaction to them. Why interrupt a conference about Mideast Christians to talk about Israel’s struggles, a subject bound to divide people? It’s worth repeating, not everyone booed Cruz. Some in the crowd applauded him.

As I say, my first thought was that Cruz had been exceptionally inept. How could he fail to anticipate that he would derail the conference by taking this line? It seems, however, that he had the episode planned. Before giving the speech, Cruz met with the editorial board of the Washington Free Beacon, a conservative website, which then ran an obligingly alarmist account of the upcoming event with the headline “Cruz Headlines Conference Featuring Hezbollah Supporters.” Apparently, the whole thing was a setup, a farce to make Cruz look good with his base and shore up his credibility as a pro-Israel hawk. Mollie Hemingway has the evidence over at The Federalist.

People will move on from this sad episode, and the good work of the conference in raising the plight of Mideast Christians will no doubt bear fruit. But what are we to make of such a man, who hijacks an event focused on the suffering of a mostly forgotten group of people, sandbags his hosts, preens self-righteously, and deliberately provokes an ugly reaction to score political points? No doubt, Cruz and his staff will trumpet his brave conduct in standing up to bullies. In fact, what he did was humiliate the powerless, and there’s another word for that than brave.

The President’s Speech

In an address to the nation last night, President Barack Obama committed the US to doing something about ISIS — aka the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, or just the Islamic State — the Salafist group that has taken over about a third of both those countries.  The goal, the president said, is to “degrade, and ultimately destroy” the group, through airstrikes and support for Iraqi and Kurdish ground forces, as well as elements of the Syrian opposition. The US will also send an additional 475 military advisers to the region. But no combat troops — the president was clear about that.

There was good and bad in the president’s speech. First, the good. It’s good that the US has committed to address the threat ISIS poses to the Middle East and, ultimately, the US itself. ISIS does not see itself as merely a regional player. It has pretensions to reestablish the caliphate, the global Islamic polity, with itself at the head. It has money, numbers, and growing prestige. By ruling a large territory in the heart of the Middle East, ISIS serves as an inspiration for jidahists everywhere. Sooner or later, ISIS or others it inspires will attack targets in the West. Better to address the threat now than wait for something terrible to happen.

It’s also good that President Obama talked about humanitarian assistance to ISIS’s victims, including Christians, whom he mentioned by name. True, to my mind, at least, the president continues to downplay Christian suffering in an unfortunate way. Last night, for example, he alluded to the genocide of Yazidis, but said nothing about the genocide of Christians. Still, he did mention Christians, and he deserves credit for that.

Now, the bad. By publicly and categorically ruling out the use of American combat troops, President Obama undercut his stated goal. Many experts think it will be necessary for the US to send ground troops back to Iraq if ISIS is really to be defeated. Maybe it won’t be. But to rule out American troops from the start gives Iraqi forces an excuse for holding back (“If they won’t fight, why should we?”), and ISIS an incentive to buy time until it can wear down the Iraqi army — or infiltrate and corrupt it. It would have been wiser for the president to say publicly only that US combat troops are not an option at present. Keep ISIS guessing.

Second, the President stated flatly that ISIS is “not ‘Islamic.'” ISIS does not represent the whole of Islam, or even the majority stream within Islam today. As the president said, ISIS victimizes Muslims as well as non-Muslims, and many Muslims are appalled by the group’s conduct. But ISIS has definite roots in parts of the Islamic tradition. For example, its treatment of Christians has antecedents in Islamic history. ISIS did not invent the dhimma on its own.

It’s understandable why President Obama would wish to deny the Islamic roots of ISIS. Defeating the group will require the cooperation of other Muslims, including Salafists like the Saudis, and there is no point antagonizing them. And no one wants to see a backlash against the millions of our Muslim fellow citizens in the United States, who deserve to live in peace. But saying that ISIS is “not ‘Islamic'” is likely to suggest to people who know better — including the audience for the president’s speech in the Mideast – that the president doesn’t understand the situation. It would have been better to avoid comparative religion entirely, and say only that we invite Muslims and all people of goodwill to join the coalition against ISIS.

Finally, parts of the speech had an unfortunate, self-absorbed quality. Take this excerpt:

Moreover, I have made it clear that we will hunt down terrorists who threaten our country, wherever they are. That means I will not hesitate to take action against ISIL in Syria, as well as Iraq. This is a core principle of my presidency: if you threaten America, you will find no safe haven.

Rather a lot of personal references here. “A core principle of my presidency?” Surely, defending America is a core principle of every president’s presidency. Brave men lived before Agamemnon.

Thanks to the Lanier Theological Library

I’d like to thank the Lanier Theological Library in Houston for hosting my lecture on Mideast Christians this past weekend. I greatly appreciate the warm reception and great turnout — a credit to the library and the topic rather than the speaker — as well as the chance to share some of my thoughts. Once the library posts the video, I’ll link it here. Do check out the library’s website before then, though, and visit if you can. It’s a remarkable scholarly resource and a beautiful place.

US Rescues Turkmen in Iraq; Christians Still Waiting

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Help for the Turkmen (LA Times)

This past weekend, the United States intervened to rescue some 15,000 Shia Turkmen trapped in the northern Iraqi city of Amerli. ISIS, the Sunni Islamist group, had besieged the city for three months, and residents were without electricity and running low on food, water, and necessary medical supplies. So, on Saturday, American planes dropped more than 100 bundles of emergency supplies to the Turkmen. British, French, and Australian military aircraft also dropped supplies.

While this was going on, American planes struck ISIS positions outside the city. According to a Pentagon spokesman, the airstrikes were necessary to support the humanitarian assistance operation underway in Amerli, and to prevent ISIS militants from attacking civilians. The airstrikes caused ISIS to withdraw, which allowed Iraqi military units, as well as a Shia militia group, the Badr Organization, to retake Amerli. The participation of the Badr Organization is problematic, since the group is thought to be responsible for massacring Sunnis in the past.

Obviously, this is a very significant action by the United States. For a country that says it does not with to appear sectarian – this was the excuse Condoleezza Rice once gave for not doing more for Iraq’s Christians – the United States has now publicly allied itself with one of the three major factions in Iraq’s sectarian struggle, the Shia militias. This fact will not escape Iraq’s Sunnis. Perhaps it was a necessary step, given the threat of a massacre in Amerli. But it certainly will not seem neutral in the Iraqi context.

But I would like to focus on a different matter. The US has now intervened to rescue 40,000 Yazidi refugees on Mt. Sinjar, and 15,000 Turkmen refugees in Amerli, from the threat of genocide. Good. But genocide also threatens more than 100,000 Christian refugees, whom ISIS has forced from their homes with only the clothes on their backs. These refugees now live in appalling conditions in camps around the city of Erbil, in Iraqi Kurdistan. Christian NGOs, as well as the UN and the International Red Cross, are providing humanitarian assistance. So far, the US has not lifted a finger. As long it is sending help for the Yazidis and the Turkmen, it would be nice if the US did something for the Christians as well.

Conference on Mideast Christians (Washington, Sept. 9-11)

For readers in Washington: From September 9-11, an organization called “In Defense of Christians” will be hosting a major conference, the “IDC Summit 2014.” Participants include many church hierarchs from the Mideast, as well as members of Congress, prominent scholars, and other public figures:

The primary purpose of the Summit is to bring all members of the Diaspora together in a newfound sense of unity. Whether Orthodox or Catholic; Evangelical, Coptic or Maronite; Syriac, Lebanese, Chaldean or Assyrian – all Middle Eastern Christians will be called on to join together in solidarity.

This solidarity will strengthen advocacy efforts with policy makers and elected officials and make more palatable grassroots outreach to the American public. Thus united, Middle Eastern Christians will invite all people of good will to join the cause to defend the defenseless, to be a voice for those who are voiceless.

The survival of these historic Christian communities is not merely a moral imperative; it is in the interests of all nations and peoples of the West and the Middle East.

Looks very worthwhile. Details are here.

BBC Essay on the Armenian Church in Myanmar

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Photo from the BBC

From the BBC’s News Magazine, here’s a lovely essay, “The Last Armenians of Myanmar,” about a small Armenian parish church, St. John the Baptist, in the capital city of Yangon. The Armenian community built the church in 1862, when the country was still known as Burma, and the city as Rangoon.The Armenians had come to Rangoon in the 18th century from Iran, by way of British India, following the trade routes.They established close ties to the Burmese monarchy, which donated the land for the church in the center of the city.

As its title suggests, the essay has a wistful, elegiac tone. Hardly any Armenians remain in Myanmar today– most departed for Australia after World War II – and the parish gets only a handful of worshipers on Sundays. But the situation is not altogether grim. Faithful parishioners continue to maintain the church lovingly– photos of the interior make it look Victorian and vaguely Episcopalian – and the liturgy is said every Sunday by Fr. John Felix, a South Indian convert from Anglicanism. The choir continues to sing the hymns in classical Armenian.

There is hope that two things will work to preserve the building. First, as Myanmar opens to the world, international tourism is increasing. As one of the the city’s principal historic landmarks, the church should benefit. Second, the church has become the focal point for the small Orthodox community in Yangon, not just Armenians:

Already diplomats, business visitors and tourists from a range of Orthodox countries and churches – Russian, Greek, Serbian – occasionally swell the numbers at St John the Baptist, the only Orthodox church in Myanmar’s biggest city.

A new worshiper here, Ramona Tarta, is Romanian, a globetrotting business woman, publisher and events organizer who has lived in Yangon for the last few months.

“My faith is very important to me. Wherever I am in the world, I seek out an Orthodox church. But I was about to give up on Yangon. I thought it was the only city I’d ever lived in which had no Orthodox place of worship,” she complains.

She chanced across the Armenian church when driving past, and believes that with a little promotion, this historic building – and the tradition to which it bears testimony – could have a more secure future.

There’s a lesson here. Many of these Orthodox Churches have been out of communion for thousands of years. Formally, they are not supposed to worship together. But at the ends of the earth, and surrounded by people for whom these sectarian differences mean nothing, Christians somehow manage to cooperate. A hopeful example of practical ecumenism that Christians everywhere should keep in mind.