Category Archives: Mark L. Movsesian

Egypt’s President Visits Coptic Cathedral on Christmas Eve

On Monday, I posted about a speech Egypt’s president, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, recently gave at Al Azhar University, the leading center of Islamic learning in the Sunni world. In his speech, Sisi called for a “religious revolution,” a rethinking of classical Islamic law in order to address the concerns of non-Muslims. I wrote that Sisi’s speech was a hopeful gesture, even a brave one – but that only time will tell how serious Sisi is about honoring religious pluralism.

That’s still what I think – only time will tell. But Sisi deserves credit for another remarkable gesture this week. Yesterday, he paid a surprise Christmas Eve visit to the main Coptic Cathedral in Cairo. (The Coptic Church celebrates Christmas on January 7). According to the government-owned Ahram Online, it was the first such visit by an Egyptian president in history. Past presidents have visited the cathedral, but none has actually attended a Christmas liturgy.

You can see a video of the president’s speech — the liturgy was being covered in full by state TV – here. I can’t speak Arabic, so I don’t know what’s being said, but the scene looks electric. The congregation cheers wildly for Sisi, who himself seems moved. Here’s a report of the visit by an independent website, Mada Masr:

The president made a brief speech while standing next to Pope Tawadros II, head of the Coptic Orthodox Church of Alexandria and the highest Coptic authority in Egypt.

“It was necessary for me to come here to wish you a merry Christmas, and I hope I haven’t disturbed your prayers. Throughout the years, Egypt taught the world civilization and humanity, and the world expects a lot from Egypt during the current circumstances,” Sisi said.

“It’s important for the world to see this scene, which reflects true Egyptian unity, and to confirm that we’re all Egyptians, first and foremost. We truly love each other without discrimination, because this is the Egyptian truth,” the president declared.

The Coptic Pope thanked Sisi, and called his visit “a pleasant surprise and a humanitarian gesture.”

The Coptic Church very publicly backed Sisi during the overthrow of the Morsi government in 2013, and Copts have been suffering serious reprisals from the Muslim Brotherhood ever since. In fact, some commentators think Copts are going through the worst persecution in hundreds of years. Christmas liturgies, in Egypt and elsewhere in the Mideast, have become very dangerous for Christians, and some Muslim leaders in Egypt tell followers not even to wish Christians a Merry Christmas. The sense of being under siege no doubt explains the emotion evident in the video. (Some commentators have complained that Sisi interrupted a liturgy, and that the congregation really shouldn’t have gotten so carried away in church, but in the circumstances these things can be excused). What would elsewhere be a routine event – a politician wishing a community well on its holiday – is, in this context, a crucial show of support.

Again, it’s easy for an outsider to miss things, and I wouldn’t be suggesting Sisi for the Nobel Prize just yet. Maybe this is all a show. But, together with his speech at Al Azhar last week, his visit to the cathedral suggests something serious is happening in Egypt. Which leads to a question: why has the US been so cool to Sisi?

Merry Christmas

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To all who celebrate, a very Merry Christmas, and a Happy Theophany.

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President Sisi’s Speech

Abdel_Fattah_el-SisiThe Internet is buzzing with news of a speech last week by President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi of Egypt (left) on the need for a “religious revolution” in Islam. Speaking at Cairo’s Al Azhar University, the most important center of Islamic learning in the Sunni world, Sisi admonished the assembled scholars to revisit Islamic law, or fiqh, in order to calm the fears of the non-Muslim world. According to a translation at Raymond Ibrahim’s site, Sisi said:

I am referring here to the religious clerics.  We have to think hard about what we are facing—and I have, in fact, addressed this topic a couple of times before.  It’s inconceivable that the thinking that we hold most sacred should cause the entire umma [Islamic world] to be a source of anxiety, danger, killing and destruction for the rest of the world.  Impossible!

That thinking—I am not saying “religion” but “thinking”—that corpus of texts and ideas that we have sacralized over the years, to the point that departing from them has become almost impossible, is antagonizing the entire world.  It’s antagonizing the entire world!

Is it possible that 1.6 billion people [Muslims] should want to kill the rest of the world’s inhabitants—that is 7 billion—so that they themselves may live? Impossible!

I am saying these words here at Al Azhar, before this assembly of scholars and ulema—Allah Almighty be witness to your truth on Judgment Day concerning that which I’m talking about now.

All this that I am telling you, you cannot feel it if you remain trapped within this mindset. You need to step outside of yourselves to be able to observe it and reflect on it from a more enlightened perspective.

I say and repeat again that we are in need of a religious revolution. You, imams, are responsible before Allah. The entire world, I say it again, the entire world is waiting for your next move… because this umma is being torn, it is being destroyed, it is being lost—and it is being lost by our own hands.

Some are praising Sisi for his bravery. That’s certainly one way to look at it. When Sisi calls for rethinking “the corpus of texts and ideas that we have sacralized over the years,” he may be advocating something quite dramatic, indeed. For centuries, most Islamic law scholars – though not all – have held that “the gate of ijtihad,” or independent legal reasoning, has closed, that fiqh has reached perfection and cannot be developed further. If Sisi is calling for the gate to open, and if fiqh scholars at a place like Al Azhar heed the call, that would be a truly radical step, one that would send shock waves throughout the Islamic world.

We’ll have to wait and see. Early reports are sometimes misleading; there are subtexts, religious and political, that outsiders can miss. Which texts and ideas does Sisi mean, exactly? Fiqh rules about Christians and other non-Muslims, which often insist on subordination? Some argue that, notwithstanding the speech at Al Azhar, Sisi has done relatively little to improve the situation of Coptic Christians. And calling for the opening of the gate is not necessarily progressive. Although progressive Muslim scholars endorse the opening of the gate in order to adapt fiqh to modernity, Salafist groups wish to open the gate in order to discard centuries of what they see as un-Islamic traditions. Opening the gate may be a signal for fundamentalism, for a return to the pure Islam of the Prophet and his companions. I don’t imply Sisi is a fundamentalist, of course. I’m just saying one needs to be alert to the nuances.

Still, Sisi’s remarks do suggest he means a rethinking of Islamic law to adapt to contemporary pluralism. This is definitely worth watching.

Movsesian at American Historical Association Meeting

For readers attending the American Historical Association’s Annual Meeting in New York this weekend, I’ll be on a Sunday panel, “Contemporary Orthodox Christianity and Human Rights.” The panel, sponsored by the American Society of Church History, is chaired by Penn’s Sally Gordon, who participated in our Joint Colloquium this past spring. Details are here. Please stop by and say hello!

Foreign Policy Magazine on Iraqi Christians

From Foreign Policy,  a moving essay on how Iraqi Christians are observing this Christmas season. Last month, the author, Christian Caryl, visited Erbil, in Iraqi Kurdistan, where Chaldean-rite Catholics, refugees from ISIS’s summer campaign, live in tents in a church courtyard:

I guess you could argue that this is all old news. A lot has happened since late November, and there are plenty of other stories to cover. By and large, the international media have moved on. But the refugees are still there, huddled together on the grounds of the church, or in other sites scattered around Kurdish-controlled territory (which has offered them a warm welcome despite its own lack of resources). The world may have forgotten these people, but they’re still struggling to come to terms with the catastrophe. The accounts repeat and overlap: “I hid our money in the house, thinking we’d be back in a few days. But now we realize that we’ll probably never be able to go back.” “They knew our cellphone number, so a few days later, they called us up and said they’d hunt us down and kill us.” “They took him away, and we’ve never heard from him again.”

Sadly, the tragedy of the Christians of Iraq — who span a whole range of doctrines and ethnic groups — is being replicated in many other places. Sectarian tensions are deepening around the world, and Christians are often the victims. Syria’s mostly Orthodox Christians are caught in the middle of the civil war between the government of Bashar al-Assad and its Islamist opponents. Egypt’s Copts are still attending charred churches, burned inanti-Christian pogroms and battling persistent anti-Christian sentiment. And now churches are even being targeted for attack by Hindu nationalists in India.

Caryl also answers the inevitable criticism that it is wrong to focus on the plight of Christians. (Do human rights advocates ever require explanations for defending other persecuted minorities? Just asking).

And yes, before you put coal in my stocking, I do understand that Christians aren’t the only ones in the world suffering from bigotry and violence. Just this past week, many Yezidis, another important religious minority in northern Iraq, finally got thrown a lifeline when Kurdish forces broke through an IS siege to open up a corridor to Mount Sinjar, where many Yezidis had been trapped. And yes, it’s absolutely true that many Muslims, Buddhists, and Hindus are victims of persecution and terror. I think everyone in the world should be happy to see that stop. Faith should never be an excuse for violence.

What’s important to keep in mind in the case of Middle Eastern Christians is that the communities under attack embody unique cultural traditions that now stand on the verge of irreparable damage or even extinction. (Some of Iraq’s Christians still speak Aramaic, the language of Christ.) Small wonder that a group of Christian and Muslim leaders recently meeting in Cairo issued a statement calling for tolerance pleading with Christians to remain in the Middle East. They understand that the loss of each one of these ancient communities of faith is a loss for all of us — and a victory for the forces of intolerance at a time when the world can least afford it.

Read the whole thing.

Merry Christmas

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We’re knocking off early and giving the staff the whole day tomorrow. (Yeah, we’re regular Fezziwigs around here). To all who celebrate, a very Merry Christmas.

More on Subway “Viewpoint” Ads

Here’s a follow up to last week’s post about disclaimers on “viewpoint” ads in the New York City subway. In the post, I complained about the unfair treatment the policy affords to ads with religious messages, like the one I described from Marble Collegiate Church.

As Perry Dane explains, though, the disclaimer policy is not directed at religion per se. It applies generally to noncommercial ads that express viewpoints on “political, religious, or moral issues or related matters.” The Metropolitan Transit Authority adopted the policy after losing a 2012 lawsuit over display of anti-Islam ads. A federal district court ruled that, because the subway is a public forum, the MTA could not constitutionally refuse to display the ads. So the MTA decided to add the disclaimer to them and all other “viewpoint” ads, in order to avoid any implication of government endorsement. (The sponsor of the 2012 ads, the American Freedom Defense Initiative, is currently suing the MTA over display of a new anti-Islam ad, which the MTA refuses to display even with the disclaimer, on the ground that the ad may incite violence).

Still, whatever the formal policy, the MTA appears to apply it in a rather arbitrary way. I did a little research over the weekend. From what I could find, the policy has been applied to the AFDI ads; an ad for a Spanish-language Catholic television station; an ad from the Brooklyn Diocese featuring Pope Francis; and the Marble Collegiate ad I wrote about last week. All religious. What about disclaimers on ads that express viewpoints on political, moral, and related matters? Perhaps there are examples, but I couldn’t find any. More importantly, in no time at all I found three such ads without disclaimers.

IMG_20141221_174338_374First, there’s this ad for New York Cares, a volunteer organization that runs an annual coat drive. The ad clearly expresses a moral viewpoint, namely, that many New Yorkers go without winter coats, and the community has a moral obligation to respond. In fact, the ad’s use of the Statue of Liberty, a symbol of America and the refuge it has provided for the world’s “huddled masses,” adds a political dimension. How can we tolerate such poverty in this great republic of ours? To be sure, these messages are non-verbal, but that’s what makes them so powerful. There’s no MTA disclaimer.

08-airbnb-2.w529.h421.2xOr take this ad for Airbnb, a website that helps people rent space in their apartments to strangers for short stays. This ad campaign, which features New Yorkers saying how great Airbnb is for the city, has a political message as well, though you might not spot it if you’re not from New York. The company is trying to get the state legislature to loosen a law that restricts the use of private apartments as hotels. The ads are an obvious attempt to win public support for that effort. Still, notwithstanding the ad’s political implications, there’s no MTA disclaimer.

HillaryFinally, here’s the latest ad campaign for Manhattan Mini Storage. The company is famous for ironic, edgy ads that appeal, I guess, to sophisticated New York subway riders. Here, the political message seems pretty clear. True, this might be just another ironic ad (“Can you believe she’s running again?”) but I don’t think so, given the partisan messages in the company’s past ad campaigns, like ones poking fun at Michelle Bachmann and advocating gay marriage. Yet, again, no MTA disclaimer.

Now, the MTA would presumably defend its choice not to put disclaimers on the Airbnb and Manhattan Mini Storage ads because the policy formally applies only to noncommercial ads. But that seems arbitrary. As Marc DeGirolami pointed out last week, it’s very difficult to disentangle “commercial” from “noncommercial” expression. To my mind, the Hillary ad is the most obviously political, even though its sponsors are only trying to make money. Besides, the New York Cares ad is surely noncommercial–it’s for a volunteer organization.

As I say, perhaps the MTA has put disclaimers on non-religious viewpoint ads and I simply haven’t found them. It’s significant, though, that it’s so easy to find the disclaimer on religious viewpoint ads, and so easy to find political and moral viewpoint ads without the disclaimer. Here’s a thought: perhaps the MTA should stop trying to distinguish among ads and put disclaimers on all of them–commercial, noncommercial, political, moral, and religious. That would solve the appearance-of-endorsement problem, if the problem genuinely exists, and free up MTA resources for doing something important: running the subway.

Disapproving Religion in the NYC Subway

Here’s a post about two advertisements I happened to see while riding the New York City subway this past weekend. The ads reveal much about the subtle disparagement churches and other religious organizations sometimes experience from government agencies in the Big Apple.

subwayTake a look at the photo on the left. It shows an ad for Marble Collegiate Church in Manhattan. As far as I can tell from its website, Marble is a mainline, Protestant congregation, committed to progressive causes like diversity and same-sex marriage. Marble, the ad proclaims, is “church the way you always hoped it would be.”

Pay particular attention to the bottom of the ad, which contains a disclaimer added by the MTA, the government agency that runs the subway. The disclaimer is in bold type and takes up about 25% of the ad space. It is unsightly, in a different font and format from the rest of the ad, and definitely distracts the reader. It says: “This is a paid advertisement sponsored by Marble Collegiate Church. The display of this advertisement does not imply MTA’s endorsement of any views expressed.”

This is very odd. True, the Supreme Court’s “endorsement test” provides that government may not take actions a reasonable observer could understand, in the circumstances, as an endorsement of religion. (This explains why local governments are so careful about Christmas decorations on public property). The MTA presumably insisted on the disclaimer to make clear to subway riders that, by posting Marble’s ad, it did not endorse the church’s underlying religious message.

But the endorsement test does not require a disclaimer here. No reasonable observer could think the MTA had endorsed Marble’s message by posting its ad. There are ads in subway cars for a variety of businesses and nonprofit organizations. Nobody thinks the MTA vouches for the truth of those ads, or even the good faith of the sponsors. Will cosmetic surgery “change your life?” Will Foursquare “lead you to places you’ll love?” Who knows? But the MTA doesn’t think it necessary to attach disclaimers. No one would expect it to do so.

For example, here’s an ad my brother pointed out to me, for a company boozecalled delivery.com. The ad says the company will deliver beer, wine and liquor on demand, thereby allowing customers to “Booze Wisely.” There’s no MTA disclaimer in this ad. But why not? If reasonable people could think the MTA had endorsed Christianity by posting Marble’s ad, why couldn’t they think the MTA had endorsed drinking by posting delivery.com’s? If anything, the danger of misunderstanding is higher. The delivery.com ad offers a 30% discount to people who include the word “SUBWAY” with their orders. Marble didn’t trade on the name “subway” or offer special treatment for straphangers.

Now, supporters of the MTA’s disclaimer policy might argue there’s no real harm here. The disclaimer merely reminds people of an important constitutional principle, namely, that civil government does not take positions on the truth of religious propositions–like whether Marble really is, as its ad claims, what people would hope from a church. At worst, the disclaimer is a bit unnecessary. What’s the cause for complaint?

It’s this: Requiring church ads–and only church ads–to include disclaimers is a kind of disparagement that places churches at an unfair disadvantage in the marketplace of ideas. The inescapable implication is that there is something uniquely impolite and dangerous about religion–more than doubtful cosmetic treatments, consumer fantasies, and boozing it up at home–and that government must keep its distance. The MTA’s policy doesn’t suggest state neutrality respecting religion, but disapproval. For the record, the endorsement test prohibits that as well.

UPDATE: Perry Dane points me to the MTA policy, which actually extends to ads with “political” and “moral” content as well as “religious.” I’m surprised, because I’ve seen plenty of ads with political and moral messages that don’t carry disclaimers, but maybe the MTA just hasn’t gotten around to labeling everything. Still, the differential impact on religious messages has implications under the endorsement test.

Piatt, “Catholic Legal Perspectives”

This month, Carolina Academic Press releases a new edition of “Catholic Legal 9781611636642Perspectives,” by Robert William Piatt, Jr. (St. Mary’s). The publisher’s description follows:

This second edition updates the examination of contemporary issues, identifying in critical areas, how Catholic principles and legal principles overlap and diverge. While it is not expected or required that the reader agree, in every instance, with either the law or the Catholic perspectives, the reader of this work will come away with an understanding of both. Critiques and responses are included throughout. Topics include family issues (marriage, same sex marriage, divorce, annulment), immigration, public assistance, religious freedom, and matters of life and death, including abortion, euthanasia, and the death penalty.

The book is aimed at law students, lawyers, those in Catholic undergraduate and graduate schools, and others who are interested in examining Catholic views regarding our system of justice. The book includes updated excerpts from cases and statutes, law review articles, and commentaries. It contains important Church documents including selections from papal encyclicals, communications from the U.S. Council of Catholic Bishops, theologians, and others. Each chapter concludes with a “For Further Thought” section, asking the reader to consider, apply, and examine the principles discussed in that chapter. It asks law students and lawyers to reflect on whether these principles will or should affect their representation of clients or the way judges should approach cases brought before them. The book contains a bibliography at the end of each chapter for further reading and study.

Ryback, “Hitler’s First Victims”

In October, Random House released “Hitler’s First Victims: The Quest for ryJustice,” by Timothy W. Ryback. The publisher’s description follows:

The remarkable story of Josef Hartinger, the German prosecutor who risked everything to bring to justice the first killers of the Holocaust and whose efforts would play a key role in the Nuremberg tribunal.

Before Germany was engulfed by Nazi dictatorship, it was a constitutional republic. And just before Dachau Concentration Camp became a site of Nazi genocide, it was a state detention center for political prisoners, subject to police authority and due process. The camp began its irrevocable transformation from one to the other following the execution of four Jewish detainees in the spring of 1933. Timothy W. Ryback’s gripping and poignant historical narrative focuses on those first victims of the Holocaust and the investigation that followed, as Hartinger sought to expose these earliest cases of state-condoned atrocity.

In documenting the circumstances surrounding these first murders and Hartinger’s unrelenting pursuit of the SS perpetrators, Ryback indelibly evokes a society on the brink—one in which civil liberties are sacrificed to national security, in which citizens increasingly turn a blind eye to injustice, in which the bedrock of judicial accountability chillingly dissolves into the martial caprice of the Third Reich.

We see Hartinger, holding on to his unassailable sense of justice, doggedly resisting the rising dominance of Nazism. His efforts were only a temporary roadblock to the Nazis, but Ryback makes clear that Hartinger struck a lasting blow for justice. The forensic evidence and testimony gathered by Hartinger provided crucial evidence in the postwar trials.

Hitler’s First Victims exposes the chaos and fragility of the Nazis’ early grip on power and dramatically suggests how different history could have been had other Germans followed Hartinger’s example of personal courage in that time of collective human failure.