Category Archives: Mark L. Movsesian

Panel: The Coptic Question (April 10)

Fordham’s Institute on Religion, Law & Lawyer’s Work will host a panel discussion, “The Coptic Question: Protecting Minorities During Periods of Upheaval,” in New York on April 10:

Coptic Christians, who make up more than 10% of the Egyptian population, were partners with their Muslim fellow citizens in Tahrir Square and Arab Spring. However, since 2011, scores of Coptic churches, monasteries, shops, schools, clubs and orphanages had been plundered and burned, and over the past year more than 100,000 Christians have fled Egypt with their families, leaving everything they know behind.

This program will explore the experience of the Coptic Christians as religious minority in Egypt and consider the potential for protecting Christian minorities in majority Muslim countries.

Details are here.

President Obama and Pope Francis on Mideast Christians

In the Boston Globe, the always worthwhile John Allen analyzes today’s meeting between President Obama and Pope Francis. Although the two men will agree on issues like economic inequality, Allen says, they will likely differ on others, including, notably, Mideast policy.

Pope Francis often highlights the crisis Mideast Christians face; President Obama, not so much. “Few on the Catholic side are inclined to see the Obama administration as a great defender of those Christians at risk,” Allen writes, “while standing up against violent anti-Christian persecution is emerging as a cornerstone of Francis’ social and political agenda”:

On Egypt, Obama took a “pox on both your houses” stance last summer with regard to the Muslim Brotherhood and the army after a military council declared controversial President Mohamed Morsi deposed. The Vatican was more favorable to the military intervention, inclined to see it less as a coup and more as a reflection of popular will.

In Syria, the Obama administration has made the removal of President Bashar al-Assad a precondition for any negotiated end to that country’s civil war, while the Vatican is more skeptical about regime change, in part out of concern that whatever follows Assad might actually be worse.

Underlying these contrasts is that the Vatican’s reading of the Middle East is heavily conditioned by the perceptions of the Christian minorities in these countries, who generally see either a powerful military or strong-arm rulers as a buffer between themselves and Islamic radicalism. They often point to Iraq, where a once-thriving Christian community has been gutted in the chaos that followed the collapse of Saddam Hussein.

You can read the full article here.

Two Updates on Syria’s Christians

Holy Mother of God Armenian Apostolic Church in Kessab, Syria

Two updates on last week’s post about the persecution of Christians in Syria, one hopeful, one much less so.

First the hopeful one. As I wrote last week, the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant, an al-Qaeda affiliate fighting with Syrian opposition, has succeeded in capturing the town of Raqqa and imposing the classical dhimma on the town’s Christian inhabitants. The dhimma is a notional contract that Christians make with the Islamic community; it offers Christians protection and some autonomy in exchange for their agreement to pay a poll tax called the jizya and to accept restrictions on their dress, movement, construction of churches, etc. Although the historical origins are obscure, the dhimma was a standard concept in classical Islamic law. The Ottomans abandoned the concept only in the 19th century. Its revival now, even in this limited way, is a very worrying sign.

In a response to my post, a post at Andrew Sullivan’s blog points to comments condemning ISIL by a scholar at Egypt’s al-Azhar University, the leading center of Sunni Islamic learning. The scholar, Sheikh Abdul Zahir Shehata, maintains that Islamic law makes imposition of the dhimma illegal in these circumstances. ISIL’s collection of the jizya , he says, is “a form of theft that uses religion as a cover.”

It’s gratifying to see someone from al-Azhar making the point. But there is a certain ambiguity in Shehata’s remarks. If you read them closely, you see that he is not necessarily condemning the jizya as such, only its collection by a renegade group:

“ISIL contradicts itself,” Shehata said. “On the one hand they say they are implementing the provisions of Islamic sharia, including the ‘jizya’, however the Islamic state must be a full-fledged state and recognised by its citizens and subjects, which is not the case in the areas where ISIL is imposing its control by force and bloodshed.”

Maybe it’s a problem with the translation, or perhaps one has to read the whole interview to understand Shehata’s point. But it’s important to focus on the nuances. Perhaps Shehata’s real point is that only a true Islamic law state, not a band of rebels acting outside government authority, may impose the jizya–in which case, Syria’s Christians may find his rejection of ISIL’s actions less reassuring than first appears.

The less hopeful update: over the weekend, fighters with a different al-Qaeda offshoot in the opposition, a rival of ISIL known as the Nusra Front, captured the Armenian Christian town of Kessab. The fighters crossed the border from Turkey, where their bases are located, and attacked the town on Friday. By Sunday, it had fallen. Thousands of Kessab’s Christians–some of whom had sought refuge from Raqqa–have fled to the nearby city of Latakia, where they receiving assistance from the local community, the Red Cross, and Red Crescent. Eyewitnesses report that the Nusra Front has looted Christian homes and stores and desecrated churches in Kessab.

Many Armenian Christians in Kessab descend from refugees who fled the last great persecution of Christians in the region, the Armenian Genocide of 1915–itself a byproduct, in part, of a jihad the Ottoman Empire declared against Christians during World War I. The sad ironies will not escape any of the Christians in Syria today.

Movsesian on Dworkin

For those interested, my review of Ronald Dworkin’s last work, Religion without God, appears in the current edition of Religion and Human Rights. The link is here; subscription required, I’m afraid!

Quote for the Day

On the crisis in Ukraine, from the Washington Post‘s Robert Samuelson:

“We’re relearning an old lesson: History, culture, geography, religion and pride often trump economics.”

Reinstating the Dhimma in Syria

This month, the conflict in Syria enters its fourth year. The latest news is that the government has recaptured the border town of Yabrud, an important opposition stronghold. In fact, Yabrud is where the Nusra Front, an al Qaeda affiliate in the opposition, had been holding hostage a group of Greek Orthodox nuns. The Front released the nuns only last week, reportedly in return for a government promise to allow the Front to leave the city.

Yabrud’s fall will be welcome news to Syria’s Christians. Although they have tried to avoid getting too mixed up in the conflict, it’s no secret that most of them quietly support the Assad government. Some Americans express dismay at this fact. Earlier this year, in fact, Senator John McCain reportedly stormed out of a private meeting with Syrian Christian leaders who had traveled to Washington to warn about Islamist elements in the opposition. Presumably, Senator McCain thinks these warnings reflect badly on non-Islamist elements in the anti-Assad coalition, whom he favors supplying with arms.

It’s easy to support moderate rebels and hope for the best when one lives in the United States. Syria’s Christians do not have that luxury. They favor Assad because he represents the lesser of two evils. A member of a minority religion himself–he is an Alawite–Assad has been reasonably tolerant of other minorities, including Christians. Better to take your chances with him, even if he is a dictator, than risk life under jihadists who kidnap nuns and hold them for ransom.

Actually, for an al Qaeda affiliate, the hostage-taking Nusra Front is relatively tolerant. The opposition contains worse. Take, for example, the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), another al Qaeda offshoot that fights with the opposition. ISIL has taken the eastern town of Raqqa and reinstated the centuries-old dhimma, the notional contract that governs relations with Christians in classical Islamic law. According to the dhimma, Christians may live in an Islamic society as long as they pay a poll tax called the jizya, accept restrictions on their activities–for example, they may not engage in public religious displays, affect equality with Muslims, or carry weapons–and refrain from cooperating with Islam’s enemies. If they break the terms of the contract, Christians forfeit the protection of Islamic society and become subject to retaliation.

ISIL has updated the dhimma for Raqqa’s several thousand Christians. For example, Haaretz reports,

According to the 12 clauses in the accord, the Christians will commit to pay a twice-yearly poll tax of “four gold dinars” – which at today’s rate, comes to about $500 per person – with the exception that members of the middle class will pay half this amount, and the poor will pay a quarter of it, on condition they do not conceal their true financial situation.

The Raqqa dhimma also requires Christians to turn over persons ISIL believes to be working against it. Interestingly, this might include other jihadists. At the moment, ISIL is quarreling with the Nusra Front, whose members have demanded that ISIL leave the country and allow the Front to represent al Qaeda’s interests in Syria.

The Ottomans formally abolished the dhimma in the nineteenth century, an act that led at the time to a widespread anti-Christian backlash. Since the founding of the modern Middle East, no Islamist group has seriously sought to reinstate it. Even the Muslim Brotherhood government in Egypt, for example, did not propose that Christians formally comply with the old dhimmi restrictions. It’s no surprise that Syria’s Christians look at developments in places like Raqqa and decide that Assad, rather than the opposition, offers them a more secure future.

Conference on Hobby Lobby (March 24)

Georgetown’s Berkley Center and Baylor’s Institute for Studies of Religion will host a conference on the Hobby Lobby case on March 24 at the Willard Hotel in Washington, DC:

Is religious freedom good for business? Can religious liberty aid economic development, or help reduce poverty? What are the limits of religious freedom? Under the law, are for-profit businesses entitled to the exercise of that right in the United States? Does the HHS contraceptive mandate under the Affordable Care Act restrict the religious freedom of businesses? What are the legal, economic, and political implications of the answer to that question?

On March 24, the day before Supreme Court oral arguments on the Hobby Lobby case, the Religious Freedom Project at Georgetown University’s Berkley Center for Religion, Peace & World Affairs will co-sponsor a half-day conference on these and related questions. The conference will announce a new partnership between the Religious Freedom Project and Baylor University’s Institute for Studies of Religion, the co-sponsor of the event. The conference will begin with an “On Topic” keynote conversation between Baylor University President and Chancellor, Judge Ken Starr, and Harvard University Law Professor, Alan Dershowitz.

Details are here.

The Weekly Five

This week’s collection includes Benjamin Berger on the modest but useful role of law in mediating religious controversies; Cole Durham and others on same-sex marriage across the globe; Kenneth Lasson on food regulation; Ronan McCrea on face veils in Europe; and Eric Segall on legislative prayer.

1. Benjamin L. Berger (Osgoode Hall), The Virtues of Law in the Politics of Religious Freedom. Berger finds a role for law in mediating the politics of religious freedom. Unlike politics or religion, he says, law does not make comprehensive moral and empirical claims. Law’s goals are much more modest. As a result, law can bracket ultimate truth claims and reach workable compromises in religiously pluralist societies. He offers two examples, a Canadian case on the question whether a witness may give testimony wearing an Islamic niqab and an Israeli case about gender segregation on public buses.

2. W. Cole Durham (BYU) et al., A Comparative Analysis of Laws Pertaining to Same-Sex Unions. The authors survey marriage laws across the globe and report that only a relatively small number allow same-sex marriage. Most states that have decided to allow same-sex marriage have done so through the legislative rather than the judicial process. The authors maintain the legislative route is preferable for a variety of reasons and point out that “with very few exceptions, national and supranational courts have held that such decisions must be left to democratic action by citizens or their legislative representatives.”

3. Kenneth Lasson (University of Baltimore), Sacred Cows, Holy Wars: Exploring the Limits of Law in the Regulation of Raw Milk and Kosher Meat. The author discusses constitutional issues raised by food regulations that implicate religious practices, “especially when regulatory schemes bring into play both consumer protection of the public and recognition of individual rights.”

4. Ronan McCrea (University College London), The Ban on the Veil and European Law. McCrea argues that “offensiveness,” alone, will not justify bans on the public wearing of face veils under European human rights law. However, he maintains, “a ban that applies to public face-covering in general (rather than a ban that only targets the veil), that relates to the specific (though admittedly broad) context of social life and that provides some exceptions allowing the veil to be worn in specific religious or expressive contexts, has a reasonable chance of being upheld by European courts despite the significant infringement of personal autonomy it would involve.”

5. Eric Segall (Georgia State), Silence is Golden: Moments of Silence, Legislative Prayers, and the Establishment Clause. This comment on Town of Greece v. Galloway argues that the best solution to the controversy over legislative prayer is to forbid such prayer in favor of a moment of silence. This solution, Segall argues, “would solemnize governmental hearings and allow people with business there to pray or not pray, without causing offense to, or even in some circumstances coercing, people who do not wish to engage in a religious exercise.”

What’s Your Social Class?

Here is a fun quiz from the Christian Science Monitor that purports to identify one’s socioeconomic status. The questions are about psychology, tastes, and personality traits, not salary. For example, a few test how well one identifies emotions. Our readers should pay particular attention to the religious identity question (number 19) and the diagnostic explanation at the end of the quiz. Do you know which religious group in America is the wealthiest and best educated?

For what it’s worth, my own socioeconomic status, according to the test, is “Middling.” Hey, it’s better than “Upper Class”:

MIDDLING: Your habits and perspectives most resemble those of middle-class Americans. Members of this group tend to be gentle and engaging parents, and if they’re native English speakers they probably use some regional idioms and inflections. Your people are mostly college-educated, and you’re about equally likely to beg children not to shout “so loudly” as you are to ask them to “read slow” during story time. You’re probably a decent judge of others’ emotions, and either a non-evangelical Christian, an atheist, or an agnostic. A typical member of this group breastfeeds for three months or less, drinks diet soda, and visits the dentist regularly. If you’re a member of this group, there’s a good chance that you roll with the flow of technological progress and hate heavy metal music.

H/T: Rod Dreher.

Good Thing Nobody Had a Smartphone at the Last Supper

On Twitter this morning, the Huff Post seeks your Ash Wednesday Selfies:

HuffPost Religion ‏@HuffPostRelig Will you be observing Ash Wednesday? Tweet your selfies to @HuffPostRelig with the hashtag #MyAshes or #Ashtag and we may share!

Good grief.