Tag Archives: Christians

Kobani, Then and Now

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Kobani, Syria, Last Weekend

For the past several weeks, the world has been watching Kobani (in Kurdish, Kobanê), a small city on the Syrian-Turkish border. In September, militants from ISIS, the Sunni Islamist group that has declared a restored caliphate in the Middle East, laid siege to the city, which is mostly Kurdish and currently in the hands of the YPG, a Syrian Kurdish group that opposes the Assad government. Kobani’s strategic significance is debatable, but the city has symbolic importance, and its fall would be a huge morale boost for ISIS. Consequently, the US has instituted a bombing campaign to push ISIS back. As of this weekend, the siege was at a standstill.

A bewildering set of parties is involved. In addition to the two main antagonists, ISIS and the YPG, there are the Iraqi Kurds – who, unlike the YPG, do not have good relations with the PKK, the Kurdish militants who seek to establish a homeland in Turkey – the Free Syrian Army, part of the “moderate” secular opposition to Assad; the Assad regime itself; the Iraqi government; regional powers like Turkey and Iran; and the international anti-ISIS coalition, led by the US. Each of these parties has its own interests to protect, which makes cooperation very difficult. Most observers think the city will fall unless outsiders supply substantial ground troops. That seems unlikely. Although Turkey last week said it would open its border and allow some Iraqi Kurdish fighters, as well as members of the Free Syrian Army, to reinforce Kobani, it’s not clear whether that will occur.

One group that does not have a significant representation in Kobani is Christians. This is ironic, because Kobani was in fact founded by Christians during the last great wave of persecution in the region, about 100 years ago. In the wake of the Armenian Genocide of 1915, an ethnic-cleansing campaign that killed millions of Armenians and other Christians in the Ottoman Empire, Armenian refugees established a village near a recently-built train station on the Baghdad Railway, at a place called Ayn al-Arab in the Aleppo Province. The Kurds came later and called the village “Kobani,” apparently after the German company that had built the railway.

The Turks pushed many of Kobani’s Armenians further south. Those who avoided deportation built churches and schools in Kobani, but most eventually decided to move on, to other cities in Syria or to Soviet Armenia. Doubtless, many of them wished to leave a place with so many bad memories. According to political scientist Cengiz Aktar of the Istanbul Policy Center, the area surrounding Kobani is known as “‘the Armenian cemetery’ because of the thousands of Armenians who died there during the deportations. It was a terrible place when the Armenians arrived back then, and the area has a tragic history. It is being repeated now.”

Hardly anyone today remembers the Christian presence in Kobani. I didn’t know the story, myself, until a friend said his grandfather, one of the refugees, once had a shop there. The churches are gone. New humanitarian disasters succeed the ones of 100 years ago; history moves on. Still, it’s worth pausing to reflect on the great suffering that led to Kobani’s foundation, and the great suffering that continues there now. It will have blood, they say. Blood will have blood.

Photo from CNN

The Armenian Church in Myanmar: A Follow-Up

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Photo from the BBC

A follow-up to last month’s post on the Armenian Orthodox church in Myanmar: This summer, the BBC did a lovely story about a 150-year old Armenian parish church in the city of Yangon, St. John the Baptist (above). Hardly any parishioners remained, the BBC said, maybe 10 people on a good Sunday. Most of the congregation were not Armenians, either, the Armenians having left Myanmar, with the British, decades before.

A small group of holdouts had continued to maintain the church, however, led by a priest, Father John Felix. Father John was not Armenian Orthodox, the story indicated, but Anglican. Nonetheless, the Armenian Church had, in an ecumenical gesture, invited him to use St. John the Baptist for the small number of faithful who remained, even though he had a very limited knowledge of the Orthodox liturgy. (Most of the parishioners had a very limited knowledge, too). Apparently he was starting to attract a following from among Christian believers of many communions.

The BBC got its information straight from Father John. It turns out, however, that he’s not really “Father” John at all. The Anglican archbishop says that John Felix was never ordained a priest, only a deacon, and that, for unspecified reasons, the Anglican Church no longer allows him to conduct religious services. How he ensconced himself at St. John the Baptist is a mystery. He apparently inserted himself a few years ago, after the last “full” member of the congregation passed away. The Armenian Church hierarchy seems not to have known about it. To be fair, they have many more pressing issues with which to contend.

This summer’s story drew a lot of attention. As I say, once the Anglicans found out about John Felix, they spread the word he wasn’t one of theirs. The story got noticed in Armenia as well. Last week, the Catholicos, or Patriarch, of the Armenian Church, Karekin II, visited Yangon to reconsecrate the altar and conduct a proper liturgy; a large crowd attended. The Catholicos also announced that henceforth an Orthodox priest from Calcutta would fly in on weekends to conduct liturgies at the church. As for John Felix, he’s indicated he intends to remain at the church and has refused to turn over the keys. The BBC says legal action seems likely.

The BBC has posted a video interview with John Felix. He seems like a nice enough man, and gamely tries to chant the Kyrie Eleison (in Armenian, Der Voghormia) to show his bona fides. But, if the BBC is to be believed, he’s been deceiving everyone for years. He has actually purported to conduct weddings and baptisms for unsuspecting parishioners. Is he well-meaning but misguided, or an out-and-out scoundrel? It’s impossible to tell. What a very strange story.

Video: Movsesian Lecture on Mideast Christians at Lanier Theological Library

For those who might be interested, the Lanier Theological Library has made available a video of my lecture last month, “Religious Freedom for Mideast Christians: Yesterday and Today.” In the lecture, I discuss the history of the Mideast’s Christian communities, their persecution today, and what Americans can do about it.

The video is below. Thanks again to Mark Lanier and everyone at the library for hosting me!

On Christians and the Open Letter to the Islamic State

Recently, a group of more than 120 Islamic law scholars, many of them from very prominent institutions in the Sunni world like Cairo’s Al Azhar University, signed an Open Letter to the leader of the Islamic State (aka IS, or ISIL, or ISIS), Dr. Ibrahim Awwad Al-Badri (aka Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi). The letter sharply criticizes IS, arguing that most of its actions violate Islamic law. Among other things, the letter rejects IS’s declaration of a caliphate; its conception of jihad; its persecution of non-Muslims, including Christians and Yazidis; its atrocities against women and children; its killing of journalists and aid workers; and its destruction of the shrines of the prophets.

The Open Letter is a welcome development and its authors and signatories deserve credit. Western observers often criticize Muslim leaders for their failure to speak out against Islamist groups like IS, since the silence of Muslim leaders can be taken as assent. The Open Letter makes clear that IS does not represent the totality of Islam and that its Salafist interpretations are not the last word in fiqh. It’s valuable to have a critique of IS from within the Islamic law tradition itself.

And yet, if one reads the Open Letter closely, one sees that its conclusions are not all that Western observers might hope. At the First Things site, Ayman Ibrahim explores some of the letter’s ambiguities. For example, the scholars criticize IS’s attempt to reestablish the caliphate, not because the idea itself is outmoded, but because IS is too small to assert worldwide Muslim rule. “There is agreement (ittifaq) among scholars that a caliphate is an obligation upon the Ummah,” the letter concedes. But a small group like IS cannot declare a caliphate all on its own. “In truth, the caliphate must emerge from a consensus of Muslim countries, organizations of Islamic scholars and Muslims across the globe.”

Well, what if IS ultimately does ultimately obtain support for its caliphate? Given the group’s meteoric success so far, perhaps IS feels optimistic and would like to give it a try. Would consensus make IS’s caliphate legitimate? And does the letter really mean to suggest that Muslims across the globe have a religious obligation to seek the restoration of some sort of caliphate? That’s certainly how it sounds. How about Muslims in the West?

Or take the treatment of Christians, a matter Ibrahim does not discuss. As most people know by now, IS has murdered or expelled Iraqi and Syrian Christians who refuse to agree to the terms of the dhimma, the classical Islamic law “agreement” in which Christians accept subordinate status and pay a poll tax called the jizya. The Open Letter sharply criticizes IS for these actions. “These Christians are not combatants against Islam or transgressors against it,” the letter protests, but “friends, neighbors and co-citizens. “

This defense of Christians from leading Muslim scholars is very helpful. But then the letter makes clear the Islamic law basis for the scholars’ critique: “From the legal perspective of Shari’ah,” it says, the Christians of Iraq and Syria “all fall under ancient agreements that are around 1400 years old, and the rulings of jihad do not apply to them.” As non-combatants, these Christians are subject to a smaller jizya than IS has assessed . This smaller jizya is a substitute for the zakat Muslims pay and is to be distributed among the whole population, including Christians on occasion, as a form of charity.

In other words, the scholars’ objection is not that IS has subjected Iraqi and Syrian Christians to the dhimma and imposed on them the jizya. Rather, the objection is that these Christians are already subject to the dhimma and that IS has no authority to impose new terms, and that IS is collecting the wrong form of jizya. To put it mildly, this reasoning is not likely to reassure Christians and encourage them to return to their homes — assuming those homes still exist.

Some readers will think I am caviling. But I really don’t think so. In law, reasons matter. As I say, the Open Letter is a welcome contribution to the debate over IS and the signers, some of whom have no doubt taken personal risk, deserve credit. But the reasoning of the letter — well, let’s just say it raises some serious questions.

Video of Panel Presentation on Religious Liberty

The Lanier Theological Library in Houston has posted a video of a panel on religious liberty that took place at the library earlier this month. Among other subjects, the panel addressed the rise of contemporary Islamism, the treatment of Christians in the Mideast, the prevalence of Islamic-law arbitration in Europe and the US, and the legality of American drone strikes on American citizens affiliated with Islamist groups. I participated in the panel, along with Mark Lanier (Founder, Lanier Theological Library), Dean Michael Simons (St. John’s), Professor James Hoffmeier (Trinity Evangelical Divinity School), and Fr. Mario Arroyo (Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston). Take a look.

One More Word on Ted Cruz and Christians

Senator Ted Cruz responded yesterday to writers who criticized his needlessly provocative remarks at the recent In Defense of Christians Summit earlier this month. He suggested that his critics didn’t care about Christians — their real target was Israel. His evidence? None of his critics had ever expressed concern for Mideast Christians before:

Then, among one particular community, which is sort of the elite, intellectual Washington, D.C., crowd, there has been considerable criticism… A number of the critics, a number of the folks in the media have suggested, for example, that my saying what I did distracted from the plight of persecuted Christians.

What I find interesting is almost to a person, the people writing those columns have never or virtually never spoken of persecuted Christians in any other context. I have spoken literally hundreds of times all over the country. This is a passion. I’ve been on the Senate floor, and I intend to keep highlighting this persecution. I will say it does seem interesting that the only time at least some of these writers seem to care about persecuted Christians is when it furthers an anti-Israel narrative for them. That starts to suggest that maybe their motivation is not exactly what they’re saying.

For a man who claims a passion for the plight of Mideast Christians, he doesn’t seem to have followed public discussion of the subject. The writers to whom he alludes — Michael Dougherty, Ross Douthat, Rod Dreher, Mollie Hemingway, Matt Lewis, and, I guess, me (my criticism of him at the First Things site was the most widely-read and commented-upon post at the site last week) — have written plenty on the topic. First Things’s Matt Schmitz kindly posted a list of my own posts — 37 of them.

Within a few hours, Senator Cruz had apologized:

It was a mistake to suggest that critics of my remarks at IDC had not spoken out previously concerning the persecution of Christians; many of them have done so, often quite eloquently. It was not my intent to impugn anyone’s integrity, and I apologize to any columnists who took offense. The systematic murder of Christians in the Middle East is a horrible atrocity, and all of us should be united against it. Likewise we should speak with one voice against the persecution of Jews, usually being carried out by the very same jihadist radicals.

OK, I accept — although he still hasn’t apologized for lumping me in with the elite, intellectual, Beltway crowd. But it’s an ugly thing to insinuate bigotry in people who disagree with you, and, on this issue at least, Senator Cruz seems to make a habit of it. Nothing good can come from this, not for Mideast Christians, not for Israel, and not for Senator Cruz. I have an proposal. His critics will stop talking about Senator Cruz if he does. Is it a deal?

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!

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.

Yancey & Williamson, “So Many Christians, So Few Lions: Is There Christianophobia in the United States?”

In November, Rowman & Littlefield will release “So Many Christians, So Few Lions: Is There Christianophobia in the United States?” by George Yancey (University of North Texas) and David A. Williamson (University of North Texas). The publisher’s description follows:

So Many Christians, So Few Lions is a provocative look at anti-Christian sentiments in America. Drawing on both quantitative and qualitative research, authors George Yancey and David A. Williamson show that even though (or perhaps because) Christianity is the dominant religion in the United States, bias against Christians also exists—particularly against conservative Christians—and that this bias is worth understanding.

 The book does not attempt to show the prevalence of anti-Christian sentiments—called Christianophobia—but rather to document it, to dig into where and how it exists, to explore who harbors these attitudes, and to examine how this bias plays itself out in everyday life. Excerpts from the authors’ interviews highlight the fear and hatred that some people harbor towards Christians, especially the Christian right, and the ways these people exhibit elements of bigotry, prejudice, and dehumanization. The authors argue that understanding anti-Christian bias is important for understanding some social dynamics in America, and they offer practical suggestions to help reduce religious intolerance of all kinds.

Kim & Kim, “A History of Korean Christianity”

In November, SUNY University Press will release “A History of Korean Christianity” by Sebastian C. H. Kim (York St. John University) and Kirsteen Kim (Leeds Trinity University). The publisher’s description follows:

With a third of South Koreans now identifying themselves as Christian, Christian churches play an increasingly prominent role in the social and political events of the Korean peninsula. Sebastian Kim and Kirsteen Kim’s comprehensive and timely history of different Christian denominations in Korea includes surveys of the Catholic, Orthodox and Protestant traditions as well as new church movements. They examine the Korean Christian diaspora and missionary movements from South Korea and also give cutting-edge insights into North Korea. This book, the first recent one-volume history and analysis of Korean Christianity in English, highlights the challenges faced by the Christian churches in view of Korea’s distinctive and multireligious cultural heritage, South Korea’s rapid rise in global economic power and the precarious state of North Korea, which threatens global peace. This History will be an important resource for all students of world Christianity, Korean studies and mission studies.