Tag Archives: Christians

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.

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.

Baumgarten, “Practicing Piety in Medieval Ashkenaz: Men, Women, and Everyday Religious Observance”

In October, the University of Pennsylvania Press will release “Practicing Piety in Medieval Ashkenaz: Men, Women, and Everyday Religious Observance” by Elisheva Baumgarten (Hebrew University of Jerusalem). The publisher’s description follows:

In the urban communities of medieval Germany and northern France, the beliefs, observances, and practices of Jews allowed them to create and define their communities on their own terms as well as in relation to the surrounding Christian society. Although medieval Jewish texts were written by a learned elite, the laity also observed many religious rituals as part of their everyday life. In Practicing Piety in Medieval Ashkenaz, Elisheva Baumgarten asks how Jews, especially those who were not learned, expressed their belonging to a minority community and how their convictions and deeds were made apparent to both their Jewish peers and the Christian majority.

Practicing Piety in Medieval Ashkenaz provides a social history of religious practice in context, particularly with regard to the ways Jews and Christians, separately and jointly, treated their male and female members. Medieval Jews often shared practices and beliefs with their Christian neighbors, and numerous notions and norms were appropriated by one community from the other. By depicting a dynamic interfaith landscape and a diverse representation of believers, Baumgarten offers a fresh assessment of Jewish practice and the shared elements that composed the piety of Jews in relation to their Christian neighbors.

Movsesian Lecture at Houston’s Lanier Library (Sept. 6)

For readers in the neighborhood, I’m delighted to say that I’ll be giving a lecture, “Religious Freedom for Mideast Christians, Yesterday and Today,” at the Lanier Theological Library in Houston on Saturday, September 6:

Recently, in a city in Syria, an Islamist group imposed on Christian citizens the dhimma, the traditional “agreement” governing relations with Christians in Islamic law. According to the dhimma, Christians are tolerated as long as they pay a special tax and agree to abide by restrictions on worship and other public behavior. The dhimma governed Christians for centuries, but was abolished 150 years ago, when Mideast countries generally adopted Western models of religious equality. Its reappearance in Syria today has sent a chilling message to Christians throughout the region.

In this lecture, Professor Mark Movsesian, Director of the Center for Law and Religion at St. John’s University in New York, will discuss the religious freedom concerns of Christians in the Mideast. He will explore the historical treatment of Christians and describe the situation today. Inparticular, he will explain the current threats to Christians and explain why some observers believe the Christian communities of the Mideast are going through one of the worst periods of persecution in their history.

Details are here. Stop by and say hello!

Pope Francis on the Crisis in Iraq

Pope_Francis_in_March_2013In an airborne press conference on the way back from Korea yesterday, Pope Francis addressed the ongoing humanitarian crisis in Iraq. In response to a question about the American bombing of ISIS targets, the Holy Father made three important points. One, unfortunately, was not helpful.

First, the Pope said, under Just War theory, it is “licit” for third parties to intervene in order to “stop” the “unjust aggression” by ISIS. Pope Francis emphasized that he did not endorse bombing, specifically, but action to stop ISIS generally. Second, the decision how best to deal with ISIS must be made by nations acting together in consultation, at the United Nations. Consultation is necessary, he said, in order to prevent any one nation–implicitly, the United States–from succumbing to the temptation to become an occupying force.

There isn’t very much danger of the US seeking to occupy Iraq at this stage, frankly. If anything, Americans in 2014 are disposed to avoid the region altogether. But the Pope’s statements are consistent with Just War theory and entirely appropriate. And perhaps Pope Francis feels justified in offering an oblique criticism of the US, which ignored his predecessor’s plea to get UN approval for the 2003 Iraq invasion, and reaped the consequences.

The Pope seems to have gone a little astray, though, in his third point. Responding to a question about religious minorities, including Catholics, he said this:

Secondly, you mentioned the minorities. Thanks for that word because they talk to me about the Christians, the poor Christians. It’s true, they suffer. The martyrs, there are many martyrs. But here there are men and women, religious minorities, not all of them Christian, and they are all equal before God.

Pope Francis is right that minorities other than Christians are suffering in Iraq. And Christians would not object to the idea that God loves all people equally, Christians and non-Christians. But the implication of the Pope’s statement– at least in the way his remarks have been translated and transcribed–is that the suffering of Christians gets disproportionate attention, and that it’s necessary to widen the focus to make sure other groups are not forgotten.

With great respect, this misstates the situation. The danger is not that the outside world pays too much attention to Christian suffering, but too little. The media routinely downplays that suffering, notwithstanding the fact that Christians–as Pope Francis himself recently stated–suffer the greatest share of religious persecution in the world today. As for the great powers, they typically look the other way. The United States, for example, did absolutely nothing to help the 100,000 Christian refugees displaced by ISIS in recent weeks, but sent in helicopters to distribute relief to 40,000 Yazidis.

As I say, the transcript may not fairly reflect the sense of Pope Francis’s remarks. Transcripts do not capture inflections. But many in the media will no doubt seize on the  remarks to justify their comparative inattention to Christian suffering. That would be most unfortunate. Although non-Christians are surely suffering in Iraq, and although it’s entirely appropriate to remember and help them, there is nothing wrong with stressing the suffering of Christians, especially when one is Pope. Unless people speak out, continually, there is a grave danger that Iraq’s Christians will simply be forgotten.