Tag Archives: Christians

Why Did ISIS Destroy the Tomb of Jonah?

On Friday, the media reported that ISIS, the Islamist group that has established a “caliphate” in parts of Syria and Iraq, had destroyed the centuries-old Tomb of Jonah in Mosul, Iraq. Present-day Mosul encompasses the site of the ancient Assyrian capital of Nineveh, where, the Bible teaches, the Prophet Jonah preached. Although this is disputed, a tradition holds that Jonah was buried within the city, on Tell Nebi Yunus, or Hill of the Prophet Jonah.

An Assyrian church stood over the tomb for centuries. After the Muslim conquest, the church became a mosque; the structure that ISIS destroyed last week dated to the 14th century. In addition to the tomb, the mosque once held the supposed remains of the whale that had swallowed Jonah, including one of its teeth. At some point, even the tooth had disappeared. In 2008, the U.S. Army presented the mosque with a replica.

Last week, ISIS closed the mosque and prevented worshipers from entering. Then it wired the structure with explosives and reduced it to rubble (above). You can see a video of the explosion here, taken by a Mosul resident, who mutters, in Arabic, “No, no, no. Prophet Jonah is gone. God, these scoundrels.”

Some commentators have explained the destruction of the tomb as part of ISIS’s anti-Christian campaign. Scholars Joel Baden and Candida Moss point out that, in Christian interpretation, the Old Testament story of Jonah prefigures the death and resurrection of Christ. “The destruction of his tomb in Mosul is therefore a direct assault on Christian faith, and on one of the few physical traces of that faith remaining in Iraq.” Another scholar, Sam Hardy, told the Washington Post that the destruction of the tomb shows that ISIS is willing to destroy “pretty much anything in the Bible.”

On this analysis, ISIS destroyed the tomb because of its Christian associations. But that mistakes ISIS’s motives in this case. True, ISIS has no respect for Christians or their sites of worship and, in fact, has driven Mosul’s Christians from the city. The fact that the tomb was sacred for Christians as well as Muslims—and contained a present from the US Army—cannot have endeared it to ISIS. But something else is going on here. The shrine was, after all, a mosque, and Jonah figures in the Quran as well as the Bible. To understand why ISIS destroyed the tomb, one has to appreciate something about the version of Islam the group espouses.

ISIS is part of the Salafi movement, a branch of Sunni Islam that seeks to return to the practices of the earliest Muslims – the salaf— who lived at the time of the Prophet Mohammed and just after. The movement rejects the centuries of subsequent developments in Islam as unjustified innovations–pagan accretions that adulterated the faith. In particular, the movement opposes the veneration of the graves of Islamic prophets and holy men. Salafis see this practice, which is associated most frequently with Sufi Islam, as a kind of idolatry, or shirk, that detracts from the absolute transcendence of God.

Salafi Islam prevails in Saudi Arabia, where it enjoys the patronage of the royal family. On the Arabian Peninsula, as now in Iraq, Salafis have destroyed the tombs of Islamic holy men. Indeed, when the Saudi royal family captured the city of Medina in the 19th century, Salafis systematically destroyed the tombs of several of the Prophet Mohammed’s companions and family members, leaving only the Prophet’s tomb itself unmolested. There is some thought that the Saudi government plans on dismantling even that tomb, but hesitates to do so because of the uproar that would result in other Muslim communities.

In short, one should see ISIS’s destruction of the tomb of Jonah as an act principally directed at other Muslims, not Christians. That doesn’t make it any better, of course. Will the outside world do anything in response? Unlikely. Besides, as Professor Hardy told the Post, “If we didn’t intervene when they were killing people, it would be kind of grotesque to intervene over a building.”

America’s Duty to Iraq’s Christians

At The Week, columnist Michael Brandon Dougherty has a hard-hitting piece on America’s responsibility to Iraq’s Christians. In light of the fact that America’s invasion, occupation, and withdrawal created a situation of great and continuing peril for Christians, America should be doing much more to help them. For example, he writes:

Although I’m generally inclined toward a more restrictive position on immigration, the U.S. should, as a matter of practice, be especially generous in granting refugee status to the collateral victims of the war we started in Iraq. It should even offer some refugees of ISIS persecution the material resources to emigrate to America if they so desire.

The dream of transforming Iraq into an incubator of Arab liberalism has turned into a nightmare for religious minorities. America’s intervention in Iraq, and its support of Syrian and Libyan rebels, have created a disastrous disorder in which Islamist threats thrive.

Mosul was a home for Christians for as long as Christianity existed. Not anymore. Now, the U.S. cannot restore these people to their homes, or reverse the desecration of Christian shrines. But our diplomatic, financial, and moral energies should be used to protect them from any further harm.

Read the whole thing.

The Dhimma Returns in Iraq

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Photo: Al Arabiya

Sad news from Iraq this weekend. In response to an ultimatum from ISIS–the “Islamic State in Iraq and Syria,” or, if you prefer, just the “Islamic State–Christians have evacuated the northern city of Mosul. For thousands of years, Mosul has been a center of Christianity, particularly the various Syriac Christian communions: Chaldean-rite Catholics, Syriac Orthodox, and the Assyrian Church of the East, a church that once spread as far as China. As recently as a decade ago, tens of thousands of Christians lived in Mosul. After this weekend, virtually none remain.

The expulsion of Christians from Mosul suggests something very worrying about the possible future of Islamism. And it serves as a reminder of what can happen to religious minorities when secular dictatorships in the Arab world collapse.

Mosul lies within the territory of the “caliphate” that ISIS, a militant Sunni Islamist group, has proclaimed in parts of Iraq and Syria. Its ultimatum to the Christians of Mosul is the same it gave the Christians of Raqqa, Syria, last spring. “We offer them three choices,” ISIS announced last week: “Islam; the dhimma contract – involving payment of jizya; if they refuse this they will have nothing but the sword.” In recent days, ISIS operatives went through Mosul marking the homes of Christians with the Arabic letter “Nun” for “Nasara,” from “Nazarenes,” a word that refers to Christians. The implications were clear.

Some readers may be unfamiliar with the term dhimma. The dhimma is the notional contract that governs relations between the Muslim umma and Christians (and Jews) in classical Islamic law. Theoretically, it dates back to the “agreement” one of the early caliphs made with the Christian community of Syria. The dhimma allows Christian communities to reside in Muslim society in exchange for payment of a poll tax called the jizya—in Mosul, ISIS was requiring a jizya of about $500—and submission to various social and legal restrictions. The dhimma forbids Christians from attracting attention during worship, for example, from building new churches, and generally from asserting equality with Muslims.

It’s wise to take ISIS at its word. On Saturday, ISIS operatives expelled the 52 Christian families who remained in the city–after first requiring them to leave all their valuables behind. For good measure, ISIS also burned an 1800-year-old church and the Catholic bishop’s residence, along with its library and manuscript collection.

One could say much about this sad uprooting of Christianity from a place where it has survived for millennia, but here are two observations. First, a psychological line has been crossed, and this may have dire consequences in future. For the moment, ISIS is unique among Islamist groups in calling for formal reinstatement of the dhimma. Although Islamists everywhere reject the idea of equality for Muslims and Christians, they typically avoid calling for the dhimma, as they understand that most contemporary Muslims find the concept abhorrent. Nothing succeeds like success, however. ISIS has now shown that it is possible to reestablish the dhimma at the center of the Muslim world. Other Islamist groups will no doubt take notice. Christians who remain in the Middle East have great cause for worry.

Second, although principal responsibility for this outrage lies with ISIS, and with Iraq’s Prime Minister, Nouri al-Maliki, whose misgovernment has created a situation in which ISIS can gain a following, the United States bears responsibility as well. Its invasion of, and hasty withdrawal from, Iraq set in motion a chain of events that has allowed radical groups like ISIS to succeed. In the Middle East, secular dictatorships can be very brutal. But they are often the only thing that stands in the way of the absolute destruction of minority religious communities. Toppling such dictatorships and hoping for their replacement by “moderate” elements is not a good bet. Incredibly, this seems to be a lesson the United States still has to learn.

#BringBackOurChristians

Last spring, Boko Haram, a jihadist group fighting to establish an Islamist state in Nigeria, kidnapped hundreds of girls from a public school in the city of Chibok. The kidnapping led to a worldwide hashtag campaign, #BringBackOurGirls. Media celebrities signed up; political leaders, too, such as British Prime Minister David Cameron. American First Lady Michelle Obama famously tweeted a photo from the White House.

Three months have passed. Boko Haram has not released the girls, but the hashtag is no longer trending. The media has moved on to other stories. In fact, Boko Haram appears to miss the attention. This week, the group released a video to remind the world it’s still around.

The video features the group’s leader, Abubakar Shekau (left), ridiculing the West’s campaign to free the girls and demanding, instead, that Nigeria’s President, Goodluck Jonathan, release members of Boko Haram currently in prison. “You go around saying ‘Bring Back Our Girls,'” he mocks. “Bring Back Our Army.” For good measure, he repeats gleefully into the camera, “Kill, Kill, Kill, Kill Christians!”

The video is worth watching for a couple of reasons. First, it’s a nice lesson in the limits of social media. Feel-good hashtag campaigns, on their own, accomplish precisely nothing. To refer without irony to “the promise of the hashtag,” as a State Department spokesperson recently did in the context of the Ukraine crisis, is an embarrassment. Groups like Boko Haram will laugh off such trivialities or, indeed, co-opt them for their own purposes. So will other, more sovereign, opponents.

I don’t suggest the West should send commandos to Nigeria to free the girls, even assuming we could find them. Invading countries has a way of backfiring. In fact, we may not be capable of very much in this situation, unfortunately. But one thing’s for sure. Juvenile, self-regarding tweets–the foreign-policy version of selfies–will only make the West seem effete and, well, laughable.

Second, Shekau’s call to “Kill Christians” clarifies something important. As as a result of the Chibok kidnapping, the West sees Boko Haram as anti-women. But that’s a relatively minor part of the story. Boko Haram is not principally anti-women, but anti-Christian. The group has been carrying out atrocities against Christians for years. It’s just that the West has not found the story important. Indeed, Chibok itself is a largely Christian city, and most of the kidnapped schoolgirls are Christians. That’s a major reason why Boko Haram abducted them in the first place.

The media and Western human rights advocates have a hard time seeing Christians as sympathetic victims. Even when they acknowledge that Christians are suffering, they feel they somehow have to apologize for raising the subject. (Nicholas Kristof’s recent column for the New York Times is a good example). This bias prevents clear understanding, though. “Bring Back Our Girls?” How about, “Bring Back Our Christians?”

Pope Francis Opens Center’s Conference with Statement on Religious Liberty, Persecution of Christians

Pope Francis opened our conference in Rome last week with a statement on religious liberty and the persecution of Christians. He reflected on the place of religious liberty in Catholic thought and decried religious discrimination across the world, particularly against Christians.

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Pope Francis Greets Conference Participants (News.va)

The Pope’s remarks came at a special audience at the Vatican for participants in the conference, “International Religious Freedom and the Global Clash of Values,” which the Center for Law and Religion co-sponsored with the St. John’s Center for International and Comparative Law and the Department of Law at the Libera Università Maria SS. Assunta. Referring to the Second Vatican Council’s declaration, Dignitatis humanae, the Pope argued that people require religious freedom in order to be fully human:

“Every human is a ‘seeker’ of truth on his origins and destiny,” the Pope said. “In his mind and in his ‘heart,’ questions and thoughts arise that cannot be repressed or stifled, since they emerge from the depths of the person and are a part of the intimate essence of the person. They are religious questions, and religious freedom is necessary for them to manifest themselves fully.”

He called religious freedom “a fundamental right of man.” It is “not simply freedom of thought or private worship,” but “the freedom to live according to ethical principles, both privately and publicly, consequent to the truth one has found.”

“Legal systems, at both national and international level, are therefore required to recognize, guarantee and protect religious freedom, which is a right intrinsically inherent in human nature.”

Religious freedom is also “an indicator of a healthy democracy” and “one of the main sources of the legitimacy of the state,” the Pope continued.

Nowadays, international and domestic law protect religious freedom. Notwithstanding this protection, however, religious discrimination continues. In fact, Pope Francis noted, 1700 years after the Edict of Milan, Christians worldwide suffer disproportionate discrimination and persecution. “The persecution of Christians today is even more virulent than in the first centuries of the Church,” he said, “and there are more Christian martyrs today than in that era.”

We’ll have a fuller discussion of the Pope’s statement when the Vatican releases an official English translation. Meanwhile, here’s a video report on the audience in English.

Baron, “The Orphan Scandal”

Next month, Stanford University Press will publish The Orphan Scandal: Christian Missionaries and the Rise of the Muslim Brotherhood by Beth Baron The Orphan Scandal(The Graduate Center, CUNY).  The publisher’s description follows.

On a sweltering June morning in 1933 a fifteen-year-old Muslim orphan girl refused to rise in a show of respect for her elders at her Christian missionary school in Port Said. Her intransigence led to a beating—and to the end of most foreign missions in Egypt—and contributed to the rise of Islamist organizations.

Turkiyya Hasan left the Swedish Salaam Mission with scratches on her legs and a suitcase of evidence of missionary misdeeds. Her story hit a nerve among Egyptians, and news of the beating quickly spread through the country. Suspicion of missionary schools, hospitals, and homes increased, and a vehement anti-missionary movement swept the country. That missionaries had won few converts was immaterial to Egyptian observers: stories such as Turkiyya’s showed that the threat to Muslims and Islam was real. This is a great story of unintended consequences: Christian missionaries came to Egypt to convert and provide social services for children. Their actions ultimately inspired the development of the Muslim Brotherhood and similar Islamist groups.

In The Orphan Scandal, Beth Baron provides a new lens through which to view the rise of Islamic groups in Egypt. This fresh perspective offers a starting point to uncover hidden links between Islamic activists and a broad cadre of Protestant evangelicals. Exploring the historical aims of the Christian missions and the early efforts of the Muslim Brotherhood, Baron shows how the Muslim Brotherhood and like-minded Islamist associations developed alongside and in reaction to the influx of missionaries. Patterning their organization and social welfare projects on the early success of the Christian missions, the Brotherhood launched their own efforts to “save” children and provide for the orphaned, abandoned, and poor. In battling for Egypt’s children, Islamic activists created a network of social welfare institutions and a template for social action across the country—the effects of which, we now know, would only gain power and influence across the country in the decades to come.

Choose Your Victims Well

More sad news from Nigeria today. A pair of car bombs in the city of Jos has killed more than 100 people. The bombings took place in a predominantly Christian neighborhood. Authorities believe Boko Haram is responsible.

As everybody now knows, Boko Haram is an Islamist terrorist group, linked with al Qaeda, which seeks to establish an Islamist state in Nigeria. About a month ago, the group kidnapped hundreds of girls from a public school in the city of Chibok. The girls’ whereabouts remain unknown. Boko Haram’s leader has threatened to sell them into slavery.

The kidnapping has become a cause célèbre–as Terry Mattingly writes, an Official News Story. Major papers and cable news outlets have given it extended coverage. A worldwide hashtag campaign, #BringBackOurGirls, features the likes of Michelle Obama, Hillary Clinton, and Angelina Jolie. John McCain thinks the US should send in special forces to rescue the girls, whether or not Nigeria approves. Well, he wants to intervene everywhere. But otherwise sensible commentators, like Peggy Noonan, agree with him.

What Boko Haram has done to the schoolgirls is an atrocity. It’s appropriate to condemn the kidnapping and do what we can to bring the perpetrators to justice, and, most of all, get the girls home. But here’s the thing. Boko Haram has been carrying out atrocities for years. The group has murdered thousands and caused thousands more to flee. It has burned churches with people inside them; it has massacred people in the streets. But until now, the Western media has paid little attention. Why the change?

Here’s a possible explanation: the majority of Boko Haram’s targets and victims have been Christians–according to one estimate, something like 60%. In fact, 60% may understate things. Boko Haram considers schools and places of entertainment “Christian” institutions, so one should see attacks on those places as part of an anti-Christian campaign as well. In fact, although it hasn’t been widely reported, Chibok is a predominantly Christian city, and most of the kidnapped schoolgirls are Christians. That was the point.

It’s sadly very difficult to get the Western media and human-rights activists to focus on the worldwide persecution of Christians. Kidnap schoolgirls, though, and people sit up and pay attention. The War on Women interests us; the War on Christians, not so much. I suppose the moral is, if you’re a terrorist and you want to get the West to notice you, choose victims we care about.

American Christians Issue Call to Action on Behalf of Mideast Christians

Yesterday, more than 200 American Christians issued a statement calling for action on behalf of persecuted Mideast Christians. The statement explains that the rise of Islamist extremism in the region threatens the presence of the Christian community, especially in Egypt, Iraq, and Syria. It details atrocities recently suffered by Mideast Christians and calls for specific actions on the part of the United States government.

Signers of the statement include Cardinal Donald Wuerl, National Association of Evangelicals’ chair Leith Anderson, Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori of the Episcopal Church, Secretary General Rev. Dr. Susan Henry-Crowe of the United Methodists, and Armenian Orthodox Archbishop Oshagan Cholayan. Among lay civic leaders, signers include Robert George of Princeton University, Jim Wallis of Sojourners, George Weigel of the Ethics and Public Policy Center, journalist Kirsten Powers, George Marlin, chair of Aid to the Church in Need-USA, and Lynne Hybels of Global Engagement of the Willow Creek Church.

I am honored to be among the statement’s signers. For the full text of the statement, please click here.

Elsasser, “The Coptic Question in the Mubarak Era”

This week, Oxford University Press releases The Coptic Question in the Mubarak Era, by Sebastian Elsässer (Christian-Albrechts-Universität Kiel, Germany). The publisher’s description follows:

Egypt’s Christians, the Copts, are the largest Christian community in the Middle East. While they have always been considered an integral component of the Egyptian nation, their precise status within Egyptian politics and society has been subject to ongoing debates from the twentieth century to present day. Part of the legacy of the Mubarak era in Egypt is the unsettled state of Muslim-Christian relations and the increasing volatility of sectarian tensions, which have continued in the post-Mubarak period.

The Coptic Question in the Mubarak Era delves into the discourses that dominated public debates and the political agenda-setting during the Mubarak era, explaining why politicians and the public in Egypt have had such enormous difficulties in recognizing the real roots of sectarian strife. This “Coptic question” is a complex set of issues, ranging from the petty struggles of daily Egyptian life in a bi-religious society to intricate legal and constitutional questions (family law, conversion, and church-building), to the issue of the political participation of the Coptic minority. Through these subjects, the book explores a larger debate around Egyptian national identity.

Paying special attention to the neglected diversity of voices within the Coptic community, Sebastian Elsässer peels back the historical layers to provide a comprehensive analysis of the historic, political, and social dynamics of Egypt’s Coptic Christians during Hosni Mubarak’s rule.

Sirry, “Scriptural Polemics: The Qur’an and Other Religions”

On June 2, Oxford University Press will publish Scriptural Polemics: The Qur’an and Other Religions by Mun’im Sirry (University of Notre Dame). The publisher’s description follows.Scriptural Polemics

A number of passages in the Qur’an criticize Jews and Christians, from claims of exclusive salvation and charges of Jewish and Christian falsification of revelation to cautions against the taking of Jews and Christians as patrons, allies, or intimates. Mun’im Sirry offers a novel exploration of these polemical passages, which have long been regarded as obstacles to peaceable interreligious relations, through the lens of twentieth-centurytafsir (exegesis). He considers such essential questions as: How have modern contexts shaped Muslim reformers’ understanding of the Qur’an, and how have the reformers’ interpretations recontextualized these passages? Can the Qur’an’s polemical texts be interpreted fruitfully for interactions among religious communities in the modern world?

Sirry also reflects on the various definitions of apologetic or polemic as relevant sacred texts and analyzes reformist tafsirs with careful attention to argument, literary context, and rhetoric in order to illuminate the methods, positions, and horizons of the exegeses.Scriptural Polemics provides both a critical engagement with the tafsirs and a lucid and original examination of Qur’anic language, logic, and dilemmas, showing how the dynamic and varied reformist interpretations of these passages open the way for a less polemical approach to other religions.