Tag Archives: Christians

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.

“Christians and the Middle East Conflict” (Rowe et al., eds.)

In June, Routledge published “Christians and the Middle East Conflict” edited by Paul S. Rowe, John H.A. Dyck, and Jens Zimmermann (all from Trinity Western University). The publisher’s description follows:

Christians and the Middle East Conflict deals with the relationship of Christians and Christian theology to the various conflicts in the Middle East, a topic that is often sensationalized but still insufficiently understood. Political developments over the last two decades, however, have prompted observers to rediscover and examine the central role religious motivations play in shaping public discourses.

This book proceeds on the assumption that neither a focus on the eschatological nor a narrow understanding of the plight of Christians in the Middle East is sufficient. Instead, it is necessary to understand Christians in context and to explore the ways that Christian theology applies through the actions of Christians who have lived and continue to live through conflict in the region either as native inhabitants or interested foreign observers. This volume addresses issues of concern to Christians from a theological perspective, from the perspective of Christian responses to conflict throughout history, and in reflection on the contemporary realities of Christians in the Middle East.

The essays in this volume combine contextual political and theological reflections written by both scholars and Christian activists and will be of interest to students and scholars of Politics, Religion and Middle East Studies.

Church of England: UK Ignores Iraq’s Christians

I don’t follow British ecclesiastical politics too closely, but the media in the UK is treating this like a big deal. Over the weekend, the Church of England issued a strongly worded condemnation of the government’s policy of neglect toward Iraq’s Christians. The letter, written by Bishop Nicholas Baines and endorsed by Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Wellby, makes the same point that commentators in the US, including CLR Forum, have made with respect to American policy: the United States has rushed to help Yazidi refugees, but has done relatively little to alleviate the plight of the much larger number of Christian refugees. According to the Guardian,

Cameron is accused of turning his back on the suffering of Christians. The letter asks why the plight of religious minorities in Iraq, such as the Yazidis, seems to have taken precedence. It notes that, though the government responded promptly to reports of at least 30,000 Yazidis trapped on Mount Sinjar, the fate of tens of thousands of Iraqi Christians fleeing jihadists from Mosul, Iraq’s second city, and elsewhere appears to have “fallen from consciousness”.

Baines asks: “Does your government have a coherent response to the plight of these huge numbers of Christians whose plight appears to be less regarded than that of others? Or are we simply reacting to the loudest media voice at any particular time?” He condemns the failure to offer sanctuary to Iraqi Christians driven from their homes: “The French and German governments have already made provision, but there has so far been only silence from the UK government.”

The Guardian describes the letter as “bitter” and “extraordinary.” If you want to read the letter in its entirety, the Guardian‘s article has a link.

Don’t Forget the Christians

This past weekend, the United States began to intervene in the humanitarian crisis unfolding in northern Iraq. The Islamist group, ISIS, has made a lightning conquest of much of the region, persecuting religious minorities, and even some Sunni Muslims, everywhere it goes. In response, the US has begun air drops of food and water to up to 40,000 Yazidi refugees stranded on Mt. Sinjar, where ISIS militants have them surrounded. And the US undertook airstrikes against ISIS positions threatening the Kurdish city of Erbil, where hundreds of American advisers are stationed. Other Western nations have begun to get involved as well. The United Kingdom dropped supplies to the Yazidis on Mt. Sinjar, and France’s Foreign Minister, Laurent Fabius, visited Erbil to assess the situation.

BBC

Christian Refugees in Erbil (BBC)

In planning and delivering assistance to Iraqi refugees, the West — and particularly the United States, which has taken primary responsibility — should not ignore the plight of Christians. It may seem odd to voice this concern. After all, President Obama specifically mentioned Christians in his statements about American action. But Mideast Christians are often an afterthought for the United States, and it seems they are in this situation again. A Wall Street Journal report, which quotes unnamed members of the Obama administration, indicates the threat of genocide against Yazidis was the primary factor in the American decision to intervene. “This was qualitatively different from even the awful things that we’ve confronted in different parts of the region because of the targeted nature of it, the scale of it, the fact that this is a whole people,” the official said.

That is a rather myopic view of the situation. We’re offering assistance to 40,000 Yazidi refugees whom ISIS has driven from their homes and threatened to slaughter. Great—we should. But in the weeks before ISIS turned on the Yazidis, it had displaced more than 100,000 Christians from their homes and driven them into the desert. ISIS eliminated major Christian communities in Mosul and Qaraqosh, and the US responded only with a concerned statement from its UN ambassador. And this is to say nothing of the hundreds of thousands of Christians who have become refugees since the invasion of Iraq in 2003. If genocide correctly describes what threatens the Yazidis, it also describes what’s happening to Iraqi Christians. Indeed, many of these Christians are the descendents of people who suffered genocide at the beginning of the 20th century.

There are reasons why America tends to treat Mideast Christians as an afterthought. Mideast Christians lack a natural constituency in American public life. They are, as one commentator observed, too foreign for the Right and too Christian for the Left. Most of our foreign policy elites have a blind spot about them. And I don’t mean to single out the Obama administration. Nina Shea of the Hudson Institute has recounted her attempts to get the Bush administration to focus on the plight of Iraq’s Christians, only to be told by Condoleezza Rice that assistance for Christians would make the United States appear sectarian.

To draw attention to the plight of Iraq’s Christians is not special pleading. The US should not concern itself only with Christians; other religious minorities deserve our attention, too. But, in the Middle East and around the world, Christians are often targeted for persecution in particularly severe ways, and the human rights community often seems not to notice. Indeed, as Pope Francis explained in remarks at a conference the Center for Law and Religion co-sponsored in Rome this summer, Christians suffer perhaps the largest share of religious persecution in the world today:

It causes me great pain to know that Christians in the world submit to the greatest amount of such discrimination. Persecution against Christians today is actually worse than in the first centuries of the Church, and there are more Christian martyrs today than in that era. This is happening more than 1700 years after the edict of Constantine, which gave Christians the freedom to publicly profess their faith.

It’s good that the United States has begun attempts to alleviate a human rights crisis for which it bears much responsibility. Let’s hope it does not ignore some of the principal victims of that crisis.

Iraq’s Christians Still Need Our Help

For people seeking to understand the crisis facing the Christians of Iraq, there’s an interesting panel discussion on the website of France 24, an English-language news station based in Paris: “Iraq’s Christians: Nowhere to Run?” The discussion is in two segments, here and here. It features a French senator, Nathalie Goulet; the New York Times Paris Bureau chief, Alissa Rubin; lawyer Ardavan Amir Aslani; and Christelle Yalap of the Committee for the Support of Iraqi Christians, a French NGO.

The panel is worth watching in full, if only to learn about the discussion taking place in another Western country. The panelists disagree about the responsibility America bears for the situation. Although the invasion of Iraq destabilized the country and exposed Christians and other minorities to grave danger, Islamism is not simply a response to American actions. It results from factors internal to the Muslim world. America has been only a peripheral actor in the Arab Spring. And yet, as one of the panelists says, the Arab Spring always seems to become an Islamist autumn.

One thing stood out for me in particular. Ms. Yalap, who offers a succinct description of the Christian community of Mosul, makes the very important point that the ordeal of this community did not end with expulsion from its home. Her NGO has been in touch with these Christians, who have taken refuge in Erbil, in Kurdistan. Apparently, ISIS has continued to pursue them there, and has succeeded in cutting off  their water and electricity. It’s summer in Erbil, and the temperature is around 113°. The Christians of Mosul continue to face a humanitarian crisis. Will the international community do something to help?

This weekend, rallies in support of Iraq’s Christians are planned around the world, including here in New York, at the UN. For information, please click here.

France to Facilitate Asylum for Iraqi Christians

France has offered to facilitate asylum for Iraqi Christians who have fled Mosul since the takeover of that city by ISIS, the jidahist group. The announcement came in a joint communiqué by Foreign Minister Laurence Fabius and Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve.

Granting asylum is a very imperfect solution to the crisis Mideast Christianity currently faces. Indeed, Mideast Christian leaders typically resist the “escape option,” out of concern that Christian emigration will put an end to faith communities that have endured for thousands of years. For many Mideast Christians, though, emigration may be the only option left.

Fast-tracking asylum is the least the West can do for Iraqi Christians–but it may also be, sadly, the most. France, which traditionally has seen itself as the protector of Christians, especially Catholics, in the Middle East, deserves credit for taking this step. It would be nice if the United States, which bears principal responsibility among Western countries for what has happened to Iraqi Christians, would do the same thing. (H/T: Rod Dreher).

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

al arabiya

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.