Tag Archives: Christians

Pope Francis on the Armenian Genocide

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Pope Francis Greets Armenian Apostolic Patriarch Karekin II on Sunday (NYT)

Last Sunday in Rome, Pope Francis celebrated a Mass in St. Peter’s Basilica to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the Armenian Genocide, an ethnic cleansing campaign that took place at the end of the Ottoman Empire. In the course of a two-hour liturgy in the Armenian rite, and in the presence of the Armenian Catholic patriarch, patriarchs of the Armenian Apostolic Church, the president of the Republic of Armenia, and many Armenian pilgrims from around the world, Pope Francis made what should have been an entirely uncontroversial statement. The Armenian Genocide, he said, quoting his predecessor Pope St. John Paul II, “‘is generally referred to as the first genocide of the twentieth century.’”

The essential facts are well known. Armenian Christians made up a significant percentage of the population in the Ottoman Empire’s eastern provinces. For a few decades, there had been unrest. In religious and political reforms known as the Tanzimat, the Ottomans had formally granted equal status to Christians and Muslims. Equality for Christians caused a backlash among Turkish Muslims, though, and oppression of Armenians and other Christians continued, particularly in the countryside. Armenian paramilitary groups began to resist. When World War I began, the Young Turk government worried that these groups would side with Christian Russians. So it decided to solve the “Armenian Question” once and for all by deporting the entire Armenian population from Anatolia to Syria, through the Syrian desert. Deportation through a desert, without adequate protection or supplies, is obviously a recipe for mass extermination. And that is what happened. Historians estimate that 1.5 million Armenian Christians perished, under horrible conditions, in the death marches and slaughters. The enormities are well documented.

Nonetheless, the Turkish side refuses to acknowledge what happened as genocide, denying that there was any plan to eliminate Armenians from Anatolia, while also arguing, inconsistently, that the Armenians were a potentially disloyal population and that the Ottomans had a right to do what they did. Besides, they say, many Turkish Muslims also suffered and died in World War I—surely true, but a non-sequitur. Because of Turkey’s sensitivities on the subject, and because of geopolitical realities, many Western governments, including our own, dance around the issue. When running for office, President Obama promised that he would officially recognize the Genocide, a promise he immediately broke as president. So Pope Francis’s forthright statement—even if he was, in fact, only quoting a predecessor, who was in turn referring to a general consensus—was remarkable, and praiseworthy. (The words on paper don’t capture the tone of the pope’s remarks. Watch this video of the event from Rome Reports. Francis is not simply reading from a text. He obviously means every word of it).

In response, Turkey has condemned the pope’s remarks as religious hatemongering and recalled its ambassador from the Vatican. The repercussions will no doubt continue. Yesterday, Turkey’s minister for European affairs suggested the pope had been brainwashed by the Armenian community in Argentina. Today, Turkish President Recip Erdogan reacted in rather personal terms. According to the English-language Turkish Daily News, Erdogan–who actually has gone farther than many Turkish leaders in acknowledging the suffering of the Armenians in 1915–said the pope’s remarks were characteristic of a “politician” rather than a religious leader. “I want to warn the pope to not repeat this mistake and condemn him,” Erdogan said.

In his remarks, Francis correctly linked the Armenian Genocide to the persecution of Mideast Christians generally—100 years ago, and today. Religion was not the only factor in the Genocide, of course, but it had a major role. Armenians who converted to Islam were often spared; some of their descendants still live in Turkey today. Many Armenians died as Christian martyrs; indeed, the Armenian Apostolic Church will canonize these victims of the Genocide at a ceremony in Armenia this month. Moreover, as the pope told the crowd at St. Peter’s, the Genocide struck not only  the “Armenian people, the first Christian nation”—here the pope is referring to the fact that Armenia was the first state to adopt Christianity as its religion, in 301 A.D.—but also “Catholic and Orthodox Syrians, Assyrians, Chaldeans and Greeks.”  In all these communions, “bishops and priests, religious, women and men, the elderly and even defenseless children and the infirm were murdered.”

In addition, as everyone knows, the persecution of Christians in the Middle East continues today. The pope referred to these new martyrs as well: “Sadly, today too we hear the muffled and forgotten cry of so many of our defenseless brothers and sisters who, on account of their faith in Christ or their ethnic origin, are publicly and ruthlessly put to death – decapitated, crucified, burned alive – or forced to leave their homeland.” Many Christian communities in Syria and Lebanon took in the refugees of 1915, saving their lives, giving them a place to raise their children and preserve their faith. Now those communities themselves are the victims of ethnic and religious cleansing. To whom shall they go?

In an insightful column, Walter Russell Mead argues that Pope Francis’s remarks show that he has decided to raise the rhetorical stakes in the crisis facing Christians in the Mideast. Up till now, the Vatican has taken a “‘softly, softly’” approach to the conflict, so as not to endanger the lives of vulnerable Christians still there. Outside intervention often makes things worse for Mideast Christians, after all. But how much worse can things get? Mideast Christians face extinction.

Today’s Turks are not responsible for what their ancestors did 100 years ago. God willing, Turks and Armenians will one day be able to reconcile in a way that honors justice. Acknowledging the truth about what happened to the Armenians is a start. Meanwhile, drawing attention to the Armenian Genocide may be a way to mobilize the world to save suffering Christians now—before it is too late.

Podcast on Mideast Christians and ISIS

ep26For those who are interested, I sat for an interview yesterday on Mideast Christians and ISIS, part of a podcast series produced by Fr. Nareg Terterian of St. Sarkis Armenian Apostolic Church in Douglaston, New York. Fr. Nareg, a St. John’s grad, did a wonderful job and I appreciated the opportunity. You can listen to the interview here; my segment starts around the 10:00 minute mark and runs for 30 minutes.

St. John’s Hosts Panel on Mideast Christians

L-R: Michael LaCivita, Mark Wasef, MLM

This past Wednesday, the Center for Law and Religion co-sponsored a panel, “Threat to Justice: Middle Eastern Christians and the ISIS Crisis,” at the St. John’s Law School campus in Queens. The Catholic Law Students Association, and, especially, this year’s energetic president, Eugene Ubawike ’15, took the lead in organizing the event, which was also endorsed by the Law School’s Center for International and Comparative Law. I served as moderator.

Eugene introduced the panel by referring to the martyrdom of 21 Coptic Christians at the hands of ISIS operatives in Libya last weekend. The martyrdom of Christians is not something one reads about only in history books, he said–persecution is happening right now. In my introduction, I followed up on Eugene’s comments by reminding the audience of what Pope Francis said at our conference in Rome this past summer: there are more Christian martyrs today than in the first centuries of the Church, since before the time of Constantine, 1700 years ago.

Michael LaCivita, the Chief Communications Officer of the Catholic Near East Welfare Association, explained the mission of his organization and helpfully situated the discussion by giving a brief history of the Christians of the Middle East. Mark Wasef, an attorney and member of the board of United for a New Egypt, provided an overview of the situation Christians face in contemporary Egypt. He spoke movingly of the troubles Copts have faced in recent years, but also of the possibility of peaceful relations between Christians and Muslims, and his hopes for the future. A robust question and answer session touched on topics like the dhimma, the promise of the Sisi government in Egypt, Mideast Christians in American politics, and the legacy of the Crusades.

This is not the first panel on Mideast Christians that CLR has sponsored at the Law School, and, as at the event we sponsored in October 2010, turnout on Wednesday night was encouraging, a sign that the Law School community takes this issue seriously. Congratulations to Eugene and the Catholic Law Students Association for an important event in the life of St. John’s, and many thanks to our panelists.

Panel: “Threat to Justice: Middle Eastern Christians and the ISIS Crisis” (St. John’s, Feb. 18)

On February 18 at 5 p.m., CLR will co-host a panel, along with the St. John’s Catholic Law Students Association, on a very timely topic: “Threat to Justice: Middle Eastern Christians and the ISIS Crisis.”

The discussion will be moderated by CLR Director Mark Movsesian. Speakers will include Michael LaCivita (Catholic Near East Welfare Association), Edward Clancy (Aid to the Church in Need), and Mark Wasef (United for a New Egpyt).

For more information, please click here.

Egypt’s President Visits Coptic Cathedral on Christmas Eve

On Monday, I posted about a speech Egypt’s president, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, recently gave at Al Azhar University, the leading center of Islamic learning in the Sunni world. In his speech, Sisi called for a “religious revolution,” a rethinking of classical Islamic law in order to address the concerns of non-Muslims. I wrote that Sisi’s speech was a hopeful gesture, even a brave one – but that only time will tell how serious Sisi is about honoring religious pluralism.

That’s still what I think – only time will tell. But Sisi deserves credit for another remarkable gesture this week. Yesterday, he paid a surprise Christmas Eve visit to the main Coptic Cathedral in Cairo. (The Coptic Church celebrates Christmas on January 7). According to the government-owned Ahram Online, it was the first such visit by an Egyptian president in history. Past presidents have visited the cathedral, but none has actually attended a Christmas liturgy.

You can see a video of the president’s speech — the liturgy was being covered in full by state TV – here. I can’t speak Arabic, so I don’t know what’s being said, but the scene looks electric. The congregation cheers wildly for Sisi, who himself seems moved. Here’s a report of the visit by an independent website, Mada Masr:

The president made a brief speech while standing next to Pope Tawadros II, head of the Coptic Orthodox Church of Alexandria and the highest Coptic authority in Egypt.

“It was necessary for me to come here to wish you a merry Christmas, and I hope I haven’t disturbed your prayers. Throughout the years, Egypt taught the world civilization and humanity, and the world expects a lot from Egypt during the current circumstances,” Sisi said.

“It’s important for the world to see this scene, which reflects true Egyptian unity, and to confirm that we’re all Egyptians, first and foremost. We truly love each other without discrimination, because this is the Egyptian truth,” the president declared.

The Coptic Pope thanked Sisi, and called his visit “a pleasant surprise and a humanitarian gesture.”

The Coptic Church very publicly backed Sisi during the overthrow of the Morsi government in 2013, and Copts have been suffering serious reprisals from the Muslim Brotherhood ever since. In fact, some commentators think Copts are going through the worst persecution in hundreds of years. Christmas liturgies, in Egypt and elsewhere in the Mideast, have become very dangerous for Christians, and some Muslim leaders in Egypt tell followers not even to wish Christians a Merry Christmas. The sense of being under siege no doubt explains the emotion evident in the video. (Some commentators have complained that Sisi interrupted a liturgy, and that the congregation really shouldn’t have gotten so carried away in church, but in the circumstances these things can be excused). What would elsewhere be a routine event – a politician wishing a community well on its holiday – is, in this context, a crucial show of support.

Again, it’s easy for an outsider to miss things, and I wouldn’t be suggesting Sisi for the Nobel Prize just yet. Maybe this is all a show. But, together with his speech at Al Azhar last week, his visit to the cathedral suggests something serious is happening in Egypt. Which leads to a question: why has the US been so cool to Sisi?

Bauman, “Pentecostals, Proselytization, and Anti-Christian Violence in Contemporary India”

In February, Oxford University Press will release “Pentecostals, Proselytization, and Anti-Christian Violence in Contemporary India”  by Chad M. Bauman (Butler University). The publisher’s description follows:

Every year, there are several hundred attacks on India’s Christians. These attacks are carried out by violent anti-minority activists, many of them provoked by what they perceive to be a Christian propensity for aggressive proselytization, or by rumored or real conversions to the faith. Pentecostals are disproportionately targeted.

Drawing on extensive interviews, ethnographic work, and a vast scholarly literature on interreligious violence, Hindu nationalism, and Christianity in India, Chad Bauman examines this phenomenon. While some of the factors in the targeting of Pentecostals are obvious and expected-their relatively greater evangelical assertiveness, for instance-other significant factors are less acknowledged and more surprising: marginalization of Pentecostals by “mainstream” Christians, the social location of Pentecostal Christians, and transnational flows of missionary personnel, theories, and funds. A detailed analysis of Indian Christian history, contemporary Indian politics, Indian social and cultural characteristics, and Pentecostal belief and practice, this volume sheds important light on a troubling fact of contemporary Indian life.

O’Malley, “The Jesuits: A History from Ignatius to the Present”

In October, Rowman & Littlefield released “The Jesuits: A History from Ignatius to the Present” by John W. O’Malley, S.J. (Georgetown University).  The publisher’s description follows:

As Pope Francis continues to make his mark on the church, there is increased interest in his Jesuit background—what is the Society of Jesus, how is it different from other religious orders, and how has it shaped the world? In “The Jesuits,” acclaimed historian John W. O’Malley, SJ, provides essential historical background from the founder Ignatius of Loyola through the present.

The book tells the story of the Jesuits’ great successes as missionaries, educators, scientists, cartographers, polemicists, theologians, poets, patrons of the arts, and confessors to kings. It tells the story of their failures and of the calamity that struck them in 1773 when Pope Clement XIV suppressed them worldwide. It tells how a subsequent pope restored them to life and how they have fared to this day in virtually every country in the world. Along the way it introduces readers to key figures in Jesuit history, such as Matteo Ricci and Pedro Arrupe, and important Jesuit writings, such as the Spiritual Exercises.

Verskin, “Islamic Law and the Crisis of the Reconquista”

In January, Brill Publishing will release Verskin, “Islamic Law and the Crisis of the Reconquista: The Debate on the Status of Muslim Communities in Christendom.” The publisher’s description follows:

 The Reconquista left unprecedentedly large numbers of Muslims living under Christian rule. Since Islamic religious and legal institutions had been developed by scholars who lived under Muslim rule and who assumed this condition as a given, how Muslims should proceed in the absence of such rule became the subject of extensive intellectual investigation. In Islamic Law and the Crisis of the Reconquista, Alan Verskin examines the way in which the Iberian school of Mālikī law developed in response to the political, theological, and practical difficulties posed by the Reconquista. He shows how religious concepts, even those very central to the Islamic religious experience, could be rethought and reinterpreted in order to respond to the changing needs of Muslims.

 

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.