Tag Archives: Religious Minorities

The Armenian Church in Myanmar: A Follow-Up

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Photo from the BBC

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

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

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

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

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

Video: Movsesian Lecture on Mideast Christians at Lanier Theological Library

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

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

“The Sociology of Shari’a: Case Studies from around the World” (Possamai & Richardson et al., eds.)

In December, Springer Publishing will release “The Sociology of Shari’a: Case Studies from around the World” edited by Adam Possamai (University of Western Sydney), James T. Richardson (University of Nevada), and Bryan S. Turner (City University of New York). The publisher’s description follows:

This edited volume offers a collection of papers that presents a comparative analysis of the development of Shari’a in countries with Muslim minorities, such as America, Australia, China, Germany,  Italy, Singapore, South Africa and the Philippines, as well as countries with Muslim majorities, such as Malaysia, Bangladesh, Turkey, and Tunisia.

The Sociology of Shari’a provides a global analysis of these important legal transformations and  examines the topic from a sociological perspective.

In addition, the third part of the book includes case studies that explore some ground-breaking applications of theoretical perspectives such as those from Chambliss and Eisenstein.

“Legal Cases, New Religious Movements, and Minority Faiths” (Richardson & Bellanger eds.)

This October, Ashgate Publishing will release “Legal Cases, New Religious Movements, and Minority Faiths,” edited by James T. Richardson (University of Nevada) and François Bellanger (University of Geneva, Switzerland).  The publisher’s description follows:

Legal Cases, New Religious Movements, and Minority FaithsNew religious movements (NRMs) and other minority faiths have regularly been the focus of legal cases around the world in recent decades. This is the first book to focus on important aspects of the relationship of smaller faiths to the societies in which they function by using specific legal cases to examine social control efforts. The legal cases involve group leaders, a groups’ practices or alleged abuses against members and children in the group, legal actions brought by former members or third parties, attacks against such groups by outsiders including even governments, and libel and slander actions brought by religious groups as they seek to defend themselves. These cases are sometimes milestones in the relation between state authorities and religious groups.

Exploring cases in different parts of the world, and assessing the events causing such cases and their consequences, this book offers a practical insight for understanding the relations of NRMs and other minority religions and the law from the perspective of legal cases. Chapters focus on legal, political, and social implications. Including contributions from scholars, legal practitioners, actual or former members, and authorities involved in such cases from various jurisdictions, this book presents an objective approach to understanding why so many legal actions have involved NRMs and other minority faiths in recent years in western societies, and the consequences of those actions for the society and the religious group as well.

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!

Tas, “Legal Pluralism in Action”

This July, Ashgate Publishing released “Legal Pluralism in Action: Dispute Resolution and the Kurdish Peace Committee” by Latif Tas (University of London). The publisher’s description follows:

Legal Pluralism in ActionThis groundbreaking book contributes to, and refocuses, public debates about the incorporation of plural approaches into the English legal system. The book specifically advances the recent, largely theoretical, discussions of Sharia legal practice by examining a secular method of dispute resolution as practised by the Kurdish Peace Committee in London. Following migration to the West, many Kurds still adhere to traditional values and norms. Building on these, they have adapted their customary legal practices to create unofficial legal courts and other forms of legal hybridisation. These practical solutions to the challenges of a pluralistic life are seen by Kurdish communities in the UK as applicable not only to British and transnational daily life, but also as a training ground for institutions in a possible future Kurdish state. The study provides a substantive evidence base using extensive ethnographic data about the workings of the Kurdish Peace Committee, examining detailed case studies in the context of the customs and practices of the Kurdish community.

Based on an ethnographic and interdisciplinary approach, this book will be of interest to policy makers, socio-legal professionals, students and scholars of legal anthropology, ethnic minority law, transnationalism, diaspora, Kurdish, Turkish and Middle Eastern studies.

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.

The President’s Speech

In an address to the nation last night, President Barack Obama committed the US to doing something about ISIS — aka the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, or just the Islamic State — the Salafist group that has taken over about a third of both those countries.  The goal, the president said, is to “degrade, and ultimately destroy” the group, through airstrikes and support for Iraqi and Kurdish ground forces, as well as elements of the Syrian opposition. The US will also send an additional 475 military advisers to the region. But no combat troops — the president was clear about that.

There was good and bad in the president’s speech. First, the good. It’s good that the US has committed to address the threat ISIS poses to the Middle East and, ultimately, the US itself. ISIS does not see itself as merely a regional player. It has pretensions to reestablish the caliphate, the global Islamic polity, with itself at the head. It has money, numbers, and growing prestige. By ruling a large territory in the heart of the Middle East, ISIS serves as an inspiration for jidahists everywhere. Sooner or later, ISIS or others it inspires will attack targets in the West. Better to address the threat now than wait for something terrible to happen.

It’s also good that President Obama talked about humanitarian assistance to ISIS’s victims, including Christians, whom he mentioned by name. True, to my mind, at least, the president continues to downplay Christian suffering in an unfortunate way. Last night, for example, he alluded to the genocide of Yazidis, but said nothing about the genocide of Christians. Still, he did mention Christians, and he deserves credit for that.

Now, the bad. By publicly and categorically ruling out the use of American combat troops, President Obama undercut his stated goal. Many experts think it will be necessary for the US to send ground troops back to Iraq if ISIS is really to be defeated. Maybe it won’t be. But to rule out American troops from the start gives Iraqi forces an excuse for holding back (“If they won’t fight, why should we?”), and ISIS an incentive to buy time until it can wear down the Iraqi army — or infiltrate and corrupt it. It would have been wiser for the president to say publicly only that US combat troops are not an option at present. Keep ISIS guessing.

Second, the President stated flatly that ISIS is “not ‘Islamic.'” ISIS does not represent the whole of Islam, or even the majority stream within Islam today. As the president said, ISIS victimizes Muslims as well as non-Muslims, and many Muslims are appalled by the group’s conduct. But ISIS has definite roots in parts of the Islamic tradition. For example, its treatment of Christians has antecedents in Islamic history. ISIS did not invent the dhimma on its own.

It’s understandable why President Obama would wish to deny the Islamic roots of ISIS. Defeating the group will require the cooperation of other Muslims, including Salafists like the Saudis, and there is no point antagonizing them. And no one wants to see a backlash against the millions of our Muslim fellow citizens in the United States, who deserve to live in peace. But saying that ISIS is “not ‘Islamic'” is likely to suggest to people who know better — including the audience for the president’s speech in the Mideast – that the president doesn’t understand the situation. It would have been better to avoid comparative religion entirely, and say only that we invite Muslims and all people of goodwill to join the coalition against ISIS.

Finally, parts of the speech had an unfortunate, self-absorbed quality. Take this excerpt:

Moreover, I have made it clear that we will hunt down terrorists who threaten our country, wherever they are. That means I will not hesitate to take action against ISIL in Syria, as well as Iraq. This is a core principle of my presidency: if you threaten America, you will find no safe haven.

Rather a lot of personal references here. “A core principle of my presidency?” Surely, defending America is a core principle of every president’s presidency. Brave men lived before Agamemnon.

Kefeli, “Becoming Muslim in Imperial Russia”

This November, Cornell University Press will release “Becoming Muslim in Imperial Russia: Conversion, Apostasy, and Literacy” by Agnes Nilufer Kefeli (Arizona State University).  The publisher’s description follows:

Becoming Muslim in Imperial RussiaIn the nineteenth century, the Russian Empire’s Middle Volga region (today’s Tatarstan) was the site of a prolonged struggle between Russian Orthodoxy and Islam, each of which sought to solidify its influence among the frontier’s mix of Turkic, Finno-Ugric, and Slavic peoples. The immediate catalyst of the events that Agnes Nilufer Kefeli chronicles in Becoming Muslim in Imperial Russia was the collective turn to Islam by many of the region’s Krashens, the Muslim and animist Tatars who converted to Russian Orthodoxy between the sixteenth and eighteenth centuries.

The traditional view holds that the apostates had really been Muslim all along or that their conversions had been forced by the state or undertaken voluntarily as a matter of convenience. In Kefeli’s view, this argument vastly oversimplifies the complexity of a region where many participated in the religious cultures of both Islam and Orthodox Christianity and where a vibrant Krashen community has survived to the present. By analyzing Russian, Eurasian, and Central Asian ethnographic, administrative, literary, and missionary sources, Kefeli shows how traditional education, with Sufi mystical components, helped to Islamize Finno-Ugric and Turkic peoples in the Kama-Volga countryside and set the stage for the development of modernist Islam in Russia.

Of particular interest is Kefeli’s emphasis on the role that Tatar women (both Krashen and Muslim) played as holders and transmitters of Sufi knowledge. Today, she notes, intellectuals and mullahs in Tatarstan seek to revive both Sufi and modernist traditions to counteract new expressions of Islam and promote a purely Tatar Islam aware of its specificity in a post-Christian and secular environment.

“Routledge Handbook of Islam in the West” (Tottoli ed.)

Last month, Routledge Press released “Routledge Handbook of Islam in the West” edited by Roberto Tottoli (Università di Napoli L’Orientale).  The publisher’s description follows:

Routledge HandbookIslam has long been a part of the West in terms of religion, culture, politics and society. Discussing this interaction from al-Andalus to the present, this Handbook explores the influence Islam has had, and continues to exert; particularly its impact on host societies, culture and politics.

Highlighting specific themes and topics in history and culture, chapters cover:

  • European paradigms
  • Muslims in the Americas
  • Cultural interactions
  • Islamic cultural contributions to the Western world
  • Western contributions to Islam

Providing a sound historical background, from which a nuanced overview of Islam and Western society can be built, the Routledge Handbook of Islam in the West brings to the fore specific themes and topics that have generated both reciprocal influence, and conflict.

Presenting readers with a range of perspectives from scholars based in Europe, the US, and the Middle East, this Handbook challenges perceptions on both western and Muslim sides and will be an invaluable resource for policymakers and academics with an interest in the History of Islam, Religion and the contemporary relationship between Islam and the West.