Monthly Archives: October 2016

After Saturday Comes Hope

Last year I conducted a Skype interview with one of the modern-day saints of the Middle East, Father Douglas Bazi, a Chaldean priest who endured nine days of captivity and torture after being kidnapped by Al Qaeda. I was startled at how surprisingly cheerful and relaxed he appeared as he related his harrowing experiences.

Father Bazi is one of the heroes of a new book that I highly recommend. It is “After Saturday Comes Sunday,” by Elizabeth Kendal. The sub-title sums up its message: “Understanding the Christian Crisis in the Middle East.”

Some of the stories in the book tell the traumatic experiences of individuals such as Father Bazi.

Kendal writes: “Bazi is fed up with Western elites who insist that all the Middle East needs is political and economic liberalization. He is furious that despite having no understanding or practical experience of Islam, they will insist that Islam is inherently peaceful, arrogantly believing they know Islam better than he does.

“’We are in pain,’ says Bazi. ‘I am angry because I know Islam well. In Baghdad they blew up my church. I drove by three bombings, and twice my car was destroyed. I got shot in my leg by an AK-47 – by Islam, and they kidnapped me for nine days.’”

This is a driving theme of the book – that the West does not truly understand the tragedy that is the Middle East. And I can think of few writers better able to explain the history of the crisis to us than Kendal, one of the finest commentators writing today about Christian persecution.

I especially value the regular Religious Liberty Prayer Bulletin emails that she sends free to anyone who subscribes. In fact, she actually lives here in Australia, in my city of Melbourne (although we have never met), where she is Adjunct Research Fellow in the Centre for the Study of Islam and Other Faiths at the Melbourne School of Theology.

The book’s title is, says Kendal, “a popular Arabic war cry which never fails to make the blood of Middle Eastern Christians run cold….As sure as Saturday (the day of Jewish worship) is followed by Sunday (the day of Christian worship), first we’ll kill the Jews, then we’ll kill the Christians.”

And so much of the book recounts – often in unsparing detail – the horrific “Sundays” endured by Middle Eastern Christians over the past few years as their traditional homelands have come under waves of attacks from an enemy intent on genocide.

But – spoiler alert! – “After Saturday” can have another meaning. Think back to the crucifixion. On Saturday the disciples were in despair. Their Saviour had been executed. Their dreams were crushed. Yet on Sunday came the most joyous news ever heard by humankind. Jesus had risen again.

And so it is today in the Middle East. Amidst the genocide we see the buds of hope. In her final chapter Kendal shows how God is at work right across the Middle East, drawing people to Jesus in spectacular fashion. As persecution intensifies it seems that the number of believers grows.

This book is not always easy to read. The horrors it describes are real, and are happening today, to our Christian brothers and sisters. Yet it is ultimately a book about God and about the Christian hope. Every Christian will feel inspired from reading it.

The Cozy Church

The recent murder of a Catholic priest at his church in northern France, by two young men claiming allegiance to Islamic State, brings starkly to Europe a morbid taste of the horrors that have terrorized the church in parts of the Middle East for the past several years.

Yet sadly, and unbelievably, the response of the church in the West seems little changed. There are expressions of regret and some outrage, but few calls for action of any kind. This is despite the fact that the massacre and expulsion of hundreds of thousands of Christians from their traditional homelands in Iraq and Syria surely constitutes one of the most shocking crimes of this century.

It drives me almost to tears that too many Christians in the West seem so indifferent to what is happening to our brothers and sisters in the Middle East.

It is not only the Middle East. The 21st Century Wilberforce Initiative, an American organization, has launched an appeal to help the thousands of Nigerian Christians who are under siege from Boko Haram. It calls this the “most neglected” crisis.

Maybe there is an element of “compassion fatigue” in all this – an inability to comprehend the scale of it all, of one disaster following another, and therefore confusion about how to respond. I know I suffer from this myself.

But I also wonder if we in the West have become too cozy in our faith.

American Christian writer Eric Metaxas, author of a biography of German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer, used that word “cozy” in a recent address to The Bridge conference on Christian persecution.

He said that the problem with the German church was that it had become too cozy with the state and too comfortable with its position in society, and thus it overlooked the persecution of Jews. He said it sometimes seemed that the church in the West does not always understand its obligation to come to the aid of Christians who are being killed for their faith in many parts of the world.

I have been asked to preach the sermon soon at my church, to fill in for our pastor. I believe the church sometimes does not understand God’s role for it, and I am taking as my text the passage in the Gospel of John where Jesus instructs His disciples in the Upper Room, before the Last Supper. To their shock He shows His servanthood by asking to wash their feet.

I believe that John included this incident to demonstrate that the disciples had not fully understood Jesus and His teachings, despite having spent several years together.

Something similar had already occurred after Jesus miraculously fed thousands of followers with bread and fish. Mark wrote that the disciples did not understand the meaning of this event either.

For my sermon I have some amusing examples from more recent times. I live in Australia. More than 200 years ago British explorers began sending back reports of this land and the unbelievable animal life they had encountered, such as the kangaroo and the platypus.

This caused consternation among some Christians. One wondered if God had somehow made a mistake when He made Australia. Or perhaps, asked another, had this strange place simply been God’s rehearsal for the true creation? Or did the Northern Hemisphere God have a mischievous Southern Hemisphere rival? One writer suggested that Australia must have been formed after the Fall, with God creating monsters like kangaroos in order to terrorize Adam and his offspring.

It seems that, in its cozy state, the British church – or some elements of it – was unable to accept the universality of God’s love and Jesus’s sacrifice.

I cannot help fearing that the church in the West, too cozy, does not understand our obligation to help our persecuted brothers and sisters.

Lost As We Once Were And In Need Of A Saviour

The annual Ramadan observance has begun, and Muslims around the globe are fasting during daylight hours. At the same time, our church is participating in the “30 Days of Prayer” worldwide movement that prays “with faith, hope and love for the Muslim world” during this period.

According to the “30 Days of Prayer” booklet, Ramadan is a time when Muslims put a renewed emphasis on prayer, charity and reflection. It is a time when their hearts are open.

And the booklet states that the greatest turning of Muslims to Christ in history has been occurring in the 21st century. It adds: “It is no small coincidence that this great awakening in the Muslim world has coincided with an unprecedented prayer movement.”

Here in Australia we see modest signs of this awakening, with a small but steady stream of Iranian Muslims turning up in church and expressing a desire to learn about the Christian faith.

At a church where I previously worshipped there were even Farsi-language Bibles available for newcomers, and when we went on a church camp all the lecture slides were in both English and Farsi.

Over breakfast at the camp one morning I tried to engage in conversation with some of the Iranians in attendance – mainly young men – asking them questions about their lives. But I found them strangely reticent to talk with me.

Later, the wife of our senior pastor quietly approached and told me that – very sadly – Iranians attending church have learned to be suspicious of questioners. “They don’t know who their real friends are, even in church,” she said. “They never know what will get back to the Iranian authorities. Their new faith could be used against them or their families. There are spies around.”

Still, as I have prayed for – and have come to know – some Iranians in Australia, I have heard a few of their inspiring stories.

One told me how he used to secretly watch Christian sermons on the internet back in his home town. “Christianity is a religion of love,” he said. “That really attracted me.” He is still formally Muslim, but often attends church and a Bible study group.

Another said she had a job in Iran that involved meeting foreign tourists. “I used to ask them questions all the time about Christianity,” she said.

A third was a refugee who came in a leaky boat to Australia. She was detained for a time on Christmas Island, where the Australian government maintains a refugee processing center.

“I met a missionary couple there, and they started to teach me about Jesus and the Bible,” she told me. “I wanted to learn more and more. All the other refugees couldn’t wait to get off Christmas Island, but I loved it there, because of those missionaries.”

She enrolled in art classes, and was so enthusiastic about her new faith that her first major painting was a shimmering image of the cross of Jesus. It was recently displayed in a public exhibition of refugee art. She is donating it to the church that baptised her.

So I have come to appreciate the wise words of the “30 Days of Prayer” booklet: “It is important, when getting to know Muslims, not to make assumptions about their beliefs based on what you may have read on the internet or seen in the news. Every individual Muslim is on their own journey of faith.”

And, more than ever, I have learned the truth of the booklet’s conclusion: “As we pray for Muslims, we find that our heart begins to change. We begin to see them as God sees them. They are not the unknown purveyors of a dangerous and threatening ideology. They are men and women, boys and girls, who are lost – as we once were – and in need of a Saviour.”

Secret Sin and the Last Hope for Arab Christians

It is “the secret sin” that no one wants to talk about, according to one Iraq-raised Christian. It is, she says, “the elephant in the room in the Arab Christian sub-culture.”

The writer, Luma Simms, is describing, in an article in The Federalist journal, the sorry phenomenon of anti-Semitism, so rife today among Mideast Christians. She adds sadly: “Anyone who claims that the Arab world – Muslim and Christian – is not pathologically anti-Semitic is delusional.”

Indeed, it was Britain’s Rabbi Jonathan Sacks who has written that it was Coptic and Maronite Christians who introduced the blood libel – the slander that Jews use the blood of gentiles in religious rituals – into Egypt and Syria in the 19th century.

Simms says it is this anti-Semitism that prevents Mideast Christians from seeking assistance of any kind from Israel, even as they suffer from the most grotesque persecution at the hands of Islamic State and others.

She writes: “Israel is the last hope for Arab Christians; it’s as simple as that….As the genocide of Middle Eastern Christians continues, the only hope of an Arab Christian remnant – a remnant that would keep and pass on its beliefs, traditions, and customs – is through help from the state of Israel.”

She even calls on Israel to take the initiative in working to rescue besieged Christians.

Sadly, this is unlikely. Last year I interviewed US citizen and Israeli resident Lela Gilbert, author of “Saturday People, Sunday People: Israel through the Eyes of a Christian Sojourner,” and I asked if Israel might even become a refuge for Christians fleeing the Islamic State onslaught in Iraq and Syria.

No, she said. Israelis are very sensitive to infiltrators, and a sudden influx of non-Jewish, Arabic-speaking refugees would surely provoke controversy. In any case, as she noted, so prevalent is anti-Semitism that many Mideast Christians would themselves probably reject the notion of coming to Israel.

Yet Simms writes that Israel has hospitals and medical units at its borders and has quietly been helping many Syrians caught up in the bloodshed. In addition, it is worth remembering that while Christians are today being relentlessly persecuted throughout much of the Middle East, there is one shining exception – Israel itself. Christianity is thriving in Israel, with the numbers of churches and believers growing (of course from a very low base).

Last year I wrote a column noting that growing numbers of Palestinians appeared to be sympathising with Islamic State. This came after the Pope had issued a call for an independent Palestinian state.

I quoted one commentator who said opinion surveys indicated that, if free elections were held in a Palestinian state, they would likely result in a Hamas majority, including elements of Islamic State. And if this Palestinian government were given control of the Old City of Jerusalem it would lead to the destruction of Christian holy sites, as has already happened in Iraq.

“Christianity survives in Judea and Samaria because Jews are willing to die for Jerusalem,” wrote this commentator. “How many Christians are willing to die for Jerusalem?”

Christianity is under attack in most parts of the Middle East outside Israel. Yet too many Arab Christians persist in their “secret sin.” It is a sin that could be hastening their destruction.