Category Archives: Middle East

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.

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.

A Project to Study Christian Persecution

We are set to learn a lot more about the current state of Christian persecution from an innovative three-year global research project, and – no surprise – the early findings are distressing. But also – and this too should not be a surprise – amidst the gloom are some significant rays of hope.

The project, titled “Under Caesar’s Sword,” is intended to study how different Christian communities around the world have responded to persecution, as well as why they acted in the way they did and what kind of outcomes were achieved.

It is a partnership of two American academic institutions, the Center for Civil and Human Rights at the University of Notre Dame and the Berkley Center for Religion, Peace and World Affairs at Georgetown University.

In an introduction to the project, the organizers make clear their stance. Christians around the world are “being brutally persecuted, facing imprisonment, torture and even death,” they state.

Yet they also point to signs of promise: “Christian communities have been instrumental in ousting governments in Poland, Czechoslovakia, South Korea, Chile, South Africa, Malawi and elsewhere. Other responses, like diplomatic accommodation, might succeed in allowing a church to continue its activities. Forgiveness and interreligious dialogue might reduce tensions between a church and hostile societal actors. Martyrdom might offer spiritual encouragement to other Christians and even increase the adherents of a repressed church.”

Some tentative, initial findings – and some emotional testimonies – came at a conference last month in Rome. A Pakistani Christian leader, Paul Bhatti, spoke of how he had forgiven the assassins of his brother, who had dedicated his life to protecting religious minorities in Pakistan. Dr Bhatti is now continuing his brother’s work, despite death threats against his own life.

Purdue University scholar Fenggang Yang told how the underground Chinese church actually expanded strongly during the Cultural Revolution, a time of intense persecution, sowing the seeds for today’s vibrant growth.

Former missionary Reg Reimer reported that evangelical Christians in Vietnam and Laos expect persecution, and this has helped strengthen the church.

Helen Berhane, a singer from Eritrea, spoke of how she was imprisoned and tortured for more than two years after releasing an album of Christian music and then refusing to sign a document pledging to end all her Christian activities. She was released only after becoming seriously ill. At the conference she sang a song composed while in captivity.

But overall the mood of the conference was somber. One Mideast leader said Middle Eastern Christians had been “forgotten, abandoned and betrayed” by the West. The whole world “turned a blind eye” in 2014 when Islamic State drove 140,000 Christians from their homes in Iraq’s Nineveh Plains, he said. Another Christian leader stated bluntly that military intervention by Western countries was urgently needed in the region.

The Under Caesar’s Sword project has a team of 14 scholars studying some 100 beleaguered Christian communities in over 30 countries. We can be sure they will uncover many inspiring stories of God at work in even the most desperate of circumstances. But it is difficult to imagine that their final report will be anything but grim.

“Deeply Troubling” – Terrorism Now the Biggest Threat to Christians

Christians will find little of comfort in the US State Department’s newly released International Religious Freedom Report. For, sadly, it confirms what many of us already knew – that the new phenomenon of non-state terrorism has supplanted oppression by government to become the main threat to religious freedom. And conditions are getting worse.

In the words of US Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom David N. Saperstein, speaking to journalists in Washington DC on October 14th at the release of the report: “The single greatest challenge to religious freedom worldwide, or certainly the single greatest emerging challenge…is the abhorrent acts of terror committed by those who falsely claim the mantle of religion to justify their wanton destruction.”

He singled out Islamic State in Iraq and Syria for particular condemnation, along with Boko Haram in Nigeria, Cameroon, Chad and Niger.

But a second challenge is also sadly familiar to Christians – blasphemy laws in countries such as Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Sudan that are used to oppress minorities, especially Christians, whose religious beliefs offend the majority.

Nevertheless, the report did find a modicum of good news amidst the gloom. It noted “encouraging improvements in the status of Christians in Egypt,” including court convictions for some of the perpetrators of violence against Copts.

It applauded the new Egyptian constitution for providing increased human rights protections, including a stipulation of equality before the law irrespective of religion. “It also requires that parliament pass a new law facilitating the construction and renovation of Christian churches, which is without precedent,” said the report.

In his remarks to journalists, Ambassador Saperstein noted another pleasing development. He said he had visited China and found that, despite continuing abuses and restrictions, “many places of worship were nonetheless full and flourishing. In areas of the country where the government’s hand was lighter, faith-based social service and welfare agencies operating homeless shelters, orphanages and soup kitchens made highly positive contributions to the wellbeing of their society.”

He also found in Sri Lanka that, after some years of growing religious conflict, a new government was working to ease tensions.

But overall there was little to reassure Christians. When asked by a journalist if conditions were getting better or worse, the ambassador stated bluntly that over the past several years there has been a steady increase in the percentage of people living in countries with serious restrictions on religious freedom.

Then he added: “And of course…the escalation of the violence perpetrated by non-state actors, often in the name of their interpretation of religion, is a new phenomenon that has really escalated in the last 18 months. So on that level, there are trends that are deeply troubling.”

Camps of Refugees – Come, Lord Jesus

As refugees and migrants pour into Europe in ever-greater numbers, some commentators have been expressing wonder that so much of this was foretold in an amazing 1973 novel, “The Camp of the Saints.”

But the commentators are generally secular in outlook and so fail to note something else – that the novel is also, in some respects, a Christian parable that points to an “end-times” view of the end of civilization.

“The Camp of the Saints” was written by French Catholic novelist Jean Raspail and portrays a liberal Europe so stricken by guilt over its own perceived racism and past injustices that it is simply unable to resist when a million-or-so Asian migrants arrive in boats and declare their intention to stay.

Among many incredible parallels with today’s unfolding events, there is even in the 1973 book a Latin American pope intent on proclaiming his humility and preaching universal love.

Raspail’s thesis is quite clear: our Western liberal society – church included – has lost the will to defend itself.

The book, right from the start, injects an apocalyptic Christian theme. It actually begins with a revealing quotation from the Bible, which also provides its title:

And when the thousand years are completed, Satan will be released from his prison. And he will go forth to deceive the nations which are in the four corners of the earth, Gog and Magog, to gather them for war, whose number is as the sand of the sea. And they went up over the breadth of the earth and encircled the camp of the saints and the beloved city. – Revelation 20:7-9

Does Raspail suggest that his book’s third-world “invasion” is part of the last battle of Satan? It would surely seem so.

So what is the proper Christian attitude to the escalating crisis? I live far away in Australia, and hesitate to voice a view. But certainly I wonder how Europe can possibly hope to integrate so many men and women from such different cultural backgrounds. I even wonder how many of them are genuine refugees.

But numerous Christians see only one valid response. The pastor of the church where, until recently, I was a worshipper, posted on his Facebook page a link to an article from Britain’s The Guardian newspaper that carried the headline: “Christian politicians won’t say it, but the Bible is clear: let the refugees in, every last one.” My ex-pastor added a comment: “Oh yeah! Wish I’d preached that.”

Here in Australia our previous government relaxed its enforcement of laws on illegal migrants, and suddenly we were hit by waves of tens of thousands of Asian boat people. More than one thousand are known to have drowned.

So two years ago a new government began intercepting and sending back all new arrivals, and within a remarkably short time the boats stopped. We still take thousands of refugees each year, but they come legally, systematically and safely. It is a stand that makes sense to me.

Other rich countries in this region like Japan and South Korea take virtually no refugees at all. My wife is Korean, and she recently read out to me a telling newspaper report. Some Asian countries, including hers, have just celebrated the annual Moon Festival, when families traditionally feast together. In Seoul a group of students, inspired by humanitarian activists in Europe, decided to organize a special meal for refugees in their country. But there was a problem. They could find only a dozen of them.

Perhaps the Bible is explicit in affirming that we must allow into our countries every last one of those seeking refuge. I am not so sure. But I do feel that, when I watch on television the heart-rending images coming from Europe, I am witnessing hints of the apocalyptic ending of our civilization. Surely I am not alone in retiring to bed at night thinking, “Come, Lord Jesus.”

The Hope of a True Arab Spring

Spring has arrived here in my home city of Melbourne, Australia, the fruit trees are in blossom and once again our garden is full of color. And not before time. We have just endured our coldest winter in twenty-six years. So much for global warming.

I mention this because I wonder if we are also witnessing a few fresh buds of hope in what has been a relentless season of bad news for Christians in the Middle East. In just the past couple of weeks I have read four separate news articles that talk of Muslim refugees to Europe who are turning to Jesus.

For example, under the headline, “Muslim Migrants Find More Than Refuge in European Churches,” the Wall Street Journal reports: “Priests and researchers say they have witnessed a parallel trend to the surge in migrant numbers flocking to Germany in recent years: a rise in conversions from Islam to Christianity.”

Meanwhile, the “Christian Today” website writes: “Hundreds of Muslim refugees are converting to Christianity in a Berlin church. Pastor Gottfried Martens has seen his congregation at the evangelical Trinity Church grow from 150 to more than 600 in just two years, describing the number of conversions as a ‘miracle’, according to Associated Press.”

The journalist in me is cynical. The numbers involved are fairly small. And might this be no more than a ploy by our liberal/left-wing media to indoctrinate us into becoming more accepting of the waves of mainly-Muslim refugees?

Heed, too, the words of the Wall Street Journal: “While most converts invoke spiritual reasons, people involved in the process point to another motivation: a conversion could make the difference between obtaining asylum or being deported.”

Yet the Christian in me has hope.

I was a journalist in Japan for many years. I wasn’t a Christian back then, and in fact became quite involved in Zen Buddhism. Early this year I was asked to address some trainee missionaries on my experiences. Later, at morning tea, I casually remarked that I felt sorry for Christian missionaries to Japan, as I regarded the people there as not especially receptive to the message of Jesus.

An experienced missionary was in attendance, and he agreed. But then he added: “We used to say the same about the Middle East. I know missionaries who spent years there without much result. But suddenly in the last few years we are seeing a big change. More and more Muslims are turning to the cross.”

This June and July our church participated in the “30 Days of Prayer for the Muslim World” event that is organized each year to coincide with the Ramadan festival. According to the official background booklet: “In our day we are seeing the greatest and most wide-reaching turning of Muslims to Christ in history.”

So are we actually witnessing the start of a real Arab spring, a turning to the true source of new life? Or do we see no more than a few weak buds that will quickly wither in the oppressive winter? I do not know. But I do know that God is actively at work, even – especially? – in the darkest of seasons. That is why I am filled with hope.

Anger and Confusion – the New Normal

Our Christian brothers and sisters in many countries find themselves under increasingly violent attack. I feel sure that I am not the only Western Christian who is unsure about the best response.

Should they fight back? I have written already that I believe they have no choice. But this must be measured.

Earlier this year suicide bombers targeted two churches in Pakistan, killing 15 worshippers. Anguished Pakistani Christians subsequently went on a rampage through the streets of Lahore. They blocked roads, attacked police and then seized two innocent suspects who were being held in police custody, and beat them both to death.

I wrote what I thought was a highly sympathetic column, stressing that the Pakistani authorities were notorious for not helping persecuted Christians.

But I also said: “It may be difficult to condemn…the spontaneous retaliation in Pakistan, but condemn [it] we must. We might argue about when it is permissible for Christians to fight back, but we can surely agree that mob violence is never the answer.”

Now I have heard from a Christian who was upset by my words. Here is an excerpt from her email:

“I am curious – are you a martyr, have you suffered or watched your family suffer for generations? You so easily write. If you condemn these then condemn David in the Bible who went and fought to get his wife back with his whole army…do you think people died that day? Heck yes!

“I do not encourage people killing the Muslims but neither do I condemn them. Are you a martyr? I have met several martyrs – each will tell you of weaknesses they struggle with. Imagine the guilt of the Christians who actually did the killing…Here you condemn and they need forgiveness just as much as the Muslims they killed.”

No, I am not a martyr. Not even close. I cannot begin to imagine what it is like to live as a Christian in a strictly Muslim country, suffering for generations. So perhaps she is right. Perhaps I should not have condemned the actions of the men who went on a rampage and ended up killing two innocent suspects.

But I feel I am correct. We cannot condone Christians who form unruly mobs, leading to out-of-control violence. We can understand it, and we might even know that under similar circumstances we could have done the same. But still we must condemn it, for the sake of our civilization.

And yes, it is true – I sit comfortably at home, writing so easily about persecution. The woman who emailed me is, apparently, nearer the front lines, dealing directly with the persecuted. In further correspondence she said that she too did not condone mob violence. But she had become upset when she witnessed my column somehow being used – I don’t know how – to condemn Christians.

We live in tumultuous times, with violence against Christians on a scale not seen in many centuries, and with a global media that beams the atrocities into our living rooms.

No wonder Christians are angry and confused about how to respond. I am too. I am beginning to think that anger and confusion are the new normal for our age.