Monday, February 27, 2012

For the Start of Great Lent: A Lamentation over Persecutions

The below, a pastoral letter from New Priest-Martyr Sergei Mechev to his flock after the closing of their parish church of St Nicholas the Wonderworker in Moscow in 1931, is rich with lessons and encouragement for us Orthodox Christians in the United States and Canada, as we continue to sail upon an increasingly stormy sea. 

I have only selected key passages for this posting, but recommend the full letter, which overflows with fervent faith and Christian love.

*   *   *

To my fellow suffering and orphaned ones, I send my blessing for the beginning of Great Lent.

I feel that you have now been waiting long for a word of consolation from me, but my lips have become silent; within me my spirit has faded and my heart is heavy. Our earthly heaven has ended for us. How can we not weep, not be in anguish and in sorrow?   [...]

The judgement of God is taking place upon the Russian Church. It is not by coincidence that the external aspect of Christianity is being taken away from us. The Lord is punishing us for our sins, and thereby is leading us towards a cleansing. What is happening is unexpected and incomprehensible for those living by the standards of the world. Even now they still strive to bring everything down to an external level, attributing everything to causes which lie outside the Church. Yet, those who live for God have had everything revealed to them long beforehand. Many Russian ascetics not only foresaw these dreadful times, but also witnessed about them.

Not in the external aspect did they see a danger for the Church. They saw that true piety is abandoning even the monastic centers; that the spirit of Christianity is departing in an undetectable way; that the most terrible famine is upon us—famine for the Word of God; that those who possess the keys to unlock this knowledge are not letting others enter; and that with the seemingly abundant monastic prosperity, Christianity is at the last breath of life. Abandoned is the path of experience and activity, by which the ancient fathers lived and which they passed on in their writings. There is no mystery of the interior life, for "the venerable ones have departed, and the truth has left the sons of mankind." From the outside there has begun a persecution of the Church, and the present reminds us of the first centuries of the Christian era. The Blessed Hierarch Philaret of Moscow, more than once in his talks with those close to him in spirit, pointed out that the time is long overdue for Russia to be in the same position as the ancient Christianity of the first centuries. He wept for the children who are to behold even worse things. The revelation about our time is especially well expressed by two hierarchs who have studied diligently the Word of God: Saint Tikhon of Zadonsk [+1783] and Bishop Ignatius Brianchininov [+1867].

"At present true piety has almost vanished, and we are left with only hypocrisy," said Saint Tikhon [of Zadonsk] about the state of the Church in his time. He predicted the vanishing of Christianity in an unseen way due to the people's indifference to it. He warned that Christianity—being life, mystery and spirit—should not perish unnoticed from those who do not value this priceless gift of God. 

A century after him, Bishop Ignatius Brianchininov spoke of monasticism and the Church and defined their state: "We are living in turbulent times—the venerable ones have left the earth, and truth has become scarce amidst the sons of mankind. A famine for the Word of God has arrived; the keys to unlock this knowledge are in the hands of the Scribes and Pharisees and they are themselves not entering and not letting others enter. Christianity and monasticism are at their last breath. The image of Christian piety is at best being kept only in a hypocritical way. All strength for true piety has left, people have given up; one must weep and be silent" (Letters, 15).

Seeing in monasticism the barometer of the spiritual life of the entire Church, Bishop Ignatius claims the following about its condition: "One can admit that the consummation of the witness of the Orthodox Faith is coming to a final unwinding. The fall of monasticism is significant, and what will happen is unavoidable. Only the mercy of God can stop the morally corrupting epidemic. Perhaps it will stop it only for a short time, for the prophecies of the Scriptures must be fulfilled" (Letters, 245).

"With a sorrowful heart I behold the unstoppable fall of monasticism, which is the sign of the end of Christiani­ty" (Letters, 251). 
"The more time that passes, the more turbulent it is for Christianity as spirit, which in a way unseen by the vain and worldly masses—but clearly revealed to the one who struggles in himself—is departing from the heart of mankind, leaving everything ready for its destruction. —Those who are in Judea must run for the mountains" (Let­ters, 118).

Many of the ascetics of the 18th and 19th centuries looked upon the time of their lives as a period of calm be­fore the storm for the Church of Christ. We must not for­get that all this was said by them in times of complete ex­ternal prosperity. Monasteries not only existed, but were well endowed; new monastic communities were constantly being formed; new churches were built; ancient ones were restored, renovated and rebuilt; and the relics of saints were revealed. The Russian people were praised as guardians of purity in Orthodox faith and genuine piety. No one could have ever perceived that the Church was in a critical state and the end was not beyond the hills. Only those who had come to the knowledge of the Kingdom of God, possessing it in their hearts, could perceive otherwise. With a heavy heart they beheld all that went on around them and, not finding the life given by Christ in what they saw, they predicted a final catastrophe.   [...]

Distinct sorrows, unheard of Temptations—this is the destiny of our time. Repentance and struggle with them— this is the meaning of our life. Having the visible side of Christianity taken away from us—this is what is most centrally signigicant for us. Exile, confinement, hard labor-— this is nothing compared to the closing of churches. Such confiscation of our churches, according to the Word of God, can be stopped by repentance.

Turn ye even to Me with all your heart, and with fasting, and with weeping, and with mourning: and rend your heart and not your garments, and turn unto the Lord your God: for He is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and of great kindness, and repenteth Him of the evil. Who knoweth if He will return and repent, and leave a blessing behind Him; even an offering of the wheat and of the wine unto the Lord your God? (Joel 2:12-14).

But from where have we heard a universal call to repentance? Where have we seen the archpastors and pastors weeping rivers of tears between the porch and the altar to spare their people? (cf. Joel 2:17).

We have placed the diplomatic talents of the hierarchs on a more important level than the Word of God. On them we have placed hope, on them we have placed our salvation. By a lie we have tried to preserve the Kingdom of Truth.  [...]

My children, the judgement of God is taking place. Let us fall in repentance before the Lord and find within ourselves the strength to say with the prophet: I will bear the indignation of the Lord, because I have sinned against Him, until He plead my cause, and execute judgment for me: He will bring me forth to the light, and I shall behold His righteousness (Micah 7:9).

Our Lord is calling us to accept a new form of salvation. Many churches built by the hands of man, filled with many treasures, were kept open for centuries. At the same time many temples not made by human labor [Cf. II Cor. 5:1] were in a terrible state of decline and left unused. Now that the churches built by man's labor are being destroyed, in the repentant yearning for them are raised temples built by the hands of God. 

The flames of humble martyrdom are beginning to be ignited in all places, especially in the inaccessible regions. Hungry, impoverished, frozen, isolated from the world, on the barren earth, in the snow or in roadside cabins, without coffins and the sacred rites —are dying priests, monks and faithful laity. In the contrite temples of departing souls, prayers are raised for the entire Church, which has fallen to the love of the external. The rites and customs mean more than the spirit of the Church, which is not finding in itself, even in these times of distinct tribulations, the healing tears of contrition. Sparks of enduring confession are lit everywhere, from the Arctic Ocean to the scorching desert. In repentant weeping are praying those people who, through endurance of tribulations, have opened the temples of their hearts and who have been banished from serving in the temples of God!

Let us enter, beloved ones, into the cells of our souls, into the temple of our spirit, consecrated unto the Lord at the moment of our Baptism and sanctified by Him at the time of our first Communion. This temple of ours—no one can ever destroy it, except we ourselves. In it there is both priest and penitent. Its Table of Oblation is our heart, and upon it we can always with our tears consummate the great mystery of repentance. It is difficult for us who have let our invisible temple grow desolate, living by the visible church, accept from the Lord a new way of salvation. Let us cry and weep, not with tears of despair, but with tears of repentance, accepting all as what we deserve. Is it not the Lord Who sends this? Have not the more diligent from among us long ago taken to this path? Whether this is for a long time or is permanent—only the Lord knows. The visible side of Christianity is leaving us.  [...]

Great spiritual sensitivity is granted to you from the Lord. Your heart has not brought you to where there radiated the gleam of majestic divine services, where there were heard intricate melodies, from where there were preached learned sermons. Into a poor and tiny church each one of you has come, and each in his own time has perceived the truth of the way of the ancient Holy Fathers. In the approaching spring of the Russian Church you have become workers in Her vineyard. With what self-denial have you given up your youthful years, your years of strength and zeal and your years of tranquil old age, for the building of your temples in this repentant family of ours.

You are the living evidence, but also the participants of the last fading light, by the will of God, of the lamp of the Russian Church.

In the approaching turbulent times of trial ahead for the Church of Christ, I entreat our Lord, His Most Pure Mother and all of our Holy Saints to strengthen you and make you genuine workers in the vineyard of Christ.

My dear ones, Let us reveal ourselves in all things as ministers of God, in much patience, in afflictions, in necessities, in distress, in stripes, in imprisonments, in tumults, in labors, in watchings, in fastings" (2 Corinthians 6:5).

May God grant patience and consolation to you and may you live with oneness of mind amongst each other.

Priest Sergei Mechev Moscow, Spring, 1931
Originally  published  in The Orthodox Word No. 132

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Desperately Seeking 'Nuances' of Islamic Law

As a follow-up to my post on Youcef Nadarkhani I wish to address the concept of "Nuance" when discussing Islam. A recent article on CNN provides the opportunity.

In academia, there are certain approaches which are revered by those in the ivory towers, which convey the unassailable virtues of reputable, dispassionate, and relevant scholarship. This sort of scholarship leads to the most refined and subtle parsing of theology, philosophy, and even history. No doubt many of these efforts are good and helpful. But when it comes to the topic of Islam, I have found that too much parsing ends up completely parsing away the core truths which ought to be always held at the forefront.

Scholars prone to parsing often use a word to validate their reputable, dispassionate and relevant scholarship. This word is "nuance." A rough example might read something like this: "We need to have a nuanced understanding of Islam, not one based on polemics and caricatures."

One can readily see that such statements are, in fact rather patronizing, and directly imply that only the author and his validated sources are capable of presenting these nuances. This is a form of logical fallacy. (For other logical fallacies which obscure clear-headed discussion of Islam, see my recent re-posting of Dr Mark Durie's A Dozen Bad Ideas for the 21st Century.)  Appealing to "Nuance" is a variation of arguing from authority, and a broad generalization condemning "polemics and caricatures" is a reductio ad absurdum fallacy designed to diminish and dismiss certain writing(s) which do not comport with one's validated "nuanced" views.

I have much to say about this deplorable trend as it applies to Islam scholarship, and am developing a series of articles treating specific examples. However, for the moment, I wish simply to share a truly absurd example of this approach recently published on CNN's BeliefBlog, as relayed (with comments) by Jihad Watch.

Pastor's Possible Execution Reveals Nuances of Islamic Law
by Dan Merica CNN

(CNN) – The possible hanging of Pastor Youcef Nadarkhani for converting from Islam to Christianity has exposed a division among Islamic jurists on whether Iran would be violating Islamic law by carrying out the execution.
According to some of these scholars, the Quran not only outlaws the death penalty for the charge of apostasy, but under Sharia law, conversion from Islam is not a punishable offense at all.
"Instead, it says on a number of occasions that God prefers and even demands that people believe in Him, but that He will handle rejection of such belief by punishing them in the afterworld," wrote Intisar Rabb, an assistant professor of law at Boston College and a faculty affiliate in research at Harvard Law School, in an e-mail toCNN.
Utterly absent from this discussion is Sahih Bukhari vol. 9, bk. 84, no. 57, where Muhammad ordered: "If anyone changes his religion, kill him."
But Rabb also acknowledges that there is a more nuanced view to Islamic law, too.
Clark Lombardi, an associate professor of law at the University of Washington, said there is more room for interpretation because the Quran is not the only source of Islamic law.
Islam is not a sola scriptura religion:
"Most Muslims look past the Quran and say the Quran needs to be looked at in the practice of the Prophet. So they look to see what rules the prophet laid down," Lombardi said.
And, according to Lombardi, if you look at literature about the life of Mohammed, "then apostasy is clearly something very bad. And there are examples of apostates being punished."
What emerges from this is a complicated division between whether apostasy is punishable in the first place and, if it is punishable, for what reason. (Full article here...) 

Youcef Nadarkhani, if he is executed, will be suffering the full extent of the "complicated nuances" of Islamic law.  However, by confessing Christ to the end, he would be a profound witness (Greek: martyria) and earn an imperishable — and un-nuanced — crown in heaven.  This is something the scholars seem loath to confront, and I suspect some of them might prefer to accuse Nadarkhani of being divisive and polemical rather than see Islam for what it really is.

Christian Pastor in Iran again facing Execution

The heroic story of Confessor for Christ Youcef Nadarkhani has taken a dire turn in recent days, as an Iranian court has issued its "final verdict," meaning Pastor Nadarkhani may be executed at any time without warning. The news report below does not mention certain details, such as how Iranian prosecutors kept changing the charges against him to try to make them seem more justifiable in the face of outcry from the West.  Now, however, all pretense is dropped, and it is clear Nadarkhani is facing the death penalty for becoming a Christian at age 19, for refusing to convert to Islam, and, most recently, for refusing to even recognize Muhammad as a prophet.  

This last offer of "leniency" (something of a "theological plea bargain") from the Iranian courts, to simply recognize Muhammad as a prophet so as to be released from prison, shows the weakness, insecurity and fearfulness of Nadarkhani's Muslim persecutors. At some level they recognize that the Pastor's steadfast confession of Jesus Christ, even and especially unto death, makes him especially dangerous, so they try to tempt him to at least accept Muhammad as a prophet, which would remove the power of Nadarkhani's confession of Christ.

Shockingly, as I discuss in my book Facing Islam, there are all too many Christians who have been willingly deluded into doing just that, including even Orthodox Christian patriarchs, bishops, priests and educators. Some of them manage to avoid openly proclaiming Muhammad as a true "prophet," although their "bending over backwards" efforts to not offend Muslims amount to the same thing. 

Let this one simple truth be told. Only a false religion founded by a false prophet would use fear and intimidation tactics to keep its followers locked in, bludgeoning them with the threat of death for apostasy or blasphemy. 

For an insightful article by Raymond Ibrahim providing context and continuity go here

For related articles at Jihad Watch about Youcef Nadarkhani go here.

Read on for the posting from Robert Spencer at Jihad Watch:

Muslim spokesmen such as Salam al-MarayatiM. Cherif Bassiouni, and Ali Eteraz(among many others) have assured us that Islam has no death penalty for apostasy. I expect that they will immediately be jetting over to Tehran to explain to the mullahs that they're getting Islam all wrong, wrong, wrong, and should free Youcef Nadarkhani immediately.
Of course, they won't really do that... they know full well that Islam has a death penalty for apostasy. They know that Muhammad, the prophet of Islam,said, "Whoever changed his Islamic religion, then kill him" (Bukhari 9.84.57). And all the schools of Islamic law still teach that death is the proper penalty for apostates.
An update on this story. "Iran court convicts Christian pastor convert to death," by Lisa Daftari for Fox News, February 22 (thanks to Anne Crockett):
A trial court in Iran has issued its final verdict, ordering a Christian pastor to be put to death for leaving Islam and converting to Christianity, according to sources close to the pastor and his legal team.
Supporters fear Youcef Nadarkhani, a 34-year-old father of two who was arrested over two years ago on charges of apostasy, may now be executed at any time without prior warning, as death sentences in Iran may be carried out immediately or dragged out for years.
It is unclear whether Nadarkhani can appeal the execution order.
“The world needs to stand up and say that a man cannot be put to death because of his faith,” said Jordan Sekulow, executive director of The American Center for Law and Justice (ACLJ).
“This one case is not just about one execution. We have been able to expose the system instead of just letting one man disappear, like so many other Christians have in the past.”...
“This is defiance,” Sekulow said. “They want to say they will carry out what they say they will do.”
The order to execute Nadarkhani came only days after lawmakers in Congress supported a resolution sponsored by Pennsylvania Rep. Joseph Pitts denouncing the apostasy charge and calling for his immediate release.
“Iran has become more isolated because of their drive for nuclear weapons, and the fundamentalist government has stepped up persecution of religious minorities to deflect criticism,” Pitts, a Republican, told “The persecuted are their own citizens, whose only crime is practicing their faith.”
The ACLJ has been a major driving force in keeping Nadarkhani’s case in the international spotlight. Many other advocacy groups and human rights organizations also have mounted global campaigns and petitions against the Iranian government, and experts credit Nadarkhani’s international support for keeping him alive.
The ACLJ recently launched a Twitter campaign to publicize Nadarkhani’s case, asking participants to dedicate a daily tweet to “Tweet for Youcef,” stating the number of days he has been imprisoned (currently 863) and ending the tweet with “ViaOfficialACLJ,” sending readers back to the organization’s website where they could learn more about his case.
Tweets have reached 157 countries and over 400,000 people.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and 89 members of Congress, along with the European Union, France, Great Britain, Mexico and Germany, have condemned Iran for arresting Nadarkhani and have called for his quick release.
Nadarkhani was arrested in October 2009 and was tried and found guilty of apostasy by a lower court in Gilan, a province in Rasht. He was then given verbal notification of an impending death-by-hanging sentence.
His lawyers appealed the decision under the premise that Nadarkhani was never a Muslim at the age of majority, and the case was sent to Iran’s Supreme Court, which upheld the lower court’s decision of execution, provided it could be proven that he had been a practicing Muslim from the age of adulthood, 15 in Islamic law, to age 19, which was when he converted.
The lower court then ruled that Nadarkhani had not practiced Islam during his adult life but still upheld the apostasy charge because he was born into a Muslim family.
The court then gave Nadarkhani the opportunity to recant, as the law requires a man to be given three chances to recant his beliefs and return to Islam.
His first option was to convert back to Islam. When he refused, he was asked to declare Muhammad a prophet, and still he declined....

Source: Jihad Watch 

Monday, February 20, 2012

The Spiritual Power of the Holy Fathers

In my email correspondence with Deacon George (Yury) Maximov, friend and co-laborer of Priest-Martyr Daniil Sysoev of Moscow (†2009), Deacon George wrote me the following admonition which we all can heed:

I believe it's better for people to read the words of the holy fathers than words of mine or other unholy man. Because through reading the holy fathers' words they can come to taste true Orthodoxy and feel God's presence. You know, one of my missionary students in Moscow told me this story. She speaks about Christ with one muslim. He doesn't agree and he was very emotional. Then she starts to read him the words of holy fathers about salvation just in the Lord Jesus Christ. And he became quiet and said: "I agree with this." It was a miracle. He changed in a moment, just due to the words of holy fathers. 
Yours in Christ,
deacon George Maximov

Turkish Boy Pledges to Suffer for Christ despite School Beatings

Here is an inspiring story of a young Christian confessor in Turkey, named Hussein, who is happy to suffer for Christ.  Let us strive, especially as we prepare to enter into Great Lent, to acquire such joy which comes through a living, vibrant faith.

~ ~ ~

A 12-year-old boy from Turkey whose family converted to Christianity has been beaten and abused by both classmates and teachers after revealing his newfound faith, but the boy says he is happy to suffer for Christ.

Hussein, whose last name was not revealed in the CBN persecution report that shared his story, invoked the anger of his school by wearing a silver cross necklace to school. Christians are a distinct minority in Turkey – the CIA World Factbook reveals that Muslims make up 99.8 percent of the near-80 million population, while Christians and Jews account for only 0.2 percent.

It is not uncommon for Christians in the country to be targeted for their beliefs, but few are as outspoken and as open about their religion as Hussein.

"It's not the physical cross. It's the meaning of the cross that is important. It is a beautiful thing," the boy explained in the report. "I wanted people to ask me about it and then I could tell them about Christ."

As Hussein began going with his father, Hakeem, to church and started wearing his cross at school, his classmates began spitting on him, calling him names and physically abusing him.

"The boy grabbed me by the arm, squeezed my hand, and yelled, 'I'm going to shoot you if you tell about this!'" Hussein shared of one of the attacks.

The abuse the Christian boy suffered didn't end there – in Turkey, like many Islamic countries, students are forced to attend Islamic studies where they have to recite prayers from the Quran. When Hussein refused to participate on account of his Christian faith, he was beaten on numerous occasions by the teacher with a two-foot long rod.

Hakeem has tried to stand up for his son by confronting the parents of the children who bullied him and the teacher who beat him.

"I thought the father would be concerned about his son's action. But instead, he called me names, threatened me, and said he would shoot me himself if I pursued action against his son," Hakeem recalled in the CBN report.

"The religion teacher said (the beating) was allowed. That the principal and parents agreed that he should do this," he explained.

Despite the fear and threats of continued persecution, however, the Hussein says he will continue following Christ and will never return to Islam.

"Christ said, 'You would suffer for me.' So it's okay to suffer and we should be happy to suffer for Him. The Lord is with me," the school boy remarked.

Persecution of Christians in Turkey is not uncommon. In 2007, three missionaries were tortured for hours before being killed by having their throats slit. Christian Today reported the details of the ordeal, which was videotaped by the attackers. One of the wives of the slain missionaries said that she forgives the murderers, citing the words Christ said on the cross: "They know not what they do."

Religious attitudes in Turkey in general are notably conservative – 59 percent of those who responded to a survey in 2009 said that members of other (non-Muslim) faiths should not even be allowed to hold meetings or publish literature about their beliefs.

Turkish authorities are known for seizing church properties, closing Orthodox churches, monasteries and schools and trying to force Christianity out of the country all together. The head of the Eastern Orthodox Church, His All Holiness Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, has said that Christians are treated like second-class citizens in Turkey, and that the government has been unresponsive to concerns about religious inequality in the country.

Open Doors USA, an organization that exposes persecution and injustice committed against Christians worldwide, ranked Turkey as #31 on its list of top 50 countries where persecution of Christians is most severe.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Crash Course on the Muslim Brotherhood

Since the beginning of the 'Arab Spring' revolutions a year ago, the Muslim Brotherhood has been lauded by the Obama Administration as a "largely secular" organization. The Brotherhood (or Ikhwan) was able to position themselves as "moderates" in the political upheaval after the overthrow of Egyptian dictator Hosni Mubarak thanks to the rise of an (even more) extremist Salafist group. In the Parliamentarian elections last Fall, the Ikhwan and the Salafist groups won a combined 65% of the vote, decisively sending Egypt on the path towards becoming an Islamist state where the constitution is fully based on the Shariah. The Obama Administration has chosen from the outset to partner with the Ikhwan, not the secular, liberal reformists in Egyptian society.

For background and context, watch the 4 minute video below, which ably condenses Andrew McCarthy's significant book, The Grand Jihad.  (Read an interview with McCarthy about the book here.  Order the book here.)

Then scroll down for an alarming article by Dr Mark Durie which elaborates the issues at play.

And as the political power drama plays itself out in Egypt (and in the United States), the Copts are ever more aggressively persecuted, not just by Muslim mobs, but by government forces...

Saboteurs for the Islamic Movement?
Dr Mark Durie
February 17, 2012

For years now I have been visiting the US regularly, and usually make my way to Washington DC, where I have had many opportunities to meet with journalists, politicians, lobbyists and other experts who are paying attention to the course of Islam in the US.  These conversations, and a whole host of reports from a wide variety of sources, including White House official statements, have made it obvious to me that there is increasing trend for US government agencies to align with and empower radical Muslim agendas. At the same time, American elites are being cowed into silence.  If anything, they seem less capable of critiquing radical Islam than they were a decade ago.  An Orwellian veil of silence through control of public discourse is being pulled over eyes of many in the Land of the Free.

To put it bluntly, the government of the United States has become an ally of the radical Islamic Movement, under the careful guidance of Muslim Brotherhood agents in the US.  The first victims of this alliance are secular and liberal activists all across the Middle East, whose bodies are being broken and voices silenced because of official American engagement with and support for the cause of radical Islam.

I was discussing this observation with friends who had made their way to Australia from the former Soviet Union decades ago.  Their comment was:  "In Russia we just called people like that saboteurs."  They were referring to the present US admnistration.  This view may seem absurd, but the evidence is clear enough.  

In the light of these troubling thoughts, I was startled to come across the following recent article by Essam Abdallah, a prominent Egyptian liberal intellectual.  He claims that radical Islam is winning in the Middle East because of carefully targetted support for the Islamic Movement by the US.

Interested readers may also wish to follow the commentary - and follow upcoming discussion of this issue - at the 
Investigative Project.


Islamist Lobbies’ Washington War on Arab and Muslim Liberals

The most dramatic oppression of the region’s civil societies and the Arab Spring is not by means of weapons, or in the Middle East. It is not led by Gaddafi, Mubarak, Bin Ali, Saleh, or Assad. It is led by the powerful Islamist lobbies in Washington DC. People may find my words curious if not provocative. But my arguments are sharp and well understood by many Arab and middle eastern liberals and freedom fighters. Indeed, we in the region, who are struggling for real democracy, not for the one time election type of democracy have been asking ourselves since January 2011 as the winds of Arab spring started blowing, why isn’t the West in general and the United States Administration in particular clearly and forcefully supporting our civil societies and particularly the secular democrats of the region? Why were the bureaucracies in Washington and in Brussels partnering with Islamists in the region and not with their natural allies the democracy promoting political forces?

Months into the Arab Spring, we realized that the Western powers, and the Obama Administration have put their support behind the new authoritarians, those who are claiming they will be brought to power via the votes of the people. Well, it is not quite so.

The Muslim Brotherhood, the Islamic Nahda of Tunisia, the Justice Party of Morocco and the Islamist militias in Libya’s Transitional National Council have been systematically supported by Washington at the expense of real liberal and secular forces. We saw day by day how the White House guided carefully the statements and the actions of the US and the State Department followed through to give all the chances to the Islamists and almost no chances to the secular and revolutionary youth. We will come back to detail these diplomatic and financial maneuvers which are giving victory to the fundamentalists while the seculars and progressives are going to be smashed by the forthcoming regimes.

In the US, there are interests that determine foreign policy. And there are lobbies that put pressure to get their objectives met in foreign policy. One of the most powerful lobbies in America under the Obama Administration is the Muslim Brotherhood greater lobby, which has been in action for many years. This lobby has secured many operatives inside the Administration and has been successful in directing US policy towards the Arab world. Among leading advisors sympathetic to the Ikhwan is Daliah Mogahed (Mujahid) and her associate, Georgetown Professor John Esposito. Just as shocking, there is also a pro-Iranian lobby that has been influencing US policy towards Iran and Hezbollah in the region.

One of the most important activities of the Islamist lobby in the US is the waging of political and media wars on the liberal Arabs and Middle Eastern figures and groups in America. This battlefield is among the most important in influencing Washington’s policies in the Arab world. If you strike at the liberal and democratic Middle Eastern groups in Washington who are trying to gain support for civil societies in the region, you actually win a major battle. You will be able to influence the resources of the US Government to support the Islamists in the Middle East and not the weak democrats. This huge war waged by the Islamist lobbies in America started at the end of the Cold war and continued all the way till the Arab spring. The two main forces of this lobby are the Muslim Brotherhood fronts and the Iranian fronts. According to research available in the US, the Ikhwan fronts such as CAIR (Council on American Islamic Relations), led by Hamas supporter Nihad Awad, as well as the Muslim Public Affairs Council, the Islamic Society of North America, and others waged their political war to block the representatives of Arab liberals and Muslim moderates from making their case to the American public. The Iranian lobby, exemplified by the National Iranian American Committee (NIAC), led by Trita Parsi, has been hitting at Iranian exiles.

Since the 1990s CAIR and its allies have attacked Copts, Southern Sudanese, Lebanese, Syrian reformers, Assyrians and Chaldeans, and Muslim dissidents in the United States. The Ikhwan of America demonized any publication, book, article, or interview in the national media or local press raising the issue of secular freedoms in the Middle East. The Islamists wanted to eliminate the liberal cause in the Arab world and replace it with the cause of the Islamists. What is also shocking is that CAIR and its allies stood by the oppressive regimes and visited them, claiming they speak on behalf of the peoples. CAIR and the Brotherhood fronts in America destroyed systematically every project that would have defended the seculars and liberals originating from the Middle East. The notorious and well-funded Islamists of the US allowed no book, documentary, or show on the liberals in Arab civil societies to see the light.

Thanks to this powerful lobbying campaign, the American public was not given a chance to learn about the deep feelings on the youth in the region. Americans were led to believe that all Muslims, all Arabs and all Middle Easterners were a strange species of humans who cannot appreciate freedom. Instead, the American Islamists, helped by apologists on the petrodollars payrolls, convinced the mainstream media that the Arab world has authoritarians and Islamists only.

Dr Shawki Karas, president of the American Coptic Association, told me in the late 1990s how he was harassed by Islamist activists for speaking up against the Mubarak regime and the Muslim Brotherhood in America. He was threatened with losing his job at the college where he taught. Reverend Keith Roderick, who has assembled a coalition of more than 50 group rights from the Muslim world, was severely attacked by the Islamists and was threatened to be removed from his church position. Muslim American leaders who are conservative and secular, such as Dr Zuhdi Jasser, were crucified by CAIR and the Brotherhood for daring to challenge the Party line of the Isl.amists in America and claiming that the Jihadists are the problem in the region. Muslim liberal dissidents such as Somali Ayan Hirsi Ali, Saudi Ali al Yammi, Syrian Farid Ghadri, Iranian Manda Ervin, and many others were trashed by the Islamist lobbies to block them from defending the causes of secular liberty in the US. Egyptian liberals as well as seculars and democracy activists from Iraq, Sudan, Syria, and other countries have been attacked by CAIR and allies. The pro-Iranian lobby targeted most Iranian-American groups and tried to discredit them, particularly with the rise of the Green Revolution in Iran. By smearing the Muslim liberal exiles, the Islamists were trying to destroy their causes in the mother countries. In the 1990s and the years that followed 9/11 the region’s dictators supported the efforts by Islamist lobbies to crush the liberal exiles. The Mubarak, Bashir, Gaddafi, Assad, and Khomeinist regimes fully supported the so-called Islamophobia campaign waged by CAIR and its Iranian counterpart NIAC against dissidents for calling for secular democracy in the region. The dissidents were accused of being pro-Western by both the Islamists and the dictators.

The Islamist lobbies also severely attacked members of the US Congress such as Democrats Tom Lantos, who has since passed away, Eliot Engel, Howard Berman, Gary Ackerman, and Joe Lieberman as well as Republicans Frank Wolfe, Chris Smith, Trent Franks, John McCain, Rick Santorum, and Sam Brownback for their efforts in passing legislative acts in support for democracy and liberty in the Middle East. CAIR and NIAC heavily savaged President Bush’s speeches on Freedom Forward in the Middle East, deploying all the resources they had to block US support to liberal democrats in the region. Islamist lobbies in Washington are directly responsible for killing any initiative in the US Government to support Darfur, southern Sudan, Lebanon, the Kurds, liberal women in the Muslim world, and true democrats in the Arab world and Muslim Africa.

In the think tank world, CAIR and its allies aggressively attacked scholars who raised the issue of persecution against seculars or minorities in the Arab world and Iran. Among those attacked were Nina Shea and Paul Marshal from the Hudson Institute and the founder of an anti-slavery group, Dr Charles Jacobs, who was exposing the Sudan regime for its atrocities. Last but not least is the Islamists’ relentless campaign to stirke at top scholars who advise Government and appear in the media to push for democratic liberation in the region. The vast and vicious attacks leveled against Professor Walid Phares—initially by CAIR’s Nihad Awad and then widened by pro-Hezbollah and Muslim Brotherhood operatives online—has revealed to Arab and Middle Eastern liberal and seculars how ferocious is the battle for the Middle East in the US. Phares’s books, particularly the latest one, The Coming Revolution: Struggle for Freedom in the Middle East (2010), hit the Islamist agenda hard by predicting the civil society revolts in the Middle East and then predicting how the Islamists would try to control them. Phares was attacked by an army of Jihadist militia online like no author since Samuel Huntington in the 1990s. As a freedom activist from the Middle East, Mustafa Geha, wrote, Phares is a hero to Muslim liberals. Along with dissidents, lawmakers, experts, and human rights activists, Phares is a force driving for a strategic change in US foreign policy towards supporting secular democracies in the region. This explains why the Islamists of America are fighting the battle for the forthcoming regimes with all the means they have.

Dr. Essam Abdallah is an Egyptian liberal intellectual who teaches at Ain Shams University and writes for the leading Arab liberal publication Elaph.

Friday, February 17, 2012

Dr. Mark Durie: A Dozen Bad Ideas for the 21st Century

Australian Anglican Pastor and Human Rights Activist, Rev. Dr. Mark Durie, is author of two essential books which should be required reading for everyone (and especially for Christians) grappling with the challenge posed by Islam:

- Revelation? Do We Worship the Same God?
- The Third Choice - Islam, Dhimmitude and Freedom

In this post a week ago on his own blog, Dr Durie distills the fuzzy thinking about Islam into a list of twelve specific presumptions and assumptions generally held by people of good will who have a difficult time accepting the truths about Islam. Feel free to share this with those you know who would benefit.

Here is a list of false beliefs and modes of thought which make it hard for people in the West to come to terms with the challenge of Islam today.  If you are deeply attached to any of these ideas or ways of thinking, you will have difficulty accepting the truth about Islam's teachings and their impact.

  1. The belief that all religions are the same. They are not.  Different faiths make different claims about what is true, and about what is right and wrong and produce radically different societies.  The same is true for different political ideologies: consider the different trajectories of North and South Korea.  Atheists have helped entrench this belief, because to acknowledge material differences between religions would undermine the atheist (and radical secularist) narrative.
  2. The belief that religion is irrelevant as a cause of anything.  According to this view, religion can be exploited or hijacked as an excuse or an instrument (e.g. of oppression – such as an ‘opiate of the masses’), but not an underlying cause of anything.  Marxist ideology has made a significant contribution to establishing this belief. In accordance with this assumption, security analysts all over the Western world presuppose that religion cannot be the cause of terrorism: so they and the politicians they advise must say that terrorists have ‘hijacked’ religion.
  3. The belief that we all worship the same God. We do not. Thousands of different gods are worshipped by people on this earth.  These gods manifest different characteristics, and make different demands.  The worship of them forms very different kinds of people and communities.
  4. The belief that one can justify anything from any sacred text. This is not true.  It is a postmodern fallacy that all meaning is in the eye of the beholder.  Certain texts lends themselves to supporting particular beliefs and practices much more than others.
  5. The belief that the Christian Reformation was a progressive movement. This is not true.  In fact the Christian Reformers aimed to go back to the example and teaching of Christ and the apostles.  Throughout the  whole medieval period reformatio always meant renewing the foundations by going back to one’s origins.   Understanding ‘reformation’ in this way, Al Qa'ida is a product of an Islamic reformation, i.e. it is an attempt to go back to the example and teaching of Muhammad.
  6. The belief that dispelling ignorance will increase positive regard for the other. This was the message of Harper Lee’s powerfull novel To Kill a Mockingbird (pub. 1960). Although it is true that racial hatred can feed on and exploit ignorance, accurately dispelling ignorance sometimes rightly increases the likelihood of rejecting the beliefs or practices of another. It is illogical to assume that those opposed to a belief are the ones who are most ignorant about it.  Ignorance can breed positive regard for what is wrong just as easily as it can breed prejudice against what is good.
  7. The belief that everyone is good and decent, and if you just make a sincere effort to get to know another person, you will always come to respect them. This is not universally true.  Holding this view is a luxury.  Those who have experienced life under evil governments or in dysfunctional societies are shocked at the naivety of this assumption.
  8. The belief that putting something in context will always produce a more innocuous interpretation. This is not true.  Attending properly to context can make a text even more offensive than it would otherwise have been.  Conversely, if you take something out of context you may regard it more positively than you ought to.  In reality, radical interpretations of the Qur’an, such as are used to support terrorism, almost always involve an appeal to a rich understanding of the context in which the Qur’an was revealed, including the life of Muhammad.  On the other hand, many have taken peaceful verses of the Qur’an out of context, in order to prove that Islam is a peaceful religion.
  9. The belief that extremism is the problem, and moderation the solution. Warnings against taking things to extremes are as old as Aristotle.  More recently the idea was promoted by Eric Hoffer, in The True Believer (pub. 1951) that mass movements are interchangeable, and an extremist is just as likely to become a communist or a fascist.  He claimed that it was the tendency to extremism itself which is the problem.  This idea has become very unhelpful and generates a lot of confusion. ‘Moderation’ or ‘laxity’ in belief or practice can be destructive and even dangerous, e.g. in medical surgery or when piloting a plane.  Ideas that are good and true deserve strong, committed support, and the best response to bad ideas is rarely lukewarm moderation.
  10. The belief that the West is always guilty. This irrational and unhelpful idea is taught in many schools today and has become embedded in the world views of many.  It is essentially a silencing strategy, sabotaging critical thinking.
  11. Two wrongs make a right reasoning. E.g. Someone says that jihad is a bad part of Islam, to which a defender of Islam says ‘What about the crusades?’  Someone says the Qur’an incites violence, to which someone else replies ‘But there are violent verses in the Bible.’  This kind of reasoning is a logical fallacy.
    A specific sub-type of this fallacy is tu quoque reasoning:
    Tu quoque (‘you too’) reasoning: you can’t challenge someone else’s beliefs or actions if you (or your group) have personally ever done anything wrong or have objectionable characteristics. E.g. A Catholic says jihad is bad, but someone counters that popes supported the Crusades. This is a sub-type of the ‘two wrongs make a right’ reasoning: it too is a logical fallacy.
  12. Belief in progress: everything will always get better in the end. This is a false, though seductive bit of wishful thinking.  Bad ideas have bad consequences.  Good societies can easily become bad ones if they exchange good ideas for bad ones.  Bad situations can last for a very long time, and keep getting progressively worse.  Many countries have deteriorated for extended periods during the past 100 years.  It is not true that ideologies or religions will inevitably improve or become more ‘moderate’ as time passes, as if by some magical process of temporal transformation.  But things are not always going to get better.

Egypt Post 'Arab Spring': Mob of 20,000 Muslims Attempts to Kill Priest, Destroy Coptic Church

Here is yet another news story documenting Egypt's downward slide into a nightmarish hell of Islamic extremism with Coptic Christians in the crosshairs.

(AINA) -- A mob of nearly 20,000 radical Muslims, mainly Salafis, attempted this evening to break into and torch the Church of St. Mary and St. Abram in the village of Meet Bashar,in Zagazig, Sharqia province. They were demanding the death of Reverend Guirgis Gameel, pastor of the church, who has been unable to leave his home since yesterday. Nearly 100 terrorized Copts sought refuge inside the church, while Muslim rioters were pelting the church with stones in an effort to break into the church, assault the Copts and torch the building. A home of a Copt living near the church and the home of the church's porter were torched, as well as three cars.

The mob demanded the return Rania of Khalil Ibrahim, 15, to her father. She has been held with the Security Directorate since yesterday. Christian-born Rania had converted to Islam three months ago after her father, who had converted to Islam two years ago and took custody of her. She had disappeared from the village on Saturday, after claiming to go shopping. According to Reverend Guirgis Gameel, she had a disagreement with her father, who had arranged a marriage for her with a Muslim man.

Her father, Khalil Ibrahim, went to the police on Saturday and accused the priest of being behind her disappearance, and said she had gone to live with her Coptic mother.

Yesterday a Salafi mob of 2000 went to the priest's home and destroyed his furniture and his car, surrounded the church and pelted it with stones. They demolished a large section of the church fence. In the evening security forces announced that they had found Rania in Cairo and that she was not abducted by Christians; she was brought to the police station in Meet Bashar.

"After hearing this news yesterday everyone was relieved," said Coptic activist Waguih Jacob. "However, the Copts noticed that the Muslims did not completely disperse, but were hovering in all streets." The few security forced who were stationed in front of the church were dismissed as the village seemed to return to peace.

But the mob became more angry this evening when they heard that Rania refused to go back to live with her father, and returned in much greater numbers.

Some Coptic eyewitnesses said that a number of Muslim villagers tried to prevent the Salafis from assaulting their Christian neighbors and some stood as human shields to protect the church, until security forces arrived.

Bishop Yuaness, Secretary to Pope Shenouda III, said this evening that they have been in contact since yesterday with authorities "at the highest levels."

Ms. Marian Malak, a Coptic member of parliament, contacted the Egyptian prime minister El-Ganzoury, who ordered sending reinforcements to contain the crisis.

Bishop Tadros Sedra, of Minia el Kamh and Zagazig Coptic diocese, said this evening that military and police forces have arrived in great numbers and have dispersed Muslims from outside the church and the home of Reverend Guirgis Gameel. He confirmed that security will stay in the village for at least two weeks.

US-based Coptic Solidarity International, issued a press release today strongly urging the international community, through the United Nations Human Rights Council, to appoint a special rapporteur for the Copts in Egypt, particularly in light of the recent evictions, property confiscations and attacks against Copts (AINA 1-28-2012).
By Mary Abdelmassih

St Joseph of Aleppo, Priest and Martyr

On February 4/17, we commemorate St. Joseph of Aleppo (in northern Syria), who lived in dangerous times.

Syria had been invaded by Arab Muslims in the 7th century, followed by Turkish Muslims, who for centuries attempted to wipe out the Christian religion in the Middle East. The Ottoman Turks had ruled Syria since the early 16th century and, while Christianity was officially tolerated under this rule, individual Christians were often harassed and persecuted.

Born in the mid-17th century, Joseph tried to lead a quiet, peaceful life, treating his Muslim neighbors with Christian charity. But his kindness was met with animosity and some of his neighbors decided to slander him by reporting abroad that he wished to convert to Islam.

Joseph could not allow this untruth to be told, so he began to argue with the men and deny this rumor they had started. The men beat Joseph and accused him of rejecting Islam. They brought him before the local authorities for questioning. Recognizing Joseph’s intelligence and an opportunity for advancing the cause of Islam over Christianity, the judge offered Joseph high position if he would simply go along with the original rumor and deny Christianity in favor of Islam.

Joseph’s faith was too strong to do such a thing. He began debating with the judge, accusing the Muslims of corrupting the holy Scriptures and believing in myths. He pointed out that they even had to rely on seeing a full moon to announce the dates of their holy days and that, if the moon were shadowed by clouds, their observances would be off-schedule and they would be ridiculed by other nations.

The reaction was swift and harsh. Joseph was tortured and carried away to be executed by beheading. St. Joseph received the martyr’s crown on February 4, 1686.

Today, in most countries dominated by the Muslim religion, Christians suffer from some sort of persecution – from simple harassment or extra taxation and restrictions to outright condemnation and execution. And in countries with no established religion, heresy and anti-Christian sentiment are rampant, making the practice of Orthodox Christianity still difficult. May we, with St. Joseph, pray for all suffering Christians.