Category : Middle East

(BBC) Dozens of world leaders attend the the 75th anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz death camp at the Yad Vashem remembrance centre

The Fifth World Holocaust Forum is the largest diplomatic event in Israel’s history.

More than 40 dignitaries attended and laid wreaths, including Russian President Vladimir Putin, French President Emmanuel Macron, German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier, US Vice-President Mike Pence and the Prince of Wales, who is making his first official trip to the Holy Land.

In the opening address, Israeli President Reuven Rivlin thanked them “for your commitment to remembering the Shoah [Holocaust], for your commitment to the citizens of the world, to those who believe in the dignity of man”.

He said their countries should not take for granted the common values that people fought for in World War Two, such as democracy and freedom, saying that Jewish people “remember because we understand that if we do not remember then history can be repeated”.

“Anti-Semitism does not only stop with Jews,” he warned. “Racism and anti-Semitism is a malignant disease that dismantles people and countries, and no society and no democracy is immune to that.”

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Posted in Defense, National Security, Military, History, Israel, Judaism, Religion & Culture, Violence

(NYT Op-ed) David Brooks–Has President Trump Made Us All Stupid?

Donald Trump is impulse-driven, ignorant, narcissistic and intellectually dishonest. So you’d think that those of us in the anti-Trump camp would go out of our way to show we’re not like him — that we are judicious, informed, mature and reasonable.

But the events of the past week have shown that the anti-Trump echo chamber is becoming a mirror image of Trump himself — overwrought, uncalibrated and incapable of having an intelligent conversation about any complex policy problem.

But in the anti-Trump echo chamber, that’s not how most people were thinking. Led by Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, they avoided the hard, complex problem of how to set boundaries around militias. Instead, they pontificated on the easy question not actually on the table: Should we have a massive invasion of Iran?

A great cry went up from the echo chamber. We’re on the brink of war! Trump is leading us to more endless wars in the Middle East! We’re on the precipice of total chaos! This was not the calibrated language of risk and reward. It was fear-stoking apocalyptic language. By being so overwrought and exaggerated, the echo chamber drowned out any practical conversation about how to stabilize the Middle East so we could have another righteous chorus of “Donald Trump is a monster!”

This is Trump’s ultimate victory. Every argument on every topic is now all about him.

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I will take comments on this submitted by email only to KSHarmon[at]mindspring[dot]com.

Posted in America/U.S.A., Ethics / Moral Theology, Foreign Relations, Iran, Military / Armed Forces, Politics in General, President Donald Trump

Iran Fires Missiles at Two U.S. Bases in Iraq: Live Updates

Read it carefully and read it all.

Posted in America/U.S.A., Iran, Iraq, Military / Armed Forces

(FA) Will Iran’s Response to the Soleimani Strike Lead to War?

Perhaps the most provocative thing Iran could do is carry out a terrorist attack on the U.S. homeland or attempt to kill a senior U.S. official of Soleimani’s stature. This would be much more challenging for Iran to pull off than an attack on U.S. interests or personnel overseas but may be deemed by Iran as appropriately proportional. The last time Iran is known to have attempted an attack in the United States was in 2011, when American law enforcement and intelligence agencies foiled a plot to assassinate the Saudi ambassador in Washington by blowing up a restaurant. In that case, the plot was detected early on and easily foiled because of poor Iranian tradecraft. The episode suggested that Iran is much less capable outside the Middle East than inside it, an assessment that is buttressed by foiled Iranian bombing attempts in Denmark and France this year. So while Iran may try to conduct an attack inside the United States, it would need to get lucky to succeed.

If the Trump administration is smart, it will do all that it can to harden U.S. facilities and protect Americans while absorbing some of the inevitable blows to come. It should also reach out to Iran through U.S. partners that have good relations with the country, such as Oman, to try to de-escalate while also setting clear redlines in private to avoid an Iranian miscalculation. Finally, Trump should be satisfied to declare victory and boast that he got the upper hand on Iran by killing Soleimani—not take further military actions. But this type of restraint appears to run counter to Trump’s very nature. And even if he shows uncharacteristic self-restraint in the coming weeks, the desire for revenge in Iran, and the political momentum that desire is already beginning to generate, may inevitably draw the United States and Iran into a major conflict.

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Posted in America/U.S.A., Ethics / Moral Theology, Foreign Relations, Iran, Iraq, Middle East, Military / Armed Forces, Office of the President, Politics in General, President Donald Trump

(WSJ) Robert Carle–A Central American Jerusalem

San Pedro, Guatemala

This town of 10,000 was built on a peninsula of Lake Atitlán, one of the deepest in the world. Fishermen in wooden boats drift along the shores of the volcano-ringed lake, while women in bright multicolored skirts wash clothes along its banks. The mostly indigenous Mayans here have little to do with the urban culture of the capital city 125 miles away.

Yet this isolated mountain town is more cosmopolitan than it seems: Most every waterfront restaurant here offers a menu in Hebrew. The story of San Pedro is also the story of the unlikely but deep friendship between Israel and Guatemala.

About 15 years ago Israelis began building sprawling hostels in San Pedro. Today they accommodate hundreds of Israeli tourists, while Israeli investors are building a luxury hotel at the head of Lake Atitlán.

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Posted in --Guatemala, Israel, Religion & Culture

(1st Things) Matthew Schmitz–God’s Garbage People

Fr. Botros Roshdy, a priest who serves there, tucks an iPhone into his black cassock. He has a social media presence and is known across the country. He is more willing than most to discuss the persecution faced by the zabbaleen and Egypt’s other Christians. “Neither the church leaders you have met, nor those you are going to meet, are speaking freely,” he says after we sit down. “If they could speak freely, they would discuss the discriminatory laws, the infiltration of the judicial system by the Muslim Brotherhood.”

Roshdy notes that little has changed for the Copts over the last decade, despite the hollow promises of freedom that came with the Arab Spring and current president Abdel Fattah el-Sisi’s self-presentation as a defender of Christians. “We are still being used as a playing card in political games. When the government wants to win the support of Copts during the elections, they offer to let us build a church.” But these overtures have not changed the landscape. “Take the blasphemy law,” ­Roshdy says. “It has been applied only against Christians.”

Roshdy mentions some typical incidents of persecution. One involved an elderly Coptic woman in Minya who was attacked, stripped naked, and dragged through the streets. “Everyone knows who did this crime, but there has been no punishment.” A group of Coptic students in Bani ­Mazar filmed a video in which they mocked ISIS. “People in their town accused them of blasphemy for mocking Islam. So these young children were arrested and jailed. . . . They were finally freed and received asylum in ­Europe.”

Despite the persecution, Egypt’s Christians are winning converts. The number and names of converts must be carefully guarded, however, because conversion from Islam carries a high price. “Some of them are kicked out of their houses, some of them are fired, some of them have their kids taken away,” Roshdy says. “But they consider all of these troubles nothing for the sake of Christ. Their faith is so strong, they see him.” Cast out by their families, these men and women are adopted into the household of God.

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Posted in * Economics, Politics, Coptic Church, Egypt, Ethics / Moral Theology, Law & Legal Issues, Religion & Culture, Religious Freedom / Persecution

(Economist) Drawing the line between anti-Semitism and criticism of Israel

One reason debate over Israel gets heated is that both sides question each other’s motives. Supporters of Israel note that anti-Semites often cloak their prejudice in criticism of the Jewish state. They say some views—like saying that Israel should not exist—are by definition anti-Semitic. Pro-Palestinian advocates retort that charges of Jew-hatred are intended to silence them.

Such mistrust has grown in Britain and America, as anti-Semitism has resurfaced at both political extremes. On the left, legislators in America have accused pro-Israel colleagues of dual loyalty, and implied that Jewish money bought Republican support for Israel. In 2012 Jeremy Corbyn, now the leader of Britain’s Labour Party, defended a mural depicting hook-nosed bankers.

The right has used similar innuendo, often by linking liberals to George Soros, a Jewish investor. Muddying matters more, Binyamin Netanyahu, Israel’s prime minister, has also denounced Mr Soros. In America right-wing anti-Semitism also takes a more explicit, occasionally violent form. In 2017 marchers in Virginia chanted “Jews will not replace us.” And in 2018 a shooter at a synagogue in Pittsburgh killed 11 people.

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Posted in America/U.S.A., England / UK, Ethics / Moral Theology, Foreign Relations, Israel, Judaism, Politics in General, Psychology, Religion & Culture, Violence

(CT) Syrian Christians to US: ‘Don’t Abandon Us Now’

The Kurdish-controlled area of northeast Syria stretches 300 miles from the Euphrates River to the Iraqi border. Approximately 750,000 people live there, including estimates of between 40,000 and 100,000 Christians.

Over 700,000 Christians have fled Syria since 2011. And while some warn of further displacement, others fear a greater threat.

“Turkey aims to kill and destroy us and to finish the genocide against our people,” said a statement issued by the Syriac Military Council, a Christian component of the Syrian Defense Forces (SDF), as reported by the Christian Broadcasting Network. “We hope and pray that as we have defended the world against ISIS, the world will not abandon us now.”

The Christian community of Qamishli, on the border with Turkey near Iraq, issued its own statement.

“The Turkish regime is based on armed extremist and radical groups that commit crimes against civilians and humanity,” said Sanharib Barsoum, the co-chair of the Syriac Union Party. “Such threats endanger the life of Syriac people in the region.”

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Posted in America/U.S.A., Ethics / Moral Theology, Foreign Relations, Middle East, Military / Armed Forces, Religion & Culture, Syria, Turkey

(Haaretz) President Trump’s Decision to Abandon Syria’s Kurds Is Bad News for All U.S. Regional Allies

U.S. President Donald Trump’s decision to move several hundred American soldiers out of the way as Turkey poises to invade southeast Syria is bad news for America’s allies in the region. Trump thereby gave a green light to a dangerous Turkish move while ditching America’s most reliable allies in Syria: the Kurdish fighters.

The president’s move paves the way for other players in the Syrian arena to realize their interests. First and foremost is Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, but ISIS, as well, and indirectly, the Bashar Assad regime in Syria and its two main supporters, Russia and Iran. From Jerusalem’s perspective, it is another warning sign that this president – until recently presented as Israel’s greatest friend ever in Washington – can’t be trusted.

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Posted in America/U.S.A., Ethics / Moral Theology, Foreign Relations, Middle East

(CEN) Iraq Christians plea for solidarity with UK church

The Christian community in Iraq, and other minority faiths, have been “broken and scattered” by two decades of violence and suffering – from the 2003 US-UK invasion and warfare, through ISIS terror, to today’s “daily life discrimination’ under the Islamist Iraqi government imposing sharia law.

Such was the sober assessment of Archimandrite Emanuel Youkhana of the ancient Assyrian Church of the East, a Christian humanitarian aid pioneer in Iraq, at the recent Edinburgh ‘Scotland Day’ of Embrace the Middle East, which supports his work.

Over these years the Church in Iraq has diminished from 3.2 per cent of the population in 2003 to a mere 0.1 per cent today – through death and diaspora.

The post-invasion collapse of all functioning government left religious minorities as ‘soft targets’ for Muslim terrorists: shops, churches and other institutions of Christians and Yazidis were destroyed; many thousands of Christian families fled Iraq to escape ongoing war, usually going to Jordan or Europe. Some returned when the situation seemed settled, but ISIS’ seizure of two-thirds of Iraq in 2014 saw thousands of Christians slaughtered and raped under its terror.

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Posted in Iraq, Religion & Culture

Richard John Neuhaus for 9/11–September 11th, Before and After

Fourth, after some initial sortings out, America will identify itself even more closely with Israel. Disagreements over the justice of how Israel was founded and how it has maintained itself in existence will not disappear. But the diabolical face of the evil that threatens Israel, and us, is now unveiled. Among Americans and all who are part of our civilization, it will be understood that we must never surrender, or appear to be surrendering, to that evil. Finally, the question of “the West and the rest” will be powerfully sharpened, including a greatly heightened awareness of the global threats posed by militant Islam. Innocent Muslims in this country and Europe are undoubtedly in for some nastiness, and we must do our best to communicate the distinction between Islam and Islamism, knowing that the latter is the monistic fanaticism embraced by only a minority of Muslims. But almost inevitably, given the passions aroused and the difficulties of enforcing the law among people who are largely alien in their ways, such distinctions will sometimes get lost. We can only try to do our best by those Muslims who have truly chosen our side in “the clash of civilizations.” It seems likely also that, after September 11, discussion about immigration policy will become more intense, and more candid.

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Posted in Ethics / Moral Theology, Foreign Relations, History, Islam, Israel, Politics in General, Religion & Culture, Terrorism

(NYT) Lebanese Band’s Concert Is Canceled After It’s Accused of Blasphemy

A Lebanese music festival has canceled a concert by a major indie music band, Mashrou’ Leila, after it was accused of blasphemy and received death threats because a member had shared an image of the singer Madonna as the Virgin Mary.

The controversy has raised questions about religious tolerance and freedom of expression in the relatively moderate, multi-sectarian and Muslim-majority country.

The Byblos International Festival, one of the country’s most popular music events, canceled the Aug. 9 concert by Mashrou’ Leila over fears of “bloodshed” after the image angered the Maronite Christian Church and prompted threats of violence from hard-line Christian critics.

“Unfortunately, the national debate that ensued as a result of an organized campaign against the band and the festival goes well beyond the scope of the mission BIF is able to handle,” the festival said in a statement on Tuesday.

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Posted in Ethics / Moral Theology, Law & Legal Issues, Lebanon, Middle East, Music, Religion & Culture

(Haaretz) Archaeologists Claim to Have Found the Church of the Apostles by Sea of Galilee

Archaeologists believe they have likely found the Church of the Apostles, which Christian tradition says had been built over the home of Jesus’ disciples Peter and Andrew in the village of Bethsaida by the Sea of Galilee.

The archaeologists, from the Kinneret Academic College and Nyack College of New York, said the Jewish village of Bethsaida on which the Roman city of Julias had been built was much larger than had been thought, they announced Thursday.

What can be said for certain is that the excavators of Beit Habek, aka el-Araj, found the hallmarks of a large Byzantine-era church. The most distinctive indicator is gilted glass tesserae (mosaic tiles), Prof. R. Steven Notley of the private Christian college in New York tells Haaretz. “Those are for wall mosaics and only appear in churches,” he says.

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Posted in History, Israel

(Telegraph) Tim Stanley–The West owes Iraq’s persecuted minorities a lot more than just talk

I’m here to interview Christians but I’m also invited to meet the pope of the Yazidis, an ancient native religion, and I’m never one to turn down a pope, so off we go. The venerable Sheikh Baba is in his Eighties, tired, and his son and brother take over the meeting. Conversation – as with all Iraqis – is robust.

“The situation is very bad,” says the Sheikh’s son, and the West offers only “talk”. That’s not entirely fair – some money has been spent by the US – but this is a community in crisis. Daesh killed thousands of Yazidi men and raped the women. When the Jihadists disappeared, they took 3,000 girls with them. Where are they? The Yazidis “are now in camps and [suffer] psychologically and materially. No jobs. We want our people to return to their land.”

He doesn’t think much of its chances in Europe, either. The more Islamists who move there, he says, the more children they have, the less Christian the West will be. The Sheikh’s family are perplexed that we haven’t figured this out yet. There are good and bad Muslims, adds one man, and who can forget what Christians did to the Jews in Germany? But the West “must say the reality”, which is that Daesh was Islamic.

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Posted in Ethics / Moral Theology, Foreign Relations, Law & Legal Issues, Middle East, Other Churches, Politics in General, Religion & Culture, Religious Freedom / Persecution, Terrorism, Violence

A brief biography of Moses the Black from the OCA

Moses the brigand spent several years leading a sinful life, but through the great mercy of God he repented, left his band of robbers and went to one of the desert monasteries. Here he wept for a long time, begging to be admitted as one of the brethren. The monks were not convinced of the sincerity of his repentance, but the former robber would neither be driven away nor silenced. He continued to implore that they accept him.

Saint Moses was completely obedient to the hegoumen and the brethren, and he poured forth many tears of sorrow for his sinful life. After a certain while Saint Moses withdrew to a solitary cell, where he spent his time in prayer and the strictest fasting.

Once, four of the robbers of his former band descended upon the cell of Saint Moses. He had lost none of his great physical strength, so he tied them all up. Throwing them over his shoulder, he brought them to the monastery, where he asked the Elders what to do with them. The Elders ordered that they be set free. The robbers, learning that they had chanced upon their former ringleader, and that he had dealt kindly with them, followed his example: they repented and became monks. Later, when the rest of the band of robbers heard about Saint Moses’ repentance, then they also gave up their thievery and became fervent monks.

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Posted in Church History, Egypt, Ethiopia, Orthodox Church

A Prayer for the Feast Day of Moses the Black

Almighty God, whose blessed Son dost guide our footsteps into the way of peace: Deliver us from paths of hatred and violence, that we, following the example of thy servant Moses, may serve thee with singleness of heart and attain to the tranquility of the world to come; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

Posted in Church History, Egypt, Ethiopia, Spirituality/Prayer

(Atlantic) The Impossible Future of Christians in the Middle East

The call came in 2014, shortly after Easter. Four years earlier, Catrin Almako’s family had applied for special visas to the United States. Catrin’s husband, Evan, had cut hair for the U.S. military during the early years of its occupation of Iraq. Now a staffer from the International Organization for Migration was on the phone. “Are you ready?” he asked. The family had been assigned a departure date just a few weeks away.

“I was so confused,” Catrin told me recently. During the years they had waited for their visas, Catrin and Evan had debated whether they actually wanted to leave Iraq. Both of them had grown up in Karamles, a small town in the historic heart of Iraqi Christianity, the Nineveh Plain. Evan owned a barbershop near a church. Catrin loved her kitchen, where she spent her days making pastries filled with nuts and dates. Their families lived there: her five siblings and aging parents, his two brothers.

But they also lived amid constant danger. “Everybody who was working with the United States military—they get killed,” Catrin said. Evan had been injured by an explosion near a U.S. Army base in Mosul in 2004. Catrin worried about him driving back and forth to the base along highways that cross some of the most contested land in Iraq. Even after he stopped working for the military, they feared he might be a victim of violence. That fear was compounded by their faith: During the war years, insurgents consistently targeted Christian towns and churches in a campaign of terror.

The Almakos had watched neighbors and friends wrestle with the same question: stay, or go? Now more and more Christians in the region were deciding to leave. The graph of the religion’s decline in the Middle East has in recent years transformed from a steady downward slope into a cliff. The numbers in Iraq are especially stark: Before the American invasion, as many as 1.4 million Christians lived in the country. Today, fewer than 250,000 remain—an 80 percent drop in less than two decades.

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Posted in Ethics / Moral Theology, Foreign Relations, Middle East, Other Churches, Politics in General, Religion & Culture, Terrorism, Violence

(LSE BR) Basil Cayli reviews ‘How Violence Shapes Religion: Belief and Conflict in the Middle East and Africa’ by Ziya Meral

The relationship between violence and religion is highly complex. Reductive analyses and explanations produce destructive outcomes. In How Violence Shapes Religion: Belief and Conflict in the Middle East and Africa, author Ziya Meral avoids popular explanations and refutes instrumentalism to offer the reader a systematic comparison that uncovers the complicated relationship between violence and religion. The book conveys the argument that violence shapes religion at different levels and religion influences the situation before the use of violence, its legitimisation in the course of violent attacks and its aftermath in a post-conflict era. As a result, what we see through these multidimensional interactions ‘is not an outcome of an intrinsic clash between imagined civilizations, but a very real case of self-fulfilled prophecies that create new fault lines across the world’ (176).

The author’s personal, academic and professional curiosity directed him towards showing the complexities in the multifaceted relationship between violence and religion (5). Meral argues that exposing these helps us to better understand the grim realities that lead to violence in different societies, where religion is perceived as a formidable social, political and cultural force. For this reason, Meral’s principal argument is based on two cases: Nigeria and Egypt. The meticulous analyses of violence in these two nation states reveal the dynamics of the relationship between religion and violent conflict in today’s world.

The author asks two key questions: 1) ‘Do religions in general, if not particularly Islam, cause such conflicts?’; and (2) ‘Are we really witnessing an escalation to extremes at a planetary level between followers of the world’s two largest religions, Islam and Christianity, showing itself in local conflicts between Muslim and Christian communities?’ (20). The book employs a comparative approach and analyses these questions within a political science theoretical framework. The multiplicity of ethno-religious communities in Nigeria on the one hand, and the disruptions of violence on the other, make the country an interesting case to study. The comparison of Nigeria with Egypt increases the originality of the book because an overwhelming majority of the population observe Islam in Egypt, whereas Muslims make up almost half of the population of Nigeria and are concentrated in the northern part of the country. Violence between Christian and Muslim communities is prevalent in Nigeria, while Egypt has millions of Christians who are frequently subject to discrimination and violence.

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Posted in Books, Egypt, Nigeria, Religion & Culture, Violence

(ACNS) Diocese of Egypt teams up with British university to open new archive research centre

A new Research Centre has been opened in Cairo as part of a newly renovated archive facility for the Episcopal Diocese of Egypt. The new Cairo Research Centre has been created by the Diocese of Egypt, part of the Anglican / Episcopal Church of Jerusalem and the Middle East, in collaboration with the UK’s University of Leicester.

The British Ambassador to Egypt, Sir Geoffrey Adams, attended the opening ceremony last week (9 May) alongside the Bishop of Egypt, Mouneer Anis, and Dr James Moore of the University of Leicester and Dr Richard Gauvain from the British University in Cairo. They were joined by representatives of the Diocese of Egypt and members of the country’s academic community in what the local Church described as an “exciting event”.

Last week’s ceremony was a significant milestone in a project which began in 2015 with the digitisation of the diocese’s documents and manuscripts dating back to the early 19th century. As part of the process, the archive has been moved to a newly-renovated facility which has been specifically designed to house the materials. The work has been carried out with the technical and financial support of the University of Leicester

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Posted in Egypt, England / UK, History, Jerusalem & the Middle East

(WSJ) Egyptian Copts who once expressed hopes for more safety under President Abdel Fattah Al Sisi say their situation is worsening instead

Egypt’s Coptic Christian minority is facing a surge in sectarian attacks, with increased instances of violence and threats from Muslim neighbors forcing churches to close and casting a pall over Orthodox Easter on Sunday.

In one recent incident that echoed many others, residents of central Egypt’s Sohag province were seen in a video recorded earlier this month and reviewed by The Wall Street Journal beating their male Coptic Christian neighbors with sticks as women screamed, leading to the shutdown of a local church, according to Coptic groups and a human- rights organization that documented the incident.

Nowhere has the assault on Copts been worse than in Minya province, some 130 miles south of Cairo on the western bank of the Nile, the site of at least three mob attacks on Coptic churches since August. On Jan. 11, a crowd waving wooden clubs jeered at a group of Copts as they fled in a pickup truck through narrow streets. “Leave! Leave!” the crowd chanted, as seen in a video filmed by residents and corroborated by church officials. The Coptic church in the village was closed indefinitely. The month before that incident, a police officer shot dead a Coptic man and his teenage son following a dispute, triggering angry protests by Christians in the area. The officer was sentenced to death earlier this month for the killing.

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Posted in Coptic Church, Egypt, Middle East, Religion & Culture, Terrorism, Violence

(WSJ) Carl Anderson–The Next Big Threat to Iraq’s Christians

Before visiting Iraq last month, I met with Pope Francis. He told me that “a Middle East without Christians is not the Middle East.” Baghdad’s ambassador in Washington often says that “Iraq is not Iraq without its minorities.” Consider these sentiments as Christian towns in Iraq increasingly look neither Christian nor Iraqi—but Iranian.

The public identifies the threat against Christians in Iraq and Syria as emanating from Islamic State. After a hard-fought war, ISIS is no longer a territorial power. But the religious minorities persecuted under the caliphate remain in peril, thanks to the Iraqi government’s tolerance of Iranian influence.

Five years ago, ISIS swept through Northern Iraq, killing and displacing hundreds of thousands of Christians, Yazidis, and other religious minorities. The Obama and Trump administrations each declared ISIS’ actions “genocide.” The proof lay not only in the dead but in the collapse of communities that had survived for millennia. There were as many as 1.5 million Iraqi Christians before 2003. Today some 200,000 remain.

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Posted in Iraq, Religion & Culture, Terrorism, Violence

(NYT) The Evolution of ISIS: From a Rogue State to a Tiny Sliver

Beginning in 2016, the Islamic State lost ground nearly as quickly as it had captured it.

In Iraq, security forces backed by the United States, and elsewhere Iranian-backed Shiite militias, ousted the group, retaking Mosul in mid-2017 and officially declaring the group defeated in the country by the end of the year.

American-backed, Kurdish-led forces regained territory in Syria, including Raqqa in October 2017. Along Syria’s eastern border, forces backed by the Assad government and Russia also took back territory. But many of the cities once held by the Islamic State are shells of their former selves. In Raqqa, two-thirds of the city was destroyed in the coalition fight against the group. In Mosul, centuries-old mosques and markets were reduced to rubble.

But even as territory has been wrested from the Islamic State, the group has continued to spread its ideology online and encouraged supporters to carry out attacks worldwide. While the state it once declared has largely disappeared, it remains a significant threat, experts say.

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Posted in Syria, Terrorism

(C of E) Response to Home Office letter regarding Iranian asylum seeker from Bp Paul Butler

“I am extremely concerned that a Government department could determine the future of another human being based on such a profound misunderstanding of the texts and practices of faith communities. To use extracts from the Book of Revelation to argue that Christianity is a violent religion is like arguing that a Government report on the impact of Climate Change is advocating drought and flooding.

“It is good that the Home Office has recognised that this decision is inconsistent with its policies and that its staff need better training, but the fact that these comments were made at all suggests that the problem goes deeper than a lack of religious literacy among individual civil servants and indicates that the management structures and ethos of the Home Office, when dealing with cases with a religious dimension, need serious overhaul.

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Posted in Church of England (CoE), CoE Bishops, England / UK, Foreign Relations, Iran, Politics in General, Religion & Culture, Theology: Scripture

(BBC) ISIS women defiant in face of lost caliphate

As the battle against the Islamic State (IS) group in eastern Syria enters its final stages, the BBC’s Jewan Abdi says the mood amongst many of the jihadists’ supporters who have left the area, including many women, remains defiant.

The encampment in the village of Baghuz is barely more than a few holes in the dirt covered with blankets. It is squalid and filthy.

But above it flies the black Islamic State flag, fresh and clean. IS fighters had raised it only the day before, an act of defiance in the face of overwhelming odds.

“That’s a sign they will fight,” says a soldier belonging to the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) on the front lines battling the jihadists.

Just 24 hours later the battle resumed. It was the end of a ceasefire that had seen more than 12,000 leave in the preceding few days.

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Posted in Middle East, Terrorism, Women

(CEN) Second Gafcon Conference meets in the Middle East

A second Gafcon conference [in the past year] was held in the Middle East at the end of February that brought a current witness of ministry among war, suffering and persecution.

The G19 Conference director Bishop Michael Nazir-Ali told the The Church of England Newspaper that “a good number of faithful Anglicans could not attend Gafcon in Jerusalem last year, so a conference was arranged at a place accessible to them.

“More than 100 leaders from 12 nations attended (in all 4 primates, 31 bishops and ‘internal provincial’ archbishops, 44 clergy and 59 lay leaders) from the Middle East, South Asia, and East and West Africa.”

He said that these were fellow Christians that ‘we must not isolate’.

“Some churches who were able to attend Gafcon last year sent leaders to encourage but also to learn from the main participants, who bring the dimension of suffering to Gafcon –correcting any temptation to triumphalism.

“Participants said the conference exceeded their expectations – for fellowship, teaching, and engagement. All delegates were involved in prayer groups, discussion groups, and developing the conference statement which will be available on the Gafcon website.

“This was a gathering of the suffering and restricted church, but they were hungry for bible teaching, and exuberant in worship. Their witness should be central to the life and work of the Anglican Communion.”

Read it all (subscription).

Posted in GAFCON, Middle East

(NYT) The English Voice of ISIS Comes Out of the Shadows

More than four years ago, the Federal Bureau of Investigation appealed to the public to help identify the narrator in one of the Islamic State’s best-known videos, showing captured Syrian soldiers digging their own graves and then being shot in the head.

Speaking fluent English with a North American accent, the man would go on to narrate countless other videos and radio broadcasts by the Islamic State, serving as the terrorist group’s faceless evangelist to Americans and other English speakers seeking to learn about its toxic ideology.

Now a 35-year-old Canadian citizen, who studied at a college in Toronto and once worked in information technology at a company contracted by IBM, says he is the anonymous narrator.

That man, Mohammed Khalifa captured in Syria last month by an American-backed militia, spoke in his first interview about being the voice of the 2014 video, known as “Flames of War.” He described himself as a rank-and-file employee of the Islamic State’s Ministry of Media, the unit responsible for publicizing such brutal footage as the beheading of the American journalist James Foley and the burning of a Jordanian pilot.

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Posted in Canada, Middle East, Saudi Arabia, Terrorism, Violence

(NYRB) Undefeated, ISIS Is Back in Iraq

Now, more than four years after the black-clad men conquered Mosul, a major city in northern Iraq, a third of the country remains pulverized, both physically and socially. Overlaid across territory that has been reclaimed from the Islamic State is a patchwork of various sectarian militias that now claim fiefdom. Thousands of families with alleged links to ISIS are exiled, their birthrights reduced to being names on militias’ wanted lists, their dignity violated in irreversible ways. Rather than address this deep residue of fears and feelings of injustice felt by many, Iraq has foolishly declared the Islamic State defeated, as though its threat were now confined to the country’s past. But the signs of the ISIS’ resurgence are troubling, and the sense of grievance that fired it in the first place remains just as palpable—and just as unresolved.

The intelligence that my colleagues and I in the Kurdistan Region Security Council have collected is disturbing. Over the past fifteen months, hundreds of attacks linked to the group took place in areas that were supposed to have been freed from ISIS. Pushed out of Mosul, Islamic State fighters have regrouped in the provinces of Kirkuk, Diyala, Salahaddin, and parts of Anbar—territory they know well. From the city of Hawija to the westernmost town of Tal Afar, these guerrillas are mounting ambushes against Iraqi security forces in attacks the scale of which has not been seen in years.

What makes these fighters so much more of a threat now is their ability to make good on their promise to hunt down those they accuse of betraying them. In a night raid last October, after security forces had retreated to nearby bases, Islamic State assassins dragged a village chief from his home, and summoned locals to a public place, where they executed him. Even in parts of Mosul itself, reconquered in 2017 by government forces after a long and costly campaign, the ominous black-and-white ISIS flag has flown again in recent months, causing panic and fear in village after village. Credible threats have also forced the Iraqi authorities to relocate prisoners to prevent their escape in the event of a brazen attack like the prison breakouts the group has pulled off in the past.

The reasons for the return of ISIS are obvious. For years, the conventional approach to stopping the group has depended on airstrikes and local proxy forces; stripping away territory and revenues from ISIS has been the marker of success. But this is a gross misunderstanding of the group. The original synergy between former Iraqi officers and jihadists that created al-Qaeda in Iraq led to a calculating organization capable of learning from its mistakes and adjusting accordingly.

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Posted in Iraq, Terrorism

(ACNS) Anglican leaders in Arabian Gulf welcome Pope Francis’ visit to United Arab Emirates

This week’s historic visit to the United Arab Emirates by Pope Francis resulted in “extraordinary scenes”, the Senior Anglican Chaplain in Abu Dhabi, Canon Andrew Thompson, has said. During his visit, Pope Francis celebrated Mass at the Zayed Sports City Stadium in Abu Dhabi. News reports cite a variety of numbers of those attending, varying from 130,000 to 180,000. Canon Thompson was one of those present. He told the Anglican Communion News Service (ACNS) that Anglicans and Roman Catholics have, for decades, “literally been neighbours” in the UAE “In every one of the emirates of the UAE, the Anglican churches lie literally in the shadow of the gigantic compounds which are the spiritual homes to thousands of Roman Catholics”, he said.

The UAE, which has designated 2019 as the “Year of Tolerance”, has the largest Catholic population amongst Arab nations. According to the Reuters news service, most UAE citizens are Sunni Muslims; but the large migrant population – foreigners are said to outnumber locals by around nine to one – means that the country is home to some two million Catholics – around half the total number of Catholics living in Gulf countries.

“Relationships are close between Catholic and Anglican ministers, not least because we all share the same status as guest migrants in a nation which proudly defines her status as Islamic”, Canon Thompson said. “This sounds as if we are bound together through the challenges of facing a hostile bureaucracy. The truth is actually the opposite.

“We both enjoy complete freedom of worship and the grace and favour of the ruling families. While there are certainly bureaucratic frustrations, a constant flow of pastoral needs, and legal conundrums, these issues are not unique to the UAE.

“We celebrate our friendship together by mutually hosting ecumenical gatherings, and are constantly cheered by the genuine welcome of the Emirati authorities.”

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Posted in Pope Francis, Roman Catholic, UAE (United Arab Emirates)

(Vatican Radio) Pope and the Grand Imam: Historic declaration of peace, freedom, women’s rights

The “Document on Human Fraternity for World Peace and Living Together” signed on Monday afternoon in Abu Dhabi by Pope Francis and the Grand Imama of Al-Azhar, Ahmad el-Tayeb, is not only a milestone in relations between Christianity and Islam but also represents a message with a strong impact on the international scene. In the preface, after affirming that “Faith leads a believer to see in the other a brother or sister to be supported and loved”, this text is spoken of as a text “that has been given honest and serious thought”, which invites “all persons who have faith in God and faith in human fraternity to unite and work together”.

The document opens with a series of invocations: the Pope and the Grand Imam speak “in the name of God who has created all human beings equal in rights, duties and dignity”, “in the name of innocent human life that God has forbidden to kill”, “in the name of the poor”, “orphans, widows, refugees, exiles… and all victims of wars” and “persecution”. Al-Azhar, together with the Catholic Church, “declare the adoption of a culture of dialogue as the path; mutual cooperation as the code of conduct; reciprocal understanding as the method and standard”.

In the document, “we… call upon ourselves, upon the leaders of the world as well as the architects of international policy and world economy, to work strenuously to spread the culture of tolerance and of living together in peace; to intervene at the earliest opportunity to stop the shedding of innocent blood and bring an end to wars, conflicts, environmental decay and the moral and cultural decline that the world is presently experiencing”.

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Posted in Inter-Faith Relations, Islam, Muslim-Christian relations, Pope Francis, Roman Catholic, UAE (United Arab Emirates)

(NYT) Described as Defeated, Islamic State Punches Back With Guerrilla Tactics

For three years, terrorists controlled a huge stretch of territory in Iraq and Syria. They ran their own state, collecting tens of millions of dollars in taxes and using the proceeds to fix potholes, issue birth certificates, finance attacks and recruit followers from around the world.

All but 1 percent of that territory is now gone, which has prompted the White House to describe the Islamic State as “wiped out,” “absolutely obliterated” and “in its final throes.” But to suggest that ISIS was defeated, as President Trump did when he announced plans to pull out American troops from Syria, is to ignore the lessons of recent history.

The group has been declared vanquished before, only to prove politicians wrong and to rise stronger than before.

The attack last week by a suicide bomber outside a shawarma restaurant in the Syrian city of Manbij, which killed at least 15 people including four Americans, is one example of how the group still remains a serious, violent threat.

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Posted in America/U.S.A., Ethics / Moral Theology, Foreign Relations, Iraq, Middle East, Military / Armed Forces, Syria, Terrorism, Violence