Middle Eastern Christians: A minority in numbers only

The realities and attitudes to faith and community of Arab Christians are starkly different from their Western counterparts, because they are immersed and shaped by the manifold struggles surrounding them, writes Harry Hagopian.

Father Emmanuel Gharib, Chairman of the National Evangelical Church of Kuwait and Pastor of the Kuwaiti Presbyterian Church, leads a Christmas mass at the National Evangelical Church in Kuwait City on 24 December 2021. [Getty]

Being in my groaning fifties, I am long enough in the tooth to know that faith is not usually static. It is often a struggle, at times frustrating and at others rewarding, that seeks constant renewal. Being myself an Armenian member of a numerically-challenged ‘minority’ community, I suppose I am constantly tempted by an ethnocentrism that could easily seek reassurance in an insular or even sectarian approach to faith that claims Caesar for everyone but God for oneself!

This epistemic sense of self-examination – or re-questioning if you prefer – came back to me only a few days ago as I celebrated Western Christmas in a somewhat solitary format due to the COVID pandemic.

Here in the UK, this feast has gradually become synonymous with holidays, parties, obligatory dinners with family members, mistletoe, mince pies and puddings, an exchange of gifts or board games and long walks. Yet somewhere along the line, the West in its majority has forgotten that this feast also celebrates the nativity of Jesus in Bethlehem who became the Christian Messiah for a whole new religion let alone a prophet for Muslim believers too. But this is not the case with Christians in the Middle East. Their realities are starkly different, and so are their attitudes to faith and community.

This is what I would like to share briefly with readers today, not by regurgitating easily-researched facts and figures but by highlighting key points that illustrate the Arab Christian indigenous presence in the Levant.

“The priorities, joys and concerns of a Christian in Palestine are not the same as those of Christians in Syria, Iraq, Lebanon or Egypt. So it is vital that one does not paint them all with the same broad brush” 

The first item that springs to my mind when talking about the Middle East and North African Christians – some 10 million of them altogether – is that they are not a monolithic body. They are quite different from each other not only in their faith-related rituals but also in their sociological settings. The priorities, joys and concerns of a Christian in Palestine are not the same as those of Christians in Syria, Iraq, Lebanon or Egypt. So it is vital that one does not paint them all with the same broad brush. Each country retains its specificity and even its peccadilloes.

But demography and geography aside, what often concerns me at some ecumenical conferences I attend is that such events do not always define themselves as being in solidarity with the Christians of the Middle East or celebrating their millennia-old faith. Rather, they are perceived as events in solidarity with the persecuted Christians of the East. This distinction is critical, but why, you might well ask me? After all, are Christians not suffering from persecution?


US Muslims call for action as ‘spying’ incidents shake community

Council on American-Islamic Relations says it uncovered a ‘mole’ within its organisation and a ‘spy’ at a US mosque.

Washington, DC – First, the major Muslim-American advocacy group reported that a “mole” had infiltrated the leadership of one of its state branches. Then, only days later, the organisation said a “spy” at a US mosque had passed information on to an “anti-Muslim” group.

The two incidents, revealed earlier this month by the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), have shaken Muslim advocates in the United States and renewed longstanding concerns about spying on the community.


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“Community members were shocked and saddened to learn about this specific situation, but a lot of people were also not surprised that an anti-Muslim hate group was targeting CAIR and spying this way,” said Whitney Siddiqi, community affairs director at CAIR-Ohio.

The CAIR chapter said on December 15 that it had sacked Romin Iqbal, its executive and legal director in the Columbus-Cincinnati area, for “egregious ethical and professional violations”.


Islam And Democracy: Are They Antithetical? – Analysis

Shûrâ, Or The Principle Of Collective Deliberation

When one evokes the relation between Islam and democracy, (1) the temptation is great to go to texts (Qur’an and Hadîth) and to Muslim political history of experiences of governance with analogies to modern pluralistic systems. (2) Hence the reformist currents of Islamic thought, which intend to promote the principle of shûrâ, which can be roughly translated as “collective deliberation”. On the theological level shûrâ refers directly to the Qur’anic text, in particular to Sûrah 42, precisely entitled “The Consultation”:

’And those who answer the call of their Lord and establish prayer and whose affair being matter of counsel among themselves, and who of that wherewith We have provided them expend. ‘’ (Holy Qur’an, 42 : 38).

On the mythical-political level, it refers to the prophetic city of Medina, in which the Prophet Muhammad was supposed to make his decisions after consulting his companions (saHâba) and even the members of the nascent Islamic community (‘ummah).
Shûrâ, or the principle of collective deliberation, is a principle mentioned both in the Qur’an and in the practice of the Prophet and his Companions. In the modern context, shûrâ has been understood as the Islamic term for what the contemporaries call democracy. Nevertheless, this concept remains obscure despite the publication of hundreds of books and articles on the subject over the past decades. Many aspects of shûrâ have not yet been addressed.

On the principle of collective deliberation and the evidence supporting it in Islamic normative texts, scholars have customarily referred first to two Qur’anic verses concerning the disputatio angelica, i.e. the metaphysical creation of the human order and, therefore, the meaning to be given to the unfolding of humanity.

The eminent scholar Mohamed Tahar Ben Achour (3) has stated that this disputatio has a foundational value in the creation order. We can include in it the principle of Abraham’s deliberation, having received a commandment from God about his son Ishmael. The question of whether Abraham should sacrifice his son was already settled by the divine command, but Abraham nevertheless asked his son: 

 “And when he reached with him [the age of] exertion, he said, “O my son, indeed I have seen in a dream that I [must] sacrifice you, so see what you think.” He said, “O my father, do as you are commanded. You will find me, if Allāh wills, of the steadfast.”
 “(Holy Qur’an, 37: 102).

More generally, from an Islamic perspective, the principle of collective deliberation (4) is necessary for any form of interpersonal relationship. The importance of shûrâ in both the private and public spheres is highlighted in the Qur’an:

 “And it was by God’s grace that thou [O Prophet] didst deal gently with thy followers: for if thou hadst been harsh and hard of heart, they would indeed have broken away from thee. Pardon them, then, and pray that they be forgiven. And take cou nsel with them in all matters of public concern; then, when thou hast decided upon a course of action, place thy trust in God: for, verily, God loves those who place their trust in Him ‘’ (Holy Qur’an, 3 : 159).


In Iraq, Christmas is becoming many Muslims’ favorite new holiday

More Iraqi Muslims are celebrating Christmas than ever. Yet Iraq’s Christians are an endangered minority and some Muslim clerics are vehemently against it. So why are there so many Christmas trees in Baghdad?

Iraqi woman Kholoud Khardoum suspects she was the one who introduced Christmas to her village in southern Iraq. It all started six years ago with a small plastic Christmas tree and some gifts for her nieces and nephews during a visit home, the Iraqi journalist, who resides in Baghdad, recounted.

“At first, it was a bit weird. People kept asking what the tree was. It was something they had only seen on TV,” she told DW; her hometown is just outside the city of Karbala, a comparatively conservative place with a Shiite Muslim majority that is also a major destination for Muslim pilgrims. “But with the lights and the decorations and gifts, the children really loved it. Then the neighbors came over and they liked what we were doing too.”

That was in 2015. Now, she said, those neighbors hold their own Christmas parties and the tree in her family home is usually decorated before she even gets there.

A Christian family prepares for Christmas in Iraq

Countrywide popularity

Khardoum has also noticed that more and more Iraqis, like her family and her neighbors, are celebrating Christmas. “A few years ago you would only see Christmas decorations being sold in shops in places like Karrada or Jadiriyah [neighborhoods in Baghdad that are home to the city’s Christian minority],” Khardoum explained. “But now they’re all over the city.”

Christmas is even becoming more popular in southern Iraq, stronghold of the country’s Shiite Muslim majority, she noted. For example, her nephew goes to a private school in Karbala and there the students all pose under a large Christmas tree set up by the teachers, something that wouldn’t necessarily have happened a few years ago.

In Baghdad, the city council has placed Christmas trees at intersections and many big hotels and restaurants are decorated accordingly. After visiting markets in the city this month, Iraqi website, Shafaq News, wrote that Christmas is bigger than ever in Iraq. This year, sales of trees and Santa figures are “unprecedented” and the turnout “remarkable,” the outlet reported, after speaking with local stallholders.


Archbishop Tutu: A lifelong witness to human dignity, just peace and interfaith solidarity


Dr Rashied Omar with Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu. South Africa has a unique and unparalleled interfaith and interreligious solidarity movement, thanks in large measure to the wise leadership and sterling contributions of Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Mpilo Tutu, says the writer.
Dr Rashied Omar with Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu. South Africa has a unique and unparalleled interfaith and interreligious solidarity movement, thanks in large measure to the wise leadership and sterling contributions of Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Mpilo Tutu, says the writer.

This article was written in October of this year by a South African Muslim leader. It is a fitting tribute to a man who exemplified the spirit of Christ as a bridge builder between people of various religious convictions. We pass it on to honor the memory of Archbishop Tutu who passed away yesterday at the age of 90.

By Opinion Time of article published Oct 8, 2021

Rashied Omar

CAPE TOWN – In the late 1980s and throughout the 1990s, as a young Imam at the Claremont Main Road Mosque, I became inspired and active in interfaith and interreligious activities through the South African Chapter of the World Conference on Religion and Peace (WCRP-SA). As a beneficiary of South Africa’s rich and robust interfaith and interreligious solidarity movement, I believe that through my indefatigable passion for interfaith activities, I am not merely honouring, but also giving, profound thanks to the rich and diverse legacy bequeathed to us by Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Mphilo Tutu.

Our beloved country, the African continent, and indeed the world, can honour the memory and great legacy of Archbishop Tutu by living up to the egalitarian ideals he espoused and continuing the struggles for human dignity, social justice, and interfaith and interreligious solidarity that he champions during his life.

South Africa has a unique and unparalleled interfaith and interreligious solidarity movement, thanks in large measure to the wise leadership and sterling contributions of Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Mphilo Tutu.

Emblematic of this robust interfaith legacy, is the fact that since the inception of South Africa’s non-racial and democratic parliament in 1994, its proceedings have consistently been inaugurated by interfaith prayers.

During his tenure as secretary-general of the South African Council of Churches (SACC) from 1978 to 1984, Bishop Tutu became one of the chief architects of South Africa’s robust interfaith solidarity movement.


Let the Virgin Mary bring Christians and Muslims together at Christmas

(RNS) — Muslim-Christian relations are strained around the world, across the United States and even in Congress. But at Christmas, the two faith communities whose combined size represents more than half of humanity can look to their shared love for a single figure to inspire them to love one another: Mary, the mother of Jesus.

Mary is more than the only woman named in the Quran; she has an entire chapter bearing her name. She is mentioned more times in Muslim scripture, in fact, than in the New Testament. She is lauded by God in the Quran as “chosen among all women of the world,” “a sign for humanity,” and as “a model” of piety, purity and patience.

Through the centuries, from ancient artwork of the Middle East, South Asia and Far East to the contemporary Iranian film “Saint Mary,” Muslims have lovingly captured the mother of Jesus. We reflect on how we may be inspired by her — as a devotee of the Lord, as a woman, as a single mother and as a role model for all Muslims, men and women alike.


Michigan city gets ready to inaugurate all-Muslim government

Hamtramck, Michigan (CNN)For decades, Hamtramck was known as Michigan’s “Little Warsaw,” a city of just two square miles of tightly-packed houses and factories, spitting distance from downtown Detroit.
The Polish Cardinal Karol Wojtyla visited once, back in 1969, before he became Pope. A statue of Wojtyla, arms outstretched, still casts a shadow over what’s now called Pope Park, where a huge mural of Polish folk dancers stretches almost an entire city block.
In the 99 years since its incorporation, every mayor of Hamtramck has been Polish American. That ends January 2, in Hamtramck’s centenary year, when Amer Ghalib will be inaugurated, along with an entirely Muslim city council.

Hamtramck will become the first known city in the US with a government made up entirely of Muslims, according to the Muslim Public Affairs Council, which says it has no record of any other such administration.
Hamtramck Mayor-elect Amer Ghalib will be the first non-Polish American leader in the city's history.
Hamtramck Mayor-elect Amer Ghalib will be the first non-Polish American leader in the city’s history.
Mayor-elect Ghalib was born in Yemen and came to the United States alone as a young man, with a smattering of broken English and little else. He’s now 42, works in the medical field and is studying to become a doctor.

Hamtramck’s heyday had apparently passed. The city was decaying. Many factories had closed. Many second and third-generation Polish Americans had moved to the Detroit suburbs and beyond in the past two decades. Immigrants, largely from Yemen and Bangladesh, took their place and Hamtramck, locals say, is now majority Muslim.


In Cairo, I sat in on a scriptural reasoning group with Christians and Muslims

Moving beyond amicable consensus to productive discomfort

Early in 2020, before international travel became impossible, my wife and I visited friends who work on interfaith relations and theological education in Egypt. While there we had an unexpected opportunity to sit down with a group of Muslims and Christians for intensive study of our sacred scriptures.

Around the turn of the century, the practice of “scriptural reasoning” or “textual reasoning” was being promoted by theological students and faculty in North America and Europe. David Ford, Peter Ochs, C. C. Pecknold, and others built a tradition that continues in small groups and academic conferences around the world. In the West the initiative began with Jewish-Christian dialogue, later reaching out to include Islam as well. In the contexts in which I became familiar with it—from the reports of colleagues who worked in Bangladesh, during a visit to Oman, and then in Egypt, none of which has a significant Jewish presence—it is a Muslim-Christian collaborative venture.

While staying in Cairo we were invited to serve as hosts for a group that has gathered every month or two for a few years. It’s coordinated by Naji Umran, a Canadian missionary with Resonate Global Mission (the mission agency of the Christian Reformed Church in North America), and his Muslim colleague Hany al-Halawany, a lawyer and interfaith activist. We had been offered the use of a spacious apartment by American church educators Steve and Frankie Wunderink while they were away, a welcoming space for our conversation. Hoping we could emulate the warm hospitality we encountered in every Egyptian home and office we visited, we explored all the fruit shops and bakeries of Abaseya, our bustling central Cairo neighborhood, and laid a table with tropical fruits and Middle Eastern pastries.

Along with the two American visitors and the two organizers, the group that gathered included a Christian pastor and two sheikhs (synonymous with “imam” but more commonly used in Egypt). A few more had been expected, but the vagaries of Cairo traffic kept them from joining us. Issaq Saad is a Presbyterian pastor and a member of the interfaith council of the Synod of the Nile. Sheikh Shaher serves as a cleric and teacher at Al-Azhar Mosque and its affiliated university, world-renowned centers of Islamic life and learning. Sheikh Mohammed Hegazy leads a mosque in Qalyub, just north of Cairo.


Sunday Worship Comes to the Gulf

Economic reforms in the UAE tilt toward secularism and shift Christian services from Friday, the Muslim day of prayer.

The United Arab Emirates (UAE) wants to create a more friendly financial climate. Christians, say local evangelical leaders, are among the unintended beneficiaries.

“The business of Dubai is business, even though they are committed Muslims,” said Jim Burgess, evangelical representative to the Gulf Churches Fellowship, referencing the UAE’s economic hub. “But worshiping on Sunday—our traditional day to celebrate the resurrection of Jesus—will be a great blessing.”

Seeking better alignment with international markets, the Emirates is adopting a Monday to Friday workweek. The weekend had previously begun with Friday, in deference to Muslim communal prayers. Christians aligned their corporate worship accordingly.
“It is a bit strange to worship on a Friday, but you get used to it,” said Hrayr Jebejian, general secretary of the Bible Society of the Gulf, who lives in Kuwait. “The [UAE’s] reasons are purely financial, but for Christians it will be like going back to normal.”

Of the UAE’s 10 million people, 88 percent are migrant workers. The Pew Research Center estimates 13 percent are Christians, coming largely from India, Indonesia, and the Philippines, in addition to Western expats.

It is necessary to keep and attract good talent.

Alongside officially secular Lebanon and Turkey, the UAE is now the third Middle Eastern nation to keep the Western calendar. But it comes with a tweak. All public sector employees will be dismissed at midday Friday, as the Emirates becomes the only nation in the world with a four-and-a-half-day workweek.

While the innovation puts the UAE in the forefront of the longer-weekend labor debate, it also facilitates Muslim Friday prayers—though not yet for the private sector. Both Burgess and Jebejian were surprised by the workweek decision and wondered how local conservatives would respond.


An interfaith examination: Islamic Thought Through Protestant Eyes

Book Club: In an enlightening examination of religions, Mehmet Karabela’s Islamic Thought Through Protestant Eyes elaborates how, in the aftermath of the Protestant Reformation, Islam became a key theological concern in Western Europe.

What if the Protestant Reformation was as much about Islam as it was with Catholicism? We all know the story, a German priest called Martin Luther angered by what he saw as the excesses of the Catholic Church and certain doctrines it espoused, nailed 95 pieces of theses to the door of a church symbolising his objections, unwittingly triggering the reformation leading to the creation of Protestantism.

Protestantism started out as a protest against Catholicism turning into a full sect with different beliefs, practises and doctrines, but while anti-Catholicism might have been a key feature of the Protestant movement, Islam played a lesser-known role in the formation of the Christian sect. Mehmet Karabela’s Islamic Thought Through Protestant Eyes aims to fill the gap in historical knowledge on how engaging with Islam helped shape Protestant beliefs and doctrines.

“The obsession with Islam was partially driven by fear of things like the Ottoman Empire, but also intense curiosity, especially in light of the rejection of the intellectual authority of the Catholic Church, there was a sense they needed to make sense of the world with new eyes”

Some historians such as Kecia Ali have argued modern Islam is increasingly protestant with a growing emphasis on things like relying only on the Quran, Hadiths and the first generation of Muslims as authority figures, a position born out of interaction with western Christianity through things like European colonialism, American-led globalisation and other related forces.