Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Persecution of Iraqi Christians

Thousands of frightened Iraqi Christians are fleeing Iraq, after an escalation in anti-Christian violence.

Several horrific attacks on Christians in the last three weeks have increased the fear amongst the Christian community. This appears to be a response to a call by militants for increased violence during the Islamic fasting month, Ramadan (which this year is 24th September - 23rd October).

See the Rest:


Thursday, October 26, 2006

A Church in Exile (The Chaldean Catholics)

Father Denis and I walked from the Jesuit House in the neighborhood next to mine to the make-shift church that the Iraqi Christians had set up in a small apartment.

I had called him on the phone earlier today to ask if I could go to the Chaldean mass with him, and he was cautious. “The bishops just released a letter to the Iraqi Christians telling them to be careful with evangelicals. This is their community: their language, the people they dance with, they worship with, and when you take one person out of the community it is like tearing the fabric of who they are.” I assured him that I wanted to learn only and had no plans of recruiting the Chaldean Christians for my church. He recalled that the Anglican churches had a good history of respecting other traditions so he would talk to the priest there and see if it was OK for me to come. He called back later to let me know it would be fine.

I would have never known we had arrived at the church had it not been for the sign reading “Chaldean Church in XXXXXXX” in front of the apartment building. We walked downstairs to the bottom level and people greeted Denis with the customary “abouna” which is Syriac for “father.”

The church was basically a living room and dining room with the doors dividing them removed. Plastic garden chairs were set up in rows and about 15 people were inside saying the rosary in Arabic. Denis checked to see if the priest there was available, he was not. “He is in the office, which is also his bedroom, counseling a married couple.” Checking in another room revealed a small group of young women learning Syriac, or as it is called here “Suriani,” a Semitic language closely related to the Aramaic that Jesus spoke on a daily basis. It only survives as the liturgical language of the Chaldean church.

There are a massive number of Iraqis here—something that makes the local population quite bitter as prices for everything from apartments to bread to gas has gone up because of this large influx of people in a country with a population of about five million. At this Monday evening mass there were over thirty people, including some teenagers. Many of the women cover their heads during prayer or when they take communion, a common practice here among all Christians.

The church was very simple, aside from the chairs everything could have been packed into a suburban in an hour. There were inexpensive portraits of the Sacred Heart, the Virgin Mary, the Holy Family, and the baptism of our Lord hanging from walls. The mass was mostly in Suriani. I did not understand much, but I gathered that the Gospel reading was from John 6.

The Chaldean Catholic Church of Babylon (its full name) is the church of the great majority of Christians in Iraq. It is one of the many churches in communion with the Holy See and the bishop of Rome (the Pope). But they are not Roman Catholics: they have their own bishops, their own liturgy, their own church laws, and so on. The senior bishop in the church is the Patriarch of Babylon (Baghdad).

There is tension between the evangelicals here, who view the Catholic and Orthodox as unsaved people who need to know the Lord, and therefore it is necessary for them to join an evangelical church. The Chaldeans are hostile to the evangelicals, viewing them as thieves and poachers who take advantage of a church that is already in a very difficult situation.

Let us pray that our Chaldean brethren would be zealous for the Gospel and filled with the power of the Spirit. Let us pray for our evangelical brethren, that they would be humble before a church that has perdured for centuries in a hostile, Islamic culture. Both communities have much to learn from each other.

A Parable

A Parable

"There was a king, and in his kingdom there were two cities that we having grave problems. One city sent a messenger to the king to ask for help. The king sat down and wrote a letter to the city and sent the messenger back.

"The other city sent a messenger to the king, and the king sent his son to that city to address the problems there. Which of these two cities has received the greater honor?"

I told this parable to a Muslim friend today, and here was his answer: the city that received the prince has received the greater honor. When he arrives he will see what the problems are and take immediate action; the people of the city cannot disobey him. The city that received the letter from the king--in that city maybe the mayor will read it and tear it up, or maybe he will read it and not take action right away.

I responded: and this is the difference between Islam and Christianity: we believe that the Word of God is a person, Muslims believe that the Word of God is a book.

The point of the parable might not be obvious to people not used to thinking in terms of honor. The point is not that God has given two religions, and that one of them is superior. Rather it is that the God of Christianity shows more honor and generosity to humanity than the God of Islam.

For those of you who talk with Muslims regularly I encourage you to learn this short parable and ask your Muslim friends what they think about it.


Cartoons and Riots

I was chatting with a friend of mine who lives in Saudi Arabia yesterday. She has always lived there, her dad has three wives, she has never been outside of the Middle East. She is a smart lady, and witty too. I asked her about the cartoon debacle and she said what many folks here are saying: they don't have the right to offend Islam that way.

I just got back from spending some time with a very moderate Muslim friend who is not an Arab. His sisters don't wear head coverings, he doesn't go to mosque often. He compared the cartoons to people who praise the holocaust. I said that it was illegal to incite violence against a group, which is what you have in his holocaust example. Here violence was not being incited against Muslims. He repsonded, but it led to violence on the part of Muslims--so what's the difference?

These two twenty-somethings represent the future of the Middle East. They are well-educated, multi-lingual, intelligent people, and they are both dear friends of mine. Neither of them had even seen the cartoons though.

So what is the reason for this gulf between our approach and theirs? Let me suggest two possible factors:

The language of rights. It is foreign to Islam, specifically in the generalized form of "human rights" or "inalienable rights." While rejecting positivism, the rights of a person are derived from the fact that they are living under a valid Islamic authority. Politics is sacramental, so a Muslim ruler is an outward sign of an inward grace, namely the subjugation and subjection of the peoples of the world to God's rule. (Note that violence can become sacred under this model.) So speaking of a right to anything that is insulting to Islam is inherently self-contradictory.

The Final Revelation. Islam is very confident that it is the final and true revelation from God. Therefore to allow space for any belief that might contraddict this is unjustified. Christianity and Judaism are allowed to exist, but under a system of governance that assures their eventual extinction. This system has been spectacularly successful in Northern Africa and Asia Minor and the Arabian Peninsula.

These are just two points. There are others, but I think it will help us to at least size up how different the two frames of mind or worldviews are from eachother.

So how should Christians react to those who offend them? I think there is no one answer to that, but it is clear that the genesis of that action must begin with loving our enemies and blessing those who curse us.

I think Christians are so used to having our faith ridiculed that it is hard for us to imagine the novelty of what many Muslims are experiencing. But give it a try. Feel the fury, the anger, the desire to kill and to destroy. But then hear the voice of your conscience brought alive by the Spirit reminding you that you are as guilty as your enemy, that if he deserves death then so do you, and that if you are to live up to the name of Christian that you must love him. And love mercy. Pray for that zealous desire to forgive.

I think that is where Christians are obliged to start, though depending on conditions it will lead us to different places and actions. But not to hoping for nuclear destruction in this or that country or the lawless torching of embassies. Not there, I am sure.

Part I: The Qur'an: Introduction

It is often said that the Qur'an is like the Bible: one is the holy book for Muslims, and the other is for the Christians. This is not a very accurate way of looking at the situation though because the two books are very different. The Bible is really a collection of many kinds of writings (prophecy, poetry, genealogy, history, personal letters, and so on) written by a large number of people across over a thousand years. The Bible was written in three languages across three continents (Europe, Asia, Africa).

The Qur'an is wholly different. According to Islam, it was not written by anyone, it was revealed, word for word, from God, by the angel Gabriel (Jabriil in Arabic) to Muhammad throughout his life. The Qur'an consists of 114 chapters, called surahs in Arabic. These surahs are organized like Paul's letters to the churches: from longest to shortest. The second is "The Cow" which is 31 pages long (in the translation I use), and the last one is "The Men" which follows:

SAY: 'I seek refuge in the Lord of men, the King of men, the God of men, from the mischief of the slinking prompter who whispers in the hearts of men; from jinn and men.'

That is the entire surah.

The word "qur'an" is possibly derived from the Arabic word qara' which means "he read." The word itself means something like recitation.

The content of the book is much more uniform than that of the Bible, as could be expected from a book produced by one person over a much shorter period of time. There are dietary laws, there are rules about how the believers should interact with Jews and Christians and idolators. There are regulations about the use of the spoils of war (there is a surah called "The Spoils"). Every aspect of life is touched upon, much like the Torah for Orthodox Jews.

There is a great deal of equivocation about the Jews and the Christians in the Qur'an. There are some positive remarks, like, "Believers, Jews, Sabeans, and Christians--whoever believes in God and the Last Day and does what is right shall have nothing to fear or to regret." But then two paragraphs later we find this: "Unbelievers are those that say: 'God is one of three.' There is but one God. If they do not desist from so saying, those of them that disbelieve shall be sternly punished." (5:69 ff.) There are many examples of this throughout the entire book, so it is not surprising that among Muslims there are so many points of view. (Also you will notice that the author obviously does not grasp the theology of the Trinity. This is not the kind of thing a Muslim can say though since each and every word is from God.)

The same can be said in terms of the use of violence, though the verses limiting violence seem to be fewer in number than those extolling it as long as it is carried out correctly. One that is frequently quoted in the Western press is this: "whoever killed a human being [...] shall be regarded as having killed all mankind" (5:32ff). These seem like the words of a religion of peace indeed. But the entire verse needs to be examined to understand how it has functioned throughout history:

"That is why We laid it down for the Israelites that whoever killed a human being, except as a punishment for murder or other villainy in the land, shall be regarded as having killed all humankind; and that whoever saved a human life shall be regarded as having saved all mankind."

So if there is "other villainy" then capital punishment is called for. Such crimes include insulting the Prophet and renouncing Islam. And lest we be impressed by this graciousness, we find this admonition a few verses later, "As for the man or woman who is guilty of theft, cut off their hands to punish them for their crimes. That is the punishment enjoined by God. God is mighty and wise." Fortunately most Islamic countries do not do actually do what "God enjoins." But you can clearly see that there is no question of this being a rule for a specific people at one time in history. It is more like a command for every believer in the world throughout all of time.

Let me know what questions you have. I have quoted mostly from "The Table" in this e-mail, if you would like to read the entire surah.

Peace be with you all.