Trying to make sense of Gaza

By Colin Chapman*

If there’s been a cease-fire by the time this article appears, none of the underlying issues will have been resolved. Here then is a brief attempt to analyse what this recent outbreak of fighting between Israel and Gaza has been about – with four clues which help me to make sense of the big picture.

1. Most Palestinians in Gaza today are the children or grandchildren of Palestinian Arabs who were expelled from their homes in the Nakba in 1948.

Benny Morris was one of the first of the new revisionist Israeli historians who documented the process by which around 750,000 Palestinians were expelled from their homes in the months before and after the creation of the state of Israel in May 1948. In his book The Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem, 1947-1949 (1988) he debunked the myth that they had fled because their leaders encouraged them to do so, and described how some went to Gaza, while others moved to Egypt, the West Bank, Syria and Lebanon. Some years later he shocked many when he said in an interview with Haaretz that Israel would not have so many problems today if it had done the job more thoroughly and expelled far more Palestinians from the area of the new state of Israel. Another Israeli historian, Ilan Pappé, who is now a professor at the College of Social Sciences and International Studies at Exeter University, used similar material to describe in great detail how the expulsions were carried out all over the country with the aim of reducing as far as possible the number of Arabs who would remain within the state of Israel, and he wasn’t afraid to give his book the title The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine (2006). Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians during this crucial period before and after the establishment of the state has been called ‘Israel’s original sin’. The relevant point in this context is that the rockets that Palestinians have been firing from Gaza have been landing on areas from which their parents and grandparents were driven out in 1948.

Rami Khoury, a Palestinian-Jordanian journalist, makes this point powerfully in an article which appeared in The Daily Star in Beirut on Saturday 26 July:

Grasping and resolving these root issues is very hard to do for Zionists and Israelis, who refuse to acknowledge their major role in making refugees of the Palestinians. They have also ignored that no peace will come to anyone unless the root causes of the 1947-49 conflict are resolved equitably. If Israelis do not see this in the eyes, tunnels, rockets and charred bodies of dead Palestinian infants, and continue, with the U.S., to insist on prioritizing Israeli security over a more balanced approach to ensuring rights for both peoples, then these savage rounds of violence will persist for years. That would only be adding stupidity to savagery.

2. ‘It’s the blockade and the occupation, stupid!’

No one can deny Israel’s right to self-defence, subject to the test of proportionality, and it’s understandable that Israel should want to force Hamas to stop firing rockets indiscriminatingly into Israel. Hamas could have stopped firing the rockets as soon as the casualties began to mount and the international community called for a cease-fire. But Gaza has been described as the largest open-air prison in the world, and the rockets (which have so far killed only three civilians in Israel) have been an expression of the desperation of the Palestinians over the eight-year economic blockade imposed by Israel after Hamas seized power in 2006. Israel is clearly determined to destroy Hamas’s arsenal of weapons and the network of tunnels penetrating into Israel. But the Hamas leadership believes that it can’t afford to agree to a cease-fire without securing concessions from Israel which relieve the humanitarian crisis developing inside Gaza. The appalling numbers of civilian casualties, therefore, and the destruction of so much property are seen as a price that must be paid in order to force Israel to bow to international pressure and end its crippling blockade. Palestinians in Gaza feel that if they don’t die under the rockets, they will be strangled to death by the blockade.

Before the blockade, of course, was the occupation. In June 1967 Israel occupied the West Bank, the Golan Heights, Sinai and the Gaza Strip, where they eventually built 20 settlements on 20% of the area. It was in this context of occupation around 1988 that Hamas came into existence as a resistance movement. Most of the world believes that Israel’s occupation of the West Bank since 1967 is illegal in international law and that every single settlement in the occupied territories is illegal. Under Ariel Sharon’s leadership Israel withdrew completely from Gaza in 2005, but in international law it still has all the responsibilities of the occupying power. The rationale for the withdrawal was explained in these terms by Dov Weissglass, one of Sharon’s advisers: ‘The significance of the disengagement plan is the freezing of the peace process … And when you freeze that process, you prevent the establishment of a Palestinian state, and you prevent a discussion on the refugees, the borders and Jerusalem.’ It now seems that even the American administration has concluded that the so-called peace-process pursued so vigorously by John Kerry for the past nine months has broken down largely because of Israel’s refusal to stop the building of new settlements on the West Bank. Hamas’s rockets, therefore, seem to be their only way of expressing the anger and desperation of Palestinians over the blockade and the occupation.

Avi Shlaim, emeritus professor of International Relations at Oxford University makes these points in an article entitled ‘What’s the use of “balance” in such an asymmetric war?’ in The Independent on Sunday of 27 July:

It is difficult to resist the conclusion that Israel’s real objective in unleashing this offensive is to bomb Hamas into a humiliating surrender. Israel’s ultimate aim seems to be not just a peace but the re-imposition of the status quo with a fragmented Palestine and with itself as an imperial overlord.

3. The Israel-Palestinian conflict is a conflict of two nationalisms, with two peoples claiming the same piece of land for different reasons.

Theodore Herzl spelled out his vision of political Zionism in his book The Jewish State in 1896, and the following year he convened the First Zionist Congress in Basel. Having concluded that the emancipation of Jews in Europe in the nineteenth century had failed, he believed that the only way for them to feel secure in the modern world was for them to return to their ancestral homeland in Palestine and create some new kind of Jewish polity there. At the time when he wrote the book, Jews were no more than 8% of the total population of Palestine. The remaining 92% of the population – Palestinian Arabs – were aware of nationalist movements in Europe and were beginning to develop their own dreams of Arab nationalism and independence from Ottoman rule. One of the ironies of history, therefore, is that Jewish nationalism (Zionism) had the effect of stimulating Arab nationalism. Jews have been basing their claim to the land and to sovereignty on their occupation of the land in biblical times. Palestinians base their claim on the fact their ancestors have been living in the land since – and even before – the Arab conquest in the 7th century. So one of the fundamental roots of the conflict is this clash of nationalisms.

Palestinians today need somehow to understand that European anti-semitism, which culminated in the Holocaust, created the longing for a homeland in which Jews could feel safe and secure. By the same token, Jews in Israel and elsewhere need to understand that Jewish nationalism and Arab (and especially Palestinian) nationalism have developed side by side during the last century, and that the biblical understanding of justice is that we should seek for our neighbours what we seek for ourselves. The relevance of this point to the present conflict is made by Rami Khoury:

The fundamental problem for Israel that it has never grasped is that the intensity of the individual and collective Palestinian will to resist permanent exile or oblivion, and to keep fighting for national reconstitution and justice, is just as strong as the will among Jews who fought Western Christian anti-Semitism for centuries and finally created their Zionist state in Palestine.

4. For all its failings and crimes, Hamas has been a consistent expression of Palestinian nationalism and anger.

I could never be an apologist for Hamas, because I’m only too aware of its hard-line Islamist ideology, its brutal suppression of opposition and its violent attacks on Israeli citizens. I doubt if it is as innocent as it claims over the location of its rocket launchers, and the tunnels under the northern border fence into Israel are intended for launching attacks on Israel. At the same time I believe that much of the criticism directed against it has been unfair and unjustified.

It came into existence as a resistance movement in the context of Israeli occupation. So if there had been no occupation beginning in 1967, there might be no Hamas – just as there might be no Hizbullah in Lebanon if Israel had not invaded in 1982 and stayed as occupiers for so many years in the south of the country. Hamas strongly asserted its Islamic identity over Fatah, which was felt to have become too secular; and it took a stronger stance against Israel because it believed that Fatah had already made too many concessions in negotiations with Israel. It is argued by some that in the early years Hamas was actually encouraged and supported by Israel as a way of dividing the Palestinian resistance. Hamas won in democratic elections in Gaza and the West Bank in 2006, and many believe that the US and the EU made a disastrous mistake in refusing to recognize this victory and to work with Hamas. Western governments are therefore accused of hypocrisy for saying that they support the spread of democracy in the region but then refusing to accept the results of democratic elections.

While Hamas has maintained its Islamist stance, it’s thoroughly misleading to say that Palestinian enmity towards Israel is motivated primarily by Islam. Palestinian Muslims are bound to turn to their religion to find motivation in their struggle. But the root cause of the conflict is dispossession rather than religion. Hamas has often showed that its ideology can be modified by its pragmatism, and has at many stages indicated its willingness to negotiate with Israel. If Israel continues to label Hamas a ‘terrorist organisation’, isn’t this a case of the pot calling the kettle black? There was plenty of terrorism directed against the British Mandate and Palestinians in the decades leading up to the establishment of the state of Israel, and how many of Israel’s previous prime ministers were engaged in terrorist activities in their earlier years? A state can engage in terrorism just as much as a resistance movement.

If some Palestinians have not been supporters of Hamas and blamed it for the escalation of the fighting in the last two weeks, the ferocity of Israeli attacks on Gaza has probably had the effect of rallying widespread support for Hamas and its demands. One of the lessons of the Northern Ireland peace process was that there was no significant breakthrough until all parties – including those regarded as being extreme – were brought into the political process.

It’s easy to criticize and condemn Hamas for the way it has engaged in its resistance. But don’t the Palestinians have good reason to be angry both about the blockade and the continuing occupation? And isn’t it time for the world to try to understand the roots of this conflict and try to resolve it in a more even-handed way?

As we watch this terrible tragedy unfold, therefore, we should be praying for all who, in the spirit of the Beatitudes, ‘hunger and thirst to see right prevail’ and seek to be peace-makers. At the same time, as well as lobbying our own government, there are things that we can do to support the people of Gaza through Christian organisations like the following that are working on the ground:

MEC 2012 - Day 1 (9)

Colin Chapman currently serves as Lead Faculty for the MENA Islam Module of IMES’s Master of Religion in Middle Eastern and North African Studies (MRel in MENA Studies) program. Chapman worked with CMS in the Middle East for 18 years and he previously taught Islamic Studies at the Near East School of Theology in Beirut. He has taught at Trinity College, Bristol, and was principal of Crowther Hall, the CMS training college in Selly Oak, Bristol. His books include: Christianity on Trial (Lion, 1971-73); The Case for Christianity (Lion, Tyndale, 1981); Whose Promised Land? The Continuing Crisis over Israel and Palestine (Lion and Baker, 2002); Cross and Crescent (IVP UK and USA, 1988 and 2007); Islam and the West: Conflict, Co-Existence or Conversion? (Paternoster, 1998); Whose Holy City? Jerusalem and the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict (Lion and Baker, 2004); and “Islamic Terrorism”: is there a Christian response? (Grove, 2005) 

*This post originally appeared on the website for Fulcrum: Renewing the Evangelical Center and is used with permission.

Posted in Advocacy, Peace-Building | Tagged , , , , | 3 Comments

A Plea to My Christian, Muslim and Jewish Friends

By Martin Accad

Israeli assault on Gaza. IS(IS) assault on everybody. US assault on Iraq, still vivid in everyone’s memory. Self-proclaimed Muslims attacking the NY twin-towers. Self-proclaimed Jews burning alive a young Palestinian teenager. Self-proclaimed Christians promoting the apocalyptic heresy of “Christian Zionism” to justify the ethnic cleansing of the Palestinian people. Spurts of Hindu violence against Muslims in India and Buddhist violence in Myanmar. These are just examples from recent memory. The rest of history is no-less littered with bodies of women, children and men in the name of God and religion. Although I’m talking here about the horrors committed by religious zealots (particularly those priding themselves in belonging to one of the three Abrahamic religions), Atheists and Agnostics are not off the hook either. What of the disastrous a-religious experiences of Nazism, Stalinism, and other secularist and nationalist fiascos of the twentieth century, as well as the ongoing horrors and brutality of the Communist North Korean regime? What’s wrong with the human race?!

The Bible calls it “human fallen-ness” – this natural human inclination towards evil that each individual needs to conquer for themselves by taming the darkness in their own soul. What I will say from here on will sound “preachy” to some. But as much as I try, I am incapable of finding any intelligent “humanistic” narrative to make sense of the despair that I feel towards the current situation of my region and of the world. For in fact, a fundamental teaching of the Bible is that, as humans, we don’t possess in us the required capacity to conquer this darkness in our soul. It is not our natural human inclination, and we have the facts on the ground, as well as an entire history, to prove it. Our humanity is not inclined towards good. The human race is not on a victorious ascent to greatness. Clearly, we are altogether descending an irresistible spiral towards doom and self-destruction.

The problem is that our common understanding of religion does not seem to cut it either, even for those best-intentioned among us. I have many well-meaning Christian and Muslim friends for whom I have deep respect and love. I even have a few Jewish friends around the world, and I would have many more if the 65-year old Israeli-Arab conflict had not made them nearly obsolete everywhere in the region outside Israel. Each of us continues to claim that our religions are the solution to the human predicament. We all denounce our religious zealots as “unchristian,” “unislamic” and “unjewish.” When we sit together, we highlight the most lofty teachings of our founders and their books and brush the more “embarrassing” stuff under the carpet. But the skeletons of our religions keep springing back at us like a jack-in-the-box through the trails of cadavers that our religious fanatics leave behind them. I want to say to all my well-meaning religious friends, it is time to change strategy:

  1. I call us to more honesty. I know it is disturbing, but let’s face it: those of our coreligionists who stack proof-texts from our religious scriptures to support their fanaticism are not quoting from Machiavelli or Nietzsche. Whatever we think of their hermeneutic (method of interpretation), they are finding in those same scriptures that we read all the inspiration they need to justify their violence and hatred. They are also finding models to emulate from within their religious tradition, which means that their zealotry is not an isolated modern phenomenon. We will become far more credible to each other, to the youth in our religious communities, and to the rest of the world, if we start to acknowledge that this diversity exists in our traditions, rather than simply brushing certain difficult passages that everyone knows about under the carpet.
  2. I call us to greater courage. After acknowledging the existence of this diversity in our scriptures and traditions, we need to adopt a robust self-critical approach. As religious people, we far too easily shift the blame on others. Some of my “friends” on Facebook are constantly crying “foul!” against others: the “Great Satan” is America, the Arab World, Israel, Muslims, Christians, Jews… I seldom see religious people being as critical of self as of others. But if all of us accuse “others” of being at blame for all the mess we are in, if we don’t stop on the conspiracy theories (even when some have kernels of truth in them), we are simply sinking deeper and deeper into religious self-righteousness and denial. If there is any hope to overcome religious fanaticism, it’s going to take far more than the strategy of denial. We need to start grabbing these tough and often embarrassing scriptural passages by the horns and wrestling with them. Simply emphasizing the beautiful does not make the ugly disappear.
  3. I call us to more love. Are we willing to consider loving our worst enemy? Loving our enemy does not mean condoning evil systems. As Martin Luther King, Jr. affirmed, “When you rise to the level of love, of its great beauty and power, you seek only to defeat evil systems. Individuals who happen to be caught up in that system, you love, but you seek to defeat the system.” King’s insight into Jesus’ teaching on loving our enemies is matchless. His sermon entitled “Loving Your Enemies,” is worth reading, listening to, and even memorizing in its entirety. “If you hate your enemies,” King affirms, “you have no way to redeem and to transform your enemies. But if you love your enemies, you will discover that at the very root of love is the power of redemption.” He continues: “That’s love, you see. It is redemptive, and this is why Jesus says love. There’s something about love that builds up and is creative. There is something about hate that tears down and is destructive. So love your enemies.”

I am not calling for more “religiosity”; God knows how I hate religiosity! I am not calling for secularism either; that too miserably fails our deeper spiritual longings. What I am calling for is more “Christlikeness,” of the kind that loves one’s “enemy” to the point of laying down one’s life for them. Jesus’ teaching in his “Sermon on the Mount” (Matthew 5-7) has often been viewed as “impractical” and at best as a high moral standard by which we can measure human behavior but which we can never achieve. His staggering teaching about loving our enemies (Matthew 5:44) is proclaimed from our pulpits but generally considered unrealistic. When it comes to practice, our ethics become thoroughly situational, and we take great pains to uphold the necessity of balancing grace and love with justice and retribution. But even that highest fathomable human goal is not working anymore. It is not working in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It is not bringing long-term reconciliation between communities in long-term conflict anywhere.

Jesus’ most unnatural (to our human nature that is) and seemingly most impractical teaching about loving our enemies in the final analysis is the ONLY starting point that can begin to bring a solution to our self-defeating world. It is immensely paradoxical, yet fully demonstrated in practice through his own life – and death on the cross.

How ironic that Jesus’ death on the cross has been such a point of contention between the three “Abrahamic religions.” The early Christian accusation against Jews of having “killed our Lord” has justified unimaginable hatred, violence and killing against Jews, when the cross precisely should have been our greatest model of love and self-sacrifice. Muslims continue to deny Jesus’ crucifixion and death based on a Qur’anic verse which – in my respectful opinion – they misinterpret in solemn repetition of their Qur’anic commentary traditions. Jesus was not a helpless victim of religious violence and zealotry. As he put it himself: “No one takes (my life) from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have authority to lay it down and authority to take it up again” (John 10:18). The apostle Paul had already recognized that the cross was “a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles” (1 Corinthians 1:23). It will likely continue to be so. Yet my hope is that at least a growing core of men, women, children, and youth who seek to be pleasing to God, will be willing to embrace the true and profound implications of the cross. May they be willing to lay their lives down, to redeem not just their friends, but more importantly their enemies. If at least those of us who claim to love God were willing to do this, perhaps we would start a movement of peace to conquer our bleeding world.

Note from IMES: Over the summer, IMES blogging will be suspended, except for possible occasional posts. We will revert to our regular weekly blogging in the month of September.

Posted in Interfaith Understanding, Peace-Building, Politics | Tagged , , , , , | 4 Comments

When It Gets Personal

By Arthur Brown

Like many concerned with the news in and around Lebanon I receive regular updates from The Daily Star, one of the English language news providers in Lebanon. Almost daily, I receive via my phone a brief news feed with updates on the latest road side blast, suicide bomber or government attack, along with the fatality and casualty statistics:

Mortar shells hit Northern city of Idlib, killing 14…4,500 Syrians flee to Turkey in three days…20 surrendered fighters killed in Homs…7,500 confirmed cases of women being raped during the Syria’s 3-year-old conflict…At least 50,000 Syrian children in Lebanon are working, often for 12 hours a day…Strong blast in Syrian town near Iraq kills 8…ISIS militants accused of killing 15 Syrian Kurds, nearly half of them children…12 year old Syrian boy killed and three others wounded as Syrian warplanes carry out attacks on the outskirts of Arsal in East Lebanon…[1]

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights estimates the death toll between 15 March 2011 – 17 May 2014 to be 162,402! According to the Washington Post:

  • Every minute: Three Syrians become refugees.
  • Every two minutes: Eight children inside Syria are forced to flee their homes.
  • Every 10 minutes: One person dies.

The lists could go on…and on….and on. And, the numbers only increase. It seems as if each time my smart phone bleeps, it is as likely to be news of more fatalities as it is my wife asking me to pick up some groceries on the way home.

I was sitting in church last Sunday trying to worship when my phone [which was fortunately on silent] vibrated. I know I should have ignored it, but like many others, I failed to subdue the temptation to look. As I subtly looked down to my screen, I read about the latest loss of lives as a result of the latest attack. I don’t remember where this particular tragedy took place. I don’t even remember how many people died. However, what I do remember is how I felt as I looked up from my screen and saw the people around me.

At that moment, I was literally surrounded by Syrian and Kurdish brothers and sisters who have not only sought refuge in Lebanon, but have found a place in my church. These people, some of whom I know personally, some of whom I have taught in our teen Sunday School classes, were my brothers and sisters.  They are also the brothers and sisters, aunts and uncles, neighbors and colleagues of the people who were not able to escape and who have paid with their lives. They have names. They have stories, stories often shared with me. They have hopes and dreams. And, they have nightmares and despair.

On that Sunday morning it was personal. On that Sunday morning it hurt more than it normally does.

Don’t get me wrong, there will be [and have been] countless other news feeds that do not provoke such a reaction in me. However, that Sunday I found it hard to sing. I found it hard to hold back tears of sadness, of anger, and of despair. I found it hard to listen to the sermon. To be honest, I didn’t really know how to respond.  All I knew was that it hurt.

And maybe that was not such a bad thing.  In fact, the more I’ve thought about it, the more I know that this is what I was meant to feel. To feel the pain of those around me. If I had not felt such pain that morning, my ‘worship’ would have been mere parody.

I’m no fan of ‘Christian platitudes,’ found so often on T-shirts, bumper stickers, church signs, and the like. However, I once read the following words, words that have continuously stuck with me.

Jesus came to comfort the disturbed…

And to disturb the comfortable.

There is no doubt that on that Sunday morning, and many others like it, Jesus was comforting those Syrian and Kurdish refugees who had found a place of welcome and love among their Lebanese Christian brothers and sisters. It is also true that many Lebanese Christians have been disturbed by what God is doing in their midst – bringing ‘the enemy’ into their homes, breaking down long held enmity, fear and hatred. I too have been disturbed, and I am thankful that I have – though it can hurt. When we choose not to let ourselves be disturbed by events around us we lose something of our common humanity.

For those of us fortunate to be living in Lebanon in these days [and I do not say that ironically], we cannot avoid the tragedy of the Syrian conflict. It is in our face every day, as the ever increasing number of refugees continue to flood into our already ‘stretched-to-breaking point’ country. We see young children daily begging in the streets and women selling sex for $5 just to survive and feed their families. Nevertheless, it is still possible to ignore an individual’s personal suffering. It is easy not to know the names and stories of such persons, because, let’s be honest, the situation is “just too big.”

How much harder must it be for those living overseas and far away to grasp the personal anguish these individuals, created in God’s image like me and you, are experiencing? How much harder must it be to know their names and their stories?

Many of us do not want to personalize this conflict, because it hurts when things get personal. It is much easier to protect ourselves from suffering by not engaging in it. Yes, there is so much suffering going on in the world that we personally cannot engage all of it and I admit that I don’t have many answers. But perhaps we, the global church, must try and make at least some of it personal. Perhaps we must personalize this conflict in the same way that God decided to make things personal, by experiencing the suffering and death of His son, “The Word who became flesh and moved into the neighborhood.” [John 1:14, The Message].

For the first time since World War II, the number of global refugees this year exceeded 50 million. This is a truly horrific and unimaginable number. So, perhaps your task today is to get to know the names and stories of at least one family who help make up this number.

I remember being deeply moved when I first read Rachel Held Evans’ reflection on Syria, “When It’s Too Big.”  It continues to resonate with me. So with many thanks to Rachel, I offer in conclusion:

When It’s Too Big (A Reflection on Syria)by Rachel Held Evans

When you’ve tried your best to educate yourself, When the more you learn the less clear it all becomes, When images of disfigured children creep into your dreams,

When you watch as things get politicized and theologized and shoved into 140 characters, When you want to love your enemies but don’t know how, When you’ve sent money for the refugees but feel foolish for the smallness of your efforts,

When you’d like to think you would open your doors to them, but aren’t really sure you would, When you catch yourself worrying about what to wear, what movie to see, When you doubt yourself, doubt your government, doubt your pastor, doubt God,

When you hate how the news has made graphics and theme music, When you realize that your opinion will do nothing to change the matter, When your utter helplessness follows you around like a dark presence and laughs at all the empty things you say,

When it’s just too big….

All that’s left is prayer and fasting. Lord, have mercy. Christ, have mercy. Lord, have mercy.

All that’s left are tears and ash. Lord, have mercy. Christ, have mercy. Lord, have mercy.

 All that’s left is to acknowledge your smallness. Lord, have mercy. Christ, have mercy. Lord, have mercy.

All that’s left is to sit in quiet with the world and beg for peace and wisdom and clear paths. Lord, have mercy. Christ, have mercy. Lord, have mercy.

It doesn’t matter whether it’s enough because it’s all that’s left to do. So be faithful, and do it.  Be helpless for a while. Be at God’s mercy and pray.


[1] Examples shown are for illustrative purposes, but are reports from The Daily Star.

Posted in Syria, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Tearing Down Walls to Build up Bridges

By Sara Obeid

Loose-fitting Mottos

I have often found it difficult to reconcile the seeming (yet ultimately superficial) contradiction between interfaith work and personal religious conviction. On the one hand, I have always held to such noble mottos as “tolerance,” “celebrate difference,” “openness,” and “Christ-like love.” On the other hand, I have often questioned how I can truly apply this in my own life when I hold such strong convictions that Christ is the only way towards having a deep relationship with God and that my central mission on earth is the proclamation of the gospel.

Does there exist, therefore, a central contradiction between proclaiming Jesus as “the Way, the Truth, and the Life” and a commitment towards openness and tolerance? Does Christian mission necessarily conflict with interfaith cooperation in a multi-religious world?

1233628_10152437299847456_4921297218859234583_nLast month, I had the (agonizing) opportunity to examine the sincerity of my mottos and personal convictions at a workshop by local NGO Adyan promoting the Amman Message. The Amman message seeks to raise awareness about the “real Islam,” contribute to good governance, human rights and fundamental freedoms, and to counter the root causes of terrorism and violence. Being Lebanese, I might have thought I already knew everything I needed to know about Islam, but at the workshop I was reminded that I do not in-fact know everything about the 1.57 Billion Muslims in the world.

At the workshop, there were 12 participants from Jordan, Egypt and Lebanon, all from different religious backgrounds. Dr. Nayla Tabara, the Vice-Chairman and Treasurer of Adyan described the workshop by saying:

“This is not an invitation for inter-faith dialogue, but an invitation for us to think together in solving problematic issues that face us in the Arab world and in a multi-religious world.”

10373751_663027390419186_4112661529738854043_nThe moment I entered the room, I was naturally able to tell who was Christian, who was Sunni, and who was Shiite; I assumed that by simply knowing the religious identity of others I am then able to predict their actions and thoughts. In truth, I also felt like a misfit because I noticed within myself the fear of being labelled “a Christian”, because I tend not to think of my faith in Christ as “a religion.” I feared the label, because I felt people would just assume things about me, without understanding what my faith truly means to me. And in the process, I found that what I was afraid of being done to me is exactly what I was doing to others!

I paused… I needed to reexamine my attitude, because I realized that I should stop seeing people from this very narrow, sectarian angle and start seeing them simply as humans, the way Christ himself had done.

We humans, especially us Arabs, enjoy labeling others: Muslim, Christian, non-religious, sacrilegious! It’s as if one’s religious identity can encapsulate the entirety of one’s life experiences, the culture and history of the person in question, and predetermine his or her life choices and preferences. As a result of our presuppositions, we assume, without ever engaging with others, things which may or may not be true. Of this, Dr. Amer Hafi, Deputy Director of Royal Institute for Interfaith Studies – Jordan, said at the workshop:

“Our lack of willingness to know the other makes us think that Christians worship a piece of wood, and Muslims worship a stone, and Hindus worship cows”.

Openness to Oneself10334280_663025607086031_3229820762770729734_n

In one of the sessions, Father Agapious Kfoury of Adyan, said:

“How does one open up to the other? It is by sitting down with them and hearing from them”

I didn’t know if I possessed this ability until I actually found myself in a situation where I had to sit and listen to a Muslim scholar promote human values in Islam. My reaction to his talk determined my attitude, and hence the success or failure in my mind of interfaith dialogue.

IMES Director, Martin Accad categorizes common perceptions towards dialogue in his article “Attitudes and Approaches to Islam.”

The conservative will view [dialogue] as inevitably leading to syncretism, whereas the liberal will fear that it be used as a vehicle for polemics. The religious will fear to engage in dialogue, lest it forces them to compromise, whereas the secular will shun it as a platform for the assertion of exclusion. The relativist will use dialogue to flatten out differences, whereas the absolutist will use it to demonstrate the superiority of their own views.

To be true, I did find a few aspects of the Amman Message to be challenging. As much as the message calls for tolerance, respect and mercy, I still find it very challenging that “apostasy” hasn’t been abolished in Jordan, even while this message is being supported by the Royal office! But I at least learned that by changing how I view Islam and Muslim scholars, there was a chance that I could actually communicate my concerns without the other needing to defend himself or his religion.

I was really touched by one of the Christian participants who said that she expects to come out of the workshop able to defend Islam as she does Christianity. She was able to put herself in the shoes of the Muslim who feels like s/he is responsible of every act of violence in the name of Islam, and should therefore write a blog or make a statement to defend his/her faith.

The Other-Phobia

As a devout follower of Christ, I have a mission to approach others with the intention of connecting them to God through Christ. But sometimes we evangelize and are taught evangelistic approaches in such a way that it seems like we are tearing down bridges and building walls.

We have reached a point as churches where we want to build bridges with other communities, yet we have erected huge walls amongst ourselves, between evangelicals, and even between churches of the same denomination. We might fail at our mission because we are approaching the “other” just as we approach those like us. We claim that Christianity is “a relationship not a religion,” yet we act just like “a religion.”

The obstacle in the interfaith dialogue is not Islamaphobia, but the fear from the “other”, no matter who the other is. To a Baptist, the other might be a Pentecostal.  It is the lack of Christ-like love which results in a lack of love for others.

“For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son.”

I am made one with others not by my convictions, the church I belong to, or the religion I follow but I am made one with others in Christ Jesus. The same God I worship created the veiled girl who sat next to me at the workshop and loves her exactly the same and wants to make His love and salvation known to her (through Christ).

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Middle East Consultation 2014: Real Stories of Discipleship in the Middle East and North Africa

Last week marked completion of the Middle East Consultation 2014Discipleship Today: Following Jesus in the Middle East and North Africa that took place from 16 – 20 June. This year we were pleased to have an unprecedented number participants, 170 in total, who came from all over the Middle East, North Africa, Asia, Europe, Australia, and North and South America.

It has been a very exciting week in which we have been able to listen to stories about discipleship in the context of our region. Please find below a sampling of what participants have been saying of their consultation experience and its significance them and their ministry settings.

Dr. J. Andrew Kirk, UK:

“Each community should develop its own contextualized theology which submits to the global theology of the Body of Christ, and this is exactly what this consultation is allowing us to do. Keeping lines of communication between different churches and movements open to the global church, allowing us to have insights and look at parallels in different contexts but all resembling the work of God on earth and the one Body of Christ.”

Alex, West Africa:

“The most significant part of MEC this year was the opportunity to listen to testimonies from various parts of the world and the exchange of stories about what God is doing in different parts of the world, which one doesn’t always get the chance to know about from a local’s perspective and experience. Each story and experience was truly unique. This will help me a lot in my work which involves contextual ministries, as it has provoked my mind to adjust my ministry as there is more than one way to share the gospel with others. I could see people from other cultures at the consultation who were challenged by what they heard, because for some it was the first time they got an insight of what is going on in this part of the world, but these stories will be food for thought for them.”

Gail, USA:

“We have a saying in the states: ‘Measure twice, cut once’ – I would say MEC 2014 taught me one important thing as a religious worker: we need to listen twice before we speak in order to better serve others and help the church be prepared to disciple believers. I thought I knew enough about the region, but listening to personal stories showed me how the discipleship experience is unique in each Arab country.”

Tamer, Sudan:

“This consultation confirmed the need for discipleship training for those who have a discipleship ministry. One of the ideas that was important to me was that the church and believers have a role in being the buffering zone between church and the original community of the new believer – helping them remain in their indigenous environment while also helping them become rooted in their Christ-centered identity. This consultation made me realize how much discipleship is like raising up children, each with his or her unique identity but all from the same family.”

Zack, Algeria:

“It is the first time that I met with followers of Christ from so many different countries and cultures. Before the MEC 2014, I never knew Christians and new believers had different problems in different areas of the world. I have never personally faced a crisis with my identity in Christ vs. my culture and community; however, I discovered that Arab believers from other Arab countries are going through a great identity crises stage because of a lack of one-on-one discipleship and that it is harder in their countries than it is in mine. This has made me realize that we cannot set up a uniform discipleship program for the Arab world as a whole because each country and community is unique and needs its own program which respects the individualistic needs of the group.”

Amir, Egypt:

“During this week, I was able to see the work of God spreading all over the Middle East and North Africa. This has enabled me to thank God because I have been able to see the positive aspect of this hardship and turmoil that our region has been going through which is contributing to the growth of the gospel. I have also seen the great need for the church to live up to its role in encouraging its congregations and motivating them to be part of God’s work. The participation of so many different cultures enriches the cultural exchange and gives a fuller picture about discipleship in this region through people’s experiences and not just theological theories. It has opened up many discussions without giving a methodology for discipleship, but instead giving case-studies that make us pause a little and reconsider our approach to ministry. And, it has inspired us to take responsibility for new believers.”

Dr. Rosalee Velloso Ewell, Brazil:

“What is unique about this gathering is the way it has blended and brought together both theological reflection and stories from the grassroots. This has made it quite a unique consultation. Usually, theoretical and practical are not in such a conversation. It is an excellent way to equip and include the participants in what is going on in the region. The participants are hearing from one another. The table groups makes it a working consultation, instead of passive listening – and that is very important.”

We praise God for such a blessed week of hearing exciting stories from all over the Arab world, and we look forward to next year’s Middle East Consultation wherein we will continue this important and groundbreaking discussion.

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You may also be interested in the following link from our friends at Ethics Daily Interviews IMES Director Martin Accad about MEC 2014.

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The Theology of Living in the Saturdays of Life

By Rupen Das

The IMES blog is meant to be a prophetic voice from within the Arab world. It highlights issues of injustice, as well as challenging non-Arab perceptions of events in the region. Being a prophetic voice, there is often anger at the injustices that we see, and this is undergirded by a sense of sadness in understanding that this is not the way God intended the world to be. However, there is value at times in stepping back from the harsh realities of life and the sense of righteous anger and ask whether there is a theology which explains the realities of the refugee and the poor, and allows the people of God to minister to them.

Over the past several years as I have talked with Syrian refugees, I am struck by the fact that most do not wonder why God is allowing the unbearable suffering that they are enduring. All have lost their homes; many, if not most have seen members of their families killed or disappear, and now they are living in poverty and near destitution. They are terrified by their experiences. They seem to clearly understand that their suffering is caused by the war. Yet in the midst of all of that, whether they are Christian or Muslim, many are seeking a God who will comfort and deliver them. I have seen similar reactions as I have interacted with the desperately poor in other parts of the world.

I find this intriguing, as many in the western world (particularly Christians), when they go through times of trial and suffering, invariably ask the question, why is God doing this to me; why is God allowing this to happen to me?

I have wondered how much of this difference in understanding suffering and who God is has to do with one’s worldview, and for the Christians, their theology. The Creeds, which have defined our faith and set the parameters for the Church’s doctrines seem to have a blank spot when they review the key milestones of salvation. Cyril of Jerusalem writing around 350 A.D. about the role of the creeds states, “This synthesis of faith was…to present the one teaching of the faith in its totality, in which what is of greatest importance is gathered together from the Scriptures…[which] brings together in a few words the entire knowledge of the true religion which is contained in the Old and New [Testaments].”

So the “faith in its totality” that the creeds focus on is the incarnation, the Cross, the resurrection, and the ascension. They seem to imply that this is all that a Christian needs to know. They articulate the victory of Christ over evil and of a triumphant God, but are silent on what that triumph means and how we are to live and understand spiritual reality in the “in-between times” that we live in, when the Kingdom of God has come but not yet manifested in all its fullness. They don’t teach us what to believe about this present world and the reality of evil, which is only too real. They have missed the importance of the darkness and disillusionment of the Saturday between Good Friday and Easter Sunday.

Does this exclusive focus on the victory of Christ set up expectations that His victory protects me from all evil and suffering now in the present? Maybe this is the reason for my challenges to God as to why He allows suffering in my life when supposedly He has conquered sin, suffering and death? Our scientific and technological worldview expects instant solutions to every problem we face. So if Christ has won the battle over evil and suffering and I still suffer, then maybe His victory was not real, or maybe God and the spiritual world are irrelevant to my daily life.

This focus on victory and the sense of triumphalism has little relevance to the Syrian refugee who has lost everything, or the migrant worker who is abused and treated like a slave, or the desperately poor Lebanese whose government ignores him. The Good News that Christ has conquered sin and death and offers forgiveness, and that they need to repent, has little meaning for them when they in fact feel that they have been sinned against and experience the full brunt of evil in society.

I have lately been reading Canadian theologian Douglas John Hall (The Cross in our Context: Jesus and the Suffering World) and American theologian Alan E. Lewis (Between Cross and Resurrection: A Theology of Holy Saturday). Alan Lewis brings a certain poignancy to his writing as he lost his battle with cancer while writing about living in Holy Saturday and not experiencing the reality of Easter Sunday and the healing and new life promised in the Kingdom of God. He died believing in the promise of a future healing and resurrection.

On that first Good Friday the disciples had no knowledge that there was going to be an Easter Sunday, as their teacher, whom they had come to know as the Lord, died on the cross. With His death, their dreams and hopes of a better world and the coming of the Kingdom shattered. It is only later that they understood the meaning of the Cross as being the means of redemption and forgiveness of sins. That first Saturday after Good Friday was a time of desolation and mourning. It is only in this context that the unexpected, stunning, astounding, and unbelievable experience of the resurrection for the disciples on Sunday morning can be understood.

So a starting place for a theology for the global south and even parts of the Arab world is the realization that most of life is lived in the Saturdays of the salvation narrative, when dream, hopes and much of life have died. Unlike the disciples on that first Saturday who felt abandoned, God identifies Himself in Christ as being with us (Immanuel) and says that He will never leave us or forsake us. This is what the refugees, the migrant workers, and the poor understand the Good News to be, that there is a God who cares. It is only as they experience this, do they begin to dream and hope again. Unlike the disciples who did not know that there would be an Easter Sunday, we know that there is a future because of the resurrection. It is only at this point that the promises of Easter Sunday for new life and a new beginning come into focus, that one day in the social, economic and political order of society there will be justice and peace – the promise of the Kingdom of God. They look forward to the day when, “the kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Messiah, and he will reign for ever and ever.” (Rev. 11:15)

This is not a theology of triumphalism but one of brokenness and deep humility, where out of the smoldering ashes of life God brings a new beginning.

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The Great Omission: How Christian Missions Transformed the World – IMES Special Event

E-Inv_MEC2014 final

Event Description

It has become commonplace, and all too easy, to malign the efforts of the early protestant missionary movement with accusations of colonialism and shocking examples of cultural insensitivity. Whilst there have been terrible abuses in the name of ‘mission’, Robert Woodberry’s ground breaking research has provided a solid foundation for a different narrative, a narrative which cannot now be ignored.

Published in the American Political Science Review in May 2012, and based on some of the most extensive research ever conducted in this field, Dr. Robert Woodberry has been able to clearly demonstrate that ‘areas where Protestant missionaries had a significant presence in the past are on average more economically developed today, with comparatively better health, lower infant mortality, lower corruption, greater literacy, higher educational attainment (especially for women), and more robust membership in nongovernmental associations’.

Dr. Robert Woodberry

Dr. Robert Woodberry

His extensive article ‘The Missionary Roots of Liberal Democracy’ is a game-changer in the study of mission history, and economic development. Woodberry suggests that perhaps we should try to learn why missionaries seem to have been so effective at promoting economic development, even though that was not their primary goal’.

The Institute of Middle East Studies is pleased to announce that it will be hosting an event in which Dr. Robert Woodberry will be presenting elements of his research. The event will take place on Tuesday 17th June at 7:30pm at the Arab Baptist Theological Seminary, Mansourieh.

What has been the impact of protestant missionary activity in Lebanon? Protestant pastor and Church historian, Rev. Dr. Habib Badr, and Orthodox priest and Church historian, Fr. Dr. Rami Wannous, will be providing a local response to Woodberry in what promises to be an important opportunity to reflect on the role of mission within the Lebanese context and more widely.

إقصاء الإرسالية العظمى في الخطاب العام عن مفاعيل الإستعمار: كيف غيّرت اللإرساليات المسيحية العالم

لقد بات شائعاً، وسهلًا للغاية، الإساءة الى الجهود التي بذلتها الحركة الإرسالية البروتستانتية الأولى وتوجيه اتهامات الاستعمار لها وربطها بأمثلة مروعة من عدم الحساسية الثقافية. في حين أنّ ثمة انتهاكات فظيعة حدثت بإسم “الإرسالية”، فلقد قدم بحث روبرت وودبري أساسًا متينًا لروايةٍ مختلفة، وهي رواية لا يمكن تجاهلها الآن. نُشر بحث وودبري في مجلة العلوم السياسية الأمريكية في آيار/مايو 2012، وقد استند فيه إلى بعض البحوث الأكثر شموليةً التي أجراها في هذا المجال. وقد تمكن أن يُثبت بوضوح أنّ المناطق التي تواجد بها المرسلون البروتستانت في الماضي هي عامة أكثر تطورًا اقتصاديًا اليوم، وتتمتع بصحة أفضل نسبيًا، وتجد فيها نسبة وفيات الرُّضّع أقل، ونسبة الفساد اكثر انخفاضًا، ونسبة محو الأمية مرتفعة، وارتفاعًا في التحصيل العلمي (لا سيّما بالنسبة للنساء)، وعضوية أكثر قوة في الجمعيات غير الحكومية. إنّ مقالته المطوّلة “الجذور الإرسالية للديمقراطية الليبرالية” قلبت المعادلة في دراسة تاريخ الإرساليّات، والتنمية الاقتصادية. ويشير وودبري أنه ربما ينبغي لنا أن نحاول معرفة لمَ ييدو المرسلون فعالين جدًّا في تعزيز التنمية الاقتصادية، على الرغم من أن ذلك لم يكن هدفهم الأساسي

يسرّ معهد دراسات الشرق الأوسط أن يعلن استضافته الدكتور روبرت وودبري حيث سيقدّم أجزاءً من بحثه وذلك يوم الثلاثاء 17 يونيو/حزيران في تمام الساعة 7:30 مساءً في كلية اللاهوت المعمدانية العربية  في المنصورية.

ما هو تأثير النشاط الإرسالي البروتستانتي في لبنان؟ يعقّب على محاضرة وودبري القس الدكتور حبيب بدر، والأب الدكتور رامي ونّوس. سيشكّل هذا اللقاء فرصة هامة للتفكير في دور الإرسالية في السياق اللبناني وكما على نطاق أوسع

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What’s Happening at IMES this June?

Without question, June is consistently our busiest month of the year at the Institute of Middle East Studies. As such, we wish to highlight a number of the projects that we have been working on as we seek to fulfill our institutional mandate: To bring about positive transformation in thinking and practice between Christians and Muslims in the Middle East and beyond.

1) Middle East Consultation 2014 – Discipleship Today: Following Jesus in the Middle East and North Africa (June 16-20)

MEC-FINAL-FlyerThe purpose of the Middle East Consultation (MEC) is: To equip participants to respond in prophetic and Christ-like ways to the many challenges facing Christians and Muslims in and beyond the Middle East.

The core of MEC 2014 will consist of listening to narratives and stories emerging from within the MENA region in an effort to best identify the challenges and opportunities facing the regional church. We will hear first-hand from those who have practiced and been influenced by various approaches to discipleship, with varying degrees of fruitfulness in the region. MEC 2014 will then provide an opportunity to reflect upon and analyze the diverse social and religious dynamics at hand, asking how the church might best assist individuals and communities to live as faithful disciples of Jesus Christ.

To assist us in this process we have invited: Dr. J. Dudley Woodberry, Dean Emeritus of the School of Intercultural Studies and Senior Professor of Islamic Studies, Fuller Theological Seminary; Dr. Rosalee Velloso Ewell, Executive Director of the Theological Commission for the World Evangelical Alliance; Dr. John A. Azumah, Associate Professor of World Christianity and Islam, Columbia Theological Seminary; Dr. Louisa Cox, Consultant on Intercultural Relations; and Dr. J. Andrew Kirk, Senior Research Fellow, International Baptist Theological Seminary, and Dean Emeritus of the School of Mission and World Christianity, Selly Oaks Colleges, Birmingham. In keeping with the IMES ethos and MEC tradition, we will also be inviting Muslim voices to contribute to this important conversation, during specific interfaith sessions.

Building upon 10 years of successful Middle East Conferences, IMES is pleased to announce a fresh focus for 2014 in partnership with Near East Initiatives (NEI). The Middle East Consultation exists to help practitioners, scholars, pastors, teachers, missionaries, and faith-based NGO workers explore what God has been doing throughout the Middle East & North Africa. For additional information, please contact:

2) Middle East Immersion, Lebanon 2014 (June 16 – July 18)


Middle East Immersion (MEI), Lebanon provides international students the opportunity to practice intercultural work in a dynamic context and engage in mutual learning between Christian and Muslim communities. Graduate seminary and intercultural studies students have the opportunity to earn up to 12 credits of coursework in fulfillment of intercultural practicum requirements, while being exposed to Muslim-Christian relations in the context of Lebanon.

Now in its 8th year, MEI Lebanon has hosted international students from Fuller Theological Seminary, Truett Theological Seminary, Talbot School of Theology, Bethel Seminary, and Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, among others, who have come to spend their summers in Lebanon and study under the guidance of IMES Leadership. While in Lebanon, students participate in the following:

  • The Middle East Consultation 2014 – Discipleship Today: Following Jesus in the Middle East and North Africa
  • Intensive Levantine-Arabic language study with the Academy of Language and Practicum Skill (ALPS)
  • A cross-cultural immersion experience/practicum placement meeting the specific interests and skills of the student
  • Field visits, weekend excursions, church and mosque visits, and extra activities throughout Beirut and Lebanon

For students or institutions interested in learning more about IMES’s Middle East Immersion program, please follow the appropriate links: Program Overview/Testimonials/Academics/Faculty/Admissions.

3) MRel in MENA Studies – Christianity Module Residency (June 23-July 4)

MRel Brocure ImageImmediately following MEC2014, students in IMES’s Master of Religion in Middle Eastern and North African Studies (MRel in MENA Studies) program begin two very full weeks for the residency portion of their MENA Christianity module, under the supervision of IMES Director Martin Accad. As lead faculty for the MENA Christianity module, Dr. Accad will be assisted by Mike Kuhn as support faculty and Eastern Orthodox monk Fr. Elia Khalifeh as holistic formation faculty.

MENA Christianity seeks to develop within students a deep appreciation for and command of the thinking and practice of the Christian East, its traditions, history, and creeds, as well as its unity and division. We seek to instill a passionate desire to engage and interact positively, creatively, and in mutual trust, with the Christians of the MENA region – to the point that they are able to communicate together a common passion for Jesus that leads to cooperative witness in the MENA region. Students will be instructed in the ability to articulate Christian doctrine using a contextually-appropriate contemporary idiom within the broad lines of historical orthodoxy, approaches and skills for Christian-Christian relations, the ability to develop strategies for inter-church cooperation, and peace-building and conflict transformation strategies.

During their residency, students and faculty will be together in the same location for a unique and intensive learning experience, all the while being exposed to the rich historical, cultural, and religious heritage of the Middle East. As part of their residency, students from as far away as Brazil, Cyprus, the U.K., Korea, the U.S., Egypt, the Netherlands, and of course Lebanon itself will be studying the MENA region…within the MENA region!

For more information about the MRel in MENA Studies program, please follow the appropriate links: Program Overview/Academic Flow and Delivery Format/Core Instructional Modules/Faculty/Application Documents

4) Special Event – “The Great Omission: How Christian Missions Transformed the World” (June 17)

Dr. Robert Woodberry

Dr. Robert Woodberry

It has become commonplace, and all too easy, to malign the efforts of the early protestant missionary movement with accusations of colonialism and shocking examples of cultural insensitivity. Whilst there have been terrible abuses in the name of ‘mission’, Robert Woodberry’s ground breaking research has provided a solid foundation for a different narrative, a narrative which cannot now be ignored.

Published in the American Political Science Review in May 2012, and based on some of the most extensive research ever conducted in this field, Woodberry has been able to clearly demonstrate that ‘areas where Protestant missionaries had a significant presence in the past are on average more economically developed today, with comparatively better health, lower infant mortality, lower corruption, greater literacy, higher educational attainment (especially for women), and more robust membership in nongovernmental associations’.

His extensive article ‘The Missionary Roots of Liberal Democracy’ is a game-changer in the study of mission history, and economic development. Woodberry suggests that perhaps we should try to learn why missionaries seem to have been so effective at promoting economic development, even though that was not their primary goal’.

The Institute of Middle East Studies is pleased to announce that it will be hosting an event in which Dr. Robert Woodberry will be presenting elements of his research. The event will take place on Tuesday 17th June at 7:30pm at the Arab Baptist Theological Seminary, Mansourieh. What has been the impact of protestant missionary activity in Lebanon? Protestant pastor and historian of Eastern Christianity Rev. Habib Badr will be providing a local response to Woodberry in what promises to be an important opportunity to reflect on the role of mission within the Lebanese context and more widely.

5) ABTS Graduation Ceremony (June 22)

resizedAlthough not specifically an IMES event (at least until our first MRel students graduate next year), as a department of the Arab Baptist Theological Seminary, IMES is very proud of this year’s seventeen Department of Theology graduates and wish them nothing but joy in their future lives and vocations. (Many of us also teach for the Department of Theology.)

Students from as far away as Morocco, Iraq, and everywhere in-between have come to ABTS to study the Bible, theology, and ministry in the Arabic language. In fulfillment of its vision and mission, the ABTS Department of Theology offers the following degree programs:

  • Certificate of Theology (CertTh)
  • Diploma of Theology (DipTh)
  • Bachelor of Theology (BTh)
  • Master of Divinity (MDiv)

Once again, IMES is very proud of this year’s theology graduates and wish them great joy in their future lives and vocations. To learn more about ABTS’s theology programs, please follow the links below:

ABTS Website (Arabic)/ABTS Website (English)

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Islam in the Dock

By Martin Accad

Last week, on May 17, my colleague Arthur Brown blogged a compiled interview made up of the voices of three Muslim clerics, gauging their responses to the kidnapping of over 200 young Nigerian girls by radical group Boko Haram. The three sheikhs argued that the actions of Boko Haram had nothing Islamic to them. They quoted the Qur’an and Hadith (Prophetic traditions) against kidnapping, enslaving and the suppression of education for girls.

Two days earlier, however, in a May 15 article on the same tragedy, Australian pastor and theologian Mark Durie had leveled a scathing critique against Islam on the Middle East Forum website, accusing Muslims of engaging in denial about the violence inherent to their religion. “Whenever an Islamic atrocity potentially dishonors Islam,” Durie affirmed, “non-Muslims are asked to agree that ‘This is not Islamic’ so that the honor of Islam can be kept pristine.” Having briefly reviewed the reaction of a few prominent Islamic organizations, it would seem to me that Durie’s critique is rather harsh and not fully justified, at least in the case of the Boko Haram kidnapping. The few organizations that I have checked, such as the Islamic Society of North America (ISNA), the Council for American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), the Islamic Circle of North America (ICNA), and the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) actually condemn the act without reservation. And while they do reject Boko Haram’s claim that their actions are inspired by Muhammad and the Qur’an, their primary concern does not appear to be safeguarding the honor of Islam. Rather, they express a very genuine concern for the safety of the Nigerian girls, and they issue a stern call to the governments of Nigeria and of the rest of the world to do everything in their power to secure the release of the captives and to bring the terrorist group to justice.

I am not sure how it serves our purpose better in the long run to convince ourselves, the world and Muslims that Islam is a violent and decadent religion, rather than accept the vocal condemnation of prominent global representatives of Islam against groups like Boko Haram. I don’t know why it should feel more satisfying for us to accuse these Muslim leaders of hypocrisy, rather than appreciate their “excommunication” of such groups from the mainstream fold of Islam on the basis that they are not viewed as faithful representatives of Islam.

As I was writing this post, I watched a few YouTube videos by the current leader of Boko Haram, Abubakar Shekau. My purpose was to find out where the inspiration for the group comes from, which Qur’anic verses and prophetic precedent. If you watch them yourself, you will need little convincing that the man is mentally deranged. His bodily movements are neurotic; his discourse is aggressive and empty of any real content, and certainly of any serious religious content. You’ll struggle to find any Qur’anic citations or Hadith references in his discourse. When Shekau refers to God as speaking to him or to various Boko Haram actions as being what Islam teaches, you feel that you’re listening to a cult leader rather than to a religious teacher or Qur’anic interpreter. So it seems fair to me to say that Boko Haram cannot be considered a movement with strong foundations in the Qur’an or with accepted Islamic practices. When organizations like ISNA or CAIR, or when Muslim leaders globally dissociate themselves and Islam from the actions and claims of Boko Haram, they are not being hypocritical or deceitful. They are expressing a strong and real conviction that Boko Haram’s behavior is far from acceptable Islamic practice today. They are rightfully condemning the behavior, and every time they do so I am grateful for their courage. When we perceive Muslim leaders as not vocal enough against terrorist acts committed in Islam’s name, we condemn them for being complicit, and when they speak out we accuse them of hypocrisy. This must stop!

Having said all that, individuals and organizations claiming to belong to Islam continue to commit atrocious acts of violence and behave in ways that are unacceptable to universal agreements on human rights and common decency. This is not to say that no Christians behave in this way as well. However, few if any who commit acts of terror would claim to be doing so in the name of Christianity or in imitation of the model of Jesus. Whereas countless individuals and organizations, and even governments today continue to behave in such ways in the name of Islam and claiming that they are only imitating the precedent of their prophet Muhammad. What are we to say when Islamic radicalism continues to be on the rise across the world today? How do we handle the news we keep hearing of women being raped and men and children being killed in the name of this or that Islamic ideology? How do we react to the frequent news about the persecution of Muslim converts to Christianity in the Muslim world, about the killing of male “apostates” and the raping of women “apostates” who are told: “This is how Islam treats apostate women”? This is simply intolerable!

Who hasn’t heard of the case of 27-year old and pregnant Mariam Yahya Ibrahim in Sudan? She was raised by her Christian mother after her Muslim father abandoned them. Yet, she has been condemned to 100 lashes for marrying a Christian man. Since Islamic law does not permit the marriage of a Muslim woman to a Christian man, her marriage has been considered unlawful, and therefore she will receive the punishment of an “adulterer.” Further, she has been handed a death sentence by hanging for “converting” to Christianity. Never mind the fact she was raised as a Christian by her Christian mother and has considered herself a Christian all of her conscious life. Are we supposed to praise the “merciful” and “compassionate” nature of Islam for allowing her to give birth to her baby before the hanging is carried out?

We must continue the outcry every time we hear such outrageous news. Yet, I believe that the outcry should not be by Christian and secular people against Islam. What is the point of aggravating the relations between Muslims and the rest of the world? Will that not lead to more violence, a deeper chasm between individuals and nations, and eventually to far greater injustice? This battle is not against Islam, it is against criminals. The Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), one of the largest representatives of the Muslim community in the US, has not only condemned the Sudanese court ruling, but clearly rejected the apostasy law that calls for the killing of any Muslim that abandons Islam. Though the ruling was standard in the classical period of Islam, CAIR, as well as many other Muslim scholars, have now argued that the death sentence was not so much a condemnation of an individual’s religious choice, but rather a ruling against high treason, which is what conversion out of Islam would have amounted to during certain periods of Islamic history. The “creative” take that an organization like CAIR adopts on the issue reflects the fact that every ideology can adapt to the expectations of its contemporary context, and that is what non-Muslims should seek, in constant dialogue with Muslims everywhere. More and more such voices are emerging from among western Muslim circles; many less are heard in historic Muslim lands. Some news outlets have reported the case of Mariam, but only shyly. Even Al-Jazeera, normally a highly-opinionated outlet, is being barely descriptive of the case.

Let us take Muslims as our allies in this fight against acts of terror, violence and injustice committed in the name of Islam. Whether we accept Islam’s dissociation from these criminals by many Muslim leaders and scholars seems secondary to me. The argument may be convincing to some, and less so to others. In my opinion, the fact that Muslims have conflicting interpretations of certain aspects of Islam is a dilemma for Muslims to deal with. As followers of Jesus, our responsibility is not to throw stones at the house of Islam, even if some among us consider it to be a glass house. If we consider that Islam needs reform, particularly when it comes to its attitude and behavior towards non-Muslims, then let’s encourage that to happen through gracious dialogue in the context of deep and genuine relationships.

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Speaking Out: Muslim Leaders Respond to the Kidnapping of Nigerian Girls

By Arthur Brown

The kidnapping of over 200 Nigerian girls from their school by the Islamist Group Boko Haram has shocked the world. #Bringbackourgirls has become a Twitter phenomenon, with over 3.3 million tweets from across the planet. Celebrities have come out in support of the campaign, along with global leaders and their spouses. However, rather than reflect upon the manifest evils of such an action as a Christian, I have asked three Muslim religious leaders and experts in Islamic jurisprudence from Lebanon to share their reactions.

The group responsible for the kidnappings, officially Jamā’at ahl as-sunnah li-d-da’wa wa-l-jihād (“The Congregation of the People of Tradition for Proselytism and Jihad”), is known commonly as Boko Haram. Although the etymology is disputed, the meaning of Boko Haram is typically understood to suggest that Western education is sinful – hence the attacks on schools in Nigeria. Boko Haram, as do certain other Islamist groups, claim that their actions are Islamic, inspired by a particular interpretation of the Qur’an. I am not qualified to comment on the degree to which their assertions are held within the Islamic world; however, what is clear to me is that there is a voice all too commonly ignored which totally rejects the basis upon which groups like Boko Haram operate.


Sheikh Muhammad Abu Zaid, a self-described salafi, is the Chairman of the Sunni court of Saida [Sidon] in Lebanon. He is an expert in Islamic jurisprudence, as well as a leader of a local mosque.

A common rejoinder in the West is that Muslims never speak out against the actions of their more violent co-religionists, (though Muslims often level the same accusation against Christians as well). Living in Lebanon, however, I know first-hand that such voices exist and are in-fact common. Given the sheer amount of misinformation, I feel it is therefore my Christian duty to provide a platform for such voices to be heard, allowing Muslims to speak for themselves and in their own words.

I am grateful to Sheikh Muhammad Abu Zaid, Sheikh Muhammad Nokkari and Sheik Fouad Khreis for taking the time to answer some of my questions concerning Boko Haram and their beliefs and practices. These men are each religiously devout Muslim leaders from Lebanon, well versed in Islamic law and tradition. They provide an authoritative perspective from within specific mainstream Islamic communities (both Sunni and Shi‘a) – a perspective that is all too often not given the attention it deserves.

On Boko Haram

Sheikh Fouad Kreiss

Sheikh Fouad Khreis is the Religious Pastorship Manager for the Mabarrat Association, a Shi‘a social enterprise managing hostels and restaurants whose profits go to schools and orphanages.

I began by asking the sheikhs for their initial reactions to the recent kidnappings in Nigeria by the Islamist group Boko Haram. In response, each cleric sought to confront the beliefs and practices of Boko Haram with Quranic and Islamic sources.

Sheikh Fouad Khreis expressed his pain that Boko Haram could even call themselves Muslims, a view expressed by all three sheikhs in fact, stating that their actions go against the Qur’an and the teachings of Islam. On this, Sheikh Muhammad Abu Zaid replied:

As a judge I need to be sure of the facts. Once the circumstances surrounding the situation have been confirmed [i.e. not simply based on uncorroborated media reporting], I affirm that as Muslim leaders and as the Muslim community we are completely and wholeheartedly against this action.  An authentic Islam, based on a true reading of the Qur’an, inspires us. We oppose what the group Boko Haram has done in the name of Islam.

Sheikh Mohamed Nokkari is Director of the Islamic-Christian Forum for Businessmen in Lebanon, head of the Sunni Court in Chtaura, former General Director of Dar-al-Fatwa, Lebanon’s top Sunni religious authority, and professor at St. Joseph University, Lebanon.

Sheikh Muhammad Nokkari is Director of the Islamic-Christian Forum for Businessmen in Lebanon, head of the Sunni Court in Chtaura, former General Director of Dar-al-Fatwa, Lebanon’s top Sunni religious authority, and professor at St. Joseph University, Lebanon.

Furthermore, Sheikh Muhammad Nokkari challenged the notion that kidnapping was in any way Islamic, stating that:

There is no excuse for kidnapping in Islam. The Quran teaches against kidnapping innocent people. The operation itself is refused. You will find no Islamic reference or teaching in Islam that supports this. I am not surprised, though, because this is not the first time this group has done such a horrific action. They are against all the teachings of Islam. We can only confront them with discernment and fight against them, especially since they are acting in the name of Islam, because the truth is that they are working against Islam, ruining its reputation.

On Slavery

It is believed that Boko Haram may intend to sell these girls into slavery and forced marriage. Again, all three sheikhs spoke out clearly and in one voice against slavery, stating that Islam has worked towards ending slavery.

Of this, Sheikh Muhammad Abu Zaid highlights the following:

In pre-Islamic Arabian history we heard about slaves being kept. However Muslims are commanded to set slaves free. How can they then enslave young girls in the name of Islam? Again, we totally reject their actions as anti-Islamic!

Quoting a hadith from Imam Ali, Sheikh Fouad Khreis insisted that Islam worked on demolishing slavery:

“Do not enslave when God has made them free.”

Furthermore, Zakāt [one of the five pillars of Islam] encourages Muslims to donate money in order that slaves [or bonded laborers] might be freed, thus seeking the abolition of slavery where it exists.

To Sheikh Khreis it seems clear that the actions of Boko Haram oppose rather than support significant elements of the Islamic tradition.

Sheikh Muhammad Abu Zaid further comments on the issue of forced marriage:

And if they plan to sell these girls into marriage, again they go against our beliefs as Muslims. Marriage is a matter of personal choice. In some societies the father of a daughter can interfere and give guidance. But nowhere do we read or accept that a stranger can take a girl and force her to be married to someone. These people are claiming a right they do not have, and may even go as far as using this ‘right’ that is not theirs. When they do this in the name of Islam they hurt our Muslim community and go against our authentic religion.

On education

Regarding education, the message was once again very clear. According to those I asked, education is an obligation within Islam, for both boys and girls.

Sheikh Nokkari asserted:

I say education for girls and boys is very essential and there is no religious or non-religious excuse to stop girls from learning or to tell a girl that she should only stay at home. I also saw that they veiled all the girls in the video. Many of these girls are Christians who [may have] converted to Islam. It is important to remember that in Islam we cannot force anyone to become Muslim, and since they are under age we cannot say they made this decision on their own. The Qur’an clearly states that “There is no compulsion in religion” [Al-Baqra, 256].

Challenging Boko Haram’s views on education, Sheikh Fouad Khreis quoted the Prophet Muhammad as saying,

“Seeking education is an obligation for each Muslim man and woman.”

Pragmatically, Sheikh Khreis went on to say that the community would loose half of its power and influence if women were not educated.

Muhammad Abu Zaid highlighted the first verse of the Holy Qur’an where Muslims are told to read and to learn.

“Read. Read in the name of thy Lord who created; [He] created the human being from a blood clot. Read in the name of thy Lord who taught by the pen: [He] taught the human being what he did not know.” (96: 1-5).

“Are those who have knowledge equal to those who do not have knowledge?!”(39:9).

He went on to ask why then should anyone who claims to be Muslim seek to prevent our children from learning?

If you are against the teachings of a particular school, fine! But open another school and teach what you want to teach there. But don’t stop children from learning! Seeking knowledge is a duty of every Muslim.

Furthermore, Sheikh Khreis made it clear that from his perspective Islam gives to women a role of leadership and education. He further accuses Boko Haram of trying to bring us back to the dark ages, giving Islam a bad reputation around the world. He encourages us to get to know Islam from its sources and not through such movements and extremist groups in Syria, Iraq or Nigeria, groups which are fighting and killing one another! He suggests it might be helpful to look to modern moderate sources, such as the teachings of Mohammad Hussein Fadlullah!

In conclusion, Sheikh Muhammad Nokkari stresses the following:

I believe these movements [such as Boko Haram and Al Qaida] are from outside Islam and did not emerge from our Islamic traditions, cultures and communities. These are groups that want to occupy the Arab world.  This has become more prevalent ever since the fall of the Soviet Union. Islam has become the new enemy to many in the West. However this is not justified. I want to tell the West, Islam is innocent from such claims, and I hope there would be a Christian-Muslim initiative to fight against such movements.

To Conclude

It is true that these three voices may not reflect the totality of Islamic belief and practice. It is also true that there are Muslims who would use the Quran to justify actions that are violent and destructive towards those both within and beyond the Muslim community, as Christians have often done as well. To say something is or is not Islamic is not as easy as some would make it out to be – for in reality such decisions are often the result of a particular hermeneutical approach. In the same way that it may be easy to say that Islam is a violent and oppressive religion – and justify this position with proof-texts from the Quran, it is as easy to suggest that Islam as a whole is peace-loving and against such violent acts as have been carried out by extremist groups around the world.

That said, the people who have shared their views within this post are well versed in the Islamic tradition and learning, and they each occupy very influential roles within the Lebanese Muslim community, both Sunni and Shi‘a. Whilst not everyone may agree with everything they have said [and if we are honest with ourselves, each of us seeks to paint the most positive picture of our own religious tradition when communicating to others], what they have said must not be ignored.

Miroslav Volf says:

Practices disclose the God (or the gods!) individual Christians or Muslims actually worship better than anything they or their holy book says about God’s character or God’s commands. [1]

If this is true, the Muslims I know personally, my friends and colleagues, do not appear to be worshiping the same god as the one ‘worshiped’ by Boko Haram.


[1] Miroslav Volf Allah: A Christian Response (New York: Harper Collins, 2011), p.115

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