Arizona Mosque: “Why Do You Hate Us?”

In early November last year I was invited, along with Palestinian Christian Sami Awad and Israeli Danny Sherman to speak to a group of Muslims in Phoenix, Arizona. We, as American and Palestinian Christians and an Israeli Jew, were able to speak with this community about peace-building efforts in the Middle East. It was a blessing to have this time and the people I met there were excited and willing to be a part of these peace-building efforts.

When we opened up the floor for questions about half way through our time that evening, a young Muslim boy in the audience raised his hand and asked, “Why do Christians hate us?”

Sami Awad initially answered this question. He told the boy that it’s not all Christians that hate Muslims. He said that Christians who claim to follow Jesus and hate, attack, and fear Muslims are failing to live into the teachings of Christ. For Jesus tells us to love everyone. Christians are even called to “love our enemies.” (Matthew 5:44)

When I heard this young Muslim boy’s question: “Why do Christians hate us?” My heart was broken. Hatred toward Muslims is wrong — for all of us — especially for those of us who choose to follow Jesus.

When I had the opportunity to respond to this young boy’s question, I said, “Because we don’t know you.” Getting to know people who are outside of our standard circles — particularly those outside of our own faith traditions — is a crucial step to raising awareness and enabling ourselves to build bridges that lead to peace. This is especially true for high-tension and multi-faceted subjects like the conflicts in the Middle East and the growing tension between American Christians and Muslims.

AZ ArticleThis talk took place at the Islamic Community Center in Phoenix. The same place where people organized an anti-Muslim rally and on May 29 protesters showed up outside wearing shirts with profanity and carrying weapons. I can only imagine what that young boy must have been thinking. I can only wonder if people within that community remembered our words about what it looks like to follow the teachings of Jesus. In the face of such divisive force, how might those Muslims have experienced Christian followers of Jesus?

It’s devastating to me as a follower of Jesus to see some of the ways we as Christians have responded to other people of faith. I hope that Muslims and people of other faiths who have been victimized by people claiming the name of Christ hear from me my deepest grief at this injustice. I hope these words convey my apologies on behalf of the Christian community for ways you might have been mistreated simply because of the things that you believe. I don’t believe that is what Jesus calls us to do; I believe Jesus calls us to be a lover of all people. And I believe that Jesus says to us that we should respond to the needs of all people regardless of their religion, or regardless of any other differentiating factor.

Despite the threatening site of people armed with weapons outside of the Muslim place of worship in Phoenix that night, stories of peace and stories of transformation still came out of this conflict. The Washington Post reports, “About 250 mostly armed anti-Muslim demonstrators — many wearing T-shirts bearing a profanity-laced message denouncing Islam — faced-off against a crowd of roughly the same size defending the faith in front of a Phoenix mosque Friday night.” In that city, that night, at least as many people stood for peace and community as stood for violence and division. That is not a small thing.

Usama Shami, the President of the Islamic Community Center in Phoenix, invited the crowd inside to join the evening prayers. At least one protester, Jason Leger, took Shami up on this offer and later said, “It was something I’ve never seen before. I took my shoes off. I kneeled. I saw a bunch of peaceful people. We all got along,” Leger also vowed to never again wear his anti-Muslim t-shirt that he wore to the event.

That November evening I spent at the Islamic Community Center in Phoenix, I said that we have to change the dialogue and change the conversation. We must get to know each other in order to pursue actions that lead to peace. I’m thankful for the story of one protester who decided to get to know his neighbor and how transformative his experience was in changing the dialogue. My prayer is that all people will make these same efforts towards peace.

I hope that as we as a national community continue to talk about interfaith issues. May we all intentionally work toward peace and reconciliation as we seek to love all people as our neighbors.

EU warned ‘time is almost up’ for children of Gaza

This summer, the world watched in horror as Israel and Hamas once again collapsed into open warfare for the third time in seven years. This most recent war resulted in the deaths of 501 Palestinian children in Gaza, with more than 3374 children injured.

When war and violence escalate in this region, global media attention brings accusations and claims of disproportionality, human shields, rising casualties, and children running to bomb shelters. The ceasefire is accompanied by blame games and calculations of winners and losers. Little if anything changes on the ground and the stage is set for yet another conflict.

However, this is not a run-of-the-mill cycle of violence. What was a humanitarian crisis before this summer’s conflict has become a catastrophe. Gaza is not moving in cycles – it is on a downward trajectory toward total collapse. And time is almost up for the children in Gaza.

Read the rest at The Parliament Magazine

Religious Persecution: The Tide of the 21st Century?

In late summer 2014 I was at an interfaith gathering wrestling with questions about religion and peace. Someone, an elderly faith-filled individual who has worked in inter-religious dialogue for decades, suggested that globally we are moving into a time where religious persecution and oppression is increasing around the world and toward numerous different religious communities. Religious fanaticism seems to be ruling the day. Could this possibly be true?

Certainly with the daily news about ISIS and the growing persecution of Christians and other minority groups in Iraq, the world is concerned. That summer, the New York Times reported that the last Iraqi Christians were forced to flee Mosul as ISIS dispelled their communities and threatened them with death. By late September, almost 2 million refugees — Christians, Yezidi, Shabak and other minority groups — had been displaced. The United Nations reports thousands of civilians killed. News of egregious human rights violations against women and children comes out of the region. The persecution and suffering is severe.

The current crisis in the Middle East surrounding ISIS has caused alarm, outrage and a deep sense of helplessness among many people. The name itself causes some confusion. ISIS, Islamic state in Iraq and Syria, has also been referred to by President Obama and others as ISIL — Islamic State in Iraq and Levant. The Arabic name is often identified by the acronym Da’ash (or Da’esh). Does this fundamentalist group represent rising fanaticism and the shifting tides of increased persecution of Christians and other minority groups in the 21st century? Some believe the oppression of Christ followers around the world is now reaching unprecedented proportions never before seen in modern history.

When groups such as ISIS rise to power and claim the headlines with their brutal atrocity, this violence fuels a widespread Islamophobia if we are not intentional in acknowledging the difference between terrorists and the majority of people who follow a certain religion. Many Muslims around the world have spoken out ardently against the actions of ISIS. There is a social media campaign called “Not in My Name…” where devout Muslims have condemned the actions of Islamic extremists and fundamentalists. Yet, global acts of persecution against Muslims have been on the rise. This year the Dalai Lama called for an end to violent attacks against Muslims which have increased significantly in Southeast Asia and in several Buddhist countries. Other incidents of religious persecution include anti-Muslim riots in Sri Lanka and Islamic believers freeing Northern Ireland in an attempt to escape violence. Even a Christian news source in the United States posted and article called “Why I am Absolutely Islamophobic” The post was removed after a #TakeDownThatPost campaign on Twitter. The former pastor called for three possible solutions to “deal” with Muslims: conversion, deportation, or violence.

Christians and Muslims are not alone in their religious persecution. Acts of anti-Jewish anti-Semitism have also increased around the world this year. According to the Anti-Defamation League, incidents of hatred toward Jews range from graffiti, including swastikas, on a Jewish cultural center in Argentina; to young people shouting “Kill the Jews” at a group of Jewish five-to-12 year olds in Australia; to teargas attacks of Jewish teenagers in France; to the May 2014 shooting in the Jewish Museum in Brussels which killed four people as an unknown assailant opened fire. Many global acts of violence against Jews claim to be in response to Israel’s treatment of Palestinian communities in the West Bank and Gaza. These horrific acts of violence must stop. It is critical to realize that anti-Semitism is not only a reality of Jewish history, but continues to exist around the world today.

Rev. Dr. Mae Elise Cannon looks at the context for current religious persecution.What can be done about these horrors of religious persecution?

Stop Killing and Violence in the Name of God.

Human history is full of religious violence — from the wars of the Old Testament to the Christian Crusades of early antiquity to the expansion of the Islamic empire during the Muslim conquest, from the European Inquisition until modern expressions of religious fundamentalism. Religion and the name of God must never be used to justify killing and violence. We must do all that we can to resist the tide of religious fanaticism in our own faith tradition and in other religions.

Listen and Seek to Understand Religions Different from Your Own.

Gross generalizations get us into trouble. As Christians, we must speak out against negative assumptions about other religious groups. We must seek to know our neighbors of different religions and nationalities and listen to their perspectives and experiences. We must learn and understand the difference between radical terrorist groups like ISIS and other believers of the Islamic faith. Learning about global realities affecting the three Abrahamic faiths and other religious groups does not necessitate any compromise in our own theological framework and beliefs. Might we value and esteem our neighbors of different religions while at the same time seeking to share the love of Christ?

Love your neighbor. And love your enemy.

Jesus provided the greatest example: “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” My hope and prayer is that Christians would lead the way in repenting of ways we have adhered to negative assumptions, racism, and fear toward Muslims, Jews, and religions outside of our own. Let the greatest testimony of our love for Christ be the way we seek to not only love our neighbors, but also respond to those who seek to kill and destroy.

Read at The Huffington Post

Advent/Christmas 2013: God is With Us

Hope

“Let the heavens rejoice, let the earth be glad;
let the sea resound, and all that is in it.
Let the fields be jubilant, and everything in them;
let all the trees of the forest sing for joy.
Let all creation rejoice before the Lord, for he comes,
he comes to judge the earth.
He will judge the world in righteousness
and the peoples in his faithfulness.”
Psalm 96:11-13 [NIV]

Prayer of Hope based on Psalm 96: 11-13
Search us God and declare that there is hope for us;
Let us rejoice for we know are our past and choose a new way;
A way that is of Your Spirit, a way that brings forth songs of joy, peace and love.
By Rev. Doris Warrell

Advent – Season of Hope
Advent is the season of hope. Hope in eager anticipation; waiting to celebrate the incarnation of God manifested in human form through the birth of Jesus. Hope in present circumstances; the small moments of heavenly triumph where the kingdom of God breaks forth into the dark realities of this world. Hope in the future; as we wait for the redemption of the world and the second coming of Christ Jesus. We hope for what is yet to come.

Read the rest of this Advent Reflection at Churches for Peace in the Middle East

Shepherd’s Field – Peace on Earth on whom His Favor Rests

And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night. An angel of The Lord appeared to them, and the glory of The Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people. Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is the Messiah, The Lord. This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.” 


Suddenly, a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying: “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests.”

When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let’s go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which The Lord has told us about.” (Luke 2:8-15)

I am sitting in Shepherd’s Field… the Holy Site in Beit Sahour where thousands upon thousands of pilgrims travel every year to spend time in the place where the angels made this proclamation to the local shepherds. We are just outside of Bethlehem… only a few kilometers from Jerusalem.

It is Sunday morning, a day of Sabbath… and rest… and time set aside to meet in fellowship and community with the body of Christ and with our Creator. It is such an incredible privilege to work in this place. The opportunity to regularly enter into the pilgrims experience – to see and breathe and rest in the holiest of places where Jesus lived, breathed, and ministered on this earth. I pray regularly to have the opportunity to see and experience God in this place.
Here is a small picture of the things I am seeing and experiencing: A rooster crows in the distance. A group of worshipers is singing unto God in a language that I do not understand from the chapel up on the hill. Waves of pilgrims come – at first with a few dozen and then the crowd seems to abate. A cat is meowing. And in the distance is the sound of construction. A Palestinian community is being built. The building interrupts the quiet spirit of worship in this place. The settlement of Har Homar stands tall and large in the distance. The fence of the separation barrier cuts across the rocky fields where shepherds today still herd their sheep.

Many times I cannot make sense of all of the things we see and experience here in this place. This is the Holy Land. A land of contradictions. A land with historic value and profound spiritual significance. A land of great beauty, sacred space, incredible people. It is also a land of great suffering and brokenness. A land of impoverished people seeking freedom and independence. A land of a people who have experienced historic suffering and are seeking peace, security, and safety.

In our devotions this morning, the following passage was shared (Isaiah 55:8): “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways,” declares The Lord. 

I rest into these words. May The Lord give us a better understanding of his heart, mind, and thoughts. Glory to God… and on earth – and here in this place – peace to those on whom his favor rests.


Tony Campolo & Red Letter Christians

I was first introduced to Tony Campolo’s ministry when I was about 13 years old. I attended the Christian music festival – Creation –  somewhere in the Appalachian mountains. I was mesmerized as Tony talked about our call as Christians to love and serve God… and also to respond to the needs of the world’s poor. Tony’s message might have been the first time I heard about how it is a critical part of our Christian walk to live out the words of Jesus in Matthew 25: “Whatever you do unto one of these brothers and sisters of mine, you do unto me.” Other than the News Boys entering the main field by helicopter, Tony’s message is the one that I remember most.

A couple of years ago, I met Tony in Bethlehem at the Christ at the Checkpoint conference. There I heard him speak a similar message of love, reconciliation, and forgiveness… and also a call to live out God’s heart for mercy and justice in the world. During the conference we ran into each other a couple of times. At one point, we were on the elevator and started to chat. I told him a little bit about my work and ministry… and he said something to the effect, “I know… I have your book on my desk.” I will carry those words with me forever! What a great and humbling privilege!

This past March, Tony was once again at the Christ at the Checkpoint conference in Bethlehem. He gave a powerful message: “Using the Red Letters of the Bible as Guides to Peace and Reconciliation.” You can watch his message here:

 

 

What does it mean to be a Red Letter Christian?

The goal of Red Letter Christians is simple: To take Jesus seriously by endeavoring to live out His radical, counter-cultural teachings as set forth in Scripture, and especially embracing the lifestyle prescribed in the Sermon on the Mount. I consider it an honor to be friends with many others who share similar values and are committed to living out Jesus’ call to meet the needs of the poor. Visit the Red Letter Christian blog and website to learn more about this amazing community!

The Role of Religion in Global Society at the University of CA – Santa Barbara

Earlier this year, I had the opportunity to speak on a panel at the University of California – Santa Barbara’s Luce Project on Religion in Global Civil Society. The topic of discussion was “The Role of Religion in Global Society: A Focus on the Middle East and Africa.” The dialogue was very thought provoking and included questions about the significance of religion in international development.

 

Participants included academics, practitioners, and religious leaders from various cultural backgrounds and faiths.

Here is a brief response to one of the questions I was asked:

Role of Religion on World Visions’s work in the Middle East:

World Vision is a Christian humanitarian organization providing hope and assistance to tens of millions of people in nearly 100 countries around the world. Motivated by our faith in Jesus Christ, World Vision serves alongside the poor and oppressed as a demonstration of God’s unconditional love for all people. World Vision serves all people, regardless of religion, race, ethnicity, or gender. We seek to honor God in all that we do; to honor our donors and the public by being transparent about our motivation; and to honor those we serve as well as our colleagues in the field. Our passion is for the world’s poorest children. The ability of these children to reach their God-given potential depends on the physical, social, and spiritual strength of their families and communities. To help secure a better future for each child, we focus on lasting, community-based transformation. We partner with individuals and communities, empowering them to develop sustainable access to clean water, food supplies, health care, education, and economic opportunities. World Vision works in several regions of the Middle East including Afghanistan, Jordan, Lebanon, and Israel/Palestine. Throughout the years World Vision has been involved in the Middle East, serious conflicts throughout the region have had profound impact on the lives of children. As a Christian organization, World Vision affirms that all people have the right to life, food, liberty, security, education, and adequate health care.  These rights also have been enshrined in such international agreements as the UN International Declaration of Human Rights and the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC), highlighting the responsibility we all have to ensure these rights are protected for all children throughout the Middle East.

Please note: While the above paragraph speaks to World Vision’s work in the ME, this blog is personal and the views here represent exclusively the owner of this blog.

Christ at the Checkpoint 2012: Palestinian Women Leaders

I have now been back in the U.S. after spending a month in the Middle East… first in Egypt… and then in Israel/Palestine. I wanted to write almost everyday that I was on the ground, but found myself caught up in activities of work, ministry, and life. Nonetheless, I am committed to writing about some of the things I saw and experienced.

It was a great privilege for me to participate in this year’s Christ at the Checkpoint Conference in Bethlehem (March 2012). The first conference was hosted in 2010 by Bethlehem Bible College, an evangelical organization committed to spreading the light of Christ through Biblical education and training. There is a great book available which highlights some of the talks from the first conference called Christ at the Checkpoint: Theology in the Service of Justice and Peace. I wrote one of the chapters.

This year’s event was the second conference and it was amazing to notice many of the differences. It seemed twice as many people attended. The tone of the conference was intentionally focused on empowering and encouraging the Palestinian church, creating a platform for open dialogue and engagement for evangelicals, and motivating participants to become advocates of reconciliation… while also calling attention to the reality of daily life for Palestinians, particularly those in the Christian community. While I don’t agree with everything that was discussed at the conference, I do believe the platform is a critical one from which the Palestinian evangelical community can use their voice and engage in the public sphere. Biblical scholars and Christian leaders from around the world came to talk about the Scriptures, the people of Israel in a theological context, the land, and God’s heart for righteousness and justice. I was one of the “speakers” and led an hour panel discussion of Palestinian women leaders. Here is a video of the panel that I facilitated:

Palestinian Women in Ministry from Christ at the Checkpoint on Vimeo.

The participants on the panel were Diana Simaan, Grace Al-Zoughbi, Dina Katanacho, and Shadia Qubti. A brief biography of each of these women is provided below. They are amazing leaders who are doing great work on behalf of the kingdom!

Diana Simaan: Diana is the program director of the Palestinian Bible Society. She is currently involved in a project dealing with the building of Palestinian families by developing communication skills within the family. Diana has a M.A. in Health Administration from Tel Aviv University. She oversees other projects that involve empowering youth.

Grace Al-Zoughbi: A Christian Palestinian from Bethlehem, Grace serves as a teacher at Bethlehem Bible College. Grace was an undergraduate student at the college and finished her M.A. in the Theology of Transformation: Church, Scripture and World from the London School of Theology in 2010. Her dissertation entitled: “A Study of Six Influential Women: Evaluating their Personal Impact in Old Testament Times and in Palestine Today,” sought to explore the idea of the dignity of women and ways in which women can seek to defend and promote values that are associated with this idea, specifically within strong patriarchal contexts. In addition to her teaching position, Grace takes part in leading a varity of programmes through her local church in Bethlehem.

Dina Katanacho: Dina Katanacho is a Palestinian Arab Israeli leader. She has earned her B.Ed. at David Yallin College (an Israeli college) and is finishing up her M.A. in Christian Ministry at Bethlehem Bible College (a Palestinian college). Dina works now as the director of the Arab Israeli Bible Society. She has led many projects empowering women to serve God and advocating family oriented ministries in which both men and women are advocating the Kingdom of God. Dina is responsible to make the Bible available for 1.5 million Palestinian Arab Israeli Citizens. She is married and has three boys.

Shadia Qubti: Shadia Qubti is a Christian Palestinian living in the Galilee, Israel. Qubti works with Musalaha, a faith-based organization that promotes reconciliation between Israelis and Palestinians. She was born and raised in Nazareth. She finished her undergraduate degree at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem in International Relations and English Language, and her postgraduate degree in Conflict Resolution and Nonviolent Action in Trinity College University in Dublin, Ireland. In her free time, she is a member of Alphateam, a worship team that produces and composes local Palestinian Arabic songs (www.alphateam.org.).

 

 

Extremism, Terrorism, and the Norway Attacks

Similar to many of my Western counterparts, my first thoughts when I first heard about the attacks in Norway went to extreme Islamic terrorism. I had heard about the growing tensions in Scandinavia because of the increasing Muslim population and cultural shifts arising as a result. Thus, when I heard through a friend that a Norwegian school had been attacked, I assumed the attack to be a response from a Muslim terrorist group. I asked if it was Al Qaeda or such other organization. My friend responded, “Probably.” Thus, you can imagine my surprise when I saw the picture of the suspect who appeared very Scandinavian with fair skin and complexion.

Anders Behring Breivik (Courtesy NYT)

According to the New York Times (NYT), the attacks in Oslo killed at least 92 people and the orchestrator left behind “a detailed manifesto outlining preparations and calling for Christian war to defend Europe against the threat of Muslim domination.” If I had read that statement out of context, I would think one was talking about the Christian Crusades of the 12th century. Anders Behring Breivik was described by police as a right-wing fundamentalist Christian. He is said to have been obsessed with guns and the “threats of multiculturalism and Muslim immigration” (NYT). This was a far cry from the Islamic extremism that I had initially suspected of being responsible for the crime. Honestly, I am ashamed that my immediate assumptions when hearing of an “attack” turned to extremism in the Arab world. This led me to want to learn more about the motivations for the horrible incident and how news media is reporting about it.

In an article from today in Al Jazeera (English edition), Norway’s Mass Murder and the Mass Media, the opening statement says: “When news of the bomb blast and shooting first broke out in Norway, media organizations the world over were quick to suggest that the people behind the attacks were Islamic terrorists.” Apparently I was not the only one. Interestingly, Al Jazeera continues and states that when news organizations found out the attacks were not caused by Islamic extremists, but rather a “white, anti-Muslim Christian” the word “terrorist” was quickly replaced by “extremist”. Interesting. Why? Al Jazeera doesn’t expound, but these circumstances seem a telling reminder of the way many in the Western world view Islam. When westerners (more specifically whites) complete a heinous crime the media tends to write about it differently than if the perpetrator was non-white, particularly if Arab, even more so if they are Muslim. Scores of articles have been written about the growing anti-Arab sentiments in the Western world and the increasingly powerful Islamophobia that is sweeping through “Christian” nations. For example, see MJ Rosenberg’s The New Rhetoric of Islamophobia (also in Al Jazeera). Some of this is certainly an effect of post-9/11… however, I believe this trend should be a cause of great concern.

Ha’aretz, one of Israel’s leading newspapers, writes of Iran’s perspective, blaming Zionism, on the Norway attacks. Haaretz quotes a lead Iranian official: “The world should be on alert of the Zionist regime attempts to create deviation with Christianity and spread Christian Zionism.” I haven’t yet read, nor do I intend to, the more than thousand pages left behind by Anders Behring Breivik further outlining his motivations. I do not know if he is a Zionist. Could be. More importantly, his actions, astoundingly horrific, sadly remind us that extremism exists on all fronts – regardless of Christian, Muslim, or whatever other belief system. May Christians discard our own superiority complex and embrace moderation as we seek peace with our brothers and sisters across religious divides.

The Reality of Religious Tensions in Egypt?

One of the challenges in coming back to the United States has been the way happenings in the Arab World are recorded by American media. Many of the “topics” in the news are similar… however, often U.S. based reports provoke further fear and discomfort in regard to the dynamics at play in the Middle East. During my recent travels, many family members and loved ones have expressed “fear” at my safety… particularly because “Muslims are killing Christians all over the Arab World”. These are some of the sentiments that have been expressed… and sadly, they are very untrue. There are instances of violence… but in general, particularly in Egypt, there is still an overall sense of religious solidarity and commonality… even bridging the often wide divides between Christians and Muslims. Here is a report from Paul-Gordon Chandler, Rector of St. John’s Church in Maadi, Cairo. He has been living in Egypt for more than ten years and I respect greatly his opinion and interpretation of what is happening there on the ground.

Recent religious sectarian conflict: Many of you have written about some of the recent sectarian conflict here in Cairo that the international media has reported on, and were concerned for our safety, for which we are most grateful. Writing about “persecution of Christians” can be difficult as can perhaps be imagined. Both sides are often at fault, to one degree or another, and also the contexts for any conflict are each so varied. Regretfully, both in Egypt and the West there are groups that tend to “exaggerate” the tensions and the gravity of the situation, thereby sadly hurting the legitimacy of some of the true problems that do exist here and that need to be seriously addressed. In short, our experience is that the general inter-religious solidarity within the majority of the populace is deeper than it ever has been. And many wonderful and encouraging things are taking place, in the midst of some of the recent tensions, and I will share a few of them below.

The recent conflicts have largely involved the Salafis (a ultra conservative fundamentalist sect with Sunni Islam heavily influenced by Wahabism from Saudi Arabia, that even has a hard time accepting the Grand Imam of Al Azhar…who is the spiritual and intellectual leader of Sunni Islam, the majority of Muslims in the world) and who are known here as “counter-revolutionary thugs”…those wanting to create conflict to destabilize the country for their own gain. Both can be dangerous groups. However, thankfully, both are minorities in terms of the population. The most recent major conflict (May 7) was the burning of two churches (St. Mina and Church of the Holy Virgin) here in Cairo in an area within the Giza governorate called Imbaba, It is an extremely poor neighborhood and one of the country’s hottest spots of Islamic militancy. The reasons for the conflict are complex. It is important to understand that the Coptic Orthodox Church does not allow divorce. So it is quite common for Coptic women to convert to Islam in order to get out of abusive marriages. Recently this happened with two spouses of Coptic priests. This is of course something the Coptic Church doesn’t acknowledge, but it is common knowledge here. This was the initial reason for the conflict; a Coptic women, married to a priest, left to live with a Muslim man, then left the Muslim man to return to the Coptic husband, and the Muslim man shared publicly that his “wife” had left him and was being held hostage by the Christians. Obviously, this caused a lot of tension in the neighborhood. It was believed the Copts where holding the woman in the Church of St. Mina, and so Salafis Muslims came to “free” her. It is also known that sometime the Copts do “hold” women at times who do this, or want to do this type of thing. Just weeks before this recent church burning incident for example, some Coptic brothers killed their sister and her son over her alleged conversion to Islam and marriage to a Muslim man.

In regard to the recent conflict, in fear of the Muslim mob gathering in front of the church, and most were Salafis, a gun went off…said by the investigation team to have been fired first by a Coptic Christian from the nearby roof, so the Salafists and thug mob went to get guns themselves and then returned and eventually burned the church and another one nearby. Tragically, seven Christians and five Muslims died, most by gunshot, and hundreds were injured, some seriously. The subsequent investigation team learned that the Salafi mob, mixed with counter-revolutionary “thugs” believed there was a cache of guns in the church. It is also important to remember that these kinds of tension almost exclusively take place in highly uneducated areas and hence rumors quickly become “factual truth,” and then can become “threats” very quickly.

One thing that is helpful to understand when hearing about religious conflict here in Egypt is often the Copts (the historic Christians in Egypt) see themselves here as a “different people,” and not just a different religion, and therefore one has to see the their pope (the pope of the Coptic Orthodox Church) as not just a religious figure, but also as a political one…quite similar in many ways to a “king” of the Copts. The Copts see themselves as the descendents of the ancient Egyptians prior to the Islamic incursion in the 7th century. This of course further complicates any tensions that surface. In reality, in today’s context both the Copts and Muslims are considered “Arabs”. And of course one cannot therefore tell the difference between them. It is this perception of themselves that can often heighten the tensions.

Photo by Ben Robinson

Positive outcomes to the tragedy: The reaction by the Egyptian masses was again one of shock and deep sadness. It resulted once again in proactive mass demonstrations of religious solidarity and unity, which in our experience here, is the true heart of the majority of the Egyptian people. It was quite moving to see veiled Muslim women with the cross painted on their niqab (face veil) parading throughout the streets…saying “we are all ‘one hand’–Muslim and Christian.” Additionally, as a result of this most recent tragedy, some very encouraging developments have taken place.

1) The transitional government, also in shock about this recent conflict, with a desire to ease the sectarian tensions, promised within 30 days to draft both a unified law for building houses of worship and a law criminalizing the use of religious slogans in electoral campaigns (to keep religious propaganda out of the political sphere by fundamentalist groups on both sides). Regarding the new houses of worship building law, in the past, Christians have been discriminated against (under the Mubarak regime) in obtaining the right to build new churches or restore current churches. It was very difficult to get permission to do so. However, mosques did not have the same constraints. Now the government is planning to equalize it. This was unheard of pre-revolution.

2) The Cabinet (the transitional Prime Minister’s Council) announced that they will reopen churches which were closed for “security reasons” under the Mubarak regime. Faithful to their promise, within one week’s time, the Prime Minister Esam Sharaf, in his first ruling on this subject, issued a decree to have 16 churches re-opened, scattered around six governorates. This was most encouraging news and a wonderful sign.

There are of course some really amazing stories. For example, those that are currently restoring the icons within the churches in Imbaba, Cairo that were recently burned are largely Muslim. It is seen by them as an act of love and solidarity. That is a brief overview of the quite complex recent conflict. In short, yes, there are real tensions…with some tragic consequences, especially in some slum areas. However, everyday there is more and more encouraging news.

See also my recent article in Prism magazine (of Evangelicals for Social Action):

Mae Elise Cannon. “A Revolution Unites: Will Interfaith Harmony Be Part of the Liberation of Egypt’s People.” Prism. Vol. 18. No. 3. (May-June 2011):20-23; 44.