Christians persecuted in the Middle East

Mosques and churches in Damascus, 2010
Mosques and churches in Damascus, 2010

Recently a friend who is a Christian of Lebanese origin asked when I am going to write about the persecution of Christians in the Middle East. We sat down for most of an afternoon to talk, revisiting what is happening there and what might be done about it, even as we recognized the limits of our country’s power to affect outcomes.

Some of what is occurring must surely be a crime against humanity. One egregious example is the brutality inflicted by Islamic State extremists who are attempting to impose a fundamentalist caliphate in territory that straddles the failed states of Iraq and Syria.

Last summer Islamic State fighters captured large swaths of territory, including Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city. Christians and members of other minority groups were given a stark choice between converting to Islam or dying. Most chose to flee.

Christian exodus

The Christian population of Mosul at the time of the U.S. invasion in 2003 was estimated to be 35,000, but in the ensuing chaos and violence all but a few Christian families have taken flight. Estimates are that in Iraq the Christian population has declined from 1.2 million in 2003 to fewer than 500,000 today and more are leaving all of the time.

In fact, a Christian exodus from the Middle East has been occurring for decades, a great irony considering that countries such as current day Iraq and Syria were among the early cradles of Christianity.

It is important to note, however, that members of other minorities are also being targeted by the Islamic State militants. In Iraq last summer that included members of the Yasidi, Turkmen and Shabak minorities. It is also true that Shia Muslims are the most frequent victims of their Sunni co-religionists.

Further, Muslims, Christians and other minorities have lived in these communities for centuries in relative harmony. It is the arrival of violent and well-armed jihadists and not local community tensions which has led to this persecution.

Christians important in Middle East

Kamal Salibi, a now deceased Lebanese academic, told British writer William Dalrymple that the disappearance of Christians from the Middle East would have important and negative consequences. Salibi wrote an important book called A House of Many Mansions, in which he talked about the important contributions that both Christians and Muslims have to make in the Middle East.

“If Christian Arabs continue to emigrate,” Salibi said, “the Arabs will be in a much more difficult position to defend the Arab world against Islamism.  Everyone is frightened by the spread of fundamentalism.”

Our Prime Minister and the opposition parties have condemned the persecution of Iraqi and other Christians, as they must. Our government has also sent war planes to participate in bombing against Islamic State militants, but that means civilians will inevitably die in those attacks as well. Pope Francis has called for dialogue, peace and prayers. He has cautioned that, “Violence isn’t overcome by violence.”

The conflicts in Iraq and Syria have created hundreds of thousands of refugees who are living in camps in Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey, overwhelming the ability of those countries to accommodate them.

Syrian refugees to Canada

Canada, after dragging its feet, has now announced that it will resettle 10,000 Syrian refugees over the next three years. The government has also said, however, that it will focus on resettling Syrian refugees who are Christians. That is a mistake and an attempt by the Conservatives to play to their base. Governments should not draw distinctions in the religious persuasion of refugees.

Human rights include religious rights 

There has been much talk about protecting the religious rights.  We should rather insist upon the protection of human rights, which are even more fundamental. Protecting human rights will by definition apply to religious rights, just as they apply to protection against discrimination and persecution on the basis of race, gender and sexual orientation.

This piece appeared in briefer form in my blog for the United Church Observer on January 15, 2015.

Canadian churches and World War I

Canadian war graves at Vimy, France
Canadian war graves at Vimy, France

Canada followed Great Britain into war with Germany and its allied powers 100 years ago this week. Tens of thousands of young Canadians, most of British descent, enlisted either voluntarily or due to prevailing social pressures. By 1917, however, others had to be conscripted by the wartime government. Canada had a population of five million at the time. By war’s end 420,000 Canadians had served in the military overseas and 60,000 of them died. Author and historian Gwynne Dyer says that loss of life would be comparable to Canada’s losing one million dead in the recent war in Afghanistan.

In a commemorative ceremony held at the War Museum in Ottawa, the Prime Minister has celebrated the sacrifice of those who went off to fight in the trenches in 1914. This is a quote from his speech: “Justice and freedom; democracy and the rule of law; human rights and human dignity. For a century, these are the things for which our fellow citizens fought. And this is the ground on which we will always take our stand.”

Unfortunately, this is not true, at least not as applied to the First World War. It was not a war for justice, freedom, democracy and the rule of law. It was a war about the competing empires of Europe and the arrogant stupidity of the monarchs and rulers of the day. Their bungling led to the death of 17 million people and the wounding of 20 million others. That is a number roughly equal to the entire population of Canada today.

War from the pulpit

I mentioned above the social pressure exerted upon young Canadian men to enlist in 1914 and the following years. That pressure came from every corner, including the pulpit at a time when churches were more powerful forces in society than they are today. One of those preachers – and among the most extreme — was Rev. Thomas Todhunter Shields, the pastor of Jarvis Street Baptist Church in Toronto. He was a fiery orator who championed all things British and had little tolerance for liberal Protestantism, Catholics or French Canadians. Early in 1915, as the war dragged on, Shields preached a series of sermons, using scripture to demonize the Germans and to exhort Canadians to enlist and fight.

What follows here are excerpts from his sermon of February 21, 1915. He called it, “The Kaiser and Beelzebub” – comparing the German Kaiser to a “mad dog” and to the devil.


I must tell you plainly that I am not now and never have been a pacifist. In respect to my British citizenship, the perpetual clanking of the Kaiser’s sword forbade the intellectual somnolence essential to sweet dream of peace; and in respect those deeper considerations which concern the prime source of all human envy, and jealousy, and strife, I never have been able, and am not now able, to see how war can be banished from the earth while anywhere in the universe “the strong man armed keepeth his palace.” The Kaiser and Beelzebub, and they are not unrelated, forbid my crossing out of my Bible this word of Him with Whom they both are at war. “And he that hath no sword, let him sell his garment, and buy one”  . . .

Satan is more than a religious philosophical abstraction . . . the devil is not yet gone; or, if he were, I do not know how such a monster as the Kaiser is to be accounted for. The only satisfactory explanation of such a mad and blood-costly ambition as the Kaiser’s is found in the Biblical doctrine of a personal devil . . .

You cannot reason with a mad dog. Eloquence is wasted on a tiger from the jungle. The only effective argument is a gun of the largest possible calibre, an army of the maximum striking power.

Oh, we all have failed here. We have argued with the devil: we have made speeches to principalities and powers! Young men, you have parleyed with the wolves of hell, with the devil’s dogs of war. You have thought to match the devil with diplomacy! Your only safety is in fighting!

In this moral and spiritual warfare Paul was no pacifist. He did not recommend disarmament. He said, “Put on the whole armor of God that ye may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil.” There is no other way.

And now let me enlist you for this war. I tell you, you must be trained, and disciplined, and armed, to the highest possible state of military effectiveness . . . Take Christ and He will clothe you with Himself, His righteousness, and truth, and peace, and faith. The strong man armed keepeth his palace and his goods are in peace only until a stronger than he cometh upon him. Satan has beaten everybody but Christ. He is our only hope in this war. “Thanks be to God, who giveth us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.”

(Source: Revelations of the War: Eight Sermons, T.T. Shields. Toronto: the Standard Publishing Co.1915).

War as tragic folly

The First World War is best understood as tragic folly. It is easier to argue on behalf of Canada’s involvement in the Second World War, when justice and freedom, democracy and the rule of law were much more arguably at stake. Sadly, that same list of worthy attributes cannot be used to describe our participation in most other wars of the past century – the Boer War, the Korean War and that in Afghanistan.

One does not have to be a pacifist to be reluctant, very reluctant, to support wars foisted upon us by leaders who are vainglorious and corrupt.


Nelson Mandela’s good work continues

Nelson Mandela launches The Elders
Nelson Mandela launches The Elders
Photo courtesy Creative Commons

Nelson Mandela is being remembered as a beacon for democracy, peace and decency in political life. But he also used his retirement well. In 2007, Mandela and a group of distinguished individuals created a group called, The Elders. They included Mozambican humanitarian and politician Graca Machel, who is also Mandela’s widow; former Ireland President Mary Robinson; Archbishop Desmond Tutu; former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan; former Norway Prime Minister Gro Brundtland and former U.S. President Jimmy Carter.  At the time, Mandela said that former leaders could “speak freely and boldly” to support peace building, help address major causes of human suffering and promote the shared interests of humanity. 

One of their initiatives champions human rights for women and girls and expresses their concern about the role that religions of all descriptions too often play in their oppression. “Religion and tradition are a great force for peace and progress around the world,” the group said in a 2009 statement. “However, as elders, we believe that the justification of discrimination against women and girls on the grounds of religion or tradition, as if it were prescribed by a higher authority, is unacceptable. . . .”

On one level, The Elders referred to the most virulent forms of oppression (often in traditional societies) driven by religious convictions — everything from genital mutilation to stoning for adultery. But they also talked about the historical insistence in some religions that God has ordained certain forms of leadership, such as being a priest, pastor or elder, as exclusive to men.

The Catholic Church, for example, insists that there can never be female priests for various reasons. In a church whose decision-making is dominated by clerics, that means women are forever excluded from leadership. Of course, Catholics aren’t alone. Too often, the unhappiness of disaffected, traditionalist Anglican priests is based on their opposition to the ordination of women.

In Canada, the United Church of Canada had its debate about women’s ordination in 1936. Yet, as recently as 2006, the Canadian Mennonite Brethren spent much of its national conference discussing whether member churches should be free to call women to serve as ministers and pastoral leaders. The resolution was finally carried with 77 percent voting in favour. Nonetheless, the Christian and Missionary Alliance, of which Prime Minister Stephen Harper is a member, still does not ordain women.

The message from religious leaders that women must be subservient and that they cannot lead could have a dire consequence in the secular world, particularly in traditional countries. Such opinions send a strong signal to all of society’s institutions, from home to school, to boardroom and legislature.

But The Elders will have none of it. They are committed to the realization of equality and empowerment for all women and girls. They call upon all leaders — religious and secular — to promote and protect those inalienable rights. Theirs is a powerful message. How good to hear now that the group plans to continue with its work, despite the death of Nelson Mandela.

This article appeared on the United Church Observer blog on December 12, 2013.

Erin Wilson on U.S presidents and religious rhetoric

Scholar Erin K Wilson was intrigued to read a comment from an historian that Western societies see themselves as secular, even if they contain large minorities who are actively religious, while Muslim countries and others see the West as Christian. That observation gave rise to a number of questions that Wilson attempts to answer in her book, After Secularism: Rethinking Religion in Global Politics, which places a special emphasis upon the connection between religion and politics in the United States. Her primary question is, What elements still exist within Western societies that could give the impression that the West is Christian? Secondly, What impact do these perceptions have on the relationship between Western and non-Western states and non-state actors within global politics?

Wilson argues that scholars have underestimated the impact that religion has had, and continues to have, upon politics and public life in Western societies. She understands “the West” to include Europe, Great Britain, Australia, New Zealand, Canada and the U.S. Continue reading Erin Wilson on U.S presidents and religious rhetoric

Erin Wilson, After Secularism

When I have time, I enjoy browsing in the new books section at the Carleton University Library in Ottawa. Recently, I came upon After Secularism: Rethinking Religion in Global Politics, written by Erin Wilson, a professor in the Faculty of Theology and Religious Studies at the University of Groningen, the Netherlands. Wilson begins with a critique of the limitations of secularization theory, where, as she says, “religion was considered to be dying out and not relevant for understanding politics in developed secularized states such as those in the West.” Post-Enlightenment thinkers such as Marx, Durkheim and others thought that religion was a retrograde and irrational force that would wither away as societies evolved into a more enlightened phase of existence. This has been, by far, the dominant way in which Western academics have viewed their own societies. Continue reading Erin Wilson, After Secularism

Conservative pundits diminish Breivik’s Norwegian victims

By Dennis Gruending

The flat of NorwayOn July 22, Norwegian extremist Anders Breivik set off a car bomb in downtown Oslo that killed eight people. Then, dressed as a policeman, he traveled to a nearby small island and used a semi-automatic rifle to massacre 77 members of the Labour Party’s youth wing who were attending a summer camp. Now the dead (many of them just teenagers) have been buried. Norwegian Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg has been unequivocal in saying that Breivik’s unspeakable actions will not change Norway’s commitment to democracy and tolerance. However, many media commentators, columnists and pundits on this side of the Atlantic have conspicuously lacked Stoltenberg’s vision or grace. On his syndicated talk radio program, the notorious Glenn Beck compared the young Norwegian victims to Nazis. As New York Times columnist Timothy Egan described it, Beck said the summer camp attended by the Labour Party youth “sounds a little like, you know, the Hitler Youth.” Continue reading Conservative pundits diminish Breivik’s Norwegian victims

Gabrielle Giffords, Tucson and the gun culture

By Dennis Gruending

Rep. Gabrielle GiffordsOn January 8th a young man Jared Lee Loughner opened fire with a Glock 19 handgun during a political event held in the parking lot of a Tucson, Arizona mall. He killed six people and wounded 14, including Democratic Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords. He shot her in the head. She is being treated for a serious brain injury and is fortunate to be alive. The debate following this tragic event has focused on the “heroes” who attempted to disarm Loughner; on whether he is mentally ill; and whether the increasingly toxic language being used in American political debate might have prompted his actions. Hardly anyone, it seems, is having second thoughts about the fact that almost anyone in the U.S. can buy and carry a gun. President Barrack Obama studiously avoided that point in his otherwise eloquent speech at a memorial event in Tucson.

Far from having doubts about the disastrous effects of the nation’s gun laws, or lack of them, there were calls in the wake of the shootings to make it even easier for people to carry concealed firearms. Arizona state representative Jack Harper was quoted as saying, “When everyone is carrying a firearm, nobody is going to be a victim.” This implies that someone at the shooting scene who was armed would have shot Jared Lee Loughner before he killed and wounded others.

Continue reading Gabrielle Giffords, Tucson and the gun culture

Coptic Christians, al-Qaeda, The Looming Tower

By Dennis Gruending

Sayyid QutbEarly on the morning of January 1 Coptic Christians were leaving Saints Church in the ancient Egyptian city of Alexandria after celebrating midnight mass. A suicide bomber waiting outside set off explosives that killed 21 people and injured almost 100 others. The attack also led to concern in Canada as Eastern Rite Christians prepared to celebrate their Christmas on January 7. More than 100 Canadian-Arab Coptic Christians had been named and threatened on an al-Qaeda affiliated website, allegedly for “defaming” Islam and attempting to convert Muslims. Despite the threats, most churches went ahead with services, although there was talk of added security by the RCMP and private firms. Back in Alexandria, Egyptian authorities were uncertain if foreign al-Qaeda operatives had slipped into the country or if the suicide bombing was the work of homegrown Islamic extremists.

Killing enemy combatants in wars is bad enough but killing unsuspecting civilians as they worship, ride buses or subways, travel on airplanes or eat restaurant meals is unspeakable. How can anyone or any ideology – religious or secular – justify these acts? The Quran does contain numerous exhortations to violence, and the same can be said of the Old Testament. But the general thrust of both books is that killing another human being is a great crime and that killing yourself (suicide) is also a crime. The Quran says that Muslims shall not kill anyone except as a punishment for murder.
Continue reading Coptic Christians, al-Qaeda, The Looming Tower