Crowdfunding Effort Launched to Help Children of 21 Coptic Martyrs in Libya

ST. CHARLES, IL — The St. Charles Institute and Coptic Orphans today announced a joint crowdfunding effort to help meet the educational needs of the children left fatherless when 21 Coptic Christians from Egypt were martyred in Libya on February 15.

The project, entitled Support the Orphans of Christian Martyrs in Libya and hosted at the website Indiegogo.com, seeks to raise a total of $36,000 to help the fatherless children stay in school. Working with and through the local church in Egypt, Coptic Orphans will use the funds raised to provide the children with specially trained advocates and mentors to ensure they do not drop out of school for a lack of income or encouragement. These advocates will help the children navigate through the many social challenges they now face as "fatherless orphans." 

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Religion, Pure and Undefiled

While it’s never easy to lose your father, I struggle to imagine what it is like to lose your father in your youth.  Even more difficult for me to comprehend is what it must be like to lose a father in a country such as Egypt, where decades of social, cultural and legal pressures have left many Christians strong in faith but often victims of marginalization and persecution. 

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Coptic Christians in Libya murdered

On Sunday, February 24, seven Coptic Christians living in Libya were found murdered, execution style, in a suburb of Benghazi.  According to reports, militants broke into a building housing Egyptian workers with the specific intent of identifying and harming Christians.  Reuters journalist Feras Bosalum details the harrowing specifics of their murder (CAUTION: this report contains graphic details and photos of the murder scene):

“The victims were stonemasons of modest means, like the vast majority of Egyptians who come to work in Libya. According to several fellow Copts, masked militiamen broke into several houses being rented by Coptic and Muslim workers. They asked them questions about Islam and checked to see whether they had crosses tattooed on their forearms [as many Copts do]. They abducted seven workers, several of whom were from the same family. Several hours later, their corpses were found in an abandoned field outside the city.”

Prayer Points:

  • Please pray for the thousands of Egyptian Coptic Christians living and working in Libya.  Pray for God’s divine protection over them, their families, and communities.  Pray for favor in the sight of their neighbors.
  • Pray that militant Islamists that currently find safe-haven in Libya, and more specifically, the city of Benghazi, would have their plans and objectives disrupted.  Pray for city leaders who are attempting to fight these crimes, that they would find success in rooting out radical Islamists.
  • Pray that God, in His mercy, might bring His peace to this violent city.

 

The offense of the cross and Radical Islam

The cross of Jesus Christ is an offense to Islamic militants who continue to perpetrate acts of violence, persecution and destruction against the Christian community throughout the Middle East.

The roots of the hatred of the cross go back to the earliest moments of Islam and Islamic tradition. To start, Islam rejects that it was Jesus who actually died upon the cross.  Instead, it was one who was made to look like him. In the Quran 4:157:

And [for] their saying, "Indeed, we have killed the Messiah, Jesus, the son of Mary, the messenger of Allah ." And they did not kill him, nor did they crucify him; but [another] was made to resemble him to them. And indeed, those who differ over it are in doubt about it. They have no knowledge of it except the following of assumption. And they did not kill him, for certain.

Islamic tradition teaches that Jesus will return in a second coming and destroy all crosses, effectively symbolizing Islam's triumph over Christianity.  One record of this is found in Sahih al-Bukhari, Volume 3, Book 43, Number 656:

"Allah's Apostle said, "The Hour will not be established until the son of Mary (i.e. Jesus) descends amongst you as a just ruler, he will break the cross..."

The 7th century Pact of Umar (also known as Conditions of Umar, or Pact of Omar) served as a contract between Christians who remained in their lands and the conquering Muslim armies.  As this translation from Arabic to English shows, the Pact of Umar (or Omar) placed rigorous restrictions upon Christian life and practice in exchange for the right to keep one's life.  One of these restrictions related specifically to the displaying of the Christian Cross, the symbol of the Christian message of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ and his redemption of mankind:

We shall not display our crosses or our books in the roads or markets of the Muslims.

Over the last year, a number of incidents have been reported which show the level of offense to radical Islamists caused by the sight of the physical cross:

  • During her June 25, 2013 testimony before the Committee On Foreign Affairs, U.S. House Of Representatives, Subcommittee on the Middle East and North Africa, Nina Shea, Director of the Hudson Institute's Center For Religious Freedom, recounted the assassination of one a Syrian Christian: "Ordinary individuals, too, have been summarily killed after being identified as Christian. An Islamic gunman stopped the bus to Aleppo and checked the background of each passenger. When the gunman noticed Yohannes’ last name was Armenian, they singled him out for a search. After finding a cross around his neck, ‘‘One of the terrorists shot point blank at a crossing—at the cross, tearing open the man’s chest.’’"
  • In December 2013, a group of 12 nuns were kidnapped in Syria.  A video release of the nuns from their captors showed them wearing their traditional long black robes absent one thing: the cross that usually hang around their neck.  One woman recounted as she saw their video: "They didn't even let them wear their crosses," she said. "This just shows they aren't capable of respecting Christians."  And as reported by Raymond Ibrahim in his February 18, 2014 blog post, a new video released earlier this month of the nuns showed, once again, the nuns in their traditional garb - absent of their crosses.
  • In the Syrian town of Raqaa, a militant group "set fires in two churches and knocked the crosses off them, replacing them with the group's black Islamic banner."  Iranian based FARS News Agency reported that one church in Raqaa was actually converted into Al-Qaeda's "Raqaa Bureau" - only after "all the exterior and interior symbols and signs showing the building is church have been cleared."
  • In August 2013, when Islamist supporters of ousted President Mohammed Morsi attacked Churches, monasteries, and other Christian property in Egypt, the cross was often a target: "Three nuns expelled from a burning 115-year-old Franciscan school were even "marched through the streets like prisoners of war" until given shelter by a concerned Muslim woman. The Associated Press said the rescued nuns "saw a mob break into the school through the wall and windows, loot its contents, knock off the cross on the street gate and replace it with a black banner resembling the flag of al-Qaida." The story said police promised aid, but it never arrived."

  • During attacks against Egypt's main Coptic Cathedral in Cairo last April after a funeral for four Christians who had been killed in a dispute with a Muslim neighbor, Coptic Christians pledged to give their lives as a sacrifice for the cross.  Some of the young attackers of the cathedral "switched to taunts, making lewd gestures involving the sign of the cross."

The Apostle Paul taught that the message of the cross would be an "offense" to those who would reject its claims to offer redemption for humanity (Gal 5:11). 

Now, nearly 2000 years later, this offense continues. 

Please join The St. Charles Institute in prayer for Christians who are suffering isolation, violence and persecution because of the cross of Christ.

 

 

 

The form of a servant: a picture of Christ in war-torn Syria

The situation in the stricken Syrian city of Homs is dire. Syria's third largest city has been devastated by the country's chaotic civil war.  Hundreds have been killed.  Thousands more have fled.  The city is in ruins.

Recent reports suggest some 3,000-5,000 civilians remain trapped in the old city of Homs. These residents are running out of food, and people are resorting to desperate measures just to stay alive:

Newsweek: "People are literally running out of food - they have used up their supplies and now are eating leaves off the trees."

New York Times: "...some of the nearly 700 people who reached safety said they had been surviving on one meal a day and that some of their neighbors had resorted to eating grass."

Last Friday, a ceasefire between government and rebel forces was declared in a humanitarian gesture to seek the evacuation of civilian non-fighters from the city. 

Yet, one man who does not appear to be leaving is Father Frans van der Lugt, a Dutch Jesuit priest.  According to the Economist, the Jesuit recorded this video where he details the tragedy taking place in Homs:

"Christians and Muslims are going through a difficult and painful time and we are faced with many problems. The greatest of these is hunger. People have nothing to eat. There is nothing more painful than watching mothers searching for food for children in the streets...I will not accept that we die of hunger. I do not accept that we drown in a sea of hunger, letting the waves of death drag us under. We love life, we want to live. And we do not want to sink in a sea of pain and suffering."

Father van der Lugt rejected calls to leave Homs in search of freedom and a better life.  Instead he stayed, in spite of the death of decay around him, in order to continue to serve the most vulnerable people of the city:

"At an earlier stage in the current war, many Christians left the city after rebel forces moved in; he chose to stay, telling objectors that "I am the shepherd of my flock.""

The Apostle Paul reminds us of one who willingly gave up the glories of heaven for the sake of those who could not help themselves.  He left splendor and glory in order to bring hope, rescue in a world stricken with death and decay.  Jesus Christ, being one with God, the divine logos, considered us worthy of his life and his death:

Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others. Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. (Philippians 2:3-8, ESV)

In many ways, the example of Father Frans van der Lugt points us even higher, to the person of Christ.  Seeking to live as Christ, Father van der Lugt is "emptying himself" in service to God and the vulnerable people in Homs.  May God give us vision, wisdom and strength to live in service to Him and others - even when the price to pay is great. 

Please join The St. Charles Institute in prayer:

  • For the residents of Homs seeking rescue, that the negotiated ceasefire would hold and that God would grant them safe passage out of the city.  
  • For the war-ravaged nation of Syria, a land where, according to one pastor, "a 'third world war' is taking place in the country, with 84 nationalities, including European and UK fighters now involved in the three-year conflict."
  • For all who are suffering in this terrible conflict, that the God of peace would be revealed and bring His peace to this afflicted region.
  • For Father Frans van der Lugt, that God would give him divine strength, protection and grace to continue his service to bring hope and peace to Syria.

 

Islamic militants debate medieval history to justify their crimes against Syrian Christians

As the Geneva II Conference has kicked off this week in an attempt to negotiate an end to the Syrian crisis, Heritage Daily has released a disturbing report highlighting the extent to which al-Qaeda linked militants are referencing ancient Islamic history for dealing with the country's Christian minority population.

The 7th century Pact of Umar (also known as Conditions of Umar, or Pact of Omar) served as a contract between Christians who remained in their lands and conquering Muslim armies.  According to the Heritage Daily report, a debate has ensued between the two major, Al-Qaeda linked groups, Al-Nusra Front and ISIS, on how to implement the 7th Century agreement in Syria... today:

The Sharia councils of the main extremist groups have begun to have a serious debate on how to deal with the “Nazarenes, their word for christians” and whether they can be considered dhimmis, or a non-Muslim citizen of an Islamic state.

The two groups’ “Sharia experts,” before the recent battles between them, had debated the matter at length, invoking the so-called Omar’s pact, which was given to the Christians of Syria in the 7th century. Caliph Omar ibn al-Khattab pledged safety to the Christians of Syria in return for paying a tribute, which they accepted grudgingly.

As translated from Arabic to English at Fordham University's website, the Pact of Umar (or Omar) placed rigorous restrictions upon Christian life and practice in exchange for the right to keep one's life.  A number of these restrictions are listed below, as detailed in the translation.  The letter is from Christians to Caliph Umar:

  • Christians will not build "in our city or the suburbs any new monastery, church, cell or hermitage;"
  • Christians "will not repair any of such buildings that may fall into ruins, or renew those that may be situated in the Muslim quarters of the town; "
  • Christians "will not refuse the Muslims entry into our churches either by night or by day;"
  • Christians "will open the gates wide to passengers and travellers" and will "receive any Muslim traveller into our houses and give him food and lodging for three nights;"
  • Christians "will not make a show of the Christian religion nor invite any one to embrace it;"
  • Christians "will not prevent any of our kinsmen from embracing Islam, if they so desire."
  • Christians will "honor the Muslims and rise up in our assemblies when they wish to take their seats;
  • Christians "will not display the cross upon our churches or display our crosses or our sacred books in the streets of the Muslims, or in their market-places;"
  • Christians must modify the way that they worship, to include  "striking the clappers in our churches lightly;" not reciting their "services in a loud voice when a Muslim is present;" that Christians "will not carry Palm branches [on Palm Sunday] or our images in procession in the streets;"
  • Christians must even alter they way they bury their dead: "that at the burial of our dead we will not chant loudly or carry lighted candles in the streets of the Muslims or their market places;"

Further restrictions included methods of dressing and restrictions on holding public office, among others.  And if any condition of the agreement was broken?

"...Then we forfeit your protection and you are at liberty to treat us as enemies and rebels."

It's the 7th Century all over again

Fast forward to today and we see the great influence that the 1300+ year old Pact of Umar is having on Christians in Syria, as the Heritage Daily asserts.  The Rev. Mark Durie, an expert in classical Islam, interpreted the accounts of Syrian Christians who had fled the country to neighboring Jordan:

Their village was occupied by rebel forces, who proceeded to announce that they were now under an Islamic emirate, and were subject to sharia law. 

The Christian residents were offered four choices:  

1. renounce the ‘idolatry’ of Christianity and convert to Islam;
2. pay a heavy tribute to the Muslims for the privilege of keeping their heads and their Christian faith (this tribute is known as jizya);
3. be killed;
4. flee for their lives, leaving all their belongings behind.  

The scenario reported by Syrian refugees is a re-enactment of the historic fate of Christians across the Middle East.  The Muslim historian Al-Tabari reported that when the Caliph ‘Umar conquered Syria, he gave the following command to his armies:

“Summon the [conquered] people to Allah; those who respond unto your call, accept it [their conversion to Islam] from them, but those who refuse must pay the jizya out of humiliation and lowliness. If they refuse this, it is the sword without leniency.”

Other accounts confirm that Christians in Syria are being treated as if it were the 7th Century all over again:

  • In January of this year, an Armenian Christian was killed in an Aleppo prison for refusing to convert to Islam.
  • In September, The Daily Mail provided eyewitness reports of the battle for the predominantly Christian city of Maaoula.  During the battle, militants "attacked Christian homes and churches shortly after moving into the village. ‘They shot and killed people. I heard gunshots and then I saw three bodies lying in the middle of a street in the old quarters of the village... Another Christian resident said: ‘I saw the militants grabbing five villagers and threatening them and saying, “Either you convert to Islam, or you will be beheaded”.’...Another said one church had been torched, and gunmen stormed into two other churches and robbed them."

  • The Daily Telegraph reported that Syrian Orthodox Patriarch Gregorios III "claimed that local Christian families had been asked to pay a monthly protection tax of $35,000 by local "armed groups."

  • The New York Times reported that, in March 2012, the town of Homs, Islamist militants "had gone door to door in Hamidiya and Bustan al-Diwan neighborhoods of Homs, expelling local Christians. Following the raids, some 90 percent of Christians reportedly fled the city for government-controlled areas, neighboring countries or a stretch of land near the Lebanese border called the Valley of Christians (Wadi al-Nasarah). Of the more than 80,000 Christians who lived in Homs prior to the uprising, approximately 400 remain today."

  • In October of last year, the BBC reported that Patriarch Gregorios III suggested that nearly one-third of the country's Christians had already left the country.

#DoSomethingFriday

For today's #DoSomethingFriday, please join The St. Charles Institute in praying for Syria's Christians. Pray that God would provide miraculous protection from those seeking to bring intimidation, violence, death and destruction to their community.  Pray that God would bring rescue for those who are afflicted and bring peace to the war-ravaged country.  Pray that God would help those who have fled the violence settle into life in strange lands.  And for those that remain in Syria, pray that God's spirit would strengthen them with hope. 

May God bring an end to the hate, violence and discrimination that is wreaking havoc on Syria and her Christian community. 

The exodus of Christians from the Muslim world continues

A sobering article was released today from Lubna Thomas Benjamin on the emerging exodus of Christians from Pakistan.  After many tiresome years of discrimination and persecution, some Christians have had enough and are leaving behind the homeland that they love.

One young man's story featured in the article, while his own, is likely not all that different from many other Christians in the country.  It tells a tale of social ostracism, discrimination, violence, and eventually, exodus:

A Christian young man belonging to the city of Bahawalpur, Punjab, is now in the UK.

On condition of anonymity, he shared with me his reason for leaving Pakistan: "I was running my photography business earning good amount of money, owned a home too, but something went wrong all of a sudden when I saw a huge decline in my business."

He told me that an old friend of his in the police department informed him that there were some people living around him who didn't like him as they were jealous that how being Christians, his family was well-to-do and he himself had a sound business.

"I was attacked brutally once by the armed men, I had bruises all over my body. After few days, my older brother was also beaten severely," he explained.

He also depicted the scene when the armed men surrounded his home with the whole of his family inside. After that day, his family started living in another part of Pakistan. Even then, they faced many troubles and eventually they decided to leave Pakistan.

Pakistani Christians have been under attack for years, and recent days seem to suggest the pressures on the Christian community are increasing.  In September of last year, 85 people were killed and more than 100 injured when two suicide bombers walked into the compound of the historic All Saints Church in Peshawar and blew themselves up at the conclusion of Sunday worship services.  And Pakistani Christian, Asia Bibi, has been on death for over four years after having been found guilty of blasphemy - though her true crime, many believe, was her Christian faith.

Sadder still is the reality that the exodus of Christians from Pakistan is not unique.  As Baroness Warsi of the UK has said, "A mass exodus is taking place, on a biblical scale" of Christians from across the Middle East.  In many places, Christians are under constant threat of intimidation, attack, even murder, and reports suggest that Syria, Iraq, and Egypt, among others, have seen great declines in the Christian community in recent months.

The great migration of Christians from these regions is a simultaneous blessing for the individuals involved, yet a great tragedy for the country and remaining communities.  They are a blessing in that families who have been under the constant psychological and social pressures living under persecution are having the opportunity to start again.  And while Ms. Thomas Benjamin's article highlights the difficult struggles of Christians to start new lives elsewhere, at least it is not under the constant threat of persecution and suffering for their faith. 

The curse, on the other hand, is that, with the departure of Christians from these regions, the Christian witness to Christ's gospel of love and peace is being removed from some of the darkest, most desperate regions that need this witness the most.  One can hardly find fault for any Christian seeking to escape persecution, but as Christian witness is removed from these regions, it gives rise to extremism, greater abuses of human rights, and heightened security challenges.

As The St. Charles Institute sees it, there is a better way forward and it's quite simple: stop the hate.  If the hate, injustice, and violent persecution behind the exodus of Christians from these regions stops altogether, Pakistani Christians and those throughout the Muslim world could go about their lives in peace and set about building their country alongside their Muslim neighbors.  Governments, social institutions, and houses of faith everywhere must make this a primary goal.

Here in the progressive enlightened age of the 21st century, no man, woman, boy or girl should be forced to choose between peace, stability and security and their faith.  Yet the persecution continues, and it largely goes unnoticed by both Church and society in the West.

Please join The Institute in prayer for Christians in Pakistan suffering for their faith, and help us spread the word to anyone willing to listen. 

We must not be silent. Our brothers and sisters in Pakistan, and across the Muslim world, deserve our voice. 

The Stefanus Alliance: Freedom of Religion or Belief for Everyone // #DoSomethingFriday, January 17, 2014 Edition

The Stefanus Alliance is a Christian ministry and human rights agency based in Norway focused on the defense of freedom of religion and belief.  In 2012, The Alliance compiled a terrific booklet entitled Freedom of Religion or Belief for Everyone.  The piece helps to explain the reasons why religious freedom is important, what religious freedom or belief is, and how religious freedom or belief is abused.  It provides a list of international governing documents that define religious liberty in international politics and world affairs, and provides some definitions of the core values that are essential for the protection of religious freedom or belief.

As we develop our understanding of the "whys, whats and hows" of religious freedom, we will enhance our ability to both recognize and defend religious freedom against abuse.  Freedom of religion or belief has a long history of being challenged, attacked, and denied, sometimes by well-intentioned groups, and we must recognize, define, and condemn its abuse whenever we see it.

For today's #DoSomethingFriday, please join The Institute in reading "Freedom of Religion or Belief for Everyone" from The Stefanus Alliance.  As you read, ask yourself the following questions:

  • Why is religious freedom so important?
  • Where do you see legitimate denials of religious freedom or belief in our world today? In these settings, what are some of the reasons why religious belief is threatening to states or individuals?
  • What can you do to defend or promote religious freedom in the world today?

Christians hope for Egypt's new constitution, but the proof will be in how they are treated

Egypt's season of political turmoil could not end  soon enough for the country's Christian community.  As Egyptians vote on a referendum on the new, revised constitution, concerns about the persecution of Christians continue. 

In December, The St. Charles Institute considered the rise of kidnappings in Egypt and other parts of the Middle East as a tool being used by radicals to persecute Christians.  Last week's article from Christianity Today suggests these kidnappings are increasing. Often, young girls are the victims.  State neglect, extreme financial extortion, and grave injustice characterize these attacks: 

In 2011, Nadia Makram, 13, was walking home from church near her working-class Cairo neighborhood when she vanished.

Her mother, Martha, went to the police, who refused to file a report. Soon after, Martha received a call demanding $15,000. She went back to the police, who registered a complaint but noted only Nadia's disappearance.

When the police did nothing, Martha gathered money from family and friends and traveled to a village 65 miles south.

Martha met Nadia's 48-year-old kidnapper in the home of the local mayor. After she handed over the money, the men showed her what they called a "marriage certificate." Nadia, they said, had converted to Islam and married her abductor. Martha left empty-handed—an increasingly common story among Coptic Christians. Abductions have increased sharply in the past few months.

Nadia's case is being followed by the Association for Victims of Abductions and Enforced Disappearances (AVAED), which has documented 500 similar cases since the 2011 revolution. Hers appears to be a straight kidnapping, but AVAED says these are only a small proportion of disappearances. Sixty percent of them begin with a love relationship built on false pretenses.

"The girls are told, 'What will your family do to you if you go back to them? Convert to Islam so we can be together,' " said Ebram Louis, founder of AVAED. Kept against their will, Louis says, some of the girls are later found in brothels.

For the most part, it seems that Christians have expressed optimism for the new Constitution.  There is hope of a new day in Egypt, where all citizens, regardless of their faith, will enjoy justice and equality before the law. To have a text of a Constitution that suggests minority rights will be respected is a critical first step. 

Certainly, the new constitution appears to be much more favorable in the sight of Egyptian minorities.  Article 235 of the new constitution requires the House of Representatives to "issue a law to organize building and renovating churches, guaranteeing Christians the freedom to practice their religious rituals."  The building and repair of churches has long been a tool used to suppress Christian worship in Egypt, and for years has required the issuance of special permits at the approval of the President and/or local governing officials.  Since the attacks on Christian churches this past August damaged or destroyed over 70 churches, this article is of critical importance. 

Another reason for hope is the controversial Article 219 from the previous Constitution has been eliminated, comforting to those concerned about a heavy role for Islamic law in society. 

Yet still others remain cautious.  It will be the realization of these rights that will determine the future place of Christians in Egyptian society.  Some scholars, like Zaid al-Ali of the Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance, are not quite convinced:

"Thus, those seeking stronger rights for vulnerable groups will find significant comfort in this text. However, anyone hoping for specific mechanisms for those rights to be enforced will be sorely disappointed. After all, without democratic, effective, transparent and accountable institutions to enforce rights, they will remain just as theoretical as they did under the 1971 constitution, which is something that Egypt can ill afford today."

Truly, the proof of a "new Egypt" will be in the future society's treatment of women, Christians, and other minorities.

Please join The Institute in prayer for Egypt.  Pray for peace, stability, and security for the country.  Pray that the future elections mandated by the referendum will lead to the election of leaders that are good, fair and just.  Finally, pray that the institutions necessary for a just and equal society for all Egyptian citizens, including Christians, will be established and take hold with deep roots.