Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Why are Christians fleeing the Middle East?

I took a short break from blogging because of family events. This week I return to my favorite haunt, the Middle East, where faith and politics often meet with tragic consequences for all involved.

Why are Christians fleeing the Middle East? The answer is complex, but it is not just because of persecution, as bad as that is. Persecution may be the main driving factor, but it is by no means the only one.

Recently terrorists, who call themselves the Islamic State of Iraq and Al-Sham (ISIS), beheaded hundreds of innocent people, crucified former Muslims who freely choose to follow Jesus Christ, destroyed dozens of churches, taken over monasteries and evicted the monks, burned sacred manuscripts and art, and sent thousands of Christians and other religious minorities fleeing for their lives in a reign of bloodshed and terror.

Nearly all Christians have deserted Mosul -- the ancient Nineveh, and where according the apostle Thomas, according to tradition, established churches in the first century of the Christian era -- soon after Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi, the self-proclaimed Caliph of ISIS delivered this terrifying ultimatum: "We offer them three choices: Islam; the dhimma contract -- involving payment of jizya; if they refuse this they will have nothing but the sword."

The atrocities that ISIS has committed thus far are so extreme that Al Qaeda has condemned them. Thus it is understandable that Christians are fleeing Iraq and Syria. But Christians are not the only religious group that ISIS has persecuted. Other minorities, such as Yezidis, ShabaIts, and Kurd,. are victims as well. Even other Muslims have been killed by ISIS.

Nor is Iraq the only country from which Christians have been forcibly evicted. Syria, parts of which are now, as in Iraq, under the sway of ISIS, has persecuted Christian clerics and forced an exodus of many Christians. Christians have also fled many other Middle Eastern countries, where they have been persecuted.

Today, the religious ecology of the Middle East looks increasingly fragile, but the exodus of Christians is the result of more than persecution.

Christians have deep roots in the Middle East. They are not new arrivals to the Middle East, but they are indigenous to the region, just as Jews and Muslims are. But, unlike the Jews who returned to the Middle East, Christians are leaving in droves.

Yet this exodus is not a new phenomenon. Persecution of Christians has a long history. It began already during the Roman period and continues to the present day.

Yet for centuries after the rise of Islam, Christians and Muslims were able to live peaceably together, with the notable exception of the Crusades, for which Christians are fully to blame. The Crusades have led not only to past atrocities but also to the poisoned legacy that has been left in the Muslim world ever since. Christians are still described by some Muslims today in derogatory terms such as "illegitimate children of the crusaders" or "slaves of western colonialists."

Even the current persecution of Christians by ISIS in Iraq and Syria must be viewed through the historical lens of the Crusades.

Discrimination and persecution predates the colonial period, but it has been exacerbated by the unqualified support of Israel by Western nations. Some Muslims in the Middle East harbor a hatred of Christians, even of the indigenous Christians who predate the arrival of Islam.

If persecution is not the only reason, what are some other reasons for the Christian exodus? 

One of the primary reasons is economic. The Christian diaspora that stems from the Middle East is very large. Many Christians have been successful in business and the professions. Due to the repressive political climate in many Middle Eastern countries, Christians have emigrated to the West in large numbers, with the result that the Christian population of many countries in the region have declined drastically.

Unfortunately, precise figures for this exodus are not always available, but most countries do show a steady decline in the number of Christians. In addition to the exodus, one factor in the decline is the low birth rate of Christians. Many Christians are better educated and enjoy a high standard of living, and thus they have fewer children than Muslims. Just look at the decline in a sample of Middle Eastern countries in the last century.

Citing these additional reasons for the decline in the numbers of Christians should not be interpreted as an excuse for ignoring the genocide of religious minorities by ISIS. There is no reason for the West to ignore the plight of Christians and other minority religious groups. ISIS must be condemned by the whole world. 

ISIS is better financed than most jihadists. It not only controls oil fields but has robbed banks and extorted taxes in the territory that it controls. It has proclaimed itself as the new center for the whole Islamic world. Even foreigners are flocking to join it. A British man is alleged to be the person who beheaded the American journalist James Foley. ISIS has a total disregard for human rights, whether of individuals or communities. Now even Al Qaeda has disowned ISIS for its extremism.

Thankfully, ISIS does not enjoy the support of all Muslims. On the contrary, some Muslim leaders have spoken out against ISIS, but their voices have been drowned out by the noise that extremists make. Too often the media ignore the voices of moderation and disseminate only that of the extremists. And even if these voices are heard, extremists will not listen. They are deaf to any voices except their own.

Recently, in Bagdad local Muslims joined Christians at a service to show their solidarity The New York Times reported that a Muslim woman who was siting next to a Christian woman at the service who happened to be in tears, whispered to the Christian: "You are the true original people here, and we are sorry for what has been done in the name of Islam."

Such a confession will not bring Christians back to Mosul, or anywhere else in the Middle East for that matter any time soon. Too much blood has been spilled for too many centuries for that to happen. Christians will continue to flee the Middle East, at least for the foreseeable future. One day, perhaps, some Christians will return to the region where their ancestors have lived since the beginning of the Christian era.

And one day, perhaps, there will even be peace in the Middle East. But don't hold your breath. Even if ISIS does disappear, which seems unlikely at the moment, other extremist groups that could possibly be even more extreme may arise to replace it. That is the nature of the region.

Until that day arrives, some Christians will always be found in the Middle East. The God who four millennia ago made a covenant with Abraham (and by extension with his descendants) is faithful to his promises. God will preserve the Christians of the Middle East, just as he has preserved the Jews and brought them back to their ancestral land. Nor does he ignore Muslims who now dominate the region. He has many children there.

In spite of all the bloodshed, I believe that God watches over all the peoples of the Middle East and one day that long-awaited peace will arrive. Then Christians will no longer have to flee the region. Insha'Allah!

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Are Putin and Harper brothers?

This post is a personal commentary on two internationally renowned politicians that I dislike very much largely because of their authoritarian style and many negative character traits. What galls me above all is that they profess to be religious, but their faith seems to play little or no role in public. I delayed publication because of its personal nature. You may disagree with me, but this is my blog and my opinion.

Are Putin and Harper brothers? I ask this question somewhat tongue in cheek. They are not brothers, of course, but they do share many character traits, some of which are very negative.

By Putin and Harper I mean Russian President Vladimir Putin (born 7 October 1952) and Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper (30 April 1959). Although they are about six and a half years apart in age, and thus were not separated at birth, as is sometimes jocularly suggested about two people, they do show many signs of being so similar that many occasionally wonder if these two politicians are related.

Why do I ask whether they are brothers? Just look at their characters. They show many of the same traits, although there are also differences that can be explained by growing up in different countries. For example, Putin speaks Russian and German, while Harper speaks English and French, although he is learning Spanish.

Most revealingly, Putin is richer than Harper. Putin is estimated to be worth about $70 billion, while Harper is worth only $5 million, but again that can be explained by the countries in which they live. Russia is a very corrupt country, which helps to explain how Putin has accumulated such wealth on an official annual salary of only $187,000. Clearly in Russia there are opportunities available that Harper does not enjoy.

Putin's palace on the Black Sea

In addition, there are glaring differences in their foreign policies, particularly on the Middle East and Ukraine. Harper has just imposed new sanctions on Russia in the aftermath of MH17. Yet differences are not unusual among siblings. Thus these can be discounted.

The similarities between the two men are astounding. Both show so many similar traits that I have wondered more than once whether they are related. I am not alone in asking this question. Others have too.

Let's begin the comparison with something simple and not very surprising: Putin and Harper both love sports. That is not unusual; many men do. But these two are passionate about sports.

Putin is often photographed bare-chested, riding on a horse, fishing or whatever. He loves football; this year he attended the final of the World Cup between Germany and Argentina. He likes to present a macho image, especially when he is in public.

Harper, in contrast, is not as much into active sports -- he describes himself as studious and non-athletic -- but he did find time from his day job as prime minister to write a book called "A Great Game," a history of Canada's first hockey teams. In a country that is crazy about hockey this is politically astute.

Both men are consummate politicians. They know what they have to say and do to stay in power. Putin and Harper both have an agenda, and molding their respective countries according to their own visions.

But both have displayed strong anti-democratic tendencies. Putin has displayed his disdain for democracy frequently. This was most evident when he invaded Ukraine and seized Crimea, using the pretense of a referendum to do so. In Russia, there is no real democracy, as many Russians will admit. They have always preferred strong men to leaders. Putin is just the latest in a long series.

During his term in office Harper has revealed his contempt for democracy on many occasions. Perhaps the most glaring recent example is the totally misnamed Fair Elections Act, which makes it much more difficult for some people (read immigrants and others who would not vote for him anyway) to cast a ballot, but it favors the Conservative party when it comes to funding. Harper is not simply partisan but undemocratic. Among other things, he has fired scientists and shut down parliament in order to get his own way.

Putin has frequently trampled on the human rights of Russians. In Russia defenders of human rights are regularly attacked. Opposition leaders and journalists were murdered. The judicial system is manipulated and Russian police have falsely arrested, tortured and raped hundreds of individuals. Also, Putin has no respect for women. Now Russian rebels in Ukraine have been accused of violating human rights.

Last year.Harper did not attend an APEC meeting in Sri Lanka, because of the human rights abuses in that country. While this make him sound like a defender of human rights, it is apparent that for him international trade trumps these rights. In addition, his government has refused to ratify many international agreements on human rights and, at home, has eroded human rights for First Nations and refugees. He too, it is clear, has no respect for women.

Both men are apparently very loyal to their friends and supporters, but both can also be extremely vindictive when people turn against them or are no longer useful. This negative trait is common among many politicians, Obama is sometimes cited as an example, but Putin and Harper carry vindictiveness to a new level.

Mikhail Khodorkovsky behind bars in a Russian courtroom

Putin destroyed, Mikhail Khodorkovsky, who ran afoul of Putin by refusing to stay out of politics. Putin had ordered the oil giant dismembered and sold off and put Khodorkovsky, who was the owner of Yukos, on trial. Khodorkovsky is Jewish, but this is not why he was charged and condemned by the court. His crime was political: he had crossed Putin. Now Putin is getting his reward. The Permanent Court of Arbitration in the Hague, Netherlands recently ordered Russia to pay $50 billion to former shareholders of Yukos.

Harper has been known to push even his friends "under the bus" when they become liabilities to him. Nigel Wright, who was Harper's Chief of Staff until Wright wrote a check for $90,000 to allow Senator Mike Duffy to repay some expenses, is an example. Harper is infamous for his take-no-prisoner style. While not as ruthless as Putin, Harper's ruthlessness reveals a rather unsavory side to his character.

Putin is now divorced, which is not surprising in view of his machismo and ruthlessness. Harper is supposedly happily married, but there have been rumors that Harper's wife, Laureen Harper, had an affair with a female RCMP officer. Both men are the top politicians in their respective countries and thus may have neglected their wives with the resulting strain on their marriages.

Both men seem to be religious. Putin is a member of the Russian Orthodox Church. Harper is a member of the Christian and Missionary Alliance denomination. Yet religion does not seem to play a noticeable role in their domestic and foreign policy decisions, which is again not surprising, since many world leaders tend to go through the formalities of their faith but do not evidence it openly in their policies and public statements.

Why am I so critical of Putin and Harper? In part, because I have witnessed both men at work for many years: Putin while I was a resident of Moscow in the early period of his presidency, and Harper after my return to Canada after many years of living abroad. In neither case did I like what I saw. Both men practiced deceit and abuse of power. And both men have displayed contempt for ordinary people.

Putin came to power as the typical strongman that Russians have such a predilection for. If anything, he has grown more ruthless since he first came to power. The charade, whereby he traded offices temporarily with Dmitry Medvedev, which allowed Putin to remain president, was in order to circumvent the term of office limit set for the presidency in the Russian Constitution. One day, I surmise, Putin may find a way to become president-for-life, just as many presidents in Africa have already done.

During that time Putin has molded Russia in his image. If his popularity figures are an accurate measurement, many Russians like his vision of Russia. After the annexation of Crimea, these figures shot up. Even the MH17 fiasco did not dent his popularity, which is hardly surprising. Most Russians are poorly informed about what is really happened, thus they back the Kremlin's versions (of which there are several).

Harper has been prime minister since 2006. Theoretically he can remain in that office as long as his party remains in power, but I hope that does not happen. He too has shaped Canada in his image. Unfortunately, it is not an image that I share. Harper's Canada is the antithesis of mine. This is why I will never vote for him nor his party. The most recent polls show his support dropping throughout Canada, except in Saskatchewan and Alberta, where his core support is situated. He may yet lose the next election, scheduled for 2015.

This post is one way of protesting what Putin and Harper have done. Even though they are not brothers, they share many negative traits that appeal to a segment of the population in their respective countries. But their authoritarian nature turns me off. I prefer a very different leadership style. Politicians should serve the people of their country, not the other way around.

Putin and Harper are not brothers, but they are very similar in many ways. In Canada, Harper's days may be numbered. That is my fervent prayer. I intend to vote accordingly. In contrast, Putin may remain in power for a long time yet. Russians will determine their own fate. I do not like either of these two men and I wish they would disappear from the political scene.

Monday, August 4, 2014

End the carnage in Gaza

I have delayed publishing this post for several days in order to see how the situation in Gaza would unfold.

After many weeks of fighting in Gaza, it is already apparent that neither Israel nor Hamas is going to win this latest in a long series of wars between Hamas and Israel. It is time to end the carnage in Gaza.

After more than 1,800 Palestinian deaths and about 400,000 displaced people, Hamas continues to rain rockets indiscriminately on Israel. Much of the world has roundly condemned Hamas for this, which is widely perceived as an infringement of human rights.

Yet Hamas seems to be winning in the court of world opinion because of the large loss of civilian lives on the Palestinian side, which far outnumbers the lives lost on the Israeli side by a factor of 20-1.

While Israel has the indisputable right to defend itself, as its defenders never cease to point out, Israel has killed so many Palestinians, many of whom have nowhere to flee except to UN-run schools and hospitals, that it is has been condemned, even by some of its supporters, for the daily list of civilian casualties.

Israel too has been charged with human rights abuses, in spite of its claim that it makes an effort to warn the civilian residents of Gaza of an impending attack, even at the risk of some of its soldiers being killed. Yet this is not enough for many critics who point to all the atrocities perpetrated on innocent civilians, who have nowhere else to flee.

Israel is experiencing what the German philosopher G.W.F. Hegel called the "powerlessness of the victor." Because its weapons far exceed that of Hamas in quality and quantity, the military superiority of Israel is assured, yet its powerless is written on the what is left over of the walls of the Palestinian homes have been been reduced to rubble. It is illustrated too by the Israeli soldiers that have been killed.

Israeli air strike on Gaza, July 13, 2014

Israel has stated clearly that its goal is to destroy the capacity of Hamas to rain rockets on the heart of Israel and to destroy the tunnels that Hamas uses to bring in fresh supplies. But is even this limited goal possible without taking over control of the entire Gaza strip? I doubt it.

The withdrawal of ground troops by Israel does not spell the end of the war. The destruction of the tunnels, which was the ostensible reason for the invasion, will not bring Hamas to heel. That will require a continued occupation of Gaza as long as rockets rain down on Israel.

The reconquest of Gaza would mean accepting responsibility for all 1.8 million Palestinians, many of whom are poor and unemployed. They are also extremely physically and emotionally vulnerable. The causalities that would result  from taking control of Gaza would be enormous on both sides.

It would demand the elimination of Hamas, which even if it were possible. would carry with it the possibility of another much more extreme jihadist group arising phoenix-like out of the ashes of Hamas.

There would also be a new intifada in the West Bank, and that would bring about the downfall of President Mahmoud Abbas and the Palestinian Authority (PA) as well as end any diplomatic efforts to bring peace.

In addition, it would put an end to any further relationship with Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia and threaten relations with the US and Europe. Is this what Prime Minister Netanyahu wants?

Thus I doubt that he would take this route. Instead, Netanyahu might limit himself to a demilitarization of Gaza. For such a demilitarization to be accepted by the outside world, it would have to be part of a very important and necessary step towards a two-state solution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

But whether Hamas would accept demilitarization is extremely unlikely. It would contradict the Charter of Hamas (1988), where in the Epilogue it defines Hamas as soldiers who are fighting a Zionist enemy. The Charter repeatedly invokes Allah in the struggle to liberate Palestine.

The Charter clearly reveals the religious character of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The conflict is between Islam and Zionism. The Charter forbids any peace negotiations; only jihad is permitted.

Short of continuing its control Gaza, how will Israel stop Hamas from digging more tunnels and shooting more rockets into the heart of Israel. There must be an alternative.

Israel must leave Palestine, both Gaza and the West Bank, entirely. It must eventually return to the pre-1967 borders or at least make any necessary adjustments to allow for Israeli settlements that have sprung up in the meantime.

Diplomacy would strengthen the hand of the PA. The US should thus put pressure on Israel to take the path of diplomacy. Instead of an iron fist, it must offer an olive branch. That would pull the rug from under the feet of Hamas which wants undermine any diplomatic efforts that would spell the end for them. A lack of diplomacy forces Palestinians to support the organization as the only way to fight Israel and get their land back.

But this is a dream, since Hamas cannot win a military victory. It does not have the necessary resources, whether in terms of manpower or weapons. Hamas relies on outside suppliers, as does Israel. If these were cut off, Israel would be able to survive, but not Hamas.

In order to promote the diplomatic peace process, Western nations should cut off military support for Israel, while the Arab states should do the same for Hamas.

The US has recently in strong language criticized Israel for bombing schools, yet it continues to supply Israel with arms. If other nations would also cut off arms and endorse the diplomatic effort as an alternative, peace will come much sooner. Unfortunately, there are too many nations that are afraid to speak out openly about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict for fear that this may hurt their arms industry.

Canada, to my shame and consternation, has sided with Israel vociferously and condemned Hamas at every opportunity. It has done this largely for political reasons: to curry the Jewish vote. Seemingly, the current Conservative government has written off the Muslim vote, who are largely new arrivals in Canada but do not tend to vote Conservative, in favor of the well-established and prosperous Jewish vote (if such a vote, just like the Muslim, exists). This vote that while small mainly supports Prime Minister Stephen Harper.

Harper's support for Israel is also a matter of principle. He sees Israel as the only bulwark of democracy in the Middle East. I suspect that he, and some members of the Conservative caucus, may also support Israel for theological reasons. But that is difficult to prove, since Harper, who is a member of the evangelical Christian Missionary Alliance denomination, is very cautious about discussing his faith in public. To the best of my knowledge, he has not addressed this issue publicly.

Let's help to put and end to the carnage in Gaza, which is a small part of the larger conflict between Israel and Palestine.  Urge governments everywhere to support peace by encouraging any diplomatic efforts. I am convinced that many people in Israel and Palestine want peace and do not have any desire to be associated with the war crimes that are perpetrated by both sides in the conflict. And above all pray for peace.