The Early Middle East: Muhammad and the Faith of Islam

by the Independence Hall Association in Philadelphia | In 629, Muhammad returned to Mecca with an army of 1500 converts to Islam and entered the city unopposed and without bloodshed. Before his death two years later, he forcefully converted most of the Arabian Peninsula to his new faith and built a small empire. Image courtesy Muslim Students Association, University of Southern California.
This verse from the Qur’an, originally written in Arabic, translates “Muhammad is the Messenger of Allah” (Qur’an 48:29)

A man meditating alone in a cave near Mecca received a religious vision. This vision laid the foundations for a new religion. The year was 610 and the man’s name was Muhammad. And the belief system that arose from Muhammad’s ideas became the basis of one of the world’s most widely practiced religions: Islam.

Muhammad was born around 570 in the city of Mecca, located on the Arabian Peninsula. Both of his parents died before Muhammad was six and he was raised by his grandfather and uncle. His family belonged to a poor clan that was active in Mecca politics.

Following the traditions of wealthy families, he spent part of his childhood living with a Bedouin family. Bedouins led fairly isolated lives as nomadic herders in the harsh Arabian desert. Muhammad’s experiences among these people most likely had a strong influence on the development of Islam.

In his twenties, Muhammad began working as a merchant and soon married his employer, a rich woman named Khadijah. Over the next 20 years he became a wealthy and respected trader, traveling throughout the Middle East. He and his wife had six children — two boys (who did not live into adulthood) and four girls. By the time he was 40, he began having religious visions that would change his life.

A Revelation of Faith

This is prophet Muhammad's mosque in Medina

This is prophet Muhammad’s mosque in Medina

While meditating in a cave on Mount Hira, Muhammad had a revelation. He came to believe that he was called on by God to be a prophet and teacher of a new faith, Islam, which means literally “submission.”

This new faith incorporated aspects of Judaism and Christianity. It respected the holy books of these religions and its great leaders and prophets — Abraham, Moses, Jesus, and others. Muhammad called Abraham “Khalil” (“God’s friend”) and identified him as Islam’s ancient patriarch. Islam traces its heritage through Abraham’s son Ishmael.

Muhammad believed that he himself was God’s final prophet.

Central to Islamic beliefs are the Five Pillars of Faith, which all followers of Islam — called Muslims — must follow:

  • There is only one universal God: Allah.
  • Followers of Islam (Muslims) are expected to pray five times each day while facing Mecca.
  • All Muslims are expected to pay a yearly tax that is mostly intended to help the poor and needy.
  • For the entire month of Ramadan, Muslims must not eat, smoke, drink, or have sexual relations from sunrise to sunset.
  • All able Muslims must make a pilgrimage (hajj) to Mecca at least once in their lifetimes.

The Kaaba
Mecca houses Islam’s holiest site, the Kaaba, which was believed to have been built for Yahweh by Abraham and his son Ishmael.

Islam spread at almost Internet-like speed, encompassing much of the former territories of the ancient Near East, North Africa, and Spain.

Muhammad’s message was especially well received by the poor and slaves. But many people were opposed to his message. This opposition only seemed to make him more determined. After years of publicly promoting his ideas, he became so disliked that some began plotting his murder.

From Mecca to Medina and Back
In 622, fearing for his life, Muhammad fled to the town of Medina. This flight from Mecca to Medina became known as the Hegira, Arabic for “flight.” The Muslim calendar begins on this year.

In Medina, the local people welcomed Muhammad and his followers. There, Muhammad built the first mosque, or Islamic temple, and began to work to separate Islam from Judaism and Christianity, which had originally influenced him.

Whereas his followers had originally prayed while facing toward Jerusalem, he now had them face toward Mecca. Muhammad continued to have revelations from Allah. The ideas from these revelations formed the basis of a poetic text called the Koran, which contains the fundamental ideas of Islam.

Muhammad fought a number of battles against the people of Mecca. In 629, Muhammad returned to Mecca with an army of 1500 converts to Islam and entered the city unopposed and without bloodshed. Before his death two years later, he forcefully converted most of the Arabian Peninsula to his new faith and built a small empire.

Jihad

Belief in jihad is a common thread to many Islamic sects. Although the exact meaning of the Arabic is difficult to express in English, jihad is most accurately translated as “struggle.”

For most Muslims, jihad is a personal struggle against evil. The holy battles of this spiritual struggle are fought inside Muslims’ minds and souls.

Sometimes, the struggle can take the form of a physical war against non-believers. Although this kind of jihad is referred to in English as a “holy war,” most Muslims believe there is nothing holy about war and that wars should only be fought against oppressors and aggressors.

A minority of Muslims, however, places great importance on holy war jihads. This minority feels that Muslims must wage war against all nonbelievers. It is this conception of jihad that inspires Islamic extremist terrorism. Unfortunately, due to media coverage, this is the interpretation of jihad that most Westerners are familiar with.

It should be reiterated that mainstream Islam is peaceful and rejects the idea of unprovoked war. Although the concept of jihad is widespread, it has not been accepted by the general Islamic community as one of the Pillars of Islam.

Unfortunately, Muhammad had not designated a successor. The struggle over leadership that followed his death has divided Muslims to this day, creating a division in Islam between the Sunnis and Shiites.

Despite these problems, a vast Islamic empire was created over the next 12 centuries that would build a base of worshipers unrivaled by any other religion.



The Mosque Attack in New Zealand and Its Consequences

by William Kilpatrick | The attack on the mosques in New Zealand took place on March 14 and received intensive worldwide coverage. Yet four days earlier, two Muslim suicide bombers tried to blow up a church in Adamawa State in Nigeria. Six days earlier, on March 4, Muslim Fulani tribesmen killed 23 Christians with machetes and gunfire in Benue State. And on March 10 and 11, Fulani herdsmen killed 85 people in three communities in Kaduna State.

Last week, a man who claimed to be defending Western Civilization killed 50 defenseless worshippers in two New Zealand mosques, thereby betraying every good thing that Western Civilization stands for.

A supposed foe of jihad terror, the terrorist adopted the savage tactics of jihadists in order to further his twisted ideology. Whatever he was trying to prove, he only proved himself to be every bit as evil as those ISIS terrorists who torture, enslave, and behead.

Brenton Tarrant does not represent the Western tradition; he represents the sins of the West. Still, despite its sins, the West does need to be defended. Historian Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., put it this way:

No other culture has built self-criticism into the very fabric of its being. The crimes of the West in time generated their own antidotes. They have provoked great movements to end slavery, to raise the status of women, to abolish torture, to combat racism … to advance personal liberty and human rights.

Western Civilization needs to be defended, as do all those societies who have emulated the West by guaranteeing freedom of religion, freedom of speech, and equal rights for women. None of these freedoms can be taken for granted. They are threatened on many sides—from radical Islam, from the radical right, and even more from the radical left, from giant media and financial corporations, and from combinations of these forces.

Currently, the greatest threat to our freedoms comes from an alliance of leftists, Islamists, and global media giants. They have moved quickly to take advantage of the horrific crime in Christchurch. At a press conference on the mosque shooting, Nihad Awad, the head of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), blamed President Trump, who, he said, has been able to “normalize Islamophobia and give legitimacy to those who fear Muslims and fear immigrants.” Awad claimed that Trump has created a climate of hate that has caused “attacks on innocent Muslims, innocent immigrants and mosques” to “skyrocket.” Meanwhile, in Istanbul, the International Union for Muslim Scholars has issued a statement calling on non-Muslim countries to ban Islamophobia.

Unfortunately, in the minds of many Muslim, and also in the minds of many politicians and according to the media, “Islamophobia” has come to mean any unfavorable criticism or discussion of Islam, no matter how accurate or reasonable. Thus, even if you merely call attention to jihad violence you may be considered an Islamophobe. Consequently, when world leaders are called upon to condemn violence, they rarely use the term “Islamic violence.” As Pope Francis remarked after the murder of a French priest by two jihadists, “If I speak of Islamic violence, I must speak also of Catholic violence.” As a result of this kid-glove treatment of the topic, many are left in the dark about the true motivation of jihadists. Other topics are off-limits as well. In today’s heated climate, if you draw attention to Islam’s oppression of women, or forced marriages, or honor violence, there are many who will brand you as a “hater”—one who should be banned from all public forums.

Internet monopolies such as Google, Facebook, and Twitter have already attempted to ban or restrict counterjihad sites which discuss or analyze the connection behind Islamic teachings and jihad terror. The Christchurch mosque massacre will undoubtedly inspire them to renew their efforts to silence critics of Islamist Ideology.

We can also expect continued efforts to criminalize “Islamophobia.” The Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) has long pressured United Nations members to criminalize criticism of Islam, and many European nations have begun to comply. Last year, the European Court of Human Rights upheld the conviction of Elizabeth Sabaditsch-Wolff—an Austrian woman who, in the course of a seminar, had mentioned Muhammad’s marriage to a nine-year-old. She was found guilty—not because what she said was untrue, but because it hurt the “religious feelings” of Muslims.

Of course, we should all strive not to hurt the religious feelings of others. And I would hazard a guess that the average Westerner bends over backwards not to offend. But if we want to engage in honest reporting of history and current events, it’s sometimes impossible to avoid hurt feelings.

For example, the reporting and discussion of the sex-abuse scandal in the Catholic Church must be quite painful for many Catholics. However, those who rush to enforce Islam’s blasphemy laws would never agree to censor reporting of Catholic misdeeds in order to protect the “religious feelings” of Catholics. And justly so. Feelings shouldn’t trump the public’s right to important information. This should be the case even if the potential risks go beyond hurt feelings. Such reporting may, of course, put innocent priests at risk from angry individuals who   jump to the conclusion that all priests are abusers. Numerous cases of priests being cursed, spat upon, or physically attacked have already occurred. But although the potential risks may be an argument for more accurate reporting, it should not be used as an argument to silence all discussion of the issue. Without the disclosures, it seems likely that the cover-ups would have continued indefinitely, and the ultimate harm to the Church would be much greater.

Religious freedom does not mean freedom from criticism. Just as the Catholic hierarchy deserves criticism for protecting and even promoting abusers, there are aspects of Islam that merit criticism and, indeed, call for criticism. Jihad terror is not going to go away once it is no longer reported or discussed. The oppression of women and minorities under Islam is not going to end just because discussion of it is put to an end. Instead, it is likely that these practices will only increase once a curtain of silence is drawn around them.

This, sadly, is exactly what the mainstream media has been doing. To protect Islam from criticism, the media has given back-page treatment to stories of Islamic terror or has ignored them altogether. You know about the shooting of innocent Muslims in New Zealand, but there are a number of equally vicious attacks on Christians that you most likely haven’t heard of.

The attack on the mosques in New Zealand took place on March 14 and received intensive worldwide coverage. Yet four days earlier, two Muslim suicide bombers tried to blow up a church in Adamawa State in Nigeria. Six days earlier, on March 4, Muslim Fulani tribesmen killed 23 Christians with machetes and gunfire in Benue State. And on March 10 and 11, Fulani herdsmen killed 85 people in three communities in Kaduna State. A month prior to that, Boko Haram militants killed 60 people and burned hundreds of structures in the Nigerian town of Rann.

Judging by the lack of international news coverage, one is forced to the conclusion that the media considers the ongoing slaughter of Christians to be a low-priority matter. In some instances, the Christians can’t even count on local coverage. International Christian Concern ends a report on a Boko Haram attack with these words: “The church leader regrets that these attacks are rarely reported on by the local media anymore. As a result, their people continue to suffer in silence, with minimal help from others.”

I mention these killings because they occurred close in time to the New Zealand attack. But they are only part of a bigger picture. In many parts of Africa, Asia, and the Middle East, attacks on Christians by Muslims are routine. These include attacks on Christians at worship. For example, in Alexandria, Egypt, 45 people were killed in church bombings on Palm Sunday 2017.  According to Open Doors, at least 4,305 Christians were murdered for their faith by Muslims in 2018.

Apparently, the incidence of global Christianophobia is far greater than the incidence of Islamophobia. Yet, by slanted and selective news coverage, the media attempts to convince us otherwise. In his press conference remarks, Nihad Awad spoke of skyrocketing attacks on mosques, and the media was quick to echo the claim. Except for occasional incidents of spray-painting—regrettable as that is—attacks on mosques in the Western world are extremely rare. What Awad and the press also fail to mention is that the vast majority of deadly attacks on mosques and on Muslim pilgrims are committed by other Muslims.

None of this is meant to detract from the horror of what was done at the Al Noor and Linwood mosques in Christchurch. It is an attempt to provide some perspective, lest, in the hysteria of the moment, the outrage in the wake of the shootings is used as an excuse to silence those who are trying to call attention to facts that we all need to know.

William KilpatrickWilliam Kilpatrick taught for many years at Boston College. He is the author of several books about cultural and religious issues, including Why Johnny Can’t Tell Right From Wrong; and Christianity, Islam and Atheism: The Struggle for the Soul of the West and The Politically Incorrect Guide to Jihad. His articles have appeared in numerous publications, including Catholic World Report, National Catholic Register, Aleteia, Saint Austin Review, Investor’s Business Daily,and First Things. His work is supported in part by the Shillman Foundation. For more on his work and writings, visit his website, turningpointproject.com



A Remarkable History of Christian Self-Understanding

by Gil Bailie | French historian Antoine Arjakovsky has written a penetrating exploration of the struggle to keep or restore Christian unity and his own intimations of how that effort might bear more fruit.

What Is Orthodoxy? A Genealogy of Christian Understanding
By Antoine Arjakovsky
Foreword by John Milbank
Angelico Press, 2018
Paperback, 412 pages

Last year, the five-hundredth anniversary of the Protestant Reformation was celebrated by some and noted with remorse by others. Though the reformers sought to rebuild Christianity on the principle of sola scriptura, without either papal or magisterial authority the movement immediately began fracturing over the proper interpretation of the Scriptures. Today, the number of Protestant denominations is estimated to be somewhere between 35,000 and 47,000, a sobering reminder that sola scriptura was incapable of performing the task assigned to it.

Though ecumenical efforts to repair the damage done by such divisions have been most welcome, not a few Catholics were puzzled by the Vatican decision to commemorate the anniversary of the Reformation by issuing a stamp depicting Martin Luther and his collaborator Philip Melanchthon kneeling at the foot of the cross. In 2018, that concern quickly paled by comparison when the scandal of criminal and immoral behavior on the part of ordained priests and bishops abruptly brought to light divisions within the Church of which many of the faithful had been unaware.

At year’s end, the Anglican communion’s self-declared middle-way between Catholic and Protestant alternatives suffered another setback when the Church of England abandoned any pretense of adherence to Judeo-Christian theological anthropology by promulgating guidelines for a baptism-like ceremony for those who claim to have changed their gender. While some saw this as more evidence of how quickly churches and ecclesial traditions are succumbing to the increasingly burlesque spirit of the age, others declared it to be indicative of Christianity’s growing moral acuities.

On January 5th of this year, the spiritual leader of the world’s Orthodox Christians, the Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, formally granted autocephalous status (canonical independence) to the newly created Ukrainian Orthodox Church. The Russian Patriarchate went so far as to warn that this step could lead to the most significant break within Christianity since the Great Schism between the Greek Church of the East and the Latin Church of the West in 1054.

Alas, Christianity is deeply paradoxical – dying in order that one might live, the least being the first, and so on. The faithful have not always managed to keep the mystery at the heart of these paradoxes – and that holds the antinomies in creative tension – in focus. Nor should it surprise us that we Christians have found taking stock of our fallen nature less congenial than taking sides in contentious theological disputes.

In his book, What Is Orthodoxy? A Genealogy of Christian Understanding, the French historian Antoine Arjakovsky has given us a remarkable overview of the question that lies at the heart of all the neuralgic issues just mentioned. The author’s historical erudition is extraordinary, as is his deft analysis. As Arjakovsky sees it, the effort to restore orthodoxy can be handicapped by unquestioned presuppositions about the very nature of orthodoxy.

As Joseph Ratzinger often noted, in the ancient church orthodoxy did not mean “right doctrine.” Rather it meant the authentic glorification of God, which was to be done on several registers: liturgically, morally, intellectually, socially, and aesthetically. Being in a right relationship with God would ennoble every aspect of one’s life and give it a coherence not otherwise achievable. On this, the German pontiff and the French historian concur. Writes Arjakovsky in one of his most lapidary summaries:

Orthodoxy is not, as was commonly believed for a long time, simply the opposite of heresy, understood as a partial knowledge of the truth. Orthodoxy is a mode of relationship to the truth that prevents worship from emptying itself of the glory it seeks to proclaim, that prevents memory from ossifying itself by clinging to a remembrance as if it were an object, that refuses a moral testimony not lived out in practice, and that leads science, in danger of remaining merely at a purely theoretical level, back to its obligations of justice. It assures a relationship to the truth that is complex and embraces the fundamental metaphysical positions of worship, memory, ethics and justice.

Arjakovsky quotes the Orthodox theologian Alexander Schmemann’s critique of what he saw as the Byzantine Church’s defective understanding of orthodoxy:

A crystallization of tradition began within the Byzantine Church, a tendency to define the Tradition and consider it as closed and immutable. In this sense the Byzantine mentality considered the “triumph of orthodoxy” as a decisive and total victory of orthodoxy, the end point of its historic development. Henceforth the Orthodox Church is defined as “the Church of the Seven Councils and the Fathers” and the Byzantines would regard any heresy as a repetition of former heresies and condemn it almost automatically by referring it to decisions taken in the past. This fundamentalist and conservative attitude, which is still one of the characteristic traits of the orthodox mentality and which bestows an absolute importance on the most accidental details of the life and cult of Church, can be traced to this deeply anti-historic attitude of Byzantium.

Arjakovsky points to what he sees as the risks that each of the major forms of Christianity runs in striving for orthodoxy.

… the “Orthodox” risk of imagining that stagnation is the best way to avoid being dogmatizing and thus risking heresy, the “Protestant” risk of believing that doctrinal authority only deserves obedience when it is faithful to Scripture (which presupposes another body capable of judging this conformity … but which?) and the “Catholic” risk of being led to believe that a magisterial teaching is itself sufficient because it comes from a legitimate authority.

Arjakovsky proposes several answers to the question the book asks, namely: orthodoxy as right truth, as worthy glorification, as faithful memory, and as true and just knowledge. In fact, he sees in Christian history the ascendance in turn of each of these approaches to orthodoxy: “orthodoxy as worthy glorification (33-313), orthodoxy as right truth (313-1453), orthodoxy as faithful memory (1453-1948), orthodoxy as true and fair knowledge (1948 to present).” He explores each at some length in the second section of his book.

The reader senses the passion that moved the French historian to tackle so daunting a task in his treatment of the Great Schism of 1054 and its aftermath. He appears to be particularly haunted by the failure of the Council of Florence in 1439. Under the growing threat from the Ottoman Turks, the Eastern representatives at the Council conceded to a number of doctrines of the Western Church, not least concerning the filioque issue – that the Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son – and the primacy of the pope. But this extraordinary achievement was resisted by the faithful and civil leaders in the East. After Constantinople fell in 1453, one of the most consequential and lamentable events in history, the 1484 Synod of Constantinople rejected the earlier agreement. A reader can feel the author’s heavy heart in Arjakovsky’s summary: “The historiography of the ensuing confessional period of orthodoxy will rewrite, over the ashes of wounded memories, a polemic and proselyte history of the council.”

The author’s hopes for the ecclesial traditions he obviously loves and his reason for writing this extraordinary book are perhaps best captured by a quotation he shares from another Orthodox historian:

…the schism is an ongoing event and not a historical fact. It is not a question of relating an unfinished history; it is a question of bringing this history to a close and recognizing the starting points of departure for such a venture. First we need to go back to the basics, to rediscover the same vision … It is the lack of dialogue and the lack of charity which hardened the opposing differences.

Arjakovsky has given us, not only a vast historical panorama, but a penetrating exploration of the struggle to keep or restore Christian unity and his own intimations of how that effort might bear more fruit. This reviewer’s genuine gratitude notwithstanding, there are a few, perhaps minor, matters which cause concern.

For instance, when Arjakovsky writes: “Truth is dependent on the degree of conciliarity among those who attest to it.” This arresting statement holds true as long as the word conciliarity is not allowed to become a synonym for political consensus. Pope Benedict XVI, for whom Arjakovsky has high regard, has warned that conciliarity must not be taken to mean, or serve as a forerunner for, a horizontal, “pluralist” or “federative” ecclesiology, as some fear the principle of synodality might presage. Benedict has boldly argued that a properly conciliar ecclesiology is one that finds its center, not in theological compromises, but in the Mother of the Lord. Happily, it appears that Arjakovsky concurs on this point. For at one point in his exposition he cites the schema of Hans Urs von Balthasar, according to whom the ecclesial architecture of the Church is configured around Peter, James, John and Paul, while all of these inflections of Christian truth are held in creative tension by the fiat of the Virgin at the center.

As the attenuation of both Christian faith and Christian cultural influence continues, the temptation to nostalgia is understandable. Arjakovsky dismisses that option as inadequate. Of its opposite danger, he seems less wary. He writes:

On the other hand, if orthodox thought were understood as being, at the same time, a mystical theology, a participative philosophy, a political science of justice and moral understanding, then contemporary thought would be able to find new resources to face the new global age of its history and propose a more fair and peaceful civilization, one more respectful of creation.

One can sympathize with this assessment while feeling some unease with both its mildly enlightenment tone and the globalist, post-national vocabulary with which it is invoked. It may be parodied as a typically American concern, but nonetheless it should be said that frustration with how national and ethno-national loyalties have often exacerbated Christian divisions is insufficient reason for assuming that the attenuation of otherwise benign or healthy forms of patriotism will favor greater unity among culturally deracinated Christians.

Doubtless Christians have often enough doctored their moral and theological principles in deference to national, ethnic, or tribal loyalties, something Arjakovsky traces back to Eusebius and Augustine. Today, however, they are more likely to set aside Christian principles in favor of the sentimental humanitarianism which is too often assumed to be Christianity’s chief concern. However indebted to Christianity secular anthropocentrism is, and whatever the merits of its economistic, political and ecological aspirations, Christ did not die on the cross and rise from the dead primarily to arouse these aspirations. They are a far cry from the spiritual, moral and sacramental transformations for which Christ commissioned his Church.

In the West, especially in the post-conciliar years, and with increased urgency since the ascendance of Jorge Bergoglio to the Chair of Peter, the temptation to embrace the political, economic, environmental, and sexual dogmata of the post-Christian secular ideologues has most often been resisted by Christians who honor the classical virtue of pietas, defined by the British historian Christopher Dawson as “the cult of parents and kinsfolk and native place as the principles of our being … a moral principle which lies at the root of every culture and every religion.” He warned that a society that loses this fundamental sense of belonging “has lost its primary moral basis and its hope of survival.”

This brings us to another concern: that Arjakovsky gives more weight than warranted to the fact that “orthodoxy understood as doctrinal fidelity no longer appeals to the present generation of American Christians.” Doubtless such indifference to doctrinal fidelity deserves attention. But one doubts whether the theological perspicacity of “the present generation of American Christians” is a sufficiently weighty datum to render doctrinal fidelity otiose. Arjakovsky does not propose this, of course, but his citation of this lamentable fact suggests perhaps something of the problem now infecting the Catholic Church, namely, a subtle capitulation to a progressive understanding of history, according to which more weight is given to the worldviews of later generations than to their predecessors simply on the basis of their chronological posteriority.

These may not be entirely minor quibbles, but they pale in light of what a rich and learned exploration of Christian orthodoxy this wise and gifted historian has given us. The book is a serious and scholarly approach to a very old and very complex problem, a masterwork in fact. We will not likely see anything comparable to it for a very long time. It makes demands on the reader, but the effort is richly rewarded. Arjakovsky urges his readers to shake off the lethargic tendency to accommodate to divisions festering in the Body of Christ that ought to trouble every serious Christian. He whets his readers’ appetite for a magisterial proposal for resolving the confusions and divisions in contemporary Christianity.

Alas, such a tidy solution is not forthcoming, for it would betray the seriousness of this book. Of this slight disappointment, the grateful reader might want to recall the lines from Robert Frost’s poem, Mowing:

Anything more than the truth would have seemed too weak
To the earnest love that laid the swale in rows…

Gil Bailie, JD, is the founder and president of The Cornerstone Forum, and the author, most recently, of God’s Gamble: The Gravitational Power of Crucified Love.



Liberty of conscience and worship is in decline around the world

by Erasmus | WASHINGTON, D.C.| Russia and five other countries join a list of offenders compiled by American religious-freedom watchers

Russia has been added to the list of egregious violators of religious freedom by an American agency that is mandated by law to monitor liberty of belief around the world, and denounce persecutors.  The United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) said its view was reinforced by a recent Russian court ruling to outlaw the Jehovah’s Witnesses.

The agency’s bleak assessment of Russia is the most striking development in a generally pessimistic survey of the multiple, dreadful ways in which liberty of conscience and worship is being curtailed by the world’s nations, and also by terrorist groups.  Under America’s religious-liberty legislation, two institutions are instructed to keep a close eye on freedom of belief: the State Department and USCIRF, a panel of eminent members jointly nominated by Congress and the White House.  The commission, whose role is advisory, often takes a rather more stringent view than the Department.

But the American government and those of other Western countries will certainly concur that a dark precedent was set by banning the Jehovah’s Witnesses outright, a move that has prompted the closure of the movement’s 400 or so branches or “chapters” in Russia. The authorities have also stepped up the collection of personal details of the group’s members.  The Witnesses, keen proselytisers who urge people to prepare for humanity’s end times, are at odds with the authorities in many countries, often over their refusal to engage in military service.

Among Russia-watchers, the banning of the Witnesses is seen as the latest example of the use of legislation banning “extremism” to repress people who are guilty of nothing more than idiosyncratic beliefs. Another group whom the authorities consider “extreme” are followers of Said Nursi, a Turkish preacher of a mystical form of Islam. Russia’s state policy tends to favour “traditional” religions: the established forms of Orthodox Christianity, Islam, Buddhism and Judaism. It makes life harder for other religious groups.  

Introducing its general assessment of freedom of conscience round the world, the USCIRF said:

“The state of affairs…is worsening both in the depth and the breadth of the violations. The blatant assaults have become so frightening—attempted genocide, the slaughter of innocents, the wholesale destruction of places of worship—that less egregious abuses go unnoticed or unappreciated.”

The commission endorsed the State Department’s current list of 10 “countries of particular concern”—in other words, especially severe violators—and named six other countries which, in the panel’s view, ought to be added: the Central African Republic, Nigeria, Pakistan, Russia, Syria and Vietnam. The commission also named three non-state actors that were guilty of terrible persecution: Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, Afghanistan’s Taliban, and al-Shabaab of Somalia.

Being named as a country of particular concern can incur American sanctions, although in practice the administration often invokes “waivers” to avoid damaging sensitive strategic relationships. As an advisory body whose main mandate is simply to describe reality, the Commission feels less constrained by the need to observe diplomatic niceties.

The commission’s latest list of “Tier 2” violators of religious freedom (not in the top league but still troubling) includes several mainly Muslim countries with which the United States has a significant strategic stake: Egypt, Indonesia, Malaysia and NATO member Turkey. Also included is Bahrain, a country where an authoritarian Sunni regime presides over a mainly Shia Muslim population.

In a way the State Department and the USCIRF play “good cop and bad cop”. The commission issues scoldings wherever they are merited. The Department has other things to consider— including the awkward fact that many, perhaps most, of the countries that offer their services to the United States as allies against jihadi terrorism are themselves fairly repressive of religious freedom. In today’s messy and perilous world, games of good and bad cop may be an unfortunate necessity.

 



Why Jesus’ Skin Color Matters

That he was an ethnic minority shapes how we minister today.

After one of my recent lectures, a Christian college student approached me and asked if black people are uncomfortable with the fact that Jesus is white. I responded, “Jesus is not white. The Jesus of history likely looked more like me, a black woman, than you, a white woman.”

I wasn’t shocked by this student’s assumption that Jesus was of European descent, or the certitude with which she stated it. When I am in US Christian spaces, I encounter this assumption so often that I’ve come to believe it is the default assumption about Jesus’ appearance. Indeed, white Jesus is everywhere: a 30-foot-tall white Savior stands at the center of Biola University’s campus; white Jesus is featured on most Christmas cards; and the recent History Channel mini-series The Bible dramatically introduced a white Jesus to more than 100 million viewers. In most of the Western world, Jesus is white.

While Christ the Lord transcends skin color and racial divisions, white Jesus has real consequences. In all likelihood, if you close your eyes and picture Jesus, you’ll imagine a white man. Without conscious intention or awareness, many of us have become disciples of a white Jesus. Not only is white Jesus inaccurate, he also can inhibit our ability to honor the image of God in people who aren’t white.

Jesus of Nazareth likely had a darker complexion than we imagine, not unlike the olive skin common among Middle Easterners today. Princeton biblical scholar James Charlesworth goes so far as to say Jesus was “most likely dark brown and sun-tanned.” The earliest depictions of an adult Jesus showed him with an “Oriental cast” and a brown complexion. But by the sixth century, some Byzantine artists started picturing Jesus with white skin, a beard, and hair parted down the middle. This image became the standard.

In the colonial period, Western Europe for the most part exported its image of a white Christ worldwide, and white Jesus often shaped the way Christians understood Jesus’ ministry and mission. Some 19th-century Christians, eager to justify the cruelties of slavery, went out of their way to present Jesus as white. By negating his true identity as a dark-skinned, oppressed minority, slaveholders were better able to justify the master-slave hierarchy and forget Jesus’ ministry to set the oppressed free (Luke 4:18).

As a Jew, Jesus was an ethnic minority in the Roman Empire. Jews were marginalized by Romans, Greeks, and other non-Jewish groups in many imperial cities. As an infant, Jesus was a target of ruler-sanctioned infanticide, fled to Egypt as a refugee, and faced Roman tax collectors’ exploitation. Throughout his life, he knew the pain of being a member of an ethnic group whose culture, religion, and experiences were marginalized by those in power.

Since Jesus belonged to an ethnic minority, we are compelled to re-evaluate who Jesus was and with whom he identified as he fulfilled his mission. When people who were on the outskirts gathered, Jesus was among them—not only because he ministered to them but because he was one of them. As an ethnic minority, Jesus didn’t simply care about people who were victims of Rome-sanctioned violence, he was a victim of Rome-sanctioned violence. Jesus didn’t simply care about refugees, Jesus was a refugee. Jesus didn’t simply care about the poor, he was poor. To Jesus, ministry meant knowing from the inside the pain of society’s most marginalized.

In order to follow Jesus in his mission today, we often must choose a love that is based in solidarity. Many well-meaning Christians minister across a social gap, but whites can minister to people of color without truly seeing them as equals, and higher-income people can serve lower-income people while knowing little about their daily lives. Jesus’ ethnic identity and social location require that we must not only minister to people who are marginalized, we must stand with them as Jesus stands with them.

This involves seeing non-European cultural perspectives and customs as valid and valuable, listening to people who are marginalized, and demonstrating with our words and actions that both spiritual and social liberation are central to the gospel.

But first, those who still perceive a white Christ must ask whether they can and will worship a dark-skinned Jesus.

Christena Cleveland is associate professor of the practice of reconciliation at Duke University’s Divinity School.



The Lost Tribes of Israel: Lost No More

In search of the lost tribes of Israel by Rabbi Jonathan Bernis

It reads like a modern-day suspense movie screenplay.

A mysterious tribe in a remote corner of the world makes an astonishing claim about its members' historic identity. Ostracized by their neighbors, these lowly outcasts stubbornly insist they're descended from the world's most storied race of people—the Israelites.

Skeptical investigators discover an ancient heritage of names, words and idioms foreign to any local tongue but do indeed bear a striking resemblance to Hebraic ones. They also observe rituals and traditions seemingly right out of the first five books of the Old Testament.

Even so, these astonishing assertions are dismissed by most as too fantastic to be true—until cutting-edge breakthroughs in genetic analysis suddenly added scientific credence to their claims.

This isn't fiction. Indeed, in recent years this very scenario has been playing out in numerous unlikely spots in far-flung corners of the world—from Africa, to India and even China. These extraordinary developments represent an emerging solution to one of antiquity's deepest and long-standing mysteries.

Namely, "What happened to 'the Lost Tribes of Israel?'"

What is more, these discoveries seem to represent a stunning fulfillment of biblical prophecy.

How 10 Tribes Got Lost

To understand the origin of the Lost Tribes mystery, one must have a grasp of two historical facts.

The first is that the original 12-tribe kingdom of Israel—founded under King Saul and expanded under the rule of David and his son Solomon—was ultimately split into two nations after Solomon's death. Ten tribes formed the northern kingdom (varyingly referred to by the Old Testament prophets as "Israel" or "Ephraim"), while the remaining tribes of Judah and Benjamin became the southern kingdom (which the prophets simply called "Judah"), with Jerusalem as its capital.

Secondly, it's important to know that the northern kingdom was ultimately invaded and completely conquered by the Assyrian Empire in 722 B.C.

Whenever the Assyrians conquered a nation, it was their practice to forcibly relocate most of the conquered people to other portions of their vast empire—and to settle that area with other conquered people. This served to make a future rebellion against Assyrian authority far less likely. The assumption was the vanquished people would ultimately be assimilated—racially, culturally and religiously—into the nations to which they were scattered. And in most cases, that is precisely what happened.

But the Israelites are not just any ethnic or cultural group in history. They were—and are—a people hand-selected and engineered by God Himself to be stubbornly resistant to assimilation. And as we're about to discover, that resistance is astonishingly strong and persistent.

Roughly 135 years after the fall of the northern kingdom, Judah was also conquered. The Babylonians, which had by that time replaced the Assyrians as the dominant world empire, carried all the best and brightest of the Judean kingdom into captivity. After 70 years, what the Bible calls a "remnant" of those captives returned to Judah to rebuild and restore the devastated nation—including the rebuilding of the temple. But there is no record in the Bible of the Northern Tribes ever returning.

So, if only a remnant of the Judean captives returned to Judah, what happened to the other members of the tribes of Judah and Benjamin—the ones who stayed behind and made the vast Babylonian Empire their permanent home?

And what of the Jews who remained in Israel following the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple in A.D. 70 and the final revolt against the Romans in A.D. 136? They too were banished from their land and scattered to the nations of the world and became known as the diaspora, or dispersion.

The Wanderers

Prior to all of these events, God had explicitly warned Israel that if they were not faithful to obey His laws and commandments, He would banish them from their land to wander the nations: "The Lord will scatter you among all the peoples, from the one end of the earth to the other" (Deut. 28:64).

This indeed came to pass. The descendants of Jacob have been scattered to almost every nation on earth. But in His mercy and faithfulness, God also promised the day would come when He would bring them back: "When all these things happen to you, the blessing and the curse, which I have set before you, and you remember them among all the nations, where the Lord your God has driven you, then you must return to the Lord your God and obey His voice according to all that I am commanding you today, you and your children, with all your heart, and with all your soul. Then the Lord your God will overturn your captivity and have compassion on you and will return and gather you from all the nations, where the Lord your God has scattered you" (Deut. 30:1-3).

I believe we are living in those days of restoration. The fact is, while the remnants of these tribes have been lost to the world for centuries, God has known all along where they are. As I mentioned above, He designed them to be very resistant to assimilation. Indeed, many of these ancient Jewish communities are now coming to light and being recognized by Israel.

Each of these in many respects fit the narrative described in my opening paragraphs. They and their ancestors have been following distinctly Jewish traditions for centuries, and some have been genetically linked to the Jewish people. Here are just a few exciting examples:

The Bnei Menashe of India

Near the border between eastern India and Myanmar are the two Indian states of Manipur and Mizoram. Within these states lives an ancient community called the Bnei Menashe, believed to be descended from the lost tribe of Manasseh. The oral history of the tribe holds that they were captured by Assyria along with the rest of the Northern Tribes of Israel and eventually landed in China. Then, in the second century, they migrated to India in the wake of Chinese persecution. Many converted to Christianity in the 19th century through the work of Welsh Presbyterian missionaries.

In 2011, the Israeli government decided to allow 7,300 members of the Bnei Menashe to come to Israel. Several hundred more have also recently made aliyah, the immigration of Jews to Israel, but thousands still remain and live in a state of deep poverty.

The Lemba of Zimbabwe

God made good on His promise to scatter the children of Israel to the uttermost parts of the world. Perhaps nowhere is that more evidenced than in the remote bush of Zimbabwe, where we've often had to wait to land our seven-seater prop plane until zebras exited the clearing we use as a makeshift runway.

Here we've found the Lemba, a tribe numbering more than 70,000 and spread throughout Zimbabwe and parts of South Africa.

In a recent DNA study, 70 percent of the Lemba sampled possessed the Cohanim gene, a higher percentage than both Sephardic and Ashkenazi Jews sampled. This finding has generated significant interest among the Jewish community and strongly supports their 800-year claim to be descendants of the high priest Aaron.

The Jews of Ethiopia

The nation referred to as "Cush" in the Scriptures is almost certainly modern-day Ethiopia. Isaiah prophetically named the nations from which God will regather His scattered people in the last days: "In that day the Lord shall set His hand again the second time to recover the remnant of His people, who shall be left, from Assyria, from Egypt, from Pathros, from Cush, from Elam, from Shinar, from Hamath, and from the islands of the sea" (Is. 11:11).

According to local ancient traditions, Ethiopia's Jewish connection goes back to the time of Solomon and the Queen of Sheba. A 14th-century document known as the Kebra Nagast (The Glory of the Kings) records that Solomon and Sheba had a son named Menelik I, who later returned to Ethiopia with his family and the ark of the covenant.

Others believe that Jews from the exodus made their way down the Nile and eventually settled in Ethiopia. Most historians, however, believe their presence in Ethiopia is post-exilic and traces back to the Roman dispersion of Jews migrating from Yemen to the horn of Africa.

While the if, when and how of the Jews' and Judaism's arrival in Ethiopia are shrouded in mystery, it is nevertheless clear that it happened at some point. For one thing, we have the account of the Ethiopian eunuch encountered by Phillip (Acts 8:26-39), who was led to faith in Yeshua, not as a pagan but as a devout Jew.

We also know that for centuries visitors to Ethiopia have taken note of certain tribes who practice ancient religious rites very similar to those of Old Testament Israel and who explicitly claim descent from the tribes of Israel. And modern genetic testing has validated those claims.

For example, an Ethiopian group known as the Beta Israel (House of Israel) was officially recognized by the Israeli government in 1973.

Another tribe of Ethiopian Jews, the Beta Avraham, was originally part of the Beta Israel community. But in the 17th century, a false messiah rose up in their midst, who ultimately led them to join the Orthodox Church. They broke away, became their own tribe and eventually settled in the Ethiopian district of Kechene near the capital city of Addis Ababa.

The Gefat—a third offshoot of Ethiopian Jews—live farther south in the Ethiopian countryside of Woliso and Hosanna. A remote community, this tribe (estimated at 20,000-30,000 individuals) have faithfully observed Jewish customs for hundreds of years, including circumcising their male children on the eighth day, applying the blood of a lamb on their doorposts at Passover, and keeping biblical dietary laws. In fact, their name, Gefat, means "the blowers." According to their oral history, they were chosen by the kings of Ethiopia centuries ago to blow the shofar ahead of the ark of the covenant in official processionals.

The existence of this remarkable group and others in Somaliland, Somalia; Afghanistan; and Nigeria pose two questions for those of us who follow Yeshua and strive to obey His Word.

The first is: Does their discovery in our day represent some sort of prophetic sign and signal concerning the end times? And secondly: What is our responsibility to minister to these poor and oppressed sons and daughters of Abraham?

Fulfilled Prophecy

While many rightly view the rebirth of the state of Israel and the re-unification of Jerusalem as key fulfillments of end-time prophecy, too few Christians have taken note of another astonishing prophetic fulfillment unfolding before our eyes. I'm referring to the identification of these various fragments of lost Israelite tribes and the re-gathering of some back to Israel. Isaiah 11:11 reveals that in the last days, God will "reclaim the surviving remnant of His people" from a list of African nations, including Ethiopia—home to many of the Beta Israel.

In my opinion, these are some of the most significant signs of the Messiah's imminent return. I am also convinced that reaching the poorest of these scattered children of Israel with both humanitarian aid and the gospel is a clear and powerful expression of God's heart and will today.

This is why the organization I lead—Jewish Voice Ministries International—has been actively working on both sides of that equation for decades now. We operate with a mandate from Romans 1:16, which says the gospel is "the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first, and also to the Greek." It has been our honor to introduce thousands of these individuals to their long-awaited Messiah while planting, equipping and nurturing numerous new Messianic congregations in these communities.

At the same time we're doing everything we can to address the physical and medical needs of these very poor and frequently persecuted people.

We mounted our first major medical and spiritual outreach back in 1999—blessing the people of the Beta Israel tribe in Gondar, Ethiopia. In the years since, hundreds of dedicated volunteers from congregations around the world have joined us in more than 25 medical outreaches to help impoverished, scattered Israelite remnant communities. By God's grace, we've provided free medical care and medication to more than 275,000 patients. We've distributed 40,000 pairs of eyeglasses, performed nearly 700 eye surgeries, and provided dental treatment to 15,000 patients.

Although we've never made our gospel message a requirement for care, we've always erected a prayer tent—making prayer and ministry available to every person we treat. As a result, God has blessed us with thousands of accepted invitations to receive Yeshua as Messiah and Savior. Obviously, participating in this level of ministry, and to such a remarkable group of people, is more gratifying than I can express. Ministering to these living, miraculous examples of fulfilled prophecy is an extraordinary honor. And it is a blessing I will get to share with scores of new volunteers who will join us on one of our upcoming outreaches. Perhaps you should be among them.

Rabbi Jonathan Bernis is president and CEO of Jewish Voice Ministries International, host of the TV show Jewish Voice with Jonathan Bernis and author of A Rabbi Looks at Jesus of Nazareth. For more information, go to losttribesofisrael.org.