A religious summit last held more than 1,200 years ago suddenly risks being downgraded or postponed because of Syria’s four-year civil war. This unexpected twist has come as the world’s Orthodox churches, the second-largest ecclesial family in Christianity, were supposed to be only months away from their first major council since 787.
Now it is no longer clear when or where the Holy and Great Council of the Orthodox Church, a summit first proposed at least as far back as 1961 and provisionally scheduled for May in Istanbul, will be held.
With its traditional icons and complex liturgies, Orthodox Christianity can seem like an unchanging remnant of a long-lost era. But it lives very much in today’s world and its 14 autocephalous (independent) member churches can be wrapped up in its politics and subject to its pressures.
So what do we do about ISIS? The U.S. and the U.K. have decided that the answer is to bomb them. And it’s looking more and more like the answer will become to send troops.
But what do we do about ISIS? Does it make a difference whether I respond as an American or as a Christian? These days it’s hard to tell a distinction between the two. And that’s the question, and the answer, that scares me most.
A Syrian priest held hostage for months by the ISIS terrorist group is certain his life was saved due to his interfaith work, despite being threatened with beheading by jihadists if he did not renounce Christianity.
The Rev. Jacques Mourad, a Syriac Catholic priest, was taken hostage in May from the Mar Moussa monastery, situated between the capital Damascus and the city of Homs. He and a volunteer from the monastery were forced into a car and driven for four days, during which time Mourad said he thought he would be killed.
“We could only perceive the sense of the desert. In that moment … I thought it was over,” he told members of Rome’s Foreign Press Association on Dec. 10, the first time he has spoken in detail about his odyssey since he escaped.
Speakers at the rally included representatives of the Islamic and Christian communities, the National Organization for Women, Code Pink, and Ghada Mukhdad, a Syrian refugee and member of the Syrian Civil Coalition which, according to their website, is a “lobby of Syrian civil society organizations, activists, and initiatives” that seeks to address “the increasing gap between the needs and priorities of the Syrian society on one hand and those making decisions concerning Syria.”
Johnson Ferry Baptist Church, a Southern Baptist megachurch north of Atlanta, has helped resettle a Syrian family, despite an order from Gov. Nathan Deal that the state would not accept Syrian refugees.
Bryant Wright, the church’s pastor and former president of the Southern Baptist Convention, told CNN Dec. 9 he understands the governor is “concerned about the security of the citizens of the state. But as Christians and as a church, we want to reach out with the love of Christ to these folks.”
He told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution that his church had been planning to help the family before the recent attacks in France.
I wonder if Pope Francis knows that he’s being used to justify bombing Syria.
After an all-day debate on Dec. 2, the House of Commons authorized the British government to begin bombing ISIS in Syria. Hours later, RAF Tornadoes attacked an oil field in eastern Syria.
During the debate, Caroline Spelman, the member of parliament who represents the Church of England in the Commons, noted that, “The Archbishop of Canterbury made it clear that, in his view, force might be necessary to keep the refugees safe.”
Then, citing Pope Francis, she said, “‘Where aggression is unjust, aggression is licit against the aggressor.’ These are views which I share, which is why I will support the motion.”
EVERY TIME I travel from Erbil, the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan, to Dohuk, Iraq, my drivers point to the same bridge. This, they say, is where ISIS was stopped by U.S. air power, just 15 miles from Erbil. It is a vital reminder that Kurdistan has twice been a safe haven: in the 1991 aftermath of the first Gulf War, to protect the Kurds from Saddam Hussein, and again last year when ISIS was at the city gates.
When I look on the Nineveh Plain just south of Kurdistan, it’s hard not to recall Cyrus the Great, who once conquered this entire part of the world. The book of Isaiah recounts God’s words to the mighty king, a nonbeliever, one who didn’t follow the God of Israel: “For the sake of Jacob my servant, of Israel my chosen, I summon you by name and bestow on you a title of honor, though you do not acknowledge me” (emphasis added).
The chaos and violence in this region continues to drive people from their homes. Currently, Kurdistan is the temporary “home” of 1.1 million people fleeing ISIS. Most are people of faith—Muslims, Christians, and Yazidis. The ripple effects spread out to refugee camps from Jordan to Germany.
Many U.S. Christians don’t think of God when it comes to geopolitics. We sometimes reduce Christ “the Lord of all” to Christ “our personal savior.” We might not be comfortable with the idea that if Christ is truly sovereign, then that includes our global politics.
As people of faith, we never give up hope, even in the violent situation in the Middle East, which promises to get worse before it gets better. Here are three steps you can take to address the ISIS crisis and its violent ripple effects:
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The British Parliament voted Dec. 2 to begin a bombing campaign in Syria in order to disrupt ISIS.
The vote took place after a contentious ten-hour debate in the House of Commons. Prime Minister David Cameron’s comments that those opposed to the bombing campaign are “terrorist sympathisers” hung in the background of the debate.
All of us are understandably sad about Paris — devastated. Many people have used striped profile pictures, candles, and flowers to express our collective solidarity. But in the wake of tragedy, almost half of the governors of the U.S. have responded with fear, announcing that they will do whatever they can to thwart the acceptance of Syrian refugees — from cutting funding for nonprofit resettlement agencies, to demanding religious screening tests.
If there’s one thing I learned from some of my friends who are refugees, it’s how to respond to grief. And there’s no one approach and they didn’t always get it right. But sometimes they did: Some refugees, in the shadow of shocking sadness, sang more than usual, prayed louder, invited more friends over for dinner, cooked their parent’s recipes. None of them responded with terrorism.
From a religious perspective, the hardest thing about confronting evil is the painful human tendency to only see it in others, in our enemies, and not see any on our side because of the blurred vision caused by the specks in our own eyes, to paraphrase the gospels. In discussing ISIS, we should clearly use the language of sin — the enormous sin of the ideological hate of ISIS finding its victims all over the world.