Amid the Chaos and Carnage in Syria, What is Happening to the Christians?

Amid the chaos and carnage in Syria what is happening to the Christian community there? No end seems to be in sight to the torture and slayings ordered by President Bashar al-Assad’s regime which, in five months has left over 2,200 Syrians dead, 3,000 missing, 14,000 imprisoned and 12,000 injured.

The Christian community in Syria, which dates back to the time of St Paul and his conversion on the road to Damascus, makes up 10 per cent of Syria’s population of 22.5 million. Since 1970, the Assads, who are Alawite, a small Shia Muslim offshoot, have stayed in power with a coalition of religious minorities, including the Christians – allies together against the huge Sunni majority. Christians are favoured in many ways. There are now three Christians (two Catholics and one Greek Orthodox) in the government and churches, like mosques, get free electricity and water.

A Catholic news agency in Rome has written that the majority of Christians in Syria have continued to back Assad’s authoritarian rule, stressing that this contrasts with the majority of Christians in Egypt who were supporters of the Arab Spring revolution. But, as foreign journalists are banned in Syria, such a statement can only be an assumption. I personally found that many Christians, fearful of the network of spies and informers, are terrified of the consequences of talking even anonymously…

The rest and more in the Catholic Herald here.


Preparing Clergy for War: Army Chaplains Train for Combat Zones


Fort Jackson, South Carolina (CNN) – The summer sun beats down on camouflaged Kevlar helmets.  Weighed down by heavy body armor, men and women of the cloth are crawling through sand, under barbed wire and learning how to run with soldiers.

Explosions in woods simulate the battlefield as an instructor barks commands.

“You are not following simple instructions!  Cover me while I move!  Got you covered!  Let’s go!”

This is the U.S. Army Chaplain Center and School at Fort Jackson, South Carolina, where the Army trains clergy of all faiths how to survive in combat.

Once many of these chaplains complete this modified basic training they will head to war in Afghanistan and Iraq, where the explosions and gunfire are not simulated.

Here at Fort Jackson, on a range in the woods, there is a bevy of broken down cars and trucks to simulate an urban battlefield.

The army says being a chaplain in combat is among the most dangerous jobs because the chaplains move from base to base ministering to soldiers.

“Once you move behind the vehicle, the chaplain, who has no weapon, will stay behind the engine block or the wheel base. That is the safest place for you to be,” the instructor yells to the long line of chaplains who are readying to run this course.

On the battlefield, chaplains look just like any other soldier.

Decked out in camouflage and body armor, the only addition is a two-inch patch signifying their religious affiliation…

Read on here.

There’s even a short video.


Your Kids Are OK With This Child Killer, Right?

On The Creative Minority Report:

This just shows how little concern our culture has for children. A judge just said it’s all okey dokey if two kids live with a…child killer. Oh don’t freak out, she only killed the kids because she was stressed out at the time.

The LA Times reports:

She was a Brownie troop leader, a room mother, a Sunday school teacher and almost the definition of an Orange County soccer mom — until she shot her two small daughters to death in 1991 while they slept in their home in
Laguna Niguel, Calif.

Kristine Cushing, then 39, said she was the victim of anti-depression medication, a debilitating heart condition and worry over the impending dissolution of her 17-year marriage to former Marine Corps fighter pilot John Cushing Jr. when she shot her daughters, ages 4 and 8, and then attempted to kill herself.

She was found not guilty by reason of insanity and spent four years in a mental hospital. In 2005, California
authorities concluded that she posed no risk and granted her an unconditional release.

Fast forward to now: The Cushings are back together, living on Vashon Island in Washington state, and an Oregon woman who married John Cushing four years after the killings has temporarily lost her legal bid to prevent her own teenage sons from living with the couple.

In his ruling, King County Superior Court Judge William Downing said Trisha Conlon, who only recently discovered that Kristine was living in the home, has not proved that Kristine Cushing poses an immediate threat to Conlon’s two boys, ages 13 and 14, though he called for a full investigation to determine an appropriate final order.

So it’s ok if children go live with a child killer? What?

Here’s the thing. I guess the judge’s perspective is that the woman served her time and you can’t hold her past crimes against her. Or something. But how about the fact that she spent just four years inside an institution for killing her kids. Shouldn’t killing your kids be a pretty important crime? Kind of a big deal?

If she was spending her life behind bars we wouldn’t have some moronic judge allowing children to live with her. Lunacy. Absolute lunacy.


Gaddafi and the Bible

On the Bible Places blog:

A headline in the Jerusalem Post catches my eye: “Libya interim rulers set Saturday ultimatum for Sirte.” The first paragraph identifies Sirte as Muammar Gaddafi’s hometown. The name sounds familiar and I turn to Acts 27:17 where it says of the sailors carrying Paul to Rome: “Fearing that they would run aground on the sandbars of Syrtis, they lowered the sea anchor and let the ship be driven along.”

Sirte sounds a lot like Syrtis and so I wonder if the city is perhaps along Libya’s northern shore. Google Maps confirms that it is…

I open up the article on “Syrtis” in the Anchor Bible Dictionary and learn that this is the name of two dangerous gulfs off the coast of modern Libya. In that article, Mark J. Olson identifies the Greater Syrtis with the modern Gulf of Sirte:

According to Strabo (2.5.20), the Greater Syrtis covered an area approximately 450–570 miles in circumference, and 170–180 miles in breadth. This is the modern Gulf of Sirte, off the coast of Libya. The Lesser Syrtis is the modern Gulf of Gabes off the coast of Tunisia. The ancient mariners’ fears of running aground while still far out at sea are echoed in Dio Chrysostomus’ warning: “Those who have once sailed into it find egress impossible; for shoals, cross-currents, and long sand-bars extending a great distance out make the sea utterly impassable or troublesome” (Or. 5.8–9)” (6: 286).

I don’t think this helps me understand the passage in Acts better, but it may help me to remember the name of Syrtis. And it does provide a modern connection when teaching students today.

A search on Google reveals that Peter Kirk has observed this connection. He wrote in March, “How appropriate it is that a biblical place of danger has now become a place of danger for Gaddafi.”

In January I recommended Gordon Franz’s article, “Why Were the Sailors Afraid of the Syrtis Sands (Acts 27:17)?


This screenshot from Google Earth shows Sirte in relation to Crete, Paul’s place of departure. The ship was not destroyed by the sandbars of Syrtis but instead sailed west and was wrecked on the island of Malta (Acts 28:1).


Man on Pilgrimage of Thanks after Recovery from Car Crash is Run Over

And killed after only a mile into his journey. How very unfortunate:

A year earlier, he had been injured in a road accident and made a full recovery.

So the man decided to make a pilgrimage to a shrine to give thanks for his survival – only to be knocked down and killed by a car less than a mile into his trek.

The 40-year-old Spanish man died instantly after being hit by the vehicle just 20 minutes into his journey.

Two women walking with him were also killed in the accident.

The pilgrim left his home in the town of Ordes, in north-west Spain, on Saturday morning.

He planned to walk the 20 miles to Caion so that he could give thanks at the shrine of the Virgin Mary.

A spokesman for Ordes town hall told French news agency AFP: ‘He had been injured in a road accident a year earlier and wanted to give thanks to the Virgin Mary for making a full recovery.

‘But he was tragically hit by a car barely a mile into his journey and died instantly.

‘Two women walking with him, believed to be his aunts, were also killed.’

It is thought the three victims were making the journey as part of a group of six pilgrims.

An Ordes police spokesman said the driver of the car had probably fallen asleep at the wheel and that an investigation into the accident had been opened.

The above was here.


ANC Youth League Riots

But then again, you reap exactly what you sow:

The ANC has blamed its youth league for the “hooligan behaviour” by supporters of league president Julius Malema in Johannesburg’s CBD on Tuesday.

At least one policeman and five journalists were injured when youths threw stones, set bins alight and burnt images of ANC leaders ahead of Malema’s disciplinary hearing at Luthuli House, headquarters of the ruling party on the corner of Johannesburg’s busy Sauer and Pritchard streets.

The league itself also issued a statement condemning the scenes, broadcast live on eNews before parts of their camera crew’s equipment were believed to have been stolen.

“The African National Congress (ANC) strongly condemns as totally unacceptable, wanton acts of criminality and hooliganism we witnessed today outside our headquarters, Chief Albert Luthuli House, perpetrated by an unruly mob of people claiming to be ANC Youth League members,” the party said in a statement.

“The question we ask ourselves is whether these people who have the audacity to burn the ANC flag, posters with the face of ANC President Jacob Zuma and other leaders of the movement, launch attacks on police officers, hawkers and journalists, qualify to regard themselves as members of the African National Congress or any of its leagues.”

The movement was “totally shocked” by “unacceptable, criminal acts of violence” which included throwing rocks at motorists and members of the public.

The behaviour went against the values and discipline of the ANC…

I mean, look at this, an ANCYL sanctioned riot:

Hooligans indeed. The chaos even became a global trend on Twitter.

What a disgrace!


NT Wright: How the Church of England Can – And Will – Endure

Well following on our previous post (Nearly a Third of Episcopal Parishes Expected to Close) is a far more optimistic opinion from across the pond from his Excellency the Right Reverend Professor NT Wright: Keep the faith.

Though with a scornful wonder
Men see her sore opprest,
By schisms rent asunder,
By heresies distrest,
Yet Saints their watch are keeping,
Their cry goes up, ‘How long?’
And soon the night of weeping
Shall be the morn of song.

Samuel Stone’s hymn, replete with already archaic spelling, expresses the Victorian hand-wringing over the supposedly dangerous heresies of John William Colenso, Bishop of Natal from 1853 to 1883. The first Lambeth Conference was called in 1867 to address the problem. Stone’s hymn, written a year earlier, sums up the mood of many. Everything is going wrong, the godless mock, and all we can do is hold out for ‘the consummation of peace for evermore’.

Plus ça change. From today’s perspective, 1866 looks to be the Church’s high Victorian pomp; but the same voices are raised today, warning that the Church of England, never mind the wider Anglican Communion, is finished. The ship is going down, and it’s time for the lifeboats, whether those sent across the Tiber or the homemade ones which offer a ‘safe’ perch for ‘conservative evangelicals’.

I would be the last to say there are no causes for alarm. Every age has produced serious challenges to Christian faith and life, within the Church as well as outside. Ours is no exception. But it may be worth reminding ourselves what the Church is for, and what the Church of England in particular is known to be for up and down the land — except, of course, among the chatterati, who only see ‘gay vicars’ in one direction and ‘happy-clappies’ in the other.

Snapshots from my time in Durham tell a true story of what the Church is there for. The foot-and-mouth crisis strikes the Dales, and the local vicar is the only person the desperate farmers know they can trust. A local authority begs the Church to take over a failing school, and within months, when I visit, a teenage boy tells me, ‘Well, sir, it’s amazing: the teachers come to lessons on time now.’ Miners’ leaders speak of the massive coal stocks still lying there unused, and we campaign, in the Lords and elsewhere, for the new technology that can release it. The new vicar at a city-centre church, dead on its feet a few years ago, apologises that the weekday service is a few minutes late in starting; he has been helping a young, frightened asylum-seeker whose case is coming up the next day. In one old mining community, so many shops had closed that the bank shut as well; the local churches have taken it over, and run it as a credit union, a literacy training centre and a day centre for the very old and the very young. In a world where ‘family’ means ‘the people in the neighbouring streets who are there for you when you need them’, I ask a young adult what’s different now she’s become a worshipping member of the Church, and she replies, ‘It’s like having a great big second family.’ The Church, said William Temple, is the only society in the world that exists for the benefit of its non-members. I have to report that this vision is alive and well, and that the Church of England, though not its only local expression, is in the middle of it.

This is the real ‘Big Society’. It’s always been there; it hasn’t gone away. Check out the volunteers in the prison, in the hospice, in charity shops. It’s remarkable how many of them are practising Christians. They aren’t volunteering because the government has told them we can’t afford to pay for such work any more. They do it because of Jesus. Often they aren’t very articulate about this. They just find, in their bones, that they need and want to help, especially when things are really dire. But if you trace this awareness to its source, you’ll find, as often as not, that the lines lead back to a parish church or near equivalent, to the regular reading of the Bible, to the life of prayer and sacrament and fellowship. To the regular saying and singing of prayers and hymns that announce, however surprising or shocking it may be to our sceptical world, that God is God, that Jesus is Lord, that the Holy Spirit is alive and well and active in a community near you.

Despite two centuries of being told the opposite, in fact, the Church can’t help itself. Secular modernism still likes to pretend that the world runs itself, and that ‘religion’ has to do with private spirituality and ­otherworldly hope. The Church — not least those who want to create a ‘pure’ type of Christianity, and look either to Rome or to a ‘biblical’ sect to provide it — has often colluded with this secularist shrinking of the task. But the genuinely biblical vision, rooted in the four gospels, is of God already being king of the world, through the victory of Jesus. ‘All authority in heaven and on earth,’ said Jesus, ‘has been given to me.’ And on earth. The Church exists to demonstrate what that means.

It exists, in other words, to do and be for the world what Jesus had been for his contemporaries: to bring healing and hope, to rescue people trapped in their own folly and sin, to straighten out the distorted pictures of reality that every age manages to produce, and to enable people to live by, and in, God’s true reality. It exists not to rescue people from the world but to rescue them for the world: to see lives transformed by the gospel so that people can discover a new depth and resonance of what it means to be human, precisely by looking beyond themselves to God, to the beauties and glories of his creation, and to their neighbours, particularly those in need. The Church does this through liturgy and laughter; through music and drug-rehabilitation programmes; through prayer and protest marches; through preaching and campaigning; through soaking itself in the Bible and immersing itself in the needs of the world. When God wants to change the world, he doesn’t send in the tanks (as many, including many critics, think he should). He sends in the meek; and by the time the world realises what’s going on, the meek have set up clinics and schools, taught people to read and to sing, and given them a hope, meaning and purpose which secular modernism (which gave us, after all, Passchendaele and Auschwitz as well as modern medicine and space travel) has failed to provide.

Saying that Jesus is now in charge, still more that the church is the agent of this project, has been rubbished for generations. The litany is familiar, though interestingly limited and repetitive: crusades, the Inquisition, witch-burning and so on. No church worth its salt will deny that it has made huge mistakes. We still say ‘forgive us our trespasses’ every day, only wishing that others would join us in this penitence. But the reason the anti-Christian brigade point out the Church’s failures is that, just as in Marxist totalitarianism the state replaces God, making it atheist de jure and not simply de facto, so in secular democracy the state attempts to replace the Church. That is why the Church is pushed to the margins, told to mind its own spiritual business and not to get involved in international debt or the treatment of asylum-seekers. As we survey the result — crooked politicians, bent coppers, bloated bankers, spying journalists — it may be time for the church to be more humbly confident in getting on with its proper vocation, leading the way in the true Big Society, bringing healing and hope at every level.

That task is not, of course, confined to the Church of England. One of my best Durham memories is of leading a massive mission project involving thousands of young people from all the churches in the region, and, at the opening rally, introducing to one another the local Roman Catholic bishop and the local independent free-church leader. That, I thought at the time, is a symbol of what the Church of England is there for: to be at the sharp end of mission, and of the ecumenism which happens best in its wake. The Church of England has a unique, historic role which it would be crazy to abandon. Away from the pressure groups and the single-issue fanatics, the Church has a massive local strength on which we must build.

To do this, it must do the core tasks well. The only way to resist being squeezed into the tired old mould of modernism or the nihilistic anything-goes world of postmodernism is through that strange combination of worship and prayer on the one hand, and biblically based theology on the other, for which the Church of England has, historically, an excellent track record. Only when the Church is constantly refreshed in these ways will it be able to discern which of the agendas that infatuate today’s world are true gospel imperatives and which are a snare and a delusion. (For a start, a biblical theology would have a lot more to say about money and power than about sex, important though that is too.) The next generation of church leaders will need to be on their toes to articulate a vision of human community which our pragmatic, short-term politicians have all but forgotten, and to know how to speak the truth to power in a way for which our prurient, sniggering journalism provides a ghastly parody. I sometimes suspect that the pressure, from some politicians and some journalists, for the Church to retreat to the sidelines is because both know, deep down, that the Church — and especially, despite everything, the Church of England — still has the ability to speak the truth and shame the devil.

None of this, of course, provides the answer to the questions about women bishops, or gay clergy, or the Anglican Communion, or how to relate to our Muslim neighbours. But if you put the hard questions in the centre of the picture, everything else gets distorted. Let’s take a deep breath and remind ourselves of our real focus: the kingdom of God, the lordship of Jesus, and the power of the Holy Spirit. Then, as Jesus himself nearly said, everything else will fall into perspective. At its best — and there is a lot of the ‘best’ out there — this is what the Church of England is all about.