TURKISH AND ARMENIAN CHRISTIANS RECONCILE ON GENOCIDE ANNIVERSARY
“We came to share your pain,” Turkish Christians declared in early April, standing before TV cameras at the Armenian Genocide Memorial in Yerevan. We have come here to apologize for what our ancestors did, to ask for your forgiveness,” two spokesmen for the Turks went on to say. Shocked viewers across Armenia watching the Azdarar TV news channel could hardly believe their eyes and ears. Turks, claiming to be Christian? And laying wreaths at the nation’s genocide memorial? How could Turks, of all people, come to Armenia to honour the memory of more than a million Armenian Christians who had been slaughtered 100 years ago by their own forefathers, the Ottoman Turks?
Gathered around the monument’s eternal flame, the more than twenty Turkish citizens spoke out simply, and repeatedly: “We plead with you, if you can, to forgive us and the crimes of our forefathers.” Significantly, the Turks were joined by a number of local Armenian Christians who formed a huge circle, holding hands together around the memorial as they prayed aloud in Turkish and Armenian for their nations and peoples. “You wrote history here in Yerevan today,” one Armenian pastor declared. It was the first time, he thought, that prayers in Turkish and Armenian had ever been voiced together before the sombre memorial.
The Turkish Christians’ visit to Armenia was the latest step in a reconciliation initiative between Turkish Protestants and Armenian evangelicals during the past year. Organized by several Turkish pastors from Muslim backgrounds, the gatherings first began with diaspora Armenians in California and New Jersey, followed by an Istanbul weekend between some 90 Turkish and Armenian participants. For the past 100 years, Turks and Armenians have been outspoken enemies. Their enmity rooted in the Armenian genocide of 1915 is both political and ethnic, but also religious. Early in the 4th century, Armenia was the first nation to adopt Christianity as its state religion. But the rulers of the Ottoman Empire which carried out the genocide were Muslim Turks.
In today’s Turkey and Armenia, strong nationalist elements in the current political climate are so prevalent that the Turkish and Armenian Christians who participated in the reconciliation gatherings requested strict anonymity for their own protection. An estimated 2 million Armenians had been living in central Anatolia and the eastern regions of what is now modern-day Turkey for two millennia. But after the Ottoman regime-ordered massacres and forced deportations began in April 2015, within two years up to 1.5 million had died. The survivors had either been forcibly converted to Islam or managed to escape into the Syrian desert.
“This page in history is really painful for every Armenian,” a church leader from Yerevan who met with the Turkish Christians said. “You can hardly find an Armenian whose relatives were not victims of the genocide. For this very reason, Armenians live with hatred and bitterness in their hearts.” A Kurdish pastor who went to Yerevan said he discovered this reality for himself. “There is a huge pain, and it needs to be softened to find healing, to stop the hatred,” he said. “Armenians take their children to the memorial in Yerevan, but instead of healing, it stirs their hatred. It’s in their hearts, and they cannot forget. Our fathers harmed them, and they are angry. If their trauma is not stopped by healing, it will get worse.”
But he stressed that the solution was a spiritual one, which had to be built around honest, personal relationships. “We went as individuals. We didn’t go in the name of our churches. To meet face to face, in person, to hear from these Armenian brothers and sisters and pray with them was healing for both sides. The seeds of reconciliation have been planted, to grow and spread.” “This has all developed personally, through the Holy Spirit’s orchestration in our hearts,” one Turkish pastor said. “Politics can’t resolve this,” another said. “The United Nations has tried, so has the United States, to restore relations between Armenians and Turks. But they couldn’t reconcile us.”
One Armenian evangelical said, it had been particularly significant for him because it had been initiated by the Turks. “Until now,” another confessed, “we forgave with our mouths, but not with our hearts.” Some of their most moving experiences in Yerevan, the Turkish Christians said, came through casual interactions on the street with complete strangers who heard them speaking Turkish. One evening several men were in a restaurant. After they ordered a meal in English, they sat down speaking Turkish among themselves. A middle-aged man nearby reacted angrily, asking in Turkish, “Are you Turks? What are you doing here in Armenia? May God save us!”
When they explained why they had come, he retorted sceptically with a Turkish proverb, “One flower doesn’t bring the spring. Then he quizzed them about their faith, dubious that Turks could in fact really be Christians. “He softened a little, when we explained that we had been forgiven by God,” a pastor said. “We told him, ‘Our people have sinned. Can’t you forgive us? God has.’” The man then said his family was originally from Gaziantep, in eastern Turkey. “I taught my children not to love or even like Turks,” he said. “I never thought until now that such a thing could ever happen, for Turks to become Christians. This has changed something in my heart.”
In another encounter, a shop salesman reacted when he heard his visitors were from Turkey. “We have come here on the centenary of the genocide,” one pastor explained, “to share your pain. We are sorry for what happened, and beg your forgiveness.” The man’s expression changed, his eyes filling with tears as he shook their hands and embraced them, one by one. One Western observer of the Yerevan gathering confessed, “I may never see something like this ever again in my life. It’s what the gospel of Christ should be doing all over the world.” Asked what the reconciliation effort has really accomplished, one Turkish pastor said. “We want Turks and Armenians alike, to ask us: ‘What kind of God can bring two enemies together like this?’”
TOP CATHOLICS AND EVANGELICALS SAY SAME-SEX MARRIAGE WORSE THAN DIVORCE OR COHABITATION
A high-profile alliance of conservative Catholics and evangelical Protestants issued a sweeping manifesto against gay marriage that calls same-sex unions “a graver threat” than divorce or cohabitation, one that will lead to a moral dystopia in America and the persecution of traditional believers. “If the truth about marriage can be displaced by social and political pressure operating through the law, other truths can be set aside as well,” say the nearly 50 signers of the statement. “And that displacement can lead, in due course, to the coercion and persecution of those who refuse to acknowledge the state’s redefinition of marriage, which is beyond the state’s competence,” they say.
The statement, “The Two Shall Become One Flesh: Reclaiming Marriage,” comes from the group Evangelicals and Catholics Together (ECT), a coalition formed in 1994 under former Nixon aide Charles Colson, an evangelical, and the Rev. Richard Neuhaus, a Catholic priest. One of their goals was to encourage the two Christian communities to overcome their historic suspicions and doctrinal differences in order to battle what they saw as a growing moral laxity in the U.S. Neuhaus died in 2009, and Colson in 2012, but the movement has continued and has become more focused as Christian conservatives have grown increasingly united in their alarm over the sudden and spreading acceptance of gay rights, especially same-sex marriage.
Discussions on a document on same-sex marriage began in June 2013 — the same month the U.S. Supreme Court required the federal government to recognize same-sex marriages — according to Russell Reno, a member of ECT; But Reno said the members first had to agree to set aside their differences on the legitimacy of divorce and contraception, for example, and even whether marriage is a sacrament. That enabled them to focus on the advance of gay marriage, which they say not only betrays religious tradition but, more than any other development, undermines society because “marriage is the primordial human institution, a reality that existed long before the establishment of what we now know as the state.”
“What the state defines as marriage no longer embodies God’s purposes in creation,” says the 5,000-word statement. “An easy acceptance of divorce damages marriage; widespread cohabitation devalues marriage. But so-called same-sex marriage is a graver threat, because what is now given the name of marriage in law is a parody of marriage.” Maggie Gallagher, co-founder of the National Organization for Marriage, says religious advocacy groups need political structures to endorse or oppose individual candidates if they want to be effective. Signers of the statement include popular megachurch pastor Rick Warren and long-time gay marriage foe Maggie Gallagher, as well as prominent conservative Catholic intellectuals George Weigel and Robert George.
Timothy George, a Southern Baptist and Dean of Samford University’s Divinity School; Mark Galli, editor of the evangelical magazine Christianity Today; and J.I. Packer of Regent University also endorsed the statement. The signers say that in legitimating same-sex marriage, “a kind of alchemy is performed, not merely on the institution, but on human nature itself.” “We are today urged to embrace an abstract conception of human nature that ignores the reality of our bodies. Human beings are no longer to be understood as either male or female,” it says. The result will undermine society by eliminating any moral compass except that which the state declares to be the norm, to the exclusion of all others.
What effect the document might have is unclear. It reads like a declaration of war, but in a battle that even many conservatives see as a lost cause, or one they see no reason to fight. Increasing numbers of Christians, like the rest of society, are more tolerant and accepting of gays and lesbians, according to several surveys. The document declares, however, that a “faithful Christian witness cannot accommodate itself to same-sex marriage,” and it suggests that believers who accept gay marriage are no longer fully Christian. The signers themselves do not offer a detailed plan of action to counter gay marriage, which is now legal in 36 states and the District of Columbia, and pending in several others.
Reno said the statement was not intended as a road map for political or judicial action, but more as a rallying cry to Christians and “to disabuse folks of the notion that we can just keep on keeping on as we have been.” The signers raise the possibility — which has been debated among religious conservatives in recent months — that clergy could refuse to sign state marriage licenses as an act of civil disobedience. But they conclude simply that “whatever courses of action are deemed necessary, the coming years will require careful discernment.” They say that the best strategy is for Christians themselves and others “of good will” to live lives that are faithful examples of traditional marriage. “On this basis alone can we succeed,” they say.
CHURCH GROWTH CONTINUES TO EXPLODE IN CHINA DESPITE GOVERNMENT OPPOSITION
While Christianity continues to weaken in many parts of the world, China’s Christian churches are experiencing significant growth despite government restrictions. “Some Sundays we are full. We also have 1,600 volunteers,” said Zhou Lianmei, the pastor’s wife of the Chongyi Church, one of the biggest mega-churches in the country. The convention-building sized church holds up to 5,000 worshipers and there are several services available every Sunday. “I come because I found a love here that isn’t dependent on a person. It is like a river that doesn’t go away,” stated a young businesswoman from Hangzhou, the city where Chongyi Church is located.
The city of Wenzhou, often referred to as “China’s Jerusalem,” is home to over 1 million Protestants out of a population of 9 million. Experts believe that by 2030, China will hold the most Christians on the planet based on current growth rates. “Chinese Christians know the Bible better than some western Christians,” Philip Wickeri, a Christian leader in Hong Kong said. For many years, Christianity was seen as a religion for elderly peasant women. However, that view has significantly changed: many of the newly baptized Chinese Christians are young, well-educated and earn a comfortable living. Last year, half a million Christians were baptized in the country, according to China’s chief of religious affairs.
It is estimated 70 million Christians over 16 years of age reside in China. Although China’s Christian population is growing, the government continues to tighten its hold on the faith. Over the past year, the country’s Communist police have bulldozed church buildings, demolished crosses, and destroyed religious artefacts. One church offered to pay a series of fines in the belief that the attacks were about money. “We were fooled at first,” says one local pastor. “Then we discovered they didn’t care about fines. They went after our crosses and gave the impression they enjoyed it.” The aim was to humiliate and shame, he believes.
For the second time in less than 3 weeks, Nepal has been shaken by a 7.3 magnitude earthquake, leaving many dead and hundreds more injured. The epicentre, located near Mount Everest, took down buildings already shaken by the April 25 quake. President of Asian Access Joe Handley says, “The reports fresh from the field are that there’s just a great deal of fear. People are in buildings that aren’t very solid, and so they’ve raced outside. Everyone is trying to get into the open air, or in a tent in Kathmandu.” The earthquake is shaking the faith of many Hindus in this predominately-Hindu nation. “People are grappling with ‘How do the gods that I serve allow something so tragic to occur?’
Pastors are well-equipped to handle the spiritual side of things,” says Handley. “They’re also often the best when it comes to emotional care.” According to Handley, these uncertain times are laying the groundwork for churches to provide tangible aid. “We’re trying to mobilize aid to about 30 churches that are right in the middle of the worst-hit areas, to be a point of light in these neighbourhoods.” Pastors and motivated Christians are reaching out with emergency aid as well as with the message of the Gospel. Thirty years ago there were hardly any Christians in Nepal. “The Christian population is small but has been growing for the past 30 years,” says Handley. “In fact, they say it’s the fastest-growing church on planet Earth during these three decades.”
For years, many factional groups in Yemen have spread terror and fear. But recently the country of Yemen seems to have become a new Sunni-Shia battle ground, with both Iran (Shia Islam) and Saudi Arabia (Wahhabi, a branch of Sunni Islam) openly fighting on Yemeni territory. While this may be an oversimplification of the conflict, the multiple sides warring in Yemen are causing widespread devastation. This is not helped by the fact that Yemen is the poorest country on the Arab Peninsula with 45% of the population living below the international poverty line (USD $1.25/day). The suffering caused by this most recent conflict has made an already difficult situation for Christians even worse.
With the exception of foreigners, Christians in Yemen are forbidden from attending church. It is also illegal to evangelise, as Sharia law forbids Christians from sharing their faith and Muslims from converting. So far, it appears that despite the circumstances, believers have continued to meet, refusing to be paralysed with fear. It is so important so that they can encourage one another and strengthen the community of Christians as they face persecution.
* that regular ceasefires to allow aid agencies to provide assistance to those in need will hold. Pray that all parties will abide by these ceasefires.
* for an end to the continuous conflict – that God would intervene with a lasting resolution.
* for believers to boldly share the good news despite opposition and the threat of punishment.
The Vatican has officially recognised the state of Palestine in a new treaty. The treaty, which is still to be signed, makes clear that the Holy See has switched its diplomatic relations from the Palestinian Liberation Organisation to the state of Palestine. The Vatican had welcomed the decision by the United Nations in 2012 to recognise a Palestinian state, but the treaty is the first legal document negotiated between the Holy See and the Palestinian state and constitutes an official recognition. Israel said it was “disappointed” with the move which it said did not help the peace process and “distances the Palestinian leadership from returning to direct negotiations.” The ministry said it would study the treaty and “consider its steps accordingly.”