By / Aug 3

Since November, the Ethiopian government and a regional military group have been engaged in a struggle for power and control over Tigray, the northern region of Ethiopia. On June 28, rebels known as the Tigray Defense Forces occupied Mekelle, Tigray’s capital city, following the retreat of Ethiopian government troops, marking a major shift in the country’s ongoing civil war. Tigrayan leaders claim to be fighting for the restoration of their regional autonomy, guaranteed under Ethiopia’s constitution as a part of its governing system of ethnic federalism, while Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed seeks to preserve the country and its developing democracy. 

How long has the conflict been going on, and why?

Tigray has been occupied by Ethiopian military occupation and denied communications through the internet for eight months in an effort to isolate the rebellion. The national military invaded the region in conjunction with the national army of Eritrea, Ethiopia’s northern neighbor, in order to take control from the regional government known as the Tigray People’s Liberation Front, a longstanding political party. However, the Tigray Defense Forces have been reorganizing their armies to push back against the occupation, an effort that has escalated in the past week with their counterattack on Mekelle. 

For many months investigations on the conflict in Tigray were inconclusive because the Ethiopian government blacked-out communications from the region. The only commmunications from northern Ethiopia reported continued combat as well as growing reports of atrocities such as rape and civilian killings. Now, it is clear that Tigrayan forces are on the counterattack. 

What specific events led up to the occupation shift in Mekelle?

A deadly incident occurred on Tuesday, June 22, when a government airstrike killed dozens of people in a market in Tigray. Tigrayan forces would strike back a day later by shooting down an Ethiopian Air Force C-130 cargo plane over Mekelle. Ethiopian forces have since abandoned many strategic posts throughout southern Tigray, and thousands of their soldiers have been claimed to be captured by the Tigrayan military.

On Monday, June 28, the Ethiopian government announced it had called a unilateral cease-fire in Tigray, but it wasn’t clear if Tigrayan forces accepted the measure. Throughout the rest of the day, Ethipoian forces were spotted in vehicles leaving Mekelle. Later that afternoon, the interim government’s headquarters in Tigray were empty as federal police officers were seen boarding buses outside of the building. The strategy of the Ethiopian government is unclear, but nonetheless, Tigray is gaining ground.

How are Ethiopians and others reacting to this conflict?

The powerful advances of the Tigray Defense Forces are stripping the authority and credibility of Abiy Ahmed, Ethiopia’s prime minister. Ahmed, a 2019 Nobel Peace Prize winner, has been primarily concerned with democratising Ethiopia since beginning his position in 2018. Seven months into the civil war, his country is only becoming more divided. Christopher Clapham, an expert on Ethiopia at Cambridge University, believes the democratic efforts of Ahmed need a stronger coalition as a foundation for a new structure of the country. Drastic shifts through one prime minister could explain some of the backlash.

When Mekelle changed hands from Ethiopian occupation to Tigray Defense Forces, the city erupted in a celebration, complete with flags and fireworks. According to The New York Times, one passionate Tigrayan resident declared: “They invaded us. Abiy is a liar and a dictator, but he is defeated already. Tigray will be an independent country!”

Residents of Ethiopia, as well as international onlookers, are concerned that the new government will reject any outsiders and cause humanitarian crises as institutions are undermined by war. Ethiopia is briefing diplomats from Britain, Germany, Spain, and the United States on the potential for continued conflict as it seeks to preserve the Ethiopian federation. Although Tsadkan Gebretensae, commander of the Tigray Defense Forces, has called for a negotiated ceasefire in principle, he quickly followed that call by stating: “if there is no other choice, then the next choice will be: try to resolve [the war] militarily.” 

Pray for peace in Ethiopia, for the protection of its citizens, and for Christians to be able to minister to the physical and spiritual needs around them with the hope of Christ. 

ERLC intern Ethan Lamb contributed to this article.

By / Jun 26

What just happened?

Recent protests centered around racial injustice and the killing of African American, like George Floyd and many others, have led to a renewed debate over the meaning and significance of historical monuments. Over the past three weeks, over 100 monuments across the United States have been torn down or scheduled for removal. 

Which monuments are involved?

The removal efforts fall into two broad categories. The first category includes the use of legal and legislative means of removing statuary, and has focused primarily on Civil War-era figures (such as Confederate generals and the Emancipation Statue in Washington, D.C.) and Christopher Columbus (19 memorials to the Italian explorer have been removed so far).

The second category includes the vandalism or use of illegal means to remove memorials, often done spontaneously as part of protests. The targets of these efforts have been more haphazard and include anti-slavery activists, feminist iconography, and Christian missionaries

Why are Confederate statues the primary focus?

In 2015, Dylann Roof murdered nine Black congregants at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina. That mass shooting sparked renewed efforts—both legal and illegal—to remove Confederate memorials around the country. For example, the New Orleans’s city council voted to remove the city’s four Confederate monuments, and in Durham, North Carolina, protestors smashed a statue of a Confederate soldier that stood outside the county’s courthouse.

These statues have mainly been focused upon because of their connection to white supremacy and racial injustice. The majority of Confederate monuments were erected in the immediate aftermath of the Supreme Court decision Plessy v. Ferguson (1896), when many state laws began reestablishing racial segregation, and from the mid-1950s to the mid-1960s, during the peak of the civil rights movement. As David A. Graham says, “In other words, the erection of Confederate monuments has been a way to perform cultural resistance to black equality.”

What prevents the illegal removal of monuments?

The Veterans’ Memorial Preservation and Recognition Act of 2003, makes it a federal crime to willfully injure or destroy, or attempt to injure or destroy, any “structure, plaque, statue, or other monument on public property commemorating the service of any person or persons in the armed forces of the United States.” Similarly, vandalism and destruction of monuments on federal property is also already a federal crime.

To enforce the laws, about 400 unarmed D.C. National Guardsmen were put on standby at the Washington, D.C. Armory to provide backup to National Park Police to help prevent damage at key monuments in the city. An email has also been sent to U.S. marshals notifying them that they should prepare to help protect national monuments. Marshals Service Assistant Director Andrew C. Smith wrote that the agency “has been asked to immediately prepare to provide federal law enforcement support to protect national monuments (throughout the country).”

Why do we not immediately remove all controversial monuments?

The process of removing public monuments is often hindered by legal restrictions. Public monuments are protected by an interlocking web of international-, federal-, and state-level law intended to protect cultural property. As E. Perot Bissell V notes in the Yale Law Journal, modern cultural-property law emerged in the wake of the destruction and looting that followed World War II. “Because cultural-property law’s original purpose was to address the potential for wartime destruction of the world’s Treasures,” says Bissell, “its organizing principle is the preservation of historically or aesthetically significant heritage.”

Since cultural-property law developed in response to widely deplored acts of destruction, it is focused on preservation of existing monuments. This can make it difficult to remove statues and memorials even when the society’s values have changed and the subject is no longer considered worthy of honor.

Take, for example, the Nathan Bedford Forrest Monument, which was removed from a park in Memphis, Tennessee, in 2017. The monument to the founder of the Ku Klux Klan was protected by the 1954 Hague Convention, the Veterans’ Memorial Preservation and Recognition Act of 2003, and a state law forbidding the removal of any statue from state property. According to Bissell, “Memphis ultimately removed its Forrest Monument through a clever work-around, transferring the park in which it stood to a nonprofit.”

How should Christians think about the removal of monuments?

A useful starting point might be to consider the historical circumstances of the monument’s erection and determine whether the motivation or cause for remembrance is a value that a Christian would consider worthy of memorializing. 

For example, Confederate statues are obvious candidates for removal from public spaces, since their purpose is to venerate a cause that celebrated slavery, segregationism, and white supremacy. In contrast, monuments related to the Founding Fathers were not typically erected to remember their accomplishments as slave-holders, but for their more noble accomplishments. 

The context and location of the monument should also be given consideration. Christians might ask if this exact monument didn’t exist, how likely is it that we would support making a new monument to this person in this way at this location?

For example, Speaker Nancy Pelosi recently called for the removal of 11 Confederate statues from the U.S. Capitol. Two of the statues include Jefferson Davis and Alexander Stephens, the president and vice president of the Confederate States of America. Whatever else we might think about remembrances of the Confederacy, it seems unlikely that we’d choose today to honor traitors to our nation in the halls of our legislature. 

Monuments are more than mere historical reminders. They become part of our historical memory, showing what we think is worthy of being honored and revered. As we become more honest with ourselves as a nation about the darker areas of our history, we should consider what is worth celebrating.  As Christians, we are called to “do all to the glory of God” (1 Cor. 10:31), which might require rethinking how we memorialize our past.

By / Mar 30

The Syrian Civil War remains one of the most complicated conflicts in the world today. The following interview breaks down the drivers, causes, and future of a civil war that has displaced more than half of the country’s population.

At the 2016 Religious Liberty Partnership consultation, I sat down with Middle East expert Jonathan Andrews. Andrews was with Middle East Concern for more than 10 years and is now an independent writer and researcher. His recent book Identity Crisis: Religious Registration in the Middle East explores an interesting facet of religious liberty in the Middle East.

In the following interview, Andrews provides his perspective on how the Syrian Civil War started, where the war is now, and where things might be headed.

By / Mar 10

What is going on in Syria?

In 2011, during the Middle Eastern protest movement known as the Arab Spring, protesters in Syria demanded the end of Ba’ath Party rule and the resignation of President Bashar al-Assad, whose family has held the presidency in the country since 1971. In April 2011, the Syrian Army was sent to quell the protest and soldiers opened fire on demonstrators. After months of military sieges, the protests evolved into an armed rebellion and civil war spread across the country.

According to the BBC, the conflict has broadened and become a battle between the country's Sunni majority against the president's Shia Alawite sect, and drawn in regional and world powers. The rise of the jihadist group Islamic State has also complicated the conflict.

Wait, what is the “Arab Spring” and the “Ba’ath Party”?

The Arab Spring is the term the Western media has used to describe the various protests, demonstrations, riots, and civil wars that began in December 2010 and spread throughout many countries with predominantly Arab populations.

The Ba’ath Party (short for the Arab Socialist Ba’ath Party) is a political party that began in Syria which espouses Ba’athism, a mix of Arab nationalism, socialism, and anti-imperialist ideologies. Ba’athism calls for unification of the Arab world into a single state. The movement is split into two main factions, one in Syria and one in Iraq (Saddam Hussein was a Ba’athist).

And what’s Sunni and Shia?

Of the 1.5 billion Muslims in the world, about 90 percent are Sunni. The name "Sunni" is derived from the phrase "Ahl al-Sunnah", or "People of the Tradition” (the tradition referring to the practices of the Muslim Prophet Muhammad). Shia comprise the other 10 percent (though they are the majority in some countries, like Iran and Iraq). Shia — literally "Shiat Ali" or the "Party of Ali" — claimed that Ali was the rightful successor to the Prophet Muhammad as leader (imam) of the Muslim community following his death in 632.

They’ve been in opposition — and sometimes outright war — since AD 632.

Don’t Sunnis and Shi’ite have the same beliefs in common?

Mostly, at least on the basics. For Christians, the Nicene creed is often viewed as the basic statement of faith, the essentials agreed upon by all orthodox believers. Muslims have a similar creed (shahadah) roughly translated as, “There is no god but Allah, Muhammad is the Messenger of Allah.” The Shi’ite, however, tack on an additional sentence: “Ali is the Friend of Allah. The Successor of the Messenger of Allah And his first Caliph.”

Who is this Ali?

Ali was Muhammad’s cousin and son-in-law and the reason these groups don’t get along (the terms Shia and Shi’ite come from condensing Shiat Ali, “partisans of Ali”). After Muhammad died, the leadership of the Muslim believers (the Ummah) was the responsibility of the Caliph, a type of tribal leader/Pope. The Sunnis respect Ali and consider him the fourth Caliph while the Shi’a contends he was cheated out of being first. Sunnis, following the tradition of the period, thought the Caliph should be chosen by the community while Shi’ites believe the office should be passed down only to direct descendants of Muhammad.

What is the Islamic State?

Islamic State is the current name of an Islamic militant group that was established in Iraq in 2004 and pledged allegiance to “Al-Qaeda in Iraq.” They later broke away from Al-Qaeda because of differences in doctrine and objectives and formed a distinct organization. From late 2006 to mid 2013, the group called itself the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI).

From 2013 to mid 2014, when they expanded into Syria, they called themselves the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). (Most Western media translate “Levant” as “Syria,” hence ISIS.) Since 2014, they have expanded their ambitions to be a global organization and today simply refer to themselves as “Islamic State.”

The stated long-term goal of Islamic State is to establish a “caliphate” to rule over the entire Muslim world, under a single leader and in line with Sharia (Islamic law). A caliphate is a form of Islamic government led by a caliph, a person considered a political and religious successor to the Islamic prophet, Muhammad. Their interest in the Syrian civil war is to bring the country under their caliphate.

What is the toll of the Syrian civil war?

To date, estimates range between 250,000 and 470,000 Syrians killed, 1.8 million wounded, 3.1 million refugees, and 6.3 million internally displaced.

I know the country is somewhere in the Middle East, but where exactly is it located?

Syria, which is about the size of North Dakota, is located north of the Arabian Peninsula at the eastern end of the Mediterranean Sea. The country is bordered by Turkey on the north, Iraq on the east, Jordan on the south, and Lebanon, Israel, and the Mediterranean on the west. Its biggest cities are Aleppo (pre-war population 2,301,570) and Damascus (pre-war population 1,711,000).

Isn’t Syria one of the lands mentioned in the Bible?

The modern state of Syria is part of the area known throughout history as Greater Syria. In the Bible the city of Damascus is mentioned 67 times. The road to Damascus was the place of Paul’s conversion (Acts 9) and Antioch was the city in which the disciples were first called Christians.  (Acts 11:26).

Hasn’t the Syrian government used chemical weapons against its own people?

That certainly appears to be the case. According to Secretary of State John Kerry, the firsthand accounts from humanitarian organizations on the ground, like Doctors Without Borders and the Syria Human Rights Commission, all strongly indicate that chemical weapons were used on civilians in Damascus in August 2013.

Secretary Kerry also stated that the Syrian regime maintains custody of the country’s chemical weapons and that have the capacity to deliver them by using rockets. In 2013 the Syrian regime refused to allow U.N. investigators access to the site of the attack that would allegedly exonerate them. Instead, it attacked the area further, shelling it and systematically destroying evidence.

After a threat of U.S. military intervention, President Assad finally agreed to the complete removal and destruction of Syria's chemical weapons arsenal. Investigators have still found evidence of chemical weapons being used by government forces.

Are the anti-Assad rebels the “good guys” in the civil war?

Not exactly. Christians are increasingly becoming the target of violent attacks by the rebel forces. Catholic and Orthodox groups in Syria say the anti-government rebels have committed “awful acts” against Christians, including beheadings, rapes and murders of pregnant women. A special ‘Vulnerability Assessment of Syria’s Christians’ conducted by the World Watch unit of Open Doors International from June 2013 warned that Syrian Christians are the victims of “disproportionate violence and abuse.” They warned further that Christian women in Syria are particularly vulnerable to sexual abuse

How are other countries involved?

Several countries have used the crisis as a proxy war for their own interest. Iran and Russian have backed President Assad against the rebels. As the BBC notes, the Iranian government is believed to be spending billions of dollars a year to bolster the Syrian government. And Russia has launched an air campaign against Assad's enemies. Lebanon's Shia Islamist Hezbollah movement has also backed the Syrian government by sending fighters to the area.

Several countries with Sunni majorities — Jordan, Qatar, Turkey, and Saudi Arabia — have supported the Sunni opposition. France, the UK, and the U.S. have also provided limited military support. The U.S. had been providing anti-aircraft weapons and trained and armed 5,000 rebels. Both programs, however, have since been abandoned.

What should I know about the Syrian refugee crisis?

We’ll cover the refugee crisis in greater detail in next week’s article.

Image credit: Wikipedia
By / Jul 1

The fact that Southern Baptists had a tragic beginning when it comes to racism is a well-documented historical fact. The Southern Baptist Convention was founded in 1845 as a result of southern churches deciding to no longer cooperate with northern Baptists over the issue of southern slave-owners being refused ordination for missionary service. As we study the lives and writings of many of our heroes in the faith, we are often stunned by their blind inconsistencies on the slavery question.

Of course, we do not study history in the abstract, which is precisely why this issue bothers us so much. We are white Southern Baptists from Alabama, which means it is possible some our ancestors could have owned slaves and that we might have too if we had lived at that time. The massive failure of the vast majority of our Baptist kin on the issue of race makes the exceptions all the more remarkable. One such exception is James Madison Pendleton (1811-1891). Pendleton was born in 1811 in Spotsylvania County, Virginia, and was raised from the age of one in Christian County, Kentucky. He pastored churches in Kentucky, Tennessee, Ohio, and Pennsylvania.

Pendleton was a prominent Southern Baptist whose life coincided with the racial debates surrounding the founding of the SBC and the American Civil War. He had everything to gain by siding with his denominational brethren on the slavery issue, but he courageously chose to argue for the end of slavery. There has been a great deal of talk recently about whether the Confederate flag should fly at state house grounds. Pendleton’s position on that issue in 1861 was to quote the popular Twitter hashtag #TakeItDown. Pendleton wrote,

It was about midsummer in 1861, when the Confederate flag was hoisted on the Court House in Murfreesboro, and there it waved for nine months, but I seldom saw it. I was unwilling to look at it, because it was usurping the place of the flag the United States—the flag of my heart’s love.[1]

In 1849, Pendleton wrote a series of letters in response to a series of proslavery articles Rev. W.C. Buck had written in the Baptist Banner. Buck refused to publish Pendleton’s responses in his paper and Pendleton turned to the Louisville Examiner to publish his rebuttal. The articles entitled, “Letters to Rev. W.C. Buck, in Review of His Articles on Slavery” put forth a courageous argument for emancipation.

As Christians continue to be pushed to the margins of contemporary American culture in our own day, James Madison Pendleton offers a model of convictional gospel courage that remains faithful to the gospel of Jesus Christ in the face of intense pressure to compromise. Note Pendleton’s own descriptions, from his autobiography, of what it cost him to oppose secession as a southern man living in Tennessee leading up to beginning of the Civil War:

I was known to be a Union man, and it was no advantage to me that nearly all my family connections, by blood and marriage, were on the other side. I suppose I was in greater danger of personal violence than I thought at the time. It is said that a citizen offered to head any company that would undertake to hang me, and that my name, accompanied by no complimentary remarks, was sent to the daring John Morgan. I knew not what might happen.[2]

Because of his allegiance to the Union at the outset of the Civil War, he was forced to resign his post at Union University in Tennessee. He describes his despair during this period, “I remember waking the next morning before the day and bursting into tears, under the impression that the Lord had nothing more for me to do, and that there was no place for me in his vineyard.”[3] To compound his grief, Pendleton’s own son would die in battle as a Confederate soldier.

Pendleton believed the Bible, when interpreted correctly, could not be coopted into a proslavery agenda. In response to proslavery advocates’ reliance on the Mosaic Law, Pendleton countered, “I have often wondered that the apologists of slavery refer with such frequency to the Mosaic law, when it is evident that if a prominent regulation of that law had not been utterly disregarded there would have been no slavery in America. Moses says, “He that stealeth a man and selleth him, or if he be found in his hands, shall surely be put to death.”[4]

Pendleton understood that there was more driving the proslavery agenda than simple and objective biblical interpretation. In response to Buck’s contention that many slaveholders owned slaves out of their obligation to love their neighbor and convert unbelievers. Pendleton replies with incredulous and biting sarcasm:

Can you name a class of men who in the early settlement of America went across the Atlantic to Africa “from mere impulses of humanity” to purchase slaves, “believing that they could materially better their condition?” Does history contain a record of such a class? If so I am ignorant of the fact, and would gladly be informed. I would like to do honor to the memory of men whose “impulses of humanity” excited so much sympathy for the African race. Give me, if you please, the names of those who composed this philanthropic “class.” They deserve a celebrity, which they have not yet attained.[5]

Pendleton knew that “their approbation of the system of slavery grows out of its supposed capability of producing dollars and cents.”[6]

Pendleton argued that slavery was a religious issue and not merely a political one. He wrote, “Many professors of religion, I know, speak of [slavery] as if it were on a level with ‘tariffs,’ ‘national banks,’ &c.; and this to me is a source of profound mortification. The idea that slaves are ‘property’ seems to have taken exclusive possession of their minds, and hence they overlook the capital fact that slaves are ‘persons’ as well as property.”[7] He continues, “The idea is horrible. Rational beings, on whose souls God has stamped immortality, are placed on an equality with beasts that perish.”[8] His personal ministry backed up his words as he admitted slaves into membership of his church in Bowling Green, Kentucky.[9]

Responding to Buck’s argument that slavery promoted the “holiness and happiness” of slaves, Pendleton countered with this gem:

If then it could be established that slavery promotes the holiness and happiness of slaves, it would follow that as it does not promote the holiness and happiness of the white population it would be well for white people to be enslaved in order to their holiness and happiness. … But you know, and I know that slavery “promotes the holiness and happiness” of neither the free nor the slave population.[10]

As Pendleton saw it both North and South were self-seeking and blameworthy in the Civil War. He did not hold a righteous North or a righteous South theory about the war. He wrote, “In the early part of the war there was no reference to the extermination of slavery” but it became clear to the North that “the preservation of the union required the abolition of slavery by a successful prosecution of the war.” According to him, it was “an overruling Providence” that was to be credited with the end of slavery. He continued, “It is evident that the end of slavery was not man’s work.” He summarized, “The overthrow of American slavery was an epoch in the world’s history, and it is the providence of God that creates epochs.”[11]

[1]J.M. Pendleton, Reminiscences of a Long Life (Louisville: Press Baptist Book Concern, 1891), 122-123.

[2] Ibid., 122-123.

[3] Ibid., 134.

[4] J.M. Pendleton, Letters to Rev. W.C. Buck, in Review of His Articles on Slavery(Louisville: n.p., 1849), 5.

[5] Ibid., 7.

[6] Ibid., 8.

[7] Ibid., 2.

[8] Ibid., 6.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Pendleton, Letters, 3.

[11] Pendleton, Reminiscences, 125.