By / Mar 2

Recently, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo traveled to Ethiopia as part of an international effort to encourage the country to reach a peaceful solution with Egypt. What is the conflict over? The Nile River. 

For background, the Nile River flows North from Lake Victoria (shared between Kenya, Uganda, and Tanzania) and Lake Tana in Ethiopia. These lakes feed into rivers known as the White Nile and Blue Nile, respectively, which merge in Khartoum, Sudan, to form the longest river in the world—the Nile River. The Blue River is responsible for most of the Nile’s water and rich sediment, thus, residents of Ethiopia, Sudan, and Egypt have had centuries-long arguments about how to properly allocate its resources. 

To help encourage cooperation between governments over the river, 10 countries in the Nile Basin formed the Nile Basin Initiative (NBI) in 1999. In 2011, during massive political turmoil in Egypt, Ethiopia began construction on the Grand Egyptian Resistance Dam (GERD) without the approval of the NBI. This was seen by many of the other countries in the NBI as Ethiopia attempting to dominate the region and exert unilateral control over the Nile. 

In order to avoid violent conflict between Egypt and Ethiopia, the two governments entered into negotiations over how fast GERD was to be built and its reservoir filled. 

Now, in 2020, GERD is almost completely built. 

Negotiations are ongoing between Ethiopia and Egypt with the United States serving as mediator. These negotiations are why Pompeo is traveling to Ethiopia. Egypt is hoping for a slow fill of the reservoir so as not to disrupt the Nile supply downstream, and Ethiopia is hoping for a quicker fill for greater energy production. The United States is reported to have positioned itself somewhere in the middle.

Whatever one thinks about the specific foreign policy these countries should pursue, Christians should critically care about the allocation of Nile River resources for three reasons: political instability, creation care, and humanitarian concerns. 

Ethiopia, Sudan, and Egypt (to say nothing of the other NBI countries) have complex international and political history. It would be naive to think that the current negotiation over GERD has nothing to do with the rich national narratives of each country and past conflicts between them. 

Not only that, but the stakes are incredibly high. All of these countries face dire economic challenges. Access to the Nile River is an absolute necessity for food security, economic development, sanitation, and energy among other basic resources. Simply put, the Nile River is the only thing between Ethiopia, Sudan, Egypt, and a catastrophic humanitarian crisis. 

The governments of these countries know this, and are acting from a posture of self-preservation. This desperation can lead to political unrest, turmoil, and general instability in the region. Disruptions such as this have left room for corruption to gain a foothold in offices of power in the past. We should be wary of leaders using the Nile River to aggress in the region at the expense of their citizens or ones of neighboring countries. 

A Christian response 

In a fallen world, there are limited resources. The gospel compels us to prudentially and responsibly allocate these resources based on the authority granted by God to governments in Romans 13. Christians also must be motivated by God’s mandate in Genesis 2 to steward the natural resources we’ve been given. God has entrusted to us abundant provision, and we are to use it responsibly, not allow it to stir up division. 

Here are three ways Christians can be engaging and praying about this salient issue:

  • Pray the involved governments would have just and sober-minded leaders.
  • Pray for a quick, fair, and peaceful resolution.
  • Pray for God to establish the work of aid organizations on the ground. 

Centuries of people have lived on the banks of this river—planted roots (literally and metaphorically), raised families, and formed regional identities and communities. Lest American Christians think this doesn’t affect them, consider in Exodus when Moses is placed on the Nile to escape a murderous dictator, or in Ezekiel when God uses the Nile to lead his people to repentance. The Nile is an important landmark in the American Christian’s faith. How much more special is it to Egyptian, Sudanese, or Ethiopian Christians?


By / Sep 30

A few weeks ago, the Egyptian parliament finally passed a long-awaited bill to reform restrictions on the construction of churches. During the era of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, building a new church in Egypt required a permit from the president himself.

Similar restrictions against the construction of churches exist across the Middle East. Will this development in Egypt usher in a new era of religious liberty, pluralism and the legalization of churches in the region? Probably not. Egypt’s new law is far from perfect and does not meet the promises made when Egypt’s new constitution was approved in January 2014.

However, the law does provide an interesting model that Western governments and religious freedom advocates can point to in encouraging other countries to ease their own restrictions on church construction. Egypt has long played an important leadership role in the Middle East, both politically and theologically.

An imperfect model

So, do Christians in Egypt now have the right to construct churches? It’s possible, but we will have to wait to see how the law is actually implemented. Let’s start by answering the question of what true freedom would look like: At a minimum, this would mean that the construction of a new church would be held to the same standard as a new mosque. This would mean, primarily, compliance with building codes and zoning codes.

If this is the standard, Egypt’s new law falls far short. We should join our voices with those of our Christian brothers and sisters in Egypt who are demanding that the law be revised to meet this standard. Indeed, Ishak Ibrahim, the freedom of religion and belief officer for the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, said, “The state’s role should be limited to respecting and promoting the right to build, to ensure freedom of worship.”

Let us examine a few of the more problematic elements of the law:

  1. Church construction requirements are in a different legal code than mosque construction requirements. This was mentioned briefly above, but it warrants calling out specifically because the fact that houses of worship are regulated differently sends a cultural message that houses of worship are not the same: mosques and churches are understood by the law to be different things.
  2. The size of the new church must be “proportional” to the number of Christians in the area. There is no standard for the appropriate “proportion,” and Christians in Egypt have long complained that they are underrepresented in the Egyptian census records. Further, the law does not define who the decisionmaker is.
  3. Many house churches, because they are located in rural areas, are not able to meet the building standards. This means that these house churches will not be considered legal churches under the new system, a major problem for Christian populations isolated in rural areas.
  4. The role of the Egyptian security services in approving church construction remains unclear. Ostensibly, the new law eliminates the role of the Egyptian security services, known within Egypt as the “deep state,” in approving church construction. Little is known about Egypt’s security services, the criteria used to approve church construction or the process by which such decisions were made. Most observers argue that the deep state was—and is—primarily concerned with minimizing sectarian violence between the Islamist and Christian communities. Especially in rural areas, Islamist populations often strongly resist the construction of new churches. Ibrahim went on to say that the new law “gives the security apparatus a say in the granting of permits and allows it to monitor activities and any modifications to religious buildings.”
  5. The process by which the new bill was passed was hardly democratic. The new law was negotiated in secret among a limited number of the stakeholders involved. Public debate on the text of the bill was intentionally limited, and the bill was then passed three days after the text of the law was released.

Will other majority-Muslim countries loosen their church construction requirements?

A few weeks ago, I was in Berlin at the second gathering of the International Panel of Parliamentarians for Freedom of Religion and Belief. At the conference, the question of houses of non-Muslim worship in majority-Muslim countries was debated at length. And one of the main responses on social media from countries like the Maldives—which has no churches—was, “when Vatican City builds a mosque, we will consider building a church.”

Vatican City has a population of 451, all of whom are Roman Catholic. This makes the comparison to, say, Saudi Arabia, which has an estimated 1.5 million Christians but not a single church, entirely unfair. And this of course glosses over the larger questions of apostasy laws. Most of the Christians in Saudi Arabia are foreign laborers granted work visas within the country. Allowing freedom of worship for foreigners is one question; allowing freedom of worship for converts to Christianity from Islam an entirely another question. The latter are considered apostates, a “crime” punishable by death in 13 countries in the world today, all of which are majority-Muslim.

We can look to the Marrakesh Declaration for hope that at least some actors within the Muslim world are seeking to construct a definition of equal citizenship based on Islamic principles. But we also need to remember that at least 10 percent of Egypt’s population is Christian, and that population has lived in Egypt since the first century. Most Christian populations around the Middle East are tiny minorities with little political power.

As such, no political movement will be automatic: It will come through indigenous efforts supported by international pressure and diplomacy.

Moving forward in Egypt

Looking forward, there are several things to look for within Egypt. First, of course, we should look for statistics of new church construction, especially in rural areas of Egypt where new churches are often met with pushback. These kinds of situations are usually underreported because the Christian community fears violent retribution if they speak to the press or to the international community.

Second, we should look at the way that mob violence that often attends rumors of new churches is handled by the Egyptian authorities. For instance, in July of this year, an angry mob in a village near Alexandria attacked the home of a man suspected by the community of seeking to host a church in his house. During the attack, two homes were destroyed and another 10 houses were looted. And in 2013, over 100 churches were destroyed in the aftermath of the coup that ousted then-President Hosni Mubarak, Egypt’s first leader from the Muslim Brotherhood. The Brotherhood blamed the Christian community for supporting the coup. About two-thirds of those churches have now been repaired, many by the Egyptian army at the direction of current President al-Sisi.

Whether this new law was actually a step forward for Egyptian Christians remains to be seen. Let us join them in prayer as they seek to worship the Lord in truth and with freedom.

By / Jul 22

Every Friday, we bring you the top five international stories of the week, with a particular emphasis on religious liberty, justice issues and geopolitical issues that impact liberty and justice.

1. Elements of Turkish military attempt to overthrow the government, failing within a few hours. Late last Friday night, a small group within the Turkish military closed several bridges in Istanbul and Ankara, closed the airport and conducted low flyovers over Istanbul and the nation’s capital. But a few hours later, President Erdogan, who was not in Turkey at the time, appeared via FaceTime on state media, calling on supporters to take to the streets. And they did, leading to a dramatic turn of events where civilians swarmed military positions, taking back control of the government. From start to finish, the entire episode lasted less than 24 hours, but the effects will likely linger for years.

2. Turkish government fires or suspends more than 50,000 state employees in wide-ranging investigation into the causes behind the attempted coup. From my piece at “Whether what unfolds in the coming weeks can be characterized as an investigation or a purge will determine the validity of what Erdogan does to bring the military back under the control of the government. . . . But beyond these questions, the fundamental issue is what kind of Turkey will emerge from this conflict. Will freedom of expression be permitted back into Turkish society? Will religious and ethnic minorities like Alevi Muslims and Kurds be allowed to flourish? All of this remains to be seen. In the next few weeks, the future of a democratic and vibrant Turkey hangs in the balance.” Yesterday, Turkey declared a state of emergency, effectively suspending its human rights under international law.

3. Trump casts doubt on the future of NATO if he becomes President. Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump gave a wide-ranging interview to The New York Times. One of the topics of discussion from the interview was the future of NATO. From that interview: “Asked about Russia’s threatening activities, which have unnerved the small Baltic States that are among the more recent entrants into NATO, Mr. Trump said that if Russia attacked them, he would decide whether to come to their aid only after reviewing if those nations have ‘fulfilled their obligations to us.’”

4. Massive corruption case involving Malaysian sovereign wealth fund unfolds. The U.S. Department of Justice has accused individuals close to Malaysia’s prime minister of embezzling a staggering $3 billion from the fund. The assets seized include: “A $30.6 million penthouse at the Time Warner Center in Manhattan, overlooking Central Park. A $39 million mansion in the Los Angeles hills. A $17.5 million tear-down in Beverly Hills.”

5. In Egypt, protests grow over promised bill that would allow for church construction and renovation. When Egypt’s new constitution was ratified in 2013, the Parliament was required in its first term to pass a law reforming existing laws for church reconstruction. These existing laws, which date back to before the Mubarak era, required a Presidential decree for any construction or renovation at churches, including even minor bathroom renovations. Egypt’s eight million Christians have been waiting for the new law to pass for months, and the legislative process has been shrouded in secrecy.

Have suggestions for a top 5 article this week or think there’s an issue we should be covering? Email me at [email protected].

By / Feb 18

WASHINGTON, D.C., Feb. 18, 2015Russell Moore, president of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, “commented”: on the slaughter of Egyptian Christians by ISIS, and how Christians should think through religious persecution.

These are my brothers, faithful to Christ even unto death, Moore said. We ought, indeed, to pray for the gospel to go forward, and that there might be a new Saul of Tarsus turned away from murdering to gospel witness. At the same time, we ought to pray, with the martyrs in heaven, for justice against those who do such wickedness.

Praying for the military defeat of our enemies, and that they might turn to Christ, these are not contradictory prayers because salvation doesnt mean turning an eye away from justice. We can pray for gospel rootedness in the Middle East, and we can pray to light up their world like the Fourth of July, at the same time.

Additionally, Moore announced that the upcoming “ERLC Leadership Summit”: on racial reconciliation, March 26-27, will include a conversation about engaging Muslims. At the event, Afshin Ziafat, pastor of Providence Church in Frisco, Texas, will discuss his experiences as a boy growing up in a family of Iranian immigrants in Texas during the Iran hostage crisis.

In a time when the world is on fire with the threat of Islamic jihadist extremism and religious persecution, we must be the people who know how to engage our neighbors with the gospel that reconciles, Moore said. Afshin Ziafat is the best person I know to help guide us, having been on both sides of the churchs walls, as a Muslim child and as a Christian evangelist.

At the Summit, Ziafat will speak on “The Cost of Following Christ: One Man’s Journey from Islam to Christianity.” Ziafat is a former Muslim who frequently speaks on Christianity and Islam. This session will specifically address the question of how churches can lovingly engage those in Muslim communities around them.

Ziafat will also address “Behind the Veil: Islam, ISIS and the Hope of the Gospel,” at a Summit breakout session to help attendees better understand Muslims and how to reach them for Christ in the current cultural context.

The Southern Baptist Convention is Americas largest Protestant denomination with more than 15.8 million members in over 46,000 churches nationwide. The Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission is the SBCs ethics, religious liberty and public policy agency with offices in Nashville, Tenn., and Washington, D.C.

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