By / Oct 30

Jeff Pickering and Travis Wussow welcome Mindy Belz of World magazine to the podcast to talk about Islamic extremism and the future of ISIS after the killing of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi by US Special Forces. We also cover the rising instability in the Middle East as Turkish aggression threatens the Kurdish and Christian people in Syria.

Guest Biography

Mindy Belz is senior editor of World magazine and author of They Say We Are Infidels: On the run from ISIS with persecuted Christians in the Middle East. Writing for the publication since 1986, she has covered war in the Balkans, Sudan, Iraq, Syria, and Afghanistan, and has given on-the-ground news coverage from Nigeria, Egypt, Turkey, and elsewhere. Her reporting has been published in the United States and overseas. Belz and her husband have four children and live in Asheville, North Carolina. Follow her on Twitter @mcbelz.

Resources from the Conversation

By / Aug 8

Every Monday, 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. Turkey’s Erdogan continues purge of those suspected of involvement with coup attempt, consolidating power. Last week 1,400 officers and soldiers were culled from the Turkish army. This follows a dismissal of 1,700 the week priornearly 40 percent of Turkey’s generals and admirals have been dismissed. Also this week, in what he described as a “small constitutional package,” President Erdogan announced plans to move the Turkish spy agency and the military chief of staff directly under the President’s control.

Meanwhile, President Erdogan has been increasing pressure on the United States to expedite the extradition of Fethullah Gulen, the Turkish Islamic cleric alleged to have plotted the coup.

2. Airstrikes supporting Assad forces in Aleppo hit six hospitals, including Aleppo’s last children’s hospital. Aleppo, which is held by forces rebelling against the Assad regime, was completely encircled by Assad regime forces in late Julyplan to open exit corridors, but this week marks the worst week for attacks on Syrian hospitals in a year that has seen far too many such attacks.

3. ISIS has developed a trained, global network of jihadis who are citizens of Western democracies.The bombshell report comes from jailhouse interviews with a German man who pledged allegiance to the so-called Islamic State. According to The New York Times:

What they describe is a multilevel secret service under the overall command of the Islamic State’s most senior Syrian operative, spokesman and propaganda chief, Abu Muhammad al-Adnani. Below him is a tier of lieutenants empowered to plan attacks in different regions of the world, including a “secret service for European affairs,” a “secret service for Asian affairs” and a “secret service for Arab affairs,” according to Mr. Sarfo.

4. North Korea tests two more ballistic missiles; both were apparent failures. Although one of the ballistic missiles apparently exploded immediately after launch, the frequency of missile tests is alarming and demonstrates an increase in North Korea’s missile capabilities. The Obama administration, not eager to highlight its failure to contain the North Korean regime, has downplayed the risk.

5. Egypt, with economy flagging, turns to the International Monetary Fund for $12 billion in assistance.The IMF will likely require financial reforms from Egypt’s central bank as well as other measures designed to stimulate job creation. This would be welcome news for Egypt’s educated youth, who face high unemployment rates; 23 percent of college-educated males and 56 percent of college-educated females are unemployed. The IMF is expected to announce the final aid package in the next few weeks.

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

By / Aug 17

A year ago this month, Islamic State (also known as IS, ISIS, or ISIL) began a systematic program of capturing women and girls for the purposes of rape, forced marriage, and sexual slavery. Yesterday, the New York Times brought renewed attention to the war crimes in an article examining how IS enshrines a theology of rape.

Here are five facts you should about how IS views and justifies the practice of sexual slavery: 

1. IS considers rape of sex slaves to be a form of worship — In the New York Times article, a Yazidi girl was was enslaved by IS claims:

“Every time that he came to rape me, he would pray,” said F, a 15-year-old girl who was captured on the shoulder of Mount Sinjar one year ago and was sold to an Iraqi fighter in his 20s. Like some others interviewed by The New York Times, she wanted to be identified only by her first initial because of the shame associated with rape.

“He kept telling me this is ibadah,” she said, using a term from Islamic scripture meaning worship. 

2. IS has an eschatological justification for sex slavery   

Islamic State publishes a glossy propaganda magazine called Dabiq. In the October 2014 issue, IS included an article titled “The Revival Of Slavery Before The Hour,” which explains the justification for sex slavery.

In Islamic terminology the “hour” refers to the Day of Judgment, a time of reckoning either for an individual upon death or on mankind. According the article, IS asked its own Sharī’ah (Islamic law) scholars to render a verdict on whether the Yazidis could be enslaved. They determined that “enslavement of the apostate women” was not only justified by the Quran but was a sign prefiguring the Day of Judgment.

3. IS condones the rape of young girls — Last fall the Research and Fatwa Department of the Islamic State (ISIS) released a pamphlet on the topic of female captives and slaves:

"Question 13: Is it permissible to have intercourse with a female slave who has not reached puberty?

"It is permissible to have intercourse with the female slave who hasn't reached puberty if she is fit for intercourse; however if she is not fit for intercourse, then it is enough to enjoy her without intercourse."

4. Acquisition of sex slaves is used as a recruiting tool —

As the New York Times article notes, the practice of slavery has become an established recruiting tool to lure men from deeply conservative Muslim societies, where casual sex is taboo and dating is forbidden. Capturing sex slaves has become nearly as important for IS’s objectives as capturing territory.

5. IS has about 3,000 girls and women engaged in sexual slavery — According to Human Rights Watch, the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights stated in its report on March 13, 2015 that about 3,000 people, mainly Yazidis, allegedly remain in ISIS captivity. However, local officials, service providers, and community activists estimate that the number of Yazidis still held is much higher.

By / Jul 17

“How could this happen in Chattanooga?”, is the question echoing from many of the residents of our city. Chattanooga is mere weeks off from being voted “Best Outdoor City 2015” by Outside Magazine. The Matador Network, the world’s largest independent travel publisher, ranks it 12 in the top 20 towns to visit in the US. Chattanooga was found to be the most Bible-minded city by Time Magazine in January of last year. Our city is in the national news again today, though for much different reasons, a much more tragic reason.

Our community is mourning the loss of four marines who served our country by preserving the freedoms we have as Americans. They would lose their lives not in combat on foreign soil, but in their homeland serving stateside. My heart goes out to the grief-stricken families whose lives were turned upside down. What was supposed to be a routine day at the office turned into a nightmare. Many are asking questions like: “Why did this happen?”, “Where is God?”,  and “How should we respond?” The natural tendency is to want to retaliate; it is the way we are wired. But is that the proper response for born-again believers?

Remember: tumultuous times are reminders that this earth is not our home—that the land in which we live is a fallen world riddled with sin and evil. The longer we settle into this foreign land, the easier it becomes to forget that our citizenship is from another world. We are citizens of heaven, but green card holders on earth. Joseph Stowall reminds us, “We think that we are in the land of the living going to the land of the dying, when in reality, we are in the land of the dying headed for the land of the living.”[i] This world is not our home.​

While under house arrest in Rome, Paul encouraged the believers at Philippi with these words: “Brothers, join in imitating me, and keep your eyes on those who walk according to the example you have in us. For many, of whom I have often told you and now tell you even with tears, walk as enemies of the cross of Christ. Their end is destruction, their god is their belly, and they glory in their shame, with minds set on earthly things. But our citizenship is in heaven, and from it we await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, who will transform our lowly body to be like his glorious body, by the power that enables him even to subject all things to himself” (Phil. 3:17-21). As we wait for Christ’s return, we must understand that our beliefs will garner alienation and estrangement.

Since we have been set apart by God in order to live differently, our actions should mimic those of Jesus Christ. He outlined a pattern for living in the Sermon on the Mount that is contrary to the world’s system. With political zealots in His audience at the time of delivery, Jesus offered a counter-cultural proposition for those who persecute us: “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven” (Matt. 5:43-45).

We absolutely need grace in order to extend Christ-like love to those who attack us. Just keep in mind that when we extend this agape affection to our enemies, we reveal our adoption as sons and daughters of God in heaven, as Jesus previously stated.

Muhammad Youssef Abdulazeez committed an unthinkable crime. He was a picture of the man next door, the coworker in the cubicle next to you, or the classmate across the aisle from you. He is the person you never imagined would execute such an offense. Like every person born in this world, he was a sinner in need of a Savior. His restless heart would never find rest unless he had found rest in Christ. Only Jesus could offer him peace that is unexplainable. Only Jesus could offer him comfort for his troubled temperament. Only Jesus could dissipate the anger in his hardened heart.

On this side of eternity we will never be free from the effects of sin. However, God, in his kindness, provided a solution to our separation from Him through a relationship with his Son Jesus.  

How should we respond?

  • Pray for wisdom for Mayor Andy Burke, Governor Bill Haslam, and Senator Bob Corker as they lead.
  • Pray for the citizens of Chattanooga who are still making sense of the events that have unfolded yesterday.
  • Pray for the families of the four marines who lost their lives. Pray for healing, peace, and comfort in Christ.
  • Pray for the family of Muhammad Youssef Abdulazee, who have lost a son and who will be facing terribly difficult times in the days, months, and years ahead.
  • Pray for God to revive our nation.

We are confronted with the depravity in our country daily. We find ourselves in a predicament of epic proportions: We cannot purchase, plan, elect, talk, or act our way out of the mess we’re in. The only answer is to call upon the God of the universe in prayer for national revival. We desperately need a fresh touch from heaven. As Ronnie Floyd, President of the SBC, often says, “God can do more in a moment than we can do in a lifetime.” We need watchmen on the walls who will pray for God to blow upon the hearts of his people. We need believers who will believe God for revival in this country. We need Christians who will pray biblical prayers for restoration.

Disciple-maker and longtime Navigator participant Dwight Hill offered a prayer for the injustice in the world years ago that is helpful today: “Lord, I am enraged over the injustices of this past week. Coupled with the rage is a deep sense of grief.  My natural instinct is to strike back.  Calm my spirit, measure my steps, heal my wounded heart.  Endow your peace and healing on the families of our fallen brothers and sisters.  Grant our Government the wisdom to respond Biblically to this grave injustice and impending danger. In Jesus’ Name, Amen.”[ii]


[i]Joseph M. Stowell, Eternity: Reclaiming a Passion for What Endures (Grand Rapids: Discovery House, 2006), 7. 

[ii]Bernie Koerselman, Response to Terrorism—A Christian Perspective. [Internet] Accessed 16 July 2015. 

By / Mar 4

ISIS is a theological movement grounded in a very specific kind of Muslim eschatology.

In his groundbreaking analysis in The Atlantic, Graeme Wood argues that ISIS “has attracted psychopaths and adventure seekers, drawn largely from the disaffected populations of the Middle East and Europe. But the religion preached by its most ardent followers derives from coherent and even learned interpretations of Islam.”

The Islamic State differs from nearly every other current jihadist movement in believing that it is written into God’s script as a central character. It is in this casting that the Islamic State is most boldly distinctive from its predecessors, and clearest in the religious nature of its mission . . .

One must read Wood’s lengthy piece in its entirety to grasp the fullness of ISIS’s view of itself as the key inducer of the final days, but that this is its theological position is indisputable.

Wood notes that its eschatological schema “allows us to predict some of the group’s actions,” including its theological disdain for national borders (which violate their understanding of an Islamic caliphate). He addresses issues of Western military intervention and suggests that some form of such might be needed. However, Wood concludes that

". . . the Islamic State holds the imminent fulfillment of prophecy as a matter of dogma … It is ready to cheer its own near-obliteration, and to remain confident, even when surrounded, that it will receive divine succor if it stays true to the Prophetic model."

ISIS is being as provocative as it can be precisely because it wants to bring about the end of days according to its understanding of Islamic teaching. It wants the West to attack and destroy it in order to bring about Allah’s triumph in history.

This version of Islam, right or wrong, is a major part of what is incentivizing ISIS’s campaign of brutality and terror. Its belief in the rectitude of the restoration of the “caliphate” – Islamic control of territory once governed by Muslims – is the other major factor.

The eschatological motivation of ISIS has received some interest in the mainstream press. Writing in Reuters, Mariam Karouny reports that those ISIS believes its efforts were

" . . . all foretold in 7th Century prophecies. From the first outbreak of the crisis in the southern city of Deraa to apocalyptic forecasts of a Middle East soaked in blood, many combatants on both sides of the conflict say its path was set 1,400 years ago in the sayings of the Prophet Mohammad and his followers."

With respect to how this should effect America’s response to ISIS, recognizing that its fighters welcome death and are eager to invite combat with the West should inform strategic deliberations by U.S. policymakers and military planners.

But what our strategy should be is distinct from the purpose of this paper. Rather, it is to make clear that while interpretations of the Koran and the Haddith vary, the Islamists are not stupid. Their grasp of the theology and eschatology contained in their sacred writings is not primitive but thorough. Let us not patronize them with palaver that ISIS is merely about jobs or opportunity; a good economy in, say, Iraq would not opiate its purveyors of violence.

There is little doubt that some ISIS terrorists are inspired both by the dream of money and power as much as by their religious beliefs. Omer Taspinar of the National War College and Johns Hopkins University contends that “Since poverty and ignorance often provide a breeding ground for radicalism, socioeconomic development appears compelling as an effective antidote.”

Granted: offer a poor boy whose future looks bleak money and a gun and the promise of big things, and there’s a good chance he’ll follow you. But to reduce ISIS’s appeal to issues of macho youthfulness, despair, lack of economic opportunity or similar causes is to dismiss the most obvious and most deeply- rooted reasons for its attractiveness to so many: Its religious teachings.

The leadership of the radical Islamists, most particularly those in ISIS, has a sophisticated grasp of the teachings of its holy books that transcends anything to do with economics or education or a lack of opportunity.

For example, the recently revealed “Jihad Johnny,” Mohammed Emwazi, was raised in London, received a degree in computer technology from Britain’s University of Westminster and came from a well-to-do family.

Writing several years ago in The New York Times, Peter Bergen and Swati Pandey note that Emwazi’s background is not atypical:

We examined the educational backgrounds of 75 terrorists behind some of the most significant recent terrorist attacks against Westerners. We found that a majority of them are college-educated, often in technical subjects like engineering. In the four attacks for which the most complete information about the perpetrators’ educational levels is available – the World Trade Center bombing in 1993, the attacks on the American embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998, the 9/11 attacks, and the Bali bombings in 2002 – 53 percent of the terrorists had either attended college or had received a college degree. As a point of reference, only 52 percent of Americans have been to college. The terrorists in our study thus appear, on average, to be as well educated as many Americans.

Yet there remain those who think religion is really not at issue. Business columnist Loren Thompson, writing in FORBES, even goes so far as to say flatly that “the ISIS fight isn’t about Islam.” Instead, he says,

"It appears that every culture produces large numbers of young males who can be mobilized in the pursuit of millenarian philosophies, not because of the specific content of the vision, but because young men yearn for power and status and resources (not to mention mates). If we focus too closely on the Islamic features of what ISIS leaders propound, we will miss the underlying motivational dynamics that explain why such movements have similar success at recruiting even when they espouse completely opposite ideas."

In other words, the young men who are drawn to ISIS are driven not by theology but by – what, hormones? “We can argue about what needs gave male violence value in evolution, but attaching its worst manifestations to one religion is misleading,” says Thompson.

No one (that I know of) suggests that religious-based violence is unique to Islam. But the violence that characterizes radical Islamists is drawn not from “male evolution” but from their interpretation of the Koran.

Are many of ISIS’s front-line soldiers young men compacted together by factors apart from religious faith? Yes. Some of those factors include cultural humiliation, relative poverty, and so forth. But they are also imbued with faith in a holy war and their part in accelerating the final apocalypse. And, without dispute, those who lead the movement are driven by their Islamic eschatology.

“In DC the idea that there is anything worth believing in outside of post-modernist nihilism and cynicism simply does not compute. DC tells us ISIS was born because they lack jobs – and yet many members are upper-class professionals,” writes a retired artillerist who served in Afghanistan in While overstated, he gets at a key issue: Secularists simply have great difficulty grasping that religion actually motivates behavior.

We see this mindset at work here at home, albeit non-violently. It angers the aggressive Left and mystifies their passive secularist allies – those who assume that the echo chamber of the liberal commentariat is the repository of all wisdom – that Christians want to live-out their faith at work as well as within their homes or the four walls of their churches. Thus, bakers and florists are fined and police officials fired for refusing to compromise their religiously-driven moral convictions when it comes to homosexuality.

But back to ISIS: From northeastern Nigeria to Libya to Syria to Paris, the actions of radical Islamists are incentivized by what they believe about God and his plan for the world. To deny this, to reduce everything to the temporal and material, speaks to a very conscious contempt for and misunderstanding of the power of religious commitment on the part of many in the Western elites.

This contempt is a commentary on the culture of our time, one whose anti-theism or at least religious ignorance is affecting the public dialog if not national action. Such an attitude will leave policymakers surprised and unprepared as they deal with Islamism worldwide. No jobs program will suffice.

By / Feb 18

A pastor friend told me last week that he had church members enraged with him when he suggested from the pulpit that we ought to pray for the salvation of Islamic State terrorists. The people in his church told him that he ought to be calling for justice against them, given their brutal murder of Christians, not for mercy.

I thought about my friend a few days ago when these murderous fiends beheaded 21 of our brothers and sisters in Christ because they refused to renounce the name of Jesus. I was not just angry; I was furious. Can such fury co-exist, though, with the Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 5-7)? When we pray about such evil, how should we pray?

The complexity of the Christian calling in the world was seen even in social media. One friend of mine posted that the slaughter of Christians overseas calls for the world’s only remaining superpower to take action. Another said, quoting singer Toby Keith, that it was time to “light up their world like the Fourth of July.” To that, I say, “Amen.” Another friend, a former student of mine, posted, “Oh, that there might be an ISIS Saul standing there now, holding the cloaks, whose salvation might turn the Arab world upside down with the gospel!” To that I say “Amen,” too.

These are not contradictory prayers.

Jesus says to love our enemies and to pray for those who persecute us (Matt. 5:44). The Spirit of Jesus in the prophets and in the apostles also tells us that those who turn a blind eye to the killing of others are wrong. The fact that we feel contradictory praying both for justice against the Islamic State and for salvation for Islamic State terrorists is partly because we fail to distinguish between the mission of the state in the use of the temporal sword against evildoers (Rom. 13:4) and the mission of the church in the use of the sword of the Spirit against sin and death and the devil (Eph. 6). But that’s not, I think, the main problem.

The main problem is that we sometimes forget that we are called to be a people of both justice and justification, and that these two are not contradictory.

It sounds awfully spiritual, at first blush, to say that we should not pray for the defeat of our enemies on the field of battle. But that’s only the case if these enemies are not actually doing anything. This terrorist group is raping, enslaving, beheading, crucifying our brothers and sisters in Christ, as well as other innocent people. To not pray for swift action against them is to not care about what Jesus said we should seek, what we should hunger and thirst for, for justice. A world in which murderous gangs commit genocide without penalty is not a “merciful” world but an unjust horror show.

As Christians, we ought to be, above all people, concerned with such justice. We not only have the common grace standing of caring about stopping murder and injustice, rooted in the image of God and the law written on the heart. We also have the personal implication here. It’s our household being wiped out in the Middle East, the very place where our church started. For us, this isn’t a matter of “they;” it’s a matter of “us.”

At the same time, praying for the salvation of our enemies, even those committing the most horrific of crimes, is not a call to stop praying for justice against them. The cross, after all, is not forgiveness in a contemporary therapeutic sense—in which one is merely absolved of wrongdoing as though it were all a misunderstanding. No, that’s precisely the Apostle Paul’s point in the Book of Romans.

The gospel does not say, “Don’t’ worry about it; it’s okay.” The gospel points us to the cross where sin is absorbed in a substitute. God’s righteous condemnation of sin is there. He does not, and cannot, enable wickedness. And God’s mercy is there in that he is the One who sends his Son as the propitiation for sin. He is both “just and the justifier of the One who has faith in Jesus” (Rom. 3:26). The gospel doesn’t leave sin unpunished. Every sin is punished, either a the Place of the Skull, in Christ, or in the judgment of hell, on one’s own.

The thief on the cross—a Middle Eastern terrorist—in his act of faith did not believe that his salvation exempted him from justice. He confessed that his sentence was justice, and that he was receiving “the due reward for our deeds” (Lk. 23:41) even as he cried out to Jesus for merciful entrance into the kingdom of Christ (Lk. 23:42).

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 doesn’t 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.

We are, after all, the people of the cross.

By / Aug 12

WASHINGTON, D.C., August 12, 2014Russell Moore, president of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, signed onto an open letter with national leaders on Tuesday urging the United States and international community to act immediately to stop the ISIS/ISIL genocide of religious minorities in Iraq.

Moore joined Robert P. George, McCormick Professor of Jurisprudence at Princeton University and chairman of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom; Eric Metaxas, a popular author and speaker; Ben Carson, a noted neurosurgeon and other intellectual leaders in signing the letter.

Moore comments on the current state of religious persecution in Iraq:

“I stand in solidarity with men and women across the political spectrum to urge the U.S. government to help put an end to this grievous injustice in Iraq. Our authorities should use the sword of the state to promote justice and the protection of innocent people.

At the same time, I would ask Christians to pray for our brothers and sisters in Iraq. As we do, let’s remember that we pray in power. The church may be hounded and jailed and even crucified. But the church can never be beheaded. The Head of the Church is alive, and engaged, and on his way back. This should give us courage and hope, even as we groan at the evil we see.”

In their open letter, signatories expressed appreciation to President Barack Obama for ordering airstrikes against ISIS/ISIL to stop its advancement on key cities, but they also said more should be done to stop the current state of barbarism.

We call upon the United States and the international community to do everything necessary to empower local forces fighting ISIS/ISIL in Iraq to protect their people. No options that are consistent with the principles of just war doctrine should be off the table, the signatories wrote.

A copy of the letter can be found “online.”:

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 entity with offices in Nashville, Tenn. and Washington, D.C.

– END –

To request an interview with Russell Moore

contact Elizabeth Bristow at (615) 782-8409

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By / Aug 8

WASHINGTON, D.C., August 8, 2014 Russell Moore, president of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, expresses support for President Barack Obamas decision to address a security threat and a humanitarian crisis in Iraq:

“President Barack Obama is right to take action to protect religious minorities, including Christians, in Iraq from ISIS. He has my prayers. Those families stranded on a mountaintop, fleeing torture, rape and beheading deserve justice and compassion. As Christians, we should pray for the president and our military leaders to wisely administer the sword of justice (Rom 13:1-3). As part of the global body of Christ, we must also pray fervently for our persecuted brothers and sisters in Iraq and across the Middle East (Heb 13:3).

During a televised address Thursday, Obama announced he was authorizing airstrikes if necessary to fight ISIS, the Islamist militant group terrorizing religious minorities in northern Iraq.

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 entity with offices in Nashville, Tenn. and Washington, D.C.

– END –

To request an interview with Russell D. Moore

contact Elizabeth Bristow at (615) 782-8409

or by e-mail at [email protected]

Visit our Web site at

Follow us on Twitter at @ERLCPressRoom