By / Feb 2

On Sunday, Jan. 28, another Iran-backed militant group known as Islamic Resistance in Iraq launched a drone attack on a small outpost in the country of Jordan, killing three U.S. Army soldiers and injuring more than 30 service members. “We shall respond,” President Joe Biden said on Sunday. Over the past four months, Iran-backed militant groups have increasingly attacked both civilians and military forces throughout the Middle East. The increase in violence began when Hamas launched a surprise attack on Israel, killing 1,400 people in what has been referred to as Israel’s 9/11.

Since November, another group, known as Houthis, have launched what the State Department describes as “unprecedented attacks” against international maritime vessels in the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden, as well as military forces positioned in the Arabian Peninsula to defend the safety and security of commercial shipping. These attacks against international shipping, says the State Department, have “endangered mariners, disrupted the free flow of commerce, and interfered with navigational rights and freedoms.”

Here is what you should know about the Iran-backed terrorist organizations responsible for numerous recent attacks in the Middle East.

How is Iran involved in the recent attacks?

Although Iran denies being involved in the attack on the U.S. outpost, the Shia-dominant nation has been accused of providing weapons and funding for several militant groups in the Middle East including the Houthis, the Islamic Resistance in Iraq, Hamas, and Hezbollah. Earlier this year, the Iranian foreign ministry spokesperson said that “Iran proudly announces that it supports Palestinian resistance movements for the liberation of their land.”

These militant groups are used by Iran to fight a proxy war against Iran’s enemies—namely Saudi Arabia, Israel, and the U.S. (In proxy wars, states arm and support actors in another country to achieve their broader geopolitical goals.) Iran-linked groups using drones packed with explosives have attacked U.S. troops in the Middle East more than 150 times since Hamas’s recent assault on Israel.

Who are the Houthis?

The Houthis—formally known as Ansar Allah or Ansarallah (Supporters of God)—originated in the early 1990s in northern Yemen. They began as a theological movement and took their name from their original leader, Hussein Badreddin al-Houthi, who served in the Yemeni parliament and advocated for the rights of the Zaidi Shia Muslim minority in Yemen. 

Zaydi Shiites are a minority within the Islamic world, with distinct beliefs from other Shiite groups (The two main branches of Islam are Sunni and Shia, which differ in their views on political succession and the authority of Muhammad’s descendants. Roughly 90% of the world’s Muslims are Sunni and 10% are Shia.) 

The Houthis follow a branch of Shia Islam known as Zaidism, but the Houthi movement represents a complex blend of religious, political, and tribal elements.They seek greater autonomy for their region and oppose what they perceive as Western influence and Sunni dominance, promoted by Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states. The Houthi emblem, which offers a general idea of the group’s views, is composed entirely of the following phrases: “God is great, Death to America, death to Israel, damnation to the Jews, victory to Islam.” 

The Houthis have said the reason they were targeting ships that are Israeli owned, flagged, or operated, or that are heading to Israeli ports. However, many of the vessels that have been attacked have no connection with Israel

The Houthis originate from and operate out of Yemen, a country located in the southern end of the Arabian Peninsula. Yemen is bordered by Saudi Arabia to the north and Oman to the northeast. The capital of Yemen is Sanaa, one of the oldest cities in the world.

The Houthi rebels’ control significant territories within this Arabian nation, including Sanaa, and large portions of northern and western Yemen. They remain a major force in the decade-long Yemeni civil war. The conflict has led to a dire humanitarian crisis, with millions of people displaced and more in need of aid. 

What is the Islamic Resistance in Iraq?

The Islamic Resistance in Iraq is a loose coalition of Iranian-backed militias that oppose U.S. presence in Iraq and Syria. One group with that coalition, Kata’ib Hizballah, has claimed responsibility for attacks on U.S. military bases, including the recent deadly attack on a U.S. military base in Jordan. The group’s membership is deliberately vague, allowing each armed group a level of plausible deniability. There is evidence suggesting that Iran’s Revolutionary Guards play a coordinating role in the coalition. The group’s actions are part of efforts to drive U.S. troops out of the region, galvanized by the Israel-Hamas war. The U.S. has pledged to hold the responsible parties accountable, and there are concerns about the risk of military escalation in the region due to these attacks.

The Islamic Resistance in Iraq is part of the so-called “axis of resistance,” which also includes other Iran-linked groups in the region. These groups have carried out multiple attacks against U.S. forces in Iraq and Syria—and now Jordan—with the aim to push the U.S. to ramp up its Middle East defenses. The attacks have raised fears of regional escalation and have led to increased tensions between the involved parties.

What is Hamas?

Hamas, an acronym for Harakat al-Muqawama al-Islamiya (Islamic Resistance Movement), is a Palestinian Islamist political and military organization. It was established in 1987 and is dedicated to the destruction of Israel and the establishment of an independent Islamic state in the land of Israel.

Hamas is widely popular in Palestinian society due to its anti-Israeli stance and its promotion of Palestinian nationalism in an Islamic context. Since its founding, Hamas has been involved in ongoing attacks against Israeli civilians, including suicide bombings, indiscriminate rocket attacks, and other war crimes.

Hamas has a military wing known as the Izz al-Din al-Qassam Brigades. These militants are currently engaged in war with Israel and concentrated in the Gaza Strip and areas of the West Bank.

What is Hizballah?

Hizballah, also known as Hezbollah,  is a Lebanese Shia Islamist political and military organization that has state-like military capabilities including various missiles, rockets, and unmanned aircraft systems. The group is proficient in asymmetric and conventional tactics and has been involved in various attacks and operations throughout the Middle East. 

Hizballah was established in the early 1980s during the Lebanese Civil War. It arose with the financial and ideological support of Iran and aimed to establish an Islamic state in Lebanon based on Shia Islamic principles. The group’s ideology is heavily influenced by the Iranian revolution of 1979, which brought the Ayatollah Khomeini to power in Iran.

What actions has the Biden administration taken toward these groups?

The Biden administration has redesignated the Houthi rebels as a foreign terrorist organization. Kata’ib Hizballah has been on the list since 2009. Hamas and Hizballah since 1997.

The U.S. government maintains several lists related to terrorism, each serving distinct purposes and governed by different legal frameworks. These lists are tools for implementing and enforcing national security and foreign policy strategies. The most prominent of these are the Foreign Terrorist Organizations (FTO) and the Specially Designated Global Terrorists (SDGT). 

The FTO is a list managed by the State Department that designates foreign organizations as terrorist groups. Designation as an FTO makes it illegal for persons in the U.S. or subject to U.S. jurisdiction to knowingly provide “material support or resources” to the designated organization. It also allows for the freezing of the group’s assets in U.S. financial institutions and denies entry into the U.S. to representatives and members of these organizations.

In contrast, the SDGT is managed by the Treasury Department, specifically under the Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC). This list, which targets individuals and groups worldwide, focuses on cutting off financial support to terrorists. It includes a broader range of entities compared to the FTO list including individuals, groups, and companies involved in terrorist activities. Those designated are subjected to asset freezes and travel bans.

The Treasury Department recently sanctioned entities and individuals associated with Kata’ib Hizballah, highlighting the ongoing efforts to target the group’s financial network and its supporters.

President Biden removed the Trump administration’s designation of the Houthi rebels as terrorists, arguing it hampered humanitarian assistance to people in Yemen. A U.S. official told Axios that the administration believes the “Specially Designated Global Terrorist” designation is the “appropriate tool at this moment.”

For the past few weeks, the U.S. and other Western countries have also been carrying out military strikes against Houthi sites in Yemen in retaliation for the attacks on shipping. 

By / Sep 28

When news from the Middle East and Near East regions of the world begin to fill my screen, there’s one reporter that I want to read: Mindy Belz. 

I’ve known about her work as an editor and war correspondent with WORLD magazine for over 15 years, but her 2016 book, They Say We Are Infidels, was instrumental in shaping the way I understand this part of the world, revealing its rich Christian history. Her relationships with international churches and believers have provided her decades of insight into these predominantly Muslim parts of the world. 

As Christians in the West consider today’s international crises, as well as reflect on the impact of 9/11 20 years ago, Belz shines a light on both the histories and cultures of these far-off nations, shares her reasons for going into hard places, and points us to the eternal things that should guide our lives.

Jill Waggoner: Can you help us zoom out and understand the cultural landscape of the Middle East and the significance of Afghanistan?

Mindy Belz: Afghanistan commonly gets lumped into the Middle East because of the wars after 9/11, but it’s technically considered part of the wider Near East or Central Asia. That’s important, because Afghanistan is somewhat of a bridge. It has a lot of the Islamic elements that have bedeviled the United States and the Middle East (in Lebanon with Hamas and Iraq with al-Qaida and ISIS). But it also has this history of being under the thumb of the Soviet Union. The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979 and subsequent occupation set the stage for the American engagement there. It began as a Cold War engagement, and then it moved into what we know today, an engagement over terrorism that had its base in Afghanistan. That history is significant to how it came onto the American radar, but of course, 9/11 propelled it there to stay. 

I traveled to Sudan in 1998, 1999, and in June of 2001. Sudan was engaged in this war that pitted Christians in the South versus Muslims in the North. It was a precursor to what we would see after 9/11. Christians have been like a footnote in these conflicts, and yet, to me, they were an important piece because what Christians experience is often a precursor to what the entire population is going to face. When we look at the war that was happening in Sudan in the 1990s, we see this dramatic and atrocious conflict between a jihadist government in the North and the Christian population in the South. That set a pattern for what we saw repeated in Iraq, Syria, and Afghanistan, where this concept of “conquering infidels” came into play with really deadly force. 

JW: How did 9/11 change U.S. engagement in this region of the world?

MB: It had been a Cold War engagement up until that point, very much based on our national interests in keeping dominance over the Soviet Union, Russia, and its breakaway republics after the fall of the Berlin Wall. 9/11 changed it dramatically because then it became about U.S. survival. It was an attack on the U.S. homeland. Nothing like that had happened in modern memory. It was no longer war at a remove; it was war up close. 

Significantly, that moment built on the Cold War alliances. NATO, within days after 9/11, invoked Article 5. This was the first time in its history, putting NATO on a war footing in support of the United States. Among the victims of 9/11, there were more than 90 nations represented. We had tremendous international support for our response to it.  

JW: How would you help a younger audience think about 9/11?

MB: 9/11 is possibly the largest event of the century and certainly one of the landmark moments in U.S. history. 

It is important to go beyond the headlines and the 10-minute recap you see on the news. You can visit the 9/11 Memorial & Museum site or go to the museum and see the names. It’s such a powerful reminder of the ordinariness of the people who died. They had no intention of stepping into a war zone when they were going to work that day. I would encourage anyone to read some of the original sources on the 9/11 Museum site. Find the 911 calls on YouTube. Not everyone wants to go down that road, but I think it’s valuable to get a real sense of what people went through.

It is also important to generally appreciate what the terrorists’ goals were. I’ve had the 9/11 Commission Report on my shelf at the ready for years. It is a thick book, but mine is so well thumbed now. Parts of it read like a novel. It helps you understand all the players and what was happening from the FBI, CIA, and military standpoint. You understand what was happening in Washington and New York. It describes what ​​al-Qaida was planning and the hijackers’ stories leading up to that day. Original sources are what we have to rely on, especially as we see misinformation surface. 

I’ve [also] really enjoyed reading about the millennials whose whole generation has been shaped by how our country changed after 9/11. I have much encouragement and hope as I see how many of my children’s peers committed themselves to military service or aide or nongovernmental organizations. When I covered the refugee crisis, I saw many 20- and 30-somethings that dropped everything to help these refugees coming across the Mediterranean. That defines the generation to me. I have great hope because of how this generation has been shaped by really sobering, hard events. 

JW: How would you encourage the Western church to think about and understand the Christian church in the Middle and Near Eastern parts of the world?

MB: I went to Iraq to cover the war early on and discovered the Christians along the way. There was this rich history there outside of what many think of as the Holy Land. I was going in churches that were built in the 300s. Their liturgy was in Aramaic. They were holding on to traditions because they were precious to them, not because they were following rote tradition. Everywhere I went, I was having my own presuppositions exploded. 

I met people whose resilience drew me to them. They had a patience about the Christian conflict with Islam and a determination about it that seemed to be lacking in the American public. The U.S. eventually wanted to turn away from the conflict and commitments in Iraq, as we are seeing now in Afghanistan. One of the reasons these wars have ended in such disarray and with such tragic consequences is that we never engaged them on the terms in which we said we were. We failed to understand that this is an age-old conflict. We failed to look at the really good examples of how people from outside of Islam have engaged with Islam.

On my journeys, I [saw] great examples of people coexisting and also being great witnesses, and in some cases being martyrs. The Old English definition of a martyr is a witness. They were being martyrs on a daily basis, and sometimes with their own lives, in order to stand and to give testimony to the Muslims that they lived alongside. 

JW: Recently, my 10 year-old son got in my car as I was listening to the news. He asked what it was, and I told him. As I turned it off he said, ‘Why are you listening to that? Aren’t bad things happening?’ I wondered how you would answer that question. In a world where ‘bad things’ are happening, why should we pay attention?

MB: Because the love of Christ compels us to. We can all have a sense of discouragement and helplessness in the face of any days’ bad news, but we know Christ came to enter into bad news, bringing life and the good news of the gospel. 

Our life in the United States gives us so much material comfort and grace that we lose sight of the consummation of all things. We might be tempted to think that the consummation is like our day to day: the sun shining, peace with our neighbors, a grocery store nearby. Our current reality dulls our sense that there is a future — where Christ is reigning and has reconciled all things under his feet — that is beyond what we can imagine right now. We can be tempted to lose sight of that chapter of the gospel narrative. I have a sense that the Christians who went before me had a much clearer view of what is to come that compelled them through the hard things of any day. 

JW: Many people have had trauma in the last two years. I imagine that your journeys have allowed you to see things that I’ve never seen, creating difficulties for you on a personal level that might extend beyond the experience. Do you have a personal word for those who are dealing with trauma? 

MB: It is definitely a real thing and something that I’ve struggled with from time to time. I have faced life and death moments. Because I’m still here after those moments, I can say they propel us to the feet of Christ and into the arms of God. 

Sometimes I dread going into a place where there’s a lot that’s unknown. There also have been times where I felt like I knew the situation, but when I was walking down the street, I could feel the tension and feel how much things had changed. This happened to me in 2019 in Syria, and I knew I was not in a safe place. Within 30 minutes, a bomb went off right across the street from me. I’ve been in moments where all I know to do is pray and trust that God has me where he wants me. That might be a place of death or a place of witness — seeing something that’s really, really hard. 

I come back to this fraternity that we have with Jesus. In those moments, we see in a new way what he endured, and what he was willing to endure, for us. We also see our own weaknesses and shortcomings. We’re brought face to face with the fact that we’re not Jesus. We quake and have fear and sometimes we run away, and that’s okay to do. 

The only way I know to process those things is in community. The community that I have with my husband, first of all, is the only reason that I have been able to continue this work — his support, patience, and willingness to hear the things [I’ve experienced]. Also, I process with my church community, pastors, and friends who are good counselors. We have to process these things in community, but we also have to process them as a way of recognizing our weakness and the profound sacrifice that Jesus made. 

By / Aug 19

The startling images of men, women, and children forcing their way onto a military plane in Kabul, Afghanistan, stand in contrast to the images of my daily life strewn before me. My children’s toys are scattered across the floor. Backpacks and digital devices hang ready for school, and half-eaten breakfasts fill the sink. In the midst of my undeserved blessings and comfort, I don’t want to forget the people of Afghanistan, made in the image of God, who are facing unimaginable suffering. 

The tragedy of what has transpired in Afghanistan has gripped the hearts of many Americans like me. As we read the headlines and watch the videos of the Taliban takeover, those of us who feel so far way are not powerless despite how it may seem. As those who trust in Christ, we can support the Afghan people in prayer by calling upon our Lord and his vast power. 

When we face a daunting and complex situation, praying the scriptures is a great guide for us — and it transforms our minds in the process. (Rom. 12:2) Paul instructs us to pray “at all times in the Spirit, with all prayer and supplication. To that end, keep alert with all perseverance, making supplication for all the saints” (Eph. 6:18). Below are a few prompts to help you pray for the Afghan church and people throughout the day. 

Pray against the darkness

Any prayer offered to God is an engagement in spiritual battle. 

  • Pray against the cosmic powers of darkness to be pushed back. Ephesians 6 says: For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this darkness, against evil, spiritual forces in the heavens.” 
  • Pray against the schemes of the devil in Afghanistan and around the world (2 Cor. 2:10-11; Eph. 6:11). 
  • Pray that evil acts done in secret would come to the light. (Eph. 5:13)

Pray for those who remain

Even before the fall of Afghanistan to the Taliban, the nation was facing a hunger crisis. In July, the international charity Oxfam reported that 42 percent of the population were in “crisis-level hunger or worse.” It is now reported that the Taliban is going house to house to exert control, and many are in danger.

  • Pray for God’s provision for the physical needs for food, shelter, and water for the Afghan people (Matt. 6:11).
  • Pray for supernatural protection for those in Afghanistan facing oppression and difficulty. Pray that they would experience Isaiah 43:2, “When you pass through the waters, I will be with you, and the rivers will not overwhelm you. When you walk through the fire, you will not be scorched, and the flame will not burn you.”  
  • Pray for the safety and provision of U.S. and Afghan military forces who remain in the country.
  • Pray for the missionaries and non-governmental organizations who have remained to continue on in their work amidst the humanitarian crisis.

Pray for those who have left

It must be a jarring and traumatic experience to be forced to flee from your country and the only home you’ve ever known. Not only that, many of those who have left Afghanistan don’t know where they will go. 

  • Pray for the international community to aid refugees who have fled or are currently fleeing persecution in Afghanistan. 
  • Pray for Afghan people living in different parts of the world as they watch and grieve for their country (Psa. 34:18).
  • The ERLC has advocated for special refugee status for those feeling the country (Exodus 23:9; Lev. 19:33). Pray for government leaders in the U.S. to have compassion, wisdom, and courage as they make decisions that will affect many lives (1 Tim. 2:2). 

Pray for the women of Afghanistan

It is widely reported that life under Taliban rule is highly restricted, and often dangerous, for women — even young women who are more rightly identified as children. Many women who have lived with two decades of freedom are waiting to see what life will be like for them in these circumstances. 

  • Pray that they would know they are created in the image of God and highly valuable. (Gen. 1:26-27)
  • Pray for those who will affirm and advocate for the dignity of women and demonstrate Proverbs 31: “open our mouth for the mute, for the rights of all who are destitute. Open our mouth, judge righteously, defend the rights of the poor and needy.”
  • Pray for basic freedoms for women, such as education, to remain intact. 
  • Pray for the protection of the vulnerable from those who would prey on and abuse them (James 1:27).

Pray for the Afghan church

Afghanistan has long been a place of risk for Christians. According to Open Doors USA’s annual World Watch List, the second most dangerous place to be a Christian in the world is Afghanistan, only very slightly less oppressive than in North Korea.

Mindy Belz, senior editor at World magazine, who has traveled and written extensively about the Christian church in the Middle East, reported: “One leader of a house church network (with more than 500 members) received on Aug. 12 a letter signed by Taliban militants threatening him and his family. ‘We know where you are and what you are doing,’ it read.”

  • Pray for the church to be “strengthened with all power according to his glorious might so that [they] may have great endurance and patience” (Col. 1:11).
  • Pray that the Lord would direct their hearts to God’s love and Christ’s endurance (2 Thess. 2:5).
  • Pray for the gospel witness of the Afghan church. Pray that Muslims, and others, would “call upon the name of the Lord” in this time of duress (Psa. 50).  

Pray for hope

The terrible situation in Afghanistan looks bleak, but as Christians, we know it is not without hope. Ours is the God of redemption and has a long history of bringing beauty from the ashes. 

  • Pray for Christians in Afghanistan and beyond to remain hopeful in the Lord and his purposes. 
  • Pray that those facing difficulty would experience peace despite their circumstances, as Elizabeth Elliot writes in Suffering is Never for Nothing, “We’re not adrift in chaos. We’re held in the everlasting arms” (Psalm 13).
  • Pray that these sufferings will lead to hope anchored in God’s love, as is promised in ​​Romans 5:3-5: “Not only so, but we also glory in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope. And hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit, who has been given to us.” 
  • Pray that God will grant believers joy in the midst of trouble and would enable unbelievers to receive the message of the gospel (1 Thess. 1:6).  Pray that they would soon experience Psalm 90:15: “Make us glad for as many days as you have afflicted us.”

Pray for the Taliban

Jesus told his followers, “But I tell you who hear Me: Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you” (Luke 6:27-28). Even though our daily lives aren’t immediately threated by the Taliban, we must identify ourselves with our brothers and sisters in Christ and exemplify Christ’s heart in our prayers.

  • Praise God that “anyone who calls upon the name of the Lord will be saved” (Rom. 10:13). And pray that the members of the Taliban will call upon Christ. 
  • Pray that they will experience “the fragrance of Christ” from the Christian church and be led to life (2 Cor. 2:13-14).
  • Pray that their plans would be thwarted and that they would be unable to hurt others. 
  • And pray that those who make up the Taliban will repent of their sin and turn to Christ and his forgiveness (1 John 1:9).
By / Aug 18

On Sunday, the Taliban entered Kabul, the capital city of Afghanistan and quickly took control of the city. According to the Wall Street Journal, “Hundreds of Afghan civilians were seen close to the runway and around parked planes Monday, with some hanging from boarding ramps as they scrambled to get into aircraft, hindering evacuation efforts.” Events in Kabul are changing by the hour, but one thing should be certain: The United States should swiftly offer refuge for those fleeing persecution. 

Southern Baptists have a long history of “ministering care, compassion, and the Gospel to refugees who come to the United States,” and encouraging our churches and families “to welcome and adopt refugees into their churches and homes as a means to demonstrate to the nations that our God longs for every tribe, tongue, and nation to be welcomed at His throne (Revelation 5:9; Revelation 7:9–12; Psalms 68:5; James 1:27; Leviticus 25:35; Leviticus 19: 33–34).”

The ERLC advocates for the dignity of the sojourner in accordance with Scripture’s expectation on God’s people to minister to the vulnerable. God’s love for the immigrant, refugee, and foreigner is a specific and consistent biblical theme, and he calls his people to do the same. Christ, the greatest example of love, commands us to love our neighbor as we love ourselves.

The U.S. Refugee Resettlement Program

The U.S. has a long history of welcoming refugees fleeing persecution. The annual number of refugees is determined not by statute but by the president, in consultation with Congress. Under the Trump administration in 2020, refugee resettlement hit a record low of 15,000.

During the 2020 campaign, President Biden promised to “set the annual global refugee admissions cap to 125,000, and seek to raise it over time.” However, in April, he issued a memo instructing the Department of State to keep the refugee admissions at 15,000. Evangelical leaders urged the Biden administration to immediately reset the refugee ceiling as promised In May, President Biden officially raised the refugee ceiling to 62,500.

What is Priority 2 refugee status?

The U.S. government defines the term refugee as “any person who is outside any country of such person’s nationality or, in the case of a person having no nationality, is outside any country in which such person last habitually resided, and who is unable or unwilling to return to, and is unable or unwilling to avail himself or herself of the protection of, that country because of persecution or a well-founded fear of persecution on account of race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion.”

Priority 2 (P-2) refugee status is granted to “groups of special humanitarian concern identified by the U.S. refugee program.”

Why should P-2 status be offered for Afghans?

On August 2, the Department of State announced a Priority 2 (P-2) designation “granting U.S. Refugee Admissions Program (USRAP) access for certain Afghan nationals and their eligible family members.” While this action is commendable, it does not explicitly call for P-2 designation for Christians and other religious minorities. Non-Muslims will face almost certain persecution under the Taliban.

In an Evangelical Immigration Table letter to President Biden, the table organizers made the case for the protection of other vulnerable Afghans: 

“there are many other Afghans likely to be at risk of persecution under Taliban rule, including Christians and other religious minorities, women and girls who have pursued the opportunity for education, and others associated with the U.S. presence in Afghanistan who may not qualify for Special Immigrant Visas. The United States should do everything reasonably possible to protect these individuals and, should they make the decision that they must flee as refugees, prioritize them for resettlement to the United States. Specifically, we urgently request you increase P-2 processing of Afghan refugees to the United States. The current policy of only allowing those who are in a third country to qualify for P-2 status is untenable and does not honor their commitment and sacrifice.”

By offering Priority 2 refugee status to Afghans fleeing persecution, our nation can demonstrate that this country is a safe haven for the persecuted and those whose human rights have been abused and whose religious freedom has been violated.

How has the ERLC advocated for refugees?

The ERLC has advocated for a robust refugee resettlement program by making the case that the program has long enjoyed both broad bipartisan support in Congress and in the communities these men and women have enriched, including many Southern Baptist churches. We have urged both the Biden and the Trump administrations to maintain a strong program for those fleeing persecution around the globe.

Additionally, the ERLC has supported and advocated for the Hong Kong Safe Harbor Act, which designates Hong Kong residents as Priority 2 refugees and streamlines their admission process to the United States. This bipartisan bill opens up an asylum path for frontline activists in immediate danger. Additionally, the bill instructs the secretary of state to coordinate the intake of Hong Kongers as refugees with other like-minded countries. Passage of this bill would send a clear message to Beijing that the United States does not support the CCP’s attempt to silence its dissenters by denying them fundamental human rights.

The ERLC has also supported and advocated for the Uyghur Human Rights Protection Act. This bipartisan bill designates Priority 2 refugee status for ethnic Uyghurs and others who are suffering from arbitrary arrest, mass detention, and political and religious persecution by the Chinese government. 

How can you get involved?

Pray. Ask the Lord to protect Christians in Afghanistan and help them remain courageous. Pray for vulnerable people trying to flee persecution. Ask God to grant them swift escape and guide them to a refuge and safe haven. 

Volunteer. Find opportunities in your local community to assist refugees as they are being resettled. World Relief has partnership opportunities throughout the country and provides plenty of opportunities to get involved.

Advocate. Call your local congressperson and senators and ask them to urge the Biden administration to prioritize providing a safe haven for those fleeing persecution in Afghanistan.

By / May 14

Clashes between Israelis and Palestinians lead Tor Wennesland, the United Nations Special Coordinator for the Middle East Peace Process, to say on Tuesday, “We’re escalating towards a full scale war. Leaders on all sides have to take the responsibility of deescalation.”

The recent tensions appear to be due to a pending decision by Israel’s Supreme Court that could evict approximately 75 Palestinians from their homes in East Jerusalem. Violent clashes also resulted when Muslims were reportedly blocked from Al-Aqsa Mosque, Islam’s third holiest site. The terrorist group Hamas, which controls the area of Gaza, escalated the conflict by firing approximately 1,500 rockets at civilian targets in Israel, killing five people and injuring over 200.

The Israeli Defense Force responded by launching airstrikes targeting missile launching sites in Gaza. Because Hamas often uses civilian neighborhoods as “human shields,” the air strikes have reportedly led to the deaths of 65 people in Gaza, including 14 children.

What is the origin of the Israeli–Palestinian conflict?

The ancient nation of Israel ceased to exist when in AD 138 the Roman emperor Hadrian crushed the Bar Kochba revolt and banned all Jews from Palestine (i.e., the biblical regions known as the Land of Israel). Over the next 12 centuries, the land was conquered and reconquered by various nations and empires. In 1517, the land was captured by the Ottoman Empire, which would retain control until 1917. During World War I, the British captured Jerusalem and drove the Turks out of Ottoman Syria. Following that war the British controlled the area known as Palestine, and were given a mandate by the League of Nations to provide security and order within the territory.

Because the land was now in the hands of the British, it became an ideal location for Jews fleeing persecution in Russia and Ukraine. This influx of Jews from 1919 and 1923, along with the Balfour Declaration, led the Arab inhabitants of the land to develop their own political movement known as Palestinian nationalism.

As historian Martin Bunton notes, “Before the First World War, there was no ‘Palestine’ as such; rather the territory consisted of the districts of Jerusalem, Nablus, and Acre, all of which were defined according to an evolving framework of Ottoman administration.” Since then, Arabs in the region adopted a national identity as Palestinians, with the primary objective of opposing Zionism (i.e., the reestablishment of the Jewish nation of Israel).

The United Nations voted in 1947 for the areas occupied by Palestinians to be split into separate Jewish and Arab states, with Jerusalem becoming an international city. While Jewish leaders accepted the proposal, it was rejected by the Arab contingent.

Why are Palestenians being evicted from East Jerusalem?

During the 1948 Arab–Israeli War, the western part of Jerusalem was captured by Israel, while the area known as East Jerusalem was captured by Jordan. Israel took over East Jerusalem after defeating Jordan in the 1967 Arab–Israeli War. Since then Israel has considered the area to be a part of their nation while the U.N. and most of the international community (with the exception of the U.S.) considers it to be occupied territory. 

In 1956, Palestinian refugee families were relocated to the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood of East Jerusalem with the support of the U.N. and Jordanian government. But the Israeli courts contend that these Palestinian families are living in houses built on land owned by Jewish religious associations before the establishment of Israel in 1948. While many Israelis believe it is merely a legal dispute over land ownership, many Palestinians consider it a strategy to expel them from East Jerusalem

Who controls Palestine?

In 1994, Israel agreed to allow the Palestinian National Authority, an interim self-government, to govern the Gaza Strip and parts of the West Bank, which currently exists within the boundaries of the modern State of Israel. In 2007, these two areas, sometimes referred to as the “occupied territories,” were divided between two political entities, Fatah in the West Bank and Hamas in Gaza. Hamas has been officially designated as a terrorist organization by the United States, Israel, the United Kingdom, Canada, the European Union, Jordan, Egypt, and Japan. 

Where does Hamas get its rockets?

After Israeli security forces pulled out of Gaza in 2005, Hamas was able to smuggle in rockets and mortar shells produced by allies, such as Iran. More recently, Hamas has claimed that they are now able to build rockets themselves in Gaza.

Despite having fired more than 10,000 rockets into Israel since 2005, the Israeli government believes that Hamas still has an arsenal of between 5,000 to 6,000 rockets that can strike anywhere between the Gaza border communities and 25-35 miles into Israel.

How many Palestinians identify as Christian?

Based on the 2017 census by the Palestinian Authority, there are roughly 47,000 Palestinians, about 1% of the population, who identify as Christian. 

A survey taken in 2020 found that about half of Palestinian Christians (48%) are Greek Orthodox while slightly more than a third (38%) are Latin Catholic. About 4% identify as Evangelicals and Lutherans. Out of those, only about 1 in 3 label themselves as “religious” (36%). 

By / Feb 11

Jeff, Chelsea, and Travis discuss three big international stories for Christians to consider. They cover an update on the Chinese Uyghur genocide, how Christians are often left out of Middle East peace accords, and what we can learn about the fragility of democracy from the coup in Myanmar. 

This episode was sponsored by The Good Book Company, publisher of Being the Bad Guy by Stephen McAlpine.

Resources from the Conversation

By / Oct 5

Jeff Pickering and Travis Wussow welcome Israel based journalist and award winning author Matti Friedman to talk about the Middle East after the Abraham Accords. 

This episode was recorded at the end of September.

Guest Biography

Matti Friedman is a journalist and contributor to the New York Times Op-Ed Section and the author of multiple award-winning books. His 2016 book, Pumpkinflowers: A Soldier’s Story of a Forgotten War, is a memoir about his time serving in the Israli military and was chosen as a New York Times’ Notable Book and as one of Amazon’s 10 best books of the year. Matti’s first book, The Aleppo Codex, is an investigation into the strange fate of an ancient Bible manuscript, and his most recent book, published in 2018, is the Spies of No Country, the story of Israel’s first intelligence agents in 1948. Friedman is a former Associated Press correspondent, and his work as a reporter has taken him from Israel to Lebanon, Morocco, Moscow, and Washington, D.C. He was born in Toronto and lives in Jerusalem with his family.

Resources from the Conversation

By / Sep 16

On Tuesday, Israel, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), and the United States signed a diplomatic pact known as the “Abraham Accords Peace Agreement.” Additionally, Israel and the UAE signed a separate agreement to establish diplomatic and economic ties between the two nations.

Last week the U.S., Bahrain, and Israel issued a joint statement announcing full diplomatic relations between the Kingdom of Bahrain and the State of Israel. Bahrain is only the fourth Arab country in the Middle East (after the UAE, Egypt and Jordan) to recognize the modern nation of Israel.

Where are Israel, UAE, and Bahrain located geographically?

The State of Israel is a country that intersects the crossroads of Europe, Asia and Africa. Israel is bound by the Mediterranean Sea on its west, Lebanon and Syria border it to the north, Jordan to the east, Egypt to the southwest, and the Red Sea to the south.

The Kingdom of Bahrain is a small island nation in the Persian Gulf. Most of the country is on Bahrain Island, which is surrounded by 40 natural islands and an additional 51 artificial islands. Its closest neighbors in the Gulf are Qatar and Saudi Arabia. 

The United Arab Emirates is a sovereign state on the Arabian peninsula. It is bordered by the Gulf of Oman and Oman to the east, and Saudi Arabia to the south and west. The country also shares maritime borders with Qatar to the west and Iran to the north.

What is the Abraham Accords Peace Agreement?

Despite the title, the Abraham Accords is not an actual peace treaty since none of the parties involved were at war (and Israel and the UAE have been secretly working together for years). The significance of the treaty is that it publicly codifies and expands an already existing arrangement between the three countries.

The Abraham Accords Declaration states

We, the undersigned, recognize the importance of maintaining and strengthening peace in the Middle East and around the world based on mutual understanding and coexistence, as well as respect for human dignity and freedom, including religious freedom.

We encourage efforts to promote interfaith and intercultural dialogue to advance a culture of peace among the three Ahrahamic religions and all humanity.

We believe that the best way to address challenges is through cooperation and dialogue and that developing friendly relations among States advances the interests of lasting peace in the Middle East and around the world.

We seek tolerance and respect for every person in order to make this world a place where all can enjoy a life of dignity and hope, no matter their race, faith or ethnicity.

We support science, art, medicine, and commerce to inspire humankind, maximize human potential and bring nations closer together.

We seek to end radicalization and conflict to provide all children a better future.

We pursue a vision of peace, security, and prosperity in the Middle East and around the world.

 In this spirit, we welcome and are encouraged by the progress already made in establishing diplomatic relations between Israel and its neighbors in the region under the principles of the Abraham Accords. We are encouraged by the ongoing efforts to consolidate and expand such friendly relations based on shared interests and a shared commitment to a better future.

What is the agreement between Israel and the UAE?

The agreement commits the two countries to work to advance the “cause of peace, stability and prosperity throughout the Middle East,” as well as to as well working together in the areas of finance and investment; civil aviation; visas and consular services; innovation, trade and economic relations; healthcare; science, technology and peaceful uses of outer-space; tourism, culture and sport; energy; environment; education; maritime arrangements; telecommunications and post; agriculture and food security; water; and legal cooperation.

Why are the countries making the agreement now?

Geopolitics is a political framework in which international affairs is examined in the context of culture, history, and geography, as well as day-to-day political events. The geopolitics of the Middle East is complex and multifaceted, which is not surprising considering the history of the region. Yet since the establishment of the modern State of Israel in 1948, a driving force in Middle Eastern geopolitics has been the Israeli–Palestinian conflict. 

The predominantly Muslim Arab states in the region have almost always sided with the Palestinians and against Israel, and made it a priority in their foreign policy. Many observers of the geopolitical situation assumed resolution of that conflict would be necessary before Arab states recognized the legitimacy of Israel. But over the last two decades, some of the Arab states have recognized that they share a common foe with Israel—Iran. Concern about minimizing the influence of Iran in the region has even trumped the question about what to do about Palestine. 

Israel and the UAE are unlikely to come into direct conflict since the capitals of Israel and the UAE are separated by 1,200 miles (about the same distance as Seattle and San Diego) and two nations (Saudia Arabia and Jordan). The UAE, though, is only 33 miles away Iran (across the Strait of Hormuz) and Israel borders Syria, a country that has a military alliance with Iran. Iran also funds Hezbollah, which is considered a terrorist organization by the U.S., Israel, and the Arab League, of which the UAE is a member. Concerns about Iran gaining nuclear weapons has also shifted the geopolitical concerns of most states in the Middle East. 

What is the significance of the agreement?

While it’s too early to tell what the outcome of the treaty will be, it will likely affect the Israeli-Palestianian conflict, containment of Iran, and religious liberty in the UAE. 

Unlike in past agreements, the UAE did not require Israel to make significant concessions to the Palestinian cause. This has already been viewed by some as a betrayal by the Palestinians, and could lead to increased violence by radical factions. In response to the agreement, militants fired rockets into Israel from Gaza.

While it may cause more unrest in Gaza and the West Bank, the agreement may provide a check on Iraninan hostility. The U.S. reportedly enticed the UAE by offering to sell them weapons systems in exchange for the treaty with Israel. The package of weapons includes F-35 fighter jets, Reaper drones, and EA-18G Growler electronic warfare planes. This will strengthen the UAE’s ability to protect themselves against aggression by the Iranian government.

The accord states that the signatories will respect and promote religious freedom. The Constitution of the UAE provides for freedom of religion by established customs. But there are significant restrictions. According to Open Doors, Christians from other countries are free to worship privately in the UAE, but the government does not allow them to evangelize or pray in public. The death penalty remains the on-the-books punishment for converting from Islam, though it has not been used. The U.S. can, and should, use the agreement to push the UAE to be more open to expressions of religious liberty.

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 / Feb 26

“Truly, I say to you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or lands, for my sake and the Gospel, who will not receive a hundredfold now in this time . . . and in the age to come eternal life” (Mark 10:29-30).

Located in the promised land and in a modern home for hundreds of thousands of refugees, Jordan has always been an area of world significance. Jordan is full of biblical landmarks, such as Mount Nebo, where Moses looked upon the promised land, and Machaerus, where John the Baptist was imprisoned and executed. Many early Christians settled in Jordan following the dispersion in the book of Acts. Thus, the Bible and Christianity are no strangers to the nation of Jordan.

In spite of the historic biblical background of Jordan, the Christian population remains remarkably low. About 2.4 percent of Jordan identify as Christian, significantly lower than the 1930 Christian population of 20 percent. Multiple factors are behind this downward trend, including the high Muslim immigration rates into Jordan, along with high birth rates, and high emigration rates of Christians to the West. Islam is the dominant religion, with over 95 percent of Jordan’s population identifying as Muslim.

The general Christian population enjoys substantial freedoms relative to other Middle Eastern countries. King Abdullah II, a Muslim considered to be a friend of Christians, has stated that protecting Christians in Jordan is one of his duties. He acknowledged that “Arab Christians are an integral part of [Jordan’s] past, present, and future.” Christians are allowed to have their own ecclesiastical courts and are able to get time off work to attend worship services on Sundays.

Believers from a Muslim background

Despite the general Christian freedoms, Christians are restricted from evangelizing Muslims. In fact, the main source of persecution for the church in Jordan is often directed at believers from a Muslim background (labeled BMBs).

In Jordan, one’s religious affiliation is listed on their government identification documents (such as one’s birth certificate). Converting from Islam to another faith is not technically allowed, and this has led to a large population of BMBs who practice their faith in secret. A recent estimate shows that there are 6,500 BMBs in Jordan. These BMBs face significant pressure from their Muslim families, who often believe that converting from Islam to another faith is an attack on their family’s honor. In many instances, BMBs run the risk of being cut off from their families. Furthermore, BMBs often face harassment from the government and are in danger of losing some of their rights.

Opportunities with refugees

On a positive note, Jordanian Christians have been presented with a unique opportunity to share the gospel to hundreds of thousands of refugees fleeing political turmoil and terrorism from other Middle Eastern countries, mostly from Syria and Iraq. Many of these refugees have never heard the gospel before, and there is a good chance many of them would be open to it should Christians engage them with love, compassion, and truth to answer their deepest questions.

Prayer points

  • That God would use King Abdullah II to continue to push for religious freedoms in Jordan.
  • That BMBs would be empowered to share the gospel with their family and friends, regardless of persecution they might face as a result.
  • That Jordanian Christians would be salt and light to refugee families, almost all of whom have faced incredibly difficult circumstances and have deep questions about the meaning of life.

Further resources