What did they expect to find?

See Reuters AlertNet – CWS Delegation to Middle East Finds Increasing Challenges for Region’s Christians .

Christians need to come out of the closet about the Middle East. We need to come clean about what we really believe, and be ready to relinquish the things we don’t.

Things that Christians don’t believe in include Arms Sales, Backing corrupt regimes, Condoning acts of violence against civilian populations, Deals for short-term political gain … (E, F, G, ….) oh, yes, and Oil. Oil is not part of the Christian gospel. Some of these things may be expedient, some of them may be necessary. But they are not ‘Christian’.

Things that Christians do believe include Atonement — bringing enemies together —, the Bible, Conscience … oh yes, and Evangelism.

Evangelism has become something of a dirty word, and Christians are getting to be ashamed of it. Somehow we’ve been talked into thinking that to go and have discussions with people of another religion is somehow wrong, whereas to go into their countries with tanks, mortars and attack-helicopters is somehow morally justifiable, and quite possibly (in an election year) the will of God.

Actually, the last words of Jesus as recorded in the Gospels were ‘go into all the world and make disciples’. An exhortation to evangelism, not to invasion.

If Jesus Christ really does mean more to us than a symbol, we are going to have to make some choices.

The kind of people who have taught us to believe that ‘evangelism’ is something evil, a hangover from colonial days, usually seem to think it means going somewhere primitive, scaring some local people or possibly bribing them with Western goods, and then making them give up their age old customs and wear suits.

People who engage in cross-cultural evangelism in the 21st century don’t do that. Actually, it’s doubtful that the stereotype was ever true anywhere, but we’ll let that one pass. To Christians, evangelism is about passing on good news about peace with God. Right from the days of Paul, and certainly in modern times since Hudson Taylor, cross-cultural evangelists have adopted local dress, learned the local language, become part of the local culture. This is not an attempt to manipulate local people, or to slip in Christianity unnoticed, but to become a part of the community, to understand the people.

Christians in the Muslim world have always faced difficulties. Muslims don’t have a problem with Christians because they revere Christ. They don’t have a problem because (as George W Bush claimed) ‘we love freedom’. They have problems because they regard all Westerners as Christians, and therefore see Christians as people who eat defiled food, get drunk, and live promiscuous and immoral lives. It has taken many cross-cultural evangelists half a lifetime to prove by their own consistent lifestyles that this is not the case.

But consider again what ‘evangelism’ is – passing on good news about peace with God. The recent actions of the Western Powers in the Middle East would have made simply being a Christian a much more difficult and dangerous thing. It of course completely undermines any talk of good news or peace of any kind with anyone.

When a recent delegation of Christian leaders from the USA visited the Middle East, they found that the situation for Christians had indeed become markedly worse. But what were they expecting to find? Actually, probably that. Although American Republicanism appealed to a broad swathe of religious people in the USA, Christian leaders have known for a long time that what we are saying in the Middle East has been drastically undermined by what we are doing.

It’s time for Christians to stand up for what they really believe — or accept that religious words are merely a cover for a purely secular, political ethic. Christians can be people of good news about peace, or we can be people with bombs and guns and tanks. But — in the Middle East at least — we cannot be both.

It’s democracy, but is it freedom?

BBC NEWS | World | South Asia | Early results show Karzai victory

It looks fairly certain that Mohammed Karzai will win the first elections in Afghanistan since – well, since for ever. In the wake of the Iraq debacle it’s easy to forget how much has changed in Afghanistan. Remarkably, the widely trailered Taleban violence never really materialised. By Sunday night Karzai had secured 4,219,569 votes – more than the 50% he needs for a straight win, and of course therefore a much better mandate than those enjoyed by Messrs Blair and Bush.

George W, of course, famously told the world that ‘they hate us because we love freedom’. Well done, George. You have a talent for stating the blindingly obvious and still getting it completely wrong. But is freedom what Afghanistan really got? The process of democratic election seems to have worked, which bodes well for Iraq. But looking more closely, it was the closest ally of the USA who won. And, what’s more, there were widespread protests that he got the lion’s share of coverage in the media. In addition, of course, to the advantage that the incumbent always has in a many-horse race.

All this sounds eerily close to the situation in the ’70s and ’80s in South America. Nicaragua and El Salvador should not be forgotten. When governments friendly to Western interests were fairly elected, all was well. When the result seemed to be at risk, US advisers to their allies magically appeared. When the result actually went the wrong way, things turned nasty.

The test for the nascent democracies which the coalition is trying to plant in the Islamic world will come when local populations attempt to elect governments hostile to US interests.

What price, then, freedom?

Caught between Kerry and Buttiglione?

This week the European Parliament is split over the prospect of Rocco Buttiglione taking on the role of Commissioner for Justice, Freedom and Security after his remarks about homosexuals and single mothers. Everyone except Buttiglione seems to agree that he should never have said what he did, but the answer to the underlying question is more troublesome. At the same time, theologians are discussing the position of another Roman Catholic who is running for a rather higher office. John Kerry’s position on abortion has caused some scratching of the head in Vatican circles. During the presidential campaign, both Bush and Kerry have pushed their Christian credentials. Meanwhile, in the UK, Tony Blair, a man who has also made a lot of his faith (although he has denied rumours that he is about to become a Roman Catholic), is preparing a new set of gambling laws which have been denounced by many church leaders.

Let me say that I’m not a Roman Catholic. But as a committed Christian, the issues do concern me.

In apologising to European Commission president Barroso, Buttiglione closed by saying: “The only thing I cannot do is to change my principles against my conscience for political convenience.” The Italian press do not share his conviction. Rome’s right wing Il Messaggero said: “It is a mistake to mix religion and politics. Europe does not want to hear about this mixture of State and Church, which is part of our history.”

At the same time, across the wide water, Kerry is under fire for failing to adequately combine his faith with his politics.

In the Spring I took part in a debate with Evan Harris MP on the subject: “Does faith belong in politics?” Evan, a dedicated secularist, of course put forward the case that it does not. I took the opposite view.

It seems to me that the dilemma caused by trying to separate faith from politics is greater than that of trying to combine them. In fact, fundamentally I believe that that dilemma is irresolvable. Separating them means the institutionalising of a kind of hypocrisy – a politician may appeal to his faith when standing for election, but cannot be held to it when making policy. The dilemma is no less resolvable for someone who arrives in public life with a secular philosophy.

Which is a long way from saying that I have much sympathy with Buttiglione.

When I first heard about his remarks I was forcibly reminded of the words of Jesus: “Judge not, that you be not judged.”

BBC NEWS | World | Europe | European press review: “Buttiglione”

Martin Turner is Chair of the Liberal Democrat Christian Forum

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