"Mirror mirror on the wall, who is the fairest of them all." Taken from the childhood tale of vanity known as Snow White, this well-known phrase rolls off the tongue so marvelously.

Hubris and envy are certainly not some secret Achilles heel of the human race. In fact, they are maladies from which we all suffer. We all desire to be worshiped. Some say "liked" or "loved" but the fact is we want to be adored as smart, beautiful, funny, compassionate, bohemian or whatever.

The story of Snow White is above all a tale of vanity and jealous desire, our corrupted lust for the destruction of those better than us, especially when we realize we cannot rise to their level. So, when the Queen finds she's no longer the most beautiful, she tries to kill Snow White and thus regain the crown.

I know how the Queen feels, especially as an author, because, like the Queen, an author is "in the public eye." It is very gratifying to hear someone say that they've enjoyed something I've penned, that my writing has made them see things in a different light, or that a particular scene gave them an adrenaline rush.

The truth is I love to read reviews both public and private which stroke my ego. Who doesn't? We all want to look at ourselves and see something beautiful, something worthwhile, something good.

The mirror we most often judge ourselves by is not the one on the bathroom wall, but the people who reflect back to us what they see.

The feedback we get from others can have a profound impact on our own self-perception. It is also extremely important because we may have huge blind spots and others can help point those out. But, the "mirrors" around us, i.e. the friends, colleagues and family members we interact with may not always be as "faithful" as our bathroom mirror.

Allow me to illustrate with a trite example. I remember someone saying a couple of years ago, "I'd never want to work for you." It was said offhandedly in the context of running a company and without any explanation. I'm not sure how it was intended, but it felt liked I'd just been slapped in the face. What's strange is that the person making the comment has never seen any of my interaction with my colleagues nor does he know anything about how I run the business. Yet, still it stung.

In fact, the statement made such an impact on me that I often reflected on how he had formed this opinion. Yes, I am a "driver", someone who has high expectations from others and myself. I don't accept excuses and demand results. I'm sure this is the part of my personality that prompted his comment. Add to this the fact that all of my conversation about the business was related to my frustration with the problems I faced and it is easy to see how he formed such an opinion.

Of course, people who have worked with me for over a decade would clearly disagree with his assessment and do it based on a better understanding of who I am. I take some solace in that, but the statement still stung, not because it was necessarily a reflection of who I am, but of who I am perceived to be. And sadly that is sometimes more important to us.

One of the ironies of the human experience is that very few people actually know each other well enough to understand their fellow man on anything but a superficial level. My point is that much of the criticism we receive will come from people with this same superficial understanding of who we are, and so should not be taken too seriously.

The mirror in the story of Snow White could not lie. Not only did it reflect the Queen's physical appearance faithfully, but it answered her questions honestly. It is my hope that you are affirmed by the people you meet, but more importantly that you strive to be a faithful "mirror" to others. If we want to be the sort of friend who reflects back a true image, we will have to take the time to truly understand them.
 
 
September 13, 2012 – On the 11th anniversary of September 11th, violent Muslim protests swept over the US Embassy in Cairo and the US consulate in Benghazi leaving 4 dead, including the US Ambassador to Libya Christopher Stevens. Americans are outraged at these attacks on US sovereignty, attacks that could be viewed as an act of war. Indeed, two navy destroyers are currently being deployed off the coast of Libya.

The attacks were allegedly sparked by negative portrayals of the prophet Mohammed in a film by Sam Bacile. Yet, every thinking person knows that this is nothing more than an excuse for violence. There are hundreds of publications, videos, films, books and blogs in the West that could be taken as an "insult to the prophet", especially given the relatively thin-skin that evolution has apparently selected for in North Africa and the Middle East.

The “insult to the prophet” justification for Muslim violence is beginning to sound a little hollow especially when it is regularly trotted out any time a radical group decides to resort to violence. In fact, the very notion that Allah is so jealous of the prophet's reputation and so impotent at defending it Himself that he is dependent upon mob justice is hardly a flattering portrayal of the ‘Lord of the Worlds’.

It is difficult to imagine there being a strong theological foundation for such a position. Yet the Joint Chiefs Chairman has apparently made an appeal to a Florida pastor asking him to withdraw support for the film. We can, of course, be thankful that this pastor was not put in front of a firing squad or thrown into a dungeon, which is what would have certainly happened in many Muslim countries.

The fact that a senior US military official is making these overtures of appeasement is disturbing, especially when the lastest intelligence is that the attacks were coordinated and carried out by individuals with military training and hardware, hardly your garden-variety mob and more proof that the “insulting the prophet” claims are merely meant to provide cover.

Back to the attacks... These acts of violence should come as no surprise to anyone. But our capacity to be surprised by the obvious is one of the truly baffling things about human nature. So, let’s recap and see if we can make sense of the latest developments in the Muslim world.

The unrest that began in Tunisia in December 18, 2010 and spread throughout the Middle East was eventually dubbed the ‘Arab Spring’, which to the informed observer is a complete misnomer, a sign that ignorance is bliss, hope springs eternal and optimisim can be a psychological disorder indicating a serious disconnect with reality.

Spring? Who thinks up this stuff? If one means the blooming of bigoted Islamic fascism, then maybe, just maybe, ‘spring’ is a fitting description. However, those with experience in the Middle East always knew that the 'Arab Spring', this movement to plant ‘democracy’ in the poisonous soil of the Middle East, would yield a harvest of religious radicalism and further violence.

The reason is simple and can be illustrated with the open elections held in Palestine at the urging of the US in 2006. This democratic process to validate the “will of the people” brought to power the political wing of one of the world’s most radical terrorist groups – Hamas. This immediately led to armed conflict, resulting in the division of the Paletinian territory into the Gaza Strip controlled by Hamas and the West Bank controlled by Fatah.

Would it be a truism to say that a fervently religious population guided by an ideology that explicitly marries religion and politics will elect officials who have similar values? Probably so, but it clearly bears repeating. Democracy is no panacea to the ills of Muslim societies. It does, however, guarantee that the Islamic values held by the majority will play a larger role in politics.

Fast forward from 2006 to December 2010 and the start of the Arab spring that received direct and indirect support from America. First, the admittedly corrupt, but pro-Western president of Tunisia was deposed and eventually replaced with the Islamist Ennahda Party. Islamic Fundamentalists 1 – Middle East Tolerance 0.

Later, Egyptian leader Hosni Mubarek, a staunch US ally in the face of domestic opposition, a leader who honored a peace treaty with Israel, negotiated peacefires with Hamas and kept Muslim fundamentalists from gaining political power in his own country was thrown under the bus.

The result? The ‘relatively’ secular regime of the most influential Arab country in the world was replaced by the Muslim Brotherhood in ‘democratic elections,’ resulting in more fundamentalist government, more persecution of non-Muslim minorities, and the storming of the US Embassy this past Tuesday. Islamic Fundamentalists 2 – Middle East Tolerance 0.

Then, just last year, the US and NATO encouraged and assisted a popular uprising in Libya aimed at overthrowing that murderous tyrant and dictator Muammer Gaddafi. The Libyan dictator had a troubled history with the West due to issues such as the Lockerbie and Berlin bombings, his demands for greater revenues from Libyan oil, intense opposition to the state of Israel and a laundry list of other sordid and sundry crimes.

Yet, he was no friend of fundamentalist terror groups either. He is reported to have personally presided over executions of members of the Islamic extremist group Hizb-ut Tahrir. Religion was for Gaddafi a political tool not an ideology.

In 2003, however, after the downfall of Iraq, he renounced his WMD program and began full cooperation with international inspectors. Yet, his sins caught up with him, and the tryant had to go to make room for democracy. It is not yet clear, but if the murder of the US ambassador on Tuesday is any indication, the Islamic Fundamentalists are advancing on an unprotected goal and likely to score again.

If the secular “Butcher of Damascus” Hafez al-Assad is brought down in the months to come, the next Syrian government will also be a fundamentalist Sunni government as the Free Syrian Army has already proven itself to be just as violent but more “pious” than its oppponent.

If there is a common thread here, it is that the US has overtly supported the overthrow of all these admittedly corrupt but also non-fundamentalist regimes while equally corrupt but overtly religious governments like those in Bahrain and Saudi Arabia, which also faced popular dissent as a result of the Arab Spring, were spared any negative coverage and the uprising were quietly and resolutely suppressed without receiving US support.

Apparently, the US policy of supporting democracy only applies to dictators that are non-religious like Gaddafi, Saddam, Mubarek, and Assad, but not to the House of Saud and Bahrain.  

On Tuesday, the US reaped the first fruits of the ‘Arab Spring’ in the form of death and mayhem.  Let’s all hope that this ‘Arab Spring’ doesn't transform the Middle East into a Muslim Brotherhood fraternity house of such religious intolerance and fanaticism that we one day long for men like Saddam and Gaddafi.



 
 
Students of the New Testament know it best as Asia Minor, Paul's destination on his first missionary journeys to preach the Gospel to the Gentiles. The names of the Roman provinces through which Paul traveled preaching and teaching are still read every week in Sunday Schools across America.

The ancient names for the modern state of Turkey - Bithynia, Galatia, Pontus, Cappadocia, Phrygia, etc. are not all that unfamiliar to American believers.

Paul's preaching attracted converts but never failed to draw fierce opposition from the local population. On more than one occasion the natives, who might have been Greeks, Phrygians, Romans, Lycians, or any mixture of Assyrians, Hittites and Persians, tried to kill him and his companions for introducing to the Empire an unknown god, a new teaching of peace and love.

This has never been a popular message with Empire (think Darth Vader), but it eventually prevailed and all of Anatolia embraced the gospel. In fact, several of Paul's epistles were addressed to Anatolian congregations and all of the seven churches of Revelation are found in modern-day Turkey.

Now, two thousand years later, things have come full circle and those bearing Christ’s message of peace in Turkey find themselves facing opposition very similar to that encountered by the early apostles. In fact, the US Commission on International Religious Freedom claims that state persecution has become so serious that the very survival of Christian communities in Turkey is at stake.

The report released last week reclassified Turkey as a Country of Particular Concern (CPC).   
This article is Part II of a series on religious freedom in Turkey. The first article introduced the USCIRF report, touching on troubling issues related to its politicization and Turkey’s state control of religion.  

Even though the commission recommended Turkey be put in the same category as offenders like Saudi Arabia, the USCIRF report listed a number of positive developments in the country. Numerous articles have been written in the West about how Prime Minister Erdogan's "mildly Islamist" government heralds a changing of the tide and will knock Turkey out of NATO’s orbit and lead to more radical Islamic policies. Yet, the facts tell a slightly different story.

1) Erdogan has promised to replace the current constitution implemented by the military in 1982. This is particularly significant since much of the institutionalized “persecution” of religious groups in Turkey is connected with its peculiar view of secularism, which essentially makes the state the final arbiter in all religious affairs.

His opponents rightly understand this as an attempt to unshackle religion, thereby giving Islamists a greater voice. But, in all fairness, religious freedom cannot be guaranteed otherwise. Practically all religious minorities have welcomed the idea of a new constitution, proof that there is an urgent need.

2) In 2008, the Foundations Law was amended to facilitate the operations of religious foundations. Soon after it went into effect, 1,400 applications were received asking for the return of religious properties seized during the Republican era by the government. Over the next three years, 200 properties were, in fact, returned.

In 2011, Erdogan also passed an executive order that made it possible to obtain compensation for properties that had been previously seized by the state and could not be returned. Both of these steps are significant.

3) The Associations Law passed in 2004 and amended in 2007 makes it possible for all religious organizations to hold religious services and determine their own religious curriculum. This too was progress made by Erdogan’s government, yet one cannot help but wonder why it took “modern”, “democratic” Turkey so long to provide some legal underpinning for such a basic right.

Celebration of victory regarding this important civil liberty could be premature, for associations may not own property and their status may be revoked by local governors.

4) Erdogan’s AKP government has also granted unprecedented permission for minority religious services as well as building and restoration projects (e.g. the Armenian Akdamar church and Sümela Orthodox Monastery), indicating a new era of openness. The government has even been severely criticized by nationalists for its “leniency” with minority religious groups.

5) Although anti-Semitism has spread throughout the Middle East like a malignant tumor and Erdogan’s unprecedented popularity with Arabs is due almost entirely to his pro-Palestinian positions and criticisms of Israel, Jews in Turkey continue to enjoy rights seldom given to them in other Muslim countries.

In fact, Prime Minister Erdogan once called Turkey Israel’s most important friend in the region, and said that anti-Semitism was a “crime against humanity,” statements one can hardly imagine coming from most Arab states. Furthermore, on January 29, 2012, Turkey became the first majority Muslim country to broadcast the 9-hour documentary Shoah on state television to commemorate International Holocaust Remembrance Day!

This is only a summary of the AKP’s progress regarding religious freedom, progress unparalleled in the history of the Republic of Turkey, progress which has been affirmed by every religious minority in the country, and progress the USCIRF report dismisses as ad hoc.

Why are these impressive reforms being dismissed? Why is the AKP not being congratulated in the West for taking steps to promote religious freedom that no other government in the history of Turkey has been able to achieve?

It’s a simple question with a simple answer hidden in a phrase used several times in the report – ad hoc.

In other words, the commission believes that none of these efforts address the institutionalized injustice that places onerous restrictions on religious freedom in Turkey. All of these reforms could be reversed tomorrow because no real protections have been afforded these communities.

At the end of the report, the commissioners offered this jarring explanation for their surprising recommendation to have Turkey downgraded from the “Watch” list to a Country of Particular Concern:

“After past genocide, and other violence, and current, suffocating legal restrictions, Turkey's Christian communities are barely hanging on.

Every year that passes without substantial religious reform places these minorities in greater peril and helps seal their fate. In the Arab Spring, Turkey holds itself out to be an Islamist model. But it is no model for religious freedom. We have waited for ten years for the AKP to make a real difference in the Christians’ fate. We can no longer sit by and just “Watch.”

Let’s look at the restrictions faced by Christians, Jews and religious minorities in Turkey.

Restrictions related to property. Since its founding, the Republic of Turkey has seized thousands of properties such as schools, businesses, hospitals, orphanages and cemeteries from religious minority congregations. The government’s right to confiscate such property is still in effect, putting the ownership of any religious minority in jeopardy and insuring “submission” to the powers that be.

Turkey does not recognize the corporate legal status of any religious minority. Instead, it has drafted a byzantine labyrinth of laws to control property ownership, transfer and operations. It not only restricts the flow of funds from a congregation in one part of the country to sister congregations in another part of the country, but only Armenian Orthodox, Greek Orthodox and Jewish communities may refer to their buildings as churches or synagogues. All other groups are merely “cultural centers” or “community centers.”

One of the most striking examples of the state’s draconian control is the Turkish government's confiscation of the 1,600-year-old Mor Gabriel Monastery, which served as the headquarters of the Syriac Church from 1160 to 1932. This seizure was realized with a ruling from the Turkish Supreme Court overturning the ruling of a lower court and granting a significant portion of the property to the Treasury.

Restrictions on Training Clergy The only center for Greek Orthodox theological education, the Halki Seminary on the island of Heybeli, has been closed since 1971. As a result, there is no way for the church to train new leaders in Turkey. Of course, the Greek Orthodox population of Istanbul has shrunk from approximately 100,000 to 4,000 since the 1955 pogrom executed to force Greeks out of the country.

The government has indicated a willingness to reopen the seminary, but maybe that is only because the congregation has dwindled to the point that its extinction is all but certain. Whatever the case, 41 years later, the seminary remains closed and there is disagreement over the school's official status.

Other religious minorities are in the same boat. The country's largest non-Muslim religious minority, the Armenian Orthodox church, also has no seminary for theological education and currently has only 26 priests serving population of approximately 65,000.

Religious Education Religious education is constitutionally mandated in Turkish primary and secondary schools and the curriculum is determined by the Ministry of Education’s Department of Religious Instruction. Although non-Muslim children are not, by law, forced to attend, some schools have refused to allow the exemption.

Moreover, the curriculum’s description of minority beliefs is biased, factually incorrect and encourages societal discrimination because of the insulting language employed. For example, Christian missionaries are referred to as criminals and children are taught that the Bible has been changed.

The only minority schools allowed by law are for communities covered by the Lausanne Treaty – the Armenian Orthodox, Greek Orthodox and Jewish minorities. But regulations make is difficult for minority children to register even in these schools and there are no schools for minorities such as Catholics, Protestants, Alevis, Syriacs or Jehovah’s Witnesses.

In short, the policies of the Turkish government seem to be designed to ensure that the influence and growth of minority religions is strictly controlled, even over their own children. The purpose of these policies seems obvious: to force assimilation and thwart diversity.

The accuracy of the Commission on International Religious Freedom was confirmed by a conversation with Turkish pastor Ibrahim Deveci. Here are the highlights of that interview:

“It is a difficult place for a Christian to live. It's hard to find a job, get married or even express my views in public. It is difficult to work in certain organizations or obtain a security clearance.

“It is really hard for children. In Diyarbakır, one child was pressured to repeat the Islamic confession of faith and when he refused, he was slapped by the teacher. From that time forward, the other children treated him as an enemy.

“Sometimes, people are afraid of persecution so they don’t change the religion on their ID cards and are forced to take the mandatory religion (Sunni) classes.

“The biggest threat we face is the threat to our lives. There have been more martyrs during the last few years than at any other time in modern history. Two Catholic priests have been killed and three brothers in Malatya.”

When asked how Christianity was perceived in Turkey, he said, “I'm afraid we are viewed very negatively and it has gotten steadily worse over the last 18 years.”

In response to a question about whether the AKP was turning Turkey away from the West and towards the world of Islam, Mr. Deveci said, “I don’t get that involved in politics. But, this government (AKP) is clearly more strategic and more determined to spread Islam. Ironically, it was more difficult under previous governments. This is the easiest time in modern history for the Turkish church. We don't know what will happen in future, but we seem to have more freedom now.

“This is because we are a very small minority - around 4000 believers. So they don't take us seriously. Yet, at the same time, we are viewed as a threat. It seems that some rights have been given back due to the EU. Some foundations are being returned to ethnic minorities, some churches are being repaired and restored. It is good but inadequate. A little make-up on a few churches is not enough. Christians need to be recognized as legitimate citizens of the State.” 

Mr. Deveci clearly feels like Christians in Turkey are viewed as turncoats or traitors.

When the conversation turned to the fact that 20% of Turkey was Christian when the Ottoman Empire collapsed and yet today Christians make up a mere 0.1% of the population, Mr Deveci said:

“There are many reasons for this. Essentially, it is an ‘evaporation’ policy, an anihilation policy. Most Christians have immigrated to other countries to escape persecution. The AKP thinks the new generation is a bit luke-warm when it comes to Islam. They want to see a religious revival. I will be happy with my country when I see that Christians are granted the same rights as Muslims.

“There was and is an effort to unify the nation in terms of both language and religion. They say, ‘Every Turk is born a Muslim.’ Actually there is incredible diversity here, but people have not been free to express this. Turkey has suffered greatly due to the loss of cultural diversity.

“They talk about tolerance. Yes, there is tolerance – that is, until Christians become a bit more informed and start sharing their faith. That's where tolerance ends.”

Mr. Deveci’s perspective certainly seems to corroborate the 2012 US International Religious Freedom Report. In fact, anyone who knows anything about Turkey has known about the severe restrictions on religious freedom for years.

Consider the following US diplomatic cable published by Wikileaks regarding an anti-missionary sermon sent to every mosque in the country by the Directorate of Religious Affairs, proof that American officials have long been aware of Turkey’s infractions.

“Turks tend to be profoundly hypocritical on issues relating to Islam and Christianity. Hypersensitive to any perceived Western slights or misconceptions about Islam, they routinely spread misinformation about Christianity and sow fear about missionaries. Gormez, like other pious Turks, considers conversion to Islam a natural progression, but is deeply resentful of Muslims who convert to Christianity. It is important to remember that this insidiously anti-Christian sermon was prepared not by a private Islamic group but by one of the largest branches of the GOT (Government of Turkey) bureaucracy.”

However, NATO membership and a strategic partnership with the US have their advantages, one of the most important of which is special treatment when it comes to violations of basic human rights.

Maybe this report signals an end to these days of privilege and the beginning of genuine pressure on Turkey to change. Unfortunately, even if it does come, it will be too little and too late for the thousands of religious minorities who have immigrated or been absorbed. As the commission stated so well, it is time for America to stop being a bystander when it comes to the violation of individual civil liberties.

Being a "strategic partner" must not be a Get-Out-Of-Jail-Free card.