Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Why are Christians fleeing the Middle East?

I took a short break from blogging because of family events. This week I return to my favorite haunt, the Middle East, where faith and politics often meet with tragic consequences for all involved.

Why are Christians fleeing the Middle East? The answer is complex, but it is not just because of persecution, as bad as that is. Persecution may be the main driving factor, but it is by no means the only one.

Recently terrorists, who call themselves the Islamic State of Iraq and Al-Sham (ISIS), beheaded hundreds of innocent people, crucified former Muslims who freely choose to follow Jesus Christ, destroyed dozens of churches, taken over monasteries and evicted the monks, burned sacred manuscripts and art, and sent thousands of Christians and other religious minorities fleeing for their lives in a reign of bloodshed and terror.

Nearly all Christians have deserted Mosul -- the ancient Nineveh, and where according the apostle Thomas, according to tradition, established churches in the first century of the Christian era -- soon after Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi, the self-proclaimed Caliph of ISIS delivered this terrifying ultimatum: "We offer them three choices: Islam; the dhimma contract -- involving payment of jizya; if they refuse this they will have nothing but the sword."

The atrocities that ISIS has committed thus far are so extreme that Al Qaeda has condemned them. Thus it is understandable that Christians are fleeing Iraq and Syria. But Christians are not the only religious group that ISIS has persecuted. Other minorities, such as Yezidis, ShabaIts, and Kurd,. are victims as well. Even other Muslims have been killed by ISIS.

Nor is Iraq the only country from which Christians have been forcibly evicted. Syria, parts of which are now, as in Iraq, under the sway of ISIS, has persecuted Christian clerics and forced an exodus of many Christians. Christians have also fled many other Middle Eastern countries, where they have been persecuted.

Today, the religious ecology of the Middle East looks increasingly fragile, but the exodus of Christians is the result of more than persecution.

Christians have deep roots in the Middle East. They are not new arrivals to the Middle East, but they are indigenous to the region, just as Jews and Muslims are. But, unlike the Jews who returned to the Middle East, Christians are leaving in droves.

Yet this exodus is not a new phenomenon. Persecution of Christians has a long history. It began already during the Roman period and continues to the present day.

Yet for centuries after the rise of Islam, Christians and Muslims were able to live peaceably together, with the notable exception of the Crusades, for which Christians are fully to blame. The Crusades have led not only to past atrocities but also to the poisoned legacy that has been left in the Muslim world ever since. Christians are still described by some Muslims today in derogatory terms such as "illegitimate children of the crusaders" or "slaves of western colonialists."

Even the current persecution of Christians by ISIS in Iraq and Syria must be viewed through the historical lens of the Crusades.

Discrimination and persecution predates the colonial period, but it has been exacerbated by the unqualified support of Israel by Western nations. Some Muslims in the Middle East harbor a hatred of Christians, even of the indigenous Christians who predate the arrival of Islam.

If persecution is not the only reason, what are some other reasons for the Christian exodus? 

One of the primary reasons is economic. The Christian diaspora that stems from the Middle East is very large. Many Christians have been successful in business and the professions. Due to the repressive political climate in many Middle Eastern countries, Christians have emigrated to the West in large numbers, with the result that the Christian population of many countries in the region have declined drastically.

Unfortunately, precise figures for this exodus are not always available, but most countries do show a steady decline in the number of Christians. In addition to the exodus, one factor in the decline is the low birth rate of Christians. Many Christians are better educated and enjoy a high standard of living, and thus they have fewer children than Muslims. Just look at the decline in a sample of Middle Eastern countries in the last century.

Citing these additional reasons for the decline in the numbers of Christians should not be interpreted as an excuse for ignoring the genocide of religious minorities by ISIS. There is no reason for the West to ignore the plight of Christians and other minority religious groups. ISIS must be condemned by the whole world. 

ISIS is better financed than most jihadists. It not only controls oil fields but has robbed banks and extorted taxes in the territory that it controls. It has proclaimed itself as the new center for the whole Islamic world. Even foreigners are flocking to join it. A British man is alleged to be the person who beheaded the American journalist James Foley. ISIS has a total disregard for human rights, whether of individuals or communities. Now even Al Qaeda has disowned ISIS for its extremism.

Thankfully, ISIS does not enjoy the support of all Muslims. On the contrary, some Muslim leaders have spoken out against ISIS, but their voices have been drowned out by the noise that extremists make. Too often the media ignore the voices of moderation and disseminate only that of the extremists. And even if these voices are heard, extremists will not listen. They are deaf to any voices except their own.

Recently, in Bagdad local Muslims joined Christians at a service to show their solidarity The New York Times reported that a Muslim woman who was siting next to a Christian woman at the service who happened to be in tears, whispered to the Christian: "You are the true original people here, and we are sorry for what has been done in the name of Islam."

Such a confession will not bring Christians back to Mosul, or anywhere else in the Middle East for that matter any time soon. Too much blood has been spilled for too many centuries for that to happen. Christians will continue to flee the Middle East, at least for the foreseeable future. One day, perhaps, some Christians will return to the region where their ancestors have lived since the beginning of the Christian era.

And one day, perhaps, there will even be peace in the Middle East. But don't hold your breath. Even if ISIS does disappear, which seems unlikely at the moment, other extremist groups that could possibly be even more extreme may arise to replace it. That is the nature of the region.

Until that day arrives, some Christians will always be found in the Middle East. The God who four millennia ago made a covenant with Abraham (and by extension with his descendants) is faithful to his promises. God will preserve the Christians of the Middle East, just as he has preserved the Jews and brought them back to their ancestral land. Nor does he ignore Muslims who now dominate the region. He has many children there.

In spite of all the bloodshed, I believe that God watches over all the peoples of the Middle East and one day that long-awaited peace will arrive. Then Christians will no longer have to flee the region. Insha'Allah!

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Are Putin and Harper brothers?

This post is a personal commentary on two internationally renowned politicians that I dislike very much largely because of their authoritarian style and many negative character traits. What galls me above all is that they profess to be religious, but their faith seems to play little or no role in public. I delayed publication because of its personal nature. You may disagree with me, but this is my blog and my opinion.

Are Putin and Harper brothers? I ask this question somewhat tongue in cheek. They are not brothers, of course, but they do share many character traits, some of which are very negative.

By Putin and Harper I mean Russian President Vladimir Putin (born 7 October 1952) and Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper (30 April 1959). Although they are about six and a half years apart in age, and thus were not separated at birth, as is sometimes jocularly suggested about two people, they do show many signs of being so similar that many occasionally wonder if these two politicians are related.

Why do I ask whether they are brothers? Just look at their characters. They show many of the same traits, although there are also differences that can be explained by growing up in different countries. For example, Putin speaks Russian and German, while Harper speaks English and French, although he is learning Spanish.

Most revealingly, Putin is richer than Harper. Putin is estimated to be worth about $70 billion, while Harper is worth only $5 million, but again that can be explained by the countries in which they live. Russia is a very corrupt country, which helps to explain how Putin has accumulated such wealth on an official annual salary of only $187,000. Clearly in Russia there are opportunities available that Harper does not enjoy.

Putin's palace on the Black Sea

In addition, there are glaring differences in their foreign policies, particularly on the Middle East and Ukraine. Harper has just imposed new sanctions on Russia in the aftermath of MH17. Yet differences are not unusual among siblings. Thus these can be discounted.

The similarities between the two men are astounding. Both show so many similar traits that I have wondered more than once whether they are related. I am not alone in asking this question. Others have too.

Let's begin the comparison with something simple and not very surprising: Putin and Harper both love sports. That is not unusual; many men do. But these two are passionate about sports.

Putin is often photographed bare-chested, riding on a horse, fishing or whatever. He loves football; this year he attended the final of the World Cup between Germany and Argentina. He likes to present a macho image, especially when he is in public.

Harper, in contrast, is not as much into active sports -- he describes himself as studious and non-athletic -- but he did find time from his day job as prime minister to write a book called "A Great Game," a history of Canada's first hockey teams. In a country that is crazy about hockey this is politically astute.

Both men are consummate politicians. They know what they have to say and do to stay in power. Putin and Harper both have an agenda, and molding their respective countries according to their own visions.

But both have displayed strong anti-democratic tendencies. Putin has displayed his disdain for democracy frequently. This was most evident when he invaded Ukraine and seized Crimea, using the pretense of a referendum to do so. In Russia, there is no real democracy, as many Russians will admit. They have always preferred strong men to leaders. Putin is just the latest in a long series.

During his term in office Harper has revealed his contempt for democracy on many occasions. Perhaps the most glaring recent example is the totally misnamed Fair Elections Act, which makes it much more difficult for some people (read immigrants and others who would not vote for him anyway) to cast a ballot, but it favors the Conservative party when it comes to funding. Harper is not simply partisan but undemocratic. Among other things, he has fired scientists and shut down parliament in order to get his own way.

Putin has frequently trampled on the human rights of Russians. In Russia defenders of human rights are regularly attacked. Opposition leaders and journalists were murdered. The judicial system is manipulated and Russian police have falsely arrested, tortured and raped hundreds of individuals. Also, Putin has no respect for women. Now Russian rebels in Ukraine have been accused of violating human rights.

Last year.Harper did not attend an APEC meeting in Sri Lanka, because of the human rights abuses in that country. While this make him sound like a defender of human rights, it is apparent that for him international trade trumps these rights. In addition, his government has refused to ratify many international agreements on human rights and, at home, has eroded human rights for First Nations and refugees. He too, it is clear, has no respect for women.

Both men are apparently very loyal to their friends and supporters, but both can also be extremely vindictive when people turn against them or are no longer useful. This negative trait is common among many politicians, Obama is sometimes cited as an example, but Putin and Harper carry vindictiveness to a new level.

Mikhail Khodorkovsky behind bars in a Russian courtroom

Putin destroyed, Mikhail Khodorkovsky, who ran afoul of Putin by refusing to stay out of politics. Putin had ordered the oil giant dismembered and sold off and put Khodorkovsky, who was the owner of Yukos, on trial. Khodorkovsky is Jewish, but this is not why he was charged and condemned by the court. His crime was political: he had crossed Putin. Now Putin is getting his reward. The Permanent Court of Arbitration in the Hague, Netherlands recently ordered Russia to pay $50 billion to former shareholders of Yukos.

Harper has been known to push even his friends "under the bus" when they become liabilities to him. Nigel Wright, who was Harper's Chief of Staff until Wright wrote a check for $90,000 to allow Senator Mike Duffy to repay some expenses, is an example. Harper is infamous for his take-no-prisoner style. While not as ruthless as Putin, Harper's ruthlessness reveals a rather unsavory side to his character.

Putin is now divorced, which is not surprising in view of his machismo and ruthlessness. Harper is supposedly happily married, but there have been rumors that Harper's wife, Laureen Harper, had an affair with a female RCMP officer. Both men are the top politicians in their respective countries and thus may have neglected their wives with the resulting strain on their marriages.

Both men seem to be religious. Putin is a member of the Russian Orthodox Church. Harper is a member of the Christian and Missionary Alliance denomination. Yet religion does not seem to play a noticeable role in their domestic and foreign policy decisions, which is again not surprising, since many world leaders tend to go through the formalities of their faith but do not evidence it openly in their policies and public statements.

Why am I so critical of Putin and Harper? In part, because I have witnessed both men at work for many years: Putin while I was a resident of Moscow in the early period of his presidency, and Harper after my return to Canada after many years of living abroad. In neither case did I like what I saw. Both men practiced deceit and abuse of power. And both men have displayed contempt for ordinary people.

Putin came to power as the typical strongman that Russians have such a predilection for. If anything, he has grown more ruthless since he first came to power. The charade, whereby he traded offices temporarily with Dmitry Medvedev, which allowed Putin to remain president, was in order to circumvent the term of office limit set for the presidency in the Russian Constitution. One day, I surmise, Putin may find a way to become president-for-life, just as many presidents in Africa have already done.

During that time Putin has molded Russia in his image. If his popularity figures are an accurate measurement, many Russians like his vision of Russia. After the annexation of Crimea, these figures shot up. Even the MH17 fiasco did not dent his popularity, which is hardly surprising. Most Russians are poorly informed about what is really happened, thus they back the Kremlin's versions (of which there are several).

Harper has been prime minister since 2006. Theoretically he can remain in that office as long as his party remains in power, but I hope that does not happen. He too has shaped Canada in his image. Unfortunately, it is not an image that I share. Harper's Canada is the antithesis of mine. This is why I will never vote for him nor his party. The most recent polls show his support dropping throughout Canada, except in Saskatchewan and Alberta, where his core support is situated. He may yet lose the next election, scheduled for 2015.

This post is one way of protesting what Putin and Harper have done. Even though they are not brothers, they share many negative traits that appeal to a segment of the population in their respective countries. But their authoritarian nature turns me off. I prefer a very different leadership style. Politicians should serve the people of their country, not the other way around.

Putin and Harper are not brothers, but they are very similar in many ways. In Canada, Harper's days may be numbered. That is my fervent prayer. I intend to vote accordingly. In contrast, Putin may remain in power for a long time yet. Russians will determine their own fate. I do not like either of these two men and I wish they would disappear from the political scene.

Monday, August 4, 2014

End the carnage in Gaza

I have delayed publishing this post for several days in order to see how the situation in Gaza would unfold.

After many weeks of fighting in Gaza, it is already apparent that neither Israel nor Hamas is going to win this latest in a long series of wars between Hamas and Israel. It is time to end the carnage in Gaza.

After more than 1,800 Palestinian deaths and about 400,000 displaced people, Hamas continues to rain rockets indiscriminately on Israel. Much of the world has roundly condemned Hamas for this, which is widely perceived as an infringement of human rights.

Yet Hamas seems to be winning in the court of world opinion because of the large loss of civilian lives on the Palestinian side, which far outnumbers the lives lost on the Israeli side by a factor of 20-1.

While Israel has the indisputable right to defend itself, as its defenders never cease to point out, Israel has killed so many Palestinians, many of whom have nowhere to flee except to UN-run schools and hospitals, that it is has been condemned, even by some of its supporters, for the daily list of civilian casualties.

Israel too has been charged with human rights abuses, in spite of its claim that it makes an effort to warn the civilian residents of Gaza of an impending attack, even at the risk of some of its soldiers being killed. Yet this is not enough for many critics who point to all the atrocities perpetrated on innocent civilians, who have nowhere else to flee.

Israel is experiencing what the German philosopher G.W.F. Hegel called the "powerlessness of the victor." Because its weapons far exceed that of Hamas in quality and quantity, the military superiority of Israel is assured, yet its powerless is written on the what is left over of the walls of the Palestinian homes have been been reduced to rubble. It is illustrated too by the Israeli soldiers that have been killed.

Israeli air strike on Gaza, July 13, 2014

Israel has stated clearly that its goal is to destroy the capacity of Hamas to rain rockets on the heart of Israel and to destroy the tunnels that Hamas uses to bring in fresh supplies. But is even this limited goal possible without taking over control of the entire Gaza strip? I doubt it.

The withdrawal of ground troops by Israel does not spell the end of the war. The destruction of the tunnels, which was the ostensible reason for the invasion, will not bring Hamas to heel. That will require a continued occupation of Gaza as long as rockets rain down on Israel.

The reconquest of Gaza would mean accepting responsibility for all 1.8 million Palestinians, many of whom are poor and unemployed. They are also extremely physically and emotionally vulnerable. The causalities that would result  from taking control of Gaza would be enormous on both sides.

It would demand the elimination of Hamas, which even if it were possible. would carry with it the possibility of another much more extreme jihadist group arising phoenix-like out of the ashes of Hamas.

There would also be a new intifada in the West Bank, and that would bring about the downfall of President Mahmoud Abbas and the Palestinian Authority (PA) as well as end any diplomatic efforts to bring peace.

In addition, it would put an end to any further relationship with Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia and threaten relations with the US and Europe. Is this what Prime Minister Netanyahu wants?

Thus I doubt that he would take this route. Instead, Netanyahu might limit himself to a demilitarization of Gaza. For such a demilitarization to be accepted by the outside world, it would have to be part of a very important and necessary step towards a two-state solution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

But whether Hamas would accept demilitarization is extremely unlikely. It would contradict the Charter of Hamas (1988), where in the Epilogue it defines Hamas as soldiers who are fighting a Zionist enemy. The Charter repeatedly invokes Allah in the struggle to liberate Palestine.

The Charter clearly reveals the religious character of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The conflict is between Islam and Zionism. The Charter forbids any peace negotiations; only jihad is permitted.

Short of continuing its control Gaza, how will Israel stop Hamas from digging more tunnels and shooting more rockets into the heart of Israel. There must be an alternative.

Israel must leave Palestine, both Gaza and the West Bank, entirely. It must eventually return to the pre-1967 borders or at least make any necessary adjustments to allow for Israeli settlements that have sprung up in the meantime.

Diplomacy would strengthen the hand of the PA. The US should thus put pressure on Israel to take the path of diplomacy. Instead of an iron fist, it must offer an olive branch. That would pull the rug from under the feet of Hamas which wants undermine any diplomatic efforts that would spell the end for them. A lack of diplomacy forces Palestinians to support the organization as the only way to fight Israel and get their land back.

But this is a dream, since Hamas cannot win a military victory. It does not have the necessary resources, whether in terms of manpower or weapons. Hamas relies on outside suppliers, as does Israel. If these were cut off, Israel would be able to survive, but not Hamas.

In order to promote the diplomatic peace process, Western nations should cut off military support for Israel, while the Arab states should do the same for Hamas.

The US has recently in strong language criticized Israel for bombing schools, yet it continues to supply Israel with arms. If other nations would also cut off arms and endorse the diplomatic effort as an alternative, peace will come much sooner. Unfortunately, there are too many nations that are afraid to speak out openly about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict for fear that this may hurt their arms industry.

Canada, to my shame and consternation, has sided with Israel vociferously and condemned Hamas at every opportunity. It has done this largely for political reasons: to curry the Jewish vote. Seemingly, the current Conservative government has written off the Muslim vote, who are largely new arrivals in Canada but do not tend to vote Conservative, in favor of the well-established and prosperous Jewish vote (if such a vote, just like the Muslim, exists). This vote that while small mainly supports Prime Minister Stephen Harper.

Harper's support for Israel is also a matter of principle. He sees Israel as the only bulwark of democracy in the Middle East. I suspect that he, and some members of the Conservative caucus, may also support Israel for theological reasons. But that is difficult to prove, since Harper, who is a member of the evangelical Christian Missionary Alliance denomination, is very cautious about discussing his faith in public. To the best of my knowledge, he has not addressed this issue publicly.

Let's help to put and end to the carnage in Gaza, which is a small part of the larger conflict between Israel and Palestine.  Urge governments everywhere to support peace by encouraging any diplomatic efforts. I am convinced that many people in Israel and Palestine want peace and do not have any desire to be associated with the war crimes that are perpetrated by both sides in the conflict. And above all pray for peace.


Friday, July 25, 2014

X-ray of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict

The recent bombings in Gaza are only the latest in the long conflict between the Israelis and the Palestinians that dates back to the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948. This conflict is so long and protracted that it would require many books to trace all the twists and turns for almost seven decades, all the hopes that were raised and then dashed, all the countless that have been lives lost, and the heartbreak experienced by so many people on both sides.

Such a history is certainly beyond my competence, although I have studied the conflict off and on for many years. Moreover, it is impossible for me to describe the most recent actions in detail, much less provide even a brief history of it in this post.

What I want to do is take an x-ray of this conflict in order to expose the root of the problems and perhaps suggest a way forward. X-rays are useful as I discovered again a few days ago when I had x-rays taken of my back. From them some long-standing problems became visible, although the reasons are not yet clear.

At the risk of oversimplifying the conflict and the many issues involved, such as borders, security, water rights, control of Jerusalem, Israeli settlements, Palestinian freedom of movement, and Palestinian claims of a right of return for their refugees, the main barrier to a resolution is a the lack of mutual recognition.

Simply put, neither side is willing to concede the other's right to exist. Palestinians, exemplified especially by Hamas, refuse to accept the existence of the State of Israel, which was formed in 1948 as a new homeland for Jews after the Holocaust. Together with many others in the Arab world, they would like nothing better than to push the Israelis into the Mediterranean.

But drowning is not an alternative for Israelis. As the former prime minister of Israel, Golda Meir, put it so succinctly, "We Jews have a secret weapon in our struggle with the Arabs; we have no place to go."

Many Israelis, in turn, refuse to accept the reality of the Palestinian people. Again Meir in 1969 expressed it so well, "It was not as if there was a Palestinian people in Palestine and we came and threw them out and took their country away from them," she said. "They did not exist." For her then, and for many Israelis today, Palestinians are not recognized as a people. If they were, they would have a right to land.

A people who had no land acquired it by denying that those who were living there at the time were a people. Until mutual recognition is achieved, all the other issues are irrelevant. This is the primary issue. The others can be resolved only when there is such recognition. They can be discussed, but such discussions will remain academic until then.

Unfortunately, these two people both have historical claims to the same land. Either they accept each other and share the land or this conflict will continue, maybe, forever. The historical periods do not overlap, and thus both sides have a strong case. Only by turning a blind eye and denying the existence of the other can each side maintain the fiction that their claim to the land is exclusive.

The other issues can be resolved either first, by laying the groundwork for a final resolution, or afterwards, in order to wrap up the loose ends, but eventually the issue of mutual recognition will need to be dealt with. There is no way to avoid that issue.

Currently there does not seem to be a pending resolution of this issue. The present spate of fighting in Gaza is causing a lot of bad blood, while the loss of life on both sides is almost intolerable. And, what is worse, people outside of Israel and Palestine are taking sides. The support that I have seen for one side or the other is often unbalanced, laying all the blame on one party. Very few voices partition the blame equitably.

In fact, a fair share of the blame must also be laid at the door of those countries that supply the arms and money, notably the US, but also some Gulf countries that have supplied Hamas with newer rockets that can reach all the major cities of Israel.

Before any further negotiations take place, there must be a cease fire in Gaza. Both sides should stop the bombings immediately. There are already overtures to that effect being made by the US Secretary of State. Unfortunately, this time Egypt seems unable to act as an honest broker because of the bad blood between the Egyptian president and Hamas.

Hamas has promised to stop firing rockets into Israel, if the economic blockade of Gaza is lifted. Israel should honor this demand, albeit with further assurances from the US if necessary. It's "Iron Dome" already provides protection for many Israeli cities. While not full-proof and very expensive, this missile system gives a large degree of protection to ordinary Israelis.

Any cease-fire should include further incentives to Hamas, including release of a small number of Palestinian prisoners held by Israel and the partial payment of suspended government salaries in Gaza, perhaps by Qatar.

A cease-fire can be timed to coincide with the Muslim feast of Eid ul-Fitr, which marks the end of Ramadan. A seven-day truce, as has been proposed, can then be extended to allow negotiations on all the thorny issues that have fueled this conflict for so many decades, especially the matter of mutual recognition. 

A willingness on the part of Hamas to enter into such negotiations can be made a condition for ending the blockade and returning any prisoners. Israel too will need pressure to enter these negotiations in good faith. Perhaps, with sufficient pressure, and lubricated by the prayers of believers everywhere, this conflict may one day be resolved. 

Eid ul-Fitr may not be the opportune moment this time for a ceasefire. As I am writing this, Israel seems to have turned down this proposal. Even if it not possible on this date, that does not mean that all is lost. There have been alout three weeks already of intense fighting and an enormous loss of life, especially civilians. The bombing of a UN-run school in Gaza by Israel has been widely condemned. People have had enough. It is high time to end the violence in Gaza and throughout the land that is in dispute between Israel and Palestine.

I am not holding my breath that seven decades of conflict will be resolved any time soon, but the violence in Gaza and elsewhere must end. There is way too much violence in the world today. Violence never solves any problems; it only creates more. There has been too much suffering already. All of this must end.


Wednesday, July 23, 2014

MH17 and the insanity of war

Before leaving on a long trip I always take a moment to pray for safe travel, especially when I am flying. Air travel can be very dangerous, but what one does not expect is to be shot down by a missile. Yet that is what happened to Malaysian Airlines Flight 17, a Boeing 777-200, on an otherwise routine flight from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur on July 17. While flying over eastern Ukraine at an altitude of 33,000 feet, and just about to enter Russian airspace, MH17 was shot down. All 298 passengers and crew were killed.

As now seems most likely, this commercial airliner was mistaken for a Ukrainian military transport, probably by pro-Russian insurgents, using a BUK-2M (which Americans refer to as SA-11) surface-to-air missile system. Each system includes four missiles. (See illustration below).

In fact, it was the third plane shot down over Ukraine that week. On Monday, July 14, an Antonov AN-26 Ukrainian military transport plane was hit by a missile while flying over eastern Ukraine at an altitude of 21,000 feet, which is far beyond the range of a shoulder-fired system. Then, two days later, a Ukrainian Sukhoi SU-25 fighter jet was shot down over eastern Ukraine. The Ukrainians immediately blamed the Russian military ground or air forces for the first two incidents.

There are several theories about who shot down MH17, aside from blaming it on the Americans. Maybe this specific attack was by Ukrainian military forces with Buk training who had defected to the rebels. Maybe it was by Ukrainian rebels who had received extensive Russian training on that system, which would raise the question of why Russia would give this training and what that would mean for Moscow's complicity. Or maybe it was by the Russians, as the Ukrainian government charges.

In these possible scenarios, it seems most likely that whoever fired on MH17 probably thought they were shooting at another Ukrainian military plane, as they did a few days earlier, not realizing this was a civilian airliner. But that does not in any way excuse what happened. Murder is still murder, even if it is by mistake.

That it was a mistake seems corroborated by a series of recordings of conversations intercepted by the Secret Service of Ukraine in which a rebel speaks to a Russian commander about an airplane that they had just shot down, but soon come to the realization that it was a civilian plane. Their excuses for what they did was that the plane was bringing in spies, it was in Ukrainian airspace, and there was a war going on.

As yet there is no solid evidence that Moscow planned the missile attack. But, as Canada's Foreign Minister, John Baird, phrased it in rather undiplomatic language, "the Kremlin may not have pulled the trigger but it certainly loaded the gun and put it in the murderer’s hand."

MH17 illustrates the insanity of war. There are more illustrations, if any more were needed. The outbreak of fighting in Gaza, with its daily quota of deaths, primarily Palestinian, but now also Israeli, civilians (which I will deal with in a future post). The kidnappings and cold-blooded murders committed by Boko Haram (which I have covered several times already) and the ongoing conflict in Syria are only a few of many examples.

In total there are currently armed conflicts (as of July, 2014) in 62 countries, involving 549 militias or guerrillas and separatist groups. How wasteful of human and material resources! How tragic for those who have died and the loved ones they left behind! This is insane!

Insanity has been described as doing the same thing time and time again, but expecting a different result. In the case of armed conflicts, the result will always be the same: a tragic loss of life. MH17 proves this.

The shooting down of a civilian airliner, even if it was a mistake, should not happen under any circumstances. While one is finishing a glass of wine with the dessert after the meal, one does not expect to blown out of the sky. An explosion should not herald plummeting to earth to certain death from a height of ten kilometers.

Other civilians are killed during wars. They are euphemistically referred to as "collateral damage." They should not be the hapless victims of these conflicts, yet they are. Unfortunately, most people pay little or no attention, until these deaths occur close to home. The deaths of innocent men, women and children from so many nations has brought this tragic event close to home for people everywhere.

This is especially true in the Netherlands, which lost almost 200 of its citizens on MH17. That country happens to be where I was born, so this event has brought it close to home for me as well. There was also one Canadian who died. He lived near Toronto, where I now make my home. Eight other nations lost citizens: Malayzia, Australia, Indonesia, United Kingdom, Germany, Belgium, Philippines and New Zealand. A few of the dead held dual citizenships, including American.

The shooting down of MH17 has the potential to turn into a much larger conflict. As an opinion piece in The Toronto Star puts it: When a war rages anywhere in our globalized world, it can metastasize in ways we have not imagined. Twenty years ago, the Afghan civil war sowed the seeds for 9/11. In the Middle East, the Syrian civil war has spilled into Iraq. And today, in Ukraine, Russian revanchism and Western indifference have fueled a conflict that has claimed the lives of people that played no role in it at all.

Western nations have for a long time ignored the conflict in Ukraine. European governments and companies have continued to develop natural gas deals with Russia while Ukraine was being dismantled.  A dependence on Russian energy has hamstrung Europe’s policy-makers, who struggled to put together a unified response to Ukraine’s troubles, yet have been slow to impose anything but mild sanctions on a few individuals.

Canada and the US were also slow to act. Only last week did the US finally impose severe sanctions on Russian state-owned firms that will seriously hamper their ability to do business. Some Russian billionaires are already feeling the effect from sanctions that were imposed after Crimea. Canada has delivered a limited amount of aid to Ukraine, but has largely refused to take a firmer stance against the Kremlin. Only now is it adding more economic sanctions.

Western nations have not acted earlier because of economic interests which trumped their concern for democracy. This plays right into Putin's hands. His end game, I surmise, is the dissolution of the European Union and the thwarting of democracy in the countries immediately surrounding Russia.

Sanctions, by themselves, may not be enough to deter Putin from further adventures in Ukraine. Western nations should refuse to sell arms to Russia. France, especially, will resist this step, since it has a multi-billion dollar deal to sell warships for the Russian navy. Britain will also continue to tread gingerly in its dealings with Russia because so much Russian wealth is entrusted to banks in the City.

In the aftermath of MH17, there are now signs that Britain is finally willing to impose more severe sanctions on Russia, including "tier three" ones that are directed at entire economic sectors rather than simply against businessmen and companies. That will increase the bite on Putin's friends even more.

In the Netherlands people are seething with anger, and will not tolerate any further dealings with the country that they blame for the loss of so many of the fellow citizens on MH17. Putin has destroyed the long-standing bridges with the Netherlands that date back to Peter the Great.

The Netherlands is one big village, where everyone watches the same TV programs and reads the same newspapers. Their anger is directed against the Ukrainian rebels and their Russian backers. That will not soon subside. It will take a long time, in fact. for the wounds of MH17 to heal, especially if many months will be required to identify all the bodies that are being brought to the Netherlands for identification.

War is insane, as MH17 proves. What further evidence is necessary? So, let's stop this insanity! Let's stop these conflicts and all the suffering that results! One step is to stop selling arms to those who engage in such wanton acts of violence, whether in Ukraine, the Middle East, or elsewhere. Enough is enough!

Some of the first bodies being returned to the Netherlands

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Genesis of a new caliph

Abu Bakr, the first caliph, in Arabic calligraphy

On 29 June 2014, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) declared the territories under its control, which straddles the Iraq-Syria border, to be a new caliphate called the Islamic State (IS), and named Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi as the caliph.  A few days later, in a video purported to be of him, Baghdadi declared himself the world leader of Muslims and called on Muslims everywhere to support him.

Perhaps a brief explanation of what a caliph is might be in order before we examine al-Baghdadi and the genesis of his claims.

Caliph (in Arabic:خليفة‎ ḫalīfah/khalīfah) means "successor" -- in this case to the Prophet Muhammad. When Muhammad died in 632 AD, he left no instructions concerning a successor. That created an enormous problem and has led to the major division among Muslims into Sunnis and Shia.

The first four caliphs are known among Sunni Muslims as the Rashidun or "Rightly-Guided Ones." They are Abu Bakr, Umar, Uthman ibn Affan, and Ali. Of these four, only Ali is accepted by the Shia. Sunnis believe that caliphs should be chosen by election or community consensus.

In contrast, Shia Muslims believe that Ali, the son-in-law and cousin of Muhammad, should have replaced Muhammad as caliph and that caliphs were to assume authority through appointment by God rather than being chosen by the people. Thus of the Rashidun they recognize only Ali's caliphate.

Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi gives a sermon at a mosque in the center of Iraq's second city,
Mosul, according to a video recording posted on the Internet, July 5, 2014.

Caliphs can be both heads of state and spiritual leaders. Islam does not have a separation of mosque and state as do many Western nations. One of the dangers of that is neither mosque nor state can develop fully as they should when their .

Since the turbulent period following Muhammad's death, there have been many caliphs. There is widespread disagreement even today on who is really a caliph, how he should be selected, and what his authority  is. Thus it is hardly surprising that few Muslims outside of  the IS have acknowledged al-Baghdadi as caliph, even if many might wish for a caliphate.

Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi is believed to have been born in 1971 in Samara, Iraq. He was a cleric at the time of the US invasion of Iraq in 2003. He has a masters degree and a PhD degree in Islamic studies. Beyond that not much is known about this reclusive man, who is now called Caliph Ibrahim.

More pertinent to understanding Baghdadi is the time he spent in Afghanistan in the late 1990's, where he worked with Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, who later founded the al-Qaeda group in Iraq after the 2003 invasion.
After Zarqawi's returned to Iraq in the aftermath of 9/11, this group evolved into the Islamic State of Iraq ISI), following Zarqawi's death in 2006.

In Afghanistan both men have worked with the Taliban and had close contacts with Osama bin Laden. Both were later prominent players in the Sunni extremist movement in Iraq in its war against Shiism. Bagdadi, in fact, was present at its creation.

Zarqawi had a strained relationship with Ayman al-Zawahri, bin Laden's successor in al-Qaeda. Zawahri had always been skeptical of Zarqawi and his associates, whom he regarded as too sectarian and bloodthirsty, and he had counseled bin Laden not to trust Zarqawi.

Baghdadi remained leader of the ISI until its formal expansion into Syria in 2013, when in April 2013, he announced the formation of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, which is alternatively translated from the Arabic as Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS). As the leader of ISIS, Baghdadi was in charge of running all ISIS activity in Iraq and Syria as emir, until that office was abolished on 29 June 014.

Early in 2014, Zawahri expelled Baghdadi from al-Qaeda. Baghdadi claims to be caliph, and he aspires to command all of Islam through what is now called the Islamic State. But he is not alone in making such a claim. Mullah Omar, who is leader of the Afghan Taliban, asserts he is the true commander of the faithful.

Ayman al-Zawahri

Omar's claim goes back to the 1990s and was vouched for by bin Laden. Baghdadi probably believes he has now surpassed all his rivals. His decision to proclaim himself caliph directly challenges Omar's standing.

Omar is extremely taciturn and keeps himself hidden away n his Pakistani sanctuary near Quetta. He may well simply choose to ignore his rival's pretensions while hailing the successes of the jihad in the Middle East.

How did Baghdadi become caliph? It seems that simply declared himself as such, which is contrary to Sunni and Shia principles. Did God appoint him? Or was he elected? Even if IS did select him, he can hardly claim much support since the IS numbers are small, perhaps 7,000 to 20,000.

The declaration of a caliphate has been heavily criticized by Middle Eastern governments and other jihadist groups, and even Sunni theologians and historians, who might otherwise want to support a fellow Sunni.

Yusuf al-Qaradawi

Yusuf al-Qaradawi, the noted Egyptian Sunni theologian, states: "[The] declaration issued by the Islamic State is void under sharia and has dangerous consequences for the Sunnis in Iraq and for the revolt in Syria." He explains that the title of caliph can "only be given by the entire Muslim nation" and not by a single group.

While the word of a  prominent theologian is not the final word on the subject, Thus Westerners should not become too worried about the establishment of the IS. That declaration means very little until the IS can demonstrate effective control of their territory and neighboring countries and the international community recognize it. Such recognition is highly unlikely.

Similarly, Baghdadi's claim to be caliph means little until it is widely accepted. For example, I may want to call myself a king, but until I possess a territory and my claim to that territory is recognized, my declaration means little. Baghdadi's claim is equally meaningless. 

Having briefly traced the genesis of his claim to be caliph, we see that he seems a rather unsavory character who has been rejected by some fellow jihadists. His spiritual qualifications for the office of caliph are dubious and his tenure as head of state may not last very long.

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Pride and prejudice

Pride and prejudice is the topic of this post, but it has little to do with Jane Austen's celebrated novel, except for the shared title. The many expressions of sexuality that this post mentions are certainly different from that of the book.

Toronto recently hosted World Pride 2014. This is the first time World Pride met in North America. The first was in Rome (2000), next in Jerusalem (2009), and then in London (2012). In 2017 it will meet in Madrid.

Toronto has organized a Pride Parade for many decades. This one, however, was the biggest ever, with an estimated 12,000 people participating in the parade and several million watching under the sweltering sun. I was unable to attend this year, but I was fascinated by some of the events, including a mass wedding of 115 same-sex couples at Casa Loma, one of Toronto's main attractions.

My purpose is not to describe this year's Toronto Pride event, which many newspapers have already done, but my intention is rather to reflect on this significant event which is the subject of great pride -- hence the name. This event reveals the both the pride and the intense prejudice that led to it in the past and even now prompts further prejudice, since some of what happens during the parade, such as public nudity, is purposely "in your face."  But that is the price we may have to pay for the celebration of Pride.

Earlier in the month Toronto hosted World Naked Bike Ride which, as the name indicates, has people ride as bare as they dare. Both events have nudity; the latter more than the former.

Blatant nudity: one of my objections to Pride

Prejudice gave birth to Pride. Raids by the police on four gay bathhouses in Toronto on February 5, 1981, led directly to massive protests and a "Gay Freedom Rally" a month later on March 6. This was effectively Toronto's first Pride event, and it later evolved into the annual Pride week held towards the end of June.

During that week people from the LGBT community can express their pride in the face of the widespread prejudice that existed. and continues to exist in many parts of Canada, even in Toronto. This is now one of the largest festivals of its kind in the world, while Toronto in the last few years has become more diverse and accepting of people regardless of their sexual orientation as well as their ethnicity.

Today the term LGBTQIA (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transsexual, Queer, Intersex, Asexual) is often used. This is regarded as a more inclusive term than LGBT for people with non-mainstream sexual orientation or gender identity. Even more letters are sometimes used for those whose orientation or identity is not included on this list.

I admit I do not fully understand all these distinctions, but then I am not part of those communities. However, I do try to be accepting of them. In that respect, I am typical of many people in Toronto.

Toronto Coat of Arms

The motto of Toronto is "Diversity Our Strength." Toronto is a tolerant and inclusive city in which the World Pride parade serves as a symbol of the diversity of humanity as well as its unity. People of every orientation, including straight, can participate.

I am writing this post with some trepidation. Inevitably, I will be excoriated for publishing a defense of Pride, but I do so knowingly. I have many friends who are gays or lesbians. Some I have known for decades. While I myself am straight, I will defend them and their right to live as they deem best.

In addition, my local church prides itself on diversity, certainly in terms of sexual orientation. In adopting this stance it is, at least in part, in conflict with the official position of the Christian Reformed Church, which does not accept homosexuality. 

The still pertinent synodical pronouncement on the subject of homosexuality in the CRC dates back to 1973. It condemns homosexuality, although it encourages love and acceptance for homosexuals. This statement has been consistently sustained, in spite of pressures from both within and outside the denomination to modify it.

This position of the CRC has been summarized as follows (
Homosexuality is a condition of disordered sexuality that reflects the brokenness of our sinful world. Persons of same-sex attraction should not be denied community acceptance solely because of their sexual orientation and should be wholeheartedly received by the church and given loving support and encouragement. Christian homosexuals, like all Christians, are called to discipleship, holy obedience, and the use of their gifts in the cause of the kingdom. Opportunities to serve within the offices and the life of the congregation should be afforded to them as to heterosexual Christians. 
Homosexualism (that is, explicit homosexual practice), however, is incompatible with obedience to the will of God as revealed in Scripture. The church affirms that it must exercise the same compassion for homosexuals in their sins as it exercises for all other sinners. The church should do everything in its power to help persons with homosexual orientation and give them support toward healing and wholeness. A synodical report titled Pastoral Care for Homosexual Members is available at
Needless to say, I disagree with this statement. The position of the CRC is outdated and does not reflect the current research on homosexuality. This statement is also only one interpretation of the Bible; there are many others. Unfortunately, the CRC is not alone in adopting it as its official stance. Many Christian denominations have done something similar.

The Roman Catholic Church condemns the practice of homosexuality as contrary to natural law. For this reason it is opposed to same-sex marriage. In spite of the desire of Pope Francis for changes in that church, the position on same-sex marriage is not likely to be modified any time soon.

The Orthodox churches also condemn homosexuality, as do many Protestant churches. The reasoning may differ, but the conclusions are almost the same.

One of the many same-sex couples married at Casa Loma

The Protestant position is clearly exemplified, as an example, in the decision of Trinity Western University in British Columbia to require all faculty and students to sign a form affirming that marriage can only be between a man and a woman. This requirement does not respect academic freedom and imposes a standard that not all Christians accept as biblical. It has also created an enormous furor regarding the establishment of a new law school by TWU. Some law societies in Canada regard this as inappropriate for a law school and, more importantly, as an infringement of human rights.

It is remarkable that Christians from many denominations, including Catholics, have been in the forefront of promoting change on homosexuality. In this respect, they are ahead of the general population, which tends to be even more conservative. This innate conservatism has been augmented by people coming from countries where homosexuality is forbidden and, in some cases, is punishable by death.

In Islam homosexuality is not only a sin but is regarded as a crime. Other religions also have objections to it. Traditionally, Judaism forbids it, but some Jewish denominations now do permit it. As might be expected, Hinduism and Buddhism have a wide variety of views on this.

My personal stance on the issue of homosexuality will no doubt be severely criticized by some, but I write with the hope that further discussion on this topic may prompt change in my own denomination as well as in many others. The CRC has thus far been unwilling to make changes, as have many other denominations, but change will come eventually.

While I cannot endorse everything associated with Pride, I hope I have over many years eliminated some of the prejudice that I admit I too have had in the past. Therefore, I encourage others to do the same.