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ISIS Reportedly Selling Christian Artifacts, Turning Churches Into Torture Chambers

By , December 20, 2014 3:48 pm

ISIS Reportedly Selling Christian Artifacts, Turning Churches Into Torture Chambers

A woman walks inside a damaged church in Maaloula. The Christian town was attacked last spring by extremist forces (REUTERS/Omar Sanadiki).The Islamic State is turning Christian churches in Iraq and Syria into dungeons and torture chambers after stripping them of priceless artifacts to sell on the black market, according to reports.

Ancient relics and even entire murals are being torn from the houses of worship and smuggled out through the same routes previously established for moving oil and weapons in and out of the so-called caliphate, a vast region the jihadist army has claimed as sovereign under Sharia law.

“ISIS has a stated goal to wipe out Christianity,” Jay Sekulow, of the American Center for Law and Justice and the author of “Rise of ISIS: A Threat We Can’t Ignore,” told FoxNews.com. “This why they are crucifying Christians — including children — destroying churches and selling artifacts. The fact is, this group will stop at nothing to raise funds for its terrorist mission.”

It’s not clear what items have been stolen, but the terrorist group has sought to destroy religious groups that don’t embrace its twisted and violent interpretation of Islam, and has already blown up several revered Christian sites and monuments.

Last July, ISIS militants used sledgehammers to destroy the tomb of Jonah in Mosul. Around the same time, they were destroying Sunni shrines and mosques in the northern province of Ninevah, including the Shia Saad bin Aqeel Husseiniya shrine in the city of Tal Afar and the al-Qubba Husseiniya, as well as Christian churches in Syria. The group follows a strict interpretation of the Sunni faith which is against idolatry of anything other than God. ISIS has also threatened to destroy the holy sight of Mecca in Saudi Arabia.

A woman prays inside a damaged church in Maaloula, a Christian town in Syria (REUTERS/Omar Sanadiki).Christianity, like Judaism and Islam, have powerful historical ties to the region, and some of its most treasured sites and relics are in Iraq and Syria, according to experts. Their destruction or dispersal is tragic, said Shaul Gabbay, senior scholar at the University of Denver’s Josef Korbel School of International Studies.

“The Middle East is where the three monotheistic religions begun and anything that can inform us about the history and chronology of the development of religion is of unparalleled significance to the core identity of anyone who is Christian,” Gabbay told FoxNews.com. “This is where Abraham, the forefather of the three monotheistic religions, came from, where Moses led the Hebrews to the Promised Land and where Jesus Christ was born, walked, died and was resurrected.

“Anything physical part that exists from the past including more modern artifacts is of extreme value to Christianity both at the informative and educational level as well as the spiritual/faith level,” he said.

Experts believe Islamic State’s trafficking in religious artifacts is both to make money and to culturally cleanse the region. The Islamic militants have converted churches in Qaraqosh and other Iraqi cities into torture chambers, according to the Sunday Times. One priest from the region, who gave his name as Abu Aasi from Mosul, told the newspaper earlier this month that prisoners were being held in the Bahnam Wa Sara and Al Kiama churches.

“These two churches are being used as prisons and for torture,” he said while in hiding. “Most inside are Christians and they are being forced to convert to Islam. Isis has been breaking all the crosses and statues of Mary.”

Christianity is believed to be practiced by just three percent of the population of Iraq. They lived in relative religious freedom while under Saddam Hussein’s rule, but have faced persecution from Islamic State in the last two years. In particular, the Yazidi, a Kurdish Christian people, have been hounded and murdered by the extremist group, leaving many of them becoming refugees trying to escape the region.

“We know that ISIS considers several groups — including Christians — as ‘infidels without human rights,’” Sekulow said. “ISIS jihadists commit violence against fellow Muslims in violation of Islamic law. They routinely commit war crimes and engage in torture in violation of international law; and they also kill and threaten Christian, Jewish, and other religious communities.”

“In short, ISIS is composed of religiously motivated psychopaths,” he said.

Assyrian International News Agency

Syria Belongs to Its People: Syriac Orthodox Patriarch

By , December 20, 2014 10:06 am

The Syriac Orthodox Patriarch Aphrem II.It is Christmas season in Austria and a chilly, drizzly evening in its capital Vienna. The city’s busy Christmas market at the foot of its grand Town Hall beams cheerfully with multi-colored lanterns as steam radiates from its hot punch stalls. Nearby, a Syrian family is at home anticipating the arrival of a special guest: The Patriarch of the Syriac Orthodox Church, on an official visit from Damascus, Syria. The sofas in their living room have been dutifully arranged in a circular position with the Patriarch’s chair at the center; pictures of him have been hung around the house and a large fruit bowl and plates of homemade Syrian sweets lie in wait on the coffee table.

As the blue lights of his police escort flash outside everyone rushes to the window to watch the convoy drive up. Mar Ignatius Aphrem II enters the house, followed by his clergy, to a greeting of ululations and a kiss on the hand from each family member. He then performs a blessing and the group sings a hymn in the ancient Syriac language, before all sit. The Patriarch, who has come from a meeting with the Austrian President Heinz Fischer and various groups in the Austrian Syrian Orthodox community, does not usually make house calls. The visit has garnered much excitement–not least that of the neighbors, also a Syrian Christian family.

Syriacs, including Assyrians, Chaldeans and Arameans, are one of the oldest Christian communities in the world, originating from Mesopotamia–present day Syria, Iraq and Turkey–but with a growing diaspora in Europe and the US. Most in the community still speak in the pre-biblical Aramaic and Syriac language. “These are different names of the same people who have been [living in the Middle East] for thousands of years,” Patriarch Aphrem II told Asharq Al-Awsat. He emphasized that the unrest, increase in terrorism and continued violence against these communities means they are now “facing a challenge to their existence” in the Arab world as never before.

Forty-nine year-old Aphrem was ordained as head of the Syriac Orthodox Church in March 2014 after the death of the former Patriarch Zakka I the same month following a long illness. Since taking office he has made huge efforts to heal a growing split within the church community. Aphrem, born in Qamishli, northern Syria, also understands that he has undertaken the role at a challenging time in Syria’s history. “After living in the US for 18 years [serving as a bishop] I could have said no, I could have refused, but I’m back in the Middle East now and living in Damascus.”

He said his priority for now as patriarch of the Syrian Orthodox Church “is to visit the people [around Syria and Iraq]. They are all wounded, whether physically, spiritually or psychologically. It is our duty to stand by them, to make them feel that there’s somebody who cares about them because they feel abandoned by the people in the West. In Syria, Muslims also feel abandoned.”

He added that “the people who have come [to the church] to ask for help are not only Christians, the majority are actually Muslims. The church in Syria is playing a huge role in supporting both Muslims and Christians in terms of financial support, healthcare facilities, housing, education and development projects.”

Aphrem made his first official visit to Austria primarily to lead the consecration service of the new Syrian Orthodox church in Vienna–a much larger building that was partly donated by the Protestant church to accommodate the growing Syriac Orthodox community here. “Once we have better circumstances we need to sit down and to plan for the next few years in terms of reorganizing our church in light of this mass migration from the Middle East,” Aphrem said, expressing deep concern over the exodus of Christians from the region.

It is thought that a third of Syria’s 2 million Christians have now fled the country due to the recent unrest, something that the Patriarch says troubles him deeply, as it raises the specter of the extinction of the faith in the region and the death of its adherents’ culture. “Christians in Iraq and Syria are the indigenous people of these lands and they have been there since the beginning of Christianity, as Christians, but before that also as Syriac speaking people of Assyrian, Armenian or Chaldean descent,” he says. “For them to leave this area is to uproot them from their homeland, and shorten the life of the community. That’s very worrying.”

This year has also witnessed ISIS’s rampage across Iraq–a disaster for Iraq’s remaining indigenous minority communities. The Patriarch has visited Iraq three times since the invasion of the city of Mosul by ISIS, first in June and then in August “immediately after the expulsion of Christians from the Nineveh Plains,” he said. His last visit was just over a month ago. Each time, he described the situation as “heartbreaking.”

Most families fleeing ISIS in northern Iraq were forced to abandon their villages and seek refuge in the Kurdistan capital, Erbil. For a time, many were sleeping on the streets under makeshift shelters. “Thank God during my last visit [to Erbil a month ago] I did not see anybody under tents on the streets. They were all housed, either in containers or in apartments–three families to an apartment rented for them by the church,” Aphrem said, adding that “their situation is still really bad; the majority of these people still want to go back to their villages and towns in northern Iraq. But the longer the situation goes on the more people will want to leave the Middle East.”

In Syria, Aphrem has been criticized by some within the ranks of the opposition for what they perceive to be his support for the regime of President Bashar Al-Assad, particularly regarding an interview he gave to The Syrian Arab News Agency not long after his ordination. In it he called for mass participation in Syria’s June presidential elections as well as cooperation between the government and the opposition. “I was not aware of any public criticism of my role, but I was never supporting any specific person,” Aphrem counters. “We as Christians did not take sides in this conflict. We did not oppose anybody, we did not stand by anybody. We want to live peacefully, but we want to protect our people inside Syria and outside Syria too. We have to be with the law and order of the country.”

He added that “the best guarantee for us Christians is a strong civil government, that is what we are hoping for and looking for. We know that there were mistakes and there are mistakes by the government of Syria, and [that] there were many freedoms and liberties lacking in Syria. We know the country was in need of reforms, political, economic and other reforms, and we hope and pray that the new Syria will be based on equal citizenship for everybody, on equal rights and duties for everybody and the opportunity for everybody to help. We hope and pray that all those Syrians who love their country come back and work together–government and opposition work together–towards rebuilding Syria and building peace in Syria.”

Aphrem stressed: “Syria belongs to its people. And its people should be able to come together and rebuild it again. If the Syrian people are left for themselves, with support from the international community, without taking sides, I believe they will be able to pull together, establish peace and rebuild Syria. People need to be assured that they can trust each other and work together. As religious leaders we have a role to bring people together to show them it’s still possible to accept each other.”

The majority of Syria’s religious leaders are anxious to protect their community from recriminations from all sides in the current conflict. There is also increasing concern about the growing extremist and foreign elements in the opposition movement in Syria and in neighboring countries. “Christians are very nervous in Lebanon. Yesterday a Lebanese Muslim soldier was executed in Lebanon by one of these groups [Al-Nusra Front or ISIS], which means they are active there,” Aphrem said.

The kidnapping of two prominent Syriac and Greek Orthodox archbishops from Aleppo in Syria last year–who were on a mission to rescue two other kidnapped priests–also remains a source of worry for the Syrian Christian community at home and abroad. “It’s a big blow to the church, but I believe it’s also a strong message to Christians in Syria and in the Middle East that they are not welcome and that their presence here is threatened, which is very frightening to us,” said Aphrem.

When asked what he thinks the motives behind the abduction were, he said: “I see it as an attempt to drive all Christians out.” He added: “When you strike the shepherd in the flock it disperses and that’s what happens when you kidnap a leading figure in the Christian community.”

Although no credible reports about the fate of the missing clerics have surfaced, the Patriarch said the church is continuing to hold out hope and work for their release. “I have asked presidents, government and church officials around the world to help us. When I was in the US, the State Department assured us at the beginning that they knew where the archbishops were. When we asked whether they could get us a message, a photo or a recording from them they said ‘we cannot, but we know where they are and they are being treated well.’ That was the end of last year. Since the beginning of this year we haven’t heard anything from the US, or from anybody else for that matter.”

A US State Department official confirmed to Asharq Al-Awsat that on December 12 American diplomats had met with representatives of the church to discuss the status of Archbishops Yohanna Ibrahim and Boulos Yazigi. The official added that the State Department did not have any reliable information regarding their kidnappers, whereabouts, or current condition, but said that efforts to secure their release were continuing.

“We have repeatedly condemned the targeting of religious figures, or any other civilians, for kidnapping or other violence, and have likewise condemned the destruction of churches and other religious and cultural property. Those individuals responsible for these senseless acts of violence must be identified and held fully accountable,” the official added.

In Iraq, Christians have been targeted in attacks by Al-Qaeda inspired groups since the fall of Saddam Hussein in 2003. For over a decade, Middle Eastern Christian organizations have been calling for the international community to establish a safe haven in Iraq’s Nineveh Plains for its vulnerable minorities, a call echoed earlier this year by dozens of academics based in Western universities who have dedicated their careers to studying the community’s culture, language and way of life. The Patriarch echoed these calls once more, and criticized both the government in Baghdad and the Kurdish regional government, which both claim jurisdiction in the areas that have been inhabited by Christians for thousands of years yet did not come to the defense of the inhabitants when ISIS overran the area.

“Christians were left alone when ISIS attacked, nobody helped them; nobody protected them, neither their government in Baghdad nor the Kurdish regional government,” Aphrem said, adding: “We have been asking the international committee to come forward and to bring these people back to their homes and villages and to provide international protection for them until they are able to protect and defend themselves.”

An hour before speaking to Asharq Al-Awsat Aphrem received the news that the US are indeed reserving funds for arming and training Christians in the Nineveh Plains, an historic development for the community. “As a church, of course, we don’t talk about arming groups and killing people but we do talk about self-defense and these people have the right to defend themselves,” Aphrem said.

Despite this, however, Aphrem said that he realized the area’s Christians still needed the help of Baghdad and Erbil. “They will need the help of the international community to do that as well as the cooperation of the regional powers whether it’s the government of Baghdad or the Kurdish regional government.”

“No one has been able to protect our people in the region so far so we believe it’s also the responsibility of the international community to do so. We ask that they be protected just like the Kurds were a few years ago and given the chance to build up their defense units,” he added.

As his conversation with Asharq Al-Awsat wound to its conclusion, Aphrem also reflected on the situation in Syria and lamented the fragmentation of its society. “Syria was one of the most tolerant countries in the Middle East in terms of people of different religions working together and accepting each other, not just tolerating, but accepting each other, working with each other,” he said.

Despite the bloodletting of the past three years, this is a belief he says he still holds. “Religious division was not at all to be found on the streets in the market place or among the people. This is all new to us. We believe certain ideologies have been exported to Syria and as a result we see ISIS, Al-Nusra and other groups claiming the lives of both Muslims and Christians. The majority of the Muslim people in Syria are not in accord and support of these groups,” he maintained.

Aphrem also claimed that despite the violence and chaos, he held out some hopes for the future, hopes rooted in his faith in God and ordinary men and women. “I trust in the people,” he said. “I know the people are suffering now but their humanity is there, which is from God and that will surpass and will overcome all other kinds of uncertainty, fear, anger, violence–these are all secondary things to their humanity.”

“So I believe that our work will be very tough and our mission will be very difficult but I also trust in God and I also trust in the people and the bishops who work with me and the clergy and all good peace-loving people who are giving their best to help others,” he said.

Assyrian International News Agency

Pope Francis Went To Turkey To Meet Patriarch Bartholomew

By , December 20, 2014 4:24 am

ISTANBUL, TURKEY – NOVEMBER 29: Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I of Constantinople (R) blesses Pope Francis during an Ecumenical Prayer in the Patriarchal Church of Saint George in Istanbul November 29, 2014. Pope Francis arrived in Turkey on Friday at a sensitive moment for the Muslim nation, as it cares for 1.6 million refugees and weighs how to deal with the Islamic State group as its fighters grab chunks of Syria and Iraq across Turkey’s southern border (Gokhan Tan/Getty Images).Hurriyet, one of Turkey’s flagship newspapers, recently interviewed the Rev. Dr. John Chryssavgis, who served as Director of the Press Office during the recent visit of Pope Francis to the Ecumenical Patriarchate. Journalist Cansu Çamlibel, an articulate advocate for free speech and a well-known columnist, who features regular interviews with leading personalities in Turkey, sat down with Fr. John Chryssavgis after the papal visit for a comprehensive and candid conversation, which appeared in Turkish on the front page and an entire spread inside the paper (December 8, 2014). Excerpts of the interview also appeared in the Hürriyet Daily News (December 7, 2014), the oldest English-language review in Turkey. This interview is being re-published on The Huffington Post with permission.

THE POPE CAME FOR BARTHOLOMEW
By Cansu Camlibel

December 8, 2014

ISTANBUL — John Chryssavgis is an author and theologian born in Australia. He received his degree in Theology from the University of Athens. He also received a diploma in Byzantine music from the Greek Conservatory of Music during those years. He completed his doctoral studies in Patristics at the University of Oxford. He has lived in the United States for 20 years now, has worked in several universities and written a number of books. But he is also an active clergyman of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America. He received the title of Archdeacon of the Ecumenical Throne from Patriarch Bartholomew in 2012. Over the last years, he has been a close aide of Patriarch and served as his advisor on issues related to theology and environment. Chryssavgis shuttles between Boston and Istanbul at least once a month. The unique quality of Chryssavgis reflects the transnational and universal nature of the Patriarchate, which is neither well understood nor recognized in Turkey. This breadth of the jurisdiction is indeed what the Church calls ‘ecumenical’ and what Turkey does not accept.

I met Chryssavgis just after the historic visit of Pope Francis in Turkey. He was actually one of the key actors who organized the program at Fener as director of the press office. Chryssavgis is one of the few clergymen authorized to speak on behalf of the Patriarchate. He gave this interview upon consent from Patriarch Bartholomew. He deciphered the background of Pope-Patriarch rendezvous and also analyzed the state of religious freedoms in today’s Turkey.

THE POPE’S VISIT TO ISTANBUL WAS FOR PATRIARCH BARTHOLOMEW

1. What did Pope’s visit to Turkey mean for the Christians of the world?

The Pope’s visit to Turkey was of immense importance on several levels: First, it was a visit to a worldwide leader of another Christian church, namely Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, whose church Pope Francis regards as indispensable for Christian unity. Previous Popes have referred to the Ecumenical Patriarchate (or church of the East) and the Church of Rome (or church of the West) as “two lungs” of the same body. For our part, we often refer to the Roman Catholic Church as our “sister church.” Neither the Catholics nor the Orthodox would describe other churches or religions in such an intimate way.

Second, the fact that Turkey neighbors sensitive regions, where Christians constitute a nervous minority and are persecuted, slaughtered or exiled, made the Pope’s visit all the more meaningful for refugees and victims in the Middle East.

2. Can you remind us the roots of adversary between different churches of Christianity?

For an entire millennium, there was a single, united Christian church, with five centers of authority, which related on equal and friendly terms. These included the churches of Rome, Constantinople (today’s Istanbul), Alexandria (in today’s Egypt), Antioch (in today’s Syria) and Jerusalem. Among these churches, Rome and Constantinople (also known as New Rome) enjoyed the highest privileges, with priority over the others because both served as imperial capitals. So during the first 1000 years, there were no divisions between the East (Roman Catholic) and West (Orthodox Churches).

The first major split occurred in the 11th century, with the separation of Rome and Constantinople resulting from a gradual estrangement between West and East generally. The differences range in focus from religious matters to cultural issues and even political reasons. Another major split occurred in the 16th century within the Western church, which resulted in the emergence of the Protestant churches.

3. Is there really a rivalry between the Pope and the Patriarch?

I am not sure that rivalry is an accurate or appropriate term. However, following the 1000 years of unity, there followed another 900 years of division. During this time, each church developed in a distinct and even divorced manner, which led to an ignorance of one another’s traditions as well as a sense of suspicion and hostility between the two. There were two attempts at reconciling the two churches and restoring unity. These occurred in the 13th and 15th centuries. But the rift between the two had grown too wide and the mistrust, especially after the crusades, was too extreme.

Fortunately, fifty years ago, two other visionary leaders, Pope Paul VI and Ecumenical Patriarch Athenagoras established a pattern of contact and communication, which they labeled as “the dialogue of love.” Pope Paul’s visit here in 1967 was the first such visit since the split of 1054 and the first ever visit of a Pope to Turkey. In many ways, I think that Pope Francis and Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew reflect and echo the prophetic openness of those leaders.

THE PATRIARCH MAY HOST A JOINT CELEBRATION IN ?ZNIK IN 2025

4. Why is ?znik very important for Vatican and Fener? Will there be a grand re-union in ?znik in 2025?

?znik was the site of the very first ecumenical council, the venue for the first assembly of all the Christian churches throughout the Roman Empire in order to reach consensus on matters of controversy. The outcome of that council, which was held in the year 325, was the first uniform text of Christian teaching, which came to be known as the “creed.” In attendance were about 250 or 300 bishops (out of a total of about 1,800 in the Christian world), who also decided on a common date for Easter.

So you will appreciate how important the 1,700th anniversary since the ?znik (Nicaea) council will be for the entire Christian world of today. Therefore, Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, in whose jurisdiction ?znik lies, suggested to the Pope that a common celebration might be possible for 2025. However, there has not been too much further discussion — and certainly no final decision — about this event. In any case, it is still a long way off to determine or arrange with any degree of certainty.

TURKEY STILL HAS TO TAKE CERTAIN STEPS AS A SOVEREIGN STATE

5. What did you think of the Turkish media coverage of the Pope visit?

In general, the Turkish media covered the Pope’s visit fairly well. Of course, each of the media has its own angle and perspective, perhaps even its own interests and objectives. Let’s say there were no surprises. In this regard, I need to compliment your own approach in this interface and interview, which was professional from the very beginning; and I am very grateful for this fairness and openness.

6. Were you surprised to see that the visit was presented as if it was primarily a state visit for President Erdo?an?

The invitation by President Erdogan was not a surprise; it was expected that the state leader in Turkey would extend an invitation to the Pope, who is himself also a state leader as the head of the Vatican. However, the invitation for the Pope to visit the Ecumenical Patriarchate in Istanbul was originally suggested to Pope Francis by Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew on March 18, 2013, at the Inaugural Mass of the Pope, which the Patriarch personally attended. This was the principal reason why the Pope came to Turkey, especially at this particular time, on November 30, which marks the official, annual feast of the Ecumenical Patriarchate. This was repeatedly confirmed by Fr. Lombardi as the “reason” and “heart” of the Pope’s trip during press conferences in Istanbul.

7. How do you rate the AK Party government’s attitude towards the Patriarchate?

I think that attitudes toward the Ecumenical Patriarchate have overall improved in recent years. Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew himself has undoubtedly played a major role in this change through his charismatic and cordial personality. Moreover, there has been significant progress achieved through such bodies as the General Assembly of the General Directorate of Foundations (GDF) in Ankara, representing all non-Muslim Minority Foundations of Turkey, which was so led by Mr. Lakis Vingas over two consecutive terms; but also the Rumvader (the Association for the Support of the Greek Community’s Foundations), which coordinates the activities of all foundations of the Greek minority in Turkey. Finally, the Turkish government has also responded to these initiatives by returning numerous properties to their rightful owners among the minorities in this country, granting Turkish citizenship to bishops with formal positions in our church, while also allowing services in such places as Sumela Monastery in Trabzon.

All of these are positive, concrete steps and it is only fair and proper to acknowledge them. Nevertheless, we must also be truthful to reality. And the fact is that these steps were the right thing to do. The rights and privileges requested and expected by the minorities in Turkey — whether Greek, Armenian, Jewish or other — are their rightful prerogatives and lawful entitlements as citizens of this land. So, while these developments are welcome and promising, they are what every sovereign state should extend to all of its citizens irrespective of religious or ethnic background.

THE CROSS IS A SYMBOL OF HOPE AND RESURRECTION

8. After these developments does the Patriarch still feel crucified like he said in his CBS interview back in 2009? What is your feeling about his current thoughts on the matter? I’m asking this because I know you work very closely.

I’m not so sure that I am in a position to express the personal sentiments of His All-Holiness. But I was standing just a few feet away when he spoke those words to the “60 Minutes” program. What I recall very clearly is that he connected that statement to his conviction that resurrection follows crucifixion. So I can certainly attest to his unrelenting optimism. It must be this hopefulness that gives him the strength to speak of peace in times of terror, to emphasize dialogue in the face of conflict, as well as to advocate for the natural environment before the crisis of global warming.

9. So we misunderstood what the Patriarch actually meant by taking it as a totally negative statement, right?

It’s not so much a negative statement as it is an acknowledgment of pain. It certainly doesn’t justify those who inflict the pain. But the Christian experience of crucifixion is definitely positive. Because the Christian concept of crucifixion (of being nailed to a cross) is followed by the concept of resurrection (which implies new life, restoration of life, reinvigoration). That’s why I say that the Patriarch, even beyond any sense of being misunderstood and crucified, still has a sense of optimism and hope.

TURKEY’S RECORD OF RELIGIOUS FREEDOM IS INCONSISTENT

10. Is there real freedom of religion in Turkey?

I have to speak here from the perspective of an outsider. I don’t experience what believers (and perhaps non-believers) feel in Turkey. But from a distance, the picture looks somewhat inconsistent. On the one hand, we see clear signs of a willingness to address issues of religious freedom, especially in light of Turkey’s accession to the EU. But on the other hand, the signs are not as clear when it comes to converting pronouncements of good will into concrete legislation and practical application.

THE TITLE “ECUMENICAL” WAS USED WITHOUT INTERRUPTION EVEN THROUGH THE OTTOMAN PERIOD

11. Why do you think the Turkish state is still hesitant to call it ‘Ecumenical Patriarchate? Do they share their concerns with you?

I have never understood why the Turkish government resists the title “Ecumenical Patriarchate,” which can only elevate the reputation of Turkey itself as a democratic nation. I believe exactly the same way about the reopening of Halki School. How can there be any negative effects for the Turkish government by opening a school?

The title “ecumenical” dates back to the sixth century and it has been used without interruption since that time, even after the city of Constantinople came under Ottoman rule in 1453. And there is no reasonable argument to suggest that this only implies jurisdiction in Turkey itself. In fact, it’s not even true to say that Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew has jurisdiction over Turkey; because some parts of south-east Turkey come under the jurisdiction of the Patriarchate of Antioch.

So why would a government even consider determining or defining religious jurisdictions? Let’s be honest here and remember that the Ecumenical Patriarchate isn’t even afforded any legal status in Turkey! It’s all quite sad and scandalous for a democratic nation in the twenty-first century.

VENICE COMMISSION DECIDED THAT THE TITLE IS AN INTERNAL AFFAIR FOR THE PATRIARCHATE

12. What could be their fear?

I cannot imagine what they would be afraid of. It’s not like the Ecumenical Patriarch would run for President! The “ecumenical” status is a spiritual and religious jurisdiction; it is not legal or secular. The Ecumenical Patriarch has direct authority over churches in Australia, Asia and Western Europe, as well as in North and South America. Moreover, he has the responsibility of coordinating all of the fourteen independent Orthodox churches in the world, including the church of Moscow, Antioch (today’s Syria and Lebanon), and so on.

So the ecumenical nature of the Patriarchate is genuinely historical and real. This is why the Venice Commission declared in 2009 that this is a matter for the Orthodox Church to determine. Even President Erdogan has in the past proposed that this is an internal affair for our church. Once again, permit me to repeat that the Turkish government only stands to benefit from recognizing the “ecumenical” status of the Patriarchate and from supporting the global reputation of Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew.

In fact, this title has been recognized and adopted by some Turkish media and academic institutions, where it comes as no surprise that historical awareness and cultural sensitivity are cherished. I would say that choosing to ignore the title “ecumenical” is what the scriptures would call “having eyes, yet choosing not to see.”

If there was more communication, more dialogue on these issues between the government and our church, much of this would be easily clarified.

13. What you say implies that there is in fact not enough communication on these issues between the government and your church. How often do the Turkish authorities consult the Patriarchate and what is your expectation?

I cannot speak to what happens on a daily basis because, while I am here regularly, I am not here constantly. But from my understanding — and I may well be wrong — I would not be wrong in saying that there is always room for more conversation, more communication, more candidness. There have been occasions in the past when the people at the Phanar have learned about governmental decisions regarding the Patriarchate or Halki from the media.

HOPING TO READ AN ARTICLE TITLED ‘TURKEY OPENS A NEW PAGE FOR RELIGIOUS FREEDOMS’ BY DR. KALIN

14. Have you seen the latest article by President Erdo?an’s advisor ?brahim Kal?n who admitted that the Patriarchate is the symbol of 300 million Christians?

I did indeed read the column by Dr. ?brahim Kal?n about the visit by Pope Francis and its impact on people here and more broadly with regard to mutual respect and greater tolerance. Among other things, he did indeed mention that the Ecumenical Patriarch is the spiritual leader of 300 million Orthodox Christians throughout the world. I actually enjoy reading Dr. Kal?n’s work.

15. Is it possible to interpret his words as a signal of a new approach from the Turkish government, or is it too little too late?

It’s not a matter of too little too late. The Ecumenical Patriarch has frequently told me that he gladly welcomes every readiness and opportunity for dialogue. The problem I sometimes perceive is selectivity in the approach. For instance, Dr. Kal?n’s column accepts the spiritual leadership of the Patriarch over 300 million faithful worldwide; but he cannot bring himself to accept the title that reflects that very breadth. Let me put it this way: The heading of Dr. Kal?n’s article reads: “Pope Francis in Turkey opens a new page.” I would someday soon love to see heading: “The government in Turkey opens a new page” for religious freedom.

THE INTERNATIONAL HALKI SCHOOL TRAINS THE MOST OPEN-MINDED CLERGY

16. Two weeks ago I talked to former vice PM of Turkey Be?ir Atalay. He admitted that the opening of Halki Seminary was in their democratization package last year, but they took it out last moment. What is happening behind the closed doors?

The Theological School of Halki arguably stands as the most powerful and painful reminder of religious restrictions on minorities in Turkey to this day. Forcibly and unjustifiably closed over forty years ago, an unopened Halki symbolizes an unresolved problem of religious exclusivism, which is unbefitting of a nation that aspires to democracy and religious freedom. The present abbot of Halki Monastery likes to emphasize that freedom of religion cannot be separated from the freedom to teach religion. And he is absolutely correct. What the Turkish government seems not to understand, as I have already mentioned to you, is how much it would gain from an opened Halki School, from a seminary that historically has trained the most open-minded and open-hearted clergy in the world, including the present Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, who welcomed Pope Francis to Istanbul these days.

Halki School would also attract numerous students and clergy from all over the world. All of them would benefit from living and studying in a multi-layered country, with such a diverse and long history, straddling two continents, engaging both East and West, extending over religious fault-lines, with seventeen centuries of Christian existence, over four hundred years of Ottoman dynasty, and over ninety years of a Turkish democratic republic. Istanbul is a colorful city with a legacy comparable to that of Rome and London. Who wouldn’t want to spend time immersing in the magnificent city and context of Istanbul?

IT’S NOT JUST CHRISTIANS IN TURKEY THAT SHOULD BE AFRAID OF ISIS

17. How does the presence of ISIS and their sympathizers affect the psychology of the Greek minority in Turkey?

The presence of ISIS should affect every person of goodwill and civil decency in the world and especially in their neighboring country of Turkey. It is not just the Greek or Christian or other religious minorities that should feel alarmed. In his visit to Turkey, Pope Francis called the violence and brutality of ISIS “a grave sin against God.” And Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew has repeatedly stated that “every act of violence in the name of religion is an offence against religion itself.” And the Ecumenical Patriarchate has always been convinced of its wider role and ecumenical responsibility in the world with regard to interfaith tolerance and dialogue. He has been outspoken against any form of religious fanaticism, fundamentalism and extremism.

In fact, there is a powerful symbolical image of the stance of Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew (and the Ecumenical Patriarchate in general) in the foyer at the entrance to the central offices of the Ecumenical Patriarchate in Istanbul. It silently represents a decisive moment in the rich and complex story of a city where Orthodox Christians, Muslims and many other faiths have peacefully coexisted for the centuries. It is a magnificent mosaic depicting Gennadios Scholarios, first Ecumenical Patriarch of the period under Ottoman occupation. The Patriarch stands with hand outstretched, receiving from Sultan Mehmet II the “firman” (or legal document) guaranteeing the continuation and protection of the Orthodox Church throughout the period of Ottoman rule. It is a symbol of the beginnings of a long interfaith commitment, whose legacy is experienced to this day by Greeks, Turks and others in the region.

I am sure you will also have noticed the Joint Declaration signed by Pope Francis and Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew after the service at the Phanar. The statement affirmed that “Muslims and Christians are called to work together for the sake of justice, peace and respect for the dignity and rights of every person, especially in those regions where they once lived for centuries in peaceful coexistence and now tragically suffer together the horrors of war.”

18. What would be the kind of role and leadership that your Patriarchate would expect from Ankara in terms of dealing the new realities of the Middle East?

Our age demands sincere commitment and tangible collaboration for the sake of bridge-building and peace-making. The fact that there are increasing conflicts and hostilities in the Middle East — including Iraq and Syria, but also in Israel and Palestine — but even elsewhere in the world, such as Northern Africa as well as Ukraine, only obliges us to intensify our efforts for greater compassion and forgiveness. We have to recognize that one person’s adversity is also another person’s suffering. All of humanity shares the divine gift of this planet, where we are called to live together with peace and equality. Every individual and every institution, just as every political and civil authority, can become an instrument of peace. As mystics and poets have advocated through the centuries, all of us can respect and love another, whether we bow down in a mosque, kneel in a synagogue or worship in a church.

19. Turkish readers would probably be amazed to learn that one of the authorized spokes people of the Patriarchate actually lives in Boston. What does this tell us about your organization?

I was born in Australia and have lived in the United States for the last 20 years. It has been my privilege to work closely with Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew from various positions in the last 30 years, even before he was elected patriarch. In the last 10 years, I have been honored to work exclusively for the Ecumenical Patriarchate as a clergyman in America.

I think it is yet another indication of the ecumenical breadth of our Patriarchate. When the Pope visited the Ecumenical Patriarchate a few days ago, we had bishops serving on the Holy Synod — the highest administrative body of our church — from the United States, Canada, Mexico, Belgium, Switzerland, Crete, Greece, and Turkey.

That’s the beauty and majesty of the Ecumenical Patriarchate that no one can ever diminish or delete.

Assyrian International News Agency

U.S. Airstrikes in Iraq and Syria Have Cost $1 Billion

By , December 19, 2014 10:42 pm

U.S. Airstrikes in Iraq and Syria Have Cost $ 1 Billion

A-18E Super Hornet, prepares to launch from the flight deck of the aircraft carrier USS George H.W. Bush to conduct strike missions against Islamic State group targets, in the Arabian Gulf, Sept. 23, 2014 (Robert Burck/U.S. Navy/AP Photo).The cost of U.S. military airstrikes against ISIS in Iraq and Syria has topped $ 1 billion.

“As of Dec. 11, 2014, the total cost of operations related to ISIL since kinetic operations started on August 8, 2014 is $ 1.02 billion and the average daily cost is $ 8.1 million,” said Commander Bill Urban, a Pentagon spokesman.

The Pentagon’s latest statistics show that as of Friday the U.S and its coalition partners had flown 1,371 airstrikes in both countries — 799 in Iraq and 572 in Syria.

American military aircraft have conducted 82 percent of the total number of airstrikes.

Lt. Gen. James Terry, the commander of the Combined Joint Task Force, Operation Inherent Resolve, told reporters Thursday at a Pentagon briefing that the airstrikes are having a significant effect on Daesh’s ability “to command and control, to resupply, and to conduct maneuvering.” Daesh is the Arabic name for the ISIS acronym.

Pentagon officials have said that the airstrikes in Iraq target ISIS positions with the intent of supporting Iraqi and Kurdish military ground operations.

An example of that support took place earlier this week as U.S. aircraft conducted 53 airstrikes over two days to help a major offensive by Kurdish Peshmerga troops to retake territory from ISIS in northwestern Iraq.

But the U.S. has also begun carrying out targeted airstrikes against senior ISIS leaders in Iraq. On Thursday U.S. officials confirmed that three senior ISIS leaders had been killed in recent weeks, including ISIS’s top military commander in Iraq.

In Syria, the airstrikes have a strategic goal of degrading ISIS’s ability to sustain itself in both Syria and Iraq. Accordingly, early airstrikes in Syria targeted ISIS’s illicit oil operations and training areas.

But the majority of airstrikes inside Syria have taken place in the northern city of Kobani where U.S. airstrikes have checked a major ISIS effort to take the city.

“As of today, that assault has failed and has resulted in nearly 1,000 ISIL fighters killed, including many leaders,” Brett McGurk told a congressional panel last week. McGurk is one of the Obama administration’s envoys helping to build the international coalition against ISIS.

Assyrian International News Agency

U.S. Airstrikes in Iraq and Syria Have Cost $1 Billion

By , December 19, 2014 10:42 pm

U.S. Airstrikes in Iraq and Syria Have Cost $ 1 Billion

A-18E Super Hornet, prepares to launch from the flight deck of the aircraft carrier USS George H.W. Bush to conduct strike missions against Islamic State group targets, in the Arabian Gulf, Sept. 23, 2014 (Robert Burck/U.S. Navy/AP Photo).The cost of U.S. military airstrikes against ISIS in Iraq and Syria has topped $ 1 billion.

“As of Dec. 11, 2014, the total cost of operations related to ISIL since kinetic operations started on August 8, 2014 is $ 1.02 billion and the average daily cost is $ 8.1 million,” said Commander Bill Urban, a Pentagon spokesman.

The Pentagon’s latest statistics show that as of Friday the U.S and its coalition partners had flown 1,371 airstrikes in both countries — 799 in Iraq and 572 in Syria.

American military aircraft have conducted 82 percent of the total number of airstrikes.

Lt. Gen. James Terry, the commander of the Combined Joint Task Force, Operation Inherent Resolve, told reporters Thursday at a Pentagon briefing that the airstrikes are having a significant effect on Daesh’s ability “to command and control, to resupply, and to conduct maneuvering.” Daesh is the Arabic name for the ISIS acronym.

Pentagon officials have said that the airstrikes in Iraq target ISIS positions with the intent of supporting Iraqi and Kurdish military ground operations.

An example of that support took place earlier this week as U.S. aircraft conducted 53 airstrikes over two days to help a major offensive by Kurdish Peshmerga troops to retake territory from ISIS in northwestern Iraq.

But the U.S. has also begun carrying out targeted airstrikes against senior ISIS leaders in Iraq. On Thursday U.S. officials confirmed that three senior ISIS leaders had been killed in recent weeks, including ISIS’s top military commander in Iraq.

In Syria, the airstrikes have a strategic goal of degrading ISIS’s ability to sustain itself in both Syria and Iraq. Accordingly, early airstrikes in Syria targeted ISIS’s illicit oil operations and training areas.

But the majority of airstrikes inside Syria have taken place in the northern city of Kobani where U.S. airstrikes have checked a major ISIS effort to take the city.

“As of today, that assault has failed and has resulted in nearly 1,000 ISIL fighters killed, including many leaders,” Brett McGurk told a congressional panel last week. McGurk is one of the Obama administration’s envoys helping to build the international coalition against ISIS.

Assyrian International News Agency

What the U.S. Should Learn from Russia’s Collapse

By , December 19, 2014 5:04 pm
russia-economic-collapse-ruble-oil-price-defense

(Photo: U.S. Army/Flickr)

After months of whispered warnings, Russia’s economic troubles made global headlines when its currency collapsed halfway through December. Amid the tumbling price of oil, the ruble has fallen to record lows, bringing the country to its most serious economic crisis since the late 1990s.

Topping most lists of reasons for the collapse is Russia’s failure to diversify its economy. At least some of the flaws in its strategy of putting all those eggs in that one oil-and-gas basket are now in full view.

Once upon a time, Russia did actually try some diversification — back before the oil and gas “solution” came to seem like such a good idea. It was during those tumultuous years when history was pushing the Soviet Union into its grave. Central planners began scrambling to convert portions of the vast state enterprise of military production — the enterprise that had so bankrupted the empire — to produce the consumer goods that Soviet citizens had long gone without.

One day the managers of a Soviet tank plant, for example, received a directive to convert their production lines to produce shoes. The timetable was: do it today. They didn’t succeed.

Economic development experts agree that the time to diversify is not after an economic shock, but before it. Scrambling is no way to manage a transition to new economic activity. Since the bloodless end to the Cold War was foreseen by almost nobody, significant planning for an economic transition in advance wasn’t really in the cards.

But now, in the United States at least, it is. Currently the country is in the first stage of a modest defense downsizing. We’re about a third of the way through the ten-year framework of defense cuts mandated by the Budget Control Act of 2011.

Assuming Congress doesn’t scale back this plan or even dismantle it altogether, the resulting downsizing will still be the shallowest in U.S. history. It’s a downsizing of the post-9/11 surge, during which Pentagon spending nearly doubled. So the cuts will still leave a U.S. military budget higher, adjusting for inflation, than it was during nearly every year of the Cold War — back when we had an actual adversary, the aforementioned Soviet Union, that was trying to match us dollar for military dollar.

Now, no such adversary exists. Thinking of China? Not even close: The United States spends about six times as much on its military as Beijing.

Even so, the U.S. defense industry’s modest contraction is being felt in communities across the country. By the end of the ten-year cuts, many more communities will be affected. This is the time for those communities that are dependent on Pentagon contracts to work on strategies to reduce this vulnerability. To get ahead of the curve.

There is actually Pentagon money available for this purpose. Its Office of Economic Adjustment exists to give planning grants and technical assistance to communities recognizing the need to diversify.

As we in the United States struggle to understand what’s going on in Russia and how to respond to it, at least one thing is clear: Moscow’s failure to move beyond economic structures dominated by first military production, and now by fossil fuels, can serve as a cautionary tale and call to action.

Diversified economies are stronger. They take time and planning. Wait to diversify until the bottom falls out of your existing economic base, and your chances for a smooth transition decline precipitously. Turning an economy based on making tanks into one that makes shoes can’t be done in a day.

Miriam Pemberton directs the Peace Economy Transitions Project at the Institute for Policy Studies.

Foreign Policy In Focus

What the U.S. Should Learn from Russia’s Collapse

By , December 19, 2014 5:04 pm
russia-economic-collapse-ruble-oil-price-defense

(Photo: U.S. Army/Flickr)

After months of whispered warnings, Russia’s economic troubles made global headlines when its currency collapsed halfway through December. Amid the tumbling price of oil, the ruble has fallen to record lows, bringing the country to its most serious economic crisis since the late 1990s.

Topping most lists of reasons for the collapse is Russia’s failure to diversify its economy. At least some of the flaws in its strategy of putting all those eggs in that one oil-and-gas basket are now in full view.

Once upon a time, Russia did actually try some diversification — back before the oil and gas “solution” came to seem like such a good idea. It was during those tumultuous years when history was pushing the Soviet Union into its grave. Central planners began scrambling to convert portions of the vast state enterprise of military production — the enterprise that had so bankrupted the empire — to produce the consumer goods that Soviet citizens had long gone without.

One day the managers of a Soviet tank plant, for example, received a directive to convert their production lines to produce shoes. The timetable was: do it today. They didn’t succeed.

Economic development experts agree that the time to diversify is not after an economic shock, but before it. Scrambling is no way to manage a transition to new economic activity. Since the bloodless end to the Cold War was foreseen by almost nobody, significant planning for an economic transition in advance wasn’t really in the cards.

But now, in the United States at least, it is. Currently the country is in the first stage of a modest defense downsizing. We’re about a third of the way through the ten-year framework of defense cuts mandated by the Budget Control Act of 2011.

Assuming Congress doesn’t scale back this plan or even dismantle it altogether, the resulting downsizing will still be the shallowest in U.S. history. It’s a downsizing of the post-9/11 surge, during which Pentagon spending nearly doubled. So the cuts will still leave a U.S. military budget higher, adjusting for inflation, than it was during nearly every year of the Cold War — back when we had an actual adversary, the aforementioned Soviet Union, that was trying to match us dollar for military dollar.

Now, no such adversary exists. Thinking of China? Not even close: The United States spends about six times as much on its military as Beijing.

Even so, the U.S. defense industry’s modest contraction is being felt in communities across the country. By the end of the ten-year cuts, many more communities will be affected. This is the time for those communities that are dependent on Pentagon contracts to work on strategies to reduce this vulnerability. To get ahead of the curve.

There is actually Pentagon money available for this purpose. Its Office of Economic Adjustment exists to give planning grants and technical assistance to communities recognizing the need to diversify.

As we in the United States struggle to understand what’s going on in Russia and how to respond to it, at least one thing is clear: Moscow’s failure to move beyond economic structures dominated by first military production, and now by fossil fuels, can serve as a cautionary tale and call to action.

Diversified economies are stronger. They take time and planning. Wait to diversify until the bottom falls out of your existing economic base, and your chances for a smooth transition decline precipitously. Turning an economy based on making tanks into one that makes shoes can’t be done in a day.

Miriam Pemberton directs the Peace Economy Transitions Project at the Institute for Policy Studies.

Foreign Policy In Focus

Assyrian Christians Defend Communities Against Islamic State Militants

By , December 19, 2014 5:00 pm

[unable to retrieve full-text content]Middle East Eye reports on the Assyrian in Syria defending their homes, churches and villages from ISIS.
Assyrian International News Agency

Okinawa: The Small Island Trying to Block the U.S. Military’s “Pivot to Asia”

By , December 19, 2014 11:22 am

[unable to retrieve full-text content]Last month, the citizens of Okinawa awarded a landslide victory to a governor who wants U.S. troops off the pristine island.
Foreign Policy In Focus

Isis’s British Connections: the Jihadists Who Want to Bring the Fight to the West

By , December 19, 2014 11:18 am

Isis’s British Connections: the Jihadists Who Want to Bring the Fight to the West

In June, we covered Isis’s “terrifying” online propaganda machine, which at the time included slick(ish) feature-length movies, and a well-organised battalion of tweeting fighters and supporters.

In the six months since, some of the former have died on the battlefield, one of the latter turned out to be an Indian tech executive living a middle-class life in Bangalore, and many more have had their accounts shut down.

But one tweeting jihadist has remained in the spotlight throughout. Back in June, one British fighter, the self-styled Abu Hussein al-Britani, had already achieved attention and notoriety for posting English-language jihadi slogans on social media. “One day the flag of tawheed will fly over 10 Downing Street and the White House,” read one typical message from Britani, in reference to the black flag commonly associated with Islamist movements. “Victory or death!” read another.

As the year wore on, Britani’s profile became more and more sinister. First, he was identified in the British media as Birmingham-born Junaid Hussein, 20, a computer hacker who had travelled to Syria while on police bail pending an investigation into accusations of violence. Then records revealed he already had a previous conviction: a six-month jail-term in 2012 for hacking information about Tony Blair and his family, while working with a gang of hackers called TeamPoison.

With few further facts known, Hussein became a repository for frenzied speculation. Journalists wondered if Hussein was one of the “Beatles”, the group of three British-born Isis fighters tasked with guarding hostages such as James Foley and Steven Sotloff, two of the men murdered on camera by Isis this summer. The Daily Mail later alleged he was masterminding a campaign to train fellow jihadists to hack celebrity and business bank accounts, in order to fund Isis’s work.

By September, Hussein was said to have enticed a wife to Syria — Christian convert and former Kent resident Sally Jones, 45. After an alleged online romance with Hussein in late 2013, Jonesreportedly converted to Islam and fled to Raqqa, Syria, with a child from a previous relationship in tow. In a series of posts, Jones said she had married Hussein, and changed her first name to Sakinah. “You Christians all need beheading with a nice blunt knife and stuck on the railings at Raqqa,” she wrote. “Come here I’ll do it for you!”

In the last few weeks, Hussein himself emerged in an optimistic attempt to entice Ferguson demonstrators to pledge allegiance to Isis’s leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. “We hear you,” he said in an online post, “and we will help you if you accept Islam and reject corrupt man-made laws like democracy and pledge your allegiance to Caliph Abu Bakr and then we will shed our blood for you and send our soldiers that don’t sleep, whose drink is blood, and their play is carnage.”

Assyrian International News Agency