Cross-Purposes for Jihad

Recent incidents in the midwestern part of the U.S. have prompted discussions about a home owner’s right to self-defence. If two teenagers break into an elderly man’s home with the intention of stealing, does the home owner have the right to shoot and kill the would-be robbers? What does the law say? Under what circumstances should a self-defence law be applied?

Then, there are many North Americans who view war as a necessary activity against aggression. The main idea behind participation in a fight is self-defence or in the defence of allies. The Western nations who joined the fight during Word War II provide a case in point. Young men in the U.S. willingly answered the governmental call to join the military in order to defend U.S. territory that had been attacked by the Japanese at Pearl Harbor in 1941. Canadians had signed up even earlier to defend their ally England because its cities were being bombed by German planes.

In North American eyes, war is about the defence of one’s home or one’s friends. To most North Americans, jihad makes no sense. It isn’t war for the purposes of self-defence nor is it war for the purpose of defending a friend. It is blatant aggression against fellow citizens because that group of people has chosen a different religious belief and doesn’t wish to change. Yet Muslims call jihad a holy war. Most North Americans think of war as anything but holy. It appears to be more like hell. What makes jihad holy? Jihad is dubbed a war against infidels. Who is an infidel? According one of the definitions in the Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, an infidel is “one who acknowledges no religious belief.” Jews and Christians do not match that description. Yet most Muslims view anyone who is NOT a Muslim as an infidel.

That was certainly the definition that the government maintained in Ottoman Turkey.

On 4th January 1914, when the Young Turks took over the Ottoman government, Enver Pasha set himself up as Minister of War and Mehmet Talaat as Minister of the Interior (1989, A Peace to End All Peace). As the Young Turks rose to power, they promised equal rights for all. In reality, this group held a super nationalistic view–Turkey would only be for Turks, no one else.

  That was a non-reality in 1914. The Ottoman Empire at the time had a population from a variety of ethnicities, languages, and religions–Rumelians who had been expelled from Thrace and resettled in Anatolia; Greeks who had lived within the borders of the Empire for centuries; Armenians whose land the Turks had invaded and now administered; and Kurds who inhabited portions of the eastern provinces of Ottoman Turkey, just to name a few.

To accomplish their super nationalistic ends, the Minister of War Enver and the Minister of the Interior Talaat had several threads of recent history they could pull. Mob violence against the largest non-Turkish population, the Armenians, had already occurred in 1894, 1895, 1896, and 1909 (A Peace to End All Peace). Enver and Talaat were well-aware of the disdain with which most Turks regarded their Armenian neighbors.

Plus Enver and Talaat could easily beat the religious drum of jihad to rouse the Turkish population into cooperating with Talaat’s telegraphed orders to the provincial governors.

But Enver and Talaat didn’t just rely on the undercurrent of Turkish attitudes or use the Koranic encouragement toward jihad to foment hatred and justify mass murder.To accomplish “Turkey is only for Turks,” the two men spent an entire year drawing a variety of Muslim populations in Ottoman Turkey into well-armed and trained militias to wage the 1915 jihad against a group of Ottoman Empire citizens, the Armenians (A Peace to End All Peace; 1998, Lords of the Horizons; 2006, A Shameful Act: The Armenian Genocide and the Question of Turkish Responsibility).

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Two Views of the End of Jesus’ Life

The week preceding Easter is the most important period in the calendar for all Christians, including those in the Armenian Church. Christians around the world decorate their homes and places of worship with lilies, intricately colored eggs, and wooden crosses draped with a single white or purple cloth. Christians present special concerts and pageants and participate in solemn services on Thursday in remembrance of Jesus’ last supper with His twelve closest followers, and on Friday in remembrance of His death on a Roman cross. Over two thousand years ago on a hill named Golgotha outside the city of Jerusalem, Jesus died.

The mood of the celebrants is decidedly different on Easter Sunday. The worshippers put off their solemn rituals and faces. Wearing new, or at least their best clothes, people greet each other with “He is risen” and “He is risen indeed.” Church bells peal joyous sounds. In remembrance of Jesus Christ’s resurrection from the dead, the celebrants and their spiritual leaders, priests, vicars, and pastors are joyful. In their teachings that day, they proclaim that since Jesus died for the people’s sins and rose again to give believers new and eternal life, the believers have every reason to rejoice.

In the world of Islam, however, none of the above occurs. My Muslim students not only emphatically told me that Jesus is not God’s son, they also told me that Jesus didn’t die. According to them, Jesus was a prophet whom God took to heaven because he was a good man. There was no death and no resurrection. So the Muslims I have talked to are in complete denial of Christendom’s Holy Week.

Hmmm. … They evidently know nothing of world history or are trying their best to rewrite it. And they definitely haven’t read the Injil, the four Gospels in God’s Word. It says: “And he [Jesus] bearing his cross went forth into a place called the place of the skull, which is called in the Hebrew Golgotha; where they [the Roman soldiers] crucified him, and two other with him, on either side one, and Jesus in the midst” (Gospel of John 19: 17 & 18). “When Jesus therefore had received the vinegar, he said, It is finished; and he bowed his head, and gave up the ghost” (John 19: 30). “Then took they [Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus] the body of Jesus, and wound it in linen clothes with the spices, as the manner of the Jews is to bury…. There [in a new sepulchre] laid they Jesus therefore because of the Jews’ preparation; for the sepulchre was nigh at hand” (John 19: 40 & 42).

“In the end of the sabbath, as it began to dawn toward the first day of the week, came Mary Magdalene and the other Mary to see the sepulchre. And behold, there was a great earthquake: for the angel of the Lord descended from heaven, and came and rolled back the stone from the door, and sat upon it. … And the angel answered and said unto the women, Fear not ye: for I know that ye seek Jesus, which was crucified. He is not here; for he is risen, as he said. Come, see the place where the Lord lay” (Gospel of Matthew 28: 1,2,5, & 6).

“Now when Jesus was risen early the first day of the week, he appeared first to Mary Magdalene out of whom he had cast seven devils” (Gospel of Mark 16:9). “And as they [Cleopas and his friend] thus spake, Jesus himself stood in the midst of them [Jesus’ eleven closest followers] and saith unto them, Peace be unto to you. But they were terrified and affrighted, and supposed they had seen a spirit. And he said unto them, Why are ye troubled? And why do thoughts arise in your hearts? Behold my hands and my feet, that it is I myself: handle me, and see; for a spirit hath not flesh and bones, as ye see me have” (Gospel of Luke 24: 36-39).

See? Even Jesus’ closest followers were dumbfounded by His death and resurrection. When they recovered from their shock, they rejoiced and, with great excitement, told everybody about it.

So, along with other Christians, Armenians rejoice on Easter Sunday because Jesus Christ’s death provides salvation from their sins and His resurrection gives hope for eternal life with God in heaven to both men and women.

From the beginning of His life to His death and resurrection, Jesus was living proof that there is a God and He loves each and every person. Jesus is God’s love letter to you and me.

The Muslim Turks of the Ottoman Empire couldn’t have been more wrong in their decisions in 1915. They chose to slaughter their Armenian neighbors, a people who could have shown the ultimate hope for both life on this earth and eternal life with God. Why kill hope, I ask you? How does killing Christian believers save a nation, let alone an individual? Has the nation of Turkey (that evolved out of the Ottoman Empire) benefited from the extermination of its Christian population? Perhaps modern-day Turkey is more like the cows in an ancient Egyptian Pharaoh’s dream. “And the lean and ugly cows ate up the first seven fat cows. Yet when they had devoured them, it could not be detected that they had devoured them; for they were just as ugly as before” (Genesis 41: 20 & 21). The Ottoman Turks planned and carried out the elimination of Turkey’s Armenian population, took over their lands and businesses, and stole all their property. Yet the greedy swallowing of so much left Turkey no better off after World War I than it was before.

So where is hope today – for Armenian Christians, North American Christians, the people of the world in general, even Muslim Turks? Denial of Jesus’ death and resurrection might delay a clear view of our Heaven Father’s expression of love for all people. But rewriting history doesn’t change HIS story.The risen Jesus Christ’s sacrifice on the cross still stands as the greatest hope for the present and the future.

Two Views of Jesus’ Birth

In recent days, people around the world celebrated once again a special birth that occurred two thousand years ago. Some nations held their festivities on December 25th; others had theirs on January 6th or 7th. But the reason for the excitement, family gatherings, feasts, decorations, exchange of gifts, visiting with family and friends, commemorative plays, and joyous church services was the same – the birth of Jesus Christ. Why these annual festivities? What was unique about the birth of Jesus?

As Christians, Armenians have commemorated Jesus’ birth for over seventeen hundred years. Their title for the annual festival on January 6th has been The Feast of the Theophany. The Armenians of ancient times named it correctly – God’s appearance to human kind. They remember the pronouncement of the angel Gabriel to a certain Jewish virgin named Mary, telling her she would have God’s son Jesus. Armenians also remember the arrival of the Magi, three from a distant land, and the adoration of these men for the infant Jesus.

Of course, if one reads from the books of Luke and Matthew in the Bible, there is much more to this ancient account of Jesus’ birth and life.

But suffice it to say, Armenians and other Christians around the world celebrate the arrival of Jesus because they believe in his virgin birth. No other child in history came the same way.

Visions, dreams, and angels are also part of the Muslim belief system. But they have no commemorations centered around the birth of Jesus, the Christ Child. And for all my search through the history of Ottoman Turkey, I discovered not even an acknowledgement of the importance of Christ’s birth.

During my years as an ESL teacher, I have made every effort to learn from my students. In discussions with the Muslims in my class, I heard all about their five pillars of faith, Mohammed, Abraham, and Ramadan, but never about Jesus.

In a conversation with a student I’ll call Halima, I mentioned that the Koran encourages Muslims to read the Injil, the four Gospels in the New Testament, because those books talk about Jesus. I asked her if she’d ever read them.

“No,” she responded, “but we believe Jesus was born of a virgin. But he wasn’t God’s son.”

Hmm, I thought, now that’s a puzzle.

In later discussions with other Muslim students during class breaks, I discovered why they accepted some parts of the miraculous birth, but rejected other parts. Their rejection of Jesus being God’s Son came from their objection to the idea of God having sex with a woman.

So I said, ” You believe the angel Gabriel appeared to Mary and announced she would be pregnant?”

“Oh, yes. But God having sex with a human? That’s horrible.”

“Why would God need to have sex with Mary?” I asked. “You believe God made the heavens, the stars, the sun, the moon, the earth, its oceans, rivers, plants, animals, and the first man Adam, don’t you?”

“Yes.”

“How did He do it? What did God do to create the world?”

The students stood in front of me in silence as if stunned by the question.

“In Genesis the first book of the Bible,” I continued, “it says God spoke and it was so. Couldn’t God do the same thing with Mary? God spoke and she was with child, just like that. No sex required.”

Stumbling over the Sonship of Jesus, the Christ, is nothing new. In fact, Muslims aren’t the only ones who have and do. Jesus’ own people the Jews do, too, and have been stumbling on the very same issue for over two thousand years, even longer than the Muslims.

With their centuries of denial of the Sonship of Jesus Christ, the Turks of the Ottoman Empire viewed the world with very different eyes. Redemption from sin and access to paradise wasn’t possible through Jesus’ sacrifice. According to their belief system, the possibility of redemption for a Muslim comes only to those who sacrifice themselves continuously and even then only to men. Their women have no hope of paradise.

A people who believed and taught otherwise had to be forced to change their belief system. If they refused, the Muslim Turks convinced themselves that such infidels (non-Muslims) must be done away with. The majority of the Armenian population of the Ottoman Empire refused to convert. So their Muslim neighbors oppressed, persecuted, tortured, starved, and killed them. The spring and summer of 1915 weren’t the only periods in which the Turks did so, either.

Behind the multiple methods to erase the hope and joy that Christians celebrate at Christmas, or the Feast of Theophany, is the Muslim denial that Jesus was and is God’s Son. It’s as if they are saying, “I don’t have a certain hope of redemption from my sins. Therefore, what I don’t have, you can’t have, either.”

Ironically, the Turks’ efforts to stamp out the Armenian people does not rid the earth of God’s promise to redeem human kind through His Son Jesus. God’s promise still stands. His view of Jesus’ birth is written in God’s Word and anyone can read it for him or herself.

‘Affordable Housing:’ Kishlak for Kurds by Firman

In addition to setting them up for double taxation, the Sultan also made Armenians responsible for kishlak, providing winter housing. In the 1800s, a Sultan issued a firman or edit that gave Kurds the right to demand kishlak. Because they shared the Sultan’s religion, he regarded this firman as a way to help his Muslim brothers.

The order gave a Kurdish family permission to demand housing from any Armenian family. And the selected household had to grant the Kurds the kishlak free of charge.

Nomadic shepherds on the Anatolian Plain of Ottoman Turkey, the Kurds’ usual homes were black, felt tents. In winter, an Armenian home was considerably warmer. Since most Armenians were farmers and craftsmen, they also had ample access to food and articles that improved the quality of daily life. So, of course, the Kurds took advantage of the firman ordering kishlak.

When the Kurds left the Armenian farms or villages in the spring, they never left empty-handed. They carried off whatever they wished, including daughters of the Armenian families. As was mentioned in a previous post, the Kurds killed the Armenian men who dared to object to the kidnappings.

The winter quartering ‘system’ established by the Sultan’s firman may have provided ‘affordable housing’ for the Kurds. But it was accomplished at the expense of the families, farms, and villages of Armenians. By governmental order, the Ottoman Empire’s Christians, its third class citizens, had to feed and house the Empire’s second class Muslim citizens, the Kurds.

In spite of the fact that numerous Armenians had hosted Kurdish families and willingly shared mountain pastures during the decades prior to 1915, Kurds still eagerly participated in the looting and slaughtering of their hosts and neighbors. In 1915, the Kurds showed no mercy when they took over Armenian homes and villages and means of making a living.

Khachkars – Gravely Unique and an ‘Endangered Specie’

Some years after I had returned from teaching and traveling in Southeast Asia, I thumbed through photos I had taken. In one, I stood next to a large gravestone. At first, i couldn’t remember why I would ever ask someone to snap such a picture of me.

A closer examination of the black and white jogged the memory of my initial surprise at finding such a grave marker in – of all places – Macau, the Portuguese-run settlement off the southern coast of China. The stone itself was in no way special. It looked so much like any I had seen in North America. But the name and dates on it were special, Robert Morrison, 1782 – 1834. Why in the world would Robert Morrison be buried in Macau? Wasn’t Mr. Morrison the Scottish Christian who had made the first English-Chinese dictionary and given the Chinese people their first, published, Chinese translation of the Bible? Then why was his body in neither China nor Scotland?

When I turned over this pebble on the beach of history, I discovered that the Chinese Emperor hadn’t allowed Robert Morrison to work on his dictionary and Bible translation inside China. And due to alternating pressures from the suspicions of the Cantonese mandarins (Chinese magistrates) about foreigners and their intentions and objections from the Roman Catholic priests in Macau over the fact that Mr. Morrison was a Protestant, Mr. Morrison and his wife had been forced to split his decades of effort between Canton and Macau. After he died in Canton in 1834, he was buried in Macau because the graves of his first wife and their first infant lay there.

While the circumstances surrounding Robert Morrison’s burial were unique, I hadn’t viewed his memorial gravely unique.

The khachkars of the ancient Armenians, however, proved to be remarkably and gravely unique. Intricately carved of pink or yellowish stone, these headstones showed in delicate and complex relief a central, single cross ( or a set of three) surrounded by saints, angels, birds, and symbols for infinity or eternity.

While some khachkars were carved as early as the ninth century, many more were erected as burial memorials from the eleventh through the thirteenth centuries. For over half a millennium, khachkars could be found everywhere in the area of Asia Minor that had once been Armenia and not just in its cemeteries.

It was as if, in response to the destruction of their churches and their capital Ani, the Armenian people must commemorate the deaths of their loved ones with the ultimate symbol of Christianity, Christ’s cross.

Even after Armenians were deported by Persia’s Shah in the early 17th century from Julfa, the capital city that had taken the place of Ani, Julfa’s cemetery of 10,000 khachkars remained. The same was true of other areas in Turkey from which Armenians were removed in 1915. No Armenians remained, but their khachkars did.

The removal of Armenians from their lands was apparently not enough. Within the last four or five decades even those evidences of Armenian existence have been attacked – by sledge-hammer, pick axes, and, more recently, bulldozers. The khachkars have been broken up and the fragments reused for the buildings of Kurds and Turks.

A case in point is the cemetery of what had once been Julfa’s. Those khachkars were turned to rubble by Azeri soldiers under orders from the government of Turkey in 2005. Four hundred years after the Julfa Armenians were deported and their city was leveled, the Turkish government removed the last sign that Armenians had ever lived in that area of modern-day Turkey – their gravely unique Armenian symbol of a Christian’s death, the khachkar, the stone cross.

Although the extent of Turkish efforts to eradicate surprises me, such action should not. After all, God’s Word calls Jesus Christ and His death on a cross, “A stone that causes men to stumble and a rock that makes them fall.” (I Peter 2: 8) For two thousand years, Christ’s cross has been an offence to many people, not just to Turks.

The beauty of it is that efforts to eradicate the symbol in no way destroys Christ’s ability to redeem those who believe in Him.

Which Direction is Mecca?

The Somali woman knelt on a shawl in the corner of my classroom and touched her hijab-covered head to the floor. Her muttered prayers were brief. Within minutes, the midmorning break ended and I resumed our English class.

During the break each day, I visited other classes to observe other Somali students at their prayer ritual. All faced the same direction – north.

Puzzled, I questioned one of my Somali students, a man named Mohammed. He spoke a little more English than the other students. “Why do you bow that way to pray, Mohammed?” I asked, pointing north.

“Mecca,” he said. “That way – Mecca.”

“Maybe in Somalia Mecca is that way – north.” I shook my head. “But here, in the middle of North America,  that way is the direction of the North Pole. Here, Mecca is that way.” I pointed to the southeast.

Mohammed didn’t believe me. So I got out a world map. He acted as if he had never seen a map before. I tried to show him the direction to Mecca on a globe. He either didn’t understand or didn’t want to believe me.

It took several years, but finally our Somali immigrants changed the direction of their prayer prostrations.

As a writer of historical fiction, I research not only history, but also culture and religion. The storyline of my novel Lavash is told through two fourteen-year-old girlsone Armenian and one Turkish. In one scene, I describe Nazli, the Turk, and her Aunt Hatije kneeling on a dual-niche prayer kilim or rug.

When I received the critique from my cultural advisor on that section of my manuscript, my critiquer informed me that I had Nazli and Aunt Hatije bowing in the wrong direction. Since I had set the story in a town in central Turkey, Muslim adherents there would have been bowing to the southeast in 1915. I rewrote the scene.

Christians, on the other hand, believe that God is not only omniscient (all knowing), but also omnipresent (all-present, boundless). Christians aren’t tied to bowing toward Jerusalem or any other specific location. As Christians, Armenians and I can bow our heads to our Creator in any direction because God is everywhere.

Syncretized Islam

Instead of giving accurate description in their discussion of the conversion of the Seljuk Turks to Islam, historical accounts muddied the waters. Some books said the Seljuks welcomed Muslim Arab traders into their territory between the seventh and the tenth centuries. Other books didn’t specify, simply saying that by the time the Turks invaded Armenian territory the Seljuks had become Muslims.

The historical accounts that described the initial contacts of Seljuk Turks with Muslim Arabs as a benign exchange glossed over the latter’s tendency to demand religious conversion at the point of a scimitar.

Why is the probable scenario coercion? Forcing a people to change religions usually alters their practices (what they do in worship), but does little to give them a different world view (how they think about or see the world). Nor does the coercion change the hearts of the coerced.

A case in point was the pervading belief among Ottoman Turks in the ‘Evil Eye.’ If the Seljuk Turks didn’t destroy a Christian church in Armenia, at the very least the Turks painted over any eyes in interior decorations/murals or scratched out eyes on carved-stone, religious statues  in the churches. During the time of the Ottoman Empire, color had special significance. Muslim women and girls wore blue. And buildings were covered with blue tiles – to ward off the ‘Evil Eye.’

Kurds of the Ottoman Empire were a nomadic people who had also likely converted at the points of scimitars to Islam. They, too, exhibited beliefs and customs from their pre-Islamic days. Talismans and amulets were treasured and worn,  indicating their pagan beliefs were still intact. In addition, the Kurds’ tribal custom of bride stealing didn’t change after they became Muslims. They exercised their pre-Islamic habit most frequently against Armenian villages on the Anatolian plateau, killing the male relatives who dared to object to a girl’s kidnapping.

Coerced conversions of entire people groups resulted in syncretized Islam. Layering on legalistic, religious rituals did little to improve the actual culture of the ‘converts-by-coercion.’