PICTURE Edition 4: Pray for Azerbaijan

1. History
Situated on the western side of the Caspian Sea and bordering Georgia, Armenia, Russia and Iran, the Azeri people have been a pawn in the history of many large empires throughout history. At the time of Christ it was part of the Persian Empire.

It is believed that the Apostles Bartholomew and Thaddeus came from Armenia over to Azerbaijan and planted the Christian faith, and the first church was erected in the village Kish. The origins and formation of the Azari Church and culture are closely associated with the history of Nestorian Christianity which dominated the Middle East in the early centuries after Christ. Christianity officially became the state religion in this region at the beginning of the 4th century, making Azerbaijan region one of the earliest Christian communities in the world.

However, everything changed in 667 with the invasion of the Arabs. As Islam took off over the next century and became the dominate faith of the Empire, so it seeped into the Azeri Christian community. However, a thousand years later there were still pockets of Armenian Christians in the country. In the 16th century, the first shah of Iran established Shia Islam as the state religion. In 1806 Azerbaijan was occupied and then annexed by the Russian Empire during the Russo-Persian War.

With the Russians came a wave of Orthodox Christians. One group exiled from Russia to Azerbaijan were a group called the Molokin Jumpers. These were the closest thing in Russia to Pentecostal Christians and they incurred the wrath of both the Russian state. One hundred years later Communist atheism also came down from Russia and suppressed all religions in Azerbaijan. (At the same time some of the Molokin Jumpers were divinely led to go to America where they were some of the first to join the Azusa St Revival in San Francisco…wow!)

The world’s first oil boom actually began in Azerbaijan and at one time it produced half the world’s oil. it still lives off oil wealth today. With the exit of Communism and Russia in 1991 there was also an exodus of Russian Orthodox oil workers. The next decade was chaotic and culminated in the Nagorno-Karabakh War, which saw Armenian Christians driven into one small province.

2. Today
As with most ex-Russian colonies, the intensity of Islam is low and many are nominal.The 40 or so believers known to exist in 1991 has now grown to at least 10,000 and some say much more than this number. Azeri language literature, Bibles, music and other forms of ministry are beginning to develop, mainly in Baku where most believers live.

Unfortunately Christianity is still associated with Russian imperialism, Armenian hostility and western colonialism in general. The religious freedom experienced after 1991 have dwindled. Yet even with a stagnant population, the number of evangelicals continues to grow by around 4% a year. This would create a church of some 70,000 by 2050. Today there are still 11 communities of Molokins in Azerbaijan.

The government sees all forms of Christianity as a threat, and also sees some elements of Islam as a threat. So it has enacted strict laws on the expression of religion. No foreign involvement, no foreign funding, no expression of ones faith outside the registered building etc. This is forcing the church underground. Some 25% of the Iranian population are actually Azeri’s and many have come to faith in Christ.

3. Evangelism Highlights
Sari Mirzoev was the first Azeri to become a Christian back in 1991. Today he leads the largest evangelical church in Azerbaijan. He is on the record as saying Sometimes we have as many as 30-40 people who accept Christ as their personal Savior in a single service. His vision is to see the whole country won to Jesus. Mission Eurasia is also helping train local leaders for the harvest of souls. Because there is a large Azeri diaspora in surrounding countries, many evangelists are now making trips to Iran, Turkey, Georgia and Iraq to evangelise their own Azeri people in these nations.

4. Prayer Points
Pray for our fellow Christians living out their faith in the face of religious persecution.
Pray for the growing numbers of Azeri believers to become missionaries across the region.
Pray for an outpouring of the Holy Spirit in places of darkness. There are reports coming in of supernatural encounters.
Pray for leaders to rise up and stand against these forces of darkness.
Pray for church support organisations in the west who help nurture the Azeri Christians.
Pray with Pastor Sari for the whole nation of 9 million to come to know Jesus.
Pray for the many who are interested in Christianity but who fear the personal consequences.
Pray that the internet will be used to train believers and to reach unbelievers.

The best analysis of Syria I have ever read!

Every now and then I read an article on the Middle East that is profoundly insightful, that makes sense of the mayhem and corrects a lot of fake news coming from the western media. The article below, reproduced from this link, is one such apiece of journalism. It explains everything that has happened in Syria since the civil war began, why America failed, what has happedned to the Sunni/Shia balance, who the Alawites are and what became of the Christian community. I found it fascinating so here it is…

Introduction: The American intervention in Iraq set off a massive political restructuring of the Middle East, triggering a struggle between different religious and ethnic communities. The process has continued in Syria, where Sunni Muslims, underestimating the regional nature of the conflict, deluded themselves that they could topple Bashar al-Assad’s regime by their overwhelming demographic superiority. Among the big losers are the Christians who, unlike the Alawites or the Kurds, are not a compact minority.

Martino Diez: Speaking about crisis and renewal in Sunnism, one cannot escape the predicament of Syria. But from the start we are faced with an objection: according to many, the religious or sectarian element in the Syrian crisis is a secondary one, a by-product of government policies aimed at curbing the revolt by delegitimizing it internationally, and by dividing the opposition internally.

Joshua Landis: Well, it’s a chicken and egg problem. All sides in Syria have used religion in a very political way to gain support and to shore up their own position. But there is a religious issue, otherwise it could not have been instrumentalized. It is a circular problem and it is hard to know which begins where. Of course, it is about politics and humans using everything they have, whether ethnicity, poverty, class differences, and prejudices, in order to fight political battles. Yet, the religious question is extremely important and precisely because of this too many people tried to cover it up.

It has been a taboo in Syria for decades, ever since the modern Baathist regime took over and proclaimed that religious, tribal, regional and sub-national identities were anathema and a new Arab nation would not stand for them. Everything that smacked of these communal and tribal interests was feudalistic, retrograde, and needed to be stamped out. For instance, in the 1940s and 1950s the Alawite mountain became known as the coastal mountain and Jabal al-Drūz (“The mountain of the Druze”) was renamed as Jabal al-‘Arab (“The mountain of the Arabs”). These moves are highly instructive, since the Druze, like the Alawites, are usually accused of being majūs, “Persians, Zoroastrians.” By naming the Jabal al-Drūz as “The mountain of the Arabs,” the Druze were establishing their bona fide in a nationalistic world.

Logo of Arab Socialist Baath Party, used by its Syrian branch

MD: How would you characterize the religious policy of the Assads, both father and son, before the uprisings? The Baath started with a rather secular program, but Assad soon led a “corrective movement,” which among other things tried to come to terms with religions.

JL: The religious question has always been central in Syria, although at certain times it has been more important than at others. Let me take you back a little further than the Assads. When the French arrived in 1920, they began to take censuses and they discovered that in no town of over 2,000 people did Sunnis and Alawites live together. There was very stark demographic segregation. In 1945 there were 400 Alawites in Damascus and less in Aleppo. There really was very little knowledge of one another, and the Alawites were perceived as servants, typically the young girls being put in service into the Sunni households. The major coastal cities, which have today an Alawite majority, such as Latakia, Jableh, Tartous, Banyas, were at that time all Sunni with a small Christian minority that lived within the old walls of the city.

The parable of the Alawites rising from the bottom of the Syrian society to the top is a dramatic story, but it changed the communal nature of Syria and created great resentment amongst the Sunni Syrians writ large. The entire Ottoman world was a Sunni world and for the most part Sunni prejudice saw Shi’as as being a deviant form of Islam, one that was highly inflected by Persian anger and resentment against the Arab conquerors. The most fundamentalist Sunnis like Ibn Taymiyya saw Shi‘ism and particularly its heterodox communities, such as Alawites, Druze and Ismailis, as a conspiracy inside Islam.

MD: In his book, A History of the ’Alawis, Stefan Winter challenges this view through archive research.

JL: Winter did a good job of showing how Alawites at various times in history held important positions and presented themselves in Islamic courts: things they were not supposed to do according to the segregation. But the success of some Alawites in the Ottoman empire was the exception that proved the rule of powerlessness. Never did the Ottomans include Alawites as Muslims. Never did they fully integrate them as citizens. There was an attempt at the end of the Ottoman Empire to create an Ottoman citizenship and to redefine it away from a religious dynastic identity. In this context, Alawites and Druze were renamed the “lost communities.” It was softer than “unbelievers” or “apostates” as they used to be called, but they remained nonetheless “lost.” They continued to be accused of “religious excess,” ghuluww.

MD: And this not only from the side of Sunnis. Even Twelver Shi’ites looked at them with suspicion.

JL: In 1947, fourteen Alawites were given grants to go study in Karbala. We have the memories of some of them and they are very bitter. They were forced to ghasal al-tawba, to wash their robes, which was a purification ceremony meant to convert them. But since they saw themselves as good Muslims, they did not want to be converted and this denigrating attitude from the Twelver Shi’a ultimately meant that no one of them graduated from Karbala.

It was not until the 1970s, under Mūsā al-Sadr, that the first Twelver Shi’ite fatwa was issued stating that Alawites are Muslims. Many people still harbor doubts and suspicions about this fatwa, because at that time Assad was already powerful and Shi‘ites were coalescing together. At any rate, the broad current of Islam rejects them as Muslims. Therefore, when Hafez al-Assad came to power in 1967, he faced a dilemma. The Constitution of Syria states in article 3 that the president must be a Muslim. Are Alawites Muslim? The first instinct of Assad was to take out article 3 in conformity with secularism, but large demonstrations ensued from Aleppo right down through Damascus, rejecting this move as an attack on Syrian identity. Hafez al-Assad retreated from his position, he put article 3 back into Constitution and at the same time, he declared that Alawites are Muslim. Most Sunni clerics did not believe this, but since he was the President and had the army behind him, they bowed their heads.

As soon as the revolt broke out in 2011, most of the militias were calling these people nusayrīkuffār (‘unbelievers’), rawāfid (‘rejectionists’), al-nizām al-majūsī (‘The Zoroastrian regime’), etc. The language of the revolt was to claim that Alawites are apostates and that it was compulsory to wage jihad against them, even more violently than against outright unbelievers, because unbelievers may not know Islam, but these people do know it, they have read the Qur’an and yet… This is not new. Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, an important current within the Muslim Brotherhood maintained that the Alawites were apostate and a legitimate target of jihad. This was the guiding intellectual spirit behind the Talī‘a muqātila, the wing of the Muslim Brotherhood that rose up at the end of the 1970s to challenge Assad, leading to the Hama uprising in 1982, which was followed by a very brutal repression.

MD: Was Hafez al-Assad a sectarian?

JL: Yes, Assad had a so-to-say transparently hypocritical way of ruling. On the one hand, he forbade any mention of sectarianism and rise the flag of Arab nationalism stating that divisions among Syrians were responsible for the various foreign occupations the country had undergone (Ottomans, French…). But at the same time, he clung to communalism, because Syria before the 1970s had been the banana republic of the Arab World, having undergone 15 to 20 coups, failed coups and purges. It had been a constant revolving door for government. Thus, the only way Assad could stabilize his government was to appeal to traditional loyalties: first family, secondly close associates and friends, thirdly religious communities, and lastly the single party. He put his brother Rifaat al-Assad at the head of the state security to police Damascus and guarantee that no military unit would enter the capital to overthrow him, as it had occurred so many times in the previous decades. Bashar has taken his father’s playbook and changed almost nothing.

Portrait of Hafez al-Assad on a poster

MD: What exactly was the relation of Bashar to his father? When I spent some weeks in Damascus in July 2008, I was impressed to see a mega-poster of Hafez al-Assad covering most of the façade of the Ministry of Defense. I had the impression that this was a message from the old guard to Bashar.

JL: By 2008 Bashar had really consolidated to power. In 2005 he cleared up the last adherents of his father, such as ‘Abd al-Halīm Khaddām, the vice-president. He used his father’s image because much of the older generation admired and respected the father, while they were unsure of Bashar. He was shy and had not been brought up in the military. Having been called back from his optometry studies in England after his brother’s death in 1994, Bashar was sent to Lebanon to harden up, as a sort of military training school, because if you can deal with Lebanon, you can deal with Syria too. But he always had this soft, slightly indecisive side and people were not sure whether he was really tough enough. Keeping the big picture of his father was important to show continuity.

At that time, the Middle Eastern Republics were all going through a legitimacy crisis and were trying to become monarchies, because monarchy solves the problem of regime change and normalizes it. There was nothing unusual in Bashar’s attempt: Tunisians, Algerians, Egyptians were all trying to perpetuate the power of the ruling family avoiding civil strife and ensuring stability. Other people, of course, like many militaries, had a vested interest in preserving the throne for the Assad family and milk the rest of the country. We believe that about 70 to 80% of the upper officers’ core was Alawite, not just in the military and the security. We have testimonies from people in the Foreign Office who defected during the revolts and said that the vast majority of the officers were Alawites or belonging to the other minorities and only 20% was Sunni. This was a pattern in all more sensitive ministries. In 45 years there has been tons of corruption and patronage. All institutions of the state were filled with loyalists, whether they came up through the Baath party and were loyalist through ideology or they came up through the Alawite community and other minorities or through rural Sunni communities. And it is this that made it difficult from the start to change the regime without a total collapse. It was the same as in in Iraq with Saddam Hussein. Once you take out the leadership, destroy the Baath party and re-arrange the core officers and the top military, as it happened with the American intervention in Baghdad, the whole edifice crumbles. You have to remake the state entirely, because to get rid of Assad you have to accept regime collapse. The whole state is built around the loyalty to the leader. It was the dilemma of Iraq, it is the dilemma of Libya to a degree, although in North Africa there is no religious communalism comparable to Syria, Iraq or Lebanon.

MD: The attitude of the urban Sunni population is surprising. For instance, in Aleppo they remained loyal to the regime well into 2012, more than a year after the beginning of the revolts.

JL: The Sunni elite was co-opted and this is where Bashar’s father proved to be most successful. During the Hama uprisings in 1982, much of the country was in revolt. But in Damascus al-Assad approached the head of the chamber of commerce, Badr al-Dīn al-Shallāh, a Sunni leading businessman, and warned him about the danger of the country being taken over by fundamentalists. “If you stick with me, I’ll reward you.” And the Sunni elite of Damascus did. They saw in the Alawites a Pretorian guard that would advance their best interests and they went along with him.

MD: Many ulama too were preaching quietism.

JL: The Sunni clerical elite Assad had been cultivating, which was made up of Kurds and traditional figures, upheld the notion that clerics should not mix up in politics and that fitna, civil discord, had to be avoided at all costs. This attitude conformed to traditional Sunni political thought, hammered out in the ninth and tenth century, when Muslims were facing similar problems under the decadence of the Abbasid caliphate. Figures like Muhammad Sa‘īd Ramadān al-Būtī, who were at the head of the Islamic institutions in Syria, represented this traditional attitude. But their legitimacy was gradually undermined by a whole bunch of newer figures who were accusing them of being corrupt and bought off. And that led to the assassination of al-Būtī in 2013 and several attempts to kill the Grand Mufti and other clerics.

MD: And yet also Hanbalism and Salafism were quite at home in Damascus…

JL: Indeed, the entire nineteenth-century Salafism, which was very modernist, had an important center in Damascus and David Commins has written eloquently about this. Historically, Syria has been the cradle of a cosmopolitan, Sufi-inflected Islam, with lots of tariqas (Sufi orders, Ed.) closely linked to Turkey and Northern Iraq and with a specific Syrian “flavor.” This soup of Sufism, mysticism, heterodoxy, Neo-Platonism and various strands of Gnosticism is part of Syria’s heritage and the Salafi claim that they are all foreign imports is simply wrong; Ibn Taymiyya is really only one voice on one side.

At the same time, Syria has also known a more hard-bitten textual fundamentalist form of Islam which cannot be blamed entirely on Saudi Arabia, as liberals often do, although it has been obviously influenced by Wahhabism. Take the case of Syrian textbooks. The ninth-grade textbook of Islam contained until very recently a subsection on atheists and pagans, teaching that the only way to deal with them is to convert them or to kill them. In a sense, when ISIS conquered the Yazidis in Northern Iraq, it was simply following the instructions of ninth-grade Syrian textbooks. They did not have to turn to Wahhabism to enslave and to kill, they could follow Syrian school curricula.

To give you just an example, there were about 14 Druze villages near Aleppo. When ISIS conquered them, they made videos showing the militants forcing their inhabitants to convert while blowing up their shrines. Fortunately, ISIS  was pushed out by Nusra militias, who were slightly gentler: They too insisted that the Druze declare themselves Sunnis, but they did not make them convert and Jumblatt from Lebanon could intercede. At any rate, life for these minorities was miserable under the Salafi groups. Thus, we go back to what I believe is the key thesis here: even if there were successful Alawites in the Ottoman empire, their status was never normalized, they were always seen as deviant. When politics fell apart, due to bad government, drought, economic factors, all sort of things, these theological questions all came to the surface and because there was no good answer for them, the civil war increasingly took on a communal and sectarian edge. And of course, the Sunnis bore their responsibility too, because they appealed to jihadists to try to win their war. As a result, 40,000 to 50,000 foreign fighters streamed into Syria and Iraq and the most trained among them were al-Qaeda’s men. In fact, these radical groups ran up very easily over the militias that the United States were trying to set up.

Photo of destruction in Hama following the Hama Massacre in 1982

MD: The same miscalculation on the Sunni side happened time and again, in Iraq, in Yemen and elsewhere. Now, let us assume that one day the war is eventually over. Will the Sunnis find a place in Syria (or Iraq, for that matter)? And are there attempts to positively reconceptualize the status of minorities?

JL: I’m very pessimistic. The Sunni community in both Iraq and Syria has been smashed in every conceivable way. If we look at the geography of the Sunni world stretching from Baghdad right across to Aleppo, all the Sunni cities, Ramadi, Mosul, Deir ez-Zor, Raqqa, Aleppo have been destroyed. In Iraq the US talked at first about power-sharing among the different components of the Iraqi society, but that did not come to be. What America did do is that it ignited what I’ve called a “great sorting-out,” i.e. the struggle between different religious and ethnic communities for primacy. The Kurds have now largely achieved their independence, not totally because they still rely on Baghdad for money, but they possess their own army, their own schools, they teach in their own language etc. Iraqi Sunnis had been the dominant group in the Ottoman Empire, the monarchy, the Baath and Saddam Hussein’s rule. As a result of the American intervention, they were cast down to the bottom of society and Shi‘ites caught up to the top.

MD: Was it intentional?

JL: No, I believe Americans had no clue of what they were dealing with. They thought that if you can get rid of the evil tyrant, good people will find a way to share power. I’ve spent the last years trying to make comparisons to what happened in Central Europe in the twentieth century. The Ottoman, Austro-Hungarian, German and Russian empires were all multi-ethnic and multi-religious. They were substituted after the First World War with a long string of new nation states, from Poland down to Palestine. I call them the class of 1920. They all failed spectacularly. In Central Europe between 1930 and 1950, 34 million people were ethnically cleansed. The collapse of multi-ethnic empires paved the way to a long and bloody process of nation building.

MD: And yet the anomaly in Syria consists in the fact that it is the minority that is trying to sort out the majority. You cannot build a nation state around a minority.

JL: This is why everybody expected the Alawites to be swept aside, since they are at most 3 million, while 70% of Syrians are Arab Sunnis. Even once Assad proved to be much stronger than everybody had anticipated, the rebels and all the opposition figures I’ve constantly debated with thought that Assad was not in the position to hold out. “If we can keep the fight going on for five or six years, we will exhaust the Alawites.” This proved to be false. Why? Because this is not a national war. It is a regional war and between Lebanon and Iraq there are more Shi‘ite Arabs than Sunni Arabs. And of course, not only did the Sunnis call on Sunni jihadists to come in. The Shi‘ites too appealed to their own jihadists for help, who are much better trained and equipped to fight. Hezbollah is the only Arab force that has driven Israel out of a territory. Iran got involved and Saudi Arabia and the other Sunni powers were not able to counter this military primacy. At that point, Russia jumped in, and America, but Iran was able to mobilize much more military power and the Russians were much more committed in Syria. Ultimately, one can say that the Assad regime has much better friends.

MD: Do you mean that if the Syrian crisis had only been a local one, the Sunnis would have been likely to win in the long run?

JL: That is not even clear. The Syrian army was powerful and it did not defect. Many individuals left, but it did not dissolve and Assad was able to rebuild it. In my opinion, Assad would still have won even in an only-Syria scenario, because, had the Gulf not sent money and had Turkey not given the rebels a sanctuary from which to wage attacks, they would have been trapped inside the country facing a sophisticated national army. But this is a counterfactual history. We don’t really know. What we know is that rebels called jihadists in and got tens of billions of dollars from the Gulf, Turkey, the US, Europe, from every corner of the world to prolong their uprising. Summer 2013 was under many respects the turning tide against Assad. He had just lost Idlib and Jisr al-Shughur and the rebels were making real advances. At that point, Russia jumped in to help its client, while America was starting to be anxious about the role of jihadi militias.

MD: What will be the fate of the refugees, especially those in Southern Anatolia?

JL: We know that 5 to 6 million people have left Syria, the vast majority of them is Sunni and most of them are unlikely to come back. Syria is in a devastated shape. The security situation is not at all regularized, people don’t know whether upon their return they are going to be jailed and tortured, their jobs are gone… Most will find a way to rebuild their lives outside. This is not new; it has happened to the members of the Muslim Brotherhood before and to waves of immigrants, liberal well-to-do-families who have been leaving Syria constantly for almost a century now. There are 11 million Syrians living in the Americas, we believe. It has been going on for a long time.

MD: But the size of the phenomenon today is different.

JL: Yes, it is much bigger. And it is going to leave a very bitter legacy. Today the Sunni community in Syria is really devastated and it is going to take long to get back on its feet.

MD: This major shift would not be totally new. Syria has oscillated many times in its history. It was originally the bulwark of the Omayyad dynasty, then turned to Shi’ism, until the Sunni revival in eleventh-twelfth century.

JL: I am thinking of this all the time. I do not know enough about Medieval Syria, but I am tempted by this comparison, because in many ways the Shi’ites in the eleventh to twelfth century were predominating, especially in Northern Syria, around Aleppo. Ultimately, however, they were defeated by the Mamluks and later the Ottomans and Syria became part of the Sunni Arab world. In the Northern Middle East there is today a Shi’ite quest not only for equality but also for supremacy, two things most Shi’ites feel they have been denied for centuries. For some, the struggle is about taking vengeance against Sunnis, for others about gaining equal rights: there is a bitter side and a softer side. Iran has been instrumentalizing this attitude tremendously. For their part, Sunnis are in a crisis because Salafis claimed the only way out was jihad, but they have lost. And yet the Sunni elites apparently continue to look for military solutions, as the statements by Muhammad Bin Salman in Saudi Arabia show. There has not been much reflection about what went wrong and this does not look promising. Similarly, in the way the Assad regime treats the Sunni rebels there is no accommodation. More precisely, there is accommodation with individuals, but not with groups, no recognition that they had some just complaints.

MD: How do you explain then the regime’s policy to bus the jihadists to the Idlib region?

JL: Idlib is just a temporary and strategic move. The regime knew that these people would not surrender unless they are left a way out (and some fought to the death anyway). They were holding the civil population as hostages and using them as shields. The issue was becoming internationally embarrassing and Assad had to let them go. But for him Idlib is only a preparation before expelling them to Turkey.

From his point of view, this would be serving Turkey right because Ankara has funded and trained these people. Yet, Turkey is a powerful country and it is not going to stand up to this plan. In the Idlib province, in Northern Aleppo and Afrin the Turks have started to set up a canton where these rebel groups can remain and refugees be sent back, under the control of Turkmen and Arab militias and while getting rid of the Kurdish problem. But it is a very delicate issue for Turkey: how can you normalize al-Qaeda and other jihadists?

MD: And for Russia too… Russia claims to be in good terms with Assad, Iran and Turkey, but Idlib can be a thorn in its side.

JL: Russia is looking for a way to accommodate the issue. It keeps on insisting on Syria’s sovereign borders, but at the same time it is bending to Turkish demands for Idlib. Many people are beginning to see that a Turkish zone stretching from Idlib to Jarablus is perhaps not the worst outcome; in terms of social justice it may even be the best we can do. In this hypothesis, this strip of border region would end up some day like Iskenderun and the Hatay province, which was taken by Turkey in 1938.

Most minorities there, the Armenians, the Alawites, left for Syria, where they incidentally helped found the Baath party (his first theoretician, Zakī al-Arsūzī, was from Iskenderun). But the Sunnis by and large remained behind, because they saw themselves as a part of a larger Sunni world. That applies to Idlib too: there were 700 Christian families in Idlib and they all fled in 24 hours. In some ways, such an outcome would not be the worst thing for Assad too, since Idlib was traditionally one of the poorest part of the country and a hotbed of Muslim Brotherhood activism. If Assad declares to have been forced by his allies to accept this solution, no-one will object and fight to take back this province, which is today 100% Sunni Arab. Of course, they will say that Turks are monsters etc., but this accommodation solves a problem.

MD: How do you see the prospects for Christians?

JL: The great sorting-out is grim for all minorities, but for Christians it has been devastating because they are not a compact minority, unlike the Alawites or the Kurds. Before the war, Christians were largely urban, scattered and relatively wealthy. They were very vulnerable and they became targets. They did not form their own militias, apart some limited exceptions; they could not defend themselves and they were forced to leave.

Aleppo is the perfect example: the city had a very sizable Christian minority, which after the First World War amounted to 20-25% of the total population. With the independence, the city began to explode as there was an influx from the surrounding villages, which were all Sunnis. This demographic development was accompanied by land reform under Nasser and the nationalization of schools under the Baath party. Very soon, the upper elite left for Lebanon and elsewhere. Today the Christian population of Aleppo fell to probably less than 3%. For Syria as a whole, Christians made up about 14-15% of the population at the end of the French Mandate. They are now about 3%. But that is not unique across the Middle East. The future looks grim.

MD: Do you believe that the fact of not resorting to militias was merely accidental for Christians, or was there something of a deliberate choice?

JL: I don’t believe that the pacifist passages in the Bible was the guiding principle behind the military weakness of Christian communities. In my estimation, it is rather a combination of factors, primarily because Christians are not compact. When they were compact, as in Mount Lebanon, they did form militias and they fought very strenuously until they were totally outnumbered. And in many ways, it was Hafez al-Assad who stepped in and saved them in 1976, while pursuing his minority politics in Lebanon.

MD: In the past some rumors circulated about Hafez al-Assad’s alleged closeness to Christianity. Is there anything real in these stories?

JL: The Assads are not religious. Bashar was not even initiated to the Alawite religion and he knows very little of it. He was brought up in Damascus, speaks with a Damascene accent and many Alawites complained that he was not really inside the community. In general, though, Christians and Alawites share a minority complex, some holidays (Easter, Christmas) and they religiously group next to each other. When the Alawites rose to power, the Christians saw them as protectors.

Assad has been very good at exploiting these elements. Think of the famous issue of Vogue in March 2011, just before the uprisings… It was about Asma al-Assad, “A Rose in the Desert,” but the central piece photo featured Bashar al-Assad in civilian dress, relaxed with his beautiful wife, in front of a Christmas tree, with the children in short pants playing with their toys underneath. This was the vision of a secular, advanced, Westernized Syria that he was selling to America. According to the context, the regime could stress its pro-secular or pro-Christian attitude. For a while, the West bought it and divinized Assad’s effort, which of course has been extremely violent.

MD: What did the US lack most?

JL: America misunderstood the region. It did not know what it was doing when it kindled the great “sorting-out” process by toppling these brutal, authoritarian states, which did not possess a high degree of legitimacy, but were trying to deal with very dysfunctional realities. Taking away the state only embitters civil wars. In Iraq, a state has been finally put back together, but it is certainly not what America envisioned, and it is very pro-Iranian. There was a terrible miscalculation; and we are now on the verge of a new miscalculation.

The notion that America can retrieve its position in the region by building up a Kurdish state in Northern Syria is a full hazard. It would cost huge sums of money, since the social basis is not existent, the cities, Deir ez-Zor and Raqqa, are in ruin and everything has to be remade from the ground up. But how can you rebuild the region by making enemies your own neighbors? Plus, Arab and Kurds in the region are bitter competitors and not natural allies and everybody will seek to use these differences to undermine the project.

It will be an almost impossible task for America. Of course, America owes a debt to the Kurds and has a long love affair with them, even since Woodrow Wilson. The US can protect them and help them get more resources, but within Syria. Assad needs the Kurds to rule Northern Syria and the Kurds need Assad. There is a deal to be made about sharing oil, water, agriculture, trade. America could do that kind of diplomacy, but the policy elite is not willing.

MD: Finally, a more personal note. Clearly, the Syrian war is not just a scholarly subject for you. Where does your interest in Syria and the Middle East originate?

JL: Well, my connection has been lifelong. I was born in New York City, but by the age of one, I moved to Saudi Arabia, where my father opened the first American bank in the Kingdom in 1958, a Citibank in Jeddah. I spent my first four years in Saudi Arabia, when it was really just a sandy place, though developing at leaps and bounds. Then I moved to Beirut until 1967, in Lebanon’s heydays. I traveled all over the region as a young child and this laid the ground for my return to Beirut after college. I took a teaching position for two years at the International College, on the same campus as the American University of Beirut.

At that time, Lebanon was going through its civil war. I started to study Arabic properly and in 1981 I got a Fulbright to go the University of Damascus, which meant I was there during the Hama uprising. I drove around the city only one week after it was destroyed. That tumultuous year was really a seminal experience to me; it was the year of the Israeli invasion of Southern Lebanon. In many ways, it was foreshadowing the 2011 events.

Later on, in 2002, I met my wife Manar, who is an Alawite, on a bus of the UN in Damascus. We got married six months after that and from that moment on, I came back to Syria every summer. So my connection to the Middle East and Syria has become more and more personal.

My first article after the uprising, in 2011, was entitled “Why the Assad regime is likely to survive to 2013.” I made an argument about the regime being much stronger and the opposition more fragmented than assumed. Thus, I began to make a lot of enemies, particularly among the Syrian opposition. They were all accusing me of holding these positions because I was married to an Alawite and they raised their criticism in very sectarian terms. Actually, there is no doubt that being Alawite or Sunni has an influence on the way you look; it is hard to escape this world of sectarianism. The Syrian battle, like the Israel-Palestinian battle, comes down to a certain degree of tribalism, but you can still strive for a certain objectivity.

My answer to this criticism is that I actually held these ideas well before I married my wife. I wrote a long dissertation about Syria’s independence and the military coups, whose major thesis was that modern Syria was actually not a nation. The Sunnis had been incapable of uniting it either on a class or a national basis and the military had been able to carry out coups because the Sunnis were fragmented and not democratic and did not follow the Constitution. This research colored my view of how the civil war would unfold. I was convinced that Syria had not dramatically changed between 1950 and 2011 and I think I was proved right.

The Sunni opposition remained extremely fragmented and became dominated by jihadists. America failed to produce an alternative government that could rule Syria. It was not the lack of money. Had the opposition been united and presented a non-fundamentalist front, the West was ready to really back it. So much for my defense of not being a sectarian; but I have been intimately involved in this region for a lifetime and it has left a deep mark on me.

The Fallibility of the Islamic Hadith Literature

Most Muslims cannot make sense of the Qur’an. So after a few hundred years there emerged a whole body of commentary to try to make sense of the confusion their holy book generated. These commentaries are collectively called the Hadith literature. Below I have reproduced a section of my essay on the history of Mecca to show you the problems generated when you write a history of something two to three centuries later, in a foreign country, relying only on 5th to 8th generation oral history…

The Hadith literature are the official commentaries that provide us with the words, actions and approvals of Muhammad. They rank second only to the Qur’an in Islamic theological and political authority. They encompass a vast amount of clarification and traditional history interpreting the Qur’an, Muhammad’s life and the origins of Islam. It is the Hadith that creates and then makes sense of the utterances of Muhammad. It is the Hadith that most people rely on as authentic history about early Islam and the history of Mecca. It is the Hadith that tries to bring logic to the utter confusion most people are left with after reading the Qur’an on its own. Because of this confusion the Hadith is the de facto primary source of authority in the religion of Islam.

But like the Sira biographies, the Hadith commentaries were also written two to three centuries after the facts, and once again largely by Abbasid scholars over in Persia. It’s like penning the very first history of the American War of Independence from 2018 through to the year 2100AD, relying only on fifth to tenth generation oral memory. This gave the Abbasids more than plenty of time for mythologising of the type we saw above.

Anybody within Islam could write a Hadith in those restive first two to three centuries, and write they did. They could tell the world what they recalled from a trusted chain of oral authorities, the famous Isnad sources, about the words, actions and life of Muhammad. In the process it turned out that the vast majority were only written to justify factional rivalries and disputes. It didn’t matter if the Hadiths contradicted each other. It mattered more that the chain of Isnad was pure. They eventually became a laughing stock, the original fake news. They contradicted each other to the point that one dedicated scholar, Muhammad al-Bakhari, another Abbasid scholar from Iraq (d. 870AD), decided to find as many as he could, ditch the fakes and compile a trusted history of the past. He aspired to creating an authentic exegesis of the Qur’an, Muhammad and Mecca. He travelled far and wide, collected some 600,000 alleged sayings of the prophet, and then ditched all but 7,225 that he believed could be trusted. He is today revered as the most trustworthy source of Islamic history, and therefore the history of Mecca. Five other collectors of Hadith are also canonised along with him, including his disciple Muslim ibn al-Hajjaj who collected hundreds of thousands more Hadiths and discarded all but around 4,000. However, we have a problem with finding original copies of these two scholar’s writings. The oldest surviving copy of any piece of al-Bakhari’s works is from hundreds of years after he performed the great cull.

With the recent application of the tools of secular higher criticism to the story of Islam, more and more scholars are delivering body blows to the credibility of the Hadith writings. New discoveries and cold hard theological objectivity has allowed a much more rigorous search for fakes than al-Bakhari religious sensitivities allowed for. The towering 20th Century academic, Joseph Schacht, called the Hadith literature a fiction perhaps unequalled in the history of human thought. Ouch!  Schacht also argued that the fabrication of the Hadith came from a literary convention, which found particular favor in Iraq, whereby Abbasid authors/scholars would put their own doctrine or work under the aegis of an ancient authority. The ultimate prestigious ancient authority in this context was Muhammad and around 750AD scholars in Kufa, followed in a few years by the Medinese began falsely ascribing their new doctrines back to earlier jurists, and over time extended them back to Muhammad. In other words they invented all the words, life and actions of Muhammad to justify their own agenda.

The fabrications are relatively easy to spot. The amazing detail in the Hadith, the exact words spoken, the time of day, what they ate, how they travelled, who was present, the theological disputes they were defending and much more, all combine to give the Hadith too much authenticity. They are too precise, lacking in context and contradictory. What mattered most was the air of authenticity given by the alleged chain of oral authorities. The motivation was simple. They were written by very clever legal scholars living hundreds of years after the facts, who were designing a chain of historical transmission that, in the words of Dr Umar Bashear, grow backwards to justify a new legal code for a brand new empire, and one that would wrestle power from their political masters, the Caliphs (Abraham’s Sacrifice of His Son and Related Issues p. 277). Their creation of a religious prophet, a religious city, a religious text, a religious holy language a religious history and a religious destiny gave them the upper hand in the endless power struggle that was Middle Eastern politics. Supreme power within the realm of Islam would from then on rest with them, the religious scholars, not their political masters. The evidence and legacy of their work can be seen in the modern call to Jihad, and the fear of it within the political class of most Islamic countries.

It is these clever writers of the Hadith that I will now summarise to demonstrate that they did not write an authentic history of the Qur’an or Mecca. I will use Crone’s excellent examination of the various Hadith explanations of surah 106, a surah that the Hadith literature claims to talk about Mecca.

Surah 106

For the accustomed security of the Quraysh

Their accustomed security [in] the caravan of winter and summer

Let them worship the Lord of this House

Who has fed them, [saving them] from hunger and made them safe, [saving them] from fear.

Note: To demonstrate how much the English version of the Qur’an is influenced by the stories that the Hadith commentaries created and not the other way around, the term accustomed security in line one above is a Hadith interpretation of the word ilaf, which has no known meaning. The Hadith writers had to give it a meaning or the surah would be utter confusion. In addition, all words in brackets are also extra to the original Arabic Qur’an.

Now, what do the different Hadith writers say about this surah. The following is what Patricia Crone found out…

Fakhr al-Din al-Razi says the journeys are both pilgrimages to Mecca (Mafaith, VIII, 512). However, Ibn Abbas says the journeys are to Ta’if in summer and Mecca in winter (Jami, XXX, 171). Most other commentators treat them as trading journeys to Syria, or Yemen, or Rum, or Iraq, or even Ethiopia. Ibn Habib and others say the surah is about a pre-Islamic famine (Munammaq, pp. 263)

Baydawi says they are being told to worship because they were blessed in their journeys (Anwar, II 620). But Ibn Qutayba says they worship because the Ethiopians did not harass them or Mecca on their journeys (Musbkil al-qur’an, pp. 319). Al- Tabari says they are being told to worship God as much as they travel (Jami, XXX, 199). Muqatil and Qummi both say they were being told to worship because Allah put an end to these journeys, with Ethiopians or others having taken over the provisioning of Mecca (Tasfir, fol. 253a, Tasfir, II, 444).

Ibn al-Kalbi says the fear referred to was a fear of the road. Bakkar says it was fear of the Ethiopians (Bakkar in Sutuyi, Durr, VI 398). Traditions from Tabari say it was a fear of leprosy (Jami, XXX, 200). Razi says it was fear that the Caliphate might pass from the Quraysh tribe (Mafitab, VIII, 513)

This is the type of “history” you must wade through when reading all the Hadith literature. It is clear, just from this tiny snippet that we are not dealing with historians, but story tellers desperately trying to make sense of an opaque script. This is confirmed by the fact that the later the Hadith was written, the more details of the story are presented and the more clear the chain of oral transmission. This is the opposite of normal historical manuscripts and looks more like a giant game of Chinese Whispers than of total recall. The prolific scholar of Islam, Ibn Warraq, correctly says that large parts of the Sira and Hadith were invented to account for the difficulties and obscurities found in the Qur’an (The Hidden Origins of Islam, p. 247).

Clearly then we cannot trust both the Sira or the Hadith literature as a source of accurate information about Mecca. This leads us back to the oldest book of Islam, the Qur’an. Can it finally tell us the truth about Mecca?

To read more click here.

Kevin Davis

The Fallability of Ibn Ishaq And The Sira Literature

I have just completed a new essay called Islam’s Mecca and it can be found under the Islam tab on the website. Over the next little while I will give you some sections of it so you can digest it in stages. Today I will talk about Muhammad’s chief biographer, Ibn Ishaq. I trust you enjoy the read as much as I enjoyed the discovery and writing.

Kevin Davis

First of all we need to see if the official story of Islam and Mecca is accurate or not. For this we will first look at the biographies of Muhammad, the Sira literature. We will start with the oldest and most referenced complete biography of Muhammad written. It is by the Abbasid scholar, Ibn Ishaq. Muhammad is supposed to have died in 632AD and Ibn Ishaq died in 773AD. So this history was collated from oral recollections some 150 years after the facts. Tragically, none of Ibn Ishaq’s original writings survive. They only come to us from an abbreviated version edited by a man called Ibn Hisham some 50 years later again.

Even though there are other Sira authors, nearly every Islamic biographer to this day depends to a large extent on Ibn Ishaq’s account, via Ibn Hisham’s editing. As noted already, nearly every secular western encyclopaedia article also uses Ibn Ishaq as its guide without checking its accuracy against external historical markers. Ibn Ishaq is therefore a key gatekeeper of Islamic history, and of Mecca’s history. If he tells the truth then Mecca is exactly as Islam says it is. If he is not, then Mecca, Muhammad, the Qur’an and the entire religion of Islam itself are on shaky ground.

So is Ibn Ishaq’s biography accurate? We don’t have to go far to find the answer. Even in his own day many of his contemporaries were very concerned about his writings. Ibn Hashim himself warned that he had to sanitise Ibn Ishaq’s work. Of the prophet’s life he left out things which is disgraceful to discuss, matters which would distress certain people: and such things as al-Bakkai (Ibn Ishaq’s student) told me he could not accept as trustworthy (The life of Muhammad by Ibn Hashim, Page 691, Ibn Hisham’s notes paragraph 3). On page xxxvii of the same document there are numerous reports of other authorities who doubted the trustworthiness of Ibn Ishaq’s work including the renowned Hadith specialist, Ahmad ibn Hanbal, as well as Abdullah b. Numayr, Al-Daraqutnl, Abu Da’ud al-Tayalisi and Yahya b. Sa’id.

Internal evidence paints its own air of suspicion. The Qur’an states repeatedly that the prophet of Islam did no miracles (surah 30:58), and that one of the primary criticisms of Muhammad was that he could do no miracles (surahs 6:37, 10:20, 13:27). The miracle of Islam was to be the divine origin of the Qur’an itself (surah 29:51). However, by the time of Ibn Ishaq’s biography Muhammad was busy performing many miracles! He was multiplying food for hungry hordes, miraculously restoring injured eyes, drawing water from dry ground, and shooting out lightning from a pickaxe. All of these accounts contradict the Qur’an. If they were true then why weren’t they included in the Qur’an and proving Muhammad’s status as divine prophet? This would then mean we cannot trust the Qur’an. If they are false then we cannot trust Ibn Ishaq. In addition, many of these stories sound vaguely similar to the miracles of Jesus Christ as found in the New Testament. It is clear that the process of mythologising the past was well underway by the time the first biography was written. The 150 year gap was too long to find and record the truth.

Criticism of a more theological kind also comes from within the modern Muslim academic community. Here are some of their concerns. First, Ibn Ishaq was a Shi’a favouring Ali over all the other contenders to the caliphate. Big mistake. Second, he held the view that man has free will which contrary to the Quran’s teachings. Third, his chains of transmissions, the list of authorities who were keepers of the oral history who were called the Isnad, were defective because he didn’t name them all. Fourth, he used reports of traditions gathered from Jewish sources. Another big mistake. Fifth, his report about Muhammad’s first revelation contradicts all the other Hadith literature. Sixth, there are several stories in Ibn Ishaq which are never found in the rest of the Hadith literature.

Modern historians, such as J.G. Jansen (The Gospel according to Ibn Ishaq), have found that none of the contents of Ibn Ishaq’s works are confirmed by external sources, inscriptions or archaeological material. None. He also found that verifying testimonies from non-Muslim contemporaries do not exist. This includes any reference to Mecca.

Jansen follows up these two disturbing facts with the pithy observation that even though Ibn Ishaq astonishingly knew the exact month of every act in the drama of Muhammad’s life, he forgot to include the lunar months. The pre-Islamic calendar had to incorporate an extra month every three years as it ran on a 354 day lunar year cycle. Over the ministry of Muhammad there were 6 or 7 of these lunar months. Yet Muhammad apparently did nothing during any of them, not a single thing. Knowledge of the pre-Islamic lunar leap year had obviously been lost by the time of Ibn Ishaq so he didn’t think to include it in his dating system. This, along with the proliferation of miracles, suggests Ibn Ishaq was creating a story, not recording it.

Modern investigation into the rest of the Sira literature is now extensive, and the conclusions from the world’s leading researchers is not good. In 1983 Professor M. J. Kister wrote that The narratives of the Sira have to be carefully and meticulously sifted in order to get to the kernel of historically valid information, which is in fact meagre and scanty. (The Hidden Origins of Islam p. 240). Andrew Rippin, Professor Emeritus of Islamic History University of Victoria Canada, commented that The close correlation between the Sira and the Qur’an can be taken to be more indicative of exegetical and narrative development within the Islamic community rather than evidence for thinking that one witnesses the veracity of the other (Ibid p. 249). G. R. Hawting, lecturer at the School of Oriental and Asian Studies University of London, worries that the meaning and context supplied (via the Sira and Hadith literature) for a particular verse or passage in the Qur’an is not based on any historical memory or upon secure knowledge of the circumstances of revelation, but rather reflect attempts to establish a meaning. (Ibid p. 250). I could go on extensively with a much larger list of researchers who cast grave doubts on the veracity of the Sira literature. They have all come to the same conclusion as the three researchers quoted above; that the Sira is a product of Abbasid myth building that took place hundreds of years after the facts, rather than faithful history. We will find out a lot more about these mischievous Abbasids later.

If Ibn Ishaq and the other biographers of the Sira literature cannot be trusted when talking about the prophet of Islam, we simply cannot trust them on issues relating to Mecca as well. So let’s now turn to the Hadith literature, which is much more extensive than the Sira. Perhaps it contains some accurate information about Mecca.

P.I.C.T.U.R.E Edition 3: Albania


1. History

Albania is a tiny country just north and west of Greece on the Adriatic coast. Albania features in the book of Romans, where in chapter 15 verse 19, Paul says that by the power of signs and wonders, through the power of the Spirit of God. So from Jerusalem all the way around to Illyricum, I have fully proclaimed the gospel of Christ. Illyricum was the Roman name for what is now Albania. By 60AD there was even a Bishop in one of its cities. Although the church was birthed in signs and wonders, it quickly settled down into one of religion and ritual as the Catholic and Orthodox churches battled for dominance. The famous heretic Arius was banished to Albania before the Council of Nicaea then banished him further away to Syria where he laid the foundations for Islamic theology. Not much happened from then on for a thousand years.

After conquering Constantinople in 1458, the Muslim armies marched into to Albania on their way to eventually reaching Vienna with the aim of conquering Europe. Sadly, the Catholic and Orthodox elite quickly embraced Islam in order to preserve their social status. It wasn’t until the 16th Century that much of the wider population converted to Islam under great persecution and duress. The next sad development was the coming of ultra conservative Communism in the 20Th Century. Albania became the first declared Atheistic state in 1967. The true church of Albania by that stage has basically ceased to exist.

2. Today

After the fall of Communism many western missionaries rushed in to Albania because of its status as an Atheistic country and the evangelical church was planted, to the ire of the three established religious blocs who wanted their flocks back. Unfortunately the new church picked up many of the bad habits the missionaries brought with them. Thankfully today there is still freedom of religion and the country is nominally 60% Muslim, 20% Catholic in the north, 10% Orthodox in the south and 10% atheist. These numbers include some 14,000 evangelicals.

In 2015 I visited Albania and dropped off a book to the Albanian Encouragement Project head office, the umbrella organisation for evangelicals in Albania. It was a publication I picked up from an ex-Muslim in India showing the supremacy of Jesus Christ inside the Qur’an. It was eagerly accepted as many church leaders are ex-Muslim. I was left with the impression Albania needed a great new wave of sign and wonders to shake it out of 1,800 years of religious darkness.

3. Evangelism Highlights

The evangelicals of Albania are growing at around 5% a year, against a stagnant national population. However, I was told the quick growth of the 1990’s has been replaced with a maturing of local leadership and a lot more training. The started from scratch so have had to relearn many truths we take for granted. Most Muslims are nominal any young so it is not so difficult to see them won to Jesus. Muslim households are very patriarchal so winning the men is key to evangelism. The Albanian church now has several fine training institutes and is already sending out missionaries to other ex-Communist and Muslim countries.

Prayer Points

Pray for continued steady growth in numbers and leaders.

Pray for continued tolerance from the national government

Pray that inter-religious tension from the Balkans doesn’t come to Albania

Pray for revival among the Catholic and Orthodox churches

Pray for the defeat of ancient spiritual strongholds and spirits

Pray for an uptick in signs and wonders, dreams and visions

Pray that the one million Albanians aboard will hear the gospel

Pray that Albania will finally come home to the vision Paul had for it when he preached there

Next week: Azerbaijan

God Bless

Kevin Davis

The Algerian Government Fears The Growing Church of Jesus Christ

If you like what you read below and would like an email prayer letter each week then just look to the right and sign up under the word PICTURE…

1. History

On the Day of Pentecost Peter preached to many north African Jews, but it is not known if there were any from modern day Algeria. What we do know is that Phillip preached the gospel not far away in Carthage to the Berber Peoples, the original north Africans before the Arab conquests. In fact Simone of Cyrene, the man who carried the cross of Christ was a Berber!

In the 1st Century AD the land of Algeria was violently incorporated into the Roman Empire, but at the same time it was embracing the new faith of Christianity. Soon North Africa would become a stronghold of Christianity and the religion of protest and theological strength. St Augustine of Hippo was actually an Algerian Berber! However, between 300-600AD the church there would succumb to small mindedness, pagan infiltration and religious trivia. They concentrated on ornate buildings, were inward-looking and were poorly taught in the Scriptures.

With the coming of the Arab Empire in the 8th Century, a new and intolerant theology and culture gradually took root, one hostile to the Christian faith. Islam tolerated Christianity for several centuries until the Berbers were finally forced at the point of the sword to convert to Islam. There was no known Christianity in Algeria since 1114 AD, but the Berbers never lost their language, alphabet, identity or the memory that they were forced into Islam. Berber groups were only ever nominally Muslim. Their observances of Islamic law are generally lax.

2. Today

Things began to change in 1881 when Protestant missionaries took up the task of reaching out to the Algerian people. Church growth was slow until Bible correspondence courses were set up in the 1960’s. After independence from France (and a million deaths later) the church continued to grow but slowly. Then the civil war erupted, pitting the secular government and military against Islamists. Hundreds of thousands more died. That’s when the church began to grow rapidly.

The attempted Islamisation of the country backfired, with tens of thousands of Berbers returning to the faith of their ancient forebears. Some now estimate the number of believers among the 8 million Berbers is now over 100,000 and growing strongly at over 10% a year. There are believers in nearly every community. The majority of Algerians are Arab Muslims and the Berber believers are starting to reach out to them.

The Arab dominated government is very upset with this new and “dangerous” religious movement and is beginning to crack down on the many open churches scattering the Berber settlements in the Atlas Mountains. Persecution is growing and so is the church. Yet there is curiosity among the Arabs. Youssef Qurahmane, a leading pastor who was arrested a few years ago remembers being given 45 minutes to share the gospel with his fascinated Arab captors at a local police station.

The presidential election next year could see an Islamist government take over from the secularists. In the lead up the Secularists are flexing their Muslim credentials by picking on the Christians. 2019 could see a spiritual darkness come over the country of Algeria.

3. Evangelism Highlights

Church leaders say The Church started out very small. In the beginning we saw very little growth, but then the growth became like a rolling snowball, growing bigger and bigger. Now, there are zeros at end of the growth numbers! Because of the ban on missionaries, the church is completely indigenous and has a heart to reach out beyond its Berber strongholds. Many churches now number up to 1,000 or more, have their own buildings, and are now stockpiling Berber language Bibles for the days of persecution ahead. Christian media via SAT-7 and the internet are a huge source of teaching for new believers and seekers alike. Christian evangelists are now sharing their lives right into the living room of hundreds of thousands of secret listeners. This is the first time Muslims are hearing the Christian point of view in a mature and reasoned way.

Prayer Points

Praise God for the miracle of the new and rapidly growing church in Algeria.

Pray for believers to be strong in the face of future opposition.

Pray for continued growth, and for that growth to spread into the Arab communities.

Pray for continued dreams and visions for those seeking the truth.

Pray for church leaders to be faithful to their calling.

Pray that Berber Christians can reach fellow Berbers in neighbouring countries.

Pray for the spiritual snowball to turn into an avalanche!

Pray for Christian media and internet to reach into many, many more homes.

Pray for the Algerian Church goal of sending 1,000 missionaries by 2025.

Next week: Albania

God Bless

Kevin Davis

Pray for Afghanistan

Hi Friends,

This is the first of a weekly email blog encouraging Christians to pray for the Holy Spirit to move in the Muslim majority countries in the world.

Please partner with me to pray once a day for a week for each country that comes into your inbox. Each week there will be a new country to pray for. PLEASE pass these on to others that you think would like to join the prayer network. The more that pray the more God will move. If your friends email me back at  PICTURE@setfreeseminars.com I can add them to the list. These blogs will also be posted on my website so a global audience can join our prayers.

Today I will explain what is happening in Afghanistan.


1. History

Some Jews from western Afghanistan were present at the Day of Pentecost (Acts 2:9). They were from the Parthian Empire, so the Gospel probably arrived in Afghanistan a few months after that day. Church tradition says that both Bartholomew and Thomas went there to evangelise. The historian Bardaison, writing in 196AD speaks of Christians throughout Parthia. By 250AD there were nine city-based bishops in Afghanistan. In 1282AD Ahmed Teduker assumed the throne and began the country’s switch to Islam.

2. Today

With 37 million people, Afghanistan is now a desperately poor and suffering country with an average income of 1% of the USA. Almost 60% of people are under 20 years of age and life expectancy is only 44 years. However, a new generation is now growing up without the repression of the Taliban and they long for freedom and opportunity. Over 4 million refugees have now returned even though the Taliban still controls some 13% of the country in what is basically a political stalemate. Only 15% of the country is connected to the internet, but 50% have mobile phones.

The form of Islam practiced here is severe and repressive, especially for women. Stiff punishments apply for anyone converting away from Islam as well as rejection from family. However God is moving in an unprecedented way as you will see from the list below. This is because wherever Islam has become violent and repressive in recent years there seems to be a sudden growth in those coming to Christ.

3. Evangelism Highlights

Here are some of the amazing stories coming out of Afghanistan:

  1. The government now warns that “Christianity has obtained a special place not only among youth, but also among various layers in society”.
  2. A Farsi news service reported recently that high ranking members of society are becoming Christians
  3. House churches are multiplying.
  4. Thousands of Afghans who fled to Iran and Europe (start reading half way down this link to see what amazing things are happening in Germany) have become Christians. The Iranian church embraced the Afghans while Iranians as a whole hated their presence.
  5. Last, and most importantly, Isik Abla Ministries report that they had 182,000 thousand active Facebook followers in Kabul alone at the end of 2017. That’s nearly 4% of all internet users in the country actively taking in Christian teaching. Something BIG is happening!

Prayer Points

The harvest is plentiful, but the workers are few (Luke 10:2)

Pray for more harvest workers in Afghanistan

Pray for continued growth of the internet church

Pray for brave house church leaders

Pray for divine visions, dreams and healings to continue

Pray for those suffering from physical, emotional and spiritual persecution and trauma

Pray against Satan’s legions. Bind them and loose the captives.

Pray for young people to pour into the Kingdom

Pray for Afghanistan to become a Christian country once again by 2100 AD!

Next week: Algeria

Kevin Davis

This Is Why Children’s Rights Matter

I just read this from the Them Before Us website. It goes to the heart of why we need a Children’s Rights Day, not just a Children’s Day tomorrow, the 20th November…

My parents married at 18 years of age because of my impending arrival. My mother and I—along with my brother, who came along 15 months later—lived with my maternal grandparents for the first few years of my life. My dad was in the US Air Force and stationed far away, so they decided that my mom staying at home with her parents was the best thing for our family. Those years were quiet and peaceful and filled with security. All that changed when we moved out after my dad’s discharge. Thereafter, the home of my early years was filled with violent verbal altercation, along with alcohol and drug abuse

My parents regularly had get-togethers at our home where their group of friends would pass joints or a bong around our living room, while my brother and I were there in the room, watching and smelling everything. To me, this was entirely normal, so much so that, one day, when I was seven, I was showing the neigbor boy the drug paraphernalia in our car, calmly defining each item and what it was used for. This conversation was cut short by my mom calling me into the house. The moment I was inside, she yanked me by the arm and hissed at me that I was NEVER to talk to anyone about such things ever again. She went on to say that, if I did, she and my dad would be taken to jail. This was the first moment I realized that what my parents were doing was illegal, and my mom was forcibly enlisting me as a partner in her lies to the world, using my fear of losing my family as a motivator. And it worked, because, as imperfect as our family was, the possibility of losing it terrified me. I had visions of being taken to foster care and never seeing my parents, brother, grandparents, or cousins again. Looking back, as an adult, I realize that my grandparents would have stepped in and taken us, but then, as a first grader, I believed that I had to lie to protect my family, to keep us together, to protect myself from being taken from the only home I believed I had.

So I became a gate keeper for my parents’ secrets. When my grandma—who took me to church, who had me at her home when my mom was at work—would come into our home, I would yell, as I ran in before her, “Gram is coming in.” I was an adult before she told me that she knew why I was doing that, so all the things she wasn’t supposed to see could be put away. And I told no one about the fights I regularly overheard—the screaming and cursing and crashing of thrown items, while I lay in my bed, crying, cowering under the covers, and praying for it to stop. One of those altercations between my parents broke my mother’s finger. My brother and I saw it the next morning, swollen and bruised. She never spoke of it. We never discussed any of those fights, just pretended they had not happened, despite her tear-stained face and my dad’s absence. She lied to my grandparents about the cause of that broken finger, as she lied about almost everything else.

But the revelation of the biggest lie came to me when I was 14 years old. While driving me home, my grandpa told me, in halting verbal bursts, that the father in my house was not really my dad. He spoke of wanting to tell me from the start, despite my mom’s objections, of the identity of a man whom I vaguely recalled as an old friend of my mom’s from high school. I remembered meeting him on occasion. I knew he had sent me birthday gifts over the years, but would never send presents to my brother. I had always felt the odd nature of that, as I knew that something was wrong about my having brown eyes when neither of the parents in my home did. Later, I would even remember asking my mom about my parentage, when I found my birth certificate and asked questions about the wedding that occurred only one month before I was born. I asked my mom then if she knew my dad was MY dad. Her horrified response actually made me feel guilty for even asking, as if I had affronted her and implied things about her virtue or honor. And now I knew that I HAD known, somehow, all along. Because the main emotion I felt in this loss of the only dad I had ever known was relief, relief because I had never loved him as I thought I should, as I knew in my heart that he did not treat me as the treasured daughter I longed to be. I had always wondered why. And now I knew.

This information was confirmed through tears by my mom that evening, as her long, convoluted story poured out. And in that moment, I felt sorry for her, really saw her as the victim of fate and circumstance, somehow. I loved her, and I wanted to believe, still, that her motives were pure. Yet, as I would learn over the coming years, even in this confession, my mom was deceiving me and everyone else around her. She chose to keep my real father’s identity secret from me, to forcibly push him from my life while she married another man and passed him off as my dad. While she did tell her husband that I was not his, she told other lies to ensnare him— that she was raped, that my dad did not want to marry her. The reality was that my dad was broken over her defection, her refusal to marry him, over the loss of his daughter. He spent years in emotional upheaval before he finally found healing in Christ. And in the next dozen years, I was left to piece together my identity, not really knowing who I was. On the surface I looked fine, excelling in high school and college. But, I felt lost, unsure, vulnerable, and insecure. I was a victim of sexual abuse during this period. And I vacillated between believing this oft-told lie of my mother’s had no impact on my daily life to making questionable choices that I now know came from a deep insecurity about who I was and whether I really mattered or had any value.

Even with my grandfather nearby throughout my childhood to love me and provide fatherly affection, I always felt a deep sense of inadequacy as a young woman. And learning the “why” did not alter that; I still felt un-moored and broken in a fundamental way. And I was angry, very angry. I was 25 and newly married before I realized the depth of my anger. It was directed at my mom, of course, but also at the father I did not have as a child. And I wrote to him, scathing letters of accusation at his seeming abandonment of me to my mother’s devices. He was married and the father of two young boys at the time. And the letters he wrote me were grace itself, explaining to me how very much he wanted me, about the poor counsel he had received—telling him that there was no point in fighting when another man was listed on my birth certificate. He knew now, of course, that he had been wrong to accede to my mom’s demands. And he described pulling one of his young sons up onto his lap as he was reading my letter, and telling him about this little girl who did not have a daddy’s lap for comfort when she was small. That was the beginning of a reconcilation with him, but it took years before I felt comfortable enough to reach out in a tangible way. I felt awkward and reserved with this man who had helped to create me, and I did not know how to remedy that.

Today, I am a mom of three teenagers; I have been married for almost 22 years, to a husband who has helped teach me that I can trust again. And I can say with absolute certainty that a vital component of my healing, of God’s restoration of my identity, has been establishing a relationship with my biological father. I have found unlimited common ground and shared traits with this man who did not raise me, and God has spoken to me so clearly that this bond matters, that He designed it for a mighty purpose. He is healing my heart on many levels through this found tie with my father. And watching my husband father our own children has been part of that healing, too. I cannot adequately describe the particular joy I feel when I witness moments of joy and fun between my husband and our only daughter. I see in them what I missed, but that hole in my heart is filling up daily now.

It is another story, though, in regard to my mom. She has recently lost her husband of 46 years. His passing brought all of her addiction issues to a head, and she almost died from a drug overdose, combined with a heart attack and stroke, in the days following his death. While she is sober now, I sometimes wonder if I will ever be able to trust her. She broke me in a fundemental way that I believe she still does not understand. And in every interaction with her, my guard is up, protecting myself from further hurt. I often tell my 13-year-old daughter how much I value our closeness, because I have never been truly close to my own mom. Though God has given me surrogates in my late grandmother and a beloved aunt, I have felt robbed of both parents through much of my life. God is healing that hurt in regard to my dad, but I do not know if I will ever feel close to my mom on this earth. She has told me many times that she thought she was doing what was best at the time, despite so many in her family imploring her to tell me the truth. I have made little headway in getting past her excuses for the lies, getting her to see that her paramount job as my mother was to put my needs ahead of her own. And now, as a mother myself, I cannot comprehend the choice she made to put herself and her desires over my right to know my own father. She lied to keep me to herself and to keep the world she had built intact. In the end, though, her lies exploded that world, and I have found my family and belonging in the man she kept from me for years.

International Children’s (Rights) Day: 20th November

Here are a few reasons why International Children’s Day should be a cry for children’s rights (statistics are American but would be in the ballpark for most western countries):

  1. 90% of homeless children are fatherless.
  2. 70-85% of prison inmates grew up without a father.
  3. Over 60% of teenagers who commit suicide have absent fathers
  4. 70% of high school drop-outs come from fatherless homes
  5. 70% of pregnant teenagers come from fatherless homes.

At the opposite end of the spectrum, here is a link to a research article on the clear economic benefit of two parent families in terms of education, economic well-being and crime, not just for the individual family concerned but for entire nations.

Lets start fighting for a child’s right to a safe and loving biological family. Fewer and fewer people are sticking up for kids. The effect on nations, either way, is pronounced.

Kevin Davis


Was Mecca in Arabia?

I am in the process of finishing off an essay about the history of Mecca. To give you a heads up here is a draft version of the conclusion…


Islamic traditional history claims Mecca was the centre of a flourishing trade network that was dominated by the Quraysh tribe. It also claims that it was also a major pilgrimage site housing a famous pagan temple. It says a Meccan man called Muhammad came from that tribe and began a new religion. As you can now see, all these claims lack substantiating evidence. I will conclude with a line by line description of what the evidence actually says about Mecca:

Mecca is missing from all historical records until 741AD. It is missing from maps, trade notes, ancient histories, religious inscriptions and records and imperial records.

The Qur’an goes to great lengths to avoid talking about geography. Mecca is not mentioned in the book. However there are two vague references to Bakkah/Makkah. Neither gives any clues as to its location.

It is only the Hadiths, written 200 years later, that say Bakkah/Makkah is the modern Mecca. The Hadiths cannot be trusted as a historical source of material on Mecca and Muhammad. They clearly mythologised the past.

It is a full 200 years after the alleged events that Islamic traditional histories started to describe a prophet Muhammad as coming from a tribe called the Quraysh and growing up in the thriving trading and pilgrimage site called Mecca.

The Qur’an says Mecca is located where Abraham lived, near the place where the Romans were defeated and where Lots wife was turned to stone. All these sites are in Palestine.

The many references to agriculture flourishing around Mecca are false. The climate is too dry. Agriculture did flourish in Palestine.

All other geographical references in the Qur’an, Midian, Ad and Thamud, refer to peoples and places near Palestine.

The number one pre-Arab Empire era pilgrimage site for the Arabs was located at Abraham’s tree of Mamre, in Palestine, not at Mecca.

Until the 8th century all mosques faced Nabataea’s Petra in lower Jordan or somewhere near it. None faced Mecca. The direction changed during the early 8th Century only. The Qur’an even admits to a change of direction.

The Arabic language originated with the Nabataeans, not deep in the Arabian Peninsula, so did Arab international trade, which features significantly in the stories of Islam’s origin.

The Nabataeans worshipped meteorites at sacred cubes called a Ka’ba. This pagan religious practice has been replicated in Mecca.

Mecca could never have been a trading centre as it was not on the coast in an era when land transport had ceased five centuries before.

Pliny’s Mochorbre is definitely not today’s Mecca as it is on the south coast of Arabia.

Ptolemy’s Makoraba is not todays Mecca as the longitude and latitude references are incorrect, he places it near a river and the root consonants of the two words are different.

Mecca is missing from the maps of Periplus, Procopius and from all the Romans records. In addition, no Arab historians of the 7th Century mention Mecca or the Quraysh tribe.

There is no record of any spice trade coming out of Arabia in the centuries leading up to Islam’s birth. It died hundreds of years earlier. Therefore all Islamic references to it are a myth.

There is no record of any pilgrimage site at Mecca before the 8th Century. Mecca is missing from all pilgrimage lists. In addition pilgrimage sites were seasonal, not permanent, and no trading was allowed at these sites.

No Muslim leadership ever based itself at Mecca. Cities of significance were Jerusalem, Damascus and Baghdad.

It was only in 691AD that we first hear of Mecca as an alternative site for the House of God under the reign of Abd al-Malik. His theology, as evidenced on the Dome of the Rock inscription, was still solidly Christian but Arian in doctrine.

Arian Christian theology became the cornerstone of orthodox Islamic theology.

The rapidly expanding Arab Empire needed an Arab prophet, an Arab sacred book and an Arab holy city to justify its Arabian-centric political existence and to create differentiation from the empires and religions surrounding it.

Kevin Davis