Relevant ProMundis Blogposts
This interview was published by the Austrian Evangelical Alliance after the Bishops Synod on Marriage and Family in the Vatican in 2015.
Besides me there were four other Protestants who attended, even if most of them were only there part of the time and not, as I was, for the entire three weeks. The Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity always invites a number of representatives from other churches to the Synod, in particular, however, from the World Council of Churches (WCC) and the World Evangelical Alliance (WEA) as the two largest Christian umbrella organizations. Since I moderate the WEA team which maintains our contact to other Christian world communions (and to other religions), in a certain sense our General Secretary nominated me automatically. Furthermore, I have been a specialist in Catholic issues for 30 years – for instance, one could think of my book Indulgences – and the fact that I personally know the Pope well (I spoke privately with him every day at the Synod), sometimes even 2-3 times per day, with the exception of Sundays.
How were you accepted?
I really have to begin with some significant praise: There is no Protestant church where I have been a guest where I have been taken so directly into ongoing discussions and which has treated me as an equal partner in dialogue. This is due to the fact that we were not mere observers, and we were in no way inferior to the other delegates except when it came to voting rights. We had three minutes for plenary addresses, just like everyone else did. We were present for all internal matters under discussion, discussed in the various language groups without limitation, and this included textual suggestions for the closing document. We had chosen Cardinal Schönborn as the German language moderator, and he brilliantly incorporated the breadth of opinions into a very substantial conversation. He did the same with the Serbian Orthodox Archbishop of Vienna and with me, since we were in the same group.
So, is the Reformation is over, and we are going to become Catholic?
Sure, I receive letters with concerns that we Evangelicals are going to convert in droves to this nice Pope’s church. But please, the reality is the opposite: Everyday there are thousands of Catholics in Latin America and in the Global South coming over to Pentecostal and Evangelical churches, and a counter development is not recognizable. And we theologians who are conducting conversations with Rome are all very conservative representatives of Reformed theology.
Our good contact with Rome accompanies a much more open, honest, and respectful dispute about differences and similarities. We have ongoing serious doctrinal conversations, and the express desire from the Catholic side is for us to clearly formulate and introduce our point of view.
The difference when compared to what used to happen is clear: The Pope sees Evangelical Christians as full-fledged believers and openly addresses the fact that the active Christian life Evangelicals and Pentecostals lead in prayer, sanctification, and in giving witness can be a model for Catholics. He has even officially apologized to the Pentecostal movement that the Catholic Church persecuted it in former times.
Well then, is there a lot of talking but no cooperation?
One really has to see the following along with all the differences in doctrinal teaching: In the battle against injustice in this world, there are a lot of topics where Evangelicals and Catholics, along with all people of good will, have to stay on the ball (e.g., human trafficking, corruption) or where for long stretches along the trodden path we only have each other – together, after all, we make up a group totaling almost 2 billion people (e.g., when it comes to abortion, lifetime marriage). Additionally, one can sense that the Pope sees much more in common with us than, for instance, with what used to be the Protestant state churches. Furthermore, these former state churches only play a large role in the West. Outside of the West, the majority of Protestants are Evangelical. In Korea, for instance, the percentage of Evangelicals is 90%.
Which concerns have you presented to the Pope?
On the one hand, we have spoken about a closer cooperation in questions relating to family policies. On the other hand, I have publicly recommended to him in urgent terms to pursue a more decisive approach against the persecution of Christians. There should really be a shock going through global Christianity in light of this tragedy. It was also important to me to see the ISIS battle against Christians and Yesidis categorized as genocide. According to the United Nations‘ definition, genocide occurs when an ethnic or religious group is systematically persecuted, raped, displaced, or enslaved. These criteria have, unfortunately, been fulfilled in Syria and Iraq.
How did the Pope react?
During my talk he vigorously nodded, and in the end he thanked me and asked for the written version of the talk. On the next day, he again took me aside and assured me that in any case he wanted to address the issue. Let’s see what happens.
Do you also expect repercussions from the decisions made by this Catholic Bishops Synod on the member communities of the Evangelical Alliance?
Yes, of course. To this end, I have to explain my “pie thesis”! Around the world there are three large Christian groups sharing the Christian pie. The Catholic Church accounts for one-half of the pie. The churches making up the second half, the non-Catholics, are divided further into two halves since there are two global umbrella organizations. The World Council of Churches comprises the Orthodox churches and the historical Protestant mainline churches, mostly prior state churches. The Evangelical Alliance essentially comprises younger Protestant churches. With almost 600 million members each, both umbrella organizations are approximately the same size and each account for one quarter of the pie. These three associations influence each other enormously, as what one group does influences the others directly, for better or for worse. When recently the Pope was traveling around in a Fiat, American televangelists were suddenly asked by their own people if they realy need their own Gulfstream.
Where do we essentially stand in the German speaking countries when it comes to contact between the Evangelical Alliance and Catholics?
The situation in the German speaking world in Germany and Austria is different from almost all other countries because the Evangelical Alliances there are not umbrella organizations of churches – as is, for instance, the case in Switzerland, but gather together Evangelical pastors, individuals, NGOs etc. That has to do the fact that in both countries about one-half of Evangelicals are members in the historic Protestant churches and for that reason formed other organizational forms of cooperation 150 years ago. That makes things rather unclear for the Catholic side in Austria and Germany, because they do not speak to representatives of churches. In Kenya and Korea, for example, the Catholic Church simply interfaces with the conservative Protestant churches as the Evangelical Alliance and beside this the National Church Council with other churches. There one speaks with Evangelicals as churches. Nonetheless, we increasingly experience that the Catholic side more and more takes Evangelical theologians and leaders seriously as representatives of one-quarter of global Christianity and is learning to differentiate between the situation in our countries and the global situation.
Why do you consider it important to be in dialogue with the Catholic Church?
On the one hand, we can no longer avoid each other in light of the world situation and the expansion of the Catholic Church and Evangelicals everywhere in the world. Humanity has no sympathy for our not speaking with each other while the world burns. And when it comes to the issue of the persecution of Christians – my focus – I find it abysmal not to work in concert.
On the other hand, it is important for me that every high-ranking religious leader in the world does not learn who we are and what we stand for from the media or from the rumor mill but rather from an Evangelical leader as a qualified source. Conversely, I also do not want to be informed about other churches by the media or the rumor mill. Rather, and in addition to thorough source study – I want to get information out of the mouths of those who are responsible, for instance from the Pope or from the Prefect of the Congregation of the Faith in Rome, Cardinal Müller. This is how trust develops, indeed friendship, and it is in this way that real differences can be talked about and true commonalities can be discovered.
One really has to say that we also maintain closer relationships to all other historic churches than we used to, even if that naturally interests the media much less than the relationship with the Pope. Thus, I visit the Ecumenical Patriarch, the head of all Orthodox Christians, in Istanbul once a year, and I meet once a year with the Patriarch of all Oriental churches. The other individuals maintaining the WEA’s relationships with other particular denomination will be doing something similar.
By the way, all of this does not weaken our Evangelical identity. Rather, it effects the opposite: it forces us to clearly work out what we stand for and why we do what we do.
And it makes it clear to us that we not only have a great responsibility for ourselves but also help to carry the responsibility for the future of all churches.
(Bonn, 20.09.2016) Christine and Thomas Schirrmacher have paid a visit to the ministry of religious affairs in Azerbaijan as well as to government organizations having to do with the areas of religion and culture. Additionally, they visited the leaders of the different Muslim confessions as well as leaders of the Jewish community and the leadership of the officially recognized denominations within the country (Orthodox, Catholic, Lutheran), all in an effort to construct a picture of the situation relating to religious freedom and the status of the dialogue conducted between Islam, Judaism, and Christianity. Besides that, they also met with the chairpersons of the most important human rights organizations in the country.The ministry of religious affairs [“State Committee for Work with Religious Associations” (SCWRA)] oversees all religions in the country. However, it oversees organized Islam in particular. The chairman is Mubariz Gurbanli. His deputy, Siyavush Haydarov, organized the discussion.
The government’s multicultural institute [Baku International Multiculturalism Centre] was represented by its heads, Dr. Ayten Gahraman and Neriman Qasimzade. The Institute is meant to promote the linguistic, ethnic, and religious diversity of the country and the – alleged – individual development of the many ethnic groups.
The Institute is also responsible for the close to one million refugees from Armenian occupied Nagorno Karabakh, about which the visiting experts from Germany became thoroughly informed.
Included in the visit with the leader of official Islam was a conversation with the Islamic Religious Council of the Caucasus, which is responsible for all of Caucasus, and a comprehensive visit of its library of historic hand-written documents as well as a viewing of the Taza Pir Mosque.
Sheik Allah?ükür Pa?azad?, the Grand Mufti in Caucasus and Chairman of the “Religious Council of the Caucasus,” himself a Shiite, is the only grand mufti in the world who speaks at the same time for both Sunnis and Shiites. Azerbaijan is also the only country on earth in which Sunni and Shiite Muslims jointly offer prayers in the same mosques, even if it was originally due to state pressure.
Among the participating board members of the “Caucasus Muslim Board” were the Vice President Dr. Kamer A. Javadli, Shimran Hasanov, and the Vice President, who explained the Islamic educational system in the country in detail.
Christine and Thomas Schirrmacher later also met with Mrs. Prof. Antiga Gurbanova, who out of protest against the increasing Islamization had left the Islamic university she founded and has become one of the most important women’s rights activists in the country.
They also met the head of the underground Shiites, officially the Chairman of the Centre for the Protection of Freedom of Conscience and Religion (DEVAMM), Ilgar Ibragimoglu, in private surroundings. He is called the “Muqtada as-Sadr of Azerbaijan.” “Muqtada al-Sadr . . . (* 12. August 1973 in Iraq) is a radical Iraqi cleric, militia leader, and Shiite politician whose forces fought against US and Iraqi troops from 2004 to 2008” (Wikipedia, August 5, 2016).
“The predominant religion is Shiite Islam, which spread in the 8th century through Arab conquerors. In addition to Iran, Iraq, and Bahrain, Azerbaijan is one of the few countries with a majority Shiite population. 85% of Muslim Azerbaijanis profess to be Shiite and 15% Sunni. Many Azerbaijanis were secularized during Soviet rule. For that reason, only about 10% of the people label themselves as regularly practicing Muslims. Most Azerbaijanis only practice Islam on the high holidays such as Ramadan. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Islam experienced a rebirth. More and more people again turned to Islam. Particularly in the south of the country, one finds that there has been an orthodox form of Islam which has emerged over a number of years due to Iranian influence. Already in 1991, the first political organizations with Islamic character were founded in Azerbaijan. These include the Islamic Party of Azerbaijan, the Azerbaijani Party of Islamic Progress, and the Azad Ruhaniler organization. Subsequent thereto, the Islamic Party of Azerbaijan, the Azerbaijani Party of Islamic Progress, and other Islamic parties and organizations were forbidden in 1995 under the updated laws of Azerbaijan; the founding (and the re-establishment) of religious parties is now legally forbidden” (Wikipedia, August 5, 2016).
The Chairman of the “Religious Community of Mountain Jews of Azerbaijan,” Rabbi Yevdayev Milikh Ilhanonovich, led the German subject matter experts through the synagogue built in 2003 in Baku. He reported that Jews in Baku can go out walking in traditional clothing without there ever being a problem. In addition to the so-called ‘mountain Jews,’ there are Ashkenazi Jews of European descent in Azerbaijan as well as Georgians who have converted to Judaism. It is estimated that the total number of Jews in the country is 25,000 to 30,000.
Finally, the experts also viewed Ateschgah. Ateschgah is a Zoroastrian fire temple near the Azerbaijani capital of Baku, in which Hindu pilgrims also worshiped fire. Gas streams from the earth at this point, and it continually burns on its own. This used to be seen as a divine miracle.
The Russian Orthodox Archbishop of Baku and the Azerbaijani Eparchy Alexander Ischein has his official seat next to the cathedral. The Archpriest Mefodity Afandiyev, Secretary of the office of the diocese of the Russian Orthodox Church in Baku and Azerbaijan, gave Christine and Thomas Schirrmacher a comprehensive insight into the situation facing the church in the country, which included a tour through the Russian Orthodox cathedral. It was built in 1909, but it was closed in 1920 and destroyed in 1991 by Russian shelling. Thanks to donations by an Azeri Russian businessman, the cathedral was rebuilt in 2000 and dedicated in 2001 by Patriarch Alexius II as the bishop’s church since the famous Alexander Newski Cathedral was blown up by the Soviets. In 1998, 3.8% of the population professed to being Russian Orthodox; there is no data available which is more recent.
There are an estimated 7,000 Protestants and 400 Catholics, and in addition there are 1,200 Jehovah’s Witnesses. In addition to a visit to the leader of Catholic congregation, Fr. Jozef Cerkov, in the so-called Pro-Cathedral of the Apostolic Prefecture in Azerbaijan, worship services and a visit to the congregation of the Evangelical-Lutheran Redeemer Church were also included in the program of activities. Pastor Vera Nesterova is responsible for the Russian worship services, and Pastor Manzar Ismayilova is responsible for the worship services in Azeri. Worship services take place in the imposing Redeemer Church, which belongs to the state, in return for a rental payment.
In addition to mentioning the official churches, the website of the Ministry of Religion mentions Baptists, Adventists, two small Orthodox groups, and additional very small groups.
Azerbaijan is ranked at position 38 on the 2013 World Watch List persecution index produced by the aid organization Open Doors, which follows where Christians are persecuted most. “The Azerbaijani Constitution formally guarantees all religious communities religious freedom. However, all religious communities have to register. Non-registered Christian churches are therefore illegal. The production or importation of Bibles and the sale of Bibles without expressed state permission are all considered acts of crime. The activities of Christian churches are often observed and controlled by the state committee for religious affairs or by the secret police. In May 2009 a new law regarding religion became effective, and there were amendments made to the associated administrative and penal laws. Religious communities not registered by January 2010 were no longer accepted” (Wikipedia, August 6, 2016).
In the 1990s, all Christians counted as a sort of fifth column of Armenia and for that reason were viewed as suspicious by the state as well as by the majority population and were discriminated against. This has essentially changed under the present-day president, as is consistently reported by all denominations. Local Christians are no longer being linked with the conflict in Armenia.
Russia is basically on the side of the likewise ‘Christian’ Armenians in the Nagorno Karabakh conflict and is keeping the conflict simmering. At the same time, Russia has been delivering weapons to both sides. Russia does not want to lose its influence over what used to be the Soviet Republic of Azerbaijan.
Human Rights Organizations
The discussion with leaders of most human rights organizations in the country, which lasted several hours, included the following:
- Dr. Saadat Benanyarly, President of the ISHR in Azerbaijan
- Novella Jafarova-Appelbaum (Chairman of the Association for the Protection of Women’s Rights in Azerbaijan after D. Aliyeva)
- Eldar Zeynalov (Azerbaijan Human Rights Center, AHRC)
- Zaliha Tahirova (Human Rights Center of Azerbaijan)
- Avaz Hasanov (National Coordinator of the Azerbaijani National Platform of the Civil Society Forum Eastern Partnership)
- Alimammad Nuriyev (President of the “Constitution” Research Foundation)
- Sahib Mammadov (Chairman of the Citizens’ Labour Rights Protection League)
- Saida Godjamanli (Bureau of Human Rights and Law Respect)
- Avaz Qasanov (Chairman of the Humanitarian Research Public Union)
Most human rights organizations originated in the later years of the Soviet Union when it was first possible to address human rights violations in a more organized manner.
Lawyers from the organizations reported at length on the conditions in the prisons, as they have the right to inspect any prison in the country at any time.
A particular topic had to do with 15 current political prisoners whom international human rights organizations such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have been making efforts to help. According to concurring statements by the assembled human rights organizations, it is almost exclusively a question of dangerous Islamists.
Johnson and Schirrmacher represent World Evangelical Alliance at consultation of the three cooperating institutions
(Bonn, 27.06.2016) At the invitation of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue (PCID), on the occasion of the fifth anniversary of the document “Christian Witness in a Multi-Religious World: Recommendations for Conduct,” officials from the Roman Curia and the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of Italy, representatives of the World Council of Churches (WCC) and World Evangelical Alliance (WEA), as well as scholars from African Traditional Religions, Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam, Jainism, Sikhism, Taoism and Tenrikyo met in Rome on Tuesday, 21 June, 2016. This document, published on 28 June, 2011, was a joint venture by the PCID, the WCC and the WEA.
The three bodies were represented by their highest representatives for interreligious dialogue, H. Em. Cardinal Jean-Louis Tauran (PCID), Dr. Clare Amos (WCC) and Prof. Dr. Thomas Schirrmacher (WEA).
The keynote address by H. Em. Cardinal Jean-Louis Tauran, President of the PCID, was followed by a video message from Rev. Dr. Shanta Premavardhana, previously a staff member of the WCC. Reports on the implementation of the document were presented by Bishop Miguel Àngel Ayuso Guixot, for the PCID; Dr. Clare Amos and Ms. Kyriaki Avtzi, for the WCC; and Prof. Dr. Thomas K. Johnson, for the WEA.
In his statement Johnson claimed,
“Codes for conduct, or codes of ethics, generally arise in response to a need. This was clearly true of the Ten Commandments. The need to which this 2011 code of ethics for religious persuasion—for propagating and promoting the faith—responded is the extent to which religious faith has been entangled with human conflicts since the dawn of history . . . Religion has long been associated with the mistreatment of people who do not have the same religion or the same religious experience, whether this mistreatment is in the form of violence, manipulation, or deception. In an astonishingly unified manner, the representatives of almost all Christians joined to address this ancient problem which has been amplified in our time by globalization. We could not say that we will not talk about our faith or invite other people to come to our faith, because the message that God is reconciling the world to himself in Jesus Christ is the most important news we have received; rather, what we have said is that there are recognizably good and evil ways of treating people when we talk about and promote our faith.”
“In our age marked by extreme levels of religious persecution, religious violence, and religious terrorism, it is time to articulate the universal standards by which people of all religions can clearly distinguish the honest practitioners of their faith . . . Within Christendom we have done our homework and have written a code of ethics for Christian proclamation. All the people represented here today should continue on toward another history-making code of ethics related to the protection, proclamation, promotion, and propagation of all religious, philosophical, or ideological messages.”
Prof. Dr. Thomas Schirrmacher declared on behalf of WEA, that WEA would cooperate in any further step together with PCID and WCC, e.g., of further developing the document or starting further rounds of discussion in interreligious dialogue.
We offer the whole speech of Dr. Johnson for free use by the media.
Downloads and Links:
- Speech by Thomas K. Johnson (PDF)
- Press release of PCID (or as PDF)
- Radio Vatican
- BQ No. 172 – 18/2011 about the launch
- Youtube videos of the launch in 2011:
Volkmar Klein and Thomas Schirrmacher visit the new Special Advisor for Religious Minorities in the Near East and South/Central Asia in the State Department in Washington
(Bonn, 18.05.2016) On the occasion of their participation in the 2016 National Prayer Breakfast in Washington, two members of the Central Council o Oriental Christians in Germany (Zentralrat Orientalischer Christen in Deutschland, ZOCD), namely the Member of the German Bundestag Volkmar Klein and the Director of the International Institute for Religious Freedom (IIRF), Thomas Schirrmacher, met with the new Special Advisor for Religious Minorities in the Near East and South/Central Asia, Knox Thames, and received information on his last trip to the Near East. Also, since there are efforts to establish something similar for the entire Near and Middle East, Klein and Schirrmacher introduced the ZOCD.
The conversation had been arranged at a meeting between three representatives of the IIRF and the Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom, David N. Saperstein, in December in Rome.
In addition, Schirrmacher met in Washington with numerous researchers and experts associated with the topic of religious freedom, thus with Nina Shea, Director of the Hudson Institute’s Center for Religious Freedom, with Olivia Enos and Sarah Torre, responsible for topics relating to religious freedom in the USA and the Near East in The Heritage Foundation, the Republican think tank, with Timothy Shah and Thomas Farr, the Directors of the Religious Freedom Project at Georgetown University’s Berkeley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs as well as with the Republican politician John McCain and the Ukrainian politician Julija Tymoschenko.
Volkmar Klein and Thomas Schirrmacher had met the prior year with Frank Wolf, a Republican member of the House of Representatives, the longest standing active member of the House of Representatives (1980-2015). As a Republican, along with colleagues in the Democratic Party, he has been advancing all significant legislation in the USA relating to religious freedom.
In a statement, Schirrmacher subsequently criticized President Barack Obama. In no city on earth are there so many experts working on the topic of religious freedom as in Washington, and Washington has furnished numerous laws with high ranking institutions having to do with the topic. These include the US Commission for International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), which is associated with the US Congress, the Ambassador for Religious Freedom, and a separate department within the State Department which produces a report on the state of religious freedom in all countries on earth. However, through his disinterest, President Obama has ensured that their effect comes to nothing. The new office held by Knox Thames was also created through a law from both Houses of the US Congress against Obama’s wishes. President Obama, like the EU Parliament, appears to have also knowingly opposed calling the genocide conducted against Christians, Yazidis, and others in the Near East by its name. Indeed, Obama is of the opinion that the acts against Yazidis represent genocide, but not the actions taken against Christians.
Since reports that the Canadian government has been the first to do away with the office of Ambassador for Religious Freedom, North America has in the meantime fallen well behind its potential as far as this topic is concerned.
Links and Downloads:
- Hudson Institute: Center for Religious Freedom
- The Heritage Foundation (Wikipedia)
- The Heritage Foundation: Religious Liberty
- Photo: In Plenary
Thomas Schirrmacher receives the Order of Merit from the Royal House of Ghassan for his Activities relating to Human Rights in the Middle East
(Bonn, 11.08.2016) The – no longer governing – oldest royal house in the world, the Christian and Arab ruling house of The Sovereign Imperial and Royal House of Ghassan, has honored Thomas Schirrmacher with the “Magister Praetor” Order of Merit for achievements relating to the planning of a civic central council of Christians in the Near East and Middle East (Oriental Christian Council) and for promoting the House of Ghassan, specifically noting “that he [enabled] the House’s personal contact to Pope Francis and to the Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew.”
At the same time, Schirrmacher received the “Knight Grand Cross,” the highest order of the knightly order “The Sacred Order of Michael Archangel” for his efforts in the cause of human rights and religious freedom in the Near and Middle East.” Among the most prominent members of the Order are the Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew and Pope Francis.
Both orders were conferred upon Schirrmacher by the head of the House, His Imperial and Royal Highness Prince Gharios El Chemor of Ghassan Al-Nu’gn VIII, Amman, Jordan, in Bonn and in Istanbul.
The Royal House of Ghassan placed kings and rulers from about 300 A.D. to 1747 A.D. in various regions of the Near and Middle East, most recently in Lebanon from 1217-1747 (Sheikh Al-Chemor).
The claims of the Ghassanid Royal House and its present head were examined and recognized by the highest courts in Brazil and California and checked by the Vatican with a favorable opinion. Additionally, the Royal house received “special consultative” status from the United Nations, whereby it was recognized as having legal personality under international law.
The Ghassanid tribe is spread throughout the entire Orient in all existing religions, above all, however, in all denominations within Christianity. It counts as the largest tribe in the Arab world. On account of its Christian orientation, millions of Ghassanids were driven to Brazil and throughout the world. Additionally, and for that reason, they are largely ignored since ‘Arab’ and ‘Christian’ cannot be thought about together or there is no desire to think about ‘Arab’ and ‘Christian’ together.