Turkey’s Erdogan says Hagia Sophia becomes mosque after court ruling

By Daren Butler and Ece Toksabay

ISTANBUL (Reuters) – President Tayyip Erdogan declared Istanbul’s Hagia Sophia open to Muslim worship on Friday after a top court ruled that the building’s conversion to a museum by modern Turkey’s founding statesman was illegal.

Erdogan made his announcement, just an hour after the court ruling was revealed, despite international warnings not to change the status of the nearly 1,500-year-old monument, revered by Christians and Muslims alike.

“The decision was taken to hand over the management of the Ayasofya Mosque…to the Religious Affairs Directorate and open it for worship,” the decision signed by Erdogan said.

Erdogan had earlier proposed restoring the mosque status of the UNESCO World Heritage Site, a focal point of both the Christian Byzantine and Muslim Ottoman empires and now one of the most visited monuments in Turkey.

The United States, Greece and church leaders were among those to express concern about changing the status of the huge 6th Century building, converted into a museum in the early days of the modern secular Turkish state under Mustafa Kemal Ataturk.

“It was concluded that the settlement deed allocated it as a mosque and its use outside this character is not possible legally,” the Council of State, Turkey’s top administrative court in Ankara, said in its ruling.

“The cabinet decision in 1934 that ended its use as a mosque and defined it as a museum did not comply with laws,” it said, referring to an edict signed by Ataturk.

RUSSIAN ORTHODOX CHURCH EXPRESSES REGRET

The association which brought the court case, the latest in a 16-year legal battle, said Hagia Sophia was the property of the Ottoman leader who captured the city in 1453 and turned the already 900-year-old Byzantine church into a mosque.

Erdogan, a pious Muslim, threw his weight behind the campaign to convert the building before local elections last year. He is due to speak shortly before 9 p.m. (1800 GMT), his head of communications said.

The Ottomans built minarets alongside the vast domed structure, while inside they added huge calligraphic panels bearing the Arabic names of the early Muslim caliphs alongside the monument’s ancient Christian iconography.

The Russian Orthodox Church said it regretted that the court did not take its concerns into account when making its ruling and said the decision could lead to even greater divisions, the TASS news agency reported.

Previously, Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, the spiritual head of some 300 million Orthodox Christians worldwide and based in Istanbul, said converting it into a mosque would disappoint Christians and would “fracture” East and West.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Greece had also urged Turkey to maintain the building as a museum.

But Turkish groups have long campaigned for Hagia Sophia’s conversion into a mosque, saying this would better reflect Turkey’s status as an overwhelmingly Muslim country.

(Reporting by Daren Butler and Ece Toksabay; Editing by Dominic Evans, Jonathan Spicer and Timothy Heritage)

Coronavirus forces U.S. churches to offer Easter Sunday services unlike any before

By Rich McKay

(Reuters) – U.S. church leaders peppered their Easter homilies with references to the coronavirus on Sunday, in masses held online, on television and even in parking lots to people sheltering in cars to maintain social distancing during the pandemic.

For the world’s largest Christian population, the coronavirus pandemic has meant observing an Easter Sunday unlike any Americans have lived through before.

“Today as we hear the Easter bells as a call to solidarity among all the members of our community in the face of the pandemic, we might respond to witness to the power of the Resurrection, the power of love that is stronger than death, and faith in a provident God who can always bring good out of evil,” Boston’s Cardinal Sean O’Malley said in his homily on BostonCatholic.org.

Governors and health authorities across the United States have broadly asked residents to avoid gathering in large numbers, leading to the closure of schools, businesses and churches.

The COVID-19 respiratory disease caused by the novel coronavirus has claimed more than 20,500 lives across the United States and infected more than 525,000 people.

Major U.S. religious institutions, including Roman Catholic dioceses and Protestant churches, have found alternatives to safely celebrate the holiest day on the Christian calendar.

In Easley, South Carolina, the 2,200 members of the Rock Springs Baptist Church were among the many U.S. churchgoers who turned to technology and the airwaves for help.

Reverend Jim Cawthon, 46, said he expected hundreds to spend Easter services in their cars in his megachurch’s parking lot, watching the proceedings on big outdoor screens and listening to its broadcast over local radio.

More will likely watch online, which Cawthon said should be easier as the church recently upgraded its video and internet systems.

“Just prior to this all going crazy, we were already set up,” Cawthon said. “It’s all about the cross and celebrating Easter even in a pandemic.”

Some older adults in retirement communities celebrated Holy Week by playing music and video broadcasts of services. Some communities held contests, asking residents, for instance, to decorate golf carts for Easter and leave them parked outside for judging, instead of holding annual golf cart Easter parades.

Curtis James, a youth pastor at the Tate Springs Baptist Church in Arlington, Texas, dreamed up the idea of holding a safe Easter egg hunt for children with the online videogame Minecraft. Other churches have joined in as the plan garnered national attention.

The Home Moravian Church in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, has held a sunrise Easter service for almost 250 years, weathering even the Revolutionary and Civil Wars, as well as the two World Wars. But for the pandemic, the service was canceled. It was to be replaced by an online and locally broadcast service with just a preacher and few choir and band members providing music.

A handful of churches have bucked social distancing rules aimed at slowing the disease’s spread and planned to go ahead with in-person services on Sunday, with some pastors predicting divine protection from the disease.

Most Catholic dioceses across the United States shut down all such live services, however.

Archbishop Jose Gomez of the Los Angeles diocese wrote to priests and parishioners across the nation online to hold steadfast.

“Future generations will look back on this as the long Lent of 2020, a time when disease and death suddenly darkened the whole earth,” Archbishop Jose Gomez of Los Angeles diocese wrote to priests and parishioners across the nation online.

“This Holy Week will be different. Our churches may be closed but Christ is not quarantined and his Gospel is not in chains.”

In Columbus, Georgia, the St. Anne Catholic Church found a unique way to fill up its pews for Easter Sunday.

More than 650 members of the 1,500-strong congregation sent in “selfie” photos of themselves that the priests taped to the pews, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported.

“Now we look out and see faces,” pastor Robert Schlageter told the newspaper.

(Reporting by Rich McKay in Atlanta; Editing by Scott Malone, Rosalba O’Brien and Tom Brown)

Easter season goes virtual as coronavirus locks out tradition

By Philip Pullella

VATICAN CITY (Reuters) – One Catholic priest in rural coastal Ireland delivered socially-distanced blessings from a moving vintage “popemobile”.

Another in Germany taped pictures of his parishioners to empty pews and televised his Mass.

With many churches closed or affected by coronavirus lockdown restrictions for the Easter season, Christians of various denominations around the world have come up with novel ways to keep the faith.

Pope Francis, leader of the world’s 1.3 billion Roman Catholics, has been, as he put it, “caged” in the Vatican. He has been encouraging his flock via scaled-down Holy Week services transmitted live on television and over the internet.

Most of them have been held in an empty St. Peter’s Basilica, which can hold up to 10,000 people, and an empty St. Peter’s Square, which has drawn more than 100,000 in past years.

Holy Week – which includes Palm Sunday, Holy Thursday, Good Friday, Holy Saturday and Easter Sunday – is the most solemn period in the Christian liturgical calendar.

“We are celebrating Good Friday, the commemoration of the death of Jesus, under very difficult circumstances,” Archbishop Pierbattista Pizzaballa, the Vatican’s apostolic administrator in the Holy Land, said outside Jerusalem’s Church of the Holy Sepulchre, revered as the site of Jesus’ crucifixion, burial and resurrection.

Only a few clerics were allowed inside the church for what otherwise would have been a packed service.

Despite the grim reality of the coronavirus crisis, many pastors have not allowed it to dampen the hope inherent in the Easter message of life triumphing over death.

Since his parishioners couldn’t come to him, Irish priest Malachy Conlon geared up – literally – and went to them on Holy Thursday.

He drove an open-top “popemobile” once used by Pope John Paul around northeastern coastal villages, blessing from a safe distance people who gathered on the side of the road as he passed.

“There were huge crowds, it was a moving turnout,” he said after the six-hour drive.

“I’ve never received such a torrent of messages as I have this evening, people deeply appreciative and feeling connected to one another, despite all of the distancing.”

PICTURES PASTED ON EMPTY PEWS

On Palm Sunday in the German city of Achern, Father Joachim Giesler pasted pictures of his parishioners on empty pews and said Mass for a few people, including a television crew.

Kerstine Bohnert watched the broadcast with her family.

“Attending church service through TV or online streaming you do have the feeling that you are part of it, we see the priest like we do when we attend church, we see the pictures of others when the camera tilts and recognise other people and we are happy to take part,” she said.

It was such a hit with the homebound parishioners that Giesler will do it again on Easter Sunday.

The pandemic has cut across all Christian denominations, creating a sense of unity brought on by crisis.

For nearly 250 years in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, the Easter sunrise service of the Home Moravian church included about 300 musicians playing through the town.

This year, instead of the tradition dating back to 1772, a pastor and a handful of musicians from the Protestant denomination will hold a service broadcast on television and the internet.

“This was a difficult decision to make, and this Easter will

be different for all of us,” Church elder Reverend Chaz Snider wrote in a letter to the faithful.

“But we have faith in God who brings hope out of fear. So set your alarm, brew a cup of coffee, and join us on your back porch as we proclaim the resurrection of our Lord.”

(Reporting by Philip Pullella; Additional reporting by Rich McKay in Atlanta, Stephen Farrell in Jerusalem, Padraic Halpin in Dublin, and Ayhan Uyanik and Claire Watson in Germany; Editing by Frances Kerry)

Christianity Today’s split with Trump highlights deeper issue in white evangelical America

Christianity Today’s split with Trump highlights deeper issue in white evangelical America
By Simon Lewis and Heather Timmons

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – After evangelical publication Christianity Today published a blistering editorial on what it called Donald Trump’s “grossly immoral character”, some church leaders and the U.S. president himself denounced the criticism as elitist and out-of-touch.

The Dec. 19 editorial sparked a Christmas holiday debate over religion in U.S. politics, and posed new questions about the close alignment between white evangelical voters and Trump, who has given their beliefs strong political support.

However, the coziness with the Republican president, who was impeached this month by the Democrat-controlled House of Representatives, is exacerbating a long-term crisis facing white evangelicalism, some Christians say – it is being abandoned by younger generations.

There has been a big drop-off in white evangelical church participation among adults under 40, and publications such as Christianity Today and religious leaders are struggling to engage “Gen Z,” or those born after 1996.

“One of the major factors is that the church is too tied up in right-wing politics,” said Greg Carey, a professor at Lancaster Theological Seminary in Pennsylvania. Evangelical activism against gay rights is particularly repellant to many members of a generation where “everyone has friends who are LGBTQ,” Carey said.

Trump’s presidency may make the age gap worse, some evangelical Christians believe. “Having to go out and defend this guy day after day, as many of these Trump evangelicals are doing, they’re just destroying their credibility,” said Napp Nazworth, who until Monday was politics editor of another publication, the Christian Post.

Nazworth resigned over the Christian Post’s plans to criticize Christianity Today for its anti-Trump editorial.

He told Reuters many younger evangelicals opposed Trump’s immigration and asylum policies and were concerned about alleviating poverty, in contrast to older members of the faith. Evangelical leaders standing with Trump “will have no moral authority to speak to moral issues of the day after defending him,” Nazworth said.

‘RELIGIOUSLY UNAFFILIATED’

Evangelicalism, like all forms of Christianity in the United States, is struggling to attract younger members, amid an unprecedented surge in recent years of the number of people identifying as religiously unaffiliated.

White evangelical protestants declined as a proportion of the U.S. population between 2006 and 2018, falling to 15% from 23%, according to analysis by the Public Religion Research Institute.

Higher-than-average voter turnout among evangelicals means the group still represents more than a quarter of the U.S. electorate, but a failure to draw young worshippers means their electoral heft is set to diminish, said Robert P. Jones, chief executive and founder of PRRI.

The median age of white evangelicals and white Christians overall is 55, according to PRRI data, compared with 44 for the overall white population.

The evangelical church’s “singular focus” on same sex marriage, relationships and abortion is failing to engage younger generations, said Randall Balmer, a professor of religion at Dartmouth College, and a former editor at Christianity Today.

They are motivated by a broader set of issues, he said, adding “in terms of sexual orientation the younger generation just shrugs about that.”

‘PARTISAN ATTACK’

The perhaps unlikely alliance between conservative Christians and the twice-divorced New York real estate developer has been important for Trump in a country that is more religious than most other western democracies and where a president’s spiritual life is closely examined.

White evangelical Christians overwhelmingly voted for Trump in 2016, when exit polls showed he won 81% of their votes. They have mostly stuck with him despite the controversies over his harsh attacks on political rivals and demeaning comments about women, thanks largely to Trump appointing scores of conservative judges who support restrictions on access to abortion.

Many U.S. evangelicals also strongly support conservatives in Israel, and hailed Trump’s decision to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and move the U.S. embassy there.

Trump, who describes himself as Presbyterian and whose advisors include evangelical figures such as Florida televangelist Paula White, dismissed Christianity Today as “far left”.

A group of nearly 200 leaders from the conservative wing of evangelicalism defended him in a letter to the magazine, praising the president for seeking the advice of “Bible-believing Christians and patriotic Americans”.

Franklin Graham, son of the magazine’s founder Billy Graham, who advised both Republican and Democratic presidents over several decades, said the editorial was a “totally partisan attack.”

Meanwhile, other religious scholars and leaders have signed a petition https://www.change.org/p/christian-leaders-and-evangelical-leaders-affirm-christianity-today in support of Christianity Today, stating that the “United States evangelical and Christian community is at a moral crossroads.”

Younger evangelicals are put off by church leaders’ seemingly unconditional support for Trump despite his “cruel” treatment of migrants and deregulation that could damage the environment, said Marlena Graves, a Christian author on faith, culture and justice, who signed the petition.

“No political party embodies Jesus’s teaching closely. You can’t depend on government to do what Jesus says because, oftentimes, you have to go against the government,” she said, citing evangelical believers who worked to abolish black slavery and Christians who resisted Nazism in Germany.

The Trump campaign did not respond to a request for comment. It announced on Friday the Jan. 3 launch of “Evangelicals for Trump”, a coalition to support the president in the November 2020 election.

Trump will attend the launch at King Jesus International Ministry, a megachurch in a Miami suburb with a large Spanish-speaking congregation, according to a church official.

(Reporting by Simon Lewis and Heather Timmons; Editing by Daniel Wallis)

Islamic State says it beheaded Christian captives in Nigeria

MAIDUGURI/CAIRO (Reuters) – Islamic State released a video purporting to show its militants beheading 10 Christian men in Nigeria, saying it was part of a campaign to avenge the deaths of its leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and its spokesman.

The militant group posted the footage on its online Telegram news channel on Thursday, the day after Christmas, with Arabic captions but no audio.

The video showed men in beige uniforms and black masks lining up behind blindfolded captives then beheading 10 of them and shooting an 11th man.

An earlier video seen by Reuters said the captives had been taken from Maiduguri and Damaturu in Nigeria’s northeastern state of Borno, where militants have been fighting for years to set up a separate Islamist state.

In that video, the captives pleaded for the Christian Association of Nigeria and President Muhammadu Buhari to intervene to save them.

Reuters could not verify the authenticity of either video.

Islamic State in West Africa Province (ISWAP) split from the militant group Boko Haram in 2016 and has become the region’s dominant jihadist group. Islamist insurgents have killed about 30,000 people in northern Nigeria in the past decade.

Islamic State leader Baghdadi died during a U.S. military raid in Syria and Muhajir in a separate military operation, both over the same weekend in late October.

(Reporting By Maiduguri newsroom and Ahmed Tolba in Cairo, writing by Libby George; Editing by Andrew Heavens)

At evangelical conference, concerns about Syria but cheers for Trump

Republican Mark Meadows speaks at the Conservative Political Action Conference (

By John Whitesides

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Prominent evangelical leaders have sharply criticized U.S. President Donald Trump over his decision to pull American military forces out of Syria, saying he was endangering tens of thousands of Christians in the Muslim-dominated region.

But the response was more muted at an annual conference of religious conservatives on Friday in Washington, where some Christian activists were concerned about the Syria move but willing to give Trump the benefit of the doubt.

“I would have done things differently, but I don’t have all the information that went into the decision,” Jeffrey Morgan, co-founder of a pro-family group called Americans Against No-Fault Divorce, said at the Values Voter Summit.

“I have a hard time when we abandon friends who have stuck their necks out for us,” he said of the Kurds, close U.S. allies in the fight against Islamic State militants who are now under attack from Turkey in Syria. “But would I abandon the president over Syria? No way.”

William Murray, chairman of the Religious Freedom Coalition, a group that runs programs to assist Christians in Africa and the Middle East, including Syria, said he did not believe Kurds were protective of Christians in the region, but the withdrawal had made the area unstable.

“Any time you create a situation where bullets and bombs are flying, you are going to endanger people on the ground,” he said.

Evangelicals have been among Trump’s most loyal supporters through years of scandal and controversy, and the criticism from influential leaders has been a rare crack in their overwhelming support for the president as he heads into a congressional impeachment battle and a tough 2020 re-election fight.

Pat Robertson, founder of the Christian Broadcasting Network, said after Trump announced the withdrawal that he was “in great danger of losing the mandate of Heaven.”

Franklin Graham, son of evangelist Billy Graham, asked people to pray for Trump to reconsider, saying “thousands of lives hang in the balance.”

Trump won 81% of the vote from white evangelical Christians in the 2016 election, which came just weeks after a decade-old Access Hollywood video surfaced showing him bragging about kissing and grabbing women because “when you are a star, they let you do it.”

Evangelicals have stuck with Trump since, through sex scandals like his alleged payments to hush up an affair with a porn star, and controversies like the investigation into Russian election meddling. In a Reuters/Ipsos poll from mid-September, 70% of white evangelicals approve of Trump’s job performance.

At the conference, which will conclude with a speech by Trump on Saturday night, the president drew repeated cheers for appointing conservative, anti-abortion judges, protecting religious liberties and battling liberals.

Speakers condemned the Democratic-led impeachment inquiry into whether Trump pressured his Ukrainian counterpart to dig up dirt on political rival Joe Biden, the former U.S. vice president who is seeking the Democratic Party’s 2020 presidential nomination.

“I think it’s time we send Adam Schiff home instead of the president of the United States,” conservative Republican U.S. Representative Mark Meadows told the cheering crowd, making a reference to one of the Democratic lawmakers leading the impeachment inquiry.

Attendees said Trump was a sympathetic leader besieged by Democrats determined to bring him down.

“He’s not a perfect man, but he represents more of my moral values than those who seem to hate him,” said Tim Chafins, a healthcare worker in Akron, Ohio. “What I see happening in Washington has nothing to do with Ukraine, Russia or China. It’s all politics.”

Tim Throckmorton, Midwest director of ministry for the Family Research Council, one of the sponsors of the conference, said that knowing Trump’s heart, “I’m sure he feels he is doing the right thing in Syria.”

“I hope the Christians in Syria are safe,” he added.

(Editing by Bill Berkrot)

Russia widens Jehovah’s Witnesses crackdown with new jailings

Adherents of the Christian denomination Jehovah's Witnesses Konstantin Bazhenov, Alexei Budenchuk, Felix Makhammadiev, Roman Gridasov, Gennady German and Alexei Miretsky pose for a picture inside the building of a regional court in Saratov, Russia in this undated handout photo. Courtesy of Jehovah’s Witnesses/Handout via REUTERS ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS IMAGE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY. NO RESALES. NO ARCHIVES. MANDATORY CREDI

By Andrew Osborn and Tom Balmforth

MOSCOW (Reuters) – Russia has widened a crackdown against Jehovah’s Witnesses, jailing six adherents of the Christian denomination for extremism in a move rights activists said was unjust and flouted religious freedom.

A regional court in Saratov jailed six Jehovah’s Witnesses on Thursday for up to three-and-a-half years, a court spokeswoman said on Friday.

“Yes they were convicted,” the spokeswoman, Olga Pirueva, said. “Punishments ranged from three years and six months down to two years (in jail).”

The court found the six men guilty of continuing the activities of an extremist organization, a reference to a 2017 ruling from Russia’s Supreme Court which found the group to be an “extremist” organization and ordered it to disband.

The U.S.-headquartered Jehovah’s Witnesses have been under pressure for years in Russia, where the dominant Orthodox Church is championed by President Vladimir Putin. Orthodox scholars have cast them as a dangerous foreign sect that erodes state institutions and traditional values, allegations they reject.

The latest jailings follow the conviction in February of a Danish builder in Russia for his association with Jehovah’s Witnesses. Dennis Christensen was found guilty of organizing an extremist group and jailed for six years.

Over 250 Jehovah’s Witnesses in Russia are facing criminal charges, according to the group, with 41 in detention and 23 under house arrest.

‘SPECULATIVE THESIS’

Under Thursday’s ruling, Konstantin Bazhenov and Alexei Budenchuk were sentenced to three-and-a-half years in jail, Felix Makhammadiev to three years, and Roman Gridasov, Gennady German, and Alexei Miretsky to two years in prison each.

The court also banned them from holding leadership positions in public organizations for five years.

Jehovah’s Witnesses say Russia’s constitution guarantees their adherents’ right to exercise freedom of religion and deny wrongdoing.

“The whole logic of the accusation was based on the speculative thesis that faith in God is ‘a continuation of the activities of an extremist organization’,” Jarrod Lopes, a U.S.-based spokesman for the group, said in a statement.

“Instead of searching and proving the guilt of the defendants, the aim of the investigation was to prove their religious affiliation, despite the fact that no religion is prohibited in Russia.”

Lawyers for the men plan to appeal what they regard as absurd convictions, said Lopes.

With about 170,000 followers in Russia and 8 million worldwide, Jehovah’s Witnesses are a Christian denomination known for door-to-door preaching, close Bible study, and rejection of military service and blood transfusions.

They believe the end of the world as we know it is imminent, an event “the obedient” will survive to inhabit the Kingdom of God they believe will follow.

Rachel Denber of U.S.-based Human Rights Watch condemned the court’s ruling, saying the men had been jailed for nothing.

“They should be freed,” Denber said on social media.

(Editing by Timothy Heritage)

Honest, Real Conversation! MONDO Show Begins Tonight on PTL Television Network

Mondo Show - PTL Television Network Mondo De La Vega

By Kami Klein

Mondo De Va Lega has been on a journey that most of us could not fathom. From gang life to an incredible walk with God this young co-host of The Jim Bakker Show understands that each step has brought a deeply profound testimony and direction.  For 18 years he has prepared to fulfill the call of God on his life and the potential to change a generation. The time is NOW for him to take this next step.  

Today, Monday, August the 12th, his new program, “MONDO Show” begins at 8 pm ct on the PTL Television Network.  

Years ago, Mondo had a conversation with a very influential leader in America who recognized God’s hand on his life.  He advised him, “Just because you are called doesn’t mean you are ready for your call.” He told Mondo that Jim Bakker had much to teach him and that he needed to learn to serve under him and in time God would show him his call and appoint the right time to fulfill the call of God in his life.  Mondo has done just that gleaning as much as he could from his teacher.

 “I began to serve under Pastor Jim, learning everything about television and began to be mentored by him about how to know Christ in an intimate way. I thank Pastor Jim for believing in me and giving me an opportunity to fulfill the call of God in my life. Today Pastor Jim has become my father, my mentor, and my friend,” Mondo responded when asked about the timing of his new show.  

“On July 4th, the opening of Prayer Mountain Chapel at Morningside USA, Jim Bakker prayed and laid hands on my head and began to prophesy over me. He told me that this is my time and the beginning of God’s calling in my life. I have learned to pace myself and be patient, walking in obedience waiting for God to release the time for me to step into my calling. My show is for a generation that wants to have a real, straight forward conversation about today’s issues.”

Mondo’s show is a raw, non-polished, organic way to have a  conversation. The topics are all about life today. Subjects such as: 

Latinos in America: “America doesn’t know what to do with us”

Technology: How it is increasing so rapidly, even though many in the scientific community are loudly warning about the potential health effects

Artificial Intelligence: The way of the Future, the way of a New life

Christianity: The war to destroy Christian America, what does this look like in real life?

Bible prophecy: Where are we according to the Bible?

Politics: News headlines and how they are affecting us in today’s society

Millennials and the culture change that is taking place

Relationships: Finding love and sustaining a relationship 

 “The subject matter, the questions, are the things people are afraid to ask because it makes everyone feel nervous; even though we are all thinking about it,” Mondo said about the new show.  “I want to bring in the men and women who are making a difference in our communities, in our culture and in our lives. It’s a journey to understand the misunderstood.”  

Mondo De La Vega recognizes that more people are seeing that the times are changing. They can’t explain why or what it is but certainly what used to be considered good is now being perceived as Evil and Evil is now the new Norm. “The Christian community is having a difficult time adjusting and finding their place in society and in our culture. Our country is no longer being accepted as Christian and it has left Christianity in a state of shock.” 

In fighting this spiritual battle for our nation and our world Mondo believes we must continue to engage in conversation about today’s culture but also stresses on the most powerful:

“The most important thing we need is to pray and ask God to continue to give us wisdom and show us the way. Without the anointing, we are just another show, another film trying to compete with Hollywood. The very thing that makes us different is the anointing of the Holy Spirit. We need the anointing back in our lives.  It’s the game-changer!”

Please join us tonight and every Monday evening at 8 pm ct and connect on a new level.  “Mondo Show” can be seen on the PTL Network from your Roku, Apple TV, Amazon Fire TV or ptlnetwork.com to tune in! 

Don’t forget!  Get our new smartphone app for PTL Television Network and watch this and other amazing Christian programming, anytime, anywhere! 

 

In Lebanon, a monastery brings together Christians scattered by war

A view of the Monastery of Saint Anthony of Qozhaya in the heart of the Qadisha valley, in Zgharta district, LebanonJune 23, 2019. REUTERS/Imad Creidi

By Ayat Basma

QOZHAYA, Lebanon (Reuters) – The last time Samuel Botros stepped into the Lebanese monastery of Saint Anthony of Qozhaya was in 1978. He was 24, newly married, and the country was in the grip of an all-out war. Like many of his generation, he left. It took him 41 years to return.

The 1975-90 civil war may be over in Lebanon but conflicts in nearby countries like Iraq and Syria have devastated entire communities where Christians once lived alongside Muslims. That has triggered an exodus among people of both faiths, especially among minority sects – like Botros’ Syriac Orthodox community whose roots are in early Christianity.

The monastery, which is nestled in a remote valley in the northern Lebanese mountains and dates from the fourth century, is a meeting place for Christians who have fled conflict.

“It is the war that did this to us. It is the wars that continue to leave behind destruction and force people to leave,” said Botros, visiting the monastery as part of a gathering of his community’s scout group – their first in the region since the 1950s.

The scout group’s roughly 150 members include people living in Lebanon, Iraq, Syria, Egypt, Jordan, the Palestinian Territories and further afield. Lebanon was the only country where they could all meet easily and safely, Botros said.

In Iraq, years of conflict, most recently with Islamic State, erased much of the Christian heritage in ancient cities like Mosul and Sinjar in the north. In Syria’s civil war, some of the oldest churches in Aleppo, Homs and other cities were damaged.

Botros, now 65, is about to retire in Sweden where he made his home years ago. He is father and grandfather to children who know Lebanon only through photos.

“I would like them to visit so that when I pass, there is something to pull them back,” he said.

ANCIENT SANCTUARY

On Sundays and public holidays, the monastery’s small church, with the bell tower and facade, etched into the cliffs is full of people huddled in the pews or standing at the back of the vaulted interior.

Its patron is Saint Anthony, a monk who is believed to have lived in rural Egypt in the fourth or fifth century.

“This place has always been a shrine…we don’t even know when it started. Even when there was no development…people still came,” said Father Fadi Imad, the priest who gives sermons.

Qozhaya lies within a valley known as the Valley of Saints, or Qannoubine in ancient Syriac, part of a wider valley network called Qadisha that has a long history as a refuge for monks. At one time, Qadisha was home to hundreds of hermitages, churches, caves and monasteries. The monastery of Saint Anthony is the last surviving one.

It was an early home for Lebanon’s Christian Maronites, the first followers of the Roman Catholic church in the East.

The Maronites and sometimes the Druze, a Muslim sect, sought the sanctuary of the mountains away from the political and religious dynasties of the times with whom they did not always agree, Father Imad said.

“The inhabitants of this mountain…and they were not only Christians, came here because they were persecuted and weak,” he said.

“Qozhaya holds in its heart 1,600 years of history and it doesn’t belong to anyone, church or faith, … it belongs to the homeland,” he said.

The monastery is surrounded by forests of pine and cedar and orchards that can only be reached via a narrow, winding road.

Its grounds include a cave where visitors light candles, a museum housing the Middle East’s oldest printing press in ancient Syriac and halls for resident priests.

Visitors nowadays include foreign and Arab tourists and local residents including Muslims who sometimes come to ask for a blessing.

Father Imad said the monastery was the safest it had been in its history despite being surrounded by countries at war or suffering its aftermath.

“No one is telling us that they are coming to kill us anymore … at least in Lebanon,” he said.

Before he left, Botros and his fellows stood for a final photo outside the building with the valley behind. With their flags and scarves around their necks, they smiled and cheered as the bells rang.

“What I have seen today I will never forget for as long as I live,” Botros said.

“No matter how long it takes, the son always returns to the mother.”

(Reporting by Ayat Basma; Editing by Frances Kerry)

Freed Sri Lanka Buddhist monk vows to expose Islamist militancy

Galagoda Aththe Gnanasara Thero, head of the hardline Bodu Bala Sena (BBS) or "Buddhist Power Force", arrives at a news conference in Colombo, Sri Lanka May 28, 2019. REUTERS/Dinuka Liyanawatte

By Ranga Sirilal

COLOMBO (Reuters) – A hardline Buddhist monk accused of inciting violence against minority Muslims in Sri Lanka said on Tuesday he planned to denounce Islamist militants after he was freed from prison last week by presidential pardon.

Galagoda Aththe Gnanasara, head of the Bodu Bala Sena (BBS) or “Buddhist Power Force”, was pardoned by President Maithripala Sirisena after serving nine months of a six-year sentence for contempt of court.

Rights activists said his release sent a message that majority Buddhists could incite hate against minorities. Gnanasara has denied allegations that he encouraged violence against Muslims and Christians, saying he only highlighted threats from militants.

His pardon came a week after rioters attacked Muslim-owned homes, shops, and mosques in apparent reprisal for Easter bombings, claimed by Islamic State, that killed more than 250 people.

Police said Gnanasara’s group had no links to the attacks.

At a news conference on Tuesday, Gnanasara said Sri Lankan followers of Wahhabism, a conservative branch of Islam, were indirectly responsible for the April 21 bombings on churches and hotels.

“I urge the government to arrest the main people responsible for the spreading of Wahhabism,” Gnanasara said.

Hilmy Ahmed, the vice president of the Muslim Council of Sri Lanka, said he was willing to meet him.

“We will talk to him and see what he wants to discuss. We have always had cordial discussions with him even though he has his extremist views,” Ahmed said.

Some political analysts see the pardon as a bid by Sirisena to woo Sinhala Buddhists, who make 70 percent of the nation’s 22 million people, ahead of elections this year.

“He is trying to build the Sinhala Buddhist votes,” said Kusal Perera, a political columnist.

Gnanasara was convicted in 2018 on four counts of contempt of court. The case stemmed from a 2016 court hearing on the abduction of journalist Prageeth Eknaligoda over which military intelligence officials were accused.

Gnanasara shouted at the judge and lawyers because the military officials had not been given bail. He also threatened Eknaligoda’s wife.

During a Monday evening visit to a temple, Gnanasara said he is “active once more… Attaining nirvana can wait.”

“Now I have decided to act swiftly until this danger moves away,” he said in an apparent reference to Islamist militancy.

(Additional reporting by Shihar Aneez; Writing by Alexandra Ulmer; editing by Darren Schuettler)