Disappearing Religions of the Middle East

Gerard Russell is the author of the newly published Heirs to Forgotten Kingdoms, which explains & details the disappearance of seven religions in the Middle East.  Russell was a diplomat in Iraq from 2005-2006.

Russell’s book provides a view into more of the history behind the tribes of people – such as the Yazidi’s.  The Yazidi’s, and other unique tribes have been persecuted for thousands of years in the Middle East & most recently have been persecuted & driven from their homes by ISIS, victims of the Syrian civil war.  Many of those  who have been lucky enough to survive are living in UN-issued tents in Iraqi Kurdistan while the unrest in the region unfolds.

But who are these people & what is their faith?  How has this group managed to survive this long?

Here is an in-depth interview completed by NPR that is well worth a listen.

You can read an excerpt of the book here.

Some of these religions predate Christianity by thousands of years – to Babylon & Assyria.  Now their extinction is threatened as never before in this volatile modern world.  What can we do as a congregation to help preserve these threatened ancient faiths?

How our Faith Informs our Opposition to Casinos

We’d like to take a moment to share with you, our fellow members of First Church, how our faith has informed our strong opposition to casinos. We applaud the UCC’s past resolutions on gambling, but want to provide some further perspectives on why we’re working and praying hard for the YES on 3 cause, and why we hope you will too.

Our favorite parts of being members of First Church are the opportunity to help serve those in need, and to be part of a multi-generational community where we can learn from our elders and help guide our youth.   As we’ve researched this issue, we’ve learned that casinos in Massachusetts would do a great deal of harm to those three groups: those in need, our elders, and our youth.

Casinos Exploit the Poor

It’s no secret that casinos oppress and exploit the poor. According to a 2004 study by Welte, et. al., people in the lowest financial quintile have more than 3 times the rate of pathological gambling than people in the top four quintiles. The authors of the study theorize that “the poor may see gambling as an escape from poverty, making them more prone to gambling pathology.” The mathematics of gambling dictate that for the vast majority, it is not an escape, but means of falling deeper into poverty.

In Luke 14:18, in which is Jesus quoting from Isaiah 61, it is written that: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, for he has appointed me to preach Good News to the poor.”

The mathematics of gambling dictate that for the vast majority, it is not an escape, but means of falling deeper into poverty.

As Bishop Douglas Fisher of the Episcopal Diocese of Western Mass puts it, “Jesus comes to bring good news to the poor. Casinos are bad for the poor. We follow Jesus.” His statement is a must read, full of theological and other reasons to support the YES on 3 cause. The Massachusetts Catholic Bishops also recently released a thoughtful statement in support of YES on 3 based largely on the exploitation of the poor. We believe that putting a casino in impoverished locations like Springfield and Everett is a social injustice, and the right thing to speak out and oppose it.

Casinos Harm Our Older and Younger Neighbors

From Mark 12:29-31: Jesus replied, “The most important commandment is this: ‘Hear, O Israel! The Lord our God is the one and only Lord. And you must love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, all your mind, and all your strength.’ The second is equally important: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ “

Our older neighbors all too often turn to casinos in attempt to fill the voids they feel due to lack of human contact and caring.

Casinos are supposed to keep underage people off the gambling floors. But the temptation of alcohol and gambling means that many of our youth will attempt to gamble anyway. “About one-third of those banned from Colorado’s casinos are being kept from playing the state’s slots, card tables and roulette wheels after being convicted of underage gambling infractions.” And we shocked to see this 2008 article which stated that “the number of underage gamblers turned away from casinos or arrested in New Jersey had been about cut in half – from a high of 144,000 in 2001 to last year’s low of 77,000.” Those who gamble at a young age are at increased risk for gambling addiction.

Our youth don’t have to enter a casino’s doors to be harmed, as the increased gambling addiction that comes with proximity to casinos, causes increased domestic and child abuse, divorce, and bankruptcy. And the free alcohol that would be allowed from 8AM – 2AM threatens us and our children on the roads. The tiny town of Ledyard, Connecticut that is home to Foxwoods casino has the highest rate of drunk driving accidents in the state, with 4 drunk driving deaths tied to the neighboring Mohegan Sun casino in 2009.

Our older neighbors all too often turn to casinos in attempt to fill the voids they feel due to lack of human contact and caring. The slot machines, designed to maximize “time on machine” and get the patrons into the zone where their problems fade behind the spinning reels, are a poor substitute for compassion, caring, and human touch. For a truly heartbreaking study of casinos and seniors, please read http://americanvalues.org/catalog/pdfs/seniors-in-casino-land.pdf. Our older neighbors deserve better from all of us.

Massachusetts Can Do Better, and the First Church can help

We were deeply inspired by a Letter to the Editor that reads in part, “

Even if the casino delivers all the tax dollars, jobs, and shiny renovations (which, of course, is not a guarantee), is a casino really what we want for our city? What would be your dream of a healthy, vibrant, productive, and sustaining economic development plan for [Massachusetts]?

We need to remember something that Christ taught, and we’ve all experienced in our lives: that the right way is not always the easiest way.

Casinos promise jobs. Are they the jobs we want our children to have? Is the work dignified? Is it work that is productive, helpful, and useful to our community and world? Is it work that allows for the expression of one’s personal religious or moral values? Is it work that provides long-term stability to households and communities? …

Casinos promise economic development to a city. Is it a sort of development that gives the residents a sense of ownership and involvement? Is it economic development that brings dignity and pride? Is it development that will allow and encourage local businesses and entrepreneurs to thrive? Is it development that provides a healthy, safe and vibrant environment in which families can raise their children? After the initial windfall of capital investment, is it development that will sustain the community around it?

We are reminded of 1 Timothy 6:10: “For the love of money is the root of all evil: which while some coveted after, they have erred from the faith, and pierced themselves through with many sorrows.” By encouraging a YES on 3 vote, we can help thousands avoid those many sorrows.

Finally, we need to remember something that Christ taught, and we’ve all experienced in our lives: that the right way is not always the easiest way. After lots of study and prayer, we feel the right thing for our state, those in need, and our neighbors is for all of us keep our state casino-free. Please prayerfully consider joining us on the YES on 3 team to repeal the casino law.   For further information, see the Faith for Repeal website.


Let the children come to me…

In this recent article from The Christian Century, Stephanie Paulsell looks pointedly at the issue of child refugees from a faith perspective.  She includes the response of Governor Patrick to the issue in a recent press conference:


[Governor Patrick] reminded us that in 1939 the United States failed to shelter Jewish children from Europe, to our lasting shame. And then, his voice breaking, he said, “I don’t know what good there is in faith, if we can’t or won’t turn to it in times of human need.”


Here is the press conference:


Why is so little being reported about why these children have fled their homelands?  Certainly we can care for these children… what does our failure to do so say about the state of our society?

Interconnectedness & Early Christian Chants

Really following that “voice”, intuition, God is not easy.  Indeed, if you allow one thing to lead to another & listen to the signs & messages, there’s no telling where you will end up.  In the case of  Jason Hamacher, God led him to Syria to preserve ancient Sufi & Christian chants.  He has created a production company called Lost Origin Productions, dedicated to preserving the chants of Aleppo, Syria’s St. George’s Syriac Orthodox Church.  


About half way through this story, you will hear a Syriac chanting of the Lord’s Prayer – recorded at 1 a.m. in a Syrian cathedral.  If you do nothing else, please consider taking the time to absorb & commune with this ancient Christian rendition of the prayer.


Hearing this music & the story took me right back to our pilgrimage to the Holy Land.  These remind me how struck I was by the intimate interconnectedness of our modern Christian history, with the Middle East.


You can hear in these recordings the extreme holiness of these places, people, scripture & songs.  God bless you, Jason Hamacher, for following those voices & intuitions – thereby preserving these treasures and jewels for history & the future of our civilization.