Monthly Archives: January 2013

World Heritage Status Mooted For Historic Sites Of Japan’s Hidden Christians

By Martin Roth

One of the lesser known facts of history is that in the 16th century Japan was on its way towards becoming a Christian nation, with many of the nobility accepting the religion.

But towards the end of the century a lengthy period of persecution began, and Christianity was outlawed. Under the threat of extreme torture, many Christians were forced to worship in secret. They later become known as the “Kakure Kirishitan” – hidden Christians.

I write about this in my novel “The Maria Kannon:”

What if he surrendered? Gave himself up without a fight? The samurai might choose to keep him alive, in order to carry him back with them to Edo. Torturing the Christians, forcing them to recant their beliefs, was a spectator sport there, as it was throughout Japan. Their reward for bringing him back alive might be more than simply returning with his head.

And if that happened, could he withstand the torture? Might he too eventually give in and tell the Buddhist interrogators that he no longer believed?

Father Lopez, the gentle Spanish missionary priest with the white beard and red face, had whispered to him the horror stories.

“You need to know, Anjiro-san,” he had said. “You must prepare yourself. But my son, you are blessed with youth and strength, and you are single. You can escape.”

Father Lopez told him about the first martyrs, twenty-six of them, way down south in Nagasaki, who had been roughly crucified on makeshift crosses. One of them was a twelve-year-old boy, Ibaragi Kun. An official urged him to recant his faith. Instead the youngster replied that it would be better for the official to become a Christian, so he too could go to heaven. Then looking the man in the eye he asked, “Sir, which is my cross?”

When directed to the smallest of the crosses on the hill the young man knelt in front of it and embraced it. He sang praises to God as the jeering soldiers trussed him to the cross and then lanced him to death.

As he continued his climb, Anjiro silently prayed that he too might have strength to be a powerful witness to God’s love.

He knew that, if captured alive, he would be ordered to undertake fumie – demonstrate his apostasy by stepping onto a picture of Jesus or Mary.

But once he refused, as surely he would – well, then the torture would commence. He knew that the torture methods had become increasingly refined.

Simple crucifixion was no longer enough. Sometimes the soldiers would crucify people upside-down, or at sea, where the rising tide steadily engulfed the martyrs over many hours. Others were chopped into pieces, or slowly burned – the fire deliberately lit some distance away so it engulfed them only slowly – or scalded to death in one of Japan’s many hot springs.

Worst of all, according to Father Lopez, was being left to dangle upside-down over a pit filled with excrement. For those who were strong and healthy, like Anjiro, blessed death might take a week to arrive.

Now comes word that local government officials in Kyushu, where many of the hidden Christians lived, are calling for some Christian historical sites to be granted UNESCO World Heritage status.

Asia News reports:

The 13 sites include Nagasaki’s Oura Cathedral, built by two French missionaries from the Société des Missions Étrangères in 1864 to honour 26 Christian martyrs, nine European and 16 Japanese, crucified in 1597 on the order of Toyotomi Hideyoshi. 

…After its inauguration, people from the village of Urakami asked Fr Petitjean, one of the two missionaries who built the church, if they could go inside to “greet Mary”. The Frenchman thus discovered that they were Kakure Kirishitans, descendants of the first Japanese Christians who went underground as a result of imperial persecution.

Tens of thousands of underground Christians followed this first group, visiting the cathedral and openly practicing their Christian faith. Told about it, Pope Pius IX called the event “a miracle of the Orient”.

How Bad Is Persecution In India?

By Martin Roth

Reports that India had 131 instances of attacks on Christians last year caused me to wonder if there might not be an element of under-reporting here. Yes, India is a democracy with, apparently, a growing number of Christians. Yet the Open Doors World Watch List ranks it 31st – moderate persecution, between Tunisia and Myanmar – in its listing of the countries where Christians face most hardships in practising their faith.

Christians in India face opposition from militant Hindu adherents of the Hindutva movement, from Communists and from Islamists.

So I was not surprised by this week’s Morning Star News headline: “Under-Reporting Obscures Martyrdom of Christians in India.” According to the report:

Four Christians in India died for their faith last year, but incomplete information obscured the anti-Christian hostility in three of the deaths, sources said. In Tamil Nadu and West Bengal states where the killings took place, area Christians assert that the murders were rooted in opposition to Christianity; specifically, radical Hindus viewing Christianity as a threat to Hinduism and Indian nationalism as a unified identify. In three of the four deaths, however, under-reporting obscured the acts or motives of the attackers.

We are only one month into the new year, and already we have instances of the continuing persecution of Indian Christians.

*  In Andhra Pradesh, Hindutva militants attacked a group of Christians at a birthday party and arranged for the arrest of a pastor.

* Also in Andhra Pradesh, Hindutva militants attacked worshippers at a church service.

* Hindutva militants in Chhattisgarh have destroyed a Christian cemetary wall.

* Government authorities have demolished a church in Hyderabad.

* In the village of Tamsai, near New Delhi, Christians have several times been attacked by Hindu militants.

Open Doors has this sad conclusion on India: “It is very likely that persecution will increase in 2013 and in the run-up to the 2014 elections.”

“The Increasing Reach Of Islamist Extremism In Africa”

By Martin Roth

The latest edition of The Economist has a cover story that it titles “Afrighanistan.” Inside is a four-page Briefing, “Jihad in Africa,” which begins: “Terrorism in Algeria and war in Mali demonstrate the increasing reach of Islamist extremism in Africa.”

Here is a brief excerpt from my novel “Festival in the Desert,” published last year, in which I touched on this problem. The setting is a (fictional) mission hospital in Timbuktu, Mali.

Dr Becker began with a prayer. Through habit, he spoke in French, which was the official language of the hospital, even though not a single person at the table spoke French as a first language.

Then he looked up. “Another staff member has quit,” he said in his soft, correct English. “Intimidated by Islamists. We need to talk about the security of our hospital. Things are getting worse.”

“We seem to talk about that all the time,” grumbled Bobby.

“Because it is a real problem, man” said Dr Steyn. “A growing problem. Even a pacifist like you can surely realize that.” Dr Steyn loved to argue. He sometimes regaled the other doctors with hilarious stories of life at his Dutch Reformed church back in Pretoria, where, it seemed, mid-week business meetings regularly erupted into pitched battles over matters as trivial as car parking or the altar floral display. Then, at church on Sunday, everyone would greet each other lovingly as if nothing untoward had occurred just a few nights earlier.

“I’m not a pacifist…” began Bobby, before being interrupted.

“This is the third girl to quit in three months,” said Dr Becker. “A couple of men turned up near her home. They asked her why a good Muslim girl was working for a Christian hospital. And then they said there was a chance that she could be killed by people angry that she worked for Christians. They even hinted there might be shooting here at the hospital one day.”

“They really said that?” asked Dr Ryu.

“They always say that,” said Bobby. “That’s always the threat they use to intimidate our girls.”

“Which doesn’t mean it won’t happen,” said Dr Steyn.

“It hasn’t happened yet,” retorted Bobby. “And the Malian authorities don’t want it to happen. They are working to…”

“The Malian authorities…” The big South African sneered with derision. “Do you think they’re going to save us? Your faith is even stronger than I realized.”

“Yes, actually…”

“Gentlemen, gentlemen, we shall not argue today.” Dr Becker raised both hands in exasperation, though to Bobby it looked more like a signal of surrender.

Bobby felt sorry for the German. He knew that it was not only the day-to-day work that gave him so much stress. He was also under enormous pressures from his supervising board of governors, back in Hannover, where recently it seemed that constant conflict reigned.

Older members of the board stuck to the original mission of helping the afflicted. But the younger members appeared more concerned about saving souls, and wondered why so much money was going to a region where, it seemed, the residents were becoming more stridently Muslim and increasingly antagonistic towards Christianity.

Some were even grumbling that, with funds becoming increasingly hard to source, and with fewer doctors available, then why not simply hand the hospital over as a free gift to what appeared to be a growing number of Muslims who hated this Christian presence in their midst. Let them run it. Or, as one of the governors expressed it to Bobby during a brief visit from Germany, let them run it into the ground.

“I have received a briefing from the German embassy in Bamako,” said Dr Becker. “Everything is getting worse.”

“Surely it can’t get much worse,” said Dr Ryu. “We all know that a lot of countries are telling their citizens not to travel to this part of Mali.”

“Doesn’t this festival start tomorrow?” asked the South African. “This festival in the desert? What’s it called…?”

“It’s called the Festival in the Desert,” smiled Bobby.

“That’s meant to attract the tourists. How will it manage if no one comes?”

“They’re still coming. I’ve just treated one downstairs for contaminated cocaine.”

“Drugs is just one of the problems,” said Dr Becker. “And it is getting worse, according to the embassy briefing I’ve received. We all know that the Sahara has become the transit point for shipments from South America, heading for Europe. That’s not new. But the big problem, the main problem now, is Al Qaeda. They are increasingly active. They are targeting this whole region. The whole of West Africa. All these traditionally moderate Muslim countries. They view them as a place for expansion. They are trying to radicalize the people. That’s why we see them in the markets more and more. Talking to local people.”

“It’s also all these new Saudi-sponsored mosques in town,” said Dr Steyn. “There’s more than a dozen of them. All recent. They send their imams from Saudi Arabia. Telling the women they have to wear veils and the men that they have to stop drinking alcohol and stop talking to people of other religions.”

“Yes, that’s exactly right. And according to the briefing I received, both Al Qaeda and the new mosques are recruiting young men, sending them off for training at madrassas in Saudi Arabia and Pakistan. These men come back home with radically new beliefs. They’re not tolerant any more. They hate the West, hate America, hate Christians.”

Dr Becker paused and glanced around. He looked a forlorn figure, with his white hair and lined face and wire-rimmed spectacles that sat at the end of his nose. “And then there are the Tuaregs. Thousands of them were forced to escape from Libya after the fall of Gaddafi, and now they’re back home, heavily armed and stirring up trouble. They’ve renewed their war of liberation against the government.”

 “Are they a threat to us?”

“They’re a threat to everyone. They say they want self-rule. But a lot of criminal elements are involved as well. They’re involved in kidnap. Extortion. Whatever. Westerners will always be a target. And they are all mixed up together.”

“Who are?”

“Al Qaeda. The Tuaregs. The drug dealers. Sometimes they’re enemies, fighting each other. But sometimes they’re friends, when it suits them. This whole region is becoming a lawless Wild West.” He looked at Bobby, the only American in the room, as if he were somehow responsible for all lawless Wild Wests around the world.

“So what does all this mean?” asked Dr Ryu.

“It means our hospital is a target.”

“A target? From whom?”

“Al Qaeda, most likely.”

“Your embassy said that?”

“They believe it.”

“Believe it? They know of something being planned against our hospital? I thought it was all just a lot of talk.”

“They don’t have evidence that anything is planned against our hospital. But they told me that Al Qaeda loves Christian targets. And Jewish targets too, of course, though there’s none of them here. And we know that Al Qaeda has already kidnapped foreigners in this region. That’s how they finance their operations. By extorting ransoms. It’s the reason so many governments in the West are telling their nationals not to travel here.”

Bobby objected. “But we’re serving Muslim people here. They love us. The government wants us here. Everyone knows that.”

Dr Steyn spoke up. “Come on, man. Al Qaeda is out to cause trouble. They want Christian targets. They want to kidnap people. We’re one of the most visible. What about those ten people killed by the Taliban in Afghanistan a couple of years ago. Including doctors. Or the French priests killed in Algeria by Islamists? Including a doctor. They don’t care if the local people love us or if the government supports us. We’re Christians and we’re the enemy.”

Kidnap of Egyptian Copts – A Growing Business

By Martin Roth

Do a Google search of “kidnap” and “Copts” and you will receive hundreds of thousands of references. It is also one of the themes of my novel “The Coptic Martyr of Cairo.”

The Bulletin of the Oppression of Women carries just one horrific example, of a 20-year-old devoutly Christian woman who disappeared while on her way to college, almost certainly a kidnap victim.

Hundreds of young Coptic women…have left home under mysterious circumstances or simply vanished…Surrounding most disappearances are allegations that the women have been kidnapped by a small number of fundamentalist Muslim gangs or men working on their own, and forced to undergo conversion to Islam through intimidation, violence and rape.

Now the Coptic Solidarity website says that the kidnapping of wealthy Copts and blackmailing them to pay ransom has become “a dominant trend” since the January 2011 Revolution.

A number of criminals have specialized in executing such operations in collusion with the police, including a certain Nofal Rabie. The security forces sought Rabie’s help to eliminate a number of Jihadists, and in return allowed him to impose ransoms on Coptic dealers.

On December 1, 2011, unknown armed assailants stopped Pharmacist Michelle William and Dr. Magdy Helmy on their return home from work, kidnapped them and blackmailed their families. The families responded and paid 600,000 Egyptian Pounds [about $90,000] to release them. This incident was the first in what became a growing trend.

…The incident pushed Nag Hamadi’s Bishop to hold a press conference in early January to bring attention to the number of kidnappings that have targeted Copts and to pressure security forces to stop the phenomenon.

Observers described the repetition of kidnapping cases as a systematic attempt to drain the wealth of Copts, as the city includes a large number of wealthy Copts who have more money than influence. Copts frequently face attempts of blackmail from thugs, while similar crimes involving the kidnapping of Muslims are rare.


Accepting Jesus Leads To Attacks In India

By Martin Roth

A famous quote attributed to Indian peace activist Mahatma Gandhi is, “I like your Christ, I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Christ.”

Whether he actually said this is disputed. What is not disputed is that Christians in India today are sometimes victims of persecution, generally from the country’s Hindu majority.

This week Gandhi’s great-grandson, Tushar Gandhi, helped launch a report on the persecution of Christians in India during 2012.

At least 131 instances of violence against Christians were reported in 2012, claims a report released in Mumbai Monday.

Delhi-based Evangelical Fellowship of India and former chairperson of Maharashtra State Minorities Commission Abraham Mathai have compiled the report.

…”Tribals have been attacked each time they decided to accept Christianity,” Mathai told the media. 

…”Conversion cannot be a reason for anyone to be attacked. Everyone can choose and practice own religion,” he said. Tribal areas in Thane district have seen several attacks in the past few years after locals opted for Christianity.

“The tribal belt that borders Gujarat has several Hindu organisations working closely with the tribal community. Most of the accused who have attacked the tribals and torched several churches are from these organisations. However, police have failed to make any arrest,” Mathai claimed.

Last month, Tamsai village in Palghar witnessed attacks on tribals who organised prayer meetings in the village. Similar cases were reported in Mokhada taluka of Thane district.

More Trouble In Egypt As Soccer Fans Erupt

By Martin Roth

Egypt is in turmoil. And it is not just political. Sport is involved, too.

In my novel “The Coptic Martyr of Cairo” the main villain, named Mohamed Marzouk and responsible for the murder of a priest and the kidnap of a young Egyptian Christian, is a huge soccer fan. He is a member of the Ultras, the super-fanatical group that supports Cairo’s Al Ahly team.

Here is a part of what I wrote:

The Ultras specialized in beating up the supporters of their opponents. Mohamed was just thirteen when he and his friends began traveling down to Cairo to watch Al Ahly games. The best were always those against their hated Cairo rivals Zamalek, when the taunts and provocations of players and supporters alike usually turned the pitch into a war zone. In fact, the Egyptian soccer authorities often imported foreign umpires just for this game, such were the passions on and off the field. Just as enjoyable – and bloody – were the matches between the Egyptian national team and their hated rivals the Algerians.

It was their fighting prowess that led the Muslim Brotherhood to recruit the Ultras when the Arab Spring uprisings began.  Mohamed had been on the front lines in Tahrir Square, braving the tear gas and the bullets, along with the other Ultras, fighting for an end to the hated Mubarak regime. He had little doubt that it was the muscle of the Ultras, not the weak-kneed protests of the democracy advocates, that had brought down the government.

Of course, the authorities had to take revenge, and they did so in February 2012 when a riot broke out at an Al Ahly game against Al Masry in Port Said and seventy-nine people died, with more than one thousand injured. Fortunately Mohamed had run out of money that weekend, and hadn’t traveled to watch the match, otherwise he would surely have been in the thick of the violence, and might have ended up among the dead.

But he remembered angrily discussing the disaster with friends later. “You saw it all on television. The authorities didn’t even attempt to search the Al Masry supporters.”

“When have you ever gone to a soccer match where you aren’t searched for weapons?”

“Exactly. The Al Masry supporters were all carrying knives. It was allowed by the authorities.”

“Allowed? It was encouraged. And then when our boys were attacked the police did nothing.”

“They even locked some of the gates, so our boys couldn’t escape. Then they just stood by and watched.”

An Egyptian court has just handed down a verdict in the trial of some of the instigators of that soccer riot in Port Said, sentencing 21 of them to death. This has led to more rioting, with several dozen further deaths. According to a report:

In Cairo, the divisive nature of the trial was on display. Relatives of those killed at the soccer game erupted in joy in the courtroom after the verdict was announced.

Families yelled “Allahu Akbar!” Arabic for “God is great” and pumped their fists in the air. Others held up pictures of the deceased, most of whom were young men from Cairo’s poor neighborhoods.

…Fans of Al Ahly, mostly young men in their teens, promised more violence in the days leading up to the verdict if the death penalty was not handed down. Their main Facebook page had called for bloodshed.

“This was necessary,” said Nour al-Sabah, whose 17-year-old son Ahmed Zakaria died in last year’s melee. “Now I want to see the guys when they are executed with my own eyes, just as they saw the murder of my son.”

Persecuted Eritrean Christians Find A Home On An Israeli Kibbutz

By Martin Roth

Eritrea, bordering Ethiopia in North Africa, became Christian in the fourth century. Back then it was quite a major empire, the KIngdom of Aksum.

Today Christians in the country face extreme persecution according to Open Doors, which places Eritrea 10th on its depressing World Watch List of the 50 countries where Christians suffer most for their faith.

Many Christians (and others) have been attempting to flee, and, amazingly, tens of thousands have made it on foot to Israel.

So from Israel comes a lovely story of two young Eritrean Christians who have found a place on a kibbutz.

“I had never heard of a place called Israel,” says [John] Fshaye, now almost 20, and a Christian who is thoroughly at home among the residents of Kibbutz Mishol in Upper Nazareth.

When he fled Senafe he had no plan other than not to get caught by the army. He managed to make contact with a group of 28 other young Eritreans who were also on the run from the military. They crossed the border to Ethiopia, and then walked on to Sudan, which involved at one point going three days without food or water.

Several members of the group died during this stretch. Having reached Egypt they carried on across the Sinai desert, and on a dark night more than three months after leaving Eritrea, they sneaked across the border into Israel.

Read the whole story to learn how John and a friend, Dawit Ogbai, have been unofficially adopted by a kibbutz family from Britain, who cite, as one of their reasons, “episodes from Jewish history — such as Jews’ reliance on righteous gentiles to take them in during the Holocaust.”

And the story ends:

Fshaye and Ogbai join in with Shabbat celebrations and festivals — and sometimes find that they have deep personal meaning. Fshaye says that Pesach Seders, which recount the ancient Israelite exodus from Egypt to Israel — the very journey that he made — have been especially emotional. “I feel like it’s my story,” he says.

Iran – Persecution Getting Worse

By Martin Roth

Paul Marshall of the Hudson Institute’s Center for Religious Freedom reports that “Iran is widening its persecution of minorities.” He adds that “minorities are growing because many Muslims reject their rulers’ version of Islam.”

I have already linked to an article, “Freedom under threat: Christians in Iran continue to be persecuted by the regime” by British Member of Parliament Stephen Timms. He says that “Iran has a population of 74 million. Nobody knows how many are Christians, but the number appears to be growing fast. Some think it could be as high as 1.5 million.”

These are some of the most persecuted Christians on earth. Late last year a British parliamentary group published a report on the persecution of Christians in Iran. Here are a few of the brief testimonies contained in this chilling document.

* On one occasion Farshid [Farshid Fathi, an Iranian church leader who has been imprisoned since December 2010] was told to pack his few belongings and was led out to the prison gate, where he could see other inmates being released. However, on approaching the gate Farshid was suddenly stopped and returned to his cell. Such forms of psychological torture are used routinely within Iran’s prison system.

Sometimes the daily interrogation sessions would run from 8am until 11pm. They had a strategy: there were always two people who came to interrogate me; one was tough and harsh and the other was reasonable and trying to reason with me about my faith. They wanted the identities of the members of my churches. They would threaten me by saying things like “we have your wife captive” and then telling me that if I cooperated with them, they would help me.

The house churches, they have to be hidden from the Government. If the Government finds out, or any neighbour informs the Government, they will definitely, immediately attack and arrest all of them. Last Christmas they attacked many of these house groups and arrested over 100 people who were praying and having fellowship and worshipping God. Some of them even now are there in prison.

I said that these are some of the most persecuted Christians on earth. Yet Iran only makes it to No. 8 on the Open Doors World Watch List of the 50 countries where Christians are most persecuted for their faith. Tragically, conditions are even worse for many, many more of our brothers and sisters.