Monthly Archives: January 2015

Minority Rules – Is It Too Late For Indonesia?

Indonesia is supposed to be one of the more moderate of all the Muslim countries. Christians comprise more than 10 per cent of the population, and the country’s constitution guarantees freedom of religion.

Two months ago a Christian became governor of the capital city Jakarta and Christians are prominent elsewhere, particularly in business. The country’s largest mosque in Jakarta was designed by a Christian architect. It stands next to the Catholic cathedral.

Yet living in Australia, not far from Indonesia, I see clearly the truth in the statement of the “Operation World” prayer guide: “Islam’s strength and influence in numbers and power allow it to exert itself on the religious scene, giving itself preferential treatment and limiting Christian activities and public presence.”

Prophets and LossWhen the Christian enclave of East Timor was struggling for independence in the 1980s and 1990s, the Indonesian military responded with a virulent campaign of genocide that wiped out a third of the population. (I was so appalled that the murder, rape and torture of that time became the theme of my first novel, “Prophets and Loss.”)

Since then radical Islam has been making further inroads. The province of Aceh has enacted sharia law – extended last year to include non-Muslims – and has closed down churches.

Church burnings have occurred in many places, and Christians have been attacked. Some local governments place onerous restrictions on freedom of worship.

Christian Solidarity Worldwide issued a report last year. The title and sub-title told the story: “Indonesia: Pluralism in Peril – The rise of religious intolerance across the archipelago.”

Presidential elections were held in July with both candidates endorsing religious freedom and promising to crack down on religion-inspired violence. Yet since then, conditions seem to have worsened.

Just last week the Jakarta Post newspaper published an article about the new president, Joko Widodo (known popularly as Jokowi) with the headline, “Jokowi ‘not doing enough’ to promote religious pluralism.”

It quoted a spokesman for an Indonesian organization devoted to interfaith dialogue as stating that, “Jokowi has become just another government official who promises one thing but doesn’t deliver, even though he was very outspoken during his campaign.”

The spokesman called on the government to do more to combat growing fundamentalism, including new regulations criminalizing violent acts against minority groups and monitoring their implementation.

“Jokowi and his administration must be firm against these violators and remind people that we are a pluralist nation, or else the trend will continue,” he told the newspaper.

But is it already too late?

The article also quoted the secretary-general of the Indonesian Communion of Churches, who warned ominously that “the government was at times caught between doing what the majority wanted and listening to the demands of the minority.”

This is exactly what Christians in Muslim countries fear – the growing belligerence of a violent and intolerant minority who intimidate the majority into passive silence.

If “moderate” Indonesia is unable to stand up to this minority, the outlook for Christians in much of the Muslim world is grim.

Take Up Your Cross – Lessons from China

The stunning rise of Christianity in China – despite numerous obstacles – is one of the themes of my thriller “Brother Half Angel.” In particular, I wrote about how the government crack-down on the thriving underground house church movement has brought about martyrs, but has also helped raise some strong Christian leaders.

In recent years it seemed that conditions were easing for the church in China, but now the government appears to be cracking down again.

Brother Half Angel - Smashwords Cover Jan 2013Yet the church continues to expand. Numbers are unclear, but one study estimated that there are now some 70 million Christians in China (compared to 83 million Communist Party members) and that this could grow to 245 million by 2030.

More importantly, the Chinese may have some lessons for the West in what it means to be a Christian.

A lengthy article in the Christian Science Monitor included this snippet:

Being a Christian in a country that sees worship as odd or superstitious does nothing to boost one’s status. “There is absolutely no social advantage to being a Christian in China,” says Bob Fu, a pastor who escaped a Chinese police crackdown in the 1990s and now runs Texas-based ChinaAid, which monitors Christian rights in the country. “There are no cookies, no status, no outward rewards, no privileges in choosing Christianity.”

Certainly that is what I wrote about in my novel “Brother Half Angel,” with the main characters forced to endure enormous torment for their faith.

And this is what becoming a Christian in the early years of the church meant – to enter a world of possible suffering and even death. Yet the church grew exponentially in that period

The early Egyptian church – founded by Saint Mark just a decade after the death of Christ, according to tradition – is the best example. Here is the Tour Egypt website:

It was in Egypt that some of the greatest defiances of the Romans by Christians were done. While their Roman counterparts worshipped in catacombs and underground vaults, the Egyptian Christians built their churches openly and performed their ceremonies in full view of the Empire. And for every one that the Empire struck down, more would be converted by the example of the martyr.

Jesus taught that to follow Him would involve suffering. Paul demonstrated this, as did the early Christians. Now the Chinese church too is growing in the midst of pain. It is a lesson for the West.

North Korean Christians – Powerful and Prayerful Witness Emerging from the Trials

For the 12th straight year the Open Doors organization has ranked North Korea as the country in which the persecution of Christians is most severe. Its annual World Watch List, released in December, notes that an estimated 50,000 to 70,000 North Korean Christians are imprisoned in labor camps.

According to the report: “It is safe to say that nothing has improved for Christians since Kim Jong Un took over power….The God-like worship of the rulers leaves no room for any other religion. Any reverence not concentrated on the Kim dynasty will be seen as dangerous and state-threatening.

“Not only will the believers themselves be punished if they are discovered, but likely also their families. Immediate family members, even if they aren’t Christians themselves, will serve a sentence in a re-education camp. Christians are sent to political labor camps, from which there is no release possible.”

It was the third-century church father Tertullian who stated that the blood of the martyrs was the seed of the church, and certainly this is what we have witnessed in South Korea.

Korean Christians endured fierce persecution in the 19th century from their own government, and then in the early 20th century from the Japanese colonial rulers. Martyrs numbered in the many thousands.

But today Christians comprise some 30 per cent of the South Korean population, and a vibrant and dynamic Korean church is making its mark around the world.

Might we expect something similar from North Korea? This was the view of Norbert Vollertsen, a German doctor who experienced first-hand the brutality of life in North Korea when he worked there for 18 months.

“I am sure that once North Korea is free, Christianity will boom there in a way that will even dwarf its growth in the South,” he told a journalist in 2002.

Recently I interviewed Tim Peters of Helping Hands Korea, which works to help the persecuted Christians of North Korea. I noted that Pyongyang, the North Korean capital, was known in the early 20th century as “the Jerusalem of the East” for its strong and defiant Christian witness, and I asked him if Christianity might one day flourish there again.

“I do think such a phenomenon is a distinct possibility,” he told me.

“Just as the generation of persecuted Chinese believers grew into strong leaders when greater freedom came to China, I do feel that many North Korean believers will shine as purified gold once the Kim family regime is dethroned in the North.”

Then he added pointedly: “This would be all the more true because many South Korean Protestant churches are undergoing a serious crisis due to materialism and authoritarian leadership, among other challenges. North Korean Christians, in their simplicity, humility and utter dependence on God, could constitute just the antidote to the spiritual maladies in the South.”

No Christians in their right minds could wish on our North Korean brothers and sisters their present torment. But is it possible that from these trials will emerge a powerful and prayerful witness that could, eventually, shake up the very foundations of global Christendom?

Fighting Back – An Assyrian Christian Military Leader Seeks Help

I suspect we’re going to see more of this.

The commander of an Assyrian Christian paramilitary troop from northern Iraq has arrived in Australia to seek military and financial support.

He is Albert Keeso Moshi of the Dwekh Nawsha unit, which was formed in August. He told The Australian newspaper that his group comprised some 250 men, but could have many more if weapons were available.

The Dwekh Nawsha are armed with AK47s and medium-range, vehicle-mounted machine guns. Mr Moshi said an Assyrian-US Marine was serving with the Dwekh Nawsha and he welcomed any Australians who would fight, although this could be illegal under Australia’s foreign-fighter laws.

…Mr Moshi said whatever form the international assistance took, it needed to reach northern Iraq and the Nineveh Valley.

“Throughout our history we have always come to the aid of the West, we have done the right thing,” Mr Moshi said. “And we have paid a high price.”

Terror in Africa – Should We Be Surprised?

The news from the West African nation of Niger is heart-breaking. Around 70 churches have been set on fire, and more than a dozen people killed, as Islamists sought to take some kind of twisted revenge over the Charlie Hebdo outrage in France.

Never mind that the scummy magazine regularly attacks Christians as profanely as it vilifies Muslims. Never mind that the president of Niger flew to Paris to participate in the giant march organized there to protest the murder of some of the magazine’s staff.

The Islamists decided that they were upset at a new cover from the magazine, deemed to be provocative, and that they needed to protest.

But should we really be surprised that they chose to burn down churches and slaughter Christians?

Festival in the Desert - Smashwords cover Jan 2013My thriller “Festival in the Desert” was set in the West African nation of Mali, adjacent to Niger. It concerned Islamists trying to close down a hospital there that was run by Christian missionaries. I chose Mali, because it is a relatively exotic country, boasting some great music, an exciting annual festival in the desert and the famous city of Timbuktu.

In fact the hospital was based on one in Niger, in the town of Galmi, run by the SIM Christian mission organization. I even included some incidents based on stories told to me by a former missionary doctor at Galmi.

And why should a Christian hospital be under attack? Because throughout Muslim Africa a virulent form of fundamentalist Islam, often dubbed Wahhabism, has been spreading, with roots planted especially by the Saudis. For such people Christians, Jews and even moderate Muslims are the enemy.

Here is an excerpt from “Festival in the Desert:”

“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.”

The commentator Mark Steyn (no connection to the Dr Steyn in my book) has written:

The most successful example of globalization is not Starbucks or McDonald’s but Wahhabism, an obscure backwater variant of Islam practiced by a few Bedouin deadbeats that Saudi oil wealth has now exported to every corner of the earth…You can live on the other side of the planet and, when Starbucks opens up in town, you might acquire a taste for a decaf latte, but that’s it: otherwise, life goes on. By contrast, when the Saudi-funded preachers hung out their shingles on every Main Street in the west, they radicalized a significant chunk of young European Muslims: they transformed not just their beverage habits but the way they look at the societies in which they live.

Some African countries are trying to halt this radicalization. I have written of attempts by Senegal, which borders Mali, to reach out to Israel, in part as a reaction to the worrying spread of radical Islam.

We can only wish that country luck. But, given the power and money behind the Wahhabi tentacles, we should not really be surprised when Islamists in West Africa choose to burn down churches.

And we should not be surprised when it happens again.

Growing Tolerance, Reduced Persecution – Something to Pray About

Events in the Middle East during 2014, and now in Paris at the start of 2015, suggest that militant Islamism is on the move. At the same time it often seems that the persecution of Christians is intensifying throughout the Muslim world.

The newly released World Watch List from the Open Doors organization, ranking the 50 countries where persecution of Christians for religious reasons is most severe, shows that fully 35 of them – including eight of the worst 10 – are Muslim nations.

Yet Christians need to be aware that not all Muslim countries persecute Christians.

Take the West African nation of Benin. It is one of 57 member states of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation, the body which describes itself as “the collective voice of the Muslim world.”

Benin’s president, Boni Yayi, was born into a Muslim family. But he is now a devout evangelical Christian. He worships at his local Pentecostal church, where he sometimes also preaches the sermon, and has expressed a desire to “evangelize the world” when his presidential term ends in 2016.

In fact, some Muslim nations are as nervous about the advance of extremist Islamism as are Christians

Senegal, also in West Africa, is overwhelmingly Muslim, yet, in the words of the Operation World prayer guide, “enjoys religious freedom and is remarkably tolerant toward other faiths – a point of pride for Senegalese.” It is noteworthy for its Mouride Brotherhood order of Sufi Islam, which stresses the importance of discipline and hard work.

However, the Operation World guide adds ominously: “Aggressive Islamist groups, funded by Saudi Arabia and Libya, are making inroads and threaten the tolerant status quo.”

This helps explain a remarkable outreach by Senegal – towards Israel. Just last month a new high-tech drip-irrigated vegetable farm was inaugurated in the country, an Israeli initiative that came about after a request to the Israeli Embassy from the First Lady of Senegal.

A few weeks earlier six senior imams from Senegal had toured Israel, accompanied by members of the Senegalese media. They met the Israeli president and local rabbis, and visited the Yad Vashem holocaust museum and the Western Wall.

These are small steps, but they are also brave ones, as they have sparked criticism from some fellow Muslims. Yet Senegal’s political and religious leaders have seen what happened in neighboring Mali, where extremist Islamists known as AQIM – Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb – overran large parts of the country in 2012.

So if there is any good coming from the advance of Islamist extremism it is that it forces countries and people to take sides. It could mean a growing openness among some Muslim countries towards working with other faiths, along with reduced levels of persecution for Christians. This is certainly something for Christians to pray about.

Beautiful Soccer Fans – Another Side of Iran

Hundreds of beautiful Iranian women have been turning out to watch their country’s soccer players at the Asian Cup tournament, now under way here in Australia.

It has caused consternation back home in Iran, where women are not allowed to attend men’s sporting events. Here is the Sydney Morning Herald:

Ali Akbar Mohamedzade, head of the moral committee of the Iranian Football Federation, issued [a] warning last week as photos of players with women fans circulated on social media.

“National team players should be aware that they won’t be used as a political tool so that those who take pictures with them don’t use these photos against the players,” Iran’s “Shahrvand” newspaper quoted him as saying. “So according to this they should not take photos with everyone. If the players don’t respect this, we will be obliged to take action.”

It is an indication that Iran is not as monolithic as many Westerners believe. Despite the fierce anti-Americanism of the government, the people are surprisingly Western in their outlook, and in fact very pro-America.

Tens of thousands of Iranians live in Australia. They are showing their support for their former homeland with their enthusiastic support for the Iran soccer team (one of the favorities for the tournament, by the way).

But they are also showing that Iran could one day change in ways that no one expects.

Spiritual Warfare – Why Won’t the Japanese Embrace Christianity?

My novel “The Maria Kannon,” second in the Brother Half Angel series of thrillers, is set in present-day Japan, where I lived for 17 years. It tells the story of a US marine who flies to Japan to meet his long-lost sister, only to discover that she has been murdered in church.

Maria Kannon - Smashwords Cover Jan 2013Like all the books in the series, this novel has Christian persecution as a dominant theme. It is also about the Maria Kannon, a statue of a Buddhist deity that was once revered by persecuted Japanese Christians.

Several hundred years ago Christianity was a major force in Japan. But no longer. This is a major concern to mission groups worldwide. Why don’t the Japanese today embrace Christianity?

So I was interested to read some recent comments in the Japan Times newspaper. Columnist Michael Hoffman wrote:

The Japanese have so eagerly embraced everything Western — from fads to philosophies, baseball to scientific method. Why not Christianity? Even China, officially atheist and repressive of anything outside state control, counts 52 million Christians. In South Korea, 30 percent of a population of 50 million professes Christianity. In Japan? Less than 1 percent.

One explanation comes from Minoru Okuyama, director, as of 2010, of the Missionary Training Center in Japan. That year, he told a global missions conference, “Japanese make much of human relationships more than the truth. Consequently we can say that as for Japanese, one of the most important things is harmony; in Japanese, ‘Wa.’” The Japanese, said Okuyama, “are afraid of disturbing human relationships of their families or neighborhood even though they know Christianity is best.” Chinese and South Koreans, by contrast, “make more of truth or principle than human relationships.”

In response, Ian Walker of the Japan Christian Link organization wrote:

There is much to be encouraged by in Japan in the 21st century. People are coming to understand that the very essence of Christianity is a relationship — something the Japanese value highly. People are realizing that the choices they make are key: Do you spend your time investing in relationships with family, friends, colleagues and those in need, or waste it on pachinko [Japanese pinball], porn, materialism, etc.

I have my own explanation that I gave in my book “Journey Out Of Nothing: My Buddhist Path to Christianity.”

It is not generally known that in the late 16th century many Japanese had become Christians. In fact, Christianity was becoming such a force that in the early 17th century the ruling shoguns (military rulers) banned it outright.

From that point Christians were persecuted, and subject to the most horrendous punishments. To ensure the eradication of the religion, the authorities introduced a practice known as fumie.

A fumie – “stepping-on picture” – was a picture of Jesus or of the Virgin Mary. For more than 200 years government officials regularly traveled through the country, to even the smallest village, forcing residents to trample on these pictures. Those who refused were assumed to be Christians and were tortured until they renounced their faith. Those who would not do this were cruelly executed. Crucifixion, sometimes upside down in the sea, was one method.

Another example: according to Japanese tradition, the country’s emperor was a god. Emperor Hirohito formally renounced his divinity in 1945, after Japan’s defeat in World War II. However, his son Akihito, who became emperor in 1989, subsequently participated in a highly secretive religious ceremony, one purpose of which, according to some experts, was to join symbolically in sexual union with the sun goddess and attain divine status.

I concluded: “The level of spiritual warfare in Asia is high.”