Monthly Archives: February 2015

Fighting Back – Must We Always Turn the Other Cheek?

When do Christians fight back? Many are asking that question after the horrific beheading of 21 Christians in Libya, followed by the kidnapping of more than 200 Christians in Syria.

Some continue to believe that Jesus enjoined us not to fight at all. That we must always turn the other cheek.

I prefer to listen to Andrew Grills, formerly an Anglican chaplain with the Australian Defence Force, who witnessed monstrous atrocities by the Indonesian military against Christians in East Timor.

“There was a house only 30 meters from the fort where I worked for seven months,” he wrote. “It was called the kissing house. Timorese Christian girls would be taken from their homes by Indonesian militia, raped, then taken out and shot.

“If you are a Christian pacifist, you will not lift a finger directly to help people who suffer like this. And if you do encourage a peace-keeping force to help them then you are asking others to do your dirty work, work that you believe is immoral. Which is the greater evil?”

Another Australian, Desmond Ball, a professor at the Australian National University’s Strategic and Defence Studies Centre, was a witness to atrocities against the minority Karen ethnic people in Myanmar (Burma). He actually acted on his principles. (Note that Professor Ball did not respond to my request for an interview, and I do not know if he is Christian.)

“A couple of particular guys were involved in taking large numbers of girls,” he told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation last year. “[They were] raping them, mutilating them, and, when they’d finished with them, putting them in the bark and thatch huts and then burning the huts – burning the girls alive or just machine-gunning them.

“I was very uncomfortable with all of that and thought, ‘I just can’t go home and forget about this. I should be doing something.’ So I took my contacts with the armed groups another step forward in terms of working out operational techniques for in fact tracking down and getting rid of these guys.”

For many years he secretly made regular trips to the jungles of Myanmar to advise members of the Karen National Liberation Army – many of whom are Christians – on guerrilla warfare tactics, including the interception of enemy radio transmissions. He also instructed them on how to initiate ambushes that would inflict maximum damage on the Burmese army, while minimizing their own losses.

Now we are witnessing genocide against Christians in parts of the Middle East. Surely it is time to fight back.

Rape, Torture, Landmines, Chemical Weapons – Continuing Persecution of Ethnic Burmese

Congratulations to West Australian politician Luke Simpkins for his statement to Parliament on continuing Burmese government persecution of that country’s ethnic peoples. (I was going to write “ethnic minorities,” but in fact Luke notes in his speech that the so-called “ethnic” groups are around 60 per cent of the population.)

Just a few weeks ago he even visited the country, crossing – illegally – from Thailand into Burma for a military parade and Revolution Day ceremony with rebel fighters. He presented them with an Australian flag.

Sadly, Burma (now formally retitled Myanmar) is not a place that Australians have much interest in, and I haven’t been able to find any media reports of his speech to Parliament. So here are a few excerpts –

I have heard consistent reports of brutality and atrocities, but as the source of some of my comments today I would like to pay particular tribute to an excellent organisation, the Free Burma Rangers. I encourage anyone who doubts the validity of what I say today to look at their website. FBR is a multi-ethnic humanitarian service. They send teams, provided by ethnic pro-democracy groups into the areas under attack by the Burmese Army in order to provide emergency medical care, shelter, food, clothing and human rights documentation. The teams use a communication and information network inside Burma that provides real-time information from areas under attack. Primarily they are about health, and reporting the facts of what is going on.

…On 11 December it was reported that on 19 November 2014, the Burmese Army’s Light Infantry Battalion 390 fired a 105 millimetre Howitzer at the Kachin officer training school in Waingmaw in Kachin State, killing 23 trainees. That included two Free Burma Rangers that were present. Later on, the Burmese shelled villages and displaced persons camps, killing three more people. The Free Burma Rangers also reported that two Kachin girls were raped and killed on 19 January 2015 by troops of the Burmese Army. The girls were named Maran Lu Ra, age 20, and Tangbau Hkawn Nan Tsin, age 21. They were Kachin Baptist volunteer missionaries working in northern Burma along the Kachin-Shan state border. The rape occurred in the KBC church compound in northern Shan state. On the night of 19 January, Burmese Army troops came into the church ground where the girls were sleeping, raped them and then beat them to death.

At Nam Lim Pa Village in Kachin state on 30 January, the Free Burma Rangers teams found three bodies with evidence of torture. All three were killed when the Burmese Army attacked in late November 2013. A total of seven people were killed in or nearby the village. One of the victims was La Bang La Ring; he was killed by the Burmese Army in Nam Lim Pa and found with six deep knife or axe cuts on his back, as well as other signs of torture. He was a deaf-mute.

Nhkun Brang Aung was 20 years old and mentally disabled. When everyone else was fleeing the advancing Burmese Army troops, he said he was not afraid of the Burmese Army because he did not believe troops would bother someone like him.

Another unidentified body was found with rope burns; his head had been scalded with boiling water; his body bore signs of additional torture; he had been shot to death.

When Scott Johnson and I visited Mae Sot in Thailand, we met with a number of Thai, Karen and others from different ethnic groups. I even met with a mine clearer who told me how significant the Burmese Army mine threat was. He is doing a great job of recruiting and training local ethnic people to help clear the mines. For me, the use of mines by the Burmese Army is a significant issue. The Burmese Army operates hundreds of outposts and camps in the territory of the ethnic peoples. They lay anti-personnel mines around these posts and when they leave, they leave the mines behind. Upon reoccupation by the local ethnic villagers, some mines get cleared but sometimes someone is killed or maimed before they clear the mines or if they trip a mine that has been missed. 

When I visited the Mae Tao Clinic in Mae Sot in January, I visited the prosthetic limb workshop and saw where they assist those victims of the Burmese army’s landmines. When I was at Oo Kray Kee village in Karen State, Burma, I saw some people that had lost limbs.

I believe that the Burmese regime should be held accountable for their use of landmines. I have also been told that in June 2011 in the north of Shan State, the Burmese army even used chemical weapons. I should also mention that there are consistent allegations that the Burmese have a strategy of selling drugs into the ethnic communities. These are the strategies of the Burmese regime and they should be known.

Why I Wanted “Timbuktu” to Win the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar

Congratulations to “Ida,” the Polish winner of Best Foreign Language Film at the Oscars. But I was hoping that another of the five nominees, “Timbuktu,” would win.

Festival in the Desert - Smashwords cover Jan 2013I’ve not seen either movie, but I hear that “Timbuktu” is a powerful portrayal of life in that West African city – in northern Mali – after Al Qaeda-associated Islamists took control. For 10 harsh months they governed the city, and the surrounding region, with growing repression, before French-led forces kicked them out.

In the words of one writer

It dares to tackle one of the most urgent topics of our time, yet it’s also a magnificent work of art. It celebrates the force of love and the resilience of humanity even as it delves deep into the nature of evil. It’s been a while since I saw a film that pulls off a comparable feat.

Though my own reasons for wanting the film to win were a little more selfish. For my own novel “Festival in the Desert,” part of my Brother Half Angel series of thrillers, is also set in Timbuku. And it too tells a story of Islamists who are trying to undermine the authorities.

In addition, my book has a strong Christian theme, featuring a mission hospital in the city that is under attack.

But “Ida” – which also has a religious theme – was the winner, so congratulations. And I look forward to viewing “Timbuktu.”

Award-Winning Movie Shows Plight of Assyrian Christians

Sargon Saadi is a Syrian-born cinematographer, now living in Los Angeles. His short movie “The Last Plight,” released late last year, is a heart-wrenching portrayal of the plight of Assyrian Christians and other minorities in the face of the ISIS onslaught. He kindly agreed to answer some questions. (You can view “The Last Plight” online.)

Tell me a little about yourself. How did you get into movie-making?

I was born and raised in Syria, a wonderful county, the jewel of the Middle East. But unfortunately, the claws of civil war have torn it apart.

My passion for filmmaking definitely comes from a young age when my older brother was making home videos with my cousins and me. My dad had a sensitive eye for photography as well, even though he never fully explored it.

When the opportunity presented itself for me to go to the United States in 2006, I decided I would follow my passion and study filmmaking. Five years later, I got my cinematography degree from Columbia College, Chicago. Ever since, I have been working as a freelance cinematographer on many films and documentaries.

What is the background to “The Last Plight”? 

To talk about the background, I must talk a little about who the Assyrians are. Assyrians are the descendants of the great Mesopotamian civilization of 7,000 years. They still speak the Aramaic language that Jesus Christ once spoke. They are the last indigenous people of the region.

As an Assyrian myself, ever since I was a child I wondered what I would have done if I were alive in 1915 when the Ottoman Empire committed genocide against us. That genocide, which the Assyrians now call “Seyfo,” is hardly recognized or even talked about in schools or in the media.

Now, 100 years later, the Assyrian Christians are facing yet another genocide and this time in Iraq by the terrorist organization ISIS (The Islamic State). I could not stay idle, and that’s why I made the film. I wanted to let the world know.

I got a call from two producer friends from California, Sargon Rouel and Suzan Younan, asking me to fly to Iraq with them and document this crisis. We all shared the same passion and the same goal. It was an emotional roller coaster for the three of us to witness that tragic plight every day.  We were in Iraq for eight days last September.

The ISIS invasion has caused the mass displacement of more than 600,000 people, minorities like the Assyrian Christians, Yezidis, Shabaks, Kakai, Turkmans and others. Now, eight months later, the majority of them are still without sufficient shelter or medical care. Unfortunately, the international response to this humanitarian crisis has been very slow and insufficient.

The Last Plight” has been making a significant impact in raising awareness globally. So far it has been translated into six major languages and screened on four television channels. In addition, it has been screened at the European Parliament, which was a major accomplishment for our mission. The film also got an award from the internationally renowned video-sharing platform Vimeo.  We are going to multiple film festivals this year and we are hoping for more exposure.

* Your website has a trailer for another movie, “Qamishli: Peace At War.” Could you tell me a little about this?

This is another passionate project of mine. It is a documentary about the survival of the Assyrian Christian community in Syria during the civil war. It focuses on the small city of Qamishli, which is my hometown.

Syria has been suffering from a brutal four-year civil war that seems to have no end. The Assyrian community is dwindling rapidly because of security concerns, threats and economic hardship. The massive migration of the Christian community is not only disastrous for its historical impact on the country but it also could have cultural and social consequences on the future of Syria as a moderate and modern country.

The film is less about politics and more about the way this minority group has been able to survive, socially and as humans, in the midst of war. I’m currently finalizing it, and it will be premiered in May at the Mardin Film Festival in Turkey.

* Please comment a little about the plight right now of Assyrians in Iraq and Syria. Are conditions getting worse?

The Civil War in Syria does not seem to be ending any time soon, but peace is showing a few faint signs of progress. I hope that the dust of war settles and the Syrian people can reclaim their lives again.

In Iraq the situation is much grimmer. The Assyrians are still facing a massive humanitarian crisis. All their ancestral lands in the Nineveh Plains have been taken from them by ISIS. None of it has been reclaimed yet.

The Assyrians have lost all trust in governments to help them, and they are now trying to take matters into their own hands. There are positive attempts to create Assyrian local forces to defend their own cities and homes. The emergence of NPU (Nineveh Protection Unit) is giving new hope for the Assyrian Christians that finally, one day, they can defend their own lands independently.

What can Christians in the West do to help your cause?

The Christians in the West can play a vital role in stopping this tragedy. Along with genuine prayers, a good place to start is to go to www.ADemandForAction.com to be informed and get involved. ADemandForAction is a grass-roots movement formed to raise awareness about the plight of all minorities in the Middle East as well as to lobby governments to make the right decisions. To aid the displaced people directly they can donate to www.AssyrianAid.org (Assyrian Aid Society).

It all starts with us being informed about world atrocities. With knowledge we can destroy ignorance, and with love we can conquer hate.

Sargon, thank you very much. Watch “The Last Plight” here.

Captive Audience for My Books

Authors love good reviews for their books. But more important are honest reviews, and recently I’ve been getting a lot of these.

I’m a member of an online writers’ initiative, the John 3:16 Marketing Network. One of the best things the group has done – in my opinion – is setting up a writing ministry to prisoners. We donate copies of our novels to a Florida prison, for the inmates to read and critique as part of a writing program. As you might imagine, the reviews are sometimes brutally blunt.

Maria Kannon - Smashwords Cover Jan 2013I have just received the latest batch of half-a-dozen reviews for three of my thrillers. Here is Charles on “The Maria Kannon,” a novel about attacks on a church in Japan:

Overall, the book was an enjoyable read….I would read Roth’s other works.

And Lian, who signed his review “A brother in Christ,” on the same book:

All in all a good read for an evening or weekend. I enjoyed it.

And Keith:

I believe the main point came at the end of the book, how a Christian should forgive and love instead of seeking revenge. I enjoyed the book. It had a good story and action. Also it didn’t drag with many pointless details. It just kept flowing.

Military Orders - Smashwords Cover Jan 2013But Keith was less impressed with “Military Orders,” which features a missionary who becomes involved in a Christian scheme to find the next Dalai Lama:

I did not enjoy this book because of the way it portrayed the one and only God and Christians. Like it was God’s plan to protect the Dalai Lama. Are you serious?…And that Professor Rafa [the book’s hero] is a coward not a hero. Two times he ran to save his life and left the kid with the kidnapper. And just to save his life he offered information on another child that the kidnapper knew nothing about. He risked the life of another child and his family just to save his own. Selfish coward!

Finally – gulp – here is Napier, reviewing “Brother Half Angel,” which is about attacks on an underground Christian seminary in China:

Brother Half Angel - Smashwords Cover Jan 2013The story itself left me well short. The disconnect between Ling and the feelings of those in service with him went on and on ad nauseum. I felt the Westlokes were weakly defined and came across as nagging and henpecked. Jenny’s incessant whining made me want to shut the book. The conflict of good against evil was shallow….The awesome theme and motivation I feel was left flat by a weak plot with no resolution.

I told you these reviews were brutally honest.

But Napier does at least end his critique positively:

I would be interested in reading other “Brother Half Angel” stories. A hero for the faith is always worth reading about.

Amen to that.

China – Will It Become the World’s Largest Christian Nation?

Kody Kness is Vice President of ChinaAid, an international non-profit Christian human rights organization committed to promoting religious freedom and the rule of law in China. He kindly agreed to answer several questions about the outlook for Christians in China today.

There do not seem to be any particular benefits to becoming a Christian in China, yet the church is growing enormously. Why?

The number of Christians in China is on the rise, and scholars have predicted that the number of Chinese Christians today is close to 80 million, thus coming very close to rivaling the number of Communist Party members. In fact, sociologist Dr. Yang Fenggang has predicted that the number of Chinese Christians will reach nearly 245 million by the year 2030, thus making China the largest Christian nation in the world.

A number of faith seekers in China are encountering the word of God through a growing presence of Christian communities throughout China either in the house church movement or the official government-sanctioned “Three Self” church. Although there may not be socio-economic benefits to becoming a Christian in China, there are societal benefits, namely investing in a community that values human dignity and justice and refuses to adhere to the corruption and Communist ideology of the Chinese government. Chinese citizens are searching for alternatives to the government’s official propagation of Atheism and are looking to fill a void that neither Communism nor materialism can fill.

Why are the authorities cracking down on the church right now?

The Chinese government has engaged in a systematic campaign against the church in order to control or suppress the growth of Christianity. There have been reports of promotions of Chinese government officials from the province of Zhejiang, which many speculate are directly related to the perceived success of these recent crackdowns. Historically, the Chinese government has suppressed any people group that out-numbers the Communist Party, and thus threatens its power and control over society. The growth of Christianity has also brought increased scrutiny of a broken judicial system in China, as Christians are being educated in the rule of law and subsequently challenging the government’s persecution of their faith community through court proceedings, in many cases hiring Christian lawyers, whose numbers are also on the rise in China.

To be sure, President Xi’s administration continues to suppress not only religious freedom, but also freedom of speech, especially at Chinese universities. In a recent statement by China’s Minister of Education, any speech condemning the Chinese Communist Party or Socialism, or promoting “Western values,” is now forbidden in the classroom. Chinese government-sponsored campaigns against perceived “Western traditions” appeared this year in several provinces in China, including banning the celebration of Christmas, which is construed as a threat to maintaining Chinese culture. These bans are directly related to the government’s recent crackdown on Christianity.

Might the crack-down be counter-productive? Could it in fact – eventually – end up strengthening the church?

Yes. The persecution of Christians has also emboldened a new generation of believers who seek a higher authority and are willing to sacrifice their own safety and welfare for the right to worship freely. Historically, the Christian church has thrived during times of heightened persecution and China is no exception. In the aftermath of the Cultural Revolution, the church in China almost tripled in size after churches were forcibly closed. A similar campaign against the church is under way today in numerous provinces throughout China and the end result could indeed end up strengthening the church, though that is dependent on how far the Chinese government is willing to go in its campaign against the rise of Chinese Christians and their response to that persecution.

Christianity has spread strongly in South Korea, and now South Koreans are a force in church and mission groups globally. Might Chinese Christianity one day exert an international influence?

I would suggest that the Chinese church will indeed become increasingly missional in its spiritual expression and identity, though perhaps more within a domestic context at first and then progressively more outside of China’s borders. That being said, I believe there are already instances of both, as Chinese Christians move throughout China sharing the gospel and training new believers in both spiritual disciplines and their rights under Chinese constitutional and international law to worship freely, and as Chinese professionals travel internationally and subsequently share their faith while abroad.

If Dr. Yang’s predictions are correct, and Christianity grows to make China the largest Christian nation in the world, and simultaneously the country opens its borders to information via the Internet and allows its citizens to travel internationally, there will undoubtedly be a Chinese strain of Christianity that will help spread the gospel throughout the world.

Kody, thank you very much.

Egypt’s Coptic Church – An Inspiration for the West

The exciting but controversial discovery of what could be the oldest known fragment of a Christian gospel – scraps of recycled papyrus used to make an Egyptian mummy’s mask – puts the spotlight on Egypt’s Coptic Christians.

At present, the earliest known texts of New Testament writings are from the second century. But this new fragment, containing part of the Gospel of Mark, is believed to be from around 90AD. It confirms again that the Coptic Church traces its origins right back to the beginnings of Christianity.

In ancient Egypt discarded papyrus sheets were often used, together with paint and glue, to create masks that were placed on a mummified body. Until recently it was generally not possible to read these sheets, because they were glued tightly together.

But a new technique allows scientists to remove the glue from the mask while leaving the writing intact. The texts can thus be read, although the mask is essentially destroyed, and so the practise has caused much controversy.

Unconfirmed stories about the gospel discovery have been circulating since 2012, but re-emerged in January 2015 when the LiveScience website posted an article stating that the scholars involved were planning to issue a full report on their findings later this year.

Egypt holds a special place in the history of the church. Mary and Joseph fled there with the infant Jesus. Saint Mark founded the Egyptian church just a decade after the death of Christ, possibly wrote his gospel there and was martyred there.

In addition, few places better symbolized the third-century church father Tertullian’s famous statement, that the blood of the martyrs was the seed of the church.

Coptic Martyr3In the words of 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.”

For several hundred years Egypt was a proudly Christian nation. Then the Muslim invasion of the seventh century saw the country slowly turn into an Islamic state. Today Christians number only around 10 per cent of the population.

But the martyrdoms continue. Recent years have seen some particularly grotesque attacks on Christians from Saudi-inspired Islamists. The Islamists even try to deny the Christian heritage of Egypt, which makes the recent papyrus discovery important.

Yet Christians in the West generally know little about the Coptic Church. This is unfortunate, as it has much to teach us.

In the early centuries it taught that to become a Christian was possibly to enter a world of suffering.

Now, with persecution on the rise in many parts of the world, we see a praying church that, despite enduring many centuries of hardship and martyrdom, stands strong, proud and defiant. For nearly 2,000 years it has remained true to its calling – true to Christ, true to the Bible, true to its teachings and unafraid of death. This should be an inspiration to us all.

Soccer Riots in Egypt – Why My Novel Sometimes Reads Like a Daily Newspaper

My Brother Half Angel thrillers are based on current events, so it is little wonder that, now and again, some particular news item seems to be lifted straight from one of my books.

It has just happened again, with news that rioting at a soccer match in Egypt has led to the death of around 25 fans from the Zamalek club.

Coptic Martyr3Soccer fans from Egypt are not the only ones with a proclivity towards violence. But what marks them out is that they are also involved in the country’s politics.

Soccer club supporters were involved – often quite murderously – in the Arab Spring demonstrations and in the ouster of President Hosni Mubarak.

In my novel “The Coptic Martyr of Cairo I featured a violent soccer club fan as one of the main villains. Here is an excerpt –

But still, it was summer and he was bored. It wasn’t just the intense heat. It was the lack of soccer. Here in Egypt he followed Al Ahly, the country’s top team, and was a member of the Ultras, their fanatical supporters. 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.