Monthly Archives: May 2015

Persecuted Japanese Christians the Theme of New Scorsese Movie

Renowned movie director Martin Scorsese has released initial details of his forthcoming movie “Silence,” which has as its theme the persecution of Japanese Christians in the 17th century, and God’s silence in the face of suffering.

Starring Andrew Garfield, Liam Neeson, Tadanobu Asano, Adam Driver and Ciarán Hinds, it is based on the celebrated 1966 historical novel of the same name by Japanese Christian writer Shusaku Endo.

It tells the story of two Portuguese Jesuits who journey to Japan to investigate the well being of a fellow priest.

Speaking at a press conference in Taiwan, where he has been filming the movie, Scorsese told journalists that he had been wanting to make the movie for many years.

“The subject matter presented by Shusaku Endo was in my life since I was very young,” he said. “I was very much involved in religion. I was raised in a strong Catholic family.”

Under the guidance of Portuguese missionaries, Christianity began to flourish in Japan during the 16th century, even gaining the endorsement and protection of the country’s military rulers, the shoguns.

But suspicions that the missionaries might be spies eventually led to a change of heart by the shoguns, and a period of harsh persecution began, with the aim of the total eradication of the religion from Japan.

This saw the emergence of the kakure kirishitan (hidden Christians), who maintained their practices in secret for more than 200 years. Much of Endo’s novel is based on these underground groups and their efforts to hold onto their faith in the face of some of the worst persecution of Christians that the world had witnessed since Roman times.

The Scorsese movie is set for release in late-2015 or early-2016.

Palestine, the Pope, Persecution and Pious Pretense

Pope Francis has described Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas as an “angel of peace” during a meeting at the Vatican.

I wrote about similar hypocrisy last Christmas, and it seems an opportune time to repost my piece. Note too the excellent column by David Goldman on this issue. He writes:

Judging from the opinion polls, [if free elections were held] a State of Palestine today would have a Hamas majority of about two-thirds, with substantial representation from elements of ISIS. Why would the Vatican wish this plague upon itself? If a Palestinian State rules the Old City of Jerusalem, the Christian holy sites will be razed by Muslim radicals, just as they were in Iraq. Christianity survives in Judea and Samaria because Jews are willing to die for Jerusalem. How many Christians are willing to die for Jerusalem? The Vatican should ponder this question.

So here is my own column from Christmas. It was titled “Proclaiming Christ, Persecuting Christians.”

The latest attempts by Palestinian leaders to enlist Jesus to their cause are an insult to Christians and should be rejected.

“We celebrate the birth of Jesus, a Palestinian messenger of love, justice and peace,” declared Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. “His message resonates among all of those who are seeking justice, and among our people who have been the guardians of the holy sites for generations. It resonates in our prayers for our people in Gaza.”

Other local leaders joined the Christmas chorus, affirming that Jesus was a prophet to Palestine and the first Palestinian martyr.

What hypocrisy.

Each December the Open Doors organization releases its World Watch List of the 50 countries where persecution of Christians for religious reasons is most severe. This year it ranked the Palestinian Territories at No. 34, with the plight of the 40,000 Christians there worsening a little since 2013, when the region was ranked at No. 36.

Here is how Open Doors described conditions:

Anti-Christian violence has increased, mostly caused by Islamic extremists, although Muslim-background believers face pressure from family, too. The authorities fail to uphold the rights of individual Christians, causing some to flee to safer areas.

In Gaza, Christians are enticed into becoming Muslims, especially during Ramadan, with the offers of jobs, houses, wives and diplomas. Sometimes the approach is more violent.

In fact, Jesus was born and ministered in Judea. It was only 100 years after his death that the Roman authorities changed the name of the region to Palestine. And it was just in the 20th century that modern-day Palestinians adopted the name.

For some years the Palestinian leadership have been working to convince their people – and the world – that Jews have no particular history in the region. Their phoney attempts to claim Jesus as one of their own – without even noting that He was a Jewish rabbi – is aimed squarely at garnering sympathy from an international Christian audience.

But, until these leaders take decisive steps to halt the escalating persecution of the Christians in their midst, their proclamations should be rejected as mendacious hypocrisy.

China – Ripe for the Harvest

The first novel in my Brother Half Angel series – titled simply “Brother Half Angel” – concerns the church in China. I felt that, despite some intense persecution – or, perhaps, because of it – this was a fast-growing church, and I wanted to highlight its potential.

Brother Half Angel - Smashwords Cover Jan 2013So the novel tells the story of an underground seminary in a Chinese city, managed by a hero of the faith who has spent much time in prison for his beliefs.

Now we are seeing an increasing number of news reports about how the church in China is expanding at a rapid rate. The latest has just been published by Charisma magazine and is titled “You Can’t Ignore the Miracle of Christianity in China.”

It highlights five key points about the church and its growth.

1. China will likely become the largest Christian nation in the world by the year 2030.

2. More Christians attend church on Sundays in China today than in Europe.

3. Spiritual hunger is exploding in China, even though the country is officially atheist.

4. Persecution of Christians is still rampant in China, but it does not seem to be slowing church growth.

5. The growth of Chinese Christianity is linked to its economic growth.

I would add a couple of points of my own. Firstly, there is absolutely no social benefit to be gained from becoming a Christian in China. But it is clear that as China transforms from a Communist society to an increasingly materialist society there is a huge spiritual vacuum in the hearts of many.

Secondly, as the church grows, it is starting to reach out abroad. We see South Korean missionaries just about everywhere nowadays. I predict that soon we shall be seeing Chinese missionaries too.

I can only say a loud “Amen” to these words from the Charisma article:

Many Americans today seem discouraged by evidence of spiritual decline in the West. Now would be the best time for us to heed Jesus’ words in John 4:35: “Behold, I say to you, lift up your eyes and look on the fields, that they are ripe for harvest.” Our pessimism has blinded us to what is happening in the East.

Reflections on a Holiday in Istanbul

Covering the Christian persecution “beat” as a writer can be depressing. On a near-daily basis I receive newsletters from Christian groups such as Voice of the Martyrs and Barnabas Fund, and I scan the internet regularly to check the latest developments. The news invariably seems to be bad, and getting worse.

So it is refreshing to gain a different perspective. I have just returned from a short holiday in Istanbul, and it was encouraging to see that circumstances are not quite as grim as I might have imagined.

Turkey is ranked at No. 41 in the Open Doors 2015 World Watch List of the 50 countries where it is most difficult to live as a Christian. The organization comments:

There is a high level of nationalism in Turkey. The general opinion is that a Turk is born a Muslim. As a result, the attitude towards those who convert to Christianity is very hostile and will almost always result in accusations of ‘insulting the Turkish identity.’ This is regarded as a serious offence. There are very few Christian converts from a Muslim background and the pressure on them to return to Islam can be immense. Although the level of violence against Christians is relatively low, four churches were attacked and damaged in Turkey over the past year.

Violence may be low, but we must remember that eight years ago three Christian employees of the Turkish Bible publishing house Zirve were tortured and murdered, with no one convicted of the crimes.

Meanwhile, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan appears to be leading the country down an ever-hardening Islamist path that includes a refusal to take responsibility for the killing of more than a million Armenian and Assyrian Christians 100 years ago.

Yet little of this was visible during my short visit. For example, I was able to buy English-language newspapers that offered translations from two of Turkey’s leading dailies, Hurriyet and Zaman, and encountered a lively debate about the killings in Armenia, with several columnists affirming that it was indeed genocide.

I also read criticism of the authorities for their inability to secure convictions against those involved in the Zirve murders.

Walking through the streets I found a few souvenir shops offering a limited selection of Christian-themed memorabilia. At Hagia Sophia, once a monumental church, now a museum, the souvenir store was selling ornately bound Bibles. I passed a modern church that was bustling with people, and right in the city’s most cosmopolitan district, Istiklal Street, I spotted a Bible Society store.

This is not to say that the World Watch List findings are wrong, and I am also guessing that conditions in rural Turkey are different from those in sophisticated Istanbul. But it is simply to stress this: God is at work, even in the darkness. Perhaps especially in the darkness.

And I suspect that even if I were, somehow, able to take a brief holiday in North Korea or Saudi Arabia or the ISIS-held parts of the Middle East I might come away with the same conclusion: God is at work.

Salt of the Earth – A Novel Idea

Ideas for novels come from many different sources. My novels tend to reflect current events, and so I get plenty of ideas from reading newspapers and magazines.

My novel “Festival in the Desert” – part of my Brother Half Angel series of thrillers – is about Islamist terrorists in the West African country of Mali and their attacks on a Christian mission hospital.

I am a fan of world music – pop music from countries around the globe – and the initial idea for the plot came from an article in a British world music magazine “Songlines.”

It was about Mali, pointing out that the country had some of the most interesting music anywhere in the world, thanks to great artists like Salif Keita, Amadou and Mariam, Ali Farka Toure, Toumani Diabate, Rokia Traore, Oumou Sangare, Tinariwen and many others.

But the article also pointed out that the musicians faced many threats to their livelihood, including Islamist terrorists, Tuareg (the north Mali desert people) separatists and drug runners. In other words, an irresistible combination for a novel.

Festival in the Desert - Smashwords cover Jan 2013While writing it, I discovered an interesting fact about Mali. In the far north of the country are some famous salt mines. For more than 600 years salt has been mined there, and camel trains transport giant slabs of salt on a three-week trek from the mines to the city of Timbuktu. All this activity helped make Timbuktu a great city and one of the centers of learning and culture in West Africa.

I used this information peripherally in my novel. But now I have just returned from a holiday in central Europe, and discovered that an interesting tourist attraction is the salt mine near Krakow. Until recently salt had been mined there since the 13th century.

Now more than a million tourists annually enter and view salt sculptures, giant underground caverns and four chapels. It is a magnificent sight.

But it got me thinking. Salt makes many appearances in the Bible. In the Old Testament it was added to all offerings. Lot’s wife was turned into salt. Jesus told believers they were the salt of the earth.

Salt! I don’t know how I’m going to do it, but I think I have a new subject for a novel.

Defying ISIS – A New Book Urges Christians to Act

Western Christians have been shell-shocked by the ISIS (Islamic State) holocaust against our fellow Christians in the Middle East, and have little idea how to respond, beyond prayer and some giving to relevant charities. That, at least, is how I see things.

So a timely new book is relevant. It is “Defying ISIS” by Johnnie Moore, an American author, business executive and religious freedom activist.

The book spells out in grisly detail some of the ISIS activities – the chapter on how the group has been enslaving girls and women is particularly hard to read – and makes it clear that Christians are a particular target.

ISIS itself may have made the headlines only in the past couple of years, but since at least 2003 Islamists have been targeting Iraqi churches. In Baghdad alone, 40 of the 65 churches have been bombed.

In October 2014 the cover of an ISIS magazine depicted St Peter’s Square in the Vatican with a black jihadist flag superimposed. ISIS leaders have repeatedly proclaimed their intention to march to Rome, which they view as the global center of Christianity.

In the words of the book: “ISIS is unabashed at their desire to eliminate Christianity altogether. This isn’t just a part of their plan. It is the heart of it.”

I suspect a military response is the only real answer, but what can ordinary Christians do? Moore stresses the importance of education. When we understand what is happening we are much more likely to start trying to help. We will also be able to speak authoritatively to others.

He briefly tells the story of “a relatively small group of Christians who educated themselves and cared enough to raise their voices” and helped more than 72,000 refugees, driven from their homes by ISIS, to survive the 2014 winter.

He also urges Christians to speak up on this issue and to pressure their governments, as well as praying and giving.

This is a short book and a quick read (though not an easy read, given the grim content matter). With Christianity under threat of eradication in the land of its birth, it is vital that all Christians understand the issues. “Defying ISIS” is an excellent starting point.

Football Fans Recall Assyrian Genocide in Beautiful Tribute

Football fans have many ways to express tributes during a game, but I have never heard of one that lasts this long.

At a derby game in Sweden between two Stockholm teams, Syrianska and Assyriska, supporters maintained silence for a full 19 minutes and 15 seconds at the start of the match, to remember the 1915 Ottoman Empire genocide, Seyfo, against the Assyrians.

Syrianska Football Club has a fan base among Syriac Aramean people, while Assyriska was founded by Assyrian migrants.

I read about the tribute on the Facebook page of Nuri Kino, who has made a documentary film about Assyriska.

In response to my query, he messaged me: “It was at the beginning of the game; of course there were many moments when we wanted to scream … But everyone was silent. Amazing. Beautiful and powerful.”

I agree. Very touching.

A Perilous Future for Turkey’s Christians

The anniversary of the torture and slaying of three men at a Turkish Christian publishing house – for which no one has ever been convicted – has raised questions about the future for Christianity within Turkey.

At the same time, a report from a prestigious US think tank has stated that “one of the common features of the Ottoman Empire and modern Turkey seems to be their intolerance of churches.”

In April 2007 three Christian men – two of them Turks and the third a German national – were tied to chairs then stabbed repeatedly at the Zirve publishing house in Malatya, a city in the south-east of the country. The assailants then slit the men’s throats.

Despite a flurry of investigative activity and even some arrests, no one has ever been convicted of the murders. Those arrested were later released.

It has now led several Turkish newspapers to question the country’s justice system. The Radikal newspaper interviewed a friend of the murdered men who said: “I can’t say what is not true. We have seen once again that there is no justice for Christians in Turkey.”

The Zaman newspaper interviewed Suzanne Geske, wife of the slain German national, who said she and her children had forgiven the murderers. But the newspaper also wrote: “Geske added that even though the motto ‘Justice is the foundation of the state’ is written on the walls of all courts in Turkey, the Zirve case has proved otherwise.”

Writing for Turkey’s Cihan News Agency, Charlotte McPherson said simply: “A huge disappointment on behalf of justice has occurred again.”

Meanwhile, in a brief report from America’s Gatestone Institute titled “Churches in Turkey on the Verge of Extinction,” a Turkish journalist noted that only about 120,000 Christians remained in the country, and that they do not enjoy the same rights as the Muslim majority.

He concluded: “Sadly, Turkey, a NATO member since 1952 and reportedly a candidate for membership in the European Union, has largely succeeded in destroying the entire Christian cultural heritage of Asia Minor.

“All this is reminiscent of what ISIS and other jihadist armies have been doing in the Middle East. In Turkey, the remaining Christian population, the grandchildren of genocide survivors, are still exposed to discrimination. The old habits of Ottoman Turks do not seem to die.”