Monthly Archives: June 2015

ISIS Threatens Christians in Jerusalem with “Vengeance”

A report that an ISIS-linked group has been threatening Christians in Jerusalem underscores the dangers inherent in placing the city under some kind of international control, as advocated by many.

According to The Times of Israel:

Leaflets threatening Christians and signed by an organization referring to itself as the “Islamic State in Palestine” were distributed in East Jerusalem Thursday, Israel’s Channel 10 news reported.

The flyers, which displayed an image of the black flag associated with the Islamic State terrorist group, warned Christian residents of the city that “vengeance” will be exacted upon them, the TV report stated.

Last month I noted that Pope Francis had reportedly described Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas as an “angel of peace,” despite Palestinian persecution of Christians.

And two weeks ago I wrote about how the Vatican was calling for an independent Palestinian state, “ignoring the growing links between ISIS and Hamas, which controls Gaza.”

I also quoted the commentator David Goldman:

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.

These words ring even truer now. Christians are not universally loved in Israel, but they are free to worship, and Christianity is thriving and growing. Nowhere else in the Middle East is this true. No wonder ISIS wishes to threaten our Christian brothers and sisters in Israel. And it is only while Jerusalem remains in Jewish hands that we can expect they will be protected.

The Executioner’s Hymn – 10,000 Reasons to Praise the Lord

Matt Redman (pictured) is one of the giants of today’s Christian praise and worship song writing movement. Numbers like “Heart of Worship,” “Let Everything That Has Breath” and “Better Is One Day” have inspired believers around the world.

Matt RedmanBut no one could ever have imagined that, one day, one of his greatest songs – the Grammy-winning hit “10,000 Reasons” – would be sung exuberantly by a group of convicted drug runners as they were cut down by an Indonesian firing squad.

Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran were two unsettled young Australians, angry at the world and deeply involved with drugs. In 2005 they were arrested and convicted in Indonesia as the ringleaders of a gang that was smuggling heroin back to Australia. The sentence: death.

Initially they were unrepentant and full of bravado. But once in prison, awaiting execution, they underwent an amazing transformation. In particular, they both found the Lord. Chan, especially, became an absolutely devout Christian, pursuing studies that would lead to him qualifying as a pastor.

In the harsh and often corrupt Indonesian prison environment they became leaders. They counseled the other prisoners, many of whom had drug problems. They introduced new programs to keep the inmates active and productive. In the midst of much tension they acted as peacemakers.

Over ten years they launched several appeals against their sentences. At one hearing a surprise witness appeared on their behalf – their prison governor, who spoke of their numerous good deeds and urged they be spared.

Matt Redman 10,000 ReasonsBut to no avail. In April the pair, together with six other convicted drug felons, were shackled to posts and shortly after midnight were executed by a twelve-man firing squad.

Less than forty-eight hours before his death, Chan had married his sweetheart Febyanti Herewila, herself an Indonesian pastor. She spoke at the funeral service for him last month at Sydney’s Hillsong Church, noting sadly that she had spent more time preparing for the funeral than for the marriage.

A newspaper report takes up the story:

“No-one could ever face death like him,” said Febyanti, revealing Chan had poor eyesight and hated wearing his glasses but did so on the night he died “because he wanted to look them in the eyes.”

As he was led to the execution fields, she said, he asked God to forgive his executioners, and then prayed for Indonesia, a country and people he grew to love. Entering the execution ground, Chan and the seven other condemned men sang “Amazing Grace.” After they were tied to a stake, with Chan urging each to sing louder, they sang “10,000 Reasons.”

They all managed to finish the first verse of the song, she said. But, halfway through the second, the firing squad let loose their weapons. It was, said Febyanti, “The song that we sang on our engagement day, the song we all sang on our wedding day.”

The song reminds us that there are 10,000 reasons (at least) to praise God. And without doubt one of those reasons is the remarkable work of transformation He did in the hearts of those two troubled young men, now together with Him in Paradise.

Christianity Doomed in Iraq, Say Experts

Is it now time for Christians to accept defeat in the face of the ISIS genocidal onslaught in Iraq, and admit that our faith has no viable future – in the short term, at least – in that country? Certainly – and sadly – that is the message that is increasingly being heard from many experts.

Nina Shea is an international human rights lawyer and director of the US-based Center for Religious Freedom. She has an impressive record of fighting on behalf of Mideast Christians.

But now she is bluntly calling for, in her words, “a new strategy.”

And what exactly is this new strategy?

In an article last week at National Review Online she writes: “The only achievable strategy under the current circumstances is to prepare for an orderly resettlement of these Christians (and Yazidis) in the West.”

Then she adds: “It is a bitter development for the Church and for them, being discarded after 2,000 years of history, through no fault of their own. But it is the most humane of the alternatives. Otherwise they face indigence and exile or, worse, slaughter at the hands of jihadists.”

Also last week, on the Defense One website, comes an article from Barry Posen, director of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Security Studies Program. Its title: “The Iraqi Army No Longer Exists.”

In other words, there is no remaining force that, realistically, is going to halt ISIS as it continues its drive to subjugate the region’s Christians. Certainly, as Shea notes, the US does not appear to have the will to do this.

Taking a similar theme, Stephen Walt, an international relations professor at Harvard University, concedes that ISIS increasingly looks like becoming a real and viable state. His article on the Foreign Affairs website has the telling sub-title: “Live with it.”

All this simply confirms what historian Walter Russell Mead told a Hudson Institute conference last month. Christians and other minorities in the region must either “fort up or flee.” Yet the time to “fort up” has long passed.

Christians might comfort ourselves – as I try to do – with thoughts of how our faith is blooming in many other parts of the world. But let us not delude ourselves. This is a tragedy of monumental proportions.

The Spiritual Void in China Today

As Christianity grows powerfully in China, it should surely come as no surprise that many of the new converts are prominent members of the country’s ruling Communist Party elite, along with their families.

For as the prevailing doctrine of godless Communism is rapidly supplanted by a quest for wealth and material possessions, it is inevitable that a spiritual void is opening in the hearts of many people.

Indeed, as reported recently by BosNewsLife, so many Communist Party members have been turning to Jesus that the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection, the country’s top anti-corruption body, has issued an urgent warning to Party members that they must refrain from all religious activities.

This led a Chinese church leader to declare that “genuine believers in Communism are few and far between nowadays.”

China’s Communist Party has around 87 million members. Though official figures are not available, it is believed that the number of Chinese Christians has grown to at least 80 million, though with some officials suggesting the number may be as high as 130 million.

I recently discussed this rapid growth with several experts, and I suggested that there appeared to be no particular benefits to a Chinese person in turning to the church.

Kody Kness is Vice President of the human rights organization ChinaAid. He agreed that there are no socio-economic benefits to becoming a Christian in China, but saw societal benefits.

He told me that 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 satisfy.

Thus, he said, people are seeking to join communities that “value human dignity and justice and that refuse to adhere to the corruption and Communist ideology of the Chinese government.”

Dr Carsten Vala, associate professor at Loyola University Maryland and a research fellow at Purdue University’s Center on Religion and Chinese Society, also saw societal benefits in becoming a Christian.

“Churches provide needed social benefits and an encompassing value system that is a stark contrast to the surrounding moral decay of society,” he told me, adding that many Chinese can see how wealth is corrupting their society.

Thus, in such an environment the surprise is perhaps that more Communist Party members – and others – are not becoming Christians. Though even this might be changing. One sociologist has predicted that Chinese Christians will number 245 million by the year 2030. In other words, China is set to become the largest Christian nation in the world.

The Reality of Evil

As Christianity faces extinction in the Middle East, under attack from a merciless campaign of genocide by the criminals of ISIS, it is distressing that the response of the West has been so weak.

Even Christians appear shell-shocked by events, and do not seem to know what to do, other than pray and donate to relevant charities.

Probably they simply do not know what to do. But I suspect that many of us simply cannot comprehend that the appalling evil we hear about is actually a reality in the twenty-first century.

SilenceA new movie might be about to change such notions.

Martin Scorsese is one of the world’s greatest living directors. He seems to make a new film every two or three years, and often it is a massive hit. His last movie, released in 2013, was the hugely popular “The Wolf of Wall Street.”

That was not a Christian movie. But his next one, due for release late this year or early in 2016, might be.

It is “Silence,” based on the celebrated 1966 historical novel by Japanese Christian writer Shusaku Endo, who was nominated for the Nobel Prize.

“Silence,” Endo’s masterpiece, is set in seventeenth-century Japan and tells the story of an idealistic Portuguese missionary working to help his Christian brethren in Japan in the face of attempts by the authorities to eradicate the religion.

Sadly for much of the time he feels that God is remote, and not answering his prayers – hence the novel’s title.

It is based on real people and real events, and it is striking to read of the cruelty that was employed by the Japanese shogun – military leader – and his officials. The book portrays the torture in some detail, and I assume the movie will do the same.

A favored method was to hang a Christian upside-down over a pit of excrement, with a tiny cut behind the ear sending blood – one slow drop at a time – running down the victim’s face. Death could take a week.

At other times a Christian was tied to a pole that was secured in the sea. High tide would come up just to the victim’s neck, then the water would abate. Again, death was slow.

I do not know how graphic Scorsese will be in depicting the barbarity of the seventeenth-century torturers. I hope he is unflinching. The world needs to see the reality of evil. It is just this manner of evil that is occurring now, in our own time.

Kissing the Koran – A Christian Soccer Captain’s Duty

Coptic Martyr3My thriller “The Coptic Martyr of Cairo” – part of the Brother Half Angel series – has a sub-theme that involves soccer. One of the protagonists – an Egyptian Islamist – is crazy about the sport, and this forms a back-drop to a clash in the book between Muslims and Christians.

One of the leading Mideast soccer powers, along with Egypt, is Iran, which has competed four times at the World Cup. I was interested to see that its captain is a Christian. According to a recent report in The Guardian:

As Iran’s national football team prepared to head to the World Cup last year, Andranik Teymourian stood next to his teammates while they lined up to kiss the holy Islamic book, the Koran, as part of the farewell ceremony.

Iran Christian football captainAlthough he is not a Muslim, the Iranian Armenian didn’t want to rock the boat and so performed the ritual for travellers, which is a quintessential part of Iranian culture. The cleric holding up the Qur’an could hardly disguise his amusement at the scene.

The 32-year-old midfielder, known as Ando – or Samurai, due to his hairstyle – is not shy of showing his Christianity, often crossing himself on the field.

In other soccer news, the Daily Pakistan newspaper presents “Five reasons Pakistani Women’s Football team will make you a fan!” On display are five very attractive players.

Pakistan Christian soccer playerReason #3 is Joyann Geraldine Thomas – “She is not just the first Christian woman to play for the Pakistani women’s football team, but also one of the youngest. She made her international debut shortly after turning 17, in 2014.”

Finally, devoutly Christian Brazilian soccer star David Luiz was recently baptized, and he took the occasion to announce that he would not engage in sex with his girlfriend until after they were married. This led to press reports that he was a virgin.

For some reason this angered Luiz, who accused the press of a lack of respect. “I’m not a virgin. I’ve had more than one girlfriend in my life,” he announced. “Some people in the press don’t respect people in life. I can put my head on my pillow and sleep great because I respect everyone. My religion, my baptism, I’m very happy.”

A New Feeling of Peace and Joy Amidst the Bloodshed

We do not hear much good news for Christians from Iraq nowadays, so I was encouraged to hear about a new school there that, against all odds, is achieving great success in turning angry and confused young refugee kids into enthusiastic students.

It is run by Father Douglas Bazi, a Chaldean Christian priest, and I was able to set up a Skype connection to chat with him about his activities.

In fact, Father Bazi has previously achieved a degree of renown. He was once kidnapped by Islamists. They used a hammer to break his teeth, his knees and his back. The torment only ended when his church paid a ransom to win his release. But he was forced to spend a year in bed, recovering from his injuries.

Douglas BaziHe has also been in churches that have been bombed, and he has seen members of his congregation murdered. He has been urged to leave the country, for his own protection, but he refuses.

He is now priest at Mar Elias church in a secure part of Iraq, in Ankawa, a Christian suburb of Erbil, which is the capital of Kurdistan. Though just 80 kilometres from ISIS-controlled Mosul, the region is well protected and ISIS is not deemed a threat.

His church has a large, sprawling garden, and Christians fleeing the genocide of ISIS have found sanctuary there, living in 120 caravans.

It is among the caravans that he has launched his new school, staffed by volunteers and aimed at giving education – and hope – to some 200 youngsters, and to their parents as well.

Several caravans are classrooms. One is a computer lab. There is also a library. He wanted to take the children to the cinema, but it was expensive. So he was able to acquire a large television set, and another of the caravans is now a cinema.

“I want to give the children a future,” he said. “I want them to be creative. We must not transfer our hatreds to them.”

His programs seem to be working. Youngsters and adults arrived angry and aggressive, and traumatized from their experiences. With little to occupy them in their new environment they then became restless and depressed.

Now, thanks to the school and an extensive program that incorporates sports and drama classes, as well as more traditional subjects, he is witnessing enormous changes. The students have become happy, enthusiastic learners. Their parents have found a sense of community. A feeling of peace and joy embraces the caravans. Some of the families have refused to leave when given the chance to be resettled in apartments.

The students learn English, among other subjects, and Father Bazi has a request.

“I need books,” he told me. “Especially picture books for the younger children, but also books suitable for older children and adults.” Rather than novels he would prefer collections of short stories, as well as non-fiction titles with lots of illustrations.

If you feel you have suitable books that you could donate please email Father Douglas at douglasbazi@gmail.com.

Israel – Fighting for the Future of Christianity

Fewer than 100 Jews are believed to be living in Yemen, and the number could soon drop to zero, as Houthi rebels fight to expand their control of the country.

The Houthis are Shia Muslims, supported by Iran, and their slogan, which now adorns the walls of Yemen’s capital Sana, makes clear their priorities: “God is great. Death to America. Death to Israel. God curse the Jews. Victory for Islam.”

Though Jews predate Muslims in Yemen by hundreds – possibly thousands – of years, most fled some time ago to Israel. The remnant still in Yemen, now under virtual house arrest and victims of intensifying persecution, are likely to try to follow.

It is a reminder of the crucial importance of Israel as a refuge for displaced Jews. Many who criticize the country for its treatment of Palestinians during its War of Independence forget that it subsequently took in nearly 600,000 Jewish refugees ethnically cleansed from the Arab world.

Christians should remember this when we look at the Middle East today. Few Jews are now living in the Arab world. How much longer will Christians remain?

For Christians are today being relentlessly persecuted throughout most of the region, though with one shining exception – Israel itself. In fact, Christianity is thriving in Israel, with the numbers of churches and believers growing (of course from a low base).

I recently interviewed US citizen and Israeli resident Lela Gilbert, author of “Saturday People, Sunday People: Israel through the Eyes of a Christian Sojourner,” and I asked if Israel might even become a refuge for Christians fleeing the ISIS onslaught in Iraq and Syria.

No, she said. Israelis are very sensitive to infiltrators, and a sudden influx of non-Jewish, Arabic-speaking refugees would surely provoke controversy. But she also pointed to a sad reality. Many Mideast Christians are quite anti-Semitic and anti-Jewish, and would themselves probably reject the notion of coming to Israel.

Historian Walter Russell Mead made this point in a recent Wall Street Journal article, where he noted that, as a survival strategy, Mideast Christians had over the years developed a strongly pro-Arab, anti-Zionist identity.

Perhaps this helps explain the recent decision of the Pope – misguided in my view – to embrace the Palestinian cause during a meeting with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. Ignoring the growing links between ISIS and Hamas, which controls Gaza, he called for an independent Palestinian state.

Subsequently, the esteemed commentator David Goldman wrote:

“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.”

It is not just the Jewish remnant of Yemen who need Israel. It is, also, every Christian around the world who cares at all about the future of our faith in the land of its birth.