Monthly Archives: June 2016

Religious Freedom Tightening in Former Soviet Republics

The 1991 dissolution of the Soviet Union sparked hopes among Christians for a new era of religious freedom. Sadly, these dreams have been only partially realized.

This has been confirmed in the 2016 Open Doors World Watch List of the 50 countries where Christians are most severely persecuted for their faith. Five of the 15 former Soviet republics – Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Tajikistan, Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan – make the list. Three others – Russia, Kyrgyzstan and Belarus – are just outside the top 50, but are nevertheless characterized by Open Doors as countries with “high” levels of persecution.

Worse, in the 2016 list, two of the biggest jumps from the previous year – showing a sharp deterioration in religious freedom – came from a couple of these nations. Tajikistan rose from No. 45 to No. 31. Azerbaijan went from No. 46 to No. 34.

All of these countries have their own peculiarities, but certainly a unifying factor is the rise of Islamic extremism. It means that many Muslim states that are often thought to practise a more “moderate” form of Islam – and this includes those former Soviet republics where Muslims comprise a majority of the population – are rushing to regulate all religious expression, ostensibly to stall the rise of extremism.

Evangelical Christians, though generally small in number in most of these places, can find themselves a particular target.

Other factors are also at work in some of the countries, including a potent dose of what Open Doors describes as “dictatorial paranoia.”

In addition, we see moves in regions of the Muslim world towards a stronger religious observance among parts of the population. Again, this would seem to be in some measure a response to the rise of Islamic extremism.

A young church friend spent some years with a mission organization in one of the former Soviet republics, working especially with university students.

“When I arrived only a minority of the students observed Muslim rituals like Ramadan,” he told me. “But by the time I left I would guess that a majority were taking part. They would joke about it to me. ‘Fasting is good for my health, so I’m doing it,’ they would say. But it was clear that they felt a lot of pressure on them to become more religious. It happened in a relatively short period of time.”

He also noted that in his years in the country there was a noticeable increase in the number of mosques, with foreign countries often providing the financing.

This is a disturbing trend. The rise of Islamic extremism has been a tragedy for Christians in parts of the Middle East. But increasingly it seems that it has ramifications that extend right throughout the entire Muslim world. This is very much to the detriment of Christians.

The Language of Jesus Under Attack

Attacks on an ancient Syriac church in Turkey constitute another blow to Aramaic, the language that Jesus spoke.

According to a press release from the World Council of Arameans, fighting in late-January between the Turkish army and Kurdish militia groups in the south-eastern city of Diyarbakir has caused many deaths and extensive damage.

Diyarbakir, with a population of more than 900,000, formerly boasted a flourishing Aramaic-speaking Christian community, but this number has declined sharply over the past 100 years. The city is home to the Syriac Orthodox St Mary Church, which dates back to the third century and was once a center of learning for the Aramaic language, as well as attracting some of the Eastern church’s most famous patriarchs and theologians.

Its priest, Father Yusuf Akbulut, stayed in the church until the last possible opportunity, before fleeing.

The press release quoted him as saying: “When we escaped, we saw so many streets completely destroyed. Our hometown was unrecognizable and it looked like a war zone. We don’t know what has happened to our church, because we didn’t dare to look while we were running for our lives. Now we have little hope left that there can be a future for us, Aramean Christians, to stay in the land of our forefathers.”

Subsequent reports stated that parts of the church walls have fallen.

Aramaic was, at the time of Jesus, the most common language of the Middle East, and it remained widely spoken, particularly among Christian communities, for many hundreds of years.

But recent decades have not been kind to the language. Younger generations in the Middle East, even if they grew up with Aramaic, often ended up mainly using Arabic, the dominant tongue. In addition, there has been a steady exodus from the Middle East of Aramaic speakers – intensified over the past few years with the attacks of Islamic State – with many moving to the West.

Ironically though, the language is seeing something of a mini-revival in an unexpected part of the region – in Israel.

Gush Halav – known in Arabic as Jish – is a small town in the Galilee Valley, in northern Israel. More than half the population are Maronite Christians, and they still use Aramaic in their church liturgy, and even often speak it.

Since 2011, under the auspices of the Israeli Ministry of Education, Aramaic has been taught in the town’s schools. And in 2014 the Israeli government recognized the country’s 20,000 Aramaic people as a distinct nationality.

It is a sign of hope. But will it be enough? Some experts maintain that Aramaic will disappear as a living language by the end of the century. That would be a bitter blow though it pales into insignificance when compared to a more distressing looming tragedy. Can Christianity itself continue to flourish in the Middle East until the end of this century?

A Quiet Tragedy – Pakistani Christians Seeking Refuge in Thailand

The impact of the massive wave of Christian refugees from the Middle East has been so overwhelming that, sadly, we too often forget that Christian refugee groups are suffering in other parts of the world.

“Never have so many Christians been on the move as a result of war and persecution,” says the Open Doors organization, and it notes what it describes as some “quiet tragedies.” One of these is the exodus of Pakistani Christians to Thailand.

The suffering of Pakistan’s Christians – including physical attacks on Christians and their churches, the abduction, forced marriage and involuntary conversion to Islam of Christian girls, and blasphemy laws that can lead to arrests of Christians on fabricated charges – appears to be intensifying.

In the 2016 Open Doors World Watch List of the 50 countries where Christians are most persecuted for their faith Pakistan is ranked sixth – up from eighth a year earlier – with the designation “extreme persecution.”

One consequence has been a steady flow of Pakistani Christians escaping their country and seeking asylum in Thailand.

According to Open Doors, about 10,000 Pakistani Christians have fled to Thailand, many of them quite recently. And here, it says, is where the real tragedy begins: “ They are badly treated and are refused refugee status by the government, so they are not allowed to work and are subject to police intimidation and forced to rely on handouts and sporadic work. Unfortunately, even Thai churches are wearying of the burden of supporting them.”

One group that is working to assist is the British Pakistani Christian Association, which recently published a lengthy report titled “Education, Human Rights Violations in Pakistan and the Scandal Involving UNHCR [United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees] and Christian Asylum Seekers in Thailand.” (The report is sold at the Association’s website, www.britishpakistanichristians.org.)

The report says that UNHCR is dragging its feet when it comes to processing Pakistani refugees, many of whom must wait years before their refugee status can be determined.

Another advocacy group for Pakistani Christians, the Farrukh Saif Foundation, is actually preparing a lawsuit against UNHCR, asking: “Why does UNHCR keep the Pakistani Christian asylum seekers on hold for four to five years, making them hostages, and not resolving their cases at the earliest according to their own guidelines, so that these people won´t be living in a limbo for years with false hopes and illusion of being protected and resettled?”

Fortunately, not all Thai churches are weary of the Pakistani influx. A local pastor known as Papa Thongchai runs the Urdu Church in Hands of God, which provides a special ministry to Pakistanis in Bangkok.

But this is just one small stream into an ocean of rising despair. Such recent headlines as “Bangkok, the Silent Graveyard of Pakistani Christians” and “Asylum-Seeking Christian Mom Dies in Thailand Police Detention on Christmas Eve” foreshadow a growing tragedy that must no longer be kept quiet.

Persecution of Christian Increasing as Islamic Extremism Spreads

Open Doors has just released its 2016 report – known as the World Watch List – of the 50 countries where Christians face the most severe persecution for their faith, and here is a depressing quiz question: of the 22 countries that comprise the Arab League, only three are not on the List; name those three countries.

Before providing the answer I might note that this is not a new phenomenon. Throughout the history of the World Watch List – it was first published in 2002 – most Arab League nations have been included.

And the answer to my question? The three countries are Lebanon, Mauritania and Morocco. For what it is worth, a year ago three Arab League countries also did not make it into the List. They were Bahrain, Lebanon and Morocco.

It is a sad reality that the Arab world is particularly hostile towards Christians, more so than most other places (although once again North Korea tops the rankings).

And tragically, as the report makes clear, the plight of Christians has been deteriorating as Islamic State has tightened its grip in parts of the Arab world. But worse, the influence of Islamic extremism is expanding to other countries in Africa and Asia, putting Christians even further under threat.

Thus, among the trends driving persecution, the report notes:

  • Islamic extremist self-styled caliphates have expanded their spheres of operation across international borders;
  • governments became more fearful of Islamic extremism and responded by either (a) boosting nationalism as a counter force or (b) tightening regulations and increasing surveillance over all religious expression;
  • Muslims the world over are becoming more Islamic out of fear that extremists may take over their areas and that Islamic State sleeper cells may wake. In other cases it might be out of opportunism or religious conviction.

Even countries in sub-Saharan Africa, where Christianity is strong, are being affected. So both Kenya and Tanzania, where Christians are in the majority, find themselves on the List, as Islamic terrorism spreads.

But another phenomenon is also worth noting. The Organisation of Islamic Cooperation has 57 member states. Of these, 27 are in Africa, and 11 of them are on the latest World Watch List. Yet when we exclude the North African Arab countries we find that only three African members of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation are on the List – Mali, Niger and Nigeria.

This is not to say that the persecution of Christians does not occur in other member states of the Organisation. It does happen, and sadly it appears to be worsening, as the influence of Islamic State spreads. But for the time being at least, let us note that fully 16 Islamic African countries are not on the World Watch List.

A year ago Open Doors said that Christians had faced the worst persecution in modern history during 2014. Then came 2015, and the torment was significantly worse. Unfortunately, as 2016 begins, there is little to suggest that this year will not be worse again.

A Project to Study Christian Persecution

We are set to learn a lot more about the current state of Christian persecution from an innovative three-year global research project, and – no surprise – the early findings are distressing. But also – and this too should not be a surprise – amidst the gloom are some significant rays of hope.

The project, titled “Under Caesar’s Sword,” is intended to study how different Christian communities around the world have responded to persecution, as well as why they acted in the way they did and what kind of outcomes were achieved.

It is a partnership of two American academic institutions, the Center for Civil and Human Rights at the University of Notre Dame and the Berkley Center for Religion, Peace and World Affairs at Georgetown University.

In an introduction to the project, the organizers make clear their stance. Christians around the world are “being brutally persecuted, facing imprisonment, torture and even death,” they state.

Yet they also point to signs of promise: “Christian communities have been instrumental in ousting governments in Poland, Czechoslovakia, South Korea, Chile, South Africa, Malawi and elsewhere. Other responses, like diplomatic accommodation, might succeed in allowing a church to continue its activities. Forgiveness and interreligious dialogue might reduce tensions between a church and hostile societal actors. Martyrdom might offer spiritual encouragement to other Christians and even increase the adherents of a repressed church.”

Some tentative, initial findings – and some emotional testimonies – came at a conference last month in Rome. A Pakistani Christian leader, Paul Bhatti, spoke of how he had forgiven the assassins of his brother, who had dedicated his life to protecting religious minorities in Pakistan. Dr Bhatti is now continuing his brother’s work, despite death threats against his own life.

Purdue University scholar Fenggang Yang told how the underground Chinese church actually expanded strongly during the Cultural Revolution, a time of intense persecution, sowing the seeds for today’s vibrant growth.

Former missionary Reg Reimer reported that evangelical Christians in Vietnam and Laos expect persecution, and this has helped strengthen the church.

Helen Berhane, a singer from Eritrea, spoke of how she was imprisoned and tortured for more than two years after releasing an album of Christian music and then refusing to sign a document pledging to end all her Christian activities. She was released only after becoming seriously ill. At the conference she sang a song composed while in captivity.

But overall the mood of the conference was somber. One Mideast leader said Middle Eastern Christians had been “forgotten, abandoned and betrayed” by the West. The whole world “turned a blind eye” in 2014 when Islamic State drove 140,000 Christians from their homes in Iraq’s Nineveh Plains, he said. Another Christian leader stated bluntly that military intervention by Western countries was urgently needed in the region.

The Under Caesar’s Sword project has a team of 14 scholars studying some 100 beleaguered Christian communities in over 30 countries. We can be sure they will uncover many inspiring stories of God at work in even the most desperate of circumstances. But it is difficult to imagine that their final report will be anything but grim.

Coptic Christians – Trusting God, Surviving and Thriving

As 2015 drew to a close, church leaders were expressing grave concerns for the future of Christianity in the Middle East. But such fears might be exaggerated, according to a writer for a British Christian website. As one of his points of evidence he cites Egypt’s Coptic Christians, whose “faithful piety” means “there are almost certainly more committed believers in Egypt than there are in the UK!”

It is a valid argument, and it struck a chord, as my pastor had asked me to preach one of our church’s sermons during the Christmas period, and I had spoken at length on the Coptic Church.

The topic of my sermon was the visit of the magi – the three wise men of biblical tradition – to the infant Jesus, and I used this story to discuss the theme of trust.

According to the gospel writer Matthew, it was the visit of the magi that alerted King Herod to the birth of Jesus, whereupon Herod ordered the slaughter of all boys aged under two years in the vicinity of Bethlehem.

But an angel of the Lord had already warned Joseph to flee, and he escaped to Egypt with Mary and the baby Jesus.

In my sermon I noted that, although the Bible says nothing about the Holy Family’s time in Egypt, the Coptic Church believes it knows the route of their journey, and today many of these places are famous pilgrimage sites.

But the key reason I wanted to discuss the Coptic Church was, I told my congregation, because I believe it is one of the finest examples we have today of a church that has trusted God. Right from the start of its existence – tradition says it was founded by the gospel writer Mark soon after the death of Jesus – the Egyptian church has been subject to intense persecution, and this has continued down to the present day.

Yet church members have consistently placed their trust in God. They have chosen death rather than renounce their faith. Is this the reason the Coptic Church has survived and flourished, even as, over the centuries, Christianity was being wiped out in many of the neighboring countries of the Middle East? I feel it might be.

In my sermon I gave an example of what could be termed the “faithful piety” of the Church. I live in Melbourne, Australia, not far from a large Coptic monastery that serves as their local headquarters. They have their own bookstore that is open on Sundays, and a few years ago I went there to buy a couple of books for some writing I was doing.

I got chatting with one of the senior priests, and he gave me some pamphlets about the Church. Then he went away and came back with a loaf of the monastery’s communion bread, which he presented to me. It was a round, flat loaf with a cross stamped in the center, representing Jesus, surrounded by twelve smaller crosses, for the twelve apostles.

The priest explained to me that the bread is made each Saturday by priests who pray and chant psalms throughout the whole baking process. It is round because that represents Jesus, who is eternal, without beginning or end. And each loaf is pierced five times, to symbolise the three nails of Jesus on the cross, the spear that the Romans pierced him with and the crown of thorns.

He told me it is made of wheat and yeast only so as to represent the manna that God gave the Israelites each day in the Sinai Desert, which was intended as their daily sustenance. So the bread never contains salt, as this would give it some taste and might also help preserve it. It is made to be without particular taste, and to be eaten immediately.

As we enter 2016 we see Christianity under threat in many places, not only in the Middle East. I suspect some of us might be tested as never before. Do we have the same strong trust in our Savior that has been shown over many centuries by Egypt’s Coptic Church?

Christian Militia – When Do We Support Them?

The ominous words “Christian militia” have been appearing with increasing frequency in the media.

In some cases the words indicate groups that are fighting against Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. These are mainly Assyrian Christians who have taken up arms to defend their homelands.

This is a natural response to the depravities of Islamic State, and I am sure that Christians in the West will instinctively support them (even after reading the headline on one magazine article about their activities: “Ex-skinheads and angry white men swell ranks of Christian militia fighting Islamic State”).

But recently Pope Francis made a visit to the Central African Republic, and the words “Christian militia” appeared regularly in media reports of his visit. This time the connotations were definitely negative.

The Central African Republic has a Christian majority, with Muslims only about 15 per cent of the population. But in March 2013 Muslim rebel groups grabbed control of the government, and then launched a campaign of violence against Christians and others.

The response was predictable, and rapidly the nation descended into bloody civil war. As I wrote recently, the Central African Republic is often now described as a failed state in permanent crisis.

In particular, the “Anti-Balaka” militia group, often described as Christian, has been accused of a significant escalation of the violence, including the mutilation of some of its Muslim victims, the burning of entire villages and ethnic cleansing that has forced hundreds of thousands to flee.

Is this group really Christian? I am not in a position to judge, though certainly it appears to have Christians among its leaders. In any case, it has been condemned by the church and by many local Christians, and we in the West must condemn it too. Its activities have gone well beyond self-defense, regardless of the provocation.

Indeed, it is a sad fact that Christians have been involved in reprehensible conduct in several parts of Africa in recent times.

I have been reading a provocative new book, “The Looting Machine,” by Tom Burgis, a correspondent with Britain’s Financial Times newspaper. The sub-title of the book makes clear its theme: “Warlords, Tycoons, Smugglers and the Systematic Theft of Africa’s Wealth.”

In one chapter, “God Has Nothing to Do with It,” he describes how some Christians in Nigeria are actively involved in the corruption that plagues that country. However, he also quotes a Catholic archbishop who says that often this is a case of failed politicians using religion as a weapon to stir up the masses.

“God is not such a weakling that we must kill for him,” says the archbishop.

Amen to that.

Islamic State a New Worry for Indonesia’s Beleaguered Christians

Fears that Islamic State supporters may be planning attacks in Indonesia are a further concern to the country’s Christian community, who are already suffering from the growing Islamist presence in their country.

According to a report in Australia’s Sydney Morning Herald daily newspaper, Indonesian police have stepped up security at places of worship, along with embassies and shopping malls, in the wake of the Paris attacks.

The newspaper interviewed a terrorism expert, Sidney Jones, Director of the Jakarta-based Institute for Policy Analysis of Conflict, who said that the risk of violence in the country was rising, with Islamic State calling especially for more kidnappings.

Earlier, on November 18th, Ms Jones told a gathering of ambassadors at a special briefing at the Jakarta Police headquarters that anti-Western propaganda was increasing in Indonesia. She noted that videos celebrating the Paris attacks were widespread.

Indonesia has long been seen as a moderate Muslim nation, a place where the constitution guarantees freedom of religion and where Christians comprise more than 10 per cent of the population.

Yet, writing back in January, I quoted from 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.”

Since that time, conditions have certainly worsened. For example, last month, as reported by BosNewsLife (October 30th), authorities in Indonesia’s conservative Aceh province began tearing down church buildings.

This followed complaints from Islamists that the churches lacked the necessary building permits, even though it is notoriously difficult in Indonesia for Christian groups to obtain permits for new churches.

In fact, this month the Christianity Today magazine reported that more than 1,000 churches have been closed in the past nine years, and others have never been built, as a consequence of the building permit regulations. America’s Gatestone Institute has described it as an “Indonesian jihad” on Christian churches.

In January I wrote that increasingly it appeared that a violent and intolerant Islamist minority was intimidating the majority of Indonesians into passive silence. Now it is the government as well that, too often, is bowing to the Islamist threat.

Add to this the growing menace of Islamic State, which appears to be exerting a growing influence on certain sections of the population, and the outlook for Indonesia’s large Christian community does not appear reassuring.