Category Archives: ISIS

The Cozy Church

The recent murder of a Catholic priest at his church in northern France, by two young men claiming allegiance to Islamic State, brings starkly to Europe a morbid taste of the horrors that have terrorized the church in parts of the Middle East for the past several years.

Yet sadly, and unbelievably, the response of the church in the West seems little changed. There are expressions of regret and some outrage, but few calls for action of any kind. This is despite the fact that the massacre and expulsion of hundreds of thousands of Christians from their traditional homelands in Iraq and Syria surely constitutes one of the most shocking crimes of this century.

It drives me almost to tears that too many Christians in the West seem so indifferent to what is happening to our brothers and sisters in the Middle East.

It is not only the Middle East. The 21st Century Wilberforce Initiative, an American organization, has launched an appeal to help the thousands of Nigerian Christians who are under siege from Boko Haram. It calls this the “most neglected” crisis.

Maybe there is an element of “compassion fatigue” in all this – an inability to comprehend the scale of it all, of one disaster following another, and therefore confusion about how to respond. I know I suffer from this myself.

But I also wonder if we in the West have become too cozy in our faith.

American Christian writer Eric Metaxas, author of a biography of German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer, used that word “cozy” in a recent address to The Bridge conference on Christian persecution.

He said that the problem with the German church was that it had become too cozy with the state and too comfortable with its position in society, and thus it overlooked the persecution of Jews. He said it sometimes seemed that the church in the West does not always understand its obligation to come to the aid of Christians who are being killed for their faith in many parts of the world.

I have been asked to preach the sermon soon at my church, to fill in for our pastor. I believe the church sometimes does not understand God’s role for it, and I am taking as my text the passage in the Gospel of John where Jesus instructs His disciples in the Upper Room, before the Last Supper. To their shock He shows His servanthood by asking to wash their feet.

I believe that John included this incident to demonstrate that the disciples had not fully understood Jesus and His teachings, despite having spent several years together.

Something similar had already occurred after Jesus miraculously fed thousands of followers with bread and fish. Mark wrote that the disciples did not understand the meaning of this event either.

For my sermon I have some amusing examples from more recent times. I live in Australia. More than 200 years ago British explorers began sending back reports of this land and the unbelievable animal life they had encountered, such as the kangaroo and the platypus.

This caused consternation among some Christians. One wondered if God had somehow made a mistake when He made Australia. Or perhaps, asked another, had this strange place simply been God’s rehearsal for the true creation? Or did the Northern Hemisphere God have a mischievous Southern Hemisphere rival? One writer suggested that Australia must have been formed after the Fall, with God creating monsters like kangaroos in order to terrorize Adam and his offspring.

It seems that, in its cozy state, the British church – or some elements of it – was unable to accept the universality of God’s love and Jesus’s sacrifice.

I cannot help fearing that the church in the West, too cozy, does not understand our obligation to help our persecuted brothers and sisters.

How Can I Help the Persecuted?

Many Christians share my sense of frustration at feeling so helpless in the face of waves of Christian persecution around the world.

But what can I, a lone individual living in faraway Australia do – practically speaking – to make a difference in the lives of hundreds of thousands of Christians being persecuted around the world?

I pray for them and I donate money to Christian groups that are active in the field. I try to alert my church to the issues.

But I am not sure what more I can do.

I am full of admiration when I read in the book “Defying ISIS” by Johnnie Moore that in December 2014 the Cradle Fund organization provided direct assistance that enabled tens of thousands of Iraqi refugees to survive the winter.

More recently, the US-based charity Mercury One – founded by media personality Glenn Beck – chartered an aeroplane and flew 149 Christian refugees from Iraq to sanctuary in Slovakia.

When I search the internet for ways to help the persecuted I am advised to write letter to government leaders.

I am not optimistic about that. I have in the past occasionally written to local politicians about issues that concerned me, only to receive the blandest of responses and no evident change in government policy.

My government has pledged to take thousands of refugees from the fighting in the Mideast, and that is starting to happen. Some of these refugees are Christians. Perhaps I should write and ask that Australia take more.

I could help refugees who have arrived in Australia. In fact, I am doing this to a modest extent, as we have several refugees in our church.

I could also help educate people. The more that Christians know about the plight of refugees the more inclined they will be to help. And I do this too, in a limited way, through my writing activities. So I am doing a little.

I am encouraged to learn of a conference to be held in the US in July, called “The Bridge,” and specifically aimed at helping the church to care about, and be involved with, fighting persecution.

Over three days, attendees at the conference will meet the organizations, churches and mission agencies that are working on the ground, and learn how to connect and work with the persecuted.

But the conference has one more goal as well, and this is important. It will urge Christians to seek inspiration in the persecuted church. Speakers will use the example of the persecuted church as a call for revival.

The book “Defying ISIS” touched on this issue after encountering some of the persecuted in the Mideast: “Through their excruciating pain, through the weight of their trauma, and their thousand kinds of brokenness, they don’t resent the call to suffer that God has put upon their shoulders, but they welcome it. They celebrate it, and they feel honoured by it. They inspire us by it.”

I shall continue to look for ways to help the persecuted. But, at the same time, I shall strive to understand that, in their suffering, the Christians of the Middle East might also be helping me and others in our walk with the Lord.

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.

“Deeply Troubling” – Terrorism Now the Biggest Threat to Christians

Christians will find little of comfort in the US State Department’s newly released International Religious Freedom Report. For, sadly, it confirms what many of us already knew – that the new phenomenon of non-state terrorism has supplanted oppression by government to become the main threat to religious freedom. And conditions are getting worse.

In the words of US Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom David N. Saperstein, speaking to journalists in Washington DC on October 14th at the release of the report: “The single greatest challenge to religious freedom worldwide, or certainly the single greatest emerging challenge…is the abhorrent acts of terror committed by those who falsely claim the mantle of religion to justify their wanton destruction.”

He singled out Islamic State in Iraq and Syria for particular condemnation, along with Boko Haram in Nigeria, Cameroon, Chad and Niger.

But a second challenge is also sadly familiar to Christians – blasphemy laws in countries such as Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Sudan that are used to oppress minorities, especially Christians, whose religious beliefs offend the majority.

Nevertheless, the report did find a modicum of good news amidst the gloom. It noted “encouraging improvements in the status of Christians in Egypt,” including court convictions for some of the perpetrators of violence against Copts.

It applauded the new Egyptian constitution for providing increased human rights protections, including a stipulation of equality before the law irrespective of religion. “It also requires that parliament pass a new law facilitating the construction and renovation of Christian churches, which is without precedent,” said the report.

In his remarks to journalists, Ambassador Saperstein noted another pleasing development. He said he had visited China and found that, despite continuing abuses and restrictions, “many places of worship were nonetheless full and flourishing. In areas of the country where the government’s hand was lighter, faith-based social service and welfare agencies operating homeless shelters, orphanages and soup kitchens made highly positive contributions to the wellbeing of their society.”

He also found in Sri Lanka that, after some years of growing religious conflict, a new government was working to ease tensions.

But overall there was little to reassure Christians. When asked by a journalist if conditions were getting better or worse, the ambassador stated bluntly that over the past several years there has been a steady increase in the percentage of people living in countries with serious restrictions on religious freedom.

Then he added: “And of course…the escalation of the violence perpetrated by non-state actors, often in the name of their interpretation of religion, is a new phenomenon that has really escalated in the last 18 months. So on that level, there are trends that are deeply troubling.”

The Book of Revelation Unfolds in Iraq

They were told not to harm the grass of the earth or any plant or tree, but only those people who did not have the seal of God on their foreheads. – Revelation 9:4

Mark of GodIraq’s first Christian-only brigade of regular forces graduated this week, and will now join the fight to retake the community’s towns and villages from ISIS.

In a great post, Palestinian Christian Walid Shoebat has noted that many of the 600 members of the force have painted the mark of God, a cross, on their foreheads.

Some 100,000 Assyrian Christians fled their homes in the Nineveh Plains, in north-east Iraq, when ISIS invaded last August. It was said to be one of the worst disasters to hit what is one of the world’s oldest Christian communities.

The new brigade, named the Tiger Guards, is comprised entirely of volunteers and will fight under the government of Iraq’s autonomous Kurdish region.

A Cross We Must Bear?

My weekly Bible study group has been using a fascinating book titled “Cries from the Cross” by Erwin Lutzer, senior pastor at Chicago’s Moody Church. It is a short work, but full of riches, as Lutzer examines the last words of Jesus, cried out in anguish as He hung on the cross.

We concluded our studies recently with the book’s Epilogue, “Taking the Cross into the World,” where the author reminded us that the cross represents the great reversal of values of the world.

Cries from the CrossFor example, he relates, in the early centuries after Jesus, Christianity “captured” North Africa, thanks to the “love of the Christians that defied explanation.”

Thus, when Christians found dead bodies abandoned in the street they washed them and gave them a decent burial. “The pagans were impressed with these unexplained acts of love,” writes Lutzer.

It reminded me of Shusaku Endo’s great novel “The Silence” (soon to be released as a movie by Martin Scorsese), with his strikingly similar depiction of the attraction of Christianity for 16th-century Japanese peasants:

I tell you the truth – for a long, long time these farmers have worked like horses and cattle; and like horses and cattle they have died. The reason our religion has penetrated this territory like water flowing into dry earth is that it has given to this group of people a human warmth they never previously knew. For the first time they have met men who treated them like human beings. It was the human kindness and charity of the fathers that touched their hearts.

And yet – Christianity was later eradicated from both North Africa and Japan through oppression and force of arms. Remnants remain in both places, but they are small and without much influence.

Is it truly enough just to have a love that defies explanation? Do Christians not need something more? Like our own armies? Or is regular persecution simply the cross we must always bear?

One of the members of my Bible study group commented during our discussion that God surely has a purpose in allowing the depravities of ISIS that we are witnessing in the Middle East.

Really? I hope so. For it is at times like these that I am thrown back on Isaiah:

“For my thoughts are not your thoughts,
neither are your ways my ways,”
declares the Lord.

“As the heavens are higher than the earth,
so are my ways higher than your ways
and my thoughts than your thoughts.”

Syrian Christians Blamed for ISIS-Like Atrocities

An article in The Times newspaper, alleging atrocities by Christian militia in Syria, has sparked some “I told you so” posts on social media, from people claiming that Christianity is inherently just as violent as Islam.

Titled “Christians Give a Display of Savagery among Saints and Candles,” the article is by Anthony Loyd, a veteran war correspondent who has previously reported from conflicts in the former Yugoslavia, Afghanistan, Africa and Iraq.

Loyd wrote that he encountered two dozen Christian refugees in a church in the Syrian town of Darbasiyah, near the Turkish border. They were apparently sheltering from the fierce sun outside.

At first they were “warm and welcoming,” he reported, but then one of the men – a former bank employee now fighting with a Christian militia group – started berating him for alleged British support for Islamic State. This, said Loyd, is the lie that President Bashar Assad has been persistently telling his people.

But what happened next came as a shock, as the man exclaimed: “We cut off the terrorists’ heads as they tried to enter the medina in Hasakah.” He pulled out his mobile phone and showed photographs of a military commander holding two severed heads, while resting his foot on a third.

“Cutting heads is not a good thing,” the man insisted to Loyd. “But if what was done to us was done to you by the Daesh [Islamic State], you would cut heads too. We are taking our revenge for what has been done to us.”

Loyd, a good reporter, did seek further confirmation. A Christian woman inside the church said the heads had more likely been severed from their bodies after a bomb explosion.

Later, another Christian told him it was probable that the dead men were actually killed by the Syrian army, and the mutilation was then carried out by tribal militia.

Whatever the truth of the matter, it has not stopped some commentators from using social media to berate Christians.

Here is one comment that I found: “So now everyone is cutting off heads??…How could you not see this coming? Irrespective of recent happenings historically basically all religions or demographics have gone through their phase of beheading people right?”

Another person wrote: “Well false messiahs will always gather/shepherd new blood, especially the young lambs towards the flames…??”

Four months ago in Pakistan suicide bombers attacked two churches during Sunday worship, leaving 15 dead and scores injured. Subsequently some Christians went on a rampage, blocking roads, attacking police and then seizing two suspects who were being held in police custody, and beating them both to death.

I wrote at the time: “I suspect we are going to see more of this.” Then I added: “When your churches are being bombed and the authorities do nothing, it is difficult to turn the other cheek…. And sadly, as violence against Christians escalates, particularly in the Muslim world, I believe that we can almost certainly expect more such retaliation.”

Those Pakistani rioters may not really have been Christians. Certainly they were not at all behaving in a Christian manner. And we will probably never know the truth about who committed the atrocities in Syria.

But unfortunately, as the war on Christians continues, and in particular as Islamic State revels in the most grotesque depravity, it is difficult to expect that some Christians will never retaliate in kind.

I can only sadly repeat what I wrote four months ago: “I suspect we are going to see more of this.”