Category Archives: Islamism

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.

Pope to Visit One of the Saddest Places on Earth

Pope Francis plans to visit the Central African Republic later in November, and you do not have to be Catholic to want to pray for him.

For this country – a land-locked former French colony situated between Cameroon and South Sudan – has to be one of the saddest places on earth.

As if to confirm it, just last week the Legatum Institute, a London-based think tank that works to promote global prosperity, released its annual Prosperity Index, which ranks 142 countries in terms of both wealth and wellbeing.

It would be little surprise that heading the list was Norway, followed by Switzerland and Denmark. But right at the bottom, at Number 142, worse even than Afghanistan, Haiti, Chad, Syria or Sudan, was the Central African Republic.

The country has a Christian majority, though the “Operation World” prayer handbook makes clear some of the sins of the church.

“A failure on the part of leaders to demonstrate Christ-like humility and graciousness in their walk and ministry not only stunts their own fruitfulness but passes on their flaws to their congregations,” it says. “High moral standards and honesty are frequently lacking in the churches.”

Despite considerable natural and mineral resource wealth, the country has been beset by military coups, civil conflict and intense corruption.

This all came to a head in March 2013 when Muslim rebel groups seized control of the government. Muslims comprise only about 15 per cent of the population, and since that time the country has descended into bloody violence. It is often now described as a failed state in permanent crisis.

Armed Muslim groups have killed thousands of Christians and forced many more to flee. Christian militia groups have responded in kind – despite being condemned by many church leaders for their violence – with armed attacks on the Muslim minority. Some 10 per cent of the population are now refugees.

Pope Francis will arrive in the country after visits to Kenya and Uganda. He plans meetings with religious leaders, including senior Muslims officials, and will call upon refugees and attend a prayer vigil.

But as the violence escalates, there has been speculation that he might even be forced to cancel his visit.

So pray that it goes ahead, and pray that he might succeed in the role of peacemaker. Few countries in Africa – or anywhere – are more in need of peace.

Bangladesh – Making News for the Wrong Reasons

Cricket is little known outside countries that were once part of the British Empire. Yet in some of those places, and particularly on the Indian sub-continent, it enjoys immense popularity. In India itself it is by far the most popular sport, and here in Australia our national team attracts a large and enthusiastic following.

So it was big news in early October when Cricket Australia announced that it had abandoned plans for a short series of test matches in Bangladesh, because of security concerns.

In the words of an official statement: “Following the most recent information from Australian Government agencies and our own security advisors, we have decided that, regrettably, we have no alternative but to postpone the tour.”

Unofficially, cricket executives were more blunt – they had received intelligence that Islamic State terrorists were becoming more active in Bangladesh, with foreigners a particular target. Now our national soccer team, the Socceroos, must decide what to do about its World Cup qualifying match in the country that is scheduled for November.

Sadly, this also has implications for Christians.

Until recently Bangladesh has not featured greatly in the concerns of Christians who follow the pains of the persecuted church. Yes, it is ranked at Number 43 in the latest Open Doors World Watch List of the countries where Christians face most persecution.

But even Open Doors conceded: “Bangladesh continues to be a secular country, and its constitution gives freedom to all religions to practice their own faith. The country does not have blasphemy laws or an anti-conversion bill.” It thus stands in contrast to Pakistan, with which it was once joined as a single nation.

But unfortunately, it shares one particular characteristic with Pakistan – a rise in extremist Islam. Open Doors has noted that radical Islamic groups have been pushing the government to modify the constitution, including demands for Sharia Islamic law.

On October 5th three men attacked a local Christian pastor and tried to slit his throat. He survived, and police have arrested a member of an Islamic political party in connection with the attack.

There have also been some recent attacks on foreigners in the country, with Islamic State claiming responsibility.

Bangladesh is not a country that is often in the news. I am guessing that it seldom features in the prayers of most Christians. It would be terribly sad if all this were to change because of the rise of Islamic extremism.

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.

Fighting for Religious Freedom, Fighting to Awaken the Church

The 21st Century Wilberforce Initiative is a new organization fighting for religious freedom. According to its website:

The rise of ISIS, the declining freedom of speech and communication globally, and the sheer number of religious prisoners around the world pose a critical threat to all of humanity. 21st Century Wilberforce wants to awaken the church to these atrocities and stir Christians and other religious groups to action. 

Recently I interviewed Elyse Bauer Anderson, Senior Advisor and Director of Special Projects with the organization.

Conditions seem to be worsening for Christians in Iraq and – particularly – Syria. Is this your impression too, or are there some glimmers of hope?

The situation facing Christians in Iraq and Syria is bleak. Increasingly the global community is starting to recognize that what is taking place is in fact genocide and that it threatens to extinguish ancient faith communities from the lands they’ve inhabited since antiquity.

In war-torn Syria the Assyrian Christian community suffered a devastating blow with the recent large-scale kidnappings. In Iraq, the Christian community is increasingly hopeless in the face of prolonged displacement – they are nomads in their own country. We were told that 12 Christian families leave a day. Few can envision a future for themselves or for their families.

But in the midst of the suffering there are glimmers of hope. When we were in northern Iraq we met a young Iraqi priest who implored our delegation, “Help me to stay.” There are courageous men and women who are persevering in the midst of incredible suffering and hardship and in many cases ministering to and among their people. Their faith is unwavering. They have not allowed their circumstances to dictate what they believe. It is an inspiration.

Your organization is quite new. Were you formed specifically to help Mideast Christians, or are you active in other regions? 

Given the crisis facing Christians and other ancient faith communities living in the shadow of the Islamic State, we chose Iraq for our inaugural trip. That said, our focus will be global in nature. Persecution of people of faith is epidemic around the world. From China, to Iran, from Sudan to Pakistan, Christians and other religious minorities are experiencing all manner of hostility, discrimination and abuse.

Your website says you are a “do tank,” not a think tank. What have you been doing so far? What do you hope to do?

We are still in the embryonic stage as an organization, but as we mature we intend to engage in a number of different spheres including advocacy, both at home and abroad, and education, to include training and equipping religious leaders in countries where religious freedom violations routinely occur.  A third area of focus will involve prioritizing access to circumvention technology in closed or restricted societies like China and Iran. Some of these initiatives are already beginning to take shape. 21Wilberforce just participated in a training conference for nearly 1,200 Chinese house church pastors and lay leaders in Taiwan. In the face of massive crackdowns in China against people of faith, the church is vibrant and growing there. In fact, the church in the West could arguably stand to learn much from our persecuted brothers and sisters in China, Iraq and around the world – 21Wilberforce hopes to help forge that connection in tangible ways.

Could Western governments be doing more to help besieged Assyrians?

Absolutely. The humanitarian needs are great and more could be done to assist both the internally displaced populations and the refugees throughout the region, to include healthcare and education. But these are mere Band-Aids. Until the Islamic State is ultimately defeated and destroyed there will be no future for Christians in these lands. The Kurdish peshmerga forces are imperfect but they are on the front lines of the battle and they have been willing to take on ISIS from the beginning, notably in areas they consider Kurdish lands. To date, Washington has insisted on sending military aid through Baghdad. As a result, the peshmerga are fighting with outdated and outmoded weaponry. This is a diplomatic calculation more than it is a strategic military decision – and one that could be easily overturned.

Is military force an answer? Could we in the West be doing something to help Christians build their own defense forces?

Congress has been debating the Authorization of Use of Military Force against the Islamic State. This is a much-needed and long overdue discussion. Military force must be on the table. In the interim, the administration already has the authority to aid what is known as the Nineveh Protective Unit, which is effectively a defensive national guard unit. The Christians, Yezidis and other religious minorities were abandoned and left defenseless in the face of the Islamic State’s murderous onslaught last summer. These units are an important first step in these vulnerable communities being able to defend themselves moving forward.

What else can Western Christians, and others, do to help suffering Assyrians?

Of course we in the West can pray for our brothers and sister in Iraq, Syria and elsewhere. This is but one way of standing in solidarity with the suffering church. But there is more. We can learn their stories, and we can be their advocates. We can raise these issues with our elected officials, both in Congress and the White House. As legislation and policy comes to the fore which impacts these imperiled communities we can make our voices known so that it is clear that there is in fact a domestic constituency on matters of international religious freedom.

Among the first requests should be to urge the president to fill the vacant post of Special Envoy for Religious Minorities in the Middle East. President Obama signed the bipartisan legislation that created this post into law last August, thereby making it the law of the land. While an envoy alone does not hold the key to this complex crisis, having a senior person at the State Department focused exclusively on advocating for these communities and developing policy options aimed at guaranteeing their survival, and ultimately flourishing, is a critical first step.

Elyse, thank you very much.

Minority Rules – Is It Too Late For Indonesia?

Indonesia is supposed to be one of the more moderate of all the Muslim countries. Christians comprise more than 10 per cent of the population, and the country’s constitution guarantees freedom of religion.

Two months ago a Christian became governor of the capital city Jakarta and Christians are prominent elsewhere, particularly in business. The country’s largest mosque in Jakarta was designed by a Christian architect. It stands next to the Catholic cathedral.

Yet living in Australia, not far from Indonesia, I see clearly the truth in the statement of 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.”

Prophets and LossWhen the Christian enclave of East Timor was struggling for independence in the 1980s and 1990s, the Indonesian military responded with a virulent campaign of genocide that wiped out a third of the population. (I was so appalled that the murder, rape and torture of that time became the theme of my first novel, “Prophets and Loss.”)

Since then radical Islam has been making further inroads. The province of Aceh has enacted sharia law – extended last year to include non-Muslims – and has closed down churches.

Church burnings have occurred in many places, and Christians have been attacked. Some local governments place onerous restrictions on freedom of worship.

Christian Solidarity Worldwide issued a report last year. The title and sub-title told the story: “Indonesia: Pluralism in Peril – The rise of religious intolerance across the archipelago.”

Presidential elections were held in July with both candidates endorsing religious freedom and promising to crack down on religion-inspired violence. Yet since then, conditions seem to have worsened.

Just last week the Jakarta Post newspaper published an article about the new president, Joko Widodo (known popularly as Jokowi) with the headline, “Jokowi ‘not doing enough’ to promote religious pluralism.”

It quoted a spokesman for an Indonesian organization devoted to interfaith dialogue as stating that, “Jokowi has become just another government official who promises one thing but doesn’t deliver, even though he was very outspoken during his campaign.”

The spokesman called on the government to do more to combat growing fundamentalism, including new regulations criminalizing violent acts against minority groups and monitoring their implementation.

“Jokowi and his administration must be firm against these violators and remind people that we are a pluralist nation, or else the trend will continue,” he told the newspaper.

But is it already too late?

The article also quoted the secretary-general of the Indonesian Communion of Churches, who warned ominously that “the government was at times caught between doing what the majority wanted and listening to the demands of the minority.”

This is exactly what Christians in Muslim countries fear – the growing belligerence of a violent and intolerant minority who intimidate the majority into passive silence.

If “moderate” Indonesia is unable to stand up to this minority, the outlook for Christians in much of the Muslim world is grim.

Growing Tolerance, Reduced Persecution – Something to Pray About

Events in the Middle East during 2014, and now in Paris at the start of 2015, suggest that militant Islamism is on the move. At the same time it often seems that the persecution of Christians is intensifying throughout the Muslim world.

The newly released World Watch List from the Open Doors organization, ranking the 50 countries where persecution of Christians for religious reasons is most severe, shows that fully 35 of them – including eight of the worst 10 – are Muslim nations.

Yet Christians need to be aware that not all Muslim countries persecute Christians.

Take the West African nation of Benin. It is one of 57 member states of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation, the body which describes itself as “the collective voice of the Muslim world.”

Benin’s president, Boni Yayi, was born into a Muslim family. But he is now a devout evangelical Christian. He worships at his local Pentecostal church, where he sometimes also preaches the sermon, and has expressed a desire to “evangelize the world” when his presidential term ends in 2016.

In fact, some Muslim nations are as nervous about the advance of extremist Islamism as are Christians

Senegal, also in West Africa, is overwhelmingly Muslim, yet, in the words of the Operation World prayer guide, “enjoys religious freedom and is remarkably tolerant toward other faiths – a point of pride for Senegalese.” It is noteworthy for its Mouride Brotherhood order of Sufi Islam, which stresses the importance of discipline and hard work.

However, the Operation World guide adds ominously: “Aggressive Islamist groups, funded by Saudi Arabia and Libya, are making inroads and threaten the tolerant status quo.”

This helps explain a remarkable outreach by Senegal – towards Israel. Just last month a new high-tech drip-irrigated vegetable farm was inaugurated in the country, an Israeli initiative that came about after a request to the Israeli Embassy from the First Lady of Senegal.

A few weeks earlier six senior imams from Senegal had toured Israel, accompanied by members of the Senegalese media. They met the Israeli president and local rabbis, and visited the Yad Vashem holocaust museum and the Western Wall.

These are small steps, but they are also brave ones, as they have sparked criticism from some fellow Muslims. Yet Senegal’s political and religious leaders have seen what happened in neighboring Mali, where extremist Islamists known as AQIM – Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb – overran large parts of the country in 2012.

So if there is any good coming from the advance of Islamist extremism it is that it forces countries and people to take sides. It could mean a growing openness among some Muslim countries towards working with other faiths, along with reduced levels of persecution for Christians. This is certainly something for Christians to pray about.

Music in Mali – Festival in the Desert

By Martin Roth

My subscription copy of Songlines has arrived, with a cover story, “Top 25 Mali Albums.” I’ve been a fan of Malian music for more years than I can remember, and I have some of the recordings on the list.

In fact, my novel “Festival in the Desert” originated from an article in Songlines. Back in the October 2011 issue I read a cover story on the Touaregs – the desert nomads of the Sahara – with the following:

The Touareg rebellion has been knocked squarely off the front page by the murderous presence of mafia gangs posing as Islamist extremist militias allied to Al Qaeda…But elsewhere fear roams the desert. Traffickers who used to carry a quaint payload of Marlboro cigarettes, illegal diesel and cooking oil, now transport hard drugs, weapons and humans. Planeloads of cocaine fly in from South America, disgorge their corrosive cargo into huge convoys of 4x4s which disappear eastward towards Egypt and the Middle East.

I knew at once I had the material for an exciting novel. And the novel was actually right up-to-date with events. It was about Islamist extremists and their efforts to kick out Westerners and take over the society. And as it was being published Islamic extremists associated with Al Qaeda did take over a large part of the region, expelling all Westerners.