“He Knew!” Persecution Eases in Sri Lanka

I read regular commentaries on the persecuted church, but one in particular has stuck in my mind. It is a chilling 2013 article in America’s Baptist Press titled “Sri Lankan churches attacked, closed.”

It detailed an escalating series of attacks on churches by mobs of Buddhist extremists. In many cases local authorities refused help, sometimes even effectively endorsing the violence. According to the report, some people had become afraid of stepping foot in church.

But it was something else that caught my attention and has remained in my memory. For the article said that the attacks and church closings had not hampered the spread of the gospel. It quoted a pastor as follows: “God has been preparing us for this persecution all along. He knew!…He opened our minds to a new way of doing ‘church’ last year. Before this even started happening, we were training lay leaders to lead house churches in their homes.”

So as official churches were closing, house churches were starting up, “in someone’s house, a business or even outside under a shade tree.”

One pastor said his church had started meeting in 16 different homes and was growing for the first time in years. Another said his church had separated into eight groups, and these were reproducing and starting new churches.

According to the report: “Those who were once afraid to go to a religious place for fear of a mob or the monks asking questions are not concerned about going to a friend’s home.”

In 2013 Sri Lanka gave the impression that it might become a country like Pakistan is today, with a Christian minority living in fear of the increasing aggression of belligerent extremists from the religious majority. In 2014 Sri Lanka was ranked at No. 29 in the annual Open Doors World Watch List of the 50 countries where Christians are most persecuted for their faith.

But then in 2015 it fell sharply to No. 44. And in the 2016 list, released this January, it has dropped out altogether.

Open Doors commented: “A dictatorial president, Mahina Rajapaksa, was unexpectedly defeated in January [2015] elections after appearing confident of victory. He had close ties to two radical Buddhist movements and, since then, both movements have been quiet.

“Churches are still attacked by local communities, but nationally-approved violence seems to be on the decrease, even if it continues to make little difference if Christians complain after an attack.”

I do not know enough about current conditions in Sri Lanka to be able to draw a direct connection between the rise of the house church movement and the decline in persecution. But that pastor’s beautiful comment has remained lodged in my brain: “God has been preparing us for this persecution all along. He knew!”

As we witness the dramatic escalation in the persecution of Christians in so many countries we should heed what has happened in Sri Lanka and we should remember that pastor’s words.

God knows! He is in control. That is a message of hope for all Christians.

Yes, The News Is Good

As Christians celebrate the risen Christ it is a period to remember that the news is good, not bad. The victory is won, the strongholds have been defeated. So at a time when the news media seem to be relaying little but relentless disaster, it is worth looking instead at some good news.

One of my local newspapers, The Australian, has an excellent article on Easter celebrations in China, where, despite repression, the church seems to be continuing its remarkable growth.

The report focused on two Beijing congregations, the Zhushikou Protestant Church in the south of the city and the magnificent baroque Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception.

A rock band at the former church was leading 300 young worshippers. The lead singer, Gao Liang, a convert of three years, was prominently wearing a WWJD – What Would Jesus Do? – badge.

At the cathedral – which actually maintains a daily Latin mass – a young congregation of 600 packed the building, with a large screen placed outside for the overflow audience.

The report noted that churches in China seemed especially attractive to those in their 20s and 30s, and it quoted one worshipper who said they came “to seek truth and genuineness, to think, and to find belief.”

The writer of the article, Rowan Callick, is Asia-Pacific Editor with The Australian and also an Anglican lay preacher in my city, Melbourne.

In his report he noted pointedly: “An estimated 100 million people in China have already become Christians – more than the 84 million in the ruling Communist Party. As a result more people worship in China on a typical Sunday than attend all the churches in Europe combined.”

The growth of the church in China is of course not news. I have written about it many times.

Some years ago, when the Dalai Lama paid a visit to Australia, the newspapers were full of stories about the modest growth of Buddhism in this country. I contacted a newspaper editor and suggested a story, that I would write, on what I thought a far more significant phenomenon – the stunning number of Chinese migrants to Australia who were turning to Jesus, very often from a non-religious background.

Take a drive around Melbourne and it is truly inspiring to see how many churches have billboards outside in both English and Chinese. My own Baptist church runs English, Cantonese and Mandarin services, and Chinese worshipper numbers are growing much faster than the English side.

But the editor was not interested. Christians are seldom considered newsworthy, unless they are involved in scandal.

Indeed, “if it bleeds, it leads,” is a common newspaper maxim, and the media this Easter have of course been full of stories about the ghastly, bloody events in Brussels. So it is certainly an appropriate time for us to reflect on those packed Easter-time churches in China – where Christianity was outlawed not so long ago – and to remind ourselves that, yes, the news is good.

Pakistani Christians in Thailand Need Help

Outrage is building over the treatment of Pakistani Christian refugees in Bangkok. I wrote about this issue last month, and now the BBC has also taken it up, in a documentary about their plight.

Over recent years the persecution of Christians in Pakistan has been intensifying, with the result that more than 10,000 have fled to Thailand seeking asylum. But in numerous cases they are arrested and jailed in Bangkok’s over-crowded immigration detention center. Using a hidden camera, a BBC journalist documented the oppressive conditions being endured by these Christians.

He was able to show some of the hundreds of asylum seekers being held in stifling heat. They include mothers, detained with their children. Many of the children are suffering from diarrhoea and vomiting, due to the poor sanitation and dirty drinking water

Those of the refugees who are not in prison must often live in cramped apartments and survive on hand-outs from churches and charities, or by engaging in illegal work activities.

Meanwhile, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) is taking years to process their claims for refugee status. Some observers say that UNHCR officials do not even regard the Pakistanis as being at a real risk of persecution in their home country.

It raises the question of why these Christians feel impelled to make the leap from the Pakistani frying pan into the Thai fire. When they realize that their fate is long years in Bangkok, unable to work legally and relying on hand-outs, and possibly even months in a detention center, why do they not simply return home?

It is not difficult to find reasons. For example, three years ago in March 2013 a mob of 3,000 Muslims attacked Joseph Colony, a Christian neighbourhood in Lahore, setting fire to more than 170 homes and two churches. Also in Lahore, just one year ago, suicide bombers attacked two churches, killing 21 worshippers and injuring more than 70.

The BBC report provided further graphic examples. It featured a man named Sabir who fled Pakistan two years ago with his extended family. They now all live – 10 people – in a room with no kitchen or toilet. The UNHCR has said it will not investigate his case until 2018. Two months ago his wife was arrested.

Yet he proclaims that he does not regret leaving Pakistan, where his family was threatened with death if they did not convert to Islam. “Over here, the only fear we have is of the immigration police, nothing else,” he told the BBC.

The BBC journalist also met a pastor who says Islamists tried to cut off his arm and his sister was burned alive, as punishment for converting to Christianity.

But the online BBC report was able to end on a note of hope. It quoted a Pakistani Christian man named Daniel: “Jesus said to us, ‘if someone troubles you, don’t ask for curses for him, instead, you should ask for blessings for him.’ So, we ask for blessings for the UNHCR.”

We must pray that the same spirit of love and reconciliation might quickly touch the hearts of all officials in Thailand.

India – Fears of Worsening Tensions

One of the sadder entries in the 2016 Open Doors World Watch List – of the 50 countries where Christians are most persecuted for their faith – is that of India, which has risen into the top 20 for the very first time. It is at No. 17, compared to No. 21 in 2015 and No. 28 in the previous year.

My parents were old-fashioned Socialists, and I grew up in a household in which India was viewed as a diversely multicultural and enlightened democracy, a country that pointed the way to a bright (and Socialist) future of harmony for the entire world. Our family revered leaders such as Mahatma Ghandi and Jawaharlal Nehru.

We were not religious, but it even seemed to us – wrongly, it must be noted – that India was a wonderful melting pot where people of many faiths could live happily and peacefully together.

Indeed, Ghandi himself was greatly influenced by Jesus and the Sermon on the Mount, which he once said, “went straight to my heart.” Though, when asked why he did not himself become a follower of the Christ whom he so much loved, he famously replied: “Oh, I don’t reject your Christ. I love your Christ. It is just that so many of you Christians are so unlike your Christ.”

As for Nehru, he once told the Indian Parliament: “Christianity is as old in India as Christianity itself. Christianity found its roots in India before it went to countries like England, Portugal and Spain. Christianity is as much a religion of the Indian soil as any other religion in India.”

The atmosphere has changed dramatically in the ensuing decades. A new Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, was elected to power in 2014. He is a staunch Hindu nationalist, and has been accused of turning a blind eye to radical Hindu groups as they persecute Indians of other faiths.

According to Open Doors:

It has been a year [2015] of deafening silence from its Hindu extremist leader Narendra Modi, as attacks on churches and pastors climbed even higher than in 2014. Mobs can act with impunity, as Hindu extremism is deliberately stoked. Rev. Richard Howell of the Evangelical Fellowship of India said: “Political Hinduism has arrived and majoritarian persecution has begun….Every week there are three to four incidents of mobs attacking Christians.”

The International Christian Concern organization reports that there have been widespread reports of further attacks on Christians and churches this year, leading to worries that 2016 could be a worse period for India’s Christian community than 2015, which itself was the worst year on record for Christians in India’s independent history.

Such has been the rise in attacks on Christians that at the end of February a group of 34 US congressmen sent a letter to Prime Minister Modi, calling on him to condemn the persecution and to uphold the rule of law.

It is difficult to be optimistic. I fear a grim future for many Indian Christians, of worsening tensions and increased hostility.

But then, I was wrong in my idealistic youth, when I viewed India as a multicultural utopia. I hope and pray I am wrong now.

Please Continue to Pray for North Korea

It is easy nowadays to overlook North Korea. Many Christians who are burdened by the plight of the persecuted church now direct much of their prayer to the Middle East, where the flood of horrific news seems ceaseless. By contrast, so encompassing is the veil of secrecy over North Korea that we hear little about the suffering of Christians there.

Thus, the Open Doors World Watch List for 2016 of the 50 countries where Christians are most persecuted for their faith has performed an important service in once again highlighting the appalling regime of North Korea.

For the 14th straight year North Korea has been listed as the country where it is most dangerous to be a Christian.

According to Open Doors, some 50,000 to 70,000 of an estimated 300,000 North Korean Christians are in prison camps.

It says:

Christianity is not only seen as “opium for the people,” as is normal for all communist states, it is also seen as deeply Western and despicable. Christians try to hide their faith as far as possible to avoid arrest and being sent to labor camps with horrific conditions. Thus, one’s Christian faith usually remains a well-protected secret, and most parents refrain from introducing their children to the Christian faith in order to make sure that nothing slips their tongue when they are asked.

Such is the secrecy that prevails, we learn little about true conditions within the country, and in particular the predicament of Christians.

Occasional items of news sneak out. For example, I recently met a man who actually visited the country a few years ago. It is known that North Korea has a tuberculosis problem. According to the World Health Organization, 5,000 died from the disease in 2014. But this man said medical workers told him the problem is almost certainly significantly worse, with numerous cases that are not officially recorded.

In another glimpse, a Bangkok newspaper reported recently that some 2,000 North Korean refugees were arriving illegally in Thailand each year, and the number seemed set to rise.

Most come via China and Laos and were, according to the report, a “growing dilemma.” The newspaper quoted an immigration official as stating that the Thai government wished to work with the Laotian government to stem the refugee flow.

But these are just snapshots, and otherwise we must assume that conditions remain as dire as has sometimes been reported.

I have a particular concern for North Korea. My wife is Korean, from Seoul. But both her parents are refugees who fled from the North during the Korean War. My wife probably has relatives in North Korea, but she does not know who they are and she has certainly never been able to contact them.

So she prays, for North Korean Christians and for all North Koreans. She feels that is about all she can do. Please join her in prayer. Please do not forget North Korea.

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.