‘Pinpricks’ of Truth Making Way into North Korea


Citizens increasingly enlightened about world’s worst violator of religious freedom.

DUBLIN, April 26 (CDN) — As refugees from North Korea and activists from Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) gather in Seoul, South Korea this week to highlight human rights violations in the hermit kingdom, there are signs that North Korean citizens are accessing more truth than was previously thought.

A recent survey by the Peterson Institute found that a startling 60 percent of North Koreans now have access to information outside of government propaganda.

“North Koreans are increasingly finding out that their misery is a direct result of the Kim Jong-Il regime, not South Korea and America as we were brainwashed from birth to believe,” Kim Seung Min of Free North Korea Radio said in a press statement. The radio station is a partner in the North Korea Freedom Coalition (NKFC), which is holding its annual North Korea Freedom Week (NKFW) in Seoul rather than Washington, D.C. for the first time in the seven-year history of the event.

“We set out to double the radio listenership of 8 or 9 percent, and we’ve seen a dramatic increase in the number of people who have access to information,” said NKFC Co-Chair Suzanne Scholte. She described the flow of information as “pinpricks in a dark veil over North Korea. Now those pinpricks are becoming huge holes.”

The radio station now air-drops radios into North Korea and broadcasts into the country for five hours a day, adding to information gleaned by refugees and merchants who cross the border regularly to buy Chinese goods.

In recent years the government has been forced to allow a limited market economy, but trade has brought with it illegal technology such as VCR machines, televisions, radios and cell phones that can detect signals from across the border. Previously all televisions and radios available in North Korea could only receive official frequencies. 

“The government hasn’t been able to stamp out the markets, so they begrudgingly allow them to continue,” Scholte confirmed. “This means North Koreans aren’t relying solely on the regime anymore.”

Holding the annual event in Seoul this year sends a significant message, Scholte told Compass.

“This is a spiritual conflict as well as a physical one – some people didn’t want us to call it freedom week,” she said. “But we’re making a statement … God gives us freedom by the very nature of being human and North Koreans are entitled to that too.”

All people say they would never allow the World War II holocaust to be repeated, Scholte said, “but this is a holocaust, a genocide. I firmly believe we will be judged if we fail to intervene.”

The coalition hopes this week’s event will empower the 17,000 strong North Korean defectors in South Korea, awaken the consciousness of the world about human rights conditions in North Korea, and inform all who are suffering in North Korea that others will “work together until the day their freedom, human rights and dignity are realized,” Scholte said in the press statement.

As part of the week’s activities, the coalition will send leaflets into North Korea via balloon stating in part, “In the same year the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was passed, Kim Il-Sung was ensuring that you wouldn’t have any of those rights.”

Religious freedom in particular is almost non-existent. The only accepted belief is Juche – an ideology that strictly enforces worship of the country’s leaders.

“The regime is a perversion of Christianity,” Scholte told Compass. Juche has a holy trinity just as Christianity does, with Father Kim Il-Sung, son Kim Jong-Il, and the spirit of Juche said to give strength to the people.

“Kim Il-Sung is God; a real God can’t replace him,” a former North Korean security agent confirmed in David Hawke’s 2005 report, “A Prison Without Bars.”

While four churches exist in the capital, Pyongyang, experts believe these are largely showpieces for foreign visitors.

The government has allowed token visits from high-profile foreign Christians such as Franklin Graham, president of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, who preached at Bongsu Protestant church in Pyongyang in August 2008; and two U.S. Christian bands, Casting Crowns and Annie Moses, attended and won awards at the Spring Friendship Arts Festival in April 2009.

Worship outside limited official venues is simply not tolerated, giving North Korea first place on Christian support organization Open Doors’ 2010 World Watch List for persecution of Christians.

Ordinary citizens caught with a Bible or in a clandestine prayer meeting are immediately labeled members of the hostile class and either executed or placed in prison labor camps, along with three generations of their immediate family. Every North Korean belongs to either the “hostile,” “wavering” or “core” class, affecting privileges from food and housing to education and physical freedom, according to Hawke’s report.

There are no churches outside the capital, but the regime in 2001 estimated there were 12,000 Protestants and 800 Catholics in North Korea. In July 2002 the government also reported the existence of 500 vaguely-defined “family worship centers” catering to a population of approximately 22.7 million, according to a September 2009 International Religious Freedom report issued by the U.S. State Department.

By contrast, South Korea’s Dong-A Ilbo newspaper in July 2009 put the estimate at 30,000 Christians, some NGOs and academics estimate there may be up to several hundred thousand underground Christians.

Uncertain Future

As North Korea celebrated the birthday of Kim Jong-Il on Feb. 16, rumors spread that the elderly leader, currently battling heart problems, had chosen third son Kim Jong-Eun as his successor.

Documents extolling the virtues of Kim Jong-Eun began circulating as early as November, according to the Daily NK online news agency. An official “education” campaign for elite officials began in January and was extended to lesser officials in March. One document obtained by the agency described the “Youth Captain” as being “the embodiment of Kim Il-Sung’s appearance and ideology.”

“Kim picked this son because he’s ruthless and evil,” Scholte said, “but I don’t think they’re quite ready to hand over to him yet. There is an uncertainty, a vulnerability.”

Scholte believes this is the ideal time to “reach out, get information in there and push every possible way.”

“There are many double-thinkers among the elite,” she explained. “They know the regime is wrong, but they have the Mercedes, the education for their kids and so on, so they have no incentive to leave.”

The coalition is trying to persuade South Korea to establish a criminal tribunal, she said.

“North Koreans are actually citizens of South Korea by law,” she said. “We have to let these guys know there’s going to be a reckoning, to create a good reason for them not to cooperate [with authorities].”

Those in other countries have an obligation too, Scholte concluded. “When people walk out of the camps, it will haunt us. They’ll want to know, ‘What were you doing?’ We will be held accountable.”

Article 26 of North Korea’s constitution declares that the people have freedom of religion. The organizers of this year’s freedom week fervently hope that this declaration will soon become a reality.

SIDEBAR

The Cross at the Border: China’s Complicity in Refugees’ Suffering

Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) estimate anywhere from 30,000 to 250,000 refugees from North Korea are living in China, either in border areas or deeper inland. Few are Christians when they emerge from North Korea, but the whispered advice among refugees is to “head for a cross,” signaling a Chinese church that may assist them, according to a February 2009 National Geographic report.

Since China will not allow the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees access to border areas, Chinese Christians work with Christian NGOs to provide an “underground railroad” moving refugees via several routes to safety, most often in South Korea.

Chun Ki-Won, director of Christian NGO Durihana, admits that some of the refugees adopt Christianity to win favor with their rescuers, but others retain and strengthen their faith on arrival in South Korea.

China insists that the refugees are economic migrants and pays police a bounty to arrest and return them to North Korea. On arrival, North Korean officials pointedly question the refugees about contact with Chinese Christians or Christian NGOs. If any contact is admitted, execution or imprisonment is likely, according to David Hawke’s 2005 report, “A Prison Without Bars.”

As one refugee told Hawke, “Having faith in God is an act of espionage.”

Still others choose to return to North Korea with Bibles and other Christian resources at great risk to themselves. For example, officials in June 2009 publicly executed Ri Hyon-Ok, caught distributing Bibles in Ryongchon, a city near the Chinese border, South Korean activists reported.

China remains impervious to the refugees’ plight.

“China fears being flooded by refugees if they show compassion,” said Suzanne Scholte, co-chair of the North Korea Freedom Coalition. “But refugee flows aren’t going to collapse the [North Korean] regime. If that was going to happen, it would have happened already during the famine, so their argument doesn’t hold water.”

She added that North Koreans don’t want to leave. “They leave because of Kim Jong-Il,” she said. “Those [North Korean refugees] in South Korea want to go back and take freedom with them.”

Two U.S. Christians entered North Korea in recent months with the same goal in mind. Robert Park, an evangelical Christian missionary, crossed the border on Dec. 25 with a letter calling for Kim Jong-Il to resign.

Officials immediately arrested Park, according to the regime’s Korean Central News Agency. He was later sentenced to eight years of hard labor but released in late February after making what many experts believe was a forced confession.

Fellow activist Aijalon Mahli Gomes entered North Korea on Jan. 25, the same news agency reported. Officials sentenced Gomes to nine years of hard labor and fined him 70 million new Won (US$518,520). At press time Gomes remained in detention.

Report from Compass Direct News 

Muslim anti-Christian riots spread in Upper Egypt


It has been reported that today (Monday, November 23, 2009,) Muslim rioters looted and burned Coptic Christian businesses in the village of Abou Shousha, which lies 25 KM (nearly 16 miles) from Farshoot where recent violence had taken place, reports Dan Wooding, founder of ASSIST Ministries.

“The terrorized Coptic inhabitants of Abou Shousha have stayed indoors, their shops are closed and their children are being kept away from school,” wrote Mary Abdelmassih in a story for the Assyrian International News Agency (www.aina.org ). “They fear a repeat in their village of the Muslim violence which engulfed the town of Farshoot less than 36 hours earlier.

“The Middle East Christian Association (MECA) reported that at least three large Coptic stores and a pharmacy were looted and burnt in Abou Shousha and that the fire brigade arrived one hour late, although their headquarters is only 8 KM (5 miles) away from the village.”

Wagih Yacoub of MECA said, “They gave the pretext of being busy in Farshoot, which is untrue, as Farshoot had a quiet night. Coptic and Muslim neighbors tried to put the fire out.”

Abdelmassih went on to say that Bishop Kirrillos of the Nag Hamady Diocese said that a mob from the neighboring village of Abu Tesht torched the businesses in Abou Shousha. MECA reported that three girls were assaulted in the street by having bricks hurled at them. No serious injuries were reported.

On November 22, 2009, in a joint communiqué from fourteen Egyptian human rights organizations and lawyers called on President Hosni Mubarak to immediately intervene to save the Copts from the wrath of the mob and the subversive leaders behind them, who are seeking to sow discord and divisions among the Egyptians in the name of religion and “to hold accountable all involved in the incitement or attacks on the peaceful Copts in Farshoot.”

Abdelmassih wrote that the signatories to the statement asked President Mubarak to take the necessary measures to hold accountable the security force officials, who played the “role of spectator in the looting, arson and attacks on Coptic property in Farshoot.”

The communiqué strongly condemned the deportation and evacuation of the Copts in Farshoot from their homes and villages by the security forces, in violation of the provisions of the Egyptian Constitution which stipulates in Article 50 and 51 of the Code “No citizen may be prohibited from residing or be forced to reside in a specific area except in the circumstances set out in the law.

The NGOs’ statement stressed the right of the Coptic victims for compensation for the material losses and psychological damage, and strongly condemned the burning and insulting of the symbols of Christianity by the Muslims fanatics, and demanded everyone involved to be charged with the crime of “contempt of a heavenly religion.”

“It is estimated that over 80% of Coptic businesses have been destroyed in the 48 hours of violence in Farshoot,” said Abdelmassih.

A video can be viewed at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eYFsW-uABJg&feature=player_embedded . It was prepared by Free Copts advocacy and shows Muslim mobs chanting Allah Akbar (God is Great) while looting and burning Coptic businesses and shops.

Abdelmassih added that the Egyptian Union for Human Rights (EUHRO) has advised that it is preparing a file with all the financial losses and damages to Coptic-owned businesses and property in Farshoot in preparation for filing a civil and a criminal case against the Egyptian Prime Minister, the Governor of Qena and the perpetrators.

“They want the Copts to be poor and are therefore destroying the Coptic economy in these areas,” explained Wagih Yacoub.

Bishop Kirollos again condemned the grave violations against Christians and their property, affirming his belief that the attacks were preplanned. “Students of Al-Azhar Institute in Farshoot, were incited by their Dean who sent them out on a rampage against the Copts. They were joined by a great number of locals,” he said.

Report from the Christian Telegraph 

INDIA: OFFICIALS ON DEFENSIVE AT ‘WATCH LIST’ DESIGNATION


U.S. religious rights panel cites culture of impunity at authorities allowing atrocities.

NEW DELHI, August 18 (Compass Direct News) – Ahead of one-year remembrances of massive anti-Christian violence in the eastern state of Orissa, the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) has put India on its “Watch List” for the country’s violations of religious freedom, evoking strong reactions from the Indian government.

USCIRF Chairman Leonard Leo said in a statement on Wednesday (Aug. 12) that it was “extremely disappointing” that India “has done so little to protect and bring justice to its religious minorities under siege.”

The U.S. panel’s decision was “regrettable,” a spokesperson for India’s Ministry of External Affairs, Vishnu Prakash, said in a statement on Thursday (Aug. 13), after the USCIRF put India on the list due to a “disturbing increase” in violence on minorities and a growing culture of impunity in the country.

Violence erupted in Kandhamal district of the eastern state of Orissa in August-September 2008, killing more than 100 people and burning 4,640 houses, 252 churches and 13 educational institutions, according to rights groups such as the All India Christian Council (AICC), the Global Council of India Christians (GCIC) and the Christian Legal Association (CLA).

“India’s democratic institutions charged with upholding the rule of law, most notably state and central judiciaries and police, have emerged as unwilling or unable to seek redress for victims of the violence,” Leo said. “More must be done to ensure future violence does not occur and that perpetrators are held accountable.”

Disagreeing with the USCIRF report, the foreign ministry’s Prakash said India is a multi-ethnic and multi-religious society. “The Constitution of India guarantees freedom of religion and equality of opportunity to all its citizens, who live and work together in peace and harmony,” he said.

Christians were shocked by the foreign ministry spokesman’s claim that “aberrations, if any, are dealt with promptly within our legal framework, under the watchful eye of an independent judiciary and a vigilant media.”

Attorney Robin Ratnakar David, president of the CLA, told Compass that one year after the violence only six people have been convicted in just two cases of rioting, while several suspects have been acquitted in four such cases despite the formation of fast-track courts.

Dr. John Dayal, secretary general of the AICC, pointed out that the more than 50,000 people who fled to forests or took shelter in refugee camps have not returned home out of fear of Hindu nationalist extremists who demand they either convert to Hinduism or leave their villages.

He said there also had been several “pogroms against Muslims, often sponsored or condoned by the state.”

In 2002, India’s worst-ever anti-Muslim violence occurred in the western state of Gujarat. A compartment of a train, the Sabarmati Express, caught fire – or was set on fire (as claimed by Hindu extremists) – near the Godhra city railway station on Feb. 27. In the fire, 58 Hindu passengers, mainly supporters of the Hindu extremist Vishwa Hindu Parishad (World Hindu Council or VHP), were killed. The VHP and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) claimed it was an attack by Islamic terrorists; the ensuing violence killed more than 2,000 people, mostly Muslims.

Following the anti-Muslim violence, the USCIRF recommended that India be designated a “Country of Particular Concern” (CPC), its list of the world’s worst violators of religious freedom. India was removed from the CPC list in 2005.

Designation on the Watch List means a country requires “close monitoring due to the nature and extent of violations of religious freedom engaged in or tolerated by the government,” according to USCIRF. The other countries on USCIRF’s Watch List are Afghanistan, Belarus, Cuba, Egypt, Indonesia, Laos, the Russian Federation, Somalia, Tajikistan, Turkey, and Venezuela.

CLA attorney David said the August-September 2008 violence in Kandhamal could have been prevented had the administration brought to justice those responsible for previous mayhem in December 2007. The December 2007 violence in Kandhamal killed at least four Christians, burned as many as 730 houses and 95 churches and rendered thousands homeless.

The attacks were launched under the pretext of avenging an alleged attack on a VHP leader, Swami Laxmanananda Saraswati. It was the assassination of Saraswati by Maoists (extreme Marxists) on Aug. 23, 2008 that sparked the second spate of violence in Kandhamal, as Hindu nationalists blamed non-Marxist, local Christians for it.

Dayal said the USCIRF’s latest conclusions could have been avoided if more action had been taken against the perpetrators of last year’s violence.

“The USCRIF action would not have been possible, and India would have been able to rebuff the U.S. scrutiny more effectively, if several thousand Christians were still not in refugee camps, if the killers were still not roaming scot-free and if witnesses, including widows, were not being coerced,” he said.

‘Indifferent’

Shashi Tharoor, India’s Minister of State for External Affairs, told a private news channel that India did not need approbation from outside its borders.

“As far as we are concerned, we are essentially indifferent to how others view the situation,” he said. “In democracy, what matters to us is how we deal with our own internal issues. I don’t think we need any certificates from outside.”

He dismissed the report as meddling in internal affairs even though between June 2002 and February 2007 Tharoor served as under-secretary general for communications and public information for the United Nations, a body representative of international accountability in human rights.

In its annual report, India’s home (interior) ministry had acknowledged that the incidence of communal violence was high. It noted that in 2008, as many as 943 communal incidents (mainly against Muslims and Christians) took place in which 167 persons were killed and 2,354 persons were injured. The figures were up from those of 2007, when there were 761 incidents in which 99 persons were killed and 2,227 persons were injured.

Justifying its decision, the USCIRF report stated that several incidents of communal violence have occurred in various parts of the country resulting in many deaths and mass displacements, particularly of members of the Christian and Muslim minorities, “including major incidents against Christian communities within the 2008-2009 reporting period.”

“Because the government’s response at the state and local levels has been found to be largely inadequate and the national government has failed to take effective measures to ensure the rights of religious minorities in several states, the Commission decided to place India on its Watch List.”

The USCIRF had released its 2009 annual report on religious freedom across the globe on May 1 but put the India report on hold, planning to prepare it after a visit to the country in June. A USCIRF team planned to visit India to speak to the government and others concerning the situation in Kandhamal and Gujarat on June 12, but the Indian embassy in Washington, D.C. did not provide visas in time.

“USCIRF’s India chapter was released this week to mark the one-year anniversary of the start of the anti-Christian violence in Orissa,” Leo pointed out in last week’s statement.

‘Teflon-Coated State’

The AICC’s Dayal seemed pessimistic about a change in the government’s attitude.

“Unfortunately, nothing really impacts the government of India or the government of Indian states,” he said. “The state, and our social conscience, seems Teflon-coated. The patriotic media and political sector dismiss international scrutiny as interference in the internal affairs of India, and a beaten-into-submission section of the leadership of religious minorities assumes silence to be the best form of security and safety.”

Dr. Sajan George, the national convenor of the GCIC, said the report showed that India had become a “super violator” of human rights. The Rev. Dr. Babu Joseph, spokesman for the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of India, said the U.S. panel’s report did not augur well with India’s claim to find a respectable place within the community of nations.

“India as an emerging economic power in the world should also endeavor to better its records of protecting human rights, particularly when it comes to religious freedom of its citizens,” Joseph said.

Joseph told Compass the USCIRF report was “a clear indication of the growing concern of the international community with India’s repeated failure to take decisive and corrective measures to contain religious intolerance.”

Christian leaders generally lauded the report, with Dayal saying, “India’s record on the persecution of minorities and the violation of religious freedom has been a matter of international shame for the nation.”

Report from Compass Direct News 

Scholars: John Calvin was America’s ‘Founding Father’


More than a thousand attendees are expected to gather for a four-day conference to celebrate John Calvin’s 500th birthday, reports Michael Ireland, chief correspondent, ASSIST News Service.

As America prepares to celebrate Independence Day this July 4, Vision Forum Ministries will be hosting the national celebration to honor the 500th birthday of John Calvin, a man who many scholars recognize as America’s “Founding Father.”

The event — The Reformation 500 Celebration — will take place July 1-4 at the Park Plaza Hotel in downtown Boston, according to a media release about the event.

“Long before America declared its independence, John Calvin declared and defended principles that birthed liberty in the modern world,” noted Doug Phillips, president of Vision Forum Ministries.

“Scholars both critical and sympathetic of the life and theology of Calvin agree on one thing: that this reformer from Geneva was the father of modern liberty as well as the intellectual founding father of America,” he said.

Phillips pointed out: “Jean Jacques Rousseau, a fellow Genevan who was no friend to Christianity, observed: ‘Those who consider Calvin only as a theologian fail to recognize the breadth of his genius. The editing of our wise laws, in which he had a large share, does him as much credit as his Institutes. . . . [S]o long as the love of country and liberty is not extinct amongst us, the memory of this great man will be held in reverence.’”

He continued: “German historian Leopold von Ranke observed that ‘Calvin was virtually the founder of America.’ Harvard historian George Bancroft was no less direct with this remark: ‘He who will not honor the memory and respect the influence of Calvin knows but little of the origin of American liberty.’

“John Adams, America’s second president, agreed with this sentiment and issued this pointed charge: ‘Let not Geneva be forgotten or despised. Religious liberty owes it much respect.’

“As we celebrate America’s Independence this July 4, we would do well to heed John Adams’ admonition and show due respect to the memory of John Calvin whose 500th birthday fall six days later,” Phillips stated.

Calvin, a convert to Reformation Christianity born in Noyon, France, on July 10, 1509, is best known for his influence on the city of Geneva, the media release explains.

“It was there that he modeled many of the principles of liberty later embraced by America’s Founders, including anti-statism, the belief in transcendent principles of law as the foundation of an ethical legal system, free market economics, decentralized authority, an educated citizenry as a safeguard against tyranny, and republican representative government which was accountable to the people and a higher law,” the release states.

The Reformation 500 Celebration will honor Calvin’s legacy, along with other key Protestant reformers, and will feature more than thirty history messages on the impact of the Reformation, Faith & Freedom mini-tours of historic Boston, and a Children’s Parade.

The festivities will climax on America’s Independence Day as attendees join thousands of others for the world-renowned music and fireworks celebration on the Esplanade with the Boston Pops Orchestra.

Report from the Christian Telegraph 

PSB officers torture yet another Christian human rights attorney


China’s Public Secruity Bureau (PSB) officers have tortured yet another Christian human rights attorney. Zheng Enchong was beaten, stripped, and burned with cigarettes on June 17, reports MNN with a link to China Aid Association.

Four officers from Zhabei District branch of Shanghai Municipal Public Security Bureau had summoned him. Although they did not actually interrogate Zheng during the torture, authorities compiled a written record of the interrogation anyway.

They wanted Zheng to sign the record, but he refused. Instead, he wrote a statement on the record describing his treatment by the PSB and comparing it to the government’s treatment of Falun Gong practitioners. He plans to file a complaint with the central government.

The government has been harassing Zheng ever since he filed an important legal case in 2003, arguing that government officials conspired with Zhou Zhengyi, “the richest man in Shanghai,” to illegally confiscate homes for demolition.

Officials have summoned Zheng almost 20 times, and they have searched his house twice in the last two and a half months. He has difficulty walking after suffering four severe beatings by the authorities.

Zheng already served three years in prison for “illegally providing secrets to overseas entities” after filing the confiscation case. This charge related to an allegation that Zheng faxed two documents regarding workers’ protests to the non-profit organization Human Rights in China.

“As an internationally well-known Christian human rights lawyer, Attorney Zheng has always defended the poor and vulnerable,” said Bob Fu, president of ChinaAid and a friend of Mr. Zheng and his family. “The repeated harassment and torture against such a conscientious rights defender demonstrates the Shanghai authorities’ total disregard to citizens’ basic human rights. We encourage the international community to continue to press the Chinese authorities to stop these hideous acts and to hold the abusers accountable.”

Report from the Christian Telegraph

VIETNAM: ALLEGED MURDERER OF CHRISTIAN STRIKES AGAIN


Local authorities complicit or turn blind eye to assaults on Christians.

LOS ANGELES, May 11 (Compass Direct News) – A Hmong man in Vietnam’s Northwest Mountainous Region who murdered his mother in February because she had become a Christian has assaulted another Christian, leaving him critically wounded, according to area Christian sources.

Lao Lia Po on April 25 allegedly attacked Koua Lo of Meo Vac district, Ha Giang Province because he had become a Christian, according to a local church leader. Koua sustained severe head injuries; according to witnesses, his head was split open in two places with parts of his brain visible.

Koua was taken to a hospital, but after three days doctors said they could do nothing more for him and sent him home. As his injuries were life-threatening, those close to Koua did not expect him to recover.

The alleged attacker, Lao, is still at large and has not been charged. The assault took place in Sung Can Village, Sung Tra Commune, Meo Vac district, Ha Giang Province.

In the same area two years ago, a 74-year-old woman became the first Christian in the village. Today there are about 100 families who follow Christ, but the cost has been high. Stories of harassment and abuse of Christians in Meo Vac district have circulated for several months, with local Christians saying government officials are either complicit or look the other way.

On Feb. 3, local Christians said, Lao murdered his mother in a similarly brutal fashion, smashing her head until she died. Police only held him overnight before releasing him without charge. The day he was released, local sources said, he again threatened Christians with death.

A Vietnamese pastor petitioned the government to investigate – with no result. Another leader informed U.S. diplomats of the details. Some Vietnamese Christians have complained to Vietnam diplomatic missions abroad, all to no avail.

Advocates of religious freedom in Vietnam say such impunity puts a serious blot on Vietnam’s slowly improving religious liberty record.

Following heavy international scrutiny of Vietnam’s oppression of religion in general and Protestantism in particular, Vietnam promulgated new religion legislation in 2004 and 2005. To date this has led to the legal recognition of six church/denominational organizations, raising the total to eight out of about 70. Additionally, a few hundred of Vietnam’s thousands of house church congregations have been given interim permission to carry on religious activities, and large-scale government campaigns to force ethnic minority Christians to recant their faith have ceased.

High hopes for improvement following the new religion legislation led the U.S. Department of State to take Vietnam off its blacklist of the worst violators of religious freedom in late 2006, which enabled the U.S. government to endorse Vietnam’s accession to the World Trade Organization. And Christian support organization Open Doors this year dropped Vietnam to No. 23 on its World Watch List ranking of religion persecutors. In eight of the last 12 years, Vietnam had been placed among the organization’s top 10 worst religious persecutors.

The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), however, found exceptions to progress so widespread that it again recommended naming Vietnam a Country of Particular Concern (CPC) this year. The recommendation by USCIRF, responsible for monitoring state department compliance with the U.S. 1998 Law on International Religious Freedom, was announced on May 1.

The commission’s report recognizes progress but notes, “There continue to be far too many serious abuses and restrictions of religious freedom in the country. Individuals continue to be imprisoned or detained for reasons related to their religious activity or religious freedom advocacy; police and government officials are not held fully accountable for abuses; independent religious activity remains illegal; and legal protections for government-approved religious organizations are both vague and subject to arbitrary or discriminatory interpretations based on political factors.”

Given the uneven pace of religious freedom progress after removing Vietnam from the list of CPCs, continued detention of prisoners of conscience, and an overall deteriorating human rights situation, USCIRF recommended that Vietnam be re-designated as a CPC.

In Tra Vinh Province in the Mekong Delta Region of southern Vietnam, another Christian was murdered on April 5. Thugs ambushed Thach Thanh No, described as a young and enthusiastic church elder, on his way home from Sunday worship, according to local Christian sources. His family was unable to find him quickly, and he died from his injuries as he was transported to a hospital.

The congregation in Ngoc Bien Commune to which he belonged has long been harassed and threatened by local thugs supported by militant Buddhists, according to area Christians, who emphasized that authorities have done nothing to intervene.

Indeed, in Thach’s case, rather than prosecute the killers, the Ministry of Public Security’s World Security newspaper published an article on April 24 – concocted without any factual basis, according to area Christians – which portrayed him as dying from crashing his motorbike while drunk. His motorbike, however, was found entirely unmarked without any signs of a crash, and his body showed clear signs of a vicious beating, according to area Christians.

“In one case the law winks at the murder of a Christian and does nothing to punish the murderer – in another, authorities actively work to cover up a murder with elaborate lies,” said one long-time advocate for religious freedom in Vietnam. “Such behavior on the part of authorities convinces many Vietnamese Christians that their country’s top officials are still not sincere about improving religious freedom for all.”

Report from Compass Direct News

HEAVENLY THINGS: John 3:9-15


Last week we considered the necessity of the new birth, without which not only is entrance into the Kingdom of God impossible, but even beginning to understand the Kingdom of God in its most elementary stages is impossible.

We saw that Jesus cut right through all the rhetoric of Nicodemus and drove straight at the most important need that this man had, indeed that any man, woman, and child has – that of the new birth. Yes, this man was a Pharisee, and a very important one at that, yet he was also outside the Kingdom of God, and stood in great need of this new birth as wrought within a person by the Holy Spirit.

No man, woman or child can ever hope to enter the Kingdom of God if they have not personally experienced this new birth – it is an absolute necessity. Without it there is no spiritual life, and has therefore no ability to enter the Kingdom of God.

This man had no idea of what Jesus was speaking about – it just all seemed too impossible to him. How could such a thing as being born again be possible, ‘How can a man be born when he is old? can he enter the second time into his mother’s womb, and be born (3:4)?’

By his very answers to Jesus, both in verse 3 and in verse 9, Nicodemus proved to all human history from that time forward, that indeed his greatest need, as Jesus had said to him, was to experience the new birth, for ‘the natural man receiveth not the things of the Spirit of God: for they are foolishness unto him: neither can he know them, because they are spiritually discerned (1 Cor 2:14).’

As a Pharisee, and as an important teacher within Israel, Nicodemus should have known this most important truth already. This truth of the necessity of the new birth was of course not absent from the Old Testament from which Nicodemus taught, and we considered for a moment an example given in Ezekiel 36, and verses 26 and 27, ‘A new heart also will I give you, and a new spirit will I put within you: and I will take away the stony heart out of your flesh, and I will give you an heart of flesh. And I will put my spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes, and ye shall keep my judgments, and do them.’

With the Old Testament full of such allusions to the new birth, and with various types and illustrations of it, Jesus rebuked Nicodemus, ‘Art thou a master of Israel, and knowest not these things (3:10)?’ These are things that someone who is teaching the Bible ought to know, indeed to have experienced, yet he knew nothing of them – he had no spiritual life to understand these realities.

This is no small matter – the most elementary, the most basic teaching concerning entrance into the Kingdom of God, the most necessary prerequisite to being able to keep the statutes of God successfully, was not known by the one who taught the common people within the land! What hope have such people got when their leaders don’t even know the truth!

And what a sad state it is, when the very ones who are charged with the responsibility of teaching people the truth as regards deliverance from sin, and entrance into the Kingdom of God, who are also accountable to God for what they teach, do not know the most basic of Biblical truths – to enter the Kingdom, you must first be born again from above. You cannot begin to move in the right direction without this new birth.

How many will perish for want of a faithful teacher, both then and now? The truth is not taught anymore, even in our own land – people perish, while they yet think they have the Kingdom of God in their very hands, while in reality they have not even experienced the new birth. They are told to repeat simple statements, or simple prayers, to utter strange sounds called tongues, to carry out certain rituals or observances – and with the completion of such things they are assured of a mansion in Heaven. It’s a tragedy, truly it is.

Nicodemus and his fellow Pharisaic teachers were teaching an entrance into the Kingdom based upon the merit of human effort and obedience, a system devoid of any saving merit whatsoever – and yet this is what they taught.

They had no real spiritual idea as to what they were doing. They were prepared to ‘compass sea and land to make one proselyte, and when he is made, ye make him twofold more the child of hell than yourselves (Mt 23:15).’

What the Pharisee’s taught was in complete contrast to the testimony of Jesus, of the prophets, and of John the Baptist; for while the Pharisee’s taught what was the product of mere human interpretation and invention, Jesus said, ‘Verily, verily, I say unto thee, We speak that we do know, and testify that we have seen; and ye receive not our witness (3:11).’

When Jesus speaks there is an air of certainty, an authority that the Pharisee’s knew nothing of. This was a word to be trusted, a word that had real clout – for it was truth, and came from a source that is absolutely trustworthy, not the product of mere human invention.

And when I speak to you concerning this truth, I come with similar authority, not because I’m something special, but because I come with the very same words of Jesus – the authority is still in the words, ‘We speak that we do know, and testify that we have seen …’

Jesus continues, ‘If I have told you earthly things, and ye believe not, how shall ye believe, if I tell you of heavenly things (3:12)?’ If Nicodemus did not believe and understand the earthly things, what hope did he have of believing and understanding heavenly things?

What is Jesus talking about here? What are the earthly things that Nicodemus didn’t believe? The context points us to the answer – surely it is what Nicodemus has already rejected, what Jesus had already said.

Yes, being born again is a spiritual matter and is clearly from above, yet that which Jesus has already said must be what Jesus is referring to as an earthly thing in this verse. There is nothing else that he has yet pointed to, it must be this. He has said nothing else up to this point, except stressing the need of the new birth.

But it is not so much the new birth that is earthly, though it be something which happens within a person, and occurs on the earth. The way that Jesus sought to teach Nicodemus about the new birth, with these various simple earthly illustrations, in order to simply explain the truth being taught is what Jesus means here. Jesus says in effect, ‘Nicodemus, if you can’t understand these simple illustrations that I have used to point to the truth, then there is no way known that you will understand the truth simply stated without the illustrations.’

The idea behind all this is that these things are basic things – how can you understand anything further if you can’t get what I’ve already told you, and pointed to with earthly pictures and illustrations? If you can’t even get beyond these illustrations regarding the basics, then you won’t understand the bare facts of spiritual life, and how to enter in upon it. If I state them without the illustrations – that is well and truly beyond you.

Though the Old Testament clearly speaks of this truth concerning the new birth, and though it should have been obvious by Nicodemus’s inability to keep the law that he proclaimed as the way to salvation, Nicodemus still could not see the reality of the new birth, and of its need. All screams out to Nicodemus of the need of some other way – yet he will not believe. And why, because he can’t work it out in his own mind, because it doesn’t seem possible to him.

These people would rather persist with there flawed methods of achieving entrance into the Kingdom, then to accept the way of one whom even they recognized as ‘a teacher come from God: for no man can do these miracles that thou doest, except God be with him (3:2).’

What is it that you are sticking to this morning – will you continue to stick to methods and ways of salvation that are based upon the interpretations, inventions, and wisdom of man – things that you are able to accept in your own mind? Or will you believe what the Lord Jesus Christ has to say? What is more believable to you?

Do you think you have the way of salvation worked out? Is your little system right? Perhaps it’s a system of belief you have inherited from family, friends, or some religious teacher – is it right? Have you been in the presence of God and had it approved by Him?

‘And no man hath ascended up to heaven, but he that came down from heaven, even the Son of man which is in heaven (3:13).’

Well Jesus has been in heaven, in fact He came from there. He knows the way of life, and He tells it as it is. If there is anyone who has the words of life, surely it must be Jesus. He is the only one who has had such special access to the Father, who indeed is God Himself.

‘Are you prepared to rest all your faith and hope for eternity upon those teachings that you have received Nicodemus? Have any of those men whose teaching you accept above mine ever been to heaven, into the very presence of God, and there received their doctrines and theology? They haven’t been there have they?’ So runs the argument to Nicodemus.

No one on earth has gone into the Presence of God and received the ability to teach the heavenly truths, not one. Not one person has been and done that. To teach heavenly, spiritual things you need first hand information, and that’s received from God Himself – its right outside the experience of man until its revealed to him by God.

But Jesus has come from there, the Son of Man who has come from the very Presence of God has most certainly been there; don’t you think what He has to say is more trustworthy, and that it should be heeded to? Don’t you think that you ought to pay more attention to what Jesus has to say then to the doctrines of men?

And we could quite obviously apply this same idea to every other teaching couldn’t we? Does what you believe and teach measure up to the teaching of Jesus in this Book? If it doesn’t then it should be dropped.

The phrase that is in the text at this point in verse 13, ‘which is in heaven’, is thought to be an addition to the text that was not in the original text, it being absent from the oldest existing manuscripts. But whether it be there or not, it does nothing to add to, or take away from the point that Jesus is making here, ‘I alone have trustworthy information about entrance into the Kingdom.’

If Jesus says something about how one is able to enter into the Kingdom of God, then what he has to say should surely be listened to – who cares what anyone else has to say, whether it be Billy Graham, Louis Palau, or Kevin Matthews. If Jesus says entrance is upon such and such a condition, then you had better believe that it is upon those conditions.

And I would ask you this morning – are you prepared to back the flawed interpretations and inventions of men rather than the truth taught by the Son of Man? The Pharisaic method of earning their place in the Kingdom by their obedience and their own merits was no good – and all methods of obtaining the Kingdom today by human effort and merit is of no value either.

It matters not whether it be by some form of church ritual, be it baptism, the Lord’s Supper, or Church attendance; whether it be some form of attempted obedience to the Word of God; even whether it be a dependence upon the exercise of faith itself – these things will not grant you entrance into the Kingdom – its God’s way, or its no way!

And here Jesus moves on from the new birth to that which follows on after that, to further teaching on how one enters into the Kingdom of heaven. If there has been no new birth, then this next stage will never happen.

To be able to move onto the next stage, that first stage that man is aware of, he must first be born again from above. And though he may not be immediately aware of this new birth having occured within him, this next stage he will be aware of.

‘And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of man be lifted up: That whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have eternal life (3:14,15).’

What is God’s way for entrance into the Kingdom of God – it is the way that has been foretold in the Old Testament illustration of Numbers 21:4-9. Let’s just read that for a moment:

‘And they journeyed from mount Hor by the way of the Red sea, to compass the land of Edom: and the soul of the people was much discouraged because of the way. And the people spake against God, and against Moses, Wherefore have ye brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? for there is no bread, neither is there any water; and our soul loatheth this light bread. And the LORD sent fiery serpents among the people, and they bit the people; and much people of Israel died. Therefore the people came to Moses, and said, We have sinned, for we have spoken against the LORD, and against thee; pray unto the LORD, that he take away the serpents from us. And Moses prayed for the people. And the LORD said unto Moses, Make thee a fiery serpent, and set it upon a pole: and it shall come to pass, that every one that is bitten, when he looketh upon it, shall live. And Moses made a serpent of brass, and put it upon a pole, and it came to pass, that if a serpent had bitten any man, when he beheld the serpent of brass, he lived (Num 21:4-9).’

Here as usual the people had sinned against God, and to punish them the Lord God sent serpents in among them to bite them and kill them. The snakes were the just consequence of their sin, and an expression of the wrath of God against sin.

The only escape open to the people of Israel was to look at the serpent that Moses had made, placed on a pole, and lifted up for all to see. This was God’s way of escaping the wrath that had come upon the people of Israel – if you didn’t look at the serpent, it mattered not what else you did, you died.

Now this illustration was used by Jesus to teach an important truth to Nicodemus – that the only way into the Kingdom of God was by Jesus, in a similar way as recorded in this Old Testament story from Israel’s history.

In order to escape the wrath of God that abides upon men, women and children because of sin, men do not need the inventions of men, but the provision of a way of escape provided by God Himself, and Jesus was that provision.

As the serpent on the pole was lifted up, and set up in a prominent place so that everyone could look at it and live, and thereby escape the wrath of God that had descended upon the people in the form of these snakes; so to Jesus would be lifted up as God’s provision for men so that they might escape the eternal wrath of God for sin.

As the people of Israel looked at the bronze serpent as God’s means of escape, so to people would need to look at Jesus by faith in order to escape God’s wrath.

Salvation is not to be found in any human method, but only in the method that God has set down for salvation. If those people bitten by the snakes had decided to set themselves on finding some anti-venom serum, they would have died. If they decided that they would try some religious activity in order to pacify God, they would have died. There was but one way to escape open to them, to look at the God-appointed means of escape.

And this is the point of the illustration from the Old Testament; Jesus is the only God-appointed means to escape the wrath of God, and to gain entrance into the Kingdom of God.

‘And I, if I be lifted up from the earth, will draw all men unto me (Jn 12:32).’ ‘I am the way, the truth, and the life: no man cometh unto the Father, but by me (Jn 14:6).’

The clear teaching of this Gospel, and of the Word of God, is that Jesus alone is the way of entrance into the Kingdom of God. He is the way to eternal life, the Kingdom life – He and no other. And so you see in this place, the Northlake’s Reformed Baptist Church, we will teach and preach no other way of salvation but ‘Jesus Christ and Him crucified (1 Cor 2:2)’, ‘Neither is there salvation in any other: for there is none other name under heaven given among men, whereby we must be saved (Acts 4:12).’

‘And this is life eternal, that they might know thee the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom thou hast sent (Jn 17:3).’

If you are to know this eternal life, then you need to believe in the Lord Jesus Christ as the way to the Kingdom, and to rest in Him as that way. There is no other name given as a way of salvation – not from God there isn’t.

As the people of Israel needed to first believe in the promise of the bronze serpent being the way that God would restore them to health, before they actually looked in its direction – so it is with Christ.

To exercise faith in Christ is to believe that the way to salvation through Christ is true, and then to act upon that belief with confident action. That is the belief that is needed.

But I might not yet have experienced the new birth? The new birth is something that you are unable to perform, the Holy Spirit works it within a person, and you are not called upon to perform it.

But you are called upon to believe, ‘what must I do to be saved? And they said, Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and thou shalt be saved, and thy house (Acts 16:30,31)’

If you believe, then you can rest assured that you have also experienced the new birth, for without that you could never have believed. If you believe then the Kingdom is yours, you have eternal life, you have already experienced the new birth.

It is a promise not only of the Kingdom life to come, but entrance into that life already – for you already have it, you are already part of that heavenly kingdom.

But of course, if you do not believe then the obvious implication of this verse is that you will perish – not annihilation, but everlasting punishment in Hell.

So far in John 3 then we have seen the necessity of the new birth, and the way of entrance into the Kingdom as being Christ Himself. Next week we will consider more of this important passage, and just how Jesus is the way of entrance into the Kingdom.