Another article on ‘Atheist Megachurches.’ Actually, it was written in response to the article I linked to in my previous post concerning ‘Atheist Megachurches.’
Originally posted on Connective Tissue:
Saw this article over the weekend in USA Today. The AP reports that “dozens of gatherings” of atheists are popping up across the U.S. after gaining ground in Britain. Here’s a clip:
Hundreds of atheists and atheist-curious packed into a Hollywood auditorium for a boisterous service filled with live music, moments of reflection and an “inspirational talk, ” and some stand-up comedy by Jones, the movement’s co-founder.
During the service, attendees stomped their feet, clapped their hands and cheered as Jones and Evans led the group through rousing renditions of “Lean on Me,” ”Here Comes the Sun” and other hits that took the place of gospel songs. Congregants dissolved into laughter at a get-to-know-you game that involved clapping and slapping the hands of the person next to them and applauded as members of the audience spoke about community service projects they…
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The link below is to an article that reports on an atheist ‘church’ group known as The Sunday Assembly.
Two years after political reforms, freedom of faith nowhere in sight.
MALÉ, Maldives, August 10 (CDN) — Visitors to this Islamic island nation get a sense of religious restrictions even before they arrive. The arrival-departure cards given to arriving airline passengers carry a list of items prohibited under Maldivian laws – including “materials contrary to Islam.”
After Saudi Arabia, the Maldives is the only nation that claims a 100-percent Muslim population. The more than 300,000 people in the Maldives, an Indian Ocean archipelago featuring 1,192 islets 435 miles southwest of Sri Lanka, are all Sunnis.
This South Asian nation, however, has more than 70,000 expatriate workers representing several non-Islamic religions, including Christianity.
Also, around 60,000 tourists, mainly from Europe, visit each year to enjoy the blue ocean and white beaches and normally head straight to one of the holiday resorts built on around 45 islands exclusively meant for tourism. Tourists are rarely taken to the other 200 inhabited islands where locals live.
Nearly one-third of the population lives in the capital city of Malé, the only island where tourists and Maldivians meet.
While the Maldivians do not have a choice to convert out of Islam or to become openly atheist, foreigners in the country can practice their religion only privately.
In previous years several Christian expats have either been arrested for attending worship in private homes or denied visas for several months or years on suspicion of being connected with mission agencies.
According to “liberal estimates,” the number of Maldivian Christians or seekers “cannot be more than 15,” said one source.
“Even if you engage any Maldivian in a discussion on Christianity and the person reports it to authorities, you can be in trouble,” the source said. “A Maldivian youth studying in Sri Lanka became a Christian recently, but when his parents came to know about it, they took him away. We have not heard from him since then.”
The source added that such instances are not uncommon in the Maldives.
“I wish I could attend church, but I am too scared to look for one,” said a European expat worker. “I have not even brought my Bible here; I read it online. I don’t want to take any chances.”
The British reportedly translated the Bible into the local language, Dhivehi, and made it available in the 19th century, as the Maldives was a British protectorate from 1887 to 1965. Today no one knows how the Dhivehi Bible “disappeared.”
“A new translation has been underway for years, and it is in no way near completion,” said the source who requested anonymity.
Religion Excluded from Rights
The 2008 constitution, adopted five years after a popular movement for human rights began, states that a “non-Muslim may not become a citizen of the Maldives.”
Abdulla Yameen, brother of the former dictator of the Maldives and leader of the People’s Alliance party, an ally of the opposition Dhivehi Raiyyathunge Party (Maldivian People’s Party or DRP), told Compass that the issue of religious freedom was “insignificant” for the Maldives.
“There’s no demand for it from the public,” Yameen said. “If you take a public poll, 99 percent of the citizens will say ‘no’ to religious freedom.”
Maldivians are passionate about their religion, Yameen added, referring to a recent incident in which a 37-year-old Maldivian citizen, Mohamed Nazim, was attacked after he told a gathering that he was not a Muslim. On May 28, before a crowd of around 11,000 Maldivians, Nazim told a visiting Indian Muslim televangelist, Zakir Naik, that although he was born to a practicing Muslim family, he was “struggling to believe in religions.”
He also asked Naik about his “verdict on Islam.” The question enraged an angry crowd, with many calling for Nazim’s death while others beat him. He received several minor injuries before police took him away.
“See how the public went after his [Nazim’s] throat,” said Yameen, who studied at Claremont Graduate University in California. When asked if such passion was good for a society, he replied, “Yes. We are an Islamic nation, and our religion is an important part of our collective identity.”
Asked if individuals had no rights, his terse answer was “No.” Told it was shocking to hear his views, he said, “We are also shocked when a nation legalizes gay sex.”
Mohamed Zahid, vice president of the Human Rights Commission of the Maldives, told Compass that the country has its own definition of human rights.
“It is to protect people’s rights under the sharia [Islamic law] and other international conventions with the exception of religious freedom,” he said. “We are a sovereign nation, and we follow our own constitution.”
Zahid and several other local sources told Compass that the issue of religious rights was “irrelevant” for Maldivians. “Not more than 100 people in the country want religious freedom,” Zahid said.
Politics of Religion
Former President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, a virtual dictator for 30 years until 2008, is generally held responsible for creating an atmosphere of religious restrictions in the Maldives, as he sought to homogenize religion in the country by introducing the state version of Sunni Islam. He also led a major crackdown on Christians.
The Protection of Religious Unity Act, enacted in 1994, was an endeavor to tighten the government’s control over mosques and all other Islamic institutions. The Gayoom administration even wrote Friday sermons to be delivered in mosques.
In 1998, Gayoom began a crackdown on alleged missionary activities.
“A radio station based out of India used to air Christian programs via the Seychelles, but the government came to know about it and ensured that they were discontinued with the help of the government in the Seychelles,” said a local Muslim source.
That year, Gayoom reportedly arrested around 50 Maldivians who were suspected to have converted to Christianity and deported 19 foreign workers accused of doing missionary work. A source said Gayoom apparently wanted to regain popularity at a time when his leadership was being questioned.
When the archipelago became a multi-party democracy in October 2008, new President Mohamed Nasheed, a former journalist and activist, was expected to pursue a liberal policy as part of the country’s reforms agenda.
Although Nasheed is the president, his party, the Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP), has only 28 members and the support of four independents in the 77-member People’s Majlis (Maldives’ unicameral Parliament). Gayoom, now in his 70s and the leader of the largest opposition party, the DRP, has a simple majority – which presents difficulties in governance. Nasheed pleads helplessness in implementing reforms, citing an intransigent opposition.
Today Gayoom’s party accuses President Nasheed of not being able to protect the country’s distinct identity and culture, which the opposition says are rooted in Islam. The Gayoom-led parliament recently sought to impeach the education minister for proposing to make Islam and Dhivehi lessons optional – rather than mandatory – in high school.
To pre-empt the impeachment move, the whole cabinet of Nasheed resigned on June 29, which caused a major political crisis that led to violent street protests. The Nasheed administration allegedly arrested some opposition members, including Gayoom’s brother, Yameen. Political tensions and uncertainties continued at press time.
Now that President Nasheed’s popularity is declining – due to perceptions that he has become as authoritarian as his predecessor – it is feared that, amid immense pressure by the opposition to follow conservative policies, he might begin to follow in Gayoom’s footsteps.
Both the ruling and opposition parties admit that Islamic extremism has grown in the country. In October 2007, a group of young Maldivians engaged government security forces in a fierce shootout on Himandhoo Island.
Nasheed’s party alleges that Gayoom’s policy of promoting the state version of Sunni Islam created an interest to discern “true Islam,” with extremists from Pakistan stepping in to introduce “jihadism” in the Maldives. The DRP, on the other hand, says that behind the growth of extremism is the current government’s liberal policy of allowing Muslims of different sects to visit the Maldives to preach and give lectures, including the conservative Sunni sect of “Wahhabis.”
Until the early 1990s, Maldivian women would hardly wear the black burqa (covering the entire body, except the eyes and hands), and no men would sport a long beard – outward marks of Wahhabi Muslims, said the Muslim source, adding that “today the practice has become common.”
Still, Islam as practiced in the Maldives is pragmatic and unlike that of Saudi Arabia, he said. “People here are liberal and open-minded.”
As extremism grows, though, it is feared that radical Islamists may go to any extent to extra-judicially punish anyone suspected of being a missionary or having converted away from Islam, and that they can pressure the government to remain indifferent to religious freedom.
How long will it take for the Maldives to allow religious freedom?
“Maybe after the Maldivian government legalizes gay sex,” the Muslim source joked.
Report from Compass Direct News
A self-proclaimed atheist can continue to serve as a local pastor of the Protestant Church in the Netherlands, and no longer faces disciplinary action because of his controversial position on how to describe God, reports Ecumenical News International.
A special assembly of Zierikzee, a regional church body tasked with investigating the theological statements of Pastor Klaas Hendrikse, has said its work is, "completed".
The 3 February decision to allow Hendrikse to continue working as a pastor followed the advice of a regional supervisory panel that the statements by Hendrikse, "are not of sufficient weight to damage the foundations of the church".
Report from the Christian Telegraph
Detailed evidence of human rights violations omitted from U.N. summary report.
DUBLIN, February 11 (Compass Direct News) – A Christian defender of human rights in China – whom authorities detained last week – detailed state-sponsored torture he suffered in 2007 in an open letter released on Monday (Feb. 9), the same day advocacy groups criticized a U.N. review of China’s treatment of Christians and other minorities for omitting serious abuses.
While a Chinese delegate at the U.N. review asserted that China would never allow torture against religious members or other minorities, the open letter by Christian lawyer Gao Zhisheng – whom officials seized from his Beijing home on Feb. 4 – described 50 days of beatings and electric shocks on his mouth and genitals by state-sponsored thugs that left him desperate to die.
Gao and his family authorized China Aid Association (CAA) to release the letter, written on Nov. 28, 2007, when Gao was under house arrest in Beijing. Currently Gao’s whereabouts are unknown, according to CAA.
The letter gives a detailed account of torture he suffered in September and October of 2007. Gao said his official captors – some of whom he recognized – referred to a report he had written earlier on the torture of Falun Gong members and warned him that he was about to experience the same treatment. They urinated on Gao and repeatedly prodded his body, mouth and genitals with electric shock batons. Other methods used were too graphic and “horrible” to describe, Gao said.
Officials later asked Gao to write articles cursing Falun Gong and praising the government. When he refused, they pressured him to write a statement saying that Falun Gong practitioners had given him false evidence of torture, and that – despite constant harassment – the government had treated him and his family well. Gao said he signed this statement, as well as others in which he confessed to sexual impropriety, after beatings that left him unrecognizable and the insertion of toothpicks into his genitals.
“I can’t use any language to describe the helplessness, pain and despair that I felt then,” he wrote. “Finally I made up stories, telling them about affairs that I had with four women. After more repeated torture, I had to describe how I had sex with each of these women. This continued until dawn the next day.”
During the U.N. review of China’s human rights record on Monday (Feb. 9), Chinese delegate Song Hansong of the Supreme People’s Procuratorate said that use of torture to obtain evidence was a criminal offense and that China had “established a comprehensive safeguard measure against torture in all our prisons and detention facilities.”
“China is firmly against torture and would never allow torture to be used on ethnic groups, religious believers or other groups,” Song said.
Louis-Martin Aumais, speaking for Canada, had asked that China follow recommendations of the Committee Against Torture, particularly on the inadmissibility in court of statements obtained through torture. He also asked that China ensure fundamental legal rights for those detained on state security charges, including access to counsel, public trial and sentencing and eligibility for parole.
Australian representative Caroline Millar welcomed improvements in China over the past 30 years but expressed concern over “reports of harassment, arbitrary arrest, punishment and detention of religious and ethnic minorities.”
Li Baodong, ambassador and permanent representative of China at the United Nations, said that 50 government departments were working on a national human rights plan to be implemented this year and in 2010.
Rights groups such as CAA and Human Rights Watch stated that a summary of reports submitted for the review omitted documented details of serious human rights abuses, including the treatment of Christians and other minority groups. Omitted documentation that Non-Governmental Organizations had submitted included evidence of mistreatment of Christians, Tibetan and Uyghur minority groups and human rights defenders.
Harassment of house church Christians increased significantly last year, according to a CAA report released on Feb. 5. A total of 2,027 Christians were affected in incidents reported to CAA in 2008, compared with 788 people in 2007. Of the 2008 total, 764 Christians were arrested and detained, most for brief periods, and 35 were sentenced to prison terms or re-education through labor.
In Beijing, the total number of people persecuted was 539, up 418 percent from the 104 reported in 2007, CAA said.
“This is not hard to understand, because whenever the government holds important social events, serious suppression is implemented to maintain the appearance of stability through spreading fear among people,” the report states. “Beside the factor of the Olympic Games, we cannot ignore that the persecution of Christianity and of some other religions serves as an essential policy of the atheist Chinese Communist government.”
Local governments in China last year reported on continued measures to prevent “illegal” religious gatherings and curb other criminalized religious activities, according to reports from the U.S. Congressional Executive Commission on China (CECC) on Dec. 20 and Feb. 2. The commission consists of nine senators, nine house representatives, and five senior administration officials appointed by the U.S. president.
From information provided on a local government website, the CECC learned that authorities in Hechuan district, Chongqing municipality last October had launched a six-month campaign to root out “illegal venues for worship.” Authorities were concerned about “anti-Chinese political forces” using Christianity to “infiltrate the area” and outlined a five-point plan to address illegal worship sites, including the “transformation through re-education” of Protestant members of unauthorized meeting places.
A website of the Wuhan municipal government in Hunan province described draft legislation aimed at curbing freedom of worship in private homes; the new law would permit only immediate family members to take part in such gatherings.
The United Front Work Department in Fuzhou city, Jiangxi province, responsible for the oversight of religious communities, reported last year that work to “transform and expand the patriotism of underground Catholic forces” was a key objective, as these forces were exerting a negative impact on the city, according to the CECC. The Fuzhou department report also expressed concern about unauthorized Protestant preaching.
A Xinjiang government website also detailed a campaign to educate children and young people against ethnic separatism and illegal religious activities, according to the CECC.
Evidence from these sources concurred with reports from watch groups such as CAA regarding the closure of house churches, detention of house church members and harassment of house church leaders, the commission said.
Arrests on ‘State Security’ Charges
In Xinjiang, Uyghur Christians Alimjan Yimit (Alimujiang Yimit in Chinese) and Osman Imin (Wusiman Yaming in Chinese) both detained on state security charges, remain behind bars – one sentenced, the other still waiting for a trial date.
In a closed trial in September 2007, the Xinjiang State Security Bureau (SSB) had sentenced Osman to two years of re-education through labor for “revealing state secrets” and “illegal proselytizing.” Associates, however, said he knew nothing about state matters and was arrested for being an outspoken Christian and a leader in the Uyghur church.
Officials had called for a 10-15 year criminal sentence, but after international media attention they significantly reduced the term.
Xinjiang court officials returned Alimjan’s case to state prosecutors in May last year, citing lack of evidence on charges of “inciting secessionist sentiment” and “collecting and selling intelligence for overseas organizations.” State prosecutors returned the case to court officials in mid-October for reconsideration.
During Alimjan’s employment with two foreign-owned companies, SSB officials regularly called him in for interrogation, forbidding him to discuss the questioning with anyone. In September 2007, they closed the business Alimjan worked for and accused him of using it as a cover for “preaching Christianity among people of Uyghur ethnicity.”
Officials have since denied regular visits from lawyers or family members and threatened to hand down a sentence ranging from six years in prison to execution.
Lawyers had hoped for an early acquittal for Alimjan based on unfair treatment due to his Christian beliefs, but a lengthy bureaucratic process has dimmed these hopes.
Report from Compass Direct News
TSPM offers Bibles and “assistance,” but rights groups say efforts fall short.
DUBLIN, December 9 (Compass Direct News) – In recent months Chinese officials have attempted to build bridges with the Protestant house church movement even as police raided more unregistered congregations, arrested Christian leaders and forced at least 400 college students to swear they would stop attending such worship services.
With rights groups saying more effort is needed to address rights abuses and secure full religious freedom for Chinese Christians, two research institutes – one from the government – organized an unprecedented symposium on Nov. 21-22 that concluded with an agreement for house church leaders to begin a dialogue with government officials.
A delegation of six house church leaders from Beijing, Henan and Wenzhou provinces attended the seminar, entitled, “Christianity and Social Harmony: A Seminar on the Issue of Chinese House Churches,” along with scholars and experts from universities and independent research facilities. Members of the Minorities Development Research Institute, a branch of the China State Council’s Research and Development Centre, and the Beijing Pacific Solutions Social Science Research Institute co-hosted it.
In a report summarizing the forum, Beijing house church representative Liu Tong Su said that China’s religious institutions and regulations were clearly outdated and inadequate to meet the needs of the church.
At the conclusion of the meeting, house church delegates agreed to dialogue with the government, Liu said, though he insisted, “Only God can control the spirituality of faith. No worldly authorities have the right to control a man’s spirit.”
The government has been entrusted by God with the authority to maintain external public order, Liu added.
“If the government can limit its governing territory to areas of maintaining public order in external conduct, then according to the teachings of the Bible, the house church will definitely obey those in authority within the boundary that God has set,” he said.
Experts presented reports on the rapid development of house church networks, including the number of Christians, geographical distribution, cultural and ethnic make-up and connection with foreign Christians, according to the Gospel Herald.
A month earlier, the chairman of the Three-Self Patriotic Movement (TSPM) – responsible along with the China Christian Council (CCC) for overseeing China’s Protestant churches – told a gathering of 200 Hong Kong church leaders of his desire to assist Chinese house churches and provide them with Bibles, according to Ecumenical News International (ENI).
At the Oct. 22 conference entitled, “Chinese Church – New Leaders, New Challenges,” TSPM Chairman Fu Xianwei declared, “For those house churches without registration, we will try our best to be with them, to recognize them and to help them, so long as they have an orthodox faith, don’t stray from the truth and don’t follow heretics.”
Fu and 11 other members of the newly-elected leadership team of the CCC/TSPM also said they were willing to provide house churches with Bibles, ENI reported.
Bible distribution is largely the responsibility of Amity Press, China’s only official Bible printing company, which recently announced its intention to place more Bibles in the hands of rural Christians. Daniel Willis, CEO of the Bible Society in New South Wales (NSW), Australia, launched an appeal on Nov. 12 to support Amity in this goal.
Speaking at the launch, Willis asserted, “Smuggling Bibles into China places Chinese Christians at risk, and now with the new Amity Press operational in Nanjing, smuggling is a waste of resources.”
Amity opened a new multimillion dollar printing facility in May with a capacity to print 12 million Bibles per year. Most of those Bibles are printed in foreign languages for export outside China.
“China is experiencing a great freedom of worship,” Willis added. “With this wonderful change the church is spreading rapidly … Each Chinese Christian would like to experience the joy … that owning their own Bible brings – but unfortunately for many, obtaining a Bible is difficult and often out of their reach financially.”
The China Aid Association (CAA) issued a statement on Nov. 20 that Amity did not produce enough Bibles to meet the vast needs of the church in China or to replace lost or worn copies. It also pointed out that distribution was still strictly limited to government-approved channels.
Earlier this year, the Rev. Dr. Chow Lien-Hwa, vice-chairman of the board of Amity Press, stated in an interview with the NSW Bible Society that Amity was printing 3 million Bibles per year for mainland China. Chow also outlined a plan to allow Bible distribution through a chain of government bookshops and claimed that house church Christians could buy Bibles from TSPM churches without having to provide personal identity information.
Pastors from both house churches and official TSPM congregations have reported to Compass a shortage of Bibles and other Christian materials in Beijing, the northwest, the northeast, and the southwest. Church growth in tribal areas also has created an urgent need for Bibles in minority languages.
Raids, Arrests Continue
Rights groups pointed to recent raids and arrests, however, as confirmation that Chinese authorities still restrict freedom of worship for local house church Christians.
Police raided a house church gathering in Tai Kang county, Henan province on Dec. 3 and arrested all 50 Christians, CAA reported on Thursday (Dec. 4). Public Security Bureau officers also raided another gathering of 50 house church believers in Xiji town, Zaozhuang city, Shandong province on Dec. 2, arresting 20 Christian leaders and demanding a fine of 2,500 yuan (US$365) per person to secure their release.
CAA also confirmed that police carried out multiple raids on house church gatherings in Beijing and in areas near college campuses in Hangzhou, Zhejiang province, from late September to early November, detaining leaders of the Local Church house church network. Four leaders in Zhejiang were sentenced to labor camp for 12 to 18 months.
Officers also arrested at least 400 Christian college students. After intense questioning, police forced each student to write a statement of repentance agreeing to forsake such gatherings.
Commenting on reports of persecution in China, Chow of Amity Press claimed victims were not true Chinese citizens, but Chinese with foreign citizenship who had entered China to carry out illegal activities.
“When we go to another country we must be law-abiding citizens of that country,” Chow insisted. “The law, whether you like it or not, says you can only preach in the churches, you cannot go on the street.”
Some house churches are actively seeking registration with authorities to avoid arrests and inconveniences, ENI reported in October. Such groups, however, prefer to register outside the CCC/TSPM structure, disagreeing that different Protestant beliefs can be reconciled under the TSPM as a self-described “post-denominational” umbrella organization.
House church members also object to the TSPM’s interference in congregational practices, according toe the U.S. State Department’s International Religious Freedom Report 2008. The report notes that many unregistered evangelical Protestant groups refuse to register with TSPM due to theological differences, fear of adverse consequences if they reveal names and addresses of church leaders or members, or fear that it will control sermon content.
Released from Prison
Responding to international pressure, officials on Dec. 2 released house church pastor Zhu Baoguo of Henan province, citing medical reasons. Authorities had raided a house church gathering on Oct. 12, arresting Zhu and four other leaders, before sentencing Zhu on Oct. 30 to one year in labor camp, CAA reported.
Officials also released house church pastor Wang Weiliang from prison on Nov. 25 for medical reasons, according to CAA. Authorities sentenced Wang to three years in prison in December 2006 for protesting the July 2006 destruction of Dangshanwan Christian church in Xiaoshan, Zhejiang province. Seven other believers were arrested at the time; authorities have released all but one, who remains in detention in Hangzhou.
A Breakthrough for China’s House Churches?
At last month’s symposium on Chinese house churches, officials from government research organs, scholars from government think-tanks and universities, independent researchers and an unprecedented delegation of six house church leaders from Beijing, Henan and Wenzhou attended.
At the groundbreaking conference, sponsored by the Minorities Development Research Institute of the China State Council’s Research and Development Center and the Beijing Pacific Solutions Social Science Research Institute and entitled, “Christianity and Social Harmony: A Seminar on the Issue of the Chinese House Churches,” participants discussed every aspect of the house church movement in China.
Statistics were a key issue, with most agreeing that the number of house church members was vast and rapidly increasing. Estimates ranged from 50 million to 100 million members of Protestant house churches, as compared with approximately 20 million members of registered Protestant churches.
Delegates were surprisingly bold in their discussion and criticism of China’s religious policy, and several put forward practical plans for the abolition of institutions such as the State Administration for Religious Affairs (formerly the Religious Affairs Bureau) and the Protestant Three-Self Patriotic Movement.
They also called for serious and ongoing discussions between the government and house churches, and Christian leaders called for the lifting of a ban on house churches and a review of restrictions on church registration and appointment of pastors.
Many participants agreed that the democratic management of house churches in accordance with the rule of law was a logical step to bring religious policies into line with China’s open-door economic policies.
While certain sectors of leadership may welcome these suggestions, others entrenched in the atheist system of the Communist Party were expected to balk at such reforms.
Report from Compass Direct News