Anti-Christian Sentiment Heats Up


Terrorist threat in Iraq emerges at importune moment for Copts.

CAIRO, Egypt, November 22 (CDN) — As bombings and other attacks continue against Christians in Iraq, Christians in Egypt have gathered to pray and plan for their own safety.

When a group of Islamic extremists on Oct. 31 burst into Our Lady of Salvation church in Baghdad during evening mass and began spraying the sanctuary with gunfire, the militant organization that took responsibility said Christians in Egypt also would be targeted if its demands were not met. Taking more than 100 congregants hostage, the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI) called a television station and stated that the assault came in response to the Coptic Orthodox Church in Egypt allegedly holding two Coptic women against their will who, the ISI and some others believe, converted to Islam.

The group issued a 48-hour deadline for the release of the women, and when the deadline passed it issued a statement that, “All Christian centers, organizations and institutions, leaders and followers are legitimate targets for the muhajedeen [Muslim fighters] wherever they can reach them.” The statement later added ominously, “We will open upon them the doors of destruction and rivers of blood.”

In the attack and rescue attempt that followed, 58 people were reportedly killed. A week and a half later, Islamic extremists killed four people in a series of coordinated attacks against Christians in Baghdad and its surrounding suburbs. The attackers launched mortar rounds and planted makeshift bombs outside Christian homes and one church. At least one attack was made against the family members of one of the victims of the original attack.

On Nov. 15, gunmen entered two Christian homes in Mosul and killed two men in the house. The next day, a Christian and his 6-year-old daughter were killed in a car bombing. At the same time, another bomb exploded outside the home of a Christian, damaging the house but leaving the residents uninjured, according to CNN.

The threats against Christians caused a flurry of activity at churches in Egypt. A 35-year-old Protestant who declined to give her name said Christians in Cairo have unified in prayer meetings about the threats. An SMS text message was sent out through prayer networks asking people to meet, she said.

“I know people are praying now,” she said. “We have times for our people to pray, so all of us are praying.”

Security has increased at churches throughout Egypt. In Cairo, where the presence of white-uniformed security police is ubiquitous, the number of uniformed and plain-clothes officers has doubled at churches. High-ranking police officers shuffle from one house of worship to another monitoring subordinates and enforcing new security rules. At times, parking on the same side of the street as a church building, or even driving by one, has been forbidden.

On Nov. 8, leaders from the Anglican, Catholic and Orthodox churches gathered to discuss how to improve security at churches. According to the leaders of several churches, the government asked pastors to cancel unessential large-scale public meetings. Pope Shenouda III canceled a celebration to commemorate the 39th anniversary of his installment as the leader of the Coptic Orthodox Church. Guests at a recent outdoor Christmas bazaar and a subsequent festival at the All-Saints Cathedral in Zamalek
were greeted with pat-downs, metal detectors and bomb-sniffing dogs.

Some church leaders, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the security improvements are haphazard, while others say they are genuine efforts to ensure the safety of Christians.

Most Christians in Cairo avoided answering any questions about the attacks in Iraq or the threats made against Christians in Egypt. But Deliah el-Sowkary, a Coptic Orthodox woman in her 20s, said she hoped no attacks would happen in her country. Noting the security present at all churches, still she said she is not that worried.

“I think it’s different in Egypt than in Baghdad, it’s more safe here,” El-Sowkary said.

Almost a week after the bombings, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak issued a statement through the state-run MENA news agency that the Copts would be protected from attacks.

“The president affirmed his extensive solicitude for the protection of the nation’s sons, Muslims and Copts, from the forces of terrorism and extremism,” the agency stated.

 

Pressure Cooker

The security concerns came against a backdrop of heightened tensions between the Muslim majority and the Coptic Christian minority over the past few months, with weeks of protests against Christians in general and against Shenouda specifically. The protests, held mostly in Alexandria, ended two weeks ago.

The tension started after the wife of a Coptic priest, Camilia Zakher, disappeared in July. According to government sources and published media reports, Zakher left her home after a heated argument with her husband. But Coptic protestors, who started gathering to protest at churches after Zakher disappeared, claimed she had been kidnapped and forced to convert to Islam.

Soon after, Egypt’s State Security Intelligence (SSI) officers found her at the home of a friend. Despite stating she had left of her own free will, authorities brought Zakher back to her husband. Since then, Zakher has been in seclusion. It is unclear where she is or if she remains there of her own free will.

Unconfirmed rumors began spreading that Zakher had converted to Islam and was being held against her will to force her to return to Christianity. Protests outside mosques after Friday prayers became weekly events. Protestors produced a photo of unknown origin of a woman in Islamic covering whom they claimed was Zakher. In response, Coptic authorities released a video in which the priest’s wife stated that she wasn’t a Muslim nor ever had been.

Another rumor began circulating that Zakher went to Al-Azhar University, one of the primary centers of Islamic learning in the world, to convert to Islam. But Al-Azhar, located in Cairo, released a statement that no such thing ever happened.

No independent media interviews of Zakher have taken place because, according to the Coptic Church, the SSI has ordered church officials not to allow public access to her. Along with their accusations about Zakher, protestors also claimed, without evidence, that a similar thing happened in 2004 to Wafa Constantine, also the wife of a Coptic Orthodox priest. Constantine was the second woman the ISI demanded the Copts “release.” Like Zakher, her location is not public knowledge.

The month after the Zakher incident, Egyptian media reported in error that the SSI had seized a ship from Israel laden with explosives headed for the son of an official of the Coptic Orthodox church. The ship was later found to be carrying fireworks, but another set of Islamic leaders, led in part by Nabih Al-Wahsh, an attorney famous for filing lawsuits designed to damage the church, declared without any evidence that Copts were allied with the Israelis and stockpiling weapons in the basements
of their churches with plans to overthrow the Muslim majority.

The claims were echoed on Al-Jazeera by Dr. Muhammad Salim Al-’Awa, the former secretary-general of the International Union of Muslim Scholars, and in a statement issued by the Front of Religious Scholars, a group of academics affiliated with Al-Azhar University.

There was no time for tensions to cool after Al-’Awa and the others leveled their allegations. The next month, Bishop Anba Bishoy, the secretary of the Synod of the Coptic Orthodox Church, told the Egyptian newspaper Al-Masri Al-Yawm that Muslims were “guests” in Egypt, inflaming a Muslim population already up in arms.

“The Copts are the root of the land,” the bishop said. “We love the guests who came and settled in our land, and regard them as brothers, but they want to control even our churches? I reject anything that harms the Muslims, but as Christians we will do everything, even die as martyrs, if someone tries to harm our Christian mission.”

Around the same time, the Front of Religious Scholars called for a complete boycott of Christians in Egypt. The group called Christians “immoral,” labeled them “terrorists” and said Muslims should not patronize their businesses or even say “hello” to them.

The statement by the scholars was followed by a media leak about a lecture Bishoy was scheduled to give at a conference for Orthodox clergy. In his presentation, Bishoy planned on questioning the authorship of a verse in the Quran that calls Christians “blasphemers.” Muslims believe that an angel revealed the Quran to Muhammad, Islam’s prophet, who transmitted it word-by-word to his followers. Bishoy contended there was a possibility the verse in question was added later.

The mosque protests became even more virulent, and the conference was abruptly cancelled. Bishoy was forced to issue an apology, saying he never meant to cast doubt on Islam and called Muslims “partners” with the Copts in Egypt. Shenouda also issued an apology on national television. By comparison, an Islamic publishing house that rewrote and then issued what it termed the “true Bible” caused barely a stir.

Al-’Awa then blamed the deteriorating state of Muslim-Christian relations on Shenouda and Bishoy. He accused the Coptic Orthodox Church of exploiting the government’s “weak stance” toward it and “incarcerating anyone [who] is not to its liking.”

The Al-Azhar Academy of Islamic Research issued a statement that declared, “Egypt is a Muslim state.” The statement further went on to read that the Christians’ rights were contingent on their acceptance of the “Islamic identity” of Egypt. The statement was endorsed by Ali Gum’a, the mufti of Egypt.

The statement also referenced an agreement made between Muhammad and a community of Egyptian Christians in the seventh century as the guiding document on how Christians should be governed in a Muslim-dominated state. If ever codified into Egyptian law as many Muslims in Egypt desire, it would legally cement the status of Christians in the country as second-class citizens.

In 639, seven years after Muhammad died, Muslim armies rode across from Syria and Palestine and invaded Egypt, then controlled by the Byzantines. At first the Muslims, then a new but well-armed minority within Egypt, treated the conquered Christians relatively well by seventh century standards. But within a generation, they began the Islamization of the country, demanding all official business be conducted in Arabic, the language of the Quran, and Coptic and Jewish residents were forced to pay special taxes and obey rules designed to reaffirm their second-class status.

In the centuries since then, the treatment of Christians in Egypt has ebbed and flowed depending on the whim of those in power. After the coup of 1952, in which a group of men known as the Free Officers’ Movement took power from a European-backed monarch, Copts have seen their treatment decline.

In 1971, then-President Anwar Sadat introduced a new constitution designating Islamic law as “a principle source of legislation” in Egypt. In 1980, the National Assembly made Islam the official religion of the state.

Estimates of the Coptic population range from 7 to 12 percent of Egypt’s 84 million people. They are accepted by some in Egypt and openly discriminated against by others. Violent attacks against Christians – which the government does little to prevent – accentuate tensions.

The state also routinely harasses converts to Christianity from Islam. Many have to live in some sort of hiding.

The Protestant woman said she was not sure whether attacks would happen in response to the threats, but whatever happens, she said she expects that Christians in Egypt will continue to endure persecution.

“According to the Bible, we know this is going to happen,” she said. “This is not new or novel for us. The Bible said that we will be persecuted. It is expected.”

Report from Compass Direct News

Christians in Turkey Acquitted of ‘Insulting Turkishness’


But court heavily fines them for dubious conviction of collecting personal data.

ISTANBUL, October 19 (CDN) — After four years of legal battle in a Turkish court, a judge acquitted two Christians of insulting Turkey and its people by spreading Christianity, but not without slapping them with a hefty fine for a spurious charge.

Four years ago this month, Turan Topal, 50, and Hakan Tastan, 41, started a legal battle after gendarmerie officers produced false witnesses to accuse them of spreading their faith and allegedly “insulting Turkishness, the military and Islam.”

At the Silivri court an hour west of Istanbul, Judge Hayrettin Sevim on Thursday (Oct. 14) acquitted the defendants of two charges that they had insulted the Turkish state (Article 301) and that they had insulted its people (Article 216) by spreading Christianity. Sevim cited lack of evidence.

He found them guilty, however, of collecting information on citizens without permission (Article 135) and sentenced them to seven months of imprisonment each. The court ruled that the two men could each pay a 4,500 lira (US$3,170) fine instead of serving time, said their lawyer Haydar Polat.

Tastan expressed mixed feelings about the verdicts.

“For both Turan and I, being found innocent from the accusation that we insulted the Turkish people was the most important thing for us, because we’ve always said we’re proud to be Turks,” Tastan said by telephone. “But it is unjust that they are sentencing us for collecting people’s information.”

At the time of their arrests, Topal and Tastan were volunteers with The Bible Research Center, which has since acquired official association status and is now called The Association for Propagating Knowledge of the Bible. The two men had used contact information that individuals interested in Christianity had volunteered to provide on the association’s website.

Administrators of the association stated openly to local authorities that their goal was to disseminate information about Christianity.

The two men and their lawyer said they will be ready to appeal the unjust decision of the court when they have seen the official statement, which the court should issue within a month. Polat said the appeal process will take over a year.

“Why should we have to continue the legal battle and appeal this?” asked Tastan. “We are not responsible for the information that was collected. So why are they fining us for this? So, we continue our legal adventure.”

Still, he expressed qualified happiness.

“We are free from the charges that we have insulted the Turkish state and the people of Turkey and we’re glad for that, but we are sorry about the court’s sentence,” Tastan said. “We’re happy on one hand, and sorry on the other.”

The court hearing lasted just a few minutes, said Polat.

“The judges came to the court hearing ready with their decision,” Polat said. “Their file was complete, and there was neither other evidence nor witnesses.”

Polat was hesitant to comment on whether the decision to convict the men of collecting private data without permission was because they are Christians. He did underline, however, that the court’s decision to fine the men was unjust, and that they plan to appeal it after the court issues an official written verdict.

“This was the court’s decision,” said Polat, “but we believe this is not fair. This decision is inconsistent with the law.”

 

Christianity on Trial

The initial charges in 2006 against Tastan and Topal were based on “a warning telephone call to the gendarme” claiming that some Christian missionaries were trying to form illegal groups in local schools and making insults against Turkishness, the military and Islam.

In March 2009 the Turkish Ministry of Justice issued a statement claiming that approval to try the two men’s case under the controversial Article 301came in response to the “original” statement by three young men that Topal and Tastan were conducting missionary activities in an effort to show that Islam was a primitive and fictitious religion that results in terrorism, and to portray Turks as a “cursed people.”

Two of the three witnesses, however, stated in court that they didn’t even know Topal and Tastan. The third witness never appeared in court. Prosecutors were unable to produce any evidence indicating the defendants described Islam in these terms. At the same time, they questioned their right to speak openly about Christianity with others.

Polat and his legal partners had based their defense on the premise that Turkey’s constitution grants all citizens freedom to choose, be educated in and communicate their religion, making missionary activities legal.

“This is the point that really needs to be understood,” Polat told Compass last year. “In Turkey, constitutionally speaking, it is not a crime to be a Christian or to disseminate the Christian faith. However, in reality there have been problems.”

The lawyer and the defendants said that prosecuting lawyers gave political dimensions to the case by rendering baseless accusations in a nationalistic light, claiming that missionary activities were carried out by imperialistic countries intending to harm Turkey.

Tastan and Topal became Christians more than 15 years ago and changed their religious identity from Muslim to Christian on their official ID cards.

Initially accompanied by heavy media hype, the case had been led by ultranationalist attorney Kemal Kerincsiz and a team of six other lawyers. Kerincsiz had filed or inspired dozens of Article 301 court cases against writers and intellectuals he accused of insulting the Turkish nation and Islam.

Because of Kerincsiz’s high-level national profile, the first few hearings drew several hundred young nationalist protestors surrounding the Silivri courthouse, under the eye of dozens of armed police. But the case has attracted almost no press attention since Kerincsiz was jailed in January 2008 as a suspect in the overarching conspiracy trials over Ergenekon, a “deep state” operation to destabilize the government led by a cabal of retired generals, politicians and other key figures. The lawyer is accused of an active role in the alleged Ergenekon plot to discredit and overthrow Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party government.

Ergenekon has been implicated in the cases of murdered priest Andreas Santoro, Armenian editor Hrant Dink, and the three Christians in Malatya: Necati Aydin, Ugur Yuksel and Tilmann Geske.

In a separate case, in March of 2009 Tastan and Topal were charged with “illegal collection of funds.” Each paid a fine of 600 Turkish lira (US$360) to a civil court in Istanbul. The verdict could not be appealed in the Turkish legal courts. This ruling referred to the men receiving church offerings without official permission from local authorities.

Report from Compass Direct News

Church ministry in Syria treads carefully after shut down


The spiritual climate in Syria is a changing one. While Syria’s Christian minority is generally respected, conversions to Christianity from Islam are rare and sometimes met with opposition, reports MNN.

Voice of the Martyrs reports that evangelizing is legal, but visas are not granted for missionary work. And while there is freedom to worship, any activity that could threaten communal harmony is suspect, making it difficult to spread the Gospel.

Despite the challenges, Reach Global in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) began in 2008. The team working in the area is focused on holistic ministry: meeting physical and emotional needs as well as the spiritual needs of an individual.

They have been working together with churches, national partners, and collaborating with like-minded ministry organizations in order to reach the Syrians with the hope of Christ, and there has been success. A church has been planted.

This June however, the Syrian government closed the doors of that evangelical church. The group is still hoping to meet for worship and Bible study, but they are praying for wisdom and discernment on how to do that and still remain within the law.

Report from the Christian Telegraph

Messianic Jews in Israel Seek Public Apology for Attack


Christians await court decision on assaults on services by ultra-orthodox Jews.

ISTANBUL, April 23 (CDN) — After a final court hearing in Israel last week, a church of Messianic Jews awaits a judge’s decision that could force an ultra-orthodox Jewish  organization to publicly apologize to them for starting a riot and ransacking a baptismal service.

A ruling in favor of the Christian group would mark the first time an organization opposing Messianic Jews in Israel has had to apologize to its victims for religious persecution.

In 2006 Howard Bass, pastor of Yeshua’s Inheritance church, filed suit against Yehuda Deri, chief Sephardic rabbi in the city of Beer Sheva, and Yad L’Achim, an organization that fights against Messianic Jews, for allegedly inciting a riot at a December 2005 service that Bass was leading.

Bass has demanded either a public apology for the attack or 1.5 million shekels (US$401,040) from the rabbi and Yad L’Achim.

The case, Bass said, was ultimately about “defending the name of Yeshua [Jesus]” and making sure that Deri, the leadership of Yad L’Achim and those that support them know they have to obey the law and respect the right of people to worship.

“They are trying to get away from having any responsibility,” Bass said.

On Dec. 24, 2005, during a baptismal service in Beer Sheva, a group of about 200 men pushed their way into a small, covered structure being used to baptize two believers and tried to stop the service. Police were called to the scene but could not control the crowd.

Once inside the building, the assailants tossed patio chairs, damaged audiovisual equipment, threw a grill and other items into a baptismal pool, and then pushed Bass into the pool and broke his glasses.

“Their actions were violent actions without regard [for injury],” Bass said.

In the days before the riot, Yad L’Achim had issued notices to people about a “mass baptism” scheduled to take place at the facility in the sprawling city of 531,000 people 51 miles (83 kilometers) southwest of Jerusalem. In the days after the riot, Deri bragged about the incident on a radio talk show, including a boast that Bass had been “baptized” at the gathering.

The 2005 incident wasn’t the first time the church had to deal with a riotous attack after Yad L’Achim disseminated false information about their activities. On Nov. 28, 1998, a crowd of roughly 1,000 protestors broke up a Yeshua’s Inheritance service after the anti-Christian group spread a rumor that three busloads of kidnapped Jewish minors were being brought in for baptism. The assailants threw rocks, spit on parishioners and attempted to seize some of their children, Bass said.

In response to the 1998 attack and to what Bass described as a public, cavalier attitude about the 2005 attack, Bass and others in the Messianic community agreed that he needed to take legal action.

“What is happening here has happened to Jews throughout the centuries,” Bass said about persecution of Messianic Jews in Israel, adding that many in movements opposed to Messianic Jews in Israel are “arrogant.” He compared their attitudes to the attitudes that those in Hamas, a Palestinian group dedicated to the destruction of the State of Israel, have toward Israelis in general.

“They say, ‘Recognize us, but we will never recognize you,’” Bass said.

Long Battle

Bass has fought against the leadership of Yad L’Achim and Deri for four years through his attorneys, Marvin Kramer and Kevork Nalbandian. But throughout the process, Kramer said, the two defendants have refused to offer a genuine apology for the misinformation that led to the 2005 riot or for the riot itself.

Kramer said Bass’s legal team would offer language for an acceptable public apology, and attorneys for the defendants in turn would offer language that amounted to no real apology at all.

“We made several attempts to make a compromise, but we couldn’t do it,” Kramer said.  “What we were really looking for was a public apology, and they weren’t ready to give a public apology. If we would have gotten the public apology, we would have dropped the lawsuit at any point.”

Despite several attempts to reach Yad L’Achim officials at both their U.S. and Israeli offices, no one would comment.

The hearing on April 15 was the final chance the parties had to come to an agreement; the judge has 30 days to give a ruling. His decision will be issued by mail.

Kramer declined to speculate on what the outcome of the case will be, but he said he had “proved what we needed to prove to be successful.”

Belief in Israel

Bass said he is a strong supporter of Israel but is critical of the way Messianic Jews are treated in the country.

“Israel opposes the gospel, and these events show this to be true,” he said. Referring to Israel, Bass paraphrased Stephen, one of Christianity’s early martyrs, “‘You always resist the Spirit of God.’ What Stephen said was true.”

Kramer said that the lawsuit is not against the State of Israel or the Jewish people, but rather for freedom of religion.

“It has to do with a violation of rights of individuals to worship in accordance with the basic tenants of their faith and to practice their faith in accordance with their beliefs in accordance with law,” he said.

Terrorist Organization?

Bass’ lawsuit is just one of many legal troubles Yad L’Achim is facing. In February, the Jerusalem Institute of Justice (JIJ), a civil rights advocacy group, filed a petition asking Attorney General Yehuda Weinstein to declare Yad L’Achim a terrorist organization and order that it be dismantled.

In the 24-page document Caleb Myers, an attorney for JIJ, outlined numerous incidences in which Yad L’Achim or those linked with it had “incited hatred, racism, violence and terror.” The document cited instances of persecution against Christians, as well as kidnappings of Jewish women from their Arab partners.

“Israel is a ‘Jewish and democratic’ state, while the actions of Yad L’Achim are not consistent with either the noble values of Judaism or the values of democracy,” the petition read. “Not to mention the fact that it is a country that arose on the ashes of a people that was persecuted for its religion, and has resolved since its establishment to bear the standard of full equality, without discrimination on the basis of gender, race, religion or nationality.”

According to the document, Yad L’Achim went after people it viewed as enemies of ultra-orthodox Judaism. The group particularly targeted Messianic Jews and other Christians.

“Yad L’Achim refers to ‘missionary activity’ as if it was the worst of criminal offenses and often arouses fear of this activity,” the document read. “It should be noted that in the State of Israel there is no prohibition against ‘missionary activity’ as the dissemination of religion and/or faith among members of other religions/faiths, unless such activity solicits religious conversion, as stated in various sections of the Penal Code, which bans the solicitation of religious conversion among minors, or among adults by offering bribes. Furthermore, the organization often presents anyone belonging to the Christian religion, in all its forms, as a ‘missionary,’ even if he does not work to spread his religion.”

Particularly damning in the document was reported testimony gleaned from Jack Teitel. Teitel, accused of planting a bomb on March 20, 2008 that almost killed the teenage son of a Messianic Jewish pastor, told authorities that he worked with Yad L’Achim.

“He was asked to talk about his activity in Yad L’Achim and related that for some five years he was active in the organization, and on average he helped to rescue about five women each year,” the document read, using the Yad L’Achim term “rescue” to refer to kidnapping.

The 2008 bombing severely injured Ami Ortiz, then 15, but after 20 months he had largely recovered.

Teitel, who said Ortiz family members were “missionaries trying to capture weak Jews,” has been indicted on two cases of pre-meditated murder, three cases of attempted murder, carrying a weapon, manufacturing a weapon, possession of illegal weapons and incitement to commit violence.

In interviews with the Israeli media, Yad L’Achim Chairman Rabbi Shalom Dov Lifshitz said his organization wasn’t connected with the attacks of the Ortiz family or with Teitel.

Report from Compass Direct News

Karen Christians pressed between Thailand and Myanmar


The Thai government and local military leaders want to force Karen Christians back into Myanmar, and they’re willing to use military force to clear refugee camps within the next two weeks, reports MNN.

The camps are full because the Burmese army is wiping out the Karen. Wes Flint with Vision Beyond Borders says, "I’m shocked that the free world is just allowing this to continue."

The ruling junta has been battling Christian-majority Karen rebels for decades. Similar army crackdowns forced thousands of villagers to flee their homes, and they found their way across the border to Thailand’s refugee camps.

Many of the more-recently displaced were forced to hide in the Burma jungle.

Human rights groups protested the Thai plan to repatriate the refugees in Burma over concern that once back in Myanmar, the refugees will be subject to "severe human rights violations, including forced labour and rape by soldiers of the Burma Army," according to a leader at Christian Solidarity Worldwide.

No one expects the situation to improve, but VBB teams are trying to intervene. "We try to create a safe environment for them, to bring them in, to provide food for them, and medical care."

VBB’s Patrick Klein wrote this from Myanmar: "Due to rice fields and crops being destroyed and attacks on villagers by the Burmese army, we have a group of 100 children who are in urgent need of food. They are on the brink of starvation. Currently they are in hiding with their parents inside Burma. Our caretaker in our Shekinah children’s home in one of the official refugee camps asked if we can help those children with food and get them out of Burma."

It’s dangerous work, but there are friends of the ministry who are trying to get those 100 children to the VBB camp in the mountains.

Klein says, "If we are able to get them out, we will build housing for them. The parents are ready to die and give whatever food they find to their children for now. Please pray with us that God will make a way for these children and help our attempts to get them safely into one of the camps where we have a Children’s Home."

The VBB team delivered 45 bags of rice and medicines to partners who will take all the supplies to the Internally Displaced People inside Burma–those hiding from the Burmese Army.

It’s hard to imagine what is going unnoticed in front of so many international eyes. Flint explains, "There’s what they would call an ‘ethnic cleansing’ going on, but it seems that most of their targets are Christians."

Does their identity as a Christian mark them as Karen–or possibly something more? Flint says, "This persecution has really refined them. They have been great ambassadors to reach out to the Buddhist community–even to those that are persecuting them."

Report from the Christian Telegraph 

25 years later, the Karen refugee crisis continues unabated


In 1984, the first wave of Myanmarese refugees fleeing from conflict began flooding across the border into Thailand, reports MNN.

25 years later, the crisis continues. Patrick Klein with Vision Beyond Borders says, "There are currently over 150,000 refugees that have come into Thailand from Burma. There are still more flooding across the border."

The persecution and violence seems to have government support. Many of the refugees are of the minority Karen people, who are among the most discriminated against in Burma. "One of the generals said, "By the year 2010, there will be no Karen people left. We’re going to wipe them off the face of the earth."

Is the campaign ethnic or faith-based? Klein says it’s a bit both. Many of the Karen are Christians. However, according to Voice of the Martyrs Canada, Buddhism is strongly entrenched in the Myanmarese majority; only about five percent of Christians in Burma are converts from Buddhism.

VOMC has more grim news. These Christians have been raped, tortured and murdered. In the aftermath of Cyclone Nargis, which devastated the country in early May 2008, Burmese authorities reportedly denied relief aid to several Christians.

The harassment is growing more blatant. In his last visit, Klein said he visited with a group of orphaned refugees. Myanmar junta soldiers had threatened to kill all of the children in the home, so the group fled in the middle of the night. All 86 children took refuge 150 yards away in Thailand.

Vision Beyond Borders works with several church partners and at least six orphanage programs in Myanmar. Many of these sprang to life as the result of the deadly Cyclone Nargis last year. Klein says, "Because of the compassion of the Christians reaching out to these refugees coming in, even the Buddhists now are coming to faith in Jesus Christ, so the Gospel is increasing."

Persecution will follow. "It seems like they’re trying to stamp out the church," explains Klein, adding, "They know that the number of Christians is growing. But it seems like whenever there’s real persecution, the church seems to grow."

Report from the Christian Telegraph 

Draft legislation in Russia might make evangelism impossible


A draft legislation introduced this month threatens to make evangelism nearly impossible in Russia. A date has not yet been released for further ruling on the law, but in the meantime, evangelicals express concern, reports MNN.

“Only religious groups that have been registered in Russia for at least 15 year will be allowed to engage in any evangelistic or missionary activity,” says Bob Provost of Slavic Gospel Association. “For example, if a North American church were to send a youth group over to help with a summer camp (which happens a lot), or if they were to send over a music group to help with evangelistic activity, it would not be allowed. Foreigners in Russia on a temporary visa would not be permitted.”

The legislation also outlaws indigenous churches from any missionary activity within hospitals, orphanages, or homes for the aged. Children, under the new legislation, will be prohibited from attending religious activities without specific permission by a parent or guardian. This part of the law, in particular, would devastate specific ministry opportunities.

“The single greatest evangelistic opportunity that the Church has there today comes at Christmas time when they’re able to hold Christmas events and invite children from the community,” explains Provost. “In many cases, parents and grandparents accompany their children to these meetings and find out that the lies that they’ve been hearing via the media or in the public schools against evangelical Christianity are not true.”

As if all of these restrictions were not limiting enough, the legislation forbids any “offers of material, social and other benefits,” leaving the range of prohibited activity almost completely open-ended.

If passed, anyone convicted of anything under this legislation (offering food to the poor, sharing the Gospel with a child, evangelizing on a short-term trip etc.) could be fined up to $517 USD. The Russian Union of Evangelical Christians-Baptists (RUECB) has responded to the absurdity of the open-endedness of the draft legislation, but it does not appear as though the government has not appeared to have made any movement.

With all of these objectives brewing, an explanation as to “why” is appropriate. But so far, there doesn’t appear to be substantial reasoning. Provost suggests that the legislation may be in defense of the Orthodox Church in Russia. Although the Baptist Church is not growing astronomically in Russia, it is growing and may well be considered a threat.

“It’s evident to me that president Putin, when he came into power, put the government’s arm around the Orthodox Church again in order to unify the country,” says Provost. As a result, “Any religion that starts to get in the way of the Orthodox Church is going to be considered a threat, and steps are being taken to remove it.”

Amid all of the concern, the Church continues to live on in Russia. “605 men have been set apart and are ready to be sent as missionaries all over the former Soviet Union. We’re praying for partners who would help us send them,” says Provost. “Nine out of ten communities are still waiting for a Gospel witness presence. In other words, nine out of ten communities have never had a Bible teaching church.”

The RUECB is asking churches in Russia to fast and pray that the legislation would not be passed in any of the stages toward becoming law. Please pray with them.

Slavic Gospel Association will continue their work in Russia and the former Soviet Union.

Report from the Christian Telegraph 

Hindu radicals threaten persecution; Christians start radio program


Hindu extremists in Nepal have threatened to use 1 million bombs against Christians in the country unless they stop sharing the Gospel and leave, Compass Direct reports.

The Nepal Defense Army’s statement, released shortly after the bombing of Nepal’s largest Roman Catholic church, gave “Nepal’s 1 million Christians a month’s time to stop their activities and leave the country,” reports MNN.

Most recent estimates by Voice of the Martyrs indicate that the number of Christians in the country may be closer to 500,000, or 1.89 percent of the population. These Christians are excited about significant movement toward democracy and more religious freedom in the last few years.

Ty Stakes with HCJB Global visited Nepal a month ago and said the Christians are standing firm.

“They’re very grateful for all that God has done over recent years to bring about a climate where there is a real push forward for freedom, where there is some religious liberty in the country,” he said. “So I don’t think anybody there is going to give up very easily. These are people who have been tried and tested and have learned to keep walking forward. God is doing some really big some stuff in Nepal, and the church is growing. People are really attracted to the Gospel.”

Christians in Nepal are establishing FM radio stations in two different towns — one near Kathmandu, the nation’s capital; and the other in a town in the center of the country. The idea for the stations was born around the year 2006 when the government began allowing private operation of radio stations.

“God had given some of our partners vision to do radio in the country, and they understood in their own hearts how great an impact could be made through it,” Stakes said.

Currently, the stations are test broadcasting for three hours a day. The community is already responding.

“I’m getting reports now from Nepal that folks are responding, that folks are saying ‘Hey, we’re interested in the new station; we want to know more about what you’re doing,'” Stakes related.

Christians will not be able to evangelize overtly on the air, but they will use the stations to plant churches.

“The climate in the area is such that you can’t be extremely bold and direct on the radio. You have to be wise,” Stakes said. “So most of our partners…are really church planters who are using radio as a way to create in the community an identity and to present a mechanism where they can serve the community.”

The stations air Christian music, secular music, and community service programming. The goal is to challenge and impact the community’s perception of Christians, presenting “an identity that shows perhaps that what you’ve heard about Christianity is not true. Maybe these Christians do care about people, and maybe they really do have something relevant to say,” Stakes explained.

Evangelism occurs off the airwaves, when people in churches and in church-planting follow up with those who respond to the radio broadcasts. Stakes asked for prayer as Nepalese Christians fine-tune the new radio stations.

“You can pray…that God would give these folks real wisdom in how to fine-tune their strategy in establishing their identity in the community,” Stakes said. “It’s a real delicate balance that they need to strike, and they need real wisdom from the Lord in order to effectively speak to the community and present their identity so that people will be attracted to the message of the cross.”

Report from the Christian Telegraph

HUMANITARIAN GROUPS WARN OF REFUGEE CRISIS LOOMING IN PAKISTAN


As Pakistan continues its press on the Taliban, thousands are fleeing the Swat Valley. A brief lull in the violence over the weekend saw many people loading their families and possessions into anything that moved in order to leave the area, reports MNN.

A “peace” pact with the Taliban broke down 11 days ago when security forces began an assault to push the militants back into their territory. The rebels, well-established in their stronghold, had begun to encroach upon Islamabad in a blatant grab for land and power.

The result when the two forces met was volatile. The government is now preparing for up to 500,000 internal refugees, the largest displacement crisis in Pakistan’s history.

Even when the refugees arrive at refugee camps, it’s not a guarantee of safety or comfort. Jacob Kramer is with the Christian Reformed World Relief Committee. He says,”These camps are now full. New places will have to be made in order to help them and have an opportunity to distribute the most essential things to maintain life.”

It’s hot, overcrowded, and there are inadequate sanitation facilities as well as a lack of electricity. Add to that: diseases and a lack of medical help, and the situation deteriorates quickly. Kramer says their teams are mobilizing. “We’ve been in contact with our partners, and they are trying to get a more detailed picture so that we can start with food and non-food responses to help the people.”

CRWRC reaches out in God’s name to people who are struggling with poverty, hunger, disaster, and injustice to help them find lasting ways to improve their lives.

The teams are the hands and feet of Christ in this horrific situation. Kramer urges people to “pray for the people, that God’s grace may abide with them and peace may return as soon as possible. This is a population which has been tormented from so many sides, so often, that they are highly-affected by trauma.”

Report from the Christian Telegraph

ONE KILLED, 11 INJURED IN PAKISTAN CHURCH ATTACK BY GUNMEN


As violence continues to spiral out of control in Pakistan, ANS has received news that indiscriminate firing by a group of Muslim men on congregants of a Presbyterian church in Gujranwala district on Monday, March 2, left a woman dead and 11 others injured, reports Dan Wooding and Sheraz Khurram Khan, special to ASSIST News Service.

Several Muslim men, identified as Amjad, Balal, Zeeshan, Azam and others whose identities could not be ascertained by ANS, opened fire on worshipping Christians at the Presbyterian Church in Songo, which is a town that is some 7 kilometers from Gujranwala city, a week after two Muslim men robbed a Christian resident of the area on gunpoint.

On February 25, two Muslim men intercepted a Christian man, Imran, on his way home and robbed him at gunpoint of 3,000 Pakistani Rupees ($37.3506 USD), a mobile phone and a wrist watch.

Bleeding, Imran, after going home, he then went to the local police station to report the incident. The matter was “resolved” after Muslim notables brokered reconciliation between Imran and the accused.

However, the patch-up proved short-lived, as several armed Muslims made forcible entry into several homes of Christians on March 2 and allegedly harassed and threatened Christians.

Another group of Muslims, who were carrying iron rods, clubs, and guns, entered into the church. They opened fire at the congregants. The culprits allegedly also smashed the windows of the church and desecrated Bibles. They removed the cross erected at the roof of the church and left the scene shouting at the Christians that they would face worse attacks if they did not leave the town.

Talking to ANS by phone, Pastor Patras of the Presbyterian church, said that moving the inured Christians to the local hospital was not without a struggle. Elaborating on this, he said the Muslims had blocked the road leading to hospital apparently to stop Christians from going to Gujranwala District Headquarter Hospital. He said they were eventually able to shift the injured to the hospital after police intervention.

”Police vehicles ferried the injured to the hospital,” he said.

Commenting on the death of Christian woman, Shakeela, who succumbed to her bullet injuries, Shahzad Kamran of the Sharing Life Ministry Pakistan (SLMP) called for her post-mortem.

He alleged that the police “are not taking any action to arrest assailants.”

Mr. Sohail Johnson, Chief Coordinator of SLMP, who visited the scene of incident, condemned what he called “a brutal attack” on Christians and urged prayer partners of the ministry to pray for protection of Pakistani Christians.

“Fundamentalist Muslims are targeting Christians as they cannot tolerate their existence in Pakistan,” he told ANS.

Pastor Patras claimed that the attitude of the nursing staff and medics at the government-run hospital was “callous and indifferent” toward the injured Christians. He said the gunmen had “exercised their influence over the hospital staff” after failing to “stop injured Christians from arriving at the hospital.”

“The medics at the DHQ Gujranwala asked us to take Shakeela to Lahore. It took us a long time to arrange an ambulance as we had no resources,” said Pastor Patras, who believes, Shakeela’s death could have been averted if multiple odds were not stacked against them.

Asked if the police had made any arrests, he said they arrested a couple of people but said “the real culprits are still scot-free.”

Pastor Patras described the situation as “extremely tense”, adding, “Fearing attacks, Christians have shut themselves in their houses. We are scared and are praying for our safety.”

He said Muslims had also attacked Christian residents of Kotli Sahvo, a village in Gujranwala district on February 28. “Police did not even file a report, let alone take action against the culprits,” he alleged.

“Even if a report was lodged. We would lose it in the court as we would not have resources to hire a lawyer,” he said.

ANS has discovered that local Christians have protested against the incident and have demanded immediate arrests of the culprits.

Report from the Christian Telegraph