Lao Christians Expelled from Village Suffer Critical Illnesses


One dead, two hospitalized; village chief threatens other residents.

DUBLIN, May 14 (CDN) — In spite of assurances of religious rights by officials in March, Lao Christians expelled from a village in Saravan Province in January are suffering from a prolonged lack of adequate food and clean water.

The lack of basic resources has led to diarrhea, dehydration, eye and skin infections, fainting and general weakness for the Christians expelled from Katin village, and one person has died, Human Rights Watch for Lao Religious Freedom (HRWLRF) reported.

A Christian who went by the single name of Ampheng died suddenly in April while praying for one of two other Christians who were hospitalized with illnesses caused by their living conditions, an HRWLRF spokesman told Compass. The exact cause and date of Ampheng’s death were not immediately known.

Expelled from their village at gunpoint on Jan. 18 for failing to renounce their faith, the 48 Christians were forced to build temporary shelters at the edge of the jungle, about six kilometers (nearly four miles) away from the village.

They have since survived on food found in the jungle and water from a hand-dug well that is unfit for cooking or drinking, sources told HRWLRF.

District officials in early May gave the Christians permission to return to Katin village and take rice from their family rice barns to prevent starvation, said another source on condition of anonymity.

In addition, some of the Christians have returned to tend their family rice fields, fearing that if the fields are completely abandoned they may lose the right to cultivate them next year. Water buffaloes essential for farm work, however, were confiscated in January along with the Christians’ homes and registration papers, according to HRWLRF.

When the Christians interred Ampheng at the local burial ground, district officials fined them for failing to produce the required proof of house registration, according to HRWLRF.

Katin’s village chief recently warned other residents that their personal possessions would be confiscated if they had any contact with the expelled Christians. If any family continued to maintain contact despite repeated warnings, their own homes would be torn down, the chief reportedly said.

Official reactions to the plight of the Christians have been mixed. In March, a delegation of provincial and district officials led by Gov. Khamboon Duangpanya visited the Christians at their jungle site and assured them of their legal right to embrace the faith of their choice and to live anywhere in the district.

Just days earlier, however, the district head, identified only as Bounma, summoned seven of the Christians to his office and said that he would not tolerate the existence of Christianity in areas under his control. (See “Lao Officials Visit Expelled Christians, Give Assurances,” March 19.)

High level officials failed to intervene last July when villagers seized a Christian identified only as Pew and poured rice wine down his throat, killing him by asphyxiation. Village officials later fined Pew’s family for erecting a cross on his grave, and then detained 80 Christians in a school compound, denying them food and pressuring them to renounce their faith.

The heads of 13 families then signed documents renouncing Christianity in order to protect their children, but most resumed attendance at worship meetings within a few months.

Provincial officials did call a meeting in September 2008 asking Katin authorities to respect Lao religious laws and allow the Christians freedom to worship, but their request was ignored.

A communist country, Laos is 1.5 percent Christian and 67 percent Buddhist, with the remainder unspecified. Article 6 and Article 30 of the Lao Constitution guarantees the right of Christians and other religious minorities to practice the religion of their choice without discrimination or penalty.

Report from Compass Direct News 

Christian Who Fled Iran Wins Asylum in Kenya


Judge rules Iranian convert from Islam requires protection from persecutors.

NAIROBI, Kenya, March 15 (CDN) — Mohammad Azbari, a Christian convert  from Islam who has fled to Kenya, knows what it’s like to be deported back to his native Iran.

When it happened in 2007, he said, Iranian authorities pressured the government of Norway to return him and his wife Gelanie Azbari to Iran after hearing rumors that he had forsaken Islam.  

“When we arrived in Iran, we were interrogated by security and severely beaten,” he told Compass in Nairobi, where he and his family fought to persuade the Kenyan government to decline Iran’s demand to deport him back. “My son got scared and began urinating on himself.”

A cousin managed to secure their release, but not before Iranian authorities had taken valuable – and incriminating – possessions.

“They took everything that I had – laptop, camera and some of my valuables which contained all my details, such as information concerning my baptism, and my entire profile, including that of my family,” Azbari said.

Azbari had been employed in the Iranian army before fleeing, he said, and authorities were monitoring his movements because they were concerned that, having left Islam, he might betray his country and reveal government secrets.

When he and his Christian wife, a native of the Philippines, first fled Iran in 2000, he was still a Shia Muslim. The previous year authorities had arrested his wife after finding a Christmas tree in their house in Tehran; Azbari was not home at the time and thus escaped arrest, but as authorities took his wife away they left their then 3-year-old son unattended.

“I was put in a small cell for two days,” Gelanie Azbari told Compass, through tears. “While in the cell two police guards raped me. It was the worst of all the nights I have had in my lifetime. Since that time I have been sick both physically and mentally.”

Authorities soon took her husband in for interrogation, suspecting he was a spy for foreign states.

Still a Muslim, Azbari allowed his wife to follow her Christian faith. He had grown accustomed to watching her pray as a Christian and watch the Jesus Film. As time went by, he developed an urge to embrace Christianity. They started reading the Bible together.

The idea of trusting in and following Christ filled him with fear, as it was against the law to convert from Islam – it would mean losing his life, he said.

“I started questioning our leaders, who see themselves as God,” he said. “The claim of Jesus as the prophet as well as the Word and spirit of God is indicated in the Quran. When I read in the Gospels of Jesus giving people rest, it made me want to decide to accept him as my Lord and Savior.”

Sensing danger, the family fled to the Netherlands in 2000, and it was there that Azbari embraced Christianity. In 2003 the family left the Netherlands for Norway.

Azbari was an avid student of his new-found Lord; while in Norway, he became seminary teacher of Christology.

Throughout, Azbari said, the Iranian government had been monitoring his movements. In 2007 Iranian officials persuaded the Norwegian government to send him, together with his wife and son Reza Azbari, back to Iran.

After their interrogation and mistreatment upon arrival in Iran, Azbari managed to call his sister, who connected him with the army general cousin who helped secure their release. His sister took them in, but his brother in-law was not happy with their Christian prayers; he began quarreling with his wife, Azbari’s sister.

“They began looking for trouble for us,” Azbari said. “Sensing danger, we then left the home and went to find a place to stay. Everywhere we tried to book in we were rejected, since we were people who had been deported.”

They began attending a church made up primarily of foreigners, where Azbari’s wife and son felt more at home than he did. His army general cousin found out and, angry that they had sought refuge in a church after he had secured their release, grew furious.

“He was very angry, as they had also discovered this information from the laptop they had confiscated and threatened that I should be arrested,” Azbari said. “I then decided to move to central Iran to look for employment, leaving my family behind.”

The couple felt they could not go to Gelanie Azbari’s homeland as the Philippines has such friendly relations with Iran, he said.

“To go back to Philippines or Iran is quite unsafe for us,” Azbari said.

In October 2009, his sister notified him that police were looking for him and his family.

“I then decided to flee the country through Turkey, then to Kenya where I was arrested and then deported to Turkey,” Azbari said. “In Turkey they could not allow me to enter the country, hence I was returned to Kenya.”

They were arrested in January for illegal entry into Kenya. On March 4, a judge at Chief Magistrate Court No. 3 of Kenya dropped the charges against him, declaring that Azbari required international protection from his persecutors. The court also directed that Azbari be given back all his documents and the 10,000 Kenyan Shillings ($US130) in bail he had deposited.

They had applied for asylum with the United Nations. Appearing before the court on behalf of Azbari on Jan. 15, a representative of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees had argued that he deserved asylum because his religious status had forced him to flee from his country of origin. On March 4 the court found that Azbari and his family require international protection under Section 82 of the laws of Kenya, and he was set free.

“We have witnessed the love of God and the sacrifices of what it means to love one in word and deed,” Azbari said moments after the decision. “We saw the love of Christ from the people who understood and stood with us.”

He thanked friends who introduced his family to Nairobi Pentecostal Church, which provided them spiritual strength. Three attorneys represented Azbari: Wasia Masitsa, a legal officer for the Urban Refugee Intervention Program; Christian lawyer John Swaka; and Laban Osoro of the United Nations. Rene Kiamba of the International Christian Chamber of Commerce had helped him post bail.

Report from Compass Direct News 

Christians in Vietnam Hold Another Historic Celebration


Largest-ever event in northern part of country encourages house churches.

HANOI, December 21 (CDN) — For the second time in 10 days, Protestant history was made in Vietnam yesterday when 12,000 people gathered for a Christmas rally here.

The event, which took place in the large square in front of the entrance to My Dinh National Stadium in the heart of Hanoi, was said to be 10 times larger than any prior Protestant gathering in history in northern Vietnam. On Dec. 11 in southern Vietnam, an estimated 40,000 people attended a Christmas celebration in Ho Chi Minh City (see “Unprecedented Christmas Gathering Held in Vietnam”).

Local sources said long-requested written permission for the event, entitled “Praise Jesus Together,” never came in spite of several reminders. But four days before the event was to take place, Hanoi authorities and police told organizers – in words as close as they would get to granting permission – that they would “not interfere.”

“One can hardly overestimate the importance of such an event in the lives of northern house church Christians,” said one long-time Compass source. “For many, this will have been the first time to join in a large crowd with other Christians, to feel the growing power of their movement, to hear, see and participate in the high quality, and deeply spiritual mass worship.”

The day before the event, Christians gathered near the stadium for final prayer and to help with preparations. Witnesses said the huge public square at the entrance to the stadium was arrayed with thousands of stools rather than chairs – plastic, backless, and bright blue and red. In 10-foot tall letters, “JESUS’ was emblazoned on the backdrop to the stage.

Invitations had been sent through house church networks even as official permission for the event was still pending. When church leaders decided to move ahead only days before, Christians were asked to send out mass invitations by text-message, leading some to speculate whether this may have been the largest ever such messaging for a Christian event.

Nearby Christians as well as those bussed from more distant areas began to fill the venue hours before the event. They were not dissuaded by a Hanoi cool spell of 12 Celsius (56 Fahrenheit) with a chill wind. Bundled in thick jackets, their heads wrapped in scarves, they waited expectantly without complaint.

They were not disappointed. Witnesses said the throng deeply appreciated a program of outstanding music and dance, a powerful personal narrative followed by a gospel message and an extended time for prayer for the nation. As at the previous event in Ho Chi Minh City on Dec. 11 that house church Christians had long worked and prayed for, the program featured music from Jackson Family Ministries of the United States.

In a world of globalized gospel and praise choruses, songs included hymns such as “How Great Thou Art” as well as classic praise songs such as “Sing Hallelujah to the Lord.” Witnesses said the music was accompanied by tasteful, emotionally engaging dance. Top Vietnamese artists performed, including news songs by Vietnamese songwriters, and a Vietnamese choir of 80 sang, as did a Korean choir.

A young man in his 30s who now pastors two house churches told the crowd how an encounter with Jesus proved more powerful than the grip of drug addiction. His story, simply and humbly told, proved an effective bridge to a Christmas evangelistic message by Pastor Pham Tuan Nhuong of the Word of Life house church. Then the winsome Pastor Pham Dinh Nhan, a top southern house church leader, gave a disarming but strong invitation to follow Jesus, witnesses said.

Organizers said approximately 2,000 people then poured forward in response, packing the large area in front of the stage.

The final portion of the program included a time of intense prayer for the nation, with pastors confessing and praying for righteousness for Vietnam’s leaders, as well as for God’s protection and blessing on their land. In their prayers they claimed Vietnam for Christ, witnesses said.

A high point for the throng was the superimposing of a large white cross on a yellow map of Vietnam on the backdrop. As the Korean choir sang a spirited revival hymn, the crowd raised thousands of hands and exploded in sound.

“The sound of crying, of praise, of prayer were blended as one, beseeching Almighty God for spiritual revival in Vietnam,” said one participant.

The event was streamed live at www.hoithanh.com for Vietnamese and others around the world to see.

Until recently – and still in some places – most Vietnamese meet in small groups in homes knowing at any time there could be a hostile knock on the door, a source said.

“None of these groups is registered or recognized by the government,” the source said of the crowd at yesterday’s event. “What you see is Christians standing up!” 

In addition to this event and the Dec. 11 event in Ho Chi Minh City, a large public Christmas rally was held by the Evangelical Church of Vietnam (North) at the Hoang Nhi church in Nam Dinh Province on Saturday (Dec. 19). Some 2,500 people gathered in the church’s large courtyard, with sources saying 200 responded to an invitation to follow Christ. 

In Tuy Hoa, on the coast of central Vietnam, a Christmas program is planned for Saturday (Dec. 26) in a 4,000- seat theater. Many smaller events are also planned in other areas, part of an unprecedented public display by Vietnam’s Protestants.

At the same time, the freedom for Christians tolerated in large cities has not reached some more remote parts of the country, where ethnic minority Christians live. In Dien Bien Dong district of Dien Bien Province, authorities on Tuesday (Dec. 15) orchestrated immense ethnic social pressure on a new Christian couple to recant. The couple told Compass that police added their own pressure. 

“The police said they would beat me to death, and take away all my possessions, leaving my wife a widow, and my children orphans with no place to live,” the husband told Compass. “I folded. I signed promising that I would no longer follow God. I really want to, but it is very, very hard to be a believer where we live, as the officials will not allow us.”

Report from Compass Direct News 

PAKISTAN: ISLAMIC RADICALS STORM ‘BLASPHEMY’ HEARING


Christian couple on trial; member of prosecution team threatens to kill wife.

ISTANBUL, May 29 (Compass Direct News) – Radical Pakistani Muslims in a town outside of Lahore this month overran a courtroom in hopes of swaying a judge in a “blasphemy” case against a Christian couple, and a member of the prosecution later threatened to kill the wife.

Some 50 molvis (Muslim clergy) on May 14 burst into the courtroom in Mustafabad, where a bail hearing was taking place in the case against Munir Masih and his wife Ruqiya Bibi, according to the Centre for Legal Aid Assistance and Settlement (CLAAS).

“Nobody could stop them as they rushed into the court,” said CLAAS’s Tahir Gull, sole representative for the accused. “They said, ‘No non-Muslim has the right to keep a Quran in his house, they have done this so they are liable to be punished.’”

Masih and Bibi, both in their 30s, were originally accused under section 295-B of Pakistan’s penal code with defiling the Quran by touching it with unwashed hands on Dec. 8 of last year. Masih was taken to prison and remained there until Jan. 22, when a Muslim neighbor who had asked him to store some of his possessions, including his Quran, testified on his behalf and the case was dropped.

The complainant, Mohammad Nawaz, subsequently filed another accusation on Feb. 12, this time under 295-C, blasphemy against Muhammad, Islam’s prophet. This charge carries a death sentence, whereas defiling the Quran calls for life imprisonment.

Despite pressure from the crowd of clerics, Judge Shafqat Ali – also a molvi – granted the couple bail. Following the hearing, however, a member of the prosecution team approached Bibi outside the courtroom and threatened to kill her.

“Ruqiya was waiting outside the court,” said Gull, “and one man came and said, ‘Whatever the decision, we will kill you.’”

A prosecution lawyer read portions of the Quran while presenting his case, he added.

“He was not explaining the law in which the accused were charged,” said Gull. “He was trying to influence the court religiously.”

Charges of blasphemy are common in Pakistan and particularly incendiary, often leading to strong shows of religious zeal. It is not uncommon for sections 295-B and 295-C of the Pakistani penal code to be invoked in retaliation for personal grievances.

“It is very easy to grab any person for religious reasons,” said Parvez Choudhry, chairman of Legal Aid for the Destitute and Settlement, who specialize in blasphemy cases. “There are many personal cases involving property, or money, or business that motivate the complainant against the accused person. All the cases are falsely charged.”

Pakistan’s blasphemy laws have come under heavy fire from international rights groups. Any private citizen can file blasphemy charges, destroying reputation and livelihood. The charge can possibly lead to the death penalty in the conservative Islamic country.

Masih, who before his initial arrest had been a day laborer, is no longer able to find work due to the stigma of the blasphemy accusation.

“There is a need to repeal these sections [295-B and 295-C],” said Choudhry. “This is considered a draconian law.”

Section 295-C carries a death sentence for anyone found “by words or visible representation or by an imputation or insinuation, directly or indirectly, [to have] defiled the name of the Muhammad of Islam.”

Choudhry suggested that just correcting the vagueness of this definition would go a long way toward reducing its frequent misuse.

“The word ‘indirect’ should be repealed – this is wrong, unconstitutional,” he said. “They have no value in the Evidence Act of Pakistan. The Evidence Act states that there needs to be direct evidence for a conviction.”

The next court date has not yet been assigned, but Gull said he is confident about securing an acquittal.

“We have a good case on our side,” he told Compass. “I am very optimistic.”

Report from Compass Direct News

PAKISTAN: CHRISTIANS PRESSED AS MILITARY BATTLES TALIBAN


Residents flee Swat Valley where fight rages with Islamist insurgents.

ISTANBUL, May 13 (Compass Direct News) – Pakistani Christians in Swat Valley are caught between the Taliban and Pakistan’s military as it assaults the stronghold where sharia (Islamic law) rules.

Nearly 15,000 troops have been deployed in the picturesque Swat Valley in Pakistan’s North West Frontier Province (NWFP) and neighboring Afghanistan. Troops came after months of peace negotiations collapsed between the Taliban Islamist insurgents who have imposed sharia in the valley and the central government last month. Hundreds of thousands of Pakistanis have fled the war-ravaged area for fear of a full military assault.

On May 10 (Sunday) the army ordered residents to flee Swat Valley during a lull in fighting. Aid groups estimate that as many as 1.3 million could be displaced by the fighting, according to The Guardian.

Christians are particularly vulnerable in the mass exodus. Working as poor day laborers, they occupy the lowest rung of the social ladder and have little money for costly transport or to stock up on resources before fleeing.

“Christians are poor, and like in any conflict, the prices of transportation and commodities skyrocket,” said Ashar Dean, assistant director of communication of the Church of Pakistan Peshawar diocese. “Some had to go on foot to flee the valley.”

The Taliban had ratcheted up pressure on Christians, other religious minorities and liberal Muslims in Swat to live according to Islamic fundamentalist norms. They were forced to grow beards and don Islamic attire for fear of their safety in an attempt to blend in with Muslim residents of Swat.

Many Christians also fled for insufficient funds to pay the jizye, a poll tax under sharia paid by non-Muslims for protection if they decline to convert to Islam.

In February the Pakistani government ceded control of Swat valley to the Taliban, who imposed their version of sharia and established clerical rule over the legal system. But Christians had seen warning signs long before the formal sharia announcement. In the past year the Taliban burned or bombed more than 200 girls’ schools in Swat, including one that housed a Catholic church.

Religious minorities live in a precarious situation in the Muslim-dominated country. The legal system informally discriminates against non-Muslims, and in recent years Christian villages have been ransacked by Muslim mobs incited by dubious reports that a Quran had been desecrated.

The Taliban’s attempts to spread out from Swat into neighboring areas, however, have increased feelings of insecurity among the nation’s 3 million Christians.

“The threat of the Taliban is a hanging sword above the necks of Christians,” said Sohail Johnson, chief coordinator of Sharing Life Ministry Pakistan. “Christians could be in the situation where they would have to accept Islam or die.”

Swat Christians Flee

Approximately 40-60 Christian families lived in Swat as congregants at the Church of Pakistan. But since Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gillani on April 8 announced a military mission into Swat, nearly all have fled to nearby districts.

Most are in refugee housing in Mardan in the NWFP. They stay in a technical school owned by the Church of Pakistan, a congregation composed of Anglicans, Presbyterians, Methodists and Lutherans

The school dismissed its students for the school year early to make room for the refugees. Opening its doors to the displaced Christians was necessary due to government inaction toward religious minorities, said Yousaf Benjamin of the National Commission for Justice and Peace.

“The government is giving protection to Muslims, but the Christians are through waiting for their services,” he said.

Similar measures are being employed in hundreds of schools. To provide for the massive influx in refugees, the Pakistan government ended the school year early in districts near Swat and opened the schools to refugees for temporary housing. Teachers are also assisting in the humanitarian relief effort, Benjamin said.

Some Christians have complained of facing discrimination in refugee camps. Government relief workers forbade Christians, Hindus and Sikhs from setting up tents or eating with Muslim refugees, according to online news site Christian Today.

But ultimately Christians will not be able to return to Swat Valley unless the Taliban threat is completely removed, Christian relief groups said. Their possessions and property will otherwise always be under threat.

“Christians will face terrible persecution if the Taliban is not controlled by the government,” Johnson said. “They will easily attack churches, schools and other Christian institutions.”

Rehman Malik, the interior minister, said Pakistan’s military operation would continue until the last Taliban fighter had been ousted. Since April 8, government troops have killed an estimated 751 militants.

There are believed to be 5,000 Taliban militants in Swat Valley. The government hopes to minimize civilian casualties through precision air strikes and delivering emergency humanitarian aid.

Pakistan’s government has come under harsh national and international criticism for its negotiations with the Taliban and ceding control of Swat. They fear the Taliban could seize control of the nation’s nuclear weapons.

Report from Compass Direct News

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

CHURCHES TURN TO ASH IN VICTORIA’S FIRES; SERVICES CONTINUE WITHOUT A CHURCH


While churches continue to disappear in the onslaught of the Victorian bushfires, Ruth Close of the ESA (Evangelisation Society Association) Board has updated the earlier report on the camp center at Marysville (97km/60 miles NE of Melbourne) which was wiped out: “We praise God for the efficient and safe evacuation of all the staff and the group of 90 campers from the Marysville site on Saturday (February 7). Allan Gellert’s quick decisions and actions are commendable. Please continue to pray for the people of Marysville who have lost their homes and all their possessions. Especially pray for God’s comfort for the families who are grieving for those they loved dearly.”

Photos and updates are available here.

Meanwhile, Ken Pullen of the Christian Venues Association said that they have a membership of thirty eight Conference Centres and Camps in Victoria, reports Ramon Williams, special for ASSIST News Service. Twenty three of these are located in the currently fire affected areas of that state. From amongst the 23, the following have been lost: Camp Narbethong at Narbethong, ESA Camping & Conference Centre and El Kanah at Marysville. Mobile Mission Maintenance Headquarters at Whittlesea (MMM support Christian ministries and have been members of our association for many years). It is believed that Breakaway Camps at Taggerty has also been lost.

A further two centers remain not contactable, and a number are still threatened or on alert.

The situation remains volatile with changing winds and it is feared that many more properties and some camps will remain under threat for up to 14 days.

Reports of damage to churches are now filtering through.

The Uniting Church at Kinglake (54km/33 miles NE of Melbourne) survived; the fate of the Marysville church is unknown but presumed grim. “We lost church members, which is worse,” said the Uniting Church’s Victorian media director, Kim Cain. “We are concentrating on the pastoral response at this stage. Uniting Care put a mobile kindergarten at one emergency relief centre to let the children play out their grief and anger.”

The Catholic Church, too, lost its churches at Kinglake and Marysville.

Rev Norm Hart and his wife Patti, of the Anglican Christ Church, Marysville, have lost their church, their home and their parish. Barney Schwartz, writing in The Age newspaper, Melbourne, said: “The Marysville Anglican parish has been obliterated. But they are determined the church will continue.” When water and power returned, those left would gather at someone’s house, said Mrs Hart.

Rev. Stephen Holmes of St Peter’s Anglican Church, Kinglake, feels helpless. His 1923 church no longer exists, nor does most of his parish. “It’s devastating, it’s unbelievable; it’s worse than Iraq — it’s just carnage,” he said. “I’ve been talking to people, hugging people, listening to people, whatever I can do.”

At least one church, Diamond Valley Baptist Church, has opened its doors to co-ordinate volunteers & deliveries of food, clothing and any other useful items.

 

Calls for Prayer

Ian Worby, CEO of United Christian Broadcasters has called for everyone to “pause for a special time of prayer for our nation and the victims of these terrible events” on Wednesday, Feb 11, at 12.30pm, via their network of radio stations across Australia.

The Rev Chris Moroney, Senior Minister at St Andrew’s Anglican Cathedral, Sydney announced that a Special Prayer Service for the Victorian Bushfire Disaster will be held, at 6pm on Wednesday February 11. Rev Moroney said: “We will gather to express our concern and sympathy for all the victims of the bushfire disaster. We will pray for each one to know God’s care and comfort and healing. We will hear the latest news about the tragic events and hear about relief efforts. We will also be taking up a collection for the Archbishop’s Emergency Bushfire Appeal.

Warrnambool’s Anglican Church in Victoria, will hold a half-hour ecumenical service from 12.30pm today (Tuesday) to remember the fire victims.

Christchurch Anglican Cathedral in Darwin, Northern Territory, has already launched prayers for the whole of this week and other churches are expected to take similar initiatives.

Report from the Christian Telegraph

MEXICO: OPPRESSION OF CHRISTIANS PERSISTS IN VARIOUS PARTS OF COUNTRY


Jailings, threats, fines, deprivation of water and electricity – all keep pace with church growth.

MEXICO CITY, November 25 (Compass Direct News) – As the number of evangelical Christians in southern Mexico has grown, hostilities from “traditionalist Catholics” have kept pace, according to published reports.

Especially in indigenous communities in southern Mexico, the prevailing attitude is that only traditionalist Catholics, who blend native rituals with Roman Catholicism, have rights to religious practice, according to news reports. Moreover, the reports indicate the traditionalist Catholic villagers believe they have the right to force others to conform to their religion.

In Oaxaca state, four Christians in Santiago Teotlaxco, Ixtlan de Juarez district, were jailed on Nov. 16 for refusing to participate in a traditionalist Catholic festival and for not paying the high quotas they were assigned to help cover its costs, according to La Voz news agency. Their neighbors, now fewer than the town’s 180 Christian evangelicals, have been trying to force them to practice what the evangelicals regard as idolatrous adoration of saints and other rituals contrary to their faith.

As a result of such pressure, according to the news agency, non-Catholics in the area, including children, live in fear of being expelled from their properties.

In the community of Nachit, municipality of Zinacantan, Chiapas, five indigenous Christians were jailed for 24 hours on Nov. 4 for refusing to accept work assignments related to traditionalist Catholic festivals, according to the National Confraternity of Evangelical Christian Churches. Local officials ordered them to give up their Christian faith or they would “invent some crimes with which to accuse them and get them imprisoned,” according to Chiapas newspaper Expreso.

Also in Chiapas, Mexico’s southern-most state, local political bosses (caciques) deprived 24 evangelical families of a Seventh-Day Adventist church in Muctavits, municipality of San Andres Larrainzar, of their rights to government social programs, according to news reports. Local officials made the decision on Nov. 3 and a week later said they would fine the Christians 3,000 pesos (US$220) if they refused to contribute funds toward traditionalist Catholic festivals, according to Expreso.

Officials have also threatened to cut off the Christians’ electricity and water, church representative Hortencio Vasquez told La Jornada, and have eliminated all their community rights, thus depriving some evangelicals of their service on local government committees.

Last month local caciques forced evangelical families in the community of Nicolás Ruiz, Chiapas, to sign documents promising to hold religious services only on Wednesday, Saturday and Sunday or pay fines of up to 1,000 pesos (US$74) pesos per family. Seven evangelical families had already been expelled from the town for their faith, leaving behind all their possessions and property and taking refuge in the nearby municipality of Acala, reported Cuarto Poder newspaper in Chiapas.

In Guerrero state, two Christian families in Olinala had their drinking water and electricity cut off recently because they refused to participate in local religious customs, La Jornada reported. The families have been under threats to give up their faith since 2006.

“They were threatened with hanging due to their religious beliefs if they did not obey the orders of the municipal authorities,” the National Bar of Christian Lawyers’ Jorge Garcia Jimenez told the newspaper’s Guerrero edition.

As do traditionalist Catholics elsewhere in Mexico, officials in Olinala cited a constitutional provision protecting local “uses and customs” of communities in order to justify forcing evangelicals to contribute to and participate in the festivals, in violation of Mexico’s constitutional guarantee of religious freedom. Christian lawyers say the “uses and customs” section was meant to prevent the government from prohibiting native practices – not force villagers to participate in them.

The threats and deprivation of basic services in Guerrero came on the heels of the kidnapping of the teenaged son of a prominent evangelical pastor in the same state. The kidnappers apparently rejected the ransom paid by the family as inadequate and have held the boy for two months.

Even in a state as far north as Hidalgo, a longstanding conflict erupted anew this month. After years of hostilities rooted in traditionalist Catholics’ intolerance of evangelical Christians, La Jornada reported, officials in San Nicolás, municipality of Ixmiquilpan, had finally granted a construction permit for Protestants to build a chapel.

But villagers claiming that construction without a town assembly vote violated a previous agreement stopped workers at the building site on Nov. 7. Local officials had to call in state police to forestall a violent confrontation, and no construction has been permitted since then.

Chiapas pastor and attorney Esdras Alonso González said at a press conference this week that cases of intolerance of evangelical Christians – all allowed and encouraged by local officials –also remain in the Zinacantan, Chiapas communities of Nachig, Pasté, Chiquinivalvó, Pestó and Buonchén.

In Pasté, he said, four families remain without water since October 14 for having refused to contribute funds for the traditionalist Catholic festivals, which often also involve drunken revelry.

“The municipal authorities of Zinacantan are not doing anything to resolve the problem,” he told reporters.  

Report from Compass Direct News

IRAQ: FLEEING CHRISTIANS FACE NEW HARDSHIPS IN TURKEY


As renewed violence in Mosul halts return, refugees wait in Turkish legal limbo.

ISTANBUL, November 14 (Compass Direct News) – In this Turkish city’s working-class neighborhood of Kurtulus, Arabic can be heard on the streets, signs are printed in the Arabic alphabet and Iraqis congregate in tea shops.

In 99-percent Muslim Turkey, most of these Iraqis are not Muslims. And they are not in Turkey by choice. They are Christian refugees who fled their homeland to escape the murderous violence that increasingly has been directed at them.

It is hard to tell how many of Mosul’s refugees from the recent wave of attacks have made their way to Istanbul, but finding these residents here is not hard. A middle-aged Iraqi refugee who fled Mosul five months ago now attends a Syrian Orthodox Church in the poverty-stricken neighborhood of Tarlabasi, where gypsies, transvestites, and immigrants from Turkey’s east live in hopes of a better life in Istanbul.

Declining to give his name, the refugee said there is no future for Christians in Iraq and that nearly everyone he knew there wanted to leave the country. He said the only hope for Iraqi Christians is for Western countries to open their doors to Christian Iraqi refugees.

“We don’t have hope,” he said. “If these doors aren’t opened, we will be killed.”

Since October, violence in Mosul has pushed more than 12,000 Christians from their homes and left more than two dozen dead, according to U.N. and Christian organizations. In the face of Mosul violence, Iraqi Christians flee to Turkey before settling permanently in another country, usually in a place where their family has gone out before them.

 

Christian Sisters Killed

Weeks after the mass exodus of Mosul Christians to surrounding villages, Turkey and other nations, around one-third of families reportedly have returned due to the presence of 35,000 army and police and the Iraqi government offering cash grants of up to $800.

But those returning Christians were shaken again on Wednesday (Nov. 12), when Islamic militants stormed into the house of two Syrian Catholic sisters, Lamia’a Sabih and Wala’a Saloha, killing them and severely injuring their mother. They then bombed their house and detonated a second explosive when the police arrived, which killed three more.

The Christian family had recently returned after having fled Mosul. Many believe this attack will deter other Christians from returning to Mosul, and there are reports of Christians again leaving the area.

There has been a steady exodus of Christians from Iraq since the first Gulf War in 1991. The church in Iraq dates from the beginning of Christianity, but the population has plummeted by 50 percent in the last 20 years. The outflow of Iraqi Christians spiked in 2003 following the U.S.-led invasion.

Although Iraq as a whole has seen a dramatic decrease in violence due to last year’s surge in U.S. troops, the flight of Christians to Turkey has grown. One-third of the 18,000 refugees who registered in Turkey last year are from Iraq. In Syria, an estimated 40 percent of the 1.2 million Iraqis who have fled Iraq are Christians, though they make up only about 3 percent of Iraq’s population.

Monsignor Francois Yakan, the 50-year-old leader of the Chaldean Church in Turkey, said all Iraqi refugees are undergoing hardships regardless of religion, but that the situation is especially difficult for Christians since there is less support for them in Turkey.

“Muslims have the same difficulty as Christians, but there are more foundations to assist them,” he said. “The government notices Muslim immigrants, but nobody pays attention to us.”

Yakan travels to other countries to raise awareness of the plight of Iraqi Christians, trying to marshal the support of government and church leaders – last week he traveled to France, Romania and Germany. If Western governments don’t wake up to this crisis, he said, the results could be catastrophic.

“People don’t know the plight of Iraqi Christians. They have no government, no soldiers, and no power,” he said. “Christianity in Iraq is ending. Why aren’t they noticing this?”

 

Strangers in Strange Land

The unnamed Iraqi refugee in Tarlabasi said not even pleas from Iraqi priests can make them stay.

“The church in Iraq can’t stop the people from leaving because they can’t guarantee their security,” he said.

He came to Istanbul with his family but still has an adult son and daughter in the city. He hopes to join his brother in the United States soon.

A group of Iraqi refugees at a tea shop in the Kurtulus area of Istanbul interrupted their card game to talk to Compass of their troubled lives.

“We can’t find any work,” said Baghdad-born Iraqi Jalal Toma, who acted as the translator for the group. He pointed to a young man at the table and said, “He works moving boxes and carrying things, and they pay him half as much as a Turk for a day’s work.”

All of the men are Chaldean Christians, a Catholic Eastern-rite church whose historical homeland is in northern Iraq, and came from Mosul in recent months. They are chronically under-employed and rely on financial help from family members abroad to make ends meet.

They had to flee their homes at a moment’s notice, taking along their families but leaving behind their cars, houses and most of their possessions. The men hope to join family members who live in foreign countries, but they harbor few hopes that they can ever return to Iraq again.

 

Offering Relief

Work is scarce for refugees and hard to come by legally in Turkey. To survive, most Iraqi Christians rely on money from families abroad or the handful of local church charities that struggle to keep up with the overwhelming volume of refugees, such as the Istanbul Interparish Migrant Program, an ecumenical umbrella group that unites the city’s parishes to assist migrants and asylum seekers.

Another such charity is Kasdar, the Chaldean-Assyrian-Syriac Humanitarian, Social and Cultural Organization, run by Yakan, the Chaldean Church leader in Turkey.

He launched Kasdar two years ago to provide a safety net for Christian refugees who live in Turkey’s legal limbo. Kasdar assists all Christians regardless of denomination or faith tradition and has 16 volunteers from an equally diverse background.

Yakan sees thousands of refugees pass through Istanbul each year. Most of them are Chaldean, and he knows of 60-70 people who fled due to the recent October violence in Mosul. He travels constantly to visit Chaldean refugees scattered throughout the country.

When refugees first arrive in Turkey, they must register with the United Nations as asylum seekers. The Turkish police then assign them to one of 35 cities to live in as they wait to receive official refugee status. These Christians face the biggest hardships since they don’t have access to the same social resources as refugees in Istanbul, said Metin Corabatir, U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees spokesman in Turkey.

“The Chaldean population faces problems in Turkey, especially due to the policy of resettling them to satellite cities,” said Corabatir. “The Chaldeans in Istanbul have NGOs [Non-Governmental Organizations] and churches to help them, but in satellite cities there is no church or community to help them.”

Most refugees send their children to school at a local center run by Caritas, a Catholic confederation of relief, development and social service organizations. Here, Iraq children receive education and lessons in basic vocational skills.

The wait for legal status can be as short as a few months or a couple of years. But complicated circumstances can push back the wait to five years, 10 years, or even 17 years – as it is now for a man who fled during the first Gulf War, Yakan of the Chaldean Church said.

Another church leader who has helped Christian refugees is 70-year-old Monsignor Yusuf Sag, vicar general of the Syrian Catholic Church in Turkey. His 350-person congregation assembles packets of clothes and food for the refugees.

Many who come to Sag also seek medical help. He has connections with doctors throughout the city, both Muslim and Christian, who offer basic treatment to refugees free of charge. Sag said he tries to help all who come to him, without asking them of their denomination or even their religion.

“Their situation is not a Christian problem, but a human problem,” he said.

Often Iraqi Christians work illegally, where they are vulnerable to extortion. Refugee workers in Istanbul said registered asylum seekers can work legally, but it is not uncommon for employers to garnish their wages or withhold them completely, with the foreigners getting little protection from police.

The Turkish government charges a refugee a residence tax of US$460 a year and will not allow them to leave the country until it is paid, making them remain in the country even longer. With all these hurdles to finding stable employment, many Iraqi refugees are never too far from homelessness.

“There was a family we found living on the streets – a husband, wife and two children,” Yakan said. “They have lived in Istanbul for six months and couldn’t even afford to pay rent.”

His foundation found the family an apartment and assisted them with rent, but they only have enough resources to help for two months.

Kasdar gave similar assistance to 54 families in October. But the organization can only help for a few months at a time and assist the most vulnerable refugees.

Report from Compass Direct News

FAITH AND ASSURANCE: Bishop J. C. Ryle


READER,

If you are a thoughtless, careless man about your soul, you will take no interest in the subject of this tract. Faith and assurance are mere names and words to you: they are neither land, nor money, nor horses, nor dress, nor meat, nor drink: like Gallio, you care not for them. Alas, poor soul! I mourn over you. The day will come when you will think differently.

Reader, if you really desire to go to heaven, and to go there in the Bible way you will find the subject of this tract of the deepest importance. Believe me, your own comfort in religion, and your peace of conscience, depend exceedingly on understanding the matter about which I am going to speak. I say then, that faith in Christ, and a full assurance of being saved by Christ, are two distinct things.


A man may have saving faith in Christ, and yet never enjoy an assured hope, like the Apostle Paul. To believe, and have a glimmering hope of acceptance, is one thing; to have joy and peace in our believing, and abound in hope, is quite another. All God’s children have faith: not all have assurance. I think this ought never to be forgotten.


I know some great and good men have held a different opinion: I believe that many excellent ministers do not allow the distinction I have stated; but I desire to call no man master. I dread as much as anyone the idea of healing the wounds of conscience slightly; but I should think any other view than that I have given a most uncomfortable gospel to preach, and one very likely to keep souls back a long time from the gate of life.


I would not desire to make one contrite heart sad that God has not made sad, or to discourage one fainting child of God, or to give a soul the impression that you have no part or lot in Christ, except you feel assurance. I do not shrink from saying, that by grace a man may have sufficient faith to flee to Christ, really to lay hold on Him, really to trust in Him, really to be a child of God, really to be saved; and yet to his last day be never free from much anxiety, doubt, and fear.


“A letter,” says an old writer, “may be written which is not sealed; so grace may be written in the heart, yet the Spirit may not set the seal of assurance to it.”


A child may be born heir to a great fortune, and yet never be aware of his riches, live childish, die childish, and never know the greatness of his possessions.


And so also a man may be a babe in Christ’s family; think as a babe, speak as a babe, and, though saved, never enjoy a lively hope, or know the full privileges of his inheritance.


Faith in the Lord Jesus Christ a man must have, beyond all question, if he is to be saved. I know no other way of access to the Father: I see no intimation of mercy excepting through Christ. A man must feel his sins and lost estate, must come to Jesus for pardon and salvation, must rest his hope on Him and on Him alone. But if he only have faith to do this, however weak and feeble that faith may be, I will engage, from Scripture warrants, he shall not miss heaven. Never, never let us curtail the freeness of the glorious gospel, or clip its fair proportions. Never let us make the gate more strait, and the way more narrow, than pride or love of sin have made it already. The Lord Jesus is very pitiful and of tender mercy. He does not regard the quantity of faith, but the quality He does not measure its degree, but its truth. He will not break any bruised reed, nor quench any smoking flax. He will never let it be said that any perished at the foot of the cross. “Him that cometh unto Me,” He says, “I will in no wise cast out” (John vi. 37). 1


Yes, reader! though a man’s faith be no bigger than a grain of mustard seed, if it only brings him to Christ, and enables him to touch the hem of His garment, he shall be saved: saved as surely as the oldest saint in paradise; saved as completely and eternally as Peter, or John, or Paul. There are degrees in our sanctification: in our justification there are none. What is written is written, and shall never fail: “Whosoever believeth on Him,” not whosoever has a strong and mighty faith, “Whosoever believeth on Him shall not be ashamed” (Rom. x. 11).


But all this time, I would have you take notice, the poor soul may have no full assurance of his pardon and acceptance with God. He may be troubled with fear upon fear, and doubt upon doubt. He may have many a question and many an anxiety, many a struggle, and many a misgiving, clouds and darkness, storm and tempest to the very end.


I will engage, I repeat, that bare simple faith in Christ shall save a man, though he may never attain to assurance; but I will not engage it shall bring him to heaven, with strong and abounding consolations. I will engage it shall land him safe in harbour, but I will not engage he shall enter that harbour under full sail, confident and rejoicing. I shall not be surprised if he reaches his desired haven weather-beaten and tempest-tossed, scarcely realising his own safety till he opens his eyes in glory.


Reader, I believe it is of great importance to keep in view this distinction between faith and assurance. It explains things which an inquirer in religion some times finds it hard to understand.


Faith, let us remember, is the root, and assurance is the flower. Doubtless you can never have the flower without the root; but it is no less certain you may have the root and not the flower.


Faith is that poor trembling woman who came behind Jesus in the press and touched the hem of His garment (Mark v. 25). Assurance is Stephen standing calmly in the midst of his murderers, and saying, “I see the heavens opened, and the Son of man standing on the right hand of God” (Acts vii. 56). Faith is the penitent thief crying, “Lord, remember me” (Luke xxiii. 42). Assurance is Job sitting in the dust, covered with sores, and saying, “I know that my Redeemer liveth” (Job xix. 25). “Though He slay me, yet will I trust in Him” (Job xiii. 13).


Faith is Peter’s drowning cry as he began to sink: “Lord, save me!” (Matt. xiv. 30). Assurance is the same Peter declaring before the Council, in after times, “This is the stone which was set at nought of you builders, which is become the head of the corner. Neither is there salvation in any other: for there is none other name under heaven given among men, whereby we must be saved” (Acts iv. 11,12).


Faith is the anxious, trembling voice: “Lord, I believe; help my unbelief” (Mark ix. 24). Assurance is the confident challenge: “Who shall lay anything to the charge of God’s elect? Who is he that condemneth?” (Rom. viii. 33, 34).


Faith is Saul praying in the house of Judas at Damascus, sorrowful, blind, and alone (Acts ix. 11). Assurance is Paul, the aged prisoner, looking calmly into the grave, and saying, “I know Whom I have believed,” “There is laid up for me a crown” (2 Tim. i. 12; iv. 8).

Faith is life. How great the blessing! Who can tell the gulf between life and death? And yet life may be weak, sickly, unhealthy, painful, trying, anxious, worn, burdensome, joyless, and smileless to the very end.

Assurance is more than life. It is health, strength, power, vigour, activity, energy, manliness, and beauty.

Reader, it is not a question of saved or not saved that lies before us, but of privilege or no privilege, it is not a question of peace or no peace, but of great peace or little peace, it is not a question between the wanderers of this world and the school of Christ, it is one that belongs only to the school, it is between the first form and the last.

He that has faith does well. Happy should I be if I thought all readers of this tract had it. Blessed, thrice blessed are they that believe: they are safe; they are washed; they are justified. They are beyond the power of hell. Satan, with all his malice, shall never pluck them out of Christ’s hands. But he that has assurance does far better, sees more, feels more, knows more, enjoys more, has more days like those spoken of in Deuteronomy, even “the days of heaven upon the earth” (Deut. xi. 21). 2

Reader, whoever you may be, I exhort you never to be satisfied with anything short of a full assurance of your own salvation. With faith, no doubt, you must begin, with simple, child-like faith: “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and thou shalt be saved.” But from faith go on to assurance. Rest not till you can say, “I know Whom I have believed.”

Believe me, believe me, assurance is worth the seeking. You forsake your own mercies when you rest content without it. The things I speak are for your peace. It is good to be sure in earthly things; how much better is it to be sure in heavenly things!

Make it then your daily prayer that you may have an increase of faith. According to your faith will be your peace. Cultivate that blessed root more, and sooner or later, by God’s blessing, you may hope to have the flower. You may not perhaps attain to full assurance at once: it is good sometimes to be kept waiting; we do not value things that we get without trouble. But though it tarry, wait for it. Seek on, and expect to find.

 

FOOTNOTES:

1 “He that believeth on Jesus shall never be confounded. Never was any; neither shall you, if you believe. It was a great word of faith spoken by a dying man, who had been converted in a singular way, betwixt his condemnation and execution: his last words were these, spoken with a mighty shout ‘Never man perished with his face towards Jesus Christ.’”  Traill.

2 “The greatest thing that we can desire, next to the glory of God, is our own salvation; and the sweetest thing we can desire is the assurance of our salvation. In this life we cannot get higher than to be assured of that which in the next life is to be enjoyed. All saints shall enjoy a heaven when they leave this earth: some saints enjoy a heaven while they are here on earth.” Joseph Carlyle. 1658.