Cuba: End of the Castro Era?
Harsh Era Looms in Aceh, Indonesia
The following article reports on the latest news of persecution in Aceh, Indonesia, where there appears to be a crackdown on Christianity in progress.
The articles linked to above are by Compass Direct News and relate to persecution of Christians around the world. Please keep in mind that the definition of ‘Christian’ used by Compass Direct News is inclusive of some that would not be included in a definition of Christian that I would use or would be used by other Reformed Christians. The articles do however present an indication of persecution being faced by Christians around the world.
Her new Christian faith deepens; authorities allow evangelist Luis Palau to address pastors.
HO CHI MINH CITY, March 30 (CDN) — A Protestant prisoner of conscience who had called for democratic freedoms in Vietnam was released earlier this month after serving a three-year sentence for “propagandizing to destroy the Socialist Republic of Vietnam.”
Attorney Le Thi Cong Nhan’s sentence had been reduced by one year after an international outcry over her sentencing. She was released on March 6. Remaining in prison for another year is her colleague, Christian lawyer Nguyen Van Dai.
The 31-year-old Cong Nhan had also supported a labor union that sought to be independent. Now serving an additional three-year house arrest sentence, Cong Nhan said in a surprisingly frank interview with Voice of America’s Vietnamese language broadcast on March 9 that she has no intention of giving up her struggle for a just and free Vietnam and accepts that there may be a further price to pay.
Cong Nhan, arrested in March 2007, received a Vietnamese Bible from a visiting delegation of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom – with official permission from Vietnam’s minister of Public Security – early in her incarceration, but she had to struggle constantly to retain it. Twice she went on a hunger strike when authorities took the Bible away from her.
She had become a Christian shortly before her arrest, and she told Voice of America that while in prison she was able to read the entire Bible.
“In prison the Lord became my closest friend, my teacher, and the one who carried my burdens with me,” she said. “When I was released from prison, I received many words of praise and of love and respect – I became a bit worried about this, as I do not consider myself worthy of such. I believe I must live an even better and more worthy life.”
Her prison experience has confirmed her calling and faith, she said.
“As a direct result of my prison experience, I am more convinced than ever that the path that I have chosen is the right one,” Cong Nhan said. “Before prison I was just like a thin arrow, but now I have become a strong fort.”
Luis Palau Allowed to Speak
While Christians in several parts of Vietnam are still subject to abuse from local officials, the country’s national authorities have continued to allow high-profile Christian events. On March 17, renowned U.S. evangelist Luis Palau was allowed to address more than 400 pastors in a day-long event at the New World Hotel in Ho Chi Minh City.
Palau, who had arrived in Hanoi with his entourage on March 13, had addressed nearly 200 Hanoi area pastors at an evening event at the Hanoi Hilton on March 14. The two events were streamed live on http://www.hoithanh.com, a popular website that reports on Protestant news in Vietnam. Hundreds of Vietnamese in Vietnam and abroad were estimated to have watched the presentations.
The events were deemed significant, if not historic, by Vietnam’s Christian leaders. Very rarely is a prominent foreign Protestant leader allowed to address Vietnamese leaders, especially one from the United States.
The events were significant also in that they brought together leaders from virtually all segments of Vietnam’s fractured and sometimes conflicted Protestant groups, Christian leaders said. The gatherings included leaders of open churches and house churches, registered and unregistered churches, and urban and even ethnic minority groups from Vietnam’s remote mountainous regions.
Two representatives of a Mennonite church headed by activist pastor Nguyen Hong Quang, however, were turned away by police.
Palau and Mike McIntosh, pastor of San Diego mega-church Horizon Christian Fellowship, strongly challenged the Vietnamese church leaders to strive for unity. The assembled pastors were challenged to put aside past conflicts and suspicions for the sake of the Kingdom of God in Vietnam, with Palau saying that unity was a requirement for God’s blessing on their churches and nation.
Some Vietnamese leaders responded by expressing remorse for their divisions and committed to start working toward reconciliation.
Organizers and participants said they hope such short events will lead to larger gains. Though the Luis Palau Association had originally planned for a two-day event for 2,000 pastors, most agreed this was an unprecedented first step toward a bigger goal. With an invitation from all segments of the Protestant community in Vietnam in hand, the Luis Palau Association is prepared to help organize evangelistic festivals in Vietnam in 2011, the centenary of Protestantism in Vietnam.
“There is still a long way to go, but we are seeing miracles piling up,” said one senior Vietnamese leader. “It could happen!”
One prominent overseas Vietnamese leader wondered if Palau’s visit to Vietnam could be compared to Billy Graham’s visit to Moscow during the Soviet Communist era.
Also sharing testimonies during the March 17 event were Rick Colsen, a top Intel executive, and John Dalton, Secretary of the Navy under President Clinton.
Report from Compass Direct News
Two evangelical archeologists have expressed caution in evaluating reports that ancient Egyptian coins bearing the name and image of the biblical Joseph have been discovered among unsorted artifacts at the Museum of Egypt, reports Baptist Press.
“The scholarly community will need to see the full report and images of the artifacts to make a judgment in regard to the interpretation of these objects as coins,” Steven Ortiz, associate professor of archaeology and biblical backgrounds at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas, said.
“It is more likely that these are amulets or jewelry. The initial reports are probably based on an initial zeal to support the koranic verses that mention coins associated with Joseph rather than a comprehensive study of the finds,” Ortiz told Baptist Press.
Al Ahram newspaper in Cairo first carried a report about the artifacts, and a subsequent report appeared in The Jerusalem Post Sept. 25, based on a translation of the original article completed by the Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI). The research has not appeared in a scholarly journal.
The Post said the significance of the find is that archeologists have located “scientific evidence countering the claim held by some historians that coins were not used for trade in ancient Egypt, and that this was done through barter instead.”
MEMRI’s translation said the artifacts initially were believed to be charms, but a thorough examination revealed that the objects bore the year in which they were minted as well as their value.
“Some of the coins are from the time when Joseph lived in Egypt, and bear his name and portrait,” the report said. “… This [find] prompted researchers to seek and find Koranic verses that speak of coins used in ancient Egypt.”
Robert Griffin, an ancient Egyptian history scholar at the University of Memphis, noted that he couldn’t make an assessment without seeing the artifacts or scholarly reports, so he wasn’t ready to accept the discovery as it is being promoted.
“My initial response is one of skepticism in that the ‘interpretation’ of the coins is quite subjective,” Griffin told BP.
The Al Ahram article said the coins are from many different periods, “including coins that bore special markings identifying them as being from the era of Joseph. Among these, there was one coin that had an inscription on it, and an image of a cow symbolizing Pharaoh’s dream about the seven fat cows and seven lean cows ….”
“It’s a bit of a stretch, to say the least,” Griffin said, “especially when you consider that one of the most prominent goddesses in Egyptian mythology is Hathor, who is represented as a cow or a woman with cow’s horns as part of her crown.”
Hathor was popular in the late Middle Kingdom and Second Intermediate Period, circa 1800-1600 B.C., which corresponds with the general time period of Joseph, Griffin said.
Also, Al Ahram said Joseph’s name appears twice on that particular coin, written in hieroglyphics, “once the original name, Joseph, and once his Egyptian name, Saba Sabani, which was given to him by Pharaoh when he became treasurer.”
“I would be interested to see the actual writing of what the researcher claims are the names of Joseph,” Griffin said. “The English transliteration he gives for the ‘Egyptian name’ of Joseph is close in form but not exactly as it would be transliterated from the Hebrew text.”
Based on what he knows at this point, Griffin said he would hesitate to say the artifacts are definitive proof of the existence of Joseph in Egypt.
Report from the Christian Telegraph
State witnessed country’s ‘bloodiest anti-Christian attack last year.’
NEW DELHI, August 22 (Compass Direct News) – One year after India’s worst-ever attack on Christians, which began after the killing of a Hindu leader on Aug. 23 in Orissa state last year, churches across the country will fast and pray for a peace that remains elusive.
The Catholic Bishops’ Conference of India (CBCI) has appealed to all the Catholic dioceses in the country to “pray for peace and harmony and a spirit of reconciliation” by fasting tomorrow, one year to the day that Vishwa Hindu Parishad (World Hindu Council or VHP) leader Swami Laxmanananda Saraswati was killed by non-Christian Maoists last year.
“This appeal is made in a special context to what happened to the Christians in Orissa after the murder of Saraswati in Kandhamal [district] on Aug. 23, 2008,” CBCI Secretary General Archbishop Stanislaus Fernandes said in a statement.
Archbishop Fernandes urged the Christian community to “adhere to the Christian principle of forgiveness and move forward so as to build a strong and integrated civil society.”
On Monday (Aug. 24), an inter-denominational meeting to pray for peace, healing and reconciliation will be held at The Sacred Heart Cathedral in New Delhi to mark “National Kandhamal Day.”
Leaders of all major denominations and church groups, including the CBCI, the National Council of Churches, the Evangelical Fellowship of India and the All India Christian Council (AICC), as well as government officials, are expected to attend the meeting.
A Distant Peace
Christians believe it may take a long time for peace and reconciliation to become a reality in Kandhamal, where violence in August and September 2008 killed more than 100 people and burned more than 4,500 houses, over 250 churches and 13 educational institutions.
“The road to peace is not easily available to the Christian community,” Dr. Sam Paul, spokesman for the AICC, told Compass.
The Hindu extremists who inflicted the violence last year have warned those who have returned from refugee camps for displaced Christians to withdraw the cases filed against them, Paul said.
“At some places they were threatened to convert to Hinduism,” he said. “At a few places, to maintain the peace, the local Christians had to deny their faith.”
Attorney Robin Ratnakar David, president of the Christian Legal Association, emphasized that without justice there can be no peace.
“Unless the administration is able to work together with the victims to ensure that the attackers are brought to justice, there will never be peace in Kandhamal,” he said. “On the part of the Christians who have been displaced, there is a need to courageously give testimonies against the accused to ensure that minorities everywhere are able to live in peace.”
David said it will take at least a year for the more than 827 criminal cases filed to be settled.
Dr. Krishan Kumar, Kandhamal district collector (administrative head), denied that peace had not returned to the district.
“There has been no incident of violence for more than seven months,” he claimed.
Asked why a majority of the displaced Christians had not returned to their villages yet, he told Compass, “I have no knowledge about it.” He added that he and other officials have been meeting regularly with religious leaders of various communities.
Dr. Sajan K. George of the Global Council of Indian Christians said Kandhamal did not need “mere moments of peace, but an era of peace.”
AICC’s Paul warned that if the attackers were not brought to justice, the impunity would further embolden them.
A New Delhi-based non-profit group, the Indo Global Social Service Society, has spearheaded a campaign to gain signatures for a memorandum highlighting the true condition of Kandhamal and hopes to present it to the president of India tomorrow (Aug. 23).
The memorandum states that although more than 11,000 persons were named in police complaints, only 679 had been arrested.
It also points out that a total of 50,000 persons were displaced as a result of the destruction of their houses, arson and looting, but that less than half of them have returned to their homes.
“A number of those who have returned have been denied access to water, firewood, and even to shops to buy daily necessities,” the memorandum states.
Indo-Asian News Service (IANS), a private news agency, spoke to victims of the Kandhamal violence on the eve of the one-year commemoration.
“It was the darkest night of my life,” recalled 45-year-old Ravinder Nath Pradhan, who a year ago saw his house and paralyzed brother doused with gas and set afire by a fanatical mob. Since then, Pradhan told IANS, justice is “nowhere near.” On Aug. 24, 2008, some 500 people attacked his village and destroyed his house.
“Within moments they flung petrol on my wheelchair-bound younger brother and torched him,” Pradhan, a retired soldier from Gadragaon village, told IANS. “We fled for our lives.”
After the violence, his family and a group of 120 Christians were forced to flee their homes to a relief camp in the state capital, Bhubaneswar.
“We went back once in December to reap our crop,” he told IANS. “Tension still loomed large. We [minority and Hindu families] used to share all our joys and sorrows. Now they say a passing hello and inquire where you are headed, and that’s it. We live underneath trees where we once had our own home.”
Seeds of Destruction
The region had been tense since the 2007 Christmas season, when alleged extremists of the VHP carried out attacks on Christians, killing at least four persons, burning 730 houses and 95 churches and rendering thousands homeless.
The spark that ignited the violence was a minor conflict between VHP supporters and local Christians over the pitching of a tent for Christmas celebrations in Brahmanigaon village. Christians were beaten, and their shops were destroyed as they went ahead with their celebration plans. In the melee, VHP leader Saraswati, who was believed to be behind the assault, came under attack and “retributive” action followed. (See “Four Die in Christmas Rampage by Hindu Extremists,” Dec. 28, 2007.)
Eight months later, with hundreds of displaced victims still living in relief camps, Maoists assassinated VHP leader Saraswati and four of his disciples on the evening of Aug. 23. The VHP wrongly blamed Christians for the murders in order to ignite large-scale violence on the minority community.
VHP leaders made public statements blaming the killing of their leader on local Christians, claiming it was to avenge the December 2007 violence. Fearing tensions, the administration of Kandhamal imposed a curfew. The VHP, too, imposed a “closure” across the state to protest Saraswati’s death, requiring a society-wide shutdown.
Defying the curfew imposed by the administration, the VHP mobilized hundreds of supporters and organized a funeral procession carrying Saraswati’s body from his ashram (religious hermitage) in Jalespata area to another site in Chakapada area – using a circuitous route that took it more than 100 kilometers (66 miles) to provoke greater conflict, according to The Hindu. As the VHP’s funeral procession continued on Aug. 24 with police escort, reports of violence began to flood newsrooms across the country.
Local police were apparently under political pressure not to take action against the organizers of the procession (see “Police Do Little to Protect Christians in Orissa,” Sept. 4, 2008). The Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party, which has close links with the VHP, was still part of the ruling state government, in partnership with the regional Biju Janata Dal party.
The state government excused itself by blaming its inability to prevent arson, rape and murder on the “difficult” hilly terrain of Kandhamal, according to The Indian Express, and the federal government ruled by the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) offered nothing more than token expressions of concern.
The UPA issued an official warning to Orissa under Article 355 of the constitution, which empowers the federal government to proclaim an emergency. But the warning came three weeks too late – by then the worst was over.
Report from Compass Direct News
The British Library has announced that the pages of 4th century biblical manuscript called the Sinaiticus Codex have been scanned and posted online after four years of work, reports Catholic News Agency.
The manuscript was written in Greek and dates to the time of the expansion of Christianity under Constantine. It can now be viewed with translations in English, German and Russian at www.codexsinaiticus.org.
For centuries it was kept at the monastery of St. Catherine on Mount Sinai, until it was divided up in the 19th century and sent to the University of Leipzig library in Germany, the National Library of Russia in St. Petersburg and the British Library. Some portions of the manuscript remained at the Mount Sinai monastery.
The project to digitalize the manuscript cost more than one million dollars.
The Codex, written by three scribes, also includes texts from the 1st century and is one of the best preserved manuscripts of the era.
Report from the Christian Telegraph
State-sponsored thugs threatened to kill Gao Zhisheng if he revealed torture.
LOS ANGELES, March 25 (Compass Direct News) – Certain that Chinese authorities are torturing Christian human rights activist Gao Zhisheng following the escape of his family to the United States, advocacy group China Aid Association (CAA) today urged the international community to take action on his behalf.
Earlier this year Gao had authorized CAA to release his account of 50 days of torture by state-sponsored thugs in September and October of 2007. Gao had written the account in November 2007 while under house arrest in Beijing after prolonged beatings and electric shocks on his mouth and genitals.
“Every time when I was tortured,” Gao wrote, “I was always repeatedly threatened that if I spelled out later what had happened to me, I would be tortured again, but I was told, ‘This time it will happen in front of your wife and children.’”
On Jan. 9, less than a month before state security agents in his home village in Shaanxi province abducted him on Feb. 4, Gao’s family members began their escape from China. They arrived on foot to Thailand and eventually were whisked to the United States. They arrived in Los Angeles on March 11 and transferred to New York on March 14.
Gao’s wife, Geng He, along with 16-year-old daughter Geng Ge and 5-year-old son Gao Tianyu, fear for his safety. In his 2007 account, Gao had written that those who captured and tortured him warned that if he revealed their ill treatment of him, he would be killed.
Gao wrote that Chinese officials among his captors – some of whom he recognized – referred to a report he had written on the torture of members of the Falun Gong spiritual group and warned him that he was about to suffer the same way. They urinated on him and repeatedly prodded his body, mouth and genitals with electric shock batons.
He described a tall, strong man who pulled his hair and said repeatedly, “Your death is sure if you share this with the outside world.”
Escape from China
Gao’s wife reportedly said that fleeing China was “extraordinarily difficult,” and that friends risked their lives to help them defect.
Geng reportedly said that Gao, under constant police surveillance, was unable to accompany them. According to Agence France-Presse (AFP), Geng told Radio Free Asia that the family traveled by train before crossing into Thailand on foot – walking day and night.
Her daughter and son had been under virtual house arrest, according to the AFP report. The adolescent Geng Ge had been unable to attend school, and with her increasing desperation came several suicide attempts, Gao’s wife reportedly told Radio Free Asia. The family is seeking asylum in the United States.
Aiding in their escape was were several groups, according to The Epoch Times, including Friends of Gao Zhisheng, the Global Association for the Rescue of Gao Zhisheng and the U.N. Refugee Agency.
Gao, who has been nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize, has also defended house church Christians and coal miners as well as members of the banned Falun Gong, which fuses Buddhist-inspired teachings with forms of meditation. In 1999 Beijing banned it as an “evil cult.”
Gao’s suffering in the fall of 2007 followed an open letter he wrote to the U.S. Congress describing China’s torture of Falun Gong members and other human rights abuses.
“The persecution of Falun Gong is the worst disaster to human nature in this era,” he wrote. “It does not mean, however, that the rights of other religious groups in China are not violated. The CCP [Chinese Communist Party]’s continuous suppression of Christian family churches is comparable to the shocking persecution of Falun Gong.”
Persecution in towns and villages toward house church members is “no different from the disaster suffered by Falun Gong practitioners,” he wrote. “In my hometown, a small county, the number of arrested, detained, and robbed family church members each year is far beyond persecuted Falun Gong practitioners, and this illegal persecution has been going on for a long time.”
Harassment of house church Christians increased significantly last year, according to CAA. A total of 2,027 Christians were affected in incidents reported to CAA in 2008, compared with 788 people in 2007. Of the 2008 total, 764 Christians were arrested and detained, most for brief periods, and 35 were sentenced to prison terms or re-education through labor.
In Beijing, the total number of people persecuted was 539, up 418 percent from the 104 reported in 2007, CAA said.
In his November 2007 account, released last Feb. 9, Gao said that officials asked him to write articles cursing Falun Gong and praising the government. When he refused, they pressured him to write a statement saying that Falun Gong practitioners had given him false evidence of torture, and that – despite constant harassment – the government had treated him and his family well. Gao said he signed this statement, as well as others in which he confessed to sexual impropriety, after beatings that left him unrecognizable.
Eventually, he wrote in the November 2007 account, under torture he agreed to his captors’ demand that he admit to illicit affairs, and he invented stories about four different women.
Gao, who at one time had been honored by China’s justice ministry as one of the top 10 lawyers for his service to the poor, resigned his membership in the CCP in 2005 to protest repression of the Falun Gong.
CAA and Gao’s family are urging concerned people worldwide to sign a petition to the Chinese government advocating his release at www.FreeGao.com .
Report from Compass Direct News
Mohamed Nasheed’s election as President of the Maldives was hailed as the dawn of a new era of democracy and freedom in the Indian Ocean country. Under former President Gayoom, the once religiously tolerant Maldives – which tended towards folk Islam – was changed into a society intolerant of all beliefs except state-approved Sunni Islam, reports Forum 18 News Service.
President Nasheed has, Forum 18 News Service notes, taken no steps to dismantle the Gayoom legacy of continuing religious freedom violations. Indeed, the scope for violations has been increased by the creation of a new and powerful Ministry of Islamic Affairs.
The 2008 Maldivian Constitution, inherited from the Gayoom era, also places many obstacles in the way of establishing human rights. Many Maldivians – especially secular and non-Muslim Maldivians forced to conceal their beliefs – have begun using anonymous weblogs to voice their concern over the situation.
Fear of social ostracism and government punishment prevents this concern from being openly expressed. If President Nasheed does not respect all Maldivian’s right to freedom of religion or belief, he will not be able to fulfil his promises to respect their human rights.
Report from the Christian Telegraph
In 1986, two brothers, Moshe and Yuval Lufan, found something beyond all expectations, reports Brian Nixon, special to ASSIST News Service.
According to Pastor Skip Heitzig, who has recently finished filming a documentary on the find, the brothers felt that they would discover something wonderful on that day.
And wonderful it was.
Tucked away in the northwestern shore of the Sea of Galilee, the brothers unearthed a 1st century boat, now named the “Jesus Boat.”
Heitzig explained to me in a recent interview that in 1986 there was a tremendous drought in Israel. This allowed the brothers access to deeper regions of the lake.
One of the brothers stumbled upon some wood, and after a little digging, determined that the wood was actually a boat. According to the brothers, a double rainbow revealed itself in the sky after the find.
The brothers retreated to the Kibbutz Ginasar to get help. The Antiquity Authorities were brought in. After a long, 12-day archeological excavation (the boat was kept in a preserving environment and sailed across the Galilee river), the “Jesus Boat” was put in a 7-year chemical bath (a wax paraffin, Heitzig explained) before it could be displayed in the open air.
Since the time of its unearthing, the boat has been officially dated to the 1st century. Almost 27 feet long, and over 7 feet wide, the boat was dated based upon the nails used and the construction of the hull.
Most scholars agree that the era during which the boat was built falls somewhere between 100 B.C and 100 A.D.
Archeologists state that the “Jesus Boat” is the first near-complete boat ever to be found in the Sea of Galilee, and is therefore a considerable discovery.
Though some have attempted to draw conclusions that Jesus (or His disciples) may have used the boat, the reality is that know one knows. Chances are the boat served its purpose for fishing and trade, and then when it got old; it was allowed to submerge in the lake.
Though scientists can’t determine if this exact boat was one Jesus would have sailed on, it can be said that it is representative of the boats the people of His day would have used.
Since the boat’s discovery, the Pope came to view the vessel- hoping it needed a home in the Vatican. The President came to see it, as did many other men of science and politics. For the past few years, the “Jesus Boat” has generated great interest across the world.
In as much as Heitzig finds the boat a fascinating and important archeological discovery, he also sees the boat as a picture of more than an ancient sailing craft. In the boat, Heitzig finds a parallel to the nation the boat was discovered in.
For Heitzig, the boat is a picture of Israel: a nation that was considered dead and submerged. But through His wonderful providence, God brought Israel forth in 1948. He reemerged it as a bud for a new generation, and established Israel as a nation.
In the soon to be released documentary, The Jesus Boat, Heitzig, as host, takes viewers on a journey through the discovery, preservation, and display of the boat (the boat can be seen in the Yigal Alon Museum in Kibbutz Ginasar), though Heitzig makes it a point to draw a strong parallel to the rebirth of the Nation of Israel.
According to Heitzig, “The Jesus Boat was way more than a documentary about an ancient boat. It’s really a testimony to the faithfulness of God. Through the film, we paralleled the story of a lost boat and a lost nation- Israel- both of which were “resurrected” after 2,000 years. It tells of a boat that wouldn’t stay buried in a land that couldn’t stay buried!”
“Just like the boat was buried under the shores for 2,000 years, the land of Israel was submerged – virtually not a nation – a dispersed people group. Yet against all odds, Israel re-emerged in 1948. As the prophet Ezekiel predicted, there was a re-gathering of Jews from the four corners of the world into that ancient piece of real estate. It would seem as impossible as dried bones, bleached and parched under the Middle Eastern sun, coming to life again.” (See Ezekiel 36-37).
“And yet it happened – 1948, the re-establishment of the nation. And why? Because God made promises to Abraham: ‘I’ll bless you, I’ll make you a great nation, your name will be great, I’ll bless those who bless you and curse those who curse you.’”(See Genesis 12:1-3).
Report from the Christian Telegraph
Here is a little humorous take on Santa Claus in the modern era – could this be the end of Santa Claus??? We can but hope.