Moroccan Authorities Raid Bible Study, Arrest Christians


Order to detain 18 nationals, deport U.S. citizen apparently came from highest levels.

MARSEILLES, France, February 9 (CDN) — A large, military-led team of Moroccan authorities raided a Bible study in a small city southeast of Marrakech last week, arresting 18 Moroccans and deporting a U.S. citizen, area Christian leaders said.

Approximately 60 officers from the Moroccan security services on Thursday afternoon (Feb. 4) raided the home of a Christian in Amizmiz, a picturesque city of 10,000 mainly Berber people 56 kilometers (35 miles) southeast of Marrakech. A church Bible study was in progress at the home with visitors from western and southern Morocco, the leaders said.

Five of the 18 people held for 14 hours were small children, two of them infants no more than 6 months old. The other small children ranged from 20 months to 4 years old, and also detained was the visiting 16-year-old nephew of one of the participants.

The Christian leaders said authorities interrogated participants in the Bible study for 14 hours. The authorities filmed the interrogations with digital video cameras and cell phones.

The leader of the Christian group, who requested anonymity for security reasons, said the raiding party was unusually large. It included an accompaniment of 15 vehicles led by a colonel and two captains.

“It’s the first time in our current Moroccan church history that the Moroccan government used this size of a legion to attack a small Christian meeting,” he said. “All the time they kept repeating that this was ordered personally by the new Moroccan Justice Minister [Mohamed Naciri] and by the highest level General of the Gendarmerie [Housni Benslimane].”

Quoting a statement by the Interior Ministry, the state-run Maghreb Arabe Presse news agency reported that a “foreign missionary” had been arrested for trying to “spread evangelist creed in the Kingdom and locate new Moroccan nationals for recruitment.”

The statement added that the raid took place “following information on the organization of a secret meeting to initiate people into Christianity, which would shake Muslims’ faith and undermine the Kingdom’s religious values.”

The U.S. citizen, whose name has not been released, was deported immediately after interrogation. The Christian leaders said the visiting Moroccans were sent back to their homes in western and southern Morocco.

Authorities seized Bibles, books, two laptops, a digital camera and one cell phone, they said.

“I don’t think this number of Moroccan government forces was ever used even against Muslim fundamentalists,” the leader of the Christian group said.

Conflicting Codes

Overall, the North African country has a history of religious tolerance. Morocco’s constitution provides for freedom to practice one’s religion, but Article 220 of the Moroccan Penal Code criminalizes any attempt to induce a Muslim to convert to another religion.

In its 2009 international religious freedom report, the U.S. Department of State noted that on April 2, 2009, a Moroccan government spokesman asserted that freedom of religion does not include freedom to choose one’s faith.

“The fight against Christian proselytizing in accordance with law cannot be considered among human rights abuses,” the Moroccan government spokesman said, “for it is an action aimed at preventing attempts to undermine the country’s immutable religious values. The freedom of belief does not mean conversion to another religion.”

Morocco is a signatory to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. Article 18 of the covenant affirms the right to manifest one’s faith in worship, observance, practice or teaching.

The covenant also states, however, that “freedom to manifest one’s religion or beliefs may be subject only to such limitations as are prescribed by law and are necessary to protect public safety, order, health, or morals or the fundamental rights and freedoms of others.”

In early December last year Moroccan police expelled five Christian foreigners for “attending a forbidden meeting,” according to an unnamed government official. The five men were involved in a training seminar for 17 Christians in northern Morocco.

“We were highly surprised that Morocco dared to arrest and expel us,” said one of the deported Christians, noting that only Christians were present at the meetings. “The police told us that we were holding a forbidden meeting, but we are friends just coming together for fellowship and for teaching each other. Is that forbidden in Morocco?”

The deportations were a serious violation of religious rights, the Christian said.

“The police came with 35 agents – 12 of them invaded the building, and the rest of the police surrounded the premises just to arrest 17 friends coming together for fellowship,” he said. “We were held in custody for one day and night, and we were interrogated for many hours, until 4:30 the next morning.”

On March 29, 2009, the Moroccan government announced that it had expelled five female Christians for attempting to “proselytize,” although sources said they were foreign visitors merely attending a Bible study with fellow Christians. The accused women were five of 23 tourists, expatriates and Moroccans arrested in Casablanca on March 28 during what the Interior Ministry called a “proselytizing” meeting involving Moroccan citizens.

Police seized numerous pieces of evangelistic “propaganda,” including Arabic books and videos. But a source told Compass that everyone in attendance was a Christian and that they had gathered merely for a Bible study, which he said falls within Morocco’s constitutional right of freedom to express one’s faith.

The authorities interrogated 12 others, 11 of them Moroccan citizens, for participating in the women’s Bible study in the apartment of a local Christian leader in Casablanca. They released them early the following morning, returning them home in unmarked police cars, according to the state department report.

“The authorities reportedly pressured the women to return to Islam, mocked their Christian faith, questioned why they left Islam to become Christians, and asked if there were other Christians in their families,” the report states.

A Christian who works in the country told Compass that Moroccan Christians do not see themselves as contradicting national values.

“Moroccan Christians are proud to be Moroccan and desire the freedom to be legally recognized by the government,” he said.

Report from Compass Direct News 

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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 

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 

INDIA: CHRISTIANS FALSELY ACCUSED IN CLAN-FIGHT MURDER


Hindus opposed to pastor’s evangelistic efforts name him, three others.

NEW DELHI, August 31 (Compass Direct News) – Hindus opposed to a pastor in a village in Madhya Pradesh, India have falsely charged him and three other Christians in the murder of a young man killed in a gang fight between two clans, according to area Christians.

Pastor Kamlesh Tahed, 32, of Mehendi Kheda village, Jhabua district, told Compass he was not even in the village on Aug. 8, the day 22-year-old Roop Singh Baria was killed. Pastor Tahed, who spent 20 days in jail on false charges of “forcible conversion” in 2001 before a court declared him innocent, is in hiding.

“I was away in another village to pray for a sick person the day the murder took place,” Pastor Tahed told Compass.

Three other Christians from his clan – Kasna Tahed, 25, Ramesh Tahed, 26, and Vasna Tahed, 36 – are in police custody, also charged in the murder of Baria, of nearby Negadia village, even though they were not present at the site of the melee either, Pastor Tahed said.

“We four had nothing to do with the fight and murder,” Pastor Tahed told Compass. “The report that was filed in the police station had not only the names of the 13 suspects involved in the fight, but also the four Christians who were not even present at the site of the fight.”

He added that 10 of the 13 Hindus charged are in custody, and three are on “the run.”

All 17 men are booked under all the same charges – murder, rioting, rioting with a deadly weapon and unlawful assembly – with the courts to determine which charges actually apply to which suspects.

The murder came amid a mob fight after the Baria clan attacked the Tahed clan over 1,000 rupees (US$20) that one of the Tahed family members had borrowed, area Christians said. Members of the Baria clan filed the First Information Report (FIR) on the melee and named Pastor Tahed because he is a Christian leader, said another area pastor who has suffered the same fate.

Pastor Bahadur Baria of the same village’s opposing clan told Compass that in all previous conflicts – personal, religious or social – sympathizers of Hindu extremists falsely accuse area Christians as well as bait them into conflicts.

“There are RSS [Hindu extremist Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sang] sympathizers living in both villages,” Pastor Baria said, “and they have inflamed the tribal Hindus to hook the Christian families into all rioting, murder, and other cases in the village so that the Christians are troubled from every side.”

Pastor Baria said what happened to Pastor Tahed also has happened to him; a member of the Tahed clan was murdered by a Baria clan gang, and his name appeared in the FIR. Only after a costly court process was he exonerated from murder charges, he said.

“This has not been once but every time something happens, the Christians are dragged into it,” he said.

Pastor Tahed said he used to participate in the clan conflicts before becoming a Christian.

“I once was one of them, but in the 20 years since I became a Christian, they have been dragging me into false cases and hate me for my work of evangelism,” he said. “They hooked me into a similar case in 2001 with additional charges of ‘forceful conversions,’ and I was behind bars for 20 days. Finally the court set me free as I was proved innocent.”

While Christian friends search for a lawyer to represent him and the three other Christians, Pastor Tahed has fled the area.

“These almost regular court procedures involve a lot of money, and being an evangelist with no fixed source of income, I cannot afford them,” he said.

In retaliation for the murder of Roop Singh Baria, two days later the Baria clan set on fire 12 houses of the Tahed clan, he added.

Pastor Tahed has a small plot of farmland as the only source of income by which he supports his wife, six children, parents and four children of his deceased elder brother, he said. Of the other three Christians charged, Kasna Tahed has three children, Ramesh Tahed has two and Vasna Tahed has three.

For the security of the families left behind, four police guards are posted Mehendi Kheda village and four at Negadia village.

“This is to prevent further mishaps in both the clans,” Pastor Tahed said.

Report from Compass Direct News 

BANGLADESH: POLICE TORTURE PASTOR, TWO OTHERS


Local Muslim leaders prompt officers to arrest, abuse evangelistic team.

DHAKA, Bangladesh, August 4 (Compass Direct News) – At the urging of local Muslim leaders, police in western Bangladesh have tortured a pastor and two other Christians for legally proclaiming Christ.

Habibur Rahman, 45, pastor of Boalia Spiritual Church (Boalia Ruhani Jamat) in Boalia in Cuadanga district, 220 kilometers (136 miles) west of Dhaka, said he was about to meet with 11 others for a monthly meeting on evangelism at 8 p.m. on June 8 when local police stormed in and seized him and Zahid Hassan, 25, and a 40-year-old Christian identified only as Fazlur.

The first question the police commander asked him, Rahman said, was, “Why did you become Christian?”

“Using a lot of filthy words, he charged me that I was teaching the Bible and converting people to Christianity in this area,” the pastor told Compass.

In May, a police patrol chief had threatened to seize him at a church meeting but was misinformed about the time it would take place, Rahman said.

The commander who seized him and the two others was a sub-inspector with the name Khaleque on his badge, Rahman said. Police dragged them to a nearby parked vehicle and transported them to Shamvunagar police camp.

“Police told us, ‘We will teach you in the camp how to forget your Christ,’ while dragging us to the vehicle,” said Rahman.

Police blindfolded them after reaching the camp and took them to three separate rooms.

“I heard blood-curdling scream from other rooms,” Rahman said. “I was sitting on the floor blindfolded. I could not understand what was happening around me. Later several police came to me and one of them kicked me on the back of my head, and my head ricocheted off the wall. They also kicked my waist.”

Ordering him to say how many people he had converted to Christianity in the Muslim-majority nation, the commander said he would kick him a like number of times. The official told him to call out to Jesus, saying he wanted to see how Jesus would save him, Rahman said.

“While beating us, police told us there will be no Christian in this area,” the pastor said. “Police hurt our hands, lips, thighs and faces with burning cigarettes. They beat me in the joints of my limbs with a wooden club. They beat us for one hour, and I became senseless at some point.”

Police officers told Rahman to admit that whatever he had done in his life was wrong, he said. When they sent them to Boalia police station early the next morning, dozens of Christians arrived to try to obtain their release.

Police, however, were reluctant to release the detained Christians.

“Some Christian villagers then said, ‘We are also criminal because we believe in Christ like Habibur Rahman and the other two Christians,’” Rahman said. “They told police, ‘If you do not release them, then arrest us and put us in jail.’”

Police did not release the three Christians until 9:30 that night.

The next day, June 10, thousands of Muslim villagers demonstrated in front of a local government office called the Zamzami Union Council chanting, “We want a Christian-free society,” and “We will not allow any Christians in Cuadanga.”

The frenzied mob called for Rahman to appear at the local government office, and a sub-district administrative chief called in 10 Christians and 10 Muslims including imams to try to resolve the matter. In that meeting, the administrative official told everyone to practice their religion freely without disturbing others.

“The administrative chief also said nobody should interfere in other religions, but even now we cannot attend our churches for worship,” Rahman said. “Local people said, ‘You will come in the church alive but return home dead.’”

Police Denial

Police denied carrying out any torture, saying they arrested the Christians for interrogation because villagers had informed officers that some underground Maoist terrorists had gathered in the house.

Jotish Biswas, executive director of Way of Life Trust, said the marks of torture were unmistakable.

“There were streaks of blood on their legs, hands and faces,” said Biswas, who interceded with police on behalf of the arrested Christians. “I have seen marks of cigarette burns on their bodies. They were beaten so severely that they could not walk properly.”

Biswas said he had learned that a local official and some Muslim clerics had prompted police to torture the Christians because they objected to their evangelistic activity.

“Police violated the rights of minorities enshrined in the Bangladeshi constitution,” Biswas said. “It was a gross violation of human rights.”

Chanchal Mehmud Kashem, a Christian journalist who visited the area, told Compass that the area is lacking in freedom of religion.

“Torture by police suggests that those Christians are not citizens of Bangladesh,” Kashem said. “It suggests they are illegal, alien and that evangelism is a crime.”

Kashem added that the notion that “underground terrorists” had gathered in a house was a pretext for harassing the Christians. “Rahman has been working as an evangelist in this area for one and half years,” he said.

There are 176 Christians in the area where Rahman works as an evangelist and pastor, he said.

“The local government council chairman told me two times not to come in this area,” Rahman said. “He said, ‘There is no Christian in this area, so why do you come here to make Christians?’”

Local Muslim villagers have since refused to give work to area Christians, most of whom are day laborers dependent on obtaining daily jobs to survive.

Report from Compass Direct News 

ISRAEL: MESSIANIC JEW WINS SUPREME COURT BATTLE


Bakery owner had lost her Jewish dietary law certificate because of her faith.

JERUSALEM , July 15 (Compass Direct News) – For three long years a Jewish believer in Christ struggled to keep her bakery business alive after the Chief Rabbinate of Israel, the country’s highest religious governing body, annulled her kashrut (Jewish dietary law) certificate because of her faith.

Pnina Conforti, 51, finally gave a sigh of relief when the Israeli Supreme Court on June 29 ruled that her belief in Jesus Christ was unrelated to her eligibility for a kashrut certificate. While bakeries and restaurants in Israel are not required to obtain such a permit, the loss of one often slows the flow of customers who observe Jewish dietary laws and eventually can destroy a business.

Conforti said that the last three years were very difficult for her and her family, as she lost nearly 70 percent of her customers.

“We barely survived, but now it’s all behind us,” she said. “Apparently, many people supported us, and were happy with the verdict. Enough is enough.”

Conforti, who describes herself as a Messianic Jew, had built her Pnina Pie bakeries in Gan Yavne and Ashdod from scratch. She said her nightmare began in 2002 with an article about her in “Kivun,” a magazine for Messianic Jews in Israel.

“Soon after, the people of the Rabbinate summoned me and told me that my kashrut certificate was annulled because I do not profess Judaism,” she said.

Food prepared in accordance with kashrut guidelines is termed kosher, from the Hebrew kasher, or “fit,” and includes prohibition of cooking and consuming meat and diary products together, keeping different sets of dishes for those products, and slaughtering animals according to certain rules. News of the faith of the owner of the Pnina Pie bakery in Gan Yavne spread quickly, soon reaching extremist organizations such as Yad le’Achim, a sometimes violent Orthodox Jewish group.

“They spread around a pamphlet with my photo, warning people away from acquiring products from my business,” Conforti said. “One such a pamphlet was hung in a synagogue. However, I refused to surrender to them and continued working as usual.”

Four years later, in 2006, Conforti decided to open another patisserie in Ashdod, near her original shop in Gan Yavne, in southern Israel. The business flourished, but success didn’t last long.

“A customer of mine, an Orthodox Jew from Ashdod, visited his friends and relatives in Gan Yavne,” she said. “There in the synagogue he came across a pamphlet from 2002 with my photo on it. In addition to boycott calls, I was also described as a missionary. My customer confronted me, and I honestly told him I was a believer.”

Soon thereafter the Rabbinate of Ashdod withdrew the kashrut certificate from her shop there, she said.

“Pamphlets in Hebrew, English and French about me begun circulating around the town,” Conforti said. “They even printed some in Russian, since they saw that the customers of Russian origin continue to arrive.”

The withdrawal of the certificate from the shop in Ashdod in 2006 was a serious blow to her business. Conforti decided to take action, and her lawyer appealed to Israel’s Supreme Court. Judges Yoram Denziger, Salim Jubran and Eliezer Rivlin ruled that the Chief Rabbinate of Israel overstepped its authority.

“The Kashrut Law states clearly that only legal deliberations directly related to what makes the food kosher are relevant, not wider concerns unrelated to food preparation,” the panel of judges wrote.

In response, the Chief Rabbinate accused the judges of meddling in religious affairs.

Soon after she petitioned the Supreme Court, Conforti said, the Chief Rabbinate had offered her a deal by which it would issue her business a kashrut certificate but with certain restrictions, such as handing the keys of the bakery to a kashrut supervisor at night. Conforti declined.

Tzvi Sedan, editor-in-chief of “Kivun,” said the Supreme Court verdict was paramount.

“It’s important not only for Messianic Jews, but also for every other business owner who has to suffer from the arbitrariness of the Rabbinate,” Sedan said. “But I still want to see this decision implemented fully in reality.”

At press time Conforti still hadn’t received the certificate. She was waiting for a team of inspectors from the Rabbinate to inspect the business prior to issuing her the certificate.

A Jew of Yemenite origin, Conforti said she was raised in religious family but came to trust in Christ following her encounter with a Christian family during a visit to the United States.

“There I found Christ and embraced him as my personal Savior,” she said. “I do not engage in [evangelistic] activity, but if someone starts a conversation about my faith, I will speak openly about it.”

Report from Compass Direct News

Repressive Religion Law and new punishments enter force


Azerbaijan’s repressive new Religion Law slid in under the radar, reports MNN.

Joel Griffith with Slavic Gospel Association says it’s been modified since the last time they saw it. “It appears that this is a little bit worse than what we thought it was going to be. Just looking at parts of this legislation, now in force as of May 31, it seems like there have been some new offenses that have been added to it as well as some new penalties.”

Some of the changes include severe censorship and harsher punishments. These were introduced for religious activities and agencies the government does not like.

Griffith went on to say that all registered religious organizations must re-register by 1 January 2010, the third time re-registration has been demanded in less than twenty years. Earlier re-registration rounds saw many churches and ministries fail to regain their legal status.

He agrees with the assessment of Forum 18, that the wording implies unregistered organizations are illegal.

As it is, under the existing rules, Griffith says they’ve already felt the heat. “We’ve had several evangelical pastors jailed because of their ministry. So it seems, at least within Azerbaijan, that there is an intent to try to crack down on evangelical churches.”

However, there are some unexpected allies. According to Forum 18, Parliamentary Deputy Fazil Gazanfarolgu Mustafaev said, “the new Religion Law will limitpeople’s rights to freedom of conscience – that is clear.”

Gazanfarolgu added that public pressure may force parliamentary deputies to take another look at the Religion Law, given public unhappiness over the way religion is controlled.

Griffith adds that while it looks bad, it’s too early to know how much evangelistic work could be at risk. “How this new law is going to be enforced, only time will tell. As I say, we have seen at least some in Parliament who are wanting to believe that there will be some public pressure brought to bear to have this re-examined, so I think this needs to be our chief hope and prayer.”

Report from the Christian Telegraph

VIETNAM: MASSIVE CHRISTIAN CELEBRATION ALLOWED


Officials permit rare, open-air Easter event by unregistered groups.

HO CHI MINH CITY, April 22 (Compass Direct News) – In what religious freedom advocates regarded as a breakthrough in Vietnam, authorities granted rare permission to unregistered house church groups to hold a large, public Easter-related service here last night.

More than 15,000 people gathered at Tao Dan Stadium to worship God, proclaim Christ and experience a rare sense of large-scale Christian unity, especially house church members accustomed to meeting in small groups. The only other such event granted to unregistered groups was an open-air meeting during Christmas of 2007 sponsored by the Vietnam Evangelical Fellowship (VEF, a house church umbrella group).

At the event last night, the VEF endeavored to include all house churches, not just its own members, sources said.

Unregistered groups holding an event that includes worship and evangelism outside a church building violates Vietnam’s restrictive religion laws, and the celebration – in which 1,200 people indicated they had decided to follow Christ – did not happen without struggles. Reluctant to endorse such Christian unity events, authorities demanded and got the removal of one of the organizers – pastor Nguyen Ngoc Hien, who heads a Baptist house church and a group called the Christian Fellowship of Vietnam – as a condition to consider approval.

Officials did not grant permission until 4 p.m., just three hours before the event was to begin, though event organizers had requested permission several months prior. Authorities had assured them that permission was forthcoming, but organizers were understandably nervous. Adding to their concerns was the rain that hit just before the service began, though the rainy season has yet to arrive.

Since the celebration was held in the open air, a heavy rain would have been more than inconvenient. It rained just enough to refresh the air, stopping as the service began – an answer to prayer for participants. The celebration began with congregational worship; participants said the huge crowd sang with enthusiasm and joy.

“I never heard any singing like this, even in a Billy Graham crusade,” said one overseas Vietnamese Christian leader. “It was as if they offered to God all the praise and worship stored up in their hearts during many years of oppression.”

Worship included a dance group, and a 120-voice choir sang with gusto. Pastor Duong Thanh Lam of the Assemblies of God served as master of ceremonies, pastor Vo Van Lac of the Full Gospel Church preached a gospel message and pastor Pham Dinh Nhan of the United Gospel Outreach Church made an evangelistic appeal. People responded with loud applause and raised their hands in praise, and those who decided to follow Christ included old and young, students and teachers, rank-and-file workers and some disabled people. Witnesses said some were healed as leaders prayed for them.

Leaders of the celebration and religious freedom advocates in Vietnam said the event was significant in that unregistered house churches were allowed to hold a large public celebration. They added that authorities must have felt enough pressure to consider the event less harmful than possible negative publicity from denying permission.

The sources also said the event showed that Vietnam’s house churches, widely known for divisiveness and provincialism, could cooperate with good results.

“Those who have long urged and worked for unity can be pleased,” said one advocate. “While there is still a long way to go for Vietnamese Christian groups in practicing collaboration and partnership, this Easter celebration is seen as a significant step forward.”

A prominent overseas Vietnam leader who founded the Vietnam World Christian Fellowship witnessed the event and highly commended the leadership of pastor Ho Tan Khoa, chairman of the VEF, and his committee.

Some former Vietnam missionaries were incredulous that such events can take place in Vietnam, which until recently has had a place among the world’s top persecutors of religion. Prior to the Easter-related event organized by unregistered house churches, Christmas events were similarly held by the legally recognized Evangelical Church of Vietnam (South) last December.

“That a successful Christian celebration with mass evangelism approved by the government can take place in Vietnam where in some places Christians are still heavily persecuted shows the ongoing inconsistency of Vietnam’s religion policy,” said one source. “Vietnam Christian leaders have long prayed for such opportunities. They see these events as direct answers from God, whom they believe holds the hearts of rulers in his hands.”

Three representatives of a house church group in China were present at the service; they expressed amazement. They promised Vietnamese church leaders to send missionaries to help in the evangelization of Vietnam and invited Vietnamese church leaders to visit China to learn about the church there.

Vietnamese participants said the celebration was inspiring, describing it as “spectacular,” “splendid,” “glorious” and “phenomenal.”  

Report from Compass Direct News