The link below is to an article concerning a pastor in Georgia, USA, who sought the right to bear arms in church. Not sure what he was hoping to achieve my taking guns to church other than it being just a stunt. He claims it would be for protection – must be very vigorous debates over membership issues there. Crazy!
Arrest, imprisonment appear to be part of larger crackdown in Isfahan.
ISTANBUL, March 8 (CDN) — An Assyrian pastor the Iranian government accused of “converting Muslims” is being tortured in prison and threatened with execution, sources close to the case said.
State Security agents on Feb. 2 arrested the Rev. Wilson Issavi, 65, shortly after he finished a house meeting at a friend’s home in Isfahan. A city of more than 1.5 million people, Isfahan is located 208 miles (335 kilometers) south of Tehran.
According to Farsi Christian News Network, Issavi’s wife, Medline Nazanin, recently visited her husband in prison, where she saw that he had obvious signs of torture and was in poor condition. Iranian intelligence officials told Nazanin that her husband might be executed for his alleged activities.
Issavi is the pastor of The Evangelical Church of Kermanshah in Isfahan, a 50-year-old church body affiliated with The Assemblies of God that caters to the local Assyrian population.
During the raid, State Security police detained everyone in the house, later releasing all but Issavi and the owner of the home. Security officials also seized personal property from the home. Typically in Christian arrests in Iran, security officials confiscate all documents, media materials, computers, and personal documentation.
Issavi is being held in an unmarked prison, according to FCNN.
Last month’s arrest seems to be part of an anti-Christian sweep that is taking place across Isfahan. In addition to the politically motivated detentions and executions that have taken place after June’s contested election and subsequent nation-wide political protests, it appears authorities are rounding up Christian leaders.
On Feb. 28, Isfahan residents Hamid Shafiee and his wife Reyhaneh Aghajary, both converts from Islam and house church leaders, were arrested at their home.
Aghajary was at home with a group of other Christians when police came for her and her husband, who was not at home, according to Middle East Concern, a group that assists persecuted Christians. Police handcuffed Aghajary and, upon finding boxes of Bibles, began beating her.
The assault continued until eventually Aghajary was pepper-sprayed and removed from the scene. Her husband Shafiee was arrested an hour later when he returned to the house.
Their fate and whereabouts are still unknown.
Authorities assaulted another Christian visiting the house at the time of the raid when he protested the police action. Other Christians at the house were threatened, but no one else was arrested. Approximately 20 police officers raided the home, seizing Bibles, CDs, photographs, computers, telephones, personal items and other literature.
One regional analyst, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said the Iranian government is set on crushing religious freedom within the country.
“The recent spate of church leader arrests provides clear evidence of the Iranian authorities’ desperate determination to strangle the growing church movement, along with all other forms of perceived political dissent,” he said.
February’s arrest was not the first time Shafiee has had run-ins with Iranian authorities. He has routinely been ordered to appear before police for questioning and then released. This arrest, however, was different. When family members contacted police on March 1, they were told that the couple’s case was under the jurisdiction of the Revolutionary Court and were turned away with no other information.
While the couple is imprisoned, family members are caring for their two teenage boys.
Like Shafiee, Issavi has been harassed frequently by the Isfahan branch of the State Security police. He has been ordered to appear before the police many times, then arrested and interrogated. In addition, police have threatened members of his family and have broken into his house and taken items such as his computer.
On Jan. 2, 2010, police sealed the Kermanshah church and ordered Issavi not to reopen it. The church continued to have house meetings, and authorities charged Issavi with not cooperating with the government.
The Assyrians were one of the first ethnic groups in the Middle East to adopt Christianity. The existence of the Assyrian Christian community in Iran predates the existence of their Islamic counterparts by several hundred years. There are 10,000 to 20,000 Assyrian Christians living in Iran, according to unofficial estimates cited in the 2009 International Religious Freedom Report issued by the U.S. Department of State. The total Christian population is 300,000 nationwide, according to the United Nations. Most of those Christians are ethnic Armenians.
Isfahan has been the site of some of the worst religious persecution in Iran. On July 30, 2008, Abbas Amiri, a Christian man in his 60s, died in a hospital after being beaten by Isfahan security police. Authorities had arrested Amiri along with seven other men, six women and two minors during a July 17 raid on a house meeting. Four days after her husband died, Sakineh Rahnama succumbed to her injuries and a stress-related heart attack. Later, officials wouldn’t allow local Christians to hold a memorial service.
Iran, where Shia Islam is the official state religion, is known to be one of the worst countries for repression against Christians. The U.S. Secretary of State has designated Iran as a Country of Particular Concern every year since 1999 for its persecution of non-Shia Muslims, among others.
Last year, according to the International Religious Freedom Report, persecution of Christians and other religious minorities continued to get “significantly worse.” The state department placed the blame for this squarely at the feet of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Iran’s conservative media, who “intensified a campaign against non-Muslim religious minorities, and political and religious leaders” by issuing a continual stream of inflammatory statements.
“Christians, particularly evangelicals, continued to be subject to harassment and close surveillance,” the report states. “The government vigilantly enforced its prohibition on proselytizing by closely monitoring the activities of evangelical Christians, discouraging Muslims from entering church premises, closing churches, and arresting Christian converts.”
Evangelical Christians were required to carry church membership cards and provide photocopies to authorities, according to the report.
“Worshippers were subject to identity checks by authorities posted outside congregation centers,” it states. “The government restricted meetings for evangelical services to Sundays, and church officials were ordered to inform the Ministry of Information and Islamic Guidance before admitting new members.”
Report from Compass Direct News
CD indicates naval officers planned violence against non-Muslim communities.
ISTANBUL, December 16 (CDN) — ISTANBUL, December 16 (Compass Direct News) – Chilling allegations emerged last month of a detailed plot by Turkish naval officers to perpetrate threats and violence against the nation’s non-Muslims in an effort to implicate and unseat Turkey’s pro-Islamic government.
Evidence put forth for the plot appeared on an encrypted compact disc discovered last April but was only recently deciphered; the daily Taraf newspaper first leaked details of the CD’s contents on Nov. 19.
Entitled the “Operation Cage Action Plan,” the plot outlines a plethora of planned threat campaigns, bomb attacks, kidnappings and assassinations targeting the nation’s tiny religious minority communities – an apparent effort by military brass to discredit the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP). The scheme ultimately called for bombings of homes and buildings owned by non-Muslims, setting fire to homes, vehicles and businesses of Christian and Jewish citizens, and murdering prominent leaders among the religious minorities.
Dated March 2009, the CD containing details of the plot was discovered in a raid on the office of a retired major implicated in a large illegal cache of military arms uncovered near Istanbul last April. Once deciphered, it revealed the full names of 41 naval officials assigned to carry out a four-phase campaign exploiting the vulnerability of Turkey’s non-Muslim religious minorities, who constitute less than 1 percent of the population.
A map that Taraf published on its front page – headlined “The Targeted Missionaries” – was based on the controversial CD documents. Color-coded to show all the Turkish provinces where non-Muslims lived or had meetings for worship, the map showed only 13 of Turkey’s 81 provinces had no known non-Muslim residents or religious meetings.
The plan identified 939 non-Muslim representatives in Turkey as possible targets.
“If even half of what is written in Taraf is accurate, everybody with a conscience in this country has to go mad,” Eyup Can wrote in his Hurriyet column two days after the news broke.
The day after the first Taraf report, the headquarters of the Turkish General Staff filed a criminal complaint against the daily with the Justice Ministry, declaring its coverage a “clear violation” of the laws protecting ongoing prosecution investigations from public release.
Although the prime minister’s office the next day confirmed that the newly revealed “Cage” plot was indeed under official investigation, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan criticized Taraf’s public disclosure of the plan as “interfering” and “damaging” to the judicial process and important sectors of the government.
But when the judiciary began interrogating a number of the named naval suspects and sent some of them to jail, most Turkish media – which had downplayed the claims – began to accept the plot’s possible authenticity.
To date, at least 11 of the naval officials identified in the Cage documents are under arrest, accused of membership in an illegal organization. They include a retired major, a lieutenant colonel, three lieutenant commanders, two colonels and three first sergeants.
The latest plot allegations are linked to criminal investigations launched in June 2007 into Ergenekon, an alleged “deep state” conspiracy by a group of military officials, state security personnel, lawyers and journalists now behind bars on charges of planning a coup against the elected AKP government.
Christian Murders Termed ‘Operations’
The plot document began with specific mention of the three most recent deadly attacks perpetrated against Christians in Turkey, cryptically labeling them “operations.”
Initial Turkish public opinion had blamed Islamist groups for the savage murders of Italian Catholic priest Andrea Santoro (February 2006), Turkish Armenian Agos newspaper editor Hrant Dink (January 2007) and two Turkish Christians and a German Christian in Malatya (April 2007). But authors of the Cage plan complained that AKP’s “intensive propaganda” after these incidents had instead fingered the Ergenekon cabal as the perpetrators.
“The Cage plan demanded that these ‘operations’ be conducted in a more systematic and planned manner,” attorney Orhan Kemal Cengiz wrote in Today’s Zaman on Nov. 27. “They want to re-market the ‘black propaganda’ that Muslims kill Christians,” concluded Cengiz, a joint-plaintiff lawyer in the Malatya murder trial and legal adviser to Turkey’s Association of Protestant Churches.
In the first phase of the Cage plot, officers were ordered to compile information identifying the non-Muslim communities’ leaders, schools, associations, cemeteries, places of worship and media outlets, including all subscribers to the Armenian Agos weekly. With this data, the second stage called for creating an atmosphere of fear by openly targeting these religious minorities, using intimidating letters and telephone calls, warnings posted on websites linked to the government and graffiti in neighborhoods where non-Muslims lived.
To channel public opinion, the third phase centered on priming TV and print media to criticize and debate the AKP government’s handling of security for religious minorities, to raise the specter of the party ultimately replacing Turkey’s secular laws and institutions with Islamic provisions.
The final phase called for planting bombs and suspicious packages near homes and buildings owned by non-Muslims, desecrating their cemeteries, setting fire to homes, vehicles and businesses of Christian and Jewish citizens, and even kidnapping and assassinating prominent leaders among the religious minorities.
Lawyer Fethiye Cetin, representing the Dink family in the Agos editor’s murder trial, admitted she was having difficulty even accepting the details of the Cage plot.
“I am engulfed in horror,” Cetin told Bianet, the online Independent Communications Network. “Some forces of this country sit down and make a plan to identify their fellow citizens, of their own country, as enemies! They will kill Armenians and non-Muslims in the psychological war they are conducting against the ones identified as their enemies.”
No Surprise to Christians
“We were not very shocked,” Protestant Pastor Ihsan Ozbek of the Kurtulus Churches in Ankara admitted to Taraf the day after the news broke.
After the Malatya murders, he stated, Christians had no official means to investigate their suspicions about the instigators, “and we could not be very brave . . . Once again the evidence is being seen, that it is the juntas who are against democracy who [have been] behind the propaganda in the past 10 years against Christianity and missionary activity.”
Patriarch Bartholomew of the Greek Orthodox Church also openly addressed the Cage plot, referring to recent incidents of intimidation against Christian and Jewish citizens in Istanbul’s Kurtulus and Adalar districts, as well as a previous raid conducted against the alumni of a Greek high school.
“At the time, we thought that they were just trying to scare us,” he told Today’s Zaman. Several of the jailed Ergenekon suspects now on trial were closely involved for years in protesting and slandering the Istanbul Patriarchate, considered the heart of Eastern Orthodoxy’s 300 million adherents. As ultranationalists, they claimed the Orthodox wanted to set up a Vatican-style entity within Turkey.
Last summer 90 graves were desecrated in the Greek Orthodox community’s Balikli cemetery in the Zeytinburnu district of Istanbul. The city’s 65 non-Muslim cemeteries are not guarded by the municipality, with their maintenance and protection left to Greek, Armenian and Jewish minorities.
As details continued to emerge and national debates raged for more than a week over the Cage plan in the Turkish media, calls came from a broad spectrum of society to merge the files of the ongoing Dink and Malatya murder trials with the Ergenekon file. The Turkish General Staff has consistently labeled much of the media coverage of the Ergenekon investigations as part of smear campaign against the fiercely secular military, which until the past two years enjoyed virtual impunity from civilian court investigations.
According to Ria Oomen-Ruijten, the European Parliament’s rapporteur on Turkey, the long-entrenched role of the military in the Turkish government is an “obstacle” for further democratization and integration into the EU.
Report from Compass Direct News
The Bible cautions that “The first to state his case seems right until another comes and cross-examines him,” reports Baptist Press.
Unfortunately, this proverb has become increasingly actionable in recent years as Christians and their beliefs are being presented unfavorably — alternately as a monolithic bloc and then as fragmented and waning in numbers — by a media that at times is not too sophisticated and at other times apparently is just malicious. Even some evangelicals have shown a disappointing lack of discernment in claiming to know evangelicals (the “I am one of them” credential), but then advocating views that seem at odds with what is obvious or established about evangelicals.
Probably the most egregious example of late was the media’s representation of the American Religious Identity Survey 2008 (pertaining to adults) released in March 2009 by Trinity College of Hartford, Conn.
The cover of Newsweek proclaimed “The decline and fall of Christian America” and the magazine reported that according to the survey, “the percentage of self-identified [adult] Christians has fallen 10 percent since 1990, from 86 to 76 percent.”
Editor Jon Meacham opined, “This is not to say that the Christian God is dead,” he said, “but that [H]e is less of a force in American politics and culture than at any other time in recent memory.”
He conceded that the U.S. is “decisively shaped by religious faith,” but offered that “our politics and our culture are, in the main, less influenced by movements and arguments of an explicitly Christian character than they were even five years ago,” adding that he thought this was a “good thing” for both the political culture and Christianity. In his view “the decline and fall of the religious right’s notion of a Christian America creates a calmer political environment” and in his estimation this perceived shift “may help open the way for a more theologically serious religious life.”
In examining the A.R.I.S. data, the Washington Post simply stated “15 Percent of Americans Have No Religion” but offered the same data as Newsweek that “the percentage of [adult] Americans identifying as Christians has dropped to 76 percent of the population, down from 86 percent in 1990.”
“The increase in people labeling themselves in more generic Christian terms corresponds strongly with the decline in people identifying themselves as Protestant, the survey found,” Michele Boorstein wrote.
She offered one insight to help explain the shift, but stopped short of any meaningful analysis.
“People calling themselves mainline Protestants, including Methodists and Lutherans, have dropped to 13 percent of the [adult] population, down from 19 percent in 1990. The number of people who describe themselves as generically ‘Protestant’ went from approximately 17 million in 1990 to 5 million.”
The headline in USA Today read, “Most religious groups in USA have lost ground, survey finds” adding to the chorus about the “percentage of people who call themselves in some way Christian has dropped more than 11% [of adults] in a generation.
“These dramatic shifts in just 18 years are detailed in the new American Religious Identification Survey (ARIS)…. It finds that, despite growth and immigration that has added nearly 50 million adults to the U.S. population, almost all religious denominations have lost ground since the first ARIS survey in 1990.”
The writer, Cathy Grossman, offered some contextualization by recognizing the shift in our population from immigration, but she fell short in pursuing what this shift means to the changes reported by the A.R.I.S. 2008 study. Later she also observed that sexual abuse by Catholic clergy might have contributed to some changes in the numbers of those who identified themselves as Catholics, but said nothing about other similar influences that might have shaped respondents’ answers to the poll.
Even the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ed Stetzer, director of LifeWay Research, weighed in.
He applauded the USA Today account of the A.R.I.S. 2008 findings and lauded the A.R.I.S. methodology. He also tagged on his observation that “denominations and denominationalism are in decline, the cultural influence of Christianity continues to slip, more people are describing themselves as non-religious (now at 15%) and minority religions are increasing in popularity (like Islam and Wicca).
“Baptists are shown to be an aging group that continues to lose the younger generations and leaders,” he added.
What each of these assessments misses is what the research actually said, and even what the study’s principal investigators concluded about their findings.
On the first page of the report, researchers Barry Kosmin and Ariela Keysar offered this conclusion in the highlights section of their study:
“Overall the 1990-2008 ARIS time series shows that changes in religious self-identification in the first decade of the 21st century have been moderate in comparison to the 1990s, which was a period of significant shifts in the religious composition of the United States.”
The researchers might have been too passive in their assessment that the changes from 2001 to 2008 were “moderate” compared to the “significant shifts” from 1990 to 2000.
Look, for instance, at the common data highlighted by the mainstream media that “the percentage of [adult] Americans identifying as Christians has dropped to 76 percent of the population, down from 86 percent in 1990.”
The data points are factual, but the way the data are presented is not.
The reality is that the percentage of adult Americans who claimed to be Christians dropped from 86 percent in 1990 to 77.7 percent in 2001 and THEN to 76 percent in 2008. In other words, almost none of the change happened in the last 8 years of the study. Even Kosmin and Keysar stated that “the most dramatic changes in the balance of religious sentiments seem to have occurred during the 1990s.”
Moreover, these percentages do not reflect an exodus from Christianity or an ineffectiveness of the faith.
The A.R.I.S. data show the absolute number of adult Christians actually increased from 151,225,000 in 1990 to 159,514,000 in 2001 (a gain of nearly 8.3 million) and grew to 173,402,000 in 2008 (increasing by nearly 14 million). During this same time the U.S. adult population as a whole grew by 32.5 million in the 1990s and by 20 million from 2001 to 2008.
What a different perspective the numbers actually present.
In the time from 2001 to 2008, the U.S. adult population grew by 20 million and 14 million of these were Christians!
Taken in the whole, Newsweek got the story absolutely wrong. The proper interpretation is not a “fall and decline of Christian America” but that the fall or decline has substantially stopped (or at least dramatically slowed). To be frank, an objective interpretation shows we have not become a post-Christian America, but does suggest that perhaps that we are no longer moving toward becoming a secular America.
Such a conclusion is even more plausible from a true look at the growth of “nones” (those claiming no religious identity or connection). Most mainstream media proclaimed the numbers in this category had nearly doubled in 18 years, with the “nones” portion of the U.S. adult population leaping from 8.2 percent in 1990 to 15.0 percent in 2008.
But the truth is almost all of the gains occurred in the 1990s (8.2 percent to 14.1 percent) and less than one percent of the shift happened from 2001 to 2008 (0.9 percent to be exact).
There are other elements of the study that also received almost no mention.
In discussing some of these points, I do not mean to suggest that the study was poorly designed or that the methodology was lacking in any respect. However, every study has limits to what can be inferred from the information it presents because of limits in the design or other aspects of the study.
For instance, the three A.R.I.S. surveys that compose the whole work were self-reporting. In other words, respondents described themselves; the data were not obtained from formal observations by trained investigators using set criteria to categorize participants’ actual behavior.
Likewise, the A.R.I.S. project is not a longitudinal study of a single sample of people, but a series of three surveys that gathered information from different samples in different time periods, each contextualized by different circumstances that should be examined for how they informed respondents’ answers. At any other point during the two long time spans between surveys, given a different set of influences, the very same respondents could have responded remarkably different than they did at the actual moment in time they responded for the 2001 and 2008 surveys, respectively. Essentially, there are three data points out of an 18-year period and graphing a trend using just these three plotted coordinates is a guess at best.
Consider that the 2008 survey was conducted from February through November, during a highly contentious presidential campaign in which faith voters were a highly sought-after constituency. Ironically, during this same season, religion was highly negatively portrayed, and this could have been an interacting factor.
For example, look at the data reported about the absolute numbers and the percentages of the adult population for those who identified themselves with the United Churches of Christ. In 1990, 0.2 percent (or 438,000) claimed affiliation, climbing dramatically to 0.7 percent (or 1,378,000) in 2001, and dropping almost as dramatically to 0.3 percent (or 736,000) in 2008.
What might explain such a dramatic swing in the numbers for this denomination?
During the same time the 2008 survey was being conducted, then Sen. Obama’s pastor, Rev. Jeremiah Wright, was the subject of almost nightly reports on television, daily articles in America’s newspapers and hourly commentary on radio. Although some defenses were offered on behalf of Obama for his relationship to the controversial figure, there was no positive press for Wright. In fact, after attacks by his Democrat rivals as well as GOP candidates citing Wright’s anti-white tirades and anti-America rhetoric, in May 2008, Obama dropped his 20-year membership with his home church, a United Church of Christ congregation in Chicago. Wright’s denominational affiliation was repeated in nearly every news report.
It can’t be stated definitively that this was a factor, but it certainly appears that it could have been a major influence in how participants in the study responded when contacted by phone.
But Wright was not the only person of faith who came under fire. During the two months just prior to the February start of the 2008 study, GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney, a Mormon, was a popular subject in the mainstream media and much of the coverage repeated the criticisms of him for the more controversial aspects of his faith tradition. Likewise, Southern Baptist Mike Huckabee was portrayed more as a former Baptist minister with conservative views on marriage and the unborn (sometimes favorably and sometimes not for these views), and less as a governor with 10 years of executive experience. Then there was the mainstream media’s almost totally negative portrayal of vice presidential candidate and evangelical Sarah Palin.
Given these almost constant negative portrayals just before and also during the timeframe for the 2008 survey, the wonder is that the data didn’t show more than just a small negative change among those who identified themselves as Christians.
Numbers are important but only in context of the circumstances which shaped them.
This is true when assessing Christianity in America and also when looking at what research shows about the state of the Southern Baptist Convention.
Report from the Christian Telegraph
Britain is one of the least religious nations in Europe, according to a major survey by the European Union to be published next month, reports Jeremy Reynalds, correspondent for ASSIST News Service.
Writing for Britain’s Daily Telegraph, Lois Rogers said that according to the study, only 12 per cent of Britons feel they “belong” to a church, compared with 52 per cent in France.
It also found that the UK has one of the highest rates of “fuzzy faith,” or people who have an abstract belief in God and a poorly defined loyalty to Christian traditions.
The Telegraph reported that the study, conducted as part of the influential EU-funded European Social Survey, will be seen as an indicator of a shift in attitudes and values.
Professor David Voas, of Manchester University’s Institute for Social Change, who led the project, said the UK was involved in what he called a “long process of disestablishment,” with Christianity gradually being written out of laws and political institutions.
“Christian faith will soon have no role among our traditional establishments or lawmakers,” the Telegraph reported he said. “It remains to be seen for example, how much longer bishops will be allowed to sit in the House of Lords.”
The Telegraph said he added, “Fuzzy faith is a staging post on the road to non-religion. Adults still have childhood memories of being taken to church, and they maintain a nostalgic affection for Christianity but that is dying out. They still go along with the some kind of religious identity but they’re not passing it on to the next generation, and people who aren’t raised in a religion don’t generally start one as adults.”
However, Professor Linda Woodhead, of Lancaster University, who is leading a long-term £8.5 million government research program on the role of religion in society, disputed Voas’ conclusions.
“Just because you’re not religious, it doesn’t mean you’re not spiritual or moral,” the Telegraph reported she said. “A lot of people simply don’t want to take the whole package of religion on board.”
The Telegraph reported that the study, to be published in the European Sociological Review next month, not only charts the declining interest in religion of successive generations, it also concludes that there is no evidence to support the idea that interest in religion resurfaces as people age.
The Telegraph said that while “new wave” religions like Scientology, Kaballah or the Moonie faith, have received considerable media coverage because of their association with Tom Cruise, Madonna and other celebrities, the number of followers remains tiny.
The survey, which questioned more than 30,000 people in 22 countries, found only five nations – Slovenia, Sweden, Norway, Holland and Belgium – reported lower levels of church membership than Britain.
The Telegraph said some observers have argued that the Anglican church ought to do more to retain the “fuzzy faithful,” and draw the uncommitted back into the pews.
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
Six months after attack, Muslim assailants still at large; weary congregation faces heat, rain.
GARISSA, Kenya, March 5 (Compass Direct News) – Six months after a gang of Muslim youths ruined a church building in this town in northern Kenya, Christians still worshipping in the sweltering heat of the open air say they feel disillusioned that officials have done nothing to punish the culprits or restore their structure.
On a sunny afternoon last Sept. 14, when angry Muslim youths threw more than 400 members of the Redeemed Gospel Church out of their church building, the Christians hoped they would be able to return to the ruins of their former structure. That hope is quickly giving way to anger, hopelessness and despair.
“After six months in the open, the church feels tired and cheated,” said pastor David Matolo. “We are fed up with the empty promises from the government administration.”
He said the church, which began worshipping in Garissa in early 2001 with only a dozen members, is fast shrinking.
“Our church membership has decreased, which is of great concern to me,” he told Compass. “The church thinks that the government has decided to buy time – almost every month I do book appointments with the relevant authorities, who on several occasions have given us a deaf ear.”
Since the attack, church members have been meeting at the town show grounds. Just a few miles from the Somali border, the site has few trees to protect the congregation from the scorching sun, with temperatures ranging from 92 to 104 degrees F (30 to 40 degrees C).
Asked why he thought government officials were reluctant to grant the church a permanent place of worship as promised, an irritated Matolo did not hesitate to reply.
“The administration has decided, ‘kutesa [inflict pain on us],’ always making promises that never come to pass,” he said. “At times the provincial commissioner deliberately decides not to take my phone calls. I have had a painful experience.”
Matolo said he has asked the administration either to allow the church to build a new structure on land lying idle near a police training college or to let them return to their original site. “We are ready for any eventuality,” he said. “We feel that the administration is not concerned about our spiritual welfare.”
Asked about the pastor’s complaints, provincial police officer Stephen Chelimo told Compass, “The issue at the moment is not within my docket, but wholly rests upon the provincial commissioner.”
But Provincial Commissioner Stephen Maingi said the onus rested on the district commissioner. “Let the district commissioner sort this issue with the pastor,” Maingi said.
District Commissioner Onyango Ogango, in turn, indicated the church itself was the source of problems.
“If the church is allowed to return to their original site, we will expect a fight to erupt with the Muslims,” Ogango said. “Earlier on, the church began very well during its initial stage of inception with controlled worship, but later it turned out to hold noisy prayers and loud songs.”
Further questioned about these allegations, however, Ogango said he would call the pastor to discuss a resolution. Even so, Matolo said previous contact with the district commissioner did not leave him with high expectations.
“Our district commissioner seemed to have no feelings for our predicament,” he said. “The faces of the congregation members speak a lot.”
A glance at the worshippers confirmed his appraisal. They looked weary and anxious, with impending April rains expected to add to the indignity of their situation. Matolo said his congregation feels that soon it will be difficult to worship at all.
Even a temporary home did not appear to be forthcoming. The pastor said their request for a site near the provincial commissioner’s residence was dismissed on the grounds that it would create a security concern.
Radical Islamic Influence
Tensions between Christians and the Muslim-majority population in the semi-desert town of 20,000 people began in June 2007, when Muslims built a mosque too close to the church building – only three meters separated the two structures.
Matolo said pleas to District Commissioner Ogango did nothing to reverse the encroachment of Muslim worshippers.
Land issues alone have not been responsible for tensions in the area. The Rev. Ibrahim Kamwaro, chairman of the Pastors’ Fellowship in Garissa, said Matolo had offended Muslims when he preached to a lame Muslim man. Muslims were said to be upset that the pastor persuaded the disabled man to stop going to the mosque and instead join his church.
Matolo’s alleged promise to the disabled man of a better life offended area Muslims, Rev. Kamwaro said.
Christians feel increasingly hunted and haunted as the spread of Islamic extremism is fast gaining ground in this town, located about 400 kilometers (249 miles) from Nairobi, the capital. In neighboring Somalia, newly elected President Sharif Sheikh Ahmed on Feb. 28 offered the introduction of sharia (Islamic law) in exchange for a truce with a rebel extremist group said to have ties to al Qaeda, al Shabaab; the rebels said they would keep fighting. Many fear that Muslim youths in this lawless part of Kenya will be tempted to adopt the radical, uncompromising posture of the fighters.
To date, the gang of more than 50 Muslim youths who attacked worshippers and brought their church to ruins have not been apprehended. Members of the congregation feel justice is increasingly elusive.
In Garissa, Muslims restrict churches in other ways. Christians are not allowed to pray, sing or use musical instruments in rented homes owned by Muslims. No teaching of Christian Religious Education in schools is allowed; only Islamic Religious Knowledge is taught.
Garissa has more than 15 Christian denominations, including the East Africa Pentecostal Church, the Redeemed Gospel Church, the Anglican Church, Deliverance Church, Full Gospel Churches of Kenya and the African Inland Church.
Report from Compass Direct News
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