CHRISTIAN PERSECUTION HOTSPOTS 2015 – GLOBAL TRENDS
Release International identifies likely hotspots for the world’s Christians in the coming year. While Iraq was one of the worst places to be a Christian in 2014, concern is growing for Kenya and Tanzania in 2015 as jihadists seek to extend their influence in East Africa. The most pressing threat to Christians in 2015 continues to come from armed Islamic groups, believes Release International, which supports persecuted Christians worldwide. ‘Islamist groups are gaining ground in Africa,’ warns Chief Executive Paul Robinson. ‘There is evidence to suggest they will become a growing force for instability in East Africa in 2015.
‘The greatest risk to freedom of faith this year comes from Islamic groups determined to establish their brutal version of Sharia law – whatever the cost to human life.’ Christians are being persecuted in a number of contexts: from extremists such as Islamic State in Iraq, intent on conversion or religious cleansing; to authoritarian governments such as North Korea attempting to preserve their power, and militant religious and nationalist movements, such as that emerging in India. ‘One of the worst places to be a Christian in 2014 was Iraq,’ says Paul Robinson of Release. ‘Faced with the stark choice of conversion or beheading, most left everything and fled. Intolerant extremism poses the greatest threat to Christians in 2015.’
In Iraq, Christians have faced growing persecution since the overthrow of Saddam Hussein in 2003. Since then, around a million Iraqi Christians have been driven out of their homeland. More recently, the Islamic State terror group, which has captured vast swathes of Syria and Iraq, has forced tens of thousands of Christians from the north of the country. Islamic State forces are now on the outskirts of the capital Baghdad, where a small Christian presence remains. To the north, Iraqi Kurdistan has declared itself a safe haven for Christian refugees. ‘This area is probably the only region of the Middle East where the Christian population is growing,’ says Paul Robinson. ‘Please pray for its protection.’
In Africa, Kenya and Tanzania as areas of increasing concern. Christians there are experiencing a new and brutal wave of violence, as Islamists who have gained ground in Somalia extend their reach and threaten to destabilise surrounding nations. In November, militants ambushed a bus in northern Kenya. They separated out the Mslims and executed up to 28 Christians. Gunmen have also killed scores in attacks on predominantly Christian towns in Kenya and on a church near Mombasa. Weight of numbers is no protection. Christians are in the majority in Kenya and they make up almost a third of the population of neighbouring Tanzania, where they are coming under increasing attack.
In Nigeria, violence continued unabated in 2014. Boko Haram militants destroyed 185 churches in just two states in the northeast, according to the International Business Times. And the BBC estimates Boko Haram killed almost 800 people in November alone. The Islamist group is expected to step up the violence ahead of the Nigerian presidential elections, which are slated for February 2015. A recent survey by the BBC World Service and King’s College London found jihadists had killed upwards of 5,000 people in a single month – November. The death toll was highest in Iraq, Syria and northern Nigeria, where militants have declared Islamic caliphates, as well as Afghanistan.
‘Where these extremists take control, religious minorities face extreme brutality,’ says Paul Robinson. ‘This exodus and displacement of Christians from the Middle East and Africa will continue into 2015, wherever militants with their doctrines of intolerance and religious cleansing gain ground.’ Persecution can also be extreme in places where national governments – as distinct from militants – have imposed Sharia law. In Sudan in 2015, the authorities are expected to continue their campaign of Islamising the country by driving out the Christian minority. The government has been closing and bulldozing churches and deporting foreign Christians.
While militant Islam looks set to continue as a growing force for persecution, Christians will also face repression in 2015 from authoritarian governments, communist states and Hindu nationalism. Of those authoritarian governments, North Korea is still the severest state persecutor of Christians in the world today. The state imprisons Christians in conditions likened to concentration camps. The regime has invented its own ideology, which is a form of emperor worship. Christians who worship God are considered enemies of the state. That attitude is still influential in China, Laos and Vietnam. The authorities regard Christianity as a challenge to the complete loyalty demanded of their citizens by the communist party.
Another region of growing concern is India, where recent elections saw a landslide victory by the Hindu nationalist BJP. The emergence of Hindutva – extreme Hindu nationalism – has seen a growing number of attacks on churches and church leaders. Often such attacks are a reaction against the growing number of Dalits who are converting to Christianity. The Dalits, an underclass outside the Hindu caste system, are often treated as fit only to perform the most menial tasks. As one Dalit pastor told Release International: ‘Most of the BJP activists are higher caste. They don’t want Christianity to grow because it brings equality. As Christians we are no more their slaves.’
INDIAN LAWMAKERS DEMAND MODI SPEAK ON HINDU CONVERSIONS
Opposition lawmakers, are charging that Prime Minister Narendra Modi has done little to stop hard-liners in his party from forcibly converting religious minorities to Hinduism. Parliament has been in uproar with the upper house repeatedly having to be adjourned. Right-wing Hindu groups allied with the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party have been conducting a series of ceremonies across India to convert Christians and Muslims to Hinduism. Some of the Muslims later said they had changed religions out of fear, raising the spectre of a growing political divide in a country that has struggled for years with intermittent Hindu-Muslim violence. India is mostly Hindu, but has a significant Muslim minority and a smaller Christian one.
Modi, an avowed Hindu nationalist and longtime member of the Rashtriya Swayam Sevak Dal, one of the two main groups behind the conversions, has remained mostly silent on the issue. Members of the World Hindu Council, converted 30 Christians to Hinduism in the southern Indian state of Kerala. In the western state of Gujarat, the Council said 200 Christians had participated in “homecoming” ceremonies. Hindu hard-liners often call the ceremonies “homecomings,” insisting that members of minority religions are descended from Hindus who converted to Christianity or Islam. Similar conversions were performed earlier in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh, where around 100 Muslims converted to Hinduism.
Many, though, said later that they were threatened with violence if they didn’t go along, and that they were promised government ration cards and money if they did become Hindus. Hindu hard-line organizations were key political backers of Modi, who was voted into office last year in a victory over the long-powerful Congress party. Since his election, the hard-line groups have become increasingly vocal, calling for the transformation of India into a Hindu nation. “We are going to take the percentage of Hindus in India to 100%,” Praveen Togadia, a VHP leader, said. “We won’t tolerate Hindus becoming a minority in the country.”
Indian Muslims have long been wary of Modi. In 2002, he was accused of failing to stop anti-Muslim riots that shook Gujarat state, where he was then the top elected official. The violence left at least 1,000 people dead. Modi has denied the accusations, and India’s Supreme Court has found no evidence to prosecute him. Fear has also been rising in Christian communities. A Roman Catholic church was burned in New Delhi in a suspected case of arson, and a group singing Christmas carols was attacked in the city of Hyderabad. Meanwhile, as members of Parliament have done battle over the conversions and the statements by Hindu leaders, Modi has barely mentioned the issue. Religious minorities say that is deeply worrying.
Dominic Emmanuel, a spokesman for the New Delhi Archdiocese said “If Modi does not speak up now, the situation is going to slip out of his control.” Christians account for about 2.3% of India’s 1.2 billion people and they largely coexist peacefully with Hindus. About 14% of Indians are Muslims. Opposition lawmakers say Modi’s silence is damaging the secular nature of Indian society and the religious freedoms guaranteed by the country’s constitution. The upper house of Parliament has repeatedly demanded that the prime minister clarify his position on the conversions. The impasse in Parliament has paralysed a series of key bills, stalling government efforts to overhaul the economy and boost growth.
Each year, Sainsbury’s, Britain’s third-largest supermarket chain, airs a special Christmas ad. This year’s ad went viral as soon as it appeared. It was a dramatic depiction of a legendary event in World War I, the “Christmas Truce.” By Christmas 1914, nearly one million men had died in less than five months of fighting along the Western Front. Men who had expected the war to be over by Christmas had settled into fortified trenches, and the war into a deadly stalemate. But in the week leading up to Christmas something amazing happened. In scattered areas along the front, British and German soldiers began to cross the area between the trenches—known as “no man’s land”—and exchange small gifts and Christmas greetings.
Graham Williams of the 5th London Rifle Brigade wrote “First the Germans would sing one of their carols and then we would sing one of ours, until when we started ‘O Come, All Ye Faithful’ the Germans joined in singing the same hymn to the Latin words ‘Adeste Fideles.’ And I thought, well, this is really a most extraordinary thing—two nations singing the same carol in the middle of a war.” His German counterpart, Josef Sewald of the 17th Bavarian Regiment, recalled, “I shouted to our enemies that we didn’t wish to shoot and that we make a Christmas truce. I said I would come from my side and we could speak with each other. First there was silence, then I shouted once more, invited them, and the British shouted ‘No shooting!’”
This outbreak of decency in the midst of the most senseless carnage of war culminated on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, 1914. Along the front some British and German officers negotiated a 48-hour truce. As depicted in the ad, men on both sides sang together, exchanged gifts, and even played soccer. There were those in both countries that considered the truce to be treasonous. As history tells us the war dragged on for nearly 4 more years at a cost of at least eight million additional lives. Exactly 100 years later the story still moves us, not simply because men abstained from fighting but because it strikes us as fitting that if there were one day when men would turn aside from slaughtering, it should be Christmas.
A recent poll by the Pew Research Centre found that nearly three-quarters of all Americans believe the major elements of the Christmas story, including the Virgin Birth and the angelic announcement to the shepherds. As the Washington Post put it, Jesus “won” the “War on Christmas.” Of course he did—He is Emmanuel, “God with Us.” Even if they can’t quite bring themselves to bend their knees—yet—people know that something remarkable happened in that stable, something that changed the world forever. The prophet Haggai called the coming Messiah the “desire of the nations.” It shouldn’t surprise us then, that men, desirous of peace, would make those desires a reality on the birthday of the Prince of Peace.
POPE FRANCIS CHALLENGES MUSLIMS TO CONDEMN VIOLENCE IN THE NAME OF GOD
Pope Francis has challenged Muslim religious leaders to “unanimously” condemn the violent persecution of Christians in the Middle East, as well as killing in the name of God. In an open Christmas letter to beleaguered Christians in the region, the Pope called on Muslims to push a “more authentic image of Islam, as so many of them desire. “The tragic situation faced by our Christian brothers and sisters in Iraq, as well as the Yazidi and members of other religious and ethnic communities, demands that all religious leaders clearly speak out to condemn these crimes unanimously and unambiguously.”
The Pope stopped short of naming the self-declared militant Islamic State, but expressed his closeness to Christians suffering in the region, including the thousands of refugees and victims of kidnapping and violence. He urged the international community to not only help the many Christians in need but to increase humanitarian aid and end the violence. “I write to you just before Christmas, knowing that for many of you the music of your Christmas hymns will be accompanied by tears and sighs,” he said. It’s not the first time that Francis has urged Muslim leaders to take a stronger stand against Christian persecution and condemn terrorism carried out in the name of Islam, particularly in Iraq and Syria.
He previously called for greater support on his return from Turkey in November, saying a “global condemnation” of the violence would help the majority of Muslims dispel this stereotype. In a 2006 speech, Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI set off global protests after a scholarly address about the interplay of faith and reason. Benedict quoted a former Byzantine Emperor Paleologus in describing Islam as “evil and inhuman” and having been “spread by the sword.” He wanted to show how reason untethered from faith leads to fanaticism and violence. Instead, many Muslims heard him say that Islam is inherently violent.
RUSSIA’S ECONOMIC IMPLOSION OPENS DOORS FOR UKRAINE PEACE
Many economists say Russia is on the brink of economic collapse. The fall in value of the rouble, plus the 50% decline in oil prices– the key to Russia’s economy, means Russia’s political machine is focusing on recovery, not invasion. Some suggest the crisis could mean Russia will be forced into securing a Ukraine peace. That however doesn’t mean Ukraine’s problems are over. There are many who are homeless and displaced. President of Slavic Gospel Association (SGA) Bob Provost says they’re providing resources to help churches meet those needs. “Our focus these last six months has been more on Ukraine than anywhere else,” he says. More than 100,000 Ukrainians are displaced by the conflict with Russian separatists.
Provost says, “Our partners are helping us equip local churches to minister to refugees, by providing mattresses for refugees to sleep on, or providing food packs for families who have nothing.” SGA has also been taking on the support of Ukrainian pastors. “There are about 50 pastors from the conflict zone whose congregations have almost vanished. 70%-80% of the people have had to flee their homes; so at the moment, we’re in emergency support mode.” This is a unique time in Ukraine’s history. Those who haven’t heard the Gospel are asking questions. Some believers say Ukraine could be on the verge of revival. Pray that God will draw many to Himself in the midst of this difficult time.
The crash of Air Asia flight QZ8501 has badly affected the community of Christians in Surabaya, with one church losing at least 41 members. Of the 155 people on board flight QZ8501, many were Christians of Chinese descent. A pastor of the city’s Mawar Sharon Church was shocked to discover the huge loss to his parish. The church, which has about 30,000 members, is one of the largest in Asia, with many satellites across Indonesia. Its pastor Philip Mantofa, whilst leading prayers for relatives, urged them not to waver in their faith despite the tragedy. “Some things do not make sense to us but God is bigger than all this,” Pastor Mantofa said. Many members of the church go to nearby Singapore during the holidays.
The Bethany Church, another prominent church in the city, lost at least five people who attended the church. Church pastor Deddy, who goes by just one name, said that the crash was a tragedy for all of Indonesia. Bethany is part of the 250,000-member Bethany Indonesian Church assembly, a member of the Evangelical Fellowship of Indonesia. Though Indonesia is predominantly Muslim, 10% of residents in Surabaya are Christian. South Korea’s Foreign Ministry also revealed that the three Koreans on board the ill-fated plane were a young family of Christian missionaries. They had been sent to Indonesia as missionaries and were heading to Singapore to renew their visas. They were travelling with their 11-month-old daughter.