GLOBAL CHURCH MEETS TO SEEK UNITY IN FACE OF PERSECUTION
Twenty-five years ago, on 4 Nov. 1990, a priest risked his life to hold a mass in a cemetery in Albania. In 1967 his president, Enver Hoxha, had declared he’d “abolished” Christian faith, and that his country was henceforth the world’s first atheist state. On 4 Nov. 2015, Albania’s current president hosted an official palace reception for 145 global church leaders — from the Vatican to Venezuela — who for the previous three days had met in the aptly-named Resurrection of Christ Orthodox Cathedral. Their conference tackled one of the most pressing issues facing the global Church: the discrimination, persecution and martyrdom faced by millions of its members – from Iraq and Syria to India and Pakistan, from Cuba to Myanmar, from Sudan to Iran, and from Algeria to Kenya to Nigeria. It marked a historic moment in more than its choice of country and timing.
For the first time in the modern history of Christianity, leaders and representatives of the various Church traditions — Orthodox, Catholic, Protestant, Evangelical and Pentecostal, met together. They stayed on the spot where, until its 1967 demolition, had stood the former Orthodox Cathedral; it was replaced in 1974 by a hotel. On the opposite corner stands the National Museum. A visit there shows moving memorabilia of Albania’s communist era: photo after photo of priests killed by their own government. After the desolation of that era, the Orthodox Cathedral has been rebuilt only a few blocks from where it stood before. So, given its own “resurrection”, the Albanian Church, in a display of Christian unity, wanted to show their fellow believers suffering in places such as Syria, Iraq and Nigeria that even when Christianity is officially declared “dead”, it’s not the end of the story, much as in the life of Jesus.
“We have come together because discrimination, persecution and martyrdom among Christians and people of other faiths in the contemporary world are growing due to a complex variety of factors in different realities and contexts”, the organisers wrote in their final message. The 21st Century, they said, is full of moving stories of faithful people who have paid for their dedication to Christ through suffering, torture and execution. “Solidarity among Christian churches is needed to strengthen Christian witness in the face of discrimination, persecution, and martyrdom.” One objective of the meeting was “to listen to, learn from, and stand with discriminated and persecuted Churches and Christians in the world today”. It heard hard-hitting testimony from, for example, the former Syrian Catholic Archbishop of Mosul, Basilios Georges Casmoussa, now based in Lebanon.
About the destruction wrought by the self-proclaimed Islamic State, he said: “Is this not socio-cultural genocide for the Christians of Iraq? Genocide is more than the physical massacre of a people, it’s also the systematic massacre of its social bonds, of its culture, of its historic and collective memory, of its future, of its active presence in the land of its ancestors. The Christians in the Nineveh plain experience daily deprivation. If the Nineveh Plain empties of Christians, all of Christianity in Iraq is threatened with extinction”. In their concluding statement, conference participants acknowledged the need to urgently strengthen the solidarity of all Christians, following up on what has been accomplished with insight and discernment from this consultation”.
At another point, Rev. Dr. David Wells, representing the Pentecostal World Fellowship, movingly apologised to those representing the historic Churches for the ignorance often shown by newer denominations, of the Church history from which their inheritance has come. A tone of self-reflection was set early, in the first keynote talk, given by Dr. Andrea Riccardi, a professor of contemporary history at Rome University. As a 17-year-old in 1968, he had challenged his Rome high school classmates, “If we take the Bible seriously, how would we live?” A group of those middle-class youths moved into a run-down area of Rome to live among the poor. Out of that experience Riccardi founded the Community of St. Giles, which has spread to 70 countries, and is among the global leaders combating HIV/AIDS.
Riccardi reminded the audience of his friend Christian de Cherge, prior of a monastery in Algeria, most of whose monks were kidnapped, and later beheaded, by an armed Islamic group in March 1996. He remembered too the Syriac Archbishop of Aleppo, Youhanna Ibrahim, kidnapped in April 2013 “because he was a generous believer” and went with a friend to attempt negotiations with Islamist extremists. The fate of the two men is still unknown; they are thought to be captive still. “How can we remain the same, when we know these men … have shared the same table as them?” Riccardi said. He had begun his keynote address by suggesting an explanation for that challenging question. “The West has had little awareness of the martyrdom of Christians,” Riccardi said.
At the end of the conference, the concluding Message called on, in part: “All Churches to engage more in dialogue and co-operation with other faith communities, whilst remaining vigilant, watchful and fearless in the face of discrimination and persecution. All governments must respect and protect the freedom of religion or belief of all people as a fundamental human right. Governments and international organisations must respect and protect Christians and all other people of goodwill from threats and violence committed in the name of religion. In addition, we must work for peace and reconciliation, to seek the settlement of on-going conflicts, and to stop the flow of arms, especially to violators of human rights. Finally the media must report in an unbiased way every violation of religious freedom, including the discrimination and persecution of Christians as well as of other faith communities”.
MORE AMERICANS REJECT RELIGION BUT BELIEVERS REMAIN FIRM IN THEIR FAITH
Americans as a whole are growing less religious, but those who still consider themselves to belong to a religion are, on average, just as committed to their faiths as they were in the past — in certain respects even more so. The 2014 U.S. Religious Landscape Study, released by the Pew Research Centre, also shows that nearly all major religious groups have become more accepting of homosexuality since the first landscape study in 2007. The new study may provide some solace to those who bemoan the undeniable rise in America of the “nones” — people who claim no religious affiliation. “People who say they have a religion — which is still the vast majority of the population — show no discernible dip in levels of observance,” said Alan Cooperman, director of religion research at Pew.
“They report attending religious services as often as they did a few years ago. They pray as often as they did before, and they are just as likely to say that religion plays a very important role in their lives,” he continued. “On some measures there are even small increases in their levels of religious practice.” More religiously affiliated adults, for example, read Scripture regularly and participate in small religious groups than did so seven years ago, according to the survey. And 88 percent of religiously affiliated adults said they prayed daily, weekly or monthly — the same percentage that reported such regular prayer in the 2007 study. “We should remember that the United States remains a nation of believers,” said Gregory A. Smith, Pew’s associate director of research, “with nearly 9 in 10 adults saying they believe in God.”
Overall, belief in God has ticked down by about 3 percentage points in recent years, driven mainly by growth in the share of “nones” who say they don’t believe in God. But even among Christians — 98 percent of whom say they believe in God — fewer believe with absolute certainty: 80 percent in 2007 compared to 76 percent in 2014. And now 77 percent of adults surveyed describe themselves as religiously affiliated, a decline from the 83 percent who did so in Pew’s 2007 landscape study. Pew researchers attribute these drops to the dying off of older believers, and a growing number of millennials — those born between 1981 and 1996 — who claim no religious affiliation. The researchers also found that as religiosity in America wanes, a more general spirituality is on the rise, with 6 in 10 adults saying they regularly feel a “deep sense of spiritual peace and well-being,” up 7 percentage points since 2007.
These trends make sense, said Andrew Walsh, a historian of American religion at Trinity College in Hartford, Conn. in that religious affiliation in America today is “increasingly shaped by individual choice and less by inheritance from a family or community.” Though the current social climate, especially for young adults, allows Americans to choose not to affiliate with a religious institution, Walsh said, many “are still spiritual in some ways.” One sign: the proliferation of yoga studios throughout the nation. Most enthusiasts of the meditative practice, which combines breathing and physical postures, are not looking to convert to Hinduism, Walsh said, but they may nevertheless find the activity spiritually gratifying. Cooperman cautioned, however, against concluding that such spirituality is replacing more traditional kinds of religious experiences, such as attending religious services.
“The people in the survey who express the most spirituality are the people who are the most religious in conventional ways,” he said, “whilst those least attached to traditional religion report much lower levels of spiritual experiences.” Numbers in the study describe changing Christian attitudes toward gay Americans. The survey shows in detail how dramatically members of a broad swath of denominations — even those that oppose homosexuality — have shifted in their views. The number of evangelical Protestants, for example, who said they agreed that “homosexuality should be accepted by society” jumped 10% between the 2007 and 2014 studies — from 26% to 36%. The increase for Catholics was even steeper, from 58% to 70%. For black Protestant churches, acceptance jumped from 39% to 51%. The religiously unaffiliated, however, showed the highest rate of acceptance of gay Americans: 83%.
The study also shows that 53% of Americans believe abortion should be legal in all or most cases, with views within denominations shifting little since the first study. Other findings from the study include: A minority of Jews — 40% — and the vast majority of Muslims — 90% — say they do not eat pork, the consumption of which is forbidden by Jewish and Islamic law. Hinduism does not allow beef to be eaten, although 33% of Hindus say they do eat it. Nearly 9 in 10 Americans say religious institutions bring people together and strengthen community bonds, and 87% say they play an important role in helping the poor and needy. Women are more prayerful than men, with 64% saying they pray every day, compared with 46% of men. 60% of adults, and 75% of Christians, believe the Bible is the Word of God. About 31% — and 39% of Christians — believe it should be interpreted literally.
HAJJ TRAGEDIES PRESENT A CHALLENGE TO SAUDI ARABIA
This year during the annual Hajj pilgrimage in Saudi Arabia, we prayed that peace would reign in the hearts and lives of pilgrims through a revelation of Jesus Christ as Lord. Now we must refocus our prayers that peace can come to the nation of Saudi Arabia. For indeed, several disasters that occurred during this Hajj season have added to the terrorist threat facing the nation and its people. The Saudi government spent billions of dollars to expand Mecca to accommodate the growing number of pilgrims. It also ramped up crowd control and emergency measures to prevent disasters, which have claimed pilgrims’ lives in past years. It placed additional security in the region to protect against the threat of Islamic militants. However, despite Saudi Arabia’s best efforts to keep the season safe, this Hajj will go on record as the deadliest in a quarter century.
A crane collapsed, and a crowd crush killed many worshippers. The crane was involved in construction on the Grand Mosque. Its collapse, killed more than 100 people. The crane, which ironically toppled on September 11, was owned by the family of Osama bin Laden. Afterwards, on 24 September, more than 2,110 people were killed in a crowd crush during the symbolic stoning of the devil at Mina. More than 850 people were also wounded. As of 5 October, Saudi Arabia reported 769 dead followed by Iran with 464 dead, Egypt at 146 and Indonesia at 100. Other countries that reported death tolls are Pakistan with 75; Nigeria 64; Mali 60; India 58; Cameroon 42; Bangladesh 41; Algeria 18; Ethiopia 13; Chad 11; Kenya eight; Senegal five and Morocco and Turkey each with three. Hundreds have yet to be accounted for.
Muslims across the world have criticized the Saudi government claiming the Al-Saud family should have done more to ensure the pilgrims’ safety. Iranian worshipers chanted the slogan “death to Al-Saud family.” Even some in the Al-Saud family have turned to criticism, calling for a regime change. Citizens of the country, including tribal leaders, claim conflict could be on the horizon if change does not occur soon. Saudi Arabia is caught in a tumultuous time. Let us pray for Saudi Arabia, that God will reveal Himself to the families of those killed, to the Al-Saud family and nation. Let us pray that He will use these incidents during the Hajj season to show His unfailing love for the countries represented by those who died. As Muslims seek truth, pray they will find Jesus Christ and surrender their lives to Him. Pray that they realize the Father does not require sacrifice, but rather seeks a heart surrendered to Jesus Christ.
• that Saudi Arabia becomes a nation that proclaims the name of Jesus Christ to pilgrims seeking the truth.
• that those who lost loved ones during this year’s Hajj will surrender their lives to Christ.
• that Christian Believers living in Saudi Arabia will remain firm as they hold up the lamp of Christ’s love
VOTERS REJECT HOUSTON LGBT ORDINANCE BY WIDE MARGIN
Residents in Houston have rejected an LGBT (Lesbian, Gay, Bi-sexual, Trans-sexual) ordinance that would have trampled on religious liberty and allowed men in women’s bathrooms, with more than 60% voting no. “It’s one of those moments in time where you say, enough is enough is enough,” Dr. Ed Young, senior pastor at Second Baptist Church in Houston, said. A diverse coalition of city pastors opposed the ordinance. Its non-discrimination language on gender identity would have allowed men in women’s bathrooms. Houston’s LGBT ordinance would have allowed men identifying as women to use women’s restrooms and other public facilities. Equally concerning was what it would have meant for Christian business owners opposed to same-sex marriage First Amendment scholar and University of Illinois law professor Robin Fretwell-Wilson told CBN News.
“We’re talking about an ordinance that will put someone in jail or force them out of business just because of their faith.” Hernan Castano, senior pastor at Rivers of Oil Church, said. Local pastors have fought the ordinance for 18 months. When the City Council first approved it, clergy organized a signature drive to put it on the ballot. Lesbian Mayor Annise Parker then declared the signatures invalid, and subpoenaed their sermons when they sued the city. “The intention of the City Hall was to quiet the people’s voice and intimidate and show themselves to be the strongest, most powerful force in the city,” Castano said. But the Texas Supreme Court overruled the city government, ordering the city to let the measure go on the ballot, so the people of Houston could vote on it. It’s a crushing defeat for Mayor Parker, who rallied support from President Obama, Hillary Clinton and corporate giant Apple.
Russell Moore, president of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, hailed the vote as a victory for religious liberty. “Months ago, when Mayor Parker attempted to subpoena the sermons of Houston pastors, I argued then that the preaching of the church of God does not belong to the government and we will not hand it over. Not now. Not ever,” he said in a statement. “Here, the people of Houston have spoken and said the same is true of their conscience. The defeat of this proposition ensures that the consciences of men and women will not be steamrolled, and that unsuspecting citizens will not be put into vulnerable situations,” he concluded. It’s also a major loss for gay rights activists nationally as outside sources poured in close to $3 million to support the measure. Voter turnout may have made the difference. Early voting numbers doubled compared to the last local election.
MYANMAR MILITARY URGED TO RESPECT PEOPLE’S VOTE AFTER HISTORIC ELECTIONS
Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW) has called on Myanmar’s military government to accept the will of the people in the country’s first free election for 25 years. The elections in Myanmar, also known as Burma, resulted in a landslide victory for the National League for Democracy Party led by human rights campaigner Aung San Suu Kyi. However the military has banned Suu Kyi from being president, and will automatically retain 25% of the parliamentary seats by default after altering the country’s constitution. Myanmar was taken over in a coup d’etat in 1962. The military government officially dissolved in 2011, however many military officials remain in office. Benedict Rogers, from CSW said: “Suu Kyi has proven over the last 25 years her total dedication to the values of democracy, freedom and human rights at great personal sacrifice – she spent many years under house arrest separated from her family.
Mr Rogers went on “She has over the years made a point of meeting with Christian and Muslim leaders, in fact she once told a Christian missionary that although she’s a Buddhist herself she reads the Bible regularly and her favourite words in the Bible are from John’s Gospel: ‘You shall know the truth, and the truth shall set you free.’ “Recent legislation in parliament that was put forward included proposals to restrict religious conversion and inter-religious marriage. Suu Kyi and her party opposed those laws. “We hope that the results of the poll will be respected by all parties, particularly the military, and that the country can move forward into some kind of new political system that respects democracy, human rights and religious freedom.”
SAME-SEX MARRIAGE REMAINS ILLEGAL IN NORTHERN IRELAND
Same-sex marriage will remain against the law in Northern Ireland despite a majority of Stormont Assembly members voting to legalise it. A mechanism put forward by the Democratic Unionists meant the change could only go through if a sufficient number of both unionist and nationalist MLAs backed it. Not enough unionists voted yes. Despite no change in the law, campaigners for change have hailed the result as a symbolic victory. For the first time ever a slim overall majority (50.5%) voted in favour. This was the fifth time the issue has been voted on in the Assembly. The vast majority of church groups oppose any change. Ahead of the vote, Catholic bishops in Northern Ireland issued an open letter warning against a yes vote. “Those who vote in favour of this motion have no way of knowing what the full consequences of such a vote will be,” they said.
“The truth about marriage derives from its intrinsic nature as a relationship based on the complementarity of a man and woman and the unique capacity of this relationship alone to generate new life. This truth does not change with the shifting tides of historical custom or popular opinion.” A number of same-sex couples are currently seeking to overturn the Assembly’s ban in the courts. Christian charity CARE has responded to the vote describing it as a “sad day for supporters of traditional marriage”. CEO Nola Leach said: “The pressure of repeated attempts to change the law in Northern Ireland clearly told in the outcome of this debate. “Biblical teaching is clear that marriage is a life-long commitment between one man and one woman. Just because the rest of the UK has introduced same-sex marriage does not automatically mean Northern Ireland should follow suit.