This is the final International News for the year. We thank you, our readers, for your support and prayers throughout 2017 and wish you all a very Happy Christmas and a wonderful and enriching New Year. International News will resume on Monday 8th January 2018.
ERITREAN GOVERNMENT CLAMPDOWN ON EDUCATION SPARKS PROTEST
Infringements on the right to education of children from two of Eritrea’s permitted religious groups caused a rare show of public resistance against the Eritrean government, which has been deemed by a United Nations (UN) Commission of Inquiry to have been committing crimes against humanity since 1991. On 20 October, Hajji Musa Mohammed Nur, the respected Honorary President of Al Diaa Islamic School in Asmara, was arrested, along with several others who were taken into custody in diverse parts of the city. All had expressed opposition to the government’s decision to expropriate the Al Diaa Islamic School in line with a plan devised by the Ministry of Education in 2014 that will transfer control of every school to local communities. Al Diaa was established in the late 1960s, and is run by parent committees as a private Islamic school.
Transferring schools to the control of local communities would mean that religious schools such as Al Diaa would become open to the public. Prior to his arrest, thousands of people had gathered in the school compound to be briefed by Hajji Musa and other board members on the issue and to express their rejection of the proposed expropriation. A few weeks earlier the security forces had also detained a dozen people at a funeral in Adi Guaedad on the outskirts of Asmara, as they returned from the burial. On 31 October, students gathered in the Akhria neighbourhood in the north of Asmara requesting the release of Hajji Musa and other detainees. As their numbers grew, security personnel allegedly began to assault them indiscriminately. The protestors eventually responded by throwing stones, and the security personnel countered by opening fire using live ammunition.
Footage continues to emerge of troops shooting at and chasing unarmed civilians through the streets of the capital. Security personnel are also alleged to have arbitrarily detained young people. Claims by opposition groups of 28 casualties could not be independently verified. However, in an indication of the seriousness of the situation, the United States (US) Embassy in Asmara issued a security message to US citizens on 31 October stating it had “received reports of gunfire in several locations in Asmara due to protests” and advising them to “avoid the downtown where protests appear to be more prevalent.” According to the Asmara-based activist network Arbi Harnet, the school has been “quietly” reopened and a few students and women have been released. However, some reportedly suffered mistreatment while in detention. The Catholic Church has been targeted in a similar manner.
On 18 September, the Education Minister for the Central Region wrote to the Director of the Medhane Alem Secondary School in Asmara demanding the closure of the school and a list of all of its students. The letter, which was copied to the Minister of Education, the office of the Eritrean Police and the Chief of Police, cited Proclamation 73 of 1995, which defines and regulates the activities of religious groups. Amongst other things, the proclamation states that the provision of social amenities rests within the remit of the government, while religious organisations should confine themselves to attending to the spiritual wellbeing of adherents. Following an unfruitful appeal to officials, church leaders decided not to close the school. The government’s response was to detain Abba Haile Paulos, a diocesan priest who volunteered to take the place of the school’s director, and Sr. Tinsae, a Comboni nun.
Mervyn Thomas, Chief Executive of Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW) said: “The targeting of educational establishments belonging to two of the faith communities which are permitted to function in the country is indicative of an enduring unwillingness to respect and protect both the right to education and the right of freedom of religion or belief. There can no longer be any doubt about the true nature of the Eritrean regime; a government that can fire live ammunition in broad daylight at unarmed protestors, most of whom are school children, is more than capable of committing the atrocity crimes for which it stands accused. We reiterate our call for renewed international efforts towards establishing justice mechanisms to hold perpetrators to account. We also reiterate the fact that the desire to escape unremitting, comprehensive and severe human rights violations is at the heart of Eritrea’s refugee exodus.”
ATHEISTS UNWITTINGLY SPARK SPIRITUAL REVIVAL AT GEORGIA HIGH SCHOOL
A football coach from Georgia’s East Coweta High School who was recently banned from praying with players has revealed that an atheist group’s quest to remove him from invocations has actually sparked an incredible reaction from players and students, alike. “Our students have done a great job and taken upon themselves to organize a prayer meeting with other students in the stands before the game,” John Small said. “Instead of it being 100 players praying, it turned into 400 students praying. That’s their right and we are going to support them in that.” The coach went as far as to say that the ban preventing him from leading prayer has “really turned into a positive” and that the Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF), the atheist group that sparked the entire battle, has actually activated something much more powerful.
“I think what is happened with [FFRF], whatever their intent was, you tell teenagers they can’t do something, surely they are going to do it,” he said. “It has really turned into a positive because at the end of the day, we are trying to teach students about leadership and they should be the ones taking the charge on it anyway.” As Faithwire previously reported, drama kicked off after a complaint was reportedly waged by someone in the community who filmed Small praying with players; the FFRF promptly responded. “FFRF sent a letter to the Coweta County School System warning that it is illegal for public school athletic coaches to further personal religious beliefs by leading their teams in prayer,” the statement read. “Coach-led prayers, FFRF points out, equate to a government advancement and endorsement of religion, a stark violation of the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment.”
The organization argued that Small’s behaviour was unconstitutional, as he purportedly promoted prayer as an employee of the public school district. The FFRF, thus, urged the district to end the prayer practice and to inform all other employees through school principals that prayer isn’t acceptable for staff or volunteer staff to partake in “before, during or after high school football games.” An attorney for the school board reportedly circulated a guidance document for staff following the complaint. That document proclaims that even student-led prayers cannot be joined by teachers, coaches and other staffers. More specifically, the memo instructs staff not to “join hands, bow their heads, take a knee or commit another act that otherwise manifests approval with the students’ religious exercise, at least where it would be perceived by a reasonable observer to display government endorsement of religion.”
In the end, the memo encourages staff to avoid any appearance of a school endorsement of religion. The document, and swift action from the school, left the FFRF more than elated. But football players responded by turning to prayer on their own, as Small noted. The coach also said that, despite the district’s strict memo cracking down on coach-involved prayer, he doesn’t have to “flee” during student prayer. “We are not allowed to be in the middle of it but we have a right to be there with our players. We don’t have to flee [the scene],” Small said. “If my head is bowed, nobody can tell me what I am thinking. I am not leading the prayer. I am there supporting my kids. Whether I am praying or not, nobody can say I am or I’m not.”
VIETNAM NGO’s CALL FOR RELEASE OF 165 PRISONERS OF CONSCIENCE
A joint initiative by 14 Vietnamese and international organisations, including Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW), is calling for the immediate and unconditional release of all prisoners of conscience in Vietnam, including those detained in connection with their religion or belief. The launch of the NOW! Campaign coincided with the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum on 11-12 November. According to the campaign, as of November 2017, there are at least 165 prisoners of conscience in Vietnam. However, due to the challenges of obtaining information about prisoners in the country, the real number is likely to be higher. The figure includes men and women who have been arrested for their political or religious beliefs. Many of those on the list belong to independent religious communities not registered with the government, including Christians from ethnic minority groups.
CSW continues to receive numerous reports of violations against such groups, in particular those located in remote parts of the country. Violations include harassment, forced evictions, beatings, torture, pressure to recant and detention or imprisonment. Those who advocate for freedom of religion or belief or for the rights of others generally receive the harshest treatment. Information on prisoners of conscience in Vietnam is available on the NOW! Campaign website. In addition to religious prisoners of conscience, other prisoners of conscience in Vietnam include bloggers, lawyers, trade unionists, land rights activists and political dissidents. CSW’s Chief Executive Mervyn Thomas said: “CSW welcomes this initiative calling for the release of all prisoners of conscience in Vietnam.”
“Our research consistently finds that Christians and other religious communities in Vietnam continue to experience violations of their right to freedom of religion or belief. In particular, Christians from indigenous people groups suffer a double discrimination as both religious and ethnic minorities. In addition, a significant number of human rights defenders in Vietnam belong to religious communities. These individuals play a vital role in promoting the right to freedom of religion or belief. We call on the Vietnamese government to release all prisoners of conscience in Vietnam, and to uphold the right to freedom of religion for all.”
PRO-MARRIAGE SPEECH AGAIN ALLOWED IN U.S. GOVERNMENT DEPARTMENTS
The Trump administration’s Department of Agriculture (USDA) dealt a blow to the silencing of pro-marriage views in the workplace. Last week, the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service issued a policy emphasizing latitude for Believers to express their views at work. “Opinions about same-sex marriage, gender identity, and sexual morality are all matters of public importance,” the policy states. “USDA respects the First Amendment rights of USDA personnel, as well as non-USDA personnel working at facilities inspected by USDA, to share their viewpoints on these topics, whether through oral discussion, the display or distribution of literature, or other means.” The document makes official a wide definition of sincerely held beliefs. “Under federal regulations, religious beliefs include a belief in God, as well as ‘moral or ethical beliefs which are sincerely held with the strength of traditional religious views.'”
“We are pleased that the USDA is committed to respecting the First Amendment,” Travis Weber, director of the Centre for Religious Liberty at the Family Research Council, wrote in a press release. “We thank President Trump who signed the executive order making clear that Americans don’t lose their religious freedoms upon entering the public square. We are also grateful for Attorney General Jeff Sessions, putting federal government agencies on notice: You will not only respect the freedom of every American to believe, but live according to those beliefs,” Weber added. The free speech guidelines were made because of the previous Obama government’s threat to run a Christian meat packer out of business over a pro-marriage pamphlet on a break-room table. “I never would have imagined that the federal government would threaten to put me and my employees out of work because of religious literature on a breakroom table,” West Michigan Beef Company owner Donald Vander Boon said.
ATHEISTS ADVERTS URGE PEOPLE TO SKIP CHURCH AT CHRISTMAS
Editor’s note: The Australian Prayer Network does of course encourage Christians everywhere to attend Church this Christmas. This story is only published to alert our readers to what is happening outside of the Christian community.
New billboards are being installed in three cities, encouraging people to “skip church” to avoid “fake news” this Christmas. They are being produced in the US states of Texas and New Mexico by atheists who claim Christians “don’t have a monopoly” over Christmas. President of American Atheists, David Silverman said: “People ignore that fact because they enjoy the community, the friendship, and the traditions that go along with religion. “But we’re here to tell them that churches don’t have a monopoly on any of that. “There’s a fantastic and vibrant community of atheists all across the country creating their own traditions and lifelong friendships.” The adverts, which are appearing in Dallas, Fort Worth and Albuquerque throughout December, feature the words “just skip church, it’s all fake news” beside a cartoon depiction of the Nativity.
Reporting a 365 per cent increase in use of the term, which refers to false information, Collins Dictionary named ‘fake news’ its 2017 Word of the Year last month. US President Donald Trump has regularly used the expression to describe unfavourable coverage by some American news organisations. Nick Fish, national program director for American Atheists, said: “People are rightly sceptical about some of the news they see on Facebook, hear from their family, or are told by elected officials. “But too often, they don’t extend that scepticism to their religious views and what their religious leaders are telling them. And right now, we could all use a little more scepticism about the things we’re told, no matter the source.”
CANADIAN LAW SOCIETY IMPOSING SAME SEX MARRIAGE BELIEFS ON MEMBERS
The largest law society in Canada has made it mandatory for every solicitor to sign “a statement of principles acknowledging their obligations to promote equality, diversity and inclusion generally”. Failure to sign the statement leads to sanctions, including suspension and refusal to license a solicitor to practise. This has resulted in uproar among the 50,000 lawyers who the Law Society of Upper Canada is supposed to represent. The requirement has been called “compelled speech” by compelling lawyers to have an opinion they do not have, and totalitarian and alien to the freedom of speech. Lawyers have been called en masse to demonstrate civil disobedience to “this pernicious transgression of fundamental principles”. Professor Bruce Pardy says: “This policy crosses a line that should not be crossed. It is not enough we obey. Now we must also agree and actively promote.”
Ryan Alford, a law professor, has taken the Law Society to court this month alleging the requirement forces solicitors to sign up to a vague, inquisitorial statement of fealty to whatever are the latest political views of the Law Society. The lawyer for the professor has said: “If we set a precedent where the Law Society, though it is well intentioned, can enact rules that really have no legal basis under the Law Society Act or the charter then what we’re doing is setting a precedent for administrative discretionary reaction.” What the statement means in practice is that no solicitor in Canada will be allowed to have a view on “equality”, “diversity” and “inclusion” other than that of the Law Society and will be required to actively promote what the Law Society directs.