The number of women selling sex along Fourth Street Reno used to be so high that fights broke out among pimps over who controlled each block. As the city tries to fix its image as a poor-man’s Vegas and technology makes it easier to buy and sell sex online, much of the local sex market has gone underground. The shift hasn’t diminished prostitution, but it has made it harder for law enforcement and victim advocates to address. “Online social media has formed a beautiful platform for trafficking,” says Kelly Ranasinghe, a senior program attorney with the National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges, and one of the leaders of its child sex-trafficking arm. “It’s getting much more clever and harder to prosecute.”
Melissa Holland, the founder of Awaken, a Reno group working to end sex trafficking, says the organization is encountering more girls looking to get out of the life. Why that is, is unclear, but Awaken helped 65 girls in 2014 get therapy, secure housing, find work, and enrol in school. In 2015, that number was 85. Nationally, the advocacy group Polaris says it saw a 24% increase in trafficking victims reaching out between 2014 and 2015. While the women Holland works with are generally between the ages of 18 and 24, studies suggest that sex-trafficking victims are getting younger. The general consensus among experts is that children, overwhelmingly girls, now enter the world of sex trafficking between 12 and 14, younger by several years in just the last decade.
Most come from poor, dysfunctional families, and many are recruited out of the foster system or shelters by men who promise love and stability. “A lot of young girls respond to that,” Ranasinghe says. “It’s quasi-romantic, quasi-parental.” Sarah knows exactly how men lure in young girls and women. The now-29-year-old grew up as part of a happy, middle-class family in Reno, but her parents divorced when she was 18, and the former swimmer turned to heroin and meth to dull the pain. She bounced from the San Francisco Bay Area to San Diego, working part-time jobs to pay for the habit, before eventually landing back in Reno. She occasionally gazes out the window toward a pair of strip clubs in the distance where she still spots girls who are trapped.
She was living in motels week to week and working a little and soon it seemed like the only options were selling drugs or sex. So when a friendly, well-dressed man met her at a casino and said, “Let me take you away,” she agreed. Her handler would drive Sarah to convenience stores in town, where her clients were mostly Indian men who liked that she was also Indian. Her pimp, who was Mexican, never slept with her or beat her but gave her away to his brother who “fell in love with me,” she said. Sarah would ultimately work for several more pimps, each more violent than the last, and occasionally on her own, before she was arrested for selling meth. After a year in prison Sarah reconnected with her mother, stopped using drugs, and enrolled in college. But advocates say such positive outcomes are rare.
A Reno Judge, who handles child sex-trafficking cases says he fears the number of children who return to the sex industry is high. Their pimps are often their only source of emotional support, and especially young girls can be reluctant to say anything negative. They also don’t have the ability to process the trauma they’ve experienced, and behave aggressively toward judges who sometimes have very little training in how to handle them. Most, like Sarah, are picked up for other offenses, and identified later as trafficking victims. Children in the legal system are disproportionately children of colour. Slightly less than half of them are white, a few are Latino, and most are black. Most have few job skills, which allows pimps to control them. “It’s awful to say” the judge says, “but these kids are renewable resources.”
Pimps move victims from city to city to create a sense of delirium and dependence, and threaten to hurt friends and family if victims try to leave. So curbing trafficking is difficult and complicated by the fact that local casinos and hotels gain customers from the practice. When it comes to child victims, the United States, which has historically criminalized prostitution, has passed several laws aimed at helping victims and punishing traffickers. Nearly 40 states passed anti-trafficking laws between 2013 and 2014, and more than 10 states have passed laws preventing minors from being prosecuted for selling sex. Yet more than half of states in America continue to allow child sex-trafficking victims to be charged for selling sex, and 300,000 American children are considered at risk of sexual exploitation.
Even when victims are identified, getting the help they need involves piecing together a patchwork of agencies such as the foster system, schools, and non-profits. “Unless they work together, there are vulnerabilities the traffickers can exploit,” Ranasinghe says. Some states have created specialized dockets, for sex-trafficking cases involving children. Nevada for instance has approved a measure that allows district courts to toss out prostitution convictions where the defendants are also victims of trafficking. But penalties for purchasing sex remain relatively small in many states, and pimps are retreating from public view behind apps and websites. Seriously reducing sex trafficking would require an unprecedented coordinated effort by hundreds, of entities that, right now, are often at odds with each other.
WHY NEPAL HAS ONE OF THE WORLD’S FASTEST GROWING CHRISTIAN POPULATIONS
Hindu-majority Nepal was a nation unreached by Christianity. Now the country has one of the fastest-growing Christian populations in the world, according to the World Christian Database, which tracks global trends in Christianity. Bishwa Pokharel, news chief at Nepal’s Nagarik newspaper says the latest census shows the statistical rise of Christianity across Nepal. It listed no Christians in 1951 and just 458 in 1961. By 2001, there were nearly 102,000. A decade later that number had more than tripled to 375,000. Before 1950, Nepal was closed to foreigners. Mountain climbing changed that. Starting with the Maoist Civil War of the 1990s and culminating with the end of the monarchy in 2008, the country has transitioned from a Hindu kingdom to a communist-led secular republic with greater freedom of religion.
Encouraging someone to convert to another religion was always illegal, but as Nepal eased away from its official Hindu status, the rules lightened up. Churches now abound throughout the Kathmandu Valley and across the terraced hills. Proselytizing remains illegal, but with weak law enforcement, that doesn’t stop it from happening. Meanwhile, the earthquake last year may have strengthened the Christian surge. With the government failing to help poor villagers, aid groups have trickled in to fill gaps, some of them carrying a message of salvation. Climbing for Christ (C4C), an evangelical group based in New York is one. Pledging to bring the Gospel “where others cannot or will not go,” the group began its “Mission: Nepal” in 2008. In 2011, it dedicated its first church 25 miles east of Kathmandu.
Today, Dapcha has a population of 1,000 families and is home to 3 churches. “They found some sick people and broken families and talked to them and prayed for them, and miraculously these people were convinced and began to follow Christ,” said Tej Rokka, pastor of the C4C ministry. “They distributed food and clothes for the people. Because of that, people began to listen to them.” After the earthquake, C4C sent relief materials such as tents and money for food and first-aid items to congregants in Dapcha and other affected areas. Gary Fallesen, C4C’s founder and president, was in Nepal in October helping rebuild the earthquake-damaged house that belongs to the family of Sumitra Pariyar, a young woman who believes she was healed from paralysis and seizures by her acceptance of Christ.
Lauren Leve, a professor in religious studies at the University of North Carolina, is researching women who have converted to Christianity in Nepal. She found that many of these conversions were related to illness. Others point to the Hindu caste system as an impetus. Though outlawed in 2001, caste discrimination is still widely practiced, particularly in rural Nepal, where people on the lower rungs suffer systematic abuse passed on between generations. Many converts come from these lower castes, and missionaries point to Christianity as a way to escape. Nepali leaders aren’t happy about the Christianity boom. Before the release of the country’s first constitution last September, debates swelled over whether to scrap secularism and go back to be an official Hindu nation.
While Christians feared a clampdown on religious freedom, the Hindu right insisted secularism would allow Christianity to take over. Leve thinks laws against proselytizing aren’t the best way for the Nepali government to keep conversions down. “What it needs to do is ramp up the public health and social support infrastructure so that its citizens are getting what they need from the state,” she says. “When public hospitals start to provide effective health services, when there’s a social safety net in place, you will see fewer people expressing any interest in Christianity.” For Fallesen, this need for material goods is a foot in the door to talk about Jesus. He said his team starts by building relationships with villagers to find out what their problems are. “Usually the solution is to share about Jesus,” he says.
Few avenues exist for the rural poor to better their situation. For more than a decade, many parents have sent their children to “orphanages” in Kathmandu, where they hope they’ll get better resources and education than what’s available in their villages. The problem of false orphanages has grown so out of control that the U.S. and other countries banned international adoptions from Nepal in 2010. There were simply too many “orphans” with parents. Not all the kids are orphans in the western sense, Fallesen explained, but they come from families that don’t have the ability to properly care for them. How do these families feel about their kids getting baptized? “Some are happy, some are not. Some now want to take them out from the home,” said Rokka, whose ministry runs the orphanage.
But parents don’t typically act on their concerns, he added. “The children are getting help here, so the parents think, OK, let it be.” Rokka came to faith as a child after his mother died. His father sent him and his brother to an orphanage run by an Indian missionary. Rokka estimates that 90% of the children he grew up with have since started their own ministries. To Christians like Fallesen, the importance of bringing Nepalese to Christ outweighs the concerns of nonbelievers. So C4C has its sights on more remote areas of Nepal. Land was just purchased for its newest church in the far west district of Humla, where Fallesen says the Nepali population of 7 Christian men has grown to 150 men and women. The church will be located where Hindu and Buddhist pilgrims begin the trek to Mount Kailash, a holy site for both religions.
In spite of opposition and a new law stipulating that the government must approve all religious conversions, an indigenous leader in Myanmar (Burma) said the Holy Spirit has not slowed down. “God is moving fast in our country, more than ever before,” said the leader, whose name is withheld for security reasons. “Our workers are giving training to the new Christians on how to share the Gospel among their own people.” The government gives special status to Buddhism, widely practiced among the Burmese majority, and the ministry leader said he was amazed at the gospel inroads to the Burmese in the past two years. Minority groups such as the Karen also are increasingly embracing Christ, and the ministry has seen pockets of success in reaching the Kayan, especially the Padaung sub-set, and other tribal groups.
Outreach to the Kayan began in eastern Shan state in 2014. Travel is “very hard and mountainous” for the ministry’s lone evangelist in the area, the leader said. “They say that if they become Christian, the spirit of their ancestral fathers will be provoked and unlucky things will happen to them, but slowly they are able to learn that God is the most powerful God and He will protect them,” said the ministry leader. “So prayer and answered prayers are a living testimony for them, and 16 adults have now received the Lord and were baptized.” Although personal repentance, the prompting of the Holy Spirit, and encounters with Christ tend to take place outside of bureaucratic controls, President Thein Sein on August 26, 2015 signed the Religious Conversion Law, which aims to restrict religious decisions.
It requires those wishing to change faiths to undergo an interview and engage in religious study for up to 90 days before they can obtain approval for conversion from registration boards set up in townships. Punishment for applying to convert “with intent to insult, disrespect, destroy or to abuse religion” could be as much as 2 years in jail, according to the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, which fears this provision could provide grounds for members of abandoned religions to file vindictive criminal charges against those who have left. Widely condemned in the international human rights community, the new law forces those seeking to convert to provide an extensive list of personal information to the registration boards and answer intrusive questions.
“Pray for us; we don’t know how long the situation will be calm,” the ministry leader said. “Things are rapidly going from bad to worse. We must strike while we can.” The new law adds more obstacles to advancing the message of Christ in villages where missionaries already encounter threats, deprivation, and violence from Buddhist monks, followers of animistic beliefs, and local officials. Some indigenous missionaries count the cost and find outreach to certain areas too much to bear. The ministry leader has been praying that two young Burmese men who recently put their trust in Jesus would share their faith in some of the Burmese-majority villages that the Gospel has not yet reached. “The two fellows who once were interested in reaching Burmese villages gave up the idea, saying the situation was too risky,” he said.
Veteran members of his team have however forged ahead. After proclaiming Christ to 2,000 people in 3 districts, team members saw 67 people put their trust in Jesus, he said. One evangelist has reported that 60 students are now prepared to share their faith discreetly, as they cannot even share it in their own homes. “They are still under the care of their parents, and they have no courage yet to reveal that they’ve received the Lord; if they did, they would be disowned by their families.” The evangelist who led the Bible training has planted 7 churches, and another team member has formed 6 congregations. “His home church has 83 members of different nationalities,” he said. “Quite often I have visited his church. His integrity and faithfulness is beyond measure, and he loves the Lord very much”.
Following last year’s widespread flooding, the ministry has continued to give aid. Teams recently provided rice, clothing, and medicines and helped build small houses in six villages devastated by mudslides. In addition, the ministry is caring for 64 children at orphanages in two homes. Besides outreach to the ethnic Karen and Kayan, the ministry is sending teams to proclaim Christ to the ethnic Asho Chin scattered throughout Thayetmyo District, in the Magway Region of central Burma. The largest religious segment of the Asho Chin is Buddhist — 40%, according to the Joshua Project — while many others are animists who worship spirits, the director said. He requested prayer for the message to break through the barriers of the Asho Chin. “The Asho Chin are not quick to change, but slowly their eyes will be opened.
US CHURCH NOMINATED FOR NOBEL PRIZE BECAUSE IT FORGAVE
It’s been widely reported a church in the United States, where a shooting last year claimed nine lives, has been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize. The Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina, has apparently been recommended for the prestigious award by a group of Illinois politicians. It’s claimed the nomination was inspired by the church’s decision to promptly forgive the white supremacist Dylan Roof, who is accused of committing the killings last June. The supervisor for Thornton Township, Frank Zuccarelli, is quoted as saying to WBBM-TV: “If anyone was responsible for promoting the peace, it was Mother Emanuel and the church leadership. “They demonstrated more love, peace and forgiveness than we have ever seen before… They are a great example for us all to follow.”
A petition on the Thornton Township website supporting the Nobel Peace Prize nomination said: “In some other city, an incident of such hatred and racist horror might have sparked an outpouring of anger and violence – driving crowds into the streets in clashes with each other and police. “Instead, something unexpected happened — an outpouring of unity and forgiveness. “The entire community of Charleston – church, ordinary citizens, political leaders, business leaders and law enforcement, came together to support those families who lost loved ones. “They came together in a spirit of forgiveness and love, not anger or hatred.” Liz Alston, the historian who contributed to the entry, told the media: “The fact that our church contributed to peace in this world is just phenomenal, and it’s unequalled in Charleston history.”
The European Union has voted to acknowledge, “Islamic State (IS) is committing genocide against Christians, Yazidis, and other ethnic minorities.” This first recognition of a genocide acknowledges the horrific conditions that Christians in Iraq, Syria and Libya, have endured at the hands of Islamic State. IS actions in Iraq have been covered by the world’s media. Images of 150,000 Christians fleeing Mosul in 2014 were widely publicised. More recently several mass graves have been found in territory liberated from IS control. Despite intense persecution and attempts to eradicate any Christian presence in Iraq, around 250,000 remain to shine God’s light. “We are not afraid. God is protecting us,” said one pastor. Most Christians are living under very difficult conditions but the gospel remains and the church is not bowed.
• for God’s provision for the many Christians in Iraq who are living as displaced people.
• for the recovery of the Christians who have witnessed atrocities and will require ongoing care.
• praising God that the church remains and that even in these circumstances He is still making Himself known.