ACCELERATED TARGETING OF REMAINING MIDDLE EAST CHRISTIANS
The Middle East, the historic cradle of Christianity, is today witnessing an accelerated “targeting” of its remaining Christians, according to a report aiming to rally world attention to threats facing ancient communities in Syria and Iraq. “Civil war in Syria and Iraq has unleashed a tidal wave of violent persecution. This has targeted the highly vulnerable Christian population, to the extent that this targeted persecution is now widely recognised around the globe,” the report says. It was presented by Christian charity Open Doors UK to a group of British MPs on 12 October. An estimated 50% and 80% of Christians have left Syria and Iraq respectively. We are faced with significant evidence Christians are suffering disproportionately.
Before 2011 Syrian Christians were about 8% of the population. Today about half are believed to have left the country. In neighbouring Iraq, there were around 1.5 million Christians but today, estimates are that less than
250,000 remain. There were more than 250,000 registered Iraqi refugees in Syria between 2004-2010. Of these, 44% were Christian. “We are faced with significant evidence that Middle Eastern Christians are being targeted because they are Christians,” concluded the report. Drawing from extensive consultations with leaders and church members in both countries, the report notes cases of Christians taken hostage; church leaders assassinated; Christian homes, businesses and churches commandeered or destroyed; and women and girls raped and forced into sexual slavery.
Those initially living in Islamic State (IS) territory were forced to pay the jizya (submission) tax to survive, while others suffered mass forced displacement. The report warns that if the rate of emigration continues, within a few years the Christian communities in these countries will be “utterly devastated”. Christians “were denied full freedom of religion and belief before 2003 in Iraq and 2011 in Syria, especially those who chose to follow Christianity from a Muslim background,” the report notes. In Iraq, radical Islamic groups are working for the religious cleansing of Iraq with the aim of making the country “purely Islamic”. Since the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, according to NGO Baghdad Our Home, there have been more than 7,000 violations against properties belonging to Iraqi Christians in Baghdad.
A Baghdad official says almost 70% of Baghdad’s Christian homes have been illegally taken. The report aims to encourage national and international actors to “ensure that the current and future legal frameworks in Syria and Iraq fully protect the equal and inalienable rights” of all, including Christians, whose historic contributions to their homelands it elucidates. Ancient Syria, a heartland of Christianity for 700 years, was once a vital part of the Eastern Roman Empire. After Arab-Islamic conquests, against all odds Christians still managed to bring Greek philosophy to the Middle East through translation of Greek texts to Syriac and Arabic. Christians also contributed to early developments of Arabic literature and language. Many European works of secular literature were first translated into Arabic by Christians.
After modern era emancipations Christians from their legal status as dhimmis (second-class subjects) under Sharia, Christians in the 20th century again held a disproportionately high number of professional qualifications and higher education degrees. Following the formation of the Iraqi state in 1921, Christians established schools and hospitals, created literature and media, and launched businesses, factories, athletic clubs and art galleries. The report wants to ensure continued improvement of living conditions for all citizens, especially returning refugees and the internally displaced. “Christians want to be seen as Iraqi or Syrian citizens, enjoying the full rights of citizenship, such as their right to freedom of religion or belief, and the right to freely choose and change their religion,” the report says.
Written as part of a collaboration between Open Doors, Middle East Concern, Served, and the UK University of East London, it aims to raise the Middle East Christian profile at the UN by June 2017, seeking one million signatures to take to the international body in support of Christians and minorities in Syria and Iraq. Meanwhile, its hashtag, #hope4me, by mid-October had already reached 257,590 accounts, with the hashtag being used in 19 countries, according to Open Doors. “For the future of the region, it is vital that the Christian communities in the Middle East not only survive the attempts of extremist Islam to destroy them, but are given the necessary support and opportunity to play their role in reconciling and rebuilding their countries in the future,” Lisa Pearce, Chief Executive of Open Doors UK, said.
Boko Haram has released 21 of the girls kidnapped in Chibok in 2014, according to the Nigerian President’s spokesman. It’s been two and a half years since 275 schoolgirls were kidnapped from their dormitories in Chibok. Their disappearance eventually generated headlines around the world and fuelled a social-media storm. This is the first time any of the schoolgirls have been found since May, when two girls were discovered in the space of two days. A Christian girl, Amina Ali Nkeki was found on 17 May in the Sambisa Forest, close to the border with Cameroon. Two days later, Nigeria’s army said it had rescued a second girl, Serah Luka, believed to be the daughter of a pastor, though she was later found to not have been among the Chibok girls.
Nkeki escaped with the Boko Haram fighter to whom she had been forcibly married, with their child. She appealed for support for the young man, whom she implied had himself been forced into becoming a fighter. A month after she escaped, some Christians have expressed concerns over Nkeki’s whereabouts, saying she had been kept under close control by the government. Some were concerned she had not been allowed to return to her Christian family, which they assumed would be a strong element in her recovery from trauma. Rev. Joel Billi, president of the Ekeklesiya Yan’uwa Nigeria (EYN) Church, said that 201 of the kidnapped girls belong to his church. “I am very, very happy to hear that 21 of them are free,” he said. “One day soon, the majority, if not all of them, are going to be freed.
Rev Billi said “When I heard the news, I said that the church has to talk to the federal government because although Anima was rescued a few months ago, we still don’t know where she is. This is to say we have mixed feelings about the whole thing.” Meantime, the Nigerian government has disclosed the details of its failure to secure the release of the girls during negotiations which began in July 2015, shortly after President Buhari took office. Three times the negotiations were derailed, once at the last minute, even after the president had agreed to free imprisoned Boko Haram fighters. Another time, talks failed because key members of Boko Haram’s negotiating team were killed. Buhari, who has been criticised by parents and activists, again appealed for the parents’ trust.
In August, Boko Haram released a video which appeared to show some of the Chibok girls. It showed a masked man demanding the release of militants in exchange, and one girl asking her parents to appeal to the government. In April, the Boko Haram group released a further video, apparently filmed on Christmas Day 2015 showing 15 of the girls pleading with the Nigerian government to co-operate with the militants for their release. The girls said they were being treated well but wanted to be with their families. Some parents who attended a screening of that video identified some of the girls. Two mothers said they recognised their daughters, while a third mother identified five of the missing girls. One mother said her daughter looked much better than expected, giving hope to the families.
At least 18 parents of the girls have died of stress-related illness; three others have been killed by militants; many others have persistent health problems brought on by stress. Most of the girls were reportedly forcibly converted to Islam. Many have been sexually abused and forced into “marriage” by their captors. A report by Nigeria’s Political Violence Research Network, reveals how effective it is to focus attacks on women and girls, because the effects are devastating to the community. Entire families and Christian communities are “dishonoured”, leading husbands to reject wives who are victims of rape. The fact that Christian women suffer at the hands of Boko Haram is a calculated part of the movement’s offensive, designed to intimidate the population into accepting political-religious change.
For hundreds of women and girls kidnapped by Boko Haram militants, their ordeal did not end when they escaped. Many have become outcasts in their communities, stigmatised due to their perceived association with Boko Haram. Others pregnant after being raped, have been “shamed and are now accused of spawning future Boko Haram fighters. This all backs up Angelina Jolie’s message of “rape as a ‘policy’ aimed at terrorising and destroying communities”. Jolie shared stories of girls she had met in war zones, who had been repeatedly raped and sold for as little as $40. In 2014, she co-hosted a global summit in London, attended by representatives from more than 100 countries, aimed at raising awareness and tackling the issue of sexual violence in conflict, especially rape as a weapon of war.
The French government has announced that it plans to ban pro-life websites found guilty of “deliberately deceiving” women with the appearance of neutrality. Under an amendment to a current “Equality and Citizenship” law, owners of pro-life sites could face a 30,000 euro fine (about $33,600) and two years in prison, the same penalties that currently apply to “the offense of obstruction to abortion,” which has been illegal since 1993. “Being hostile to abortion is an opinion protected by the civil liberties in France,” Laurence Rossignol, minister of families, children, and women’s rights said. “But creating websites that have all official appearances to actually give biased information designed to deter, guilt, and traumatize is not acceptable.”
One of the most popular targeted sites is ivg.net. The site provides help for “women who suffer from an abortion and want a place to express their pain,” spokeswoman Marie Philippe said. “These women receive support and the opportunity to be recognized and understood in their pain.” Ivg.net competes for top place in Google search results with the government site, ivg.gouv.fr which touts, “Abortion, your right,” and mentions no risks associated with the procedure. Ivg.net advertises a crisis line for women facing unexpected pregnancies. “You are pregnant and considering abortion? Don’t be alone!” the site declares. One page states, on the line and will be someone who “listens, understands your feelings, and gives you time to talk.”
Other pages detail abortion methods, list facts about abortion’s health risks to the mother, and contain posts from women talking about the deep regret they felt over their abortions. “We offer help and support to every woman who in her heart wants to keep her child,” Philippe said, “We are shocked by the number of women who were obliged to abort under the pressure and constraint of their community.” Rossignol claims sites like ivg.net parade as unbiased information sources but are designed to talk women out of their abortions. “A woman facing an unwanted pregnancy is sometimes vulnerable,” she said. “The sites we are talking about take advantage of the complexity of situations and emotions to get them to renounce abortion.”
The French government views pro-life activists as unsavoury and bans them from standing outside abortion facilities to distribute pro-life literature. In a 2013 case, pro-life activist Xavier Dor faced a 10,000 euro fine for entering an abortion facility and handing a woman knitted booties. Critics called his actions “extremely violent,” and the judge found him guilty of hindering an abortion. “These people are a minority,” Rossignol said. “They are fanatics. So you have to limit their impact on society.” But Philippe says her organization’s information does not force women to choose one way or another but simply allows them to make a “free and informed” decision. “We do not fight against some ideology, whether pro- or anti-abortion but to prevent and relieve the suffering we come across daily.”
CHURCH CONTINUES TO GROW IN NORTH KOREA DESPITE 70 YEARS OF PRESECUTION
North Korea Christians have endured 70 years of persecution, but these have not stopped the work of God in the communist nation. Since 1995, the North Korean government has allowed about 480 foreign organizations to work in the country, and 70 of these are Christian, including Samaritan’s Purse and World Vision. These Christian organizations have covered 85 of the 145 counties and 23 of the 27 cities in North Korea, which means a large part of the country’s population has been exposed to Christian work, according to an article from the Lausanne Global Analysis. The North Korean government extends tolerance toward these Christian groups not only because of the benefits they give but also because they are perceived to be people of integrity.
One North Korean commented to me, “Many of the people coming into our country want to take advantage of us, but you Christians want to help us,” the article author wrote. When it comes to dealing with Christian organizations, North Korea is not at all like China, where Christians are associated with negative things like the Opium Wars and colonialism. In North Korean history, Christianity had been perceived as being generally helpful to the nation. Korea first opened its doors to Christianity in 1884 when American missionary Horace Allen was able to help heal the Queen’s brother through the use of medicine. Because of this, more missionaries were invited into the country, leading to the establishment of 293 schools and 43 universities and a surge of Christian activity particularly in Pyongyang.
Thus, from a historical perspective, Christians in North Korea have been associated with education and progress. However, Christian persecution in the country became intense since 1945. The government, seeking to remove all traces of Christianity, conducted a massive crackdown against Christians. In the 1970s, the government announced Christians no longer exist in the country. For the fourteenth year in a row, North Korea has been ranked as the number one country where Christians are most persecuted, according to Open Doors USA. A report released last month by the Christian Solidarity Worldwide said that there are thousands of Christians suffering from extremely harsh torture in labor camps.
“Prisoners are forced into long days of hard labour, such as mining and logging. Malnutrition is rife due to the poor rations, and increases the mortality rate. Prisoners endure poor accommodation that does not provide adequate protection against the tough winters, damaging their health; and are subject to brutal torture and even execution by prison guards,” the report said. In spite of this, Christian presence in the country continues to remain. One important challenge Christians in North Korea face is unity. “Unless Christians give priority to unity, it will be difficult for North Koreans to differentiate cults working there from orthodox Christians,” the author wrote. “Irrespective of what we do, working to improve the livelihood of North Koreans inside, it is imperative that we unite as the body of Christ.”
Something wonderful is happening in Tibet. Last year, one Tibetan Buddhist priest embraced Jesus Christ and became a Christian pastor. He converted after seeing the love of Christ shown by a group of Christian workers who helped out and provided relief goods to the people of the region when a major earthquake struck the area. Now, the seed of Christian love has grown. In an update, Asian Access reports that 62 other Buddhist monks have decided to follow the footsteps of the former lama and are now following Christ as well. As a result of the labours of this new Christian community, thousands of others Tibetans followed. What is causing this avalanche of Christian conversions?
Asian Access Director Joe Handley says it is mainly due to Christian workers who provided hope and healing to the people of Tibet in the aftermath of last year’s devastating earthquake. “They haven’t seen Buddhists, Hindus, or other religious groups helping in the midst of the rubble. Week after week, it is the followers of Jesus who have proved the test of time being the hands and feet of Jesus.” The new converts have been discipled immediately. “We invest deeply, building their capacity so they can reach their communities,” Hanley says. “God does amazing things when you invest in people and see them grow in Him, grow stronger as leaders, learn how to reproduce other leaders, and then it spreads through church planting efforts in ways that are simply remarkable.”
Peter Wagner, a pioneer in the apostolic ministry, has gone home to be with the Lord. He was 86 years old, passing away at 2:30pm Friday 22 October. Wagner suffered from congestive heart failure in part of his heart. In June, he underwent two surgeries. The first was to drain his abdominal cavity of excess fluid. This second surgery is to repair the lungs and pour talcum powder into the lungs, which repairs the leaky lungs. Wagner’s friend, Chuck Pierce, confirmed Wagner’s death on his Facebook page, calling Wagner “one of the greatest moulders of modern church history.” Wagner is recognized as a leading authority in the fields of church growth and spiritual warfare. He is co-founder of World Prayer Centre and is chancellor of the Wagner Institute in Colorado Springs, Colorado.
Wagner holds graduate degrees in theology, missiology and religion from Fuller Theological Seminary, Princeton Theological Seminary and the University of Southern California. Wagner served as a field missionary in Bolivia for 16 years and he taught on the faculty of the School of Intercultural Studies at Fuller Seminary for 30 years. Wagner ministers extensively nationally and internationally from his home base in Colorado. He has written 70 books, including Prayer Shield, Territorial Spirits, and Apostles and Prophets. Wagner is survived by his wife, Doris. The former apostolic leader was admitted to the hospital on September 23 before passing away one month later.