CHRISTIANS SEE HOPE DESPITE SYRIA’S FIVE YEARS OF WAR
Of an estimated population of 17 million in Syria, 11 million have either left the country or been internally displaced by the civil war which has entered its 5th year. For those still there, there are new beginnings with new opportunities – in both business and in living out their faith. Some enterprising Syrians in the churches are creating work and opportunities for those who stay on in the war-torn country, and others – church leaders – are adapting to the growing interest in Christianity of former Muslims in Syria and neighbouring Lebanon, where new former-Muslim believers can at times outnumber long-time church-goers. “We now have more than 20 ‘churches’ meeting in people’s houses and believe we will grow much bigger. More than 100 families are waiting for us to find them a house church,” said one pastor.
The opening of a factory usually signals renewed confidence in the economy; in Syria it’s a necessity, driven by a need to reverse the destruction caused by the civil war. Thirty people in one Syrian city which suffered terrible destruction, are newly employed in a furniture factory that recently opened. It’s hoped that a paying job will stop their families leaving the city like so many others. The idea for the factory came from a local Orthodox priest. After drawing up a business plan he found a private partner and now its business prospects look good – the factory even has international orders on its books. In August last year a pharmacy opened in another besieged city in Syria. Again backed by church funding, it provides discounted medicines to the elderly and vulnerable.
A big challenge for people in Syria is the lack of a water supply. The water in some wells isn’t safe to drink. A church group decided to create a new well. “We got approval to dig much deeper than the usual 100 meters because deeper wells guarantee a continuous provision of water,” said a representative from the church. The well took six weeks to dig. “When we reached the required depth, a company installed the pump and filters to create water storage,” he added. The well should produce 10,000 litres of water each day, to serve 500 families, each allowed to take 20 litres of water each day. Many helping in the churches are themselves refugees and former Muslims. “I would say that 70% of our team helping refugees are refugees themselves who have come to Christ,” says a Lebanese pastor.
Before Syria’s civil war, it was unusual to find a Muslim converting to Christianity, but now you can find many former Muslims in churches in Syria and neighbouring Lebanon, where many Syrians have fled. A church leader in southern Syria thinks the war has played a part: “Muslims are open to hear from the Bible after the atrocities they’ve seen in the name of religion. “Some come because they found what they were taught about Christianity was wrong. They were raised to believe the Bible is corrupt.” Being away from family and friends has also allowed some to explore Christianity. “They are now displaced and their closest family members can’t see where they are going and what they are doing”. “So we are trying to equip them to be leaders in the future when they go back home.”
Church leaders overcome some of the challenges of former Muslims by using the language of Islam. “We give special lessons to answer their questions comparing Christianity and Islam” says one. “We say about faith that it’s “the same dish but with a different dressing”. We use some of their terms but never compromise about the truth,” says a pastor from Lebanon. Another one adds: “In my teaching I focus on the ideas that they carry from their former religion.” Church growth from former Muslims has its challenges, with long-time church members being initially suspicious. “We are cautious about their sincerity. These new believers used to persecute us. We get complaints from a few of the long-time Christian members.”
“Are these people true believers, or are they coming to spy, or because we are giving hand-outs? I disciple them one-on-one first because of trust issues,” a pastor from Southern Syria says. “The new believers are afraid that other people will know about them because it is a scandalous thing in their community if people discover them being Christians”. One pastor in Damascus is cautious because the authorities don’t like Muslims converting to Christianity. “So we do our ministry with caution, keeping away from publicity and social media. We don’t tell anyone about the work.” All pastors say their churches have special discipleship training for these new believers. One says: “We disciple them and it changes their view of the world. We encourage them to stay firm, despite the persecution and the trouble they face.”
For the fourth year in a row, Peruvian pro-lifers took to the streets of Lima to defend the right to life of all persons from conception to natural death. Organizers estimate that over 750,000 people participated in the annual March for Life. Cardinal Juan Cipriani, the archbishop of Lima, stated that “this march has brought together the greatest number of citizens ever in Peru’s history, all of them united by one idea, to defend the paramount right to life.” Cardinal Cipriani addressed the gathering telling them that “I feel very proud to be with you at this march. Peru is showing Latin America and Europe that we can change our way of thinking. We must support life, the family, and we must have the courage to take to the streets. They will not silence us. We will always take to the streets to defend life.”
The march began at 3 pm with an address by the auxiliary bishop of Lima, Msgr. Adriano Tomasi, and proceeded through several neighbourhoods of Lima before ending at a beach on the Costa Verde (the green coast). Pro-lifers were then treated to a concert and several talks, among them one by Lianna Rebolledo, a rape survivor who became pregnant by rape and, although only 12 years old, refused to abort. Also attending the March were several presidential and vice presidential candidates, who gave statements of support for the right to life and those who defend it. Peru, along with other Latin American nations that defend the right to life from conception, have been under an unremitting assault from international abortion activists, who have found allies in some of the political elites of leftists political parties.
Although legislation has been defeated repeatedly in the Peruvian congress, last year the current first lady, Nadine Heredia, along with a cadre of handpicked abortion activists appointed to head up the health ministry, were able to issue national health regulations intended to “standardize abortion care” in cases where the health of the mother was in danger. In so doing, they sought to circumvent the clear protections against abortion in the criminal code and in Article 1 of the Peruvian constitution, which states that “the defence of the human person and the respect for his or her dignity is the paramount purpose for society and the state.” The march is an especially important show of force in light of the upcoming presidential elections, which will be held in less than a month on the 10th April.
Keiko Fujimori, the daughter of ex-president Alberto Fujimori, is leading the field with 32% of support in the latest polls, followed by Pedro Kuczynski with 14%. The Ivy League-educated Keiko Fujimori has stated that she is pro-life and in a recent talk at Harvard University stated that the only circumstance that she would favour an abortion is to save the life of the mother. Meanwhile, Pedro Kuczynski has publicly stated his opposition to abortion in general terms, but when the law, which would have legalized the killing of children conceived in rape, came to congress last year, he stated his support for abortion in such cases. A recent poll found that 89% of Peruvians reject abortion.
DESPERATE SYRIAN REFUGEES RUN TO CHRIST AND TEACH THEIR CHILDREN ABOUT JESUS
Syrian refugees who fled predominantly Muslim countries amid ongoing war and terrorism are embracing Christianity and teaching their children about Jesus after experiencing firsthand the love and compassion of Believers in Greece. This year alone, more than 126,000 refugees have entered Greece, and last year, more than 500,000 refugees arrived on the island of Lesbos, according to the BBC. Still more refugees are traveling to Macedonia, which was allowing entry to only 250 refugees per day and has turned away more than 6,000. Thousands are expected to be stranded in Greece or Turkey in the upcoming months, as several European nations recently announced caps on the numbers they will take. Even worse-more than 3,770 migrants were reported to have died trying to cross the Mediterranean in 2015.
Most died on the crossing from north Africa to Italy, and more than 800 died in the Aegean crossing from Turkey to Greece. According to a report from Christian Aid Mission, Christian relief groups are working tirelessly in these regions to help provide food, clothing and blankets to such new arrivals, and they distribute groceries weekly to more than 100 families. One ministry team leader told the outlet that their volunteers are able to communicate with the Syrian, Iraqi and Kurdish refugees in their own languages, allowing them to share the love of Christ with those traumatized from their experiences. The ministry leader shared one particularly compelling story of how one refugee, who will go by the name of ‘Saddam’ for security reasons, embraced Christianity after witnessing the kindness of the Christian aid workers.
Saddam appeared to have been a man of authority and wealth in Syria. When he first arrived, he asked a ministry worker if he was a Christian or a Muslim. The worker asked him why he wanted to know. With tears streaming from his eyes, Saddam said, “I need someone to talk with me about Jesus. All the Muslim countries have turned their back to us. All the Muslim nations have ripped us from our homes. They taught us not to trust Christians, and that they are liars. I come to Greece and I find myself in the best place with the best food for me and my children. I find love that I have never seen. Please teach me.” He wept even more as he was led to faith in Jesus as Lord and Saviour, then he said, “Now, you have to teach my children. They are the future. They have to be Christians. Our time is short. Please teach them.”
At least 60 people have been killed and scores injured in an explosion at a public park in the eastern Pakistani city of Lahore. Many of the victims were Christians who were out celebrating Easter with their families. The park was crowded with families at the time and most of the victims are said to be women and children. Police told the BBC it appeared to be a suicide bomb. A Pakistan Taliban faction said it carried out the attack. “Pakistan’s president has condemned the blast and the regional government has announced three days of mourning,” said the BBC. “All the major hospitals in the area have been put on an emergency footing. “The explosion appears to have been at the main gate to the Gulshan-e-Iqbal park in an area where cars are usually left – and a short distance from the children’s swings.”
One eyewitness said there was chaos, with a stampede breaking out and children separated from their parents in the rush to escape. Another man told Pakistan TV he was heading towards a fairground ride with his wife and two children when he heard a huge bang and all four of them were thrown to the floor. Hasan Imran, 30, a local resident who had gone to the park for a walk told Reuters: “When the blast occurred, the flames were so high they reached above the trees and I saw bodies flying in the air.” A health adviser to the regional government said more than 280 people had been injured and it was feared the number of dead would rise further. The agency also reported that the army was called in to control crowds outside the park.
Lahore is the capital of Pakistan’s largest and wealthiest province and the political powerbase of Prime Minister Sharif. Pakistan Taliban group Jamaat-ul-Ahrar claimed responsibility for the attack. “We claim responsibility for the attack on Christians as they celebrated Easter,” spokesperson Ehansullah Ehsan said. The BBC added that Pakistan has suffered regular incidents of Taliban-related violence, sectarian strife and criminal gang activity. Meanwhile in the capital, Islamabad, police fired tear gas at thousands of protesters who marched in support of Islamist gunman Mumtaz Qadri, who was hanged last month for the murder of Punjab governor Salman Taseer five years ago. Mr Taseer had defended Asia Bibi, a Christian woman sentenced to death on alleged blasphemy charges, and who is now appealing her death sentence.
Please pray for our brothers and sisters in Benue state, central Nigeria, where Fulani herdsmen have killed hundreds of mainly Christian farmers in recent weeks. Heavily armed herdsmen killed about 300 farmers between February 22 and 29 in the Agatu local government area of this mainly Christian state, and at least eight others were killed on March 8 in Logo area. Five villages have been ‘utterly destroyed’ and homes looted. An estimated 7,000 people have been displaced and have taken refuge in camps. Government officials say the herdsmen have started to leave voluntarily but locals report the attackers and their cattle are still occupying villages in Agatu.
Herdsmen leaders say they were retaliating for the killing of thousands of cows by local villagers – although there is no evidence of this. A fact-finding team which included a human rights lawyer said it suspected the violence was religiously motivated as churches and Christian homes had been targeted while mosques had been left untouched.
. that our loving heavenly Father will bind up the broken-hearted and heal those who are wounded.
. for justice for the families of those killed.
. for wisdom for Nigerian officials as they tackle extremism in the form of both the militant Islamist group Boko Haram and Fulani herdsmen. Pray for an end to the bloodshed in this troubled nation.
US HOUSE TAKES BOLD LEAD AGAINST GENOCIDE OF CHRISTIANS
The House of Representatives has voted to characterize ISIS’ violence against Christians and others as genocide. ISIS has targeted religious minorities including Christians, Yezidis and many others. Family Research Council President Tony Perkins commented: “I commend the House for unanimously voting to declare ISIS’ atrocities against Christians and others as genocide. While condemning and stopping ISIS’ bloody rampage against Christians and other religious minorities is a priority for the House of Representatives and most of the Western world, including the European Parliament, it has unfortunately not been a priority for the this administration.
“America has lost its chance to take the lead against ISIS. But regardless of the timing, our national security, vital interests, and essential values demand that we act. While the word ‘genocide’ alone won’t stop the suffering, it will certainly go a long way to sparking a series of mostly non-military actions that can bring help and hope to our Christian brothers and sisters who are suffering for nothing more than being identified as followers of Jesus Christ. “Every day that goes by without America’s help is a lost opportunity. Pray for our brothers and sisters in Christ in ISIS territory. And pray for our nation, which should always be leading on religious liberty-not following,” concluded Perkins.
ISIS BURNS THOUSANDS OF CHRISTIAN BOOKS IN ATTEMPT TO ERASE CHRISTIANITY FROM MIDDLE EAST
A new video has emerged showing Islamic State militants burning Christian textbooks in an attempt to erase all traces of religions other than Islam from the ancient city of Mosul, Iraq. The video shows the militants tossing thousands of Christian books, many of them emblazoned with crosses, into a large bonfire. Experts believe ISIS has burned approximately 8,000 books and rare manuscripts over the past few months. A local activist, Abdullah al-Mulla, said the books had been collected from the many Christian schools and churches throughout the once thriving city. Mosul has been occupied by ISIS since June 2014 and is considered to be the main stronghold for the terror group in the region. Once ISIS took over the city, it issued an edict to drive out the remaining Christians and offered an ultimatum: convert to Islam or die.