IRAN PROTESTS ARE SEEING PEOPLE TURN AWAY FROM POLITICAL ISLAM
Iranians are challenging the legitimacy of the Islamic Republic because corruption and inequality undermine its ideals, a human rights activist has claimed. Mansour Borji, Iranian-born advocacy director of human rights charity Article 18, said the street protests that spread across the country last month revealed not just economic frustration but also disillusionment with the way the 39-year-old regime is perceived to “use Islam for their own ideology”. Protestors initially took to the streets over high prices and alleged corruption, but the demonstrations took on a rare political dimension as a growing number of people called on Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei to be removed.
Borji said the authorities believe the unrest came from the holy city of Mashhad, a stronghold of Islam in Iran. “The whole unrest sounded like people turning their back not only on the regime but also on political Islam.” Borji said. Some protestors called for Iran to stop funding expensive military adventures abroad and address domestic poverty. Tehran supports Hezbollah in Lebanon, Hamas in Gaza, Shia militias in Iraq, President Bashar al-Assad in the Syrian Civil War, and is accused of supporting Shia Houthi rebels in Yemen. Iran’s involvement in multiple conflicts across the region mean that the power balance in several nations could be upset if the regime were seriously threatened.
Larger and better organised protests in 2009, had worried the regime less, Borji said. The Iranian government is more concerned about these protests because it showed their weakness in parts of the country where they felt secure,” he said. Corruption has risen since 2005 as Iranian officials seek ways to circumvent Western sanctions on imports and exports, Borji said, giving financial controls to bodies such as the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps and the judiciary. “Over the past few years, several high-ranking Iranian officials have warned that corruption is the number-one threat for the country’s security and stability,” he said. “The most important pressure that is delegitimising this regime is corruption.”
A regime that came to help the poor and needy and improve their livelihood is now being seen as the cause of more misery and corruption. The image and words of founding father Ayatollah Khomeini are still visible across Iran. He suggested Iranians today have little faith in the regime being capable of reform. When they look at the regime, “they see just survival tactics”, he said. However the regime is not to blame for all of Iran’s economic woes, he added. The 2015 nuclear deal agreed with the former US administration has not fulfilled Iranians’ hopes for greater prosperity, Borji added.
“Since it was signed, daily life for many has become harder. Although President Trump has not abandoned the 2015 deal, his equivocation over recertifying it is scaring off investors,” Borji said. When Ayatollah Khomeini overthrew the Shah in 1979, he cited equity and social justice as two of the revolution’s objectives. Khomeini won popular support criticising the lavish lifestyle enjoyed by the US-backed Shah and his elites. Borji perceives a shift of allegiance away from the state-imposed Shia Islamism back to the Persian nationalism that predated the revolution. There has been calls for the return of the monarchy, while increasing numbers of people are celebrating the birthday of King Cyrus the Great.
Cyrus, founder of the first Persian Empire, is recorded in Old Testament helping the exiled Jews return to Jerusalem. He is respected in Iran because he is remembered as a king who ruled with benevolence and tolerance, and who wrote the first charter of human rights in the ancient world, Borji added. Many Christians in Iran hope for political “change for the better”, however Borji foresees little hope of quick improvement in their circumstances. “The normal monitoring and arrests of Christians in the house-churches just continue,” he said. “In just this next couple of weeks we have appeal courts deciding on the fate of a number of Christians who in July were sentenced to ten years and more,” he said.
CHINA: CRACKDOWN ON UNREGISTERED CHURCHES AHEAD OF NEW REGULATIONS
Christians have been detained, and churches shut down or destroyed in China in the month leading to the revised Regulations on Religious Affairs which became effective on 1 February. The new regulations strengthen state control over religious activities in China and include special provisions on national security and foreign connections. On 18 January, six members of an unregistered church group in Yunnan Province were sentenced to up to 13 years in jail for ‘using an evil cult to organize to undermine law enforcement’. The defendants were accused of belonging to a group called the Three Grades of Servants, which the government has labelled an ‘evil cult’. They deny being members of the group.
According to China Aid, some 200 Christians have been detained and falsely accused of being members of the group. Earlier, Chinese authorities in Shanxi Province demolished the 50,000-member Golden Lampstand Church using dynamite. The state-run Global Times reported that the church had been demolished as part of a city-wide campaign against ‘illegal buildings’. In 2009, the church’s leaders were imprisoned for up to seven years after attempting to lodge a complaint about an attack on the church by hundreds of police and plainclothes officers, in which a number of church members were injured. The longest sentence was given to Pastor Yang Rongli, who was released in October 2016.
In December 2017, is was reported that a 20 year-old Catholic Church in Shaanxi Province was demolished despite having the necessary permits from the Religious Affairs Bureau. In a third case two pastors have been fined over US$1 million for collecting ‘illegal’ donations from members of their congregation. Pastor Su Tianfu and Pastor Yang Hua have filed several appeals on the basis that the money was voluntarily donated by church members and was only used to fund church activities. The appeals were all rejected. The Church, an unregistered Protestant church which once had over 700 members, came under pressure because it refused to join the state-sanctioned association for Protestant churches.
A ‘Rectification Order’ received by the church in November 2015, stated that the church’s use of a commercial building was illegal. Several church members were detained or fined in connection with the case. In January 2017, its Pastor was sentenced to 30 months in prison, while a second Pastor remains under house arrest. A Church Deacon spent 2 years in detention before being released in August 2017. Mervyn Thomas, Chief Executive of Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW), said, “These cases are consistent with a new focus on the control and management of religious activities by the government. These cases may suggest a long-term plan to target independent religious communities.”
“Unregistered churches are being forcibly shut down. At the same time, churches registered with the government are also being managed more tightly. Thirdly, some Christians are being accused of belonging to ‘evil cults’ which are banned by the government under vaguely-worded anti-cult legislation. In each case, the government’s focus is on the control of religious life, rather than the protection of the right to freedom of religion or belief. We urge the Chinese government to release all those detained in connection with the religion or belief, and to revise or remove legislation not in line with international provisions on the right to freedom of religion or belief.”
CHINA’S NEW REGULATIONS EXPECTED TO INCREASE PRESSURE ON CHRISTIANS
Religious establishments in China will be bound by new Regulations for Religious Affairs that came into force from 1 February. The regulations, which define religious activities, have the stated aim of “protecting freedom of religious belief”. The new regulations have sparked controversy among some religious leaders in China. Detailed criteria are given for organisations to meet in order to be registered or to establish a place for religious activities. Local religious affairs departments are given the power to decide the fate of the registration application, as well as the authorisation of venues as places of worship. The regulations also require religious teachers and staff members to report to the same authorities.
Pastor Wang Yi has criticised the regulations saying he considers they violate religious freedom and calls on Christians in China to resist them. The pastor claims the “government has no authority to direct or examine religious groups or to limit citizens’ religious activity. The rule of law does not mean that citizens require Government approval to engage in religious activities. It means the government cannot restrict citizens from gathering and engaging in religious activities without constitutional approval.” Online religious activities must also be reported to religious affairs departments. Any online engagement in religious information services must first be examined and approved by the authorities.
The director of the divinity school at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, Ying Fuk-tsang, has urged religious believers “to become more aware of how to defend their rights in order to meet future challenges.” “Much would depend on how different communist officials implemented the details of the new Regulations. This would apply to officially recognised religious groupings, as well as underground or house practitioners. Knowing their legal rights, religious believers could challenge unfair treatment,” said the academic. A local source said “Fighting for rights with the China government in a high-profile way does not help. It would be better to negotiate with the local authorities and find a solution.”
“Escalating the issues to provincial or national level may result in the Chinese Government oppressing such local churches.” The new regulations also define the collection of donations. When donations amount to more than 100,000 yuan (around $15,900), they must be submitted for approval to the religious affairs departments. The unregulated collection of donations led to two pastors being fined more than $1,000,000, (the amount they collected in donations to their church). The authorities said it was “illegal income”. Their church is now closed and Christians have reported its property being confiscated without a court order.
100 CHRISTIANS SENT TO RE-EDUCATION CAMPS IN CHINA
More than 100 Christians have been sent to “study centres” or “mind transformation centres” camps in China’s Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region in the past few months. In these camps, they are taught how to be loyal to the communist ideology. Most of those detained are from the Uyghur ethnic minority group and have a Muslim background. In recent years the Uyghurs have been the prime targets of the government’s “anti-terror” campaign, aimed at cracking down on militant Islamists. But those who have converted to Christianity have also been caught up in the crackdown. A source said that members of his church were sent to such a camp without knowing when they would come back.
Some were held for a month, others for 6 months or longer, the source said. Christian families were torn apart as one or both parents were taken for “re-education”. One woman, married to a leader in a community with many Christians from a Muslim background, said: “I don’t know where my husband is, but I believe that God still uses him even in prison. I am worried that he doesn’t have enough clothes to keep warm in the prison.” “I am afraid it will affect my children,” said another woman whose husband has been taken and who now supports other women in her situation. “A teacher in the school is paying special attention to my children after the authorities told the school about my husband,” she added.
Xinjiang is the world’s most intensely monitored area, according to a Wall Street Journal (WSJ) report. “There are armoured cars on the street, police stations on every corner and tons of surveillance cameras,” WSJ reported. People in this region are checked many times every day, in the market, on the road, entering the cinema, or travelling by train or bus. Even smartphones are checked,” one source said. Government-registered churches are required to scan people when they come to Sunday services. As they enter, they have to show their ID cards and an alarm sounds if they work for the government or a public institution. As a result many Christians no longer go to registered churches but meet in smaller groups.
NEW RELIGION LAW IN VIETNAM FUELS CHRISTIANS’ FEARS
Please pray for Christians in Vietnam as new laws on religion threaten to limit their freedoms. Vietnam’s Law on Belief and Religion, which came into force on January 1, has alarmed Christians because it insists religious groups must be registered and approved by the Government. They also believe that the law’s vague wording could be exploited to limit church activities. Please pray that Christians in Vietnam will know God’s peace and presence. Despite some improvement in religious freedoms in Vietnam in recent years, some Christians continue to face intense pressure, especially those who speak out against corruption and rights abuses.
Christian lawyer Nguyen Van Dai and Pastor Nguyen Trung Ton are both still in custody in Hanoi since their arrests in December 2015 and July 2017 respectively, because they have called for greater religious freedom. They have been barred from meeting their lawyers. Last month, Christian activist Maria Tran Th? Nga, a mother of two young children from Ha Nam province, was found guilty of ‘propaganda against the state’ and sentenced to nine years in prison and five years under house arrest. Her harsh sentence and irregularities relating to her trial have prompted an international outcry.
* thanking God for the way that relations between the Government in Hanoi and religious groups have improved slightly in recent years. Pray that the new law will not threaten this progress.
* that God will use His people who have spoken out about religious rights and about Him to draw many in Vietnam into a close personal relationship with Him.
* that God will speak to the hearts of those who persecute Christians in Vietnam, and reveal His great love for them.
A German court has ruled to silence loudspeaker calls to prayer from a local mosque that was disturbing local non-Muslim residents. Authorities in the town of Oer-Erkenschwick in the western state of North Rhine-Westphalia had initially granted the local mosque the right to use the loudspeakers for Friday prayers in 2014. However, Hans-Joachim Lehmann and his wife, who live just over half a mile away, won an injunction by arguing that the call to prayer violated their own religious rights. The Lehman’s argued that “the Adhan contains phrases like, ‘Allah is great. I testify that there is no deity but Allah.’ This is an exclusively Islamic claim at the expense of other religions.”
“This represents Allah over our God as Christians,” said Lehman. “And I cannot accept that as a Christian who grew up here in a Christian environment.” This is the first such ruling in Germany, which is home to millions of Muslims. In Israel, proposed legislation limiting the use of similar loudspeakers passed its initial Knesset reading. The Israeli legislation would limit the time of day and volume that Israeli mosques can use for their traditional calls to prayer, addressing a longstanding complaint of noise pollution by non-Muslims in proximity to mosques.