On 1 February 2016 in Geneva, the World Health Organization (WHO) Director-General, Margaret Chan, convened an International Health Regulations Emergency Committee on Zika virus and the observed increase in neurological disorders and neonatal malformations. Following this meeting, the WHO have declared the Zika virus outbreak in South and Central America a Public Health Emergency of International Concern, and they called for a ‘coordinated international response…to improve surveillance, the detection of infections, congenital malformations, and neurological complications, to intensify the control of mosquito populations, and to expedite the development of diagnostic tests and vaccines to protect people at risk, especially during pregnancy’.
The WHO reports: ‘In May 2015, Brazil reported its first case of Zika virus disease. Since then, the disease has spread within Brazil and to 22 other countries and territories in the region. Arrival of the virus in some countries of the Americas, notably Brazil, has been associated with a steep increase in the birth of babies with abnormally small heads and in cases of Guillain-Barré syndrome, a poorly understood condition in which the immune system attacks the nervous system, sometimes resulting in paralysis. A causal relationship between Zika virus infection and birth defects and neurological syndromes has not been established, but is strongly suspected.’
The disease itself is usually mild, typically lasting 2-7 days, with symptoms which can include headache, low-grade fever, joint pain, muscle pain, conjunctivitis/red eyes and/or eye pain. It is possible to be infected and only have very minor symptoms. However it is the clustering of this virus with neurological disorders and neonatal malformations, and the anticipated spread of the disease, which has caused the WHO to declare it a Public Health Emergency of International Concern. The Virus can in some cases cause abnormalities in the unborn child. Pray for the parents, the child, and extended family that are impacted by such a severe change in circumstances as they prepare to care for a child born with special needs.
Mission Agencies have many volunteers in Latin America for short term projects and also longer term service. There are a number of pastoral concerns for the long term workers who are currently living in high risk zones and who were hoping to start a family or add to their family. They need to seek the Lord for peace about the decision to leave their work, wait, or go ahead and try for a child, knowing the risks involved. Longer term workers will also be coming alongside others in the local communities who are living the effects themselves of this outbreak and who may be carrying a child with microcephaly. Pastoral issues arise for supporting family members who are left behind and worry about their relatives who are serving in missions in high risk zones.
Pastoral issues also arise for the short term volunteers; Perhaps thinking of getting married after a college course. How long could I be a carrier of the infection? “I wanted to serve God for 6 months in Brazil, now I don’t know if I should take that risk?” This kind of thought process effects recruitment for mission both long and short term. The virus itself is not as serious as many other mosquito bore viruses in the region, however the potential effects on an unborn child are what drives the fears and naturally the urgency to stop the virus. Our God is greater and this is another opportunity to draw alongside those that are under fear or who have a child who needs extra help.
* for those who have contracted the virus who are pregnant.
• for the WHO and national authorities to do their best in providing research funding and prevention methods.
• for Mission workers and Mission Agencies who are affected by the spread of the virus.
To win the Australian Open, a tennis player needs composure – something Novak Djokovic, 28, developed when his city was bombed by NATO for 78 consecutive nights in 1999. A Christian of deep faith, Djokovic made use of his poise under pressure to take the Australian Open by storm. He slammed contender Andy Murray 6-1, 7-5, 7-6 in a display of dominance proving why he’s tennis’ new #1 ranked player. Djokovic grew up playing tennis in Belgrade when NATO imposed an embargo and bombed the city during the Kosovo War in 1999, causing great shortages of food. “We started the war living in fear, but somewhere during the course of the bombings, something changed in me, in my family, in my people,” Djokovic wrote in his memoir, Serve to Win.
“We decided to stop being afraid. After so much death, after so much destruction, we simply stopped hiding. We decided to make fun of how ridiculous our situation was. One friend dyed his hair like a bulls-eye, a target.” Young Djokovic himself stumbled and fell while scrambling to a bomb shelter one night. He looked up and saw a fearsome F-117 bomber release its cargo upon a hospital, he said. If you can play tennis while dodging bullets and standing in long lines for bread and milk, then nothing can unnerve you. After facing the hardships of war, the psychological games played by opponents on a tennis court are relatively tame to Djokovic. His inner resolve has resulted in many come from behind victories.
His opponents seem befuddled next to his highly-trained concentration level that screens out distractions of any form. When Djokovic did the unimaginable and recovered from a breakdown in the fifth set to beat Rafael Nadal in the Australian Open of 2013, the Australian newspaper proclaimed it an act akin to turning water into wine or opening up the Red Sea. “No one does that,” the reporter wrote. “Djokovic wins a lot of matches he should lose.” Djokovic, jubilant over a triumph that made the world stand up and notice, tore off his shirt to celebrate. The wooden cross around his neck bore visible testament to his faith. Other players choke. Djokovic brings out his best tennis when the heat is on.
At the 2011 U.S. Open he played 16-time major winner Roger Federer and returned a mind-boggling ball on match point that seemed impossible to retrieve – now memorialized as “the shot” – that shocked Federer and the entire tennis world. Once upon a time, Djokovic was the upstart among tennis champions. He was the “third man” behind Federer and Nadal. Now, he stands alone. He has won 11 Grand Slam singles titles – four of the last five. In 2015, he won 82 of 88 matches – a 93% win percentage. “He doesn’t miss anymore,” said John Lloyd, once an Australian Open finalist, as quoted by the BBC. Djokovic describes himself as “orthodox Christian” but “less a religious person than a person of faith,” according to the UK’s Guardian. He frequently gestures thanks to God on the court.
Off the court, Djokovic serves as a Unicef ambassador for his native Serbia and he also founded the Novak Djokovic Foundation, which fosters education for disadvantaged children. He attends the Eastern Orthodox Church. He speaks five languages fluently and is studying others. If on the hard court he breaks down his opponents, off the court he impersonates them, earning himself the nickname “Djoker” (pronounced, similarly to his name, “joker”). He recently won the hearts of the public and the ball boys by hanging out with his ball boy during a spell of rain. He married his long-time girlfriend, model Jelena Ristic, in 2014. The couple has a baby son, Stefan. Regarding God’s institution of marriage, he counselled his tennis compatriots: “I suggest that to every player: Get married, have kids, let’s enjoy this.”
WHAT HAS THE ARAB SPRING MEANT FOR CHRISTIANS 5 YEARS ON
The Arab Spring, which began five years ago started with a wave of protests in Tunisia followed by other Arab countries. It was acclaimed as a social movement demanding an end to human rights violations, government corruption and poverty. Yet, so far, the outcome is largely contrary to what the original protesters intended, and Christians have been especially affected, mostly for the worse. In Egypt the revolution resulted in immediate freedoms that Christians had not experienced before. However after all the upheavals, there was no assurance it would last. Egyptian Christian Diana Melek said: “The revolution shook the church. We were sleeping and we were shaken awake and got up, and then went back to sleep again. First I called it a miracle, it was full of flowers, so it was spring, it seemed a godly spring.”
Christians across the Middle East thought that new governments would provide them with human rights, and the right to be free to believe in Jesus Christ. But as elections were held, new hard line Islamist political parties, like the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, succeeded in getting into power. Under the old authoritarian rule, the position of Christians’ minority rights was, to a certain extent, safeguarded. The ousting of dictators like Colonel Khaddafi in Libya and Hosni Mubarak in Egypt left a power vacuum that benefited Islamist fundamentalists, and also criminal gangs. The anti-Christian sentiments of these groups means that violence against both historical Christian minorities and new believers from Muslim backgrounds has increased.
The Arab Spring has also birthed the emergence of Islamic State which continues to make international headlines for its barbarity of ethnic cleansing of Christians in Syria and Iraq. Because of the on-going chaotic and threatening situation across the region many of the last of the Christian communities continue to leave their native countries en masse, which is a massive blow in the birthplace of the faith. Since the Syrian civil war began in 2011, 700,000 Christians have fled the country. Syrian Christian Wael Haddad: “We had to pray for Syria, maybe from 40 or 50 years ago. Every time we asked ‘Please, Lord, bring a revolution, a spiritual revolution. God shake, shake the nest!’ …But maybe we didn’t think about how the Lord will allow this to happen to His Church.”
MUSLIM LEADERS CALL FOR PROTECTION OF CHRISTIANS FROM PERSECUTION
Over 250 Muslim leaders recently met in Morocco to release the Marrakesh Declaration, a ground-breaking document calling for Muslim nations to defend Christians against persecution. Open Doors recently reported that Christian persecution in Muslim nations “has risen to a level akin to ethnic cleansing.” To combat the increased violence towards Christians in Muslim countries, Texas mega-church pastor Bob Roberts has been forming strategic relationships with Muslim leaders. Is this document a positive development? CBN Chief International Correspondent Gary Lane has travelled widely in the Muslim world reporting on the persecuted Church. His efforts led to nearly 200 imams and evangelical pastors attending the October Convocation,” hosted by he and Imam Muhammad Magid.
Roberts took his peace efforts further by traveling to Morocco with more than 250 Muslim religious leaders, scholars, and heads of states to release the Marrakesh Declaration. The declaration is a 750-word document calling on Muslim countries to grant religious freedom to non-Muslims. In an interview with Christianity Today, Roberts said. “This is a Muslim conference put together by the top sheiks, ministers of religion, the grand muftis of the top Muslim majority nations, and they came up with a declaration, literally using the language of religious freedom to declare that violence cannot be done in the name of Islam,” he said. The Marrakesh Declaration is based off of Muhammad’s Charter of Medina, a seventh century document instructing how to govern a religious pluralistic state.
The declaration borrows ideas from the charter like “principles of contractual citizenship” and “freedom of movement, property ownership, mutual solidarity and defence.” The declaration is meant to challenge Muslim leaders to actively fight against extremism in their own countries. “We call upon the various religious groups bound by the same national fabric to address their selective amnesia that blocks memories of centuries of joint and shared living on the same land,” it says. “We call upon them to rebuild the past by reviving this tradition of conviviality, and restoring our shared trust that has been eroded by extremists using acts of terror and aggression,” it continues. The declaration does not grant protection to non-Muslims against blasphemy or apostasy – crimes that lead to death penalties for Christians.
WEEKLY CHURCH OF ENGLAND ATTENDANCE DROPS BELOW ONE MILLION
The number of people attending Church of England (CofE) services in Britain each week has fallen below one million. Church statistics for 2014 show 980,000 attend each week – down from 1,004,300 in 2013. The fall is part of a steady decline of just over 1% a year, with a 12% decrease over the past decade. Speaking in response to the findings, the Bishop of Norwich, Rt Revd Graham James, said: “The 2014 figures are not in any way a surprise. Whilst the recent trend of the past decade continues, it has been anticipated and is being acted on radically. “As part of a prayerful and considered response to these trends the Church is embarking upon the biggest renewal and reform process in over 150 years focusing our resources on prayer, evangelism, discipleship, vocations, leadership and training.
“We do not expect that trend to change imminently or immediately over the next few years due to demographics. We lose approximately 1% of our churchgoers to death each year. Given the age profile of the CofE, the next few years will continue to have downward pressure as people die or become housebound and unable to attend church. “As a Church we are unashamedly committed to following the teachings of Jesus Christ in our worship of God, discipleship and service to the poor and the marginalised. Our confidence, resilience and service is rooted in Jesus.” The stats also showed 2.4 million attended CofE services at Christmas in 2014 and 1.3 million people attended a service at Easter. The Church carried out just under 1,000 weddings, 2,000 baptisms, and almost 3,000 funerals every week of the year.
CHINA IMPRISONS THE PASTOR OF ITS LARGEST OFFICIAL CHURCH
Authorities in China have detained the pastor of the country’s largest official Protestant church, who publicly objected to a government drive to demolish crosses on church buildings. Rights groups say it is part of a larger crackdown on religious freedom in the communist nation. Pastor Gu Yuese, was placed under “residential surveillance in a designated location” in the city of Hangzhou according to U.S.-based Christian rights group China Aid. Gu, who headed Hangzhou’s prominent Chongyi Church, was removed from his post by China’s Three-Self Patriotic Movement (TSPM), the Chinese Communist Party sanctioned authority that regulates churches, 10 days prior to his detention. He had been vocal in his opposition to the government’s destruction of crosses on church buildings, a campaign that began in 2014.
“His arrest marks a major escalation in the crackdown against those who oppose the forced demolition of crosses,” Bob Fu, president and founder of China Aid, said “He is the highest-ranking national church leader arrested since the Cultural Revolution.” The pastor’s wife Zhou Lianmei has also gone missing, and family members believe she has been taken into custody as well. Gu’s imprisonment has reportedly caused a wave of alarm across China’s evangelical community, with growing fears that the authoritarian government’s increasing proclivity to silence dissenting voices has extended to the religious sphere. “This is really quite an escalation,” Fu told the Christian Science Monitor. “It sends a signal to silence any potential future dissenting voices from within the church. It tells everyone to shut up.”
Please pray for our brothers and sisters in north-eastern Nigeria, whose village has been attacked by Boko Haram gunmen. The Islamist terrorists, who were dressed in soldiers’ uniforms, attacked the village of Dalori, six miles from the city of Maiduguri. They arrived on motorcycles and in trucks and killed between 50 and 65 villagers. They burned some to death in their homes – including children. A further 70 were injured. Boko Haram suicide bombers also carried out raids in neighbouring Chad. Release’s Nigerian partner says Boko Haram is rolling back recent gains against them by the military. The country’s President Muhammadu Buhari vowed to defeat the insurgents by the end of last year.
* that the Lord will comfort our brothers and sisters in Dalori and elsewhere who have lost loved ones to Boko Haram or been injured by their violence.
• that Nigeria’s Christians will stand firm in their faith and be sensitive to the leading of the Lord. Ask God to open the eyes of their persecutors to the truth of the Gospel.
• that Nigeria’s Government will implement an effective strategy to provide protection for Christians under attack from Boko Haram and other militant groups.