#DoSomethingFriday, January 10, 2014 Edition // Silent No More

In January of 2013, Rep. Frank Wolf wrote a letter to 300 Catholic and Protestant Christian leaders in the United States pleading for their attention and intervention in the tragedy of Christian persecution.  Rep. Wolf has been a tremendous leader in the movement to advance religious freedom and human rights. 

Sadly, the call seems to have gone largely unnoticed by most Christians in America.

In his letter, Rep. Wolf offers a compelling call for the Church to act on behalf of persecuted Christians.  He recounts the following experience of a German Christian whose church failed to act during the Holocaust:

I recently encountered this haunting account by a German Christian in the book When a Nation Forgets God:

“I lived in Germany during the Nazi Holocaust.  I considered myself a Christian.  We heard stories of what was happening to the Jews, but we tried to distance ourselves from it, because, what could anyone do to stop it?  

A railroad track ran behind our small church and each Sunday morning we could hear the whistle in the distance and then the wheels coming over the tracks.  We became disturbed when we heard the cries coming from the train as it passed by.  We realized that it was carrying Jews like cattle in the cars!

Week after week the whistle would blow.  We dreaded to hear the sound of those wheels because we knew that we would hear the cries of the Jews en route to a death camp.  Their screams tormented us.

We knew the time the train was coming and when we heard the whistle blow we began singing hymns.  By the time the train came past our church we were singing at the top of our voices.  If we heard the screams, we sang more loudly and soon we heard them no more.

Years have passed and no one talks about it anymore.  But I still hear that train whistle in my sleep.  God forgive me; forgive all of us who called ourselves Christians and yet did nothing to intervene.”

Please join The St. Charles Institute in prayer that Christians in the West would not, once again, fail to act in the face of great evil.  Ask God for help in discerning ways that you might draw attention to the challenges facing Christians who are currently persecuted for their faith. 

And then do something.

Share prayer requests in your Sunday School or small group.  Share articles on Twitter and Facebook to help create greater awareness of the problem.  Talk about the issue with friends and family.  Set aside a special time of prayer and ask God to do a miracle for believers suffering for their faith. 

Each of our collective actions will make a difference.

As Rep. Wolf reminds us, we must remember the lesson from Bonhoffer: “Silence in the face of evil is itself evil.  Not to speak is to speak.  Not to act is to act.”

May God grant us the courage to act, and may He give us the courage to be silent no more.

Asia Bibi, prisoner for Christ: "I do not know how long I can go on and on"

In June of 2009, during a dispute with a neighbor, a Pakistani Christian named Asia Bibi was accused and found guilty of blaspheming Mohammad, Islam's prophet.  

The story began while Asia was working in the fields picking falsa-berries to earn extra money for her impoverished family. Seeking relief from the heat, Asia drew water from a well that a neighbor felt should have been only for Muslims.  Here is a portion of her account released from this New York Post article in August 2013:

I pull up a bucketful of water and dip in the old metal cup resting on the side of the well. The cool water is all I can think of. I gulp it down and I feel better; I pull myself together.

Then I start to hear muttering. I pay no attention and fill the cup again, this time holding it out to a woman next to me who looks like she’s in pain. She smiles and reaches out . . . At exactly the moment Musarat pokes her ferrety nose out from the bush, her eyes full of hate:

“Don’t drink that water, it’s haram!”

Musarat addresses all the pickers, who have suddenly stopped work at the sound of the word “haram,” the Islamic term for anything forbidden by God.

“Listen, all of you, this Christian has dirtied the water in the well by drinking from our cup and dipping it back several times. Now the water is unclean and we can’t drink it! Because of her!”

It’s so unfair that for once I decide to defend myself and stand up to the old witch.

“I think Jesus would see if differently from Mohammed.”

Musarat is furious. “How dare you think for the Prophet, you filthy animal!”

Three other women start shouting even louder.

“That’s right, you’re just a filthy Christian! You’ve contaminated our water and now you dare speak for the Prophet! Stupid bitch, your Jesus didn’t even have a proper father, he was a bastard, don’t you know that.”

Musarat comes over as though she’s going to hit me and yells: “You should convert to Islam to redeem yourself for your filthy religion.”

I feel a pain deep inside. We Christians have always stayed silent: We’ve been taught since we were babies never to say anything, to keep quiet because we’re a minority. But I’m stubborn too and now I want to react, I want to defend my faith. I take a deep breath and fill my lungs with courage.

“I’m not going to convert. I believe in my religion and in Jesus Christ, who died on the cross for the sins of mankind. What did your Prophet Mohammed ever do to save mankind? And why should it be me that converts instead of you?”

After this devastating encounter, Asia ultimately found herself accused, beaten, imprisoned and found guilty of blaspheming Mohammed.  The penalty for blasphemy in Pakistan is death, and since that fateful day, Asia has been locked away on death row, awaiting her final fate.  

Pakistani leaders who have recognized the injustice of Asia Bibi's case have sought to intervene, including Salman Taseer, former governor of the Punjab province,  and fellow Christian Shabaz Bhatti, former Minister for Minority Affairs.  Both were assassinated as they advocated for an end to Pakistan's blasphemy law and for justice for Asia Bibi.

Just a few weeks ago, Asia Bibi sent a Christmas letter to Pope Francis.  The letter is contradiction of both joy and sorrow.  Pain and hope.  Faith and uncertainty:

"I do not know how long I can go on and on. If I am still alive, it is thanks to the strength that your prayers give me. I have met many people who speak and fight for me. Unfortunately still to no avail. At this time I just want to trust the mercy of God, who can do everything, that all is possible. Only He can liberate me." 

In the Bible, there were times when God orchestrated miracles to bring freedom to prisoners of Christ.  In Acts 12: 6-12, Peter was miraculously freed from prison by an angel of the Lord.  In Acts 16:25-34, an earthquake loosened the chains of prisoners, Paul and Silas, and ultimately led to faith in Christ by the jailer in charge. 

The book Blasphemy: A Memoir: Sentenced to Death Over a Cup of Water, details Asia Bibi's story.  As we at The Institute have read the book, and now Asia's letter to Pope Francis, we are moved to ask God to do a miracle once more. 

Please join The Institute in praying for the miraculous rescue of Asia Bibi.  

 

#DoSomethingFriday | Working Towards a Theological Understanding of Religious Freedom, Part 1 | Dignitatis Humanae

Over the next couple of weeks, The St. Charles Institute will be highlighting a few key documents from a number of sources that have helped to formulate our understanding of religious freedom and human rights.  While these expressions will come from a variety of Christian denominations and traditions, it's important that we seek to understand why, from a theological perspective, religious freedom matters, especially in the context of today's environment where so many are persecuted for their Christian faith.

"Dignitatis Humanae" is the Second Vatican Council's Declaration on Religious Freedom and is the first in this series of suggested readings of The Institute.  The declaration highlights natural order, the nature of man and divine revelation as essential elements that mandate the Christian's pursuit of religious freedom, and shows how it is an inherent fundamental human right that must be advocated for and defended. 

At stake are issues of human dignity, justice, and man's search for ultimate truth.

For today's #DoSomethingFriday, please join The Institute in reading "Dignitatis Humanae.

"We sometimes wonder, if they kill us all, what would be the reaction of Christians in the West? Would they do something then?"

Two weeks ago, new bishop of the Chaldean Catholic Church in Iraq, Patriarch Louis Sako, issued a cry for Western support for Christians in Iraq. Most haunting was Sako's expression of the Iraqi Christian community's pain:

"We feel forgotten and isolated," said Patriarch Louis Raphael I Sako, head of Iraq's Chaldean Catholic Church.

 "We sometimes wonder, if they kill us all, what would be the reaction of Christians in the West? Would they do something then?"

Sadly, we know that yet another attempt by militants to drive out and destroy Iraq's Christians took one more step on Christmas Day, as militants set off bombs near a Baghdad Church and in a nearby market frequented by Christians, killing 37 people and wounding dozens more.

Sako feels his call for support is not only in the interest of the Christian community, but in the entire population of Iraq, including the future for Muslims in the region.

"Christians are important to the Middle East because of their culture, high levels of education, skills, qualifications, openness, their spirit of cooperation and their institutions such as schools, hospitals, orphanages, homes for the aged and the poor, as well as their economic enterprises and small businesses," he said.

Sako called the Christian presence in the Middle East "a guarantee of a better future for Muslims."

Please join The Institute in once again praying for the Church in Iraq.  Pray that God's spirit, presence and witness will strengthen Iraq's Christian community and help them endure the hardship and suffering they now face.  Pray that tangible actions steps will be revealed and find favor with the global Church, the current Iraqi government, and world leaders, so that a better future for both Muslims and Christians may be had by all of the citizens in this tired and war-torn region.  Finally, please pray for the victims who have experienced great trauma through the Christmas Day and other attacks, that God and His Church worldwide would find ways to bring healing and restoration to this hurting people.

Christmas Day attack in Baghdad targets Christians

While many Christians throughout the world celebrated the birth of The Prince of Peace today, Christians in Iraq were targeted for murder by Islamic militants.

According to a CNN report, a Christmas Day attack by jihadists in Baghdad killed at least 38.  A single car bomb went off in Baghdad near a church in the suburb of Dora, where Christians have increasingly been targets of violence and persecution.  Twenty-seven people were killed in the attack.  Another bomb went off in a market in the predominantly Christian neighborhood of Athorien, killing 11.  Both attacks saw many dozens more wounded.

As we close our Christmas celebrations and turn our attention to a new year, let us remember the words of the Christmas Hymn, O Holy Night: "His law is love, and his gospel is peace."

Please join the Institute in prayer for our brothers and sisters in Christ in Iraq who are targets of violence and persecution.  May God's law defined by love, and His gospel that is peace increase in the nation of Iraq.  

May He draw near to those who have lost loved ones at this time, and his Spirit of comfort be upon the Christian community in Iraq.  

In the midst of great darkness, there is "good news of great joy" because of a Great Savior

"Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people."

With these word of comfort, an angel of the Lord began the long-awaited announcement of the greatest news humanity has ever received. 

"For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord" (Luke 2:10-11).

As we look around our world today, is there any greater need more relevant, more apparent, than the need for a savior?

In all of these situations darkness seems to be winning. But this Savior, Jesus, is showing up through remarkable acts of love, grace, courage and comfort from people - people just like you and I - who have found strength and power to love and forgive their enemies.  They have, themselves, believed in Jesus as their Savior, and now are sharing this good news even to people who have done them wrong:

  • Among the places attacked in Egypt was a Christian run orphanage. The attack left 200 children without shelter. In the aftermath, workers from the orphanage left this message on the exterior walls for those who destroyed the refuge: "You meant to hurt us, but we forgive you. God is love. Everything works out for good."
  • In Syria, a number of ministries around the world are raising funds and responding to the Syrian refugee crisis.  Ministries like Hope-Builders International, who through national leaders on the ground, are meeting the practical, day-to-day needs of refugees from the crisis - needs such as food, heat, and clothing.
  • And, Anita Smith, the wife of Ronnie, the teacher who was gunned down by militants in Libya, has penned these words in an open letter to Ronnie's killers: "I love you and I forgive you."

As 2013 comes to a close, we at the Institute have recognized afresh our need for a Savior.  When we read of the gravity and deprivation that is manifest in the many forms of evil and darkness that seem to prevail today, we sometimes feel powerless, and helpless - and yes, even afraid.

Yet, when we read the stories of love, hope and forgiveness in the midst of this great darkness, we are inspired to pursue our work with courage, boldness and strength, and to live out our faith and proclaim the message of this Great Savior. 

Please join with the Institute in prayer for those throughout the world who are caught in conflict and are now targets of darkness.  Pray that the actions of the Institute, and Christians workers around the world, will, like the angel that morning, "bring good news of great joy to all people. " 

Let us remember once again the words of the angel:  "For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord."

Hear all people, everywhere - in the midst of this great darkness, there is good news of great joy.  

A Savior has been born!

The Rise of Kidnapping as a Tool to Persecute Christians: #DoSomethingFriday | December 20, 2013 Edition

Reports of kidnapping being used as a tool to intimidate and extort Christians by various Islamic militants appear to be spreading.  This article from the Christian Science Monitor highlights the disturbing trend in Egypt's troubled Minya province, where more than 100 victims have been kidnapped in recent days.  The primary motive for the kidnappings appears to be financial, as victims are held for ransom at the demand for thousands of dollars. Of interesting note is the author's reason as to why Christians are targeted compared to other groups:

"Christians are targeted because they do not have tribes or families who retaliate, unlike many Muslims in southern Egypt. As a tight-knit minority community, they are also perceived as able to raise large sums of money from friends and relatives for ransoms. And in Egypt, crimes against Christians have long gone routinely unpunished, fueling an environment of impunity."

Effectively, the vulnerability of the Christian community and their inability and/or unwillingness to retaliate is being leveraged by militants for their financial gain.

In Syria, kidnappings have played a significant role in the intimidation of Christians in the Syrian war.  Two prominent Orthodox bishops were abducted in April.  Recently, a group of 12 nuns were said to have been abducted from the town of Maaoula, one of the last remaining places on earth where Aramaic is spoken, the language of Jesus.

A July 15, 2013 report in the National Catholic Register called the kidnapping of Christians "a growth industry":

"Kidnapping Christians reportedly has become a growth industry. In late February, the website Ora pro Siria, operated by Italian missionaries in Syria, launched an emergency fundraising appeal called "Ransom a Christian." The website said the going price for a kidnapped priest was in the neighborhood of $200,000."

In November, near the Nigerian border, a French priest was kidnapped in the country of Cameroon and is currently being held by terrorist group Boko Haram.  Boko Haram has wreaked havoc upon Nigerian believers with acts of anti-Christian violence and terror.  Recently, a 19 year-old girl escaped after being kidnapped and held captive by the group.  Repeatedly, the girl was encouraged to convert or die.  This appears to be part of a larger, more sinister plot, to strike fear in the hearts of Christians.

The kidnapping of Christians by Islamic militants in these regions of conflict highlights the tragic levels of intimidation and violence many believers are facing in these regions. 

For today's #DoSomethingFriday, please join the Institute in praying for God's peace in these many regions of great conflict.  Pray that believers in these areas would be strengthened by God's presence and comforted in the midst of great evil.  Pray that fear would not reign in their hearts, but instead, the miracle of God's joy might be known and experienced in these dark times. 

Finally, pray for the victims and their families who have been kidnapped.  Pray for the safe return of the many who remain captive, and for the comfort of those left behind.

 

The Prince of Wales takes a stand for Christians in the Middle East

Yet another British leader has taken a strong stand for Christians in the Middle East.  This time, it comes from The Prince of Wales.

Speaking at an Advent reception for Christians in the Middle East, the Prince spoke with candor and clarity rarely seen from such a high ranking Western official when speaking about Christian persecution.  He confronted the challenge head on:

For myself, I have for some time now been deeply troubled by the growing difficulties faced by Christian communities in various parts of the Middle East. It seems to me that we cannot ignore the fact that Christians in the Middle East are, increasingly, being deliberately targeted by fundamentalist Islamist militants. Christianity was, literally, born in the Middle East and we must not forget our Middle Eastern brothers and sisters in Christ. Their church communities link us straight back to the early Church, as I was reminded by hearing Aramaic, Our Lord's own language, spoken and sung a few hours ago.

Yet, today, the Middle East and North Africa has the lowest concentration of Christians in the world – just four per cent of the population and it is clear that the Christian population of the Middle East has dropped dramatically over the last century and is falling still further.

The Prince's tone suggests to me that the persecution of Christians is not only a political or moral concern to the Prince, but it is also personal:

For twenty years, I have tried to build bridges between Islam and Christianity and to dispel ignorance and misunderstanding. The point though, surely, is that we have now reached a crisis where the bridges are rapidly being deliberately destroyed by those with a vested interest in doing so – and this is achieved through intimidation, false accusation and organized persecution – including to Christian communities in the Middle East at the present time.

One point that the Prince raised yesterday and was also touched on in Freeman's Telegraph article on Iraq is the moderating role and influence that Christians play in their communities. 

It is important to note, above all, that the decline of Christians in the region represents a major blow to peace as Christians are part of the fabric of society, often acting as bridge-builders between other communities.

According to the Prince, the devastation of the Christian community in the Middle East is tearing apart an important piece of the fabric in the Middle East, and the bridges that Christians have built are being deliberately destroyed across the Middle East.  What remains is a Church weakened, vulnerable, and in great decline.

We need more leaders in the West, like Prince Charles, who have the courage to speak up for persecuted Christians.  The Institute believes we stand at a crucial moment in history: We either answer the cries of the Church and, as the Prince rightly stated, respond in deep prayer, even "extreme outrage" for our suffering brothers and sisters in Christ, or we watch silently as the Church in the Middle East disappears.

Please join the Institute in a prayer for God's people and His Church in the Middle East.

 

 

 

Is there a future for Christianity in Iraq?

The Arab Spring has often been understood by many in the West as a "freedom movement" - an uprising of inspired, long-repressed communities with a desire for freedom and a pursuit of their own self-governance.  Yet, the impact of the Arab Spring throughout the Middle East has spurned a modern day exodus of Christians from the region and has left those believers who remain more vulnerable now than at any other time in modern history.

This sobering piece by Colin Freeman in yesterday's Daily Telegraph paints this very dark, grim picture for Christianity in the country of Iraq.  Under the role of Saddam Hussein, Iraq's Christian community enjoyed relative protected status.  Today, the strongman has been removed and Christians have been left to the whims of al-Qaeda and Islamic extremism. 

The results for believers in the country are devastating. According to Freeman's report, some 62 Christian churches have been attacked in the 10 years since the removal of Saddam, and the Church that remains is a mere shadow of itself.  The city of Doura, pre-war, maintained a large Christian presence.  Today, in Doura and the rest of the country, not so:

"Doura was once one of the biggest Christian communities in Iraq, with 30,000 families," said Mr Esha, as he prepared for an afternoon congregation that barely filled two of the 22 rows of pews. "Now there are only 2,000 left. They feel they are strangers in their own land, and that makes them want to leave. The bleeding from migration is continuous."

...

"The picture in Doura is repeated across Iraq, and indeed the wider Middle East, where the onset of the Arab Spring has ended the protected status that the region's secular strongmen gave to religious minorities. In Iraq, a Christian community that numbered more than a million in Saddam Hussein's time is now thought to have shrunk to as few as 200,000."

The same statement can be said of many countries in the Middle East, where pressures have increased on Christian communities across the region.  In Syria, Egypt, Libya, and Tunisia, Christians are often faced with the devastating choice to either leave their homeland or face extreme intimidation, violence, and persecution - sometimes, even death.

Perhaps most sobering are the words of the current priest of St. Joseph's Church in Baghdad, Saad Sirop Hanna, as he offers this devastating assessment for the future of Christianity in Iraq in the accompanying video: 

"If the situation continues in this way, I think there will be no Christians after 20 or 30 years. There will be very few Christians who will stay here.  That's... that's a fact."

Without a significant change in course, the global Church, Middle Eastern countries, the US and the world over, must now begin to consider - and plan for - a future Iraq and a Middle East without Christians... and prepare for the dark and frightening consequences that are sure to result. 

 

Egypt - from a land of refuge to a land of persecution

According to this video from CBS program, 60 Minutes,  "the last year has been one of the worst ever" for the Coptic Church of Egypt.  Considering the Copts have, in large part, faced persecution of varying levels since the initial Islamic conquests began in the country in the 7th century, it's a sad, but true, statement.

As we reflect on the birth and gift of Jesus, the Christ, this Christmas season, let us not forget that Egypt was once a country that provided escape and refuge for the young boy, Jesus:

Now when they had departed, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, “Rise, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you, for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him.” And he rose and took the child and his mother by night and departed to Egypt and remained there until the death of Herod. This was to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet, “Out of Egypt I called my son.” (Matthew 2:13-15)

Please join the Institute in praying for the peace of Egypt.  Pray for the millions of Christ followers there, that they would continue to stand strong in their faith and persevere in this time of great trial, testing and uncertainty.  Pray for the many millions that do not know Christ, that He would bring a fresh revelation of Himself that would lead to great revival in the land. 

Pray that, by God's grace, Egypt would once again become a place of refuge for Jesus - and His Church.