Wednesday, July 26, 2017

RLPB 416. July Update incl. Mali, Philippines, Iran, China, Assyrians, Egypt, India, Kenya, Pakistan, Tajikistan

Religious Liberty Prayer Bulletin | RLPB 416 | Wed 26 Jul 2017

Please forward this prayer bulletin widely, and encourage others to sign up to the Religious Liberty Prayer Bulletin blog. "The prayer of a righteous person is powerful and effective." (James 5:16 NIV)

by Elizabeth Kendal

JULY 2017 UPDATE -- this month we prayed concerning ...

* MALI AND THE PHILIPPINES (RLPB 413), where Islamic militants are holding a number of Christians captive, as hostages for ransom and as human shields. The situation for these Christian captives could not be more serious.

MALI UPDATE: as noted in RLPB 413, American missionary Jeff Woodke, who was abducted from his home in Niger in October 2016, was not mentioned in Jama'a Nusrat ul-Islam wa al-Muslimin's 2 July video. On 11 July his wife, Els Woodke, released her own video in which she spoke of her husband's service to the people of Niger and appealed to his captors to contact her directly. As explained in RLPB 413, while we rejoice to see the six captives alive, we must not disregard the context in which the proof-of-life was given. Entitled 'The Correct Equation', the video is essentially a threat in which JNIM is saying, if you (infidel forces) kill us (jihadists), then we will kill you -- and we already have six of you right here. With anti-terror operations due to commence in September, this is a matter for urgent prayer. Please, Lord, deliver the captives.

PHILIPPINES UPDATE: Nine weeks on, and the grinding street-by-street Battle for Marawi continues. Meanwhile, President Duterte has signalled he will expedite the passage of the Bangsamoro Basic Law (BBL) which would establish an autonomous Muslim region in Mindanao, complete with its own police force and Sharia courts and to be ruled by the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF). The BBL is highly controversial and has not yet passed the parliament. Meanwhile, as rebel-held territory shrinks, the plight of some 300 civilians being used as human shields becomes ever more precarious. Please, Lord, deliver the captives.

* IRAN (RLPB 414), where a dozen believers had received 10-year (plus) jail terms in the space of a month. Sentences will be appealed. Sentenced to 15 years, Christian convert Amin Afshar-Naderi commenced a hunger strike on 5 July.

IRAN UPDATE: On 17 July Christian prisoner Ebrahim Firouzi (32) announced he was commencing a ten-day hunger strike 'in support of the rights of fellow Christians'. In jail since March 2013, Firouzi has been held in Ward 12 for political prisoners in the maximum security Rajaee Shahr Prison in Karaj since Oct 2014; he is not due for release until Jan 2020. On release, Firouzi must serve two years of internal exile in remote Sarbaz, more than 1600km south-east of Tehran, near the border with Pakistan's Balochistan Province. Firouzi has previously requested prayers for health and strength [RLPB 350 (30 March 2016)]. The ten-day hunger strike will doubtless leave him weak, depressed and exceedingly vulnerable. Please pray for Iran's Church, her Christian prisoners, and particularly for hunger-strikers Amin Afshar-Naderi and Ebrahim Firouzi.

* CHINA (RLPB 415), where churches in Wenzhou City, Zhejiang Province, were resisting the imposition of surveillance cameras inside their sanctuaries. It comes at a time when the Chinese Communist Party is advancing a nation-wide roll-out of surveillance cameras armed with sophisticated facial-recognition software for the purpose of collecting data on Chinese citizens.

For more on this subject see:
'Beijing Harnesses Big Data & AI to Perfect the Police State'
by Willy WoLap Lam, The Jamestown Foundation, 21 July 2017

CHINA UPDATE: To be legal in China, Protestant churches must be registered with the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) approved Three-Self Patriotic Movement (TSPM); then they must follow the CCP's rules. One of those rules is that minors (under 18) are not permitted to participate in religious activities. Despite this, authorities have long tolerated the existence of Sunday Schools and church-run summer camps. But, as China Aid Association reports, that has now changed. Initially the Henan Provincial Three-Self Patriotic Committee and the Henan Provincial China Christian Council arbitrarily forbade churches from organising summer camps for minors and students, citing high temperatures as a possible health risk. Sunday Schools were also ordered to cease ministry. Now the crackdown has extended to Zhejiang, where all Sunday Schools and church-run summer camps are now officially banned.


JULY 2017 ROUND-UP -- also this month ...

* ASSYRIANS: ROBBED AND MURDERED

Assyrians march in Alqosh,
20 July, AINA.
Assyrians in the ancient Assyrian town of Alqosh (in northern Iraq) marched on 20 July to protest the illegal action of the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG). The KRG has deposed the town's Assyrian mayor, Fayez Abed Jawahreh, and replaced him with a Kurd, Adel Amin Omar, a member of Massoud Barzani's Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP). This is despite Alqosh being under the jurisdiction of the Iraqi government. This power grab, which will doubtless evolve into a land grab, comes ahead of a highly contentious 25 September referendum on Kurdish independence. Meanwhile, in Hasaka (in north-east Syria), the body of Assyrian University professor Dr Basil Isaac was found on 21 July, three days after he was kidnapped. No ransom had been demanded; rather, the professor was executed with a single gunshot to the head. Dr Isaac was buried in his home village of Tel Shamiram on the Khabur River. May God intervene for the Assyrian remnant in Mesopotamia.

* EGYPT: COPTS TARGETED FOR TERROR

Nadra Mounir with her husband
Girgis Samir (WWM)
Protestant and Coptic Orthodox churches have suspended all summer trips, conferences, camps and events for at least the month of July, after the security agencies warned they had credible intelligence that terrorists were plotting to target church-run summer activities. The warning came as Copts mourned the savage murder of a fifth Copt in six weeks. Nadra Mounir (26) was a devout Christian and member of her church's choir. On Thursday evening 6 July, Nadra went to a service at her church while her husband was at work. Not long after she returned to her apartment, she was murdered. Neighbours found Nadra lying on the floor in a pool of blood with all her hair cut off and her throat slit. The couple's precious Christian icons lay smashed, torn and scattered all over the floor; nothing had been stolen. Pray for Egypt's imperilled Copts.

* INDIA: PASTOR MURDERED IN PROBABLE RSS HIT

Pastor Sultan Masih
with wife, Sarabjit (MSN)
On Saturday 15 July Pastor Sultan Masih (50) of the Temple of God church in Peer Banda Mohalla, Punjab State, went to his church to set up for Sunday morning worship, just as he did every week. As usual, he finished at around 8:30pm and then stood outside chatting. At 8:45pm, Pastor Sultan was alone and speaking on his mobile phone when a motor-bike pulled up beside him and he was shot in the leg, chest and face at point-blank range. It is possible the attackers phoned the pastor in order to identify him. The attack was captured on security camera. Pastor Sultan had been leading the church -- which also ran a school for the poor -- for 20 years. His troubles only began recently after he led a special gospel celebration to commemorate the church's 25th anniversary. The event, which attracted some 800 people, infuriated the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS: a Hindu nationalist paramilitary), which then started harassing the pastor whom they accused of converting Hindus through allurement and force. Pastor Sultan leaves behind a wife, Sarabjit, and four children, two of whom were adopted. His eldest son, Alisha Masih (22) is training to be a pastor.

On 20 July Ram Nath Kovind (71) was elected to the largely ceremonial post of President of India, receiving 65 per cent of the vote by members of India's parliament and state assemblies. It is the first time a person linked to the RSS has been elected to the presidency.

DAY OF PRAYER FOR INDIA: Recognising the need for intercession, the Evangelical Fellowship of India is inviting intercessors worldwide to join with the Indian Church on Sunday 13 August as they observe a 'Day of Prayer for the Nation'. Resources can be found here https://www.nationaldayofprayer.in/  and https://www.facebook.com/EFoIndia

* KENYA: VIOLENCE AHEAD OF 8 AUGUST POLLS

As anticipated, violence is escalating in the lead-up to Kenya's 8 August General Election [see RLPB 411 (21 June)]. The worst violence is occurring in Muslim-majority coastal and eastern regions. While the violence is being perpetrated by Islamic militants linked to al-Shabaab, local police and church leaders insist that political forces are facilitating it so as to displace Christians ahead of the elections. The worst attack occurred in Jima village, Lamu County, commencing at around 11pm on Friday 7 July and continuing into the next morning. In that incident, nine men who could not recite the Islamic shahada (profession of faith) were beheaded; many more are not accounted for. Christians in the area have fled. Some 2000 Kenyans -- including many Christians -- are now sheltering in two churches (one Catholic and one Evangelical) and a school, waiting for security to be restored. Numerous reports confirm that local Muslims are protecting and aiding the militants who are operating from a base in the dense Boni Forest which borders Somalia. Pray for Kenya.

* PAKISTAN: ANOTHER MALICIOUS BLASPHEMY CHARGE

Shahzad Masih (17) worked as a sweeper at Shamim Riaz Hospital in Dinga town, Gujrat District, Punjab Province. In mid-July he quarrelled with hospital pharmacy employee Ishtiaq Ahmed Jalali. Though a senior medical officer intervened to calm the situation, Jalali, a member of the Islamist group, Tehreek Tahafuz-e-Islam Pakistan (TTIP), harboured a grudge. Jalali shared his grudge with Nadeem Ahmed, the president of the Dinga chapter of TTIP, who then registered a blasphemy complaint against Shahzad who was subsequently arrested. Shahzad's parents do not know his whereabouts, and threats have driven the family from their home. On 16 July, outside the Dinga police station, Jalali declared that, if the court acquits Shehzad, members of Tehreek will kill him. Pray for Pakistan and its beleaguered Church.

The accuser (Jalali) threatens to kill the accused (Shehzad Masih, aged 17).
The police response: "not our problem".

* TAJIKISTAN: KHUJAND PASTOR JAILED FOR THREE YEARS 

Pastor Bakhrom Kholmatov
(Release International)
Khujand City, the capital of Tajikistan's far north Sogd Region, is known as The Gateway to the Ferghana Valley. Forum 18 reports that in February, security forces in Khujand raided congregations affiliated with Pastor Bakhrom Kholmatov's Sunmin Sunbogym (Full Gospel) Protestant Church. Members were interrogated and beaten and Kholmatov was charged with using 'extremist songs' to incite sedition and religious hatred. [The charge concerns songs and hymns about the Church's spiritual battle.] Pastor Kholmatov was arrested on 10 April and held in police detention throughout his trial. In early July Khujand City Court sentenced him to three years in jail under Criminal Code Article 189, Part 1: 'Inciting national, racial, local or religious hatred or dissension ... ' He has since been moved to an unknown prison. Please pray for Pastor Kholmatov and the Church in Tajikistan.

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Elizabeth Kendal is an international religious liberty analyst and advocate. She serves as Director of Advocacy at Canberra-based Christian Faith and Freedom (CFF), and is an Adjunct Research Fellow at the Arthur Jeffery Centre for the Study of Islam at Melbourne School of Theology.

She has authored two books: Turn Back the Battle: Isaiah Speaks to Christians Today (Deror Books, Melbourne, Australia, Dec 2012) which offers a Biblical response to persecution and existential threat; and, After Saturday Comes Sunday: Understanding the Christian Crisis in the Middle East (Wipf and Stock, Eugene, OR, USA, June 2016).

See www.ElizabethKendal.com 

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

RLPB 415. China: 'Big Brother' Invades Church

Religious Liberty Prayer Bulletin | RLPB 415 | Wed 19 Jul 2017

Please forward this prayer bulletin widely, and encourage others to sign up to the Religious Liberty Prayer Bulletin blog. "The prayer of a righteous person is powerful and effective." (James 5:16 NIV)

CHINA: 'BIG BROTHER' INVADES CHURCH
by Elizabeth Kendal

The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) continues to use Zhejiang Province (China's Christian heartland and President Xi Jinping's former stamping ground) as a test site for its repressive religious policies. This is particularly true of Wenzhou City, long known as 'China's Jerusalem' because of its thriving Christianity. [See Religious Liberty Monitoring (Oct 2016)]. In late March authorities in Zhejiang ordered that all churches be fitted with surveillance cameras. Amidst stiff resistance, tensions are mounting, as are the concerns of China's Christians. As the West continues to kowtow -- even in the wake of the death in custody of Nobel Peace Prize laureate Liu Xiaobo -- it signals to all that President Xi is indeed the most powerful and untouchable leader in the world today.

A government official installs cameras at a Wenzhou church.
World Magazine (Photo: Robert Katz)
In Ningbo, a city with a significant population of Christians, surveillance cameras are already everywhere, including in the churches. In Wenzhou, however, resistance continues. At many churches cameras have been installed by force. Not only has this resulted in property damage, but church members resisting the forced installation have been wounded in scuffles or taken away by police. In Rui'an, a county-level city on the southern outskirts of Wenzhou, the 600-member Tuanqian Village Church was by early June the only church in the area still resisting the imposition of surveillance cameras. However, once the authorities cut the church's access to power and water, members started to doubt if they could resist much longer. It seems this has been the pattern in Rui'an. Unable to resist the installation, churches across Wenzhou are finding other ways to resist; for example, by disconnecting internal cameras or redirecting them (e.g. from the offertory box to the ceiling). Authorities have also installed surveillance cameras close to the Inner Mongolia home of Zhang Kai, the Christian human rights lawyer arrested in Wenzhou in August 2015 and imprisoned for providing the churches with legal advice [RLPB 325 (2 Sep 2015)]. Not only is he being closely monitored, he is being harassed, intimidated and threatened.

Despite the CCP's claims that the cameras will be used to enhance security, not everyone is convinced. In November 2015 the CCP released a draft of its 13th Five-Year Plan (2016 to 2020). It includes a plan to 'Improve the Social Credibility System' (chapter 71) [Full Text - pdf]. With the alleged aim of 'increasing integrity', the CCP will develop and implement 'a unified system of credit rating codes nationwide'. Data will be collected from which social credits may be earned through good behaviour, and lost through bad behaviour (such as traffic violations, over-spending, infidelity, spurious internet browsing, etc). Credit-rich enterprises and individuals will be rewarded, while the credit-poor will find themselves blacklisted, unable to travel, attend university or get jobs. It is not hard to imagine how this might impact the Chinese Church.

An electronic sign in Shenzhen, China, shows the faces
of people caught jaywalking by surveillance cameras.
Wall Street Journal (includes video).
[Article also in Straitstimes]
Much of the data collected will come from the myriad of surveillance cameras currently being rolled out nationwide supposedly to 'maintain national security' and 'prevent acts of terrorism'. Armed with sophisticated facial recognition software, these cameras are already being used not merely to catch criminals but to influence behaviour. For example, in many cities they are being used to name-and-shame jaywalkers, in real time. As the Wall Street Journal notes, 'China has access to immense amounts of data: photos uploaded by the country's more than 700 million internet users and a centralised image database of citizens, all of whom must have a government-issued photo ID by age 16.' Furthermore, 'This year [2017] China set up a government-funded laboratory to push the development of facial recognition and other forms of artificial intelligence. China hopes to become a leading innovator in those technologies.'

PLEASE PRAY SPECIFICALLY THAT

* God will grace his precious Church with all the wisdom, faith and grace it will need to traverse the difficult days ahead.

* the Spirit of God will awaken the Chinese people to the moral failings and inherent dangers of atheistic totalitarianism; may government over-reach give rise to spiritual revival.

* our Lord Jesus Christ will continue to build his Church in China, even as the Father continues to work out his eternal purpose to unite all things in Christ (Ephesians 1:9-10). 'Many are the plans in the mind of a man, but it is the purpose of the Lord that will stand.' (Proverbs 19:21 ESV)

'Look among the nations, and see; wonder and be astounded. For I am doing a work in your days that you would not believe if told.' (Habakkuk 1:5 ESV).

'Now to him who is able to do far more abundantly than all that we ask or think, according to the power at work within us, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, forever and ever. Amen.' (Ephesians 3:20-21 ESV)


SUMMARY FOR BULLETINS UNABLE TO RUN THE WHOLE ARTICLE
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CHINA: 'BIG BROTHER' INVADES CHURCH 

In March, authorities in Zhejiang Province ordered all churches to be fitted with surveillance cameras. In Wenzhou, church property has been damaged and parishioners injured and arrested as cameras have been installed by force. Unable to resist the installations, some churches are disconnecting or redirecting cameras. The government claims the cameras are for security, but most are not convinced. China's 13th Five-Year Plan (2016-2020) includes a plan to implement a 'social credit system' based largely on data collected from the myriad of surveillance cameras currently being rolled out nationwide. As every Chinese citizen over 16 has a government-issued photo ID card, these cameras, armed with sophisticated facial recognition software, will enable the government to reward its 'friends' and punish its 'enemies'. Please pray for China and the Chinese Church.

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Elizabeth Kendal is an international religious liberty analyst and advocate. She serves as Director of Advocacy at Canberra-based Christian Faith and Freedom (CFF), and is an Adjunct Research Fellow at the Arthur Jeffery Centre for the Study of Islam at Melbourne School of Theology.

She has authored two books: Turn Back the Battle: Isaiah Speaks to Christians Today (Deror Books, Melbourne, Australia, Dec 2012) which offers a Biblical response to persecution and existential threat; and After Saturday Comes Sunday: Understanding the Christian Crisis in the Middle East (Wipf and Stock, Eugene, OR, USA, June 2016).

See www.ElizabethKendal.com