Pastors more at risk than bandits

Bob Luntby Robert Lunt

Pastor Alain is used to receiving harassment from Cuban authorities. A key leader in the Apostolic Movement and leader of Emanuel Church in Santiago, he has been subject to much intimidation and abuse, and the government has refused to register his denomination. Pressure has increased recently, with those in power trying to criminalise his pastoral work.

In 2016 his church and pastor’s home were surrounded by police, state security and members of the military while Alain was out of the country. Hundreds of church members were detained, including his wife Marilin; the authorities then demolished church and home in front of their daughters. This was not the first time – it had happened in 2007 too.

Tragically, this harassment is not simply history. Last year Alain was going to Washington DC to a State Department meeting on Religious Freedom, the perfect platform to raise concerns about this in Cuba and call on the international community to take action. But he was stopped from boarding his flight by Cuban government officials who informed him he was banned from leaving Cuba for reasons of national security.

The targeting did not stop there. In August and September Alain was summoned to the police 17 times. At one of these he was informed that if his church went ahead with their planned women’s conference, he would be charged with the crime of ‘disobedience’ and risk imprisonment. Despite the high stakes, Emanuel Church went ahead with the event. True to their word, the police did indeed charge Alain with disobedience.

“In Cuba, pastors are more at risk than criminals and bandits”, Alain told us. “I committed no crime, it had to be manufactured. My disobedience, according to them, is that I cannot meet with other pastors, I cannot carry out any religious activity. They want me to stop being a pastor.”

Despite the ever-increasing risks to his freedom and twice witnessing the destruction of his property, Alain refuses to give in to the government’s threats. He continues to preach the Christian faith and carry out his pastoral duties, “convinced that neither death nor life … neither the present nor the future, nor any powers … nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 8:38).

Source: Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW) (working on Alain’s case)

Behind the Smiles

Bob Luntby Robert Lunt
Thailand is often called the ‘Land of Smiles’; but pull aside the veil of fun and frivolity of this tourist destination and a darker side is revealed.

When Christians Ijaz, his wife Shaida, and their children Joel and Angel arrived in Thailand from Pakistan on a tourist visa, they visited the UN Refugee Agency in Bangkok. But after their visas ran out, Ijaz was arrested and locked up in the notorious Immigration Detention Centre, which is basically a filthy, overcrowded prison. He died there from a heart condition, having been put in a punishment room because he could not pay his hospital bills. Barnabas Fund is supporting Joel and Angel’s education.

Ijaz was part of an influx of Pakistani Christians to Thailand that began around 2013. They were fleeing the discrimination, violence and persecution that many Christians face in Pakistan, but discovered that in Thailand they were treated as criminals, discriminated against, and had little if any hope of getting an adequate job.

One 30-year-old Christian fled Pakistan with his brother after being accused of blasphemy (a charge that can result in a death sentence) and receiving death threats. He said the two of them were locked up with about 100 other men in a cell not much bigger than a family living room.

Initially whole families were taken into the Detention Centre and held in cramped, unhygienic cells. Even children as young as three were forced to wear prison-style uniforms. Christian groups urged the Thai government to stop detaining mothers and children, and mercifully children have been released into foster programmes. Barnabas Fund is helping provide food, medical care and education for such children.

Another group of suffering Christians in Thailand have fled from ethnic and religious persecution in Burma. As of March this year, there were nearly 97,000 refugees from Burma living in nine camps in Thailand. Many are Christians of the Karen ethnic group. Living conditions in these camps, hidden far from any tourist near the Burma border, are extremely poor.

Thailand is more than 90% Buddhist, with Christians making up less than 1% of the population. Buddhism is seen as an essential part of Thai identity. Churches and evangelists can operate freely, but converts from Buddhism to Christianity are often viewed as freaks embracing a foreign religion.
Source: Barnabas Fund

For Everything There is a Season

dvickersBy David Vickers

Just before Christmas, in 1997, in a Bible study in Liverpool, I felt God leading me to the desert. I don’t really like being under a hot sun. Six weeks later I was helping to plant a new church on the edge of the desert in Kuwait. That began my mission work in the Middle East. God confirmed the calling many times. I knew I was where He wanted me. I know your deeds. See, I have placed before you an open door that no one can shut. I know that you have little strength, yet you have kept my word and have not denied my name (Revelation 3:8)

Over the years I have seen much fruit as lives and communities have been transformed. I have travelled widely and God has opened many doors. I never felt prepared, but God had other ideas. The longer I have been associated with the Middle East, the harder it is to listen to God’s voice about doing anything else.

No man can shut the door that God has opened. But the things He asks us to do are often for a limited season. Only God knows when that season is over.

But now He is making it clear to me that He has something different for me to do, at home in England. This has been hard for me – leaving friends and familiar places can be painful. But God’s plan is always best. Bring it on. There is a time for everything, and a season for every activity under the heavens. (Ecclesiastes 3:1)

I don’t fully know where God is leading me, but opportunities have been opening up involving issues related to ageing. When I was younger, I was involved in the lives of young people and children, both in England and overseas. Now I am approaching seventy, this new season brings new opportunities. I have taken on local, regional and national roles as an activist with the elderly and let go of much of the stuff from the season past. I need to learn to let even more go.

So, if you want to know more about recognising the value and contribution that older people make to community and church, I’m your man. Over the past couple of years, I have become involved in Rotherham Older Persons’ Forum, AgeUK, Silver Voices, Independent Age, Retired Nurses’ Groups and the National Pensioners’ Convention.
As well as the Rivers Team, I still attend other churches (and some mosques) to meet those who have a ministry to the marginalised of Rotherham – the elderly, homeless, mentally ill, and those of other cultures and faiths.

I am not as fit as I was and am starting to feel vulnerable myself. There have been times when I have thought that God could not use me further, and it was time for Him to take me. But while I am still breathing, I believe that God has more for me. And that is true of all who are in a later season of their lives. We don’t retire from God’s work. The work may change from season to season. It does not become less important in God’s plan, no matter how we feel about it. God’s diverse family is made up of a mix of ages, abilities, experience, strengths and weakness all playing their part in the body of Christ. Our commission in Him is still to make disciples, be the source of hope and see transformation of communities.

The most important calling is to pray. Prayer can continue when all other activities may be coming less possible. Prayer causes God to open unimaginable doors and opportunities.

Dynamic young leader

Bob Lunt—by Robert Lunt

Rezki grew up in a Muslim family, like most Algerians, but things changed when a friend’s family had a book they wanted to get rid of. It was a New Testament and Rezki took it, read the Gospels and most of Acts at one sitting, and gave his life to Christ.

He found a church 20 miles away. 50 people attended then in 2002; now there are 1,500, a sign of how the church is growing in Algeria. Rezki was tempted to emigrate, but he felt God call him to ministry in his homeland, and he joined Bible Society. Now he’s taking over from the ‘legendary’ Ali Khidri who led Bible Society in Algeria for 30 years.

Rezki says things have got worse for Algerian Christians in recent years. Ten churches have been closed by the authorities (there were only around 60 to start with), and the number of Bibles they’re allowed to import has been severely restricted.

Algeria is in crisis. The long-term president has been ousted following mass protests and democratic elections have been promised. But the Church can’t be held back. When churches were closed, Christians put up tents and met there instead. Despite official efforts to choke off the supply of Scripture, Rezki plans to expand the ministry. Bible Society’s office remains the only place where you can be sure to get a Bible.

Rezki is rising to the challenge and one thing drives him on: every week more than 50 new people ask for a Bible or New Testament. Despite huge risks, Algerians long to know Jesus. Rezki says, “There are many seekers. They contact TV and radio channels and ask questions on the internet. They ask for Bibles and we give them whenever we can.”

When you’re not allowed to talk to people about Jesus, when no one will invite you to church, reading Scripture is how people come to faith, like Rezki did. As well as providing Scripture, he wants to disciple and train Christians. And as a new dad, he’s committed to producing Bible material for children too.

When asked how it feels to follow Ali Khidri who’s been at the heart of Algeria’s Christian revival over the last 30 years, Rezki replied, “I can’t replace Ali, he’s a legend! But God gave me this opportunity with Bible Society, and I will put everything into it.”

Source: Bible Society

Complacency to Growth, via Persecution

Bob LuntBy Bob Lunt
Pastor Jin is a leader in a network of house churches in China. He remembers two years ago when things were relatively easy, “yet deep down”, he says, “we had grown comfortable, even complacent. The longing to meet together to worship, read the word and pray had been quietly edged out by the attraction of work, money and entertainment. The old passion just wasn’t there any more.”

Then one day police burst in on a church meeting open to folk seeking to know more about Jesus. Pastor Jin was arrested and imprisoned in solitary confinement for ten days. He prayed and sang a lot, but questions plagued his mind. By the end he’d whittled the battle down to one question: “If I’m called by God, am I really willing to sacrifice everything for the Lord Jesus?”

By the last day he’d made peace with himself and God. “No matter what happened I would serve the Lord.

“But back at church we knew we would be watched like hawks. Put one foot wrong and the consequences would be dire.”

In February 2018 the Chinese government granted more powers to local authorities to shut down unregistered churches and forbid landlords from renting properties to Christians for meetings. Children and teenagers were forbidden to go to church. Yet, says Jin, “the whole ordeal recalibrated us all. Our focus moved from ensuring Sunday services were well organised and ‘impressive’, to caring for each other in small groups in people’s homes. We began to experience a richness in fellowship that we hadn’t felt for a long time. We got to know each other and cared for one another and our extended families. We prayed for each other, relationships were restored, and miracles happened again. Though divided geographically, in the Spirit we were more united than ever. Bible truth and relationship with Jesus have become so important that we cherish every moment together.

“The church is growing because of persecution! We are alive again and growing and equipping the saints for the work of the Kingdom. There are dangers and we still have to be very careful, but the sense of peace and hope for the future make all the rest seem like stepping stones to glory.”

Source: Open Doors

Doggedly Defending Despite the Dangers

Bob Luntby Bob Lunt

A human rights and religious freedom defender working in South India recently shared his thoughts on the current climate in the country.

My experience has considerably worsened since Modi’s government came to power in 2014. The government relies heavily on the backing of Hindu fundamentalists, which has led to an increase in the threat to religious minorities, particularly Christians. In Tamil Nadu where I work, human rights defenders have faced extreme hostility. Some have been shot, raped and threatened by both government and non-government people. And now Modi has won a landslide victory in the 2019 elections.

I work to defend the rights of people of all faiths. Those who support Hindu supremacy in India argue that human rights defenders work against the country’s interests, but this simply isn’t true. I’m proud that my country has such a great constitution, which protects fundamental freedoms. India was among the first countries to adopt the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948.

This is why I find it so sad that, as human rights defenders, we now face the threat of violence on a daily basis. I hear noises outside my house at night, and banging on my windows. It’s tragic that in India, a country of such diverse cultures, languages, religions and beliefs, these things now happen to those of us who are trying to uphold the basic human right to practise one’s religion or belief of choice.

The government uses the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act to target human rights defenders. The law deals with people who are considered to be working against the state, and some human rights defenders have been accused of being members of terrorist organisations. A person can be detained without bail for six months under this law, which can be extended. We constantly live in fear that another of us could be the next person charged.

I’m also constantly harassed and monitored by the authorities. I give a speech somewhere or go to speak with victims of human rights abuses, and before I get home I’m called by the authorities asking how the trip went – a constant reminder that my every move is being watched. The support of the international community is really important. Training for human rights defenders, like CSW’s Defend the Defender project, is vital to our safety and work.

Source: Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW)

Women of faith and risk

Bob LuntBy Bob Lunt

Praise God that women are coming to faith in Jesus across the Muslim world. Yet for many the personal cost is horrifically high, as they are marginalized and persecuted both for their faith and their gender. Please pray for women like these:

  • - Aizah* faced violent rejection from her family when she chose to follow Jesus. Yet now she wants to help other women who suffer for their faith and gender. “We want to have a safe house for women expelled from home after their conversion”, she says.
  • - Aasma* became a secret believer four years ago but her Saudi family have since married her to a Muslim. She prays in secret but has few chances to meet with other Christians.
  • - Nava* started following Jesus after meeting him in a dream, like so many Iranians. She is now boldly sharing her faith with others. “I know I’m risking my safety. But it doesn’t stop me. I can say wholeheartedly I am ready to suffer for Him.”
  • - Mansuri was rejected by her Bangladeshi family and community after marrying a Christian and becoming a believer. But through her husband’s witness her family came to Christ. She now runs a Bible study group for women after attending an Open Doors Bible class.
  • - Joyce came to faith in China from a Muslim background and was imprisoned for that faith in 2017. Now released, it is too dangerous for her to connect with other believers.

Naomi* is a pastor’s wife from Indonesia, where there is rising religious intolerance. Besides some violent attacks on churches, Christians experience discrimination and verbal abuse. Most members of Naomi’s church are from a Muslim background and face oppression from their families. “People who are forced to leave home for accepting Jesus have to live in other church members’ houses”, she says. “Their relatives only want them back when their economic situation improves. Their children are frequently mocked and intimidated at school. But we stand strong.”

Open Doors has launched a campaign called See. Change. to restore hope, dignity and identity to women persecuted for their faith and gender. Across the Middle East and North Africa Open Doors’ partners are establishing leadership development programmes for women to help them share the Gospel. And in situations like Naomi’s, Open Doors runs projects to help people improve their economic circumstances.

Source: Open Doors

*Name changed

They want to wipe us out

Bob LuntBy Bob Lunt

In November, Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW) brought six men and women from Burma to meet politicians, journalists and Christian leaders in London and Brussels. These religious leaders and human rights defenders from three ethnic groups shared their stories of Burma’s crisis and pressed for urgent action.

“We see human rights violations by the state and the military as crimes against humanity”, said one. Another explained: “Rape, sexual violence, torture and arbitrary arrest are some of the abuses meted out. The military want to wipe ethnic people out.” The six asked the UK to ensure that justice, human rights and accountability are at the centre of its relationship with Burma.

The country was ruled for over 50 years by military regimes which committed grave violations of human rights. It has also endured over 60 years of civil war between the military and many of the ethnic nationalities who seek autonomy. Religion and ethnicity are intertwined, and Burma’s minorities have suffered severe violations of their human rights, including that of freedom of religion or belief.

At heart is the question of Burma’s identity. Does Burma wish to be a multi-ethnic, multi-religious society, or a Burman, Buddhist nation which at best tolerates non-Burmans and non-Buddhists, or at worst seeks to repress, restrict and drive them out? In 2011 the military broke a 17-year ceasefire with the mainly Kachin Christian armed resistance, unleashing a major new offensive. In 2012 a campaign against the mainly Muslim Rohingya escalated, resulting in horrific violence in Rakhine State. In 2013 anti-Muslim violence broke out in other places. And in 2016 and 2017, renewed brutality against the Rohingya claimed hundreds of lives. All this despite head of government Aung San Suu Kyi’s expressed desire to confront religious hatred.

The chair of the UN’s Independent International Fact-Finding Mission on Myanmar said: “The military has systematically targeted civilians, and established a climate of impunity for its soldiers. I have never been confronted by crimes as horrendous and on such a scale.” His report concludes that senior generals must be investigated for genocide and war crimes.

The genocide against the Rohingya is well known. But non-Rohingya, Christians, and even Buddhists who try to counter militant Buddhist nationalism, face severe danger. Yet the risk the six people took in coming to Europe to share their stories shows the flame of hope still burns.
Source: CSW

Litmus Test of a Free Society

Bob LuntBy Bob Lunt

A collective moan rose among Open Doors supporters. The launch in Parliament of the World Watch List 2019 would clash with a key Brexit vote. Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt wanted to speak – would he cancel? Shadow Foreign Secretary Emily Thornberry was due to attend – would she come? Would anybody come?

But as ever, the event was in the Lord’s hands. A total of 98 parliamentarians came and five more sent representatives, including senior faces, and the voice of the persecuted church echoed around the corridors of Westminster. In his speech Jeremy Hunt said that freedom of religion is the ‘litmus test of a free society’. He thanked Open Doors supporters for ‘the fantastic work you are doing to highlight the fact that nearly a quarter of a billion Christians around the world are facing persecution for their beliefs’. He added that he had had a copy of God’s Smuggler by Brother Andrew since he was ten. Emily Thornberry recorded a message sharing her serious concern that ‘for the fifth year running, persecution of Christians has increased’. It was encouraging to see senior support for the persecuted church from both sides of the political spectrum.

Henrietta Blyth, Open Doors’ CEO, shared how denying the right to freedom of religion or belief plays a ‘central and devastating role’ in global crises, and highlighted the rise of both India and China on this year’s list. And heartfelt pleas on behalf of persecuted Christians were brought by Open doors partners from Malaysia and Nigeria.

Parliament has upped the heat – not a week goes by when the Foreign Office isn’t asked a question about religious persecution. And not only has the Prime Minister appointed a Special Envoy on Freedom of Religion or Belief, but Jeremy Hunt announced an independent review into whether the UK is doing enough to support persecuted Christians worldwide. “I want [Christians] suffering this terrible persecution to think there are people who understand what they’re going through and are sincerely trying to do everything they can about it.” This review is led by Philip Mounstephen, Bishop of Truro and until recently head of Church Mission Society. Pray it will lead to real change that positively impacts the lives of persecuted Christians.

The World Watch List highlights the 50 countries where it’s hardest to be a Christian.

Source: Open Doors. Watch messages from Jeremy Hunt and Emily Thornberry at www.opendoorsuk.org

Expect a Miracle – Expect Growth

dvickersBy David Vickers

There is a sign in St. Mary’s Church which reads, “Expect a Miracle”. There is much written in the Bible about miracles. But why would God perform miracles today?

I have seen the result of miracles which have led to addition, multiplication and exponential growth in our Kingdom family.

A visit to a family one evening and I found a young man on the floor with a leg wound from a motor cycle accident. The would had become infected and his mother was doing her best to apply dressings. As a nurse, I showed her how to do this properly, told her not to disturb it as often as she was and I prayed for healing in the name of Jesus. When the dressing was removed a week later, there was no sign of there ever having been a wound. Halleluliah. The young man and his brother asked us how to pray to this Jesus. We told them and led them to Christ. This is addition.

A Kurdish refugee woman came to a church in desperation with advanced cancer of the breast. All treatment had failed. She was prayed for in Jesus’ name and was completely healed. She and her family gave their lives to Christ. They then brought friends and neighbours to hear about Jesus and their numbers multiplied.

I met a young man fourteen years ago and struck up a friendship with him. We used to meet in a café. He was a school teacher. One day he told me of a problem with his head master who had given him more classes than he could handle and in subjects he was not confident in. We prayed in the name of Jesus for a solution. Two days later, he came to meet me again. The head teacher had been replaced. The first act of the new head was to call my friend to his office and discuss and reduce his workload to an acceptable level. This miracle led my friend to give his life over to Christ. I discipled him to be a discipler. Over the years, he led many others into the Kingdom. He now leads a growing church movement of over 700. Disciples who disciple lead to exponential growth.

We may be used to bring just one person to Christ. God’s miracles to the rest, by addition, multiplication and exponential growth. All those of us who have a relationship with the miraculously risen Christ are, in turn, miracles. So, expect a miracle and expect to be used in God’s miraculous plans.

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