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.

Forgiveness – it’s about Faith

Bob LuntBy Bob Lunt

Last May three churches in Surabaya, Indonesia, were hit in a co-ordinated bombing, all by members of the same family, adults and children. Thirteen people were killed and many injured in these brutal attacks. How do you respond?

The message from the priests, the pastor and the relatives of victims was the same: “We must love others; we forgive the attackers; we do not want revenge.”  The mother of two boys aged 8 and 12, who died as a result of their injuries at Santa Maria Catholic Church, said just two days after the bombing, “I have already forgiven the bombers. I don’t want to cry any more. I know that our Mother Mary also lost her son, Jesus. I forgive.” The priest commented, “For the Church, we must forgive – this is our doctrine. But for an individual, like this mother, the ability to forgive is about faith, not doctrine.”

He went on: “None of the victims ever asked, ‘Why has this happened to me?’ They just said ‘Okay, we forgive them, and we pray for the victims.’ There was no anger, no criticism of other religions, only forgiveness and prayer. It came from their heart. Our message: Keep doing good, don’t discriminate, and work for equality, solidarity and unity. Respect for God means respect for other persons.”  Santa Maria’s security guard is a Muslim who lost both legs and was blinded trying to stop the attack.

At the Pentecostal church attacked, the stories were similar, as were the messages of forgiveness. “We don’t understand why this happened, but we continue to teach about forgiveness and love. God’s plan is still good”, said the pastor.

 

That evening at Mass in the Catholic Cathedral of Jakarta, the capital, two young Muslim women arrived and began to hand out red and white roses (the colours of the Indonesian flag) to the congregation in a gesture of solidarity and peace. And in Surabaya itself Muslims came to the churches to express their condolences and help clear up the wreckage.

Much work is needed to help heal the wounds inflicted as Indonesia struggles against its growing culture of intolerance. But the churches of Surabaya, and the actions of their Muslim friends, offer hope that faith and forgiveness in Indonesia isn’t gone for good.

Source: Christian Solidarity Worldwide

“No one can force me to renounce my faith”

On 9 December, Chinese authorities arrested Pastor Wang Yi, his wife and more than 100 members of the Early Rain Covenant Church in the city of Chengdu. Pastor Wang’s home was raided and ransacked by police.  “It was a mess,” said an assistant deacon who was later released. “The police said our church is an illegal organization and we cannot attend any more gatherings.”

The raid may have been triggered by a 7,300-word manifesto titled “Meditations on the Religious War,” which Pastor Wang wrote and posted on social media. The Christians were reportedly detained on allegations of “inciting subversion of state power”. Pastor Wang Yi also released a letter in which he makes clear that he does not seek to overthrow the state but to worship freely. He writes: “Separate me from my wife and children, ruin my reputation, destroy my life and my family – the authorities are capable of doing all of these things. However, no one can force me to renounce my faith.” He condemns China’s Communist Party and urges Christians to perform acts of civil disobedience.

Pastor Yi criticized the government for forcing its citizens to engage in “Caesar worship” by treating President Xi Jinping like a god.  He wrote that such ideology “is morally incompatible with the Christian faith and all those who uphold freedom of the mind and thought.”

There has been no word from the pastor or the church members since their arrest. Foreseeing his possible arrest, Yi had written a letter titled “My Declaration of Faithful Disobedience” back in September with the instruction that it should be published by his church should he be detained for more than 48 hours.

Another who refused to renounce her faith is 14-year-old Leah Sharibu, kidnapped from her school in Nigeria a year ago by Boko Haram jihadists. She refused to convert in exchange for her freedom and the terrorist group has said that she and a kidnapped nurse, Alice, will remain slaves for the rest of their lives. Two midwives kidnapped with Alice, Muslim mother of two Saifura Husseini Ahmed and Hauwa Mohammed Liman, were executed last year by the group.

Barnabas Fund and CSW, leading aid agencies for the persecuted Church, urge us all to pray for our Chinese and Nigerian brothers and sisters.

 

Sources; Barnabas Fund, Christian Solidarity Worldwide, CBN News.

His plans are much better than ours

dvickersby David Vickers

I was recently in the Middle East for two months. In Lebanon I had plans to do a little work and to catch up with friends and organisations. God had other plans. I ended up being in the right place at the right time to take over a project I had set up in and around Sidon working with Syrian refugees. The project manager was leaving and I was there to take over until a new manager was recruited. I still managed to visit friends and churches briefly and saw the increase in Kurdish refugees coming into our family.

I went to Egypt with no set plans but had prayed for three key things – that I would get back in contact with a young man I met in May in Alexandria but had lost his contact details. On my first night in Alexandria, I went shopping in the market and turned round to someone shouting my name. It was Ehap, the man I wanted to see.

Secondly, I prayed that I would be able to be involved in an interfaith meeting with Christians and Muslims. I met a friend who runs such meetings and was invited to be with him a couple of days later. There were three sheikhs, three pastors with my friend Hany and me. We studied verses from Koran and Bible and discussed similarities and differences. The theme was the generosity of God. I took the opportunity to clarify what “grace” really means. I was asked to open and close in prayer. I also discovered that friends were having a similar meeting, on the same day, in Abbeydale Road in Sheffield.

Lastly, I prayed that I would find Christian fellowship in the western Sinai peninsula. On my first evening in Dahab (in Sinai on the Gulf of Aqaba) I went to a local shop and greeted the shop keeper. His name turned out to be Paracletus. His family is Christian. He told me of a church in a village a few miles away. On my last Sunday in Egypt, I went to a mass at this Orthodox church and was warmly welcomed by Pastor Matthew (who spoke fluent English). A local Christian hotel owner had converted half of his hotel into this church.

I learned that going somewhere with plans often leads to disappointment. But praying and listening to God direction allows him to work out His plans and is never disappointing.

“For I know the plans I have for you, declares the Lord,
plans to prosper you and not to harm you, 
plans to give you hope and a future”.
Jeremiah 29:11

A New Year Prayer

BillyGrahamPhoto[1]A Prayer written by Revd. Billy Graham for the New Year (2008)

Our Father and our God, as we stand at the beginning of this new year we confess our need of Your presence and Your guidance as we face the future.

We each have our hopes and expectations for the year that is ahead of us—but You alone know what it holds for us, and only You can give us the strength and the wisdom we will need to meet its challenges. So help us to humbly put our hands into Your hand, and to trust You and to seek Your will for our lives during this coming year.
In the midst of life’s uncertainties in the days ahead, assure us of the certainty of Your unchanging love.
In the midst of life’s inevitable disappointments and heartaches, help us to turn to You for the stability and comfort we will need.
In the midst of life’s temptations and the pull of our stubborn self-will, help us not to lose our way but to have the courage to do what is right in Your sight, regardless of the cost.
And in the midst of our daily preoccupations and pursuits, open our eyes to the sorrows and injustices of our hurting world, and help us to respond with compassion and sacrifice to those who are friendless and in need. May our constant prayer be that of the ancient Psalmist: “Teach me, O Lord, to follow your decrees; then I will keep them to the end” (Psalm 119:33).
We pray for our nation and its leaders during these difficult times, and for all those who are seeking to bring peace and justice to our dangerous and 0 troubled world. We pray especially for Your protection on all those who serve in our armed forces, and we thank You for their commitment to defend our freedoms, even at the cost of their own lives. Be with their families also, and assure them of Your love and concern for them.
Bring our divided nation together, and give us a greater vision of what You would have us to be. Your Word reminds us that “Blessed is the nation whose God is the Lord” (Psalm 33:12).
As we look back over this past year we thank You for Your goodness to us— far beyond what we have deserved. May we never presume on Your past goodness or forget all Your mercies to us, but may they instead lead us to repentance, and to a new commitment to make You the foundation and centre of our lives this year.
And so, our Father, we thank You for the promise and hope of this new year, and we look forward to it with expectancy and faith. This I ask in the name of our Lord and Saviour, who by His death and resurrection has given us hope both for this world and the world to come.
Amen

Rebuilding Places and People

Bob LuntBy Bob Lunt

In November, St Oswald’s church in Sheffield had a visit from Mike Simpson, head of Foundation for Relief & Reconciliation in the Middle East (FRRME, known as FreeMe!). One of its ministries is to restore hope for Christians in Northern Iraq, many of whom fled their homes in the Nineveh Plain, the ancient heartland of Christianity in Iraq, when ISIS came in 2014.

A trustee of FRRME recently travelled there in searing 40º heat to assess the needs of returning Christian families. He writes, “The places we visited are not far from Mosul, which is still strewn with explosives and the bodies of the dead. To the east we were shown cultural centres used by ISIS as headquarters, training centres and even prisons. The buildings are badly damaged and need restoration. Livelihoods have been destroyed, with many returnees unsure if they can afford to stay.

“Despite the hardships, there are opportunities. The ancient Mar Mattai Monastery has a natural spring on its land and a monk gave us costed plans for a bottling plant. It also has a quarry that can provide grey marble for local churches. Such untapped natural resources could create long-term jobs for the local community.

“In Teleskuf, north of Mosul, the local priest set up a small enterprise making and selling kubba (pasties). Businesses like this used to be the lifeblood of the Nineveh Plain and must be so again. FRRME will provide micro-loans for those wanting to set up small businesses, as well as investment for infrastructure such as deep water wells and solar power. And maybe tourism for the more intrepid traveller, with Iraq’s stunning scenery and historic sites.

“There is also much work to be done in healing physical and mental wounds; many returnees are victims of sectarian violence. In Alqosh, FRRME funded a trauma centre run by another priest, Father Aram, a
remarkable man committed to helping those who struggle to forgive their persecutors (in many cases their neighbours). Father Aram wants to rebuild people, as does a new ‘Child and Youth Empowerment Centre’ in Amman, Jordan, providing trauma counselling to Iraqi refugees in a partnership between FRRME and The Nazarene Church which has sheltered hundreds of Iraqi Christians fleeing their homeland.”

“Everything has gone from our life”, says one refugee.
“But God is steady; whenever we fall down, we see his hand upon us.”

Source: FRRME

Convert or Leave

Bob LuntBy Bob Lunt

There have been extraordinary answers to prayer for Iran, yet religious
minorities still face systematic government oppression in every walk of life, including education, employment and normal church activities.

Over the last few years we’ve seen a pattern of religious minorities being arrested on national security charges, and judges notorious for miscarriages of justice appointed to preside over their cases. Excessive sentences are handed down, and the defendant’s family is intimidated and harassed by government agents, in an official campaign targeting religious minorities.

Recent government actions have also targeted schoolchildren. Iran’s constitution allows Christian children to receive religious instruction designed by Christians and approved by the Ministry of Education. However, last year Christian children from the Church of Iran in Rasht and Shiraz were told they must study the Quran or repeat the school year. Until then, families were able to take a signed letter from their church exempting their children from Quran studies, but the authorities were rejecting this letter on the grounds that the denomination was an ‘illegal organisation’. Sources in the Church of Iran say, ‘The message is clear: Convert or leave.’

The new policy, which appears to be a proxy punishment for parents who have converted, violates Iran’s commitments under international law. Iran is party to International Covenants which recognise the right of parents to ensure the religious and moral education of their children in line with their own convictions. The country has also ratified the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC), which commits signatories to ensuring access to primary, secondary and tertiary education.

One family belonging to the Assyrian Pentecostal Church in Iran has been the target of multiple charges. Reverend Victor Bet-Tamraz is awaiting the outcome of his appeal against a ten-year sentence for ‘conducting evangelism’ and ‘illegal house church activities’ after a number of Christians were arrested at a Christmas celebration at his home in 2014. His wife, Shamiram, received a five-year sentence in January for ‘acting against national security’, and during an appeal hearing in May the presiding judge reportedly accused her entire family of committing crimes against the regime. In July their son Ramil was sentenced to four years in prison on charges related to his father’s church activities. Please keep lifting Iran to God in prayer.

Source: Christian Solidarity Worldwide

My Second Chance

Bob LuntBy Bob Lunt

Guatemala is one of the 25 most dangerous countries in the world. Violent crime is attributed to poverty, an abundance of weapons, a legacy of social violence, and the presence of organized criminal gangs. Over half the population are under 19 and youth gangs are felt to be the single most important contributors to violence and insecurity in Central American cities.

Communities view young criminals very negatively. So many people have been victims of crime and violence that they find it difficult to show grace and to offer a second chance. But the Bible Society of Guatemala offers just that with a juvenile detention programme called My Second Chance. Working with chaplains, they visit detention centres weekly and give Bibles to 13-18-year-old boys incarcerated for violent crimes.

Stuart Noble from our own Bible Society described one detention centre: “Paint was peeling off walls, the centre was packed with teenage boys with shaved heads and there were guards everywhere. We were told to wear shoes without laces and remove ties, rings, watches – anything that could be used as a weapon.

“We walked into a room with 30 boys holding a church service. These were gang members who’d become Christians through My Second Chance. One preached, another rapped his testimony; they had amazing stories of transformation through Jesus. We had the privilege of giving Bibles to some boys who hadn’t received them yet.”

A highlight of Stuart’s time there was meeting two young men who had been released from a detention centre and become Christians through My Second Chance. One was there four years and is now training to be a chef. “Now you see me smiling but years ago you would see me crying”, he said, “I was a nobody. I was rejected. My life before Christ was a mess. It was controlled by many bad influences. But I was truly given a second chance.”

Another had also spent four years in the detention centre and tried to commit suicide. But then he became a Christian through the programme and became a ‘multiplier’, a leader that helps with ministry in the detention centres. “When no one cared for me”, he said, “Christ came and took me in, and my life was saved.” Now he’s a church pastor and says, “My past has been erased. We do nothing. It’s God who makes those things possible.”

Source: Bible Society 

 

They never let it happen

Bob LuntBy Bob Lunt

Sujit began to experience persecution in his village in India once he decided to follow Christ. His family was forced by the villagers to expel him from the house because of his faith.

But that didn’t put him off. He went to study the Bible for three years, and was soon leading others to Christ. He says, “Though my family members are still Hindus, I have seen miracles happen in Jesus’ name, and have clearly witnessed God transform many lives. I was able to lead 60 people to Christ in and around my village.”

He has been caring for this flock of believers for 15 years, and last year they decided to build a church so they’d have somewhere big enough to meet all together. “We were so happy and excited”, he says, “but they never let it happen.”

‘They’ are the RSS, the extremist Hindu group who have vowed to free India of Christians and Muslims by the end of 2021. Sujit says, “When we began the construction, a well-known man in the village, a retired army officer, made a false complaint to the RSS that we were luring people to Christianity using money. After this, the RSS groups from other villages made many visits, conducted meetings with the villagers and instigated the Hindus against us. Thereafter, there were constant attacks on the construction sites.”

Three times the church was destroyed as Sujit and the members tried to construct it. The first attack came as the foundations were being laid, the second just as the walls had been completed. The third time the roof had just been laid. During this third attack, Sujit ran to the spot and confronted them. “Two extremists caught me from the sides and the third one bashed my head with a brick. They showered continuous kicks and blows on me, threatening to kill me if I continued preaching Christianity in the village. I suffered severe head and spinal injuries; I was bleeding and was rushed to hospital.”

Afterwards Sujit and his wife had a difficult decision to make. “We had to leave the place I had been serving for the last 15 years. It was heartbreaking.”

He still returns to meet with the Christians in secret, and hopes that one day they’ll be able to build a church as houses are too small to accommodate all who come from nearby villages. Please pray.
Source: Open Doors

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