Thursday, June 26, 2008

Viewing Canada Through the Lens of Ecclesiastes

Today as I read from Ecclesiastes 3 (yes, some do read Ecclesiastes devotionally), I was reminded that in the places where judgment and justice ought to be found, wickedness, instead, is there (verse 16). As I look at recent court and human right commissions rulings here in Canada, there is little doubt in my mind that these words are just as relevant for us as they were in the day in which they were originally written. It is almost enough to cause someone to despair. Today, I spoke to one of our supporters on the telephone whose voice contained a certain tone of despondency as she expressed her concerns for where she saw Canada heading. I understand that feeling.

Of course, I know that we are not as bad as most of the world today. I am not naïve, especially not witnessing what I have witnessed in the many countries that I have visited. But we are not nearly the country that we were even ten years ago, when it comes to certain rights and freedoms. Religious freedom is increasingly being privatized and marginalized. As gays and lesbians leave the closet, they are shoving Bible-believing Christians into it, telling us to keep our faith to ourselves. Freedom of speech is no longer seen as inviolable; now it can be subject to restrictions and censor if it can be shown that someone might possibly be offended or hurt by what we say. Human rights commissions are now the instruments of restricting our rights rather than defending them.

There is hope, of course. Verse 17 of Ecclesiastes 3 reminds us that God will judge the righteous and the wicked, for there is a time for every matter and for every work. It may not be the timing we might desire; who wouldn't like to see things fixed up in our own lifetime. The author of Ecclesiastes is skeptical that this can really happen and he is right. In this fallen world, seeking for justice is usually an exercise in chasing after the wind; an exercise in vanity.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

New Facts, Hard Truths

Algeria is a country I knew little about before starting at The Voice of the Martyrs. I knew it was a North African nation, but I hadn't heard as much about it as African countries such as Egypt, Nigeria or Guinea. As such, I didn't have any presuppositions about its political or religious climate--and I certainly had no idea that Christians are being persecuted there.

While putting together the July edition of our monthly newsletter, which focuses on Algeria and Morocco, I tried to imagine how I might have reacted if I read the feature back when I knew very little about the trials facing the Algerian church. Would I trust it, believe it, be moved by it? What if this glimpse of Algeria came just after I had read the comments recently made by Algeria's Minister of Home Affairs and Local Authorities, who said that the nation respects fundamental religious freedoms? Or after I'd read The Minister of Religious Affairs' claim that Christian groups are trying to "destabilize the country and sow divergences between people"? Would I have chosen to rest in these claims rather than accept the reports of religious rights denied, churches closed and believers beaten?

I'd like to think, of course, that I would have responded to VOMC's report on Algeria with trust and conviction. But perhaps the claims of these officials would have been enough to give me a little pinch me with doubt or disbelief. If, for example, I already had a picture in my mind of Algeria as a country respectful of religious freedom, I might not have wanted my peaceful view punctured by reports of oppression and injustice. Pleasant falsities are, after all, more appealing than hard truths.

When our July newsletter goes out next week, I will be especially thinking about and praying for the readers on whose ears the reality of persecution in Algeria and Morocco is falling afresh, that the truth of the trials and triumphs of the suffering faithful in these countries will radiate in their hearts and enrich their relationships with Christ.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Should VOM Canada Support Persecuted Canadians?

Several weeks ago, we received a letter from someone who was angry that we were providing some support to a marriage commissioner who is fighting in the courts for the right not to marry homosexuals.  His provincial government has ruled that he must or he will lose his license.  It is worth noting that marriage commissioners are licensed by their provincial governments and not employed or paid by the government. The Supreme Court of Canada has confirmed that clergy cannot be compelled to perform marriages contrary to their religious beliefs. This same freedom should, in our opinion, apply to licensed marriage commissioners. Interestingly enough, in the past, marriage commissioners could refuse to officiate at weddings that violated their religious convictions. All of that has changed since same-sex couples have been given the right to marry in Canada.

The letter writer was angry not because she felt that we should provide more support but because we were providing any support at all.  All of our funds, she believed, needed to go to persecuted Christians in other countries who cannot afford to help themselves.  This person, she felt (without knowing his actual situation) could support himself because he lived in Canada.

I am curious to know how you feel about this.  Do you believe that The Voice of the Martyrs should also provide limited support to those who face persecution (and, yes, we will call it "persecution") in Canada because of their biblical convictions?  I look forward to your participation in this poll and your comments.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Looking Around the Office

shelf As I look around my office, I see evidence of trips made in earlier days.  Coffee cups from Colombia and Kenya.  A small leather briefcase from Nigeria given by a grateful church for the work we had done for them.  Bullet casings and shrapnel from southern Sudan.  An orange flag from Ukraine.  Icons from Russia.  A vase from Greece. A shawl from Ethiopia.  A wooden snake from India.  Copper figurines from Ghana and Sri Lanka.  A cross from Egypt.  A picture from Costa Rica.  A coal figurine of William Wallace from Scotland.

These things make me sad, on one hand, as they remind me of earlier days when I had the health to travel overseas more.  But on the other hand, they remind of the wide experience God has allowed me to have which I hope I can now pass on to others.  God has given me a good team and it is my hope that, before I drive them crazy, I can, to some degree, impart some of the lessons, attitudes, and approaches to ministry that God has enabled me to learn, while continuing to learn from my team members at the same time.

The "reproduction" of one's ministry is often talked about.  But I am not sure that I would do as much of it as I am if I were still able to travel the way I used to.  I am pretty sure that I wouldn't.  Discipling is much more talked about than actually done.

Friday, June 13, 2008

What Kind of Animals Would Do This?

pakistangrief On May 25, Niamat Masih was returning home from work in Lahore when he discovered that his 12-year-old daughter was not at home.  He immediately went out looking for her, concerned because Elishba suffered from psychological problems.  He could not find her.  Passing by a house not far from his own, broken down and without doors, he heard some noises coming from inside.  Just then, a young Muslim named Muhammad Badshaw appeared in the doorway.  When he saw Niamat, he ran off.  Naimat entered the house and saw two other young men who also ran off.  There, on the floor, unconscious and with her clothing torn Niamat found his daughter.  It as a sight no father should ever see.  It was an experience that no 12-year-old should ever even contemplate much less go through. 

Sadly, it is not uncommon for young Christian girls to experience this kind of atrocity in Muslim countries around the world.  All I can ask is why? I understand that sexual assaults take place around the world.  But can someone please tell me why is the gang raping of young (often pre-teen) girls by Muslim young men is so dreadfully common in Islamic countries?

It is my hope and prayer that these three animals will receive the justice that they so justifiably deserve.  Because of the help that the Masih family is receiving from a Pakistani lawyer, they will be able to press charges.  Many poor Christians never press charges because they cannot afford to hire a lawyer.  Also, many, including this family, face threats of violence if they file charges.  May prayer is for their protection in these days.  My prayers also go out to Elishba who is presently receiving care from a centre in Lahore run by religious sisters and specializing in the treatment of patients with mental problems.  May she receive the healing from God that only He can provide to those who have suffered so. 

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Thoughts on Bill C-10

cam There has been much written and said in recent weeks on proposals in Bill C-10 regarding tax credits for Canadian film and video productions.  I have been too ill to think about it until recently. And so I am trying to get caught up on my reading. One of the most helpful articles that I have read regarding Bill C-10 is one posted by Matthew Johnston on April 16, 2008 on the Western Standard website in which he asks if C-10 would transform the Heritage Ministry into the Ministry for Propaganda.

Joseph Brean with the National Post reported that in November 2003 then Deputy Prime Minister John Manley and Minister of Heritage Sheila Copps proposed that tax credits for Canadian film and video production should be issued only if the productions in question are not "contrary to public policy."

It took five years, but this Liberal idea to tie film and video production tax credits to public policy objectives has finally and regrettably found its way into proposed legislation. Bill C-10 is a Conservative omnibus bill that would deny tax credits to films offensive to the Heritage Minister.

As you might expect, the proposed legislation has raised an army of film celebrity critics who are calling the bill censorship.

Canadian actress and Oscar nominee Sarah Polley called the bill "dangerous and unacceptable."

Toronto-born filmmaker David Cronenberg said the legislation would be "an absolute catastrophe" for the film industry.

I know what you're thinking. If celebrities are rallying against this Conservative bill, it's probably a sound piece of legislation. Good instinct, vigilant reader, but this time the glitterati has it right.

National Post columnist George Jonas put it well when he wrote that...

Should Bill C-10 become law, a committee of Heritage Ministry's smut-, hate- and violence-hunters could deny tax credits to a completed film, even one in which the government had invested up front. From that day, no fiscally responsible institution would feel comfortable offering interim financing to any film. Imagine a charity trying to raise funds with tax receipts that may or may not be valid.

But not only would this bill hurt the film industry, it's hard to see how this proposed legislation would not lead to censorship.

For instance, it would seem reasonable that a film or video promoting marijuana use would be "contrary to public policy." The last accounting of government spending I read showed that the Federal government spends about $500 million across departments on its anti-drug strategies, not including law enforcement. So, if the bill passes, would a tax credit be issued to the producers of Trailer Park Boys? This popular Canadian mockumentary television series focuses on characters who spend their time in and out of jail primarily for growing and selling marijuana. Is this TV series contrary to public policy? Of course. The government spends $500 million on anti-drug strategies and this popular TV show undermines these strategies by making light of marijuana use and trafficking.

But Heritage Minister Josée Verner denies that the legislation will lead to censorship (the government isn't actually banning the production of offensive films). She also argues that the government has a right to deny tax credits to offensive films because taxpayer money is involved.

While there are government subsidies for Canadian films, Bill C-10 has nothing to do with these subsidies. The legislation deals only with the tax credits film producers can use to offset income.  A tax credit is not a government subsidy. A tax credit is targeted tax relief. Here's how it works: A private film producer, after making a private investment in a Canadian produced film, can apply for a tax credit for a relatively small percentage of the total investment amount in order to reduce his or her taxable income.

Is this a subsidy? Of course not. Not unless you believe all the wealth created by the film industry belongs to the government.

Bill C-10 turns the Heritage Minister into a censor (of sorts). This is a bad idea. If the government doesn't want to see tax dollars going to support offensive or politically incorrect films, they should scrap film industry subsidies and leave the tax credits in place.

The last three paragraphs are particularly helpful, showing that we are really going after the wrong target.  The issue is not the tax credits (which C-10 deals with) but the film subsidies.  And I agree; perhaps the later is what we should be scrapping if we are concerned about our tax dollars going towards productions deemed offensive and "contrary to public policy."  That is what would really make a difference.

By let me be clear here; Canada has many film makers whom I hope will find financing and support - but not from governments in Canada.  I would rather that all subsidies be ended once and for all. If Canadian culture is really worth preserving, let it be done by Canadians themselves who believe that a certain film should or should not be produced.  And then let the public decide what is worth paying to watch.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Restrictions on the Ahmadiyah in Indonesia a Warning for Other Religious Minorities

protestindo A story that those of us who still read the newspaper will probably overlook and one that most of the rest of the media will likely never even cover is Indonesia's decision yesterday to restrict the religious activities of the Ahmadiyah, a minority Islamic sect.  Most Sunnis and Shiites consider the Ahmadiyah heretics, although Saudi Arabia actually allows them to go on the hajj.

The Ahmadiyah are persecuted in many Muslim countries.  Militants in Indonesia had actually called for their complete ban, but the government chose instead to rule that Ahmadiyah followers are allowed to worship in their homes and mosques, but they must not preach or try to convert others.  It should be noted that the Ahmadijah sect is highly evangelistic.

This ruling demonstrates that the Indonesian government is susceptible to threats and pressure from aggressive Islamic militants and shown willing to restrict the freedoms of religious minorities if so threatened. I can easily see the day coming when Muslim militants will demand similar restrictions placed on Christians.  What assurances do we have that the Indonesian government won't cave in again?

An Insult to Freedom of Speech

Khurrum Awan Freedom of speech does not include the right to have one's views published or broadcast. Nor does freedom of the press carry with it an obligation to give space to views opposed to those held by the press' owners or their editors.

Indeed, the only way that a right to have one's views aired could exist is if the government restricted the freedom of the press, forcing media outlets to publish or broadcast material that was deemed otherwise unworthy.

We at The Voice of the Martyrs wholeheartedly support this view and are deeply concerned about recent human rights commission rulings, statements, and complaints that could potentially severely restrict freedom of expression here in Canada.  Read the remainder of this excellent editorial from yesterday's National Post that suggests that recent comments by Khurrum Awan (a Muslim with a complaint against Maclean's magazine before the B.C. Human Rights Commission) demonstrate that this young man is not fighting for the freedom of expression, as he claims, but its suppression.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Are You Receiving The Voice of the Martyrs Newsletter?

nl_sm copy At eight p.m. on the eight day of the eighth month of 2008, the opening ceremony of the Summer Olympics in Beijing will begin.  Highly controversial, many Christians struggle with how we as Christians should respond, in light of China's well-documented abuse of Christians and other religious minorities. 

One response that we can all agree on is the need for prayer for China during the Olympics Games.  In April, as part of the Religious Liberty Partnership, The Voice of the Martyrs joined a number of other key organizations through the Religious Liberty Partnership in launching a global campaign calling for prayer for China. In particular, we are urging you and your church to join Christians from around the world in planning and participating in a special 24 hours of prayer for China on August 8, 2008 (08-08-08), the day of the opening ceremony of the Summer Olympics.

What are some of the things that you can do during your 24 hours?  After all, 24 hours of prayer doesn't necessarily mean 24 straight hours of verbal petition to God.

In our July edition of The Voice of the Martyrs Newsletter, we are providing a number of suggestions and a special resource kits on China that can help you as you prepare for 24 hours of prayer for China, the Christians there, and the country's leadership.  Subscribe today for The Voice of the Martyrs Newsletter to receive this valuable information!  Each month, we provide special multimedia features that bring subscribers of our newsletter closer to the world in which our persecuted family lives. 

Some people mistakenly think that our weekly email news service (The Persecution and Prayer Alert) is the same as our monthly newsletter.  Actually, there is very little similarity between the two in either content or format.  Our weekly email news service provides up-to-date news and prayer requests, but its very nature precludes us from telling the whole story. We simply have to stick to the facts.  Our monthly newsletter, on the other hand, provides a far wider perspective, we are able to dig beneath the surface of a story, focusing on their courage and faith, how they became Christians in the first place, why they are prepared to give their lives for Christ and how you can respond in letting them know that they are not forgotten.  In our newsletter, you are able to read more of the "good news" of persecution, while our weekly email, by its very nature, must focus on the "bad news" of the event itself.  Our weekly email was never intended to stand on it own and it never will. It has a specific purpose of sharing up-to-date, even urgent, stories of persecution so that prayer and other forms of support can be mobilized by Christians around the world on behalf of those who are suffering for their faith. This is where email is such a valuable tool. But it was never intended to take the place of our monthly printed magazine and it will never. You need both, in my opinion, to get a complete picture of how God is at work in the world today through His Church.  But if I were asked to choose between the two, I would choose the monthly newsletter as the more helpful tool available for getting to know and serve the Persecuted Church.

Every month The Voice of the Martyrs Newsletter shares testimonies, trials and triumphs of persecuted Christians from around the world. Each month you will be encouraged as you read of their faithfulness to God in the face of adversity, moved to pray and challenged to action as The Voice of the Martyrs Newsletter provides practical ways to reach out in love. In-depth articles help you to get to know the names and faces of your brothers and sisters around the world as you read their testimonies of faith and courage. Challenging Bible teaching will help you discover how to be a cross-carrying disciple of Jesus Christ in your world.  And every month, we provide special multimedia tools and resources (like our China kit) that take you beyond the newsletter.

Don't miss this opportunity to fellowship with this crucial part of the Body of Christ. The Voice of the Martyrs Newsletter is provided free of charge to Canadians (shipping charges apply to overseas subscribers). Click here to subscribe to this free full-colour publication. To view a sample, click here.

Saturday, June 07, 2008

Saskatchewan Marriage Commissioner Ruled Guilty of Discrimination

On May 23, a Saskatchewan human rights tribunal ruled that 71-year old marriage commissioner Orville Nichols was guilty under the Saskatchewan Human Rights Code of discriminating against a gay couple whom he refused to marry three years ago. It ordered Mr. Nichols to pay the complainants $2,500 for injury to feeling, noting his decision not to marry them after being approached in 2005 was "pretty devastating" to the gay couple.

Nichols, a retired police officer, has been a marriage commissioner for over 20 years and has performed nearly 2,000 marriages since 1983. Nichols argued that he had referred the couple to another marriage commissioner because he said his religious beliefs as a Baptist kept him from performing the ceremony. He is considering an appeal depending on the level of financial and moral support he receives from the public.

As I wrote in early 2007, it is worth noting that marriage commissioners are licensed by their provincial governments and not employed or paid by the government. Therefore, they should not be forced by the government to perform marriage ceremonies contrary to their religious beliefs. The Supreme Court of Canada has confirmed that clergy cannot be compelled to perform marriages contrary to their religious beliefs. This same freedom should apply to licensed marriage commissioners. Interestingly enough, in the past, marriage commissioners could refuse to officiate at weddings that violated their religious convictions. All of that has changed since same-sex couples were given the right to marry in Canada. For some reason, sexual orientation is being viewed by many as a more fundamental right than religious belief. This is a troubling development.

One commentator in Saskatoon wrote sarcastically that at the age of 71, the retired police officer "could have stepped down gracefully, without compromising his beliefs and without hurting anyone's feelings. But no. He had to be a martyr. As a religious man, he should know what happens to martyrs."

In a back-handed way, this commentator is exactly correct. By standing up for his convictions, Nichols was testifying that he was prepared to suffer rather than deny his faith. This is at the core of what it means to be a martyr. This commentator, unfortunately, believed that this whole case was entirely unnecessary. In his opinion, Nichols should simply have resigned before he was ever asked to marry same-sex couples, if he knew that he could not do so on the basis of his faith. In effect, the argument goes, faith should be kept private if it puts one on a collision course with public opinion or civil authorities. But this is exactly what the early church was called to do. Had the Christian faith been kept private, there would have been little to no persecution in its early days. Nor would there be much persecution today. In other words, if Christians are persecuted, it must be their own fault.