Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Breaking free the chains

Who can forget the image of Paul and Silas in prison singing praises to God as an earthquake opened cell doors and shattered chains? (Acts 16:22-40). I was reminded of this remarkable event while reading a recent report from Compass Direct about an imprisoned Eritrean evangelist, Teame Weldegebriel, who is being treated especially badly because of his ministry to fellow inmates. His cell doors have not flung open yet, but even in his detained state God is working through him—using him to break free the chains of unbelief fastened around fellow prisoners.

You can read more about this brother below and I urge you to continue to uphold him and other imprisoned believers in prayer.

Wednesday September 24, 2008


Evangelist fears he will die in confinement.

LOS ANGELES, September 24 (Compass Direct News) – An evangelist imprisoned since 2006 for his Christian activities is receiving especially harsh treatment because of his ministry to inmates.

Sources said Teame Weldegebriel is on the brink of despair as he languishes at the Mai Sirwa Maximum Security Confinement prison.

“It seems that hell has broken loose on me,” Weldegebriel told Compass sources. “Please tell the brethren to continue praying for me. I am not sure I will see them again.”

Prison authorities consider Weldegebriel dangerous because of his boldness in sharing his faith. The Rhema Church evangelist has been proclaiming Christ to other prisoners, and many have converted to Christianity.

“This has made him to be in bad books with the prison wardens,” one source said. Weldegebriel’s family is worried about his health after trying repeatedly, without success, to get permission to visit him.

Inmates at the prison often go hungry and are said to be feeding on leaves.

In Eritrea, a nation with a government of Marxist roots where about half of the people are Muslim, two or more people gathered in Jesus’ name can be imprisoned for not practicing their faith in one of the government-sanctioned Orthodox, Catholic, Lutheran or Muslim bodies.

More than 2,000 Christians in Eritrea are imprisoned for their faith, including a Christian from a Full Gospel Church who was arrested in 2001. His wife last saw him in June 2007. She and her two minor children were rounded up from a prayer meeting in mid-July and placed in a metal shipping container until their release last month, she said.

“I was arrested with my children while having a prayer meeting with 20 other Christians,” said the woman, who requested anonymity for security reasons. “They locked us up at a military concentration camp, inside metal ship containers. I remember the horrible ordeal I went through with the children. After three weeks I was released with my two children, while the other Christian soldiers remained locked in the prison cells.”

The government views leaders of large unregistered bodies like the Full Gospel Church and Rhema Church as threats, according to Christian sources in the country. Eritrean officials fear the church leaders will expose the abuses and conditions in the prisons. Hence it is extremely difficult for relatives to see those in prison, and inmates are not allowed to send or receive letters.

“The government has been transferring them from one prison cell after another,” said one Christian source in Asmara.

In May 2002 the government criminalized all independent churches not operating under the umbrella of the Orthodox, Lutheran, Catholic, and Muslim religious structures.

Arrested for Talking

In the seaport city of Massawa, police in June arrested a man and a woman, both Christians, who were talking to Muslims about Christ. Members of Kale Hiwot Church, the two were discussing their Christian faith when four plainclothes policemen arrested them.

“It took about 30 minutes talking about Jesus before they were both arrested by the police – they had witnessed about Jesus and the faith for a long time to some Muslims,” another source told Compass. “I watched the two Christians whisked away by the police. They were taken to join more than 100 Christians imprisoned in Waire prison about 25 kilometers [16 miles] from Massawa.”

A previously imprisoned evangelist with the Full Gospel Church in Asmara who requested anonymity told Compass that God is at work in Eritrea, with many people converting to Christ and receiving divine healing.

“For sure Christians are getting imprisoned, but God’s word cannot be imprisoned,” he said. “I am ready for any eventuality, including being imprisoned again. On several occasions, prison wardens warned me to stop preaching, though they still loved me. Indeed Jesus loved me. They saw God in me.”

The U.S. Department of State notes in its 2008 International Religious Freedom Report that Eritrea has not implemented its 1997 constitution, which provides for religious freedom. The state department has designated Eritrea as a Country of Particular Concern, a list of the worst violators of religious freedom, since 2004.

Many of the more than 2,000 Christians under arrest in police stations, military camps and jails across Eritrea because of their religious beliefs have been incarcerated for years. No one has been charged officially or given access to judicial processes.

Reliable statistics are not available, but the state department estimates that 50 percent of the population is Sunni Muslim, 30 percent is Orthodox Christian, and 13 percent is Roman Catholic. Protestants and Seventh-day Adventists along with Jehovah’s Witnesses, Buddhists, Hindus, and Baha’is make up less than 5 percent of the population.

Monday, September 29, 2008

The 2008 International Religious Freedom Report released

One of the most useful reports released each year is the U.S. State Department's annual International Religious Freedom Report which was made public earlier this month.  According to the Executive Summary, the purpose of this report is "to record the status of respect for religious freedom in every country around the world during the most recent reporting period--July 1, 2007 to June 30, 2008. Our primary focus is to document the actions of governments--those that repress religious expression, persecute believers, and tolerate violence against religious minorities, as well as those that protect and promote religious freedom." Countries highlighted as countries of particular concern is the 2008 report include: Burma, China, North Korea, Iran, Sudan, Eritrea, Saudi Arabia, and Uzbekistan.

I would encourage you to bookmark this important report as a good reference tool when you read about persecution in certain countries.  While we at The Voice of the Martyrs do not agree with every conclusion in this report, we do find it a helpful research tool.

Click here to view the report. If you would like to watch a press conference with Secretary Condoleezza Rice and John V. Hanford on the findings of the report, click here

What are you reading in September?

share This was not that productive of a month for me, as far as reading was concerned.  To be honest, my eyes have been giving me some problems in the evening most of this month (probably due to the chemo treatments I am taking).  But I did manage to get one book finished which I recommend, but with conditions. 

Craig Hovey's To Share the Body: A Theology of Martyrdom for Today's Church is a helpful study of the theme of martyrdom in the gospel of Mark and its ramifications for the church today. What I found most helpful by Hovey's study is his assertion that martyrdom is an intrinsic part of the gospel of Christ for all Christians, regardless of where they live.  This means, according to the author, "that, so long as we assume that 'we' are not a martyr-church, we have ceased to live with a proper and appropriate antagonism to the world in attempts to preclude the possibility that we might die the death of Christ" (page 18). 

Hovey does provide a number of insights into Mark's teaching on martyrdom; insights that I will want to integrate into my own teaching and writing on the subject.  Readers, however, should be cautious of the author's less than evangelical view of hermeneutics, however, as he argues that it is neither possible nor desirable to know what Mark intended to write.  Having said that, the author writes as though it is possible (which is true of most commentators). 

That said, this is a valuable contribution to the biblical study of persecution. Sadly, I suspect that this book will have a rather limited appeal and so, if this is a study that you are interested in pursuing, you had best get this book while you can, as publishers are pretty quick to take such books out of print nowadays.

Friday, September 26, 2008

Standing with the saints in Orissa

A month has come and gone and still Christians in Orissa continue to suffer attacks at the hands of Hindus.  Blaming them for the death of Hindu leader Laxmananda Saraswati and angry over the numbers of Hindus coming to faith in Christ, mobs have driven thousands of Christians from their homes. Dozens of church buildings have been destroyed or damaged, at INDIA_orissaleast 50 believers have been killed, schools and colleges have been attacked and vandalized, and numerous cases of forced conversions to Hinduism have been reported.  Even relief camps have been attacked, as mobs terrorize the refugees, sometimes poisoning the water supplies and/or stealing supplies.  The state government has done little to bring the situation under control.

The Voice of the Martyrs has committed to sending aid to the Christians of Orissa.  Funds for legal assistance, relief aid, and rebuilding projects are being raised and sent through reliable channels to insure that the help gets to those in need.  You can join us through an online donation to our Relief and Development Fund. Together we can let our brothers and sisters know that they are not forgotten during these days of tribulation.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

They’ll know we are Christians by our love

In the book Tortured for Christ, Richard Wurmbrand writes, “God will judge us not according to how much we endured, but how much we could love. The Christians who suffered for their faith in prisons could love. I am a witness that they could love God and men.”

In many of the reports received by VOMC, Christians demonstrate deep love and forgiveness for those who have harmed them. As unimaginable violence towards Christians spreads across India, survivors are speaking out about God’s faithfulness in their lives. Father Thomas, who survived vicious beatings and was almost killed, said while recovering in hospital: “Along with my physical wounds, Christ is healing my emotional scars; I feel no bitterness or anger; I am even prepared to serve those who attacked us.”
It is indeed encouraging and rewarding to hear stories of persecuted believers following Christ’s example. Yet, as brothers and sisters of those suffering around the world for their faith, it is not enough to simply be encouraged by their example. We too are called to love and forgive. That means loving the Hindu militants who brutally attacked Father Thomas and hundreds of others. It means praying for Iran’s President and those who wish to pass the draft bill to sentence to death those charged with apostasy. But it also means loving those people in our own lives that we would rather ridicule or dismiss. It requires us to forgive those who treat us unfavourably for our faith. We don’t suffer for our faith in the same way that Christians in Orissa, India do. But do we love as much? I know that I often fall short of showing Christ-like love to my neighbour.
Loving those who hate and forgiving those who harm requires the grace of God. To love and forgive is hard; yet it is the path we are called to walk.

Monday, September 22, 2008

USCIRF calls for cancellation of meeting with Ahmadinejad

The United States Commission on International Religious Freedom sent a letter on Friday to the leadership of Religions for Peace, the American Friends Service Committee, Mennonite Central Committee, Quaker United Nations Office, and World Council of Churches—United Nations Liaison Office to protest their invitation to Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to take part in a “dialogue” on “the significance of religious contributions to peace” (see below).

The letter reads as follows:

On behalf of the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom, I am writing to express profound concern over your organization’s invitation to Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad for what is termed an “international dialogue” on the topic, “Has Not One God Created Us?  The Significance of Religious Contributions to Peace.” 

While organizations such as yours espouse the value of mutual understanding through dialogue, in this case we are convinced that this invitation and this platform will be counterproductive.  President Ahmadinejad has manipulated such dialogues repeatedly into a platform for spreading hatred.  He hosted some of the world’s most notorious deniers of the Holocaust, racists and anti-Semites at a 2006 conference questioning the well-established facts of the Holocaust and calling for the destruction of a member-state of the United Nations.  The only accomplishment of such an invitation would be to burnish the Iranian leader’s legitimacy and cleanse his reputation as a purveyor of hate.

It is disturbing enough that a leader who has worked so ruthlessly to close off channels for free expression at home should be given an opening to expound his views here.  But the invitation to President Ahmadinejad comes amid a rapidly accelerating deterioration of religious freedom and other human rights in Iran, including prolonged detention, torture, and executions often based on the religion of the accused.

The Iranian Parliament currently is finalizing a new penal code that for the first time would legally enshrine the death penalty for so-called apostasy, putting the members of many religious minority communities at grave risk.  More than 20 Baha’is currently are in prison in Iran on account of their religious identity, and two Christian men were charged with apostasy earlier this month.

While the government has announced its suspension of stoning to death—although this is not the first time such claims have been made—Iran has continued the brutal execution of minors, with reliable reports that at least six have been executed this year, two of them just last month.  Four women leaders of the One Million Signatures campaign, which is dedicated to ending discrimination against women in the application of Islamic law in Iran, have been jailed for six months for allegedly “spreading propaganda” against Iran’s Islamic system by advocating for its reform. 

Muslims are hardly immune to the repression.  In recent years, hundreds of prominent Muslim activists and dissidents from among the Shi’a majority advocating political reform have been sentenced to lengthy prison terms on charges of seeking to overthrow the Islamic system in Iran; others have been arrested and detained for alleged blasphemy and criticizing the nature of the Islamic regime.  Reformists and journalists are regularly tried under current press laws and the Penal Code on charges of “insulting Islam,” criticizing the Islamic Republic, and publishing materials that deviate from Islamic standards.

Because of these recurring and egregious violations of religious freedom, the Commission continues to recommend that Iran be included in the U.S. State Department’s list of “countries of particular concern.” Since 1999, Secretaries of State from both the Clinton and Bush administrations have agreed. 

Inviting this leader undermines the legitimacy and seriousness of the “dialogue” termed “the significance of religious contributions to peace.”  Just today, the State Department issued its annual International Religious Freedom Report, which underlines the long history of human rights violations in Iran and the continued deterioration of religious freedom conditions under President Ahmadinejad.

We are concerned that your “dialogue” will be merely another platform for President Ahmadinejad to espouse an ideology of intolerance. The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom would recommend that this event be canceled and that in any event you withdraw your organization’s co-sponsorship.

I look forward to your reply.

Respectfully yours,

Felice D. Gaer

We at The Voice of the Martyrs echo this call. We urge any Canadian church leaders who may be planning to attend this event (as some did last time), to reconsider and refuse to attend as an act of solidarity with Christians and other religious minorities in Iran and an act of protest against the oppression of this regime.  There is a time and a way for constructive engagement to occur; we do not believe that this event contributes to such engagement in any meaningful way especially on the topic to be discussed. We will be very disappointed if evangelical leaders from Canada, in particular, attend this event.

Friday, September 19, 2008

Guess who is coming to dinner?

Press release from The Institute on Religion and Democracy:

WASHINGTON, Sept. 18 /Christian Newswire/ -- Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has been invited to a dinner put on by American religious leaders during his visit to the United Nations, scheduled for September 25. The event is touted as a dialogue by the Mennonite Central Committee, World Council of Churches, and the Quaker group American Friends Service Committee. Representatives of the Episcopal Church and other mainline denominations plan to attend the dinner.

Representatives of the churches previously visited Iran in February of 2007 and hosted a similar event for Ahmadinejad with the National Council of Churches in September of 2007 at the United Methodist Womens' Building in New York.

UM Action Executive Director Mark Tooley commented,

"These confused prelates will undoubtedly minimize, if not ignore, the evils of the Iranian police state theocracy that brutalizes all who do not share its particular brand of Shiite Islam. They are more worried about what the U.S. might do to Iran than what Iran's deranged president, filled with apocalyptic dreams of destroying the U.S. and Israel, might do to the world.

"The problem is not only the personality of one man, rather than the consistent policies of a 28 year old repressively theocratic regime.
"Iran has been censured by almost the entire international community through the United Nations. It will be interesting to see if the religious leaders confront Ahmadinejad on his Holocaust denials and nuclear ambitions, or merely 'engage' him with pleasantries and anti-American rhetoric.

"Hopefully the dinner organizers will confront Iran's threats to wipe out Israel. In the past, these church leaders have said nothing about the religious freedom of Christians and other religious minorities in Iran. Indeed, there has been no professed concern about human rights in Iran. IRD challenges the leaders to speak up for religious freedom of Iranian Christians and for all people in Iran, since the Iranians themselves are not free to speak plainly."

Thursday, September 18, 2008

One convert’s struggle

For quite some time now, we’ve been following the case of Mohammed Hegazy, the 25-year-old Muslim-born Egyptian who filed a case a year ago for his identification card to reflect his conversion to Christianity.

Since the court closed Hegazy’s case in January, ruling that it was against Islamic law for a Muslim to leave Islam, he has been on the run with his wife and young daughter. He and his family have had to move five times in the past eight months due to safety concerns. Militant Muslims, some of them Hegazy's own family members, continue to threaten him with death.

In a recent Compass Direct report, Hegazy says, "The most difficult thing for me is that the lives of my wife and daughter are in danger all the time." I find it especially distressing to think of his daughter, not yet two years old, being already caught up in a religious freedom battle. Hegazy's father, who has threatened to kill his son himself if he doesn’t embrace Islam, has filed for her custody in an attempt to ensure that she is raised Muslim.

Amid his troubles, Hegazy continues to find reasons to hope and rejoice. “Nowadays, the word ‘convert’ is being used in the media here – never before!” he says. “That’s progress.”

I see this progress as but one indication of God’s ever-presentness in the lives of Egyptian Christians facing trials for their faith. Hegazy’s testimony reveals how important it is to remain faithful—even joyful—as the struggle rages on.

And despite how it feels, we can praise the Lord that no fight for righteousness is in fact without end. “I am the Alpha and the Omega," says the Lord God…”

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

The danger of pedestals

One of the dangers that I have noticed in our work with persecuted Christians is the danger of putting these brothers and sisters on a pedestal, bestowing them with special spiritual fervour, maturity, and grace. We call them spiritual heroes with extreme faith exhibiting extraordinary courage. And certainly this is not without merit on occasion. And perhaps those of us who minister to our persecuted family members are guilty of portraying them in this fashion, even columbus_fallswith the best of intents. But as I have experienced even today, persecuted Christians are prone to the same temptations and failures as those of us who live in religiously free countries. Some persecuted Christians commit adultery, lie, are dishonest, slander other believers, and abandon their faith in the face of violence.

What needs to be emphasized is that Christians, regardless of where they live out their lives, are what they are because of the grace of God and how they respond to it. In 1 Peter 2:19, the apostle stresses that enduring suffering is evidence that God is at work in your life. There is no glory for the sufferer. No hero worship. No merit for those who are able to endure hardship; no boasting of one’s achievements. It is evidence of God’s grace. It is all a work of God, from beginning to end. When people can suffer horrible persecution and endure, it is evidence that God has been at work.

In the same way, he concludes his letter in 5:6, by encouraging these dear believers to, therefore,

"Humble yourselves under the mighty hand of God, so that at the proper time he may exalt you, casting all your anxieties on him, because He cares for you."

As you put your trust in God's grace to sustain you, you realize that you have no reason to fear your oppressor, because He cares for you. How tragic that whenever we desire to be self-sufficient, we end up controlled by our fears. It is impossible to stand up to the pressures of persecution in such a state. Only in a trusting, dependent relationship with Christ, can we be freed from the tyranny of fear and a troubled mind (cf. 3:14). He goes on to write:

"Be sober minded; be watchful. Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour. Resist him, firm in your faith, knowing that the same kinds of suffering are being experienced by your brotherhood throughout the world" (5:8-9).

The example of persecuted Christians has a tremendous pastoral value for those undergoing trials and tribulations of all sorts, including persecution (but not exclusively). Witnessing the grace of God in the lives of others, reminds us that God has not forsaken us. We are reminded that if He can help our brothers and sisters to go through the most horrendous situations and keep them faithful to Himself, He can help us too. As we witness the persecution of the Church around world, we are also reminded of the truth that suffering for Christ is an inseparable part of life for as long as believers live "in the world" that rejects Christ and them. It is not always just the message of Christ that is offensive to the world; at times it is even the mere presence of His followers.

Our calling is to remember who our enemy is and to recognize that our task is not to fight Satan - Christ has already defeated him - but to resist him; to refuse to fear him and his roaring, but to be firm in our trust in God, knowing that He is sustaining others around the world too.

In verse 10 Peter writes "After you have suffered a little while, the God of all grace (there is that word again), who had called you to his eternal glory in Christ, will himself restore, confirm, strengthen and establish you." This is the only place in the New Testament that God is called "the God of all grace." He is the source and giver of all grace; all of His divine power, bestowed on us in great variety, supplying help for every need and occasion. He works for and in us to accomplish His purposes, being unable to do this for ourselves. Having proved Himself to be rich in grace in saving us from sin and its penalty, we can trust Him to supply all of our present needs, and a hope for a glorious future of His eternal glory in Christ.

While God’s people may suffer for a little while now, we know that we have a glorious future. This is our "calling." This is not to minimize the reality of our present sufferings; God offers encouragement in its midst. We are reminded that this world is not all that there is.

In the meantime, the work of grace that God has begun in the lives of His people will not fall short despite the suffering that they must endure. Peter says that God will:

  • Restore them in the areas where they break down and fail,
  • Confirm them, giving them the inflexibility and support needed to withstand the temptations to deny Him without toppling
  • Strengthen them to resist Satan and to endure even to the point of death without collapsing
  • Establish them, giving them a firm foundation so that they will not be swept away. Left to their own unaided strength, they would fall.

Through their suffering God produces a fully restored and confirmed personal character in His people. Though Satan seeks to destroy, God takes his actions and turns them into the means by which He graciously develops His character into the lives of His people. Just as with Christ, there was no glory without His suffering, so it is with His children. Suffering never thwarts God’s purposes. Indeed, God knows no other formula but that of self-sacrifice and self-giving. This is His means of grace in a rebellious and fallen world.

In response to all this, Peter concludes, "To Him be the dominion forever and ever. Amen." To Him, who thus acts on behalf of His persecuted people around the world, to Him and to Him alone, all praise is due. May we never be found to give the persecuted Christians the glory that only belongs to God for their faithfulness and testimonies of courage. As we reflect the image of Christ in our lives, this is, indeed, "the true grace of God" in which we are to stand firm to the end. "To Him be the dominion forever and ever. Amen."

In other words, let's put God on the pedestal.  He won't fall off.

Monday, September 15, 2008

Online comments are now fair game too

gag In what is sure to raise a storm of controversy, Margot Blight, a lawyer for the Canadian Human Rights Commission said today in her final submissions at a hate speech hearing, that anyone who runs an online message board or who allows comments to be posted to their blog could be charged under federal human rights law if visitors to their site post hateful comments.

I am no fan of the CHRC and hate speech laws concern me as they are prone to abuse and tend to undermine two basic premises of the Rule of Law; 1) the shift from the objective (what was expressed) to the subjective (how was it received and/or perceived), and 2) the loss of predictability (laws and the consequences of breaking them should be predictable).

But having said that, I am not uncomfortable with bloggers, in particular, taking control of the comments posted to their blogsites. A couple of months ago, we began moderating all comments on this site.  The primary reason was to cut back on those who use comments as an opportunity to fund raise or drive people to questionable websites.  We also became concerned with the growing problem all bloggers face of links to maleware sites being posted in comments (hence we will no longer allow any comment to be posted that includes a website address).  We also found that there are a few trolls out there who just love to be abusive and bullying on the web and we decided that we had no responsibility to give them a platform.  Hence, we drew up a comments policy for the blog that states, among other things, that we reserve the right to moderate all comments and either approve them or not approve them for any reason without explanation. This is not censorship since we defend your right to fully express your opinion on your own website or blog.

Make no mistake, I detest the idea that bloggers might have to moderate the comments on their website in order to avoid getting into trouble with human rights commissions.  The problem is, the unpredictability and subjectivity of these hate speech laws make it difficult to know just what hate speech is.

Hindu-Christian conflicts?

What I cannot figure out is how even Christian news services can slip into labelling the recent violence in India as "clashes between Hindus and Christians" as CBN did in their recent report. I would expect this kind of politically correct reporting from the International Herald Tribune or AFP, but even most of the Indian media is calling the violence what it is; attacks on Christians by Hindus.  To seek to share the responsibility among both parties (in an attempt to appear unbiased) is misleading and inaccurate reporting.  Yes, the mobs feel justified in their attacks on churches because they believe that Christians are forcibly converting Hindus (which Christians strenuously deny) but conversion is hardly an act of violence.  Maybe it's just the way I understand English, but for a "clash" to take place, don't both sides need to be fighting?  From all reports I am reading (and I have been reading a ton of them over the past three weeks), I have seen only one report where Christians defended themselves using weaponry and in this case, local church leaders condemned the action.

I urge the Christian media, in particular, to resist the pull to re-label this persecution.  Not only is it reporting that misses the point but it inadvertently casts a pall of suspicion on the sufferings of our brothers and sisters.

Thank you from Nigeria

In May 2007, The Voice of the Martyrs announced that we had set up a special memorial fund in honour of Christianah Oluwatoyin Oluwasesin, a Christian teacher at Government Day Secondary School in Gombe state was murdered by her own Muslim students on March 21, 2007. The memorial was designed to fund the establishment of a computer hall at the Stephen Center, a Christian school and orphanage operated by our partners in Nigeria. The funds raised were to furnish the hall with 60 computers and desks.

The hall was officially dedicated a few weeks ago with Christianah's husband and children present.  He recently wrote us:  "On behalf of my children and myself, we wish to thank entire VOMC for this wonderful gesture. Once again we appreciate you all."

The Voice of the Martyrs would like to thank everyone who contributed to this project.  Pray that this computer hall will be used by God to train the children who attend the Stephen Center (many of whom, like Christianah's children, have lost parents to persecution) in skills that they will use to expand God's kingdom in Nigeria.

The following are a couple of pictures from the dedication.  The little girl in the picture is Christianah's daughter.

IMG_1428 IMG_1462

Saturday, September 13, 2008

Hindu militants prepare for further vigilante action

According to VOMC sources, Hindu militants have prepared a list of about 140 Christians whom that they allege were the killers of Swami Laxamananda Saraswat.  The list is apparently being distributed among their supporters in order to identify whom to kill and punish in case the Government fails to take action.

Despite the fact that Maoists have claimed responsibility for the assassination of the Hindu leader, Hindu militants have refused to publicly accept this and have instead used the killing as a pretext to attack and kill Christians with virtual impunity over for almost 3 weeks in Orissa state. 

Please remember the believers in Orissa in your prayers this weekend.

Friday, September 12, 2008

Their blood cries out: Cain and Abel

I recall a discussion I had a few years ago with a well-known leader of a ministry devoted to serving the persecuted church.  When learning of my research into developing a biblical theology of persecution and how I intended to start in the Old Testament before discussing the more familiar passages in the New, he exclaimed, “But there is no teaching on persecution in the Old Testament!”  This is not an uncommon sentiment.  Rarely does the teaching on persecution move beyond New Testament passages that are familiar to many of us.  This is unfortunate and a mistake that Jesus and the apostles did not make.  They understood clearly that what they taught had foundations in the Old Testament writings.

It is interesting to note, for example, that the first case of persecution in the Bible occurs during the first recorded time of formal worship before the Lord as we find the sons of Adam and Eve bringing offerings to the Lord in Genesis 4:2-5. 

We are not told exactly why Cain’s offering was unacceptable to God, while Abel’s pleased him. It is likely that Cain brought simply some samples of his harvest, whereas Abel made certain that what he brought was only the best. Thus Abel gave out of faith and thankfulness, whereas Cain gave only out of duty. 

Likewise, we are not told how God expressed His displeasure with Cain’s offering, but it was obviously done in such a manner that Cain understood and was angry that God should respond that way to his sacrifice. The Lord refused to ignore Cain’s response and, in grace, calls him to repentance in verses 6-7.

cain_and_abel That Cain did not heed God’s call to rule over his anger and instead allowed it to master him is evident. Cain refused to bow the knee before God and he decided to rid himself of his religious opponent, even if it is his own brother. At this point we witness the first incident of religious persecution as Cain rose up and killed Abel (verse 8).

It is obvious that the New Testament views Abel’s death as much more than the result of sibling rivalry or a family squabble that got out of control. Jesus clearly saw Abel’s death as an act of martyrdom (Matthew ), as does the apostle John (1 John ). John explains that Abel’s death was because Cain’s acts were evil and Abel’s were righteous. Abel’s death is clearly set in a context of martyrdom, a result of the conflict between the world and those who belong to God (1 John ).

Not only did persecution begin because of religious intolerance, but it also took place in the home. Just as it divided the first family, loyalty to God continues to cut families asunder, providing stark demonstrations of the cruel reality of the conflict between the seed of the woman and the serpent (Genesis 3:15). Families, as important as they are for our nurture and security, can also be places of terrible violence.

The Lord’s response to Abel’s murder is instructive to us. He says that the voice of Abel’s blood “is crying to me from the ground” (). The word used here for “crying” (sa‘aq) is frequently used in the Old Testament to describe the outcry of the individual or group who are suffering injustice and require intervention on their behalf (John E. Hartley, (sā‘aq) in Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament, Vol. 2. ed. R. Laird Harris, Gleason L. Archer, and Bruce K. Waltke. Moody Press, 1980: 772).  It often refers to God hearing the outcries of the op­pressed because they have been denied justice and are unable to defend themselves from unlawful oppression and exploitation (Paul Marshall, “Human Rights” in Toward an Evangelical Public Policy. ed. Ronald J. Sider and Diane Knippers. Baker Books: 2004: 313). On the use of the word in Genesis 18:20, Gerhard von Rad comments that the word is a technical legal term and designates the cry for help which one who suffers a great injustice screams.

We even know what the cry was, namely, “Foul play!” (hāmās, Jer. 20.8; Hab. 1.2; Job 19.7). With this cry for help (which corresponds to the old German “Zeterruf”), he appeals for the protection of the legal community. What it does not hear or grant, however, comes directly before Yahweh as the guardian of all right (cf. ch. 4.10). Yahweh, therefore, is not concerned with punishing Sodom but rather with an investigation of the case, which is serious, to be sure. The proceeding is hereby opened (Gerhard von Rad, Genesis, A Commentary. Revised edition. SCM Press, 1961: 211).  

Novak observes that it is here that we read of the very first appeal made to God to enforce a human right, in this case the human right to have one's murder avenged. 

Thus God says to Cain immediately after he has murdered his brother Abel, "What you have done! Your brother's blood is crying [tso.aqim] to Me from the ground" (Gen. 4:10). 

In the Cain and Abel story, Abel has a claim upon Cain: Do not kill me! Why? Because God takes personal interest in every human person who has been created in the divine image. In fact, that is very likely what it means to say that all humankind is made to "resemble God" (Gen. 5:1), namely, God and humans are interested in each other insofar as they share some commonality, a commonality not found in God's relations with the rest of creation (David Novak, “God and Human Rights in a Secular Society" in Does Human Rights Need God?  ed. Elizabeth M. Bucar and Barbra Barnett. Eerdmans, 2005: 51).  

God’s justice requires that He punish Cain for the murder of his brother, for such an assault on any other human being is taken to be an assault on God himself. In sentencing him, however, God does not condemn Cain to being a disdained outcast, liable to vigilante justice. This is what Cain fears (4:14). God, in His mercy, places a mark on Cain to protect him too from being wrongfully killed (Genesis 4:8–17). 

Cain had complained that he would be hidden from God’s presence or face and terrified that he would be denied God’s judicial protection. The imagery of God hiding His presence or face is a common one in Scripture, meaning to refuse to notice something and thus avoid responding to it (LeLand Ryken, James C. Wilmot, Tremper Longman III, “Hide, Hiding” in Dictionary of Biblical Imagery. InterVarsity Press, 1998: 383). The Lord’s response is evidence that, even as a murderer, Cain is not beyond God’s mercy and protection. Cain’s life, like Abel’s and all humans’, belongs to God and He will not abandon it. The right to life is protected by God, even for those who do not deserve it.

Criminalizing criticism of Islam

A court in Jordan is prosecuting 12 Europeans in an attempt to silence criticism of Islam beyond its own borders.  Last June, 11 Danes were summoned to appear before the Jordanian public prosecutor to answer charges of blasphemy and threatening the national peace. They include the cartoonist who drew one of the Mohammed cartoons and editors from 10 of the 17 newspapers that reprinted them. The 12th is Dutch parliamentarian Geert Wilders, who is accused of breaking Jordanian law by releasing his film, "Fitna" on the Internet.

This is a worrying development, as Elizabeth Samson notes in her opinion piece in the Wall Street Journal on September 10.

There are strange happenings in the world of international jurisprudence that do not bode well for the future of free speech. In an unprecedented case, a Jordanian court is prosecuting 12 Europeans in an extraterritorial attempt to silence the debate on radical Islam.

The prosecutor general in Amman charged the 12 with blasphemy, demeaning Islam and Muslim feelings, and slandering and insulting the prophet Muhammad in violation of the Jordanian Penal Code. The charges are especially unusual because the alleged violations were not committed on Jordanian soil.

Among the defendants is the Danish cartoonist whose alleged crime was to draw in 2005 one of the Muhammad illustrations that instigators then used to spark Muslim riots around the world. His co-defendants include 10 editors of Danish newspapers that published the images. The 12th accused man is Dutch parliamentarian Geert Wilders, who supposedly broke Jordanian law by releasing on the Web his recent film, "Fitna," which tries to examine how the Quran inspires Islamic terrorism.

Jordan's attempt at criminalizing free speech beyond its own borders wouldn't be so serious if it were an isolated case. Unfortunately, it is part of a larger campaign to use the law and international forums to intimidate critics of militant Islam. For instance, in December the United Nations General Assembly passed the Resolution on Combating Defamation of Religions; the only religion mentioned by name was Islam. While such resolutions aren't legally binding, national governments sometimes cite them as justification for legislation or other actions.

More worrying, the U.N. Human Rights Council in June said it would refrain from condemning human-rights abuses related to "a particular religion." The ban applies to all religions, but it was prompted by Muslim countries that complained about linking Islamic law, Shariah, to such outrages as female genital mutilation and death by stoning for adulterers. This kind of self-censorship could prove dangerous for people suffering abuse, and it follows the council's March decision to have its expert on free speech investigate individuals and the media for negative comments about Islam.

Given this trend, it's worth taking a closer look at the Jordanian case.

The prosecutor is relying on a 2006 amendment to the Jordanian Justice Act that casts a worryingly wide net for such prosecution. Passed in response to the Danish cartoons incident, the law allows the prosecution of individuals whose actions affect the Jordanian people by "electronic means," such as the Internet. The 2006 amendment, in theory, means anyone who publishes on the Internet could be subject to prosecution in Jordan. If the case against the 12 defendants is allowed to go forward, they will be the first but probably not the last Westerners to be hit by Jordan's law.

Amman has already requested that Interpol apprehend Mr. Wilders and the Danes and bring them to stand before its court for an act that is not a crime in their home countries. To the contrary. Dutch prosecutors said in July that although some of Mr. Wilders's statements may be offensive, they are protected under Dutch free-speech legislation. Likewise, Danish law protects the rights of the Danish cartoonists and newspapers to express their views.

Neither Denmark nor the Netherlands will turn over its citizens to Interpol, as the premise of Jordan's extradition request is an affront to the very principles that define democracies. It is thus unlikely that any Western country would do so, either. But there is no guarantee for the defendants' protection if they travel to countries that are more sympathetic to the Jordanian court.

Unless democratic countries stand up to this challenge to free speech, other nations may be emboldened to follow the Jordanian example. Kangaroo courts across the globe will be ready to charge free people with obscure violations of other societies' norms and customs, and send Interpol to bring them to stand trial in frivolous litigation.

A new form of forum shopping would soon take root. Activists would be able to choose countries whose laws and policies are informed by their religious values to prosecute critical voices in other countries. The case before the Jordanian court is not just about Mr. Wilders and the Danes. It is about the subjugation of Western standards of free speech to fear and coercion by foreign courts.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Orissa Christians told to convert or die

The Voice of the Martyrs is continuing to receive numerous reports of forced or attempts to force Christian in Orissa to convert to Hinduism.  According to a report received today by the Evangelical Fellowship of India, Christians hiding in the jungles have been told to either convert to Hinduism or stay in the jungles.  According to EFI, 30 Christian families from Damba Village, 10 families from Patapanga village and 20 families from Tatamaha village in Phulbani have recently been forced to convert to Hinduism. “You can stay in village only if you practice Hinduism, live as Hindu or face death” are the threatening words echoed to the Christians.

30minutesIBN, television station in India, recently produced a documentary on the violence facing Christians in the region.  Click here to view.

Please remember to pray for our brothers and sisters in India during these days.  We would encourage you to express your concerns to:

Dr. Manmohan Singh
Prime Minister of India
Room No. 152,
South Block,
New Delhi, 110001
(O) Tel : +91-11-23012312
(O) Fax: +91-11-23016857

Smt. Pratibha Patil
Hon'ble President of India
Rashtrapati Bhavan
New Delhi, 110001
(O) Tel: +91-11-23017290
(O) Fax: +91-11-23017824
Email: presidentofindia@rb.nic.in

Shri Navin Patnaik
Chief Minister of Orissa
Naveen Nivas,
Aerodrome Road,
Pin-751001 (Orissa)
(O) Tel: +91-0674-2531100, 2535100, 2531500
(O) Fax: +91-0674-2400100 
(R) Tel: +91-0674-2590299, 2591099,2590844,2591100,2590833

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

"I am offended"

easily_offended Proverbs 19:11 says, “Good sense makes one slow to anger, and it is his glory to overlook an offence.”

It is fashionable today to get offended. A recent search on Google of the phrase “I am offended” produced 185,000 results. It’s a powerful statement. Say to someone, “I am offended by what you did” and automatically your problem becomes their problem, regardless of whether the offence was intended or not. It is as if we feel that we have a right not to be offended and we hold the entire world hostage to this expectation.

Christians and non-Christians are equally guilty of this. As the CEO of The Voice of the Martyrs, I hear more than my share of concerns and complaints from those who read our newsletter, website, email news service, or watch our videos. Sometimes what we write and present is offensive to certain people. Some do not appreciate the nature of our ministry and what we stand for and we can make no apology for that. Sometimes we offend people due to carelessness or oversight. Other times, we did not anticipate that something might be taken in a certain way. Many of those who contact us with concerns are godly, well-intentioned people; many give their concerns respectfully and courteously. I value their comments and we are a better organization for having listened to them. Others are less courteous and nothing you say or do will satisfy them. I confess to being especially stymied by those who preface their complaint with, “I found this offensive” or “I was offended by this.” Behind the statement is the expectation that I will admit that they are absolutely right and promise that we will never make this error again. The problem is, sometimes the offence is of such a nature that it would have been difficult or impossible to anticipate; you just can’t always guess what will set someone off.

We need to keep in mind that when a comment seems offensive that it may not have been intentional or aimed specifically at us or our group. We need to consider the context in which things are being said or done. Many times, we may have misunderstood and taken wrongly what the other person intended to communicate. Give the person the benefit of the doubt and avoid jumping to conclusions that automatically assumes the worst or plays into our own fears, insecurities or, alternately, our own convictions and pet peeves.

Tuesday, September 09, 2008

From admiration to enmity

What a difference 11 years make. On September 7, 1997 Mother Teresa of Calcutta passed away. At her death, Indian Christians and Hindus alike joined together in public mourning and remembrance of a life well lived. All agreed that this woman and the Catholic order she had founded had made a significant impact of the lives of the poor and should be honoured for it.

Eleven years later, the legacy of Mother Teresa continues but it is no longer honoured. On September 7, 2008 four members of Mother Teresa's Missionaries of Charity order were attacked by 20 Bajrang Dal activists at the Durgh train station in Chhattisgarh, a state in central India. The two nuns and two helpers were forced off the train and handed them over to police officers by the mob who chanted anti-Christian slogans. They were accused of the "kidnapping and forced conversion" of four babies between one and two years old whom they were transporting (with proper documentation) from Raipur to the Shishu Bhava charity center in Bhopal. The nuns were detained overnight and the babies taken from them and put into a government hospital. At last report, the children have still not be returned to the sisters.

This is only one example of the growing hostility among Hindus towards Christians throughout India.

Friday, September 05, 2008

UK documentary team goes undercover into British mosques

In 2007, a UK documentary team investigated the extent of militant Islamic teaching in UK mosques. What they discovered was shocking.

A year and a half later, Dispatches went undercover again to see if what they discovered still holds true.  This program was aired on September 1 on Channel 4 (because of the length, it is divided into 5 parts)

Video 1

Video 2

Video 3

Video 4

Video 5

Reports from Reuters on the riots in Orissa

Some have been asking if the secular press has been covering the recent attacks on Christians in Orissa, India. The following are a couple of news reports from Reuters. 

Wednesday, September 03, 2008

Destruction of Bethel Orphanage in Orissa, India

The following is a slideshow (click on picture to view) of the destruction of the orphanage run by the Bethel Association in Muniguda, Orissa, India on August 26, 2008. The rooms in both houses are burned except the office room and all the property has been destroyed. Some of the children are still missing. The mission was home to 150 children, many of them from families who have suffered persecution for their faith.

From Orissa

Monday, September 01, 2008

Hindus refuse to believe that Christians did not kill Hindu leader; attacks continue

Orphanage burned Even though a Maoist group has claimed responsibility for killing World Hindu Council (VHP) leader Swami Laxmanananda Saraswati and four of his disciples in Orissa state on August 23, his followers are determined to blame Christians for the killing. Saraswati was a rabidly anti-Christian agitator and his followers are following his example by rejecting claims by the Maoists to have killed him, continuing to insist that “militant Christians” were responsible, thereby justifying their week-long campaign of terror. At least 36 people (most of them Christians) have died in the violence and hundreds of churches and homes have been destroyed. At least two Christian orphanages have been burned to the ground.

Please continue to uphold the believers in Orissa in prayer during these days. Thousands have been displaced and many have fled to relief camps. There are also reports coming out of Hindus raiding Christian villages and being threatened with violence if they do not convert to Hinduism immediately.