Monday, August 31, 2009

South Korea looking to ban missionary work in the Middle East

After receiving complaints from Middle Eastern countries about the evangelistic efforts of its citizens, South Korea is considering banning missionary work in the Middle East “because of safety concerns.”  Surprising, you think?  Perhaps not.

afghanistan_skorea_missionsFor those following our “This week in persecuted church history” blog, you may have noticed that it was two years ago on August 30th that the last of the 23 South Korean hostages abducted by the Taliban in Afghanistan are released.  Kidnapped on July 19, 2007 because of their missionary activities, two were killed and the rest held by the Taliban until the South Korean government reportedly agreed to follow through on their plans to withdraw their troops from Afghanistan by the end of 2007 and to prevent South Koreans from engaging in missionary activity in Afghanistan.Eom Young-Sun

In May, Eom Young-sun (33) working with Dutch-based World Wide Services was  shot dead after being kidnapped with eight other Christians in Yemen.

According to the Korea Times, in the past two months, the South Korean foreign ministry has said that about 80 South Korean Christians have been expelled from Middle Eastern countries, including Iran, Jordan and Yemen, because of their evangelism efforts.  Last month, 12 South Koreans faced deportation for engaging in door-to-door missionary work in Zehedan in south-eastern Iran. Six of them had apparently already been expelled for the same reason from the area. The Iranian government reportedly complained to the South Korean government about the Koreans being allowed to travel to Iran for such purposes.

In 2007, after the South Korean government withdrew missionaries from Afghanistan and prevented others from serving there, we at The Voice of the Martyrs expressed our concerns over the decision.  At the time we said:

Make no mistake, this decision to withdraw missionaries from Afghanistan and to prevent others from going there is a violation of religious freedom. It is telling Korean Christians, 'You can obey Christ's commission but not in Afghanistan.' This no government has the right to do, even in the name of protecting their citizens.

I remember being concerned at the time that we would probably not see the end of this.

In light of the incidents mentioned above, I guess we should not be surprised to learn that that the South Korean government is now seeking to expand this ban to include all of the Middle East “because of safety concerns.”  According to The Korean Times:

“Some people do mission work in the Middle East. So, we are trying to stop them from entering that region,” an official at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade told The Korea Times, asking to remain anonymous.

Among the detailed measures is to put restrictions on the usage of passports and on departures from the nation for those who have been expelled for evangelization attempts.

But missionary groups could face an even bigger hurdle as their members could be prohibited from entering Middle Eastern countries even if they have no records of expulsion.

“Some organizations keep sending their members to dangerous areas for missionary work. We’ve received requests from other countries to have them refrain from doing this,” the official said.

The government plans to make a decision on the matter soon after consultations between related government agencies such as the Ministry of Justice and the National Intelligence Service.

This is not to say that there is not a case to be made that some of the activities of some of these groups are less than wise.  Frankly, I am troubled by the lack of wisdom and cross-cultural sensitivity demonstrated by the antics of short-term “missionaries” from a number of countries, including South Korea, that I have witnessed over the years.  Anyone who does door-to-door evangelism in Iran, for example, is only looking for trouble. There was no evidence, however, that the 23 who were kidnapped in 2007 or Eom Young-sun demonstrated such lack of discretion.

But that really doesn’t seem to be the issue here.  The South Korean government is responding to pressure from Islamic countries to keep their people from entering their countries for missionary purposes.  This, the South Korean government has no right to do, even under the pretext of protecting its citizens.

Echoing our concerns from 2007, The Voice of the Martyrs urges the South Korean government to refrain from interfering, even with the best intentions, in the rights of its citizens to carry out their faith even in dangerous environments.

We also urge Christians in free nations to recognize that there are risks in taking the gospel to many parts of the world and to accept the consequences of their obedience. This is biblical Christianity at work and we should not be surprised by it. God does not lead us only to safe places. (see our blog, Is it safe to follow Jesus?)

We also call upon mission and church leaders to better plan short-term ministry trips and prepare participants in ways and means of doing evangelism in religiously hostile environments that are in line with the biblical admonition to be as wise as serpents and as innocent as doves (Matthew 10:16).

Sunday, August 30, 2009

This week in persecuted church history (August 30 – September 5)

Consider the outcome of their way of life, and imitate their faith.
Hebrews 13:7b (ESV)

vietnam_quang_release August 30, 2005: After considerable international advocacy and prayer, Pastor Nguyen Hong Quang was released from prison in Vietnam.

August 30, 2007: The last of the Korean hostages held by the Taliban in Afghanistan are released.

August 31, 1535: Pope Paul II excommunicates English King Henry VIII, who had been declared by an earlier pope as "Most Christian King" and "Defender of the Faith" bunyan

August 31, 1688: English Puritan writer and preacher John Bunyan, author of Pilgrim's Progress, dies at age 69.

September 1, 256: North African bishops vote unanimously that Christians who had lapsed under persecution must be rebaptized upon reentering the church. The vote led to a battle between Cyprian, one of the North African bishops, and Stephen, bishop of Rome, who disagreed with the vote. Cyprian yielded, precipitating a longstanding argument for the Roman bishop's supremacy in the early church.

September 1, 1836: Missionaries Marcus Whitman and H.H. Spalding and their wives reach what is now Walla Walla, Washington. The first white settlers in the Pacific Northwest, Whitman, his wife, and 12 others were killed at their mission by Native Americans in 1847. News of their massacre was largely responsible for Congress's organizing the Oregon Territory in 1848.

indonesia_court_protestors September 1, 2005: On September 1, an Indonesian court sentences three Indonesian women, Rebekka Zakaria, Eti Pangesti and Ratna Bangunto , to three-year sentences for allegedly attempting to convert Muslim children to Christianity.  Throughout the trial, Islamic militants had threatened the lives of the women, Christian leaders and even the judges if there was not a conviction.

September 3, 1670:  Quakers William Penn and William Mead, arrested on August 14, 1670 for daring to preach in public, are brought to trial, accused of creating a riot.  When the jury refused to convict them apart from the “crime” of preaching, the court threatened them with imprisonment and violence and were locked up without food, water or a chamber pot. When this did not bring the jurors to heel, they were sent to prison. Eight of them paid fines to gain immediate released. The remaining four remained in prison and filed a lawsuit. Meanwhile, Penn and Mead were released. Finally England's high court ruled in the jurors' favour and that juries could not be coerced. The four jurors, inspired by the two devout Quakers, had stood firm and thereby helped secure important freedoms.

September 4, 2005: The homes of at least fourteen Christian families in the village of Taybeh, northeast of Ramallah, Palestine, are torched by Muslims from the neighbouring village of Dir Jarir. The violence was instigated by the death of a Muslim woman who was killed by relatives after they suspected that she had been involved in a romantic relationship with a Christian man.  When the family found out, they forced her to drink poison and then buried her without notifying the authorities.  When the Palestinian Authority decided to investigate and planned to exhume the body, the family feared the relationship would be discovered.  The attack was reportedly to avenge what they considered the dishonouring of the Muslim woman.

September 4, 2005: Eritrean police arrest a Christian couple as they are getting married, dragging them and eighteen of the guests away to prison.

whipSeptember 5, 1651: Obadiah Holmes, who had been arrested for preaching Baptist doctrine, is given 30 lashes with a three-corded whip in Boston Commons. During the beating, he was so filled with divine joy that he told the magistrates, "You have struck me with roses." His punishment occasioned the conversion of Henry Dunster, president of Harvard, to the Baptists, and led to the founding of Boston's first Baptist church.

September 5, 1981: Coptic Leader Shenouda III is deposed and sent into exile to a monastery in Western Egypt by Egyptian president Anwar Sadat for protesting the release of Muslims accused of killing Christians during a brutal attack where Christians were burned in their homes and babies were thrown from the windows of homes.

September 5, 2007: Nigsti Haile (33) is tortured to death by Eritrean authorities in the Wi’a Military Training center in Massawa for refusing to sign a letter recanting her faith.

(sources: Christianity Today, Glimpses of Church History, The Voice of the Martyrs)

Prayer: “Grant that we, who now remember these before thee, may likewise so bear witness unto thee in this world, that we may receive with them the crown of glory that fadeth not away; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who with thee and the Holy Spirit liveth and reigneth, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.” – taken from The Book of Common Prayer, Canada (1962)

Saturday, August 29, 2009

The martyrdom of John the Baptist

caravaggio_beheading
Today is the day that church tradition, since the fifth century, has marked as the day that John the Baptist was killed in A.D. 29.  The following devotional is taken from Saint of the Day (5th Revised Edition): Lives, Lessons and Feasts by Leonard Foley and revised by Pat McCloskey (page 227). I hope you find it as meaningful as I did this afternoon.

The drunken oath of a king with a shallow sense of honor, a seductive dance and the hateful heart of a queen combined to bring about the martyrdom of John the Baptist. The greatest of prophets suffered the fate of so many Old Testament prophets before him: rejection and martyrdom. The “voice crying in the desert” did not hesitate to accuse the guilty, did not hesitate to speak the truth. But why? What possesses a man that he would give up his very life?

This great religious reformer was sent by God to prepare the people for the Messiah. His vocation was one of selfless giving. The only power that he claimed was the Spirit of Yahweh. “I am baptizing you with water, for repentance, but the one who is coming after me is mightier than I. I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire” (Matthew 3:11). Scripture tells us that many people followed John looking to him for hope, perhaps in anticipation of some great messianic power. John never allowed himself the false honor of receiving these people for his own glory. He knew his calling was one of preparation. When the time came, he led his disciples to Jesus: “The next day John was there again with two of his disciples, and as he watched Jesus walk by, he said, ‘Behold, the Lamb of God.’ The two disciples heard what he said and followed Jesus” (John 1:35-37). It is John the Baptist who has pointed the way to Christ. John’s life and death were a giving over of self for God and other people. His simple style of life was one of complete detachment from earthly possessions. His heart was centered on God and the call that he heard from the Spirit of God speaking to his heart. Confident of God’s grace, he had the courage to speak words of condemnation or repentance, of salvation.

Comment:
Each of us has a calling to which we must listen. No one will ever repeat the mission of John, and yet all of us are called to that very mission. It is the role of the Christian to witness to Jesus. Whatever our position in this world, we are called to be disciples of Christ. By our words and deeds others should realize that we live in the joy of knowing that Jesus is Lord. We do not have to depend upon our own limited resources, but can draw strength from the vastness of Christ’s saving grace.

Quote:
“So they came to John and said to him, ‘Rabbi, the one who was with you across the Jordan, to whom you testified, here he is baptizing and everyone is coming to him.’ John answered and said, ‘No one can receive anything except what has been given him from heaven. You yourselves can testify that I said [that] I am not the Messiah, but that I was sent before him. The one who has the bride is the bridegroom; the best man, who stands and listens for him, rejoices greatly at the bridegroom’s voice. So this joy of mine has been made complete. He must increase; I must decrease’” (John 3:26–30).

Friday, August 28, 2009

Famous last words: Leopold Schneider (1528)

Leopold Schneider was beheaded as a pious witness of the suffering of Christ in Augsburg in 1528. He left the following admonition for the comfort and instruction of others:

"My God, I will praise Thee in my last hour; Thee who .art high above in heaven, I will praise Thee with heart and mouth, for Thou art worthy of it; strengthen my faith (Luke 17:5), now that I must go on this pilgrimage of suffering; remember me in mercy in the severe conflict. I commend my spirit into Thy hands (Luke 23:46); in Thee I rejoice. Christ, help me to stand in my sufferings. Heavenly Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do. Because I cannot forsake Thy Word, I am hated, and they seek to separate my body from the soul. Therefore I call upon Thee, O God, for gracious help; I trust in Thee, for I have no other comforter. That which is so clearly written, Mark 16:16; 'He that believeth and is baptized shall be saved," can certainly not be contradicted by any one; hence it is to be heeded. O ye blind, why are you troubled and grieved because the command of Christ is observed? acquaint yourselves With the holy Scriptures, and you will find what Christ the Son of God has commanded us to do. I beseech you all, beloved brethren and sisters, that you would firmly trust in God, and let not my bitter death grieve you; 'for God will richly reward it; we must once take our leave of this vale of 'sorrow. The Scripture clearly declares, that he who would have laughing and joy here, shall hereafter mourn and weep: Luke 6:25; we must suffer here with patience; the Lord grant that it be done innocently. He that would here bring his gift to the altar; and remembers that his brother has aught against him, must leave his gift at the altar, and first go and be reconciled to his brother, and then come and offer his gift. Matt. 5:23, 24. Therefore, I beseech Thee, O God, graciously to forgive those who put me to death. I commend my spirit and soul into Thy hand, O God; deliver me out of all my distresses, and never turn away from me; deprive my flesh of all its power, that I may overcome and be victorious in Thee. Amen." Rev. 2:11.

(Source: Martyrs Mirror page 426)

Thursday, August 27, 2009

"Are you taking Bible verses out of context?"

biblehands “Context, context, context” is what one of my professors said many times during my three years at Bible College. He warned the class that if he ever heard one of us preaching and taking the passages out of context we would be in big trouble! In the twenty years that have passed since I graduated I’ve tried to always remember the context of the scriptures I’m teaching and preaching from. Who wrote it? Who is the intended audience? Why was it written?

In my almost ten years of involvement with The Voice of the Martyrs Canada, I often remind the churches I have spoken at in Canada that much of the New Testament was written by persecuted Christians to persecuted Christians. Think about the letters of Paul, Peter and John. Jesus also spent a lot of time teaching his followers about what they would face by preaching His message. He promised that they would suffer for following Him!

So why don’t we hear more about suffering for righteousness sake during our Sunday morning services, or from our favorite radio or TV preacher if it is one of the main themes of the New Testament?

Let me suggest that perhaps because most Christians in the West have little or no experience with persecution it affects our ability to deal properly with the passages that speak about persecution when we read them and especially when we are trying to preach on them from the pulpit in some sort of relevant way. As our CEO Glenn Penner says, in our pursuit of relevance, we end up being less than accurate in how we handle the Word of God.

Here is just one example of what I am talking about. When Peter wrote to the Christians who had been scattered throughout much of Asia Minor due to persecution, he encouraged them to stand strong in their faith in the face of the persecution that was the consequence of their decision to follow Jesus. He wrote: “In this you greatly rejoice, though now for a little while, you may have had to suffer grief in all kinds of trials. These have come so that your faith - of greater worth than gold, which perishes even though refined by fire – may prove to be genuine and may result in praise, even glory and honour when Jesus Christ is revealed “(1 Peter 1: 6, 7).

In most sermons I’ve heard on this passage, it is used to exhort believers to stand firm in their faith in all of life’s problems and difficulties such as sickness, financial crises, family issues, and the like. While I understand why preachers in a society where there isn’t intense persecution would use those verses that way, it is not, however, their original context or meaning. In the context, the passage referred specifically to suffering for being a Christian. In fact, the context of most of the verses that address suffering in the New Testament is one of suffering not because of sin or because we live in a fallen world but because of righteousness.

Like most Christians in Canada, I’ve never faced the level of persecution of those we serve as a mission. I’ve never even lost of a job or been held back from a promotion because of my faith in Christ. That does not, however, give us the liberty to misapply the passages that deal with suffering in the New Testament.

"Ain al-Rumaneh is Christian. Keep the $%#@ out."

Yesterday morning as I was getting a blood transfusion (a ritual I have go through almost weekly now, in my continuing battle with leukemia), I happened upon a recent copy of National Geographic. Besides the surprising fact that it was less than two months old (I once found a copy in the same cancer clinic that dated back to 1975), I was also intrigued to find that it featured a report on the plight facing Christians in the Middle East entitled The Forgotten Faithful.

I have read better articles on the subject, I have to admit. I have also read worse. But any coverage that Christians in this region can receive is welcome, especially from a publication of this calibre.

Well, almost…

What I found most unsettling in this article was the interview that the author did with a Moronite Christian in Beirut named Milad. As the author admits, “Maronite Christians are not usually thought of as candidates for sainthood.” Their historical propensity to seek to resolve issues through violence is unfortunate at best.

Milad, according to the author, is a genial, middle-aged tile contractor who serves as a foot soldier in the Lebanese Forces (LF), a powerful Maronite political party.

From the balcony of his bullet-riddled fifth-floor apartment in east Beirut, Milad has a clear shot at the sprawling Shiite neighborhoods that lie just beyond a busy thoroughfare marking the "red line" between Christian territory and that of the Shiite militias fighting for Hezbollah and its ally, Amal. "It's kind of like living in a shooting gallery," he says, laughing.

Quite apart from whether it is appropriate for Christians to serve in the military (which I have no personal problem with), the way in which Milad and his colleagues have gone about “defending the faith” is contrary to scriptural teaching. Jesus’ words on non-violence are specifically written in the context of suffering because one is a follower of His.

I sympathize with Milad’s situation. But I think it was this paragraph that made me feel so very sad for the cause of Christ.

Milad's neighborhood, Ain al-Rumaneh, is a tough place, full of bullet-pocked apartment buildings and small shops. Every flat surface, it seems, is branded with the symbol of the Lebanese Forces, a cross with its base sliced off at an angle, like a sword. After recent clashes with Shiites, Milad and his buddies raised a 15-foot wooden cross on the sidewalk and plastered a plywood wall behind it with huge posters of Jesus. Then they installed floodlights so that Hezbollah fighters across the road would get the following message 24 hours a day: "Ain al-Rumaneh is Christian. Keep the hell out."

Please pray for the Christians of the Middle East. Their plight is not unique in that the temptation to resort to violence is not uncommon for Christians in other parts of the world as well. Pray that the Prince of Peace will reign in their hearts and that they will resist their oppressor through actively refusing to resort to the same tactics of force and intimidation as their persecutors practice, declaring through their word and actions that they will not stoop to such levels of inhumanity. Instead pray that they will put their trust in God. After, victory is not something that a Christian wins; it is something he receives from God.

I would invite you to write a specific prayer for the Christians of the Middle East and post it on our Persecuted Church Prayer Wall.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Pakistan’s police as an instrument of injustice in Gojra

Having been rebuked by their own government for their inactivity and complicity in the violence of in late July and early August in Gojra, it is obvious that Pakistani police have not only learned nothing but are either deliberately snubbing their noses at their superiors or knew all along the rebukes were intended more for the international audience than the domestic one (I’ll leave it to you to decide which is more likely).

On August 10, the police in Gojra arrested Tariq Mehmood, a Muslim human rights activist who had the courage to expose and criticize the Gojra attacks. He was subsequently charged under Pakistan’s Anti-Terrorist Act. That political wrangling is also involved in his arrest is likely, given his position as general secretary of the Labour Party Pakistan.  But talk about no good deed going unpunished!

Now we learn that police in Gojra have filed reports against 29 Christians and 100 unidentified persons for alleged involvement in the Gojra violence, including Anglican Bishop John Samuel of the Church of Pakistan in Faisalabad. As has been noted by others, it is quite possible the government is planning to use Christian  “hostages” as leverage to force Christian leaders into reconciliation agreements that would include dropping charges against Muslims. 

Such actions also help authorities to relabel the violence as “communal riots” rather than “attacks” if Christians can be seen to, at the very least, share some of the responsibility. This will assist in undermining the case against those who were truly responsible. As Nadeem F. Paracha, cultural critic and senior columnist for the Pakistan-based Dawn newspaper rightly wrote, however, “A riot is when an agitated group or mass of people clash with the police, or with another mass of agitated men and women. It is not a riot when an agitated group of people attack the homes and lives of men, women and children who are not as well armed as the attacking group, or whose best defense in this respect is to flee the scene.”

Sadly, despite the initial glimmers of hope that some degree of justice might have been pursued by Pakistan’s government on behalf of those whose lives were so brutalized by their own neighbours, it is apparent that authorities in Gojra have no intent in seeing their fellow Muslims in jail merely for attacking Christians, an act that that they obviously continue to see as being justified.  Once again, the rule of law fails in Pakistan as those who rule decide that they are not subject to the law but stand above it. Rather than being serving their God-given role as upholders and instruments of justice (Romans 13:1-5), Pakistan’s police in Gojra serving to thwart it.

A call for a quiet calm for conservatives

Know this, my beloved brothers: let every person be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger;  for the anger of man does not produce the righteousness that God requires.  James 1:19-20 (ESV) 

I have to admit that I have been struggling over the past week with not getting terribly discouraged by all of the anger that I see expressed by conservative Christians in both Canada and the United States against liberals, Democrats, and anyone else that they see as contrary to conservative values.  The diatribe of abuse that I see hurled in 140 characters over Twitter, expressed in press releases or email updates and published on blogs as been enough to make me feel like retreating lately. Not only am I embarrassed  by some of the over-the-top accusations and insinuations being spewed forth publicly but I am ashamed.  We as conservatives seem to have to abandoned the attempt to express our concerns in a civil, logical manner that says what we know to be true and resists saying what are only rumours, slander, or conspiratorial innuendos that are patched together to fit the agenda we are trying to promote.  We seem to think that with our loud noise that we deserve to be heard. No, I say.  We only deserve to be listened to if what we say is demonstrably true and free of malice.

We have forgotten the words of James; of being quick to hear, slow to speak, and slow to anger. We think that our anger really will accomplish God’s purposes.  We are so wrong! 

Please, let’s bring back an intelligent conservativism instead of this bombastic, fear mongering anti-intellectualism that seems to be gaining traction in conservative circles.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Mark your calendar! International Day of Prayer for the Persecuted Church

"But we have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us. We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed" (2 Corinthians 4:7-9).

idop_09_ad Every November, Christians around the world join together in prayer to remember our Christian brothers and sisters suffering persecution simply because they confess Jesus Christ as Lord.

In the traditional church calendar, the month of November is marked by "All Saints Day" and "All Souls Day." These days were set apart to remember the saints of the church and the souls of those who have departed this world. In recent years, the modern church has also set apart the month of November to remember and pray for suffering believers through The International Day of Prayer for the Persecuted Church (IDOP) -- an initiative of the Religious Liberty Commission of the World Evangelical Alliance.

There are many countries around the world where Christians are martyred for their faith. Last August, the world watched in horror the unbridled violence unleashed upon Christians in Orissa state, India. In countries like North Korea, acts of persecution take place daily, but we often don't see or hear of it. Brother Andrew of Open Doors once said, "Our heroes are not with us simply because they are in prison."

This November, join with thousands of Christians worldwide in prayer for the Persecuted Church. Mark your calendars, inform your churches, and tell your friends about this unique opportunity to pray for your persecuted Christian family and remind suffering believers that they are neither forgotten nor abandoned. We would encourage you to post a prayer for the brothers and sisters mentioned in this story on our Persecuted Church Prayer Wall.

To find out more about IDOP 2009 and special resources designed to help you get involved, please visit the IDOP-international website. In Canada, click here.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

This week in persecuted church history (August 23-29)

Consider the outcome of their way of life, and imitate their faith.
Hebrews 13:7b (ESV)

August 23, 2008: Pedro Gomez Diaz , his wife Marcela and their oldest son, Rene are hacked to death in the community of Jolitontic, Chiapas, Mexico by a neighbour who blames them, as evangelicals, for the illness of his daughter. Six of the other Diaz children are seriously wounded.

orissa August 23, 2008: World Hindu Council (VHP) leader Swami Laxmanananda Saraswati is assassinated by Maoist rebels.  Hindus, however, blame Christians for the killing and a wave of attacks and killings begin in Orissa that last for several weeks and spreads to other parts of India. Many are killed and injured and thousands are made refugees.

August 24, 410: Alaric and the Goths sack Rome. Pagans blamed pacifist Christians and their God for the defeat. Augustine, in his massive City of God, repudiated this claim and blamed Rome's corruption instead.

August 24, 1572: Catherine de Medici sends her son, young King Charles IX of France, into a panic with threats of an imminent Huguenot (French Protestant) insurrection. Frenzied, he yelled, "Kill them all! Kill them all!" In response, Catholics in Paris butchered the Huguenots who had come to the city for a royal wedding. Between 5,000 and 10,000 Protestants died in the St. Bartholomew's Day Massacre.

August 24, 1662: The deadline arrives for all British ministers to publicly assent to the Book of Common Prayer (BCP). The Act of Uniformity, passed on May 19, 1662, also required the BCP to be used exclusively from this date forward. The act remains on Britain's Statute Book, though it has been modified over the years.

china_xie_shiguang August 25, 2005: Monsignor Xie Shiguang, the bishop of Mingdong, dies of leukemia at the age of 88.  Between 1955 and 1992, Xie had spent a total of twenty-eight years in prison because of his work with the underground Catholic Church.  From the time of his release until his death, he was under constant police surveillance.

August 25, 1560: Led by John Knox, the reformed Church of Scotland is established on Protestant lines. The Scottish parliament accepts the Calvinistic Scots Confession, forbids the mass, and declares the pope has no jurisdiction in Scotland.

viret August 27, 1565: Pierre Viret was ordered out of France because of his doctrinal teachings, even though he was known for his compassionate and love for those with whom he disagreed. A few years later, Viret and eleven other ministers were captured by the Catholics. Seven were executed. Pierre, however, was allowed to live because the commander had heard so much good about him from other Catholics.

August 27, 1660: Charles II, newly restored to the throne, orders the works of poet John Milton (who supported the Parliament) to be burned by royal decree. Milton though imprisoned for a short while, continues work on his masterpiece, Paradise Lost.

August 27, 1727: Count Nicolaus von Zinzendorf's Moravian community at Herrnhut, Germany, begins a round-the-clock "prayer chain." Reportedly, at least one person in the community was praying every minute of the day—for more than a century.

india_thoomkuzhy August 28, 2004: While praying before Mass at Our Lady of Grace Church in Thururhiparambu, Kerela state, India, 71-year-old Father Job Chittilappilly is stabbed in the back and killed. Father Chittilappilly had been facing threats from Hindu militants because a number of Hindus were beginning to attend services at the church and had removed their Hindu idols from their homes.

August 28, 2007: An agreement is announced that the remaining Christian missionaries who are being held hostage by the Taliban since July 19 will be afghanistan_skorea_missionsreleased. By the following morning, at least twelve of the hostages had already been released. In exchange for the release of their citizens, South Korea reportedly agreed to follow through on their plans to withdraw their troops from Afghanistan by the end of the year. The officials also agreed to prevent South Koreans from engaging in missionary activity in Afghanistan. Since South Korea was already planning to withdraw their troops by the end of 2007, the deal indicates the kidnapping may have been more religiously-motivated than originally reported.

August 29, 29: Since the fifth century, tradition has this as the date for the beheading of John the Baptist.

(sources: Christianity Today, Glimpses of Church History, The Voice of the Martyrs)

Prayer: “Grant that we, who now remember these before thee, may likewise so bear witness unto thee in this world, that we may receive with them the crown of glory that fadeth not away; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who with thee and the Holy Spirit liveth and reigneth, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.” – taken from The Book of Common Prayer, Canada (1962)

Friday, August 21, 2009

Famous last words: Julius (A.D. 235)

max_thrax Gaius Julius Verus Maximinus was the Roman Emperor from 235 to 238.  The first non-Roman to become emperor, he initiated a persecution in 235 specifically targeting the leaders of the Church.  Among those he tried and condemned was the elderly Julius.  Here is an account of Julius’ trial:

MAXIMUS: Julius, I see that you are a sensible and serious man. Take my advice therefore, and sacrifice to the gods.

JULIUS: I will not do as you desire, nor run into sin and eternal punishment.

MAXIMUS: If you think that sin, let it be laid to my charge. I will apply force to you, that it may not look as if you had complied willingly. Then you can go home with no further anxiety.

The offer was all the more seductive because it was so kindly intended; but Julius saw behind the indulgent governor the evil power which spoke through him.

JULIUS: You cannot draw me away from my eternal Lord. I cannot deny God. Give sentence against me, therefore, as a Christian.

MAXIMUS: Unless you will be obedient to the imperial orders and sacrifice I will cut your head off.

JULIUS: That is a good thought. I beseech you, religious governor, by the health of the emperors, to put it in execution, and give sentence upon me, that my desires may be fulfilled.

MAXIMUS: You are in such a hurry to die. You think that you will suffer for some praiseworthy object.

JULIUS: If I am permitted to suffer in this way everlasting glory will await me.

MAXIMUS: If you were suffering for your country and for the laws you would have everlasting praise.

JULIUS: It is indeed for the laws that I shall suffer, but the laws are God's laws.

MAXIMUS: Laws which are bequeathed to you by a dead man who was crucified. See what a fool you are, to make more of a dead man than of the live emperors.

JULIUS: He died for our sins that he might bestow on us eternal life, but he is God who endures for ever, and whoever confesses him shall have eternal life, and whoever denies him eternal punishment.

MAXIMUS: I am sorry for you and I advise you to sacrifice and live with us.

JULIUS: If I live with you it is death to me, but if I die, I live.

MAXIMUS: You have chosen death rather than life.

JULIUS: I have chosen death for the moment and then life everlasting.

The following sentence was then pronounced: "Julius, who refuses to obey the orders of the emperors, is to receive capital punishment."

Julius was taken out to be executed. His last words were, "0 Lord Jesus Christ, for whose name's sake I suffer thus, vouchsafe to set my spirit among thy saints." He was then beheaded.

(Source: A. J. Mason, The Historic Martyrs of the Primitive Church, Longmans, 1905, pp 218-219).

Overwhelmed by the need

The longer I have been involved in this ministry, the less I am inclined to use statistics.  I made that fairly clear in an earlier blog this spring, which I would encourage you to read.  The fact is, many of the statistics that are thrown around in religious liberty circles are difficult, if not impossible, to verify with confidence.  This is not to deny to to minimize the extent of the problem. I am still absolutely convinced that religious persecution is the leading human rights abuse in today’s world.  But I would rather that we, as an organization, say what we know to be true rather than to have our staff or volunteers quote statistics that are impossible to verify with greater certainty.

I did mention last spring that If statistics play any role, they tend to be in capturing the attention of the hearer/reader.  One of our volunteers suggested that it has helps people see the magnitude of the problem. But, I noted, it often ends there too, as the large numbers tend to overwhelm, leaving one with a sense of hopelessness in actually being able to make a difference.

Recent studies seem to show just how true this is, suggesting that when we seek to overwhelm people with shocking statistics related to our cause, the only result is that people become overwhelmed. Eric Foley, my friend and colleague, address this in his recent blog, “The more who die, the less we care” citing a July 8 op-ed column  in the New York Times by Nicholas Kristof. Kristof points to studies that show that the larger the problem was perceived, the less inclined people were to help. 

There’s growing evidence that jumping up and down about millions of lives at stake can even be counterproductive. A number of studies have found that we are much more willing to donate to one needy person than to several. In one experiment, researchers solicited donations for a $300,000 fund that in one version would save the life of one child, and in another the lives of eight children. People contributed more when the fund would save only one life.

Richard Wurmbrand knew this instinctively, I think. From the very beginning, our monthly newsletter has focused on telling the stories of the individuals who are persecuted rather than focusing on the masses.  As a ministry, we need to make meaningful connections between Christians in Canada and those worldwide suffering violent persecution;  putting a face on the figures, a story on the statistics, and a individual voice to the demographics. Only then, rather than having averting their eyes and hurrying away in the face of such overwhelming need, will people perhaps pause and realize that persecution impacts individuals lives that are not all that dissimilar to their own.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Blind to true suffering

One of the things that we have noticed throughout our 40 years of ministry is the hesitation or neglect by some Christians or churches of certain political or theological persuasions to come to the aid of their persecuted brethren worldwide. During the Cold War, persecution in communist countries was even denied and communist sympathizers supported and hailed by those from the political and theological left.  We find that the same continues today, but now it is Islamist-motivate persecution that is either ignored or denied. Or, astonishingly, the Christians who are being persecuted are blamed for bringing the troubles upon themselves through their evangelistic actions. 

Lorne Gunter in his opinion piece Blind to true suffering in today’s National Post brings this clearly in focus as he suggests, concerning the recent national conference of the United Church of Canada, “If Christians or Jews were alleged to have carried out such barbarism, the social justice councils of the United Church would undoubtedly have condemned them. Why then so silent when the victims are fellow Christians and their murderers Muslims?” Below is the full text of this excellent article. 

Blind to true suffering

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Lorne Gunter,  National Post 

On June 16, North Korean Christian Ri Hyon-ok was publicly executed for the crime of distributing Bibles. As her parents, husband and children were forced to look on, the 33-year-old mother was shot in front of a crowd in the northwestern city of Ryongchon. Her grieving and distraught family were then packed off to a prison camp.

Curiously, the United Church of Canada (UCC) -- a nominally Christian organization -- failed even to mention the Pyongyang regime's systematic persecution of its co-religionists, including the murder of Ms. Ri, during its national conference last week. Instead, the UCC devoted hours to discussing of alleged crimes by the Jewish state of Israel against Palestinians.

Last month, a Muslim mob in the northeastern Pakistan town of Gorja heard rumours that a Koran had been defaced during a Christian wedding ceremony. Officials investigating that subsequent riots could find no evidence of such a blasphemy, but that did not stop a mob of thousands of Muslims from burning more than 50 homes and a church in the Christian section of Gorja. At least 14 Christians were killed in the rampage, including one woman and three children who were burned alive in their homes.

Did the UCC pass a resolution (or even just introduce one) condemning such medieval attitudes and behaviours? After all, the Gorja riot amounted to an angry crowd branding a woman a witch and burning her at the stake in pre-Renaissance Europe -- 14 times over. If Christians or Jews were alleged to have carried out such barbarism, the social justice councils of the United Church would undoubtedly have condemned them. Why then so silent when the victims are fellow Christians and their murderers Muslims?

The short answer, of course, is that the UCC is more concerned with fashionably left-wing causes such as multiculturalism than it is about ending persecution per se. It is far more concerned for advancing political correctness than spreading or even defending its own faith.

Lefty intellectual fashion is always one-sided to the point of being blind.

If condemning all violent oppression were the UCC's goal; if ending the cruel treatment of all people regardless of their race or creed were the church's objective -- rather than merely mounting, once again, a high horse from which to spit on Israel -- then it would have been equally quick to condemn Hamas, who are, as many in the UCC see it, Israel's victims in Gaza.

Not only did Hamas provoke Israel's self-defensive invasion last winter by lobbing thousands of rockets and crude missiles into civilian communities within Israel -- killing 17 people over the past eight years -- it also routinely tortures and executes without trial any of its own people it suspects of collaborating with the Israelis. Human rights within Hamas's bailiwick are a farce. They don't exist.

But it never occurred to the UCC to be equally judgmental of Hamas. That's because in the bizarro world of politically correct logic (if any such school of reasoning can even be said to exist), atrocities committed by people of colour and the economically disadvantaged are not considered as outrageous as those committed by the white, the Western and the affluent.

Hundreds of Christians are prisoners of conscience in Cuba as a result of their proselytizing, or even just their praying. Around the world, dictatorial regimes -- particularly communist ones -- see practising Christians as threats. Christianity is a powerful counterbalance to the worship of the state and the cult of personality that dictators prefer.

Last December, Gilianys Rodriguez, wife of a popular evangelical pastor in Cuba, was beaten in the street. Her baby miscarried as a result. The attack was believed to have been carried out with the sanction of Cuban authorities because Ms. Rodriguez's husband had helped form a new interdenominational network of preachers and congregations dissatisfied with having to operate through the government-approved Cuban Council of Churches.

But the UCC has never, as far as I can see, ever made mention of the persecution of the Rodriguez family. Its policies toward Cuba mostly consist of angry tirades against the Americans for their trade embargo against the island nation.

It used to be said the Church of England was the British Tory party at prayer. It that's the case, then the UCC is mostly the New Democrats in meditation.

Please note, this is not intended to be a criticism of the UCC. Sadly, the same criticism could be levelled at most mainline churches in Canada today. And before we evangelicals get too high and mighty, let’s also ask ourselves why we also tend to be so silent in the face of true suffering? Yes, we may not excuse or inappropriately shift the blame the persecution of Christians to the victims. But are we guilty of ignoring the cries of our brothers and sisters around the world? Can it honestly be said that we are remembering them (Hebrews 13:3) in any meaningful way from Sunday to Sunday?

Take a look at a couple of my previous blogs on this subject dating back to May 2007:

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

India unhappy about being on religious freedom “Watch List”

So, India isn’t happy about being placed on the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom’s “Watch List” because of the country’s violations of religious freedom.  According to a statement by a spokesperson for India’s Ministry of External Affairs, Vishnu Prakash, this decision was “regrettable”. "India, a country of 1.1 billion people, is a multi-ethnic and multi-religious society......Aberrations, if any, are dealt with promptly within our legal framework under the watchful eye of an independent judiciary and a vigilant media," he told the Press Trust of India.

The USCIRF said India earned the "watch list" designation due to the "disturbing increase" in communal violence against religious minorities - specifically Christians in Orissa in 2008 and Muslims in Gujarat in 2002 and the "largely inadequate" response by the Indian government.

Some religious leaders are dismissing the designation, however, claiming that it ignores India’s secular constitution.  But the fact is, this is not what the USCIRF is evaluating. The issue is not the Indian governments' expressed intentions or official policies, but their actions!  And in this, both federal and state officials have been woefully negligent. 

According to the All India Christian Council, the violence that erupted last August against Christians damaged 315 villages and destroyed 4,640 Christian houses. In addition, 70 people were killed, 18,000 Christians were injured and 54,000 were rendered homeless. Yet, as Compass Direct noted in their recent report, one year after the violence “only six people have been convicted in just two cases of rioting, while several suspects have been acquitted in four such cases despite the formation of fast-track courts.” Many of the more than 50,000 people who fled to forests or took shelter in refugee camps have not returned home out of fear of those who demand they either convert to Hinduism or leave their villages. AICC’s secretary general, Dr. John Dayal, seemed pessimistic about a change in the government’s attitude as he spoke to Compass Direct.

“Unfortunately, nothing really impacts the government of India or the government of Indian states,” he said. “The state, and our social conscience, seems Teflon-coated. The patriotic media and political sector dismiss international scrutiny as interference in the internal affairs of India, and a beaten-into-submission section of the leadership of religious minorities assumes silence to be the best form of security and safety.”

Dr. Sajan George, the national convenor of the GCIC, said the report showed that India had become a “super violator” of human rights. The Rev. Dr. Babu Joseph, spokesman for the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of India, said the U.S. panel’s report did not augur well with India’s claim to find a respectable place within the community of nations.

“India as an emerging economic power in the world should also endeavor to better its records of protecting human rights, particularly when it comes to religious freedom of its citizens,” Joseph said.

Joseph told Compass the USCIRF report was “a clear indication of the growing concern of the international community with India’s repeated failure to take decisive and corrective measures to contain religious intolerance.”

Christian leaders generally lauded the report, with Dayal saying, “India’s record on the persecution of minorities and the violation of religious freedom has been a matter of international shame for the nation.”

Please continue to pray for India’s Christians during these days, especially as the anniversary of the Orissa attacks draws near. Please post a prayer on our Persecuted Church Prayer Wall to as a reminder that you have not forgotten our brothers and sisters there.

Appeasing the schoolyard bully

“The capitulation of Yale University Press to threats that hadn't even been made yet is the latest and perhaps the worst episode in the steady surrender to religious extremism—particularly Muslim religious extremism—that is spreading across our culture.”

So writes Christopher Hitchens in his Monday piece, Yale Surrenders posted on Slade on Monday, in response to Yale University Press’ decision to remove all images of Mohammed, including the Danish cartoons, from a upcoming book specifically about the Danish cartoons. 

bully And he is absolutely right.  It is one thing to be concerned when threats are issued. It is quite another to deliberately position yourself to a place you won’t have to face being threatened at all, even if it means surrendering your integrity.  It is one thing to deliberately instigate a fight.  It is another to cringe in fear and hide in your locker when you see the schoolyard bully walking down the hallway.

At last, the Islamists have us where they want us; so fearful of retaliation that we do exactly what they want us to do without even being asked.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Looking ahead to September’s newsletter

sept09_nlTomorrow we sign off on the September newsletter and I thought that you might like a peek at what we have coming up.  If you already receive the newsletter, you can look forward to another great edition.  I really like the cover this month. What do you think? Also, if you are receiving our newsletter each month, may I encourage you to let others know that they should subscribe or, alternately, send us their names and addresses and we will offer them a free subscription along with an offer to receive a free book or DVD?  This is a great way that you can help us raise a voice for those whose voice is often ignored or hardly heard.

If you are not receiving our newsletter and you live in Canada, I would encourage you to consider subscribing right away so that you can get a copy of next month’s edition. It’s free, of course, with no strings attached.

Here are the highlights of the September edition of The Voice of the Martyrs Newletter:

  • Reaching out to a tortured nation - At independence, hopes were high that Eritrea could become a model democracy for Africa. Today those dreams lie in tatters as the government has imprisoned tens of thousands of citizens, tortures at will, and pursues a systematic policy to eradicate evangelical Christianity.
  • Living in the shadow of the cross - Revelation 8-11 reminds us that while God is concerned with justice, His first priority is to offer mercy to those who need to repent. How does He do that? Through us. Those who are protected (sealed) from the wrath of God are protected for a purpose--to be His witnesses even though it will likely result in rejection, hostility and even death.
  • Alem’s story - Alem is a patriotic and experienced soldier whose ability and skills were valued by his military colleagues. However, in 2005 they presented him with a stark ultimatum. He was called to a meeting and told, “Give up your faith or go to prison.” Alem had already made the choice and replied that he would continue to follow Christ. He was promptly arrested and sent to prison.
  • Hindu persecutor becomes witness - Vasant Pai grabbed the leaflets from the young evangelist’s hand. He looked at the flyer with disgust. “Do You Need Salvation?” it read. As he tore the leaflet apart piece by piece, others in his group beat the witnessing Christian. Vasant joined the attackers. But even though he hated Christians, he was also curious about their saviour Jesus Christ.
  • What you can do - Each month, The Voice of the Martyrs provides practical ways that you can stand you’re your brothers and sisters around the world. In September, join us and other Canadians in launching a petition campaign to pressure the Eritrean government to stop its oppression of its Christian citizens.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Protesting persecution

In the last couple of months, we have seen what seems like an unusually high number of cases of extreme violence against Christian believers, particularly in India, Pakistan, Egypt, and Nigeria.  Following each incident, I have been struck by the call to publicchristian_protest protests by church leaders in each of these countries.  As we approach the first anniversary of the  terrible eruption of violence against Christian in Orissa on August 24, I am sure that more protests will be held there and abroad, demanding protection and equal rights for religious minorities in India. This call is to be understood and even applauded. I do wonder from time to time, however, if sometimes these events don’t actually result in heightened tensions in local communities and may not be exactly the best way to respond to violence especially when I see angry faces, shouting, and the waving of fists in the air.  Somehow I just have a hard time seeing Jesus at such an event. But maybe that’s just me.

boy_with_crossDon’t misunderstand me. I am not ruling out the value of public protests across the board. But for many groups here and abroad, it tends to be their first and primary response. The underlying assumption seems to be that the solution to the “persecution problem” lies in the hands of government.  Now, there is a “Constantinian” presumption if there ever was one!  For the Bible believing Christian, we know that persecution is an inevitable, normal, and expected result of following Christ faithfully. Hence, we should urge government to act justly towards all of its citizens, but we should not expect that the ultimate solution of religious persecution lies in their hands.

But if we are going to protest, either in a rally or through advocacy, I do believe that we need to keep these words in mind that I wrote a year ago:

VOMC founder, Richard Wurmbrand, once spoke at a Christian rally.  He asked those in attendance why they were protesting against those whom they opposed.  Rather, he said, they should be inviting them into their homes for a warm meal.  Their friendship would speak louder than bullhorns.

Jesus did give His followers a most unusual command on how to deal with enemies; they were to love them and do good to them (Matthew 5:44).  Not exactly the most strategic way of doing advocacy, some might argue.  But advocacy, as important as it is, is not the first call of the Christian.  Yes, we are to raise a voice on behalf of our suffering brothers and sisters, but not at the cost of neglecting the call to actively love those who seek our harm. 

Our letters of protest, our blogs, our rallies; they must not be marked by hatred or a lack of respect.  This is a fine line that is so easy to cross.  It seems to me that it would be better not to protest if we cannot hold on to love and concern for those who seek to take away our freedoms and those of our family around the world. 

I thank God that one of the priorities of The Voice of the Martyrs is our commitment to reach out to those who persecute the Church with the Good News of Jesus Christ. In projects in the Middle East, Colombia, Sri Lanka, and elsewhere, we are working with local believers in supplying them with literature specifically geared for reaching those who are opposed to the gospel.  And to the glory of God, many are responding to this act of love with faith. 

In short, let’s be sure that in our protesting that we do not neglect the weightier responsibilities of loving, praying, and reaching out to persecutors.  Of course, we must not be naive about this and think that any of this will be easy. But I believe this is the response that God will ultimately hold us responsible for.

This week in persecuted church history (August 16-22)

Consider the outcome of their way of life, and imitate their faith.
Hebrews 13:7b (ESV)

china_ayuan August 16, 2005: Allen Yuan (Yuan, Xiang Chen), well known and well loved house church pastor in Beijing, who endured more than 20 years of suffering in China's prisons and labour camps, dies in hospital in Beijing at 4 p.m. Brother Yuan was 91 years old.

August 16, 2007: Eritrean authorities issue an ultimatum to Catholic church leaders ordering that all of the church's schools, clinics, orphanages and women's vocational training centres be turned over to the government's Ministry of Social Welfare and Labour.

Thomas PandipallyAugust 16, 2008: Catholic priest Thomas Pandipally (38) is tortured and killed in Nizamabad District, Andhra Pradesh, India. He suffered more than 30 stab injuries and was hit in the head with sticks and boulders.78px-CareyEngraving

August 17, 1761: William Carey, one of the earliest missionaries to India and known the "father of modern missions", is born in Northamptonshire, England.

August 17, 2006: Members of the anti-Christian "Muene" sect kill a Catholic priest and plundered the Kizu Parish, near Tshela, in the northern Bas-Congo province of the Democratic Republic of Congo.  One of the parish priests, upon seeing the assailants, flees into nearby forest while a second priest is tied up and flogged to death.

August 18, 328: Helena was the mother of Constantine, the first christianized Emperor of the Roman Empire, dies. Many historians credit her for having a great influence on her son in implementing religious freedom in the Roman Empire.

August 18, 1688: John Bunyan, author of Pilgrim's Progress preaches his last sermon, in London

August 19, 302: Andrew, a Roman general, is bound, tortured and killed on this day, about 8 a.m. with 2,593 other soldiers who had become Christians.

August 19, 2003: Eritrean military commanders search the belonging of Christian conscripts' belongings, looking for Bibles. Sixty-two Protestant students are arrested, tortured, and put into metal shipping containers where they are subjected to no light, extreme heat, and limited air and food.

August 20, 1527: The so-called Martyrs Synod is called as sixty Anabaptist leaders meet in Augsburg to solidify their positions on such things as taking oaths and to plan a strategy for evangelizing Europe. Of those sixty men, all but three will be dead within five years, most by persecution at the hands of other "Christians." Among them were the famous Hans Schlaffer, Hans Hut and Hans Denck.

kovic August 20, 1884: Rev. Emilian Kovch is born near Kosiv, Ukraine. Ordained to the Ukrainian Orthodox priesthood in 1911, he bravely carried out his priestly duties during the Second World War, preaching love to people regardless of their nationality and rescuing Jews from the invading Nazis. He was arrested by the Gestapo on December 30, 1942. He displayed heroic bravery in the concentration camp, encouraging prisoners who were sentenced to death from falling into despair. He was gassed and burned in the ovens of the Majdanek Nazi death camp on March 25, 1944.

250px-Joseph_Martin_Kronheim_-_Foxe's_Book_of_Martyrs_Plate_II_-_Death_of_Admiral_de_ColignyAugust 22, 1572: An attempt is made in Paris to assassinate Huguenot leader and French patriot Lord Gaspard de Coligny. Wounded, he returns home to recover. Two days later Coligny is killed as a servant of the Duke of Guise plunges a sword through Coligny's breast and throws his body out of a window at his master's feet. Coligny finally died when another of Guise's associates chops off his head. The St. Bartholomew's Day Massacre begins and thousands of Protestants are killed.

August 22, 1964: Bishop Simeon Lukach dies of tuberculosis while imprisoned for his faith in a Soviet prison.

(sources: Christianity Today, Glimpses of Church History, The Voice of the Martyrs)

Prayer: “Grant that we, who now remember these before thee, may likewise so bear witness unto thee in this world, that we may receive with them the crown of glory that fadeth not away; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who with thee and the Holy Spirit liveth and reigneth, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.” – taken from The Book of Common Prayer, Canada (1962)

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Some plant. Others water.

This month’s feature article in The Voice of the Martyrs Newsletter focuses on Colombia, one of the few nations in the western hemisphere where there is still violent persecution against God’s children. Our work there began almost a decade ago when I traveled to the cities of Cali and Bogota in response to requests to provide teaching on what the Bible teaches about persecution. As in other parts of the world, there was uncertainty among church leaders as to how to respond to suffering for the sake of Christ. Some saw it as an inevitable part of following the Lord faithfully. Others, incorrectly, saw any kind of suffering or hardship as evidence of lack of faith or punishment for sin. It was evident that many Colombian church leaders were being influenced by a strain of theology that suggested that it was always God’s will that His children be healthy and wealthy. Persecution and suffering for righteousness didn’t seem to fit into that theological framework very well.

I was initially invited to Cali as one of the guest speakers to a congress of close to 10,000 people who had gathered from across Latin America. It was the largest group I had ever spoken to. I was already a little nervous but to make it worse, I discovered that I immediately followed a speaker who claimed that it was the birthright of every Christian to prosper financially. With great enthusiasm, the speaker promised riches to those who followed the certain criteria he carefully laid out. As I listened, I thought to myself, “How am I going to follow up on this?” I looked at my notes and realized that what I had planned to speak on would never do. So I folded them up, put them in my pocket and asked for God’s guidance. When it was my turn to speak, I got up and spoke straight from my heart without any notes at all.

“Do you want to hear about the fastest growing church in the world?” I asked.

“Yes!” the crowd shouted back.

“Do you want to hear about the richest church in the world?” I asked.

“Yes!” they cried again.

“Good,” I said. “Let me tell you about the Persecuted Church around the world.” And for the next 30 minutes I shared about the persecution facing Christians, particularly in Sudan where I had visited only a few weeks earlier. I told the crowd of the suffering I had seen—the poverty and the sickness—and spoke to them about the courage, faith, and spiritual richness these believers gained because of their commitment to Christ and refusal to deny Him.

Then I drove home the point that I knew needed to be said.

“Don’t you ever tell me,” I said with my voice shaking, “that these dear brothers and sisters are suffering, sick, and poor because of a lack of faith! They are suffering because of their faith! And the church in Sudan is growing like nowhere else in the world today!”

I said a few more words and then sat down. Moments later, I was whisked away for a television interview I was scheduled for and so wasn’t able to witness the response to my challenge.

Apparently, it wasn’t good.

The following speaker publicly condemned me and my teaching, compelling my Latin American co-workers to walk out in protest. The next day, however, a seminar we were to teach on persecution was packed. Obviously, we had struck a nerve.

I didn’t realize how much, however, until a year later when I returned to Colombia to teach a three-day seminar in Bogota. Three pastors traveled there from Cali and gratefully told me how my teaching a year earlier had motivated them to re-examine the Scriptures and led them to abandon their previous misunderstandings about material and spiritual blessings. They had come to understand that suffering and persecution are evidence of faith, not a lack of it, and they thanked me profusely for helping them to see these things. In the face of violent persecution, being told that suffering is due to a lack of faith is not simply bad teaching; it is soul crushing and has caused untold numbers to doubt the reality of their walk with Christ.

Today, we have turned most of our work in Colombia over to our US sister mission. Ten years ago, however, few people really believed that there was persecution there. But we had seen with our own eyes what our brothers and sisters were going through and heard their testimonies with our own ears. We began the work of translating and publishing a number of VOMC books into Spanish to be distributed among Marxist guerrillas. Years later, we heard how hundreds of former persecutors had come to Christ as a result.

This work continues to this day. VOM Canada sowed the seed. Today, our sister mission is carrying on the work, watering the seeds, and we are grateful. Your support allowed us to open this nation to our ministry of serving the persecuted and so we thought that it would be good to share with you the fruit of our earlier labour. Thank you for your prayers and financial support as we continue to seek other new opportunities to serve God’s Persecuted Church where no one else is working.

Friday, August 14, 2009

What do we do with some of the nastier verses in the Bible?

How are we to take Psalm 58 with its prayer to God to smash in the mouths of their enemies (verse 7), and the expressed wish of the psalmist to have the righteous bathe their feet in the blood of the wicked (verse 11)? Or of Psalm 109 with its prayer that God would make the children of the wicked man fatherless and his wife a widow (verse 9)? And what of the author of Psalm 137 rejoicing at the thought of the little ones of Babylon being dashed against the rocks (verse 9)? How are these psalms to be reconciled with the teachings of Jesus to love one’s enemies and to forgive them?

Several things need to be considered. First, it must be remembered that these are prayers for divine justice, not human grudges.[1] The petitioners are asking for God to take direct action; they do not ask for the power to take things into their own hands and to be able to personally punish their foes, nor is permission ever granted for them to do so.[2] In these petitions, the psalmists pour out their pain, anger and hurt. The tone is indicative of the horrors that they have faced.[3] They startle us into feeling something of the desperation that produced these words.[4] But the psalmists do not hide these less "noble" sentiments from us, and God, in His sovereignty, inspired them to record them for our good. Among the lessons we may learn from their inclusion in the canon is the fact that God is less shockable than we are, looks beyond the words to the heart of the supplicant and is afflicted in all our afflictions.[5] Hence, He is pleased when His people pour out their hearts to Him in their entirety.

Additionally, it should be noted that forgiveness of enemies and gaining God’s perspective is not found in concealing these emotions, but in acknowledging them to God, which is what these writers do.[6] As Bonhoeffer writes, "It would mean much if we would learn that we must earnestly pray to God in such distress and that whoever entrusts revenge to God dismisses any thought of ever taking revenge himself."[7]

To rejoice in the fall of our enemies is also not strictly an Old Testament sentiment. The fall of Babylon in Revelation 18, for example contains language reminiscent of the imprecatory psalms.[8] Jesus instructed His disciples to curse cities that did not receive them (Matt.10:14). He, Himself, called down judgment on Bethsaida and Capernaum (Matt. 11:21-24). Paul declared a curse on anyone who did not love the Lord (1 Cor. 16:22) and on anyone who preaches another Jesus (Galatians 1:8-9). The martyrs in heaven cry out for vengeance on those who killed them (Rev. 6:9-10). Hence, the desire to see justice is not strictly a reflection of a less graceful Old Testament disposition corrected in the revelation of Christ.

The imprecatory psalms also challenge the reader to identify with the oppressed and suffering, even though he, himself, may be quite comfortable.[9] They invite us to pray on behalf of others, as they evoke in us an awareness of the wickedness that is in the world. They may not, as Tate, reminds us, be our prayers, at the present moment, but they are the prayers of our brothers and sisters who are trampled down by persons and powers beyond their control.[10] The Christian church has long seen these psalms as the prayers of Christ on behalf of the suffering and needy. Bonhoeffer revived this old tradition in his small book Psalms: Prayer Book of the Bible[11] and his sermon on Psalm 58.[12] The incarnate Son of God, knowing all of our weakness, is able to stand in our place before God and pray these prayers on our behalf. Hence, they really truly are our prayers, as well as His.[13] As the perfect Son of God, He is able to pray these prayers without guilt, which we cannot do for we are liable to be reminded of our own guilt and how we often act as those against whom we are praying. Hence, these psalms may awake in us an acute awareness of our own violent sins and hatred for others, and of our need for confession and repentance.[14]
___________________________________________________

[1] Norman Geisler and Thomas Howe, When Skeptics Ask. Victor Books, 1992: 242.
[2] Marvin E. Tate. Psalm 51-100. Word Biblical Commentary, Word, 1990: 88-89.
[3] Derek Kidner, Psalms 1-72. InterVarsity Press, 1973: 27.
[4] Ibid.: 28
[5] Ibid.
[6] Ibid: 88.
[7] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, "A Bonhoeffer Sermon." Theology Today 38, 1982: 469.
[8] It may also be helpful to note that God is mentioned as a God of love more often in the Old Testament than in the New (cf. Geisler and Howe: 242).
[9] Tate: 89.
[10] Ibid.
[11] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Psalms: Prayer Book of the Bible. trans. James H. Burtness. Augsburg Publishing Co., 1970: 20-21.
[12] Bonhoeffer, "A Bonhoeffer Sermon"
[13] Bonhoeffer, Psalms: Prayer Book of the Bible: 21
[14] cf. Tate: 90

Mr. President, what about Egypt’s Christians?

obama_mubarak_black_white On Tuesday (August 18) U.S. President Obama will host Egyptian President Mubarak in Washington. Among the topics up for discussion will be world peace. While these two leaders are meeting there will be a peaceful demonstration outside the White House organized by a group concerned about the plight of Egypt’s Coptic Christians. The Coalition of Coptic Organizations wrote an open letter to President Obama prior to Mr. Mubarak’s visit reminding him that there can be no world peace unless there is peace in the Middle East. The letter went point out a woefully neglected issue that is critical to peace in the region, the systematic discrimination and persecution of the Copts of Egypt. These Christians make up anywhere from 8 to 12 percent of the country’s population of 80 million, yet are represented by less than a .25% of its parliamentary elected officials. During the Mubarak Era, Copts have suffered over 200 major terrorist attacks on their persons, homes, businesses and churches. Most often, perpetrators are not arrested, and those arrested are seldom convicted. The attacks are on the increase with over 20 occurring within the last three months alone according to the Coptic organizations who sent the letter to Mr. Obama. A government policy limits hiring and promoting Copts to high ranking jobs. Many influential positions are completely out of reach for Christians. An antiquated law from the Ottoman Empire governs church constructions and refurbishing. Building a new church requires Presidential Decree and repairing existing ones requires permits from regional governors.

When I visited Egypt earlier this year I was told by Christian leaders of the harassment and problems they endure in this Muslim dominated society. Some of the worst treatment of Christians is directed at those who have left Islam to follow Jesus. For example these Christians can’t change their I.D. cards from Muslim to Christian, and if they try, many problems will follow as Mohammed Hegazy found out. One University professor who converted to Christianity from Islam many years ago says “The situation is getting worse by how the government and society treats these converts because of the influence of the fundamentalist Muslims has increased and they are controlling areas of the society, these people are treated badly and are rejected.”

Another terrible issue facing the Christians of Egypt is the abduction of Christian female teens. These girls are taken by Muslim men and forced to convert to Islam. Other have been enticed to renounce their Christian faith by promised of wealth and a more prosperous life as a Muslim. Earlier this month on the Persecution and Prayer Alert we reported two more Christian girls who were kidnapped by Muslims. One of our contacts in Egypt told me what happens in many of these cases. They drug them, then force them to marry Muslim men, they abuse them sexually and take pictures, and with those pictures the girls feel ashamed and they can’t return to their families, so they continue as Muslims. “Mustafa”, who also is a former Muslim says there were about 40 cases of minor girls of 15, 16 and 17 who were kidnapped last year and never returned to their families.”

While the peace protest goes on outside the White House on Tuesday, will you ask God to move on the hearts of these two leaders for the sake of our suffering brothers and sisters in Christ in Egypt?

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Famous last words: Euplius (304)

On August 12, 304, a deacon named Euplius in the city of Catana, Sicily was discovered by authorities engaged in reading a book containing the Gospels and instructing other Christians. They apprehended him and brought him to Calvisianus, the Roman Proconsul.

When Euplius had entered the tribunal, carrying with him the Gospel books, one of the Proconsul's friends said: “It is not right for him to carry such papers with him contrary to the prohibition of the Emperors."

The Proconsul asked Euplius from where did he get these writings? Did he brought them from his house?

Euplius answered that he had no home. Then the Proconsul commanded him  to read something out of the writings. Euplius opened the book and read these words, "Blessed are they which are persecuted for righteousness' sake: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven." He then read "Whosover will come after me, let him deny himself.”

The Proconsul asked, "What does all this mean?"

Euplius replied, "This is the law of my Lord, of Jesus Christ, the Son of the living God."

The Proconsul, having heard this confession of Christ, said, "Let him be delivered unto the executioners, put to the rack, and thus examined."

Euplius was then brutally tortured and then commanded to deliver up the Scriptures he had with him and to have them burned to the dishonour of Jesus Christ. All of this he steadfastly refused to do.  Instead, he cried out to Jesus, thanking Him that he had been found worthy to suffer for His name's sake.

Euplius was again led to the rack and dreadfully tormented in the same manner as before. But he suffered it patiently, and called upon the Lord, saying, "I thank Thee, O Christ! Help me, O Christ! For Thy sake I suffer all this, O Christ!"

The Proconsul, enraged by this, gave the sentence of death to the clerk of the criminal court.  Then, coming out again from the tribunal, and bringing with him the tablet containing the death sentence, he read the latter aloud, as follows, "I command that Euplius, the Christian, be slain with the sword, because he despises the gods of the Emperors, blasphemes the other gods, and does not repent. Lead him away."

The book which he had with him when he was apprehended was suspended from his neck, and a crier went before him, crying thus, "Euplius, the enemy of the gods and the Emperors, is led to death." Euplius went joyfully to the place where he was to be put to death, continually thanking Christ for His grace. As he walked to his death, he repeated, “I give thanks to Jesus Christ my God. Confirm, O Lord, what you have wrought in me.”

Having arrived at the place of execution, he bowed his knees reverently and prayed for a long time. When he was finished, he offered his neck to the sword, and poured out his blood as a drink offering unto the Lord. His dead body was afterwards removed by the Christians and buried.

(sources: Martyrs Mirror - Thieleman J. Van Braght; Lives of the Saints - Alban Butler)

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Why Twitter?

Twitter is one of these things that I find people tend not to be indifferent about. You either “get it” or you don’t.  Lots of my friends, family and even some of my colleagues don’t and so they wonder if perhaps the CEO of a mission organization should be spending his time “twittering”. 

Admittedly, Twitter can chew up your time if you let it.  And the name is a little silly.  However, let me draw out three significant advantages that I have seen in the last three months or so since we started to make Twitter a significant part of our ministry here at The Voice of the Martyrs:

1. Twitter has an unparalleled ability to raise awareness and prayer quickly when necessary.  This became crystal clear to me last weekend when, at 8:13 pm on Saturday night,  I received a tweet from @Iran30 saying: “Maryam and Marzieh to appear before court on Sunday morning.”  Checking the link that accompanied the message, I realized that this was due to take place in less than two hours.  An urgent email request would not likely be read by many people in time, especially not one written late on a Saturday night. And so I forwarded the message on to others on Twitter and began sending out other messages, urging prayer and asking those who received it to please forward the message to others. I then added an article to our main website (www.persecution.net) and to this weblog site.

But had it not been for Twitter, I would not have learned of this important event nor would I have been able to muster significant prayer support for these two women in their time of need (which, if you have read their story, you realize just how much they needed!).  Incidentally, the same thing had happened the week before regarding the attacks on Christians in Korian and Gojra, Pakistan. Again, I learned about them first through Twitter, very shortly after they started. This leads me to my second point.

2. I have seen how Twitter is able to provide me with information in a more concise and timely manner than anything else I use (including email alerts and RSS feeds).  Frankly, I am beginning to get rid of RSS feeds from my browser; Twitter is just that much better and updates more often. When you are involved in the kind of ministry that I am in, conciseness and timeliness vital if we are to do the kind of excellent work that I believe we are called to.

3. Twitter also helps to create personal links with others far better than emails or blog comments do (and without being as bloated and complicated as Facebook, which I can’t stand).  I have already made some valued connections through Twitter that I would not have made otherwise with believers and organizations in other countries.  Twitter also allows me to concretely demonstrate to other ministries involved in serving persecuted Christians that I do not believe us to be in competition as I forward their messages to others, refer others to their websites, and encourage others to “follow” them.  I really do believe that competition between missions only harms the persecuted church.

I have also found Twitter to very helpful to driving traffic to parts of our website that are valuable but which people might not look for. Through Twitter, I encourage people to write to or on behalf of prisoners of faith, post prayers for the persecuted on our prayer wall, check out some of our free downloadable resources, or study some of our articles on our biblical research website on the biblical theology of persecution.  

I would love to hear of your thoughts concerning Twitter and other social media on the Internet.  And, of course, I would invite you to follow us and join us in raising a voice for the voiceless before God and man.