Saturday, June 30, 2012

What Next for Christians in Egypt?

By Aidan Clay, International Christian Concern (  
Special to ASSIST News Service

CAIRO, EGYPT (ANS) -- A few weeks ago, Christians believed a Muslim Brotherhood victory in Egypt’s presidential election would mark the end of religious freedoms and abolish any hope they still had of living a peaceful existence in post-revolution Egypt. However, all that changed just days before the mid-June election when Egypt’s military council dissolved the Islamist-dominated Parliament and stripped the president of most of his powers. Now, despite the presidential victory of Brotherhood candidate Mohammed Morsi on Sunday, the remaining hope of many Christians is in the military, which they view as their final source of protection against Islamists.
Mohammed Morsi declares victory

For Christians, post-revolution Egypt was defined not by democratic progress and greater freedoms, but by the political rise of Islamists and large-scale attacks on their community and places of worship. Many Christians determined to flee the country, but they were holding out for the results of the presidential election to see if secularist Ahmed Shafiq could, by chance, defeat the Islamist Mohammed Morsi.

Shafiq, considered by many to be loyal to the regime, was not the ideal presidential choice of most Christians, but at least, they thought, he was not an Islamist. Islamists already held 75 percent of Egypt’s two houses of parliament. A Brotherhood presidential victory would give Islamists complete control of the government which, Christians feared, would transform Egypt into an Islamic state.

The Islamic agenda of the Brotherhood was made clear during the presidential campaign. In May, Morsi was allegedly quoted by the popular Egyptian website, El Bashayer, as saying: “We will not allow Ahmed Shafiq or anyone else to impede our second Islamic conquest of Egypt.

They [Christians] need to know that conquest is coming, and Egypt will be Islamic, and that they must pay 'jizya' or emigrate.” Furthermore, the Brotherhood demanded that Islamists should draft the new constitution and center it on Sharia law. It appeared to Christians that there would no longer be room for them in Egyptian society if Morsi was elected president.

All that changed, however, only days before Morsi was officially recognized as Egypt’s president. On June 14, the Egyptian Supreme Constitutional Court ruled that the Islamist-dominated Parliament should be dissolved. And, after election booths closed on June 17, the military further announced a constitutional declaration that expands their power over civilian politicians, including the president, and grants them authority to draft a new constitution. The military was effectively retaking control from the Islamists and many Christians, viewing the military as their last hope of protection, were relieved by the decree.

“Christians are happy, because they were afraid the Muslim Brotherhood was taking over the Parliament,” Athanasious Williams, a Coptic Christian human rights lawyer in Cairo, told Compass Direct News. “But now they feel that there might be a better chance for a secular government.”

Despite the support of Christians, however, is a potential military takeover worth the risk of safeguarding Egypt’s Christian community? A similar situation occurred in Algeria when the army staged a coup just before elections to stop the Islamic Salvation Front from gaining victory in 1991. The result: 150,000-200,000 people were killed in a decade-long civil war. Similarly, Egypt’s Islamists will not back down quietly. The Brotherhood has vowed to “fight in the courts and the streets to reinstate the Parliament,” according to The New York Times. Also, Islamists have the support of more than half of the country’s population, taking into account that 75 percent of registered voters voted for Islamists in the parliamentary elections and 52 percent voted for them in the presidential elections. Although civil war is unlikely, the country remains divided and all calculations on Egypt’s future have been thrown to the wind. Anything can happen.

The question all Egyptians are now asking is: What role will the president and Islamists have in Egypt’s future? Will Morsi be stripped of his presidential powers by the military, making him nothing more than a figurehead? Or, will the Brotherhood and other Islamists continue to demonstrate in Cairo’s Tahrir Square or, less likely, embark on a campaign of armed resistance until the military steps down? It is the answer to these questions that will inevitably determine the fate of Egypt’s ancient Christian community.

Aidan Clay is the Middle East Regional Manager for International Christian Concern (ICC), a Washington, DC-based human rights organization that exists to support persecuted Christians worldwide by providing awareness, advocacy, and assistance ( Aidan is a graduate from Biola University in Southern California. Prior to joining ICC, Aidan worked with Samaritan’s Purse in South Sudan and has traveled extensively throughout the Middle East, Africa and Europe. He and his wife currently live in Nairobi, Kenya. For more information, contact Aidan Clay at 

Friday, June 29, 2012

Sudanese Authorities Demolish Two Church Buildings

Hostility toward southern Sudanese grows as officials also confiscate three Catholic schools.
Special to Compass Direct News

Demolished St. John Episcopal Church of Sudan
(Photo: Compass Direct News)
JUBA, South Sudan, June 28 (Compass Direct News) – Authorities in Khartoum demolished two church buildings last week, days after confiscating three Catholic schools, sources told Compass.

Officials from the Ministry of Planning and Housing of the local government authority on June 18 sent bulldozers that destroyed a church building belonging to the St. John Episcopal Church of Sudan, in the Haj Yousif area, an area source reported by email. A Catholic church building in the area was also demolished the same day.

“The government wants to remove all churches from Khartoum,” the source said. “Tell churches, all churches, to stand on prayer for the church in Sudan.”

Clergymen said persecution was intensifying following the secession of South Sudan in July 2011, with officials targeting churches they claim to be associated with now unwelcome, largely Christian South Sudanese in the Islamic-ruled country. 

The St. John church was established in 1987, but when government officials later allocated housing plots in the area, they denied church requests for their land. Christian support organization Open Doors reported that the churches were targeted on the pretext that southern Sudanese had attended services, and that since they had presumably left, the buildings were no longer necessary.

In a press statement, Open Doors noted that the church does not belong to the South Sudanese, and that the bishop is (north) Sudanese.

“It seems also that the policy of an Islamic state is being implemented, where the president said, if South Sudanese vote for secession, there will be but one religion [Islam], one language [Arabic] and one culture [Arab],” said the Rt. Rev. Ezekiel Kondo, bishop of Khartoum, according to Open Doors.

The bishop demanded the local authority of Shereq El Nail compensate the church for the destruction and allot land for the congregation.

Church leaders had sent letters to the Ministry of Guidance and Religious Endowment requesting that the building be spared and another plot of land be granted to the parish, but authorities refused and instead sent the bulldozers, sources told Compass.

Christian sources also reported that another church building belonging to the Full Gospel Church was destroyed in the same area two months ago, on the claim that it belonged to South Sudanese.

Schools Confiscated
On June 14, the Jebel Aulia Locality Committee in south Khartoum confiscated three schools belonging to the Catholic Church, two in the Mayo area and one in nearby Omdurman, sources said. 

The Jebel Aulia commissioner was acting on a letter issued by the Khartoum state minister of education calling for cancellation of official approval of the schools based on the claim that they were southern Sudanese. Both Mayo schools, however, were registered with the Ministry of Education as belonging to Khartoum dioceses.

Police officer Hassan Badawi Ahamed, executive director of the office of Jebel Aulia Locality, reportedly sent a letter dated May 30 to the Office of Secondary Education Directorate asking for termination of the two schools because they were supposedly southern Sudanese. Reports said the official letters mistakenly identified one of the schools as Comboni School of Mayo, whereas its name is Markaz El Talim El Namoziky.

School administrators raised complaints before the Jebel Aulia Locality Committee, protesting that the name of the school was not included in the government letter. The committee then went back to the Jebel Aulia Locality office and produced a new letter with the correct name of the school.

On June 13, the committee had also gone to a building belonging to the Catholic Church in Mayo to take it by force, claiming it was a school. Christians have gathered for prayer in the building since June 14 to prevent it from being confiscated, sources said. 


Copyright 2012 Compass Direct News

Thursday, June 28, 2012

Vietnamese Officials Destroy Two New Church Buildings

Third worship place threatened with demolition.
Special to Compass Direct News

LOS ANGELES, June 27 (Compass Direct News) – Vietnamese officials in Muong Cha district, Dien Bien Province, destroyed two new church buildings of ethnic minority Hmong Christians this month and threatened to tear down a third.

The Ho He Church, erected in April by the unregistered Vietnam Good News Mission, was demolished on June 17. The Phan Ho Church of the registered Evangelical Church of Vietnam (North) was destroyed on June 13, 2012. The church threatened with demolition, The Cong Church, also belongs to the Vietnam Good News Mission.

These congregations of 500 to 600 people, which began as house churches, had long outgrown even the largest home, so the Hmong had sacrificed and worked to erect wooden worship buildings. As local police, paramilitary forces and other authorities descended on the church buildings by the dozens, the Christians could only watch with deep sadness and frustration as the houses of worship were reduced to rubble and government promises about freedom of religion were again broken, area sources said.

The Hmong Christian movement in Vietnam’s Northwest Mountainous Region has grown from nothing to some 400,000 believers in the last two decades. The Hmong Christians remain under heavy government suspicion and are regularly objects of harassment and sometimes outright persecution.      

According to a trusted Compass source, these incidents, among other things, demonstrate the dysfunction of the government’s church registration regime. New regulations on church registration were promulgated in 2004 and 2005, ostensibly to expand religious freedom and move Vietnam from an ideological opposition to religion to a managerial approach.

Particularly promising was the Prime Minister’s Special Directive No. 1 Regarding Protestantism. It promised quick registration for local congregations to carry on religious activity while larger issues were being worked out.  

Since this legislation appeared, nine Protestant denominations have received legal recognition. They report that the disclosure required in the registration process, however, has led to more government scrutiny and has not reduced long waiting times for routine permissions.

Yet more than half of Vietnam’s Protestants remain unregistered, with many seeing their prospects for becoming legally recognized as hopeless. Hundreds of congregations have tried to apply for registration under the Prime Minister’s Special Directive, only to have officials simply refuse to accept the applications. Others who apply to register are told they cannot because they are not legal, or that they can’t register because there are no Christians where they live.

If the registration request is received, sources said, it often goes unanswered for years, contrary to time limits for government reply in the legislation. Christian leaders who have long tried to register their congregations say that fewer than 5 percent have been granted permission to carry on religious activities.

As a result, sources said, large numbers of congregations remain subject to various kinds of harassment and sometimes arbitrary closure. Authorities tell denominational leaders they may not visit their churches, or even their pastors, because they are not legal.  

The large Catholic Church in Vietnam regularly finds its congregations in tension with local authorities. On June, 18, for example, the archdiocese of Vinh published on a Catholic website a letter, directed to all levels of government, about the persecution of Christians in Chau Binh Commune in Nghe An Province.

When a priest arrived in the commune to bless a new home, many officials gathered to prevent the ceremony. They shouted abuse at the Catholics and hurled rotten eggs at an altar prepared for the house-blessing ceremony. The following night, thugs invaded the home of Tran Van Luong, a Catholic who had dared object to the officials’ conduct, and beat him, his wife and three others, sources said.

The five required emergency medical aid, and Luong’s wife was still drifting in and out of consciousness at the time the letter was written. 

The letter from the archdiocese specifies in detail how the officials’ conduct violates the U.N. Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the constitution of Vietnam, as well as Vietnam’s new religion legislation and its criminal code. It concludes with an appeal for a prompt investigation to provide justice.

Rarely does the government of Vietnam respond to such petitions, sources said; instead, it often vilifies the petitioners. 

An official news release on a high-level meeting about the effectiveness of the Prime Minister’s Special Directive No. 1, issued on Feb. 28 in Vietnamese, was likely more telling than intended; the official English-language report on the meeting used other language entirely. In the Vietnamese version, an official of the Government Committee on Religious Affairs said the directive had provided a “breakthrough” in the government’s management of religion by “limiting the unusually rapid development of the Protestant religion.”

Thus, the very instrument that was publicized locally and internationally as proof of Vietnam’s liberalizing religion policy apparently had contrary purposes. 

At the same meeting, a deputy prime minister announced the appointment of General Pham Dung of the Ministry of Public Security as the new head of the Government  Committee on Religious Affairs. According to Vietnamese Protestant leaders, this was not a heartening development.

Vietnam was ranked 19th on the 2012 World Watch List of the 50 countries where persecution is worst, as determined by Christian support organization Open Doors.


Copyright 2012 Compass Direct News

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Christian Legislator in Pakistan Stuck with Muslim ID

Assemblyman nearly lost post to error.
By Murad Khan

LAHORE, Pakistan, June 26 (Compass Direct News) – Pakistan’s rigid system of prohibiting Muslims from changing their religion status on their national ID cards nearly cost a Punjab politician his post – even though he has always been a Christian.

Rana Asif Mahmood’s political opponents in April sought to disqualify him from the Punjab Provincial Assembly seat reserved for minorities on grounds that the National Database and Registration Authority (NADRA) identified him as a Muslim.

Mahmood said that NADRA had mistakenly identified him as a Muslim because of his name and then refused to rectify the error. The mistake not only cost Mahmood a cabinet position but also his part in proposing the provincial budget for 2012-13, he said.

The law establishing NADRA prohibits Muslims from changing the religion column on their Computerized National Identity Card (CNIC), though non-Muslims can easily obtain such changes – especially if they are converting to Islam.

“The situation was revealed to me when my son applied for a CNIC a few months ago,” Mahmood said. “He was told that he could not put down Christianity as his religion because the records showed his father to be a Muslim.”

When he approached NADRA officials for corrections, Mahmood said, they told him that there was no provision for changing the religion entry. He said that his passport identified him as a Christian, and that twice he had his religion section corrected on his passport because of the NADRA error of listing him as a Muslim.

Mahmood’s political opponents filed a petition seeking his removal from one of the seats reserved for minorities based on the error. Opposition parties accepted Mahmood’s clarification only after he vehemently stated on the floor of the Punjab Assembly that he was born a Christian and appealed to them and the media not to indulge in propaganda against him that could incite Muslim extremists to kill him.

A NADRA official who requested anonymity said that while a person could get their religion changed in ID records from a religion other than Islam to another, the same could not be done if the person wanted to change their religion away from Islam.

“My understanding of the matter is that if stated by the person himself that he/she is a Muslim, the religion cannot be changed,” he said.

At the same time, he added that if the CNIC recipient provided evidence of religion and established that there had been a clerical error, the request would be entertained.

“But a clerical error is highly unlikely,” he said. “Data is cross-checked several times in cases of identity card entries.”

He said that once a person applied for a CNIC and his personal information was recorded, they were sent a form for attestation, and that at that stage the applicant could report any errors.
That is precisely what Mahmood did, to no effect.

“I noticed the error in the entry for religion in my attestation form and reported it to NADRA. After some days I received my CNIC and it did not mention religion, so I assumed that NADRA had changed its records,” Mahmood said.

Problems can be even more severe for converts such as Muhammad Kamran. After a pelvic injury he received from a beating by unidentified men for converting to Christianity from Islam, the 34-year-old Kamran has not been able to obtain medical treatment because of his name (see, “Injured Convert in Pakistan Tries to Rebuild Life,” May 15).
A human rights activist criticized NADRA’s policy.

“It is unfortunate and a violation of human rights,” he said on condition of anonymity. “The policy appears to be a reflection of customs prohibiting Muslims from changing their religion, but it is still a violation of a person’s basic human rights.”


Copyright 2012 Compass Direct News

Egypt's new president makes history again

(Photo courtesy of Jonathan Rashad)
President-elect Morsi.
 (Story photo courtesy SAT7)

Egypt (MNN) ― Egypt's first-ever democratically-elected president, Mohamed Morsi, has already made history.
Now, he'll do it again by appointing a Christian vice president as one of his first acts. He will also choose another vice president who is a woman.

The Islamist figure, a Muslim Brotherhood leader, promised to ensure rights of minorities. Farid Samir, the Executive Director of *SAT-7's studios in Cairo, says despite the show of good will, "Although most of the promises that he had made are positive, it's not the promises. [Minorities] had fears of being treated as second-class citizens."

In a May 12th speech at Cairo University, Morsi said, "The Koran is our constitution, the Prophet is our leader, jihad is our path, and death in the name of Allah is our goal.
However, the greater concern for Christians came from a report Monday from Iranian state media. Samir says, "They're afraid of following Iran's regime because the first announcement he made, he said, 'We want to restore our relationships with Iran.'"

According to the semi-official Fars news agency, Morsi views a renewal of diplomatic ties with Tehran as a way to achieve "strategic balance" in the region. Samir says nobody is sure how far that renewal will go. "They have two armies. One army is the official army, and the other army is to protect Islam and to protect the regime. So we don't know if this is what he means by 'following the Iranian regime' or learning from that."

Then, in what seems to be an about face, Morsi's policy adviser this week emphasized that Egypt "definitely" would not be an "Islamic Republic."

Meanwhile, Egypt's courts suspended a ruling that said the military could arrest citizens, forcing the military back from what was perceived to be a move toward martial law.

What does all this mean? It seems it's an effort to allay fears of sharia, jihad, and religicide. Samir notes, "We can't forget that this Muslim Brotherhood didn't just start now, but it was there for 80 years, working underground. But now, it's official." There's good reason for concern. "There is a lot of fear, also, about seeing the same violent acts against Christians, but this time, with legal coverage."

Christians may face losing more of their voice, more rights, and possibly, face more trouble. Reports of widespread evacuation have already begun to file in.

The greatest concern: who will Morsi be to believers after the "honeymoon" period is over? Samir says, first, "Church leaders are trying their best to strengthen the faith of people trying to talk about higher authority of God over any humans, and that God's will is over all that's happening."

Then, SAT-7 studios in Cairo began offering a forum for viewers. Samir explains, "We started a current affairs show called 'Salt of the Earth,' bringing hope, encouraging Christians to share in the community."

The events of the past few weeks have revealed serious divisions in society, and many Egyptians are stunned. Samir adds that the uncertainty has had an interesting effect on ministry. "They'll talk about our role as Christians in the region, and the important thing is that the churches are full of people now. The same day that they announced Morsi as president, the churches were full of people. They seek God more now."

As an organization that does not take political positions, SAT-7 supports viewers by teaching how they can apply Christian principles to everyday life. In this case, says Samir, "We need this to be effective. We include a dialogue between denominations, and between Christians and Muslims, also."

Biblical perspective helps. It emphasizes the need for an attitude of reconciliation between election winners and losers, as well as a readiness for participating in writing a new constitution. Samir adds, "Fear is not really logical, but when we give some logic, and some biblical facts, it helps ease the fears down a little bit."

In the days ahead, there is a lot at stake. Samir encourages believers to stay involved in Egypt's emergence. It's a painstaking process, and what the nation will look like on the other side remains undetermined. "Pray for protection for the staff and the facilities, for wisdom for producers, for presenters to speak the truth. Pray also...for people to read the Word of God."

*A Christian satellite and television ministry to the Middle East and North Africa.

Mission base in Nigeria under terrorist attack

Nigeria (MNN) ― "Just as I am writing this evening, a whole village in southern Kaduna is fighting."

Those are the words of a missionary leader in Nigeria affiliated with Christian Aid Mission.

The leader goes on to say, "We have five missionaries there now whose work among local unreached Muslim tribes has been very successful. They are helping to comfort and shelter unprepared villagers who fled in terror as heavily-armed Muslim militants invaded without warning. No police or soldiers have come, and it is doubtful they will."

Due to the influx in violence by terror group Boko Haram, the team wants to move missionaries out of the dangerous area. But there are no funds to do so.

Missionaries in nearby fighting areas have been moved already. They are planning to return soon, but for now they are struggling in a new place with their children and Muslim converts that left with them.

"When the killing began in the main city, Muslims in the small town started intimidating our people," the missionary leader adds. "They told them to leave or be blamed for the killing because we are making their people Christians. The village chief has welcomed and accepted our people, but he was afraid of the militants, so we temporarily retreated the missionaries."

At the same time, there is good news. Many Muslims have come to Christ and are now safe from harm in a discipleship center. But there are unmet needs there, also. The new believers are in need of mosquito nets, school supplies, and medical supplies.

"We are so grateful for the many years of loving prayer and financial support from Christian Aid," the missionary continues. "We are just reeling with unbelief at the horrors our country is experiencing at the hands of these terrorist murderers. We know our Lord will use it all for good." 

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Three Lao, Two Thai Christians Arrested in Laos

Members of Lao military dismissed for embracing Christian faith.
By Sarah Page
Scene inside a Laotian church
DUBLIN, June 25 (Compass Direct News) – Lao officials arrested two Lao and two Thai Christians in Luang Namtha Province earlier this month, seizing them from a private residence in Long district, according to Human Rights Watch for Lao Religious Freedom (HRWLRF).
Officials also arrested a pastor in Luang Namtha and dismissed two civil servants in Savannakhet for converting to Christianity, HRWLRF reported.
An HRWLRF source told Compass today that officials have charged the two Lao and two Thai Christians arrested on June 16 in Luang Namtha with “spreading the Christian faith without official approval.”
“That is ironic, since Lao officials are highly unlikely to approve of anyone spreading the Christian faith,” said another source who requested anonymity.
A resident of Phone Sampan village in Long district who witnessed Thai brothers Jonasa and Phanthakorn Wiwatdamrong explaining Bible passages to enquirers in a private home reported their presence to police. Police then raided the home, confiscating the brothers’ passports along with biblical literature and Christian CDs, according to HRWLRF.
The brothers, along with two local residents, one identified by the single name Chalar and the other as yet unidentified, were then arrested and taken directly to Luang Namtha provincial prison. Under normal procedure, detainees would be held in a village or district prison for 36 hours during a preliminary investigation before transferring to provincial facilities, according to HRWLRF.
Officials seem determined to eliminate Christianity from the province, local sources told HRWLRF. In one case, police on June 6 arrested a pastor identified by the single name Asa following reports that he had encouraged many people in Sing district to accept Christ. (See, “Lao Police Arrest Pastor for Spreading Faith,” June 11.)
Two years ago, police arrested Asa and forced him to sign documents agreeing not to share his faith with others – but so many have turned to Christ this year as a result of Asa’s influence that officials ordered a second arrest.
Elsewhere, the military commander of Phin district, Savannakhet Province, on June 14 discharged two members of the Alowmai village security force, identified by the single names Khamsorn and Tonglai, for converting to Christianity, according to HRWLRF.
The two men became Christians in late May, as did other family members shortly thereafter. Alowmai’s chief immediately reported the conversions to the chief of police in Chudsume sub-district, who replied that under Lao law, the men had every right to believe in the religion of their choice.
The village chief then reported the conversions to Phin district’s military commander, who subsequently discharged Khamsorn and Tonglai and confiscated their military-issue firearms.
HRWLRF has called on the Lao government to respect the right of these and other Lao citizens to religious freedom as guaranteed by the constitution and other national laws, and by international covenants ratified by the Republic.
Copyright 2011 Compass Direct News

Boko Haram bomber now a martyr; trouble coming for Christians

(Photos courtesy Open Doors USA)

Nigeria (MNN) ― Security forces in Northern Nigeria warn more violence is coming. 

The grim report was confirmed by an e-mail released by the Boko Haram confirming their plans for the coming weeks. In Kaduna and Zaria where churches were bombed last week, a curfew is still in effect. 

The United States has imposed sanctions on three people associated with the militant group Boko Haram. It's a move aimed at disrupting the group's finances, since it appears the group has gotten both organized and funded since its re-emergence in 2010.

Open Doors reported two thwarted bombings over the weekend. Open Doors President and CEO, Dr. Carl Moeller, explains, "Boko Haram concealed a bomb in a coffin, claiming that it was a corpse. Fortunately, soldiers at a checkpoint insisted on seeing what was inside, and there were bombs in there. The men were arrested."

In the second attempt, a man was arrested when he masqueraded as someone who was interested in learning about Jesus Christ and to submit his life to Him. The man approached the pastor in the church. While talking, the pastor noticed a bag a few yards away. When he asked the possible convert about the bag, he denied knowing anything about the bag. But after the police discovered that the bag was filled with explosives, the would-be suicide bomber was arrested.

Then, with Sunday came a prison break, a fire fight, and the escape of 40 inmates who are members of Boko Haram. A top radical Islamist sect member blamed for a deadly Christmas Day church bombing in Nigeria was shot and killed by security forces in the fight. However, Habibu Bama's death may cause more problems than it solves. 

Boko Haram released a statement announcing it was happy about Bama's "martyrdom." Moeller says, "The jihad declared by Boko Haram is enough to push many of the extremist-influenced Muslims into violence against the Christian community, when you add the component of a martyr--someone who was intentionally sprung from jail this last week. He was killed in the ensuing fight, and that takes it to a whole other level."

Meanwhile, the Nigerian government fired the West African nation's security adviser and defense minister.  However, Moeller notes, "The firing of the national security leader in that country is not the worst part of it." It may have been calculated to keep dialogue open, but the real concern is that they hired a Muslim to replace the outgoing adviser. Moeller says, "Most of the Christians in the country are viewing this appointment as a mistake, because what will the orientation of this new Defense Minister be? Probably oriented to sympathize with a number of the Muslim communities."

It's a desperate move as the country continues to battle an insurgency that has cost hundreds their lives and displaced thousands. Militants are increasingly attacking civilians--in particular, Christians, which has inflamed religious tensions in Nigeria's volatile Middle Belt region.  

Despite last week's reprisal violence, Moeller says by and large, "The only thing that's maintaining any level of social stability in the country is that the  Christians have not taken on the jihad against them with equal acts of violence." And yet, "You have a situation where it's almost untenable for the Christian community to do nothing."

What can be done? Pray. It's the first line of defense. "We are calling on Christians to seek God's face in the midst of this and let God fight the battle for them."

Moeller goes on to say that there is still a lot of fruit, despite the circumstances. "I just read a report from Operation World that had Nigeria's Christian church growing at three or four times the population growth. As big as the population growth is in Nigeria, the church is growing at a remarkably rapid pace."

An Open Doors co-worker is asking for prayer: "We really appreciate your concern and prayers. Continue to pray for us, and don't get tired. Our office might be among the places which the sect members may aim to attack at any time and any day. Pray that the Lord will deliver us."

Moeller agrees. "Pray for the Christians in Nigeria. Pray for the peace of the church in Nigeria. Pray for those that would be bombers against the church that they would have a dramatic Damascus Road conversion in some cases, and that testimony would also go out to encourage believers."

Nigeria is ranked No. 13 on the 2012 Open Doors World Watch List of 50 countries which are the worst persecutors of Christians. According to the World Watch List, Nigeria had at least 300 martyrs in 2011, although the actual number could be closer to 1,000.

Christians nervous under new president Morsi

(Photo by Jonathan Rashad)
Egypt (MNN) ― He's only two days into his presidency, but Egypt's president elect Mohamed Morsi has already made some promises to Christians. The question now is whether it's possible for him to keep them.

The Muslim Brotherhood candidate was announced over the weekend to be the winner of Egypt's first democratic election. During his victory speech on Sunday, Morsi pledged to be "a president for all Egyptians," noting that Muslims and Christians both were vital to building Egypt.

If you have been following MNN's coverage of the Egyptian elections in the past few months, you know that many believers in particular are skeptical and even frightened of a Muslim Brotherhood-run Egypt. Although Morsi says he is for women's rights and religious freedom, many are deeply concerned by the Brotherhood's decades-long agenda to overthrow the Egypt's past secular government.

So in reaction to Morsi's speech, Todd Nettleton with Voice of the Martyrs says, "Speeches are nice, but actions are better."

"Christians now watch and say 'Okay, he said nice words. Now what are his actions going to be?'" Nettleton adds. 

"That's really what they're looking for: how are his actions going to reflect that? Are they going to reflect respect for the Christian community and respect for religious freedom? Or are they going to be hardline, Islamic, Muslim Brotherhood actions which would limit religious freedom and move Egypt more and more toward a Sharia state?"

Overall, says Nettleton, a lot of believers are not only skeptical that Morsi has a pro-Christian agenda, but, "Understandably, they're nervous about what this means for their future as far as religious freedom, and as far as their ability not only to worship, but also to witness and serve Christ in Egypt."

Persecution in Egypt has been dreadful over the centuries. Egypt is the 15th worst country in which to be a Christian when it comes to persecution, according to the Open Doors World Watch List. Believers are nervous that a government led by a Muslim Brotherhood leader might only increase crackdowns on Christians.

In the midst of transition, says Nettleton, the Gospel will undoubtedly go forward as it has been doing. And it's too early to know how extreme or lax Morsi's regime will be. But Christians are holding their breath until actions start showing up.
There's much room for prayer. Pray for believers to have peace and calmness of spirit. Pray also for Morsi in the coming days as he picks his cabinet members.

"[Pray] that the people who will honor religious freedom -- the people who will understand that there is a large Christian community in Egypt that deserves to be protected and deserves to have rights -- will get into positions of influence and positions of power." 

Police chaplain in USA told how to pray

USA (MNN) ― In some places in the United States, it's getting more difficult for Americans to freely exercise their faith in Christ. Many places across the country are taking action against Christians for praying in public, or praying in Jesus' name.

Case in point -- Pastor Terry Sartain. According to Fox News, he's been ministering to police officers in Charlotte, North Carolina for the past seven years. When he prayed at the request of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department, he prayed in "the name of Jesus."

But he can't do that anymore.

Volunteer chaplains in the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department will no longer be allowed to invoke the name of Jesus in prayers at public events held on government property. Major John Diggs heads up the chaplain program. He says it respects people of all faiths.

Sartain, the pastor of Horizon Christian Fellowship, was scheduled to give an invocation at a promotion ceremony. Before the event, he received a telephone call from his superior major telling him not to pray in Jesus' name on government property. It's something he's done consistently at department events.

Sartain says he's sad that as a pastor he can't give the one thing he has to offer: the life and person of Christ.

In an interview with Fox News, he said, "It brings about a very real concern about where we are heading as a nation. I serve a God who loves people unconditionally, who died for their sins on the cross, who wants to reconcile Himself to them and love them where they are. And now I'm told I can't bless people as a result of that."

The police department wanted him to deliver a "secular prayer." Sartain said he didn't know there was such a thing. He says it's apparent that "Christians, for the most part, are targeted in these days that we exist in...we want the same rights and privileges as everybody else," he said. "Let the playing field remain level."

As Independence Day approaches July 4th, pray that God would remind Americans about their freedoms. Pray also that Christians will be bold in their witness of Christ in and around their neighborhoods.

Monday, June 25, 2012

Lasting change in Burma starts with mindset

(Cover photo courtesy the Methodist Church of Lower Myanmar.
 Story photo by Tasha Sargent) Bishop Zothan Mawia

Myanmar (MNN) ― Christians in Myanmar are hopeful.

For the first time in decades, real change seems to be coming. Not only that, but the reforms appear to be sticking. Aung San Suu Kyi, the country's most famous dissident-turned-parliament-member doesn't negate that, but she does urge caution.

There are a great number of tasks that face the emerging nation, and it's exactly that challenge to which  Asian Access rises. The ministry has been working behind the scenes in Myanmar, and up until recently was shaped by Bishop Zothan Mawia.

Mawai explains why care would be prudent. "We have been isolated for many years. [In] 1962, the military took over, and then all the education was from English medium to Burmese medium. We were isolated in the sense that going out of Myanmar is also quite difficult. Education was weakened."

The political infrastructure remains fragile, and peace with the Maoists is equally frail. "Slowly, it's moving. We can't change in one day's time, so we need time," explains Mawia. A leap forward isn't realistic. "In that sense, we also realize that we have a part to play. We are trying our best to have this mindset change." Unless the mindset changes internally, lasting change for Myanmar is fleeting.

From the beginning, Mawia's heart has been bent toward reconciliation. In order to move forward, he's stressed the importance of understanding others' hurts as well as the willingness to forgive.

That's where Asian Access programs are most effective. "For Christians, we believe that the transformation is by the power of the Holy Spirit. So we hope the very basic mindset will be changed. That might be better for the community and then hopefully for the country. So far, that's what we have in mind."

The groundwork was already in place, since A2 has been in Myanmar since 2003. Though Mawia is not actively directing A2's ministry there now, he was integral in getting A2 launched. He has since passed the baton to a new, younger leader.

There were three things he noted as obstacles to effective church growth in Myanmar. One came about as a result of a weakened education system. "Many potential leaders like to go abroad for further study, but their English is weak, so many of them cannot." Going abroad may have been immaterial, since few could afford the study--problem number two. And the last problem: cultural differences that created nearly as much frustration as the language barrier.

Asian Access' work of leadership training has been recognized as one of the most creative and fruitful leadership training programs in Asia. The key to its effectiveness is the careful selection of twelve emerging leaders.

First things first, says Mawia. "Pastors work very hard, focusing on ministry. But the relationship with God, many times we just ignore unconsciously. We try to make that number one, to make the leaders come back to the love of God."  

These leaders are then invited to be a part of a class that meets four times a year, for a week at a time, over a two-year period. When the twelve meet together, they are working through an established curriculum that accelerates their growth as spiritual leaders, as well as organizational leaders. At their training sessions, they are resourced by leaders in and outside their country.

Mawia proudly notes the success of a program that thrived despite the oppressive conditions of the country in which they were operating. The first class graduated with 11, then 12, and then last May, nine graduates from the 3-year courses were ready for their own ministry.

As part of their training, leaders are also given the skills to determine the needs of the communities and the context in which they live and minister. Upon that knowledge, they then develop skills to equip their congregation for effective service, Mawia explains. "Though we are a minority, we still have to show forth Jesus Christ or the power of the Holy Spirit through our life, that they may be able to come to God."

New church leaders don't always have a clear path. However, for the most part, the communities where the leaders work notice something immediately. "They are also aware that we Christians are different. They can accept Christians and say, 'You are based on love.' We are not threatening them."

The question really is: is the change bringing hope, or is it hope bringing change? 

Sunday, June 24, 2012

Iranian Family asks who killed their newly-converted activist daughter?

By Michael Ireland
Senior International Correspondent, ASSIST News Service

HOUSTON, TEXAS (ANS) -- Gelareh Bagherzadeh was an Iranian-born woman, newly converted to Christianity. She volunteered as a Persian-language translator at church and was about to graduate from university and had already found a job.

Who killed Gelareh Bagherzadeh ? (Photo via
For five months, ever since Bagherzadeh, 30, was found in mid-January slumped over the steering wheel of her Nissan Altima steps from her home with a single gunshot wound to the head, family, friends and police have been asking why someone would want to kill her, according to .

"It's a unique case," says Houston Police Sgt. J.C. Padilla, the lead investigator on the case. "It's a senseless crime that happened to a young, intelligent female who had her future taken away from her. Someone out there knows what happened."

Mohabat News says the fact that nothing was stolen from her car and that Bagherzadeh was an outspoken activist against Iran's Islamic theocracy, championed women's rights in the Middle East and had recently converted from Islam to Christianity, have spawned a host of theories about her murder (everything from an Iranian intelligence agency hit to claims of other foreign government involvement).

According to Mohabat News, police say they have found no evidence linking the killing to foreign assassins, but are still investigating. In fact, they have no leads or suspects. Her family says that's not enough, and they would like to see participation by federal investigators.

"We believe she was targeted," says her father, Ebrahim Bagherzadeh. "Why or by whom? We don't know."

Last month, Crime Stoppers said it's offering up to $200,000 for information leading to her killer's arrest — the highest cash reward ever offered in the organization's three-decade history amid a rush of private donations, according to the Mohabat News report.

Thousands of murders go unsolved each year in the USA, and Bagherzadeh's case has been added to a growing tally of such crimes that wreck families, orphan children and rattle communities from coast to coast, Mohabat News reported.

The news agency says: “Indeed, of the 14,700 killings in the USA in 2010, 5,100 remain unsolved, according to FBI statistics. It's the unique nature of this case — the Iranian connection, Bagherzadeh's activist bent, what appears to be a calculated killing — that have made it resonate well beyond the confines of the nation's fourth-largest city.”

Bagherzadeh (Bah-GER-za-deh) moved from Tehran to Budapest, then, in 2007, to Houston to be near her parents and younger brother, Ali. Her father, a petroleum engineer and researcher who once worked for the government-run National Iranian Oil, had moved to Houston three years earlier to develop several of his patents, he says.

Mohabat News says Bagherzadeh settled into her parents' two-story townhouse off Augusta Drive in a well-to-do section of the city near the Galleria Mall. She volunteered as a Persian-language translator at Second Baptist Church near her parents' home and spent time teaching children to play the piano, Ali Bagherzadeh, 27, says. She enrolled at the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center, studying genetics. Fascinated by the TV shows CSI and 24, Bagherzadeh wanted to use her genetics training someday in a crime lab, her brother says.
She always wanted to help people," Ali says.

Bagherzadeh was slated to graduate in August and had already found a job at a genetics research center in Northern Virginia to be near her older brother, Kaveh, who lives in Maryland, her father says. She yearned to live in the cooler climates and changing seasons of the Northeast.

Mohabat News says Bagherzadeh had an activist's streak. When Iranian presidential elections in 2009 were widely denounced as fraudulent and led to protests in Tehran and other Iranian cities in the "Green Revolution," Bagherzadeh co-founded the activist group SabzHouston and organized street rallies across the city protesting the Iranian government.

Mohabat News said that in a videotaped interview with the Houston Chronicle during one protest in 2010, Bagherzadeh appeared on camera to discuss the turmoil in Iran, but she wouldn't give her full name — identified only as "Gelareh" — "for fear of persecution," as the reporter described it.

She flew to New York to meet with Iranian activists and wrote essays on her Facebook page denouncing the mistreatment of Iranian women, says Kathy Soltani, the co-founder of SabzHouston. At street rallies, Bagherzadeh's voice was often the loudest, she says.

"She was very passionate about her Iranian roots and about what's happening in Iran," Soltani says.
Mohabat News reports her mother, Monireh, says she worried that her daughter's activism would land her on a watch list that would prevent her from returning to Iran. Her daughter shrugged it off. "There was no fear in her whatsoever," Monireh says. "She would say, 'I'm the voice of the youth in Iran.' "

In its online report, Mohabat News goes on to say that in 2010, Soltani and Gelareh led a protest outside Houston's Al-Hadi Mosque, denouncing the mosque's alleged ties to the Iranian government. A year earlier, federal prosecutors had alleged a New York-based foundation with ties to the mosque was acting as a front for the Iranian government, according to court documents. No action was ever taken against the Al-Hadi mosque. Mosque officials did not return a request for comment for this story.

Dismayed at the oppression Islamic theocrats imposed in her home country, Bagherzadeh converted to Christianity last year at a ceremony at Second Baptist Church, Soltani says. (In Iran, converts from Islam to Christianity are often executed, she says.) Though Soltani says she thinks Bagherzadeh was targeted by someone, she finds it hard to believe Iranian agents would kill her rather than better-known activists. The lack of suspects or motive in the case has been excruciatingly frustrating, she says.

"It drives us all crazy," Soltani says. "We can't come up with any scenario that would explain why this would happen to her."

Mohabat News went on to report that on the evening of Jan. 15, Bagherzadeh drove to a classmate's house in nearby Spring, Texas, to study. Her mother called her around 11:15 p.m. to ask her whereabouts. Bagherzadeh said she was on her way home. Usually bubbly and energetic, Gelareh sounded uncharacteristically calm, Monireh Bagherzadeh says.

The news agency says Houston police received a call 30 minutes later of shots fired in the complex of the two-story townhouse where Bagherzadeh lived. Officers found her slumped over the steering wheel of her car outside a nearby garage door, the car's front wheels still spinning, says Padilla, the investigator in the case. Her assailant fired four shots through the passenger-side window. One of them struck Bagherzadeh in the head, killing her instantly, he says. Her purse, jewelry, iPhone and wallet full of credit cards were left untouched in the car.

"Somebody was waiting for her," Ebrahim Bagherzadeh says. "They had a plan for her."

Mohabat News says foreign-sanctioned assassinations — or attempts — on U.S. soil are rare but do happen, says Juan Zarate, a senior adviser with the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies and former deputy national security adviser under President George W. Bush. He says Iran has been implicated in a number of them, but he does not know all the details of the Houston case to suggest Iranian involvement.

The news agency says the most recent case of Iranian espionage involves Manssor Arbabsiar, 56, a U.S. citizen living near Austin. In September, federal investigators arrested Arbabsiar — who had an Iranian passport — for allegedly plotting to kill the Saudi ambassador to the United States at a Washington-area restaurant. The criminal complaint named a co-defendant, Gholam Shakuri, allegedly a ranking member in Iran's elite Revolutionary Guards Corps.

Zarate points out that in 1980, an American Muslim convert allegedly working on the orders of the Iranian government shot and killed Ali Akbar Tabatabaei, a former Iranian diplomat and dissident leader, at his home in Bethesda, MD. The gunman, Dawud Salahuddin, fled to Tehran where he lives today. He is wanted by U.S. authorities.

The Iranian Interests Section in Washington, which acts as the de facto Iranian embassy since the United States and Iran have no official ties, did not reply to a request for comment for this story, the news agency reported.

"The Iranians are not shy in using political assassinations around the world to go after Iranian exiles and enemies," Zarate says. "They've proven it throughout their history."

Mohabat News says that ordering the murder of a relatively low-level activist on U.S. soil while Iranian diplomats work to sway United Nations and U.S. officials to ease international sanctions defies logic, says Rasool Nafisi, a U.S.-based Iranian-American scholar who studies the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps, an elite paramilitary unit created to guard the regime. He says such a hit would be out of step with Iran's usual way of doing things.

Nafisi says that although Bagherzadeh's murder might have the markings of a targeted assassination, Iran — if it were so inclined — would pursue much more important dissidents in New York and Washington before going after her. "To come all the way to Houston to hit a girl who is outspoken is absolutely not the thing they do," he says.

The news agency says that hasn't stopped conspiracy theorists from latching on to Bagherzadeh's case, despite the fact that police have uncovered no evidence to buttress their claims.

Fred Burton, a senior vice president of private security analysts Stratfor Global Intelligence,  in March that the fact that Bagherzadeh traveled frequently to Europe could have made her a target of Iranian intelligence. "The Iranian intelligence service has a very strong network, a very strong collection network in Paris specifically," he told the news portal. "They are trying to keep tabs on their dissidents."

Several bloggers have gone even further, floating theories straight from the pages of an international thriller rather than a police blotter, the news agency stated.

The news agency goes on to report that a week after her death, Second Baptist Church held a memorial service for Bagherzadeh that drew several hundred visitors, Ebrahim Bagherzadeh says. She was buried in a cemetery near her brother's home in Maryland, fulfilling her wish to be in the Northeast.

Mohabat News stated that since then, the family has plastered her Crime Stoppers fliers across neighborhood Starbucks and other locales, handed them out to motorists at intersections and created a website for her (  ), with directions on how to leave a tip. They've met with the mayor and the chief of police, who told the family that investigators are working tirelessly to find the killer.

The news site says that although they're grateful for the work of Houston police, the family hopes federal agents will soon get involved. Special Agent Shauna Dunlap, a spokeswoman with the Houston branch of the FBI, said her office is monitoring the case but won't get further involved until evidence points to a violation of federal laws. None of it has.

Mohabat News concludes that whether Bagherzadeh's killing was a botched robbery, a crime of passion or something more sinister, family members say they hope to find an answer soon so they can move on with their lives.

"Every morning, I look at the driveway where it happened and I think, 'Why?' " Ali Bagherzadeh says. "She was just being a normal girl."

** Michael Ireland is the Senior International Correspondent for ANS. He is an international British freelance journalist who was formerly a reporter with a London (United Kingdom) newspaper and has been a frequent contributor to UCB UK, a British Christian radio station. While in the UK, Michael traveled to Canada and the United States, Albania,Yugoslavia, Holland, Germany,and Czechoslovakia. He has reported for ANS from Jamaica, Mexico, Nicaragua, Israel, Jordan, China,and Russia. Michael's volunteer involvement with ASSIST News Service is a sponsored ministry department -- 'Michael Ireland Media Missionary' (MIMM) -- of A.C.T. International of P.O.Box 1649, Brentwood, TN 37024-1649, at: Artists in Christian Testimony (A.C.T.) International where you can make a donation online under 'Donate' tab, then look for 'Michael Ireland Media Missionary' under 'Donation Category' to support his stated mission of 'Truth Through Christian Journalism.' Michael is a member in good standing of the National Writers Union, Society of Professional Journalists, Religion Newswriters Association, Evangelical Press Association and International Press Association. If you have a news or feature story idea for Michael, please contact him at: ANS Senior International Reporter