Thursday, May 2, 2013

Sudan Intensifies Arrests, Deportations of Christians

Interrogations include threat to bury ministry group members alive

By Jeremy Reynalds
Senior Correspondent for ASSIST News Service

JUBA, SOUTH SUDAN (ANS) -- Sudan has stepped up its arrests and deportations of Christians, with interrogation including threats to bury them alive, sources said.
Photo: A Sudan Pentecostal Church building the government bulldozed earlier this year.(Morning Star News photo)
According to a story by Morning Star News, besides the deportation to South Sudan of the secretary general of the Sudan Catholic Bishops' Conference on April 12, other Christians have been targeted in the past several weeks for arrest, interrogation and/or deportation.

On April 21, as a South Sudanese church elder was worshiping at a Sunday service in Khartoum, officials from the National Intelligence and Security Service (NISS) detained him for more than four hours of questioning before release, he told Morning Star News.

"They told me to reveal to them 12 names of Christians who are active in evangelism in Sudan, but I told them I have no idea," said the elder, whose name is withheld for security reasons.

Morning Star News said the right to manifest one's faith is a key provision of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which Sudan is a signatory.

NISS officials have required staff members of a university campus-based ministry to report to them weekly following t heir arrest on Feb. 23. Initially they were held and interrogated for a week, one said.

"The security officers verbally threatened to bury us alive if we did not give information on who was supporting these Christian activities," the Christian worker said.

After the Christian workers were released, Morning Star News said, for two weeks security officials ordered them to report daily to NISS offices for interrogation about links with Christian organizations, said the worker, whose organizational name is withheld for security reasons.

NISS officials confiscated the organization's equipment, vehicle and documents. They also went to the home of organization members and took academic papers, laptops, digital cameras, mobile phones and iPads, among other personal belongings, he said.

Authorities deported three of the group's workers to South Sudan in March after monitoring their movements and telephone calls, another member told Morning Star News.

"They gave me only 72 hours to leave the country," the C hristian worker said. "They came to my house while I was away and took five laptops of my sisters, as well as my documents, identity cards, school documents and mobile phone. I thank God that He has been with me during the interrogation with the Security."

Some Christians from South Sudan have been given only 24 hours to leave Sudan, Morning Star News reported sources said.

On April 29, various church leaders in Omdurman, on the Nile River opposite Khartoum, organized a meeting to pray over the crisis facing congregations in Sudan.

Morning Star News said harassment, arrests and persecution of Christians have intensified since the secession of South Sudan in July 2011. Thatwas when President Omar al-Bashir vowed to adopt a stricter version of sharia (Islamic law) and recognize only Islamic culture and the Arabic language.

South Sudanese lost citizenship in Sudan and were ordered to leave by March 1, 2012. However, an estimated 500,000 of them were reportedly stranded in the north due to job loss, pover ty, transportation limitations and ethnic and tribal conflict in South Sudan.

Morning Star News said Sudan and South Sudan signed an agreement on Sept. 27 2012 to hold negotiations on citizenship rights for South Sudanese in Sudan and northerners living in South Sudan. However, there has been no progress, according to the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF)'s annual report, issued this month.
South Sudanese Christians in Sudan have faced increased hostilities due to their ethnic origins - though thousands have little or no ties to South Sudan - as well as their faith.

Morning Star News said South Sudan's secession has served as a pretext for Bashir's regime to bulldoze church buildings once owned by South Sudanese and to deport Christians based on their ethnicity, sources said. 
Morning Star News said the government's determination to rid the country of Christianity was evident on April 12, when security forces deported the secretary-general of the Sudan Catholic Bishops' C onference, Santino Morokomomo Maurino, and two colleagues to South Sudan.

Morning Star News said Sudan Catholic Radio Network reported that NISS officials detained him in Khartoum and gave him three days to leave. Michael Fleury of France and an Egyptian identified only as Brother Hossam, both members of the De La Salle Christian Brothers in Khartoum, were also deported.

In a report issued this month, Christian Solidarity Worldwide noted an increase in arrests, detentions and deportations of Christians since Dec.2012. The organization also reported that systematic targeting of Nuba and other ethnic groups suggests the resurgence of an official policy of "Islamization and Arabization."

Morning Star News said due to its treatment of Christians and other human rights violations, Sudan has been designated a Country of Particular Concern by the U.S. State Department since 1999, and USCIRF this month recommended that the country remain on the list this year.

For more information go to

American Pastor Saeed Abedini Thrown into Solitary Confinement in Iran; Health Deteriorating

By Jeremy Reynalds
Senior Correspondent for ASSIST News Service

WASHINGTON D.C. (ANS) -- Already badly weakened by months of beatings and torture that have resulted in internal bleeding, American Pastor Saeed Abedini, a U.S. citizen, is facing perhaps his most difficult challenge since his imprisonment last fall.

Saeed Abedini
According to a story by Jordan Sekulow for the American Center for Law and Justice (ACLJ), family members in Iran confirm that Abedini, along with nine other prisoners, has been placed in solitary confinement.

The ACLJ said new reports indicate that in addition to the severe internal bleeding he is experiencing, which has gone untreated, he is now facing issues with his kidneys.

The ACLJ said it has confirmed that awful conditions in Evin Prison led Abedini and a number of prisoners in Ward 350 to sign a letter expressing to prison officials their concern about the lack of medical care received, and the threats and harsh treatment facing family members who come to visit. 

The prisoners expressed their dissatisfaction in a peaceful, silent protest in an outside courtyard at the prison.

The ACLJ said that apparently prompted prison officials to retaliate, selecting ten of the prisoners and placing them in solitary confinement. The ACLJ said its sources indicate that Abedini is likely to be beaten again, in pr ivate, away from other witnesses and prisoners.

At the same time, the ACLJ said, there's concern that his kidneys are no longer operating properly, the result of the internal injuries he has received over many months. Abedini has been told not to expect medical treatment or care for many months.

When family members showed up at prison to visit Abedini, the ACLJ said they were turned away and told he is no longer permitted to have visitors.

This latest development is causing enormous concern to Abedini's wife Naghmeh.

"Saeed has internal bleeding and now issues with his kidneys because of the beatings," the ACLJ reported Naghmeh said. "We believe that he is being beaten in solitary confinement. We have no way of finding out about his health. There will be no more visitations allowed and we will have no way of knowing how Saeed is doing."

She added, "Saeed had previously told his family that when he was in solitary confinement in the past, that was the hardest time in his life.. That every hour was lik e one year and that he was losing his memory and his health was deteriorating quickly. Please pray for his health and healing. Pray for his release. Pray that the Lord would use this for His glory and salvation of many."

The ACLJ said it spoke with a former Iranian political prisoner, who spent 15 years in Iranian prisons, including some time at Evin, about Abedini's solitary confinement.

He told the ACLJ, "Saeed was most likely on a list of prisoners the prison wants to break."

He explained that the prison officials keep a list of prisoners who have stood their ground refusing to recant their faith or confess to their crimes.

"Prison officers use any prison resistance, regardless of whether the prisoner was involved in the resistance, to target and break those prisoners on their list," the ACLJ reported he said. "They took Saeed to solitary confinement to put pressure on his belief and faith. This shows that Saeed has stood strong for his faith."

The ACLJ commented, "The latest developments un derscore the brutality of Iran's continued violation of human rights - imprisoning, torturing, and refusing medical care for Pastor Saeed merely because of his faith. This treatment not only violates international law, but is abhorrent."

The ACLJ said Abedini will be 33 on May 7.

The ACLJ said more than 42,000 people already have sent Abedini a birthday greeting - letters the ACLJ said it is personally delivering to Evin Prison.

The ACLJ commented, "Letters of prayer, support and encouragement. They are needed now more than ever. Please take a moment, if you haven't done so already, and send a letter to Pastor Saeed today."

For more information go to

War-Weary Syrians to Unite in Prayer; Ask Christians Worldwide to Join Them

Open Doors USA Urges Believers to Pledge to Pray on Saturday, May 11

SANTA ANA, Calif., April 30, 2013/Christian Newswire/ -- Most churches in Syria will unite in prayer on Saturday, May 11, in many places around the war-torn nation. This will be an extraordinary show of unity of Christian denominations in Syria, where the on-going civil war has claimed over 70,000 lives.

Syrian Christians are asking their brothers and sisters around the world to pray and fast with them on the Day of Prayer for Syria on May 11.

"As Christians in Syria continue to suffer from the devastating effects of the two-year-old civil war including killings, kidnappings, homelessness, lack of food and shelter and closing of schools; they are also seeing that God's hand is at work as all denominations are joining in passionate prayer," says Open Doors USA interim President/CEO Steve Ridgway. "Christians in Syria know only Jesus can bring redemption and true peace.

"I urge you to take time on May 11 to pray with Syrian believers and for the country of Syria. Also encourage prayer in your churches on May 12. Let's stand together as one in Christ."

Syria as well as the Christian church there.

On Saturday May 11, 2013 churches ALL OVER SYRIA will unite in one heart before the father. They are meeting in their churches, homes and gathering places to send their cries to our Lord. Please join your brothers and sisters that day in prayers and, if you can, in fasting.

You can also help your brothers and sisters in Christ by spreading the word to your church leaders, pastors and priests. Share this event on Facebook and use the connections you have to let the body of Christ know World Wide that the rest of their family in Syria needs them on this specific day!

Thank you, and may the Lord keep our hearts and eyes on Him in the middle of the pain and suffering that is happening around the world.

Philippians 4:6 "do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God." Open Doors received a letter from leaders coordinating The Day of Prayer for Syria. In part, it reads:

"As you may know, the Christian church in Syria is experiencing a deep humanitarian crisis that is leading to the rapid loss of hope. In the face of violence and persecution, our brothers and sisters are striving to keep their eyes on the Lord and seeking His face in their country. Even in pain, suffering and death, God is using the church to accomplish His plan.

On Saturday, May 11, Christians from different denominations such as Catholic, Orthodox and Protestant/Evangelical are joining together in prayer and fasting to plead before the Lord for His mercy on Syria and an end to the violence. Due to the dangers of traveling in combat zones, Christians will be limited to local meetings planned all across Syria during this day. These groups will be meeting in homes, arenas and churches. Christians across Syria have asked that you join them in prayer on May 11.

Thank you for standing in the gap on behalf of the Syrian people and reflecting the love of Christ in your acts of worship.

In Damascus, some of the churches will meet in an arena, but there will be prayer in several suburbs of the city. The entire Christian community in Aleppo and the surrounding area is gathering to pray. "This is a huge undertaking as it (day of prayer with almost all denominations participating) has never happened in Syria before," said a Syrian church leader.

For more information, a list of specific prayer requests, and to make a pledge to pray for Syria, go to

A few prayer requests from churches inside Syria include:
  • The release of two Orthodox bishops, Yohanna Ibrahim and Boulos Yazigi, who were kidnapped April 23 in Aleppo, and other Christians who are missing.

  • Counseling for children who have been traumatized by violence.

  • For almost one-third of the Syrian population who are either refugees outside the country or homeless inside Syria.

  • Return of peace.
On the ground in Syria, Open Doors, working with church partners, is helping facilitate food supplies, personal hygiene products, medical assistance/medicines and financial support by paying the rent of apartments for temporary shelter for the homeless. The Displaced Peoples Project also is targeting other countries. Worldwide, thousands of Christians are being forced to leave their original family homes and villages due to persecution and ravages of war. 

For almost 60 years Open Doors has worked in the world's most oppressive and restrictive countries, strengthening Christians to stand strong in the face of persecution and equipping them to shine Christ's light in these places. Open Doors empowers persecuted Christians by supplying Bibles and Christian literature, training Christian leaders, facilitating social/economic projects and uniting believers in the West in prayer for Christians, who are the most persecuted religious group in the world and are oppressed in at least 60 countries. To partner with Open Doors USA, call toll free at 888-5-BIBLE-5 (888-524-2535) or go to our website at

Trying to Save Saeed

By Jeremy Reynalds
Senior Correspondent for ASSIST News Service

BOISE, IDAHO (ANS) -- Saeed Abedini is in a battle for his life.
Saeed Abedini and his family

According to an article by Katy Moeller for the Idaho Statesman, the 32-year-old has languished in Iran's notorious Evin Prison for more than 200 days. He was convicted of "threatening the national security of Iran" for his involvement in Christian home churches from 2000 to 2005.

His parents are allowed to visit him weekly, and they say he's enduring beatings and other torture. He has suffered internal bleeding and needs medical treatment, according to the American Center for Law and Justice.

Tiffany N. Barrans, international legal director for the nonprofit advocacy center, said it has petitioned to have the Red Cross come in as a third party to treat him.

"That has not been granted by the Iranian authorities," the Idaho Statesman reported Barrans said.

Saeed, a Boise resident with his wife and two children since 2006, was in Iran doing humanitarian work when he was imprisoned in September. In January, he was sentenced to eight years in prison.

The Idaho Statesman said Saeed has told authorities that if he is freed, he will leave Iran and never return, Barrans said. That didn't help his case.

As hopeless as the situation appears, Barrans said there's reason to be optimistic about his release. A decision on Saeed's appeal is pending.

"It gives the Iranian government an out, to save face," the Idaho Statesman reported Barrans said of the possibility that his sentence will be overturned. "They want to look like a country that is following the rule of law."
It's important to get Saeed released before Iran's elections in June.

"During and around those elections, the Iranian government is not going to want to release anyone who is seen as oppositional," the Idaho Statesman reported Barrans said.

Barrans said the key to Saeed's safe release is pressure from other countries - particularly those that have ties to Iran, including Qatar, Italy, Argentina and Brazil.

The Idaho Statesman said the American Center for Law and Justice is seeking support from those nations, and the group hopes the U.S. State D epartment is doing the same behind the scenes.

One positive new development, Barrans said, is that human rights groups within Iran haven taken up Saeed's cause.
"If there is enough stir in Iran - in their media and social media - it may cause unrest," Barrans said. "They may decide it's not worth the unrest during their elections, if this one man's case could disrupt that peace."
Keeping the Pressure On
The Idaho Statesman said more than half a million people have signed an online petition calling for Saeed's release.
Friends at his church in Boise are doing what they can to help.

"We have a constant flow of letters going to Iran, so they know he's not forgotten," said Rhett Allen, assistant director of children's ministry at Boise's Calvary Chapel.

Some of those letters have been written by children from the church, he said. The church is selling neon yellow "Save Saeed" T-shirts for $20 at its bookstore.

"We're exercising every resource that w e have," the Idaho Statesman reported Allen said. "We serve a good God, and we know he can do miracles."

Saeed's wife, Naghmeh, is doing a lot of public speaking, hoping to keep her husband's plight in the public eye.
The Idaho Statesman said a regular on Fox News, she tries to limit travel outside the state to just once a month so that she's not away from the couple's two children, ages 6 and 5.

Naghmeh said most of the money raised on her family's behalf has gone to others who need it more. She said she's sent it to a group of Christian families - associated with her husband - who fled from Iran to Turkey.
"I feel responsible for them," she said.

Raised in Idaho, Married in Iran

Naghmeh (Panahi) Abedini, 36, was born in Iran but grew up in the Treasure Valley.

The Idaho Statesman said her family fled during the Iran-Iraq War in the 1980s. Today, her father runs a user-interface manufacturing company called PKG User Interface Solutions in Meridian.& nbsp;

Naghmeh graduated from Centennial High School in 1995, and earned a bachelor's degree from the University of Puget Sound. She had her sights set on medical school.

Through Calvary Chapel, the Idaho Statesman said, she did some missionary work in her 20s, including a trip to India, and felt God calling her to do the same in her native Iran.
Her parents were stunned at her decision.

"They felt I was going backward. 'We brought you here so you could flourish as a woman and be a doctor,'" she recalled.

The Idaho Statesman said she comes from a well-educated, high-achieving family. Her twin brother earned a doctorate in quantum physics from the University of Chicago.

Naghmeh went to Iran in late 2001 and met Saeed at a Christian gathering in 2002. They had a Christian wedding in Iran in 2004.

The Idaho Statesman said persecution of Christians intensified after Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was elected president, and they decided in 2005 that it was time to move to Idaho. Naghmeh was pregnant with th eir first child.

The couple live at Naghmeh's parents' house in West Boise. An ordained pastor, Saeed participated in Christian ministry in Iran via Skype.

In 2009, the Idaho Statesman said, Saeed and his family visited Iran. He was detained at the airport on their way home. He was interrogated every day for two months about his activities with the home churches.

The Idaho Statesman said Iranian officials warned him to stop his involvement with the home churches. However, they said he could do nonreligious humanitarian work and continue to travel back and forth between Iran and the U.S., Naghmeh said.

From 2009 to 2012, Naghmeh said, Saeed complied with the Iranian government's demands. Last summer, he was in Iran to build an orphanage on family land in the city of Rasht near the Caspian Sea.

"It was a big surprise when he was arrested," the Idaho statesman reported Naghmeh said.

Wife Warned Not to Go to Iran

Until he was imprisoned, Saeed was able to talk to his wife and children via Skype and telephone.

The Idaho Statesman reported Naghmeh said her first instinct was to go to Iran to be there for her husband. Officials warned her in-laws against that.

"They said, 'If she sets foot in this airport, she's going straight to prison,'" the Idaho Statesman reported Naghmeh said.

That's because she's a Muslim who converted to Christianity and was involved in Christian house churches in Iran with her husband years ago, she said.

Call to Prayer for Syria: The Istanbul Statement

By Jeremy Reynalds
Senior Correspondent for ASSIST News Service

FAIRFAX, VA (ANS) -- Jubilee Campaign, a member of the Religious Liberty Partnership, is calling for an International Day of Prayer for Syria.

According to an email from the Jubilee Campaign's Ann Buwalda, on April 15, Jubilee Campaign and other religious liberty organizations in the Religious Liberty Partnership (RLP) released a statement on the crisis in Syria.

The statement asks the United Nations Special Envoy for Syria to pay extra concern for "vulnerable ethnic and religious minorities," and calls for a designated day of prayer for the country. It is called the Istanbul Statement on the Church in Syria.

To read the statement in its entirety go to

Mervyn Thomas, chairman of the RLP, and CEO of Christian Solidarity Worldwide, UK, said in a statement, "There was overwhelming support at our 2013 Consultation in Istanbul to speak out about the urgent situation facing Christians and other religious minorities in Syria at this present time."

He added, "We urge Christian leaders around the world to respond to this call to prayer and action now in order to bring peace and stability to this troubled nation."

Jubilee Campaign said the statement expresses concern for Christians and other ethnic and religious minorities attempting to leave Syria. It calls on the international community to "provide sufficient protection for all ethnic and religious communities as well as their historical, religious, and cultural sites."

According to the statement, drafted during the annual gathering of member organizations held in Istanbul in late March, the RLP commits "to raise awareness and work toward a peaceful solution of the current crisis, including reconciliation among the various ethnic and religious communities; and to utilize practices that prioritize the well-being of all Syrians when providing assistance and advocating on behalf of the vulnerable."

Jubilee Campaign is a part of the RLP, which is a collaborative effort of Christian organizations from over 20 countries focused on religious liberty. The RLP seeks for organizations to more intentionally work together in addressing advocacy, assistance, and in raising the awarene ss of religious liberty issues globally.

One Dead and Several Injured after Muslim Extremists attack Christian Village in South Punjab

By Jeremy Reynalds
Senior Correspondent for ASSIST News Service

ISLAMABAD, PAKISTAN (ANS) -- There has been a deadly attack in a Pakistani Christian village.

The Pakistan Christian Post (The Post) reported that according to sources speaking to the Center for Legal Aid, Assistance and Settlement (CLAAS), the assault occurred late evening on April 26 in the village Chack no. 31/10-R, District Khanewal near Multan.

The Post said Samuel Masih, a Christian, was badly injured after getting shot in the neck. A Muslim, Mohammad Yousaf, died on the scene.

The Post said another man and a few Christians were also seriously injured. Police transported them to District Hospital Katcha Kho for treatment.

According to Shamim Masih, ANS special correspondent in Pakistan, Lazarus Allah Rakha and Rana Adnan, representatives of World Vision in Progress, said shots began when Christians were attacked, and Samuel Masih was hurt.

Shamim Masih said that according to CLAAS spokesman Joseph Francis, the village then turned into a battlefield where armed groups were observed exchanging gunfire with each other.

Police responded quickly and filed reports against suspects. More th an 20 people from both groups were reportedly arrested.

The Post said law enforcement has been helpful and provided security. However, as Muslims have reportedly threatened to burn down Christians' homes, police have asked residents to vacate the village and taken families to a safer location.

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Boko Haram: Amnesty or not?

Nigeria (MNN) ― Nigeria is fast becoming one of the deadliest places in the world to be a Christian.

Boko Haram's victims: Nigerian churches
 (Courtesy Compass Direct News)
According to a statistic noted by Christian Today, nearly 70% of the Christians who were killed globally were murdered in Nigeria. Open Doors and the Voice of the Martyrs report that over 900 Christians were killed in Nigeria in 2012 for their faith. This year has been another bloody year. Boko Haram--translated loosely in Hausa as "Western education is sin"--so far has claimed the lives of 128 Christians.

Over the past three years, Boko Haram has terrorized Christians by bombing churches and murdering Christians in their own homes. The Boko Haram insurgency is estimated to have cost more than 3,000 lives since 2009, including deaths caused by the security forces.

An April 19 attack in Borno State is a perfect example of the lawlessness. Authorities say Boko Haram extremists attacked Baga, a small village in the North. By the time the bloodbath was over, the Red Cross said there were 187 dead--the worst death toll in a single event throughout the Islamist insurgency.

Nigeria's federal government is attempting to offer Boko Haram a total amnesty deal in exchange for peace in northern Nigeria. However, spokesman for the Voice of the Martyrs USA Todd Nettleton asks, "What's the real issue for Boko Haram?"

They've made a mission out of reshaping the country into a Muslim nation under Sharia law. Nettleton warns, "If that's what they really want, amnesty is not going to work." Besides, he adds, it sends a mixed message to the terror group's victims. "The believers look on this with quite a bit of trepidation. For one thing, they simply don't trust Boko Haram. The other question is: who can speak on behalf of Boko Haram to make those decisions and make those choices?"

Boko Haram is a fragmented group without a single head. The fragmentation showed clearly under the alleged "cease fire" earlier in the year which ended when Boko Haram continued its attacks on schools, churches, government offices, and law enforcers. Nettleton says aside from not knowing who speaks for the group, there are threats from within the group itself against other members. "The self-proclaimed leader of Boko Haram has already threatened to kill anyone who accepted an offer of amnesty in the name of Boko Haram."

The appointed amnesty committee is being tasked with the seemingly impossible. "President Goodluck Jonathan has said within three months he wants this committee to have opened some dialogue with Boko Haram's leaders. He said as he appointed them, ‘This is a really hard job. We hope you can make some progress.'"

In fact, President Jonathon's charge seemed to acknowledge the monumental task before the 26-member committee. "We're looking for you to perform magic by making a way to peace with Boko Haram."

Nettleton says it's an almost impossible imagining: "the mechanics of actually working out some kind of an agreement and then having all the different factions within Boko Haram accept that agreement and follow through with it. "

Oddly, both the Christian Association of Nigeria (CAN) and Boko Haram rejected the idea. CAN expressed its opposition to a proposal to grant amnesty to the terrorists and suggested that any political approach had to involve both parties to a conflict.

However, one church leader asked, "Can a man clap with one hand?" describing skepticism that Boko Haram would honor any agreement. They also noted that past leaders seemingly open to a political solution have been assassinated. Boko Haram, meanwhile, responded by saying it has done nothing it needs amnesty for.

This all adds up to an ominous rumble. A disquieting movement has begun between the Christian and Muslim youth in the South. One group, claiming they would be acting to "protect" Christians, has already issued a May 31 deadline. Once that passes, they say a campaign of mosque bombings and other acts of violence will target the Muslim communities. Whether or not it will spark an answering volatility in the North is unknown.

Nettleton says in the meantime, the uncertainty does have an impact on Gospel work. "Obviously, that affects people going to church, it affects people gathering together. But then, when you step beyond that and you step to actual outreach and actually even encouraging Muslims to consider following Christ, you really put a target on your chest."

The solution? Prayer. "Even in these situations, there are great things that God can do and is doing. That can be our prayer in this, that we will see the Kingdom advance in Northern Nigeria regardless of amnesty or no amnesty."

President praises country's religious freedom; law introduced to punish faith-sharing

Kazakhstan (MNN) ― There's an interesting back-and-forth battle in Kazakhstan.

Forum 18 News says early last week, the country's president claimed Kazakhstan respects religious freedom. But within 48 hours, there were heavy fines against Protestant Christians who celebrated Easter Sunday.

According to Forum 18, the raid brought one elderly member under enough stress to trigger a heart attack. This person told Forum 18 that police "have decided to use fear to separate us from God, something they can never achieve. They cannot ban me from my Christian faith."

By the end of the week, says Joel Griffith of Slavic Gospel Association, a new law was in the works.

"Reportedly, it introduces a new maximum penalty for those who share their faith, or witness," Griffith explains.

"If that actually comes into law, that really is of great concern."

Under the proposed law--alluded to in a separate Forum 18 article--those who share the Gospel openly could be imprisoned for up to four months.

"It does certainly seem that some storm clouds are on the horizon," says Griffith. "Even if there isn't an official code that's been voted on by Parliament right now…, the [Agency of Religious Affairs] seems to be taking quite a bit of authority on itself and trying to put pressure on religious groups."

In the scope of Central Asian history, Kazakhstan's current state of affairs is nothing out of the ordinary. Griffith says it reminds him of their days under Soviet rule.

"Officially, they had freedom of worship and freedom of religion in their constitution," he says. "But in practice, they didn't have it. People were arrested; people were sent to the gulag."

At this time of great persecution, SGA began a prayer movement for the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics.

"We prayed and prayed and prayed about that, and miraculously in the late 1980s the Berlin Wall came down," Griffith recalls. "And then in 1991, the entire Soviet Union broke apart, and each of those 15 nations became independent."

Griffith says the Gospel enjoyed great freedom as Kazakhstan took its first steps of independence.

"But we've seen backtracking on that in recent years," says Griffith. "This is just certainly more evidence of that."

As was the case in Kazakhstan's Soviet days, Griffith says the most important thing to do is pray.

"The Lord answered prayers during that time, and the door was opened for the Gospel there like never before," he states. "Well, now we're beginning to see the doors close again. The most important ministry we can do for them is intercessory prayer."

Wading through misinformation on Syrian bishops

(Image of "Kermalak" host courtesy SAT-7)

Syria (MNN) ― Pressure is increasing for whoever is holding the Syrian bishops to release them.
Last week, two Christian Syrian bishops were kidnapped on their way to Aleppo--Syria's largest city--after a humanitarian trip to Turkey.

The abducted individuals are Greek Orthodox Archbishop Paul Yazigi and Syriac Orthodox Archbishop Yohanna Ibrahim, who is also a SAT-7 Board member.

So far, no group has claimed responsibility for the kidnapping. However, there are a number of news reports speculating about a connection with Chechen fighters. The group is reportedly allied with Nusra Front, which was merged with al Qaeda in Iraq, according to the U.S. State Department.

However, a SAT-7 Syrian co-worker was quick to note that misinformation about the kidnappers has been fast and furious since the bishops disappeared. He added that the Chechen connection was made because the bishops were traveling through an area where Chechen fighters were rumored to be.

At this point, SAT-7, a Christian satellite television ministry to the Middle East and North Africa, is taking their cues on this developing story directly from the Syrian Orthodox Archdiocese of Aleppo.

The SAT-7 programming team is gearing the program called "Kermalak," (which means "Just For You, Syria") toward the issue, allowing believers to call in, ask questions, share concerns, and pray.

Christians account for around 5% of Syria's population. They have become increasingly vulnerable to attack and abductions in the lawlessness that has engulfed much of the country since an uprising against President Bashar al-Assad erupted two years ago.

Islamists driving Christians out of Iraq

Iraq (ODM/MNN) ― Iraq's Christian heritage can be compared to its wetland marshes.

(Images of Iraqi churches courtesy Open Doors Australia)
Christ followers in Iraq date back to the first century A.D., making it one of the oldest Christian communities in the world. But today, Christianity in Iraq is under serious threat. Similarly, the wetland marshes, once teeming with flora and fauna, were drained to desert over a decade ago.

What's more, it seems this attitude is part of a growing trend. Open Doors minister-at-large Paul Estabrooks explains, "The Christians are being told, ‘We want a Muslim-only nation. We do not want any Christians here.' This is similar to what is going on today in northern Sudan."

As a result, Christians in Iraq continue to be targets of violent attacks. "When the Iraq war began, Muslim extremists in Baghdad targeted one whole community called Dara, where the Christians lived in Baghdad." Estabrooks notes, "Today, just about every one of those Christian families has been driven out of the subdivision in which they lived."
While the overthrow of Saddam Hussein in 2003 may have been a victory for coalition forces, ongoing changes in leadership have been a disaster for Iraqi Christians. Estabrooks says, "As each attack against Christians occurs in recent weeks and days, there are more and more concerns that Christians will continue the exodus."
Reports from Open Doors field workers indicate anti-Christian sentiment is only growing. "From a city like Mosul, armed men shot a Christian right in front of his home. Another one had a bomb thrown in his yard." In 2003, there were more than one million Christians in Iraq. A decade later, only a third of this number remain.
The saddest part of this story, says Estabrooks, is the loss of history. Christians have been part of the fabric of Iraqi society since the beginning. During the 7th century, Islam took over and the Christians were hard-pressed, but they survived. That's what makes this modern day "religicide" a travesty. "Even though they were second class citizens at the time, they were able to survive through the challenges and the pressure of that era (7th century Islam). Now, even these denominations are saying, ‘If more and more Christians keep leaving or get killed, then there will be no Church left in this country.'"

However, there are some church leaders who are not content to sit quietly while the violence decimates their homes. Louis Raphael Sako, the newly-elected Chaldean Catholic patriarch of Iraq and Syria, urges Christians to stay. "We must stay. This is our history. This is our cultural heritage. When we leave, everything will leave with us." As he reads the field reports, Estabrooks echoes that sentiment. "There's a sense in which the Salt and Light Christians [bring] must remain there. This is the appeal Christians are making to us for our prayers on their behalf."

Does intercessory prayer make a difference? It must, says Estabrooks. "It is the only recourse we really have other than giving awareness to the international community of this kind of ‘religious cleansing' that seems to be going on."

According to the Open Doors 2013 World Watch List materials, there are only an estimated 330,000 to 350,000 Christians left in Iraq. There were more than 1.2 million Christians in the early 1990s. Many of the believers have fled to Jordan and Lebanon, or to the northern Kurdish region of Iraq. Iraq is ranked No. 4 on the list of the worst persecutors around the globe.

Despite the doom and gloom of this story, it does include a bright note. Dreams and visions of Christ are commonly reported throughout the Middle East and North Africa as the rise of Islam continues. Even as the reports of "religicide" pour in, there are people who are accepting Christ as Savior. Mentoring these new Christians falls on the shoulders of the few church leaders who are left.

The Open Doors ministry in Iraq is coming alongside this remnant and providing trauma counseling, biblical training for church leaders and Muslim-Background Believers, distribution of Bibles and Christian literature, community development projects, and working with Internally Displaced Peoples (IDPs) in Kurdistan.

Remember the comparison we made at the beginning of this story? Recently, an Iraqi civil engineer came back to the wetlands and organized a careful breech of the dams that diverted the waters of the Tigris and Euphrates. Within months, the desert landscape was teeming with life, seeds sprouting from a dry land nearly abandoned to war.

So it is with the seeds of the Church in Iraq.

Sunday, April 28, 2013

My cousins in Qamishly

A desperate attempt to discover whether they’re safe

Correspondent Nuri Kino lives in Sweden. Parts of his family reamain in Syria. He writes:

It’s mid-April, Friday, almost 9pm. I’ve showered, had a bite to eat and sat down in front of the TV. After a long day of work, I want to relax in front of a good film, something to watch which doesn’t include using my brain… something feel-good. My iPhone is incessantly going off whilst I’m flicking channels. My cousin calls from Belgium: he and his wife with their three children escaped Syria a few months ago. They sold their house, car and all other belongings so they could leave the country. The smuggler demanded 15,000 US dollars per person.

The iPhone keeps showing my cousin is trying to get hold of me. I’m thinking he probably wants to talk about his situation in Belgium. No work. No language courses. "No life", as he describes it. I can’t stand listening to his complaints; I put my mobile under the pillow and continue my search for a good film. He doesn’t give up. He’s never this persistent, not this late at night. I answer the phone with a heavy sigh.

"They’ve entered Qamishly [a town on Syria’s NE border with Turkey]. The [rebel] Free Syrian Army is said to be on their way to take over the airport. It’s the last military outpost for [President Assad’s] Syrian Army. It could end in a full-blown war between the two parties. My mother’s house is next to the airport. I can’t get hold of my sister or my brother. The telephones aren’t working. They haven’t worked for the last week. No internet either. You know plenty of people. Please try to get hold of someone in Qamishly with a Turkish mobile number. We have to verify what’s true and what isn’t."

He’s not even giving me a chance to answer. His worry goes through my ears, down to my knees and I feel myself almost fall down. When we hang up I try to compose myself, hold the tears back -so I can work. My heart is racing. I go through my phonebook, call a friend in Gothenburg. He knows a lot of people in northern Syria and has spent the last 15 years there. He promises he will try to help me. Someone with a Turkish mobile number might be able to reach my cousins. To make sure they are still alive. While my friend is trying to reach Syria, I sit down in front of my computer: perhaps some of my Facebook friends know people in Qamishly. I write private messages to about 20 people. Most of them have heard that the Free Syrian Army is approaching Qamishly. Everyone speculates about what will happen now: will war break out between the Arabs and the Kurds? Will the Syrian Army hit back at the rebels? This could end in yet another bloodbath.

No one can tell me anything; my worries lessen. Two friends remind me, also, that my cousins’ uncle was a wealthy businessman in the area and my cousins could therefore get kidnapped. Anyone wealthy, or perhaps perceived as affluent by criminals, will be a target for many of the gangs. There are also rumours that al-Qaida refuse to let the PKK [the Kurdistan Workers’ Party which, until it signed a peace agreement on March 23rd, has waged an armed struggle against the Turkish state since 1984, for recognition and rights for Kurds] take control over north Syria, so it will be heading towards that direction as well. My heart is beating harder and harder.

I feel like such an idiot. I can’t believe I didn’t travel there a few weeks ago, taking those passports with me to smuggle my cousins out. That was the plan.

Syria is being emptied of its Christian population. Christians don’t have their own militia, no foreign governments to ally with them, and they will face the same fate as the Christians in Iraq. Those who are capable will come to Europe. Whatever the price and even if it means they might die trying.

I don’t encourage crime, not human smuggling, nor forgery, nor any other illegalities. But tell me, wouldn’t YOU try to smuggle out the people closest to you – and in doing so maybe break the law?

At 4 minutes past 10, right after the late TV news begins, my phone rings again. Someone in Qamishly with a satellite phone confirms they have been able to contact my cousins. They are all doing well. Nothing has happened – yet… Amongst my relatives in Sweden we start discussing options of how to get them out of Syria, which smugglers to use.

Nuri Kino, of Assyrian [Syriac Orthodox] background, is an award-winning TV/radio journalist now living in Sweden. In Jan, 2013 he wrote a report "Between the wire" in which he did 100+ interviews with Syria’s minority Christian community. This piece first appeared in the Swedish daily paper, Aftonbladet, and appears here with permission.

©2013 World Watch Monitor

Kidnapped bishop urges Christians to stay in Syria

Nephew shares bishop's wish for Christians 'not to empty Syria'

The nephew of bishop Yohanna Ibrahim, one of the two archbishops kidnapped in Syria on Monday, said he hopes Syrian Christians will not use the incident as an incentive to flee the country.

Jamil Diarbakerli, who represents the Assyrian Democratic Organisation (which petitions for the rights of the Assyrian minority) said bishop Ibrahim, head of the Syriac Orthodox Church in Aleppo, was kidnapped on Monday, alongside his counterpart from the Greek Orthodox Church, bishop Boulos Yaziji, after travelling to the Turkish border in an attempt to secure the release of two priests kidnapped in February – Michel Kayyal (Armenian Catholic) and Maher Mahfous (Greek Orthodox).

The driver of the vehicle, Fathallah Kaboud, was later killed, although Diarbakerli said he learned from ecclesiastical sources in Syria that the shooting  took place in another part of the city after Kaboud had driven to inform the bishop’s office of the kidnapping.

Kaboud had been the personal chauffeur of bishop Ibrahim for a number of years. He leaves behind a wife and two children.

A fourth passenger escaped, but his identity remains unknown.

Reports on Tuesday claimed the bishops had been released, but these were later refuted by church officials.

This latest kidnapping comes a week after bishop Ibrahim told the BBC that there has been no targeting of Christians in Syria during the rebel uprising. Yet on April 17, Greek Melkite Catholic Patriarch Gregory III Laham told the press that more than 1,000 Syrian Christians have been killed and 20 churches destroyed.

The bishop's nephew acknowledged that "there are parts of Syria where there is persecution of Christians", however he said he believes his uncle's desire is for Syrian Christians to remain in the country, wherever possible.

"Things can change dramatically after the kidnapping of two important Christian leaders, but even though there is a war in Aleppo, the two bishops stayed and want their people to do the same – not to leave the country, not to empty Syria of Christians,” he said.

Diarbakerli said the latest kidnapping has increased tensions between Muslims and Christians in Syria, but said he is hopeful a resolution will dissolve tensions.

"I don´t want the perpetrators to win by using the archbishop as a weapon for religious and sectarian violence," he said. "I hope that all of Syria will cooperate to immediately find and release the bishops, because these kind of acts shall not serve any part of the conflict.”

©2013 World Watch Monitor