RLPB 421. August Update, incl. Vietnam, India, CAR, Philippines, China, Eritrea, Kenya, Malaysia, Nepal, Pakistan, Sudan, Syria, Turkey.
by Elizabeth Kendal
CFF Director of Advocacy
‘Oh that you would rend the heavens and come down, that the mountains might quake at your presence . . . From of old no one has heard or perceived by the ear, no eye has seen a God besides you, who acts for those who wait for him.’ (from Isaiah 64:1-4 ESV)
AUGUST 2017 UPDATE — this month we prayed concerning …
* VIETNAM (RLPB 417), where long-persecuted Protestant pastor and religious freedom advocate, Pastor Nguyen Cong Chinh, had been released from prison on the condition that he and his religious freedom advocate wife Tran Thi Hong leave the county; and where internationally acclaimed human rights attorney and Protestant Christian Nguyen Van Dai (48) had been charged with ‘carrying out activities aimed at overthrowing the People’s administration’ under Article 79 of Vietnam’s Penal Code.
UPDATE: Radio Free Asia reports that four members of an online democracy advocacy group, known as Brotherhood for Democracy (founded in 2013), were arrested on 30 July. The four have all served time in prison before, and all are connected to human rights advocate Nguyen Van Dai. Like Nguyen Van Dai, the four men — one of whom is ‘missing’ — have been charged with ‘carrying out activities aimed at overthrowing the People’s administration’ and could face anything from 12 years in prison to the death penalty if convicted. One of those arrested and charged is Protestant Pastor Nguyen Trung Ton (45).
* INDIA (RLPB 418), where Christians suffer escalating discrimination and violent persecution in line with the rise of Hindutva (Hindu nationalism with religious apartheid) and where the northern state of Jharkhand was considering enacting an anti-conversion law. The law had been approved by the cabinet of the Chief Minister on 1 August but had yet to come before the Legislative Assembly.
UPDATE: ANTI-CONVERSION LAW PASSED IN JHARKHAND
Jharkhand’s ‘Religious Freedom Bill 2017’ was both introduced to and passed by the Legislative Assembly on 12 August. Under this law, anyone judged to have ‘forced’ another person to change their religion could face three years’ imprisonment and fines of Rs 50,000 (US $800), or four years’ imprisonment and a Rs 100,000 fine if the person converted is a minor, a woman or a member of the less-educated classes, such as Dalits. Furthermore, any conversion will require permission from the Hindu nationalist-dominated state government. While the law does not actually ban conversion, it hands anti-Christian forces a weapon with which they can persecute and prosecute Christians while reining in conversions. [Further analysis will be posted to Religious Liberty Monitoring (RLM) in coming days.]
* CENTRAL AFRICAN REPUBLIC (CAR) (RLPB 419), where Islamic militants, who are reportedly now ‘more heavily armed than ever’, continue to spread terror despite the presence of UN ‘peacekeepers’.
UPDATE: Complaints continue to surface against the UN peacekeepers, in particular the Moroccans. According to Catholic priest Father Jean-Alain Zembi, rector of Zemio on the nation’s border with Congo, UN peacekeepers have been abandoning civilians. Going further, others accuse the UN peacekeepers of ‘complicity’ in the terror. The supreme question of who is funding these ‘heavily armed’ Islamic militants remains unanswered. According to Catholic priest, Father Desire Kpangou, the attackers wore turbans and spoke neither French nor the local language, Sango, suggesting they had come from nearby Sudan. [For more on Sudan’s involvement in CAR see RLM Nov 2013.] In a desperate plea for international assistance to disarm the militants, Father Kpangou declared, ‘If you [the UN] don’t come soon to disarm these people, we [the priests] will have to organise confessions and a final Mass and viaticum [final administration of the sacraments of Holy Communion before death] and prepare ourselves and the rest of the displaced people here for the worst.’ May God intervene in CAR.
* PHILIPPINES (RLPB 420), where some 50 to 60 local and foreign Islamic militants were holding 46 civilians hostage in Marawi’s Grand Mosque as the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) closed in.
UPDATE: On 20 August Islamic State’s Al-Hayat Media Centre released a graphic and typically slick and powerful video entitled ‘Inside 3’. In line with the Islamic State (IS) strategy of promoting an image of Islamic success, the almost seven-minute ¬English-language production includes scenes of young jihadis firing their weapons, desecrating a church and stepping around the bodies of dead AFP soldiers. The narrator boasts: ‘After all [the government’s] efforts [to subjugate Islam] it would be the religion of the Cross that would be torn down and broken.’ And later: ‘After soldiers of the Taghut (infidel government) were left ¬embarrassed and demoralised, [President] Duterte ran to his masters, the defenders of the Cross — America, along with their regional guard dog Australia and begged them for help.’ In reality, it is IS that is begging for help, pleading with Muslims across South-east Asia to come to Marawi and die fighting for Allah.
UPDATE ON HOSTAGES: On the morning of 24 August the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) seized control of Marawi’s Grand Mosque. While it is a hugely symbolic victory, the militants had already fled and no hostages were found. Gun battles continue. On Sunday 27 August jihadist sympathiser Cayamora Maute (64), father of the notorious Marawi-based Maute brothers (who have led this rebellion) — died in a government hospital. Arrested on 6 June, Cayamora Maute had diabetes, hepatitis and hypertension; police rushed him into hospital when his blood pressure shot up. The fact that he died in police custody could complicate the situation for the hostages. Please pray.
AUGUST 2017 ROUND-UP — also this month …
* CHINA: GAO ZHISHENG ‘DISAPPEARED’
Internationally acclaimed human rights lawyer and devout Christian Gao Zhisheng ran afoul of China’s communist regime as soon as he started advocating religious freedom and defending the persecuted. First arrested in 2006, Gao has spent many years in China’s secret ‘black jails’ where he was tortured and forced to endure long periods of solitary confinement. After many threats, Gao’s wife and children fled to the USA in 2009. Released from prison in 2014 in an appalling state [see RLPB 275 (27 Aug 2014)], Gao has since been under house arrest in his mother’s cave house in Shaanxi Province, denied access to dental or medical care. When Gao’s wife, Geng He, phoned him early on the morning of Sunday 13 August, nobody answered. When Gao’s brother subsequently went to check on him, nobody was there. The Wall Street Journal has surmised that Gao may have been detained because he recently gave an interview to a Hong Kong magazine, or because the regime might be rounding up dissidents ahead of the 19th Party Congress due to be held this Fall. ChinaAid is urging the relevant authorities in China ‘to help locate Gao’s whereabouts’ and asking the international community ‘to pray for Gao’s safety and freedom’.
* ERITREA: ANOTHER CHRISTIAN DIES IN CUSTODY
Fikadu Debesay had been arrested along with her husband on 17 May, during raids targeting evangelical Christians in the town of Adi Quala [RLPB 409 (31 May)]. Christian Solidarity Worldwide reports that the Christian mother of three died in Metkel Abiet, a desert camp in Eritrea’s Northern Red Sea Region. A relative at the 10 August burial told Morning Star News that Fikadu’s body showed signs of torture. Fikadu’s traumatised children are amongst the more than 50 children currently without one or both parents because of these raids. The number of Christians detained in desert camps and military facilities since May has risen to 210. In July, 16 teenage Christian girls were arrested while doing their compulsory national service and sent to the Metkel Abiet camp. When family members tried to visit, they too were incarcerated. During the first week of August, a further 23 Christians were rounded up in the capital city, Asmara. Prison conditions are appalling and torture is routine. May God intervene in Eritrea.
* KENYA: SHAHADA OR DEATH IN LAMU COUNTY
On Friday evening 18 August, al-Shabaab militants killed four Christian men in Kasala Kairu, Lamu County, on Kenya’s coast near the border with Somalia. First the militants seized Changawa Muthemba (40s) from his home and dragged him to the home of his brother-in-law, Joseph Kasena (42), an elder in the local church. They then dragged Joseph and his guest, neighbour Kadenge Katana (17), out of the house. When Changawa, Joseph and Kadenge refused to recite the Shahaada (the Islamic statement of faith) the militants tied them up and hacked them to death with machetes. Joseph’s wife, Caroline (late 30s), witnessed everything and is ‘severely traumatised’. The militants then went to the home of Joseph’s mentally challenged older brother, Charo (late 40s), and murdered him. It is well known that the al-Shabaab has established camps in Kenya’s Boni Forest which borders Somalia. Furthermore, al-Shabaab militants and their sympathisers are reportedly ‘deeply embedded’ in the local communities of wider Lamu and Tana Counties where they ‘move around freely’ while the police do nothing. On 8 July Kenya’s Standard reported: ‘Last week, 150 Al-Shabaab gunmen prayed at a local mosque [in Lamu county] before launching an attack on the police station, dispensary and school.’ This appalling situation requires urgent attention from the Kenyan government. Please pray.
* MALAYSIA: ISLAMISATION FOR POLITICAL GAIN
On 4 August the Malaysia Islamic Development Department (Jakim) established a special national-level committee called the Shariah Courts Empowerment Committee (JKMMS), tasked with ’empowering the shariah judicial system in line with the position of Islam in the Federal Constitution’. Then on 7 August the Malaysian government withdrew the Law Reform (Marriage and Divorce) (Amendment) Bill 2016, claiming a new version was required. The new version removes Article 88(A) which had protected children from forced conversion to Islam upon the conversion of one parent. The government has also banned more books promoting moderate Islam, on the grounds that they are ‘likely to be prejudicial to public order’ and ‘likely to alarm public opinion’. In early August, when images went viral showing members of an atheist club enjoying fellowship, the government vowed to ‘hunt down’ atheists and warned anyone caught propagating godlessness could face prosecution. Analysts surmise that UMNO (the ruling United Malays Nationalist Organisation party) and its leader, Prime Minister Najib Razak, are advancing Islamisation ahead of the August 2018 elections to shore up Muslim votes. Pray for the Church in Malaysia.
* NEPAL: A FURTHER BLOW TO RELIGIOUS FREEDOM
In September 2015, Nepali lawmakers passed a new constitution [RLPB 329 (30 Sep 2015)] which defined Nepal as a ‘secular’ state, while appeasing Hindu nationalists with the inclusion of anti-conversion measures [for details see: RLPB 321 (5 Aug 2015)]. On 8 August 2017 the Nepali parliament passed a bill criminalising religious conversion and the ‘hurting of religious sentiment’. Clause 158 of section 9 bans the hurting of religious sentiment and is similar to Pakistan’s blasphemy law. Clause 160 in section 9 severely restricts religious conversion and is similar to the anti-conversion laws in force in India. Christians fear it will foster intolerance and provide anti-Christian forces with a weapon to use against them. The law now awaits the approval of Nepal’s President Bidhya Devi Bhandari. Tehmina Arora, an expert in human rights law, writes, ‘The fundamental right to religious freedom includes the practice and sharing of a belief. The president should veto this new bill and allow her citizens to enjoy basic human rights’. Pray for the Church in Nepal.
* PAKISTAN: ANOTHER CHRISTIAN YOUTH ACCUSED
Asif Masih (16), an illiterate and mildly mentally challenged Christian youth, worked as a scavenger in Gujranwala District, Punjab Province, scavenging through garbage for salvageable items that could be cleaned up, repaired and reused. On 12 August a rival scavenger named Muhammad Nawaz decided to remove Asif from the scene, so he accused him of having burnt a Quran. Before long a crowd had gathered and Asif was being beaten so savagely that when the police finally arrived he ‘confessed’ to the crime to save his own life. Asif is now in prison, accused of blasphemy.
* SUDAN: CHURCH UNDER PRESSURE
The Sudanese Church of Christ (SCOC) in Omdurman (across the Nile River from the capital, Khartoum) continues to face extreme pressure from the Islamic Government of Sudan (GoS). Morning Star News reports that, on Wednesday 23 August, seven SCOC leaders were jailed and interrogated for six hours before being charged with refusing to comply with an order to turn over leadership of their congregation to a government-appointed committee. Among those detained was Rev Kwa Shamaal, head of missions at the SCOC, who was only released from prison in January this year [for background see RLPB 372 (24 Aug 2016)]. The harassment and persecution is all part of the expressed intent of GoS to rid Sudan of Christianity [see RLM March 2013].
* SYRIA: SEVEN CHRISTIAN FAMILIES RESCUED FROM RAQQA
Some 95 percent of Raqqa’s Christian families managed to flee as the city fell to rebel forces in March 2013. However, when ISIS took control in January 2014, those who remained were trapped. On Tuesday 8 August two Armenian and five Assyrian Christian families were rescued from Raqqa by Christian fighters from the 200-strong Syriac Military Council (MFS; established in 2013), which is fighting with the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). Sawsan Karabidian (45), who was rescued with six members of her family, said, ‘They [ISIS] forced us to wear the headscarf and allowed us to reveal our faces to distinguish us from Muslims. We had to hide our faces to avoid insults. We were forced to pay tribute [jizya/protection money] by hand and we were humiliated and insulted; what a homeland that makes you pay an additional tax because you are different.’ MSF fighter Matay Hanna told reporters, ‘Some say we are Christians and we must love everyone. But if we do that there will be no Christians left in the Middle East. We are Christians and should defend our people. We don’t need another genocide against us; it’s enough. … We must defend ourselves.’ The MFS fighters hope Christians will return to Raqqa. ‘We will fix the church, or build a new church,’ Hanna said. ‘We will finish this mission, and let the people go back to their homes.’ Pray for the Christians of Mesopotamia (Syria-Iraq).
* TURKEY: US PASTOR CHARGED WITH SPYING AND INSURGENCY
American Presbyterian Pastor Andrew Brunson was arrested in October 2016 [RLPB 389 (21 Dec 2016)] in the wake of July’s alleged coup attempt which the Erdogan regime blamed on the US [see RLPB 367 (20 July 2016)]. Pastor Brunson and his wife, Norine, ministered in Izmir’s Dirilis (Resurrection) Church and had lived in Turkey for 23 years. Jailed without charge, Brunson was eventually accused of being a member of a terrorist organisation. Now, World Watch Monitor reports that on 24 August 2017 the state-run Anadolu news agency confirmed that Brunson will now face charges of spying and insurgency with prosecutors demanding he receive four consecutive life sentences in prison. Pastor Ihsan Ozbek, who leads Turkey’s Association of Protestant Churches, denounced the charges as ‘absurd’. It has long been suspected that Turkey will seek to exploit Brunson to broker a prisoner swap with the US. Please pray.
Elizabeth Kendal is an international religious liberty analyst and advocate. She serves as Director of Advocacy at Canberra-based Christian Faith and Freedom (CFF), and is an Adjunct Research Fellow at the Arthur Jeffery Centre for the Study of Islam at Melbourne School of Theology.
She has authored two books: Turn Back the Battle: Isaiah Speaks to Christians Today (Deror Books, Melbourne, Australia, Dec 2012) which offers a Biblical response to persecution and existential threat; and After Saturday Comes Sunday: Understanding the Christian Crisis in the Middle East (Wipf and Stock, Eugene, OR, USA, June 2016).