Tuesday, July 18, 2017

RLPB 415. China: 'Big Brother' Invades Church

Religious Liberty Prayer Bulletin | RLPB 415 | Wed 19 Jul 2017

Please forward this prayer bulletin widely, and encourage others to sign up to the Religious Liberty Prayer Bulletin blog. "The prayer of a righteous person is powerful and effective." (James 5:16 NIV)

CHINA: 'BIG BROTHER' INVADES CHURCH
by Elizabeth Kendal

The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) continues to use Zhejiang Province (China's Christian heartland and President Xi Jinping's former stamping ground) as a test site for its repressive religious policies. This is particularly true of Wenzhou City, long known as 'China's Jerusalem' because of its thriving Christianity. [See Religious Liberty Monitoring (Oct 2016)]. In late March authorities in Zhejiang ordered that all churches be fitted with surveillance cameras. Amidst stiff resistance, tensions are mounting, as are the concerns of China's Christians. As the West continues to kowtow -- even in the wake of the death in custody of Nobel Peace Prize laureate Liu Xiaobo -- it signals to all that President Xi is indeed the most powerful and untouchable leader in the world today.

A government official installs cameras at a Wenzhou church.
World Magazine (Photo: Robert Katz)
In Ningbo, a city with a significant population of Christians, surveillance cameras are already everywhere, including in the churches. In Wenzhou, however, resistance continues. At many churches cameras have been installed by force. Not only has this resulted in property damage, but church members resisting the forced installation have been wounded in scuffles or taken away by police. In Rui'an, a county-level city on the southern outskirts of Wenzhou, the 600-member Tuanqian Village Church was by early June the only church in the area still resisting the imposition of surveillance cameras. However, once the authorities cut the church's access to power and water, members started to doubt if they could resist much longer. It seems this has been the pattern in Rui'an. Unable to resist the installation, churches across Wenzhou are finding other ways to resist; for example, by disconnecting internal cameras or redirecting them (e.g. from the offertory box to the ceiling). Authorities have also installed surveillance cameras close to the Inner Mongolia home of Zhang Kai, the Christian human rights lawyer arrested in Wenzhou in August 2015 and imprisoned for providing the churches with legal advice [RLPB 325 (2 Sep 2015)]. Not only is he being closely monitored, he is being harassed, intimidated and threatened.

Despite the CCP's claims that the cameras will be used to enhance security, not everyone is convinced. In November 2015 the CCP released a draft of its 13th Five-Year Plan (2016 to 2020). It includes a plan to 'Improve the Social Credibility System' (chapter 71) [Full Text - pdf]. With the alleged aim of 'increasing integrity', the CCP will develop and implement 'a unified system of credit rating codes nationwide'. Data will be collected from which social credits may be earned through good behaviour, and lost through bad behaviour (such as traffic violations, over-spending, infidelity, spurious internet browsing, etc). Credit-rich enterprises and individuals will be rewarded, while the credit-poor will find themselves blacklisted, unable to travel, attend university or get jobs. It is not hard to imagine how this might impact the Chinese Church.

An electronic sign in Shenzhen, China, shows the faces
of people caught jaywalking by surveillance cameras.
Wall Street Journal (includes video).
[Article also in Straitstimes]
Much of the data collected will come from the myriad of surveillance cameras currently being rolled out nationwide supposedly to 'maintain national security' and 'prevent acts of terrorism'. Armed with sophisticated facial recognition software, these cameras are already being used not merely to catch criminals but to influence behaviour. For example, in many cities they are being used to name-and-shame jaywalkers, in real time. As the Wall Street Journal notes, 'China has access to immense amounts of data: photos uploaded by the country's more than 700 million internet users and a centralised image database of citizens, all of whom must have a government-issued photo ID by age 16.' Furthermore, 'This year [2017] China set up a government-funded laboratory to push the development of facial recognition and other forms of artificial intelligence. China hopes to become a leading innovator in those technologies.'

PLEASE PRAY SPECIFICALLY THAT

* God will grace his precious Church with all the wisdom, faith and grace it will need to traverse the difficult days ahead.

* the Spirit of God will awaken the Chinese people to the moral failings and inherent dangers of atheistic totalitarianism; may government over-reach give rise to spiritual revival.

* our Lord Jesus Christ will continue to build his Church in China, even as the Father continues to work out his eternal purpose to unite all things in Christ (Ephesians 1:9-10). 'Many are the plans in the mind of a man, but it is the purpose of the Lord that will stand.' (Proverbs 19:21 ESV)

'Look among the nations, and see; wonder and be astounded. For I am doing a work in your days that you would not believe if told.' (Habakkuk 1:5 ESV).

'Now to him who is able to do far more abundantly than all that we ask or think, according to the power at work within us, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, forever and ever. Amen.' (Ephesians 3:20-21 ESV)


SUMMARY FOR BULLETINS UNABLE TO RUN THE WHOLE ARTICLE
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CHINA: 'BIG BROTHER' INVADES CHURCH 

In March, authorities in Zhejiang Province ordered all churches to be fitted with surveillance cameras. In Wenzhou, church property has been damaged and parishioners injured and arrested as cameras have been installed by force. Unable to resist the installations, some churches are disconnecting or redirecting cameras. The government claims the cameras are for security, but most are not convinced. China's 13th Five-Year Plan (2016-2020) includes a plan to implement a 'social credit system' based largely on data collected from the myriad of surveillance cameras currently being rolled out nationwide. As every Chinese citizen over 16 has a government-issued photo ID card, these cameras, armed with sophisticated facial recognition software, will enable the government to reward its 'friends' and punish its 'enemies'. Please pray for China and the Chinese Church.

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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).

See www.ElizabethKendal.com 

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

RLPB 414. Iran: massive jail terms for many believers

Religious Liberty Prayer Bulletin | RLPB 414 | Wed 12 Jul 2017

Please forward this prayer bulletin widely, and encourage others to sign up to the Religious Liberty Prayer Bulletin blog. "The prayer of a righteous person is powerful and effective." (James 5:16 NIV)


IRAN: MASSIVE JAIL TERMS FOR MANY BELIEVERS
by Elizabeth Kendal

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BACKGROUND: For background to this Religious Liberty Prayer Bulletin (RLPB), please see RLPB 408 (24 May 2017). This warned that the 19 May re-election of President Rouhani (against the express wishes of Ayatollah Khamenei and the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps), as well as US President Trump’s hostile 21 May speech in Riyadh could trigger an escalation in persecution against the Church as Iran's 'real powers' (and that does not include the president) strike back. Indeed, escalating tensions -- both domestic and international (including the voluminous 'regime change' rhetoric emanating from the West) -- may well explain the massive jail terms levelled against many believers in recent weeks.

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On 12 June three Azerbaijanis and an Iranian national learnt that Judge Ahmedzadeh had sentenced them to ten years in jail for 'missionary activities' and 'conducting activities against national security'. The four had been arrested at a wedding in Tehran on 24 June 2016. However, last November the Azerbaijanis -- Yusif Farhadov, Eldar Gurbanov and Bahram Nasibov -- were permitted to return home after posting bail [RLPB 386 (30 Nov 2016)]; they will not be imprisoned unless they return to Iran. Meanwhile, the Iranian national, Persian convert Nasser Navard-Goltape, will bear the brunt of this punishment.

Bahram Nasibov, Eldar Gurbanov, Yusif Farhadov and Naser Navard Gol-Tapeh.
World Watch Monitor

On 3 and 4 July Judge Ahmadzadeh handed 10-year jail terms to Pastor Victor Bet-Tamraz (an Assyrian) and three Persian converts associated with his ministry. Though the authorities closed Pastor Bet-Tamraz's Tehran Pentecostal Assyrian Church in 2009, believers continued to meet in house fellowships. Pastor Bet-Tamraz and Persian converts Kaviyan Fallah-Mohammadi and Amin Afshar-Naderi had been arrested along with other believers at a Christmas celebration on 24 December 2014. The other convert sentenced, Hadi Asgari, had been arrested with other believers, including Pastor Victor's son, Ramiel, at a picnic in Firuzkuh in August 2016. [Amin Afshar-Naderi, who was arrested with Pastor Victor in December 2014, was bailed in February 2015 and re-arrested at that same August 2016 picnic.] Pastor Victor and the three Persian converts were deemed guilty of 'conducting evangelism', 'illegal house church activities' and 'acting against national security'. Amin Afshar-Naderi's sentence was extended by five years after he was also deemed guilty of 'insulting the sacred' (i.e. blasphemy). Bet-Tamraz and Fallah-Mohammadi have posted bail, but Hadi Asgari and Amin Afshar-Naderi remain incarcerated, with their bail terms substantially increased to about US$80,000. Condemned to 15 years in prison, Amin has commenced a hunger strike.

Victor Bet-Tamraz, Amin Afshar-Naderi, Kaviyan Fallah-Mohammadi, and Hadi Asgari
World Watch Monitor

Pastor Victor's son, Ramiel (arrested at the August 2016 picnic), has been charged with 'organising and creating house churches' and 'action against national security'. Furthermore, in June 2017 Pastor Victor's wife, Shamiram, was summoned from her home to a court at Evin Prison where she was charged with 'participating in foreign seminars' and 'acting against Iranian national security'. Both Ramiel and Shamiram have been released on bail and are awaiting trial.

On 6 July four members of the Church of Iran in Rasht -- Mohammadreza Omidi, Yasser Mossayebzadeh, Saheb Fadaie and Pastor Yousef Nadarkhani -- learnt that Judge Ahmadzadeh had sentenced them to ten years in prison for propagating house churches and promoting 'Zionist Christianity'. The men had been arrested on 13 May 2016 in a series of raids. [Pastor Nadarkhani will be well-known to intercessors who upheld him through his previous incarceration: see RLPB 176 (12 Sept 2012).]  During the 14 June hearing hard-liner Judge Abolghasem Salavati entered the court room and interrupted proceedings, scoffing that 'Christians make foolish claims'. Salavati is notorious for issuing harsh sentences that include physical punishments (like lashings) to high profile dissidents. In 2012 Salavasti imprisoned Nadarkhani's lawyer, Mohammad Ali Dadkhah, who was condemned to nine years in prison, a fine and a flogging (converted to a fine) for his alleged crimes against the state. Analysts suspect that Salvasti's presence in the court was intended to pressure Judge Ahmadzadeh into issuing severe penalties. Significantly, Mohammadreza Omidi and Pastor Yousef Nadarkhani will have to serve two years of their sentence in internal exile, far away from their families: Omidi in Borazjan (more than 1100km due south of Rasht) and Nadarkhani in Nik Shahr (some 2000km south-east of Rasht).

Saheb Fadaie, Youcef Nadarkhani, Yasser Mossayebzadeh and Mohammad Reza Omidi.
World Watch Monitor


PLEASE PRAY SPECIFICALLY FOR 

* all Iranian Christians currently imprisoned or suffering persecution because of their faith and witness; may they have a palpable awareness of the love of the Father, the presence of the Saviour, and the counsel of the Spirit.

* the growing yet vulnerable Iranian Church; may the Lord give believers -- especially their pastors and leaders -- all the wisdom, grace and strength they will need to travel this increasingly difficult and dangerous road.

* God to intervene in the nation of Iran; may those who rage 'against the Lord and against his Anointed' repent, for Iran belongs to Jesus (Psalm 2).

'Look among the nations, and see; wonder and be astounded. For I am doing a work in your days that you would not believe if told.' (Habakkuk 1:5 ESV).


SUMMARY FOR BULLETINS UNABLE TO RUN THE WHOLE ARTICLE
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MASSIVE JAIL TERMS FOR MANY BELIEVERS IN IRAN

On 12 June three Azerbaijanis and an Iranian, arrested at a wedding in June 2016, received ten year prison terms for 'activities against national security'. On 4 July Pastor Victor Bet-Tamraz and three Persian converts received ten year prison terms for 'activities against national security'. They had been arrested at a Christmas celebration in 2014 and a picnic in August 2016. Pastor Victor's wife, Shamiram, and their son, Ramiel, have also been charged and are awaiting trial. On 6 July four members of the Church of Iran in Rasht received ten year prison terms for propagating house churches and promoting 'Zionist Christianity'. Two of those sentenced, including Pastor Yousef Nadarkhani, will spend two years in internal exile far away from their families. Please pray for these Christians and for Iran.

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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).

See www.ElizabethKendal.com 

Wednesday, July 5, 2017

RLPB 413. Mali & Philippines: Captives in Crisis

Religious Liberty Prayer Bulletin | RLPB 413 | Wed 5 Jul 2017

Please forward this prayer bulletin widely, and encourage others to sign up to the Religious Liberty Prayer Bulletin blog. "The prayer of a righteous person is powerful and effective." (James 5:16 NIV)

MALI & PHILIPPINES: CAPTIVES IN CRISIS
by Elizabeth Kendal

MALI: On Sunday 2 July at a meeting in Malian capital, Bamako, French President Emmanuel Macron promised strong support for a new multinational military force to combat terrorism in West Africa. The 5,000-strong force, comprised of troops from Mali, Mauritania, Niger, Burkina Faso and Chad, will operate in the western Sahel region along with 12,000 United Nations peacekeepers in Mali and an existing French force of 5,000. Along with military support, France will supply 70 tactical vehicles, communications and operational and protective equipment. The European Union has pledged about €50 million ($57 million) in support of this force, which is expected to be operational by September.

The day before the Bamako meeting, the Mali-based al-Qaeda affiliate Nusrat al-Islam wal Muslimeen (JNIM) released a disturbing video. Entitled, 'The Correct Equation' it opens with a clip of al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri explaining: 'Security is a shared fate. If we are secured, then you may be secured. And if we are safe, then you may gain safety. And if we are struck or killed then inevitably, by the will of Allah, you will be struck or killed. This is the correct equation.' Quoting the Qur'an [Sura 47:4 https://quran.com/47/4] and Islamic theologians, the English-speaking narrator explains that Islam not only permits but mandates the taking of non-combatants as captives, 'until the war lays down its burdens' (i.e. until war ends). Ultimately the video closes with a clip of Osama bin Laden essentially reiterating the correct equation.

This is the context in which proof of life is provided of six Western captives: three men, Stephen McGowan (South Africa), Dr Ken Elliot (Australia) [RLPB 341 (27 Jan 2016)] and Iulian Ghergut (Romania); and three women, Beatrice Stockly (Switzerland) [RLPB 341 (27 Jan 2016)], Sophie Petronin (France) and Gloria Cecilia Narváez (Colombia). As if to justify its harsh treatment of the women, JNIM specifically accuses them of being 'Christian preachers' and 'missionaries [trying to] convert Muslims to Christianity'. No mention is made of captive Malian soldiers or of Jeffery Woodke who was captured by jihadists in Niger in October last year [RLPB 396 (1 March 2017)]. The English-speaking narrator warns that, with negotiations failing, the fate of each captive lies squarely with their families and governments. Clearly these captives need to be rescued, delivered or redeemed before the new multinational anti-terror force commences operations in September.

captives: Ghergut and Navaraez,
McGowan and Dr Elliot,
Stockly and Petronin. Link to video:
http://sitemultimedia.org/video/SITE_Ezza_Correct_Equation.mp4

'Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? And not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father. But even the hairs of your head are all numbered. Fear not, therefore; you are of more value than many sparrows.' (Matthew 10:29-30 ESV)

PHILIPPINES: On 23 May conflict erupted in Marawi, southern Philippines, between the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) and Islamic jihadists belonging to the Abu Sayyaf Group and the Maute Group, both of which have pledged allegiance to Islamic State (IS). Catholic priest Father Chito Suganob and some 15 Catholics who were meeting in the Cathedral (nuns and lay-persons) were amongst the many hundreds of Marawi locals taken captive by the jihadists who have been using them as human shields [RLPB 409 (31 May)]. Some 400,000 civilians have been displaced.

displaced families -
photo courtesy of a local pastor
Father Suganob was seen alive on Sunday 25 June when militant leaders met with Muslim leaders in an effort to broker a prisoner swap. Refusing to be swayed, the Philippine government reiterated its policy of not negotiating with terrorists. [RLPB 412 (28 June)].

Whilst the Philippines is no stranger to Islamic jihad, this time it is different. Far from being local Islamists fighting for autonomy or even independence, these jihadists are mostly foreigners, eager to fight to the death - to kill and be killed (Sura 9:111) - for an IS wilayet (province). More than 330 jihadists have been killed, along with at least 39 civilians and 84 AFP soldiers; many believe the death toll is much higher. Unable to be collected, the bodies that litter the streets are being eaten by dogs, vermin and flies; many fear an outbreak of disease is inevitable. Soldiers and escapees report that captives are being used as porters and sex-slaves -- with some forcibly 'married' to fighters -- and that Christians have been forcibly converted to Islam. The ring-leader, Abu Sayyaf commander Isnilon Hapilon, is believed to be hiding in a mosque inside the jihadist's ever-shrinking territory. The situation for the captives could not be more serious.

PLEASE, LOOK TO THE LORD, AND PRAY:

* that he may intervene in the hostage crises currently unfolding deep in the Malian desert and in the city of Marawi, southern Philippines; may the Lord Almighty both rescue and repay. (See Isaiah 59:14-19; also Isaiah 40:10)

'Some trust in chariots and some in horses [i.e. in military hardware], but we trust in the name of the LORD our God.' (Psalm 20:7 ESV)

* that the Holy Spirit may flood and guard the hearts and minds of believing captives with 'the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding' (Philippians 4:7);  may each one be palpably aware of Christ's eternal, faithful and sustaining presence.

'Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword? ... No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us.  For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.'  (From Romans 8:31-39 ESV)


SUMMARY FOR BULLETINS UNABLE TO RUN THE WHOLE ARTICLE
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CAPTIVES IN CRISIS IN MALI & PHILIPPINES

The day before the French president stood in Bamako, Mali, pledging to support a new regional multinational anti-terror force, a Mali-based al-Qaeda affiliate released a disturbing video. It provided proof of life of six Western hostages (mostly missionaries), while explaining that 'if we are struck ... you will be struck.' Clearly these captives need to be freed before the new multinational anti-terror force commences operations in September.  Meanwhile, reports have emerged in the Philippines that the civilians being held captive by IS-inspired jihadists in Marawi are being used not only as human shields, but as porters and sex-slaves, with Christians being forcibly converted to Islam. The rebels' demands have been rejected and their territory is shrinking. The situation for the captives is most serious.  Please pray (Psalm 20:7).

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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).

See www.ElizabethKendal.com