Tuesday, February 26, 2019

RLPB 491. February Update, incl. Burma (Myanmar), Cuba, Iran, Nigeria, Papua (Eastern Indonesia), Russia and Sudan.

Religious Liberty Prayer Bulletin | RLPB 491 | Wed 27 Feb 2019

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-- Elizabeth Kendal

Psalm 77: 'I cry aloud to God, aloud to God, and he will hear me. In the day of my trouble I seek the Lord ... (vv1, 2a). Your way, O God, is holy. What god is great like our God? You are the God who works wonders; you have made known your might among the peoples (vv13, 14). Your way was through the sea, your path through the great waters; yet your footprints were unseen. You led your people like a flock by the hand of Moses and Aaron' (vv19, 20).


FEBRUARY 2019 UPDATE -- during this period we prayed concerning

* NIGERIA (RLPB 488, RLPB 489 and RLPB 490), specifically that the elections would be free, fair and peaceful.

UPDATE: On the evening of 26 February, the BBC reported that the incumbent, President Muhammadu Buhari of the ruling All Progressives Congress (APC) had secured 'a commanding lead'. Though foreign independent electoral observers had reported that the voting was generally free and fair, Atiku Abubakar's People's Democratic Party (PDP) urged Nigeria's Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) not to permit any announcements until all alleged irregularities had been investigated. The plea was rejected and on the morning of 27 Feb, the INEC declared Muhammadu Buhari the winner of the 2019 presidential election. [Updates: https://www.legit.ng/ ] The situation is fluid and volatile. Please pray.

* THE NORTH KOREA-US SUMMIT (RLPB 490) which will take place in Hanoi, Vietnam, on Wednesday 27 and Thursday 28 February. Please pray that the Lord our God will lead the way to freedom.


FEBRUARY 2019 ROUND-UP -- also this month

* BURMA (MYANMAR): A HOPEFUL BUT RISKY MOVE 

The biggest obstacle to peace in Burma is the 2008 Constitution. Written under military rule, it serves military interests by ensuring the heavily invested Burmese-Buddhist military (the Tatmadaw) remains in control. It also enshrines centralised government against the aspirations of Burma's long-repressed, persecuted and brutalised ethnic nations to which most of Burma's Christians belong. In October 2013, as the Tatmadaw's war against the Christian Kachin escalated, the army issued a statement warning of 'serious danger' and 'consequences beyond expectation' if the 2008 constitution is ever scrapped [see RLPB 236 (13 Nov 2013)].

On 19 February Burma's parliament approved the creation of a 45-member joint committee tasked with writing a bill to amend the 2008 constitution. As would be expected, the military and its proxy in parliament -- the Union Solidarity and Development Party -- strongly oppose the move. According to a report in the Irrawaddy, the proposed 168 amendments deal mostly with issues about reducing the power of the military and of the president, and the decentralisation of state power to grant more autonomy to the ethnic nations. The committee must submit its report by 17 July. It is a bold and hopeful but incredibly risky move. If Burma could amend the constitution to the benefit of its Christian peoples, without bloodshed, it would be nothing short of miraculous! Please pray.


* CUBA: CHURCHES CONFIRMED AS COUNTER-REVOLUTIONARY

Cubans went to the polls on Sunday 24 February to vote in a referendum on the new constitution which, despite introducing modest reforms, enshrines socialism, further weakens religious freedom, and removes the definition of marriage thereby paving the way for same-sex marriage. Individual churches and pastors came under serious pressure to instruct their congregations to vote 'YES'. Instead, displaying unprecedented unity, Cuban churches led a strong campaign opposing changes to the definition of marriage. It was a very courageous move, especially as 'NO' voters were being vilified in the state-controlled media as counter-revolutionaries and enemies of the state. It was announced on Monday 25 February that 86.85 percent of Cubans had voted 'YES', thus ratifying the new constitution. More than 700,000 people voted 'NO'. It is yet to be seen if the vilification of 'NO' voters will result in increased repression and persecution of Christians. Regardless, a door has been opened so the battle for marriage and family might begin. Please pray for the Church in Cuba.

[NOTE: Though deeply patriotic and certainly not an enemy of the state, the repressed Cuban Church knows it is a counter-revolutionary Church. To the contrary, much of the free Western Church seems not to even realise that a cultural revolution has taken place – a revolution which will inevitably lead to the loss of religious liberty. Please pray for awakening and revival in the Church in the free West!]


* IRAN: SUFFERING FOR CHRIST

Pastor Victor bet-Tamraz (left)
and wife, Shamiram Khabizeh
On 6 January 2018 Assyrian Christian Shamiram Isavi Khabizeh, wife of imprisoned pastor Victor bet-Tamraz, was sentenced to five years in prison on charges pertaining to national security. Her appeal against that verdict and sentence was heard on 19 February. Middle East Concern reports that the judge appeared confused as to whether her case was to be combined with the other cases including that of her husband, her son and a number of Christian converts associated with their now-underground ministry. Another court hearing will be scheduled. Please pray for this persecuted family, and for all Iran's imprisoned and persecuted believers.


* NIGERIA:  CHURCH IN PAIN

Rev. Jata'u with his wife.
NORTH-WEST: Originally from southern Kaduna, Rev Anthony Jata'u, of the Anglican Church of Nigeria, was driving through Zamfara State on 7 February en route to a new posting in Katsina State (north-west Nigeria),  when his car was attacked by gunmen. Travelling with him were his wife, three children and two sisters-in-law. Jata'u's body was recovered by the side of the road two days later. The kidnappers have contacted Jata'u's family and church, demanding a ransom for his wife, children and sisters-in-law. It is unknown at this stage if Jata'u was accidentally killed in an act of banditry, or executed when it was discovered he was a preacher of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Whatever the case may be, this family and church need our prayers. Please pray.

NORTH-EAST: On 19 February Nigerian Christians commemorated with prayers the one-year anniversary of the abduction of Leah Sharibu (15). Leah was one of 110 girls abducted from their school in Dapchi, Yobe Sate, by Boko Haram, on 19 February 2018. Five girls died during the violent abduction and Boko Haram returned 104 Muslim girls to Dapchi on 21 March 2018. Leah Sharibu was 'held back' because she 'refused to co-operate' and convert to Islam [see RLPB 448 (28 March 2018)]. In October 2018, after executing two Muslim aid workers as apostates (for working with the Red Cross), Boko Haram officially deemed their two Christian captives -- Christian schoolgirl Leah Sharibu (15) and Christian nurse Alice Loksha Ngaddah (24, mother of two small children) -- to be their slaves [see RLPB 479 (31 Oct 2018)]. Meanwhile, 112 of the 276 mostly Christian 276 girls abducted by Boko Haram from their school in Chibok in April 2014 remain unaccounted forPlease pray. 


 * PAPUA (EASTERN INDONESIA): UN EXPERTS CALL FOR INVESTIGATION

In early February footage emerged online showing Indonesian police using an enormous snake to terrorise a young, handcuffed, indigenous Papuan man they had arrested for allegedly stealing a mobile phone. Javanese Muslim officers routinely film and share abuses against the Melanesian, mostly Christian Papuans. (In fact we have seen worse than this before!) Driven by racial and religious hatred, they are emboldened by a culture of impunity.  On 19 February, two weeks after the snake-torture footage went viral, UN human rights experts demanded an independent investigation into the 'cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment of indigenous Papuans' by Indonesian police and military in West Papua and Papua Provinces (formerly known as Irian Jaya). If the UN does launch an investigation, it will coincide with mounting pressure for the UN to address Papua's historic grievances, in particular the controversial 1969 UN-backed Act of Free Choice (known disparagingly as the Act of No Choice) [see RLPB 426 (4 Oct 2017)].  Unless there is change, one of the great missionary stories of the 20th Century will end in tragedy: the slow-motion genocide of a Christian people. Please pray.


* RUSSIA: JEHOVAH'S WITNESSES TORTURED IN SURGUT
-- bad laws pave way for abuses

In April 2017 Russia's Supreme Court inexplicably upheld a request by the Justice Ministry to ban the Jehovah's Witnesses (JW) sect as an 'extremist organisation'. One month later, Danish citizen and JW member Dennis Christensen became the first JW to be detained following the ban. On 6 February 2019 a court in the city of Oryol -- 360km south of Moscow -- sentenced Christensen to six years in prison for violating the ban. A spokesperson for the JWs confirmed to Newsweek that at least 121 members face criminal charges in Russia. Of those, 23 remain in pre-trial detention and 27 are under house arrest. Hundreds of members of the 175,000-strong sect have fled the country, most to Finland. 

In December 2018, at a meeting with the Presidential Council for Civil Society and Human Rights, President Putin described the extremism charges against JWs as 'nonsense'. 'Jehovah's Witnesses are Christians too,' he said. 'I don't quite understand why they are persecuted. So this should be looked into. This must be done.' President Putin said he would speak to Supreme Court Chair, Vyacheslav Lebedev, to see if restrictions on the organisation could be lessened. Since the sentencing of Dennis Christensen, however, Putin's representatives have reportedly distanced themselves from those efforts.

Map showing location of Surgut
(click on map to enlarge) 
On 15 February police in Surgut -- a city in the Khanty-Mansi Autonomous Okrug (administrative district) of western Siberia, almost 3,000km east of Moscow -- raided the homes of JWs. At least seven of those detained for questioning were tortured.  The victims allege that when the legal representative left the room, officers from the Investigative Committee put a bag over the victims' heads, sealed it with tape, tied their hands behind their backs, and beat them. The victims also claimed to have been stripped naked, doused with water, and shocked with stun guns. The torture allegedly went on for around two hours. As Human Rights Watch noted, 'It's shocking that in post-Soviet Russia authorities are putting people through the ordeal of a criminal investigation and prison for nothing more than peacefully practising their faith.'

While many evangelicals are reluctant to defend the heterodox JWs, others realise that injustice, religious persecution and torture are simply wrong. Furthermore, if bad laws are permitted to stand and a culture of impunity is permitted to develop, then religious persecution may eventually expand to target Protestants and other believers as well. After first denying that any torture had taken place, Investigative Committee official Oleg Menshikh told Interfax on 22 February that due to the 'agitation that has arisen after publication of this information in the media', the Committee had decided to launch an investigation into the torture allegations. Please pray that abuses will be investigated, that abusers will be punished, that bad laws will be repealed and that full religious freedom will be restored.


* SUDAN: STATE OF EMERGENCY DECLARED

Islamist tyrant: Omar al-Bashir
Rocked by more than two months of relentless protests, Sudan's Islamist president Omar al-Bashir on Friday 22 February declared a nationwide, year-long state of emergency. Led by doctors and others from the Sudanese Professionals Association (SPA) -- an outlawed umbrella group of unions -- the protesters continue to take to the streets to call for al-Bashir's resignation. As revealed in a BBC Africa investigation [link includes short film], al-Bashir is now deploying squads comprising armed police, soldiers, security/intelligence and plain-clothed thugs to round up opposition and 'cleanse' the streets. More than 50 protesters have been killed and scores wounded while more than a thousand have been arrested. This might be Khartoum's worst crisis in decades but, unless God intervenes, the National Islamic Front / National Congress Party regime -- and possibly even al-Bashir himself -- will probably survive. After all, this regime has long deployed lethal force against its citizens with impunity. Even today, not one foreign government has backed the protesters' call for al-Bashir to step down. Yet without significant pressure, this brutal Islamist dictator -- this tyrant whose racial and religious hatreds and mass-murdering regime have resulted in the breakup and impoverishment of Sudan -- will not go. Remember the long-suffering Church in Sudan and please pray.

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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