Tuesday, November 26, 2019

RLPB 530. November Update incl. Sri Lanka, Central African Republic (CAR), Syria, China, Cuba, Indonesia and the Papuan provinces, the Philippines

Religious Liberty Prayer Bulletin | RLPB 530 | Wed 27 Nov 2019
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by Elizabeth Kendal

NOVEMBER 2019 UPDATE -- during this period we prayed concerning

* SRI LANKA [RLPB 527 (06 Nov)], ahead of a pivotal presidential poll. As noted, the failure of the Yahapalnaya ('good governance') coalition and the trauma of the horrific Easter terror attacks (which were enabled by the breakdown in government) had combined to set the stage for a return to the politics of the divisive and controversial Sinhalese Buddhist nationalist Rajapaksa clan.

UPDATE: REVIVAL OF SINHALESE BUDDHIST NATIONALISM

As anticipated, Gotabaya Rajapaksa (70) won the presidential poll, securing 52.25 percent of the vote compared with Sajth Premadasa's 41.99 percent. [Click here for poll results.] Virtually all Sinhalese voted for Rajapaksa while virtually all Tamils and Muslims voted for Premadasa. Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe subsequently resigned his post, clearing the way for the new president to form a new government. On 21 November President G Rajapaksa appointed his brother, former president Mahinda Rajapaksa (74), as Prime Minister and Minister for Defence and Finance. He appointed his eldest brother, Chamal Rajapaksa (77), as Minister for Trade and Food Security. President Rajapaksa has vowed to call a parliamentary election 'at the earliest opportunity' which, according to the constitution, would be March 2020. So we watch ('keep alert') and pray for the Church in Sri Lanka (Ephesians 6:18) as she faces the reality of a Sinhalese Buddhist Nationalist revival.

* CENTRAL AFRICAN REPUBLIC (CAR) [RLPB 527 (13 Nov)], where some 80 percent of the country remains under the control of armed groups. The militants are fighting for diamonds and gold, as distinct from any ideological commitment to Sharia/Islamic Law. That said, they are still Muslims with an Islamic worldview. Furthermore, some two-thirds of these militants are foreigners. They have little regard for Central Africans who get in their way, especially non-Muslim Central Africans. The whole nation is groaning, the Church is suffering and the future of CAR truly is in the balance.

UPDATE: EX-SÉLÉKA MILITANTS EXPELLED FROM BASE

Locals in the BAAL camp, or 'Gboulo' area, of Bangui have long been pressing the CAR government to act against ex-Séléka militants who have established a military base in the area. The militants survive on crime, including drug trafficking, prostitution, robbery and extortion. They are extremely violent and local women are routinely raped. On the evening of Tuesday 19 November CAR's Armed Forces (FACA) stormed the area. The militants resisted; a firefight ensued. Eventually the FACA was successful: six ex-Séléka militants were killed, ten were wounded, some 60 were arrested and the rest were expelled from the city. Please continue to pray that all foreign fighters in CAR illegally will be expelled so that peace may return. Please pray for the Church in CAR as she seeks to be God's ambassador and agent of peace and redemption by way of repentance and reconciliation. May God redeem all this suffering to awaken the people and build his Church.

* SYRIA [RLPB 529 (20 Nov)], where Turkey and its jihadist proxies were pressing in on the Assyrian Khabur River town of Tel Tamer, while an Islamic State (IS) resurgence was stirring in Dir ez-Zor. We noted with urgency that the system currently detaining tens of thousands of individuals associated with IS in north-eastern Syria is at breaking point. 

UPDATE: CHRISTIAN CRISIS ON THE KHABUR RIVER

Turkey continues to contravene its agreement with Russia and advance beyond the agreed 'safe zone'. Free Burma Rangers was present in Ain Issa when that town came under attack this past week. Like the mostly-Assyrian town of Tel Tamer (in rural al-Hasakah), Ain Issa (in rural Raqqa) straddles the M4 Highway at a major crossroad and transport hub. To summarise: Syria and Turkey are fighting for control of Syria's M4 Highway. The situation in Tel Tamer is especially critical for Christians. Around 20,000 Assyrians lived in 35 Assyrian villages along the Khabur River before being forced to flee Islamic State in February 2015. Today, the remnant is fleeing the Turkish invasion. Once ethnically cleansed, the land around the Khabur River (the largest tributary flowing from southern Turkey into the Euphrates) will be open to colonisation by Arabs backed by Turkey. Khabur River resident Ms Simon (56) laments, 'We fear that the last of our Assyrian people will be pushed into exile.' Indeed, we are watching genocide. Please pray.

Remnant Assyrian Christian Sarkoun Selio (50) walks in the ruins of the
Assyrian Church of the Virgin Mary in the village of Tal Nasri south of Tel Tamer.
Church was destroyed by Islamic State (IS).
(Photo: Delil Souleiman / AFP, 15 Nov 2019)

NOVEMBER 2019 ROUND-UP -- also this month

* CHINA: FORCING THE CHURCH BACK UNDERGROUND

Wheat Bookstore is an online Christian bookstore. Officials arrested its owner-manager, Zhang Xiaomai, on 1 September, seizing records of those who had ordered Christian books from the store. The business has sold more than 20,000 items to more than 10,000 customers. More than 800 of those items have been classified as illegal publications. On 29 October police received orders to track down all those who had purchased Bibles and other Christian literature from Wheat Bookstore. According to China Aid Association (CAA), raids were conducted in November in which books were confiscated; many of those who were questioned are now being monitored. Separately, CAA also reports that Chinese authorities recently demolished a church in Nanjing. According to CAA, the church hosted worship services for some 1000 Christians in the area. Believers who were inside the church when the authorities arrived, were dragged out into the night protesting and weeping. It is President Xi's intention that the Chinese Church be 'sinicised', which in reality means being made subservient to the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). Churches that resist will be eliminated. Please Pray.

* CUBA: INVESTIGATIVE JOURNALIST PERSECUTED -- AGAIN.

Ricardo Fernández Izaguirre
At 1pm on Tuesday 12 November, having received a verbal police summons, Christian investigative journalist and religious liberty advocate, Ricardo Fernández Izaguirre, presented himself at the Camagüey police station. There he was immediately detained in a small windowless cell while officers informed his wife and colleagues that he was under investigation. The police confiscated Mr Izaguirre's glasses and kept his cell continuously lit with a bright light. Furthermore, while his cell was extremely hot the interrogation room where he was repeatedly threatened was air-conditioned and extremely cold. Together with the stress, these impositions caused Mr Izaguirre to suffer 'a severe headache'. After 29 hours in detention, Mr Izaguirre was released. This is not the first time he has been persecuted for exposing religious liberty violations [see RLPB 511 (17 July)]. It seems the Cuban government may be endeavouring to fabricate a criminal case against him, in order to silence him. It also prevented Cuban evangelicals from attending the World Evangelical Alliance General Assembly in Jakarta, held from 7 to 13 November. Repression is escalating. Please pray.

* INDONESIA: PAPUANS SHUDDER AS PRABOWO APPOINTED

On Sunday 20 October Joko Widodo was sworn into office for his second and final five-year term as president of Indonesia. Then, on Wednesday 23 October, he appointed Prabowo Subianto (68) to the post of Minister of Defence. A long-time political rival, Prabowo Subianto ran against Widodo in the 2019 presidential race, wooing and mobilising Islamists in the process [RLPB 497 (10 April)]. Prabowo is a controversial figure. During the era of military rule under President Suharto (1978 - 1998), Prabowo married Suharto's daughter and went on to become a Lt-General and chief of the feared Kopassus (Special Forces). Prabowo Subianto stands accused of human rights abuses, including extrajudicial killings in Jakarta, East Timor and the Papuan provinces. Dishonourably discharged from the military, he went on to establish Gerindra (a political party). President Widodo is determined to push through his economic agenda. To that end he has pragmatically assembled a cabinet of rivals for the purpose of securing support. As researcher Evan Laksmana notes, 'This is a classical balancing strategy.'

President Joko Widodo (centre right),
accompanied by his wife Iriana Widodo,
greets new defence minister Prabowo Subianto
after the cabinet swearing-in ceremony.
(Photo: Adi Weda/EPA, 23 Oct 2019)
On Monday 11 November, in his first meeting with the House of Representatives, Defence Minister Prabowo Subianto outlined his vision of 'total people's defence', explaining that 'every citizen of Indonesia has the right and duty to defend the country'. Unsurprisingly his vision aligns perfectly with the recently passed PSDN Bill 2019 on National Defence [see RLM, 8 Oct 2019]. Prabowo proposed that, in the event of war, 'all the people would become part of the national defence'. Defence would comprise a 'main component' (the TNI / Indonesian military), a militarily trained 'reserve component' and a 'support component' which would involve all sectors of society. According to Prabowo, creating this 'total people's defence' will require the participation of ministries outside the Defence Ministry, such as the Education and Culture Ministry.

Prabowo's appointment has caused alarm in the restive Papuan provinces, as has the concept of a 'total people's defence'. There is little doubt that President Widodo is determined to press ahead with his unwelcome and controversial development projects in the Papuan provinces -- projects that bypass demands for dialogue and accountability on human rights; projects like the Trans-Papuan Highway [see RLM, 14 April 2019]. To that end, maybe Prabowo is just the Defence Minister President Widodo believes he needs. Please pray for the Lord's mercy on the mostly Christian indigenous Melanesians of the Papuan provinces.

* PHILIPPINES: NATIONAL COUNCIL OF CHURCHES 'RED-TAGGED'

List of front organisations of local
Communist Terrorist Groups.
NCCP named top right (number 10).
source: Rappler, 6 Nov 2019 
(click on image to enlarge)
On 5 November, in a Congressional hearing on the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP), the AFP Deputy Chief of Staff for Intelligence named 18 groups as 'front organisations of local Communist Terrorist Groups'. This process, commonly known as 'red-tagging', is a strategy used by State agents to legitimise the persecution of individuals and groups critical of the Duterte regime. Many of the groups named are humanitarian aid groups, such as Oxfam in the Philippines. [Click here for statement from Oxfam.]

[Click here for statement from NCCP.]
Included in the list is the National Council of Churches in the Philippines (NCCP), which describes itself as 'an ecumenical fellowship of non-Roman Catholic denominations in the Philippines working for unity in faith and order'. To their credit, many Christian groups have bravely stepped forward to stand in solidarity with the NCCP. Still, the 'red-tagging' has serious consequences, including putting the lives of NCCP staff, workers, members and families at risk. It is absolutely urgent that the red-tagging be repealed. 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