Tuesday, October 20, 2020

RLPB 572. Ivory Coast: 31 October Election Peril

Religious Liberty Prayer Bulletin | RLPB 572 | Wed 21 Oct 2020
RLPB is published weekly to facilitate strategic intercessory prayer.

Please forward this prayer bulletin widely and encourage others to sign up to “Follow by email” on the Religious Liberty Prayer Bulletin (RLPB) blog. ‘For the weapons of our warfare are not of the flesh but have divine power to destroy strongholds’ (2 Corinthians 10:4 ESV). 

IVORY COAST: 31 OCTOBER ELECTION PERIL
Plus
update on Iranian adoption case
By Elizabeth Kendal

left to right: Ouattara, Bedie, N'Guessan, Bertin.
source: 'Who are the Four Candidates...' France24

Tensions are boiling over in Ivory Coast as campaigning commences for the profoundly controversial and potentially explosive 31 October presidential election. On 7 August incumbent President Alassane Ouattara announced that he would run for a third term, violating the constitution which sets a two-term limit. The Constitutional Council which validated his candidacy also rejected 40 of 44 candidates. The four approved candidates are: the incumbent Alassane Ouattara (78, party: RDR), former president Henri Konan Bedie (86, party: PDCI-RDA), Pascal Affi N'Guessan (67, party: FPI [Gbagbo's party]) and Kouadio Konan Bertin (51, long-time member PDCI-RDA, now running as an independent). Ouattara has refused to negotiate. On Thursday 15 October, Bedie and N'Guessan responded by calling for a boycott of the polls.

click on map to enlarge

Alassane Ouattara secured power in the disputed elections of November 2010 - elections that were supposed to bring healing to a land torn apart by a civil war that had left the mostly Muslim north of the country under the control of Muslim 'rebel' militias. Most critically, the November 2010 election pitted Ivorian nationalists versus French neo-colonial interests. Contrary to mainstream media reports, Ouattara (a northern Muslim and France's man in Ivory Coast) did not win the election. Rather, the pro-Ouattara Electoral Commission overstepped its authority and declared Ouattara the winner based on provisional results. His opponent, Laurent Gbagbo (a Protestant Christian and ardent nationalist; party: FPI) contested the result and requested the Constitutional Council investigate. The Constitutional Council - the only body constitutionally empowered to determine the winner - investigated and subsequently declared Gbabgo the winner. A stalemate ensued. To break the stalemate, Gbagbo proposed that an international commission be established to investigate the election and declare the result. However, the UN Secretary General's Special Representative inexplicably rejected Gbagbo's proposal and sided with Ouattara. [Analysis by former South African president, Thabo Mbeki (29 April 2011).] 

Backed by French military forces (including helicopter gunships) and a multitude of northern Muslim militias and Islamic jihadists, Ouattara proceeded to seize power by force, all the while claiming the moral high ground. In April 2011 the besieged Laurent Gbagbo was arrested and delivered to the International Criminal Court (ICC), charged with crimes against humanity. [In January 2020, the ICC acquitted Gbagbo of all charges. However, the prosecutor has launched an appeal. Denied a passport, Gbagbo is trapped in Brussels.] More than 3000 died in the associated ethnic-religious violence of December 2010 to April 2011, as pro-Ouattara northern Muslims (many of whom were immigrants) and jihadists (many of whom were foreigners) fought pro-Gbagbo southern peoples, Christians and nationalist Ivorians wanting an end to exploitative French neo-colonialism in Ivory Coast. The same ethnic-religious battle lines are forming again today. Clashes are already occurring, except now Ivory Coast's military and police include large numbers of northern Muslim former rebels. Having fought against the government from 2002-2011, they were incorporated into the security forces after Ouattara was inaugurated as president.

Residents flee Bongouanou, Friday 16 October.
source: Pre-election violence grips ICoast
opposition stronghold
 (AFP, 19 Oct)

Since August, when President Ouattara announced his candidacy, clashes have erupted in numerous southern localities. While the clashes are political, they play out along ethnic and religious lines. Clashes have erupted in Daoukro, the hometown of candidate Henri Konan Bedie; Bongouanou, the stronghold of candidate Pascal Affi N'Guessan (whose home and offices were torched); the southern cocoa-growing hub of Divo; and the opposition-held districts of Abidjan (the commercial capital). On 13 August opposition supporters were protesting in Yopougon district, Abidjan, when they were violently attacked and dispersed by pro-Ouattara militias operating in collusion with police. Amnesty International reports that dozens of militiamen armed with machetes and clubs arrived in Yopougon in minivans and on motorbikes where they were met by police officers who directed them to the protest sites. With militants vastly outnumbering the on-duty police, many of the protesters - who were not armed - sustained terrible injuries. Election violence has already claimed at least a dozen lives, with more than 100 wounded. The situation is dire.

PLEASE PRAY SPECIFICALLY THAT OUR SOVEREIGN GOD WILL

* intervene in grace and mercy to defuse the political crisis in Ivory Coast before it explodes into another round of ethnic-religious violence; may President Ouattara see sense and step aside, choosing peace over power for the sake of the nation.

* grant divine wisdom to all Ivory Coast's Christian leaders - those in politics, law, journalism, community service and Church ministry - that they might know how to lead God's people and even a divided nation though the difficult days ahead; may they have grace, wisdom and influence to be peace-makers during these volatile times. 'Blessed are the peacemakers ...' (Matthew 5:9)

* draw the Ivorian Church and the Body of Christ ever deeper into prayer for the nation of Ivory Coast; may grace prove more enduring than fear, hurt or bitterness; may mission to Muslims flourish and be blessed with effectual power from the Holy Spirit; may the Church continue to grow in faith, hope and love, secure 'in the shadow of your wings' (from Psalm 57:1 ESV), sustained by God's all-sufficient grace.

'Three times I [Paul] pleaded with the Lord about this, that it [a specific trial/suffering] should leave me.  But he [the Lord] said to me, "My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness."' (from 2 Cor 12:8-10 ESV).

SUMMARY FOR BULLETINS UNABLE TO RUN THE WHOLE ARTICLE
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IVORY COAST: 31 OCTOBER ELECTION PERIL

Tensions are boiling in Ivory Coast ahead of the controversial and potentially explosive 31 October presidential election. President Ouattara's announcement that he would run for an unconstitutional third term has sent tensions soaring. In the south, clashes have erupted. While these clashes are political, they play out along ethnic-religious lines with northern Muslims backing Ouattara and southern peoples, especially Christians, backing the opposition. The battle-lines mirror those of November 2010, when a disputed election triggered ethnic-religious violence in which some 3000 Ivorians died. Since then, thousands of northern Muslim former 'rebels' have been incorporated into the military and police, raising the stakes. In the commercial capital, Abidjan, on 13 August police officers colluded with armed pro-Ouattara Muslim militants, letting them attack opposition supporters unhindered. The situation is dire. Please pray.

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UPDATE on Iranian Adoption Case

Around the same time last week's RLPB 571 was posted out, Article 18 reported that 120 lawyers and activists had written an open letter to the head of Iran's judiciary - Ebrahim Raisi (an ultra-conservative hardliner) - asking him to overturn the court's decision to remove Lydia (2) from her Christian adoptive parents, Sam and Maryam. The letter raises issues of international and domestic law and cites Iran's own constitution. It appeals to common decency and compassion, especially in considering the needs of vulnerable children. It recognises Sam and Maryam as 'well respected' and 'honourable citizens of the country', noting that 'with great moral care, dignity, and humanity, [they] requested custody of a child from the welfare organisation, to which this institution also agreed through its legal procedures. And during the subsequent two years, their adopted child has become their shining light.' Please continue to pray for Sam, Maryam and Lydia, that indignation will grow and spread, and that this cruel decision (which sets a chilling precedent) will be overturned.

See RLPB 571 (14 Oct 2020) for prayer points.

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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, October 13, 2020

RLPB 571. Iran: The High Cost of Discipleship

Religious Liberty Prayer Bulletin | RLPB 571 | Wed 14 Oct 2020
RLPB is published weekly to facilitate strategic intercessory prayer.

Please forward this prayer bulletin widely and encourage others to sign up in the “Follow by email” box on the Religious Liberty Prayer Bulletin (RLPB) blog. ‘For the weapons of our warfare are not of the flesh but have divine power to destroy strongholds’ (2 Corinthians 10:4 ESV). 

IRAN: THE HIGH COST OF DISCIPLESHIP
plus: Believing Muslims now a Minority in Iran
By Elizabeth Kendal

On 1 July 2019 Iranian Christian converts Sam Khosravi (36) and his wife, Maryam Falahi (35), were among eight Christians arrested during raids by the Ministry of Intelligence and Security (MOIS) in Iran's Persian Gulf city of Bushehr [RLPB 510 (10 July 2019)]. While Sam's mother (who is 61) was released because of her age, the remaining seven believers (four men and three women) were convicted of spreading 'propaganda against the state', 'collusion', and 'membership of a group hostile to the regime'. On 21 June 2020 the four men were handed custodial sentences of up to one year in prison each. Sam and his brother, Sasan, received one-year jail terms after which they will face work restrictions and be required to serve a further two years in internal exile. The three women were fined and Maryam, who is a nurse, was also banned for life from working in the public sector (including hospitals) [RLPB 557 (8 July 2020)]. The rulings are being appealed.

Sam and Maryam with daughter, Lydia.


As if that were not enough, on 19 July 2020 - in a ruling that has only just come to light - the court also ordered that Sam and Maryam's 20-month-old adopted daughter, Lydia, be returned to state care because, as Christians, Sam and Maryam were 'not fit' to raise her. Sam and Maryam adopted Lydia - who has special needs caused by heart and gastrointestinal diseases - from an orphanage in February 2019 when she was just 10 weeks old and have loved and cared for her ever since. Judge Muhammad Hassan Dashti appeared reluctant to hand down the ruling, leaving observers convinced he was acting under pressure from MOIS. In his verdict, Judge Dashti acknowledged that Lydia displayed an 'intense emotional attachment' to her adoptive parents. He lamented that 'considering the health of the child and her illness, there is zero possibility of giving her away to another family. If the child returns [to the orphanage], it is possible that she would be forever under the protection of the Welfare Department'. With evident sympathy he noted that Sam and Maryam adopted Lydia because 'in 13 years of marriage, [they] didn't have a child to bring light and warmth to their home', before submitting that Lydia (deemed Muslim by the state) should never have been placed in their care.

In seeking to overturn the verdict, the couple's lawyer obtained fatwas (religious rulings) from two Grand Ayatollahs. Grand Ayatollah Naser Makarem Shirazi decreed that due to 'necessity' the child may stay in the family and that the adoption is therefore 'permissible'. Grand Ayatollah Yousef Saanei confirmed that the adoption does not violate Iranian law, and decreed that the child's religion should be determined at puberty. Despite this, on 22 September, the appeals court upheld the ruling and ordered that Lydia (now just shy of her second birthday) be removed from Sam and Maryam's care and returned to the orphanage. The case has prompted an outpouring of sympathy. Advocates are appealing for prayer, that the state might relent and allow Sam and Maryam to keep and care for Lydia as their adopted child. This is critically important, not only for Sam, Maryam and Lydia, but for all Iranian Christians with adopted children.

PLEASE PRAY THAT GOD OUR HEAVENLY FATHER WILL

* cause a supernatural peace to well up as a spring within the hearts of Sam, Maryam and Lydia; may they look to Jesus for 'rest' (Matthew 11:28); may the Spirit of God bring confidence and hope (Psalm 3:3) and may all persecuted and threatened Iranian Christians know the intimate closeness of their faithful, compassionate and sovereign Heavenly Father (Romans 8:31-39).

'O Holy Spirit, Grant me the faith that will protect me from despair ...'  Dietrich Bonhoeffer (Letters and Papers from Prison, Morning prayers, Christmas 1943).

* intervene in Iran to stir up indignation over Lydia's case; we pray especially for Judge Muhammad Hassan Dashti and Grand Ayatollahs Naser Makarem Shirazi and Yousef Saanei; may the Spirit of truth enlighten their minds, may the Son enlighten their hearts and may the God of compassion fill them with a burning indignation that cannot be contained.

* intervene so that the state will relent of this shameful ruling so that Lydia might remain with Sam and Maryam, and so no other Christian family will have to fear or suffer such a cruelty.

UPDATE to RLPB 564 (26 Aug): Joseph Shahbazian (56, an ethnic Armenian) and Malihe Nazari (46, a Persian convert) were arrested in a Tehran house church on 30 June and imprisoned with bail that was exorbitant, unobtainable and unprecedented. We thank God that both Joseph and Malihe have now been released on reduced bail; their trials are pending. Please pray for all Iranian Christians who are facing charges, or who are in prison and separated from loved ones because of their faith; pray also for courageous lawyers, and that indignation over the lack of freedom would continue to grow.

SUMMARY FOR BULLETINS UNABLE TO RUN THE WHOLE ARTICLE
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THE HIGH COST OF DISCIPLESHIP IN IRAN

On 1 July 2019 Iranian Christian converts Sam Khosravi (36) and his wife, Maryam Falahi (35), were among eight Christians arrested in Bushehr. In July 2020 Sam was sentenced to one year in prison, followed by work restrictions and two years' internal exile. Maryam (a nurse) was fined and banned for life from working in the public sector (including hospitals). The court also ruled that Sam and Maryam's 20-month-old adopted daughter Lydia should be returned to state care because, as Christians, Sam and Maryam were 'not fit' to raise her. On 22 September an appeals court upheld the ruling despite religious edicts from two Grand Ayatollahs deeming the adoption permissible. Please pray for Sam, Maryam and Lydia, and that the state would be forced to relent and not enact this ruling.

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EXTRA: BELIEVING MUSLIMS NOW A MINORITY IN IRAN

Iran's Islamic regime does not allow religious conversions out of Islam. However, while the state is unwilling to recognise conversions, it still punishes converts as infidels and apostates while continuing to count them as Muslims. This is nothing but a grand deception.

According to a new poll by the Group for Analyzing and Measuring Attitudes in Iran (GAMAAN, a secular non-profit institute in the Netherlands), only 32 percent of all Iranians consider themselves to be Shia Muslims! GAMAAN surveyed 50,000 Iranians (90 percent of whom were inside Iran) and found that, while 78 percent still believe in God, around half have rejected their religion, while six percent have converted to another faith, including 1.5 percent who now identify as Christian. On the basis of its research, GAMAAN estimates that at least 750,000 Christians currently reside in the Islamic Republic (twice the previous estimate), while those who identify as Muslim are now a minority. [GAMAAN report, in Persian.

GAMAAN findings, in English.
source: Christianity Today (3 Sep 2020)
(click on image to enlarge)

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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, October 6, 2020

RLPB 570. Turkey, Azerbaijan, Artsakh and the Armenians

Religious Liberty Prayer Bulletin | RLPB 570 | Wed 07 Oct 2020
RLPB is published weekly to facilitate strategic intercessory prayer.

Please forward this prayer bulletin widely and encourage others to sign up to “Follow by email” on the Religious Liberty Prayer Bulletin (RLPB) blog. ‘The prayer of a righteous person is powerful and effective’ (James 5:16 NIV). 

TURKEY, AZERBAIJAN, ARTSAKH AND THE ARMENIANS
 -- 'Turkey and Azerbaijan have genocidal intent'
By Elizabeth Kendal

Political Geography Now timeline (2 Oct 2020)

Azerbaijan and Turkey have launched a war against the Armenians for control of Nagorno-Karabakh (N-K), an Armenian enclave inside Azerbaijan. Mountainous and forested, thousands of churches adorn N-K's peaks, many dating back to the 10th Century. DNA samples from excavated bones indicate that Armenians have been settled in the region for at least 4,000 years. For many centuries the region was known as 'Artsakh' and was a province of Armenia. When Russia annexed the region from the Persian Empire in 1805, the population of N-K was 94 percent ethnic Armenian, as it was in 1923 when the Soviet Union's Communist dictator Joseph Stalin mischievously and fatefully made Orthodox Armenian N-K an autonomous region (or oblast) of the Turkic Muslim Azerbaijan Soviet Socialist Republic. In December 1991, following the break-up of the Soviet Union, the residents of N-K held a referendum on independence in which 99.98 percent voted to secede from Azerbaijan. N-K's Azeri minority boycotted the vote and Azerbaijan responded with war. Ultimately the Armenians prevailed. Since then, the region has existed as a democratic self-ruled Armenian province inside Azerbaijan. In 2017 N-K's residents voted to change the region's name from Nagorno-Karabakh (a Russian-Azerbaijani hybrid) to Artsakh, the name by which it was known from the early 11th Century. RLPB will use the name 'Artsakh', not simply because history matters, but because, despite Stalin's mischief and the UN's intransigence, the region is Armenian.

Spurred on by neo-Ottoman Turkey, Azerbaijan is determined to seize control of Artsakh, which it claims solely on the basis of Stalin's 1923 declaration. There is no guarantee these Turkic Islamists will not extend the fight to Armenia itself. Make no mistake, one hundred years after the Armenian Genocide, Turkey and Azerbaijan have genocidal intent. Indeed, Azerbaijan's President Aliyev once even predicted that 'Armenia will soon perish from the world map'. According to Turkish journalist, Amberin Zaman, the current escalation 'was not sparked by accident but was pre-planned by Azerbaijan and its regional ally Turkey'. This claim is backed up by the testimony of foreign jihadists who report being recruited in Syria's Idlib Province a month before fighting began. This happens to be around the same time Turkey and Azerbaijan were conducting 'large-scale' joint air and land military exercises inside Azerbaijan in the wake on the July clashes [RLPB 560 (29 July)]. According to Armenia, as many as 4000 jihadists have arrived in Azerbaijan from Syria, courtesy of Turkey.

left: Stepanakert, Sunday 5 October.  right: Cathedral as bomb shelter
photos AFP, article StraitsTimes (6 Oct)

This crisis has the potential to escalate every bit as severely as did the crisis in Syria and along similar lines: Orthodox Armenia (backed by Orthodox Russia and Iran [which opposes Azeri nationalism]) versus Islamist Turkic Azerbaijan (backed by NATO member neo-Ottoman Turkey and its jihadist proxies). Hosting very expensive British and American oil and gas infrastructure and boasting the very latest cutting-edge Israeli weaponry, Azerbaijan is confident, determined and refusing to talk. The Artsakh capital, Stepanakert, has been under heavy bombardment for days. The basement of Stepanakert's leading Armenian Apostolic Church - the Holy Mother of God Cathedral (also known as the Cathedral of Intercession) - now serves as a bomb shelter. Its vast underground hall is ringed by chapels now serving as temporary homes for families. 'It is probably the safest place in Stepanakert'' says the priest, 'protected by the granite and by Our Lord.' Men, some in uniform, guard the cathedral's entrance. 'We will never let the enemy get in very deep,' said a priest clutching a gold crucifix. After all, 'We are here,' he explains as air-raid sirens ring out, 'on the historical land of Armenian Christianity.'

Kumkapi, Istanbul,
28 September

FURTHERMORE, there is a real danger the conflict could spill over into both Iran and Turkey. In Iran, ethnic Azeri pro-Azerbaijan demonstrations have erupted in several Iranian cities, whilst in Turkey's Istanbul, Turkish nationalists have been threatening and intimidating the city's Armenians with impunity. On the evening of 28 September, a convoy of vehicles draped in and flying Azerbaijani flags descended on Istanbul's Kumkapi neighbourhood, which is home to a large Armenian population and the Armenian Orthodox Patriarchate. The government had approved the demonstration and Istanbul's governor did not intervene. On 30 September the demonstration was repeated, this time in Istanbul's Fener and Balat neighbourhoods, once home to many Jewish, Greek and Armenian residents. Opposition lawmakers and human rights activists have questioned whether the ruling AK Party is setting the stage for anti-Armenian pogroms and an Armenian exodus.


PLEASE PRAY THAT OUR ALMIGHTY GOD WILL

* intervene in grace and power to 'turn back the battle' (from Isaiah 28:5-6), 'that all the kingdoms of the earth may know that you alone are the Lord' (from Hezekiah's prayer, Isaiah 37:14-20 ESV).

* redeem this crisis to deepen and further personalise the faith of his people; may all Armenians keep their eyes fixed on Jesus (Hebrews 12:1-3) as they look to, call upon and put their hope in the LORD.

And Jesus came and said to them, 'All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me' (Matthew 28:18 ESV).

* protect and defend his people (Psalm 28) and bring the way of the wicked to ruin (Psalm 146).

'The Lord brings the counsel of the nations to nothing; he frustrates the plans of the peoples. The counsel of the Lord stands forever, the plans of his heart to all generations. Blessed is the nation whose God is the Lord ... Behold, the eye of the Lord is on those who fear him, on those who hope in his steadfast love ... Our soul waits for the Lord; he is our help and our shield.' (excerpts from Psalm 33, ESV)


SUMMARY FOR BULLETINS UNABLE TO RUN THE WHOLE ARTICLE
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ARTSAKH (NAGORNO-KARABKH) ARMENIANS IMPERILLED

In 1923 Joseph Stalin gave Orthodox-Armenian Nagorno-Karabakh (N-K) to Turkic-Muslim Azerbaijan. In 1991, after the break-up of the Soviet Union, N-K voted to secede from Azerbaijan. In 2017 N-K voted to reclaim its historic name from when it was a province of Armenia: Artsakh. Spurred on by neo-Ottoman Turkey, Azerbaijan continues to lay claim to Artsakh. That the current conflict was pre-planned is evidenced by the presence of foreign jihadis who claim to have been recruited by Turkey from Syria's Idlib Province a month before fighting began. Some 4000 foreign jihadis are reportedly fighting with Azerbaijan. The Artsakh capital, Stepanakert, is under heavy bombardment. The cathedral's basement has become a bomb shelter. Confident and determined, Azerbaijan is refusing to talk. Turkic aggression against ethnic Armenians risks spreading into Iran and Turkey. 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