Tuesday, December 6, 2022

RLPB 674. Syria & Iraq: Christian Crisis in Mesopotamia

Religious Liberty Prayer Bulletin | RLPB 674 | Wed 07 Dec 2022
RLPB is published weekly to facilitate strategic intercessory prayer.

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SYRIA & IRAQ: CHRISTIAN CRISIS IN MESOPOTAMIA
By Elizabeth Kendal

According to a recent report by the Catholic charity, Aid to the Church in Need (ACN), the number of Christians living in Syria has dropped from 1.5 million or 10 percent of the population before 2011, to roughly 300,000 or two percent of the population today. Most Christians in Syria are ethnic Assyrian (the indigenous nation of the Fertile Crescent), Armenian and Greek. The situation is much the same in Iraq, where the Assyrian population has declined from 1.4 million (1987 census) to about 200,000 in 2016, to maybe as few as 100,000 today. According to Iraqi Cardinal Louis Raphael Sako, Patriarch of Iraq’s Chaldean Church (Nov 2022), half of Iraqi Christians have emigrated in the last five years and many others are ‘on the waiting list’; indeed, they are leaving ‘at a rate of around 20 families a month’. It is an existential crisis about which the West – who, over the course of at least 170 years, has repeatedly betrayed Christians into the hands of Muslims – prefers to remain silent.

Map source (July 2020)

SYRIA: Most Syrian Christians live with good, albeit fragile, religious security and liberty in government-controlled regions along the north-south Damascus to Aleppo axis, in the Alawite heartland of coastal Latakia, and in the Kurdish-controlled north-east. Very few (if any) Christians remain in Idlib Province in Syria’s far north-west which is controlled by al-Qaeda, infested with jihadists and protected by Turkey.

In government-held areas the greatest threat to the Christian presence is crippling poverty, lack of healthcare and the near total absence of any opportunity to work, rebuild or flourish. This is almost exclusively due to US sanctions, specifically the Caesar Syria Civilian Protection Act which essentially places all government-controlled areas of Syria in a state of economic siege [see RLPB 580, Loving Syria’s Christians, 16 December 2020]. In June 2020 Joseph Tobji, the Maronite Archbishop of Aleppo, lamented that the US government was ‘willing to do anything, even to sacrifice millions of people, poor people, families’ in pursuit of its goals (e.g. regime change in Damascus). As Melkite Archbishop of Aleppo, Georges Masri, recently confirmed (ACN, 7 Nov), it is due to sanctions that many Syrians now die for lack of medication.

Meanwhile, in the Kurdish-dominated north and north-east, the greatest threat comes from Turkish aggression [see RLPB 654 (20 July 2022)]. On 22 and 23 November, Turkish airstrikes on the Al-Hol camp – which holds thousands of Islamic State (IS) fighters and families – killed eight security officers from the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) forces and enabled the escape of an unknown number of IS families. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights confirmed the incident and spoke of ‘indescribable chaos’ in Al-Hol. Though Turkey is unlikely to launch a large-scale ground invasion deep into Syria’s north-east, it might settle for unleashing IS against the Kurds. The last thing Syria’s remnant Christians need is a return of IS terror. Meanwhile, Turkey might launch a limited ground invasion west of the Euphrates to seize control of Tel Rifaat (40km north of Aleppo) and Mambij in northern Aleppo Governorate – towns (along with Kobane) Turkey has identified as ‘sources of trouble’. The last thing Aleppo’s remnant Christians need is a return of Turkish forces and their murderous jihadist proxies. Lord have mercy!

Archbishop Bashar Warda 

IRAQ: In Iraq today most Assyrians live either as refugees in Iraqi Kurdistan or as persecuted believers struggling to rebuild their lives in the historic Assyrian heartland of the Nineveh Plains in Nineveh Province, Northern Iraq. Assyrians who return to the Nineveh Plains face enormous challenges, including political marginalisation and violent persecution from land-grabbing Kurds (Sunnis, backed by the Kurdish administration) and Shabaks (Shi’ites, backed by Baghdad and Tehran) [see RLPB 642 (27 April 2022)]. In August, the Chaldean Patriarch of Baghdad, Cardinal Raphael Louis Sako warned that in the absence of major systemic political, social and economic changes, Christians in Iraq are ‘heading towards disappearance’ [RLPB 660 (31 Aug 2022)]. At the 2-3 November G20 Religion forum (R20) in Bali, Indonesia, Archbishop Bashar Warda of Erbil addressed hundreds of religious leaders. He warned that after 1900 years of existing in the region, ‘we Christians of Iraq now find ourselves on the very edge of extinction’. [For more detail see: RLPB 545, Prayer for Assyria: ‘the Assyrian crisis is our crisis’, 15 Apr 2020.]


PLEASE PRAY THAT OUR MERCIFUL GOD WILL

* protect, sustain, guide and encourage Syria’s suffering and imperilled Christians who, having survived war and remained in their homeland, now find themselves languishing under ‘inhumane’ US sanctions and/or facing the prospect of renewed Islamic terror, foreign invasion and displacement. May the Lord intervene to bring the sanctions to an end. May the Lord intervene to establish peace in Syria. Lord have mercy!

* bless the numerous Christian churches and Christian ministries that are providing services and care to Syria’s poor, sick, hungry, threatened and displaced; may the Lord protect them and supply their every need. Lord have mercy!

* intervene in Iraq to protect, bless and build the Assyrian Church and nation according to his promise: 'The Lord Almighty will bless them, saying, "Blessed be Egypt my people, Assyria, the work of my hands, and Israel my inheritance ' (Isaiah 19:25 ESV) (emphasis mine).


SUMMARY FOR BULLETINS UNABLE TO RUN THE WHOLE ARTICLE
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SYRIA & IRAQ: CHRISTIAN CRISIS IN MESOPOTAMIA


Most Christians in Syria and Iraq are ethnic Assyrian, Armenian and Greek. With their historic heartland in Nineveh, northern Iraq, the Assyrians are the indigenous people of Mesopotamia. The number of Christians living in Syria has declined from 1.5 million before 2011, to roughly 300,000 today. In Iraq, the Assyrian population has declined from 1.4 million (1987 census) to about 200,000 in 2016, to maybe as few as 100,000 today. In Syria the Christian presence is under threat due to ‘inhumane’ US sanctions, as well as Turkish aggression which risks reviving Islamic terror. In Iraq, the threat comes from crippling ethno-religious discrimination and persecution, and Muslim land-grabbing backed by powerful interests in ‘Kurdistan’, Baghdad and Tehran. Church leaders warn that Christians in Iraq are ‘on the very edge of extinction’. Please pray.

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Elizabeth Kendal is an international religious liberty analyst and advocate for the persecuted Church. The Religious Liberty Prayer Bulletin (RLPB) is a donor funded ministry; to support this ministry visit www.ElizabethKendal.com .

Elizabeth 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). She is also an Adjunct Research Fellow at the Arthur Jeffery Centre for the Study of Islam at Melbourne School of Theology.

For more information see www.ElizabethKendal.com 

Tuesday, November 29, 2022

RLPB 673. November Update, incl. Ethiopia and Eritrea, India, Mali, West Papua, Sudan, Uganda, Turkey in Syria

Religious Liberty Prayer Bulletin | RLPB 673 | Wed 30 Nov 2022
RLPB is published weekly to facilitate strategic intercessory prayer.

To sign up for the RLPB visit www.ElizabethKendal.com
View RLPB archives at Religious Liberty Prayer Bulletin blog.
For bite-size, follow religiouslibertyprayer on Instagram.

NOVEMBER 2022 UPDATE
By Elizabeth Kendal

DURING NOVEMBER WE PRAYED CONCERNING:

* ETHIOPIA [RLPB 670, 9 Nov], where the Ethiopian Government and the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) have signed an ‘Agreement for Lasting Peace’. Meanwhile, the ethnic-nationalist Oromo Liberation Army (OLA / OLF-Shene) continues to wage a campaign of terror aimed at ethnic cleansing against minority Amharas in the majority Christian north-west of Oromia Region.

UPDATE OROMIA: The condition and whereabouts of nine deacons abducted from the Midre Genet St Mariam Church and the parish council members abducted of Harbu Bose St Michael church – two churches in North Shewa Zone, Oromia Region – remain unknown. Please pray for the captives and for an end to OLA terror.

UPDATE TIGRAY: Rumours abound of TPLF fighters refusing to accept the conditions of the Agreement, in particular, the requirement to disarm. Please pray for God to intervene, to infuse a spirit of / desire for peace among the many fighters who do not support the Agreement. The Nairobi declaration of 12 November – which sets outs how the Agreement (signed in Pretoria on 2 November) will be implemented – provides that disarmament of TPLF forces will be undertaken in tandem with the withdrawal of foreign [read: Eritrean] and non-ENDF (Ethiopian National Defense Forces) [read: Amhara FANO] forces. The main threat here is Eritrea, which is not a party to the Agreement. [Eritrea has made peace with the Ethiopian government, not with the expansionist TPLF.] Please pray that all Eritrean troops and FANO militias will withdraw from Tigray Region in a peaceful, disciplined and orderly fashion, and that nothing will get in the way of peace; for the sake of all Ethiopians and Eritreans and the region’s precious, missional Church.

* ERITREA [RLPB 671, 16 Nov], after the authorities arrested and jailed three Catholic leaders who had highlighted Eritrea’s human rights abuses. Abba (Father) Mihretab Stefanos, Abba Abraham Habtom Gebremariam and Abune (His Excellency) Fikremariam Hagos, the first Bishop of the Catholic Eparchy (diocese) of Segheneyti, were arrested on 11,12 and 15 October respectively. Sources believe that all three Catholics are being held at the notorious Adi Abeito prison on the northern outskirts of Asmara. An estimated 500 Christians are imprisoned in Eritrea, most for their faith, some for their human rights advocacy. Some Christians leaders arrested in 2004 remain incarcerated to this day. Lord have mercy! Please pray.

* INDIA [RLPB 672, 23 Nov], where the Supreme Court had ordered the government to submit an affidavit explaining what it intends to do to curb ‘forced’ religious conversions. The next hearing was scheduled for Monday 28 November.

UPDATES

SUPREME COURT:
In its affidavit filed before the Supreme Court, the Indian government said it is ‘cognisant of the gravity and the seriousness’ of the issue of ‘forced’ religious conversion. The government promised that ‘the relief sought in the present petition would be taken up in all seriousness by the Union of India and appropriate steps shall be taken as the Central Government is cognisant of the matter’. According to Telegraph, India (28 Nov), ‘The Centre told the Supreme Court on Monday that religious freedom does not include a fundamental right to convert other people to a particular religion and that it certainly does not embrace the right to convert an individual through fraud, deception, coercion or allurement. The central government said it is “cognisant of the menace” and laws that seek to control such practices are necessary to protect the cherished rights of vulnerable sections of the society…’ Please pray for the Church in India.

CONVERSIONS IN KASHI/VARANASI (UP): According to Hindu nationalist ideology (Hindutva), Indians are members of the Hindu race. For an Indian, therefore, religious conversion into Hinduism cannot be called conversion; rather it is called Ghar Wapsi (Hindi: ‘Returning Home’). Throughout the country, Hindu nationalist organisations are working tirelessly to bring as many Christians ‘home’ as possible. According to the Nagaland Post (17 Nov), a Hindu nationalist Ghar Wapsi campaign had been slated for 6 to 20 November, for people in the 19 districts of the Kashi/Varanasi region in Uttar Pradesh, with the goal of reconverting / 'bringing home' 500,000 people (Muslims, Christians and tribals). Many Christians who convert to Hinduism or identify as Hindus do so for financial reasons; for desperately poor, low-caste and Dalit (untouchable) Indians are only eligible for benefits so long as they are Hindu. For Christians who insist on standing firm the cost of discipleship can be very high indeed. Please pray for the Church in India.


NOVEMBER 2022 ROUND-UP - also this month:

* MALI ABANDONED AS TERROR ESCALATES

(1) GERMAN PRIEST ABDUCTED IN BAMAKO

Rev Hans-Joachim Lohre.
(Aid to the Church in Need)

On Sunday 20 November the Reverend Hans-Joachim Lohre – a German priest who has served in Mali for more than 30 years – disappeared from the Malian capital, Bamako. Lohre – known affectionately as Father Ha-Jo – was preparing to go and celebrate Mass when suspected Islamic militants snatched him, cutting the cross from his neck. It is the first abduction of a foreigner from Bamako since the Islamic insurgency began more than a decade ago. On 23 November Cardinal Jean Zerbo, Archbishop of Bamako, released a statement lamenting, ‘At the moment we have no further news [regarding the Revd Lohre] or contacts with the kidnappers…’ Aid to the Church in Need reports (22 Nov), ‘During a visit to Switzerland, less than six months ago, [Fr Lohre] told local benefactors about the situation in Mali. “The jihadists come in groups, on motorcycles, and the local communities have to make deals with them. They are forbidden from ringing church bells and drinking alcohol, and women are forced to wear the veil”.’ Now, it seems, Fr Lohre is their captive. Please pray.

(2) THE WEST ABANDONS MALI

click on map to enlarge

Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (ISGS) is escalating its insurgency in Mali. ISGS terror recently forced more than 60,000 civilians from Menaka (in northern Mali near the border with Niger) to flee to Gao, the regional capital. Those displaced tell of massacres, stonings and extortion. Despite the escalation in terror, Western forces are withdrawing, abandoning the United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali (MINUSMA). France has already withdrawn its troops [see RLPB 607, The Sahel: Africa’s Afghanistan? Christians Imperilled (21 July 2021)]. On 14 November the UK joined Sweden in announcing that it will withdraw its troops. In the past week, Germany announced that it will withdraw its troops by May 2024, primarily because Mali has engaged Russia in the fight against the jihadists. With terrorists pushing through Burkina Faso into Gulf of Guinea states, analysts suspect Togo, Benin and Ghana might decide they need to bring their troops home. The security situation in Mali and the wider Sahel is diabolical and rapidly deteriorating; it is a Christian Crisis in the making. Lord have mercy! Please pray.

* PAPUAN PROVINCES (INDONESIA): FURTHER DIVISION

Red: new province of
Southwest Papua

On 17 November the Indonesian government unanimously passed a law to divide West Papua Province (the western region comprising the Bird’s Head Peninsula and the Fak Fak Peninsula). West Papua will be split between Southwest Papua Province, the capital of which will be Sorong; and West Papua Province, the capital of which will be Manokwari. Previously, on 30 June, the Indonesian government passed legislation to divide Papua Province into four administrative units. At that time, analysts warned that the new divisions will ‘serve to accelerate Javanese Muslim colonisation, militarisation and exploitation’, hastening the ‘end-game’ of Papuan genocide [see RLPB 661, Papua: Entering the ‘End Game’, 7 Sept 2022]. As the Lowy Institute notes, ‘The creation of new administrative districts entails the necessity to establish government apparatus, set up military posts, and construct new infrastructure – all of which might exacerbate violent conflict in the region.’ Betrayed and abandoned, exploited and persecuted, the mostly Christian indigenous Melanesians of Indonesia’s Papuan provinces long for self-determination, not only because they desire freedom, but because they hope to survive as a people. Lord have mercy! Please pray.

* SUDAN: PASTOR ARRESTED

On Monday 21 November Pastor Abdalla Haron Sulieman led a prayer service for his ailing mother, Aisha Adam (60), at the Sudan Presbyterian Evangelical Church in El Hasahisa town, Al Jazirah state. Locals told Morning Star News (27 Nov) that during the service Pastor Sulieman’s mother was healed, leading area Muslims to flock to the church requesting prayer for themselves. Furious, Islamic fundamentalists persuaded police to arrest and jail the pastor on a charge of ‘witchcraft’. MSN lists the case as ‘Case No. 6737/2022 under the Sudan Criminal Code of 1991’. NOTE: I (Elizabeth) cannot find any reference to witchcraft in the criminal code. Consequently, I am wondering if the accusation of witchcraft will be tied to something like ‘fabricating false evidence’ or ‘criminal mischief’ or ‘insulting religious creeds’. It will be interesting to see how the court handles this case of a Christian pastor who has not committed any crime at all. MSN reports that after the arrest Sudanese Christians took to social media demanding the pastor’s release and protesting the persecution of Christians in Sudan. Please pray.

* UGANDA: ‘WE ARE SUFFERING FOR PASTORING CONVERTS FROM ISLAM.’

On Friday 18 November Pastor Jude Sitaalo (56) and his wife, Naisiga Sitaalo, were meeting with 10 other church members in the Believers’ Church in Nansonko village, Kibuku District, Eastern Region, when a mosque leader led a group of Muslims to attack the gathering. The attack was in response to an evangelistic event in August in which five young Muslim men put their faith in Jesus Christ. The pastor and his wife received multiple knife wounds. Pastor Sitaalo told Morning Star News, ‘We are suffering for pastoring converts from Islam.’ On 8 November Muslim fundamentalists in Katantala village, Kiboga District, Buganda Region beat Pastor Agaba Ezera and demolished his church in retaliation for his leading 23 Muslims to Christ. Pastor Ezera was hospitalised with leg, back, arm and head injuries – most due to blunt-weapon trauma. He believes he only survived because the militants thought they had killed him. [See Morning Star News, 29 Nov.] Please pray for the Church in Uganda.

* TURKEY IN SYRIA

Background: On 23 May Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan announced that Turkey was preparing to re-invade northern Syria to resume its effort to create a ‘safe zone’ 32km deep along the entire Turkey-Syria border. [For full details see RLPB 654 (20 July).] Because Turkey failed to get the necessary ‘green light’, the invasion did not eventuate. As the US, Iran and Russia all agreed, Turkish aggression in northern Syria would enable a revival of Islamic State [RLPB 655 (27 July)].

Recommended:
David Eubank of Free Burma Rangers
reports from Takl Bukl, south of Derik
in Syria's far north-east.
20 Nov 2022

On Sunday 20 November Turkish warplanes launched a series of air raids across North and East Syria, from Afrin (just 60km northwest of Aleppo) to Kobanî (Ayn al-Arab) in the north, to Al-Malikiyah (also known as Derik) in Syria’s far north-east. These air-strikes – part of ‘Operation Claw-Sword’ – resulted in deaths, injuries and great material damage. Turkey (a NATO member and US ally) also bombed several areas deep inside northern Iraq, including in Sinjar (125km west of Mosul), Dohuk (74km north of Mosul), Qandil (70km north-east of Erbil) and Sulaymaniyah (110 km east of oil-rich Kirkuk). In Syria, the air-raids were followed by shelling. Having blamed Kurdish terrorists for the 13 November terror attack in Istanbul, Turkey claims to be acting in self-defence. All these areas have Kurdish majorities and significant remnant communities of indigenous Armenian and Assyrian Christians. Declaring the air-strikes to be ‘only the beginning’, Erdoğan is yet again threatening to launch a ground invasion into northern Syria. Everyone agrees, a Turkish invasion of northern Syria would enable a revival of Islamic State and risk igniting a whole new war in Mesopotamia. Please pray.

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Elizabeth Kendal is an international religious liberty analyst and advocate for the persecuted Church.

Elizabeth 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). She is also an Adjunct Research Fellow at the Arthur Jeffery Centre for the Study of Islam at Melbourne School of Theology.

The RLPB is a donor-funded ministry. For more information on Elizabeth's books, global persecution, or how to provide financial support, visit www.ElizabethKendal.com