Tuesday, April 27, 2021

RLPB 595. April 2021 Update. Inc. Ramadan, China, Turkey, Azerbaijan, Egypt, Ethiopia, Haiti, Iran, Papua (Indonesia), Saudi Arabia, Somaliland

Religious Liberty Prayer Bulletin | RLPB 595 | Wed 28 Apr 2021
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). 

DIARY
Ramadan (Muslim month of fasting): 12/13 April to 12 May.
Orthodox Easter: Friday 30 April to Sunday 2 May.

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APRIL 2021 UPDATE
By Elizabeth Kendal

DURING THIS PERIOD, WE PRAYED CONCERNING:

* RAMADAN [RLPB 592 (7 April)], and the elevated threat that Ramadan brings to some of the world's most vulnerable Christian communities. We prayed specifically for the Church in Iraq, against which Islamic State (IS) has issued a direct threat. We also prayed concerning Syria, where analysts anticipate IS will attempt a Ramadan offensive and Armenia, where observers believe a new war is imminent as belligerent, Turkey-backed Azerbaijan demands a 'Zangezur Corridor' through southern Armenia.

RAMADAN UPDATE: ORTHODOX EASTER THIS WEEKEND

This weekend, Ramadan will coincide with Orthodox Easter compounding, the risk of Islamic terrorism and/or Muslim communal violence against vulnerable Orthodox Christian churches and communities. Countries where Christians will be at risk most significantly this Orthodox Easter include Iraq, Syria, Egypt, Ethiopia, as well as aggressively anti-Armenian Azerbaijan and neo-Ottoman Turkey. Please pray.

* CHINA [RLPB 593 (13 April)], where Christians are increasingly being 'disappeared' into 'mobile transformation facilities' - also known as 'Residential Surveillance at a Designation Location' - where they are mistreated until they 'break' and renounce their faith. We prayed especially for Elder Zhang Chunlei of the long-persecuted Ren'ai [Love] Reformed Church in Guiyang, who has been arrested and placed in criminal detention as a 'fraud suspect'; for Pastor Wang Yi of the long-persecuted Early Rain Covenant Church in Chengdu, who was sentenced in December 2018 to nine years in prison; and for long-persecuted lawyer, Gao Zhisheng, who has been 'disappeared' for more than three years. Please continue to pray.

* TURKEY [RLPB 594 (20 April)], where Father Sefer Bilecen (known as Father Aho) - the Assyrian caretaker-priest at Mor Yakub Monastery in Tur Abdin region, Mardin Province - has been jailed for 25 months charged with 'aiding and abetting a terrorist organisation'. His crime was to give food to two armed militants who came to the monastery asking for food. We also prayed for a resolution on the fate of Mr Hurmuz Diril, an Assyrian Christian abducted from neighbouring Sirnac Province in March 2020. Please pray for the Church in Turkey.

UPDATE: Al-Monitor has released a short two minute but excellent video on the sentencing of Father Aho, which highlights how and why Turkey's Assyrian population has declined so markedly in recent years. Excerpt: 'At one point in the 1980s, the Assyrian population in Turkey was around 70,000. Today however, that number is closer is 20,000 with less than 3,000 in Tur Abdin [region, where Mor Yakub monastery is located]. Many of these families continue to feel pressure to leave ...' Note: Dotted with Christian monasteries, 'Tur Abdin' is Aramaic for 'the mountain of the servants of God'.


APRIL 2021 ROUND-UP - also this month:

* AZERBAIJAN: ESCALATING REPRESSION

According to Forum 18, a bill proposing amendments to Azerbaijan's already highly restrictive Religion Law was due to have its first reading in parliament on 23 April. If passed, the amendments will make it even more difficult for non-Islamic religious communities to function legally. It is already the case that, before a local religious group can be registered (legalised), it must have 50 adult citizens as founding members. An amendment would require that all 50 adult citizens reside in the one administrative district. Furthermore, before a religious group can register a 'religious centre' (i.e., headquarters), the group must have at least five registered communities, located in at least five different towns. Once registered, a 'religious centre' may only operate one religious school. Critically, a State Committee would acquire a veto over non-Islamic religious communities' appointments of leaders. While these and other amendments would cause considerable problems for all Christian communities, they would be catastrophic for small Jewish and Protestant fellowships. Please pray.

* EGYPT: IS-SINAI EXECUTES COPTIC CHRISTIAN
-- another Islamic State message signed in blood

Nabil Habashy Salama

On 18 April, Islamic State Sinai Province uploaded a 13-minute video to social media showing the execution of Christian Copt, Nabil Habashy Salama (62). A hardworking, popular and successful businessman, Mr Salama had built the only church in his hometown of Bir al-Abd, in the northern Sinai region. Militants snatched Mr Salama off the street on the early evening of 8 November 2020 [RLPB 577 (25 Nov 2020)]. Initially the terrorists demanded payment of two million Egyptian Pounds (approx. US$127,550) as jizya (protection money) for Bir al-Abd’s Copts. They later increased the jizya to five million Egyptian Pounds (approx. US$321,000). Unable to raise the funds and after numerous death threats, the family accepted advice from security officials and fled the Sinai. 

In the video, Mr Salama introduces himself and 'confesses' to having built a church which supported the Egyptian military. He is then shown kneeling and bound before three armed terrorists. Speaking into the camera, the terrorist spokesman sends a message to Egypt's Christians: 'We thank the great Allah who ordered his followers to kill, and the kafirs [apostates/infidels] to be subjugated until they pay the jizya [protection money] while down on their knees [see https://quran.com/9/29 ]. This is a message to Crusaders in every spot on earth: as you fight you will be fought, and as you capture you will be captured. As for you, Egypt's Nassaara [a derogatory word for 'Christian', meaning those who follow the Nazarene (i.e., Jesus of Nazareth)], this is your reward for supporting the Egyptian army.' He then shoots Mr Salama through the head at close range. In its statement, in which it claimed responsibility, IS-Sinai confirmed, 'He kept the faith till the moment he was killed.'

Watching the footage, Mr Salama's son Peter was distressed to see that father's teeth were broken, indicating he had been tortured. Peter's sister, Marina, told Egypt's Watani News that, following the initial shock and grief, she felt proud of her father. 'He lived and died a great man,' she said. 'He is now in a better place, with Jesus whom he loved and served.' Please pray.

* ETHIOPIA: CHRISTIANS MASSACRED; RISK OF WAR GROWS.

On Tuesday evening 30 March at least 28 ethnic-Amhara Orthodox Christians were killed and some 12 wounded when gunmen from the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF) Shane faction attacked Babo Gambela district, West Wollega Zone, in western Oromia Region. A report from Amhara Mass Media Agency put the death toll at over 40. It is the latest in a string of massacres of ethnic Amhara Christians by OLF-Shane militants in western Oromia Region.

Satellite images show 13 fires
burning near Ataye on 18 April.

Then, on 16 April, deadly violence erupted in southern Amhara Region's North Shoa Zone after OLF-Shane attacked Ataye town (although OLF-Shane denies involvement). The militants rampaged, killing and wounding residents, releasing prisoners from jail, burning houses and torching a church. When Amhara's security forces killed a Oromo shopkeeper and administrator from neighbouring Oromo Special Zone (an area in Amhara Region classed as 'special' because its residents are majority ethnic Oromo), all hell broke loose. Over the next four days armed Oromo civilians engaged in battle with Amhara security forces. As violence spread and numerous other towns came under attack, the Ethiopian Defence Forces and Federal Police forces were simply overwhelmed. By 25 April, authorities were putting the death toll at around 200. Some 250,000 people have been displaced across North Shoa Zone and up to 25 percent of all homes have been burned. Addis Ababa has declared a state of emergency in southern Amhara Region.

Tadesse Gerbretsadik, the head of North Shoa administration, said the OLF-Shane militants were well organised and well armed. Anger is rising against Prime Minister Abiy, who is blamed for failing to end the attacks. But in reality, a complex alliance of local and international enemies - the Egyptian government, the Sudanese military, the Tigray Peoples' Liberation Front and the Oromo Liberation Front - are co-ordinating and working together to break up Ethiopia; something that would trigger a Christian crisis of monumental proportions! Please pray.

* HAITI: CRIMINALS TARGET THE CHURCH

Mired in poverty, crippled by corruption, thoroughly infested with voodoo, hopelessly dysfunctional and increasingly lawless, Haiti is a nation in crisis. Recently, kidnapping for ransom has grown to be a major industry, causing the Catholic Church to lament the situation as 'a descent into hell'. Previously, kidnap victims were nearly always doctors or wealthy business people. But that changed in April when churches were targeted in two mass kidnappings. On 1 April four members of the Seventh-day Adventist Gospel Kreyòl Ministry Church in Diquini, Carrefour, on the southern outskirts of the capital, Port-au-Prince, were abducted during a Maundy Thursday service being broadcast live on Facebook. The church's pastor, pianist and two technicians were held as hostages until Easter Sunday (4 April), when they were released upon payment of ransom. Then, on Sunday 11 April, 10 Catholics - five priests, two nuns, and three laypeople - were abducted at Croix-des-Bouquets, on the eastern outskirts of Port-au-Prince, while en route to attend the installation of a parish priest. Two of those abducted - one priest and one nun - are French citizens. The kidnappers have demanded a $1m ransom. Three of the seven clergy were released on 23 April, leaving seven Catholics in captivity. Please pray.

* IRAN: MORE CONVERTS ARRESTED; HOPES FOR RETRIAL

(1) MORE CONVERTS ARRESTED

On 19 April Iranian intelligence agents arrested four Christian converts in the south-western city of Dezful: Hojjat Lotfi Khalaf, Esmaeil Narimanpour, Alireza Varak-Shah, and Mohammad (Davoud) Ali Torabi. The following day a number of other Iranian converts were summoned for interrogation. On 21 April Hojiat, Esmaeil, Alireza and Mohammad (Davoud) were released because of the COVID pandemic. Esmaeil had been beaten during detention. All must remain available for questioning. This is not Davoud's first arrest. He spent a month in jail in 2017, before being released on bail, at which time he was also forced to sign a blank document. There are concerns that Davoud's signature could have been attached to a 'confession' or a renunciation of faith that could complicate his situation today. Between 10 and 15 other converts were summoned for questioning between 19 and 22 April in connection with the arrests of the four men. Please pray.

Top:  Homayoun and Sara
Below: Sam and Maryam with Lydia 

(2) HOPES FOR RETRIAL

Iran's Supreme Court is considering two retrial petitions. One relates to the prison sentences given to Homayoun Zhaveh (62, with advanced Parkinson's disease) and his wife Sara Ahmadi (43), for belonging to a house-church [see RLPB 591 (31 March)]. The other relates to a court's decision to remove special-needs child Lydia (2) from her adoptive parents, Sam Khosravi and Maryam Falahi, because they are Christian converts and Lydia is considered Muslim [see RLPB 584 (10 Feb)]. Hossein Ahmadiniaz, an Iranian human rights lawyer now based in Europe, explained to Article18 that, because these cases are considered 'security' cases, they are overseen by the Ministry of Intelligence. This, he notes, 'undermines the principle of judicial independence and undermines a fair and just trial.' He adds: 'However, if the judges act with honour, there is still the possibility they may accept the retrials and overturn the verdicts.' Please pray.

* PAPUA (INDONESIA): MILITARY CRACKDOWN LOOMS

As noted in RLPB 578 'Update on the Papuan Provinces' (2 Dec 2020), 'The situation in Indonesia's Papuan Provinces is coming to a head; tensions are soaring; a clash is looming; a Christian crisis may be imminent.' Since then, Papuan militants have further escalated their attacks on Indonesian interests. On Sunday 25 April a small detachment of Indonesian security personnel was patrolling a crime scene in the Central Highlands Puncak Regency when it was ambushed by Papuan rebels. A firefight ensued and Indonesian Armed Forces (TNI) provincial intelligence chief Brig. Gen. I Gusti Putu Danny Karya Nugraha was shot dead in what appears to have been a planned assassination. The long-persecuted, mostly Christian, indigenous Papuans of Papua's Central Highlands are now bracing themselves for yet another massive military crackdown. Please pray.

* SAUDI ARABIA: CONVERT TO FACE COURT

On Thursday 22 April an Arab convert - whom Middle East Concern (MEC) identifies only as 'A' - faced court in Saudi Arabia. Several years ago, A's sister suffered abuse from her husband's family after they discovered she had become a Christian. After A helped her flee the country with her children, the family charged A with stealing money and threatened violence against his wife and children. While A has been dealing with charges of apostasy and spreading Christianity for years now, the theft case was due to be heard on 22 April. If found guilty, A would have ended up in a Saudi prison. MEC rallied supporters to prayer. During the trial, a dispute arose between the judge and the two lawyers representing the accuser and then between the two lawyers themselves. Frustrated and furious, the judge concluded (rightly) there was no evidence against A and acquitted him. MEC reports: 'This answer to prayer was a great encouragement, not only to A, his wife and children, but also to the wider convert community in their city.' Note: God answers prayer and there are convert communities inside Saudi Arabia! MEC reports: 'A. still faces two other court cases. He is accused of trying to convert Muslims to Christianity and of helping his sister leave the country against the wishes of her husband and the wider family. In the past few years A. has faced several prison sentences and flogging due to his faith and his assistance to his sister.' Please pray.

* SOMALILAND: CONVERTS TO FACE COURT

Officially part of Somalia, Somaliland is a self-declared independent state on the Gulf of Aden. A former British protectorate, Somaliland is routinely praised as a beacon of democracy. That may be so, but its constitution is profoundly Islamic and Islamic conservatism has been rising for years. On 4 April, six converts - four of whom were arrested in January and two in February - were charged with offences against the state religion (Islam) and inciting others to disobey laws relating to public order. Among them were Mohamed and Hamdi, a young couple arrested with their new-born baby. On 14 April three of the believers - two women (one from Somalia and one from Ethiopia) and an Ethiopian man - were released and deported. However, Mohamed, Hamdi and one other Christian, were additionally charged with apostasy and spreading Christianity. Their trial was to resume on Tuesday 27 April. Please pray.

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There is simply more persecution than the RLPB can cover, much of which is continuous. Consequently, RLPB endeavours to prioritise unreported or little-known persecutions, along with new trends, pivotal events, and looming or unfolding crises.

FOR INFORMATION ON
* the continuous stream of killings and abductions of Christians in Nigeria;
* the endless accusations of blasphemy against poor Christians in Pakistan;
* the non-stop systematic violent and legal persecution of poor Christians in India;
* the horrors increasingly facing Christian minorities in Uganda's impoverished and majority-Muslim Eastern Region
-- (none of which have been covered in this RLPB) -- please visit, sign up to (free) and support the various Christian news and aid organisations that specialise in providing news on the persecuted 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 

Monday, April 19, 2021

RLPB 594. Turkey: Priest Jailed; Christian Crisis in the Making.

Religious Liberty Prayer Bulletin | RLPB 594 | Tue 20 Apr 2021
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). 

DIARY
Ramadan (Muslim month of fasting): 12/13 April to 13 May 
Armenian Genocide Remembrance Day: Saturday 24 April.
Orthodox Easter: Palm Sunday 25 April; Good Friday 30 April; Resurrection Sunday 2 May.


TURKEY: PRIEST JAILED; CHRISTIAN CRISIS IN THE MAKING
by Elizabeth Kendal

CONTEXT: In September 2014 Islamic State (IS) laid siege to Kobani, a mostly Kurdish town in Syria's far north. To the dismay of Turkey's Kurds, Turkish troops stationed at the border did absolutely nothing. Not only did the Turkish government refuse to join the fight against IS, it refused to let Turkish Kurds cross into Syria to aid their ethnic kin in their battle against IS. Consequently, on 20 July 2015, when 34 mostly young Kurds were killed in an IS suicide bombing in Suruç, south-eastern Turkey, just 10km north-east of Kobani, Kurds blamed Turkey's ruling AK Party for its support of IS. Three Turkish police were killed in retaliation and violence quickly escalated as the government launched large-scale military operations in the mostly Kurdish south-eastern provinces of Diyarbakır, Mardin, Şırnak and Hakkari. By the middle of 2016, the war had moved from the countryside into the urban centres, in particular the Kurdish 'capital' of Diyarbakır. Viewing Armenians as natural allies of the politically marginalised and mostly secular urban Kurds, the Islamist and neo-Ottoman Erdogan regime went after the Armenians as well. Turkish troops demolished and ethnically cleansed the historic Sur District, while the government confiscated land and churches throughout Diyarbakır [see RLPB 355, 'Church seizures reflect Ottoman policy' (4 May 2016)]. The situation in south-east Turkey remains volatile and insecure to this day.

Father Sefer (Aho) Bileçen, caretaker of 
Mor Yakub (Saint Jacob) monastery, Mardin Province.

PRIEST JAILED: On 9 January 2020 Turkish police raided the 1500-year-old Mor Yakub (Saint Jacob) monastery in Nusaybin, Mardin Province, along with three Assyrian villages located nearby. They arrested the monastery's caretaker-priest, Father Sefer Bileçen (known as Father Aho) whom they charged with 'aiding and abetting a terrorist organisation' [RLPB 534 (29 Jan 2020)]. The charge was based on images from September 2018, collected by Turkish Intelligence surveillance drones, which appeared to show Kurdish militants receiving food at the monastery. After his arrest, Father Aho met with members of the Urfa Bar Association Human Rights Commission and made the following statement through his lawyers: 'In 2018, two members of the organisation [the HPG, the militant wing of the banned PKK] came to the monastery. They asked me to give them some food and I gave them some food. Later, this was determined. Thereupon, the Gendarmerie Commander spoke with the Metropolitan of that area and they organised a meeting with me. I did not deny what I did. I asked them to take necessary security measures to prevent the incident from happening again, but they did not do anything. I thought the subject was closed after that. Whoever comes to my door, I will give them food. I have to do it because my religion and philosophy commands me to do so. Since I am a priest, I cannot lie either. I do this out of my belief, not out of "help" to any "organisation".'

On Wednesday 7 April 2021 the Mardin 4th High Criminal Court sentenced Father Aho to 25 months in prison for aiding the outlawed Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK). The verdict has shocked Turkey's Christian community, most of whom believed the priest would be acquitted. After all, as Bishop Paolo Bizzeti, Apostolic Vicar of Anatolia explains, 'Giving bread and water to those who knock on the door of monasteries is a tradition that goes back thousands of years.' The case has attracted a lot of attention in mainstream Turkish media where it is being used to consolidate the false narrative that Christians support the banned PKK. Bishop Bizzeti has appealed for Christians to remain calm and 'read the verdict as soon as it is published for maximum transparency'.

Şimoni and Hurmüz Diril.

MEANWHILE: On 11 January 2020, just two days after the raid on the monastery, an Assyrian couple named Hurmüz (71) and Şimoni (65) Diril disappeared from their home in the Assyrian village of Meer/Mehr (Kovankaya), in the neighbouring province of Sırnak. Some years earlier, the Dirils - whose son, Father Remzi Diril, is a priest in Istanbul - had returned to their home in the long-evacuated village to work on restoration [RLPB 534 (29 Jan 2020)]. Their efforts earned them threats from Islamist and ethnic-nationalist Turks and Kurds alike. On 20 March 2020 Mrs Şimoni Diril's naked and tortured body was found in a river not far from Mehr. Turkish authorities have rejected Fr Remzi Diril's request for an investigation. Mr Hurmuz Diril remains disappeared to this day. Please pray.

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A CHRISTIAN CRISIS IN THE MAKING

In March 2021 the Institute for Monitoring Peace and Cultural Tolerance in School Education (IMPACT-se), published a report entitled: 'The Erdoğan Revolution in the Turkish Curriculum Textbooks'. Twenty-eight textbooks were analysed. IMPACT-se assessed that the curriculum's stance overall is anti-American, anti-Armenian and anti-PKK. Meanwhile, it is sympathetic to the motivations of Islamic State and al-Qaeda, and glorifies Islamic jihad and martyrdom.

Throughout the curriculum, Turks are classified as either Mmümin (true believers who obey the Qur'an rules and maintain Islamic order), Münafık (hypocrites; nominal/secular Muslims who spread division), or Gâvur (kafir/infidels; defined as 'the person who rejects - partially or as a whole - the principles of the religion that Prophet Muhammad brought from Allah'. No longer recognised as 'People of the Book', Jews and Christians are now deemed 'Gâvur'. As IMPACT-se notes: 'It's hard to imagine that such narratives will not affect ordinary Turkish citizens in their relations with other non-Muslims and their nations' (pages 19-20).

President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan

An excerpt from page 32 reads: 'As part of Turkey's political vision, pan-Turkism is taught to students in various fundamental modules: "Turkish World Domination"; "Ideal of the World Order"; and the "Red Apple" [Kızıl Elma i.e., the desired goal, which is, for Turkey to exercise hegemony over a restored Ottoman Empire]. There is an emphasis on the unity of the Central Asian Turkic nations; the descriptions of Turkey's special bond with Azerbaijan includes very anti-Armenian narratives.'

IMPACT-se concludes: 'With the synthesis of pan-Turkism and neo-Ottomanism, Turkish leaders see themselves as the leaders of the Muslim World ... Like the pioneers of the Turkish-Islamic Synthesis in the 1980s, the AKP seeks to appropriate Islam as the glue for its "New Turkey". That being said, the AKP has already surpassed its predecessors, implementing concrete measures that influence the daily lives of Turkish citizens by turning controversial concepts like jihad into the "new normal"' (page 33).

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PLEASE PRAY SPECIFICALLY THAT GOD WILL:

* grace Turkey's Christian leaders with abundant 'spiritual wisdom and understanding' (Colossians 1:9) as they seek to lead Christ's precious Church through dangerous days and to influence their nation for good. May the Lord in his mercy provide all they need to pastor, nurture, teach and publish and may the Church grow in faith with many new believers added to her number.

* intervene on behalf of Father Aho so this injustice will be overturned on appeal, thereby preventing this case from becoming a precedent that could pave the way for more widespread persecution. May the Lord have mercy on Father Aho and keep him safe and encouraged. 'But you, O Lord, are a shield about me, my glory, and the lifter of my head' (Psalm 3:3 ESV).

* reveal the whereabouts of Mr Hurmüz Diril - an abducted Assyrian Christian who has been disappeared for 13 months now; Lord have mercy on the Diril family: may their questions be answered; may they find peace; may the criminals be exposed and brought to justice. 'But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream' (Amos 5:24 ESV).

SUMMARY FOR BULLETINS UNABLE TO RUN THE WHOLE ARTICLE
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PRIEST JAILED IN TURKEY

On 9 January 2020 Turkish police raided the 1500-year-old Mor Yakub (Saint Jacob) monastery in south-eastern Mardin Province, arresting the caretaker priest, Father Sefer (Aho) Bileçen, on the charge of 'aiding and abetting a terrorist organisation'. Father Aho does not deny he gave food to two Kurdish militants who came to the monastery requesting it. He does, however, firmly deny supporting terrorists, and insists his act was a religious obligation. On 7 April 2021 Father Aho was sentenced to 25 months in prison for aiding the outlawed Kurdistan Workers' Party. The verdict has shocked Christians; after all, as Bishop Paolo Bizzeti, Apostolic Vicar of Anatolia explains, 'Giving bread and water to those who knock on the door of monasteries is a tradition that goes back thousands of years.' 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 

Tuesday, April 13, 2021

RLPB 593. China: Intense Suffering Descends on Church

Religious Liberty Prayer Bulletin | RLPB 593 | Wed 14 Apr 2021
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). 

CHINA: INTENSE SUFFERING DESCENDS ON CHURCH
By Elizabeth Kendal

On the morning of 16 March some twenty Christians gathered in a rented room in Yuli Plaza, Guiyang City, the capital of Guizhou Province, to begin a three-day retreat. Most were members of Guiyang's Ren'ai [Love] Reformed Church (RRC). At 9 am, as Brother Chen Jianguo led the people in prayer, a contingent of police, security officials, administrators and others burst into the room to break up what they claimed was 'an illegal rally'. The Christians co-operated as the police proceeded to interrogate the believers, record their IDs and examine their phones. At around 1pm, most of the Christians from Guiyang were given permission to leave, while Brother Chen and nine other believers were detained and transported to a police station.

Elder Zhang Chunlei
of Ren'ai [Love] Reformed Church,
Guiyang.

RRC elder Zhang Chunlei and several other church members went to the police station to negotiate on behalf of the detained believers. With his companions outside, Elder Zhang entered the station where he declared his intent to remain until all those detained at the retreat were released. At 11 pm, police handcuffed Elder Zhang, Brother Chen, Li Jinzhi and Li Lin, and transferred them to another police station where they were charged with 'illegally hosting events under the name of an organisation'. Brother Chen, Li Jinzhi and Li Lin each received a three-day administrative detention and were released on 20 March. Elder Zhang, on the other hand, was sentenced to a 14-day administrative detention. [Note that an 'administrative detention' does not require a trial.] Security officials also raided the homes of several church members, confiscating computers and other items.

Pastor Wang Yi
of Early Rain Covenant Church,
Chengdu.
left: at home pre-Dec 2018
right: in prison March 2020

A small house church of less than 100 members, Guiyang Ren'ai Reformed Church has steadfastly refused to join the Chinese Communist Party (CCP)-approved Three Self Patriotic Movement (TSPM). In August 2018 Elder Zhang was among the first of several hundred pastors to sign a petition written by Pastor Wang Yi of Chengdu Early Rain Covenant Church (ERCC). The petition (or 'joint statement') was essentially an appeal for religious liberty in protest of the CCP's new Religious Affairs Regulations (enacted 1 February 2018) which unleashed a whole new era of increased repression and persecution [see RLPB 483, 'The CCP's War on Religion Heats Up' (12 Dec 2018)]. In September 2018, just weeks after the petition was published, the CCP officially banned Ren'ai Reformed Church. Since then, the CCP has confiscated the church's equipment and the believers have struggled to find a place where they can meet without being raided by police. Arrested in December 2018, Pastor Wang Yi was sentenced on 30 December 2019 to nine years in prison for 'inciting subversion of state power and illegal business operations' [RLPB 534 (29 Jan 2020)].  

On 28 March, after 12 days in administrative detention, Elder Zhang Chunlei was placed in criminal detention as a 'fraud suspect'. China Aid Association reports that many Chinese pastors - including Pastor Wang Yi and Elder Zhang Chunlei - have covenanted that, if any of them were imprisoned, they would pray together at 5 pm every day. [Note for those who would care to join them, see: https://www.thetimezoneconverter.com/ ] Before he prayed and was arrested, Brother Chen had opened the retreat by reading from the Apostle Paul's letter to the church in Philippi, specifically Philippians 1:12-18. 'I want you to know, brothers, that what has happened to me has really served to advance the gospel, so that it has become known throughout the whole imperial guard and to all the rest that my imprisonment is for Christ ... [no matter the circumstances] Christ is proclaimed, and in that I rejoice.' Please pray.

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RESIDENTIAL SURVEILLANCE AT A DESIGNATED LOCATION 

On 1 April Radio Free Asia (RFA) reported: 'Authorities in China are detaining Christians in secretive, mobile "transformation" facilities to make them renounce their faith.' [Note: The facilities are described as 'mobile' because they can be set up anywhere - such as in basements and other 'black'/secret sites - and relocated at any time.] RFA interviewed several believers who claimed to have been 'disappeared' for months, even years. They testified of having been beaten, abused and threatened, while kept in isolation, often in darkness, until they 'broke' and agreed to sign a confession and/or make a public apology. Many were so deeply traumatised by their treatment they resorted to self-harm and even attempted suicide.

Everything Belongs to Caesar Here
Radio Free Asia (5 April 2021)

What RFA is describing is undoubtedly 'Residential Surveillance at a Designation Location' (RSDL) - the CCP's euphemism for enforced disappearance, complete with punishment, coercion and interrogation, outside the judicial system. According to a book entitled, 'The People's Republic of the Disappeared: Stories from inside China's system for enforced disappearances' edited by Michael Caster (2017), RSDL has been the CCP's preferred method of dealing with dissidents since the 'Jasmine Revolution' of 2011. Revised in 2012, China's Criminal Procedure Law grants China's secret police the legal right to 'disappear' whomever they wish and treat them however they wish, for as long as they wish, without oversight and with total impunity. According to RFA, this method is increasingly being used, not merely against anti-CCP political activists, but against non-compliant Christian believers.

Gao Zhisheng

Internationally acclaimed human rights lawyer Gao Zhisheng - a convert to Protestant Christianity, torture survivor and doubtless China's most severely persecuted Christian - has been 'disappeared' for more than three years now, with no notification of his status and no known criminal procedures against him [see: RLPB 432 (15 Nov 2017)]. In May 2020 Gao's sister succeeded on her third attempt at committing suicide. Driven deep into abject despair by the CCP's suffocating oppression and cruel treatment of her family, she drowned herself in a river. Doubtless the CCP wasted no time in informing Gao of his sister's death. On Tuesday 20 April Gao Zhisheng will turn 57, suffering and alone but for the eternal presence of the Spirit of God.


PLEASE PRAY SPECIFICALLY THAT GOD WILL:

* protect, comfort, encourage and sustain

- Elder Zhang Chunlei, his family, and the believers at Guiyang's Ren'ai Reformed Church;

- Pastor Wang Yi, his family, and the believers at Chengdu's Early Rain Covenant Church; and

- lawyer Gao Zhisheng, along with his surviving extended family.

'I am with you always, to the end of the age' (promise of Matthew 28:20).

* protect, comfort, encourage and sustain every faithful Christian believer currently detained in a Chinese prison or 'disappeared' in a secret facility that the Chinese Communist Party thinks God cannot access, and in the custody of cruel men who think their evil is not seen (Hebrews 4:13). May every Christian prisoner know the closeness of their Saviour (Psalm 139:7-12) and may God intervene in justice and grace to vindicate his suffering servants and free the Chinese Church (Habakkuk 2:12-14).


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INTENSE SUFFERING DESCENDS ON CHURCH IN CHINA

On 16 March police in Guiyang City broke up a retreat run by Ren'ai [Love] Reformed Church (RRC), deeming it 'an illegal rally'. Three believers served three days in administrative detention, but RRC's Elder Zhang Chunlei has been placed in criminal detention as a 'fraud suspect'. Fears abound that Elder Zhang might share the fate of Pastor Wang Yi, of Chengdu's Early Rain Covenant Church, who in December 2019, was jailed for nine years for 'illegal business operations'. Imprisonment is not the only option. For a decade now, the Chinese Communist Party's preferred method of dealing with dissidents has been to 'disappear' them into secret sites where torture is rife. According to Radio Free Asia, this method is increasingly being used against non-compliant Christians, 'to make them renounce their faith'. 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 

Tuesday, April 6, 2021

RLPB 592. RAMADAN casts a dark shadow

Religious Liberty Prayer Bulletin | RLPB 592 | Wed 07 Apr 2021
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). 

DIARY

    Ramadan (Muslim month of fasting): 12/13 April to 13 May

    Orthodox Easter: Palm Sunday, 25 April;
                                Good Friday, 30 April;
                                 Resurrection Sunday, 2 May.


RAMADAN CASTS A DARK SHADOW
- analysts anticipate military offensives in Iraq, Syria, and Armenia.
by Elizabeth Kendal

RAMADAN: In pre-Islamic times, Ramadan was about more than fasting during daylight hours. It was also a month of peace in which the pagan Arabs would take a rest from fighting and raiding. So established was this tradition that, during Ramadan, caravans would transport their wares unarmed. Not only did Muhammad Islamise Ramadan, he also exploited it to acquire much-needed booty for his struggling Muslim community. For not only was Muhammad a 'prophet', ruler and judge; he was also a warlord who raided unarmed caravans, reportedly with Allah's permission, for the benefit of Islam. Consequently, Ramadan became a time not only for prayer and fasting, but a time for Islamic advance by violent means. That said, many, if not most, Muslims around the world today are simple traditionalists and/or genuine God-seekers, opposed to such violence. Muslim from birth, they remain ignorant of Islam's texts. Forbidden from criticising or rejecting the religion upon threat of death, they remain captives of Islam's elites. Despite this, the Spirit of God is moving powerfully within Muslim communities around the world in our day! So please continue to pray this Ramadan, for the Church in Muslim lands, and for Muslims under Islam's yoke. https://www.30daysprayer.com/

'... they will do these things [hate, persecute and kill you (John 15:18 to 16:4)] because they have not known the Father, nor me' [John 16:3].


As the Iraqi government liberated
Nineveh Province in 2016-2017,
the first thing Christians did was
restore their church crosses. 
(World Watch Monitor, Nov 2016)

IRAQ: Pope Francis visited Iraq from 5 to 8 March. Along with meeting political and religious leaders, Pope Francis participated in interfaith worship in the city of Ur, the birthplace of Abraham, where he prayed on behalf of Iraq's 'Jews, Christians, and Muslims', thanking God 'for having given us Abraham, a distinguished son of this noble and beloved country, to be our common father in faith' (a highly contentious assertion). He also asked 'the God of our father Abraham' to 'Open our hearts to mutual forgiveness' (as if Muslims need to forgive Christians who must be equally guilty of morally equivalent evil). Christians are not the only ones profoundly divided over the Pope's words and deeds. While many Muslims would have embraced his message of peaceful co-existence, Islamic State has interpreted the Pope's interfaith initiative as a 'crusade' to 'remove the shariah of Allah from this land and to establish polytheistic religion in its place'. IS responded to the sight of Pope Francis 'lifting his profane cross over the ruins of Mosul', by promising fresh attacks on Iraqi churches, warning that jihadists 'will remove their crosses very soon' as they did 'the first time [in 2014], with Allah's permission'. Please pray for Iraq's long-suffering, enduring, but gravely imperilled, remnant Church.

REPORT: ISW (9 March 2021)

SYRIA: The Institute for the Study of War reports (9 March): 'Islamic State has established a stable territorial base in the mountainous regions of the Central Syrian Desert and has begun to overtake pro-Assad regime forces in the area.' Not only has IS been successfully defending its territory, it has also been launching attacks north into Aleppo Governorate, where it is seeking to re-establish smuggling routes into Turkey; west into Hama Governorate, where it is threatening the critical, Damascus-Aleppo M5 Highway; southwest through Homs Governorate, attacking energy infrastructure to within 30km of Damascus and threatening (again) the mostly Christian town of Al-Qaryatayn; and east into Deir ez-Zor, where it is challenging the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (including Assyrian and Armenian fighters) with eyes fixed on the Euphrates River. Iraq is fortifying its border. Suffering immense hardship due to the ravages of war and brutal US sanctions, the Church in Syria now also faces the threat of an Islamic State offensive. Please pray.

ARMENIA: Analysts suspect Turkey and Azerbaijan are preparing to launch a military offensive to seize control of territory in Armenia's southern Syunik Province [see RLPB 591 (31 March 2021)]. Many anticipate that Azerbaijan and Ukraine (both allies and strategic partners of Turkey) will launch simultaneous provocations to trigger simultaneous conflicts, both of which will draw in Russia. Analysts suspect that Turkey might be seeking to force Russia to fight on two fronts primarily so it might extract concessions, specifically on Syunik (which Turks refer to as Zangezur). Turkey, which was excluded from the 9 Nov 2020 Russia-brokered ceasefire Agreement for Artsakh/Nagorno-Karabakh [see RLPB 575, 'Genocide Postponed?' (11 Nov 2020)], is not content with safe transit through Syunik (as mandated by the Agreement). Rather, Turkey wants a 'Zangezur Corridor' over which Azerbaijan will have sovereignty. Geo-strategically the creation of a 'Zangezur Corridor' would be a huge gain for Azerbaijan and neo-Ottoman Turkey, especially if it is incorporated into China's Belt & Road Initiative. On the other hand, it would be an existential catastrophe for Armenia, which would lose its southern border with Iran. It would also require the killing and ethnic-cleansing of yet more Armenians and the loss of yet more ancient Christian heritage. Ramadan would be the perfect time to rally local and international jihadis to the neo-Ottoman Islamist cause. The dark clouds of Turk aggression hang over the Armenians yet again. Please watch and pray.


PLEASE PRAY SPECIFICALLY THAT:

* God will watch over and defend his persecuted and threatened Church this Ramadan.

- May the Iraqi government secure Iraq's churches in the wake of direct threats from Islamic State; may the government's words of support for the Christian community be proved true by its actions;

- May all anti-Islamic State forces operating in Syria - i.e. Syrian government forces, the Kurdish-led SDF, Russia, Iran and the US - co-operate to end the scourge of IS in Syria once and for all;

- And may Yahweh Sabaoth (the Lord of Hosts; the commander of Heaven's angelic forces) oversee the preservation of Iraq's remnant Christians and Syria's suffering Church; may the Lord protect, sustain and build them up, as bearers of the Gospel, the hope of Mesopotamia (Syria-Iraq).

* intervene in the South Caucasus to enable a breakthrough that will preserve the territorial integrity of Armenia; and because politics, weapons and alliances do fail, may the Church exalt, glorify and place her trust in Yahweh Sabaoth, that the battle might be turned back at the gate (Isaiah 28:5-6).

* the Holy Spirit will move with transforming power this Ramadan, graciously revealing Christ to Muslims, in answer to the prayers of many.


SUMMARY FOR BULLETINS UNABLE TO RUN THE WHOLE ARTICLE
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RAMADAN CASTS A DARK SHADOW

In pre-Islamic times, Ramadan was a month of fasting and peace. Breaking with tradition, Muhammad exploited Ramadan. He raided unarmed caravans, reportedly with Allah's permission, to acquire booty for his struggling Muslim community. Consequently, Ramadan became a time not only for prayer and fasting, but also for Islamic advance through violence. This year Ramadan dates from 12/13 April to 13 May. In Iraq, Islamic State has directly threatened Iraq's churches, promising attacks to 'remove their crosses' as in 2014. In Syria, a resurgent Islamic State is poised to launch a Ramadan offensive from its bases in the mountains of the Central Syrian Desert. Meanwhile, analysts suspect that Azerbaijan and neo-Ottoman Turkey are preparing to launch a military campaign to seize control of territory in Armenia's southern Syunik Province. 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