Tuesday, June 29, 2021

RLPB 604. June Update: Incl. Algeria, Azerbaijan, China, Eritrea, Ethiopia, India, Iran, Mexico, Pakistan.

Religious Liberty Prayer Bulletin | RLPB 604 | Wed 30 JUNE 2021
RLPB is published weekly to facilitate strategic intercessory prayer.

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JUNE 2021 UPDATE

By Elizabeth Kendal 

DURING THIS PERIOD, WE PRAYED CONCERNING:

* AFGHANISTAN [RLPB 600 (2 June)] and its imperilled Church, as the West withdraws, Islamic State plots, and the Taliban (still closely aligned to al-Qaeda) advances. Please continue to pray: may the Lord preserve and continue to build his Church in Afghanistan.

* PAKISTAN [RLPB 601 (9 June)] after the Lahore High Court accepted the appeal of Christians Shafqat Emmanuel (49) and his wife Shagufta Kausar (52) and acquitted them of the charge of blasphemy citing a lack of evidence. Aware that the acquittal would trigger Islamic rage, prayer was requested for safety – for Shafqat and Shagufta, and their lawyer Saif ul-Malook. 

UPDATE: KILL THE BLASPHEMERS AND GO TO PARADISE!

On 15 June, Morning Star News reported that Islamic extremists had started a campaign calling for Shafqat and Shagufta to be killed when they are eventually released from prison. Included in the incitement is the promise that whoever kills Shafqat or Shagufta or their attorney Saif ul-Malook, will be assured of paradise. ‘The social media are being flooded with hate posts against us and the two judges who ordered the couple’s release,’ Malook said. ‘The lives of all of us involved in the case are at great peril.’ Malook told the BBC that he considered the current threats against him the ‘most dangerous’ he had ever received. He also criticised the government for not providing him with adequate security; ‘Not even a clerk from the Pakistani government has contacted me,’ he said. Clearly, Malook and the judges need to be granted security. Meanwhile, Shafqat, Shagufta and their family need to be granted asylum, for as long as they are in Pakistan, their lives are gravely imperilled. Please pray.

* BURMA [RLPB 602 (16 June)] as the junta – which has long been at war with the Karen and Kachin – expands its war to the Chin and Karenni. Military aggression saw some 42,000 Chin and 103,500 Karenni displaced in June. As the Tatmadaw (Burmese military) advances, it leaves in its wake a trail of devastation, including destroyed property (including homes, clinics and churches) and torched and ruined food stocks. With the junta also blockading food and medical aid, it is a Christian crisis of monumental proportions. Please pray.

* PAPUA (INDONESIA) [RLPB 603 (23 June)], as the indigenous ethnic Melanesian, predominately Christian Papuans face Islamic terror at the hands of jihadists, and state terror at the hands of the Indonesian military. Please pray.


JUNE 2021 ROUND-UP - also this month:

ALGERIA: CHURCH FACES DIFFICULT DAYS

ELECTIONS: On 12 June, around 23 percent of eligible voters participated in Algeria’s parliamentary elections. It was the lowest voter turnout in at least 20 years for legislative elections; the previous lowest turnout being 40 percent 2017. Supporters of the ‘Hirak’ pro-democracy protest movement boycotted the polls, as did the traditional opposition parties, and virtually the whole indigenous (non-Arab) Berber-dominated Kabylie region. The ruling National Liberation Front (FLN) secured the most seats, winning 98 of 407 seats (down from 164 in 2017, and 208 in 2012). Having failed to secure a majority, the FLN will need to form a coalition with at least three minor parties in order to govern. Meanwhile, the Islamist Movement of Society for Peace (MSP) party secured 65 of 407 seats (up from 33 in 2017). The ‘old guard’ (in power since 1962) might have managed to retain its grip on power, but disillusionment is soaring. Consequently, it is highly likely that repression will escalate, especially in Kabylie region. A desire to appease Islamists could also fuel an escalation in repression and persecution of Christians, many (or most) of whom live in the Kabylie region. Please pray.   

PERSECUTION: THE STRUGGLE CONTINUES
Update to RLPB 588, ‘Fragile State; Intense Spiritual Struggle’, 10 March 2021. 

Pastor Rachid Seighir

On Sunday 6 June, Pastor Rachid Seighir of Oratoire Church in the coastal city of Oran, and Nouh Hamimi, the salesman who managed Pastor Seighir’s Christian bookshop in Oran, were sentenced on appeal to one-year in prison (suspended) and a fine of 200,000 dinars (US$1,494). They had previously been sentenced to two years in prison and a fine of 500,000 dinars (US$3,745). Their crime: ‘distributing publications or any other propaganda undermining the faith of a Muslim’; a charge many Christians would be guilty of! Refusing to submit to injustice and persecution, Pastor Rachid will appeal all the way to the Supreme Court if necessary. Just days earlier, on Wednesday 2 June, the administrative court of Oran issued an implementation order to close Pastor Rachid’s Oratoire Church, along with two other churches, one in El-Ayaid (35 km east of Oran) and one in Ain-Turk (35 km west of Oran). This brings the number of churches shuttered in Algeria to 16. Everything indicates that the persecution is coming from the highest levels of government. Please pray for the Church in Algeria.

‘Finally, be strong in the Lord and in his mighty power. Put on the full armour of God, so that you can take your stand against the devil’s schemes. For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms’ (Ephesians 6:10-12 NIV). 

AZERBAIJAN: RELIGION LAW AMENDMENTS APPROVED
Update to RLPB 595, ‘Escalating Repression’, 27 April. 

 Pan-Turk presidents:
Erdogan (Turkey) (l) 
 Aliyev (Azerbaijan) (r)
On 16 June, President Ilham Aliyev signed into law Religion Law amendments that will make it even more difficult (if not impossible) to conduct Christian ministry legally in Azerbaijan. For the first time in Azerbaijan’s short history, non-Islamic religious communities will be required to get permission from a State Committee to appoint individuals as religious leaders. The first test will come soon, for the Russian Orthodox Diocese is due to name a new Archbishop to replace Archbishop Aleksandr (Ishchein), who died on 10 June. Many of the amendments simply add to the Church’s burden. For example, as in the original law, local religious communities still require 50 adult citizens as founders. However, an amendment adds that these founders must live in one administrative district. Then, 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, making it highly unlikely that any group other than the Russian Orthodox will be able to establish a ‘religious centre’. Furthermore, once registered, a ‘religious centre’ may only operate one religious school. It seems the increasingly Turkic-nationalist and Islamist government is determined to drive non-Turks and non-Muslims from Azerbaijan. Full report: www.forum18.org (17 June). Please pray for the Church in Azerbaijan; specifically for grace, wisdom, solidarity and creativity.  

CHINA: CHENGDU CHURCH ENDURES FIERCE PERSECUTION
-- the persecution of Early Rain Covenant Church (ERCC) Chengdu, Sichuan. 

Pastor Wang Yi (ERCC)
left: at home pre-Dec 2018,
right: in prison March 2020
June 2021: health deteriorating

PASTOR WANG YI of ERCC, Chengdu, was arrested in December 2018 and sentenced in December 2019 to nine years in prison for ‘inciting subversion of state power’ and ‘illegal business operations’. A photo taken secretly in March 2020 and leaked to Wang’s appointed lawyer showed a thin and pale Wang, handcuffed in a cell [RLPB 548 (2 May 2020)]. China Aid Association (CAA) reports, ‘It looks as if Pastor Wang Yi is being treated very badly in prison right now… kept in solitary confinement in [Chengdu’s] Jintang Prison, with two other prisoners guarding him.’ It appears that the authorities are preventing family members and lawyers from visiting, withholding medical treatment, and feeding him ‘mouldy rice’. CAA founder Bob Fu suspects the authorities are engineering Wang’s ‘medical deterioration’. Please pray.

Pastor Wu Wuqing

PASTOR WU WUQING of ERCC, Chengdu, has been repeatedly arrested and persecuted since the authorities shuttered the church in December 2018; he lives under 24-hour surveillance. On 4 June, Chinese officials forcibly detained Pastor Wu, his wife Xiong Meifang, and their two children, in their apartment, chaining their door and posting a security guard in the hallway. The family is not permitted to leave, and visitors are not permitted to enter. Church members have only been permitted to deliver supplies of food and water to the door. It seems the authorities are working to either subjugate Pastor Wu or drive him away from Chengdu. CAA anticipates that Pastor Wu’s imprisonment will end after Thursday 1 July – i.e. after the 100th anniversary of the Chinese Communist Party. The persecution, however, will only get worse. Please pray.

ERITREA: GOVERNMENT SEIZES CATHOLIC SCHOOLS

In June 2019, the repressive government of President Isaias Afwerki (who has ruled Eritrea since 1993) seized control of 22 medical clinics belonging to the Catholic Church [RLPB 508 (26 June 2019)]. In September 2019, the government seized control of seven mostly Catholic secondary schools. On 21 June 2021, Catholic media reported, ‘procedures have begun for the confiscation or, alternatively, the closure of our remaining educational institutions, from pre-schools to intermediate primary schools, scattered throughout the Country’. Some of the schools being seized were built by Italian missionaries more than 70 years ago. The government seizure of Church-owned and run schools and health clinics is a terrible blow to the Church, which stands to lose assets and influence. Critically, it is also a terrible blow to Eritrea’s poor and needy who have long benefited from these services. Please pray for God to intervene in Eritrea.

ETHIOPIA: THE BATTLE CONTINUES

PM Abiy campaigns in Jimma,
southwestern Oromia,
16 June (image: Reuters).

ELECTIONS: On 21 June, Ethiopians living in non-conflict zones voted to elect a new parliament in what PM Abiy noted was the country’s ‘first attempt at a free and fair election’. Due to insecurity, elections were not held in around one-fifth of the country’s 547 constituencies, including all 38 seats in Tigray and 64 others across Ethiopia. Most of the delayed polling is scheduled for 6 September, although no date has been set for voting in Tigray. The turnout was high, and the election was peaceful; results are yet to be announced. Then, on Monday 28 June, a re-grouped and re-armed Tigray Peoples’ Liberation Front (TPLF) force stormed the Tigray capital, Mekelle. Surprised and overwhelmed, government forces were forced to retreat as TPLF forces took control of the city. Along with the military, Tigray’s interim administration – which has suffered a string of assassinations – is also on the run. A unilateral ceasefire has been declared so that humanitarian needs can be addressed. 

The Battle for Ethiopia pits the government’s vision of a strong, prosperous, and united Ethiopia against ethno-nationalists who would tear Ethiopia apart for personal (political and economic) gain. Leading the ethno-nationalist cause is the Tigray Peoples’ Liberation Front (TLPF, which dominated, terrorised and robbed Ethiopia for three decades) and the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF). Not only are these groups working together, but they receive support in the form of arms, funding and training from Egypt and the Sudanese military. During the Cold War, the US backed the Marxist TPLF against the Soviet-backed Derg; and ties remain strong. The US administration also backs Egypt against Ethiopia because it needs Egypt to mediate in the Israel-Palestinian conflict, and because Egypt buys a lot of US weapons (whereas Orthodox Ethiopia buys from its long-time ally, Orthodox Russia). Citing the war in Tigray, the US has imposed sanctions on Ethiopia (one of the poorest countries in the world). If Ethiopia were to collapse it would trigger a Christian crisis of monumental proportions. Please pray for Ethiopia.

INDIA: REPRESSION TO ESCALATE IN GUJARAT 

On 1 June, a law came into effect in India’s north-western state of Gujarat which Christians fear will erode the Christian character of church-own schools, and eventually bring them under the control of the Hindu nationalist state government. The Gujarat Secondary and Higher Secondary Education (Amendment) Act stipulates that the appointment of teachers and principals in church-owned school will now be undertaken by a Central Recruitment Committee rather than by the schools themselves. On 7 June, Gujarat’s religious minorities jointly filed a petition in the state’s High Court challenging the new law. Church leaders suspect that if the Gujarat state government succeeds in taking control of Church-run schools, then other BJP-ruled states will follow suit. In April, Gujarat amended its 17-year-old anti-conversion law to define sponsorship of a child’s education as an attempt at religious conversion, a crime that can be punished with up to 10 years in jail. Please pray.

IRAN: CHURCH FACES DIFFICULT DAYS

ELECTION: On 18 June, 48.8 percent of eligible voters participated in Iran’s presidential election. It was the lowest voter turnout ever for an Iranian presidential election, below the previous low of 51 percent in 1989. The entire process had been engineered to ensure that Ibrahim Raisi would be elected. As was expected, Raisi won with 62 percent of votes. Second place went to informal votes (mostly blank), with the other candidates lagging far behind. In 1988, Raisi served as deputy prosecutor of the Revolutionary Court which oversaw the execution of more than 30,000 dissidents over a four-month period. Journalist and author Amir Taheri incisively explains, ‘Raisi’s victory is the victory of a coterie that cares neither for Iran nor for revolution as long as it can advance its position of power and protect its ill-gained assets.’ And as Taheri explains, now that coterie has their man in the presidency, they will have no-one to blame but themselves if the domestic situation deteriorates and disillusionment skyrockets. Christians might be anxious, but they know that God is at work in their nation. INcontext International quotes a ministry leader in Iran: ‘The new Iranian president will [undoubtedly] start cracking down and arresting Christians. It’s going to be a dark time in Iran, but God will move even more powerfully.’ Please pray.

‘The lot is cast into the lap, but its every decision is from the Lord’ (Proverbs 16:33 ESV) ‘who works all things according to the counsel of his will’ (from Ephesians 1:11 ESV).

 Milad, Amin and Alireza

PERSECUTION: On 21 June, three members of the ‘Church of Iran’ (a non-Trinitarian Branhamite sect) faced court in the 4th Chamber of the Revolutionary Court of Karaj. [As the late Nabeel Queshi explains, the Trinity can be an especially difficult hurdle for Muslims, who are taught from birth that Allah is ‘one and indivisible’ (https://quran.com/112) and that belief in a Trinity is polytheism.] Milad Goudarzi, Amin Khaki, and Alireza Nourmohammadi – all converts from Islam – are the first known examples of Christians being charged – and now convicted – under the newly amended Article 500 [see RLPB 586, ‘President Signs Law to Facilitate Persecution’ (24 Feb)]. They were denied a lawyer. The men were informed of the verdicts on 26 June: each will serve five years in prison and pay a fine of 40 million tomans (US$1,800) for ‘engaging in propaganda that educates in a deviant way contrary to the holy religion of Islam’, a charge most Christians would be guilty of! They will appeal. Please pray for the Church in Iran.

MEXICO: COUNTER-REFORMATION CONTINUES IN CHIAPAS 

Pastor Alejandro Jiménez and his sons – five families comprising 30 people – were expelled from the indigenous community in Mitzitón, San Cristóbal de las Casas, in Mexico’s southern state of Chiapas on 10 January 2021. The Catholics accused them of establishing a Protestant church and refusing to participate in Catholic festivals. Since then, Alejandro and his family have been living in the Alas de Águila [Eagles Wings] refuge house in San Cristóbal de las Casas. On 17 June, Pastor Alejandro returned to Mitzitón to visit his ailing mother. When the Catholics learned that he had arrived, they proceeded to arrest him and transfer him to the town centre, where he was imprisoned for an hour. The Catholics then proceeded to destroy and burn five houses belonging to Pastor Alejandro and his sons. Since 1982, Catholics in Mitzitón have staged five attacks in which 180 houses of evangelicals have been destroyed. The 180 families have all relocated and established churches elsewhere. The anti-Protestant persecution is driven by superstitious fear and jealousy, and fuelled by impunity. Please pray. 

PAKISTAN: GOVERNMENT SEIZES CHURCH SCHOOL

Church of Pakistan (Anglican) Bishop
Humphrey Peters of Peshawar (centre)
at Peshawar Press Club, 11 June.
 

Founded by the Church Missionary Society (CMS) in 1853, Edwardes College in Peshawar is the oldest missionary education institution in Pakistan’s north-western Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province. It has been managed by the Church for 180 years. The Khyber Pakhtunkhwa government took over the college in 2019 through an administrative action validated by the provincial High Court. On 3 June 2021, the Supreme Court ruled in favour of the Khyber Pakhtunkhawa government. On 11 June, Protestants took to the streets in protest. ‘The ruling Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf party has committed a hate crime against the church,’ Church of Pakistan (Anglican) Bishop Humphrey Peters of Peshawar told a press conference. The bishop called for the college to be returned to the Church and denounced its nationalisation as ‘a violation of the constitutional rights of the weak religious minorities’. As rights activist Zeeshan Yaqub of Peshawar explained to Fides, ‘the Christian community in Pakistan is making great efforts in the fields of education, health and other humanitarian services, which benefit the entire population, people of all religions. We ask for the protection of the rights of minorities, as provided for by the Constitution of Pakistan, even in their properties.’ Pray for the Church in Pakistan.

NO JUSTICE YET FOR PASTOR ZAFAR BHATTI
Update to RLPB 568, ‘'Blasphemy', a sword over the neck’, 23 Sep 2020. 

Pastor Zafar Bhatti
Pastor Zafar Bhatti has been in Rawalpindi’s Adiala Central Jail since July 2012 when an Islamic cleric accused him of sending blasphemous text messages; a charge the pastor strongly denies. In May 2017, a court deemed Pastor Zafar guilty, but instead of sentencing him to death (as is mandatory for blasphemy) the judge sentenced him to life imprisonment because there was ‘no concrete evidence’ against him. As is common in Pakistan, his appeals have been repeatedly adjourned. In September 2020, Pastor Zafar (then 56) suffered a heart attack in his cell. Though treated and stabilised, his health is clearly fragile. On Tuesday 22 June, an additional sessions judge in Rawalpindi District upheld Bhatti’s life sentence despite there still being no evidence against him. His lawyers will now appeal to the High Court. 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