By Elizabeth Kendal
AUGUST 2015 UPDATE -
During August we prayed concerning ...
* NEPAL (RLPB 321), where religious freedom is under threat as the new constitution looks set to ban religious conversion. UPDATE: The final draft has been tabled in the Constituent Assembly and a meeting of the House scheduled for 8 am on Wednesday 26 August. Whilst Christians are pleased that Christianity will now be recognised as a religion in Nepal, they are deeply concerned about the proposed anti-conversion provisions. The Catholic Church in Nepal numbers less than 10,000 in a population of 30 million, but Protestantism has grown significantly in the past decade of freedom, now accounting for well over one million. Tensions are high; the Church is on edge.
* SYRIA (RLPB 322), where Islamic jihadists are advancing, putting Christians, other minorities and loyalists at extreme risk. The Turkey/Saudi/Qatar-backed al-Qaeda-led Jaish al-Fatah is pressing south into loyalist north-west Hama bordering Latakia. Meanwhile, Islamic State (IS) is pressing west through the Homs Governorate. It has over-run Palmyra, Qaryatyn and the Assyrian village of Hawwarin as it advances towards the M5 Highway, forcing thousands more Christians from their homes and taking another 150 Christians captive. Meanwhile, Russia is continuing to talk to Arab leaders in the hope of brokering a peace that will leave the Syrian government in place to avoid a power vacuum such as opened up in Iraq with the removal of Saddam Hussein. Meetings are presently taking place behind Russia's MAKS-2015 aerospace show. Though the Arabs do not care about the plight facing Alawites, Christians and other minorities, they are concerned about the adverse repercussions of jihadist empowerment.
UPDATE: On Thursday 20 August IS demolished the Assyrian fifth-century Mar Elian monastery in Qaryatyn which had become home to many displaced Assyrians. IS had previously kidnapped Jesuit priest Father Jacques Mourad and a deacon named Boutros [See RLPB 322 (12 Aug)] from this monastery. On Friday 21 August IS conducted a mortar attack on the city of Marea in Aleppo Governorate, northern Syria. At least half the 50 shells fired were laced with mustard gas and dozens of affected civilians were hospitalised. Christians in Syria are gravely imperilled. Lord have mercy.
* UGANDA (RLPB 323), where persecution - particularly of converts from Islam - is on the rise in Easter Province. The persecution is extreme and the government needs to act. AUGUST 2015 ROUND-UP - also this month ...
* BURMA PASSES RELIGIOUS CONVERSION BILL On Friday 21 August Burma's parliament passed a controversial law designed to stop people leaving Buddhism. [For details see RLPB 267 (2 July 2015).] In short, anyone wanting to convert would have to apply to a board for a certificate of conversion, risking a two-year jail sentence in the process. Created to 'protect' the majority religion, Burma's Religious Conversion Law mirrors anti-conversion laws now common across Asia. The Buddhist Women's Special Marriage bill was passed in July. Denied freedom to convert, Buddhist women will now be constrained by law to marry a Buddhist man. Non-Buddhist men will have to convert to Buddhism to marry a Buddhist woman. A non-Buddhist man who marries a Buddhist woman contrary to the law is liable to 10 years in prison. Created primarily to counter Islam, the inter-faith marriage law is nothing other than a Buddhist version of Islamic marriage law. Please pray that President Thein Sein will refuse to sign these bills into law. No matter what he does, the spark has been lit and the Church will have difficult days ahead.
* CHINA: REMOVAL OF CROSSES TO CONTINUE Between 1200 and 1500 crosses have been forcibly removed from churches across Zhejiang since January 2014. Christians wanting to protect the cross have been beaten and pastors arrested, charged and jailed. In late July Christians in China's eastern Zhejiang Province launched a peaceful protest against the local Communist Party's campaign of clearing crosses from the Zhejiang skyline. Christian groups made thousands of wooden crosses painted red to be displayed by Christians. [See blog for photos.] Undeterred, Chinese officials confirmed on 11 August that the cross removals will continue. For Christians in Zhejiang this is very distressing. For some it brings back memories of Mao's Cultural Revolution.
* EGYPT: CHRISTIAN ARRESTED FOR WITNESSING Medhat Ishak (35), a Christian from Ebid Village, Minya Governorate, Upper Egypt, was arrested on 7 August while handing out Bibles outside a shopping mall. According to Morning Star News, Ishak was arrested by mall security guards, who turned him over to national police, who accused him of evangelism. The next day a judge amended the charge to 'defamation of a revealed religion' and ordered him to be held for 15 days. On 24 August his detention was extended for another 15 days. Ishak's attorney, Rafik Rafaat, expressed concern that the judge might keep extending the detention until the case fades from public awareness, at which time he could hand down a one- to five-year prison sentence. Harassment and jailing of Christians for witness and 'blasphemy' has increased in recent years. In July three Coptic youths were charged with evangelism for handing out notes on the love of God. They were released on bail and their case is yet to come to court. (It just so happens that repressing Christians is one of the best ways to appease belligerent Muslims.)
* NORTHERN IRELAND: PASTOR ON TRIAL James McConnell (78), pastor of an evangelical mega-church in northern Belfast, appeared at Laganside Magistrates Court in Belfast on 6 August, to face charges of offending Muslims in a sermon he delivered in May 2014 which was broadcast on-line. [See RLPB 320 (28 July)] More than 1,000 people turned out to support the pastor who is strenuously contesting the case. As the pastor's attorney told the court: 'He [McConnell] did not incite hatred or encourage violence against Muslims. He simply expressed his view about another religion, not in a personalised manner but in an entirely generalised way. He believes freedom of speech ... should mean he has every right to criticise Islam and other religions, just as Islamic clerics have the right to criticise him and Christian clerics.' The case was adjourned to 3 September.
* PAKISTAN: PASTOR AND OTHERS CHARGED WITH BLASPHEMY Organising a conference for 15 August, Pastor Aftab Gill of the Biblical Church of God (Protestant) in Gujrat, Punjab, printed posters and leaflets honouring the church's founder, his late father, Fazal Masih, whom Gill described using the Urdu word 'rasool'. A local Muslim named Umar Butt protested on the grounds that the word 'rasool' (which means prophet) cannot be applied to anyone beyond Muhammad, the last prophet according to Islam. Accompanied by a local Islamic jurist and a TV reporter, Butt registered a complaint at the local police station. Subsequently, Pastor Gill, Latif Masih and Shafqat Gill voluntarily presented themselves to police. Though they offered an apology and asked for forgiveness, they were arrested and charged with blasphemy, along with the unnamed Muslim owner of the printing press. Rioting Muslims prepared to burn Christians alive and set their houses and church on fire and only the timely intervention of the police brought the situation under control. Some 100 or more families live in the area, many of whom have now fled.