Date: January 27, 2016
By Elizabeth Kendal We start the year with dozens of faithful believers incarcerated and 'disappeared', hundreds of thousands dispossessed and traumatised and millions repressed and persecuted. But the promises of God are eternal: such as 'I am with you always' (Matthew 28:20). And so we pray. JANUARY 2016 ROUND-UP - this month ... BURKINA FASO AND MALI: TERRORISM THREAT ESCALATES As Islamic State (IS) consolidates in Libya (its African beach-head into Europe), Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), is pressing south into the Sahel. Stratfor Global Intelligence reports: 'Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) is entering 2016 stronger than it was at the beginning of 2015... [The] group can be expected to continue to conduct kidnappings and armed assaults across a wide expanse of the Sahel, both to raise funds and to attract attention and recruits.' Accordingly, the risk to Christians, especially to foreign Christian workers, could escalate markedly, as it did in 2012. * BURKINA FASO: FOREIGN CHRISTIANS KILLED AND KIDNAPPED On Friday 15 January six militants (including two females) from AQIM's al-Murabitoon attacked Ouagadougou, the capital of Burkina Faso. After detonating car bombs, they laid siege to the Splendid Hotel and nearby Cappuccino cafe - sites frequented by elites and foreigners. The security forces regained control on 16 January, killing four jihadists. By that time the jihadists had killed 29 civilians, including seven foreign Christian workers - one American, and six Canadian short-term aid workers (four from one family). The American, Michael Riddering (45, and a father of four) had, along with his wife Amy, been running an orphanage and women's refuge in the West African country since 2011. AQIM claimed responsibility for the attack, calling it 'a new message ... to the slaves of the cross' and 'a reminder to the worshippers of the cross ...' On 16 January, as the siege was under way, another AQIM-linked group, Ansar al Dine, crossed into Burkina Faso from Mali and kidnapped Australian missionaries Dr Ken Elliot (81) and his wife Jocelyn from their home in Baraboule. The Elliots, who built and ran a 120-bed clinic in nearby Djibo, had been providing medical services to the poorest of the poor in Burkina Faso's remote north since 1972. Dr Elliot has been praying for God to provide a successor, a surgeon who would take over the work of the hospital. 'We really are getting on a little bit in years,' he notes in his Youtube appeal. 'We fully believe that this hospital is here because God loves people.' 'The wounds inflicted on people are felt by the whole nation,' said a statement of the Bishops' Conference of Burkina Faso and Niger. 'We invite you to remember and pray for the victims, the injured, their families and their friends. Our only weapon is prayer. May all believers increase the ardour of prayer as we have done in other circumstances.' * MALI: MISSIONARY KIDNAPPED On 15 January al-Qaeda's Ansar al-Dine kidnapped Swiss Christian missionary Beatrice Stockly from her home in Timbuktu, Mali. This is the second time in four years that Stockly has been kidnapped by jihadis. Kidnapped in April 2012, after Ansar al-Dine seized control of Timbuktu, she was accused of proselytising for Christianity, held for ten days and warned that she would be executed if she tried to return to Timbuktu. Despite the threat, Stockly returned to Timbuktu in 2013 after French troops liberated the city. Ms Stockly was kidnapped in the early hours of Friday 15 January 2016. AQIM has just released a video showing Stockly in full Islamic dress and an English-speaking jihadi proposing a prisoner swap. Grave fears are held for the safety of Ken and Jocelyn Elliot and Beatrice Stockly, and for the future of foreign mission and aid work in Burkina Faso and Mali. Please pray. * CHINA: PERSECUTION HEATS UP In August 2015 Chinese security personnel seized Zhang Kai, Christian attorney and defender of the cross, and Liu Peng, his legal assistant, taking them from a church in Wenzhou into China's secretive 'black jail' system [see RLPB 325 (1 Sep 2015)]. In December, reports emerged that Zhang and Liu had dismissed their legal representation, presumably under duress, having been threatened or coerced. Why else asked the dismissed attorneys would two human rights lawyers, detained in isolation and in separate locations, suddenly both dismiss their own lawyers? Please pray for Zhang and Liu. Meanwhile, government-ordered church and cross demolitions continue as the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) advances its 'Sinicisation of Christianity' [putting Christianity at the service of the CCP] with censorship of all that is seen and heard. On 28 December 2015 authorities forcibly removed the cross from atop the Xialing church in Wenzhou, in the southern coastal province of Zhejiang. On 6 January 2016 officials in Fuqing, in the neighbouring southern coastal province of Fujian, demolished Yulin Furen Christian Church for its failure to register with the local government. On 7 January crosses were forcibly removed from Nanhu Church and Wutian Dongzhuang Church in Wenzhou. Also in January, the CCP-approved Three Self Patriotic Movement (TSPM) and China Christian Council (CCC) dismissed Pastor Gu Yuese, the senior pastor of China's largest TSPM church, the Chongyi Church in the Zhejiang capital, Hangzhou. Pastor Gu had openly criticised the CCP policy of cross removals in Zhejiang. Pastor Gu had to be sacrificed so as to preserve the TSPM's and CCC's relationship with the CCP. The persecution is escalating. * CUBA: RELIGIOUS FREEDOM TAKES A TURN FOR THE WORSE. In December 2014 US President Barack Obama and Cuban President Raul Castro announced the restoration of full diplomatic ties. In May 2015 the US removed Cuba from its list of state sponsors of terrorism. In July embassies were re-opened in both Washington and Havana. But while Raul Castro has introduced economic reforms, religious freedom remains a mirage - and in fact has taken a turn for the worse. A new report by Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW) released 15 January 2016 describes 2015 as the year of 'crackdown', and reveals 'unprecedented levels of threats on the Cuban Church'. According to CSW, more than 2000 Assemblies of God churches have been deemed illegal, 15 Methodist churches have been confiscated by the state and over 100 churches have been designated for demolition. Pastor Carbelleda (45) of an unregistered church in Havana spent six months of 2015 in prison (without trial) reportedly for holding 'illegal religious services', the first such arrest since 2011. It seems that Cuba has chosen to follow the China model: granting rights and privileges to selected churches which then act as a smokescreen covering pervasive repression. Expect to see persecution escalate as Cuban authorities 'test the waters' to see what they can get away with and what they can afford to do. * IRAN: USING THE PRISON SYSTEM AS AN INSTRUMENT OF PERSECUTION While we thank the Lord for the release of Iranian pastor Farshid Fathi (released on 20 December) and US-Iranian prisoner Pastor Saeed Abedini (released in a prisoner swap on 16 January), we remember the dozens of Persian believers who continue to suffer for the name of Christ in Iranian prisons. On 1 February Amin Khaki, Hossein Barounzadeh, Mohammad Bahrami and Rahman Bahmani - all of whom are affiliated with the 'Church of Iran' network - will appear in Ahvaz Revolutionary Court. They were amongst eight believers arrested at a picnic in Shush on 5 March 2014. Though four were later released, these four were imprisoned and later released on bail. Tried on 19 May, the men were each sentenced on 4 October to one year in prison for holding illegal meetings, spreading Christianity and attempting to convert Muslims. The ruling was appealed and the 1 February hearing is a re-trial. Please pray, recalling the promise: 'What you are to say will be given to you in that hour.' (Matthew 10:19) * NORTHERN IRELAND (UK): PREACHER 'NOT GUILTY' Update to RLPBs 320 and 340 (28 July and 16 Dec 2015). On 5 January 2016 the Belfast Magistrates Court concluded that, though Pastor James McConnell's remarks about Islam were offensive, they did not reach the high threshold of being 'grossly offensive'. McConnell was therefore found to be not guilty. However, the law used against McConnell will continue to be used against critics of Islam or same-sex marriage, etc. As rulings are arbitrary, freedom of speech is not guaranteed. It is a deeply flawed, subjective law that the intolerant can exploit to silence their critics. * SUDAN: MORE ARRESTS AS PERSECUTION ESCALATES Christian activist Talahon Nigosi Kassa Ratta (36), a member of the Sudan Presbyterian Evangelical Church (SPEC), was arrested on 14 December 2015. Detained without charge, reportedly he has been questioned extensively about his relationship with a foreign missionary, although Christians suspect he was targeted for protesting against government persecution of the Khartoum Bahri Evangelical Church. On 18 December 2015 authorities from the National Intelligence and Security Services (NISS) arrested Rev Kowa Shamaal at his home in Khartoum Bahri (north) and Rev Hassan Abdelrahim at his home in Omdurman. Both men are associated with the Sudan Church of Christ (SCOC), of which Shamaal is the head of mission and Abdelrahim is vice-moderator. Both men are ethnic Nuba (from the Nuba Mountains in South Kordofan) and had objected to government demolitions of SCOC church properties. Though Kowa Shamaal has been conditionally released, Hassan Abdelrahim (a Muslim name) remains detained. Please pray. THE MESOPOTAMIAN BATTLE FIELD * IRAQ: Islamic State has demolished St Elijah's Monastery (known to the Assyrians as Dair Mar Elia) on the outskirts of Mosul. Built by Assyrian Christian monk, St Elijah, between AD 582 and 590, it was Iraq's most ancient monastery and one of the earliest Christian settlements in the wider region. The crime is irreversible and the Assyrians are inconsolable. IS believes that it is here to stay and that the Christian/Assyrian era is over. Of course, that is not what the Bible says: In that day Israel will be the third with Egypt and Assyria, a blessing in the midst of the earth, whom the Lord of hosts has blessed, saying, 'Blessed be Egypt my people, and Assyria the work of my hands, and Israel my inheritance.' (Isaiah 19:23-25 ESV). * SYRIA: A number of Assyrian businesses have been bombed in Qamishli, which is near the Turkish border in the north-east corner the country, where Christians face threats from IS, and tensions are building between Assyrian and Kurdish militias. The IS bombing of three Assyrian properties, including two restaurants, on the evening of 30 December was particularly heinous, killing 16 and wounding 45. Meanwhile, with Russian air support, the Syrian Arab Army has liberated strategic areas in Latakia, formerly held by jihadist forces. Referred to in the media as an 'Assad stronghold', Latakia - which is majority Alawite - is also hosting hundreds of thousands of mostly displaced Christians. Latakia had been seriously threatened during 2015 by the advance of the Turkey-Saudi funded Jaysh el-Fateh, a rebel coalition led by al-Qaeda's al-Nusra Front but including US-armed and sponsored 'moderate rebels'. To the existentially imperilled Alawites and Christians of Latakia, these al-Qaeda-aligned 'rebels' are anything but moderate. May the Lord protect and preserve his people.