Ukraine, November 04, 2014: Since Russia’s annexation of Crimea in March, religious groups there – aside from the Ukrainian Orthodox Church (Moscow Patriarchate) – are facing persecution, and restrictions on their ministry.
Religious communities in Crimea face an uncertain legal framework – they are unsure of what laws must be observed. Catholics, Ukrainian Orthodox of the Kyiv Patriarchate, and Muslims are all facing persecution from local authorities, and anticipate that they may have to go underground next year.
“The so-called ‘Crimean government’ issued a new law under which all religious organizations, by the end of the year, must go through a process of re-registration,” explained the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Major Archbishop of Kyiv-Halych, Sviatoslav Shevchuk, at an Oct. 23 press conference.
“The requirements are very complicated. But even if we fulfilled all the requirements, no-one would be able to guarantee the existence of our Greek Catholic community in Crimea any longer.”
It is thus possible that in January 2015 the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church will find itself outside the law, with its parishes and other property subject to confiscation.
On Feb. 13 – barely more than a month before Russia annexed Crimea from Ukraine on March 18 – the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church had expanded its presence on the peninsula, establishing a new exarchate dedicated to the territory.
Today, the Archiepiscopal Exarchate of Crimea has five parishes, with Divine Liturgy celebrated at each of them. For political reasons, a bishop has yet to be appointed for the exarchate; but its administrators have exchanged married priests on the peninsula for monks, because the risk to priests with families is doubly dangerous.
Among the Ukrainian Greek Catholic priests continuing to serve in Crimea is Fr. Bohdan Kosteskiy. He celebrates Divine Liturgy in Ukrainian, and says he can’t abandon his believers now, because “the priest is a sign of hope for them.”
In September, Fr. Kosteskiy was detained, along with a group of his parishioners, by “unknown police forces.” They were released after a few days in captivity. He was also briefly detained in March, three days before Crimea’s official annexation, by pro-Russian forces.
While the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church was preparing for expansion in Crimea up until the peninsula’s annexation, construction on its new parishes in Yalta and other Crimean cities has been halted.
The legal uncertainty accompanying the process of re-registration makes continued ministry difficult for the Church.
“The re-registering means accepting the annexation of Crimea as a legal fact; but to ignore this process would place the community outsidethe law, and be the actual start of an underground sector,” commented Alexander Dobroyer, director of the European Institute of Social Communications, in an interview with CNA.
Dobroyer said the situation is further complicated by the lack of Ukrainian Greek Catholic bishops in Russia — such parishes there are currently under the supervision of the Roman Catholic Church. He added that “if these communities are registered in Crimea, then there will be a chance to do the same in Moscow.”
The sociologist, who studied at the Catholic University of Lublin, suggested that “on behalf of the needs of the pastor, they could just register and serve the people; but on the side of politics, that could give the Russian media the possibility of manipulating information, ultimately stating that the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church has indeed recognized the annexation” of Crimea.
Until lately, nine Roman Catholic priests worked in Crimea, but two were recently forced to leave the peninsula. Like the Ukrainian Greek Catholics, the Roman Catholics in Crimea have halted plans for the construction of new parishes.
“We do not recognize the annexation of Crimea, because the Church is outside of politics,” Bishop Bronislaw Bernacki of Odessa-Simferopol told CNA.
“There are processes that do not depend on us; but we must re-register our communities under the new Russian legislation in order to stay among our people. This puts deep fear in us.”
Among the Roman Catholic priests exiled from Crimea was Fr. Dmytro Andriychun, a Dominican.
“In Soviet Union it was the same system,” Bishop Bernacki said. “The special police call Fr.Dmytro for a conversation, and try to collaborate him. He said, ‘I am a priest, so I can’t collaborate with any government.’”
Bishop Bernacki continued, saying that “the Russian government doesn’t grant visas for priests, especially Polish priests. This could create a major problem with staffing. We actually can’t prepare for the future now; we don’t know what will come next.”
Bishop Jacek Pyl, who is Auxiliary Bishop of Odessa-Simferopol and is based in Simferopol, told Aid to the Church in Need in September that “although … Crimea is under Russian rule, the Catholic Church can still exercise its ministry but we do not know how our future is going to look.”
Alongside Catholics, the Ukrainian Orthodox Church (Kyiv Patriarchate) is also facing persecution by the Russian government in Crimea. It has lost control of six of its 15 parishes in the territory, according to a report of the Council for Europe. The home of the Church’s Bishop of Simferopol and Crimea, Klyment Kushch, was burned down.
“The UOC-Kiyv Patriarchate is in the most uncertain situation, as they have no canonical status within the Orthodox world,” explained Dobroyer.
The Kyiv Patriarchate was established in 1995 when a Russian Orthodox bishop in Ukraine, Filaret, attempted to distance his Church from the Russian Orthodox. The move led to the presence of two separate Ukrainian Orthodox hierarchies, one aligned with Moscow and one independent.
And like Christians not aligned with the Russian Orthodox Church, Muslims have also been persecuted in Russian-administered Crimea.
“Since March 18 young Muslims, Crimean Tatars, have disappeared there,” Said Ismagilov, a mufti and head of the Spiritual Directorate of Muslims of Ukraine, told CNA.
“Some of them were found dead with signs of torture. We don’t know who is responsible for it, but this is too many young victims.”
Tatars are an indigenous ethnic group of Crimea, most of whom are Muslim; they constitute around 15 percent of the population. Most boycotted the vote which led to Russia’s annexation of their homeland, and wished to remain part of Ukraine.
Ismagilov said that the mass disappearance of young Muslims is a sign of the beginning of religious persecution.
In Yevpatoria, mosques, as well as Muslims’ homes, have been raided by Crimean police looking for “extremist” literature: Russia has a list of such banned literature, which is legal in Ukraine.
“The problem is that it is not only modern literature, but fundamental books of Muslim theology,” Ismagilov commented. “Even the second-most important book after the Quran – the ‘Sahih al-Bukhari’, a collection of sayings of the Prophet Muhammad – is also prohibited; but every Muslim mosque keep this in a private library.”
“In fact the (prohibited) books are just an excuse for the control of Muslims, and an attempt to determine their loyalty to Russia’s actions,” the mufti charged.
“Persecution of Muslims in Russia has long been a problem,” Ismagilov said. “In more than twenty years of independence, Ukraine has never had such problems. I’m afraid that in Crimea, Russia will manipulate religious sentiments.”
An Oct. 27 report of the Council of Europe’s Commissioner for Human Rights indicated abuses committed by Crimean authorities against both ethnic Ukrainians and Tatars.
Crimea is a southern peninsula of Ukraine where nearly 60 percent of the population are ethnic Russians, and more than 50 percent of the population speak Russian as their first language. The territory was transferred from Russia to Ukraine in 1954 under the Soviet Union.
It was annexed by Russia in March, in a move unrecognized by Ukraine and the West, following political unrest in Ukraine.
The month prior, Ukraine’s pro-Russian president was ousted by protests, and an interim government more favorable to western nations was installed.
Ukraine held elections Oct. 26 which strongly reaffirmed the pro-western protests of early 2014 and rejected far-right nationalists. The political parties led by president Petro Poroshenko and prime minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk both won the largest number of seats in Ukraine’s parliament, while the party of fomer president Victor Yanukovych won fewer than 10 percent.
However, the elections did not include Crimea – annexed by Russia – or the regions of Donetsk and Luhansk, in far-eastern Ukraine, where pro-Russian separatists have declared independence and are holding their own polls.
The separatists’ elections will not be recognized by Ukraine, the EU, or the US, though Russia has already given them support.
Since fighting began in the separatist regions in April, more than 3,700 people have been killed.
- cna/ewtn news
Iraq, November 21, 2014: For the first time since the Islamic State seized most of the Nineveh province in northern Iraq over the summer, a Christian mass was successfully held at a church in a small Iraqi village nearly 20 miles north of the ISIS stronghold of Mosul this past Sunday, Iraqi News reports indicate.
Although reports coming from Iraqi news outlets originally said that the mass was held at the Mar Yacob Church in the Christian village of Telskuf, Father Paulus Thabit Makku, a Chaldean priest in Mosul, told Fides News that the Eucharist was held at the only other church in Telskuf, Saint Georges Chaldean church.
“We celebrated the Eucharist this Sunday in one of the Nineveh province’s villages – the first time since locals were forced out last August by ISIS jihadists,” Father Makku said.
Father Makku further added that he and many other Christian refugees from the town, all of whom were men living as refugees in Kurdistan, had yearned to return to the village, especially after Kurdish peshmerga liberated the town from ISIS control this August.
Although the town has been free of ISIS control for about three months, ISIS still has strong control in neighboring villages and Mosul, so the town is not particularly safe for Christians to live in. But, Makku said he and the men, even if for just a few hours, wanted to return to the church to ring the church bell and and bring some life back into the house of God.
After the mass concluded, the men returned to their refugee camp in the North.
“It was a way for us to express that we will not leave our land. We live in hope that we will soon return to our homes, villages and churches,” Makku said.
The Islamic State has captured most of the Ninevah province with its military advances starting in June. Although Telskuf has been liberated, those villages that are captured by ISIS militants are subjected to cruel persecution. People must submit to ISIS’ radical brand of Islam or face taxation or death. Once they capture the towns, ISIS militants are said to first take control of church and other religious buildings and tear down the crosses to replace them with the Islamic State’s black flag.
The Kurdish peshmerga forces have fought to liberate Christian, Yazidi and other religious minority villages so that people can return to their homes and families. But like Telskuf, when some of these villages are liberated, people are fearful to return either because ISIS is still in control in neighboring areas or they believe ISIS militants have rigged their homes with booby traps and explosives.
A militia made up of Iraq’s Christians, called the Iraq’s Assyrian Patriotic Party, has also been established to win back Christian villages. Last week, with the help of the peshmerga, the party raised its flag in victory after liberating the Northern Iraqi town of Bakufa from ISIS control.
“We want to take our cities back from the Islamic State,” one Assyrian Patriotic Party member named Tabya told The Scotsman. “We want to protect the Christian villages. No one wants their home, life and land taken from them; no one wants this. I am doing this not just for me but for the Christians of my country.”
- christian post
Iraq, November 23, 2014: A militant of the Islamic State terror group who sold kidnapped Yazidi girls in a slave market in Syria has reportedly been killed along with 34 other ISIS fighters in a U.S.-led airstrike in Mosul in northern Iraq.
Mustafa Sulaiman Qarabash, also known as Abu Husam al-Iraqi and who is responsible for selling kidnapped Yazidi girls, is said to have been killed near the al-Faruq mosque in Tal Afar close to the Syrian border, reported Rudaw, a Kurdish media network, attributing it to Kurdish official sources.
Husam was among 35 ISIS armed men who were killed, and their base destroyed, in airstrikes on ISIS positions near Gayara, it added.
About 5,000 Yazidi girls and women were taken captive by ISIS to be sold or given to fighters as slaves in August, according to estimates.
ISIS, also known as ISIL, is an al-Qaeda offshoot that has gained control of large swathes of territories in Iraq and Syria. It wants to form an Islamic emirate in the Levant region through “jihad.” The U.S.-led coalition has been conducting airstrikes on ISIS positions in Iraq and Syria since August.
Meanwhile, nearly 150 of the kidnapped girls have come back to their families in Kurdish-controlled areas recently after families paid almost their one year’s income to buy them back, according to International Business Times.
A 15-year-old girl, Sabreen, told the Christian Science Monitor that she and many others were taken to a school in Tel Afar. “Lots of men used to come and look around and when they would see a girl they liked they would say ‘I want to buy that one,’” she was quoted as saying. “There was an emir who was taking money for the girls – $1,000 to $1,500.”
Many of the girls are still living in areas of northern or western Iraq under the control of the ISIS, while many others have been sent to Syria or other countries, victims and their advocates told The New York Times.
There are about 600,000 people from the Yazidi minority in Iraq, who consider themselves to be Kurds ethnically and live mostly in north-central Ninevah province and northeastern Iraqi Kurdistan.
Yazidis believe that God governs the world through seven angels with “Malak Tawous,” or Peacock Angel, as the leader, who disobeyed God’s command to bow down to humanity but was forgiven and made the head angel due to his devotion. Therefore, Yazidis are accused of worshipping the Devil, or Satan, as the leader angel resembles Satan in Abrahamic texts.
In its English propaganda publication, the Sunni terror group recently sought to justify its barbarity, saying it is “Islamic” to capture and forcibly make “infidel” women sexual slaves.
“Before Shaytan [Satan] reveals his doubts to the weak-minded and weak hearted, one should remember that enslaving the families of the kuffar [infidels] and taking their women as concubines is a firmly established aspect of the Shari’ah that if one were to deny or mock, he would be denying or mocking the verses of the Qur’an and the narration of the Prophet … and thereby apostatizing from Islam,” stated the ISIS’ glossy propaganda magazine “Dabiq,” named after a site in Muslim apocalypse mythology.
“Dabiq” bills itself as “a periodical magazine focusing on the issues of tawhid (unity), manhaj (truth-seeking), hijrah (migration), jihad (holy war) and jama’ah (community),” according to the Washington, D.C.-based The Clarion Project.
The terror group stated the reasons for sexual slavery in an article titled, “The revival of slavery before the Hour,” referring to Judgment Day.
- christian post
Vatican, November 19, 2014: Pope Francis condemned the “unacceptable episodes of violence” in Jerusalem, episodes that “do not spare even places of worship,” after an attack in a synagogue left four worshippers, a policeman and the two attackers dead.
At the end of his general audience Nov. 19, the day after the attack on the synagogue, Pope Francis said he was following “with concern the alarming increase of tensions in Jerusalem and other areas of the Holy Land.”
The pope offered prayers for the victims of the attack carried out by two Palestinian cousins from East Jerusalem and for all those suffering the consequences of the attack.
“From the depths of my heart,” he said, “I appeal to those involved to put an end to the spiral of hatred and violence and make courageous decisions in favor of reconciliation and peace.”
“Making peace is difficult,” he said, “but living without peace is a torment.”
Shortly after the early morning synagogue attack, Latin Patriarch Fouad Twal of Jerusalem called for an end to all violence in the Holy Land.
“We are praying and waiting. We are sad,” said Patriarch Twal. “We must, all people of responsibility, politicians and religious leaders, do our best in our positions to condemn this violence and avoid as much as possible the causes which lead other people to violence.”
The attack occurred in the Har Nof neighborhood of West Jerusalem, which is popular with the Anglo-Orthodox Jewish community. Three of the dead worshippers had dual Israeli-American citizenship; one had Israeli-British citizenship.
The two perpetrators of the attacks were killed at the scene by Israeli police.
“Violence leads to more violence,” Patriarch Twal told Catholic News Service. He said he sent condolences to the families of all the victims of the recent wave of violence that has rocked Jerusalem as Israel moves toward expanding Jewish settlements in the area and Palestinians fear a Jewish presence on the shared holy site of the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif, in Jerusalem’s Old City.
According to a tenuous and contested status quo agreement, Jews are allowed to visit the site where, according to Jewish tradition, the Biblical Jewish temple stood and, but they are not allowed to pray there. According to Muslim tradition, it is the site where Muhammad ascended into heaven.
A day prior to the synagogue attack, a Palestinian bus driver who worked for an Israeli cooperative was found hanged in his bus at the terminal. Israeli police called the death a suicide after a medical investigation, but the man’s family and the Palestinian media maintain that it was a lynching. Some have said the synagogue killings were in retaliation for his death.
“You can’t occupy and then think people (will be quiet),” Patriarch Twal said, referring to Israel occupation of Palestinian lands. “We are against any kind of violence either from a state group or private groups.”
“We are in a very bad situation and condemn the violence and assure the families who have lost loved ones of our prayers,” he added. “It is very sad.”
The Council of Religious Institutions of the Holy Land expressed “shock and horror” at the attack, calling it “horrendous.”
“Such murderous deeds, especially in a house of worship, are the ultimate abuse of religion,” said a statement from the council, which represents Israel’s chief rabbinate, the Palestinian Authority Shariah courts, and local Christian leaders. “We call on all religious political and civic leaders to do their utmost to prevent the local political conflict from being turned into a religious war, the consequences of which will be disastrous for all.”
The Rev. Olav Fykse Tveit, World Council of Churches general secretary, expressed concern and sadness over the attack.
“There is a particular horror in any such attack which takes place at a place of worship. I condemn this violence unequivocally, as I do all violence between the peoples and communities of this region which has seen so much bloodshed in the name of religion,” he said. “Violence, collective punishments and communal attacks can only further damage the prospects of peace and justice for all.”
Israelis were shocked by the attack on the worshippers, killed as they took part in the daily morning prayers at the popular neighborhood synagogue.
In past weeks, the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif has been sight of bloody confrontations between Israeli police and Palestinians, and synagogues and mosques have been vandalized.
Over recent weeks, several Palestinians have been killed and injured in demonstrations in East Jerusalem, and several Israelis been killed and injured in attacks by Palestinians in the Jerusalem area and Tel Aviv.
Patriarch Twal said Jerusalem is a city of peace, not violence.
He said the recent attacks have shown that the walls built as a security barrier to separate the West Bank do not protect anyone from violence as long as there is occupation and injustice.
“There is no protection with walls. Only dignity and justice for all (will bring security,)” he said. “All this violence took place within the walls. We need more justice and comprehension.”
Patriarch Twal noted that Christians in the Holy Land were preparing to celebrate Christmas and expressed concern that pilgrims would be afraid to come because of the violence.
“We hope that by Christmastime there will be no more revenge and no more killings,” he said. He asked for prayers for the peace of Jerusalem, the Holy Land and all its inhabitants, so Jerusalem could return to its vocation as the city of peace.
Iran, November 19, 2014: Following an appeal from his family, Iranian Christian Homayoun Shokouhi was granted conditional release from prison on 10 November after serving two years and eight months of his sentence. In February 2012, he was accused of holding house-church meetings, evangelising, contacting foreign Christian ministry organisations, propagating against the Islamic regime, and disturbing national security.
After police raided a house-church meeting in Shiraz on 8 February 2012, Mr Shokouhi was arrested along with the rest of those who were present. Most of those arrested were released after 36 days, but he and three other men were each sentenced to three years and eight months in Adel-Abad prison. Two of the four still remain in prison, Mojtaba Seyyed Alaedin Hossein and Vahid Hakkani.
Mr Shokouhi’s wife, Fariba Nazemian, was also held in prison and released on 18 October 2012 with a bail payment of around US$200,000. Their 17-year old son was arrested and released on bail after 36 days upon payment of 100 million Tomans (around US$80,000).
Before their arrest in February 2012, Homayoun Shokouhi and Mojtaba Seyyed Alaedin Hossein had both been arrested in a house-church on 11 May 2008. Found guilty of converting to Christianity, they were given suspended prison sentences of between eight months and five years.
Iranian law permits prisoners to appeal for conditional release once they have served half of their sentence. This is a right which is granted to prisoners and is not considered a pardon.
A UN report states that as of January 2014, some 50 Christians were being held in detention in Iran out of 307 prisoners from various religious minorities. Christians are routinely persecuted in Iran, with house churches raided and arrests made. In court, Christians are awarded harsher sentences and bail payments are often extortionate.
- barnabas team
Jerusalem, November 19, 2014: Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu Tuesday ordered security officials to demolish the homes of two Palestinians that perpetrated a deadly attack on a Jerusalem synagogue, his office said in a statement.
Netanyahu said the demolitions are part of “series of additional decisions that have been made in order to strengthen security throughout the country.”
His statement, however did not elaborate what were the additional decisions that have been taken.
Netanyahu ordered the highly criticisd punitive measure after a meeting he summoned with Israel’s defence leadership in the wake of the attack in Har Nof, an ultra-Orthodox residential neighbourhood in west Jerusalem.
Two assailants stormed the Bnei Torah Synagogue during the early morning prayers, killing four people, three of them were US citizens and one had a dual British-Israeli citizenship.
Palestinian media identified the assailants as Rassan Abu al-Jamal,27, and Uday Abu al-Jamal, 22), two cousins from the east Jerusalem neighbourhood of Jabal Mukaber.
US Secretary of State John Kerry called Netanyahu to condemn the attack. During their talk, Netanyahu blamed Palestinian President Mahmud Abbas for the attack.
Netanyahu and other Israeli cabinet ministers accused Abbas for the recent string of violent attacks against Israelis. After the recent attack, Intelligence Affairs Minister Yuval Steinitz said, “The hands that held the axes are the hands of terrorists, but the voice is the voice of Abbas.”
However, in an afternoon discussion at the parliament’s security committee, Yoram Cohen, Shin Bet, Israel’s security service chief, said Abbas does not incite “terrorism.”
Sources in the committee, which held the discussion behind closed doors, told Israel’s Ha’aretz newspaper that according to Cohen, Abbas and the Palestinian leadership have no interest in encouraging violence against Israel.
The security chief also criticised visits by Israeli parliament member to the site, known to Muslims as Haram al-Sharif “Noble Sanctuary” and to Jews as the Temple Mount.
He said the spiking unrest in Jerusalem is stoked primarily by visits of parliament members and far-right Jewish activists to the Temple Mount, in attempt to lift the current restrictions which allow Jews to visit the site but not to pray.
According to Cohen, the violent clashes between Palestinian youths and the police were triggered by the death of 16-year-old Mohammed Abu Khedir, who was kidnapped and burned alive by Jewish extremists in July.
Malaysia, November 17, 2014: Malaysia’s Federal Court has fixed January 21 to hear the Roman Catholic Church’s review application following its failure to get leave to appeal the Home Minister’s ban on the use of the word “Allah” in its weekly publication, the Herald.
The date was decided following case management Monday before deputy Registrar of the Federal Court, Nor Aziati Jaafar.
The review application is aimed at setting aside the ruling by the apex court’s seven-man bench and establish a new panel to re-hear the leave application.
Lawyer James Lopez appeared for the church while Senior Federal Counsel Andi Razalijaya A Dadi represented the minister and government who are respondents.
Andi Razalijaya said the court had instructed the respondents and interveners who comprised state religious councils to file their affidavits (in reply to the application made by the church) by December 8.
“The applicant (church), the respondents and interveners are required to file their written submissions by January 7,” he said.
On September 19, the church filed the review application, about three months after it was denied leave to appeal a Court of Appeal ruling.
Lawyer Benjamin Dawson, a member of the church’s legal team then said the review was based on three broad grounds.
The first was that there were certain legal issues, which were central to the leave application but were not considered by the majority judgment of the Federal Court, such as the scope of Article 3 and Article 11 of the Federal Constitution.
Article 3 states Islam as the official religion of the Federation while Article 11 touches on freedom to practice one’s religion.
He said the church further contended that the minister’s decision to prohibit the use of the word Allah in the Herald had also taken into account a theological consideration.
Dawson said the second ground was that the apex court’s majority judgment decided on certain legal issues which were not argued nor raised by the parties before the Federal Court or the Court of Appeal, such as on the constitutional validity of Section 9 of the Anti-Propagation Enactment.
The third ground is that the Herald’s case is one of the most important constitutional cases to have come before the apex court, especially where minority rights are concerned.
He added there existed a public interest factor to support the review application.
On June 23, this year, the seven-member Federal Court panel chaired by Chief Justice Tun Arifin Zakaria, had in a majority judgment dismissed the church’s application for leave to appeal.
The church wanted to reverse the findings of the October 14, 2013 Court of Appeal decision which allowed the minister’s appeal to overturn the 2009 High Court’s decision that Herald could use the word Allah.
The High Court had declared that the decision by the minister to ban Herald from using the word Allah, was illegal, null and void.
The church, led by the then Kuala Lumpur Archdiocese Archbishop Emeritus Murphy Pakiam filed a judicial review application in 2009, naming the minister and the government as respondents.
- the malaysian insider
Nigeria: Youngsters killed at Christian school, Mubi: Christians forced to flee, Boko Haram renames it “City of Islam”
Nigeria, November 11, 2014: A suicide bomb attack in a Christian secondary school in the town of Potiskum in Yobe state, north-eastern Nigeria, has killed at least 47 people on Monday (10 November) as the students gathered for morning assembly. Boko Haram is thought to be behind the blast, having carried out several attacks on schools giving a Western-style education. Translated from Hausa, Boko Haram means “Western education is forbidden”, of which this latest school attack is a stark reminder.
In a separate incident, trapped residents from the predominantly Christian city of Mubi in Adamawa state report that Christians have been tortured and killed after the Islamist group Boko Haram took control of the town on 29 October. Churches have been burned down across the city, and the homes of many believers have also been torched. The group has renamed the city Madinatul Islam, meaning “City of Islam”.
Mirroring developments in territory under the control of Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, sharia law has been enforced in Mubi. (Ten Muslims who were accused of looting suffered public amputations, in line with sharia regulations.) The Islamist group is telling Christians in Mubi that they must leave, convert to Islam, or be killed. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees reports that 13,000 people have fled to neighbouring Cameroon, and although most have now returned to Nigeria, they have said that their destination is Yola, the capital city of Adamawa state.
A church leader who escaped the area reported that most of the killings were of Christians who could not or would not recite the shahada (the basic Islamic creed that Muslims say is enough for a person to convert to Islam). Others reported that Christians had been stoned to death.
Mubi is the second city to be renamed by Boko Haram, after Gwoza in neighbouring Borno State was changed to Darul Hikma, meaning “House of Wisdom”, in July this year. The changing of Mubi to Madinatul Islam is significant, directly reminding Muslims of the Saudi Arabian city of Medina, the second holiest site in Islam. It was in Medina that, Muslims believe, Muhammad established the first Islamic state after his journey there in AD 622. Islamists seek to replicate this original Islamic state.
It appears that there has been a change in strategy by the Islamist group from hit-and-run attacks to the capture of territory. Mubi is the second largest city in Adamawa state and it seems set to become the headquarters of Boko Haram’s proposed caliphate. Bishop Dami Stephen Mamza of Yola Diocese asserted that the risk of attack had increased after the government announced a ceasefire agreement with Boko Haram on 17 October; Boko Haram responded on 1 November by insisting that no agreement had been made.
Aware that Islamists would never allow themselves to be influenced by a Christian, Pastor Ayo Oritsejafor, president of the Christian Association of Nigeria, appealed to Nigerian Muslims to help defeat Boko Haram: “You defeat an ideology with a superior ideology. Boko Haram will not listen to me. I want to make an appeal to our Muslim clerics and Muslim political leaders to come together and see how they can help us solve this problem”.
He also calls on the international community, NGOs, as well as Nigerian state and federal governments, saying “I wonder why the international community is not saying anything. Is this not a human rights violation? … We need help. Our people are dying. Come and help us”.
Appealing to all Nigerians, he states, “I believe as bad as the situation is, with God, all things are possible. I know that there is God. He will not forsake us. We have restrained our people so much and we will continue to restrain them. But I beg Nigerians not to let this continue. These are dangerous and serious times.”
- barnabas team
Vatican City, November 13, 2014: Pope Francis condemned the “absurd violence” being used against Christians in several countries and called on people of good will everywhere to take up the cause of religious freedom.
At the end of his general audience Wednesday, Pope Francis asked the estimated 15,000 people in St Peter’s Square to join him in reciting the Lord’s Prayer for Christians facing persecution.
“With great trepidation, I am following the dramatic incidents of Christians in several parts of the world being persecuted and killed because of their religious beliefs,” the pope said. “I must express my deep spiritual closeness to the Christian communities so harshly struck by an absurd violence that does not show signs of stopping.”
Calling on political leaders on the national and international level, as well as on “all people of good will,” Pope Francis urged a global “mobilization of consciences” to protect persecuted Christians. “They have a right to find security and peace in their own countries while freely professing their faith.”
In his main audience talk, Pope Francis continued his series on the church and its structure, focusing on the qualities necessary in its ministers.
“One does not become a bishop, priest or deacon because he is more intelligent or better than others,” the pope said, “but only because of a gift: God’s gift of love poured out by the power of the Holy Spirit for the good of his people.”
China, November 01, 2014: The coastal city of Wenzhou is sometimes called China’s Jerusalem. Ringed by mountains and far from the capital, Beijing, it has long been a haven for a religion that China’s Communist leaders view with deep unease: Christianity. Most cities of its size, with about 9m people, have no more than a dozen or so visibly Christian buildings. Until recently, in Wenzhou, hundreds of crosses decorated church roofs.
This year, however, more than 230 have been classed as “illegal structures” and removed. Videos posted on the internet show crowds of parishioners trying to form a human shield around their churches. Dozens have been injured. Other films show weeping believers defiantly singing hymns as huge red crosses are hoisted off the buildings. In April one of Wenzhou’s largest churches was completely demolished. Officials are untroubled by the clash between the city’s famously freewheeling capitalism and the Communist Party’s ideology, yet still see religion and its symbols as affronts to the party’s atheism.
Christians in China have long suffered persecutiont. Under Mao Zedong, freedom of belief was enshrined in the new Communist constitution (largely to accommodate Muslims and Tibetan Buddhists in the west of the country). Yet perhaps as many as half a million Christians were harried to death, and tens of thousands more were sent to labour camps. Since the death of Mao in 1976, the party has slowly allowed more religious freedom. Most of the churches in Wenzhou are so-called “Three Self” churches, of which there are about 57,000 round the country. These, in the official jargon, are self-supporting, self-governed and self-propagating (therefore closed to foreign influence). They profess loyalty to China, and are registered with the government.
But many of those in Wenzhou had obviously incurred official displeasure all the same; and most of the Christians who survived Maoist persecution, along with many new believers, refuse to join such churches anyway, continuing to meet in unregistered “house churches”, which the party for a long time tried to suppress.
Christianity is hard to control in China, and getting harder all the time. It is spreading rapidly, and infiltrating the party’s own ranks. The line is blurring between house churches and official ones, and Christians are starting to emerge from hiding to play a more active part in society. The Communist Party has to find a new way to deal with all this. There is even talk that the party, the world’s largest explicitly atheist organisation, might follow its sister parties in Vietnam and Cuba and allow members to embrace a dogma other than—even higher than—that of Marx.
Any shift in official thinking on religion could have big ramifications for the way China handles a host of domestic challenges, from separatist unrest among Tibetan Buddhists and Muslim Uighurs in the country’s west to the growth of NGOs and “civil society”—grassroots organisations, often with a religious colouring, which the party treats with suspicion, but which are also spreading fast.
Safety in numbers
The upsurge in religion in China, especially among the ethnic Han who make up more than 90% of the population, is a general one. From the bullet trains that sweep across the Chinese countryside, passengers can see new churches and temples springing up everywhere. Buddhism, much longer established in China than Christianity, is surging too, as is folk religion; many more Han are making pilgrimages to Buddhist shrines in search of spiritual comfort. All this worries many officials, for whom religion is not only Marx’s “opium of the people” but also, they believe, a dangerous perverter of loyalty away from the party and the state. Christianity, in particular, is associated with 19th-century Western imperial encroachment; and thus the party’s treatment of Christians offers a sharp insight into the way its attitudes are changing.
It is hard even to guess at the number of Christians in China. Official surveys seek to play down the figures, ignoring the large number who worship in house churches. By contrast, overseas Christian groups often inflate them. There were perhaps 3m Catholics and 1m Protestants when the party came to power in 1949. Officials now say there are between 23m and 40m, all told. In 2010 the Pew Research Centre, an American polling organisation, estimated there were 58m Protestants and 9m Catholics. Many experts, foreign and Chinese, now accept that there are probably more Christians than there are members of the 87m-strong Communist Party. Most are evangelical Protestants.
Predicting Christianity’s growth is even harder. Yang Fenggang of Purdue University, in Indiana, says the Christian church in China has grown by an average of 10% a year since 1980. He reckons that on current trends there will be 250m Christians by around 2030, making China’s Christian population the largest in the world. Mr Yang says this speed of growth is similar to that seen in fourth-century Rome just before the conversion of Constantine, which paved the way for Christianity to become the religion of his empire.
In the 1980s the faith grew most quickly in the countryside, stimulated by the collapse of local health care and a belief that Christianity could heal instead. In recent years it has been burgeoning in cities. A new breed of educated, urban Christians has emerged. Gerda Wielander of the University of Westminster, in her book “Christian Values in Communist China”, says that many Chinese are attracted to Christianity because, now that belief in Marxism is declining, it offers a complete moral system with a transcendental source. People find such certainties appealing, she adds, in an age of convulsive change.
Some Chinese also discern in Christianity the roots of Western strength. They see it as the force behind the development of social justice, civil society and rule of law, all things they hope to see in China. Many new NGOs are run by Christians or Buddhists. There are growing numbers of Christian doctors and academics. More than 2,000 Christian schools are also dotted around China, many of them small and all, as yet, illegal.
One civil-rights activist says that, of the 50 most-senior civil-rights lawyers in China, probably half are Christians. Some of them have set up the Association of Human Rights Attorneys for Chinese Christians. Groups of well-paid urban Christian lawyers join together to defend Christians—and others—in court. Missionaries have begun to go out from China to the developing world.
The authorities have responded to this in different ways. In places like Wenzhou, they have cracked down. Implementation of religious policy is often left to local officials. Some see toughness as a way of displaying loyalty to the central leadership. Mr Yang of Purdue University says there are rumours in Wenzhou that the crackdown there is partly the result of a local leader’s efforts to win favour with President Xi Jinping.
China Aid, an American church group, says that last year more than 7,400 Christians suffered persecution in China. And there is still plenty of less visible discrimination. But 7,400 people are less than 0.01% of all Chinese Christians. Even if the figure is higher, in this century “persecution is clearly no longer the norm”, says Brent Fulton of ChinaSource, a Christian group in Hong Kong.
That is largely because many officials see advantages in Christianity’s growth. Some wealthy business folk in Wenzhou have become believers—they are dubbed “boss Christians”—and have built large churches in the city. One holds evening meetings at which businessmen and women explain “biblical” approaches to making money. Others form groups encouraging each other to do business honestly, pay taxes and help the poor. Rare is the official anywhere in China who would want to scare away investors from his area.
In other regions local leaders lend support, or turn a blind eye, because they find that Christians are good citizens. Their commitment to community welfare helps to reinforce precious stability. In some large cities the government itself is sponsoring the construction of new Three Self churches: Chongyi church, in Hangzhou, can seat 5,000 people. Three Self pastors are starting to talk to house-church leaders; conversely, house-church leaders (often correctly) no longer consider official churches to be full of party stooges.
In recent years the party’s concerns have shifted from people beliefs to the maintenance of stability and the party’s monopoly of power. If working with churches helps achieve these aims, it will do so, even though it still frets about encouraging an alternative source of authority. In 2000 Jiang Zemin, then party chief, and himself a painter of calligraphy for his local Buddhist temples, said in an official speech that religion would probably still be around when concepts of class and state had vanished.
Increasingly, the party needs the help of religious believers. It is struggling to supply social services efficiently; Christian and Buddhist groups are willing, and able, to help. Since about 2003, religious groups in Hong Kong have received requests from mainland government officials to help set up NG O s and charities. In an age of hedonism and corruption, selfless activism has helped the churches’ reputation; not least, it has persuaded the regime that Christians are not out to overthrow it. For the Catholic church, though, the situation is trickier: allegiance to Rome is still seen by some officials as a sign of treachery.
Ms Wielander says she does not believe the flock will go on growing by 10% year in, year out. But she admits that the party is now paying more attention to the increasing religiosity of ordinary Chinese. So, in some areas, it is modifying its attitude and official rhetoric (while keeping intense pressure on Buddhist Tibetans and Muslim Uighurs, whose religious beliefs are seen to threaten the integrity of the state). In May last year the head of the Russian Orthodox church was welcomed by Mr Xi in Beijing, the first such foreign church leader to meet China’s party chief.
Now is the time for all good men…
When the Communist Party allowed entrepreneurs to join in 2001, some voices suggested that it should also allow religious believers to do so. Pan Yue, a reformist official, wrote a newspaper article to that effect entitled, “The religious views of the Communist Party must keep up with the times”. One influence was the decision of the Communist Party of Vietnam in 1990 to allow its members to be religious believers. The move went smoothly, and may even have helped to stabilise Vietnam after its turbulent recent past. In China, however, Mr Pan’s idea was ignored.
One Chinese article in 2004 claimed that 3m-4m party members had become Christians. Despite that, the party still has doubts about officially admitting them. Recent pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong are likely to reinforce those fears: some of the organisers were Christians. It worries the regime that the growth of house churches may also provide more room for the growth of quasi-Christian cults, which may then—like the banned Falun Gong movement—become politicised, and turn anti-Communist. The party’s fear of such cults is rooted in history. The Taiping rebellion in the mid-19th century, led by a man calling himself the brother of Jesus, resulted in more than 20m deaths.
But some officials are becoming more discerning in their crackdowns. This has been evident in Beijing where, around 2005, two large house churches began renting office space for their Sunday services. The largest, Shouwang church, was led by Jin Tianming, a graduate of Beijing’s elite Tsinghua University. It drew an intellectual crowd from the university district. On some Sundays up to 1,000 people attended services. Parishioners could download sermons from the church’s website. Mr Jin was known to be quietly arguing for more religious freedom. He tried to register Shouwang as a legal but independent congregation, not under the control of the official church, but was turned down. In 2009, just before a visit by America’s president, Barack Obama, the government forced the landlord of the building to terminate the church’s lease.
Mr Jin took his congregation into a nearby park, where they worshipped in the snow. He and the church elders were placed under house arrest and many parishioners were detained. They had crossed a political red line.
It is a different story on the other side of Beijing. In an office building just off the third ring road another unregistered congregation, known as Zion church, meets in a similar venue; its pastor, Jin Mingri, is a graduate of Peking University. Like Shouwang, Zion covers an entire floor and includes a bookshop and a café offering loyalty cards to coffee-drinkers. The main hall holds 400 people. It looks and feels like a church in suburban America. Zion’s pastors preach equally uncompromising evangelical sermons, yet the church remains open because it is more cautious in how it engages with sensitive issues.
The pastors of both churches (and the leader of Shanghai’s largest house church, before it was closed, like Shouwang, in 2010) are members of China’s 2.3m-strong ethnic Korean minority, who see the Christianisation of South Korea as a model for China to follow. Both pastors came of age during—and took part in the Tiananmen protests of 1989, the crushing of which led to their disillusionment with the party and the spiritual search that led to their conversion. Yet officials in Beijing, so far, feel they can cohabit with one of them at least.
At the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences one man, Liu Peng, is trying to assist the process. Mr Liu recommended a moderate line to defuse the standoff with Shouwang. A certificate in his office confirms that China’s then president, Hu Jintao, acted on his advice; by the standards of crackdowns on dissent, the one on Shouwang church was mild.
Mr Liu, a Christian himself, is now, on his own initiative, drafting a document that he hopes will become the country’s first law on religion. At present religion is governed only by administrative regulations; such a law might make it more difficult for officials to crack down arbitrarily. Mr Liu says the party should allow its members to be believers, since an age of toleration would benefit the party as well as the churches. There should be a “religious free market”. But he admits that this, like a law, is a long way off.
Meanwhile, acts of defiance are increasing. A mid-ranking official in a big city was recently told that her Christian faith, which was well known in the office, was not compatible with her party membership and she would have to give it up. She politely told her superiors that she would not be able to do that, and that her freedom of belief was protected by the Chinese constitution. She was not fired, but sent on a remedial course at a party school. She is now back at her job, and says her colleagues often come to her asking for prayer.
Christians are becoming more socially (and sometimes politically) engaged, too. Wang Yi is a former law professor and prolific blogger who became a Christian in 2005. The next year he was one of three house-church Christians who met President George W. Bush at the White House. Mr Wang is now pastor of Early Rain, a house church in the south-western city of Chengdu. On June 1st this year, International Children’s Day, he and members of his congregation were detained for distributing leaflets opposing China’s one-child policy and the forced abortions it leads to.
In 2013 a group of Chinese intellectuals convened a conference in Oxford which brought together, for the first time, thinkers from the New Left, whose members want to retain some of the egalitarian parts of Maoism; the New Confucians, who want to promote more of China’s traditional philosophical thinking; and the New Liberals, classic economic and political liberals. For the first time Christian intellectuals were included as well.
The gathering produced a document, called the Oxford Consensus, emphasising that the centre of the Chinese nation is the people, not the state; that culture should be pluralistic; and that China must always behave peacefully towards others. This was not overtly Christian, but it was significant that Christian intellectuals had been included. A summary of the meeting was published in an influential Chinese newspaper, Southern People, and most participants continue to live freely, if cautiously, in China.
The paradox, as they all know, is that religious freedom, if it ever takes hold, might harm the Christian church in two ways. The church might become institutionalised, wealthy and hence corrupt, as happened in Rome in the high Middle Ages, and is already happening a little in the businessmen’s churches of Wenzhou. Alternatively the church, long strengthened by repression, may become a feebler part of society in a climate of toleration. As one Beijing house-church elder declared, with a nod to the erosion of Christian faith in western Europe: “If we get full religious freedom, then the church is finished.”