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Monthly archives: December, 2015

Indonesian churches celebrate Christmas without building – or even tent

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Ten churches were destroyed in Aceh in the month of October alone. World Watch Monitor

President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo on 23rd Dec promised a safe Christmas celebration throughout Indonesia. It’s the world’s most populous Muslim nation, but only one of its provinces applies sharia.

Ten churches were destroyed in this province – Aceh, in the Singkil regency – in the month of October alone, out of more than 30 churches nationally which were torched, destroyed, or forced to shut down in 2015.

In all, 11 churches were demolished in Singkil, most following a settlement between Aceh Singkil’s religious leaders under the local government’s consent, after clashes between Muslims and Christians led to a focus on the existence of still-unregistered churches. However, many churches say they have tried to register for years and faced numerous obstacles.

In the immediate run-up to Christmas, the Aceh Singkil Regency Chief, or Bupati, banned Christmas services on 25th – affecting more than 2,000 Christians from the destroyed churches. They were only allowed and promised security by the authorities (Bupati, police and military) if they held services on the 23rd Dec.

The recently-established Aceh Singkil Churches’ Communication Forum (Forsicas) met on 23rd Dec. and decided to hold services on the 25th at all the sites where their demolished churches used to stand. This was in direct defiance of the authority’s directives to either have the Christmas services on the 23rd or hold them on 25th outside Singkil’s border.

Since October, the majority of the Singkil congregants have been unable to share in corporate worship. Around 1,000 churchless believers were prohibited from raising temporary tents to hold Sunday worship services – for “security reasons” – and advised to go to churches in other villages.

In Aceh, church leaders must obtain permission from the local government if they want to hold Sunday services in tents. One of the torched churches, the Indonesian Christian Church (HKI), has recently been given a permit to do so.

Aceh Singkil’s authorities also emphasised that 13 remaining churches (those not on the authorities’ list for “closure” as a result of the inter-communal violence) were given permission to apply for a registration permit, and that they must do so in the next six months. Church leaders from those churches must now gather at least 150 identity cards from church members and another 120 from local Muslims.

The government also promised a worship centre for those whose churches have been destroyed, but many Christians are sceptical.

“Our leaders have applied for permits since our church was sealed in 2012, but the government hasn’t released the permits yet,” said a member of the Indonesian Christian Church, referring to a similar situation in May 2012, when 20 churches in Aceh were closed for the same reason.

Arrests

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Three Christians have been arrested on suspicion of involvement in the Aceh Singkil interfaith clash on 13 Oct., when a Muslim man was shot dead – which sparked the church closures.

One of the suspects, who can only be identified using his initials, NT, from Dangguran village, was “randomly arrested” by the police just three days after the religious violence, according to a local source. Fearing more arrests, other men fled the village. “Now only women and children are left, living in fear and in need of food,” he said.

“The identification and arrest of suspected shooters in a very short time seemed dubious and served only to calm down the victim’s family and public tension created by the media,” said a staff member for Open Doors International, a charity which supports Christians in difficult situations.

As if responding to the public unrest, M. Ridwan was appointed on 21 Oct. as Aceh Singkil’s Police Chief to replace Budi Samekto, who had failed to anticipate the church attacks and arson on 13 Oct.

On 26 Oct., the Minister of Religious Affairs, Lukman Hakim Saifuddin, visited Muslim and Christian leaders in Aceh Singkil. In his short speech, he warned against vigilantes taking matters into their own hands and said that church demolition was not about religious intolerance, but the result of them not following regulations.

However, all of the churches demolished in Aceh Singkil had been built long before the Joint Ministerial Decree of Religious and Domestic Affairs was introduced in 2006, requiring religious buildings to obtain permits before being built.

The National Commissions of Human Rights stated in 2013 that over 80 per cent of worship houses in Indonesia are without a license, including mosques.

After a recent church closure in the capital city, Jakarta, Governor Basuki Tjahaya Purnama advised the government to alter its approach.

“Instead of banning people from worshipping, churches and mosques built before the decree should be assisted to obtain the license,” said Purnama, a Christian.

Ripple effect

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As in the aftermath of a religious riot in Papua in July of this year, Aceh Singkil’s violence stirred up a string of attacks on churches in other parts of the region and country.

The Protestant Church in West Indonesia (GPIB) in the Sabang regency suffered an arson attempt only three days after the riot.

On 22 Oct., the Batak Christian Protestant Church (HKBP) Keroncong Permai in Tangerang, West Java, was closed by the government for not possessing a license. For the same reason, a letter was sent to HKBP Syalom in Jambi province, ordering the destruction of the church. The congregation was given two weeks to carry out the demolition, before the government would take over.

In Tasikmalaya regency, West Java, the local Indonesian Clerics Council (MUI) banned Christmas services at the Huria Kristen Batak Protestant (HKBP) church in the Cipanunjak village.

Christians’ reaction

A general sentiment of despair and disbelief looms over the Singkil villagers in Aceh. One of the Christians whose church was demolished on 19 Oct. said: “The church had been here for such a long time. Our government should have paid attention to churches with large congregations. Where will we go for services now?”

“I have lost my hope for a better Indonesia,” said a Muslim woman, who converted to Islam from Christianity after she married a Muslim, and wished to remain anonymous. “They who call themselves government and religious organisations have destroyed one beautiful thing: the garuda,” she said referring to the country’s symbol of harmony in diversity in the form of a mythical bird called “garuda”.

She said Christians and Muslims had lived in harmony for decades and respected each other’s faiths before the incident.

“But now, everything’s different,” she said. “Muslim neighbours wouldn’t pass by the church debris or even glance at their Christian neighbours. I don’t know if our relationship could ever go back to the way it used to be.”

Timeline of events

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The first incident took place on 18 Aug. with the torching of the GKPPD Mandumpang by an unknown person (the third time this church had been torched in three decades).
A mob of Muslim radicals then torched HKI on 13 Oct., sparking religious violence that left a Muslim man dead and an estimated 8,000 Christians displaced. From 19-23 Oct., nine other churches were demolished.

Apart from these 10 unlicensed churches previously listed for closure, Muslim extremists demanded that two other churches, which were known for their big congregations, be demolished by 23 Oct. “Or else, the radicals will deploy around 7,000 people [to attack],” a local church activist claimed. The government gave in to the demand.

According to the agreement, the demolition would be done by the churches themselves. But in reality, Christians could not bring themselves to destroy their own churches, so officials took over. Church members wept as they watched civil police officers bringing down their worship houses.

“This [church demolition] is the best solution for all of us. I hope there won’t be another in the future,” said Aceh Singkil’s Regency Head, Safriadi Manik.

Analysis

Indonesia ranks #47 on Open Doors International’s 2015 World Watch List, which ranks the 50 countries where it is most difficult to live as a Christian. Officially it is a secular country, despite hosting the world’s largest Muslim community. Aceh is the only province given special privileges to enforce sharia and as a result has become one of the toughest places for Indonesian Christians to live and exercise their faith.

“The topic of religion is basically dealt with on a regional level, constitutional guarantees like freedom of religion are not implemented … The government’s inaction creates fear,” said an analyst at Open Doors International. “That the local government has put an additional 13 churches in Aceh Singkil on a watch list shows that in 2016 more difficult news should be expected. But Christians do not only face trouble in this region. Coincidentally, around the same time, a church had to celebrate the noteworthy and sad hundredth anniversary of a worship service outside the presidential palace in September. The GKI Yasmin church in Bogor, 60 kilometres outside Jakarta, had applied for registration for their church and was denied by the administration. In the end, the Indonesian Supreme Court ruled that the church had kept all legal demands and consequently had to be allowed to worship in their building, which had been sealed off by authorities. But the mayor of Bogor and his successor are refusing to implement the court`s ruling. This shows that the Christians need more help than just rhetorical support.”

Source: World Watch Monitor



More martyrs today than in the first centuries

This Christmas period has provided an opportunity for reflection on the suffering of Christians in the Middle East.

In the US, the Presidential Prayer Team has issued a request for prayer for the “millions of Christian refugees who have had to flee their homelands”. They point out that ten years ago, Iraq’s Christian population was about 1.5 million but now it’s estimated there are only 500,000 still living there. The rest have either fled persecution or been killed. Meanwhile, in Syria, of the 1.1 million Christians, about 600,000 have fled or died.

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US President, Barak Obama

On Dec 23rd, the White House released a statement by President Obama on ‘Persecuted Christians at Christmas’, in which he said, “In some areas of the Middle East where church bells have rung for centuries on Christmas Day, this year they will be silent; this silence bears tragic witness to the brutal atrocities committed against these communities by ISIL [Islamic State].”

In Mosul, where Christmas had been celebrated during two millennia, there were no celebrations for the second year in a row, under the rule of IS.

Obama, in his message, called for people around the world to “pray for God’s protection for persecuted Christians and those of other faiths, as well as for those brave men and women engaged in our military, diplomatic and humanitarian efforts to alleviate their suffering and restore stability, security and hope to their nations.”

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Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby.

The Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, in his Christmas message, said that IS is seeking an “apocalypse” to eliminate the presence of Christians and other communities in the areas they control. Isis’s apocalyptic vision threatens Christians with “elimination” in the very birthplace of their religion, he warned in his Christmas Day sermon.

He described the extremist Islamic organisation as “igniting a trail of fear, violence, hatred and determined oppression” across the Middle East.

The Archbishop called the group the “Herod of today” in reference to the murderous Biblical king.

Pope Francis, who has termed the persecution of Christians in the Middle East and beyond a genocide, said in a speech, “There are more martyrs [today] than there were in the first centuries,” as a result of the persecution of Christians in the Middle East today.

A recent report by a Catholic charity observed, “In parts of the Middle East — particularly in Syria and Iraq — the crisis is so severe that barring significant interventions on the part of world powers, the Christian presence may disappear completely within a decade or even sooner. For example, there may be as few as 275,000 Christians left in Iraq, down from 1 million 12 years ago.”



1,000 Gather at Prayer Vigil for Canadian Pastor Sentenced to Life in North Korean Prison

By Katherine Weber , Christian Post Reporter

Over 1,000 supporters recently gathered at the Toronto church of Pastor Hyeon Soo Lim on Sunday to offer their prayers and support after the pastor was sentenced to life prison by a North Korean court.

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South Korea-born Canadian Pastor Hyeon Soo Lim, during his trial at a North Korean court. photo released by North Korea’s Korean Central News Agency in Pyongyang.

The prayer vigil took place at Light Korean Presbyterian Church in Mississauga, outside of Toronto, where the Rev. Jason Noh told visitors that despite his harsh sentence, Lim is in “really good spirits.”

“He’s in really good spirits […] apparently, he’s at peace,” Noh added to the crowd of supporters.

Last week, Lim, who has been detained in North Korea since February, was sentenced to life imprisonment and hard labor under accusations that he committed crimes against the Communist regime.

A statement released by the government-controlled KCNA media station stated that Lim was guilty of “[committing] anti-DPRK religious activities, [conducting] false propaganda among overseas Koreans, and [taking] active part in the operation of the U.S. and (a South Korean) conservative group to lure and abduct DPRK citizens […] in their programs for ‘aiding defectors from the north.'”

Following Lim’s sentencing, Light Korean Presbyterian Church’s spokeswoman, Lisa Pak, called on Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to take an active stand in fighting for the pastor’s release.

“We would love for the Trudeau government to let us know that they’re on the case and they’re doing due diligence and they’re doing everything they can,” Pak, who also serves as a spokeswoman for the Lim family, told CBC News in a statement.

“If they can give us their assurance, we’re fully supportive of their efforts that they would address this issue and make it a high priority,” Pak added.

The church also announced during the Sunday prayer vigil that Lim had successfully gained access to the Canadian consulate in North Korea, and he had been able to communicate with two Canadian diplomats following his sentencing.

Pak told the Toronto Star that Lim’s family is “relieved that he’s been able to have access by Canadian officials, not just North Korea saying he’s OK.”

François Lasalle, a spokesman for Canada’s Department of Global Affairs, said in a statement that North Korea is violating the Vienna Convention on Consular Relations by refusing to allow Canadian officials to meet with the pastor on a regular basis.

“Mr. Lim has been in detention since February and despite repeated requests, Canadian officials have not been able to meet with him to verify his health and well-being. The trial was our first opportunity to see him. This is a serious violation of the Vienna Convention on Consular Relations and the right of states to have consular access to their citizens,” Lasalle told The New York Times in a recent interview.

Pak added to CNN that Lim remains faithful despite his grim sentence.

“He knows that our congregation is praying for him. He wants us to know that he’s doing okay,” the spokeswoman told the media outlet.

Source: Christian Post



KENYAN MUSLIMS SHIELD CHRISTIANS IN MANDERA BUS ATTACK

A group of Kenyan Muslims travelling on a bus ambushed by Islamist gunmen protected Christian passengers by refusing to be split into groups, according to eyewitnesses.
They told the militants “to kill them together or leave them alone”, a local governor told Kenyan media.

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At least two people were killed in the attack, near the north-eastern village of El Wak on the Somali border.

The Somali based al-Shabab group says it carried out the attack.

The group often carries out attacks in Kenya’s north-east.

The bus was travelling from the capital Nairobi to the town of Mandera.

When al-Shabab killed 148 people in an attack on Garissa University College in April, the militants reportedly singled out Christians and shot them, while freeing many Muslims.

Last year, a bus was attacked near Mandera by al-Shabab militants, who killed 28 non-Muslims travelling to Nairobi for the Christmas holidays.

“The locals showed a sense of patriotism and belonging to each other,” Mandera governor Ali Roba told Kenya’s private Daily Nation newspaper.

The militants decided to leave after the passengers’ show of unity, he added.

Analysis: Bashkas Jugsodaay, BBC News, Nairobi

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The passengers on the bus showed great bravery, but there was another quality revealed by their surprising decision to stand up to the gunmen: Frustration.

The majority of the local population in the north-east are Kenyan Muslims of Somali descent, and they have been hit hard by the consequences of al-Shabab attacks, even if non-Muslims are supposedly the main target of the Somali militant group.

An attack last year in Mandera, in which Christians were killed after being separated from Muslims, caused the departure of more than 2,000 teachers, as well as many health workers who had come from other parts of the country. Perhaps the passengers felt that the region could simply not afford another such attack.

It will be interesting to see if their actions embolden local populations to increase their resistance to al-Shabab, which has attacked the area several times.

An employee of the Makkah bus company, who had spoken to the driver involved in the attack, confirmed to the BBC that Muslims had refused to be separated from their fellow Christian passengers.

One of the victims was shot dead after trying to run away from the militants after passengers had been forced off the bus, the same employee told the BBC’s Bashkas Jugsodaay in Nairobi.

Al-Shabab has been at war with Kenya ever since Kenyan forces entered Somalia in October 2011 in an effort to crush the militants.
Kenya’s north-eastern region has a large population of ethnic Somalis.

Al-Shabab attacks in Kenya
September 2013 – Al-Shabab militants seize the Westgate shopping mall in the capital Nairobi, killing 67 people.

June 2014 – At least 48 people die after Islamist militants attack hotels and a police station in Mpeketoni, near the island resort of Lamu.

November 2014 – The group targets a bus full of teachers in Mandera County, executing 28 non-Muslims at point-blank range.
December 2014- Al-Shabab kills 36 non-Muslim quarry workers near the north Kenyan town of Mandera.

April 2015 – Militants carry out a massacre at Garissa University College in north-east Kenya, killing 148 people.

Source BBC News



Iranian pastor released after 5 years in jail

Published: Dec. 22, 2015

Farshid Fathi secures early release, 6 months after being handed extra year in jail

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Farshid Fathi: World Watch Monitor

An Iranian pastor has been released early from prison, just six months after he failed to appeal a sentence to an extra year in jail and 74 lashes for allegedly possessing two litres of alcohol in his prison cell.

Farshid Fathi was serving a six-year prison sentence – extended to seven years – for “action against the regime’s security, being in contact with foreign organisations, and religious propaganda”. Due to be released in Dec. 2017, he was then told by prison officials in early July that he would be released this year – at that time they said on 10 Dec.

He was originally arrested on 26 Dec. 2010 at the same time as around 60 other Christians, many belonging to house churches in Tehran and other cities. Most of those have now been released.

The governor of Tehran, Morteza Tamadon, on 4 January, 2011 described the detained Christians as “extremists” who “penetrate the body of Islam like corrupt and deviant people”. He added that they were trying to establish “an extreme form of Christianity like the Taliban and Wahhabis in Islam”.

Fathi, who is a 35-year-old father of two, was imprisoned without trial in Evin prison. After 15 months of uncertainty, he was tried in January 2012. Details of his court trial have not been published.

Iran’s Supreme Leader Seyyed Ali Khamenei had made a speech in October 2010 saying that house churches should be “dealt with”. A new wave of surveillance and arrests against Christians followed soon after, with leaders of house church groups, such as Farshid Fathi, especially singled out for longer detentions. Born into a Muslim family, Fathi became a Christian at the age of 17 and at the time of his arrest he was working full-time as a pastor and leader of house churches.

Fathi served his sentence alongside another man, Alireza Seyyadian, who was also imprisoned for six years. Seyyadian was arrested as he was trying to leave the country for a holiday at the time of Persian New Year in March 2012, and was also transferred with Fathi to Rajaei-Shahr prison.

Seyyadian is a member of a group known as Church of Iran, which holds a non-Trinitarian theology. He was sentenced to 90 lashes and six years’ imprisonment for “acting against national security through collusion, gathering and propagating against the Islamic regime”. However, he was released after three and a half years, in August 2015.

Background

Estimates from evidence provided by the American Center for Law and Justice, Article 18 and Middle East Concern suggest that, in May 2015, there were 90 people detained in Iranian prisons on account of their Christian faith and practice.

According to the 2015 World Watch List by Open Doors International, a charity that supports Christians who face hostilities because of their faith, Iran ranks seventh in the top 10 countries where Christians are persecuted.

The main driver of persecution in Iran, it says, is “Islamic extremism”; Christians from an Islamic background are especially targeted. Increasing numbers of Farsi-speaking churches have been forced to close, some of which have been there for centuries. This is a development that has not been seen in the history of the Church in Iran, stated the World Watch List.

“Expectations were high when President Rouhani took office in 2013. However, his powers are limited and, in the short run, no concrete changes are expected for religious minorities,” said Open Doors.

Mohabat News reports that even Sunni Muslims “cannot enjoy the least amount of freedom”. As with Christians and other religious minorities, Sunnis are not allowed to build a mosque of their own in Tehran, the capital.

Source: World Watch Monitor