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    Books by Ray, republished 2016
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    Treehaven, South Africa: International Retreat and Training Centre
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    South African Students Undergoing Training at Treehaven
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    Ray Barnett, founder, Friends In The West
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    Prayers and practical help for those suffering through violence and war.

Monthly archives: February, 2016

The Christians held in Thailand after fleeing Pakistan

By Chris Rogers
BBC News, Thailand

 

A BBC investigation has found that Thailand, a country known for its hospitality to tourists, routinely arrests and detains asylum seekers. Many are Pakistani Christians who have fled religious persecution in their own country. Some are children. And they are held despite being UN-registered asylum seekers, whom the UN is under a duty to protect.

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The sound of the faithful in prayer and song bursts out of a small rented room where a congregation of more than 100 people have gathered for Sunday mass. They would be risking their lives to worship like this in their homeland, where Islamist extremists force Christians to convert, or even kill them.

Leading the prayers is Pastor Joshua, a Christian from Lahore, in what is officially known as the Islamic Republic of Pakistan. Along with thousands of other Christians, he’s had to flee to Thailand and still fears the people in Pakistan who punished him for converting from Islam to Christianity.

“My bone was broken – the one right above the heart. And they tried to cut my arm off,” he says.
“My sister was murdered, she was burned alive, just because she spoke the word ‘God’. They hate the word ‘God’ so much. She was burned for this reason alone.”

The Pakistani Christians head to Thailand because it’s easy to enter the country on a short-term tourist visa and in Pakistan’s hostile neighbourhood there are few safe options closer to hand.

But there is hardly a welcoming committee in Thailand. The country doesn’t want asylum seekers from anywhere. It is not a signatory to the United Nations Refugee Convention, and anyone without a valid visa or a work permit risks being arrested, charged with illegal immigration and jailed.

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A Pakistani man arrested as an illegal immigrant is released on bail in 2011 Image copyrightAFP

Thailand has allowed the UN refugee agency, the UNHCR, to step in and investigate the credibility of those claiming to flee persecution – a process with two possible outcomes, either repatriation or relocation to another country. But many of these families say they’ve been waiting years to be assessed by the UN and they have no access to work, education or healthcare.

As they await the outcome of their case, thousands of Pakistani asylum seekers set up temporary home in dingy rooms in a network of tower blocks on the outskirts of Bangkok. People who were once comfortably-off professionals arrive with just a few possessions, their rent and food paid for by local Christian charities.
And they live in constant fear.

The Thai immigration police have lost patience with the UN’s failure to process asylum cases in good time, one young father tells me, holding a 25-week-old baby in his arms.
“They are taking people out of the rooms from everywhere, they can strike at any time, there is always tension,” he says.

I hear that the immigration police are raiding a block of rooms close by, so I go straight there and find dozens of women crying and clutching their children.
The police have just broken down the doors and taken away all their husbands. Women and children were also taken from other blocks. All told, more than 50 Pakistani asylum seekers have been arrested.

I find them at the local court, where they are handcuffed, charged with illegal immigration, fined 4,000 Baht (£90) and then sent to Bangkok’s Immigration Detention Centre.

_88430991_arrested_close976 This isn’t supposed to happen. All registered asylum seekers are issued with a UN document, which certifies them as an “internationally recognised UN person of concern”. This means they should not be arrested or detained for seeking asylum while the UN investigates their case.

Earlier I met one man called Sabir, who fled Pakistan two years ago with his wife, Laila, their two daughters, Laila’s parents, and her siblings and grandparents. They shared a small, sparse room with no kitchen or toilet, all 10 of them – until Laila was arrested two months ago.

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Sabir in the block of flats he rarely leave

Sabir hasn’t seen her since and sobs that he is lost without her. He doesn’t regret leaving Pakistan though, where he says a gang threatened to kill his family if they didn’t convert to Islam. “Over here, the only fear we have is of the immigration police, nothing else,” he says.

But the UN won’t investigate his asylum case until 2018. He says he’s been told there is a backlog.

In a statement to the BBC, the UNHCR admits it is struggling. “Amid the context of today’s acute global humanitarian funding crunch, it is correct that at present we are facing long delays in the processing of asylum claims with funding for Thailand at only a third of the level needed.” But it adds that it has managed to prevent the arrest of more than 400 “people of concern to UNHCR” in the last six months, by insisting on their status as registered asylum seekers.

Meanwhile the Thai government complains the UN’s inactivity is “creating far-reaching impacts on its security” – a reference to Thai fears that immigrants from Pakistan could be involved in terrorism – “leading to a number of arrests of illegal immigrants in the past year”.

Anyone arrested – Sabir’s wife, for example – is taken to Bangkok’s filthy and overcrowded immigration detention centre.

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Inside the detention centre – faces have been blurred for anonymityJournalists and cameras are not allowed inside but volunteers delivering much-needed fresh water and food for inmates are, and that is how I enter, with other members of the BBC crew. Wearing search-proof hidden cameras we nervously pass through security checks and hand over our water and food to be checked by the guards

We are led to a large, stiflingly hot room, crammed with hundreds of asylum seekers pressing their faces against a wire-mesh internal barrier. They are nearly all Pakistani Christians. For one hour a day, some of the 200 asylum seekers held here are let out of their cells to see visitors.

The men are semi-naked. Unaware we are BBC journalists, they tell us it’s the only way to keep cool in the overcrowded cells they’re kept in. The women cradle their children and babies. Many complain their children are suffering from diarrhoea and vomiting because of poor sanitation and dirty drinking water. The room gets noisy as the inmates cry out to the visiting charity workers for their help to get released, but food and clean drinking water are all they can offer. One mother tells me she has been here for three months with her children. “The youngest is three and the eldest is 10. They are finding it very difficult being here, they are getting so ill,” she says.

The Thai government says parents “often choose to have their children with them while in detention”.

Yet the country has signed up to a number of UN international laws governing the humane treatment of prisoners and outlawing the imprisonment of children – particularly in centres holding adults.

None of the detainees I speak to have received legal assistance from the UNHCR since their arrest.

“We have no faith in the United Nations,” 19-year-old Nazeem tells me, as she holds on to her baby cousin. “We only have faith in God. He will bring us freedom.”
Their only way out of detention is for local charities to request bail from the Thai authorities. It costs about £900 ($1,250) to release one person, so they do this only for those deemed most vulnerable.

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Pakistani men in handcuffs

There are no official figures for the numbers arrested, but campaigners say it amounts to hundreds every month. It’s alleged that 132 Pakistani Christians were arrested on one day alone in March last year. Altogether there are an estimated 11,500 Pakistani asylum seekers in Thailand, more than from any other country except Myanmar.

Suddenly I come across a young woman I was hoping to meet. There on the other side of the security cordon is Laila, Sabir’s wife. It’s an emotional meeting – she is obviously desperate to see her family. “I miss them, bring my daughters here so I can see their faces,” she pleads. But the only way she is likely to see children for the foreseeable future, is if they are arrested too.

In its statement to the BBC, the UNHCR says it is working with the Thai government to find a solution. “Better and more humane management of the situation must be found in accordance with international legal norms,” it says.
The Thai government insists that it strives “to provide the best possible care… based on international humanitarian principles.”

Yet it inflicts an even worse fate upon some Pakistani Christians and their children. Those who are unable to pay the 4,000 Baht fine after they are arrested are thrown into one of Thailand’s notorious jails.

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Asylum seekers in shackles

This happened last year to a group of 20 Pakistani men, women and children. Separated from the women, the men’s heads were shaved, and their ankles and hands placed in shackles.
“We had a lot of problem sleeping, sitting, standing up and walking,” says one. “The chains weighed about 4kg or 4.5kg, and we used to have injuries on our ankles. We were in a lot of pain. It was very difficult for us.”
One of his cellmates, Daniel, bursts into tears when he describes how the men were searched. “All we had to wear for clothing was a small piece of cloth,” he adds.
The people charged with assuring the protection of these UN-registered asylum seekers were nowhere to be seen.
It was a local missionary who eventually bought their freedom.
But remarkably, Daniel is still able to invoke his faith’s humility and forgiveness.
“Jesus said to us, ‘If someone troubles you, don’t ask for curses for him, instead, you should ask for blessings for him.’ So, we ask for blessings for the UNHCR.”

 

Source: BBC News



Northern Nigeria: The impact of persistent violence on the Church

sharia-map

 

A report has just been published by Open Doors and the Christian Association of Nigeria entitled, ‘Crushed but not defeated. The impact of persistent violence on the Church in Northern Nigeria.

It makes for disturbing reading. The Christians in this country have been increasingly targeted by violence and need our prayers. Below is a summary:

1. Christians in Northern Nigeria face violence from different sides;

2. A minimum of 9,000-11,500 Christians have been killed;

3. 1.3 million Christians have become internally displaced or forced to relocate elsewhere, since 2000;

4. Many churches have seen a steep decline in their memberships, 13,000 churches have been closed or destroyed
altogether;

5. Thousands of Christian businesses, houses and other property have been destroyed;

6. Distrust and fear of Christians towards Muslims have hugely increased, leading to more segregation;

7. Christians in Northern Nigeria frequently face marginalization and discrimination, especially in the Sharia states in
the Far North, but also in the Middle Belt states;

8. Participation in church activities as well as the private life of Christians have been severely affected. There has been
a steep decline due to insecurity and migration, but there is also an increased commitment amongst the Christians
that have stayed behind;

9. All over Northern Nigeria, the impact of persistent violence on Christian communities is enormous (decrease in
numbers, traumatization, being overwhelmed by the influx of displaced and relocating Christian, loss of property
and lack of resources);

10. Christians in Northern Nigeria have reported an increased experience of connection with God and His presence;

11. To adopt the Christian attitude of ‘love your enemies’ is seen as a real challenge by Christians;

12. Christians affected by targeted violence have been left severely traumatized



Nigeria Churches unite for first time to address violence in North

The world’s deadliest terrorist group is not in the Middle East. It’s in Nigeria, where the Islamist insurgency Boko Haram and other forces killed more than 4,000 Christians in 2015.

That tally was a 62 percent increase from the previous year, according to Open Doors, a global charity that supports Christians in places where their faith exposes them to government, social or sectarian hostility.

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A church destroyed in Tafawa Balewa, Bauchi state, Nigeria, in 2011. World Watch Monitor

 

In response, Nigeria’s largest confederation of Christian churches is, for the first time, jointly endorsing a commitment to revive the Church in the country’s north, before it collapses from a decade of violence that has killed thousands of Christians and driven away more than 1 million.

“Christians in the Northern region have for long been abandoned to their own fate by the Nigerian authorities.”– Christian Association of Nigeria joint declaration

At the same time the grouping, the Christian Association of Nigeria (CAN) has jointly published with Open Doors that makes a detailed study of the violence and its impacts. “Crushed but not defeated: The impact of persistent violence on the Church in Northern Nigeria” is scheduled to be released 24 Feb. in Abuja, Nigeria’s capital.

CAN is comprised of councils representing Protestant denominations, indigenous Evangelical churches, Pentecostal churches, and the Catholic Church – denominations that, together, encompass about half of Nigeria’s 173 million people. The association has adopted the report as the factual foundation of a joint declaration which demands that the government quell the violence and guarantee religious freedom, and asks the UN to launch an inquiry into atrocities.

“This is the first time we’re going public to sign a Declaration which gives the true picture of the persecution Christians are going through in this country,” said Rev. Musa Asake, the association’s general secretary. “This event gives us an opportunity to let the entire world know what the Christians in Nigeria have been going through.”

From 2006-14, the period covered, the report says religion-based violence killed an estimated 11,500 Christians in Nigeria’s north. It says 13,000 churches were destroyed, abandoned or closed during the period, and 1.3 million Christians fled to safer regions in the country.

Over the past 2 years, the situation worsened; violence spilled over into neighbouring countries Chad and Cameroon. In 2014, Boko Haram was the world’s deadliest terror group, ahead of the self-proclaimed Islamic State, according to the Global Terrorism Index.

“This targeted violence, discrimination and marginalization of Christians in Northern Nigeria, if unchecked and halted, could lead to the extinction of the Christian faith and Christian communities in Northern Nigeria,” the Christian Association of Nigeria declaration asserts. “Christians in the Northern region have for long been abandoned to their own fate by the Nigerian authorities.”

The report recommends “There is still a large Christian presence in Northern Nigeria with potential to unite and stand strong. But the Church in Northern Nigeria will need to find a way to not close in on itself and disengage from society.”

Map courtesy of Open Doors

Not only Boko Haram

The region of Africa that today is northern Nigeria has been governed by Muslim sultans and emirs for centuries, through British colonial rule and the arrival of Christian missionaries in the 19th Century, and into independence in the 1960s. The northern Christian population grew rapidly, to the point where Christians today form the majority in half of the 12 northern states, which are now all under Islamic sharia law, although Christians are in theory exempt from sharia provision.

Across the “middle belt” that separates Nigeria’s north from its south, nomadic ethnic Fulani herdsmen, mostly Muslim, have clashed with indigenous, largely Christian farmers over grazing land for generations, and the conflicts have intensified since 2011, according to the report.

After military rule and civil war yielded to a democratically elected government — headed by a Christian president — in 1999, the ruling Muslim political class in the north moved to consolidate their hold on the region. In 2000 and 2001, the 12 northern states added sharia law to their legal systems.

Radical Islam gained a foothold in the early 1980s, strengthened after the 1999 election, took on the name Boko Haram and blew up into a military insurgency in 2009 under a new leader, Abubakar Shekau, the Open Doors report said. In 2014, the latest year covered by the report, Open Doors says nearly 2,500 Christians were killed and 103 churches attacked. In 2015, beyond the scope of the report, the carnage only intensified — more than 4,000 Christian dead and nearly 200 church attacks, and the organization said the verified count may be as little as half the actual numbers.

From 2006-14, the report estimates Christian deaths represented 41 percent of all violent deaths in the region during the period, even though Christians represent about 31 percent of the region’s population.

The result: Churches emptied, businesses were lost and abandoned, Christian-Muslim relations deteriorated and communities segregated along religious lines, according to the report.

“Although the conflict has undeniable political, economic, social and ethnic components, a strong religious dimension has been identified by this research,” the Christian Association of Nigeria said in its joint declaration. That mix of factors, it said, “is what makes Christians extra vulnerable. Media, policy makers and international role players should acknowledge the religious dimension of the conflict in Nigeria.”

A bleak outlook

Based on 122 interviews of church leaders and members and nine focus groups across the North, the report said nearly two-thirds of the participants claim church membership has decreased between 2006 and 2014. Gone also is the money those former congregants provided the churches and their programs.

Four out of every five Christians interviewed for the report said perceptions of Muslims had soured during the past 10 years. The Christian virtue of forgiveness, participants told researchers, is more difficult than ever to summon.

“Many Christians say they face harassment, hatred, marginalization, intimidation and violence,” the report said. “They have very limited freedom to worship and to build churches. They have no real voice in public media, have hardly any access to government positions for employment and are barely represented in local politics. Young Christians feel discrimination at school.”

Asked to assess their future, three out of four of those interviewed said the outlook is bleak.

Against this grim backdrop, the report identified several bright spots. The chronic violence has galvanized some Christians into political action, especially in the ‘middle-belt’ Kaduna and Plateau states, where the Christian share of the population is relatively high. But Christian political action is almost non-existent, the report says, in Borno and Yobe states in Nigeria’s heavily Muslim and especially violent northeastern corner.

In churches where membership has declined, those who remain have found a new commitment to their faith and prayer life, the report says.  And some of the Christians interviewed by Open Doors reported that church membership actually is increasing. Pews are filling up, they said, not only with Christians arriving from more violent locales, but also with former Muslims who say they are attracted by a Christian spirit of forgiveness, are driven by their own guilt, or are responding to dreams of Jesus.

Open Doors said it provides emergency aid and trauma counselling to victims of violence. It funds clinics, water systems, schools, vocational training and micro-loans to orphans and widows, among other projects. The charity also provides Bibles, Sunday-school materials and other Christian literature.

Plans for action

Strengthening the Church, however, will be a long-term project, and much of the work to be done involves its own leadership, the researchers said in the report. Pastors need better training and a heart for service above having a job; they need to prepare believers, especially youth, to endure violence yet respond with forgiveness, they said. Trauma counseling is urgently needed. And perhaps most self-critically, the report said Christians in Nigeria’s north must abandon a “dependency mentality” that leaves them reliant upon political benefactors or wealthy relatives for protection and support.

“Christians in the northern region are often not engaged in the domains of the economy, politics and education…. He or she does not really want to advance in income, influence and knowledge through hard work, but is inclined to more easily relying on fate,” the report said.

Outside the church walls, Christians need to press government for civil-rights protections, and to form relationships with Muslims, the study said.

In its joint declaration, the Christian Association of Nigeria said its member denominations will “act decisively and responsibly” to demand Nigeria’s government “rise up to her responsibility” to protect its people and guarantee freedom of religion. The document says each church group in the association will:

  • Develop its own strategy to combat violence against its members.
  • Confront national and state governments with “the nature and impact of targeted violence, persecution, discrimination and marginalization of Christians in Northern Nigeria.”
  • Provide humanitarian aid and security to “traumatized” Christian communities across the northern and Middle Belt states, and to churches that have taken in displaced Christians.
  • Petition state governments to return land to Christians that has been “bought, confiscated or simply occupied by the marauding and invading perpetrators of violence.”
  • Create a legal team to “bring redress to all acts of impunity, injustice and discrimination.”

The joint declaration also asks for international pressure on the UN Human Rights Council – of which Nigeria is a member — to form a commission of inquiry “to investigate the atrocities committed against civilians in general, and against Christians in particular in Northern Nigeria, including bringing the perpetrators of violence to justice.”

Source: World Watch Monitor



Living as a Christian in the Islamic State

When John, a Syrian Christian, chose to stay in Raqqa after the Islamic State took control of the city in 2014, he had no idea how he would survive. Thousands abandoned the city, believing it better to save their lives than live at the centre of the Islamists’ new “caliphate”. John survived in Raqqa for 18 months before escaping in the middle of the night. He told World Watch Monitor about a life of frequent harassment, witnessing weekly executions, and the sadness of ordinary Syrians who welcomed Islamic State fighters at first, but grew to regret giving them their support.

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A group of men look at a large black Jihadist flag with Islamic writing on it proclaiming in Arabic that ‘There is no God but God and Mohammed is the prophet of God’

John is in his early 20s. He can’t say his real name, what he is studying, or in what type of business his parents were involved.

“Life in Raqqa carries on as usual in many ways. Shops and restaurants are open. There is food, electricity, and water. People are more fortunate than those living in a city like Aleppo.”

“But you’re constantly alert, never looking into someone’s eyes when walking on the street; always aware of what to say and not to say.”

Islamic State troops won the battle for Raqqa in January 2014. After a week of intense fighting with other radical groups, they took control and declared it the capital of their caliphate.

“Before [IS won the battle] we had a scary week. We stayed in our house because everyone on the streets was being shot at.”

John watched from the side-lines as the streets filled with people shouting “Allahu Akbar” (Allah is the greatest).

“I didn’t shout it – I am a Christian. But when an IS man saw me being silent, he stopped the car. I had to say ‘Allahu Akbar’ too.

“Many in Raqqa welcomed IS, but they all now regret it.”

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A document declaring that the the holder is a Christian and is not to be harmed because ‘he has been issued the covenant of safety from the Islamic Court in Raqqa on the condition of paying the jizya’.
A document declaring that the the holder is a Christian and is not to be harmed because ‘he has been issued the covenant of safety from the Islamic Court in Raqqa on the condition of paying the jizya’.
World Watch Monitor

Soon people discovered that things had radically changed. IS started executing those they suspected to be supporters of the President or of having fought with other rebel groups against IS.
In the same week that Islamic State declared Raqqa their capital, they destroyed the interior of three churches.

“They broke everything inside – the icons, the altar, everything. One church building is now a centre for IS.”

Nobody was forced to stay in the new caliphate, and many left. In some ways life returned to normal, John said, but it was soon clear that the city was under the control of IS. They changed the names of public buildings, “Islamic State” was printed on car number plates and the group banned the use of new bank notes printed by the Syrian government.

Soon after IS declared Raqqa their capital, Christians were told how they could live under IS rule.

“We could [convert and] become Muslims and live a normal life in Raqqa, we could leave, or we could stay and pay the jizya tax. The first year the tax was 54,000 Syrian pounds [about US$300] per man – women and children are not ‘taxed’ – but last year the rate went up to 164,000 Syrian pounds per man.”

The price of gold is used to calculate the jizya; in Islamic tradition it is 16 to 18 grams of gold per year per man.

John advised his parents to leave Raqqa, but they didn’t want to abandon their home and business, and selling them was impossible. Even though many of the estimated 1,500 Christian families left, they stayed; at least it meant John could continue his studies.

John soon witnessed how IS dealt with those who didn’t obey their rules.

“I saw a lot of cruelty. Every Friday they executed people. I was there when they beheaded the first man in public. They couldn’t behead him with the first cut. He suffered so much they finally shot him.”

John described how sick he felt when IS beheaded hundreds of soldiers from Raqqa’s Syrian Army base and then pinned their heads on the fence he passed daily on his way to work. He felt IS soldiers were monsters, who could attack at any moment and for any reason.

“When I talked with them, I had to know what to say. A wrong word could offend them. Seeing all these atrocities, they don’t seem like people, they seem like monsters to me, especially after what they did to those soldiers. This traumatised me. It was too much.

“IS hung their crosses from their ears when they put their heads on the fence. What shocked me too was that I saw people taking selfies with the heads. I believe they do this to scare people, to show them what happens when you do something wrong.”

Despite the horrors he witnessed, John stayed in Raqqa because he wanted to work and continue his studies, and paying the jizya gave him some freedom.

“Because we paid the tax and had the declaration [confirming the tax was paid] always with us, no-one could harm us for being a Christian.”

The protection was important because John had to deal with IS men every day.

“I met them at work, in the shops, even in the gym.”

Only 50 Christian families left in Raqqa

It is remarkable how much John smiles when he talks about living in Raqqa.

“I got used to it. I think it has something to do with how we grew up as Christians; we’re strong people, this helped us to stay. And, yes, you can live as a Christian in the Islamic State. No-one troubles you when you pay the tax.”

However, John knows of only 50 Christian families left there. The only priest left as soon as IS took over. There is no church remaining – Christians visit each other for fellowship.

“I didn’t see them mistreat Christians because of their faith. The only thing they did was to take the homes of Christians – and anyone else – who had left Raqqa, because their soldiers didn’t have enough houses to live in.

“We never imagined this could happen. Christians in Raqqa were respected. It was a normal Syrian city with no radical Islamic population. In my opinion, what IS is doing isn’t real Islam. I have lived with Muslims my whole life; we respected each other and lived peacefully together.”

Some IS fighters were former Christians

Despite their cruelty, John said IS fighters were normal people.

“I could talk with them normally. It was only sometimes when they discovered that I was a Christian that they changed. They were sometimes funny. Once in the gym I heard them telling jokes, albeit about all the heads they had cut off. At different times we had conversations about me being a Christian. They advised me to become a Muslim. Once I was really shocked after talking with two of them. They turned out to be Armenians. They told me that they grew up in Christian families, that both of them had converted from Christianity to Islam. Their beards were not that long yet, they were quite new in IS. I later heard that one of them blew himself up as a suicide bomber.

“One day on a bus I met one of my old classmates. He was wearing IS clothes, had a long beard, and held a machine gun. He was convinced of the choice he had made, saying he wanted to fight for Islam and the Koran. Two weeks later he was killed in battle.

“I heard they send Syrian fighters to the frontlines; the foreigners have leadership positions. A week later the brother of this classmate also died fighting for IS. I know of one other friend of mine who joined IS. I don’t know what happened to him.”

‘Western’ haircut causes problems

There were moments when John was really afraid. An IS soldier once stopped him in the street and started shouting: “Why are you cutting your hair like this?” John showed him the paper declaring he was a Christian and that he had paid the tax, and the soldier left.

Another day, he was forced onto a bus because an IS soldier didn’t like the jeans he was wearing or his haircut.

“We drove to an underground space where there were hundreds of other men. We were all divided up –first the elderly men were separated from the younger ones, then they separated young men with skinny jeans from the others. Then they separated a group based on their haircuts. I was in that group.”

After the group had been reorganised, a Tunisian IS fighter made a passionate address to the men.

“He said: ‘You are the new generation of Islamic youth. You look like Westerners and it appears you like them and their style, but they don’t like you. People in the West hate you. Westerners are always working to get you away from Islam.’

“The ones with the skinny jeans then had to sign a document promising not to wear them anymore. Then our hair was completely shaved off and we were told to not sport this Western hairstyle anymore. I tried to explain that I was a Christian, but they didn’t pay attention to that.”

The changes in Raqqa were more radical for the women. All women, Muslim or not, have to cover themselves completely when they leave the house.

“It was hard for my mother and sister. They had to buy these clothes, which, of course, we didn’t have at home,” John said.

IS forbade advertising images that showed women not fully covered. Shampoo bottles, for example, which had images of women printed on them, had to be out of sight or removed completely. Regular checks were made.

“I remember a funny incident. A shopkeeper had a red balloon in the shape of a heart in his window. IS came in, screaming that this was a sin. The shopkeeper said it was just a balloon. The IS man insisted that this was sin because the shape could also be seen as a woman’s breasts. The shopkeeper had to pop the balloon.”

John learned how to respond to IS.

“One day an IS man heard my name mentioned and immediately understood that I was a Christian. I saw the expression on his face change. ‘Are you an unbeliever?’ he asked me. I replied: ‘Don’t you know this verse from the Koran that anyone who believes in God, in angels, in the books and in his prophets, in good and bad and in eternal life, is a believer?’ He was shocked that I knew this verse from the Koran and he walked away.”

Fleeing Raqqa in the middle of the night

It was because John couldn’t continue his studies in Raqqa that he eventually left the city. As far as he knows, there are no other young Christians left.

“Of course it feels better. I might not have water and electricity every day as I did in Raqqa, but I feel safer; inside I have peace. In Raqqa there was this constant fear and alertness. Where I am living now, I don’t have to be afraid of the people I meet in the streets.”

John and a few others fled the city in secrecy.

“People could leave the city if it was justified. They could leave for medical treatment that wasn’t available in Raqqa. I even heard of Christians who were allowed to go to another city to celebrate Christmas and New Year. I didn’t have a reason, so I had to leave illegally.”

He left Raqqa on a small bus with 15 others.

“I was so afraid that we would be stopped at an IS checkpoint. But that didn’t happen. We took small roads, avoiding all the known checkpoints.

“After four hours, we arrived at a Syrian Army checkpoint. They welcomed us and then asked why we were so pale. We really had been very anxious. They checked our IDs, and gave us yoghurt. It was delicious.”

John remains in contact with people who stayed in Raqqa. It isn’t easy, but “there are ways”, he said.

Asked about the attraction of joining Islamic State, John said he thinks many IS fighters were attracted by the high salaries paid at the beginning.

“I heard of 1,200 US dollars for a foreign fighter. If they had one or more wives, they would get 100 dollars per wife and 50 dollars per child. I saw them in shops with a lot of money, too much to spend.

“I think they are cheated. They really believe that what they do is right. They feel happy every time they kill someone. You can see this by how they go about executing people – every week finding a new way, even crucifying them. Thank God no Christians were executed for just being a Christian, but because they fought against the IS army.”

Living under the Islamic State for 18 months didn’t help John to understand why they needed to establish themselves in a new territory.

“They were already living in an Islamic country; in Syria the majority are Sunnis. They had their land but if they wanted to live under strict Islam they could have moved to Saudi Arabia.”

John said he is willing to serve in the Syrian Army after finishing his studies.

“I don’t want to run away. We have the right to take back our land. This is my country, not theirs. I am willing to fight for that.”

Source: World Watch Monitor



Christian migrants find discrimination follows them to Europe

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The camp in Grande-Synthe, northern France, hosts around 2,500 to 3,000 migrants. World Watch Monitor

Christians among the thousands of Middle Eastern migrants who have fled to Europe have discovered that a familiar burden has followed them: religious harassment.
Some Christian migrants have been subjected to discrimination, harassment and violence from Muslim migrants with extremist views. One Iranian convert to Christianity was murdered.

The phenomenon has been observed in various locations across Europe, including in the camp of Grande-Synthe in northern France, where Iranian converts have been targeted by migrants from Iraq.

The situation has raised great concerns among local churches, which are now supporting migrants by supplying them with food, clothing, and, in some cases, even shelter.

It all started at the turn of the year, recalls Philippe Dugard, the Pastor of Église Evangélique du Littoral, or EEDL, a church in the neighbouring town of Saint-Pol-sur-Mer, which has spearheaded the relief effort in Grande-Synthe.

“Between November and December, there was a group of Iranians who confessed their belonging to Christ, who started to attend our church. Some were Orthodox, while others said they were Christians but were not truly converted. But we got to know them, and we felt they had a real spiritual thirst,” he said.

“And then one evening [14 December], we were informed that two of them were stabbed and the whereabouts of a third one was unknown.

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“We then said that as Christians we cannot leave them alone in that situation, and the victims themselves told us that they no longer wanted to stay in the camp, as they felt threatened.”
The incident marked the beginning of EEDL’s support for migrant victims of persecution.

For the next few days, the victims were put up in hotels, before they were moved to a church in Dunkirk, the closest city to the camp.

Just one of the victims from the initial group remains, a 29-year-old who wished to remain anonymous.

“Generally the Kurdish mafia in the camp are against Christians,” he said. “When we gave our money to them for them to help us to go to England, they didn’t help us and they just stole our money and did not give it back. Then they attacked us and called us kafir [infidels] and dirty. They came and cut me with a knife and they beat my friends.”

He said there are still some Christians in the camp, but that many are too scared to speak about their faith.

“Yes, there are still some Christians there in the camp,” he said, “But they don’t prefer to stay there beside these strong Muslims. They are so racist, they just want to clear the camp to be without Christians.”

He added that a mosque has been created in the camp, and that the Call to Prayer resounds around the camp every day, but unlike the nearby Calais camp, there is no church.

An explosive cocktail

Located in the northwest of France, beside the English Channel, the camp of Grande-Synthe hosts around 2,500 to 3,000 migrants – mostly Kurds from Iraq and Syria, but also some Iranians.

Tensions and other forms of violence are common in the camp, said a social worker, who wished to remain anonymous for fear that the report could impact upon his work with the Christians.

Ethnic differences have created tension in the camp between the Iraqis and Iranians, of whom there are only around 50. The thousands of Iraqi Kurds are mostly Muslim, while some of the Iranian minority are Christians.

Some of them attend local churches secretly, because they are scared of the Muslim migrants and smugglers, who hold sway within the camp. Night raids, theft and violence are among the common threats.

On the night of 14 December, a knife attack left several Christians injured. One of them, a 19-year-old named Mohammad, was murdered. The local police were informed and an investigation is underway. Police did not respond to World Watch Monitor requests for information about the investigation.

A staff member at the Mayor’s office in Grande-Synthe said there is no security problem in the camp, which she said is open to external visitors. However, police now patrol the entrance.

On 26 January, a shooting between rival gangs of smugglers erupted, prompting a huge police deployment around the camp. Security checks are now carried out at the entrance of the camp, and visitors must acquire prior authorisation from the Mayor’s office.

There are some who fear members of the so-called Islamic State may be among the migrants, intent on radicalising other migrants and imposing Sharia inside the camp.

A settled tension

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Local churches are providing food, clothing and, in some cases, shelter for migrants. World Watch Monitor

Two months after the attacks against the Iranian migrants, the tension has settled, according to Dugard.
The majority of the victims of the December attacks have moved on. Some managed to reach England, their preferred destination, while others, tired of waiting for a hypothetical crossing or because of a lack of financial resources, returned to Iran. Others have left for other European destinations, with the hope of reaching England another way.

“Sometimes they just won’t show up at dinner time, even though we have already laid the table,” said Dugard. “They are always in search of new routes because the passages via Calais and Dunkirk seem completely blocked.

“But in the meantime, other refugees, including moderate Muslims who heard about the support provided to the Iranians, have now arrived.”

A group of about 10 migrants, only one of whom professes a Christian faith, are currently staying in a church in Dunkirk. A non-religious Iranian in his 30s, who identified himself as Max, complained of the poor conditions and lax security of the camp. A fellow Iranian, a Muslim man in his 20s who identified himself as Farhad, agreed.

“The living conditions in the camp are deplorable,” he said. “It is no place for humans. It is very cold and people fall sick easily.”

Churches overwhelmed

Local churches are struggling to cope with the demands being placed upon them, as they seek to support migrants of all faiths and none.

What started as an emergency has become a long-term commitment, Dugard said.

“We are wondering: what is the best option for us? Do we have the spiritual, human and financial resources to continue this work, which is full-time social work?” he said.

“Yet the migrants are really suffering. They crossed a multitude of borders and faced various obstacles to get here, in the hope of a better life. But they realise that it is often hopeless to cross to England and have ended up living in precarious conditions often more difficult than in their countries.”

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Philippe Dugard, pastor of the EEDL church. World Watch Monitor

Michel Varton, director of Open Doors France, added: “Many Christians amongst the refugees are fleeing persecution and discrimination. They are already traumatised by their terrible experience in the Middle East. Imagine their despair to realise that, once here in France, they are suffering the same discrimination and hate from fellow immigrants.
“The local churches have shown dedication to help the Christian refugees and those who are genuinely interested in the Christian faith. The authorities must allow them to have simple buildings where they can meet and worship God in security and make sure that values of freedom of belief reign in the camps. It’s totally unacceptable that someone could lose their life for their faith once in France.”

In addition to the lack of resources, there is a logistical problem, as different churches act without much coordination.

Moreover, various groups and associations from all over Europe are also providing assistance to migrants, which has only added to the pressure, said Dugard.

“If some groups are useful, others believe that they can save the world,” he said. “They often come with very aggressive speeches, for two to three days, and then leave. In the end, their actions are doing more harm than good, because after they leave it becomes difficult for us to do serious work.”

Talks are currently underway among churches, as they seek to create a regional platform, which would come underneath the umbrella of the Conseil National des Evangéliques de France, the national Evangelical Church network.

Humanitarian disaster

The Grande-Synthe camp stretches over 20 hectares (nearly 50 acres) of marshland. It is difficult to walk through the slippery mud without proper boots.

With thousands of people, including women and children, living in such unsanitary conditions, respiratory problems and infectious diseases are common, says Médecins Sans Frontières (Doctors Without Borders), which provides emergency care alongside Médecins du Monde (Doctors of the World).

According to MSF, a new camp, equipped with heated tents and located three kilometres from the current camp, will accommodate migrants in the coming days.

However, the migrant crisis remains a very complex issue, says Matthew Bosiger, the pastor of the Salvation Army Church in Dunkirk.

“They are a bit like in a prison,” he said. “It is good to try to improve their situation, but they have no plan to stay in France. The migrants have only one thought in mind: to cross the channel to England, at any cost.”

Many say they have relatives or friends already settled there and the living conditions seem very attractive – partly because many know a little English, but also because of the prospect of better economic opportunities. Smugglers take advantage of migrants’ desperation to reach the UK by charging them everything that they have, with no guarantee they will succeed.

Source: World Watch Monitor