Wednesday, April 1, 2015

RLPB 303. SYRIA plus Easter Reflection.

Religious Liberty Prayer Bulletin | RLPB 303 | Wed 01 Apr 2015

EASTER REFLECTION: THE CROSS AS REVELATION
-- also Christians imperilled in Syria
By Elizabeth Kendal

THE CROSS AS REVELATION

The Cross is more than an event in history; more than an instrument of torture and death; more than an atonement for sin. The Cross is revelation, for through the Cross God reveals how he works; indeed how he is forced to work when dealing with arrogant, self-righteous, glory-orientated, sinful humanity. For it is our glory-lust that forces God to use inglorious means. So when we consider the supreme evil of the Cross and realise how much Christ suffered, not only for us but because of us, it is humbling indeed. All we can do is hang our heads, shed a tear and whisper 'thank you'.

But the Cross also reveals that appearances can be deceptive; that things are not always as they seem; that even in the midst of death and darkness when God seems absent and the 'world' boasts victory, the truth is found to be exactly the opposite. For notwithstanding the appearance of defeat, Christ was at work faithfully fulfilling his promises. The Cross confirms Isaiah 55:8,9 and proves that God's ways are contrary to ours; indeed 'the things of God' are totally contrary to 'the things of man' (Matthew 16:23 ESV). The Cross confirms Zechariah 4:6, proving that God fulfils his promises 'not by might, nor by power, but by [his] Spirit'. The Cross reveals that God defeats sin by thoroughly subverting it and redeeming it as blessing. Consequently we can be certain that God is at work in this sin-riddled world, in war-ravaged Syria, Iraq and Ukraine; in sectarian tinderboxes like India, Pakistan and Egypt; and in the prisons of Iran, Laos and North Korea. For notwithstanding the appearance of defeat, God is at work subverting evil, working out his purposes and fulfilling his promises. And as God goes about his hidden, surprising work, he extends his hand and invites us to join him, saying: 'While I work in people's hearts (Philippians 2:13)  and "build my Church" (Matthew 16:18), you are to speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves (Proverbs 31:8,9); give generously (Matthew 6:3); bear one another's burdens (Galatians 6:2); pray for world leaders (1 Timothy 2:1-4) and persevere in prayer for all the saints (Ephesians 6:18).'

Viewing suffering and persecution through the revelation or prism of the Cross enables light and hope to be found hidden amidst darkness and despair. My dear persecuted brothers and sisters, my dear fellow intercessors, never lose sight of the Cross. It is less a burden to bear than an eternal reminder how God subverts evil and redeems it as blessing. If Islamic State (IS) really understood what the Cross reveals, they would be less inclined to remind us that we are 'the Nation of the Cross' [see RLPB 297 (16 Feb)]. Lord, help us live up to that energising, hope-inspiring, wonderful name! 

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SUMMARY FOR CHURCH BULLETINS

THE CROSS AS REVELATION
The Cross is more than an event, an instrument of torture or an atonement for sin. The Cross is revelation, for through the Cross God reveals how he works when dealing with glory-oriented, sinful humanity. The Cross reveals that appearances can be deceptive; that things are not always as they seem; that even in the midst of death and darkness when God seems absent and the 'world' boasts victory, the truth is found to be exactly the opposite. For notwithstanding the appearance of defeat, Christ was at work faithfully fulfilling his promises. Viewing suffering and persecution through the revelation or prism of the Cross enables light and hope to be found hidden amidst the darkness and despair. And so we pray, but not as those without hope.
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SYRIA: CHRISTIANS IMPERILLED -- URGENT 

IDLIB, NORTH-WEST SYRIA
click on map to enlarge
Around 23 March an alliance of jihadist groups announced they had formed an alliance, known as Jaysh al Fateh, for the purpose of seizing Idlib, the provincial capital of the highly strategic Idlib Province. On Saturday 28 March Jaysh al Fateh's 'Army of Conquest', comprising some 1500 fighters from Jabhat al-Nusra (al-Qaeda's affiliate in Syria), Ahrar al-Sham and five other groups entered and seized the city of Idlib. Their success was due in part to suicide-bombings and because the rebels have acquired armoured vehicles, plus at least two American TOW anti-tank missiles which they deployed against the Syrian Army with great effect. Reportedly, the Syrian government now controls only about ten percent of Idlib Province. This is a huge win for al-Qaeda. Aleppo (the jewel in the crown) is now wedged between al-Qaeda in Idlib and Islamic State (IS) in Raqqa, and risks being cut off from Damascus. Al-Qaeda and IS might have their differences, but not regarding how they treat Christians. The situation in the north-west is extremely critical. Please pray.

HASEKAH, NORTH-EAST SYRIA
click on map to enlarge

Before Islamic State fighters raided the Assyrian villages on the Khabour River on 23 February [see RLPB 298 (24 Feb)] some 8000 Assyrians still lived in the Hasekah heartland. [Hasekah is contiguous with northern Iraq's Nineveh province.] Now they number less than 2000 and are dwindling quickly. Many are displaced and taking refuge in the provincial capital of Hasekah city. A Christian militia comprising some 450 Assyrian men  (photo) has been formed to defend the remnant. Whilst they have the support of some Kurdish fighters, nobody else is helping them.
source photo:Reuters
Turkey has sealed the border and IS fighters have besieged the Syrian border town of Qamishli, which now hosts some 100 Assyrian families displaced from the Khabour River region. More than 200 Assyrian Christians remain in IS captivity. An official with the Syriac Union party, Sanhareb Barsom, describes the situation as 'catastrophic'. 'These people have broken down,' he said. 'Their emotional state is very bad because some of the families have had members taken captive by Daesh [IS].' Please pray.

'Be merciful to me, O God, be merciful to me, for in you my soul takes refuge; in the shadow of your wings I will take refuge, till the storms of destruction pass by.  I cry out to God Most High, to God who fulfils his purpose for me.' (Psalm 57:1,2 ESV)

Note: In the light of our Easter Reflection, it is significant to note that in November 2013 United Bible Societies reported that Scripture distribution was increasing markedly in 'persecution hotspots'. The highest increase was recorded in war-torn Syria, where Scripture distribution had increased eight-fold during 2012. The persecuted Church is on the front-line of an intensive spiritual battle -- it needs all the help we can give it. And so we pray, but not as those without hope.

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Elizabeth Kendal is the author of
Turn Back the Battle: Isaiah Speaks to Christians Today 
(Deror Books, Dec 2012).



Tuesday, March 24, 2015

RLPB 302, March Update, Incl. India, Iran, Pakistan, Iraq, Libya, Mexico, Nigeria, Syria

Religious Liberty Prayer Bulletin | RLPB 302 | Wed 25 Mar 2015

By Elizabeth Kendal

"Bear one another's burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ." (Galatians 6:2 ESV)

MARCH 2015 UPDATE -- During March we prayed concerning ...

* INDIA (RLPB 299), where Hindu nationalism is turning India into a tinderbox of sectarian tension.

MOTIVATED BY HATE AND IMPUNITY

click on map to enlarge
Early on Saturday 14 March a group of around eight men broke into the Convent of Jesus and Mary School at Ranaghat, Nadia District, in the Indian state of West Bengal. Because the attackers reportedly fled into Bangladesh -- and may indeed be Bangladeshis -- the federal Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) is handling the investigation. Christian leaders told Morning Star News they are convinced the attack was not random and that convent was targeted precisely because it is a Christian institution.

The attackers held a pistol to the guard's head, tied him up and entered the convent at 2:30am. They can be identified as their faces were caught on CCTV security cameras. After disconnecting the phone lines they proceeded to loot the school of US$19,255. Instead of leaving with the loot, the attackers proceeded upstairs into the nun's quarters where they demanded to see the most senior sister, whom they gagged and violently pack-raped for over an hour. They then proceeded to ransack the offices systematically and desecrate the chapel. The 72-year-old nun who was raped was taken to hospital in a serious condition. On 20 March she was flown out to an unknown location. 'My heart is broken,' said the nun, who also said she forgave her attackers. This was a robbery and a hate crime. Knowing that Christians can be attacked with impunity doubtless also contributed to the target selection. Pray for an end to impunity. Pray for the Church in India.

* IRAN (RLPB 300), where ascendant Iran's strategic power is acting as a cover for the state's systematic persecution of Christians.

UPDATE / CORRECTION: Middle East Concern reports that the charges leading to Behnam Irani's six-year sentence in remote Zabol were dropped on appeal on 15 December 2014. Behnam Irani remains in Ghezal Hesar Prison in Karaj and is due for release in 2017. Praise God for courageous, faithful, principled lawyers like Moshkani Farahani; may the Lord have mercy on him and bless him. Pray for Behnam Irani and the other Christian prisoners; may the Lord sustain and bless them.

* PAKISTAN (RLPB 301), after suicide bombers from the Pakistani Taliban targeted two churches in Youhanabad, the largest Christian colony in Lahore.

UPDATE: ADDING FUEL TO THE FIRE
As noted in RLPB 301, in the wake of the twin bombings youths from Youhanabad violently lynched two Muslim youths they believed had been involved in the terror attacks. It was a terrible and deeply unfortunate turn of events, triggered (but not justified) by the extreme level of insecurity that all Christians (devout and nominal) have to live with on a daily basis. Such insecurity can drive people paranoid with anxiety. Instead of focusing on the trigger (the bombings and insecurity), Interior Minister Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan called for 'tolerance' and focused on the lynchings, describing them as 'the worst form of terrorism'. He minimised the bombings by saying such incidents occur all over the world, while noting, 'A similar incident occurred right in the heart of Paris where a synagogue was attacked. But the minority Jews did not react violently in the French capital.' Thus Pakistani Christians are worse than the Jews, a statement that anti-Semitic Islamic jihadist forces would doubtless interpret as justification or even as incitement. Social media subsequently ran hot with anti-Christian hatred. Pray for the traumatised and exceedingly vulnerable Church in Pakistan.

MARCH 2015 ROUND-UP -- also this month ...

* IRAQ: DISEASE HITS DISPLACED CHRISTIANS 
source AINA

In August 2014  IS (formerly ISIS) overran Qaraqosh and other Assyrian towns in the Nineveh Plains, displacing well over 130,000 Christians. Some 70,000 displaced Assyrians now live in Erbil, the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan. In Ankawa, an Assyrian district in Erbil, a Christian businessman opened his building site up to displaced Christians. Now 420 families comprising some 1,800 displaced Christians live in the unfinished shopping mall. Everything is in short supply and life is difficult. The Assyrian International News Agency (AINA) reports that chicken pox, lice and scabies have broken out now in the complex. Like other displaced Christians (such as those in Sudan) these believers were driven from their homes precisely because they are Christians. May the Lord sustain and provide for all displaced believers.

* LIBYA: ASIAN AND EUROPEAN MEDICAL STAFF UNABLE TO LEAVE
On 16 March at least 30 IS gunmen abducted some 20 foreign medical workers from the Ibn Sina Hospital in IS-controlled Sirte. The hospital had come under attack and the medical workers, who were in the process of evacuating, were seized as they attempted to board a bus for Tripoli. The medical workers -- reportedly from the Philippines, Ukraine, India and Serbia -- appear to be the last foreign medical workers in Sirte. They were all released unharmed after they agreed to stay in Sirte and treat wounded IS jihadists. Pray for all Christians in Libya.

* MEXICO: PROTESTANTS UNDER PRESSURE
Protestants in Mexico can face serious pressure from often-syncretistic Roman Catholics who view Protestantism as non-traditional, foreign, divisive and problematic. Pressure can include denial of services and even expulsion from their village. One group of Protestants expelled from Buenavista Bahuitz village in Chiapas State in 2012 received assurances from the government on 1 December 2014 that their rights would be protected. Yet when they returned to Buenavista Bahuitz in January they were denied access and are now displaced again and living in the Jesus is the Way Church in Tuxtla Gutierrez, the capital of Chiapas. Furthermore, Christian Solidarity Worldwide reports that on 12 March Casto Hernandez Hernandez and his cousin Juan Placido Hernandez, both Protestant Christians in Hidalgo State, were arbitrarily imprisoned in appalling conditions for 30 hours and then expelled from their community, along with their families, after refusing to renounce their religious beliefs. Despite religious freedom being a constitutional right, state authorities rarely intervene. Pray for the Catholic Church to intervene in defence of religious freedom. Pray for Mexico's Protestant Christians.

* NIGERIAN PRESIDENTIAL ELECTION ON SATURDAY 28 MARCH 
Nigeria's presidential election will be held on Saturday 28 March. Whilst there are 14 candidates, it is really a 'two-horse race' too close to call. If a second round of voting were to be needed, it would be held within seven days of the result being announced.  President Jonathan's bid for re-election is controversial, as he (a Christian from the south-south / Niger Delta) effectively inherited the presidency during the Muslim north's turn to hold power and many believe he should not be running. A win by Muhammadu Buhari could see the ruling PDP lose power for the first time since Nigeria returned to democracy in 1999.  If Jonathan wins, northern Muslims will be angry. If Buhari wins, the militants in the Niger Delta will be angry. Whatever happens, the result will doubtless be challenged and there is a high probability of violence. Boko Haram has been driven out of all but three Local Government Areas (LGAs), but not primarily by the Nigerian Army, as most of the 'heavy lifting' has reportedly been done by mercenaries and the regional military coalition [see RLPB 296 (10 Feb 2015)]. Any insecurity in the north-east could put the election result in doubt. Please pray for the Church in Nigeria.

* SYRIA: BATTLES RAGE IN WEST

While Western politicians and the media remain firmly focused on IS and its threat to Iraq, al-Qaeda's Jabhat al-Nusra is still fighting in western Syria, destroying cultural heritage and targeting minorities. Jabhat al-Nusra and IS do not differ in their treatment of 'infidels', they differ only in their treatment of Muslims. The Syrian government is engaged in fierce battles in Aleppo and Idlib Provinces [both border Turkey] where jihadists have razed archaeological sites, smashed Byzantine cemeteries, blown up churches, looted antiquities and are targeting the Assyrian/Syriac and Armenian communities. The well-armed rebels are shelling government-held areas of Aleppo and have launched an offensive to seize Idlib. Existentially threatened Christian communities are especially concerned that neo-Ottoman Turkey is training and arming the jihadists and are dismayed that the West is also. The situation for Christians in Syria is just as threatening as the situation for Christians in Iraq. Please pray.

* SYRIA: CAPTIVES IN THE NORTH-EAST 
Well over 200 Assyrian Christians seized by IS from their villages on the Khabour River in Hasseka in February, remain in captivity. [See RLPB 298, (24 Feb 2105)] Please pray.

"It is better to take refuge in the Lord than to trust in man. It is better to take refuge in the Lord than to trust in princes." (Psalm 118:8-9 ESV)

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Elizabeth Kendal is the author of
Turn Back the Battle: Isaiah Speaks to Christians Today 
(Deror Books, Dec 2012).