Tuesday, September 19, 2017

RLPB 424. Iraq: Assyrians request prayer as Kurds 'play with fire'

Religious Liberty Prayer Bulletin | RLPB 424 | Wed 20 Sep 2017

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IRAQ: ASSYRIANS REQUEST PRAYER AS KURDS 'PLAY WITH FIRE'
plus Update -- Afghanistan: Finnish aid worker released
        Update -- Philippines: Father Suganob rescued

by Elizabeth Kendal

Assyrians return to Qaraqosh
Palm Sunday 2017
Report and images: Open Doors
Assyrians are the indigenous people of Northern Iraq and a Christian nation. Between June and August 2014, ISIS drove more than 130,000 Assyrians from their homes in Mosul and the Nineveh Plains. Traumatised and destitute, most found refuge in Iraqi Kurdistan, primarily in Dohuk (to the north) and Erbil, the Kurdish capital (to the east). This year, a coalition led by the Iraqi Army and aided by Popular Mobilisation Units (PMUs: mostly Iranian-led Shi'ite militias), US-backed Kurdish peshmerger forces and Assyrian units have succeeded in liberating Mosul and much of the Nineveh Plains. As Assyrians tentatively trickle back into their towns and villages, they do so with the hope that the Nineveh Plains might one day be an autonomous entity within the state of Iraq. The last thing they want is to fall victim to a Kurdish land grab, or to find themselves caught in the middle of another war.

Unless there is a miracle, the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) will hold a referendum on independence on Monday 25 September. Though the anticipated 'Yes' vote will not trigger an automatic declaration of independence, it is expected to lead to official negotiations. Analysts suspect that KRG President Massoud Barzani's goal is not independence, but leverage to aid negotiations over revenue sharing (more money), further devolution of power (more power) and the demarcation of Iraqi Kurdistan's borders (more land). However, as Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi commented on 16 September, the Kurds are 'playing with fire'.

The Nineveh Plains region
(Assyrian heartland)
is marked with a Cross. 
Talk of Kurdish independence has sent tensions soaring inside Iraq and across the region. Eager to expand its borders, the KRG aims to include 'disputed territories' in the referendum, including oil-rich Kirkuk and the Nineveh Plains. Despite pressure from Kurd and pro-Kurd authorities, most Assyrians oppose the referendum and do not want their lands included. Fearing Shi'ite power, Nineveh's Sunni Arabs support Kurdish independence and do want to be included. In a move destined to destabilise the whole region, oil-rich Kirkuk (controlled by Baghdad until Kurdish forces seized it in the chaos of August 2014) will participate. The Iraqi Government, Iran and the Shi'ite militias oppose the referendum, the break-up of Iraq and Kurdish annexation of Kirkuk. Meanwhile, Turkey, Iran and Syria oppose the referendum as it could embolden their own restive Kurdish minorities. The pro-Kurdish US is opposed to the referendum as it will weaken Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi to the benefit of Iran ahead of the April 2018 general elections. Many Kurds too are opposed to the referendum because they sense this is simply not the right time for such a provocative move.

Aware that the referendum could trigger a new conflict, Turkey, Iran, the US and the UN have been lobbying KRG President Massoud Barzani to cancel or postpone the referendum indefinitely, to no avail. On Sunday 17 September the KRG's High Referendum Council, headed by Barzani, voted to reject the US-backed alternative and press ahead with the 25 September referendum as planned.

Chaldean Patriarch Louis Raphael Sako has issued an urgent appeal, calling on Erbil and Baghdad to 'resume dialogue with courage'.  He laments that 'some have already started beating the war drums', noting, 'If there were a new military conflict, the consequences would be disastrous for everyone, and minorities would always be the ones to pay a high price ...' He said, 'Everyone should be aware of the seriousness of the situation and hurry to support national reconciliation and peace before it is too late.'

[A more detailed version of this report can be found on Religious Liberty Monitoring (20 Sept).]


MAY OUR ALMIGHTY AND MERCIFUL GOD:

* intervene in Iraq for the benefit of his precious long-suffering people; may peace reign and the highly controversial and provocative referendum on Kurdish independence be indefinitely postponed; may 'courageous dialogue' be the order of the day.

'Ah, Lord God! It is you who have made the heavens and the earth by your great power and by your outstretched arm! Nothing is too hard for you.' (From Jeremiah's prayer in Jeremiah 32:16-25 ESV)

* surround and watch over his imperilled Church; may all God's children be secure. 'Keep me as the apple of your eye; hide me in the shadow of your wings.' (Psalm 17:8 ESV)

* guard and preserve the Assyrian and Christian heartland of the Nineveh Plains for the Assyrian people.  'In that day Israel will be the third with Egypt and Assyria, a blessing in the midst of the earth, whom the Lord of hosts has blessed, saying, "Blessed be Egypt my people, and Assyria the work of my hands, and Israel my inheritance." ' (Promise in Isaiah 19:24-25 ESV)

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Update -- Afghanistan: The unnamed Finnish aid worker taken hostage in Kabul in May [see RLPB 409 (31 May)] was released on 14 September.

Father Teresito 'Chito' Suganob
alive and free (photo: Ted Aljibe/AFP)
Update -- Philippines: Late on 16 September Philippine soldiers overran Marawi's Bato mosque, clearing its many tunnels and secret chambers and rescuing two hostages: Father Teresito 'Chito' Suganob (51) and a male school teacher surnamed Acopio (29).  The jihadists still hold around 40 mostly Christian hostages [see RLPB 421 (30 Aug)]. Please continue to pray.


SUMMARY FOR BULLETINS UNABLE TO RUN THE WHOLE ARTICLE
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ASSYRIANS IN IRAQ REQUEST PRAYER AS KURDS 'PLAY WITH FIRE'

Between June and August 2014, some 130,000 Assyrian Christians were driven from their homes in Mosul and the Nineveh Plains by ISIS. Most found refuge in Iraqi Kurdistan. Now as their lands are liberated, Assyrians are trickling back into their towns and villages. However, talk of Kurdish independence has sent tensions soaring. Christians fear the Kurds will seize the Assyrian heartland of the Nineveh Plains. The Iraqi Government, Turkey, Iran and essentially all Shi'ites have vowed to stop the Kurds annexing oil-rich Kirkuk. Chaldean Patriarch Louis Raphael Sako's urgent appeal is for 'courageous dialogue'. Lamenting that 'some have already started beating the war drums', he appeals for peace, noting war would be 'disastrous', especially for minorities who, as usual, would 'pay a high price'. Please pray for Iraq and its Christians.

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Elizabeth Kendal is an international religious liberty analyst and advocate. She serves as Director of Advocacy at Canberra-based Christian Faith and Freedom (CFF), and is an Adjunct Research Fellow at the Arthur Jeffery Centre for the Study of Islam at Melbourne School of Theology.

She has authored two books: Turn Back the Battle: Isaiah Speaks to Christians Today (Deror Books, Melbourne, Australia, Dec 2012) which offers a Biblical response to persecution and existential threat; and, After Saturday Comes Sunday: Understanding the Christian Crisis in the Middle East (Wipf and Stock, Eugene, OR, USA, June 2016).

See www.ElizabethKendal.com

Tuesday, September 12, 2017

RLPB 423. North Korea: Talks the Only Option

Religious Liberty Prayer Bulletin | RLPB 423 | Wed 13 Sep 2017

Please forward this prayer bulletin widely, and encourage others to sign up to the Religious Liberty Prayer Bulletin blog. "The prayer of a righteous person is powerful and effective." (James 5:16 NIV)


NORTH KOREA: TALKS THE ONLY OPTION
plus China Update: Gao Zhisheng
plus Yemen Update: Father Tom Uzhunnalil

by Elizabeth Kendal

As noted in RLPB 403 (19 April), 'North Korea will not willingly disarm, but will retain its weapons program for the purpose of deterrence.' After all, the regime saw what happened in 2003 to Iraq's Saddam Hussein (who did not have a nuclear deterrent), and in 2011 to Libya's Muammar Gaddafi (who had relinquished all his nuclear weapons). In both cases, the West facilitated regime change, ensuring these former allies fell into the hands of their enemies: Saddam was executed by Shi'ite forces, whilst Gaddafi was brutalised to death by al-Qaeda-linked jihadists. Both countries were essentially destroyed. Russian President Vladimir Putin said as much last week. While he condemned North Korea's nuclear provocations, President Putin rejected the idea that UN sanctions were a solution. 'Sanctions of any kind,' he said, 'are useless and ineffective in this case ... [The North Koreans] will eat grass, but they will not abandon this [nuclear] program unless they feel safe.'

Sanctions will not work, but neither can there be a military solution for as the US Defense Department and everyone in the region knows, the cost to South Korea -- in lives and infrastructure -- would be absolutely catastrophic. Though war is not an option, on Sunday 10 September US Senator John McCain called for Washington to ratchet up the pressure by stepping up its presence in the region to 'make sure that Kim Jong-un knows that if he acts in an aggressive fashion, the price will be extinction.' Such language would surely cause considerable distress to millions of Christians around the world who don't want to see North Korea's long-suffering remnant Church obliterated in US 'fire and fury'.   

North Korea in the dark
(Satellite image) click on map to enlarge
If sanctions are not the solution and war is out of the question, what are we left with? It leaves us with the possibility of returning to six-party talks (North Korea, South Korea, Japan, China, Russia and the USA). Ultimately, what the Kim regime wants is a bi-lateral treaty with the USA: one that recognises North Korea as a nuclear power, taking regime change off the table. North Korea also wants to be recognised as a sovereign independent state, taking reunification off the table (at least for the foreseeable future). Some analysts insist the crisis (most of which is theatre and posturing) is approaching its 'end game' and that resolution and dialogue, not war, will be the outcome. That said, the situation remains incredibly volatile -- an angry or accidental slip could jeopardise everything.

photos by Eric Lafforgue
Should a resolution be reached, South Korea, China and Russia (i.e. North Korea's neighbours) are ready to invest in such a way as to facilitate North Korea's economic development. This is critical, for North Korea cannot truly open up to the world until it has radically improved the living standards of its people. Hence the endless balancing act: when risk is perceived to be high, repression and belligerence are extreme; however, when risk is perceived to be low, engagement and reform inch tentatively forward. There really is no alternative to returning to the days of inching forward. South Korea's new President Moon Jae-in, who has a grandmother alive in the North, is eager to re-establish dialogue and co-operation, as are Russia and China. However, the Kim regime will not negotiate until the US concedes that North Korea is indeed a nuclear power (hence the endless missile tests). Even if talks resume, treaties are signed and normalisation occurs, it will be many years before North Korea can truly open up to the outside world without risking collapse. What is more important though is that conditions inside North Korea improve, including the issue of religious freedom for the long-suffering North Korean Church.


PLEASE PRAY SPECIFICALLY FOR GOD TO:

* preserve, protect, bless and strengthen the long-suffering North Korean Church – both the Church in the labour camps and the Church deep 'underground'.

* intervene in the Korean crisis creatively, according to his wisdom, to fulfil his good purposes, that ultimately North Korea's faithful remnant Church might be liberated to worship freely, to be salt and light and yeast in society, and to bring healing to the North.

'Lift up your heads, O gates! And lift them up, O ancient doors, that the King of glory may come in.' From Psalm 24

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Further reading on North Korea:
by Elizabeth Kendal, Religious Liberty Monitoring
North Korea: Belligerence vs 'Smart Policy' (19 Feb 2014)
North Korea: Positive Changes (24 Aug 2007)
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CHINA UPDATE: It has been confirmed that Christian human rights lawyer Gao Zhisheng, who had been reported 'missing' [RLPB 421 (30 Aug)], is in police custody in Beijing. Analysts expect he will remain in custody until after the week-long Chinese Communist Party's 19th Congress, which commences on 18 October.
Father Tom in Oman
(Deccan Herald)

YEMEN UPDATE: Father Tom Uzhunnalil, kidnapped by jihadists in Yemen in March 2016 [see RLPB 386 (27 July 2016)], was released from captivity on 12 September, after the Indian and Omani governments secured his release. He is currently in Rome, where he will spend a few days before returning to his home in Kerala, India. Praise God for this mercy.


SUMMARY FOR BULLETINS UNABLE TO RUN THE WHOLE ARTICLE
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TALKS WITH NORTH KOREA ARE THE ONLY OPTION

North Korea will not abandon its nuclear weapons program. Sanctions will not work and a military solution is untenable as the impact on South Korea would be catastrophic. The only option is dialogue. However, the Kim regime will not negotiate until the US concedes that North Korea is a nuclear power. The regime maintains that nuclear deterrence is essential if North Korea is to be spared US-backed regime change. Many analysts believe the crisis is approaching its 'end game' and that dialogue, not war, will be the outcome. Whilst it would be many years before North Korea could open up to the outside world without risking collapse, the situation inside North Korea could improve considerably over time. Please pray for North Korea and its long-suffering Church in the labour camps and 'underground'.

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Elizabeth Kendal is an international religious liberty analyst and advocate. She serves as Director of Advocacy at Canberra-based Christian Faith and Freedom (CFF), and is an Adjunct Research Fellow at the Arthur Jeffery Centre for the Study of Islam at Melbourne School of Theology.


She has authored two books: Turn Back the Battle: Isaiah Speaks to Christians Today (Deror Books, Melbourne, Australia, Dec 2012) which offers a Biblical response to persecution and existential threat; and, After Saturday Comes Sunday: Understanding the Christian Crisis in the Middle East (Wipf and Stock, Eugene, OR, USA, June 2016).

See www.ElizabethKendal.com