Wednesday, July 13, 2005

It's hard to 'stan' up when someone's pushing you down

Some of the worst government-sanctioned persecution of Christians has taken place in the former Soviet Islamic republics. Reports have come from Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan (along with non-former-Soviet 'stans' Pakistan and Afghanistan).

Despite, in most cases, there being 'freedom of religion' in these countries, groups other than Muslim, or in some cases Orthodox churches, are required to register. Those who do not refuse to register on principal find themselves unable to register. In many cases, the State requires a minimum of people to be involved -- usually more than 100 (in Turkmenistan it requires more than 500 adult members (my home church wouldn't even qualify!)).

Since these groups are often basically just house churches, they don't meet this criteria and cannot be registered. If they continue to meet as unregistered churches, they face physical and legal harassment, including fines, arrest, loss of their employment or even the possibility of being beaten by officials (or non-officials) or having homes destroyed. The fines, in particular, may not seem very large by western standards (between US$25 and US$60 at street exchange rates -- more if the "official government rate" is used), but can constitute a week or month's salary. Average monthly wages in Turkmenistan, for instance, come in at around US$30.

Turkmenistan is actually a rather interesting case in its own right. Resistance to religion there is based in no small part on the leader of the country, President for Life Saparmurat Niyazov, who is known as the Turkmenbashi. The cult of personality the Turkmenbashi has created will be familiar to anyone even remotely familiar with Saddam-era Iraq. But Niyazov has taken it one step further. He built a gold statue of himself. Australia Broadcasting Network Foreign Correspondent Peter Lloyd describes it like this:

"A statue, which always rotates to face the sun. Ashgabat is little more than a dictator’s Disneyland. And what makes this city all the more surreal is the fact that so few people actually live in it, most of the four and a half million people live in rural Turkmenistan, beyond those hills. But it’s a select few who have the President’s permission to be seen and heard." (Read more here.)

And in addition, the President for Life, not content with the Bible or the Koran, has written his own "holy book" -- the Ruhknama. It is required reading for anyone in Turkmenistan's schools. Or anyone who wants a driver's license. And anyone else not in these categories.

Sadly, despite the obvious and less-obvious human rights violations in Turkmenistan, the American government's interest in Turkmenistan begins and ends with the oil and natural gas reserves under the country's deserts.

Please consider writing Ambassador Tracey Jacobson (address at bottom of page) about the treatment of Christians in Turkmenistan.

Particular note for today:


Uzbekistan, a Central Asian former Soviet state which is 90% Muslim, has a serious problem with organised political and militant Islam. Several Islamist groups aim to create an Islamic state across Central Asia. When Islamic militancy escalated in the 1990s, the government responded with more control and repression of religion, without differentiating between political, militant Islam and all other religion. Uzbekistan's tiny Christian minority (1.3%, mostly Protestant) suffers as a result. Churches cannot register, legal churches are harassed and closed, witness is banned, Bibles are confiscated, pastors are charged with illegally teaching religion, Christians are charged with illegally meeting together. Torture is routine in Uzbek prisons. Christian converts from Islam are persecuted by Muslim society. Please pray for political reform and religious liberty in Uzbekistan and for Christ's suffering Church there.

(Credit: Evangelical Alliance - Religious Liberty Commission)

Thursday, July 07, 2005

And In Further News ...

I've been following and publicizing (to the best of my ability and as the Lord wills) the laws and events against and triumphs of the Persecuted Church since the late 90s. It's a frustrating work -- the indifference is overwhelming (and that's just the Western church!). You do what you can; publish a web site (which I did -- the late, hopefully lamented Brother's Keeper), write letters to leaders, to the imprisoned, to media outlets and whatever else comes up.

The apathy of media outlets (or perhaps the outright hostility) is the most frustrating thing, I think. So much could be done if only people could read or hear about what's going on. Most of the things that happen just get ignored; if something does make it into the newspaper, it's either by accident, or because a Westerner was involved. And while an incident might just be barely important enough to notice, it's usually not deemed important enough to place where someone might actually see and read it.

For example, about 3 years ago or so, several aid workers were shot in an office in Pakistan. (Check the second story down). My local paper, the Cleveland Plain Dealer carried about one-and-a-half column inches -- on the back left lower corner of the front section. I'm only surprised I noticed it.

Or, as another example -- roughly three months ago, the media became aware of the situation in Darfur in the Sudan. If you weren't aware of the ongoing situation in the Sudan, you might have been shocked and dismayed to learn about the raids and massacre. What they didn't tell you was that this was nothing new. For more than 15 years, the Islamic north has been making war on the Christian and Animist South, starving them by withholding aid and raiding them for children who are enslaved and often forcibly converted to Islam by their masters. Don't take my word for it. Here's a report from Human Rights Watch from 1995. It hasn't gotten substantially better -- it just took a Darfur to get someone's attention -- although not for long. When's the last time you heard a news report about Darfur?

It isn't as though there are no reliable sources for these stories. When I started Brother's Keeper in 1997, there were only a few outlets -- mostly ministries like Open Doors and Voice of the Martyr, who had been fighting the good fight almost unnoticed. Now there are literally dozens: ministries, yes, but also journalists, human rights organizations and groups devoted specifically to a country or people. If the stories aren't being covered by the mainstream media, the only reason is that they don't care. And if the Western church isn't speaking out to protest this, then what is our excuse? In Hebrews 13:3, the Apostle Paul commanded us:

"Remember them that are in bonds, as bound with them; [and] them which suffer adversity, as being yourselves also in the body. " (KJV)

I have heard people say they hate to hear about these things because they feel helpless. No believer in Christ is ever helpless. If you aren't in a position to do anything else, you can always pray. When we hear from the battlefield where our brothers and sisters in Christ face oppression, it is our prayers they covet more than anything else.

So find out what's going on. Visit the links on the side. Subscribe to Forum 18 or Assist News. Read this blog. And then pray. Write letters, send faxes or e-mail. Send aid, as the Lord provides. But do something. There's no excuse not to. Even if you won't hear about it in the media.

Wednesday, July 06, 2005

You can be Eritrean, just not Evangelical

The government of Eritrea has taken the bold step in recent years of deciding doctrinal issues for Christians. How thoughtful.

In a law passed in 2002, the Eritrean government closed down all Christian churches which aren't Catholic, Evangelical Lutheran or Orthodox. Islam is also still permitted -- although that may show nothing more than an exquisitely developed sense of preservation on the government's part.

Following the passage of this law, the arrests began. It is estimated that approximately 500 Evangelical Christians are presently detained in police stations, underground cells and packing containers. [It is worth noting that here in the U.S. a year or so ago, anger and outrage were aroused when 15 people trying to sneak into the country from Mexico were held in a packing container and died. That is indeed terrible. However, there are more than 10 times that many being detained in Eritrea. Where is the outrage over that? Want to discuss this, Bono?]

You can read more about this on the website of Release Eritrea!. They get down to cases, so if you feel inclined to write letters to the Eritrean leadership, you have names to give them.



Tuesday, July 05, 2005

Pakistan, again

It is frustrating to hear Pakistan lauded to the skies for allying with the United States concerning the War in Iraq. Over the past several years, Pakistan has passed (and subsequently intended to change -- which they haven't, so far) a law that made sharing the Gospel equivalent to maligning Mohammed, imprisoned several folks for converting and generally made the lives of believers in its borders miserable.

Voice of the Martyrs
(VOM) reports that Christian homes near Peshawar have been attacked by radical Muslims. (Story here.) This is hardly the first time this sort of action has occurred and probably won't be the last. But it is painful to know that the United States government is unconcerned by this sort of behavior on the part of our erstwhile allies (it's hard to believe they're unaware of it) .

On the other hand, we routinely close our eyes to this behavior among the Saudis, so perhaps I shouldn't be surprised after all.