Lenten Focus: Palestinian Territories

For more on my Lenten Focus, see my Ash Wednesday post. A quick summary is that I am spending Lent fasting and praying for the Persecuted Church, and I invite you to join me.

Nativity_Church_in_Bethlehem_Christmas_Eve_2006

Nativity Church in Bethlehem, 2006. Photo: Wikipedia

 

The Palestinian Territories are number 26 on Open Doors’ World Watch List, and are classified as a area of moderate persecution.

From Voice of the Martyrs:

Gaza Strip — This small territory in southwestern Israel lies along the Mediterranean Sea and borders Egypt. It is one of the most densely populated areas of the world, with over 1.5 million people. Hamas, which is both a political movement and an Islamist terrorist organization, has controlled the Gaza Strip since 2007. Renewed conflicts led to calls for peace talks in 2014, but tensions continue. Israel and Egypt block almost all exports from Gaza and restrict imports, which has had severe economic ramifications. More than 70 percent of Gaza’s population lives in poverty and receives humanitarian assistance, and the U.N. reports that it provides food aid to nearly 800,000 people.

West Bank — This territory lies in eastern Israel and borders Jordan and the Dead Sea. More than 2.5 million people live in the West Bank, and 80 percent are Palestinian Arabs. The Palestinian Authority exercises control of the West Bank, but Jewish settlements and Israeli military authorities control some areas within the territory as well

There are an estimated 8,000 Palestinian Arab evangelical believers, with 1,400 of those in the West Bank and 300 in Gaza. In general, the government structures attempt to provide freedom of religious beliefs, although Sharia law is used in both the West Bank and in Gaza. … Both Arab and Jewish believers are persecuted and harassed, sometimes violently. Muslim extremists periodically persecute Arab Christians, particularly those from Muslim backgrounds. Authorities have been known to tell Christian converts to leave their communities to avoid harassment and persecution. Although some churches meet openly in the West Bank, the situation for Arab Christians is more oppressive in rural villages of the West Bank and in Gaza.

Prayer Points from Open Doors:

  • For the many women in Israeli and Palestinian areas who suffer trauma from violence because of war and persecution because of their gender
  • For students at the Bethlehem Bible College preparing for Christian ministry and leadership
  • For the church in Gaza, as many are still suffering from the war in 2014

Great Cloud of Witnesses: The First Martyr

For more on my Lenten Focus, see my Ash Wednesday post. A quick summary is that I am spending Lent fasting and praying for the Persecuted Church, and I invite you to join me.

Rembrandt_Harmensz._van_Rijn_150

For Sundays during Lent, I thought I’d look at some of the examples of the faith from Church history. As the author of Hebrews, after listing the the heroes of the faith in Chapter 11, writes in chapter 12, “Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God.”

Stephen was the first martyr after Jesus’ Ascension*.  Stephen was one of the seven men appointed to make sure all those in need were cared for. Acts describes him as “full of faith and the Holy Spirit.” When he was accused of blasphemy, he used his audience with the high priest as an opportunity to preach the gospel, starting with Abraham. Basically, he told the most learned and esteemed men in his culture their own history through the lens of the Gospel of Jesus, condemning them for rejecting Him. It did not go well.

Now when they heard these things they were enraged, and they ground their teeth at him. But he, full of the Holy Spirit, gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God. And he said, “Behold, I see the heavens opened, and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God.” But they cried out with a loud voice and stopped their ears and rushed together at him. Then they cast him out of the city and stoned him. And the witnesses laid down their garments at the feet of a young man named Saul. And as they were stoning Stephen, he called out, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” And falling to his knees he cried out with a loud voice, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” And when he had said this, he fell asleep.

(Acts 7:54-60 ESV)

A few things strike me as I read through Acts 6 and 7. First, Stephen’s boldness and fearlessness always amaze me. He was bold in preaching and bold when he was brought before the high priest.  Also, he had obviously prepared himself to defend his faith. He gave an orderly, logical defense that was crafted for his audience. That means he had considered the possibility that his activities would result in him being arrested, and knew he’d use the opportunity to preach the gospel.

But the other thing that strikes me is that martyrdom is there at the very beginning of the Church. Especially for the Western Church, we consider persecution to be an anomaly, but I’m not sure either scripture or history supports that view. Rather, it is we who have been living the anomaly. It is the normal order of things that believers would suffer for their faith. Persecution is to be expected, and God gives us instruction on how to respond to persecution and a model to follow in Stephen and others. As we pray for the Persecuted Church, we should pray that they would respond in the manner Jesus has set forth, and we should pray that we would be prepared to do the same.

*One might say John the Baptist was the first martyr of the Church, or even Abel. So I’m just saying he was the first martyr after the Ascension, which is accurate, as far as can be ascertained by the written record.

Lenten Focus: the Destruction of Churches

For more on my Lenten Focus, see my Ash Wednesday post. A quick summary is that I am spending Lent fasting and praying for the Persecuted Church, and I invite you to join me.

Mosul

In focusing on the destruction of churches, I don’t want to suggest that these losses are on par with the violence done against humans.  As C.S. Lewis wrote, “There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal. Nations, cultures, arts, civilizations – these are mortal, and their life is to ours as the life of a gnat.”

But the attack on churches are certainly attacks on Christians. It’s an attempt to drive Christians from their homes and exile them from communities. And the pain Christians must feel seeing their places of worship destroyed–places that generations may have worshiped at, or that they’ve built with their own hands–must be devastating.

In Iraq, ISIS has destroyed countless churches, including an 1,800 year old church in Mosul. Throughout the Middle East, in Syria, Egypt, and many other nations churches are being attacked. Outside the Middle East–in places like Nigeria, India, and China– churches are also targets.

Christian holidays are an especially dangerous time, with attacks increasing as attention to Christianity increases. Enemies of the church seek to make the biggest statement, and attacking Christians at worship on their most holy day does that.

Pray for vulnerable Christians during Holy Week, for their safety and the safety of the buildings they call sacred.

 

Lenten Focus: Christians in Myanmar

For more on my Lenten Focus, see my Ash Wednesday post. A quick summary is that I am spending Lent fasting and praying for the Persecuted Church, and I invite you to join me.

Myanmar

Myanmar, also known as Burma, is number 25 on Open Door’s World Watch List. Recently, a burgeoning Buddhist Nationalist movement has made things even more dangerous for Christians.

From Voice of the Martyrs:

Burma (officially known as Myanmar) was ruled by an oppressive military junta for 49 years. Its economy is one of the least developed in the world, suffering from decades of mismanagement. Little wealth reaches the population. One of Burma’s major exports is heroin. In 2010, a flawed parliamentary election officially disbanded the junta but gave government positions to members of the former regime and heavily favored the military. Many of the human rights abuses perpetuated by the junta have continued under the new government. About 2 million people have fled the country, and an estimated 100,000 people remain internally displaced in the north because of armed conflict between the Burmese government and Kachin rebels. Burma has been designated a Country of Particular Concern by the USCIRF since 1999.

The Burmese government claims to support freedom of religion, but it banned independent house church activities in 2010. Religious groups face surveillance, imprisonment, discrimination, violence, destruction or desecration of property, and censorship of religious materials. The military targets Christians for forced labor, rape, intimidation and destruction of religious sites. The government also prohibits the import of Bibles in indigenous languages and retains legal authority to close unregistered Christian churches and seminaries. Christian minority groups, particularly the Karen and Chin ethnic groups, are singled out for the harshest treatment. In the last 10 years, more than 3,000 Christian villages have been burned.

Prayer points from Open Doors:

  • That Thein Sein, President of since 2011, will know Jesus Christ
  • For children from Christian families, who face constant disadvantages in education
  • That minority Christian groups such as the Chin will be kept safe from violence and ravages of war

 

 

 

Lenten Focus: Church in Djibouti

For more on my Lenten Focus, see my Ash Wednesday post. A quick summary is that I am spending Lent fasting and praying for the Persecuted Church, and I invite you to join me.

 

Djibouti_city_corner_building

Street corner in Djibouti. Photo: Wikipedia

Djibouti is a small country on the Horn of Africa surrounded by volatile neighbors. In one year, it moved from 46 to 24 on Open Doors World Watch List. As in much of Africa and the Middle East, life is becoming increasingly more difficult for Christians.

From Open Doors:

Djibouti, a small, poverty-stricken Muslim country, surrounded by Eritrea, Ethiopia, Somalia and the Gulf of Aden, jumped 22 spots on the 2015 WWL. There was a dramatic increase in the pressure on Christians in 2014. Islamic radicalism is growing, and this is parallel to other East African countries and other nearby countries like Yemen and Somalia. Located at a very strategic location of the Gulf of Aden, Djibouti has been a transit for many radical jihadists who leave their footprint behind. The country’s regime is very autocratic in nature. Different types of Christianity face different levels of pressure.

Prayer Points:

  • That the radical form of Islam will stop spreading and Christians will not be targeted
  • For Muslim Background Believers who face hostility from even their own families
  • That the spread of the gospel will continue through social media and satellite television

 

Lenten Focus: Egyptian Church

For more on my Lenten Focus, see my Ash Wednesday post. A quick summary is that I am spending Lent fasting and praying for the Persecuted Church, and I invite you to join me.

Egyptian

When 20 Egyptian Coptic Christians (and one man from Chad) were kidnapped and killed by ISIS earlier this year, Egyptians rallied around the Coptic community and the Egyptian government launched retaliatory strikes against ISIS. But despite this show of support, life is difficult for Christians in Egypt. Attacks on churches and Christians, including kidnapping and forced conversions of hundreds of Christian women and girls, have increased. Egypt is listed as a restricted nation and number 23 on Open Door’s World Watch List.

From Voice of the Martyrs:

Egypt had a majority Christian population for a thousand years before Islam became the dominant religion. In May 2012 elections, the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood Party gained control of both the legislature and the presidency. As the influence of the Muslim Brotherhood grew, killings, church attacks and abductions of women also increased. However, on July 3, 2013, the elected president, Muhammad Morsi, who was backed by the Muslim Brotherhood, was removed from power by the Egyptian military after more than 33 million protesters took to the streets. Egypt has been designated a Country of Particular Concern by the USCIRF for the last four years.

[While the officially Christians make up 12.8% of the population,] Christian leaders in Egypt believe that, including converts from Islam, the number of Christians in Egypt is closer to 20 percent. The persecution of Christians is most prevalent in Upper Egypt. The country has the largest population of Copts (Orthodox Christians) in the Middle East. Attacks on Coptic Christians have increased since Morsi’s removal from office in July 2013. In August 2013, authorities raided two pro-Morsi protest camps in Cairo, which incited a wave of attacks in which at least seven Copts were killed and more than 80 churches and over 1,000 Christian-owned businesses, homes and cars were destroyed. In October 2013, gunmen on a motorcycle opened fire at a wedding party, killing four Copts, including two sisters, ages 8 and 12. Radical Muslims have painted marks on Christian-owned businesses to indicate potential targets during attacks, and they have warned people not to purchase from Christians. Many Christian shop owners have been forced to close their shops. Sharia became the principal source of legislation in 1980. Since 2011, there has been an increase in blasphemy charges, in which the majority of those sentenced to prison terms are Christians. With a surge in kidnapping Christian women for marriage and forced conversion, Christian females of all ages have been forced to stay inside.

Pray Points from Open Doors:

  • For unity of all churches and that God would use Christians from all denominations to reach out to their neighbors in love
  • That radical Islamic groups would halt their campaign of creating chaos and destruction
  • That stability would return to the country and Christians will remain and not flee

Lenten Focus: Ethiopian Church

For more on my Lenten Focus, see my Ash Wednesday post. A quick summary is that I am spending Lent fasting and praying for the Persecuted Church, and I invite you to join me.

Ethiopia St. George

The Church of St. George built in the 12th Century.

The Church in Ethiopia is one of the oldest churches, and probably the first church established outside Judea and Samaria. We read about it’s founding in Acts 8 when an angel sent Philip to the Ethiopian eunuch on the road from Jerusalem to Gaza. But like most of North Africa, today it is plagued by political upheaval and instability, as well as violence from Islamic extremists.

From Voice of the Martyrs:

Ethiopia is Africa’s oldest independent country and is second largest in population. It is also one of the poorest, having suffered a series of famines in recent decades. Following a revolution in 1974, Ethiopia installed a socialist government that remained in power until 1991. Recently, Muslims have launched massive campaigns to Islamize Ethiopia by penetrating Christian areas with bribes and mosque-building programs. The government has taken a hardline approach against terrorism and Muslim extremists, dismissing and even jailing some imams, closing an Islamic school, and using government force to stop all protests. After the sudden death of the country’s powerful prime minister in August 2012, he was replaced by Deputy Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn, the first peaceful transition of power in decades.

Although Ethiopia is a predominantly Christian nation, Christians in Muslim areas often experience mistreatment and discrimination. The Ethiopian provinces of Arsi, Bale and Jima and the regional states of Harari and Somali are Muslim-dominated areas in which Christian activities are severely restricted; Christians have been imprisoned and killed in these areas. The government has warned citizens about increased militant attacks throughout Ethiopia, and a roadside bomb near Addis Ababa killed four people in November 2013. In the past, members of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church (EOC) have harassed evangelical Christians. The EOC’s influence reaches to government levels, and the state sometimes persecutes evangelicals. Increasingly, however, the Orthodox Church is working with the evangelical church.

Open Door’s Prayer Points:

  • For Muslim Background Believers who are under immense pressure for their refusal to return to Islam
  • The government is squeezing basic freedoms; pray that Christians will have the freedom to worship without threats from all sides
  • Pray that the rise in Islamic extremism will lessen in 2015 and Christians will reach out to those who are suffering persecution in silence

Lenten Focus: Christians in Turkmenistan

For more on my Lenten Focus, see my Ash Wednesday post. A quick summary is that I am spending Lent fasting and praying for the Persecuted Church, and I invite you to join me.

Turkmenistan
Researching and writing on William Tyndale has made me reflect on what a treasure it is to have access to the Bible and other spiritual literature in my own language. Not only was this not always the case for English speakers, there are those who currently don’t have access–either because there is no Bible in their language or because it is outlawed by their governments. Turkmen Christians fall in the later category where they are fined and even imprisoned for having Bibles.

From Voice of the Martyrs:

Turkmenistan has the smallest population and is the most closed country of the five former Soviet republics in Central Asia. Though it has a vast amount of natural gas reserves, the majority of the population remains impoverished. Freedom of religion is constitutionally guaranteed in Turkmenistan, but in practice it is limited to Sunni Islam and Eastern Orthodoxy. Foreigners suspected of religious activity are expelled. The USCIRF has designated Turkmenistan as a Country of Particular Concern since 2000.

The publication of religious literature inside the country is banned. The government controls Internet access and has shut down cellphone service. No unregistered religious groups or communities are allowed, and religious communities have been unable to register for years. However, both registered and unregistered religious groups face police raids and other harassment. Unregistered congregations are prohibited from gathering publicly, proselytizing or disseminating religious materials. Participants in house church services have been beaten, fined, had their personal property and businesses seized and faced salary reductions. Authorities have also warned Christians that their children will be kept under close scrutiny in school. A Turkmen Christian arrested over a brawl in 2012 has been passed by for amnesty multiple times and remains in jail because “he reads a Bible.”

Prayer Points from Open Doors:

  • For Muslim Background Believers who have hardly any freedom to practice their faith
  • That the Holy Spirit will soften the hearts of the Turkmen government towards Christians, so that they will be receptive to the gospel
  • That radio broadcasts and biblical materials will be made available to believers without government intervention

Great Cloud of Witnesses: Father of the English Bible

For more on my Lenten Focus, see my Ash Wednesday post. A quick summary is that I am spending Lent fasting and praying for the Persecuted Church, and I invite you to join me.

William_Tyndale

For Sundays during Lent, I thought I’d look at some of the examples of the faith from Church history. As the author of Hebrews, after listing the the heroes of the faith in Chapter 11, writes in chapter 12, “Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God.”

One of the greatest treasures a Christian can have is to the Bible in his own language. The English speaking world is blessed with abundant treasure. We have the multiple translations of the Bible, study aids, commentaries, and every conceivable tool for learning God’s word. But for a significant portion of Church history, church leaders actively prevented the Bible from being translated into the language of the common man, and made themselves a barrier between Christians and the Word of God.

In the wake of the Renaissance and the rediscovery of Greek and Hebrew, Christian scholars began looking at the original language of the Bible. During the Reformation, men worked diligently throughout Europe and in the shadow of great danger to translate the Bible from Greek and Hebrew into the vernacular. Reformers like Martin Luther were also speaking against corruption and abuse by the Roman Catholic Church.

It was in this environment that William Tyndale sought to bring an accurate translation of the Bible to the English people. Tyndale came from a common family and studied at Oxford and Cambridge. He was ordained in 1515, but refused monastic orders. A brilliant man who knew at least six languages (English, Latin, Greek, Hebrew, Spanish, and French–and maybe German), he was obviously influenced by the ideas of both the Reformation and Renaissance. His life-long passion was to see his countrymen have access to the Bible in their own language. He was shocked by the ignorance of the clergy in England and famously told one cleric, “If God spare my life, ere many years pass, I will cause a boy that driveth the plow shall know more of the Scripture than thou dost.” (This was in response to the cleric’s idiotic and blasphemous remark, “It would be better to be without God’s laws than the Pope’s.”)

Because of opposition to his translation work by King Henry VIII and Sir Thomas More (yeah, Church History is messy), Tyndale fled to the Continent in 1524 to do his translating work, never to return to England. For ten years he worked on the Bible and wrote other theological books and pamphlets, including trading rather harsh barbs with More himself.

After reading Tyndale’s The Obedience of a Christian Man, Henry thought Tyndale would be useful as a propagandist, and offered to allow him to return to England to that end. Tyndale would only return on one condition: that the King allow a Bible to be published in English. Henry refused, so Tyndale remained in hiding in Europe.

In 1535, he was betrayed and arrested. In 1536, he was strangled and burned to death. His last words were “Lord, open the king of England’s eyes!” While Tyndale was still in prison, a former assistant of  his, William Coverdale produced a translation of the Bible that relied heavily (read: almost entirely) on Tyndale’s work. Coverdale received a Royal Sanction from Henry, and by 1539 every parish in England was required to make a copy available.

Tyndale ultimately translated two thirds of the Bible, including all of the New Testament and the Pentateuch. His work is the root from which English translation of the Bible grew. Ninety percent of the New Testament in the King James Version of the Bible and 75 percent of the Revised Standard Version come from Tyndale translation. Because he wanted the Bible to be available to “the boy that driveth the plow,” he used straight-forward simple language that was understandable and accessible.  In addition to the words he added to the English language, like scapegoat and  busybody, Tyndale invented hundreds of phrases and idioms that we still use today, such as “fall flat on his face” and “his brother’s keeper.”

His brilliance and sacrifice brought the Word of God to Englishmen in their own language, fueling the English Reformation, and arguably transforming the world. He is not only part of that “great cloud of witnesses” whose example benefits us, but his work and sacrifice have enabled us–me–to know God more and more through His Word.

To learn more about this amazing servant of God:

The BBC produced the documentary, “The Most Dangerous Man in Tudor England” which is currently available here, but frustratingly not anywhere else that I can find.

To read more about the history of the Bible in English and about choosing among the multitude of English translations, I recommend The Word of God in English by Leland Ryken. (af)

Christian History has an entire issue on Tyndale, including his end of the public debates he had with More. You can read online or download a pdf.

Bible translation is a critical part of bringing the gospel to every corner of the earth. Dave and Stacey Hare havedevoted their life to bringing the Word of God to the Bakoum people in Cameroon. This is literally a life-long endeavor and will take twenty or thirty years to complete. There is currently no written Bakoum language, so they must first put the language in written form and then translate the Bible into that language. You can read more about their work and support them at Hare Translation Journey.

Lenten Focus: Imprisoned Christians

For more on my Lenten Focus, see my Ash Wednesday post. A quick summary is that I am spending Lent fasting and praying for the Persecuted Church, and I invite you to join me.

prison

One of the repeated commands of scripture (one we don’t pay that much attention to) is to remember, visit, and comfort those in prison. For Christians in restricted nations, facing prison is another aspect of persecution. Whether imprisoned specifically for their faith or on trumped up charges, Christians around the world suffer in chains for the gospel.

We continue to pray for Saeed Abedini who has been in prison in Iran for more than two years.

In February, word came that Bishop Cosma Shi Enxiang who spent fifty-four years off and on in Chinese prisons had died in his chains.

In Thailand, hundreds of Christian refugees from Pakistan have been arrested as illegal aliens.

In India, Christians protesting abuse and destruction of churches have been arrested.

Voice of the Martyrs has a ministry called Prisoner Alert that lists some known imprisoned Christians and allows people to write letters to government officials and the prisoner himself. However, these are only a handful of those in prison–most of whom we will never know of.

Pray for those in chains for the sake of the gospel.

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