Lenten Focus: Christians in Uzbekistan

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.

Uzbekistan

Christians in Uzbekistan have limited access to religious material, and government officials often seize the books and materials they are able to obtain. Photo: Open Doors

 

Uzbekistan is number 15 on Open Door’s World Watch list, and the Christians there face severe persecution. Uzbekistan is a country in Central Asia tucked among the rest of the ‘stans: it’s south of Kazakhstan, north of Turkmenistan–lost to most of us in a jumble of unfamiliar geography and language. These lands don’t seem to have much to do with our lives, but if we believe the Bible, then Christians anywhere in the world are our brothers and sisters in Christ. We are called to pray and help them.

From Voice of the Martyrs:

Uzbekistan, which gained independence in 1991, is Central Asia’s most populous country and one of the poorest. It is the world’s fifth largest cotton exporter and much of its agriculture centers around cotton. President Karimov has held office since 1990. The country’s authoritarian regime has been blamed for vast human rights abuses, including the systematic use of torture. Uzbekistan has been listed as a Country of Particular Concern by the USCIRF since 2005.

Though a secular state, Uzbekistan’s religion law bans unregistered religious activity. The government relentlessly persecutes Christians, especially active congregations. Almost all Christians are ethnic minorities, who are treated with particular harshness. Proselytism is illegal. In the southeast, police have campaigned to prevent children from attending worship services. Uzbekistan’s secret police carry out phone taps and surveillance on places of worship, occasionally recruiting informers to infiltrate church activities. Because it is nearly impossible to obtain church registration, there are about 65 unregistered fellowships scattered throughout the country. Christians also face raids, literature confiscations, heavy fines, public humiliation, property seizure, job dismissal, beatings and torture. Observers report that torture is widely used to force adults and children to renounce their religious beliefs or to implicate themselves or others. Authorities routinely extend the sentences of religious prisoners, a practice that appears aimed at keeping religious prisoners incarcerated indefinitely. An official with the Council on Religious Affairs (CRA) told reporters in 2013 that Uzbek law only allows religious texts to be read within buildings belonging to officially registered religious groups, and the CRA issued a decree in 2014 which bans all materials that “distort” beliefs or encourage people to change their religion.

Prayer Points from Open Doors:

  • For Uzbek Christians who are under constant scrutiny, especially in their homes
  • For strength for believers who are under pressure to betray their fellow Christians
  • Obtaining a Bible can be difficult for many Christians; pray that Christian materials and Bibles will get into their hands without consequences from the government

Lenten Focus: Yemeni 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.

Pray-for-the-Persecuted-chains

Yemen is number 15 on Open Door’s World Watch List. It is another country in the Middle East where Christianity is almost entirely prohibited. Yemen has fallen from the top ten most restricted nations in the past few years, again, not because of increased religious liberties, but because so many other places have gotten so much worse. In a country of 25 million, there are only a few thousand Christians.

From Voice of the Martyrs:

Yemen is the poorest country on the Arabian Peninsula. Poor economic conditions, high unemployment rates and political unrest led to the forced resignation of former President Ali Abdullah Saleh in February 2012. Secessionist tribal groups and al-Qaida cells remain a significant problem for the government, which faces periodic violence from southerners advocating secession from the north. This year, Houthi rebels from the north seized the capital city of Sanaa as well as a key port city. Islam is very conservative in Yemen, and Sharia law is the ultimate source of all legislation. The country is a haven for Islamic militants, who have kidnapped and held foreigners for ransom.

Expressing faith in Jesus is dangerous for Yemenis, and persecution is very intense. It is illegal for non-Muslims to proselytize and for Muslims to convert to Christianity, but expatriates may privately practice religions other than Islam. Yemeni Christian converts from Islam face the death penalty if discovered, and family culture is extremely opposed to conversion. Mosque leaders openly preach an anti-Western message of hate.

Prayer Points from Open Doors:

  • Muslim Background Believers face immediate death if they do not convert back to Islam; pray for their safety and protection
  • For stability in a country deeply divided and torn by violence
  • That the few thousand Christians in the country might be embraced by other believers

Lenten Focus: The Libyan 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.

LIBYA-UNREST-BLAST-RELIGION-CHRISTIAN

The already difficult situation for Christians in Libya has gotten worse since the uprising in 2011. Libya is now number 13 on Open Door’s World Watch List. The 21 Christians who were killed by ISIS were Egyptians working in Egypt. Recently, seven more Christians were killed.

From Voice of the Martyrs:

Caught up in the Arab Spring movement that swept across the Middle East, civil unrest broke out in Libya in February 2011. By the end of the year, opposition rebels had captured and killed Libyan dictator Muammar al-Qadhafi, who had ruled the oil-rich nation for 42 years. In July 2012, Libya’s first-ever elected government was sworn in. The new government faces the challenge of demobilizing the armed groups that helped overthrow Qadhafi and that now operate independently in various parts of the country.

The country’s interim constitution protects religious freedom, though in practice, the government prohibits proselytizing and does not prevent or investigate attacks on Christian communities. Only about 124 churches (including house churches) exist in a country of more than 6 million people. There is a limit of one church per denomination per city. Evangelicals make up just 0.3 percent of the population. The former Libyan government had an extensive secret police network that made sharing the gospel with Muslims difficult and dangerous. Christian literature enters the country only through secretive means. At least 50 foreign Christians were arrested in 2013 and held for more than a month after being accused of proselytizing and distributing Bibles and other Christian literature. One, an Egyptian, was reportedly tortured by Libyan police and later died in custody. Around 50,000 Egyptian Copts live in Libya, and have frequently been the victims of assaults, kidnappings, assassinations, and car bombings. In February 2014, the bodies of seven executed Egyptian Christians were discovered on a beach a day after they were kidnapped from a residence.

Prayer Points from Open Doors:

  • That some semblance of peace and a stable central government will come to the country, which is a failed state
  • That Muslim Background Believers will not be targets of their families or their communities
  • For God’s people inside and outside the country to encourage those Christians in the crosshairs of Islamic militants and violenceh

Great Cloud of Witnesses: Thomas More

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.

thomas more

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.”

Thomas More is a complicated figure, particularly when we look at him as martyr. He was a Catholic leader in England during the Reformation, and as Lord Chancellor led in the persecution of Protestants under King Henry VIII. That is, until Henry decided that he needed an annulment from Catherine of Aragon so that he could marry Ann Boleyn. He also decided he should be named head of the Church in England.  For opposing Henry in all these matters, but especially the last, More was beheaded.

As a Protestant, I’m conflicted about More, considering his role in persecuting members of the English Reformation. Yet many people throughout history have done things both great and wicked. I admire his willingness to stand for the faith and his example to Christians everywhere that “our citizenship is in heaven, and from it we await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, who will transform our lowly body to be like his glorious body, by the power that enables him even to subject all things to himself.” (Philippians 3:20-21)

Despite his prominent role in a bloody and often disgraceful time in Church history, he is known for standing firm in his beliefs knowing that it could cost him greatly. As a contemporary of More’s said, from a different perspective, “Here I stand, I can do no other, so help me God.” Thomas More is certainly part of the great cloud of witnesses and an example to us for our own walk.

Lenten Focus: Christian women and girls in restricted countries

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.

christians

While being a Christian in restricted nations is difficult for all believers, Christian women face additional dangers and challenges. In most of these nations, their rights are already greatly diminished simply because they are women. They are tied to their families in ways that men are usually not, and converts face additional dangers if they try to leave their homes.

A few stories illustrates the hard situation Christian women may face.

I’ve already highlighted the case of Meriam Ibrahim, a Christian woman who was initially sentenced to death for both apostasy and adultery. Apostasy: because even though she was raised a Christian, her father who abandoned his family when Meriam was a child was Muslim. Adultery: because her marriage to a Christian man was ruled invalid because the court claimed she was a Muslim. Fortunately, after a great deal of international pressure, she was released and is now living with her family in America.

In 2008, Voice of the Martyrs reported that a member of the Saudi Arabian religious police cut his daughter’s tongue out and burned her to death because she converted to Christianity. There are many stories like this, and most are never known.

In a (emotionally) difficult to read, but very informative and important article, “Gender Based Violence as an Expression of Christian Persecution in Muslim Lands” (pdf download), author Lela Gilbert, notes:

“General sexual abuse against women provides the backdrop against which specific sexual abuse of Christian women and children is acted out. It is estimated that “over 200 million Christians are denied fundamental human rights solely because of their faith.” It seems safe to assume that half of these Christians are female. That amounts to 100 million women and girls, and a large percentage of them live in Muslim majority countries where gender abuse is already rampant. When it is used to target Christians, the abuse is intensified, aggravated and more deadly.”

These persecution takes various forms:

  1. Kidnapping and forced marriages, which compel Christian girls to convert to Islam.
  2. Honor killings, frequently due to a conversion from Islam to Christianity, presumed “westernization” or the accusation of illicit sex or other “sinful” behavior.
  3. Domestic violence, which is commonplace in Muslim households. In the case of a Christian wife (likely a convert from Islam) may be intended to correct “unIslamic” practices such as Christian prayers, Bible reading, attending Bible Study or church.
  4. Rape, the causes of which are generally identified as sexual gratification, rage, power and sadism, is also used to deflower young Christian women and force them to marry their Muslim rapists – or be killed.
  5. Biased legal judgments in which Christian rape victims are required by law to produce Muslim male witnesses of the incident; the reporting of a rape that cannot be verified by male Muslim eyewitnesses – and few can – means women risk imprisonment or violent death for “adultery.”
  6. Physical abuse for Christian girls not covering their heads or otherwise wearing “provocative” clothing in mixed neighborhoods or communities. The consequences of women’s unIslamic dress may include beatings, rapes or having acid thrown in their unveiled faces, which is becoming a common form of assault.
  7. Blasphemy accusations – bearing in mind that a woman’s testimony is worth ½ of a man’s and therefore she has no defense. Blasphemy is often the accusation in cases that reflect property disputes, attempted embezzlement, personal vendettas and other unrelated offenses.
  8. Marginalization or exploitation of women who are either widowed or left on their own because of their husbands’ imprisonment, disappearance or death.
  9. Vulnerability of Christian girls and women, who are especially defenseless because Christian communities tend to be less vindictive and more easily intimidated than their Islamic neighbors; Muslim abusers have what they perceive as free license to mistreat them.

All believers face persecution and hardship in large parts of the world, but for Christian women, those hardships are multiplied. Pray for their protection, for faithfulness in the face of violence and oppression, and for relief and justice for not just Christian women, but all women in the Muslim world.

Lenten Focus: Christians in Saudi Arabia

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.

SaudiArabia

While Saudi Arabia has dropped to number 12 on Open Door’s World Watch List, that doesn’t appear to be because the nation is becoming a better place for Christians, but rather that so many other places are becoming worse. There is not one church in all of Saudi Arabia and 4,000 religious police exist to enforce religious laws in the Islamic nation.

From Voice of the Martyrs:

Saudi Arabia is the birthplace and homeland of Islam. Once an underdeveloped country, Saudi Arabia has become one of the wealthiest nations in the world because of its vast amount of oil resources. Twenty percent of the national budget is allocated to the worldwide expansion of Islam, and the country’s enormous oil wealth has financed global Islamic expansion with billions of dollars. Most Saudis follow the strict form of Wahhabi Islam, which is known for its contempt of non-Muslims, but there is a very vocal Shiite minority. The country has one of the worst human rights records in the world. In 2011 women received the right to vote, and in 2015 they will be able to run in municipal elections. But they are still forbidden from driving, conducting official business or undergoing certain medical procedures without permission from their male guardians. Saudi Arabia has been designated a Country of Particular Concern by the USCIRF since 2004.

Saudi Arabia is one of the most oppressive nations in the world for Christians. Religious freedom is nonexistent, and leaving Islam is punishable by death. Non-Muslims are not permitted to become citizens of Saudi Arabia, and are vulnerable to discrimination, harassment and detention. Places of worship other than mosques are not permitted in the country. All non-Muslim religious rituals and materials are banned. Converts from Islam to Christianity are rare, and converts have been executed for the offense. Anyone who performs mission work or converts a Muslim faces jail, expulsion, lashing, torture or execution. Non-Muslim worship, even private worship for foreign Christians, is prohibited, and Saudi religious police have been known to raid homes where expatriate workers were worshiping.

Prayer Points from Open Doors:

  • That more Muslims will meet Jesus through satellite television or dreams and visions of Jesus
  • Being a woman and a Christian increases the severity of persecution; pray for the government to respect women and grant more freedom to worship for women and men
  • That the house churches will continue to worship in secret and not be discovered by the secret police

Lenten Focus: Maldives

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.

maldives

Maldives in number eleven on Open Doors World Watch List. It is the only nation in the world that claims to have a 100% Islamic rate, although there are Christians who practice their faith in secret, and expatriates who are Christian.

From Voice of the Martyrs

The Maldives, an Islamic Republic, is a chain of nearly 1,200 islands in the Indian Ocean. Its culture is a blend of influences from southern India, Sri Lanka, East Africa and Arab countries. Islam is the only recognized religion, and strict adherence is strongly promoted. In order to minimize outside influence, foreigners are allowed only brief visits to the Maldives, though the economy depends on tourism. In a nation that forbids alcohol and expects modesty, a number of the islands have been developed specifically as tropical resorts for tourists where alcoholic beverages are served and tourists may wear revealing swimsuits. Many Maldivians live in poverty. Following a mutiny by police and the military, the country’s president was forced to step down, and political unrest continued until fresh elections were held in November 2013. Islamic fundamentalists, especially in remote islands, continue to influence the political situation and have called for stricter interpretation of Islamic law.

Maldives is one of the least evangelized countries in the world. The 0.2% figure for Christians refers to expatriate Christians. Citizens of the Maldives are automatically Muslim, and non-Muslims may not become citizens. The open practice of any religion other than Islam is forbidden. Maldivian believers are carefully watched. They suffer ostracism, mockery, incarceration and even torture. Christians cannot meet or read the Scriptures openly. Expatriate believers have been expelled, especially after sharing their faith.

Prayer Points from Open Doors:

  • That the few Christians will stand strong in the faith despite the threat of being discovered and arrested
  • That the strict Islamic government will have a change of heart and allow Christians to practice their faith
  • For the Gospel to miraculously reach those hungry for the Word

 

Ideas for Wednesday Activities

Pooh and Christopher Robin

“What I like doing best in Nothing.”

“How do you do Nothing?” asked Pooh, after he had wondered for a long time.

“Well, it’s when people call out at you just as you’re going off to do it, What are you going to do, Christopher Robin, and you say, Oh, nothing, and then you go and do it.”

“Oh, I see,” said Pooh.

“This is a nothing sort of thing that we’re dong now.”

“Oh, I see,” said Pooh again.

“It means just going along, listening to all the things you can’t hear, and not bothering.”

Lenten Focus: Pastor Rodas and the Mexican 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.

 Pastor Antonio Cruz Rodas prays for paritioner in Chiapas, Mexico.

Pastor Antonio Cruz Rodas prays for parishioner in Chiapas, Mexico.

 

While the problems Mexico faces with corruption and violence are well known, most people don’t think of it as a country where Christians are persecuted. However, Mexico is number 38 on Open Doors Watch List and is designated a country of moderate persecution.

From Open Doors:

Mexico’s appearance (first time in three years) on the World Watch List is explained mainly by the progression of organized crime in the country and the recording of more violent incidents targeting Christians. Criminal organizations and drug cartels have targeted Christians because they view churches as revenue centers (extortions) and because churches support programs for the rehabilitation of drug addicts and alcoholics. Local communities in the southern states of Mexico are led by the indigenous traditional law of “uses and customs” to force all community members into a homogenous lifestyle. As soon as community members accept a different religion, the law of “uses and customs” becomes the noose that threatens their very existence.

Voice of the Martyrs highlights one pastor being persecuted for his faith.

Local authorities in Chiapas, Mexico, recently issued an official warning to Pastor Antonio Cruz Rodas, ordering him to stop evangelizing in the area. Pastor Rodas has also received death threats.

Authorities issued the pastor a document reading, “Today we strongly state total prohibition of access to people that profess any religion different than the one in our community.”

Most people in the area practice “folk Catholicism,” a syncretistic blend of Catholicism and indigenous practices. Pastor Rodas says he is not afraid of being killed, and VOM contacts have asked that we pray for his continued ministry in this hostile area. Three families in the area have come to faith in Christ, and the pastor has planted two churches in communities similar to this one.

You can add your prayer for Pastor Rodas here.

Prayer Points for Mexico from Open Doors:

  • For the reduction of organized crime and for the government to use all of its resources to bring criminals to justice
  • For the indigenous people in the municipality of Chiapas who have been driven out of their homes and are targets of discrimination
  • Praise God for the release of several Christians from prison who have served approximately 17 years on false charges in the Acteal case

 

Lenten Focus: the Church in Eritrea

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.

Christian-Persecution-in-Eritrea

Photo: International Christian Concern, one of the groups that speaks for the Persecuted Church in Eritrea and around the world.

 

Eritrea is a small country that gained it’s independence from Ethiopia in the 90s. While it is consistently among the top ranked countries in Open Doors Word Watch List, the plight of Eritrean Christians isn’t well known.

From Voice of the Martyrs:

Eritrea, which gained its independence in 1993, has been devastated by conflict and drought. It is seen as one of the most repressive states in the world, using torture against its own citizens. Tens of thousands of citizens have been imprisoned, and though a 2011 U.N. report estimated that nearly 70 percent of Eritreans cannot meet their food needs, the government insists that the country is self-sufficient and refuses international food aid. The proportion of Eritreans who are in the army rather than in the workforce also hinders economic growth. The constitution and elections have been indefinitely suspended. Eritrea has been designated as a Country of Particular Concern by the USCIRF since 2004.

The Eritrean government has banned all Christian groups except the Orthodox Church of Eritrea, the country’s largest Christian group; the Roman Catholic Church; and the Evangelical Church of Eritrea, a Lutheran-affiliated denomination. Even recognized groups face severe restrictions and a lot of government interference. As in previous years, security forces continue to disrupt private worship, conduct mass arrests at prayer meetings and other gatherings such as weddings, and detain those arrested for indefinite periods without charge. As many Christians have fled the country, mass arrests have decreased. Currently over 1,000 Christians are imprisoned in Eritrea because of their faith, some for over 10 years, and none of those have ever received a court hearing or been formally charged. In November 2013, VOM sources reported that a group of 185 Christians who had gathered to pray near Asmara over the worsening conditions in the country were arrested; some women and children were released after signing an agreement stating that they would stop meeting with other believers. Prisoners are tortured and subjected to extremely poor living conditions, often locked in metal shipping containers or underground bunkers. Several who have refused to renounce their beliefs have died in custody.

Prayer Points from Open Doors:

  • For the hundreds of Eritrean Christians who have been imprisoned for their faith
  • That the government would soften its stance on evangelical Christians and give them the freedom to worship Jesus without restrictions
  • That the rise of Islamic extremism will be stiffled in 2015
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