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PRAYER FOCUS UPDATE is a monthly information bulletin with up-to-date news on the persecuted Church to help Christians pray for their suffering brothers and sisters. You can use this for prayer groups, your own information and for inclusion in church magazines.
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Christians in Syria continue to suffer grievously in the conflict between President Assad’s troops and anti-government forces. On Sunday 18 March a violent explosion rocked the Christian quarter of Aleppo, Syria’s second city, killing three people and causing devastation. This attack was one of two bombings in the Christian area (although otherwise there has been little violence in Aleppo), and another bomb was detonated in the Christian sector of Damascus.
A Christian leader said, “We pray to God that Christians would not be targeted and become a victim and scapegoat of what is going on.” Another suggested that the terrorism may be directed in part “toward the non-partisan, defenceless and easily victimised Christian communities”.
At the height of the fighting in Homs in February, Barnabas Fund received reports of Christians being used as “human shields” by the anti-government Free Syrian Army (FSA). Around 70 homes belonging to Christians were invaded and pillaged by the opposition forces; they also occupied an evangelical school and evangelical home for the elderly, which were then shelled by the army.
Christians in Homs have suffered kidnappings and gruesome murders. Some Christian families, unable to pay a ransom for their relatives’ release and fearing that they may be tortured, have been driven to ask the kidnappers to kill their loved ones at once.
Following the announcement on 1 March that the FSA would pull out of Homs, a major humanitarian relief effort was launched to help residents who were without power in freezing weather and in desperate need of food and basics. Prices had rocketed, supplies were running low, and often it was too dangerous to go out in search of food. But at the time of writing some 60,000 Christians, almost the entire Christian population of the city, have fled and are homeless and jobless.
Barnabas Fund is sending emergency support to Christians in Syria at this desperate time.
The Iranian authorities have been rounding up Christians across the country in a wave of arrests targeting ordinary church members and leaders. Since Christmas, security agents have conducted sweeps of house churches in five cities. Some officially registered churches have been targeted too. Entire congregations were gathered up in some raids, and Christians have also been seized in their homes and workplaces.
In one incident, 78-year-old Giti Hakimpour was arrested in a raid on her home in Esfahan at 6am on 22 February. Officers searched the active church member’s apartment and confiscated some of her belongings. Giti, who had recently undergone knee replacement surgery, was not in good health; her doctor had ordered that she needed special care and should not be subjected to stress. Following persistent efforts from church leaders, Giti was released on 25 February.
In Kermanshah, Masoud Delijani, a Christian convert from Islam, has been jailed for three years. He was charged with being a Christian, holding illegal house church gatherings, evangelising Muslims and action against national security. Masoud, a school teacher, was not given the opportunity to defend himself in court. He had previously been held for 114 days, mostly in solitary confinement, and subjected to severe mental and physical pressure.
The authorities’ unrelenting efforts to quash the spread of the Gospel in the Islamic Republic of Iran are failing as the churches continue to grow rapidly. An Iranian Christian told Barnabas Fund, “I feel sorry for the Iranian authorities because they don’t realise that they’re up against the Holy Spirit.” But mounting international pressure over the country’s nuclear programme may prompt the government to intensify its campaign against Christians, who are considered to be in allegiance with foreign powers because of their faith.
The militant Islamist group Boko Haram has declared “war” on Christians in Nigeria, saying that they are planning coordinated attacks to “eradicate Christians from certain parts of the country”. On 4 March a spokesman said, “We will create so much effort to end the Christian presence in our push to have a proper Islamic state that the Christians won’t be able to stay.” Christians in the mainly Muslim North of Nigeria, and in the Middle Belt where Muslims and Christians live in roughly equal numbers, are especially vulnerable.
Boko Haram’s actions over recent months indicate that this is no idle threat, with churches in Jos (in the Middle Belt) being targeted by suicide bombers. Following the fatal car-bomb attack on 26 February (see March Prayer Focus Update), at least ten more people were killed when explosives were detonated at the gates of another church on Sunday 11 March.
On 6 March, two days after issuing the threat to eliminate Christians as part of their “campaign of terror”, the spokesman also said that the group would “put into action new efforts to strike fear into the Christians of the power of Islam by kidnapping their women”. He said that they would not harm or sexually assault the women but would “demand as ransom that the families leave our Islamic areas”.
A young Christian mother has been charged with blasphemy in Pakistan after she refused to convert to Islam at the insistence of some of her relatives. Shamim Bibi (26), who has a three-month-old daughter, was arrested on 28 February and charged under section 295-C of the Pakistan Penal Code, which prescribes a mandatory death sentence for “defiling the name of Muhammad”.
The accusation was made three days after some of her relatives tried to force her to convert to Islam. Shamim’s brother Ilyas Masih said, “She refused, telling them that she was satisfied with Christianity and did not want to convert.”
It appears that Shamim’s sister-in-law then told some local Muslims that the Christian woman had insulted Muhammad, and they subsequently reported the false allegation to the village prayer leader. He in turn lodged a blasphemy complaint against Shamim with the police. The accusation prompted a large number of villagers to descend on Shamim’s house in Khichiwala, Punjab province, demanding “severe punishment” for the young woman.
Shamim’s family believe that she was framed for blasphemy because of her refusal to renounce her faith. At least one of the named witnesses was not even present at the time the alleged incident took place.
In a more positive development, Dildar Masih, a 29-year-old Christian from Khanewal, was acquitted of a blasphemy charge in March. He had been accused by a local Muslim leader in June 2011 after intervening to rescue his young nephew, who was being beaten up by some Muslim youths.
One of Islam’s most influential spiritual leaders has called for the destruction of all churches in the Arabian Peninsula. The Grand Mufti of Saudi Arabia, Sheik Abdul Aziz bin Abdullah, declared on 12 March that it is “necessary to destroy all the churches of the region”. The ruling is in accordance with sharia; it is based on a tradition in which Muhammad on his deathbed declared, “There are not to be two religions in the [Arabian] Peninsula”.
Churches have always been banned in Saudi Arabia, but they do exist in other nations on the Peninsula, though they are subject to severe restrictions. There are many Christians among the sizeable expatriate communities in the Gulf States and Saudi Arabia, as well as a very small number of converts from Islam. The mufti’s declaration comes as pressure on Christians in the Middle East is already intensifying as a result of the Arab Spring, which has given increased political influence to Islamist groups.
Kuwaiti MP Osama Al-Munawer had said in February that he plans to submit a draft law calling for the removal of all churches in the country. He later explained that existing churches should remain but that the construction of new non-Islamic places of worship should be banned. The mufti’s statement was made in response to a query from Kuwait about the proposed legislation.
Hundreds of thousands of people whose families come from the mainly Christian, mainly African, South Sudan are being forced out of Sudan, having been stripped of their citizenship rights. They have until 8 April either to leave the strongly Islamic and Arab northern country or to be treated as foreigners under a regime that is extremely hostile to non-Muslims and non-Arabs. The deadline was announced last month.
An estimated 500,000-700,000 people, who are mainly Christians of Southern origin, are affected by the ultimatum. Many of them fled north during the long civil war (1983-2005) and have been there for decades. Few have ties with the South. A senior Church leader said, “We are very concerned. Moving is not easy … people have children in school. They have homes… It is almost impossible.”
There are concerns that Christians who remain in Sudan after the deadline may face increased persecution or even forced repatriation. An influx of hundreds of thousands of people to South Sudan is also likely to trigger a humanitarian emergency. It comes as the new state is struggling to cope with a drought that has ruined crops and threatened a major food shortage.
The country’s resources are also strained by the arrival of refugees from the border region between Sudan and South Sudan. Hundreds of thousands of people are internally displaced or have fled to South Sudan and Ethiopia to escape the ongoing aerial bombardment of civilians by the Sudan Armed Forces. The Nuba Mountains area, which is around 30 per cent Christian, has been one of the worst hit. This is the latest genocidal campaign by the Sudanese government, which wants a purely Arab and Islamic state.
Barnabas Fund is providing relief for needy Christians in Sudan and South Sudan, including refugees.
Indonesian Christians have won a lengthy legal battle over the ownership of their village against neighbouring Muslims who had virtually razed it to the ground in 2008. Horale in Maluku province, Indonesia, was destroyed in an attack by a Muslim mob from the neighbouring village of Saleman on 2 May 2008. They burnt 120 houses, three churches and the village school, and destroyed 15 hectares of crops. Four Christians were killed and 56 injured in the onslaught.
One week after the incident, Muslims from Saleman brought a legal challenge over the ownership of Horale, claiming that the land was part of their territory. After a succession of court hearings at local, provincial and national level, the Supreme Court has now ruled that the ten square miles in question rightfully belong to the Christian residents. Had they lost the case, they would have had to leave the village with nowhere else to go.
Barnabas Fund assisted the Horale Christians, who are low-earning farmers, with the legal costs, and we also helped to finance the reconstruction of the village.