Published: 12:00 GMT Standard Time - Friday 28 February 2014
Prayer Focus 03/14
- Syria – Stories of suffering emerge as Christians flee Homs
- Nigeria – Anti-Christian attacks claim over 150 lives
- Philippines – Semi-independent Muslim region created
- Iraq – Moves made to help Christians stay
- Pakistan – Aasia Bibi’s court date cancelled
- Kazakhstan – Pastor Bakhytzhan given suspended jail term
- Tunisia – Religious freedom guaranteed in new constitution
“Surely the Lord is my help; the Lord is the one who sustains me.”
Syria – Stories of suffering emerge as Christians flee Homs
Cry out to the Lord for our beleaguered brothers and sisters in Homs. Some Christians managed to leave the besieged Old City area, which has been cut off for two years, in the evacuations that began in late January. With their escape, heart-breaking stories have emerged of the suffering endured by believers there.
The Old City was once home to 60,000 Christians, but the population had declined so much that only around 80 believers remained when opposition forces captured the city. The rebel troops prevented them from leaving, effectively holding them as a human shield. As shortages of food and medicines took their toll, they began to die one by one. By the time of the evacuations, only a few dozen Christians remained.
In the weeks leading up to the evacuations, the Christians’ plight intensified. They were increasingly attacked by rebel fighters; on one occasion an 80-year-old woman was beaten in the street until she collapsed. Terrifying graffiti saying, “We will kill you all, you people of the cross,” was daubed on walls.
On 12 January, a church leader who had been a source of great support and comfort to the Christian community was tied up and beaten with rifle butts. Less than a week later, he was kidnapped and deliberately held until he had missed a Sunday service; his congregation were greatly distressed.
Food shortages became so severe that ground wheat was the only proper food available; some could not even obtain that and were reduced to eating vine leaves for weeks on end. In mid-January, rebel fighters broke into one or two Christian homes each night for ten consecutive nights, stealing food as well as anything of value that was left. On other occasions, militants entered the Christians’ houses as they were preparing their midday meal and took their food.
The rebels cut off the electricity supply to Christian homes, so that they did not receive even the three hours of power that had previously been available each day. They also stole believers’ mobile phones so they could not communicate with one another.
When the evacuations began, armed groups tried to prevent Christians from leaving. The place chosen for the evacuations was accessible only by a long and arduous journey that many elderly believers could not attempt. Some Christians were detained near the crossing, and a pretext was found to forbid them from leaving. Those who managed to escape had to walk for more than two hours and pass through four tunnels. At times they had to crawl.
On arrival, the evacuees were given medical aid and food, including fruit and vegetables. One Christian man, holding a cucumber he had been given by a Barnabas partner, said, “I haven’t seen that for two years.” Another rejoiced at being able to wash his hands under running water. Our partner wrote that some of the Christians were so traumatised that they could not even describe their sufferings. He said, “It seemed as if people inside had even forgotten how to speak.”
Pray for all those who remain trapped in Homs; ask the Lord to keep them safe and meet all their material needs. Pray that the rebels’ campaign of anti-Christian persecution will cease and that our brothers and sisters will know the Lord’s peace in their dire circumstances. Give thanks that many Christians have been able to leave the Old City, and pray that the Lord will go before them and be with them (Deuteronomy 31:8) as they recover from the trauma of the last two years and attempt to rebuild their lives elsewhere.
Nigeria – Anti-Christian attacks claim over 150 lives
The campaign of brutal violence against Christians and other targets by Islamist group Boko Haram shows no signs of abating. On 15 February, 106 people were killed when Boko Haram militants attacked a predominantly Christian village in Borno State in the North.
Shouting “Allahu Akhbar (Allah is great)”, the attackers gunned down and slaughtered residents, deliberately targeting men. Countless people were injured, and homes and businesses were looted and set on fire. Hundreds fled the area.
This attack followed three separate acts of anti-Christian violence in the North in late January. Boko Haram fighters targeted a church in Adamawa state on 26 January, killing two police officers who were guarding the building. Once inside, the attackers detonated bombs and shot and cut the throats of those who tried to escape. They proceeded to rampage through the village; a total of 53 people were killed in the carnage.
Then, on 30 January, a Christian family of seven in Kaduna state were murdered by Fulani herdsmen. The next day, eleven worshippers were killed by Boko Haram gunmen who stormed into a church and fired at the congregation. This attack took place in the same area of Adamawa state that had been targeted days earlier.
Pray for all those affected by anti-Christian violence in Nigeria. Pray that they will be comforted in their acute insecurity in the knowledge that no-one whose hope is in the Lord will ever be put to shame (Psalm 25:3). Ask the Lord to protect our brothers and sisters in Northern and Middle Belt states of Nigeria from further attacks, and pray that they will know His peace even as they live in acute danger.
The government of the Christian-majority Philippines has agreed a peace deal with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, the country’s largest Islamist group. The agreement, which was signed on 25 January, creates a semi-independent Muslim region on the country’s southernmost island. The area, called “Bangsamoro”, replaces what is currently known as the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao.
While the national government will retain control of the region’s defence, foreign and monetary policies, the Muslim-majority local government will have “broad local powers”, including the creation of a security force and a share in the wealth from the area’s resources. The deal allows for sharia law to be enforced.
Although an earlier agreement stated that sharia law will be applied only to Muslims, it remains to be seen how widely and strictly it will be imposed.
It is feared that other Islamist groups, who were not party to the deal, will continue their violent activities. Pray that this agreement will bring the decades-long Islamic insurgency, in which Christians have often been targeted, to a complete halt. Pray also that sharia will not be applied to non-Muslims living in Bangsamoro and that Christians will be able to worship and witness there without harassment.
Iraq – Moves made to help Christians stay
Give thanks that moves are being made by the Iraqi authorities that both recognise the plight of the country’s Christian minority and aim to help believers to stay in the country. Hundreds of thousands of Iraqi Christians have fled targeted violence against them, which intensified following the 2003 US-led invasion. It is feared that Christianity could be wiped out from the country; from one denomination alone, six Christian families are leaving every day.
The governor of Basra, in southern Iraq, has promised Christians a piece of land each to cultivate as well as job opportunities to encourage them to come back. Separate consideration is being given to an autonomous province for Christians in the Nineveh Plain in the north. It is hoped that the creation of the province would enable Christians to live in safety, but the idea is at a very early stage.
On a national level, a draft law is being prepared that aims to ensure the participation of Christians and other minority groups in public life. Currently, minorities have minimal political representation. The law also seeks to change attitudes among the wider population by revising school curricula in history and religion to encourage the acceptance of minority groups.
Despite these positive moves by those in power, violence continues to devastate Iraq. January was the deadliest month in nearly six years, with more than 1,000 deaths, and Islamist insurgents are gaining ground.
Give thanks that the Iraqi authorities have acknowledged that the Church in Iraq needs support if it is to survive. Pray that the moves being made will lead to genuinely improved security and freedom for our brothers and sisters, so that they will be able to stay in their homeland.
Pakistan – Aasia Bibi’s court date cancelled
Pray for Christian mother Aasia Bibi, as a court date scheduled for her appeal against the death sentence she was given for blasphemy has been cancelled. Aasia, who has spent more than three years on death row, was set to appear in court on 14 February. The hearing was adjourned, and at the time of writing a new date has not been announced.
Public support for Aasia among Pakistan’s politicians dried up after two who spoke out on her behalf were murdered in 2011. As Aasia awaits her court date, the trial of suspects for the murder of one of these men, Shahbaz Bhatti, is in jeopardy. Islamist terrorist groups have sent threatening letters to Paul Bhatti, brother of the murdered politician, and also to a lawyer and two eye-witnesses.
After receiving the letters, the eye-witnesses failed to appear in court. The suspects, members of the Pakistani Taliban, have confessed, but it is feared they could walk free as part of a deal between the terrorist group and the government.
Pray that the Lord will uphold Aasia with His righteous right hand (Isaiah 41:10) as she waits to find out when her appeal will be heard, and ask that she will soon be set free. Pray that those responsible for Mr Bhatti’s death will brought to justice, and ask that the outcome of the trial will discourage radical Muslims from taking the law into their own hands.
Kazakhstan – Pastor Bakhytzhan given suspended jail term
Please continue to pray for Kazakh pastor Bakhytzhan Kashkumbayev. He was convicted on 17 February of harming the health of a church member, despite the supposed victim’s insistence that the pastor is innocent. Pastor Bakhytzhan was given a four-year prison term suspended for three years and ordered to pay “moral damages” of two million Tenge (£6,500; US$10,800) to Lyazzat Almenova.
The church leader was accused of causing psychiatric harm to Lyazzat by her sister. Lyazzat was forcibly held in a psychiatric hospital, where she was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia.
Further charges were brought against the pastor, including two counts of “religious extremism”, but all these were dropped apart from one, that of harming the health of another church member. Pastor Bakhytzhan’s lawyer has warned that another case could be brought against him. If the pastor is convicted of another offence within three years, he would have to serve the four years’ imprisonment to which he has already been sentenced in addition to any other punishment handed down to him.
Give thanks that Pastor Bakhytzhan has been freed after spending nine months in prison. Pray for his health, which has been fragile at times, and ask that no further action will be taken against him by the authorities.
Tunisia – Religious freedom guaranteed in new constitution
Give thanks that a new constitution adopted in Tunisia guarantees freedom of worship and enshrines the equality of men and women. The document, which was agreed on 26 January, should give hope to Tunisia’s tiny Christian minority.
The text was finalised after Ennahda, an Islamist party, agreed to a number of concessions, including the removal of references to Islamic law. The constitution states that Islam is the religion of the state but not the source of its legislation.
Ennahda was Tunisia’s ruling party until it agreed in September 2013 to stand down, following months of protests that were sparked by the assassination of two secular politicians. It has now formally resigned, and a non-partisan caretaker government will lead the country through to new elections.
Praise God that the new constitution affords greater freedom to our Christian brothers and sisters. Indigenous Christians, all of whom are converts from Islam, face many pressures; pray that the new constitution will alleviate these.
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