Published: 00:00 GMT Standard Time - Sunday 01 February 2009
Prayer Focus 02/09
SRI LANKA - ANTI-CONVERSION LAW MAKES PROGRESS
An anti-conversion bill that is making its way through Sri Lanka's parliament could be used to justify discrimination against the country's small Christian minority. Having been stuck in committee for more than two years owing to constitutional problems, the bill was brought to the Legislative Standing Committee twice within a month, and is now to be presented to Parliament. If passed by a simple majority vote, it will become law.
The "Prevention of Forcible Conversion Bill" was introduced by the Jathika Hela Urumaya party (JHU), a political grouping headed by Buddhist monks. It would outlaw conversions carried out by force, allurement, or other unethical means. But Christians fear that the law could be used to try to stop all evangelism and encourage harassment and violence against them. This has happened with similar laws in some states of India. The draft bill's wide definitions are open to highly individual interpretation, and could be a basis for false complaints and a tool for settling purely personal disputes. One pastor suggested that the law might be used to imprison pastors who share their faith and those who convert to Christianity from Buddhism and Hinduism, and that faith-based organisations would have to leave the country.
Strict Buddhists have long pressured the government to address the supposed "problem" of church growth in rural areas. They accuse Christian organisations of using aid to entice or coerce vulnerable people to change their religion and claim that such conversions jeopardise the nation's Buddhist identity. The JHU leader, Omalpe Sobhitha Thero, has been quoted as saying that the two greatest threats facing Sri Lanka are the Tamil Tigers and US-funded Christian missionaries.
Sri Lanka's constitution gives Buddhism "a foremost place", but it gives members of other faiths freedom to practise their religion. Christians make up only about 8% of the total population, and they have been subject to an increasing level of violence, harassment and intimidation in recent years.
• Pray that the bill will not pass in the Sri Lankan parliament, and that the legislators will take seriously their responsibility to safeguard religious freedom. Pray too for more tolerance of minorities on the part of the Buddhist majority in the country.
• Pray for the Church in Sri Lanka, that the Lord will strengthen it in the face of social and political pressure, and protect it from attacks.
PAKISTAN - CHRISTIANS ATTACKED AND CHURCH DAMAGED IN PUNJAB
On 14 January a group of 70 Muslims broke into Christian homes in the village of Kot Lakha Singh, Punjab, beating eight Christians. They threw bricks at a small church building, forced their way inside, burned a copy of the Bible and damaged furniture. The church was closed after the attack. Muslim villagers then barred Christians from travelling through Muslim areas and from using the village shops.
Arshad Masih, one of the local Christians, was entering the village on a motorcycle when a group of teenagers blocked his way, dragged him off and beat him. "One woman had her teeth broken and another had her ribs severely damaged in the assault," said Arshad. "We never expected this."
The independent Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) said that the Muslims were angered by a recent personal dispute between a Christian family and a Muslim one. But the Christian family has left the area, and a Muslim HRCP representative acknowledged that the Christians who had been victimised were innocent. The Muslim family refused to cooperate with the HCRP fact-finding team.
• Pray for the Christians in Kot Lakha Singh, that God will give them patience and courage in their trials. Pray for the Muslim community there, that they will renounce their hostility against innocent Christians and allow them to use the village shops again.
• Give thanks for the fair response of the HRCP team, and pray that those responsible for the attack will be brought to justice.
KYRGYZSTAN - PRESIDENT SIGNS RESTRICTIVE NEW LAW ON RELIGION
Despite vigorous protests by human rights campaigners and many faith groups, in January President Kurmanbek Bakiev signed a restrictive new Religion Law. This has strict regulations about sharing one's faith, distributing religious literature and the involvement of children in "religious organisations". It also states that any organisation requires at least 200 members in order to register with the state. Without registration, religious communities are much more vulnerable to official sanctions. Under the previous legislation, only 10 members were needed for an organisation to get registration.
Christian leaders have expressed concern about the constitutional basis and probable effects of the new law. They regard the spreading of the Gospel as part of the freedom of religion guaranteed by the Kyrgyz constitution; one said, "We must as Christians bear witness to our faith." Officials and police have been known to ban unregistered religious communities from worshipping, and some of the churches fear that they will now be driven underground. Despite government claims that the law will not be applied retrospectively, leaders fear that the many smaller churches with fewer than 200 members will be victimised.
The president has promised a commission, including representatives from (unnamed) religious bodies, to consider the various appeals and "resolve them in the established way". At the same time it was stressed that the "leading religious confessions of the country" supported the law, a claim that raises doubts over the government's commitment to reforming it.
• Pray that the new law will not be enforced repressively, and in particular that smaller churches will not be banned from meeting. Pray too that the new commission will be widely representative of the country's Christian community, and that it will bring about meaningful and positive changes to the legislation.
• One Christian leader said, "The authorities are likely to take measures against us ... But we rely on the Lord and will remain faithful to Him." Praise God for the courage of Kyrgyz Christians, and ask Him to prosper their ministry and mission.
CENTRAL AFRICA - ATTACKS BY LORD'S RESISTANCE ARMY ON CHURCHES
An upsurge in violence by the Lord's Resistance Army (LRA) is blighting a wide area of central Africa, comprising parts of South Sudan, the Central African Republic and the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). Although whole communities have been affected, many Christians and churches have been caught up in the terror.
In the South Sudanese region of Mundri LRA fighters abducted two ten-year-old boys, one of them the son of a lay preacher in a local church. When the father and another church member followed the LRA soldiers, they were captured, bound and brutally murdered in front of the boys, who were later found abandoned and traumatised in the bush.
In DRC a congregation was at worship on Christmas Day when it was attacked. At least 418 people were killed, 67 children abducted and 1,023 houses burnt down. Around 150 people are believed to have been murdered the next day at a concert organised by a church in Farajde City. On 26 December 45 people, mainly women and children, were hacked to death inside a church near Doruma, DRC. In Duru 75 people were killed and a church burned down. Then on 24 January, in a community 80 miles from Dungu, a church building filled with worshippers holding a prayer vigil was torched by the LRA.
Originally a Ugandan rebel movement, the LRA is now based in DRC. It was backed by the Islamic government of North Sudan. Peace negotiations broke down last year, provoking an offensive against the LRA by the Uganda, South Sudan and DRC governments. These latest mass killings appear to be a response.
• Pray for a restoration of peace and order in the areas affected by LRA violence, and especially that Christians and churches will be delivered from it.
• Pray for Christians who have lost loved ones and for churches that have seen their members massacred, that they may be comforted in their grief and receive grace to forgive their persecutors. Pray in particular for the two traumatised boys.
CHINA - PASTOR "BIKE" ZHANG DRIVEN OUT OF BEIJING
On 16 January more than a dozen officers from the Chinese government's Public Security Bureau (PSB) escorted Pastor "Bike" Zhang Mingxuan from the home of another pastor in Beijing and put him on a bus to Henan province.
Pastor "Bike" had gone to the home of Pastor Hua Huiqi to visit Hua's father, Hua Zaichen, who is dying. Hua Zaichen's wife, Shuang Shuying, is 79 and currently in prison; the authorities refuse to allow her to see her husband. Pastor "Bike" was praying for the sick man when the PSB officials broke into the house.
This is the most recent in a series of hostile acts against Pastor "Bike" by the government. In October 2008 PSB officials attacked his family, beating up his son Zhang Jian and forcing his wife out of their flat. The pastor has recently received a payment from the PSB to cover Zhang Jian's medical bills, which is being seen as an indirect admission of guilt. When he was given the funds, PSB officers blamed him for causing "extremely bad publicity" for them! Now he and his family have been forbidden by the authorities to stay in Beijing.
• Pray for Pastor "Bike" and his family, that the government's campaign of harassment against them will cease. Give thanks for his perseverance in ministry despite the hardships that he is enduring.
• Pray for Hua Zaichen and Shuang Shuying, that the authorities will relent and allow them to meet. Pray too for Shuang's safe release.
ERITREA - RENEWAL OF GOVERNMENT CAMPAIGN AGAINST CHURCHES
The Eritrean government has renewed its campaign for the eradication of a network of churches that operates many schools and orphanages and has been active in development work. This is part of a much larger attack on Christians in and around the capital, Asmara.
In October 2008 soldiers came to the village of Deki-Zeru, where the churches run a primary school. They rounded up all the teachers and the other Christians and took them away to prison. Four of the detainees, including an 80-year-old man and his wife, are still in custody, and have been transferred to an isolated prison. No-one has been allowed to visit them. When the teachers were released they were all dismissed from their posts. The government has assigned replacement teachers to the school, in effect taking it under state control.
In another incident, 52 Christian women and girls were arrested in Asmara during a prayer meeting. The churches own the only church building in the area, and it has been closed since 2002. The Christians are believed to have been gathering for prayer in the vicinity when they were detained.
• Pray for the churches that have been specially targeted in this campaign, that they may be able to continue their ministry of education and care.
• Pray that the Lord will watch over those Christians who are still under arrest, and that although they are "in chains for Christ", their suffering may advance the Gospel. (Philippians 1:12-13)
BANGLADESH - ANSWERED PRAYER FOR DECEMBER ELECTIONS
In our last Prayer Focus Update we asked for prayer for the Bangladesh elections on 29 December, specifically that the Islamic parties that had pledged to enact a blasphemy law would not gain the power to do so. We are delighted to report that the coalition including the Jamat-e-Islami (JI) party, the largest Islamic party in the country, was comprehensively defeated, and all the main leaders of JI lost their seats.
• Give thanks to God for the election result. Pray that the new government will take positive steps to improve religious liberty in Bangladesh, and to protect the small Christian community.