Author archives: Lela Gilbert

On Religious Freedom Day, Let’s Recommit to This Fundamental Human Right

by Arielle Del Turco , Lela Gilbert

January 14, 2022

Each year on January 16, America observes Religious Freedom Day. Unlike many others, this observance wasn’t launched in the 20th or 21st century. Its first appearance dates back to a founding American document on the subject, penned by Thomas Jefferson in 1777. Less than 10 years later, the document was enacted into Virginia State Law, and later into America’s First Amendment.

Much of that amendment animates Jefferson’s views and visions for America:

…no man shall be compelled to frequent or support any religious worship, place, or ministry whatsoever, nor shall be enforced, restrained, molested, or burthened in his body or goods, nor shall otherwise suffer on account of his religious opinions or belief, but that all men shall be free to profess, and by argument to maintain, their opinions in matters of Religion, and that the same shall in no wise diminish, enlarge or affect their civil capacities.

The First Amendment—approved by Congress on December 15, 1791—emerged from Jefferson’s writings, and the freedoms enshrined in it have become known as American “First Freedoms.” Thankfully—although not without increasing opposition—religious freedom continues to be the law of the land in the United States.

But unfortunately, as we observe Religious Freedom Day in 2022, much of the world increasingly rejects America’s point of view about religious liberty. In country after country, there are no such boundaries. And today, the two most vicious enemies of religious freedom globally are radical Islamism and communist and post-communist regimes.

In the Middle East, Christians continue to be attacked by radicals and driven out of their historic homelands.

In Iraq, “Beginning in 2014, ISIS drove Christians from Mosul and their traditional homeland in the Nineveh Plains … From 1.5 million Christians in 2003, the Chaldean Catholic church now estimates a population of fewer than 275,000 Christians.”

In Iran, Islamist state authorities continue to arrest converts to Christianity on absurdly false charges. For example, Article Eighteen reports:

Christian convert Hadi (Moslem) Rahimi has begun serving his four-year prison sentence for “acting against national security” by attending a house-church and “spreading ‘Zionist’ Christianity.” The 32-year-old delivery driver, who has a nine-month-old daughter, turned himself in to Tehran’s Evin Prison on Sunday morning (9 January)…

Interestingly, despite ongoing marginalization, injustice and violence, innumerable conversions from Islam to Christianity in Iran continue to be reported, even being called a “Christian Boom.”

At the same time, across Africa, attacks on Christians are becoming increasingly violent and frequent. In Nigeria, massacres of Christians are being viewed by international observers as an unfolding genocide. Stories of massacres, mass kidnappings, and torched homes and churches are commonplace.

Meanwhile, in recent months, after America’s abrupt and ill-conceived departure from Afghanistan in August 2021, religious violence is skyrocketing. At the same time, it has become apparent that an underground Christian community, comprised almost entirely of converts from Islam, numbers as many as 10 to 12,000. The Taliban—Afghanistan’s radical new rulers—are systematically seeking out and killing those new believers along with other religious groups who do not conform to their extreme Islamist ideology.

In Pakistan, Christians and others are imprisoned on bogus “blasphemy” charges, often accused by neighbors as revenge for unrelated disputes. Even when those accused of blasphemy are acquitted or released on bail, they are in danger of mob violence. Such is the situation for  Nadeem Samson, who was released on bail on January 6, though his lawyer warns that “when Nadeem Samson is going to court he can be killed anytime.”

At the same time, post-communist regimes such as the Chinese government continue to marginalize religious beliefs that conflict with the state’s official atheist ideology. Well over a million Uyghur Muslims are held in internment camps and used as a source of slave labor. House church pastors such as Pastor John Cao are serving unwarranted prison sentences after being targeted due to their ministries. The country’s burgeoning surveillance state puts all citizens at risk as they are tracked for any actions that might be out of favor with the government—actions including going to church.

In North Korea, known Christians risk their very lives. Those who escape North Korea and are returned by Chinese authorities are particularly endangered as they are suspected of encountering Christian missionaries and churches in China. One North Korean defector said, “If you tell them that you went to a church and believed in Jesus, they would not stop at just beating you.” Other Christians are known to languish in harsh political labor camps with no prospect of ever being released.

Religious Freedom Day is an opportunity to pause and remember the profound importance of this right. As we continue to enjoy our own blessings and opportunities to share our faith, let’s remember those around the world longing to freely live out their faith.

Listening to Christians Around the World: Do You Hear What I Hear?

by Lela Gilbert

December 22, 2021

One of many beloved Christmas songs filling the air these days is “Do You Hear What I Hear?” and it holds a promise, “The Child, the Child, sleeping in the night. He will bring us goodness and light…”  

We American Christians are usually able to set aside our difficulties and challenges when Christmas comes around and fully celebrate “the Child”—the Son of God. We are so grateful that He lived among us not only to offer goodness and light, but also the opportunity to share in a lifetime of His love and grace.

Over the past year or two, our country has faced unusual challenges: continuing pandemic concerns, the worrisome shifting of political winds, and other trials such as floods, fires, and—most recently—horrifying tornados. Many fellow believers also struggle with financial worries and other concerns. Still, during this special season, our families and church congregations joyfully gather to sing hymns and carols, light candles, listen to children’s choirs, and worship the Christ Child who came and lived among us, and who continues to bless us with His presence.

Unfortunately, however, beyond our borders, the Christmas story is not so welcome as it is here. In much of the world, the gathering of Christians for any reason is often far from safe. A 2021 article in The Guardian reported:

Persecution of Christians around the world has increased during the Covid pandemic, with followers being refused aid in many countries, authoritarian governments stepping up surveillance, and Islamic militants exploiting the crisis, a report says.

More than 340 million Christians – one in eight – face high levels of persecution and discrimination because of their faith, according to the 2021 World Watch List compiled by the Christian advocacy group Open Doors.

It says there was a 60% increase over the previous year in the number of Christians killed for their faith. More than nine out of 10 of the global total of 4,761 deaths were in Africa.

At Family Research Council, we keep in contact with Christians in places where the decision to follow Jesus Christ is dangerous and—as The Guardian notes—even deadly. In fact, our concerns about international religious freedom have deepened dramatically in recent weeks and months. Just this week we asked friends in Nigeria, Iran, and a refugee from Afghanistan about how Christmas is celebrated in their countries.

Dr. Hassan John, Director of Communications Church of Nigeria, Anglican Communion writes:

For Christians in northern Nigeria, Christmas, especially this year, is full of anxiety and fear from the continuing attacks by Islamist Fulani militias and the Boko Haram terrorist Islamic sect. There is also anxiety for the new year for the fact that the Nigerian government has demonstrated a lack of will to stop the massacres and destruction of predominantly Christian villages by the Fulani Islamists. Many can’t reunite with loved ones because the roads are dangerously spotted with terrorists. Unfortunately, before the Christmas season is over some Christians will likely be killed or kidnapped for ransom their families cannot pay. The world will celebrate Christmas but in Nigeria, for many Christians, it may be yet another season of mourning.

Mary Mohammadi is an Iranian convert from Islam to Christianity who was jailed and physically abused for her faith. She explains:

In Iran, celebrating Christmas—like holding other Christian occasions and ceremonies such as Easter, baptism, etc.—is a crime. But we know this is a very important occasion, especially for Christians. So, despite widespread arrests and severe punishments, they secretly celebrate Christmas in their house churches every year. Yet, every year at Christmas, security forces raid house churches more than on any other days, arresting as many as 100 people in one house church.

Personally, I have not been ever able to celebrate Christmas in any year. In 2017, for the second Christmas after I believed in Jesus Christ, I was locked up in the Ministry of Intelligence security detention center, called 209. I had forgotten the date in the cell. I realized that it was Christmas Day only by seeing a Ministry of Intelligence newspaper.

The regime congratulates in the media on Christmas, but on the other hand, Christians must spend Christmas in detention, and those who have not been arrested are detained in house churches during the celebration! This represents the government’s lies and hypocrisy and propaganda.

And finally, here is testimony from a 24-year-old Afghan Christian refugee. She and her family, who were rescued from Afghanistan, must remain unnamed, and are living temporarily in refugee housing.

Up to now we never celebrated Christmas. Only between us we celebrated in my family. Here, also, no one celebrates Christmas. I hope one day I celebrate it and [can be] proud of my religion!

Thankfully, with wonderfully few exceptions, in our free country, we are free to celebrate together without fear or threat of danger. This is a great blessing—perhaps greater than we sometimes realize. Our problems are many, but the physical dangers for following our faith are few. As we hear the stories of others, let’s listen closely and remember them in our prayers.

As that familiar Christmas song “Do You Hear What I Hear?” says, “Pray for peace, people, everywhere…”

Listen: A Voice of Faith from Inside Iran’s Evin Prison

by Lela Gilbert

August 10, 2021

Iran is the 8th worst persecutor of Christians in the world. The radical mullahs that control the country have long been abusers of religious minorities, and display particular hostility for converts from Islam to Christianity. And, now, following the election of a new president, Ebrahim Raisi—who has a notoriously bloodstained past as an executioner of thousands of his countrymen—Christians are facing even stricter laws and crackdowns. And more and more frequently, Christians are sentenced for “activity against national security.”  

The Jerusalem Post recently reported that three Christian men are “being charged under a new amendment to the Iranian Penal Code known as Article 500-bis, which deals with ‘sectarian activities’ …” The amendment states that “any deviant education or propaganda that contradicts or interferes with the sacred Islamic shari’a, will be severely punished…”

Those who follow the plight of Iran’s Christians have, in recent days, called on the Iranian government to release one particular prisoner who suffers from ill-health and is serving an extremely harsh 10-year sentence for “acting against national security.” Nasser Navard, who just days ago passed his 60th birthday behind bars, has been imprisoned since January 2018 for his faith in Jesus Christ and his participation in a house church.  

Navard asks, “Is the fellowship of a few Christian brothers and sisters in someone’s home, singing worship songs, reading the Bible and worshipping God acting against national security?”

According to Article 18, a London-based non-profit organization that seeks to protect and promote religious freedom in Iran, “Nasser has appealed for a retrial on three occasions, but each time his request has been denied. He also recently applied for parole, having served over one-third of his sentence. Again, his request was denied.” 

How has Nasser Navard responded to these injustices and disappointments? Another courageous and outspoken Iranian Christian, Mary Mohammadi, recently recorded a message from Navard, which she forwarded to FRC. Here he speaks of his faith and his forgiveness of his captors. At this link, you’ll hear his voice and read, in English, his message of courageous faith and amazing forgiveness.

Thanks to Mohammadi’s perseverance and Navard’s testimony, we are able to remember this godly man in prison, “as if imprisoned with him” (Heb. 13: 3). May Navard’s illnesses be healed, and his appeals for freedom heard. Let’s join our voices with his in prayer.

A Personal Reflection on Israel’s Never-Ending Conflict with Hamas

by Lela Gilbert

May 25, 2021

On May 20, a news alert on my computer tersely announced that Israel was launching retaliatory strikes into the Gaza Strip. And, as always, this was in response to volleys of rockets launched by Hamas from Gaza into southern Israel. In fact, since some 50 rockets had struck Israel just since April, it was about time to react—yet again.

But the news story really came to life for me when a close friend started sending me WhatsApp messages from a bomb shelter in her Tel Aviv apartment building. She also forwarded photos and videos of skies alight with rockets and explosions in her own neighborhood.

She described how her building was shaking. And, later, on a phone call, I could hear blasts as Israel’s Iron Dome defense system blew up rocket after rocket, disabled before they could strike Israeli homes, hospitals, and schools.

Another friend wrote briefly that she was also in a shelter—safe but “Sleepless in Tel Aviv.”

Since I’d lived in Israel for more than a decade myself, those Hamas rocket attacks on civilian Israel neighborhoods sounded sadly familiar. In fact, by the time I returned to America in 2017, I had experienced several of Israel’s “operations” in Gaza. Time and again, the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) fought back to stop relentless attacks on Israeli cities, villages, and kibbutzim in the “Gaza Envelope”—the civilian area within reach of Gaza’s earlier short-range Qassam rockets.

The Hamas terrorist organization, which is funded by Iran, the Muslim Brotherhood, and other radical Islamists, is designated a terrorist group by Israel, the United States, European Union, and United Kingdom, as well as other powers. The Hamas Charter is lengthy, but it quite clearly calls for the destruction of Israel, declaring in part,

Our struggle against the Jews is very great and very serious. It needs all sincere efforts. The Islamic Resistance Movement is but one squadron that should be supported…until the enemy is vanquished and Allah’s victory is realized. It strives to raise the banner of Allah over every inch of Palestine…

I first arrived in Israel during the 2006 Lebanon War. At that time, rockets and missiles were being launched from Lebanon into Israel by Hezbollah—another Iranian proxy. In several places I visited, sirens wailed and people grabbed their children and ran for shelter. It was an amazing introduction to Israel and its people.

Just after the Lebanon War ended, I moved into a Jerusalem apartment. And once there was a peace agreement, I traveled with some new friends to Kiryat Shmona, an Israeli city close to the Lebanon border to see the widespread damage and talk to some traumatized residents.

So I was introduced to warfare early in my lengthy stay in Israel. Between rocket and mortar launches from Gaza in the South, a seemingly endless string of terror attacks in Jerusalem, and insistent threats and posturing about Hezbollah’s arsenal in the North, wars and rumors of wars never really went away.

On a couple of occasions, I traveled south to communities in the Gaza Envelope during rocket attacks. With other Christians, I visited a kibbutz where residents had been under sporadic fire for some months. A group of elderly men and women were being bussed to Eilat—a tranquil beach resort—for a few days of relief from persistent, jolting “red alerts” in the night.

One woman with shaky hands told me that most of the children in their community were bed-wetters and many of the adults required anxiety medications. “I’m really surprised you came,” she said. “My own children won’t visit me here.”

As we were about to leave, we heard a large explosion nearby, just as the bus to Eilat was pulling out.

Another trip to the South was with representatives of a Christian group that was installing a donated bomb shelter in a children’s school. Again, the assaults on that small town of unarmed civilians had been relentless.

In November 2012, during Israel’s “Operations Pillar of Defense,” for the first time I heard air-raid sirens in my own neighborhood as Gaza’s rapidly-expanding Hamas rocketry arsenal attempted to reach Jerusalem. The sirens warned us to seek shelter more than once.

In every case, the starting point of the conflicts that I witnessed was Hamas and Islamic Jihad terrorists attacking Israeli civilians. And after tolerating relentless and unprovoked rocket fire, the misery on the ground demanded a military response. This most recent battle was no exception.

In early May, Israel pushed back against rioters on Jerusalem’s Temple Mount, who among other aggressions, had gathered piles of large stones to drop on the heads of worshippers at the Western Wall. Also, because of an eviction notice issued to Arab families who were living rent-free—thanks to a decades-long property dispute—there was increasing violence, rioting, and a tough response by the Jerusalem Police.

And so it was that Hamas, once again, declared war on the Jewish State. They launched volleys of rockets—totaling some 4,000 deadly missiles—on civilian Israeli communities. At least 248 Palestinians were killed by Israeli air strikes during the conflict. Gaza’s rocket attacks killed 12 people in Israel, while countless lives were saved by Israel’s Iron Dome rocket defense system, which intercepted some 90 percent of the incoming Hamas missiles.

Based on what I’ve learned, and on what I’ve seen and heard with my own eyes and ears, Israel has the absolute right to defend its existence. It also has the moral obligation to protect its endangered civilian population. And as long as the Iranian regime, Hamas, and other radical Islamists continue their quest to “Drive the Jews into the Sea,” Israel will eventually have to go to war all over again.

Let us all remember Israel in our prayers. As the Bible teaches us,

Pray for the peace of Jerusalem:
“May those who love you be secure.
May there be peace within your walls
and security within your citadels.”
For the sake of my family and friends,
I will say, “Peace be within you.”
For the sake of the house of the Lord our God,
I will seek your prosperity.

Psalm 122:6-9 NIV

It’s Past Time for the U.S. to Formally Acknowledge the Armenian Genocide

by Lela Gilbert

April 23, 2021

Saturday, April 24 marks Armenian Genocide Memorial Day. And, reportedly, U.S. President Joe Biden is preparing to formally acknowledge that the systematic murder and deportation of millions of Armenia’s Christians by the Ottoman Empire more than a century ago was, in fact, genocide.

At the time of this writing, no official acknowledgement has occurred. And if Biden makes that declaration, he won’t be the first world leader to do so.

During a Sunday sermon in April 2015, Pope Francis referred to the 1915 Turkish mass killings of Armenians as the “first genocide of the 20th century.” Unsurprisingly, this papal declaration instantly flared into a diplomatic uproar. It absolutely infuriated Turkey’s Islamist President Tayyip Erdogan, who “warned” the Pope against repeating his “mistaken” statement.

Pope Francis was not mistaken. Those early 20th century massacres cost 1.5 million Armenian Christians their lives, along with another million Assyrian and Greek believers. Thanks to the Pope’s pronouncement and Erdogan’s outrage, the rest of the world was once again effectively reminded of the genocide’s terrors.

The tragic story began on April 24, 1915, when Turkish authorities arrested hundreds of Armenian professors, lawyers, doctors, clergymen, and other elites in Constantinople (now Istanbul). These revered members of the community were jailed, tortured, and hastily massacred.

After killing the most highly educated and influential men in the community, the Turks began house-to-house searches. Ostensibly they were looking for weapons, claiming that the Christians had armed themselves for a revolution. Since, in those days, most Turkish citizens owned rifles or handguns for hunting and self-defense, of course the Turks would find arms in Armenian homes. And this served as sufficient pretext for the government to arrest enormous numbers of Armenian men who were subsequently beaten, tortured, and murdered.

The family members who survived these home invasions—mostly women, children, the ill, and the elderly—were forced to embark upon what has been described as a “concentration camp on foot.” They were told they would be “relocated.” Instead, they were herded like animals with whips and cudgels. And at gunpoint, they were sent on a death march to nowhere.

The captives were provided with little or no food or water. Old people and babies were the first to die. Women were openly raped; mothers were gripped with insanity, helplessly watching their little ones suffer and succumb; more than a few took their own lives. Eyewitness accounts and photographs remain today, and they are heart wrenching. Corpses littered the roads; nude women were crucified; dozens of bodies floated in rivers.

On Jan. 5, 2015, Raffi Khatchadourian published a personal essay in The New Yorker about his Armenian grandfather, who somehow survived the Armenian Genocide. He described the brutality:

Whenever one of them lagged behind, a gendarme would beat her with the butt of his rifle, throwing her on her face till she rose terrified and rejoined her companions. If one lagged from sickness, she was either abandoned, alone in the wilderness, without help or comfort, to be a prey to wild beasts, or a gendarme ended her life by a bullet.

Some Turks claim that World War II-era Armenian Christians had aligned themselves with Russia and were therefore a threat to Turkish security. But although the excuse that Armenian Christians were “enemies of the Turkish State” is still bandied about, German historian Michael Hesemann has carefully documented that it was not only a genocide of Armenians, but also an extermination of the Christian element in the Ottoman Empire. It was an ethnic and religious cleansing.

In fact, the Armenian Genocide has been described as a jihad in numerous accounts. Armenian women were even told they would be spared if they would convert to Islam. It is noteworthy that at the genocide’s beginning, on November 13, 1914, a call to jihad—a holy war against Christian “infidels”—was officially announced by Ottoman Sultan Mehmed V Resad. The carnage began just days later.

And in the eyes of some Armenians, it has never stopped. I learned in October 2020—during a conversation with a friend in Yerevan—that Azerbaijan’s ongoing invasion of Nagorno-Karabakh was perceived by many Armenian Christians as the continuation of that same Islamist jihad against them.

Last October, the combined armies of Azerbaijan and Turkey, supported by Syrian mercenaries, ferociously attacked Nagorno-Karabakh’s Armenian enclave. Historic churches, ancient carved cross-stones called khachkars, monasteries, and other Christian shrines and properties were defaced, demolished, and dispossessed. Meanwhile, an estimated 100,000 refugees frantically fled across Armenia’s border.  

It is a well-known story but worth repeating that in 1939, as he planned his “Final Solution” to rid the world of Jews, Adolf Hitler notoriously said, “Who, after all, speaks today of the annihilation of the Armenians?”

Hitler was very wrong indeed. The world certainly will remember that annihilation on Armenian Genocide Memorial Day. Countless voices will speak out in remembrance of Turkey’s murdered Christian population. Will one of those voices be that of the President of the United States, Joe Biden?

If Biden has chosen to be the first U.S. President to officially declare that the slaughter of 1.5 million Armenians was historically a genocide, he will most certainly deserve our thanks and applause.

Urgent Prayer Alert: Six Somali Christians Face Life-or-Death Trial for their Faith

by Lela Gilbert

April 19, 2021

The East African country of Somalia is infamous for several reasons:

For hosting the bloodthirsty Islamist al-Shabaab terrorist group.

For being the site of the well-known “Black Hawk Down” battle which devastated U.S. military personnel and American efforts to provide humanitarian aid to the country.

And when it comes to human rights, poverty-stricken and war-torn Somalia has another particularly ugly mark against it: According to Open Doors’ World Watch List, Somalia is the third worst persecutor of Christians in the world.

Right now, April 19, 2021, a trial is taking place in Hargeisa, Somaliland that could cost the lives of six Somali Christians – all of them courageous converts from Islam who have been accused of “crimes” that may carry a death sentence.

Please pray with us for these Christians now and in the days to come.

According to court documents, the accusations against these believers include the following:

…disrupting the religious activities of the republic of Somaliland (Islamic religion), uniting and inciting against the law…because you have all been involved in spreading the Christian Protestant religion in Somaliland, and disrupting the faith of the Muslim community in the Republic of Somaliland by proselytizing and encouraging them to leave Islam and convert to Christianity…”

The court’s evidence for these life-and-death accusations includes:

  • Two books about Christianity and written in Somali that were taken from the house of accused;
  • A letter written in Somali about the Christian religion;
  • Bibles written in English and Bibles written in Amharic;
  • Numerous other books and extensive data from the defendants’ computers.

For Christians under such circumstances, the threat is not insignificant. As the U.S. State Department 2020 report explained regarding the situation in Somalia:

Al-Shabaab continued to impose its own interpretation of Islamic practices and sharia on other Muslims and non-Muslims, including executions as a penalty for alleged apostasy in areas under its control, according to media and UN sources.”

I wasn’t particularly surprised to learn that Christians were attacked in Somalia. More amazing to me was that after so many battle-scarred years and violent incidents, any Christians remained there at all. And not only do they remain, but according to reports, there are hundreds of new believers who continue to worship in secret underground churches – small gatherings comprised entirely of brave and faithful local converts from Islam.

Please take time today to pray for these brave and bold Christians who are facing a potentially painful future. Join us as we thank the Lord for their courage and remarkable faith. And ask the Lord to guide, protect and intervene for them – today and in the days to come, in Jesus’ name.

Terrible News for Nigeria’s Christians as Violence Increases

by Lela Gilbert

April 16, 2021

On Friday, April 16, the Washington Post reported that tens of thousands of Nigerians have fled deadly attacks by armed groups, making the shocking statement that “the latest rebel attack on Wednesday drove out as many as 80% of the population of Damasak, according to the U.N. refugee agency, who said up to 65,000 people were on the move… . Assailants looted and burned down private homes, warehouses of humanitarian agencies, a police station, a clinic, and also a UNHCR facility… .”

Trying to verify this almost unbelievable story, I wrote to my Nigerian Christian friend Hassan John – who actively reports about the ongoing tragedy in his country. He replied, “Yes, the attack on Damasak and surrounding villages has been intense in the last two weeks. Most Christians have fled in the last four weeks as the intensity of the fight increased. Boko Haram has now taken over control of most of the region around Lake Chad up to the Cameroonian boarders. They are now moving in towards Mauduguri.”

Family Research Council continues to actively document the deteriorating security situation here, as explained in our full report on Nigeria updated earlier this year. The report explains, “1,202 Nigerian Christians were killed in the first six months of 2020. This is in addition to 11,000 Christians who have been killed since June 2015. Such violence has reached a point at which expert observers and analysts are warning of a progressive genocide—a ‘slow-motion war’ specifically targeting Christians across Africa’s largest and most economically powerful nation.”

The stories that emerge from Nigeria are always terrifying and similar: heavily armed jihadis suddenly appear in the dead of night. They attack house after house, breaking down doors, shouting “Allahu Akbar.” They shoot the elderly and able-bodied men. They rape, mutilate, and murder women. They kidnap young boys and girls, often using them as slaves and concubines. They torch houses, schools, and churches.

Some villagers manage to flee into the bush. Too many of them are never seen again, while in following days it’s difficult to say for sure who is still alive, who has fled, and who has been kidnapped. Photos of survivors’ faces reflect the agony of trying to remember just what happened, exactly when the screaming and shooting began, and how they managed to escape with their lives after seeing friends and loved ones murdered or mutilated.

Beyond a doubt, there is a surging bloodbath in Nigeria. Murderous incidents are acted out with accelerating frequency and have long been attributed to two terror groups—Boko Haram and Fulani jihadis. Unfortunately, that picture is changing and worsening. The terrorist groups in Africa that enjoy major funding and notoriety are successfully reaching further into the continent, unifying their forces, absorbing other groups, and gaining greater power.

Olivier Guitta, Managing Director of GlobalStrat, ominously predicts the dawning of a new Caliphate. He writes:

Islamic State’s historical strong franchises have included the spinoff of Boko Haram in Nigeria that is part of Islamic State in West Africa Province. More recently the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara has made huge progress almost supplanting al-Qaeda as the top dog in the region … the future looks unfortunately bright for Islamic State in a continent with lots of fragile, corrupt quasi-failed states that could allow the birth of a Caliphate in mini territories in Mozambique, the Sahel and possibly Nigeria.

Nigeria is Africa’s largest state and its most prosperous. The population is 53 percent Christian. And the Christian community is often intentionally targeted because of its religious faith. In many rural areas, residents report that they never go to sleep at night assured that they will not be attacked and murdered before sunrise. Those who have survived attacks report that the perpetrators shouted “Allahu Akbar” as they killed and destroyed.

Meanwhile, while nearly daily reports of kidnappings, murders and massacres continue to appear, WSJ explains that Islamic State is transforming itself into a different kind of enemy by “embracing an array of militant groups as if they were local franchises. After its dreams of imposing draconian Islamist law in a self-declared state in Syria were crushed, Islamic State successfully injected itself into localized conflicts in Nigeria, Libya and across the Sahel, the semiarid belt running east-west along the southern edge of the Sahara.”

As American Christians, we often focus our attention solely on our own country and its increasingly anti-Christian leadership and legislation. However, as we watch, pray and respond to opportunities to push back against ungodly forces in our homeland, let’s also keep in mind that there never has been a more dangerous and deadly time for Christians all across the world.

Britain’s Guardian reports that “more than 340 million Christians—one in eight—face high levels of persecution and discrimination because of their faith, according to the 2021 World Watch List compiled by the Christian advocacy group Open Doors. It says there was a 60% increase over the previous year in the number of Christians killed for their faith. More than nine out of 10 of the global total of 4,761 deaths were in Africa.”

As we pray and lift up America’s present concerns, we ought also to remember to lift our eyes beyond our borders. Let’s pray for those who are endangered in faraway places—like long-suffering Nigeria—as if we were suffering with them.

Burma: More Dangerous Than Ever for Religious Minorities

by Lela Gilbert

April 1, 2021

 

Once upon a time, Burma was a land of romantic mystique. Rudyard Kipling’s 19th century poem “Mandalay” conveys that vision,

By the old Moulmein Pagoda, lookin’ lazy at the sea,
There’s a Burma girl a-settin’, and I know she thinks o’ me…

Sadly, Kipling’s reverie is light-years removed from today’s bitterly divided and dangerous Burma—also known as Myanmar. In an ever-worsening conflict that has recently seized the country, the Burmese Army is shooting protestors with live ammunition, innocent families are bombed by government aircraft, and more than a million refugees have fled abuses of unimaginable brutality.

Since February 1, 2021, Burma has been featured in near-daily international news reports decrying a violent military junta’s coup, which overthrew the government of Nobel Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi and her National League of Democracy (NLD). From that day until now, bloodshed has increasingly spread across the country.

Today’s Burma is a perilous war zone in which terrified ethnic and religious minorities are facing life-or-death dangers, and chaos reigns supreme. But even before the February 1 coup, Burma was a land of many dangers, and freedom of religion was virtually non-existent.

Although most westerners imagine that a Buddhist nation like Burma/Myanmar would be peaceful and gracious, the country’s military has long been ruthless. Christians, who live as an at-risk minority in several Burmese states, have faced ongoing mistreatment at the hand of a notoriously brutal army for decades. And Christians aren’t alone in their suffering. Rohingya Muslims have also experienced unimaginable cruelties.

These abuses have not gone unnoticed. In 2019, the U.S. government imposed punitive actions for the Burmese government’s human rights and religious freedom violations, including travel bans against military leaders for “gross human rights violations.” In December, the U.S. Department of State redesignated Burma as a “Country of Particular Concern” (CPC). In fact, since 1999 the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) has declared Myanmar a CPC in its annual reports. This has been due to violent practices, lawless abuses, and discriminatory treatment of non-Buddhists. The regime has used fines, imprisonment, forced conversions, starvation, gang rape, and child abuse as its array of weaponry.

Rohingya Muslims have been particularly targeted since 2016. That October, more than a hundred Rohingya men, armed with various weapons, including knives, slingshots, and rifles, attacked police and killed nine officers. Those insurgents attacked again in 2017. The Rohingya had been stateless for decades, but due to these acts of violence against the Burmese government, they immediately found themselves facing deadly retribution. More than a million have since fled.

In recent days, the Rohingya’s ongoing tragedy was horrifically amplified thanks to a fire in the refugee camp in Bangladesh where hundreds of thousands had taken shelter. On March 23, the New York Times reported that local authorities “searched for survivors…”

amid the smoldering ruins of a sprawling Rohingya refugee camp, one day after a fire killed at least 15 people, injured hundreds and left tens of thousands homeless once again. The carnage at the camp in Cox’s Bazaar, near the border with Myanmar, was the latest tragedy for residents, who have lived for years in its squalid shanties since fleeing their homes in Myanmar in the aftermath of a military-perpetrated massacre.

While that tragedy unfolded, the beleaguered Christians in Myanmar continue to face greater risks than ever. World Magazine reports,

In the ethnic Karen region in eastern Myanmar, villagers in Day Pu Noh Valley in Papun District noticed a military fighter jet flying overhead in the afternoon. That night, the military dropped bombs on the village—the first airstrikes in the region in 20 years—killing three people and wounding eight.

The gloves are off now,” Free Burma Ranger’s Dave Eubank said of the military’s escalation. “There’s no need to have a façade of democracy anymore, [the military] felt the cease-fires were not working in controlling the ethnic groups, so now they are doing what they were going to do all along.”

Dangers for Christians abound as protestors across the country rise up in defiance against the regime. And some believers remain terrified by the upheaval. Open Doors quoted one Christian: “I couldn’t sleep and I cried out to God more than three times that night. Our dreams, hopes, vision and freedom are taken away. Our lifetime has been full of grief, fear and trouble under the military regime. People are suffering because of the war. Job opportunities are also difficult now, and we are depressed by the military coup because we had hoped for a ceasefire.”

However, Christianity Today offered a different perspective. An evangelical leader described the civil disobedience in which some Christians are participating: “On the ground, our brothers and sisters [believers] will continue their movement…the drumming of pots and pans, peaceful mass marching demonstrations, and the chants of condemnation to the military. Abroad, we will let the world know that we are fighting back.” He went on to say, “Christians in Myanmar are not timid…Christians might fight with [their] greatest weapon, prayer and Jesus himself.”

This leader then offered a plea—one with which we can all respond with urgency. He said, “We also request all of you who sympathize [with] us, pray for us in this fight to overcome sin and Satan’s schemes.”

Yes. Let’s remember to pray that our Lord will extend mercy to the Rohingya and to all others who suffer under the iron fist of Burma’s military regime. And may He provide increased blessings, encouragement, and safety to Burma’s beleaguered Christians.

More Nigerian Schoolgirls Kidnapped while a Christian Pastor Pleads for His Life

by Lela Gilbert

March 1, 2021

In the early morning hours of Friday, February 26, CNN reported that hundreds of female students had been kidnapped overnight from their boarding school in Nigeria. “They came on about 20 motorcycles and they marched the abducted girls into the forest,” a source told CNN. “The bandits arrived around 1:45 a.m. and they operated ‘til about 3 a.m.”

This outrageous assault took place less than a week following the 3-year anniversary of the abduction of well-known Nigerian kidnapping victim, Leah Sharibu. In a similar invasion, on February 19, 2018, Leah’s school had been attacked, and she and her classmates were abducted by Boko Haram terrorists.

So now several hundred more schoolgirls have been taken captive. “Security forces and a local defense group have commenced a search…” reports HumAngle. The girls were “abducted by a terror group in the early hours of Friday from their school in Jengebe, Zamfara State, Northwest Nigeria. The schoolgirls were abducted when the terror group stormed the Government Girls Secondary School…and subsequently moved the students.”  

Freedom At What Price?

Since those initial reports, conflicting accounts from Nigerian news sources claim that the Zamfara girls have, in fact, been freed. Some even say there is video of their release.

But if, in fact, the girls are free, the Nigerian government has remained evasively silent about the terms of the release or the identity of the kidnappers. Jihadi activity was not initially indicated as an element in the schoolgirls’ abduction. Yet according to some observers, these widespread kidnappings represent cooperation between Boko Haram and Fulani radicals who may, in turn, have influence over the Nigerian government.

In fact, the Sultan of Sokoto has publicly linked Boko Haram to the widespread school kidnappings. “Make no mistake,” he recently said,  “the abduction is a classic example of the philosophical foundation of Boko Haram—that western education is forbidden. That’s why their targets are always on boarding schools, especially science schools, considered atheistic in pedagogy.”            

Boko Haram’s kidnapping of Leah Sharibu and her classmates horrifically demonstrated Boko Haram’s radical Islamist agenda. Her classmates, who were released, were Muslim girls. She, alone, refused to deny her Christian faith and has remained enslaved for three years. Leah has reportedly given birth to the child of one of her captors.

Anti-Christian attacks on Nigeria’s schools, villages, churches, and clergy are distressingly commonplace. According to a recently updated Family Research Council report, since 2015, over 12,000 Christians have been killed in Nigeria. Countless more believers have been gravely injured, displaced, kidnapped or have simply disappeared. Priests and pastors are often targeted for abduction, and over the years more than a few have been murdered—some by beheading. 

As for the Zamfara school, it not yet known how many Christian girls were among those taken captive. But on Sunday, Pope Francis joined the Bishops of Nigeria in appealing for the release of the recently abducted students.

Death Threats to a Christian Pastor 

Meanwhile, in a related and tragic story of religiously-based kidnapping, on February 25, Christian Pastor Bulus Yakuru, who was seized during a Christmas Eve attack, stated he will be executed within a week if President Muhammadu Buhari does not meet Boko Haram’s demands for his release. In a new video, Pastor Yakuru identified himself and pleaded with Nigeria’s president, the Borno State governor, and the Christian Association of Nigeria (CAN), the umbrella body of Christians in the country, to intervene and secure his release. 

During the attack in which Pastor Yakuru was taken, “At least seven people were killed when Boko Haram insurgents attacked the village of Pemi in Borno State on Dec. 24, 2020.” Pemi is located approximately 20 kilometers from Chibok, where Boko Haram abducted hundreds of schoolgirls.

It is true that escalating violence in Nigeria is widespread and banditry is rampant across the country. However, in the case of anti-Christian attacks—like those in which Leah Sharibu and Pastor Bulus Yakuru were seized and held captive—there is far more than banditry involved.

USCIRF has explained, “In December 2020, the U.S. Department of State designated Nigeria as a Country of Particular Concern (CPC) for the first time ever due to systematic, ongoing, and egregious violations of religious freedom. Violent attacks by Boko Haram and ethno-religious conflicts have become more frequent, and are exacerbated by the judiciary system.”  Meanwhile, Open Doors’ 2021 World Watch List has placed Nigeria as the world’s 9th worst persecutor of Christians.

With all this in mind, let’s especially remember Leah Sharibu and Pastor Bulus Yakuru in our prayers. And may God protect the tormented people of Nigeria from violent attacks that grow more deadly with every passing day.

Leah Sharibu: Held Captive 3 Years for Her Christian Faith

by Lela Gilbert

February 19, 2021

Today, February 19, 2021, marks a grim third anniversary for a young Nigerian Christian named Leah Sharibu.

In a horrifying terrorist attack on February 19, 2018, 14-year-old Leah was among more than 100 girls kidnapped by Boko Haram terrorists. Their abduction took place at 5:30 in the afternoon, when the girls were unexpectedly seized at Dapchi Girls’ Science and Technical College.

During the incident, four or five girls died in the back of a truck as they were violently transported to Boko Haram’s encampment. Thankfully, following a month of horrific captivity, and after enduring death threats and unspeakable abuses, nearly all the surviving girls were freed by their captors on March 21.

One girl, however, was left behind—Leah Sharibu.

Before long, it become clear that she had not returned home for one simple reason: The other girls were all Muslim. And Leah had refused to renounce her Christian faith.

In August 2018, The Cable, a Nigerian news source, obtained a recording of Leah, begging President Muhammadu Buhari to rescue her and reunite her with her family: “I am Leah Sharibu, the girl that was abducted in GGSS Dapchi. I am calling on the government and people of goodwill to intervene to get me out of my current situation.”

Leah’s appeal fell on deaf ears; no intervention took place.

Later, when she heard that her classmates were being set free, Leah asked one of them to carry a note to her mother, Rebecca Sharibu. “My mother you should not be disturbed,” she wrote. “I know it is not easy missing me, but I want to assure you that I am fine where I am… I am confident that one day I shall see your face again. If not here, then there at the bosom of our Lord Jesus Christ.”

Her mother later said, “She did an amazing thing by refusing to renounce Christ, and I’m very proud of what she has done. I’m not sure if I was even in her position at 14 years old that I would have even done what she has done.”

In the summer of 2019, I met Rebecca Sharibu in Washington, D.C. She had come to seek help from the United States, and her heartache was evident on her weary and sorrowful face. When I asked her what she had most recently heard about her daughter, she said, “We don’t even know where Leah is,” her friend translated. “We have not seen her. We have not heard from her. I have no idea.”

Around six months later, on January 26, 2020, The Cable again reported about Leah, this time claiming that she had been “impregnated by one of the commanders of the sect, and she was delivered of a baby four days ago.” It was impossible to confirm the story, although it implied that Leah was probably still alive.

Today, there is no further news about Leah Sharibu. But Nigeria’s abuses of religious freedom continue to accelerate. In fact, FRC has just released an updated account of what has been described by some as a slow-motion genocide: The Crisis of Christian Persecution in Nigeria.

According to a U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) report released in February 2021, estimates suggest that the conflict with groups like Boko Haram and the Islamic State in West Africa Province has resulted in the deaths of more than 37,500 people since 2011. There is a reasonable basis to believe that these groups have committed war crimes and crimes against humanity.  

USCIRF Vice Chair Tony Perkins adopted Leah as a prisoner of conscience, personally advocating for this brave hostage who refuses to renounce her faith. Yet sadly, not much has changed. Just weeks ago, Open Doors listed Nigeria as the ninth worst persecutor of Christians on its 2021 World Watch List. And massacres of Nigerian Christians have only increased.  

Meanwhile, as we mark the third year following her abduction, Leah Sharibu remains a captive. Mercifully, across the world, faithful prayers continue for her freedom. But reports about her have dwindled to silence, despite pleas from international human rights groups and Christian organizations appealing for her release

Dede Laugesen, Executive Director of Save the Persecuted Christians, reflects, “It is impossible to know what Leah Sharibu’s life is like now… By all appearances, the Nigerian government has given up on Leah. But the world will not forget this fearless Christian teen, nor give up praying for her and demanding her release. Nigeria must do more to ensure all Nigerians—Muslim, Christian or African traditionalists—are freed from the dens of these monsters.”

As the world’s attention is diverted to other crises, other violence, and ever-increasing Christian persecution elsewhere, the significance of Leah’s brave devotion to her faith continues to resonate. A few months ago in an eloquent opinion piece, Nigeria’s Guardian summed up the significance of Leah’s capture, her faithful witness at just 14 years of age, and her continued detention by the Boko Haram insurgents:

The story of her capture and her continued detention by the Boko Haram insurgents as a result of her defiance of compromise and refusal to renounce her faith is the stuff of legend … Leah Sharibu alone was not released because she refused to renounce her faith and convert to Islam as demanded by her captors. Still missing and in captivity till the present … she has since become the symbol of Nigeria’s refusal to succumb to agents of darkness, hell-bent on dividing the country and appropriating a section of the nation’s territory to themselves. By her principled stand, the battle for the soul of Nigeria became one between a young girl with a heart and a garrison of devils without souls.

As time goes by and other concerns arise, our memory of Leah Sharibu’s story may grow dim. Let’s agree to remember this courageous young woman in our prayers.

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