Author archives: Lela Gilbert

In Somalia: Christian Prisoners and Courageous Witnesses

by Lela Gilbert

October 27, 2020

The East African country of Somalia is best known to most Americans for three unsettling reasons. First of all, many learned about Somalia thanks to the tragic “Black Hawk Down” battle—the event, the book, and the film. The country is also infamous for attacks by Somali pirates on international shipping routes. And, today, the ruthless terrorist group al-Shabaab continues to torment its Somali homeland as well as the surrounding African nations.

Is Somalia a place for intrepid American tourists to visit? On October 5, 2020, the State Department scored it as a “Category 4” risk with a concise comment: “Do not travel to Somalia due to COVID-19, crime, terrorism, civil unrest, health issues, kidnapping, and piracy.”

And what about being a tempting site for Christian missionaries eager to reach out to Muslims? Sharia law prevails in most of the country, and where it is not officially enforced, the fierce implementation of apostasy and blasphemy laws (whether official or unofficial) is handled by locals, and particularly by those who support the anti-Christian goals of al-Shabaab—whether officially affiliated with the terror group or not.

The U.S. State Department 2020 report explained:

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. According to the BBC, by October this year (2019) was one of the deadliest on record for fatalities from al-Shabaab attacks, with numbers already more than 1,200.

With all that in mind, I was shocked to hear from an alarmed representative of New Covenant Missions about a Christian family that had recently been arrested in Hargeisa on September 21. The Somaliland Police accused the couple of abandoning Islam, and even more dangerously, of evangelizing the people of Somaliland. According to a report about the incident from Somali Bible Society, “The spokesperson’s speech was peppered with threats against local Christians.”

The report went on to say that the arrested man had been tortured; his wife had delivered a baby by C-section just weeks before the arrest and required urgent medical attention, and the baby was in need of maternal care and breastfeeding.

I wasn’t particularly surprised to learn that Christians were attacked in Somalia. More amazing to me was that after so many war-torn 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.

But what about that imprisoned family? What can any of us do in the face of such a tragic report? Of course, to begin with, let’s agree to pray for this couple and their baby. For reasons of security we should simply call the parents “Mohammed” and “Nebiyat.” And let’s also thank God for the holy light of Christian lives shining in such a dark place. What amazing courage these new believers have!

And finally, let’s not fail to pray for the brave outreach groups from the United States and elsewhere—groups like New Covenant Missions. They are operating in one of the most dangerous and chaotic places on earth. Let’s pray for all concerned—prisoners and ministers alike—and for their safety, encouragement, and inspiration to carry on their heroic ministries.

Nagorno-Karabakh: Where Armenian Christians Are Fighting for Their Lives

by Lela Gilbert

October 22, 2020

On October 1, 2020, a violent and dangerous war erupted in a tiny Christian enclave—a spot on the globe few Americans can probably find. And it bears a name that even fewer know how to pronounce: Nagorno-Karabakh (also known as Artsakh).

On October 21, the New York Times reported, “The three-week-old conflict between Azerbaijan and Armenia over a disputed territory in the Caucasus Mountains, where Europe meets Asia, has settled into a brutal war of attrition, soldiers and civilians said in interviews here on the ground in recent days. Azerbaijan is sacrificing columns of fighters, Armenians say, to eke out small territorial gains in the treacherous terrain of Nagorno-Karabakh, an ethnic Armenian enclave that is part of Azerbaijan under international law…” The Times continues:

Azerbaijan, an oil and gas hub on the Caspian Sea, has deployed superior firepower, using advanced drones and artillery systems … But three weeks into the conflict, Azerbaijan has failed to convert that advantage into broad territorial gains, indicating that a long and punishing war looms. It could morph into a wider crisis …

Turkey’s involvement in this war, led by its ruthless president, is highly controversial. As I wrote for the Jerusalem Post a few months ago:

Turkish aggression in at least five countries has been headlined in international news reports just this month, June 2020. These accounts focus on President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s latest intrusions into Israel, Libya, Iraq, Syria and Greece.

Meanwhile, it is noteworthy to those of us who focus on international religious freedom that whenever Turkey moves in, religious freedom moves out. There can be no lasting freedom of worship for any faith unless it conforms with Turkey’s Islamic practices.

Today we can add Nagorno-Karabakh and Armenia to the list of Erdogan’s desired conquests. His hostile grasping into other lands, his transformation of Istanbul’s Hagia Sophia and Chora Church into mosques, and his militant outbursts underscore an intense desire to Islamize the region under the auspices of a renewed Ottoman Empire.

Azerbaijan is more than happy to have Turkey’s support—some say instigation—to continue cleansing Nagorno-Karabakh of Armenians. That would enable the Azeris, supported by their Turkish allies, to reclaim Nagorno-Karabakh’s disputed cities, towns, and villages for itself. And Turkey’s firepower is formidable.

But besides placing Turkish soldiers in harm’s way alongside the Azeris, Erdogan has also financed Syrian jihadi mercenaries—reportedly thousands of them—to augment the attack on the Armenian enclave. Foreign Policy headlined one story, “Syrians Make Up Turkey’s Proxy Army in Nagorno-Karabakh: After fighting Turkey’s battles in Libya, the Syrian National Army is caught in the conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan—and dozens are dying.”

In 1994, the first serious round of this conflict took place and some 30,000 died. At the time of this writing, although precise numbers are unclear, it appears that thousands more Azeris, Turks, Syrian mercenaries, and Armenians have lost their lives in the present fighting.

Most of Nagorno-Karabakh’s residents are Armenian Christians. And Armenia is, of course, well known, primarily because of the Armenian Genocide, which took place in the early 20th century. During that bloodbath, the Ottoman Empire’s Turkish Muslims slaughtered some 1.5 million Armenians, along with thousands more Pontic Greek and Assyrian Christians. 

Turkey has long denied those horrifying massacres, which the rest of the world has recognized and mourned. In fact, the Armenian Genocide is far too well documented by photos, personal accounts, and governmental reports to be plausibly refuted. 

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, as I recently learned in a conversation with a friend in Yerevan, Azerbaijan’s present invasion is perceived by most Armenian Christians as the continuation of that same Islamist jihad against Armenia’s Christians.

Armenia was the first country in the world to convert to Christianity—in 301 AD. Its Armenian Orthodox Church is rooted in the earliest Christian history. In fact, the biblical record of Armenia’s land stretches back to the book of Genesis, when Noah’s ark came to rest after the Great Flood on what came to be known as Mt. Ararat. To this day, the deep faith of the Armenian people is evident. The historic role of the Christian faith in this land is undisputed.

Some years after the 1994 conflict, I traveled to Nagorno-Karabakh and Armenia with Baroness Cox, Lifetime Peer in the U.K.’s House of Lords. It was during that trip I first learned that this conflict is not simply an “ethnic dispute.” It holds deep religious significance for combatants and civilians alike. Meanwhile, I was struck by Caroline Cox’s heart for the local Christians, their churches, and their charities.

With regard to the present fighting, a few days ago Baroness Cox sent me some of her present insights. Unsurprisingly, she strongly “condemns Turkey’s provocative actions and demands the immediate withdrawal of the Turkish armed forces, including the air force and jihadi terrorist mercenaries from the conflict zone.”

She continued: “The direct involvement of Turkey and the scale and ferocity of this offensive raises the genuine fear of an attempt at the genocide of the Armenian people which Turkey’s highest leadership has declared in so many ways … The revival of Ottoman rhetoric by the Turkish government reinforces the possibility/danger of realization of this evil intent.”

Baroness Cox concluded: 

In the previous attempt by Turkey to achieve the genocide of the Armenians in 1915, the UK stood firmly against it. The historic and recent acts of ethnic cleansing committed by Turkey and Azerbaijan mean that for the Armenians, the preservation of Artsakh is a question of survival for their people and for their spiritual, cultural, and political heritage.

Losing the Life They Once Knew: The Harrowing Plight of Coptic Christians

by Lela Gilbert

October 14, 2020

We are the Church of Martyrs” is a phrase heard over and over in conversations with young Copts,” writes Martin Mosebach, author of the profound and powerful book, The 21: A Journey into the Land of Coptic Martyrs. He provides a detailed portrait of each of the 21 men who died on a Libyan beach—all but one Egyptian, beheaded by ISIS on February 15, 2015.

It is the honorary title of the Coptic Church but has also been undeniably prophetic. For throughout history, the Copts have been given countless opportunities to maintain their status as just that: a fellowship of martyrs.”

So it was in 2015 for those faithful Christian men who refused to deny their faith at the cost of their lives, and so the threat remains today in their homeland.

Although some international observers, such as USCIRF, have noted that Christian persecution in Egypt seems to have diminished somewhat in recent years, they are also obliged to note that it most certainly has not disappeared. On Friday, October 9, Premier Christian News reported, “A mob of extremists have attacked the homes of Coptic Christians in the Egyptian village of Dabous. The attack occurred after a wedding taking place in a neighboring village was interrupted by two young Muslim extremists, who bullied and beat a 10-year-old Coptic Christian child.” 

The beating of an innocent child was too much to bear for the those who watched. International Christian Concern explained, “Some Christian adults subsequently confronted the two attackers. Mina, a 25-year-old resident of the village, explained to ICC‘The cause of the story was that two Muslim men who don’t belong to our village beat a young Coptic kid. The Coptic men didn’t accept that.’ The confrontation became violent and resulted in the Muslim individuals receiving injuries.”

Unsurprisingly, the upheaval continued into the next day, when the Muslim men retaliated. Before the dust settled, there had been extensive property damage and many wounds. There were calls for a “reconciliation” meeting, a sort of false attempt at diplomacy in which both sides of a dispute are called upon to bear equal responsibility for the harm done. Meanwhile, the guilty parties are never required to pay the price for their initial provocation.

Open Doors’ World Watch explains, “Many Egyptian Christians encounter substantial roadblocks to living out their faith. There are violent attacks that make news headlines around the world, but there are also quieter, more subtle forms of duress that burden Egyptian believers. Particularly in rural areas in northern Egypt, Christians have been chased from villages, and subject to mob violence and intense familial and community pressure. This is even more pronounced for Christians who are converts from Islam.”

Clearly illustrated by the recent story about Dabous, Egyptian males are often responsible for various assaults and violent outbursts. But all too often, it is Christian females who pay the highest price for their faith. And far too many continue to suffer in silence.

As I have reported elsewhere, Egypt’s Christian girls and women continue to face a silent epidemic of kidnapping, rape, beatings, and torture. Innumerable girls and women vanish forever, and even if they are somehow rescued, their stories are thought to be so shameful that they’re hidden as dark family secrets. Sometimes doctors are able to quietly repair internal damage and “restore virginity” to the abused. Priests, if made aware of the situation, may try to protect family reputations when the girls return.

But the devastated survivors will never be the same.

The attacks vary—some happen randomly, when a vulnerable female is spotted walking alone on a sidewalk. Other are plotted by Islamist consortiums, who pay kidnappers as much $3,000 per girl. The assailants rape the victims, hold them in captivity, then demand that the terrified young women convert to Islam—often violently abusing them until they surrender.

For more years than can be counted, it has remained true that Egypt’s Copts belong to a “fellowship of martyrdom.” Not all of them are murdered—like those beheaded on a distant beach, or blown apart in bombed churches. But too many Christians have lost the life they once knew—whether it has been stolen by fanatical kidnappers, or violated by thugs, or simply reduced to a struggle for survival by constant threats of Islamist violence.

Violence Is Increasing Against Nigeria’s Christian Communities

by Lela Gilbert

October 2, 2020

In July 2020, Family Research Council published a major report on the suffering of Nigeria’s Christians, describing the murderous attacks against them and the Islamist ideology that lies behind them. Since then, the death toll of those Christians who are targeted solely because of their faith has continued to soar.

Our FRC Issue Analysis began:

Since the dawn of the twenty-first century, and with horrifying acceleration in recent years, verified reports of murders, rapes, mutilations, and kidnapping of Christians in Nigeria have persistently increased. These attacks are frequently accompanied by the torching of homes, churches, villages, and agricultural fields. A July 15, 2020 headline reports that 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.

Last week—two months later—Decision Magazine reported, “Pressure has mounted recently on the Trump administration to more aggressively address the violence that has claimed some 60,000 Christians in the last 15 years….In addition, an estimated 2 to 3 million people have been displaced by the violence committed by the ISIS-affiliated terrorist group Boko Haram and militant Muslim Fulani herdsmen. There are reports of widespread hunger and health needs among the displaced, who are often living in squalor.”

The number of Nigerians dead, mutilated, wounded, and left homeless in the past decade is accelerating. This is particularly true when, for multiple reasons, the U.S. and other governments have done so little to stop the carnage.

Retired Congressman and religious freedom expert Frank Wolf, along with several others, participated in a September 16 press conference hosted by the International Committee on Nigeria [ICON] in Washington, D.C. An outspoken voice against the Nigerian government’s failure to control the killers in their midst, Mr. Wolf addressed the question of whether the crisis is a “potential genocide.” He emphatically rejected the word “potential,” “Genocide!” he asserted. “Genocide is taking place in Nigeria!”

Three groups are responsible for the attacks against Nigeria’s Christians: Fulani radicals, the notorious Boko Haram, and the burgeoning Islamic State West Africa Province (ISWAP). The UK’s All-Party Parliamentary Group for International Freedom or Belief (APPG) noted in a recent influential report that the Fulani herdsmen have adopted “a comparable strategy to Boko Haram and ISWAP and demonstrate a clear intent to target Christians and potent symbols of Christian identity.”

Meanwhile, Nigerian reporter Akin Osuntoku writes, “Today, a new breed of herdsman has emerged: an aggressive and murderous terrorist bearing sophisticated firearms such as AK-47s and even rocket launchers. And they become the mobile avant-garde army of political Islam in Nigeria. Given the country’s porous borders, many of them are recent immigrants from neighboring countries. Herdsmen from Niger, Chad and Mali can walk across the border and immediately lay claim to all the sacrosanct rights appertaining to bona fide Nigerian nationals.”

Because of the aggression of these brutal jihadi groups, and thanks to the muted response of the world’s most powerful nations, Nigeria’s tragic stories never seem to stop. For that reason, reflecting FRC’s increasing alarm over untold numbers of abused and neglected Christians, we invited Richard Ikiebe to the Values Voter Summit to participate in a conversation with us from his Nigeria home. His words bring to life the ongoing struggle he and his fellow believers are facing:

Armenia: An Unwelcome Conflict and a Call to Prayer

by Lela Gilbert

September 28, 2020

How familiar are most Americans with the ancient country of Armenia? It’s probably best recalled because of the great tragedy that took place there in the early 20th century—the Armenian Genocide. That massacre of some 1,500,000 Armenian Christians (along with the murder of around 750,000 Greek Christians) took place between 1914 and 1922.  

In recent days, violence has erupted once again in Armenia’s corner of the world. This involves Christian Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh versus Muslim Azerbaijan. And now, Islamist Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan has entered the fray, fueled by his dream of a neo-Ottoman caliphate.

On Monday, September 28, Germany’s Deutsche Welle (DW) News reported:

Armenia and Azerbaijan have accused each other of reigniting their decades-long conflict in the enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh after fresh violence erupted in the breakaway region.

The two sides resumed open conflict again on Monday morning with the use of heavy artillery. Outbreaks of violence had continued through the night, according to the Armenian Defense Ministry spokesperson Shushan Stepanyan.

During night battles continued with different intensity. Early in morning, Azerbaijan resumed its offensive operations, using artillery, armored vehicles, TOS heavy artillery system,” Stepanyan wrote on Twitter…

At least 31 people — both civilians and military — have died in fighting that erupted on Sunday between Azerbaijani forces and Armenian rebels in the breakaway Nagorno-Karabakh region, officials said.

The early 20th century genocides, which were carried out by the Ottoman Turks, are widely understood to have been a jihad against Armenian Christians. In fact, at the time, the killings were declared as jihad by the Turks themselves. And according to my conversation today with a friend in Yerevan, Azerbaijan’s present invasion is perceived by Armenians as more of the same.

There are deeply rooted historical reasons for this understanding.

Armenia, which is now surrounded by Muslim countries, was the first country in the world to convert to Christianity—in 301 AD. Its Armenian Orthodox Church is rooted in the earliest Christian history. In fact the biblical record of Armenia’s land stretches back to the book of Genesis, when Noah’s ark came to rest after the Great Flood on what came to be known as Mt. Ararat.

At the time those 1,500,000 Armenian souls were massacred at the end of World War I during the Genocide, Armenia’s historic possession of Mt. Ararat also was overturned by Turkey. Ever since, the mountain has remained a potent symbol both of Armenia’s spiritual heritage and terrible forfeitures.

And now—as of today—conflict is again exploding against Armenia, including the little-known Armenian enclave called Nagorno-Karabakh. This separate remnant of Armenia—some 20 miles away from the existing border—was created by policies of the former U.S.S.R., when ethnic and religious groups were intentionally split apart.

In the early 1990s, Nagorno-Karabakh’s Christian communities were attacked by neighboring Azerbaijan, Azeri Turks, and other Muslim fighters. This conflict was widely understood by the Armenians as an extension of the earlier 20th century “jihad.” Miraculously, in a David vs. Goliath finish, Karabakh won that conflict—against all odds.  

During a visit to Nagorno-Karabakh a few years after that battle, I learned that the conflict was clearly not just about land. There was a Muslim/Christian component as well. And there were, in fact, jihadi elements among the Azeri-Turks fighting against Armenia’s Christians. Tragically, some 30,000 died in that little-known war.

And now, Turkey’s ambitious Islamist President Erdogan has declared Armenia as “the biggest threat to peace in the region.” His latest posturing threatens Armenia and Karabakh, both of which are almost entirely Armenian Orthodox Christian.

As I wrote for The Jerusalem Post a few months ago:

Turkish aggression in at least five countries has been headlined in international news reports just this month, June 2020. These accounts focus on President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s latest intrusions into Israel, Libya, Iraq, Syria and Greece.

Meanwhile, it is noteworthy to those of us who focus on international religious freedom that whenever Turkey moves in, religious freedom moves out. There can be no lasting freedom of worship for any faith unless it conforms with Turkey’s Islamic practices.

Now we can add Armenia to the list of Erdogan’s ambitions. Based on his recent hostilities, his transformation of Istanbul’s Hagia Sophia and Chora Church into mosques, and his frequent expressions of triumphalism, a couple of serious questions arise:   

Does Erdogan think that Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh, which are ancient Christian historical heritage sites, represent yet another Hagia Sophia-type landmark? Does he feel driven to seize, Islamize, and declare them as yet more trophies for his neo-Ottoman Empire?

Those questions seem to be clearly answered in a report from Asia News:

Turkey has sent 4,000 Syrian Isis mercenaries from Afrin to fight against the Armenians of Nagorno Karabakh. A few days ago land convoys reached Turkey and then Azerbaijan by air. The salary is 1,800 US dollars a month, for a duration of three months. A leader of the Syrian terrorist group said: “Thanks to Allah, from September 27 until the end of the month another 1000 Syrian mercenaries will be transferred to Azerbaijan”.

With another dangerous religious conflict exploding across that war-torn region, let’s remember to pray for our Armenian Christian brothers and sisters. May religious freedom truly flourish in their corner of the world as well as elsewhere around the globe.

Burma’s Relentless Abuse of Christians and Rohingya Muslims

by Lela Gilbert

September 9, 2020

Burma’s Christians have long faced ongoing and terrible mistreatment at the hands of the country’s militant Buddhist authorities. In fact, since 1999, the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) has declared Myanmar (also known as Burma) a “Country of Particular Concern” (CPC) because of its violent practices, lawless abuses, and discriminatory treatment of non-Buddhists. Burma’s regime has used fines, imprisonment, forced conversions, starvation, gang rape, and child abuse to oppress Christians.

But Christians aren’t the only ones who suffer in Burma. Muslims are also viciously persecuted.

In 2017,  triggered by a relatively small insurgency, Rohingya Muslims began to face increasing violence and fled by the thousands into neighboring Bangladesh in what many observers have called ethnic cleansing—or even genocide. Still today—three years later—the situation of the Rohingyas continues to fester.

According to USCIRF’s 2020 report, since the violence began—including the clearance operations that Burma’s security forces first launched in October 2016—nearly 725,000 Rohingya Muslims have fled to Bangladesh, whose refugee population in Cox’s Bazar (see above image) now totals 1.1 million. One refugee told USCIRF that whereas previously the authorities in Burma’s Rakhine State only restricted Rohingya Muslims’ freedoms, since the October 2016 and August 2017 waves of violence “the authorities rape, burn, and kill them.”

On August 25, USCIRF marked the third anniversary of Burma’s Rohingya crackdown:

Three years after the beginning of the genocidal campaign against the Rohingya people, the Burmese government has done almost nothing to hold the military accountable or make conditions safe for the Rohingya to return to their homes,” USCIRF Commissioner Nadine Maenza stated. “Refugee camps are not a long-term solution for the Rohingya people. The United States and the international community must reinvigorate and catalyze efforts to permit the Rohingya to return to their home in Burma as full citizens.

At the same time, Voice of America reported, “Burmese leaders still aim to eradicate the Rohingya. The Rohingya are being destroyed. The lives of the remaining 600,000 Rohingya in Burma are under house arrest,” said Tun Khin, a leading Rohingya activist. He explained that the United States has always played a leading role in tackling ethnic crimes, and other countries will follow suit if the United States now stands up for the Rohingya.

It was long hoped that a beloved icon of freedom, Myanmar’s Nobel Peace Prize winner, Aung San Suu Kyi—who once spent years under house arrest in her Burmese homeland, and whose appeals for peace earned her a Nobel Prize—would speak up now that she serves as “State Counsellor,” Burma’s de facto leader. But tragically, her former international honor has been tarnished.

Arab News has reported widespread international disappointment with Aung San Suu Kyi. She “has so far failed to speak out on the violence, leaving her global reputation in tatters. Rights groups, activists — including many who campaigned for her in the past — and her fellow Nobel laureates Malala Yousafzai and Archbishop Desmond Tutu have condemned her.”

Unfortunately, discrimination against the Rohingya was dramatically aggravated by a militant insurgency within the Rohingya community itself. This insurgency, known as ARSA, had its beginnings far from Southeast Asia. On August 31, 2017, the Chicago Tribune published an AP report about the group’s initial development:

The group was formed last year by Rohingya exiles living in Saudi Arabia, according to the International Crisis Group, which detailed ARSA’s origins in a report last year. It is led by Attullah Abu Amar Jununi, a Pakistani-born Rohingya who grew up in Mecca, and a committee of about 20 Rohingya emigres. ICG says there are indications Jununi and others received militant training in Pakistan and possibly Afghanistan.

The insurgents’ first attacks took place in October 2016, when more than a hundred Rohingya men, armed with various weapons, including knives, slingshots, and rifles, attacked police and killed nine officers. In August 2017, the group struck again, attacking a far larger area, which included Buddhist villages, killing many civilians as well as targeting police. Unsurprisingly, this resulted in a fierce response by the Burmese authorities, leading to the torching of numerous Rohingya villages and the killing, rape, and displacement of thousands.

The ARSA rebels have since declared a “ceasefire.” However, the damage activated by their insurgency has since resulted in the unending flood of displaced Rohingyas who clearly had nothing to do with ARSA terrorism or any other crimes. Nonetheless their plight seems never ending.

And at the same time, Burma’s Christians also continue to be mistreated and abused.

The Wall Street Journal has reported that the four million Christians in Burma make up about 8.2 percent of the mostly Buddhist population. They live in the country’s margins and belong to ethnic minority groups such as the Karen, Kachin, Chin, Karenni, Lahu, and Naga. They experience everything from discrimination to violent abuse.

For example, as USCIRF recently noted:

Beginning in 2018, Burma’s Chinese-backed United Wa State Army (UWSA) has targeted Christians in territory under its control. Under the guise of confronting “religious extremism,” UWSA soldiers interrogated and detained almost 100 pastors; ordered others to leave the region; closed religious schools and churches; destroyed unauthorized churches; banned new church construction; and forcibly recruited Christian students. In late 2018, the UWSA released those detained after they signed a pledge to pray only at home. In December 2019, the UWSA reopened 51 of the more than 100 churches closed with the rest remaining closed.

Tragically for persecuted Christians—and of course for mistreated Rohingyas and other religious minorities in Burma and far beyond—little awaits them but uncertainty, deprivation, and despair. May God have mercy on them all. And may those of us who enjoy religious freedom continue to pray, provide support, and speak out on their behalf.

In North Korea, the Choice to Be a Christian Can Be Fatal

by Arielle Del Turco , Lela Gilbert

September 8, 2020

When Ji Hyeona was growing up in North Korea, the word “faith” meant being loyal to the Kim family dictators.

Religious freedom doesn’t exist in North Korea and adhering to any religion is extremely dangerous, as Ji found out for herself. One day, she was taken to the local Ministry of State Security without warning. There, she was beaten and tortured, not knowing why she was being singled out for such treatment.

Then, the authorities placed Ji’s Bible on the desk in front of her. It was a Bible her mother had brought back to North Korea after a trip to China, and Ji had begun to read it. Sadly, her own friend had reported her to the government for possessing a Bible.

At the time, Ji was able to talk her way out of further punishment, but she was informed she would not be forgiven if this happened again.

This would not be Ji’s last encounter with North Korean authorities. She managed the difficult escape from North Korea four times—and was forcibly repatriated back to North Korea by Chinese authorities three times. Forced labor in prison camps awaits those who dare leave the hermit kingdom.

Twice in China, Ji was forced into prostitution, and during one repatriation to North Korea, she returned pregnant. Because so-called “mixed-race” babies are not recognized in North Korea, repatriated defectors who return pregnant endure brutal and heartbreaking forced abortions. Ji was no exception.

Ji continues to tell her story despite how painful it is. Why? She says, “While people are dying and the rest of the world watches that… if they maintain their silence despite knowing what is going on, I don’t think that’s right.”

For nearly two decades, Open Doors’ World Watch List has continuously designated North Korea as the #1 worst persecutor of Christians in the world. The horrifying stories told by escapees like Ji describe unimaginable cruelties under the brutal Kim family’s authority.

The 2020 U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) report explains, “The (North Korean) government treats religion as a threat…Christians are especially vulnerable because the government views them as susceptible to foreign influence. … Anyone caught practicing religion or even suspected of harboring religious views in private is subject to severe punishment, including arrest, torture, imprisonment, and execution.”

On top of the hardships created by the failed communist state, speculation about the status of COVID-19 in North Korea continues. Timothy Cho from Open Doors UK, himself a North Korean defector, says that the hurting economy and widespread malnutrition make North Koreans especially vulnerable to the coronavirus: “North Korea was already presenting with existing issues of ongoing starvation and malnutrition and economic crisis. What’s been happening since this virus lockdown [is] they had closed the borders with China. So, it has radically decreased the amount of imported food and medicine, this is the reason why a lot of items’ prices have gone up to more than four times and some of these imported food and foodstuff are difficult to find in the market.”

North Korea has also experienced historic levels of rainfall this summer. Floods have destroyed hundreds of homes in addition to ruining large rice fields. Due to the fragility of the country’s agricultural system, experts suggest the year’s harvest may be significantly affected, ultimately leading to food shortages.

The secretive and controlling North Korean regime makes it difficult for new information about the country’s deplorable human rights conditions, shoddy health care system, and economic and agricultural failures to reach the rest of the world. But while the situation rarely makes international news, we would be remiss to forget or ignore the plight of North Koreas, including those who suffer for their faith every day.

Please remember faithful Christians in prayer. It takes great courage to practice one’s faith in the type of isolation forced upon North Korean believers. Simple acts like praying or owning a Bible put their very lives at risk. 

Much remains uncertain about the future of the hermit kingdom. Renewed talks between the United States and North Korea remain a possibility in the coming months and years. Meanwhile, rumors still swirl about shifting power dynamics within the regime. However, one thing is certain. No matter what developments occur among regime officials or what deals they try to strike with other nations, the United States and other free countries must do everything in their power to press for religious freedom and human rights in North Korea. Far too many people are suffering, silenced by their oppressive government and unable to speak up for themselves.

Pakistan’s Religious Injustice: Prayers and Pressure Needed

by Lela Gilbert

August 5, 2020

Once again, Pakistan is in the news. Unsurprisingly, the news is bad. And even less surprisingly, the latest news from that troubled country centers around religion—more specifically the lack of religious freedom in Pakistan.

This past week, an American citizen was shot dead in Peshawar, and he didn’t die in a dark alleyway or in a terrorist attack. No, according to CNN, “Tahir Ahmed Naseem, 47, died on Wednesday… after a member of the public walked into the courtroom and opened fire in front of the judge, according to officials.”

Naseem, who belonged to the Ahmadiyya sect, had been charged with blasphemy, a crime punishable by death under the Pakistan penal code. And before a judge could decide on his fate, he was assassinated by an Islamist thug.

Clearly, blasphemy certainly isn’t a deadly crime in North America. Indeed, during recent violence across the U.S., relentless insults have been hurled at Christians and Christianity, whether in word or deed. Statues of priests and missionaries have been toppled, sanctuaries and religious schools vandalized, and at least one historic mission torched. Meanwhile, verbal abuse of God-fearing Jews is common parlance in anti-Israel protests and on social media.

However, blasphemy in Pakistan is another story. Blasphemy has become a deadly preoccupation of the country’s radical Muslims, whose constitution provides them full opportunity to incite violence and when possible, to imprison or kill anyone accused—most often falsely—of insulting Allah, the Prophet Mohammad, or the Koran, Islam’s religious holy book.

A former member of the Pakistani parliament and my courageous friend and journalist, Farah Ispahani told me,

Pakistan’s blasphemy laws have become more pernicious and dangerous as the society at large has become more extremist and unwilling to share space with those of other beliefs like Pakistan’s Christians, Hindus and Sikhs – and even those of the same faith, but of different sects like Ahmadi and Shia Muslims. There is still a majority of Pakistanis who will not kill someone who believes or practices differently, but those of other faiths have become fearful of armed jihadi groups, and the madrasahs the killers come from.

Her statement has been confirmed by an article in the New York Times with the headline, “Poor and Desperate, Pakistani Hindus Accept Islam to Get By.” According to the story, in June dozens of Hindu families converted to Islam in a mass ceremony. “What we are seeking is social status, nothing else,” one of the new converts candidly told a reporter.

In an interview for the Times report, Ms. Ispahani explained, “The dehumanization of minorities coupled with these very scary times we are living in — a weak economy and now the pandemic — we may see a raft of people converting to Islam to stave off violence or hunger or just to live to see another day.”

Most Christians in Pakistan are unlikely to convert to Islam, but they are more than aware of the risks they face every day. This, not only thanks to the dehumanization they experience, but also in dread of false blasphemy accusations.

Blasphemy accusations can result if a non-Muslim speaks an unkind word against a neighbor or posts a careless insult on social media. But more than often, there’s no real offense to begin with. Such charges can emanate from the lies and libels of jealous neighbors, or from false statements made by mocking adolescents, or even from winning the jackpot at a card game.

Meanwhile, winning a case against false accusations in Pakistan is another story. As the story of Tahir Naseem makes clear, the legal system provides no protection nor opportunity for a fair trial. How did an armed fanatic find his way into Naseem’s courtroom and manage to shoot him dead? It was possible because vigilantes have virtually free reign in Pakistan. Christians accused of blasphemy have as much to fear from fanatical mobs as from unjust judges.

Who can forget the tragic story of Asia Bibi? A simple farmworker whose initial offense was drinking water from a common cup with other berry-pickers, she ended up on death row for nine years on false blasphemy charges. She was eventually freed and fled the country, thanks to a widespread international outcry.

Yet even though she escaped, Asia Bibi’s life was destroyed and her false charges ended up costing the lives of two government officials who tried to defend her. Both prominent politicians, Shahbaz Bhatti, minister for Christian minorities, and Salmaan Taseer, the governor of Punjab, were assassinated in 2011 for opposing Pakistan’s blasphemy laws, and for speaking out in Asia Bibi’s defense.

Pakistan is, indeed, a “country of particular concern,” as re-designated by USCIRF in December 2019, “for engaging in systematic, ongoing, and egregious violations of religious freedom, as defined by the International Religious Freedom Act (IRFA).” Meanwhile, Open Doors listed Pakistan as #5 on its 2020 World Watch List of the 50 worst persecutors of Christians in the world.

So what can we do? We need to make our voices heard. Let’s encourage our legislators, the State Department and the White House to take a firmer hand in negotiating with the radicalized state of Pakistan. Let’s share the facts on social media. Let’s alert our pastors and our Bible study groups.

When it comes to religious freedom, let’s keep the old saying in mind: “Act as if everything depends on you and pray as if everything depends on God.”

Istanbul’s Hagia Sophia is Now a Mosque. What Next?

by Lela Gilbert

July 10, 2020

An outcry from around the world has greeted a Turkish court’s announced decision, permitting Turkey’s President Recep Tayip Erdogan’s regime to convert the ancient Christian church Hagia Sophia—the Church of the Holy Wisdom—into a mosque.

The revered Christian historical site has served as a museum since the overthrow of the Ottoman Empire following WWI and the subsequent secular presidency of Kemal Ataturk. The magnificent building—an architectural marvel—contains some of the most beautiful Christian frescos and mosaics in the world (including the one above). Hagia Sophia remains the most popular tourist site in Turkey and is regularly visited by millions of Christian pilgrims.

The existing church, located in the heart of Istanbul, is a truly sacred space for Christians worldwide. It stands intact as one the most ancient artifacts of early Christian history:

The first church was built at the same location where there had been a pagan temple before. It was Constantius II who inaugurated Hagia Sophia on 15 February 360. From the chronicles of Socrates of Constantinople, we know that the church was built by the orders of Constantine the Great.

That earliest church was torched during rioting; a second Hagia Sophia was inaugurated in 532. Again, violence led to the church’s damage and destruction.

Today’s Hagia Sophia was completed and inaugurated in by Emperor Justinian the Great in 537; the magnificent mosaics—some of the finest in the world—were completed later in the sixth century. It is for both historic and sacred reasons that voices are protesting the Islamization of the holy site. 

On July 10, the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) decried the declaration that the ancient church would be converted into a mosque. USCIRF Vice Chair Tony Perkins said: 

USCIRF condemns the unequivocal politicization of the Hagia Sophia, an architectural wonder that has for so long stood as a cherished testament to a complex history and rich diversity. Both Christians and Muslims alike ascribe great cultural and spiritual importance to the Hagia Sophia, whose universal value to humankind was reaffirmed with its inclusion in the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) World Heritage List in 1985.

Just weeks ago, on May 29, Erdogan, who is widely viewed as an aggressive pan-Islamist, celebrated the fifteenth century conquest of Constantinople with festivities centered on Hagia Sophia. It was converted into a mosque when the Byzantine (Christian) army was defeated by the armies of Sultan Mehmed II of the Ottoman Empire on May 29, 1453.

Turkey’s Hurriyet Daily News reported:

…The program was followed with the recitation of the 48th chapter of the Quran, surah Al-Fath…Erdogan expressed gratitude to all those who did not abandon Hagia Sophia, the heirloom of the conquest.  He stressed it was important to remember the 567th anniversary with prayers and surah Al-Fath.  Erdogan said he had dedicated his life to his beloved Istanbul and noted that if the city was somehow removed from Earth, world history would have to be rewritten. A presentation with the theme of the conquest of Istanbul was performed on a platform in front of the museum. 

For years, Hagia Sophia has been a coveted trophy for Erdogan, who publicly cherishes neo-Ottoman Islamist sentiments. And as of the Turkish court decision on July 10, Erdogan’s goal is likely to be achieved. 

However, there are other complaints besides that of USCIRF. In fact, another significant obstacle may block Erogan’s way—Russian President Vladimir Putin. 

Putin proudly—even pretentiously—belongs to the Russian Orthodox church, and represents it globally. And Hagia Sophia has great significance to the Russian Orthodox world community. In fact, Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kyrill was quoted just days ago in The Moscow Times stating that he is “deeply concerned” by Turkey’s moves, describing Hagia Sophia as “one of the greatest monuments of Christian culture…”

A threat to Hagia Sophia is a threat to the whole of Christian civilization, and therefore to our spirituality and history,” the Orthodox church leader said. “To this day, for every Russian Orthodox person, Hagia Sophia is a great Christian shrine,” he said, urging the Turkish government to be cautious. He said that altering the current neutral status of the historic building would cause “deep pain” among the Russian people.

Reuters reports that Erdogan has signed an official declaration that Hagia Sophia will, in fact, be converted into a mosque. He has chosen to gamble with his somewhat frayed relationship with Putin as well as with other powers who have ample reason to oppose him.

Will this move successfully fulfill Erdogan’s triumphalist Islamist vision? Or will international reactions—including Russian Orthodox resistance, Greek disfavor, and American disgust—serve as the last straw in global rejection of Erdogan’s neo-Ottoman dream empire? Time will tell.

The Threat of Genocide Darkens the Future for Nigeria’s Christians

by Lela Gilbert

June 23, 2020

Today, a dangerous darkness—radical Islamism and its genocidal intentions—is sweeping across the African continent. And it is particularly lethal in Nigeria, Africa’s largest nation.

In short, there is a bloodbath in Nigeria. And those of us who track religious freedom violations and Christian persecution are alarmed, because it seems increasingly clear that another genocide is already taking place. We know what happened in Rwanda. We saw what ISIS did in Iraq. And in recent decades, tens of thousands of Nigerians have been slaughtered. Yet their stories rarely appear in mainstream Western news reports, while virtually nothing is being done to stop the violence.

Two factions of Islamist jihadis are primarily responsible for the carnage.

One is the notorious terrorist group, Boko Haram—one faction of which has now aligned itself with the Islamic State West Africa Province (ISWAP). Today, Boko Haram continues to hold Leah Sharibu, an enslaved Christian teenager who has refused to deny her faith.

On June 22, The United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) denounced recent attacks by the Boko Haram faction ISWAP against innocent civilians in northern Nigeria.

Recent ISWAP attacks on innocent civilians are reprehensible,” said USCIRF Vice Chair Anurima Bhargava. “Hundreds have died in recent weeks as ISWAP continues to inflict terror and target civilians based on their beliefs. We condemn this deplorable violence.”

The report goes on to say, “Earlier this month, suspected ISWAP fighters killed 81 people when they attacked Foduma Kolomaiya village in northeast Nigeria. ISWAP then claimed responsibility for twin attacks that killed 20 soldiers and more than 40 civilians in Borno State on June 13.”

Another brutal Nigerian faction is often identified by the innocent-sounding name, “Fulani Herdsmen.” Initially, their violence was attributed to attempts to confiscate grazing land for their animals. However, because of ever-increasing evidence of carnage, outrageous brutality, and shouts of allah hu akbar, the Fulanis’ jihadi intentions have been clearly exposed.

Earlier this month, a report from Nigeria by the Christian Post was accompanied by a photo of a Nigerian Christian pastor who was gunned down, along with his wife, while working on their farm in the Taraba State of Nigeria. The couple left eight children orphaned, ages 1 to 19.

Just days before, CNN reported, “Uwaila Vera Omozuwa was attacked as she studied in church, according to Nigerian police. The 22-year-old died on May 30, just days after the brutal assault inside the church of the Redeemed Christian Church of God, or RCCG, in Benin city… Omozuwa was a member of the choir who had studied privately at the church since lockdown measures due to the coronavirus pandemic were put in place in Nigeria in March.”

Week after week such stories appear, primarily in Christian publications. Usually the killers are identified but not always. And unfortunately, no one really knows the precise numbers of Nigeria’s victims either, thanks to mass graves, torched villages, chaotic aftermaths, and disappearances. Still, the numbers we’ve seen are horrifying.

To make matters even more disturbing, there is mounting evidence that the present government of Nigeria is somehow complicit in the Islamist groups’ assaults. While tens of thousands of Nigeria’s Christians have been killed in recent decades, countless more have been mercilessly raped, maimed, disfigured, and disabled. And the displaced are innumerable.

In 2018, President Donald Trump raised this issue with Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari. “We’ve had very serious problems with Christians who have been murdered, killed in Nigeria,” Trump told reporters, with Buhari seated next to him. “We’re going to be… working on that problem very, very hard because we can’t allow that to happen.”

The remark seems to have fallen on deaf ears.

However, religious freedom researchers and activists continue to pursue accurate fact-finding mechanisms, consistent documentation, and an official U.S. envoy to specifically address this travesty. More and more concerned voices—including USCIRF—are demanding accountability from Nigeria’s leadership and are seeking an effective response from the U.S. government.

But meanwhile, as we watch and wait, we also need to fervently pray for spiritual intervention. Because the more time that passes, the deeper the darkness grows, and it threatens to decimate Nigeria’s Christian believers.

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