Author archives: Lela Gilbert

A 2020 Retrospective: Violence Against Africa’s Christians

by Lela Gilbert

January 13, 2021

As this new year begins, it’s obvious that America is facing many challenges—some old, some new. And they most certainly cannot be taken lightly. However, those of us who focus on international religious freedom also concentrate on concerns beyond our shores, and a look at Africa’s recent history in the rear-view mirror reflects terrifying images. As one deadly assault after another fades out of sight, encroaching assailants are rushing forward at terrifying speed. 

The largest country in Africa and the most commercially significant, Nigeria is the site of what has been described as a slow-motion genocide in which tens of thousands of Nigerian Christians have been massacred in recent years. A Family Research Council report published in July 2020 documents horrifying statistics of mass murders there, almost entirely at the hands of three Islamist terrorist groups: Boko Haram, Islamic State in West Africa Province (ISWAP), and Fulani jihadis.

Nigeria may be the worst example of violence against African Christians, but it is far from the only one. Violent incidents across the African continent are increasing. One notorious example in November 2020 was the reported beheading of 50 civilians in Mozambique—many of them Catholic Christians.

Fighters linked to Islamic State attacked several villages in Mozambique, killing civilians, abducting women and children, and burning down homes. The gruesome description of innocent people “herded” to their death on a soccer field, where they were systematically decapitated and dismembered, was nightmarish. That wasn’t the only such incident in 2020, and it certainly won’t be the last. Due to a hapless government response, ISIS continues its assaults, most recently on January 2, 2021. 

In September 2020, an email informed FRC that a Christian family had recently been arrested in Somalia—the infamous location of Black Hawk Down. Local police accused the couple of abandoning Islam, and even more dangerously, of evangelizing the people of Somaliland. According to Somali Bible Society, “The spokesperson’s speech was peppered with threats against local Christians.” We learned that the arrested man had been tortured; his wife had delivered a baby by C-section just weeks before and required urgent medical attention, and the baby needed maternal care and breastfeeding.

FRC and other Christian groups pleaded for prayer. Thankfully, we later learned that this courageous family had been released. But dangers to Christians in Somalia have not diminished. Nearly all of the believers there are converts from Islam, which means they can face a death sentence for apostacy if arrested.

Frequent reports of persecution incidents in East Africa abound. At the same time, West Africa has more than its share of anti-Christian violence—and is of ever-increasing concern.

The Washington Post reported, “One evening in late June, gunmen stormed a village in northern Burkina Faso and ordered people who had been chatting outside to lie down. Then the armed strangers checked everyone’s necks, searching for jewelry. They found four men wearing crucifixes—Christians. They executed them…”

Since then, the situation has gone from bad to worse. Burkina Faso is one of several vulnerable West African countries that are frequently targeted for terrorism, including Christian persecution. The so-called “Group of Five” (G5) nations—Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania, and Niger—face continuous threats and attacks. These are of deepening concern to international military analysts and religious freedom advocates alike, thanks to the tireless brutality of ISWAP, Boko Haram, and al-Qaeda.

Meanwhile, North Africa faces similar dangers. Likewise, reports from East Africa warn that ISIS, al-Shabaab, Ansar al-Sharia, and other Islamist groups are strengthening their numbers and increasing their territory. And unfortunately, what happens in Africa is unlikely to stay in Africa—economically, politically, or militarily. Radicalized Africans have already murdered innocents and torched churches in Europe. Little has been done in response, and most well-intentioned efforts have been largely ineffective.

In 2021 it is past time for the world to stop looking regretfully at Africa’s tragedies in the rear view mirror. Instead, a determined coalition of nations needs to step forward and begin to develop ways and means of extinguishing the surging jihadi violence. And it’s essential that our Christian communities continue not only to pray but to demand such action. Why? Because as the wildfire of terrorism continues to rage across that vast, violent continent, one thing is sure: It is Africa’s Christians who will continue to pay the ultimate price for the world’s inaction.

Christmas in Nigeria: Celebration Overshadowed by Danger

by Lela Gilbert

January 7, 2021

Across America, the Christmas holidays this year were not as festive as usual. Still, beloved songs and carols, colorful lights and small family gatherings provided a welcome diversion from pandemic gloom and presidential election quarrels. And the reminder that “Christ is the reason for the season” was happily recalled by Christians, despite some other less-than-celebratory circumstances.

Christmas is not, however, “the most wonderful time of the year” in war-torn Nigeria. Although the country’s millions of Christians continue to rejoice in the birth of Jesus, and gratefully recall His first appearance so long ago in Bethlehem, the joys of the season are inevitably overshadowed by danger and dread. 

As long as I have written about Nigeria—since, I think, 2006—Christmas joys have been eclipsed by danger. And, like clockwork, in 2020 Nigeria’s Advent season was once again marred by violent attacks, kidnappings and murders.

I wrote to Hassan John, Communications Director for the Church of Nigeria Anglican Communion, and asked him to tell me more about this increasingly tragic situation. In a January 6 email he responded:

Over the past decade, Christmas celebrations have waned in fervor and the pageantry that has always been associated with the festive season. Instead it has been marked with attacks and destruction of villages and communities. In the last two weeks, at least five villages have been attacked near Chibok, where 276 schoolgirls were abducted in April 2014. These attacks were hardly even reported in the local news. Reports have primarily focused on a pastor who was killed and two others who have been abducted by Boko Haram.

But that wasn’t all. Hassan pointed out that, according to the Council on Foreign Relations Nigeria Security Tracker, Boko Haram killed seven and kidnapped five in Nganzai, Borno on December 22. On December 24, Boko Haram killed six and kidnapped three in Chibok, Borno. And on December 25, Islamic State West Africa Province (ISWAP) executed 11 captives.

He went on to say, “Warnings about travels and security advice sent by security forces added to the anxieties this year during the Christmas season. Then, last night, 5th January, another village, Wamdeo, also near Chibok, was attacked and a church destroyed. We are still getting information about the extent of destruction and if there are human casualties….”

Other reports describe the added endangerment the global pandemic has brought upon on Nigeria’s already beleaguered Christian communities.

According to a Christian Post article, Christians are facing a double threat: Islamist terrorism and COVID-19. “Nigeria’s government has advised Christians to stay in their homes to avoid COVID-19,” explained human rights expert Dalyop Solomon. “But if they remain locked down at home, they cannot escape when groups of terrorists attack them.”

Solomon went on to say that Fulani militants destroy or plunder crops when they attack, and farmers’ livelihoods are destroyed. But to make matters worse, “COVID-19 restrictions prevent them from leaving their homes to plant new crops.”

On December 17, the Congressional Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission held an important hearing hosted by Rep. Chris Smith, focusing on “Conflict and Killings in Nigeria’s Middle Belt.” Nearly four hours of testimony from more than a dozen international experts offered complex and often parallel perspectives on what many described in similar terms as “mass atrocities,” “mass killings,” “massacres,” and “genocidal acts.” Notably, one of the witnesses, Morse Tan, Ambassador at Large for Global Criminal Justice, pointed out that “Christmas is a time of great risk of mass killing.” Within a week’s time, his words proved to be all too true once again in 2020.

There was but one notable exception. On Sunday evening, December 27, Catholic Bishop Moses Chikwe—the auxiliary bishop of his archdiocese—and his driver, Ndubuisi Robert, were kidnapped by unidentified gunmen in Owerri, the capital of Imo State in southeastern Nigeria.

As always, the Christian communities began to pray. But interestingly, in this case Nigerians were not alone in their prayers. Catholics in Southern California also appealed to heaven for the bishop’s safe return. Chikwe had served for several years as a priest in the Diocese of San Diego, and he was beloved there.

On New Year’s Day, a bulletin about Bishop Chikwe announced that he and his driver had been released, “unhurt and without ransom.”

Unfortunately, the Nigerian news is rarely so bright and hopeful as that lone report. The U.S. State Department announced earlier in December that Nigeria has been declared a “Country of Particular Concern (CPC),” a designation which provides the U.S. with increased options for pressuring the Nigerian government to curb abuses, including through financial sanctions, application of the Magnitsky Act, and other measures.

Nigeria’s Muhammadi Buhari regime is, at the very best, inept. More likely, he and his henchmen are—as is widely believed—complicit in the relentless attacks perpetrated by Boko Haram, ISWAP, and Fulani jihadis.

Meanwhile, as the United States prepares to inaugurate a new president and his administration, two related questions remain unanswered: What will it take to stop the ever-increasing massacres and emergent genocide of Christians in Nigeria? And what will the newly-minted Biden administration do about it?

Remembering Persecuted Christians at Christmas

by Arielle Del Turco , Lela Gilbert

December 18, 2020

Christmas is just around the corner, right on schedule in an otherwise unpredictable 2020. And as it approaches, gift-giving has come into focus here in America and much of the world. Whether small tokens of friendship or carefully chosen presents for beloved friends and family, the arrival of God’s Son as a gift to us all has inspired a tradition of generosity.

Of course, in other lands, the lack of religious freedom and the threat of Christian persecution casts a dark shadow across Christmas festivities and celebrations. It is not unusual for fanatical, iron-fisted governments to make the Advent season a time of intensified fear and real danger. Many Christians, despite their faith and devotion, have little opportunity to celebrate the birth of the Christ Child or to “rest beside the weary road and hear the angels sing.”

Christmas is a beautiful season for some of us and a time of fear, deprivation, and uncertainty for others.

Every Christmas season in the free world, we receive unexpected gifts from persecuted believers—gifts they may never know they’ve given us. As we reflect on the terrible risks and losses faced by our Christian brothers and sisters around the world, we are showered with gifts of remembrance: recalling our many blessings while remembering to offer prayers for their help and relief.

In Iran, Christmas is a time of increased scrutiny and persecution. Christians gathering in secret house churches to sing and celebrate invariably lead to violent arrests, false accusations, and lengthy imprisonments. As we thank God for our freedom in America to gather, pray, and rejoice, we can pray for the protection of those facing crackdowns in Iran and elsewhere.

In Nigeria and other African countries, late-night incursions and massacres in Christian communities have inspired survivors to say, “We are so thankful when we wake up in the morning to find that the Lord has kept us to see another day.” As we thank God for the safety and security we have in most American communities, we can pray for the survival of these courageous souls.

In China, there have been crackdowns on churches, as well as high-tech surveillance, arrests, and “disappearances” of church leaders and others caught sharing their faith. As we thank God that we are not at risk of the sudden arrival of police and Communist officials to arrest us and destroy Bibles, crosses, and Christian images, we can pray for these faithful ones’ perseverance, courage, and protection. 

These are but three examples of the dangers faced by Christians abroad. We could add North Korea, Pakistan, Egypt, Iraq, India, and so many more troubled countries to the list.

Meanwhile, as difficult as recent months have been for many believers in the United States—we still have great and sacred freedoms enshrined in our Constitution. As we pause during the Christmas season to be grateful for our many blessings, we ought also to remember Christians who live in countries where it is dangerous to follow Christ. The persecuted church encounters unfathomable difficulties, yet they persist and find hope in their faith.

Our Savior Himself made a humble entrance into the world, born of a virgin and laid in a manger because there was no room for them in the inn. Shortly after His birth, Mary and Joseph took the Christ child to flee a slaughter ordered by King Herod. Later, Christ would suffer immensely as He was tortured and died on a cross that we might be saved from our sin. The nativity story—and the message of Jesus—offers untold hope to us all during earthly trials.

As we celebrate Christmas this year with friends and family, let us pause and say a prayer for Christians around the world who will celebrate in secret. Let’s continue “to remember those in prison as if [we] were together with them in prison, and those who are mistreated as if [we] ourselves were suffering” (Hebrews 13:3 NIV).

Nigeria Is Officially Declared a “Country of Particular Concern”—and Not a Minute Too Soon

by Lela Gilbert

December 8, 2020

Nearly at the end of 2020—a year when bad news seemed to be relentless and unstoppable—a good report has emerged. Very good news, in fact. At long last, broken and bloodstained Nigeria has been declared a CPC— a “country of particular concern”—by the U.S. State Department.

On Monday, December 7, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said in a statement:

The United States is designating Burma, China, Eritrea, Iran, Nigeria, the DPRK, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Tajikistan, and Turkmenistan as Countries of Particular Concern under the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998, as amended, for engaging in or tolerating “systematic, ongoing, egregious violations of religious freedom.”

Shortly after Pompeo’s announcement, the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) published a statement headlined, “USCIRF Welcomes the State Department’s Designation of Nigeria among World’s Worst Violators of Religious Freedom.” The commission applauded the decision—one that many international observers, activists, and victims of Nigeria’s violence have long demanded:

The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) praised the State Department’s announcement that it has named 10 “Countries of Particular Concern” (CPCs), including Nigeria for the first time, and placed four countries on its “Special Watch List” (SWL) for severe violations, pursuant to the International Religious Freedom Act (IRFA).

We are gratified that the State Department has named 10 countries as CPCs. We particularly welcome Nigeria’s designation for the first time as a CPC for tolerating egregious violations of religious freedom, which USCIRF had been recommending since 2009. Nigeria is the first secular democracy that has been named a CPC, which demonstrates that we must be vigilant that all forms of governments respect religious freedom,” said Chair Gayle Manchin.

At Family Research Council, we have written repeatedly and at length about the horrifying violence in that West African country. Our lengthy report on Nigeria forewarned:

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.

And indeed, since that writing in July 2020, massacre after massacre has devastated Nigeria’s Christians communities, and with relentless repetition.

Just last year, President Donald Trump himself raised the issue of Christian persecution with Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari. “We’ve had very serious problems with Christians who have been murdered, killed in Nigeria,” Trump said, 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 president’s appeal fell on deaf ears.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Buhari is himself a member of the Fulani ethnic group, which is responsible for a large part of the killing, and has gone on unhindered during his presidency. Meanwhile for years, international authorities have turned a blind eye to Nigerian butchery perpetrated not only by Fulani jihadis, but by Boko Haram and Islamic State of West Africa Province (ISWAP). Making excuses for the violence and rarely addressing the religious nature of the conflict, even the American Embassy has seemed unwilling to do more than plead for reconciliation meetings.

Thankfully, all that changed on December 7, 2020 when Secretary of State Mike Pompeo declared Nigeria a CPC. This, in turn, can lead not only to closer scrutiny and, presumably, additional pressure on all concerned in the violence, but also to financial measures. “Congress is notified, and where non-economic policy options designed to bring about cessation of the particularly severe violations of religious freedom have reasonably been exhausted, an economic measure generally must be imposed.” Economic measures might well diminish the hundreds of millions of aid dollars the U.S. has poured into Nigeria for many years.

Will there finally be a shift in the calculations of Nigeria’s leadership and a crackdown on the surging violence of the jihadis? Or will the bloodbath increase until—as in Iraq during ISIS’ devastating assaults on Christian and Yazidi communities—the world wakes up and takes action against the terrorists?

Can the CPC designation really stop the vicious cycles of violence against Christians in Nigeria? Only time—and responsible international diplomacy—will tell. But in fact, as my Hudson Institute colleague Nina Shea recently told me, it’s late in the game as the threat of another genocide looms larger every day. “More Christians have been targeted and slaughtered by extremists in Nigeria,” she pointed out, “than in the entire Middle East in recent years.”

Brutal Attack on Indonesian Christians Stirs Renewed Fears of Persecution

by Lela Gilbert

December 2, 2020

On Friday, November 27, a jihadi attack took place against Christians in Sulawesi, one of Indonesia’s largest islands. This vicious attack resulted in the mutilation and death of four members of the local Salvation Army, including at least one beheading, along with the torching of several homes and a Christian house of worship.

Asia News reported,

Four members of the same Christian family have been found murdered, some of them beheaded. All four belonged to the Protestant Church of Salvation (Salvation Army). Their dismembered bodies were found yesterday, Central Sulawesi police reported today. The murder took place in the village of Lenowu, Lemban Tongoa district, Sigi.

This attack—which was preceded by a period of relative calm—has stirred up horrifying memories of similar brutalities in the same region beginning more than a decade ago.

On New Year’s Eve 2003, a bomb exploded at a Christian-area market in Palu, Central Sulawesi, killing eight people and injuring 56. That May, another bombing in the predominantly Christian village of Tentena, Sulawesi left 22 dead and at least 74 injured.

Months later, the Associated Press reported the beheadings of three Christian teenagers in October. Six men attacked four girls—Theresia Morangke, 15, Alfita  Poliwo, 17, Yarni Sambue, 15, and Noviana Malewa, 15—early in the morning as they walked to a Christian school in the Poso district. The first three girls were beheaded; Noviana Malewa received serious injuries to her face and neck but survived the attack.

The murdered girls’ heads were wrapped in black plastic bags. One was found on the steps of a Kasiguncu village church. The other two were left at a nearby police station. One of the bags contained a note, some of which read, “We will murder 100 more Christian teenagers and their heads will be presented as presents.”

In 2006, three Indonesian Catholics were executed by firing squad in Palu, Sulawesi having been found guilty of incitement to murder during rioting. At the time, Amnesty International responded, “Such murders approved by the State are even more unacceptable when there are, as in this case, serious doubts about the fairness of the trials.”

Indonesia’s population is 90 percent Muslim. But in recent years there have been largely successful efforts by Indonesia’s government to enforce religious freedom. Other attacks have happened in various Indonesian cities over the years, but the region of Sulawesi has been a particular hotspot of Islamist terror.

Sadly, this recent attack on Christians has renewed countrywide concerns. Central Sulawesi police have affirmed finding the four victims’ dismembered bodies, but so far the identity of the killers remains in question.

According to BBC, “The Salvation Army confirmed the killing of its members in a ‘savage attack’ in a statement last week. Our hearts go out to our people who have been victims of evil, and to the families of those whose faith have caused such harm.”

In a report from Reuters,

Indonesian President Joko Widodo condemned the brutal murder by suspected Islamist militants as “beyond the limits of humanity,” as the military chief prepared to deploy special forces to join the hunt for the killers. In a video address, the president said the attack on Friday in a region riven by bloody, sectarian conflict in the past was designed to drive a wedge among the population in the world’s biggest majority-Muslim nation.” That gross act had the purpose of provoking and terrorizing the people. They wanted to destroy the unity and brotherhood of our people,” he said. “We need to stay united in the fight against terrorism.”

I spoke to my friend and colleague Paul Marshall, a Senior Fellow in Religious Freedom at the Hudson Institute and a scholar who focuses on Indonesia. He has spent much time there, over many decades. I asked him about these recent concerns regarding religious freedom, and the situation specifically in Sulawesi. He explained,

The dominant forms of Islam in Indonesia continue to be moderate and tolerant. But there are threats from more radical groups. Only one of Indonesia’s 34 provinces (states), Aceh, is governed by Sharia law but some other counties and villages are restrictive according to Islamic standards.

In Indonesia, there are also outright terrorist groups, some affiliated with ISIS, that have carried out sporadic violent attacks throughout the country, although they tend to be scattered and weak. Perhaps more ominous is the return from Saudi Arabia on November 10 of  Muhammad Rizieq Shihab, the founder of the Islamic Defenders Front, a radical militia. His reappearance has now emboldened more radical elements.

According to current reports on the recent violence, the Indonesia government has indeed pulled in military special forces to supplement police anti-terrorism units in the hunt for the Sulawesi terrorists, who are believed to be hiding in a remote area. Some locals have claimed to have seen and recognized the killers.

Thus far, however, there have been no arrests.

Christian Persecution: A Glaring Blind Spot in Nigeria and Beyond

by Lela Gilbert

November 20, 2020

Traveling by road into Maiduguri, the capital of Nigeria’s northeast, has become one of the most dangerous journeys on earth.” So begins an alarming and timely Wall Street Journal article about ever-encroaching violence in Nigeria, Africa’s largest country and most powerful financial center. 

Writer Joe Parkinson describes four primary highways that lead into that northern Nigerian city, once known as “Home of Peace.” Along those roads some 200 people have been murdered in the past six months. Since its happier days, today Maiduguri is better known as the birthplace of Boko Haram, the brutal Islamist terrorist group.

The attacks are conducted by militants fighting for Boko Haram and a splinter group loyal to Islamic State,” Parkinson explains. “With each passing month they become more brazen, targeting civilians, aid workers, soldiers and even the state’s most powerful politicians.”

And unlike most Western reporters, Parkinson notes that Christians are specifically targeted in these attacks. “Soldiers and Maiduguri residents who travel the roads say the extremists regularly erect mobile checkpoints, searching for Christians and government employees to kidnap for ransom or execute on the roadside.” 

Family Research Council’s 2020 report on Nigeria points out that although violence against Christian communities by Muslim attackers was recognized well before the founding of Boko Haram, it became much more intense and frequent after 2009, when the group’s founder, Mohammed Yusuf, was killed by Nigerian authorities. Subsequently the group—along with other smaller jihadi sects—became notably more deadly and dangerous. 

With this acceleration in recent years, verified reports of murders, rapes, mutilations, and kidnappings 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 reported 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.

In one well-known incident, a 14-year-old Christian girl was abducted by Boko Haram in February 2018. Leah Sharibu has been in captivity ever since. Leah and her classmates were rounded up during an attack on Dapchi, a small village in Yobe State. When Boko Haram shot its way into town, panic ensued, and everyone fled. Days later, once the scattered students had returned to their classes, a roll call revealed that 110 girls were missing— including Leah.

Although the Muslim girls who survived the attack were eventually released, Leah refused to deny her Christian faith. She remains in captivity to this day, enslaved and reportedly having given birth to the child of one of her captors. She continues to be the focus of worldwide prayer.

Meanwhile, Boko Haram isn’t the only group attacking Christians. Another group, known as Fulani herdsmen or tribesmen, have been slaughtering entire Christian communities during increasingly frequent attacks in Nigeria’s Middle Belt region. Yet—despite their obvious targeting of churches, Christian communities, pastors, and seminary students—some scholars, analysts and, unfortunately, even U.S. authorities refuse to recognize the religious nature of numerous attacks and attackers.

Paul Marshall, Senior Fellow for Religious Freedom at Hudson Institute writes:

While there is some recognition of the primary, self-declared, religious mission of Boko Haram and the numerous ISIS and Al Qaeda affiliates that have made West Africa the world center of terrorism, there is still widespread resistance to recognition of the religious nature of attacks by Fulani tribesmen on predominantly Christian villages, people and churches 

In her July 17, 2019, confirmation hearing, U.S. Ambassador to Nigeria Mary Beth Leonard referred to the carnage in the Middle Belt of Nigeria as “banditry and inter-communal conflict” and “escalating farmer-herder and inter-communal conflict frequently based in resource competition, but enflamed by conflation of ethnic and religious overlays.”

Abraham Cooper and Johnnie Moore, in their book The Next Jihad: Stop the Christian Genocide in Africa describe a meeting they had in February 2020 with Amb. Leonard in which they discussed the possible religious aspects of the violence wracking the country. “She denied that it was at all about religion and described the conflict as ‘fundamentally a resource issue…. Religion was, according to Ambassador Leonard, only relevant as it served as a potential accelerant to conflict. She left us with the impression that people like us, by speaking up for victims of religious persecution, were part of the problem. We found this to be hugely alarming.” 

Some years ago, Paul Marshall, Roberta Ahmanson and I co-authored a book called Blind Spot: Why Journalists Don’t Get Religion. We learned that many—if not most—mainstream journalists are from very secular backgrounds, know little about faith, spiritual awareness, or devotion, and simply don’t see how religion deeply shapes culture and conduct in most of the world beyond the West.

However, sad to say, it isn’t just journalists. A close look at many diplomats, intelligence officers, politicians, and academics exposes that they share that same blind spot with journalists.

It is still remarkable, however, that although self-proclaimed jihadis slaughter Christians in their homes, churches, and fields, beheading them and shouting Allahu-Akbar as a victory cry, observers do not acknowledge the killers’ Islamist intensions. As we’ve seen in Nigeria, Iraq, Syria, and far beyond, the truth about anti-Christian violence is seldom disclosed, understood, or reported. It’s a blind spot for sure. And it’s a deadly one.

Nagorno-Karabakh Survivors: “My Home Is in Ruins. I Have Nothing Left”

by Lela Gilbert

November 13, 2020

For weeks, FRC has been closely tracking the terrible war in Nagorno-Karabakh, a community of some 150,000 Christians residing in an historic Armenian enclave. Their homeland was invaded in late September by neighboring Azerbaijan, a majority Muslim country. This invasion broke a 1994 cease-fire between the two countries. But to make matters worse, in this latest incursion, Turkey seems to have encouraged if not inspired the assault, providing massive military and financial support to the Azeris. Turkey’s Islamist President also transported thousands of Syrian mercenaries into the battle, more than a few of which were jihadis.

Baroness Cox is a life peer in Britain’s House of Lords and a Christian human rights activist, whom I first met in 2003. We met in Nagorno-Karabagh, a place that has been dear to her heart since an earlier war in 1990-1994, in which she arranged to provide generous financial and material support for the beleaguered Armenian Christians there. Along with other friends, we traveled to the tiny enclave—locally known as Artsakh. There we heard the stories of community leaders, Armenian Orthodox clergy, soldiers, and everyday Christians about the terrible violence they endured in those early 1990s battles. Baroness Cox’s love for the people and the land was deeply moving.

A few months after that trip, I was asked to write a biography of Baroness Cox’s work as a defender of human rights and persecuted Christians. Her efforts have spanned decades, spent in far-flung places like Poland, Russia, Burma, Nigeria, Indonesia, Sudan, and of course Nagorno-Karabakh. The book, Baroness Cox: Eyewitness to a Broken World, was released in London in 2007, and later that year in the United States. She and I remain in close touch, and I am in the process of writing a new, updated version of her book.

Today, Baroness Cox is in Yerevan, Armenia, and I received the following press release from her yesterday morning, describing the terrible aftermath of this latest Nagorno-Karabakh war. Please pray for the people who are suffering there—many of whom have lost everything including their loved ones, their homes, and their hopes for the future.

*** 

12 November 2020 // For immediate release   

MY HOME IS IN RUINS. I HAVE NOTHING LEFT’  

BARONESS COX ALONGSIDE DISPLACED FAMILIES IN ARMENIA  

Civilians in Nagorno-Karabakh “hid under trees to escape aerial bombardments” with bodies “so destroyed” that DNA was needed to identify them, according to local witnesses who have been forced to flee their homes.    

A mother-of-four told Baroness Cox on Tuesday: “My husband, a firefighter, was killed in attacks by Azerbaijan. I escaped in a car with my kids. But my home is in ruins. I have nothing left.” She said: “His body was so destroyed that we needed DNA to identify him. Everything in the village has been stolen or demolished.”

Evidence of torture and mutilations’

One family – whose son, an Armenian soldier, was captured by Azeri forces – said: “His phone was stolen by his captors and they posted an image of his beheaded body and sent this to his own social media account for his own family and friends to see.”

The same concerns were raised by the Armenian Human Rights Ombudsman, Arman Tatoyan, who told Baroness Cox: “We have video evidence of torture and mutilations. Civilians and POWs are humiliated by their captors. Azerbaijan have returned 29 military bodies and few civilians – DNA was needed to identify four bodies. But it refuses to provide the list of current prisoners (30 now known, but there is likely many more) and continues to withhold information and access to prisoners from the Red Cross.”

A fragile peace?

Meanwhile, concerns remain over the fragility of Monday’s peace deal, which was brokered by Russia and agreed by Azerbaijan and Armenia.

Before the ceasefire was agreed, Azerbaijan targeted civilian infrastructure including hospitals, schools, homes, churches and electricity and water supplies. Supported by Turkey, its military forces reportedly deployed cluster bombs, heavy artillery and phosphorous – contrary to international law – with widespread evidence of torture, mutilation, humiliation and killings.  

Emergency aid    

Baroness Cox arranged an emergency visit to Armenia to take aid to HART (Humanitarian Aid Relief Trust) partners and to show solidarity with the Armenian people as they seek to hold their frontline of faith and freedom. She said:   

Given the past and recent history, the Armenian population of Nagorno-Karabakh justifiably fear the possibility of ethnic cleansing. Despite Monday’s ceasefire, reports continue to emerge of brutality inflicted on military and civilian prisoners, including torture and beheadings, with claims that equivalent brutalities have been perpetrated by jihadists who receive payment for every Armenian beheaded.   

We are told that, when Azeris kill or capture any Armenians, they take over their social media accounts and send pictures of dismembered, decapitated bodies to their mothers and wives. It is impossible to fathom the suffering inflicted on these women, waiting to hear from their husbands, brothers or sons, and not knowing what might come to their phone.  

We hope – and pray – that the ceasefire will bring an end to the military offensives by Azerbaijan, that the people of Nagorno-Karabakh will be able to re-build their lives, and that peace will prevail. But as the crisis continues to unfold, Nagorno-Karabakh’s rightful claim to self-determination must be supported by the international community as an urgent priority.”  

HART remains committed to providing advocacy and aid for our partners in Nagorno-Karabakh, continuing to support our valiant partner Vardan Tadevosyan’s work with people with disabilities.

Please Pray With Us for Persecuted Christians Around the World

by Arielle Del Turco , Lela Gilbert

October 30, 2020

This Sunday, November 1, 2020 is this year’s International Day of Prayer for the Persecuted Church. For decades, Christian churches, organizations, and individual believers have observed this annual summons to prayer and intercession on the first Sunday of November.

It is well known today that those who believe in Jesus Christ comprise the most persecuted religious community in the world. Their suffering continues world-wide, and of course we should pray for our beleaguered brothers and sisters wherever they may be.

But at Family Research Council, we want to remind you of countries on which we’ve focused special attention in recent months. These are exceptionally troubled places, where our fellow believers are very much in need of special prayers and will be grateful for them—on this Sunday and beyond.

Please pray with us for suffering believers in the following persecution hot spots:

Nigeria

Since the dawn of the 21st century, verified reports of murders, rapes, mutilations, and kidnappings of Christians in Nigeria have persistently increased. Such attacks are frequently accompanied by the torching of homes, churches, villages, and agricultural fields.

On July 15, headlines reported that 1,202 Nigerian Christians had been killed in the first six months of 2020. This was is in addition to 11,000 Christians who had lost their lives since June 2015. Such violence has now 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. Nearly every week we hear reports about murders, kidnappings, stolen property, torched churches, and massacres in Nigeria.

North Korea

In North Korea, any expression of faith might get someone sent to a labor camp, often for the rest of their life, and their family is often sent with them. It is believed that approximately 50,000 Christians are held in political prison labor camps, where detainees endure starvation, torture, and even execution.

Even for Christians who don’t get caught, practicing their faith is a deeply isolated experience. Christians in North Korea cannot gather in large groups with other believers. The government recruits many citizens to spy on their neighbors, creating a culture of fear and privacy among Christians and any dissenters to the North Korean government.  

Nagorno-Karabakh

Since September 27, a fierce war has been blazing between Azerbaijan’s heavily armed military forces and Nagorno-Karabakh, a disputed enclave comprised of Armenian Christian civilians. Azerbaijan’s assaults have been intensified by Syrian jihadi mercenaries, paid for and sent into the fray by Turkey’s Islamist President Tayyip Erdogan. A number of churches have been damaged or destroyed and residential areas continued to be bombed and shelled, with residents fleeing for their lives.

Today’s Armenian Christians are the surviving sons and daughters 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. At that 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.

Disturbingly, Azerbaijan’s present invasion of Nagorno-Karabakh is perceived by most Armenian Christians as the continuation of that historic Islamist jihad against Armenia’s Christians. More than half the enclave’s population has either fled or are hiding in cellars and basements, praying for their lives and the lives of their children.

China

People of faith in China are under enormous pressure under the leadership of President Xi Jinping. Xi has initiated a campaign to “Sinicize” religion to make it more compatible with the teachings of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). Churches must join government-approved church associations or face harassment, intimidation, and the possibility of getting shut down by the government.

Since the Chinese government cannot eradicate Christianity altogether, it is attempting to reshape it according to the values of the Communist Party. The Chinese government is now attempting to re-write a version of the Bible which promotes socialist values. Those believers that refuse to go to state-sanctioned churches and choose house churches free of government interference are burdened with the fear of what punishment may come their way. As we saw with the imprisonment of well-known Pastor Wang Yi, the Chinese government is willing to impose harsh punishments on prominent people of faith who speak up for religious freedom.

Pakistan

Pakistani Christians are plagued by a society and legal system that discriminates against them. Christians and others are often accused of violating blasphemy laws by neighbors looking to settle an unrelated argument. Those convicted can spend years in prison, or even end up on death row.

Predators take advantage of Pakistan’s discrimination in the judicial system to prey upon young girls from religious minority communities because they know they will not be held accountable by authorities. The Movement for Solidarity and Peace, a Pakistani human rights organization, estimates that at least 1,000 Hindu and Christian women and girls are kidnapped and forced to marry Muslim men and convert to Islam every year. The latest such case is unfolding in Pakistani courts this month.

Iran

Notorious for its outrageous cruelties, the Islamic Republic of Iran remains one of the world’s worst persecutors of religious minorities. The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) recommended in its 2020 report that the United States should “Redesignate Iran as a ‘country of particular concern,’ or CPC, for engaging in systematic, ongoing, and egregious violations of religious freedom.”

At the same time, Open Doors’ 2020 World Watch List places Iran among the top 10 persecutors of Christians in the world. The Islamic Republic sometimes arrests Christians from traditional and “legal” churches. But it unleashes most of its vitriol on Christian converts from Islam, whom it views as apostates, and often designates them as “Christian Zionists.” Yet despite the dangers, many of Iran’s mostly young converts continue to be zealous and outspoken.

The annual International Day of Prayer for the Persecuted Church is an important reminder to pray for our brothers and sisters in Christ around the world. May it start a habit of praying for the persecuted every day.

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 friends in Africa 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 who 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.

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