Tag Archives: religious persecution

CHRISTIAN ARRESTED FOR EXTREMISM BECAUSE HE OWNS A BIBLE

One day soon, you may see a headline like this one in the New York Times, or in your hometown newspaper, or on the Drudge Report. For now, this headline comes from Uzbekistan, but after you read the story and think about the language of public discourse in the USA, you may discover that it would be no stretch at all for this headline to be about you.

The news from Uzbekistan is this. One article of the Criminal Code of Uzbekistan outlaws “keeping and storing extremist materials with the purpose of further distribution.” To Christians in the USA, a Bible would not be called “extremist,” and the possession of it would not mean that its owner was an extremist. However, in Uzbekistan, the Bible is regarded as a severe threat.

In fact, Uzbekistan’s government harshly suppresses all religious activity of any variety—Muslim, Christian, and all other groups. In the current year, Uzbekistan is the 15th most dangerous country in the world for Christians, but this government does not limit its threats to Christians. Uzbek law requires all religious groups to be registered, and the requirements for Christians are at least no more onerous than the requirements for other religions. The requirements for registration filter out very small groups such as independent house churches and other small congregations who cannot meet the standard for numbers of members. The law further requires that all religious material, Bibles, devotional books, Sunday School lessons, and so forth be inspected by the government, and only approved materials may be possessed. Only one version of the Bible is approved, and only people belonging to registered religious groups may possess even that version. Some tiny Christian churches refuse to attempt registration, because the penalty for continuing to meet after a rejected registration is more onerous than the penalty for illegal gatherings of unregistered groups.

The guiding philosophy of Uzbek law surrounding religions is that the government considers the practice of religion to be extremist activity. In the eyes of the deeply secular government, the threat of extremism justifies extreme control. Religious registration requires that the groups give the government a great deal of information, including lists of members, and registered organizations are held accountable for compliance with laws surrounding buildings approved for religious meetings and the use of approved religious documents. In order to be approved, religious documents, including the Bible, must be published by approved publishers, sold in approved bookstores, printed in approved translations, and so forth. Failure to comply on any point is grounds for the accusation of promoting extremism. To offer to pray for someone in a public park is extremism, because the park is not an approved location for religious activity. To invite someone to receive Christ into his heart is extremism, because proselytizing is forbidden. To tell five little children playing in your yard the story of Noah and the Ark is extremism, because no children may be taught religion without written permission of their parents and no religious teaching to anyone of any age may be done outside an approved location for religious education. To read a Bible on the bus is an act of extremism if the Bible is not an approved translation which you acquired at an approved bookstore which verified that the publisher is on the government’s approved list. To have a lot of Bibles of any translation in your house, along with a pile of tracts and a few devotional magazines is to give evidence of personal extremism, and makes you subject to the accusation that you plan to distribute the materials and incite further extremism.

It is in this context that Majid (not the real name) was arrested for possessing unauthorized materials that are considered to be extremist, with the intent to distribute them. It brings to American minds the image of drug dealers and their paraphernalia. The comparison is appropriate. The government of Uzbekistan has its roots in the former Soviet Union, where political leaders learned that “religion is the opiate of the people.” Uzbek government does not want its citizens to be addicted to religion, and they regard religious activism the same way Americans regard street gangs that peddle drugs.

Majid is, unfortunately for him, a repeat offender. He was arrested once before for possessing extremist literature with the intent to distribute it. In the eyes of the Uzbeks, that experience should have taught him to eschew any further infractions, but Majid loves Jesus and wants to share Jesus with everyone. After he was released the first time, he made diligent efforts to acquire more Bibles and more Christian books to share. A second arrest makes him liable to greater fines and longer imprisonment. Prisoners in Uzbekistan should not, by law, be abused, but Christians arrested for extremism historically suffer beatings and even torture.

What does this story have to do with the USA?

In February of this year, Barna Group released a study of the way the culture in the USA views Christians. After 1000 interviews conducted in August 2015, Barna concluded that the culture strongly feels that a Christian, if not already an extremist, is a threat to become one. The responses of those who were interviewed established several points on which the culture’s perceptions of Christians is troubling.

  • Nearly half of non-believers consider Christianity to be extremist.
  • The behaviors that are considered extreme include many very common behaviors of Christians, even some behaviors that are considered integral to the fabric of the faith.

What sort of behavior qualifies as extremist in the eyes of the American public?

Here are a few examples:

  • Refuse to bake a cake to be served at a wedding reception for a same-sex marriage, on the grounds that your religious principles forbid you to participate in a same-sex marriage
  • Tell a fellow passenger on a bus about Jesus and invite that person to receive Christ
  • Tell your children that homosexual behavior is abnormal and sinful
  • Silently read your Bible while waiting in the boarding area at the airport
  • Tell your children that they are born sinful
  • Pray aloud in a grocery store for a woman who just told you her husband was terminally ill
  • Believe that homosexual behavior is abnormal and sinful (Presumably this attitude motivates you to teach this principle to your children, which makes you extreme on two counts.)
  • Protest a government policy that requires employers to pay for medical treatments and devices which the employer considers immoral on the basis of his or her faith in Jesus and commitment to biblical truth
  • Protest government subsidies for abortion providers on the grounds that abortion is murder of a human being
  • Quit working for IBM and become a missionary to Haiti
  • Have no sexual relations with your fiance’.
  • Tithe your income
  • Go to church and worship with other Christians every week

 

Most Christians will have trouble seeing any item on this list as extreme behavior. Sadly for Christians, this list is not exhaustive. It is merely a sample of the sorts of things considered to be extreme or to be incitement to extremism.

It is precisely such perceptions that lead a government to devise laws that require religious organizations to register and laws that tightly control the content and publication of religious materials, including Bibles. If the attitudes described above really are extremist, why wouldn’t it be normal to arrest someone who had a houseful of Bibles and other religious materials, with the obvious intention to distribute them to many people, thereby inciting others to his or her own level of extremism.

It is easy for Christians to say that it is Satan’s fault that people have this view of Christians and Christianity. Such accusations are flung out by long-suffering tongues through bitter lips. Christians are not wrong to recognize that Satan works hard to twist the perceptions of non-believers, but Christians must recognize that Jesus did not call us to be angry with the people who think this way. Jesus said, “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you” (Luke 6:27-28).

The popular way to deal with rejection like this is to apologize to the public and promise never to do it again. If that statement is accompanied with a comment that it was never your intent to threaten or scare anyone, that would be nice, and it would be even better if you said that you realize your words were hurtful and your actions were scary, and you plan to change everything so people feel better about you.

The problem is that the behaviors considered “extreme” by non-believers are central to what it means to be Christian. We are called to live our faith every moment of every day, in all places at all times. We are called by Christ to be the same no matter where we are. It is the highest hypocrisy to pray in church that sinners suffering Satanic enslavement to homosexuality will be released from that bondage and then go into the public forum and celebrate gay marriage. If we do things like that, we know we are betraying Christ, and we know that we are betraying our sacred responsibility to be messengers of Christ’s salvation, grace, forgiveness and transformation for sinners everywhere. We cannot pretend publicly to comply with the moral relativism of the culture and only secretly speak and act in harmony with our faith.

Just as Majid in Uzbekistan bravely continues to prepare to share his faith with others, even though proselytizing is against the law of Uzbekistan, we must continue to prepare to share our faith with others, even though the culture rejects our “extremism.” Just as Majid continues to discuss the Bible with other people in places not authorized for religious education, we must continue to share Jesus on buses and in airports and in the grocery store. When challenged, we must remember to love those who challenge us, to pray for them, and to bless them in every way possible. Why?

While the apostle Paul was imprisoned in Caesara, a visiting king named Agrippa asked to hear this famous prisoner speak. Paul told Agrippa how he met Christ and became a faithful follower of Christ, and then Paul said to Agrippa, “do you believe the prophets? I know that you believe” (Acts 26:27). Agrippa was taken aback and said, “You almost persuade me to become a Christian” (Acts 26:28). Agrippa clearly recognized the truth in Paul’s words, and Paul yearned deeply for the king to open his heart to that truth. His response to Agrippa’s hesitation is the reaction we should have to all the attacks and misconceptions and even lies that non-believers tell about Christians. Paul said, and we should say, “I would to God that not only you, but also all who hear me today, might become both almost and altogether such as I am, except for these chains” (Acts 26:29).

Majid demonstrates the right way to deal with the misconceptions of believers. He goes right on being a faithful Christian. It does cost him. In Uzbekistan, arrest and imprisonment for breaking the religion laws is often accompanied by stiff fines, fines that amount to years and years of normal wages. Majid knows that he is subject to this suffering when he obeys Christ and shares the good news with people. Each of us knows that if we live the way Christ calls us to live, we are subject to severe cultural harassment, and in some cases, we may even be subject to legal complications. We may be accused of discrimination,. or we may simply be charged with noncompliance with regulations. If the culture becomes more assertive in its characterization of Christianity as organized extremism, the rhetoric will become more hateful, and the laws may even become more stringent.

We have civil rights as American citizens that citizens of Uzbekistan do not have. We have much more voice in the legislation and administration and the processes of justice than Uzbek citizens have. As Christians, we have the right and the responsibility to advocate and take action and vote. We must be active, vocal citizens, but our rhetoric must always be the rhetoric of truth spoken with love. We may be accused of extremism according to the cultural definition of extremism, but we must live in a deep, integral relationship with our Lord Jesus Christ that assures we put the extreme demands of spiritual warfare in the hands of the all-conquering Christ.

By Katherine Harms, author of Oceans of Love available for Kindle at Amazon.com. Watch for the release of Thrive! Live Christian in a Hostile World, planned for release in the summer of 2016

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Injustice — Barely Short of Persecution

The concept of persecution is defined several different ways, depending on the context in which the situation arises. In casual conversation, even social shunning may be viewed as persecution, but in a court of law, there are specific criteria that must be met for the word persecution to apply.

When the culture opposes Christianity so strongly that Christians are afraid to appear in public, it certainly feels like persecution to individual Christians. In places like Pakistan and Syria, for example, even if someone is neither arrested nor beaten in public, pockets of the population are so strongly opposed to the very existence of Christians that they run a terrifying gauntlet in order to go to work or buy food.

Disinformation adds to the pressure when the media or public figures accuse Christians of expecting privilege when they ask for religious liberty. Secular voices declare that religious liberty is freedom of worship, not the freedom to act according to conscience when culture or government set conflicting expectations.

The third level of development along the path to persecution is injustice. In many countries Christians suffer injustice when culture and government work hand in glove. For example, many countries require that personal ID include a person’s religion. There is no religion entry on a driver’s license or a passport for the USA, but in many countries it is required. In those countries where religious ID is required and simultaneously, Christians are reviled, when a Christian presents ID, it triggers obstruction in legal processes or may even trigger abuse.

Because a Christian is identified in public records, both citizens and officials can easily target Christians. In Vietnam, local officials have been known to forcibly remove Christians from their homes and then confiscate their property. In Kazakhstan officials have broken into the homes of known Christians to look for religious literature that might not have been printed by the government-authorized publishing house. In Pakistan, Muslim men abduct Christian women and force them into marriage, succeeding even after their families file charges in court, because the courts rule that the women went voluntarily, converted to Islam voluntarily and married their abductors voluntarily, all without any supporting evidence.

The rise of injustice in any country will almost certainly lead to persecution.

In the USA, Christians are being subjected to opposition and maligned by disinformation almost daily. A growing number of legal cases surround situations in which Christians have been not only pressured by the culture but also constrained by government to act against conscience. The constantly changing landscape surrounding the impetus to make it legal everywhere for a homosexual union to be called a marriage threatens Christian business owners who simply want the freedom not to participate in same-gender weddings and the associated festivities. For them it is a matter of conscience not to appear to condone or to act in support of same-gender marriage because of biblical proscriptions against homosexuality under any circumstances. States which have passed laws prohibiting a long list of discriminatory practices are issuing citations and assessing fines against Christians judged to be guilty of discrimination simply because they consider homosexuality to be sin. To Christians who expect the freedom protected by the First Amendment, such judgments are injustices, and legal action is working its way through the various courts of both the state and federal systems.

The US has a long history of religious liberty. More than one colony of the original thirteen was founded by refugees from religious persecution. The USA has been a safe haven for refugees from religious persecution since its founding. Christians must pray that this history is not turned on its head in the name of political correctness and newly-created moral laws based on the rule that if it makes someone happy, it must be right and good. God has revealed himself in the Bible, and Christians recognize that the Bible is their guide, given by God, for faith and life. It is time to pray earnestly that new versions of secular morality will not impose injustice on Christians who, like the apostles in Jerusalem, say, “We must obey God rather than men.”(Acts 5:29)

 

Your Enemy is not a Secular Government; Your Enemy is Satan

That statement sounds like a copout to some people. Of course, Satan is behind all the restrictions and pressure to conform. Sure, he is the one who motivates even people who call themselves Christians to vote for bad leaders and bad laws. That is a real oversimplification of the difficulties we experience just trying to live our faith according the freedom the Constitution protects.

It sounds too simple to be worth thinking about, but it is exactly what we need to think about. If we think that presidents or senators or judges or laws or neighbors or foreigners or unbelievers are the problem, then we will contend with all those people. To focus our efforts on the people enslaved by Satan is like telling an unjustly imprisoned man to fix his problem by breaking out of jail. If we believe that our society will be improved if we win some legal battles or a few elections, then we are doomed to deep disappointment.

It is the elected and appointed leaders who enact and interpret and enforce laws that restrict religious liberty. It is neighbors, friends and fellow employees who make spiteful remarks about religious fanatics and militant bigotry. But these people don’t dream up all these problems by themselves. They are inspired and motivated and pressured by the most powerful evil force in the universe. Without Christ in their lives, they have no hope of resisting that power. Even people who have received Christ may be very weak in their commitment and may still be lured by satanic turns of phrase that sound ever so sophisticated and mature.

The enemy who masterminds cultural shunning and scorn, government restrictions, and outright persecution is Satan. Eve could not withstand his cunning, and people today are just as gullible. If we fight the world only by fighting fellow-citizens in street demonstrations, petition campaigns, legal proceedings, elections or on the floors of legislatures, we will never really win. In every war, there are numerous battles. Usually one side wins some contests, and the other side wins some. The death of an infantryman in a muddy foxhole may be necessary to the cause. Death and destruction mount up over time. Still, the person who must actually be defeated is the mastermind behind all the action. No matter how many men take the field in a given conflict, there are two generals whose decisions set everything in motion, and one of them must surrender or be soundly defeated. Otherwise, winners and losers scurry off with their dead and wounded, clean up, re-provision, and start over somewhere else. This is what happens when Christians engage in the battle for religious liberty without recognizing the real enemy.

The real enemy is Satan, and the only power who can defeat him in time and space is the same power who defeated him for eternity on the cross: Christ our Savior. The battle for religious liberty in the US and countries around the world is not a battle for the power of good in eternity. That battle was won when Jesus died and rose again. The competition today is against evil in the time-space realm. We battle for religious liberty primarily in order that we can rescue all the people imprisoned in the ranks of Satan’s troops. Think about it. We don’t want to be able to speak and live our testimony to Christ in order to make more money or even in order to feel good about ourselves. We do it, because Christ told us to share the good news with everyone. We cannot share the good news with those who need it if there are laws and enforcers in place to forbid us to speak our testimony.

Laws and rules and practices which restrict and constrain our ability to share the good news in word and deed must be overturned and ended, because Christ loves all the people. He loves and desires fellowship with all the people who call him a figment of a wishful imagination. Those laws were enacted by people deceived by Satan’s lies, because Satan does not want those people to follow Christ. Why do you suppose he offered to hand over the kingdoms of the world to Jesus in return for worship? Satan knew that if Christ, God in the flesh, worshiped him in order to get the kingdoms, the people would be following a Jesus who followed Satan. As long as Satan gets the people, he is not picky about who is leading the pack behind him. He will let anyone lead the pack, as long as he leads the leader.

Christians must remember that Paul warned the Ephesians not to be confused about who was their enemy. He said, “our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.” (Ephesians 6:12 NIV) This is the description of our enemy as well. Before we sign petitions, plan campaigns, vote in elections, sue in court, write to our legislators and so forth, we need to call on the general of our army, the Lord Jesus Christ, and we need to get our uniforms and weapons from him. He wants us in the trenches and the fray, but he probably thinks we march best on our knees.

Put on the full armor of God, so that when the day of evil comes, you may be able to stand your ground, and after you have done everything, to stand. … And pray in the Spirit on all occasions with all kinds of prayers and requests. (Ephesians 6:13, 18 NIV)

Religious Liberty Means What the Government Says It Means

Let every detail in your lives—words, actions,
whatever—be done in the name of the Master, Jesus.

Colossians 3:17 (the Message) 

US citizens justifiably rejoice in the existence of the First Amendment to the Constitution. That amendment protects the right of every individual to express his chosen religion, or the lack thereof, in his daily life. Ongoing power struggles between government and believers have tested the meaning of the simple words of that amendment, but the fact remains that in the US, people have more freedom to live according to their faith teachings than anywhere else on earth.

There are many countries that declare that they enforce the principle of “freedom of religion” and many even specify that they enforce “separation of church and state.” However, as is the case with most legal language, even though many countries use the same words to describe the way they deal with religion, each country has a unique twist to the meanings of the words. If the government is dominated by secular thinking, then the twist of these words will be different than if the government is dominated by a religion.

Uzbekistan is a good example. Uzbekistan was part of the former USSR, and after the dissolution of that nation, it retained the predominately secular viewpoint in culture and government which had been fostered in the Communist state. Uzbekistan proclaims that it protects “freedom of religion” and “separation of church and state.” The Constitution of Uzbekistan says:

” Art. 18. All citizens of the Republic of Uzbekistan shall have equal rights and freedoms, and shall be equal before the law, without distinction by sex, race, nationality, language, religion, social origin, convictions, individual and social status.”

Everyone is equal before the law, a principle that we honor in the USA and portray by statues of Justice wearing a blindfold. That concept sounds wonderful. We would expect that article to assure that nobody in Uzbekistan would be harassed by the culture or the police for expressing and living according to his religious convictions. We would not expect a woman in Uzbekistan to be arrested as she stepped off a bus and be held in prison for days because she had a Bible and a Christian DVD in her purse, but it happened.

Uzbekistan’s Constitution also says:      

“Art. 31. Freedom of conscience is guaranteed to all. Everyone shall have the right to profess or not to profess any religion. Any compulsory imposition of religion shall be impermissible.”

This sounds like an elaborate way to say the same thing our First Amendment says: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” An American contemplating a visit to Uzbekistan might read the Uzbek Constitution and believe he would feel right at home there. In fact, the Constitution of Uzbekistan adds another comforting element, the separation of church and state:

Art. 61. Religious organizations and associations shall be separated from the state and equal before the law. The state shall not interfere with the activity of religious associations.”

An American who reads these words could easily be lulled into a sense of brotherhood between the USA and Uzbekistan with regard to religious liberty, but it would be a mistake to jump to that conclusion. As we are learning in the USA, the Constitution is one thing; law is another. In both the USA and Uzbekistan, the law can and does run roughshod over the Constitution. In both countries, legislators and administrators proceed with their own agendas unless and until a court with the power of Constitutional review changes things. It remains to be seen what the Supreme Court of the USA will do with an issue such as the employer mandate in the Affordable Care Act. The consequences of Constitutional review, or the lack thereof, in Uzbekistan are quite evident, and they provide a cautionary tale for those of us who think words in constitutions and laws have definite meanings that are generally agreed to. The growing dominance of secular thinking in the US federal government demonstrates some interesting parallels with Uzbekistan’s government practices.

When the government of Uzbekistan considered what needed to be done to assure the religious liberty of the citizens, government minds choked on a question that would not occur to you or me: how is the government to know if a group of people have a religion or just some private club? Most of us believe we know what a religion is. It is something people almost intuitively know the answer to. There have been attempts like that of my college professor who declared his dog to be a god and his household to be a church so he could deduct the price of dog food as a contribution to a church, but that sort of blatant fraud does not pass the test of common sense or plain language. (It did not pass muster with the IRS, either.) Only government needs thousands of pages of laws and more thousands of pages of regulations and forms to work out that Hinduism is a religion and therefore is protected by the Constitution.

In Uzbekistan, the Constitution notwithstanding, two laws define the government’s attitude toward religion, and one agency, the Committee on Religious Affairs, administers government policy toward religion. If all religion is “separated from the state and equal before the law,” most readers would believe that people of faith have nothing to worry about. However, the laws include many requirements that must be satisfied in order for any group to be considered a legitimate religion, entitled to religious freedom. Any religious group that is unwilling or unable to comply with all the government regulatory requirements for a legitimate religion is illegal in the eyes of the government. What does that mean?

For starters, every church must be registered, and legal religious worship must take place inside that registered location. That requirement all by itself prohibits prayer meetings and Bible studies in homes. Of course, such activities in the US can take place in parks and on street corners, too, none of which will happen without unpleasant consequences in Uzbekistan. Registration requires completion of a form designed by the government, and errors as small as a grammatical mistake in the native Uzbek language can result in the rejection of the form. The information on the form is the way the government determines if the applicant meets the government definition of a religion protected by the Uzbekistan Constitution. In fact, the form may never even be acknowledged. The seemingly simple act of registration is not so simple. Some groups balk at registration because the form requires the names of at least one hundred members, and some forms have been rejected for misspelled names or because one member or another is accused of association with criminals. It is not a simple matter for the government of Uzbekistan to be sure when to protect the liberty of a religion and the seemingly simple Constitutional protection of religious liberty does not automatically extend to every religious organization.

The government of the USA is just as easily flummoxed as the government of Uzbekistan when it tries to define what is and what is not protected by the First Amendment to the US Constitution. When the Affordable Care Act was passed, the Department of Health and Human Services began to write the regulations and design the forms that would implement this monstrous law. Mindful of complaints that the law trampled on the religious convictions of some Christians by requiring an employer to fund contraception, abortion and sterilization (yes, the morning-after pill absolutely qualifies as abortion), Americans were told that the Department took that problem into consideration. In a nation where religious liberty has been a highly valued protection for citizens, Americans certainly expected a conscience exemption for employers who religious convictions conflicted with the use of medications and devices that produced contraception, abortion and sterilization. They never expected that the US government, like the government of Uzbekistan, would choke on the very idea of religion. The US government looked at the situation and, just like the government in Uzbekistan, created a definition of the entity that would qualify for exemption from the ACA employer mandate to provide contraception, abortion and sterilization. This definition embodies the definition any secularist would use for religion.

The US government’s definition of a religious employer:

(1)   has the inculcation of religious values as its purpose;

(2)   primarily employs persons who share its religious tenets;

(3)   primarily serves persons who share its religious tenets;

(4)   is a non-profit organization    

With regard to point 4, the government has stated in court documents that “for-profit secular employers generally do not engage in any exercise of religion protected by the First Amendment.” In plain language, the government has determined that personal religious convictions do not apply in the operation of a business for profit. This comes as a shock to Christians who have spent a lifetime expressing their religious convictions in the way they operate their businesses.

The government of Uzbekistan has its definition of religion, and it uses its definition to create a process by which will suppress the religious freedom of some people and allow the religious freedom of others. In the same manner, the US government has created a definition of religion that feeds a process by which it will suppress the religious freedom of some people and allow the religious freedom of others. Everything depends on what definition of the word “religion” the government uses.

In Uzbekistan, the problem grows bigger under the legal requirement that the government must authorize every religious publication. This law is a partial response to the problem of freedom of religious expression. How can the government know what written expressions constitute legitimate religious expression unless it verifies first that the material is produced by a legally identified religion and second that the words are in compliance with the definition of the religion in question as identified on its registration form. Religions are free to print and distribute legally approved documents, but it is no mean trick to obtain that approval. The government retains for itself the power to declare what is and is not approved reading for followers of any religion. Religions, legal or not, may not import documents, such as Bibles, tracts or theology books. Those documents will not have the approval of the Committee on Religious Affairs, and is government authorities discover them in anyone’s possession, that individual will be arrested. To date, the US government has not gone down this path. That is something to be thankful for.

A major hurdle for any religion in Uzbekistan is the prohibition on proselytizing. In fact, the hurdle is raised another notch by a law prohibiting religious instruction of a minor without parental consent, even in a registered church using authorized literature. The government and the culture cooperate in suppressing freedom to speak about religion in ordinary conversation or to make any attempt to persuade anyone to change his chosen religion. Christians are called by Christ to make disciples of all nations, but it is actually dangerous to try to make a disciple of anyone in Uzbekistan. In the US, prohibitions on prayer in schools and on the display of the Ten Commandments have arisen due to the same kind of thinking that shapes Uzbekistan’s version of freedom of religion. Court documents show that a fear of even the hint of a “proselytizing” outcome is enough to drive a judge to squelch all sorts of religious activities, the First Amendment notwithstanding.

The training of church leaders in Uzbekistan is also inhibited by government. No religion can have a “central office” if it does not have registered churches in 8 of the 13 districts of Uzbekistan, and only a religion with a “central office” can have a school of any kind to train leaders such as pastors. In the US, the government has expressed no interest in controlling the training of religious leaders. However, in China, a country with which the US has increasingly close ties in the financial realm, the expression of religious freedom is heavily shaped by religious leaders educated in schools where the government controls the curriculum and the faculty. Could it happen in the US? Who knows?

In Uzbekistan, the simple statements that religion is no part of government and that all religions are equal before the law have given birth to a bureaucratic nightmare which threatens the religious liberty of Uzbek citizens the way the Affordable Care Act threatens the religious liberty of American citizens.

The parallel is uncanny. In order to protect religion in Uzbek, the government had to define what that means. In order to protect religion in the USA, after more than two hundred years of religious liberty, the government felt that it needed to define what religion is in order not to protect anything that does not meet the definition. Just as Uzbek citizens find it challenging to understand how their government decides what a religion is, US citizens are puzzling over the same question.

Recently a pastor in Uzbekistan was arrested and charged with possessing and distributing unauthorized documents. He was tried, convicted, and fined 100 times the average monthly wage in Uzbekistan. Before 2005, the fine was only 10 times the average monthly wage, but in 2005, the government increased the fine dramatically. It is a very costly offense to possess unauthorized religious documents. The pastor has appealed this conviction, but the prospects of reversal are very slim. Courts in Uzbekistan take a dim view of someone possessing documents that the Committee on Religious Affairs has not approved. It isn’t clear if these documents are unapproved because the words were not approved, or if the documents were printed in an unauthorized location. It is hard to sort out all the laws and regulations that may apply to this situation. Citizens in the US should read this story attentively as they follow the path of court cases that dispute the US government’s definition of “religion” and the implications of that definition for all citizens. It is not a big leap from government definition of religion to government definition of religious documents.

Read more news about religious persecution in Uzbekistan at Living on Tilt the newspaper

Citizens in the United States read our Constitution and its amendments, and they believe that the plain sense of the language protects their religious liberty. Citizens of Uzbekistan might believe the same thing if they read their Constitution. Developments in Uzbekistan should at the least make us aware that without citizen vigilance, the plain language of the US Constitution could easily be reinterpreted by law and policy to mean something very different from our understanding of the words. In both countries it can safely be said that all citizens lose liberty if one citizen loses liberty.

Every Christian knows that we are called by Christ to be “little Christs” in the world around us. Most of us sang about being sunbeams when we were children – “Jesus wants me for a sunbeam at home, at school, at play.” It seemed easier to do that when all of us sang that song together as children than it seems now when powerful public figures say that no rational person would pretend that anything religious happens in a for-profit enterprise. Yet Jesus still calls us to be light in a dark world – at home, at work, at play. We are expressing our faith when we shine our light. If we let our government suppress the light in one place, the government can then feel free to suppress it anywhere else. If we let the government put out somebody else’s light today, we will have nobody to help when the government comes for our light tomorrow. Pray. Speak. Shine. In the name of Christ. 

Let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven. Matthew 5:16

 

How Should Christians Respond to Problems in Sudan and South Sudan?

south-sudan-map-2011The headline reads, “Christians Threatened by Islamist Attacks and Famine.” The dateline is Sudan. What is going on here?

Anyone who begins research on the issues that plague Sudan and South Sudan immediately discovers a plague of confusion. News articles are not necessarily clear about geographic references unless the names of towns are included. Spoken references to “southern Sudan” and to “South Sudan” sustain the confusion until the researcher gets the map clearly in mind. However, Christians in the USA need to focus on the issues that shape the map, and when they do, they will learn some truths important for everyone.

The country of Sudan has a long history in Africa. It was administered by Great Britain during the colonial era and achieved independence in 1956. The population then, as now, was largely Arab in the north and tribal in the south. In the north, Islam was and is the dominant religion, while in the south, Christianity thrives alongside numerous animist religions linked to tribal identity. To complicate matters, rich petroleum resources in the south began to be developed in the late 90’s, and the pipelines that transport the crude oil to the marketplace run through the northern section. The nation suffered disconnects along ethnic, religious and economic fracture lines from the beginning. It seems no more than natural that the southern region of Sudan agitated for independence for years before it officially seceded in 2011. Today Sudan and South Sudan are still embroiled in the conflicts that led to separation.

The problems in Sudan and South Sudan are brought to our attention by the cries and prayers of Christians suffering persecution there. These problems should give all Christians pause.

First, we are all part of the body of Christ, and when one part suffers, we all suffer. In the spirit of shared suffering, we pray for Christians in Sudan and South Sudan. Continuing border disputes with Sudan have left some Christian communities inside the borders of Sudan in the southern part of the country. The Sudanese government, a government which has claimed to want “100% Islam” in the country, has expressed itself by allowing, if not actually instigating, aerial bombings of Christian communities by Sudanese Security Forces. Christians in southern Sudan are just as much the victims of aggression on behalf of Islam as those who died in New York on September 11, 2001.

Second, the concept of “100% Islam” is hard for free people to comprehend. Americans are accustomed to decide what they want to believe in the realm of religion and to act on it with complete freedom. They cannot imagine what it would be like to live under a government committed to the principle that everyone in the country should be Muslim. Furthermore, Americans would say that a member of the United Nations ought not to persecute any religion, because that behavior is proscribed by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The government of Sudan, however, courting the support of the majority of its population, is not only advocating that the nation be “100% Islam,” but it allows national security forces to attack, arrest, and even torture non-Muslims. The predominantly Christian population of the southern area inside Sudan is under constant assault, and even after the formation of separate countries there have been instances of cross-border aggression against Christians in South Sudan.

The facts suggest, however, that the pro-Islamic fervor and the anti-Christian aggression are likely as much about economics as religion. The Islamic population of Sudan has few sources for water and few resources for economic growth.  The majority of sources for both water and petroleum are in areas where the majority population is Christian. Government leadership appears disinclined to negotiate the sharing of resources, opting instead to tacitly approve aggression against the “infidels” in the region where resources are plentiful.

What can Christians learn from the battlefields of Sudan and South Sudan?

First, they can learn to pray for all parties to the religious persecution. Christ taught us to love our enemies and pray for them. Christians who take their faith seriously do not simply want the bombing of Christian villages to stop, desirable as that may be. We always and supremely want every person to know Christ and to know his forgiveness and grace in their own lives. It isn’t easy to pray for someone you first need to forgive, but the Christians who suffer persecution and those who suffer and pray with them must keep Christ first in their hearts and first in their prayers.

Second, they can pray for all parties to the economic despair that adds fuel to the fires of aggression. All the people in Sudan and South Sudan suffer because their economy is a wreck. In the late nineties when oil production began, before the country was divided, they all started to see some hope for improvement to a way of life that is hardly subsistence level. However, the cultural and religious differences that split Sudan and South Sudan have disrupted development of petroleum, the one resource they all had for any hope of prosperity, and the continuing battles against Christians gain focus because most of the Christians live in the area where most of the oil is located. When Sudan threatened exorbitant fees for use of the pipelines required to transport South Sudan’s oil to market, South Sudan simply shut down production. The outcome? Ever deepening poverty for all. Christians must pray for God’s provision and for God’s guidance in the use of his provision. The resources exist for a comfortably prosperous nation, but self-serving leaders and narrow vision strangle the process that could provide for all.

Third, they can pray for two governments, multiple religions and countless tribal groupings who truly do not comprehend that it is possible for them all to prosper and live in peace together. Why? Because very few of the people involved have ever seen people of various ethnic, religious and economic origins live in peace together. It is too late in time to judge Great Britain for failing to nurture self-respect, tolerance and productive behaviors during the colonial era. The empire had its own problems, and of course, nobody is perfect, but the outcome is that when Sudan gained its independence, the newly-independent people still had a lot to learn, and to un-learn. They are still learning. A careful reading of news and editorials posted on websites in the two countries makes it clear that voices of reason and integrity are bubbling to the top, occasionally making themselves heard above the voices of partisan economic, religious and tribal agitation. Christians need to pray for God’s Spirit to work in these two countries to transform their leaders into responsible, accountable servants of the people instead of venal thieves lining their own pockets with the revenues people can ill afford to sacrifice for the elusive blessing of good government.

When Christians hear that other Christians are being persecuted, it is easy to feel empathy pains, but Christians should not jump to the conclusion that persecution is the whole story. We are called to be little Christs in all situations. We may not personally be able to take any action to change things in Sudan and South Sudan, but we can invoke the mightiest power in the universe to act there, simply because we know that Christ loves the people of Sudan and South Sudan – the Muslims, the Christians, the animist worshipers in tribal religions, and those whose despair has led them to doubt there even is a God. We can pray. We must pray, with the faith that moves mountains.

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Some material is this post is drawn from weekly prayer updates provided by The Voice of the Martyrs.