Russian law would restrict evangelism

June 30, 2016 | Posted in IMB, Persecution | By

by David Roach.

Passed by both houses of Russia’s parliament within the past week and awaiting President Vladimir Putin’s signature, the bill has been called “a step toward an Iron Curtain” by an opposition leader, the Los Angeles Times reported.

According to Christianity Today, the measure would require that citizens who wish to share their faith obtain government permits and only do evangelism in church buildings and at other religious sites. Online evangelism and witnessing in a private residence both would be restricted.

Foreign visitors who violate the law could face deportation, CT reported. Individual Russian violators could face fines of up to U.S. $780, with groups fined up to $15,500.

The IMB asked believers to pray “that the Lord turns the heart of the president” to reject the measure.

“IMB supports freedom of religion for all people, and this certainly includes our brothers and sisters in Christ who live and worship in Russia,” IMB spokesperson Julie McGowan told Baptist Press in written comments. “In response to the laws proposed in Russia this week, we encourage believers around the world to pray that senior national leadership will intervene so Russian believers will be spared these limitations on an individual’s opportunity to express and share their personal faith.

“To paraphrase Proverbs 21:1,” McGowan said, “President Vladimir Putin’s heart is a stream of water in the hand of the LORD; He turns it wherever he will. We pray in this case that the Lord turns the heart of the president to reject the legal precedent that will hinder the advance of the Gospel and opportunities for Christian discipleship and fellowship in Russia.”

The bill is part of a package of anti-terrorism legislation dubbed the “Yarovaya” law after its lead author Irina Yarovaya and has drawn criticism for encroaching on other civil liberties as well, the U.K.’s Guardian newspaper reported.

According to The Times, the measure would stiffen punishments for acts deemed terrorism or “mass unrest” and for failing to report such crimes. “Justification” of acts deemed “extremism,” including online posts, could result in prison terms of up to seven years.

Sasse, R-Neb., took to the Senate floor Wednesday (June 29) to oppose the Russian bill — especially its restrictions on religious liberty.

“The Russian law would be an affront to free people everywhere, at home and abroad, who believe that rights of conscience — the rights to free speech and to freedom of religion — are pre-political,” Sasse said. “These freedoms do not ebb and flow with history. They do not rise and fall with the political fortunes of a despot. Governments do not give us these rights, and governments cannot take them away. These rights of speech and religion and assembly belong to every man, woman and child because all of us are image-bearers of our Creator.”

Lloyd Harsch, a New Orleans Seminary church history professor of German-Russian descent, told BP the measure harkens back to Soviet-era suppression of religious belief.

“Since the fall of communism and the dissolution of the Soviet Union, Russia has steadily constricted its initial openness to evangelical Christianity,” Harsch, professor of church history and Baptist studies, said in written comments. “The proposed laws build upon previous anti-terrorism laws passed in 2002 and 2007 and are another attempt by Vladimir Putin to solidify his grip on power [and] silence his critics, under the guise of promoting public safety and combating terrorism. Anything that challenges his authority can be branded as terrorist activity.”

The law would heavily favor the Russian Orthodox Church and continue to leave Russia’s evangelical minority at a disadvantage, Harsch said.

“These laws reveal the continuing aftereffects of communism, which viewed all religion as the same,” Harsch said. “If Muslims are bombing train stations, then restrict the religious activities of Buddhists and Christians [because] all religion [supposedly] is the same. The proposed restrictions are justified as necessary to counter terrorism and preserve peace, but cast a much wider net to include government critics of all kinds and any religious activity outside the Russian Orthodox Church.”

The bill also has drawn criticism from Muslim, Jewish and Russian Orthodox organizations, The Guardian reported. Protestants in Russia, CT said, have called for prayer and protest.

David Roach is chief national correspondent for Baptist Press.


Court’s order ‘great concern’ for religious liberty

June 29, 2016 | Posted in Persecution | By

250 Seal_of_the_United_States_Supreme_Courtby Tom Strode

WASHINGTON (BP) — The U.S. Supreme Court has dealt a setback to religious freedom and prompted a warning from three of its members.

The high court announced Tuesday (June 28) it would not consider an appeal by pro-life pharmacists of a lower court decision they argued violates their First Amendment, free-exercise-of-religion rights. The justices’ refusal to review the federal appeals court opinion apparently will force the closure of the pharmacy involved and the departure from the profession or state of the pharmacists in the case.

Three of the justices dissented from the order, describing it as “an ominous sign.”

“If this is a sign of how religious liberty claims will be treated in the years ahead, those who value religious freedom have cause for great concern,” Associate Justice Samuel Alito wrote on behalf of the dissenters.

The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco overturned last year a federal judge’s decision and upheld a Washington state rule that prohibits conscience-based pharmacy referrals. The appeals court — in affirming a regulation that permits pharmacists to make referrals for drugs they do not stock or dispense based on secular reasons but not based on religious conscience — ruled it does not violate the free-exercise clause.

Defenders of religious freedom strongly disagreed.

Southern Baptist ethicist Russell Moore called the order “a disappointing and senseless decision by the court, one that signals that pro-life pharmacists must check their convictions at the door.”

“This coercion of the conscience is a disaster for every American, though, not just pharmacists,” said Moore, president of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, in written comments for Baptist Press. “Everyone has a stake in religious liberty and soul freedom, and this inaction by the Supreme Court shows how urgently we must advocate for the conscience rights of all.”

Kristen Waggoner, senior counsel for Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF), said, “All Americans should be free to peacefully live and work consistent with their faith without fear of unjust punishment, and no one should be forced to participate in the taking of human life. We had hoped that the U.S. Supreme Court would take this opportunity to reaffirm these long-held principles.”

ADF represented the pharmacists in their legal challenge, and the ERLC supported them in a friend-of-the-court brief.

“Singling out people of faith and denying them the same freedom to refer is a violation of federal law,” Waggoner said in a written release. “Not one customer in Washington has been denied timely access to any drug due to a religious objection. As the [federal court] found, the government designed its law for the ‘primary — if not sole — purpose’ of targeting religious health care providers.”

Alito echoed that finding in his dissent, writing, “There are strong reasons to doubt whether the regulations were adopted for — or that they actually serve — any legitimate purpose. And there is much evidence that the impetus for the adoption of the regulations was hostility to pharmacists whose religious beliefs regarding abortion and contraception are out of step with prevailing opinion in the State.

“The bottom line is clear: Washington would rather have no pharmacy than one that doesn’t toe the line on abortifacient emergency contraceptives,” he said.

Chief Justice John Roberts and Associate Justice Clarence Thomas joined Alito in dissenting. The majority offered no explanation for its decision, which is typical in orders declining review.

The Stormans family, which owns a pharmacy in Olympia, Wash., and Margo Thelen and Rhonda Mesler, pharmacists who work at other stores, challenged the 2007 Washington rule that requires them to provide such drugs as Plan B and “ella.”

The Stormans, who own Ralph’s Thriftway grocery store and its pharmacy, and the two pharmacists were willing to refer patients who seek potentially abortion-causing drugs to other pharmacists. More than 30 pharmacies within five miles of Ralph’s Thriftway stock the drugs, according to ADF.

Plan B, also known as the “morning-after” pill, possesses a post-fertilization mechanism that potentially can cause abortions by preventing implantation of tiny embryos. In a fashion similar to the abortion drug RU 486, “ella” can act even after implantation to end the life of a child.

The ERLC and 10 other religious groups filed a friend-of-the-court brief in February that asked the high court to review the Ninth Circuit’s opinion.

The American Pharmacists Association and 37 other national and state pharmacy associations were among others who filed briefs in support of the pharmacy and pharmacists.

The case was Stormans v. Wiesman.

Tom Strode is Washington bureau chief for Baptist Press, the Southern Baptist Convention’s news service.


Scott McConnell to lead LifeWay Research as Ed Stetzer leaves for Wheaton

June 25, 2016 | Posted in Southern Baptist Convention | By

Scott McConellNASHVILLE (BP) — Scott McConnell has been named executive director of LifeWay Research, a Nashville-based evangelical firm specializing in surveys about faith in culture and matters affecting the church.

McConnell, 45, succeeds Ed Stetzer, who will join Wheaton College’s faculty July 1 as The Billy Graham Distinguished Endowed Chair for Church, Mission, and Evangelism in addition to serving as executive director of the Billy Graham Center for Evangelism at the Chicago-area college.

McConnell has been a researcher for LifeWay Christian Resources for nearly 20 years, generating in-depth insights into the needs, views and opinions of church leaders, laity and the unchurched.

McConnell joined the staff of LifeWay Research when it was formed 10 years ago.

“Scott was the first person I brought to the LifeWay Research team in 2006, and he has been a key part of the growth of LifeWay Research over these 10 years,” LifeWay President Thom S. Rainer said. “Under his leadership we look forward to many more insights on the church and culture that shape the way we as church leaders approach our ministry.”

LifeWay Research, as a key source for church leaders, ministries and journalists, has been cited in the Pulitzer-winning series on domestic abuse by The Post and Courier in Charleston, S.C.; lead stories in USA Today on the rise of the “nones” in U.S. religious life; The New York Times on mental illness and the church; and in cover stories for Christianity Today and Outreach Magazine.

McConnell has had a leadership role in numerous in-depth research initiatives to help church leaders, examining core functions such as pastoral ministry, discipleship and evangelism; helping leaders understand the experiences and perceptions of the unchurched, church dropouts and church switchers; how churches address difficult questions such as divorce and domestic violence; and the needs and perspectives of the mentally ill, women who have had an abortion, young adults and parents.

From its various surveys, LifeWay Research has developed a toolkit of online assessment tools including the Transformational Discipleship Assessment, the Transformational Church Assessment Tool and the Church Planter Candidate Assessment.

In its work for ministries and businesses that serve churches, LifeWay Research also has measured the health of churches and denominations; tested new product ideas and packaging; quantified brand perceptions; and identified motivations.

McConnell, in comments to Baptist Press, said, “For the last 10 years God has provided the team at LifeWay Research with opportunities to research mission-critical topics such as evangelism, discipleship and church health. And we have served other ministries by providing custom studies that addressed difficult issues such as divorce, abortion and domestic violence.

“It is an honor to follow Ed Stetzer as executive director of LifeWay Research. He raised awareness among church leaders that facts are our friends,'” McConnell said.

“It is imperative that church leaders understand the times in which we live today,” he noted. “This understanding cannot be blown and tossed by each day’s conversations. Research anchors our thinking on the realities of our day — real beliefs, challenges and opportunities.”

McConnell is the author of “Multi-Site Churches: Guidance for the Movement’s Next Generation” and coauthor with Rodney and Selma Wilson of “The Parent Adventure: Preparing Your Children for a Lifetime with God.”

He holds a bachelor of science in economics, marketing and strategic management from the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania. Before joining LifeWay, McConnell was mentored in survey methodology and actionable decision-focused research as an associate project manager at NAXION, a Philadelphia-based firm whose research included segmentation, satisfaction and product development research for Fortune 100 telecommunications and utility companies.


Christian Killed in Eastern Uganda after Religious Discussion with Muslims

June 22, 2016 | Posted in Persecution | By

arabic letter n 250NAIROBI, Kenya (Morning Star News) – A Christian in eastern Uganda who had received death threats from Muslims after a religious discussion was killed on June 4, sources said.

The body of Yokannah Zirinkuma of Kasasira village, Kibuku District, was found in a pool of blood in nearby Kadama village, near the home of the primary suspect, an area source said. Zirinkuma was 50.

Well known in the area for evangelistic preaching in a marketplace by which several Muslims came to faith in Christ, Zirinkuma two weeks prior had engaged Muslims in Kasasira village in open debate that became heated. He later received a threatening letter from unknown Muslims.

“You should stop misleading Muslims, and if you fail to adhere to this, then you will face the judgment sword from Allah,” a letter in Arabic warned him. A former Muslim (name withheld) whom Zirinkuma had led to Christ interpreted the letter for him, the convert told Morning Star News.

The evening before his death, June 3, Zirinkuma attended a seminar at Kadama Church of Uganda, which ended at 5 p.m.

“Yokannah mentioned to me that three Muslims from his village followed him till he entered the church for the seminar, and that he did not know where they went after that,” pastor Samuel Keffa, who led the seminar, told Morning Star News. “He looked fearful for his life.”

After the seminar, a Muslim from Kadama village, Ibrahim Mwede, approached Zirinkuma as he was sitting and talking with the pastor. Mwede asked the pastor if he could interrupt to talk with Zirinkuma about his cassava business, and they began discussing it. Eventually Mwede hinted to the pastor that some villagers had some cassava they wanted to sell, and he asked if the pastor would mind if Zirinkuma went with him to talk to them about buying the cassava, which has an edible tuberous root.

The body of Yokannah Zirinkuma. (Morning Star News)

The body of Yokannah Zirinkuma. (Morning Star News)

Mwede told the pastor and Zirinkuma that he could spend the night at his house, as the evening was getting late, Pastor Keffa said. An elder in the Kasasira Church of Uganda, Zirinkuma went away with Mwede.

A church elder who is a neighbor of Mwede heard some commotion at about 3 a.m. near Mwede’s house, along with an unusual cry, Pastor Keffa said. Another neighbor told the church elder that someone had been killed and the body dumped a few meters from Mwede’s house.

Christians rushed to the site and found Zirinkuma’s body lying in a pool of blood, the pastor said. After they reported the case to police, officers arrested Mwede for interrogation.

A police officer told Morning Star News that Mwede has been charged with murder and has been remanded to jail for one year awaiting trial.

The body was taken to Kadama Hospital, where Dr. Fred Awiny conducted an autopsy. The autopsy concluded that Zirinkuma’s body showed signs consistent with murder – several injury marks suggesting a struggle, and ligature marks on the neck indicating he was strangled.

Zirinkuma, a widower, is survived by two daughters, ages 22 and 17.

About 85 percent of the people in Uganda are Christian and 11 percent Muslim, with some eastern areas having large Muslim populations. The country’s constitution and other laws provide for religious freedom, including the right to propagate one’s faith and convert from one faith to another.

Mother Attacked

In another part of eastern Uganda, an Islamic sheikh (teacher) beat his wife with a blunt instrument after their 6-year-old daughter told him how she had been healed at a church service, sources said.

After finding out that his wife and their seven children had become Christians at a church service the previous day, 44-year-old Siraji Basalirwa attacked his wife on May 29 in Bulyangada village, Wairama parish, Mpungwe Sub-County, Mayuge District, sources said.

Siida Namaganda, 38, and her children visited Fountain of Living Water Church in Kasitaime on May 28 for special prayers for sick 6-year-old Kuraisi Waiswa. A pastor prayed for the girl, and she was miraculously healed, area sources said. Overjoyed, the mother and children, ages 3 to 14 including two sets of twins ages 9 and 12, decided to be followers of Jesus.

When the healed girl told her father the next day that they had attended the church, he became furious and started to beat his wife with a blunt object, area sources said. The children rushed to help their mother.

“There was loud screaming, and we rushed to Siraji’s house and found his wife bleeding,” a neighbor who requested anonymity told Morning Star News. “Her husband left for a nearby mosque. His wife told us about the healing of her child in the church, and how this attack had caused her pain.”

The neighbor took Namaganda and the children to the church site before her husband returned, but the sheikh and five other angry Muslims arrived looking for them, the pastor said.

“I saw them outside the church gate and sensed danger for the new converts,” he said. “I told the church guard not to open the gate, and after two hours they left. Early the next day, I sent her and her children to some church members.”

The mother and children are in hiding in another village. An area source said they are living in a tattered house with a thatched roof that leaks.

“The children are now unable to go to school,” the source said. “They need prayers, moral support as well as financial support as their situation looks very pathetic.”

Earlier this month, the woman’s husband sold their land and decided to buy property elsewhere, sources said.

© 2016 Morning Star News. Reprinted with permission.  


Muslim Gang in Nigeria Stabs Non-Muslim for Eating on Ramadan

June 22, 2016 | Posted in Persecution | By

arabic letter n 250JOS, Nigeria (Morning Star News) – Young Muslim men stabbed a non-Muslim in Kaduna state on Tuesday (June 7) for failing to observe a day-time fast during the month-long Islamic celebration of Ramadan, according to local reports.

Francis Emmanuel Olokpo, who appears to identify as a Christian though his church affiliation was not immediately clear, sustained multiple wounds in the attack. At St. Gerard Hospital in Kaduna city, he told Vanguard newspaper today that he was recovering well.

“Nobody should worry over me,” he said, “I’m being taken care of very well, and by the grace of Christ, I shall leave here very soon.”

The 41-year-old carpenter said earlier this week that he had gone to a market to buy wood and returned to his workplace in Kakuri, where he was eating some food he had bought.

Kaduna state, Nigeria. (Wikipedia, Himalayan Explorer based on work by Uwe Dedering)

“As I was eating, about six Muslims came to ask me if I am a Muslim or a Christian, but I did not answer them,” he told journalists from his hospital bed this week. “They asked why I was not fasting, then I told them that I am not a Muslim. Before I know it, one of them slapped me. As I stood up, the rest came and surrounded me and started attacking me with knives.”

Olokpo said no one could come to his aid because of the dangerous cutlasses, knives and scissors they were using to attack him. He fell unconscious and didn’t know who brought him to the hospital, he said.

Kaduna Gov. Nasir El-Rufai visited him on Wednesday (June 8) at the hospital and later told reporters that his administration would not accept the use of force and coercion to compel others to embrace religious beliefs.

“Nigeria is a free country, and that means no imposition of faith or religious practices on anyone,” El-Rufai said. “We should not allow differences in faith to be a barrier to harmony or a cause for conflict. Nobody can impose a tenet of his faith on another person. The decision to observe any religious activity is the prerogative of the individual.”

El-Rufai directed police to investigate the attack and ensure that the assailants are arrested and prosecuted.

“The government will not allow anyone to get away with any crime using his or her faith as an excuse,” he said. The attack on Olokpo comes after the June 2 killing of a Christian woman by a Muslim mob in neighboring Kano state over an accusation of blaspheming Muhammad, the prophet of Islam.

One factor contributing to such attacks is an intolerant Wahhabi-Salafi Islam that has crept into Nigeria in recent years, according to a study released this week by advocacy group 21st Century Wilberforce Initiative. The report says the Wahhabi tradition has filtered into northern Nigeria through the influence of Saudi Arabia and Islamic charities.

“This shift to Salafism helps explain why a country that has had both Muslims and Christians, sometimes living as neighbors within the same community for hundreds of years, has not experienced this level of violence in the past, why religious identity is hardening, and why at least some Nigerian Muslims are willing to employ violence against both Christians and fellow Muslims who are seen as morally culpable given their perceived detachment to ‘correct’ forms of practice,” the report states. Outside support and funding has contributed to a revival of this hard-line Islam within many Islamic communities in northern Nigeria, though to what extent remains unclear, the report states.

“This ongoing Islamic revival in northern Nigeria is manifested in a shift towards Salafist interpretations, which emphasize stricter implementation of sharia and more simplified and ‘pure’ practices of Islam,” the report states.

The Rev. Matthew Hassan Kukah, bishop of Sokoto Catholic Diocese, said the attacks on Christians this month are unacceptable.

“The ugly things we have seen in the last one week are ungodly and totally unacceptable,” Kukah told reporters. “Somebody goes out to buy food and you attack him and say, ‘Why are you not fasting?’ It is totally unacceptable. The culprits must be arrested, tried and punished. There is no other way you can end this impunity.”

Sunny Oibe, director of National Issues of the Christian Association of Nigeria (CAN), said in a press statement the attack on Olokpo shows an intolerance among Muslims that is becoming endemic in Nigeria.

“The attack on the carpenter for allegedly eating when Muslims were fasting goes to show the level of intolerance of some people, particularly some of our Muslims,” Oibe said. “Even if somebody refuses to fast, nobody has the right to embark on such animalistic behavior of attempting murder. The leadership of the Christian Association of Nigeria is asking Nigerian security agencies to ensure that this matter is not swept under the carpet.”


© 2016 Morning Star News. Reprinted with permission.