Freedom


One of the most frequent questions I’m faced with in advocacy and awareness raising work is: “Why?”

It can be very difficult to come up with an answer or to begin to attempt to explain how a repressive regime or a dictator “thinks”.

There is a great quote today in the Washington Post (which has been doing some fantastic coverage of Cuba recently) by Yoani Sánchez, the internationally recognized blogger responsible for Generacion Y (and long time friend of Mario Felix Lleonart Barroso and Yoaxis Marcheco, who have featured frequently on this blog). She’s talking specifically about Cuba, but her comment applies to pretty much every repressive regime I’ve come across:

Ms. Sánchez reminded us that such arbitrariness is characteristic of authoritarianism. “It is hard to think like a repressor, if you have never been one,” she said. “They have their own logic. One of the most paralyzing elements of the Cuban repression is its illogical nature.”

Click here for the full article.

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Once upon a time there was a people who lived in the misty hills and cool mountaintops of a distant land. Although they were the same people, from hamlet to hamlet and valley to valley they spoke many languages and dialects. They could not understand one another.

They shared a belief however, in The Almighty One, who was over all things. To honor Him, they placed large stones and wooden poles in the high places – so that they would be visible to all who lived in that land.

More than one hundred years ago, some men and women who were not from there arrived. They said they had come to share good news. The elders recognized the Almighty One of whom the strangers spoke. They embraced this good news. Although they still could not always understand one another, this good news united their people, and they were one.

On the high places they built crosses, twenty and thirty feet tall, to remind themselves that their land was under Christ and they were all His people.

Then some other people came. They were from the same country, although from a different people. They came from the plains with different beliefs and they were the rulers over the hill people. In the space of twenty-five years they established fifty-four military bases in the hill lands. With the military bases came violence and rape and fear.

The rulers said that all of the people in the country must be the same: one country, one religion, one language. There could be no differences. One by one, they destroyed the crosses that had stood upon the high places. They forced the people, even the children and the elderly, to carry bricks to build shrines to the other religion. They placed loudspeakers so that the valleys and mountainsides would ring with the sound of the other prayers. They said this way the people would know that their land did not belong to Christ.

They told the people they could not build churches. They would not allow them to repair their old ones and the buildings crumbled. They told the people they had to request permission to hold religious celebrations and Bible camps. The people requested permission but their requests went unanswered.

Then the rulers sent men to the poorest villages. These men told the people there that they would give their children an education. They would give their parents bags of rice and oil and clothes if they would permit them to take their children to their schools. The children had no other chance of an education and the parents thought that this was good.

They did not know that when the little children arrived at the school, they would be forbidden from speaking their language. They did not know that the children would be forced to recite scriptures from the other religion and beaten with sticks if they made a mistake. They did not know they would be stopped from giving thanks to the Almighty One before they ate. They did not know that their children would be forced to convert to the other religion, and if they refused they would be sent to the military, to the front lines, to be killed. They did not know that the purpose of the schools was to eradicate their culture, their faith, their heritage, their identity.

A young man from the hills saw his people suffering. His grandfather and father were pastors but they told him he could serve the Almighty One is other ways. He traveled for eight months through the land, hiding from the rulers and the soldiers, and wrote down the stories of his people. Then he left his land and he journeyed to distant countries to tell others about what was happening and to ask them to help.

Now he is in the land from whence came the first foreigners bringing the good news. He is asking us to stand with his people again. He is asking us not to forget his people and others like them. He is asking our rulers to remember them and to help them.

“Surely,” he says, “the Almighty One is God over the hills, but He is also the God of the people of the plains and He can reach them.” (I Kings 20)

Pray for Burma and for all of its peoples. Pray for the Chin. Pray for the delegation that is traveling to raise awareness of the suffering of their people. Pray for true freedom, including religious freedom, for the Burmese, Karen, Karenni, Mon, Shan, Kachin, Rohingya, and Chin.

Read the report documenting the persecution of ethnic Chin Christians in Burma

Chin Christians praying for forgiveness over a destroyed hill cross. Photo courtesy of Chin Human Rights Organisation www.chro.ca

Chin Christians praying for forgiveness over a destroyed hill cross. Photo courtesy of Chin Human Rights Organisation http://www.chro.ca

Omar and Kenia

Working on religious freedom can be a real drag sometimes. Not in the sense that it ever becomes boring, I love that this is my actual job, but in the sense that cases can drag on and on for what seems like forever. Oppressive regimes and intractable conflicts stay intractable for decades, until suddenly one day they’re not.

Even following political reform, however, justice can remain elusive and some of the cases I work on are almost thirty (THIRTY!) years old. One of those thirty year old cases, has been dragging through the court system for a decade now; the strategy of the defendants and the Ministry of Defense, behind them, appears to be just to stall the process much as possible until the government gives up and the victims run out of resources (which unfortunately is exactly what’s happening).

So… seeing a case positively resolved is something we seriously celebrate at my organization.

Today we closed a case.

After five years of advocacy, prayer, press releases, report writing, regular skype calls and yahoo chats, the Gude Perez/Denis family arrived as refugees in the United States.

Note I said positively resolved, not ideally resolved. Ideally, they would have stayed in Cuba and continued to exercise their ministry. Ideally, they would have done so free from harassment and threats of imprisonment. That, however, wasn’t a possibility, so they made a painful decision to do the best thing for their family, especially for their children who had been excluded from school, and accepted an asylum offer from the US.

Even that, however, became an ordeal as Cuban state security tried to block the family from leaving, or to force them to separate. First they were told none of them would be allowed “white cards”, the equivalent of an exit visa, a requirement that was abolished on January 14th. Then after months of pressure and prayer, the government gave Kenia and their thirteen year old daughter permission to leave, but not their fifteen year old son or Omar. Months after that, following more pressure and prayer, their son was given an exit visa, but still nothing for Omar. In the meantime, someone in authority decided that the kids should no longer be allowed to attend school – never mind that they weren’t going anywhere until they could leave with their dad.

Press releases were published, verbal promises were made, then reneged on.  I started to have frequent random visions of Cuban Communist Party officials in Pharaonic headdresses shaking their heads to the tune of “Let My People Go”.

This situation went on for a full year and a half – as the family discussed, debated and prayed over what they should do: stay firm in their decision to only leave as a unit or if, in the best interests of the kids, they should separate knowing a separation would be indefinite and likely prolonged.

Finally, after a very courageous decision in November 2012 by Kenia to travel to the US on her own, with the intention of returning to Cuba to be with her family, in order to put the spotlight on her family’s situation, something shifted. Someone, somewhere apparently decided that the costs to Cuba’s public image outweighed the benefits of punishing this family and making an example of them to other church leaders on the island and the wheels were set in motion.

More verbal promises were made but this time they were accompanied by the signing of mysterious papers.

Then nothing. For two months.

Until mid January, when in despair Omar wrote an open letter denouncing the regime and explaining the impact of their intransigence on his children – his son had lost more than fifty pounds and his daughter much of her hair, due to the stress put on the family over the past year and half. We prepared a press release.

Maybe someone was monitoring our communication (actually, not maybe, definitely) but for whatever reason, literally just as everything was about to be published, I got an e-mail from Kenia saying they’d just had a visit and been given the final white card.

In the final days of January they boarded a plane and left the country, to their new homes, where they were met by an amazing church family who arranged a welcome party at baggage claim.

Exodus 15:12-18

“You stretch out your right hand,
and the earth swallows your enemies.
In your unfailing love you will lead
the people you have redeemed.
In your strength you will guide them
to your holy dwelling.

The nations will hear and tremble;
anguish will grip the people of Philistia.
The chiefs of Edom will be terrified,
the leaders of Moab will be seized with trembling,
the peopleof Canaan will melt away;
terror and dread will fall on them.
By the power of your arm
they will be as still as a stone—
until your people pass by, Lord,
until the people you boughtpass by.
 You will bring them in and plant them
on the mountain of your inheritance—
the place, Lord, you made for your dwelling,
the sanctuary, Lord, your hands established.

“The Lord reigns
for ever and ever.”

Earlier this week I asked for prayer for Christians in Egypt and mentioned that some Salafi extremist clerics had declared that any Muslim who so much as offered a Christmas greeting to a Christian would be considered apostates and traitors. I also mentioned that many Muslims and some significant Muslim leaders had made a public stand against those declarations to stand in solidarity with Egyptian Christians celebrating the birth of our Savior. The video below shows that solidarity in action.

Taking a stand like this is not without its risks, especially as the citizens of Egypt face an uncertain future. Individuals of all faiths who are willing to put themselves out there, however, for the cause of unity and religious freedom, and especially leaders who know that their words and actions have the power to influence so many, give me hope for Egypt’s future.

Please continue to pray for Egypt and to lift up these men and women who are taking a very public stand against extremism and for an Egypt that derives strength and legitimacy from its own rich and diverse history and present.

Image

I wrote something! I really, really wrote something!

Please excuse my giddiness… after a couple of rather long years (longer than they should have been) I am finally able to announce the publication in electronic version of the biography of my good friend, Julio Cusihuaman Ccorahua.

Julio was my first ever “case” at CSW; a case which turned quickly into a life long friend, and gave me a new Peruvian family. He and his wife call me sister and named me goddaughter to their beautiful daughter Candy, an honor which still overwhelms me.

I met Julio in a remote Peruvian prison more than ten years ago. He was innocent of the charges against him and we were sure he’d be getting out, but a year later I returned to only to find him still inside. We toured the maximum security prison with him as he introduced us to brother after brother… all members of the church he’d planted during his time as a prisoner. We laughed together, prayed together, sang together and I still clearly remember the emotional disconnect it was to walk out of that place, heavy metal doors slamming shut behind us, leaving him behind. I carry an image in my memory of his face, behind dark metal bars in a tiny window, smiling at us, as he called to us to remind us to pray for him, his family and his ministry.

He is without a doubt one of the most impressive and at the same time, most humble, people I’ve ever met.

If you want to be inspired, need a story to help you put your own life in perspective, are looking for a good (cheap) gift for a friend or yourself, please consider buying this book. We’ve kept the price low in the hopes that more people will read it; for the same reason, it’s also available for free rental if you are a member of Amazon Prime. All proceeds will go to support Julio’s ministry. If you’re wondering, yes, they’re still poor and living at or below the poverty line, yet he and his wife are dedicated to this taxing but rewarding work, so everything helps.

*Please note that this is a true story, and as such deals with some difficult themes. There are scenes involving torture and other severe human rights atrocities. They aren’t gratuitous but they are honest – so it’s probably a good idea to exercise some caution when sharing with younger readers. I’m not necessarily of the mind that teenagers shouldn’t read it (quite the opposite, as I think it might challenge them to think about some of the injustices in the world and what they can do about it), but I do think it might be a good idea for the adult in their life to read it first in order to be able to discuss some of these issues and events with them.

The link and the book description are below – please read, review, recommend. Thank you and a very very Merry Christmas to you!

A Light in the Darkest Corner

The extraordinary and inspiring story of a young man raised in poverty and violence in the highlands of Peru, A Light in the Darkest Corner, is the testimony of Julio Cusihuaman Ccorahua. After his father died from complications related to alcoholism and his mother spiraled into addiction, Julio and his chronically ill sister were left to fend for themselves in the town of Ayacucho, the epicenter of Shining Path terrorist violence. As a teenager he was falsely accused of terrorism, tortured and imprisoned but after a miraculous escape, Julio fled to the city of Lima where he followed his parents’ example, immersing himself in alcohol and parties to bury his pain and anger. A young woman helped lead him to Christ and later became his wife. The pair started a family and a vibrant new ministry only to be hit by a series of tragedies. In 1999, Julio found himself in prison again facing the same false charges as before but this time with a wife, two small children and mounting debts. Instead of succumbing to bitterness, Julio realized God had brought him to a new mission field. Putting aside agonizing questions about his future and the welfare of his family, he began to share Christ’s love with the most despised and rejected of all society, working to transform a nation from the bottom up by bringing God’s light to some of the darkest places on earth.

Here is one of the big reasons: Kenia Denis

As many of those reading this will know, 2011 was rough. I had known death in personal and painful ways in previous years, but nothing like what I experienced last year.

Before dawn on a dark February morning, I received the news that my boyfriend had drowned in a kayaking accident. Three months later, just as I was starting to re-enter life at a more normal operating level, my beloved grandmother died, also relatively unexpectedly. Although very different, in some ways the grief in the second round was harder to bear – it ripped open what had just started to heal and added the additional loss of person who had never not been in my life. In August, my boyfriend’s mother died – her death was not so unexpected but it added to the weight of pain. As the rest of the year went by, it seemed that the shadow of death was all around me as healthy, life-filled, beloved brothers, nephews, and children of people very close to me died abruptly and without warning.

So it was a hard year. Paradoxically, it was also one of the best years of my life. That might seem a strange thing to say – but it was a year in which I learned that in the same heart profound joy and peace can co-exist alongside profound pain and grief without contradiction. It was a year in which I was forced to confront eternity and everything I believe or don’t believe about the “forever and ever” of the Lord’s Prayer. It was a year in which I was challenged to either allow doubt and bitterness to torture me or to embrace my faith and to cling to that hope with all my heart and all my soul and all my mind and all my strength. It was a year in which I learned to live in God’s terrible and tender love. It was a year in which I chose to believe over and over again that all things do work together for the good of those who love the Lord – whether we ever understand them or not.

Death makes people do funny things – and while I received huge encouragement and support from friends and strangers alike, some very well-meaning people also said some horribly insensitive and sometimes offensive things. For the most part I was able to shrug it off and even laugh – not at them, of course, but with other friends who’d experienced similar loss and who shared the similarly insane things people had said to them. We joked about writing a manual for people on What Not to Say to Someone Who is Grieving.

For those who are interested, the advice really boiled down to a couple of things: don’t give advice (at best it’s obnoxious and at worst offensive), don’t try to explain to the person why it happened (you don’t know), and don’t tell them how they should be feeling (just don’t). In reference to those who have lost partners or children – don’t ask when they’re going to start dating again or trying for another child (just don’t even). Do listen, do affirm, do pray, do send letters and messages of encouragement, and do be there when they need you.

Ironically, it was because of some of the strangest things said to me (with much goodwill but great ignorance) by fellow Christians that I came to two realizations about death. These specific comments and advice, which focused on praying for my “liberation” from pain and/or the spirit of death, challenged me to think about why I didn’t agree with them and led me to the following conclusions:

  1. This world is bound by death. I am going to die. Every living thing around me, every person I know, is going to die. I don’t know when it will happen or how but it will. I may experience and witness healing and miracles over the course of my lifetime but the end will come just the same. This isn’t morbid – it’s just a fact of this life, a fact that may be more difficult to deal with for many of us living in the modern first-world where death has been banished to the periphery. If I can’t learn to live with this fact, however, I am going to be in for a rough ride from here on out.
  1. I may have to live with it but I don’t have to accept it. Death is not natural. It is not what we were created for. It is right that everything in me rebels and protests at the very concept and that its advent provokes searing, gut-wrenching pain. Our nature, given to us by God, is to live. And as those who believe and are called children of God, Life is our inheritance.

These two realizations, and learning that it is possible to believe both at the same time, not only helped me to cope and process what was happening to me and around me but also led me to understand Christ, the Cross, the Resurrection, Redemption and Eternity in new and more deeply personal ways. It helped me to see how simultaneously insignificant and important our lives are. It allowed me to experience a tiny fraction of that profound grief God must have felt when humanity chose to allow death to enter into His perfect creation. It challenges me to move my focus from the here and now to the life everlasting – and to remember that that is where my treasure is.

Psalm 84

How lovely is your dwelling place,
O Lord of Heaven’s Armies.
I long, yes, I faint with longing
to enter the courts of the Lord.
With my whole being, body and soul,
I will shout joyfully to the living God.
Even the sparrow finds a home,
and the swallow builds her nest and raises her young
at a place near your altar,
O Lord of Heaven’s Armies, my King and my God!
What joy for those who can live in your house,
always singing your praises. Interlude

What joy for those whose strength comes from the Lord,
who have set their minds on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem.
When they walk through the Valley of Weeping,
it will become a place of refreshing springs.
The autumn rains will clothe it with blessings.
They will continue to grow stronger,
and each of them will appear before God in Jerusalem.

O Lord God of Heaven’s Armies, hear my prayer.
Listen, O God of Jacob. Interlude

O God, look with favor upon the king, our shield!
Show favor to the one you have anointed.

A single day in your courts
is better than a thousand anywhere else!
I would rather be a gatekeeper in the house of my God
than live the good life in the homes of the wicked.
For the Lord God is our sun and our shield.
He gives us grace and glory.
The Lord will withhold no good thing
from those who do what is right.
O Lord of Heaven’s Armies,
what joy for those who trust in you.

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