Religious 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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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.

ImageWould you give your life for Christ? If your answer is “no” you can skip ahead to the next paragraph. If your answer is “yes”, here’s another question for you: would you attend church if doing so put your life at risk? No? Ok, skip ahead. Yes? Here’s another: would you encourage your spouse or your children to attend church with you, if doing so put their lives at risk?

To be very honest, I am not sure what the correct answers are to the second two questions, and I’m certainly not sure what my actual, as opposed to my theoretical, response would be if I was personally faced with these choices.

What I do know is that tonight many of my brothers and sisters in Egypt will make these decisions, just as our brothers and sisters in Nigeria did thirteen days ago. Twelve Christians there were killed in attacks by extremists on two different churches.

The Nigerians didn’t unwittingly choose to put their lives at risk. Attacks on churches have become part of the regular news cycle, and they would have been very much aware that acts of violence on a significant holy day are of particular interest to extremists as they look for high profile publicity to spread their brand of terror.

Tonight, on the first Christmas Eve celebrated under a new Islamist constitution, Egyptians will also make this choice. They know the risks and are painfully aware of the threats that have already been made against them. And yet, a very great number of them will venture out of their homes and neighborhoods to join together to worship and celebrate the birth of our Saviour. They will do so with the full knowledge that the act of physically coming together in fellowship transforms them in the eyes of extremists into a high value, high profile target.

This great country, which once served as a place of refuge for the Holy Family fleeing persecution, is becoming a place where it is unsafe to celebrate the birth of their Son.

It is dark, but it is not hopeless. Each person who tonight stands in a church in faith stands against that darkness. Each one of their non-Christian Egyptian brothers and sisters who stands with them in solidarity tonight stands against that darkness. Each one of us who tonight stands with them in prayer, stands against that darkness.

John 1:1-14

1 In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.

2 The same was in the beginning with God.

3 All things were made by him; and without him was not any thing made that was made.

4 In him was life; and the life was the light of men.

5 And the light shineth in darkness; and the darkness comprehended it not.

6 There was a man sent from God, whose name was John.

7 The same came for a witness, to bear witness of the Light, that all men through him might believe.

8 He was not that Light, but was sent to bear witness of that Light.

9 That was the true Light, which lighteth every man that cometh into the world.

10 He was in the world, and the world was made by him, and the world knew him not.

11 He came unto his own, and his own received him not.

12 But as many as received him, to them gave he power to become the sons of God, even to them that believe on his name:

13 Which were born, not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God.

14 And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us, (and we beheld his glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father,) full of grace and truth.

Here is one of the big reasons: Kenia Denis

John 1:5 The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.

First apologies for not having written much lately and more apologies because I’m not going to write much now. Things have been crazily busy, in a good way, over the past three months but am hoping that in the next few days or weeks I’ll have more time to sit down and write about some of the things I’ve had on my mind.

Today, however, I just want to share something. Communication in many of the countries in which we work is difficult. One of mine is notoriously difficult for geographical, political and technological reasons but much like the Biblical salt – I have a handful of trustworthy individuals scattered throughout the country who try, when they can, to pass on to me information about cases of persecution they know or hear about. Many of them have experienced the effects of worldwide solidarity in the form of prayer and letter writing themselves, and they know it works.

One of them has worked at various churches in different parts of the country but always seems to be assigned to fairly remote places, cut off from the rest of the country and even more so from the outside world. I don’t hear from him that often, but when I do, it’s usually a short message requesting urgent prayer or action. It always makes me think of a Hail Mary (non American Football people, click on the link for an explanation). He throws it out of there, I try not to fumble it and (the analogy stops here) pass it on to as many praying and acting people as I can.

I don’t usually expect much feedback because I know the limitations. Communication inside the country is also difficult to the point of being non-existent sometimes, so he doesn’t expect much feedback from those he’s tried to help either. The most severe cases tend to happen in very remote and rural areas, compounding the difficulty of following up.

So, imagine my surprise and joy, when yesterday I received this message:

Dear BV,

Last night there was a concert, authorized by the Government in the second largest theater in [the country]. The *** Theater.

It was truly historic.

But listen to this story…

A pastor approached me and asked me, “Are you ***? You don’t know me,” he said.

I didn’t recognize him even when he told me his name…

It turns out that years ago his church was threatened with demolition…I asked you for worldwide prayer for him…

We never met each other, not even on the telephone.

Seven years later, he testified to me that they never touched him again…

Hugs,

***

So today I give thanks for answered prayers. I give thanks that seven years ago I was able to be a little cog in the wheel that turned on behalf of this church. I give thanks for this pastor’s understanding of how the worldwide Body of Christ supported his church during their hour of need. I give thanks for his faithfulness in remembering and blessing that same Body, seven years later. I give thanks for our great God who loves us, strengthens us to love one another, and makes a way when there is no way.

For anyone looking for things to do this weekend, the Guardian has published a couple of great articles on a couple of countries where I work – all worth reading and situations definitely worth praying for:

On questions of justice, stolen land, NGOs and the importance of long-term solidarity in Colombia, specifically Uraba which was one of the regions I visited in August, and where the Church has suffered enormously but continues to carry out important prophetic work despite the risks: As Colombia Jails Army General, NGO’s Combating Land Grabs Should Take Note

On the insanity of the blasphemy laws in Pakistan (as a rule, blasphemy laws are nuts, even in countries in Europe where many are still shockingly on the books, but Pakistan has made their prosecution and implementation a special art form) and their impact on religious minorities, including Christians but also on non-Sunni Muslims and others: How to Commit Blasphemy in Pakistan

On the real impact of the drug war in Mexico (and other countries, including Colombia and Peru, though Mexico is the focus of this article), touching upon the actual real life effects of the North American and European recreational drug habit and political policies on actual real life people in those South American countries. For those wondering what this has to do with religious freedom – consider that in 2010 over 1000 Catholic priests in Mexico reported being under threat from organized crime involved in the drug trade; rates are probably similar for the Protestant churches though no comprehensive study has been possible, mostly because people are so afraid of the consequences of speaking out: Breaking Bad Doesn’t Show You the Real Drug War Drama

The increasing marginalization of women from the political transition and reform in Egypt. This is particularly on my heart as one year ago I was in Egypt running a training on human rights advocacy to a large group of young Christians, the majority of whom were young women, who love their country and were so hopeful for a future that included inclusion and the active participation of women and religious minorities: From Virginity Test to Power

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