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.

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.

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.