Author archives: Lela Gilbert

Burma: More Dangerous Than Ever for Religious Minorities

by Lela Gilbert

April 1, 2021

 

Once upon a time, Burma was a land of romantic mystique. Rudyard Kipling’s 19th century poem “Mandalay” conveys that vision,

By the old Moulmein Pagoda, lookin’ lazy at the sea,
There’s a Burma girl a-settin’, and I know she thinks o’ me…

Sadly, Kipling’s reverie is light-years removed from today’s bitterly divided and dangerous Burma—also known as Myanmar. In an ever-worsening conflict that has recently seized the country, the Burmese Army is shooting protestors with live ammunition, innocent families are bombed by government aircraft, and more than a million refugees have fled abuses of unimaginable brutality.

Since February 1, 2021, Burma has been featured in near-daily international news reports decrying a violent military junta’s coup, which overthrew the government of Nobel Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi and her National League of Democracy (NLD). From that day until now, bloodshed has increasingly spread across the country.

Today’s Burma is a perilous war zone in which terrified ethnic and religious minorities are facing life-or-death dangers, and chaos reigns supreme. But even before the February 1 coup, Burma was a land of many dangers, and freedom of religion was virtually non-existent.

Although most westerners imagine that a Buddhist nation like Burma/Myanmar would be peaceful and gracious, the country’s military has long been ruthless. Christians, who live as an at-risk minority in several Burmese states, have faced ongoing mistreatment at the hand of a notoriously brutal army for decades. And Christians aren’t alone in their suffering. Rohingya Muslims have also experienced unimaginable cruelties.

These abuses have not gone unnoticed. In 2019, the U.S. government imposed punitive actions for the Burmese government’s human rights and religious freedom violations, including travel bans against military leaders for “gross human rights violations.” In December, the U.S. Department of State redesignated Burma as a “Country of Particular Concern” (CPC). In fact, since 1999 the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) has declared Myanmar a CPC in its annual reports. This has been due to violent practices, lawless abuses, and discriminatory treatment of non-Buddhists. The regime has used fines, imprisonment, forced conversions, starvation, gang rape, and child abuse as its array of weaponry.

Rohingya Muslims have been particularly targeted since 2016. That October, more than a hundred Rohingya men, armed with various weapons, including knives, slingshots, and rifles, attacked police and killed nine officers. Those insurgents attacked again in 2017. The Rohingya had been stateless for decades, but due to these acts of violence against the Burmese government, they immediately found themselves facing deadly retribution. More than a million have since fled.

In recent days, the Rohingya’s ongoing tragedy was horrifically amplified thanks to a fire in the refugee camp in Bangladesh where hundreds of thousands had taken shelter. On March 23, the New York Times reported that local authorities “searched for survivors…”

amid the smoldering ruins of a sprawling Rohingya refugee camp, one day after a fire killed at least 15 people, injured hundreds and left tens of thousands homeless once again. The carnage at the camp in Cox’s Bazaar, near the border with Myanmar, was the latest tragedy for residents, who have lived for years in its squalid shanties since fleeing their homes in Myanmar in the aftermath of a military-perpetrated massacre.

While that tragedy unfolded, the beleaguered Christians in Myanmar continue to face greater risks than ever. World Magazine reports,

In the ethnic Karen region in eastern Myanmar, villagers in Day Pu Noh Valley in Papun District noticed a military fighter jet flying overhead in the afternoon. That night, the military dropped bombs on the village—the first airstrikes in the region in 20 years—killing three people and wounding eight.

The gloves are off now,” Free Burma Ranger’s Dave Eubank said of the military’s escalation. “There’s no need to have a façade of democracy anymore, [the military] felt the cease-fires were not working in controlling the ethnic groups, so now they are doing what they were going to do all along.”

Dangers for Christians abound as protestors across the country rise up in defiance against the regime. And some believers remain terrified by the upheaval. Open Doors quoted one Christian: “I couldn’t sleep and I cried out to God more than three times that night. Our dreams, hopes, vision and freedom are taken away. Our lifetime has been full of grief, fear and trouble under the military regime. People are suffering because of the war. Job opportunities are also difficult now, and we are depressed by the military coup because we had hoped for a ceasefire.”

However, Christianity Today offered a different perspective. An evangelical leader described the civil disobedience in which some Christians are participating: “On the ground, our brothers and sisters [believers] will continue their movement…the drumming of pots and pans, peaceful mass marching demonstrations, and the chants of condemnation to the military. Abroad, we will let the world know that we are fighting back.” He went on to say, “Christians in Myanmar are not timid…Christians might fight with [their] greatest weapon, prayer and Jesus himself.”

This leader then offered a plea—one with which we can all respond with urgency. He said, “We also request all of you who sympathize [with] us, pray for us in this fight to overcome sin and Satan’s schemes.”

Yes. Let’s remember to pray that our Lord will extend mercy to the Rohingya and to all others who suffer under the iron fist of Burma’s military regime. And may He provide increased blessings, encouragement, and safety to Burma’s beleaguered Christians.

More Nigerian Schoolgirls Kidnapped while a Christian Pastor Pleads for His Life

by Lela Gilbert

March 1, 2021

In the early morning hours of Friday, February 26, CNN reported that hundreds of female students had been kidnapped overnight from their boarding school in Nigeria. “They came on about 20 motorcycles and they marched the abducted girls into the forest,” a source told CNN. “The bandits arrived around 1:45 a.m. and they operated ‘til about 3 a.m.”

This outrageous assault took place less than a week following the 3-year anniversary of the abduction of well-known Nigerian kidnapping victim, Leah Sharibu. In a similar invasion, on February 19, 2018, Leah’s school had been attacked, and she and her classmates were abducted by Boko Haram terrorists.

So now several hundred more schoolgirls have been taken captive. “Security forces and a local defense group have commenced a search…” reports HumAngle. The girls were “abducted by a terror group in the early hours of Friday from their school in Jengebe, Zamfara State, Northwest Nigeria. The schoolgirls were abducted when the terror group stormed the Government Girls Secondary School…and subsequently moved the students.”  

Freedom At What Price?

Since those initial reports, conflicting accounts from Nigerian news sources claim that the Zamfara girls have, in fact, been freed. Some even say there is video of their release.

But if, in fact, the girls are free, the Nigerian government has remained evasively silent about the terms of the release or the identity of the kidnappers. Jihadi activity was not initially indicated as an element in the schoolgirls’ abduction. Yet according to some observers, these widespread kidnappings represent cooperation between Boko Haram and Fulani radicals who may, in turn, have influence over the Nigerian government.

In fact, the Sultan of Sokoto has publicly linked Boko Haram to the widespread school kidnappings. “Make no mistake,” he recently said,  “the abduction is a classic example of the philosophical foundation of Boko Haram—that western education is forbidden. That’s why their targets are always on boarding schools, especially science schools, considered atheistic in pedagogy.”            

Boko Haram’s kidnapping of Leah Sharibu and her classmates horrifically demonstrated Boko Haram’s radical Islamist agenda. Her classmates, who were released, were Muslim girls. She, alone, refused to deny her Christian faith and has remained enslaved for three years. Leah has reportedly given birth to the child of one of her captors.

Anti-Christian attacks on Nigeria’s schools, villages, churches, and clergy are distressingly commonplace. According to a recently updated Family Research Council report, since 2015, over 12,000 Christians have been killed in Nigeria. Countless more believers have been gravely injured, displaced, kidnapped or have simply disappeared. Priests and pastors are often targeted for abduction, and over the years more than a few have been murdered—some by beheading. 

As for the Zamfara school, it not yet known how many Christian girls were among those taken captive. But on Sunday, Pope Francis joined the Bishops of Nigeria in appealing for the release of the recently abducted students.

Death Threats to a Christian Pastor 

Meanwhile, in a related and tragic story of religiously-based kidnapping, on February 25, Christian Pastor Bulus Yakuru, who was seized during a Christmas Eve attack, stated he will be executed within a week if President Muhammadu Buhari does not meet Boko Haram’s demands for his release. In a new video, Pastor Yakuru identified himself and pleaded with Nigeria’s president, the Borno State governor, and the Christian Association of Nigeria (CAN), the umbrella body of Christians in the country, to intervene and secure his release. 

During the attack in which Pastor Yakuru was taken, “At least seven people were killed when Boko Haram insurgents attacked the village of Pemi in Borno State on Dec. 24, 2020.” Pemi is located approximately 20 kilometers from Chibok, where Boko Haram abducted hundreds of schoolgirls.

It is true that escalating violence in Nigeria is widespread and banditry is rampant across the country. However, in the case of anti-Christian attacks—like those in which Leah Sharibu and Pastor Bulus Yakuru were seized and held captive—there is far more than banditry involved.

USCIRF has explained, “In December 2020, the U.S. Department of State designated Nigeria as a Country of Particular Concern (CPC) for the first time ever due to systematic, ongoing, and egregious violations of religious freedom. Violent attacks by Boko Haram and ethno-religious conflicts have become more frequent, and are exacerbated by the judiciary system.”  Meanwhile, Open Doors’ 2021 World Watch List has placed Nigeria as the world’s 9th worst persecutor of Christians.

With all this in mind, let’s especially remember Leah Sharibu and Pastor Bulus Yakuru in our prayers. And may God protect the tormented people of Nigeria from violent attacks that grow more deadly with every passing day.

Leah Sharibu: Held Captive 3 Years for Her Christian Faith

by Lela Gilbert

February 19, 2021

Today, February 19, 2021, marks a grim third anniversary for a young Nigerian Christian named Leah Sharibu.

In a horrifying terrorist attack on February 19, 2018, 14-year-old Leah was among more than 100 girls kidnapped by Boko Haram terrorists. Their abduction took place at 5:30 in the afternoon, when the girls were unexpectedly seized at Dapchi Girls’ Science and Technical College.

During the incident, four or five girls died in the back of a truck as they were violently transported to Boko Haram’s encampment. Thankfully, following a month of horrific captivity, and after enduring death threats and unspeakable abuses, nearly all the surviving girls were freed by their captors on March 21.

One girl, however, was left behind—Leah Sharibu.

Before long, it become clear that she had not returned home for one simple reason: The other girls were all Muslim. And Leah had refused to renounce her Christian faith.

In August 2018, The Cable, a Nigerian news source, obtained a recording of Leah, begging President Muhammadu Buhari to rescue her and reunite her with her family: “I am Leah Sharibu, the girl that was abducted in GGSS Dapchi. I am calling on the government and people of goodwill to intervene to get me out of my current situation.”

Leah’s appeal fell on deaf ears; no intervention took place.

Later, when she heard that her classmates were being set free, Leah asked one of them to carry a note to her mother, Rebecca Sharibu. “My mother you should not be disturbed,” she wrote. “I know it is not easy missing me, but I want to assure you that I am fine where I am… I am confident that one day I shall see your face again. If not here, then there at the bosom of our Lord Jesus Christ.”

Her mother later said, “She did an amazing thing by refusing to renounce Christ, and I’m very proud of what she has done. I’m not sure if I was even in her position at 14 years old that I would have even done what she has done.”

In the summer of 2019, I met Rebecca Sharibu in Washington, D.C. She had come to seek help from the United States, and her heartache was evident on her weary and sorrowful face. When I asked her what she had most recently heard about her daughter, she said, “We don’t even know where Leah is,” her friend translated. “We have not seen her. We have not heard from her. I have no idea.”

Around six months later, on January 26, 2020, The Cable again reported about Leah, this time claiming that she had been “impregnated by one of the commanders of the sect, and she was delivered of a baby four days ago.” It was impossible to confirm the story, although it implied that Leah was probably still alive.

Today, there is no further news about Leah Sharibu. But Nigeria’s abuses of religious freedom continue to accelerate. In fact, FRC has just released an updated account of what has been described by some as a slow-motion genocide: The Crisis of Christian Persecution in Nigeria.

According to a U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) report released in February 2021, estimates suggest that the conflict with groups like Boko Haram and the Islamic State in West Africa Province has resulted in the deaths of more than 37,500 people since 2011. There is a reasonable basis to believe that these groups have committed war crimes and crimes against humanity.  

USCIRF Vice Chair Tony Perkins adopted Leah as a prisoner of conscience, personally advocating for this brave hostage who refuses to renounce her faith. Yet sadly, not much has changed. Just weeks ago, Open Doors listed Nigeria as the ninth worst persecutor of Christians on its 2021 World Watch List. And massacres of Nigerian Christians have only increased.  

Meanwhile, as we mark the third year following her abduction, Leah Sharibu remains a captive. Mercifully, across the world, faithful prayers continue for her freedom. But reports about her have dwindled to silence, despite pleas from international human rights groups and Christian organizations appealing for her release

Dede Laugesen, Executive Director of Save the Persecuted Christians, reflects, “It is impossible to know what Leah Sharibu’s life is like now… By all appearances, the Nigerian government has given up on Leah. But the world will not forget this fearless Christian teen, nor give up praying for her and demanding her release. Nigeria must do more to ensure all Nigerians—Muslim, Christian or African traditionalists—are freed from the dens of these monsters.”

As the world’s attention is diverted to other crises, other violence, and ever-increasing Christian persecution elsewhere, the significance of Leah’s brave devotion to her faith continues to resonate. A few months ago in an eloquent opinion piece, Nigeria’s Guardian summed up the significance of Leah’s capture, her faithful witness at just 14 years of age, and her continued detention by the Boko Haram insurgents:

The story of her capture and her continued detention by the Boko Haram insurgents as a result of her defiance of compromise and refusal to renounce her faith is the stuff of legend … Leah Sharibu alone was not released because she refused to renounce her faith and convert to Islam as demanded by her captors. Still missing and in captivity till the present … she has since become the symbol of Nigeria’s refusal to succumb to agents of darkness, hell-bent on dividing the country and appropriating a section of the nation’s territory to themselves. By her principled stand, the battle for the soul of Nigeria became one between a young girl with a heart and a garrison of devils without souls.

As time goes by and other concerns arise, our memory of Leah Sharibu’s story may grow dim. Let’s agree to remember this courageous young woman in our prayers.

Important Update about Burma/Myanmar’s Military Coup from Dave Eubank

by Lela Gilbert

February 4, 2021

Reports from Burma (Myanmar) have been the focus of international news this week. A military coup has overthrown the quasi-democratic government, and has placed the already-struggling Burmese people in a tenuous and potentially dangerous situation. Widespread displacement is already taking place, uncertainty has gripped the country and persecuted religious minorities—particularly Christians—are at greater risk than ever.

Many of us who are concerned about religious freedom are familiar with the remarkable story of Dave Eubank and his Free Burma Rangers. This man and his heroic efforts are legendary in today’s broken world. As Lara Logan reported about him last year on Fox News:

There is an army of volunteers who seek to serve in the world’s most dangerous places — not by killing an enemy, but by rescuing the innocent. They go where most humanitarian aid organizations will not, from the jungles of civil war-torn Myanmar to the desert killing fields of Mosul, Iraq. They are the Free Burma Rangers (FBR) and their leader is a Green Beret veteran and Christian missionary.

Ask anyone who follows him, they’ll tell you Dave Eubank is a soldier of God. He enlisted in the U.S. Armed Forces at the age of 18, following the example of his father. His career began as an infantry officer before joining the 2nd Ranger Battalion and finally the special forces. Eubank ran missions in South and Central America and in Thailand.

After 10 years of service, he left the military, but he was called back to conflict for a different purpose. His father called him to say that he had met a man seeking help for Burmese people caught in a seemingly endless civil war.

We started the Free Burma Rangers,” Eubank responded, “to give help, hope, and love to people under attack and get the news out and to stand with people.”

Today as always, Dave Eubank’s heart remains with the suffering Burmese people, and this week’s news about the Burmese coup has touched him deeply. He sent the following update to Family Research Council. It is not only important and newsworthy, but it is a call to prayer, so we are sharing it with you.

*** 

We are on a relief mission in Burma (Myanmar). The recent coup has revealed to the world what the people here knew already—that the military is in charge, has been in charge and will not share power. And attacks against the ethnic peoples have not stopped. Here where we are in Karen state, Burma, over 5,000 have been displaced in the past two months due to Burma army attacks. This is in spite of a cease-fire. Now the Burma Army are sending reinforcements—all around us—I just walked back to our camp from one group of 1,100 displaced people hiding in the mountains.

Our teams are giving them medical care and coordinating rice and tarp delivery on foot. Also attacks continue up north in Kachin State where over 100,000 remain displaced and in northern Shan state where Shan and Taang people are under regular attack. In Arakan state, western Burma, there is a lull in the fighting but over 70,000 are displaced there. Also in Arakan State the over 750,000 Rohingya who were chased out earlier are still in Bangladesh. 

Here in Karen State, the Karen people feel like the coup only reveals overtly what they and every ethnic already knew, that the army is totally in charge and they hope that this revelation will cause people who are ignorant of that fact or try to ignore it to not be able to ignore it anymore and realize the evil of the situation. Their own lives haven’t changed because they were attacked before the coup and they’re being attacked after the coup. Holding their babies in hiding places under the trees, they told me, “We don’t need you to give us food and medicine and shelter just stop the Burma army from attacking our villages. We are not attacking them in their cities—why are they attacking us? If you stop them we can take care of ourselves.”

Right now the best we can do is pray with the people in their hiding places in the jungle and deliver rice and medical care. Please pray as God leads you and we request that the US Government provides direct humanitarian relief to the ethnic groups or cross border relief groups who have proven track records for providing relief efficiently, accountably and transparently. Please pray for but do not send relief through the Burma government as they will not help the people their army is attacking. Also the ethnic groups need recognition and need to be part of a solution for a free, just and reconciled Burma. The US can help provide relief for those under attack and help the ethnics and Burmans who want change to work together to achieve the goal of a free and democratic Burma. 

Thank you for caring and God bless you,
David Eubank, family and the Free Burma Rangers 
freeburmarangers.org

Umar Mulinde: A Ugandan Pastor’s Story of Persecution

by Lela Gilbert

January 25, 2021

In May 2012, a friend and I entered Umar Mulinde’s hospital room in Israel. And I was grateful that the woman who arranged our interview had sent me Mulinde’s photograph, which partially prepared me for the sight of the disfiguring burns on his handsome face. But I quickly learned that the blinded right eye, the scorched skin, the missing nostril and the swollen lips—which made it difficult for him to speak—had not lessened his passion for his dual life-mission: to proclaim his love for God and his love for Israel.

Umar Mulinde was born in Uganda in 1973 to a devout Muslim family, comprising many children and wives. His maternal grandfather was an imam and his father a well-known Islamic leader. But after converting to Christianity as a young man, Umar became an Evangelical Christian pastor of a large church, where he was an avid spokesman for his new faith and his new-found love for Israel.

On December 24, 2011, after Umar hosted his church’s Christmas service, a terrorist made his way through holiday crowds. While shouting “Allahu Akbar!” three times, he threw acid at Mulinde’s face, chest and arm. The young pastor turned his head in time to avoid being hit directly; his right side bore the brunt of the injury. He was rushed to the hospital, but it was soon evident that Uganda’s medical capabilities to treat such horrific burns were inadequate. Umar contacted friends in Israel, and they quickly transported him to Sheba Medical Center in Tel Hashomer, where I first met him.

Umar’s vicious attack was the result of his conversion from Islam to Christianity—a capital crime according to Islamic Shari’a law. So I asked him how and why he had become a Christian.

Despite his strict Muslim upbringing, a pastor convinced Mulinde that Christianity was true by explaining passages from the Koran that mentioned Jesus while introducing him to the New Testament. At 19 years old, Mulinde knew very well that converting to Christianity would mean being totally cut off from his Muslim family and friends, and thus from his future plans. But the following Easter Sunday, he entered a church for the first time in his life and announced to the congregation that he wanted to convert to Christianity.

That very day, three of his Muslim friends spotted him leaving the church and promptly reported it to the sheikh. A group of them attacked him and beat him up. That was the beginning of his persecution.

Yet from that moment on, although alienated from his community, he began to speak publicly about his new faith, and he did so before increasingly large audiences. “I am a new person. I have started a new life.” He repeated these words a number of times during our meeting. Even from his sickbed—in pain and with slurred speech—it was not difficult to imagine him speaking to large crowds of people with peace and confidence.

He also explained his love for Israel. “After I became a Christian, I loved reading the Bible—both the Old and the New Testaments—and I saw phrases like ‘the God of Israel’ and ‘the people of Israel’ repeated continually in the Scriptures. What did that mean?”

In Kampala, he met a group of devout Christian women who prayed for Israel every day, which also helped change his mind. They encouraged him to visit Israel, which he did on several occasions. In fact, it was due to his outspoken love for Israel that Umar Mulinde was receiving treatments for his terrible burns in one of Israel’s finest medical facilities.

Umar Mulinde has since recovered, although he has lost sight in his right eye and is visibly scarred. After completing his medical treatments he returned to his home country, where he continued to evangelize. But after surviving another near-fatal shooting in September 2018, in a recent conversation he told me, “I have not been so public in Uganda, although I still closely monitor events through my nationwide network and in other East African countries.”

He went on to say that although Uganda is over 80 percent Christian and the Ugandan constitution guarantees religious freedom, Muslim activists continue to persecute Christian converts from Islam. “Local Muslims, with support from Pakistan, Iran, Qatar, and Yemen are dominating Uganda’s economy, sponsoring Islamic activities, and bribing government security officials to act in their favor.”

A Voice of the Martyrs report confirms Mulinde’s observations: 

Many of the [pro-Islamic] policies Idi Amin put into place continue to influence society and government today. Uganda’s parliament even recently passed Sharia banking, which gives zero interest loans to Islamic projects. Arab countries also continue to invest large amounts of resources into furthering Muslim interests within the country. As a result of this, radical Islam’s influence has grown by more than seven percent in the last three years, and many Christians within the majority Muslim border regions are facing severe persecution, especially those who convert from Islam.

In our conversation, Umar Mulinde also told me that he thinks radical Muslims have infiltrated Uganda’s police, army, and judiciary and converts from Islam to Christianity are particularly targeted. In fact, a just resolution of his own assaults remains elusive.

Up to now those who attacked me have not been arrested or charged,” he told me, “and the file my 2011 case—which was attempted murder—was ‘lost’ by the police. Then, after another attempt on my life in September 2018—when gunmen entered my house at night and I narrowly survived—those culprits are also yet to be arrested!”

Let us pray for an end to religious persecution in Uganda.

A 2020 Retrospective: Violence Against Africa’s Christians

by Lela Gilbert

January 13, 2021

As this new year begins, it’s obvious that America is facing many challenges—some old, some new. And they most certainly cannot be taken lightly. However, those of us who focus on international religious freedom also concentrate on concerns beyond our shores, and a look at Africa’s recent history in the rear-view mirror reflects terrifying images. As one deadly assault after another fades out of sight, encroaching assailants are rushing forward at terrifying speed. 

The largest country in Africa and the most commercially significant, Nigeria is the site of what has been described as a slow-motion genocide in which tens of thousands of Nigerian Christians have been massacred in recent years. A Family Research Council report published in July 2020 documents horrifying statistics of mass murders there, almost entirely at the hands of three Islamist terrorist groups: Boko Haram, Islamic State in West Africa Province (ISWAP), and Fulani jihadis.

Nigeria may be the worst example of violence against African Christians, but it is far from the only one. Violent incidents across the African continent are increasing. One notorious example in November 2020 was the reported beheading of 50 civilians in Mozambique—many of them Catholic Christians.

Fighters linked to Islamic State attacked several villages in Mozambique, killing civilians, abducting women and children, and burning down homes. The gruesome description of innocent people “herded” to their death on a soccer field, where they were systematically decapitated and dismembered, was nightmarish. That wasn’t the only such incident in 2020, and it certainly won’t be the last. Due to a hapless government response, ISIS continues its assaults, most recently on January 2, 2021. 

In September 2020, an email from New Covenant Missions informed FRC that a Christian family had recently been arrested in Somalia—the infamous location of Black Hawk Down. Local police accused the couple of abandoning Islam, and even more dangerously, of evangelizing the people of Somaliland. According to Somali Bible Society, “The spokesperson’s speech was peppered with threats against local Christians.” We learned that the arrested man had been tortured; his wife had delivered a baby by C-section just weeks before and required urgent medical attention, and the baby needed maternal care and breastfeeding.

FRC and other Christian groups pleaded for prayer. Thankfully, we later learned that this courageous family had been released. But dangers to Christians in Somalia have not diminished. Nearly all of the believers there are converts from Islam, which means they can face a death sentence for apostacy if arrested.

Frequent reports of persecution incidents in East Africa abound. At the same time, West Africa has more than its share of anti-Christian violence—and is of ever-increasing concern.

The Washington Post reported, “One evening in late June, gunmen stormed a village in northern Burkina Faso and ordered people who had been chatting outside to lie down. Then the armed strangers checked everyone’s necks, searching for jewelry. They found four men wearing crucifixes—Christians. They executed them…”

Since then, the situation has gone from bad to worse. Burkina Faso is one of several vulnerable West African countries that are frequently targeted for terrorism, including Christian persecution. The so-called “Group of Five” (G5) nations—Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania, and Niger—face continuous threats and attacks. These are of deepening concern to international military analysts and religious freedom advocates alike, thanks to the tireless brutality of ISWAP, Boko Haram, and al-Qaeda.

Meanwhile, North Africa faces similar dangers. Likewise, reports from East Africa warn that ISIS, al-Shabaab, Ansar al-Sharia, and other Islamist groups are strengthening their numbers and increasing their territory. And unfortunately, what happens in Africa is unlikely to stay in Africa—economically, politically, or militarily. Radicalized Africans have already murdered innocents and torched churches in Europe. Little has been done in response, and most well-intentioned efforts have been largely ineffective.

In 2021 it is past time for the world to stop looking regretfully at Africa’s tragedies in the rear view mirror. Instead, a determined coalition of nations needs to step forward and begin to develop ways and means of extinguishing the surging jihadi violence. And it’s essential that our Christian communities continue not only to pray but to demand such action. Why? Because as the wildfire of terrorism continues to rage across that vast, violent continent, one thing is sure: It is Africa’s Christians who will continue to pay the ultimate price for the world’s inaction.

Christmas in Nigeria: Celebration Overshadowed by Danger

by Lela Gilbert

January 7, 2021

Across America, the Christmas holidays this year were not as festive as usual. Still, beloved songs and carols, colorful lights and small family gatherings provided a welcome diversion from pandemic gloom and presidential election quarrels. And the reminder that “Christ is the reason for the season” was happily recalled by Christians, despite some other less-than-celebratory circumstances.

Christmas is not, however, “the most wonderful time of the year” in war-torn Nigeria. Although the country’s millions of Christians continue to rejoice in the birth of Jesus, and gratefully recall His first appearance so long ago in Bethlehem, the joys of the season are inevitably overshadowed by danger and dread. 

As long as I have written about Nigeria—since, I think, 2006—Christmas joys have been eclipsed by danger. And, like clockwork, in 2020 Nigeria’s Advent season was once again marred by violent attacks, kidnappings and murders.

I wrote to Hassan John, Communications Director for the Church of Nigeria Anglican Communion, and asked him to tell me more about this increasingly tragic situation. In a January 6 email he responded:

Over the past decade, Christmas celebrations have waned in fervor and the pageantry that has always been associated with the festive season. Instead it has been marked with attacks and destruction of villages and communities. In the last two weeks, at least five villages have been attacked near Chibok, where 276 schoolgirls were abducted in April 2014. These attacks were hardly even reported in the local news. Reports have primarily focused on a pastor who was killed and two others who have been abducted by Boko Haram.

But that wasn’t all. Hassan pointed out that, according to the Council on Foreign Relations Nigeria Security Tracker, Boko Haram killed seven and kidnapped five in Nganzai, Borno on December 22. On December 24, Boko Haram killed six and kidnapped three in Chibok, Borno. And on December 25, Islamic State West Africa Province (ISWAP) executed 11 captives.

He went on to say, “Warnings about travels and security advice sent by security forces added to the anxieties this year during the Christmas season. Then, last night, 5th January, another village, Wamdeo, also near Chibok, was attacked and a church destroyed. We are still getting information about the extent of destruction and if there are human casualties….”

Other reports describe the added endangerment the global pandemic has brought upon on Nigeria’s already beleaguered Christian communities.

According to a Christian Post article, Christians are facing a double threat: Islamist terrorism and COVID-19. “Nigeria’s government has advised Christians to stay in their homes to avoid COVID-19,” explained human rights expert Dalyop Solomon. “But if they remain locked down at home, they cannot escape when groups of terrorists attack them.”

Solomon went on to say that Fulani militants destroy or plunder crops when they attack, and farmers’ livelihoods are destroyed. But to make matters worse, “COVID-19 restrictions prevent them from leaving their homes to plant new crops.”

On December 17, the Congressional Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission held an important hearing hosted by Rep. Chris Smith, focusing on “Conflict and Killings in Nigeria’s Middle Belt.” Nearly four hours of testimony from more than a dozen international experts offered complex and often parallel perspectives on what many described in similar terms as “mass atrocities,” “mass killings,” “massacres,” and “genocidal acts.” Notably, one of the witnesses, Morse Tan, Ambassador at Large for Global Criminal Justice, pointed out that “Christmas is a time of great risk of mass killing.” Within a week’s time, his words proved to be all too true once again in 2020.

There was but one notable exception. On Sunday evening, December 27, Catholic Bishop Moses Chikwe—the auxiliary bishop of his archdiocese—and his driver, Ndubuisi Robert, were kidnapped by unidentified gunmen in Owerri, the capital of Imo State in southeastern Nigeria.

As always, the Christian communities began to pray. But interestingly, in this case Nigerians were not alone in their prayers. Catholics in Southern California also appealed to heaven for the bishop’s safe return. Chikwe had served for several years as a priest in the Diocese of San Diego, and he was beloved there.

On New Year’s Day, a bulletin about Bishop Chikwe announced that he and his driver had been released, “unhurt and without ransom.”

Unfortunately, the Nigerian news is rarely so bright and hopeful as that lone report. The U.S. State Department announced earlier in December that Nigeria has been declared a “Country of Particular Concern (CPC),” a designation which provides the U.S. with increased options for pressuring the Nigerian government to curb abuses, including through financial sanctions, application of the Magnitsky Act, and other measures.

Nigeria’s Muhammadi Buhari regime is, at the very best, inept. More likely, he and his henchmen are—as is widely believed—complicit in the relentless attacks perpetrated by Boko Haram, ISWAP, and Fulani jihadis.

Meanwhile, as the United States prepares to inaugurate a new president and his administration, two related questions remain unanswered: What will it take to stop the ever-increasing massacres and emergent genocide of Christians in Nigeria? And what will the newly-minted Biden administration do about it?

Remembering Persecuted Christians at Christmas

by Arielle Del Turco , Lela Gilbert

December 18, 2020

Christmas is just around the corner, right on schedule in an otherwise unpredictable 2020. And as it approaches, gift-giving has come into focus here in America and much of the world. Whether small tokens of friendship or carefully chosen presents for beloved friends and family, the arrival of God’s Son as a gift to us all has inspired a tradition of generosity.

Of course, in other lands, the lack of religious freedom and the threat of Christian persecution casts a dark shadow across Christmas festivities and celebrations. It is not unusual for fanatical, iron-fisted governments to make the Advent season a time of intensified fear and real danger. Many Christians, despite their faith and devotion, have little opportunity to celebrate the birth of the Christ Child or to “rest beside the weary road and hear the angels sing.”

Christmas is a beautiful season for some of us and a time of fear, deprivation, and uncertainty for others.

Every Christmas season in the free world, we receive unexpected gifts from persecuted believers—gifts they may never know they’ve given us. As we reflect on the terrible risks and losses faced by our Christian brothers and sisters around the world, we are showered with gifts of remembrance: recalling our many blessings while remembering to offer prayers for their help and relief.

In Iran, Christmas is a time of increased scrutiny and persecution. Christians gathering in secret house churches to sing and celebrate invariably lead to violent arrests, false accusations, and lengthy imprisonments. As we thank God for our freedom in America to gather, pray, and rejoice, we can pray for the protection of those facing crackdowns in Iran and elsewhere.

In Nigeria and other African countries, late-night incursions and massacres in Christian communities have inspired survivors to say, “We are so thankful when we wake up in the morning to find that the Lord has kept us to see another day.” As we thank God for the safety and security we have in most American communities, we can pray for the survival of these courageous souls.

In China, there have been crackdowns on churches, as well as high-tech surveillance, arrests, and “disappearances” of church leaders and others caught sharing their faith. As we thank God that we are not at risk of the sudden arrival of police and Communist officials to arrest us and destroy Bibles, crosses, and Christian images, we can pray for these faithful ones’ perseverance, courage, and protection. 

These are but three examples of the dangers faced by Christians abroad. We could add North Korea, Pakistan, Egypt, Iraq, India, and so many more troubled countries to the list.

Meanwhile, as difficult as recent months have been for many believers in the United States—we still have great and sacred freedoms enshrined in our Constitution. As we pause during the Christmas season to be grateful for our many blessings, we ought also to remember Christians who live in countries where it is dangerous to follow Christ. The persecuted church encounters unfathomable difficulties, yet they persist and find hope in their faith.

Our Savior Himself made a humble entrance into the world, born of a virgin and laid in a manger because there was no room for them in the inn. Shortly after His birth, Mary and Joseph took the Christ child to flee a slaughter ordered by King Herod. Later, Christ would suffer immensely as He was tortured and died on a cross that we might be saved from our sin. The nativity story—and the message of Jesus—offers untold hope to us all during earthly trials.

As we celebrate Christmas this year with friends and family, let us pause and say a prayer for Christians around the world who will celebrate in secret. Let’s continue “to remember those in prison as if [we] were together with them in prison, and those who are mistreated as if [we] ourselves were suffering” (Hebrews 13:3 NIV).

Nigeria Is Officially Declared a “Country of Particular Concern”—and Not a Minute Too Soon

by Lela Gilbert

December 8, 2020

Nearly at the end of 2020—a year when bad news seemed to be relentless and unstoppable—a good report has emerged. Very good news, in fact. At long last, broken and bloodstained Nigeria has been declared a CPC— a “country of particular concern”—by the U.S. State Department.

On Monday, December 7, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said in a statement:

The United States is designating Burma, China, Eritrea, Iran, Nigeria, the DPRK, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Tajikistan, and Turkmenistan as Countries of Particular Concern under the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998, as amended, for engaging in or tolerating “systematic, ongoing, egregious violations of religious freedom.”

Shortly after Pompeo’s announcement, the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) published a statement headlined, “USCIRF Welcomes the State Department’s Designation of Nigeria among World’s Worst Violators of Religious Freedom.” The commission applauded the decision—one that many international observers, activists, and victims of Nigeria’s violence have long demanded:

The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) praised the State Department’s announcement that it has named 10 “Countries of Particular Concern” (CPCs), including Nigeria for the first time, and placed four countries on its “Special Watch List” (SWL) for severe violations, pursuant to the International Religious Freedom Act (IRFA).

We are gratified that the State Department has named 10 countries as CPCs. We particularly welcome Nigeria’s designation for the first time as a CPC for tolerating egregious violations of religious freedom, which USCIRF had been recommending since 2009. Nigeria is the first secular democracy that has been named a CPC, which demonstrates that we must be vigilant that all forms of governments respect religious freedom,” said Chair Gayle Manchin.

At Family Research Council, we have written repeatedly and at length about the horrifying violence in that West African country. Our lengthy report on Nigeria forewarned:

Since the dawn of the twenty-first century, and with horrifying acceleration in recent years, verified reports of murders, rapes, mutilations, and kidnapping of Christians in Nigeria have persistently increased. These attacks are frequently accompanied by the torching of homes, churches, villages, and agricultural fields. A July 15, 2020 headline reports that 1,202 Nigerian Christians were killed in the first six months of 2020. This is in addition to 11,000 Christians who have been killed since June 2015. Such violence has reached a point at which expert observers and analysts are warning of a progressive genocide—a “slow-motion war” specifically targeting Christians across Africa’s largest and most economically powerful nation.

And indeed, since that writing in July 2020, massacre after massacre has devastated Nigeria’s Christians communities, and with relentless repetition.

Just last year, President Donald Trump himself raised the issue of Christian persecution with Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari. “We’ve had very serious problems with Christians who have been murdered, killed in Nigeria,” Trump said, with Buhari seated next to him. “We’re going to be… working on that problem very, very hard because we can’t allow that to happen.”  The president’s appeal fell on deaf ears.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Buhari is himself a member of the Fulani ethnic group, which is responsible for a large part of the killing, and has gone on unhindered during his presidency. Meanwhile for years, international authorities have turned a blind eye to Nigerian butchery perpetrated not only by Fulani jihadis, but by Boko Haram and Islamic State of West Africa Province (ISWAP). Making excuses for the violence and rarely addressing the religious nature of the conflict, even the American Embassy has seemed unwilling to do more than plead for reconciliation meetings.

Thankfully, all that changed on December 7, 2020 when Secretary of State Mike Pompeo declared Nigeria a CPC. This, in turn, can lead not only to closer scrutiny and, presumably, additional pressure on all concerned in the violence, but also to financial measures. “Congress is notified, and where non-economic policy options designed to bring about cessation of the particularly severe violations of religious freedom have reasonably been exhausted, an economic measure generally must be imposed.” Economic measures might well diminish the hundreds of millions of aid dollars the U.S. has poured into Nigeria for many years.

Will there finally be a shift in the calculations of Nigeria’s leadership and a crackdown on the surging violence of the jihadis? Or will the bloodbath increase until—as in Iraq during ISIS’ devastating assaults on Christian and Yazidi communities—the world wakes up and takes action against the terrorists?

Can the CPC designation really stop the vicious cycles of violence against Christians in Nigeria? Only time—and responsible international diplomacy—will tell. But in fact, as my Hudson Institute colleague Nina Shea recently told me, it’s late in the game as the threat of another genocide looms larger every day. “More Christians have been targeted and slaughtered by extremists in Nigeria,” she pointed out, “than in the entire Middle East in recent years.”

Brutal Attack on Indonesian Christians Stirs Renewed Fears of Persecution

by Lela Gilbert

December 2, 2020

On Friday, November 27, a jihadi attack took place against Christians in Sulawesi, one of Indonesia’s largest islands. This vicious attack resulted in the mutilation and death of four members of the local Salvation Army, including at least one beheading, along with the torching of several homes and a Christian house of worship.

Asia News reported,

Four members of the same Christian family have been found murdered, some of them beheaded. All four belonged to the Protestant Church of Salvation (Salvation Army). Their dismembered bodies were found yesterday, Central Sulawesi police reported today. The murder took place in the village of Lenowu, Lemban Tongoa district, Sigi.

This attack—which was preceded by a period of relative calm—has stirred up horrifying memories of similar brutalities in the same region beginning more than a decade ago.

On New Year’s Eve 2003, a bomb exploded at a Christian-area market in Palu, Central Sulawesi, killing eight people and injuring 56. That May, another bombing in the predominantly Christian village of Tentena, Sulawesi left 22 dead and at least 74 injured.

Months later, the Associated Press reported the beheadings of three Christian teenagers in October. Six men attacked four girls—Theresia Morangke, 15, Alfita  Poliwo, 17, Yarni Sambue, 15, and Noviana Malewa, 15—early in the morning as they walked to a Christian school in the Poso district. The first three girls were beheaded; Noviana Malewa received serious injuries to her face and neck but survived the attack.

The murdered girls’ heads were wrapped in black plastic bags. One was found on the steps of a Kasiguncu village church. The other two were left at a nearby police station. One of the bags contained a note, some of which read, “We will murder 100 more Christian teenagers and their heads will be presented as presents.”

In 2006, three Indonesian Catholics were executed by firing squad in Palu, Sulawesi having been found guilty of incitement to murder during rioting. At the time, Amnesty International responded, “Such murders approved by the State are even more unacceptable when there are, as in this case, serious doubts about the fairness of the trials.”

Indonesia’s population is 90 percent Muslim. But in recent years there have been largely successful efforts by Indonesia’s government to enforce religious freedom. Other attacks have happened in various Indonesian cities over the years, but the region of Sulawesi has been a particular hotspot of Islamist terror.

Sadly, this recent attack on Christians has renewed countrywide concerns. Central Sulawesi police have affirmed finding the four victims’ dismembered bodies, but so far the identity of the killers remains in question.

According to BBC, “The Salvation Army confirmed the killing of its members in a ‘savage attack’ in a statement last week. Our hearts go out to our people who have been victims of evil, and to the families of those whose faith have caused such harm.”

In a report from Reuters,

Indonesian President Joko Widodo condemned the brutal murder by suspected Islamist militants as “beyond the limits of humanity,” as the military chief prepared to deploy special forces to join the hunt for the killers. In a video address, the president said the attack on Friday in a region riven by bloody, sectarian conflict in the past was designed to drive a wedge among the population in the world’s biggest majority-Muslim nation.” That gross act had the purpose of provoking and terrorizing the people. They wanted to destroy the unity and brotherhood of our people,” he said. “We need to stay united in the fight against terrorism.”

I spoke to my friend and colleague Paul Marshall, a Senior Fellow in Religious Freedom at the Hudson Institute and a scholar who focuses on Indonesia. He has spent much time there, over many decades. I asked him about these recent concerns regarding religious freedom, and the situation specifically in Sulawesi. He explained,

The dominant forms of Islam in Indonesia continue to be moderate and tolerant. But there are threats from more radical groups. Only one of Indonesia’s 34 provinces (states), Aceh, is governed by Sharia law but some other counties and villages are restrictive according to Islamic standards.

In Indonesia, there are also outright terrorist groups, some affiliated with ISIS, that have carried out sporadic violent attacks throughout the country, although they tend to be scattered and weak. Perhaps more ominous is the return from Saudi Arabia on November 10 of  Muhammad Rizieq Shihab, the founder of the Islamic Defenders Front, a radical militia. His reappearance has now emboldened more radical elements.

According to current reports on the recent violence, the Indonesia government has indeed pulled in military special forces to supplement police anti-terrorism units in the hunt for the Sulawesi terrorists, who are believed to be hiding in a remote area. Some locals have claimed to have seen and recognized the killers.

Thus far, however, there have been no arrests.

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