MALAYSIA: Inquiry into disappearance of Christian couple to resume

“The Lord is my rock, my fortress and my deliverer; my God is my rock, in whom I take refuge, my shield and the horn of my salvation. He is my stronghold, my refuge and my saviour — from violent people you save me.”
(2 Samuel 22:2–3)

The NGO Human Rights Commission of Malaysia (aka Suhakam) is to resume its inquiry into whether the 2016 disappearance of Pastor Joshua Hilmy and his wife, Ruth Sitepu, was an “enforced disappearance” — that is to say, whether state agents were involved in abducting them.

The family of Ruth said they were encouraged by Suhakam’s commitment to the inquiry: “This public inquiry is our hope of finding our sister Ruth and brother-in-law Joshua.”

Joshua, a Malay from Taiping, Perak who converted to Christianity from Islam, and Ruth, a Batak Christian from Indonesia, were last seen on 30 November 2016 and reported missing on 6 March 2017. The inquiry resumes as their families fear that the government has been delaying efforts to uncover the truth.

Suhakam commissioner, Jerald Joseph, said that they would finalise the dates for the inquiry’s resumption with stakeholders and lawyers after confirming the easing of restrictions enforced in March because of the COVID-19 pandemic. He added that they had planned for 15 days for the inquiry, but this was an estimate that depended on how the inquiry developed.

Before it was postponed because of the restrictions, the inquiry had heard from a witness that the couple were intending to flee the country after receiving threatening phone calls and emails over Joshua’s alleged preaching of Christianity to Muslims and baptizing those who convert. The inquiry also learnt that Hilmy had been baptizing converts since 2011, usually in bathrooms using a showerhead and once in a pond.

Muslim citizens of Malaysia are prohibited from converting to other religions unless they receive the consent of a Shariah court. Islam is the country’s official religion.

Suhakam commissioned a similar inquiry to probe the separate disappearances of Pastor Raymond Koh and social activist Amri Che Mat. They reported their findings in April 2019 — both men were victims of enforced disappearances. They had been abducted by the Special Branch, an intelligence unit of the Royal Malaysia Police.

Suhakam said it was likely that Joshua and Ruth had disappeared for the same reason. Police have denied this allegation.

More than 9 percent of Malaysia’s population of 31.5 million are Christians.

Home Group Prayer

Dear Heavenly Father,

These are difficult times, Lord, even for those of us who are free to worship you without persecution. How much more do your sons and daughters suffer for you in countries like Malaysia, where they must endure bias, hatred, violence and even abduction and death at the hands of those who do not know you.

Lord, we ask you give your faithful in Malaysia an extra dose of your divine peace, strength, fortitude, grace and love to withstand the onslaught of these spiritual, emotional and physical slings and arrows. Lord, endow them with supernatural capacity and ability to stand up to their attackers, knowing you are there with them, Lord, and you are their eternal refuge and fortress and saviour.

Lord, we also ask you touch the hearts of the persecutors, that the scales might fall from their eyes, that they might see you through those they persecute and be convicted of their sinful ways, and cry out and fall to the ground worshipping you as the One True God. And unite this divided land as only you can, oh God.

In Jesus’ name we pray. Amen.

PAKISTAN: CHURCH VANDALIZED IN LAND DISPUTE AGAINST CHRISTIANS

“Why do you look with hatred, O many-peaked mountain, at the mount that
God desired for his abode, yes, where the LORD will dwell forever?”
(Psalm 68:16)

A group of armed men in Pakistan vandalized a church in Punjab province in early May.  Police said the group desecrated a cross and demolished the gate and boundary wall of the church in Kala Shah Kaku town, some 40 km from Lahore, the provincial capital. The alleged cause was a land dispute — the group told Christians to vacate the church land, claiming it belonged to them.  Church leaders lodged a police complaint following the incident.

The incident occurred as the independent Human Rights Commission of Pakistan pointed out in their 2019 annual report that Christians have continued to suffer forced conversions and persecution under the country’s blasphemy law.  The report noted particular cases of forced conversion in Sindh and Punjab provinces.  In Punjab, 14-year-old girls had been forced to convert and to marry.  In Sindh, the families of two Hindu girls claimed they had been kidnapped for marriage and forced conversion.  According to human rights NGO International Christian Concern, at least 50 Christian women and girls faced this issue in 2019.

The ongoing coronavirus pandemic has not reduced discrimination against Christians in Pakistan.  Authorities have apparently denied food supplies to them by claiming they were meant for Muslims.

Christians in Pakistan often face religious hatred and discrimination.  The country’s blasphemy law is controversial because it is often used to persecute Christians and other religious minorities, with consequences for their places of worship and residential areas. Blasphemy against prophets of Islam is a capital crime in Pakistan.  According to Open Doors, a mission supporting persecuted believers, Pakistani Christians are afraid to express their faith freely in case something they say is interpreted as blasphemy.  False accusations of blasphemy have led to imprisonment or even killings.

Christians constitute around two percent of the population in Pakistan.  Christian communities remain among the poorest sections of society, often do menial jobs, and are regarded as second-class citizens.  Three cities, Karachi, Lahore and Faisalabad, have large Christian populations.

Pakistan is currently fifth on the World Watch List, an annual report by Open Doors.  It is considered a country where extreme persecution of Christians takes place.

HOME PRAYER GROUP

Heavenly Father,

We ask your blessings for the people of Pakistan and especially for Christians who are suffering from persecution there. We pray for the church in Kala Shah Kaku and its pastor and congregation.  May they be strong when faced with violence.  We pray for those imprisoned or suffering unjustly from the blasphemy law. We pray that you will help the people who practise violence to see the light and that way is not the answer. We pray that your Holy Spirit will descend on this community and all of Pakistan and cleanse it of religious and other persecution.

Especially in these times of the coronavirus, we pray that people will come together rather than pull apart. We need your spirit of peace and strength to get through these difficult times. We pray that your Holy Spirit will help the government and people of Pakistan turn it into a country where extreme persecution no longer exists. We pray that all will work together in peace and harmony to deal with the coronavirus and all the other ills which affect the country.

Watch over your flock in Pakistan and bring them safely to a land of peace and harmony.  May your Spirit comfort them and keep them safe from persecution and the coronavirus. We need your help and guidance in all we do.

In Jesus’ name we pray. Amen.

Laos: Pastor Arrested for Conducting Church Service

“God is our refuge and strength, an ever-present help in trouble.  Therefore we will not fear, though the earth give way and the mountains fall into the heart of the sea, though its waters roar and foam and the mountains quake with their surging.” (Psalm 46:1–3)

Authorities in Laos have arrested a pastor for holding a church service without official permission. The arrest took place on 15 March, a few days before the government issued an advisory against religious gatherings to stop the spread of the coronavirus epidemic.

Police arrested Pastor Sithon Thiphavong in Kaleum Vangkae village in Chonnaburi district, Savannakhet province. Pastor Sithon has not been formally charged with any offence, and the provincial police department and the Lao Front for Construction, which oversees religious affairs in the country, have not responded to calls to confirm the arrest.

Pastor Sithon’s family members have not been allowed to visit him, though they can send him food via the authorities every day. They have been told that his case will be dealt with after the COVID-19 lockdown is lifted in the country.

Lao church leaders say that most believers don’t have the technical capacity to livestream services.

On 29 March, the Prime Minister Thongloun Sisoulith instructed everyone to stay at home from 1 to 19 April in order to contain the spread of the potentially deadly virus. The government has since extended the lockdown until 3 May and closed its borders with neighbouring countries. However, China, its neighbour to the north, has sent medical experts, medical equipment and medicines, and Vietnam, its neighbour to the east, has also offered to help fight the virus.

Laos announced its first COVID-19 cases on 24 March and, as of 10 May, officials claim that the number of confirmed cases has remained at 19 for 27 consecutive days.

According to a 2019 report by the US Commission for International Religious Freedom, the Lao constitution “ostensibly protects its people’s inherent right to religious freedom,” but members of the Christian minority are often targeted and arrested. Christians make up about 1.5 percent of the Lao population, while 67 percent of the people practise Buddhism.

As recently as 25 February, in Long district, Luang Namtha province, three Christian families totalling 14 people were evicted from their village and their houses demolished for refusing to recant their faith in Jesus. According to Open Doors, the country’s overall persecution score increased by one point over 2019 mostly as a result of increasing reports of violence against Christians.

Dear Heavenly Father,

In this time of great hardship and suffering throughout the world, let us take a moment to remember your sons and daughters in Laos who are suffering even more for their faith. Let us lift them up to pray for an extra dose of strength, hope and peace that only you can bestow to sustain them. May you convict those who persecute them to see the error of their ways and help them to see you through the actions and attitudes of your faithful servants there. As we are all on our knees now, Lord, because of the coronavirus, we see how weak and futile are efforts made on our own, and we see even more clearly how we are powerless without you, Lord. On our knees is the perfect place to pray to you for your help to unite this divided country in your holy name.

In the name of your Son, Jesus, we pray. Amen.

Nepal:Pastor Arrested on Wrongful Accusation

You shall serve the LORD your God, and he will bless your bread and your water, and I will take sickness away from among you.” (Exodus 23:25 ESV)

Junu Acharya, Pastor Acharya’s wife, said that her husband had received a call at night from an unknown man who asked for prayer for his sick wife. Pastor Acharya invited the man and his wife to his house for prayer. While she was being prayed for, four police officers turned up, surrounded and arrested him, then took him to the police station. Junu Acharya added, “I immediately called two of the brothers from our church who can drive and followed the police’s vehicle. I was afraid that he would be beaten up by police or would be taken somewhere else. I wanted to ensure that they were taking him to the police station.”

Christian leaders in Nepal have spoken out against the arrest of Pastor Acharya. Pastor Mukunda Sharma, Executive Secretary of the Nepal Christian Society, urged fairness from the District Superintendent of Police and no pressing of criminal charges. He told the District Superintendent that “the police cannot prosecute the pastor for exercising his faith and that it is a gross violation of human rights. He assured me that the pastor was taken into custody only for an inquiry.” C. B. Gahatraj, president of the Federation of National Christian Nepal, has stated that the practice of praying is not in conflict with the laws of Nepal.

This is the first time that a Christian in Nepal has been arrested for a message shared on social and other media. Christian leaders say that the arrest is turning into a high-profile issue, with Hindu fundamentalist groups linked to prominent political leaders taking an interest in the video.

Home Group Prayer

Heavenly Father,

We pray to you for all your suffering children during this COVID-19 crisis. We pray for all those who are suffering from the sickness and their loved ones. We pray for those who have lost their lives and their grieving families and friends. We pray that you will grant comfort to those who have lost jobs and income as a result of the virus. We pray for those who are depressed and suffering from being alone. We pray as well for Pastor Acharya and his family. We pray that he will continue to be able to serve the Lord and his flock and pray for his parishioners. We pray that they will receive the care they need when ill or in need of spiritual guidance. We pray that this does not signify religious intolerance in Nepal and that he will be released immediately. We pray that Christians will not be persecuted for their faith and you will comfort and guide them to be free of such persecution. We all must be one family under God to free ourselves from the sickness of sin.  Be with us all at this difficult time and ease our anxieties. Let us know that with You we have no reason to fear sickness, death or prison. You overcome all.

In Jesus’ name we pray. AMEN.

Indonesia: Construction of church blocked

INDONESIA: Construction of church blocked

“The Lord is my light and my salvation — whom shall I fear? The Lord is the stronghold of my life — of whom shall I be afraid?  When evil men advance against me to devour my flesh, when my enemies and my foes attack me, they will stumble and fall. Though an army besiege me, my heart will not fear; though war break out against me, even then will I be confident.”            (Psalm 27:1–3 NIV)

Local officials in the Central Java province of Indonesia have obstructed the completion of a Baptist church building for the past six months. The officials refused to grant the required permit for completion after local Muslim residents opposed the construction in the Tlogosari area of Semarang, the provincial capital. Last year, the government asked the church to collect more than 60 signatures indicating approval from local residents, but even though the church collected 84 signatures, construction was still halted.

With no resolution in sight, the Baptist church has decided to take legal action to resolve the dispute. “The reasons for the rejection are changing, starting from falsified signatures, expired IMBs (permits) until finally, the residents’ refusal does not touch the issue of principle permits,” the church’s attorney, Zainal Arifin, said. Pastor Wahyudi of the church added, “We will continue to fight for this because if left unchecked it will set a bad precedent for freedom of religion and worship in Semarang.”

Last year, a local chief revoked the permit for a Pentecostal church in Indonesia’s special region of Yogyakarta after radical Muslim groups from the area made protests and threats. The official said the permit previously issued to the church did not meet requirements established by a 2006 joint ministerial decree regulating the construction of houses of worship. The church’s pastor, Tigor Yunus Sitorus, said he then asked members to attend services at other churches. In January, an agreement was made that the church would move to another village.

Religious tolerance in Indonesia has come under threat. In May 2018, a court in Tangerang, Java, sentenced Rev. Abraham Ben Moses to four years in prison for religious defamation for sharing his faith with a Muslim driver. And while Indonesian Muslims are generally seen as tolerant and moderate, radical Islamic groups have been seeking to promote a violent version of Islam.

Dear Heavenly Father, we lift up the persecuted church in Indonesia to you. Please give your sons and daughters there an extra dose of your strength, perseverance, peace, hope and faith, that they will stand strong against the forces of oppression. Lord, please touch the hearts of those who would seek to block the spread of your Word by halting construction of churches, and in other ways persecute your followers. Please convict these oppressors of the error of their ways, and help them to see you through your faithful sons and daughters as the one true God. Unite the divided land as only you can, Lord, as one family, all belonging to you. In Jesus’ name we pray. Amen.

MALAYSIA: PASTORS STILL MISSING

“Woe to those who draw iniquity with cords of falsehood, who draw sin as with cart ropes”(Isaiah 5:18 ESV)

Three years after Malaysian pastor Raymond Koh went missing in broad daylight, the family filed a civil suit against the government and senior officials. His wife, Susanna Liew, said they had no other option but to turn to the courts to get justice in order to resolve the investigations into her husband’s disappearance. The suit named two former national police chiefs and 11 other defendants at the Kuala Lumpur High Court as the family observed the third anniversary of Pastor Koh’s abduction in February 2017.

The lawsuit comes four months after a similar one was filed in November 2019 by Norhayati Mohd Ariffin, the wife of activist Amri Che Mat, who has been missing since December 2016. Amri, co-founder of the Perlis Hope charity, left his home to meet a friend late one night in November 2016; the next morning, his car was found abandoned with its windscreen smashed. The Human Rights Commission of Malaysia (Suhakam) has just begun its investigation into the disappearance of another pastor, Joshua Hilmy, and his wife, Ruth Sitepu.

In a statement, Susanna Liew said if the police and their intelligence agency, the Malaysian Special Branch, had been capable of solving the murder of Kim Jong Nam, half-brother of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, in a week, they should be capable of solving her husband’s disappearance. To this day, Liew has not received any ransom demands.

“Our hope is slowly fading, but because of faith in God, we still hang on. I believe Raymond is still alive and detained somewhere and we want them to be released as soon as possible. It is too long for the family to go on like that,” she said.

Pastor Koh founded Harapan Komuniti (Hope Community) in Kuala Lumpur, a charity that helps the poor, single mothers, and drug addicts. Security cameras captured footage of a group of men in tactical gear abducting him on a public road in the suburbs of Kuala Lumpur. Prior to this, the pastor had received a box of bullets in the mail, warning him to stop his work. Nevertheless, he persisted in his ministry.

In April 2019, Suhakam concluded in their public inquiry that the Special Branch was behind the enforced disappearances of Pastor Koh and Amri.

In July 2019, the government appointed a special task force to act upon Suhakam’s findings, but there have been no developments since then. Despite Liew meeting the ex-prime minister Tun Dr. Mahathir Mohamad and current prime minister Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin, Pastor Koh’s whereabouts and condition remain unknown and no one has been held accountable.

Home Group Prayer

Heavenly Father,

We pray for Pastor Raymond Koh, Amri Che Mat, Pastor Joshua Hilmy, Ruth Sitepu, and their families. We pray that you will keep them from harm’s way and let them know how you are holding them in the palm of your hand. Watch over them and keep them safe. Bring comfort to Susanna Liew, Norhayati Mohd Ariffin, and the other members of their families and congregations and organisations who care so much about them and have great worry about their conditions.

We pray for an end to the falsehoods which have been told in an attempt to avoid the truth. Evil is perpetrated even further with falsehood. The failure to pursue evil is evil. We pray that the police and other governmental authorities of Malaysia will finally take action to find these missing heroes and bring them back to the families and friends.

We pray for the churches who have been deprived of their pastors. We pray for Hope Community that the ministry will continue to bring God’s word of hope and peace and love to the poor, single mothers and drug addicts it cares for. Malaysia needs much more of this hope and peace and love that come only from you rather than violence and oppression.  We pray for all pastors in Malaysia and their congregations. We pray that you will keep them safe and protect them. We pray that the government of Malaysia will protect all its citizens, including Christians. Heavenly Father, you know the fate of these brave men and women who have suffered for the Good News you bring to all humankind. We give thanks for all they have done for us.  May you bless them and their families.

In Jesus’ name. Amen.

Brunei: Where Celebrating Christmas Becomes a Criminal Offence

“So do not fear, for I am with you; do not be dismayed, for I am your God. I will strengthen you and help you; I will uphold you with my righteous right hand.” (Isaiah 41:10 NIV)

Christmas in 2019 was a low-key affair in Brunei. Most foreign workers left so as to celebrate Christmas outside the country and evade a government-enforced ban on such celebrations. Those who would leave the country usually return after the New Year.

Brunei made celebrating Christmas a criminal offence in 2014. Muslims caught celebrating Christmas festivities face five years in jail and fines of up to US$20,000, or both. The Sultan of Brunei, Hassanal Bolkiah, introduced the ban over fears that celebrating it “excessively and openly” could lead the Muslim population astray. That same year, Brunei adopted a stricter penal code based on Islamic Sharia law.

Brunei is a Muslim-majority nation, which operates under a form of Sharia law that includes punishments such as stoning and amputation. The death penalty can also be imposed for breaches of Sharia law.  All of society including Christians are subject to Sharia laws and are forced to adhere to Islamic customs and rites.

Local imams have promoted the ban on Christmas celebrations, warning that adopting the trappings of Christmas is tantamount to imitation of another faith, prohibited in some interpretations of Islam. In Brunei, conversion from Islam is illegal, and believers from Muslim backgrounds come under intense pressure to return to that faith if they attempt to leave it.

Officials from the Ministry of Religious Affairs have reportedly visited local businesses to ensure they were not displaying Christmas decorations, including Santa hats and banners with Christmas greetings.

Christians living in Brunei can still go to church for special services and celebrate with friends and family at home. Christians can celebrate Christmas within the privacy of their own homes, but only after they have alerted authorities. And, in certain communities with high concentrations of Christians, putting up a few public decorations could be allowed if the authorities are alerted first and if they provide permission.

However, Christmas activities such as singing carols, setting up Christmas trees, exchanging cards and gifts, and decorating the home with Christmas paraphernalia are strictly forbidden to Muslims since authorities believe they might damage the Islamic faith of Bruneians.

All churches, including registered ones, face restrictions and are closely monitored by the authorities. Non-traditional Christian communities cannot register as churches, but must register as secular organisations.

There are 57,400 Christians in Brunei. They make up 13.2 per cent of the total population of 434,000.

Dear Heavenly Father, we lift up your sons and daughters in Brunei who serve you faithfully. Please provide them with an extra dose of your peace, strength and courage to face those who persecute them and discriminate against them because of their faith. May they shine your light in the darkness of this strict Islamic culture. And may their persecutors see you in them, Lord, and convict them of their sins against the faithful and you, so that they recognise you as the one true God, and fall on their knees to ask your forgiveness. Please also touch the hearts of the government and Sultan of Brunei and let them see you as the one true King, and as the only one who can bring unity and peace to their divided land. We ask this in the name of your Son, Jesus Christ. Amen. 

Sri Lanka: Continued harassment of Christians

SRI LANKA: Continued harassment of Christians and fears for the future

Christians in Sri Lanka have continued to face attacks in 2019. According to the National Christian Evangelical Alliance of Sri Lanka (NCEASL), there have been 83 recorded incidents in the country, including harassment by officials, abuse, and attacks.

In October, a Divisional Secretary, along with an officer of the Deniyaya police station, questioned a pastor about the legality of his church, the Hokma Bible Centre. They urged him to obtain authorisation from the Divisional Secretariat to conduct religious activities, even though the church has been operating at the location since 2007 and the pastor has valid papers for it. Until then, they demanded an immediate end to all services. They also insisted that they should be informed if any church is functioning in the area.

Attacks on Sri Lankan Christians came as Gotabaya Rajapaksa, the candidate representing Sri Lanka People’s Front, the Sinhalese-Buddhist nationalist party, won the presidential elections in November. This took place amidst some of the worst political instability and violence the country has seen.

In a speech soon after he was elected, Rajapaksa called for future cooperation: “Even though I knew I could win the presidential election with the support of the Sinhala people alone, I made a special request to Tamil and Muslim people to be partners in that victory. But their response was not to my expectation.” He continued, “But as your new president I ask you again to rally around me as true Sri Lankans for the sake of the future development of our country.” Sinhalese-Buddhist nationalists hope Rajapaksa will usher in another golden era for the nation’s ethnic majority.

“We built an ideology that the country needs a Sinhala leader who does not bend down in front of minorities,” claimed Galagoda Aththe Gnanasara, a monk and nationalist leader of Bodu Bala Sena (Army of Buddhist Power), a Sinhalese-Buddhist nationalist organisation responsible for several anti-Christian and anti-Muslim riots that went unchecked and is alleged to have the protection of the Rajapaksa government.

Many are justifiably worried about what Rajapaksa’s election will mean for religious harmony in Sri Lanka. Buddhist nationalism and violence against Christians have increased in recent years. Earlier this year, self-radicalised Islamist extremists bombed hotels and churches during the Easter Sunday attacks, killing more than 250 people.

HOME GROUP PRAYER

Heavenly Father,

We pray for your children in Sri Lanka. We pray that the new government will speak out and take action against those who persecute minorities and those of other faiths. We ask that acts of violence and harassment against our brothers and sisters in Christ in Sri Lanka end. We give thanks for the faith of our brothers and sisters in Sri Lanka who have continued to praise you and worship you and spread their faith in the face of persecution and harassment. We pray that those who preach hate against minorities and those of other faiths will be silenced and Sri Lanka can be a place of religious freedom and ethnic peace.

We remember the violence and destruction which took place in a terrible civil war and pray for the victims of that period and those who still suffer its consequences. We pray that we will each love our fellow human beings for you have created us all in your image.

May the Christian message of peace spread throughout all of Sri Lanka and the rest of Asia wherever Christians face persecution. We give thanks for your steadfast love which sustains us through all the difficulties we face in life. We pray that you will watch over our brothers and sisters in Sri Lanka who are doing your work and sharing your message for the benefit of all.

In Jesus’ name we pray. Amen.