Responding to persecution

originally published March 1, 2017 at Spur Ottawa

Ansero unites believers to stand up for religious freedom

Elizabeth Mabie
Spur Ottawa Correspondent

Christians around the world face dire persecution. Even in the West, long a haven of religious freedom, anti-Christian sentiment is on the rise. One Ottawa-based ministry, Ansero, hopes to forge partnerships to shore up this essential freedom in Canada and around the globe.

Ansero’s facilitator, Don Hutchinson, relates Ansero’s objectives with the Old Testament story of Nehemiah. When Jerusalem’s walls and gates were destroyed, Nehemiah was moved and rallied the people of the city to repair them. With this notion, Nehemiah ultimately united Jerusalem’s citizens as they worked together.

Don Hutchinson speaks from Parliament Hill.

Don Hutchinson speaks at a rally on Parliament Hill

“As we face the challenge of religious freedom in Canada and around the world, the idea of these partnerships is to bring people together, for the people to find the solutions to rebuild or strengthen the walls or gates,” says Hutchinson. “It is amazing what we can accomplish when we work together.”

Hutchinson is a pastor, a member of the Law Society of Canada, and the former vice president of the Evangelical Fellowship of Canada. He is currently the only team member of Ansero, but has partnered with One Way Ministries until the project is independently established.

Hutchinson explains that one of Ansero’s aims is to help strengthen relationships among Canadians working to safeguard religious freedom in Canada. Ansero also works with members of Religious Liberty Partnership, a network of Christian ministries working for the benefit of the global persecuted church.

“The idea of these partnerships is for the partners to identify what each partnership’s purpose is and how they can make use of that partnership to benefit the shared ideology in the pursuit of religious freedom,” explains Hutchinson.

Hutchinson sees forming these partnerships as a necessity to fill the gap left when the Canadian government closed the Office of Religious Freedom. He says the Office’s closing created the need for the Church to rebuild relationships with parliamentarians and Global Affairs Canada on behalf of persecuted Christians.

His goal is for Ansero to introduce new relationships and partnerships that will cooperate together and complement each other’s work.

“I hope we will create an environment where we can cooperatively enhance our religious freedoms in Canada, or at least secure them,” explains Hutchinson.

Hutchinson notes that secularism is increasing rapidly in Canada. He says Christians need to respond by strengthening their relationships with God on a personal level, then sharing their experiences and their strong faith with the rest of society. He emphasizes that the role of believers is to share God’s love, in good times and when it’s hard.

“What we are facing now is kind of a challenge more than the final stages of persecution. Christians in other countries are facing imprisonment and even death for their beliefs. That’s not happening to us yet,” explains Hutchinson.

The additional issue is the persecution of Christians in other countries who are facing severe punishments for their faith. It is important to address the issue of religious persecution in Canada, but the situation is more severe outside. While the typical repercussions for persecution in Canada are ridicule, harassment, and discrimination, Christians elsewhere face imprisonment, physical torture, and martyrdom.

“The role of Christians in the current Canadian context, I see as the role that Paul described: that we’re ambassadors of reconciliation,” says Hutchinson. “We are to become ambassadors seeking to reconcile individuals and our culture with God. Being ambassadors determines our approach, our demeanor, and our style of engagement. It also means that we are standing for and standing up for Christ in this society and in this culture.”

 

Closing the Office of Religious Freedom is a poor moral decision

“The budget is a moral document,” a friend said. A sitting Member of Parliament when he shared this, John explained how the budget is an expression of the moral priorities of government. Like the rest of us, governments have money for what they believe in, what they think is important and what they want.

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The budget was also used this week as a smokescreen, in an effort to obscure a poor public policy decision.

Not funded in the federal budget, with announcement forced a day earlier by an Opposition motion, was Canada’s Office of Religious Freedom.

Three years into a mandate that was supported by both the Conservative and Liberal parties when it was established, the tenure of Ambassador Andrew Bennett and the world acclaimed work of Canada’s Office of Religious Freedom will come to an end on March 31, 2016.

In making this decision, Prime Minister Trudeau and his government have taken another transparent action to remove symbols and policy of a decade of government by his predecessor. Closing the Office of Religious Freedom is an unfortunate throwing out of the baby with the bathwater, as the old German proverb warns we shouldn’t do.

The responsibility of government is to implement, and maintain, good public policy. Different parties, and thus different governments, may have different ideas about what comprises good policy. But, in this instance, the previous government and the party of the current government agreed before the Office was established that this was good policy.

The government has proffered no indication as to why the policy is considered no longer good. And, offers no alternative.

Canada’s new government has demonstrated a lack of awareness about the geopolitical reality that over 80% of the global population identify with a religion. The United Nations has named religious persecution as a significant concern in 103 of its 193 member nations. And, this “canary in the coal mine” human right is an indicator of other human rights restrictions and abuses.

It has long since been disproved that secularism will triumph in global affairs, a bias of the 1960s that initiated the failed diplomatic approach of setting aside religion when engaging with other nations.

Officers in the Canadian military, both active and retired, have spoken out about dramatic problems in foreign deployment communications failures resulting from the lack of briefing and awareness about the importance of religion to local citizens and governments. Religion was identified as a critical factor in negotiation and conflict resolution breakdowns.

I participated in two briefings provided by the Office to members of the diplomatic corps and support staff at what is now Global Affairs Canada. Two things impressed me. First, was the desire to learn about the importance of religion in the world and how religion impacted the important work of diplomacy. Second, was the general lack of awareness that knowledge of national and local religious beliefs would help or hinder Canada’s role in international relationships.

At home, leaders in a diverse cross-section of Canadian religious communities had identified the importance of such an Office, and advocated over a decade for it. Once established, they engaged to voluntarily assist in its work. These leaders had experienced the importance of religion, either through Canadian religious communities’ relationships with brother and sister communities in other countries or because of their own experience before immigrating to Canada.

Every year, hundreds of millions of people on planet Earth experience social and political hostility simply because of their religious beliefs. Hundreds of thousands are imprisoned, “disappeared,” or die every year, simply because of their religious beliefs. And, dozens of governments govern based on religious principles and requirements.

Twenty-three Canadians with expertise in this field volunteered their time to serve as an advisory committee to the Office of Religious Freedom. It is a rare table around which sat Roman Catholic, Muslim, Orthodox, Evangelical, Jewish, Secular Humanist, Sikh, Baha’i, Hindu and others; including religious leaders, lawyers and human rights specialists.

As an advocate for the Office and one of the speakers at the consultation held prior to its establishment, I had a vested interest in its effectiveness, but that alone would have been insufficient for me to write about the decision to close the office being a poor one.

When the Office was first being publicly contested, one of the people with whom I debated was Alex Neve, Secretary General of Amnesty International Canada. Alex was concerned that the Office might single out religious freedom at the expense of other human rights, and perhaps Christianity at the expense of other religious communities.

Three years later, when rumours circulated earlier this year that the Office might be closed, Alex said publicly he appreciated that Ambassador Bennett had engaged on individual and broader issues of religious persecution abroad. Alex suggested that similar offices focusing on specific human rights might benefit foreign affairs, international trade and development and every aspect of Canada’s foreign engagement. Alex endorsed the importance of specialists aiding generalists, with the potential to consider whether there would be benefit from other human rights ambassadors or envoys to act on behalf of the government.

Having an opponent become a proponent, particularly one who has international human rights awareness and recognized expertise, reinforces that closing the Office is a poor decision. Especially, without a plan to ensure the continuing benefits of having the expertise of specialists to aid an army – both diplomatic and military – of generalists.

When I needed glasses, my family doctor sent me to an optometrist. When I needed eye surgery, an ophthalmic surgeon was a necessity.

Choosing to discontinue funding the Office of Religious Freedom wasn’t just a poor public policy decision, it was a moral decision.

For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.

The Church in foreign contexts

Nigeria is a beautiful African country. However, it is divided into two almost even geographic regions based on religion. The religious majority in the South is Christian, and Islam in the North.

When visiting in 2011, I was forever changed by a heart-breaking brief conversation with a five year old. Our chat took place while he was enjoying his first ice cream cone, strawberry.

With the Voice of the Martyrs team in Nigeria (June 2011)

Nigeria (June 2011)

The little tyke was a student at a school for the children of Christian martyrs, those who had been killed for their faith in Jesus Christ. One of hundreds of students at the school, he had my full attention as he shared the details of watching the murder of his parents and sister; then, sitting by their bodies through the night until a relative removed him from the street the next morning. His family, well known Christians in the community, was killed as the result of mob violence that erupted after a Christian candidate was elected President of Nigeria in April 2011.

The circumstance of our conversation required that I hold back my tears, which wasn’t easy, until alone later that night in my room.

Nigeria is most often in today’s news because of the Islamic extremist group Boko Haram, which the government has been unable to rein in. Boko Haram was little known prior to April 2011, but boldly escalated their presence with the election of President Jonathan and have not retreated, even following his defeat by a Muslim candidate in the election of March 2015.

I had another life-impacting conversation, in a different walled compound, in Northern Nigeria. I was privileged to spend an evening with a Christian leader who is a former jihadist who started his almajiri training at the same tender age of 5 years, when he was apprenticed to a radical Muslim imam. Conversion to Christianity was, from the perspective of his previous religious compatriots, his death warrant. As a result, his identity and location are not publicized. He uses the pseudonym “Abdulmasi,” which means “servant of the Messiah.”

After dinner, Abdulmasi shared that our meeting the next day with over 100 pastors from Northern Nigeria – witnesses to Jesus in a hostile environment that shelters Boko Haram – was coordinated through word of mouth, as a safety measure. Each pastor was responsible to tell the next, using an established and trustworthy communication chain of mouth-to-ear communication only.

Late last year, I was discussing the current situation in Nigeria with a senior Christian leader from that nation. He stated his observation that the pastors of many of the churches terrorized by Boko Haram, outside of the North, were preaching against Boko Haram instead of preaching for Jesus. This prominent and well known Nigerian church leader shared that he walks freely on the streets, without security or concern, because he preaches for Jesus.

I noted in last week’s blog the situation in Pakistan, officially the Islamic Republic of Pakistan, where there are severe social and government constraints on Christians living out their religious beliefs.

I also referenced the situation in communist China, where the Church is growing in members faster than any other nation in the world.

Recently, Christian leaders in China have been in the news for a determined effort to place crosses on the roofs of church buildings. In China, it is forbidden to place above the roof line of buildings any symbols other than those of the Communist Party (e.g. the star) or the nation (e.g. the flag), unless the state symbols are also there, and higher.

In short, the placing of crosses or other symbols in this manner, creating in that culture the public perception of declaring something as greater than the communist state, is not permitted.

While in China last November, I saw a more than 10 metre high cross on the side of one church building and another prominent large cross placed several stories high on the front of another, but neither above the roof line.

Is the behaviour of pastors who are placing crosses on the roofs of their churches defiance that may inhibit the religious freedom of others? Or, is it Holy Spirit inspired civil disobedience that will advance religious freedom?

The Church looks different in these countries from its appearance in Canada, and other nations.

The forms of government, and resulting laws, are different in different parts of the world. As a result, the styles of Christian worship and opportunities to witness to one’s faith may also be different.

In Nigeria, even congregations associated with staid historic Western denominations are vibrant and charismatic in expression. I delivered the main message at the pastors’ gathering, and it was perfectly legal. But certain safety precautions are in order.

In Pakistan, the law prohibits disagreement with Islam. Sharing about one’s belief in Christianity can result in criminal charges; and, mob violence can rule alongside state officials. To preach in Pakistan, a country I have not visited, a Canadian would have to do so in private and hope not to be reported.

In China, the registered Protestant Church is non-denominational in expression. The church we worshipped in reminded me of a conventional Anglican form of worship, including organ and a full choir. The registered Catholic Church follows the traditional Roman Catholic form of mass. Unregistered churches can, I am told, be more charismatic in expression.

It is legal for Chinese Christians to share their faith, as well as Bibles, with fellow citizens. One of the world’s largest Bible printing companies, if not the largest, is in Nanjing. Amity Printing publishes Bibles for both international and domestic Chinese distribution. It is, however, illegal for a foreigner to bring Bibles into the country. Why would you need to? Bibles are readily available nationwide and foreigners can by them by the box and give them to churches for less than it costs to buy them in Canada. It is also illegal for foreigners to proselytize Chinese citizens without permission. To get my visa, I signed an agreement to not proselytize while in China. Chinese Christians are sharing the gospel just fine.

Globally, the Church is consistent in doctrine – the core doctrine of Christianity with variations on nonessential matters – or it would not be the Church. And, the Church is contextual in expression. Established in a Hebrew and Greek, Romanised culture in the Middle East during the 1st century, the Church has adapted to cultural expression (without doctrinal compromise) ever since.

Christianity is not a Western religion or an Eastern religion, the religion of the Northern Hemisphere or the South. Christianity is a relational religion – relationship with God and other people – that is enhanced by cultural infiltration resulting from life together. Cultural expression cannot, however, be permitted to compromise or contaminate the core doctrine of the Church.

Because of its relational nature with God and people the Church remains robust, alive and growing even in environments where Christians encounter social hostility and/or government restriction.

The Church faced these kinds of differences in its early days when non-Jews first started to become Christians. The people were different. The cultures were different. And, often, the laws were different.

The Christian Council at Jerusalem concluded to accept the new converts in their cultural setting by equipping them with core doctrine and to “not trouble those of the Gentiles who turn to God” with traditional Jewish requirements. They also made sure there was a structure in place for continuing relationship. (Acts 15)

Early direction to the Gentile churches in differing legal environments, particularly letters of the apostles Peter and Paul who made “first contact” with these new non-Jewish Christians, also encouraged compliance with the laws of government authorities as part of their expression of faith. (1 Peter 2:13-14; Romans 13:1-7)

Foreign countries, foreign courts

Half a decade has passed since the almost expected, yet still shocking, assassination of Shahbaz Bhatti. Minister Bhatti was the first Christian member of Pakistan’s parliament invited into cabinet, where he served as Federal Minister for Minorities Affairs.

With Shahbaz Bhatti, February 2011

With Shahbaz Bhatti, February 2011

Just weeks before his death, Shahbaz was in Ottawa. That’s where I met him in February 2011. In conversation, Shahbaz shared that he had declined the Canadian government’s invitation to remain here and was preparing to head home. He knew his life was in danger. When I asked him about his needs returning home, Shahbaz stated that he did not desire a more trustworthy security detail; another offer from the Canadian government. He asked instead for prayer.

Shahbaz Bhatti was killed, execution style, on March 2, 2011, moments after leaving his mother’s home in Islamabad. His murderer has not been identified.

Death threats against Minister Bhatti had increased dramatically after he expressed support for Asia Bibi, a Christian woman who is still in prison after being sentenced to death in 2010. Her crime? In responding to a co-worker’s question about her Christian faith, Asia Bibi is alleged to have made a remark (which she denies) that was found by a judge to be an offence to the Prophet Mohammed. In Pakistan, the penalty for “blasphemy” against Mohammed is death.

A few months ago, I was privileged to visit China as part of a delegation that attended meetings with the leadership of both the national Protestant and Catholic churches registered with, and operating within the requirements of, the Communist government. The delegation also had a significant meeting with the Minister and senior officials from the State Administration for Religious Affairs, China’s department for oversight of religions and religious organizations.

This extraordinary opportunity confirmed for me the remarkable truth that the Church can thrive anywhere, even in cooperation with the requirements of a Communist government.

Years ago, I met with leaders of the unregistered house church movement who were visiting from China. They told me that they were experiencing increased freedom as they purposed and acted to respond to social needs. Their motivation was a statement Jesus made about one aspect by which He would judge the Church, “For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.” (Matthew 25:34-40)

In the setting of Canada’s democracy, we sometimes complain about government or the courts. But, we don’t face open, potentially deadly, hostility because of our religious beliefs. There are no blasphemy laws by which we might be imprisoned for a comment made to a co-worker. We are not confronted with the need to contextualize our religious practices in submission to a government that has either a religious or ideological belief that is determinative of both judicial appointments and judicial decisions.

Several of the more difficult New Testament passages for Christians are found in the apostle Paul’s letter to the Church in Rome. Among them, Romans 12:1-2 challenges Christians to be living sacrifices for God, transformed in our thinking to follow God’s will, not our own. Romans 13 confronts us with:

1 Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. 2 Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment. 3 For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Would you have no fear of the one who is in authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive his approval, 4 for he is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain. For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer. 5 Therefore one must be in subjection, not only to avoid God’s wrath but also for the sake of conscience.

This is not a message dictating unquestioned subservience. Nor does it require collaboration with the government or compromise of Christian doctrine. But, Paul does appreciably limit the appropriate circumstances for civil disobedience (a topic to be addressed in more detail in an upcoming blog).

Working with and within the political and judicial system can be difficult, but that is what is asked of us.

Seven centuries before the birth of Jesus, four young men were abducted from Jerusalem by a conquering king – Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael and Azariah (also known by their Babylonian names: Belteshazzar, Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego). They held fast to their faith in God, refused to bow in worship to King Nebuchadnezzar’s golden statue, walked out of what should have been certain death in a fiery furnace, and found a place, within that foreign culture, to serve as leaders in the nation of Babylon; all the while, worshipping God. (see particularly Daniel 1 and 3)

Early Christians refused to bow to Caesar or his image, the Emperor having been declared to be a god. They kept the peace, were at one time put to death as entertainment, and contributed to their society. Four centuries after the death of Jesus of Nazareth, Caesar was displaced as god of the Empire by this same Jesus. In making this decision, the Emperor Constantine also granted legal freedom to other religions, provided they were not disruptive.

Without judicial independence and sound legal doctrine, the ideology of the state – whether religious or atheist – is determinative in the courtroom; and, judicial decisions become subservient to state doctrine. This is little different from the ancient Babylonian or Roman empires, and was understood by Paul when he wrote his remarks to the Church.

How Christians respond to cultural, societal and political constraints, as well as the decisions of courts – both just and unjust – bears witness to our character as Christians, a word that literally means “little Christs” (little anointed ones). Are we both believing in Jesus and behaving like Him?

The Church, both registered and unregistered, is growing faster in China than any other nation in the world. Asia Bibi’s lawyers continue to appeal the decision of the lower court, many around the world are intervening on her behalf with the Pakistani government, and her plight highlights that she is one of millions around the globe who face persecution for their religious beliefs. Instead of choosing the safety of a land foreign to him, Shahbaz Bhatti gave his life to work within the legalities of Pakistan’s constitutional structure “to serve the suffering humanity, defend principles of religious freedom, human equality, social justice and rights of minorities.” And, he asked me to pray for him.

The request of the persecuted is consistently that we pray. Pray that they – we – might be faithful to God and the Scriptures.

A heartfelt and freely chosen “Merry Christmas!”

Baby Jesus. We count the days and we sing the songs. Some engage in the North American war of words over “Merry Christmas” or “Happy Holidays.” Still others decry the trees, cards, advent calendars and wreaths along with the gifts and expressions of generosity. Peace on Earth? Goodwill to all?

Don - "Love, Hope, Believe"

Some support the manger and menorah in the same public square. Others – an admittedly smaller but louder portion of the population – decry both. Is the public square to be truly for all the public or must one be stripped of religion to enter what Father Richard John Neuhaus referred to as a naked public square?

Whatever one thinks of this celebration – commercialism gone wild or season of love and charity – one thing cannot be denied. Jesus is the central figure in human history.

Son of God? Son of Man? Son of God and Son of Man? As He famously asked His disciples, “Who do you say that I am?”

The Jews who had no reason to record the deaths of the many who claimed to be Messiah experienced a new religion birthed in their holy city. Josephus, the great Jewish scholar of first century Rome, made reference to His crucifixion in particular.

The Romans who had their own selection of gods, including their emperor, in time embraced Him as King above their king. They even changed the record of time to reflect their estimate of His birth.

His real presence in the world cannot be denied.

His worship as God is today accepted by over 1/3 of the planet’s population. His importance in the plan of God by another 1/6. And the denial of His place in history and human lives is the focus of much of the remainder.

The Magi so revered the signs in the night sky that they traveled far to bring their best to Him. King Herod, in those days ruler of ancient Israel under the Romans, so feared His birth that he ordered the slaughter of every male child in Bethlehem under the age of 2 years. Mary and Joseph were warned and had taken their baby boy out of town by then.

Historians tell us He probably wasn’t born December 25. Some challenge the story of the stable. Others question whether the Romans settled on the right year. Efforts to avoid Him are many.

But it’s not about contending over minor details.

And it’s not about debating questions around the existence of evil, but accepting the presence of supreme and redeeming Good.

And it’s not just about Baby Jesus. Yes, the miracle and story of His birth remind us about prophecies of old fulfilled, fresh hope and overcoming fear. But it’s not just about Baby Jesus.

As my pastor says, it’s about “a blood stained cross, an empty tomb and a poured out Holy Spirit.”

And it’s about men, women and children who risked their lives to hold fast to their faith in Him and to share that faith with others. Centuries of men, women and children.

And it’s about men, women and children who are risking their lives today for the same reasons in Iraq, Iran, North Korea, Nigeria, Pakistan and Syria; to name just a few from the World Watch List top 50.

And it’s about men, women and children who are willing to risk their reputations and social status to hold fast to their faith in Him and share it with others right here at home.

It’s not about putting others down. It’s about lifting His name up! Both in word and in deed.

And somehow, now as then, it’s about living life together – the constitutional consensus that holds us together and the conversation that enables us to appreciate our differences. Acceptance, even when without agreement.

It’s about the continuing effort to understand, maybe someday experience, the message of the angels to the shepherds who were watching their flocks on that night, “peace on Earth and goodwill to all.”

It really doesn’t matter whether you say “Happy Holidays” or “Merry Christmas.” What matters is that it is heartfelt and freely chosen.

So, Happy Holidays! And, Happy Hanukkah!

Merry Christmas!