Christian Today Digest

Issue 2 2020

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North Korea is still the most dangerous place to be a Christian

North Korea has retained its unbroken record as the country ranked the most dangerous place to be a Christian by human rights charity Open Doors.

In its 2020 World Watch List of the top 50 countries where Christians suffer the worst persecution, North Korea once again ranks number one – a position it has held since Open Doors first started publishing the list in 2002.

"Something as simple as owning a Bible can mean a person is arrested and taken to one of the country's infamous labour camps, never to return," Open Doors said.

However, the report reveals an overall increase in both the reach and intensity of persecution towards Christians.

Henrietta Blyth, CEO of Open Doors UK & Ireland, writing in the introduction to the report, said: "In 2020, 260 million Christians live in World Watch List (WWL) top 50 countries where they are at risk of high, very high or extreme levels of persecution, a 6% increase from 2019.

"And as the number of persecuted Christians increases, so does the severity of the oppression they suffer.

"The persecutors' ultimate aim is to eradicate Christianity. And their primary tactic is to stoke fear within the wider Christian community, grinding down its resilience, hope and positive impact."

According to Open Doors, an average of eight Christians were killed for their faith and 23 Christians raped or sexually harassed for faith-related reasons every day last year.

Every week, an average of 182 churches or Christian buildings were attacked, and 276 Christian homes burned or destroyed, while every month, an average of 309 Christians were imprisoned for their faith.

Rounding out the top 10 countries on the list are Afghanistan, Somalia, Libya, Pakistan, Eritrea, Sudan, Yemen, Iran and India.

In one of the most dramatic increases, though, China has soared from 43 in 2018 to 23 this year as more churches report harassment at the hands of the state.

China, it warns, has seen a growth in digital persecution, with the state starting to utilise AI and biometric measurement to increase surveillance and control of religious believers, with facial recognition cameras now installed in at least one major church to record who is attending the services.

Open Doors anticipates that India is going to follow increasingly in China's footsteps and utilise similar technologies to monitor Christians.

In another dramatic change, Burkina Faso has entered the World Watch List top 50 for the first time, jumping 33 places from number 61 to number 28 after "relentless violence" in the last year. Explaining the "extraordinary" deterioration, it said that "Islamic militancy has taken hold within the country".

The report warns that Islamic extremism is growing rapidly in the sub-Saharan region of Africa, with radical Islamist jihadist groups exploiting instability and poverty. In addition to Burkina Faso, they have been able to establish bases in Mali (ranked 29th) and Niger (50th).

In the Middle East, the birthplace of Christianity, the human rights organisation echoes the warning of senior leaders in the area "that there may be no Christians left in the region in a few years' time".

Although the Islamic State was pushed back, it said there are signs that it is regrouping. At the same time, threats remain from Iranian-backed Shiite militias.

"People often suggest that the world has become a less tolerant place – especially for those who don't 'fit in': who aren't the 'right' race or creed," said Blyth.

"And you can see that trend in these latest figures too: yet again this year the number of Christians facing persecution has gone up as the trend continues upwards.

"Persecution can come in many forms: from discrimination at work, to forced marriage, to imprisonment and execution.

"It can come from governments and militant terrorist groups. However, it can also come from a family member killing you for converting and bringing dishonour on the family in Malaysia (40th) or reporting you to the authorities for owning a Bible in North Korea (1st).

"Hundreds of millions of Christians are affected by this intolerance and they simply don't feel safe practising their faith."

The report was launched today in the House of Commons and spans a year in which Christian persecution made international headlines.

On Easter Sunday 2019, over 250 people were killed in a series of suicide bomb attacks on hotels and churches in Sri Lanka. Many of the victims were Christians attending Easter Sunday services.

In May last year, Asia Bibi, a Christian mother who spent eight years on death row on trumped up blasphemy charges, left Pakistan for a new life in Canada with her family after being granted asylum.

Then on Christmas Day 2019, 11 Christian hostages were beheaded in Nigeria by the Islamic State West African Province (ISWAP).

The persecution of Christians was under the spotlight over the summer with the release of the Bishop of Truro's review on behalf of the Foreign Office.

It found that Christian persecution was reaching genocidal levels, and made a number of recommendations to the UK Government, including that it initiate a UN resolution urging all governments in the Middle East and North Africa to protect Christians and other minorities, and impose sanctions on the worst offenders.

Blyth called on the Government and parliamentarians to ensure that the protection of Christians and other religious minorities does not slip down the agenda because of Brexit.

"If we want the world to be a more tolerant, inclusive place, we simply can't ignore the plight of these men, women and children," she said.

"Whether we have a faith or not, this is about a fundamental human right being restricted. Ultimately, erosion of rights like these affects all of us."

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The bishop braving the Brexit divide

It's a brave church leader that ventures into Brexit territory. The debate over the UK leaving the European Union has split political parties, local communities and families.

A campaign by pro-Brexit lobby group Leave EU to encourage churches to ring their bells to celebrate the withdrawal on February 1 has prompted controversy among church people.

One priest dismissed the idea as "partisan jingoism".

Meanwhile, a prominent Church of England bishop has published a proposal to "bring the country back together" after the divisions caused by the Referendum and its aftermath.

He is the Bishop of Kensington, Graham Tomlin, who proved his ability to take a stand and make his voice heard when he spoke up for the victims of the Grenfell Tower tragedy in June 2017. Since then, Bishop Tomlin has been campaigning for lessons to be learnt and actions taken following the deaths of 72 people in a North Kensington tower block.

Now he has authored Looking Beyond Brexit (SPCK), aimed at putting the Brexit debate and decision in a wider historical and social context, and helpfully suggesting a way forward to heal the divisions.

The 39-page booklet is dedicated by Tomlin "to all my friends who voted either Leave or Remain".

He draws parallels between Brexit and the Reformation, when "in a sixteenth-century version of Article 50, Britain made a break from Europe, declaring the King – rather than the Pope – Supreme Head of the English Church".

In Tomlin's balanced analysis, the Leave vote was "at least in part, a cry of protest against what was perceived as a threat to national identity, whether through mass immigration, the vision of an increasingly federal Europe (that promised to erode national identity and sovereignty), or a globalization that threatened local culture".

The Remain vote, Tomlin says, "largely came from those who value openness to other cultures and desire to change and develop. They feared ethnic and national rigidity and favoured the possibilities and opportunities offered by engagement with our nearest neighbours."

Bishop Tomlin is encouraging churches to bring together Leave and Remain voters, firstly those within their own congregations, and over time, people from the wider community.

He told listeners to the popular 'GodPod' podcast in December, "One of the things I've been doing over the last months here in London is to hold a series of gatherings where I bring people together.

"I did one the other night, and we brought 150 people together and I asked them at the beginning to indicate whether they voted Leave or Remain.

"Then I said, I want you to find someone who voted the other way to you and explain to each other why you voted the way you did. The rules are that you don't argue back, you don't try to prove your point, you just listen to the other person."

Bishop Tomlin continued: "As I was watching these people having this conversation, right across the room, it struck me that this is just not happening in our culture. We should be able to do this as the church."

He believes that it is only through these honest, open conversations that healing can come. If churches can initiate those gatherings within their own congregations, they could go on to host wider conversations.

He believes society needs to be able to have the Brexit conversation in a way that "doesn't end up in the name calling, and the shouting and the aggression that has happened so often in the debate so far."

The appeal from Bishop Tomlin echoes that discussed at a gathering of 50 Christian and Jewish clergy in a Hertfordshire synagogue in June 2019. Together, they considered ways that faith communities might help heal the nation's Brexit divisions.

As the clock ticks down to the UK's exit from the European Union at the end of this month, could it be that the nation's churches and other faith communities might hold the key to bringing the nation back together?

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Restoration of Stormont offers 'new hope', say Church leaders

[The restoration of devolution in Northern Ireland has been welcomed by Church leaders who say that the focus now must be on reconciliation]

A new power-sharing government was formed by Stormont's five main parties on January 11, ending a three-year suspension.

Leaders of the main Christian denominations said that the deal struck between Northern Ireland's political parties, the UK and Irish Governments offers "new hope" and a "new start" for politics in the province.

They called the deal a "balanced accommodation that is focused on the common good" as they called on the parties to ensure that a breakdown in power-sharing does not happen again.

They also spoke of their hope to see NI leaders "begin to address the political and social crisis that has developed due to the prolonged absence of a functioning Executive and Assembly".

"The principles of accountability, transparency and responsibility, identified in the agreement are crucial to underpinning sustainable government and ensuring that the experience of the last three years cannot happen again," they said.

"Along with the development of trust and generosity of spirit, these measures offer an opportunity to build a peaceful and just society that is centred around respect and recognition of each other's cultural identity.

"As Church leaders, we also welcome the renewed focus on reconciliation, which will be central to the Executive's approach, and welcome practical commitments to extend welfare mitigations, address significant challenges in education and health, tackle the mental health crisis, and deal with the continued scourge of paramilitarism and sectarianism."

The statement was signed by the heads of the Church of Ireland, Methodist Church in Ireland, Roman Catholic Church, Presbyterian Church in Ireland and the Irish Council of Churches.

They continued: "Today is a sign of welcome progress that provides an opportunity for a new start for Northern Ireland's political institutions and one that can also offer fresh hope.

"The story of the Christian faith is one of new beginnings, where failure is never final, second chances abound, and all things can be renewed.

"We will continue to offer our prayers for all involved in making this agreement work, encouraging them, for the sake of the whole community, to grasp fully this new opportunity."

Mark Baillie, Northern Ireland policy officer at the Christian campaign group CARE, said that he wanted to see the Assembly revisit the issue of abortion after it was decriminalised in the province by Westminster last year.

"We welcome the fact the NI Executive has been restored after three years," he said.

"Our position has always been that the restoration of devolution was an absolute priority given some of the very significant challenges we are facing.

"There will now be opportunities for debates on abortion, problem gambling, free speech, protecting young people online, end-of-life care amongst other issues.

"CARE has been working for life-affirming law and policy for almost forty years and we are not going to stop now.

"We will be making the case afresh for life-affirming laws and policies and we hope the Assembly will reconsider the law on abortion in the near future.

"Both lives in a pregnancy, mother and baby, need to be valued and we will working with parliamentarians across the parties to that end in the months and years to come."

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The roaring twenties – a decade when Christians can be a voice for change for the elderly

[Louise Morse, of Pilgrim's Friend, on the change she wants to see to the narrative around growing old]

2020 – 2030 has been designated the decade of healthy ageing by the World Health Organisation. The WHO is involving government and organisations to improve the lives of older people, their families, and the communities in which they live.

According to the WHO, 'all stakeholders pledged that no one will be left behind and are determined to ensure that every human being can fulfil their potential in dignity and equality and in a healthy environment.'

When we read 'healthy ageing' and 'older people' we instinctively tend not to include ourselves, seeing 'older' as ten years older than we are today. Yet every person on the planet is ageing, so we are all stakeholders.

The lives of millions of older people in the UK fall far short of 'fulfilling their potential in a healthy environment.' Our social care system is broken, and thousands of older people feel their lives are not worth living (Age UK research).

Elderly women have the highest rate of suicide throughout their life span, and males aged 75 and over have the highest rate of suicide in nearly all industrialised countries. This includes Christians. The saddest thing to hear is a 100-year-old woman saying she is still here because God has forgotten her, and another that death was preferable to the pain of loneliness.

Many churches are doing great work in reaching the lonely in their local communities. But to see real change we need to be heard at a national level. There needs to be a loud Christian voice in the narrative that emerges over the next ten years – a roar of protest. It's part of what we are called to do.

"Speak out on behalf of the voiceless, and for the rights of all who are vulnerable. Speak out in order to judge with righteousness and to defend the needy and the poor," says Proverbs 31: 8–9.

Thinking of our ageing population and older people, here's my list of what I'd like to see in ten years' time:

1. A well thought out, planned and funded social care programme that supports older people and their families so that no one dies alone and unsupported waiting for their care package to begin. One that also supports family caregivers so that their health isn't broken, they can give their best and live fulfilled lives themselves. One that takes away the fear of growing old so we don't hear things like, 'I don't want to be a burden,' and 'it would be better if I weren't here.'

2. An appreciation of good residential care, and how living in a care home blesses relatives as much as it does the resident. Relationships can deepen when trained carers are doing the 'heavy lifting'. We need to see corrected the perception of care homes that has resulted from the slew of media stories portraying them in a poor light.

There also needs to be awareness of the value care homes bring to their communities, in terms of employment, buying in local goods and services, and more.

3. Laws that make "ageism" not only illegal but as abhorrent as racism and other 'isms'. Already wording on some cosmetic packaging is being altered from promising to 'end the signs of ageing' to 'making the most of you...' and 'enhancing your glow' and suchlike. People didn't fasten their seat belts until it was made law and the same restraint applies to ageism.

4. Education in all forms that has been so effective that everyone recognises ageism in themselves as well as in others, and deals with it. Being ageist has been described as self-harm, because it leads to poor health in old age and even early death. It shapes our expectations and only leads downhill.

5. Older people recognising their role and their worth, including those that are frail and with physical disabilities. I've met people in their late 90s and in their 100s, totally bedbound, who encourage and pray for others, some for the whole nation.

6. Christians and church leaders acknowledging that God designed life to include old age, that it is not an evolutionary wasteland, and valuing the attributes that God hones in all of us throughout our lifetimes (See Psalm 92 and Galatians 5: 22–23).

It would be good to be able to read, in ten years' time, how the Church's voice has been an influence for change. As individuals, we can begin in a small but effective way, by emailing or writing to our MPs, wishing them a productive time in the new Parliament, and adding that we hope they will raise the issue of social funding again and again, until a good plan is in place.

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Progressive politicians will not win the right to run the country again until they learn to stop hectoring the electorate

[Lib Dem MP Tim Farron weighs in on what went wrong for the Left in December's general election]

We on the progressive wing of politics – liberal, left and Remainers – are still feeling pretty battered and bruised by December's election result. I am thankful and relieved to have been re-elected, and want to give a kind and friendly welcome to those new Parliamentarians to the green benches, but I feel hugely sad for all those who lost their seats.

The brutality of politics was evident in the boxes stacked along the Westminster corridors, where offices were hurriedly cleared out before security passes were cancelled, often after many years of faithful occupancy.

Why did we fail so badly? Beyond the Labour Party post mortem on the cons and cons of Jeremy Corbyn, I think that those who call themselves 'progressives' have become far too focused on feeling good about having the 'correct' ideology.

We talked about the importance of being European, enlightened and progressive. We paraded our certainty in having a superior and worthier outlook than those on the right, when we would have connected better with our fellow citizens by emphasising the practical and patriotic reasons why staying in the EU would be good for families and the UK.

We failed to understand the appeal of the flag waving, emotional, populist politics of the right, and instead sneered at those who did not hold the 'correct views'. But our version of identity politics alienated many. It simply made us look like we disapproved of most of the country.

Emily Thornberry may not have told a fellow MP that their constituents were more stupid than hers, but she did previously resign from Labour's front bench in 2014 after a mocking tweet of a picture of a white van outside a house bedecked with St George's flags.

So, bluntly, we should not expect people to vote for us if it looks as if we dislike them and look down on them. We should not be cross at Johnson and Cummings for taking advantage of this attitude. We gave them an open goal and they simply tapped the ball in.

Actually I don't buy the idea that there is a liberal elite. If there is, there is a much larger conservative reactionary elite; but to many in the country, the right wing section of this elite somehow seems more 'authentic'. That's all bogus of course, but to quote George Burns, if you can fake sincerity, you've got it made.

But I don't want us to fake it. I want us to stop hectoring the country, to love our country, warts and all.

My own patch in Westmorland bucked the trend. On the national swing I should have been toast, but we won. How did we win? Well, it wasn't carefully crafted or contrived, but we talked about the issues that were actually relevant to people's lives in our area.

Over many years we cared for them, and we have affection for the communities we seek to represent, and it showed. We haven't faked this affection. It is real, and it allows us to reach out to people who think very differently to us politically, theologically and philosophically.

This post-election reflection period is a pivotal moment for the winners and the losers. Those who won should not be triumphalist in their victory, and further widen the divisions in our society. And those who lost need to understand what aspects of our approach we need to change, and to let go of any bitterness.

Let us continue to stand up for what we believe in, and to continue to campaign for it. But let us also learn how to disagree well with others and not berate them for not thinking exactly as we do.

We must accept that our national culture is not everything we would want it to be and that not everyone in our country buys into the world view that we hold. We will never win the right to run the country until we learn to love its people and seek first to understand.

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Closure of UK's oldest abortion centre is answer to prayers, say pro-lifers

[Pro-lifers are celebrating the closure of the UK's oldest abortion clinic after half a century of terminating pregnancies]

March for Life UK said that "over 30 years of persistent prayer were answered" when the Calthorpe Clinic abortion centre in Edgbaston, Birmingham, closed its doors for the last time at the end of 2019.

The clinic was a home for the elderly until 1969, when it was turned into the first centre in the UK to exist exclusively for abortions, March for Life said. It was being operated by Marie Stopes International at the time of its closure.

"People have been praying there for decades," said Stephanie Pyne, a Christian who has been holding peaceful vigils with other pro-life campaigners outside the clinic for nearly 30 years.

Over the last few decades, Christians of all ages and professions have prayed outside the clinic and offered assistance to women considering an abortion.

A Catholic priest stood outside the centre every day to offer up prayers of deliverance. The Catholic Archbishop of Birmingham, Bernard Longley, is among those to have taken part in vigils outside the clinic.

Welcoming news of its closure, he said: "For a number of years I have joined the 40 Days for Life group praying in Edgbaston for those affected by the issue of abortion.

"With the closure of the Edgbaston clinic it is important to continue to pray for all parents facing difficult decisions, that they will cherish God's gift of life."

The 40 Days for Life international prayer campaign ran a witness twice a year outside the clinic over the last eight years.

March for Life said that over 100 women had been helped by the 40 Days for Life volunteers and chosen to continue with their pregnancies instead of aborting their babies.

Christians of all denominations and some local Muslims also joined in the prayer vigils outside the clinic, and offered gifts to those witnessing there.

40 Days for Life campaign director for Birmingham, Isabel Vaughan-Spruce, said: "It really was a community effort. I became good friends with many passers-by and local residents who stopped to give a kindly word of encouragement or bring us refreshments."

She also credited prayer with bringing about the closure of the clinic.

"We have faithfully waited many years to hear this news. We are so grateful to God for letting us see the fruit of our prayers," she said.

Calthorpe Clinic was at the centre of a damning Daily Telegraph investigation in 2012 – before it was taken over by Marie Stopes – that found evidence of one of its doctors agreeing to abortions on the basis of gender. Dr Palaniappan Rajmohan was later struck off for three months.

Rachel Mackenzie, who had an abortion at Calthorpe before going on to become a regular prayer volunteer outside the clinic and founding the healing ministry Rachel's Vineyard for people who have had abortions, welcomed the clinic's closure.

"I am so relieved that no more children will have their lives ended here as my son once did," she said.

Linda Hope, another woman who regretted her abortion at the clinic and joined the 40 Days for Life Birmingham campaign, said, "I want other women to know there's a better option than that pain. No one told me, so I want to be the voice that tells them."

Vaughan-Spruce recalled a remarkable incident on the last day of prayer during the 40 Days for Life campaign, when a white dove walked out of the driveway of the clinic and sat at her feet for two hours.

"I felt it was a symbol of all the pure, innocent lives which had been snuffed out there and I dared to hope it might be a sign of peace to come," she said.

"Now this place has closed it's time for us to move on to another abortion facility. While abortion is happening in our city we will never be silent."

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