Christian Today Digest – Issue 6 2019

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Boris Johnson must ‘bring people together’, says Christian leader

Britain’s new Prime Minister Boris Johnson is being urged to make reconciliation a priority in the face of huge divisions in society over Brexit.

Johnson entered Downing Street after beating Jeremy Hunt in a ballot of Tory party members by 92,153 votes to 46,656.

He takes office at a critical time in the nation’s history as it moves rapidly towards the Brexit deadline of October 31, with Britain’s departure from the EU as divisive as ever.

Andy Flannagan, head of Christians in Politics, said Johnson needed to show leadership and work on uniting people if Britain was to avoid the kind of polarisation seen in the US.

“We are at a moment in British history when we are badly in need of leadership,” he said.

“Can our next leader bring people together rather than allow or accelerate the slide towards an American-style polarisation of society, where two tribes cannot find an agreed set of facts or shared vocabulary to even begin a conversation? Quite a job. ‘With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.’”

He encouraged people to engage with the issues raised by Brexit face to face rather than on social media.

“Let us pray for him,” he said of Johnson.

“But let us also play our part in being peacemakers and bridge builders. If we are mere consumers of politics we are part of that problem.

“If we become participants we may just meet some folks who disagree with us, and we may just learn, grow and even persuade – and you won’t manage that on social media.”

Johnson has said he will negotiate changes to the withdrawal agreement with the EU or else leave the union “deal or no deal” by the deadline.

The EU wasted no time saying that the withdrawal deal was not up for negotiation.

As news of Johnson’s victory broke, Frans Timmermans, First Vice President of the European Commission, told reporters in Brussels that the existing deal was “the best deal possible”.

“A no-deal Brexit, a hard Brexit, would be a tragedy – for all sides, not just for the United Kingdom. We are all going to suffer if that happens,” he said.

“The United Kingdom reached an agreement with the European Union and the European Union will stick to that agreement.”

He added: “We will hear what the new prime minister has to say when he comes to Brussels... This is the best deal possible.”

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Newer mission agencies more likely to focus on social action than proclamation – study

Newer mission agencies are more likely to be focused on social action projects than evangelism and proclamation, according to a study.

The study, compiled by Eddie Arthur, of Wycliffe Bible Translators, looked at the UK mission agency sector and found that organisations established after 1971 were smaller in size than their predecessors, both financially and in terms of their scope, and less likely to be evangelistic.

Historic mission agencies were found to offer long and short-term mission opportunities, and be active in sending missionaries. They also had a broad worldwide focus.

By contrast, the newer organisations were more likely to be involved in only one or two social action-driven projects undertaken in a single location.

In the sample of 144 agencies analysed for the study, only 51 organisations were established before 1970.

Despite the proliferation of smaller mission agencies after this period, Arthur said they were having a “limited impact on the sector as a whole”. They also receive a smaller share of donations from Christians.

“This pattern is an indication as to which agencies the British Christian public are interested in supporting,” he said.

Only 49 of the agencies surveyed (34%) actually send missionaries and the study predicts that the move away from large-scale evangelistic mission agencies will continue into the future.

Arthur also said that the “stagnation” of the UK evangelical church was likely to contribute to financial challenges for mission agencies, and make recruitment harder.

“It is likely that many more small, entrepreneurial agencies focussing on one project in one location will come into being,” he said.

“However, these agencies will be supported by those who are close to them and will have a limited impact on the sector as a whole.

“The movement away from evangelism and towards social action will continue. Though a number of medium-large agencies will maintain an evangelistic focus; these are the agencies that are most likely to continue to send missionaries from the UK, while other agencies are unlikely to send missionaries.”

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Archaeologists think they have found the place where David sought refuge from King Saul

Biblical archaeologists say they have found the place where David hid as he fled from Saul.

The site discovered at Khirbet a-Ra’i, near the modern-day Israeli city of Kiryat Gat, is believed to be Ziklag, a Philistine settlement recorded in the Old Testament as being in the Negev region in the south-west of the Kingdom of Judah.

Dozens of complete pottery vessels as well as stone and metal tools have been found at the site dating back 3,000 years.

“We have found Biblical Ziklag,” said researchers from the Hebrew University, the Israel Antiquities Authority and Macquarie University in Sydney.

They have been working at the site, located in the Judaean foothills, since 2015 and have excavated around 1,000 m sq.

Several other sites have been proposed as Ziklag in the past, among them Tel Halif near Kibbutz Lahav, Tel Sera in the Western Negev, and Tel Sheva.

However, researchers at Khirbet a-Ra’i site say it is the first site to contain evidence of a Philistine settlement as well as a settlement from the era of King David, leading them to conclude that it is Ziklag.

Philistine-era findings from the site date from the 12th to 11th centuries BC and include spacious, massive stone structures typical of the Philistine civilization.

Archaeologists have found bowls and an oil lamp believed to have been deposited beneath the floors of buildings as an offering to bring good fortune in the construction process.

Close by, they found a rural settlement dating to the time of King David around the early 10th century BC that showed evidence of being destroyed in an intense fire.

Archaeologists have unearthed nearly a hundred complete pottery vessels identical to the sort found in the fortified Judaean city of Khirbet Qeiyafa—identified as biblical Sha’arayim—in the Judaean foothills.

The findings shed some light on day to day life at the time of King David, with many of the vessels being medium and large storage jars that were used for storing oil and wine. Jugs and bowls decorated in the style known as “red slipped and hand burnished” typical to the period of King David were also discovered.

This discovery coincides with that of a huge 9,000-year-old prehistoric settlement, described as the largest in Israel and one of the oldest in the world from the Neolithic period.

The site was discovered 5 km west of Jerusalem, on the banks of the Sorek Stream, during work to widen the National Highway 1 road system at Motza.

Thousands of arrowheads, pieces of jewellery and figurines have been unearthed during the excavations.

Dr Hamoudi Khalaily and Dr Jacob Vardi, lead archaeologists with the Israeli Antiquities Authority, said: “This is the first time that such a large-scale settlement from the Neolithic Period – 9,000 years ago – is discovered in Israel.

“At least 2,000 – 3,000 residents lived here – an order of magnitude that parallels a present-day city.”

Buildings discovered at the site include dwellings, but archaeologists have also uncovered public facilities, places of ritual, and burial sites.

“The exposure of the enormous site in Motza awakens extensive interest in the scientific world, changing what has been known about the Neolithic period in that area,” said Dr Khalaily and Dr Vardi.

“So far, it was believed that the Judea area was empty, and that sites of that size existed only on the other bank of the Jordan river, or at the Northern Levant.

“Instead of an uninhabited area from that period, we have found a complex site, where varied economic means of subsistence existed, and all this only several dozens of centimetres below the surface.”

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Mothers are the drivers of their kids’ faith more than fathers – study

Christians in America are more likely to say it was their mother’s faith that influenced them rather than their father’s, although research has found that grandparents are significant too.

The Barna Group study found that mothers were the main drivers of spiritual development in homes, with over two thirds of American Christians (68%) saying their beliefs were influenced by their mother’s faith.

This was significantly lower than the proportion (46%) who said their father was the main influencer.

Commenting on the findings, Barna said: “Practising Christians most often credit their parents as the individuals who helped impart faith to them. In this and other responses throughout the study, it appears that spiritual development in the home is driven by mothers.”

Older generations were also influential in spiritual development, though, with 37% of the 2,347 adults interviewed crediting their grandparents with shaping their faith, while well over half (59%) said that they grew up to be a Christian in adulthood because a member of the family had “passed down” the faith.

Among those who cited their grandparents, it was grandmothers who were more likely to receive the credit than grandfathers.

People outside the family were far less influential, with only 16% crediting someone who was not a relative, and fewer still (14%) identifying a friend as a significant influence on their faith.

Only 15% said their beliefs as an adult had not been affected by the household they grew up in, while around one in 10 (11%) said “someone explored faith at the same time I did”.

More than one in five (23%) said they grew up to be a Christian despite having a negative experience of Christianity during their childhood.

Over half (57%) said they were Christian at the time of their birth, a response that Barna said was “revealing either of their theology or of how extensively Christianity permeated their upbringing”.

“For most practising Christian adults in this study, the early, formative days of discipleship occur in their family of origin,” Barna said.

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Ancient papyrus offers fresh glimpse into everyday life of early Christians

A small fragment of papyrus is providing valuable insights into the ordinary lives of the first Christians and the Roman Empire within which they lived.

The document, part of a collection of ancient manuscripts at the University of Basel in Switzerland, is a private family letter from Greco-Roman Egypt and has been dated to around 230AD – at least 40–50 years older than all other known Christian documentary letters worldwide, the university said.

It originates from the village of Theadelphia in central Egypt and belongs to the famous Heroninus archive, the largest papyrus archive from Roman times.

The letter was sent by Arrianus to his brother, Paulinus, and discusses day-to-day matters, from updates on the family to a simple request for some fish liver sauce.

“Greetings, my lord, my incomparable brother Paulus,” the letter reads.

“I, Arrianus, salute you, praying that all is as well as possible in your life.”

According to University of Basel researcher Prof Sabine Huebner, the brothers appear to have been young, educated sons of the local elite, as well as landowners and public officials.

Far from withdrawing from the world, the letter is evidence that Christians in the early third century were involved in civic life alongside their pagan neighbours.

Arrianus writes: “Now, I remind you about the gymnasiarchy, so that we are not troubled here.

“For Heracleides would be unable to take care of it: he has been named to the city council.”

Importantly, the letter sheds light on their Christian faith, with Arrianus wishing his brother well “in the Lord”.

“I pray that you fare well in the Lord,” he writes.

Prof Huebner, who teaches Ancient History at the University of Basel, said the concluding greeting formula of the letter sets it apart from the “mass of preserved letters” from Greco-Roman Egypt.

“The use of this abbreviation – known as a nomen sacrum in this context – leaves no doubt about the Christian beliefs of the letter writer,” said Prof Huebner, who writes about her findings in her new book Papyri and the Social World of the New Testament.

“It is an exclusively Christian formula that we are familiar with from New Testament manuscripts.”

She said that the name of his brother, Paulus, was also revealing as it was an unusual name for the period.

“Paulus was an extremely rare name at that time and we may deduce that the parents mentioned in the letter were Christians and had named their son after the apostle as early as 200 AD,” she said.

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Government must act on ‘shocking’ levels of Christian persecution

The UK Foreign Office should introduce “mandatory” religious literacy training for staff and consider imposing sanctions in order to address “shocking” levels of Christian persecution, a major Government-sponsored review has said.

The report, by the Bishop of Truro, the Rt Rev Philip Mounstephen, said that the response of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) to Christian persecution could only be “summed up as ‘good in parts’”.

“Whilst positive evidence of support was certainly identified, taken in the round, FCO support might best be summed up as ‘good in parts’,” it reads.

Although the FCO has a Freedom of Religion or Belief (FoRB) Tool Kit for overseas bureaus, the review found that there was “limited awareness” of its existence, which in turn had led to “limited implementation”.

“Consistent with this evidence, the apparent paucity of awareness of the challenges facing the Christian community reveals a lack of religious literacy that undoubtedly impacts the full exercise of all FoRB rights,” the report reads.

It continues: “There is a significant cultural knowledge deficit in the awareness and practice of religion in society in the United Kingdom which witnesses have suggested is increasingly evident in the culture of the Foreign Office Network,” the report reads.

“Given the centrality of religious belief to the vast majority of the world’s population and communities this poses a particular challenge for British diplomats seeking to operate between these two worlds.”

Evidence submitted to the review, commissioned by Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt, complained of an “inconsistency in when and how the UK speaks out about persecution”.

Submissions suggested that when the UK did speak about persecution, it seemed to “reflect the increasing secularisation of our society and retreat from Christianity as a largely commonly held faith”.

“Quite rightly, witnesses felt, there was an outcry from the UK government over the Rohingya Muslim crisis in Myanmar, but politicians and media said very little about the Christian minority groups who were targeted as much as the Rohingyas, and who also had to leave their homes and country,” it reads.

In addition, the review found that Christian persecution has “to some significant extent been overlooked in the West”.

“And the western response (or otherwise) has no doubt too been tinged by a certain post-Christian bewilderment, if not embarrassment, about matters of faith, and a consequent failure to grasp how for the vast majority of the world’s inhabitants faith is not only a primary marker of identity, but also a primary motivation for action (both for good or ill),” it said.

There was “real strength of concern” that UK aid is being invested in a “religion blind” manner to the detriment of religious minorities.

Evidence submitted on Pakistan, for example, raised the concern that UK funding towards mainstream education “may in part be contributing to the radicalisation of school age children”.

“Many of the significant challenges undermining the ability of Christian minorities to exercise their inalienable rights are linked to the manner in which the generous UK financial support to the people of Pakistan is applied,” the report said.

“Without a significant change of direction, the protection of vulnerable minorities, a central tenant of FoRB, will continue to be undermined.”

In Iraq, a similar concern was raised, with the offer of financial assistance for those affected by ISIS seen as “less than wholehearted”.

“In these circumstances there must be a strong case for the British Government to review the channelling of so much of its international aid assistance through UN and other agencies which seem to have developed a ‘religion-blind’ policy: a policy which fails to ensure that those whose need has been specifically generated by their creed, through the suffering of persecution, receive their fair share of aid,” the report said.

The UK’s diplomatic bureaus were “perceived as operating at arm’s length” by faith communities who also interpreted their policy of “working behind the scenes” as an “excuse for inaction”.

Some respondents said that the willingness of officials to speak up about religious freedom appeared to be dependent on the individual official or the UK’s economic interests in the country.

“There was a general feeling that much depended on the individual FCO official concerned. If that individual was passionate about freedom of religion or belief and had a genuine interest in their situation, then good relationships developed and there was confidence to seek support,” the report said.

“However, far too often we heard that UK missions are perceived as operating at arm’s length and that other international missions were sometimes more approachable, proactive and reactive, especially those of the US, Scandinavian countries and the EU.”

Although submissions agreed that Christians should stand up for all minorities suffering for their faith, there was a “strong feeling” that “for too long those who arguably suffer the greatest persecution in terms of sheer numbers across the globe have not been given the same attention as other minorities by the UK government.”

There was also a “perceived imbalance” in the numbers of Christians being granted asylum by the UK Home Office in comparison to those of other minority faiths, while others providing evidence spoke of the “disturbing reality” of Christian asylum seekers in the UK experiencing persecution here.

Elsewhere, the report cited “universal criticism” about the apparent unwillingness of the UK Government to offer asylum to Asia Bibi, a Pakistani Christian woman acquitted of the death sentence for blasphemy.

Responding to the report, Mr Hunt said: “The sense of misguided political correctness that has stopped us standing up for Christians overseas must end.

“At home we all benefit from living in a tolerant, diverse society and we should not be afraid of promoting those values abroad. It is a sad fact that Christians are the most persecuted religious group in modern times. I am determined to show that we are on their side.”

The report includes interim findings released earlier this year, which warned that “in some regions, the level and nature of persecution is arguably coming close to meeting the international definition of genocide, according to that adopted by the UN.”

Other recommendations for the Foreign Office include seeking a Security Council Resolution urging all governments in the Middle East and North Africa to protect Christians and other persecuted minorities, and allow UN observers to monitor the necessary security measures.

A portion of the Government’s Magna Carta Fund for human rights work should also be set aside to help persecuted Christians.

Bishop Mounstephen said: “Addressing this issue with the seriousness it deserves represents a step change for democratic governments. My hope is that in adopting my recommendations the Foreign Office will be able to bring its considerable experience and expertise to bear in helping some of the planet’s most vulnerable people.”

Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon, the Prime Minister’s Special Envoy for Freedom of Religion or Belief said: “Freedom of Religion or Belief has been a key priority for the FCO within our human rights agenda in recent years.

“Both strategically and through a focus on priority countries, we have not only raised the profile of religious persecution and abuse, but also acted on the rising tide of Christian persecution across the world with some success.

“We therefore note the findings of this independent report and will consider the recommendations carefully and how they may further enhance our work in tackling Christian persecution specifically and in strengthening our work on Freedom of Religion or Belief.”

Open Doors UK, a Christian organisation which gave evidence to the review, said the report was a “good first step” to addressing the issue of Christian persecution.

“The UK Government must act now. It must focus attention on the countries where persecution is most severe and where the situation is rapidly deteriorating,” said CEO Henrietta Blyth.

“Persecution is a global problem. Governments must act to enforce Article 18 of the Declaration of Human Rights – the freedom to choose a religion or belief or to choose no religion or belief.

“This is not about politics, it’s about freedom. Sadly, in many countries Christianity is criminalised and there are thousands of Christians locked up because of their faith. Many are tortured. It’s wrong.”

While the UK has a Special Envoy on Freedom of Religion or Belief, the position is not a permanent one. Mrs Blyth said this needed to change.

“Christian persecution is not a party political issue,” she said.

“We believe that the Prime Ministerial post of Special Envoy on Freedom of Religion or Belief should be a permanent role so that its existence is not subject to any political agenda.

“This will also ensure that persecuted Christians are rightly placed at the heart of government decisions on trade and aid.”

Christian Solidarity Worldwide chief executive Mervyn Thomas said: “CSW welcomes every effort that advances the right to freedom of religion or belief for all religious communities.

“This report’s recognition of violations targeting Christian communities across the world, many of whom feel their plight is neglected, emphasises the universality of this right by advocating that, along with other targeted religious communities, they too should receive assistance.”

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