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Christian Radio Reacts to Ukraine Restrictions on Russian Language

Image: Courtesy of NLR

A new language law in Ukraine has complicated ministry to Russian-speaking citizens. Comparing restrictions to the Soviet era, one Christian broadcaster is relocating to Budapest, Hungary.

“I don’t want our staff busted on the air for reading the Bible in Russian,” said Dan Johnson, president of Christian Radio for Russia, which operates New Life Radio (NLR) from Odessa on Ukraine’s Black Sea coast. “We were expecting bombs to wreck our radio operations, but it turned out to be this law.”

Last month, Russian missiles landed one mile from their studio.

But earlier in July, President Volodymyr Zelensky signed into law a near-complete ban on Russian music on radio and television. Passed by parliament with a two-thirds majority, it exempts pre-independence classical artists like Tchaikovsky and Shostakovich as well as modern composers who have condemned the war.

About 65 percent of NLR airtime is music. Though local Christian anthems have inspired many during the war, Johnson said most contemporary worship songs are in Russian, even those originating from Ukraine.

A 2021 national survey identified 22 percent of the Ukrainian population as native Russian speakers, with 36 percent speaking the language primarily at home. Concentrated in the eastern Donbas and southern regions where Russian troops have prioritized attack, there are fears that Moscow is preparing to annex certain occupied areas.

Johnson has fled restrictions before. He moved to Russia in 1991 and by 1996 began radio ministry in Magadan, a featured city in Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s The Gulag Archipelago. Kicked out in 2006, he continued ongoing satellite-based radio work in Moscow, broadcasting throughout the former Soviet Union. But as the campaign against both free press and evangelical ministry tightened, in 2019 he relocated again.

Odessa promised an atmosphere of freedom—until now.

“There isn’t a government in the world that can stop the gospel,” Johnson said. “We will pivot and move on as always.”

NLR rents its studios and broadcasts by satellite and online, simplifying operations. Budapest was chosen because of its sizable Russian Christian population, Johnson said, which welcomed the ministry.

In the meanwhile, NLR continues to produce content in Russian, encrypting the signal to broadcast from outside the country. This should satisfy the law, he said, while also raising funds to build a Ukrainian language–only network in Odessa. In time, as a to-be Ukrainian broadcaster, he hopes to secure an FM license, alongside satellite and internet radio.

“I hope the authorities will leave us alone,” he said.

Sergey Rakhuba of Mission Eurasia called NLR collateral damage.

“I believe in freedom of speech,” he said, “but this is a state of war.” A native Russian speaker himself, an aspect of Rakhuba’s ministry has witnessed increased scrutiny…

This article was originally published at Christianity Today on August 30, 2022. Please click here to read the full text.

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Prayer in Ukraine After Six Months of War

Image: Scott Olson / Getty Images
Sukovska Baptist Church was heavily damaged by a nearby missile strike in June in Druzhkivka, Ukraine, and has since conducted its Sunday services in a tent.

The World Evangelical Alliance (WEA) called for prayer.

“On this day of independence, we want to declare our dependence on God,” it stated on behalf of Ukraine, “the One who can bring true peace to the hearts of each individual person, each family, and even entire peoples.”

Joined by the affiliated European Evangelical Alliance, the WEA petition specified prayers to end the suffering, to spare the world from further repercussions, to strengthen the church’s response, and to marshal peace not through weapons, but through prayer.

Ukraine must defend itself, the WEA clarified; but Christians have a deeper hope.

“Throughout history, God has changed hopeless and dire situations in surprising ways,” stated the petition. “Let us also pray for healing and for reconciliation, and that Russia and Ukraine could live in peace as independent, sovereign nations.”

An accompanying guide for parents offers similar prayers for children.

It will not be easy. An Orthodox priest who performed last rites for the 116 people found in a mass grave in Bucha reflected on his spiritual calling.

“Saying the word forgive isn’t difficult,” Father Andriy told The Associated Press. “But to say it from your heart—for now, that’s not possible.”

As a followup to its March survey of the wartime prayers of Ukraine’s evangelicals, Christianity Today asked a sampling of Christian leaders to explain how the ongoing war has changed how they pray and what they pray for, how they understand unanswered prayers in difficult times, and how fellow Christians around the world can best pray for them now:

Denys Kondyuk, head of the missiology department at Ukrainian Evangelical Theological Seminary, Kyiv:

My prayers were more scheduled and structured before the invasion. Now they are dominated by requests for health and life, for obvious reasons. And I have seen God answer through many stories of deliverance from very dangerous situations; but of course, there are still many that suffer and die.

The prayer for the war to end is still unanswered.

Ukrainians have focused on verses that emphasize God’s justice, especially those which emphasize there is not much we can expect from people. Others, meanwhile, have found hope in the scriptures that promise our suffering is temporal, awaiting the kingdom of God.

Please pray that God guides us to serve where it is needed, and to be bold in what we do. And ultimately, for the victory of Ukraine—bringing justice to those who suffered and died.

Yuriy Kulakevych, foreign affairs director of the Ukrainian Pentecostal Church, Kyiv: We are all called to grow in Christ, which includes our prayer life. As pastor of God’s Peace Pentecostal Church in Kyiv, I am encouraging our people to…

This article was originally published at Christianity Today on August 24, 2022. Please click here to read the full text.

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Christianity Today Middle East Published Articles

Egypt Church Fire Kills 41, Sparks Blame of Building Law’s Legacy

Image: Tarek Wajeh / picture alliance / Getty Image

As Egypt reels from the tragic church fire that killed 41 worshipers on Sunday, many search for where to put the blame.

“God forgive the fire department,” said Ishak Henin, a deacon at Abu Seifein Coptic Orthodox Church in Imbaba, a dense urban neighborhood of Cairo. “If they had come earlier, they could have saved more people.”

Egyptian authorities stated they arrived almost immediately after the 9 a.m. fire was first reported. Eyewitness testimony varied; some stated 15 minutes, others over two hours.

Abu Seifein means “the father of two swords” and is the Arabic moniker for second-century martyr Saint Mercurius, whose icon reflects his military origins.

But the word church may give the wrong impression to overseas audiences, as the sanctuary was located between ground floor shops and towering residences. Illegally repurposed in 2007 from one of many tightly packed apartment complexes, the now-charred chapel traced back to an era when Egyptian Christians were unable to obtain permits to build new houses of worship.

The law was changed in 2016, and a Coptic legal expert stated Abu Seifein was officially licensed in 2019. Since the latest batch in April, the slow-moving process has now legalized 2,401 churches and affiliated service centers.

Yet many remain in their original condition, below safety codes, and according to the law full legality can only come once all regulations are satisfied.

Abu Seifein’s four-story building housed two daycare facilities, and 18 children died in the blaze. Around 100 people were present at worship that morning; authorities stated most deaths—which included the local priest—were caused by smoke inhalation and the resulting stampede.

One family lost a set of five-year-old triplets, their mother, and grandmother.

The head of Egypt’s evangelical community was “deeply pained,” and offered condolences to Pope Tawadros, patriarch of the Coptic Orthodox Church. “We pray that God will give comfort and patience to the people,” stated Andrea Zaki, “and…

This article was originally published at Christianity Today, on August 18, 2022. Please click here to read the full text.

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The Hardship Is Plentiful But the Workers Aren’t Few: Evangelicals Unite on Ukraine

Image: Mission Eurasia
A Bible camp for displaced Ukrainian children

Her mother died of cancer. Her father was killed in the war. When her home in Donetsk was destroyed by a Russian missile, retreating Ukrainian troops brought the eight-year-old orphan and her grandparents and uncle to volunteers serving with the Chernivtsi Bible Seminary (CBS), 680 miles to the west.

Their only possessions were the clothes on their backs.

Resettled in temporary housing, last month the uncle was called back to the front lines. The girl has been sent to a Christian camp, and the seminary—serving as a ministry hub for the internally displaced—is doing what it can to assist.

“We did not think that serving a refugee is such a complicated process,” said Vasiliy Malyk, CBS president. “But no matter how difficult it may be, we can help them at least with some dignity.”

It is a team effort, and once tallied the numbers both stagger and pale in comparison to the need.

The Alliance for Ukraine Without Orphans (AUWO) has mobilized 3,000 volunteers to provide temporary housing for 6,000 people, mostly women and children. It has evacuated 38,000—more than two-thirds of which have been orphans. Nearly 59,000 people have received some sort of humanitarian aid.

“When the war started, everyone was focused on responding,” said Ruslan Maliuta, a former AUWO president and current network liaison for One Hope. “But then we realized the war is going to last, the crisis is huge, and the response will require us all to work together.”

To do so, in April the World Evangelical Alliance (WEA) launched The Response—Ukraine Special Taskforce (TRUST), with Maliuta as its leader. AUWO united with Ukraine’s Baptists, Pentecostals, and seven other national church and parachurch organizations to coordinate refugee relief efforts, alongside ten regional partners from Poland, Moldova, Slovakia, Hungary, and Romania.

“Having churches reach across denominational lines to work together has been one of the most encouraging things,” said Chris Guess, a Romanian pastor. “We have volunteers from across the globe, [as] God’s people have jumped in with us.” For example, volunteers from Argentina shipped 20,000 tons of rice.

Comparing notes from March onward, the evangelical network has mobilized 64,000 volunteers. Temporary housing has been offered to 271,000. Over 346,000 people have been evacuated, while nearly 600,000 have received humanitarian aid. Over $1.1 million has been distributed to partners.

“TRUST is coming alongside the admirable work of professional aid agencies with no intention of competing or creating a new relief organization,” said Thomas Schirrmacher, WEA secretary general. “TRUST offers a bridge that connects.”

Yet the United Nations underscores the grim reality: 6.2 million need shelter, 10.2 million need food, and 12.1 million need health assistance.

“People are on the edge of exhaustion,” said Rafal Piekarski, serving with Proem Ministries in Poland. “Our Polish resources are over. We don’t want to compete with each other, but be good stewards of what you can bring from your countries, your churches.” In May, Piekarski was one of…

This article was originally published at Christianity Today, on August 5, 2022. Please click here to read the full text.

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Africa Published Articles Christianity Today

Nigerian Christians Protest Muslim-Muslim Ticket as a ‘Declaration of War’

Image: Pius Utomi Ekpei / Contributor / Getty

The field is set for Nigeria’s 2023 presidential election, leaving its Christian citizens in a quandary.

In selecting candidates to replace the current head of state, Muhammadu Buhari, one dominant political party ignored customary protocols ensuring geographic rotation of power, while the other party—in the face of severe warnings—abandoned the customary commitment to religious representation.

Believers may desert them both.

Africa’s most-populous nation is roughly divided between a majority Muslim north and a majority Christian south. An unwritten agreement has rotated the presidency between the two regions. Buhari, a Muslim, hails from Borno State in the northeast.

The first transgression, by geography, happened in May when the opposition Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) nominated Atiku Abubakar from Adamawa State, also in Nigeria’s northeast. A Muslim, he chose as his vice-presidential running mate Ifeanyi Okowa, the Christian governor of Delta State in the south.

One month later, the incumbent All Progressives Congress (APC) nominated Bola Tinubu, the Muslim former governor of Lagos State in the south. But since he hails from a Christian region, fears were raised that his Muslim rival for president might sweep the north—viewed by many as a more reliable voting bloc. Speculation was rampant he would choose a Muslim vice-presidential candidate to compensate.

“We will consider such action as a declaration of war,” warned the Christian Association of Nigeria (CAN), which represents almost all the nation’s Protestants and Catholics. “We … will mobilize politically against any political party that sows the seed of religious conflict.” CAN also opposes any Christian-Christian political ticket as well.

Similar statements were issued by two of CAN’s five blocs: the Pentecostal Fellowship of Nigeria—“Meet us at the polls,” it said—and the Catholic Secretariat of Nigeria.

Opposition extended beyond religion.

The civil society Middle Belt Forum warned the APC against breaking Nigerian unity. And a leaked security report—denied by Buhari—said such a choice would destabilize the nation and risk Christian lives.

Tinubu defied them all.

“I believe this is the man who can help me bring the best governance to all Nigerians,” he said on July 10, defending his selection of the Muslim former governor of Borno, Kashim Shettima. “In this crucial moment, where so much is at stake, we must prioritize leadership, competence, and the ability to work as a team over other considerations.”

The vice president of Nigeria holds no formal power. But Christians were aghast at the affront.

“In a country with 100 million people in each religion, are you saying there is no competent Christian who can be your partner?” asked Samson Ayokunle, the outgoing president of CAN. “If you are picking a Muslim, it means you have an agenda.”

Ayokunle, a Baptist, assured that CAN, which this week will rotate to new leadership, has no preference in terms of political parties. Tinubu governed Lagos well, he said, and Abubakar has never picked a fight with Christians.

However, “CAN said loud and clear that we will teach a lesson to any party with a Muslim-Muslim ticket,” Ayokunle told CT. The only complication? “Christians have not been voting enough.”

It may be about to change. Denominations across Nigeria…

This article was originally published at Christianity Today on July 26, 2022. Please click here to read the full text.

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Americas Christianity Today Europe Published Articles Religious Freedom

The British Are Coming: UK Takes Religious Freedom Torch from US

Image: FCDO YouTube screenshot

The epicenter of advocacy for international religious freedom (IRF) has crossed the pond. Last week, the United Kingdom hosted the first in-person government ministerial on the issue to be held outside the United States.

Under the Trump administration, the US State Department inaugurated the Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom in 2018. Reconvened in Washington in 2019, the following year the event moved to Poland which was forced to conduct proceedings online due to COVID-19. Pandemic distractions prevented Brazil from hosting the ministerial in 2021, but civil society and religious groups rallied to organize an IRF Summit in DC instead.

In 2020, 27 nations seized the ministerials’ momentum to create the International Religious Freedom or Belief Alliance (IRFBA), centered around Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR).

Declaring that “everyone has freedom to believe or not believe, to change faith, to meet alone for prayer or corporately for worship,” IRFBA has since grown to include 36 countries, an additional five national “friends,” and two observers—including the UN-designated special rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief (FoRB), the preferred terminology for IRF in Europe.

As IRFBA chair, the UK hosted the Ministerial Conference on Freedom of Religion or Belief on July 5–6 in London.

“Millions of people are being deprived an education or a job or a home or access to justice or liberty, even to life itself,” said Fiona Bruce, the UK prime minister’s special envoy for FoRB, “simply on account of what they believe.”

The UK demonstrated leadership on the issue in 2020, when as chair of the Group of Seven—a political forum of the world’s leading democratic economies—Britain secured the first-ever mention of FoRB as a priority within the G7 official communique.

“The ministerial helped create a heightened global consciousness on FoRB, a cornerstone of all human rights,” said Godfrey Yogarajah, ambassador for religious freedom for the World Evangelical Alliance (WEA). “Where FoRB is violated, all other human rights suffer.”

Hosted at the Queen Elizabeth II Center in Parliament Square, the 2022 ministerial’s remarks were delivered by Prince Charles of Wales and Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby. Chief rabbi Ephraim Mirvis spoke on behalf of Britain’s Jews.

Regional foreign minister Tarik Ahmed, a Muslim, delivered a statement welcoming to the ministerial 500 delegates from more than 100 countries. Sources told CT the UK did an exceptional job integrating the dozens of civil society and religious groups into the official proceedings.

With better coordination—and a wider berth from Americans’ July 4 observance of Independence Day—attendance might have been even larger. Only a few days before the UK ministerial…

This article was originally published at Christianity Today on July 13, 2022. Please click here to read the full text.

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Christianity Today Middle East Published Articles

The Surge in Arab Seminary Studies

Image: Courtesy of ETSC

Bassem Ragy did not need a master’s of divinity degree in order to do math.

Seven years ago, when his church’s preschool children presented their paltry Sunday school offering of 7 Egyptian pounds (then equivalent to $2), he recalled the equation of five loaves plus two fishes.

Now one of 69 members of the 2022 graduating class of Evangelical Theological Seminary in Cairo (ETSC), the newly-minted MDiv can preach Jesus’ miracle from the original Greek.

“When I see the work of our graduates, it gives me hope for the church’s future,” said Tharwat Wahba, ETSC vice president for church and society—and one of its many alumni. “We must keep up our momentum.”

The fishermen are multiplying.

In 1995, there were about 50 students at the Presbyterian institution. By 2005, seminary research had identified 311 affiliated churches, 127 of which lacked a full-time pastor.

By 2019, enrollment had grown to 300 students. Three years later, it reached 509. And now affiliated churches number 450, only 70 of which lack pastoral leadership.

Founded in 1863 aboard a felucca, a traditional Egyptian boat, in the Nile River, ETSC’s floating campus served mission stations and fledgling churches associated with the then-American Presbyterian movement. The seminary has steadily supplied synod pulpits ever since.

Wahba linked the explosive growth to a low point in modern Egyptian history.

While most Coptic Christians were cautious about the 2011 Arab Spring, many evangelicals seized the opportunity to minister to revolutionaries in Tahrir Square, hoping for the success of the democratic moment. But Islamist politicians quickly dominated the parliament, and in 2012 the Muslim Brotherhood captured the presidency.

Much of the Egyptian church felt under siege.

But the following year, ETSC—which had created a missions department back in 2002—made church planting and evangelism a required course for MDiv students. And in summer 2013, when a popularly backed coup removed Islamists from power, Egyptian evangelicals were already poised to serve society.

In 2015…

This article was originally published at Christianity Today on July 8, 2022. Please click here to read the full text.

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Asia Christianity Today Europe Published Articles

Christians Fret as Muhammad’s Family Comes Under Fire

Aisha (L), at the Battle of the Camel

Founding fathers are often sacred, but not sacrosanct.

In recent years, Americans have wrestled with the slave-owning legacies of George Washington and Thomas Jefferson. Confederate statues have been toppled, ideologically refighting for some the Civil War. Pilgrims have become pillagers; Plymouth Rock equated with imperialism.

Muslims are having a similar moment.

Their prophet is called a pedophile. Their miracles, a myth. Successors to Muhammad are compared to ISIS. And it is not just Islam’s historic men. Two current global controversies concern two of the faith’s celebrated founding females: Aisha and Fatimah.

The International Union for Muslim Scholars has renewed its call for an international ban on insulting religions. And from India to England, Muslims have poured into the streets this month in protest.

Christians—whether leading such polemics or suffering under blasphemy accusations—have often been embroiled in such Muslim controversies. These latest episodes, many are relieved, are centered elsewhere.

“But Christians in both India and Pakistan are quite frightened,” said Juliet Chowdhry, a trustee for the British Asian Christian Association. “It is inevitable that as a vulnerable religious minority that is incorrectly perceived to be in league with the West, Christians will find themselves caught up in the anger.”

Thus they are keeping silent, said a Christian leader in Pakistan who—illustrating the point—requested anonymity due to the sensitivity of the situation.

Last month [May 26], a spokesperson for the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in India cited Aisha, often considered the favorite wife of Muhammad. Appearing on a talk show with Muslims, the Hindu official responded passionately when chided about a disputed temple.

Her prime minister, Narendra Modi, has led India in the direction of Hindu nationalism, stoking tensions with its 15 percent Muslim community. Though always a minority religion there, Islam ruled the subcontinent for centuries, with some ancient temples turned into mosques.

In one location, shivling idols were allegedly discovered last month. The Muslim talk show guests said no, their shape—holy to Hindus in honor of Shiva—resembled instead a fountain. The panel then descended into a heated discussion over the mocking of gods and goddesses.

“Should I start mocking claims of flying horses … and having sex with [Aisha] when she turned nine?” exclaimed the official. “Should I start saying all these things that are mentioned in your scriptures?”

Buraq is the name of the winged animal mentioned in Islamic tradition as carrying Muhammad on a night journey from Mecca to Jerusalem. Similar traditions quote Aisha on her tender age at the time her marriage was consummated, while some more contemporary scholars cite evidence to argue she was in her teens.

At least 15 majority-Muslim nations—led by those in the Arabian Gulf—have condemned India, which in turn censured both the BJP spokesperson and another offending official. The grand mufti of Oman called the comments a “war on all Muslims,” while Egypt’s al-Azhar mosque described them as “real terrorism.”

Muhammad was 53 when he married Aisha, and Islamic sources indicate a happy existence together. Aisha grew up to become a scholar and a military leader, often honored by modern day Muslims as an example of feminist egalitarianism.

But she is also a center of controversy—resurrected in a recent British film.

After the death of Muhammad, a faction of Muslims believed leadership should remain in the bloodline of the prophet. Known as Shiites, this sect believes the caliphate was promised to Ali, the prophet’s nephew and husband to his daughter, Fatimah. About 10–15 percent of Muslims are Shiites, with the great majority residing in Iran, Iraq, India, and Pakistan.

Sunnis, the majority sect, believe Muhammad did not designate a successor. The community then met to elect one, a caliph, and the first three were chosen from among Muhammad’s closest companions. Ali became the fourth caliph, but in a clash known as the Battle of the Camel, Aisha rode the Arabian dromedary in a rebellion against him.

The Lady of Heaven builds its story around Fatimah, who Muslims esteem as akin to Mary, the mother of Jesus.

In a poignant introductory scene, Fatimah is introduced as the first victim of terrorism, paralleled as an elderly woman comforts an Iraqi child whose mother was killed by ISIS. Winning awards for visual effects, the $15 million partisan film relates a Shiite perspective that the famed daughter of Muhammad died in childbirth—due to injuries suffered earlier in a raid ordered by his first successor.

Sunni orthodoxy honors the first four caliphs as “righteous.” Thereafter the community descended into civil war, with Ali and Fatimah’s children on the losing end. Hussain, the younger of two sons, was killed in battle, and his commemoration by Shiites is often accompanied by mourning and ritual self-flagellation.

Though Shiite-dominated, Iran banned the film as divisive to the Muslim community, while Pakistan, Egypt’s al-Azhar, and the Muslim Council of Britain all condemned it also. Following large-scale Sunni protests, most UK cinemas canceled upcoming screenings. According to Rotten Tomatoes, the film’s approval rating…

This article was originally published at Christianity Today on June 24, 2022. Please click here to read the full text.

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Pew: Israelis and Palestinians Find Favor in the Eyes of Americans

Americans prefer a less polarized Holy Land. But they themselves are as polarized about it as ever.

A new survey by the Pew Research Center—three years removed from when Donald Trump and Benjamin Netanyahu led the political scene—reveals rising favorability ratings for Israel and Palestine, across nearly every segment of Americans.

Most, however, still prefer Israel.

White evangelicals lead the way, with 86 percent viewing the Israeli people favorably and 68 percent viewing Israel’s government favorably, compared to 37 percent favorability for the Palestinian people and 14 percent favorability for their government.

Overall, 1 in 3 white evangelicals view both peoples favorably, but only 1 in 10 favor both governments.

These believers are out of step with the wider US, however.

Among Americans at large, the Israeli people have a 67 percent favorability rating, up from 64 percent. The Israeli government’s favorability rating increased from 41 to 48 percent. And a narrow majority of Americans now view Palestinians positively (52%, up from 46%), though less so their government (28%, up from 19%). Overall, 2 in 5 Americans view both peoples favorably (42%), but only 1 in 5 favor both governments.

“Americans naturally want to be favorable toward other peoples,” said Mark Tooley, president of the Institute on Religion and Democracy (IRD). “I’m surprised it is not higher.”

Theology may have something to do with the affinity. In a new question, Pew asked Americans if God gave the land that is now Israel to the Jews. White evangelicals agreed at a rate of…

This article was originally published at Christianity Today, on June 9, 2022. Please click here to read the full text.

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Christianity Today Published Articles Religious Freedom

Will US List Nigeria Again After Latest Religious Freedom Report?

Image: Ron Przysucha / US Department of State

Nigeria—and a few other nations—are on alert.

The US Department of State released its 2021 annual report on international religious freedom (IRF) last week, describing conditions in nearly 200 nations. Delivering remarks from the Benjamin Franklin room—where US ambassadors are sworn into service—Secretary of State Antony Blinken presented a litany of well-known offenders.

China, he said, continues its genocide against Uighur Muslims.

Saudi Arabia makes illegal the practice of any faith besides Islam.

Pakistan sentences people to death for blasphemy.

And Eritrea demands renunciation of faith to release the arrested members of religious minorities.

“Respect for religious freedom isn’t only one of the deepest held values and a fundamental right,” Blinken stated. “It’s also, from my perspective, a vital foreign policy priority.”

Last November, these four nations were among the 10 Blinken designated as countries of particular concern (CPC). A separate special watch list (SWL) listed four more: Algeria, Comoros, Cuba, and Nicaragua.

But three days after the IRF report release, a terrorist attack in Nigeria highlighted its omission. Dozens of Christians were gunned down in a Catholic church on Pentecost Sunday. And one month earlier, a Christian college student was murdered by a mob over her alleged blasphemy against Islam.

Back in April, the independent US Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) released its own list of nonbinding CPC recommendations, reminding Blinken it was “appalled” at the omission of Nigeria. After listing Africa’s most populous nation as a CPC for the first time in 2020, the State Department removed…

This article was originally published at Christianity Today, on June 6, 2022. Please click here to read the full text.

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Owo Church Attack Kills Dozens of Nigerian Catholics on Pentecost Sunday

Image: AFP

Terrorists launched a gun and bomb attack at the end of a Catholic Mass in southwest Nigeria on Sunday, killing an estimated 70 worshipers according to residents and church leaders.

The terrorists attacked the St. Francis Xavier Catholic Church in Owo, Ondo state, at about 9 a.m., church leaders and residents told Morning Star News (MSN) though text messages. The carnage could have been greater. The church, one of the largest in the area, can hold up to 1,200 people, and was full at the time of the attack.

A priest at the church, Andrew Abayomi, told MSN that as the worship service was coming to an end, the terrorists threw explosive devices and shot at worshipers.

“We were in worship Mass when the terrorists attacked us. They shot at the congregation while breaking into the church by throwing improvised explosive devices at the church building,” Abayomi said. “Some of us hid inside the church as they shot randomly at us. This lasted for about 20 minutes before they retreated.”

He said it was difficult to give details about the number killed and injured, as leaders were focusing on transferring the wounded to hospitals. Circulated videos showed bloody images of men, women, and children strewed among the pews. Among other Owo residents, Loye Owolemi said about 70 worshipers were shot dead and others abducted when terrorists…

This article was originally published at Christianity Today on June 5, 2022. Please click here to read the full text.

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‘Thou Shalt Not Kill’: Ukrainian Orthodox Church Ruptures Relations with Russia

Image: Artem Hvozdkov / Getty Images

After 93 days of war, the Ukrainian Orthodox Church-Moscow Patriarchate (UOC-MP) has definitively broken with Russia—maybe.

In a council decision taken May 27, the Russian Orthodox Church (ROC)–affiliated body declared its “full self-sufficiency and independence,” condemning the three-month conflict as “a violation of God’s commandment: Thou shalt not kill!

Such a condemnation was not new. The day the invasion began, UOC-MP Metropolitan Onufriy called it a “repetition of the sin of Cain.” But in dry ecclesial language, the statement dropped a bombshell.

It “adopted relevant amendments” and “considered … making Chrism.”

Chrism, the anointing oil of baptism and other liturgical rites, was last made in Ukraine in 1913. Its manufacture is a typical sign of autocephaly, the self-governing of an Orthodox church branch.

Continuing the tone, the UOC-MP reiterated its position.

“We express our disagreement with … Patriarch Kirill of Moscow and All Russia,” it stated of the ROC head, “regarding the war in Ukraine.”

Kirill has consistently supported Russia’s “special military operation.”

In 2018, the breakaway Orthodox Church of Ukraine (OCU) was granted autocephaly by the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople, Bartholomew I. Rejected by Kirill and the UOC-MP, the act formalized the national schism. (A much smaller third Ukrainian Orthodox church joined the OCU.)

The UOC-MP council’s Friday statement continued to echo the ROC rejection. OCU bishops lack apostolic succession, it said, while overseeing the forcible seizure of churches to transfer jurisdiction. The UOC-MP stated a willingness to dialogue with the OCU if these dividing issues could be addressed.

And then, it symbolized division.

The next day during Holy Liturgy, Onufriy referred to Kirill as a fellow primate, not as his hierarch (superior). No mention was made of any connection to the ROC Moscow Patriarchate.

Andrey Shirin said these “unheard of” developments were “truly remarkable.”

“The ongoing war in Ukraine is a crisis on several levels—political, economic, humanitarian,” said the Russian associate professor of divinity at the John Leland Center, a Baptist seminary in Virginia. “This is another chapter in the theological crisis.” The consequences could…

This article was originally published by Christianity Today, on March 30, 2022. Please click here to read the full text.

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Africa Christianity Today Published Articles

Nigerian Christians Protest Deborah’s Death

Image: Courtesy of Gideon Para-Mallam

Thousands of churches across Nigeria demanded an end to sectarian killings on Sunday, horrified by the mob assault on a female university student accused of blasphemy. But fearful of more violence, their approach differed significantly—by geography.

“The overwhelming majority of our churches in the south participated, many going to the streets in peaceful protest,” said Testimony Onifade, senior special assistant to the president of the Christian Association of Nigeria (CAN). “Gathering together, we condemned this gruesome act and demanded the government identify, arrest, and prosecute the culprits.”

But in the north, where Muslims represent the majority of Nigerians, John Hayab described 20 minutes set aside to pray for divine intervention. The president of CAN’s Kaduna state chapter lauded the “solemn” ceremony observed by all northern denominations, amid a ban on protests by local authorities as some Muslims had threatened counterdemonstrations.

Instead, a select group of 120 Christian leaders gathered in a Kaduna city church, guarded by police and security agencies.

There was good reason for caution.

Two weeks ago, in Nigeria’s northwestern-most state of Sokoto, Deborah Samuel was beaten to death and set on fire by fellow students at Shehu Shagari College of Education. Officials and police intervened in vain.

Two students were arrested. Protesting for their release, Muslim supporters proceeded to destroy an additional 11 buildings, descended on Christian shops in the city, and besieged the palace of the sultan of Sokoto who had condemned the May 12 murder.

According to her friend Rakia, Samuel’s last words were, “What do you hope to achieve with this?”

After a colleague shared Islamic material on an exam-prep social media group, Samuel posted an audio recording asking him to remove it. Friends who overheard some Muslim students deeming her response to be blasphemous urged her to retract the statement. Instead, she responded…

This article was originally published at Christianity Today on May 25, 2022. Please click here to read the full text.

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Exodus, Judges, or Nehemiah: Lebanon’s Evangelicals Assess Surprising Election Victory

Image: Marwan Tahtah / Getty Images

On the eve of Lebanon’s parliamentary elections last weekend, Resurrection Church of Beirut (RCB) called for a prayer meeting. The short meditation focused on Psalm 147: heal the brokenhearted and sustain the humble—but cast the wicked to the ground.

Mired in economic crisis, many Lebanese blame a corrupt political class.

Three years ago, a massive popular uprising shouted “all of them means all of them” against the traditional sectarian parties. But within a few months, protests fizzled as COVID-19, the Beirut port explosion, and a World Bank-labeled “deliberate” financial depression drove many to despair.

For many, emigration seemed the only answer.

Hikmat Kashouh called out to God.

“Confuse many in the election booths, and encourage others,” prayed the RCB pastor. “Cause them to vote for those you desire.”

One of Lebanon’s largest evangelical churches, only 35 members from the main Baabda campus prayed along with him. The turnout mirrored that of the nation, which initially reported that participation dropped to 4 in 10 eligible voters. Very few expected significant movement in the political map.

“For three years we have cried out to God, reflecting his love as we ministered to everyone regardless of religion,” said Nabil Costa, executive director of the Lebanese Society for Educational and Social Development, also known as the Baptist Society. “And then at the fourth watch of the night, when everyone was losing hope, God said, ‘I am still here.’” Most evangelicals, he said, supported…

This article was originally published at Christianity Today, on May 19, 2022. Please click here to read the full text.

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What Is Antisemitism? Evangelicals Favor Different Definitions

Image: Yoni Reif / Courtesy of WEA

In a solemn ceremony last month at the World Holocaust Remembrance Center in Jerusalem, the European Evangelical Alliance (EEA) laid a wreath of remembrance.

It was also a pledge.

“In awe and profound shame,” the alliance wrote on its Yad Vashem laurel, “yet with the promise for future solidarity.”

Alongside dialogue partners from the International Jewish Committee for Interreligious Consultations (IJCIC), the EEA warned that antisemitism is rising around the world. Taking a concrete step April 26 in opposition, it announced its adoption of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) working definition of the issue.

With 37 member nations—including the United States, Germany, and Poland—the IHRA has been building a coalition around the following description:

Antisemitism is a certain perception of Jews, which may be expressed as hatred toward Jews. Rhetorical and physical manifestations of antisemitism are directed toward Jewish or non-Jewish individuals and/or their property, toward Jewish community institutions and religious facilities.

The EEA was joined in Jerusalem by Thomas Schirrmacher, secretary general of the World Evangelical Alliance (WEA), as well as Goodwill Shana, chairman of its international council. Though the two leaders also laid a wreath, the global organization did not sign onto the IHRA definition like its European affiliate.

The vast majority of evangelicals share the goal of combating antisemitism. But not all agree with IHRA’s usage.

“Though its specified aim is to provide a guide to help identify antisemitic statements or actions,” said Salim Munayer, regional coordinator of the WEA’s Peace and Reconciliation Network for the Middle East and North Africa, “it has been deployed to stifle discussions about whether the State of Israel should be defined in ethno-religious terms, and to delegitimize the fight against the oppression of Palestinians.”

The definition was first published in 2005 in order to evaluate and measure the growth of antisemitism in Europe. It was adopted officially by the IHRA in 2016. At issue is not its wording, but the 11 given examples that illustrate offense.

Some are clearly uncontroversial, such as calling for the killing of Jews, denying the scope of the Holocaust, or perpetuating conspiracy theories about Jewish world domination.

But of the 11, seven concern the State of Israel. Some of these examples of antisemitism are…

This article was first published at Christianity Today on May 16, 2022. Please click here to read the full text.

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Photos Show Ukraine’s Bible Belt Struck Down But Not Destroyed

Image: Joel Carillet
A Baptist church plant in Irpin, Ukraine, damaged during the Russian invasion

Ministry had been going so well in Irpin, Ukraine.

Over the past decade, the population of Kyiv’s northwest suburb swelled to 90,000, and Irpin Bible Church (IBC) grew with it. The Baptist congregation grew to include 700 adults, with an additional 300 children. And in 2019, 12 members launched a church plant in the “New Blocs” neighborhood, where 15,000 Ukrainians lived in multi-story apartment complexes with no church of any kind.

Meeting previously in a basement office, last December the church planters purchased a stand-alone building from a local bank, grateful to have their own location amid a shortage of rental space. With a ground-floor capacity of 200 people, the congregation’s 60 members anticipated additional growth.

Three months later, the Russians invaded.

Hostomel was the first suburb to fall, being home to the regional airport. The assault on Irpin and neighboring Bucha began February 27, attempting to encircle Kyiv.

IBC senior pastor Mykola Romanuk was in the US at the time, while his family relocated to western Ukraine. He returned on March 5, only to leave later that day when tanks first breached the suburb. The next day, a member of his congregation who had returned to Irpin to assist with evacuations was killed alongside a mother and her two young children—a tragedy witnessed and shared worldwide by The New York Times—as Russian forces shelled the humanitarian corridor.

By March 14, Russia occupied half the suburb, including the church plant’s quarter. IBC’s sanctuary remained secure, but 200 of its members fled to 20 nations across Europe, while another 500 scattered across western Ukraine. Romanuk was in Rivne, 200 miles west of Kyiv, with about 70 of his congregants. Services resumed online while the stalwart faithful tried to serve 4,000 mostly elderly residents left behind in Irpin.

Dozens were killed in Russian atrocities.

On March 16, Ukraine announced a counterattack. The army recaptured the suburb on March 28. But fighting continued in Bucha for another two days, during which time Russia increased its seemingly random barrage of missiles into Irpin. One hit the church plant, destroying its roof and the second floor Sunday school classrooms.

There were no military personnel in the area.

“Any building can be rebuilt,” said Romanuk. “Compared to the destruction of the city and the many who died, it is no big deal.”

While some Ukrainian Protestants see church buildings as holy, he added, the majority Orthodox Christians view sanctuaries as a sacred space to connect with God, imbued with divine aura. No food is allowed inside; certainly not a bathroom toilet.

This has impacted relief efforts. Of the eight Orthodox churches in Irpin, only two had service annexes. Though only one was damaged—and its priest killed in an airstrike—it was only the annexes that opened to shelter their neighborhood members, he said. One Orthodox priest tried to help more broadly.

“In our theology, the church is a place for service and worship,” said Romanuk. “Now it has become a home for the homeless, catering to the needs of all.” Leading IBC since 2009, he returned with his wife and daughter on April 3, living in the church basement with…

This article was originally published at Christianity Today on May 13, 2022. Please click here to read the full text.

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How Russian Christians View the ‘Special Military Operation’ in Ukraine

Image: Kirill Kudryavtsev / Getty

Russian sermons—to the extent legally possible—reflect the national mood.

“Honor the tsar!” preached Alexey Novikov of Land of Freedom Pentecostal church in Moscow two days after the February 24 Russian invasion of Ukraine, quoting from 1 Peter 2:17. While not pro-war, it was certainly pro-Russia. Once a lawfully elected president commits troops, he said, it is a Christian’s duty to support them.

One month later, Mikhail Belyaev of Source of Living Water Baptist church in Voronezh, Russia, asked, “Why are the churches silent?”

Many Ukrainian evangelicals are fuming at their cross-border colleagues for failing to speak out against the war. They also cite the apostle Peter, placing priority on the same verse’s earlier command: “Love the family of believers.”

But Belyaev’s sermon was not pro-Ukraine. His congregation 320 miles south of Moscow provides a different answer.

The churches are not silent, he said. They are preaching the gospel and praying for peace.

“Russians take the Ukrainian complaint seriously,” said Andrey Shirin, associate professor of divinity at the John Leland Center for Theological Studies, a Baptist seminary in Virginia. “But they put God before the nation—and think many Ukrainians put too much stock in their nationality.”

Shirin left Russia 30 years ago and said that, then as now, most believers are wary of politics. And while some pastors have criticized the war, a pro-Ukraine sermon would be hard to find.

Throughout the war, polls have shown strong support for what Russia has legally mandated be called a “special military operation.” Between 65 percent and 89 percent have signaled approval; 71 percent said they feel “pride” and “joy.”

Some analysts have suggested propaganda is at play: Three in 4 Russians rely on television for the news, and 2 in 3 from state-run broadcasts. Only 5 percent have access to a VPN for outside reporting.

Others have suggested falsification: A “list experiment” in which Russians did not have to answer the war question directly resulted in an approval rating of 53 percent.

Specific polls do not exist for evangelicals. Shirin, noting the difficulty of precision, estimated pro-Russia sentiment like Novikov’s would register only 20 percent. But pro-Ukraine sentiment and a clear antiwar position would fare…

This article was originally published at Christianity Today, on April 22, 2022. Please click here to read the full text.

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Parsing Pacifism: Ukraine’s Mennonite Heritage Shapes Evangelical Responses to Russia

Image: Sergei Supinsky / Contributor / Getty

Ukrainian Baptists were once practical pacifists.

Now locked in a vicious war of survival with invading Russian forces, many are on the front lines of battle. Leading voices call for NATO to enforce a no-fly zone. Pastors pray for soldiers; churches offer bread.

What happened?

It is not as straightforward as simple self-defense. But neither was their nonviolence, practiced by most Slavic evangelicals, a clear convictional principle. Forged in the fires of the Soviet Union, the then-second-largest Baptist community in the world developed along a very different path from their denominational brethren in the United States.

Just ask Roman Rakhuba, who was raised Baptist.

“I never would have called myself a Mennonite,” said the head of the Association of Mennonite Brethren Churches of Ukraine (AMBCU). “Later I discovered I was following their principles all along.”

Known as the “Bible Belt” of Eastern Europe, Ukraine’s evangelical faith was greatly influenced by the Anabaptist tradition. Rakhuba grew up in Zaporizhzhia, 350 miles southeast of Kyiv, near the old oak tree associated with the Chortitza colony of Mennonites, founded in 1789.

His grandfather was saved through one of their preachers.

But as a Baptist child, Rakhuba was raised without toy guns, instructed to never return evil with evil. Forbidden from playing war, his relatives refused to fight in the Soviet army. He remembers Mennonites hosted at his grandfather’s home, learning of the 1763 decree by Catherine the Great to invite German settlers to develop the Russian hinterland.

They were joined by Lutherans and Catholics, dissidents and rebels, offered lands, self-governance, and—vital for the pacifists—exemption from military service. Over the next century, Mennonite communities thrived in Ukraine, developing infrastructure for agriculture and industry. But increasing prosperity challenged their social and spiritual life, and drunkenness and dancing became common.

Then came pietism.

In the mid-19th century, German missionaries, such as the Lutheran Edward Wuest, found a reception with the Mennonites. Their emphasis on a regenerated Christian life through personal conversion, prayer, and Bible study appealed to colonists dissatisfied with the traditional church. The community ruptured, and in 1860 a parallel Mennonite Brethren denomination was born, sending missionaries as far as Siberia and India.

The still-German speakers lived largely separate lives from their Slavic neighbors, until two events intervened to spark an evangelical revival. In 1858, Emperor Alexander II authorized the translation and printing of the Bible in Russian. Three years later, he abolished serfdom.

“For the first time, peasants were no longer tied to the land,” said Mary Raber, a church history instructor at Odessa Theological Seminary. “Where better to find a job than on the farm of a successful colony?”

Slavs, now with a New Testament to read, started joining their Bible studies.

Mennonites were not the only revivalist movement in the Russian empire. German Baptists planted churches in the Caucasus Mountains. An English missionary won converts among the St. Petersburg elite. Neither of these groups adopted pacifism as a rule, and even some Mennonites organized self-defense units to ward off bandits in the chaos of World War I. But none were prepared for…

This article was originally published at Christianity Today, on April 20, 2022. Please click here to read the full text.

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Who Is My Neighbor? For Christians in the Balkans, the Answer Might be Troll Farms.

Image: Illustration by Wenjia Tang

Twenty of the top 22 Christian pages on Facebook in 2021 were run from Europe’s southeast corner.

Nikola Galevski’s wasn’t one of them.

The pastor of Soulcraft Evangelical Church in Skopje, North Macedonia, actually prefers Twitter, which in the Balkans mostly attracts leftist and antireligious voices. He uses the handle “Protestant Imam,” which is a tongue-in-cheek gesture of openness to the Muslim population that makes up about a third of his country.

“The community teases me, and I tease them,” Galevski said, “but it helps develop their life with Christ.”

He has around 5,000 followers on Twitter, and some of his videos on YouTube went viral when his wife, Anet, was dying of cancer. Galevski shared about the struggle of her death in his weekly sermons, which were posted online. Orthodox Christians, nonbelievers, and Muslims joined him in his mourning, and when Anet died, views jumped into the tens of thousands.

But that pales in comparison to the top Christian Facebook page, “Be Happy Enjoy Life,” which reached 75 million users every month, according to an internal Facebook document obtained by MIT Technology Review. Ninety-five percent of viewers did not sign up to follow that page but instead had its content pushed into their news feeds by Facebook’s algorithms.

That page is one of 15,000 in the Balkans that is believed to be a “troll farm,” pumping out disinformation and figuring out new and better ways to command eyeballs—many of them belonging to Christians scrolling in America.

An internal Facebook document written by a senior-level data scientist said, “Our platform has given the largest voice in the Christian American community to a handful of bad actors who, based on their media production practices, have never been to church.”

They’re certainly not evangelicals. Galevski, who is also the coordinator of the Evangelical Protestant Initiative, would probably know them if they were. There are about…

This article was originally published in the April print edition of Christianity Today. Please click here to read the full text.

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Bucha Evangelical Leader Sees Russian Atrocities, Looks for God’s Hand

Image: Chris McGrath / Staff / Getty

The atrocities are shocking. Ukrainian authorities have said 410 civilians were killed in the suburbs of Kyiv, discovered after the Russian army withdrew from its positions. At least two were found with their hands bound; several were shot in the head.

Many bodies were burned.

One resident said the occupiers were polite, and shared their meal rations. But others told of ransacked apartments; one was tied to a pole and beaten. Soldiers even shot a cyclist, who had dismounted and turned a corner on foot.

It could have been Ivan Rusyn.

President of Ukrainian Evangelical Theological Seminary (UETS), he had been coordinating aid from a safe house in Kyiv. But riding his bicycle into Russian-controlled Bucha to deliver medicine to a neighbor, he became an eyewitness to the atrocities.

Russia has called the images fake; satellite evidence contradicts. Christianity Today interviewed Rusyn to hear his firsthand report. He spoke about the spiritual impact, becoming a more authentic church, and how evangelicals have been helping the reclaimed suburbs—where he lived the past eight years:

Tell me about your neighborhood.

If you look at Bucha on Google Maps, I live in one of the five apartment blocs opposite Toscana Grill. It is an expensive restaurant, but sometimes I have eaten there. I run in the municipal park nearly every day, and with friends on Saturday. The seminary in Kyiv is six miles away, and it would take me 25 minutes to drive there, with traffic.

I noticed Google now says it will take an hour and a half.

The bridge was destroyed on the second day of the war. Russian helicopters and soldiers landed first at the Hostomel airport, three miles from our home. There was heavy combat, and I took shelter in my basement for the next five days. Then I left to the seminary, following that Google Maps route to skirt around Kyiv to the northeast. After two days we evacuated, and I found my way to a safe house in the city.

Now when we bring food and provisions into Bucha, Irpin, and Hostomel, we see many destroyed Russian tanks. The bridge is still out, but we can navigate it carefully with minibuses. It is dangerous, but if you go slow the journey now takes about one hour.

When did you return? Four days ago (April 3). We were escorted by police because…

This article was originally published by Christianity Today, on April 7, 2022. Please click here to read the full text.