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THE MODERN MARTYRS: The international crisis of religious persecution takes no break as Washington deliberates its response

Karen Mahaffey caught a bad case of moral outrage after reading a book about the worldwide persecution of Christian believers. When the full-time mom from Laredo, Texas, took up the issue with her own pastor and other local church leaders, she found-to her surprise-they were as ignorant as she had been about the hundreds of thousands who are brutalized for their faith. She prayed. She persuaded other people in her church to pray. Then she went to work: She ordered packets of information from World Evangelical Fellowship and Voice of the Martyrs, met face-to-face with area pastors "and just shared from my own heart about what was going on in Sudan and elsewhere." She made the acquaintance of the Laredo Times editor, who began to receive regular queries from her to run pieces on persecution. The ball rolled slowly. Then an Assembly of God pastor caught on to her sense of outrage, after Mrs. Mahaffey pointed out that members of his denomination had been hanged for their faith in Iran. Several Catholic churches were moved by the plight of underground Catholics recently arrested in China. And the newspaper editor was shaken by material she sent him about Christians in Sudan. "I became convinced that, to have an impact, you have to be a little ecumenical. Anytime you have churches coming together, it gets the community's attention," Mrs. Mahaffey told WORLD. Now six Laredo churches are actively involved in spreading the word about worldwide persecution. The public access television station is broadcasting a video on the subject for the two weeks leading up to International Day of Prayer for the Persecuted Church, Nov. 16. Mrs. Mahaffey organized seven once-a-week meetings at different churches. The first meeting had 80 in the audience; last week's gathering, the third in the series and one that focused on persecution in Sudan, drew a crowd of 350. This kind of grassroots indignation is in high contrast to the moral vacuum in Washington, where insiders unfurled their souvenir-size Chinese flags and uncarted the good china as they prepared to welcome Chinese leader Jiang Zemin, arguably head of the largest state apparatus in the world directed at snuffing out the free expression of religious beliefs. If President Clinton and attending dignitaries prove hesitant to raise the persecution issue with Mr. Zemin, it will be raised elsewhere. This All Saint's Day, Nov. 1, Christian groups and churches of many theological stripes find themselves in the midst of a growing quest to recognize present-day saints. The International Day of Prayer for the Persecuted Church is in its second year. Last year's event centered on a single day of prayer, Sept. 28. This year, organizers expanded the commemoration into a "season of prayer," which began Sept. 28 and will conclude with Persecution Sunday on Nov. 16. "Our focus has been twofold," says organizer Steve Haas, "to awaken the church to the plight of believers who are imprisoned, beaten, raped, enslaved, even martyred as a direct consequence of the practice of their faith; and to encourage the church in the first and most important reaction to that knowledge-prayer." Recruiting churches and parachurch organizations to the cause is the U.S. office of World Evangelical Fellowship (Wheaton, Ill.) and a committee of notables chaired this year by Chuck Colson. Sponsors cover a wide range of evangelicalism, from Sojourners President Jim Wallis to Coral Ridge's D. James Kennedy, as well as conservative political activists like William Bennett, Frank Wolf, and J. C. Watts. Calling the campaign "Shatter the Silence," they have made available a resource kit for church leaders complete with a video, world map, and prayer journal. This year WEF prepared 75,000 kits. So far it has fulfilled 22,000 requests for them, according to WEF's Gayle Colletti. She told WORLD the organization would soon begin to ship remaining publicity packets to evangelical churches culled from denominational mailing lists, as it did last year. While WEF hoped for a higher response rate, Ms. Colletti said the numbers provided only one measurement of success. Several denominations made information packets available to all their congregations, including Southern Baptists, the Evangelical Presbyterian Church, and Mennonite Brethren. Focus on the Family, Open Doors, and Voice of the Martyrs all used their own programs to promote the campaign, as well. Timed to fit hand-in-glove with Persecution Sunday and its season of prayer is a persecution bill waiting in both houses of Congress. When organizers met last June to discuss their strategy, they hoped for a late-autumn triangulation: a season of prayer, along with passage of hard-hitting legislation against persecuting countries, sandwiching this week's much-anticipated summit of President Clinton and Chinese Premier Jiang Zemin. Now the legislation lags behind church activities and shows no hope of passage before the scheduled conclusion of Mr. Zemin's visit on Nov 2. Theological and political divides, so nicely bridged in the Day of Prayer campaign, yawn wide again when putting remedies into law. The bill, called "The Freedom from Religious Persecution Act," would create an independent office within the executive branch to monitor worldwide persecution. The director of that office could trigger sanctions on offending countries by banning exports and cutting foreign aid. The bill would ban all exports to foreign governments that directly carry out acts of persecution and would prohibit the sale of cattle prods, surveillance technology, and other products that could be used to torture or persecute. It would impose immediate sanctions against Sudan, where the government has carried out systematic attacks on churches and Christian groups and has allowed soldiers to capture children and sell them into slavery. The prohibitions are similar to those imposed on South Africa a decade ago. Introduced last spring by Rep. Frank Wolf (R-Va.) in the House and Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) in the Senate, the bill initially had bipartisan support and vocal encouragement, if not outright endorsements, from House Speaker Newt Gingrich and Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott. That was then. The White House as well as some Christian groups complained of the bill's "one-size-fits-all" approach. They argued that heavy penalties designed to bring a power like China to heel could be overkill to an emerging country like Vietnam. So sponsors defined categories of persecution with specific, limited sanctions, depending on the extent of persecution. Big business began pressuring Republican sponsors to soften trade sanctions, particularly the mechanism to eliminate Export-Import Bank subsidized loans and Overseas Private Investment Corporation projects in persecuting countries. The White House pressed Democratic sponsors to soften the overall tone against religious persecution, shying away from being too closely aligned with Christian groups. Watered-down sanctions were needed to pull on board the National Conference of Catholic Bishops, as well as several Jewish groups. But still, the National Council of Churches and the Episcopal Church oppose the bill, as do human-rights groups like Amnesty International, which opposes it for its cut-off provisions on foreign aid. At the other end of the political spectrum, libertarian-styled groups opposed the bill for its intrusion into religious affairs. Herb Titus of the U.S. Taxpayers Party called the bill "draconian" for creating a government "czar" to monitor religious persecution. At its meeting in Kansas City, USTP delegates warned that the bill would lead to a new bureaucracy to monitor religion that could be used domestically as well. But Michael Horowitz, who helped author the legislation and is a member of the WEF committee for the International Day of Prayer, contends that the legislation gives the president less authority. "It's a diminution of discretionary power. The president right now has the authority to withdraw non-humanitarian aid. This makes him politically accountable. It forces the president to stop treating non-humanitarian aid as an entitlement program for thug regimes. The administration would not be fighting this with the intensity it is if it added to their power," he said. Compromises, which Mr. Horowitz opposed, delayed action on the bill, which will likely not get out of committee in either the House or Senate before Congress adjourns for the year this month. "This year is out," Mr. Horowitz told WORLD. "Instead, we'll head back to Hill 326 in Nam Province, like Gen. Westmoreland. We'll move back into the jungle and say, 'See you next year at the Tet offensive.'" Mr. Horowitz also thinks the bill has a stronger chance in an election year. It will be a litmus test of whether social conservatives, mainly the religious right, can form a governing coalition with economic conservatives. Last week economic conservative Steve Forbes threw his weight behind the persecution bill. In a speech titled, "The Moral Basis of a Free Society," he called the Wolf-Specter legislation "a good move in the right direction, particularly if its language on trade is targeted to products used in torture or violence and if its sanctions focus on terminating aid." The editor of Forbes magazine (subtitled "The Capitalist Tool") reiterated support for open trade, but with this qualification: "We must not be blind to injustice. We must not create a false dichotomy between all-out economic warfare against nations whose policies we oppose on the one hand, and 'business as usual' on the other hand." Political battles have a way of deflecting attention from the issue at hand, the sufferings and deaths of those who "unfeignedly" love God, as described in the traditional All Saint's Day liturgy. Where Christianity is on the rise under tyranny, so too is subjugation. Campaigning against persecution does not make it disappear. The instances of martyrdom recorded by WORLD this year have all taken place in Muslim countries. Faced with radical Islam, according to a young man in Sudan named Bartholomayo, believers need to "grasp the cross with two hands." In the Kurdish-controlled village of Dohuk in northern Iraq, evangelicals were attacked in September. The church in Dohuk and the home of its pastor, Yusif Matti, were overrun by a Muslim mob, according to Servant Group International, a Nashville-based mission organization. Mr. Matti and his family, sleeping in ground-floor living quarters in the nearly completed church, escaped, but not before armed Muslims issued death threats against them unless they left Kurdistan. The attack followed the April murder of Christian bookstore worker Mansour Hussein Sifer in Arbil. The bookstore was run by Mr. Matti's church. Mr. Matti was forced to close down his church and go into hiding with his family after the Sept. 18 attack. The attackers reportedly broke out all of the windows and attempted to storm the family living quarters when Matti left his home to call the police. His children, particularly his young son who saw one of his own schoolmates among the rioters, were described by local sources to Compass Direct as "deeply traumatized." The church was nearing completion of its building, had reopened the bookstore where Mr. Sifer was killed, and had published a book on the Trinity. Three terrorists dressed in police uniforms entered Ezbet Daoud, a half-Christian/half-Muslim village of a few hundred families 400 miles south of Cairo. Starting at a tailor's shop on the main street, they shot and killed two people-one Christian and the other Muslim. The two had reportedly handed over their identity cards (which include religious affiliation), believing the terrorists to be policemen. The attackers went on to kill Fadel Mohammed in his grocery store, along with two customers. Eight more villagers were killed on the street before the gunmen escaped in a waiting vehicle. An opposition newspaper said the terrorists intended to strike a village church but discovered too much police security nearby. Nearly two years ago, villagers in the area helped police locate the local leader of the radical Gama'a Islamiya (Islamic Group), who was killed in a shoot-out. Good news mingles with the ongoing horror in the war between the radical Islamic government, which controls the north, and the predominantly Christian south. This year 500 children from the south have been bought back from slavery, many through the assistance of Voice of the Martyrs and other U.S.-based mission agencies. Government forces are not conceding ground, however. On March 4, government helicopter gunships strafed a mission team and more than 500 civilians who had come to meet the group in the Nuba Mountains. A DC-3, chartered by South African-based Frontline Fellowship and Voice of the Martyrs, had been on the ground only 45 minutes when two Soviet-made MI-24 Hind helicopters roared over the airstrip. "The gunships circled and made three strafing runs over the area," reported Frontline Fellowship director Peter Hammond. "They systematically rocketed and shot wherever people were fleeing. Our team saw two Nuba women shredded by machine cannon fire." One machine-gunner took aim at a team member who escaped fire by diving into a dry river bed. Incredibly, only two died in the attack. The team was able later to distribute most of the aid it brought in, which included relief packages of medicine, food, agricultural tools, and 1,500 Arabic Bibles. In May, the government carried out the beheading of two Filipino Christians. Rue Janda and Arnel Beltran were accused of robbery, but fellow inmates testified that the two were actually incarcerated for their faith. According to a May 5 article in the Saudi newspaper Al-Jazeerah, the men were convicted and executed for "forced armed robbery" by the Supreme Judicial Council of Saudi Arabia. During the alleged incident in a Riyadh shop, the paper said, the two were accused of striking an employee on the head with an iron bar. Saudi Arabia strictly enforces Islamic law by publicly executing convicted murderers, drug smugglers, rapists, and armed robbers. According to the news service Compass Direct, a former cellmate of the executed men said the two shopkeepers were jailed more than two years ago on fabricated charges. Donato Lama said the men were most likely executed because of their particularly active Christian witness. Mr. Lama, himself a Filipino Catholic released after 17 months' imprisonment and 70 lashes from Saudi authorities, said the two Filipinos were active in leading Bible studies and prayers while in prison. The two were arrested after a fight broke out in the store where they worked, but witnesses said they were actually singled out because they were known to be Christians. Mr. Lama was convicted by an Islamic court on charges of "promoting Christianity" in Saudi Arabia. A computer programmer in Saudi Arabia since 1981, Mr. Lama was released from prison March 28 and sent home to Manila after being imprisoned in October 1995. He was arrested and held after police, during a search of his apartment, discovered a photograph of him praying. The search took place after the murder of another Filipino working in Riyadh. Mr. Lama, however, had an ironclad alibi, since his passport proved he had been in Manila when the murder occurred.

Mindy Belz

Mindy Belz

Mindy is senior editor of WORLD Magazine and the author of They Say We Are Infidels. Follow Mindy on Twitter @mcbelz.