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(World Watch Monitor) UPDATE (25 May): Nine Christian civilians were reportedly shot dead at a militant-run checkpoint in the besieged city of Marawi in the southern Philippines on Tuesday (23 May).
Filipino news site GMA News Online – one of the biggest news and public affairs networks in the country – reported that local residents identified the nine as Christians, saying they had been pulled from a truck, had their hands bound and then their bodies riddled with bullets and left in a field.
This latest update comes as a Catholic priest and 13 other Christians are still reportedly being held by the Islamists, who have laid siege to the city, setting fire to buildings including a cathedral and Protestant-run college, and erecting the black flags of ISIS.
Reuters reports that the militants have been using the hostages as human shields, and have contacted cardinals, threatening to execute them unless government troops withdraw.
The governor of the Mindanao region, where Marawi is situated, said the rebels are from three extremist groups – Maute, Abu Sayyaf and the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters.
Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte vowed to crush them, saying: “Anyone now holding a gun, confronting government with violence, my orders are spare no-one, let us solve the problems of Mindanao once and for all.
“If I think you should die, you will die. If you fight us, you will die. If there’s an open defiance, you will die, and if it means many people dying, so be it. That’s how it is.”
He added: “I made a projection, not a prediction, that one of these days the hardest things to deal with would be the arrival of ISIS. The government must put an end to this. I cannot gamble with ISIS because they are everywhere.”
Original article (24 May):
Chaos in the Philippines as Islamist group storms city, abducts Christians and sets church on fire
A Catholic priest and 13 other Christians were taken hostage, while a cathedral and Protestant-run college were among the buildings set on fire, when an extremist group which has pledged allegiance to the Islamic State descended upon the city of Marawi in the southern Philippines yesterday (23 May).
Three fires broke out, as around 100 armed members of the Maute group fired off their weapons, beheaded a police chief and erected the black flags of ISIS.
The abducted priest was identified as Fr. Teresito Suganob, vicar-general of the prelature of Marawi, by a local bishop, Edwin De la Peña, who told the Catholic news agency Fides: “Today is the feast of our Prelature, the feast of ‘Mary, help of Christians’. The faithful were in church to pray on the last day of the novena. The terrorists broke into St Mary’s Cathedral, took the hostages and led them to an unknown location. They entered the bishop’s residence and kidnapped [Fr. Suganob]. Then they set fire to the cathedral and the bishop’s residence. Everything is destroyed. We are dismayed.
“The terrorists have occupied the city. People are terrified and locked in the house. We are waiting for the army’s reaction. The important thing is to regain the city with the least possible bloodshed. Hostages have not been mentioned. We have activated our channels, the Church and Islamic leaders, and we hope to be able to negotiate soon so they are released safe and sound.
“…We also appeal to Pope Francis to pray for us and to ask the terrorists to release the hostages in the name of our common humanity. Violence and hatred lead only to destruction: we ask the faithful all over the world to pray together with us for peace.”
Archbishop Socrates Villegas, president of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference in the Philippines, added that Fr. Suganob was “not a combatant. He was not bearing arms. He was a threat to none. His capture and that of his companions violates every norm of civilised conflict.”
Meanwhile, three of the buildings belonging to Dansalan College, which was established by the Protestant United Church of Christ, were burnt down yesterday. On its website, the college says it espouses the importance of interfaith relationship, as 95% of its students are Muslim, while 80% of its staff are Christian.
Reports say a hospital, the city’s jail, and several other establishments were also taken over by the gunmen.
Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte has reacted by cutting short a visit to Russia and imposing 60 days of martial law across the Mindanao region, where Marawi is situated. The 27 provinces and 33 cities in Mindanao make up roughly a third of the whole country.
Martial law gives more power to the military, including its ability to detain people for long periods without charge.
It is only the second time martial law has been imposed in the Philippines since the fall of former president Ferdinand Marcos in 1986.
Human rights groups and religious leaders criticised the president’s decision, calling it “uncalled for” and warning that it would “inevitably result in intensified military operations, including aerial strikes, which can kill and affect hundreds of civilians”.
Sixty days is the maximum period allowed for martial law under the Philippines’ Constitution, but President Duterte said in a video released by the government that “if it would take a year to [overcome the insurgents], then we’ll do it”.
After his return home today (24 May), Mr. Duterte said at a press briefing: “If I think that the ISIS has already taken foothold also in Luzon, and terrorism is not really far behind, I might declare martial law throughout the country to protect the people.”
Although the Philippines is a majority-Christian country, the region of Mindanao has a strong Muslim presence and is home to the Maute group, which stems from a violent Islamist movement called the Moro National Liberation Front, which sought independence for decades, hoping to create an independent Islamic state.
“On the ground, the people are asking for prayers,” a local source told World Watch Monitor. “The residents are threatened. They say homes are being trespassed, and that women not in hijabs are being taken away. The black flags are perched on top of a police car and a hospital. Social media screams with pleas for help, screenshots of texts of relatives on lockdown. One post says people must recite the shahada [Islamic profession of faith] when asked, else be killed.
“The fighting is said to spring from a hunt for Isnilon Hapilon, local Abu Sayaff leader tagged as the head of ISIS in the Philippines. Hapilon has not been caught.
“The military says things are in control now, and denies that ISIS was involved, saying the local Maute group was wreaking havoc only to get foreign attention.”
(World Watch Monitor) Jakarta’s Christian ex-governor Basuki Tjahaja Purnama (also known as “Ahok”), has withdrawn his appeal against his two-year prison sentence for blasphemy in a controversial case that has challenged religious pluralism in Indonesia, with repeated clashes between Ahok’s supporters and radical Islamic groups.
It was for this reason, said Ahok, that he wished to drop his appeal “for the sake of our people and nation”.
“I know this is not easy for you to accept this reality, let alone me, but I have learned to forgive and accept all this,” he wrote in a letter that his tearful wife Veronica Tan read out at a news conference today (23 May). He also thanked his supporters and those who were praying for him, or sending him flowers, letters and books.
He also encouraged his supporters to forgive and accept the sentence. He showed concern for what could be the longer term results of a drawn out appeal process – for the people in Jakarta and beyond – as the likely protest rallies would cause Jakartans to “suffer great losses, in the form of traffic congestion and economic losses resulting from the rallies”.
He also warned of more division in the world’s largest Muslim-majority country, saying: “It’s not right to hold rallies against each other over what I’m experiencing now. I’m concerned that many sides will exploit the rallies. There may be clashes with those who take issue with our struggle.”
According to the Bangkok Post, a source close to the family said that the decision to drop the appeal was made because Ahok’s efforts may be “blocked” further, saying his family had calculated all “political factors” before making the decision. The source refused to elaborate further.
Paul Marshall, Professor of Religious Freedom at Baylor University and senior fellow at the Leimena Institute in Jakarta, told World Watch Monitor that the possibility of an increased sentence on appeal could be one of the reasons why Ahok and his family might have decided not to challenge the sentence in the High Court.
“Another reason could be that the ex-governor is safe where he is now, inside the national police special force’s headquarters. He might not be safe outside. Also, there are major demonstrations in support of Ahok. His release at the moment may shift the momentum to the radicals”, said Marshall.
Meanwhile, prosecutors have still filed an appeal for a lower sentence, since the judges gave a more severe sentence than they’d recommended, and Ahok’s lawyers and family said the withdrawal could therefore give the prosecutors space to appeal.
It would not be the first time prosecutors had appealed against a tougher sentence than sought in the indictment, said one of his lawyers, Teguh Samudera.
“We don’t want to intervene with the prosecution. They can go ahead,” said another of the lawyers, I Wayan Sudirta. He added that Ahok’s legal team had requested his relocation from prison to city or house confinement.
Ahok, Jakarta’s first Christian and ethnic Chinese governor since the 1960s, was charged with blasphemy in September 2016 after accusing his political opponents of using Qur’anic verses to stop Muslims from voting for him in his bid for re-election as Jakarta’s governor.
A day after he lost the election to his Muslim rival, Anies Rasiyd Baswedan, prosecutors downgraded the blasphemy charges against him to a one-year suspended jail sentence, but on 9 May the court ruled against this and sent him to prison for two years. The verdict caused widespread condemnation, from protests in the streets of Jakarta to responses from the international community.
The court case developed in the background of Ahok’s re-election bid as governor of Jakarta and although religion was also the dominant feature of the election campaign, there was much more going on, writes Marshall:
“Ahok was opposed by the many politicians who benefit from endemic corruption. He was also contrarily portrayed as a tool of the rich, especially the Chinese-Indonesian businessmen who control much of Indonesia’s economy. Other major political players were funding the radicals. The FPI [Islamic Defenders’ Front] can make a lot of noise, but does not have the capability to organize massive demonstrations. Someone else was paying for those thousands of busses to bring in demonstrators from afar, as well as the neatly printed signs and shirts.”
At the start of his trial in December 2016, Ahok said: “Our founding fathers created the nation as a secular republic, based on the concept of ‘unity in diversity’, but they want to force the implementation of Islamic law. How come? So, I’m happy that history chose me for this position. I am not afraid of losing my position for doing what is right.” He added: “We must really have faith in God according to our religion. I have faith in Isa [“Jesus” in Arabic]. And I have faith about where I belong and where I will go when I die – and that’s why I’m not afraid to lose my life. In all I’ve been through, Jesus has always protected me and provided for all my needs.”
The news of Ahok’s appeal withdrawal came a day after the United Nations called on the Indonesian government to free him and to repeal blasphemy laws which they say undermine religious freedom in the Muslim-majority nation.
“We urge the government to overturn Mr Purnama’s sentence on appeal or to extend to him whatever form of clemency may be available under Indonesian law so that he may be released from prison immediately,” UN experts said in a statement.
They added that Ahok’s sentence was “disappointing” as “instead of speaking out against hate speech by the leaders of the protests, the Indonesian authorities appear to have appeased incitement to religious intolerance and discrimination.”
Please pray for our Christian brothers ans sisters in Indonesia.
Mosul (Agenzia Fides) – The widespread statement released on Friday 12 May by three Syriac Bishops (a Syirac-Catholic and two Syriac-Orthodox) in northern Iraq, asking for the creation of a protected area reserved for Christians in the Nineveh Plain to be placed under international protection, to take away Iraqi baptized from sectarian persecution and violence, is causing embarrassment.
The Nineveh Province, scattered by Christian-majority towns and villages, was conquered by the jihadists of the self-proclaimed Islamic State (Daesh) between spring and summer 2014. In those months, tens of thousands of Iraqi Christians fled from their villages in front of the advancing jihadist militia, finding shelter in the autonomous region of Iraqi Kurdistan.
The statement issued last Friday to regional and national authorities and to international organizations was signed by two Archbishops of Mosul – Syriac Catholic Boutros Moshe and Syriac Orthodox Mar Nicodemus Daud Matti Sharaf – and by Mar Timotheos Musa al Shamany, Syriac Orthodox Archbishop of Bartellah. The three Archbishops ask to transform the Nineveh Plain into an autonomous area under UN international protection to take it away from conflicts and safeguard the rights of Christian communities that have their traditional roots in those lands. The statement also claimed the right of administrative autonomy for Christian communities in the Nineveh Plain.
On Saturday, May 13, the Chaldean Patriarchate issued an official statement to underline that the statement released the previous day does not reflect the position of the Chaldean Church, and does not represent it. The Patriarchate’s statement refers to a recent statement by Patriarch Louis Raphael Sako. In that text, as reported by Agenzia Fides (see Fides 6/5/2017), the Primate of the Chaldean Church underlined that in this critical stage the priority for so many displaced Iraqi Christian is to try to return to their home towns. This implies the urgent need to rebuild the destroyed infrastructure, also taking advantage of international aid. But only after the return of stability in the Country, processes to require the creation of new autonomous administrative units can be initiated, such as instruments to protect the rights and continuity of minority ethnic-religious groups”. (GV) (Agenzia Fides 15/5/2017)
India (Morning Star News) – A pastor in eastern India’s Bihar state has lost his hearing after Hindu extremists assaulted him outside his home on church premises last month, sources said.
Doctors at a Hajipur government hospital determined the loss of hearing and wounds on Pastor Sikandar Kumar’s body were a result of being beaten with iron rods and sticks, Vaishali District Superintendent of Police Rakesh Kumar told Morning Star News.
Pastor Kumar, 45, was at his home in Jadhua village when a young boy riding a bicycle knocked on his door on April 5, church officials said. The boy told the pastor and his wife that a group of men were waiting outside to meet him, according to pastor Arun Kumar, who is now leading the victim’s Pentecostal congregation.
“When the pastor stepped out, 15 men started beating him and accused him of conversions in the village,” Arun Kumar told Morning Star News.
“They badgered his head with iron swords and sticks. Pastor Sikandar fell down unconscious; he had a deep injury on his head. He was bleeding severely.”
The assailants were shouting, “Jai Sri Ram, Jai Sri Ram (Hail Lord Ram),” he said, adding that they left the church compound apparently assuming Pastor Kumar was dead.
Police suspect the attackers were Ram Bhakts, devotees of Ram, who carried out processions in the district that day as part of a Hindu spring festival known as Rama Navami.
“Since there are no eyewitnesses, we detained five suspects based on Pastor Sikandar’s complaint,” the Vaishali District superintendent told Morning Star News. “We detained five suspects, but the victim, Pastor Sikandar, couldn’t identify them. So we released them.”
Pastor Kumar’s injuries were deep, he said, adding, “It was clear that the attack was brutal. The investigation is on.”
Arun Kumar said he and others found the pastor bleeding in the church compound.
“The assailants even snatched away his mobile and have been answering calls from media and believers for weeks now,” Arun Kumar said. “I asked the police to trace it.”
While he has not faced any direct opposition since taking over pastoral duties at the church, Arun Kumar said he has received threatening phone calls.
“More than 100 families attend the church,” he said. “The police have provided us security for the Sunday worship.”
Prior to the attack on him, Pastor Kumar had complained to police after he and other church members were attacked by Hindu extremists on Feb. 10, Arun Kumar said.
“He even wrote to the chief minister and other government officials in February,” he said. “He didn’t receive any great response.”
Doctors in Hajipur referred Pastor Kumar to Patna Medical College for further treatment. He has returned to his native village in Bihar state with his wife and children; from there he travels to a private neurological center in Patna, the state capital, for treatment.
A Christian who fell into a coma on Jan. 21 after suffering a brain hemorrhage due to hypertension after badgering by Hindu extremists has been discharged from the hospital, according to his wife, Kusuma Sujata.
K.A. Swamy, a 47-year-old professor, was insulted and threatened by Hindu extremists for distributing Bibles in Hyderabad, capital of Telangana state, before they took him to police who interrogated him the rest of the day.
“Swamy is scheduled for another surgery, and whatever he has been able to recover so far may come down or improve,” Sujata told Morning Star News. “It might become a burden, since we’re running on meager finances.”
India ranked 15th on Open Doors’ 2017 World Watch List of the 50 countries where it is most difficult to be a Christian.
An Indonesian court has found Jakarta’s Christian governor Basuki Tjahaja Purnama (Ahok) guilty of blasphemy and sentenced him to two years in prison, in a trial that is widely seen as a test of religious tolerance and pluralism in the world’s largest Muslim-majority nation.
Following the verdict, the five-judge panel ordered Ahok’s immediate arrest. Ahok has said he will appeal.
A Christian with ethnic Chinese roots, Ahok is a double minority, and the case against him has sparked uproar in Indonesia.
Thousands of police have been deployed in the capital in case clashes break out between Ahok supporters and opponents who have demanded he be sacked and jailed. read more
Pray for Indonesia!
Ahead of Ahok’s trial on Tueday (happening now), police began enforcing maximum security efforts on Monday
– An Indonesian court is expected to decide on Tuesday whether Jakarta’s Christian governor is guilty of blasphemy against Islam, in a trial that is widely seen as a test of religious tolerance in the world’s largest Muslim-majority nation.
The government has been criticized for not doing enough to protect religious minorities but President Joko Widodo, a key ally of Jakarta Governor Basuki Tjahaja Purnama (Ahok), has urged restraint over the trial and called for all sides to respect the legal process.
Officials said thousands of police will be deployed in the capital in case clashes break out between Purnama’s supporters and hardline Islamists who have demanded he be sacked and jailed over allegations he insulted the Islamic holy book, the Koran.
“Both groups will have the opportunity to demonstrate, but we are taking steps to prevent clashes,” said national police spokesman Setyo Wasisto.
Purnama lost his bid for re-election in an April run-off – by far the most divisive and religiously charged election in recent years – to a Muslim rival, Anies Baswedan. read more
Please pray for this man and Christians in Indonesia.
Supporters sent 10,000 balloons for Ahok ahead of the verdict announcement
(Voice of the Persecuted) Held captive by the Boko Haram for over three years, 82 of the Chibok girls have been freed in a prisoner swap with the Nigerian government. Unofficially, five of the terror groups members were released in exchange for the girls on May 6, 2017.
Originally 275 Chibok girls had been taken from their school in April, 2014. Their plight became internationally known through the Bring Back Our Girls #hashtag campaign, but celebrity and global coverage quickly waned. Sadly, media silence led many to believe the girls had been released. Some did escaped and others set free, but the condition of the remaining 113 is still unknown.
Cardinal John Olorunfemi Onaiyekan, Archbishop of Abuja told Agenzia Fides,
“We thank God that these girls have re-embraced their families, but I wonder why they had to wait three years for this to happen.”
“In all these years, I was among those who insistently asked the government to do everything possible to free the girls. The government replied that it could not negotiate for their release with terrorists, exchanging them with some Boko Haram prisoners. But that is what eventually happened. For their release some Boko Haram leaders were released and an important figure was paid. Why did this not happen before, saving three years of suffering for these girls and their families?”
“Three years of anguish that could be have been avoided – he stresses. Among them is a girl with an amputated leg”.
“If these girls had been the daughters of some powerful leader would they have lost all this time? We also forget that there are still more than 100 girls whose fate we know nothing about. Some of them probably died during fights, illness or childbirth. At least let families know the fate of these poor girls. I invite everyone to pray for their release”, he concluded.
Tens of thousands have been killed by the radical militants. 2.6 million are displaced and thousands of men, women and children have been abducted since the Boko Haram began their deadly campaign in 2009. North Nigeria and the surrounding region is now experiencing a catastrophic humanitarian crisis that’s being called one of the gravest in the world. With the uptick of attacks by the Fulani brings continued fears and anxiety. Let us continue to remember our Nigerian brothers and sisters who are too often overlooked by the global community.
Voice of the Persecuted is on the ground in Nigeria to care for our Christians experiencing brutal persecution. If you would like to show your love and support for those who’ve faced unimaginable persecution, please support our Nigerian mission project, today.
We are committed to being a VOICE for persecuted Nigerian Christians and bring them comfort, relief, and encouragement. We have committed to a long-term mission in Nigeria. When they are able to return home, we will be there to encourage and help rebuild villages and their lives. They will not be forgotten!
We want you to know that even in great hardship, they thank God and feel extremely blessed that He has kept His hand on them. They have been so encouraged and thankful for each one of you who have joined this mission through your prayers and support. Your gifts have brought so many smiles. THANK YOU!
Together with your generous help, we can reach the goal to alleviate horrific suffering. In darkness and desperation, let us serve in love, with open arms and giving hands to provide light and hope.
HELP SAVE THE PERSECUTED
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