A New Year Message from Ray Barnett (founder of Friends In The West and The African Children’s Choir).

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As we begin a new year, our desire is for it to be peaceful and prosperous. We wish people of goodwill from across the world, a Happy New Year. However, our eyes are not closed to the reality that in today’s world things are not as we would like them to be. Yesterday’s post from Release International suggests that persecution of Christians will increase in 2017. There is much work to be done, therefore, even if we just spend our time picking up the pieces from the aftermath of a very violent year in 2016.

If we call ourselves ‘Christian’, then we’re already enlisted as agents of God’s love and peace. We don’t need to wait to be called to get involved in helping the needy and suffering, we have already been called to do that; we just need to pray for guidance with regard to ‘how’ we can best fulfil our calling, and ‘who’ we should partner with to be most effective.

Our organisation, Friends In The West, has a real desire to be part of God’s answer to the suffering in the world in 2017. We think especially of Christians who have been displaced and have lost their possessions and livelihoods. Many have lost family members and loved ones. In recent years, too many innocent people have lost their lives in conflict which was not of their making. Our desire is to come alongside people who have gone through horrendous suffering and now need to rebuild their lives. We can’t make the important decisions for them but we can stand with them in prayer and in practical ways, demonstrating that their God hasn’t forgotten them and still loves them in spite of what they’ve been through.

2017 is going to be a very ‘different’ year for me. My dear wife and companion of more than 50 years, passed into the presence of the Lord on 2nd September 2016, just a few weeks before my eightieth birthday. This has brought about unwanted change, as well as a grieving process which I’m still going through. However, I firmly believe that when we put God and His Kingdom first, all the other things fall into place.

God burdened my heart in the past when I founded Friends In The West and also The African Children’s Choir. I’m experiencing that same sense of calling to expand the work of Friends In The West in 2017 so that we can be instruments to bring God’s love to a world that’s in great need. To fulfil the vision I’m praying that God will send me people who can underpin the work in prayer and also those who are in a position to provide practical support. It would be a great encouragement to know that people share my concern for Christians who are suffering.

I can’t share everything publicly in relation to our vision and plans, but if you’ll drop me an email I can give more information to those who are interested. I’d love to know your story and maybe we can share it on our websites or interview you for a podcast or radio programme. Or if you have a question I’ll try my best to get back with a meaningful answer. I’d also love to send you my book “Where The Brave Dare Not Go”. Just request it and we’ll send a copy free of charge for just the cost of postage and packaging. You can contact me, Ray Barnett, through the contact form on this website or by email at ray@friendsinthewest.com. I look forward to hearing from you and in the meantime – A very happy New year.

Ray

PEOPLE OF SOUTH SUDAN DESERVE “FUNCTIONING, STABLE” STATE: NEW UN ENVOY (PODCAST)

Displaced civilians in South Sudan. UN Photo/Eric Kanalstein

The South Sudanese people deserve a “functioning and stable” state that looks after them and provides for their peace, the new UN envoy for the country has urged.

The Special Representative of the Secretary-General (SRSG) for the country, David Shearer, arrived in the capital city of Juba on Friday.

Ethnically-based killings continue in Africa’s youngest nation following an outbreak of violence last July where hundreds were killed and more than 200 people were raped.

Jocelyne Sambira reports.

The situation in South Sudan remains volatile after clashes erupted between rival forces loyal to President Salva Kiir and his former Vice-President Riek Machar in July last year.

The UN Special Representative of the Secretary-General, David Shearer, succeeds Ms. Ellen Margrethe Løj, who completed her assignment at the end of November 2016, after serving for almost three years.

Mr Shearer said he was arriving with a “fresh and open mind” and would spend time listening to what various stakeholders had to say.

“I am looking forward to the assignment. I know it is going to be challenging. But I feel the South Sudanese people deserve to have a state that is functioning and that looks after them and is stable and provides for their peace and their prosperity. So what we can do to contribute to that, I will certainly be doing my very best to make sure that happens.”

David Shearer, who is also the head of the UN Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS), said he will spend his first few weeks in “listening mode” meeting with the various actors.

Jocelyne Sambira, United Nations.

Duration: 43″

CHINA: TRAUMATISED CHRISTIAN LAWYER AFRAID TO ENTER HIS OWN HOME

In the West we consider our homes a sanctuary, a place that we can retreat to and relax in. The thought that that place is not safe would rarely enter our minds.

For Christian human rights defender Li Chunfu, though, that is not the case.

The Beijing lawyer is said to be ‘emaciated and aged’ after spending more than a year behind bars. He is believed to have been tortured in custody and appears to be suffering significant trauma. When he returned home, his wife said he was afraid to enter their flat.

Li Heping’s wife weeps as she greets her brother-in-law Li Chunfu. (Photo: China Aid)

Li Chunfu has been freed on bail from a Chinese prison – but he has emerged a broken man.

Please ask God to heal Li Chunfu and comfort his wife, as they recover from their ordeal.

Li Chunfu was arrested in August 2015, during a nationwide crackdown on human rights lawyers and church leaders across China. Initially, he was held incommunicado in an unofficial ‘black jail’. His brother, Li Heping, had been seized the month before: Li Heping has since been charged with ‘subverting state power’ and remains in jail.

Since his release a week ago, Li Chunfu has told his wife he was subjected to medical checks almost daily in prison and given unknown medication, which he now fears may put his life at risk. Li has worked alongside Beijing lawyer and fellow Christian Zhang Kai who was detained during the same crackdown – but released last March.

Pray that our all-powerful God will comfort, heal and restore Li Chunfu, in mind, body and spirit. Thank God that the same Holy Spirit that brought Christ back to life is at work in Li’s body (Romans 8:11).

Pray for courage, patience and grace for Li’s wife as she waits on God to heal her husband. Pray too for Li’s sister-in-law Wang Qiaoling, who will inevitably be concerned for her husband as she sees the impact of imprisonment on Li Chunfu.

Pray for the swift release of Li Heping and all the other church leaders, lawyers and rights defenders arrested as part of the 2015 crackdown.

(Source: China Aid)

UPDATE
Please pray for Pastor Hassan Abduraheem, Petr Jašek and Mr Abdulmonem Abdumawla in Sudan: they are due back in court on Monday when the judge is expected to give his verdict. The men face serious charges, including spying, which could carry a death sentence.

We’re sad to report that our Chinese brother, Pastor Gu ‘Joseph’ Yuese from Zhejiang, has been re-arrested and reportedly charged with misappropriation of funds. The former leader of China’s largest state-sanctioned church has been under ‘residential surveillance’ since April; he was held for two months last year on suspicion of ‘embezzlement’. Please pray that all charges will be dropped.

(Source: Christian Solidarity Worldwide)

Expelled Mexican Christians forced to live in wine cellar

Following their eviction on 26 January 2016, the seven families have been surviving in various temporary shelters provided for them by the state government. World Watch Monitor

A year after seven Christian families were forced from their homes in a village in the western Mexican state of Jalisco, the 30 Christians are currently being housed in a wine cellar.
Following their eviction on 26 January 2016, based on the results of a popular vote in which almost 2,000 residents elected to evict them for religious reasons, they have been surviving in various temporary shelters provided for them by the state government. The wine cellar is the latest one, but offers extremely limited space for 30 people to cook, eat and sleep.

Rosa Blanca Vázquez de la Rosa has vivid memories of the night she and her two children (a nine-year-old girl and a three-year-old boy) were taken out of their house and expelled from Tuxpan de Bolaños.

“They put us in the vans and abandoned us right there outside the village, at Las Banderitas crossing, with nothing at all but the clothes we had on when they came,” she says.

Her husband, Victor de la Cruz González, wasn’t at home when the indigenous chiefs came to his house and took his family away.

“He was out working,” de la Rosa recalls. “He works at the school as a primary teacher. He’s still there, he comes to see us when he has money… I just want us to be together again.

She has gone back to her village once, but had to leave almost immediately.

“They threw stones at the house where we were sleeping. They left holes in the door and the roof,” she says.

“The big question is whether this vote was legal. The federal constitution guarantees freedom of religion and human rights – you can’t just force someone out of his home, for whatever reason, including religious reasons.”

–Dennis Petri, Open Doors

So far, the municipal and state authorities have failed to address the issue that led to the expulsion of these families from their communities in the first place. They had faced the threat of eviction for several years. In 2008, the Baptist Convention of Guadalajara, the state capital, with help from the US Baptist Convention, fought successfully for the families’ legal right to remain in the village. But the village council later ruled that they must leave.

Several meetings have been organised in Guadalajara, but local authorities have never attended. They claimed that 1,963 members of the community voted for the Christians’ displacement.

Christian charity Open Doors’ Latin America analyst Dennis Petri said this happened for “religious reasons”.

“It was because they are Christians, which the indigenous chiefs deemed incompatible with their culture and religious traditions,” he said.

“The big question is whether [this vote was] legal. The indigenous chiefs claim it was, since they have the authority, as protected by the federal constitution, to govern based on their indigenous uses and customs. At the same time, the federal constitution also guarantees freedom of religion and human rights – you can’t just force someone out of his home, for whatever reason, including religious reasons. This is what is at stake here: a conflict between contradictory rights that need to be balanced.

“The state government does not know what to do because if it rules that the group must return to their homes, they violate indigenous autonomy, but if they don’t, they violate human rights and religious freedom. For this reason their strategy is just to wait, trying to gain time, and probably hoping the group may lose hope and just move on to somewhere else.”

Some of the families are fearful of returning home anyway and wish to be relocated.

Open Doors has suggested the town of Colotlán – around two hours from Bolaños – as an option, but the families may lose their economic subsidies were they to move there.

“Because the group lives in a shelter provided for by the state government, they receive economic subsidies,” Petri explained. “The subsidy, which is really a very small amount, is a compensation for the loss of income caused by their displacement.

“If the group would decide to move to somewhere else without the consent of the state government, they would lose their subsidies because that would mean they renounce the state’s support. Formally, the provided shelter and subsidies are temporary, while the state tries to work out a solution.”

Priest found dead

The funeral mass for Father Joaquín Hernández Sifuentes took place at Saltillo Cathedral yesterday (16 Jan). Diócesis de Saltillo | Twitter

Meanwhile, a Mexican priest has been found dead in the central state of Coahuila. Father Joaquín Hernández Sifuentes, 42, had been missing since 3 January. On 12 January, the Diocese of Saltillo released a statement announcing that his body had been found.
“We confirm with profound sadness that our brother Joaquín Hernández Sifuentes, a diocesan priest for whom we tirelessly searched, with the great hope of finding him alive, has gone on to the house of the eternal Father. This afternoon the authorities reported he was found dead,” read a statement.

“In Joaquín, they have also taken from us a brother and a son. Rest in peace, Father Joaquín Hernández Sifuentes.”

Catholic news agency Fides reported that two suspects have been arrested in connection with the murder.

The funeral mass took place yesterday (16 Jan) at Saltillo Cathedral.

“Drug trafficking has led to increased murder and kidnapping in Mexico, with priests not unaffected,” reports the Catholic News Agency, which says 16 priests have been murdered in the past four years.

Violence related to organised crime is “perhaps the most significant threat to Latin America’s Christians”, according to Open Doors’ Petri. This is seen most clearly in Mexico and Colombia, which both feature in Open Doors’ 2017 World Watch List of the 50 countries in which it is most difficult to live as a Christian. Mexico is no. 41, Colombia no. 50.

Source: World Watch Monitor

Iraqi Christian: ‘IS made me spit on a Cross and convert to Islam’

Zarefa was forced to convert to Islam and spit on a Cross. World Watch Monitor

One of the major themes explored in Martin Scorsese’s film, Silence, is the question of how to respond when faced with a choice between denying one’s faith or facing death.

Christians in 17th century Japan were given this choice, and it’s the same for Christians in many parts of the world today.

Throughout the film, the audience is shown Christians being told to step on – or, in one case, spit on – an image of Jesus or Mary. Some do; others can’t.

This same choice was given to Zarefa, an elderly Iraqi Christian woman, when the Islamic State captured her town in 2014. During a raid on the house where she was staying, IS fighters found a few crucifixes and other Christian images – strictly illegal under IS rule.

“They forced me to spit on the Cross,” Zarefa recalls. “I told them that it was not appropriate, that it was a sin. He said that I must spit. ‘Don’t you see that I have a gun?’ he asked me. I said to myself, ‘Oh, the Cross! I am weak, I will spit on you. But Lord, I ask you to take revenge for me. I cannot escape from this.’”

I said to myself, ‘Oh, the Cross! I am weak, I will spit on you. But Lord, I ask you to take revenge for me. I cannot escape from this.’

The shame is still visible on Zarefa’s face when she recounts the memory; her town, Qaraqosh, is liberated now, but she is still recovering from the traumatic two years that are only just behind her.

Zarefa’s husband died shortly after Qaraqosh was captured. She remembers the warning signs in the days beforehand, when a group of teenagers on motorbikes chastised her for speaking in Syriac – a language closely related to the Aramaic that Jesus spoke.

“Speak our language!” they shouted, in Arabic, the language of Islam.

By that time, many families had already left Qaraqosh, after IS had overpowered and completely overrun the Iraqi army, leaving the Christians unprotected.

For Zarefa, running was no option. Her husband was dying and she had no enemies in the town; she thought the two of them would be left in peace.

Zarefa was one of the few Christians who decided to stay in Qaraqosh. World Watch Monitor

But Zarefa soon found out there is no such thing as living in peace under IS rule.

She shared how, soon after IS came, her husband passed away, leaving her a widow and more vulnerable than ever.

She moved in with neighbours, but IS fighters repeatedly harassed them and robbed all of the valuables they could get their hands on. And not just valuables.

“One day, the man whose house I was a guest in never came home. Some people said he was killed and buried in an open area. Others said that he fell in a hole. Another one said that only God knows what happened to him. The fact is that we have not seen him since,” Zarefa recalls.

From then on it was just the two elderly, single women left. As soon as IS found out about them, they told the women to move to nearby Mosul.

“We told them that we don’t want to leave; that we belong here,” Zarefa says. “That this is our home; we want to stay here. But they made us leave against our will. In the night, they took us from our house, they put bags over our heads and asked us if we had converted to Islam.”

Frightened, Zarefa says she “quickly told them that I had”.

A few hours later, when their hoods were lifted, the two women found themselves in an IS women’s prison full of mostly divorced women. (In the eyes of IS, it’s a crime for a woman to divorce.)

After a few days, Zarefa and her friend managed to return to Qaraqosh as “Muslim” women, but when they arrived, they found three IS soldiers waiting to question them.

Zarefa said she begged IS not to make her convert to Islam. World Watch Monitor

“They requested that we openly profess adherence to Islam,” Zarefa says. “I begged them and asked them why we must do such a thing. ‘We will not add anything to your case by converting to Islam,’ we told them. ‘Let us choose our own way and religion.’”

The leader of the group got angry, drew a gun, pointed it at Zarefa’s heart, and threatened to kill her if she didn’t convert to Islam.

“What would you do if you were in our position?” she asks. “He said something, asked us to repeat it, and then asked if we were Muslims. ‘Yes,’ we said. ‘Yes, we are.’ And then they left.”

But that was not enough; the harassment continued.

Zarefa says different IS fighters continually came to their home and demanded money and valuables at gunpoint. When they had taken nearly everything and she was left almost bankrupt, she hid her last savings – the equivalent of 250 dollars – in her bra.

But even that was discovered.

“They forced me to take it off, and then they took my money,” Zarefa recalls, embarrassed by the memory. “Then that man pushed me down on the couch, put his gun on my chest, and threatened me because he was convinced there was more to rob. He shouted at me: ‘We will be cruel to you until you obey.’”

Christians ‘eager’ to return home

Today, 18 January, the Iraqi army has announced that it has recaptured “vast swathes” of Mosul east of the Tigris River, which runs through the city. The army says it’s now preparing to fight to retake the area of Mosul west of the Tigris.

Despite ordeals such as Zarefa’s, Iraqi Christians who fled outlying towns like Qaraqosh (east of Mosul) when IS came in 2014 are “eager” to return home, according to one young Christian in Karamles.

“We are eager to return to our liberated areas,” Valentine told Al-Monitor.

Fr. Thabet Habib, who pastors a church in the town, added: “The time has come for Christians to return to the liberated areas in Nineveh Valley, now that the military operations have ended.” Though he admitted the return will be “gradual”.

World Watch Monitor reported in December that the conflict with IS had left thousands of homes uninhabitable.

The devastation in Karamles has created a ‘mounting feeling of hopelessness’, according to Fr. Habib. World Watch Monitor

“It seems they wanted to make sure nothing of value would remain,” Fr. Habib told World Watch Monitor. “The effect is a mounting feeling of hopelessness among the Christians when they discover the damage. They will really need time to recover from this news, to adjust to the new perspective of living in displacement longer than they might have expected.”

Fr. Habib said as much as 80% of the infrastructure in the Hamdaniya district, where Karamles is located, had been destroyed.

But one resident, Sara Bahnam, told Al-Monitor she is desperate to return home.

“We are sick and tired of being displaced and paying rent in recent years. I will be the first to return to Hamdaniya and to my house, whatever the obstacles,” she said.

Meanwhile, a US bishop has said that the Syriac Catholic Archbishop of Mosul told him he is against the construction of a “safe corridor” for religious minorities in Iraq.

Bishop Oscar Cantu told the Catholic News Service that Archbishop Yohanna Moshe told him: “We don’t want to live in a ghetto. That is counterproductive. That makes us a target for our enemies. We have to live in a secure but integrated community where Chaldean Catholics, Syriac Catholics, Sunni Muslims, etc., have relationships with each other.

“We need an integrated reality, rather than a ‘Gaza’ where there’s a wall and someone is guarding people going in and out.”

Source: World Watch Monitor

Nigeria air strike error kills dozens in refugee camp

More than 100 people are said to have been injured

A Nigerian military jet has mistakenly bombed a camp for displaced people in the north-east, killing at least 52 people and injuring many more.

Aid workers are among the dead in Rann, with the Red Cross saying six of its employees were killed.

The MSF aid agency said that over 200 people had been injured and appealed for help with medical evacuations.

President Muhammadu Buhari, whose army is fighting Boko Haram militants, expressed dismay and urged calm.

The attack took place near the border with Cameroon, where the military is engaged in what it calls its final push against Boko Haram.

It is thought to be the first time Nigeria’s military has admitted to making such a mistake.

Red Cross spokeswoman Aleksandra Matijevic said that along with the staff killed, more than a dozen of the group’s volunteers, who arrived on Tuesday to deliver food to the thousands of displaced people, were wounded.

“Our thoughts are now with the families of our colleagues who have lost their loved ones,” Ms Matijevic said, adding that the Red Cross would continue bringing humanitarian aid to those affected by the conflict.

MSF told the BBC that its organisation also had medical teams working in the Rann camp when the bombs struck.

“More than 50 people have been killed,” said Hugues Robert, head of MSF’s emergency response.

“Our team was there and counted the bodies, and more than 200 people have been wounded following these two different blasts from aerial bombardment,” he said.

MSF released photos of the aftermath of the air strike

MSF said it had teams in Cameroon and Chad ready to treat wounded patients.

Many of the casualties, it said, were believed to be displaced people who had fled from areas where Boko Haram had carried out attacks.

‘All in pain’

Gen Rabe Abubakar, a spokesman for the Nigerian military, said that some “remnants” of Boko Haram had been detected outside Rann and the military had acted to eliminate them.

After the military realised its mistake, they were “all in pain”, he said.

“However, in a military operation such as this, from time to time these things do occur,” he added.

“Even though it was highly regretful, it was never intended.”

Gen Lucky Irabor, who commands counter-insurgency operations in the north-east, said there would be an investigation.

A spokesman for the Nigerian president said the administration would offer help to the government of Borno state “in attending to this regrettable operational mistake”.

It is the first time an incident of this type has happened in north-east Nigeria

Boko Haram has caused havoc in Africa’s most populous country through a wave of bombings, assassinations and abductions.

It is fighting to overthrow the government and create an Islamic state.

The group has stepped up attacks in the past few weeks as the end of the rainy season enabled its fighters to move more easily in the bush.

Last month, the UN launched a $1bn (£800m) appeal for those facing hunger and starvation in the region.

It said nearly 5.1 million people in three north-eastern states were expected to face serious food shortages as for a third year in a row farmers had been unable to plant, fearing unexploded improvised devices left behind by militants.

Urgent aid was needed for some 100,000 people, mostly children, at risk of dying of starvation.

Source: BBC News

Founder of the African Children's Choir, Music For Life and Friends In The West.