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CUBA UPDATE

DSCF0022Called the “Cuban Thaw,” agreements between President Obama and Cuban President Raul Castro has led to a “warming” of US/Cuba relations.  While this may seem good for the Cuban people, it’s only after years of persecution and restrictions on the church in Cuba. During the Revolution, many churches and their properties were seized and taken over by the government.  I spent three days visiting the  Methodist seminary in Havana last year. See my blog posts “Reflections from Cuba Part 1 and Part 2. That seminary, started in 1920, was seized during the Revolution, and finally given back to the church in 2004 in a dilapidated condition, and has been undergoing reconstruction to get it functioning again as an institute of higher Christian education.
EPC Pastor Tom Masterson (Hope EPC, San Antonio), who visits Cuba on a regular basis, is sensitive to the attack of the Cuban government on the church in Cuba, and knows the “warming” is for pure political posturing and ignores many past offenses. Tom doesn’t pull punches, “The normalizing of US relations with the Castro regime is a heinous insult to the millions of Christians who have been persecuted by these criminals over the past 6 decades.  We need to adopt a policy that will hold evil accountable, not ignore offenses and reward hatred.”
DSC02924Despite the persecution and oppression the church did manage to grow during these dark years of Communism.  Then as the Cuban government was forced to back off from its previous tactics because it no longer had the financial backing of the Soviet Union, the church began to explode with growth.   The Cuban constitution was changed in 1992 to prohibit any discrimination against Christians. With the lifting of some of the more harsh restrictions, we have seen some unparalleled growth in evangelical churches in Cuba. Tom Masterson wrote, “The growth of the Cuban church in recent decades is explosive!  The miracle is that evangelical churches actually doubled in size during the 30 years of active persecution.  They have more than doubled again since 1992.  It would be hard to find a place in the world where the church is growing faster than it is in Cuba.”
In their April, 2015 newsletter Overseas Council (OC), who has an active ministry in multiple seminaries in Cuba, cited three statements from an Operations World report: the church has multiplied at impressive rates since the 1990’s; Cuba’s challenging environment has refined the church; and church leadership remains an urgent need.
OC goes on to state, “as the government tried to stifle Christian growth by making it nearly impossible to build new churches, the resulting house church movement has proved even more fruitful.” OC also reports that many church leaders fled the country or were expelled following the Revolution and the church is in great need of rebuilding leadership.
Seminaries and seminary students are now playing a great part in church planting and church expansion in Cuba.  In many of the seminaries, students are becoming home church pastors even before they graduate. When they do graduate, they are shepherding churches, planting new churches and training protégé pastors.  OC reported that, “The Methodist denomination has experienced renewal. Its 125 congregations meet in church buildings built before the revolution, but since building permits for new churches are not obtainable, congregations start in homes, now numbering 300. Add in 800 smaller home meetings (less than 25 in size), and you’ll see how the Church has grown by 10% annually in 10 years.”DSCF0077
IMG_4349It’s not just the Methodists that are making strides. When I was in Cuba, I also visited the reformed campus of New Pines Evangelical Seminary in Placetas which has had similar success in its graduating students’ planting churches and growing the Cuban evangelical church. Founded in 1924 the school was also ravished during the Revolution by having school property seized. But since 1992, the school has regained some of the lost property. A new property purchased has given room for a farm to produce the school’s need for food, making it more self-sustaining. With over 800 graduates, the seminary has planted several other seminaries in Cuba.  I was able to spend a day and night at one of these seminaries in Matanzas and had the privilege of meeting some great people at their home on Sunday morning. Planted and run by K and E (names withheld for security), both graduates of New Pines, this couple has great plans. They have purchased a large section of land in the center of town where they have started to build a new and much larger home that will accommodate a number of guests.

 
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Posted by on July 16, 2015 in Travels, World Christianity

 

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A Story From Iran

Every now and then I read and hear a story that really requires no introduction or set-up but just a strong recommendation to follow a link and see for yourself. This is one of those stories from the Overseas Council website. It was just posted a few days ago so it is time relevant and very moving.

A STORY OF TRUE COURAGE

Elam-LadanThe story is about Ladan, a courageous young woman that is Iranian born; raised in a Muslim family; called to Christ; and fearing arrest, left her homeland and fled to Turkey.

“It was there in Turkey that I felt the burden; a great a burden to go and tell people about Jesus. I was tasting the love of Jesus more, and also knowing Him more.”

To Ladan, to be Christian meant to take the Word seriously and return to her native country to share the Gospel with her countrymen.  She knew she would face persecution, possibly prison and maybe even death.  But nevertheless, she felt the call of God to share the Good News with lost people.

“Even with all my fears and worry, I felt I had to return to Iran, and give this message to my people.”

To learn about Ladan and hear her testimony in her own words in a 9 minute video, I highly encourage you to go to http://overseas.org/ladan-courageously-endures-prison-for-sharing-the-bible/You’ll be moved by her story as she truly reflects the words of Jesus in Luke 21:12-16.

But before all this, they will lay hands on you and persecute you. They will deliver you to synagogues and prisons, and you will be brought before kings and governors, and all on account of my name. This will result in your being witnesses to them.  But make up your mind not to worry beforehand how you will defend yourselves. For I will give you words and wisdom that none of your adversaries will be able to resist or contradict. You will be betrayed even by parents, brothers, relatives and friends, and they will put some of you to death.

THE HISTORICAL CHURCH IN IRAN

Iran is on the news much these days concerning nuclear power, economic sanctions, aggressive behavior and a host of stories of terrorism. We hear little about the Christians there despite the fact that Christians have occupied the area for centuries. According to Acts 2:9 there were Persians, Parthians and Medes among the gathering at Pentecost and heard the Apostles in their own language.  Many old churches remain in Iran from the early days of Christianity. The Church of St. Mary in northwestern Iran for example, is considered by some historians to be the second oldest church in Christendom after the Church of Bethlehem in the West Bank.
Today, only about 2% of the population is non-Muslim, and Christians are among the least minority. But the good news is that Christianity is reported to be the fastest growing religion in Iran. In 1976, the Christian population numbered 168,593 people, mostly Armenians. Due to the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s and the dissolution of the Soviet Union in the 1990s, almost half of the Armenians migrated to the newly independent Republic of Armenia and Christian numbers decreased. However, the opposite trend has occurred since 2000, and the number of Christians with Iranian citizenship increased to 109,415 in 2006.*

*Some fact and figures obtained from wikipedia.org

 
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Posted by on March 19, 2014 in World Christianity

 

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The Middle East: An Enigma of Persecution and Hope for the Christian Church

Reading this weekend from an article in Fox News Online (February 11, 2014 – FoxNews.com) Christian persecution in the Middle East continues. As Fox reported…

“In a rare appearance on Capitol Hill by a Vatican representative, Archbishop Francis Chullikatt testified before a House subcommittee on the ‘flagrant and widespread persecution’ of Christians in the Middle East. ‘No Christian is exempt, whether or not he or she is Arab,’ Chullikatt said.
Chullikatt was among seven speakers discussing the escalation of threats to Christians. Specifically, testimony focused on underreported assaults, the plight of impacted Christian communities and the need to protect religious freedoms and civil rights.
‘Arab Christians, a small but significant community, find themselves the target of constant harassment for no reason other than their religious faith,’ Chullikatt said.”

Such persecution is not a surprise or unexpected. Considering that as Christian we are told to expect persecution, hearing about it in a country that tends to hate Christians brings no wonder that they are facing oppression, torture and even death every day for their testimony of Christ.
The Fox report goes on to say,

“In Syria alone, there have been reports of kidnappings, Christian communities intentionally displaced by militants, as well as shootings and beheadings of Christians who refused to convert to Islam, according to various news reports from the region.
One of the most graphic illustrations of ongoing brutality confronting Arab Christians is the practice of bombings of Christian houses, churches and other places of worship on Christmas Eve, Chullikatt said.”

In my blog from August 19, 2013, “Troubles in Egypt“, I related a story about the challenges the Christian church in Egypt was facing. While that under-reported persecution still goes on, the church is seeing some hope in their situation as the country is undergoing a change of leadership that I pray will be for the betterment of the church. Despite the horrific stories we do hear and read of the Middle East, my friends at SAT-7* shared dual stories of tragedy and hope in their newsletter of January, 2014. Their title line was, “Iraq is not lost. Miracles are happening.”
The first part of the story highlighted a story from Baghdad about Pastor Michael (name changed) who is a leading minister in one of hundreds of churches in Baghdad. On a Sunday morning Pastor Michael was driving the church bus through the streets of Baghdad to drop off the church members who needed transportation to and from services. He had just dropped the last of his passengers when a terrorist drove along the side of the bus and detonated a bomb that killed the terrorist, destroyed his car…and the bus.
But God clearly has other plans for Pastor Michael. When the smoke cleared, Pastor Michael sat in his bus seat surrounded by twisted metal, fire and a completely totaled bus…alive and only with a few minor cuts. Pastor Michael said, “I couldn’t believe it. The bus was in shambles, totally destroyed and burning. But I was okay. It was clearly a miracle. God must have something more for me to do.”
The second part of the SAT-7 newsletter relates the opposite of such terror with words of hope. They reported about one of their producers, Chris (not his real name), who was in Baghdad interviewing Christian pastors and believers. Pastor Michael was one of his interviews. Chris reported that all the pastors he spoke with were enthusiastic about SAT-7 and admitted that the channel was watched by many Christians as well as non-Christians in the region. Chris related that many of his interviewees were joyful and even willing to be identified as Christian on television in Iraq. The newsletter went on to relate one experience of Chris and his crew that was a tense moment on the streets of Baghdad.

“They were driving through a restricted area when they were stopped by the police. On learning they were a television crew, officers ordered them to halt their work. When the crew informed the police that they were representing churches and were with SAT-7, the officers’ attitudes changed. They brought over their commanding officer, who then spoke well of SAT-7, saying that the police greatly respected the channel and the Christians. Chris asked if they could pray for the officers. The police agreed. The crew laid hands on them and asked for God’s protection. They then gave the officers booklets about Christ and wished them well. It surely made a great impression.”

It appears that the police might have had a bit of distrust for reporters and news people but upon learning that this crew was part of SAT-7, the police not only became friendly but also opened up their hearts to receive prayer and hear about Christ. God is at work in the Middle East. Perhaps we won’t ever read about His work from the secular news, but the stories of Michael and Chris insures us that the truth is going out in Iraq. Despite the ever prevalent stories of political doom and gloom from the secular press, the church in the Middle East survives. The SAT-7 newsletter included a few more words of hope…

“Everywhere Chris went, nearly every person they spoke with knew about SAT-7, saying it was respected, that they watched to receive hope for tomorrow, that Christians were truly different. They saw a number of restaurants and shops where televisions were continually tuned to SAT-7!”

Although it is hard to get exact determination of the number of Christians in the Middle East, recent data suggests that the overall Christian population is in decline. The pastor of an Anglican church in Baghdad, Rev. Andrew White, stated that Iraq’s Christian population had shrunk from 1.5 million to just 200,000 within the last decade. He indicated this trend could be witnessed across the Middle East. That being said, eye-witness accounts know that there is resurgence in new Christian believers, although very much a slow process. Dr. David Baer, president of Overseas Council illustrated it as a faucet drip: “The flow of new converts has gone from none to an occasional drip..…drip…..drip; to a more frequent drip, drip, drip; to a slow but steady sliver of a stream.” I believe the church is not only surviving but is seeing a quiet and slow restoration. God is at work in the Middle East!
With the efforts of SAT-7 to broadcast the truth of the Gospel throughout the Middle East, a steady advance of the Christian church is seen. With the efforts of Overseas Council the need of Christian education and maturity of believers is being addressed. Together, SAT-7, Overseas Council and MEATE (Middle East Association for Theological Education) are having a tremendous bearing on the church throughout the Middle East with a partnership called TEACH. They use multimedia technology to create highly accessible Christian education that will encourage and equip Christians in the region, where access to solid theological resources in the local context is most times very limited and often inaccessible. The momentum is right and the time is right for this program to impact the lives of those new to the faith.
TEACH includes broadcast programs that can be viewed from the privacy of the individual’s home, in addition to courses available online in which believers can earn a certificate or degree. The online courses are monitored by mentors who administer tests and lead group discussions. The curriculum, written in Arabic by Arab scholars for an Arab audience, features 32 courses arranged in five categories: Christian Life, Leadership and Ministry Skills, Society, Bible and Church.
For more information and a video about TEACH click HERE. If you want to be a part of making a difference in the Middle East and be part of changing stories of tragedy to stories of hope, you can help support the Middle East Christian church by giving a gift to give the Christians there the knowledge they need to take the Middle East church into the next generation.

*A NOTE ABOUT SAT-7 (From their website): Since the first program aired in 1996, SAT-7 broadcasts have brought quality Christian television programming directly into millions of homes throughout the Middle East and North Africa (MENA). SAT-7 airs 5 channels in Arabic, Farsi, and Turkish languages to a known audience of over 15 million viewers! In a region characterized by high illiteracy rates, media censorship, and limited incomes, anyone with a satellite dish can turn on SAT-7 and hear the Word of God in his or her language.

 
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Posted by on February 19, 2014 in Mission, World Christianity

 

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