Islam in central Asia

In 1991 when the USSR collapsed there was barely a hint of Islam in public life in the central Asian republics.  That was due, of course, to the seventy years of communist rule in which all religion was unlawful, barring the recognition of the Russian Orthodox Church, which in many cases was led by a KGB agent posing as a priest.

In the first year following the collapse of the USSR, all five republics declared their independence. This fresh independence brought with it a new constitution, which declared the freedom of religion.  Churches sprang up, reaching out both locally and to neighbouring countries.

By the mid 90’s there was a definite new presence of Islam.  Mosques began to reopen.  We began to hear rumours from local people that Iran was funding an underground Islamic movement throughout central Asia.  Throughout the later 90’s there was growing evidence of the growth of Islam throughout the region.  Islamic universities and seminaries were opened.  Calls to prayer were heard over loud speakers five times a day and men clad in long robes bowed in the streets by the hundreds on their prayer mats.  Those not participating were ridiculed and threatened.  More and more women were veiled and dressed in long robes down to their ankles.  Reports of abuse to women by their Islamic husbands became rampant.

Following 9/11 the United States launched an attack on Afghanistan and people from the north of the country began to flee across the borders into the  central Asian republics.  Most of the people were professing, if not practicing Muslims.  Christians seized the opportunity to begin sharing Jesus with the newly arrived refugees.  Hundreds of people came to know Jesus as a result.

The report of hundreds coming to know Jesus fuelled the hatred of Christians from the Islamic faction.  Throughout the region, as people are known to be Christians, they have difficulty in doing business in their communities, shunned by family and friends, bullied in the work place.   They are denied promotion at work or even fired from jobs.  Their children are ridiculed by classmates and often beaten themselves en route to and from school

In the late 90’s there began to be reports of beatings and people being stoned for their Christian faith.  By 2004 the reports were coming very nearly each month.  By 2007 the reports were weekly.  Today the reports are a daily occurrence.  I still remember vividly the time I met with pastors who had fresh bruises on their faces.  They had been beaten for their faith in Jesus.  In 2006 a pastor was shot for leading others to convert from Islam to Christianity.  In recent years some have been butchered and boiled.  The murder of Christians  is brutal and horrific and goes unpunished.

When I meet with these, our brothers and sisters in Christ, I often say to them that I’m praying for them and that I will share with the western church as I am able, so they too may pray.  They always answer with a request that the prayer be that they ‘stand strong in the face of persecution.’  I am often humbled and daunted that they never ask for prayer for the persecution to stop.  They consider it an honour to be identified with Jesus and also take it as an opportunity to share their faith even with their tormentors.  Ultimately they yearn with joyful longing to share in the glory of Jesus when they will see His face.

How can the western church pray for our persecuted brothers and sisters throughout central Asia?  Their three requests are:

  • pray that they stand strong in the face of their persecution and bring honour to the name of Jesus.
  • pray for those that persecute them to come to know Jesus
  • pray for the western church to know that not only can Jesus meet all their needs – Jesus Himself is all they need and anything else is extra.

This report was prepared by a mission worker with extensive connections in central Asia, who for obvious reasons prefers to stay anonymous.

The Beautiful One

Photo by VinnyPrime from FreeImages

For a number of years, Christians have been amazed at the stories coming out of the Moslem world of people coming to faith in Christ as a result of having seen Jesus in a dream.  They call him ‘The Beautiful One’.  Many of us may have been sceptical at first, but in recent months the number of reports has increased significantly.

Although accurate reports are hard to get hold of, I heard of one church in a central Asian republic where 80% of the believers had come to faith following a dream.  There are stories of Imams having a dream and leading the entire congregation of the Mosque to Christ.  Just visit a well-known video hosting website and key in ‘dreams of Jesus’ and you will see numerous testimonies.  Some reports suggest that Moslems are turning to Christ in greater numbers now than at any time in the 1400 year history of Islam.

Muslims of course are not ignorant of Jesus.  He is one of their great prophets, and it is taught that it will be Jesus who comes back at the end of the age to receive the faithful and inaugurate global Islam.  But they do not expect to find salvation in Jesus.  It should of course be emphasised that receiving a dream about Jesus does not automatically make someone a Christian, or to be more accurate, a Moslem-background believer.  This is only the start of their journey of faith, which may lead them deeper into their Moslem beliefs, as Jesus is revered within their own religious tradition.

Many of the people who receive dreams are not searching for Jesus, and are perfectly content Moslems.  Reports of the dreams make it clear that the dreamers are in no doubt that it is Jesus they are seeing.  They describe him as beautiful, dressed in a white robe and glowing with light.  This figure will be instantly recognisable to Christians familiar with the book of Revelation.  If the Beautiful One talks, he may tell them to follow him, or that their sins are forgiven.  I was given a first-hand report of a mosque in a middle-eastern country where everyone had received a dream.  Yet if you ask them who it was, they will answer ‘The Prophet… or maybe Jesus’, as the risk of openly confessing Jesus is very high.

So why are these visions coming now?  It cannot be a coincidence that in recent years, just as concerted and committed prayer for the countries of the 10/40 window has been coordinated, it has become very hard for outsiders to get into Moslem communities worldwide to preach the gospel openly.  Although many still go undercover, their ability to spread the message is severely restricted.  With the rise of militant Islam, pressure on indigenous believers from Palestine to the Philippines has become heavier.  Church buildings are being burned and believers being martyred.  So the Spirit of God does a new thing, and speaks to Moslems directly when his human followers can’t.  Together with the rise of Christian satellite TV and the internet, the Moslem world has never been so technologically open to the Gospel.  Those who have dreamed of Jesus may find it hard to meet fellow believers, but they can watch TV and surf the net.

How can we help Moslems find Jesus their Saviour?  Above all, prayer.  Prayer opens the way into the darkest places and softens the hardest of hearts.  If you meet a Moslem, you can ask him if he has had a dream of the Beautiful One (don’t say Jesus!) or if he knows of anyone who has.  Gently (remember that persuading someone to change their religion is a crime in many Moslem countries) ask who he thinks it might be.  What does he want to say to the Moslem?  What does he want of him?  Why does he appear now?  Respectful questions will open a channel for the individual to reflect on the dream while not imposing our beliefs on him or disrespecting his traditions.

Please pray:

  • that Jesus will reveal himself to Moslems in all nations, and that they will see him for who he really is;
  • that the faith of Moslem-background believers will be strong despite the persecution they may face;
  • that Christian mission agencies will be effective in spreading and broadcasting the Gospel and following up.

How shall we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land?

In the early 6th century BC, the small, independent kingdom of Judah was crushed by the power of Babylon, a huge global superpower.  The king was executed, the nobles abducted, the temple burned to the ground, and many of the population were forcibly relocated to a new home deep into enemy territory, where they were surrounded by people with different customs, religions and languages.

Psalm 137 (which made a brief but infamous appearance in the British charts in 1978 at the hands of Boney M) is a lamentation about this experience of going into exile.  It refers to pain, a desire to go back, and a lust for revenge.  Their mocking captors had asked them to sing one of their folk songs to entertain them, but this just reminded them of the home that they couldn’t return to.  ‘How can we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land’ becomes a shorthand reference to the challenge of living as an insignificant minority in a hostile culture, where there are multiple religious beliefs, a variety of practices which the faithful may be forced to participate in, and a complete lack of tolerance for their previous national customs.

This is a situation not unlike western Europe today, as Christians struggle to come to terms with the fact that Christendom is no more.  Christianity no longer provides a moral compass even if David Cameron himself claims that Britain is a Christian country.  There are too many competing voices now for that to be completely true.  There are Christian elements to our world, and a huge Christian heritage shaping much of our public practice and principle, but effectively now we are a post-Christian country.  Like the exiled Jews, we need to come to terms with it.

In fact, throughout most of history God’s faithful have been in the minority.  In Genesis, just eight people made it onto the ark, and the Abrahamic covenant was made with just one family among many tribes.  Throughout the rest of the Pentateuch they were just twelve tribes among the Egyptian oppressors, or wandering through the wilderness among hostile neighbours.  Under the judges they were just one nation amongst many.  Under the kings, they were battling with external threats and against internal apostasy.  Ezra, Nehemiah, and Daniel had to deal with the challenge of being subjects of a huge multinational empire and the whole of the New Testament takes place against the backdrop of the oppressive might of Rome.  Subsequently Christianity spread around the world but often had to deal with suffering and persecution at the hands of others – particularly in communist or modern Islamic countries.

For only one significant period of history has there been an exception to this rule: the bizarre 15 or so centuries when Christendom thrived in Europe in an alliance between church and state that ‘christianised’ nations and ‘authorised’ church.  But today Christendom is crumbling.  People of other faiths (and no faith) have a voice.  Christians are losing ours.  We are going into exile and we don’t like it.  Old familiarities are changing, old paradigms are failing.  People stronger than us have taken us into exile.  Now our challenge is to work out how to live alongside others on their terms, not on ours.

Some of the issues that face us include: keeping Sunday special, ethical issues surrounding the beginning and end of life, accommodating other faiths, the possibilities of witness in the workplace, and the church’s attitude to those who sexual and gender preferences are different to those traditionally sanctioned by the church.  When we are not Biblically literate, we struggle to determine our response to these issues.  But we can rely on different precedents to indicate how we might approach these situations, which range from opposition to compliance.

Daniel (Chapter 6) chose to react with open defiance when ordered to pray only to the king.  When Jesus (Mt 22:15-22) was given the opportunity to encourage people to revolt against paying taxes to an illegal occupying force, he chose to focus on our devotion to God.  Paul (1C10:31) would have felt it was ok for Christians to eat halal or kosher meat as long as they felt they could do it with a clean conscience.  Nehemiah (Neh 13:23) clearly thought it was wrong to marry an unbeliever while Paul said that if you’ve already done it, you should not divorce them (1C7:12).

What each of them is doing (in their own context) is determining which issues are worth fighting over, and which we can safely going along with.  Each of us, together in our church contexts, and not in isolation, needs to work this through too.  Sometimes the church fights on the wrong ground, making a stand on things that could comfortably compromised over, or giving way easily over massively significant issues.  Some guidelines to help us extrapolate biblical teaching into contemporary contexts may include asking ourselves the following questions:

Would our compliance contravene the 10 commandments (Exodus 20:1-17), or any other clear scriptural injunction?

Does resistance prevent us keeping the Great Commandment (Matthew 22:32-40)?

Does compromise help us to fulfil the Great Commission (Matthew 28:18-20)?

Often, Christians who make a stand on an issue can easily alienate and offend the very people we hope to reach out to with the love of God.  So we need to be careful in how we express ourselves.  We need to remember that in a post-Christian, multi-cultural world it can be evangelistically counter-productive and morally dubious to force non-believers to comply with our views, even if we believe we are right.

Jeremiah wrote a letter to the Jewish exiles .  He wasn’t popular for it, but it was good advice from God.  He said:

‘Build houses and live in them, and plant gardens and eat their produce… Seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare your will have welfare’.  (Jeremiah 29:5-7)

In other words, get used to it.  Don’t live in a dream world; don’t carry on complaining that this is wrong.  Get over it.  Adapt and thrive.

Harvest – festival?

Early autumn can be a beautiful time in England.  It’s often warm, and the golden sunshine lights the reds, russets and browns of turning leaves.  Fruit ripens, seedheads pop and dewdrops diamond the spiders’ webs.  In a tradition going back millennia before the start of their own religion, Christians take some of the harvest into their places of worship to honour the God who gives them food.  Yet in the midst of the rejoicing, there is hard work organising sheafs of wheat, displays of elaborately plaited bread, and vases of chrysanthemums.  One lady commented cheerfully to me, ‘I’m glad we only have to do this once a year!’

The feast of Passover is in essence a similar event.  Although six months removed from the English harvest, Passover is a celebration of the barley harvest as well as of the Exodus.  Joyful pilgrims went up to Jerusalem from all over ancient Israel to celebrate together.  The third day after Passover is called the Feast of  First Fruits, when they took their tithe of barley to the temple.  One Sunday nearly two thousand years ago, such a band centred on a rabbi from Nazareth.  With his twelve lieutenants, assorted women who funded his work, and possibly dozens of hangers on, he would have found difficulty staying in the crowded city, so they all stayed at the home of some friends in Bethany.

Martha and Mary remind me of Marilla and Anne in the book Anne of Green Gables. I can imagine Martha fussed with the responsibility of catering for so many: ‘Well, Anne, we’ll need to wash all the best crockery, and get some of my pickles out of the larder, and for goodness’ sake let’s have none of your daydreaming today!’  ‘Oh but Marilla, isn’t is SO exciting that Jesus is coming to our home!  I’m so happy that I could die perfectly contented even if the rest of my life were misery and squalor.’

It’s not surprising that Martha got stressed with the catering.  It would be a massive task hosting such a crowd.  Yet Jesus, who presumably ate the supper she cooked, said that Mary, distracted from her responsibilities by the joy of being with Jesus, had made the better choice.  It seems that Jesus is not looking for servants – he already has plenty of those.  Jesus is looking for kindred spirits.

Many of us active in ministry are so busy with the work we do for God, that we often don’t have the time to sit down and be with him.  We run around Martha-ing away, and seldom sit and Mary.  In order to combat the stress and busyness in our lives, we need to make time listen to what Jesus has to say to us.  One friend of mine has it in his job description to spend one whole morning in prayer each week.  We may think that’s a luxury we cannot afford with so much responsibility to carry, but if we asked Jesus whether he’d prefer us to be busy, what do you think he would answer?

The Power of the Timid Prayer

I was struck recently by a video I saw of some Christians in Denmark who roam the streets looking for sick people to pray for.  Their approach was unassuming, they didn’t make a big issue of it, but lots of people were being healed.  There were lots of shots of people throwing away crutches and walking unaided without pain.  There was no prior explanation of who Jesus is, how he saves, how he heals.  They just asked if they could pray.

What struck me most however were their very simple prayers.  They didn’t shout, command healing, rebuke Satan, or use any of the other spectacular techniques that we have come across.  They prayed a simple prayer: Jesus, we thank you that you can heal.  We ask you to heal this person now and take away all the pain.  Thank you.

This of course, is not a new approach.  Jesus told his disciples not to pray like pagans, for they suppose that they will be heard for their many words (Matthew 6:7).  He taught them that God will answer quickly (Luke 18:6-8) because he is a good father who knows how to look after his children (Matthew 7:7-11).  Hudson Taylor remarked that he never forgot that his children needed food to be put on the table for them, and he had no reason to assume that God was any different than him.

Max Lucado observed, in a sermon called The Power of the Timid Prayer, that when Jesus found his disciples unable to cast out a demon, he subsequently taught them that only prayer could cast the demon out  (Mark 9:29).  Yet the only prayer recorded in this passage is the one of the boy’s father – if you can do anything, have pity on us and help us. Did he have great faith?  No, he even asked Jesus to help him believe.  Was he eloquent?  No, his prayer was a pitiful plea.  All he had in his favour was that he had asked the right person.

Have pity, he pleaded.  The underlying Greek word is much stronger than pity or compassion, closer to ‘gutted’ in modern English.  It is used selectively in the Gospels: only of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:33), the father of the lost son (Luke 15:20), and of Jesus on the numerous occasions when he had compassion on the lost, the poor, the sick and oppressed.  It tells us a lot about Jesus.  As the creed says, his nature is always to have mercy.

Effective prayer depends not on our faith or our eloquence, but on the mighty and compassionate God who has pity on us.

Join the Syzygy prayer network to pray for mission workers worldwide, or visit the World Prayer Map for up-to-date prayer information on specific countries.

Join the Syzygy prayer network!

We believe that prayer is the number one need of every mission worker.  A regular feature of St Paul’s letters was a request for prayer that the gospel would spread through his ministry.  If he needed prayer as part of his missionary endeavours, how much more do we!  As J O Fraser observed when he realised that the breakthroughs in his ministry to the Lisu people of China were directly linked to the prayer of his supporters in the UK:

Solid, lasting missionary work is done on our knees.

So we’re committed to praying, and helping others to pray, for our mission partners worldwide.

For this reason, we’ve set up the Syzygy prayer network for mission workers with prayer needs.  If this is you, just email prayerrequests@syzygy.org.uk and your message will be automatically forwarded to everyone who’s in our prayer network.  Please don’t send us your regular prayer letters – just a short paragraph to cover your emergency needs.  Remember that we’ve got no control over what people do with it, so you might need to be discreet in what you say, particularly if you serve in a CAN.

If you’d like to join our prayer network and pray for world mission needs, just email pray@syzygy.org.uk and we’ll add you to the circulation list.  Please don’t forward emails or pin them on noticeboards as there may be security implications for the sender.  You can also find specific prayer needs on our homepage, particularly on the Featured Ministry entries.

For those of you who’d like to pray for particular countries or issues, we recommend the World Prayer Map.  It is updated regularly by a variety of mission partners across the world, and can be accessed by country or by topic.  Click here to access it.

Mission report: Nepal

Mount Everest

Until a few years ago, Nepal was proud of being the world’s only Hindu kingdom.  Now it is neither Hindu nor a kingdom.  The constitutional settlement which deposed King Gyandendra in 2008 also introduced secularism, although approximately 80% of the population is Hindu.  So now Nepal is mostly famous for its altitude, since eight of the world’s ten highest mountains are in this small landlocked country, or on its borders, including of course Mount Everest.  In sharp contrast, in the south of the country the tropical lowlands are a mere 100m above sea level.  The country’s other claim to fame is having the world’s only national flag which is not rectangular.

My recent two-week visit involved a lot of trekking in the foothills amid breathtaking scenery, but also provided some amazing ministry opportunities.  Each day I shared a message on ‘The spiritual significance of topographical features in the Bible’, and with topics like mountains, rivers, trees and rocks there was plenty of opportunity to meditate on these while walking between villages in the Annapurna foothills.  Every now and again I would meet Christians from the city, who had migrated into the hills to find employment in the hostels catering for backpackers, or I would find modest little church buildings by the wayside.  Even in the Himalayas there are believers unashamed of the gospel!  I also had the opportunity to pray with some of them, and to witness to non-Christians I met.  I even did an impromptu Bible study with a man I gave a Nepali New Testament to.  Please pray for him to read it and find Jesus through it.

Back in Kathmandu, Aanandit (= ‘rejoicing’) Church in the suburb of Imadole is one of a group of four planted under the enthusiastic leadership of Milan Adhikari, who spent a year in England training with Ichthus.  I had the privilege of preaching there and of praying for the sick.  It was exciting to find that many churches in Nepal are non-denominational, and while there can be disagreements between them, they tend to focus on what they have in common rather than what divides them.  Truly refreshing!

Christians in Nepal tend not to be seriously persecuted, although they may well be passively victimised by being passed over for promotion.  Nevertheless, in a meeting with the president of the Armed Forces Christian Association I was encouraged to find that they have some 500 members, including a major and a police inspector.  However, a significant cause for concern is the draft text of the new constitution, which will make it an offence to try to convert somebody to your religion.  Not only will this outlaw evangelism, it may affect the activities of Christian organisations which run hospitals or schools, since this may also be interpreted as evangelistic activity.

A Nepali Christian

One such organisation is the International Nepal Fellowship (http://www.inf.org/) which has a variety of projects including the Green Pastures Hospital in Pokhara which I visited.  An impressively efficient establishment, largely run by Nepali people, it was originally founded to treat leprosy patients, but as numbers have dwindled it has evolved into a spinal injuries unit as well.  Ironically, like many such establishments in the current economic climate, it has no difficulty raising large grants to build new facilities but struggles to find the money for the running costs.

I also had the opportunity to visit the highly-respected Dr Mark Zimmerman of the Nick Simons Institute (http://www.nsi.edu.np) and hear about his significant work training health workers in some of the poorest regions of a poor country.  Many of the outlying areas get neglected, and because they are remote and have poor facilities, many healthcare professionals refuse to work there.  The solution is partly to upgrade facilities like schools to make the rural areas more attractive, and partly to train the existing healthcare workers so that they are more multi-skilled.

Please pray:

  • for the Christians in Nepal, that their churches would thrive and take advantage of the current peace that Christians will continue to have the legal freedom to evangelise;
  • that the gospel would spread among the armed forces, and that people at senior levels of government would meet Jesus;
  • that a new generation of church leaders would be bold, zealous and equipped for the task;
  • that funding would continue to be available to Christian charities working in Nepal.

Too busy not to pray?

Source: www.freeimages.com

Source: www.freeimages.com

I’ve recently been reading a biography of Saint Aidan, the founder of the Holy Island monastery and the man who brought Christianity back to Northumbria in the seventh century.  There were many impressive things about this celtic missionary to the pagan Angles, but what struck me most was his commitment to prayer.

He regularly spent hours in prayer, often alone on a small island.  He prayed as he travelled, and of course, as a monk, kept regular times of prayer throughout the day – and the night.  When he was first given the island of Lindisfarne to build the monastery, faced with the task of starting a farm to become self-sufficient in food, building a church, setting up a school and building shelter for the brothers from the bleak north sea weather, Aidan and his team spent 40 days in prayer instead.  They wanted to build on firm foundations.

I wonder if you are so committed to seeking God’s will for your endeavours.  I certainly am not.  When I set up Syzygy six years ago, of course I prayed, often, but not for 40 days.  I doubt that you did when you set out on your ministry.  We’re all too busy.  Yet Aidan realised that he had so much to do, he couldn’t afford not to pray.  Like John Wesley, who apparently spent three hours a day praying, and justified it by saying that he was so busy he couldn’t possibly pray less.  Like Jesus, who regularly withdrew to a lonely place to spend time with his father.  Time he could have spent teaching, or healing the sick.  He obviously thought it was important.

Perhaps our independent spirits lead us to be Marthas rather than Marys.  Of course, if it were left to Mary Jesus would never have got his dinner, but somehow I don’t think he’d have minded that much.  Are we so busy doing stuff for him that we don’t have time to sit and be with him?  Maybe that’s why so many of us are stressed and burnt-out.

I have decided to engage more in prayer, particularly in the workplace.  I pray at my desk before I start work, and  continue in prayer at regular intervals throughout the day.  Well, when I’m not too busy.