Category Archives: Two-thirds world

UKIP: Christians Welcome!

Last year I helped set up Christian Action in UKIP, aka ‘CAUKIP’, an informal group whose aim is both to promote UKIP to the churches across the UK and to promote mainstream Christian ideals within the party.

Ade AmoobaWe held our first fringe meeting at the UKIP party conference last September. It was attended by Steve Woolfe MEP, the party spokesman on migration, and addressed by UK-based Nigerian Pastor Ade Omooba who talked for 30 minutes on “The Moral Argument for Controlling Immigration”.

Interestingly, Pastor Ade quoted the New Testament (1 Corinthians 6: 9,10) to demonstrate that God Himself created immigration controls for the Kingdom of God, and that therefore we are free, responsibly, to control immigration into the United Kingdom.

UKIP listeners loved this application of Christian values to political policy, especially by a Black pastor from a Commonwealth country. Contra our sniffy metropolitan critics, UKIP doesn’t do racism. It was a good meeting.

However, CAUKIP is closely associated with another informal but long-established group in the party, Christian Soldiers – UKIP, and we were concerned last month when a gay UKIP councillor based in Dudley & Halesowen, Shaun Keasey, called publicly for the party to cut all ties with Christian Soldiers. He was supported by UKIP MEP Bill Etheridge and on twitter by the official LGBT in UKIP group.

microwave-2-resizeCllr Keasey’s argument simply reheated cold meat. He focussed on a leaflet promoted by Christian Soldiers at the party’s Spring Conference a year ago as his reason for the ban. The leaflet had denounced attempts to create gender confusion and promote sexual-orientation discussion amongst primary school children, especially through a now-withdrawn LGBT programme called ‘CHIPS’. Although the leaflet had used robust language, it was in line with UKIP’s excellent and politically unique manifesto promise to ban all sex education in primary schools.

The Daily Mirror happily pursued its anti-UKIP agenda by manipulating the story and creating a fuss. The party was forced to handle this and, light of foot, it smartly insisted the Christian Soldiers leaflet should be withdrawn. As a result the issue was reduced to a storm in a tea cup, and was dead and buried within 12 hours.

And so it stayed for almost 12 months, until Shaun Keasey decided to resurrect it four weeks ago.

Fortunately the party is growing canny. This time around it did absolutely nothing. Cllr Keasey’s call to ban Christian Soldiers was flatly ignored and the group continues to be free to hold its regular stall and promote its Christian literature at the UKIP Spring conference this coming weekend. As they say in church: Alleluia!

Then, at a party hustings three weeks ago I was selected as UKIP candidate for the London South West constituency in the London Assembly elections on 5th May. The only other applicant at the hustings, gay activist Richard Hendron, immediately and loudly resigned from the party publicly accusing me of being a “vile, nasty homophobic individual”.

Pink News and the Daily Mirror rapidly crawled all over the story claiming that I support ‘gay cure’ amongst other things (I don’t, of course), and LGBT in UKIP activist Richard Hilton put up a public petition to have me removed from UKIP’s approved candidates list.

agreement36 hours later and unknown to me, a party member in the North put up a counter-petition, “Say NO to political correctness infiltrating UKIP”, asking the party not to remove me as a candidate because of my “traditional Christian views”.

Regrettably, the party’s deputy chairman Suzanne Evans – who has since been relieved of her job – weighed in against me too. She tweeted that my views have no place in UKIP, declared openly that the party’s selection process had failed and wrote to the party chairman requesting that my selection should be reviewed. She gave Pink News an exclusive telling them she was confident I would be removed.

For a few days it was The Battle of the Petitions but, as news website Breitbart pointed out, the LGBT in UKIP petition was soon seen to have “backfired” as it was rapidly overhauled by the counter-petition. As I write, the second petition has more than 13 times the signatures of the first.

I became aware too of growing grassroots support as people told me they had called and emailed party officers asking that I should remain a UKIP candidate.

Finally, I was invited to appear before a panel of senior party officers to discuss my views about ‘gay cure’ and related issues. The meeting was confidential, but I was informed the next day that the panel had decided unanimously that I should continue as an approved candidate for UKIP – a decision then ratified by the party chairman and the National Executive Committee.

So in my experience UKIP is maturing into an excellent anti-establishment party. As you see, with a few exceptions it is fair, robust, hard-working, committed to free speech and democracy and stands firmly against the suffocating tenets of political correctness.

Unlike the old parties, there is ample room for social conservatives, grassroots Christians and supporters of family values.

bojesen_brexitIf that’s you, and you urgently want the UK out of the EU on 23rd June, join us now. There are only 16 weeks to get our country back from the dead hand of the Brussels bureaucrats.

Nigeria: ‘The Time Is Now!’

I was back in Nigeria again last month for the second Stefanos Foundation conference for  minorities sponsored by Gatestone Institute, which I helped to put together. Media interest was even greater than for the January conference (here) and I found myself again calling on the British government to rectify colonial wrongs on NTA (Nigeria Television Authority) and AIT (Africa Independent Television) news programmes as well as elsewhere (here). 

boko_haram_logoMy report on the conference was published last week by Gatestone (here  and below):

The security situation across northern Nigeria is unstable-to-terrible. Islamists Boko Haram have threatened to eradicate Christianity through a campaign of violence against Christians and churches (here) and have killed 2,000 people including moderate Muslims in four years (here).

Further, the next Federal elections are planned for just twelve months’ time; during the last ballot in 2011 the re-election of Christian presidential candidate, Goodluck Jonathan, resulted in the death of 800 Christians and other minorities and the destruction of up to 300 churches at the hand of rioting Muslim protestors in the twelve northern Sharia states (here). 

Nonetheless, Dr. Bala Takaya, vice-president of Nigeria’s Middle Belt Forum, former head of the Department of Political Science at Jos University and alumni of the London School of Economics, is hopeful. Speaking to the media outside the second Stefanos Foundation conference for the country’s northern ethnic minorities – an initiative of Gatestone Institute held in Abuja recently – he claimed that the northern minorities are becoming stronger and more united. “We have come of age,” he said.

Bala-TakayaInside, he had reminded the gathering how for a hundred years the minorities in Muslim-majority northern Nigeria had been oppressed and held back both by the Fulani Islamic elite and, until independence in 1960, by the British colonial masters.  But now better education, increasing consciousness and hard-won political experience has resulted in the grass-roots growth of a “Middle Belt” identity separate from the dominant Fulani-Hausa Muslim culture. “The yoke is broken. The shackles are being thrown off. The time is now,” he told delegates.

In line with the governance structure imposed by colonial administrators, Nigeria – at 170 million, Africa’s most populated country — is frequently recognized as two separate regions with a common border and a joint Federal government: and the larger but more dispersed mainly-Muslim North, and the geographically smaller but more intensely populated Christian-majority South.

Ethnically the North is dominated by Hausa tribal language and culture, while the South is identified with the main Yoruba and Igbo tribes.

But these political and ethnic monoliths betray an on-the-ground diversity that is politically inconvenient and therefore regularly ignored. It has been calculated that there are over 800 different tribal and linguistic groups across the country. A recent book by the journalist Rima Shawulu Kwewum, for instance, calculates that Bauchi — the seventh largest of Nigeria’s 37 states – has ninety ethnic groups and nationalities, while Adamawa and Taraba States have over a hundred. For many Nigerians the local tribe is a prime source of identity.

Nigerian Sharia MapNowhere is tribal attachment stronger than in the polyglot southern areas of Northern Nigeria – the “Middle Belt” of the country which was first tentatively claimed as a separate collective entity as long ago as the 1930s. Comprising mainly Christian and Traditional African (British administrators called them “Pagan”) tribes, ‘Middle Belters’ – who are found indigenous in even the most northerly Sharia states of Borno, Yobe and Kebbi – have increasingly asserted their ethnic distinctives, and rejected northern Fulani/Hausa hegemony with its second class dhimmi status for non-Muslims.

“(We have) historically found solidarity and expression in feelings of alienation and deprivation based on (our) crude and systematic subordination, oppression, suppression and exploitation,” explained a Middle Belt Forum leaflet some years ago. MBF counters the oppression today by “promoting freedom…, respect for human rights, human dignity and the sanctity of human lives” (here).

But ethnic diversity can be a weakness: tribes frequently have a history of local disagreement and even fighting among them. Unity may be strength but cooperation is not necessarily easy.

This is why, according to many delegates, the Gatestone-Stefanos conferences have been important, unique and timely. The events are the first grass-roots initiative for local people rather than state politicians, although some key public figures have attended too. The aim is to find common interest and facilitate local collaboration between minority groups in fifteen of the nineteen northern states. The emphasis is on training: appointing local co-ordinators, drawing up action plans, planning networking opportunities and setting time-lines.

Despite the tension, the conferences have been calm and focused. During a priority-setting session, “equal opportunity for all tribes and groups,” “job creation,” “better education,” and “recognition of excellence” were rated significantly higher than “defeat of Boko Haram,” perhaps because that is seen primarily as the job of the military.

Although the events were about asserting minorities’ human rights in the Muslim north, the mood was conciliatory; the organizers anticipate that some marginalized Muslim tribes will join the initiative too in due course. National unity and “One Nigeria” were, informally, the conference strapline; peace-making and nation-building at the local level were the task in hand.

“Middle Belt is in the middle of the country,” said Dr. Takaya. “We are the glue that holds north and south Nigeria together.”

Northern Nigeria: Listening And Learning

gatestone logoI helped put together a conference for indigenous and ethnic minorities in Jos, northern Nigeria, earlier this month. Gatestone Institute, who generously sponsored the event, today published a report I wrote (here and below).

The British Government‘s Responsibility for the Crisis in Northern Nigeria 

It is a truth not universally acknowledged in Western politically-correct circles that Christianity has become the most persecuted religion in the world and that most of the oppression comes from the hands of Islam and in Muslim-majority areas (here).

Nowhere is this more true than in northern Nigeria where, in 2012, 70% of all Christians murdered worldwide were slain (here). Not only death but discrimination, too, is rife across the country’s twelve northern Sharia states in which Christians and other minorities live with second-class dhimmi status, and with inferior rights to jobs, justice and worship.

stefanos foundation logoMuch of this inequity is Britain’s responsibility according to the keynote speaker at a recent human rights conference, a program of Gatestone Institute and organized by the Nigerian aid and advocacy charity Stefanos Foundation (here). 150 delegates from many minority groups met in Jos, a city on the fault-line between the mainly Christian south and the majority Muslim north, where, in September 2001, over a thousand people were reported killed in ethno-religious clashes (here). These clashes were followed by further major riots and fatalities in 2008 and 2010, and suicide-bomb attacks on Jos churches in February (here) and March 2012 (here).

The speaker was Dr. Yusufu Taraki, a mild-mannered academic who, given the keynote platform, talked with passion on the issues in which he has specialized. With a PhD in Social Ethics from Boston University, Massachusetts, and currently Professor of Theology and Social Ethics at Jos ECWA Theological Seminary (JETS), he was given a warm reception as he delivered his speech about the place of ethnic minority groups in northern Nigeria.

Nigeria was a British colony until 1960 during which time, he argued, “the British colonial masters took our land and handed it over to Muslim rulers… They gave us [non-Muslim groups] an inferior social/political role in the colonial hierarchical system in northern Nigeria, and that is exactly where we are right now.”

When first published in his book The British Colonial Legacy In Northern Nigeria (here), this thesis earned Professor Turaki a British government ban from entering the UK.

Professor YusufuTurakiTruth hurts even hardened British authorities, but Professor Turaki was bold enough in his speech to spread around the honors: “The worst kind of slavery in Africa was conducted by Arabs and Muslims,” he said touching on another specialist subject. “The majority of African slaves went to the Middle East and Arab countries… not to the Caribbean, the US and Latin America.” He advised the audience, for further information, to look into his book, Tainted Legacy: Islam, Colonialism and Slavery in Northern Nigeria (here).

Later, privately, he pointed out that, once British troops had conquered the northern Muslim forces of the Sokoto Caliphate and Kanem-Bornu Sultanate in 1902/3 with the laudable objective of terminating their slave trade, the colonial administration and the defeated Fulani Muslim elite found they had much in common. They both had top-down authoritarian views of governance and an ordered elitist view of the world; they saw the many different non-Muslim groups (NMGs) across the north as pagan, uncivilized and inferior. “Read the memoir But Always As Friends by Sir Bryan Sharwood Smith, the last British governor of Northern Nigeria (here), to understand the British colonial outlook,” Dr. Turaki said.

Ahmadu BelloA corresponding Nigerian autobiography, My Life by Sir Ahmadu Bello, the Sardauna (traditional leader) of Sokoto and first Premier of the Northern Region after Independence (here), also tellingly shows the Sardauna playing English cricket and Eton Fives. The English and Muslim Nigerian upper classes became close.

Working with Fulani and Hausa Muslim elite, the colonialists instituted a system of Indirect Rule which was cheap and effective. A limited number of British administrators were placed at the top of the power structure; the educated Muslim elite were next; other Muslim groups were below them; and everyone else was at the bottom. Frequently the British would foist, say, a Fulani Muslim chief on a non-Muslim village or district thereby disempowering the locals and creating an alienated hostile underclass.

Nigerian Colonial StampIronically, during colonial rule many of the pagan tribes converted to Christianity and caused tension between British colonial authorities and British missionaries on the ground. The indigenous new Christians, actively supported by the missionaries, enjoyed “redemption lift” (here) and began to assert a moral vitality, ethnic identity and spiritual independence that sometimes challenged the cozy Anglo-Islamic status quo.

But Nigerian Independence in 1960 saw the British depart, leaving behind unamended the unjust governing structure and unfettered Muslim hegemony across the north, which Professor Turaki describes as “internal colonialism.” This was the seedbed of the crisis we see today.

Libya and – until thwarted by Parliament – Syria have amply demonstrated British Prime Minister David Cameron’s liberal interventionism and his desire to reassert British power on the international stage. And, when it comes to issues such as gay rights, he has Commonwealth and former colonial countries specifically in his sights. To the fury of African leaders who want to protect their traditional values and cultures, he insists they must dance to his liberal gay agenda or risk losing overseas aid (here).

But Mr Cameron might do well to replace colonial arrogance with Christian humility; and he could, and should, acknowledge some British responsibility for the Nigerian crisis.

The Gatestone-Stefanos conference gave unique voice to minorities who, after half a century, continue to be marginalized across the north. Among other projects to rectify residual colonial injustice, the UK’s Department for International Development (DfID) and the British High Commission in Nigeria should consider giving strong moral and financial support to this exceptional grassroots initiative.

On the front-line in northern Nigeria

It was mental torture in the dark of night. It was a vivid illustration of assertive Islam and at the end, too, it was an illustration of the uncertain response of the Nigerian churches.

100_0970We had enjoyed a wonderful Easter Day. We – my wife Sally, our two pre-teen daughters and I – were visiting Jos in middle-belt Nigeria to experience family life on the Christian frontline and to see and support the orphanage run by Gloria, the inspirational wife of Ben Kwashi, Anglican Archbishop of Jos.

The city is historically and predominantly Christian and is located on a territorial promontory at the north end of Plateau State, surrounded on three sides by two of northern Nigeria’s twelve Sharia states. Over the years there have been major and fatal Muslim/Christian clashes along its dusty poverty-stricken streets and the al Qaeda-linked group Boko Haram has targeted the city too.

Cocin church bomb blastIndeed on Easter morning we celebrated the Resurrection at one such target, the city centre church that was hit by a Boko Haram suicide car bomb on a busy Sunday morning in February last year, mercifully avoiding a carnage and killing just four worshippers. Amidst high security at the church entrance we walked by the car’s remains, preserved as a macabre memorial to the deceased and memento of God’s grace. The packed church, the apparent lack of fear and the lively but dignified Easter worship were uplifting.

But at 4.30am the following morning I was awoken by the loud wail of the call to prayer from a nearby mosque. There was nothing exceptional about this as we were staying with a local family in a mixed, albeit Christian-majority, area of the city. But we were then unexpectedly subjected to a provocative hour-long full-blast sermon in native Hausa which reverberated brutally around the houses. There was no choice, no respite and no possibility of sleep. It was menacingly oppressive. I lay in bed in the dark grinding my teeth at the racket, at the audacity of the mosque and at the apparent inability of the city authorities to stop such night-time dhimmitude being forced onto the predominantly Christian neighbourhood.

The sermon ceased at 5.30am and I rolled over to try to get some sleep. But at 6am I was aroused again, this time by Gospel music pumped out across the community. It was at a lower decibel level than the sermon and less overbearing. Nonetheless it was broadcast by a controversial Christian woman who against the wishes of other local Christians insisted on making a very obvious tit-for-tat point to the mosque and her Muslim neighbours.

map of NigeriaThe whole pre-dawn episode neatly encapsulated the tense situation both in middle-belt Jos and also across northern Nigeria where Christians are very much the minority. Society is now divided primarily along religious lines, and an assertive territorial Islam with its violent fringe faces down a Christianity that is subject to and seething at Muslim aggressiveness, yet fractured and uncertain in its response. In view of civil and military authorities’ inability to restrain the harassment, persecution and violence, the issue has become theological: do Christians passively turn the other cheek and leave vindication to the Lord; do they actively defend their families and churches if necessary by equally assertive means; or do they flee from evil and emigrate south?

On a completely different dimension was our time with Mrs Kwashi. We visited her orphan school, Zambiri Outreach and Care Centre, where amidst grinding deprivation 470 children are taught by 8 staff. Up to 140 are packed into each of the small rudimentary classrooms and at lunchtime they receive a bowl of rice, for many their only meal of the day. It was the morning of their Easter indoor picnic, and for a few hours laughter, singing and dancing covered over the underlying tragedy of many broken young lives.

P1030325We also visited the archiepiscopal home where amongst the monkeys, ostriches, peacocks, geese and long-horned cattle that inhabit the compound we met the 48 orphans who are loved by and live as family with the Kwashis, many taking on the Kwashi family name.

Archbishop Ben joined us dressed in American-style sleeveless T-shirt and long shorts. He had been teaching basketball to a lanky 14 year old. “I was good in my youth but age takes its toll,“ he grinned.

Some told us through tears how they had been rescued by Gloria, “Mama Kwashi” they call her gratefully. Six are HIV positive, one has been burnt as a witch, another is crippled, most have been abandoned, many have been starved and beaten, some have been raped.

But all now have received the liberating love of a new committed mother and father – Christ’s love mediated through an extraordinary Christian couple. This is divine love in action on the Nigerian front-line and young lives are being transformed. It is a wonder to behold.

(This post first appeared as an article published in this week’s edition of The Church of England Newspaper.)

Joy In Jos

Over the past couple of years I’ve twice visited Jos in central Nigeria (here) and (here) and was overwhelmed by the tragedy of a formerly prosperous peaceful city being torn apart by Islamist incursion and violence from the Sharia states to the north. Fear and hostility were endemic; the compassion, courage and vibrancy of the Christians I met was a light in an increasingly fraught dark place.

One source of such light is an orphanage called Lambiri Outreach run by the formidable Mrs Gloria Kwashi, wife of the Anglican Archbishop of Jos, Ben. They have up to 40 (yes forty) children living in their home and in addition she runs a day school with 450 on its roll. I visited the school during my first visit and at the insistence of Mrs Kwashi gave each of the destitute kids their bowl of rice for lunch – the only meal of the day for some she told me – and had one for myself. It was heart-warming and heart-breaking stuff. Normally in Nigeria orphans are looked after by their wider extended family, but many of these are victims of the atrocities and have no other family.

Early last month I attended a Church of Nigeria conference (here) at the impressive national cathedral in Abuja with its extraordinary rotating altar and pulpit. The Church of Nigeria is part of the world-wide Anglican Communion, is rapidly growing with currently some 18 million members and is an example of vitality and commitment to the Gospel that declining Anglican churches in the West would do well to emulate. Nigerian Anglicans make mistakes no doubt and their enthusiastic worship is too loud for restrained English ears, but theirs is the mess and noise of the nursery not the morgue.

I emailed ahead to Mrs Kwashi to enquire if she would welcome supplies from the UK for her orphans – clothes, games, toys and sweets, I thought – as I was coming to Nigeria. “Children’s Christian books,” was the prompt reply. It was a quiet rebuke and reminder: the spiritual is as important as the material even when (especially when) like her you’re on the front line of the battle against poverty and violence. Mrs Kwashi has been horribly assaulted during a Muslim attack on their home yet she radiates joy, laughter – and the freedom that comes from forgiving her attackers.

We rapidly raised funds from fellow members of Highway Church (here), raided the CLC Bookshop near St Paul’s Cathedral and in due course I found myself presenting a suitcase-full of colourful Bible literature to the security scanner at Heathrow’s massive Terminal 5 en route to Abuja. From Abuja the books were couriered 100 miles by road to Jos to be received apparently with joy and gratitude. “I wish you saw (the children’s) excitement,” emailed Mrs Kwashi.

In 2010 after my first visit I helped set up LoveJos (here), an organisation whose prime aim is to raise awareness among Nigerians living in the UK about the Islamist war on the church in northern and central Nigeria. Most Nigerian Christians in Britain come originally from the south and many seem unaware or unconcerned. So as well as prayer meetings, LoveJos has also arranged a conference, organised a vigil outside the Nigerian High Commission, distributed information leaflets and remembered the Nigerian persecuted with the first annual LoveJos carol service earlier this month.

This last was an encouraging affair. Held at St John’s Stratford – the church at the heart of Christian hospitality and outreach during this summer’s Olympics in east London – the service was attended by more than 150 and included videos of Mrs Kwashi’s kids singing carols and reading Bible passages for us in Hausa, the majority language in northern Nigeria. You can watch highlights (here).

The carollers at St Johns were concerned, prayerful and generous, and as a result we were able to transfer £1,000 to Jos. Small beer of course considering the need across northern Nigeria, but hopefully a significant support for Zambiri Outreach children.

Our prayer is that the funds will be used to bring them some joy this Christmas. Faced with the on-going terrorist threat and grief and depravation, there’s not a lot for them to smile about.

Our gifts and books about Jesus will bring some vital love and excitement to their lives no doubt. But for the orphans as for us, real hope and joy are with Christ himself whose birth we celebrate tomorrow.

Light Shines In Darkest Pakistan

I made my first visit to the Islamic Republic of Pakistan last month and outside Lahore I met Jesus.

That is, I met with Christ’s compassionate heart and caring hands in the ministry of Pakistani Christians amongst the poorest, most oppressed of their neighbours, the brick kiln people.

My colleagues and I stayed in Youhanabad, the Christian-majority area of Lahore – the largest slum in Asia I was told – where the poverty and deprivation were bad enough. The filth, the free-flowing sewage and the sheer physical brutality of the area were depressing, and relieved only by the cheery welcome and genuine warmth of the believers.

But if Youhanabad was depressing, the dry bleak brick kilns outside Lahore were distressing. There whole families including children as young as six spend all day outdoors – in summer the temperature can rise to an unbearable 45 degrees or more – trying to make their target number of bricks in order to pay off loans from the brick kiln owners. They are entirely in the owners’ unregulated hands. They live on the desolate sites in crumbling fly-blown cattle sheds, are usually illiterate, receive no reliable or independent verification of how much they owe, and may be forced to stay on the brick kilns into a second or third generation as they have no way of knowing if or when their debt has been repaid.

The first couple we met had nine daughters all working all hours every day by crouching down and shovelling brick clay into moulds with their bare hands. It’s pitiless mind-numbing shoulder-wrenching work. The next family were doing the same. They had taken a loan out from the kiln owner to pay for the parents’ medical expenses following a road accident. They could neither read nor write, had no idea how much of the loan was outstanding, and in practice could be forced to remain on the brick kilns for a lifetime paying off the debt.

In polite circles this is called bonded labour. In fact they are simply slaves.

I felt anger rising in me. And, reminded of the UK’s Factory Acts, Chimney Sweepers Act and other worker-welfare legislation pioneered by ‘Poor Man’s Earl’ Lord Shaftesbury and 19th century social reformers, I naively asked our Pakistani hosts whether authorities or activists ever intervene. “No. Nothing is done. There’s too much corruption at all levels,” they explained quietly. There’s also no political will for change. I looked across at two small boys, six and ten, turning over endless rows of bricks to dry in the hot sun and clenched my fists…

But soon I found that my hosts were too reticent. They themselves are intervening brilliantly.

They took us to a row of hovels that pass for homes where we were introduced to a group of girls at a Sunday school that takes place any and all days of the week. Like a normal English church Sunday school, the girls learn Bible stories and how to worship and pray. But they also learn how to read and write in Urdu and English, and elementary Maths too.

And, most amazingly in this male-dominated Islamic country where girls usually are bottom of the social pile, they are taught to sew, crochet and embroider so that, as our hosts explained, they can set up their own small businesses and thereby finance their way out of the brick kilns. “It’s economic empowerment,” smiled the teachers, self-consciously employing western jargon.

And there was more. A few days later we assembled at a Lahore church with 300 girls, all transported by bus from brick kilns around the city. It was the annual Graduation Day organised by our hosts, where the nimble-fingered efforts of the girls were honoured and 104 of them stepped up to receive a graduation certificate and their own brand-new Victorian-style hand-powered sewing machine (here). The smiles, the laughter, the tears of joy, the prayers and hymn-singing, the varied colours of the girls’ saris and shalwar kameez, the scent from the garlands of rich red roses – it was an astonishing and emotional event.

While in Pakistan I enjoyed other astonishing occasions too. I spent an hour with a young man who had been an Islamic fundamentalist and member of the banned militant group Lashkar-e-Taiba that gained global notoriety by their 2008 terrorist attack in Mumbai (here). One night he met Jesus Christ in a dream, read some verses from an available New Testament and converted to Christianity. His wife promptly left him. Then she herself had a dream about Jesus and returned to her husband a Christian too. They had to leave their home in the fundamentalist stronghold of Faisalabad and now live elsewhere in Pakistan with their four young children.

We also visited Gojra where tragically in August 2009 a mob of Muslims slaughtered eight Christians, injured eighteen and destroyed over 100 homes (here). The courageous Christians are rebuilding their lives and homes despite the prevalent fear of further attacks – we met one young man who had been shot in the street by a Muslim assailant just a month before our visit.

But it was the work of the Pakistani believers in the brick kilns that stuck with me most. If Jesus Christ visited Pakistan in person today, that’s exactly where he would go – amongst the poorest and most oppressed. It’s amongst them first that he would preach the gospel, heal the sick and set the slaves free.

But of course that is what he’s doing by his Spirit anyway through the stunning work of his Pakistani followers. They are light in a very dark place.

I returned to London humbled and inspired.

Sharia – Nigeria’s Descending Darkness

We sat in the back of a 4X4 discussing sectarian violence in Nigeria while we toured dirt-poor villages outside Jos, Plateau State, in the central belt of the country. He was the Nigeria researcher at the Washington office of international NGO Human Rights Watch and I was making my second visit to Jos.

My previous visit in November 2010 (here) had been so disturbing that I pulled together a small group of London-based Nigerians and we formed LoveJos (here), an organisation aimed at increasing awareness of the deteriorating situation in Jos and Plateau State amongst the UK Nigerian diaspora. We staffed an information stall at the massive Festival of Life at ExCel in Docklands (here) in April, held a conference in September and a vigil outside the Nigerian High Commission in January.

So I went back last month to assess the latest situation and spent a day visiting outlying Christian villages that had been attacked by Fulani Muslim settlers. In one we met a young man who lost all his family. We examined the bullet holes in the mud-brick and corrugated-iron huts that serve as homes, and paid our respects at the earthen graves out the back where he’d buried his family.

In another we sat in the shade with 20 villagers while in their Berom tribal language they quietly recounted a horrific Fulani assault on their community one night. A boy still has a bullet lodged in his body and women showed us their appalling machete wounds. A number of villagers died during the attack and the grief and mourning continues unabated for the rest…

During our back-of-the-car discussion it became clear that my HRW companion made no moral or political distinction between Muslim and Christian violence. He drew attention to Christian attacks on Muslims and argued that for virtually every instance of Muslim violence he could point to comparable Christian attacks. He made a simple mathematical equivalence between the two.

His neutrality is right in part of course. All sectarian violence is to be deplored wherever it comes from. And certainly Christians have killed and maimed Muslims, occasionally in substantial numbers.

Furthermore (he didn’t mention this naturally) insofar as Christians participated in retaliation attacks rather than self-defence they denied some of the central tenets of their faith. Forgiveness, loving your enemy and leaving ultimate justice and judgement to God – these are vital distinctives that Christianity offers the world, for “Vengeance is mine,” says the Lord.

Also the New Testament has no concept comparable to Islam’s jihad or war in the cause of Allah so that the Crusades, for instance, while plausible on straight geopolitical grounds, were an unacceptable religious aberration when carried out in Christ’s name. Jesus doesn’t do war; the only violence known to him was that which was done to him.

But I was puzzled at my companion’s detached mathematical equivalence for, as someone said, context is everything. And the dominating issue which dramatically changed the context in north and central Nigeria is the abrupt imposition of Sharia law by local Muslim authorities and traditional leaders in twelve northern states in 1999/2000, and the consequent dhimmi (second-class) status of non-Muslim minorities. Straightaway religious identity came to predominate, religious differences were highlighted, and the major Nigerian fault-line became that between the Muslim-majority north and the chiefly Christian south. It was Nigeria’s political 9/11, a constitutional earthquake that many predict will lead eventually to the Sudan-style breakup of the nation.

Minorities in the north protested (here) but to no avail. And as Nigerian Islam continued its increasingly assertive path, suspicion grew that there were further expansionist Islamic aims and that neighbouring states like the predominantly Christian Plateau State were to be targeted for similar Islamification. The explosion of violence and mass slaughter following an incident outside a mosque in the Congo-Russia area of Jos, Plateau’s capital, on 7th September 2001 showed how tense inter-faith relations had become. Other violent sectarian crises followed in the city and its surrounds in 2004, 2008 and 2010 (here).

Formed two years after Sharia law was instituted, nurtured in this assertive and increasingly zealous Islamic atmosphere and fuelled also by poverty, unemployment and corruption, the violent Islamist group Boko Haram burst onto the national scene in 2009 with attacks on the security forces in northeast Nigeria. Probably affiliated with Al Qaeda and supported by some local Muslim leaders (here), their aim is to create chaos, fear and paralysis in order to further establish Sharia government.

Suspicion of Islamic expansionism was vindicated when Boko Haram declared recently they intend to force another seven states including Plateau State to embrace Sharia law, and Jos as Plateau’s capital became a target for their deadly campaign. While I was in the city in February they threatened an attack and since I returned home they have undertaken two suicide bombings at city-centre churches (here) and (here).

Sectarian reprisal attacks are never acceptable, especially by Christians. But there is a moral difference between offensive and defensive violence – I met a Jos pastor who legitimately reached for a gun when he saw a baying mob coming down the road towards his home and church.

So in the light of the aggressive and fundamentalist Islamic darkness descending from the north, my companion was plain wrong to sweep all Plateau State’s Muslim and Christian violence together as equivalent. Context and back-drop are indeed everything.


Asia Bibi My Sister

For some unexplained reason it seems the horrendous slaughter of Iraqi Christians in Baghdad’s Syrian Catholic cathedral on 31st October has been a game-changer in mainstream UK media.

Before then, the growing persecution of Christian minorities around the globe had been ignored. Since then – well, on Friday the BBC even saw fit to make a significant radio and TV news story about the extra security necessary in Egypt as Coptic Christians celebrated the Coptic Orthodox Christmas Eve (here) following the attack on their Alexandria church on New Year’s Day in which 21 people were killed. Before 31st October the attack itself would hardly have merited mention; today increased security around churches 2,000 miles away is thought newsworthy.

The persecution of Pakistani Christian villager Asia Bibi has also been making global headlines. Her death sentence (here) passed on 8th November at Sheikhupura District Court near Lahore, Punjab, for supposedly critcising Islam’s Prophet raised the profile of the issue; the subsequent demonstrations against her and the 4th January assassination of her high-profile supporter Punjab governor Salman Taseer transformed it into a national flashpoint and a dramatic indicator of the advance of medieval Islamic fundamentalism into the mainstream heart and psyche of Pakistan society. The advance is causing the meltdown of this nuclear-armed nation. Osama bin Laden is licking his lips (here).

It seems Asia is a committed believer. Reports tell of her faith in Jesus that is strengthening her through her ordeal, and I’m interested that it was her rejected offer of a cup of water to her Muslim fellow villagers that started the original incident. Offering someone a drink in the face of their hostility, like turning the other cheek, is true New Testament behaviour (see Romans 12:20).

The sight of hate-fuelled Imams and Muslim mobs baying for Asia’s blood on the streets of Lahore and elsewhere while she sits alone in her prison cell with her Jesus reminds me of the best-known psalm:

The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not be in want… Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death I will fear no evil for You are with me. You prepare a table for me in the presence of my enemies… Surely goodness and love will follow me all the days of my life. (Psalm 23: 1,4,5,6)

The mobs can chant all they want; they simply demonstrate their tortured and intolerant Islamic spirit. Asia on the other hand shows quiet Christian resolution in the face of injustice and persecution. The world should watch and take note.

Next door in Afghanistan there’s a similar story but, as yet, with less media attention. 25 year old Afghan national Shoaib Assadullah converted to Christianity and now is facing the death sentence from a court in Mazir-e Sharif, northern Afghanistan (here). Recent reports say he has been given a week to renounce his faith and return to Islam or face execution for apostasy. Like Asia it seems his faith in Jesus is strengthening him through the ordeal; according to one source, ‘Shoaib stated he has given his life completely into the hands of Jesus. He said he was so happy for the spiritual fight, saying, “Without my faith I would not be able to live”’.

Islam is Pakistan’s state religion according to the country’s constitution (here), and all laws ‘shall be in conformity with the injunctions of Islam as laid down in the Qur’an and Sunnah’.

The ‘sacred religion of Islam’ is Afghanistan’s state religion according to that country’s constitution (here), and ‘no law shall contravene the tenets and provisions of the holy religion of Islam in Afghanistan.’

So, according to their respective constitutions and due processes of law under those constitutions, the Islamic Republic of Pakistan and the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan can put to death their own citizens for the simple fact that they’ve made public what they believe. Asia and Shoaib haven’t compromised national security, committed treason or been an agent for an enemy power. They haven’t murdered or raped anyone. They haven’t abused a child or mugged a little old lady in the street. They’ve simply made it clear they believe in Jesus Christ and they don’t follow Muhammad.

Christ warned his followers this would happen:

Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. Rejoice and be glad for great is your reward in heaven. (Matt 5: 11,12)

Whatever happens to them on earth, great indeed will be the reward in heaven for Asia and Shoaib.

Meanwhile, there’s a tough question for me: They are my Christian sister and my Christian brother; what am I doing to help them?

The Invisibilisation Of Fathers

I guess we are no longer surprised that the government, led by The Harperson, does its best to write fatherhood out of the script. Men are the cause of the financial crisis (here), are no longer required on the birth certificate (here), and, as Melanie Phillips observed in her usual incisive style, have been reduced to ‘sperm donors, walking wallets and occasional au pairs’ (here).

In theory the church should do better. After all, it was Christ – alone of the founders of the monotheistic faiths – who majored on the fatherhood of God and introduced the possibility of a warm personal relationship with ‘Our Father which art in heaven’ (Matt 6:9; Mark 14:36; Gal 4:6; etc).

So I became concerned at church recently as we prayed through a prayer about Haiti which was projected onto the screen.

Like others I had watched with tears as the human tragedy of the Haiti earthquake unfolded. In particular I had identified with the panic and despair of fathers as they picked frantically with bare hand at the rubble of collapsed buildings, looking for their families inside: I too have young children.

In context the prayer was beautifully empathetic. Someone had emailed it to a member of the church at work and – at the urging of a Muslim colleague who perhaps had felt the compassion in the prose and shared the urge to appeal to the Almighty – he forwarded it to the company’s HR department who in turn published it for all the staff. Not bad for our secular age.

“Lord I thank you… because this morning I woke up and knew where my children were… because my home was still standing… because I am not crying as my spouse, my child, my parent does not need to be buried or pulled out from beneath a pile of concrete…

“Lord I cry out to You, the One who makes the impossible possible, the One who turns darkness into light. I cry out that You give those mothers strength, that You give them the peace that surpasses all understanding…

“(I cry out) that You may open the streets so that help may come… that You may provide doctors, nurses, food, water… Give them peace… hope… courage to go on… Protect the children and shield them with Your power.

“I pray all this in the name of Jesus.”

It was an admirable prayer that I, together with the rest of the congregation, entered into with full but heavy hearts, willing the Lord to answer urgently.

“But hang on,” I thought half way through, “what about the fathers? Why are we praying for mothers in Haiti but not their partners?”

I concluded sadly that the world often impacts the church more than vice versa, and the writer of the prayer – consciously or unconsciously – had simply bought into the secular mindset that ignores the primal social and spiritual importance of fatherhood.

So the invisibilisation of fathers continues apace. The cost to our society, and to the church if she follows suit, will be enormous.

Attitude Of Gratitude

As yet another longest night comes and goes, another Christmas Day passes and another year draws to a close, it seems it is progressively easier each year to discount the glittering lights, the endless partying and the rampant commercialism of the Christmas season and to concentrate instead on the real meaning of the Christmas event.

For me of course it’s to do with the world-transforming event a long time ago in Bethlehem when Christ was born in a manger, and on a silent holy night – while shepherds watched their flocks and the herald angels sang – God became one of us.

But for me also this Christmas once again there has been a profound awareness of the unmerited privilege of living amongst the peace and prosperity of the UK in 2009 when the vast majority of our fellow residents on the globe live in poverty and in war-zones, with famine and without basic essentials, under brutal dictatorships and suffering persecution. There’s a lot wrong with cynical, selfish Britain including our own share of poverty, loneliness and hopelessness, but North Korea, Sudan, Haiti, Myanmar, Bangladesh and Zimbabwe this isn’t.

And just as Christianity provided the necessary spiritual, moral and ethical soil for the flowering of the UK’s (and Europe’s) past vibrancy, creativity and organisational ability that led in turn to our present affluence, so – as even atheist Matthew Parris noted last Christmas (here) – Africa (and by extension every other poverty-stricken and corrupt nation) needs Christ. Such countries – and I would argue all countries – need Him now, they need Him for the long term and they need Him in a big way.

However, that’s not the point of this post. Rather it’s an appeal for a dose of public gratitude for our privileges that could renew our political life and move us on from the present cynical culture of asserting rights and claiming victimhood. Thankfulness towards an ‘other’ would shift our collective attention away from the small-minded self-centredness that cripples us and onto that ‘other’ – onto God if you are religious, or perhaps onto previous generations who gave and sacrificed and provided the basis of our present privileged circumstances if you’re not. Either way, gratitude for what we have been given by the ‘other’ would lift our eyes from ourselves to a more optimistic vision of a more generous future, as gratitude leads in turn to giving.

Maybe we ought to introduce an annual North American-style National Day of Thanksgiving. Held in Canada on the second Monday of October and in the US on the fourth Thursday of November, this holiday was originally religious in nature, to express thanks to God for the harvest. It has since become secular holiday when families get together for Thanksgiving dinner with turkey – a sort of additional secular Christmas but without the commercialism – but there is still an underlying tone of gratitude and generosity.

After all, anything that lifts the UK from its long-term pit of pessimism, suspicion and cynicism would be helpful.

Meanwhile, Happy New Year!