Scripture of the Day

Matthew 7

13. Enter ye in at the strait gate: for wide is the gate, and broad is the way, that leadeth to destruction, and many there be which go in thereat:
14. Because strait is the gate, and narrow is the way, which leadeth unto life, and few there be that find it.
15. Beware of false prophets, which come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ravening wolves.
16. Ye shall know them by their fruits. Do men gather grapes of thorns, or figs of thistles?
17. Even so every good tree bringeth forth good fruit; but a corrupt tree bringeth forth evil fruit.
18. A good tree cannot bring forth evil fruit, neither can a corrupt tree bring forth good fruit.
19. Every tree that bringeth not forth good fruit is hewn down, and cast into the fire.
20. Wherefore by their fruits ye shall know them.

A little brother robbed of his sister in Nigeria

Friends, it has been two years since Leah Sharibu was abducted from her school in Dapchi, Nigeria at the age of 14. Most of her classmates were released in the following weeks but Boko Haram kept Leah, reportedly because she refused to renounce her faith in Christ.

Since her abduction there have been many unconfirmed rumors about her; however, one thing remains clear—she has not yet returned home to her mother Rebecca and father Nathan. Her younger brother, Donald, is growing up without the presence of his sister.

Leah puts a face to the thousands of others who have been abducted by Boko Haram since its insurgency. The girls that have been forced into marriage, used as sex slaves, and suicide bombers; the boys trained for combat.

Please pray that the Lord will bring Leah home in His time. Pray that the government will secure the release of Leah and all the other Nigerians held captive.

Pray for Leah to be strong in body, mind and spirit.

Pray that the Lord will stir the hearts of the Boko Haram commanders and soldiers to repentance as they see Leah live out her faith in the true Ruler.

Pray for Leah’s family–Nathan, Rebecca and Donald, and all the other families affected by abductions in Nigeria.

Photo: an undated photo of Leah sent by her family.

ISIS’s al-Qurashi’s declaration of war on Israel

Full story here.

On January 27, 2020, ISIS released a new audio speech by its spokesman Abu Hamzah Al-Qurashi, produced by its media arm Al-Furqan and distributed on social media. Al-Qurashi delivers a defiant message: ISIS is not only surviving – despite declarations by consecutive US presidents that it was finished – but it is also expanding its war against its enemies and that war now spans the globe. Notable in the speech was Al-Qurashi’s declaration of war on Israel, calling on ISIS factions in the Sinai and Syria to attack it and urging Muslims to thwart the US peace plan referred to as the “Deal of the Century.” Urging ISIS fighters to step up their attacks, he called on Muslims everywhere to “emigrate” and join the ISIS branch nearest them.

Intel: Erdogan abandons balancing act in Syria, targets Russia

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Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan criticized Russia directly for the first time in a long while in the wake of the recent escalation in northwestern Syria.

Lashing out at intense Russian airstrikes in and around Idlib, Erdogan said Russia “doesn’t comply” with the 2018 Sochi agreement to establish a demilitarized zone around the last stronghold of the Syrian rebels where the Syrian regime’s advances continue.

“The Astana process has become moribund,” Erdogan said, speaking to reporters on his return from Senegal late Wednesday. “Turkey, Russia and Iran should seek a way to revive it.” The talks in the Kazakh capital — initiated by Erdogan and Russian President Vladimir Putin and also involving Iran — first began three years ago to find a solution to the Syrian conflict but have recently stalled.

Why it matters: As Turkey’s relations with the Western powers and regional countries took a nosedive following Ankara’s unilateral moves in Libya and the eastern Mediterranean Sea, Erdogan’s remarks targeting Russia came as a surprise.

Erdogan’s Libyan Gambit

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January 24, 2020

After having focused for most of the last quarter of 2019 on northeastern Syria and his declared security imperative of pushing the Syrian Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) away from the Turkish border, a goal he partially achieved through a military operation launched on October 9, Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan turned his attention to Libya. Accordingly, parallel to the worsening of the long-running Libyan civil war, Erdogan has raised the level of Turkish diplomatic and military involvement on the side of the embattled Government of National Accord (GNA) in Tripoli headed by Fayez Sarraj against the growing challenge of the Libyan National Army (LNA) under Khalifa Haftar.

Erdogan’s decision to insert Turkey more forcefully into the complex Libyan crisis is the product of a number of factors, each of them important from his perspective. To begin with, it fits into Erdogan’s proactive foreign policy, which seeks to establish and expand Turkey’s role in its region, especially in countries with which Turkey enjoys historical, cultural, or religious links, while raising Turkey’s overall international profile. At the same time, it is part of what Erdogan has characterized as “forward defense” against named and unnamed external foes challenging Turkish interests. Just as with the Syrian military operation, Erdogan is also hoping that his Libyan move will bolster domestic patriotic support while helping to divert attention away from economic problems.

There is a strong expectation on Erdogan’s part relating to the reestablishment of the profitable Turkish commercial relationship with Libya that prevailed until its descent into ongoing civil strife in 2011, along with the settlement of billions of dollars of unpaid bills stretching back to the previous regime. The growing bonds with the GNA are also in accord with Erdogan’s ambitious energy policy, which has seen Turkey increasingly assert itself in the Eastern Mediterranean. However, it is far from clear if Erdogan’s latest foreign adventure will provide the dividends he is expecting.

Growing Engagement

Having previously maintained good diplomatic and economic relations with former Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi and opposed until the last minute the U.S.-led NATO intervention that led to his ouster, Erdogan was able to make a relatively smooth adjustment to the regime change. He quickly established links to most of the factions that emerged in Tripoli in the aftermath of the collapse of the regime and eventually formed the GNA. In addition to taking advantage of common Islamist credentials, Erdogan successfully utilized his close relationship with the Qatari leadership and its links to the GNA as part of their regional cooperation, including in the provision of logistical and financial support for the anti-Assad opposition in the Syrian civil war.

Having previously supplied without publicity the GNA with drones, armored vehicles, and small arms, and stationed a small contingent of military advisers headed by a Turkish general in Tripoli, Erdogan signed a security and military cooperation agreement formalizing the Turkey-GNA alliance with Sarraj in Istanbul on November 27. After another meeting in Istanbul with Sarraj on December 15 to get an update on the deteriorating security situation, Erdogan confirmed that Turkey was “willing to send forces to Libya if requested.”

Responding to a formal request duly conveyed by the GNA, Erdogan proceeded to obtain authorization from the Turkish Grand National Assembly on January 2 and then dispatched a few dozen additional soldiers to Tripoli to act in “an advisory capacity” in what he characterized as “the first consignment.” Simultaneously, Turkey quietly arranged the transportation of hundreds of Syrian opposition fighters, many of whom had fought alongside Turkish soldiers in northern Syria, to aid the GNA. In a speech on December 26, Erdogan declared that Turkey “has given and will give all forms of support to the Tripoli government which is fighting against a putschist general backed by Arab countries and Europeans.”

While upgrading Turkey’s military profile in Libya, Erdogan also mounted a major diplomatic initiative. On December 25, he made an unscheduled visit to Tunisia to explore the possibility of cooperation in assisting the GNA government. He then used the occasion of Russian president Vladimir Putin’s visit to Istanbul on January 8 for the inauguration of the TurkStream gas pipeline to discuss the Libyan crisis and, in particular, Moscow’s engagement with Haftar highlighted by the effective assistance provided by Russian mercenaries belonging to the Wagner Group.

After their meeting, the Russian leader expressed public support for a ceasefire and the resolution of the conflict and invited the two warring parties to a peace conference in Moscow. However, while Erdogan was willing to use his influence with Sarraj, with whom he finetuned their joint strategy in Istanbul one day before the January 13 meeting, to accept a ceasefire as part of a five-point draft agreement, Haftar’s abrupt departure from Moscow without giving his assent pointed to Putin’s apparent reluctance to reciprocate by pressuring the latter.

The Berlin conference, convened by German chancellor Angela Merkel on January 19 after her own meeting with Putin on Libya in Moscow eight days earlier, was also unproductive from Erdogan’s point of view. Organized in conjunction with UN secretary-general Antonio Guterres, it brought together not only the two sides in Libya and the Turkish and Russian leaders as in Moscow, but also the leaders of a number of other interested countries along with representatives of the European Union, the African Union, and the Arab League. In an apparent effort to sway the European participants, especially Merkel, Erdogan pointed out the dangers of “irregular migration toward Europe” if the GNA were to collapse in an article published one day before the conference.

However, while the high-level meeting and the 57-point communique issued afterward sustained international attention on the Libyan crisis in line with Erdogan’s wishes, the inconclusive results of the conference were underlined once again by Haftar’s departure without a commitment to a ceasefire. Having stated on his way to Berlin that he viewed the conference “as an important step to the establishment of a ceasefire and a political settlement,” Erdogan acknowledged his disappointment on his flight back to Ankara. He said that despite all his efforts, the verbal accords at the conference on a ceasefire and a process to reach a settlement had “unfortunately not been confirmed in writing.”

What happens now?

The Libyan civil war seems set to continue because of the apparent reluctance of the two sides to compromise, vividly demonstrated by the unwillingness of the two leaders to even be in the same room in Moscow and Berlin. As the ongoing fighting demonstrates, each side continues to believe and proclaim that it could still inflict defeat on the other, in the case of the GNA through growing Turkish involvement. The attacks during the past few days by Haftar’s forces on Mitiga International Airport, the GNA’s main link to Turkey as well as the outside world, underscores the difficulties for Erdogan as he ponders his next steps in Libya.

The international situation Erdogan finds himself in is different to that which prevailed at the time of his third military intervention in northern Syria in October. He was then able to obtain not only the implicit assent of both the United States and Russia prior to the operation but also their subsequent diplomatic acceptance through separate ceasefire agreements. This time Erdogan has not been able to get the understanding he may have expected from either Putin, with whom he discussed the Libyan situation in bilateral meetings in Istanbul, Moscow, and Berlin, or President Donald Trump.

Putin’s failure to indicate a reassessment or reduction of Russian links to Haftar despite Erdogan’s personal pleas is similar to his willingness to support the Assad regime’s continuing assault in Idlib, which has serious refugee implications for Turkey, with Russian fighter jets. Clearly, Putin is confident that his close relationship with Erdogan will endure despite such differences, as Erdogan’s description of the Turkish-Russian relationship as “strategic” after the Berlin conference serves to confirm.

In similar fashion, the phone conversation between Erdogan and Trump on Libya on January 15 has not so far budged Trump, who had a phone conversation with Haftar in April 2019, from his stated public position against the introduction of foreign forces, a view also echoed by Putin. Their stances will undoubtedly figure prominently in Erdogan’s calculations relating to the possible upgrading of Turkish military engagement on behalf of the GNA. The warning issued through the Berlin communique against the introduction of mercenaries, pointedly amplified by French president Emmanuel Macron during the conference, will also make it more complicated for Erdogan to expand the number of Syrians he has inserted into the battle.

The negative developments on the ground in Libya are inevitably raising the stakes for Erdogan, who must have hoped that the insertion of the Turkish military factor into the equation would deter Haftar. Haftar has instead chosen to directly threaten Turkey while continuing his attacks on Tripoli. Although the GNA continues to enjoy UN recognition, as Erdogan never fails to note, it has recently lost additional territory, including the strategically important coastal town of Sirte, and is having to confront Haftar’s forces on the outskirts of Tripoli. Just as significant, the GNA has been deprived of its ability to export oil, its primary source of revenue, due to a blockade imposed by Haftar’s forces just before the Berlin conference.

Consequently, the GNA is more dependent than ever on Turkey for its very survival against a rival who continues to enjoy the open military support of next-door Egypt, which is determined to prevent Turkey from gaining a foothold in its North African backyard, as well as the United Arab Emirates, which, together with Egypt and Saudi Arabia, has been at the forefront of the regional challenge to the Turkey-Qatar partnership. Haftar also has the less overt backing of Russia and France and access to a seemingly inexhaustible supply of Sudanese and Chadian mercenaries funded by his backers. It is also important to note that force projection by Turkey to change the military balance is difficult. Libya is far away, and Turkey has been unable to secure access to a forward logistical base nearby to overcome its geographical disadvantage.

Turkey’s involvement in the Libyan crisis also should be analyzed in the context of Erdogan’s ambitious energy plans in the Eastern Mediterranean. The second agreement signed by Erdogan and Sarraj on November 27 delimited the respective exclusive economic zones (EEZ) of the two countries and thus expanded considerably the portion of the Mediterranean Sea Turkey is claiming. Although Erdogan has been stressing that Turkey was only seeking to defend its rights, the agreement drew immediate and sustained denunciation from a number of countries. Fully expecting his upgraded engagement with the GNA to strengthen Turkey’s energy diplomacy, Erdogan is now witnessing the emergence of an even more determined and stronger opposing bloc.

The strongest reaction has predictably come from Greece as the maritime line drawn by the Erdogan-Sarraj agreement passed just below Crete. Greece sent its foreign minister to Benghazi to meet Haftar on December 22 and followed up by hosting him in Athens for a meeting with Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis on January 17. On January 23, Mitsotakis said that Sarraj had agreed to the EEZ deal in return for military support from Turkey and confirmed that Greece would make sure that the European Union would not accept a solution in Libya unless these agreements were scrapped.

The regional response to Erdogan’s move has been intensifying since the beginning of the year. On January 2, the leaders of Greece, Cyprus, and Israel signed an agreement to implement a long-discussed project to build a pipeline through the EEZ claimed by Turkey to transport natural gas from the Eastern Mediterranean to Europe. On January 8, the foreign ministers of Egypt, France, Cyprus, and Greece met in Cairo and issued a declaration condemning the agreement between Turkey and Libya as “a violation of relevant United Nations Security Council resolutions and international law.” This was followed on January 16 by another meeting in Cairo between the energy ministers of Cyprus, Egypt, Israel, Greece, and Italy to intensify cooperation within the Eastern Mediterranean Gas Forum.

The Italian foreign minister did not sign the declaration after the January 8 meeting in Cairo, which he attended to avoid further antagonizing Turkey, and Italian prime minister Giuseppe Conte met Erdogan in Ankara to discuss Libya on January 13. However, on January 21, Italy officially denied reports that it was working with Turkey on the exploitation of Libya’s oil resources following the agreement between Ankara and Tripoli and called on Turkey to “start negotiations between all the parties involved, especially regarding the theme of the delimitation of maritime areas.”

Ankara had reacted strongly to the EU decision last year to impose sanctions over its exploration activities around Cyprus, and Turkey’s recent decision to send a drilling ship to disputed waters south of Cyprus makes it almost certain that there will be new tensions in coming weeks involving Turkey, the European Union, and the regional countries opposed to Turkey. Consequently, it is possible that the prospect of involvement in such a crisis, combined with other relevant considerations, could help persuade Erdogan to refrain from expanding Turkey’s involvement in the civil war on the other side of the Mediterranean.

This would appear to be prudent in view of the fact that an opinion poll published on January 10 showed that only one-third of the Turkish public supported military engagement in Libya. The comments of Turkish foreign minister Mevlut Cavusoglu on January 23, with reference to the agreement in Berlin, that additional soldiers or mercenaries would not be sent “as long as there is adherence to a ceasefire” suggests a desire to avoid what would undoubtedly be a risky escalation in Libya.

This was implicitly confirmed by Erdogan’s own positive comments on January 24 about the Berlin communique and Germany’s efforts to help solve the Libyan crisis after meeting with Merkel in Istanbul. However, Erdogan also strongly condemned the recent attacks on Tripoli by Haftar, a man he has designated as “a terrorist,” who retains the military capability and apparent willingness to force him into a potentially dangerous mission creep in Libya.

Bulent Aliriza is a senior associate and director of the Turkey Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C. Zeynep Yekeler is a research associate with the CSIS Turkey Project.

Commentary is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

© 2020 by the Center for Strategic and International Studies. All rights reserved.

Resistance against Turkish forces in Raqqa grows increasingly violent

“It is very difficult to tell how much popular support the PKK’s attacks have,” says Kyle Orton, a Middle East analyst.
Sunday 26/01/2020
Costly misadventure. A Turkish soldier stands guard on the Turkish-Syrian border in Akcakale in Sanliurfa province, last October.(Reuters)
Costly misadventure. A Turkish soldier stands guard on the Turkish-Syrian border in Akcakale in Sanliurfa province, last October.(Reuters)

CAMBRIDGE, England – Three Turkish soldiers and up to five members of the Turkey-backed Syrian National Army were killed in bombings in Syria. They were patrolling in Raqqa province when they attempted to search two cars and their occupants.

Opposition sources said two vehicles entered Saluq through a Syrian National Army (SNA) checkpoint January 16 before being escorted to a joint Turkish-SNA headquarters, where they exploded.

Saluq was taken by SNA and Turkish forces from the Kurdish-run Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) during an offensive by Turkey and its allies against Kurdish forces last year. Nearby Tal Abyad was the site of notably heavy fighting.

The bombing was suspected to be the work of the People’s Protection Units (YPG), which dominates the SDF. The YPG is seen by Turkey as an outgrowth of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which for decades has mounted a terrorist insurgency in southern Turkey using comparable tactics.

After Turkey’s intervention two years ago to take the Kurd-held Afrin Canton, Kurdish groups, including under the YPG and SDF umbrellas, announced resistance and insurgent operations to counter the Turkish advance. This intensified after Turkey began a broader intervention in the Kurdish-controlled north-eastern Syria last year.

What Turkey called Operation Peace Spring brought heavy fighting and contested reports of YPG bombings and suicide attacks.

Saluq’s bombings could be taken as a demonstration of YPG cells putting an insurgent campaign into practice.

This could appear related to the exchange January 20 of artillery fire between Turkish forces and the YPG. Reports said that, in Afrin, several people were killed, although that could not be confirmed.

The cost of such tactics is clear but the reasons for its use are opaque, defined by necessity but signifying little that is clear.

It may appear as if, after Turkey and its allies have taken territory from the YPG and forced it to retreat, Kurdish forces can only resort to insurgency actions against the SNA and attacks from a distance. The bombing in Saluq may demonstrate this.

However, one complication comes in the form of denials offered by an SNA faction that it was behind the bombing.

Division 20, an SNA unit, issued a statement January 17 in which it simultaneously denied having a hand in the bombings and accused members of Ahrar al-Sharqiya, another SNA unit, of being involved.

The two units have confronted each other in Aleppo recently, reports by the opposition-affiliated newspaper Enab Baladi stated, in disputes that included the intervention of senior SNA figures.

There is little evidence that one SNA faction was behind the bombing, aside from speculation about members of which unit died in the attack. This is hearsay until proven otherwise and could be the result of chance, or denote nothing of significance.

Rural Raqqa and territory newly occupied by Turkish and SNA forces have seen an increase in bombings, mainly attributed to the YPG, in any case.

Kyle Orton, a Middle East analyst, said: “The Saluq bombing is more politically fraught because it killed Turkish soldiers but in concrete terms of the YPG/PKK insurgency against the areas held by Turkey and her proxies, this is a continuation of what has been happening since 2016.”

Nonetheless, the extent of the bombing campaign, whether it was sporadic or targeted and escalating, remains useful to determine.

Proclamations of resistance, by the YPG and others, imply more than notional support from residents for the bombing campaigns. As unpopular as Turkish forces and SNA fighters are, many of whom are accused of corrupt factionalism and brigandage, attacks on their patrols are unlikely to represent crystallised local opposition to new forces in town.

“It is very difficult to tell how much popular support the PKK’s attacks have,” Orton said. “Logically, one would assume the Kurdish-majority Afrin is more supportive of the…  insurgency than the Arab-majority Baris Pinari [Operation Peace Spring] zone but I would add a couple of caveats.

“On the one side, it is clear from the way events unfolded in 2018 that the PKK had a lot less popular support in Afrin than had been assumed and, on the other side, tens of thousands of Kurds were displaced from Afrin by the Turkish operation and have been prevented from returning,” Orton said.

Population displacement has meant locals are both less trustful of the forces on their streets and harder to typify. No bombing campaign can claim popular support after almost a decade of war and numerous changes in territory.

The bombings appear more a part of a regular drumbeat of insurgent operations in territory taken from the YPG. They do not represent popular resistance and cannot be taken to signify escalation. However, in the continued use of such tactics, amid a period of sporadic bombings, the attacks in Saluq likely represent the shape of things to come.

Lebanon Readies New Government

01/26/2020 Lebanon (International Christian Concern) – Lebanon is currently readying its new government and has decided that the ministry will be formed by 10 Christians and 7 Muslims (4 Shi’ites and 3 Sunnis).

It is customary for Lebanon’s governmental team to be a reflection of the country’s religious demographics. The constitution dictates a balance. The head of government is Sunni, the President of Parliament is Shi’ite, and the President of the Republic is Maronite Christian. This structure was formed following a bloody civil war that pitted all sides against each other. It was intended to create a balance of power to prevent future conflicts.

However, this system has come under pressure both from prolonged Iranian influence through Hezbollah and more recently from protesters. Demonstrations began about four months ago as citizens demanded an overhaul of the ruling system, citing problems with corruption and a worsening economy. Three months have passed since the government had resigned, leaving tensions unresolved and a worsening political climate. Questions have persisted on how this will impact the delicate religious balance reflected within the government’s structure.

For interviews, please contact Olivia Miller, Communications Coordinator: 

Pray for Widow and Children of Murdered Christian in Libya

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We recently received news of a Christian believer named Golibe* who was murdered while rushing another wounded Christian man to the hospital in Libya. During their journey, the men were stopped at a checkpoint. Golibe got into a verbal argument with one of the soldiers there. While the wounded Christian man survived, reports suggest the soldier pointed his gun at Golibe’s head and shot him without any hesitation.

Golibe was a married father of eight children.

Sadly, the situation for other Christians in equally difficult. An armed conflict started in Libya—which is #4 on the World Watch List—at the beginning of April, which aims to take control over the country’s capital of Tripoli. The conflict has already caused several civilian casualties because of shelling and aerial bombardments. Because of the intense fighting, tens of thousands of Libyans have fled their houses and have been displaced to other regions.

Pray for the widow of Golibe and his eight children and that the expat-church in Libya continues to be able to support her.

Please pray Golibe’s widow and her children will be comforted by the Lord. Pray they have strength to be able to forgive Golibe’s murderer whose family has asked for forgiveness.

Pray that the violence in the country will end without further casualties and that stability will come to the country.

*Representative names and photos are sometimes used to protect identity.

Life under ISIS: Raqqa’s Christians tell their story

The handful of Christians remaining in Raqqa tell me what life was like under ISIS – and how they still need help to survive.

The churches of Raqqa lie in ruins following the defeat of ISIS. But remarkably the city’s Christian community has survived.

Before the Syrian conflict began in 2011, Raqqa was home to hundreds of Christian families. Today there are a mere 30 or so individuals, almost all men.

It’s not just the churches that have been reduced to rubble. The rest of the city was largely destroyed in the operation to oust ISIS. In October 2017, the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), backed by Western air power, seized Raqqa from the militants. Although the fighting has ended, the atmosphere remains tense. The Kurdish-led SDF remains in charge, and reconstruction is slowly underway, though ISIS still operates underground.

Anyone who has followed the news over the last few years will be familiar with the crimes of ISIS. They include beheadings, crucifixions and the subjection of non-Muslim women to sexual slavery. Throughout this reign of terror, a small number of Christians remained in the city. They did their best to avoid incurring the wrath of ISIS.

Raqqa’s Christians tell me that, before ISIS took over, the city had been an ideal place to live. They had good relations with their Muslim neighbours. Unlike in other cities in Syria, such as Damascus and Aleppo, Christians did not live in separate neighbourhoods from Muslims, but were spread throughout the city and were fully integrated into the social fabric. They spoke Raqqa’s unique dialect of Arabic. Some of the Christian presence in Raqqa dates to the Armenian Genocide of 1915-1917, when Arab residents of the city protected Armenian Christians from the Ottoman government, and others moved from other parts of Syria as the city grew during the 20th century.

After ISIS took over, the Church of the Forty Martyrs – used by both the Armenian Catholic and the Syriac Orthodox communities – became an Islamic court and a centre for the hisbah, or morality police. Just around the corner, the Greek Catholic Bishara Church became a field hospital. Residents say that both churches were deliberately destroyed by ISIS. But an air strike also hit the Bishara Church, leveling it entirely.

An empty shell of cement and rebar is all that remains of the Church of the Forty Martyrs. It looks out on Harun al-Rashid park, a sad reminder of the city’s recent history.

When ISIS took over, Christians went from being equal citizens to lower than zero, as one Christian from Raqqa told me. (Everyone interviewed for this article – five Christians currently in Raqqa and two living elsewhere in Syria – asked that their names not be used, as the security situation remains uncertain.) When ISIS first seized power, about 100 Christians – mostly men whose families had fled elsewhere – remained. Over the next four years that number steadily decreased.

ISIS viewed the Christians as infidels and repeatedly tried to convert them to Islam. Their approach was strikingly different from that of the first Muslim rulers of Raqqa in around 640 AD. In one version of the conquest of Raqqa, told by the 9th century historian al-Baladhuri, an agreement was reached guaranteeing the safety of the Christian community’s members, churches and money, albeit with certain restrictions. These were, by today’s standards, fairly stringent and included the payment of a jizya tax (levied on non-Muslims) and a ban on displaying crosses or building new churches.

ISIS most certainly did not read this agreement – which might have theoretically bound them as Islamic rulers of Raqqa – when they destroyed the city’s churches. ISIS members would visit the homes of Christians and talk to them about Islam. They would also gather Christians for meetings every month or so and provide lectures by converts from Christianity. (One was French and one a former Coptic Christian, recalled one resident.) ISIS reinstated the jizya tax, which had long ceased to be imposed. The amount paid differed depending on the family’s economic situation.

Christians could not – and did not dare – celebrate feasts such as Easter and Christmas. One resident said people would sometimes discreetly pass by their Christian neighbours’ homes and wish them a happy holiday. But even this was not common as people wanted to avoid attracting attention.

So if you were a Christian from Raqqa, why stay? Most of the people I interviewed said that they knew ISIS’s rule would end soon. They were simply waiting for the storm to pass, and noted that if Christians left, then their homes and businesses were stolen by ISIS. Those who fled risked losing everything they had.

Christians who stayed, however, were allowed to leave for short visits to other areas. They had to present a request to an ISIS official who would approve a visit for a specific length of time. If they overstayed, their possessions would be confiscated.
One resident said he received a call while outside ISIS territory telling him not to bother coming back: the group had taken his house and he would not be able to go back to it, even though he had not exceeded his allotted time.

While the Christians of Raqqa were doing their best to keep their heads down and survive, an international military campaign was underway to defeat ISIS in both Syria and Iraq, as well as Libya and other countries where the group had established a presence. As the campaign to liberate Raqqa moved forward, air strikes intensified and became more unpredictable.

One resident said that for the first few years of ISIS’s rule, air strikes were generally directed at specific targets and were limited in scope. But as the Western-backed SDF approached, they became more frequent and less accurate. It was difficult to distinguish ISIS members from civilians, because the terrorists avoided large crowds, and because all residents were required to follow ISIS’s strict dress codes: beards and Islamic robes for men, full covering for women with no skin or hair showing.

As coalition forces approached, the Syriac Military Council, a Christian-led unit of the SDF, began using its networks within the community to identify how many Christian residents were left in the city and where they were located. As circumstances allowed, they were smuggled to safety. The Syriac Military Council saved many Muslim civilians too.

ISIS was keen to use civilians as human shields, so those working to rescue civilians would wait until coalition airplanes were flying overhead, which usually sent ISIS fighters into hiding to avoid getting hit by bombs. Civilians would then run to safety with the SDF.

Now, more than a year after ISIS’s defeat in the city, a handful of Christian residents have returned to Raqqa. Everyone I spoke to in the city said the security situation is good thanks to the efforts of the SDF. The main barrier to more Christians returning is the destruction of homes and businesses, not the remaining ISIS cells which have attempted to upset the improving security situation in the city.

Local Christians complain there has been no support for the community from inside Syria or abroad. They say that they have received little help from the respective churches which have congregants in the city or from international organisations which have worked to help Christian communities elsewhere rebuild in the wake of ISIS.

More than anything else, this prevents more Christians from returning to the city and rebuilding their lives alongside their Muslim neighbours. Will that support be forthcoming? Will the global Christian community help their brethren in Raqqa to rise from the rubble?

Samuel Sweeney is a former US congressional staffer and is now a writer and translator based in the Middle East. He has a master’s degree in Islamic-Christian Relations from l’Université Saint-Joseph in Beirut

Pray with Nigerian Believers after Another Deadly Attack

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Friends, Open Doors has just received a call for prayer from Nigeria. During the evening of April 29, a group of armed Boko Haram members invaded the Christian community of Kuda which is in the Madagali area of northeastern Nigeria.

The terrorists surrounded the community around 8pm and went door to door, killing as many as 25 people, according to a VOA report.

When community members and security agents were preparing for the burial of the slain the next day, Boko Haram members were spotted approaching for a second attack on the community. The funeral preparations were abandoned as the bereaved believers, sympathizers from neighboring communities and security agents fled. Since the attack many more villagers have fled the town.

Christian leaders in the area told Open Doors, “We are in danger, we have no one to fight for us to end this killing of our people.”

Field workers with Open Doors asked supporters to:

Please pray for the Lord’s grace to be on the church in Madagali area as they face this renewed instability.

Pray for the Holy Spirit to be at work in the lives of all those affected.

Pray that security will be restored soon.

*Representative names and photos are sometimes used to protect identity.

New Phase of Sharia Law in Brunei

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Open Doors asks for your prayers as Brunei intensifies their requirements to obey Sharia Law—Islamic regulations that govern Muslim conduct. They are introducing what is called “penal law,” which their Sultan warns will dispense strict punishments.

The first phase of the Penal Code, implemented in 2014, mandated jail terms and fines for failure to attend Friday prayers, “indecent behavior,” and other offenses. Unfortunately, we have recently learned that a second phase of the Penal Code is planned to launch on April 3rd.

“Pending provisions in Brunei’s Penal Code would allow stoning and amputation as punishments – including for children, to name only their most heinous aspects,” said Rachel Chhoa-Howard, Brunei Researcher at Amnesty International.

This code could further endanger Christians in Brunei, as the country already considers it illegal to share Christ with others or to convert away from Islam.

Please pray for the people of Brunei, including Christians, who will be subjected to this law.

Pray for the church to be both wise and bold in living out their Christian faith. Ask God to be present with them and to give them discernment for how to minister to their communities despite these increasingly fearful conditions.

Pray for the Sultan, especially that he would come to know Christ—he has the power to reverse the Penal Code and return Brunei to its former position.

*Representative names and photos are sometimes used to protect identity.

Predominately Christian Town Under Attack in Syria

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According to International Christian Concern, the Jaysh al-Izza faction of the Free Syrian Army (FSA) recently carried out a second attack on Mhardeh—one of the largest Christian-majority towns in Syria. Sadly, the FSA had previously attacked the same town in September 2018, leaving at least 10 Christians killed and 20 wounded. The city has also been frequently targeted by al-Qaeda and their splinter groups.

Henriette Kats, Persecution Analyst at World Watch Research, comments, “Although in this last attack there were no reports of human loses, this news shows that peace is still far off, despite the fact that the levels of fighting in the Syrian civil war are currently not as high as they have been in the past. Fighting continues particularly in areas close to the frontline where government-held territory—like Mhardeh—borders on areas controlled by rebel militias. But according to Syrian Christians these attacks are not just about the strategic position of Mhardeh; they also suspect an anti-Christian element since neighboring Muslim-majority towns have not been attacked.”

Please pray for peace in Mhardeh and for the Christians there to be beacons of Christ’s love to their neighbors in the midst of persecution.

Pray the war in Syria comes to an end completely.

Pray Syrians’ hope is renewed and revived.

*Representative names and photos are sometimes used to protect identity.

ISIS Beheads 50 Yazidi Sex Slaves as Parting Gift

In a final act of depravity, fleeing ISIS beheaded 50 Yazidi sex slaves, dumping their heads into trash bins for coalition soldiers to find.

ISIS fighters were besieged in their last stronghold – a small area in Baghuz located in eastern Syria. One hundred ISIS jihadis were killed in the final battle in which British Special Forces (SAS) fired 600 mortar bombs and tens of thousands of machine-gun rounds against the terror group.

Speaking to The Mail on Sunday, a source said:

“In their hour of defeat, the jihadis’ cruelty knew no bounds. They conducted a cowardly slaughter of these desperately unfortunate women as a final act of depravity and left their severed heads behind for us to find. The motivation for such a sickening act is beyond comprehension for any remotely normal human being.

“None of the SAS troops who entered Baghuz will forget what they saw, which some soldiers likened to a scene from the film Apocalypse Now. Their only solace is that they have contributed to bringing Islamic State’s reign of terror to an end.”

Surviving ISIS fighters tried to escape by going underground to a system of tunnels they constructed under the town. However, SAS mortar teams and U.S.-French artillery units pounded the openings of the tunnels which were located by drones.

About 200 jihadis still hold an area of about one-fifth of a square mile outside Baghuz where intelligence sources say an equal number of civilian hostages are held. The terror group once controlled 34,000 square miles of territory between western Syria and eastern Iraq, which they called their “caliphate” and ruled over close to 8 million people according to brutal sharialaw.

In 2014, when ISIS roared into Iraq, close to 3,000 women, teenage girls and young boys were abducted by the group. The hostages were Yazidis, Christians, Turkomen and Shabak – all minority groups in Iraq. The women and girls were turned into sex slaves and the boys were recruited as the next generation of jihadis. During the takeover operations, ISIS simply slaughtered the men and teenage boys.

Read it here.

Christians living in a Muslim country ‘143 times more likely’ to be killed by a Muslim than vice versa

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Terrorist attacks against Muslims in the Western world, like the one that took place in Christchurch, are extremely rare.
Friday’s carnage in two mosques in New Zealand, with the death toll currently at 50, is the first major event of its kind since the Quebec City mosque shooting over two years ago – which killed six persons, conservative writer Srdja Trifkovic states in Chronicles Magazine.
Nonetheless, this terrible incident will dominate the headlines infinitely more than any comparable carnage involving Christians, notably the 2017 Palm Sunday church bombings in Alexandria, which killed 45 people, and was all but ignored by the Western media and politicians.
If we put Friday’s killings in perspective, that perspective should include the fact that some 30 million Muslims reside in the Western world today, which makes the probability of any one of them falling victim to a deplorable attack in any given year roughly one in ten million.
261 persons have been killed and many more injured, in attacks by Muslims on non-Muslims, in less than four years, in only one country, France (pop. 66 million).
With 66 dead a year on average, Frenchmen are exactly ten times more likely to be murdered by a Muslim than a Muslim being killed by a non-Muslim terrorist anywhere in the Western world.
The score is incomparably worse if we look at the situation of Christians in the Muslim world. It is the most egregious example of human right violations in today’s world: according to “Open Doors”, at least 4,305 Christians known by name were murdered by Muslims because of their faith in 2018.
Aid to the Church in Need, in its latest “Religious Freedom Report”, warned that 300 million Christians, overwhelmingly in the majority-Muslim countries, were subjected to violence, making it “the most persecuted religion in the world.”
This makes the odds of a Christian in a majority-Muslim country being murdered by a Muslim – simply for being what he is – approximately one in 70,000.
Which means that a Christian living in a majority Muslim country is 143 times more likely to be killed by a Muslim for being a Christian than a Muslim is likely to be killed by a non-Muslim in a Western country for being what he is.
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