Persecuted Christians Of The year

Wednesday, December 5, 2001

Four Examples of Courage and Faith in 2001

There is no such thing as a "typical" persecuted Christian. Yet among the millions of persecuted believers worldwide, some qualities might be considered typical: courage, patience, persistence, and faithfulness. Below are the stories of four Christians currently under great pressure for their faith. They and their families have come to typify those very qualities. They would not claim to be "persecuted Christians of the year" or even desire it. They would only ask not to be forgotten.


Will He Survive Outside Prison?

On January 8, 2002, Turkmenistan's most prominent Christian prisoner was released and reunited with his family, although he had one more year left to serve on his jail term. But it is unclear whether Shageldy Atakov, 39, will survive his country's notoriously harsh treatment of evangelical Christians.

In the first months of his detention under trial, Atakov was beaten so severely that he had to beg his own children not to touch him during their rare visits because he was in such pain. While interred in the remote Seydy labor camp, he was sent repeatedly to the dreaded "shizo" (punishment cell), where local officials had been ordered by the central government to "break him morally or destroy him physically." During one such bout, his Bible was confiscated and burned.

Atakov was then subjected to forced drug treatments that shot his blood pressure up above 190 and left him unconscious for days -- his limbs turned blue from multiple injections. A year ago he was so weakened by heavy doses of psychotropic drugs and a severe case of jaundice that he could barely walk. After suffering early heart attack symptoms last February, he told his wife Artygul goodbye, admitting he did not expect to live out his jail term.

Meanwhile, his wife and five children had been forcibly deported from their home in the central city of Mary into internal exile in far-away Kaakhka, where they remained under "village arrest" near the Iranian border. The children were expelled from school for refusing to bow before the president's portrait and recite an oath of allegiance considered idolatrous by local Christians.

Atakov's wife was pressured by local officials to renounce Christianity and convert to Islam. She had been threatened with the confiscation of her home, where a handful of local Christians meet for worship, and was ordered to send her children back to school.

An indigenous Turkmen convert to Christianity, Atakov was serving as a lay pastor in an independent Baptist congregation in the port city of Turkmenbashi when he was arrested on December 18, 1998. In the months previous to his arrest, he had been warned repeatedly by local officials to stop his preaching or suffer "legal" consequences. But Atakov continued to preach and teach despite threats from the secret police, religious affairs committee representatives and the city's senior Muslim prayer leader.

A car dealer by occupation, Atakov was convicted on trumped-up swindling charges in March 1999 and sentenced to two years in jail. A few months later, the state prosecutor demanded a retrial, claiming the verdict was "too lenient." The courts sentenced him to another two years in prison.

Atakov had been offered his freedom at least twice during his incarceration. In December 2000, he was eligible for a presidential amnesty extended to thousands of prisoners at the close of Ramadan, the Muslim month of fasting. But since the amnesty required Atakov to renounce his Christian faith and recite the Muslim creed, the Christian prisoner declined, even when the offer was repeated in his wife's presence last February.

In a more recent gesture last May, the Turkmen government tried to persuade Atakov and his wife to leave the country for asylum abroad. After they both refused, Atakov was flown from the Turkmenbashi maximum security prison and his wife was transported by car to KNB (security police) headquarters in the Ashgabad capital. There the head of the KNB himself tried to persuade Atakov and his wife to emigrate to the United States. The couple replied "separately and jointly" that they had no wish to leave their country.


One Step from the Gallows

After more than five years in jail, Ayub Masih claims the unhappy distinction of being the longest-jailed Christian prisoner in Pakistan. And after nearly four of those years in solitary confinement on death row, he is just one step away from the gallows, pending a final Supreme Court decision expected within the next few months.

Masih, now 34, remains the classic Christian victim of Pakistan's vague blasphemy laws, amended in the early 1980s under the Zia ul-Haq regime. Under these hated "black laws," the death penalty is mandatory for Masih's alleged crime -- blasphemy against the Muslim prophet Mohammed. But like other Christians accused before and after him, Masih faces a trumped-up charge, apparently fabricated by his accuser for motives more financial than religious.

When arrested on October 14, 1996, in the Punjabi village of Arifwala, Masih was accused by a Muslim neighbor of saying, "If you want to know the truth about Islam, then read Salman Rushdie." The prosecution literally rested its case against Masih on this single claim, without providing any corroborating evidence. Masih denied ever making the statement, but under Islamic law his testimony only carried half the weight of his Muslim accuser.

Meanwhile, Arifwala's 14 Christian families were evicted from their homes and their lands confiscated on the very day of Masih's arrest. Masih's own family home has been occupied ever since by his accuser.

Masih's conviction before a lower court in Sahiwal in April 1998 brought a hail of protests from Pakistan's Christian community, including the shocking suicide eight days later of Catholic Bishop John Joseph of Faisalabad. The prominent bishop had long championed Masih's case as a "concocted" pretext to force the village's handful of Christian families to abandon their lands.

Although an appeal was promptly filed before the provincial high court to block Masih's execution order, the condemned Christian waited more than three years on death row for his first appeals hearing. When it finally came, a surprise verdict from the Multan bench of the Lahore High Court last July rejected the appeal and Masih was again ordered to the gallows.

Now, with his case thrown up to the Supreme Court and his government preoccupied with the post-September 11 war on terrorism, it is unclear whether Pakistan's justice system will finally give him a fair trial.

During his imprisonment, Masih has survived at least two attempts on his life, including a bullet that narrowly missed him as he sat chained outside a Sahiwal courtroom. In the second incident, four Muslim inmates tried to pin him down and stab him with a makeshift weapon, leaving him with slight chest injuries. He has also suffered from lack of proper medical treatment for hemorrhoids and skin allergies, as well as from spartan cell conditions without electricity or running water.

It's somehow appropriate, he admits, that Ayub is the Urdu name for Job, the long-suffering patriarch in the Old Testament.

Like other accused Christian "blasphemers," Masih still faces the reaction of hotheaded Muslim extremists, who have openly vowed to kill him, as well as his lawyer and judges, if he is acquitted. So even if set free, he will have to decide whether to live in hiding in Pakistan under constant threat to his life, or be forced into the lonely life of asylum abroad, far from his family.


Too Honest and Too Fearless

The Reverend Ji Tai is the most high profile "martyr" to Bishop Ding's ill-fated campaign to purge evangelicalism from China's official Protestant church -- the Three Self Patriotic Movement (TSPM).

Now in his late 30s, Ji Tai was sacked from his job as head of the Research Department at Nanjing Theological Seminary in 2000 -- a post which he had held since 1995. Even liberals abroad felt that Ding had gone too far.

Ji Tai was too good a theologian and lecturer to be removed purely for the sin of refusing to think like Ding. Yet the TSPM's loss has been the house church's gain, as Ji Tai now conducts extensive training among their ranks. He illustrates one of the most powerful truths of the Chinese religious experience: when the government tries to squash the house churches, it unwittingly ends up stimulating them!

Ji Tai was groomed for greatness within the Three Self. Handpicked by Bishop Ding in the late 1980s, he was sent abroad for study to hone his theological skills. On his return from Germany, he was slotted into a plum job at the country's most important seminary.

Fluent in English and German, it was expected that, in time, he would become an effective ambassador for the TSPM abroad, meeting religious VIPs and charming them into an exclusive relationship with the official church.

But Ji Tai was too honest and too forthright to accept such a destiny.

Two years after his appointment as head of research at Nanjing, Ding came to him and told him bluntly to "push my thinking." Ji Tai objected not only to the manner of Ding's campaign but to its content.

"It was no solution to replace evangelicalism with liberalism," he said, "Rather all that was needed was that evangelicalism be reformed, not replaced."

Also, he knew what few others did, that Ding's campaign in the final analysis was not about theology at all, but about "showing to the Party that he [Ding] was still useful."

Most evangelicals in the TSPM just hunkered down and hoped to sit out the storm, but Ji Tai went on the offensive. He wrote and published articles such as, "Can Religion Be Compatible with Society?" in which he argued against Ding's agenda.

Eventually, in the year 2000, Ji Tai was forced to resign and was banned from teaching students at the seminary. But this only flushed him into the grateful arms of the house church, where he quickly established himself as a key teacher of senior house church leaders, who are the first to admit that their theological training is rudimentary.

Ji Tai is still honest and fearless, happy to meet with anyone passing through Nanjing. He uses his high profile status to challenge Western religious leaders about their cooperation with the TSPM.

"Western evangelicals must make a better job of supporting the house churches," he says, "because if you support only them, then the government has to change its policy. But if you support the TSPM, then nothing changes for the better because the government realizes the TSPM is still useful."

The year 2001 was a triumph for Ji Tai, because in the last quarter, government leaders drastically curtailed Ding's campaign, aware that it had completely backfired.

Internationally, the adverse publicity was hurting China; domestically, the government could not stand by and see hundreds of the TSPM's best and brightest depart for the house churches.

But Ji Tai's other challenge remains: Can Western evangelicals resist the lure of exclusive cooperation with the TSPM and support the house churches more unequivocally, thus forcing the government to change a policy of religious control centered around an invasive and controlling official church?


Searching for Justice

Chely Heredia de Vinatea is a full-time advocate for her imprisoned evangelical husband, Col. David de Vinatea. She visits him every women's visitation day at Lurigancho Prison near Lima, makes sure the lawyer leaves no stone unturned in defending her husband's case, publicizes the case to those who may be able to influence authorities and appears in court every time the case comes up for appeal.

David de Vinatea is a decorated Peruvian army officer who was sent for six months to fight drug trafficking in a notorious zone of the country. His thorough job of arresting illegal drug traffickers was an obstacle to superiors, however, who themselves were involved in this multi-billion-dollar industry.

To get rid of de Vinatea, corrupt individuals rigged his trial with judges who apparently were under the influence of former President Fujimori's security chief, Vladimiro Montesinos, who is now in prison. De Vinatea refused to become involved or take a bribe to cover up the crimes of his superiors. He was arrested in late 1994 and later was sentenced to 16 years for narco-trafficking crimes.

Mrs. de Vinatea brings her imprisoned husband food and encouragement letters from Christians around the world who have heard of the case and are praying for him. She meticulously archives evidence -- almost all of which a succession of judges presiding over the case has ignored -- and court documents. The letters of support she stores in boxes in her husband's home office, hoping that someday soon he will be able to review them all in freedom. She writes letters and makes phone calls to authorities pleading for justice in her husband's case.

Though her efforts seem to have accomplished little toward the goal of freeing her husband, she must remain strong under a tortuous, ongoing denial of justice. Many times the de Vinatea family has dared to believe that he would be freed, only to have their hopes dashed. De Vinatea has developed a stress-related heart condition while in prison, and his doctors have restricted his diet.

"I'm very grateful for the support received with your prayers, which really encourage us in this difficult test we're going through," Mrs. de Vinatea says to those who have prayed for her husband's plight for the eight years he has been imprisoned.

With reporting by Deann Alford, Barbara Baker and Alex Buchan.

Copyright 2002, Compass News Direct. Used with Permission.