By / Jul 13

Forced displacement is a growing and urgent global crisis. A multitude of conditions, including religious persecution, force people from their homes to pursue safety and the well-being of their families. As the worldwide refugee crisis becomes increasingly dire, churches have an opportunity to profoundly affect displaced people by extending compassion, hospitality, and advocacy. 

Tariq is a refugee from Pakistan who arrived in New York City in 2007. Upon arriving, he connected with an SBC church that helped him settle and assist his family in joining him in the United States. Tariq and his family started a ministry in their neighborhood that serves immigrants in getting settled and integrated into life in the United States. I had the privilege of interviewing Tariq about his family’s journey.

Tell us about your experience in Pakistan before you moved to the United States?

In Pakistan, I worked for a nonprofit called CARITAS, a Catholic organization that serves impoverished communities with assistance in development and poverty alleviation. I worked to coordinate agriculture development and identify community needs to figure out how the nonprofit could help them. Some more extremist groups in Pakistan were opposed to the organization I worked for because it was faith-based. I began receiving threats that if I didn’t cease my community work, I would be killed, and my family would be harmed. My family started receiving threats as well. 

In Pakistan, there are blasphemy laws that are used to persecute religious minorities. These blasphemy laws are often abused. Christians, as well as other minority religions, are often falsely accused. If two people can confirm someone has broken the blasphemy law, an individual can be thrown in jail, even executed, and are often attacked by mobs. 

How did you come to the United States?

Given the threats against my family and me, I decided to flee Pakistan to the United States while my family moved to another place in Pakistan and went into hiding to avoid threats. In 2007, I applied for a visa through my job at the nonprofit. I was connected with someone in New York City who worked for the organization. It took a while to get all of the paperwork confirmed, but I moved to New York once I received my visa. 

What was your experience like when you arrived in the United States?

I felt like a stranger because I was in a new country and didn’t know anything about the city. Thankfully I met a friend from Pakistan who gave me a place to stay for the first year. 

I got connected through a reference to a church called New Hope in Queens. They prayed for my family and me to be able to be reunited. They prayed for me to get a green card and for my wife to get a visa, and both of those eventually happened. They encouraged me. 

They also paid my rent for several months while I could not find work and invited me to share my testimony at church. After a few years, they helped me earn my Master’s degree and begin my career in social work. 

When my wife arrived with our first child in 2010, she felt we should start an organization that could help people in our same position. That year, we created a nonprofit in our community called International Community Care Foundation. Our objective was to support new immigrants to the United States in order to empower them, build their links to communities and churches, and help them adjust to a new home. We also sought to help people who were being persecuted back in Pakistan.

How do you serve other immigrants in your community?

Our church helped us to start our community organization by supporting us financially and with volunteers. We host an ESL program, a children’s program, we connect immigrants to job opportunities, and we help them apply for green cards and citizenship. We have helped over 40 women train in English and eventually get connected to jobs. All of our programs are hosted in our apartment complex. 

We started the children’s program when we realized some moms could not attend because they were watching their children. At the children’s program, we teach English and math, share Bible stories, and put on fun activities. 

The community of immigrants who join us is diverse. We have Muslims, Hindus, Christians, and people from South Asia, Latin America, and Africa. 

What would you like people to know about those who are seeking asylum?

In many countries like Pakistan, life is tough for groups that are persecuted. You are very vulnerable because the blasphemy laws are set up to be used against you at any time. Often women are forcibly converted. It is very dangerous and frightening to be persecuted, but it also puts you in a situation where you lack financial opportunities and often lack basic needs like food. Also, being in that situation can affect your faith, and Christians need encouragement to persevere. I would love to see more people from the United States support and encourage those persecuted worldwide. There are organizations that you can support that help persecuted Christians. 

How can churches support displaced people in the United States?

The support of a church and community can transform a refugee’s life. It certainly transformed my life. The most important thing for me was that I had a community that welcomed me and encouraged me to grow in my faith. This helped me persevere through difficult times. 

Beyond that, financial support and guidance can help get refugees on their feet. It is costly to get legal aid to apply for asylum. It can cost up to $10,000. If you are new to the country, this can be very difficult. Sponsoring someone for asylum is a great way to help. 

Once refugees are established, they can turn around and support other people who are new to the country and need help. Each church can make a significant impact by even helping one person. Also, finding organizations that support refugees and immigrants is a great way for churches to help. 

The answers have been edited for brevity and clarity. If you would like to learn more about Tariq’s organization, International Community Care Foundation, visit their website, Facebook page, or e-mail [email protected].

To learn more about how the refugee and asylum process works in the United States, visit this ERLC explainer.

By / Nov 1

Pakistan’s Supreme Court has overturned the death penalty conviction of Asia Bibi, a Pakistani Christian who was “accused of defiling the name of the Prophet Muhammed during an argument with three Muslim women” in 2010.

Who is Asia Bibi?

Asia Bibi is a devout Catholic mother of five from the Punjab region in Pakistan. According to journalist Farahnaz Ispanhani, Bibi, “an illiterate berry picker,” is a victim of the unjust blasphemy laws of Pakistan. Bibi was “accused by her Muslim neighbors who objected to her drinking water from the same glass as them because she was a Christian.” In October 2016, Sarah Zylstra reported for Christianity Today that during Bibi’s argument with the women, she asked, “I believe in my religion and in Jesus Christ, who died on the cross for the sins of mankind. What did your Prophet Muhammed ever do to save mankind?” The question was not tolerated, and Bibi was beaten and thrown into prison under the pretense of a charge of blasphemy. During her imprisonment, Bibi wrote her own account of the story.

Blasphemy laws in Pakistan

As multiple news sources have reported, Bibi is the only woman ever to be sentenced to death in Pakistan for violation of blasphemy laws. In most cases, when a person is accused of blasphemy, they are either killed by mob violence or left for dead in prison because no lawyer will represent them in court due to fear.

The current blasphemy laws in Pakistan originated under the dictatorship of Muhammed Zia ul Haq. Farahnaz Ispanhani notes:

. . . in 1980, making a derogatory remark against any Islamic personage was defined as a crime under Pakistan’s Penal Code Section 295, punishable by three years in prison. In 1982, another clause was added that prescribed life imprisonment for ‘willful desecration of the Quran’ and, in 1986, a separate clause was added to punish blasphemy against Prophet Muhammed with ‘death, or imprisonment for life.’

Any leaders in Pakistan who oppose or seek to change such blasphemy laws have been met with violence and protest. The most significant source of violence and protest against the change of blasphemy laws in Pakistan has come from an Islamic political party called, Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan. Though initially founded by Khadim Hussain Rizvi, the party gained notoriety after the assassination of Salman Taseer, the Governor of Punjab from 2008 to 2011, by Mumtaz Qadri, a Barelvi Muslim who believed that Taseer deserved to die for his support of Bibi. Qadri was eventually tried, convicted, and executed by the Islamabad High Court. According to Sophia Saifi, Chieu Luu, and Susannah Cullinane, Qadri’s execution in 2016 for the murder of Taseer “has been attracting political and religious support through Pakistan.” Such support can be seen with the protest outside of Pakistan’s Supreme Court, where supporters of Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan gathered in recent days to call for Bibi’s execution.

The role of the U.S. Government in cases of international religious liberty

With Asia Bibi’s death sentence being overturned, Pakistani political leaders come to a crossroads regarding the future of blasphemy laws in their country. Opposition to blasphemy laws is often met with harsh and violent resistance from groups like Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan. Just two years after Bibi’s conviction in 2010, Pakistanis saw two prominent politicians assassinated for their support of Bibi and their opposition to the current blasphemy laws. These leaders were willing to die to oppose the injustice and oppression of their country’s laws. The question remains as to whether other leaders will be willing to risk political loss or even physical death to oppose certain aspects of an Islamic theocracy in Pakistan and advocate for aspects of toleration and religious liberty for the religious minorities in their midst.

In particular, many are curious to see how Imran Khan, the newly elected prime minister of Pakistan, will navigate the news of Bibi’s acquittal. While some fear that Khan’s populist campaign inclines him to the agenda of groups like Tehreek-e-Labbaik, others are hopeful that Bibi’s acquittal will give Khan an opportunity to take a strong stance “with the innocent woman instead of the rabid and bloodthirsty extremists.” According to the most recent news reports, it appears that Khan will back the decision of the Supreme Court and align himself against groups like Tehreek-e-Labbaij Pakistan.

With the news of Bibi’s case, the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) announced that it “welcomes the decision by Pakistan’s Supreme Court to overturn the death sentence handed down in 2010.” USCIRF, as the ERLC has reported in the past, is an “independent, bipartisan government commission created as part of the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998 (IRFA). Since 2002, USCIRF has designated Pakistan as a “country of particular concern” on account of “ongoing, systemic, egregious violations of religious freedom.”

In response to the findings of USCIRF, the commission called for the “use of tools such as the denial of visas and the freezing of assets against the specific individuals who have participated in or have been responsible for severe violations of religious freedom.” Such international pressure, while not publicly admitted by foreign governments, is often useful in curbing threats to international religious liberty. Admittedly, while there is more work to be done in Pakistan, this ruling represents a significant victory for religious freedom. The ERLC is grateful to God for the outcome of this court case.

A way forward, prayerful advocacy for the persecuted church

As Christians reflect on the details of this case, we must remember that not everyone's case ends with acquittal, the way Asia Bibi's did. Many unnamed victims suffer substantial oppression from intolerant governments around the world. Moreover, while we do not hear all of their stories, our Father in heaven sees all, knows all, and call us as his children to care for the “least of these” (Matt. 25:40). How, then, can we care for those who are persecuted?

First, we can pray regularly for their faith and endurance in the midst of hardship. In the case of Asia Bibi, we can pray for the government to protect her and her family as she is released and most likely seeks asylum in another country due to the threats in Pakistan.

Second, we can visit them, support them, and encourage them in partnership with international ministries like the IMB or Open Doors USA.

Third, we can equip our congregations with a global vision of the church of Jesus Christ through education and special emphasis efforts like Global Hunger Relief or International Day of Prayer for the Persecuted Church.

Finally, we can learn more about the efforts of USCIRF [here and here] and call upon our elected officials in the United States to continue their support of such bipartisan efforts for international religious liberty.

By / Jul 15

Every Friday, we bring to you the top five international stories of the week, with a particular emphasis on religious liberty, justice issues, and geopolitical issues that impact liberty and justice.

1. Terror attack in Nice, France kills 84. A large truck drove nearly a mile through a crowd of people celebrating Bastille Day, a major French holiday. Two children have been killedMohamed Lahouaiej Bouhlel, a 31-year-old French citizen born in Tunisia. Bouhlel had a minor police record and was not on the French authorities’ watch list of radicalized young men. This is the third major attack in France in 19 months.

2. Russia’s Putin signs law cracking down on religious minorities. Soon, talking about your faith outside a church with a person who is not a member of your religion will be illegal in Russia. Russia’s new anti-religious freedom bill will give the state unprecedented power to discriminate against religious minorities, driving religious minorities back underground and stoking the flames of extremism in Russia.

3. Conflicts are brewing in the South China Sea and the Korean Peninsula over territorial claims and missile defense. This week, an international arbitration panel in The Hague ruled against China’s territorial claims over a number of islands in the South China Sea that are also claimed by China, Vietnam, the Philippines, Taiwan, Malaysia and Brunei. Although the islands are largely uninhabited, claim to the islands brings fishing rights, trade routes, and undersea mineral rights. Beijing has refused the honor the arbitration panel’s ruling, instead asserting its right to establish an air defense zone over its claimed territory. For more on this, the BBC and New York Times have helpful explainers.

In other air defense news in the region, North Korea has threatened a “physical response” to the US’s plans to deploy a THAAD missile-defense system in South Korea. North Korea’s aggression is growingly worrying, as even China seems unable to rein in Pyongyang’s military development.

4. Boris Johnson, former Mayor of London, named the UK’s new foreign secretary. Johnson, who is not known for his diplomatic demeanor, will play a key role in leading the UK into a new post-EU reality. Many questions remain about the future of UK foreign policy and the extent of Johnson’s influence. Johnson has publicly advocated that the UK should work with Russia and Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad to defeat ISIS. In 2006, Johnson wrote that Iran should be allowed to obtain nuclear weapons.

5. In Pakistan, a Christian family flees their village after an accusation of blasphemy. World Watch Monitor: “A Pakistani Christian and his family have fled their home in the religiously conservative city of Gujrat, after he was accused of committing blasphemy by sending an offensive message via mobile-phone text. . . . One of James’s brothers, Faryad, told World Watch Monitor that police then ‘forcibly took away and beat’ two of Nadeem’s sisters-in-law, including one who has an 18-month-old son, in order to pressure them to provide information of James’s whereabouts. However, the police told local newspapers that the two women were being kept in ‘protective custody’ and would be released if any organisation took responsibility for their safety.”

Have suggestions for a top 5 article this week or think there’s an issue we should be covering? Email me at [email protected].

By / Apr 1

Chances are, the attack in Brussels last week captured your imagination and consumed your attention. You’ve probably closely followed updates on the manhunt in Brussels or Paris or the extradition of Salah Abdeslam.

But you might have missed the fact that there was another major bombing in Istanbul just 24 hours earlier claimed by the Islamic State. And you might have also missed the horrific attack in Lahore, Pakistan, this week that killed at least 74 people and wounded 362, almost double the death toll of the Brussels attack.

It’s true for me, too: I care less about the attack in Pakistan than I do the Brussels attack. I’m less hungry for news about the attack in Pakistan. Only when I found out that the attack in Pakistan was specifically targeting Christians on Easter Sunday did the story really pique my interest.

I don’t like this about myself, and I wish it wasn’t true. Ian Bremmer, NYU professor and political scientist, tweeted this image that pretty much sums it up for us Americans:

Part of the issue, undoubtedly, is that there has been a lot less coverage of the Lahore attack than the Brussels post. The New York Times has published several in memoriam pieces (and rightly so). But this sort of empathy-driven coverage has been notably lacking for the attack in Lahore.

Martin Belam, with London’s Guardian laments the lack of coverage, but he goes on to say “it is also regretfully true that there seems to be less of an audience.” In other words, the reason why there are so few articles on the Lahore attacks is that no one reads them.

Why don’t we care more?

There are lots of reasons why we don’t seem to care about terror attacks in the Middle East, Central Asia and South Asia. We probably don’t have many (or any) Pakistani friends. And even if we do, our conversations with them probably haven’t helped us to get a sense of what life is like in Pakistan or develop a sense of empathy for the Pakistanis as a people.

Further, most of us have never been there and have no memories associated with those places. Because we don’t have vacation pictures from Lahore (and likely don’t know anyone who does), it’s hard to get a mental picture of what the park was like where the explosions were.

Lastly, we’re inoculated against the impact of these stories because terror attacks seem to happen in Pakistan all the time. Whether it is polite to admit it or not, many of us subconsciously believe that these things are supposed to happen there. The reason the Brussels attack hit us so hard is that it was out of the ordinary. Some researchers call this compassion fatigue, and we all experience it.

A call for empathy and prayer

For Christians, our response to this situation can’t just be to shrug and accept that this is just the way things are. In Paul’s discourse on the “ministry of reconciliation” in 2 Corinthians 5, he tells us “From now on, therefore, we regard no one according to the flesh.” What this means for us is that the way we naturally view others—through the lenses of tribe, ethnicity, proximity—aren’t the way we view people anymore in Christ. The gospel transforms all of us, including our ability and capacity to empathize with those that are not like us.

How can we empathize and pray more effectively? Here are three ways:

1. Build relationships with immigrants, refugees, and those from other cultures. These relationships will expand our ability to care about the places where these friends are from—having a friend from China will help us to care about China and the Chinese people. But these relationships also open our eyes to differences in culture and make us more sensitive to people who are not like us.

2. Pray through the international section of the newspaper this Saturday. This Saturday, pick up a physical copy of the newspaper and open to the international briefs section. Spend a few minutes to read the stories and pray for those affected by the story. Pastors, Mark Dever occasionally leads his church in corporate prayer using this or a similar method.

3. Intentionally seek out international news. All of our Facebook and Twitter feeds are populated with news and information from people that are like us—they are our friends after all. This means that intentionality is required if we are going to get our of our echo chamber. Sign up for an international digest from your favorite newspaper. If you’ll forgive the shameless plug, each Friday, I round up the top international stories of the week (here is last week’s entry). Justin Long also has an excellent weekly roundup (sign up for his newsletter here).

The international news can be overwhelming; much of it is depressing and about faraway places that we don’t really understand. But let us push through these challenges and lift up the poor, marginalized, and oppressed around the world in prayer, praying for justice and for mercy.