Homecoming for Iraqi Christians

Assyrians celebrate Christmas Eve in a church reclaimed from Islamic State

Iraqis attend Christmas Mass at the Mar Shimoni church in Bartella, a predominantly Christian town recently recaptured from Islamic State. (Chris McGrath / Getty Images)

By Molly Hennessy-Fiske / LATimes.com

Ten white buses sped west from the northern Iraqi city of Irbil on Saturday morning, packed with displaced Assyrians intent on spending Christmas Eve in their mostly Christian hamlet, recaptured in October from Islamic State.

“I miss my church and my town,” said one of the drivers, Ibrahim Behnam, 50.

When they arrived for an 11 a.m. Mass at the Mar Shimoni church, they found a Christmas tree at the entrance, flanked by armed guards. Snipers perched on the roof.

Two days earlier, suicide bombers had attacked a busy market just a few miles west, killing 23 people. But that didn’t stop several hundred of the faithful from making a pilgrimage home.

“I know all of them,” said Father Yacoub Saad Shamas, noting that the church once served 2,000 families.

The priest darted across the church courtyard in his black cassock, welcoming worshipers as gray skies threatened rain.

An elderly woman kissed his hand. Iraqi military commanders greeted him warmly, as did U.S. Army Lt. Col. Ed Matthaidess III, who brought a dozen members of the 101st Airborne Division. The Americans sat at the back of the sanctuary with an interpreter.

As the church filled, women slipped on lacy black mantillas and filed up into the balcony, past singed walls still spray-painted with warnings of bombs, since removed. Windows and crosses were broken, but the crystal chandelier was unharmed, reflecting the glow of the altar as they prayed in Assyrian and Arabic.

“God protect us and clean us from the inside,” the priest intoned. “You are the almighty God, our God forever.”

It was Samira Aziz’s first visit since Bartella was freed. The 50-year-old maid thought of her mother, who had always wanted to be buried here next to her son, a soldier killed years ago in the Iran-Iraq war. She died last year, after the family fled east to the semiautonomous Kurdish region of Iraq, and had to be buried in Irbil.

“I am happy, but with a broken heart,” said Aziz.

Sgt. Maj. Mokhles Salem Yousef, a local police officer, brought his two sons, ages 8 and 5, to see a hometown they barely remember. Before Mass, they stopped by their old house, now empty, their toys destroyed.

The church bells rang and drowned out, for a time, the boom of fighting in nearby Mosul.

Behnam, the bus driver, stepped outside for a break. During the drive in, he was upset to see Shiite Muslim flags hanging from empty homes, installed there by the Iraqi forces who ousted Islamic State from the town.

“We just want the Iraqi flag,” he said.

Behnam feared most of his neighbors would not rebuild. At least 400 homes were destroyed, hundreds more burned and looted, according to the priest. There’s no electricity or running water. Some former residents have already moved abroad.

“I’m not sure I will return,” Behnam said.

He pointed to a statue of a church patriarch, its head knocked off by militants. Beyond that lay the church cemetery, where Islamic State fighters dug into graves and planted a rocket.

Many here fear the fighters could return if Mosul isn’t captured and secured soon. Nearby Gogjali, where the suicide bombers struck this week, was supposed to have been freed November 1.

Behnam said he felt safe with all the soldiers at the church. “But to come back and sleep here as a family? No.”

His family of eight has settled into two trailers at a camp in Irbil that is full of Assyrians who fled Islamic State’s lightning advance across parts of northern and central Iraq two years ago. The camp has expanded to include restaurants, a barbershop and a room where elderly men play cards.

Khaled Ishak Matti, 46, a mechanical engineer whose house was destroyed by the militants, was more defiant.

Assyrians have endured here for 6,000 years, he said, surviving Arab, Mongol and Persian rule. He intends to rebuild and wants the U.S.-led coalition to help protect the town.

“This is our land,” he said. “But life cannot be like before. We need security, safety.”

Neama Aggula, a 42-year-old civil engineer, said militants stole everything from her house, “even the doors.” She has not had a Christmas tree since she fled to Irbil and is holding off getting one until she moves back home.

As Mass ended, Saida Hama, 75, walked quickly out the door and down a nearby alley strewn with pots, pans, fans, heaters and other debris, toward what remained of her small orange house.

Hama wore a large wooden cross and a green scarf that barely shielded her from the rain. At home, she found her disabled son, Mazin Danou, who uses leg braces, sorting through the dusty remains of their household.

“Daesh took what was in good condition,” he said, using an Arabic acronym for Islamic State. They stole the refrigerator, stove, water pump, gas drums.

As the pair stood under an olive tree in the yard, a boom sounded in the distance. “From Mosul,” he said.

Hama hurried off to another church, where she had arranged to meet neighbors to pray.

She passed the ruins of a priest’s house, then the downtown shopping district, showrooms all smashed, including a mini-mart her son once ran. Finally, she reached St. George’s, doors gaping, rubble strewn across the floor, the altar charred black.

It was past 3 p.m. Soon the buses would depart for Irbil. On Sunday, there would be more Masses for other families and Assyrian troops stationed in nearby towns.

Bashir Shamon Sadea, a tribal council leader, said the community needs help fighting “dark forces.”

“Daesh came to kill the soul. But they couldn’t. They killed the body,” Sadea said outside Mar Shimoni. “We are back now.”

***

Displaced Assyrians returned to Bartella to celebrate Mass in the mostly Christian town that was recaptured from Islamic State–video.


Video (below) from Oct. 23, 2016 post: Times Special Correspondent Nabih Bulos walks through a Christian church in Bartella, a town just east of Mosul formerly occupied by Islamic State militants.

Iraqi Christians Reclaim Their Town

Chinese Christian sent to prison

By Javier C. Hernández / NYTimes.com

BEIJING — An advocate for democracy and religious freedom in China was sentenced to more than seven years in prison on Wednesday (August 3, 2016), the state news media reported, as the government continued its prosecution of a group of rights activists accused of subverting state power.

Hu Shigen, in court in Tianjin, China, on Wednesday, has long been an outspoken advocate of religious freedom. Credit CCTV, via Associated Press
Hu Shigen, in court in Tianjin, China, on Wednesday, has long been an outspoken advocate of religious freedom. Credit CCTV, via Associated Press

The advocate, Hu Shigen, 61, has been a fierce and fiery defender of free expression and the right to protest. He has already served a 16-year prison term for helping publicize the government’s assault on student protesters near Tiananmen Square in 1989. As a Christian, he has also led several underground churches.

On Wednesday, the authorities made clear that Mr. Hu’s religious activities and support for Western ideals had contributed to his harsh sentence.

Xinhua, the state-run news agency, reported that Mr. Hu had used “illegal” religious groups to “spread subversive thoughts and ideas.” Prosecutors accused him of trying to manipulate public opinion to overthrow the government.

Mr. Hu pleaded guilty, according to Xinhua, although his friends said his admission was probably coerced.

Mr. Hu was the second activist to be sentenced this week in Tianjin, a city about 80 miles southeast of Beijing, as part of a series of trials that the government has used to publicize its crackdown on China’s “rights defense” movement. On Tuesday, it sentenced Zhai Yanmin, another activist, to a suspended three-year prison term for organizing protests critical of the government. [Among the evidence presented in Zhai’s trial on Tuesday was a photo of him being baptized at a meeting of an underground church run by Hu.]

Activist Zhai Yanmin was found guilty of subverting state powers and handed a suspended three-year sentence
Activist Zhai Yanmin was found guilty of subverting state powers and handed a suspended three-year sentence

Over the past year, the authorities have detained hundreds of lawyers and activists, accusing many of them of plotting against the party. At least 15 people remain in detention and have not been given trials, according to Amnesty International.

“The message is clear: The government wants to show that it does not tolerate any dissent,” said Patrick Poon, a China researcher for Amnesty International based in Hong Kong.

Mr. Hu was a leader of several churches that operated without the government’s approval. President Xi Jinping has tightened oversight of such churches in recent years, concerned that Christianity might be used to spread Western ideals and open the door to what he has called “overseas infiltration by religious means.”

The trials this week have been notable for their repeated attacks on foreigners, which have dovetailed with a broader effort by the government to increase oversight of foreign entities operating in China. A propaganda video that surfaced on social media this week warned that Western forces, led by the United States, were seeking to incite social conflict abroad and subvert foreign governments.

At the trial on Wednesday, prosecutors highlighted Mr. Hu’s ties to foreign groups. In a statement before the court, Mr. Hu said he had “long been influenced by bourgeois liberalism,” according to Xinhua.

Friends of Mr. Hu said they doubted that his confession was genuine. Zhu Hong, an activist who served as a leader of an underground church alongside Mr. Hu several years ago, compared him to Nelson Mandela.

“He is a true believer who fights and sacrifices for his convictions,” said Mr. Zhu, who now lives in California. “Making a confession is just a strategy, not his will.”

Mr. Hu was imprisoned from 1992 to 2008 for his role in spreading information about the government’s attack on protesters near Tiananmen Square. He had helped devise a plan to drop pro-democracy fliers on the square on the third anniversary of the crackdown, but he was caught and sentenced to two decades in prison for leading a “counterrevolutionary ring.”

While in prison, Mr. Hu endured frequent beatings and abuse, he later told friends. But every year on June 4, the anniversary of the Tiananmen crackdown, he made a point of fasting, he said, to remember the dead.

In a statement earlier this week, the families and supporters called the trials “ridiculous and evil”, calling for them to be given international attention.

Families and supporters of those on trial called it "ridiculous and evil"
Families and supporters of those on trial called it “ridiculous and evil”

Chinese Christians Forced to Destroy Church Crosses or Face Punishment

Believers take part in a weekend mass at an underground Catholic church in Tianjin. (PHOTO: REUTERS/KIM KYUNG-HOON)
Believers take part in a weekend mass at an underground Catholic church in Tianjin. (PHOTO: REUTERS/KIM KYUNG-HOON)

By Stoyan Zaimov / ChristianPost.com

Chinese Christians across several congregations are facing the choice of voluntarily dismantling the crosses on their own churches, or seeing government officials come in and forcibly demolish them, reports have said.

China Aid reported that the number of church crosses demolished in Zhejiang since the beginning of 2016 has risen to 49, as the Communist Party continues to send soldiers to churches across several provinces to take down their crosses.

Churches in Zhejiang have been given official notices telling them that they have to comply to the orders and take down the crosses, which the government argues is due to building code violations.

ChinaAid and several other persecution watchdog groups have pointed out, however, that the cross removal campaign, which has led to several pastors and hundreds of Christians being temporarily arrested, is in reality linked to the government’s attempts to control the rising Christian population in the country.

The report detailed several instances of churches receiving similar notices, and the consequences they have suffered for refusing to comply. Zhongchang Church in Wenzhou for instance has had its water and electricity cut.

Hai’an Church, also in Wenzhou, refused to take down its cross, which led to the local government sending 100 officers to forcefully demolish the cross on March 4.

In some cases, however, such as Luxi Church, the congregants blocked the entrance and stayed together and prayed, singing Christian songs, which on March 1 forced the demolition crew to cancel the demolition in order to avoid an accident.

The Chinese government has been tightening its grip on Christianity in a number of different ways. Earlier in March it was revealed that Roman Catholic officials will soon be required to carry around ID cards stating their faith, which groups such as the International Christian Concern have compared to “Nazi-like” requirements.

China’s two government-controlled Catholic organizations have also agreed to ordain bishops “under the leadership of the government,” something with the Vatican strongly opposes, as it argues that church leaders should be chosen by the church, not by the ruling government.

The crackdown on church crosses has also led to very high-profile arrests, such as the formal charge against Pastor Gu Yuese of Hangzhou’s Chongyi Church, the largest government-sanctioned church in China.

Pastor Saeed Abedini Released!

BY ETHAN COLE / CHRISTIANPOST.com

Pastor Saeed Abedini has been released from prison in Iran after more than three years of incarceration for his Christian faith.

Pastor Saeed Abedini in an undated photo. (photo: ACLJ.org)
Pastor Saeed Abedini in an undated photo. (photo: ACLJ.org)

Abedini, a U.S. citizen who has attracted high-profile advocates for his release including President Obama and members of Congress, was released on Saturday along with three other detained Americans: Washington Post correspondent Jason Rezaian; former Marine Amir Hekmati, and Nosratollah Khosavi-Roodsari, The Washington Post reported. Senior U.S. administration officials also confirmed the release of the four prisoners, according to CNN.

Abedini’s wife, Naghmeh, who has tirelessly campaigned for his release since his imprisonment, said in a statement, “This has been an answer to prayer. This is a critical time for me and my family. We look forward to Saeed’s return and want to thank the millions of people who have stood with us in prayer during this most difficult time.”

Pastor Greg Laurie of Harvest Christian Fellowship in California, who has publicly advocated and prayed for Abedini’s release, posted on his Facebook Saturday: “American Pastor, Saeed Abedini along with the 3 other American prisoners have been released from Prison in Iran! This is an answered prayer! For years the hashtag has been #SaveSaeed Now, we can update it to #GodsavedSaeed”

The four Americans were released by Iran in exchange for at least six people imprisoned by the United States and also ahead of the nearing implementation of the July 2015 historic nuclear deal between Tehran and six world powers. Iranian President Hassan Rouhani had previously said that Abedini would not be released until 19 Iranian prisoners held in the U.S. are granted their freedom.

American Center for Law and Justice (ACLJ), the legal group representing Abedini’s wife and family, noted that they first heard news that Saeed was released from his prison cell to Iran’s Central Intelligence agency late Friday night. It was not until Saturday morning that they were able to confirm that the pastor was really freed.

“This is a major victory. We are incredibly grateful to the more than 1.1 million people who have joined us in fighting across the globe for Pastor Saeed’s freedom,” said Jay Sekulow, chief counsel of ACLJ, in a statement.

“We’re delighted this day has finally arrived,” Sekulow continued. “We have worked and prayed that this day would finally arrive. And now, Pastor Saeed can return home.”

Pastor Saeed Abedini of Boise, Idaho, had served over three years of an eight year sentence in Iran for the supposed crime of endangering national security, but in reality it was because of his Christian faith. Abedini is a Muslim convert to Christianity and was in Iran working on building an orphanage when he was suddenly arrested. He had endured physical, emotional and psychological abuse during his imprisonment, according to his family, but resolutely stated that he would not renounce his Christian faith to escape punishment.

Naghmeh Abedini often shared that their two young children, aged 9 and 5, have missed their father terribly and it was difficult as a mother to endure her children’s pain. With news that Saeed has indeed been released, the family will finally be reunited after years apart.

“We are grateful for the release of Pastor Saeed. The prayers of the Body of Christ all over the world have been answered,” reflected Russell Moore, president of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission. “This day of celebration should remind us to pray and work all the more for the multitudes still persecuted for their faith all over the world, including in Iran. We hope and long for the day when Iran, and nations like it, are free from those who wish to enslave the conscience at the point of a sword.”

Iran Arrests 9 Christians on Christmas Day for Celebrating Jesus Christ

By Stoyan Zaimov / ChristianPost.com

The government of Iran reportedly arrested a group of nine Christians on Christmas Day (2015) for celebrating their faith at an in-house church in the city of Shiraz.

“There has been a steady deterioration of human rights abuses in Iran during Hassan Rouhani’s tenure as president, including executions and suppression of religious and ethnic minorities,” said Shahin Gobadi of the Foreign Affairs Committee of the National Council of Resistance of Iran.

“This is just another case in point. Actually, the clerical regime is one of the top violators of rights of religious minorities, including Christians, in the world. The regime has institutionalized repression of the Iranian people as the main tool of its survival.”

NCRI reported that plain-clothed agents of Iran’s Ministry of Intelligence and Security raided the church on Friday, Christmas Day, and confiscated personal items, including satellite dishes, along with arresting the nine Christians.

Just a couple of days earlier on Wednesday, the MOIS agents arrested Meysam Hojjati, another Iranian Christian, in the central city of Isfahan, beating and handcuffing him while confiscating his personal items, even his decorated Christmas tree.

Iran continuously detains Christians for practicing their faith, deeming them a threat to national security. Last week, it freed Pastor Farshid Fathi Malayeri of the Assembly of God church who was held captive in prison for five years.

Malayeri had been arrested in a 2010 raid on Christian churches for “action against national security, cooperating with foreign organizations and evangelism.”

Andy Dipper of the U.K.-based Christian Solidarity Worldwide noted that although Malayeri’s release is good news, the treatment of Christians in Iran remains alarming.

“We remain deeply concerned at the treatment of Christians in Iran, who suffer harassment, mistreatment and imprisonment simply for exercising their right to freedom of religion or belief by gathering to worship peacefully, particularly during the Christmas season,” Dipper said.

Other Christians being held in Iranian prisons include American citizen Pastor Saeed Abedini, who has spent three years behind bars after being arrested while working on an orphanage for children in Iran.

The arrests of Christians have continued despite the historic nuclear deal reached between Iran and Western world leaders back in July, which lifted economic sanctions from the Islamic Republic, in exchange for Rouhani agreeing to limit the country’s nuclear program.

Conservative groups that monitor Christian persecution, such as the American Center for Law and Justice, warned at the time that its not right to grant Iran sanctions relief until it proves its willing to improve its poor human rights record and the end the persecution of Christians it engages in.

Maryam Rajavi, president-elect of the NCRI, said in the report that she hopes 2016 will bring improved relations between Muslims and Christians in the country, despite the troubles.

“Muslims and Christians can rely on their common values to stand up to those who pervert their religions. Let us hope for the relief of converted Christians in Iran from the oppression of ruling mullahs and for freedom of the whole Iranian nation from this religious dictatorship,” Rajavi said in a statement.

“On this occasion, I call on the world community to form an international front against the religious dictatorship in Iran and its proxies and militia in Syria and Iraq and to fight Islamic extremism, the enemy of true Muslims, Christians and all followers of other divine religions,” she added.

Update on Pastor Saeed Abedini

By Sean Savage/JNS.org

Pastor Saeed Abedini
Pastor Saeed Abedini

Pastor Saeed Abedini, an Iranian-American Christian pastor who has been detained in Iran since 2012, has become the international face of the brutal persecution of Christians by the Islamic Republic.

Abedini was arrested by Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps while visiting relatives and building an orphanage in the city of Rasht. Initially placed under house arrest, he was transferred to Iran’s notorious Evin Prison and later to Rajai Shahr Prison.

“[Evin Prison is] known to be one of the most brutal prisons inside of Iran and has one of the highest execution rates. Traditionally, it was the place where they kept their highest-security prisoners,” said Tiffany Barrans—international legal director at the American Center for Law and Justice (ACLJ), a law firm and social activism organization that has represented Abedini and his family since shortly after his arrest. “Originally, he was housed with those convicted of murder. Now he is housed with the political prisoners.”

“Saeed is anything but political. He really truly was there building an orphanage and doing humanitarian work,” Barrans added.

According to the ACLJ, Rajai Shahr Prison is “even more dangerous” than Evin Prison.

In addition to Abedini, three other American citizens are believed to be held in Iran. This includes former U.S. Marine Amir Hekmati, 32, who was arrested by Iran during a purported family visit in 2011 and is serving a 10-year prison sentence; Jason Rezaian, 39, the Washington Post’s Tehran correspondent who is currently on trial for espionage and hostile acts; and Robert Levinson, 67, a Jewish former FBI agent who disappeared on Iran’s Kish island eight years ago.

According to Barrans, Abedini has been forced to live in horrid conditions inside the Iranian prison.

“Physically, this is about as bad as you can imagine,” she said. “He has been given no protein, no clean water, has sanitary issues, and lives in extremely overcrowded conditions in a room built for 20 people that houses 80 people. … He described how they all share one toilet, and that it is difficult to clean because feces and urine leak from the ceiling above.”

Barrans added that Abedini is suffering from two medical conditions that doctors have said he needs surgery for, but Iran has refused treatment.

In early June, the families of the four American prisoners testified on behalf of Abedini in front of the U.S. House Foreign Affairs Committee. Naghmeh Abedini, Saeed’s wife, described how her husband is suffering in an Iranian jail because of the fact that he is a former Muslim who converted to Christianity, which is illegal under Iranian law.

“The Iranian government has repeatedly told Saeed that he holds the key to his freedom — but this key would be to deny his faith and return to Islam,” Naghmeh said. “Yet, Saeed has refused to deny his faith in Jesus Christ even in the face of torture and abuse.”

While Abedini’s case has drawn considerable attention in the U.S., many Christian converts in Iran have faced extreme persecution as part of a Iranian government crackdown on the fledgling underground house-church movement.

According to Open Doors USA, a non-profit Christian human rights group, Iran ranks seventh on the list of countries “where Christians face the most persecution,” and the magnitude of that persecution rates as “extreme.”

“According to the Iranian state, only Armenians and Assyrians can be Christian. Ethnic Persians are by definition Muslim, and ethnic Persian Christians are considered apostates,” Open Doors USA said.

“This makes almost all Christian activity illegal, especially when it occurs in Persian languages, from evangelism to Bible training, to publishing Scripture and Christian books, or preaching in Farsi,” the group added. “In 2014, at least 75 Christians were arrested. More Christians were sentenced to prison and pressure on those detained increased, including physical and mental abuse.”

David Brog, executive director of Christians United For Israel (CUFI) — the largest pro-Israel organization in the U.S. with more than 2 million members — said that while CUFI normally focuses on building Christian support for Israel, the group is increasingly prioritizing the plight of Middle Eastern Christians and sees the situation as “one of the greatest human rights tragedies of our day.”

“With Pastor Abedini, what we are trying to stress is that it’s not about one man. It is a reflection of the [Iranian] regime, a regime that will hang people just because they are gay, a regime that will put people in prison just because they are Christian,” Brog said.

Pastor Saeed Abedini ‘Viciously Beaten’ in Iranian Prison, Told His Only Way Out Is to Deny Jesus Christ

BY STOYAN ZAIMOV / CHRISTIANPOST.com

U.S. Pastor Saeed Abedini in this undated photo.
U.S. Pastor Saeed Abedini in this undated photo.

American pastor Saeed Abedini has reportedly been “viciously beaten” by fellow prisoners in an unprovoked attack in the Iranian prison where he’s being held. The pastor was punched in the face, leaving his eyes beaten black and blue, but prison guards intervened and prevented further injury.

The American Center for Law and Justice, the law group which represents his wife, Naghmeh Abedini, and the couple’s two children in the U.S., said that the prisoners also demolished a small table that the pastor had used to study and read during the beating that he endured the first week of June.

Abedini was allowed to see a prison doctor, who determined that he does not have any broken bones. The following week, he was able to see a family member who came to visit him and see his injuries firsthand.

“It is heartbreaking to me and my family that Saeed was again beaten in prison. Saeed’s life is continuously threatened not only because he is an American, but also because he is a convert from Islam to Christianity. It’s time to get Saeed home before it is too late,” Naghmeh Abedini said in response to the news.

Back in May, Abedini marked his 35th birthday in prison, where he has spent over two and a half years for his Christian faith. He was arrested in Iran in 2012 while working on an orphanage for children, and later sentenced to eight years in prison.

The pastor has faced a number of beatings while in prison, both from other inmates and guards. The ACLJ and Naghmeh Abedini have expressed concerns that his condition worsens after each beating.

After the beating, Abedini spoke before Congress, pleading for further actions to be taken to help free her husband.

“Over the last three years, I have had to watch my two children, Rebekka (who is 8 years old) and Jacob (who is 7 years old), suffer daily as they have grown up without a father,” Abedini said.

“I am here today as a single mother who is trying to be strong for her children, and as a wife who humbly admits, I need your help. I cannot bear to look at my children’s longing eyes one more time and explain to them why their daddy is still not home.”

She later told The Christian Post that Abedini has been told his prison sentence will be increased unless he denies his Christian faith — something she insists her husband will not do.

“The times they have moved him in and out of solitary [confinement] and the times they have threatened him, they said ‘You will stay here longer than the eight years and your only key to freedom is if you deny your Christian faith and you return to Islam.’ The guards have said that, officials have said that continuously,” Abedini said.

School Tell Kids to Stop Praying to Jesus, Singing Amazing Grace

By Todd Starnes, CP Op-Ed Contributor, November 11, 201
The Christian Post

Todd Starnes
(B H Publishing Group)
Todd Starnes is a regular contributor of FOX & Friends and FoxNews.com. He writes a weekly column for Human Events and TownHall.com.

Chase Windebank is a senior at Pine Creek High School in Colorado Springs. Three years ago he started meeting together informally with his classmates for prayer and religious fellowship. The young people would meet in an unoccupied choir room to sing songs like “Amazing Grace” and discuss the issues of the day from a religious perspective.

But all that changed on Sept. 29th when Chase was summoned to the office of Assistant Principal James Lucas.

“He was told that he could no longer pray with his fellow students during free time because of the separation of church and state,” said Jeremy Tedesco, an attorney representing the teenager.

Tedesco is with Alliance Defending Freedom, a law firm that specializes in handling religious liberty cases.

“He was told that he could pray before the school day begins or after the school day ends but he could not do it during the school day,” Tedesco told me.

To make sure Chase got the message — he was hauled into Principal Kolette Back’s office the following day where it was “reaffirmed that his religious speech could not take place during the open time” known as a “Seminar” period.

The lawsuit states: “Defendants Back and Lucas stated that because of the separation of church and state and because they regarded the Seminar period as instructional time, they were banning students’ discussion of issues of the day from a religious perspective during the open time of Seminar period.”

Pine Creek is a part of Academy School District No. 20. A spokesperson for the district confirmed that the group was told to disband in accordance with state law.

“Students were told that, according to state law and district policy, they could meet during non-instructional time,” the spokesperson told me in a written statement. “That is before or after school.”

In other words — the only theology allowed between 7:45 a.m. until 2:45 p.m. is the government’s theology.

The school district’s paltry explanation doesn’t make much sense. So I sent the spokesperson a list of follow up questions:

  • Why were the students allowed to hold religious gatherings for the past three years if it was against the rules?
  • Was there a change in district policy?
  • Or was it possible the district had simply ignored their own policy and allowed the kids to meet anyway?
  • Why the sudden crackdown on the religious gathering? Did someone complain?

I’ll let you know when the district spokesperson gets back to me with the answers. So far, it’s been radio silence.

“Public schools should encourage the free exchange of ideas,” Tedesco said. “Instead, this school implemented an ill-conceived ban that singles out religious speech for censorship during free time.”

And that seems to be the case at Pine Creek High School — and here’s the proof — Chase and his Christian friends are still allowed to meet — provided they don’t talk about anything religious or pray.

“Students have the right to pray during the school day and they certainly have the right to use free time to engage in religious expression — like prayer,” Tedesco told me.

The school district’s attorney has also weighed in on the matter — defending the school’s decision to crack down on religious speech and denying they’ve violated Chase’s constitutional rights.

Their argument hinges on a rule that non-curriculum related groups may only meet during non-instructional time. And since Jesus is not a part of the curriculum at Pine Creek High School — His followers must do their worshipping after hours.

“No non-curricular clubs are permitted to meet during that time period at Pine Creek High School,” attorney Patricia Richardson wrote in a letter to Tedesco. “Therefore, Mr. Windebank may resume his prayer meetings at Pine Creek High School, but he must do so during non-instructional time, that is before 7:45 a.m. when classes begin, and after 2:45 p.m., when classes end for the day.”

If that’s the rule, why are they allowing Chase and his friends to meet during free time — provided they don’t mention the name of Jesus?

I’ll let you know when the district gets around to answering that question.

Chase and his fellow Christians are still meeting but their numbers have dwindled in the wake of the ban — in part because they’ve agreed to abide by the school’s demands.

So if you happen to be walking by the choir room at Pine Creek High School you will no longer hear young people praying for their classmates. You will no longer hear teenagers reading from the Bible.

And you will most certainly not hear the sweet sounds of Christian young people singing about that Amazing Grace.

Public school administrators and their lawyers have succeeded in suppressing and oppressing the Christian voice at Pine Creek High School.

Todd Starnes is the host of Fox News & Commentary — heard daily on 250+ radio stations. He’s also the author of Dispatches From Bitter America. To check out all of his work you can visit his website or follow him on Twitter @toddstarnes. In his spare time, Todd is active in his church, plays golf, follows SEC football, and eats barbecue. He lives in New York City.

US: Sudan has not re-arrested freed Christian woman Meriam Ibrahim

AFP Agence France-Presse

Washington (AFP) – The United States said Tuesday that it had received assurances a Sudanese Christian woman has not, as reported, been re-arrested, one day after a court annulled her death sentence for apostasy.

State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf said Washington has been informed by Sudan that “the family was temporarily detained at the airport for several hours by the government for questioning about issues related to their travel and, I think, travel documents.

“They have not been arrested,” she added. “The government has assured us of their safety. The embassy has and will remain highly involved in working with the family and the government. We are engaging directly with Sudanese officials to secure their safe and swift departure from Sudan.”

Earlier, a Sudanese source had told AFP that Meriam Yahia Ibrahim Ishag, 26, and her American husband Daniel Wani had been arrested at Khartoum airport while trying to leave Sudan.

Ishag’s case sparked an outcry from Western governments and rights groups after a lower-court judge sentenced her to death for apostasy — or abandoning her faith — on May 15.

Born to a Muslim father and an Ethiopian Orthodox Christian mother, Ishag was convicted under Islamic sharia law. This code has been in force in Sudan since 1983 and outlaws conversions on pain of death.

When Ishag was five, her Muslim father abandoned the family, and she was raised according to her mother’s Christian faith.

The Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Khartoum has said she joined the Catholic church shortly before she married and denied she had ever been Muslim.

Meriam Ibrahim rearrested with husband at Khartoum airport

Woman sentenced to death for allegedly abandoning the Muslim faith has been detained by security services, just a day after she was released from prison.

Meriam Ibrahim holding her baby daughter Maya, with her legal team and, left, husband Daniel Wani and son Martin
Meriam Ibrahim holding her baby daughter Maya, with her legal team and, left, husband Daniel Wani and son Martin

By Philip Sherwell, Hannah Strange, and Harriet Alexander / Telegraph.co.uk

Meriam Ibrahim, the Sudanese woman released from prison on Monday after worldwide protests at her death sentence for apostasy, has been arrested at Khartoum airport – after less than 24 hours of freedom.

The 27-year-old was arrested along with her American husband, Daniel Wani, and their two children, Martin, almost two, and Maya, two weeks old.

Their lawyer, Elshareef Ali Mohammed, was with them at the time, and said they were given no reason for their detention. The arrest comes just hours after photos emerged of Ms Ibrahim smiling as she was reunited with her family.

A human rights group that has been working with Ms Ibrahim’s lawyers said the family had been detained by National Security officials, apparently in relation to their travel plans.

“They are being held at the airport by National Security officials over documentation issues and the US Embassy is trying to work it out,” Tina Ramirez, director of Hardwired, told The Telegraph.

One of her lawyers later said they had been taken from the airport to an unknown destination.

The family were initially planning to fly to South Sudan – the birthplace of Mr Wani which is now an independent country – as their paperwork to travel to the US is still being processed, Ms Ramirez said.

Ms Ibrahim and her family were brought to the airport in a US vehicle accompanied by American diplomats after South Sudan issued emergency travel paperwork for them. But the security officials at the airport apparently found problems with the documents.

Mr Wani is an American citizen and supporters of the family, backed by the senators from his state of New Hampshire, have urged the US to grant a visa to Ms Ibrahim and citizenship to their two children.

Ms Ibrahim was released from Omdurman women’s prison on Monday afternoon after state media announced that the Supreme Court had annulled the sentence. She had spent six months in a jail cell, sentenced to execution by hanging for abandoning Islam, despite her protestations that she was raised a Christian by her Ethiopian Orthodox mother after her Muslim father left.

Accompanied by her two children Ms Ibrahim was taken to a safe house in the Khartoum area on Monday afternoon. In Sudan, which imposes Sharia law, apostasy is a crime punishable by death – and earlier this month Ms Ibrahim’s own brother called for her execution unless she “returned” to Islam.

The May 15 sentence also included 100 lashes for adultery related to her marriage to Mr Wani, a Christian. Sudan does not recognise marriages between Muslims and non-Muslims.

Some people saw the charges as the result of a family feud – and an attempt by Ms Ibrahim’s family to gain control of her successful small businesses.

The sentencing caused outrage around the world, and led to an international campaign to secure her freedom.

The first photos released after her release show Ms Ibrahim, dressed in a vivid green traditional Sudanese outfit, cradling Maya on her lap.

Next to her, in his wheelchair, sits Mr Wani – an American-Sudanese citizen, who suffers from muscular dystrophy.

On Tuesday morning Al Sudani, a government-owned newspaper with good security sources, reported that the family was expected to leave Sudan within hours.