Sunday, December 21, 2014

The 3 - December 21, 2014

On this week's edition of The 3, my week-in-review feature, I highlight some news that has emerged from the nation of Iran, where 3 pastors had charges against them dropped recently.  Plus, there were several religious components surrounding the announcement this week of some changes in the relationship between the U.S. and Cuba. Also, a significant discussion on race was conducted this week by a number of evangelical church leaders.

3 - Three Iranian Christians cleared of charges

There is a cause for celebration with the news spreading this week about charges being dropped against three Iranian church leaders.

In 2006, Iranian pastor Behnam Irani was initially detained while holding a Bible study and sentence to prison five years later for “action against the state,” according to a report on the website. In June of this year, he was interrogated on five occasions, and authorities then added 18 new charges against the 41-year-old pastor, including Mofsed fel-Arz or “spreading corruption on Earth,” which carries the death penalty. Another translation of the charge is “enemies of God on Earth.”

However, in October, the charges were reduced and Irani instead faced accusations of “action against national security” and “creating a network to overthrow the system.” Two other leaders with the Church of Iran, Abdolreza Ali-Haghnejad and Reza Rabbani, were charged as well. All three were declared guilty by Judge Asel Al-Hosseyn, and were sentenced to six years behind bars.

During an appeal hearing last month, Moshkani Farahani, an attorney for the pastors argued that the charges were baseless.  Christian Solidarity Worldwide reports that Farahani "...contended that people cannot be sentenced on political charges for simply belonging to a religious fellowship; in this case, a Christian community: ‘It is normal for members of minorities to be in touch with each other; Jews are in touch with others, Zoroastrians are in touch with each other. It is the same for Assyrians, Orthodoxes and Evangelicals. Such connections cannot be perceived as a penal crime."

During a follow-up hearing on Dec. 9, an appeals court overturned the convictions of all three men.   Haghnejad and Rabbani were released, but Irani still faces another two years behind bars from his previous five year sentence.

Meanwhile, American pastor Saeed Abedini continues to serve his prison sentence in Iran.  On its website, Mission Network News has a story about a letter that he has recently released.  It states:
American Pastor Saeed Abedini, a U.S. citizen imprisoned in Iran for his Christian faith, has written a heartbreaking letter from his prison cell.
He talks about both the difficulty of spending Christmas trapped in a cold dark prison cell and how his faith in Christ is carrying him through this difficult time.
The letter was released by the American Center for Law and Justice.  The pastor wrote:
Some of my fellow prisoners don’t like me because I am a convert and a pastor. They look at me with shame as someone who has betrayed his former religion. The guards can’t even stand the paper cross that I have made and hung next to me as a sign of my faith and in anticipation of celebrating my Savior’s birth. They have threatened me and forced me to remove it. This is the first Christmas that I am completely without my family; all of my family is presently outside of the country. These conditions have made this upcoming Christmas season very hard, cold, and shattering for me. It appears that I am alone with no one left beside me.
He also wrote about what Christmas means to him. Pastor Saeed said that, "Christmas means that God came so that He would enter your hearts today and transform your lives and to replace your pain with indescribable joy." He added, "The same way that the heat from the earth’s core melts the hard stones in itself and produces lava, the fiery love of God, Jesus Christ, through the virgin Mary’s womb came to earth on Christmas to melt the hard heart of sin and wickedness of the world and removes them from our life."

2 - Religious leaders respond to greater normalization of  US-Cuba relations

The announcement of steps toward greater normalization of relations between the United States and Cuba had religious components surrounding it, including the release of a prisoner apparently motivated by his Jewish faith and the involvement of the Pope. And, a leading Hispanic religious leader offered a strong response

On Wednesday, a Jewish international aid worker held for five years in Cuba on charges of spying was freed, according to, which, concerning the release of Alan Gross said, "some are calling a Hanukkah miracle on the first day of the holiday that celebrates religious freedom."

Gross has always claimed that he only went to Cuba to bring communications equipment to the small Jewish community left in Havana. However, the Castro government said he was part of a spy network attempting to set up a secret network for Cuban Jews. Gross was serving a 15-year sentence.

President Obama chose Wednesday’s release as a springboard to announce a massive historic “normalization” of U.S.-Cuba relations. Religion News reports that the President particularly credited the “moral example of Pope Francis,” who actively encouraged Gross’ release. Francis, who held private meetings at the Vatican to secure the deal, praised the move, sending “his warm congratulations for the historic decision taken by the Governments of the United States of America and Cuba to establish diplomatic relations, with the aim of overcoming, in the interest of the citizens of both countries, the difficulties which have marked their recent history.”

Meanwhile, according to a report on the website, Samuel Rodriguez, president of the National Hispanic Leadership Council, the largest Hispanic Christian organization said that as a Christian, the normalization of diplomatic relations with Cuba prompts both concern and hopeful expectations for him.  He said that, "First, I am concerned that normalizing diplomatic ties without addressing the horrendous human rights record of the Castro regime serves as a defacto endorsement of one of the most oppressive regimes in recent history." He notes that as a result of Castro's totalitarian rule, millions live in poverty and thousands lie in prisons while others lost their lives. What's more, he continues, people live with their God given rights held hostage to governmental persecution.

Rodriguez concludes, "Nevertheless, if this controversial step results in the alleviation of hunger and opens the door for God-given freedoms to flourish, then I pray that this decision will serve as a prophetic step in unleashing the church of Jesus to be the church both inside and outside of the island nation addressing the spiritual and physical needs of the Cuban people."

Baptist Press featured a story on the viewpoints of some Southern Baptist leaders regarding this announcement.

1 - "A Time to Speak" online event brings together church leaders to address racial issues

"Where are the conservative evangelical voices?"  That was a question asked by Fellowship Memphis pastor Bryan Loritts in his opening remarks in an online event called, "A Time to Speak," held at the historic Lorraine Hotel in Memphis, now the site of the National Civil Rights Museum. According to a report on the Baptist Press website, the discussion this past week was intended to focus on race relations, in light of the recent deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner.

Ed Stetzer, executive director of LifeWay Research, served as moderator. He began by presenting new research about Americans' views on race. He said that a survey of 1,000 Americans found many (75 percent) say the country has come a long way on race relations. But, more than 8 in 10 (81 percent) agree with the statement "We've got so far to go on racial relations."

Loritts said whites and African Americans remain largely disconnected in churches and society, so they can't hear one another's stories.

"At the end of the day, we don't know each other," Loritts said. "We don't know each other's story."

Matt Chandler, pastor of The Village Church in Texas, said his views on race have changed because of his friendships with African American Christians, which have contributed to his concerns about racial injustice.  John Piper of Desiring God Ministries encouraged pastors of all ethnicities to "start from the Bible, end with the Bible" to confirm multiethnic relationships.

"The Gospel mandates reconciliation, in terms of when two people are brought to Jesus, they're brought to each other, period," Piper said. "That is the most important relationship on the planet ... more important than any of their blood relationships."

Other speakers included Voddie Baucham, Thabiti Anyabwile, and Trillia Newbell.  The Baptist Press report stated that, "Perhaps the most pointed moments of the discussion focused on systematic injustice, white privilege and the death of Michael Brown, stemming from a controversial piece Voddie Baucham, pastor of Grace Family Baptist Church in Spring, Texas, had written in late November saying Brown reaped what he had sown."  The article goes on to say that Anyabwile, an assistant pastor at Capitol Hill Baptist Church in Washington, DC, "acknowledged that many African Americans have overcome adversity. But he also said churches have to face the reality of systematic injustice."  This was a continuation of the sharing of opinions that had been posted online by the two gentlemen following the grand jury's announcement that it would not indict the Ferguson police officer involved in Michael Brown's death.

About the event and its significance, Loritts said, ""The world heard us speak."

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