Cover Story

Faces in the cloud

Modern martyrs show the danger of life in God's kingdom

Issue: "Modern martyrs," Nov. 30, 1996

For Sokan and Chantouen the day was drawing to a close. It was 4:00 on an October afternoon and, with $150 tucked in their backpacks, they sped between villages in the province of Kompong Cham, Cambodia. The two women, both in their 40s, were returning from a weekly meeting where they taught village women about money management and basic health care. Along the way they were able to share the gospel as well, as they came to learn intimate details of the women's family and financial situations. Sokan and Chantouen always worked together and went by motorcycle, Chantouen driving and Sokan riding at her back. On an isolated stretch of road in this mostly rural province northeast of Phnom Penh, one--maybe two--gunmen stepped out from the underbrush and fired on the women using automatic weapons. They were hit at least 10 times and also shot in the face at close range. Chantouen died immediately. Sokan, grasping her friend's waist, lived for several minutes afterward, according to villagers who found the two still astride the fallen motorcycle. "Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord from now on." "Yes," says the Spirit, "they will rest from their labor, for their deeds will follow them." Webster's defines a martyr as a witness, someone tortured or killed for his beliefs, or who chooses to suffer or die rather than give up his faith. The book of Hebrews takes a more graphic approach, describing martyrs who were poorly housed and ill dressed, who were mocked for their faith, attacked, beaten, mutilated, and killed. Now forming a cloud of witnesses, it says, "the world was not worthy of them." If Christian martyrs through the ages have been otherworldly, the life of a modern martyr does not exist outside the ordinary. Distinct from Roman arenas and the foaming mouths of lions, modern martyrs die on lonely stretches of highway, in abandoned fields, or on the back doorstep. The ones chronicled here--a sliver of a fraction of the 160,000 Christians estimated by watchdog human-rights groups to have been martyred in 1996--were slain in the midst of the everyday: while finding a place to pray, waiting to park the car, or packing produce. Some die unknown to man. President Clinton recently named a commission to study religious persecution. It will meet for the first time in January, but already it is drawing criticism as another opportunity to study to death a deathly subject. It is one thing to talk about trends in persecution; it's another to see the faces in the cloud. "Two of our best" Khoun Sokan and Toun Chantouen had worked for World Relief's Gateway program since it began two years ago in their area. The program teaches women to be enterprising after decades of civil war and domination by the communist Khmer Rouge. Over 8,300 women have received loans through Gateway. The strength of the program is its accountability. The women, who run vegetable stands, bicycle repair shops, or ice-selling businesses, must band together to qualify for commercial loans they could otherwise never receive. And they must repay the loans at regular meetings where leaders like Sokan and Chantouen discuss financial planning as well as family hygiene and the gospel. In addition to advising the women in their groups, Sokan and Chantouen served as credit agents, extending loans and collecting payments from them. Reports circulated that the two women were killed because they were Christians; clearly they were targeted for their work. The money they had collected that day was stolen when locals found them just minutes after the shooting. Khmer Rouge, who favor the eradication of all religions, are known to operate in the district. Bullet casings showed the weapon or weapons used were military-issue. Like many whose households are now headed by women in Kompong Cham, Sokan and Chantouen lost their husbands during fighting under the Khmer Rouge regime. Sokan cared for a niece and nephew, ages 15 and 9, whose parents had been killed. Now they are orphaned a second time. Chantouen has a 20-year-old son. The women attended the same small Methodist church and were active in its leadership. "These two women were two of our best," said Joel Copple, World Relief's director in Cambodia. "Calm, mature, godly mothers. Very hard working as they ministered to some 400-500 poor women every week. They spent their days and died assisting them." Tertullian seeds In September Mohammad Bagher Yusefi left his house at six in the morning for prayer and never returned. The 34-year-old Iranian was pastor to a cluster of large and rapidly growing Assemblies of God congregations. By nightfall he was found hanging from a tree in a forest near his home in Sari, the capital of Mazandaran, a northwestern province in Iran. Mr. Yusefi was born in a Muslim family but became a Christian as a young man. Knicknamed "Ravanbakhsh," which means "Soul Giver" in Persian, he was a gifted musician as well as an evangelist. Local authorities agreed to investigate the murder, even though according to strict Islamic law, Muslims who convert to another religion have committed a capital offense. Mr. Yusefi is the seventh Christian leader killed in Iran since the 1979 Islamic revolution. In 1994, 60-year-old Mehdi Dibaj, another Assemblies of God pastor, also was hanged from a tree. Prior to his death Mr. Dibaj was imprisoned for nine years; during that time, Mr. Yusefi reared Mr. Dibaj's two sons. Mr. Yusefi is survived by his wife Akhtar, also a Christian from a Muslim background, and two children, a nine-year-old daughter named Ramsina and a seven-year-old son named Stephen. Akhtar became a Christian under the ministry of Hossein Soodmand, the leader of the church in Mashad. He was killed in prison--by hanging--in 1990. Though grieving for the moment, according to one Middle Eastern ministry, Christians in Iran are counting on the words of Tertullian, the early church leader: "The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church." Cornering the drug trade Julio C'sar Ruibal stepped out of his car in Cali while his daughter and his bodyguard hunted for a parking space. He was nearly late for a meeting of the city's pastoral association last December, where he was expected to be elected the group's next president. After parking, however, his daughter found him shot in the head. Mr. Ruibal was hated by drug cartel leaders who rule this city. A spokesman for his Miami-based Julio C. Ruibal Foundation said the evangelist had been threatened by one local drug trade leader whose property adjoined Mr. Ruibal's church in Cali. His expanding ministry, which included a radio and TV station as well as a school, was putting a damper on the neighboring drug trade. Mr. Ruibal was born in Bolivia but became an American citizen after attending Multnomah Bible College in Oregon. He evangelized his own country in the early '70s but moved to Cali in 1978 just as drug cartels were beginning to run Colombia. Drug lords had more against Mr. Ruibal than a property dispute. A number of cartel members had become Christians through his church. A string of all-night prayer vigils organized by Mr. Ruibal coincided with a decline in the cartels' influence and a rise in revivalism. After one dusk-to-dawn vigil, where 22,000 Christians prayed in a stadium, civil authorities announced there had been no murders that weekend. It was not unheard of then for 150 people to die in drug-related violence in a weekend in Cali. Other prayer vigils soon followed throughout the country, and civil authorities began discovering new courage to imprison Colombia's drug lords. "I bear witness that nothing is impossible for God," Mr. Ruibal said not long before he died. Protection money Grocer Mohsen Badia Girgis, 30, was tending his small store with his 20-year-old cousin, Ihab Amin Gabriel, when three Muslim militants burst into the shop and opened fire. The two Coptic Christians were killed July 31 in Atledem, a village 150 miles south of Cairo. "Both were good Christians," said a relative named Miriam. "They frequently went to church, lived an exemplary life and had no enemies." Mr. Girgis's fatal flaw was his refusal to give in to extortion. His assailants were identified as members of the radical Gama'a Islamiya, a militant Islamic group that arose in 1992 to overthrow Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak and install its own Islamic regime. The group has extorted money from Christians throughout the Abu Qirqas area of Egypt as a way to fund its campaign and intimidate Coptic Christians. Three other Christians in Atledem have been murdered this year. Mr. Girgis's family grocery was completely burned in 1990. After rebuilding he received persistent demands for money and threats against his family. Local authorities have been reluctant to help, and even they are reported to be in the pocket of Gama'a. Villagers say most Christians have either met the demands of Gama'a or fled with their families to Cairo. Mr. Girgis tried to change that trend. "Our village is living in horror," said a relative of Mr. Girgis, "and all the people are so frightened." Redeeming child-slaves "There are so many people dying there, but no one knows their names," said Nina Shea, human-rights activist and author of a book about persecution, In the Lion's Den, to be published in January. Ms. Shea, head of the Puebla Program of Freedom House, has documented the abduction or death of over one million Sudanese, mostly Christians and non-Muslims, at the hands of the country's Muslim majority. The Christian captives, mostly young boys, are forced to convert to Islam then sold as slaves. When two Baltimore Sun reporters went to Sudan this year, they bought two slaves for $500 each, providing front-page verification of the trade in a series the paper ran last summer. The reporters returned the young men to their families. A group of doctors traveling in Sudan on behalf of Voice of the Martyrs purchased 19 Christian children from Muslim slave traders for $250 each. They, too, were returned to their families. Too many, Ms. Shea says, are unaccounted for. They've just disappeared. Awaiting a crown: showing courage under fire **red_square** Salamat Masih, 15, has a price on his head. Acquitted of blasphemy by a Pakistani high court after international pressure to dismiss the dubious charge (Salamat was 12 and nearly illiterate when he was accused of writing derogatory statements about Mohammad on a mosque wall), this young Christian has been forced into hiding in Germany. Muslim militants have offered as much as $30,000 for his murder. **red_square** Orson Vila, Assemblies of God pastor in Cuba, gave up a medical career 23 years ago to preach the gospel. His congregation of 2,000 met almost daily behind his home. Last year the church was condemned by authorities, and Mr. Vila was sentenced to 2 years in prison for "spreading the Gospel." He began the sentence in a refrigerated cell. He was transferred to a forced labor farm. He lost 62 pounds. In March he was released unexpectedly. To survive, his church has been forced to break into small cell groups. **red_square** The case of Robert Hussein was popularized enough to prompt its own web site. Americans were outraged that the court system in Kuwait would prosecute a Muslim for converting to Christianity, especially in post-Gulf War days. Mr. Hussein, 44, after losing his business and being denounced by his family, was sentenced to die for apostasy in May. But an appeals court, obviously bowing to international pressure, allowed him to flee the country in August. He left with a U.S. visa and is reportedly in exile in the United States. **red_square** When Gao Feng, 27, failed to show up for work at Chrysler's Beijing Jeep plant, he was fired. His efforts at forming a labor union movement had put him on the edge of trouble anyway. His Chinese employers at the American-owned factory, however, did not know that Mr. Gao missed work because he had been arrested. He was rounded up with other Christians by Chinese authorities just prior to the U.N. Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing last year. By December Mr. Gao had been sentenced indefinitely to "reeducation through labor" in connection with "praying without authorization." He is serving out his sentence in a forced labor camp with hardened criminals. For Christians these men and women form a kind of folklore in a time not unlike Nehemiah's: "The work is great and extensive and we are separated on the wall far from one another," he warned his fellow exiles. Theirs are no "mere tales culled from the lips of old men," however; they are true testimony to a church worried with decay from within and assault from without.

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Mindy Belz
Mindy Belz

Mindy travels to the far corners of the globe as the editor of WORLD and lives with her family in the mountains of western North Carolina. Follow Mindy on Twitter @mcbelz.

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