In Iraq’s Biblical lands, scattered Christians ask ‘should I stay or go?’

By John Davison

MOSUL, Iraq (Reuters) – A jihadist message, “Islamic State endures,” is still graffitied on the front gate of Thanoun Yahya, an Iraqi Christian from the northern city of Mosul, scrawled by Islamist militants who occupied his home for three years when they ruled the city.

He refuses to remove it, partly in defiance of the militants who were eventually beaten by Iraqi forces, but also as a reminder that Iraq’s scattered and dwindling Christian community still lives a precarious existence.

“They’re gone, they can’t hurt us,” said the 59-year-old, sitting in his home which he reclaimed when Islamic State was driven out in 2017. “But there aren’t many of us left. The younger generation want to leave.”

Yahya sold the family’s metalwork shop to pay a ransom for his brother, kidnapped by al Qaeda militants in 2004 at a time when Christians were being abducted and executed.

Since then, he has watched siblings leave for foreign countries and work and income dry up.

Of 20 relatives who once lived in the neighborhood, only his family of six remain.

Iraq’s Christians have endured unrest over centuries, but a mass exodus began after the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003 and accelerated during the reign of Islamic State, which brutalized minorities and Muslims alike.

Hundreds of thousands left for nearby areas and Western countries.

Across Iraq’s northern Nineveh Plains, home to some of the oldest churches and monasteries in the world, the remaining Christians often live displaced in villages that fell easily to Islamic State in 2014 or in enclaves of bigger cities such as Mosul and the nearby self-run Kurdish region.

The Islamists’ rule over almost a third of Iraq, with Mosul as their capital, ended in 2017 in a destructive battle with security forces.

‘ONLY GOD CAN HELP’

Physical and economic ruin remain. Iraqi authorities have struggled to rebuild areas decimated by war, and armed groups that the government has not been able to control vie for territory and resources, including Christian heartlands.

Christians say they are left with a dilemma – whether to return to damaged homes, resettle inside Iraq or migrate from a country that experience has shown cannot protect them.

“In 2014, Christians thought their displacement would last a few days,” said Cardinal Louis Sako, head of Iraq’s Chaldean Catholic Church.

“It lasted three years. Many lost hope and migrated. There’s no security or stability.”

Iraq’s indigenous Christians are estimated to number around 300,000, a fifth of the 1.5 million who lived in the country before the 2003 invasion that toppled Sunni Muslim leader Saddam Hussein.

Christians were tolerated under Hussein, but singled out for kidnappings and killings in the communal bloodshed of the mid-2000s onwards.

Pope Francis is to visit Iraq on an historic trip that eluded his predecessors. He will say a prayer for the victims of conflict at a site in Mosul where old churches lie in ruins, once used as religious tribunals by Islamic State.

Christians welcome the visit, but do not believe it will improve their lot.

“The pope can’t help us, only God can,” Yahya said.

DISPLACED, DISTRUSTFUL

Yahya’s family, who fled to Iraq’s northern Kurdistan region during Islamic State’s rule, is one of just a few dozen that have returned to Mosul out of an original population of some 50,000 Christians, according to local clergy.

His two teenage sons help out at the local church, the only one fully repaired in Mosul, which fills to about half its modest capacity on Sundays.

Firas, his eldest, finds little more than a day a week of casual labor and sees no future in Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city.

“If I want to marry, I’ll have to leave. Christian women from here are displaced to other areas and don’t want to come back,” he said. “Ideally, I’d go to the West.”

The experience of Islamic State, which told Christians to convert, pay a tax or be killed, and the inability of Iraqi and Kurdish security forces to prevent the group marauding through their hometowns, has left many Christians distrustful of any but their own.

The nearby Christian town of Hamdaniya boasts its own militia, which local officials say is necessary because of the proliferation of Shi’ite Muslim paramilitary groups which seek control of land, and Islamic State militants who remain in hideouts across northern Iraq.

“If there were no Christian militia here, no one would come back. Why should we rely on outside forces to protect us?” said a local militia leader, who requested anonymity.

Nearly 30,000 Christians, half of Hamdaniya’s population, have returned, including a small number from abroad, and began rebuilding infrastructure thanks to foreign aid. It is a rare bright spot.

In the neighboring village, Christian leader Sako said most Christians were unable or unwilling to return out of fear of a local Shi’ite militia, and because non-Christians had bought their property in their absence.

Some have showed interest in resettling in Hamdaniya, but local officials generally reject this, fearing it would weaken Iraqi Christians’ presence.

“If people move here from their own villages, it empties those areas of Christians,” said Isam Daaboul, the mayor of Hamdaniya.

“This threatens our existence in areas we’ve been for generations.”

(Reporting by John Davison; Editing by Mike Collett-White)

U.S. Supreme Court rebuffs appeal by official who opposed gay marriage

By Andrew Chung

(Reuters) – The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday rebuffed a bid by a county clerk in Kentucky briefly jailed in 2015 for refusing to issue marriage licenses to two same-sex couples to avoid lawsuits they filed that accuse her of violating their constitutional rights.

The justices turned away an appeal by Kim Davis, who no longer serves as Rowan County Clerk, of a lower court ruling that allowed the lawsuits to proceed. But two conservative justices who voted in dissent against legalizing gay marriage in the court’s landmark 2015 ruling said in an opinion released as part of Monday’s action that the case, Obergefell v. Hodges, continues to have “ruinous consequences” for religious liberty.

“Davis may have been one of the first victims of this court’s cavalier treatment of religion in its Obergefell decision, but she will not be the last,” Justice Clarence Thomas wrote in an opinion joined by Justice Samuel Alito.

Thomas said the Obergefell decision has left “those with religious objections in the lurch” and made it easier to label them as bigots “merely for refusing to alter their religious beliefs in the wake of prevailing orthodoxy.”

Both justices agreed with the decision to reject the Davis appeal for technical reasons.

The Cincinnati-based 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled last year that Davis could be sued in her individual capacity in her former role as county clerk. The 6th Circuit rejected her argument that she is protected by a legal doctrine known as qualified immunity, which can shield government officials from liability in certain cases.

Davis, who has earned praise from some conservative Christians, defended her actions by saying that she stopped issuing marriage licenses to everyone regardless of sexual orientation, and the plaintiffs could have obtained licenses elsewhere.

She was jailed for five days in the aftermath of the Obergefell decision for defying court orders to issue licenses in accordance with the high court’s ruling.

The couples – David Ermold and David Moore, and Will Smith and James Yates – sued Davis in 2015, accusing her of violating their constitutional right to marry as recognized in the Obergefell ruling for refusing to provide them marriage licenses. Both couples received their licenses while Davis was in jail.

The stance taken by Thomas and Alito, two of the court’s most conservative justices, comes as the Senate is moving forward quickly with the confirmation process for President Donald Trump’s Supreme Court nominee Amy Coney Barrett, a favorite of Christian conservatives. With the death of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg and the retirement of Justice Anthony Kennedy, only three of the justices who made up the court’s 5-4 majority in the Obergefell ruling still serve on the bench.

In the Obergefell ruling, the court found that the Constitution’s guarantees of due process and equal protection under the law meant states cannot ban same-sex marriages.

In recent years, a number of cases have arisen around the country testing the scope of the Obergefell decision, and the rights of those to object to gay marriage on religious grounds.

On Nov. 4, the justices are due to hear a major religious rights dispute involving the city of Philadelphia’s refusal to place children for foster care with a Catholic agency that bars same-sex couples from serving as foster parents.

(Reporting by Andrew Chung in New York; Additional reporting by Jonathan Stempel; Editing by Will Dunham)

Turkey’s Erdogan says Hagia Sophia becomes mosque after court ruling

By Daren Butler and Ece Toksabay

ISTANBUL (Reuters) – President Tayyip Erdogan declared Istanbul’s Hagia Sophia open to Muslim worship on Friday after a top court ruled that the building’s conversion to a museum by modern Turkey’s founding statesman was illegal.

Erdogan made his announcement, just an hour after the court ruling was revealed, despite international warnings not to change the status of the nearly 1,500-year-old monument, revered by Christians and Muslims alike.

“The decision was taken to hand over the management of the Ayasofya Mosque…to the Religious Affairs Directorate and open it for worship,” the decision signed by Erdogan said.

Erdogan had earlier proposed restoring the mosque status of the UNESCO World Heritage Site, a focal point of both the Christian Byzantine and Muslim Ottoman empires and now one of the most visited monuments in Turkey.

The United States, Greece and church leaders were among those to express concern about changing the status of the huge 6th Century building, converted into a museum in the early days of the modern secular Turkish state under Mustafa Kemal Ataturk.

“It was concluded that the settlement deed allocated it as a mosque and its use outside this character is not possible legally,” the Council of State, Turkey’s top administrative court in Ankara, said in its ruling.

“The cabinet decision in 1934 that ended its use as a mosque and defined it as a museum did not comply with laws,” it said, referring to an edict signed by Ataturk.

RUSSIAN ORTHODOX CHURCH EXPRESSES REGRET

The association which brought the court case, the latest in a 16-year legal battle, said Hagia Sophia was the property of the Ottoman leader who captured the city in 1453 and turned the already 900-year-old Byzantine church into a mosque.

Erdogan, a pious Muslim, threw his weight behind the campaign to convert the building before local elections last year. He is due to speak shortly before 9 p.m. (1800 GMT), his head of communications said.

The Ottomans built minarets alongside the vast domed structure, while inside they added huge calligraphic panels bearing the Arabic names of the early Muslim caliphs alongside the monument’s ancient Christian iconography.

The Russian Orthodox Church said it regretted that the court did not take its concerns into account when making its ruling and said the decision could lead to even greater divisions, the TASS news agency reported.

Previously, Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, the spiritual head of some 300 million Orthodox Christians worldwide and based in Istanbul, said converting it into a mosque would disappoint Christians and would “fracture” East and West.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Greece had also urged Turkey to maintain the building as a museum.

But Turkish groups have long campaigned for Hagia Sophia’s conversion into a mosque, saying this would better reflect Turkey’s status as an overwhelmingly Muslim country.

(Reporting by Daren Butler and Ece Toksabay; Editing by Dominic Evans, Jonathan Spicer and Timothy Heritage)

Coronavirus forces U.S. churches to offer Easter Sunday services unlike any before

By Rich McKay

(Reuters) – U.S. church leaders peppered their Easter homilies with references to the coronavirus on Sunday, in masses held online, on television and even in parking lots to people sheltering in cars to maintain social distancing during the pandemic.

For the world’s largest Christian population, the coronavirus pandemic has meant observing an Easter Sunday unlike any Americans have lived through before.

“Today as we hear the Easter bells as a call to solidarity among all the members of our community in the face of the pandemic, we might respond to witness to the power of the Resurrection, the power of love that is stronger than death, and faith in a provident God who can always bring good out of evil,” Boston’s Cardinal Sean O’Malley said in his homily on BostonCatholic.org.

Governors and health authorities across the United States have broadly asked residents to avoid gathering in large numbers, leading to the closure of schools, businesses and churches.

The COVID-19 respiratory disease caused by the novel coronavirus has claimed more than 20,500 lives across the United States and infected more than 525,000 people.

Major U.S. religious institutions, including Roman Catholic dioceses and Protestant churches, have found alternatives to safely celebrate the holiest day on the Christian calendar.

In Easley, South Carolina, the 2,200 members of the Rock Springs Baptist Church were among the many U.S. churchgoers who turned to technology and the airwaves for help.

Reverend Jim Cawthon, 46, said he expected hundreds to spend Easter services in their cars in his megachurch’s parking lot, watching the proceedings on big outdoor screens and listening to its broadcast over local radio.

More will likely watch online, which Cawthon said should be easier as the church recently upgraded its video and internet systems.

“Just prior to this all going crazy, we were already set up,” Cawthon said. “It’s all about the cross and celebrating Easter even in a pandemic.”

Some older adults in retirement communities celebrated Holy Week by playing music and video broadcasts of services. Some communities held contests, asking residents, for instance, to decorate golf carts for Easter and leave them parked outside for judging, instead of holding annual golf cart Easter parades.

Curtis James, a youth pastor at the Tate Springs Baptist Church in Arlington, Texas, dreamed up the idea of holding a safe Easter egg hunt for children with the online videogame Minecraft. Other churches have joined in as the plan garnered national attention.

The Home Moravian Church in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, has held a sunrise Easter service for almost 250 years, weathering even the Revolutionary and Civil Wars, as well as the two World Wars. But for the pandemic, the service was canceled. It was to be replaced by an online and locally broadcast service with just a preacher and few choir and band members providing music.

A handful of churches have bucked social distancing rules aimed at slowing the disease’s spread and planned to go ahead with in-person services on Sunday, with some pastors predicting divine protection from the disease.

Most Catholic dioceses across the United States shut down all such live services, however.

Archbishop Jose Gomez of the Los Angeles diocese wrote to priests and parishioners across the nation online to hold steadfast.

“Future generations will look back on this as the long Lent of 2020, a time when disease and death suddenly darkened the whole earth,” Archbishop Jose Gomez of Los Angeles diocese wrote to priests and parishioners across the nation online.

“This Holy Week will be different. Our churches may be closed but Christ is not quarantined and his Gospel is not in chains.”

In Columbus, Georgia, the St. Anne Catholic Church found a unique way to fill up its pews for Easter Sunday.

More than 650 members of the 1,500-strong congregation sent in “selfie” photos of themselves that the priests taped to the pews, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported.

“Now we look out and see faces,” pastor Robert Schlageter told the newspaper.

(Reporting by Rich McKay in Atlanta; Editing by Scott Malone, Rosalba O’Brien and Tom Brown)

Easter season goes virtual as coronavirus locks out tradition

By Philip Pullella

VATICAN CITY (Reuters) – One Catholic priest in rural coastal Ireland delivered socially-distanced blessings from a moving vintage “popemobile”.

Another in Germany taped pictures of his parishioners to empty pews and televised his Mass.

With many churches closed or affected by coronavirus lockdown restrictions for the Easter season, Christians of various denominations around the world have come up with novel ways to keep the faith.

Pope Francis, leader of the world’s 1.3 billion Roman Catholics, has been, as he put it, “caged” in the Vatican. He has been encouraging his flock via scaled-down Holy Week services transmitted live on television and over the internet.

Most of them have been held in an empty St. Peter’s Basilica, which can hold up to 10,000 people, and an empty St. Peter’s Square, which has drawn more than 100,000 in past years.

Holy Week – which includes Palm Sunday, Holy Thursday, Good Friday, Holy Saturday and Easter Sunday – is the most solemn period in the Christian liturgical calendar.

“We are celebrating Good Friday, the commemoration of the death of Jesus, under very difficult circumstances,” Archbishop Pierbattista Pizzaballa, the Vatican’s apostolic administrator in the Holy Land, said outside Jerusalem’s Church of the Holy Sepulchre, revered as the site of Jesus’ crucifixion, burial and resurrection.

Only a few clerics were allowed inside the church for what otherwise would have been a packed service.

Despite the grim reality of the coronavirus crisis, many pastors have not allowed it to dampen the hope inherent in the Easter message of life triumphing over death.

Since his parishioners couldn’t come to him, Irish priest Malachy Conlon geared up – literally – and went to them on Holy Thursday.

He drove an open-top “popemobile” once used by Pope John Paul around northeastern coastal villages, blessing from a safe distance people who gathered on the side of the road as he passed.

“There were huge crowds, it was a moving turnout,” he said after the six-hour drive.

“I’ve never received such a torrent of messages as I have this evening, people deeply appreciative and feeling connected to one another, despite all of the distancing.”

PICTURES PASTED ON EMPTY PEWS

On Palm Sunday in the German city of Achern, Father Joachim Giesler pasted pictures of his parishioners on empty pews and said Mass for a few people, including a television crew.

Kerstine Bohnert watched the broadcast with her family.

“Attending church service through TV or online streaming you do have the feeling that you are part of it, we see the priest like we do when we attend church, we see the pictures of others when the camera tilts and recognise other people and we are happy to take part,” she said.

It was such a hit with the homebound parishioners that Giesler will do it again on Easter Sunday.

The pandemic has cut across all Christian denominations, creating a sense of unity brought on by crisis.

For nearly 250 years in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, the Easter sunrise service of the Home Moravian church included about 300 musicians playing through the town.

This year, instead of the tradition dating back to 1772, a pastor and a handful of musicians from the Protestant denomination will hold a service broadcast on television and the internet.

“This was a difficult decision to make, and this Easter will

be different for all of us,” Church elder Reverend Chaz Snider wrote in a letter to the faithful.

“But we have faith in God who brings hope out of fear. So set your alarm, brew a cup of coffee, and join us on your back porch as we proclaim the resurrection of our Lord.”

(Reporting by Philip Pullella; Additional reporting by Rich McKay in Atlanta, Stephen Farrell in Jerusalem, Padraic Halpin in Dublin, and Ayhan Uyanik and Claire Watson in Germany; Editing by Frances Kerry)

Christianity Today’s split with Trump highlights deeper issue in white evangelical America

Christianity Today’s split with Trump highlights deeper issue in white evangelical America
By Simon Lewis and Heather Timmons

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – After evangelical publication Christianity Today published a blistering editorial on what it called Donald Trump’s “grossly immoral character”, some church leaders and the U.S. president himself denounced the criticism as elitist and out-of-touch.

The Dec. 19 editorial sparked a Christmas holiday debate over religion in U.S. politics, and posed new questions about the close alignment between white evangelical voters and Trump, who has given their beliefs strong political support.

However, the coziness with the Republican president, who was impeached this month by the Democrat-controlled House of Representatives, is exacerbating a long-term crisis facing white evangelicalism, some Christians say – it is being abandoned by younger generations.

There has been a big drop-off in white evangelical church participation among adults under 40, and publications such as Christianity Today and religious leaders are struggling to engage “Gen Z,” or those born after 1996.

“One of the major factors is that the church is too tied up in right-wing politics,” said Greg Carey, a professor at Lancaster Theological Seminary in Pennsylvania. Evangelical activism against gay rights is particularly repellant to many members of a generation where “everyone has friends who are LGBTQ,” Carey said.

Trump’s presidency may make the age gap worse, some evangelical Christians believe. “Having to go out and defend this guy day after day, as many of these Trump evangelicals are doing, they’re just destroying their credibility,” said Napp Nazworth, who until Monday was politics editor of another publication, the Christian Post.

Nazworth resigned over the Christian Post’s plans to criticize Christianity Today for its anti-Trump editorial.

He told Reuters many younger evangelicals opposed Trump’s immigration and asylum policies and were concerned about alleviating poverty, in contrast to older members of the faith. Evangelical leaders standing with Trump “will have no moral authority to speak to moral issues of the day after defending him,” Nazworth said.

‘RELIGIOUSLY UNAFFILIATED’

Evangelicalism, like all forms of Christianity in the United States, is struggling to attract younger members, amid an unprecedented surge in recent years of the number of people identifying as religiously unaffiliated.

White evangelical protestants declined as a proportion of the U.S. population between 2006 and 2018, falling to 15% from 23%, according to analysis by the Public Religion Research Institute.

Higher-than-average voter turnout among evangelicals means the group still represents more than a quarter of the U.S. electorate, but a failure to draw young worshippers means their electoral heft is set to diminish, said Robert P. Jones, chief executive and founder of PRRI.

The median age of white evangelicals and white Christians overall is 55, according to PRRI data, compared with 44 for the overall white population.

The evangelical church’s “singular focus” on same sex marriage, relationships and abortion is failing to engage younger generations, said Randall Balmer, a professor of religion at Dartmouth College, and a former editor at Christianity Today.

They are motivated by a broader set of issues, he said, adding “in terms of sexual orientation the younger generation just shrugs about that.”

‘PARTISAN ATTACK’

The perhaps unlikely alliance between conservative Christians and the twice-divorced New York real estate developer has been important for Trump in a country that is more religious than most other western democracies and where a president’s spiritual life is closely examined.

White evangelical Christians overwhelmingly voted for Trump in 2016, when exit polls showed he won 81% of their votes. They have mostly stuck with him despite the controversies over his harsh attacks on political rivals and demeaning comments about women, thanks largely to Trump appointing scores of conservative judges who support restrictions on access to abortion.

Many U.S. evangelicals also strongly support conservatives in Israel, and hailed Trump’s decision to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and move the U.S. embassy there.

Trump, who describes himself as Presbyterian and whose advisors include evangelical figures such as Florida televangelist Paula White, dismissed Christianity Today as “far left”.

A group of nearly 200 leaders from the conservative wing of evangelicalism defended him in a letter to the magazine, praising the president for seeking the advice of “Bible-believing Christians and patriotic Americans”.

Franklin Graham, son of the magazine’s founder Billy Graham, who advised both Republican and Democratic presidents over several decades, said the editorial was a “totally partisan attack.”

Meanwhile, other religious scholars and leaders have signed a petition https://www.change.org/p/christian-leaders-and-evangelical-leaders-affirm-christianity-today in support of Christianity Today, stating that the “United States evangelical and Christian community is at a moral crossroads.”

Younger evangelicals are put off by church leaders’ seemingly unconditional support for Trump despite his “cruel” treatment of migrants and deregulation that could damage the environment, said Marlena Graves, a Christian author on faith, culture and justice, who signed the petition.

“No political party embodies Jesus’s teaching closely. You can’t depend on government to do what Jesus says because, oftentimes, you have to go against the government,” she said, citing evangelical believers who worked to abolish black slavery and Christians who resisted Nazism in Germany.

The Trump campaign did not respond to a request for comment. It announced on Friday the Jan. 3 launch of “Evangelicals for Trump”, a coalition to support the president in the November 2020 election.

Trump will attend the launch at King Jesus International Ministry, a megachurch in a Miami suburb with a large Spanish-speaking congregation, according to a church official.

(Reporting by Simon Lewis and Heather Timmons; Editing by Daniel Wallis)

Islamic State says it beheaded Christian captives in Nigeria

MAIDUGURI/CAIRO (Reuters) – Islamic State released a video purporting to show its militants beheading 10 Christian men in Nigeria, saying it was part of a campaign to avenge the deaths of its leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and its spokesman.

The militant group posted the footage on its online Telegram news channel on Thursday, the day after Christmas, with Arabic captions but no audio.

The video showed men in beige uniforms and black masks lining up behind blindfolded captives then beheading 10 of them and shooting an 11th man.

An earlier video seen by Reuters said the captives had been taken from Maiduguri and Damaturu in Nigeria’s northeastern state of Borno, where militants have been fighting for years to set up a separate Islamist state.

In that video, the captives pleaded for the Christian Association of Nigeria and President Muhammadu Buhari to intervene to save them.

Reuters could not verify the authenticity of either video.

Islamic State in West Africa Province (ISWAP) split from the militant group Boko Haram in 2016 and has become the region’s dominant jihadist group. Islamist insurgents have killed about 30,000 people in northern Nigeria in the past decade.

Islamic State leader Baghdadi died during a U.S. military raid in Syria and Muhajir in a separate military operation, both over the same weekend in late October.

(Reporting By Maiduguri newsroom and Ahmed Tolba in Cairo, writing by Libby George; Editing by Andrew Heavens)

At evangelical conference, concerns about Syria but cheers for Trump

Republican Mark Meadows speaks at the Conservative Political Action Conference (

By John Whitesides

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Prominent evangelical leaders have sharply criticized U.S. President Donald Trump over his decision to pull American military forces out of Syria, saying he was endangering tens of thousands of Christians in the Muslim-dominated region.

But the response was more muted at an annual conference of religious conservatives on Friday in Washington, where some Christian activists were concerned about the Syria move but willing to give Trump the benefit of the doubt.

“I would have done things differently, but I don’t have all the information that went into the decision,” Jeffrey Morgan, co-founder of a pro-family group called Americans Against No-Fault Divorce, said at the Values Voter Summit.

“I have a hard time when we abandon friends who have stuck their necks out for us,” he said of the Kurds, close U.S. allies in the fight against Islamic State militants who are now under attack from Turkey in Syria. “But would I abandon the president over Syria? No way.”

William Murray, chairman of the Religious Freedom Coalition, a group that runs programs to assist Christians in Africa and the Middle East, including Syria, said he did not believe Kurds were protective of Christians in the region, but the withdrawal had made the area unstable.

“Any time you create a situation where bullets and bombs are flying, you are going to endanger people on the ground,” he said.

Evangelicals have been among Trump’s most loyal supporters through years of scandal and controversy, and the criticism from influential leaders has been a rare crack in their overwhelming support for the president as he heads into a congressional impeachment battle and a tough 2020 re-election fight.

Pat Robertson, founder of the Christian Broadcasting Network, said after Trump announced the withdrawal that he was “in great danger of losing the mandate of Heaven.”

Franklin Graham, son of evangelist Billy Graham, asked people to pray for Trump to reconsider, saying “thousands of lives hang in the balance.”

Trump won 81% of the vote from white evangelical Christians in the 2016 election, which came just weeks after a decade-old Access Hollywood video surfaced showing him bragging about kissing and grabbing women because “when you are a star, they let you do it.”

Evangelicals have stuck with Trump since, through sex scandals like his alleged payments to hush up an affair with a porn star, and controversies like the investigation into Russian election meddling. In a Reuters/Ipsos poll from mid-September, 70% of white evangelicals approve of Trump’s job performance.

At the conference, which will conclude with a speech by Trump on Saturday night, the president drew repeated cheers for appointing conservative, anti-abortion judges, protecting religious liberties and battling liberals.

Speakers condemned the Democratic-led impeachment inquiry into whether Trump pressured his Ukrainian counterpart to dig up dirt on political rival Joe Biden, the former U.S. vice president who is seeking the Democratic Party’s 2020 presidential nomination.

“I think it’s time we send Adam Schiff home instead of the president of the United States,” conservative Republican U.S. Representative Mark Meadows told the cheering crowd, making a reference to one of the Democratic lawmakers leading the impeachment inquiry.

Attendees said Trump was a sympathetic leader besieged by Democrats determined to bring him down.

“He’s not a perfect man, but he represents more of my moral values than those who seem to hate him,” said Tim Chafins, a healthcare worker in Akron, Ohio. “What I see happening in Washington has nothing to do with Ukraine, Russia or China. It’s all politics.”

Tim Throckmorton, Midwest director of ministry for the Family Research Council, one of the sponsors of the conference, said that knowing Trump’s heart, “I’m sure he feels he is doing the right thing in Syria.”

“I hope the Christians in Syria are safe,” he added.

(Editing by Bill Berkrot)

Russia widens Jehovah’s Witnesses crackdown with new jailings

Adherents of the Christian denomination Jehovah's Witnesses Konstantin Bazhenov, Alexei Budenchuk, Felix Makhammadiev, Roman Gridasov, Gennady German and Alexei Miretsky pose for a picture inside the building of a regional court in Saratov, Russia in this undated handout photo. Courtesy of Jehovah’s Witnesses/Handout via REUTERS ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS IMAGE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY. NO RESALES. NO ARCHIVES. MANDATORY CREDI

By Andrew Osborn and Tom Balmforth

MOSCOW (Reuters) – Russia has widened a crackdown against Jehovah’s Witnesses, jailing six adherents of the Christian denomination for extremism in a move rights activists said was unjust and flouted religious freedom.

A regional court in Saratov jailed six Jehovah’s Witnesses on Thursday for up to three-and-a-half years, a court spokeswoman said on Friday.

“Yes they were convicted,” the spokeswoman, Olga Pirueva, said. “Punishments ranged from three years and six months down to two years (in jail).”

The court found the six men guilty of continuing the activities of an extremist organization, a reference to a 2017 ruling from Russia’s Supreme Court which found the group to be an “extremist” organization and ordered it to disband.

The U.S.-headquartered Jehovah’s Witnesses have been under pressure for years in Russia, where the dominant Orthodox Church is championed by President Vladimir Putin. Orthodox scholars have cast them as a dangerous foreign sect that erodes state institutions and traditional values, allegations they reject.

The latest jailings follow the conviction in February of a Danish builder in Russia for his association with Jehovah’s Witnesses. Dennis Christensen was found guilty of organizing an extremist group and jailed for six years.

Over 250 Jehovah’s Witnesses in Russia are facing criminal charges, according to the group, with 41 in detention and 23 under house arrest.

‘SPECULATIVE THESIS’

Under Thursday’s ruling, Konstantin Bazhenov and Alexei Budenchuk were sentenced to three-and-a-half years in jail, Felix Makhammadiev to three years, and Roman Gridasov, Gennady German, and Alexei Miretsky to two years in prison each.

The court also banned them from holding leadership positions in public organizations for five years.

Jehovah’s Witnesses say Russia’s constitution guarantees their adherents’ right to exercise freedom of religion and deny wrongdoing.

“The whole logic of the accusation was based on the speculative thesis that faith in God is ‘a continuation of the activities of an extremist organization’,” Jarrod Lopes, a U.S.-based spokesman for the group, said in a statement.

“Instead of searching and proving the guilt of the defendants, the aim of the investigation was to prove their religious affiliation, despite the fact that no religion is prohibited in Russia.”

Lawyers for the men plan to appeal what they regard as absurd convictions, said Lopes.

With about 170,000 followers in Russia and 8 million worldwide, Jehovah’s Witnesses are a Christian denomination known for door-to-door preaching, close Bible study, and rejection of military service and blood transfusions.

They believe the end of the world as we know it is imminent, an event “the obedient” will survive to inhabit the Kingdom of God they believe will follow.

Rachel Denber of U.S.-based Human Rights Watch condemned the court’s ruling, saying the men had been jailed for nothing.

“They should be freed,” Denber said on social media.

(Editing by Timothy Heritage)

Honest, Real Conversation! MONDO Show Begins Tonight on PTL Television Network

Mondo Show - PTL Television Network Mondo De La Vega

By Kami Klein

Mondo De Va Lega has been on a journey that most of us could not fathom. From gang life to an incredible walk with God this young co-host of The Jim Bakker Show understands that each step has brought a deeply profound testimony and direction.  For 18 years he has prepared to fulfill the call of God on his life and the potential to change a generation. The time is NOW for him to take this next step.  

Today, Monday, August the 12th, his new program, “MONDO Show” begins at 8 pm ct on the PTL Television Network.  

Years ago, Mondo had a conversation with a very influential leader in America who recognized God’s hand on his life.  He advised him, “Just because you are called doesn’t mean you are ready for your call.” He told Mondo that Jim Bakker had much to teach him and that he needed to learn to serve under him and in time God would show him his call and appoint the right time to fulfill the call of God in his life.  Mondo has done just that gleaning as much as he could from his teacher.

 “I began to serve under Pastor Jim, learning everything about television and began to be mentored by him about how to know Christ in an intimate way. I thank Pastor Jim for believing in me and giving me an opportunity to fulfill the call of God in my life. Today Pastor Jim has become my father, my mentor, and my friend,” Mondo responded when asked about the timing of his new show.  

“On July 4th, the opening of Prayer Mountain Chapel at Morningside USA, Jim Bakker prayed and laid hands on my head and began to prophesy over me. He told me that this is my time and the beginning of God’s calling in my life. I have learned to pace myself and be patient, walking in obedience waiting for God to release the time for me to step into my calling. My show is for a generation that wants to have a real, straight forward conversation about today’s issues.”

Mondo’s show is a raw, non-polished, organic way to have a  conversation. The topics are all about life today. Subjects such as: 

Latinos in America: “America doesn’t know what to do with us”

Technology: How it is increasing so rapidly, even though many in the scientific community are loudly warning about the potential health effects

Artificial Intelligence: The way of the Future, the way of a New life

Christianity: The war to destroy Christian America, what does this look like in real life?

Bible prophecy: Where are we according to the Bible?

Politics: News headlines and how they are affecting us in today’s society

Millennials and the culture change that is taking place

Relationships: Finding love and sustaining a relationship 

 “The subject matter, the questions, are the things people are afraid to ask because it makes everyone feel nervous; even though we are all thinking about it,” Mondo said about the new show.  “I want to bring in the men and women who are making a difference in our communities, in our culture and in our lives. It’s a journey to understand the misunderstood.”  

Mondo De La Vega recognizes that more people are seeing that the times are changing. They can’t explain why or what it is but certainly what used to be considered good is now being perceived as Evil and Evil is now the new Norm. “The Christian community is having a difficult time adjusting and finding their place in society and in our culture. Our country is no longer being accepted as Christian and it has left Christianity in a state of shock.” 

In fighting this spiritual battle for our nation and our world Mondo believes we must continue to engage in conversation about today’s culture but also stresses on the most powerful:

“The most important thing we need is to pray and ask God to continue to give us wisdom and show us the way. Without the anointing, we are just another show, another film trying to compete with Hollywood. The very thing that makes us different is the anointing of the Holy Spirit. We need the anointing back in our lives.  It’s the game-changer!”

Please join us tonight and every Monday evening at 8 pm ct and connect on a new level.  “Mondo Show” can be seen on the PTL Network from your Roku, Apple TV, Amazon Fire TV or ptlnetwork.com to tune in! 

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