Pastor calls for bravery against coronavirus from atop Swiss cathedral tower

By John Revill and Arnd Wiegmann

ZURICH (Reuters) – A pastor called on the residents of Zurich to be brave during the coronavirus outbreak on Sunday – as he gave an Easter blessing from high atop one of the towers at the city’s landmark Grossmuenster cathedral.

Christoph Sigrist read out a blessing from the city’s 800-year-old church, known as one of the birthplaces of the Protestant Reformation.

Sigrist asked God to protect people of all religions in his blessing which he read from the top of the 60-meter high tower, using only a traditional wooden cone as a loudhailer, rather than an electric microphone.

Four trumpeters played from the balcony before and after the blessing.

“In times of crisis long ago, priests in Switzerland used to go out into mountains and sing out God’s blessings to the people,” Sigrist told Reuters.

“This is a very old tradition which I am bringing to the city,” added the 57-year-old, who was accompanied on Sunday by horn players. “It’s a blessing for the whole world in this difficult time with the coronavirus.”

Below, a few people taking a break from their self-isolation broke into a round of applause after the blessing, as the trumpeters started playing the gospel song “Oh Happy Day.”

(Reporting by John Revill)

Zimbabwe pastor’s bail bid deferred; Amnesty says children being held

By MacDonald Dzirutwe

HARARE (Reuters) – Zimbabwe’s High Court deferred until next week a decision on whether to free an activist pastor detained over violent anti-government protests.

Evan Mawarire, who led a national shutdown in 2016 against Robert Mugabe, is accused of stoking the unrest which was countered by a violent crackdown reminiscent of the actions of security forces under the former president.

Prosecutors argued against the bail application, saying Mawarire posed a flight risk and could re-offend if released.

Judge Tawanda Chitapi said he would rule on Tuesday but hinted he could ban Mawarire from posting videos similar to the one that the state says encouraged unrest until the trial is over.

Protests erupted in mid-January following a hike in fuel prices and lasted for several days.

Security forces dispersed demonstrations by force and cracked down on activists, leading to fears that President Emmerson Mnangagwa’s government is reverting to the strong-arm politics seen during Mugabe’s 37-year rule.

Amnesty International said children as young as 11 had been detained along with hundreds others.

“The authorities must immediately stop this merciless crackdown on activists, civil society leaders and others who are guilty of nothing more than exercising their right to freedom of expression,” Amnesty’s Deprose Muchena said in a statement.

“The authorities must ensure that those who violated and continue to violate human rights face justice.”

Zimbabwe’s independent Human Rights Commission has accused security forces of systematic torture. The opposition says soldiers are apparently able to shoot and kill without being held accountable. An official inquiry said the army shot civilians to quell post-election violence last August.

Mnangagwa, who replaced Mugabe after a de facto coup in November 2017, promised this week to investigate security services’ actions against protesters.

Courts in the capital Harare and other towns heard cases of more than 100 people accused of public order offenses linked to the demonstrations, lawyers said.

Mawarire, who denies the charges remains in detention at Chikurubi Maximum Prison in Harare and was not present at Friday’s hearing.

Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions Peter Mutasa, who called for a peaceful stay-at-home strike in a video post with Mawarire, presented himself to police in Harare in the company of his lawyer. The union’s secretary general is already detained on subversion charges.

(Editing by James Macharia and Robin Pomeroy)

Zimbabwe to charge activist pastor with subverting the government

Zimbabwean activist pastor Evan Mawarire is escorted by detectives as he arrives at the Harare Magistrates courts in Harare, Zimbabwe, January 17, 2019. REUTERS/Philimon Bulawayo

By MacDonald Dzirutwe

HARARE (Reuters) – Zimbabwean activist pastor Evan Mawarire appeared in court on Thursday to be charged with subverting the government, punishable by up to 20 years in jail, after protests this week in which three people were killed and dozens injured.

Mawarire was arrested on Wednesday and initially charged by police with the lesser crime of inciting public violence after he posted on social media encouraging Zimbabweans to heed a strike call by the biggest labor union.

On entering the courthouse, he told reporters: “None of what I am accused of is what I have done at all. If we have true justice in this country, let’s see it at play. I am very upset.”

The Harare pastor rose to prominence as a critic of former strongman Robert Mugabe and led a national protest shutdown in 2016. He was tried on similar charges in 2017 but was acquitted by the High Court for lack of evidence.

President Emmerson Mnangagwa’s government decreed a 150 percent hike in fuel prices last weekend, which triggered the three-day strike, during which protesters barricaded roads with rocks and burnt tires in the capital Harare. In the second city of Bulawayo, shops were looted.

Police rounded up 600 people, including Mawarire and an opposition legislator, in a crackdown on protesters. A doctors’ group said they had treated 68 people for gunshot wounds.

The Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights, whose lawyers are representing Mawarire and more than 130 others, said police had decided to upgrade the charges against Mawarire.

FAMILIAR WAYS

Mnangagwa promised to repair the struggling economy after replacing long-time leader Mugabe in an election following a coup in November 2017, Zimbabwe has fallen back into familiar ways.

While some businesses reopened on Thursday after the strike, new data showed that inflation had soared to a 10-year high of 42 percent in December, even before the fuel price increase.

As dollar shortages batter the economy, rocketing inflation is destroying the value of citizens’ savings.

The Zimbabwe Association of Doctors for Human Rights (ZADHR) said its members had treated 172 people, some with dog bites, in private and public hospitals since Monday, when the protests started.

“There are cases of patients who had chest trauma and fractured limbs who were forcibly taken from the hospital to attend court despite the advice of doctors,” ZAHDR said in a statement.

Of the 68 people treated for gunshot wounds, 17 underwent emergency surgery.

On Thursday, there were still long queues at the few filling stations selling fuel, sometimes under the watchful eye of soldiers.

The few shops that were open were packed with people buying basics such as sugar, flour and bread.

Media platforms including Whatsapp, Facebook and Twitter remained blocked because of a government order, leading to accusations from opposition figures that it wanted to prevent images of heavy-handed police tactics being broadcast around the world.

(Editing by James Macharia and Kevin Liffey)

Exclusive: Turkey’s Erdogan says court will decide fate of detained U.S. pastor

Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan addresses the 73rd session of the United Nations General Assembly at U.N. headquarters in New York, U.S., September 25, 2018. REUTERS/Carlo Allegri

By Stephen Adler and Parisa Hafezi

NEW YORK (Reuters) – Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan said a Turkish court, not politicians, will decide the fate of an American pastor whose detention on terrorism charges has hit relations between Ankara and Washington.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said on Monday he was hopeful Turkey would release evangelical pastor Andrew Brunson this month. The preacher was moved to house arrest in July after being detained for 21 months.

In an interview with Reuters late on Tuesday while he was in New York for the United Nations General Assembly meetings, Erdogan said any decision on Brunson would be made by the court.

“This is a judiciary matter. Brunson has been detained on terrorism charges … On Oct. 12 there will be another hearing and we don’t know what the court will decide and politicians will have no say on the verdict,” Erdogan said.

If found guilty, Brunson could be jailed for up to 35 years. He denies the charges. “As the president, I don’t have the right to order his release. Our judiciary is independent. Let’s wait and see what the court will decide,” Erdogan said.

U.S. President Donald Trump, infuriated by Brunson’s detention, authorized a doubling of duties on aluminum and steel imported from Turkey in August. Turkey retaliated by increasing tariffs on U.S. cars, alcohol and tobacco imports.

The Turkish lira has lost nearly 40 percent of its value against the dollar this year on concerns over Erdogan’s grip on monetary policy and the diplomatic dispute between Ankara and Washington.

“The Brunson case is not even closely related to Turkey’s economy. The current economic challenges have been exaggerated more than necessary and Turkey will overcome these challenges with its own resources,” Erdogan said.

Turkey’s central bank raised its benchmark rate by a hefty 625 basis points this month, boosting the lira and possibly easing investor concern over Erdogan’s influence on monetary policy. Erdogan said he was against the measure.

“It shows the central bank is independent. As the president, I am against high-interest rates and I am repeating my stance here again,” he said, adding that high rates “primarily scare away investors”.

“This was a decision made by the central bank … I hope and pray that their expectations will be met because high rates lead to high inflation. I hope the other way around will happen this time.”

The lira firmed slightly on Wednesday morning after Erdogan’s assurance on the independence of the central bank was published.

IMPROVING TIES

In an effort to boost the economy and attract investors, Erdogan will travel on Sept. 28 to Germany, a country that is home to millions of Turks.

“We want to completely leave behind all the problems and to create a warm environment between Turkey and Germany just like it used to be,” Erdogan said, adding that he will meet Chancellor Angela Merkel during his visit.

The two NATO members have differed over Turkey’s crackdown on suspected opponents of Erdogan after a failed coup in 2016 and over its detention of German citizens.

On Syria, Erdogan said it was impossible for Syrian peace efforts to continue with President Bashar al-Assad in power.

Earlier this month, Turkey and Russia reached an agreement to enforce a new demilitarized zone in Syria’s Idlib region from which “radical” rebels will be required to withdraw by the middle of next month.

But Erdogan said the withdrawal of “radical groups” had already started.

“This part of Syria will be free of weapons which is the expectation of the people of Idlib … who welcomed this step,” he said. The demilitarized zone will be patrolled by Turkish and Russian forces.

Close to 3 million people live in Idlib, around half of them displaced by the war from other parts of Syria.

Erdogan said Turkey will continue to buy natural gas from Iran in line with its long-term supply contract despite Trump’s threats to punish countries doing business with Iran.

“We need to be realistic … Am I supposed to let people freeze in winter? …Nobody should be offended. How can I heat my people’s homes if we stop purchasing Iran’s natural gas?,” he said.

Trump pulled the United States out of a 2015 multinational nuclear deal with Iran and in August Washington reimposed sanctions on Tehran, lifted in 2016 under the pact. U.S. sanctions on Iran’s energy sector are set to be re-imposed in November.

(Writing by Parisa Hafezi; Editing by Raju Gopalakrishnan and Andrew Heavens)

Turkey’s Erdogan says U.S. should look at its own actions if it wants jailed pastor freed

Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan addresses a news conference at the Presidential Palace in Ankara, Turkey, April 18, 2018. Murat Cetinmuhurdar/Presidential Palace/Handout via REUTERS

ISTANBUL (Reuters) – President Tayyip Erdogan said the United States should look at its own actions if it wants the return of an American Christian pastor who has been jailed in Turkey for suspected links to a 2016 failed coup.

Andrew Brunson, a Christian pastor from North Carolina, U.S. who has been in jail in Turkey since December 2016, is seen in this undated picture taken in Izmir, Turkey. Depo Photos via REUTERS

Andrew Brunson, a Christian pastor from North Carolina, U.S. who has been in jail in Turkey since December 2016, is seen in this undated picture taken in Izmir, Turkey. Depo Photos via REUTERS

Erdogan made the comment in a live interview with broadcaster NTV.

Andrew Brunson, who has lived in Turkey for more than two decades, was indicted on charges of helping the group that Ankara holds responsible for the failed coup against Erdogan. He faces up to 35 years in prison. Brunson denies the charges.

Erdogan has previously linked Brunson’s fate to that of the cleric Fethullah Gulen, the Muslim cleric Turkey blames for the coup attempt. Gulen has lived in the United States since 1999 and denies the charges. Turkey is seeking his extradition from the United States.

U.S. President Donald Trump and dozens of U.S. senators have urged Erdogan to release Brunson.

(Reporting by Ali Kucukgocmen; Writing by David Dolan; Editing by Gareth Jones)

Canadian pastor returns home after release from N. Korean prison

FILE PHOTO - South Korea-born Canadian pastor Hyeon Soo Lim stands during his trial at a North Korean court in this undated photo released by North Korea's Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) in Pyongyang, North Korea on December 16, 2015. REUTERS/KCNA/File Photo

By Jim Finkle

TORONTO (Reuters) – A Canadian pastor who was imprisoned in North Korea for more than two years has arrived home in Canada, where he was resting after being reunited with his family on Saturday, a family spokeswoman said.

Hyeon Soo Lim, formerly the senior pastor at one of Canada’s largest churches, had disappeared on a mission to North Korea in early 2015. He was sentenced to hard labor for life in December 2015 on charges of attempting to overthrow the Pyongyang regime.

North Korea’s KCNA news agency said on Wednesday that the 62-year-old Lim had been released on humanitarian grounds, suggesting his health was poor. His family later said he was not in critical condition.

Lim’s release comes amid heightened tensions between Washington and Pyongyang, though authorities have not said there is any connection between his release and efforts to defuse the standoff over North Korea’s nuclear program.

Family members will hold a Saturday afternoon press conference at his church, Light Presbyterian Church in the Toronto suburb of Mississauga, said spokeswoman Lisa Pak.

It was not clear if Pastor Lim would appear at the press conference, according to Pak, who said he would attend Sunday services at his church.

The Canadian government issued a statement on Saturday, saying it joined Lim’s family and congregation in celebrating his homecoming.

“Canada has been actively engaged on Mr. Lim’s case at all levels, and we will continue to support him and his family now that he has returned,” the statement said.

Lim’s family in June urged the Canadian government to bolster efforts to seek Lim’s release, following the death of Otto Warmbier, an American student who died days after being released from a North Korean prison in a coma.

Footage from Japan’s ANN television showed Lim walking on a tarmac next to Canada’s national security adviser, Daniel Jean, at the Yokota Air Base on the outskirts of Tokyo, in a stop en route to his home.

(Reporting by Jim Finkle in Toronto; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama and Mary Milliken)

Canadian diplomats visit pastor imprisoned in North Korea

South Korean-Canadian Pastor Imprisoned by North Korea

OTTAWA (Reuters) – Diplomats from Canada this week paid a rare visit to North Korea and were able to see a Canadian pastor serving a life sentence for subversion, a foreign ministry official said on Thursday.

Hyeon Soo Lim, who served at one of the largest churches in Canada, was sentenced to hard labor for life in December 2015 for what North Korea says was an attempt to overthrow the regime. He is the only Western citizen known to be held currently in North Korea.

Chantal Gagnon, a spokeswoman for Canadian Foreign Minister Stephane Dion, confirmed a report by North Korea’s KCNA news agency that said the diplomats visited the country from Tuesday until Thursday and saw Lim.

“We are still very concerned about his health, well-being and continued detention and are ‎working actively to secure his release,” she said.

“This case is absolutely a priority for us,” she added, declining to give details of Lim’s health.

In a statement, Lim’s Toronto-area church said “we are hopeful that this is a positive sign that we will see Reverend Lim released and home soon.”

Canada established diplomatic relations with Pyongyang in 2001 but froze them in 2010. Ottawa now says it will only talk to North Korea about regional security, human rights and consular cases.

The church has said Lim visited North Korea more than 100 times since 1997 and helped set up an orphanage and nursing home.

In January, Lim told CNN he spends eight hours a day digging holes at a labor camp where he has not seen any other prisoners.

(Reporting by David Ljunggren and Andrea Hopkins; Editing by James Dalgleish and Andrew Hay)

Zimbabwe Pastor charged with attempting to overthrow government

Pastor Evan Mawarire, who launched the movement #ThisFlag, is seen at a press conference in Harare

By MacDonald Dzirutwe

HARARE (Reuters) – Zimbabwean pastor Evan Mawarire was charged on Wednesday with attempting to overthrow the government through an Internet campaign that inspired rare protests this month against President Robert Mugabe.

Mawarire appeared in a packed Harare courtroom draped in the Zimbabwean flag after spending the night in police cells as officers searched his house, church and office.

Mawarire’s lawyer Harrison Nkomo said his client faced up to 20 years in jail and accused the state of ambushing the defense by changing charges without informing them.

Hundreds of Mawarire’s supporters gathered outside the court, waving the national flag and singing protest songs, as anti-riot police kept a watchful eye.

“We are here in solidarity with a man of the cloth who is standing against a system that has impoverished the citizens of this nation,” Harare resident Pastor Ellard said.

Though Mawarire had called for further “stay at home” protests on Wednesday, queues built up as normal at bus and taxi ranks to ferry people to work, while most businesses were open.

Teachers reported for duty at most public schools, which are conducting mid-year examinations, while nurses and doctors were at work at state-run hospitals.

Mawarire last month posted a video online, that has since gone viral under the moniker #ThisFlag, venting his anger about deteriorating social and economic conditions in Zimbabwe and urging citizens to hold government to account.

“I am angered by the poverty and day to day struggles. The economy is not working and there are no jobs,” Zimbabwean activist Maureen Kademaunga told Reuters.

The preacher’s social media movement has rattled 92-year-old Mugabe’s administration, leading to accusations by the state against Mawarire of inciting public violence.

Anger is rising in Zimbabwe over high unemployment, corruption in government and shortages of money, which has seen people spending hours in bank queues to withdraw their money.

Zimbabwe’s government warned protesters on Tuesday they would face the “full wrath of the law” if they heeded Mawarire’s call, after his #ThisFlag movement organized the biggest anti-government demonstrations in a decade last week.

After his arrest, Mawarire supporters released a pre-recorded video urging Zimbabweans to stage another stay-away protest on Wednesday, although the early signs were that most people had not heeded the call.

Amnesty International said Mawarire’s arrest was a calculated plan by Zimbabwean authorities to intimidate activists ahead of Wednesday’s protests.

“Instead of suppressing dissenting voices, Zimbabwean authorities should be listening to protesters like Evan Mawarire,” said Muleya Mwananyanda, Amnesty International’s deputy director for southern Africa.

(Additional reporting by Mfuneko Toyana; Editing by Joe Brock and Ralph Boulton)

Fallen Megachurch Pastor Says Gospel Allows Him To Be Seen at “Most Embarrassing Worst”

Tullian Tchividjian, grandson of Billy Graham who left his position as pastor of Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church because of an “inappropriate relationship” with a woman not his wife, is not running away and hiding in the wake of his sin.

To the contrary, Tchividjian is sharing his recovery in Christ through his Facebook and Twitter accounts to show people that God’s restoration, grace and love is very real.

What typically happens when a Christian leader falls is that they disappear and only reappear when they’re strong and shiny again. No one ever sees them in their broken and weakened condition. When we do this, we send the message that Christianity is only for good and strong and clean people,” Tchividjian said in a Facebook post.

“But believe it or not, Christianity is not about good people getting better. It is, rather, good news for bad people coping with their failure to be good. The message of the Christian faith is that because Jesus was strong for us we are free to be weak,” he added.  “The Gospel sets me free to let you see me at my most embarrassing worst.”

Tchividjian’s postings have been talking honestly about his struggles “with anger, with frustration, anger with God, anger with my wife, anger with the church, trying in some way shape or form to allocate blame for my bad decision on something or someone outside of me.”

Tchividjian also talks on his Facebook page about how he began to “believe his own press” about his strength and power as a pastor and that allowed it to change him.  He says it’s a “very subtle” process where you start to believe the things people are saying about you and lead you away from who you are and your foundation on Christ.

He calls the situation “a nightmare” and says that he is relying on Jesus alone.

“My family and I are, at every imaginable level, overwhelmed. What life will look like from here on out is completely unknown to us. And that scares me. But we are alive and not without hope. We are certain that better and brighter days are ahead,” he wrote.

South Sudanese Pastors Face Death at Trial

Two South Sudanese pastors charged with spying are facing death after a judge ruled prosecutors presented enough evidence and then gave defense lawyers only 15 minutes with their clients.

Supporters of pastors Yat Michael Ruot and Peter Yein Reith say they are being persecuted only because of their Christian faith.

“Pastors Michael and Peter are two of the most recent victims under the power-hungry National Intelligence and Security Service of Sudan,” Tiffany Barrans, international legal director of the American Center for Law and Justice, told FoxNews.com. “The crimes alleged against these pastors carry potentially serious sentences, including death or life imprisonment.”

Ruot was arrested in December 2014 after delivering a sermon.  Reith was arrested on January 11, 2015 after being called to the offices of Security Services.

“[T]he judge was presented with evidence far below any threshold for conviction,” Barrans said. “There is zero evidence that either pastor undermined the constitutional system of Sudan, conducted espionage, promoted hatred, disturbed the peace, or blasphemed.  Despite this lack of evidence, the judge has refused to dismiss the case,” Barrans added. “Though the defense will get its day in court, the attorney has been denied access to his clients to prepare an adequate defense.”

The American Center for Law and Justice said that defense attorney Mohaned Mustafa will have to prove his client’s innocence rather than the two pastors having to be proven guilty.