Iranian and Afghan converts to Christianity face mass deportation from Germany; Pastor calls hearings “kangaroo courts”

GERMANY – While most Canadians celebrated the Christmas season in relative comfort, that wasn’t the case for all people across the world. In particular, one German pastor is raising the situation of Iranian and Afghan converts to Christianity living in Germany, who are facing mass deportation despite the dangers they will certainly face if they are returned to their homelands.

Rev. Dr. Gottfried Martens is pastor of Trinity Lutheran Church in Berlin-Steglitz, a member congregation of Germany’s Independent Evangelical Lutheran Church (SELK). This congregation, along with several other SELK churches, have welcomed hundreds of converts to Christianity in recent years, mostly Iranian and Afghan refugees living in Germany. Dr. Martens and his congregation were widely covered in international media in early 2016 for their work among refugees. But the German government has recently begun to deny en masse the refugee claims of many of these converts, following what Dr. Martens is calling deeply flawed refugee hearings.

“Desperate reports have been reaching me from members of our congregation,” he writes in a letter released December 23. “At this time, the Federal Ministry for Immigration and Refugees is rejecting almost all applications for asylum from our Iranian members, and in many cases also from our Afghan congregational members and candidates for baptism, and is sending them deportation notices.”

Germany has recently increased the number of personnel responsible for hearing asylum applications—a necessary change, given many refugees have been waiting three years for their first hearing. “Yet not even in our worst nightmares could we have pictured what this change would entail,” Dr. Martens says. “Many [of those hearing the cases] are manifestly clueless about the situation of Christians in Iran and Afghanistan, and worse yet they are utterly clueless concerning questions relating to the Christian faith. But all of this does not prevent them from assuming the role of self-appointed experts, whose questions ‘unmask’ the supposedly deceitful Iranian asylum applicants one after another, even when those hearing the cases don’t even know the difference between the [Apostle’s] Creed, and the Our Father [Lord’s Prayer].”

Instead, refugees are being tasked with obscure or even irrelevant questions to determine the “authenticity” of their conversions. “Questions are put such as the names of the two sons in the parable of the Prodigal Son, or what Martin Luther died of, or the occasion of Queen Margarethe of Denmark’s recent visit to Wittenberg,” Dr. Martens reports. “In this way, Christians who learned the first elements of the Christian faith in their house church in Iran are well and truly hung out to dry. Many hearings are more like kangaroo courts in which our congregational members and candidates for baptism have absolutely no chance of presenting what is important to them.”

Dr. Martens further reports that those hearing the cases are dismissing or even mocking the refugees when they express their faith in the importance of Christ dying on the cross for their sins. “What the applicant says here makes absolutely no sense,” one official is said to write in his official reports. Those tasked with translating for the court—mostly Muslims with little knowledge of the Christian faith, and in some cases reportedly hostile to it—are also accused of incorrectly or even falsely translating what the refugees say during their hearings. Such improper questioning and translating seriously damages the applicants’ claims for refugee status, as the final decision is made elsewhere in Germany on the basis of these reports and transcripts.

Dr. Martens says the flaws in the system are so great that the situation must inevitably be raised to a higher court. “Orders have obviously been given from above no longer to recognize Iranian converts as having the right to asylum in our country,” Dr. Martens suggests. “The systematic failure of the Federal Ministry in hundreds of cases must come to the light of day through the efforts of the superior courts.”

The challenges come after a year of other difficulties, as converts to Christianity have faced increasing persecution from Muslim refugees angry at their conversions from Islam. “This year many of them suffered violent attacks from Muslim residents of their institutional homes and from Muslim watchmen once they learned of their conversion. Time and time again—most recently last week—we have had to collect people from residences, in order to prevent worse from befalling them,” he notes. The attacks even led SELKS’ bishop earlier this year to call on the government to give Christian refugees to be given separate accommodations from Muslim refugees. “But our congregational members and candidates for baptism are continually finding that those who attack them and threaten them with death have no problem securing the right of abode here in Germany, while they themselves—the ones under attack—are ‘exposed’ by the Federal Ministry as not entitled to asylum.”

As an example, Dr. Martens notes the case of six Christian converts who were beaten by a group of nearly 100 radical Muslim asylum applicants in February 2016. Police dogs had to be released in order to protect the Christians. And yet the police investigation was eventually dropped. Now, the six Christians are among those receiving deportation notices.

Despite the challenges, Dr. Martens reports good news too for his congregation. In his letter he goes on to explain the process by which refugees are instructed in the Christian faith prior to baptism—or excluded, if a genuine conversion is not evident. Currently baptisms sit at between 30 and 40 a month. And renovations to the building to accommodate more refugees continue apace.

Dr. Martens ends his letter with a request for prayer. “Please keep praying for the work here in Stegltiz,” he writes. “It is and remains in many ways a spiritual battle loaded with many afflictions and temptations. And yet for me personally, even after 25 years, it remains the most beautiful service in the world, which I would never exchange for anything else. Pray above all that all the members who have found their way to our congregation in the last years may continue to hold to Christ and not let their love for their Lord falter!”

You can download Dr. Martens’ full letter here. The translation is by Rev. Dr. John Stephenson of Concordia Lutheran Theological Seminary (St. Catharines, Ontario).

SELK is a member church of the International Lutheran Council (ILC).

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Republished from The Canadian Lutheran.

Latvian Lutherans consecrate confessional Swede as Bishop

by Christopher C. Barnekov

The Evangelical Lutheran Church of Latvia (ELCL) has consecrated as bishop a Swedish theologian previously barred from ordination in Sweden because of his confessional Lutheran faith. Rev.

Archbishop Vanags presents Hans Jönsson with the pectoral cross of a bishop. (Photo: Rihards Rasnacis).
Archbishop Vanags presents Hans Jönsson with the pectoral cross of a bishop. (Photo: Rihards Rasnacis).

Hans Jönsson, 48, was consecrated August 6 at the cathedral in Riga to serve as bishop of Liepaja Diocese in southwestern Latvia.

Bishop Jönsson graduated from Lund University in Sweden. While studying in Lund, he supplemented his studies with lectures in Lutheran theology sponsored by the Swedish Luther Foundation, which was formed in 1955 to promote theological education grounded in the Holy Scriptures and the Lutheran confessional writings, thus opposing increasingly liberal trends in the Church of Sweden.

Because of his confessional Lutheran views, Jönsson was denied ordination in the Church of Sweden. He was, however, certified as qualified for ordination by the Church Coalition for The Bible and Confessions, an umbrella organization encompassing several Swedish Confessional Lutheran movements that was founded in 1958 at the initiative of Bishop Bo Giertz to defend traditional Lutheran faith in the Church of Sweden. The Coalition was formed in the context of the debate over women’s ordination, which its members viewed as clearly contradicting Scripture.

Bishop Jönsson is also an associate member of the pastoral collegium of the Mission Province in Sweden. Dr. Bengt Birgersson, Mission Province Secretary, who attended the consecration, noted, “Sweden’s loss is Latvia’s gain. Many gifted young men were forced to leave Sweden in order to serve Christ abroad, having been denied ordination in the Church of Sweden because they were faithful to Scripture. This is why the Mission Province was formed: to provide a path to ordination and service in Sweden.” Since the founding of the Mission Province in 2003, approximately 40 men have been ordained in Sweden and in the Mission Dioceses in Finland and Norway who would otherwise have been excluded because they believe the Holy Scriptures limit the pastoral office to men.

The ELCL has a close historical relationship to the Church of Sweden. Unlike the Church of Sweden, however, the Latvian church has remained faithful to Confessional Lutheran theology. In 2000, Jönsson was invited to serve in Latvia while learning the language, receiving financial support from the Swedish Luther Foundation. He was subsequently ordained in Riga in 2003, and most recently served as pastor in Madona, about 40 miles east of Riga. He was also given responsibility for managing the national church’s finances and currently serves as chairman of the board for pastoral education.

Rev. Jönsson was elected June 3 to replace the retiring Bishop of Liepaja. The diocese consists of 124 congregations served by 40 pastors.

Bishop Jönsson with Archbishop Vanags after the consecration.
Bishop Jönsson with Archbishop Vanags after the consecration.

Archbishop Janis Vanags conducted the consecration, which was broadcast in its entirety by Latvian national television. Archbishop Vanags was assisted by Latvia’s bishops as well as Bishop Tiits Salumäe of the Estonian Evangelical Lutheran Church and Bishop Hans-Jörg Voigt of Germany’s Independent Evangelical Lutheran Church (SELK). Bishop Voigt is also Chairman of the International Lutheran Council. The Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod was represented by Dr. Albert Collver, Director of Church Relations and Assistant to the President. Provisional Bishop Torkild Masvie of the Lutheran Church in Norway also participated in the service. Representatives also attended from the Nordic Mission Dioceses, as well as the Swedish Luther Foundation and other confessional Lutheran movements.

With nearly 300 congregations, the ELCL is the nation’s largest church. It is in fellowship with the LCMS and also has close ties to the Independent Evangelical Lutheran Church (SELK) of Germany. In June, the ELCL amended its constitution to reverse a policy imposed during the Soviet domination that opened ordained ministry to women (although no women had been ordained since shortly after Latvia’s liberation).

Although ELCL is still a member of the Lutheran World Federation (LWF), it rejected heavy pressure from the LWF in moving to limit ordination to men. Advocates of women’s ordination argued that this decision would strain relations with LWF members. In addressing the June synod, however, Archbishop Vanags expressed the intention of drawing closer to the International Lutheran Council and its member churches, including the LCMS, which ordain only men. Relations between ELCL and the Church of Sweden have also been greatly strained since the CoS accepted same-sex marriage.

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SELK welcomes New Director to Wittenberg

SELK representatives welcome Director Kristin Lange to Wittenberg.
SELK representatives welcome Director Kristen Lange to Wittenberg.

WITTENBERG, Germany – On April 7, representatives of the Independent Evangelical Lutheran Church of Germany (SELK) met with the new Director of the International Lutheran Society of Wittenberg (ILSW), Kristen Lange, in Wittenberg’s Old Latin School.

Since the historic building in Wittenberg’s Old Town was restored and renovated as a study and welcome center, it began serving in its new role during the past year.  The comprehensive building phase was headed up by Rev. David Mahsman. Now, as things transition into the programming phase, Kristen Lange has assumed responsibilities as its director. The SELK works together in the ILSW with its U.S. partner, The Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod (LCMS). The LCMS’ mission department employs Director Lange as a missionary to Germany.

Director Lange, an academically-trained linguist (in German and English), had opportunity to visit with SELK Bishop Dr. Hans-Jörg Voigt, SELK District Presidents Peter Brückmann (of Berlin) and Thomas Junker (of Weissenfels), Rev. Markus Fischer (of Trinity Lutheran Church, Leipzig, which has responsibility for Wittenberg), Ulrich Schroeder (of Dresden) and Dr. Andrea Grünhagen (of Hannover, a theological resource executive). The SELK delegation took the opportunity to get acquainted and extend a sincere welcome to Germany. Rev. Mahsman also participated in the conversation, which, in addition to information about SELK church structures and procedures, considered upgrading a preaching presence in Wittenberg, as well as public relations, outreach, and preparations for the “World Reformation Exhibition,” planned for Wittenberg as part of the 2017 Reformation anniversary.

Bishop Voigt explained to SELK-News that he is filled with gratitude every time he visits the Old Latin School. “The strong LCMS engagement, which also involved the SELK, has brought results. I wish Kristen Lange a good adjustment to Germany and the Lord’s blessing for her work.”

Translation:  Robert Bugbee

ILC Chairman calls on German authorities to protect Christians in refugee shelters

ILC Chairman Hans-Jörg Voigt.
ILC Chairman Hans-Jörg Voigt.

GERMANY – Minorities are repeatedly targeted by radical Muslims at refugee shelters in Germany. In addition to single mothers traveling with children, Christians are also being affected. Dr. Gottfried Martens, pastor of Trinity Lutheran Church—a congregation of the Independent Evangelical Lutheran Church (SELK) in Berlin-Steglitz—has furnished multiple reports of radical Muslim attacks on Christians and converts to Christianity. Members of his parish, composed primarily of refugees from Iran and Afghanistan, have appealed to Dr. Martens to rescue them from such shelters. Along with violent physical attacks, Christians are regularly insulted as “Kuffar” (unbelievers); necklaces adorned with baptismal crosses are wrenched from their necks, their Bibles torn up, and access blocked to kitchens in the shelters. As recently as this past Saturday such violent attacks took place in the refugee facility located at Tempelhof Airport in Berlin.

The SELK’s national bishop, Rev. Dr. Hans-Jörg Voigt, has responded by demanding separate accommodations for Christians as long as the state cannot ensure that all refugees may freely practice their faith in asylum facilities without disturbance. “Religious freedom is a constitutionally protected right, comparable to freedom of the press,” Bishop Voigt said. “The state has the obligation and duty to permit, ensure, and protect freedom of religion.” If this is only possible in the short term by providing separate accommodations for refugees according to religion, then this is the necessary solution for the time being. “It must not be permitted that Christians are oppressed in refugee shelters because of their faith.”

The spiritual leader of the SELK added that influential groups in society, various associations, and politicians are either downplaying this abuse or silencing it completely. The problem is that Christian churches in Germany represent a majority over against Muslims and, as a result, are legitimately concerned to protect a religious minority. In refugee shelters, however, the proportions are the other way around so that the Christians form the minority. Their need for protection is urgent. As a matter of principle, Bishop Voigt stressed that integration can only succeed when the faith of other people is respected and tolerated. Despite sharp differences in faith convictions it must be the goal of everyone to shape a peaceful life within the community.

Bishop Voigt, who also serves as Chairman of the International Lutheran Council, a global association of confessional Evangelical Lutheran churches, hailed statements on religious freedom contained in the February 12 declaration of Pope Francis and Patriarch Kirill I of Moscow and All Russia, signed at the close of their recent meeting in Cuba. Among other things, it states, “In our current context, religious leaders have the particular responsibility to educate their faithful in a spirit which is respectful of the convictions of those belonging to other religious traditions.” In response, Bishop Voigt commented: “We are committed to strengthening Christian refugees in this respectful spirit, but expect that Muslim spiritual leaders will stand up for religious freedom in the same way among their own adherents.”

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SELK News February 16, 2016
Translation: Robert Bugbee

Hans-Jörg Voigt reelected ILC Chairman

The International Lutheran Council’s newly elected Executive Council. (Left to right: IELP President Norberto M. Gerke, LCC’s President Robert Bugbee, SELK Bishop Hans-Jörg Voigt, ILC Executive Secretary Al Collver, ILC Secretary, ELKB President Gijsbertus van Hattem, ELCE Chairman Jon Ehlers. Missing from the photo are LCN Archbishop Christian Ekong and LCP President Antonio del Rio Reyes; they, along with a number other African and Asian ILC member churches, were unable to attend the 2015 World Conference due to visa difficulties).
The International Lutheran Council’s newly elected Executive Council. (Left to right: IELP President Norberto M. Gerke, LCC’s President Robert Bugbee, SELK Bishop Hans-Jörg Voigt, ILC Executive Secretary Al Collver, ILC Secretary, ELKB President Gijsbertus van Hattem, ELCE Chairman Jon Ehlers. Missing from the photo are LCN Archbishop Christian Ekong and LCP President Antonio del Rio Reyes; they, along with a number of other African and Asian ILC member churches, were unable to attend the 2015 World Conference due to visa difficulties).

ARGENTINA – On September 26, delegates to the International Lutheran Council’s (ILC) 2015 World Conference in Argentina reelected Rev. Dr. Hans-Jörg Voigt as ILC Chairman.

Chairman Voigt is Bishop of the Independent Evangelical Lutheran Church (SELK) in Germany, a position he has served in since 2006. He was elected ILC Chairman at the 2012 World Conference held in Niagara Falls, Ontario in Canada. Bishop Voigt had previously served as Interim Chairman of the ILC since 2010, after being automatically advanced from Vice-Chairman when the position of Chairman became vacant.

Despite the modest size of his church body, Chairman Voigt has become a prominent leader in confessional Lutheran and wider Christian circles. His 2013 Pastoral Letter “Discovering Marriage and Family as Gifts of God, along with other public action, won him recognition as “2013 Bishop of the Year” by a German interdenominational Christian news service, and he was likewise awarded a “Declaration of Respect” by the Association of Christian Publicists. In 2014, Concordia Lutheran Seminary in Edmonton, Canada awarded Chairman Voigt an honourary Doctor of Divinity Degree in recognition of his service not only to the German church but to Lutherans around the world.

Also on September 26, the ILC reelected President Gijsbertus van Hattem of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Belgium (ELKB) to serve as Secretary for the Executive Council.

The remainder of the ILC’s Executive Committee is composed of five World Area Representatives. According to the ILC’s constitution, members elect church bodies rather than individuals to fill these roles. Elected to serve as Latin America representative for this triennium was the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Paraguay (IELP), currently served by President Norberto M. Gerke. The remaining World Regions saw the previous triennium’s representatives returned to office. Representing Africa is the Lutheran Church of Nigeria (LCN), currently served by Archbishop Christian Ekong. The Asia World Area will be filled by The Lutheran Church of the Philippines (LCP), currently served by President Antonio del Rio Reyes. Europe will be represented by the Evangelical Lutheran Church in England (ELCE), currently served by Chairman Jon Ehlers. Finally, elected to represent North America is Lutheran Church–Canada (LCC), currently served by President Robert Bugbee.

The ILC’s Vice-Chairman is not elected by the World Conference. Instead, the Executive Council will elect a Vice-Chairman from among the World Area Representatives at their first council meeting.

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Iranian and Afghan Muslims in Germany are converting to Christianity en masse

The Associated Press story on Muslims converting to Christianity in Germany.
The Associated Press story on Muslims converting to Christianity in Germany. (Screen grab).

GERMANY – The Independent Evangelical Lutheran Church (SELK) of Germany has drawn international media attention recently as a result of the large number of Iranian and Afghan converts their congregations have received into fellowship in recent years.

Over the past decade, Germany has seen an unprecedented amount of Iranian and Afghan refugees converting to Christianity. For many of these converts, Rev. Dr. Gottfried Martens has been the pastor who shepherded them through the process. A recent Associated Press article features his work among refugees, beginning with a recent baptism service he conducted. “Will you break away from Satan and his evil deeds?” the pastor asks an Iranian named Mohammed Ali Zonoobi, and “Will you break away from Islam?” The candidate answers yes to these and other questions, and Dr. Martens baptizes him in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

Rev. Dr. Gottfried Martens
Rev. Dr. Gottfried Martens. (Church website).

Dr. Martens is pastor of Trinity Lutheran Church in Berlin, a congregation which has exploded in size due to the dramatic number of Iranian and Afghan converts joining the church. In two years, the church has grown from 150 members to more than 600, with more than 500 of these members being Farsi and Dari speakers. Prior to joining Trinity Lutheran, Dr. Martens served at St. Mary’s Lutheran Church, also in Berlin—a congregation that had, as of early 2014, seen congregational membership and the number of baptismal candidates of Iranian descent grow by 75%.

Dr. Martens’ work among Iranian converts was previously featured in a 2012 Christianity Today article, and he was named 2012’s “Pastor of the Year” by the German magazine ideaSpektrum for the same reason. In 2014, the United Kingdom’s The Guardian also featured his work in an article entitled “Our second mother: Iran’s converted Christians find sanctuary in Germany.”

“These refugees are taking unimaginable risks to live their Christian faith,” Dr. Martens said in the Christianity Today article at the time. “Imagine! Of all places, God chooses eastern Germany, one of the world’s most godless regions, as the stage for a spiritual awakening among Persians.” Persians is another term for Iranians.

Of course, some have questioned the authenticity of these widespread conversions, suggesting a more pragmatic reason for the number of Iranians and Afghans professing faith in Christ. The Associated Press article, for example, hints that “the decision [to convert] will also greatly boost their chances of winning asylum by allowing them to claim they would face persecution if sent home.” In places like Iran and Afghanistan, converting to Christianity from Islam is a punishable offense that can lead to imprisonment, torture, or even execution.

But for Zonoobi and others like him, that threat existed long before they left Iran. Zonoobi converted to Christianity as a teenager while still living in Iran, and fled to Germany only after Christian friends began to be arrested for their faith. The total number of Christian converts in Iran is difficult to pinpoint but is widely understood to be growing. “The proselytizing from Muslim-to-Christian converts in the Diaspora as well as Christian neighbors closer to home has led to the religion taking hold throughout Iran in numbers previously unseen,” The Guardian’s 2014 report suggests. “The underground nature of the Christian conversion movement has made numbers impossible to determine accurately,” they note, but estimates of the Christian population in Iran range anywhere from 300,000 to 500,000.

Trinity Lutheran Church in Berlin. (Church website)
Trinity Lutheran Church in Berlin. (Church website).

Perhaps some Iranians and Afghans in Germany are joining Trinity Lutheran and other churches merely in an attempt to increase their chances of a successful refugee claim. But Dr. Martens has confidence in God to work through the Word and the Sacraments even then. “I know that whoever comes here will not be left unchanged,” he says in the Associated Press report. And the numbers bear his confidence out—Dr. Martens estimates that roughly 90% of those baptized have remained members of the church.

And there are plenty more waiting in the wings for their baptismal day. At least 80 more Iranians and Afghans are reportedly working towards their own baptisms at Trinity Lutheran, an event that is first preceded by three months of instruction in the Christian faith. If recent history is anything to go by, a new class of converts will be ready to take their place shortly thereafter.

The Independent Evangelical Lutheran Church of Germany is a member of the International Lutheran Council, a worldwide association of confessional Lutheran church bodies.

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On the Visitation of Mary, a Pastoral Letter Encouraging Young People to Marry and Raise Children

Chairman-VoigtGERMANY – A year ago today, Bishop Hans-Jörg Voigt of the Independent Evangelical Lutheran Church (SELK) in Germany released a pastoral letter entitled “Discovering Marriage and Family as Gifts of God.” Its July 2 publication coincided with German observances of the Visitation of Mary to her cousin Elizabeth (Luke 1:39-56)—an appropriate day to consider the blessings of marriage and children.

The letter came in the midst of turmoil in Germany, following the publication of a reference paper on marriage by the Evangelical Church in Germany (EKD). The EKD paper—entitled “Between Autonomy and Dependence—Strengthening the Family as a Reliable Community”—was widely criticized, both by other Christians and in the German press, for abandoning a traditional biblical understanding of marriage.

Bishop Voigt’s letter, by contrast, was widely praised. Bishop Wolfang Ipolt of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Görlitz was one of those who hailed its publication. “Given the irritation caused within the Catholic Church by the EKD’s guidance on the subject of marriage and family,” he wrote, “the pastoral letter of the Bishop of SELK is for Catholics a positive sign from Evangelical Christianity. Especially when it comes to the important area of marriage and family, Christians of different denominations must stand together and not lightly abandon the testimony of Scripture.”

In addition to serving as head of SELK, Bishop Voigt is Chairman of the International Lutheran Council (ILC). His letter, which presents the case for a biblical understanding of marriage and family in clear, positive language, is now available in English, thanks to a translation by Rev. Charles Schaum.

“Hardly a day passes by currently in which basic questions regarding marriage, family, and sexuality are not dealt with in the public sphere of our western society,” Bishop Voigt’s letter begins. “Uncertainty has now reached even the internal sphere of the Church. With this pastoral letter I would remind you of the foundations of Holy Scripture and the confession of the Church concerning the area of questions on marriage and family.”

“Hardly a day passes by currently in which basic questions regarding marriage, family, and sexuality are not dealt with in the public sphere of our western society.”

“In light of all this uncertainty,” he continues, “I am writing this pastoral message especially to offer encouragement to young people, that they might get married and start a family.”

Throughout the letter, Bishop Voigt discusses the desire young people have to start their own families. To that end, he encourages young adults not to let concerns in this world—extended periods of education, temporary employment arrangements, a desire for greater mobility, and so forth—prevent them from entering into marriage and raising children.

Bishop Voigt also calls on the wider Church to demonstrate love and care for young families, so that they are not overwhelmed by the challenges rearing a family brings in contemporary western society. “Congregations can become a place where older people help younger families with their child-rearing tasks,” he writes. Noting especially the difficulties single parents face, he writes that “the Church is required in a special manner to stand helpfully in allegiance with them.”

This is a truly biblical and Christian model of marriage and family, Bishop Voigt explains. “The words of Jesus and the explanations of the Apostle Paul allow no doubt that the New Testament recognizes no other models for life than marriage and family on the one hand and celibacy—which is a special spiritual gift—on the other. Consequently, alternative models of marital relationship—including polygamy and homosexuality—must be rejected. But this does not condone the mistreatment of people who subscribe to such models. “It is a fruit and consequence of the winsome love of Christ,” Bishop Voigt writes, that the Church must treat “people with same-sex inclinations with respect and love, and additionally stand against discrimination against them.”

Download the full letter in English here. The letter can also be read in German at SELK’s website here.

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Lutheran Church Superintendent murdered in Germany

Superintendent Christoph Scherling.
ELKiB Superintendent Christoph Schorling.

GERMANY – The Evangelical Lutheran Church of Baden (ELKiB) has reported the sad news that Rev. Christoph Schorling was murdered June 24, 2014. Rev. Schorling was Superintendent over the seven municipalities of Baden, and served as pastor of congregations in Pforzheim and Freiburg.

Rev. Schorling was stabbed to death in his rectory by a man suffering from mental illness to whom Rev. Schorling had often provided pastoral care. The suspect has since been apprehended. Rev. Schorling leaves behind a wife, three grown children, and several grandchildren.

“We cannot understand how it came to this terrible act,” ELKiB Bishop Jochen Cornelius-Bundschuh said, “and we bring our bewilderment before God.” He continued: “Pastor Schorling was a regular guest at our synodical meetings. We felt very connected to him always and will miss him painfully.”

Prior to entering the ELKiB, Rev. Schorling previously served as a pastor in the Independent Evangelical Lutheran Church (SELK) in Germany, a member of the International Lutheran Council (ILC). SELK Bishop Hans-Jörg Voigt—who also serves as ILC Chairman—expressed condolences upon hearing the news of his death. “Superintendent Christoph Schorling died while fulfilling his ministry in pastoral care and diaconia,” Bishop Voigt reflected. “His love for all people led him to his final steps, and so he follows in the way of his Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. Pastor Schorling’s faithful service becomes for me an example to emulate in my own ministry.”

“We grieve over the loss of Pastor Schorling,” he continued, “and we keep his family and loved ones in prayer. May God grant them comfort through Jesus Christ in this difficult time.”

The ELKiB is a partner-church of SELK. It is is a member-church of the Lutheran World Federation, though not a state church in Germany nor part of the Evangelical Church in Germany.

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Latvian and German Lutherans hold meetings

Dean Andris Krauliņš, Romāns Ganiņš, and Bishop Hans-Jörg Voigt.
Dean Andris Krauliņš, Romāns Ganiņš, and Bishop Hans-Jörg Voigt.

GERMANY – From March 24-25, representatives of the Latvian Evangelical Lutheran Church (ELCL) visited Hanover for meetings with Germany’s Independent Evangelical Lutheran Church (SELK). Dean Andris Krauliņš of Latvia’s Jūrmala circuit and Romāns Ganiņš, Head of Administration at the Consistory in Riga, represented the ELCL. SELK was represented by its Bishop, Rev. Hans-Jörg Voigt.

Discussions over the two days focused on church-congregational life in the two partner churches. Michael Schätzel of the German church’s council gave Romāns Ganiņš a detailed description of the financial systems of SELK, focusing on congregational budget-planning systems. Dean Andris Krauliņš and Bishop Voigt shared together the different structures of organization in the two church bodies, with the latter describing the meeting structure of the church’s council.

“Last year I visited the synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Latvia,” Bishop Voigt noted. “Whenever I meet together with our brothers and sisters in Latvia, I appreciate our closeness in the liturgy of the Lutheran worship service and in our confessions. We need to support one another as we face our secularizing European culture.”

The Independent Evangelical Lutheran Church of Germany has 187 churches, 124 active pastors, and approximately 35,000 members. Its bishop, Rev. Hans-Jörg Voigt, also serves as Chairman for the International Lutheran Council.

The Evangelical Lutheran Church of Latvia, a member of the Lutheran World Federation, is one of the largest Christian church bodies in Latvia, with nearly 300 churches throughout the nation served by 140 pastors and ten evangelists. Of Latvia’s 2.3 million population, approximately 430,000 identify as Lutheran, with about a tenth of these active in the life of the church.

The German and Latvian churches signed an “Agreement of Partnership” in 2002 on the grounds of common subscription to the Lutheran Confessions. The two churches are in the process of seeking full altar and pulpit fellowship. In addition to SELK, the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Latvia has ties to other ILC churches, including The Lutheran Church–Missouri Synod with which it achieved altar and pulpit fellowship in 2001.

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Germany’s Independent Evangelical Lutheran Church welcomes Iranian converts

selk-webGERMANY – The Independent Evangelical Lutheran Church (SELK) continues to see remarkable numbers of Iranian Muslims converting to Christianity. According to a recent SELKinfo story, Rev. Dr. Gottfried Martens of St. Mary’s Lutheran Church (Steglitz, Berlin) reports that the number of congregational members and applicants for baptism of Persian background at his church has recently grown by 75%. The same report notes three groups of Iranians were preparing for baptism at the time, with the first group scheduled to have been baptized December 15, 2013.

“It is a kind of miracle which we experience in Berlin right now,” explained Rev. Dr. Jobst H.M. Schöne (Bishop Emeritus of SELK) during a 2013 visit to Canada. It all began when a few Iranians showed up for service at the church one Sunday, he said. As time went on, they expressed an interest in being baptized. “We thought at the beginning,” Dr. Schöne reflects, “that’s it: two people, maybe three people, maybe four people. I tell you, it’s now more than 300.”

While the number of Iranian converts is something to rejoice over, conversion often comes with a cost. “They are sometimes suffering very much from their fellow country-men, living in an asylum home [for refugees],” Dr. Schöne explains. “All day long they are together with Muslims, and if they find out that some of them are going to become Christians, then there is a big controversy.” Moreover, many of these converts are still in the middle of refugee claims. Converting to Christianity, and then being forced to return to Iran could see them face severe persecution, even capital punishment, as converting to Christianity from Islam is a crime which carries the death sentence in Iran. Such fears have “increased the pressure placed on them when they have to prove their commitment to being Christians before German courts,” notes the SELKinfo report, “in which process they have seen themselves subjected to very arbitrary standards as Lutheran Christians.” Dr. Martens and other members of St. Mary’s often appear as witnesses on their behalf during these refugee trials.

In addition to baptismal instruction for Iranians, St. Mary’s is reaching out in a number of other ways, including through home Bible studies, confirmation classes, and youth group. The congregation also hosts regular lunches following Sunday worship. “On account of many guests,” the SELKinfo story explains, “teams of cooks prepare the food ahead of time on Saturdays, with those who take part looking after a good portion of the cost of these meals by donation.” The fellowship meals have become an even stronger opportunity for spiritual growth since November, the report continues, when Sister Martha Brauner (a deaconess of the Bethel Diaconal Community) began attending. “Sister Martha worked for over 40 years in a hospital in Afghanistan, and thus speaks Farsi,” the report notes, “which makes it possible for the new congregational members to hear about faith in Christ in their mother tongue.”

Dr. Martens and his work among Iranians was featured in a 2012 Christianity Today article entitled “The other Iranian Revolution.” He was also named 2012’s “Pastor of the Year” by ideaSpektrum (a German Christian magazine) for his work caring for Iranian converts over the previous five years. “These refugees are taking unimaginable risks to live their Christian faith,” noted Dr. Martens in the Christianity Today article. “Imagine! Of all places, God chooses eastern Germany, one of the world’s most godless regions, as the stage for a spiritual awakening among Persians.”

For more information on German Lutheran outreach to Iranians, watch the following video. It features Dr. Schöne and was recorded at Lutheran Church–Canada’s 2013 National Pastors and Deacons Conference.

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(English translations of the SELKinfo report courtesy of Rev. Dr. John Stephenson.)