BELGIUM – On the morning of March 22, Belgium suffered twin terror attacks on Brussels’ international airport and a city metro station. At least 34 people are confirmed dead with more than 230 injured as of this report. The Islamic State has claimed responsibility for the attack.
“We are devastated by this news,” said President Gijsbertus van Hattem of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Belgium (ELKB – Evangelisch-Lutherse Kerk in België), who had been scheduled to fly from the airport later the same day. “But we take comfort in the peace of Christ—a peace which passes all understanding. Despite the raging of the world, we have the suffering and risen Lord with us.”
President van Hattem is encouraging Christians across the globe to lift up the situation in prayer. “We ask our friends around the world to keep Belgium in prayer in these days,” he said. “Pray especially for those who are mourning the loss of loved ones, those who are recovering from injuries, and those tasked with investigating this dreadful incident and protecting citizens.”
“And keep not only us in prayer,” he continued. “Pray for all those suffering in the midst of civil unrest and terrorism—in Europe, yes, but especially also in the Middle East and Africa. May God grant comfort to the sorrowing and peace to the persecuted. And may the Gospel of Jesus Christ be good news to a world in great conflict.”
The ELKB is a member church of the International Lutheran Council, a global association of confessional Lutheran church bodies.
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.”
SELK News February 16, 2016 Translation: Robert Bugbee
LITHUANIA – By invitation of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Lithuania (ELCL), forty Syrian refugees arrived in Lithuania February 26, 2014. The Syrian families arrived at Zokniai Airport (near the city of Šiauliai) by means of a Spartan military transport plane Wednesday afternoon.
According to Bishop Mindaugas Sabutis, the Syrians will live in parish houses and in housing provided by private persons all over Lithuania. Fifteen of the refugees are coming from Homs, a city in Western Syria which was for a long period of time surrounded by the military forces of Syrian president Bashar al-Assad.
“Christians are the most vulnerable group in Syria,” Bishop Sabutis stated. “Every day, they are murdered, persecuted, and robbed.” He noted that the ELCL was encouraged to invite the Syrian refugees to Lithuania because of the refugee experience of Lithuanians themselves. “We ourselves [in Lithuania] are a minority church,” he explained. “We endured much suffering [during the Soviet era], and therefore we have to respond to the pain suffered by others.”
He continued: “We remember our refugees who found asylum in Germany and the United States. Unlike Sweden, the Germans and Americans did not send the refugees back to the Soviet Union. We understand what it is like to be in situations from which there is no way to escape, and what it means to receive help in such situation,” Bishop Sabutis stated.
Bishop Sabutis expressed his gratitude for the help provided by Lithuania’s Minister of Foreign Affairs and Minister of Defense in this project. There have been more than 130,000 casualties in Syria’s civil war. The conflict started in March 2011. President Bashar al Assad used military force against the protests that later grew into armed resistance. Later in the civil war, fighters from abroad joined the conflict on both sides.
The Evangelical Lutheran Church in Lithuania has 21,000 members and is a member of the Lutheran World Federation. It also has close ties to the International Lutheran Council (ILC). In 2000, the ELCL declared itself to be in full-fellowship with The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod (ratified by the LCMS at its own convention in 2001). In 2013, the ELCL hosted the ILC’s 2013 World Seminary Conference in Palanga, Lithuania; the convention’s theme was “Suffering, Persecution, and Martyrdom as a Mark of the Church.”