Uzbekistan: Restrictive nation promises more religious freedom

Few look to Central Asia for good news on religious freedom. Three of its five nations fill the US State Department’s list of Countries of Particular Concern, and a fourth has been highly recommended to join them. But on the sidelines of Washington’s first-ever Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom, four officials from Uzbekistan made the case that the former Soviet republic has become convinced that the best way to combat Islamist extremism is through more freedom instead of more restrictions. “It’s an incredibly hopeful and practical moment,” said Chris Seiple, president emeritus of the Institute for Global Engagement, who wrote his dissertation on Uzbekistan and brokered the meeting. “Uzbekistan is bucking all the authoritarian trends worldwide and saying, ‘We’re going to set a different model.’ ”

Eritrea: Christians freed from shipping container prisons

Ethiopia and Eritrea finally ended their unresolved state of war and pledged greater cooperation and freedoms. One early result of their July peace pact: 35 Christian prisoners were released from the notorious shipping container prisons that Eritrea has used to punish evangelicals and others viewed as threats to the small Horn of Africa nation. However, the 11 women and 24 men freed had to agree to limits on their religious practices, reports Religion News Service. Open Doors estimates that thousands more religious prisoners remain.

Churches protest parking tax

While Jesus did say to “render to Caesar what is Caesar’s,” thousands of American ministries are arguing this doesn’t include their parking lots. The Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability (ECFA) has organized a protest against an overlooked requirement of the GOP-passed tax reform that churches and nonprofits start paying a tax of 21 percent on employee benefits related to parking and transportation. The rule requires churches and ministries to file federal and state income tax returns, which ECFA says will cost them thousands of dollars in fees. Its petition claims the rule is “highly inappropriate and must be stopped.” More than 2,500 organizations have signed on in agreement.

India: Repeal promised of anti-conversion law

Christians in northeast India pray a state leader keeps his promise to repeal a longstanding law preventing religious conversions. Pema Khandu, a Buddhist who heads the Hindu nationalist-led government of Arunachal Pradesh, told a gathering of 2,000 Catholics that the state’s 1978 Freedom of Religion Act “could undermine secularism and is probably targeted towards Christians,” reports World Watch Monitor. Khandu pledged to have lawmakers repeal it in their next session. If successful, this would be the first state led by the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party to repeal an anti-conversion law; the party promotes such laws and passed one in Jharkhand last year.

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Russia: World Cup prompts evangelism innovation

Timing evangelism campaigns around major sporting events is a common strategy among evangelicals worldwide. But this year’s World Cup presented a challenge to the traditional model of distributing tracts and having street conversations, because host nation Russia passed an anti-missionary law last year. So 400 Russian churches hosted screenings of the soccer matches, attracting 10,000 people and distributing hundreds of thousands of special editions of the Gospel of John, according to Mission Eurasia. The fact that the Russian national team unexpectedly made it all the way to the tournament’s quarterfinals helped, said a local leader. “People are much more open to the gospel when they are celebrating together.”

Methodists forgive black church debts

Decades ago, United Methodist leaders encouraged dozens of growing African American congregations to acquire the sanctuaries of struggling white congregations. The transactions were free, but maintaining the buildings put many churches into debt. This summer, the denomination’s Eastern Pennsylvania Conference agreed to cancel $3 million in debt owed by about 30 black congregations, reportedThe Inquirer. “This is our attempt at atonement for two harmful acts we cannot change: the segregation of African American churches … and handing over poor buildings to an already at-risk community,” pastor William Lentz, a member of the conference’s financial council, told the Philadelphia newspaper. Overall, the conference aspires to erase about $15 million in debts by about 70 of its 400 member churches so that those congregations can focus more on current ministries.

Less Segregated Hour in America

Multiracial congregations (where no group is larger than 20%) make up a higher percentage of American churches than they did 20 years ago; diversity overall has increased, too. The changes are especially notable in Protestant churches, which are three times more likely to be racially diverse than they were in 1998. A study published in the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, looking at data from the National Congregations Study, says immigration does not seem to be the main reason for the changes and found that blacks are now more likely than Latinos to worship with whites in multiracial congregations.

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