Month: December 2020

Biden pick for health secretary alarms religious liberty advocates

WASHINGTON — Southern Baptists joined other religious liberty advocates in voicing opposition to President-elect Joe Biden’s pick for secretary of Health and Human Services, California Attorney General Xavier Becerra.

“Mr. Becerra has a consistent track record of opposing religious liberty and cultural values emerging from religious convictions,” said Jeff Iorg, president of Gateway Seminary in California. “He will, no doubt, demonstrate his convictions and use his position to further those positions if his cabinet appointment is approved.

“The country would be better served by someone less antagonistic to faith communities.”

R. Albert Mohler Jr., president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky., echoed those sentiments in the Monday (Dec. 7) edition of his podcast The Briefing.

“This is really big. It’s of enormous concern. It’s hard to imagine anyone that will be more dangerous in the position as secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services than Xavier Becerra,” Mohler said.

Biden’s pick of Becerra was a surprise to many in the medical community, according to the New York Times. Those observers expected – and by many counts would have preferred – someone with more medical or public health experience when the CDC is reporting more than 281,000 deaths due to COVID-19 and the country is preparing for a mass vaccination effort.

“I expect that, as he undergoes the process of the Senate’s constitutional duty to advise and consent, senators will ask Xavier Becerra about his troubling hostility to pregnancy resource centers and other faith-based institutions during his tenure as California attorney general, and whether such actions would characterize his potential leadership at HHS,” said Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission (ERLC) President Russell Moore.

“The country desperately needs an HHS Department that can help unify and mobilize, not one that will further divide us. The new HHS secretary, a position that is crucially important but never more so than during a global pandemic, should have the coronavirus as enemy number one, not Americans with differing religious convictions. I look forward to hearing these questions answered in the days ahead.”

The path forward for Senate approval of Biden’s cabinet nominees is murky. Georgia’s runoff elections slated for Jan. 5 will determine the last two seats in the Senate. Currently, Republicans hold a 50-48 advantage. Should Democrats win those last two seats, Vice President-elect Kamala Harris will cast the deciding vote, effectively giving Democrats the majority.

Today was the last chance for Georgians to register to vote in that run-off election.

In 2018, the ERLC joined other groups in a Supreme Court case involving pro-life pregnancy centers versus the state of California, of which at the time Becerra served as attorney general. A California law had sought to require those pregnancy centers to publicize abortion services nearby for clients or face fines as much as $1,000 a day.

Ultimately, the Supreme Court sided with the pregnancy centers in National Institute of Family and Life Advocates (NIFLA) v. Becerra. Nevertheless, Mohler characterized the California attorney general’s current rise to a national position as potentially catastrophic for conservative groups and causes.

“It would be hard to create, even in imagination, a nominee for this kind of position who would be of deeper concern, for anyone who’s pro-life or pro-marriage or pro-religious liberty, than Xavier Becerra.” Mohler said on his podcast. “He has turned his office as attorney general of California into an industrial machine and pushing the agenda of Planned Parenthood and the culture of death through the abortion rights movement.

“Xavier Becerra is an enthusiastic supporter of the Equality Act that would be a steam roller at the expense of religious liberty and the furtherance of the LGBTQ revolution. Back earlier this year, he indicated that if Roe v. Wade were to be reversed by the Supreme Court, as attorney general of California, he would not even prosecute any cases that would then be criminalized because of his own support for abortion rights. He would place himself even over against the law.”

Earlier this year, under the Trump administration, the Department of Health and Human Services put a stop to Becerra and the state of California’s practice of compelling all health insurance plans and issuers – even churches – to provide abortion coverage.

More recently, California churches have claimed heavy-handed impositions on their right to gather in person under COVID-19 pandemic-related restrictions put in place by Gov. Gavin Newsom and enforced by Becerra. Some churches also say those restrictions have been applied unevenly among houses of worship and other similarly-attended secular events and businesses.

Other conservative and pro-life leaders also voiced their opposition to the choice.

“Far from ‘uniting’ the country, Biden has proven yet again he is an extremist on abortion,” said Marjorie Dannenfelser, president of the pro-life Susan B. Anthony List. “Becerra is aggressively pro-abortion and a foe of free speech.”

“W/@JoeBiden’s pick of @AGBecerra for HHS Secretary, we are seeing him make good on his promise to become the most radically pro-abortion president in history,” tweeted Jeanne Mancini, president of the March for Life. “Becerra has a long and hostile record towards pro-life Americans including the persecution of those who exposed Planned Parenthood’s trafficking in baby body parts. So much for unity.”

Becerra’s predecessor, Vice President-elect Kamala Harris, led in the prosecution of journalist David Daleiden for a series of videos claiming Planned Parenthood profited from the trade of fetal tissue from abortions. In January of 2019 the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit concluded the videos were authentic. However, a civil jury trial later that year in federal court said Daleiden and others were guilty of fraud, breach of contract, unlawful recording of conversations, civil conspiracy and violation of federal anti-trafficking laws and awarded a $2.2 million decision to Planned Parenthood and others.

Daleiden, who is appealing that decision, contested that he acted in the role of an undercover journalist and insisted Planned Parenthood employees he recorded had no expectation of privacy. Earlier this year, he sued Harris and Becerra in a case claiming they violated his civil rights through those cases.

Many Syrians “lose everything” in civil war but find hope in Christ along “refugee highway”

SYRIA Audrey Chism’s* prayer was simple—a brief blessing over the meal their Syrian friend Amira* had prepared. But when she finished, Amira was wiping tears from her face.

“It was the first time we had met her, so I didn’t say anything at first—we just sat and ate together,” Audrey said. “Afterward, I was in the kitchen helping with the dishes, and she looked at me and said, ‘Can God forgive me?’ It was clear she was just ready to hear the gospel. God was working on her; it was nothing we had done, no effort of ours.”

And the path that had brought them both to that kitchen in Europe—that was God’s doing too, Audrey said.

She and her husband, Matt*, had moved to Syria more than a decade ago in hopes of meeting people like Amira—people whose hearts were soft to the gospel. But as they opened a business, built a life and began to share their faith, what they found instead was hard ground.

“We didn’t see a single person become interested in Jesus in the years we were there,” Matt said.

Then in early 2011, things began to shift. Some Syrians started protesting their government, just as they’d seen people do in Tunisia, Egypt and other countries across Northern Africa and the Middle East. Those who protested thought the movement—called the Arab Spring—might offer hope.

But the Chisms watched with broken hearts as something else happened to those hope-seekers—their homeland shattered. Protests for a better government turned into a brutal civil war. 

And as the violence escalated, the Chisms had to leave, first to a neighboring country.

“I thought we might never see any Syrians again,” Matt said.

It was a short-lived grief—a few months later, he started hearing that Syrians were turning up in their country too. At that time, there were only a few thousand. But it wasn’t long before it became a flood, and Matt’s grief turned into something more long-lasting—he became broken for a hopeless, nationless people.

Over the years that followed, Syrians spilled out of their homeland by the hundreds, then thousands, then millions. Over time, Jordan took on about 1.8 million refugees, many of them living in massive camps. Lebanon took on fewer—1.4 million—but for the small country, that meant one in four residents was a Syrian refugee. Still more millions spread to Iraq, Turkey, Egypt and Europe.

“It’s almost like God shook the whole land,” Audrey said.

Today, more than 5.6 million Syrian refugees total are registered with UNHCR. Many Syrian refugees share a common story—sudden poverty, loss,  violence, trauma, and a harrowing escape that not everyone survives.

They’re tough stories, but Matt Chism found over the years that he just couldn’t turn away. As he visited Syrians day after day in the refugee camps and wept with them, he felt God drawing him to see the big picture he was painting in the midst of all this suffering.

“I wondered—what is God doing with this influx of refugees? I wanted to know,”
he said. 

So Matt, along with a few other Christ followers in the region, decided to trace the “refugee highway” many were traveling. He wanted to hear their stories, understand their lives and share the kind of hope the Arab Spring would never bring on its own—the hope of Jesus Christ.

That’s how he ended up the first time in the part of Europe where Amira lives. A local pastor there invited Syrians to gather at his church and tell Matt and his friends their stories, and something happened that Matt describes as a “touching heaven” moment.

“There were 20-plus Syrians there, and I asked them to tell their stories,” he said. “I asked them first who had crossed the Mediterranean Sea in a dinghy, and every single one of them raised their hand.” In the hours that followed, they got up one by one and shared the story of the trauma-filled highway that had brought them there. They wept together. And at the end, Matt Chism stood up and shared the gospel message.

“I had never gotten to share with that many Syrians at one time, and here they were, and they were listening,” he said. “I told them, ‘You may think you are here because of political freedom, but God may give you another freedom. That’s why God brought you here.’”

And not too long after that night, the Chisms packed their bags, took their Arabic skills and moved their family to Europe.

“We are talking about an unprecedented opportunity for the gospel,” Matt said. “What a great opportunity we have out there. I think about the ‘what ifs’—if there was no civil war, if there were no refugees in Europe, how would we have this kind of opportunity?”

Josh Andrews* said he also thinks about that reality all the time. He spends his days in a different country visiting refugee camps, discipling new Syrian believers and teaching them to share their faith with others.

When he thinks of their trauma, he’s moved to tears. “It is still a devastating situation,” he said. “But there is a weaving of the gospel in areas where God is choosing to move. When we find those places where God is working, where the soil is good, we plant there and we stay there. And we keep looking for more—we don’t stop.”

He said he can’t speak to what God is doing in the entire Syrian population scattered across the region and beyond. He also said he can’t speak to the way God is moving in other refugee populations, like the thousands from North Africa who have been fleeing by boat to Europe too in the years since revolutions started in their countries.

But he said he can say this: in the place where he lives, he’s definitely seen God change lives.

“We’ve seen families come to Christ, walk away from Islam because they see the truth of the gospel and they know that it’s true,” Andrews said. “We’ve seen people reaching out to their families, we’ve seen people starting home groups and starting churches. Gospel advance hasn’t stopped here.”

It hasn’t stopped in Europe either, the Chisms say. After that meal at Amira’s home, Audrey Chism had invited her to a Bible study, and a month later, she became a Christ follower.

And she’s not the only one. They’ve baptized others, and almost 50 men recently came to meet with Matt and study the Gospel of John.

“We’ve heard them say, ‘I lost everything in Syria, but I gained Jesus in Europe,’” Matt  said. “God’s Word is advancing, and his plan never fails.”  

*Names changed. 

10 years after Arab Spring, gospel moves amid staggering ongoing trauma

NORTHERN AFRICA AND THE MIDDLE EASTDrew Carson* has a hard time believing it’s been 10 years since the Arab Spring started on the western side of Northern Africa and swept all the way across the Middle East.

Part of that, he said, is because not much has changed since those fiery first few months of the region’s thawra, or “revolution” in Arabic—it feels a bit like the picture stood still. When Tunisian citizen Mohamed Bouazizi lit himself on fire in December 2010 in protest of high unemployment, government corruption and a lack of opportunities, he started a movement, and the unlikely happened—the government fell. The idea spread to Libya, Egypt, Yemen, Syria and Bahrain. But then things stopped.

If it was a “spring,” Carson said, it didn’t feel much like it. At the beginning, the swell of people’s protests unseated rulers in some countries and started civil wars in others, but the fresh future the people had looked for never came. 

Instead, they settled into a new kind of suffering. Syria is still riddled with bullet holes and bombed-out buildings, its people huddled by the millions in nearby countries and scattered across Europe and the world. Lebanon, which took on a massive load of refugees, got another hit recently when a giant, deadly explosion in the capital city of Beirut left hundreds of thousands homeless.  

And Yemen is still facing “one of the world’s worst disasters in all of history,” said Carson, a former longtime Christian leader in the area. The fight for control of the government there has caused a massive humanitarian crisis. UNICEF calls it a “living hell” for Yemeni children—hundreds of thousands are “acutely malnourished and fighting for their lives.”

And Tunisia, the country where it all began, has had more than 10 governments since the Arab Spring started. 

“A Tunisian man came in the barbershop where I was getting my hair cut the other day and he just kept talking about the corruption back in his country, the fact that there’s no stability there,” said Carson, who now lives in the United States. “His opinion is like many others from that area—‘I don’t like the way the world is right now; I can’t trust it.’”

That sentiment seems frozen in time, the same as a decade ago, but Carson feels the passing of time in other ways. He feels it in the dozens of haircuts he’s logged at the Iraqi barbershop since he moved back to the U.S., and he sees it in the fact that his barber and the Tunisian man are in his city at all.

“We certainly have a larger Arab diaspora out there than there has been in their whole history,” he said. 

Carson also sees “remaking” in other areas, like the possibility of Syrian refugees encountering the gospel as they make their way into other countries (see related story), or new freedoms that have come in some ways because of the Arab Spring.

One of those has shown up in work like that of Andrew and Courtney Dobson*, Christian workers who before the Arab Spring had a hard time knowing how long they’d get to stay in the country where they lived. For years, others around them had been kicked out without warning.

But as the government changed in their country, changes in the law forced them to rethink their reason for being there. That spurred them to start a new kind of business—one that puts them in contact with a lot of local people who have never heard the gospel.

“It has given us access to hundreds and hundreds of people,” Andrew Dobson said. “We’ve found ways to be a lot more productive and have a lot more relationships than we did before.”

Courtney Dobson said it’s been a “big encouragement” to them and that they’ve also been able to have teams in areas they never have before as a result of the changes. As they’ve had more relationships, more people have been willing to read the Bible and engage with them than ever before.

The Dobsons are praying that will turn into a “spring” of people finding new life in Christ, people who are now very aware that the revolution didn’t bring them the freedom they had hoped for.

“We’ve heard many people say, ‘We thought this was going to be better, but we are worse off than we were before,’” Courtney Dobson said. “They say things like, ‘Nothing really changed, nothing got better, all those people died for nothing.’ It’s hard to hear and see them feel that kind of hopelessness.”

Carson agreed, saying that when he looks at the Middle East, his heart breaks.

“I love these people. I certainly want them all to come to Christ,” he said. “I see them broken. I see them stretched on every side. I see families who have lost and lost and lost and lost and spiraled down.”

He said it’s hard to know exactly what the outcome will be of the revolution that escalated quickly, then—rather than bringing freedom—became a slow burn across the region.

“In the midst of the Arab Spring, there’s been a lot of chaos, but there’s a lot of remaking that comes out of that,” Carson said.

It’s opened access to some places and people but closed some others, he said. And it’s brought freedom to some to make a decision for Christ who might not have had that freedom before.

“I have no wish for them to all be living in famine and war and terror and all those kinds of things,” Carson said. “The price people have paid has been pretty tough. The pain, the trauma is massive. I don’t think we’ve solved those problems yet. I don’t think we’re celebrating a ‘springtime.’ But I do know the Lord will bring peace one day, and my prayer for all of them is that they would find the hope and healing that is found in Christ.”  

Arab Spring: Where are they now?

Tunisia
The Arab Spring was born here when Mohamed Bouazizi lit himself on fire Dec. 17, 2010, in protest of high unemployment, government corruption and a lack of opportunities. He died Jan. 4, 2011, but he had already started a movement. After days of protests and deadly clashes, President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali— who had held that office since 1987—fled to Saudi Arabia. This fueled other countries in the region to believe they could achieve a similar result, but none came as close as Tunisia to a fresh start. The country has struggled to find a system that works—they’ve had more than 10 governments since the Arab Spring began, and COVID-19 brought on another rough patch. While some observers see their democratic progress as the one real success story of the Arab Spring, others continue to feel the instability more than anything else.

Egypt
Thousands of Egyptians started protesting Jan. 25, a little over a week after Tunisia’s president fled. President Hosni Mubarak—who had been in power since 1981— quickly tried to squelch protests with military force, but on Feb. 11 he stepped down. The younger generation, which had been a driving force behind the politics, celebrated. But the possibility for a new kind of freedom quickly got hijacked by a fight between the military, secular parties and an Islamist movement called the Muslim Brotherhood. After several years of government conflict and ousting leaders, current President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi was elected in 2014. Many say that as a result of his leadership individual freedoms have been even more restricted than they were before the Arab Spring.

Yemen
People in Yemen jumped on board with the idea of revolution in late January 2011, calling for their president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, to step down. Things started nonviolently but then quickly went from bad to worse. As the situation escalated in the capital city of Sanaa, security forces withdrew from the outer parts of the country, allowing rebel forces there to grow stronger. Since 2014, Yemen has been entrenched in a civil war that has produced the world’s largest humanitarian crisis, and millions of children suffer from malnutrition.

Libya
The authoritarian rule of Muammar Gaddafi in Libya was the next to go, as protests started in early February 2011 and turned into a civil war that led to his death and the end of his 42-year rule in August of that year. But it hasn’t been easy for Libyans in the decade since. Conditions in the country have been rough enough that many are still attempting to make the risky boat trip to Europe as refugees. Militia forces have split the country, and human trafficking is a massive problem.

Bahrain
After seeing what happened in Tunisia and Egypt, citizens of Bahrain held an anti-government “Day of Rage” on Feb. 14, 2011. They wanted a new constitution and an elected parliament and eventually called for the ruling Al Khalifa family to be overthrown. But a month later, troops completely shut protests down. Several other countries in the region also experienced short-lived protests that were quickly squelched.

Syria
It started with protests in Syria just like everywhere else, but quickly the country imploded. President Bashar Assad fought back with intense military force, and soon the country was in a civil war fought between Assad, rebel factions and eventually ISIS. Syria became a brutal place to live. At great personal cost people fled the country by the millions, crossing the borders into neighboring countries and traveling by dinghy to Europe. Until Yemen’s war escalated in 2018, it was the largest humanitarian crisis since the end of World War II.

*Compiled from news reports

*Names have been changed.

Court ruling on Medicaid funds for Planned Parenthood praised

NEW ORLEANS—Southern Baptist leaders praised a federal appeals court decision that enables states to prohibit abortion giant Planned Parenthood from receiving Medicaid funds.

The Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans ruled Nov. 23 the states of Texas and Louisiana have the right to find that Planned Parenthood affiliates are unqualified to participate in their Medicaid programs. The decision also affects Mississippi, the other state within the Fifth Circuit.

The opinion comes in the ongoing battle over government funding of Planned Parenthood, the country’s leading abortion provider. The Planned Parenthood Federation of America (PPFA) and its affiliates received $616.8 million in government grants and reimbursements, according to its 2018-19 report. Most of Planned Parenthood’s government funding comes in Medicaid reimbursements, according to the organization.

Planned Parenthood’s centers performed more than 345,000 abortions, according to the same annual report. Both the amount of government funding and the number of abortions are records.

The Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission (ERLC) is thankful for the Fifth Circuit opinion “because it is an ERLC priority to ensure that taxpayer dollars do not fund abortion,” said Chelsea Sobolik, a policy director for the commission.

“This ruling is a positive step toward ensuring that American consciences and dollars are protected from entanglement in the abortion industry,” Sobolik said in written comments. “We will continue supporting policies like these from Texas and Louisiana to protect the lives of vulnerable, unborn children.”

Jim Richards, executive director of the Southern Baptists of Texas Convention since its founding 22 years ago, expressed his gratitude “that our state leaders have stood strong for life, and that the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals has recognized the right of Texans to deny healthcare funds to this anti-life organization.”

“The SBTC’s first resolution in 1998 was affirming the God-given holiness of human life, born and unborn,” Richards said. “Our churches have never wavered from this commitment. Planned Parenthood has, from its start, been committed to a completely contrary agenda.”

Steve Horn, executive director of Louisiana Baptists, told BP he is “thrilled” at the Fifth Circuit’s decision.

“Louisiana is a staunch pro-life state and we do not believe our healthcare dollars should support abortion providers like Planned Parenthood,” Horn said in written remarks.

Planned Parenthood officials decried the decision.

Melaney Linton, president of Planned Parenthood Gulf Coast—which has centers in Texas and Louisiana, charged Texas politicians with valuing “extremist agendas over Texans’ access to quality, affordable health care.”

“This decision is not the end of our fight, and we will do everything in our power to ensure that our patients will always have a place to turn—no matter what,” Linton said in a written statement.

Circuit courts have divided over the right of states to withhold Medicaid funds from Planned Parenthood, and the U.S. Supreme Court is likely to consider an appeal on the subject. Medicaid is the federal and state program that helps cover medical costs for low-income Americans.

The full panel of Fifth Circuit judges split 11-5 over whether a federal judge ruled properly by granting a preliminary injunction against the Texas policy based only on the claims of individual Medicaid patients, who joined Planned Parenthood affiliates and centers in the lawsuit.

Based on a 1980 Supreme Court opinion, the 11-judge majority found the individual plaintiffs could not bring a suit to challenge Texas’ decision that Planned Parenthood affiliates are not qualified providers under Medicaid rules. As a result, the appeals court vacated the federal judge’s preliminary injunction preventing enforcement of the Texas government’s action.

“Medicaid beneficiaries have an ‘absolute right’ … to receive services from a provider whom the State has determined is ‘qualified,’ but beneficiaries have no right under the statute to challenge a State’s determination that a provider is unqualified,” judge Priscilla Owen wrote for the majority.

In the opinion, Owen also said the majority was overruling a 2017 decision by a divided Fifth Circuit panel that found Medicaid patients in Louisiana could challenge the state’s disqualification of providers from the program. The panel in that case issued a preliminary injunction against the state’s action.

Texas terminated its contract with Planned Parenthood after undercover videos released beginning in 2015 appeared to indicate the organization was trading in body parts from aborted babies and had altered abortion procedures to harvest parts.

Messengers to the 2017 Southern Baptist Convention meeting adopted a resolution calling for the defunding of Planned Parenthood at all levels of government and denouncing the organization’s “immoral agenda and practices.”

Other undercover investigations by pro-life organizations during the last two decades have shown Planned Parenthood employees:

  • Agreeing to receive donations designated for abortions of African American babies.
  • Demonstrating a willingness to aid self-professed sex traffickers whose prostitutes supposedly were in their early teens.
  • Seeking to conceal alleged child sex abuse.