Neighbours at odds

Students in Armenia and Azerbaijan are facing a heartrending war against the other. For nearly thirty years, ethnic tensions have accelerated over a territorial dispute. Now it has left both countries with thousands of military casualties, many of which are university students. As students are called to war, Christians on both sides are praying for peace. 

There is no simple solution. Students in both countries feel caught between their love for their homeland and God’s command to love their enemies. Still, their governments are asking them to fight. In years past, hearts on both sides were beginning to soften. Now leaders fear that any progress towards reconciliation will be undone. But both sides are doing the best they can to manage deep wounds.  

It is difficult for outsiders to know how to show support. Sergei, Eurasia Regional Secretary, says it is important not to take sides, but rather to listen with empathy to both.  

“We must avoid rationalizing why the situation has happened. We don’t want to be like Job’s friends. So instead we pray for both countries. And we learn to do simple things like ask ‘How are you today? What’s going on?’ and give them our full attention.” 

This week let’s intercede for our brothers and sisters in Armenia and Azerbaijan. Join us in prayer for the following requests:  

  • As students and leaders rush to aid those without food and shelter, they are unable to deal with their own trauma and grief. Pray for healing in their minds and hearts.  
  • Pray that God will give wisdom to believers called to fight on the front lines. Ask God to help them find a path of faithful witness amidst heavy competing loyalties.   
  • Last week the Armenian movement received word that one of their student leaders serving as a doctor was killed. Pray for them as they grieve. Pray also for those in both countries who have lost loved ones 
  • Pray that the politicians involved will find a way to establish peace.  

Because he is my brother

This was not what Arjun* had in mind when he dreamed of being a doctor. He stumbled backward as the man advanced. The man was shouting hateful words. Go back to where you came from!  His eyes were wild. In his peripheral vision Arjun noticed someone else approaching, stalking their group of six students. His friend let out a cry – the shouting man had kicked him! Arjun noticed more men emerging. They were everywhere – he counted twenty of them. As they closed in with fists raised, Arjun knew this would not end well. He lifted his eyes, and just before he felt the first blow, he noticed a police officer leaning against a wall, silently watching. 

Arjun remembered his little white coat. He loved to dress as a doctor when he was a child. His parents were so proud when he had told them that he wanted to study medicine. When he learned he could attend medical school in Central Asia for a fraction of the price in India, his mind was set. The admissions counselor made it sound easy. The city would be modern and exciting. Everyone would speak English. Six years abroad would be a breeze.  

But the admissions counselor had lied. It did not take long for Arjun to realize that the situation was not as perfect as he thought. At the airport, the student coordinators forced Arjun and his friend Veer* to hand over their diplomas. They and the other Indian students were crammed inside a taxi and sent eleven hours away to their study destination. Hungry and nervous, they were unable to communicate with the driver, who only spoke the local language. But that was the least of their worries. They soon realized that as Indians, they faced heavy discrimination from locals.  

They were warned not to stay out later than five o’clock, as a minor encounter with the wrong people could quickly become dangerous. Wallets and bags were stolen from their friends in broad daylight. Their elementary skills in the local language rendered them helpless. But there was one word they understood well – “black.”  As they walked through markets children shouted it at them while their parents pointed fingers. 

The discrimination continued on campus. Following their first exam, Arjun and Veer stood in a long line, waiting for their results. After an hour, all 200 names of their peers had been called, yet the two students remained outside. They began to panic. What happened to our tests? The door opened and their group leader stepped through.  

The professor is wondering when you are going to pay him.”   

Unbeknownst to Arjun and Veer, the professors routinely withheld marks from students who did not pay a bribe. Indian students paid a premium. While their local classmates paid the equivalent of 15 USD for a good mark, Arjun and Veer were forced to pay the equivalent of 200 or 300 USD. But sometimes they did not have the chance to take the test at all. While students waited to enter the exam room, some professors would find small excuses to remove them. Once Veer was barred for wearing a hoodie. Another time, Arjun was removed because he had a beard. 

Despite their best efforts to understand the local people, Arjun and Veer were constantly shocked by their treatment. Six years stretched hopelessly before them as they considered a life without allies. Unable to find relief from the stresses of their coursework and the dangers of the city, the students felt emotionally homeless. This continued until their Indian classmate, Sai*, met a local peer named Adel*. 

Adel had never known any Indians before. But as she chatted with Sai after class, she realized he needed a friend. She invited him to her IFES group. Then Sai invited Arjun and Veer. In a matter of weeks, 15 more Indian students attended regularly. There, the students met Omar* and Elina*, the local IFES staff, who welcomed them into their lives. Finally, they had local friends.  

Omar and Elina were the first people that Arjun and Veer called after they were beaten up on their walk home from class. The two staff members rushed them to the police station – where the police advised the students not to file a report. Still, Arjun and Veer took comfort in the fact that they had someone to call. These relationships completely changed their experience.  Adel began offering her help for anything they needed. She accompanied them to the markets and haggled over rent prices with landlords. By simply being present, she dramatically changed how locals reacted to the Indian students. 

But other locals did not understand why Omar, Elina, and Adel cared about the foreigners. When Adel walked with them, they called out to her, asking if the Indians were a bother. Sometimes they challenged her. Once she accompanied Veer to the clinic to make sure he was not overcharged. When she refused to accept the exorbitant price, the doctor became angry. He questioned why she would go to such lengths to protect an outsider. Adel’s response was simple and salient.  

“He is my brother,” she said. “This is what you do for family. You protect them.”  

In truth, Arjun, Veer, and the other Indian students did find a family with the IFES movement in Central Asia. Worshipping and studying the Bible with Omar, Elina, and Adel carried them through the darkest hours of their studies. These friends were their allies in a culture that rejected them. Arjun describes his local Christian friends as people of integrity.  

“They always stood for the right things,” he says. “They backed us up.” 

In many places, foreigners like international students, refugees, and immigrants navigate blatant discrimination in their new society. Christians like Omar, Elina, and Adel are taking the opportunity to welcome these people by demanding justice on their behalf. They have even risked their own social status to do so. Their actions honor God’s command to treat the foreigner as “your native-born,” (Leviticus 19:33-34) and bear witness to God’s love for all nations and peoples.  

How can you be an ally to the foreigners around you? What can you do to pursue justice on their behalf? 

*name changed 

Christian Hackers Solve Problems

What happens when you unite Christian technology developers from around the world? You create a mass collaboration of problem solvers. Welcome to #HACK2020, a technology conference that defies borders, geographic constraints, persecution, and isolation. It produces innovative products for society and brings the gospel to the unreached. #HACK began at Urbana in 2015 with two Christians who work for NASA. Since then it has grown into a massive annual event worldwide.  

Each year, #HACK gathers computer programmers, developers, and technologists for intensive collaboration. The internet makes it possible for groups to meet both locally and transnationally. Creativity is their fuel. Collaborators search for innovative angles to tackle a set of local and international challenges. Each project aims to solve a problem in society or to extend the reach of the gospel.  

For the past few years, students from CSC Moldova have been an active part of #HACK. They have worked creatively to develop apps and platforms to address cyberbullying and catalyze gospel storytelling. More recently they have developed a library management system and a music streaming app to aid students with depression.  

Vasile Stan is a CSC student who has participated for several years now. He has served as the lead facilitator for #HACK in Moldova and hopes to start the event in Romania next year. Vasile is passionate about getting more students involved. He says: 

“I am happy that this year more students will be participating online. This will challenge them to interact and work together on the projects. I hope that after the event we will have new useful and accessible tools for our community to spread the Word!”  

Many other IFES students around the world will also participate. This week pray for those involved in this year’s #HACK2020, happening next month.  

  • Pray that the students have creative energy to come up with innovative solutions.  
  • Pray that their efforts would make the Gospel go further in areas that are difficult to reach.  
  • Pray that the platforms, websites, and apps that are created to solve problems will compel non-Christians to learn more about the Gospel.  

Want to join #HACK2020? Learn more here. 

A Nation in Turmoil

While their peers around the world are using their September to buy books and check course schedules, students in Belarus are protesting. On 1 September, university students in Minsk skipped the first day of class to march in protest of the recent election. Many were beaten and arrested.  

Currently, the entire country is in turmoil as the opposition parties are calling for a new president.  In addition to the political unrest, the nation has experienced a high number of coronavirus cases. Many Belarusians feel hopeless at the state of their country.  

Beyond the instability of current affairs, Christians are also facing persecution for their faith. Pastors are being arrested and church members are detained for questioning. Yet, many Christians see the political strife as an opportunity to share their hope in Jesus. Will you pray for Christians in Belarus this week?   

  • Pray for courage and peace for Christian students as they continue to share the gospel in these uncertain times.   
  • Pray for Christians who are arrested for their faith. Pray for strength for their families.  
  • Pray for peace in the nation of Belarus.  

God’s unexpected provision

Ann* put down her phone and stared at the wall. Her mother’s words rang in her ears. “I’m sorry… I just don’t have the money. I can’t keep helping you with rent.” Ann knew money was tight. Recently her father had left the family. The emotional and financial strain was too much for her mother to bear. But after Ann’s ministry staff hours were reduced due to a lack of donations for Eurasia, she did not know how she was going to provide for herself. As she pondered her future, Ann felt worry dragging her mind to a dark place. But rather than dwelling on those thoughts, she lifted her head and prayed.

Unfortunately, Ann’s lack of income meant that she had to move from her flat to more affordable accommodation. For two months she lived in the student work office before finally moving into a small room. Ann was still struggling to have enough money to even eat. One lonely night, she cried out to God, asking him to provide. As she sat in prayer, Ann heard God firmly promise that she would “live happily under the umbrella of the Most High.”

The next morning Ann received a phone call from an acquaintance who told her that she had just transferred her money for her rent. No sooner had she hung up the phone that she heard a knock on the door. A friend was stopping by with a bag of extra food – enough to last the entire month. As Ann was thanking her friend, her phone rang again. This time, another friend was offering to bring her even more food. Ann fell to her knees, praising God and rejoicing in his provision.

As Eurasian staff workers like Ann deal with a lack of funding as well as the destructive effects of COVID-19 on ministry, they are learning to give their worries to God. This week, let’s pray for the staff in Eurasia and rejoice for our own places “under the umbrella of the Most High.”

  • Pray for provision for staff like Ann who have lost part of their funding due to lack of donations.
  • In the highly relational cultures of Eurasia, staff are finding it difficult to continue meeting online. Pray for student ministry to continue despite this challenge.
  • Pray for Eurasian countries that are opening up economically but are also seeing stronger interest in Islam.

*name changed

“Family or God: choose.”

Eurasian student Miraz* had almost everything a young man could want. He was bright. He had a well-paid part-time job. He was a very successful athlete. And yet, inside, it was a different story. Despite all his achievements, Miraz felt hopeless. He wanted his life to end. 

But then God stepped in, in an extraordinary way. Miraz tells his story: 

“I wasn’t seeking God… He found me – at the most difficult time in my life. 

I was walking by my university one day and saw a student handing out flyers. Never in my life would I go to someone handing out flyers, especially outside the university. I can’t explain why, but that day I went up to her. She seemed to be shining. I took the flyer – it was for an event organised by the IFES movement in my country. 

I sat down on campus with the flyer, thinking for a long time about whether I should go or not. My other thought as I sat there was how to end my life, how to end the suffering. I was tired of life. I couldn’t live any more. 

But I went. And it was amazing. God was working in that place.  

If I had only known how much God loves me!” 

At that first meeting, the message that struck Miraz was ‘the truth will set you free.’ He downloaded the Bible on his phone and started reading John’s gospel 

“Some time later I made the decision: I want to know God, to know Jesus. I want to grow in Him. From that moment, God started to change everything in my life. When I told my friends my decision, they rejected me. When I came home from Bible study one day, my father, a Muslim, was sat waiting for me. They had noticed a change in me and had started to suspect something wasn’t right. He asked me: “Where have you been?” I told him I’d been with friends. Where were you? What did you do?” 

I tried to use all the wisdom God had given me, and I knew I couldn’t lie. “Father, I’ve been in church. I was at a Bible study.” 

My parents find out the truth 

It was a shock for them: “We didn’t think you’d become like that; we didn’t think you’d be one of them. We don’t need a son like that.”  

What should I do? My father said to me: “Family or God: choose.” So I began to gather my belongings. It was a very difficult time. I was in tears. Ok God, I prayed, may your will be done. My parents asked me to renounce my faith, but I couldn’t. How can you reject the one who has saved you? That was the start of a long period of opposition. So many tears, so much shouting. They made me go to the mosque and meet with a Muslim leader to persuade me to turn back. But I always felt God near me, saying “Do not be afraid, just believe.”  

Losses and gains 

Though everyone in the world left me, I understood how much God loves me because the Word of God is active. It was active in my life. I knew that, even if nothing changed, I needed to stand firm and overcome these difficulties. Through it all, I knew in my heart that God had saved me. 

Now time has passed, and I have a new family. I am not thirsty for anything in this world. I don’t need anything – I just need God. Thank God for the church here and for the student ministry through which I came to Him. Thank God they were not afraid to share with me, even though it might have caused them problems. God is alive.” 

*name changed 

Mountain climbing

It was dark by the time we reached the top. Exhausted from the hike and soaked from the relentless rain, we set about pitching our tents. It took longer than usual as none of the students had been camping before. It was not going well. After a cold, wet night, we crawled out of our tents the next morning to find the firewood wet. It took more than two hours to light the fire.

We trudged back to the cars, convinced that would be the first and last student camping trip. But to our astonishment, the students enjoyed it: we must do this again!

A way in

Several years later, we are still living in Central Asia, taking students and graduates on hikes up mountains. It’s proved to be a particularly effective way of building relationships. The usual methods of pioneering a movement would not work here: we are not allowed on campus; we cannot organise mission weeks or give out gospels.

But hiking up mountains is a way in. Away from the busyness of everyday life in the city, away from people who might overhear, away from controlling parents, being up on the mountains gives the young people space. Space to think, space to talk, space to consider spiritual matters. Each morning we start with a short devotional and give them a verse to remember, along with some questions to discuss as they hike. It’s enough to open up conversations.

Open goals

I was recently on a hike with some students. Two of us reached the summit 20 minutes before everyone else and sat down. We’d only met the day before, but hiking together had built trust between us. He turned to me: “can I ask you some questions?”

Another time, the group had been reading the book of Ruth together. A student came and walked alongside me: what does it mean to be a good man? he asked. Then: As a dad, how do you strike a balance so that your children are trained but not controlled? These questions were an open goal to clearly explain core truths of the gospel.

Aaron Burden – Unsplash

Repeating patterns

In this context, that student’s questions were particularly pertinent. Domestic abuse is alarmingly high in this country. The majority of women experience physical or emotional abuse at the hands of their husbands. They marry young: girls tend to marry just before graduating; boys just after. Too often they repeat the patterns they witnessed in their parents’ marriages.

We hear about the abuse from the young wives. It’s harrowing. But for us to confront the husbands is not easy. In this culture, if we tell the husbands we know what’s going on, they will feel ashamed and will likely punish their wives for disclosing it to us. The police do nothing, and there are almost no other services offered to help abused women. It’s too normal to be considered a problem.

Encouraging signs

Some young couples come to us for help. They want to change. They don’t want to repeat their parents’ mistakes. In us, they see a couple who actually love each other, and they want to know why and how it’s possible. That’s opened doors for us to look at the Bible with a number of young graduates.

Our parenting has also prompted questions. In this culture, the closest relationship is not between a husband a wife but between a mother and son. One young man we know divorced his wife just because his mother told him to. It’s very common for wives to be abused by their mothers-in-law, as well as by their husbands. But we’ve been encouraged to hear some young wives ask us how they can avoid the same patterns with their sons. We hope that their families will be different in a generation’s time.

Our dream

The work is very slow. But we stay because we believe in student ministry. We believe it’s good for the Church. The local Church here is tiny, mostly underground and persecuted. And sadly, despite being small, there are issues of suspicion and division between churches. We long to see a strong national movement established that is a blessing to the local Church, where graduates become church-members who can partner together in growing God’s kingdom across this nation.

Give today to support IFES pioneering initiatives in unreached countries like this one in Central Asia.

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Miracles in the canteen

I walked into the canteen, already rejoicing. This wasn’t my university, but I had managed to walk on to campus without being stopped. I found a place to sit down, opened my prayer notebook and wrote: if You send someone to come and sit with me, I’ll tell them the gospel.

After one hour, I heard someone ask, “Can I sit with you?” We started chatting. The student wasn’t a believer. I showed her what I’d written in my notebook and explained how she was the answer to my prayer. She opened up about her struggles at home and in her personal life. She joked that she didn’t believe in prayer. But she let me pray for her, there in the canteen.

A few days later, my new friend rang me. She wanted to tell me that the situations I’d prayed for had totally changed!

Born a Muslim, die a Muslim

I started going to the canteen every week. It is pioneering work. I have met eight believing students over a few months! We gather during breaktimes and try to share the gospel with their friends.

Most students are nominal Muslims. If they convert to Christianity they will face opposition from their family. Like I do. I am the only Christian in my family. If you’re born a Muslim, you should die a Muslim, they say.

I first heard about Jesus as a first-year student through the IFES movement here. After studying the Bible for a few years, I decided to follow Jesus. During my Master’s degree I became a student leader, and then after that, an intern. Now I am doing a PhD in Biophysics and serve as a staff-worker part-time. Long-term I would love to go to an even less-reached country in Central Asia and do ministry full-time, if God opens the door.

Why they need Jesus

The students I’m meeting in the canteen really need to know Jesus. In this country there is a spirit of depression. Many come from broken families. They feel unloved. Everyone wants to leave the country because of the poor education here and lack of job opportunities. Bribery and corruption are big problems too.

This university has its own unique challenge. It’s an arts university and the students don’t have good relationships with one another. They compare themselves, compete with others and feel jealous.

Please pray for us as we look for an office space here, for a male staff worker, and for opportunities to pioneer in other cities.

And pray for revival among the students.

Agnostic Daria’s drastic life turn

Daria* is a student in Mykolaiv, a city in Ukraine. This is her story:

“I considered myself an agnostic. I hadn’t really thought about God’s existence or the role of Jesus in my life. When I signed up to join CCX, the IFES movement in Ukraine, I didn’t even realise what I had signed up for! But as time passed, I started to look more carefully at the CCX people and wonder what motivated them.

I began exploring the Christian faith, studying the Bible myself and going to church. And after some time, I accepted Christ as the Lord of my life. I never thought I’d make that drastic turn in my life. Thanks to God and the amazing CCX group I chose this path. Now I can clearly see how He’s changed my life, my attitude towards family and friends. He is definitely alive!”

Daria’s university didn’t have a CCX fellowship. But thanks to support from the IFES Breaking New Ground program, a new group was pioneered last year. Daria is now leading the group. Will you pray for CCX Ukraine ministry this week?

  • Thank God for His work in Daria’s life. Pray that she would lead the group this year with prayerfulness, wisdom and joy.
  • Pray for more students to join the group and for good relationships with local churches.
  • Pray for pioneering work in other parts of Ukraine.

*name changed

Renewed hope for Milena’s pioneering ministry

As she listened, Milena* felt a wave of excitement. New ideas, a different approach. Yes, maybe we could try that! she thought. Pioneering student ministry in the Armenian city of Vanadzor had not been easy. But as she met and talked with others involved in pioneering across Eurasia, she felt understood, hopeful again.

Four months on from the first ever IFES Eurasia pioneering consultation, Milena’s ministry in Vanadzor now looks quite different. She’s started a flourishing prayer group on campus, encouraging students to gather weekly to pray for their classes, their non-Christian friends, their problems. Her focus is now on training up students – particularly in how to read the Bible with their friends. And Milena has managed to rent a permanent base for their student ministry activities: all ideas she heard from listening to others share their experiences at the pioneering consultation back in 2019.

  • Thank God for the way He used the conference to inspire Milena to start prayer groups, train students and find a permanent base for ministry.
  • Pray that the Christian students in Vanadzor would grow in numbers and passion for evangelism this year. Pray that the two students Milena is seeking to train up would be keen to meet regularly.
  • Pray that God would continue to provide the finances needed to rent the student ministry base.

*name changed

The IFES Eurasia pioneering consultation – the first of its kind – was attended by 18 participants, several of whom were students. The consultation was supported by the Breaking New Ground project. Read more stories of Breaking New Ground projects.

Thanks for praying with us!