By John Martin

Pakistan’s Christian minority is a permanent underclass. One of Pakistani Christians’ many fears is the country’s dreaded blasphemy laws. Men and women are often condemned with blasphemy accusations used as a pretext in local disputes. Mob violence is often deployed to intimidate judges and lawyers seeking to give the accused a fair hearing.

The troubles of Asia Bibi, a Christian woman from Ittan Wali in rural Punjab, date from June 2009. She was picking berries in a field alongside other women. An argument broke out about sharing water. Later it was claimed she had insulted Muhammad and she was chased and caught by an angry mob.

“In the village they tried to put a noose around my neck, so that they could kill me,” she said. Intervention by the police saved her from immediate death, but she went on trial and a death sentence was pronounced on the basis of accusations by neighbours.

The case has exploded into violence. Salmaan Taseer, the Governor of the Punjab region in Pakistan, had spoken on behalf Bibi, suggesting the country’s blasphemy laws were outdated and being used to settle scores against Christians in areas wholly unrelated to religion. In January 2011, one of his bodyguards killed him with 26 shots from a submachine gun.

The assassin was showered with rose petals while being escorted to the Anti-Terrorism Court in Rawalpindi. He was tried, sentenced to death, and hanged earlier this year. Protesters are calling for him to be considered a martyr.

Pakistan’s former Minister for Minorities, Shahbaz Bhatti, spoke out on behalf of Bibi Asia on national television. He was shot and killed on March 2, 2011. Tehrik-i-Taliban told the BBC that it carried out the attack because Bhatti, a Christian, was a “known blasphemer.”

Asia Bibi languishes on death row. In October 2014 the Lahore High Court rejected her appeal against the death sentence. If the sentence is carried out she will become the first person in Pakistan to be executed for blasphemy. Safety issues have forced her transfer to other prisons five times.

Her husband, Ashiq, and their two young daughters, Isha and Isham, face daily uncertainly about her fate and they fear leaving home because of possible violence.

Asia Bibi’s case was due to be heard by the Supreme Court in Pakistan on Oct. 13. But the hearing was postponed and no new date has been set. Christian Solidarity International and the Australian branch of Amnesty International are working on her behalf.

A Case for Short Sermons: A Roman Catholic leader in the United Kingdom recently advised priests to preach no more than seven minutes. It’s advice that would find short shrift in Sydney, Australia, where last week the diocesan synod declined to pass a motion urging preachers to limit their messages to 20 minutes.

A lay member, David Oakenfull, proposed the motion. Oakenfull said it was difficult to listen to a sermon for more than 15 minutes, especially for older people, and that retention of the content dropped from 70 percent in the first 10 minutes to 20 minutes in the last 10 minutes.

Moore Theological College in Sydney advises its students to stick to 20 minutes. It believes this will make them work harder; short sermons, it says, are harder to prepare than long ones.

Not every Sydney preacher follows that advice. When he was a young curate, a recently retired Sydney bishop would routinely preach for an hour. That may be an extreme case.

But Toby Neal, who ministers at Vine Church in Sydney’s inner-city Surry Hills, makes no apology for routinely preaching for 40 minutes. He believes that widespread biblical illiteracy means it takes longer than 20 minutes to bring people to know Jesus: “I need at least 40 minutes to dismantle the false view the world is giving them.”

Twenty minutes, he says, may be enough for a pep talk that encourages Christians for the week ahead. But it is not long enough to change someone’s worldview.

He added: “With widespread biblical illiteracy, and people coming to church from other religions, it takes time to explain the context of what we’re reading in the Bible, to answer objections, and show how every bit of the Bible relates to Christ.”

Archie Poulos, head of ministry at Moore College, said he voted against the motion because many factors determine the length of a sermon. But he could see the value of the Synod motion in warning clergy not to presume on their congregants’ valuable time and to work much harder on their sermons.

“What we say at college is always give people value for their time,” he told a local newspaper. “If you have a congregation of 150 and you’re preaching for 30 minutes, you’re taking 75 human hours. We say to students that it needs to be valuable time.”

The Rev. Michael Jensen, a Sydney rector and a formerly lecturer at Moore College, said about the debate: “It was futile in the sense [it was] never going to pass. You can’t have a Synod motion that restricts sermons — it would have no power or force — but it was a useful thing to discuss.” He restricts his sermons at St. Mark’s Darling Point to 25 minutes, and believes it takes a very good preacher to speak for longer than that.

“I think the problem is not simply the length of sermons, it’s the length of services,” Jensen said. “Our services go for an hour and 10, tops, and if we’re going to have four songs and significant prayers and reading of the Bible then you can’t preach for 35 to 40 minutes.”

Slavery Is All Around Us: “When we hear the word slavery, we often think of something overseas. Slavery is all around us, but we are too blind it see it,” Archbishop Justin Welby said Oct. 13 at Westminster Abbey. “It is in our hands, and yet we are too insensitive to touch it. To change that, we do not face a problem of stupidity but of awareness.”

Welby was preaching at a service celebrating the work of anti-slavery campaigner William Wilberforce and marking the United Kingdom’s commitment to combating modern slavery.

The service marked the new role of Keith Hyland as an independent anti-slavery commissioner.

Hyland is former head of the London Metropolitan Police Service’s Human Trafficking Unit.

“We drive past slaves at car washes, we encounter slaves in the street doing routine jobs, for which they receive virtually nothing,” Welby said. “We buy goods where the supply chain includes slavery. It is around us. It is in our hands.

“William Wilberforce convinced his generation that slavery was a sin — a sin that was a curse of the country in which he lived. That belief has not changed. Yet slavery still demeans more than 30 million in our world. This is the reality for thousands, possibly tens of thousands, in our own country, not because we think it is acceptable, but because our sin lies in blindness and ignorance.”

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