INDONESIA: CHURCH, BIBLE STUDENTS FIGHT DISCRIMINATION


Village congregation goes to court over loss of permit; SETIA students demonstrate for new campus.

JAKARTA, July 7 (Compass Direct News) – Christians have stood up for their rights in two key cases the last few weeks in heavily Muslim Indonesia.

Members of the Huria Kristen Batak Protestan Church (HKBP) in Cinere village, Depok, West Java appeared in court on June 29 to contest the mayor’s revocation of their building permit in March, while students of the shuttered Arastamar School of Theology (SETIA) demonstrated in Jakarta on June 15, asking officials to honor promises to provide them with a new campus.

HKBP church leaders filed suit against the decision in the state court in Bandung, West Java. Two court sessions have been held so far, on June 2 and June 29, with Depok Mayor Nur Mahmudi Ismail represented by Syafrizal, the head of the Depok legal department and who goes by the single name, and political associate Jhon Sinton Nainggolan.

Mahmudi issued a decree on March 27 cancelling a building permit that was initially granted to the HKBP church in Cinere on June 13, 1998, allowing it to establish a place of worship.

The mayor said he had acted in response to complaints from residents. Contrary to Indonesian law, however, Mahmudi did not consult the church before revoking the permit.

Nainggolan, arguing for Mahmudi, claimed the revocation was legal because it was based on a request from local citizens and would encourage religious harmony in Cinere. But Betty Sitompul, manager of the building project, strongly disputed this claim.

“Our immediate neighbors have no objection,” she told Compass. “A small minority who don’t think this way have influenced people from outside the immediate neighborhood to make this complaint.”

Sitompul added that the church had been meeting in a naval facility located about five kilometers (nearly three miles) from the church building since the permit was revoked, causing great inconvenience for church members, many of whom did not have their own transportation.

According to Kasno, who heads the People’s Coalition for National Unity in Depok and is known only by a single name, the mayor had clearly violated procedures set forth in a Joint Ministerial Decree, issued in 1969 and revised in 2006, regulating places of worship.

Legal advocate Junimart Girsang, representing the church, confirmed that under the revised decree, conflicts must not be solved unilaterally but through consultation and consensus with the parties involved. He also said it was against normal practice to revoke a building permit.

Construction of the church building began in 1998, shortly after the permit was issued, but halted soon afterward due to a lack of funds. When the project recommenced in 2007, members of a Muslim group from Cinere and neighboring villages damaged the boundary hedge and posted protest banners on the walls of the building. Most of the protestors were not local residents, Sitompul said.

By that stage the building was almost completed and church members were using it for worship services. (See “Mayor Revokes Church Permit,” May 5.)

SETIA Protest

In Jakarta, hundreds of SETIA students demonstrated in front of the presidential palace on June 15, calling on officials to honor promises made in March to provide them with a new campus. (See “New Building Site Found for Bible College,” May 11.)

At least 1,400 staff and students remain in three separate locations in sub-standard facilities, causing great disruption to their studies, according to the students. The original campus in Kampung Pulo, East Jakarta, closed after neighbors attacked students with machetes in July 2008 and remains cordoned off by police.

In negotiations with SETIA director Matheus Mangentang in May, Jakarta officials again promised to assist the school in finding a new site, and promised to work with neighbors to secure approval for a building permit.

Joko Prabowo, the school’s general secretary, said he believes officials have now reneged on these promises. When school officials recently requested relocation to Cipayung, East Jakarta, the governor’s office rejected their proposal, citing community resistance.

Deputy Gov. Prijanto, who has only a single name, had initially suggested Cikarang in West Java as a new location, but SETIA staff rejected this offer, saying the site was outside Jakarta provincial limits and a move would be prohibitively expensive.

Report from Compass Direct News 

CHINA: BOOKSTORE OWNER SENTENCED TO THREE YEARS IN PRISON


Shi Weihan also fined nearly $22,000; ‘illegal business’ printed Bibles for free distribution.

 

LOS ANGELES, June 10

(Compass Direct News) – A Beijing court today found Christian bookstore owner Shi Weihan guilty of “illegal business operation” and sentenced him to three years in prison and a 150,000 yuan (US$21,975) fine.

Sources said Shi’s store operated legally and sold only books for which he had obtained government permission, and that his Holy Spirit Trading Co. printed Bibles and Christian literature without authorization but only for free distribution to local house churches.

The 38-year-old Shi had been released on Jan. 4, 2008 due to insufficient evidence for the same vague charge of “illegal business operation,” but he was arrested again two month later, on March 19, and held virtually incommunicado. Contrary to Chinese law, authorities have denied all but a few visits from his lawyer and family, held him without charges for most of his time in jail, and initially withheld medication for his diabetes.

The court ruling appears to have allowed time that Shi has spent in jail to count toward his sentence, a source said, as his prison term was described as running from Nov. 28, 2007, when he was initially arrested, to Nov. 27, 2010.

Others in a printing company who stood trial with Shi appeared to have received similar sentences. A written judgment is expected within 15 days to allow time for an appeal to be filed, said Ray Sharpe, a friend of Shi.

“Absent an appeal, it is also possible that Shi could be allowed a sort of medical parole, due to his diabetic condition,” Sharpe said. “Hopefully, he could then be allowed to stay in a hospital under a sort of house arrest.”

He said that Shi did not yet know whether he would appeal, adding that the process could take up to a year.

Friends and business acquaintances of Shi have described him as a model citizen of China, saying that he has inspired them to love China by his patriotism and love for his homeland. They said he is known for selfless sacrifice on behalf of poor and disenfranchised rural Christians and minority children.

For much of his incarceration, Shi’s wife Zhang Jing and their two daughters, 12-year-old Shi Jia and 8-year-old Shi En Mei, have not known where he was being held. The family has been under nearly continual surveillance, limiting their ability to make contact with people who could assist them.

Sources said Zhang has worried about her husband’s condition and that she has taken on leadership duties at their church, where Public Security Bureau officials have intimidated the congregation with regular visits. Some members have left the church because of the intimidation, sources said, and Zhang is said to have suffered anxiety and stress that have led to depression.

Their two daughters have been ostracized at school for being the children of a prisoner, sources said.

Shi has lost more than 44 pounds since his second incarceration, they said, dropping to less than 130 pounds. The sources added that he has suffered from blisters because of unsanitary conditions in prison, as well as tinnitus that at times causes his ears to ring so loudly that he cannot sleep.

Chinese officials claim that the Nanjing Amity Printing Co. (Amity Press), the only government-approved Bible publisher, produces enough Bibles to meet the needs of the Chinese church, which various religious freedom organizations dispute. The groups complain that Amity prints a large share of its Bibles for export, and those sold domestically are not available to many Christians.

Report from Compass Direct News

INDIA: NEWS BRIEFS


Recent Incidents of Persecution

Madhya Pradesh, February 27 (Compass Direct News) – Police on Feb. 25 arrested the Rev. Venkata Rao Paulose in connection with the sale of a book said to hurt the religious feelings of Hindus; the book was sold near a Christian conference Rev. Paulose organized in January in Sanjay Nagar Colony, Anuppur district. The Global Council of Indian Christians reported that Rev. Paulose, founder of Pine Mount English Medium School, was directing the conference at the school on Jan. 16-18 while, unknown to him, two persons were selling books near the school compound. Hindu extremists from the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh and Bajrang Dal purchased copies of a book, “Secularism and Hindutva” by M.G. Matthew, and took it to the Chachai police station. There they filed a complaint against Rev. Paulose, pastor of Pentecostal Church of God. At 1 a.m. on Jan. 19, police ordered the pastor to the police station, where he gave a statement saying he didn’t know who was selling books near the conference site; he was reprimanded and released. On Feb. 19, police arrested pastors Kailash Mashih and Sharda Prasad Muthel in Anuppur in connection with the complaint about the book and took them to the Chachai police station. Investigating Officer D.S. Divedi told Compass that the pastors were arrested under Section 295(A) of the Indian Penal Code for “deliberate and malicious acts to outrage religious feelings.” One of the pastors (undisclosed) was put in Shadol district jail, and the other was freed on bail. On Feb. 25, police for unknown reasons again arrested Rev. Paulose in connection with the complaint about the book. An Anuppur district court judge refused to grant him bail, and at press time the pastor of the 150-member church was in jail at the Chachai police station.

Karnataka – Police on Feb. 24 detained two Christian women in Chickmagalur after Hindu extremists filed a complaint of forcible conversion based solely on the women welcoming two new converts into their home. The Global Council of Indian Christians reported that the Hindu extremists saw a recent convert to Christianity identified only as Panamma and her daughter visit the home of Christians identified only as Sangamma and K.P. Mary. The Hindu nationalists filed the complaint against Mary and Sangamma at N.R. Pura police station, and the Christian women were in police custody for about two hours. A station officer who goes by only one name, Revannea, told Compass that an inquiry was made into the matter and the two women were released without charges after a warning not to undertake further evangelism. 

Chhattisgarh – Hindu extremists on Feb. 23 disrupted a prayer service in Ambikapur, accused the pastors of forceful conversion, beat them and damaged motorcycles. A Compass contact said pastor Joseph Toppa was leading the prayer meeting at the house of Parmeshwar Lakda when the Hindu extremists barged in at about 7 p.m. The extremists belonged to the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarhi Parishad (student wing of the Bharatiya Janata Party), Dharm Sena (Religious Army) and Dharm Jagran Manch (Religious Awakening Forum), all affiliated with the Hindu extremist Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh. Police arrived and, as is customary in India, arrested the victims; officers took about 30 Christians to the police station. Local Christian leaders intervened, and the Christians were released at about 11:30 p.m. after giving their statements. There were no serious injuries.

Andhra Pradesh – On Feb. 22 Hindu extremists led by a village leader barged into the Sunday worship meeting of a church in Ranga Reddy, attacked a pastor and demanded that he turn the property over to them. Led by village head Rokalbanda Ramulu, the intolerant Hindus arrived at about 11 a.m. and beat the pastor, tearing his shirt. About six policemen arrived at the spot and brought the situation under control. Pastor K. Krupanamdam of True Wine Church filed a police complaint. Two officers have been posted to protect the church, but no First Information Report was filed.

Chhattisgarh – Police on Feb. 17 arrested 11 pastors from the Believers Church in Sarguja under Chhattisgarh’s anti-conversion law after Hindu extremists stormed into their revival meeting and beat them. The Evangelical Fellowship of India reported that Hindu extremists led by the local legislative assembly member from the Hindu extremist Bharatiya Janata Party, Renuka Singh, arrived at about 7 p.m. and attacked the pastors, tore Bibles and banners and damaged the sound system. The pastors were bruised but reported no serious injuries. The Christians were conducting the meeting with prior permission of the police and the civil administration. Police intervened at about 11 p.m. after persistent calls from local Christian leaders. As is customary in India, authorities took the victims of the violence to the police station “for security measures” but ended up filing charges against them under unsubstantiated claims of forceful conversion. The pastors were released on bail on Feb. 18.

Andhra Pradesh – Hindu extremists on Feb. 14 attacked a Christian media team, accused them of forceful conversion and threatened to kill them in Kawadipally, Ranga Reddy district. Moses Vatipalli of the All Indian Christian Council told Compass that three Christians identified as K. Anand Kumar, Mudi Jacob and Swami Das were distributing gospel tracts when about 15 Hindu hardliners attacked them. The intolerant Hindus assaulted the Christians, tore the remaining gospel tracts, damaged their vehicle and threatened to kill them if they did not leave the village immediately. The Christians were badly bruised but reported no serious injuries. A complaint was filed at Hayath Nagar police station, but no arrests had been made at press time.

Karnataka – Hindu extremists on Feb. 3 burned a Christian’s house and threatened to build a Hindu temple on his land in Tumpur. According to a local source, about 15 extremists went to the house of the Christian, identified only as Dasappa, on Feb. 1 and insisted that the area member of the legislative assembly was asking for the site for a Hindu temple. Dasappa refused, saying that the land was legally owned by his son, and the extremists asserted that there was no place for Christians in the area. On Feb. 3, the Hindu extremists went to his house again, splashed gas on it and burned it to ashes. Local Christian leaders filed a complaint, but police refused to register a case.

Karnataka – A group of Hindu extremists from the Bajrang Dal on Feb. 2 attacked a Christian truck driver in the Deralakatte area on the outskirts of the Mangalore. The Hindu newspaper reported that the extremists beat Albert D’Souza, 48, with iron rods after he found them breaking the windshield of his Jeep and marring the Christian stickers on it. D’Souza was brought to a city hospital in critical condition, the report stated. Konaje police registered a case, saying the attack was communally motivated, and arrested three of the five persons believed to be responsible for the assault.

Karnataka – Police on Jan. 27 arrested a pastor in Bangalore for alleged fraudulent conversion after Hindu extremists who assaulted him filed charges. The Global Council of Indian Christians reported that about 30 Hindu extremists led by Shiva Rame barged into the house of pastor G. Kiran Kumar of Bethesda Church and accused him of trying to convert children by luring them with free tuition and asserting that he had insulted Hindu deities. The extremists assaulted the pastor and his father and dragged them to the Vidyaranyapura police station. Surrounding the police station, they bullied officers into arresting the Christians, with pastor Kumar charged under sections 503 and 153(A) of the Indian Penal Code for “criminal intimidation” and “promoting enmity between groups on grounds of religion” respectively. The pastor was released on bail on Jan. 31.

Karnataka – Hindu extremists on Jan. 27 accused a pastor of conversion by allurement in Belgaum because he offered light refreshments at his house church on Christmas Day. The Global Council of Indian Christians reported that when the intolerant Hindus heard that pastor Tanaya Sunder Nayak served the refreshments at a prayer meeting of his house church last Christmas, they filed the complaint and manipulated police into going on a hunt for him. Arrest warrant in hand, police went to the pastor’s house while he was away. Umesh Pangam, area additional superintendent of police, told Compass that after an inquiry police realized there was no basis for the charges and dropped the case.

Assam – A mob of about 600 Hindu extremists from the Kamalabari-Sattara Establishment assaulted Christians on Jan. 24 in Majuli Island, Jorhat. The Indian Catholic reported that about 400 believers from St. Anthony’s church in Mariani had gone to Majuli Island for an ordination ceremony. Shouting anti-Christian slogans, the Hindu extremists stopped the Christians as they were en route home, accused them of forcible conversion and threatened to cut them to pieces, according to the newspaper. The Hindu mob asserted that Christians should never enter their area, where a temple affiliated with the Hindu extremist Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh is located. The violent mob kicked and punched the Christians, including women and children. Pulling the Christians’ ears, they forced them to walk barefoot to Ferry Ghat five kilometers (nearly three miles) away. Civil administration officials intervened after a priest informed them of the incident and arranged transportation to assist the Christians home. Alan Brooks, spokesman of the Assam Christian Forum, told Compass that Christians filed a First Information Report in Kamalabari and Jarmukh police stations, but no arrests were made.

Kerala – Hindu extremists from the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh on Jan. 22 assaulted a pastor and beat him till he fell unconscious in Vaithiry. According to the Evangelical Fellowship of India, pastor T.T. Abraham of the Brethren Assembly Church was distributing gospel tracts when three intolerant Hindus stopped him. In the assault the pastor suffered serious injuries on his neck, stomach and back. The Hindu extremists fled the scene when they saw an approaching auto-rickshaw, and the driver took the pastor to a government hospital. No police complaint was filed, as the pastor said he chose to forgive the extremists.  

Report from Compass Direct News

CHINA: CHRISTIANS WARY AS RECESSION, UNREST HIT


Beleaguered government officials could view church as threat – or a force for stability.

BEIJING, February 25 (Compass Direct News) – With China’s central government last December issuing a number of secret documents calling on provincial officials to strive to prevent massive unrest in a rapidly collapsing economy, observers are watching for signs of whether authorities will view Christian groups as a threat or a stabilizing influence.

While the Sichuan earthquake last May proved that Christians were willing and able to assist in times of national crisis, raids on house church groups have continued in recent weeks.

The secret reports have come in quick succession. A central government body, the Committee for Social Stability (CSS), issued an internal report on Jan. 2 listing a total of 127,467 serious protests or other incidents across China in 2008, many involving attacks on government buildings or clashes with police and militia.

“Recently every kind of contradiction in society has reached the level of white heat,” the CSS warned in an earlier document issued on Dec. 16.

The document said some officials had “ignored the welfare of the masses … piling up pressure until the situation exploded,” and concluded that, “The relevant Party and State organs must … give daily priority to the task of getting rid of all the maladies which produce social instability and the present crisis.”

On Dec. 10, the Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party and the National People’s Congress issued an internal document calling on senior provincial officials to make every effort to alleviate social and political problems exacerbated by the current recession.

On Dec. 12, the Ministry of Public Security authorized provincial officials to tighten control of all communications in the sensitive period prior to Chinese New Year, which this year fell on Jan. 25. Fearing turmoil as millions of newly-unemployed factory workers headed home for New Year celebrations, the government cancelled all leave for Public Security Bureau (PSB) officers, placed them on high alert and mobilized an additional 150,000 police and armed militia for the holiday period.

On Dec. 15, the public security ministry issued a further document calling for tightened security at government ministries, military bases, armament stores, state borders, airports and railway stations.

In its Dec. 16 report, the CSS warned that provincial authorities must try to resolve grievances by non-violent means before protestors begin attacking factories and government offices or stealing, looting and burning property.

The scale of demonstrations and riots has already reached frightening proportions. In the Jan. 2 internal assessment leaked in Hong Kong, the CSS said the 127,467 serious incidents across China last year involved participation of around 1 percent of the population. Of these cases, 476 consisted of attacks on government and Party buildings, while 615 involved violent clashes with police and militia, leaving 1,120 police and Party officials and 724 civilians killed or injured.

 

Church as Subversive

Concerned by the growth of unregistered house church groups in an uncertain political and social climate, the Chinese government has ramped up efforts both to identify Christians and to portray Christianity as a subversive foreign force.

Local governments in China last year reported on continued measures to prevent “illegal” religious gatherings and curb other criminalized religious activities, according to reports from the U.S. Congressional Executive Commission on China (CECC) on Dec. 20 and Feb. 2. (See “Tortured Christian Lawyer Arrested as Officials Deny Abuses,” Feb. 11.)

In recent months authorities have quietly gathered data on church growth using surveys at universities and workplaces, and called meetings at various institutions in the capital to discuss the supposed dangers of foreign religious influence. (See “Officials Grapple with Spread of Christianity,” Feb. 4.)

Raids on unregistered church groups have continued in recent weeks, with police perhaps prompted to ensure tighter controls on church activity. On Feb. 11, police arrested two South Korean pastors and more than 60 Chinese house church leaders from four provinces who had gathered for a seminar in Wolong district, Nanyang city, the China Aid Association (CAA) reported. The police also confiscated personal money, cell phones and books, and forced each person to register and pay a fine before releasing some of the elderly leaders.

Authorities held six of the detained leaders for several days but by Sunday (Feb. 22) had released all of them, Compass sources confirmed.

In Shanghai, police and members of the State Administration of Religious Affairs on Feb. 10 ordered Pastor Cui Quan to cancel an annual meeting for house church leaders, and then ordered the owner of the hall used by Cui’s 1,200-member congregation to cease renting it to Cui within 30 days, according to CAA.

Senior staff at Beijing’s Dianli Hospital on Feb. 6 ordered elderly house church pastor Hua Zaichen to leave the premises despite being severely ill, CAA reported. Government officials had refused to allow Hua’s wife, Shuang Shuying, an early release from prison to visit her dying husband unless she agreed to inform on other Christians, according to Hua’s son. After refusing their offer, Shuang was finally able to visit Hua on her release date, Feb. 8; Hua died the following day.

Both Shuang and her husband have suffered years of persecution for their involvement in the house church movement.

On Feb. 4, police seized Christian lawyer and human rights defender Gao Zhisheng from his home in Shaanxi province, CAA reported. At press time his whereabouts were unknown.

While other incidents have gone unreported, house church leaders in northern China told Compass in January that despite tighter restrictions in the current economic and political climate, they were optimistic about the ability of the church to survive and flourish.

 

SIDEBAR

Disenchantment, Dissent Spread Across China

In December, China celebrated the 30th anniversary of Deng Xiaoping’s “open door” economic reform policy, which had led to a high annual growth rate of some 10 percent. While Party leaders publicly congratulated themselves, an internal party document warned that 75 percent of the financial benefits had gone to only 10 percent of the population, mainly high and middle-ranking Party members and some entrepreneurs.

With the growth rate now seriously dented, relations between Party members and the general public were “about to explode,” the document warned.

The document also referred to an “ideological vacuum in Party and state,” a “moral vacuum in upholding regulations,” and a “vacuum in spiritual civilization,” in stark contrast to the moral and spiritual values held by religious groups.

According to the Research Institute of the State Council, urban unemployment among young people had already risen to 10.5 percent by last June. If foreign investors continued to withdraw funds, the institute warned, this figure could rise to 16 percent or higher, sparking more outrage against the government.

Tens of thousands of factories closed down in the first six months of 2008, well before the full impact of the global recession hit China. By November, 10 million migrant workers were unemployed; most recent estimates put the figure at 20 million, and officials admit this figure will reach at least 35 million by the end of 2009.

Vice-Premier Hui Liangyu, responsible for agricultural affairs, warned in a recent report that 30 percent of all villagers have set up peasant organizations to challenge local government officials and crime bosses. Some groups also have plans to launch armed insurgencies and their own peasant governments.

Several million university graduates will also face unemployment this year, potentially lending their voices and leadership skills to mass protest movements.

An increasing number of intellectuals have already signed Charter 08, a petition issued in December calling for multi-party elections, human rights, press freedom and the rule of law.

On Jan. 7, a prominent Chinese lawyer, Yan Yiming, filed an application with the Finance Ministry demanding that it open its 2008 and 2009 budget books to the public. On Jan. 13, more than 20 Chinese intellectuals signed an open letter calling for a boycott of state television news programs because of “systematic bias and brainwashing,” while a Beijing newspaper ran an article arguing that freedom of speech was written into the constitution, The Washington Post reported in late January.

In response, Public Security Minister Meng Jianzhu warned China’s leaders via state media that, “The present situation of maintaining national security and social stability is grave.”

Many analysts agree that the Chinese Communist Party may be facing its greatest challenge to date.

Report from Compass Direct News

AUSTRALIA: BUSHFIRES AND FLOODS


Australia is a land of extremes. We have bushfires still burning out of control in Victoria and floods across the country in Queensland, New South Wales, the Northern Territory, South Australia and now in Western Australia as well. Somewhere between 15 and 20 percent of Australia is flood affected, while something like 50 percent of the country is still stricken by drought. Some areas have now been in drought for 11 or 12 years.

Flood waters are now beginning to recede across most of the country; however there is still plenty of rain about – especially in Queensland where an active monsoonal trough is still dumping rain on Queensland.

In Queensland authorities have captured the crocodile that took a 5 year old boy in flood waters. The boy’s remains were found inside of the crocodile. The crocodile is not going to be released back into the wild and will probably be sent to a crocodile farm.

The death toll in Victoria’s bushfire disaster now stands at 209, including a fire-fighter who was killed by a falling tree damaged by the fires. The fire-fighter was from interstate and had gone to Victoria to assist in the crisis. He was due to go home the next day.

The police have stated that the death toll is no longer expected to climb much further than 209.

The official damage bill for in the bushfire areas of Victoria is fast approaching $1 billion Australian dollars and is expected to go beyond that.

Police have now arrested a woman who claimed her father was killed in the bushfires after it was discovered she was not related to the man she claimed was her father. The woman was trying to obtain $10 000 in bushfire relief money.

BELOW: Dramatic video footage as a bushfire approaches a house at Anglesea in the early hours of the morning of the 14th February 2009.

AUSTRALIA: BUSHFIRE UPDATE – Thursday 12 February 2009


The ‘Australia Unites’ Bushfire Appeal Telethon has just started in Australia on the Nine television network. The first act was Men at Work with ‘Down Under.’

ABOVE: Men at Work – ‘Down Under’

Donations can be made via 1800 811 700 or on the Red Cross web site at:

www.redcross.org.au

The Red Cross Bushfire Appeal has already raised over 55 million dollars (AU) for the victims of the bushfire disaster. If you are able to assist please do so. People outside Australia please visit the Red Cross Australia website given above. Thank you for your help – Australia thanks you.

The latest on the bushfire emergency is that weather conditions have eased greatly and the predicted hot weather for this weekend may not eventuate until later on in the week, which should allow fire-fighters to get on top of most of the fires – though it will take several weeks to put them all out.

Reports today indicate that several dozen new fires ignited today, with a major fire on the outskirts of Melbourne at Ivanhoe. The fire-fighters are desperately trying to get this fire under control. Some 30 major bushfires are still burning in Victoria.

An arsonist is now believed responsible for the major bushfire that razed Marysville and caused so many deaths. If anyone has information on any suspicious activity in the bushfire regions please contact crimestoppers on 1800 333. Two people arrested today on suspicion of arson were released without charges being laid – they were not responsible for any arson attacks.

The official death toll figure stands at 181, with a further 80 people considered missing. The death toll may yet peak beyond 300, with the possibility of entire families dying in their homes in some communities.

Police have indicated that the rumour indicating that some further 142 bodies had been recovered was false – it is not known where this rumour originated.

 

ABOVE: Australian Christian Churches Bushfire Appeal

ABOVE: Amazing images from the bushfires

ABOVE: Australian Army Bushfire Search Task Force in action

ABOVE: A YouTube Jerk!!!

AUSTRALIA: BUSHFIRES – More Footage and Latest News


The following videos contain the latest news on the bushfires, images of some of the victims and information on how you can assist.

INDONESIA: SHARIA-BASED LAWS CREEP INTO HALF OF PROVINCES


Islamic-based legislation may be a key issue in this year’s elections.

DUBLIN, February 2 (Compass Direct News) – As candidates hit the campaign trail in preparation for Indonesia’s presidential election in July, rights groups have voiced strong opposition to an increasing number of sharia-inspired laws introduced by local governments. They say the laws discriminate against religious minorities and violate Indonesia’s policy of Pancasila, or “unity in diversity.”

With legislative elections coming in April and President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono likely to form a coalition with several Islamic parties for the July presidential election, such laws could become a key campaign issue.

Although Aceh is the only province completely governed by sharia (Islamic law), more than 50 regencies in 16 of 32 provinces throughout Indonesia have passed laws influenced by sharia. These laws became possible following the enactment of the Regional Autonomy Law in 2000.

The form of these laws varies widely. Legislation in Padang, West Sumatra, requires both Muslim and non-Muslim women to wear headscarves, while a law in Tangerang allows women found “loitering” alone on the street after 10 p.m. to be arrested and charged with prostitution. Other laws include stipulations for Quran literacy among schoolchildren and severe punishment for adultery, alcoholism and gambling.

“Generally the legal system regulates and guarantees religious freedom of Indonesian citizens … but in reality, discrimination prevails,” a lawyer from the legal firm Eleonora and Partners told Compass.

Some regencies have adopted sharia in a way that further marginalizes minority groups, according to Syafi’I Anwar, executive director of the International Center for Islam and Pluralism.

“For instance, the Padang administration issued a law requiring all schoolgirls, regardless of their religion, to wear the headscarf,” he told the International Herald Tribune. This is unacceptable because it is not in line with the pluralism that the constitution recognizes.”

Freedom of religion is guaranteed by Article 29 of the country’s constitution, he added. “Therefore the government must assist all religious communities to practice their beliefs as freely as possible and take actions against those who violate that right.”

While Indonesia’s largest Muslim group, Nahdlatul Ulama (NU), has publicly denounced the implementation of such laws, other groups actively support them. The Committee for the Implementation and Maintenance of Islamic Law (KPPSI) has held several congresses in Makassar, South Sulawesi with the goal of passing sharia-inspired legislation and obtaining special autonomy for the province, similar to that in Aceh.

KPPSI has also encouraged members to vote for politicians who share their goals, according to local news agency Komintra.

 

‘Threatening’ Decision

In February of last year, Home Affairs Minister Mardiyanto declared that the government saw no need to nullify some 600 sharia-inspired laws passed by local governments. His announcement came after a group of lawyers in June 2007 urged the government to address laws that discriminated against non-Muslims.

Moderates were alarmed at Mardiyanto’s decision, fearing it would encourage other jurisdictions to pass similar laws. Last August, Dr. Mohammad Mahfud, newly re-elected as head of the Constitutional Court, slammed regional administrations for enacting sharia-inspired laws.

“[These] laws are not constitutionally or legally correct because, territorially and ideologically, they threaten our national integrity,” he told top military officers attending a training program on human rights, according to The Jakarta Post.

Mahfud contended that if Indonesia allowed sharia-based laws, “then Bali can pass a Hindu bylaw, or North Sulawesi can have a Christian ordinance. If each area fights for a religious-based ordinance, then we face a national integration problem.” According to Mahfud, sharia-based laws would promote religious intolerance and leave minority religious groups without adequate legal protection.

Under the 2000 Regional Autonomy Law, the central government has the power to block provincial laws but showed little willingness to do so until recently when, bowing to pressure from advocacy groups, it pledged to review 37 sharia-based ordinances deemed discriminatory and at odds with the constitution.

Such reviews are politically sensitive and must be done on sound legal grounds, according to Ridarson Galingging, a law lecturer in Jakarta.

“Advocates of sharia-based laws will stress the divine origin of sharia and resist challenges [that are] based on constitutional or human rights limits,” he told The Jakarta Post. “They maintain that sharia is authorized directly by God, and political opposition is viewed as apostasy or blasphemy.”

 

Empowering Vigilantes

A national, sharia-inspired bill regulating images or actions deemed pornographic sparked outrage when presented for a final vote in October last year. One fifth of the parliamentarians present walked out in protest, leaving the remainder to vote in favor of the legislation.

The bill provided for up to 15 years of prison and a maximum fine of US$1.5 million for offenders.

“This law will only empower vigilante groups like the Islamic Defender’s Front (FPI),” Eva Sundari, a member of the Democratic Party of Struggle (PDIP) told reporters. FPI is widely-regarded as a self-appointed moral vigilante group, often raiding bars and nightclubs, but also responsible for multiple attacks on churches.

“Many of the members are preparing for elections and looking for support among the Islamic community,” she added. “Now they can point to this law as evidence that they support Islamic values.”

Although several Golkar Party politicians support sharia-based laws, senior Golkar Party member Theo Sambuaga has criticized politicians for endorsing such legislation to win support from Muslim voters. Several major parties openly back sharia laws, including the Prosperous Justice Party (PKS), the United Development Party, and the Crescent Star party.

 

Key Election Issue

Sharia-based laws may become an even hotter election issue this year as a change to the voting system means more weight will be given to provincial candidates.

Political analysts believe Yudhoyono must form a coalition with most if not all of the country’s Islamic parties in order to win a majority vote against the Golkar party, allied for this election with former president Megawati Sukarnoputri’s PDIP.

The coalition Yudhoyono could form, however, likely would come with strings attached. As Elizabeth Kendal of the World Evangelical Alliance wrote in September 2008, “The more the president needs the Islamists, the more they can demand of him.”

In 2004, Yudhoyono partnered with the NU-sponsored National Awakening Party, the National Mandate Party (founded by the Islamic purist organization Muhammadiyah) and the PKS to achieve his majority vote. Analysts predict PKS will again be a key player in this election.

Few realize, however, that PKS draws its ideology from the Muslim Brotherhood, a group formed in Egypt in 1928 with a firm belief in Islamic world dominance. Crushed by the Egyptian government in the 1960s, members of the Brotherhood fled to Saudi Arabia, where they taught in the nation’s universities – influencing the future founders of Al Qaeda, Hamas, and Sudan’s National Islamic Front.

The Brotherhood took root at a university in Bandung, West Java in the 1970s in the form of Tarbiyah, a secretive student movement that eventually morphed into the Justice Party (JP) in 1998. Winning few votes, JP allied itself with a second party to form the PKS prior to the 2004 elections.

Since then, PKS has gained widespread support and a solid reputation for integrity and commitment to Islamic values. Simultaneously, however, PKS leaders are vocal supporters of Abu Bakar Ba’asyir, leader of the terrorist group Jemaah Islamiyah (JI).

Sadanand Dhume, writing in the Far Eastern Economic Review, says the two organizations have much in common. In its founding manifesto, PKS calls for the creation of an Islamic caliphate. Unlike JI, however, “the party can use its position in Parliament and its … network of cadres to advance the same goals incrementally, one victory at a time.”  

Report from Compass Direct News

CHINA: OFFICIALS REACH OUT TO HOUSE CHURCHES; RAIDS, ARRESTS CONTINUE


TSPM offers Bibles and “assistance,” but rights groups say efforts fall short.

DUBLIN, December 9 (Compass Direct News) – In recent months Chinese officials have attempted to build bridges with the Protestant house church movement even as police raided more unregistered congregations, arrested Christian leaders and forced at least 400 college students to swear they would stop attending such worship services.

With rights groups saying more effort is needed to address rights abuses and secure full religious freedom for Chinese Christians, two research institutes – one from the government – organized an unprecedented symposium on Nov. 21-22 that concluded with an agreement for house church leaders to begin a dialogue with government officials.

A delegation of six house church leaders from Beijing, Henan and Wenzhou provinces attended the seminar, entitled, “Christianity and Social Harmony: A Seminar on the Issue of Chinese House Churches,” along with scholars and experts from universities and independent research facilities. Members of the Minorities Development Research Institute, a branch of the China State Council’s Research and Development Centre, and the Beijing Pacific Solutions Social Science Research Institute co-hosted it.

In a report summarizing the forum, Beijing house church representative Liu Tong Su said that China’s religious institutions and regulations were clearly outdated and inadequate to meet the needs of the church.

At the conclusion of the meeting, house church delegates agreed to dialogue with the government, Liu said, though he insisted, “Only God can control the spirituality of faith. No worldly authorities have the right to control a man’s spirit.”

The government has been entrusted by God with the authority to maintain external public order, Liu added.

“If the government can limit its governing territory to areas of maintaining public order in external conduct, then according to the teachings of the Bible, the house church will definitely obey those in authority within the boundary that God has set,” he said.

Experts presented reports on the rapid development of house church networks, including the number of Christians, geographical distribution, cultural and ethnic make-up and connection with foreign Christians, according to the Gospel Herald.

A month earlier, the chairman of the Three-Self Patriotic Movement (TSPM) – responsible along with the China Christian Council (CCC) for overseeing China’s Protestant churches – told a gathering of 200 Hong Kong church leaders of his desire to assist Chinese house churches and provide them with Bibles, according to Ecumenical News International (ENI).

At the Oct. 22 conference entitled, “Chinese Church – New Leaders, New Challenges,” TSPM Chairman Fu Xianwei declared, “For those house churches without registration, we will try our best to be with them, to recognize them and to help them, so long as they have an orthodox faith, don’t stray from the truth and don’t follow heretics.”

Fu and 11 other members of the newly-elected leadership team of the CCC/TSPM also said they were willing to provide house churches with Bibles, ENI reported.

Bible distribution is largely the responsibility of Amity Press, China’s only official Bible printing company, which recently announced its intention to place more Bibles in the hands of rural Christians. Daniel Willis, CEO of the Bible Society in New South Wales (NSW), Australia, launched an appeal on Nov. 12 to support Amity in this goal.

Speaking at the launch, Willis asserted, “Smuggling Bibles into China places Chinese Christians at risk, and now with the new Amity Press operational in Nanjing, smuggling is a waste of resources.”

Amity opened a new multimillion dollar printing facility in May with a capacity to print 12 million Bibles per year. Most of those Bibles are printed in foreign languages for export outside China.

“China is experiencing a great freedom of worship,” Willis added. “With this wonderful change the church is spreading rapidly … Each Chinese Christian would like to experience the joy … that owning their own Bible brings – but unfortunately for many, obtaining a Bible is difficult and often out of their reach financially.”

The China Aid Association (CAA) issued a statement on Nov. 20 that Amity did not produce enough Bibles to meet the vast needs of the church in China or to replace lost or worn copies. It also pointed out that distribution was still strictly limited to government-approved channels.

Earlier this year, the Rev. Dr. Chow Lien-Hwa, vice-chairman of the board of Amity Press, stated in an interview with the NSW Bible Society that Amity was printing 3 million Bibles per year for mainland China. Chow also outlined a plan to allow Bible distribution through a chain of government bookshops and claimed that house church Christians could buy Bibles from TSPM churches without having to provide personal identity information.

Pastors from both house churches and official TSPM congregations have reported to Compass a shortage of Bibles and other Christian materials in Beijing, the northwest, the northeast, and the southwest. Church growth in tribal areas also has created an urgent need for Bibles in minority languages.

 

Raids, Arrests Continue

Rights groups pointed to recent raids and arrests, however, as confirmation that Chinese authorities still restrict freedom of worship for local house church Christians.

Police raided a house church gathering in Tai Kang county, Henan province on Dec. 3 and arrested all 50 Christians, CAA reported on Thursday (Dec. 4). Public Security Bureau officers also raided another gathering of 50 house church believers in Xiji town, Zaozhuang city, Shandong province on Dec. 2, arresting 20 Christian leaders and demanding a fine of 2,500 yuan (US$365) per person to secure their release.

CAA also confirmed that police carried out multiple raids on house church gatherings in Beijing and in areas near college campuses in Hangzhou, Zhejiang province, from late September to early November, detaining leaders of the Local Church house church network. Four leaders in Zhejiang were sentenced to labor camp for 12 to 18 months.

Officers also arrested at least 400 Christian college students. After intense questioning, police forced each student to write a statement of repentance agreeing to forsake such gatherings.

Commenting on reports of persecution in China, Chow of Amity Press claimed victims were not true Chinese citizens, but Chinese with foreign citizenship who had entered China to carry out illegal activities.

“When we go to another country we must be law-abiding citizens of that country,” Chow insisted. “The law, whether you like it or not, says you can only preach in the churches, you cannot go on the street.”

Some house churches are actively seeking registration with authorities to avoid arrests and inconveniences, ENI reported in October. Such groups, however, prefer to register outside the CCC/TSPM structure, disagreeing that different Protestant beliefs can be reconciled under the TSPM as a self-described “post-denominational” umbrella organization.

House church members also object to the TSPM’s interference in congregational practices, according toe the U.S. State Department’s International Religious Freedom Report 2008. The report notes that many unregistered evangelical Protestant groups refuse to register with TSPM due to theological differences, fear of adverse consequences if they reveal names and addresses of church leaders or members, or fear that it will control sermon content.

 

Released from Prison

Responding to international pressure, officials on Dec. 2 released house church pastor Zhu Baoguo of Henan province, citing medical reasons. Authorities had raided a house church gathering on Oct. 12, arresting Zhu and four other leaders, before sentencing Zhu on Oct. 30 to one year in labor camp, CAA reported.

Officials also released house church pastor Wang Weiliang from prison on Nov. 25 for medical reasons, according to CAA. Authorities sentenced Wang to three years in prison in December 2006 for protesting the July 2006 destruction of Dangshanwan Christian church in Xiaoshan, Zhejiang province. Seven other believers were arrested at the time; authorities have released all but one, who remains in detention in Hangzhou.

 

A Breakthrough for China’s House Churches?

At last month’s symposium on Chinese house churches, officials from government research organs, scholars from government think-tanks and universities, independent researchers and an unprecedented delegation of six house church leaders from Beijing, Henan and Wenzhou attended.

At the groundbreaking conference, sponsored by the Minorities Development Research Institute of the China State Council’s Research and Development Center and the Beijing Pacific Solutions Social Science Research Institute and entitled, “Christianity and Social Harmony: A Seminar on the Issue of the Chinese House Churches,” participants discussed every aspect of the house church movement in China.

Statistics were a key issue, with most agreeing that the number of house church members was vast and rapidly increasing. Estimates ranged from 50 million to 100 million members of Protestant house churches, as compared with approximately 20 million members of registered Protestant churches.

Delegates were surprisingly bold in their discussion and criticism of China’s religious policy, and several put forward practical plans for the abolition of institutions such as the State Administration for Religious Affairs (formerly the Religious Affairs Bureau) and the Protestant Three-Self Patriotic Movement.

They also called for serious and ongoing discussions between the government and house churches, and Christian leaders called for the lifting of a ban on house churches and a review of restrictions on church registration and appointment of pastors.

Many participants agreed that the democratic management of house churches in accordance with the rule of law was a logical step to bring religious policies into line with China’s open-door economic policies.

While certain sectors of leadership may welcome these suggestions, others entrenched in the atheist system of the Communist Party were expected to balk at such reforms.  

Report from Compass Direct News

IRAQ: FLEEING CHRISTIANS FACE NEW HARDSHIPS IN TURKEY


As renewed violence in Mosul halts return, refugees wait in Turkish legal limbo.

ISTANBUL, November 14 (Compass Direct News) – In this Turkish city’s working-class neighborhood of Kurtulus, Arabic can be heard on the streets, signs are printed in the Arabic alphabet and Iraqis congregate in tea shops.

In 99-percent Muslim Turkey, most of these Iraqis are not Muslims. And they are not in Turkey by choice. They are Christian refugees who fled their homeland to escape the murderous violence that increasingly has been directed at them.

It is hard to tell how many of Mosul’s refugees from the recent wave of attacks have made their way to Istanbul, but finding these residents here is not hard. A middle-aged Iraqi refugee who fled Mosul five months ago now attends a Syrian Orthodox Church in the poverty-stricken neighborhood of Tarlabasi, where gypsies, transvestites, and immigrants from Turkey’s east live in hopes of a better life in Istanbul.

Declining to give his name, the refugee said there is no future for Christians in Iraq and that nearly everyone he knew there wanted to leave the country. He said the only hope for Iraqi Christians is for Western countries to open their doors to Christian Iraqi refugees.

“We don’t have hope,” he said. “If these doors aren’t opened, we will be killed.”

Since October, violence in Mosul has pushed more than 12,000 Christians from their homes and left more than two dozen dead, according to U.N. and Christian organizations. In the face of Mosul violence, Iraqi Christians flee to Turkey before settling permanently in another country, usually in a place where their family has gone out before them.

 

Christian Sisters Killed

Weeks after the mass exodus of Mosul Christians to surrounding villages, Turkey and other nations, around one-third of families reportedly have returned due to the presence of 35,000 army and police and the Iraqi government offering cash grants of up to $800.

But those returning Christians were shaken again on Wednesday (Nov. 12), when Islamic militants stormed into the house of two Syrian Catholic sisters, Lamia’a Sabih and Wala’a Saloha, killing them and severely injuring their mother. They then bombed their house and detonated a second explosive when the police arrived, which killed three more.

The Christian family had recently returned after having fled Mosul. Many believe this attack will deter other Christians from returning to Mosul, and there are reports of Christians again leaving the area.

There has been a steady exodus of Christians from Iraq since the first Gulf War in 1991. The church in Iraq dates from the beginning of Christianity, but the population has plummeted by 50 percent in the last 20 years. The outflow of Iraqi Christians spiked in 2003 following the U.S.-led invasion.

Although Iraq as a whole has seen a dramatic decrease in violence due to last year’s surge in U.S. troops, the flight of Christians to Turkey has grown. One-third of the 18,000 refugees who registered in Turkey last year are from Iraq. In Syria, an estimated 40 percent of the 1.2 million Iraqis who have fled Iraq are Christians, though they make up only about 3 percent of Iraq’s population.

Monsignor Francois Yakan, the 50-year-old leader of the Chaldean Church in Turkey, said all Iraqi refugees are undergoing hardships regardless of religion, but that the situation is especially difficult for Christians since there is less support for them in Turkey.

“Muslims have the same difficulty as Christians, but there are more foundations to assist them,” he said. “The government notices Muslim immigrants, but nobody pays attention to us.”

Yakan travels to other countries to raise awareness of the plight of Iraqi Christians, trying to marshal the support of government and church leaders – last week he traveled to France, Romania and Germany. If Western governments don’t wake up to this crisis, he said, the results could be catastrophic.

“People don’t know the plight of Iraqi Christians. They have no government, no soldiers, and no power,” he said. “Christianity in Iraq is ending. Why aren’t they noticing this?”

 

Strangers in Strange Land

The unnamed Iraqi refugee in Tarlabasi said not even pleas from Iraqi priests can make them stay.

“The church in Iraq can’t stop the people from leaving because they can’t guarantee their security,” he said.

He came to Istanbul with his family but still has an adult son and daughter in the city. He hopes to join his brother in the United States soon.

A group of Iraqi refugees at a tea shop in the Kurtulus area of Istanbul interrupted their card game to talk to Compass of their troubled lives.

“We can’t find any work,” said Baghdad-born Iraqi Jalal Toma, who acted as the translator for the group. He pointed to a young man at the table and said, “He works moving boxes and carrying things, and they pay him half as much as a Turk for a day’s work.”

All of the men are Chaldean Christians, a Catholic Eastern-rite church whose historical homeland is in northern Iraq, and came from Mosul in recent months. They are chronically under-employed and rely on financial help from family members abroad to make ends meet.

They had to flee their homes at a moment’s notice, taking along their families but leaving behind their cars, houses and most of their possessions. The men hope to join family members who live in foreign countries, but they harbor few hopes that they can ever return to Iraq again.

 

Offering Relief

Work is scarce for refugees and hard to come by legally in Turkey. To survive, most Iraqi Christians rely on money from families abroad or the handful of local church charities that struggle to keep up with the overwhelming volume of refugees, such as the Istanbul Interparish Migrant Program, an ecumenical umbrella group that unites the city’s parishes to assist migrants and asylum seekers.

Another such charity is Kasdar, the Chaldean-Assyrian-Syriac Humanitarian, Social and Cultural Organization, run by Yakan, the Chaldean Church leader in Turkey.

He launched Kasdar two years ago to provide a safety net for Christian refugees who live in Turkey’s legal limbo. Kasdar assists all Christians regardless of denomination or faith tradition and has 16 volunteers from an equally diverse background.

Yakan sees thousands of refugees pass through Istanbul each year. Most of them are Chaldean, and he knows of 60-70 people who fled due to the recent October violence in Mosul. He travels constantly to visit Chaldean refugees scattered throughout the country.

When refugees first arrive in Turkey, they must register with the United Nations as asylum seekers. The Turkish police then assign them to one of 35 cities to live in as they wait to receive official refugee status. These Christians face the biggest hardships since they don’t have access to the same social resources as refugees in Istanbul, said Metin Corabatir, U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees spokesman in Turkey.

“The Chaldean population faces problems in Turkey, especially due to the policy of resettling them to satellite cities,” said Corabatir. “The Chaldeans in Istanbul have NGOs [Non-Governmental Organizations] and churches to help them, but in satellite cities there is no church or community to help them.”

Most refugees send their children to school at a local center run by Caritas, a Catholic confederation of relief, development and social service organizations. Here, Iraq children receive education and lessons in basic vocational skills.

The wait for legal status can be as short as a few months or a couple of years. But complicated circumstances can push back the wait to five years, 10 years, or even 17 years – as it is now for a man who fled during the first Gulf War, Yakan of the Chaldean Church said.

Another church leader who has helped Christian refugees is 70-year-old Monsignor Yusuf Sag, vicar general of the Syrian Catholic Church in Turkey. His 350-person congregation assembles packets of clothes and food for the refugees.

Many who come to Sag also seek medical help. He has connections with doctors throughout the city, both Muslim and Christian, who offer basic treatment to refugees free of charge. Sag said he tries to help all who come to him, without asking them of their denomination or even their religion.

“Their situation is not a Christian problem, but a human problem,” he said.

Often Iraqi Christians work illegally, where they are vulnerable to extortion. Refugee workers in Istanbul said registered asylum seekers can work legally, but it is not uncommon for employers to garnish their wages or withhold them completely, with the foreigners getting little protection from police.

The Turkish government charges a refugee a residence tax of US$460 a year and will not allow them to leave the country until it is paid, making them remain in the country even longer. With all these hurdles to finding stable employment, many Iraqi refugees are never too far from homelessness.

“There was a family we found living on the streets – a husband, wife and two children,” Yakan said. “They have lived in Istanbul for six months and couldn’t even afford to pay rent.”

His foundation found the family an apartment and assisted them with rent, but they only have enough resources to help for two months.

Kasdar gave similar assistance to 54 families in October. But the organization can only help for a few months at a time and assist the most vulnerable refugees.

Report from Compass Direct News