Tehran begins crackdown in advance of bloody anniversary


Iran is taking steps to quell protests as the anniversary of the disputed presidential election nears, reports MNN.

Multiple sources report they’re aggressively deploying paramilitary members, re-arresting activists, and enforcing certain bans on mingling of the sexes and un-Islamic women’s clothing.

The crackdown speaks to the oppressive nature of the government. It also means that everyone is under scrutiny, especially Christians.

In the best of times, the open witness of the Gospel is banned, and government spies monitor Christian groups. Believers face discrimination in education, employment, and property ownership.

However, with the increased scrutiny, discipling becomes dangerous work. Church leaders will continue to cultivate growth in the body of Christ, knowing that those who commit apostasy (turning away from Islam to another faith) face prison, abuse or the death penalty. Evangelist Sammy Tippit explains, "These are people who are from Muslim backgrounds who have come to know Christ. So the only thing they can get is from an outside source."

Believers are often isolated because they can’t worship together in a traditional church. That’s where Tippit’s teaching programs are extremely effective via satellite television. He says, "We need to pray that God will encourage them, will strengthen them, and give them the stamina in the face of great challenge."

Tippit recently met with a group of church leaders outside of Iran in order to encourage them and to let them know they’re not forgotten. "God met with us in an incredible way. Of course, they were hungry, and they were thirsty–these believers. And these were leaders."

Tippit says, "The only thing that the church can do is encourage them, pray for them, and try to give them some kind of biblical foundation that would enable them to claim the promises of God in the midst of suffering."

Report from the Christian Telegraph

Christians in Ethiopian Town Hit by Unexpected Attack


Orthodox church members strike two evangelical worship buildings, beat evangelist unconscious.

NAIROBI, Kenya, April 15 (CDN) — Evangelical Christians in an area of Ethiopia unaccustomed to anti-Christian hostility have come under attack from Ethiopian Orthodox Church (EOC) members threatened by their existence, Christian leaders said.

In Olenkomi, about 65 kilometers (40 miles) west of the Ethiopian capital of Addis Ababa, two church buildings were attacked by an EOC mob in Olenkomi town, Oromia Region, on Jan. 27 – leaving one evangelist unconscious and other Christians fearful of Orthodox hostility. Area Christians fear the assailants will not face justice due to the EOC’s powerful presence and impending elections.

A Mekane Yesus Church building was destroyed in the assault, while a Brethren Church structure suffered damages.

Attacks against evangelicals in the area are rare, but recently Christians have come under immense pressure as they face isolation and verbal threats, church leaders said. Located in the West Shoa Zone of Oromia Region, Olenkomi is a small town where most people there and in surrounding areas belong to the EOC. All officials in government are EOC members, and evangelical Christians encounter difficulties obtaining land for church buildings, church leaders said.

The attack followed an accidental fire from liturgical candles that burned an EOC building. EOC members blamed evangelicals, and in the ensuing assault evangelist Abera Ongeremu was so badly beaten the mob left him for dead. Another three Christians also sustained minor injuries.

Ongeremu was visiting from Neqemite, 260 kilometers (161 miles) away. After the mob stoned the Brethren Church, they next targeted Mekane Yesus Church, where Ongeremu was staying in guest quarters. A member of the mob took a Bible from his guest room and told him to burn it.

“How can I burn the book that showed me life?” the shocked Ongeremu asked.

He said that he told the mob that they could do anything they wanted, but he was not going to burn the Holy Bible. The attackers tied his hands and legs together and threw him back into the room, sprinkling diesel on the walls and roof and locking him in before setting it on fire, he said.

“I thought it was my last,” Ongeremu said. “I now understand nothing will happen to you without the will of God. That was not the day God allowed for me to die.”

Some of the assailants argued that Ongeremu should not die by burning, but by beating. Two of them dragged him out of the room and continuously beat him, covering his face in blood. He sustained wounds on his skull and right arm.

“After repeated beatings I lost consciousness,” he said. “I didn’t know how and when they left me. I only recall they argued about how to kill me.”

Premeditated?

Federal police were summoned from Ambo – the nearest town some 50 kilometers (31 miles) away – to disperse the mob, but too late to avert the injuries and damages after their rugged journey of nearly three hours.

Prior to the attacks, according to church leaders, there was no substantial build-up of tension between the two groups, though EOC priests had expressed anger about the expansion of evangelical churches and had questioned why teachers from evangelical backgrounds were prevalent in the high school in Olenkomi.

Most of the teachers at Olenkomi Secondary High School are evangelical Christians, according to church leaders, who said this circumstance was solely coincidental. Although teachers of evangelical faith are prevalent in the school, they are forbidden by law to promote their faith in class.

The EOC members had been constructing a building for a church in Olenkomi, but because of funding shortfalls they revised the plan and built a temporary structure. Evangelical church leaders said EOC priests had seized the land without formal process, but sources said the EOC’s strong presence in the area kept evangelical church officials from protesting brazen construction efforts.

The EOC’s small structure was being used for liturgical purposes.

“The shelter-like house has faced fire disaster in various incidents,” said a church leader in Olenkomi. “The materials used to build it, and the curtains they hung on walls exposed the shelter to several fire incidents. The [candle and lantern] lights the priests used for liturgy were causing problems. We heard that a number of times the fire had lit curtains, and the priests stopped before it spread.”

Such a fire broke out on the day of the attack, this time out-pacing the frantic efforts of the priests. The fire consumed curtains inside the house and spread to roofs and walls. To douse it the priests went to a nearby government-owned water tank operated by an evangelical woman. She granted them water, and the structure did not burn entirely.

When they later returned to wash, however, they put their hands inside the tank and sullied the public water source. When the operator objected, the EOC members  spoke derogatorily of her as a “Pente” and began to spread the rumor that she was responsible for the burnt structure, church leaders said.

EOC members quickly formed into groups of various sizes, sources said, and rolled into town chanting, “This is the day to destroy Pentecostals and their churches!” They first went to the Brethren Church, located by the side of a highway that stretches through Olenkomi to western Ethiopia.

“When we first heard stones falling on the roof, we thought the wind was tearing up iron sheets,” said one evangelist. “We also heard a loud noise from outside. It was around 12:30 p.m. I opened the main door to check what was happening. The whole compound was filled by men and women who carried stones and sticks. It was a very scary sight.”

They were stoning the church building, forcing the praying believers to escape through a back door. The assailants continued breaking doors and windows, thinking worshippers were trapped inside.

Local police arrived, the evangelist said, but they failed to disperse the violent mob.

“Despite firing into the air, the officers didn’t do anything serious to stop the mob,” he said. “They later said it is beyond their capacity and would call Federal Police from Ambo town. The anti-riot police arrived two and half hours later, practically after the mob effectively carried out all the destruction.”

Of the attack on Mekane Yesus Church, one church leader said the mob broke in and set fire on everything they found.

“They gathered benches, office chairs and tables, documents, musical instruments, public address system, choir uniforms and other materials and set them on fire,” he said. “They also lit fire to the church building, which reduced it to ashes.”

The mob was not finished. They proceeded to the high school, where they attacked Christian teachers as students rushed to defend them. Church leaders said the targeting of the school was evidence that the attack had been planned before with well-considered aims.

With Ethiopia scheduled to hold parliamentary elections on May 23, government officials don’t want to upset voters by punishing those behind the attacks, church leaders said. It is likely that officials would pressure church leaders from both camps to settle for the sake of stability, but Christians fear that in doing so their complaints will be overlooked.

Some suspects have been identified, but church leaders don’t expect they will be punished.

“It is like hitting a fire ball,” said a church leader from Brethren Church. “When you hit the fire, it would round back to you. It can even burn you. You may also distribute the fire to new places.”

In spite of the violence, evangelical Christians have engaged in “fervent witnessing ministry and prayer,” he said.

“It awakens us to think, pray and unite,” he said. “There is no good in persecution. But God turned it around for the good of us. The persecution was intended to destroy our commitment, but it rather built our faith.”

As election day draws closer, said the leader, EOC priests could easily motivate followers to attack.

“That would be bad times for believers,” he said. “Let’s pray for people in Olenkomi to know the will of God and repent from evil from which they assume to serve God.”

Report from Compass Direct News 

Why Bhutan’s Royalists Fear Christianity


Social, political factors behind country’s reluctance to allow Christianity to grow

THIMPHU, Bhutan, February 1 (CDN) — Bars, pubs and discos have become legal in Bhutan – a cause of concern for the older generation – but construction of worship buildings other than Buddhist or Hindu temples is still prohibited.

The prohibition remains in force even though Christians abide by Bhutan’s codes of conduct, speaking the Dzongkha language as well as the Nepali language at church gatherings, and wearing the national dress.

The National Assembly of Bhutan banned the practice of non-Buddhist and non-Hindu religions through edicts in 1969 and in 1979. But Christians do meet for Sunday worship, with attendance of more than 100 Christians in an underground church not unusual.

Why are Christians seen as a greater threat to the culture of the nation than the “democracy disco culture,” as one government official described the emerging subculture among the Bhutanese youth? It is believed that Christianity will create religious tensions in the country.

“There are reasons why Christianity is not being tolerated in the country,” said a former high government official who requested anonymity. “Look at the communal tensions in India and Nepal. Christianity can divide the Bhutanese society as well.”

He mentioned two incidents that appeared in the Bhutanese press last year, one in which 13 Christians allegedly hanged a woman they had accused of being a witch, and a suicide by a Hindu man who reportedly left a note saying his Christian wife and children were pressuring him to convert.

Christians here said these were isolated incidents that they strongly condemned.

“A majority of believers in Bhutan are not educated and are from lower economic backgrounds,” said the pastor of an underground church. “When open preaching is not allowed, this is what happens.”

Sound Christian teaching remains lacking, he said. There is a tremendous need for good Christian teaching and general education among the Christians in Bhutan, said the pastor.

“But little can be done given the restrictions we face here.”

Christians are only allowed to pray if someone is sick among their acquaintances, he added.

The government also fears that Christianity could cause societal tensions because of the general misconception that Christians lure others to the faith with money; converts are viewed with suspicion, said a government official on condition of anonymity.

“There should be one religion in one nation,” said the official, adding that religious freedom should be allowed only after educating people.

Threat from Within

Bhutanese officials are no strangers to religious conflict.

“You must also understand that the kind of Buddhism practiced in Bhutan is a minority sect within the two Buddhist divisions,” said the former government official.

A majority of Buddhists in Bhutan practice Vajrayāna Buddhism, also known as Tantric Buddhism, and belong to the larger Mahayana sect, one of the two major divisions of the religion along with the Theravada sect.

Theravada Buddhism has a widespread following in Sri Lanka and Southeast Asian countries, including Burma, Thailand, Laos and Cambodia. Mahayana is practiced in a few East Asian countries, including Japan.

Unlike Theravada, which is more individualistic in its motivation, Mahayana Buddhism involves an aspiration to achieve enlightenment not only for one’s own sake, but for the sake of all “sentient” beings.

“There is a perceived threat to the Buddhist sect in Bhutan from the more powerful Theravada division,” said the source, without divulging more about the clash within Buddhism. “In such a scenario, how can you expect the government to willingly open doors to Christianity, which too is a threat?”

Of Bhutan’s more than 670,000 people, Christians are estimated to range in number between 3,000 and 6,000. Around 75 percent of the people practice Buddhism, and roughly 22 percent are Hindus, mostly of Nepali origin.

Monarchy and Buddhism

Religion is so closely linked to the monarchy in Bhutan that one cannot exist without the other.

The national flag of Bhutan, which consists of a white dragon over a yellow and orange background, also has religion in it. While the yellow half represents civil and political powers of the King, the orange signifies monastic traditions of Buddha’s teachings.

The religious link is protected in the new constitution, which was adopted in March 2008. Article 2 notes that the dual powers of religion and politics shall be unified in the person of the king, “who, as a Buddhist, shall be the upholder of the Chhoe-sid,” the traditional dual system of governance characterized by the sharing of power between the religious and political heads of the country.

Given that the king embodies religious and political authority, the common people worship him.

Additionally, Buddhism is woven into the national fabric. Bhutan is the only country in the world that employs a “Gross National Happiness” (GNH) equation to measure its people’s level of happiness, and the GNH assumes that all citizens are Buddhist. Respondents to the GNH survey are asked questions concerning “spiritual activities like meditation and prayers, and consideration of karmic effects in daily life.”

The introduction of democracy in Bhutan did not involve disturbing the religious and cultural status quo. While former King Jigme Singye Wangchuck, who served from 1972 to 2006, brought democracy to Bhutan without any demand for it, people believe his intentions were far from transforming the country into a full democracy.

It is believed that the political turmoil in neighboring Nepal partly influenced King Singye Wangchuck’s decision to make the country, at least on paper, a constitutional monarchy after over 100 years of absolute monarchy. A decade-long civil war led by the Communist Party of Nepal-Maoist – which took more than 12,000 lives – is believed to be behind the abolition of the royal parliamentary system and the adoption of a socialist republic in Nepal. In 2006 the then-king of Nepal, Gyanendra, agreed to relinquish sovereign power to the people.

All sources in Bhutan confirmed that the present king, Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck (selected in 2006 but not crowned until 2008), was still the supreme ruler. Perhaps this is why both the ruling Druk Phuensum Tshogpa (Bhutan Peace and Prosperity) Party and the opposition People’s Democratic Party are royalists.

Pictures of kings of Bhutan are found everywhere in the country – in homes, shops, hotels, underground churches and on street walls. Many large posters with the kings’ pictures carrying the inscription “Kings of our Hearts” can be seen along the streets. Even public buses have “Our Kings Forever” painted on them.

“But you cannot expect things to change overnight,” said the former government official. “It’s not wise to allow development without any bridle. Things are improving slowly.

Added an optimistic source, “Freedom in the real sense of the word and in all spheres is bound to come to Bhutan. It’s just a matter of time.”

Report from Compass Direct News 

India Briefs: Recent Incidents of Persecution


Karnataka, India, November 30 (CDN) — Police on Nov. 24 detained three Christians after Hindu extremists falsely accused them of forced conversion in Raghavendra Colony, Madugere, Tumkur district. The Global Council of Indian Christians (GCIC) reported that 35 to 40 extremists barged into the rented apartment of Christians identified only as Prabhu, Steven and Shivananda, all workers for Operation Mobilization (OM). The Hindu hardliners confiscated all Bibles, compact discs and gospel tracts and burned them, and then took the Christians to the Madugere police station. Police who searched the apartment found no evidence of forcible conversion, however, and offered protection to the Christians. The next day the extremists again stormed into the apartment, dragging the three Christians outside. Nearby police took the Christians to the police station, along with the OM director, who had rushed to help them, and nearly 40 Hindu extremists followed demanding that the Christians be arrested for “conversion activities,” mistakenly believing that conversion is illegal in India. A GCIC representative told Compass the Christians were detained till midnight and released without being charged – after agreeing to vacate the apartment and immediately leave the village. 

Karnataka – Based on a false complaint by Hindu extremists, police detained five pastors on baseless charges of forceful conversion on Nov. 24 in Nangli, Kolar district. The Evangelical Fellowship of India reported that Hindu extremists stormed into the inauguration of the Friends Missionary Prayer Band prayer hall, and police alerted by the extremists arrived and took the five pastors to the police station for questioning. The Christians were released at about 8:30 p.m. after agreeing to give police prior notice of any worship services as a security measure. 

Madhya Pradesh – About 20 Hindu extremists attacked a pastor in Balaghat on Nov. 24. Pastor Ghanshyam Chowkse of Jeevan Jyoti Ashram was visiting a local Christian family when the extremists broke into the house of Purnima Dhuarey and dragged the pastor out, striking him with their fists and legs. They also struck Dhuarey with their hands. Pastor Kamlesh Nagpure told Compass that the mob was carrying a gas container with them, intending to burn Pastor Chowkse alive, and he said Pastor Chowkse was traumatized for days afterward. The extremists were members of the Bajrang Dal, the right-wing youth wing of the Hindu extremist Vishwa Hindu Parishad (World Hindu Council). Dhuarey was also attacked and beaten four months ago for recently converting to Christianity. She and Pastor Chowkse have filed two separate First Information Reports at the local police station. Dhuarey named the extremists in her FIR as she was able to recognize them, but Pastor Chowkse reported only unidentified men. “No major proceedings have yet taken place in both the cases,” Pastor Nagpure told Compass.

Karnataka – Hindu extremists from the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (World Hindu Council) falsely accused Pastor K. Manjunath of forceful conversion, verbally abused him and stopped construction of his church on Nov. 12 in Shimoga. Pastor Manjunath had received approval from the government to construct the church building, which is registered under the Bhadravati Municipality. The Global Council of Indian Christians reported that the extremists filed a complaint against the pastor with the Shimoga Development Authority, which issued a show-cause notice asking him to answer the complaint. After investigating, police allowed construction of the church building to continue.

Karnataka – About 20 Hindu extremists beat two Christians on Nov. 10 in Attibele, Karnataka. The Global Council of Indian Christians reported that Chandrachari Gangadhari and Chandra Gowda were visiting Christian homes when the intolerant Hindus verbally abused, beat them and burned Bibles and gospel tracts. Gowda sustained internal injuries. As is customary in India, police detained the victims rather than the aggressors, holding the Christians at the police station until 11 p.m. and joining the extremists in warning them not to return to the village.

Chhattisgarh – About 50 Hindu extremists stormed a prayer meeting and beat Christians until one fell unconscious on Nov. 8 in Bliaspur. A Christian identified only as Tekchand invited a couple, Keshup and Sangeeta Baghel, to their house to pray for their sick child when the extremists broke in and beat the Christians. Tekchand fell unconscious. The extremists dragged the couple to the police station, and along with about 100 other Hindu hardliners tried to pressure the police into filing baseless charges of forceful conversion. On hearing of the incident, four Christians went to the police station, where the extremists beat them on their arrival. Tekchand filed a police complaint against the intolerant Hindus, and the Christians were taken to the police station for medical checkup. The Christians were released at about 3 a.m. that night.

Karnataka – Police on Nov. 1 entered a children’s hostel run by Christian Outreach Ministries (COM) in Udupi and arrested the manager on baseless charges of forceful conversion. Saroja Margaret was sent to Mangalore District Prison after a magistrate ruled against judicial custody and was released on bail on Nov. 3. The Evangelical Fellowship of India (EFI) reported that Margaret and her husband, the Rev. Joseph Jamkandi, were shocked to learn that two girls who had sought shelter for four months beginning in June had supposedly accused them of forceful conversion and of criticizing Hinduism. After the girls, identified only as Megha and Shilpika, had visited their parents in Madikere, their parents and Hindu extremists filed a complaint at Kapu police station charging that Margaret had forced the children to read the Bible and had criticized Hinduism. Police questioning the remaining 63 girls and others at the hostel, as well as neighbors, did not find anyone offering any statements to support the accusations, according to EFI. The hostel provides shelter, food and clothing to 65 girls from various castes and religious backgrounds. EFI reported that the remaining 63 girls told police there was never an instance when they were forced to read the Bible or participate in Christian devotion, and they said criticism of any religion was never uttered in the hostel. Nevertheless, the Deputy Superintendent of Police on Nov. 1 told Kapu police to present Margaret before a magistrate, as the Hindu hardliners had filed a First Information Report. Margaret was arrested for “uttering words with intent to hurt religious feelings of others” (Section 298 of the Indian Penal Code) and for “creating problems in the community” (Section 153 Part 1-b).

Maharashtra – In Pune, a Christian identified only as Sanjeev was beaten by about 60 students at Ferguson College on Oct. 27 for leading a Bible study. A source reported that Sanjeev was proclaiming Christ to two students at their request when the attacking students came from different directions and began beating him; they berated him for preaching and informed the college principal of his activities. The principal filed a complaint against Sanjeev for trespassing and “hurting the religious sentiments” of the students. Police took the Christian into custody, seizing Bibles and Christian literature from him. With local Christian leaders’ intervention, he was released without charge.

Andhra Pradesh – Hindu extremists pressured Christians to recant their faith and convert back to Hinduism on Oct. 27 in West Singhbhum, Jharkhand. The All India Christian Council reported that representatives of the Hindu extremist Adivasi Maha Sabha, along with village leaders, disrupted a prayer meeting and threatened to cut all economic and community ties from the Christians if they did not obey their demand to return to Hinduism. The extremists took away the handle of a water pump that served as the only source of water for the Christians. Police refused to register a First Information Report on the incident but assured the Christians that they would investigate. The village water pump has been repaired.

Karnataka – Hindu extremists on Oct. 23 claimed that a church building in Ankola, Karwar district was used as a center for forceful conversion. The Global Council of Indian Christians reported that the extremists also accused Christians there of cheating poor people and disturbing the neighborhood with their prayers. The extremist leaders went to the home of the owner of the land on which the church building is built, Shankar Naik, and reprimanded him for allowing it to remain open. The extremists filed a baseless complaint of forceful conversion with the local administrator, who in turn filed a police complaint against Naik. Due to extremist pressure, police forced Naik to shut down the building, threatening to arrest him if he opened it again. The Christians there now worship in the house of area pastor.

Report from Compass Direct News 

ISRAEL: NON-ARAB CHRISTIANS SEEK IN VAIN FOR BURIAL SITES


Orthodox denominations face discrimination from authorities, nominally Christian gatekeepers.

HAIFA, Israel, July 8 (Compass Direct News) – Here in Israel’s third-largest city, it was not possible for the Russian Orthodox relatives of a 65-year-old woman who died on June 27 to find a Christian cemetery for her.

Their plight – for five days the body of Nadejda Edelman was stored at a hospital morgue – is common to Christians of foreign ancestry throughout the country. When Edelman passed away in Rambam Medical Center in this northern Israeli city, it took almost a week to find a grave for her and arrange for a funeral. Haifa, with 265,000 people, is 90 kilometers (56 miles) north of Tel Aviv.

On July 1 Edelman, a devout Christian, was buried outside of Haifa in Emeq Hefer Local Council Cemetery – a “secular” site for persons of no faith tradition. Had there been a Christian cemetery available, Edelman’s family might still have had problems obtaining a plot; the immigrant had not been able to have her ID registered as “Christian,” only as “Russian.”

“A cross on her neck and a testimony on her behalf by her close friend, as Edelman was childless, didn’t convince the authorities, and even if it would have, there are just no existing solutions for the deceased Russian Orthodox Christians of Russian origin in Israel,” said one of the founders of Sophia, an association of Russian Orthodox Christians in northern Israel. He requested anonymity.

Throughout Israel it’s not unusual for delays of days or weeks for burial of the Christian deceased of foreign ancestry. One Christian, Sergei Loper, was not buried until 20 days after his death; for another, Yuri Neverdasov, an available grave was not found for five days.

Christians make up 2.1 percent of Israel’s population, and the Orthodox denominations are a fraction of that. The issue of funeral rites and burials in Israel is especially difficult for these minorities, given the country’s complicated ethnic and religious makeup and laws that give religious institutions control over personal matters such as weddings, births and deaths.

The faith communities of Jews and Arabs in Israel each have their own designated burial societies that are responsible for arranging burials as well as religious rituals. Jewish burial societies called Hevra Kadisha are responsible for the Jewish deceased, while Arab burial societies provide services for Arab Muslims and Christians.

Such societies must obtain a special permit from the Ministry of Religious Affairs and sign a contract with the Social Security Service; this latter agency then covers the cost of burial fees in accordance with Israeli law. In theory every family in Israel is entitled to this reimbursement, but Russian Orthodox and Greek Orthodox families miss out because the funds go to the Arab burial societies rather than directly to the survivors.

Problems in addressing foreigners’ needs began in the early 1990s with a massive wave of immigration from the Former Soviet Union. Along with Jewish relatives, many Christians, Muslims and non-religious emigrants from Russia settled in Israel. Soon authorities were hard-pressed to address the needs of children of mixed marriages and of non-Jewish spouses and relatives – some with religious backgrounds other than Judaism, some holding no defined religious views and some who were atheists.

The question of foreign (especially Russian) Christians, as well as that of Jews who openly declared their conversion to Christianity, was especially disturbing, and Israel initially dealt with it by registering many people only as “Russians” without any reference to their religious belief. Later the religious designation for all people was eliminated from Israeli identification cards.

With legislation that was passed in 1992 but took more than a decade to implement, eventually authorities worked out a partial solution – establishing a few secular cemeteries and creating sections within Jewish cemeteries for “non-religious persons.” These measures did not meet the needs of people who wished to be buried in accordance with their religious beliefs, especially the Russian Orthodox and Greek Orthodox Christians.

Discrimination against Non-Arabs

The Sophia association has tried to address this complicated issue and assist members of the Russian Orthodox community and their families. Thus far authorities have little heeded their plea.

“It would be only natural if Christians would be buried in Christian cemeteries, yet the Arab local councils usually decline our requests,” said Dr. Ilya Litvin of Haifa, a member of Sophia.

In Israel’s Arab Christian cemeteries, the heads of local councils are the only ones entitled to make the decisions, but many of them are Christians by birth only; they belong to Communist parties and in reality have little sympathy for religious sentiment, advocates said.

“They claim that there is a severe shortage of graves there and little possibility for expansion, yet I believe that it’s just politics,” Litvin said. “They don’t really care about us – we are not Arabs.”

Oleg Usenkov, press-secretary of St. Nicolay’s church at Migdal ha-Emeq, added that a Christian burial may sometimes come only as a negotiated favor.

“Sometimes our priest, Father Roman Radwan, pulls personal connections and after some negotiations they allocate a grave for the deceased members of our community, but usually we hear a ‘No,’” he said.

Other options for the church are the non-Jewish section at the Jewish cemetery or the secular cemetery. It is usually not possible, however, to conduct Christian ceremonies at these sites.

Usenkov of St. Nicolay’s church said he vividly recalls a recent funeral of his friend Andrey Shelkov.

“The funeral was organized by the Jerusalemite Hevra Kadisha [Jewish burial society], and we were not even allowed to put a cross inside the coffin,” Usenkov said. “One of the Hevra Kadisha workers felt sorry for us and told me, ‘You can draw a Pisces [fish symbol] on his arm and put it inside the coffin, isn’t that a Christian symbol as well?’ Imagine that: having to draw a Pisces, just like the early Christians who had to hide their faith!”

Burials can be costly, and the Israeli Social Security Service covers burial fees only by transferring the compensation to the burial societies, not to the families of the deceased. Since there is no such burial society for Russian Orthodox Christians, state funds to cover the high costs go to local councils’ treasuries rather than to the families.

The leaders of Sophia have requested the office of Israel’s prime minister to give their association status similar to that of a Hevra Kadisha, which would allow Sophia to meet the burial needs of Russian Orthodox and Greek Orthodox Christians, but to no avail.

“In reply we received a formal letter which offers no solution,” said Litvin. “The letter suggested that we should somehow obtain a cemetery, and that then we were to apply to the Ministry of Religious Affairs for the license – which is practically impossible, and everyone knows it.”

A written inquiry by Compass to the social security office elicited the same response.

“We feel helpless and frustrated: the heads of Greek Orthodox Church choose not to interfere, or maybe they can’t, while the Israeli authorities are brushing us off,” Litvin said. “As a result, innocent people are denied of their basic right – to be buried according to their religious beliefs. Some of them are childless and poor, and there is no one to stand up for their rights. We hope that someone will take responsibility for this issue.”

Report from Compass Direct News