Pakistani Mother Condemned for ‘Blasphemy’ Stunned, Shattered


First woman sentenced to die for speaking ill of Muhammad says she never got to defend herself.

SHEIKHUPURA, Pakistan, November 17 (CDN) — Ashiq Masih, with his stooped posture, frail body and dull yellow eyes, stands in a small compartment in the Sheikhupura District Jail with his three daughters – Sidra, Eesha and Eeshum. The girls are weeping silently.

On the other side of a metal grille is Asia Noreen, the birth mother of two of the girls and the first woman in Pakistan to receive the death sentence on charges of blaspheming Islam’s prophet. Eeshum, 12-years-old and mentally disabled, whines like a baby for her mother, asking her when she will be back.

“I will be back,” she says to her daughters, as they feel their mother’s fingers through the gaps in the grille. “Don’t you worry, now.” But tears run down her face, too.

Arrested on June 19, 2009, Asia (alternatively spelled Aaysa) Noreen was accused of blaspheming Muhammad and defaming Islam. A judge under pressure from area Islamists convicted her under Pakistan’s widely condemned blasphemy statutes on Nov. 8.

“I don’t know why – when I walked into court that day, I just knew,” she said, tears returning to her eyes and her voice shaking. “And when the judge announced my death sentence, I broke down crying and screaming. In the entire year that I have spent in this jail, I have not been asked even once for my statement in court. Not by the lawyers and not by the judge. After this, I have lost hope in any kind of justice being given to me.”

In an interview with Compass at the jail northwest of Lahore, Punjab Province, Noreen said the triggering incident resulted from a “planned conspiracy” to “teach her a lesson,” as villagers in Ittanwali, near Nankana Sahib about 75 kilometers (47 miles) from Lahore, resented her and her family because of a few mishaps.

“What my village people have accused me of is a complete lie,” she said. “I had previously had a row over a trivial issue of water running out of my house onto the street, and a man called Tufail verbally abused me. On June 14, when I was out picking falsas [a type of berry] with about 30 women, they again asked me to convert to Islam.”

Noreen said the women of the village frequently asked her to renounce Christianity while they worked in the fields, and that she refused each time.

“This time, too, I said that I saw no reason why I should leave my own religion,” she said. “They then asked me about Jesus Christ, and I told them to go and ask the local mullah and not to bother me with those questions.”

Meantime, one of the women asked her for water, she said. After she had fetched it, the others told the woman not to drink water brought by an “untouchable” and “dirty woman,” Noreen said.

“I asked them if Christians were not human …why the discrimination?” she said. “This annoyed them, and they started verbally abusing me. We were soon engaged in a heated argument.”

She said that five days later, a mob led by Qari (one who has memorized the Quran) Muhammad Saalim burst upon her after some of the women told him about the incident in the fields. The mob pressured her to admit that she had blasphemed.

“They have been saying that I confessed to my crime, but the fact is that I said I was sorry for any word that I may have said during the argument that may have hurt their feelings,” she said.

Police arrived as they were beating her and took Noreen into custody, where they registered a case under Section 295-C of the blasphemy laws against her based on the complaint of the imam.

“They [police] registered a false complaint, because the complainant [Saalim] was never present at the scene,” she said.

Noreen said she has been heart-broken and shattered since the conviction. Her husband immediately tried to console her.

“Everything will be just fine, you just have to stay steadfast in your faith,” Masih told her. “All of us are here beside you. Everyone is praying for you.”

His words seemed to give her some hope, but she turned and asked Compass a question that no one has been able to answer for her.

“How can an innocent person be accused, have a case in court after a false FIR [First Information Report], and then be given the death sentence, without even once taking into consideration what he or she has to say?”

A pastor from Sharing Life Ministry who has been ministering to Noreen during her confinement and was present at all hearings told Compass that the judge had retired to his chambers three times before announcing the verdict.

“He was visibly tense,” the pastor said. “The presence of a mob outside the courtroom was instrumental in the delivery of this harsh verdict.”

Sidra, about 15 years old and one of three children born to Masih from a previous marriage, indicated she was traumatized by the attack on her step-mother.

“I saw that mob burst upon my mother, slap her and beat her up,” she said, her eyes both sad and fearful. “I saw them push her hard against a wall and tear her clothes. They were abusing her. I went to free her from their grip, and I heard them say to my mother, ‘Admit that you said derogatory things about prophet Muhammad, and we will leave you alone.’ Why would my mother ever do anything like that?”

Noreen broke in, “Why was an FIR filed against me by Qari Saalim? Who is he? He doesn’t even know what I said or did.”

Noreen’s lawyers filed an appeal against the Nankana sessions court’s verdict in the Lahore High Court on Friday (Nov. 12), and the court is likely to take up the case soon.

Sidra said Muslim villagers have bullied her and others in the family. She said a man who has two children of his own beat Eesha.

Noreen said police have not harmed her, unusual for Pakistani suspects in blasphemy cases.

“I was never even mentally harassed by the police,” she said, adding that fellow inmates were also treating her well.

Sohail Johnson of the Sharing Life Ministry, which has been following the case from the onset, said authorities may have been aware that the sensitive nature of the case would instantly bring it into public light.

Noreen said she has not lost faith in Jesus.

“He will rescue me from this fake case and I will return home – please ask everyone to pray for me,” she said as two prison guards arrived in the barrack to escort her back to her cell.

In spite of international attention, there has been little response from the government of Pakistan or civil society. No local organization has planned demonstrations to protest the verdict, which could set a dangerous precedent.

Shahbaz Bhatti, federal minister for minorities and a Christian, has written to the Punjab Province government requesting protection for Noreen and her family, both inside and outside jail. During the visit to Sheikhupura, however, Compass observed no special security measures for her family.

Report from Compass Direct News

Christian Family in Bangladesh Attacked, Charged with Crime


Muslim neighbors fabricate attempted murder charge after beating them for their faith.

LOS ANGELES, October 27 (CDN) — Muslim neighbors of a Christian family in Bangladesh scheduled to be baptized last month beat them and filed a false charge of attempted murder against them and other Christians, the head of the family said.

Foyez Uddin, 62, told Compass that his neighbor Nazrul Islam and Islam’s relatives told him, his wife and his two adult children that as Christians they were “polluting” society and beat them on Sept. 17 in Joysen village in Rangpur district, some 300 kilometers (186 miles) north of Dhaka. Islam is a policeman.

Islam’s uncle, Abdul Mannan Miah, then filed false charges against Uddin, his family and three others, accusing them of trying to kill Miah’s niece, Uddin said by telephone after his release on bail on Oct. 8. The village is under Pirgacha police jurisdiction.

Uddin said his family was fishing at his pond on Sept. 17 when eight to 10 Muslim neighbors led by Islam appeared and began speaking abusively about their Christian faith.

“Nazrul told us, ‘You are polluting society by deviating from Islam. Come back to Islam, otherwise we will not allow any Christian to live here in this village,’” Uddin said.

He told them that his family would not return to Islam, Uddin said.

“I replied, ‘Invite Islamic scholars, and if they can satisfy us in light of the Quran, then we will go back to Islam. Otherwise nothing can affect our unshakeable faith in Christ,’” Uddin said. “They beat me, my wife and two sons for objecting to their proposal to come back to Islam.”

The angry neighbors then broke into his home and burned two Bibles, tore two others and ripped four hymnals, he said, and they also damaged some furniture and chairs. Their home serves as a worship venue, and Uddin said the villagers also hacked with a machete the sign board of their house church, Faith Bible Church of God.

The pastor of the church, Lavlu Sadik Lebio, told Compass that he went to a nearby police station to complain about the attack, but officers did not respond to him. He said he only went to inform police, not file a case, but even so officers were unresponsive.

“Intentionally burning Bibles was the most sacrilegious attack on our faith – how can a member of the police department do that?” Pastor Lebio said. “Those people should have kept in mind how an announcement of burning a copy of the Quran in the U.S. stirred up the anger, discontent and hatred of Muslims all over the world.”

Taken into police custody on Sept. 18, Uddin said he and his family were unable to be baptized as planned.

“We were planning to be baptized in the last week of September,” he said. “Somehow our neighbors came to know about the baptismal ceremony, and they became very rude to us. We have been living in faith in Christ, the mainspring of our life, but we were not baptized.”

 

Murder Charge

As part of the attack on Sept. 17, Miah, the uncle of police officer Islam, filed the charge of attempted murder against Uddin, his family and three others that day, the Christian said.

When handing Uddin over to court, police filed a report stating that he had collaborated with people within the Christian community and that he had made defamatory remarks about Islam, Uddin said.

“In the police report while handing me over to court, I was mentioned as a troublesome Christian, but in the case copy filed by my neighbor, nothing was mentioned about me as a Christian,” Uddin said. “I was hurt by the police role.”

The police report to the court said that area residents did not approve of his Christian activities, and that there was the possibility of a communal clash. On this basis police requested he remain in custody while the investigation was underway.

According to the case file obtained by Compass, Uddin and his companions allegedly attempted to kill Islam’s sister (Miah’s niece), Jahanara Begum, sexually harassed her, severely beat her and stole her gold jewelry worth 41,000 taka (US$570).

Uddin said that Begum – sister of police officer Islam and niece of Miah – had a boil on her head that her father lanced the day of the attack. When blood continued rushing out from the procedure, her father, Azizul Muhury, took her to a nearby clinic called Pirgacha Medical and admitted her there. Later her brother Islam filed the false case, saying one of the eight accused had hit her on the head in an attempt to kill her, Uddin said.

According to the case file, Uddin was fishing on Begum’s inundated land, though he says he was at his own pond. Furthermore, the case file states Uddin was on Begum’s land at 9:30 a.m. on Sept. 17, when according to Uddin he was worshipping at his house church. The service did not end until 10 a.m.

According to the police file, Begum objected to him catching fish on her flooded land, and after paying no attention to her he eventually became furious and allegedly beat her “in a pre-planned manner.”

Uddin’s companions were said to be hiding nearby with bamboo, knives and machetes to attack her, and at some point in a quarrel, they supposedly emerged and surrounded Begum. Nural Islam, 52 – known in the area as a recent convert to Christianity – allegedly struck her in the head with a machete on Foyez’s order, according to the case file. Uddin said Islam is a rickshaw driver who was working all day and was not present.

Uddin was then alleged to have hit her on the hand with bamboo, and when she supposedly fell down, according to the case file, his brother Iman Ali, 45, hit her with an iron rod on her back. Uddin said Ali could not have been present either, as he was suffering from tuberculosis and could not walk properly due to the debilitating illness.

Uddin’s son, Shahjahan Miah, 25, then allegedly snatched the 27,000-taka (US$375) gold chain from her neck, according to the case file, and 25-year-old Mohammad Sirajul Islam took her 14,000-taka (US$195) gold earring. Uddin said Mohammad Sirajul Islam – also known in the area as a recent convert to Christianity – had lost work due to his new faith and had been forced to relocate to Chittagong district, some 500 kilometers (310 miles) away from Rangpur district, and he was in Chittagong on that day.

His father, Mohammad Farid, 42, had also converted to Christianity, and the case file accuses him of trying to strangle Begum. Uddin said Farid also lives in Chittagong district and was there at the time. In the case file, Uddin’s wife, 47-year-old Mosammat Shahar Banu, is then accused of removing Begum’s clothes. Uddin’s other son, 28-year-old Shahdul Islam, then allegedly seriously wounded her by striking her with bamboo, according to the case file.

Thus the case file charges all members of Uddin’s family, as well as three people who were not present – two other recent converts to Christianity and Uddin’s brother, he said. Uddin said he has sent letters stating the falseness of the charges to the Rangpur district administrative chief, district police chief, sub-district administrative chief, home minister of Bangladesh, home secretary of Bangladesh, inspector general of police (Bangladesh police chief), president of the Rangpur district press club, member of parliament of that area, Rangpur divisional commissioner and commander of Bangladesh’s elite force (RAB-5), as well as to the Faith Bible Church of God chairman.

The case file mistakenly identifies Uddin as Foyez Ali, and also errs in listing his age as 50 rather than 62.

Since Uddin became a Christian in 2007, some of his neighbors have threatened to kill him or expel him from the village, he said.

“In threatening us, they have also said that the government will reward them if we Christians are beaten,” Uddin said.

The main weapon of Muslim villagers opposed to Christians is to withhold work from them, he said.

“Once I used to cultivate other people’s land for my livelihood,” he said. “When the local people came to know that we lead our life in Christ, then they stopped giving us their land for cultivation. Nobody talks with us, and we are outcasts here.”

Last Christmas, around 100 to 150 people went to Uddin’s house to protest their celebration of the birth of Christ.

“Police are deployed in all churches at Christmas,” he said. “Two police were deployed at our house to avoid any kind of unwanted situation. Those two police stopped the angry villagers.”

Report from Compass Direct News

Christian in India Suffers Miscarriage in Hindu Extremist Attack


Four pastors also injured in Karnataka, hub of anti-Christian persecution.

NEW DELHI, October 13 (CDN) — Police in a south Indian state known for turning hostile to minority Christians in recent years have arrested two suspected Hindu nationalists for beating four pastors and striking the wife of one of them in the stomach, killing her unborn child.

The attack took place at a Christian gathering in a private Christian school to celebrate the birth of Mahatma Gandhi on Oct. 2 in Chintamani, in Karnataka state’s Kolar district, reported the Global Council of Indian Christians (GCIC).

About 40 people barged into New Public School during the concluding prayer that morning and began selectively beating the pastors and Kejiya Fernandes, wife of one identified only as Pastor Fernandes. Chintamani police arrived but the attack went on, and when it ended at noon officers took the Christians to the station instead of arresting the attackers.

Denied medical attention, the injured Christians were released at 7:30 p.m. only after Kejiya Fernandes began to bleed profusely, GCIC reported. She and her husband later received hospital treatment, where she lost the baby she had been carrying for four months, according to GCIC.

Pastor Fernandes received an injury to his ear. The three other victims, identified only as pastors Robert, Muthu and Kenny, all ministered in a local independent church.

Of the 12 suspects named in the police complaint, two were arrested the same day, and the rest are absconding, said attorney Jeeva Prakash, who is associated with the Evangelical Fellowship of India’s (EFI) advocacy department.

The police complaint against the 12 includes “causing death of quick unborn child by act amounting to culpable homicide” (Section 316 of the Indian Penal Code), and “intentional insult with intent to provoke breach of the peace” (Section 504). No charges related to defiling a religious place or gathering or creating communal conflict were included.

All the accused are residents of Chintamani city and suspected to be associated with Hindu nationalist groups.

The attack was reportedly carried out to avenge an alleged insult to Hindu gods during the Christian gathering, with the accused also having filed a police complaint, added Prakash, who visited the area and the Christian victims this week.

The complaint against the Christians was for “deliberate and malicious acts intended to outrage religious feelings or any class by insulting its religion or religious beliefs” (Section 295-a), and, strangely, Section 324 for “voluntarily causing hurt by dangerous weapons or means,” among other charges.

The Christians were not arrested, as a court granted them anticipatory bail.

Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, whose birthday the Christians were celebrating, was friends with Christian missionaries during British rule and taught religious tolerance. The acclaimed Hindu, India’s greatest political and spiritual leader, was killed in 1948 by Nathuram Godse, who was allegedly influenced by the ideology of the Hindu extremist conglomerate Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh.

For the last three years, Karnataka has been seen as the hub of Christian persecution in India. Of the more than 152 attacks on Christians in 2009, 86 were reported in Karnataka, according to the EFI.

This year, too, Karnataka is likely to top anti-Christian attacks. According to the GCIC, at least 47 attacks on Christians in the state had been reported as of Sept. 26. Persecution of Christians in Karnataka increased particularly after the August 2008 anti-Christian mayhem in eastern Orissa state, where Maoists killed a Vishwa Hindu Parishad leader but Hindu extremists wrongly blamed it on local Christians.

The attacks in Orissa’s Kandhamal district killed more than 100 people and burned 4,640 houses, 252 churches and 13 educational institutions.

While Hindu nationalists had targeted and were working in Karnataka for close to two decades, the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) came to sole power in the state for the first time in the history of independent India in May 2008. Prior to that, the BJP ruled in coalition with a local party, the Janata Dal-Secular, for 20 months.

It is believed that the victory of the BJP – and later the violence in Orissa, which was also ruled by a coalition that included the BJP – emboldened Hindu extremists, who now enjoy greater impunity due to the party’s incumbency.

Despite the high incidence of persecution of minorities in Karnataka, BJP leaders deny it, alleging complaint are the result of a political conspiracy of opposition parties.

There are a little more than 1 million Christians in Karnataka, where the total population is more than 52 million, mostly Hindus.

 

SIDEBAR

India Briefs: Recent Incidents of Persecution

Karnataka, India, October 13 (Compass Direct News) – Hindu extremists belonging to the Bajrang Dal on Oct. 3 stormed into a Christian worship service, beat those attending and confiscated Bibles in Emarakuntte village, Kolar district. The Global Council of Indian Christians (GCIC) reported that nearly 25 extremists barged into the house of a Christian identified only as Manjunath, where Pastor Daniel Shankar was leading Sunday worship. Verbally abusing those present and falsely accusing them of forcible conversion, the extremists dragged them out and photographed them. Pastor Shankar managed to escape. Police arrived – after the extremists called them – and confiscated the Bibles and a vehicle belonging to the pastor. A GCIC coordinator told Compass that Shankar, accompanied by area pastors, went to the police station the next day, and officers made him give a written statement that he would stop Christian activities in the village. Only then were the Bibles and vehicle returned. No worship was held on Sunday (Oct. 10).

Karnataka – Police on Sept. 5 detained a pastor after Hindu nationalist extremists registered a false complaint of forcible conversion in Doni village, Gadag district. The Global Council of Indian Christians (GCIC) reported that at 8:30 p.m. nearly 100 extremists belonging to the Hindu extremist Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh stormed the worship of an Indian Pentecostal Church at the home of a Christian identified only as Nagaraj. A GCIC coordinator told Compass that the extremists repeatedly slapped Pastor Mallikarjuna Sangalad, dragged him outside and tore his shirt. They also tore up a few Bibles of those in the congregation. The extremists called Mundargi police, who arrived at the spot and took Pastor Sangalad to the police station as the slogan-shouting extremists followed. Police questioned the pastor for over two hours and warned him against leading services. With GCIC intervention Sangalad was released at around 11 p.m. without being charged, but he was forced to sign a statement that he would not conduct services at Nagaraj’s home.

Karnataka – Police on Sept. 3 stopped worship and falsely accused a pastor of forcible conversion, threatening to jail Christians if they continued religious activities in Ganeshgudi village. A Global Council of Indian Christians coordinator told Compass that Ramnagar police Sub-Inspector Babu Madhar, acting on an anonymous accusation of forcible conversion, disrupted worship and threatened Calvary Fellowship Prayer Centre Pastor P.R. Jose as nearly 40 congregants of the house church looked on. The sub-inspector warned the Christians against worshipping there and told Pastor Jose to shut down the church or be arrested. On Sept. 4, however, Madhar returned to the house and informed Pastor Jose that they could continue worship services.

Report from Compass Direct News

‘Pinpricks’ of Truth Making Way into North Korea


Citizens increasingly enlightened about world’s worst violator of religious freedom.

DUBLIN, April 26 (CDN) — As refugees from North Korea and activists from Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) gather in Seoul, South Korea this week to highlight human rights violations in the hermit kingdom, there are signs that North Korean citizens are accessing more truth than was previously thought.

A recent survey by the Peterson Institute found that a startling 60 percent of North Koreans now have access to information outside of government propaganda.

“North Koreans are increasingly finding out that their misery is a direct result of the Kim Jong-Il regime, not South Korea and America as we were brainwashed from birth to believe,” Kim Seung Min of Free North Korea Radio said in a press statement. The radio station is a partner in the North Korea Freedom Coalition (NKFC), which is holding its annual North Korea Freedom Week (NKFW) in Seoul rather than Washington, D.C. for the first time in the seven-year history of the event.

“We set out to double the radio listenership of 8 or 9 percent, and we’ve seen a dramatic increase in the number of people who have access to information,” said NKFC Co-Chair Suzanne Scholte. She described the flow of information as “pinpricks in a dark veil over North Korea. Now those pinpricks are becoming huge holes.”

The radio station now air-drops radios into North Korea and broadcasts into the country for five hours a day, adding to information gleaned by refugees and merchants who cross the border regularly to buy Chinese goods.

In recent years the government has been forced to allow a limited market economy, but trade has brought with it illegal technology such as VCR machines, televisions, radios and cell phones that can detect signals from across the border. Previously all televisions and radios available in North Korea could only receive official frequencies. 

“The government hasn’t been able to stamp out the markets, so they begrudgingly allow them to continue,” Scholte confirmed. “This means North Koreans aren’t relying solely on the regime anymore.”

Holding the annual event in Seoul this year sends a significant message, Scholte told Compass.

“This is a spiritual conflict as well as a physical one – some people didn’t want us to call it freedom week,” she said. “But we’re making a statement … God gives us freedom by the very nature of being human and North Koreans are entitled to that too.”

All people say they would never allow the World War II holocaust to be repeated, Scholte said, “but this is a holocaust, a genocide. I firmly believe we will be judged if we fail to intervene.”

The coalition hopes this week’s event will empower the 17,000 strong North Korean defectors in South Korea, awaken the consciousness of the world about human rights conditions in North Korea, and inform all who are suffering in North Korea that others will “work together until the day their freedom, human rights and dignity are realized,” Scholte said in the press statement.

As part of the week’s activities, the coalition will send leaflets into North Korea via balloon stating in part, “In the same year the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was passed, Kim Il-Sung was ensuring that you wouldn’t have any of those rights.”

Religious freedom in particular is almost non-existent. The only accepted belief is Juche – an ideology that strictly enforces worship of the country’s leaders.

“The regime is a perversion of Christianity,” Scholte told Compass. Juche has a holy trinity just as Christianity does, with Father Kim Il-Sung, son Kim Jong-Il, and the spirit of Juche said to give strength to the people.

“Kim Il-Sung is God; a real God can’t replace him,” a former North Korean security agent confirmed in David Hawke’s 2005 report, “A Prison Without Bars.”

While four churches exist in the capital, Pyongyang, experts believe these are largely showpieces for foreign visitors.

The government has allowed token visits from high-profile foreign Christians such as Franklin Graham, president of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, who preached at Bongsu Protestant church in Pyongyang in August 2008; and two U.S. Christian bands, Casting Crowns and Annie Moses, attended and won awards at the Spring Friendship Arts Festival in April 2009.

Worship outside limited official venues is simply not tolerated, giving North Korea first place on Christian support organization Open Doors’ 2010 World Watch List for persecution of Christians.

Ordinary citizens caught with a Bible or in a clandestine prayer meeting are immediately labeled members of the hostile class and either executed or placed in prison labor camps, along with three generations of their immediate family. Every North Korean belongs to either the “hostile,” “wavering” or “core” class, affecting privileges from food and housing to education and physical freedom, according to Hawke’s report.

There are no churches outside the capital, but the regime in 2001 estimated there were 12,000 Protestants and 800 Catholics in North Korea. In July 2002 the government also reported the existence of 500 vaguely-defined “family worship centers” catering to a population of approximately 22.7 million, according to a September 2009 International Religious Freedom report issued by the U.S. State Department.

By contrast, South Korea’s Dong-A Ilbo newspaper in July 2009 put the estimate at 30,000 Christians, some NGOs and academics estimate there may be up to several hundred thousand underground Christians.

Uncertain Future

As North Korea celebrated the birthday of Kim Jong-Il on Feb. 16, rumors spread that the elderly leader, currently battling heart problems, had chosen third son Kim Jong-Eun as his successor.

Documents extolling the virtues of Kim Jong-Eun began circulating as early as November, according to the Daily NK online news agency. An official “education” campaign for elite officials began in January and was extended to lesser officials in March. One document obtained by the agency described the “Youth Captain” as being “the embodiment of Kim Il-Sung’s appearance and ideology.”

“Kim picked this son because he’s ruthless and evil,” Scholte said, “but I don’t think they’re quite ready to hand over to him yet. There is an uncertainty, a vulnerability.”

Scholte believes this is the ideal time to “reach out, get information in there and push every possible way.”

“There are many double-thinkers among the elite,” she explained. “They know the regime is wrong, but they have the Mercedes, the education for their kids and so on, so they have no incentive to leave.”

The coalition is trying to persuade South Korea to establish a criminal tribunal, she said.

“North Koreans are actually citizens of South Korea by law,” she said. “We have to let these guys know there’s going to be a reckoning, to create a good reason for them not to cooperate [with authorities].”

Those in other countries have an obligation too, Scholte concluded. “When people walk out of the camps, it will haunt us. They’ll want to know, ‘What were you doing?’ We will be held accountable.”

Article 26 of North Korea’s constitution declares that the people have freedom of religion. The organizers of this year’s freedom week fervently hope that this declaration will soon become a reality.

SIDEBAR

The Cross at the Border: China’s Complicity in Refugees’ Suffering

Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) estimate anywhere from 30,000 to 250,000 refugees from North Korea are living in China, either in border areas or deeper inland. Few are Christians when they emerge from North Korea, but the whispered advice among refugees is to “head for a cross,” signaling a Chinese church that may assist them, according to a February 2009 National Geographic report.

Since China will not allow the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees access to border areas, Chinese Christians work with Christian NGOs to provide an “underground railroad” moving refugees via several routes to safety, most often in South Korea.

Chun Ki-Won, director of Christian NGO Durihana, admits that some of the refugees adopt Christianity to win favor with their rescuers, but others retain and strengthen their faith on arrival in South Korea.

China insists that the refugees are economic migrants and pays police a bounty to arrest and return them to North Korea. On arrival, North Korean officials pointedly question the refugees about contact with Chinese Christians or Christian NGOs. If any contact is admitted, execution or imprisonment is likely, according to David Hawke’s 2005 report, “A Prison Without Bars.”

As one refugee told Hawke, “Having faith in God is an act of espionage.”

Still others choose to return to North Korea with Bibles and other Christian resources at great risk to themselves. For example, officials in June 2009 publicly executed Ri Hyon-Ok, caught distributing Bibles in Ryongchon, a city near the Chinese border, South Korean activists reported.

China remains impervious to the refugees’ plight.

“China fears being flooded by refugees if they show compassion,” said Suzanne Scholte, co-chair of the North Korea Freedom Coalition. “But refugee flows aren’t going to collapse the [North Korean] regime. If that was going to happen, it would have happened already during the famine, so their argument doesn’t hold water.”

She added that North Koreans don’t want to leave. “They leave because of Kim Jong-Il,” she said. “Those [North Korean refugees] in South Korea want to go back and take freedom with them.”

Two U.S. Christians entered North Korea in recent months with the same goal in mind. Robert Park, an evangelical Christian missionary, crossed the border on Dec. 25 with a letter calling for Kim Jong-Il to resign.

Officials immediately arrested Park, according to the regime’s Korean Central News Agency. He was later sentenced to eight years of hard labor but released in late February after making what many experts believe was a forced confession.

Fellow activist Aijalon Mahli Gomes entered North Korea on Jan. 25, the same news agency reported. Officials sentenced Gomes to nine years of hard labor and fined him 70 million new Won (US$518,520). At press time Gomes remained in detention.

Report from Compass Direct News 

Christmas commercialism combated by "Advent Conspiracy"


A growing number of Christian churches are joining forces with a grass-roots movement known as the Advent Conspiracy, which is seeking to "do away with the frenzied activity and extravagant gift-giving of a commercial Christmas," reports Thaddeus M. Baklinski, LifeSiteNews.com.

The group was founded by Portland pastor Rick McKinley, who with a group of fellow pastors realized that their own, and their congregations’, focus during the time of Advent revolved more around secular consumerism than preparing to celebrate the birth of Christ.

"What was once a time to celebrate the birth of a savior has somehow turned into a season of stress, traffic jams, and shopping lists," McKinley observed.

"And when it’s all over, many of us are left with presents to return, looming debt that will take months to pay off, and this empty feeling of missed purpose. Is this what we really want out of Christmas?"

"None of us like Christmas," McKinley said in a Time.com report, adding, "That’s sort of bad if you’re a pastor. It’s the shopping, the going into debt, the worrying that if I don’t spend enough money, someone will think I don’t love them."

McKinley, whose church donates money to dig wells in developing countries through Living Water International and other organizations, saw that a fraction of the money Americans spend at retailers in the month of December could supply the entire world with clean water.

As a result he and his friends embarked on a plan to urge their congregations to spend less on presents for friends and family, and to consider donating the money they saved to support practical and tangible charitable works.

"If more Christians changed how they thought about giving at Christmas," he argued, "the holiday could be transformative in a religious and practical sense."

McKinley observed that at first church members were uncertain. "Some people were terrified," McKinley recalled. "They said, ‘My gosh, you’re ruining Christmas. What do we tell our kids?’"

Soon though, the idea caught on and McKinley found that not only were people "relieved to be given permission to slow down and buy less" but were "expressing their love through something more meaningful than a gift card. Once church members adjusted to this new conception of Christmas, they found that they loved it."

According to the Time.com report the Advent Conspiracy movement has exploded, counting hundreds of churches on four continents and in at least 17 countries as participants.

The Advent Conspiracy video has been viewed more than a million times on YouTube and the movement boasts nearly 45,000 fans on Facebook.

To find out more about the Advent Conspiracy, click here.

Report from the Christian Telegraph 

Christmas Season Attacks Worry Christians in India


Hindu extremists launch two assaults and claim hundreds of ‘reconversions.’

NEW DELHI, December 22 (CDN) — With at least two violent attacks and alleged “reconversion” of over 1,700 Christians in the week leading up to Christmas, a sense of fear is growing among India’s minority Christian community.

On Sunday (Dec. 20), Hindu extremists attacked a church during worship in western Maharashtra state’s Sindhudurg district and a Christmas exhibition in Gwalior city in central Madhya Pradesh state. The following day, extremists claimed having converted over 1,700 tribal (aboriginal) Christians “back” to Hinduism in western Gujarat state.

“Christmas is a favorite time for violence against Christians in India, as it intimidates the Christian community at large,” said Dr. John Dayal, member of the government’s National Integration Council, headed by Indian Prime Minister Dr. Manmohan Singh.

Dayal pointed out that the first mass attack on Christians in India took place in Gujarat’s Dangs district during Christmas in 1998, setting the stage for future attacks through the season.

“Then Indian Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee [of the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party or BJP] went to see the damage [in Dangs], but instead of commiserating with the victims, he called for a national debate on conversions,” Dayal said. “That political philosophy has been behind the festive season attacks on the Christian community.”

The Rev. Anand Muttungal of the Catholic Bishops Conference of Madhya Pradesh said the attacks around Christmas could be a reaction to increased and favorable coverage of Christians and churches in newspapers and television channels during the festival season.

“Rightwing extremists cannot tolerate this, and they cannot stop it either,” he said. “So, in frustration, they launch attacks.”

On Christmas Eve of 2007, eastern Orissa’s Kandhamal district witnessed a massive spate of anti-Christian attacks that killed at least four Christians and burned 730 houses and 95 churches.

Arson in Madhya Pradesh

The assailants in the Dec. 20 attack in Madhya Pradesh state have been identified as members of the extreme rightwing outfit Bajrang Dal. Muttungal said members of the Hindu extremist group shouted Hindu slogans and burned artwork depicting biblical scenes at an annual Christmas fair organized by the Catholic Church in Gwalior city.

The mayor of Gwalior had inaugurated the two-day fair on Saturday (Dec. 19), and it was organized with due permission from authorities, he said.

“The incident has spread panic among Christians in the state,” reported Indian Catholic, a news portal run by the Catholic Church in India.

The portal quoted Archbishop Leo Cornelio of Bhopal as saying that the attack “is a matter of serious concern for Christians, especially when we are preparing to celebrate Christmas.”

Three of the attackers were arrested, and two of them were sent to judicial custody by a local court.

Also on Sunday (Dec. 20), around 60 men barged into the New Life Fellowship (NLF) church in Kankauli area in Maharashtra’s Sindhudurg district and beat the pastor, his wife and a few other Christians, according to NLF Pastor Atul Bhore. The church meets at the privately owned Anant Hotel in Kankauli.

“The attackers, all men, accused us of converting Hindus,” the 37-year-old pastor told Compass. “Then they beat us, including my wife, with their hands and legs. My back is still in pain.”

The attackers were allegedly led by a local leader of the Hindu extremist Shiv Sena party, identified as Vaibhav Naik. Also taking a lead role in the attack was a local leader of the ruling Nationalist Congress Party (NCP), Rupesh Nagrekar.

The NCP is part of the ruling state coalition with the Congress Party. As policy, both parties renounce the Hindu nationalist ideology of the opposition Shiv Sena party and its ally the BJP. But involvement of local leaders of the two “secular” parties is not uncommon in Maharashtra.

An official from the Kankauli police station said police were on the lookout for the attackers, and that they would be arrested soon.

A Christian from the NLF church said police were initially reluctant to take action against the attackers.

“The police warned us against ‘conversions,’ as if the allegations made against us were true,” the Christian said. “Only after Dr. Abraham Mathai from the Maharashtra State Minorities Commission intervened did the police show interest in prosecuting the attackers.”

‘Reconversions’ in Gujarat

Following these two attacks, yesterday (Dec. 21) Hindu extremist group Shree Sampraday Seva Samiti (Service Committee of the Hindu sect Shree Sampraday) claimed to have “reconverted” 1,747 people to Hinduism in Gujarat state’s Surat city, reported The Times of India newspaper.

“The camp to reconvert tribals, who had embraced Christianity, was held in the city for the first time, and nearly 5,000 people from Maharashtra and Gujarat participated in the ceremony,” the newspaper reported.

About 10 Hindu priests chanted mantras at a fire ritual, around which sat those willing to “get back” to Hinduism, it stated, adding that participants were given a meditation word and sacred thread to mark their “reconversion.”

“We organized the event in Surat to promote Hinduism in urban areas,” one of the organizers, Yashwant More, told the newspaper. “We have a series of events planned in the near future to hold such reconversion camps in urban areas of Gujarat. In January, events are planned in Vadodara and Silvassa.”

Gujarat has an anti-conversion law, known as the Gujarat Freedom of Religion Act, which mandates all those seeking to convert, as well as clergy involved in any “conversion ceremony,” to seek prior permission from district authorities. No permission was sought for the event, noted the newspaper.

Christians complain that anti-conversion laws, in force in four other states including Madhya Pradesh, have been enacted only to harass Christians and are rarely used against Hindu nationalist groups.

Sociologists say that India’s tribal peoples, who have long practiced their own ethnic faiths, are not Hindus. Hindu nationalists are active mainly in tribal regions to “Hinduize” local villagers and repel conversions to other faiths.

Many reports of “reconversions,” however, have been found to be false. In 2007, Hindi-language daily Punjab Kesari reported that four Christian families in Nahan town, in the northern state of Himachal Pradesh, had “reconverted” to Hinduism. But a fact-finding team of the All India Christian Council revealed that none of the members of those families had ever converted to Christianity.

More than 80 percent of India’s 1.1 billion people are Hindus; Christians make up a meager 2.3 percent of the population.

Opposition and attacks will not dampen the spirit of Christmas, said Dayal.

“The birth of Christ is a harbinger of salvation, and this salvific promise goads us on to celebrate Christmas without fear,” he said. “We will not be cowed, or scared, or intimidated into retracting from our faith and from celebrating the birth of the Messiah.”

Report from Compass Direct News 

New Christmas tree design will remind of the real Christmas


Boss Creations, a new holiday décor company, has introduced the new "CHRIST-mas" Tree™, featuring the unique trait of a trunk in the shape of a wooden cross. Company owner Marsha Boggs says the tree was specifically designed to counter the "war on Christmas," reports Boss Creations in its press release.

"When I became a Christian a few years ago," says Boggs, "I was appalled by the secularization of the Christmas holiday. When retail stores started substituting ‘Happy Holidays’ for ‘Merry Christmas,’ and schools began calling their Christmas programs ‘Winter Plays,’ it all seemed ridiculous to me. That’s why we have created products that remind people what the Christmas season is really all about – the birth of Christ."

The "CHRIST-mas" Tree™ is size adjustable up to 7.5 foot tall to accommodate various ceiling sizes. Additionally, the company offers ornaments, wreaths and gift items all with Christian-based themes.

Legal fights over Christmas symbolism continue to create headlines such as a recent ban on religious songs in a New Jersey school district where the federal appeal judges noted "such songs were once common in public schools, but times have changed." Lawsuits regarding Christmas trees being taken down from public buildings have sparked anger across the country. Boggs says Boss Creations’ mission is to uphold the traditional meaning of the Christmas season, and from their sales, the company will be supporting two non-profit organizations that work as advocates for religious freedom.

A portion of the proceeds of all "CHRIST-mas" Tree™ sales will go to support the American Center of Law & Justice, an organization recently hailed by BusinessWeek as "the leading advocacy group for religious freedom," as well as to the Liberty Counsel, a nonprofit litigation, education and policy organization dedicated to advancing religious freedom, the sanctity of human life and the traditional family.

Report from the Christian Telegraph 

Lawyer Calls Turkish Christians’ Trial a ‘Scandal’


Evidence still absent in case for ‘insulting Turkishness and Islam.’

SILIVRI, Turkey, October 16 (CDN) — After three prosecution witnesses testified yesterday that they didn’t even know two Christians on trial for “insulting Turkishness and Islam,” a defense lawyer called the trial a “scandal.”

Speaking after yesterday’s hearing in the drawn-out trial, defense attorney Haydar Polat said the case’s initial acceptance by a state prosecutor in northwestern Turkey was based only on a written accusation from the local gendarmerie headquarters unaccompanied by any documentation.

“It’s a scandal,” Polat said. “It was a plot, a planned one, but a very unsuccessful plot, as there is no evidence.”

Turkish Christians Hakan Tastan and Turan Topal were arrested in October 2006; after a two-day investigation they were charged with allegedly slandering Turkishness and Islam while talking about their faith with three young men in Silivri, an hour’s drive west of Istanbul.

Even the three prosecution witnesses who appeared to testify at Thursday’s (Oct. 15) hearing failed to produce any evidence whatsoever against Tastan and Topal, who could be jailed for up to two years if convicted on three separate charges.

Yesterday’s three witnesses, all employed as office personnel for various court departments in Istanbul, testified that they had never met or heard of the two Christians on trial. The two court employees who had requested New Testaments testified that they had initiated the request themselves.

The first witness, a bailiff in a Petty Offenses Court in Istanbul for the past 28 years, declared he did not know the defendants or anyone else in the courtroom.

But he admitted that he had responded to a newspaper ad about 10 years ago to request a free New Testament. After telephoning the number to give his address, he said, the book arrived in the mail and is still in his home.

He also said he had never heard of the church mentioned in the indictment, although he had once gone to a wedding in a church in Istanbul’s Balikpazari district, where a large Armenian Orthodox church is located.

“This is the extent of what I know about this subject,” he concluded.

Fidgeting nervously, a second witness stated, “I am not at all acquainted with the defendants, nor do I know any of these participants. I was not a witness to any one of the matters in the indictment. I just go back and forth to my work at the Istanbul State Prosecutors’ office.”

The third person to testify reiterated that he also had no acquaintance with the defendants or anyone in the courtroom. But he stated under questioning that he had entered a website on the Internet some five or six years ago that offered a free New Testament.

“I don’t know or remember the website’s name or contents,” the witness said, “but after checking the box I was asked for some of my identity details, birth date, job, cell phone – I don’t remember exactly what.”

Noting that many shops and markets asked for the same kind of information, the witness said, “I don’t see any harm in that,” adding that he would not be an open person if he tried to hide all his personal details.

For the next hearing set for Jan. 28, 2010, the court has repeated its summons to three more prosecution witnesses who failed to appear yesterday: a woman employed in Istanbul’s security police headquarters and two armed forces personnel whose whereabouts had not yet been confirmed by the population bureau.

Case ‘Demands Acquittal’

Polat said after the hearing that even though the Justice Ministry gave permission in February for the case to continue under Turkey’s controversial Article 301, a loosely-defined law that criminalizes insulting the Turkish nation, “in my opinion the documents gathered in the file demand an acquittal.”

“There is no information, no document, no details, nothing,” Polat said. “There is just a video, showing the named people together, but what they are saying cannot be heard. It was shot in an open area, not a secret place, and there is no indication it was under any pressure.”

But prosecution lawyer Murat Inan told Compass, “Of course there is evidence. That’s why the Justice Ministry continued the case. This is a large ‘orgut’ [a term connoting an illegal and armed organization], and they need to be stopped from doing this propaganda here.”

At the close of the hearing, Inan told the court that there were missing issues concerning the judicial legality and activities of the “Bible research center” linked with the defendants that needed to be examined and exposed.

Turkish press were conspicuously absent at yesterday’s hearing, and except for one representative of the Turkish Protestant churches, there were no observers present.

The first seven hearings in the trial had been mobbed by dozens of TV and print journalists, focused on ultranationalist lawyer Kemal Kerincsiz, who led a seven-member legal team for the prosecution.

But since the January 2008 jailing of Kerincsiz and Sevgi Erenerol, who had accompanied him to all the Silivri trials, Turkish media interest in the case has dwindled. The two are alleged co-conspirators in the massive Ergenekon cabal accused of planning to overthrow the Turkish government.

This week the European Commission’s new “Turkey 2009 Progress Report” spelled out concerns about the problems of Turkey’s non-Muslim communities.

“Missionaries are widely perceived as a threat to the integrity of the country and to the Muslim religion,” the Oct. 14 report stated. “Further efforts are needed to create an environment conducive to full respect of freedom of religion in particular.”

In specific reference to Tastan and Topal’s case, the report noted: “A court case against two missionaries in Silivri continued; it was also expanded after the Ministry of Justice allowed judicial proceedings under Article 301 of the Criminal Code.”

The Turkish constitution guarantees freedom of religion to all its citizens, and the nation’s legal codes specifically protect missionary activities.

“I trust our laws on this. But psychologically, our judges and prosecutors are not ready to implement this yet,” Polat said. “They look at Christian missionaries from their own viewpoint; they aren’t able to look at them in a balanced way.”

Report from Compass Direct News 

Geneva celebrates John Calvin’s 500th birthday


About 500 worshipers yesterday attended the opening convocations for Calvin 500, the international Quincentenary celebration of the 500th anniversary of John Calvin’s birth (July 10, 1509), at St. Pierre Cathedral in the old town of Geneva, reports Michael Ireland, chief correspondent, ASSIST News Service.

Beginning with a welcome by Mr. Guillaume Taylor from the St. Pierre Parish Council, the opening convocations, featured morning worship from Calvin’s time and a sermon on Philippians 3:8-12 by Dr. Sinclair Ferguson of the First Presbyterian Church in Columbia, South Carolina.

The evening services featured Ugandan Archbishop Henry Luke Orombi, much psalm singing, and a sermon by Dr. Bryan Chapell, President of Covenant Theological Seminary in St. Louis, Missouri.

“Calvin is one of the most important thinkers in history,” said Calvin500 Executive Director Rev. David Hall, who also is pastor of Midway Presbyterian Church in America located in Powder Springs, GA, according to a media release.

“His ministry and writings left an indelible impression on the modern world, and especially Western culture. It would be hard to find a figure from history more worthy of remembering, if lasting impact for good is the standard,” said Hall.

“St. Pierre’s Cathedral in Geneva as unusually full for a morning worship service on July 5th, but admittedly a congregation that includes at least one archbishop, six seminary professors, twenty-four seminary professors, approximately 100 Reformed pastors from around the world and the author of over 300 books on Calvinist themes do not make up an ordinary congregation,’” said one attendee on a blog at the celebration website.

The writer stated: “As Dr. Ferguson noted, ‘Calvin would be surprised to see us here, and I am not sure he would have approved,’ however hopefully he would approved of the text.”

Another writer commented: “The evening was brought to a close with a truly wonderful exposition of Ephesians 1:3-6 by Bryan Chapell, a sermon which he called ‘In praise of predestination.’ With some memorable illustrations from Calvin and elsewhere, he carefully took us through the text urging us to see Paul’s commitment in showing us more of God’s Fatherhood than his sovereignty. God, he told us, is shouting: ‘I’ve been in love with you longer than the stars have been in sky or the fish have been in the sea.’”

Throughout the coming week, scholars and ministers will present lectures and sermons in these historic environs to celebrate the contributions of the Genevan reformer. The public is invited.

Report from the Christian Telegraph