Aerial views of enormous Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan show the size of hardship faced by Syrians


Originally posted on National Post | News:

MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images

MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images

The sprawling Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan is the one of the largest in the world, housing over 115,000 people. The makeshift town is the same size as Jordan’s fifth-largest city.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry toured the camp on Thursday, a sprawling mesh of trailers and tents for Syrians whose flight from civil war is straining their host country. The refugee flow, at times as high as 4,000 a day, is draining Jordan’s water and energy resources, driving up the cost of food and housing for its citizens, and increasing competition for jobs.

TOM BLACKWELL/NATIONAL POST

TOM BLACKWELL/NATIONAL POST

“The stories I just heard, the people I just met, underscore the human side of this crisis,” Kerry said as he was leaving the camp, home to 115,000 people. The United Nations estimates that almost 500,000 people have crossed into Jordan to escape fighting.

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Burmese Officials Order Closure of Chin Church


Government punishes pastor for refusing to wear campaign T-shirt, amid other election abuses.

DUBLIN, November 18 (CDN) — Officials in Mergui Region, Burma, ordered a Baptist church to cease holding worship services after the pastor refused to wear an election campaign T-shirt supporting the military government’s Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP).

The election commission summoned 47-year-old Pastor Mang Tling of Dawdin village, Gangaw township, Mergui Region on Nov. 9, two days after the election and ordered him to stop holding services and discontinue the church nursery program, the Chin Human Rights Organization (CHRO) reported yesterday.

The CHRO works against human rights abuses, including religious discrimination, for the Chin people, a minority group in Burma’s northwest estimated to be 90 percent Christian.

Village headman U Than Chaung had given the pastor a campaign T-shirt to wear in support of the USDP, and when he refused to wear it, the headman filed a report with local authorities accusing him of persuading Christian voters to vote in favor of an opposing party.

Under Burmese law, religious leaders can be penalized for “engaging in politics,” giving the pastor a solid legal reason to decline the T-shirt. The law also bans leaders of religious groups from voting in national elections, according to the CHRO, although lay members of those groups are able to vote.

“The election law is quite vague,” a CHRO spokesman told Compass today. “One of the things we were watching out for during the election was to see if church elders or council members might be excluded from voting. But these people were able to vote. The law seems to apply only to pastors, monks and imams.”

Officials interrogated Mang Tling in Gangaw until Sunday (Nov. 14), when he was allowed to return home.

Meantime, the USDP won the election amid widespread evidence of “advance” voting and other forms of voter manipulation throughout Burma.

Previously known as the Union Solidarity and Development Association, and before that the State Peace and Development Council, the USDP was formed by a ruling junta composed largely of army generals. The junta has ruled Burma without a constitution or parliament since 1998, although in 2008 they pushed through support for a new constitution that will take effect following this month’s elections, according to the 2010 International Religious Freedom report released yesterday by the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor.

The new constitution forbids “abuse of religion for political purposes,” the report stated. Election laws published in March also banned members of religious orders from voting for or joining political parties and reserved 25 percent of seats in the new parliament for members of the military.

The 2008 constitution “technically guarantees a degree of religious freedom. But then, it’s Burma,” a CHRO spokesman told Compass.

 

Voter Intimidation

The Chin National Party defeated the USDP in three electorates in Chin state despite reports of widespread voting anomalies, some of which were outlined in a CHRO press release on Nov. 7.

In Tedim township northern Chin state, for example, USDP agent Go Lun Mang went to the home of a local resident at 5 p.m. the day before the election and told the family that he had already voted on their behalf in favor of the USDP. He added that soldiers in a nearby camp were ready to arrest them if they complained.

On Nov. 5, the local government had already ordered village officials to instruct residents to vote for the USDP. On Nov. 7, the day of the election, USDP agents in campaign uniforms stood at the gate of the polling station in Tedim and asked voters if they intended to vote for the USDP. Those who said yes were allowed into the station, while those who said no were refused entrance.

USDP agents also warned Chin voters in Thantlang town that they should vote for the USDP “while the door was open” or they would regret it, Burma News International reported on Nov. 5.

David Mathieson, a senior researcher for Human Rights Watch (HRW), said the intimidation indicated that the junta and the USDP knew how unpopular they were.

Reports by the CHRO show a long history of discrimination against the majority Christian Chin, including the destruction of crosses and other Christian monuments, state-sponsored efforts to expand Buddhism, forced contributions of finance and labor to Buddhist construction projects, arrest and detention, torture and particularly harsh treatment of pastors. In addition, officials have refused construction for all new church building projects since 2003.

A report issued by HRW in January confirmed serious and ongoing abuses against Chin Christians.

One Chin pastor interviewed by HRW described how soldiers held him at gunpoint, forced him to pray in a Buddhist pagoda and told him that Burma was a Buddhist country where Christianity should not be practiced. (See “Report Documents Abuse of Chin Christians,” Feb. 20.)

 

SIDEBAR

Suu Kyi’s Release Stirs Guarded Hope among Burma’s Christians

NEW DELHI, November 18 (Compass Direct News) – The release of democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi from house arrest in Burma on Saturday (Nov. 13) has sparked cautious optimism about human rights among Christians and the country’s ethnic minorities even as the junta does battle with armed resistance groups.

Freeing her six days after elections, the military regime of Burma (also known as Myanmar) kept 1991 Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Suu Kyi from running in the country’s first election in 20 years, but ethnic minorities are still “very happy” and “enthused with hope and anticipation,” said Plato Van Rung Mang, who heads the India chapter of Chin Human Rights Organization.

Suu Kyi is the only leader from the majority Burmese community – predominantly Buddhist – who is trusted by the ethnic minorities, said Mang, an India-based Christian originally from Burma’s Chin state, which borders India.

“We have faith in Suu Kyi’s honesty and leadership, and she has been our hope,” he added.

The ethnic Chin, Kachin, Karen and Karenni people – many of whom are Christian – as well as mostly Buddhist ethnic Shan, Mon and Arakanese (some of them Muslim) people have been fighting for self-determination in their respective states and opposing the military junta’s policy of centralized control and Burmese dominion.

“We trust that Suu Kyi can fulfill her father’s ideal and political principles which have been subverted by the Burmese military junta’s Burmanization policy,” said Mang. Suu Kyi’s father, Aung San, was the nation’s leader at the time of independence and favored autonomy for ethnic minorities.

“Just as her father was trusted and held in high esteem by the ethnic people, Aung San Suu Kyi also has the ability to work together with the minorities to build a better, peaceful Burma where the human rights of all citizens are respected and protected,” said Garrett Kostin, a U.S. citizen who runs the Best Friend Library, built by a Buddhist monk in support of Suu Kyi, in Chiang Mai in northern Thailand.

While sections of the ethnic communities have been involved in armed resistance against the junta’s rule, many local residents in the region remain unarmed but are also at risk of being killed in the post-election conflict.

In the wake of the Nov. 7 election, as expected (See “Burma’s Ethnic Christians Fear Bleak Future after Election, Oct. 22), clashes between armed ethnic groups and the Burmese army erupted in three of the seven ethnic states – Karen, Shan and Mon – mainly along Thailand and China border, reported Thailand-based Burma News International. The violence has resulted in an influx of over 20,000 people into Thailand – the largest flow in the last five years.

According to US-based Refugees International, the Thai government forced many of the asylum seekers back.

There are also tensions in Kachin and Karenni states, which could erupt at any time, between the Burmese army and the Democratic Karen Buddhist Army, the Karen National Union, the Kachin Independence Army, the Shan State Army-North, and the Karenni National Progressive Party.

Rights advocates, however, were still heartened by Suu Kyi’s release.

It’s “a wonderful opportunity for the ethnic minorities of Burma to unify in support of each other’s rights and desires,” said Kostin.

In September 2007, many Buddhist monks joined democracy activists in street protests against the military regime’s decision to cut fuel subsidies, leading to a sharp rise in gas and diesel prices. Known as the Saffron Revolution, the protests resulted in hundreds of deaths as government security personnel resisted it militarily.

In numerous clashes between the repressive military regime and political opponents and ethnic minorities, over 3.5 million Burmese have been displaced and thousands killed over the years.

Suu Kyi will continue to enjoy the trust of ethnic minorities because “she has been working so hard since the beginning [of her political career] to speak out about the plight of ethnic people with an honest and sincere commitment,” said Bangkok-based Soe Aung, deputy secretary for Foreign Affairs of the Forum for Democracy in Burma.

Chiang Mai-based Christian relief group Free Burma Rangers (FBR) recalled that Suu Kyi, the general secretary of the National League for Democracy, along with allies won more than 80 percent of the seats in parliament “in Burma’s only truly democratic election” in 1990. “The military regime, however, did not recognize the results and continued to hold power,” it said in a statement.

Last week’s election was “neither free nor fair,” FBR said, adding that “thousands of political prisoners [estimated at 2,200] are still in jail, ethnic minorities are attacked [on a regular basis], and the people of Burma remain under oppression.

“Still, we are grateful for the release of Aung San Suu Kyi as she is a leader who gives real hope to the people of Burma.”

An FBR team leader who spoke on condition of anonymity recalled Suu Kyi requesting his prayers when he met with her during a brief period when she was not under house arrest in 1996.

“The Global Day of Prayer for Burma and the ethnic unity efforts we are involved in are a direct result of that meeting,” the leader said. “As she told me then, one of her favorite quotes is, ‘You will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.’”

Some Christians, however, remained cautious.

“Although San Suu Kyi wants Burma to be a true federal country, there is no certainty in the hearts of the Karen people because they have suffered for very long, and the so-called Burmese have turned their backs on them several times,” said a Karen Christian from Chiang Mai who identified himself only as Pastor Joseph.

La Rip, a Burmese activist in China, also said that while Suu Kyi deserved to enjoy freedom, she and her party “do not seem to have a clear idea on how to solve the long-standing issues” related to ethnic minorities.

For her part, Suu Kyi spelled out a plan to hold a nationwide, multi-ethnic conference soon after she was freed. Her father held a similar meeting, known as the Panglong Conference, in 1947. Aung San, then representing the Burmese government, reached an agreement with leaders from the Shan, Kachin and Chin states to accept full autonomy in internal administration for the ethnic controlled frontier areas after independence from Britain.

Suu Kyi’s planned conference is seen as the second Panglong Conference, but it remains uncertain if the new Burmese regime, which is likely to be as opposed to ethnic minorities as the junta, will allow her plan to succeed.

In the awaited election results, the junta’s proxy party, the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), is likely to have majority in parliament to form the next government. Suu Kyi’s party had been disbanded by the military regime, and only a small splinter group ran in the election.

It is also feared that Suu Kyi, who was under house arrest for nearly 15 years since 1990 until her release last weekend, could face assassination attempts or fresh charges followed by another term under arrest.

Burma has a population of around 50 million, out of which around 2.1 million are estimated to be Christian.

Report from Compass Direct News

Christian Convert in Bangladesh Falsely Accused of Theft


Muslims said to use mistaken identity to stop activities of Christian who refused to recant.

DHAKA, Bangladesh, August 27 (CDN) — A Christian convert from Islam was falsely arrested for cattle theft last weekend in a bid by influential Muslims to stop his Christian activities, area villagers said.

Day laborer Abul Hossen, 41, was arrested on Saturday (Aug. 21) for alleged cattle theft in Dubachari village in Nilphamari district, some 300 kilometers (180 miles) northwest of the capital, Dhaka.

Christian villagers told Compass that Hossen was the victim of “dirty tricks” by influential Muslims.

“There is another Abul Hossen in the village who might be the thief, but his father-in-law is very powerful,” said Gonesh Roy. “To save his son-in-law, he imputed all the blame to a different Abul Hossen who is a completely good man.”

Hossen, who converted to Christianity from Islam in 2007, has been very active in the community, and Muslims are harassing him with the charge so his ministry will be discredited and villagers will denounce his faith, Roy said.

“If he can be accused in the cattle theft case, he will be put in jail,” Roy said. “He will be a convicted man, and local people and the believers will treat him as a cattle thief. So people will not listen to a thief whatsoever.”

Some 150 villagers, about 20 percent of them Christian, went to the police station to plea for his freedom, he and other villagers said.

Sanjoy Roy, a lay pastor with Christian Life Bangladesh, told Compass that Hossen was a fervent Christian and that some Muslims have been trying to harass him since his conversion.

“They are hoping that if he is embarrassed by this kind of humiliation, he might not witness to Christ anymore, and it will be easy to take other converted Christians back to Islam,” Sanjoy Roy said. “He is a victim of dirty tricks by some local people.”  

Hossen was baptized on June, 12, 2007 along with 40 other people who were raised as Muslims. Of the 41 people baptized, only seven remained Christian, with villagers and Muslim missionaries called Tabligh Jamat forcing the remaining 34 people to return to Islam within six months, sources said.

Local police chief Mohammad Nurul Islam told Compass that officers had arrested a cattle thief who confessed to police that his accomplice was named Abul Hossen.

“Based on the thief’s confessional statement, we arrested Abul Hossen,” said Islam. “There are several people named Abul Hossen in the village, but the thief told exactly of this Abul Hossen whom we arrested.”

Hossen denied the allegation that he was involved in cattle theft, Islam said.

“Hossen is vehemently denying the allegation, but the thief was firm and adamantly said that Hossen was with him during the theft,” he said. “Then we took Hossen on remand for three days for further inquiry.”

A former union council chairman who is Muslim, Aminur Rahman, also told Compass that Hossen was a scapegoat.

“He is 100 percent good man,” said Rahman, who also went to the police station to plea for Hossen’s freedom the day after his arrest. “There are two or three people named Abul Hossen in the village. Anyone of them might have stolen the cattle, but I can vouch for the arrested Abul Hossen that he did not do this crime.”

Whether Hossen is a Christian, Muslim or Hindu should not matter in the eyes of the law, Rahman said.

“He is an innocent man,” he said. “So he should not be punished or harassed. That is why I went to police station to request police to free him.”

Local government Union Council Chairman Shamcharan Roy, a Hindu from Lakmichap Union, told Compass that Hossen was not engaged in any kind of criminal activities.

“In my eight years of tenure as a union council chairman, I did not find him engaged in any kind of criminal activities,” said Shamcharan Roy. “Even before my tenure as a chairman, I did not see him troublesome in the social matrix.”

Immediately after Hossen’s arrest, Shamcharan Roy went to the police station and requested that he be freed, he added.

“I was under pressure from local people to free him from custody – more than 100 villagers went to the police camp, getting drenched to the skin in the heavy downpour, and requested police to free him,” Shamcharan Roy said. “Police are listening to a thief but are deaf to our factual accounts about Abul Hossen.”

In July 2007, local Muslims and Tabligh Jamat missionaries gathered in a schoolyard near the homes of some of the Christians who had been baptized on June 12, a source said. Using a microphone, the Muslims threatened violence if the converts did not come out.

Fearing for their lives, the Christians emerged and gathered. The source said the Muslims asked them why they had become Christians and, furious, told them that Bangladesh was a Muslim country “where you cannot change your faith by your own will.”

At that time, Hossen told Compass that Muslims in the mosque threatened to hang him in a tree upside down and lacerate his body with a blade. Hossen said the Muslims “do not allow us to net fish in the river” and offered him 5,000 taka (US$75) and a mobile phone handset if he returned to Islam.

“But I did not give up my faith, because I found Christ in my heart,” Hossen told Compass in 2007. “They threatened me with severe consequences if I do not go back to Islam. I said I am ready to offer up my life to Christ, but I won’t renounce my faith in Him.”

Report from Compass Direct News

Motive for Aid Worker Killings in Afghanistan Still Uncertain


Taliban takes responsibility, but medical organization unsure of killers’ identity.

ISTANBUL, August 12 (CDN) — The killing of a team of eye medics, including eight Christian aid workers, in a remote area of Afghanistan last week was likely the work of opportunistic gunmen whose motives are not yet clear, the head of the medical organization said today.

On Friday (Aug. 6), 10 medical workers were found shot dead next to their bullet-ridden Land Rovers. The team of two Afghan helpers and eight Christian foreigners worked for the International Assistance Mission (IAM). They were on their way back to Kabul after having provided medical care to Afghans in one of the country’s remotest areas.

Afghan authorities have not been conclusive about who is responsible for the deaths nor the motivation behind the killings. In initial statements last week the commissioner of Badakhshan, where the killings took place, said it was an act of robbers. In the following days, the Taliban took responsibility for the deaths.

The Associated Press reported that a Taliban spokesman said they had killed them because they were spies and “preaching Christianity.” Another Taliban statement claimed that they were carrying Dari-language Bibles, according to the news agency. Initially the attack was reported as a robbery, which IAM Executive Director Dirk Frans said was not true.

“There are all these conflicting reports, and basically our conclusion is that none of them are true,” Frans told Compass. “This was an opportunistic attack where fighters had been displaced from a neighboring district, and they just happened to know about the team. I think this was an opportunistic chance for them to get some attention.”

A new wave of tribal insurgents seeking territory, mineral wealth and smuggling routes has arisen that, taken together, far outnumber Taliban rebels, according to recent U.S. intelligence reports.

Frans added that he is expecting more clarity as authorities continue their investigations.

He has denied the allegation that the members of their medical team were proselytizing.

“IAM is a Christian organization – we have never hidden this,” Frans told journalists in Kabul on Monday (Aug. 9). “Indeed, we are registered as such with the Afghan government. Our faith motivates and inspires us – but we do not proselytize. We abide by the laws of Afghanistan.”

IAM has been registered as a non-profit Christian organization in Afghanistan since 1966.

Dr. Abdullah Abdullah, a former political candidate, dismissed the Taliban’s claims that team members were proselytizing or spying, according to the BBC.

“These were dedicated people,” Abdullah said according to the BBC report. “Tom Little used to work in Afghanistan with his heart – he dedicated half of his life to service the people of Afghanistan.”

Abdullah had trained as an eye surgeon under Tom Little, 62, an optometrist who led the team that was killed last week. Little and his family had lived in Afghanistan for more than 30 years with IAM providing eye care.

IAM has provided eye care and medical help in Afghanistan since 1966. In the last 44 years, Frans estimates they have provided eye care to more than 5 million Afghans.

Frans said he doesn’t think that Christian aid workers are particularly targeted, since every day there are many Afghan casualties, and the insurgents themselves realize they need the relief efforts.

“We feel that large parts of the population are very much in favor of what we do,” he said. “The people I met were shocked [by the murders]; they knew the members of the eye care team, and they were shocked that selfless individuals who are going out of their way to actually help the Afghan people … they are devastated.”

The team had set up a temporary medical and eye-treatment camp in the area of Nuristan for two and a half weeks, despite heavy rains and flooding affecting the area that borders with Pakistan.

Nuristan communities had invited the IAM medical team. Afghans of the area travelled from the surrounding areas to receive treatment in the pouring rain, said Little’s wife in a CNN interview earlier this week, as she recalled a conversation with her husband days before he was shot.

Little called his wife twice a day and told her that even though it was pouring “sheets of rain,” hundreds of drenched people were gathering from the surrounding areas desperate to get medical treatment.

 

The Long Path Home

The team left Nuristan following a difficult path north into Badakhshan that was considered safer than others for reaching Kabul. Frans said the trek took two days in harsh weather, and the team had to cross a mountain range that was 5,000 meters high.

“South of Nuristan there is a road that leads into the valley where we had been asked to come and treat the eye patients, and a very easy route would have been through the city of Jalalabad and then up north to Parun, where we had planned the eye camp,” Frans told Compass. “However, that area of Nuristan is very unsafe.”

When the team ended their trek and boarded their vehicles, the armed group attacked them and killed all but one Afghan member of the team. Authorities and IAM believe the team members were killed between Aug. 4 and 5. Frans said he last spoke with Little on Aug. 4.

IAM plans eye camps in remote areas every two years due to the difficulty of preparing for the work and putting a team together that is qualified and can endure the harsh travel conditions, he said.

“We have actually lost our capacity to do camps like this in remote areas because we lost two of our veteran people as well as others we were training to take over these kinds of trips,” Frans said.

The team of experts who lost their lives was composed of two Afghan Muslims, Mahram Ali and another identified only as Jawed; British citizen Karen Woo, German Daniela Beyer, and U.S. citizens Little, Cheryl Beckett, Brian Carderelli, Tom Grams, Glenn Lapp and Dan Terry.

“I know that the foreign workers of IAM were all committed Christians, and they felt this was the place where they needed to live out their life in practice by working with and for people who have very little access to anything we would call normal facilities,” said Frans. “The others were motivated by humanitarian motives. All of them in fact were one way or another committed to the Afghan people.”

The two Afghans were buried earlier this week. Little and Terry, who both had lived in the war-torn country for decades, will be buried in Afghanistan.

Despite the brutal murders, Frans said that as long as the Afghans and their government continue to welcome them, IAM will stay.

“We are here for the people, and as long as they want us to be here and the government in power gives us the opportunity to work here, we are their guests and we’ll stay, God willing,” he said.

 

Memorial

On Sunday (Aug. 8), at his home church in Loudonville, New York, Dr. Tom Hale, a medical relief worker himself, praised the courage and sacrifice of the eight Christians who dedicated their lives to helping Afghans.

“Though this loss has been enormous, I want to state my conviction that this loss is not senseless; it is not a waste,” said Hale. “Remember this: those eight martyrs in Afghanistan did not lose their lives, they gave up their lives.”

Days before the team was found dead, Little’s wife wrote about their family’s motivation to stay in Afghanistan through “miserable” times. Libby Little described how in the 1970s during a citizens’ uprising they chose not to take shelter with other foreigners but to remain in their neighborhood.

“As the fighting worsened and streets were abandoned, our neighbors fed us fresh bread and sweet milk,” she wrote. “Some took turns guarding our gate, motioning angry mobs to ‘pass by’ our home. When the fighting ended, they referred to us as ‘the people who stayed.’

“May the fruitful door of opportunity to embrace suffering in service, or at least embrace those who are suffering, remain open for the sake of God’s kingdom,” she concluded.

 

Concern for Afghan Christians

Afghanistan’s population is estimated at 28 million. Among them are very few Christians. Afghan converts are not accepted by the predominantly Muslim society. In recent months experts have expressed concern over political threats against local Christians.

At the end of May, private Afghan TV station Noorin showed images of Afghan Christians being baptized and praying. Within days the subject of Afghans leaving Islam for Christianity became national news and ignited a heated debate in the Parliament and Senate. The government conducted formal investigations into activities of Christian aid agencies. In June IAM successfully passed an inspection by the Afghan Ministry of Economy.

In early June the deputy secretary of the Afghan Parliament, Abdul Sattar Khawasi, called for the execution of converts, according to Agence France-Presse (AFP).

“Those Afghans that appeared on this video film should be executed in public,” he said, according to the AFP. “The house should order the attorney general and the NDS (intelligence agency) to arrest these Afghans and execute them.”

Small protests against Christians ensued in Kabul and other towns, and two foreign aid groups were accused of proselytizing and their activities were suspended, news sources reported.

A source working with the Afghan church who requested anonymity said she was concerned that the murders of IAM workers last week might negatively affect Afghan Christians and Christian aid workers.

“The deaths have the potential to shake the local and foreign Christians and deeply intimidate them even further,” said the source. “Let’s pray that it will be an impact that strengthens the church there but that might take awhile.”

Report from Compass Direct News

Suicide Bomb Attack in Pakistan Kills 41


Vietnam’s Temporary Release of Priest Goes against Trend


Government granting leave to Father Ly is said to be tightening control overall.

DUBLIN, March 30 (CDN) — Vietnamese officials have in recent months tightened control over those they regard as dissidents, and the temporary release of Catholic priest Thadeus Nguyen van Ly on March 15 was a rare exception, according to Amnesty International (AI).

Officials on March 15 released Ly, now 63, from prison for one year so that he could receive medical treatment.

An outspoken advocate for religious freedom, Ly was sentenced to eight years in prison in March 2007 for “spreading propaganda” against the state. He had previously received 10- and 15-year sentences on similar charges.

“The release of Father Ly appears to be a one-off, related to his health,” Brittis Edman, Asia researcher for AI, told Compass by phone.

Human rights lawyer Le Thi Cong Nhan was released on March 6 after serving a three years in prison.  Officials have sentenced 16 other “perceived dissidents” since last September.

“Those 16 are people whose names are in the public domain,” Edman added. “There are probably others we’re not aware of.”

Edman confirmed that Ly was recently diagnosed with a brain tumor, although few details are available on the prognosis or the availability of treatment. Fellow priests told the Union of Catholic Asian News (UCAN) that Ly had suffered three strokes in May, September and November of last year, partially paralyzing his right arm and leg and making it difficult for him to walk, write or feed himself.

Following urgent requests from diocesan priests and family members, officials on March 14 granted Ly one year’s reprieve from his jail sentence. On March 15 they transported him by ambulance from Ba Sao prison camp in northern Ha Nam province to a home for retired priests in Hue, central Vietnam.

Under pressure from international advocacy groups including AI, the government may have granted Ly’s release to ward off potential embarrassment should he die in prison, Edman said.

“He’s a very public figure, and the Vietnamese government is not comfortable with being criticized.”

Religious Rights Campaigner

Ly was first jailed for one year in 1977 when he distributed a Church statement decrying the arrest of Buddhist monks and the treatment of Catholics in Vietnam, according to an AI report.

This was followed in December 1983 by a 10-year sentence served from the time of his arrest in May 1983 until his early release in July 1992. Prior to his arrest, Ly wrote a seven-point document urging officials to cease harassing Christians and announced that he was willing to be martyred for his faith.

In November 1994 Ly issued a “Ten Point Statement on the State of the Catholic Church in the Hue Diocese,” criticizing the lack of adequate training for would-be priests, the state’s interference in church teachings and its appropriation of church property.

He also became an advisory board member of the U.S.-based Committee for Religious Freedom in Vietnam (CRFV), according to AI.

In 1999, authorities objected when Ly coordinated relief projects for flood victims in partnership with CRFV. In November 2000, while U.S. President Bill Clinton and a CRFV delegation were in Vietnam, Ly reissued his ten-point statement and later made further appeals for religious freedom.

The United States Commission on International Religious Freedom in February 2001 invited Ly to address a hearing on Vietnam. Though unable to attend, Ly submitted written testimony stating that the Vietnamese government had “stripped all churches of their independence and freedom” and urging that the U.S. Congress not ratify a long-negotiated U.S.-Vietnam Bilateral Trade Agreement.

State-owned media then accused Ly of inviting “foreign hostile forces to intervene in Vietnam’s internal affairs” and inciting Catholic followers against the state.

Officials in May 2001 seized Ly during a church service and sentenced him to 15 years in prison for allegedly spreading anti-government propaganda. He was released under house arrest in February 2005 but arrested again in February 2007 and sentenced to eight years for organizing a pro-democracy event.

When the government released over 5,000 prisoners to mark Vietnam’s National Day last Sept. 2, Ly was omitted from the list despite vigorous international campaigns for his release. In a state media report quoted by UCAN, Vice Minister of Public Security Le The Tiem declared that the priest was “still in good enough health to serve his sentence.”

Report from Compass Direct News 

Threat of Return to Hindu State in Nepal Looms


With deadline for new constitution approaching, Christians fear end of secular government.

KATHMANDU, Nepal, March 30 (CDN) — Four years after Nepal became officially secular, fear is growing that the country could revert to the Hindu state it was till 2006, when proclaiming Christ was a punishable offense and many churches functioned clandestinely to avoid being shut down.

Concerns were heightened after Nepal’s deposed King Gyanendra Shah, once regarded as a Hindu god, broke the silence he has observed since Nepal abolished monarchy in 2008. During his visit to a Hindu festival this month, the former king said that monarchy was not dead and could make a comeback if people so desired.

Soon after that, Krishna Prasad Bhattarai, a former prime minister and respected leader of the largest ruling party, said that instead of getting a new constitution, Nepal should revive an earlier one. The 1990 constitution declared Nepal a Hindu kingdom with a constitutional monarch.

There is now growing doubt that the ruling parties will not be able to fashion the new constitution they promised by May.

“We feel betrayed,” said Dr. K.B. Rokaya, general secretary of the National Council of Churches of Nepal. “The Constituent Assembly we elected to give us a new constitution that would strengthen democracy and secularism has frittered away the time and opportunity given to it.”

The clamor for a Hindu state has been growing as the May 28 deadline for the new constitution draws near. When a Hindu preacher, Kalidas Dahal, held a nine-day prayer ritual in Kathmandu this month seeking reinstatement of Hinduism as the state religion, thousands of people flocked to him. The throng included three former prime ministers and top leaders of the ruling parties.

“The large turnout signals that Hinduism is enshrined in the hearts of the people and can’t be abolished by the government,” said Hridayesh Tripathi, a former minister and Constituent Assembly member whose Terai Madhes Loktantrik Party is the fifth-largest in the ruling alliance. “It was a mistake to abolish Hinduism in a hurry.”

Another blow for a Hindu state was struck by the Rastriya Prajatantra Party-Nepal (RPP-N), the only party that fought the 2008 election in support of monarchy and a Hindu state. It is now calling for a referendum. As a pressure tactic, it paralyzed the capital and its two neighboring cities in February by calling a general strike.

“The election gave the Constituent Assembly the mandate of writing a new constitution, not deciding issues of national importance,” said Kamal Thapa, the RPP-N chief who also was home minister during the brief government headed by Gyanendra. “Most people in Nepal want a Hindu state and a constitutional king. If their demand is not heeded, they will feel excluded and refuse to follow the new constitution. We are asking the government to hold a referendum on the two issues before May 28.”

With only two months left, it is clear the demand can’t be met if the constitution is to come into effect within the stipulated time. Now the specter of anarchy and violence hangs over Nepal.

Nepal’s Maoists, who fought a 10-year war to make Nepal a secular republic and who remain the former king’s most bitter enemy, say attempts have begun to whip up riots in the name of a Hindu state. The former guerrillas also allege that the campaign for the restoration of Hinduism as the state religion is backed by ministers, politicians from the ruling parties and militant religious groups from India.

Effectively Hindu

Even if a new, secular constitution is approved by the deadline, there is still no guarantee that the rights of religious minorities would be protected.

Nilambar Acharya, who heads the committee that is drafting the new constitution, said it would be merely a broad guideline for the government; compatible laws would have to be drafted to protect rights.

“The previous constitution abolished ‘untouchability’ [a practice among Hindus of treating those at the bottom of the social ladder as outcasts],” Acharya told Compass. “But untouchability still exists in Nepal. To achieve all that the constitution promises, the mindset of society has to be changed first. For that, you need political will.”

Though Nepal became secular in 2006, Hinduism still gets preferential treatment. The state allocates funds for institutions like the Kumari, the tradition of choosing prepubescent girls as protective deities of the state and worshipping them as “living goddesses.” The state also gave money to organizers of a controversial, five-yearly religious festival, the Gadhimai Fair, where tens of thousands of birds are slaughtered as offerings to Hindu gods despite international condemnation.

There is no support, predictably, for Christian festivals. When the Constituent Assembly was formed – partly though election and partly by nomination – no Christian name was proposed even though the prime minister was authorized to nominate members from unrepresented communities.

Christian leaders want such religious bias abolished. Rokaya of the National Council of Churches of Nepal said Christians have recommended full freedom of religion in the new constitution: allowing one to follow the religion of one’s choice, to change one’s religion if desired or have the right not to be associated with any religion.

The churches have also asked the state not to interfere in religious matters.

“We are asking the government not to fund any religious activity, not to be part of any religious appointments and not to allow public land for any religious event,” Rokaya said.

The recommendations, however, may not be heeded. During their brief stint in power, the Maoists tried to stop state assistance for the Kumari. It led to violence and a general strike in the capital, forcing the party to withdraw the decision.

In its 2009 report on religious freedom in Nepal, the U.S. Department of State notes that while the interim constitution officially declared the country secular, “the president, in his capacity as head of state, attended major Hindu religious ceremonies over which the king previously presided.”

It also notes that there were reports of societal abuses and discrimination based on religious affiliation, belief, or practice.

“Those who converted to a different religious group occasionally faced violence and were ostracized socially,” it states. “Those who chose to convert to other religious groups, in particular Hindu citizens who converted to Islam or Christianity, were sometimes ostracized. They occasionally faced isolated incidents of hostility or discrimination from Hindu extremist groups. Some reportedly were forced to leave their villages.”

Dr. Ramesh Khatri, executive director of Association for Theological Education in Nepal, has experienced such persecution first-hand. When he became a Christian in 1972, his father disowned him. Then in 1984 he was arrested for holding a Bible camp. Though the case against him was dropped in 1990 after a pro-democracy movement, Khatri said hatred of Christians still persists.

“Christians can never sleep peacefully at night,” he said wryly. “The new constitution will make Nepal another India, where Christians are persecuted in Orissa, Gujarat and Karnataka.” The Oxford University-educated Khatri, who writes a column in a Nepali daily, said violent responses to his articles show how Nepal still regards its Christians.

“I am attacked as a ‘Rice Christian,’” he said. “It is a derogatory term implying I converted for material benefits. The antagonistic feeling society has towards Christians will not subside with the new constitution, and we can’t expect an easy life. The Bible says that, and the Bible is true.”

Christians continue to face persecution and harassment. In March, missions resource organization Timeless Impact International (TII) noted that a church in northern Nepal, near the foothills of Mt. Everest, was attacked by a local mob.

The newly established church in Dolakha district was attacked during a fellowship meeting in January. An ethnic mob headed by religious leaders destroyed the church meeting place, assaulted participants and warned them not to speak about Christianity in the village, TII said.

The situation, even now, remained unchanged.

“None of the church members have been able to return to their homes,” TII stated. “They feel completely unsafe and at risk.”

Report from Compass Direct News 

Republic of Somalia’s jihad-related chaos and violence


In a report that comes as no surprise to many counterinsurgents, officials from the United Nations released a sharp rebuke of war-torn Somalia’s government. In its report, the UN officials called the Somali security and federal transitional government "ineffective, disorganized and corrupt" despite international assistance, reports Law Enforcement Examiner.

"Despite infusions of foreign training and assistance, government security forces remain ineffective, disorganized and corrupt — a composite of independent militias loyal to senior government officials and military officers who profit from the business of war and resist their integration under a single command," the report reads.

"Efforts to restore peace and security to Somalia are critically undermined by a corrosive war economy that corrupts and enfeebles State institutions… Commanders and troops alike sell their arms and ammunition – sometimes even to their enemies. Revenues from Mogadishu port and airport are siphoned off. Some government ministers and members of parliament abuse their official privileges to engage in large-scale visa fraud, smuggling illegal migrants to Europe and other destinations, in exchange for hefty payments," states the UN report.

According to officials, the extensive report should be released in New York City this week so members of the UN Security Council may peruse the contents.

"During the course of the mandate, government forces mounted only one notable offensive and immediately fell back from all the positions they managed to seize," the report read. "The government owes its survival to the small African Union peace support operation, AMISOM, rather than to its own troops."

During the 1990s, a group of Saudi-educated, Wahhabi militants arrived in Somalia with the aim of creating an Islamic state in this dismal African country. Also, the renowned Al-Qaeda established an operations base and training camp. They would routinely attack and ambush UN peacekeepers. In addition, they used Somalia to export their brand of terrorism into neighboring Kenya.

Leading members of Al-Qaeda continue to operate, mostly in secrecy, in Somalia and have built up cooperation with some of the warlords who control food, water and medicine. And the people of Somalia starve, mourn and die.

Since 2003, Somalia has witnessed the growth of a brutal network of Jihad with strong ties to Al-Qaeda. In fact, when the US forces faced a bloody battle in 1995 during what became known as the Black Hawk Down incident, it was Al-Qaeda joining with a local warlord who killed and wounded US special operations soldiers.

Somalia has been without a functioning national government for 14 years, when they received their independence from Italy. The transitional parliament created in 2004, has failed to end the devastating anarchy. The impoverish people who live in the ruined capital of Mogadishu have witnessed Al-Qaeda operatives, jihadi extremists, Ethiopian security services and Western-backed counter-terrorism agents engaged in a bloody war that few support and even fewer understand.

In an incident that gained American press attention, Somali-based terrorists armed with rocket-propelled grenades launched an unsuccessful attack on Seaborn Spirit as it rounded the Horn of Africa with American, British and Australian tourists on board. For unexplained reasons, the attack is being treated as an isolated incident and the terrorism link is being all but ignored by journalists. The term "pirates" is routinely used with only a few reporters calling the attackers "terrorists."

The ship came under attack during the early morning hours when the heavily armed terrorists in two speedboats began firing upon the ship with grenade launchers and machine guns. They assailents were repelled by the ships crew who implemented their security measures which included setting off electronic simulators which created the illusion the ship was firing back at the terrorists.

According to passenger accounts of the attack, there were at least three rocket-propelled grenades or RPGs that hit the ship, one hit a passenger stateroom without inflicting injuries.

When a Somali Federal Government was established in 2004, it remained a government in exile since the capital of Mogadishu remains under the control of a coalition radical Islamists who’ve instituted Sharia law and a justice system known as the Islamic Courts Union.

In the winter of 2006, Al-Shabaab initiated a large-scale insurgency using the same tactics as al-Qaeda, Hamas and Hezbollah, complete with assassinations of government and military officials and suicide bombings targeting aid workers and transitional government officials.

In their report, UN officials blame the government for its failure to control Somalia and point to a lack of professional commanders, and a military that resembles an amateur militia rather than a professional Army.

The UN report points out that The Somali National Security Force was meant to have 8,000 soldiers fully trained and deployed. However, as of the beginning of the New Year, there are fewer than than 3,000 fully trained and equiped soldiers.

"One of the reasons the Islamic Courts Union and Al-Shabaab have both been somewhat popular is because people were sick of clan-based politics," according to the UN report.

Western governments fear that Somalia’s instability may provide a safe haven for international terrorist groups. Al-Shabaab members have cited links with Al Qa’ida although the affiliation is believed to be minimal. The group has several thousand fighters divided into regional units which are thought to operate somewhat independently of one another.

The US has launched selected air attacks against Al-Shabaab leaders thought to have ties to Al Qa’ida, but analysts say this has only increased their support among Somalis.

The Western-backed Ethiopian military invaded Somalia in 2007, but many analysts believe this too augmented Al-Shabaab’s military campaign against the transitional government. The Ethiopians withdrew in January of last year after over 16 months of Al-Shabaab attacks on its forces.

The transitional government is preparing a major military offensive to retake the capital Mogadishu from Al-Shabaab and various other militant groups in the coming weeks.

Report from the Christian Telegraph 

Recent Incidents of Persecution


Punjab, India, March 1 (CDN) — Hindu extremists from the Bajrang Dal and Shiv Sena on Feb. 20 beat Christians and vandalized two churches in Batala after a protest against an objectionable picture of Christ. Christians had noticed the picture posted as part of a composite poster for an upcoming Hindu festival, Ram Naumi. The poster contained pictures of other religious deities as they normally appear, while Jesus was portrayed with a cigarette and a beer, reported the Evangelical Fellowship of India. In response to the Christian protest, the Hindu extremists went on a rampage, beating the pastor of the Church of North India and a Salvation Army officer and burning and looting the two churches. With church leaders’ pressure, police registered a case against Hindu extremists Pratap Singh and Raj Kumar, who were said to have put up the picture of Jesus, for a “malicious act intended to outrage religious feelings of others” and “punishment of criminal conspiracy.”

Orissa – Police on Feb. 20 arrested the Rev. Anant Prasad Samantray after Hindu extremists filed a complaint against him of making derogatory remarks against Hinduism in Bhabanipatna, Kalahandi district. Having obtained written permission from local police, Samantray, a former Hindu priest, spoke at a revival meeting of his journey to becoming a Christian pastor, remarking that “Jesus is the only way, the truth and the life,” a local source told Compass. After hearing his speech, some Hindu hardliners dragged him to a police station and filed a complaint against him of speaking ill against Hinduism. Officers arrested the Christian for “malicious acts to outrage religious feelings of others” and “uttering words to wounds religious feelings.”

Karnataka – Hindu extremists from the Bajrang Dal and the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh on Feb. 15 attacked Christians in Gokalam, Mysore. A source told Compass that Hindu extremists attacked church members of Shekinah Assembly of God Church because of their faith. Running from one house to another, the extremists beat the Christians in their homes, took Bibles and Christian literature and burned them. A Christian identified only as Shivmurthy sustained serious head injuries, lost four teeth and underwent an operation on his right ear. Jaylaxmi Puram police refused to register a complaint filed by the Christians, who left the area out of fear of further attacks; at press time 22 families had taken refuge among Christians in a neighboring area. 

Karnataka – Hindu extremists on Feb. 14 stopped the inaugural service of Native Village Vision Church’s new building and accused Christians of forceful conversion in Mysore. The Global Council of Indian Christians (GCIC) reported that at about 5 p.m. a mob of intolerant Hindu radicals barged into the inaugural service of the new church building, verbally abused the Christians and accused them of forceful conversion. The extremists filed a complaint against the Christians of forceful conversion at the Beechanahalli police station. Officers told the Christians to cease future worship, though GCIC reported that Pastor N.S. Suresh had obtained permission from the village head to construct a church building and had produced required legal documents. Nevertheless, revenue officials locked up the church building on Feb. 15. At press time area Christian leaders were meeting with authorities to resolve the matter. 

Karnataka – Hindu extremists from the Rakshana Vedike, affiliated with the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, on Feb. 8 attacked a pastor identified only as Timothy G. and two Bible students in Bangalore. An Evangelical Fellowship of India representative reported that the extremists attacked the Christians, who belong to Lord Living Hope Church, as they made their way home after visiting a sick Christian in the area. The extremists verbally insulted them and manhandled them, shoving them and threatening to do more harm if they continued Christian activity in the area. The Christians reported the matter to the police and continued to conduct worship meetings in the area. 

Orissa – Hindu extremists on Feb. 7 attempted to rape a refugee at Mondakai Camp and threatened to harm Christians there if they filed a police complaint against them in Phulbani, Raikia P.S. area. A Christian Legal Association (CLA) representative reported that one unidentified man from the Hindu extremist community followed Afasari Nayak, who had fled her home during 2008 anti-Christian violence, as she went to take bath in a river near the camp after work. Nayak shouted for help as the man started attacking her, and people rushed to rescue her. At about 7 p.m. the suspect along with four other extremists went to the camp and threatened to hurt the Christians if they filed a complaint, saying also that the refugee Christians should not return to the village unless they convert to Hinduism, the CLA source said. 

Orissa – Police arrested 11 Christians after Hindu extremists filed a complaint against them of assault on Feb. 3 in Badimunda, Kandhamal. The Evangelical Fellowship of India (EFI) reported that Hindu extremists verbally abused two Christians and threatened harm unless they stopped worshipping Jesus; when the two Christians asserted their right to worship Christ, the extremists began beating them. People of both faiths amassed, and the two Christians managed to escape further attack. At about 7:30 p.m. the next day, five extremists showed up at the same place searching for the two Christians. Forcefully entering the house of Dibyakand Nayak, a Christian, one of the extremists hurt his own forehead, according to EFI. Upon seeing this, the extremists started beating Nayak. They damaged household goods and dragged him to the police station. Police arrested 11 Christians for allegedly causing hurt, causing hurt by dangerous weapons and obscene acts and songs. All except Nayak were released on bail.

Orissa – Two Fast-Track Courts on Jan. 30 convicted 15 people and acquitted 39 others in cases related to anti-Christian violence in August 2008. Judge Sobhan Kumar Das sentenced 13 people to five years imprisonment and fined them 2,500 rupees (US$54) each for torching houses in the Sarangarh area, Kandhamal district, between August 2008 and October 2008. The court, however, acquitted 17 people for “lack of evidence” in the same case. In a separate case related to arson at Ranjabadi village of Kandhamal district, the court sentenced two persons to five years of prison and imposed a fine of 2,000 rupees (US$43) on each of them. Judge C.R. Das of Fast-Track Court II acquitted four people who were accused of violence in Baliguda block, while 18 people were acquitted in another case of arson that took place in Phiringia block, Kandhamal. The district was rocked by anti-Christian violence that lasted more than three months after the Aug. 23, 2008 death of Swami Laxmanananda Saraswati, who was assassinated allegedly by Maoists.

Andhra Pradesh – About 50 Hindu extremists on Jan. 29 accused a pastor of forceful conversion and forced him to eat food offered to Hindu idols in Secunderabad. The All India Christian Council reported that the extremists stopped Pastor Satyam Yellasiri of Good Shepherd Community Church at about 9:30 p.m. as he was returning from a birthday celebration and accused him of forceful conversion. The extremists forced him to eat the food offered to Hindu idols and threatened to beat him when he refused. Police, alerted by the extremists, arrived and took the pastor to the police station, where they detained him for two hours. Officers initially refused to register his complaint against his assailants. The next day, though, with area Christian leaders intervening, police accepted the complaint. Officers claimed they detained the pastor as a safety measure and assured the Christians that immediate action would be taken against the attackers. 

Karnataka – On Jan. 24 in Bidarikere, Chitradurga, Hindu extremists from the Rashtriya Swayamsavak Sangh broke into the worship meeting of Indian Evangelical Mission and assaulted a Christian worker. The Evangelical Fellowship of India (EFI) reported that at about 10:30 a.m. the extremists barged into the meeting shouting slogans and started beating H. Raju, who was leading the meeting, and accused him of forceful conversion. They also burned Bibles and Christian literature and dragged him out to the streets, forcing him to identify Christians’ homes in the area, according to EFI. Entering three Christian houses, the Hindu hardliners threatened to harm Christians if they did not stop worshipping Jesus. Local Christian leaders on Jan. 27 filed a police complaint with Jagalur police, and the next day police arrested three extremists. 

Karnataka – Hindu extremists accompanied by local police stopped the worship service of Calvary Gospel Church (CGC) on Jan. 24 in Dudda, Hassan. Two local police stopped the Sunday worship in the rented house of Sekhar Chandra and his wife, Kala Chandra, and chased the Christian worshippers out of the house. Hindu extremists had filed a complaint against the couple, whose rented home was being used for the worship service. After the Jan. 24 disruption, Hindu extremists announced to all villagers they were not to allow any house be used for Christian worship. Subsequently, the landlord along with an agitated mob threw the couple out of their rented house, along with their household goods. The Christian workers are now renting the house of another Christian in the same area and are continuing their ministry. 

Madhya Pradesh – Hindu extremists from the Bajrang Dal accompanied by Madhya Pradesh police stopped the worship meeting of Central India Christian Mission’s (CICM) Shahdol Christian church on Jan. 23 and forced church members to falsely testify against Pastor S.K. Ashawan in Shahdol. A source reported that the extremists barged into the prayer meeting attended by about 35 Christians, verbally abused them and dragged them to Shahdol police station. Amassing at the police station, the angry extremists beat, punched and kicked the Christians, forcing them to testify falsely against the pastor by saying he offered each of them 5,000 rupees (US$108) to convert them to Christianity and also forced them to eat beef. Under pressure, the Christians gave a written statement with these accusations. Police summoned the pastor, detaining and questioning him for two hours. The town inspector told Pastor Ashawan that 35 Christians had testified against him, and he threatened to beat and arrest the pastor if he did not give him 100,000 rupees (US$2,168). “It was midnight, and I was under pressure with the police threatening to beat and put me in jail if I did not submit the money,” Pastor Ashawan told Compass. The pastor started calling area Christians for help. That night, a source said, 100,000 rupees arrived into the inspector’s hands. Ajay Lal, Director of the CICM, took the matter to administrative authorities, but state Chief Minister Shivraj C. Chauhan advised the area district collector to close the case immediately. Christian leaders planned take the matter to a higher court.

Andhra Pradesh – Hindu extremists on Jan. 10 stormed a house church, disrupting worship and beating a pastor in Jillelguda L.B. Nagar, Hyderabad. The Global Council of Indian Christians (GCIC) reported that at 9 a.m. nearly 50 area extremists belonging to the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh barged into Heavens Glory Church, shouting Hindu devotional chants. Repeatedly slapping Pastor Benhur Johnson, they falsely accused him of forcible conversion and warned him against conducting Christian services in the area. The extremists also beat some who came forward to help the pastor. A GCIC regional coordinator told Compass that Christians telephoned police, who rushed to the church and stopped the attack. Pastor Johnson along with other Christians went to police to register a complaint, but an official mediated an agreement between them and the extremists. The pastor told Compass that no worship was held on Jan. 17 or 24 out of fear of another attack.

Report from Compass Direct News