Religious Conversion Worst Form of ‘Intolerance,’ Bhutan PM Says


Propagation of religion is allowable – but not seeking conversions, top politician says.

THIMPHU, Bhutan, April 13 (CDN) — In the Kingdom of Bhutan, where Christianity is still awaiting legal recognition, Christians have the right to proclaim their faith but must not use coercion or claim religious superiority to seek conversions, the country’s prime minister told Compass in an exclusive interview.

“I view conversions very negatively, because conversion is the worst form of intolerance,” Jigmi Yoser Thinley said in his office in the capital of the predominantly Buddhist nation.

Christian leaders in Bhutan have told Compass that they enjoy certain freedoms to practice their faith in private homes, but, because of a prohibition against church buildings and other restrictions, they were not sure if proclamation of their faith – included in international human rights codes – was allowed in Bhutan.

Prime Minister Thinley, who as head of the ruling party is the most influential political chief in the country, said propagation of one’s faith is allowed, but he made it clear that he views attempts to convert others with extreme suspicion.

“The first premise [of seeking conversion] is that you believe that your religion is the right religion, and the religion of the convertee is wrong – what he believes in is wrong, what he practices is wrong, that your religion is superior and that you have this responsibility to promote your way of life, your way of thinking, your way of worship,” Thinley said. “It’s the worst form of intolerance. And it divides families and societies.”

Bhutan’s constitution does not restrict the right to convert or proselytize, but some Non-Governmental Organizations have said the government effectively limits this right by restricting construction of non-Buddhist worship buildings and celebration of some non-Buddhist festivals, according to the U.S. Department of State’s 2010 International Religious Freedom Report.

It adds that Bhutan’s National Security Act (NSA) further limits proclamation of one’s faith by prohibiting “words either spoken or written, or by other means whatsoever, that promote or attempt to promote, on grounds of religion, race, language, caste, or community, or on any other ground whatsoever, feelings of enmity or hatred between different religious, racial, or language groups or castes and communities.” Violation of the NSA is punishable by up to three years’ imprisonment, though whether
any cases have been prosecuted is unknown, according to the State Department report.

Bhutan’s first democratic prime minister after about a century of absolute monarchy, Thinley completed three years in office last Thursday (April 7). While he affirmed that it is allowable for Christians to proclaim their faith – a practice commanded by Christ, with followers agreeing that it is the Holy Spirit, not man, that “converts” people – Thinley made his suspicions about Christians’ motives manifest.

“Any kind of proselytization that involves economic and material incentives [is wrong],” he said. “Many people are being converted on hospital beds in their weakest and most vulnerable moments. And these people are whispering in their ears that ‘there is no hope for you. The only way that you can survive is if you accept this particular religion.’ That is wrong.”

Thinley’s suspicions include the belief that Christians offer material incentives to convert.

“Going to the poor and saying, ‘Look, your religion doesn’t provide for this life, our religion provides for this life as well as the future,’ is wrong. And that is the basis for proselytization.”

Christian pastors in Thimphu told Compass that the perception that Bhutan’s Christians use money to convert the poor was flawed.

The pastors, requesting anonymity, said they prayed for healing of the sick because they felt they were not allowed to preach tenets of Christianity directly. Many of those who experience healing – almost all who are prayed for, they claimed – do read the Bible and then believe in Jesus’ teachings.

Asked if a person can convert if she or he believed in Christianity, the prime minister replied, “[There is] freedom of choice, yes.”

In his interview with Compass, Thinley felt compelled to defend Buddhism against assertions that citizens worship idols.

“To say that, ‘Your religion is wrong, worshiping idols is wrong,’ who worships idols?” he said. “We don’t worship idols. Those are just representations and manifestations that help you to focus.”

Leader of the royalist Druk Phuensum Tshogpa party, Thinley is regarded as a sincere politician who is trusted by Bhutan’s small Christian minority. He became the prime minister in April 2008 following the first democratic election after Bhutan’s fourth king, Jigme Singye Wangchuck, abdicated power in 2006 to pave the way toward democracy.

Until Bhutan became a constitutional monarchy in 2008, the practice of Christianity was believed to be banned in the country. The constitution now grants the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion to all citizens. It also states that the king is the protector of all religions.

Thus far, the Religious Organisations Act of 2007 has recognized only Buddhist and Hindu organizations. As a result, no church building or Christian bookstore has been allowed in the country, nor can Christians engage in social work. Christianity in Bhutan remains confined to the homes of local believers, where they meet for collective worship on Sundays.

Asked if a Christian federation should be registered by the government to allow Christians to function with legal recognition, Thinley said, “Yes, definitely.”

The country’s agency regulating religious organizations under the 2007 act, locally known as the Chhoedey Lhentshog, is expected to make a decision on whether it could register a Christian federation representing all Christians. The authority is looking into provisions in the law to see if there is a scope for a non-Buddhist and non-Hindu organization to be registered. (See http://www.compassdirect.com, “Official Recognition Eludes Christian Groups in Bhutan,” Feb. 1.)

On whether the Religious Organisations Act could be amended if it is determined that it does not allow legal recognition of a Christian federation, the prime minister said, “If the majority view and support prevails in the country, the law will change.”

Thinley added that he was partially raised as a Christian.

“I am part Christian, too,” he said. “I read the Bible, occasionally of course. I come from a traditional [Christian] school and attended church every day except for Saturdays for nine years.”

A tiny nation in the Himalayas between India and China, Bhutan has a population of 708,484 people, of which roughly 75 percent are Buddhist, according to Operation World. Christians are estimated to be between 6,000 to nearly 15,000 (the latter figure would put Christians at more than 2 percent of the population), mostly from the south. Hindus, mainly ethnic Nepalese, constitute around 22 percent of the population and have a majority in the south.

 

Religious ‘Competition’

Bhutan’s opposition leader, Lyonpo Tshering Togbay, was equally disapproving of religious conversion.

“I am for propagation of spiritual values or anything that allows people to be good human beings,” he told Compass. “[But] we cannot have competition among religions in Bhutan.”

He said, however, that Christians must be given rights equal to those of Hindus and Buddhists.

“Our constitution guarantees the right to freedom of practice – full stop, no conditions,” he said. “But now, as a small nation state, there are some realities. Christianity is a lot more evangelistic than Hinduism or Buddhism.”

Togbay said there are Christians who are tolerant and compassionate of other peoples, cultures and religions, but “there are Christians also who go through life on war footing to save every soul. That’s their calling, and it’s good for them, except that in Bhutan we do not have the numbers to accommodate such zeal.”

Being a small nation between India and China, Bhutan’s perceived geopolitical vulnerability leads authorities to seek to pre-empt any religious, social or political unrest. With no economic or military might, Bhutan seeks to assert and celebrate its sovereignty through its distinctive culture, which is based on Buddhism, authorities say.

Togbay voiced his concern on perceived threats to Bhutan’s Buddhist culture.

“I studied in a Christian school, and I have lived in the West, and I have been approached by the Jehovah’s Witness – in a subway, in an elevator, in a restaurant in the U.S. and Switzerland. I am not saying they are bad. But I would be a fool if I was not concerned about that in Bhutan,” he said. “There are other things I am personally concerned about. Religions in Bhutan must live in harmony. Too often I have come across people who seek a convert, pointing to statues of our deities and saying
that idol worship is evil worship. That is not good for the security of our country, the harmony of our country and the pursuit of happiness.”

The premise of the Chhoedey Lhentshog, the agency regulating religious organizations, he said, “is that all the different schools of Buddhism and all the different religions see eye to eye with mutual respect and mutual understanding. If that objective is not met, it does not make sense to be part of that.”

It remains unclear what the legal rights of Christians are, as there is no interaction between the Christians and the government. Christian sources in Bhutan said they were open to dialogue with the government in order to remove “misunderstandings” and “distrust.”

“Thankfully, our political leadership is sincere and trustworthy,” said one Christian leader.

Asserting that Christians enjoy the right to worship in Bhutan, Prime Minister Thinley said authorities have not interfered with any worship services.

“There are more Christian activities taking place on a daily basis than Hindu and Buddhist activities,” he added.

Report from Compass Direct News
http://www.compassdirect.org

Links between Murders in Turkey and ‘Masterminds’ Expected


Witnesses previously barred will be allowed to testify.

ISTANBUL, December 20 (CDN) — Attorneys prosecuting the murder of three Christians in southeastern Turkey are making progress linking the knifemen who slayed them to the masterminds who put them up to it, an attorney representing the family of one of the victims said Friday (Dec.17).

Two witnesses, Veysel Şahin and Ercan Gelni – whose testimony the court previously blocked – will be allowed to testify about the plans behind the killings in Malatya. The judge changed his previous ruling blocking their testimonies because of new evidence that recently became available.

The court will also protect a witness whose testimony would have possibly put him in danger. The latest court hearing was on Dec. 3.

On April 18, 2007, two Turkish Christians, Necati Aydin and Ugur Yuksel, and German Christian Tilmann Geske, were bound, tortured and then murdered at the office of Zirve Publishing Co., a Christian publishing house in Malatya.

The suspects, Salih Guler, Cuma Ozdemir, Hamit Ceker, and Abuzer Yildirim were arrested while trying to escape the scene of the crime, as was alleged ringleader Emre Gunaydin.

 

Establishing Links

Prosecutors have contended that the killings were related to a larger conspiracy by the military and nationalists to destabilize the government by targeting minorities in Turkish society.

“The people responsible are not just confined to the young men caught at the crime scene,” said Orhan Cengiz, one of the attorneys representing the interests of the victim’s families in the case. “Everybody knows the youngsters have connections [to the nationalists].”

The new decision shows the court’s “willingness” to look into possible links between the killers and the gendarmerie, a special police force in Turkey that deals with internal security issues and is allegedly a key player in the destabilization plot, Cengiz said.

Suzanne Geske, widow of Tilmann Geske, said she wants the Malatya murder trial linked with the trial over the Cage Operation Action Plan, believed to be part of the Ergenekon “deep state” operation to destabilize the government.

“I want the Zirve Publishing House killings to be merged with the case into the Cage Operation Action Plan,” Geske told Turkish newspaper Today’s Zaman. “I do not believe that those young men could have carried out the murders on their own. Some de facto links are evident. There are other influences behind these murders.”

Ergenekon is an alleged “deep state” operation referring to a group of retired generals, politicians and other key figures thought by some to be the true power brokers in Turkey.

The Cage Plan centers on a compact disc found a year ago in the house of a retired naval officer. The plan, to be carried out by 41 naval officers, termed as “operations” the Malatya killings, the 2006 assassination of Catholic priest Andrea Santoro and the 2007 slaying of Hrant Dink, Armenian editor-in-chief of the weekly Agos.

Newspapers have reported that the Cage Plan, aimed at Turkey’s non-Muslim minorities, not only contained a list of names of Protestant Christians who would be targeted, but also named some of their children.

“I believe that there is an ulterior motive behind the killings,” Geske reportedly said. “This may be linked to Ergenekon or another criminal group. I believe that the young men who carried out the murders were directed by criminal elements. I want those criminal elements to be exposed. Otherwise, the lives of those young men will be wasted while the real criminals will go unpunished.”

The next Malatya hearing is scheduled for Jan. 20.

Report from Compass Direct News

Recent Incidents of Persecution


Karnataka, India, October 29 (CDN) — Police arrested Pastor Muthyalan Paul on Oct. 26 in Nelamangala, Bangalore, after Muslim radicals barged into a prayer meeting, accused him of forceful conversion, tore Bibles and damaged household items. The Global Council of Indian Christians reported that police, alerted by the Muslim extremists, charged the pastor with “deliberate and malicious acts intended to outrage the religious feelings of others.” A judge sent the pastor to Nelamangala Sub-Jail, but with area Christian leaders’ intervention he was released on bail the next morning.

Karnataka – Hindu nationalists on Oct. 20 burned down a house church in Bellakatte village, near Chitradurga. The Global Council of Indian Christians reported that Pastor Mallappa Hanumanthappa Andrew of Samadhana Prayer House and his brother were walking on a village road when six area extremists waylaid them and began slapping the pastor, falsely accusing him of forcible conversion. They also slapped and shoved his brother when he tried to come to Andrew’s aid. Cursing, the extremists then burned down the house used for worship. Baramasagara police arrested four extremists identified only as Manjunath, Parashuram, Ramanna and Devaraj, charged them with unlawful assembly and released them after two hours.

Madhya Pradesh – Threatening to file a police complaint, Hindu nationalists in Chattarpur on Oct. 19 accused Pastor Kunal Parichha of forcibly converting people and sending them to Bible college, a source said. The pastor and the nationalists met for talks the next day, only to have the extremists threaten to kill him if he continued to lead worship meetings. At press time area Christian leaders were taking steps to resolve the conflict.

Karnataka – Police detained a pastor identified only as Surendra for more than three hours on Oct. 15 after Hindu nationalists disrupted the worship of Calvary Assemblies of God Church and beat him in Boothanhalli Kaval, near S. Bidra village, Chickmagalur district. The Global Council of Indian Christians (GCIC) reported that at 7:30 p.m., as the pastor was leading worship in another Christian’s house where 15 others had assembled, nearly 25 cursing extremists stormed in, chased them
out and repeatedly slapped and punched Pastor Surendra. A GCIC coordinator told Compass that the extremists dragged the pastor outside, ripped his shirt off, took away his mobile phone, and telephoned police that “conversion activities” were taking place. Conversion and “conversion activities” are legal in India. Police arrived at 9 p.m., arrested the pastor and interrogated him. With GCIC intervention, Surendra was released at 12:30 a.m. without being charged.

Orissa – Hard-line Hindus in Paikamara, Puri, Orissa district on Oct. 14 confined three recent converts to Christianity in a house, assaulted them and pressured them to deny their new faith. The Global Council of Indian Christians (GCIC) reported that Aswini Sahu, Sanatana Jena and Amulya Swain became Christians six months ago after listening to Christian radio broadcasts. When the Hindu extremists learned of it, they threatened them and expelled them from the village after the Christians continued to worship Christ. The Christians took shelter in different homes, and then went back to their village after receiving word by telephone that tensions had cooled. As soon as they returned, however, the extremists caught hold of them, beat them and confined them. With GCIC and area Christian leaders’ intervention, police rescued the Christians and warned the extremists not to disturb them again.

Haryana – Hindu extremists on Sept. 30 attacked a church’s Christian school in Ghaziabad. A source said that the extremists showed up in a truck armed with guns and other implements of destruction at the Ingram Institute and broke a wall. Trying to occupy the church property, they started building a wall around a student hostel and other properties near the school and verbally abused director Hepesh Shepherd, staff members and students. Christians immediately filed a complaint, and police detained two extremists. They were later released without charges.

Chhattisgarh – Hindu extremists assaulted Pastor Suresh Deep of The Church of God on Sept. 28 in Rajnandgan. A source reported that the incident began the previous day when two church members, Shilembra Sahu and Raj Kumar, started quarrelling about whether Kumar was meeting standards for Christian living, and as villagers came to become involved in the conflict, Hindu extremists took Kumar’s side. The extremists filed a complaint against Sahu, and police arrested him for joining an assembly likely to cause a disturbance. The next day, Pastor Deep went to submit a bail petition for Sahu, and some 20 extremists who had gathered at the court verbally abused him, beat him and dragged him to a Hindu temple. There they forced him to drink dirty water and to write that he would refrain from any conversion activity. The pastor sustained bruises all over his body. Area Christian leaders intervened, and police registered a case against the attackers, but no arrests had been made at press time. Sahu was sent to Rajnandgan district jail but was released on bail on Sept 30.

Kerala – Muslim extremists beat a Christian convert from Islam after they saw him worshipping Jesus on Sept. 22 in Vikas colony, Ambalavayal. The Global Council of Indian Christians (GCIC) reported that a pastor identified only as Chacko had established a friendship with a Muslim man who was an alcoholic. After attending the church, the Muslim stopped drinking alcohol, led a changed life and decided to follow Jesus Christ. Enraged by the change in him, the extremists seriously injured the convert. They also damaged Pastor Chacko’s pipeline, the source for water for about 10 Christian families, and pelted the pastor’s home with stones, damaging the house. GCIC reported that the extremists continued to threaten the pastor by telephone daily.

Madhya Pradesh – Hindu extremists from the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) on Sept. 16 attacked a building belonging to the Believers Church in Jabalpur, bringing it to the ground. Believers Church representative Sushant Sona reported that the RSS members arrived in a huge vehicle designed to demolish buildings and destroyed the facility, claiming that they would not allow any church to exist in the area. The Rev. Samkutty Issac and other Christian leaders pleaded with the government officials to take action against the culprits.

Karnataka – Hindu extremists attacked a church building under construction at Byappanahalli village on Sept. 12 near Bengaluru, accusing area Christians of large-scale, forcible conversion. The extremists broke into the church building and tried to pull it down, reported the All India Christian Council. Police arrived in time to stop them, but the extremists filed a complaint against Pastor John Babu and other Christians for alleged forcible conversion. Under the extremists’ pressure, the police later issued a notice to the church to stop construction and issued arrest warrants against the pastor and seven others. To avoid further harassment, the Christians applied for anticipatory bails. They also filed petitions seeking court intervention to stop the extremists from further assaults. At press time the church building remained abandoned and unguarded.

Karnataka – A mob of about 100 Hindu extremists on Sept. 5 barged into the house church worship of a congregation of the Indian Pentecostal Church and beat a pastor in Doni, Gadag. The Global Council of Indian Christians (GCIC) reported that the extremists ripped Bibles, tore the clothes of Pastor Mallikarjuna Sangalad, dragged him out of the house and beat him. Police arrived and arrested Pastor Sangalad, where they ordered him to stop leading worship meetings, according to the GCIC. Christian leaders intervened, and police released the pastor without charges.

Karnataka – Ramnagar police Sub-Inspector Babu Madhar on Sept. 3 forcefully entered a Calvary Fellowship Prayer house church meeting led by Pastor P.R. Jose and ordered him to immediately stop the service. The Global Council of Indian Christians (GCIC) reported that police accused the Christians of forceful conversion and ordered them to close down the house church. After area Christian leaders’ intervention, according to the GCIC, the Christians were given police protection for worship.

Report from Compass Direct News

Buddhist Bhutan Proposes ‘Anti-Conversion’ Law


Already suppressed Christians say bill is designed to control growth.

THIMPHU, Bhutan, July 21 (CDN) — Christians in this Himalayan nation who are still longing to openly practice their faith were disheartened this month when the government proposed the kind of “anti-conversion” law that other nations have used as a pretext for falsely accusing Christians of “coercion.”

The amendment bill would punish “proselytizing” that “uses coercion or other forms of inducement” – vaguely enough worded, Christians fear, that vigilantes could use it to jail them for following the commands of Christ to feed, clothe and otherwise care for the poor.

“Now, under section 463 [of the Penal Code of Bhutan], a defendant shall be guilty of the offense of proselytization if the defendant uses coercion or other forms of inducement to cause the conversion of a person from one religion or faith to another,” reported the government-run Kuensel newspaper on July 9.

“There was always a virtual anti-conversion law in place, but now it is on paper too,” said a senior pastor from Thimphu on condition of anonymity. “Seemingly it is aimed at controlling the growth of Christianity.”

Kuenlay Tshering, a member of Bhutan’s Parliament and the chairperson of its Legislative Council, told Compass that the new section is consonant with Article 7(4) of the Constitution of the Kingdom of Bhutan, which states, “A Bhutanese citizen shall have the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion. No person shall be compelled to belong to another faith by means of coercion or inducement.”

He said that the National Council had proposed that offenses under the proposal be classified as misdemeanors, punishable by one to less than three years in prison.

Tshering said that the amendment bill “may be passed during the next session of Parliament, after the National Assembly deliberates on it in the winter session.”

Asked if he was aware that similar “anti-conversion” laws in neighboring India had been misused to harass Christians through vague terms of “inducement,” he said he was not.

Authorities usually act on complaints by local residents against Christian workers, so frivolous complaints can lead to their arrest, said another pastor who requested anonymity.

Of the 683,407 people in Bhutan, over 75 percent are Buddhist, mainly from the west and the east. Hindus, mostly ethnic Nepalese from southern Bhutan, are estimated to be around 22 percent of the population.

There are around 6,000 Christians, mostly ethnic Nepalese, but there is neither a church building nor a registered Christian institution. The Bible, however, has been translated into the national language, Dzongkha, as well as into Nepali.

The constitution guarantees freedom of religion, but the government has not officially recognized the presence of Christians, whose practice of faith remains confined to their homes.

The Drukpa Kagyue school of Mahayana Buddhism is the state religion, with Hinduism dominant in the south, according to Bhutan’s official website, which adds, “Some residues of Bon, animism and shamanism still exist in some pockets of the country,” but makes no mention of Christianity.

Still, since Bhutan became a democracy in 2008 after its first-ever elections – following more than 100 years of absolute monarchy – people have increasingly exercised their freedom, including religious choice.

 

‘Why More Religions?’

Home and Culture Minister Lyonpo Minjur Dorji told Compass that Bhutan’s government had “no problems” with Christianity or any other faith.

“But Bhutan is a small country, with a little more than 600,000 people, and a majority of them are Buddhist,” Dorji said. “We have Hindus, also mainly in southern parts. So why do we need more religions?”

Buddhism is closely linked with political and social life in Bhutan. Dorji’s office sits in a gigantic monastery in Thimphu known as Tashichho Dzong. Buddhism unites and brings people together, Dorji said, explaining that the social life of a village revolves around its dzong (monastery).

Dorji said India’s multi-religious society had led to tensions and bloodshed.

“India can survive riots and unrest,” he said, “but Bhutan may not, because it is a small country between two giants [India and China].”

With leaders who have been proud that they have not allowed it to be colonized, Bhutan historically has been keenly concerned about its survival. Bhutan’s people see their distinct culture, rather than the military, as having protected the country’s sovereignty. And it is no coincidence that Dorji’s portfolio includes both internal security and preservation of culture.

The constitution, adopted in July 2008, also requires the state to protect Bhutan’s cultural heritage and declares that Buddhism is the spiritual heritage of Bhutan.

A government official who requested anonymity said that, as Tibet went to China and Sikkim became a state in India, “now which of the two countries will get Bhutan?”

This concern is prevalent among the Bhutanese, he added.

Sikkim, now a state in India’s northeast, was a Buddhist kingdom with indigenous Bhotia and Lepcha people groups as its subjects. But Hindus from Nepal migrated to Sikkim for work and gradually outnumbered the local Buddhists. In 1975, a referendum was held to decide if Sikkim, then India’s protectorate, should become an official state of the country. Since over 75 percent of the people in Sikkim were Nepalese – who knew that democracy would mean majority-rule – they voted for its incorporation
into India.

Bhutan and India’s other smaller neighbors saw it as brazen annexation. And it is believed that Sikkim’s “annexation” made Bhutan wary of the influence of India.

In the 1980s, Bhutan’s king began a one-nation-one-people campaign to protect its sovereignty and cultural integrity, which was discriminatory to the ethnic Nepalese, who protested. Their non-compliance, however, resulted in a harsh crackdown by authorities, leading to the expulsion or voluntary migration of over 100,000 ethnic Nepalese, many of whom were Christians, to the Nepal side of the border in Jhapa in the early 1990s.

“Bhutan did not want to become another Sikkim,” said a local resident, explaining why the government did not tolerate the protests.

Bhutan is also rigorous in implementing its laws related to the use of the national language, the national dress code and the uniform architectural standards throughout the country to strengthen its cultural integrity. Bhutanese men are required to wear the gho, a knee-length robe tied at the waist by a cloth belt, when they go to work or attend a public function. Women have to wear the kira, an ankle-length dress clipped at one shoulder and tied at the waist. Non-compliance can lead to fine
and imprisonment.

 

Brighter Future

One hopeful pastor said he expects the government to officially acknowledge the existence of Christianity in Bhutan in the near future.

“Religious freedom will be good for both Christians and the government,” he said. “If Christians are not officially acknowledged, who will the government go to if it wants to implement an executive decision related to religious communities?”

Explaining the reason for his hope, he recalled an incident in the Punakha area in January, when a house under construction was demolished after rumors that it was used as a church.

“The house owner, a Christian, went to his majesty [King Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck] and told him he was not constructing a church but would have worship with other believers on Sundays,” the pastor said. “The king allowed him to build the house.”

He also said that a delegation of Christians met with Prime Minister Lyonchen Jigmey Thinley in May 2009, who reassured them that there would be more freedom soon.

Christianity is gradually growing, but through word-of-mouth – testimonies of those who have received healing from sickness – and not public preaching, he said, adding that Christians needed to understand and be patient with the government, “which cannot and should not make changes or give freedom overnight.”

 

SIDEBAR

Christians’ Skulls, Bones Used for Buddhist Ritual

The ambiguity in Bhutan over the status of Christians has brought with it a new difficulty: A national daily recently reported that at least eight graves of Christians had been exhumed and the skulls and thigh bones extracted for a Buddhist ritual.

Although the report marked the first time the practice had made the news, Christian leaders said more than 100 graves have been dug up as the trade in human bones has been going on for more than five years.

A local resident of the Lamperi area, near Thimphu, identified as Namgay, told the Bhutan Observer that he found eight graves in a “secret forest graveyard” that had been exhumed by hunters of craniums and thigh bone.

“We saw skulls without craniums and a hand sticking out of a grave,” he was quoted as saying in the daily on May 27.

A human skull garners between 5,000 ngultrum (US$105) and 10,000 ngultrum (US$211) in Bhutan, with men’s skulls considered more valuable. The skull of a man affected by leprosy is not considered ideal for purification. Rather, such skulls are considered best for rituals to subdue evil spirits.

In a visit to the graveyard, the Bhutan Observer found at least eight graves freshly dug up. “Hand gloves, khaddar [a coarse homespun cotton cloth], a currency note, a wooden cross, and a wooden hammer lay scattered all over,” it reported.

The daily said the graveyard apparently belonged to the Christian community in Thimphu and nearby areas.

“Christians in the country say that there should be an official recognition that there are Christians in the country, and other things like burial rights will naturally follow,” the report noted.

A local pastor told Compass that since Christians did not have a burial ground, they buried their dead in forests.

“More than 100 bodies have been dug up, even though we have changed several locations for burial,” he said. “I wonder how the traders in human bones discover these locations. Where do we go now?”

Some local residents reportedly believe that a Christian grave brings bad luck.

Damcho Wangchu, a resident of Thinleygang area, told the daily that the area surrounding the graveyard was holy. He attributed all misfortune in the area – including storms, the death of three students and of four others – to the Christian cemetery.

“We never experienced such misfortunes in our gewog [cluster of villages] before,” he said.

The daily explained that the tradition of use of human skulls and thigh bones in Buddhist rituals was as old as Tantric Buddhism itself. “Thoepai Dagpa is a generic name for the text that illustrates the use and study of quality of skulls,” it reported.

Tantric Buddhism, widespread in Bhutan, involves rituals as a substitute or alternative for the earlier abstract meditations.

An editorial in the same newspaper noted, “Our hunt for the criminal will probably lead us from the unplanned graveyard to the sacred altar.”

Report from Compass Direct News

Family of 17-Year-Old Somali Girl Abuses Her for Leaving Islam


Young Christian beaten, shackled to tree.

NAIROBI, Kenya, June 15 (CDN) — The Muslim parents of a 17-year-old Somali girl who converted to Christianity severely beat her for leaving Islam and have regularly shackled her to a tree at their home for more than a month, Christian sources said.

Nurta Mohamed Farah of Bardher, Gedo Region in southern Somalia, has been confined to her home since May 10, when her family found out that she had embraced Christianity, said a Christian leader who visited the area.

“When the woman’s family found out that she converted to Christianity, she was beaten badly but insisted on her new-found religion,” said the source on condition of anonymity.

Her parents also took her to a doctor who prescribed medication for a “mental illness,” he said. Alarmed by her determination to keep her faith, her father, Hassan Kafi Ilmi, and mother, Hawo Godane Haf, decided she had gone crazy and forced her to take the prescribed medication, but it had no effect in swaying her from her faith, the source said.

Traditionally, he added, many Somalis believe the Quran cures the sick, especially the mentally ill, so the Islamic scripture is continually recited to her twice a week.

“The girl is very sick and undergoing intense suffering,” he said.

Her suffering began after she declined her family’s offer of forgiveness in exchange for renouncing Christianity, the source said. The confinement began after the medication and punishments failed.

The tiny, shaken Christian community in Gedo Region reports that the girl is shackled to a tree by day and is put in a small, dark room at night, he said.

“There is little the community can do about her condition, which is very bad, but I have advised our community leader to keep monitoring her condition but not to meddle for their own safety,” the source told Compass. “We need prayers and human advocacy for such inhuman acts, and for freedom of religion for the Somali people.”

Somalia’s Transitional Federal Government generally did not enforce protection of religious freedom found in the Transitional Federal Charter, according to the U.S. Department of State’s 2009 International Religious Freedom Report.

“Non-Muslims who practiced their religion openly faced occasional societal harassment,” the report stated. “Conversion from Islam to another religion was considered socially unacceptable. Those suspected of conversion faced harassment or even death from members of their community.”

Report from Compass Direct News

Chinese Rights Lawyer Gao Zhisheng Missing Again


Two weeks after release, Christian vanishes while in police custody.

DUBLIN, May 7 (CDN) — Gao Zhisheng, a Christian human rights lawyer released by Chinese officials on April 6 and missing again since April 20, is “definitely in the hands of Chinese security forces,” Bob Fu of the China Aid Association (CAA) told Compass.

“We’ve heard the reports and we’re investigating this closely,” Fu said. “Right now nobody has been able to locate him. The Chinese security forces need to come up with an explanation.”

Gao, initially seized from his home in Shaanxi Province on Feb. 4, 2009 and held incommunicado by security officials for 13 months, was permitted to phone family members and colleagues in late March before officials finally returned him to his Beijing apartment on April 6.

In a press conference held in a Beijing teahouse the day after his return, Gao said he wanted to be reunited with his family, who fled to the United States in January 2009, and he claimed he no longer had the strength to continue his legal work. He also said he could not comment on the treatment he received while in captivity.

Gao also told a reporter from the South China Morning Post (SCMP) that he expected to travel to Urumqi within days of his release to visit his in-laws.

Witnesses saw Gao leaving his apartment sometime between April 9 and 12 and getting into a vehicle parked outside his building, SCMP reported on April 30. Gao’s father-in-law reportedly confirmed that Gao arrived at his home with an escort of four police officers but spent just one night there before police took him away again.

Gao phoned his father-in-law shortly before he was due to board a flight back to Beijing on April 20. He promised to call again after returning home but failed to do so, according to the SCMP report.

Fu said he believes that international pressure forced authorities to allow Gao a brief re-appearance to prove that he was alive before officials seized him again to prevent information leaking out about his experiences over the past year.

During a previous detention in 2007, Gao’s captors brutally tortured him and threatened him with death if he spoke about his treatment. Gao later described the torture in an open letter published by CAA in 2009.

Gao came to the attention of authorities early last decade when he began to investigate the persecution of house church Christians and Falun Gong members. In 2005 he wrote a series of open letters to President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao accusing the government of torturing Falun Gong members.

When the letters appeared, authorities revoked Gao’s law license and shut down his law firm, sources told CAA.

He was given a suspended three-year jail sentence in December 2006, following a confession that Gao later claimed was made under extreme duress, including torture and threats against his wife and children. Gao was then confined to his Beijing apartment under constant surveillance – forbidden to leave his home, use his phone or computer or otherwise communicate with the outside world, according to a report by The New York Times.

A self-taught lawyer and a Communist Party member until 2005, Gao was once recognized by the Ministry of Justice as one of the mainland’s top 10 lawyers for his pro bono work on human rights cases, according to SCMP.

Report from Compass Direct News 

Recent Incidents of Persecution


Madhya Pradesh, India, March 31 (CDN)Hindutva (Hindu nationalist) extremists accompanied by police officials on March 28 disrupted Christian worship in Raksha Nagar, Ranjhi, Jabalpur. The Global Council of Indian Christians reported that at 10:30 a.m. about 45 extremists from the Bajrang Dal broke into the service shouting Hindu slogans, followed by police, as Pastor Francis Zavier of the Apostolic Christian Assemblies was leading the service. Police took Vinay Ashwaley, Mangal Das Chowdhary, Panchwati Chowdhary, Shailesh Philemon, Mamta Chowdhary and Kanti Bai Chowdhary to the Ranjhi police station. A police official told Compass that the intruders were acting on a written complaint from a known Bajrang Dal activist identified only by his surname, Sonekar, that “conversion activities” were taking place at the church. Conversion and conversion activities are legal in India. After questioning the Christians for nearly three hours, police released them without charges as the allegations were baseless, an officer told Compass. The Fellowship of Pastors subsequently sent a written request for additional police security for Good Friday and Easter Sunday services.

New Delhi – Hindu extremists from the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) attacked Pastor Galdwin Masih and another Christian identified only as Pritam on March 25 in the Seema Puri area of New Delhi. The pastor was leading a prayer meeting where three RSS members were present. In the middle of the meeting they alerted other RSS members and, as they began to leave, threatened to beat the Christians. As Pastor Masih and Pritam were returning home, about 25 extremists stopped them on the road and beat them with cricket stumps and hockey sticks, leaving their bodies badly bruised. Pastor Gladwin called police, who rushed to the site as the extremists fled. A First Information Report was filed against the attackers, but no arrests had been made at press time.

Tamil Nadu – Local Hindu villagers in Palladam, Tiruppur, on March 23 filed a complaint against five Christians for carrying brochures depicting Hindu religion and gods as barbaric and glorifying Christianity. The Global Council of Indian Christians reported that the Christians from Nagercoil village, identified only as Kannian, Pride, Mathew, Paulraj and Vincent, visited Christians in Kullampalaya slum area to provide medical help. A local daily reported that the Christians were carrying brochures favoring Christianity over Hinduism and that their primary aim was “forcible conversion” by offering promises of free homes, money, food and jobs in foreign countries. The Evangelical Fellowship of India reported that Kama Nayakkampalayam police took the five Christians into custody, but after questioning them found them innocent and released them. They were released with a “soft warning to not indulge in such activities again,” reported the local-vernacular daily.

Andhra Pradesh – Hindu extremists in Anakapalli Mandal attacked Pastor Nireekshana Roa and his wife on March 22. Led by village head Ram Naidu, the extremists accused the couple of forceful conversion and beat them for preaching in the area. The couple was earlier attacked for organizing a prayer meeting in the area. Police refused to file the pastor’s complaint, and area Christian leaders were trying to intervene on the couple’s behalf at press time.

Chhattisgarh – About 25 Hindu extremists forced their way into the Sunday worship service of Believers Church of India in Raipur on March 21, threatening and cursing the Christians and seizing Bibles and other literature. An area source reported that at about 2 p.m. the extremists entered and threatened to beat the Christians if they did not leave the area; they also threatened to get a government employee present fired from her job if she continued in her Christian faith. Police detained the Christians for about three hours, during which they also issued threats for them to leave the area. The church members were said to be living in fear.

Chhattisgarh – About 40 Hindu extremists from the Bajrang Dal stopped the Sunday prayer meeting of Ebenezer Church in Kasdol on March 21. A source told Compass that at 3:30 p.m. the extremists angrily barged into the prayer meeting, accused the Christians of forceful conversion, tore Bibles and Christian literature and shut the church. They threatened the Christians with violence if they continued to hold prayer meetings. The extremists alerted police, and officers took some Christian leaders of the church, including Pastor Ravi Bagha, to the police station for about seven hours. Area Christians intervened and they were released without charges. Police refused to take the complaint of the Christians, reported the source.

Chhattisgarh – About 40 Hindu extremists from the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (World Hindu Council) on March 21 attacked Christian students and teachers at Personality Development Centre for Youth, a training center managed by Care for the People of India, in Durg. The extremists verbally abused them, burned Bibles and gospel literature and got them arrested on false charges of insulting the national flag. A source told Compass that at about 2 p.m. the extremists, carrying a national flag on which they had painted a red cross, forcefully entered the center and began beating the students. Later, with the criminally defaced flag as supposed evidence, the extremists filed a complaint of insulting the Indian flag against three teachers of the center. The three Christians were booked for insulting the national flag and were later released on bail. Praful Barrik, head of Care for the People of India, received medical treatment for injuries sustained in the attack.

Chhattisgarh – Hindu extremists from the Dharma Sena (Religious Army) on March 21 accused members of The Pentecostal Church of forceful conversion and beat them in Nandini, Durg. A source told Compass that about 35 extremists forcefully entered the church at about 1:30 p.m., as the Sunday meeting was winding up. At press time area Christian leaders were taking steps to register an FIR against the attackers.

Karnataka – Police arrested a pastor on March 15 after Hindu extremists filed a complaint against him of forceful conversion in Borgunta, Sullai Taluk, Mangalore. The Evangelical Fellowship of India reported that the incident took place when a Christian identified only as Pastor Valsalan of Bethesda Assemblies of God Church, along with his family, was visiting a church member’s home; about 30 Hindu extremists barged into the house and accused the pastor of forceful conversion. An area Bharatiya Janata Party member of the Legislative Assembly and other extremists pressured police authorities to arrest the pastor. Officers arrived and arrested him, and he was sent to central jail in Mangalore.

Madhya Pradesh – Hindu extremists from the Bajrang Dal in Badwani on March 13 stopped a meeting at a Christian convention and accused those in attendance of forceful conversion. Satsang (Fellowship) Ministry organized the three-day spiritual convention after obtaining permission from local police on March 12. The Christians went to police to say they had obtained permission for the convention, but officers sided with the extremists, telling the Christians to cease attending.

Karnataka – Based on a complaint by an area leader of the Hindu extremist Vishwa Hindu Parishad of forcible conversion, police on March 10 arrested Pastor Hanume Nayak of Good Shepherd Community Church and his wife. Officers questioned the couple in Chellur, and they were held in custody the entire night. With the intervention of area Christian leaders and that of a member of the Legislative Assembly, the Christians were released on bail the next day.

Chhattisgarh – Hindu extremists from the Bajrang Dal and Shiv Sena on March 9 attacked a pastor and warned him to leave the Kawardha area. Massing near the Christian’s house, about 20 Hindu extremists called for Pastor Sanatan Masih of The Christian Church to come out of his home, and then they began beating him, reported the Evangelical Fellowship of India. In an earlier incident on Feb. 15, the extremists had threatened to harm the pastor if he conducted any Christian activity. On March 3 they broke into The Christian Church and vandalized it, and police refused to register the complaint of Christians. In the March 9 attack, Pastor Masih sustained injuries to his mouth, back and stomach. At press time, he had relocated as a safety measure.

Karnataka – Hindu radicals in Periyapattinam, Mysore brutally beat Pastor Ravi Chandran, 30, on March 8. The pastor was leading a prayer service at a house in Banavara village, Periyapattinam at 11:30 a.m. when 10 to 15 Hindu extremists forced their way into the house. They hit the pastor with soda bottles and kicked and punched him repeatedly before leaving. Pastor Chandran received hospital treatment for a leg injury and for swelling on his head. A native of Chankeshwara Puram, Periyapattinam, Pastor Chandran has been in church leadership for the seven years and ministers at Gospel in Action Fellowship, with about 35 believers. The attack was reported to Somvarpet police station.

Andhra Pradesh – Hindu extremists beat a Christian identified only as Pastor Devaraju of Good Shepherd Community Church on March 7, locked his church building and confined him to his house for several hours in Timmajipet, Mahabubnagar. The All Indian Christian Council reported that the pastor and church members had opposed Hindu extremists trying to bury a body in a Christian cemetery with Hindu rituals on March 5. In response the Hindus retaliated with the March 7 attack. They confined the pastor to his room for nearly a day, threatening to take possession of the church building and turn it into a local community hall. At press time local Christian leaders were trying to help resolve the matter.

Karnataka – Hindu extremists allegedly led by a municipal councilor on Feb. 28 accused Christians in Karwar of forceful conversion and beat them till they fell unconscious on a roadside. Led by Raja Gowda, the extremists at about 6:30 p.m. charged onto the premises of New Life Fellowship Church, where Christians David Lambani and Satish Ambedkar were staying. The extremists verbally insulted them and dragged them out to the street before beating them unconscious. The Christians were rushed to the hospital. Lambani’s left ear drum was damaged, while Satish sustained head injuries and broken bones. Police registered a First Information Report against the attackers, but no arrests had been made at press time. Legal documents for the church site had been obtained, but area village leaders had stopped construction on November 2009 and in February.

Chhattisgarh – State police on Feb. 28 arrested six Christians after extremists filed a false complaint of forcible conversion. The Global Council of Indian Christians (GCIC) reported that Pastor Jose Thomas of the Indian Missionary Movement organized a meeting for around 40 Christians at Holy Kingdom English High School in Kawardha district. At around 2:30 p.m., a mob of nearly 50 Hindu nationalist extremists from the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh stormed into the school, verbally abused the Christians and made false allegations of forcible conversion. Kawardha police officials came to the school and arrested Pastor Thomas and five Christians, who were also charged with injuring or defiling a place of worship with intent to insult the religion of any class. Police Inspector Surinder Singh told Compass that local resident Chandra Prakash had filed the complaint against the Christians, and that they were released on bail on March 9. Singh denied GCIC allegations that the Christians were beaten inside the police station.

Madhya Pradesh – Police arrested a Christian who goes by this a single name, Adhwan, on Feb. 20 on charges of forceful conversion. A source reported that officers accused the preacher of forceful conversion and had previously arrested him on Jan. 23 for alleged forceful conversion, when he was sent to Champa district jail. Authorities also confiscated his passport. He had been released on bail on Jan. 27. On Feb. 20 police arrested him again on the same charges and released him the next day. Attorney Anurag Nath told Compass that police had no grounds for the arrests.

Andhra Pradesh – Hindu extremists on Feb. 15 ostracized an elderly couple for following Jesus in Timmaipet, Mahabubnagar, Hyderabad. The All Indian Christian Council reported that Mullugula Buddaiah, 70, and his 60-year-old wife Pullamma were cast out of the community for their faith in Christ as the extremists ordered the couple to vacate their house and leave the village. An area pastor identified only as Devaraju filed a police complaint, which officers refused to register. Local Christian leaders were taking steps to resolve the matter at press time. 

Report from Compass Direct News 

Spike in Anti-Christian Violence Feared before Burma Elections


Attacks on Christians seen as politically expedient in majority-Buddhist nation.

CHIANG MAI, Thailand, January 21 (CDN) — As Burma’s military junta gears up for its first parliamentary election in two decades this year, observers fear attacks on the Christian minority could intensify.

Mungpi Suangtak, assistant editor of a New Delhi-based news agency run by exiled Burmese journalists, the Mizzima News, said the Burmese junta has “one of the world’s worst human rights records” and will “definitely” attack religious and ethnic minorities more forcefully in the run-up to the election.

The military regime, officially known as the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC), pledged to hold the election this year, and analysts believe polls will be held after July in the country, also known as Myanmar.

Suangtak told Compass that the Buddhist nationalist junta would target Christians particularly in Karen state, bordering Thailand, and in Chin State, bordering India and Bangladesh.

Many Christians are part of the Karen National Union and the Chin National Front, armed resistance groups that have been demanding freedom or autonomy for their respective states for decades, and therefore the junta sees the Christian minority as a threat, said Suangtak.

There are over 100,000 Christian Chin refugees in India who have fled the junta’s attacks in the past two decades, according to Human Rights Watch.

Christians in Karen state are not safe. A Karen Christian worker living in the Mae La refugee camp on the Thailand-Burma border told Compass that ethnic Christians were facing human rights abuses by the junta “on a daily basis.” Most recently, Burma army soldiers attacked a church, murdered a local farmer and injured others in Nawng Mi village on Dec. 19, 2009, reported Burma Campaign UK.

Parts of Karen state fall under the “Black Zone” – identified by the Burma army as an area under the control of armed resistance groups where its soldiers are free to open fire on anyone on sight – and the junta has been launching indiscriminate attacks to take control of village after village, said the Karen Christian.

“Those who are not able to flee across the border during such attacks are either killed or forcibly relocated in and confined to temporary camps set up by the junta,” the Christian said. “Since the army litters surrounding areas with landmines, many local people die or get injured while trying to run away from or coming to the camps to look for their relatives.”

Over 150,000 refugees from Karen and neighboring Karenni states of Burma are living along the Thai side of the border, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. More than half of them are Christian.

A representative of the Free Burma Rangers (FBR), which trains and sends teams of local people to help victims of the junta’s attacks inside Burma, said youths have been forced to become Buddhists in Chin state, where over 80 percent of the people are Christian.

Printing of Bibles is restricted, and churches are destroyed on a regular basis in the state, the source told Compass on condition of anonymity.

Access for foreign visitors to Chin state is, with some exceptions, prohibited, and the state is widely acknowledged to be the poorest part of the country, said Rogers.

“According to one Chin, the reason Chin state is denied resources, and foreigners are denied access, is specifically because the overwhelming majority of Chins are Christian,” stated a 2009 report by London-based advocacy group Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW). “The SPDC has, it is believed, taken a deliberate decision to discriminate against Chin Christians.”

The report cited a Chin Christian man who had served in the Burma army who faced discrimination.

“I had a colleague who was a Chin who became a Buddhist and he was promoted,” the Christian says in the report. “I was told to change my religion if I wanted to get promotion. I refused to convert.”

The report also quoted a Chin Christian as saying that students from a Christian youth fellowship at a university in Kalaymyo, in Chin state’s Sagaing Division, collected funds among their own community to construct a small church.

“However, in 2008 and again in 2009, ‘extremist Buddhists’ destroyed the church building, and when the students reported the incident to the local authorities, the youth fellowship leaders were arrested, detained and then released with a warning,” he said.

Religious Pretext

Suangtak said successive governments in Burma have promoted Buddhism since General Ne Win took power in 1962, leaving Christians insecure.

“There is a general feeling in Burma that the state represents Buddhism, and most Christians, particularly from conservative sections, cannot trust the regime,” said Suangtak.

Benedict Rogers of CSW said the junta doesn’t differentiate between individual Christians involved in armed struggle and ordinary Christians who have not taken up arms.

“And when it attacks villages in conflict zones, churches and pastors are often among the first to be attacked,” Rogers said.

A Christian worker from Burma’s Mandalay city, however, told Compass that thus far he has heard no reports of any major anti-Christian incidents there. He said he was hoping the junta would try to woo people with peace rather than violence.

“But nothing can be said about the unpredictable junta,” he said, adding that it was difficult to receive or send information in Burma. “Even in cities, the information infrastructure is limited and expensive, phones are tapped and e-mails are monitored. And the press is owned by the state.”

Rogers, deputy chairman of the human rights commission for the U.K.’s Conservative Party, said the Buddhist nationalist regime “distorts and perverts Buddhism for political purposes and is intolerant of non-Burman and non-Buddhist ethnic and religious minorities, including Christians and Muslims.”

Of the 56 million people in Burma, around 89 percent are Buddhist, with only 4 percent Christian.

Given that the junta merely uses religion for political power, it doesn’t target Christians alone, Suangtak said.

“The junta has no respect for any religion, be it Christians or Buddhists, and anyone who opposes its rule is dealt with harshly.”

Burma was ruled by military regimes from 1962 to 1990; at that point the National League for Democracy party, led by Nobel Laureate Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, won the parliamentary election. But the regime seized power again by imprisoning members of parliament after the election.

Rogers, who has co-authored a soon-to-be-published biography of SPDC chairman Senior General Than Shwe, said that while the armed groups are not perfect, they are essentially fighting to defend their people against a “brutal regime” and are “not in any way terrorists.”

“The armed groups have sometimes launched pre-emptive attacks on the military, but they have never attacked non-military targets and have never engaged in indiscriminate acts of violence,” he said. “Even the pre-emptive acts are conducted for defensive, rather than offensive, purposes.”

Rogers added that resistance groups were fighting to defend their people.

“Individual Christians who have joined the armed ethnic groups do so out of a perfectly biblical concept of just war, the right to defend your people from gross injustice.”

Added an FBR source, “In Burma, no one protects except the pro-democracy resistance groups, and all relief inside the country is only possible because of them.”

International Disrepute

The 2009 annual report of the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom states that Burma’s military junta had “one of the world’s worst human rights records.”

“Burma’s Christian populations face forced promotion of Buddhism and other hardships in ethnic minority areas where low-intensity conflict has been waged for decades,” the report states. “In addition, a new law passed in early 2009 essentially bans independent ‘house church’ religious venues, many of which operate because permission to build church buildings is regularly denied.”

The report also pointed out that in January 2009, authorities in Rangoon ordered at least 100 churches to stop holding services and forced them to sign pledges to that effect. Burma, which the ruling junta describes as “The Golden Land” on its official website, has been designated as a Country of Particular Concern by the U.S. Department of State since 1999.

Even after the 2010 election, little is expected to change.

The FBR source said the election was not likely to be free and fair, pointing out that the new constitution the junta adopted after an apparently rigged referendum in 2008 virtually enshrined military power.

“However, having an election is better than not having one at all,” the source said.

Report from Compass Direct News 

Coptic Blogger in Egypt Pressured to Convert in Prison


Christian critical of Islamization of society, Orthodox church jailed without charges.

ISTANBUL, October 31 (CDN) — A Coptic Christian blogger in Egypt entering his second year of prison without charge is being pressured to convert to Islam in exchange for his freedom, his attorneys said.

On Oct. 3, 2008, Hani Nazeer, a 28-year-old high school social worker from Qena, Egypt and author of the blog “Karz El Hob” (“Love Cherries”), was arrested by Egypt’s State Security Investigations (SSI) and sent to Burj Al-Arab prison. Although police never charged him with any crime, Nazeer has been detained for more than a year under Egypt’s administrative imprisonment law.

Gamel Eid, executive director of the Arabic Network for Human Rights Information (ANHRI), the group representing Nazeer, said Nazeer was arrested unfairly and now is being coerced to abandon his faith.

“Hani complains about that, it happened, and it’s true,” said Eid. “But the police do it in a subtle way. They do it by inspiring the inmates to suggest to Nazeer that if he converts to Islam, police will work to get him out of prison.”

Nazeer is confined in what is commonly known as the “general population” area of the prison, meaning he is housed with both violent and non-violent felons. Nazeer told his attorneys he is often treated harshly. Despite this, Eid said Nazeer is constant in his faith.

A few days before his arrest, on Oct. 1, 2008, a group of young Muslims in Nag Hammadi saw his website and clicked on a link to an online copy of “Azazil’s Goat in Mecca,” a novel written under the pseudonym “Father Utah.” The book is a response to “Azazil,” a novel critical of Christianity by Yusuf Zidane that is famous in Egypt.

While Zidane’s critique of Christianity garnered him awards throughout the Arab world, locals protested the link to Utah’s site.

Insulting religion is considered a crime in Egypt, although typically the law is only enforced when Islam is criticized. Police have not publicly produced any evidence linking Nazeer to Utah’s work. After Nazeer was arrested, posts continued on Utah’s website. It is unclear if the teenagers who saw Nazeer’s website and were offended were students at his school.

Eid said the deeper issue was that Nazeer upset Islamic authorities by criticizing the increasing Islamization of Egyptian civil society and irked church leaders by lamenting political involvement of the Coptic Orthodox Church. In one post, Nazeer wrote said that a gathering of activists at a Coptic church was inappropriate because churches were meant to be venues for prayer, not for politics.

Police had detained Nazeer’s relatives at a police station and threatened to hold them until he came out of hiding, Eid said, and Nazeer turned himself into a police station in October 2008 – on the advice of Bishop Kirollos of Nag Hammadi, Nazeer reported to his attorneys.

Kirollos assured Nazeer he would be detained no more than four days and then be released. According to Nazeer and the ANHRI, the bishop colluded with authorities to get rid of Nazeer, whose online criticism had become bothersome.

“[Kirollos] is the one who turned me in after he denounced me to security,” Nazeer told his attorneys. “He bluffed [that] we were going for a short investigation and it will be all over. Then I found out it was a charade to turn me in to state security.”

Eid claimed the arrest achieved two complementary goals for police and Kirollos – calming those protesting “Azazil’s Goat in Mecca,” and silencing a blogger who had been critical of Islamic hardliners and the Coptic Orthodox Church.

All attempts to reach Kirollos were unsuccessful. Several attempts to reach Bishop Anba Yoannes, authorized to speak about the case on behalf of the Coptic Orthodox Church’s Pope Shenouda III, were also unsuccessful. Egypt’s SSI, a political police force run by the Interior minister, routinely declines to comment on cases.

Release Orders Invalidated

Nazeer’s attorneys are set to appeal his imprisonment on Sunday (Nov. 1), but it is unclear how or even if the appeal will affect his case. Courts have ordered Nazeer’s release several times before. The SSI has rendered the orders for release invalid by invoking the country’s longstanding emergency law, which supersedes court authority.

When local police execute a court order to release prisoners held under the emergency law, security police commonly re-arrest them minutes later. The law, enacted after the 1981 assassination of President Anwar Sadat, allows authorities to hold people without charge. Eid estimated that there are approximately 14,000 people imprisoned under this law.

Eid said Nazeer’s case is extremely difficult.

“Hani is in between the hate of the Islamists and the hate of the Christians,” he said. “The Islamists of course are against him, and the church [leadership] is against him, so he’s being badly squeezed between the two.”

Kalldas Fakhry Girgis, Nazeer’s cousin, saw him 15 days ago. Girgis said that despite Nazeer’s confinement, he is in good spirits. He remains strong in his faith and his convictions.

“He wants to know why he’s been arrested,” Girgis said about his cousin. “He’s hopeful. His morale is high. But he is feeling stressed.”

Report from Compass Direct News