Legal Status Foreseen for Christianity in Buddhist Bhutan


Country’s religious regulatory authority expected to consider recognition before year’s end.

NEW DELHI, November 4 (CDN) — For the first time in Bhutan’s history, the Buddhist nation’s government seems ready to grant much-awaited official recognition and accompanying rights to a miniscule Christian population that has remained largely underground.

The authority that regulates religious organizations will discuss in its next meeting – to be held by the end of December – how a Christian organization can be registered to represent its community, agency secretary Dorji Tshering told Compass by phone.

Thus far only Buddhist and Hindu organizations have been registered by the authority, locally known as Chhoedey Lhentshog. As a result, only these two communities have the right to openly practice their religion and build places of worship.

Asked if Christians were likely to get the same rights soon, Tshering replied, “Absolutely” – an apparent paradigm shift in policy given that Bhutan’s National Assembly had banned open practice of non-Buddhist and non-Hindu religions by passing resolutions in 1969 and in 1979.

“The constitution of Bhutan says that Buddhism is the country’s spiritual heritage, but it also says that his majesty [the king] is the protector of all religions,” he added, explaining the basis on which the nascent democracy is willing to accept Christianity as one of the faiths of its citizens.

The former king of Bhutan, Jigme Singye Wangchuck, envisioned democracy in the country in 2006 – after the rule of an absolute monarchy for over a century. The first elections were held in 2008, and since then the government has gradually given rights that accompany democracy to its people.

The government’s move to legalize Christianity seems to have the consent of the present king, Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck, who is respected by almost all people and communities in the country. In his early thirties, the king studied in universities in the United States and the United Kingdom. Prime Minister Lyonchen Jigmey Thinley is also believed to have agreed in principle to recognition of other faiths.

According to source who requested anonymity, the government is likely to register only one Christian organization and would expect it to represent all Christians in Bhutan – which would call for Christian unity in the country.

All Hindus, who constitute around 22 percent of Bhutan’s less than 700,000 people, are also represented by one legal entity, the Hindu Dharma Samudaya (Hindu Religion Community) of Bhutan, which was registered with the Chhoedey Lhentshog authority along with Buddhist organizations a year ago.

Tshering said the planned discussion at the December meeting is meant to look at technicalities in the Religious Organizations Act of 2007, which provides for registration and regulation of religious groups with intent to protect and promote the country’s spiritual heritage. The government began to enforce the Act only in November 2009, a year after the advent of democracy.

Asked what some of the government’s concerns are over allowing Christianity in the country, Tshering said “conversion must not be forced, because it causes social tensions which Bhutan cannot afford to have. However, the constitution says that no one should be forced to believe in a religion, and that aspect will be taken care of. We will ensure that no one is forced to convert.”

The government’s willingness to recognize Christians is partly aimed at bringing the community under religious regulation, said the anonymous source. This is why it is evoking mixed response among the country’s Christians, who number around 6,000 according to rough estimates.

Last month, a court in south Bhutan sentenced a Christian man to three years of prison for screening films on Christianity – which was criticized by Christian organizations around the world. (See http://www.compassdirect.org, “Christian in Bhutan Imprisoned for Showing Film on Christ,” Oct. 18.)

The government is in the process of introducing a clause banning conversions by force or allurement in the country’s penal code.

Though never colonized, landlocked Bhutan has historically seen its sovereignty as fragile due to its small size and location between two Asian giants, India and China. It has sought to protect its sovereignty by preserving its distinct cultural identity based on Buddhism and by not allowing social tensions or unrest.

In the 1980s, when the king sought to strengthen the nation’s cultural unity, ethnic Nepalese citizens, who are mainly Hindu and from south Bhutan, rebelled against it. But a military crackdown forced over 100,000 of them – some of them secret Christians – to either flee to or voluntarily leave the country for neighboring Nepal.

Tshering said that while some individual Christians had approached the authority with queries, no organization had formally filed papers for registration.

After the December meeting, if members of the regulatory authority feel that Chhoedey Lhentshog’s mandate does not include registering a Christian organization, Christians will then be registered by another authority, the source said.

After official recognition, Christians would require permission from local authorities to hold public meetings. Receiving foreign aid or inviting foreign speakers would be subject to special permission from the home ministry, added the source.

Bhutan’s first contact with Christians came in the 17th century when Guru Rimpoche, a Buddhist leader and the unifier of Bhutan as a nation state, hosted the first two foreigners, who were Jesuits. Much later, Catholics were invited to provide education in Bhutan; the Jesuits came to Bhutan in 1963 and the Salesians in 1982 to run schools. The Salesians, however, were expelled in 1982 on accusations of proselytizing, and the Jesuits left the country in 1988.

“As Bhutanese capacities (scholarly, administrative and otherwise) increased, the need for active Jesuit involvement in the educational system declined, ending in 1988, when the umbrella agreement between the Jesuit order and the kingdom expired and the administration of all remaining Jesuit institutions was turned over to the government,” writes David M. Malone, Canada’s high commissioner to India and ambassador to Bhutan, in the March 2008 edition of Literary Review of Canada.

After a Christian organization is registered, Christian institutions may also be allowed once again in the country, given the government’s stress on educating young Bhutanese.

A local Christian requesting anonymity said the community respects Bhutan’s political and religious leaders, especially the king and the prime minister, will help preserve the country’s unique culture and seeks to contribute to the building of the nation.

Report from Compass Direct News

Indonesian Muslims Call for Halt to ‘Christianization’


Forum highlights religious tensions in Bekasi, West Java.

DUBLIN, July 2 (CDN) — Muslim organizations in Bekasi, West Java, on Sunday (June 27) declared their intention to establish paramilitary units in local mosques and a “mission center” to oppose “ongoing attempts to convert people to Christianity,” according to the national Antara news agency.

At a gathering at the large Al Azhar mosque, the leaders of nine organizations announced the results of a Bekasi Islamic Congress meeting on June 20, where they agreed to establish a mission center to halt “Christianization,” form a Laskar Pemuda youth army and push for implementation of sharia (Islamic law) in the region, The Jakarta Post reported.

“If the Muslims in the city can unite, there will be no more story about us being openly insulted by other religions,” Ahmad Salimin Dani, head of the Bekasi Islamic Missionary Council, announced at the gathering. “The center will ensure that Christians do not act out of order.”

Observing an increasing number of house churches, Muslim organizations have accused Bekasi Christians of aggressive proselytizing. The Rev. Simon Timorason of the West Java Christian Communication Forum (FKKB), however, told Compass that most Christians in the area do not proselytize and meet only in small home fellowships due to the lack of officially recognized worship venues.

Many Christian seminary graduates prefer to remain on Java rather than relocate to distant islands, Timorason added, making West Java the ideal place to launch new home-based fellowships for different denominations. But neighbors see only the multiplication of churches, he said, and therefore suspect Muslims are converting to the Christian faith.

“The ideal solution is to have one building with a permit to be used by different denominations in each housing complex,” Timorason said. “If every denomination wants their own church in the same area, it’s a problem.”

 

Declaration of Intent

Kanti Prajogo, chairman of the Congress committee, had hoped to present a written declaration of intent to city officials at the mosque gathering, but officials did not respond to his invitation, according to The Jakarta Post.

Around 200 people attended the June 20 Congress, representing local organizations such as the Bekasi Interfaith Dialogue Forum, the Bekasi Movement Against Apostasy, the local chapters of Muhammadiyah and the Indonesian Ulema Council (MUI) – two of Indonesia’s largest Muslim organizations – and the Islamic Defenders Front (FPI), well known for its aggressive opposition to Christians and other non-Muslim groups.

Government officials on Monday (June 28) called for the FPI to be declared a forbidden organization, claiming that FPI members were implicated in “too many” violent incidents.

“We are not concerned about their mission,” legislator Eva Kusuma Sundari reportedly said at a press conference in Jakarta, “but we are concerned about the way they implement their goals.”

A spokesman for another large organization, Nahdlatul Ulama (NU), said Tuesday (July 28) that despite one member being present at the congress in an unofficial capacity, NU had not approved the joint declaration, contradicting a statement made the previous day by Bekasi NU official Abul Mutholib Jaelani, who told The Jakarta Post that he had asked all 56 NU branches in the city to contribute at least 10 members to the youth army.

 

Contributing to Religious Conflict

Rapid residential and industrial development has created huge social problems in Bekasi. Sociologist Andi Sopandi of Bekasi Islamic University told The Jakarta Post that the call for sharia was a warning signal, and that local officials should urgently pursue dialogue between Muslim and Christian leaders.

Locals and newcomers will get along well only if they share similar basic values, particularly religious ones, Sopandi reportedly said, pointing to sharp disputes over the Filadelfia Huria Kristen Batak Protestan (HKBP) church in Jejalen Jaya sub-district earlier this year as an example.

A neighbor of the church confessed to The Jakarta Post that local clerics had asked him and other residents to sign a petition against constructing the HKBP church building and threatened not to pray at their funerals if they failed to cooperate; the majority of his neighbors signed the document under duress.

Under a 2006 Joint Ministerial Decree (SKB), at least 60 local residents must approve the establishment of a house of worship, whether a mosque or a church. The congregation must also have at least 90 members and obtain letters of recommendation from the local interfaith communication forum (FKUB) and religious affairs office before gaining final approval from district officials.

These terms make it virtually impossible for churches in Bekasi to obtain building permits. Bekasi regency has a population of 1.9 million, of which 98.2 percent are Muslim, according to 2006 data from the Bekasi Regency Religious Affairs office. Protestants, who form 0.67 percent (approximately 12,700 people) of the population, and Catholics who make up 0.55 percent, are served by only 16 officially recognized churches in seven of the 23 sub-districts.

Sudarno Soemodimedjo, deputy chief of the Bekasi FKUB, told The Jakarta Post in February that even if a church construction committee gained the approval of 60 local residents, the FKUB would not issue a letter of recommendation if there were any public objections.

“The SKB orders us to maintain public order, which means we have to refuse the establishment of a house of worship we believe may trigger a conflict in the future,” he said.

As a result, many Christians meet in unrecognized worship venues, giving Muslim groups legal grounds to oppose church gatherings.

“If the SKB was applied consistently, many mosques that were built without permits would have to close,” Timorason told Compass.

The government wants each new settlement to have a place of worship, he added, “but it’s always a mosque. There should be one of each to be fair.”

“Violations against freedom of religion remain rampant [in Indonesia],” confirmed the chairman of the Setara Institute for Democracy and Peace, who goes by the single name of Hendardi, at a press conference announcing the release of its January 2010 “Report on the Condition of Religious and Faith Freedom in Indonesia.”

“This is mostly because the government is half-hearted in its upholding of the right to worship,” he said.

Of 139 violations recorded by the institute last year, West Java took first place with 57 incidents, followed closely by Jakarta at 38.

Report from Compass Direct News

Another Copt Killed as Alleged Shooters Plead Not Guilty in Egypt


Coptic carpenter killed outside building that Muslims feared would be used as church.

ISTANBUL, February 16 (CDN) — Three men accused of killing six Coptic worshipers and a security guard pleaded not guilty on Saturday (Feb. 13) as the Coptic community mourned the loss of yet another victim of apparent anti-Christian violence.

The three men allegedly sprayed a crowd with gunfire after a Christmas service in Nag Hammadi on Jan. 6. In addition to the seven that were killed, nine others were wounded. The killings were the worst act of anti-Coptic violence since January 2000, when 20 Copts were killed in sectarian fighting in Al-Kosheh.

Defendants Mohammed al-Kammuni, Qorshi Abul Haggag and Hendawi Sayyed appeared Saturday in an emergency security court in Qena, a city 39 miles (63 kilometers) north of Luxor.

In front of the packed courtroom, the three men said little at the hearing other than to enter their plea before Judge Mohammed Adul Magd, according to one attorney present at the hearing. The men are charged with premeditated murder, public endangerment and damaging property.

Numerous Muslim attorneys volunteered to defend them for free as seven attorneys representing the interests of the victims looked on. The next hearing is set for March 20.

Even as the men entered their pleas, the Coptic community mourned the loss of yet another Christian, this one shot dead by police. On the evening of Feb. 9, Malak Saad, a 25-year-old Coptic carpenter living in Teta in Menoufia Province, was walking outside a meeting hall that police had seized from Christians when he was shot through his chest at close range. He died instantly.

Scant details are known about the shooting. Police surrounded the entire village and closed it to all reporters. In a statement, officials at the Interior Ministry said the Saad was killed by mistake when a bullet discharged while a police guard was cleaning his weapon. The Interior Ministry said the shooter has been detained and will be tried in a military court. Such courts are traditionally closed to the public.

One of Saad’s cousins, who requested anonymity, disputed the Interior Ministry’s version of the incident. He said that the guard had used the bathroom inside the meeting hall and had come outside of the building when he exchanged a few words with Saad and shot him at close range. The bullet went completely through Saad’s chest.

The building in question had been Coptic-owned for 16 years, but two days prior to the shooting, police seized it after a group of Muslims started a rumor that the owners planned to convert the hall into a church building.

Disputes over worship venues are common in Egypt. Copts and other Christians are extremely restricted in opening or even maintaining houses of worship because of complex government statutes. Anti-Christian elements within Egyptian society often use the statutes to harass Christians, Christian leaders said.

Christians Arrested

Following the Jan. 6 shootings, in a move that Christian leaders said was designed to silence the Coptic community’s protests, police began going door to door and arresting Coptic men in their late teens and 20s. Reports vary widely on the numbers of how many men were arrested, but 15 arrests have been confirmed.

Early in the morning of Jan. 8, officers from State Security Intelligence appeared at the home of Tanios Samuel looking for a different house. When officers realized they were at the wrong home, they arrested his brothers, Fady Milad Samuel, 21, and Wael Milad Samuel, 24.

“We are Copts. It is their country, they will do whatever they want,” Tanios Samuel said about the arrests.

He said the government is using his brothers and the others arrested as pawns to silence dissent. He said he lives in fear for himself and his brothers.

“The families are very scared – scared of violence, getting threats all the time,” Samuel said. “All we want is peace.”

Last month’s attack brought widespread outrage across the Coptic community and from human rights groups around the world.

Since his rise to power in 1981, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak has avoided classifying any anti-Coptic attack as part of a larger sectarian struggle within the country. His critics however, have long said his policies or lack thereof contribute greatly to the anti-Christian climate within the country.

Although freedom of religion is guaranteed in Egypt’s constitution, Islam is the official state religion. In public schools, the Quran is used to teach Arabic.

On Jan. 21, Mubarak made an uncharacteristically strong statement about the shootings to MENA, the government-run news agency.

“The criminal act in Nag Hammadi has bled the hearts of Egyptians,” he said. “I hasten to affirm that the reasonable people of this nation, and its religious leaders and thinkers … bear the greater responsibility to contain discord and ignorance and blind fanaticism and to confront the despicable sectarian strife that threatens the unity of our society.”

Despite Mubaraks’s comments, the government has characterized the attack as either a random criminal act or as one done in reaction to a November incident in which a 21-year-old Christian man allegedly raped a 12-year-old Muslim girl.

In an interview with BBC Arabic, Dr. Fathi Sourour, head of the Egyptian Parliament, said, “The Nag Hammadi shooting of Christians on Christmas Eve was a single criminal act, with no sectarian dimensions.” He added that the crime was “prompted by the ‘death’ of a Muslim girl as a result of being raped by a Copt.”

Later, commenting on a report about the incident, he described the shootings as “a clash between two brothers living in one home.”

Copts, however, have a starkly different impression of the shooting.

Georgette Qillini, a Coptic member of the Egyptian Parliament, described the attack as “a purely sectarian crime and by no means an individual criminal attack,” the Egyptian newspaper Al-Ahram reported.

Ibtessam Habib, another Coptic Parliament member, agreed that “sectarian rather than personal motives lie behind the Nag Hammadi attack.”

Report from Compass Direct News 

Reformed Particular Baptist Fellowship – Forums


ScreenShot_RPBF001 Reformed Particular Baptist Fellowship is a social network/community for Reformed/Particular Baptists that provides a wonderful opportunity for members to communicate, interact, contribute and fellowship with other Particular and Reformed Baptists from around the world. We also welcome other Reformed brethren to our community, but ask you to always remember that this is a ‘Baptistic’ group and it will therefore reflect the distinctives of such believers as expressed in the 1689 London Baptist Confession of Faith.

Visit and join the community at:
http://grou.ps/particularbaptist

ScreenShot_RPBFForum001 One of the features of our community is the active forum/message boards. Though relatively young, the message boards/forum is providing a wonderful forum for discussing a wide range of topics, including books being read by members, prayer points, current relevant news/trends, theology, Bible studies, etc.

If you want to get involved visit our community at:
http://grou.ps/particularbaptist/talks

MEXICO: ‘TRADITIONALIST CATHOLICS’ ATTACK, EXPEL CHRISTIANS


Evangelicals in two states lose homes, crops for refusing to participate in religious revelry.

MEXICO CITY, August 19 (Compass Direct News) – “Traditionalist Catholic” leaders last month expelled 57 evangelical Christians from towns in two states for refusing to participate in their religious festivals.

Leaders of traditionalist Catholicism, a mixture of Roman Catholicism and native rituals, expelled 32 Christians from their homes in a village in Hidalgo state and another 25 from a town in Oaxaca; in each case, the evangelicals were deprived of their property for refusing to participate in drunken festivals that included worship of Catholic icons.

Hundreds of evangelical Christians from six states of Mexico organized a caravan on Aug. 10 on behalf of the 32 evangelicals from Los Parajes, near Huejutla in Hidalgo state, who were violently torn from their homes on July 13 when the town’s traditionalist Catholic leaders struck them with machetes and ropes. They were forced to leave behind 121 acres of land planted with crops, as well as their homes and animals.

The 32 Christians in Hidalgo state, north of Mexico City, say they have lost their entire crops of corn and sesame, and they are missing the season for planting jicama.

Cars and buses forming the caravan met at noon in the town of Tantoyuca, Hidalgo, proceeding together with police escort to Huejutla, where they left their vehicles and continued on foot toward the central plaza carrying the Mexican flag, a Christian flag, and placards with messages of love and support. Pastor Carlos Del Angel of Cerro Azul, Veracruz organized the protest, with the demonstrators also bringing food and clothing to the victims.

At press time Christian lawyer Samuel Noguera had still not been able to reach a solution with authorities. One of the expelled evangelical leaders, Enrique García, told newspaper Milenio Hidalgo on Aug. 11 that local and state authorities should respect the rights of those who have been expelled.

“It seems to me impossible that once it has been proven that all of us evangelicals have fulfilled our obligations to the town, we should still be exiled,” García reportedly said. “I understand that approximately 70 percent of the population of Los Parajes is open to our return.”

In February the Christians had reached an agreement with the community allowing them to choose to follow their own faith, but when Enedino Luna Cruz became town leader he burned the document, according to the evangelicals.

At first the expelled group, including two infants, four other small children, and several older adults, took refuge in two rooms of Benito Juarez School in nearby Huejutla, sleeping on the floor and going without food and water – and quashing plans for a 15th birthday celebration, a traditional Mexican quinceanera or “coming out” party, for Alejandra Dorotea Gerónimo, according to local newspapers.

The Milenio Hidalgo newspaper reported on July 28 that townspeople in Los Parajes had offered to allow the Christians to return if they denied their faith and paid the equivalent of nearly $13,900 in “fines” for having refused to contribute to the traditionalist Catholic festivals, but they refused.

“We are being treated as though we were delinquents for being evangelicals,” one Christian leader, Roberto Hernandez, told Milenio Diario on July 21.

The men were prohibited from leaving the school to try to earn money for food and were forbidden to tend to their crops.

Milenio Hidalgo later reported that on August 4 the refugees were moved out of the school into a small house with three rooms, one bathroom, and no tables or beds. Due to lack of space, the men were unable to lie down to sleep at night. Following the Aug. 10 caravan, the Milenio Hidalgo reported that the group would be relocated to a larger house with five bedrooms and two baths.

Three years prior, town officials had cut off water and electricity service to the seven Christian families in the village for being unwilling to return to Catholicism. At that time the pastor of the group was beaten and tied up in a futile effort to force him to change his faith. Likewise, in the current case authorities told the Christians their expulsion could have been avoided if they had rejected their faith.

Death Threat

In the Yavelotzi community near San Jacinto, Oaxaca, 25 Christians were threatened and expelled from their homes for the same reasons on July 17, according to Christian support organization Open Doors.

The Netherlands-based organization said local authorities of Yavelotzi threatened to beat and kill a group of evangelical Christians on that day if they did not leave the community at once. The Christians had refused to participate in week-long parties characterized by drunkenness and worship of Catholic icons.

The 25 Christians left behind their homes, crops and communal rights – necessary for gaining access to government assistance – and were warned not to return unless they renounced their faith in Jesus Christ, according to Open Doors. They relocated to a nearby community called Rancho Tabla.

To prevent them from returning to their homes, Yavelotzi officials have taken away their land and have refused to allow their children to register for school, the organization said in a statement.

In nearby Arroyo Copete, according to Open Doors, traditionalist Catholic leaders have refused to allow the children of 10 Christian families to register for school, and are forcing the families to participate in the Catholic festivals. The officials assert that the evangelicals are not participating in the obligatory community service, but evangelicals say contributing to that service requires them to participate in “idol worship” as well.

In the Yavelotzi conflict, lawyers for both sides were to meet on July 25, but it was postponed at the last minute as the attorney for the Yavelotzi community was unable to attend.

Report from Compass Direct News 

REFORMED PARTICULAR BAPTIST FELLOWSHIP


The ‘Reformed Particular Baptist Fellowship’ community (social network / group) is a Particular and Reformed Baptist Community, providing a wonderful opportunity for members to communicate, interact, contribute and fellowship with other Particular and Reformed Baptists from around the world. We also welcome other Reformed brethren to our community, but ask you to always remember that this is a ‘Baptistic’ group and it will therefore reflect the distinctives of such believers as expressed in the 1689 London Baptist Confession of Faith.

There are actually two sites in this community. This is our new and main site. The other site is at http://particularbaptist.ning.com/ (on the Ning Platform), where the community first begun. Eventually I hope to have the site completely contained here on the Grou.ps platform. Because Grou.ps allows very limited customisation of member profiles I have decided to keep the Ning site going for the time being, with the hope that members of the first site will move to Grou.ps when they are comfortable to do so (the Ning site will then be closed). Should members of the community choose to continue on both sites for the time being, it will be necessary to switch between sites, perhaps having two tabs open in your browser).

Please have a look around the site and familiarise yourself with all that is on offer. This platform is in ‘Beta’ development, meaning there is still some way to go before it is fully functional and all features are working in a stable manner (so please be patient).

I would encourage all members of the community to become actively involved and contribute regularly, thereby making our community all the stronger and vibrant.

Introducing Community Features:

At the top of the page is the directory menu if you like. These ‘buttons’ will take you to the main sections of the community and appear on most pages within the community (except at Ning of course). In brief, this is what you will find within the community at each of these locations:

  • My Page: This location is a members individual profile page, including such things as a comment wall and a record of your recent activity within the community.

  • Mems: This location shows all the members of the community.

  • Maps: This location allows for members of the community to plot their current location on a map, etc.

  • Calendar: This location allows community members to mark events on a calendar, pass on event details, etc.

  • Wiki: This location is the ‘Particular Baptist Systematic Theology Encyclopedia’ wiki, which works in in a similar fashion as Wikipedia.

  • Forum: This is a location to discuss various questions and topics raised by community members.

  • Blog: This is a Blog that is open to all community members to post on – sort of like an ‘open mic’ type approach to Blogging.

  • Files: This is a location for community members to share files with other community members, such as books, articles, slideshows, presentations, etc.

  • Links: This is a place for community members to share links they have found useful.

  • Photo: This is a place for community members to share photos with one another.

  • Video: This is a place for community members to share videos with one another.

  • Music: This is a place for community members to share music with one another.

  • Groups: This is a place for community members to set up there own groups within the community – you may have a Bible Study Group, a Church Group, etc.

  • Contact: This is a place to contact administration.

In short, I am very hopeful that this community location will be far superior to that of the previous. Please join and grow with us.

Visit Reformed Particular Baptist Fellowship at:
http://grou.ps/particularbaptist/home

Visit the network’s ‘parent’ web site at:
http://particularbaptist.com/

Kevin – founder of the Reformed Particular Baptist Fellowship

TURKEY: ‘INSULTING TURKISHNESS’ CASE PROCEEDS UNDER REVISED LAW


Ministry of Justice decision suggests spreading Christianity may be unlawful in Turkey.

ISTANBUL, March 20 (Compass Direct News) – Turkey’s decision last month to try two Christians under a revised version of a controversial law for “insulting Turkishness” because they spoke about their faith came as a blow to the country’s record of freedom of speech and religion.

A Silivri court on Feb. 24 received the go-ahead from the Ministry of Justice to try Christians Turan Topal and Hakan Tastan under the revised Article 301 – a law that has sparked outrage among proponents of free speech as journalists, writers, activists and lawyers have been tried under it. The court had sent the case to the Ministry of Justice after the government on May 8, 2008 put into effect a series of changes – which critics have called “cosmetic” – to the law.

The justice ministry decision came as a surprise to Topal and Tastan and their lawyer, as missionary activities are not illegal in Turkey. Defense lawyer Haydar Polat said no concrete evidence of insulting Turkey or Islam has emerged since the case first opened two years ago.

“The trial will continue from where it left off – to be honest, we thought they wouldn’t give permission [for the case to continue],” said Polat, “because there was no persuasive evidence of ‘degrading Turkishness and Islam’ in the case file.”

A Ministry of Justice statement claimed that approval to try the case came in response to the original statement by three young men – Fatih Kose, Alper Eksi and Oguz Yilmaz – that Topal and Tastan were conducting missionary activities in an effort to show that Islam was a primitive and fictitious religion that results in terrorism, and to portray Turks as a “cursed people.”

Prosecutors have yet to produce any evidence indicating the defendants described Islam in these terms, and Polat said Turkey’s constitution grants all citizens freedom to choose, be educated in and communicate their religion, making missionary activities legal.

“This is the point that really needs to be understood,” said Polat. “In Turkey, constitutionally speaking it is not a crime to be a Christian or to disseminate the Christian faith. However, in reality there have been problems.”

The lawyer contended that prosecuting lawyers have given political dimensions to the case by rendering baseless accusations in a nationalistic light.

“From their point of view, missionary activity carried out by missionaries of imperialistic countries is harmful for Turkish culture and the country overall,” Polat said.

Tastan said that although he has always been confident that he and Topal will be acquitted, the decision of the Ministry of Justice to try them under Article 301 left him deeply disappointed in his own country.

“After this last hearing, I realized that I didn’t feel as comfortable as I had been in the past,” Tastan told Compass. “I believed that surely the Ministry of Justice would never make the decision they did.”

Tastan said he was uneasy that his country would deem his Christian faith as insulting to the very Turkishness in which he takes pride.

“This is the source of my uneasiness: I love this country so much, this country’s people, that as a loving Turk who is a Christian to be tried for insulting Turkey has really cut me up,” said Tastan. “Because I love this nation, I’ve never said anything against it. That I’m a Christian, yes, I say that and I will continue to do so. But I think they are trying to paint the image that we insult, dislike and hate Turks. This really makes me sad and heartsick.”

If nothing else, Tastan said, the trial has provided an opportunity for Turkish Christians to show God’s love and also make themselves known to their compatriots. He called the ministerial decision duplicitous.

“A government that talks the European Union talk, claims to respect freedom, democracy, and accept everyone, yet rejects me even though I’m a Turkish citizen who is officially a Christian on his ID card, has made me sad,” he said. “That’s why I’m disappointed.”

 

No-Shows

At the time of their arrests, Topal and Tastan were volunteers with The Bible Research Center, which last week acquired official association status and is now called “The Society for Propagating Knowledge of the Bible.” In the last court hearing, prosecutors demanded that further inquiries be conducted into the nature of the association since the defendants used their contact lists to reach people interested in Christianity.

“Because they think like this, they believe that the Bible center is an important unit to the missionary activities,” said Polat. “And they allege that those working at this center are also guilty.”

The court has yet to decide whether police can investigate the Christian association.

Polat and the defendants said they believe that as no evidence has been presented, the case should come to a conclusion at the next hearing on May 28.

“From a legal standpoint, we hope that they will acquit us, that it will be obvious that there is no proof,” said Tastan. “There have only been allegations … none of the witnesses have accused us in court. I’m not a legal expert, but I believe that if there is no proof and no evidence of ‘insulting,’ then we should be set free.”

The initial charges prepared by the Silivri state prosecutor against Tastan and Topal were based on “a warning telephone call to the gendarme” claiming that Christian missionaries were trying to form illegal groups in local schools and insulting Turkishness, the military and Islam.

Despite a court summons sent to the Silivri and Istanbul gendarme headquarters requesting six gendarme soldiers to testify as prosecution witnesses, none have stepped forward to do so. At a June 24, 2008 hearing, two witnesses for the prosecution declared they did not know the defendants and had never seen them before facing them in the courtroom. Several witnesses – including one of the original complainants, Kose – have failed to show up on various trial dates.

“We believe the case has arrived to a concluding stage, because all evidence has been collected and the witnesses have been heard,” Polat said. “We believe the accused will be dismissed. The inverse would surprise us.”

Polat underlined that while the case shows that human rights violations in Turkey are still a “serious problem,” it is also true that Turkey’s desire to join the European Union has brought sincere efforts to improve democratic processes. He attested, however, that establishing a true democracy can be a long process that requires sacrifices.

“It is my conviction that there is no other way for people to believe in and establish democracy than through struggle,” he said.

Tastan added that he sees hope that the notion that being “Turkish” means being Muslim is breaking. Due to exposure to media coverage of the murder trial of the April 18, 2007 slaughter of three Christians in Malatya, he said, Turks are becoming aware that there are fellow citizens who are Christians and are even dying for their Lord.

“This makes me happy, because it means freedom for the Turkish Christians that come after us,” said Tastan. “At least they won’t experience these injustices. I believe we will accomplish this.”

For the time being, though, the Ministry of Justice’s decision that Tastan and Topal can be tried under the revised Article 301 law appears to contribute to the belief that to promulgate a non-Islamic faith in Turkey is tantamount to treason. As Turkish online human rights magazine Bianet headlined its coverage of the decision, “Ministerial Edict: You Can Be a Christian But Do Not Tell Anyone!”  

Report from Compass Direct News

SRI LANKA: PARLIAMENT TO VOTE ON ANTI-CONVERSION LAWS


Draft ‘Bill for the Prohibition of Forcible Conversions’ enters final phase.

COLOMBO, Sri Lanka, January 26 (Compass Direct News) – The Sri Lankan Parliament may soon enact laws designed to restrict religious conversions.

A standing committee assigned to consider a draft “Bill for the Prohibition of Forcible Conversions” presented its report to Parliament on Jan. 6, suggesting minor amendments that clear the way for a final vote in February. The provisions of the bill criminalize any act to convert or attempt to convert a person from one religion to another religion by the use of force, fraud or allurement. Those found guilty of breaking the law could be imprisoned for up to seven years and/or fined up to 500,000 rupees (US$4,425).

The Ven. Omalpe Sobitha Thero, a member of the Buddhist Jathika Hela Urumaya party (JHU or National Heritage Party), first proposed the draft in 2004. While the JHU claims the bill is designed to stop unethical conversions, civil rights groups and Christian churches say it will infringe on the constitutional rights of freedom of religion and legitimize harassment of religious minorities.

Buddhists form a 70 percent majority in Sri Lanka, with Roman Catholics constituting 7 percent and Protestant Christians only 1 percent of the population.

After the first reading of the bill in Parliament in August 2004, 22 petitions were filed in the Supreme Court challenging the validity of the draft legislation.

The Supreme Court determined the draft bill to be valid except for clauses 3 and 4(b), which it deemed unconstitutional. These clauses required any person who converted or participated in a religious conversion ceremony to report to a government official and prescribed punishment for failure to report such conversions.

The draft was then referred to a parliamentary standing committee for further review. In its report, presented to the House on Jan. 6, the committee made a few amendments to the original draft in keeping with Supreme Court recommendations. The most notable amendment was the deletion of the need to report conversions and the punishment prescribed for not reporting them.

These amendments paved the way for the draft bill to be passed by a simple majority vote when it is presented for a final reading in Parliament this February.

Chief Opposition Whip Joseph Michael Perera, however, has requested a two-day debate on the draft bill on grounds that it would affect all religions.

 

Fulfilling Campaign Promises

The JHU, founded and led by Buddhist clergymen, made anti-conversion legislation a cornerstone of its debut election campaign in 2004, when it won nine seats in Parliament. With the possibility of an early general election this year, the bill has become a matter of political survival for the JHU.

At a press briefing on Jan. 7, Ven. Ellawela Medhananda Thero, a Buddhist monk and Member of Parliament representing the JHU, called on all political parties to vote in favor of the bill.

“People expected us to fulfill two goals,” he said. “One was to end unethical conversions and the other was to liberate the country from the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam. That is why we entered politics.”

Ven. Medhananda Thero added that the purpose of the bill was to protect all major religions in the country from fundamentalists and unethical conversions.

Sri Lanka’s Christian community and civil rights groups have strongly objected to the draft legislation. Far from stemming alleged forced conversions, they claim the bill will become a weapon of harassment through misapplication, limiting the fundamental rights of thought, conscience and religion. These rights include the right to adopt a religion and the right to practice, observe and teach religion.

The National Christian Evangelical Alliance of Sri Lanka (NCEASL) said in a recent press statement that, “It is our gravest concern that this bill will grant legal sanction for the harassment of religious communities or individuals, and offer convenient tools of harassment for settling personal disputes and grudges, totally unrelated to acts of alleged ‘forced’ conversion.”

 

Banning Compassion

According to Section 2 of the draft bill, the offer of any temptation such as a gift, cash or any other gratification to convert or attempt to convert a person from one religion to another is punishable with up to seven years of prison and a maximum fine of 500,000 rupees (US$4,425) – equal to approximately three years’ wages for the average Sri Lankan citizen.

Sri Lankan Christians have repeatedly expressed concern that key sections of the draft bill are open to wide and subjective interpretation that could criminalize not only legitimate religious activity but also legitimate social action by faith-based organizations or individuals.

“A lady who heads a charitable trust caring for orphans asked if she could be charged under this law, since she is a Christian and some of the children she cares for are not,” a lawyer told Compass. “Many people will now think twice before helping the poor or needy, for fear of being accused of committing a criminal act.”

Ironically, on June 4, 2008, in his address to the new Sri Lankan ambassador to the Holy See, Pope Benedict XVI had acknowledged the Sri Lankan government’s appreciation of the Catholic Church’s charity work in the country.

“Such action is a concrete example of the Church’s willing and prompt response to the mission she has received to serve those most in need,” he said. “I commend any future measures which will help guarantee that Catholic hospitals, schools and charitable agencies can continue to care for the sick, the young and the vulnerable regardless of ethnic or religious background.”

He went on to assure the government that “the Church will continue in her efforts to reach out with compassion to all.”

On Jan. 8, at his traditional New Year meeting with all ambassadors to the Holy See, the pope appeared to be addressing concerns over anti-conversion legislation.

“The Church does not demand privileges, but the full application of the principle of religious freedom,” he said. He also called on Asian governments to ensure that “legislation concerning religious communities guarantees the full exercise of this fundamental right, with respect for international norms.”

Since the first draft anti-conversion bill was presented to Parliament in 2004, the National Christian Council of Sri Lanka, NCEASL and Catholic Bishops Conference of Sri Lanka have repeatedly called for an alternative solution based on inter-faith dialogue with fair representation of all religious communities.

“Enactment of laws to regulate something as intrinsically personal as spiritual beliefs will not contribute towards resolving disagreements and promoting religious harmony,” said Godfrey Yogarajah, executive director of the World Evangelical Alliance Religious Liberty Commission. “On the contrary, it will create mistrust and animosity.”  

Report from Compass Direct News

CRICKET: AUSTRALIAN TEST TEAM IN DECLINE


I have been saying it for some time now – both on and off this Blog – the Australian test cricket team is in decline and coming back to the field. The recent test series results against India, New Zealand and now South Africa seem to show that it is indeed so. It had to happen – just as it happened to the world dominating West Indian team of yesteryear. Teams rise to the top and come back to the mix as another rises to the top.

Which is the top team now? Is it South Africa or is it India? England pretended to make a claim for the top ranking a little while back, but these two teams seem far more serious in their respective attempts. A test series between these two teams will perhaps show us the answer.

In the mean time it is likely that South Africa will defeat Australia in the current test series in Australia to the tune of 3 – 0. That is my prediction.

The ridiculous inclusion of Andrew Symonds while injured in the last test match came home to bite Australia when Brett Lee went down injured. Lee now appears to be out injured for some time and will join Stuart Clark on the sidelines – as will Andrew Symonds belatedly. Shane Watson will also be on the sidelines and his inclusion in the last team is as bewildering as that of Symonds, given that Watson was also injured and requires surgery.

It seems incredible to me that the replacements coming into the Australian team are simply those replacing injured players. The inclusion of Doug Bollinger is one that I have thought logical for some time, while Ben Hilfenhaus and Andrew McDonald are unexpected in my view.

If the selectors are going to keep Mitchell Johnson and Peter Siddle (which I suspect is a given), then I would also include Bollinger and Hilfenhaus, as well as McDonald. Who would go to make room for these three? Lee and Symonds (as well as Watson) have already been forced out due to injury. I would put Hilfenhaus in ahead of Nathan Hauritz. We just don’t have a spinner that currently cuts it at international level.

The selection that really bothers me is that of keeping Matthew Hayden in the side – if the selectors don’t know that it is time for him to go then surely Matthew Hayden must know! Even if he scores a reasonable or big score in the final test it is time for Hayden to make way for Phillip Hughes. Hayden has done little to justify his continual selection in the test team for some time and it is now becoming a sad tragedy to see this former great test opener heap embarrassment upon himself and the national team with each failure. It seems any big scores are now punctuated by a plethora of insignificant contributions with the bat from Hayden.

And one other thing – the attempt by Mike Hussey to take that skier in the last test – if you can’t see it in the sun there is little he can do about it. It looked embarrassing but there was little Hussey could do to change what was. The bigger concern for Hussey is his own poor form in the batting department. He must begin to contribute more soon too or he also could face the chop.

BELOW: The Michael Hussey attempted catch

BELOW: Graeme Smith speaks to Mark Taylor after South Africa won the second test and the series

MEXICO: OPPRESSION OF CHRISTIANS PERSISTS IN VARIOUS PARTS OF COUNTRY


Jailings, threats, fines, deprivation of water and electricity – all keep pace with church growth.

MEXICO CITY, November 25 (Compass Direct News) – As the number of evangelical Christians in southern Mexico has grown, hostilities from “traditionalist Catholics” have kept pace, according to published reports.

Especially in indigenous communities in southern Mexico, the prevailing attitude is that only traditionalist Catholics, who blend native rituals with Roman Catholicism, have rights to religious practice, according to news reports. Moreover, the reports indicate the traditionalist Catholic villagers believe they have the right to force others to conform to their religion.

In Oaxaca state, four Christians in Santiago Teotlaxco, Ixtlan de Juarez district, were jailed on Nov. 16 for refusing to participate in a traditionalist Catholic festival and for not paying the high quotas they were assigned to help cover its costs, according to La Voz news agency. Their neighbors, now fewer than the town’s 180 Christian evangelicals, have been trying to force them to practice what the evangelicals regard as idolatrous adoration of saints and other rituals contrary to their faith.

As a result of such pressure, according to the news agency, non-Catholics in the area, including children, live in fear of being expelled from their properties.

In the community of Nachit, municipality of Zinacantan, Chiapas, five indigenous Christians were jailed for 24 hours on Nov. 4 for refusing to accept work assignments related to traditionalist Catholic festivals, according to the National Confraternity of Evangelical Christian Churches. Local officials ordered them to give up their Christian faith or they would “invent some crimes with which to accuse them and get them imprisoned,” according to Chiapas newspaper Expreso.

Also in Chiapas, Mexico’s southern-most state, local political bosses (caciques) deprived 24 evangelical families of a Seventh-Day Adventist church in Muctavits, municipality of San Andres Larrainzar, of their rights to government social programs, according to news reports. Local officials made the decision on Nov. 3 and a week later said they would fine the Christians 3,000 pesos (US$220) if they refused to contribute funds toward traditionalist Catholic festivals, according to Expreso.

Officials have also threatened to cut off the Christians’ electricity and water, church representative Hortencio Vasquez told La Jornada, and have eliminated all their community rights, thus depriving some evangelicals of their service on local government committees.

Last month local caciques forced evangelical families in the community of Nicolás Ruiz, Chiapas, to sign documents promising to hold religious services only on Wednesday, Saturday and Sunday or pay fines of up to 1,000 pesos (US$74) pesos per family. Seven evangelical families had already been expelled from the town for their faith, leaving behind all their possessions and property and taking refuge in the nearby municipality of Acala, reported Cuarto Poder newspaper in Chiapas.

In Guerrero state, two Christian families in Olinala had their drinking water and electricity cut off recently because they refused to participate in local religious customs, La Jornada reported. The families have been under threats to give up their faith since 2006.

“They were threatened with hanging due to their religious beliefs if they did not obey the orders of the municipal authorities,” the National Bar of Christian Lawyers’ Jorge Garcia Jimenez told the newspaper’s Guerrero edition.

As do traditionalist Catholics elsewhere in Mexico, officials in Olinala cited a constitutional provision protecting local “uses and customs” of communities in order to justify forcing evangelicals to contribute to and participate in the festivals, in violation of Mexico’s constitutional guarantee of religious freedom. Christian lawyers say the “uses and customs” section was meant to prevent the government from prohibiting native practices – not force villagers to participate in them.

The threats and deprivation of basic services in Guerrero came on the heels of the kidnapping of the teenaged son of a prominent evangelical pastor in the same state. The kidnappers apparently rejected the ransom paid by the family as inadequate and have held the boy for two months.

Even in a state as far north as Hidalgo, a longstanding conflict erupted anew this month. After years of hostilities rooted in traditionalist Catholics’ intolerance of evangelical Christians, La Jornada reported, officials in San Nicolás, municipality of Ixmiquilpan, had finally granted a construction permit for Protestants to build a chapel.

But villagers claiming that construction without a town assembly vote violated a previous agreement stopped workers at the building site on Nov. 7. Local officials had to call in state police to forestall a violent confrontation, and no construction has been permitted since then.

Chiapas pastor and attorney Esdras Alonso González said at a press conference this week that cases of intolerance of evangelical Christians – all allowed and encouraged by local officials –also remain in the Zinacantan, Chiapas communities of Nachig, Pasté, Chiquinivalvó, Pestó and Buonchén.

In Pasté, he said, four families remain without water since October 14 for having refused to contribute funds for the traditionalist Catholic festivals, which often also involve drunken revelry.

“The municipal authorities of Zinacantan are not doing anything to resolve the problem,” he told reporters.  

Report from Compass Direct News