Police, Islamists Put Up Obstacles to Worship in Indonesia


Church services over Christmas season blocked; property seized.

JAKARTA, Indonesia, January 10 (CDN) — Government officials in West Java Province blocked one church from worshipping, and Islamic groups pressured authorities to seize the property of another during the Christmas season.

The Bogor Regency Administrative Leadership Council tried unsuccessfully to forbid the Gereja Kristen Indonesia (Indonesian Christian Church, or GKI) in Bogor’s Taman Yasmin area from holding a Dec. 25 Christmas service, but authorities did block it from its regular Sunday service on De.26. In Rancaekek, Bandung, Islamic demonstrators on Dec. 19 got police to remove items from a Huria Kristan Batak Protestan (HKBP) church building that had already been sealed.

In Bogor, GKI Yasmin spokesperson Bona Sigalingging said police telephoned church leaders to forbid Christmas services that were to begin at 7 p.m. on Dec. 25.

“At that time the leaders rejected the police order,” Sigalingging told Compass.

Church leaders went to a strip of land in front of the GKI Yasmin building, which the Bogor city government has sealed, to set up a rented tent for the Christmas service. Local police arrived and ordered that the service be cancelled, but again church leaders refused, Sigalingging said.

They continued setting up the tent and arranging benches, and at about 5:30 p.m., 10 women wearing Muslim head coverings (hijabs) arrived to demonstrate against the Christmas service. Male demonstrators in Muslim clothing joined the demonstration at 7 p.m., and protestors from the Islamic People’s Forum (FUI) pressured police to stop the service.

At 8 p.m., the Christmas prayer and reflection service began, with demonstrators screaming, “Allahu akbar [God is greater]!” and “Break it up!” They also yelled, “Arrest the provocateurs,” Sigalinging said.

Though upset, the congregation continued to worship, he said. As they sang “Silent Night” and lit candles, the demonstrators shouted all the louder, moving toward the worshippers. They came within three meters of the worshippers before police were finally able to restrain them.

The congregation continued in solemn prayer and song, with the mob yelling until the service finished at 9 p.m.

Church leaders were meeting at 12:45 a.m. to plan the next morning’s 8 a.m. worship service when a member of the legal team received a phone call asking them to meet with members of the army and intelligence services, as well as with Bogor city and West Java police. At the meeting, a soldier speaking for the Bogor municipality requested that the GKI cancel Sunday morning worship scheduled for Dec. 26, Sigalingging said.

“The soldier also spoke about the growing issue of defamation of religion [Islam defaming Christianity], and how this would be very embarrassing if the issue spread,” Sigalingging said. “Because of this, he asked the church to cancel services.”

Church leaders rejected the request, saying that the way to resolve religious defamation problems was to enforce the law and stand firm against intolerance and intimidation, Sigalingging said.

“They could also obey the decision of the State Administrative Court, which had found that the church had a legal building permit and had the right to worship even by the roadside,” said Sigalingging.

The roadside services marked a retreat from the church legal position, he said, as the administrative court had ruled that the church could worship in its building.

“Although the City of Bogor had requested a rehearing, this is no reason to delay the execution of the decision according to law 14/1985,” he said.

Sigalingging said that the decision of the administrative court had the force of law, and that the GKI Yasmin congregation should have been allowed to worship in its building. The court had found that the building permit was legally obtained and that the Bogor municipal government could not revoke the permit. The court had ordered Bogor to rescind the revocation order.

The meeting finished at 1:30 a.m., with the church firmly committed to holding Sunday worship on Dec. 26. Bogor officials responded by sending police to the worship site on Abdullah bin Nuh Street in Yasmin Park; from early morning on, the road was barricaded at both ends.

As a show of force, water canon trucks appeared.

“The police excused their action by saying that it was designed to stop troublemakers who might try to use religion as a mask,” Sigalingging said. “These kinds of people had been there since morning. However, such excuses were not accepted by the congregation. The congregation could not get close to their church, and they were even asked about their permission to worship.”

As a result, the congregation was not able to worship; they did pray in the middle of the street, he said.

In a press conference at the Wahid Institute protesting the discrimination, GKI Yasmin leaders along with representatives of the Indonesian Fellowship of Churches said that they were concerned.

“Discrimination is becoming systemic and spreading, yet it is ignored by the nation in many places,” Sigalingging said in a statement he read that was also signed by Pastor Ujang Tanusaputra and Pastor Esakatri Parahita.

An interfaith group that has been assisting the GKI church issued a three-point appeal: cease all slander and obstructions to finishing construction of the GKI church building, which was legally underway, and allow the congregation to worship in it; the state must be firmer in dealing with intolerant groups that terrorize those of a different faith; and strengthen the constitution, Pancasila (the state philosophy that includes belief in one God without specifying any particular religion) and the practice of unity in diversity (Bhineka Tunggal Ika).

The executive secretary for research and communication for the Fellowship of Churches in Indonesia, the Rev. Henry Lokra, said at the press conference that contrary to the claims of protestors, no illegal worship exists in the nation.

“Because of this, when the government apparatus is passive, it is violating the constitution,” Lokra said. “In the case of GKI Yasmin, passivity has led to the blocking of those who wish to worship rather than blocking those who demonstrate. This is a basic human rights violation.”

Organizations such as the Islamic Defenders Front (FPI), the FUI and the Islamic Reform Movement (Garis) “have absolutely no constitutional right to forbid the building of a place of worship, because the forbidding of permission for a place of worship is the right of the government,” he said.

Chairul Anam of the Human Rights Working Group commented that the incident was a violation of the constitution and the law by the Bogor municipal government, which sealed the church even though the GKI had won decisions in the case all the way to the Supreme Court.

“When Bogor asked for an appeal, the Supreme Court refused,” Anam said.

An appeal in any legal system does not nullify a previous decision, said Anam. “Because of this [principle], the Supreme Court decision regarding GKI Yasmin cannot be revoked,” he said.

The central government should sanction or otherwise take strong actions against those in the Bogor city government who disobeyed the law and the constitution by sealing the church building, he said.

Another problem, Anam said, was the extreme measures police took, using mobile barricades and water cannons to control 50 demonstrators.

“What the police did was actually terrorizing the congregation,” he said, adding that the measures prevented GKI members from getting to their church site. “The police were supposed to neutralize the 50 demonstrators that were propagandizing, instead of blockading the congregation from worship.”

The state has given in to a small gang of Muslim thugs, “and this small gang of Muslims does not represent the Indonesian Islamic community,” he said, adding that the Bogor city government should quickly remove the seal. “The police must act decisively and not make those who disobey the law heroes.”

The head of the Legal Advocacy and Human Rights Association of Indonesia, Hendrik Sirait, said that politics played a role in the GKI Yamin church’s problems. A Bogor police official, Sirait said, indicated that obstacles to the church’s worship resulted from a pact between the Bogor government and a political party.

“The police have become intimidators rather than peace officers,” he said.

 

Church Property Seized

In Rancaekek, Bandung, Islamic protestors occupying the front part of the Huria Kristan Batak Protestan HKBP church premises on Dec. 19 clamored for police to remove property from the building; eventually authorities removed the pews and other items.

The local government had already sealed the building, but demonstrators from the hard-line Muslim Intellectuals Gathering Forum of Rancaekek arrived at 4 a.m. on Dec. 19 calling for its belongings to be removed, sources said.

The Rev. Badia Hutagalung said he was sleeping in the rented house adjacent to the place of worship when he saw 15 demonstrators locking the property fence and calling for him to wake up and leave the premises.

“Why do you live in a place that has been sealed?” asked one in the crowd when Hutagalung came out. He explained to the protestor that the district head had unsealed his home when he realized it had nothing to do with the church worship.

At 7 a.m., when the mob forced the pastor to leave the house, he climbed over the 1.5-meter fence – the crowd had glued shut the lock – and called one of the elders, Jawadi Hutapea. He arrived, and Hutagalung also called police and the district head to ask them to come immediately. Three policemen arrived but only watched the mob from a distance, he said.

When Compass arrived at 8:30 a.m., nearly 100 protestors were occupying property in front of the fence and shouting for the local government remove all property inside.

The district head of Rancaekek, Meman Nurjana, arrived at 9 a.m. but was unable to calm the protestors. The district head, police chief, representatives from the Police Civil Service (Satpol PP) and the Muslim Intellectuals Gathering Forum held a discussion in the middle of the crowd. Authorities promised to remove the items later, but the crowd demanded it be done immediately.

Local officials ultimately brought three cars to take property out of the place of worship, and at 10:30 a.m. the pews along with other items were seized.

The chairman of the Bandung Muslim Intellectuals Gathering Forum, Abu Sofyan, told reporters that the HKBP Rancaekek church should have been closed since 2006. A lawyer for the HKBP Rancaekek church, Usman Poncho Silitonga, said he did not understand why demonstrations were continuing after the church and others had been sealed.

“There’s no rule that allows the removal of property from the the HKBP church,” he said.

The sealing by the local government was illegal, a church representative said, because it was not given public notice.

Report from Compass Direct News

Murder of Governor in Pakistan Darkens ‘Blasphemy’ Case


Assassination called a blow to prospects of justice for Christian mother on death row.

LAHORE, Pakistan, January 5 (CDN) — The case of Asia Noreen, the first Christian woman sentenced to death in Pakistan on blasphemy charges, suffered a major setback when her most vocal supporter, the governor of Punjab Province, was gunned down by one of his police bodyguards yesterday (Jan. 4) in Islamabad.

The lives of Noreen and Gov. Salman Taseer were at risk since the day he, his wife and daughter visited her in the Sheikhupura District Jail on Nov. 22, after news of her conviction appeared in the media.

Taseer had openly criticized the blasphemy statutes and vowed to try to repeal the “black laws” in parliament. He also promised Noreen (also called Asia Bibi) that he would recommend a presidential pardon for her.

The governor’s assurance and his support for Noreen gave new hope to the impoverished mother of two children and step-mother to three others – and drew violent condemnation from Islamist forces, sparking countrywide protests.

“The governor’s visit gave us hope that all was not lost,” Sohail Johnson of Sharing Life Ministries Pakistan, which has pursued Noreen’s case from the onset, told Compass. “We believed that God had sent the governor to help us … his words of support boosted Noreen’s morale, and she was actually quite optimistic about the outcome of her appeal in the high court.”

He said the murder of Taseer in broad daylight had shocked all those opposing the blasphemy laws, and that “there is little hope of these laws ever being repealed.”

Johnson confirmed that Noreen’s life was at high risk ever since the governor had highlighted her case.

“The local Islamist forces believed that President [Asif Ali] Zardari would pardon Noreen on Taseer’s recommendation, and this was unacceptable to them,” said Johnson, confirming that intelligence agencies had determined that Islamists had plotted to kill Noreen inside jail to make an example of her. “Noreen was earlier allowed two hours in the morning and two in the evening to go outside her cell to relax. After the intelligence information, the jail authorities restricted her movement, and now she is kept in the cell at all times. A security guard has also been deployed with her.”

He added that news of the assassination of the governor would surely panic the Christian woman.

Johnson said Noreen’s appeal of her conviction had yet to be taken up for hearing by the Lahore High Court, but that the murder would definitely affect the course of justice. “The governor’s brutal murder has diminished our hopes for justice for Noreen,” he said.

Her family, he said, has been in hiding since Islamist parties started protests in favor of the blasphemy laws.

“Even I am keeping a low profile these days,” Johnson said.

Taseer and Noreen were declared “Wajibul Qatil” (liable to be killed) by radical Islamic clerics. A cleric in Peshawar and a local politician in Multan offered a combined sum of 50 million rupees (US$579,300) for anyone who killed Taseer and Noreen.

Protests, shut-down strikes and general uproar pressured Pakistan’s federal government to announce that the blasphemy laws would not be repealed.

Taseer, however, continued to publicly vent his opposition – even using Twitter – to the blasphemy laws, which effectively mandate death for anyone convicted of insulting Muhammad, the prophet of Islam. Although courts typically overturn convictions, and no executions have been carried out, rights activists say the laws are used to settle rivalries and persecute religious minorities.

On Friday (Dec. 31), Taseer had tweeted “I was under huge pressure 2 cow down b4 rightest pressure on blasphemy. Refused. Even if I’m the last man standing.”

The assassination is significant not simply because of the person targeted and the reason behind it, but because of the broader societal implications.

“[It points to] the presence of radical elements inside the Pakistani state apparatus,” said columnist Cyril Almeida.

He said that the fact that Taseer’s own bodyguard shot him is not just worrying because it indicates a failure of the vetting process but because it points to “the extent to which this poison has affected the Pakistani state. The investment in jihad has come home to roost.”

In the hours immediately following the killing, television anchors hosted several shows in which guests, while stopping short of openly supporting the murder of Taseer, did speak out in support of killing those deemed to have blasphemed. Some Pakistanis have reported that they received text messages on their mobile phones praising the assassination.

Pakistan Interior Minister Rehman Malik has said the guard, Malik Mumtaz Hussein Qadri, told police that he killed Taseer because of the governor’s opposition to Pakistan’s blasphemy laws. Qadri had escorted the governor from Rawalpindi to Islamabad on Tuesday (Jan. 4).

A 26-year-old policeman from Barakhao on the outskirts of Islamabad, Qadri had reportedly transferred to the Elite Force after commando training in 2008. Thus far, he has not been identified as a member of any violent Muslim extremist groups but is considered devout in his faith.

Noreen was convicted under Section 295-C of the defamation statutes for alleged derogatory comments about Muhammad, which is punishable by death, though life imprisonment is also possible. Section 295-B makes willful desecration of the Quran or a use of its extract in a derogatory manner punishable with life imprisonment. Section 295-A of the defamation law prohibits injuring or defiling places of worship and “acts intended to outrage religious feelings of any class of citizens.” It is punishable by life imprisonment, which in Pakistan is 25 years.

Report from Compass Direct News

Life on Hold for Egyptian Christian Arrested for his Faith


Unresolved charge of ‘defaming religion’ leaves him in perpetual limbo.

CAIRO, Egypt, December 16 (CDN) — An Egyptian who left Islam to become a Christian and consequently lost his wife, children and business is waiting to see if the government will now take away his freedom for “defaming” Islam.

Ashraf Thabet, 45, is charged with defaming a revealed religion, Article 98f of the Egyptian Penal Code. The charges stem from Thabet’s six-year search for spiritual meaning that eventually led him to become a Christian. During his search, he shared his doubts about Islam and told others what he was learning about Jesus Christ.

Local religious authorities, incensed at Thabet’s ideas, notified Egypt’s State Security Intelligence service (SSI), which arrested and charged him with defamation. If found guilty, Thabet would face up to five years in jail. But because prosecutors have made no move to try the case, Thabet lives in limbo and is subject to a regular barrage of death threats from people in his community in Port Said in northeast Egypt.

“I don’t know what is going to happen in the future,” Thabet said. “They’re making life hard for me. I can’t get back my computer. I can’t get back anything.”

 

Searching

Thabet said that before his search began he was a committed Muslim who did his best to observe its rules, including those for prayer and fasting.

“I wasn’t an extremist, but I was committed to praying and to reading the Quran,” Thabet said. “I went to the Hajj. I did the usual things. I followed the Quran for the most part.”

Despite his efforts, Thabet admitted that his understanding of God was based on fear and routine, nearly rote obedience.

“There was no spiritual relationship between myself and God,” he said. “In general I was always cautious about my relationship with God. I didn’t want to do anything wrong.”

Thabet started looking at Christian Web sites, but his real interest in Christianity began when he watched the film, “The Passion of the Christ” in 2004.

“When I watched ‘The Passion of the Christ,’ I was very touched by Jesus’ story, and I wanted to read more about Him,” Thabet said. “So I asked a friend how I could know more about Jesus, and he told me, ‘The Bible.’”

His friend, a Christian Copt, did not get him a Bible until a month later because, Thabet thinks, he was afraid of being accused of proselytizing. Thabet began reading the Bible, which had a powerful impact on him, especially the Sermon on the Mount.

“I felt inside myself that these were the words of God,” he said. “The Bible tells people to give and to give out freely, so these words couldn’t be the words of a human being or a [mere] person, because human beings are inherently selfish.”

Thabet was also struck by the lives that the early followers of Jesus led, especially their willingness to lose everything, including their lives, for Christ.

The final factor that led Thabet to become a Christian came from Islam’s “Ninety-Nine Names of Allah,” attributes of God according to the Quran and tradition. In the names, God is called a “healer” a “resurrecter” and “just.”

“I started to compare all these characteristics with the characteristics of Jesus, and I saw that Jesus had a lot of the characteristics that God had, not only the human characteristics, being just and being kind, but there were similarities in the supernatural characteristics, like that He raised people from the dead,” he said. “In the Quran only God could raise people from the dead. I noticed that Jesus could raise people from the dead, and that He could heal people. Once I started to notice
the similarities between God and Jesus, I started believing that Jesus is the Son of God.”

Thabet said he cared about others “going the right way,” so he started having conversations with Muslim friends.

At first, people respected Thabet or tolerated what was seen as an awkward curiosity. But after he told his friends they were “only Muslim by inheritance,” they started to turn against him. They asked him what he was going to be if he wasn’t going to be a Muslim.

“I told them I started to read about Christianity, and I was starting to believe in it, and that’s when they brought the elders to talk to me,” he said.

The meeting didn’t go well. The Islamic leaders were unable to answer his questions and ended up yelling at him. Then they reported him to the SSI.

 

Arrest

The SSI summoned Thabet and questioned him on his doubts about Islam.

Thabet said by the time he was done with the interrogation, the SSI officer looked almost sick and told him not to talk to anyone else in Port Said about religion.

“I don’t encourage you to talk about these things with people or to open up these types of discussions, because it will just provoke people and make them angry,” the officer told him, according to Thabet.

Two days later, Thabet said, the SSI ordered him to report for more questioning, this time with an officer who specialized in religious issues and countering missionaries. The officer wanted to know what made him start to doubt Islam. He asked specific questions about what Web sites he had been on and what books he had read, and whether he had been baptized.

Thabet said that at the time of his questioning, he was still struggling with his new beliefs. Part of him wanted something that would restore his faith in Islam, so he went to Internet chat rooms for religious discussion.

“A part of me wanted to feel that I was wrong, that there was an answer to my questions,” he said. “I was looking for someone who would say ‘No, no, this is how it is,’ and that I would regain my trust back or not have any more doubts. But none of the people I talked to could answer me. They didn’t say anything to any effect.”

Thabet said he was always respectful, but Muslims found his questions provocative and became increasingly angry.

Eventually police came for Thabet. On March 22 at 3 a.m., he said, 11 officers from the SSI cut the power to his home, kicked down his front door and assaulted him in front of his crying wife and children.

Thabet quickly pulled away from the fight, once he realized they were officers from the SSI. The men swarmed over Thabet’s home, seizing his computer and every book and CD he owned. They took him to jail.

Authorities interrogated Thabet non-stop for 12 hours, took a break and then interrogated him for seven more, he said.

Initially he was held for 15 days. Then authorities ordered he be held for another 15 days. Then they extended it again. Thabet said he spent the entire time in solitary confinement, and he wasn’t informed of the “defamation of religion” charge against him until the end of 132 days in jail. He said he was not tortured, however, and that his interrogators and jailers were largely civil.

There was more hardship waiting for him at home. Muslim leaders in his neighborhood convinced his wife to divorce him and take his 10-year-old daughter and 6-year-old son.

“They gave her the money to file for a divorce, a car and another person to marry,” Thabet said, adding that the Muslim leaders had offered him money too if he would stay in Islam. “In the beginning they tried to bribe me to come back to Islam, but I refused.”

Thabet has only had a few brief moments with his children since he was arrested, mainly when his soon-to-be ex-wife came to their home to gather a few belongings. If she goes through with the divorce, according to Egyptian law it is likely Thabet will lose all parental rights to his children, including any right to see them.

In Egypt and most other Muslim-majority countries, leaving Islam is considered ample grounds for termination of parental rights. Thabet said the religious leaders consider him “lost to Islam” and are trying to “save” his wife and children.

He filed a report with police about the Muslim leaders bribing his wife – and about another man who swindled money from him – but police ignored both reports, he said.

Kamal Fahmi of Set My People Free to Worship Me, a group headquartered in Cairo dedicated to raising awareness about the problems faced by Muslims who become Christians, said that under Islam, “Muslim converts don’t have the right to exist.”

Arrests like Thabet’s are common in Egypt.

“It is a tactic used to intimidate people and scare them from leaving Islam and taking alternative beliefs or moral codes,” Fahmi said.

In Islam as it is most often practiced in Egypt, merely expressing doubt about Islam is considered wrong, Fahmi said. Questioning any of its claims is considered blasphemy and is punishable by imprisonment under a variety of charges in Egypt; it is punishable by death in some other countries.

“Saying, ‘I don’t believe in Muhammad,’ is considered defaming Islam,” Fahmi said. “Saying, ‘I don’t believe in Islam as it is not true,’ can lead to death [murder], as you are considered an apostate,” Fahmi said. “Even rejecting the Islamic moral codes can lead to the same thing. Criticizing any of the sharia [Islamic law] is considered blasphemy.”

 

The Future

Thabet said he is uncertain what the future holds. He was released on Aug. 1 but, because he has the defamation of religion charge over his head – with no indication of when the case could go to court – he is unable to work and cannot even obtain a driver’s license.

His savings are almost depleted, forcing him to borrow money from a Muslim friend. He is concerned about re-arrest and receives death threats on a regular basis. He is too afraid to leave his apartment on most days.

“There are a lot of phone threats,” Thabet said. Noting he had been baptized three years ago, he said he has received phone threats in which someone tells him, “We are going to baptize you again with blood.”

On numerous occasions while talking in Internet chat rooms, he has been told, “Look outside the window, we know where you are,” Thabet said.

In recent days Muslims are angry at converts and at Christians in general, he said. “They’re very worked up about religious issues.”

He said he wants to leave Egypt but admits that, at his age, it would be very hard to start over. And if he stays in Egypt, he said, at least he will have a chance to see his children, however brief those encounters may be.

Since Thabet was released from jail on Aug. 1, authorities have seized his passport and summoned him four times for questioning. He said he thinks the SSI is trying to wear him down.

“Everyone is telling me that they [the government] want to make my life hard,” he said. “The problem here in Egypt is the religious intolerance that is found in government ministries. The intolerance has reached a point where they can’t think straight. Their intolerance makes them unaware of their own intolerance.”

Report from Compass Direct News

Pakistani Woman Appeals Death Sentence for ‘Blasphemy’


District judge bows to pressure of local Muslims, handing down stunning sentence to Christian.

LAHORE, Pakistan, November 13 (CDN) — Attorneys for a Christian mother of five sentenced to death by hanging for allegedly speaking ill of Muhammad, the prophet of Islam, have filed an appeal of the verdict, they said.

Bowing to pressure from Muslim extremists in Pakistan, according to the Christian woman’s husband and rights groups, a district court judge handed down the stunning sentence to Asia Noreen on Monday (Nov. 8). Additional District and Sessions Judge Naveed Ahmed Chaudhary of Nankana Sahib district delivered the verdict under Pakistan’s controversial “blasphemy” statute, the kind of law that a resolution before the United Nations condemning “defamation of religions” would make legitimate internationally.

Noreen is the first woman to be sentenced to death under Pakistan’s widely condemned law against defaming Islam.

Noreen’s lawyer, Chaudhry Tahir Shahzad, said that among other allegations, she was accused of denying that Muhammad was a prophet.

“How can we expect a Christian to affirm a Muslim belief?” Shahzad said. He added that he and lawyer Manzoor Qadir had filed an appeal against the district sessions court’s verdict in the Lahore High Court.

Asia (alternately spelled Aasya) Noreen has been languishing in isolation in jail since June of last year after she argued with fellow field workers in Ittanwali village who were trying to pressure her into renouncing Christianity. Her husband, Ashiq Masih, told Compass that the argument began after the wife of an Ittanwali elder sent her to fetch water in Nankana Sahib district, about 75 kilometers (47 miles) from Lahore in Punjab Province.

The Muslim women told Noreen that it was sacrilegious to drink water collected by a non-Muslim, he said.

“My wife only said, ‘Are we not all humans?’ when the Muslim women rebuked her for her faith,” Masih, a field laborer, told Compass by telephone. “This led to an altercation.”

Centre for Legal Aid Assistance and Settlement (CLAAS) General Secretary Katherine Sapna told Compass that the women told Muslim cleric Muhammad Salim about the incident, and he filed a case with police on the same day, June 14, 2009.

On June 19, 2009, Masih said, the Muslim women suddenly raised a commotion, accusing Noreen of defaming Muhammad.

“Several Muslim men working in the nearby fields reached the spot and forced their way into our house, where they tortured Asia and the children,” said Masih, who confirmed that his wife is 45 years old and that they have five children – four girls and a boy, the oldest daughter 20.

Police arrived and took his wife into custody, presumably for her own protection, he said.

“They saved Asia’s life, but then later a case was registered against her under Sections 295-B and C [blaspheming the Quran and Muhammad, respectively] at the Nankana police station on the complaint of Muhammad Salim, the local imam [prayer leader] of the village,” he said. “Asia has been convicted on false charges. We have never, ever insulted the prophet Muhammad or the Quran.”

Salim reportedly claimed that Noreen confessed to speaking derogatorily of Islam’s prophet and apologized. Under immense pressure from local Muslims, according to Masih, CLAAS and Sohail Johnson of Sharing Life Ministry, local judge Chaudhary ruled out the possibility that Noreen was falsely accused. In spite of repeated efforts by the Muslim women to pressure her into renouncing her faith, the judge also reportedly ruled “there were no mitigating circumstances.”

Chaudhary also fined her 100,000 rupees (US$1,150), according to CLAAS.

Ataul Saman of the National Commission for Justice and Peace (NCJP) said that lower court verdicts in blasphemy cases are usually overturned by higher courts. He said lower court proceedings take place under intense pressure, with local Muslims gathering outside and chanting slogans to pressure judges. Saman added that NCJP research showed that up to 80 percent of blasphemy charges are filed against people to settle personal scores.

Rights groups have long criticized Pakistan’s blasphemy laws as too easily used to settle grudges or oppress religious minorities, such as the more than 4 million Christians that Operation World estimates out of Pakistan’s total population of 184.7 million. To date no one has been executed for blasphemy in Pakistan, as most are freed on appeal after suffering for years under appalling prison conditions. Vigilantes have killed at least 10 people accused of blasphemy, rights groups estimate.

Noreen was convicted under Section 295-C of the defamation statutes for alleged derogatory comments about Muhammad, which is punishable by death, though life imprisonment is also possible. Section 295-B makes willful desecration of the Quran or a use of its extract in a derogatory manner punishable with life imprisonment. Section 295-A of the defamation law prohibits injuring or defiling places of worship and “acts intended to outrage religious feelings of any class of citizens.” It is punishable by life imprisonment, which in Pakistan is 25 years.

Between 1986 and August 2009, at least 974 people have been charged with defiling the Quran or insulting Muhammad, according to the NCJP. Those charged included 479 Muslims, 340 Ahmadis, 119 Christians, 14 Hindus and 10 from other religions.

Johnson of Sharing Life Ministry, which is active in prisons and has been following Noreen’s case from the onset, said he was impressed by her continued faith.

“A week before the verdict, I went to visit Asia in jail,” he said. “I asked her what she was expecting. She told me that Jesus would rescue her from this fake case.”

The verdict was shocking in that no one was expecting a death sentence for a woman, he said. Masih agreed.

“Asia was hoping that the judge would free her and she would come home to be with us, but this conviction has dashed our hopes for now,” Masih said.

He said that since the sentencing, authorities have not allowed him or other members of their family to visit his wife.

“We don’t know yet how she is, but we trust the Lord,” he said. “Asia is suffering for Jesus, and He will not forsake her.”

Report from Compass Direct News

UN resolution jeopardizes religious freedom worldwide


Christians in Muslim-dominated countries are facing increased persecution. Over the last month, churches in Indonesia have been attacked and forced to close. A mob of Pakistani Muslim extremists shot and beat dozens of Christians, including one cleared earlier of "blasphemy" charges.

These Christians, and many more worldwide, are not free to believe.

Open Doors USA is launching an advocacy campaign called "Free to Believe." The campaign will focus on helping persecuted Christians who currently do not have religious freedom like Christians do in the United States.

The campaign is a response to the United Nations Defamation of Religions Resolution which threatens the freedom of religion and expression for Christians and members of minority faiths worldwide.

This resolution seeks to criminalize words or actions perceived as attacks against a religion, with the focus being on protecting Islam. Passing this resolution would further result in the United Nations condoning state-sponsored persecution of Christians and members of other faiths.

Many of the countries supporting this resolution are the Islamic-majority countries of the Organization of Islamic Conference (OIC) that persecute Christians and other religious minorities. Members of minority faiths such as Christians or Jews who make truth claims or even evangelize can be accused of "defamation," and those individuals can be punished under national blasphemy laws as frequently happens in countries like Pakistan. Tragically, the UN resolution provides legitimacy to these countries’ blasphemy laws.

While the Defamation of Religions Resolution has been introduced and passed by the UN in the past–in various forms and under various titles since 1999, support for the resolution has been eroding in recent years. The Open Doors advocacy team has been lobbying countries which have voted for the resolution or abstained from voting on the issue in the past. The resolution is up again this fall for re-authorization.

It is important to encourage key countries to change their vote on this resolution. These countries are not easily influenced by American citizens. But they are more receptive to pressure from our legislators. That’s why we’re asking you to send a message to your legislator, asking him or her to ask key countries to change their vote on the Defamation of Religions Resolution. A sample letter is provided for you to send which includes the necessary information for your elected officials to lobby the target UN country missions.

To send a message, go to www.freetobelieve.info

"It’s dangerous and alarming that a UN resolution provides legitimacy to national blasphemy laws that are used to persecuting Christians and other minority faith groups," says Open Doors USA Advocacy Director Lindsay Vessey. "The United Nations Defamation of Religions Resolution in effect amounts to the UN condoning state-sponsored persecution. We as Christians need to speak out against it and do all in our power to stop its passage. Everyone should be free to believe."

Report from the Christian Telegraph

New threat develops after UN vote on religious defamation


The U.N. General Assembly has passed the non-binding Defamation of Religion Resolution for the fifth year in a row, reports MNN.

However, support is eroding, says Open Doors Advocacy Director Lindsay Vessey. The Islamic-sponsored non-binding resolution passed with 80 votes in favor, 61 against and 42 abstentions. That compared with 86 votes to 53, with 42 abstentions for a similar text last year, and figures of 108-51-25 in 2007, the last time the measure commanded an absolute majority of U.N. members.

Open Doors USA helped to lead the advocacy effort at the United Nations to prevent this resolution from passing. Open Doors lobbied key voting countries, organized a petition drive for Open Doors USA supporters to campaign against the resolution and spoke on this issue to the media. The Open Doors advocacy campaign is called "Free to Believe."

Oppenents say it threatens freedom of speech, especially for minority Christians in Muslim-dominated nations. "Essentially the resolution tried to criminalize words or actions that are deemed to be against a particular religion, namely, Islam."

Vessey warns that the Organization of Islamic Conference is organizing a sneak attack in March. "Instead of being a non-binding resolution, they’re actually trying to pass it through a separate committee that would make it more of a binding resolution–it would make it an optional protocol."

The UN Ad Hoc Committee on the Elaboration of Complementary Standards is expected to meet again in the spring to discuss adding the resolution to the International Covenant on the Elimination of all forms of Racial Discrimination.

Open Doors is readying an advocacy response to the threat. It’s one short step, but Vessey says under it, "People aren‘t free to preach the Gospel–people aren’t free to say what they believe even if they’re not trying to evangelize. But it’s also going to impact missionaries and foreign workers who go into these countries to evangelize."

Report from the Christian Telegraph 

CHRISTIANS CONCERN: RELIGIOUS FREEDOM TO BE DEFINED IN AUSTRALIA


The World Evangelical Alliance is concerned about growing evidence of a fundamentalist religious lobby in Australia supporting same-sex relationships, stem-cell research, and abortion. Anti-hate speech legislation in Australia would put a choke collar on anyone who spoke against these practices, including Christians. The Human Rights Commission is launching a national review of what Australians believe freedom of religion means, reports MNN.

Commissioner of race discrimination Tom Calama says that a balance needs to be struck between the freedom to practice a religion and not pushing those beliefs on the rest of society. He says that people in Australia need to understand what religious freedom means in the 21st century.

“Does religious belief influence policies being determined in any country, particularly in our country?” he said.

Law in Australia provides for freedom of religion, but in October 2003 hate speech legislation affected two pastors giving a seminar on Islam. A civil suit was filed with the Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal, alleging defamation of Muslims during a seminar the pastors had given on Islam. The Islamic Council sought an apology, retraction of the comments in question, and compensation.

“These seminars largely consisted of opening the Koran and reading from [it],” said Jeff King, president of the International Christian Concern. “There was Saudi money that went into Australia; they hired the best lawyers in the country and sued these guys for defamation.”

The pastors’ lawyers argued that the complaint was outside the tribunal’s jurisdiction and that it infringed on the Constitutional right of freedom of expression. Although the pastors were convicted, the case was appealed and later settled after mediation.

Calama says that in a secular, multi-faith society, people sometimes have different expectations of what freedom of religion means and how the law should reflect those beliefs. People are invited to make submissions concerning their views of freedom of religion until the end of January.

Report from the Christian Telegraph

PAKISTAN: CHRISTIAN AT CHURCH OF BELEAGUERED PASTOR ARRESTED


Young parishioner illegally detained, beaten with wooden rods.

ISTANBUL, October 17 (Compass Direct News) – In ongoing intimidation of a Pakistani pastor working in the outskirts of Lahore, police last week arrested and beat a young parishioner who was visiting his home to receive prayer.

Police on Oct. 9 arrested Javed Masih, a 22-year-old delivery driver and prominent member of pastor Christopher Manzer’s congregation, as he was leaving Manzer’s house. The pastor had already fled after receiving a telephone call warning him of imminent police arrival.

Police attacked Manzer five times between April and July, and the pastor of the Pentecostal Church of Jesus Disciples has recently received death threats.

As Masih was leaving Manzer’s home, police approached him, asked if he was Pastor Christopher and arrested him. Manzer searched for Masih in local police stations without success.

On Sunday (Oct. 12) Masih’s family learned that he had been taken to the Crime Investigation Agency (CIA) police station in Ichhra, central Lahore. Authorities held Masih there for three days, kept in a small room with 32 other men and beaten, before allowing him to make a phone call.

“They beat me with wooden rods,” Masih told Compass through a translator.

Police held Masih until 11 p.m. Tuesday (Oct. 14). According to human rights group Sharing Life Ministry Pakistan (SLMP) staff, Masih was held illegally and without any official record. He was released after his family and Manzer paid a bribe of 15,000 rupees (US$185). Masih plans to post pre-arrest bail, in the hopes that this will avert future arrests.

The pastor and staff at SLMP believe the man instigating the attacks is Mohammad Nawaz, who opened a court case against Manzer, Masih and seven others, accusing them of kidnapping his wife, Sana Bibi.

Bibi and Nawaz converted to Islam and eloped last year believing Islam could shield and support their union, as their families did not approve of their marriage. Sources said, however, that Bibi filed for divorce and returned to her family, after Nawaz’s ties with devout Muslims led to disagreements.

Manzer counseled Bibi after she decided to return to her family and Christianity, and according to sources Nawaz blames him for the divorce in March and a botched abortion that led to her death in May. Manzer has denied all of the accusations.

 

Continued Defamation

There are numerous charges pending against Manzer and members of his congregation based on accusations allegedly fabricated and filed by Nawaz’s friends.

Should these “applications” become official First Information Reports, they would each require pre-arrest bail payments from those indicted.

Both Manzer and Shahzad Kamran of the SLMP have expressed concerns of police corruption, maintaining police make arrests in order to collect release bribes. According to Peter Jacob, a lawyer with the National Commission for Justice and Peace, these issues are surmountable.

“There is a problem of corruption and influence on police, a degree of malpractice,” said Jacob. “On the whole if the allegations are false… there is the possibility of redress if corruption has taken place.”

Kamran told Compass he believes Manzer would benefit from appearing before the Deputy Inspector General (DIG), who has authority over all local police stations, to explain to him the entire episode.

“He could then take action and issue a summary report to all the police stations informing them the pastor is innocent, so all the applications could be cancelled,” said Kamran.

Kamran and Manzer said they plan to bring their case to the DIG within the next week.

Despite these difficulties, Manzer remains hopeful, believing that the case will be settled in his favor. The court has now authenticated the Bibi-Nawaz divorce documents to be used as evidence that Bibi was not kidnapped, according to the SLMP. This is a crucial step in the defense of Manzer, Masih and the seven others.  

Report from Compass Direct News

INDIA: EVIDENCE CONCOCTED AGAINST CHRISTIANS IN MURDER OF HINDU LEADER


Orissa police confirm Maoists killed Saraswati; thousands flee amid continued violence.

NEW DELHI, October 10 (Compass Direct News) – After police in the eastern state of Orissa confirmed this week that Maoists killed Hindu nationalist leader Swami Laxmanananda Saraswati, a Hindu extremist group circulated allegedly forged documents in an attempt to implicate a local church in the Aug. 23 murder.

The Hindu Jagaran Samukhya (Society for Revival of Hinduism or HJS) circulated documents saying the plan to kill Saraswati in Kandhamal district was made at a meeting at Bethikala Church on May 25 attended by 17 people following a briefing and command from religious leaders, the Press Trust of India news agency reported yesterday.

Local Christian leaders responded by saying they will file defamation charges.

“We will file both civil and criminal defamation cases against the person who made such allegations,” Father Joseph Kalathil from the Catholic Archbishop House in Bhubaneswar and the Rev. Fr. Prafulla Ku Sabhapati, president of the Bethikala Parish Council of Kandhamal, said in a statement. “Not only our signatures were forged, the contents of the documents were also fabricated.”

On Oct. 6 Orissa state police confirmed that Maoists killed Saraswati, a day after the chief of the Orissa unit of the banned Communist Party of India-Maoist, Sabyasachi Panda, told NDTV 24X7 news that his organization was behind the murder.

The Maoists killed Saraswati because he was a key leader of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (World Hindu Council or VHP), Panda told the channel. The VHP, he said, used non-tribal traders’ money to build VHP’s youth wing, Bajrang Dal, and ran a campaign against Christians, falsely accusing them of forced conversions and killing cows, considered holy by Hindus.

“This forced us to attack him,” Panda said. “We left two letters claiming responsibility for the murders. But the [Chief Minister Naveen] Patnaik government suppressed those letters. It is a BJP [Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party] government; they will support the VHP. The state government made it look like Christian groups were responsible for the attack. The Christian community in Orissa does not have any Maoist organization supporting them here.”

There were also reports, however, of the Orissa police having arrested three tribal Christians in connection with Saraswati’s murder. The Indian Express reported that the three had confessed their involvement.

A representative of the Christian Legal Association told Compass that according to sources, the police had tortured the three Christians to pressure them to confess a crime they did not commit.

After the assassination of Saraswati, Hindu extremist groups blamed local Christians and began attacks on them, their houses and their churches. The worst violence against Christians in modern India erupted in spite of the Orissa police and media stating on the day of the murder that suspected Maoists killed Saraswati.

According to the All India Christian Council, more than 60 people have been killed, more than 18,000 injured and around 4,500 houses and churches destroyed in the “retributive” violence. Two Christian women, including a nun, were also gang-raped. The violence, which later spread to at least 14 districts of Orissa, has left more than 50,000 people homeless.

 

Attacks Continue

Orissa’s Kandhamal district remained tense even 48 days after the violence began.

Yesterday about 15 houses were burned down by a mob in the Lansaripalli village in Kantamal Block of neighboring Boudh district, The Hindu reported. The attackers came from the Gochhapada area of Kandhamal district.

“Thursday’s was the third incident in Boudh district,” added the daily. “More than 100 houses were burnt down in two separate attacks in the past few days.”

On Wednesday (Oct. 8), a mob burned and looted at least 25 houses belonging to Christians in the Balligada village under Daringbadi police station in Kandhamal’s Nuagam Block, Father Ajay Singh of the Catholic Archdiocese of Bhubaneswar told Compass.

On Tuesday (Oct. 7), over five houses were torched in Jalespanga area under Phiringia police jurisdiction in Kandhamal. Another house was burned in the Sujeli village of G. Udayagiri Block the same day.

The Hindu also said the more than 16,000 Christians living in various relief camps were not returning to their villages, fearing attacks on them if they refused to convert to Hinduism.

Fr. Singh from the Bhubaneswar Archdiocese told Compass that over 12,000 Christians from various relief camps had moved out of Kandhamal to other districts and states, as they feared more attacks.

 

Supporting Violence

The president of the VHP, Ashok Singhal, told Zee News channel on Sunday (Oct. 5), “What Hindu organizations including the VHP, the Bajrang Dal and the RSS [Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, India’s chief Hindu nationalist group] are doing in Orissa is all legal and is the reaction of the murder of VHP leader Saraswati, who was like Jesus Christ to us.”

In an interview with The Week magazine (Oct. 5), Singhal said that Hindu youth are “ready to die and, if necessary, to kill. [Their] patience is ebbing.”

Singhal added that a “Hindu uprising” had begun, “and the political parties will have to rethink and reinvent themselves, for their own existence. If there is no arrangement for Hindus’ security, they’ll do it on their own. The Hindus will not die. If that self-defence is militancy, so be it … the Hindu never went around the world for suzerainty or to convert … now they are here, undermining us. That causes anger. In fact many want to fight back this harvesting of Hindus.”

In addition, a leader of the Bajrang Dal in the southern state of Karnataka admitted to supporting recent attacks on churches while speaking to The Week magazine. “We supported those who attacked the churches, as it is a justified fight,” Bajrang Dal convenor Mahendra Kumar said.

The violence in Orissa spread to several other states, including Karnataka, where around 20 churches were destroyed and 20 Christians were attacked in the recent weeks.

As many political parties and rights groups have demanded a ban on the Bajrang Dal for attacking Christians and churches in Orissa and other states, the federal government ruled by the United Progressive Alliance has mandated the National Integration Council to give its recommendations, reported the Times of India today.

The Bajrang Dal, however, warned that any such move would have “grave consequences” for the government politically, saying there was “no legal ground” for such an action.

There are 897,861 Christians in Orissa, which has a population of 36.8 million.  

Report from Compass Direct News