Hostilities Flare in BJP-Run Madhya Pradesh, India


Anti-Christian violence, efforts to tarnish church increase in past five years.

NEW DELHI, October 14 (CDN) — Since the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) came to power in Madhya Pradesh in December 2003, Christians in the state have suffered increased attacks and concerted efforts to tarnish their image, church leaders said.

Before the BJP took office the state recorded two or three attacks against Christians per year, they said, whereas Jabalpur Archbishop Gerald Almeida said that in the past five years 65 baseless charges of forceful conversion – commonly accompanied by mob violence – have been registered in his diocese alone.

“There are some groups who are closely monitoring the Christian movement, and these people are bent on creating problems for the Christians for the past five years,” Almeida told Compass.

The state is not able to control these groups, he added. Indeed, police routinely working with Hindu extremist groups filed an average of more than three unsubstantiated complaints of “coerced” conversions each month in the past five years, according to the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of Madhya Pradesh (see sidebar below).

In the first eight months of this year, Madhya Pradesh saw the third highest number of attacks against Christians and Christian institutions in the country with 11, behind Karnataka with 43 and Andhra Pradesh with 14, according to Christian advocacy organizations.

The Rev. Anand Muttungal, spokesman for the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of Madhya Pradesh, said growing attacks on Christians were a symptom of fear among Hindu extremists that the Catholic Church’s influence is spreading.

“The Church as an organization is doing very well in many fields,” Muttungal said. “It causes those fundamentalists to worry. It could be one of the main reasons for the continuous attacks on Christians.”

Madhya Pradesh has a Christian population of 170,381, only 0.3 percent of the total in the state, according to the 2001 census. The state’s history of religious intolerance runs deep, with an “anti-conversion” law passed in 1968 that has serves as a pretext for harassing Christians.

Igniting anti-Christian violence shortly after the BJP came to power was an incident in Jhabua district, where the body of a 9-year-old girl called Sujata was found in one of the Christian schools on Jan. 11, 2004. Although a non-Christian confessed to the crime, Hindu extremists used the event to justify various attacks against the Christian community.

Abuses became so rampant in 2005 and 2006 that the National Commission for Minorities (NCM) sent a fact-finding team to Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh in June 2006. Investigators found that Hindu extremists had frequently invoked the state’s anti-conversion law as a means to incite mobs against Christians and to get Christians arrested without evidence.

Jabalpur Archbishop Almeida cited cases chronicled by the NCM such as the arrest under the anti-conversion law of two local women who were merely distributing gospel tracts in March 2006. Almeida also cited the NCM report on the jailing of four pastors in January 2006 for alleged “forceful conversion” after Hindu extremists from the Bajrang Dal dragged them to a Hindu temple and forced them to deny Christ.

Catholic Church records show that in 2007, a 70-year-old woman identified only as Mrs. Godwin was arrested along with another woman on charges of forceful conversion; they too were only distributing religious literature, a right they had under the nation’s constitution.

Christian leaders said one aim of such abuses of the state’s anti-conversion law is to tarnish the image of Christians by showing them as lawbreakers. Hate propaganda and spurious allegations against Christians continue unabated in the state, church leaders said.

The customary practice in India and especially in Madhya Pradesh, they said, is for Hindu extremists to raise false allegations on the slimmest of pretexts and get police to make hurried arrests.

Political Machinery

After the NCM report in 2006 first documented the violence, the Madhya Pradesh political machinery’s influence became evident when State Minorities Commission Chairman Anwar Mohammed Khan asserted that reports of Hindu extremists attacking Christians in the state were “baseless.”

Khan told Frontline magazine that extremists had not targeted Christians. The magazine also quoted state Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chauhan as saying the BJP government was greatly concerned about “unethical conversions” – presumably of Hindus to Christianity.

The magazine criticized the state Minorities Commission for speaking “the same language as the Bajrang Dal and the state chief minister,” thereby failing its mandate to defend minorities.

This year the commission tried to increase state control over church activities, unofficially recommending that the government enact a law to set up a board to manage church properties such as schools, colleges, hospitals and charities. The Christian community strongly protested, and the state withdrew the proposal.

Leo Cornelio, archbishop of Bhopal, said the Minorities Commission recommendation “shows beyond doubt that it is disloyal to minorities” and “loyal to the government,” according to the Indian Catholic.

The battle over state control of church properties is not over. Muttungal told Compass that the Minorities Commission has started to collect details of church properties through the Education Department. It is certain, he said, that this will lead to a legal battle involving the Education Department, Minorities Commission and the Catholic Church.

SIDEBAR

Police Collusion Seen in ‘Forced Conversion’ Complaints

NEW DELHI, October 14 (Compass Direct News) – Hindu extremist groups in collusion with the state police filed an average of more than three baseless complaints of “coerced” conversions per month in the past five years – shortly after the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) came to power – according to the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of Madhya Pradesh.

“I have gathered information from all the districts of the state, according to which the number of [forced or fraudulent] conversion complaints against Christians in the last five years is over 180,” the Rev. Anand Muttungal, spokesman for the state’s Catholic body, told Compass.

Muttungal said he asked the Madhya Pradesh State Crime Records Bureau, a body under the state interior ministry that monitors criminal complaints, about the number of forced conversion complaints in the last five years, and the state agency put the number wrongly at fewer than 35.

Muttungal also said most of the complaints were filed by third parties – not the supposed “victims” – who were unable to produce any unlawfully converted people to support their allegations. He added that the complainants were mainly members of the Hindu extremist Bajrang Dal, youth wing of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (World Hindu Council or VHP).

“In Jabalpur, the complaints were lodged mainly by the Hindu Dharam Sena [Hindu Religion Army],” he said.

Most recently, the leader of the Hindu Dharam Sena on Sept. 27 got police to interrogate, without cause, a Catholic group traveling through Jabalpur. The Rev. Anto Mundamany of the Carmelite of Mary Immaculate order said the inspector-in-charge of the Civil Lines police station and four other policemen came to the Carmel Niketan center, where the group had stopped for dinner. Police interrogated him and the 45 Catholic visitors about their religious identity, he said, to determine whether the visitors were Hindus whom the priests and nuns at the center might be forcibly trying to convert.

Journalists accompanied the police, and the following day local newspapers reported on the incident, portraying the Christians as inherently suspect.

“Although the police left after making sure that all the participants who had arrived for an inter-parish tour were Christians, the newspapers made no mention of that fact,” Mundamany said.

The local daily Dainik Bhaskar reported that Yogesh Agarwal, head of the Hindu Dharam Sena, had informed police about a supposed “conversion plot” by the Catholic order.

“There can be little doubt that the police are party to this disturbing trend,” Muttungal said.

The incidence of anti-Christian attacks is the highest in the state in Jabalpur – local Christians say the city witnessed at least three attacks every month until recently, mainly by Agarwal and his cohorts. Although numerous criminal complaints are pending against Agarwal, he remains at large.

A Christian requesting anonymity said police officers personally act on his complaints against Christian workers.

A June 2006 report by the National Commission for Minorities (NCM) found that Hindu nationalist groups in Madhya Pradesh had frequently invoked the state’s anti-conversion law as a pretext to incite mobs against Christians. The NCM report also pointed at police collusion in the attacks.

“The life of Christians has become miserable at the hands of miscreants in connivance with the police,” the NCM said in its report. “There are allegations that when atrocities were committed on Christians, the police remained mere spectators, and in certain cases they did not even register their complaints.”

The NCM is an independent body created by Parliament in 1993 to monitor and safeguard the rights of minorities.

Muttungal said the Catholic Bishops’ Conference would approach the state high court with the facts it has gathered to prove police involvement in complaints against Christians.

Most complaints against Christians are registered under Section 3 of the Madhya Pradesh “Freedom of Religion Act” of 1968, popularly known as an anti-conversion law. The section states, “No person shall convert or attempt to convert, either directly or otherwise, any person from one religious faith to another by the use of force or by inducement or by any fraudulent means nor shall any person abet any such conversion.”

Offenses under the anti-conversion law are “cognizable,” meaning police are empowered to register a complaint, investigate and arrest for up to 24 hours, without a warrant, anyone accused of forced conversion.

Police also use Sections 153A and 295A of the Indian Penal Code (IPC) to arrest Christians. Section 153A refers to “promoting enmity between different groups on grounds of religion and doing acts prejudicial to maintenance of harmony.” Section 295A concerns “deliberate and malicious acts to outrage religious feelings.” These IPC crimes are also cognizable.

Report from Compass Direct News 

Police in Pakistan Shoot Mourners at Funeral of Christian


Authorities allegedly kill young man in custody on contrived charge of desecrating Quran.

LAHORE, Pakistan, September 17 (CDN) — At a funeral for a Christian man allegedly tortured to death while in custody on a spurious charge of blaspheming the Quran, police in Sialkot, Pakistan yesterday fired on mourners trying to move the coffin to another site.

Area Christians suspect police killed 22-year-old Robert Danish, nicknamed “Fanish” or “Falish” by friends, by torturing him to death on Tuesday (Sept. 15) after the mother of his Muslim girlfriend contrived a charge against him of desecrating Islam’s scripture. The allegation led to calls from mosque loudspeakers to punish Christians, prompting an Islamic mob to attack a church building in Jathikai village on Friday (Sept. 11) and beat several of the 30 families forced to flee their homes.

Jathikai was Danish’s native village, and some family members and other Christians wished to transfer his coffin to his hometown. Eyewitnesses at the funeral in Christian Town, Sialkot, said police fired shots directly at the Christians, injuring three, when mourners began to move the coffin toward nearby Jathikai. Mourners fled.

Sialkot is 125 kilometers (78 miles) northwest of Lahore in Punjab Province.

Controversy swirled around the cause of Danish’s death, with Christians refusing to accept police claims that he committed suicide. Results of forensic tests are expected within a week.

The dark moment for Danish’s family grew gloomier yesterday when police seemed to be seeking the first excuse for heavy-handed tactics at the funeral attended by hundreds of people, Christian sources said. When the family and other Christians tried to take the coffin to his hometown of Jathikai, police fired on them, charged them with batons and snatched the body from them, Christian sources said. 

Eyewitness Sajawal Masih told Compass that as soon as mourners lifted the coffin, police began firing tear gas.

“We were running when police opened fire and one bullet went through my foot, and two others also were injured,” he said.

There were reports of Christian youths pelting officers with stones, and police reportedly said that they needed to rush the crowd and make arrests to prevent “further disturbances.”

On Tuesday night (Sept. 15), Danish’s survivors and other Christians had decided that the body would be buried in Christian Town because of the dangers of potential attack in Jathikai, according to Christian Town Councilor Tanveer Saqib. Saqib said that the funeral was to be held at 10 a.m. on Wednesday (Sept. 16) at the Christian Technical Institute (CTI) Ground in Christian Town, Sialkot city.

Pakistan Muslim League-Quaid (PML-Q) Member of National Assembly (MNA) Akram Gill said that when he and several youths took the body from the CTI Ground and began heading toward Jathikai village, police began firing. Gill told Compass that police opened fire on them as well as the crowd, injuring three Christians.

Gill, a Christian, added that police also shot tear gas, and that officers arrested about 100 Christians. The national assembly member said police arrested him and took Danish’s body to the Christian Town Graveyard in Sialkot. In spite of the tear gas, Gill said, he and others went to the graveyard but encountered armed police who also fired tear gas, turning them back.

For three hours, Gill said, Criminal Investigation Department police detained him, and although he was released, police arrested PML-Q Member of Provincial Assembly (MPA) Shehzad Elahi and his whereabouts were still unknown. He said that whenever Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) members come into power in the province, problems for Christians multiply.

Cause of Death

How Danish died remained unclear. Allama Iqbal Hospital Deputy Medical Superintendent Sajid Hussein told Compass that on Danish’s body there was a large welt on the back of the neck and “marks on the legs and back.” He said it was too soon to determine cause of death but that police had pronounced it a suicide.

Tissues taken from the body have been sent to Lahore for chemical and histopathology tests. He said these tests would indicate how the wounds were made, including whether they were inflicted after death.

“The report of these tests would come within a week, and I would inform the media of its findings,” he said. “I cannot comment on whether he committed suicide or not, as the matter is before the court.”

There were unconfirmed reports that state officials were pressuring doctors at Allama Iqbal Hospital to declare Danish’s death a suicide; Hussein denied these statements, telling Compass that they were “mere rumors.”

Hussein said that two Christian doctors, one from Bethania Hospital and the medical superintendent of Jalalpur Jattan Mission Hospital, were allowed to observe the autopsy. Christian Town Councilor Tanveer Saqib said that after the autopsy, the two Christian doctors came out and told media in front of thousands of Christians that Danish had been tortured to death.

Saqib said Danish’s father received the body and, accompanied by thousands of Christians, took it to Baithania Mission Hospital. The procession was so big that it took nearly four hours, though the route was not far.

Over the weekend Danish’s father had been unduly arrested, and upon his release a station house officer told Danish’s uncle, Saleem Masih, that even though Danish’s father was being released, Danish never would be. Saleem Masih told Compass that Danish’s father went back to his jailed son and told him, “My son, we have been trying our best to save you, but it doesn’t seem we will succeed. I think it is the last time I’m seeing you, so I commit you in the Lord’s hands.”

Councilor Saqib said that a Christian constable posted at the Sialkot District Jail told him that he saw Danish in the jail at around 7 a.m. and that he appeared unharmed. At about 10 a.m., however, jail administrators called important figures in the Christian community and told them that Danish had committed suicide, Saqib said.

Danish’s body was taken to a trauma center for a CT scan, he said, then to Riffat Idrees Hospital for an MRI.

“Along with the body were two Christian doctors – Dr. Tariq Malik and Dr. Qammar Sohail – and we were confident that they would tell the facts,” he said, adding that Malik had all medical reports of these tests.

The Punjab provincial government has ordered an investigation into the death, and three prison officials have reportedly been suspended.

Tragic Love

A paternal cousin of Danish identified only as Parveen confirmed reports that the conflict grew out of a romantic relationship between Danish and Hina Asghar, a young Muslim woman. She said Danish and Asghar were neighbors and had been seeing each other for three or four years.

On the night of Sept. 10, Parveen told Compass, Danish and Asghar met on the roof, angering the young Muslim’s mother. Early the next morning, Asghar’s mother spoke of the affair with the wife of local Muslim cleric identified only as Amanullah; the cleric’s wife in turn warned Asghar that both she and Danish could lose their lives if the relationship continued, Parveen said.

When Danish met Asghar on the road the next morning, Parveen said, the young Muslim woman refused to talk to him but tried to hand him a letter explaining the warning she had received. Upset, Danish batted her hand away as she was trying to give him the letter.

“Because he pushed her hand with a jerk, supara 21 [a section of the Quran larger than a sura, or chapter] fell from her hand and dropped onto a nearby sewage stream and got smeared with garbage,” Parveen said.

Saleem Masih, Danish’s uncle, questions that what fell from Asghar’s hand was a part of the Quran. He told Compass that Asghar was trying to give Danish a green-colored diary that only looked like the similarly green-covered section of the Quran. After the rumor began circulating that Danish had blasphemed the Quran, Saleem Masih said, Danish told his mother that it was not the Quran but a green diary that Asghar was trying to give him which fell.

According to Parveen, Asghar returned home and began cleaning the recovered scripture part, and her mother asked how it became sullied, Parveen said. Asghar’s mother subsequently rushed to cleric Amanullah’s wife, who then told her husband about the incident.

Saleem Masih told Compass that he and his wife, along with Danish’s parents, went to Hina Asghar’s father, Asghar Ali, bowed before him and pleaded for him to stop the false rumors of desecration of the Quran. He responded that Muslim cleric Amanullah would decide on it after the Friday prayers, and that the matter was not in their hands anymore.

On that day, Sept. 11, at about 11 a.m., the Muslim cleric announced during the Friday prayer that a Christian had blasphemed by desecrating the Quran, Parveen said.

Islamic mobs brandishing sticks were already arriving in the village, shouting against Danish and demanding that he be hung to death. They also occupied a house that he owned. Surrounding families fled their homes, leaving domestic animals without food and water.

Relatives Thrashed

Nadeem Masih, a paternal cousin of Danish, said that when he arrived at the village by motorbike that day, a large number of emotionally charged Muslims were setting Calvary Church on fire.

He said several Muslims had surrounded Danish’s father, Riasat Masih, and that he managed to get his uncle onto his motorbike to try to escape. They sped through several mob attempts to stop them and were eventually pursued by two Muslims on motorcycles. As Nadeem and Riasat Masih entered the main road, their motorbike slid and fell as they barely avoided an approaching truck. Nadeem Masih escaped but his uncle, Danish’s father, was captured.

Saleem Masih said that the Muslim mob took hold of Danish’s father, tied him up and were about to set him on fire when elderly men intervened, saying punishment for that crime would be too great, and suggested they instead only beat him. After beating Danish’s father, the Muslim mob untied him and took him into the church, where they burned Bibles, hymn books and other items and continued beating him.

Christian sources said police arrived and arrested Riasat Masih – not his attackers – and took him to the police station. Riasat Masih filed a crime report against the jailor and police officials at the Civil Lines Police Station, according to Christian Town Councilor Saqib.

Saleem Masih told Compass that he also was beaten. He said he was with Calvary Church Senior Pastor Dilshad Masih when they arrived in the village to find the mob setting church articles on fire and striking it with whatever they could find on hand. Realizing he could do nothing, Saleem Masih said he ran to his farmhouse, also owned by a Muslim named Bao Munir.

Munir took hold of him, he said.

“He brought out my cot and other belongings and set them on fire, and then he also tried to burn me in this fire,” Saleem Masih said.

Munir told him he could either be burned or go with him back to the village, and he forced all of the Christian’s clothes off of him except a cloth covering his loins and burned them, Saleem Masih said. After some struggle, he said, he managed to escape.

Danish, meantime, was hiding in a house in Jathikai village but was arrested the next morning (Sept. 12) when he went out for drinking water.

Tensions escalated, a source told Compass, when cleric Sabir Ali announced from his mosque in nearby Bhopalwala village that a Christian boy had blasphemed Islam by throwing the Quran in a drain.

Church Fire

After Calvary Church was set on fire, about 30 nearby families fled from the brutal beatings. Eyewitnesses told Compass that the assailants first went to Danish’s house. Not finding anyone there, they attacked the locked church which was only three houses from his.

The eyewitnesses, who were still in hiding and fearing further attacks, said that the assailants burned Bibles and hymnbooks. The assailants brought the church cross out, they said, and beat it with their shoes. The sources said the attackers were mainly from Shabab-e-Milli, a wing of the Muslim extremist Jamaat-e-Islami.

Christian Town Councilor Saqib said that the mob got hold of Calvary Church Senior Pastor Masih and severely beat him while police stood by. Police kept Saqib and his team from going to the blazing Calvary Church building, signaling them from afar not to come near, he said. He added that they had to turn back as the rampaging Muslims turned on them to attack, which police made no effort to stop. 

Pastor Masih told Compass that when he and Saleem Masih arrived at the church building, Muslims shouted at them, “Catch these Christians!” He remained standing as others fled, he said, and the mob beat him and took his mobile phone.

“They wanted to kill me, but miraculously I managed to run from there,” he said.

Saqib said MPA Kamran Michael of the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PLM-N), the ruling party in Punjab province, reached the village on Friday, but police did not allow him to go to the burning church, citing security threats. About 500 Christians later gathered in Sialkot to protest the church fire, with Michael addressing the crowd.

Michael said that one of the protestors reminded him that after Islamic mobs burned homes in Gojra last month, he had vowed to resign if further attacks took place. The crowd then began demanding that he resign, and police opened fire and charged the crowd with batons. He added that throughout the incident there were several media vans, but none of the major television stations covered the protest.

Several Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) and Christian media also faced difficulties in getting in the village, though in all previous incidents media and NGOs were allowed access. In this case, however, police told them that they were not allowed due to security reasons. Also unable to gain access to Jathikai was Pakistan People’s Party provincial Assembly Member Amna Buttar and minority rights groups.

George and Butta Masih, along with four family members, were in Jathikai tending to their five cows on Sunday (Sept. 13). George Masih told a Compass reporter who had somehow got into the village that they stayed home all day and went out only at night to bring some fodder for the animals. They said that Muslims would beat any Christians seen during the day.

On Sunday about 500 to 700 Muslim women staged a protest in Sialkot to refute the notion that a Muslim woman could fall in love with a Christian man.

Several Christian and secular organizations in Lahore have scheduled a candle-light vigil today (Sept. 17) as a memorial for Danish and other members of Pakistan’s minority communities who have been killed or attacked in Islamist attacks.

A field officer for advocacy group Community Development Initiative, Napoleon Qayyum, said such attacks were weakening the Christian community. 

“After the Gojra incident, several Christians said that their Muslim employers had told them not to come to work anymore,” Qayyum said. “This economic dependence further plays part in seeking justice.” 

He added that in the June 30 Islamist attack on Bahmaniwala, in Kasur district, Christians did not want to pursue justice as they worked on Muslims’ land and could not afford confrontation.

“Their fear is that they would be left without jobs,” he said. “Due to economic dependence and poor status, Christians neither pursue their cases, nor do they defend themselves in such instances.”

Report from Compass Direct News 

MEXICO: CHRISTIANS JAILED FOR ACTEAL MASSACRE WIN RELEASE


Supreme Court rules their rights were violated; violence threatened in Chiapas.

MEXICO CITY, Aug. 13 (Compass Direct News) – At least 20 men accused of participating in a massacre in Chiapas state in December 1997 left prison early this morning – amid concerns over threats of violence at their home communities near San Cristobal de las Casas – following a Supreme Court ruling yesterday that their convictions violated fundamental norms of justice.

The release of the 20 men, most of them evangelical Christians, came after Mexico’s Supreme Court ruled in a 4-1 decision that they had been convicted in unfair trials in which prosecutors fabricated testimony and illegally obtained evidence. Area evangelicals view the imprisoned Christians as caught between survivors clamoring for convictions and government police and military forces eager to shift blame away from their minions following the Dec. 22, 1997 killing of 45 civilians in Acteal village.

“Acteal is a double tragedy,” attorney Javier Cruz Angulo reportedly said after the ruling. “On the one hand you have an abominable massacre, and on the other more than 50 human beings imprisoned without proofs.”

The court will review the cases of another 31 men convicted in connection with the massacre, and six more will be given new trials, according to news reports.

The identities of those released were not immediately known. As 32 of those imprisoned for the crime were Christians and another 15 received Christ while in prison, most of the previous total of 57 prisoners are Christians.

“In prison, the majority of us converted to the Presbyterian faith,” Tomas Perez Mendez, 60, told El Universal before the Supreme Court decision; at press time it was not known if he was among those released.

He told the Mexican newspaper that he bears no resentment even though his imprisonment led to illnesses that contributed to the deaths of family members. “My wife is ill, my father and one brother died from sorrow at seeing us here in prison . . . I no longer feel anger or resentment against those who accused me, and I plan to preach.”

Authorities had told a total of 57 prisoners that they would be freed after their paperwork was reviewed, a source in Chiapas told Compass.

“Naturally, those prisoners who had been informed of their impending release last week are extremely disappointed, as well wondering if they will ever be released,” said the source, who requested anonymity.

Two brothers, Pablo and Juan Hernandez Perez, reportedly said that they have no home to return to; their house was burned to the ground while they were in prison. Another hoping for release, Javier Vazquez Luna, told El Universal he played no part in the crime, and that indeed his father was one of the victims of the massacre.

The Supreme Court justices stated that they were not ruling on the guilt or innocence of the men, only on the violation of due process.

“During the investigation, their constitutional rights were violated,” the court said in a statement. “The majority of cases … were based on the use of illegally obtained evidence.”

In recent months relatives of the imprisoned men ratcheted up citizen campaigns seeking their freedom, backed by many others. For several years Presbyterian churches have carried banners outside their buildings requesting justice for those wrongly convicted in the Acteal violence. The Chiapas government had said it could do nothing because the case was under federal jurisdiction.

Pressure to reopen the case has intensified each December with remembrances of the massacre. In spite of intense political pressure to the contrary, the Supreme Court finally agreed to review the facts.

Threats of Violence

Amid statements by survivors of the Acteal crime that tensions could heighten in the area – and a grim warning from a former leader of Las Abejas, a supposedly non-violent group sympathetic to rebel militants whose members were killed in the massacre – defense attorneys and family members of the released men appealed to authorities to provide security and guarantee social peace.

“A former leader of the Abejas made a public declaration that if the men returned to their homes, the Abejas would be waiting for them, and the released prisoners would be repaid for the pain they caused 12 years ago,” the Chiapas source told Compass. “Tensions exist, and with statements like he made, the government is nervous about letting the men return to their homes due to possible violence. At this point, there are still no violent actions, but the threat of an outbreak is real.”

At press time authorities had prevented the released men from returning to the Acteal area, keeping them in a hotel in Berriozabal after loading them onto a truck through a back door of the El Amate prison at 3:35 a.m., El Universal reported.

Initially the prison director refused to see the men’s lawyers when they arrived at El Amate prison in Chiapas near midnight with orders for their release, the Compass source said.

“When he finally relented and met with the lawyers, it was only under extreme pressure from the Mexico City lawyers who refused to be dissuaded,” the source said. “There was an extended time of wrangling before the warden eventually released the prisoners, only under threat of returning to the Supreme Court and the Human Rights Commission about his intransigence.”

The released men had been promised there would be a government-paid bus waiting to take them to San Cristobal de las Casas, he said, but instead they were taken to the hotel in Berriozabal.

“The men were to meet with government officials today in Tuxtla, and we are still awaiting word on their arrival in San Cristobal after some five hours of waiting,” the source said. “It appears there are delaying tactics, hindrances and lack of cooperation in the entire release process.”

Some of the released men were able to meet with family members, and most expressed desire to return to the Acteal area, but the prison director said that authorities had determined that it was not safe for them to go back to their communities, according to El Universal. Authorities have reportedly proposed the possibility of providing them land parcels to avoid their returning to the area of the original conflict.

The evangelical Christians convicted were serving 25- or 36-year sentences and had exhausted all appeals. Some of them say they were arrested because rebel sympathizers with whom they had been embroiled in years of land disputes named them. Others said they were simply nearby when authorities made random round-ups.

Of the 34 men originally convicted, one died in prison and another had been released as a minor.

The family of one prisoner, Agustin Gomez Perez, tried to visit him in 2005. He told El Universal that they had an accident on the way, killing one small child and putting his wife in the hospital for 20 days – leaving their other five children without parents during that period.

Controversy over who killed the 45 people has revolved around whether there was a “massacre” by numerous “paramilitary” villagers or a “confrontation” between a handful of neighboring peasants and Zapatista National Liberation Army rebels. Historian Héctor Aguilar Camín has argued that there was both a confrontation and a massacre, with some overlap between each, but that they were largely separate incidents.

Five confessed killers have testified that they and four others engaged only Zapatista militia to avenge the death of a relative, while the federal attorney general’s office charged that at least 50 pro-government “paramilitaries” descended on a relief camp hermitage full of displaced peasants bent on killing and robbing them. The testimonies of the five confessed killers – four others remain at large – agree that the nine avengers were the only ones involved in the firefights, and that the decision to attack the Zapatistas was a private family decision made with no involvement from government authorities.

They also agree that the sole motive was to avenge the assassination of a relative – the latest of 18 unprosecuted murders by Zapatistas over the previous three months, according to Aguilar Camín.

Government prosecutors unduly dismissed much of the testimony of the five confessed avengers, Aguilar Camín wrote in a 2007 article for Nexos, noting that the killers testified that state security forces were nearby and did nothing. He highlights the judicial irregularities of the round-up and conviction of the peasants – apprehensions without evidence or warrant, charging 83 people with homicide when only 45 people were killed and lack of translators and attorneys for the suspects, Tzotzil Mayans who did not know Spanish.

The Supreme Court pointed out those violations in its ruling. Arturo Farela Gutierrez, head of the National Association of Evangelical Christian Churches, praised the court decision.

“We are in the presence of a court different from that of 12 years ago,” he said, according to El Universal. “The court is strengthened without fear of anything or anyone, and it’s the court that democratic Mexico needs.”

Report from Compass Direct News 

Sodom found? The quest for the lost city of destruction – Part 2


By Brian Nixon, special to ASSIST News Service

Dr. Steven Collins, the unassuming archeologist from New Mexico, was at a crossroad. The site he was helping to excavate in the West Bank (Ai) from 1995-2000 closed down due to warfare and political maneuvering in the region. Steve, and project director Bryant Wood, had to close up shop.

“I didn’t know what to do,” he told me in a recent interview. “For the past five years, my life had been consumed by this dig. Then it was gone. I was dumbfounded.”

But this closed door proved to be an opening for something more amazing.

“It was then that I decided to conduct some research on a thought I had in 1996. During an archeology tour, I found that the traditional site for Sodom (known as the “Southern Theory”) didn’t match the geographical profile as described in Genesis 13-19.”

“As I began to research it more, and read through Genesis 13-19 several times, I had a thought that I had to pursue: they have the wrong location.”

“Many think Sodom is in the South (modeled after the famous archeologist, William F. Albright’s views), but the text seems to indicate that the site is in the Northeast,” he continued.

As “Indiana Jones” as Steve’s thoughts were, the conclusions and findings could be even more monumental than any blockbuster movie.

Essentially, Steve took the literal text of Genesis 13-19 and created a theoretical map, using the research methodology of Dr. Peter Briggs. This “map” utilizes a scientific approach to determine the validity of ancient texts. The conclusion? The texts in Genesis are reliable geographical indicators.

Working with Briggs, Collins developed a theory that the location was not in the Southern region, but in the Northeast.

From there, Dr. Collins began to flesh out his thoughts in a formal paper. This 250-page research paper was highlighted at the Near-Eastern Society Conference.

In his research, Collins focused in on five key areas: the geographical indicators, the chronological indicators, the terms of the destruction, the architecture and pottery, and the facts themselves.

“What I didn’t want to do,” he said, “was trample down the well-worn theories of past commentators and scholars. Basically, I wanted the text to speak for itself.”

“At the NES meeting, I received favorable comments from men of whom I have the utmost respect. I knew we were on to something quite thrilling.”

The one thing left to do was further research and the beginning of a dig.

“So my wife, a couple of students from Trinity Southwest University, and I headed off to Jordan to do research. We were in Jordan by 2002.”

“When I was doing research in the U.S., many of the maps and books were conspicuously absent of any detailed information regarding the north eastern region of the Dead Sea. Sadly, many of the scholars had ignored the text in Genesis.”

In Jordan, Collins found a host of helpful material.

“While in Jordan I found many maps, books, and archeological information at the American Center for Oriental Research library. In particular, a book by the journalist Rami Khouri, gave me the foundation I needed to get started.”

“Though this book was a popular work, it quoted from—and made reference to—many scholarly works. From that point on, we used Khouri’s book as a guide to the Jordanian literature on the sites north of the Dead Sea . We spent hours copying as much material as we could.”

“What we discovered seemed to coincide with our findings: Sodom was not in the south, it was northeast of the Dead Sea.”

“We were able to locate some information from one of the last major digs that occurred in the area. We also paid close attention to a 1975/1976 survey of the Jordan Valley. This survey stated that the area of our interest had many ancient sites.”

“So we headed off to the area northeast of the Dead Sea and began to look around. What we found amazed us. There were at least ten sites that could possibly be ancient Sodom.”

“Sodom is mentioned first in the Bible—consistently—thereby giving it prominence as the largest city in that area. So based upon the text and our previous research we chose the largest site. And let me tell you, this find at Tel-al-Hammam turned out to be much greater than we ever hoped for.”

Report from the Christian Telegraph

CHINA PASTOR RELEASED FROM PRISON AFTER INTERNATIONAL ATTENTION


A Chinese human rights watchdog organization says a Christian House Church leader has been freed by government authorities as the result of international pressure.

In a media release ChinaAid says that

at 6 p.m. on April 24, Pastor Lou Yuanqi of Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region was released from prison under the provision of “bailed out waiting for trial, ” a legal procedure called “qu bao hou shen.”

ChinaAid said: “Though this provision allows for future arrest and prosecution, Pastor Lou was released and permitted to return home. The provision’s purpose is also to prevent Pastor Lou or his family from filing an administrative lawsuit against the state for compensation for illegal detention time.”

The media release explains that Xinjiang authorities could not find evidence sufficient to continue his prosecution and indictment. According to family members, Pastor Lou looked fragile, because of the horrible conditions he suffered in prison. He suffers from hepatitis B, and is in great need of medical attention.

It adds: “Pastor Lou’s faith is very strong, and he, his wife Wang Wenxiu and their three children are overwhelmed by the response from the international community.”

According to ChinaAid, Pastor Lou was first detained on May 17, 2008 at 1 p.m. in Qingshuihe town, Huocheng county of Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region. Pastor Lou stood trial on December 15, 2008 on charges of “utilizing superstition to undermine the law.”

ChinaAid stated: “Those close to the case say the authorities’ motivation for the charge was to stop Lou’s house church from meeting in his home. Immediately after Lou’s trial, his daughter, Lou Tiantian, 18, was beaten by court police when she tried to speak with her father as he was being put into a police car.”

ChinaAid says that later, the court issued a statement, declaring “the facts [in Pastor Lou’s case] unclear and the evidence insufficient.” Despite this ruling, Pastor Lou continued to be imprisoned until his release on April 24.

Two other Xinjiang Christians, Alimujiang Yimiti and Wusiman Yiming, are currently suffering in prison for their faith, according to the ChinaAid media release.

Alimujiang Yimiti, a Uyghur Christian, was first detained on the charge of “endangering the security of the state,” then was officially arrested on February 20, 2008 for “suspicion of inciting secession and organizing people in stealing, spying, buying and illegally providing state secrets or intelligence to overseas organizations.”

However, ChinaAid says sources say the real reason for his detention is because of his Christian faith and witness among the Uyghur people. Alimujiang was seen March 31 around 10 a.m. (local time) at Nongsanshi (Military Farm) Hospital in Kashgar. His hands were bound and he was observed being roughly escorted by police and a prison doctor while repeatedly crying out to onlookers in Chinese, “I’m sick. Tell my lawyer to come quickly to see me.”

Wusiman Yiming, another Uyghur Christian, was sentenced to two years of re-education through labor in September 2007 for “revealing state secrets” and “illegal proselytizing.”

ChinaAid sources say that he was, in fact, sentenced because of his boldness as a Christian and a leader in the Uyghur church. Sources report that he has aged dramatically in the labor camp and his health is deteriorating due to harsh conditions.

“We welcome the release of this innocent pastor who has been arbitrarily detained for more than a year simply for his Christian faith related activities,” said ChinaAid’s Bob Fu.

“We urge the Xinjiang authorities to release other innocent people of faith such as Alimujiang Yimiti and Wusiman Yiming.”

Report from the Christian Telegraph

BURMA: REPORT DOCUMENTS ABUSE OF CHIN CHRISTIANS


Human Rights Watch shows systematic, officially sanctioned religious freedom violations.

DUBLIN, February 20 (Compass Direct News) – A Human Rights Watch (HRW) report released in January details serious and ongoing abuses against the Chin people, a minority group in Burma’s northwest who claim to be 90 percent Christian.

HRW’s research echoes a 2004 report by the Chin Human Rights Organization (CHRO) that described targeted abuse of Christians in Chin state, with the Burmese army subjecting pastors and church members to forced labor, arbitrary arrest and detention, torture and sometimes death.

While religious oppression is extreme in Chin state, restrictions also apply elsewhere in Burma, also known as Myanmar. Most recently, officials in January forced the closure of more than 100 churches in Rangoon and ordered owners of apartment buildings and conference facilities not to rent their properties to religious groups.

Based on interviews with Chin refugees in India and Malaysia between 2003 and 2008, HRW’s report describes how an increasing number of army battalions stationed in Chin state since 1988 have inflicted forced labor and arbitrary fines on the Chin people, as well as bullied them away from Christianity toward Buddhism.

“When we meet the army, we are shaking,” a Chin refugee pastor told HRW. “Whatever they want is law.”

The HRW report, entitled “We Are Like Forgotten People,” notes that soldiers frequently forced Christians to donate finances and labor to pagoda construction projects in areas where there were few or no Buddhist residents.

They also occasionally forced Christians to worship in Buddhist pagodas. One Chin pastor described how Burmese soldiers brought him to a pagoda and prodded him with their guns, commanding him to pray as a Buddhist.

“They said that this is a Buddhist country and that I should not practice Christianity,” he told HRW.

The military forced village headmen to present “volunteers” for military training or army construction projects and secured “donations” such as food or finance for army battalions. Soldiers severely beat or detained headmen if a village failed to meet quotas, seizing livestock or property in retribution.

Pastors often faced similar treatment, particularly if church members were accused – often without proof – of involvement with the Chin National Front insurgency group. HRW listed arrest, detention and torture as methods used against those accused of being part of the Chin National Front, based across the border in northeast India. Torture included beatings with sticks or guns and electric shocks via metal clips attached to high-voltage batteries. Such measures were also used to crush dissent against army policies such as failure to pay extortionate and arbitrary fees.

The military government promoted Buddhism over all other religions in Chin state through threats and inducements, destroying churches and other religious symbols, and restricting the printing and importing of Bibles and other Christian literature, HRW reported.

A judge in 1999 sentenced one man from Falam township to three years in prison for bringing Chin language Bibles into Burma, contravening Burma’s 1965 Censor Law. Authorities also burned 16,000 copies of Chin and other ethnic language Bibles brought into neighboring Sagaing Division, another Chin majority area, in 2000.

 

‘Campaign of Ethnocide’

CHRO’s 2004 report, “Religious Persecution: A Campaign of Ethnocide Against Chin Christians in Burma,” explained that Christianity had become inseparable from Chin culture following the arrival of American Baptist missionaries in 1899.

The report, based on information gathered in Chin state, gave numerous examples of the destruction of churches and crosses, the burning of Bibles and restrictions on other religious publications and activities between 1993 and 2004 – including the extrajudicial killings of four Chin Christians in 1993.

Burmese authorities routinely denied permission for the construction of new churches and required permits for large church gatherings, although lengthy bureaucratic processes meant that most of these gatherings were eventually postponed or cancelled.

A September 2008 U.S. Department of State report confirmed that Chin state authorities have not granted permission to build a new church since 2003.

As recently as last November, a government official ordered residents of Tayawaddy village in neighboring Sagaing Division to destroy the foundations of a new church building erected by members of a Chin Christian student fellowship. A report in the Chinland Guardian claimed villagers were subsequently ordered not to rent their homes to Chin students or the homes would be destroyed.

 

Enticement to Convert

CHRO’s report gave clear evidence of government support for coerced conversions. For example, the government offered free secular education to several children from impoverished families, only to place them as novice monks in Buddhist monasteries in Rangoon.

The Ministry of Religious Affairs has also sent Buddhist monks to villages and towns throughout Chin state under the Hill Regions Buddhist Mission program, one of several Buddhist missionary initiatives highlighted on the ministry’s website. Chin residents who spoke to CHRO likened these monks to “military intelligence” operatives who worked in partnership with Burmese soldiers to control the Chin people.

According to one Chin resident, “Anyone who doesn’t abide by the monks’ orders is reported to the State Peace and Development Council [Burmese government officials] and punished by the army.”

Another Chin man from Matupi township attended a government-sponsored “social welfare” training session only to discover that it was a propaganda session led by a Buddhist monk.

“In the training we were taught the 17 facts of how to attack and disfigure Christians,” he explained.

The 17-point method encouraged converts to criticize Christian ways of life as corrupting culture in Burma, to point out weaknesses in Christianity, and to attack Christians by both violent and non-violent means.

“We were promised that 1,200 kyats per month [US$190] would be provided to those families who became Buddhist,” the training participant added. That amount of money is significant in the Burmese economy.

The instructor also ensured participants that they would be exempt from “portering” and other forms of forced labor and compulsory “donations” if they converted, and that the government would provide education for their children.

“I became a Buddhist because of such privileges rather than because I think Buddhism is better than Christianity,” the Chin participant told CHRO.

 

Religious Policy Elsewhere

According to CHRO, both the Burmese army and the monks are pursuing an unofficial government policy summed up in three words; “Amyo, Batha, Thathana,” which translates as “One race, one language, one religion” – or Burman, Burmese and Buddhist.

This policy was exemplified by the forced closure in January of more than 100 churches in the capital, Rangoon.

Officials on Jan. 5 invited pastors from more than 100 Rangoon churches to a meeting where they were ordered to sign documents pledging to cease operation of their churches or face imprisonment. About 50 pastors attended, according to Burmese news agency Mizzima.

A CHRO spokesman told Compass yesterday that a significant number of these churches were ethnic rather than majority Burman churches.

In mid-January, officials ordered several other major Rangoon churches to close, including Wather Hope Church, Emmanuel Church and an Assemblies of God Church. (See Compass Direct News, “Burma Clamps Down on Christians,” Jan. 21.)

Officials from the Ministry of Religious Affairs in January summoned the owners of buildings where churches met and ordered them not to rent their properties to religious groups, according to another local online news source, the Democratic Voice of Burma.

In the late 1990s, Burma stopped issuing permits for land purchase or the construction of new churches in Rangoon and elsewhere, leading many Burmese Christians to conduct services in rented apartments or office buildings.

The church closure orders may simply be an extension of Burma’s existing religious policies, which elevate Buddhism in an effort to solidify national identity. The country’s population is 82 percent Buddhist, 9 percent Christian and 4 percent Muslim, with traditional ethnic, Chinese and Hindu religions accounting for the rest.

In a 2007 report describing religious persecution throughout Burma, including Chin state, Christian Solidarity Worldwide cited the “Program to Destroy the Christian Religion in Burma,” a 17-point document that had circulated widely in Rangoon. Allegedly authorized by the Ministry of Religious Affairs, the program’s first point declared that, “There shall be no home where the Christian religion is practiced.”

The Ministry of Religious Affairs subsequently pressured religious organizations to publicly condemn CSW’s report and deny all claims of religious discrimination in Burma.  

Report from Compass Direct News

CHINA: OFFICIALS GRAPPLE WITH SPREAD OF CHRISTIANITY


Christians may face increased controls as government reacts to growth, public discontent.

BEIJING, February 4 (Compass Direct News) – Concerned by the growth of unregistered house church groups in an uncertain political and social climate, the Chinese government has ramped up efforts both to identify Christians and to portray Christianity as a subversive foreign force.

Sources told Compass that authorities in recent months have been quietly gathering data on church growth, with surveys at universities and workplaces pointedly asking whether respondents were Christians. The surveys seemed largely unconcerned about other religions.

At the same time, Communist Party officials have called meetings at various institutions in the capital to discuss supposed dangers of foreign religious influence. On Dec. 20 officials called a meeting at one of Beijing’s most prestigious cultural colleges to lecture faculty members about such dangers. A Christian teacher forced to attend told Compass that the lecturers distorted historical facts to impress upon her and her colleagues that Buddhism, Daoism and Islam were “indigenous” and therefore safe. The teacher noted that Islam, having come from the Middle East, could hardly be regarded as indigenous to China, and that Buddhism originally came from India but later took on Chinese characteristics.

By contrast, the officials told the teachers that Protestantism and Roman Catholicism were foreign and hence potentially “subversive.” Party members warned participants to be on guard against these faiths.

China’s leaders have warned that 2009 will be marked by increased unrest and demonstrations as public anger mounts against increasing unemployment and corruption. Also disconcerting to the government is Charter 08, an online pro-democracy initiative launched in mid-December and signed by an increasing number of Chinese Netizens. It calls for an end to the one-party system, an independent court and freedom of speech. Many of the original signatories were well-known pro-democracy lawyers and intellectuals, but the list now includes computer technicians, construction workers and farmers.

In response to these signs and portents of unrest, the government has begun to increase political and social control. Christian leaders told Compass they did not feel a huge crackdown was necessarily imminent, but they said the overall political climate had become more tense and that this would almost certainly affect unregistered house church Christians.

House church leaders in Beijing told Compass that conditions now seemed even “tighter” than in the period leading up to the Olympic Games last August. In previous years Christians rented halls and conference rooms for large-scale Christmas events, but last year’s Christmas celebrations were deliberately low-key.

A house church leader in a major northeastern city confirmed this general sense of caution. He added that he had seen an internal document leaked from the local Religious Affairs Bureau, dated in early January, which warned against “subversion” by supposedly hostile Christian forces from overseas.

The leaders were generally optimistic about the continuing work and growth of the church, with one Beijing pastor claiming more than 1,000 new converts were baptized last year in his group alone.

 

Mixed Signals

Chinese officials last November had initiated talks with Protestant house church Christians, raising hopes for greater freedom.

Meetings organized partly by the China State Council’s Research and Development Center brought together academics and lawyers, many of them house church members, and a delegation of six Protestant house church leaders from Beijing, Henan and Wenzhou. As the Times of London reported in January, however, no Catholic representatives were invited; the Communist Party remains in a political standoff with the Vatican. (See Compass Direct News, “Officials Reach Out to House Churches; Raids, Arrests Continue,” Dec. 9, 2008.)

At the time, church leaders involved in the discussions were cautiously optimistic. Pastor Ezra Jin of Beijing’s Zion Church told the Times, “The government … has understood that the Protestant church is not an opposition force but a force for stability and harmony.” He added that the government wanted to evaluate whether house churches posed a threat to the regime and to ask why they rejected the leadership of the Three Self Patriotic Movement, an official body appointed to oversee Protestant churches.

Despite these talks, house church raids and arrests have continued. On Jan. 16, Public Security Bureau officers forcibly removed pastor Zhang Mingxuan from fellow pastor Hua Huiqi’s house in Beijing and put him on a bus to Henan province, warning him not to return, the China Aid Association (CAA) reported.

Zhang had gone to visit Hua’s ailing father, Hua Zaichen. For years the elderly Hua and his wife, Shuang Shuying, have suffered harassment for their work with the unofficial church. Authorities have now denied Shuang, currently serving a two-year prison sentence, permission to visit her dying husband.

On Jan. 2, police raided a house church meeting in Urumqi, Xinjiang province, detaining 50 people. Later that day, 48 of them were released without charge; another was released after paying a 500 yuan (US$73) fine, and the last was sentenced to 10 days of administrative detention, according to CAA.

On Dec. 3, 2008, members of the Taikang County Domestic Defense Protection Squad burst into a private home in Chuanhui district, Zhoukou municipality, Henan, and arrested 50 Christians gathered there, CAA reported. About 20 of the detainees were sentenced to 15 days of administrative detention while leaders Tang Houyong, Shu Wenxiang and Xie Zhenqi were sentenced to one year of labor and re-education.

Some house church Christians have become more vocal in their calls for justice and religious liberty. For example, following the district court’s dismissal of a lawsuit on behalf of Tang Houyong and his companions, Tang’s wife filed a motion to dismiss the Chief Justice of the court for violating legal procedures.

With the specter of serious political and social unrest looming before officials in the face of China’s economic recession, such Christian protests could add to the government’s unease over the growing number and influence of house church Christians.

Report from Compass Direct News