Moroccan Convert Serving 15 Years for His Faith


Christian’s sentence for ‘proselytism,’ burning poles called excessive.

ISTANBUL, September 17 (CDN) — Nearly five years into the prison sentence of the only Christian in Morocco serving time for his faith, Moroccan Christians and advocates question the harsh measures of the Muslim state toward a man who dared speak openly about Jesus.

By the end of December Jamaa Ait Bakrim, 46, will have been in prison for five years at Morocco’s largest prison, Prison Centrale, in Kenitra. An outspoken Christian convert, Bakrim was sentenced to 15 years prison for “proselytizing” and destroying “the goods of others” in 2005 after burning two defunct utility poles located in front of his private business in a small town in south Morocco.

Advocates and Moroccan Christians said, however, that the severity of his sentence in relation to his misdemeanor shows that authorities were determined to put him behind bars because he persistently spoke about his faith.

“He became a Christian and didn’t keep it to himself,” said a Moroccan Christian and host for Al Hayat Television who goes only by his first name, Rachid, for security reasons. “He shared it with people around him. In Morocco, and this happened to me personally, if you become a Christian you may be persecuted by your family. If you keep it to yourself, no one will bother you. If you share it with anyone else and start speaking about it, that’s another story.”

Rachid fled Morocco in 2005 due to mounting pressure on him and his family. He is a wanted man in his country, but he said it is time for people to start speaking up on behalf of Bakrim, whom he said has “zeal” for his faith and speaks openly about it even in prison.

“Our Moroccan brothers and sisters suffer, and we just assume things will be OK and will somehow change later by themselves,” said Rachid. “They will never change if we don’t bring it to international attention.”

Authorities in Agadir tried Bakrim for “destruction of the goods of others,” which is punishable with up to 20 years in prison, and for proselytism under Article 220, which is punishable with six months to three years in prison.

“Jamaa is a manifestation of a very inconvenient truth for Moroccan authorities: there are Moroccan converts to Christianity,” said Logan Maurer, a regional director at U.S.-based advocacy group International Christian Concern (ICC). “The government wants to ignore this, suppress it, and when – as in Jamaa’s case – the problem won’t go away, they do whatever they can to silence it.”

Proselytism in Morocco is generally defined as using means of seduction or exploiting weakness to undermine the faith of Muslims or to convert them to another religion.

Recently Morocco has used the law to punish any proclamation of non-Muslim faith, contradicting its pledge to allow freedom to manifest one’s faith under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which it is a signatory. Article 18 of the covenant affirms the right to manifest one’s faith in worship, observance, practice or teaching.

The covenant also states, however, that “freedom to manifest one’s religion or beliefs may be subject only to such limitations as are prescribed by law and are necessary to protect public safety, order, health, or morals or the fundamental rights and freedoms of others.”

There are an estimated 1,000 Moroccan Christian converts in the country. They are not recognized by the government. About 99 percent of Morocco’s population of more than 33 million is Muslim.

Between March and June authorities expelled 128 foreign Christians in an effort to purge the country of any foreign Christian influences. In April nearly 7,000 Muslim religious leaders backed the deportations by signing a document describing the work of Christians within Morocco as “moral rape” and “religious terrorism.” The statement from the religious leaders came amid a nationwide mudslinging campaign geared to vilify Christians in Morocco for “proselytism” – widely perceived as bribing people to change their faith.

In the same time period, Moroccan authorities applied pressure on Moroccan converts to Christianity through interrogations, searches and arrests. Christians on the ground said that, although these have not continued, there is still a general sense that the government is increasingly intolerant of Christian activities.  

“They are feeling very bad,” said Rachid. “I spoke to several of them, and they say things are getting worse…They don’t feel safe. They are under a lot of disappointment, and [they are] depressed because the government is putting all kinds of pressure on them.”

 

From Europe to Prison

Bakrim, a Berber from southern Morocco, studied political science and law in Rabat. After completing his studies he traveled to Europe, where he became a Christian. Realizing that it would be difficult to live out his new-found faith in Morocco, in 1993 he applied for political asylum in the Netherlands, but immigration authorities refused him and expelled him when his visa expired.

In 1995 Bakrim was prosecuted for “proselytizing,” and spent seven months in jail in the city of Goulemine. In April 1996 he was transferred to a mental hospital in Inezgane, where authorities ordered he undergo medical treatments. He was released in June. The psychiatric treatment caused side-effects in his behavior and made it difficult for him to control his hands and legs for a period of time, sources told Compass.

Two years later authorities put him in jail again for a year because he publicly displayed a cross, according to an article by Moroccan weekly Le Journal Hebdo published in January 2005.

“He has a zeal about his religion,” said Rachid. “He never denied his faith through all these things, and he even preached the gospel in prison and the psychiatric place where they held him … They tried to shut him [up], and they couldn’t.”

In 2001 Bakrim again attracted attention by painting crosses and writing Bible verses in public view at his place of business, which also served as his home, according to the French-language weekly. Between 2001 and 2005 he reportedly wrote to the municipality of Massa, asking officials to remove two wooden utility posts that were no longer in use, as they were blocking his business. When authorities didn’t respond, Bakrim burned them.

During his defense at the Agadir court in southern Morocco, Bakrim did not deny his Christian faith and refuted accusations that he had approached his neighbors in an attempt to “undermine their Muslim faith.”

The judge ruled that “the fact that Jamaa denies accusations of proselytism is inconsistent with his previous confession in his opening statement when he proclaimed he was the son of Christ, and that he wished that Moroccans would become Christians,” according to Le Journal Hebdo.

Bakrim did not appeal the court sentence. Though there have been other cases of Christians imprisoned for their faith, none of their sentences has been as long as Bakrim’s.

“They will just leave him in the prison so he dies spiritually and psychologically,” said Rachid. “Fifteen years is too much for anything they say he did, and Jamaa knows that. The authorities know he’s innocent. So probably they gave him this sentence so they can shut him [up] forever.”

Rachid asked that Christians around the world continue to lobby and pray that their Moroccan brothers and sisters stand firm and gain their freedoms.

“The biggest need is to stand with the Moroccan church and do whatever it takes to ask for their freedom of religion,” said Rachid.

Report from Compass Direct News

New Threats, Old Enmity Pummel Nepal’s Christians


Armed group that forced over 1,500 government officials to quit now threatens pastors.

KATHMANDU, Nepal, September 16 (CDN) — A year after police busted an underground militant Hindu organization that had bombed a church and two mosques, Nepal’s Christians are facing new threats.

An underground group that speaks with bombs and has coerced hundreds of government officials into quitting their jobs is threatening Christian clergy with violence if they do not give in to extortion demands, Christian leader said.

The Nepal Christian Society (NCS), an umbrella group of denominations, churches and organizations, met in the Kathmandu Valley yesterday (Sept. 15) to discuss dangers amid reports of pastors receiving phone calls and letters from the Unified National Liberation Front (Samyukta Jatiya Mukti Morcha), an armed group demanding money and making threats. The group has threatened Christian leaders in eastern and western Nepal, as well as in the Kathmandu Valley.

“The pastors who received the extortion calls do not want to go public for fear of retaliation,” said Lok Mani Dhakal, general secretary of the NCS. “We decided to wait and watch a little longer before approaching police.”

The Front is among nearly three dozen armed groups that mushroomed after the fall of the military-backed government of the former king of Nepal, Gyanendra Bir Bikram Shah, in 2006. It became a household name in July after 34 senior government officials – designated secretaries of village development committees – resigned en masse, pleading lack of security following threats by the Front.

Ironically, the resignations occurred in Rolpa, a district in western Nepal regarded as the cradle of the communist uprising in 1996 that led to Nepal becoming a secular federal republic after 10 years of civil war.

Nearly 1,500 government officials from 27 districts have resigned after receiving threats from the Front. Despite its apparent clout, it remains a shadowy body with little public knowledge about its leaders and objectives. Though initially active in southern Nepal, the group struck in the capital city of Kathmandu on Saturday (Sept. 11), bombing a carpet factory.

The emergence of the new underground threat comes a year after police arrested Ram Prasad Mainali, whose Nepal Defense Army had planted a bomb in a church in Kathmandu, killing three women during a Roman Catholic mass.

Christians’ relief at Mainali’s arrest was short-lived. Besides facing threats from a new group, the community has endured longstanding animosity from the years when Nepal was a Hindu state; the anti-Christian sentiment refuses to die four years after Parliament declared the nation secular.

When conversions were a punishable offense in Nepal 13 years ago, Ishwor Pudasaini had to leave his home in Giling village, Nuwakot district, because he became a Christian. Pudasaini, now a pastor in a Protestant church, said he still cannot return to his village because of persecution that has increased with time.

“We are mentally tortured,” the 32-year-old pastor told Compass. “My mother is old and refuses to leave the village, so I have to visit her from time to time to see if she is all right. Also, we have some arable land, and during monsoon season it is imperative that I farm it. But I go in dread.”

Pudasaini, who pastors Assembly of God Church, said that when he runs into his neighbors, they revile him and make threatening gestures. His family is not allowed to enter any public place, and he is afraid to spend nights in his old home for fear of being attacked. A new attack occurred in a recent monsoon, when villagers disconnected the family’s water pipes.

“Things reached such a head this time that I was forced to go to the media and make my plight public,” he says.

Pudasaini, his wife Laxmi and their two children have been living in the district headquarters, Bidur town. His brother Ram Prasad, 29, was thrown out of a local village’s reforms committee for becoming a Christian. Another relative in the same village, Bharat Pudasaini, lost his job and was forced to migrate to a different district.

“Bharat Pudasaini was a worker at Mulpani Primary School,” says Pudasaini. “The school sacked him for embracing Christianity, and the villagers forced his family to leave the village. Even four years after Nepal became officially secular, he is not allowed to return to his village and sell his house and land, which he wants to, desperately. He has four children to look after, and the displacement is virtually driving the family to starvation.”

Since Bidur, where the administrative machinery is concentrated, is safe from attacks, Pudasani said it is becoming a center for displaced Christians.

“There are dozens of persecuted Christians seeking shelter here,” he said.

One such displaced person was Kamla Kunwar, a woman in her 30s whose faith prompted her husband to severely beat her and throw her out of their home in Dhading district in central Nepal. She would eventually move in with relatives in Nuwakot.

Pudasaini said he chose not to complain of his mistreatment, either to the district administration or to police, because he does not want to encourage enmity in the village.

“My religion teaches me to turn the other cheek and love my enemies,” he said. “I would like to make the village come to Christ. For that I have to be patient.”

Dozens of villages scattered throughout Nepal remain inimical to Christians. In May, five Christians, including two women, were brutally attacked in Chanauta, a remote village in Kapilavastu district where the majority are ethnic Tharus.

Once an affluent people, the Tharus were displaced by migrating hordes from the hills of Nepal, as well as from India across the border, and forced into slavery. Today, they are considered to be “untouchables” despite an official ban on that customary practice of abuse and discrimination. In the villages, Tharus are not allowed to enter temples or draw water from the sources used by other villagers.

Tharus, like other disadvantaged communities, have been turning to Christianity. Recently five Tharu Christians, including a pastor and two evangelists, were asked to help construct a Hindu temple. Though they did, the five refused to eat the meat of a goat that villagers sacrificed before idols at the new temple.

Because of their refusal, the temple crowd beat them. Two women – Prema Chaudhary, 34, and Mahima Chaudhary, 22 – were as badly thrashed as Pastor Simon Chaudhari, 30, and two evangelists, Samuel Chaudhari, 19, and Prem Chaudhari, 22.

In June, a mob attacked Sher Bahadur Pun, a 68-year-old Nepali who had served with the Indian Army, and his son, Akka Bahadur, at their church service in Myagdi district in western Nepal. Pun suffered two fractured ribs.

The attack occurred after the Hindu-majority village decided to build a temple. All villagers were ordered to donate 7,000 rupees (US$93), a princely sum in Nepal’s villages, and the Christians were not spared. While the Puns paid up, they refused to worship in the temple. Retaliation was swift.

The vulnerability of Christians has escalated following an administrative vacuum that has seen violence and crime soar. Prime Minister Madhav Kumar Nepal, who had been instrumental in the church bombers’ arrest, resigned in June due to pressure by the opposition Maoist party. Since then, though there have been seven rounds of elections in Parliament to choose a new premier, none of the two contenders has been able to win the minimum votes required thanks to bitter infighting between the major parties.

An eighth round of elections is scheduled for Sept. 26, and if that too fails, Nepal will have lost four of the 12 months given to the 601-member Parliament to write a new constitution.

“It is shameful,” said Believers Church Bishop Narayan Sharma. “It shows that Nepal is on the way to becoming a failed state. There is acute pessimism that the warring parties will not be able to draft a new constitution [that would consolidate secularism] by May 2011.”

Sharma said there is also concern about a reshuffle in the largest ruling party, the Nepali Congress (NC), set to elect new officers at its general convention starting Friday (Sept. 17). Some former NC ministers and members of Parliament have been lobbying for the restoration of a Hindu state in Nepal; their election would be a setback for secularism.

“We have been holding prayers for the country,” Sharma said. “It is a grim scene today. There is an economic crisis, and Nepal’s youths are fleeing abroad. Women job-seekers abroad are increasingly being molested and tortured. Even the Maoists, who fought for secularism, are now considering creating a cultural king. We are praying that the political deadlock will be resolved, and that peace and stability return to Nepal.”

Report from Compass Direct News

Lao Christians Expelled from Village Suffer Critical Illnesses


One dead, two hospitalized; village chief threatens other residents.

DUBLIN, May 14 (CDN) — In spite of assurances of religious rights by officials in March, Lao Christians expelled from a village in Saravan Province in January are suffering from a prolonged lack of adequate food and clean water.

The lack of basic resources has led to diarrhea, dehydration, eye and skin infections, fainting and general weakness for the Christians expelled from Katin village, and one person has died, Human Rights Watch for Lao Religious Freedom (HRWLRF) reported.

A Christian who went by the single name of Ampheng died suddenly in April while praying for one of two other Christians who were hospitalized with illnesses caused by their living conditions, an HRWLRF spokesman told Compass. The exact cause and date of Ampheng’s death were not immediately known.

Expelled from their village at gunpoint on Jan. 18 for failing to renounce their faith, the 48 Christians were forced to build temporary shelters at the edge of the jungle, about six kilometers (nearly four miles) away from the village.

They have since survived on food found in the jungle and water from a hand-dug well that is unfit for cooking or drinking, sources told HRWLRF.

District officials in early May gave the Christians permission to return to Katin village and take rice from their family rice barns to prevent starvation, said another source on condition of anonymity.

In addition, some of the Christians have returned to tend their family rice fields, fearing that if the fields are completely abandoned they may lose the right to cultivate them next year. Water buffaloes essential for farm work, however, were confiscated in January along with the Christians’ homes and registration papers, according to HRWLRF.

When the Christians interred Ampheng at the local burial ground, district officials fined them for failing to produce the required proof of house registration, according to HRWLRF.

Katin’s village chief recently warned other residents that their personal possessions would be confiscated if they had any contact with the expelled Christians. If any family continued to maintain contact despite repeated warnings, their own homes would be torn down, the chief reportedly said.

Official reactions to the plight of the Christians have been mixed. In March, a delegation of provincial and district officials led by Gov. Khamboon Duangpanya visited the Christians at their jungle site and assured them of their legal right to embrace the faith of their choice and to live anywhere in the district.

Just days earlier, however, the district head, identified only as Bounma, summoned seven of the Christians to his office and said that he would not tolerate the existence of Christianity in areas under his control. (See “Lao Officials Visit Expelled Christians, Give Assurances,” March 19.)

High level officials failed to intervene last July when villagers seized a Christian identified only as Pew and poured rice wine down his throat, killing him by asphyxiation. Village officials later fined Pew’s family for erecting a cross on his grave, and then detained 80 Christians in a school compound, denying them food and pressuring them to renounce their faith.

The heads of 13 families then signed documents renouncing Christianity in order to protect their children, but most resumed attendance at worship meetings within a few months.

Provincial officials did call a meeting in September 2008 asking Katin authorities to respect Lao religious laws and allow the Christians freedom to worship, but their request was ignored.

A communist country, Laos is 1.5 percent Christian and 67 percent Buddhist, with the remainder unspecified. Article 6 and Article 30 of the Lao Constitution guarantees the right of Christians and other religious minorities to practice the religion of their choice without discrimination or penalty.

Report from Compass Direct News 

Messianic Jews in Israel Seek Public Apology for Attack


Christians await court decision on assaults on services by ultra-orthodox Jews.

ISTANBUL, April 23 (CDN) — After a final court hearing in Israel last week, a church of Messianic Jews awaits a judge’s decision that could force an ultra-orthodox Jewish  organization to publicly apologize to them for starting a riot and ransacking a baptismal service.

A ruling in favor of the Christian group would mark the first time an organization opposing Messianic Jews in Israel has had to apologize to its victims for religious persecution.

In 2006 Howard Bass, pastor of Yeshua’s Inheritance church, filed suit against Yehuda Deri, chief Sephardic rabbi in the city of Beer Sheva, and Yad L’Achim, an organization that fights against Messianic Jews, for allegedly inciting a riot at a December 2005 service that Bass was leading.

Bass has demanded either a public apology for the attack or 1.5 million shekels (US$401,040) from the rabbi and Yad L’Achim.

The case, Bass said, was ultimately about “defending the name of Yeshua [Jesus]” and making sure that Deri, the leadership of Yad L’Achim and those that support them know they have to obey the law and respect the right of people to worship.

“They are trying to get away from having any responsibility,” Bass said.

On Dec. 24, 2005, during a baptismal service in Beer Sheva, a group of about 200 men pushed their way into a small, covered structure being used to baptize two believers and tried to stop the service. Police were called to the scene but could not control the crowd.

Once inside the building, the assailants tossed patio chairs, damaged audiovisual equipment, threw a grill and other items into a baptismal pool, and then pushed Bass into the pool and broke his glasses.

“Their actions were violent actions without regard [for injury],” Bass said.

In the days before the riot, Yad L’Achim had issued notices to people about a “mass baptism” scheduled to take place at the facility in the sprawling city of 531,000 people 51 miles (83 kilometers) southwest of Jerusalem. In the days after the riot, Deri bragged about the incident on a radio talk show, including a boast that Bass had been “baptized” at the gathering.

The 2005 incident wasn’t the first time the church had to deal with a riotous attack after Yad L’Achim disseminated false information about their activities. On Nov. 28, 1998, a crowd of roughly 1,000 protestors broke up a Yeshua’s Inheritance service after the anti-Christian group spread a rumor that three busloads of kidnapped Jewish minors were being brought in for baptism. The assailants threw rocks, spit on parishioners and attempted to seize some of their children, Bass said.

In response to the 1998 attack and to what Bass described as a public, cavalier attitude about the 2005 attack, Bass and others in the Messianic community agreed that he needed to take legal action.

“What is happening here has happened to Jews throughout the centuries,” Bass said about persecution of Messianic Jews in Israel, adding that many in movements opposed to Messianic Jews in Israel are “arrogant.” He compared their attitudes to the attitudes that those in Hamas, a Palestinian group dedicated to the destruction of the State of Israel, have toward Israelis in general.

“They say, ‘Recognize us, but we will never recognize you,’” Bass said.

Long Battle

Bass has fought against the leadership of Yad L’Achim and Deri for four years through his attorneys, Marvin Kramer and Kevork Nalbandian. But throughout the process, Kramer said, the two defendants have refused to offer a genuine apology for the misinformation that led to the 2005 riot or for the riot itself.

Kramer said Bass’s legal team would offer language for an acceptable public apology, and attorneys for the defendants in turn would offer language that amounted to no real apology at all.

“We made several attempts to make a compromise, but we couldn’t do it,” Kramer said.  “What we were really looking for was a public apology, and they weren’t ready to give a public apology. If we would have gotten the public apology, we would have dropped the lawsuit at any point.”

Despite several attempts to reach Yad L’Achim officials at both their U.S. and Israeli offices, no one would comment.

The hearing on April 15 was the final chance the parties had to come to an agreement; the judge has 30 days to give a ruling. His decision will be issued by mail.

Kramer declined to speculate on what the outcome of the case will be, but he said he had “proved what we needed to prove to be successful.”

Belief in Israel

Bass said he is a strong supporter of Israel but is critical of the way Messianic Jews are treated in the country.

“Israel opposes the gospel, and these events show this to be true,” he said. Referring to Israel, Bass paraphrased Stephen, one of Christianity’s early martyrs, “‘You always resist the Spirit of God.’ What Stephen said was true.”

Kramer said that the lawsuit is not against the State of Israel or the Jewish people, but rather for freedom of religion.

“It has to do with a violation of rights of individuals to worship in accordance with the basic tenants of their faith and to practice their faith in accordance with their beliefs in accordance with law,” he said.

Terrorist Organization?

Bass’ lawsuit is just one of many legal troubles Yad L’Achim is facing. In February, the Jerusalem Institute of Justice (JIJ), a civil rights advocacy group, filed a petition asking Attorney General Yehuda Weinstein to declare Yad L’Achim a terrorist organization and order that it be dismantled.

In the 24-page document Caleb Myers, an attorney for JIJ, outlined numerous incidences in which Yad L’Achim or those linked with it had “incited hatred, racism, violence and terror.” The document cited instances of persecution against Christians, as well as kidnappings of Jewish women from their Arab partners.

“Israel is a ‘Jewish and democratic’ state, while the actions of Yad L’Achim are not consistent with either the noble values of Judaism or the values of democracy,” the petition read. “Not to mention the fact that it is a country that arose on the ashes of a people that was persecuted for its religion, and has resolved since its establishment to bear the standard of full equality, without discrimination on the basis of gender, race, religion or nationality.”

According to the document, Yad L’Achim went after people it viewed as enemies of ultra-orthodox Judaism. The group particularly targeted Messianic Jews and other Christians.

“Yad L’Achim refers to ‘missionary activity’ as if it was the worst of criminal offenses and often arouses fear of this activity,” the document read. “It should be noted that in the State of Israel there is no prohibition against ‘missionary activity’ as the dissemination of religion and/or faith among members of other religions/faiths, unless such activity solicits religious conversion, as stated in various sections of the Penal Code, which bans the solicitation of religious conversion among minors, or among adults by offering bribes. Furthermore, the organization often presents anyone belonging to the Christian religion, in all its forms, as a ‘missionary,’ even if he does not work to spread his religion.”

Particularly damning in the document was reported testimony gleaned from Jack Teitel. Teitel, accused of planting a bomb on March 20, 2008 that almost killed the teenage son of a Messianic Jewish pastor, told authorities that he worked with Yad L’Achim.

“He was asked to talk about his activity in Yad L’Achim and related that for some five years he was active in the organization, and on average he helped to rescue about five women each year,” the document read, using the Yad L’Achim term “rescue” to refer to kidnapping.

The 2008 bombing severely injured Ami Ortiz, then 15, but after 20 months he had largely recovered.

Teitel, who said Ortiz family members were “missionaries trying to capture weak Jews,” has been indicted on two cases of pre-meditated murder, three cases of attempted murder, carrying a weapon, manufacturing a weapon, possession of illegal weapons and incitement to commit violence.

In interviews with the Israeli media, Yad L’Achim Chairman Rabbi Shalom Dov Lifshitz said his organization wasn’t connected with the attacks of the Ortiz family or with Teitel.

Report from Compass Direct News

Threat of Return to Hindu State in Nepal Looms


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Effectively Hindu

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The situation, even now, remained unchanged.

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

Report from Compass Direct News 

Christians Face 1,000 Attacks in 500 Days in Karnataka, India


Investigation concludes Hindu nationalist state government is responsible.

NEW DELHI, March 22 (CDN) — Christians in Karnataka state are under an unprecedented wave of Christian persecution, having faced more than 1,000 attacks in 500 days, according to an independent investigation by a former judge of the Karnataka High Court.

The spate began on Sept. 14, 2008, when at least 12 churches were attacked in one day in Karnataka’s Mangalore city, in Dakshina Kannada district, said Justice Michael Saldanha, former judge of the Karnataka High Court.

“On Jan. 26 – the day we celebrated India’s Republic Day – Karnataka’s 1,000th attack took place in Mysore city,” Saldanha told Compass, saying the figure was based on reports from faith-based organizations.

Saldanha conducted the People’s Tribunal Enquiry into the attacks on Christians in Karnataka on behalf of the People’s Union for Civil Liberties’ Dakshina Kannada district chapter, the Catholic Association of South Kanara (another name for Dakshina Kannada) and the Karnataka Chapter of Transparency International.

“Attacks are taking place every day,” said Saldanha, chairperson of the Karnataka Chapter of Transparency International.

The latest attack took place on Wednesday (March 17), when a mob of around 150 people led by the Hindu extremist Vishwa Hindu Parishad (World Hindu Council or VHP) and its youth wing, Bajrang Dal, stormed the funeral of a 50-year-old Christian identified only as Isaac, reported the Karnataka-based Global Council of Indian Christians (GCIC).

As Pastor Sunder Raj of St. Thomas Church in Gijahalli, near Arsikere in Hassan district, was about to begin the funeral service, the mob pulled the coffin apart and desecrated the cross the relatives of the deceased were carrying. They threw the body into a tractor and dumped it outside, saying his burial would have contaminated Indian soil and his body should be buried in Rome or the United States, added the GCIC.

With police intervention, the funeral took place later the same day.

Blaming the state government for the attacks, Saldanha said the ruling Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) had “outdone Orissa.”

Karnataka Home Minister V.S. Acharya denied the results of the inquiry.

“The allegation of Karnataka having faced 1,000 attacks is absolutely false,” Acharya told Compass. “There is liberty in the state. Sections of the media are trying to hype it, and such claims are politically motivated. Karnataka is the most peaceful state in India, and the people are law-abiding.”

The wave of persecution in Karnataka began as fallout of the anti-Christian mayhem in eastern Orissa state, where Maoists killed a VHP leader on Aug. 23, 2008, with Hindu extremists wrongly accusing Christians. The attacks in Orissa’s Kandhamal district, the epicenter of the bloodbath, killed more than 100 people and burned 4,640 houses, 252 churches and 13 educational institutions.

Violent attacks have stopped in Orissa, but Karnataka continues to burn.

In addition to the attacks, numerous Christians also have faced false charges of fraudulent or forced conversions throughout Karnataka.

“I have been to many police stations where complaints of [forced] conversions have been lodged against Christians, and when I asked the police why they were acting on frivolous complaints, most of them told me that they had orders from above,” he said.

In his report, he notes that Christians “are dragged to the police station under false allegations, immediately locked up, beaten up and denied bail by the lower judiciary, which functions as the loyal partner of the police department and refuses bail on the grounds that ‘the police have objected.’”

The report says 468 Christian workers in rural areas had been targeted with such actions since September 2008.

“Numerous others have been threatened and beaten up,” the report states. “The police are totally out of control, with the lower judiciary having abdicated its constitutional obligation of safeguarding the citizens’ rights particularly from a tyrannical state machinery, while the state government proclaims that everything is peaceful.”

Chief Minister Bookanakere Siddalingappa Yeddyurappa and Home Minister Acharya are from the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (Hindu nationalist conglomerate or the RSS), believed to be the parent organization of the BJP, Saldanha pointed out.

He also said that although the attacks on Christians had turned public sentiment against the BJP in Karnataka, the party seemed to care little as both opposition parties, the Congress Party and the regional Janata Dal-Secular (JD-S) party, were “in shambles” in the state.

In May 2009 the BJP lost general (national) elections, and since then sections of the party are in desperation, he said, adding, “Perhaps this is one of the reasons why attacks continue to happen in Karnataka.”

Saldanha said the state government was controlling media coverage of the attacks by “monetary appeasement.”

“The citizens are told that the situation is happy and under control, principally because the greater part of the media is being fed or appeased with massive publicity advertisements which have cost the state exchequer over 400 million rupees [US$8.8 million], most of the money clandestinely billed to the various Government Corporations and Public bodies,” Saldanha states in the introduction to his yet unpublished report.

The BJP came to sole power in Karnataka in May 2008. Prior to that, it ruled in alliance with the JD-S party for 20 months.

There are a little more than 1 million Christians in Karnataka, where the total population is over 52 million.

Report from Compass Direct News 

Christian Who Fled Iran Wins Asylum in Kenya


Judge rules Iranian convert from Islam requires protection from persecutors.

NAIROBI, Kenya, March 15 (CDN) — Mohammad Azbari, a Christian convert  from Islam who has fled to Kenya, knows what it’s like to be deported back to his native Iran.

When it happened in 2007, he said, Iranian authorities pressured the government of Norway to return him and his wife Gelanie Azbari to Iran after hearing rumors that he had forsaken Islam.  

“When we arrived in Iran, we were interrogated by security and severely beaten,” he told Compass in Nairobi, where he and his family fought to persuade the Kenyan government to decline Iran’s demand to deport him back. “My son got scared and began urinating on himself.”

A cousin managed to secure their release, but not before Iranian authorities had taken valuable – and incriminating – possessions.

“They took everything that I had – laptop, camera and some of my valuables which contained all my details, such as information concerning my baptism, and my entire profile, including that of my family,” Azbari said.

Azbari had been employed in the Iranian army before fleeing, he said, and authorities were monitoring his movements because they were concerned that, having left Islam, he might betray his country and reveal government secrets.

When he and his Christian wife, a native of the Philippines, first fled Iran in 2000, he was still a Shia Muslim. The previous year authorities had arrested his wife after finding a Christmas tree in their house in Tehran; Azbari was not home at the time and thus escaped arrest, but as authorities took his wife away they left their then 3-year-old son unattended.

“I was put in a small cell for two days,” Gelanie Azbari told Compass, through tears. “While in the cell two police guards raped me. It was the worst of all the nights I have had in my lifetime. Since that time I have been sick both physically and mentally.”

Authorities soon took her husband in for interrogation, suspecting he was a spy for foreign states.

Still a Muslim, Azbari allowed his wife to follow her Christian faith. He had grown accustomed to watching her pray as a Christian and watch the Jesus Film. As time went by, he developed an urge to embrace Christianity. They started reading the Bible together.

The idea of trusting in and following Christ filled him with fear, as it was against the law to convert from Islam – it would mean losing his life, he said.

“I started questioning our leaders, who see themselves as God,” he said. “The claim of Jesus as the prophet as well as the Word and spirit of God is indicated in the Quran. When I read in the Gospels of Jesus giving people rest, it made me want to decide to accept him as my Lord and Savior.”

Sensing danger, the family fled to the Netherlands in 2000, and it was there that Azbari embraced Christianity. In 2003 the family left the Netherlands for Norway.

Azbari was an avid student of his new-found Lord; while in Norway, he became seminary teacher of Christology.

Throughout, Azbari said, the Iranian government had been monitoring his movements. In 2007 Iranian officials persuaded the Norwegian government to send him, together with his wife and son Reza Azbari, back to Iran.

After their interrogation and mistreatment upon arrival in Iran, Azbari managed to call his sister, who connected him with the army general cousin who helped secure their release. His sister took them in, but his brother in-law was not happy with their Christian prayers; he began quarreling with his wife, Azbari’s sister.

“They began looking for trouble for us,” Azbari said. “Sensing danger, we then left the home and went to find a place to stay. Everywhere we tried to book in we were rejected, since we were people who had been deported.”

They began attending a church made up primarily of foreigners, where Azbari’s wife and son felt more at home than he did. His army general cousin found out and, angry that they had sought refuge in a church after he had secured their release, grew furious.

“He was very angry, as they had also discovered this information from the laptop they had confiscated and threatened that I should be arrested,” Azbari said. “I then decided to move to central Iran to look for employment, leaving my family behind.”

The couple felt they could not go to Gelanie Azbari’s homeland as the Philippines has such friendly relations with Iran, he said.

“To go back to Philippines or Iran is quite unsafe for us,” Azbari said.

In October 2009, his sister notified him that police were looking for him and his family.

“I then decided to flee the country through Turkey, then to Kenya where I was arrested and then deported to Turkey,” Azbari said. “In Turkey they could not allow me to enter the country, hence I was returned to Kenya.”

They were arrested in January for illegal entry into Kenya. On March 4, a judge at Chief Magistrate Court No. 3 of Kenya dropped the charges against him, declaring that Azbari required international protection from his persecutors. The court also directed that Azbari be given back all his documents and the 10,000 Kenyan Shillings ($US130) in bail he had deposited.

They had applied for asylum with the United Nations. Appearing before the court on behalf of Azbari on Jan. 15, a representative of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees had argued that he deserved asylum because his religious status had forced him to flee from his country of origin. On March 4 the court found that Azbari and his family require international protection under Section 82 of the laws of Kenya, and he was set free.

“We have witnessed the love of God and the sacrifices of what it means to love one in word and deed,” Azbari said moments after the decision. “We saw the love of Christ from the people who understood and stood with us.”

He thanked friends who introduced his family to Nairobi Pentecostal Church, which provided them spiritual strength. Three attorneys represented Azbari: Wasia Masitsa, a legal officer for the Urban Refugee Intervention Program; Christian lawyer John Swaka; and Laban Osoro of the United Nations. Rene Kiamba of the International Christian Chamber of Commerce had helped him post bail.

Report from Compass Direct News 

Court Reverses Revocation of Indonesian Church’s Building Permit


Outside Islamists had intimidated local officials into withdrawing approval.

JAKARTA, Indonesia, March 8 (CDN) — A court in West Java has reversed the revocation of a Catholic church’s building permit.

The Purwakarta regency government had revoked the building permit for Santa Maria Catholic Church when Islamists threatened local residents and officials into opposing the project, church leaders said.

The church sued the Purwakarta regency for revoking the approved building permit in Cinangka village last October, and in a little-publicized court ruling on Feb. 25, a judge in a state court in Bandung, West Java decided in favor of the church.

“The error arose when external forces pressured the Purwakarta government so much that it revoked the building permit,” the head of the church legal team, Dr. Liona Nanang, told Compass. “Government sources have admitted that this was done because of outside pressure.”

The church official said objections to the church under construction did not come from residents of Cinangka village, where the church is located.

“We called the village headman and the block captains to testify,” Nanang said. “According to them, the objections are not from Cinangka villagers, but from citizens of Cikampek, which is not even in our district [county].”

The Purwakarta government is planning to appeal the case, but Nanang said church lawyers are optimistic that construction likely would resume once the High Court in Jakarta rules.

On Oct. 16 the regent of Purwakarta regency, Dedi Mulyadi, revoked the construction permit after Islamists threatened some of the local residents whose approval is required by Indonesian law. Church leaders said members of the Islamic Defenders Front (Front Pembela Islam, or FPI) “continually terrorized” both the regent and residents who had previously given their approval.

A Joint Ministerial Decree promulgated in 1969 and revised in 2006 requires the permission of more than 60 neighbors and a permit from local authorities to establish a place of worship. The more than 60 local citizens giving their approval must provide photocopies of their identity cards.

Nanang said that the judge agreed with the plaintiff that there had not been any irregularities in the process of obtaining a building permit. The judge found that the Purwakarta government had violated basic principles of good government including justice and the rule of law.

“A building permit can be legally cancelled if there is no construction activity within six months of the date of publication of the permit,” Liona told Compass. “However, Santa Maria Church began to build immediately.”

The court also ruled that the Purwakarta government had no legal reason to revoke the building permit. The Joint Ministerial Decree Number requires not only a minimum of 60 signatures of those not using the building but a minimum of 90 signatures of those who will use it, and the church had obtained the signatures of 93 non-users and 170 church members who would use the building.

The Rev. Augustinus Made of Santa Maria Catholic Church concurred that revocation of the building permit came about from extremely heavy pressure from the FPI and other radical Muslim groups.

“We rejoice in the verdict,” he said. “We had fulfilled all of the regulations. We built on land that had been zoned for a house of worship – land that we purchased.”

At the time the building permit was revoked, land had been prepared, the area fenced and the foundation laid.

The church had planned its building on a 5,000-square meter lot in a sparsely populated industrial area on land zoned for houses of worship. The congregation of over 1,000 has been worshipping in a steel factory warehouse some distance from the building site since its inception in 2002.

The lot developer had supplied facilities for all faiths; Muslims have two large mosques and an Islamic chapel at each factory. The government plan for the Bukit Indah Industrial Park included facilities for general and social purposes, including places of worship.

Report from Compass Direct News 

Moroccan Authorities Raid Bible Study, Arrest Christians


Order to detain 18 nationals, deport U.S. citizen apparently came from highest levels.

MARSEILLES, France, February 9 (CDN) — A large, military-led team of Moroccan authorities raided a Bible study in a small city southeast of Marrakech last week, arresting 18 Moroccans and deporting a U.S. citizen, area Christian leaders said.

Approximately 60 officers from the Moroccan security services on Thursday afternoon (Feb. 4) raided the home of a Christian in Amizmiz, a picturesque city of 10,000 mainly Berber people 56 kilometers (35 miles) southeast of Marrakech. A church Bible study was in progress at the home with visitors from western and southern Morocco, the leaders said.

Five of the 18 people held for 14 hours were small children, two of them infants no more than 6 months old. The other small children ranged from 20 months to 4 years old, and also detained was the visiting 16-year-old nephew of one of the participants.

The Christian leaders said authorities interrogated participants in the Bible study for 14 hours. The authorities filmed the interrogations with digital video cameras and cell phones.

The leader of the Christian group, who requested anonymity for security reasons, said the raiding party was unusually large. It included an accompaniment of 15 vehicles led by a colonel and two captains.

“It’s the first time in our current Moroccan church history that the Moroccan government used this size of a legion to attack a small Christian meeting,” he said. “All the time they kept repeating that this was ordered personally by the new Moroccan Justice Minister [Mohamed Naciri] and by the highest level General of the Gendarmerie [Housni Benslimane].”

Quoting a statement by the Interior Ministry, the state-run Maghreb Arabe Presse news agency reported that a “foreign missionary” had been arrested for trying to “spread evangelist creed in the Kingdom and locate new Moroccan nationals for recruitment.”

The statement added that the raid took place “following information on the organization of a secret meeting to initiate people into Christianity, which would shake Muslims’ faith and undermine the Kingdom’s religious values.”

The U.S. citizen, whose name has not been released, was deported immediately after interrogation. The Christian leaders said the visiting Moroccans were sent back to their homes in western and southern Morocco.

Authorities seized Bibles, books, two laptops, a digital camera and one cell phone, they said.

“I don’t think this number of Moroccan government forces was ever used even against Muslim fundamentalists,” the leader of the Christian group said.

Conflicting Codes

Overall, the North African country has a history of religious tolerance. Morocco’s constitution provides for freedom to practice one’s religion, but Article 220 of the Moroccan Penal Code criminalizes any attempt to induce a Muslim to convert to another religion.

In its 2009 international religious freedom report, the U.S. Department of State noted that on April 2, 2009, a Moroccan government spokesman asserted that freedom of religion does not include freedom to choose one’s faith.

“The fight against Christian proselytizing in accordance with law cannot be considered among human rights abuses,” the Moroccan government spokesman said, “for it is an action aimed at preventing attempts to undermine the country’s immutable religious values. The freedom of belief does not mean conversion to another religion.”

Morocco is a signatory to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. Article 18 of the covenant affirms the right to manifest one’s faith in worship, observance, practice or teaching.

The covenant also states, however, that “freedom to manifest one’s religion or beliefs may be subject only to such limitations as are prescribed by law and are necessary to protect public safety, order, health, or morals or the fundamental rights and freedoms of others.”

In early December last year Moroccan police expelled five Christian foreigners for “attending a forbidden meeting,” according to an unnamed government official. The five men were involved in a training seminar for 17 Christians in northern Morocco.

“We were highly surprised that Morocco dared to arrest and expel us,” said one of the deported Christians, noting that only Christians were present at the meetings. “The police told us that we were holding a forbidden meeting, but we are friends just coming together for fellowship and for teaching each other. Is that forbidden in Morocco?”

The deportations were a serious violation of religious rights, the Christian said.

“The police came with 35 agents – 12 of them invaded the building, and the rest of the police surrounded the premises just to arrest 17 friends coming together for fellowship,” he said. “We were held in custody for one day and night, and we were interrogated for many hours, until 4:30 the next morning.”

On March 29, 2009, the Moroccan government announced that it had expelled five female Christians for attempting to “proselytize,” although sources said they were foreign visitors merely attending a Bible study with fellow Christians. The accused women were five of 23 tourists, expatriates and Moroccans arrested in Casablanca on March 28 during what the Interior Ministry called a “proselytizing” meeting involving Moroccan citizens.

Police seized numerous pieces of evangelistic “propaganda,” including Arabic books and videos. But a source told Compass that everyone in attendance was a Christian and that they had gathered merely for a Bible study, which he said falls within Morocco’s constitutional right of freedom to express one’s faith.

The authorities interrogated 12 others, 11 of them Moroccan citizens, for participating in the women’s Bible study in the apartment of a local Christian leader in Casablanca. They released them early the following morning, returning them home in unmarked police cars, according to the state department report.

“The authorities reportedly pressured the women to return to Islam, mocked their Christian faith, questioned why they left Islam to become Christians, and asked if there were other Christians in their families,” the report states.

A Christian who works in the country told Compass that Moroccan Christians do not see themselves as contradicting national values.

“Moroccan Christians are proud to be Moroccan and desire the freedom to be legally recognized by the government,” he said.

Report from Compass Direct News 

European Court Rules Against Turkey’s Religion ID


Designation on identification cards used to discriminate on basis of religion.

ISTANBUL, February 5 (CDN) — A European court on Tuesday (Feb. 2) ordered Turkey to remove the religious affiliation section from citizens’ identification cards, calling the practice a violation of human rights.

Religious minorities and in particular Christian converts in Turkey have faced discrimination because of the mandatory religion declaration on their identification cards, which was enforced until 2006. Since then, citizens are allowed to leave the “Religion” section of their IDs blank.

The ruling by the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) “is a good thing,” said Zekai Tanyar, president of the Turkish Protestant Alliance, citing prejudices against Christian converts.

“[Religion on the ID] can cost people their jobs,” he said. “It has been known to affect whether they get a job or not, how people look at them, whether they are accepted for a post or an application of some sort. Therefore I think [the ruling] is a good and appropriate thing.”

Tanyar said the same principles would apply in the case of Muslims living in a country that had prejudices against Muslims. For converts in Turkey having to state their religion on their ID cards, “in practice, and in people’s experience, it has been negative.” 

The ECHR ruling came after a Turkish Muslim national filed a petition challenging that his identification card stated his religion as “Alevi” and not Muslim. Alevis practice a form of Shia Islam that is different from that of the Sunni Muslim majority.

The court found in a 6-to-1 vote that any mention of religion on an identity card violated human rights. The country was found to be in violation of the European Convention of Human Rights – to which Turkey is a signatory – specifically Article 9, which deals with freedom of religion and belief; Article 6, which is related to due process; and Article 12, which prohibits discrimination.

The presence of the “religion” box on the Turkish national identification card obliges individuals to disclose, against their will, information concerning an aspect of their personal convictions, the court ruled.

Although the government argued that indication of religion on identity cards did not compel Turks to disclose their religious convictions, the ECHR found that the state was making assessments of the applicant’s faith, thus breaching its duty of neutrality and impartiality.

In a statement on the verdict this week, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan said that the ruling was in line with the government’s intentions.

“I don’t see the ECHR decision as abnormal,” he said, according to Turkish daily Taraf. “It’s not very important if it is removed.” 

The ECHR is independent of the European Union, which Turkey seeks to join. The rulings of the ECHR are binding for members of the Council of Europe, of which Turkey is a member, and must be implemented.

A Step in the Right Direction

Human rights lawyers welcomed the decision of the ECHR, saying it is a small step in the direction of democracy and secularism in Turkey.

“It is related to the general freedom of religion in our country,” said human rights lawyer Orhan Kemal Cengiz. “They assume everyone is Muslim and automatically write this on your ID card, so this is a good reminder that, first of all, everyone is not Muslim in this country, and second, that being a Muslim is not an indispensible part of being Turkish.”

The lawyer said the judgment would have positive implications for religious minorities in Turkey who are subject to intolerance from the majority Muslim population. 

In 2000 Turkey’s neighbor Greece, a majority Christian Orthodox country, lifted the religion section from national IDs in order to adhere to European human rights standards and conventions, causing tumult among nationals.

“In Turkey, Greece or whatever European country, racism or intolerance or xenophobia are not rare occurrences if [religion] is written on your card, and if you are a minority group it makes you open to racist, xenophobic or other intolerant behaviors,” said Cengiz. “There might be times that the [religious] declaration might be very dangerous.”

International Implications

It is not yet known what, if any, effect the ECHR decision could have on the rest of the Middle East.

Because of its history, economic power and strategic location, Turkey is seen as a leader in the region. Like Turkey, many Middle Eastern countries have a place for religious affiliation on their identification cards. Unlike Turkey, listing religious affiliation is mandatory in most of these countries and almost impossible to change, even under court order.

According to Human Rights Watch (HRW), religious identification is used as a tool to deny jobs and even basic rights or services to religious minorities in many Middle Eastern countries.

“It’s a serious problem from a human rights point of view,” said Joe Stork, deputy director for the Middle East and North Africa for HRW, an international human rights organization. “It’s especially problematic when that requirement becomes a basis for discrimination.”

Stork said the identification cards shouldn’t have a listing for religion at all. He said the European decision may eventually be used in legal arguments in Middle Eastern courts, but it will be a long time before change is realized.

“It’s not like the Egyptian government is going to wake up in the morning and say, ‘Gee, let’s do that,’” Stork said.

Egypt in particular is notorious for using religion on IDs to systematically discriminate against Coptic Christians and converts to Christianity. While it takes a day to change one’s religion from Christianity to Islam on their ID, the reverse is virtually impossible. 

Report from Compass Direct News