Light Sentences for Attack on Christians in Indonesia Condemned


Prosecutors’ refusal to file felony charges said to encourage more violence.

JAKARTA, Indonesia, March 10 (CDN) — Human rights and Christian leaders said a West Java court’s light sentence for Islamic extremists who injured a church pastor and an elder will encourage more violence and religious intolerance.

After those involved in the Sept. 12, 2010 clubbing of the Rev. Luspida Simanjuntak and the stabbing of elder Hasian Lumbantoruan Sihombing of the Batak Christian Protestant Church (Huria Kristen Batak Protestan, or HKBP) in Ciketing received sentences of only five to seven months, the Setara Institute for Democracy and Peace released a statement asserting that the judges’ panel was acting under pressure from Muslim extremists.

“The public will think that violence, intolerance, and obstruction of worship are part of their religious worship and duties,” the institute stated regarding the Feb. 24 sentences.

After prosecutors decided to file minor charges citing “insufficient evidence” for assault charges, the judges issued verdicts that have injured people’s sense of justice, and the light sentences set a “rotten” precedent for strengthening the rule of law in Indonesia, according to the institute.

“Specifically, the verdict neither is a deterrent nor does it educate the public that violent acts in the name of religion are serious matters,” according to the Setara statement.

Saor Siagian, attorney for the church, told Compass that the facts of the case had shown that the assailants should have been charged with joint assault under Section 170 of Indonesia’s penal code, which could have resulted in sentences of five to nine years. Instead, prosecutors opted to charge them only with maltreatment under Section 351.

The alleged planner of the attack, Murhali Barda, head of the Bekasi chapter of the Islamic Defenders Front (FPI), received a sentence of only five months and 15 days for “disorderly conduct” (Section 335) even though he should have been prosecuted for incitement and joint assault, Siagian said.

“The trial brought to light facts that pointed toward incitement by Murhali Barda via Facebook, text messages, and orders to the defendants to attack the congregation of HKBP on Sept. 12, 2010 at Ciketing,” said Siagian. “If he had been charged with Section 170 he would have been facing a five-to-nine-year sentence, and Section 160 [incitement] carries a six-year sentence. These are both felonies.”

Judges of the State Court in Bekasi, West Java handed down a seven-month sentence to Adji Ahmad Faisal, who stabbed church elder Sihombing; the prosecutor had asked for sentence of 10 months. Ade Firman, who clubbed Pastor Simanjuntak hard enough to send her to the hospital for treatment, was given a six-month sentence; prosecutors had requested an eight-month sentence. Two under-age defendants were found guilty and turned over to their parents.

Along with Barda of the FPI, eight other defendants received sentences of five months and 15 days: Ismail, Dede Tri Sutrisna, Panca Rano, Khaerul Anwar, Nunu Nurhadi, Roy Karyadi, Kiki Nurdiansyah, Suprianto and one identified only as Ismail; prosecutors had asked for six-month sentences.

During the trial, 100 members of the FPI demonstrated in front of the courthouse, demanding that Barda and the others be immediately released. As each sentence was read out, the demonstrators shouted “Allahu Akbar [God is greater].”

The lawyer for Barda, Shalih Mangara Sitompul, said the verdicts brought about peace between both parties. His client was found guilty of incidents that took place on Aug. 1 and 8, 2010, he said, questioning why the Sept. 12 attack became the basis for criminal prosecution as Barda did not even encounter Pastor Simanjuntak on that date.

Sitompul said he would appeal the verdict.

Pastor Simanjuntak said the light sentences showed that the state was unable to fully enforce the law.

“This country is more afraid of the masses than standing for justice,” she said. “That’s what happened in the state court in Bekasi. With heavy hearts we accept the verdict.”

The stabbing victim, Sihombing, said that he was not surprised by the light sentences.

“The verdicts were not just, but I don’t know what else to do,” he said. “I’ve just got to accept things.”

Indonesia is a country that follows the rule of law, he said, and therefore it is not right to give a light sentence for stabbing.

“Even so, as a Christian and elder of the congregation, I have forgiven the person who attacked me,” he said.

Attorney Siagian said the sentences will fail to act as a deterrent.

“It passively encourages future violence in the name of religion by radical groups against minorities – not only against the HKBP church, but also against citizens in other areas,” he said. “Also, the verdict shows that the judge sides with those who committed violent acts in the name of religion, and it is a threat to pluralism and diversity in Indonesia.”

Report from Compass Direct News

Unprecedented Christmas Gathering Held in Vietnam


With permission little and late, organizers work by faith to accommodate crowds.

HO CHI MINH CITY, December 14 (CDN) — On Friday evening (Dec. 11), history was made in communist Vietnam.

Christian sources reported that some 40,000 people gathered in a hastily constructed venue in Ho Chi Minh City to worship God, celebrate Christmas, and hear a gospel message – an event of unprecedented magnitude in Vietnam.

A popular Vietnamese Christian website and other reports indicated up to 8,000 people responded to the gospel message indicating a desire to follow Christ.

For the last two years, authorities surprisingly granted permission to unregistered house churches in Ho Chi Minh City to hold public Christmas rallies, and last year more than 10,000 people participated in one in Tao Dan Stadium.

This year visionary house church leaders approached the government in October and asked for a sports stadium seating 30,000; they were refused. Authorities offered a sports venue holding only 3,000, located 13 kilometers (eight miles) out of the city. This was unacceptable to the organizers. They pressed for another stadium in the city holding about 15,000, and officials gave them a verbal promise that they could have it.

The verbal promise did not translate into the written permission that is critical in the country – church leaders say such promises are empty until “we have the permission paper in our hand.” Christian leaders believed event planning had to proceed without permission and sent out invitations far and wide – only to have authorities deny the stadium they had promised.

Led by Pastor Ho Tan Khoa, chairman of a large fellowship of house church organizations, organizers were forced to look for alternatives. They found a large open field in the Go Vap district of the city. When permission was still not granted five days before the planned event, several church leaders literally camped for three days outside city hall, pressing for an answer.

Authorities, who often work to sabotage united action among Christians, tried urgently to find ways to talk the leaders out of going ahead, promising future concessions if they would cancel the event. Organizers stood firm. Ultimately they told the deputy mayor that refusal to grant permission at that point would have far-ranging, negative ramifications in Vietnam as well as internationally.

Finally, at the close of business on Dec. 9, just 48 hours before the scheduled event, officials granted permission that required clearance all the way to Hanoi. But the permission was only for 3,000 people, and many more had been invited.

Organizers had less than two days to turn a vacant field into something that would accommodate a stadium-size crowd. They had to bring in ample electricity, construct a giant stage, rent 20,000 chairs, and set up the sound and lighting. The extremely short time frame caused contractors to double the prices they would have charged with ample time.

Organizers also rented hundreds of busses to bring Christians and their non-Christian friends from provinces near the city. Thousands of students sacrificed classes to help with last-minute preparations and to join the celebration.

Just after noon on Friday (Dec. 11), word came that police had stopped busses carrying 300 Steing minority people from the west to the event scheduled for that day. Organizers, fearing all busses would be stopped, put out an emergency worldwide prayer request.

Christian sources said that authorities either did not or could not stop busses from other directions, and that by evening the venue became the biggest “bus station” in all of Vietnam. By 6 p.m. the venue was full to capacity, and at least 2,000 had to be turned away.

Christians described the event, entitled, “With Our Whole Hearts,” in superlative terms. For house churches, large gatherings are both very rare and very special, and for many this was their first glimpse of the strength of Vietnam’s growing Christian movement. Thousands of Christians joined a choir of more 1,000 singers in loud and joyful praise.

Sources said that the main speaker, the Rev. Duong Thanh Lam, head of the Assemblies of God house churches “preached with anointing” and people responding to his gospel invitation poured to the front of the stage “like a waterfall.” With space in front of the stage insufficient, the sources said, many others in their seats also indicated their desire to receive Christ.

Organizers along with many participants were overwhelmed with emotion and gratitude as the event closed. People spontaneously hugged each other and cried, “Lord, bring revival to all of Vietnam!” Other comments included, “Beyond our fondest imagination,” and, “Nothing could stop the hand of the Lord.”

The event raised more than 60 million dong (US$3,280) for a charity helping needy children. People were quite surprised to read a positive article on the event in the state-controlled press, which often vilifies Christians.

House churches in the north were hopeful that they could hold a similar event. Organizers in Hanoi have heard encouraging reports that they will get permission to use the national My Dinh sports stadium for a Christmas celebration, though they do not have it in hand. Sources said they have sent out invitations across a broad area to an event scheduled for Dec. 20.

Friday’s event also made history in that it was streamed live on the Vietnamese website www.hoithanh.com and viewed by thousands more in Vietnam and by Vietnamese people around the world.

Report from Compass Direct News 

TURKEY: MURDER DEFENDANT AGAIN ADMITS PERJURY


Prosecutors suspect he’s protecting ‘masterminds’ of slaying of three Christians in Malatya.

ISTANBUL, August 25 (Compass Direct News) – Turkish murder suspect Emre Gunaydin admitted in court last week that he had again committed perjury in the trial over the savage murders of three Christians in southeast Turkey.

Gunaydin, 21, faced off in Malatya’s Third Criminal Court on Friday (Aug. 21) with Varol Bulent Aral, whom he had named as one of the instigators of the attack at Zirve Publishing Co.’s Malatya office in a previous disposition before state prosecutors. Gunaydin, the alleged ringleader of the murderers, told the court that he had lied in a previous disposition before state prosecutors by implicating Aral.

“I named Varol Bulent Aral to reduce the sentence,” Gunaydin said under questioning.

His admission came after Aral testified at length, painting an elaborate scenario of himself as a key player in the “Ergenekon” conspiracy – said to include top level political and security officials, among others – suspected of orchestrating the 2007 Malatya attack with Gunaydin and four other defendants.

“Varol Bulent Aral has no connection with these events,” Gunaydin insisted. “He is explaining things that he has imagined. There was not any threat against me, nor any instigator.”

Gunaydin initially failed to appear at Friday’s hearing where Aral was expected to testify, sending a note to the court that he was feeling unwell. But the judge abruptly announced a short court recess and ordered Gunaydin brought immediately from prison to the courtroom.

At a hearing three months ago, Gunaydin retracted similar allegations he had made against Huseyin Yelki, a former volunteer at the Christian publishing house where Turkish Christians Necati Aydin and Ugur Yuksel and German Christian Tilmann Geske were bound hand and foot, tortured and then slain with knives.

Jailed for three months on the basis of Gunaydin’s allegations, Yelki was finally brought to testify at the May 22 hearing.

“Huseyin Yelki is not guilty. He’s in prison for nothing,” Gunaydin told the court after Yelki testified. When questioned why he previously had implicated Yelki, Gunaydin said, “I did it to lessen my punishment. That’s why I said he was a missionary.”

Despite glaring discrepancies in his testimony, Yelki was released for lack of evidence. Aral was also ordered released for insufficient evidence, although he remains jailed in the Adiyaman Prison on unrelated criminal charges.

Plaintiff lawyers have expressed skepticism about Gunaydin’s two retractions, questioning whether he has been pressured to change his testimony in order to shield the actual instigators of the plot. They also remain unconvinced that Aral and Yelki were not collaborators in the attack.

Prosecution Failures

“An investigation does not just consist of claims, it must consist of proofs,” plaintiff lawyer Ali Koc told journalists on the courthouse steps after last week’s hearing. “One of the underlying missing elements of the Zirve Publishing trial in Malatya stems from the failure to pursue the investigation with sufficient objectivity, depth and careful attention.”

The only reason Aral and Yelki were charged in the case, the attorney noted, was because one of the defendants claimed they were accomplices. Koc stressed it was “the duty of the state and the judiciary to uncover those responsible for this event – the instigators, and the climate in which they emerged.”

He also declared that Aral should be investigated for his relations with intelligence officials, which he hoped would expose new evidence.

“If the Malatya case is not joined with the Ergenekon trial, then we’re probably looking at a verdict against the killers within the next three to five court hearings,” plaintiff lawyer Erdal Dogan said. “But I have hope – I hope for merging it with the Ergenekon case, in order to uncover the perpetrators behind the scenes.”

After two failed summons, Burcu Polat also appeared to testify at the Aug. 21 hearing. Now 18, Polat was Gunaydin’s girlfriend at the time of the murders. She stated that she had used two different cell phones in the weeks previous to the murders. Both telephones were registered in the name of her father, Ruhi Polat, a provincial council member of the Nationalist Movement Party previously called to testify at the trial.

The court summoned intelligence officer Murat Gokturk from the Malatya gendarmerie headquarters to appear at the next hearing, set for Oct. 16. Yelki had contacted Gokturk frequently by telephone in the weeks preceding the murders.

Detailed Informant Letter

Two months ago, an informant in the military intelligence division of the Malatya gendarmerie headquarters sent an extremely detailed report to state prosecutors regarding what Turkish media have dubbed the “Malatya massacre.”

The two-page letter fingered former Col. Mehmet Ulger, gendarmerie commander of Malatya province at the time of the murders, as a key instigator within the murder plot.

With precise, documented details, the report outlined Ulger’s targeting of the Malatya Christians and their activities during the weeks surrounding the attack, including a secret briefing for selected officials, unregistered meetings and the tapping of gendarmerie personnel named for specific assignments at various stages.

At the actual day and hour of the killings, the report said, Ulger received a telephone call from his commander while he was in a furniture shop in the city center. Ulger immediately promised to go to the scene, taking two sergeant majors and an official car, and arriving just as the police teams pulled up.

“The event had just happened, and the police teams had not yet gone to the scene, and Mehmet Ulger’s superiors informed him about it,” the report noted.

The letter goes on to describe frequent visits Inonu University professor Ruhi Abat made to Ulger’s office, where the colonel had specifically ordered his subordinates to never record Abat’s visits in the official record book.

Although Ulger and Abat testified on April 13 that they had sponsored a seminar regarding missionary activities for gendarmerie personnel, the informant declared it could be easily proved that such a seminar had never been held.

The informant claimed that 40,000 Turkish lira (US$30,800 at the time) was paid out during 2007 by Malatya’s gendarmerie intelligence staff “solely to direct close surveillance on missionary activities.” Instead of using the funds to help “break apart illegal organizations or recover a lot of drugs,” he said, a large portion of the money was handed over to Abat, he said.

The informant’s letter was sent simultaneously to Malatya Prosecutor Seref Gurkan and State Prosecutor Zekeriya Oz, who heads the Ergenekon investigation in Istanbul.

The anonymous informant claimed he had much more information that he could not pass along safely without revealing his own identity.

“Because I regret that I was involved myself in some of this, I am sending this letter to both prosecutors,” he wrote. “I hope that I am being helpful in solving this dark event.” He enclosed a CD of Ulger’s 2007 briefing as well as a list of the people whose telephones were being tapped.

It is not known how seriously the latest informant’s letter is being taken by the Malatya prosecutors.

“But we are seeing the continuation of a long chain of information coming out,” plaintiff lawyer Orhan Kemal Cengiz commented. “We have at least achieved something in the eyes of the Turkish public, because everyone is now convinced that it was not just these five young men who planned this; there were much larger and more serious forces behind the scenes.”

Report from Compass Direct News 

TURKEY: ‘DEEP STATE’ SUSPECTED OF SILENCING WITNESSES


Two key figures in Malatya murder trial again fail to show despite court orders.

MALATYA, Turkey, July 21 (Compass Direct News) – Under the pretext of recovering from medical treatment he received earlier this month, a key suspect in the murders of three Christians in southeast Turkey dodged court for the second time, further stalling the legal process, prosecuting attorneys said.

Journalist Varol Bulent Aral, one of the suspected “middlemen” who allegedly incited five young men to brutally murder Turkish Christians Necati Aydin and Ugur Yuksel and German Christian Tilmann Geske at the Zirve Publishing Co. in Malatya two years ago, again failed to show at a hearing on Friday (July 17).

The three Christians were bound and tortured before they were murdered on April 18, 2007 at the Christian publishing house, where they worked. Suspects Salih Guler, Cuma Ozdemir, Hamit Ceker, Abuzer Yildirim and alleged ring-leader Emre Gunaydin were caught trying to escape from the scene of the crime.

Aral was admitted for mental health treatment a few days after the last hearing in June and was released from the Adiyaman penitentiary hospital on July 8. The gendarmerie, however, failed to produce him in court on Friday (July 17) claiming that he was recovering from treatment.

Prosecuting attorneys pointed out that the reason the gendarmerie did not bring him to the June hearing from the penitentiary in Adana, nearly 300 kilometers (186 miles) from Malatya, was due to lack of funds – yet the gendarmerie seemed to have no trouble finding funds to take him for treatment in Adiyaman, which is the same distance from Adana as is Malatya.

“Last time [in June] they said they couldn’t bring him because of insufficient funds,” said prosecuting lawyer Erdal Dogan. “This is unacceptable… now in the same way they make excuses, saying they took him to the hospital. It seems they are mocking us, especially since previous health reports said that he was in good health.”

Prosecuting attorneys also pointed out that it was suspicious that Aral was admitted to the hospital only days after a court order that he appear at the July 17 hearing.

“It seems to us that they are trying to silence him by making him evade court,” said prosecuting attorney Dogan of the “deep state” officials that he and his colleagues believe masterminded the murders of the three Christians. “I truly hope that is not the case.”

Charged with high-security cases, the gendarmerie are holding Aral, but some believe the gendarmerie and its intelligence services are connected with Turkey’s “deep state.”

In the last year, nearly 150 people have been arrested in Turkey under suspicion of being connected to a cabal of retired generals and politicians called Ergenekon, accused of trying to overthrow Turkey’s Islamic-leaning but secular government. Some key figures of the Ergenekon case are believed to be behind the Malatya slayings and the murders of Italian Catholic priest Andrea Santoro, killed in the Black Sea coastal town of Trabzon in February 2006, and Armenian Christian editor Hrant Dink, who was shot in front of the weekly Agos three months before the slaughter in Malatya.

The Malatya and Ergenekon prosecutors, however, are still researching links between the murders and have yet to try them jointly.

Aral has been arrested in conjunction with both cases. In a previous statement, he had complained that retired Gen. Veli Kucuk, who has also been arrested in connection to Ergenekon, had threatened him about testifying. Aral testified to the Ergenekon case state judges privately in May, but the content of his testimony has not been publicized.

Judges have found the phone numbers of ultranationalist lawyer Kemal Kerincsiz and Sevgi Erenerol, spokesperson for the Turkish Orthodox Church – a Turkish nationalist denomination – in Aral’s personal phone book. Both figures are accused of playing leading roles in Ergenekon and spearheaded prosecution of Christians Hakan Tastan and Turan Topal for speaking to people about their faith.

While in prison, alleged ring-leader Gunaydin testified to the state prosecutor that Aral had contacted him and instructed him to carry out the murders. Gunaydin had also testified that Huseyin Yelki, who worked as a volunteer at the Zirve office, had planned details of the crime with him.

Yelki is still obligated to appear at every court hearing and continues to be a suspected middleman. Thus far, however, his testimony has yielded no clear indication of his role.

Burcu Polat, Gunaydin’s girlfriend, also failed to appear in court on Friday, telling police that she was not ready because she is a student in Balikesir, in northwest Turkey. The prosecution noted in court that universities are not in session and requested that the court find her guilty of not fulfilling her duty to appear in court.

The court again has ordered Aral and Polat to appear in court at the next hearing on Aug. 21.

Report from Compass Direct News 

CHINA: BOOKSTORE OWNER SENTENCED TO THREE YEARS IN PRISON


Shi Weihan also fined nearly $22,000; ‘illegal business’ printed Bibles for free distribution.

 

LOS ANGELES, June 10

(Compass Direct News) – A Beijing court today found Christian bookstore owner Shi Weihan guilty of “illegal business operation” and sentenced him to three years in prison and a 150,000 yuan (US$21,975) fine.

Sources said Shi’s store operated legally and sold only books for which he had obtained government permission, and that his Holy Spirit Trading Co. printed Bibles and Christian literature without authorization but only for free distribution to local house churches.

The 38-year-old Shi had been released on Jan. 4, 2008 due to insufficient evidence for the same vague charge of “illegal business operation,” but he was arrested again two month later, on March 19, and held virtually incommunicado. Contrary to Chinese law, authorities have denied all but a few visits from his lawyer and family, held him without charges for most of his time in jail, and initially withheld medication for his diabetes.

The court ruling appears to have allowed time that Shi has spent in jail to count toward his sentence, a source said, as his prison term was described as running from Nov. 28, 2007, when he was initially arrested, to Nov. 27, 2010.

Others in a printing company who stood trial with Shi appeared to have received similar sentences. A written judgment is expected within 15 days to allow time for an appeal to be filed, said Ray Sharpe, a friend of Shi.

“Absent an appeal, it is also possible that Shi could be allowed a sort of medical parole, due to his diabetic condition,” Sharpe said. “Hopefully, he could then be allowed to stay in a hospital under a sort of house arrest.”

He said that Shi did not yet know whether he would appeal, adding that the process could take up to a year.

Friends and business acquaintances of Shi have described him as a model citizen of China, saying that he has inspired them to love China by his patriotism and love for his homeland. They said he is known for selfless sacrifice on behalf of poor and disenfranchised rural Christians and minority children.

For much of his incarceration, Shi’s wife Zhang Jing and their two daughters, 12-year-old Shi Jia and 8-year-old Shi En Mei, have not known where he was being held. The family has been under nearly continual surveillance, limiting their ability to make contact with people who could assist them.

Sources said Zhang has worried about her husband’s condition and that she has taken on leadership duties at their church, where Public Security Bureau officials have intimidated the congregation with regular visits. Some members have left the church because of the intimidation, sources said, and Zhang is said to have suffered anxiety and stress that have led to depression.

Their two daughters have been ostracized at school for being the children of a prisoner, sources said.

Shi has lost more than 44 pounds since his second incarceration, they said, dropping to less than 130 pounds. The sources added that he has suffered from blisters because of unsanitary conditions in prison, as well as tinnitus that at times causes his ears to ring so loudly that he cannot sleep.

Chinese officials claim that the Nanjing Amity Printing Co. (Amity Press), the only government-approved Bible publisher, produces enough Bibles to meet the needs of the Chinese church, which various religious freedom organizations dispute. The groups complain that Amity prints a large share of its Bibles for export, and those sold domestically are not available to many Christians.

Report from Compass Direct News

PAKISTAN: CHRISTIANS PRESSED AS MILITARY BATTLES TALIBAN


Residents flee Swat Valley where fight rages with Islamist insurgents.

ISTANBUL, May 13 (Compass Direct News) – Pakistani Christians in Swat Valley are caught between the Taliban and Pakistan’s military as it assaults the stronghold where sharia (Islamic law) rules.

Nearly 15,000 troops have been deployed in the picturesque Swat Valley in Pakistan’s North West Frontier Province (NWFP) and neighboring Afghanistan. Troops came after months of peace negotiations collapsed between the Taliban Islamist insurgents who have imposed sharia in the valley and the central government last month. Hundreds of thousands of Pakistanis have fled the war-ravaged area for fear of a full military assault.

On May 10 (Sunday) the army ordered residents to flee Swat Valley during a lull in fighting. Aid groups estimate that as many as 1.3 million could be displaced by the fighting, according to The Guardian.

Christians are particularly vulnerable in the mass exodus. Working as poor day laborers, they occupy the lowest rung of the social ladder and have little money for costly transport or to stock up on resources before fleeing.

“Christians are poor, and like in any conflict, the prices of transportation and commodities skyrocket,” said Ashar Dean, assistant director of communication of the Church of Pakistan Peshawar diocese. “Some had to go on foot to flee the valley.”

The Taliban had ratcheted up pressure on Christians, other religious minorities and liberal Muslims in Swat to live according to Islamic fundamentalist norms. They were forced to grow beards and don Islamic attire for fear of their safety in an attempt to blend in with Muslim residents of Swat.

Many Christians also fled for insufficient funds to pay the jizye, a poll tax under sharia paid by non-Muslims for protection if they decline to convert to Islam.

In February the Pakistani government ceded control of Swat valley to the Taliban, who imposed their version of sharia and established clerical rule over the legal system. But Christians had seen warning signs long before the formal sharia announcement. In the past year the Taliban burned or bombed more than 200 girls’ schools in Swat, including one that housed a Catholic church.

Religious minorities live in a precarious situation in the Muslim-dominated country. The legal system informally discriminates against non-Muslims, and in recent years Christian villages have been ransacked by Muslim mobs incited by dubious reports that a Quran had been desecrated.

The Taliban’s attempts to spread out from Swat into neighboring areas, however, have increased feelings of insecurity among the nation’s 3 million Christians.

“The threat of the Taliban is a hanging sword above the necks of Christians,” said Sohail Johnson, chief coordinator of Sharing Life Ministry Pakistan. “Christians could be in the situation where they would have to accept Islam or die.”

Swat Christians Flee

Approximately 40-60 Christian families lived in Swat as congregants at the Church of Pakistan. But since Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gillani on April 8 announced a military mission into Swat, nearly all have fled to nearby districts.

Most are in refugee housing in Mardan in the NWFP. They stay in a technical school owned by the Church of Pakistan, a congregation composed of Anglicans, Presbyterians, Methodists and Lutherans

The school dismissed its students for the school year early to make room for the refugees. Opening its doors to the displaced Christians was necessary due to government inaction toward religious minorities, said Yousaf Benjamin of the National Commission for Justice and Peace.

“The government is giving protection to Muslims, but the Christians are through waiting for their services,” he said.

Similar measures are being employed in hundreds of schools. To provide for the massive influx in refugees, the Pakistan government ended the school year early in districts near Swat and opened the schools to refugees for temporary housing. Teachers are also assisting in the humanitarian relief effort, Benjamin said.

Some Christians have complained of facing discrimination in refugee camps. Government relief workers forbade Christians, Hindus and Sikhs from setting up tents or eating with Muslim refugees, according to online news site Christian Today.

But ultimately Christians will not be able to return to Swat Valley unless the Taliban threat is completely removed, Christian relief groups said. Their possessions and property will otherwise always be under threat.

“Christians will face terrible persecution if the Taliban is not controlled by the government,” Johnson said. “They will easily attack churches, schools and other Christian institutions.”

Rehman Malik, the interior minister, said Pakistan’s military operation would continue until the last Taliban fighter had been ousted. Since April 8, government troops have killed an estimated 751 militants.

There are believed to be 5,000 Taliban militants in Swat Valley. The government hopes to minimize civilian casualties through precision air strikes and delivering emergency humanitarian aid.

Pakistan’s government has come under harsh national and international criticism for its negotiations with the Taliban and ceding control of Swat. They fear the Taliban could seize control of the nation’s nuclear weapons.

Report from Compass Direct News

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

PEW FORUM SURVEY: ‘IS CHRISTIANITY THE ONE TRUE RELIGION?’


A 2008 Pew Forum survey found that 65 percent of Americans believe many religions lead to eternal life — and that 52 percent of American Christians believe salvation can be found in at least some non-Christian religions, reports Baptist Press.

At a time when American belief is shifting toward religious pluralism — the idea that all religions are equal in offering truth — New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary’s annual Greer-Heard Point-Counterpoint Forum addressed the question: “Is Christianity the one true religion?”

“The topic is very important given the politically correct, tolerance-laden culture we find ourselves living in today,” said Robert Stewart, director of the Greer-Heard Forum and associate professor of philosophy and theology at NOBTS. “Ultimately we need to take a stand on the clear teaching of God’s Word, which teaches us that Jesus is the only Savior of the world.”

Evangelical Christians as a whole are not embracing pluralism, Stewart said, but some are drifting away from an exclusive view of salvation.

“Some Christians are probably more inclusivistic in their theology than pluralistic,” he said. “The recent Pew Forum survey found that a majority of American Christians believe that some non-Christian faiths lead to eternal life and that 37 percent of those Christians were evangelical Christians.”

The keynote speakers for the March 27-28 forum, Harold Netland of Trinity Evangelical Divinity School and Paul Knitter of Union Theological Seminary, presented divergent answers to the question of pluralism.

Citing the often-conflicting and contradictory views of various religions, Netland rejected pluralism as a viable option. He argued in favor of the evangelical position that Christianity is the one true religion. Knitter, who identifies himself as a Christian and disciple of Jesus Christ, argued that Jesus “is a way open to other ways.”

Netland opened the forum by acknowledging, “The assertion that Christianity is the one true religion for all people strikes many as hopelessly out of touch with current realities.” Such a claim, he said, “seems to display generous amounts of both intellectual naivety and arrogance.”

“Nevertheless, with proper qualification, I do believe that the Christian faith as defined by the Christian scriptures is true and that this sets the Christian faith apart from other religious traditions,” Netland said.

Affirming the truth of Christianity does not deem all aspects of other religions false; Netland said other religious traditions do contain beauty and goodness — often in the area of moral and ethical teachings. However, beliefs that are incompatible with essential Christian teachings must be rejected, Netland said.

Netland said he rejects pluralism in part because the major world religions tend to make often-exclusive truth claims. Religious adherents from most traditions are expected to regard the claims of their religion as true, he said. These truth assertions are not meant to be taken as personal or mythological.

“Each religion regards its own assertions as correct or superior to those of its rivals,” Netland said. “When we consider carefully what the religions have to say about the religious ultimate and the nature of, and conditions for salvation …, there is significant disagreement.”

Netland suggested focusing on the essential or defining beliefs of a religion in determining its truth; a religion is true only if these essential beliefs are true.

“For Christianity to be true, the defining beliefs of Christianity, namely certain affirmations about God, Jesus of Nazareth and salvation must be true,” Netland said. “If they are true, Christianity is true.”

Netland said that some argue for “epistemic parity” among religions. Epistemic parity holds that no religion can claim rational superiority over another religion because the data is insufficient to prove one claim over another. Netland, however, sees epistemic parity as an argument for agnosticism rather than pluralism.

“For if there are not good reasons for accepting any single religious tradition as true, why should we suppose that all of them collectively are equally true?” Netland said.

On the other hand, Knitter claimed that true Christianity would never make an exclusive claim to truth. He offered a case for pluralism based on four categories: history, ethics, theology and Scripture.

“If we look at our history, there has been a change in Christian beliefs about this question,” Knitter said. “Although at one time, almost all the churches held firmly that Christianity is the only true religion, today many Christian churches do not.”

Knitter cited the 2008 Pew Forum study as evidence that many Christians are moving away from a belief in Christianity as the one true religion.

“The fact that our question has already been answered by a broad group of Christians … we have to take [this] into consideration,” he said. “Our job as theologians is to work with what people are actually believing.”

Knitter said the shift away from an exclusive belief in Christianity has not diminished the commitment or discipleship of individual Christians. He argued that a further shift could be made — a complete shift to religious pluralism.

Knitter noted that viewing Christianity as the one true religion carries the danger of hindering dialogue among the religions.

“The religions of the world have a moral obligation to engage each other in a peacemaking dialogue,” Knitter said. “Dialogue is the mutual exchange to which all sides seek to help each other grow in the knowing and the doing of what is true and what is right.”

Dialogue is impossible, however, if one side makes an exclusive claim to religious truth, Knitter argued, saying it is a grievous error to hinder dialogue.

If dialogue is “a moral imperative,” he said, “what impedes a moral imperative looks to be immoral itself.”

Exclusive claims to truth not only impede dialogue, but such claims can foster violence, Knitter said. While rarely the cause of violence, he said exclusive truth claims can rally followers to a leader’s cause.

In his theological case for pluralism, Knitter appealed to God’s love. He said that “the God of Jesus is a power of pure unbounded love” and that the New Testament’s teachings show God’s desire to see all people saved.

“As my teacher back in Germany, Karl Rahner, insisted, ‘if God wants to save all people then God will act in a sure way as to make this a real possibility for all people,’” Knitter said. “Rahner went on to claim that the religions are among the most available and ready at hand ways in which God will make this offer of His saving grace. A God who loves all will offer that love to all.”

For his scriptural argument, Knitter claimed that the exclusive language of the New Testament is confessional language, or love language that was intended to be superlative, not exclusive. Statements such as “no other name,” “one mediator,” and “no one comes to the Father except by me” are meant to communicate something positive about Jesus, not something negative about other religions, Knitter said.

“I must confess my faith that Jesus is indeed the way that is open to other ways and that in order to be a faithful follower of this Jesus I must recognize and engage the truth that the Spirit may be offering me in my Hindu, Buddhist, Muslim, Jewish, Native American and Shinto brothers and sisters,” Knitter said.

Knitter closed with the famous quote from Martin Luther: “Here I stand, I cannot do otherwise.”

During the response time, Netland sought clarification on a number of points from Knitter in areas such as application of Scripture, the meaning of truth in religion and the religious ultimate.

“How exactly is the New Testament … normative for us today?” Netland asked. “How does Paul Knitter understand the concept of truth in religion?”

Netland also asked Knitter to explain his view of the religious ultimate (God).

Knitter did not directly address Netland’s questions but was content to present a further argument on the nature of religious language. Appealing to the mystery of God, Knitter said all of human language about God is symbolic, poetic and metaphoric.

This religious language, Knitter said, calls people to action. For him, right practice should be emphasized over right belief.

“Orthopraxis has a certain primacy over orthodoxy. The two are essentially related and you can’t have one without the other,” Knitter said. “The truth of a symbol will be in its ability to affect our life. Religious truth is truth for me when it enables me to find a context in which I find meaning and purpose.”

After the event, Greer-Heard director Robert Stewart said he hopes students learn to be “both properly charitable and properly critical in evaluating claims with which they disagree.” While he disagrees with the position of Knitter and other pluralists, Stewart sees value in engaging their ideas. He hopes exposure to scholars such as Knitter will help NOBTS students better defend the truth of Christianity.

“As a philosopher I don’t find the hermeneutical arguments that pluralists make on this point strong enough to overcome the case for the traditional reading of passages like John 14:6 and Acts 4:12,” Stewart said. “The purpose of the Greer-Heard Forum, however, is that we are training Christians for ministry in today’s world and must thus trust that we have given them what they need to interact critically with the wide range of opinions that they will encounter in real-world ministry.”

Begun in 2005, the Greer-Heard Forum provides a platform for dialogue between a noted evangelical scholar and a non-evangelical academic on matters of faith and culture. The event is designed to teach students, ministers and laypeople how to interact with a person from an opposing view.

The 2010 Greer-Heard Point-Counterpoint Forum will focus on “The Message of Jesus.” The keynote speakers will be Ben Witherington III, professor of New Testament at Asbury Theological Seminary, and John Dominic Crossan, professor emeritus at DePaul University. Other presenters will include Amy-Jill Levine, Alan Segal, Darrell Bock and Craig Evans.

Report from the Christian Telegraph

CANADIAN LAW PROHIBITING POLYGAMY FACES CHALLENGE


Canada’s anti-polygamy law will likely be facing a legal challenge now that the leaders of the controversial polygamous sect in Bountiful, near Cranbrook, British Columbia, have been arrested. Winston Blackmore, the “bishop” of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and James Oler are facing criminal charges for practicing polygamy, reports Hilary White, LifeSiteNews.com.

Wally Oppal, BC’s Attorney General, announced at a press conference that Blackmore and Oler were arrested yesterday by eight plainclothes RCMP officers. The two men were later released on their own cognizance after being charged. The two cooperated with the arrest and agreed to the release conditions that they surrender their passports, stay in British Columbia and not enter into or perform any “plural marriages.”

The two men are scheduled to make their first court appearance January 21. They are the first men to be charged with polygamy since the 1800s, even though police have known of the situation in Bountiful for more than 60 years.

Up until now law-enforcement officials have been hesitant to arrest practitioners of polygamy under fears that the law would not survive a challenge under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. On at least two previous occasions the RCMP have recommended that arrests be made, but the Crown denied the recommendation, saying that the ban on polygamy would likely be struck down.

The estimated population of Bountiful in 1998 was 600 and has since grown to about 800. Most of the residents are descended from only half a dozen men who practice what is called in the breakaway Mormon sect “multiple marriage” or “celestial marriage.” Blackmore claims to have had 26 wives and more than 108 children. The mainstream Mormon church formally renounced polygamy more than a century ago.

In 2006, the Vancouver Sun released information stating that Utah’s Attorney General is collaborating with British Columbia’s Attorney General in attempting to deal with polygamy and the alleged abuse in Bountiful. But pressure has been growing in Parliament, especially since the institution of homosexual “marriage,” to change the law to allow for polygamy.

In 2007, Richard Peck, a criminal lawyer and BC special prosecutor reviewed the results of a police investigation and concluded that there was insufficient evidence to charge the group with sexual abuse or exploitation. He warned that the defendants would likely claim religious freedom as a defense. Peck recommended that the BC Attorney General petition the courts to determine if Canada’s ban on polygamy is constitutional.

Pro-family advocates have long warned that the erosion of legal marriage in Canada, as well as in other western countries, starting with no-fault divorce and most recently with the institution of homosexual “marriage” and civil unions, would lead to the legalisation of polygamy. Indeed, following the invention of same-sex “marriage” in Canadian law, the federal Justice Department under the Liberal government produced a report suggesting the legalisation of polygamy.

Report from the Christian Telegraph