Christian in Bhutan Imprisoned for Showing Film on Christ


Court sentences him to three years on dubious charge of ‘attempt to promote civil unrest.’

NEW DELHI, October 18 (CDN) — A court in predominantly Buddhist Bhutan has sentenced a Christian to three years in prison for “attempting to promote civil unrest” by screening films on Christianity.

A local court in Gelephu convicted Prem Singh Gurung, a 40-year-old ethnic Nepalese citizen from Sarpang district in south Bhutan, on Oct. 6, according to the government-run daily Kuensel.

Gurung was arrested four months ago after local residents complained that he was showing Christian films in Gonggaon and Simkharkha villages in Jigmecholing block. Gurung invited villagers to watch Nepali movies, and between each feature he showed films on Christianity.

Government attorneys could not prove “beyond reasonable doubt” that Gurung promoted civil unrest, and therefore “he was charged with an attempt to promote civil unrest,” the daily reported.

Gurung was also charged with violation of the Bhutan Information, Communication and Media Act of 2006. Sections 105(1) and 110 of this law require that authorities examine all films before public screening.

A Christian from Bhutan’s capital, Thimphu, told Compass that the conviction of Gurung disturbed area villagers.

While Gurung has the right to appeal, it remained unclear if he had the resources to take that course.

Both Gonggaon and Simkharkha are virtually inaccessible. It can take up to 24 and 48 hours to reach the villages from the nearest road.

“Both villages do not have electricity,” the daily reported. “But Prem Singh Gurung, with the help of some people, is believed to have carried a projector and a generator to screen the movies in the village.”

Over 75 percent of the 683,407 people in Bhutan are Buddhist, mainly from western and eastern parts. Hindus, mostly ethnic Nepalese from southern Bhutan, are estimated to be around 22 percent of the population.

It is also estimated that around 6,000 Bhutanese, mostly from south, are Christian in this landlocked nation between India and China. However, their presence is not officially acknowledged in the country. As a result, they practice their faith from the confines of their homes, with no Christian institution officially registered.

Buddhism is the state religion in Bhutan, and the government is mandated to protect its culture and religion according to the 2008 constitution. As in other parts of South Asia, people in Bhutan mistakenly believe that Christianity is a Western faith and that missionaries give monetary benefits to convert people from other religions.

Yesterday’s Kuensel published an opinion piece by a Bhutanese woman from New York who described herself as “an aspiring Buddhist” condemning both the conviction of Gurung and Christian “tactics.”

“Although we may not like the tactics used by the Christians to proselytize or ‘sell’ their religion to impoverished and vulnerable groups, let’s not lose sight of the bigger picture, in terms of religious tolerance, and what constitutes ‘promoting civil unrest,’” wrote Sonam Ongmo. “If we truly want to establish ourselves as a well-functioning democracy, with equal rights for all, let’s start with one of the fundamental ones – the right to choose one’s faith. We have nothing to worry about Buddhism losing ground to Christianity, but we will if, as a predominantly Buddhist state, we start to deny people the right to their faith.”

While her view is representative of liberal Buddhists in Bhutan, a reader’s response in a forum on Kuensel’s website reflected the harder line.

“These Christians are a cancer to our society,” wrote a reader identifying himself as The Last Dragon. “They had crusades after crusades – we don’t need that. We are very happy with Buddhism. Once Christianity is perfect – as they always claim [it] to be, then let’s see.”

In July, the government of Bhutan proposed an amendment in the Penal Code of Bhutan which would punish “proselytizing” that “uses coercion or other forms of inducement.” (See,  “Buddhist Bhutan Proposes ‘Anti-Conversion’ Law,” July 21.)

Christian persecution arose in Bhutan in the 1980s, when the king began a “one-nation, one-people” campaign to “protect the country’s sovereignty and cultural integrity.” Ethnic Nepalese, however, protested the move on grounds of discrimination. Authorities responded militarily, leading to the expulsion or voluntary migration of over 100,000 ethnic Nepalese, many of whom were secret Christians, to the Nepal side of the border in Jhapa in the early 1990s.

An absolute monarchy for over 100 years, Bhutan became a democratic, constitutional monarchy in March 2008, in accordance with the wish of former King Jigme Singye Wangchuck, who served from 1972 to 2006. Since the advent of democracy, the country has brought in many reforms. It is generally believed that the government is gradually giving more freedom to its citizens.

The present king, Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck, and Prime Minister Lyonchen Jigmey Thinley, are respected by almost all Bhutanese and are seen as benevolent rulers.

Report from Compass Direct News

Buddhist Bhutan Proposes ‘Anti-Conversion’ Law


Already suppressed Christians say bill is designed to control growth.

THIMPHU, Bhutan, July 21 (CDN) — Christians in this Himalayan nation who are still longing to openly practice their faith were disheartened this month when the government proposed the kind of “anti-conversion” law that other nations have used as a pretext for falsely accusing Christians of “coercion.”

The amendment bill would punish “proselytizing” that “uses coercion or other forms of inducement” – vaguely enough worded, Christians fear, that vigilantes could use it to jail them for following the commands of Christ to feed, clothe and otherwise care for the poor.

“Now, under section 463 [of the Penal Code of Bhutan], a defendant shall be guilty of the offense of proselytization if the defendant uses coercion or other forms of inducement to cause the conversion of a person from one religion or faith to another,” reported the government-run Kuensel newspaper on July 9.

“There was always a virtual anti-conversion law in place, but now it is on paper too,” said a senior pastor from Thimphu on condition of anonymity. “Seemingly it is aimed at controlling the growth of Christianity.”

Kuenlay Tshering, a member of Bhutan’s Parliament and the chairperson of its Legislative Council, told Compass that the new section is consonant with Article 7(4) of the Constitution of the Kingdom of Bhutan, which states, “A Bhutanese citizen shall have the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion. No person shall be compelled to belong to another faith by means of coercion or inducement.”

He said that the National Council had proposed that offenses under the proposal be classified as misdemeanors, punishable by one to less than three years in prison.

Tshering said that the amendment bill “may be passed during the next session of Parliament, after the National Assembly deliberates on it in the winter session.”

Asked if he was aware that similar “anti-conversion” laws in neighboring India had been misused to harass Christians through vague terms of “inducement,” he said he was not.

Authorities usually act on complaints by local residents against Christian workers, so frivolous complaints can lead to their arrest, said another pastor who requested anonymity.

Of the 683,407 people in Bhutan, over 75 percent are Buddhist, mainly from the west and the east. Hindus, mostly ethnic Nepalese from southern Bhutan, are estimated to be around 22 percent of the population.

There are around 6,000 Christians, mostly ethnic Nepalese, but there is neither a church building nor a registered Christian institution. The Bible, however, has been translated into the national language, Dzongkha, as well as into Nepali.

The constitution guarantees freedom of religion, but the government has not officially recognized the presence of Christians, whose practice of faith remains confined to their homes.

The Drukpa Kagyue school of Mahayana Buddhism is the state religion, with Hinduism dominant in the south, according to Bhutan’s official website, which adds, “Some residues of Bon, animism and shamanism still exist in some pockets of the country,” but makes no mention of Christianity.

Still, since Bhutan became a democracy in 2008 after its first-ever elections – following more than 100 years of absolute monarchy – people have increasingly exercised their freedom, including religious choice.

 

‘Why More Religions?’

Home and Culture Minister Lyonpo Minjur Dorji told Compass that Bhutan’s government had “no problems” with Christianity or any other faith.

“But Bhutan is a small country, with a little more than 600,000 people, and a majority of them are Buddhist,” Dorji said. “We have Hindus, also mainly in southern parts. So why do we need more religions?”

Buddhism is closely linked with political and social life in Bhutan. Dorji’s office sits in a gigantic monastery in Thimphu known as Tashichho Dzong. Buddhism unites and brings people together, Dorji said, explaining that the social life of a village revolves around its dzong (monastery).

Dorji said India’s multi-religious society had led to tensions and bloodshed.

“India can survive riots and unrest,” he said, “but Bhutan may not, because it is a small country between two giants [India and China].”

With leaders who have been proud that they have not allowed it to be colonized, Bhutan historically has been keenly concerned about its survival. Bhutan’s people see their distinct culture, rather than the military, as having protected the country’s sovereignty. And it is no coincidence that Dorji’s portfolio includes both internal security and preservation of culture.

The constitution, adopted in July 2008, also requires the state to protect Bhutan’s cultural heritage and declares that Buddhism is the spiritual heritage of Bhutan.

A government official who requested anonymity said that, as Tibet went to China and Sikkim became a state in India, “now which of the two countries will get Bhutan?”

This concern is prevalent among the Bhutanese, he added.

Sikkim, now a state in India’s northeast, was a Buddhist kingdom with indigenous Bhotia and Lepcha people groups as its subjects. But Hindus from Nepal migrated to Sikkim for work and gradually outnumbered the local Buddhists. In 1975, a referendum was held to decide if Sikkim, then India’s protectorate, should become an official state of the country. Since over 75 percent of the people in Sikkim were Nepalese – who knew that democracy would mean majority-rule – they voted for its incorporation
into India.

Bhutan and India’s other smaller neighbors saw it as brazen annexation. And it is believed that Sikkim’s “annexation” made Bhutan wary of the influence of India.

In the 1980s, Bhutan’s king began a one-nation-one-people campaign to protect its sovereignty and cultural integrity, which was discriminatory to the ethnic Nepalese, who protested. Their non-compliance, however, resulted in a harsh crackdown by authorities, leading to the expulsion or voluntary migration of over 100,000 ethnic Nepalese, many of whom were Christians, to the Nepal side of the border in Jhapa in the early 1990s.

“Bhutan did not want to become another Sikkim,” said a local resident, explaining why the government did not tolerate the protests.

Bhutan is also rigorous in implementing its laws related to the use of the national language, the national dress code and the uniform architectural standards throughout the country to strengthen its cultural integrity. Bhutanese men are required to wear the gho, a knee-length robe tied at the waist by a cloth belt, when they go to work or attend a public function. Women have to wear the kira, an ankle-length dress clipped at one shoulder and tied at the waist. Non-compliance can lead to fine
and imprisonment.

 

Brighter Future

One hopeful pastor said he expects the government to officially acknowledge the existence of Christianity in Bhutan in the near future.

“Religious freedom will be good for both Christians and the government,” he said. “If Christians are not officially acknowledged, who will the government go to if it wants to implement an executive decision related to religious communities?”

Explaining the reason for his hope, he recalled an incident in the Punakha area in January, when a house under construction was demolished after rumors that it was used as a church.

“The house owner, a Christian, went to his majesty [King Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck] and told him he was not constructing a church but would have worship with other believers on Sundays,” the pastor said. “The king allowed him to build the house.”

He also said that a delegation of Christians met with Prime Minister Lyonchen Jigmey Thinley in May 2009, who reassured them that there would be more freedom soon.

Christianity is gradually growing, but through word-of-mouth – testimonies of those who have received healing from sickness – and not public preaching, he said, adding that Christians needed to understand and be patient with the government, “which cannot and should not make changes or give freedom overnight.”

 

SIDEBAR

Christians’ Skulls, Bones Used for Buddhist Ritual

The ambiguity in Bhutan over the status of Christians has brought with it a new difficulty: A national daily recently reported that at least eight graves of Christians had been exhumed and the skulls and thigh bones extracted for a Buddhist ritual.

Although the report marked the first time the practice had made the news, Christian leaders said more than 100 graves have been dug up as the trade in human bones has been going on for more than five years.

A local resident of the Lamperi area, near Thimphu, identified as Namgay, told the Bhutan Observer that he found eight graves in a “secret forest graveyard” that had been exhumed by hunters of craniums and thigh bone.

“We saw skulls without craniums and a hand sticking out of a grave,” he was quoted as saying in the daily on May 27.

A human skull garners between 5,000 ngultrum (US$105) and 10,000 ngultrum (US$211) in Bhutan, with men’s skulls considered more valuable. The skull of a man affected by leprosy is not considered ideal for purification. Rather, such skulls are considered best for rituals to subdue evil spirits.

In a visit to the graveyard, the Bhutan Observer found at least eight graves freshly dug up. “Hand gloves, khaddar [a coarse homespun cotton cloth], a currency note, a wooden cross, and a wooden hammer lay scattered all over,” it reported.

The daily said the graveyard apparently belonged to the Christian community in Thimphu and nearby areas.

“Christians in the country say that there should be an official recognition that there are Christians in the country, and other things like burial rights will naturally follow,” the report noted.

A local pastor told Compass that since Christians did not have a burial ground, they buried their dead in forests.

“More than 100 bodies have been dug up, even though we have changed several locations for burial,” he said. “I wonder how the traders in human bones discover these locations. Where do we go now?”

Some local residents reportedly believe that a Christian grave brings bad luck.

Damcho Wangchu, a resident of Thinleygang area, told the daily that the area surrounding the graveyard was holy. He attributed all misfortune in the area – including storms, the death of three students and of four others – to the Christian cemetery.

“We never experienced such misfortunes in our gewog [cluster of villages] before,” he said.

The daily explained that the tradition of use of human skulls and thigh bones in Buddhist rituals was as old as Tantric Buddhism itself. “Thoepai Dagpa is a generic name for the text that illustrates the use and study of quality of skulls,” it reported.

Tantric Buddhism, widespread in Bhutan, involves rituals as a substitute or alternative for the earlier abstract meditations.

An editorial in the same newspaper noted, “Our hunt for the criminal will probably lead us from the unplanned graveyard to the sacred altar.”

Report from Compass Direct News

Turkish Police Official Axed amid Allegations in Murders


Head of intelligence allegedly hid evidence, failed to prevent slaying of Christians.

MALATYA, Turkey, October 22 (CDN) — The head of Turkey’s police intelligence department was removed on Friday (Oct. 16) amid allegations that he failed to prevent the murder of the Christian editor of an Armenian weekly and the slayings of three Christians in this city in southeastern Turkey.

Ramazan Akyurek is also accused of withholding evidence in those cases and improperly investigating the murder of a Catholic priest in 2006.

After a Malatya trial hearing on Friday, prosecution lawyers in the case commended the removal of Akyurek for negligence but said it came too late. Akyurek has been placed in a different position within police headquarters in Ankara.

Prior to the January 2007 murder of Hrant Dink, editor of the Armenian weekly Agos, Akyurek allegedly received a report about the orchestrated plan to kill him. That clearly implied that Akyurek was one of the masterminds behind the murder, according to Erdal Dogan, one of the prosecuting attorneys in the Malatya case.

While heading the investigation of the Dink murder, Aykurek reportedly not only witheld intelligence but also tried to affect the outcome of the trial, claiming in his investigation report that a group of “friends” planned to kill Dink because he offended Turkey.

“This is a disaster,” Dogan said. “The same happened with the Malatya massacre. “We know he had information on all the developments of the massacre, but he didn’t act on it. He tried to cover it up. We know that they were following the movements of the killers.”

Turkish Christians Necati Aydin and Ugur Yuksel and German Christian Tilmann Geske were bound hand and foot, tortured and then slain with knives at the Zirve Publishing Co. in April 2007. Dogan said that had Zirve staff members not suspected that something was wrong and called police, the five young men who were caught at the scene of the crime most likely would not have been apprehended.

“It’s difficult to know to what extent this character affected the investigations during that time,” Dogan said. “This is why the fact that they took him from his position was important, but they removed him late; they removed him very late.”

Akyurek was head of police in the city of Trabzon in 2006 when Catholic priest Andrea Santoro was killed. It was under his auspices that a young man was arrested and imprisoned for the murders without investigation into who was behind the murder, according to Dogan.

In the same year, Akyurek was promoted to head Turkey’s police intelligence unit.

“Even though Aykurek was incompetent as a police head and covered up crimes, he became the head of intelligence with access to all of Turkey’s intelligence,” Dogan said.

More Evidence Sees Light

Akyurek was fired about a week after Turkish press received leaked documents showing payments the Malatya gendarmerie made in exchange for intelligence on missionary activities between March 2007 and November 2008. The amounts totaled nearly 10,000 Turkish lira (US$6,840).

At Friday’s hearing the Malatya court heard the testimony of Murat Gokturk, a former petty officer in the Malatya intelligence department at the time of the murders. Gokturk had made contact with Huseyin Yelki, a Christian volunteer at Zirve who is one of the suspects in the murders because of his heavy involvement with gendarmerie in the months leading up to and directly after the slayings.

Gokturk testified that he contacted Yelki and requested a New Testament in Arabic so he could learn the language better, as he has an Arabic heritage. He claimed that when he contacted Yelki from his gendarmerie office, he and the intelligence department were not following missionary activities.

“Missionary activities are legal,” said Gokturk. “This is a religious and conscience right. It’s not a crime.”

Prosecuting lawyers asked that the judges record Gokturk’s statement that missionary activities are legal. They later explained that since all other evidence shows that officials did spy on missionaries in Malatya, such a statement showed they were aware that they were doing so in violation of their legal jurisdiction.

“We questioned the witness [Gokturk], but he tried to hide the truth either by saying, ‘I don’t remember,’ or by lying,” said Dogan. “But evidence shows that he and Huseyin Yelki had a very close relationship and information exchange, and it’s obvious that this was not a simple information exchange. They met many, many times.”

The European Union Commission report on Turkey’s progress in 2009 was also published last week. Under the section on democracy and the rule of law, the report noted that high-profile cases such as the Malatya and Dink trials, which are connected to the alleged criminal network Ergenekon, raised concerns about the quality of investigations. The report noted a need “to improve the working relationship between the police and the gendarmerie on the one hand and the judiciary on the other.”

Concerning freedom of religion, the report noted that missionaries are widely perceived as a threat to the integrity of Turkey and Islam. It also pointed out that the Ministry of Justice allowed judicial proceedings under Article 301 of the Criminal Code – which criminalizes “insulting Turkishness” – in the case of Turkish Christians Hakan Tastan and Turan Topal for sharing their faith with others.

This last case has also been linked to the Ergenekon cabal believed to have masterminded the Santoro, Dink and Malatya murders. It has continued for three years with no resolution.

“It’s finally clear that there is a connection between Santoro, Dink and Malatya and everyone is talking that way,” said Dogan, noting how the prosecuting lawyers in the cases as well as the media perceive the link. “It is now obvious that these three crimes came from the same center.”

The Malatya court is still waiting for an answer from the Ergenekon judges about whether the murder of the three Christians will be joined into the the latter case, under which more than 100 former military, political figures, journalists and others have been arrested.

Dogan, however, said that whether the Malatya case is connected with the Ergenekon case is now secondary, and that it is probably better for the Malatya trial to stay separate to determine what really happened.

“It’s enough for me that this picture is clear,” said Dogan of the link between the cases and Ergenekon. “There is no doubt for me. If they connect them or not it doesn’t matter. Because when the court case goes there, Ergenekon is so complicated that the Malatya case could get lost in it.”

The next hearing of the Malatya trial is set for Nov. 13.

Report from Compass Direct News 

Lawyer Calls Turkish Christians’ Trial a ‘Scandal’


Evidence still absent in case for ‘insulting Turkishness and Islam.’

SILIVRI, Turkey, October 16 (CDN) — After three prosecution witnesses testified yesterday that they didn’t even know two Christians on trial for “insulting Turkishness and Islam,” a defense lawyer called the trial a “scandal.”

Speaking after yesterday’s hearing in the drawn-out trial, defense attorney Haydar Polat said the case’s initial acceptance by a state prosecutor in northwestern Turkey was based only on a written accusation from the local gendarmerie headquarters unaccompanied by any documentation.

“It’s a scandal,” Polat said. “It was a plot, a planned one, but a very unsuccessful plot, as there is no evidence.”

Turkish Christians Hakan Tastan and Turan Topal were arrested in October 2006; after a two-day investigation they were charged with allegedly slandering Turkishness and Islam while talking about their faith with three young men in Silivri, an hour’s drive west of Istanbul.

Even the three prosecution witnesses who appeared to testify at Thursday’s (Oct. 15) hearing failed to produce any evidence whatsoever against Tastan and Topal, who could be jailed for up to two years if convicted on three separate charges.

Yesterday’s three witnesses, all employed as office personnel for various court departments in Istanbul, testified that they had never met or heard of the two Christians on trial. The two court employees who had requested New Testaments testified that they had initiated the request themselves.

The first witness, a bailiff in a Petty Offenses Court in Istanbul for the past 28 years, declared he did not know the defendants or anyone else in the courtroom.

But he admitted that he had responded to a newspaper ad about 10 years ago to request a free New Testament. After telephoning the number to give his address, he said, the book arrived in the mail and is still in his home.

He also said he had never heard of the church mentioned in the indictment, although he had once gone to a wedding in a church in Istanbul’s Balikpazari district, where a large Armenian Orthodox church is located.

“This is the extent of what I know about this subject,” he concluded.

Fidgeting nervously, a second witness stated, “I am not at all acquainted with the defendants, nor do I know any of these participants. I was not a witness to any one of the matters in the indictment. I just go back and forth to my work at the Istanbul State Prosecutors’ office.”

The third person to testify reiterated that he also had no acquaintance with the defendants or anyone in the courtroom. But he stated under questioning that he had entered a website on the Internet some five or six years ago that offered a free New Testament.

“I don’t know or remember the website’s name or contents,” the witness said, “but after checking the box I was asked for some of my identity details, birth date, job, cell phone – I don’t remember exactly what.”

Noting that many shops and markets asked for the same kind of information, the witness said, “I don’t see any harm in that,” adding that he would not be an open person if he tried to hide all his personal details.

For the next hearing set for Jan. 28, 2010, the court has repeated its summons to three more prosecution witnesses who failed to appear yesterday: a woman employed in Istanbul’s security police headquarters and two armed forces personnel whose whereabouts had not yet been confirmed by the population bureau.

Case ‘Demands Acquittal’

Polat said after the hearing that even though the Justice Ministry gave permission in February for the case to continue under Turkey’s controversial Article 301, a loosely-defined law that criminalizes insulting the Turkish nation, “in my opinion the documents gathered in the file demand an acquittal.”

“There is no information, no document, no details, nothing,” Polat said. “There is just a video, showing the named people together, but what they are saying cannot be heard. It was shot in an open area, not a secret place, and there is no indication it was under any pressure.”

But prosecution lawyer Murat Inan told Compass, “Of course there is evidence. That’s why the Justice Ministry continued the case. This is a large ‘orgut’ [a term connoting an illegal and armed organization], and they need to be stopped from doing this propaganda here.”

At the close of the hearing, Inan told the court that there were missing issues concerning the judicial legality and activities of the “Bible research center” linked with the defendants that needed to be examined and exposed.

Turkish press were conspicuously absent at yesterday’s hearing, and except for one representative of the Turkish Protestant churches, there were no observers present.

The first seven hearings in the trial had been mobbed by dozens of TV and print journalists, focused on ultranationalist lawyer Kemal Kerincsiz, who led a seven-member legal team for the prosecution.

But since the January 2008 jailing of Kerincsiz and Sevgi Erenerol, who had accompanied him to all the Silivri trials, Turkish media interest in the case has dwindled. The two are alleged co-conspirators in the massive Ergenekon cabal accused of planning to overthrow the Turkish government.

This week the European Commission’s new “Turkey 2009 Progress Report” spelled out concerns about the problems of Turkey’s non-Muslim communities.

“Missionaries are widely perceived as a threat to the integrity of the country and to the Muslim religion,” the Oct. 14 report stated. “Further efforts are needed to create an environment conducive to full respect of freedom of religion in particular.”

In specific reference to Tastan and Topal’s case, the report noted: “A court case against two missionaries in Silivri continued; it was also expanded after the Ministry of Justice allowed judicial proceedings under Article 301 of the Criminal Code.”

The Turkish constitution guarantees freedom of religion to all its citizens, and the nation’s legal codes specifically protect missionary activities.

“I trust our laws on this. But psychologically, our judges and prosecutors are not ready to implement this yet,” Polat said. “They look at Christian missionaries from their own viewpoint; they aren’t able to look at them in a balanced way.”

Report from Compass Direct News 

Merkel: EU legislation does not curb religious freedom


German Chancellor Angela Merkel has reassured evangelical Christians that European anti-discrimination legislation will not curb their freedom of worship and religious expression, reports Wolfgang Polzer, special to ASSIST News Service.

In an interview with three German evangelical media organizations she emphasized that EU anti-discrimination laws were only meant to prevent any disadvantages for specific groups. For example, older people should have the same opportunities as younger persons; women should have equal rights as well as people with special needs.

Anti-discrimination legislation is meant to strengthen equality, said Merkel. She was interviewed in Berlin by leading journalists of Evangeliums-Rundfunk (Gospel Radio), the media association KEP (Conference of Evangelical Publicists) and the news agency “idea”, all stationed in Wetzlar.

Merkel, raised in a vicar’s family in East Germany, called on Christians to refrain from despondency and put their trust in God. The power of their faith would enable them to weather difficult times and face the future with confidence.

The 55-year-old politician is also leader of the Christian Democratic Union in Germany and faces general elections on September 27. As she explained, the “C” in the name of her party serves as a foundation for operative politics.

“We regard every individual as God’s creation equipped with freedom and responsibility,” said Merkel. Politics was meant to create conditions in which the individual can develop his or her talents. The “C” was also a reminder of the need to preserve the integrity of creation.

Merkel emphasized the German obligation to protect the integrity of the state of Israel. The German government is also striving for progress in the peace effort. Merkel’s government supports a two-state-solution. This requires compromises on both sides, she said.

As the chancellor explained, a task force in the Foreign Office is working hard to bring light into the fate of a German Christian family abducted in Yemen in mid-June. Every effort was made to find out where the parents and their three children are and how they can be set free, said Merkel. She expressed her respect for volunteers helping to alleviate human suffering abroad.

Report from the Christian Telegraph 

INDONESIA: SHARIA-BASED LAWS CREEP INTO HALF OF PROVINCES


Islamic-based legislation may be a key issue in this year’s elections.

DUBLIN, February 2 (Compass Direct News) – As candidates hit the campaign trail in preparation for Indonesia’s presidential election in July, rights groups have voiced strong opposition to an increasing number of sharia-inspired laws introduced by local governments. They say the laws discriminate against religious minorities and violate Indonesia’s policy of Pancasila, or “unity in diversity.”

With legislative elections coming in April and President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono likely to form a coalition with several Islamic parties for the July presidential election, such laws could become a key campaign issue.

Although Aceh is the only province completely governed by sharia (Islamic law), more than 50 regencies in 16 of 32 provinces throughout Indonesia have passed laws influenced by sharia. These laws became possible following the enactment of the Regional Autonomy Law in 2000.

The form of these laws varies widely. Legislation in Padang, West Sumatra, requires both Muslim and non-Muslim women to wear headscarves, while a law in Tangerang allows women found “loitering” alone on the street after 10 p.m. to be arrested and charged with prostitution. Other laws include stipulations for Quran literacy among schoolchildren and severe punishment for adultery, alcoholism and gambling.

“Generally the legal system regulates and guarantees religious freedom of Indonesian citizens … but in reality, discrimination prevails,” a lawyer from the legal firm Eleonora and Partners told Compass.

Some regencies have adopted sharia in a way that further marginalizes minority groups, according to Syafi’I Anwar, executive director of the International Center for Islam and Pluralism.

“For instance, the Padang administration issued a law requiring all schoolgirls, regardless of their religion, to wear the headscarf,” he told the International Herald Tribune. This is unacceptable because it is not in line with the pluralism that the constitution recognizes.”

Freedom of religion is guaranteed by Article 29 of the country’s constitution, he added. “Therefore the government must assist all religious communities to practice their beliefs as freely as possible and take actions against those who violate that right.”

While Indonesia’s largest Muslim group, Nahdlatul Ulama (NU), has publicly denounced the implementation of such laws, other groups actively support them. The Committee for the Implementation and Maintenance of Islamic Law (KPPSI) has held several congresses in Makassar, South Sulawesi with the goal of passing sharia-inspired legislation and obtaining special autonomy for the province, similar to that in Aceh.

KPPSI has also encouraged members to vote for politicians who share their goals, according to local news agency Komintra.

 

‘Threatening’ Decision

In February of last year, Home Affairs Minister Mardiyanto declared that the government saw no need to nullify some 600 sharia-inspired laws passed by local governments. His announcement came after a group of lawyers in June 2007 urged the government to address laws that discriminated against non-Muslims.

Moderates were alarmed at Mardiyanto’s decision, fearing it would encourage other jurisdictions to pass similar laws. Last August, Dr. Mohammad Mahfud, newly re-elected as head of the Constitutional Court, slammed regional administrations for enacting sharia-inspired laws.

“[These] laws are not constitutionally or legally correct because, territorially and ideologically, they threaten our national integrity,” he told top military officers attending a training program on human rights, according to The Jakarta Post.

Mahfud contended that if Indonesia allowed sharia-based laws, “then Bali can pass a Hindu bylaw, or North Sulawesi can have a Christian ordinance. If each area fights for a religious-based ordinance, then we face a national integration problem.” According to Mahfud, sharia-based laws would promote religious intolerance and leave minority religious groups without adequate legal protection.

Under the 2000 Regional Autonomy Law, the central government has the power to block provincial laws but showed little willingness to do so until recently when, bowing to pressure from advocacy groups, it pledged to review 37 sharia-based ordinances deemed discriminatory and at odds with the constitution.

Such reviews are politically sensitive and must be done on sound legal grounds, according to Ridarson Galingging, a law lecturer in Jakarta.

“Advocates of sharia-based laws will stress the divine origin of sharia and resist challenges [that are] based on constitutional or human rights limits,” he told The Jakarta Post. “They maintain that sharia is authorized directly by God, and political opposition is viewed as apostasy or blasphemy.”

 

Empowering Vigilantes

A national, sharia-inspired bill regulating images or actions deemed pornographic sparked outrage when presented for a final vote in October last year. One fifth of the parliamentarians present walked out in protest, leaving the remainder to vote in favor of the legislation.

The bill provided for up to 15 years of prison and a maximum fine of US$1.5 million for offenders.

“This law will only empower vigilante groups like the Islamic Defender’s Front (FPI),” Eva Sundari, a member of the Democratic Party of Struggle (PDIP) told reporters. FPI is widely-regarded as a self-appointed moral vigilante group, often raiding bars and nightclubs, but also responsible for multiple attacks on churches.

“Many of the members are preparing for elections and looking for support among the Islamic community,” she added. “Now they can point to this law as evidence that they support Islamic values.”

Although several Golkar Party politicians support sharia-based laws, senior Golkar Party member Theo Sambuaga has criticized politicians for endorsing such legislation to win support from Muslim voters. Several major parties openly back sharia laws, including the Prosperous Justice Party (PKS), the United Development Party, and the Crescent Star party.

 

Key Election Issue

Sharia-based laws may become an even hotter election issue this year as a change to the voting system means more weight will be given to provincial candidates.

Political analysts believe Yudhoyono must form a coalition with most if not all of the country’s Islamic parties in order to win a majority vote against the Golkar party, allied for this election with former president Megawati Sukarnoputri’s PDIP.

The coalition Yudhoyono could form, however, likely would come with strings attached. As Elizabeth Kendal of the World Evangelical Alliance wrote in September 2008, “The more the president needs the Islamists, the more they can demand of him.”

In 2004, Yudhoyono partnered with the NU-sponsored National Awakening Party, the National Mandate Party (founded by the Islamic purist organization Muhammadiyah) and the PKS to achieve his majority vote. Analysts predict PKS will again be a key player in this election.

Few realize, however, that PKS draws its ideology from the Muslim Brotherhood, a group formed in Egypt in 1928 with a firm belief in Islamic world dominance. Crushed by the Egyptian government in the 1960s, members of the Brotherhood fled to Saudi Arabia, where they taught in the nation’s universities – influencing the future founders of Al Qaeda, Hamas, and Sudan’s National Islamic Front.

The Brotherhood took root at a university in Bandung, West Java in the 1970s in the form of Tarbiyah, a secretive student movement that eventually morphed into the Justice Party (JP) in 1998. Winning few votes, JP allied itself with a second party to form the PKS prior to the 2004 elections.

Since then, PKS has gained widespread support and a solid reputation for integrity and commitment to Islamic values. Simultaneously, however, PKS leaders are vocal supporters of Abu Bakar Ba’asyir, leader of the terrorist group Jemaah Islamiyah (JI).

Sadanand Dhume, writing in the Far Eastern Economic Review, says the two organizations have much in common. In its founding manifesto, PKS calls for the creation of an Islamic caliphate. Unlike JI, however, “the party can use its position in Parliament and its … network of cadres to advance the same goals incrementally, one victory at a time.”  

Report from Compass Direct News

USA: BARACK OBAMA SWEEPS TO VICTORY


In good news for the United States and the world, Barack Obama has swept to victory in the US Presidential election. The George W. Bush reign will end at the beginning of next year and Barack Obama will be sworn in as the next president of the United States.

With the Democratic victory over the Republican Party, President-elect Obama has described his victory as one that brings new hope to his country. Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd says it brings new hope to the world – a sentiment that I would certainly agree with.

But more than that (or at least as part of that), Barack Obama brings some intelligence to the Oval Office when his predecessor George W. Bush moves out. The Bush presidency has been marked by an endless procession of gaffes (and some unbelievable ones at that).

Of course there are some major issues with some of the Obama policies – such as abortion, etc. Now is the time for celebration, soon will be the time of tackling these other important issues that will come to a head soon enough. We must remember that the Republican Party is not the bastion of moral integrity in the United States – just look at the Californian government’s view on several issues (a Republican government under the ‘Terminator’) including that of homosexuality.

One must not expect the secular arena to be the bastion of moral integrity – that should surely be the Christian Church as God’s representative on earth. Now that is a major basket case in the United States that we should be more concerned about.

INDIA: VIOLENCE SPREADS TO FIVE MORE STATES


Another man killed, more houses and churches attacked in Orissa’s Kandhamal district.

NEW DELHI, September 16 (Compass Direct News) – A policeman was killed today, the body of another victim of Hindu extremist violence was discovered and more houses and churches burned in Orissa state’s Kandhamal district even as anti-Christian violence spread to at least five more states across India over the weekend.

Christians and churches were targeted in Karnataka, Kerala, Madhya Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh and Jharkhand as fallout from violence in Orissa that began following the assassination of a Vishwa Hindu Parishad (World Hindu Council or VHP) leader, Laxmanananda Saraswati, and four of his disciples in Kandhamal district on August 23.

A mob of around 500 rioters today killed a policeman and burned down a police station in Orissa’s Kandhamal district, where Hindu extremists launched a spate of attacks three weeks ago blaming local Christians of killing Saraswati and his disciples. Maoists have claimed responsibility for the murders of the Hindu leaders.

“A large number of attackers armed with country-made guns and crude weapons gunned down a constable and set ablaze the police station at Gochapada early this morning,” Director General of Police Gopal Nanda told The Indian Express. Gochapada is 36 kilometers (22 miles) from Phulbani, the district headquarters of Kandhamal.

Police sources told the daily that the mob was demanding release of a man held by security personnel, but local residents felt the attack came in retaliation for police firing into a crowd in Kurtamgarh in Tumudibandh area, killing at least one person, on Saturday (Sept. 13).

 

Murder in Orissa

While the body of another person was found and at least 14 houses were burned on Sunday night (Sept. 14), a church and several houses were set ablaze on the previous day.

The Statesman newspaper reported that at least nine houses of Makabali village and five in Sanakbali village were torched in the Gunjibadi area. Authorities found the body of Purander Naik, who had fled to a relief camp where mainly Christians had taken refuge, in his village of Nilungia.

“The decomposed body of Naik was found by police near the Ratingia dam yesterday,” the newspaper reported yesterday. “Naik was at the G. Udayagiri relief camp for over 10 days but had left for his village to see the condition of his house and poultry. His family was at the relief camp. Apparently he was killed during his visit to the village.”

The Press Trust of India reported that while nine houses were torched in Toposi village, another house was burned in Dibadi village under the Raikia police station in Kandhamal.

The Rev. Ashis Parida of the Evangelical Fellowship of India (EFI) reported that more than 2,000 Hindu extremists set fire to a church belonging to the Church of North India (CNI) denomination and several houses of Christians in Kurtamgarh village on Saturday afternoon (Sept. 13). Kurtamgarh is about seven kilometers (four miles) from the ashram (religious center) of Hindu leader Saraswati.

Compass received reports that a Hindu extremist mob on Friday (Sept. 12) burned one church and a mission hostel in Mangapanga, Tumulibandh; three churches in Mundabali, Badipankha; and one church in Baringia in Phulbani. An estimated 40 houses were also destroyed on the same day by the intolerant Hindus.

The next afternoon a large Hindu extremist mob descended on Kurtamgarh, burning several houses and the CNI Church. Sources said the extremists were targeting the village headman of the area, a Christian whose house they destroyed.

A local source said that “while the mob was attacking the Christian homes and churches, the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) forces took notice of it and fired in the air to disperse the crowd. To their surprise the mob retaliated with gunfire aimed at the CRPF, which wounded two soldiers of the CRPF, one of whom was reported to be quite serious and had to be taken to Behrampur for his medical treatment.”

The CRPF forces retaliated with gunfire of their own, killing one person and injuring about 12. Early reports suggested that two people had died in the CRPF firing, but only one body was said to be recovered by the CRPF after the incident.

Krishan Kumar, district collector of Kandhamal, told media that on that day, “At least 400-500 people, some of them carrying firearms, attacked a man’s home and set it on fire at Kurtamgarh village.”

While the state government says 24 people, mainly Christian, have died in the Orissa violence, the All India Christian Council (AICC) maintained that 45 Christians were confirmed dead and five more were still missing.

According to the AICC, 14 districts of Orissa witnessed violence with Kandhamal as the epicenter. It reported at least 50,000 people from 300 villages have been affected by the violence, with hundreds still hiding in forests, and 4,000 houses and 115 churches burned or destroyed.

 

Death in Relief Camps

At least 20,000 people are in the 14 relief camps set up by the state government in Kandhamal. Two elderly persons and two children are known to have died in three of the relief camps.

The Statesman reported that while two ailing men, 75-year-old Sua Naik from Budrungia village and 66-year-old Kasipatra Naik from Tatamaha village, died at the Raikia relief camp, two children, one from the Phulbani camp and the other from G. Udayagiri camp, died during the week.

One of the children was reportedly a 10-year-old girl who had been hiding in the forest since the violence began who died from disease attained by being constantly on the run. The name of the girl was not known, but she was said to be from Kotgarh.

The Statesman also reported that the chief secretary of Orissa state, Ajit Tripathy, held a review meeting yesterday to discuss health and sanitation measures at the relief camps.

Orissa is ruled by a coalition of a regional party, Biju Janata Dal, and the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

 

Attacks in Karnataka

Attacks were reported also from the southern state of Karnataka, where Hindu extremists ratcheted up hostilities after the state education ministry served show-cause notices to over 2,000 Christian schools in the state for staying shut on Aug. 29 to protest the violence against Christians in Orissa.

On Sunday (Sept. 14), Hindu extremists attacked several churches in Karnataka’s district of Dakshina Kannada, in Udupi and Chikmagalur, on the pretext that Christians were engaging in “forcible” conversions of Hindus to Christianity.

In Dakshina Kannada district, suspected extremists from the Bajrang Dal, VHP’s youth wing, attacked the Adoration Monastery near the Milagres Church on Falnir Road in Mangalore region.

“The 10-member group barged into the prayer hall and damaged the tabernacle, where the holy Eucharist is kept,” reported the Times of India. “They damaged windowpanes, furniture as well as the crucifix. Police said the same group attempted to vandalize another prayer hall in Kankanady, but were driven back.”

The daily added that Christians later gathered in large numbers in front of the Milagres Hall to protest the attacks, which resulted in a day-long stand off between the protestors, who reportedly hurled stones at the police, with officers using batons in return. Several vehicles were damaged in the tussle.

In Udupi district, three churches of the New Life Fellowship were attacked by suspected Bajrang Dal extremists while Sunday prayers were in progress, reported the daily. At least 15 Hindu extremists entered its prayer hall, attacking worshippers and ransacking the hall during the worship service. A music system and projector were damaged.

In Shiroor area, Hindu extremists attacked another prayer hall of the New Life Fellowship, burning a vehicle and striking some members of the congregation, including the pastor.

The daily reported another attack on a church in Mudur, near Kollur, resulted in damaged materials. It added that police prevented yet another such attack in prayer halls of the New Life Fellowship in Kaup and Karkala areas.

In Chikmagalur district, extremists attacked three churches and the house of a new convert. “In one incident, 15 activists came in a vehicle and barged into Harvest India church in Makkikoppa near Jayapura in Koppa Taluka [Block] in the morning and assaulted a parishioner and the Protestant pastor,” the daily reported. “They broke the window panes and the plastic chairs.”

On Sunday night (Sept. 14), a mob attacked a prayer hall in the Padavu Pre-University College on the Mangalore-Udupi Road.

Yesterday morning, Hindu extremists attacked a shop in Kalladka village and the St. Ann’s Friary Grotto near Canara College, about 25 kilometers (almost 16 miles) from Mangalore, in two separate incidents. A Christian prayer hall in Chickballapur district, about 50 kilometers (31 miles) from Bangalore, also was attacked.

Some Christians reportedly retaliated by targeting policemen in different parts of Dakshina Kannada district. At least four policemen were injured, with one reportedly stabbed yesterday.

According to Indo-Asian News Service (IANS), police arrested about 100 people, almost all Christians, for staging allegedly violent protests.

Hindu extremists also attacked churches in Belthangady, Moodabidri, Koloor, Kodaikal, Hemanagatta, Kadur and Puttur, Kundapur and Balehanoor. All together 18 churches and prayer halls in and around Mangalore and in Udipi and Chikmaglur districts were attacked on Sunday (Sept. 14).

Police reportedly had arrested seven Bajrang Dal members by Sunday night. Schools and shops remained shut in Mangalore yesterday in protest, and vehicles were kept off the roads. Christians continued to protest, and in some places police had to fire tear gas shells to maintain order. A curfew was imposed in Mangalore as well.

But that did not stop Hindu extremists from throwing stones at a church in Mangalore yesterday morning, in spite of an order the previous day banning assembly of more than five people for three days. Chief Minister B.S. Yeddyurappa stoked fires by stating, “There is no room for forcible conversion in democracy. No one should indulge in it.”

Asked what action he was going to take against the Bajrang Dal during a press conference yesterday evening, the chief minister said only, “Whoever was involved in this act will be arrested very soon.”

But he was quick to blame church groups, saying “No one has the right to insult any other religion. As we know some community called ‘New Life’ is converting people, we have asked the bishop to support us in this regard. But as per the bishop, New Life is not under his control and the bishop is not the in charge of this community.”

There was little to suggest the involvement of New Life Fellowship churches in forced conversion. NDTV 24X7, a national television news channel reported that “so far there seems to be little evidence that New Life is carrying out forcible conversions.”

A team from the National Commission for Minorities (NCM) will reportedly make an on-the-spot assessment of attacks on churches and prayer halls in different parts of Karnataka and submit its report to the federal government. Members will visit churches damaged in attacks in Dakshina Kannada, Udupi and Chikmagalur districts, as well as Mangalore.

Bajrang Dal representatives unabashedly admitted to the violence that was carried out on Sunday (Sept. 14), telling NDTV 24X7 that they are targeting evangelical groups in and around Mangalore.

 

Violence in Other States

In the northern state of Uttar Pradesh, Bajrang Dal extremists on Sunday (Sept. 14) attacked two pastors in Kanpur district, accusing them of beating their supporters, reported IANS.

Govindnagar police station inspector N.K. Singh told IANS that the pastor of the New India Church of God, Jitendra Singh, approached officers late Sunday night and submitted a written complaint against Ram Babu Bajpai, a local leader of the Bajrang Dal.

Pastor Singh said Bajpai, along with a large number of his supporters, attacked him in the church compound in the presence of his wife, Helena Singh, and fellow pastor Anil Gilbert.

 

Both sides filed complaints

According to the complaint by the Hindu extremists, “The Bajrang Dal has alleged that the church was involved in converting Hindus to Christianity by offering them money, and the pastors attacked them when its activists opposed the practice,” IANS added.

In the north-central state of Madhya Pradesh, at 1:30 p.m. today five unidentified people carrying air guns shot a guard of the Caramel Convent in Banduha village (under the Ghatia police station) in Ujjain district, Madhya Pradesh state. Father Anand Muttungal of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of Madhya Pradesh state reported that Amar Singh’s injuries were not fatal.

Fr. Muttungal said that the culprits asked Singh to call the nuns, and when he told them they were away the assailants beat and shot him.

Hindu extremists in Madhya Pradesh also burned the 80-year-old Masihi Mandir church of the CNI denomination in Chhawni (Cantonment) area of Indore city at 10:30 p.m. on Saturday (Sept. 13), reported EFI.

“The fire was spotted by a few onlookers, who managed to extinguish it quickly,” EFI reported. “The doors, windows and other wooden material were burned.”

In the southern state of Kerala, on Sunday night (Sept. 14) Hindu extremists attacked the Jaya Mata Convent School, a Christian kindergarten that doubled as a church in Kottakkani area in Kasargode district under the Catholic diocese of Teleicherry, reported the Times of India.

 

The Hindu extremists launched the attack to protest conversions

“On Monday morning, we saw the glass panes of a box containing the figure of Mother Mary, as well as window panes of the school, smashed,” Vicar Antony Punnoor told the daily. “It seemed someone had hurled stones.”

The Kerala state interior minister, Kodiyeri Balakrishnan, told the daily that the incident would be investigated.

“Cops would also examine if the attack had any link with such incidents in Karnataka,” he reportedly said. “No one will be allowed to create communal riots in the state.”

In the western state of Jharkhand, Hindu villagers attacked Christians of a Believers’ Church and pressured them to “reconvert” to Hinduism in Talatad village (under Patratu police station) in Hazaribagh district on Sunday (Sept. 14), reported the Christian Legal Association.

Pastor Cyril Tamgaria and 18 others were worshiping in the house of Badhi Oraon when Hindu extremists surrounded the house. They beat them, took them forcibly to a temple in a nearby jungle and asked them to “return” to their old faith. Local Christians reported the incident to police, however, and officers freed the Christians.

The Rev. Dr. Babu Joseph, spokesperson of the Catholic Church in India, said in a statement that the Christian community in India has been conducting itself in a peaceful manner throughout the ordeals, and “even under extreme provocation it has exercised restraint.”

“It is not to be construed as weakness,” he said, “but a preferred option based on sound principles of civilized living.”

Joseph added that the community continued to render its services to all sectors of society without discrimination.

“Nevertheless, baseless allegations of fraudulent conversion have long been hurled at it by certain vested interests whose chief agenda seems to be social polarization on the lines of religious beliefs,” he said. “We, as responsible citizens of India, will not succumb to their divisive tactics, but continue to work, in the spirit of Christ our master, for the unity, integrity and progress of the nation.”

 

Women’s Group Pans Official Assessment of Orissa

Dismissing claims by government officials, the National Federation of Indian Women (NFIW) reported that their findings from a visit to Orissa’s Kandhamal district last week did match statements made by the central and state governments before the Supreme Court.

Annie Raja, general secretary of the NFIW, told media that the team she led to the riot-torn district Sept. 9-12 concluded that a judicial inquiry was inadequate to uncover abuses.

The NFIW demanded a Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) probe into the killing of Laxmanananda Saraswati and subsequent riots in Kandhamal district. The organization’s report notes that the situation in the district was tense and a sense of security was absent among the Christian minority community.

Calling conditions in the relief camps “pathetic,” with about 20,000 people living with inadequate medical facilities, Raja reportedly said that camps with more than 700 children and around 30 pregnant women did not have a pediatrician or a gynecologist.

The NFIW demanded that civil society organizations and women’s organizations be allowed to participate in relief and rehabilitation operations.

Orissa officials have asked the central government to allow the state to retain central and paramilitary forces until the end of October in light of approaching festivals.

Home Secretary T.K. Mishra has described the situation in Kandhamal as “satisfactory” and requested the recall of the Border Security Force, as “they did not fit into the situation” in Orissa. He added, however, that the state needed Central Reserve Police Force and Rapid Action Force personnel to deal with any rioting. He also acknowledged that sporadic violence was taking place in some villages of the Kandhamal district.

Report from Compass Direct News