EU Visit to Orissa, India Triggers Barrage of Accusations


Hindu nationalists protest delegation as Christians cite injustices.

NEW DELHI, February 8 (CDN) — A delegation from the European Union concluded a “fruitful” trip to India’s violence-torn Orissa state on Friday (Feb. 5) amid a swirl of protests by Hindu nationalist groups and cries of injustice by Christians.

The delegation was able to hold “open and frank” discussions with Kandhamal officials on the visit, said Gabriele Annis of the Embassy of Italy.

“We had a very good meeting with the Kandhamal district administration,” Annis told reporters. “It is fruitful. We had open and frank discussion. It helped us in understanding the situation and understanding happenings over the past 15 months.”

The delegation was led by Christophe Manet, head of Political Affairs of the European Commission delegation to India and consisted of members from Spain, Hungary, Poland, Ireland, Italy, Netherlands, the United Kingdom, Finland and Sweden. A delegation from five European countries had visited Orissa earlier in November 2009, but the government of Orissa denied them permission to visit Kandhamal district, where Christians say they continue to be threatened and destitute.

Archbishop Raphael Cheenath said on Saturday (Feb. 6) that despite the claims of the state and district administrations, life for the Christian victims of violence in August-September 2008 remains far from normal: thousands still live in makeshift shanties along roadsides and in forests, he said, and local officials and police harass them daily.

“The block officers have been playing with the facts, indulging in corrupt practices and cosmetic exercises whenever political and other dignitaries come to visit or inspect,” the archbishop said in a statement. “Innocent people are coerced into giving a false picture. The chief minister must investigate the role and functioning of the entire district administration . . . It is strange that officers in whose presence the violence took place and thousands of houses were burnt are still in office and are declaring that there is peace in the district.”

Following attacks in the area after Hindu extremists stirred up mobs by falsely accusing Christians of killing Hindu leader Swami Laxmanananda Saraswati on Aug. 23, 2008, more than 10,000 families were displaced from their homes by the violence. Since then, Cheenath said, an estimated 1,200 families have left the area. Between 200 and 300 families reside in private displacement camps in the district, and more than 4,400 families still live in tents, makeshift shelters or the remnants of their damaged houses, he said.

The number of attack victims who have received financial assistance from the government, churches or Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) is unknown, but is estimated at 1,100 families, Cheenath added.

He criticized Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and the Chief Minister of Orissa Naveen Patnaik saying, “Both of them had promised to provide adequate compensation for the damages caused during the 2008 communal violence. But the victims have not been adequately compensated.”

Cheenath said the state government had decided not to compensate any riot-affected religious institutions even though India’s Supreme Court had directed the government to compensate them for all damages.

“This is a national calamity and demands a special package for the affected people, which should include land, income generation, education and healthcare,” the archbishop said.

Extremist Makeover

Prior to the visit, Christian leaders expressed their shock at Kandhamal district authorities attempting a cosmetic makeover by evacuating nearly 100 Christians from G. Udayagiri.

In letters to the EU delegation, the state government and national human rights and minorities commissions, Dr. John Dayal of the All India Christian Council narrated the plight of the 91 members of 21 families from 11 villages who were living under plastic sheets along a road in the marketplace area of G. Udayagiri.

Dayal said the group included 11 married women, three widows, an elderly man with a fractured hip and thigh, and two infants born in the camp. They had faced almost daily threats, he said, as they had not been allowed to return to their villages unless they renounced their faith and became Hindus.

Soon after the decision to allow the EU delegation, the water supply to the makeshift site was cut off and police and civil officers drove away the residents, who had only plastic sheets to protect them from the cold, he said. The refugees said officers later gave them permission to come back at night but to keep the area clear.

“The families are in G. Udayagiri, they have moved in front of the road, and they are in a very bad state,” the Rev. Samant Nayak of G. Udayagiri told Compass. “They are literally on the road.”

He said that approximately 55 families were living in G. Udayagiri, where they had been given land, and a Christian NGO was helping to construct houses for them.

The Press Trust of India reported that Orissa officials were nervous about last week’s delegation visiting Kandhamal but finally gave permission under pressure from the central government. State officials finally allowed the visit with the pre-condition that the delegation would be allowed only to interact with people and not engage in fact-finding, according to a senior official in Orissa’s home department.

The Kandhamal district collector, Krishna Kumar, told Compass that all went well and “no untoward incidents took place,” but sources reported at least one minor disturbance in Bodimunda village. On Wednesday (Feb. 3), one house was reportedly damaged there in a scuffle that also resulted in two arrests by the local police.

During their Kandhamal visit, the EU delegation was reportedly forced to cancel a meeting with judges of Fast Track courts established in Phulbani, in Kandhamal district, to prosecute hundreds of those accused in the 2008 violence, due to protests from the local lawyers’ association.

Kumar, however, pointed out that the lawyers’ protest was secondary to the lack of clearance from the High court for the meeting with the judges. “The same was not informed to us prior to the visit,” he added.

Justice Denied

The anti-Christian violence in August-September 2008 killed over 100 people and burned 4,640 houses, 252 churches and 13 educational institutions. Archbishop Cheenath said justice is critical to long term peace.

“The two Fast Track courts, and the court premises, have seen a travesty of justice,” he said in the Feb. 6 statement. “Witnesses are being coerced, threatened, cajoled and sought to be bribed by murderers and arsonists facing trial. The court premises are full of top activists of fundamentalist organizations. The witnesses are also threatened in their homes with elimination, and even their distant relatives are being coerced specially in the murder and arson cases against Member of Legislative Assembly [MLA] Manoj Pradhan.”

Though some witnesses have testified on Pradhan’s alleged involvement in crimes in depositions, he has been acquitted in case after case, the archbishop added.

“We are demanding a special investigation team to investigate every case of murder and arson,” he said. “Similarly, there is also need for transferring the cases against politically powerful persons such as Pradhan to outside Kandhamal, preferably to Cuttack or Bhubaneswar.”

Cheenath said victims have filed 3,232 complaints at Kandhamal police stations, but officers registered only 832 cases. As many as 341 cases were in the G. Udayagiri area alone, 98 in Tikabali and 90 in Raikia, he said.

“Even out of this small number [in G. Udayagiri], only 123 cases were transferred to the two Fast Track courts,” he said. “So far, 71 cases have been tried in the two courts, and 63 cases have been disposed of. Of these, conviction occurred only in 25 cases, and even that is partial as most of the accused have not been arrested or brought to trial.”

Only 89 persons have been convicted so far in Orissa state, while 251 have been acquitted, supposedly for lack of witnesses against them, he said.

“Among them is Manoj Pradhan,” Cheenath said. “It is strange that in the case of 10 deaths by murder, nine cases have been closed without anybody being convicted, while there has been partial conviction in the case of one death. Who will bring justice in the case of the nine murder cases?”

The archbishop demanded that independent lawyers be allowed to assist overworked special public prosecutors.

Hindu Nationalist Protests

Protesting the delegation visit was the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) and other Hindu nationalist organizations. VHP State General Secretary Gouri Prasad Brahma had lamented on Jan. 31 that the visit would trigger tension and demanded their immediate withdrawal.

“There is no business of the outsiders in the internal matter of the state,” he said.

The delegation also faced the ire of the Hindu extremist Bajrang Dal on the day of its arrival in Bhubaneswar, capital of Orissa, on Tuesday (Feb. 2). Hundreds of its cadres met the delegation at the airport shouting loudly, “EU team, go back.”

Five Bajrang Dal members were detained for creating trouble, Deputy Commissioner of Police H.K. Lal told media on Wednesday (Feb. 3).

After the delegation had left, the Orissa Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) heavily criticized the central and the state governments, with BJP state President, Jual Oram telling a press conference that the state had allowed the visit to “divide people on communal lines.” He said that the delegation had not met any Hindu leader during their visit to Kandhamal, which “exposed their communal agenda.”

Oram accused the delegation of violating protocol in trying to meet the judges of fast-track courts in Kandhamal, saying this “amounted to interference into internal affairs of a sovereign independent member state under the U.N.”

At the same press conference, BJP MLA Karendra Majhi said that allowing the visit was an attempt by the chief minister to win back the confidence of minority Christians. He alleged that the delegation had held secret meetings in a Catholic church at Phulbani with church leaders and select NGOs to facilitate conversions to Christianity.

“I have every reason to believe that the promised assistance of 15 million euros to Kandhamal by the EU delegation will be utilized for conversion activities,” Majhi said.

Report from Compass Direct News 

Prisoners Freed in Acteal, Mexico Case Yet to Return Home


 

Christians bear no grudges, fear no threats from accusers.

TUXTLA GUTIERREZ, Mexico, October 12 (CDN) — Alonso Lopez Entzin, a Tzotzil-speaking Christian in Chiapas state, Mexico, spent 11 years and eight months in prison for a crime he did not commit. Accused of participating in the tragic “Acteal massacre” in December 1997 in which 45 persons died near San Cristobal de las Casas, he and more than 80 of his neighbors were summarily arrested and charged with the murders.On Aug. 12, the Federal Supreme Court of Mexico ordered that Lopez Entzin and 19 other indigenous men accused in the Acteal killings – 18 are Christian, including Lopez Entzin – be freed from El Amate Penal facility in Chiapas. Their release came as a surprise to him and his fellow prisoners, as well as to thousands of people in Mexico and around the world advocating their release.

Of the 18 Christians released, only five were Christians when they were arrested; the rest came to trust in Christ while in prison. At least 27 innocent men who were Christians at the time of their arrest remain in prison, according to advocacy organizations.

“I thank God that I have been granted freedom,” Lopez Entzin told Compass. “We are no longer imprisoned thanks to the power of God. There is no other person that has this kind of power, only God.”

The court is reviewing the cases of another 31 men convicted in connection with the massacre. Six more defendants will be granted new trials.

“Right now we see the first fruits of our prayers,” said Tomas Perez Mendez, another of the 20 freed prisoners. “We are confident in the Lord that the rest of the brothers are going to obtain their freedom as well.”

Lopez Entzin added that winning their freedom will not be easy.

“When we were inside El Amate, we began to pray, fast and glorify our Lord Jesus Christ. There are thousands and thousands of brothers who prayed for us inside the jail – thank God He answered those prayers,” he said through tears. “That’s why those brothers who remain behind in El Amate believe that if God’s will is done, they will soon be free.”

Most of the remaining Acteal inmates are evangelical Protestant Christians sentenced to 25- and 36-year prison terms. For years, human rights advocates and legal experts have presented legal arguments showing that the men were convicted on dubious evidence. The district court of the state of Chiapas, however, has consistently ruled against the defendants in appeals.

Attorneys for the defendants finally succeeded in bringing the case before the Federal Supreme Court in Mexico City. The justices who reviewed the case found clear violations of due process and on Aug. 12 overturned the convictions in a 4-1 decision.

The court ruling stated that the decision was not a determination of the guilt or innocence of the men, only that their constitutional rights had been violated during their arrest and conviction.

Though grateful to be free at last, Agustin Gomez Perez admitted that prison was “very difficult, very difficult indeed.”

“There inside the jail, everybody loses,” Gomez Perez said. “I saw it. Many lost their wives, their families, their homes. In the years I was in jail I lost my son. It was May 7, 2005. Twelve families were traveling in a truck to visit us in El Amate. They had an accident, and my 3-year-old son Juan Carlos was killed.”

Inmates expressed gratitude for church groups and international organizations that lent support to their families during their incarceration. Some groups supplied chicks, piglets and coffee plants for wives and children to raise on family plots. A volunteer team of doctors and nurses from Veracruz provides free treatment to prisoners and their dependents.

The prisoners said that one of the greatest helps was regular visits from their families. International Christian organizations raised money for bus fares and chartered vehicles to ensure that the prisoners’ families, who could not otherwise afford the travel, saw their husbands and fathers as often as possible.

Normalcy Not Returned

Despite being freed, the 20 men have yet to resume normal life with their families.

“When I left jail, I didn’t think I would be stuck half-way home,” Gomez Perez said. “I was thinking I would come home and see my wife and children. But we haven’t got there. We are left here half-way home.”

“Half-way home” for the released men is the market district in hot, bustling Tuxtla Gutierrez. They are living in makeshift half-way houses provided by the federal government, awaiting resettlement on land that state authorities have promised them.

Compass met with seven of the former inmates in a rented building they occupy with their wives, children and, in some cases, grandchildren. The families share windowless, sparsely furnished rooms with bare cement floors. Government food rations sustain them. While the half-way house is better than prison, it is nothing like the lush, green Chiapas mountains to which they long to return.

The men agreed to the relocation scheme because the farms they worked before going to prison have long since reverted to their heirs or, in some cases, neighbors. They welcome the assistance to get back on their feet financially.

Government officials, however, insist that the Acteal prisoners must relocate to new communities because they fear violent clashes will flare between them and their old rivals.

The seven freed men were unanimous in their opinion that such confrontations would not happen.

“In the first place, we do not agree with what the government is saying,” Gomez Perez said. “We hold no grudges against those who accused us. What happened, happened. We are not thinking vengeance.”

Perez Mendez agreed with Gomez Perez that the men feel no ill will against those who accused them and no resentment for what they suffered in jail.

“God does not want that we hold grudges or take vengeance against anyone,” he said. “There is not really much danger out there in our communities either. When people saw the news on television on Aug. 12 that we were getting out, they were happy. Well, now we hear that they found out we are not coming home, that we are here in Tuxtla, and some are saying, ‘Why don’t they come home? Tell them to come.’”

The Acteal prisoners have reason to hold grudges. Their attorneys say many of them were arrested in random police sweeps in the days following the massacre simply by being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Public indignation over the brutal slayings, fueled by numerous inflammatory press releases from Las Abejas, a civic group whose members were primary targets in the massacre, as well as by the left-leaning human rights organization Fray Bartolomé de las Casas, swelled to fever pitch in December 1997.

Authorities responded by arresting dozens of “suspects,” without evidence or warrants, to quell the outcry.

Some Acteal defendants found themselves accused of the crime by allies of the rebel Zapatista guerrilla army. A land dispute between Zapatista sympathizers and opponents of the rebels intensified during the waning months of 1997, claiming the lives of 18 indigenous men, the majority of them Protestant Christians. Attorneys say indifferent law enforcement officers failed even to investigate the murders, let alone arrest the perpetrators.

Frustrated with the authorities’ foot-dragging and desperate to defend themselves against further aggression, nine indigenous young men armed themselves and confronted their enemies on Dec. 22, 1997. The ensuing firefight and subsequent massacre at the Catholic hermitage in Acteal ended with 45 dead, many of them women and children who were participating in an Abejas-sponsored program that day.

Five of the nine armed men have confessed to participating in the Acteal shootings and insist they acted alone. Those five are serving prison terms in El Amate. Two others were arrested and released because they were minors at the time of the crime. Two more remain at large and, ironically, have reportedly come under the protection of the Zapatistas.

Las Abejas and its allies continue to assert that that the Acteal killings were carried out by “paramilitary” units equipped and assisted by the Mexican army. With the passage of time, many of those who hold this thesis have admitted that most of the Acteal prisoners did not, in fact, participate in the shooting. Nevertheless, they insist that until the “intellectual authors” of the atrocity come forward and confess, not one prisoner – even though innocent of the crime – should be released.

That strange logic has helped to keep more than 50 innocent men in prison for nearly 12 years.

“It is certain that we suffered an injustice for nearly 12 years,” Perez Mendez said. “A lot of people tell us that we are guilty. But as far as we are concerned, God knows all. We did not commit that crime.

He implored Christians to pray for the innocent men who have yet to be released.

Pray as well for we who are not at home in our communities,” he said. “I ask that you not forget us.”Report from Compass Direct News 

EGYPT: STABBING, BOMBING ATTACKS STRIKE NEAR TWO CHURCHES


Copt leaving sanctuary knifed in Minya; bomb explodes near venerable structure in Cairo.

ISTANBUL, May 22 (Compass Direct News) – In separate attacks in Egypt earlier this month, a Coptic Christian suffered severe stab wounds as he left a worship service in Minya, and a car-bombing outside a venerable church in Cairo disrupted a wedding.

Without provocation, three Muslims repeatedly stabbed Coptic Christian Girgis Yousry, 21, as the army conscript was leaving the gates of the church of Saint Mary in Minya, Upper Egypt on May 2, according to Copts United.

The assault left him with severe injuries to internal organs, and he was taken to the district hospital, where he was still receiving treatment at press time.

When Yousry’s father went to the police station to report the attack, the Intelligence Services officer in charge threw him out of the station. Three men implicated in the stabbing, Wael Mohammed Hagag, Mohammed Nasr Anwar and Shabaan Sayed Amin, were arrested on May 5 and have been given a 16-day initial incarceration while the investigation is underway.

All three men stand accused of attempted murder without premeditation, which carries a sentence of five to 15 years.

But Mamdouh Nakhla, president of the Al-Kalema Centre for Human Rights, said he thinks it unlikely that they will be convicted.

“From my experience over the last 15 years, in Minya in particular, all cases of attacks and murder against Christians either went without punishment and [the accused] were totally exonerated, or they were given suspended sentences,” he said.

Home to Egypt’s largest community of Copts (approximately 4 million), Minya is considered a hotbed of anti-Christian violence.

“I am aware of severe injustices happening to Christians who are being incarcerated for no reason,” said Nakhla. “This is my experience of Minya.”

Local sources told Compass that in the last few months there has been a wave of arrests of Christians who are held with no official charges. Sources spoke of cases where detainees are held for months in prison, where they are badly beaten and tortured.

“Police brutality is a widely practiced policy,” said one source, “especially in rural areas, group punishment and systematic intimidation and humiliation are expected practices against all citizens, Christians included.”

This month Compass learned of three illegal arrests of Christians that have taken place since November 2008. Two of the men who were detained have since been released.

“When people are released, they have been beaten and electrocuted so that they are hardly standing up,” said a local Christian.

Local church leaders believe recent pressure is a response to rumors of an increase in Christian converts in Egypt due to Christian satellite programming, although arrests go beyond converts to Coptic-born Christians.

Makeshift Bomb

In Cairo, a makeshift bomb placed under a car exploded outside a renowned Catholic church building in Zeitoun district on May 9, incinerating the vehicle but causing no injuries.

Panicked passersby called police when the small explosion caused the car to burst into flames outside Saint Mary Church, which Egypt’s Coptic community, citing numerous sightings of the Virgin Mary there in the late 1960s, considers a holy site.

Security forces arrived at the scene within minutes and sealed off the area. They found a second bomb, also planted beneath a car. Unable to disarm it, they were forced to detonate it in a controlled fashion, sources told Compass.

The explosion interrupted a wedding and a Bible study that were taking place inside the revered, historic building. Those in attendance were evacuated through a side gate as a precaution, reported Egyptian newspaper Watani. Boutros Gayed, the church’s priest, was unavailable for comment.

The bombs were rudimentary. Cell phones were used as detonators and placed with the explosive material into a bag containing shrapnel.

Police have yet to release information about possible suspects or motives, but newspaper Al-Masry Al-Youm has stated security forces are investigating possible links to a Hezbollah cell, which uses similar explosive devices.

A spokesman for Hezbollah has denied its involvement, stating that the cell was focused on supporting Palestinians in the Gaza Strip and has never had plans to carry out operations in Egypt.

The head of the Orthodox Church, Pope Shenouda, condemned the attack as criminal and pointed to sectarian motives.

“[The bombers] are attempting to tamper with the future of this homeland that they do not deserve to belong to,” he said, according to Egyptian newspaper Al-Ahram.

Similarities between this event and an explosion in February outside Al-Hussain Mosque, where one person was killed and 24 others wounded, have led to speculation that the attacks may be part of an attempt to inflame sectarian tensions.

Rumors also have been spread that “extremist Coptic groups” may have planted the devices in order to attract U.S. President Barack Obama’s attention to their plight on his planned June 4 visit to Cairo.

“This sounds like a ridiculous suggestion, because the Copts do not even respond to attacks against them,” said Ibrahim Habib, chairman of United Copts of Great Britain. “It is not in their agenda, and they have no precedence of violence.”

Report from Compass Direct News