Prospects of Religious Freedom Appear Grim in Islamic Maldives


Two years after political reforms, freedom of faith nowhere in sight.

MALÉ, Maldives, August 10 (CDN) — Visitors to this Islamic island nation get a sense of religious restrictions even before they arrive. The arrival-departure cards given to arriving airline passengers carry a list of items prohibited under Maldivian laws – including “materials contrary to Islam.”

After Saudi Arabia, the Maldives is the only nation that claims a 100-percent Muslim population. The more than 300,000 people in the Maldives, an Indian Ocean archipelago featuring 1,192 islets 435 miles southwest of Sri Lanka, are all Sunnis.

This South Asian nation, however, has more than 70,000 expatriate workers representing several non-Islamic religions, including Christianity.

Also, around 60,000 tourists, mainly from Europe, visit each year to enjoy the blue ocean and white beaches and normally head straight to one of the holiday resorts built on around 45 islands exclusively meant for tourism. Tourists are rarely taken to the other 200 inhabited islands where locals live.

Nearly one-third of the population lives in the capital city of Malé, the only island where tourists and Maldivians meet.

While the Maldivians do not have a choice to convert out of Islam or to become openly atheist, foreigners in the country can practice their religion only privately.

In previous years several Christian expats have either been arrested for attending worship in private homes or denied visas for several months or years on suspicion of being connected with mission agencies.

According to “liberal estimates,” the number of Maldivian Christians or seekers “cannot be more than 15,” said one source.

“Even if you engage any Maldivian in a discussion on Christianity and the person reports it to authorities, you can be in trouble,” the source said. “A Maldivian youth studying in Sri Lanka became a Christian recently, but when his parents came to know about it, they took him away. We have not heard from him since then.”

The source added that such instances are not uncommon in the Maldives.

“I wish I could attend church, but I am too scared to look for one,” said a European expat worker. “I have not even brought my Bible here; I read it online. I don’t want to take any chances.”

The British reportedly translated the Bible into the local language, Dhivehi, and made it available in the 19th century, as the Maldives was a British protectorate from 1887 to 1965. Today no one knows how the Dhivehi Bible “disappeared.”

“A new translation has been underway for years, and it is in no way near completion,” said the source who requested anonymity.

 

Religion Excluded from Rights

The 2008 constitution, adopted five years after a popular movement for human rights began, states that a “non-Muslim may not become a citizen of the Maldives.”

Abdulla Yameen, brother of the former dictator of the Maldives and leader of the People’s Alliance party, an ally of the opposition Dhivehi Raiyyathunge Party (Maldivian People’s Party or DRP), told Compass that the issue of religious freedom was “insignificant” for the Maldives.

“There’s no demand for it from the public,” Yameen said. “If you take a public poll, 99 percent of the citizens will say ‘no’ to religious freedom.”

Maldivians are passionate about their religion, Yameen added, referring to a recent incident in which a 37-year-old Maldivian citizen, Mohamed Nazim, was attacked after he told a gathering that he was not a Muslim. On May 28, before a crowd of around 11,000 Maldivians, Nazim told a visiting Indian Muslim televangelist, Zakir Naik, that although he was born to a practicing Muslim family, he was “struggling to believe in religions.”

He also asked Naik about his “verdict on Islam.” The question enraged an angry crowd, with many calling for Nazim’s death while others beat him. He received several minor injuries before police took him away.

“See how the public went after his [Nazim’s] throat,” said Yameen, who studied at Claremont Graduate University in California. When asked if such passion was good for a society, he replied, “Yes. We are an Islamic nation, and our religion is an important part of our collective identity.”

Asked if individuals had no rights, his terse answer was “No.” Told it was shocking to hear his views, he said, “We are also shocked when a nation legalizes gay sex.”

Mohamed Zahid, vice president of the Human Rights Commission of the Maldives, told Compass that the country has its own definition of human rights.

“It is to protect people’s rights under the sharia [Islamic law] and other international conventions with the exception of religious freedom,” he said. “We are a sovereign nation, and we follow our own constitution.”

Zahid and several other local sources told Compass that the issue of religious rights was “irrelevant” for Maldivians. “Not more than 100 people in the country want religious freedom,” Zahid said.

 

Politics of Religion

Former President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, a virtual dictator for 30 years until 2008, is generally held responsible for creating an atmosphere of religious restrictions in the Maldives, as he sought to homogenize religion in the country by introducing the state version of Sunni Islam. He also led a major crackdown on Christians.

The Protection of Religious Unity Act, enacted in 1994, was an endeavor to tighten the government’s control over mosques and all other Islamic institutions. The Gayoom administration even wrote Friday sermons to be delivered in mosques.

In 1998, Gayoom began a crackdown on alleged missionary activities.

“A radio station based out of India used to air Christian programs via the Seychelles, but the government came to know about it and ensured that they were discontinued with the help of the government in the Seychelles,” said a local Muslim source.

That year, Gayoom reportedly arrested around 50 Maldivians who were suspected to have converted to Christianity and deported 19 foreign workers accused of doing missionary work. A source said Gayoom apparently wanted to regain popularity at a time when his leadership was being questioned.

When the archipelago became a multi-party democracy in October 2008, new President Mohamed Nasheed, a former journalist and activist, was expected to pursue a liberal policy as part of the country’s reforms agenda.

Although Nasheed is the president, his party, the Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP), has only 28 members and the support of four independents in the 77-member People’s Majlis (Maldives’ unicameral Parliament). Gayoom, now in his 70s and the leader of the largest opposition party, the DRP, has a simple majority – which presents difficulties in governance. Nasheed pleads helplessness in implementing reforms, citing an intransigent opposition.

Today Gayoom’s party accuses President Nasheed of not being able to protect the country’s distinct identity and culture, which the opposition says are rooted in Islam. The Gayoom-led parliament recently sought to impeach the education minister for proposing to make Islam and Dhivehi lessons optional – rather than mandatory – in high school.

To pre-empt the impeachment move, the whole cabinet of Nasheed resigned on June 29, which caused a major political crisis that led to violent street protests. The Nasheed administration allegedly arrested some opposition members, including Gayoom’s brother, Yameen. Political tensions and uncertainties continued at press time.

Now that President Nasheed’s popularity is declining – due to perceptions that he has become as authoritarian as his predecessor – it is feared that, amid immense pressure by the opposition to follow conservative policies, he might begin to follow in Gayoom’s footsteps.

 

Growing Extremism

Both the ruling and opposition parties admit that Islamic extremism has grown in the country. In October 2007, a group of young Maldivians engaged government security forces in a fierce shootout on Himandhoo Island.

Nasheed’s party alleges that Gayoom’s policy of promoting the state version of Sunni Islam created an interest to discern “true Islam,” with extremists from Pakistan stepping in to introduce “jihadism” in the Maldives. The DRP, on the other hand, says that behind the growth of extremism is the current government’s liberal policy of allowing Muslims of different sects to visit the Maldives to preach and give lectures, including the conservative Sunni sect of “Wahhabis.”

Until the early 1990s, Maldivian women would hardly wear the black burqa (covering the entire body, except the eyes and hands), and no men would sport a long beard – outward marks of Wahhabi Muslims, said the Muslim source, adding that “today the practice has become common.”

Still, Islam as practiced in the Maldives is pragmatic and unlike that of Saudi Arabia, he said. “People here are liberal and open-minded.”

As extremism grows, though, it is feared that radical Islamists may go to any extent to extra-judicially punish anyone suspected of being a missionary or having converted away from Islam, and that they can pressure the government to remain indifferent to religious freedom.

How long will it take for the Maldives to allow religious freedom?

“Maybe after the Maldivian government legalizes gay sex,” the Muslim source joked.

Report from Compass Direct News

European Court Rules Against Turkey’s Religion ID


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Step in the Right Direction

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

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

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

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

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

International Implications

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Report from Compass Direct News 

IRAN: AUTHORITIES TIGHTEN GRIP ON CHRISTIANS AS UNREST ROILS


Waves of arrests hit church networks; judge asks converts from Islam to recant.

LOS ANGELES, August 11 (Compass Direct News) – Amid a violent crackdown on protestors and a purge of opponents within the Iranian government, more than 30 Christians were arrested in the last two weeks near Tehran and in the northern city of Rasht.

Two waves of arrests near Tehran happened within days of each other, and while most of those detained – all converts from Islam – were held just a day for questioning, a total of eight Christians still remain in prison.

On July 31 police raided a special Christian meeting 25 kilometers (15 miles) north of Tehran in the village of Amameh in the area of Fashan. A Compass source said about 24 Christians, all converts from Islam, had gathered in a private home. In the afternoon police squads in both plain clothes and uniform raided and arrested everyone present.

“Many people stormed the villa, and in the same day they took everything,” said the source, a Christian Iranian who requested anonymity.

All present were taken by private car to their residences, where police took all their passports, documents, cash, CDs, computers and mobile phones, and from there to the police station.

“There were many cars so they could take each person with a car to their house from the meeting,” said the source. “Think of how many cars were there to arrest them. And they took all their books, PCs, CDs mobile phones, everything.”

While most of them were released the same evening, seven of them – Shahnam Behjatollah, and six others identified only as Shaheen, Maryam, Mobinaa, Mehdi, Ashraf and Nariman – all remain in detention in an unknown location. They have no contact with their family members.

Police have questioned each of their families and told them to prepare to pay bail. In the case of Behjatollah, for whom police had a warrant, authorities showed his family the official order for his arrest and told them they “knew all about him,” according to the source. Behjatollah is 34 years old, married and has a 6-year-old daughter.

The second wave of arrests of some of the same Christians near Tehran took place on Friday (Aug. 7).

“They brought the released members for interrogation to the secret police again, to get more information about their movements,” said the source.

In Rasht, a total of eight Christians belonging to the same network were arrested on July 29 and 30 in two separate rounds of arrest. Seven were released, while one, a male, remains in the city’s prison. Compass sources were unable to comment on the conditions of their arrest.

Two Women Asked to Recant

On Sunday (Aug. 9) two Christian women appeared before a judge who asked them if they would deny their newfound faith and return to Islam.

Maryam Rostampour, 27, and Marzieh Amirizadeh Esmaeilabad, 30, have been held in the notorious Evin prison since March 5 accused of “acting against state security” and “taking part in illegal gatherings.” In a short court session, the judge asked them if they were going to deny their faith and return to Islam, reported the Farsi Christian News Network (FCNN).

As both women refused to recant their faith, the judge sent them back to their prison cells “to think about it,” according to a source who spoke with family members.

“When they said, ‘Think about it,’ it means you are going back to jail,” said the source. “This is something we say in Iran. It means: ‘Since you’re not sorry, you’ll stay in jail for a long time, and maybe you’ll change your mind.’”

The source said the first goal of judges in such cases is usually to make “apostates” deny their faith through threats or by sending them back to prison for a longer time.

“This is what they said to Mehdi Dibaj, who was in prison for 10 years and martyred in 1994,” said the source about one of Iran’s well-known Christian martyrs. “The charge against them is apostasy [leaving Islam].”

FCNN reported that in the last five months the women have been unwell and have lost much weight. Esmaeilabad suffers from spinal pain, an infected tooth and intense headaches and is in need of medical attention. None has been provided so far.

With a draft penal code that may include an article mandating death for apostates in accordance to sharia (Islamic law) expected to be reviewed once again this fall when the parliamentary session begins, experts on Iran fear things may get worse for the country’s converts from Islam.

Dr. Wahied Wahdat-Hagh, a senior fellow with the European Foundation for Democracy, wrote in http://www.Iranpresswatch.org last month that false hopes have arisen from a statement by the chairman of the Majlis Legal Affairs Committee, Hojatoleslam Ali Schahroki, that a provision for mandatory death penalty for apostates had been stricken from the bill. The Council of Guardians and Iran’s Supreme Leader, he wrote, have the final say on capital punishment for leaving Islam.

“Recent political events in Iran have ushered in a new phase in the emergence of a totalitarian dictatorship,” he wrote. “Pressure on Iranian Christians is growing just as foreign powers are being blamed for rioting that broke out due to the electoral fraud. The argument on the influence of foreign powers is well known to Iranian Christians.”

Fury

Public allegations that detainees have been tortured, abused, killed and most recently – according to a top opposition official – raped in custody have fueled fury in Iran and spurred powerful conservative Ali Larijani to comment that a parliament committee would investigate the reports, reported The Associated Press.

At least four senior Intelligence Ministry figures were fired in an effort to purge officials who are opposed to the crackdown on protestors and opposition following last month’s disputed presidential elections, the AP reported yesterday.

Iranian sources said that the long-standing rift in the government between liberal and conservative factions is widening and becoming more apparent, and the two sides are in a battle of words and ideas in mass media for the first time in Iran’s history.

“Everything is in the newspaper,” the Christian Iranian source told Compass. “We have never had such a thing … the point is that now all these old problems that were inside the government between liberals and fundamentalists are coming out, and we can see them on TV, radio, newspaper, the public media in the country. It isn’t something we’re guessing anymore. It’s something you can see and read.”

The source said the crackdown on protestors and recent mass arrests are the sign of a weak government trying to show it is in control of a country roiled by discontent.

“Everyone now is saying is that the government is having problems inside so they have lost the control,” the source said. “So what they did in the last couple of weeks is that they arrested people … minority religions, Baha’i and Christians.”

On July 31, a Christian man traveling overseas from the Tehran International airport was stopped for questioning because he was wearing a black shirt, a Compass source said. The colors black and green have become associated with opposition to the government, and those wearing them are suspected of ideologically agreeing with the protestors.

The authorities found his Bible after a questioning and searching. He was taken to a room where there were others waiting, all wearing green and black shirts. Authorities confiscated his passport and have opened a case against him for carrying the Bible, said the source.

Although there has been no mention of Christians being tortured in the most recent arrests, an increase in executions of persons under the commonly fabricated charges of drug abuse and trafficking bodes ill for the future of those in Iranian prisons. As detainees are allowed neither legal counsel nor communication with their families, their conditions are nearly unknown.

On Friday (Aug. 7) Amnesty International reported an average of two executions a day since the disputed presidential elections held on June 12.

“In just over 50 days, we recorded no less than 115 executions, that is an average of more than two each day,” said Irene Khan, Secretary General of Amnesty International. “This represents a significant increase, even compared to the appallingly high rate of executions that has been so long a feature of the human rights scene in Iran.”

The report described the government’s attempt to suppress the mass “and largely peaceful” protests as brutal and also expressed concerns that those who were executed were likely to have been denied fair trials. Most of those executed are said to have been convicted of drug-smuggling or related offences. Authorities have not released the names of 24 prisoners executed on Wednesday (Aug. 5) in the Rejai Shahr Prison in Karaj.

Report from Compass Direct News 

IRAN: MANDATORY DEATH PENALTY FOR ‘APOSTATES’ SCRAPPED


Proposed amendment reportedly shot down after international outcry.

LOS ANGELES, June 29 (Compass Direct News) – A member of Iran’s Parliament reportedly revealed last week that the country’s Parliamentary Committee has stricken the mandatory death penalty for those who leave Islam from proposals for an amended penal code.

Citing a BBC Persian news service report on Tuesday (June 23), United Kingdom-based Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW) announced on Friday (June 26) that a member of Iran’s Legal and Judicial Committee of Parliament, Ali Shahrokhi, had told the Iranian state news agency (IRNA) of the decision to eliminate the mandatory death penalty amendment, which had drawn international protests.

The Parliamentary Committee had come under intense international pressure to drop clauses from the Islamic Penal Code Bill that allowed stoning and made death the mandatory punishment for apostates.

The new penal code was originally approved in September 2008 by a preliminary parliamentary vote of 196-7.

In Friday’s statement, CSW said that the bill must now pass through a final parliamentary vote before being sent to Iran’s most influential body, the Guardian Council, which will rule on it.

The council is made up of six conservative theologians appointed by Iran’s Supreme Leader and six jurists nominated by the judiciary and approved by Parliament. This body has the power to veto any bill it deems inconsistent with the constitution and Islamic law.

The Christian and Baha’i communities of Iran are most likely to be affected by this decision. Iran has been criticized for its treatment of Baha’is, Zoroastrians and Christians, who have all suffered under the current regime.

Joseph Grieboski, president of the Institute on Religion and Public Policy, said the timing of the announcement of the decision during protests over contested elections might not be coincidental.

“Were the regime to maintain [Iranian President Mahmoud] Ahmadinejad’s presidency then pass and enforce a restrictive penal code, the international pressure on Iran would be unbearable for the regime,” said Grieboski. “I do not consider it a sign of opening up. Instead, I see it as a sign of self-preservation.”

Security Backlash

Huge protests over the election results demonstrated considerable opposition to the Iranian government’s heavy-handed tactics, and although the official churches have taken no official stance, many Christians have supported the opposition, according to sources connected to social networking sites.

In the face of the massive protests, a spokesman for the foreign ministry, Hassan Qashqavi, released a statement condemning Western involvement in Iranian affairs and accusing the BBC and Voice of America networks of spreading “anarchy and vandalism.”

This passing of blame bodes ill for minorities in the country, including Christians, whom the Iranian government sees as pawns of the West; they could expect even harsher treatment in a feared post-election clamp-down.

“Since minorities, especially Baha’is and Christians, are often seen as fronts for the West, we can expect that they will feel the greatest backlash by the regime during the protests, and I would argue an even worse crackdown on them if Ahmadinejad and [Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali] Khamenei come out of this,” said Grieboski.

An Iranian Christian who requested anonymity told Compass that both Christians and Iranians as a whole were tired of the dictatorial regime and asked for prayers for relief.

“The people are really tired, they have no hope, mentally, financially, spiritually, it is really difficult to live in Iran,” the source said. “You can’t have a private life, you can’t make a decision about what you believe, women can’t even decide what to wear. We just pray for the whole nation.”

The Iranian source was reticent to predict how the government might react to Christians following the elections but said that if there were a reaction, they could be among the first victims.

“So what the reaction of the government will be we can’t be 100 percent sure,” the source said, “but they could have a very radical reaction.”

Iranian Christians Maryam Rostampour, 27, and Marzieh Amirizadeh Esmaeilabad, 30, who were arrested on March 5 for their Christian activities, are still held in the notorious Evin Prison. The facility has drawn criticism for its human rights violations and executions in recent years.

Compass has learned that the women have been placed in solitary confinement.

Report from Compass Direct News

IRAN: TWO CHRISTIAN WOMEN IMPRISONED


Held with no legal counsel for over a month, they suffer illness in notorious prison.

LOS ANGELES, April 13 (Compass Direct News) – Accused of “acting against state security” and “taking part in illegal gatherings,” two Iranian Christian women have been held in a Tehran prison for over a month in a crowded cell with no access to legal representation.

Amnesty International, in an appeal for urgent action last week, reported that authorities have made the accusations known but have imprisoned the women without filing official charges. The organization called on Iranian authorities to release them and expressed concern for their health.

Maryam Rostampour, 27, and Marzieh Amirizadeh Esmaeilabad, 30, who were active in church activities and distributing Bibles according to Amnesty’s appeal, were arrested on March 5. They are being held in the detention center of Evin Prison, a facility that has drawn criticism for its human rights violations and executions in recent years. Amnesty’s appeal included a call to urge Iranian officials to ensure that the women are not being tortured.

Based on a telephone conversation between Esmaeilabad and a third party on March 28, Amnesty reported that Esmaeilabad said both are suffering from infection and high fever and had not received adequate medical care. The women continue to be detained in an overcrowded cell with 27 other women. Amnesty said they “may be prisoners of conscience, detained solely on account of their religious beliefs.”

The women are allowed a one-minute call each day and a weekly visit from family. Authorities have informed their family members that the women are accused of “acting against state security” and “taking part in illegal gatherings,” according to the report, and that they would be released after payment of a $400,000 bail. The families have presented the title deeds of their homes as bail but are still waiting for approval from the judge.

Initially the Ministry of Intelligence summoned one of the women, and then took her to the apartment the two shared. There they were officially arrested, and authorities confiscated computers, books and Bibles. The two women were interrogated and held at different police stations.

On March 18 they appeared before Branch 2 of the Islamic Revolutionary Court in Tehran and subsequently transferred to Evin Prison, said the report.

Even if the women are released on bail, they still have to stand trial. Accusations have not included “apostasy,” or leaving Islam, though investigations are ongoing. It is not known whether the women are converts from Islam.

Last September the Iranian Parliament approved review of a new penal code calling for a mandatory death sentence for “apostates.” Under current law death sentences for apostasy have been issued only under judicial interpretations of sharia (Islamic law).

Under the new penal code, male “apostates” would be executed, while females would receive life sentences. The new code was sent to Iran’s most influential body, the Guardian Council, which is expected to rule on it. The council is made up of six conservative theologians appointed by Iran’s Supreme Leader and six jurists nominated by the judiciary and approved by Parliament. This council has the power to veto any bill it deems inconsistent with the constitution and Islamic law.

Converts to Christianity in Iran risk harassment, arrest and attack from authorities even though Article 23 of the Iranian Constitution grants that individual beliefs are private and no one can be “molested or taken to task” for holding them. Iran has also signed the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which states that everyone shall have the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion.

“This right shall include freedom to have or to adopt a religion or belief of his choice, and freedom, either individually or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in worship, observance, practice and teaching,” the covenant states.

The last Iranian Christian convert from Islam executed by the Iranian government was Hossein Soodmand in 1990. He was accused of working as “an American spy.” Since then at least six Protestant pastors have been assassinated by unknown killers.

Report from Compass Direct News

 

IRAN: CASE STILL OPEN AGAINST RELEASED CHRISTIANS


Charges still unknown; another convert faces possible ‘apostasy’ accusation.

LOS ANGELES, February 9 (Compass Direct News) – Arrested on Jan. 21 in Tehran, converts from Islam Jamal Galishorani and his wife Nadereh Jamali have been released on bail with an open case, though charges against them are still unknown, sources told Compass.

Authorities released Galishorani yesterday, and officials at Evin Prison freed his wife last week. Iranian Christians and international human rights agencies have feared that they could be charged with “apostasy,” or leaving Islam – potentially punishable by execution in the Shia Islamic republic.

A third Christian also arrested in Tehran on Jan. 21, Armenian Hamik Khachikian, was released after one week without charges.

The Galishoranis and Khachikian are members of Tehran’s Assemblies of God Church, an officially registered church, and were said to have held Bible studies in their home. The arrests of the Galishoranis and Khachikian, according to a source, are just part of the government’s increased harassment of Iran’s Christians.

“The pressure is continuous,” the source said. “In the past it came and went with waves.”

 

Possible Apostasy Charge

Sources told Compass that Mahmoude Azadeh, a 55-year-old Christian who has been incarcerated in Mashhad since last August, could face charges of apostasy.

He is expected to learn of exact charges, which also could include forming a Christian house group and propagating Christianity, at a Mashhad court hearing on Thursday (Feb. 12).

Azadeh has been in jail since security agents raided his house church in Nishapur; five others arrested with him were released shortly after. Azadeh has spent two months of his time in jail in solitary confinement, the sources said.

He was first arrested in June 2007 in Nishapur for two days, and after he and his family moved to Isfahan, authorities arrested him there in September of the same year, a source said.

In 2008, there were 73 documented arrests of Christians in Iran. A source working closely with churches in Iran expects there to be more arrests this year. A high-profile church leader was also taken into custody this year, the source said, and is still being held.

“With elections coming this year, there will be more arrests,” the source said. “The regime rules through fear, and they want Christians to be afraid.”

In addition to the approaching spring elections, the source said, exaggerated estimates of conversions by well-intentioned ministries outside of Iran may be contributing to reasons for the government’s increased scrutiny of the church.

“One minister in America claimed that in 2008 alone, 800,000 Iranians came to Christ,” the source said, adding that the government viewed such a high number of converts as a genuine threat to its rule and began to clamp down on churches.

The source noted that many Iranians wear Zoroastrian symbols and crucifixes merely as acts of rebellion against the government. “This doesn’t always mean that they are true believers,” he said.

The recent spate of arrests also included Baha’is.

As many Iranian Christians are either in prison or awaiting trial, the government continues to debate the adoption of a proposed penal code that would mandate the death penalty for apostates. The Iranian Parliament approved the new penal code last September, and the Guardian Council has yet to rule on it.

The council is made up of six conservative theologians appointed by Iran’s Supreme Leader and six jurists nominated by the judiciary and approved by Parliament. In the past, death sentences for apostasy were issued only under judicial interpretations of sharia (Islamic law).

The proposed legislation in the Iranian Parliament would make the death penalty mandatory for male apostates, while women convicted of apostasy would receive life in prison at most.

Many Iranian Christians believe the arrests in January mark the beginning of a renewed crackdown.

Report from Compass Direct News  

IRAN: THREE CHRISTIANS ARRESTED FROM HOMES IN TEHRAN


‘Continuously high’ wave of arrests increases; whereabouts, charges unknown.

LOS ANGELES, January 23 (Compass Direct News) – Three Christians from two different families were arrested from their homes Wednesday morning (Jan. 21) and are being held without charges, sources told Compass.

Authorities took Jamal Ghalishorani, 49, and his wife Nadereh Jamali from their home in Tehran between 7 and 8 a.m., about a half hour after arresting Hamik Khachikian, an Armenian Christian also living in Tehran. Ghalishorani and his wife are Christian converts from Islam, considered “apostasy” in Iran and potentially punishable by death.

Christian sources told Compass that Ghalishorani converted to Christianity 30 years ago, and his wife received Christ about 15 years ago. They have one child, a 13-year-old daughter, while Khachikian has two children, a 16-year-old son and an 11-year-old daughter. Authorities have not told the families of the charges against those arrested or their whereabouts.

The three arrested Christians belong to house churches, source said, and they hold jobs and are not supported as clergy. Police also took books and computers from the families’ homes.

The arrests come as part of a tsunami of arrests in the past several months, the sources said.

“We don’t know why the pressure is continuously high, but we see that it is increasing,” said one source. “The government does it to the Baha’i people as well – there are more arrests in the last several months among them than in maybe the whole 30 years before.”

Arrests and pressure on Christians from authorities have ramped up even further in the past few months, the source said, adding that the reasons were unclear.

Another source, however, said the arrests are part of a concerted, nationwide government plan.

“We are quite sure that these arrests are part of a bigger operation from the government,” the source said. “Maybe up to 50 people were arrested. In Tehran alone already some 10 people were arrested – all on the same day, January 21.”

Sources noted that whereas past waves of intense harassment and arrests of Christians eventually have subsided, recent pressure has been “continuously high,” with reports of arrests in almost every month of 2008.

“In the past there have been waves of incredible pressure, but then it seemed to calm down a bit sometimes,” said one source. “Then we had the feeling pressure came and went, but now it is continuously ongoing.”

The families of those arrested fear for their safety. Khachikian’s wife is “very confused, she has no idea where her husband is,” said the source. “Relatives are taking care of the daughter of Jamal and Nadereh’s, but of course she’s very anxious about what will happen to her parents.”

The arrests are particularly disturbing in light of the Iranian parliament’s approval last September of a new penal code calling for a mandatory death sentence for “apostates,” or those who leave Islam. In the past death sentences for apostasy were issued only under judicial interpretations of sharia (Islamic law).

Under the new penal code, male “apostates” would be executed, while females would receive life sentences. The new code was to be sent to Iran’s most influential body, the Guardian Council, which will rule on it. The council is made up of six conservative theologians appointed by Iran’s Supreme Leader and six jurists nominated by the judiciary and approved by parliament. This body has the power to veto any bill it deems inconsistent with the constitution and Islamic law.

The last Iranian Christian convert from Islam executed by the Iranian government was Hossein Soodmand in 1990. He was accused of working as “an American spy.” Since then at least six Protestant pastors have been assassinated by unknown killers.  

Report from Compass Direct News

EGYPT: JUDGE EJECTS LAWYER FOR CHRISTIAN FROM COURT


Dispute over evidence stalls bid by convert from Islam to change official ID.

ISTANBUL, January 13 (Compass Direct News) – An attempt by an Egyptian convert from Islam to legally change the religion listed on his identification card to “Christian” hit a setback on Jan. 6 when a judge ordered security personnel to remove his lawyer from court.

Attorney Nabil Ghobreyal was expelled from the courtroom at Cairo’s Administrative Court following a heated argument with Judge Mohammad Ahmad Atyia.

The dispute arose after Atyia refused to acknowledge the existence of legal documents detailing the successful attempt of a Muslim man to convert to the Baha’i faith. Ghobreyal had planned to submit the court records of the decision in support of his case.

The convert from Islam who is trying to legally convert to Christianity, Maher Ahmad El-Mo’otahssem Bellah El-Gohary, first submitted his request to alter the religious status stated on his ID in August 2008. He follows Muhammad Hegazy as only the second Egyptian Christian convert raised as a Muslim to request such a change.

El-Gohary received Christ in his early 20s. Now 56, he decided to legally change his religious affiliation out of concern over the effects that his “unofficial Christianity” has on his family. He said he was particularly concerned about his daughter, Dina Maher Ahmad Mo’otahssem, 14; though raised as a Christian, when she reaches age 16 she will be issued an identification card stating her religion as Muslim unless her father’s appeal is successful.

At school, she has been refused the right to attend Christian religious classes offered to Egypt’s Christian minorities and has been forced to attend Muslim classes. Religion is a mandatory part of the Egyptian curriculum.

El-Gohary also has charged that his nephew was denied a position in state security agencies because of his uncle’s religious “double life.”

“Why should my family pay for my choices?” said El-Gohary in a report by The Free Copts.

No date has been set for resumption of court proceedings, which, due to the dispute, will reconvene under a different judge.

Ghobreyal said he plans to submit a complaint to the High Administrative Court requesting an investigation of Atyia and the expulsion from court. “I am willing to continue the fight,” Ghobreyal told Compass through a translator, saying he remains hopeful of a positive outcome.

Despite a constitution that grants religious freedom, legal conversion from Islam to another faith remains unprecedented. Hegazy, who filed his case on Aug. 2, 2007, was denied the right to officially convert in a Jan. 29 court ruling that declared it was against Islamic law for a Muslim to leave Islam.

The judge based his decision on Article II of the Egyptian constitution, which enshrines Islamic law, or sharia, as the source of Egyptian law. The judge said that, according to sharia, Islam is the final and most complete religion and therefore Muslims already practice full freedom of religion and cannot return to an older belief (Christianity or Judaism).

The seminal nature of the El-Gohary and Hegazy cases is part of what makes them so controversial, according to Gamal Eid, director of the Arabic Network for Human Rights Information.

“First, there is no experience – this is a very new question, it has made judges and lawyers confused,” he said. “The second thing is that many judges are very religious, for many of them it is based on their religion, their thoughts; the law itself allows for people to convert, so that’s what we’re trying to do, have a decision based on law not on sharia.”

Eid attributed much of the reluctance to grant conversion to this religious bias.

“If the Minister of the Interior respected the law, we would not need to go to court,” he said. “The law says clearly that people can change their address, their career, their religion, they only have to sign an application and then they can have a new ID; the law allows people to convert from any religion to another.”

Egyptian President Anwar Sadat amended the constitution in 1980 to make sharia the main source of legislation in order to bolster support from Islamists against his secular and leftist rivals. Legal experts say there are two views of how sharia is to influence Egyptian law: That it is to be enforced directly in all government spheres, or that it is only to influence shaping of law by legislators and is not to be literally enforced by courts or other bodies.  

Report from Compass Direct News

NIGERIA: SIX PASTORS KILLED, 40 CHURCHES RAZED IN JOS VIOLENCE


As smoke clears, mayhem ignited by Muslim attacks leaves 25,000 people displaced.

JOS, Nigeria, December 11 (Compass Direct News) – The murderous rioting sparked by Muslim attacks on Christians and their property on Nov. 28-29 left six pastors dead, at least 500 other people killed and 40 churches destroyed, according to church leaders.

More than 25,000 persons have been displaced in the two days of violence, according to the National Emergency Management Agency (NEMA).

What began as outrage over suspected vote fraud in local elections quickly hit the religious fault line that quakes from time to time in this city located between the Islamic north and Christian south, as angry Muslims took aim at Christian sites rather than at political targets. Police and troops reportedly killed about 400 rampaging Muslims in an effort to quell the unrest, and Islamists shot, slashed or stabbed to death most of more than 100 Christians.

Among Christians killed was Joseph Yari of the Evangelical Church of West Africa (ECWA), Angwan Clinic,Tudun-Wada in Jos. On Nov. 28, his wife Mary Yari told Compass, he had returned from his workplace along Ibrahim Taiwo Road saying he was going to a Baptist church that Muslims were setting on fire.

“Shortly after my husband left, I heard anguished cries, only to be told that my husband had been shot dead on the premises of the church,” Yari said.

Her grief notwithstanding, she said she had forgiven the killers, as “they were ignorant of the crime they have committed because they do not know Jesus Christ.”

The Rev. Emmanuel Kyari, pastor of Christ Baptist Church, Tudun-Wada, told Compass that Joseph Yari died helping other Christians who repelled Muslim fanatics bent on burning down his church building.

“Yari was standing beside my wife when he was shot by Muslims,” Rev. Kyari said. “In addition to Yari who was killed, there were also three other Christians who were shot, and two died instantly.”

Among the six slain pastors was the Rev. Ephraim Masok, pastor of the ECWA Church in the Rikkos area of Jos, who had moved his family out of harm’s way and was returning to the church premises when Muslim fanatics attacked and killed him. Rev. Masok was buried on Saturday (Dec. 6).

A Church of Christ in Nigeria (COCIN) leader in the Chawlyap area identified only as Pastor James was killed in the rioting that left Jos skies covered in smoke, as was the Rev. Bulus Tsetu of an Assemblies of God church. Names of the other three slain clergymen from Roman Catholic, Baptist and Deeper Life Bible churches were not readily available, but their deaths were confirmed, according to church leaders.

Rev. Kyari and the Rev. Benjamin Nasara of ECWA Plateau Church provided the casualty figures to Compass.

Among the 40 destroyed churches in Jos, they said, was the ECWA Church, Rikkos; Kaunar Baptist Church, Rikkos; Christ Baptist Church, Tudun-Wada; Nasarawa Baptist Church; Adebayo Street First Baptist Church; Sarkin Mangu COCIN Church; ECWA Church Kunga; Victory Baptist Church, Gofang; Deeper Life Bible Church, Ungwar Rimi; and Emmanuel Baptist Church, also at Ungwar Rimi.

Other Christians killed by Muslims in the rioting, the church leaders said, were Nenfort Danbaba of the ECWA Plateau Church and Oluwaleke Olalekan Akande of the Anglican Church from Ibadan, in southwestern Nigeria, who was on duty with the National Youth Service Program in Jos at the time of the crisis.

At the funeral service of Akande on Tuesday (Dec. 9), the Rev. Joseph Olatunde Alamu of the Cathedral Church of St. David, Kudeti, Ibadan, said young Christian men killed in the violence did not die in vain.

“Like the blood of Abel cried out for justice, they will not die in vain,” he said. “God will revenge.”

Akande’s parents also spoke at his funeral service.

“God knows why it happened that way,” Akande’s father, 84-year-old Pa J.A. Akande, said. “Oluwaleke, you will be remembered always for your love, steadfastness, courage, obedience and other attributes of your life with which you were endowed by your Maker. Sleep well in the bosom of your Maker.”

Akande’s mother, Madam Akande, told those attending the funeral that her 28-year-old son was too young to die.

“Little did I realize that your telephone call to me on Thursday, the 27th of November, 2008 would be our last conversation,” she said. “No leaf can fall from the tree without the authority, power and knowledge of God. And so I believe you shall rest peacefully in the bosom of our Lord Jesus.”

Akande was a graduate of physics/electronics at The Polytechnic, Ibadan, doing his one-year mandatory national service to Plateau State when he was murdered.

Rev. Nasara of ECWA Plateau Church told Compass that church history shows “the blood of the martyrs brings about the birth of the church. We see these ones who have gone ahead of us as the seeds that God is using to make the church in Jos North and Plateau state to germinate.”

 

Pre-Meditated Violence?

Rioting erupted in Jos in the wee hours of Nov. 28 while results of local council elections held the previous day were still being awaited. In the Nov. 27 elections, according to reports, Muslims in Jos North who suspected vote fraud – specifically, the late arrival of election materials to polling sites – raised a lament, and by 1 a.m. on Nov. 28 Muslim youth had begun burning tires, schools and churches.

The killing of non-Muslims followed in the early morning. Muslims began attacking Christians in areas such as Nasarawa Gwong, Congo-Russia, Rikkos, Ali Kazaure, Bauchi Road, Dutse Uku, Ungwar Rimi, and Tudun-Wada. Commands to defy authorities and join the “jihad” blared from a mosque loudspeaker in the Dilimi area, according to advocacy group Christian Solidarity Worldwide, including instructions to ignore a night-time curfew and attack anew.

Authorities’ efforts to halt the rampage, including a Muslim assault on a police barracks, accounted for the estimated 400 corpses reportedly deposited in a key mosque, according to CSW, citing security sources.

Christians tried to defend their lives and properties, and non-Muslim youths reportedly began retaliatory attacks on Muslims, mosques and Muslim houses in the early morning. The Nigerian military arrived before noon to try to rein in the mayhem, which continued into the night.

At the end of two days, hundreds of persons from both sides of the religious divide were killed, with others injured and hospitalized at Jos University Teaching Hospital, ECWA Evangel Hospital, OLA Hospital and Plateau State Specialist Hospital.

More than 25,000 displaced persons have taken refuge at Rukuba Military barracks, NDLEA (Nigerian Drug Law Enforcement Agency) Barracks and Police Headquarters and Barracks, according to NEMA.

Rev. Nasara said the displacement of people who have lost their homes has had a severe affect on Jos churches.

“Right now I have two families and some Christian students from the university here, making up a total of 12 persons, who were displaced, and I have to take them in here in my house,” he said.

The Most Rev. Ignatius Kaigama, Roman Catholic archbishop of Jos Archdiocese and Plateau state chairman of the Christian Association of Nigeria, said in a statement that fanatical Muslims ignited the violence by attacking Christians.

“We were greatly taken aback by the turn of events in Jos – we thought it was a political issue, but from all indications it is not so,” he said. “We were surprised at the way some of our churches and properties were attacked and some of our faithful and clergy killed. The attacks were carefully planned and executed. The questions that bog our minds are: Why were churches and clergy attacked and killed? Why were politicians and political party offices not attacked, if it was a political conflict?”

Businesses and property of innocent civilians were destroyed, he added.

“We strongly feel that it was not political but a pre-meditated act under the guise of elections,” Kaigama said.

Plateau Attorney-General and Commissioner for Justice Edward Pwajok said in a statement on Tuesday (Dec. 9) that 500 persons had been arrested in connection with the violence, and that they will appear for trial at the High Court of Justice and Magistrates Courts.

On Sept. 7, 2001, religious conflict in Jos resulted in more than four years of bloodshed, killing thousands of people and displacing thousands of others. In 2004 an estimated 700 people died in Yelwa, also in Plateau state, during Christian-Muslim clashes.  

Report from Compass Direct News