Despite Democracy, Christians in Bhutan Remain Underground


Open practice of faith could lead to more persecution, they fear.

THIMPHU, Bhutan, January 25 (CDN) — In this distant and isolated nation in the eastern Himalayas, known as the “Land of the Thunder Dragon,” almost everything looks uniformly Buddhist.

Most men and women in the landlocked country between India and China wear their national dress, and all the buildings – with their sloping walls, trefoil-shaped windows and pitched roofs – look alike, as if they were Buddhist monasteries.

There are no visible signs of Christians’ tiny presence, but they do exist. Christians, whose only official identity falls in the “others” category in the census, are estimated to range in number between 3,000 and 6,000. And they live out their Christian lives underground – no church buildings, Christian cemeteries or Christian bookstores are yet allowed.

Of Bhutan’s more than 670,000 people, 75 percent of them practice Buddhism, according to the 2005 census. Around 22 percent are Hindu, mostly of Nepali origin.

An absolute monarchy for over 100 years, Bhutan became a democratic, constitutional monarchy in March 2008, as per the wish of the former King of Bhutan, Jigme Singye Wangchuck, who served from 1972 to 2006. It has been nearly two years since democracy arrived in Druk Yul, as the country is known in its national language, Dzongkha. But little has changed for Christians.

If there is anything open about Christianity, it is the acknowledgement of Christians’ presence in the national press, which was born after the advent of democracy.

“A journalist telephoned and asked me if I was converting local people,” said a middle-aged pastor clad in Gho, the men’s national uniform, a knee-length gown woven with colorful wool. “I wondered how she got my phone number. Maybe a Christian friend of mine passed it on.”

The pastor requested anonymity – the same request that high government officials made, no matter how trivial the matters they divulged.

The pastor said he told the journalist he did not pay people to convert. “People choose to become Christians out of their own free will,” he said. “I am working within the constitution of the country.”

Still a Monarchy

Asked why the church remained underground in spite of a provision for religious freedom in the new constitution, the pastor replied, “Virtually, Bhutan is still a monarchy. The time is yet to come when we have the assurance of protection.”

His wife, wearing the ankle-length woollen skirt or Kira that is the national dress for women, smiled at what was perhaps a naïve question – the power of the monarchy is beyond question. By law all Bhutanese citizens wear the national dress in schools and certain public, government and religious places. Non-compliance can result in fines or imprisonment.

Asked what would happen if authorities found out about their underground church, the pastor said that before 2008 they would have been arrested because Christianity was banned.

“Even now, there will be serious repercussions,” he said. “What exactly will happen, I do not know. But no Christian worker will take the risk to find it out the hard way.”

To construct any building, Bhutanese citizens require a licence from the government.

“As far as the governance is concerned, the Royal Government of Bhutan is very caring,” he said. “We get free education and free medicine and hospitalization, and there is a sense of security because the crime rate is very low. But asking for a licence for a church is beyond our imagination as of now.”

The present king, Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck (selected in 2006 but not crowned until 2008) rules absolutely, said local Buddhists, though not with any regret.

“It’s democracy, but still not a democracy,” said a civil government employee requesting anonymity. “It’s the king who makes all important decisions.”

Asked about the Christian presence, he said Christianity grew even at a time when it was banned. “There are many secret Christians. They meet in secret locations for prayer.”

The clean-shaven, medium-built 31-year-old king, an avid soccer fan who studied at Phillips Academy and Wheaton College in Massachusetts in the United States and the University of Oxford in the United Kingdom, is seen as a progressive person but conservative in matters of religion and culture.

According to the new constitution, the king is the head of state, though the parliament has the power to impeach him by a two-thirds majority vote – a provision not likely to be used anytime in the future, according to popular sentiment.

Banned

Suggesting that Christian fears are warranted, a pastor from Pheuntsholing town near the India border explained that memories of a period of severe crackdown on underground churches were still fresh in the minds of local Christians.

“I was picked up from a house where I was conducting Sunday worship in Tsirang district in September 1995 and put in a prison,” said the pastor. “I was asked to leave the district with immediate effect, and I had to move to another location.”

His voice trembling as he spoke by telephone, he said, “Once the government discovers that you are a Christian, nothing will be free for you.”

The pastor said that although there are no violent attacks on Christians, they do face discrimination by the government and society.

According to the government-run weekly Kuensel of Nov. 4, 1992, the National Assembly banned Christianity in 1969 and in 1979. The edicts against Christians were said to have passed due to reports of conversions to Christianity in south Bhutan, inhabited mostly by people of Nepali origin.

In the early 1990s the government of Bhutan began a massive crackdown on Christians, mainly in southern parts, and intensified it towards the end of the decade.

The authorities identified Christians in government or business and took their signatures on a form pledging compliance with rules and regulations governing practice of religion. There were several reports, though unconfirmed, of violence against Christians by police and village heads during the period.

In April 2001, international media reported on persecution of Christians in Bhutan when police stormed churches on Palm Sunday to register Christians, many of who were detained and threatened.

Almost a decade later, the legal standing of the Christian minority under the new constitution remains unclear.

Ambiguous Laws

In May 2009, the national daily Bhutan Times quoted Interior Minister Lyonpo Minjur Dorji as saying, “It was absolutely okay if people were born Christian … The constitution supports them. But it is unlawful to convert. If we get proof of proselytization in the country, we shall definitely take action.”

The newspaper noted that there are no official churches in Bhutan. “And most of the Sunday masses and gatherings are held in the homes of pastors and converts,” noted the daily, which occasionally criticizes government policies, though mildly and without taking aim at any particular official.

The new Constitution of the Kingdom of Bhutan, drafted in 2005 and officially adopted in 2008, gives religious freedom to all the citizens of the country but also contains a virtual “anti-conversion law” as found in neighboring India.

The exotic, official website of the constitution – which displays the national emblem of two dragons and a lotus surmounted by a jewel symbolizing harmony between secular and religious powers and sovereignty of the nation – states that all Bhutanese citizens “shall have the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion” in Article 7.

But Article 7 adds: “No person shall be compelled to belong to another faith by means of coercion or inducement.”

What the terms “coercion” and “inducement” mean is not clear. Whether “proselytization,” which the home minister recently suggested was illegal, means propagation of Christianity or conversion by “coercion or inducement,” is also left unclear.

The Supreme Court of Bhutan, whose judge appointments have yet to be completed and are not yet functional, is likely to have the prerogative to interpret the constitution.

What is unambiguous, however, is that the government of Bhutan will continue to preserve the uniform culture of the country, which, it maintains, is based on Buddhist values. Article 3 of the constitution says that “Buddhism is the spiritual heritage of Bhutan, which promotes among others the principles and values of peace, non-violence, compassion and tolerance,” and “it is the responsibility of religious institutions and personalities to promote the spiritual heritage of the country while also ensuring that religion remains separate from politics in Bhutan.”

Article 4 mandates the government to “endeavour to preserve, protect and promote the cultural heritage of the country,” adding that “parliament may enact such legislation as may be necessary to advance the cause of the cultural enrichment of Bhutanese society.”

According to Article 8, it is a fundamental duty of all citizens to “preserve, protect and respect the culture and heritage of the nation.”

“Apart from religious restrictions, we are happy to be in Bhutan,” said a pastor from Thimphu. “Look at the unrest India, China and Nepal have from time to time. We are happy and thankful to God for this nation.”

Report from Compass Direct News 

Muslim Mob in Pakistan Wounds Christian Family


Assailants threaten to charge mentally ill son with ‘blasphemy’ if victims pursue justice.

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan, January 4 (CDN) — Infuriated by an alleged anti-Islamic comment by a mentally ill man, more than a dozen Muslims attacked his Christian family here last week, beating his 20-year-old sister unconscious and breaking her leg.

The woman’s father, Aleem Mansoor, said his daughter Elishba Aleem went unconscious after being struck in the head with an iron rod in the Dec. 28 attack. Mansoor said a Muslim known as Mogal beat him and his daughter with the rod on the street in front of their apartment home after falsely accusing his 32-year old son, who suffers from schizophrenia, of blasphemy.

“Elishba shouted, ‘Father look! He is going to hit you,’ and she came somewhat in front and the rod hit her head,” Mansoor told Compass. “She touched her head, and her hand was covered with blood.”

After she fell unconscious, the assailants began striking her on her legs and back, Mansoor said.

“As soon as the mob realized that Elishba was totally unconscious, they shouted that the girl was dead and fled from the scene,” he said.

Elishba Aleem had rushed down from the family’s third-floor apartment in Iqbal Town, Islamabad and was attacked when she pleaded for the mob to stop beating her father, who received five stitches for a hand wound. With iron rods and cricket bats, the mob also injured Mansoor’s wife Aqsa and his sister-in-law Aileen George. Another of Mansoor’s sons, 24-year-old Shazir Aleem, saw the assault from the apartment and also was beaten when he hurried down.

“When Shazir’s wife Sanna saw that her husband was being beaten, she rushed down with [infant daughter] Hanna in her arms and pleaded with them, ‘Why are you beating my husband?’” Mansoor said. “Someone in the mob snatched Hanna from Sanna and threw her on the ground, and then those beasts began beating Sanna as well.”

The baby girl escaped serious injury.

Initially the assailants had attacked Mansoor as he tried to leave home with his son Shumail Aleem, whom he intended to take to police to clear up accusations by shopkeeper Muhammad Naveed that he had spoken ill of Islam.

As Mansoor reached his car, however, about a dozen men with cricket bats and metal rods got out of a parked Suzuki van and surrounded them, he said, and within 10 minutes more than 100 angry Muslims had joined Naveed, his other brothers and his father, Mogal.

“Naveed shouted, ‘Why are you people looking at these choohras [derogatory term for Christians]? Catch them and kill them,’” Mansoor said. “My wife Aqsa and sister-in-law Aileen George threw their doppatas [Indian head coverings] at Naveed’s and others’ feet to humbly request that they not attack us, but they refused to listen. They began beating all of us with rods and cricket bats.”

Area Muslims resent that the family has a car and is well-off, Mansoor said.

“They say Christians should be suppressed and kept under a tight control,” he said. “They think Christians should salute them when they pass by them.”

His son Shumail has been under medical treatment for schizophrenia for more than five years, he said, and because of his condition he does not work.

“As long as Shumail takes medicine, there is no one nicer than him on the earth, but if he is not taking the medicine then he is the worst creature,” Mansoor said.

Mansoor’s daughter, a first-year college student, received treatment at the Pakistan Institute of Medical Sciences (PIMS) and eventually regained consciousness, though she remains in intense pain. Mansoor said members of the Muslim mob ensured that she did not receive a medical-legal certificate documenting her condition. 

When Mansoor told Naveed and others that he would take them to court over the attack, his Muslim adversaries said he would fail because they had paid PIMS officials 50,000 rupees (US$600) to withhold the medical report on his daughter’s injuries. He said they also told him that they had paid off officers at the Shehzad Town Police Station to pressure the family to drop the case with an out-of-court settlement.

“The assistant sub-inspector, Ghulam Gilani, of Shehzad Town Police Station, called my wife and told her that if the family pursued the case of assault on us, then we would be implicated in the blasphemy case, which would have serious consequences for us,” Mansoor said.

Gilani and hospital officials were not immediately available for comment.

‘Blasphemy’ Accusation

The comment said to have triggered the violence was uttered at a nearby general store, where Shumail Aleem had gone to buy cigarettes at about 8:30 p.m. on Dec. 28.

Dec. 28 was Islam’s 10th of Muharram, or Yom-e-Ashura, when Shiite Muslims mourn the death of Hussein ibn Ali, grandson of the Islamic Prophet Muhammad. Pakistan’s population is made up primarily of Sunni Muslims, who also honor the day on the claim that Moses fasted on that day to express gratitude to God for freeing the Israelites from Egypt.

At the store an elderly Christian man known as Baba Sadiq asked Shumail Aleem why movie channels were not being shown on the store’s cable-fed TV.

“Shumail told him, ‘Are Muslims out of their minds? Why would they show movie channels on Ashura?’” Mansoor said.

The comment apparently supported Naveed’s decision to refrain from showing films on the Muslim holy day, but the shopkeeper began beating Shumail Aleem, demanding to know why he had profaned Hussein’s name, Mansoor said.

Two weeks prior, Mansoor said, Naveed and his brothers had beaten a Christian boy so severely that when he bled a piece of flesh issued from his nostrils.

“Shumail had seen this all, and had protested with Naveed over this, and when he came home he was very upset over the beating and repeatedly asked his mother to go and ask Naveed about it,” Mansoor said. “We think that Naveed bore a grudge because of Shumail’s inquiry and protest about that beating of a Christian.”

Mansoor said that after Naveed severely beat him, Shumail Aleem returned when the rest of the family was not at home, as several had taken Mansoor’s 3-month-old granddaughter Hanna to the doctor. When they returned at 9:45 p.m., Mansoor said, he found several things in the house “thrown around or broken.”

A neighbor told them that police and about two dozen men had come searching for Shumail Aleem – who had hid in an upper storeroom – because Naveed had accused him of blasphemy. 

“We went to Naveed, who was at his shop, and inquired what had happened,” Mansoor said. “He told us that Shumail had tried to steal several things from the store and also damaged several things, and worst of all that he profaned Imam Hussein. My wife told Naveed that he knew that Shumail was mentally ill so he should have waited for us, and that we would have paid the damage, but that there was no need to go to the police.”

Naveed told them that whether their son was mentally ill did not matter, that he had filed a police report – which later proved to be untrue – and that they would search relentlessly for Shumail Aleem, Mansoor said.

The mob stopped pursuing members of Mansoor’s family only after the intervention of Pakistan People’s Party politician Malik Amir, he said, but neither police nor the hospital has cooperated with him in legal matters. An influential Muslim in the area, Raja Aftaab, is also urging the family to settle out of court, he added.

“My stance is that the entire mob that attacked us should come to our house and apologize in front of all the neighbors, and then I will start negotiations with them,” he said.

Report from Compass Direct News 

NIGERIA: DEATH TOLL CLIMBS IN ATTACK BY ISLAMIC SECT


12 Christians killed, 20 churches burned in Borno rioting prompted by extremist group.

LAGOS, Nigeria, Aug. 7 (Compass Direct News) – With 12 Christians, including three pastors, confirmed killed in rioting ignited by an Islamic sect opposed to Western education, the Christian community in northern Nigeria’s Borno state is still counting its losses.

The rioting instigated by an Islamic extremist sect known as Boko Haram, which initially attacked police and government bases, left hundreds of people dead and large property losses. Sharia (Islamic law) is already in force for Muslims in 12 northern states, but the sect is fighting to have it enforced more broadly in those states and to impose it throughout Nigeria.

“We are still taking inventory of how the crisis affected our members, but so far we have confirmed some of the Christians killed and churches burnt,” Samuel Salifu, national secretary of the Christian Association of Nigeria (CAN), told Compass.

Rampaging members of the sect burned 20 churches before police captured and killed Boko Haram’s leader, Mohammed Yusuf. Police say Yusuf was killed “while trying to escape,” but a federal government panel is investigating allegations that security agents executed him after arresting him alive in his hideout.

The chairman of the Borno state chapter of CAN, the Rev. Yuguda Zubabai Ndurvuwa, said many Christians abducted by Boko Haram extremists were yet to be found. He noted that the Christian community usually has been hardest hit in religious uprisings in Borno and other northern states. Violence started on July 26, when armed sect members attacked a police station in Bauchi state that set off a firestorm of violence that spread to the northern states of Borno, Kano and Yobe.

Those killed in Borno include Pastor Sabo Yakubu of Church of Christ in Nigeria (COCIN), the Rev. Sylvester Akpan of National Evangelical Mission and the Rev. George Orji of Good News of Christ Church International, Inc.

Church buildings burned in Borno include five branches of the COCIN denomination, two Catholic churches, two Deeper Life Church buildings, two EYN (Church of the Brethren in Nigeria) buildings, and buildings of the National Evangelical Mission, Celestial Church of Christ, Elijah Apostolic Church, The Lord’s Chosen Charismatic Revival Ministries, Assemblies of God Church, Redeemed Christian Church of God, Christ for All Nations, Baptist Church and Anglican Church, all in different parts of the state.

Nigeria has almost equal numbers of Christians and Muslims, with the north dominated by Muslims and the south largely Christian. Northern Nigeria has a history of religious crisis with heavy casualties among Christians.

A Maiduguri, Borno-based journalist, Abiodun Joseph, said members of the sect kidnapped his two sons after he and his family narrowly escaped being lynched by the sect members.

“They stopped us while leaving the estate where I live, which is close to their headquarters, and threatened to shoot myself and my wife if we resisted the abduction of my two sons,” Joseph told Compass. He found his sons two days later.

“It was a very harrowing experience as we were not sure what would happen to them, but we thank God that they were not killed like others,” Joseph added.

Many other abducted Christians, he said, were killed by rioters for refusing to renounce their faith.

Facing Loss

With calm restored, Pastor Enouch Atiyaye, chaplain of the University of Maiduguri Teaching Hospital, said Christians in Borno who were forced to abandon their homes have been returning to “face the loss of their family members and the burning of their churches and homes.”

“There is a general feeling of despair and dejection among Christians with a high degree of uncertainty, since we don’t know what can happen next,” Atiyaye told Compass. “The fear is that the Boko Haram group has many members who have entrenched themselves in the state over the years. They disappeared during the crisis and can regroup to fight back if necessary security measures are not in place.”

Based on the attack on Christians during the Boko Haram uprising and past experiences, CAN’s Salifu said the association has lost confidence in the ability of the government to provide security for the lives and property of its members.

“If the government continues the way it has been doing, the association would have to give conditions for the co-existence of the various groups in the country” Salifu said at a press conference in Abuja, the country’s capital, on Monday (Aug. 3).

Accusing Borno Gov. Ali Modu Sheriff of complicity in the emergence of the Boko Haram group, Salifu said Christians were apprehensive that there are dangers beyond what was apparent in the sect’s uprising.

“We have no doubt in our minds that they would have perceived Christianity as a Western religion, which to them is also haraam [sin] which must also be eradicated,” he said.

At the press conference the Rev. Ladi Thompson, international coordinator of Macedonian Initiatives, a Christian Non-Governmental Organization, accused the government of ignoring warnings by Christian leaders on Boko Haram activities, which he said could have been nipped much earlier.

The governor’s press director, Usman Ciroma, dismissed CAN’s claim of complicity by Gov. Sheriff, saying that it was preposterous and laughable that the tragedy that befell the state could be trivialized in that way.

“Which politician will be so suicidal as to set a group to kill his own people?” Ciroma reportedly said.

The governor, who denied any relationship with the Islamic sect, met with Christian leaders in Borno state for the first time on Wednesday (Aug. 5), during which he disclosed plans to regulate preaching by religious leaders. For two years, according to news reports, attempts by Christian leaders to meet the governor over the plight of Christians in the state had been rebuffed.

“Government officials at the meeting tried to claim that Muslims were not more affected by the crisis, but the there is no indication that any mosque was burnt or any imam killed,” said a Christian leader at the meeting who requested anonymity.

Report from Compass Direct News 

BELARUS ORTHODOX CHURCH SEEKS APPROVAL TO REGULATE INTERNET


Metropolitan Filaret of Minsk and Slutsk offered the Byelorussian state to regulate Internet at the legislative level, reports Interfax-Religion.

“There’s an urgent need to effectively regulate the contents of Internet at the legislative level,” Metropolitan Filaret said on Friday at the meeting between the country’s president Alexander Lukashenko and members of the Byelorussian Orthodox Synod.

The Metropolitan believes Byelorussia can use Chinese experience where “responsibility for using Internet lays on Internet providers instead of the state.”

According to Metropolitan Filaret, “Internet is an open door to the world and has enormous influence on people’s minds.”

“The main threat is that most vulnerable categories, children and teens have easy access to immoral information, while their psyche is unstable. Virtual chaos is very dangerous for them,” the Metropolitan said.

He hopes that the state will pay attention to the problem of “open access to dirty resources.”

Report from the Christian Telegraph

COLOMBIA: LEFTIST GUERRILLAS THREATEN, KILL CHRISTIANS


Pastors are issued warnings in north; evangelists murdered in southwest.

LOS ANGELES, March 18 (Compass Direct News) – Having been sentenced to die by leftist rebels for holding Christian worship services in 2006, a pastor in Colombia’s northern department of Arauca took seriously the death threats that guerrillas issued on Friday (March 13), according to Christian support organization Open Doors.

The rebels from the National Liberation Army (ELN) phoned a pastor of Ebenezer Church in Saravena at 5:30 a.m., telling him to meet them at a site on the Arauca River at 7 a.m. When the pastor, who requested anonymity, arrived at the landing, the guerrillas took him by canoe to the other side of the river – into Venezuela – then drove him to a guerrilla camp some 40 minutes away.

For the next three hours, the rebels warned him that area pastors have three options: cooperate with the revolutionary cause of the guerrillas, leave or die.

They warned him that pastors must not preach to ELN guerrillas – the Christian message of peace contradicts their military objectives – and could not support Christian political candidates without their permission.

“We do not want pastors and those attending their churches to participate in politics,” they told the pastor. “We do not want evangelicals in politics, because you do not support our ideals. We have nothing in common with evangelicals.”

The guerrillas said the ELN does not object to pastors preaching within church walls, but that the congregation must not talk of politics, war or peace. Before letting him go, they told him that the ELN will show no compassion on church members if they continue to disobey those directives.

Such threats were not new to the pastor. In 2006, Open Doors sources said, he and his family had to leave behind the church he pastored in Fortul village and much of their belongings after guerrillas threatened to kill him for preaching and leading Christian services in both a home and a worship building.

ELN forces took control of the area in 2007 and quickly declared Christian worship illegal; by January 2008, the guerrillas had closed seven churches and prohibited preaching of Christ in rural areas.

According to the U.S. Department of State’s International Religious Freedom Report 2008, the Human Rights Unit of Colombia’s Prosecutor General’s Office is investigating killings in past years of 14 clergy members believed to have been targeted because they were outspoken critics of terrorist organizations. The Presidential Program for Human Rights reported that nearly all killings of priests by terrorist groups could be attributed to leftist guerrillas, particularly the FARC.

“Catholic and Protestant church leaders noted that killings of religious leaders in rural communities were generally underreported because of the communities’ isolation and fear of retribution,” the state department report notes. “Religious leaders generally chose not to seek government protection because of their pacifist beliefs and fear of retribution from terrorist groups.”

A human rights organization affiliated with the Mennonite church, Justicia, Paz y Acción No-violenta (Justapaz), asserted that guerrillas, former paramilitaries, and new criminal groups equally committed violence against evangelical church leaders, according to the state department report.

Leftist rebels opposed to Christian peace teachings continue to issue threats of violence against pastors and Christian leaders in various parts of Arauca department. On Feb. 28, ELN guerrillas took the pastor of another church to a guerrilla camp in Venezuela. Upset that pastors were taking advantage of the presence of the Colombian army to defy the guerrillas – publicly preaching Christ and using their pulpits for preaching peace – the rebels accused Christians of not helping with social projects.

“Preach inside churches, but do not let them die – worry how to save those that are with you,” one guerrilla told the pastor, who requested anonymity. “We will have to take drastic measures with pastors so they obey again.”

The pastor first had contact with rebels 12 years ago, when Marxist members of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) held him for several days.

In Puerto Jordán, a municipality of Arauquita, last Dec. 9 presumed leftist rebels gave 40-year-old pastor Rodolfo Almeida eight days to leave. Open Doors reported that a young man came to his house at 8:30 at night and asked for his wife. Surprised that stranger would ask for her at that hour, Almeida asked why he wanted to see her. The young man then told him that he had eight days to leave town or his life would be threatened.

The stranger refused to tell Almeida what organization he was with. He only reminded him that he had been warned. The pastor had received similar threats from ELN rebels in 2007, and by the end of 2008 he and his wife decided to leave with their three children. Almeida had served for more than two years as co-pastor of Ebenezer Church in Arauquita.

Two unnamed Christian mayors in Arauca have also come under threat from the guerrillas, and on Feb. 15 a councilman was killed. Since they took office in January 2008, the mayors of Arauquita and Saravena have been attacked by ELN rebels several times, according to Open Doors. They have drawn the ire of the guerrillas because they cannot be bought as their predecessors were, and they refuse to engage in the rebels’ illegal activities.

“In our lives we have lost the privileges of an ordinary person,” the mayor of Arauquita told Open Doors. “Now we are military targets. God brought me here, but sometimes I have wished not to continue, because being a Christian in a context like this where we live has a very high price.”

Last year, he added, guerrillas killed seven Christians in Arauca department. “Some of them were public officials, others were leaders or simply people recognized by their testimony as believers in Christ,” he said.

Open Doors reported that Councilman Francisco Delgadillo, a Christian who had received threats from the ELN guerrillas, was killed as he returned to his home on Feb. 15.

 

FARC Territory

Across the river, Venezuela serves as a safe haven for the ELN, which the U.S. Department of State has designated as a terrorist group. With the approval of Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez, the guerrilla forces use the country as a base from which to move into Colombia’s oil-rich Arauca department.

Although the ELN has been at odds with the Marxist FARC, in Arauca the two rebel groups co-exist without conflict; from their bases in Venezuela, according to Open Doors, the two groups amicably share paths and roads.

FARC guerrillas control the southwestern department of Huila, where last November four Christians were killed. Open Doors reported that all four belonged to the Alianza Cristiana church of Santana Ramos. Farley Cortés was killed on Nov. 5 in Plumeros village, Hermes Coronado Granado was killed on Nov. 8 in Santana Ramos, and 10 days later a married couple, Dora Lilia Saavedra and Ferney Ledezma, were also killed there.

Guerrillas seized Saavedra, 40, and the 35-year-old Ledezma from the school where Saavedra taught on Nov. 18, bound them on the floor of an old house and shot them several times. The FARC guerrillas had taken their three children, ages 3, 5 and 12, along with them and made them wait at a nearby house within hearing of the shots. The couple, married for five years, were known for proclaiming Christ in the village that borders the farm they owned.

Their pastor, Hernan Camacho, has moved with his family out of the area after receiving death threats.

The FARC accuses the families of Camacho, his brothers and Saavedra of refusing to follow its ideology, Pastor Camacho told Open Doors. “[The guerrillas] say that we, the evangelical ones, are their worst enemy because we teach the people not to take up weapons,” he said. “They accuse us of lulling the minds not to claim our rights against the government … the guerrillas say that it is our fault that the people prefer to continue with the church and not to join them.”

Motives for the killings are still under investigation, but Open Doors reported that Huila is in a zone historically known for systematic persecution of the church by guerrillas. In July 2007, pastor Jael Cruz García, 27, and another pastor, 63-year-old Humberto Méndez Montoya, were murdered in the village of La Legiosa in northern Huila. In 2002, two other pastors, Abelardo Londoño and Yesid Ruíz, were shot and killed in the same area.

Having lost three key leaders last year and been pushed out of most major urban centers by government forces, the FARC has embarked on a terror campaign to make its presence known in cities, according to The Christian Science Monitor. In the Huila capital of Neiva, on March 6 a bomb explosion damaged a hardware store and nearby businesses, according to the newspaper, and on Jan. 16 suspected FARC rebels were responsible for a car explosion at a shopping mall.

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

BISHOP EXPLAINS CHALLENGES FACING CHRISTIANS AFTER WAR IN SUDAN


Bishop Antonio Menegazzo of El Obeid, Sudan spoke out this week about the damage being done to the country by its civil war and about the challenges facing the Christian minority that lives amidst growing violence. He called on international organizations to help find solutions to the 20 year-old conflict, reports Catholic News Agency.

In an interview with the L’Osservatore Romano, the bishop said that the Church in Sudan is “very concerned about Darfur. The war continues to affect innocent victims, and international organizations are not able to stop this endless wave of violence.”

“In the rest of Sudan as well, after 21 years of civil war between the north and the south, the injustices and suffering are not diminishing. Things have not improved even with the peace accords and the situation here is neither clear nor encouraging. The UN and the European Union should pay greater attention to the problems of Sudan,” the bishop said.

Speaking about the situations Christians face in the country, Bishop Menegazzo noted that while there is a great hunger for God in many people in Sudan, this “has not penetrated deeply into the hearts and minds of many of our Christians: they have not been able to completely change their mentality, their culture is still not purified by the Word of God.”

“Often we are unable to find a solution to their problems and they still easily fall back into their old ways,” he said.

“In Sudan,” he continued, “most of the catechumens do not know how to read or write, and therefore in order to prepare them for Baptism, catechists need to be able to explain the Word with posters, drawings or their own words. And here lies the great dilemma: poorly trained catechists, because few are instructed in how to help catechumens who want to be disciples of Christ. Many teach the catechism and the truths of the holy faith from memory, with a poor knowledge of the Holy Scriptures.”

Report from the Christian Telegraph

PHILIPPINES: CHRISTIANS FEAR FAILED PACT INCREASES RISK OF REPRISALS


Frustrated Muslim demand for larger autonomous region in Mindanao could lead to war.

DUBLIN, October 6 (Compass Direct News) – Militant Islamists in the southern island of Mindanao have stepped up their attacks on majority-Christian villages following the failure of a peace agreement that would have enlarged an existing Muslim autonomous region there.

With Muslim commanders of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) in the southern Philippines yesterday saying ongoing support from the international community was necessary to prevent a full-scale war breaking out in Mindanao, both Muslim and Christian residents in the disputed territories were fearful of what the future might hold.

“The problem is that many people living in these areas don’t want to be part of a Muslim autonomous region,” a source in Mindanao who preferred to remain anonymous told Compass.

“The closer you get to these zones, the more nervous people are,” he said. “The town of Kolambugan, where most of the fighting took place in mid-August, became a virtual ghost town for a while. It had a population of 25,000. But people are slowly returning to their homes.”

A Christian family from the area said many people were afraid to sleep at night because they kept hearing reports that they would be attacked at midnight.

“When MILF forces attack Christian villages, Muslim neighbors are afraid that Christians will retaliate against them, even though they have nothing to do with the violence,” the source added. “This has happened in the past.”

He also explained that some moderate Muslims are drawn to support the MILF because the rebels claim the Christians have stolen their ancestral homelands. Communities in Mindanao often struggle with extreme poverty.

“If MILF is successful in gaining control over these lands, the people assume that their economic situation will improve,” he said. “So although they want the fighting to stop, they sympathize with the MILF.”

While the conflict is primarily political, religion plays a significant role. As a member of the Moro Youth League stated in an Aug. 5 national television interview in the Philippines, “As a Muslim, in order to live in a righteous way, you need to be living under sharia [Islamic] law and with an Islamic government. We believe we have the right to fight for this.”

Other Youth League members on the program agreed that sharia was a primary objective of autonomy, and that Islam was the only “real path of doing anything in this world.”

 

Violence Erupts

Some 2,000 MILF supporters yesterday held a protest march in Marawi city, Lanao del Sur, appealing to the United Nations and the Organization of the Islamic Conference to compel the Philippine government to revive the aborted peace agreement that would have enlarged the existing Muslim autonomous region in the south.

Breakaway MILF commanders on Aug. 18 attacked several majority-Christian villages after the Supreme Court prevented the Aug. 5 signing of the Memorandum of Agreement on Ancestral Domain (MOA-AD). The agreement potentially would have given the MILF power to establish an Islamic state governed by sharia law.

Christian leaders in Mindanao appealed to the Supreme Court when they realized that if they voted against inclusion in the proposed Bangsamoro Juridical Entity (BJE), their majority-Christian villages would become small islands in the midst of MILF-administered territory. As a result, they feared, they would be forced to move elsewhere.

Incensed by the 11th-hour stalling of the agreement, three MILF commanders on their own initiative led attacks against towns in North Cotabato and Lanao del Norte provinces on Aug. 18, burning homes, seizing livestock and killing at least 37 people. Another 44,000 residents immediately fled the area.

When some Christian residents armed themselves in defense, Secretary of Interior Ronaldo Puno warned that anyone carrying weapons would be disarmed.

The MILF has only 11,000 active fighting men, according to local estimates. But by Aug. 20, the National Disaster Coordinating Council had reported a total of 159,000 people displaced by the rebel attacks.

The Philippine army quickly retaliated, sweeping villages in an attempt to seize the rebel commanders.

After two weeks of violent clashes, the Philippine government officially abandoned the MOA-AD. Spokeswoman Lorelei Fajardo said President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo would seek a new agreement based on consultation with legislators and local politicians rather than negotiations with the MILF.

Furthermore, the government would concentrate on the “disarmament, demobilization and rehabilitation” of MILF cadres, Fajardo said.

In response, MILF leaders rejected any renegotiation of the peace deal with Arroyo’s administration.

 

Overcoming Prejudice

An opinion piece in the Wall Street Journal (WSJ) on Aug. 7 stated that the MOA-AD would only reinforce prejudices between Christian and Muslim communities.

Under the agreement, WSJ claimed, the government would further divide Mindanao into Muslim and Christian enclaves, increasing the likelihood of territorial disputes. Separating Muslims from the rest of Philippine society, it stated, would encourage a vision already held by MILF to help create a pan-Islamic state covering several countries in the region, including Malaysia, Indonesia and Singapore.

Finally, the WSJ said, less Philippine control of Mindanao would “invite even more terrorist activity in an area that already has strong ties to al Qaeda.”

While there are proven terrorist leanings in groups such as the MILF and the Abu Sayyaf, not all area Muslims approve of or engage in such activities.

Camilo Montesa, a key figure in peace negotiations, in his blog on Aug. 30 described an encounter with a young man who believed that Muslim residents would readily seize property from Christians once the BJE were formed.

Others told Montesa that, “Muslims were scouting and marking the big houses of Christians in Cotabato and staking a claim over them in anticipation of the signing of the peace agreement.”

“The hearts and minds of the people are the battlefields, and not some hill or base camp,” Montesa concluded. “There is a limit to what arms and war can produce … It is unfortunate that we are so divided as a people at this point in our national life.”

 

Reclaiming ‘Ancestral Domains’

As Islamic identity strengthened in the Middle East after World War II – and as many Philippine Muslims traveled to study in Middle Eastern countries – certain sectors of the Bangsamoro population became committed to reclaiming “ancestral domains.”

Their claims dated back to the rule of the Sultanate of Sulu, which existed prior to Spanish colonial rule in the 1500s, and the establishment of the Commonwealth of the Philippines in 1935. When the last sultan died in 1936, the fledgling Philippine government refused to recognize his heir, effectively eradicating the traditional Bangsamoro power base.

When the Philippines became a republic in 1946, its constitution allowed for the establishment of an autonomous region in Muslim Mindanao. Initially the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) fought alone for this autonomous territory; in 1977, however, MNLF member Hashim Salamat – who had studied in Saudi Arabia – and his followers seceded from the movement and founded the rival MILF.

The Philippine government signed an agreement with the MNLF in January 1987, and territories were added to the resulting Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao (ARMM) through a series of plebiscites or referendums in 1989, 2001, 2002 and 2006.

MILF commanders later laid claim to a further 712 villages outside the ARMM.

Negotiations between the government and the MILF began in earnest in June 2001. Both parties were to formally sign the resulting MOA-AD on Aug. 5, a deal which could have led to the creation of the separate Bangsamoro Juridical Entity, or fully-functioning state, replacing the ARMM by 2010.

When details of the agreement were leaked to the press, however, Christian politicians in regions of Mindanao affected by the agreement appealed to the Supreme Court, which in turn issued a temporary restraining order on the signing of the agreement on Aug. 4.

Report from Compass Direct News