Murder of Governor in Pakistan Darkens ‘Blasphemy’ Case


Assassination called a blow to prospects of justice for Christian mother on death row.

LAHORE, Pakistan, January 5 (CDN) — The case of Asia Noreen, the first Christian woman sentenced to death in Pakistan on blasphemy charges, suffered a major setback when her most vocal supporter, the governor of Punjab Province, was gunned down by one of his police bodyguards yesterday (Jan. 4) in Islamabad.

The lives of Noreen and Gov. Salman Taseer were at risk since the day he, his wife and daughter visited her in the Sheikhupura District Jail on Nov. 22, after news of her conviction appeared in the media.

Taseer had openly criticized the blasphemy statutes and vowed to try to repeal the “black laws” in parliament. He also promised Noreen (also called Asia Bibi) that he would recommend a presidential pardon for her.

The governor’s assurance and his support for Noreen gave new hope to the impoverished mother of two children and step-mother to three others – and drew violent condemnation from Islamist forces, sparking countrywide protests.

“The governor’s visit gave us hope that all was not lost,” Sohail Johnson of Sharing Life Ministries Pakistan, which has pursued Noreen’s case from the onset, told Compass. “We believed that God had sent the governor to help us … his words of support boosted Noreen’s morale, and she was actually quite optimistic about the outcome of her appeal in the high court.”

He said the murder of Taseer in broad daylight had shocked all those opposing the blasphemy laws, and that “there is little hope of these laws ever being repealed.”

Johnson confirmed that Noreen’s life was at high risk ever since the governor had highlighted her case.

“The local Islamist forces believed that President [Asif Ali] Zardari would pardon Noreen on Taseer’s recommendation, and this was unacceptable to them,” said Johnson, confirming that intelligence agencies had determined that Islamists had plotted to kill Noreen inside jail to make an example of her. “Noreen was earlier allowed two hours in the morning and two in the evening to go outside her cell to relax. After the intelligence information, the jail authorities restricted her movement, and now she is kept in the cell at all times. A security guard has also been deployed with her.”

He added that news of the assassination of the governor would surely panic the Christian woman.

Johnson said Noreen’s appeal of her conviction had yet to be taken up for hearing by the Lahore High Court, but that the murder would definitely affect the course of justice. “The governor’s brutal murder has diminished our hopes for justice for Noreen,” he said.

Her family, he said, has been in hiding since Islamist parties started protests in favor of the blasphemy laws.

“Even I am keeping a low profile these days,” Johnson said.

Taseer and Noreen were declared “Wajibul Qatil” (liable to be killed) by radical Islamic clerics. A cleric in Peshawar and a local politician in Multan offered a combined sum of 50 million rupees (US$579,300) for anyone who killed Taseer and Noreen.

Protests, shut-down strikes and general uproar pressured Pakistan’s federal government to announce that the blasphemy laws would not be repealed.

Taseer, however, continued to publicly vent his opposition – even using Twitter – to the blasphemy laws, which effectively mandate death for anyone convicted of insulting Muhammad, the prophet of Islam. Although courts typically overturn convictions, and no executions have been carried out, rights activists say the laws are used to settle rivalries and persecute religious minorities.

On Friday (Dec. 31), Taseer had tweeted “I was under huge pressure 2 cow down b4 rightest pressure on blasphemy. Refused. Even if I’m the last man standing.”

The assassination is significant not simply because of the person targeted and the reason behind it, but because of the broader societal implications.

“[It points to] the presence of radical elements inside the Pakistani state apparatus,” said columnist Cyril Almeida.

He said that the fact that Taseer’s own bodyguard shot him is not just worrying because it indicates a failure of the vetting process but because it points to “the extent to which this poison has affected the Pakistani state. The investment in jihad has come home to roost.”

In the hours immediately following the killing, television anchors hosted several shows in which guests, while stopping short of openly supporting the murder of Taseer, did speak out in support of killing those deemed to have blasphemed. Some Pakistanis have reported that they received text messages on their mobile phones praising the assassination.

Pakistan Interior Minister Rehman Malik has said the guard, Malik Mumtaz Hussein Qadri, told police that he killed Taseer because of the governor’s opposition to Pakistan’s blasphemy laws. Qadri had escorted the governor from Rawalpindi to Islamabad on Tuesday (Jan. 4).

A 26-year-old policeman from Barakhao on the outskirts of Islamabad, Qadri had reportedly transferred to the Elite Force after commando training in 2008. Thus far, he has not been identified as a member of any violent Muslim extremist groups but is considered devout in his faith.

Noreen was convicted under Section 295-C of the defamation statutes for alleged derogatory comments about Muhammad, which is punishable by death, though life imprisonment is also possible. Section 295-B makes willful desecration of the Quran or a use of its extract in a derogatory manner punishable with life imprisonment. Section 295-A of the defamation law prohibits injuring or defiling places of worship and “acts intended to outrage religious feelings of any class of citizens.” It is punishable by life imprisonment, which in Pakistan is 25 years.

Report from Compass Direct News

Buddhists in India Assault Christian Aid Worker, Friend


Assailants, still at large, abduct and threaten blind volunteer, associate and pregnant wife.

NEW DELHI, September 6 (CDN) — A visually impaired Christian and his friend accused drunken Buddhists of abducting and assaulting them last week after the blind volunteer distributed relief material in a Buddhist-majority town in a region of India devastated by recent floods.

The attackers are still at large after the assault on Wednesday (Sept .1) in the town of Leh in Jammu and Kashmir state’s Ladakh region, where flooding and landslides destroyed hundreds of houses and killed around 200 people on Aug. 6.

The attackers, identified as members of the Ladakh Buddhist Association (LBA), one of the region’s largest and most influential Non-Governmental Organizations, abducted Ram Kumar Thapa, Stanzin Chosphel and his pregnant wife Putali Sherpa because of their Christian faith and beat the men, the victims said.

Thapa, a blind music teacher in his 30s, was abducted from Mahabodhi Gate in Choglamsar area in Leh, where he was distributing relief material, at around 7 p.m. on Wednesday, according to the complaint he filed on Thursday (Sept. 2) with the Jammu and Kashmir State Human Rights Commission.

LBA members were upset that Thapa was preaching Christianity to displaced residents, according to his complaint. The Evangelical Fellowship of India Commission on Relief, a Christian relief agency, is rebuilding homes for the displaced people, mostly Buddhists, in the area.

“I was attacked physically by several unknown assailants before other witnesses nearby,” Thapa stated in the complaint. “Then these men forced me into a vehicle and continued beating me all over my body as they spoke in Ladakhi to each other.”

Thapa, from the eastern state of West Bengal, also stated that the Buddhists contemplated killing him. “They discussed whether to take my life or return to the ‘office,’” he said.

The assailants took Thapa to the office of the LBA in Soma Monastery, where a Buddhist monk was also present, and beat him again, he stated. He was then moved to a room where he could hear the voice of his friend, Chosphel, with his pregnant wife.

Chosphel, a convert from Buddhism, is from Ladakh and his wife is from Nepal. The Buddhist assailants had taken them from their house in the Skalzaling area in Leh after Thapa, under pressure from the LBA members, identified them as his associates, according to the Christian victims.

The attackers showed Thapa’s bruised and bleeding face to Chosphel to warn him against continuing as a Christian, Thapa stated. He was then taken back to the vehicle.

“They placed a gunny sack with a rope onto my lap and explained that this would be my last bed … [after] they throw me into the Indus River and see if a blind man can swim and save himself,” Thapa stated. “I became terribly afraid, since I could smell alcohol on their breath as we sat in the vehicle.”

Thapa begged that his life be spared “so I could see my wife, who must be worried since it was late now.” The kidnappers replied, “Your wife will see you when she finds your body by the river bank,” he stated.

Thapa and his wife, also visually impaired, teach and live at Mahabodhi Residential School for handicapped children.

Thapa stated that when he asked what they wanted from him, “they said I had to leave Ladakh with my family within two days or else they would kill me and my family. It was around 1 a.m. when they dropped me back to my house, bruised and trembling.”

Thapa went to the Housing Colony Police Station on Thursday (Sept. 2) and found out that Chosphel also was there to file his complaint.

Chosphel confirmed that the “office” they were taken to belonged to the LBA. In his complaint to the commission, Chosphel said that around 15 “heavily drunken” men came to abduct him and his wife in their black Bolero, a mid-size SUV.

In the courtyard of the LBA facility, the Buddhists beat Chosphel before his wife, who pleaded for them to stop and asked why they were being assaulted.

“They threatened to beat her as well if she did not keep silent,” Chosphel stated. “Then they dragged me into a room and gagged my mouth so I could not cry out as they beat me with rubber pipes and rods and fists continuously. All along they kept telling me to leave my wife and also renounce my faith in Christianity and return to Buddhism.”

The men released the couple at around 12:30 a.m. after giving them two days to leave Leh or convert to Buddhism, Chosphel stated, “or else they will chop my wife into pieces and kill me and also kill my family … who are still practicing Buddhists.”

The attackers also confiscated their mobile phones.

The victims told Compass that they were still facing a threat on their lives even after filing complaints with police.

Additional Superintendent of Police Stanzin Nurboo told Compass that no one had been arrested because the victims could not name the accused.

Chosphel and his wife, however, told Compass that they would be able to identify the attackers if they saw their faces; at press time, however, they said police had not contacted any of them to do so.

Religious conversion is a sensitive issue in Leh, which borders Pakistan and Tibet, as it is seen as an attack on its distinct religious and cultural identity.

Citing religious and cultural differences with the otherwise Muslim-majority Jammu and Kashmir state, some residents of Ladakh have been asking for union territory status for the region.

As a concession, the Ladakh region was bifurcated into Muslim-majority Kargil district and Buddhist-majority Leh district in 1979, and the Ladakh Autonomous Hill Development Council was also created in 1995 to grant some autonomy to Leh and Kargil districts.

The government of Jammu and Kashmir continues to have responsibility for maintaining law and order and is in charge of the judicial system, communications and higher education.

Of the population of 117,232, over 80 percent of the people in Leh are Buddhist. Muslims make up around 15 percent of the population, Hindus 3 percent and Christians 0.2 percent.

Report from Compass Direct News

Islamic Gunmen Kill Christian Aid Workers in Pakistan


World Vision worker says militants dragged his colleagues into room and executed them.

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan, March 10 (CDN) — Suspected Islamic militants armed with guns and grenades stormed the offices of a Christian relief and development organization in northwest Pakistan today, killing six aid workers and wounding seven others.

The gunmen besieged the offices of international humanitarian organization World Vision near Oghi, about 80 kilometers (50 miles) north of Islamabad in Mansehra district of the North West Frontier Province (NWFP). Police and World Vision’s regional spokesman said the Pakistani staff members, including two women, were killed after up to 15 gunmen arrived in pick-up trucks and began firing.

“They gathered all of us in one room,” World Vision administration officer Mohammad Sajid, who was in the office at the time, told Compass. “The gunmen, some of whom had their faces covered, also snatched our mobile phones. They dragged people one by one and shifted them to an adjacent room and shot and killed them.”

Rienk van Velzen, World Vision’s regional communications director, said from the Netherlands that all staff members in the office were Pakistanis. He said one is missing.

The organization has been operating in the area since October 2005, when aid workers flooded into the northwest after a 7.6-magnitude earthquake killed more than 73,000 people and left about 3.5 million homeless.

But many charities have since left the area as Islamist violence soared. In February 2008, four aid workers with the British-based group Plan International were killed in a similar gun and grenade attack in Mansehra town.

Police said the militants escaped into the hills.

“Police rushed to the area after receiving information about the attack, but the attackers managed to flee,” senior police officer Waqar Ahmed said. “We chased them, there was an exchange of fire, but the gunmen escaped into the mountains.”

Ahmed blamed the attack on “the same people who are destroying our schools” – a reference to Taliban militants opposed to co-education who have blown up hundreds of schools across the northwest in the past three years.

“Now they want to disturb relief work in quake-hit areas,” Ahmed said.

World Vision’s website says the aid group is “inspired by our Christian values” but stresses that it does not proselytize or predicate aid on a person’s faith.

Foreign targets are rarely attacked directly in Pakistan, despite the chronic insecurity in the nuclear-armed, Muslim state, which is a key ally in the U.S.-led war on Al Qaeda and the Taliban in neighboring Afghanistan.

A wave of suicide and bomb attacks across Pakistan has killed more than 3,000 people since 2007. Blame has fallen on Taliban and Al Qaeda-linked militants bitterly opposed to the alliance with the United States.

The United Nations decided last year to relocate a limited number of its international staff from Pakistan because of security concerns.

The UN’s World Food Program office in Islamabad was attacked in October last year, with five aid workers killed in a suicide bombing.

Then on Feb. 3, a bomb attack in the NWFP district of Lower Dir killed three U.S. soldiers and five other people at the opening of a school just rebuilt with Western funding after an Islamist attack.

Elsewhere in the northwest today, police found the bodies of two men the Taliban had accused of spying for the United States. The local tribesmen had been snatched last month from Mir Ali in North Waziristan tribal region, and their “bullet-riddled bodies were found dumped under a bridge,” police officer Dildar Khan said.

Report from Compass Direct News 

Algerian Muslims Block Christmas Service


Neighborhood residents protest new church building in Kabylie region.

ISTANBUL, December 31 (CDN) — Nearly 50 Muslim members of a community in northern Algeria blocked Christians from holding a Christmas service on Saturday (Dec. 26) to protest a new church building in their neighborhood.

As Algerian Christian converts gathered for their weekly meeting and Christmas celebration that morning, they were confronted by protestors barring the doors of their church building. Tafat Church is located in Tizi-Ouzou, a city 100 kilometers (62 miles) east of the Algerian capital, Algiers. Established five years ago, the church belongs to the Protestant Church of Algeria (EPA). Until recently it met in a small rented building. In November it opened its doors in a new location to accommodate the growing needs of its nearly 350 congregants.

The local residents protesting were reportedly irritated at finding that a church building with many visitors from outside the area had opened near their houses, according to an El Watan report on Sunday (Dec. 27). The daily newspaper highlighted that the residents feared their youth would be lured to the church with promises of money or cell phones.

“This land is the land of Islam! Go pray somewhere else,” some of the protestors said, according to El Watan. Protestors also reportedly threatened to kill the church pastor.

The protestors stayed outside the church until Monday (Dec. 28), and that evening some of them broke into the new building and stole the church microphones and speakers, according to the pastor, Mustafa Krireche. As of yesterday (Dec. 30) the church building’s electricity was cut.

One of Algeria’s Christian leaders, Youssef Ourahmane, said he could not recall another display of such outrage from Algerians against Christians.

“It was shocking, and it was the first time to my knowledge that this happened,” said Ourahmane. “And there weren’t just a few people, but 50. That’s quite a big number … the thing that happened on Saturday was a little unusual for Algeria and for the believers as well.”

A few weeks before the Saturday incident, local residents signed a petition saying they did not want the church to operate near their homes and wanted it to be closed. Local authorities presented it to the church, but Ourahmane said the fellowship, which is legally authorized to exist under the EPA, does not plan to respond to it.

On Saturday church leaders called police, who arrived at the scene and told the Christians to go away so they could talk to the protestors, whom they did not evacuate from the premises, according to local news website Kabyles.net. The story Kabyles.net published on Sunday was entitled, “Islamic tolerance in action at Tizi-Ouzou.”

“In that area where the church is located, I’m sure the people have noticed something happening,” said Ourahmane. “Having hundreds of Christians coming to meet and different activities in the week, this is very difficult for Muslims to see happening there next door, and especially having all these Muslim converts. This is the problem.”

A local Muslim from the neighborhood explained that residents had protested construction of the church building in a residential area, according to El Watan.

“What’s happening over there is a shame and an offense to Muslims,” he told El Watan. “We found an old woman kissing a cross … they could offer money or mobile phones to students to win their sympathies and sign them up. We won’t let them exercise their faith even if they have authorization. There’s a mosque for those who want to pray to God. This is the land of Islam.” 

Behind the Scenes

Ourahmane said he believes that Islamists, and maybe even the government, were behind the protests.

“Maybe this is a new tactic they are trying to use to prevent churches from meeting,” he said. “Instead of coming by force and closing the church, the local police use the Muslim fundamentalists. That’s my analysis, anyhow.”

In February 2008 the government applied measures to better control non-Muslim groups through Ordinance 06-03. Authorities ordered the closure of 26 churches in the Kabylie region, both buildings and house churches, maintaining that they were not registered under the ordinance.

Despite efforts to comply with the ordinance, many Christian groups indicated they were blocked by lack of information, bureaucratic processes or resistance to their applications, according to this year’s International Religious Freedom Report by the U.S. Department of State. None of the churches have closed since then, but their status continues to remain questionable and only valid through registration with the EPA.

“If we have the right to exercise our faith, let them tell us so,” Pastor Krireche told El Watan. “If the authorities want to dissolve our association through legal means, let them do so.”

Recent growth of the church in Algeria is difficult for Muslims to accept, according to Ourahmane, despite public discourse among the nation’s intellectuals advocating for religious freedoms. Unofficial estimates of Christians and Jews combined range from 12,000 to 40,000, according to the state department report. Local leaders believe the number of Algerian Christians could be as many as 65,000.

Increasing numbers of people who come from Islam are like a stab for the Muslim community, said Ourahmane.

“It’s hard for them to accept that hundreds of Christians gather to worship every week,” he said. “It’s not easy. There are no words to explain it. It’s like a knife and you see someone bleeding … They see the church as a danger to Algerian culture.”

The Algerian government has the responsibility to face up to the changing face of its country and to grant Christians the freedom to meet and worship, said Ourahmane.

“The local authorities and especially the Algerian government need to be challenged in this all the time,” he said. “They have to be challenged: ‘Don’t you recognize the situation here?’ I mean we’re talking of tens of thousands of believers, not just a few.”

There are around 64 churches in the Kabylie region, where most Algerian Christians live, as well as house groups, according to Ourahmane. The Kabylie region is populated by Berbers, an indigenous people of North Africa.

“There are lots of healings and deliverance, and people are experiencing new things in their life,” Ourahmane said of the Algerian churches. “They are finding hope in Christ which they have never experienced before.”

There are half a dozen court cases against churches and Christians. None of these have been resolved, frozen in Algeria’s courts.

False Accusations

In ongoing negative media coverage of Christians, last month Algerian newspaper Echorouk published a story claiming that the former president of the EPA, who was deported in 2008, had returned to Algeria to visit churches, give advice and give them financial aid.

The report stated that the former EPA president, Hugh Johnson, was known for his evangelism and warned readers of his evangelizing “strategies.” 

Yesterday Johnson told Compass by telephone that the report was pure fabrication, and that he has not set foot in Algeria since he was deported.

Johnson’s lawyers are still trying to appeal his case in Algerian courts.

This year church groups stated that the government denied the visa applications of some religious workers, citing the government ban on proselytizing, according to the state department report.

Report from Compass Direct News 

INDIA: HINDU EXTREMISTS ATTACK PASTORS, MANHANDLE WOMEN


In violation of human rights standards, police arrest Christians for allegedly speaking ill of gods.

MUMBAI, India, Aug. 14 (Compass Direct News) – Hindu nationalist extremists attacked Christians attending teacher training in Dharwad district, Karnataka on Wednesday (Aug. 12), but when one of the attendees escaped and went to police, officers arrested eight pastors on baseless claims of forcible conversion and – in a blow to free speech – for allegedly speaking ill of Hindu gods.

Pastor Moses Bentic, coordinator of the Seva Bharat Mission, told Compass that more than 80 Christians including nine pastors were attending the mission’s teacher training, which began Wednesday in Annigere and was supposed to continue through today. At around 11:30 pm on Tuesday (Aug. 11), 30 Hindu extremists from the Sri Ram Sena (Lord Ram’s Army) entered the facility where the training was taking place, the Patil Sabha Bhavan, and began beating the pastors.

They repeatedly slapped and kicked the pastors, cursed Christianity using foul language and falsely accused them of forcible conversion. The Hindutva (Hindu nationalist) extremists also manhandled young women at the training, most of whom between the ages of 17 and 23, according to the Global Council of Indian Christians (GCIC).

Pastor Joseph Christopher, who managed to escape from the hall just after midnight, rushed to the Annigere police station to seek help. He told Compass that police were “indifferent” and refused to accept a complaint. Earlier, at about 11:45 p.m., Pastor Christopher had telephoned police but nobody showed up, he added.

“At around 1:30 a.m., two policemen arrived at the Patil Sabha Bhavan and were mute spectators as the extremists collected all the copies of the Bibles and burned them,” Pastor Christopher said, adding that police also took mobile phones from the Christians.

Police officials who arrived at the hall around 4:30 a.m. shouted at the Christians, asked why no prior permission had been obtained for the meeting and took eight pastors to the Annigere police station, according to GCIC. Arrested were Vasant Kumar Hanoka, Simon Rathnappa, Basavaraj Rudappa, Madhan Kumar Yamanappa, Prakash Arjun Kagwadar, Jayraj Shiromani, Vijay Mayekar and Kumaraswamy Govindappa. They were charged with unlawful assembly, rioting, criminal conspiracy and “acts intended to outrage religious feelings by insulting religion or religious beliefs.”

They were sent to judicial custody until Aug. 25.

Police, meantime, had locked the Christians at the teacher training inside the hall. Pastor Bentic said Francis Swaminathan Kaniya, pastor of an independent church, arrived at the hall at 8:30 a.m. for the meeting and was met by Hindu extremist Gangadhar Hallikeri, who repeatedly punched, slapped and verbally abused him outside the Patil Sabha Bhavan; others along with Hallikeri ransacked his satchel, seized his Bible, tore pages out of it and burned them.

“The police had locked up the hall with the other believers inside up to 12:30 pm,” Pastor Bentic said. “After noting down the names and addresses of all the participants, the police escorted the believers in groups to the bus stand and made them leave the place.”

Sub-Inspector Kuber Rajame told Compass that he and other officers went to the Patil Sabha Bhavan at 4 a.m. on Wednesday (Aug.12) based on a complaint by Hallikeri, who along with 15 others accused the Christians of forcible conversion and denigrating Hindu gods.

Sub-Inspector Rajame also said that he had sent police officers earlier, in the wee hours of the morning, to investigate the meeting and that they confirmed that the Christians were speaking derogatorily about Hindu gods. Denying that any of the Christians were beaten by Hallikeri and his group, the sub-inspector added that officers seized CDs, cassettes and books relating to Christianity from the place.

The private nature of the meeting notwithstanding, arrests for speaking ill of religions even in public constitute a violation of free speech as stipulated in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which India is a signatory, according to Christian leaders.

Sajan K. George, national president of the GCIC, told Compass that the organization has confirmed the attackers as Sri Ram Sena and Bajrang Dal leaders: Alikere, Palyad Kallur, Mahesh Palyad, Gangadhar Alikere, and Shivkumar Kallur.

“Last year Sri Ram Sena was involved in the attack of over 30 prayer halls in Mangalore city area, Karnataka, and they have the tacit approval of the local administrative machinery,” George said. “That emboldens them to carry out attack on Christians.”

GCIC has appealed to the Governor of Karnataka, the Home Minister of the government of India and the National Human Rights Commission to look into the matter.”

Seva Bharath Mission India has been known for its humanitarian service to northern Karnataka for the past nine years. It provides adult literacy and children’s education programs and has been involved in evening tuition classes for street children. The teacher’s training program was organized to equip men and women from 11 districts in north Karnataka to teach and be a part of the humanitarian mission.

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 

EGYPT: VILLAGE CHRISTIANS IN HIDING AFTER CLASH


Violence erupts on mere suspicion of a prayer meeting.

ISTANBUL, June 25 (Compass Direct News) – Nearly 1,000 Coptic Christians in Egypt are hiding in their homes after clashes erupted Sunday (June 21) between them and their village’s majority-Muslim population over the use of a three-story building belonging to the Coptic Church.

When on Sunday at 11 a.m. a group of 25 Christians from Cairo stopped in Ezbet Boshra-East, a village of about 3,000 people three hours south of Cairo by car, few villagers failed to take notice. Planning to visit local Christians and the Rev. Isaac Castor, the group had gathered outside the building owned by the Coptic Church, where the priest lives with his family.

Castor said only six of them had entered the building when Muslim neighbors approached the rest of the group waiting outside and began taunting them. A Muslim woman walked up to one of the visiting women, he said, and slapped her.

Soon village youths gathered and started throwing stones at the visitors and the building, and according to Castor within minutes hundreds of villagers, Muslims against Christians, were fighting each other in the streets of Ezbet Boshra-East. Castor’s car was also vandalized.

“They were all over the streets hitting each other with sticks and their fists,” Castor told Compass from his home by phone. “Some people were on top of buildings throwing stones; it was like a civil war.”

Sectarian tensions have previously flared in the village. Last July, when Castor first moved to Ezbet Boshra-East with his family, Muslims vandalized Christians’ farmlands and poisoned their domestic animals after services took place at the building owned by the church, according to International Christian Concern.

Since last July’s incidents, authorities have stipulated that only two Christians at a time can visit the building, and according to Castor this was the source of the fighting that erupted in front of the building on Sunday. The neighbors thought he was conducting a prayer meeting and not adhering to the rule set by local authorities.

In the violent clash in front of the church-owned building, 17 Christians and eight Muslims were estimated to have been injured. According to various reports, nearly 19 Coptic Christians were arrested and released the following day, along with the injured Muslims.

So far there is no concrete information on how the Christians were treated while in prison. During the arrests of the Christians, police vandalized many of their homes. Egyptian sources told Compass that police often turn the homes of those whom they arrest “upside down.”

Soon after the clashes, electricity and phone services were cut. Electricity was restored after 24 hours, but at press time telephones were still not operating. All communications happen via mobile phones.

Authorities also imposed a 6 p.m. curfew on the entire village, but Castor said Christians were too afraid to come out of their homes and were living off personal food stockpiles. He also said that a number of families had left the village to stay with friends and relatives in nearby towns and villages. Eyewitnesses visiting Ezbet Boshra-East yesterday confirmed that although there were Muslim villagers outside, there were no Christians walking on the streets.

Procedures vs. Tolerance

There is no church building in Ezbet Boshra-East, and so far the Coptic Church has not sought to obtain permission to build one. Nor has it officially applied for permission to use the three-story building as a place of prayer as an official association.

When a reporter from a major Egyptian TV channel asked Castor by telephone whether he had obtained permission for prayer and worship for the building purchased by the church, he responded, “Do I need to have permission if I was called to pray for a sick person?” He admitted in the interview, however, that obtaining permission would help to avoid clashes and that authorities should grant it quickly.

There are other villages around Ezbet Boshra-East, such as Talt three kilometers away, where there are Coptic associations. Also, official churches are established in Ezbet Boshra-West and El Fashn, both 15 kilometers (nine miles) away.

Castor said poor Muslim-Christian relations are reflected in the lack of an area church.

“There is no love or tolerance for each other, and I think this is wrong,” Castor said. “I’m worried about the future. I’m worried about the freedom of religion and the inability to build churches. There is bias. It is unfair and unacceptable that people don’t have the freedom of worship. If the current policies continue, the hate will continue.”

The village-wide violence on Sunday harkened to sectarian violence in Upper Egypt in 2000 in the area of El Kosheh, said Ibrahim Habib, chairman of U.K.-based United Copts.

“This degree of radicalization is a bad sign for the future of Egypt, when there is so much hate for people who are basically peaceful and just want to pray,” said Habib.

Egypt’s constitution provides for freedom of religion and worship under Article 46.

“What’s the value of a statement like this if it is not put into action?” he said of Article 46, adding that when government agencies do not promote freedom of worship but instead “become agents of persecution, they make a mockery of the constitution.”

Habib also expressed dismay that a whole village took umbrage only because they suspected a prayer meeting.

“How can private worship annoy people?” he said. “They are not broadcasting it. This is not fair. I’m really annoyed. They say Islam is tolerant, but is this tolerant? This is not tolerant at all.”

Other Non-Governmental Organizations in Egypt said that they expect reconciliation meetings to take place in Ezbet Boshra-East in the coming weeks.

Report from Compass Direct News

CHINESE HOUSE CHURCH LEADER PASTOR ‘BIKE’ ARRESTED


A leading Chinese Christian human rights organization says a prominent House Church leader has been re-arrested, and that another Chinese believer will stand trial this week, reports Michael Ireland, chief correspondent, ASSIST News Service.

ChinaAid says in two media releases made available to the Press, that at 6 a.m. on March 21, 2009, more than a dozen police officers arrested and interrogated Pastor “Bike” Zhang Mingxuan, head of the more than 250,000-member Chinese House Church Alliance.

ChinaAid says officers confiscated three cell phones, bank cards and more than 150,000 yuan from one of the accounts, before forcefully searching him and threatening him with death.

In its media release, ChinaAid says: “Three hours later, Beijing authorities turned Pastor Bike over to three police officers from Pastor Bike’s hometown in Nanyang city, Henan province. Police then escorted Pastor Bike back to Nanyang by train, and where he was questioned by local police. Beijing authorities later returned the bank cards and cell phones, but kept the 150,000 yuan.”

The following is Pastor Bike’s statement regarding the arrest and the events leading up to the arrest, made available to Western media:

Complaints by Pastor Bike Zhang: Illegally Arrested and Property Confiscated by Beijing PSB

“I (Pastor Bike Zhang Mingxuan) was informed about the apartment contract dispute case by Chaoyang District Court, Beijing [Pastor Bike and his family were illegally forced from their apartment in October 2008 by the apartment owner who was being pressured from government authorities.]. We (my younger son and friends) arrived at Yanjiao town, Hebei province at 10 p.m. on March 16, 2009.

“At 8:00 a.m. on the 17th, Beijing PSB officer Jianfeng Liang, who arrested me before the Olympic Games, called and wanted to have a friendly visit with me. I knew he was pretending. He insisted that he needed to see me that day. We met in a restaurant in Beiguan, Tongzhou at noon.

“From March 17 to 19, we stayed in Yanjiao town, Hebei. On March 20, I was at Brother Wu’s home to baptize his sister-in-law. Due to the lateness of the hour [when the baptism was over] and the heavy traffic, I decided to stay at Brother Wu’s home that night.

“At 6 a.m. on March 21, more than a dozen policemen and local leaders arrived from Yongle town, Tongzhou district. They pulled up in three cars and stopped by Wu’s house. They arrested and interrogated me, and confiscated my three cell phones and bank cards. They harshly interrogated me, and forced me to their office in Yongle town. The plainclothes officers did not show their IDs. They searched me all over my body. They abused me and threatened to kill me. They forcibly confiscated my three mobile phones and bank cards (a Communication Bank card; a Pacific Bank Card which had 150,000 yuan in deposits). They said they were temporarily seizing it. At 9 a.m., they told me that my friends from my hometown wanted to see me. I met three policemen who came from Nanyang city in Henan Province. They had already arrived at Beijing on the 20th. Beijing authorities handed me over to the three policemen. At that time I responded to them. The PSB of Beijing had already premeditated to attack me through Officer Jianfeng Liang.

“The three policemen and I rode back to Nanyang by train (number k183). We arrived at Nanyang city at 6:00 am. They arranged for me to stay at Wenqun hotel. A PSB officer asked about all my travels over the past days, and told me the reason they wanted to know is because Beijing officers requested the information. I was released at 5:00pm. They returned my cell phones and my blank bank cards. They said the debit card (which had 150,000 Yuan deposits) was being held by the PSB of Beijing.”

Pastor Bike states: “I am not against the law as a citizen.

“The police arrested me and detained my property illegally. They deprived me of my human rights as a citizen, freedom and right of residence. They arrested me several times during the Olympic Games. They beat my son. After the Olympic Games, they promised to allow my family to live in Beijing, but they lied. This is arbitrary deprivation of civil rights. I implore people of conscience in the international community, as well as Christians worldwide to pray for the Chinese public security authorities in Beijing, that they would realize their offense. Please pray that our Lord Jesus Christ would change their hearts, that they would stop persecuting house churches. Pray for the revival of China in true faith, and for the reality of harmonious policy by the Central Government.”

Meanwhile, in another high-profile case, ChinaAid says that Shi Weihan, who has been in prison since March 19, 2008 for printing and distributing Christian books and Bibles without government permission, will stand trial at the People’s Court of Haidan District, Beijing on April 9 at 9 a.m. local time.

In its media release on this case, ChinaAid says: “Over the past months, several scheduled court appearances have been postponed. Shi Weihan’s official charge is for ‘illegal business practices,’ however, a judge has held, at least twice, that there is not sufficient evidence to convict him on this charge. Nevertheless, police have continued to hold Shi Weihan in order collect additional evidence to gain a conviction.”

ChinaAid reports that sources report that Shi Weihan did sign a confession stating that he had printed books and Bibles without government permission, but that they had been given away as gifts, not sold. Therefore, his actions did not constitute “illegal business practices.”

According to ChinaAid sources, in the confession Shi Weihan stated that his reason for printing the books was that many churches and Christians lacked Bibles and Christian literature, which made them vulnerable to cults. Sources say Shi Weihan also stated that he had observed the change that occurred wherever the books and Bibles were available; how people’s lives were transformed and that they became better citizens. Because of that, Shi Weihan maintained that what he had done was with honorable motives and was also good for China.

ChinaAid sources reported, “Shi’s character and good influence on the other prisoners has apparently been noted by prison officials, and he reportedly has had some favor in that setting, although the conditions have been difficult and his health has suffered. … pray that … the judge recognizes what the officials in the prison have [recognized] — that Shi Weihan is a man of great mercy and compassion, that he is a blessing to China ….”

Currently, Shi Weihan’s wife is bearing much of the burden for the family. According to friends, her main concern is caring for their two daughters and continuing the house church work. Authorities continue to pressure the family. ChinaAid calls all Christians and concerned individuals in the international community to speak out on behalf of Shi Weihan and request his immediate release.

Report from the Christian Telegraph