Rugby League: Some Thoughts on the Melbourne Storm


Like many rugby league fans I was stunned by the breaking news concerning the Melbourne Storm on Thursday evening. The Storm were never my number one team – that was Parramatta. However, the Storm were a team that I admired greatly, a brilliantly coached football team that had dominated rugby league in Australia for the last five years. They were the team to beat and they beat Parramatta in the Grand Final of 2009. Most fair-minded fans of the game were in awe of the Melbourne Storm and I used to love their football.

Now I feel cheated, as most rugby league fans do. Given the mighty resurgence of Parramatta in the lead up to last year’s Grand Final and their appearance in the Grand Final after some incredible wins in the finals, I felt the loss of the Grand Final along with the other Parramatta supporters – but the team had done their best and they hadn’t chocked.

Now we learn that they were playing an unfairly talent inflated team, paid for my illegal means and under the table payments, in total disregard of the salary cap rules that Parramatta and the other teams in the NRL were adhering to. The Parramatta team were playing a cheating team. Certainly many of the players and even some of the team management appear to have known nothing about the salary cap breaches. Yet by the actions of a few, the entire team were in fact cheats.

Parramatta have a right to feel cheated out of a premiership last year and Manly two years before that. These teams didn’t win the Grand Finals they played in, they lost them, so they don’t deserve the premiership title either. But it would have been a fairer opportunity for premiership glory to have been playing on a level playing field.

Shame on Melbourne – what hollow victories you had in 2007 and 2009, and what hollow minor premierships you gained from 2006 to 2008. At the moment I believe the Storm should be removed from the NRL completely – however, in time that view will be tempered, should the stories of players and officials of the Storm not knowing about the cheating prove true. At the moment however, it is difficult to believe that more people within the Melbourne Storm didn’t know about the cheating – including the players who received the extra payments.

More is to be revealed concerning this story in days to come I think.

 

Deadline for re-registration passes; churches face illegal status


Oppressive new laws in Azerbaijan and Tajikistan required religious communities to re-register with the government by January 1, 2010 or face illegal status. As of December 16, only about 100 of Azerbaijan’s 534 religious communities had been able to do so. Fewer than half of Tajikistan’s religious communities re-registered, reports MNN.

According to Joel Griffith of Slavic Gospel Association, officials place obstructions in the paths of churches trying to re-register.

"They will find some technicality or basically any reason to deny registration. So even if some of the groups actually follow the law to the letter and meet the requirements, it just seems very arbitrary and capricious as to whether the officials will agree to register to not," he explained.

It’s unclear how strictly the governments of the two nations will enforce their laws.

"In the worst case scenario…they could basically close congregations down and impose pretty stiff penalties," Griffith said. "In the best case scenario…unless they agree to fully repeal these statues or amend these laws, I think we need to just hope and pray that even though they’re on the books, these things won’t be enforced."

That’s often the case in countries that have similar laws. The new laws include other burdensome requirements in addition to the re-registration mandate. Azerbaijan’s law requires religious communities to provide more information for registration and to obtain approval to build or rebuild places of worship. It also prohibits the sale of religious literature in unapproved locations and religious activity outside registered addresses.

Tajikistan’s religion law censors religious literature, bans state officials from founding religious communities, requires state approval to invite foreigners for religious visits or to travel abroad for religious events, and restricts children’s religious activity and education.

Christians in Azerbaijan are especially concerned about how courts might interpret unclear provisions in the law. They fear a loose interpretation could penalize "peaceful religious activity." Griffith quoted a passage from the law and explained the issue.

"‘The community formulates its relations with other religious confessions on the basis of religious toleration (tolerance), respect and the avoidance of conflict,’ and the community cannot use violence or the threat of violence in proclaiming its faith. Well, if you don’t define those terms, such as ‘respect and the avoidance of conflict’…you could almost say that Christian evangelism could even be illegal under a formulation like that."

Since Christians believe in only one means of salvation — Jesus Christ — it would be entirely possible for disagreement with other religious groups to be interpreted as "conflict." However, Christians are not the only people worried about the potential impact of the law.

"It’s not just Christians that are concerned; we’ve got Muslim groups that are concerned. These are largely Muslim nations," Griffith said. "I think there are a number of people that are concerned about what this will possibly do down the road."

No matter what does happen, the Christian church will remain committed to the Gospel.

"Regardless of what happens in these countries, the churches still have their marching orders from the Lord: to proclaim the Gospel," Griffith said. "And no matter what man does, they’re going to continue to proclaim the Gospel."

Christians in Tajikistan and Azerbaijan need the prayers and support of their fellow believers. SGA has been supporting churches in the former Soviet Union for 75 years, and it continues to support churches in these two countries.

"It’s important to help them take advantage of every open door they can find to share the Gospel," Griffith said. "It might be through supporting a church-planting missionary; it might be through providing Russian-language Bibles and literature; it may be through helping to support in-country training, and sometimes that training has to take place quietly…. But for churches here in the West that have the resources, it’s important to support our brothers and sisters there who don’t have the resources that we do."

Report from the Christian Telegraph 

Imprisoned Christian in Somaliland on Hunger Strike


Convert from Islam jailed for allegedly distributing Christian literature.

NAIROBI, Kenya, October 16 (CDN) — A convert from Islam in Somalia’s self-declared state of Somaliland has staged a hunger strike to protest his transfer to a harsh prison in a remote part of the country.

Osman Nour Hassan was arrested on Aug. 3 for allegedly providing Christian literature in Pepsi village, on the outskirts of the breakaway region’s capital city, Hargeisa. On Sept. 9 authorities transferred him from Hargeisa to Mandere prison, 60 kilometers (37 miles) away – a difficult, week-long trip for visitors that is expensive by Somali standards.

“Hassan is in really terrible shape,” a Christian source told Compass. “He is very discouraged.”

In August the Muslims who accused Hassan met with his family, also Muslim, and agreed that Islamic teachers, or sheikhs, should go to see him in jail to advise him on Islamic doctrine. Two sheikhs met him in the police station cell and implored him to stop spreading Christianity. Hassan refused.

“His family together with the sheikhs requested the prison to make his situation more harsh, as a form of punishment, with the hope that he would recant the Christian faith and return to Islam,” said the source on condition of anonymity. “So far the family has been silent about Hassan’s situation and gives him no support.”

Promotion of any religion other than Islam in Somaliland is prohibited, contrary to international standards for religious freedom such as Article 18 of the U.N. Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Article 5(1-2) of the Somaliland constitution states that Islam is the state religion and prohibits the promotion of any other faith, according to the U.S. Department of State’s 2008 International Religious Freedom Report, and Article 313 outlines penalties for Muslims who change their religion.

Authorities have thwarted efforts to secure an attorney for Hassan by insisting that he cannot appeal his sentence, the source said. No Christian has ever tried to address a religious rights violation through the courts in Somaliland, he said.

“He is in need of a lawyer to help him, which seems not forthcoming,” he said. “But he cannot be allowed the right to a defense anyway. He feels neglected, so he rejected to eat food to protest the mistreatment.”

Local authorities have embarked on a crackdown of underground Christians in the predominantly Muslim area, according to three Somaliland Christians who have fled the country. Several underground Christians have either been killed, arrested or fled their homes as Islamists try to stop the clandestine distribution of Bibles, sources said.

Hassan was accused of providing Christian literature to a village Muslim boy, who later showed it to his family and friends. The boy’s Muslim family reported the incident to the police, sources said, leading to the arrest of the 29-year-old Hassan.

“His stand is that he had only one Christian material in his possession for learning purposes and not for spreading the faith,” the Christian source said. “Hassan needs a lawyer to advocate for his case, because [for someone who was once Muslim] to practice Christianity in Somaliland or another religion apart from Islam is illegal.”

In spite of his discouragement, Hassan recently said he is adhering to Christ.

“I still belong to Jesus,” he said. “I know one day I’m sure I will be released, and my physical health is okay, but psychologically I feel very anxious and stressed. Please continue praying for me.”

Report from Compass Direct News 

A Chinese pastor secretly transferred to a labor camp


A Chinese pastor, currently serving a sentence for ‘illegal activities’ while leading his church, has been transferred to a labor camp in Henan Province, China, reports Michael Ireland, chief correspondent, ASSIST News Service.

ChinaAid says that on June 29, about 3 p.m., Pastor Dou Shaowen was secretly transferred to Shifo Re-education Through Labor Center in Zhengzhou city, Henan province.

The Christian human rights group says authorities still have not informed his family of his transfer. Pastor Dou is currently serving a one-year sentence of re-education through labor for ‘engaging in illegal activities’ because of his leadership of Rock (Panshi) Church.

ChinaAid says: “Pastor Dou was first arrested on June 14 when government officials raided and forcibly abolished and sealed Rock Church’s building, a house church in Zhengzhou city, Henan. Police arrested him, his wife Feng Lu and five other believers. Pastor Dou and Feng Lu received one-year re-education through labor sentences, while the five other believers were each sentenced to 15 days detention and a 500 yuan ($74USD) fine.”

ChinaAid goes on to say that Pastor Dou was held in Jinshui Branch Detention Center of Zhengzhou City until June 25, when at about 6:30 p.m., he was transferred to Baimiao Re-education Through Labor Center located on Wenhua Road, Zhengzhou city.

ChinaAid contacts reported: “He was given inhuman treatment in the re-education through labor center. When he wanted to talk to the police officers, he was forced to squat. He worked 18 hours a day from 6 a.m. to 12 a.m. midnight. Over 70 people sleep in a room. Due to the hot weather and the poor sanitary conditions…some prisoners have eczema, herpes and other skin diseases. They have to work 18 hours a day without enough to eat.”

At about 3 p.m. on June 29, Pastor Dou was transferred to Shifo Re-education through Labor Center where conditions are reported to be worse.

According to a ChinaAid media update, authorities have permitted Pastor Dou’s wife, Feng Lu, to serve her one-year sentence at home, in order to care for their 12-year-old daughter.

The news release says: “When Feng Lu went to see her husband at the Baimiao Re-education Through Labor Center, she was told she was not allowed to visit him for a month, and was not informed he would be transferred to another labor camp. Feng Lu is required to report to the Public Security Bureau regularly, and could be sent to labor camp again if she is found ‘engaging in illegal religious activities’ again.”

ChinaAid explains that Rock Church’s gathering site is still sealed at this time, and authorities have refused to release the computer and other materials that were confiscated in the raid on June 14.

Rock Church recently released a ‘Declaration on June 14 Incident by Rock Church of Zhengzhou’ to the international community and a petition to the Chinese government.

In the declaration, the Christians of Rock Church state, “We hope the government can give us justice, give back our innocence, cancel the penalties of one year of re-education through labor for Dou Shaowen and Feng Lu immediately, protect the normal religious life of the believers, severely punish those people who committed crimes when they are supposed to enforce the law and apologize to all the believers.”

Report from the Christian Telegraph 

Repressive Religion Law and new punishments enter force


Azerbaijan’s repressive new Religion Law slid in under the radar, reports MNN.

Joel Griffith with Slavic Gospel Association says it’s been modified since the last time they saw it. “It appears that this is a little bit worse than what we thought it was going to be. Just looking at parts of this legislation, now in force as of May 31, it seems like there have been some new offenses that have been added to it as well as some new penalties.”

Some of the changes include severe censorship and harsher punishments. These were introduced for religious activities and agencies the government does not like.

Griffith went on to say that all registered religious organizations must re-register by 1 January 2010, the third time re-registration has been demanded in less than twenty years. Earlier re-registration rounds saw many churches and ministries fail to regain their legal status.

He agrees with the assessment of Forum 18, that the wording implies unregistered organizations are illegal.

As it is, under the existing rules, Griffith says they’ve already felt the heat. “We’ve had several evangelical pastors jailed because of their ministry. So it seems, at least within Azerbaijan, that there is an intent to try to crack down on evangelical churches.”

However, there are some unexpected allies. According to Forum 18, Parliamentary Deputy Fazil Gazanfarolgu Mustafaev said, “the new Religion Law will limitpeople’s rights to freedom of conscience – that is clear.”

Gazanfarolgu added that public pressure may force parliamentary deputies to take another look at the Religion Law, given public unhappiness over the way religion is controlled.

Griffith adds that while it looks bad, it’s too early to know how much evangelistic work could be at risk. “How this new law is going to be enforced, only time will tell. As I say, we have seen at least some in Parliament who are wanting to believe that there will be some public pressure brought to bear to have this re-examined, so I think this needs to be our chief hope and prayer.”

Report from the Christian Telegraph

ALGERIA: CHRISTIANS ACQUITTED IN BLASPHEMY CASE


Verdict suggests Algerian government could be softening crackdown on Christians.

ISTANBUL, October 29 (Compass Direct News) – A court in northwestern Algeria today acquitted three Christians charged with blaspheming Islam and threatening a member of their congregation who re-converted to Islam.

The acquittal was announced in a court at Ain El-Turck, 15 kilometers (nine miles) west of the coastal city of Oran. The defendants believe the judge’s decision to acquit was due to the spurious evidence used against them.

The acquittal also comes as part of a larger trend of the Algerian government bowing to negative international media attention and government condemnations of such cases, they said.

Defendant Youssef Ourahmane said that as a result, a recent government crackdown against evangelical Christians has eased off in recent months.

“We had noticed the last four or five months the government is trying to back down a little bit,” Ourahmane said. “I think the pressure on them has been strong, such as condemnations from the U.S. and foreign ministries from France, Italy, Switzerland, Austria and Spain. This pressure from outside has embarrassed the Algerian government very much.”

Algerian courts have handed several suspended sentences to local evangelicals in the last year under a recent presidential decree that prohibits proselytizing Muslims. No Christian, however, has served prison time on religious charges.

Ourahmane, Rachid Muhammad Essaghir, and a third man were charged in February with “blaspheming the name of the Prophet [Muhammad] and Islam” and threatening the life of a man who claimed to have converted to Christianity but who “returned” to Islam when his fundamentalist ties were exposed.

The first hearing of the three men took place on Oct. 21 in Ain El-Turck. A lawyer appointed by the Ministry of Religion also joined the hearing and surprised the defendants by supporting their plight.

The lawyer affirmed the rights of religious minorities such as Christians in Algeria. The Christians present said she would like the case to be closed.

A prosecutor in the case had sought three years of prison for the three men and a fine of 50,000 dinars (653 euros) for each.

Taking the stand last week, the three men were asked whether they had blasphemed Muhammad and threatened Shamouma Al-Aid, the convert and plaintiff. Al-Aid had professed Christianity from July 2004 through July 2006, when he attended a church near Oran. It was there that he met the Christians, against whom he later filed the blasphemy complaint.

Essaghir, an evangelist and church elder for a small community of Muslim converts to Christianity in Tiaret, has been one of the most targeted Christians in Algeria.

In the last year he has received three sentences, one for blasphemy and two for evangelism. Police stopped Essaghir and another man in June 2007 while transporting Christian literature. As a result they were convicted in absentia in November 2007 and given a two-year sentence and 5,000-euro fines. The Protestants requested a retrial, and the charges were dropped at a hearing in June.

Asked if he could explain why he and other Christians were under fire by Islamists, he told Compass that Muslims felt menaced by the existence of Christianity and its rise in Algeria.

“We are attacked because Muslims feel threatened by us,” said Essaghir. “There are many people who are coming to Christ.”

When the three accused Christians met Al-Aid, he claimed that his family was persecuting him, so they took him in to their church community. But in 2006 the Christians learned that Al-Aid in fact had links with Islamic fundamentalists.

After excommunicating Al-Aid, in October 2007 the three Christians were summoned by police when Al-Aid registered his complaint that they had insulted Muhammad and Islam and threatened his life.

“But the accusations against us are unfounded,” Essaghir told Compass last week by phone. “There is no proof, but we are being condemned because there is no justice.”

Ourahmane said that Al-Aid had shown the police text messages to support his claims, but that police said the number had not been registered with telecommunications services.

With their fresh acquittal, the three Christians could open a case against Al-Aid for bringing a case against them based on spurious evidence, according to Algerian law.

Instead, they want to offer their forgiveness, Ourahmane said.

“We have decided to forgive him and will communicate we are all ready to help him if he needs any help,” he said. “We are in touch with him through one of our team members, and if he is thirsty or hungry we are more than happy to help.”

 

Pressure on Algeria’s Church

The three acquitted men are just a few of the Algerian Christians who have come under legal heat in a wave of trials this year against the country’s tiny evangelical church.

Habiba Kouider, facing a three-year sentence after police stopped her while she was carrying several Christian books, has been kicked out of her family’s home. Kouider’s brothers learned about her conversion to Christianity after her case sparked national and international media attention.

In most cases the Christians have been charged under a presidential decree from February 2006 that restricts religious worship to government-approved buildings. The decree, known as Ordinance 06-03, also outlaws any attempt to convert Muslims to another faith.

The international community has been vocal about the Algerian government’s stance toward Christians. On June 6, some 30 U.S. congressmen sent a letter to Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika.

They addressed human rights violations resulting from Ordinance 06-03, which has resulted in the closures of churches and criminal charges against Christians.

Algeria’s constitution guarantees freedom of religion, but loose terminology in its penal code – such as Article 144, which calls for up to five years of prison for “anyone who offends the Prophet and denigrates the tenets of Islam” – has allowed judges to give Islamic practice the force of law.

On Sept. 29 six men in Biskra, 420 kilometers (260 miles) south of Algiers, were sentenced to four years of prison for eating in public before sunset during the month of Ramadan, according to Algerian national daily Liberte. Muslims are required to abstain from eating and drinking between sunrise and sunset during this 30-day period.

An Oct. 6 editorial in Algerian daily El Watan lamented the decision as proof that religious rights were eroding in Algeria.

“The divine law itself does not provide for severe penalties, and even the Taliban regime is not as strict,” said editorial writer Reda Bekkat. “One can imagine a judge tomorrow questioning people [who were] walking on the streets at the hour of prayer because they are not at the mosque.”  

Report from Compass Direct News