Iranian Authorities Release Assyrian Pastor on Bail


Accused of ‘converting Muslims,’ church leader faces trial – and threat of murder.

ISTANBUL, April 5 (CDN) — An Assyrian pastor the Iranian government accused of “converting Muslims” has been released from prison on bail and is awaiting trial.

The Rev. Wilson Issavi, 65, was released from Dastgard prison in Isfahan last week. Conflicting reports indicated Issavi was released sometime between Sunday (March 28) and Tuesday morning (March 30).

On Feb. 2, State Security Investigations (SSI) agents arrested Issavi shortly after he finished a house meeting at a friend’s home in Isfahan. Along with the accusation of “converting Muslims,” the pastor is charged with not co-operating with police, presumably for continuing to hold such house meetings after police sealed the Evangelical Church of Kermanshah and ordered him not to reopen it.

After his arrest, Issavi was held at an unmarked prison facility in Isfahan and apparently tortured, according to a Christian woman who fled Iran and knows Issavi and his family. The Christian woman, who requested anonymity for security reasons, said Issavi’s wife, Medline Nazanin, visited the pastor at the unmarked facility. Nazanin said it was obvious Issavi had been tortured, the Christian told Compass.

Issavi’s confinement cells were so filthy he contracted a life-threatening infection, Nazanin told the Christian woman.

“They took him to the hospital and then returned him back to the prison,” the woman said.

Friends of Issavi added that he is still dealing with the lingering effects of the infection.

During Issavi’s imprisonment, authorities threatened to execute him, sources close to the case said. The joy of Issavi’s family at his release was tinged with fear as they waited in agony for the possibility of him being killed by Islamic extremists, as is common in Iran when Christians are detained for religious reasons and then released.

“Sometimes they release you just to kill you,” the Christian source said.

Issavi has not been informed of his trial date.

Issavi’s friend said that low-key ethnic Christians, such as the Assyrians, are largely unbothered for long periods of time. Active Christians are treated differently.

“When you start evangelizing, then you are in real trouble,” she said.

Iranian authorities have set up a video camera outside Issavi’s church to monitor anyone going in or out of the building, according to the pastor’s friend.

Issavi was one of a few Christians in leadership positions arrested in Isfahan in February during what some Middle Eastern experts described as a crackdown on area church leadership.

Isfahan, a city of more than 1.5 million people located 208 miles (335 kilometers) south of Tehran, has been the site of other anti-Christian persecution. In an incident in July 2008, two Christians died as a result of injuries received from police who were breaking up a house meeting.

On Feb. 28, Isfahan resident Hamid Shafiee and his wife Reyhaneh Aghajary, both converts from Islam and house church leaders, were arrested at their home.

Police handcuffed, beat and pepper-sprayed Aghajary and then took her to prison. Her husband Shafiee, who was away from the house when police arrived, was arrested an hour later when he returned to the house. Approximately 20 police officers raided the home, seizing Bibles, CDs, photographs, computers, telephones, personal items and other literature.

The couple is still being held. Other details about their detainment are unknown.

Three Christians Released

Elsewhere, three Christians arrested on Dec. 24, 2009 have been released, according to Farsi Christian News Network (FCNN).

Maryam Jalili, Mitra Zahmati, and Farzan Matin were initially arrested along with 12 other Christians at a home in Varamin. Eventually they were transferred to Tehran’s notorious Evin Prison, though the other 12 prisoners were conditionally released on Jan. 4. 

Jalili, Zahmati and Matin were freed on March 17, though terms of their release were unclear. Jalili is married and has two children.

Iran has a longstanding history of religious repression. Shia Islam is the official state religion and is ensconced as such in Iran’s constitution. Every year since 1999, the U.S. Secretary of State has designated Iran as a “Country of Particular Concern” for its persecution of Christians and other religious minorities.

According to the 2009 International Religious Freedom Report issued by the U.S. Department of State, persecution of Christians and other religious minorities in Iran continued to get significantly worse.

“Christians, particularly evangelicals, continued to be subject to harassment and close surveillance,” the report states. “The government vigilantly enforced its prohibition on proselytizing by closely monitoring the activities of evangelical Christians, discouraging Muslims from entering church premises, closing churches, and arresting Christian converts.”

Report from Compass Direct News 

Iranian Pastor Tortured, Threatened for ‘Converting Muslims’


Arrest, imprisonment appear to be part of larger crackdown in Isfahan.

ISTANBUL, March 8 (CDN) — An Assyrian pastor the Iranian government accused of “converting Muslims” is being tortured in prison and threatened with execution, sources close to the case said.

State Security agents on Feb. 2 arrested the Rev. Wilson Issavi, 65, shortly after he finished a house meeting at a friend’s home in Isfahan. A city of more than 1.5 million people, Isfahan is located 208 miles (335 kilometers) south of Tehran.

According to Farsi Christian News Network, Issavi’s wife, Medline Nazanin, recently visited her husband in prison, where she saw that he had obvious signs of torture and was in poor condition. Iranian intelligence officials told Nazanin that her husband might be executed for his alleged activities.

Issavi is the pastor of The Evangelical Church of Kermanshah in Isfahan, a 50-year-old church body affiliated with The Assemblies of God that caters to the local Assyrian population.

During the raid, State Security police detained everyone in the house, later releasing all but Issavi and the owner of the home. Security officials also seized personal property from the home. Typically in Christian arrests in Iran, security officials confiscate all documents, media materials, computers, and personal documentation.

Issavi is being held in an unmarked prison, according to FCNN.

Last month’s arrest seems to be part of an anti-Christian sweep that is taking place across Isfahan. In addition to the politically motivated detentions and executions that have taken place after June’s contested election and subsequent nation-wide political protests, it appears authorities are rounding up Christian leaders.

More Arrests

On Feb. 28, Isfahan residents Hamid Shafiee and his wife Reyhaneh Aghajary, both converts from Islam and house church leaders, were arrested at their home.

Aghajary was at home with a group of other Christians when police came for her and her husband, who was not at home, according to Middle East Concern, a group that assists persecuted Christians. Police handcuffed Aghajary and, upon finding boxes of Bibles, began beating her.

The assault continued until eventually Aghajary was pepper-sprayed and removed from the scene. Her husband Shafiee was arrested an hour later when he returned to the house.

Their fate and whereabouts are still unknown.

Authorities assaulted another Christian visiting the house at the time of the raid when he protested the police action. Other Christians at the house were threatened, but no one else was arrested. Approximately 20 police officers raided the home, seizing Bibles, CDs, photographs, computers, telephones, personal items and other literature.

One regional analyst, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said the Iranian government is set on crushing religious freedom within the country.

“The recent spate of church leader arrests provides clear evidence of the Iranian authorities’ desperate determination to strangle the growing church movement, along with all other forms of perceived political dissent,” he said.

February’s arrest was not the first time Shafiee has had run-ins with Iranian authorities. He has routinely been ordered to appear before police for questioning and then released. This arrest, however, was different. When family members contacted police on March 1, they were told that the couple’s case was under the jurisdiction of the Revolutionary Court and were turned away with no other information.

While the couple is imprisoned, family members are caring for their two teenage boys.

Frequent Harassment

Like Shafiee, Issavi has been harassed frequently by the Isfahan branch of the State Security police. He has been ordered to appear before the police many times, then arrested and interrogated. In addition, police have threatened members of his family and have broken into his house and taken items such as his computer.

On Jan. 2, 2010, police sealed the Kermanshah church and ordered Issavi not to reopen it. The church continued to have house meetings, and authorities charged Issavi with not cooperating with the government.

The Assyrians were one of the first ethnic groups in the Middle East to adopt Christianity. The existence of the Assyrian Christian community in Iran predates the existence of their Islamic counterparts by several hundred years. There are 10,000 to 20,000 Assyrian Christians living in Iran, according to unofficial estimates cited in the 2009 International Religious Freedom Report issued by the U.S. Department of State. The total Christian population is 300,000 nationwide, according to the United Nations. Most of those Christians are ethnic Armenians.

Isfahan has been the site of some of the worst religious persecution in Iran. On July 30, 2008, Abbas Amiri, a Christian man in his 60s, died in a hospital after being beaten by Isfahan security police. Authorities had arrested Amiri along with seven other men, six women and two minors during a July 17 raid on a house meeting. Four days after her husband died, Sakineh Rahnama succumbed to her injuries and a stress-related heart attack. Later, officials wouldn’t allow local Christians to hold a memorial service.

Iran, where Shia Islam is the official state religion, is known to be one of the worst countries for repression against Christians. The U.S. Secretary of State has designated Iran as a Country of Particular Concern every year since 1999 for its persecution of non-Shia Muslims, among others.

Last year, according to the International Religious Freedom Report, persecution of Christians and other religious minorities continued to get “significantly worse.” The state department placed the blame for this squarely at the feet of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Iran’s conservative media, who “intensified a campaign against non-Muslim religious minorities, and political and religious leaders” by issuing a continual stream of inflammatory statements.

“Christians, particularly evangelicals, continued to be subject to harassment and close surveillance,” the report states. “The government vigilantly enforced its prohibition on proselytizing by closely monitoring the activities of evangelical Christians, discouraging Muslims from entering church premises, closing churches, and arresting Christian converts.”

Evangelical Christians were required to carry church membership cards and provide photocopies to authorities, according to the report.

“Worshippers were subject to identity checks by authorities posted outside congregation centers,” it states. “The government restricted meetings for evangelical services to Sundays, and church officials were ordered to inform the Ministry of Information and Islamic Guidance before admitting new members.”

Report from Compass Direct News 

Ministry reports thousands of Karen deaths in Myanmar


Atrocities are mounting in Burma–the country now known as Myanmar. Thousands of people have been killed by the military-led government. And many human rights workers say there’s no end in sight, reports MNN.

President of Vision Beyond Borders Patrick Klein just returned from the border of Myanmar and Thailand and says the situation is desperate. "The government seems like it’s intent on genocide. 500,000 people have died already. They say it surpasses Darfur because they document more than 3,300 villages that have been completely burned to the ground."

According to Klein, this is a strategic political move. "The government is trying to get rid of everybody who is in opposition to this current military regime. So, it’s not just the Karen, but the Karen seem to be receiving the brunt of it."

The issue has been addressed by the Harvard Law School’s report, "Crimes in Burma," but the rest of the world is ignoring it. Klein says, "It’s baffling to us because we can’t figure it out. Nobody seems to know what’s going on. Nobody seems to be interested. When we talk, people in the States say, ‘Really? That’s happening in Burma? Well, we need to know that.’"

I asked Klein if he thinks it’s genocide. "I heard one of the Burmese generals say, ‘By the year 2010′ (which isn’t that far away) ‘there will be no more Karen people left. We’re going to wipe them off the face of the earth. The only ones you’ll see will be in the photographs in the museums.’"

Klein says the international media seems to be ignoring the situation.

He says the Myanmar military isn’t the only offender. Burmese orphans, refugees in bordering Thailand, are being threatened by Thai officials. "The Thai border police want to send them back into Burma. There are land mines everywhere. They’re killing these people. And they want to send these kids back because they’re kind of working with the government, underhandedly, to get money kickbacks from the government to send these kids back in, to slaughter them."

Klein says the stories of evil abound. "We heard a story about an eight-year-old boy who was told by the Burmese military, in front of his family, to climb a tree and climb as high as he could. They held him at gun point. He climbed as high as he could, and they told him to jump down, or they would shoot [his family]. So, he jumped to his death in front of his family."

Vision Beyond Borders was able to take in rice, medical supplies, toys for Christmas, and Bibles. Klein says, "Even in the midst of all these atrocities, many people are getting saved. So we want to keep providing Bibles."

Klein says nobody expects the situation to improve. "The elections are coming up in Burma in March. They believe 50,000 to 100,000 more refugees will come into Thailand before the election, and probably 150,000 more after the election."

Christian actor Kirk Cameron has agreed to be the narrator for a documentary on the situation in Burma. "We want to get that out around the nation," says Klein, "to call the churches to pray and ask God to intervene in the country to bring down this wicked government."

Report from the Christian Telegraph 

INDIA: NEWS BRIEFS


Recent Incidents of Persecution

Maharashtra, January 30 (Compass Direct News) – Hindu extremists on Jan. 26 disrupted a baptism and thrashed believers at Gangapur Dam, Nashik district. The Times of India reported that as members of the Navjivan Fellowship Church were conducting a baptism ceremony at the dam, a group of 10 to 12 men armed with cricket stumps, iron rods and sticks arrived and beat those present, including women and children. They also damaged the car of one Christian. Winston Daniel, whose head was injured during the assault, told the national daily that the attack was so meticulously planned that the group left behind no clues to ascertain their identity. The Hindustan Times reported that Sangeeta Paulat, who also was injured, said the assailants shouted, “Jai Shri Ram [hail to Lord Ram]” while beating them. Suresh Patil suffered a head injury, and Himmat Wagh received hospital treatment for a fractured hand. Sanjay Pandit suffered a broken leg and was recovering at Nashik General (Civil) Hospital. A complaint was filed with Nashik Taluk police, and a case of rioting was registered against the unidentified men.

 

Andhra Pradesh – Hindu extremists from the Hindu extremist Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh on Jan. 26 vandalized and attacked the nuns at St. Mary School in Kadiri. The Christian Legal Association (CLA) reported that a mob of about 12 extremists led by Vishnuvardhan Reddy barged into the school premises accusing authorities of not hoisting the flag on India’s Republic day. The extremists destroyed furniture, window panes and attacked the sisters, and area pastors reported the incident to police. A deputy superintendent of police identified only as Sainad told Compass that school officials and the attackers reached a compromise. The CLA reported that the school principal said the students had not come to school as there was a solar eclipse, but that the flag had been hoisted inside the building.

 

Madhya Pradesh – Hindu extremists accused a pastor of “harming religious sentiments” in Sanjay Koyla Nagar, Anooppur district, according to the Christian Legal Association. On Jan. 18 police went to the house of pastor Paulose Venkatarao of an area Pentecostal church around midnight on a complaint filed by Hindutva (Hindu nationalist) extremists accusing the pastor of selling a book, “Dharam Nirpeksh Evam Hindutva,” which they said harmed the sentiments of the Hindus. The Evangelical Fellowship of India reported that police told the pastor to go to the police station at 1 a.m., following a three-day convention the church had organized on Jan. 16-18, attended by a team from Bible College of Nagaland and pastors from abroad. At the police station, officers reprimanded the pastor; he gave a statement saying he had no idea who was selling books at the convention. Police officials told Compass that the pastor was called to the station for his own security as the extremists were creating a disturbance. No case was registered against the pastor.

 

Chhattisgarh – On Jan. 18 about 1,000 Hindu extremists gathered in anti-Christian protest in Palnar, Dendewada. The Evangelical Fellowship of India reported that the extremists shouted anti-Christian slogans, asserting that they wanted to wipe out all Christians and their activities in the area. The Hindu extremists reportedly staged the protest in response to Christians who were arrested on Jan. 5 on charges of defiling an area Hindu temple. After several calls by Christian leaders, police came to the area and dispersed the crowd.

 

Andhra Pradesh – Suspected Hindu extremists on Jan. 16 attacked a pastor in Gunpula, Karimnagar district. The Global Council of Indian Christians reported that six persons with their faces masked barged into the house of pastor Yakobu Jacob and began assaulting him. They shaved his head and burned his house with all his belongings. The intolerant Hindus also shouted that there should not be any Christian pastor in the village. The pastor filed a police complaint, and officers at Potkapalli police station registered a case against the extremists. Sub-Inspector D. Pratab told Compass that a police investigation was continuing.

 

KarnatakaHindutva (Hindu nationalist) extremists on Jan. 11 forcibly entered the home of Christian converts in Amrthmahal Kavalu hamlet, near Tiptur town in Tumkur district. They verbally abused the four Christians there, burned their Bibles and forced them to the Honnavalli police station, according to the Global Council of Indian Christians. Identified only as Shankarappa and his wife Leelamama, and Shivappa and his wife Manjamma, the two brothers and their wives are the only Christians resident in the village. They worship at Calvary Gospel Centre in Tiptur town. The church’s pastor, Joy Jacob, told Compass that at around 10:30 p.m. nine local Hindu extremists barged into the house using foul language, falsely accused the Christians of forcible conversions and tore up and burned two Bibles. They threatened to burn down the Christians’ house if they continued to worship at the Calvary Gospel Centre. Police arrived and took the Christians to the police station as the extremists shouted Hindu chants along the way. On Jan. 12 about 9 a.m., Jacob went to the police station to register a complaint but officers refused to accept it. They instead arranged a compromise agreement, with the Christians forgiving the assailants.

 

Karnataka – Police on Jan. 9 arrested pastor Iswar Albannavar of the Throne of Grace Ministry in Gangavadi slum, Belgaum for forcible conversion, but when the accusations proved false they were held for promoting religious enmity. The Global Council of Indian Christians (GCIC) reported that Albannavar and his wife Renuka were conducting their regular weekly prayer meeting in their home for about 25 Christians, mostly recovering alcoholics, when police officials from Mala Maruthi police station stormed into the house. On the basis of a complaint filed by Hanmant Gargoti, officers falsely charged the pastor with forcible conversion and confiscated Bibles and hymn books, GCIC said. Police took the pastor and another Christian, Raju Kolkar, to the police station for questioning, after which Albannavar and Kolkar were sent to Belgaum Central Jail. An investigating officer identified only as Channakeshava told the Christian Legal Association that the two Christians were charged with promoting enmity between different groups on grounds of religion.

 

Karnataka – Four suspected Hindu extremists on motorbikes beat teacher James Victor Menezes, 52, a teacher at St. Legory’s School in Merlapadavu village near Mangalore on Jan. 7, reported the Daijiworld Media Network. Father Charles Menezes of the school told Compass that he strongly suspected the hand of Hindu extremists in the attack. On Jan. 2 the Catholic school had distributed Bibles; officials had announced that the Bibles were intended only for Christians, but a few others also picked up copies. The next day, protestors appeared in front of the school from Hindu groups, including the Srirama Sene (Army of Lord Ram). “The protestors falsely accused the schoolteachers of distributing Bibles to Hindus,” Fr. Meneze said. The beaten school teacher said he filed a complaint with the Kankanady police station, reportedly informing police that he would be able to identify the attackers, as they had also taken part in the protest. At press time no arrests had been made.

 

Chhattisgarh – Police on Jan. 5 arrested 10 Christians in Dantewada for allegedly defiling a Hindu temple. The Evangelical Fellowship of India reported that on Christmas Day around 40 Christians from the Bastar for Christ (BFC) house church in Palnar village, Dantewada had gone to Phulpad for a picnic and had inadvertently left behind a few paper plates and some food. Unidentified mischief-makers gathered up the leftovers and piled them at a small Hindu temple nearby, then took photographs of the supposed defilement. Local sources told Compass that on Dec. 28 and Jan. 4, area Hindu extremists disrupted a prayer service at the BFC house church, and on Jan. 5 police from Kua Kunda arrested associate pastor Shankar Sona and nine other Christians based on a police complaint filed by a Hindu extremist using the photograph as evidence. Police charged the Christians with damaging or defiling a place of worship, and they were all released on bail the same day.

 

Madhya Pradesh – Police on Jan. 5 arrested Christians in Kushalpura village, near Rajgarh in Dhar district after Hindu extremists attacked them. Dr. Sajan K. George of the Global Council of Indian Christians, said that pastor Kantilal Bhuria of Philadelphia Church was conducting a house-blessing service at the home of Badar Baria when nearly 10 members of the Hindu extremist Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh and Vishwa Hindu Parishad stormed into the house, assaulted the Christians and falsely accused the pastor of forcible conversion. The extremists phoned police, and as is customary in India officers jailed the victims of the Hindu extremist aggression. Pastor Bhuria and Baria were taken to the Sardarpur police station. Investigating officer Upendra Khare informed the Christian Legal Association that the Christians were arrested for injuring or defiling a place of worship with intent to insult religion. At press time the Christians were still in jail.

 

Karnataka – Airport police in Bangalore on Jan. 4 arrested three Christians for trying to fraudulently convert residents of Murugeshpalya and for disparaging Hindu gods, the Times of India reported. Police arrested Rama Reddy, 26, Mike Barabas, 35, and his wife Asmira Barabas based on a complaint by Prabhod Kumar Das that they were involved in “denigration of Hindu gods.” The complaint also stated that the three persons promised him money and a job if he agreed to convert. The newspaper reported that the three visited Das’ house for one week and persuaded him to change his religion. When the three went to Das’ house on Jan. 4, he went out and called people from the area who took hold of the Christians and handed them over to airport police. Officials seized books, handouts and other evangelistic materials from the accused. Airport police officials told Compass that the three Christians were in jail and have been charged with trespassing, hurting religious sentiments and promoting enmity between different religious groups.

 

Karnataka – Police on Jan. 4 arrested a pastor on a false complaint of forcible conversion by Hindu extremists in Kanakapura Taluk, Ramnagar district. The Global Council of Indian Christians (GCIC) reported that nearly 25 extremists belonging to the Hindu extremist Bajrang Dal stormed the worship service of the India Christian Revival Mission, verbally abused the congregation and chased them from the building. The extremists repeatedly slapped and kicked the pastor, identified only as Paul, and his son Barnabas. The intolerant Hindus dragged them both outside and took them to the Kanakapura police station, where they filed the false complaint of forcible conversion against the pastor. A GCIC representative told Compass that police detained the Christians at the station until about 7:30 p.m., when GCIC intervention resulted in a compromise between the pastor and the assailants. Having forgiven them, the pastor declined to press charges, and police gave assurances that adequate protection would be extended to the church in Kanakapura.

 

Karnataka – Hindu extremists on Jan. 1 burned a house church of the Resurrected God’s Ministry in Malai Bennur, Davangere district. The Christian Legal Association reported that the extremists burned the church in the early morning hours and threatened a pastor identified only as Gangadhar that they would burn his family alive if he took the matter to authorities. The Deccan Herald News Service reported that one section of the church built with areca leaves was gutted in the fire, while the other side of the church was partially burned. This incident was reportedly the second attack on the church, with the earlier incident taking place on Nov. 11, 2007. Superintendent of Police Sandip Patil told Compass that one person had been arrested under Section 436 of the Indian Penal Code for intent to destroy a house with fire or explosives.  

Report from Compass Direct News

COLOMBIA: CHURCH LEADERS UNDER FIRE


One pastor missing, three others reported killed in past month.

COCHABAMBA, Bolivia, November 4 – Christians in Colombia are anxious to learn the fate of pastor William Reyes, missing since Sept. 25, even as three other pastors have gone missing.

Reyes, a minister of the Light and Truth Inter-American Church and member of the Fraternity of Evangelical Pastors of Maicao (FRAMEN, Fraternidad de Ministros Evangélicos de Maicao), left a meeting in Valledupar, Cesar, at 10 a.m. that morning heading home to Maicao, La Guajira. He never arrived.

Family members and fellow ministers fear that Reyes may have been murdered by illegal armed groups operating in northern Colombia. Since March of this year, FRAMEN has received repeated threats from both the leftist Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and right-wing paramilitary units.

Abduction is another possibility. Often criminals hold their victims for weeks or months before contacting family members to demand ransom, a tactic designed to maximize the anxiety of the victim’s loved ones before proceeding with ransom negotiations.

In the past month, three other Christian pastors were reportedly killed in separate incidents across the country. According to Pedro Acosta of the Peace Commission of the Evangelical Council of Colombia (CEDECOL, Consejo Evangélico de Colombia), two ministers died in the northern Caribbean region and a third in Buenaventura on the Pacific coast.

At press time, members of the Peace Commission’s Documentation and Advocacy team, which monitors cases of political violence and human rights abuse, were traveling in those areas to verify the identities of the victims and circumstances of the killings.

 

Demand for Action

On Oct. 4, churches organized a public demonstration to protest the disappearance of Reyes. Thousands of marchers filled the streets of Maicao to demand his immediate return to his family. The FRAMEN-sponsored rally featured hymns, sermons and an address from Reyes’s wife, Idia.

Idia Reyes continues to work as secretary of FRAMEN while awaiting news of her husband. The couple has three children, William, 19, Luz Mery, 16, and Estefania, 9.

CEDECOL and Justapaz, a Mennonite Church-based organization that assists violence victims, launched a letter-writing campaign to draw international attention to the case and request government action to help locate Reyes.

“We are grateful for the outpouring of prayer and support from churches in Canada, the United States, Sweden and the United Kingdom,” stated an Oct. 26 open letter from Janna Hunter Bowman of Justapaz and Michael Joseph of CEDECOL’s Peace Commission. “Human rights violations of church people and of the civilian population at large are ongoing in Colombia. Last year the Justapaz Peace Commission program registered the murder of four pastors and 22 additional homicides of lay leaders and church members.”

Some of those killings may have been carried out by members of the Colombian Armed Forces, according to evidence emerging in recent weeks. Prosecutors and human rights groups have released evidence that some military units abduct and murder civilians, dress their bodies in combat fatigues and catalogue them as insurgents killed in battle.

According to an Oct. 29 report in The New York Times, soldiers commit the macabre murders for the two-fold purpose of “social cleansing” – the extrajudicial elimination of criminals, drug users and gang members – and to gain promotions and bonuses.

The scandal prompted President Alvaro Uribe to announce on Wednesday (Oct. 29) that he had dismissed more than two dozen soldiers and officers, among them three generals, implicated in the murders.

Justapaz has documented the murder of at least one evangelical Christian at the hands of Colombian soldiers. José Ulises Martínez served in a counterinsurgency unit until two years ago, but left the army “because what he had to do was not coherent with his religious convictions,” according to his brother, pastor Reinel Martínez.

Martínez was working at a steady job and serving as a leader of young adults in the Christian Crusade Church in Cúcuta on Oct. 29, 2007, when two acquaintances still on active duty convinced him to go with them to Bogotá to request a pension payment from the army. He called his girlfriend the following day to say he had arrived safely in the capital.

That was the last she or his family heard from him.

Two weeks later, Martínez’s parents reported his disappearance to the prosecutor’s office in Cúcuta. The ensuing investigation revealed that on Oct. 1, 2007, armed forces officers had presented photographs of Martinez’s body dressed in camouflage and identified as a guerrilla killed in combat. Later the family learned that Martínez was killed in Gaula, a combat zone 160 kilometers (100 miles) northeast of Bogotá.

Such atrocities threaten to mar the reputation of Colombia’s Armed Forces just as the military is making remarkable gains against the FARC and other insurgent groups. Strategic attacks against guerrilla bases eliminated key members of the FARC high command in 2008. A daring July 2 rescue of one-time presidential candidate Ingrid Betancourt and 14 other high-profile FARC hostages was greeted with jubilation around the world.

Yet in Colombia’s confused and convoluted civil war, Christians are still targeted for their role in softening the resolve of both insurgent and paramilitary fighters.

“I believe preventative security measures must be taken in order to protect victims from this scourge that affects the church,” Acosta said in reference to the ongoing threats to Colombian Christians. “In comparison to information from earlier [years], the cases of violations have increased.”

Report from Compass Direct News