INDIA: STAKES HIGH FOR CHRISTIANS IN ELECTIONS


Beleaguered minority has much to lose, gain in polls.

NEW DELHI, May 1 (Compass Direct News) – With elections underway in India, its 2.3 percent Christian minority – which faced a deadly spate of attacks in the eastern state of Orissa last year – is praying for a secular party to come to power.

Along with the Muslim community, Christians fear that if the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and its allies form the next government or an ideologically loose coalition comes to the helm, their already compromised welfare may further deteriorate.

Dr. John Dayal, secretary general of the All India Christian Council, said that the end of the Congress Party’s monopoly on power in the 1990s led to the rise of several major individual groups, including the BJP, political wing of the Hindu extremist Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) conglomerate.

“The rise of regional and linguistic or caste-based parties spells a danger for pan-national minorities, as parties with a narrow and localized outlook will have neither the strength nor the political need to come to their defense,” Dayal told Compass. “What is at stake now, as never before, is the stability and consistency of India’s constitutional institutions in their response to critical situations, their zeal to correct wrongs and their commitment to the welfare of the weakest and the lowest.”

Religious minorities, Dayal said, were hoping for a strong showing by a secular party, “possibly the Congress [Party],” supported by regional groups of a secular character.

“Personally, I would even welcome a Third Front [a grouping of anti-Congress Party and anti-BJP parties led by the Communist Party of India-Marxist] government supported by the Congress Party,” he added. “Certainly, a BJP-led government is the least desirable, as we fear major erosion and even regression in issues of freedom of faith, Dalit liberation and affirmative action for the poor.”

With the BJP in power, directly or as part of the ruling alliance, in 10 states – Madhya Pradesh, Himachal Pradesh, Uttarakhand, and Punjab in the north; Chhattisgarh and Bihar in the east; Gujarat in the west; Nagaland and Meghalaya in the northeast; and Karnataka in the south – he said Christians believe it is important that a strong, secular government comes into power at the federal level.

The federal government can issue warnings and ultimately dismiss state legislatures and state executives if they fail to protect the lives of their people or major unrest erupts. The federal government can also make laws applicable across the nation.

The BJP-ruled states have become “absolutely inhospitable” and “hostile” to Christians thanks to the “inaction of the federal government,” said Sajan K. George, national president of the Global Council of Indian Christians (GCIC).

 

Orissa, Andhra Pradesh

The eyes of Christians are also on state assembly elections in Orissa state.

Orissa is ruled by the Biju Janata Dal (BJD), which on March 7 broke its 11-year-old alliance with the BJP over the latter’s involvement in Kandhamal district violence. Elections in Orissa, held on April 16 and 23, are particularly important given that the results will either embolden Hindu nationalists to launch more attacks to polarize voters along religious lines or compel them to abstain from violence.

In December 2007, a series of brutal attacks began in Kandhamal. The violence that lasted for around 10 days killed at least four Christians and burned 730 houses and 95 churches under the pretext of avenging an alleged attack on Swami Laxmanananda Saraswati, a leader of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (World Hindu Council).

Violence re-erupted in the district following the killing of Saraswati on August 23, 2008. A Maoist group took responsibility for the murder, but BJP supporters claimed that Christians were behind the assassination.

The BJP has made the killing of Saraswati its main election plank. The party’s two candidates from Kandhamal – Manoj Pradhan for the G. Udaygiri assembly seat and Ashok Sahu for the Kandhamal parliamentary constituency – contested the elections from jail. Pradhan, a primary suspect in the August-September 2008 violence, has been in jail for the last few months. Sahu, a former senior police official, was arrested on April 14 for delivering a hate speech against Christians in the run-up to elections. He was released on bail on April 17.

In its election campaign, the BJD promised to provide protection to the Christian community in Kandhamal and elsewhere in the state, putting the blame of the Kandhamal violence entirely on the BJP.

“It was important to break up with the BJP because I don’t consider them healthy any longer for my state after Kandhamal – which I think is very apparent to everyone,” Orissa Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik told CNN-IBN on April 19. “Before Kandhamal, we were lucky in the early years of the state government not to have a serious communal problem at all. But Kandhamal was very tragic and serious.”

According to the CNN-IBN private news channel, the Congress Party could benefit from the divorce of the BJD and the BJP. Nevertheless, the BJD is expected to form the next state government in Orissa.

The Congress Party, on the other hand, blamed both the BJD and the BJP for last year’s violence.

Elections in Kandhamal took place despite the fact that over 3,000 Christians were still in relief camps and hundreds of others had fled to others parts of the state fearing more tensions. Father Ajay Kumar Singh of the Catholic Archdiocese of Cuttack-Bhubaneswar reached Kandhamal from the neighboring Gajapati district early on April 16, election day.

“Along the way, we came across numerous felled trees blocking the road in at least six places,” Fr. Singh told Compass. “The roads were deserted, and my colleagues and I were scared. But we somehow managed to reach Kandhamal.”

He added that in Dharampur in Raikia Block and in Kattingia near Tiangia in G. Udaygiri Block – where eight Christians were killed during last year’s violence – Christians were threatened if they did not vote for the BJP.

In Nilungia village, seven kilometers (four miles) from G. Udaygiri, where a Christian was killed, at least 40 Christians did not cast their votes out of fear of a backlash, Fr. Singh said.

“They feared tensions if they returned to their village and stayed out of the district,” he said.

The Catholic Church in Orissa had urged the Election Commission of India to postpone elections in Kandhamal, but polls were held as scheduled.

According to the district administration, the poll turnout on April 16 in Kandhamal was around 55 percent.

The violence following Saraswati’s murder lasted for over a month, killing more than 127 people and destroying 315 villages, 4,640 houses, 252 churches and 13 educational institutions, besides rendering more than 50,000 homeless.

The incidence of Christian persecution is high in Andhra Pradesh, too. Analysts anticipate a neck-to-neck competition between the ruling Congress Party and the regional Telugu Desam Party (TDP), which recently allied with Left parties in the Third Front. The BJP is also in the fray but doesn’t appear strong enough to stake claim to power in the state.

 

Obscure Prognosis

With election results not due until May 16, the outlook at this point is murky.

“About all that can be said with certainty in the resulting alphabet soup of political parties is that the BJP won’t be aligning with Congress, or with the Left. Beyond that it’s a numbers game,” The Times of India noted in an editorial today. “Most observers agree that alignments determining who will form the next government will be decided only after the elections.”

The national daily added, “As India’s long, hot election summer grinds on, with the third phase held yesterday and the fifth and final phase not scheduled before the 13th of this month, it’s regrettable that no overarching themes have emerged even at this late stage, which can define the election.”

With 714 million eligible voters of the more than 1 billion people in the country, the five-phase elections for the 15th Lok Sabha (Lower House of Parliament) and for the state assemblies of Orissa, Andhra Pradesh and the north-eastern state of Sikkim began on April 16.

The three main parties are the left-of-center Congress Party (officially known as the Indian National Congress), which leads the governing United Progressive Alliance (UPA); the Hindu nationalist BJP, a leading party of the opposition National Democratic Alliance (NDA); and the Third Front.

A party and its allies need 272 members to rule in the 545-member Lok Sabha.

 

Expediency over Ideology

The regional and caste parties involved include the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP), headed by Dalit (formerly “untouchable”) woman Mayawati, chief minister of Uttar Pradesh state in the north; and the Samajwadi Party (SP), also a powerful party in that state.

Other significant parties are the Janata Dal-United (JD-U) party and the Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) party in the eastern state of Bihar; the BJD in Orissa; the Trinamool Congress party in the eastern state of West Bengal; the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) and the Shiv Sena party in the western state of Maharashtra; the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) party and the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) party in the southern state of Tamil Nadu; the TDP and Telangana Rashtriya Samiti (TRS) party in the southern state of Andhra Pradesh, and the Janata Dal-Secular (JD-S) party in the southern state of Karnataka.

The Congress Party is hoping that it will be supported by the SP, the RJD, the Trinamool Congress party, the NCP, the DMK, and the TRS in case it emerges as the single-largest party post-elections. The JD-U, the Shiv Sena and the AIADMK, on the other hand, are likely to extend their support to the BJP-led NDA. The BSP, the BJD, the TDP, and the JD-S are expected to join the Third Front.

Most of these smaller parties, however, are keeping their options open and will formally declare their allegiances only after the results are announced on May 16.

 

Decade of Persecution

The concern of Indian Christians can be understood against the backdrop of the decade since 1998, when the BJP, under the aegis of the NDA, came into power at the federal level, marking the beginning of systematic persecution of Christians.

In January 1999, an Australian missionary, Graham Staines, and his two young sons were burned alive in Orissa’s Keonjhar district. From 2000 to 2004, around 200 anti-Christian attacks were reported each year from various parts of the nations. In March 2004, India’s second massive spate of anti-Christian attacks took place in the Jhabua district of the central state of Madhya Pradesh.

The incidence of persecution remained high despite the change of the federal government in mid-2004 – after the Congress Party-led UPA defeated the BJP-led NDA.

At least 165 anti-Christian attacks were reported in 2005, and over 130 in 2006. Including the Orissa attacks, the total number of violent anti-Christian incidents rose to over 1,000 in 2007. And 2008 turned out to be the worst year for the Christians as violence returned in Kandhamal.

“The results of the elections on May 16 will show whether the ideology of Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, the father of the nation who promoted communal harmony, will prevail in India, or that of his killer Nathuram Godse, allegedly a member of the RSS,” said George of the GCIC.

Report from Compass Direct News

AFGHANISTAN: AID AGENCY REFLECTS ON FUTURE IN COUNTRY AFTER MURDER


Death of Christian worker leads at least one other group to consider postponing relief work.

ISTANBUL, October 29 (Compass Direct News) – Aid agencies are reviewing the viability of their presence in Afghanistan following the murder of Christian aid worker Gayle Williams, who was killed in Kabul last week in a drive-by shooting.

This latest attack in the heart of Kabul has added to the sense of insecurity already felt by in-country foreign aid workers due to the recent escalation in violence by insurgent groups.

“[There is] gradually encroaching control by the Taliban of the regions outside of the cities and the roads in between, and now it looks like the ability to operate even inside the cities as well,” said Mike Lyth, chairman of Serve Afghanistan, a humanitarian organization that has worked with Afghans since the 1970s. “It’s very difficult – I mean, how do you stop somebody riding in on a motorcycle?”

Dan McNorton, public information officer for the U.N. Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA), told Compass that despite the worsening situation, the United Nations had a 50-year history with Afghanistan and its commitment to the country and its people remained “absolutely solid.”

“There is no indication from the NGOs or humanitarian and other aid organizations that are here that there is any desire or decision for them not to be here, not to carry out the good work that they are here to do,” he said.

In light of recent events, however, Serve Afghanistan’s Lyth believes that aid agencies will have to reconsider their presence in the country.

“Each time something like this happens they have a review,” he said. “We’re certainly going to be reviewing [our position] this next week.”

A recently issued U.N. report stated that there were more than 120 attacks targeting aid workers in the first seven months of this year alone. These attacks saw 92 abducted and 30 killed.

“Yesterday I was talking to one agency that has decided to postpone their work in the country in response to the attacks,” said Karl Torring of the European Network of NGOs in Afghanistan. Other agencies he represents, however, are not so quick to make a decision.

“So people say, ‘Well, we are committed to the Afghans but how many lives is it worth in terms of foreigners and Afghani staff as well’” said Lyth.

Speaking at a news conference following the death of Williams, Humayun Hamidzada, spokesman for President Hamid Karzai, issued a warning to international aid workers in Kabul.

“The international workers based in Kabul, be it with the aid agencies or in the private sector, should get in touch with the relevant police departments, review their security measures and make sure they take necessary precautions while they commute,” he said according to Voice of America.

Taliban insurgents have claimed responsibility for Williams’ death, and in a telephone interview with Reuters they cited the spreading of Christian “propaganda” as the reason for the attack.

Williams, 34, a dual citizen of Britain and South Africa, had recently been relocated to Kabul from Kandahar due to fears over safety after recent attacks against civilians.

A volunteer with Serve Afghanistan for two years, she was walking to her office when she was shot dead by two men riding a motorcycle.

Serve Afghanistan provides education and support for the poor and disabled and, according to Lyth, has a strict policy against proselytizing.

Doubting a purely religious motive, some have questioned the Taliban’s charge against Williams of proselytizing. Sources have suggested that Williams was targeted more as a Western woman than as a Christian, considering the presence of easily identifiable religious groups in the country, such as various Catholic orders, and in light of the scope of previous attacks.

“A month before, they had killed three women from a secular agency and said they were spies,” said Lyth. “They pick whatever reason, to get them off the hook and give them some valid reason for attacking women. There’s been a major spate of attacks on women rather than anybody else.”

In a meeting of the U.N. Security Council earlier this month, UNAMA head and U.N. Special Representative in Afghanistan Kai Eide suggested that the Taliban attacks were designed to attract media attention as they sought to demoralize and hinder reconstruction efforts.

“I think everyone agrees the Taliban are winning the public relations war in Afghanistan,” said Torring.

A recent report by Voice of America pointed out that many of Afghanistan’s reconstruction projects rely heavily on foreign management and training efforts. The attempts of the Taliban to destabilize foreign presence could greatly undermine these projects and have severely detrimental effects on the nation.

U.N. figures state that violent attacks in the country are up from the 2003 monthly average of 44 to a monthly average of 573.

Report from Compass Direct News

PAKISTAN: PARTIAL VICTORY SEEN IN RULING ON KIDNAPPED GIRLS


With both minors saying they had converted to Islam, lawyers feared worse.

ISTANBUL, September 15 (Compass Direct News) – Christian human rights lawyers in Pakistan saw a partial legal victory in a judge’s ruling last week that one of two kidnapped girls be returned to her Christian parents. The judge further ruled that her sister be free to choose whether to go with the Muslim man who allegedly forced her to convert and marry him.

Justice Malik Saeed Ejaz ruled on Tuesday (Sept. 9) that 10-year-old Aneela Masih be returned to her parents – an unprecedented legal victory for Christian parents of a girl who supposedly converted to Islam, according to one lawyer – while leaving her sister, 13-year-old Saba Masih, free to choose whether to go with Amjad Ali, a Muslim man who married her after the June 26 kidnapping.

Saba Masih, whose birth certificate indicates that she is now 13 but who testified that she is 17, said she did not want to return to her parents and tried to keep her little sister from returning to them. Their Muslim captors have repeatedly threatened the two girls that their parents would harm them if they returned.

The older sister is not willing to meet with any of the family members or her parents, said Rashid Rehman of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan.

“It’s normal behavior,” he told Compass. “She was tutored and brainwashed by the family of her husband Ali, and naturally they made up her mind that her parents will hurt her and treat her inhumanely. In fact that will never happen. Her family is really peaceful, and remained so peaceful the whole time the case was heard in high court.”

After more than three hours of heated legal arguments in the Multan branch of Lahore’s High Court, the judge deemed the oldest child sui juris – capable to handle her own affairs – based on her testimony that she is 17 years old and on a Lahore medical board’s ruling that she is between 15 and 17. The medical board may have been pressured to declare Saba Masih as an adult, according to the parents’ lawyers.

Conditions set in the ruling called for the parents not to “interfere” with Aneela Masih’s religious beliefs, that they be allowed to visit Saba Masih and that the groom’s family pay them 100,000 rupees (US$1,316) according to Pakistani marriage tradition.

Raised in a Christian family in the small town of Chowk Munda, the two girls were kidnapped on June 26 while traveling to visit their uncle in Sarwar Shaheed, northwest of Multan. Saba Masih was married to Ali the next day, and the kidnappers filed for custody of the girls on June 28 based on their alleged forced conversion to Islam.

Islamic jurisprudence and Pakistani law do not recognize the forced marriages of minors.

 

‘Pleased with Outcome’

“We are pleased with the outcome,” said Joseph Francis, head of the Center for Legal Aid Assistance and Settlement (CLAAS). He said, however, that the verdict was not complete without the return of Saba Masih to her family.

Francis and two other CLAAS lawyers were present at the Sept. 9 judgment despite repeated threats against their office over the course of the hearings.

CLAAS lawyer Akbar Durrani told Compass that it was the first time in his life that he had seen such a decision. “In my experience they have not given us the custody of minor girls even as young as 9 years old that have been declared Muslim,” said Durrani, who has been practicing law in Pakistan for 18 years. “It is a legal victory.”

As a minor, though, Aneela Masih’s previous declaration that she had converted from Christianity to Islam was not explicitly recognized. Calling the lawyers into his private chamber to present options before ruling, according to the parents’ lawyers, the judge said he would make no mention of the girls’ supposed conversion to Islam.

“This was a very favorable thing for us,” said Durrani. “He said, ‘I’m only going to decide the custody,’ so we decided this is acceptable to us.”

In his private chamber, the judge gave them different options, warning them that if they didn’t cooperate or accept his proposals he would make his own judgment. In the end he said he would hand the little girl to her mother and set the other free.

“Wherever she wants to go she can go,” the judge told the parties. “But if she wants to go with you she can go, and if she wants to go to her husband she can go.”

The girls, their mother and Ali were then invited into the judge’s chamber, where the judge announced the decision to them.

Durrani said that Aneela Masih went to her mother willingly, while her older sister gave a cry and tried to pull the 10-year-old back to her.

“The minor resisted for a fraction of a second to go to the mother,” Durrani said. “The little girl was under pressure; every time she was instructed by her elder sister not to talk to her mother.”

Her mother hugged her, and the lawyer said the little girl seemed very comfortable in her lap. There her mother tried to remove the veil from her daughter to look at her, but she resisted. Outside the courtroom, however, Aneela Masih removed the veil herself and later accepted food and drink. The girls had been fasting during Ramadan.

The lawyers said it was clear from the 10-year-old girl’s reactions that she was confused from the ordeal.

 

Supreme Court Question

Lawyers for the parents are weighing the options and feasibility of getting the oldest daughter back through the Supreme Court.

On Friday (Sept. 12), the girls’ uncle, Khalid Raheel, who has spearheaded the efforts to get them back, told CLAAS lawyers that Aneela was readjusting into her life at home. Raheel asked the family lawyers that they continue to try to get Saba back.

Rehman said he does not think the case would stand in the Supreme Court. “She willingly said, ‘I don’t want to go with my parents,’” he said.

Durrani and Francis, however, said they would continue to fight for her. “We’ll go to the Supreme Court for Saba,” said Francis.

“We will try getting the statement of Aneela and then will re-open the case,” said Durrani, adding that Aneela Masih had told her family, “Please get her back from that place.”

Rehman told Compass in a phone interview that Saba Masih’s statement that she is 17, her supposed embrace of Islam and her marriage by consent will make getting her back very difficult.

“She has admitted the marriage at the court and produced the marriage papers and has claimed that she’s over 16, so it was very difficult for us to prove our case that she’s a minor girl… because it is denied by Saba herself,” said Rehman.

He explained that the only way to secure the oldest daughter’s return to her family would be by proving she is a minor, something virtually impossible at this point because of her testimony. The court has refused to admit her birth certificate as evidence.

Saba Masih still refuses to communicate with her parents.

 

‘Frightened, Small Girl’

In court last week, both sisters sat in hijab dress fully veiled next to a policewoman from the Dar Ul Rahman women’s shelter, where the two girls had stayed since a July 29 hearing.

Their mother tried to talk to them and show them photos. Durrani said that Aneela Masih was responsive to her mother, but her older sister would pull her away, forbidding her from talking to her.

The judge had ruled that the girls stay at the shelter in order to think of their alleged conversion to Islam away from external pressures. Lawyers for the parents said that while in the shelter the girls were continually harassed and threatened that their family would not take them back.

Aneela Masih stated to the lawyers and her parents after the court decision that Ali’s family and their captors told them that everyone was Muslim – the lawyers, the judge, society – and that their parents could not take them back.

Knowing the attention the case of the two girls had attracted, Durrani said, the judge left the case till last. Yet the courtroom, he said, was full of “those who had kidnapped the girls, their supporters, the Islamic fanatics; all these were present in the court and interested in the hearing of the case.”

From the outset at last week’s hearing, the judge wanted to ask Aneela Masih questions about Islam to extract a statement on which he could rule on her custody. Durrani and colleague Justin Gill fought against the lawyer and the judge, arguing that as the 10-year-old was a minor, her statement on faith could not be valid and that she must be returned to her mother.

“We concentrated our efforts on Aneela, that at least we should have some relief to get her back and then we can fight in the Supreme Court if we wish to go for any other thing,” he said, referring to the older sister’s case.

The judge had decided to postpone the verdict till this Thursday (Sept. 18) and place the girls back in the Dar Ul Rahman shelter, where their mother could visit them for two hours every day. But the CLAAS lawyers said they feared waiting would only work against their case in the long run, making it more difficult to gain custody of the younger sister if both were exposed to more harassment and possible brainwashing.

“Even if she is a Muslim and has changed her religion, according to Islam a mother is the best custodian of the child,” Durrani said he and Gill argued.

Rehman said that Aneela Masih seemed frightened and, according to information he had obtained, the girl was afraid of her abductors and her own family even while in the shelter.

“She was a frightened, small girl,” he said. “They told her that if she returned to her parents she’d be treated unkindly.”

 

Threats, Car Chase

On Sept. 8, the day before the hearing, while traveling together from Lahore to Multan, the three lawyers for the Christian parents – Francis, Durrani and Gill – received threatening calls from the supporters of the girls’ kidnappers.

That night while, on their way back from dinner to a bishop’s house where they were staying in Multan, the CLAAS team was approached by armed men on motorcycles who threatened them, warning them to not go to the judgment hearing the next day.

“They said, ‘You should not be in court or you will be responsible for the consequences,’” said Durrani.

When nearby police saw the scene and approached, the armed men left the scene.

“We were afraid, but we knew we had to go,” Durrani said.

After the hearing, while traveling back to Lahore, Durrani said that Muslim fanatics chased them for about 100 kilometers (62 miles).

“Then we went to another city and got to the highway from another shortcut,” he said.

Durrani said the lawyers have many cases like this, causing them concern for their own safety.

“It is not the first time we get threats, but by the grace of God, and by the refuge of our Holy Ghost we are safe,” he said. “Every time we know the prayers of our church and other Christians are with us, which is why we are able to get the victory for our Lord.”

Report from Compass Direct News