Plinky Prompt: If You Were President of the U.S., what would be your #1 Priority? Why?


Sabari grasses

If I was president of the United States my number 1 priority would probably be having a serious rethink on both Iraq and Afghanistan. It is not that I think the war on terror should be ended – far from it – just that a review of current
policies is probably needed. There are probably some other ways of doing things that are more helpful, useful and directed towards a determination.

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Christian Girls Kidnapped in Yemen Are Rescued


Parents, other abducted Christians remain missing.

ISTANBUL, May 18 (CDN) — Saudi Arabian and Yemeni security forces rescued two German girls yesterday, 11 months after the two young sisters, their parents, brother and four other Christians were taken hostage in Yemen.

Reported to be between 3 and 6 years old, the two girls, Lydia Hentschel and her younger sister Anna Hentschel, were part of a group of nine Christian foreigners who were kidnapped on June 12 last year. Three of the adult hostages, a Korean and two German women, were murdered shortly afterwards.

The foreigners worked in a hospital near the city of Saada. No group has claimed responsibility for the kidnapping. Although the German family, a British man, and the three murdered women were Christians, it was not clear if they were kidnapped because of their faith.

There was no indication as to the whereabouts of the girls’ parents, Johannes and Sabine Hentschel, the girls’ 2-year-old brother Simon, and the Briton, identified only as Anthony.

The two girls were found in a disputed border region between Yemen and Saudi Arabia during Saudi cross-border raids in the northern region of Saada, according to Reuters. Saudi and Yemeni security forces collaborated in the operation to free the sisters.

Over the last year violent clashes have flared between Yemeni government forces and the Houthi armed group in Saada. The fighting has reportedly hindered efforts to locate the missing foreigners.

Reuters quoted the German foreign minister as saying the two young sisters were in “relatively good health” and would be transported from Saudi Arabia to Germany on Wednesday (May 19). Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle said he remained concerned about the safety of the rest of the German family.

Westerwelle told Reuters that learning the whereabouts of the remaining hostages remains a high priority, with efforts “continuing undiminished” and hopes still alive.

Today CNN reported that a spokesman for the German family said it was likely that the youngest sibling, Simon, was dead, since he was not found along with the two sisters.

In the last 15 years nearly 200 foreign nationals have been kidnapped in Yemen, and most have been released unharmed, Reuters reported.

Report from Compass Direct News 

Egyptian Christian women forced to marry, convert to Islam


Coptic Christian women in Egypt are being forced to marry and convert to Islam and that oppression is part of a larger pattern of persecution against Christians facilitated by the Egyptian government, according to two recent reports, writes Baptist Press.

"Cases of abduction, forced conversion and marriage are usually accompanied by acts of violence which include rape, beatings, deprivation of food and other forms of physical and mental abuse," said a new assessment by Christian Solidarity International and the Coptic Foundation for Human Rights.

At the same time, the 2009 U.S. State Department report on international religious freedom noted the Egyptian government fails to prosecute crimes against Copts and even has taken a hand in destroying church property and, in one case, a government official reportedly raped a woman who had converted from Islam to Christianity.

About 90 percent of the Egyptian population is Sunni Muslim, and the rest primarily identify themselves as Coptic Christians, according to the Human Rights Watch report "Prohibited Identities: State Interference with Religious Freedom." Copts typically are underprivileged and experience discrimination.

Egyptian sex traffickers entice Coptic Christian women from low-income families by promising an escape from poverty, then force the women into Muslim "marriages" or outright slavery, according to the CSI/CFHR report.

"Such abuse remains covered in a cloak of silence and tacit acceptance, even though it is against the constitutional affirmations of civil rights," the report said.

Once a Coptic girl is coerced into marriage and Islamic conversion, her family will not take her back, and if she leaves her "husband," she is considered a "disgrace" to her family, the report said. In addition, the Coptic Orthodox Church excommunicates female members who wed Muslim men, the State Department said.

Since Islam is the "religion of state" in Egypt, conversion to Islam is easy, while returning to Christianity is unacceptable, the HRW report said. The Civil Status Department, which issues national identity cards, sometimes refuses to give Coptic women a new card identifying her as Christian since it is considered apostasy for a Coptic woman to leave Islam, even to return to her religion of origin.

Egyptian law requires every citizen to have an identity card for purposes such as voting, employment and education.

Most of the cases of Coptic women being coerced into marriage are not reported and "observers, including human rights groups, find it extremely difficult to determine whether compulsion was used, as most cases involve a female Copt who converts to Islam when she marries a Muslim male," the State Department report said.

In two examples of coerced conversion, CSI/CFHR reported Nov. 10:

– An Egyptian woman was raped and beaten since she would not have sex with the man she was forced to marry. The Coptic cross on her wrist was later removed with acid.

– Another woman was forced to marry a Muslim lawyer and work for him in "slave-like conditions" for five years.

John Eibner, CSI’s chief executive officer, urged President Obama in a letter to combat the trafficking of Christian women and girls in Egypt and to make sure the U.S. makes this issue a priority in its relations with Egypt.

"Trafficking of Christian women in Egypt is not a new phenomenon…. But this problem has now reached boiling point within Egypt’s Coptic community, which views it as symptomatic of a much broader pattern of religious persecution," Eibner said in his letter.

Report from the Christian Telegraph 

More Pakistanis flee new offensive against Taliban


About 40,000 more Pakistanis are leaving their homes in South Waziristan as Pakistan’s military prepares to launch a new offensive against the Taliban, Reuters reports. They join over 2 million other people who have fled the violence since May, reports MNN.

The Christian Reformed World Relief Committee is providing $500,000 of food aid for the refugees through the Canadian Foodgrains Bank. It will deliver 708 metric tons of lentils, oil, fortified wheat flour, sugar, iodized salt, and chili powder to internally displaced person (IDP) camps in the Swabi district of North West Frontier Province, Pakistan.

Two thousand families, or about 14,000 people, live in the camps. CRWRC will give first priority to widows with children and to families who have lost loved ones.

CRWRC received a testimonial from Muhammad Akber Khan.

“I am a senior citizen and the oldest person in my family,” he said. “The continuous shelling compelled us to leave our native town and home. We left everything back home as we were given only 20-25 minutes to leave the town. All that we could have carried were the clothes that we were wearing at the time of migration. We want to go back to our homes as soon as possible as our lifetime investment is there; moreover, we have to supervise our crops that were the only sources of our livelihood. I am grateful to the staff of I-LAP and CRWRC who shared their love and care through giving.”

CRWRC has already distributed mosquito nets, sleeping mats, and water containers in the camps. Its International Disaster Response team responds to natural and man-made disasters all over the world, bringing relief and aid to those who need it most. It works in cooperation with local and international nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) in order to respond quickly and effectively to the urgent needs of a community.

Report from the Christian Telegraph

PAKISTAN: TORTURED CHRISTIAN LANGUISHING ON FALSE CHARGES


Police maneuver to keep incapacitated son of preacher in jail – and out of hospital.

LAHORE, Pakistan, June 23 (Compass Direct News) – A 37-year-old Christian is languishing in a Sialkot jail after police broke his backbone because his father was preaching Christ, according to a local advocacy group.

Arshad Masih had been in a hospital – chained to his bed on false robbery charges – after police torture that began Dec. 28, 2008 left him incapacitated. He was discharged from General Hospital in Lahore on Saturday (June 20) and returned to jail despite efforts by the Community Development Initiative (CDI), a support group that is providing Masih legal assistance.

CDI Research Officer Napoleon Qayyum said that hospital personnel treated Masih callously, but that conditions there were better than in the jail in Sialkot. At least in the hospital, Qayyum said, Masih’s gray-haired father was able to carry him on his shoulders when he needed to go to the bathroom.

Hospital staff members released Masih even though they knew he would not receive the medical care he needs in jail and could face further abuse, the CDI researcher said.

“We told the hospital administration and doctors that Masih would be released from jail within a few days, so he should not be discharged from the hospital as he would not be taken care of in jail, but they paid no heed to our request,” Qayyum said.

He said Sialkot police gave assurances that Masih would be released from jail if he arrived there from the hospital by 10 p.m. A police van left early Saturday morning from Sialkot to bring Masih from the hospital in Lahore to Sialkot jail, but it did not reach the hospital until 6 p.m. even though it is only 100 kilometers (62 miles) from Sialkot to Lahore.

Qayyum said officers also invented delays on the return trip.

“Despite our requests to the police van staff, they reached the jail at 10:30 p.m.,” Qayyum said. “The Sialkot police used the delays to demoralize us by creating problems so that we do not file a petition for torturing.”

The CDI official said the group’s first priority is to “take him out of Sialkot so that police may not further create problems for him.”

Murder Threat

Hajipura police detained Masih on Dec. 28 on orders from the Sadar police station in Gujranwala, where Masih’s father, Iqbal Masih, had been preaching Christ.

The elder Masih, an itinerant preacher who has traveled to remote areas to proclaim Christ for three decades, told Compass that objections to his ministry led to false accusations of robbery against his son. Area Muslims resented his preaching and his visits to a Christian family in Gujranwala, he said, and told him to stop visiting the family.

“They told me that I was preaching a false religion and should stop doing it, and that I should succumb to their pressure,” the elder Masih told Compass.

Area Muslims had complained to Gujranwala police of the elder Masih’s efforts, and officers there first sought to arrest him in a case filed against “unidentified people,” he said. Later, he said, Gujranwala police told Hajipura police to charge his son in some robbery cases, as Arshad Masih lived in the Hajipura precincts.

When police arrested Arshad Masih on Dec. 28, they tortured him for several days, the younger Masih said.

“They hung me upside down all night, beat me and used all inhumane torture methods, leaving me permanently paralyzed,” he said.

Police falsely named him in a robbery case, according to CDI. All others named in the case were released after paying bribes, advocacy group officials said. Police officers also asked Masih’s father for a bribe of 50,000 rupees [US$620], the elder Masih said.

“They asked me as well for 50,000 rupees, but I refused to pay on the grounds that it was illegal and additionally I hadn’t that much money,” Iqbal Masih said.

The complainant in the robbery case eventually testified that Arshad Masih hadn’t been among the robbers, and he was granted bail. Before court orders reached the jail, however, Sialkot police informed Sadar police officers in Gujranwala, who arrived at the jail and had Masih remanded to them for a robbery case filed against “unidentified people.”

“Because of that, Masih could not be freed for one moment,” CDI’s Qayyum said.

Gujranwala police also threatened to kill Masih in a staged police encounter if he told the court that he had been tortured, according to CDI. They also warned him that he should not act as if he were in any pain in court.

The court, however, found him unable to stand and sent him to Allama Iqbal Memorial Hospital in Sialkot for medical examination. Gujaranwala police therefore had to leave him. But police did not tell Masih or CDI staff which police station was keeping Masih in its custody at the hospital.

With the help of the American Center for Law and Justice, CDI filed a case in the Gujranwala Sessions court for Masih’s bail and also provided some assistance for his medical treatment.

On June 16, the Sadar police station investigating officer told the court that police under his command were not detaining Masih, but that the Sialkot police were. Because the Gujranwala police were not detaining him, he argued, bail orders issued on March 23 for Masih’s release pertained to Sialkot and therefore Masih’s police custody in the hospital was illegal.

“The police have been keeping us in the dark so that we could never pursue the case in the right direction,” said CDI’s Qayyum. “How can a brutally tortured patient even heal their wounds in such mental agony when his hand is always tied in chains, and two policemen are maintaining a 24-hour watch over him?”

The researcher said he maintained hope that the judicial system would provide Masih relief from his agony, which has taken its toll on his family as well. Masih has three children that he has pulled from school due to lack of money.

His wife is illiterate and cannot make a living, CDI officials said, adding that Masih’s four married sisters are the main sources of his financial support.

Report from Compass Direct News

IRAN: THREE CONVERTS ORDERED TO STOP ‘CHRISTIAN ACTIVITIES’


Judge puts them on probation, threatening them with ‘apostasy’ trial.

LOS ANGELES, March 31 (Compass Direct News) – Declaring three Iranian Christians guilty of cooperating with “anti-government movements,” a court in Shiraz on March 10 ordered the converts to discontinue Christian activities and stop propagating their faith.

An Islamic Revolutionary Court judge handed an eight-month suspended prison sentence with a five-year probation to Seyed Allaedin Hussein, Homayoon Shokouhi, and Seyed Amir Hussein Bob-Annari. The judge said he would enforce their prison sentence and try them as “apostates,” or those who leave Islam, if they violate terms of their probation – including a ban on contacting one another.

A new penal code under consideration by the Iranian Parliament includes a bill that would require the death penalty for apostasy.

“The warning that they will be ‘arrested and tried as apostates’ if they continue their Christian activities is quite chilling,” said a regional analyst who requested anonymity.

The Islamic Revolutionary Court was created after Iran’s 1979 revolution to prosecute those suspected of seeking to depose the Islamic regime. The “anti-government movements” referred to by the judge are satellite television stations Love Television and Salvation TV. Unlike the Internet, which is heavily censored in Iran, the two 24-hour satellite TV stations can bypass government information barriers.

Sources said links between the accused and these organizations, however, remain tenuous.

“The TV link came up almost six months after [the original arrests], so it is very new,” said an informed source. “We believe they just made it up, or it is something they want to make appear more important than is the reality.”

The three men were arrested by security forces on May 11, 2008 at the Shiraz airport while en route to a Christian marriage seminar in Dubai. According to a report by Farsi Christian News Network (FCNN), at that time the families of the three men avoided formal charges by agreeing to terms of release, including payment of a bond amount. Details of the terms were undisclosed.

 

Churches Pressured

The sentencing of three converts from Islam follows more than 50 documented arrests of Christians in 2008 alone, and the recent government crackdown includes Christian institutions that minister beyond Iran’s tiny indigenous Christian community.

On March 19, Assyrian Member of Parliament Yonathan Betkolia announced that by order of the Islamic Revolutionary Court, an Assyrian Pentecostal church in Tehran would be closed. According to FCNN, the church in the Shahrara area of Tehran was facing closure because it offered a Farsi-language service attended by converts from Islam.

During a speech following his election to Parliament in October, Betkolia had lauded freedoms accorded to minority groups in Iran, and he has publicly protested the Shahrara church allowing “non-Assyrians” – that is, Muslims – to attend services. The regional analyst said that Betkolia made these pronouncements as the increase in government pressure on the Christian community has put him in a difficult position.

“As a representative of the Assyrian community, a priority for Betkolia is to ensure the preservation of the limited freedoms and relative peace his traditional Christian community enjoys,” said the analyst. “Disassociation from a church which has welcomed believers from a Muslim background should therefore be seen as a form of self-defense.”

The number of Assyrian Christians in the country is estimated at between 10,000 and 20,000, with estimates of Armenian Christians in Iran ranging from 110,000 to 300,000.

Advocacy organization Human Rights Activists in Iran strongly criticized the decision to close the Assyrian church.

“The closing of the church is clearly a violation of human rights,” the organization stated, “because the right to change one’s religion and the right of self-expression are hereby targeted by the Islamic Revolutionary Court.”

The pastor of the Shahrara church has indicated that cancelling Farsi-language services may allow it to continue, though it was unclear at press time whether the congregation’s leadership was willing to make that compromise. FCNN reported in February that church leaders had on some occasions cancelled Farsi-language services at church.  

Report from Compass Direct News

EVANGELICALS IN SPAIN SUPPORT SOCIALIST PLAN TO DISSOLVE CATHOLICISM


The executive secretary of the Federation of the Evangelical Entities of Spain, Mariano Blazquez Burgo, has asked the Socialist government to pass a law on the “neutrality” and “laicity” of the State, in order to establish a common equality among all the churches that exist in the country, reports Catholic News Agency.

“We are asking for two laws: one on religious entities and the other on neutrality, laicity, a word which does not frighten me,” Blazquez told reporters during the celebration of the 130th anniversary of the evangelical church of the city of Gijon.

According to the daily “La Nueva España,” evangelicals want the State “to be neutral with regards to all religious beliefs, by advancing laicity, and also with a statute of equality shared by all the churches established in Spain.”

“Not privileges for the churches, but a common statute for all religious entities that is clear and just in rights and obligations,” Blazquez stated, adding that during the Spanish Civil War, evangelicals showed “sympathy for the Republic, saying they were spiritual liberating our nation.”

Since taking power, the government of President Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero has made it a priority to remove any religious expression from public life and to impose its own moral formation on students through the Education for Citizens course, which thousands of parents have rejected because of its secular and ideological nature.

Report from the Christian Telegraph

CHINA: CHRISTIANS WARY AS RECESSION, UNREST HIT


Beleaguered government officials could view church as threat – or a force for stability.

BEIJING, February 25 (Compass Direct News) – With China’s central government last December issuing a number of secret documents calling on provincial officials to strive to prevent massive unrest in a rapidly collapsing economy, observers are watching for signs of whether authorities will view Christian groups as a threat or a stabilizing influence.

While the Sichuan earthquake last May proved that Christians were willing and able to assist in times of national crisis, raids on house church groups have continued in recent weeks.

The secret reports have come in quick succession. A central government body, the Committee for Social Stability (CSS), issued an internal report on Jan. 2 listing a total of 127,467 serious protests or other incidents across China in 2008, many involving attacks on government buildings or clashes with police and militia.

“Recently every kind of contradiction in society has reached the level of white heat,” the CSS warned in an earlier document issued on Dec. 16.

The document said some officials had “ignored the welfare of the masses … piling up pressure until the situation exploded,” and concluded that, “The relevant Party and State organs must … give daily priority to the task of getting rid of all the maladies which produce social instability and the present crisis.”

On Dec. 10, the Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party and the National People’s Congress issued an internal document calling on senior provincial officials to make every effort to alleviate social and political problems exacerbated by the current recession.

On Dec. 12, the Ministry of Public Security authorized provincial officials to tighten control of all communications in the sensitive period prior to Chinese New Year, which this year fell on Jan. 25. Fearing turmoil as millions of newly-unemployed factory workers headed home for New Year celebrations, the government cancelled all leave for Public Security Bureau (PSB) officers, placed them on high alert and mobilized an additional 150,000 police and armed militia for the holiday period.

On Dec. 15, the public security ministry issued a further document calling for tightened security at government ministries, military bases, armament stores, state borders, airports and railway stations.

In its Dec. 16 report, the CSS warned that provincial authorities must try to resolve grievances by non-violent means before protestors begin attacking factories and government offices or stealing, looting and burning property.

The scale of demonstrations and riots has already reached frightening proportions. In the Jan. 2 internal assessment leaked in Hong Kong, the CSS said the 127,467 serious incidents across China last year involved participation of around 1 percent of the population. Of these cases, 476 consisted of attacks on government and Party buildings, while 615 involved violent clashes with police and militia, leaving 1,120 police and Party officials and 724 civilians killed or injured.

 

Church as Subversive

Concerned by the growth of unregistered house church groups in an uncertain political and social climate, the Chinese government has ramped up efforts both to identify Christians and to portray Christianity as a subversive foreign force.

Local governments in China last year reported on continued measures to prevent “illegal” religious gatherings and curb other criminalized religious activities, according to reports from the U.S. Congressional Executive Commission on China (CECC) on Dec. 20 and Feb. 2. (See “Tortured Christian Lawyer Arrested as Officials Deny Abuses,” Feb. 11.)

In recent months authorities have quietly gathered data on church growth using surveys at universities and workplaces, and called meetings at various institutions in the capital to discuss the supposed dangers of foreign religious influence. (See “Officials Grapple with Spread of Christianity,” Feb. 4.)

Raids on unregistered church groups have continued in recent weeks, with police perhaps prompted to ensure tighter controls on church activity. On Feb. 11, police arrested two South Korean pastors and more than 60 Chinese house church leaders from four provinces who had gathered for a seminar in Wolong district, Nanyang city, the China Aid Association (CAA) reported. The police also confiscated personal money, cell phones and books, and forced each person to register and pay a fine before releasing some of the elderly leaders.

Authorities held six of the detained leaders for several days but by Sunday (Feb. 22) had released all of them, Compass sources confirmed.

In Shanghai, police and members of the State Administration of Religious Affairs on Feb. 10 ordered Pastor Cui Quan to cancel an annual meeting for house church leaders, and then ordered the owner of the hall used by Cui’s 1,200-member congregation to cease renting it to Cui within 30 days, according to CAA.

Senior staff at Beijing’s Dianli Hospital on Feb. 6 ordered elderly house church pastor Hua Zaichen to leave the premises despite being severely ill, CAA reported. Government officials had refused to allow Hua’s wife, Shuang Shuying, an early release from prison to visit her dying husband unless she agreed to inform on other Christians, according to Hua’s son. After refusing their offer, Shuang was finally able to visit Hua on her release date, Feb. 8; Hua died the following day.

Both Shuang and her husband have suffered years of persecution for their involvement in the house church movement.

On Feb. 4, police seized Christian lawyer and human rights defender Gao Zhisheng from his home in Shaanxi province, CAA reported. At press time his whereabouts were unknown.

While other incidents have gone unreported, house church leaders in northern China told Compass in January that despite tighter restrictions in the current economic and political climate, they were optimistic about the ability of the church to survive and flourish.

 

SIDEBAR

Disenchantment, Dissent Spread Across China

In December, China celebrated the 30th anniversary of Deng Xiaoping’s “open door” economic reform policy, which had led to a high annual growth rate of some 10 percent. While Party leaders publicly congratulated themselves, an internal party document warned that 75 percent of the financial benefits had gone to only 10 percent of the population, mainly high and middle-ranking Party members and some entrepreneurs.

With the growth rate now seriously dented, relations between Party members and the general public were “about to explode,” the document warned.

The document also referred to an “ideological vacuum in Party and state,” a “moral vacuum in upholding regulations,” and a “vacuum in spiritual civilization,” in stark contrast to the moral and spiritual values held by religious groups.

According to the Research Institute of the State Council, urban unemployment among young people had already risen to 10.5 percent by last June. If foreign investors continued to withdraw funds, the institute warned, this figure could rise to 16 percent or higher, sparking more outrage against the government.

Tens of thousands of factories closed down in the first six months of 2008, well before the full impact of the global recession hit China. By November, 10 million migrant workers were unemployed; most recent estimates put the figure at 20 million, and officials admit this figure will reach at least 35 million by the end of 2009.

Vice-Premier Hui Liangyu, responsible for agricultural affairs, warned in a recent report that 30 percent of all villagers have set up peasant organizations to challenge local government officials and crime bosses. Some groups also have plans to launch armed insurgencies and their own peasant governments.

Several million university graduates will also face unemployment this year, potentially lending their voices and leadership skills to mass protest movements.

An increasing number of intellectuals have already signed Charter 08, a petition issued in December calling for multi-party elections, human rights, press freedom and the rule of law.

On Jan. 7, a prominent Chinese lawyer, Yan Yiming, filed an application with the Finance Ministry demanding that it open its 2008 and 2009 budget books to the public. On Jan. 13, more than 20 Chinese intellectuals signed an open letter calling for a boycott of state television news programs because of “systematic bias and brainwashing,” while a Beijing newspaper ran an article arguing that freedom of speech was written into the constitution, The Washington Post reported in late January.

In response, Public Security Minister Meng Jianzhu warned China’s leaders via state media that, “The present situation of maintaining national security and social stability is grave.”

Many analysts agree that the Chinese Communist Party may be facing its greatest challenge to date.

Report from Compass Direct News

AUSTRALIA: BUSHFIRE DEATH TOLL MAY REACH 200


The death toll in Australia’s bushfire disaster in Victoria has now reached 131 confirmed dead, along with the solemn warning that that death toll could very well reach 200 plus.

Our country is in shock and stunned at the ferocity of the fires, especially on Saturday. Bushfires are an annual thing in Australia and our bushfires are among the worst in the world – yet this has been by far the worst ever.

The bushfire emergency is continues to unfold with fires burning across two states – Victoria and New South Wales. There have been hundreds of fires and dozens continue to burn – many out of control. There are some fires in Victoria that are yet to be attended by any fire-fighters as the current priority remains the saving of lives and property protection. Some 330 000 hectares plus have so far been burnt by the fires.

Fire-fighting crews are rushing to the bushfire region from across Australia and also from New Zealand. Great Britain has also offered assistance and doubtless other countries have also offered help.

As I write there are still homes and towns facing immediate threats from bushfire activity and residents are being warned to leave before it is too late or if remaining home to fight the fires and protect a home (should it be defendable), do not leave when it is too late to do so.

Sadly, many of these fires appear to have been deliberately lit and several arsonists have already been arrested. Many people in Australia are calling for blood. Many Australians are deeply shocked and upset by the bushfire emergency, as has been represented by the Prime Minister Kevin Rudd and the Victorian Premier – both of whom have fought back tears during interviews.

In 2009 there has only been 12mm of rain in the region where I live and in many other regions of New South Wales and Victoria there has been even less. We need rain and there seems very little of it in weather forecasts for the foreseeable future.

ABOVE: A collection of photos and tributes from the fire emergency

ABOVE: A tribute to Channel 9 Newsreader Brian Naylor and his wife – killed in the fires at their home.

ABOVE: Report on the fires

ABOVE: The Fire approaches Churchill – Victoria

INDONESIA: VILLAGE TO BE REBUILT FOLLOWING ISLAMIC RAMPAGE


Officials question Christian teacher whose alleged comment was said to trigger violence.

AMBON, Indonesia, December 17 (Compass Direct News) – Government officials in Central Maluku, Indonesia, yesterday promised to reconstruct before Christmas two church buildings and a number of houses set ablaze last week during sectarian rioting in Letwaru village, Masohi district.

The promises came after hundreds of activists from a local youth organization protested in the streets of nearby Ambon on Monday (Dec. 15), holding these officials responsible for failing to maintain law and order, local media reported.

Also on Monday, police formally questioned a Christian elementary schoolteacher accused of making an anti-Islamic comment. Welhelmina Holle has been accused of insulting Islam while tutoring one of her students; following the Nov. 23 distribution of a flyer expressing the allegation against the schoolteacher, around 500 protestors gathered outside the education agency office and police headquarters on Dec. 9, and the protest quickly escalated into a full-scale riot.

Enraged Muslims destroyed 69 buildings, including two church buildings of a single congregation, 42 homes owned by Christians, four shops and a village hall. They also inadvertently struck 16 homes owned by Muslims.

Several people, including a police officer who attempted to stop the mob, were wounded during the rampage, according to Christian support organization Open Doors.

The time that lapsed between the Nov. 23 flyer and the Dec. 9 rioting shows that police were lax, said pastor Maureen Latuihamallo Ferdinandus, head of the Maluku Protestant Church (GPM) in Letwaru.

“The blasphemy issues had been spread since Nov. 23 – the time span until the day of the riot, Dec. 9, was long enough,” she said. “Yet police failed to anticipate the big protests and village rampage.”

 

Reconstruction, Relief Efforts

“We are committed to finishing the reconstruction of homes and churches before Christmas, so Christians won’t have to celebrate it in temporary shelters,” regency head Abdullah Tuasikal told The Jakarta Post yesterday.

Tuasikal had asked all construction workers in the area to participate in reconstruction efforts, while provincial and regency administrations allocated 2 billion rupiah (US$181,000) to the project.

The rebuilding of Syiloam Church began on Saturday (Dec. 13). Officials also promised to replace 200 chairs burned in the attack.

At press time, relief was trickling through to 1,764 people displaced by the riots, 1,523 Christians and 241 Muslims. The whereabouts of another 200 people are unknown.

Letwaru village, with a predominantly Christian population, borders a Muslim village with a narrow street separating both communities. When rioting broke out, the mob unknowingly attacked 16 homes occupied by Muslims on the Letwaru side of the street.

Critics say that government relief is far from adequate. Pastor Ferdinandus said displaced villagers desperately needed food and water, clothes, stoves and cooking utensils. Water was the first priority, as supplies were limited in the police station and prison that had provided temporary housing to some of the villagers.

Most of the displaced Christians took refuge in their relatives’ homes in neighboring villages, while Muslim victims opted to stay with relatives in the nearby town of Masohi.

“We’ve faced difficulties in identifying the needs of the displaced people since they are scattered,” Ferdinandus told Compass.

Last Friday (Dec. 12), three days after the riots, the streets of Letwaru were deserted. Few Christians dared venture out to the office or market; one resident told Compass that she had not yet returned to her office because “it’s not safe yet.” Life continued as normal, however, in downtown Masohi, an area where most residents are Muslims.

Maluku police chief Brig. Gen. Mudji Waluyo told The Jakarta Post that he would assign two-thirds of the Central Maluku police force to maintain security in the area during Christmas and New Year’s Eve celebrations, in addition to military troops.

Police have named Asmara Wasahua, Muhammad Patty – and Holle, the schoolteacher – as suspects in the riot. According to local media reports, police have accused Wasahua, a local candidate of the Islamic Justice and Welfare Party, of distributing hate flyers and mobilizing the protestors.

 

Discouraging Retaliation

Ferdinandus has urged her congregation in Letwaru not to retaliate, despite personal losses. “Up to now, none of our congregation has fought back,” she told Compass.

She said she believed that the riot was planned in advance.

“We were caught by surprise,” she said. “The assailants, on the other hand, looked as if they had carefully prepared for the attack.”

According to the pastor, the long-term education of Christian children who had until last week attended schools in Muslim neighborhoods would “definitely be disrupted” because of the riots.

When asked about the possibility of another large-scale religious conflict, Ferdinandus said the incident was not purely religious, but that certain groups had used the accusations against teacher Holle “as a political vehicle” to further their own interests. She added however, that “riots like these can start and end anytime. Things become very unpredictable.”

Ferdinandus also felt police should have dealt swiftly with the allegations against Holle before offended parties took to the streets.

According to Open Doors, in May a mob attacked another Christian village in Maluku, killing three people and destroying 116 homes.

These incidents, though isolated, suggest ongoing tension between Christian and Muslim communities in the Maluku islands, where violent religious conflict between 1999 and 2002 claimed at least 7,000 lives.  

Report from Compass Direct News