Suspected Drug Traffickers Kidnap Pastor


Michoacan state church leader abducted during Sunday service.

MEXICO CITY, April 15 (CDN) — Some 500 worshippers were gathered for last Sunday’s (April 10) worship service at the Christian Center El Shaddai in the Mexican city of Lázaro Cárdenas, Michoacan at about 8:15 a.m. when four masked men burst in firing machine guns into the air.

Before the frightened believers realized what was happening, their pastor, Josué Ramírez Santiago, had been whisked away. Divergent press reports indicated the kidnappers, suspected drug traffickers active in the state, were about 10 in number.

The following day, the pastor’s family received news that the criminals wanted a ransom of 20 million pesos (US$1.7 million). Even if the family could raise such an immense sum – considered doubtful – payment would not guarantee that the victim would be returned alive.

Arturo Farela, director of the National Fraternity of Evangelical Churches, has asserted that organized crime syndicates and drug cartels have targeted Christians because they view churches as revenue centers and because churches support programs for the rehabilitation of drug addicts and alcoholics.

“The majority of rehabilitation centers that have been attacked by organized crime in Ciudad Juarez, Tijuana, Tepic and other places belong to the evangelical community,” Farela said in a declaration regarding the kidnapping of Ramirez. “Furthermore, some 100 Mexican or foreign pastors who lived in Ciudad Juarez have had to abandon the city because of the threats and demands for money. And of course many pastors and their families have been victims of extortion, threats, kidnapping and homicide.”

Farela has stated that 100 Mexican clergymen have been kidnapped in recent years, with 15 of them losing their lives to organized crime. Asked if Compass could review his records of these crimes, Farela said he was not authorized to permit it.

In numerous other cases, children of pastors have been kidnapped, including one from Matehuala, San Luis Potosi, who has not been heard from for some six months. The college-age daughter of a prominent pastor in Mexico City was held by kidnappers for a week but was released when the criminals grew tired of the father’s prayers every time they telephoned him; the family has not revealed whether money was given for her return.

Michoacan, the state where the most recent abduction took place, has been a center of much criminal activity and also of severe reprisals by elements of the Mexican army. The state where President Felipe Calderon was born, Michoacan was the first to implement an anti-drug military operation that expanded to northern and eastern states.

In spite of the operation, more than 34,600 people nationwide have reportedly been assassinated since it was implemented in December 2006, with most of those crimes tied to drug traffickers “settling accounts.”

Report from Compass Direct News
http://www.compassdirect.org

Pakistani Officials Back Muslim Land-Grabbers, Christians Say


Senior district authorities accused of supporting desecration of 150 Christian graves.

LAHORE, Pakistan, March 9 (CDN) — Christians in south Punjab Province are accusing senior district officials of supporting local Muslims who allegedly demolished 150 Christian graves and desecrated holy relics – and are now threatening Christians seeking legal redress.

In the Kot Addu area of Muzaffargarh district, Waseem Shakir told Compass by telephone that an influential Muslim group last Nov. 6 took illegal possession of a 1,210-square yard piece of land designated as a Christian cemetery and set up shops on it. Official records state that the portion of land was allotted as a Christian cemetery, he said.

“Local Muslims demolished 150 Christians’ graves and desecrated the cross and biblical inscriptions on the graves in a bid to construct shops on the property,” said Shakir, a resident of Chak (Village) 518, Peer Jaggi Morr, Kot Addu. “Only five marlas [151.25 square yards] are all that is left for the Christians to bury their dead now.”

Shakir said that all Muzaffargarh area authorities, including the local politicians, were supporting the alleged land-grabbers even as Christians feared a mob attack.

“The situation has come to point where even the local police have warned their higher-ups that the tension could provoke a Gojra-type incident,” he said, adding that Muslim instigators were now openly trying to intimidate him and Boota Masih, who registered a case with police, into dropping the matter.

In Gojra on Aug. 1, 2009, Muslim hordes acting on an unsubstantiated rumor of blasphemy of the Quran – and whipped into a frenzy by local imams and banned terrorist groups – killed at least seven Christians, looted more than 100 houses and set fire to 50 of them. At least 19 people were injured in the melee.

Shakir said Christians had approached police and the district administration to register a case against the Muslims for desecrating their sacred relics and hurting religious sentiments, but authorities have shown little attention to their grievance. Masih registered the complaint on behalf of area Christians, but the station house officer of the Daira Deen Panah Police, Waseem Leghari, altered it to state that Muslims had only occupied a piece of the cemetery land, Shakir said.

“Leghari registered a case against the Muslims under Section 297 of the Pakistan Penal Code [trespass of a place for the dead], which is a bailable offense, despite the fact that a case under the blasphemy law should have been registered against the Muslims for desecrating the Christian holy relics,” Shakir said.

Police took no measures to arrest the 11 named suspects, he added.

“No one seems bothered over the desecration of our cross and biblical inscriptions,” Shakir said.

Section 297 of the penal code states, “Whoever, with the intention of wounding the feelings of any person, or of insulting the religion of any person, or with the knowledge that the feelings of any person are likely to be wounded, or that the religion of any person is likely to be insulted thereby, commits any trespass in any place of worship or on any place of sculpture, or any place set apart for the performance of funeral rites or as a depository for the remains of the dead, or offers any indignity to any human corpse or causes disturbance to any persons assembled for the performance of funeral ceremonies, shall be punished with imprisonment of either description for a term which may extend to one year, or with fine, or with both.”

Shakir said that, besides the 150 demolished graves, the illegal occupants had thrown garbage on another 50 graves. The police’s indifferent attitude towards the Christian community had been hurtful, he said, and Christians had repeatedly taken up the issue with District Police Officer (DPO) Chaudhry Manzoor and District Coordination Officer Tahir Khurshid.

They did not take the issue seriously, Shakir said.

DPO Manzoor rejected the Christians’ accusations.

“It’s not as serious a case as they are portraying,” he told Compass. “The people who have built shops on the land are not illegal occupants but the real owners.”

He said Christians were furious because the shopkeepers put some of their belongings on the graves.

“No one has desecrated any Christian holy symbol, book or grave,” he said. “Any fears that the issue could lead to another Gojra are baseless.”

Manzoor said the matter would be resolved amicably.

Napolean Qayyum, leader of the Minorities Wing of the ruling Pakistan People’s Party (PPP), told Compass that open desecration of the Christian symbols and places and the police’s alleged support of the culprits showed the prejudice of the Punjab government towards minority groups.

“An application regarding this incident is lying in the Punjab chief minister’s secretariat, but it seems the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz’s [PML-N] government in Punjab wants another Gojra-like incident to take place in Kot Addu,” he said, adding that it was curious that all major violence against Christians usually takes place when the PML-N is in power in the province.

Qayyum said that he had taken up the matter with the PPP leadership.

“It’s a case of blasphemy, and the culprits should have been rounded up under Section 295-A,” he said. “I have contacted Farahnaz Ispahani, the political adviser to President Asif Zardari, and she has assured me of the federal government’s support in this matter.”

He added that stern action against local police and administrative authorities was necessary to set an example for others.

Report from Compass Direct News

Spike in Anti-Christian Violence Feared before Burma Elections


Attacks on Christians seen as politically expedient in majority-Buddhist nation.

CHIANG MAI, Thailand, January 21 (CDN) — As Burma’s military junta gears up for its first parliamentary election in two decades this year, observers fear attacks on the Christian minority could intensify.

Mungpi Suangtak, assistant editor of a New Delhi-based news agency run by exiled Burmese journalists, the Mizzima News, said the Burmese junta has “one of the world’s worst human rights records” and will “definitely” attack religious and ethnic minorities more forcefully in the run-up to the election.

The military regime, officially known as the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC), pledged to hold the election this year, and analysts believe polls will be held after July in the country, also known as Myanmar.

Suangtak told Compass that the Buddhist nationalist junta would target Christians particularly in Karen state, bordering Thailand, and in Chin State, bordering India and Bangladesh.

Many Christians are part of the Karen National Union and the Chin National Front, armed resistance groups that have been demanding freedom or autonomy for their respective states for decades, and therefore the junta sees the Christian minority as a threat, said Suangtak.

There are over 100,000 Christian Chin refugees in India who have fled the junta’s attacks in the past two decades, according to Human Rights Watch.

Christians in Karen state are not safe. A Karen Christian worker living in the Mae La refugee camp on the Thailand-Burma border told Compass that ethnic Christians were facing human rights abuses by the junta “on a daily basis.” Most recently, Burma army soldiers attacked a church, murdered a local farmer and injured others in Nawng Mi village on Dec. 19, 2009, reported Burma Campaign UK.

Parts of Karen state fall under the “Black Zone” – identified by the Burma army as an area under the control of armed resistance groups where its soldiers are free to open fire on anyone on sight – and the junta has been launching indiscriminate attacks to take control of village after village, said the Karen Christian.

“Those who are not able to flee across the border during such attacks are either killed or forcibly relocated in and confined to temporary camps set up by the junta,” the Christian said. “Since the army litters surrounding areas with landmines, many local people die or get injured while trying to run away from or coming to the camps to look for their relatives.”

Over 150,000 refugees from Karen and neighboring Karenni states of Burma are living along the Thai side of the border, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. More than half of them are Christian.

A representative of the Free Burma Rangers (FBR), which trains and sends teams of local people to help victims of the junta’s attacks inside Burma, said youths have been forced to become Buddhists in Chin state, where over 80 percent of the people are Christian.

Printing of Bibles is restricted, and churches are destroyed on a regular basis in the state, the source told Compass on condition of anonymity.

Access for foreign visitors to Chin state is, with some exceptions, prohibited, and the state is widely acknowledged to be the poorest part of the country, said Rogers.

“According to one Chin, the reason Chin state is denied resources, and foreigners are denied access, is specifically because the overwhelming majority of Chins are Christian,” stated a 2009 report by London-based advocacy group Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW). “The SPDC has, it is believed, taken a deliberate decision to discriminate against Chin Christians.”

The report cited a Chin Christian man who had served in the Burma army who faced discrimination.

“I had a colleague who was a Chin who became a Buddhist and he was promoted,” the Christian says in the report. “I was told to change my religion if I wanted to get promotion. I refused to convert.”

The report also quoted a Chin Christian as saying that students from a Christian youth fellowship at a university in Kalaymyo, in Chin state’s Sagaing Division, collected funds among their own community to construct a small church.

“However, in 2008 and again in 2009, ‘extremist Buddhists’ destroyed the church building, and when the students reported the incident to the local authorities, the youth fellowship leaders were arrested, detained and then released with a warning,” he said.

Religious Pretext

Suangtak said successive governments in Burma have promoted Buddhism since General Ne Win took power in 1962, leaving Christians insecure.

“There is a general feeling in Burma that the state represents Buddhism, and most Christians, particularly from conservative sections, cannot trust the regime,” said Suangtak.

Benedict Rogers of CSW said the junta doesn’t differentiate between individual Christians involved in armed struggle and ordinary Christians who have not taken up arms.

“And when it attacks villages in conflict zones, churches and pastors are often among the first to be attacked,” Rogers said.

A Christian worker from Burma’s Mandalay city, however, told Compass that thus far he has heard no reports of any major anti-Christian incidents there. He said he was hoping the junta would try to woo people with peace rather than violence.

“But nothing can be said about the unpredictable junta,” he said, adding that it was difficult to receive or send information in Burma. “Even in cities, the information infrastructure is limited and expensive, phones are tapped and e-mails are monitored. And the press is owned by the state.”

Rogers, deputy chairman of the human rights commission for the U.K.’s Conservative Party, said the Buddhist nationalist regime “distorts and perverts Buddhism for political purposes and is intolerant of non-Burman and non-Buddhist ethnic and religious minorities, including Christians and Muslims.”

Of the 56 million people in Burma, around 89 percent are Buddhist, with only 4 percent Christian.

Given that the junta merely uses religion for political power, it doesn’t target Christians alone, Suangtak said.

“The junta has no respect for any religion, be it Christians or Buddhists, and anyone who opposes its rule is dealt with harshly.”

Burma was ruled by military regimes from 1962 to 1990; at that point the National League for Democracy party, led by Nobel Laureate Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, won the parliamentary election. But the regime seized power again by imprisoning members of parliament after the election.

Rogers, who has co-authored a soon-to-be-published biography of SPDC chairman Senior General Than Shwe, said that while the armed groups are not perfect, they are essentially fighting to defend their people against a “brutal regime” and are “not in any way terrorists.”

“The armed groups have sometimes launched pre-emptive attacks on the military, but they have never attacked non-military targets and have never engaged in indiscriminate acts of violence,” he said. “Even the pre-emptive acts are conducted for defensive, rather than offensive, purposes.”

Rogers added that resistance groups were fighting to defend their people.

“Individual Christians who have joined the armed ethnic groups do so out of a perfectly biblical concept of just war, the right to defend your people from gross injustice.”

Added an FBR source, “In Burma, no one protects except the pro-democracy resistance groups, and all relief inside the country is only possible because of them.”

International Disrepute

The 2009 annual report of the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom states that Burma’s military junta had “one of the world’s worst human rights records.”

“Burma’s Christian populations face forced promotion of Buddhism and other hardships in ethnic minority areas where low-intensity conflict has been waged for decades,” the report states. “In addition, a new law passed in early 2009 essentially bans independent ‘house church’ religious venues, many of which operate because permission to build church buildings is regularly denied.”

The report also pointed out that in January 2009, authorities in Rangoon ordered at least 100 churches to stop holding services and forced them to sign pledges to that effect. Burma, which the ruling junta describes as “The Golden Land” on its official website, has been designated as a Country of Particular Concern by the U.S. Department of State since 1999.

Even after the 2010 election, little is expected to change.

The FBR source said the election was not likely to be free and fair, pointing out that the new constitution the junta adopted after an apparently rigged referendum in 2008 virtually enshrined military power.

“However, having an election is better than not having one at all,” the source said.

Report from Compass Direct News 

Hostilities Flare in BJP-Run Madhya Pradesh, India


Anti-Christian violence, efforts to tarnish church increase in past five years.

NEW DELHI, October 14 (CDN) — Since the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) came to power in Madhya Pradesh in December 2003, Christians in the state have suffered increased attacks and concerted efforts to tarnish their image, church leaders said.

Before the BJP took office the state recorded two or three attacks against Christians per year, they said, whereas Jabalpur Archbishop Gerald Almeida said that in the past five years 65 baseless charges of forceful conversion – commonly accompanied by mob violence – have been registered in his diocese alone.

“There are some groups who are closely monitoring the Christian movement, and these people are bent on creating problems for the Christians for the past five years,” Almeida told Compass.

The state is not able to control these groups, he added. Indeed, police routinely working with Hindu extremist groups filed an average of more than three unsubstantiated complaints of “coerced” conversions each month in the past five years, according to the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of Madhya Pradesh (see sidebar below).

In the first eight months of this year, Madhya Pradesh saw the third highest number of attacks against Christians and Christian institutions in the country with 11, behind Karnataka with 43 and Andhra Pradesh with 14, according to Christian advocacy organizations.

The Rev. Anand Muttungal, spokesman for the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of Madhya Pradesh, said growing attacks on Christians were a symptom of fear among Hindu extremists that the Catholic Church’s influence is spreading.

“The Church as an organization is doing very well in many fields,” Muttungal said. “It causes those fundamentalists to worry. It could be one of the main reasons for the continuous attacks on Christians.”

Madhya Pradesh has a Christian population of 170,381, only 0.3 percent of the total in the state, according to the 2001 census. The state’s history of religious intolerance runs deep, with an “anti-conversion” law passed in 1968 that has serves as a pretext for harassing Christians.

Igniting anti-Christian violence shortly after the BJP came to power was an incident in Jhabua district, where the body of a 9-year-old girl called Sujata was found in one of the Christian schools on Jan. 11, 2004. Although a non-Christian confessed to the crime, Hindu extremists used the event to justify various attacks against the Christian community.

Abuses became so rampant in 2005 and 2006 that the National Commission for Minorities (NCM) sent a fact-finding team to Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh in June 2006. Investigators found that Hindu extremists had frequently invoked the state’s anti-conversion law as a means to incite mobs against Christians and to get Christians arrested without evidence.

Jabalpur Archbishop Almeida cited cases chronicled by the NCM such as the arrest under the anti-conversion law of two local women who were merely distributing gospel tracts in March 2006. Almeida also cited the NCM report on the jailing of four pastors in January 2006 for alleged “forceful conversion” after Hindu extremists from the Bajrang Dal dragged them to a Hindu temple and forced them to deny Christ.

Catholic Church records show that in 2007, a 70-year-old woman identified only as Mrs. Godwin was arrested along with another woman on charges of forceful conversion; they too were only distributing religious literature, a right they had under the nation’s constitution.

Christian leaders said one aim of such abuses of the state’s anti-conversion law is to tarnish the image of Christians by showing them as lawbreakers. Hate propaganda and spurious allegations against Christians continue unabated in the state, church leaders said.

The customary practice in India and especially in Madhya Pradesh, they said, is for Hindu extremists to raise false allegations on the slimmest of pretexts and get police to make hurried arrests.

Political Machinery

After the NCM report in 2006 first documented the violence, the Madhya Pradesh political machinery’s influence became evident when State Minorities Commission Chairman Anwar Mohammed Khan asserted that reports of Hindu extremists attacking Christians in the state were “baseless.”

Khan told Frontline magazine that extremists had not targeted Christians. The magazine also quoted state Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chauhan as saying the BJP government was greatly concerned about “unethical conversions” – presumably of Hindus to Christianity.

The magazine criticized the state Minorities Commission for speaking “the same language as the Bajrang Dal and the state chief minister,” thereby failing its mandate to defend minorities.

This year the commission tried to increase state control over church activities, unofficially recommending that the government enact a law to set up a board to manage church properties such as schools, colleges, hospitals and charities. The Christian community strongly protested, and the state withdrew the proposal.

Leo Cornelio, archbishop of Bhopal, said the Minorities Commission recommendation “shows beyond doubt that it is disloyal to minorities” and “loyal to the government,” according to the Indian Catholic.

The battle over state control of church properties is not over. Muttungal told Compass that the Minorities Commission has started to collect details of church properties through the Education Department. It is certain, he said, that this will lead to a legal battle involving the Education Department, Minorities Commission and the Catholic Church.

SIDEBAR

Police Collusion Seen in ‘Forced Conversion’ Complaints

NEW DELHI, October 14 (Compass Direct News) – Hindu extremist groups in collusion with the state police filed an average of more than three baseless complaints of “coerced” conversions per month in the past five years – shortly after the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) came to power – according to the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of Madhya Pradesh.

“I have gathered information from all the districts of the state, according to which the number of [forced or fraudulent] conversion complaints against Christians in the last five years is over 180,” the Rev. Anand Muttungal, spokesman for the state’s Catholic body, told Compass.

Muttungal said he asked the Madhya Pradesh State Crime Records Bureau, a body under the state interior ministry that monitors criminal complaints, about the number of forced conversion complaints in the last five years, and the state agency put the number wrongly at fewer than 35.

Muttungal also said most of the complaints were filed by third parties – not the supposed “victims” – who were unable to produce any unlawfully converted people to support their allegations. He added that the complainants were mainly members of the Hindu extremist Bajrang Dal, youth wing of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (World Hindu Council or VHP).

“In Jabalpur, the complaints were lodged mainly by the Hindu Dharam Sena [Hindu Religion Army],” he said.

Most recently, the leader of the Hindu Dharam Sena on Sept. 27 got police to interrogate, without cause, a Catholic group traveling through Jabalpur. The Rev. Anto Mundamany of the Carmelite of Mary Immaculate order said the inspector-in-charge of the Civil Lines police station and four other policemen came to the Carmel Niketan center, where the group had stopped for dinner. Police interrogated him and the 45 Catholic visitors about their religious identity, he said, to determine whether the visitors were Hindus whom the priests and nuns at the center might be forcibly trying to convert.

Journalists accompanied the police, and the following day local newspapers reported on the incident, portraying the Christians as inherently suspect.

“Although the police left after making sure that all the participants who had arrived for an inter-parish tour were Christians, the newspapers made no mention of that fact,” Mundamany said.

The local daily Dainik Bhaskar reported that Yogesh Agarwal, head of the Hindu Dharam Sena, had informed police about a supposed “conversion plot” by the Catholic order.

“There can be little doubt that the police are party to this disturbing trend,” Muttungal said.

The incidence of anti-Christian attacks is the highest in the state in Jabalpur – local Christians say the city witnessed at least three attacks every month until recently, mainly by Agarwal and his cohorts. Although numerous criminal complaints are pending against Agarwal, he remains at large.

A Christian requesting anonymity said police officers personally act on his complaints against Christian workers.

A June 2006 report by the National Commission for Minorities (NCM) found that Hindu nationalist groups in Madhya Pradesh had frequently invoked the state’s anti-conversion law as a pretext to incite mobs against Christians. The NCM report also pointed at police collusion in the attacks.

“The life of Christians has become miserable at the hands of miscreants in connivance with the police,” the NCM said in its report. “There are allegations that when atrocities were committed on Christians, the police remained mere spectators, and in certain cases they did not even register their complaints.”

The NCM is an independent body created by Parliament in 1993 to monitor and safeguard the rights of minorities.

Muttungal said the Catholic Bishops’ Conference would approach the state high court with the facts it has gathered to prove police involvement in complaints against Christians.

Most complaints against Christians are registered under Section 3 of the Madhya Pradesh “Freedom of Religion Act” of 1968, popularly known as an anti-conversion law. The section states, “No person shall convert or attempt to convert, either directly or otherwise, any person from one religious faith to another by the use of force or by inducement or by any fraudulent means nor shall any person abet any such conversion.”

Offenses under the anti-conversion law are “cognizable,” meaning police are empowered to register a complaint, investigate and arrest for up to 24 hours, without a warrant, anyone accused of forced conversion.

Police also use Sections 153A and 295A of the Indian Penal Code (IPC) to arrest Christians. Section 153A refers to “promoting enmity between different groups on grounds of religion and doing acts prejudicial to maintenance of harmony.” Section 295A concerns “deliberate and malicious acts to outrage religious feelings.” These IPC crimes are also cognizable.

Report from Compass Direct News 

Uzbekistan: Prison sentences for registered worship service


Some twenty Anti-Terror Police officers raided the regular Sunday afternoon worship service of the registered Donam Protestant church in the capital Tashkent on 23 August, claiming it was “unauthorised”.

Seven church members were arrested and Christian literature was confiscated, Protestants told Forum 18 News Service. Three men were soon freed but four – including the church’s pastor, Vladimir Tyo – were sentenced to 15-day prison terms for “violation of the procedure for organising and conducting meetings”, even though the regular service was included in the required quarterly report to the city Justice Department.

The court verdict also records that the judge ordered the confiscated literature destroyed without giving any reason. Raids on both registered and unregistered religious communities, fines, imprisonment and confiscation of religious literature are frequent in Uzbekistan.

Report from the Christian Telegraph 

INDIA: OFFICIALS ON DEFENSIVE AT ‘WATCH LIST’ DESIGNATION


U.S. religious rights panel cites culture of impunity at authorities allowing atrocities.

NEW DELHI, August 18 (Compass Direct News) – Ahead of one-year remembrances of massive anti-Christian violence in the eastern state of Orissa, the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) has put India on its “Watch List” for the country’s violations of religious freedom, evoking strong reactions from the Indian government.

USCIRF Chairman Leonard Leo said in a statement on Wednesday (Aug. 12) that it was “extremely disappointing” that India “has done so little to protect and bring justice to its religious minorities under siege.”

The U.S. panel’s decision was “regrettable,” a spokesperson for India’s Ministry of External Affairs, Vishnu Prakash, said in a statement on Thursday (Aug. 13), after the USCIRF put India on the list due to a “disturbing increase” in violence on minorities and a growing culture of impunity in the country.

Violence erupted in Kandhamal district of the eastern state of Orissa in August-September 2008, killing more than 100 people and burning 4,640 houses, 252 churches and 13 educational institutions, according to rights groups such as the All India Christian Council (AICC), the Global Council of India Christians (GCIC) and the Christian Legal Association (CLA).

“India’s democratic institutions charged with upholding the rule of law, most notably state and central judiciaries and police, have emerged as unwilling or unable to seek redress for victims of the violence,” Leo said. “More must be done to ensure future violence does not occur and that perpetrators are held accountable.”

Disagreeing with the USCIRF report, the foreign ministry’s Prakash said India is a multi-ethnic and multi-religious society. “The Constitution of India guarantees freedom of religion and equality of opportunity to all its citizens, who live and work together in peace and harmony,” he said.

Christians were shocked by the foreign ministry spokesman’s claim that “aberrations, if any, are dealt with promptly within our legal framework, under the watchful eye of an independent judiciary and a vigilant media.”

Attorney Robin Ratnakar David, president of the CLA, told Compass that one year after the violence only six people have been convicted in just two cases of rioting, while several suspects have been acquitted in four such cases despite the formation of fast-track courts.

Dr. John Dayal, secretary general of the AICC, pointed out that the more than 50,000 people who fled to forests or took shelter in refugee camps have not returned home out of fear of Hindu nationalist extremists who demand they either convert to Hinduism or leave their villages.

He said there also had been several “pogroms against Muslims, often sponsored or condoned by the state.”

In 2002, India’s worst-ever anti-Muslim violence occurred in the western state of Gujarat. A compartment of a train, the Sabarmati Express, caught fire – or was set on fire (as claimed by Hindu extremists) – near the Godhra city railway station on Feb. 27. In the fire, 58 Hindu passengers, mainly supporters of the Hindu extremist Vishwa Hindu Parishad (World Hindu Council or VHP), were killed. The VHP and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) claimed it was an attack by Islamic terrorists; the ensuing violence killed more than 2,000 people, mostly Muslims.

Following the anti-Muslim violence, the USCIRF recommended that India be designated a “Country of Particular Concern” (CPC), its list of the world’s worst violators of religious freedom. India was removed from the CPC list in 2005.

Designation on the Watch List means a country requires “close monitoring due to the nature and extent of violations of religious freedom engaged in or tolerated by the government,” according to USCIRF. The other countries on USCIRF’s Watch List are Afghanistan, Belarus, Cuba, Egypt, Indonesia, Laos, the Russian Federation, Somalia, Tajikistan, Turkey, and Venezuela.

CLA attorney David said the August-September 2008 violence in Kandhamal could have been prevented had the administration brought to justice those responsible for previous mayhem in December 2007. The December 2007 violence in Kandhamal killed at least four Christians, burned as many as 730 houses and 95 churches and rendered thousands homeless.

The attacks were launched under the pretext of avenging an alleged attack on a VHP leader, Swami Laxmanananda Saraswati. It was the assassination of Saraswati by Maoists (extreme Marxists) on Aug. 23, 2008 that sparked the second spate of violence in Kandhamal, as Hindu nationalists blamed non-Marxist, local Christians for it.

Dayal said the USCIRF’s latest conclusions could have been avoided if more action had been taken against the perpetrators of last year’s violence.

“The USCRIF action would not have been possible, and India would have been able to rebuff the U.S. scrutiny more effectively, if several thousand Christians were still not in refugee camps, if the killers were still not roaming scot-free and if witnesses, including widows, were not being coerced,” he said.

‘Indifferent’

Shashi Tharoor, India’s Minister of State for External Affairs, told a private news channel that India did not need approbation from outside its borders.

“As far as we are concerned, we are essentially indifferent to how others view the situation,” he said. “In democracy, what matters to us is how we deal with our own internal issues. I don’t think we need any certificates from outside.”

He dismissed the report as meddling in internal affairs even though between June 2002 and February 2007 Tharoor served as under-secretary general for communications and public information for the United Nations, a body representative of international accountability in human rights.

In its annual report, India’s home (interior) ministry had acknowledged that the incidence of communal violence was high. It noted that in 2008, as many as 943 communal incidents (mainly against Muslims and Christians) took place in which 167 persons were killed and 2,354 persons were injured. The figures were up from those of 2007, when there were 761 incidents in which 99 persons were killed and 2,227 persons were injured.

Justifying its decision, the USCIRF report stated that several incidents of communal violence have occurred in various parts of the country resulting in many deaths and mass displacements, particularly of members of the Christian and Muslim minorities, “including major incidents against Christian communities within the 2008-2009 reporting period.”

“Because the government’s response at the state and local levels has been found to be largely inadequate and the national government has failed to take effective measures to ensure the rights of religious minorities in several states, the Commission decided to place India on its Watch List.”

The USCIRF had released its 2009 annual report on religious freedom across the globe on May 1 but put the India report on hold, planning to prepare it after a visit to the country in June. A USCIRF team planned to visit India to speak to the government and others concerning the situation in Kandhamal and Gujarat on June 12, but the Indian embassy in Washington, D.C. did not provide visas in time.

“USCIRF’s India chapter was released this week to mark the one-year anniversary of the start of the anti-Christian violence in Orissa,” Leo pointed out in last week’s statement.

‘Teflon-Coated State’

The AICC’s Dayal seemed pessimistic about a change in the government’s attitude.

“Unfortunately, nothing really impacts the government of India or the government of Indian states,” he said. “The state, and our social conscience, seems Teflon-coated. The patriotic media and political sector dismiss international scrutiny as interference in the internal affairs of India, and a beaten-into-submission section of the leadership of religious minorities assumes silence to be the best form of security and safety.”

Dr. Sajan George, the national convenor of the GCIC, said the report showed that India had become a “super violator” of human rights. The Rev. Dr. Babu Joseph, spokesman for the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of India, said the U.S. panel’s report did not augur well with India’s claim to find a respectable place within the community of nations.

“India as an emerging economic power in the world should also endeavor to better its records of protecting human rights, particularly when it comes to religious freedom of its citizens,” Joseph said.

Joseph told Compass the USCIRF report was “a clear indication of the growing concern of the international community with India’s repeated failure to take decisive and corrective measures to contain religious intolerance.”

Christian leaders generally lauded the report, with Dayal saying, “India’s record on the persecution of minorities and the violation of religious freedom has been a matter of international shame for the nation.”

Report from Compass Direct News 

EGYPT: COURT GRANTS CUSTODY OF SONS TO COPTIC MOTHER


But twins will keep father’s Muslim identity in their records, creating future problems.

LOS ANGELES, July 1 (Compass Direct News) – A Christian mother in Egypt has won custody of her twin sons from her estranged husband, who had converted to Islam and claimed them according to Islamic legal precepts.

The now 15-year-old boys, however, will still be considered Muslims despite their desire to remain Christian.

On June 15 the Egyptian Court of Cassation ruled that Kamilia Gaballah could retain custody of her sons Andrew and Mario, even though the father converted to Islam and the boys’ religion also changed as a result.

If the court does not allow them to return to Christianity, the family will open up another court case, said their older brother George Medhat Ramses.

“Up until now the court said they would have the right to choose their faith,” said Ramses, 21. “But if they don’t, we will start another trial. This is the only way.”

The decision overturns a September 2008 ruling by the Alexandria Appeals court that had granted custody of the twins to their father, Medhat Ramses Labib, due solely to his conversion. During this time Gaballah lived in constant fear police would take away her sons.

The ruling also affirmed Article 20 of Egypt’s Personal Status Law, which states children should remain with their mother regardless of religion until age 15, over that of the Hanefi School of Islamic jurisprudence, which says that a child must be granted custody to the Muslim father in an inter-religious marriage once he or she becomes 7.

But the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR) advocacy group noted that while the court ruled a woman cannot be denied custody of her children solely on her Christian faith if her husband converts, children can still be removed from her home if there are “fears for the child’s faith.” An ex-husband or his family could easily exploit this clause, the human rights group said.

According to Gaballah, the trial was not a matter of custody rights but was religious in nature from beginning to end.

“My opponent is not only my divorcee; my opponent is everyone who hears this story and wants Andrew and Mario to become Muslims,” said Gaballah, according to Copts United advocacy group.

Mario and Andrew turned 15 in June. On their 16th birthday, they must apply for Egyptian identity cards, which factor heavily into Egyptian daily life. Barring another court battle, their religion will still be registered as Muslim.

Because of this predicament, the court verdict that granted the twins’ mother full custody only solved half of their problems, said Naguib Gobraiel, a lawyer familiar with the case.

As registered Muslims, they could face harassment while attempting to practice their Christian faith. And while they could marry Christian women, their future children would be registered as Muslims, following the Islamic dictum that children take the religion of their father.

“The court didn’t give them the right of freedom to choose their religion,” Gobraiel told Compass. “We must ask ourselves how the children are permitted to stay with their mother but must follow the religion of another man.”

Until then the family is worried that the court will not allow Andrew and Mario to return to their Christian faith and are taking every precaution. Last Wednesday (June 24) they appealed to the Ministry of Internal Affairs to have their birth certificates state their Christian faith. They had been recently changed to retroactively show the boys’ birth status as Islam.

A Longstanding Battle

The controversy began in 2007 when a court ordered the twins to take Islamic education within the Egyptian school system due to the conversion of their estranged father from Christianity to Islam.

The twins refused to take their Islamic religion exam required to pass the next grade. “I am Christian,” each boy wrote on a make-up test in July. They turned in the exam with all of the answers left blank.

Their father converted to Islam and remarried in 2002. He changed the religion of his sons to Islam in 2006 and applied for custody even though he had not lived with the family. According to sharia (Islamic law) custody of minor children and influence over their religious status belongs to the Muslim parent.

The case reflects the tension in Egypt between civil and religious law. While Article 47 of Egypt’s civil law gives citizens the right to choose their religion, Article II of the Egyptian constitution enshrines sharia as the source of Egyptian law. The same tension has inhibited recent attempts by other converts to change their official religious status from Islam to Christianity.

Rights groups said the court order is good news for Gaballah and the twins, but it does nothing to address discriminatory policies of Egyptian law that attach a child’s faith to a parent who chooses to convert to Islam.

“It is regrettable, however, that the highest court of the country chose to treat the symptoms and ignore the root causes of the problem – changing the religious affiliation of Christian children whose parents convert to Islam without the slightest regard for their will or that of their Christian mothers,” said Hossam Baghat, director of the EIPR, in a statement.

Gaballah has fought with her ex-husband over alimony support and custody of sons Andrew and Mario in 40 different cases since he left her and converted to Islam so that he could remarry in 1999.

Report from Compass Direct News 

TURKEY: EFFORTS TO TIE MALATYA MURDERS TO ‘DEEP STATE’ FIZZLE


Alleged ring-leader retracts testimony implicating suspected link to ‘masterminds.’

MALATYA, Turkey, May 28 (Compass Direct News) – Prosecution efforts to tie the murderers of three Christians here to state-linked masterminds were set back on Friday (May 22) when the alleged ring-leader unexpectedly contradicted his previous testimony implicating a suspected “middleman.”

As the suspected middleman between the murderers and “deep state” elements, Huseyin Yelki, was testifying at Friday’s hearing, Emre Gunaydin – whose previous private testimony led to Yelki’s arrest – stood up and said, “Huseyin Yelki is not guilty, he’s being held in prison for no reason.”

The prosecuting team and judges at the Malatya Third Criminal Court froze at the statement, and then demanded to know why he had previously implicated Yelki. Gunaydin said he did so because Yelki was a Christian missionary.

Gunaydin has also implicated Varol Bulent Aral, a journalist allegedly attached to a far-reaching political conspiracy known as Ergenekon. Aral is the second suspected middleman.

For his part, Yelki testified during the court hearing that he had met Gunaydin only once prior to the murders. According to Gunaydin’s previous testimony, Yelki’s brother facilitated various meetings between Gunaydin and Yelki in which they planned the knife attack on the three Christians at a Christian publishing house. During a private hearing this past winter, a judge showed Gunaydin photos of different people, and he immediately identified Yelki’s brother.

Gunaydin’s retraction raised suspicion among the judges that in recent months he has received visits in prison from those behind the murders who have pressured him to change his statement.

“Tell me the truth, have you spoken to anyone?” the judge barked at him.

“I swear to God, I have not!” said Gunaydin.

The judges requested a list of everyone who has visited Gunaydin and the other four suspects – Salih Gurler, Cuma Ozdemir, Hamit Ceker, and Abuzer Yildirim – while they’ve been in prison over the last two years. Further questioning of Yelki failed to yield clear and incriminating answers, and the judges released him.

Lead prosecuting lawyer Orhan Kemal Cengiz told Compass that records of the jail visits to Gunaydin may be inconclusive.

“These visits might be off the record [unofficial], we don’t know,” Cengiz said. “But we have a tiny hope that we may catch something through these records.”

Yelki, a former volunteer at Zirve Publishing Co., was taken into custody in February on suspicion that he had incited the five young suspects to kill the three Christians, Turkish Necati Aydin and Ugur Yuksel, and German Tilmann Geske, in April 2007.

Cengiz called Yelki’s testimony a “disaster.” Even though it is apparent to the court that Yelki has had many contacts with gendarmerie intelligence, Cengiz said, he was not able to explain the nature of his calls, claiming that he wanted to speak to them about the Bible.

“We are very suspicious about him,” Cengiz said. “Everyone is suspicious.”

As a result of the last hearing, the court also asked for a record of all of Yelki’s bank statements over the past few years to see if they point to ties with gendarmerie or other suspicious activities.

“To us it is obvious that Yelki is one of the links that connects these youngsters to upper levels,” said Cengiz. “But he refused to cooperate, and in my view it is also obvious that Emre was pressured to change his statement, because in his earlier statement that he gave the prosecutor, he accused Yelki of instigating them to commit this crime. But he changed after that.”

Cengiz said that Yelki made other misrepresentations, such as his claim in court to have stayed in bed for two months recovering from leg surgery, when telephone records showed he hopped between different southeastern Turkish cities during that time.

“It was obvious that he was telling a lot of lies, because he said that after the release from the hospital he rested for two months,” said Cengiz, “but according to his telephone he was traveling and very intensively, actually.”

Missionaries as Criminals

An undercover gendarme who works in drug and gun enforcement, Mehmet Çolak, also took the stand on Friday (May 22). Phone records show that he may have been one of the communication links between alleged masterminds and others, and his name was mentioned in an informant letter sent to the court.

His testimony, however, yielded no information helpful to prosecutors. When defense lawyers asked him which bureau of the gendarmerie follows missionary activities in Turkey, Çolak replied, “Counter-terrorism.” The response typified the defense argument that the Christian victims brought the murder upon themselves by undertaking missionary activity.

In their concluding statements, defense lawyers requested that the court conduct a thorough investigation involving police, the army and gendarmerie to establish whether missionary activities are a crime. The judges rejected their request.

Prosecuting lawyers said that the lawyers have been trying to vilify missionary activities from the beginning of the case in an attempt to gain a lighter sentence for the five young men and also to make a nationalist political point.

“It is a very poor tactic,” said Cengiz. “At the final hearing, they would like to make a defense that states, ‘This attack was provoked … You see these people [missionaries] are trying to divide our country.’ They want to say that this is an unjust provocation, and as a result these youngsters were very angry and lost their temper. But this is rubbish.”

Ergenekon Trial

Hearings and investigations of Ergenekon, a clandestine nationalist group believed to have sought to overthrow the government by engineering domestic chaos, continue apart from the Malatya trial.

Two suspects arrested in relation to the case, Aral and Veli Kucuk, a retired general, have also been implicated in the Malatya murders. They were both questioned by Ergenekon prosecutors and judges earlier this month.

Nearly 140 people have been arrested in connection to the case. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has been criticized for allegedly allowing indiscriminate arrests of people who oppose his political line and who are not connected to the “deep state” cabal.

Kemal Kerinçsiz, a Turkish lawyer famous for filing court cases and complaints against dozens of Turkish journalists and authors for “insulting Turkishness,” has also been arrested in relation to Ergenekon. Kerinçsiz is responsible for the cases opened against Turkish Christians Hakan Tastan and Turan Topal, who have been on trial for two years for “insulting Turkishness” because they spoke openly about their faith.

In the next Malatya court hearing scheduled for June 19, judges expect to hear the testimony of Aral and others who have been implicated.

Frustrations

Although it was expected that the Malatya hearings would become part of the Ergenekon trials, Cengiz said that chances are slim if the thin evidence thus far does not become more substantial.

Yelki’s release, he said, showed that although his testimony tainted his credibility, there was not enough evidence that he is connected to the case.

“My conclusion is that we’re going nowhere,” said a tired Cengiz, “because the powers behind the scenes were very successful in organizing everything. They organized everything, and we’re going nowhere.”

In order for the Malatya and Ergenekon hearings to merge, Cengiz said, the court will need something more solid than implicated names.

“We don’t have something concrete,” said Cengiz. “All these names are in the air … all connections show gendarmerie intelligence, but there is no concrete evidence yet, and apparently there will be none. The trouble is that it’s very frustrating – we know the story but we cannot prove it.”

Report from Compass Direct News

SRI LANKA: BUDDHIST MOBS ATTACK CHURCHES


Pastor threatened with death, historic Methodist sanctuary ransacked, during Holy Week.

COLOMBO, Sri Lanka, April 16 (Compass Direct News) – Buddhist mobs attacked several churches in Sri Lanka last week, threatening to kill a pastor in the southern province of Hambanthota and ransacking a 150-year-old Methodist church building in the capital.

On April 8, four Buddhist extremists approached the home of pastor Pradeep Kumara in Weeraketiya, Hambanthota district, calling for him to come out and threatening to kill him. The pastor said his wife, at home alone with their two children, phoned him immediately but by the time he returned, the men had left.

Half an hour later, Kumar said, the leader of the group phoned him and again threatened to kill him if he did not leave the village by the following morning. Later that night the group leader returned to the house and ordered the pastor to come out, shouting, “I didn’t bring my gun tonight because if I had it with me, I would use it!”

“My children were frightened,” Kumara said. “I tried to reason with him to go away, but he continued to bang on the door and threaten us.”

Police soon arrived on the scene and arrested the instigator but released him the following day.

Subsequently the attacker gathered Buddhist monks and other villagers together and asked them to sign a petition against the church, Kumar said. Protestors then warned the pastor’s landlord that they would destroy the house if he did not evict the pastor’s family by the end of the month.

Fearing violence, Kumara said he canceled Good Friday and Easter Sunday services and evacuated his children to a safer location.

 

Methodist Building Ransacked

Earlier, on Palm Sunday (April 5), another group of men broke into the 150-year-old Pepiliyana Methodist Church in Colombo after congregants concluded an Easter procession.

The gang entered through the back door and windows of the building late that night; witnesses said they saw them load goods into a white van parked outside the church early the next morning.

“They removed everything, including valuable musical instruments, a computer, Bibles, hymn books and all the church records,” said the Rev. Surangika Fernando.

The church had no known enemies and enjoyed a good relationship with other villagers, Rev. Fernando said, adding that the break-in appeared to be more than a simple robbery.

“My desk was completely cleaned out,” he said. “They took important documents with details of parishioners such as baptism and marriage records, which are of no value to thieves. They even took what was in my wastepaper basket.”

Local police agreed that robbery was an unlikely motive and that opponents from outside the area were the most likely culprits. Investigations were continuing at press time.

Finally, anti-Christian mobs in Vakarai, eastern Batticaloa district, intimidated church members gathering for several worship services during Holy Week.

“What can we do?” pastor Kanagalingam Muraleetharan told Compass. “The authorities and the police say we have the right to worship, but the reality is that people are threatened.”

The Easter incidents are the latest in a long series of attacks against churches and Christian individuals in recent years, many of them instigated by Buddhist monks who decry the growth of Christianity in the country.

Members of Sri Lanka’s Parliament may soon enact an anti-conversion bill designed to restrict religious conversions. Human rights organizations and Christian groups have criticized the vague terminology of the legislation that, if passed, may invite misapplication against religious activity.

The draft “Bill for the Prohibition of Forcible Conversions” was referred to a consultative committee of the Ministry of Religious Affairs in February for further deliberation, prior to a final reading and vote. (See http://www.compassdirect.org, “Parliament to Vote on Anti-Conversion Laws,” Jan. 26.)

According to the most recent government census, Protestant Christians number less than 1 percent of the total population in Sri Lanka, but they remain the primary target of religiously motivated violence and intimidation.

Report from Compass News Direct