NEPAL: CHRISTIANS INCREASINGLY VULNERABLE IN SECULAR STATE


As law and order breaks down, Christians come under attack.

KATHMANDU, Nepal, July 30

(Compass Direct News) – Three years after a pro-democracy movement led to the proclamation of Nepal as a secular state, some Christians say they are in greater peril than ever.

They are now being targeted by militant Hindu organizations that blame the church for the abolition of Hinduism as the state religion and the end of monarchy. A little-known, shadowy organization that claimed to be building an army of suicide bombers has achieved notoriety with two brutal attacks on Catholics in two years.

Since May, when the Nepal Defense Army (NDA) – which claims to have links with militant Hindu organizations across the border in India – struck one of Kathmandu valley’s oldest and biggest churches, the group has threatened to drive all Christians from the country. And now a group claiming to be the parent organization of the NDA has warned that on Aug. 10 it will start a “Save the Hindu nation” movement.

Police say Ram Prasad Mainali, the elusive NDA chief, hired a local woman to plant a bomb at the Assumption Church on May 23 during mass. Two women and a schoolgirl were killed in the attack. The NDA also claimed responsibility for killing a Catholic priest, John Prakash Moyalan, in southern Nepal last year.

Though police have issued an alert for his arrest, Mainali continues to evade capture, and it is murmured that he has political connections. Undeterred by the hunt, he continues to threaten the Christian community.

Last month, the Rev. Pius Perumana, a senior Catholic priest, received a phone call.

“The caller said he was in charge of the NDA in Kathmandu valley,” said Perumana of Ishalaya Catholic Church, located in Godavari on the southern rim of the capital. “However, I recognized the voice. It was Ram Prasad Mainali himself.”

Godavari is an important Catholic hub that includes a Catholic pastoral center, a shelter for destitute, HIV-infected women and homeless children, a day care center and a small clinic.

Perumana said he has received at least five threatening calls from the Hindu supremist ordering him to close all Christian organizations and leave Nepal, he said. The NDA leader has also been calling Protestant pastors, demanding money. In districts outside Kathmandu, where security is weak, some pastors are said to have paid up out of fear.

Mainali’s success has spawned at least one copycat extortion attempt.

“At least one pastor in Kathmandu has received an extortion letter,” said Chirendra Satyal, spokesman of the Assumption Church. “The writer claimed to be the vice-president of a Hindu group, the National Defence Party (NDP), calling it the mother organization of which Mainali’s NDA was the military arm. The pastor was asked to pay 7.5 million Nepalese rupees [US$98,190].”

The letter warned that starting on Aug. 10, the underground organization will start a “Save the Hindu nation” movement.

No Christian Corpses

Until three years ago, Nepal used to be the only Hindu kingdom in the world where Christians faced discrimination by the state, ostracization by society and imprisonment if found guilty of preaching Christ.

Things officially changed in 2006 after a pro-democracy movement led to the ouster of the army-backed regime of Hindu King Gyanendra, and Parliament proclaimed the Himalayan kingdom a secular, federal state.

But three years later, nothing has changed in reality, said the Rev. Nayaran Sharma, bishop of the Protestant Believers’ Church.

“We bought a plot of land in a forest in Gorkha district in western Nepal so that we could have an official graveyard,” Sharma told Compass. “But when the locals heard of it, they made us return the land, saying they did not want corpses in their midst as they would attract evil.”

Even three years after Nepal became secular, Christians have to be buried clandestinely on private property with the danger of graves being dug up, he said.

“Churches have not yet been registered by the government, and so we don’t get state assistance like the Hindu temples and Muslim mosques do,” Sharma said. “Temples are provided free land, electricity and water; the madrassas – the Muslim schools – receive state funding, and the government subsidizes the annual Muslim pilgrimage to Mecca.”

Christians make up about 2.5 percent of Nepal’s 25 million population. Nearly 75 percent of the population in Nepal is Hindu.

Christians are said to be both angered and disheartened by the new, 601-member constituent assembly mandated to draft a new constitution by May 2010.

“There’s not one Christian among the 601, though the government had the power to nominate members from unrepresented communities,” Sharma said. “Though Christianity has been in Nepal for almost 350 years, Christians are still like orphans. There is no one to speak for us, and we are discriminated against beyond imagination.”

Soft Targets

Political instability and the subsequent lawlessness and impunity leave Christians vulnerable to violence, as Sanjay Ekka, a Catholic priest from India’s impoverished Jharkhand state, learned on Monday (July 27).

Ekka came to Nepal in 2000 to teach at St. Xavier’s School, a Jesuit-run school in eastern Jhapa district. Five years ago, he was brought to the capital city of Kathmandu to run the Loyola Students’ Home, a hostel for boys from the Tamang community of Nepal, who, like Ekka’s own tribe, the Oraons, are among the poorest, least educated and most oppressed groups in Nepal.

Despite the similarities of the two tribes, the 40-year-old Ekka was subjected to a savage attack on Monday (July 27) by an expelled student that left his left arm severely slashed and deep gashes on his hip.

“It’s another sign of the growing lawlessness in the country,” says the Rev. Lawrence Maniyar, former principal of St. Xavier’s School in Kathmandu valley, which was founded in 1951. “With crimes soaring, Christians are being targeted as they are seen as soft targets.”

Another factor endangering Christians in Nepal is the tension in the nascent republic’s relations with its southern neighbor and largest trading partner, India. As the smaller neighbour, Nepal has lived in fear of being annexed since 1975, when the kingdom of Sikkim decided to abrogate monarchy and become part of India after a controversial referendum.

Tensions worsened in 1989, when India imposed a virtual blockade of Nepal, hitting the fragile economy of the land-locked kingdom. A substantial number of Christian priests in Nepal are from India.

“The heads of three Catholic organizations have been asked to leave Nepal,” said Bishop Anthony Sharma. They are the Rev. Boniface Tigga, principal of St. Xavier’s School in Kathmandu valley, the principal of St. Mary’s Higher Secondary School, identified only as Sister Nancy, and Sister Teresa Mandassery, who heads the Navjyoti Day Care Center for the mentally challenged in Kathmandu. All three are from India.

“Now the animosity is out in the open,” said Maniyar of St Xavier’s in Kathmandu valley. “There has been growing union trouble in St. Xavier’s School. While we were holding talks with the union representatives, they told us to our face, ‘You priests from Kerala [in southern India] think you can run the school the way you want.”

Maniyar said it is useless trying to explain reality to such people.

“We are in Nepal not because we are Indians,” he says. “We are here because we are Jesuits. It is an international organization with an administrative structure of its own, and we have to follow our superiors and go where ever they want us to.”

Report from Compass Direct News 

NEPAL: CHRISTIANS LITTLE CONSOLED BY ARREST IN CHURCH BOMBING


Militant group threatens more attacks unless non-Hindus leave country within month. 

KATHMANDU, Nepal, June 2 (Compass Direct News) – Vikash and Deepa Patrick had been married for nearly four months before the young couple living in Patna in eastern India managed to go on their honeymoon here. The decision to come to Nepal for four days of fun and sight-seeing would be a choice the groom will rue the rest of his life.

Vikash Patrick’s 19-year-old bride died while praying at the Assumption Church in Kathmandu valley’s Lalitpur district, the largest Catholic church in Nepal, in an anti-Christian bombing on May 23, the day they were to return home. Claiming responsibility for the violence was the Nepal Defense Army (NDA), a group wishing to restore Hinduism as the official religion of Nepal.

Patrick and two of his cousins also were injured in the explosion that ripped through the church, where nearly 400 people had turned up for a morning service.

A dazed Sun Bahadur Tamang, a 51-year-old Nepali Christian who had also gone to the church that day with his wife and daughter, pieced together the incident while awaiting treatment in a private hospital.

“We were in the prayer hall when a woman who looked to be in her 30s came and sat down next to my wife,” Tamang told Compass. “Then she got up and asked us where the toilet was. We said it was near the entrance, and she left, leaving her blue handbag behind. A little later, there was a stunning bang, and I fell on my daughter. People screamed, there was a stampede, and I couldn’t find my wife. I also realized I had lost my hearing.”

Deepa Patrick and a 15-year-old schoolgirl, Celeste Joseph, died in the explosion while 14 others, mostly women and teenagers, were injured. Another woman, Celeste’s mother Buddha Laxmi Joseph, died of a hemorrhage yesterday.

In the church hall, police found remains of the handbag as well as a pressure cooker. From 1996 to 2006, when Nepal’s underground Maoist party fought a guerrilla war against the state to overthrow monarchy and transform the world’s only Hindu kingdom into a secular republic, pressure cookers became deadly weapons in guerrilla hands. Packed with batteries, a detonator, explosives and iron nails, pressure cookers became lethal home-made bombs.

Also found scattered in the hall and outside the church were hundreds of green leaflets by an organization that until two years ago no one knew existed. Signed in the name of Ram Prasad Mainali, a 38-year-old Hindu extremist from eastern Nepal, the leaflets claimed the attack to be the handiwork of the NDA.

“A day after the explosion, a man called me up, saying he was the vice-president of the NDA,” said Bishop Narayan Sharma of the Protestant Believers’ Church in Nepal. “Though he was polite and expressed regret for the death of innocent people, he said his organization wanted the restoration of Hinduism as the state religion.”

Soon after the phone call, the NDA sent a fresh statement to Nepal’s media organizations with a distinctly militant tone. In the statement, the NDA gave “Nepal’s 1 million Christians a month’s time to stop their activities and leave the country” or else it would plant a million bombs in churches across the country.

“There is fear in the Christian community,” said Chirendra Satyal, spokesman for the Assumption Church. “Now we have police guarding our church, and its gates are closed. People coming in are asked to open their bags for security checks. It’s unheard of in the house of God.”

Suspect Arrested

An unexpected development occurred today as last rites were performed at the church on Joseph, the mother of the 15-year-old girl who also died in the explosion.

“At around 3 a.m. Tuesday, we arrested the woman who planted the bomb in the church,” Deputy Inspector-General of Police Kuber Rana told Compass.

Rana, who was part of a three-member police team formed to investigate the attack, identified the woman as a 27-year-old Nepalese, Sita Shrestha nee Thapa. Thapa allegedly confessed to police that she was a member of an obscure group, Hindu Rashtra Bachao Samiti (The Society to Save the Hindu Nation), and had planted the bomb inspired by the NDA.

The NDA made a small splash in 2007, a year after Nepal’s last king, Gyanendra Bir Bikram Shah, who had tried to seize absolute power with the help of the army, was forced to step down after nationwide protests. The cornered king had to reinstate a parliament that had been dissolved several years ago, and the resurrected house promptly decided to end his pretensions as the incarnation of a Hindu god by declaring Nepal to be a secular country.

Soon after that, a man walked into the office of a Nepalese weekly in Kathmandu and claimed to have formed the NDA, a group of former army soldiers, policemen and victims of the Maoists. Its aim was to build up an underground army that would wage a Hindu “jihad.” The man, who called himself Parivartan – meaning change – also claimed the NDA was nurturing suicide bombers.

According to police, Parivartan is the name assumed by a 38-year-old man from Morang district in eastern Nepal – Ram Prasad Mainali. The NDA began to acquire a reputation after it set off a bomb in 2007 at the Kathmandu office of the Maoists, who had laid down arms and returned to mainstream politics. In 2008, it stepped up its pro-Hindu war, bombing two mosques in southern Nepal and killing two Muslims at prayer.

It also targeted a church in the east, a newspaper office and the interim Parliament on the day the latter officially announced Nepal a secular republic.

Though police began a half-hearted hunt for Mainali, the NDA struck again last July, killing a 62-year-old Catholic priest, the Rev. John Prakash, who was also the principal of the Don Bosco School run in Sirsiya town in southern Nepal by the Salesian fathers.

“Extortion and intimidation are the two prime motives of the NDA,” said a Catholic church official who requested anonymity for security reasons. “Father Prakash had withdrawn a large sum of money to pay salaries as well as for some ongoing construction. Someone in the bank must have informed the NDA. It has good contacts, it knows who we are and our phone numbers.”

Small churches in southern and eastern Nepal, which are often congregations of 40-50 people who worship in rented rooms, have been terrified by threats and demands for money, said representatives of the Christian community. Some congregations have reportedly paid extortion sums to avert attacks from the NDA.

“Though the NDA does not seem to have a well chalked-out strategy, its activities indicate it receives support from militant Hindu outfits in India,” said Bishop Sharma of the Protestant Believers’ Church. “It has been mostly active in the south and east, in areas close to the Indian border. Bellicose Hindu groups from north India are likely to support their quest for a Hindu Nepal.”

While Thapa has been charged with murder, Rana said police are also hunting for NDA chief Mainali. And the arrest of Thapa has not lightened the gloom of the Christian community nor lessened its fears.

“There have been instances galore of police arresting innocent people and forcing them to confess,” said Bishop Sharma. “Look at the case of Manja Tamang.”

Tamang, a Believers’ Church pastor, was released this week after serving nine years in prison for murder that his co-religionists say he did not commit. Tamang staunchly protests his innocence with his church standing solidly behind him, saying he was framed.

Report from Compass Direct News

INDIA: CHRISTIANS BREATHE EASIER AFTER ELECTIONS


How Hindu extremist BJP will respond to surprising defeat, though, remains to be seen.

NEW DELHI, May 21 (Compass Direct News) – Christians in India are heaving a sigh of relief after the rout of a Hindu nationalist party in national and state assembly elections in Orissa state, a scene of anti-Christian arson and carnage last year.

The ruling centrist party won a second term, but concerns over persecution of minorities remain.

A local centrist party, the Biju Janata Dal (BJD), took charge of the government of the eastern state of Orissa today, and tomorrow the new federal government led by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh will be sworn in, representing a second term for the United Progressive Alliance (UPA), led by the left-of-center Indian National Congress, commonly known as the Congress Party.

“The election result is a statement against the persecution of non-Hindus,” Vijay Simha, a senior journalist and political analyst, told Compass.

“There were a string of incidents against non-Hindus, which were principally enacted by right-wing outfits,” added Simha, who reported on anti-Christian violence in Kandhamal district of Orissa in August-September 2008. “Since the vote went against right-wing parties, the result is a strong rejection of extremist religious programs.”

John Dayal, secretary general of the All India Christian Council (AICC), said the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) was “defeated not by Christians or Muslims, but by secular Hindus.”

Over 80 percent of the more than 1 billion people in India are Hindu. Christians form around 2.3 percent of the population, and Muslims about 14 percent.

The Times of India on Saturday (May 16) quoted Rahul Gandhi, general secretary of the Congress Party, as saying that his party’s victory was a rejection of politics of caste and religion and acceptance of “clean and honest” policies symbolized by Prime Minister Singh.

“Internal criticisms within the BJP have brought out that it is losing popularity among youth as well as among the urban middle classes, two segments where it had been strong earlier and which represent the emergent India of the 21st century,” stated an editorial in the daily.

Crossroads

The BJP’s defeat at the national level is expected to compel the party to decide whether it turns to moderation in its ideology or more extremism in desperation.

“The BJP now faces a dilemma … Its appeal based on Hindutva [Hindu nationalism] and divisiveness stands rejected by the electorate,” wrote Prem Prakash of ANI news agency. “Where does the party go from here? … The party seems to be waiting for the RSS to provide answers for all this . . . The time has come for it to clearly define what kind of secularism it accepts or preaches.”

Hopes of Christians, however, abound.

“I am hoping that the BJP will learn that it does not pay to persecute minorities, and that civilized Hindus are disgusted with divisive antics of the RSS family,” said the AICC’s Dayal.

Father Dominic Emmanuel of the Delhi Catholic Archdiocese is also hopeful.

“Let’s hope that the new government would work harder to protect all minorities, particularly the constitutional guarantees with regard to religious freedom,” he said.

Father Babu Joseph of the Catholic Bishops Conference of India said, “The Indian Catholic bishops are confident that the Congress Party-led UPA government will keep its promises of safeguarding the country from communal and divisive forces and restore confidence among all sections of people, particularly among the religious minorities for providing a stable, secular and democratic government.”

Threats Continue

The defeat of the BJP, however, may not bring much respite to those facing persecution at the hands of Hindu nationalist groups.

“One would expect a lessening in persecution of Christians and other non-Hindus – however, extremist groups often step up activities to garner funds and patronage when they are on the retreat,” warned journalist Simha. “So, one could also see a rise in anti-minority activities.”

The BJP, which began ruling the federal government in 1998, was defeated by the Congress Party in 2004, which, too, was seen as a mandate against Hindu nationalism. Prime Minister Singh said during his swearing in ceremony in May 2004 that the mandate for the Congress-led UPA was for change and “strengthening the secular foundation of our republic.”

After the BJP’s defeat, however, Christian persecution did not stop. According to the Christian Legal Association, at least 165 anti-Christian attacks were reported in 2005, and over 130 in 2006. In 2007, the number of incidents rose to over 1,000, followed by the worst-ever year, 2008, for the Christian minority in India.

Forsaking its extremist ideology could also be difficult for the BJP because there was a leadership change in the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), a Hindu nationalist conglomerate and the parent organization of the BJP, a month before the elections. On March 21, Mohan Rao Bhagwat, formerly general secretary, was made the head of the RSS.

On March 22, The Hindu quoted an anonymous leader of the BJP as saying, “Mr. Bhagwat has clarity in ideology; he is a quick decision-maker; he takes everybody along; and he expects 100 per cent implementation of decisions.”

A day before his ascent to the top position, Bhagwat had sent a message to RSS workers across the country to come out in full force and “ensure 100 percent voting” in “the interest of Hindus” during this year’s elections, added the daily.

Further, after the BJP’s defeat in 2004, sections of the cadre of the RSS and affiliated groups broke away from the conglomerate as they felt the organization was too “moderate” to be able to establish a Hindu nation. Among the known Hindu splinter groups are the Abhinav Bharat (Pride of India), which operates mainly in the north-central state of Madhya Pradesh and the western state of Maharashtra, and the Sri Ram Sene (Army of Rama, a Hindu god), which recently became infamous for its violently misogynistic moral policing in the city of Mangalore, Karnataka.

Furthermore, there are pockets, especially in the central parts of the country and parts of Karnataka in the south, where the BJP remains a dominant party.

Embarrassing Defeat

Results of the general elections and state assembly polls in Orissa and the southern state of Andhra Pradesh, which were held simultaneously between April 16 and May 13, were declared on Saturday (May 16).

Of the 543 parliamentary constituencies, 262 went to the UPA. The National Democratic Alliance (NDA), led by the BJP, got 160, while the Third Front, a grouping of smaller and regional parties led by communists, bagged only 79.

The Congress Party alone won 206 seats, whereas the BJP’s count was 116 – a strong indication that a majority of the people in Hindu-majority India are against Hindu extremism.

The UPA has the support of 315 Members of Parliament, far higher than the 272 minimum needed to form government.

The embarrassing defeat for the BJP came as a surprise. Hoping to gain from its hardcore Hindu nationalist image, the BJP had made leader Narendra Modi, accused of organizing an anti-Muslim pogrom in the western state of Gujarat in 2002, its star campaigner.

Modi, chief minister of Gujarat, spoke in around 200 election rallies, out of which the party could win only 18 seats outside Gujarat.

In Orissa, where the BJP had openly supported the spate of attacks on Christians in Kandhamal district following the murder of a Hindu nationalist leader, Swami Laxmanananda Saraswati, by Maoists on Aug. 23, 2008, the party won not a single parliamentary seat – not even in Kandhamal.

The BJP candidate for the Kandhamal constituency, Ashok Sahu, contested from jail, as he was arrested on April 14 for making an inflammatory speech against Christians. Sahu hoped to gain the sympathy of Hindus by going to jail.

The BJP was sharing power with the ruling BJD in Orissa until March 17. The BJD broke up its 11-year-old alliance with the BJP over its role in the violence that lasted for over a month and killed more than 127 people and destroyed 315 villages, 4,640 houses, 252 churches and 13 educational institutions, besides rendering more than 50,000 homeless.

Even in the state assembly elections in Orissa, the BJP faced a debacle. Of the 147 seats, it won only seven. The BJD swept the polls with 109 seats. The Congress Party managed to get 27.

The seven assembly seats won by the BJP include two from Kandhamal district. The BJP’s Manoj Pradhan, who is facing 14 cases of rioting and murder in connection with the Kandhamal violence, won the G. Udayagiri assembly seat in Kandhamal. In the Balliguda assembly constituency, also in Kandhamal, BJP sitting legislator Karendra Majhi retained the seat. Both G. Udayagiri and Balliguda were at the epicenter of the last year’s violence.

Even in Andhra Pradesh state, where Hindu nationalist groups have launched numerous attacks on Christians in the last few years, the BJP had a poor showing. Of the 42 parliamentary seats, the Congress Party won 33. The BJP’s count was nil.

In assembly elections in Andhra Pradesh, the Congress Party won 158 of the 294 seats, gaining a majority to form the state government for another five-year term. The BJP did not get even one seat.

In the northern state of Uttarakhand, where the BJP is a ruling party, its count was zero. The Congress Party won all five parliamentary seats.

In Rajasthan state, also in the north, the BJP could win only four seats. The Congress Party, on the other hand, won 20. The BJP had passed an anti-conversion law in 2006 when it was a ruling party. The bill is yet to be signed by the state governor.

In the 2009 election, the BJP got 10 seats in the eastern state of Chhattisgarh, where the Congress Party got only one. In the northern state of Himachal Pradesh, the BJP won three of the four seats.

In the eastern state of Jharkhand, the BJP bagged eight seats, and the Congress Party only one. In Gujarat, the BJP’s tally was 15, whereas the Congress won 11. In Madhya Pradesh, the BJP won 16 and Congress 12.

Report from Compass Direct News

TAJIK PRESIDENT SAYS HE WON’T AMEND NEW LAW ON RELIGION


Tajikistan’s recently adopted law on freedom of conscience and religious organizations will not be changed because it is “clear and accurate,” Tajik President Emomali Rahmon said in his annual address to parliament on Wednesday, reports Interfax-Religion.

“The Republic of Tajikistan guarantees ideological pluralism and equal rights for all religions and faiths,” Rahmon said.

The new law signed by the Tajik head of state in late March has provoked a mixed response both within the country and abroad. The document permits the authorities’ censorship of religious literature, limits the performance of religious rites officially allowed in certain religious venues, allows the authorities to control the activities of religious organizations, and bans prayers at work, in military units and other institutions.

The Islamic Revival Party, Tajikistan’s second largest party and the only legal Islamic party in the CIS, said this week that it would ask parliament to adopt amendments to the law in question because, according to it, this document discriminates against believers and their rights.

Report from the Christian Telegraph

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

IRAN: CASE STILL OPEN AGAINST RELEASED CHRISTIANS


Charges still unknown; another convert faces possible ‘apostasy’ accusation.

LOS ANGELES, February 9 (Compass Direct News) – Arrested on Jan. 21 in Tehran, converts from Islam Jamal Galishorani and his wife Nadereh Jamali have been released on bail with an open case, though charges against them are still unknown, sources told Compass.

Authorities released Galishorani yesterday, and officials at Evin Prison freed his wife last week. Iranian Christians and international human rights agencies have feared that they could be charged with “apostasy,” or leaving Islam – potentially punishable by execution in the Shia Islamic republic.

A third Christian also arrested in Tehran on Jan. 21, Armenian Hamik Khachikian, was released after one week without charges.

The Galishoranis and Khachikian are members of Tehran’s Assemblies of God Church, an officially registered church, and were said to have held Bible studies in their home. The arrests of the Galishoranis and Khachikian, according to a source, are just part of the government’s increased harassment of Iran’s Christians.

“The pressure is continuous,” the source said. “In the past it came and went with waves.”

 

Possible Apostasy Charge

Sources told Compass that Mahmoude Azadeh, a 55-year-old Christian who has been incarcerated in Mashhad since last August, could face charges of apostasy.

He is expected to learn of exact charges, which also could include forming a Christian house group and propagating Christianity, at a Mashhad court hearing on Thursday (Feb. 12).

Azadeh has been in jail since security agents raided his house church in Nishapur; five others arrested with him were released shortly after. Azadeh has spent two months of his time in jail in solitary confinement, the sources said.

He was first arrested in June 2007 in Nishapur for two days, and after he and his family moved to Isfahan, authorities arrested him there in September of the same year, a source said.

In 2008, there were 73 documented arrests of Christians in Iran. A source working closely with churches in Iran expects there to be more arrests this year. A high-profile church leader was also taken into custody this year, the source said, and is still being held.

“With elections coming this year, there will be more arrests,” the source said. “The regime rules through fear, and they want Christians to be afraid.”

In addition to the approaching spring elections, the source said, exaggerated estimates of conversions by well-intentioned ministries outside of Iran may be contributing to reasons for the government’s increased scrutiny of the church.

“One minister in America claimed that in 2008 alone, 800,000 Iranians came to Christ,” the source said, adding that the government viewed such a high number of converts as a genuine threat to its rule and began to clamp down on churches.

The source noted that many Iranians wear Zoroastrian symbols and crucifixes merely as acts of rebellion against the government. “This doesn’t always mean that they are true believers,” he said.

The recent spate of arrests also included Baha’is.

As many Iranian Christians are either in prison or awaiting trial, the government continues to debate the adoption of a proposed penal code that would mandate the death penalty for apostates. The Iranian Parliament approved the new penal code last September, and the Guardian Council has yet to rule on it.

The council is made up of six conservative theologians appointed by Iran’s Supreme Leader and six jurists nominated by the judiciary and approved by Parliament. In the past, death sentences for apostasy were issued only under judicial interpretations of sharia (Islamic law).

The proposed legislation in the Iranian Parliament would make the death penalty mandatory for male apostates, while women convicted of apostasy would receive life in prison at most.

Many Iranian Christians believe the arrests in January mark the beginning of a renewed crackdown.

Report from Compass Direct News  

TURKEY: MUSLIM SENTENCED FOR STABBING PRIEST IN IZMIR


Assailant influenced by TV series defaming Christian missionaries.

ISTANBUL, January 12 (Compass Direct News) – A judge in Turkey sentenced a 19-year-old Muslim to four-and-a-half years in prison on Jan. 5 for stabbing a Catholic priest in the coastal city of Izmir in December 2007.

Ramazan Bay, then 17, had met with Father Adriano Franchini, a 65-year-old Italian and long-term resident of Turkey, after expressing an interest in Christianity following mass at St. Anthony church. During their conversation, Bay became irritated and pulled out a knife, stabbing the priest in the stomach.

Fr. Franchini was hospitalized but released the next day as his wounds were not critical.

Bay, originally from Balikesir 90 miles north of Izmir, reportedly said he was influenced by an episode of the TV serial drama “Kurtlar Vadisi” (“Valley of the Wolves”). The series caricatures Christian missionaries as political “infiltrators” who pay poor families to convert to Christianity.

“Valley of the Wolves” also played a role in a foiled attack on another Christian leader in December 2007. Murat Tabuk reportedly admitted under police interrogation that the popular ultra-nationalist show had inspired him to plan the murder of Antalya pastor Ramazan Arkan. The plan was thwarted, with the pastor receiving armed police protection and Antalya’s anti-terrorism police bureau ordering plainclothes guards to accompany him.

Together with 20 other Protestant church leaders, Arkan on Dec. 3, 2007 filed a formal complaint with the Istanbul State Prosecutor’s office protesting “Valley of the Wolves” for “presenting them as a terrorist group and broadcasting scenes making them an open target.”

The series has portrayed Christians as selling body parts, being involved in mafia activities and prostitution and working as enemies of society in order to spread the Christian faith.

“The result has been innumerable, direct threats, attacks against places of worship and eventually, the live slaughter of three innocent Christians in Malatya,” the complaint stated.

The Protestant leaders demanded that Show TV and the producers of “Valley of the Wolves” be prosecuted under sections 115, 214, 215, 216 and 288 of the Turkish penal code for spreading false information and inciting violence against Christians.

The past three years saw six separate attacks on priests working across the country, the most serious of which resulted in the death of Father Andreas Santoro in Trabzon. As with Fr. Franchini, many of the attacks were coupled with accusations of subversion and “proselytizing.”

Although a secular republic, Turkey has a strong nationalistic identity of which Islam is an integral part.

Television shows such as “Valley of the Wolves” may not be the norm, but the recent publication of a state high school textbook in which “missionary activity” is also characterized as destructive and dangerous has raised questions about Turkey’s commitment to addressing prejudice and discrimination.

“While there is a general attitude [of antipathy], I think that the state feeds into it and propagates it,” said a spokesperson for the Alliance of Protestant Churches of Turkey (TEK). “If the State took a more accepting and more tolerant attitude I think the general attitude would change too.”

At the end of 2007 TEK issued a summery of the human rights violations that their members had suffered that year. As part of a concluding appeal they urged the state to stop an “indoctrination campaign” aimed at vilifying the Christian community.

TEK will soon release its rights violations summery for 2008, and it is likely that a similar plea will be made.

“There is police protection, and they have caught some people,” the TEK spokesperson said. “There is an active part of the state trying to prevent things, but the way it is done very much depends on the situation and how at that moment the government is feeling as far as putting across a diplomatic and political statement. There is hypocrisy in it.”

A survey carried out in 2005 by the Pew Global Attitudes Project also suggested a distinctly negative attitude towards Christians among Turks, with 63 percent describing their view of Christians as “unfavorable,” the highest rate among countries surveyed.

Niyazi Oktem, professor of law at Bilgi University and president of a prominent inter-faith organization in Turkey called the Intercultural Dialogue Platform, said that while the government could do more to secure religious freedom, he would not characterize Turkish sentiment towards Christians as negative.

“I can say that general Turkish feeling towards the Christian religion is not hostile,” said Oktem. “There could be, of course, some exceptions, but this is also the case in Christian countries towards Islam.”

Report from Compass Direct News

PHILIPPINES: CHRISTIANS FEAR FAILED PACT INCREASES RISK OF REPRISALS


Frustrated Muslim demand for larger autonomous region in Mindanao could lead to war.

DUBLIN, October 6 (Compass Direct News) – Militant Islamists in the southern island of Mindanao have stepped up their attacks on majority-Christian villages following the failure of a peace agreement that would have enlarged an existing Muslim autonomous region there.

With Muslim commanders of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) in the southern Philippines yesterday saying ongoing support from the international community was necessary to prevent a full-scale war breaking out in Mindanao, both Muslim and Christian residents in the disputed territories were fearful of what the future might hold.

“The problem is that many people living in these areas don’t want to be part of a Muslim autonomous region,” a source in Mindanao who preferred to remain anonymous told Compass.

“The closer you get to these zones, the more nervous people are,” he said. “The town of Kolambugan, where most of the fighting took place in mid-August, became a virtual ghost town for a while. It had a population of 25,000. But people are slowly returning to their homes.”

A Christian family from the area said many people were afraid to sleep at night because they kept hearing reports that they would be attacked at midnight.

“When MILF forces attack Christian villages, Muslim neighbors are afraid that Christians will retaliate against them, even though they have nothing to do with the violence,” the source added. “This has happened in the past.”

He also explained that some moderate Muslims are drawn to support the MILF because the rebels claim the Christians have stolen their ancestral homelands. Communities in Mindanao often struggle with extreme poverty.

“If MILF is successful in gaining control over these lands, the people assume that their economic situation will improve,” he said. “So although they want the fighting to stop, they sympathize with the MILF.”

While the conflict is primarily political, religion plays a significant role. As a member of the Moro Youth League stated in an Aug. 5 national television interview in the Philippines, “As a Muslim, in order to live in a righteous way, you need to be living under sharia [Islamic] law and with an Islamic government. We believe we have the right to fight for this.”

Other Youth League members on the program agreed that sharia was a primary objective of autonomy, and that Islam was the only “real path of doing anything in this world.”

 

Violence Erupts

Some 2,000 MILF supporters yesterday held a protest march in Marawi city, Lanao del Sur, appealing to the United Nations and the Organization of the Islamic Conference to compel the Philippine government to revive the aborted peace agreement that would have enlarged the existing Muslim autonomous region in the south.

Breakaway MILF commanders on Aug. 18 attacked several majority-Christian villages after the Supreme Court prevented the Aug. 5 signing of the Memorandum of Agreement on Ancestral Domain (MOA-AD). The agreement potentially would have given the MILF power to establish an Islamic state governed by sharia law.

Christian leaders in Mindanao appealed to the Supreme Court when they realized that if they voted against inclusion in the proposed Bangsamoro Juridical Entity (BJE), their majority-Christian villages would become small islands in the midst of MILF-administered territory. As a result, they feared, they would be forced to move elsewhere.

Incensed by the 11th-hour stalling of the agreement, three MILF commanders on their own initiative led attacks against towns in North Cotabato and Lanao del Norte provinces on Aug. 18, burning homes, seizing livestock and killing at least 37 people. Another 44,000 residents immediately fled the area.

When some Christian residents armed themselves in defense, Secretary of Interior Ronaldo Puno warned that anyone carrying weapons would be disarmed.

The MILF has only 11,000 active fighting men, according to local estimates. But by Aug. 20, the National Disaster Coordinating Council had reported a total of 159,000 people displaced by the rebel attacks.

The Philippine army quickly retaliated, sweeping villages in an attempt to seize the rebel commanders.

After two weeks of violent clashes, the Philippine government officially abandoned the MOA-AD. Spokeswoman Lorelei Fajardo said President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo would seek a new agreement based on consultation with legislators and local politicians rather than negotiations with the MILF.

Furthermore, the government would concentrate on the “disarmament, demobilization and rehabilitation” of MILF cadres, Fajardo said.

In response, MILF leaders rejected any renegotiation of the peace deal with Arroyo’s administration.

 

Overcoming Prejudice

An opinion piece in the Wall Street Journal (WSJ) on Aug. 7 stated that the MOA-AD would only reinforce prejudices between Christian and Muslim communities.

Under the agreement, WSJ claimed, the government would further divide Mindanao into Muslim and Christian enclaves, increasing the likelihood of territorial disputes. Separating Muslims from the rest of Philippine society, it stated, would encourage a vision already held by MILF to help create a pan-Islamic state covering several countries in the region, including Malaysia, Indonesia and Singapore.

Finally, the WSJ said, less Philippine control of Mindanao would “invite even more terrorist activity in an area that already has strong ties to al Qaeda.”

While there are proven terrorist leanings in groups such as the MILF and the Abu Sayyaf, not all area Muslims approve of or engage in such activities.

Camilo Montesa, a key figure in peace negotiations, in his blog on Aug. 30 described an encounter with a young man who believed that Muslim residents would readily seize property from Christians once the BJE were formed.

Others told Montesa that, “Muslims were scouting and marking the big houses of Christians in Cotabato and staking a claim over them in anticipation of the signing of the peace agreement.”

“The hearts and minds of the people are the battlefields, and not some hill or base camp,” Montesa concluded. “There is a limit to what arms and war can produce … It is unfortunate that we are so divided as a people at this point in our national life.”

 

Reclaiming ‘Ancestral Domains’

As Islamic identity strengthened in the Middle East after World War II – and as many Philippine Muslims traveled to study in Middle Eastern countries – certain sectors of the Bangsamoro population became committed to reclaiming “ancestral domains.”

Their claims dated back to the rule of the Sultanate of Sulu, which existed prior to Spanish colonial rule in the 1500s, and the establishment of the Commonwealth of the Philippines in 1935. When the last sultan died in 1936, the fledgling Philippine government refused to recognize his heir, effectively eradicating the traditional Bangsamoro power base.

When the Philippines became a republic in 1946, its constitution allowed for the establishment of an autonomous region in Muslim Mindanao. Initially the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) fought alone for this autonomous territory; in 1977, however, MNLF member Hashim Salamat – who had studied in Saudi Arabia – and his followers seceded from the movement and founded the rival MILF.

The Philippine government signed an agreement with the MNLF in January 1987, and territories were added to the resulting Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao (ARMM) through a series of plebiscites or referendums in 1989, 2001, 2002 and 2006.

MILF commanders later laid claim to a further 712 villages outside the ARMM.

Negotiations between the government and the MILF began in earnest in June 2001. Both parties were to formally sign the resulting MOA-AD on Aug. 5, a deal which could have led to the creation of the separate Bangsamoro Juridical Entity, or fully-functioning state, replacing the ARMM by 2010.

When details of the agreement were leaked to the press, however, Christian politicians in regions of Mindanao affected by the agreement appealed to the Supreme Court, which in turn issued a temporary restraining order on the signing of the agreement on Aug. 4.

Report from Compass Direct News

PERSECUTION IN KAZAKHSTAN


Baptist churches in the former Soviet republic of Kazakhstan are being persecuted by the government for refusing to register in that country’s system of closely monitoring Christian organisations.

Believers in Kazakhstan see the state’s attempts at forcing them to register are a violation of their religious freedom as clearly outlined in the constitution of Kazakhstan. Many believers have been heavily fined as a consequence of their refusal to register.

Baptists have not been the only group targeted by the government. Jehovah’s Witnesses have also been targeted and raided by government officials.

There is now a draft religion law in Kazakhstan that would further erode religious freedom in the country. The law would include further restrictive registration requirements, as well as reduce the number of religious groups allowed to operate in the country.