Pakistani Woman Appeals Death Sentence for ‘Blasphemy’


District judge bows to pressure of local Muslims, handing down stunning sentence to Christian.

LAHORE, Pakistan, November 13 (CDN) — Attorneys for a Christian mother of five sentenced to death by hanging for allegedly speaking ill of Muhammad, the prophet of Islam, have filed an appeal of the verdict, they said.

Bowing to pressure from Muslim extremists in Pakistan, according to the Christian woman’s husband and rights groups, a district court judge handed down the stunning sentence to Asia Noreen on Monday (Nov. 8). Additional District and Sessions Judge Naveed Ahmed Chaudhary of Nankana Sahib district delivered the verdict under Pakistan’s controversial “blasphemy” statute, the kind of law that a resolution before the United Nations condemning “defamation of religions” would make legitimate internationally.

Noreen is the first woman to be sentenced to death under Pakistan’s widely condemned law against defaming Islam.

Noreen’s lawyer, Chaudhry Tahir Shahzad, said that among other allegations, she was accused of denying that Muhammad was a prophet.

“How can we expect a Christian to affirm a Muslim belief?” Shahzad said. He added that he and lawyer Manzoor Qadir had filed an appeal against the district sessions court’s verdict in the Lahore High Court.

Asia (alternately spelled Aasya) Noreen has been languishing in isolation in jail since June of last year after she argued with fellow field workers in Ittanwali village who were trying to pressure her into renouncing Christianity. Her husband, Ashiq Masih, told Compass that the argument began after the wife of an Ittanwali elder sent her to fetch water in Nankana Sahib district, about 75 kilometers (47 miles) from Lahore in Punjab Province.

The Muslim women told Noreen that it was sacrilegious to drink water collected by a non-Muslim, he said.

“My wife only said, ‘Are we not all humans?’ when the Muslim women rebuked her for her faith,” Masih, a field laborer, told Compass by telephone. “This led to an altercation.”

Centre for Legal Aid Assistance and Settlement (CLAAS) General Secretary Katherine Sapna told Compass that the women told Muslim cleric Muhammad Salim about the incident, and he filed a case with police on the same day, June 14, 2009.

On June 19, 2009, Masih said, the Muslim women suddenly raised a commotion, accusing Noreen of defaming Muhammad.

“Several Muslim men working in the nearby fields reached the spot and forced their way into our house, where they tortured Asia and the children,” said Masih, who confirmed that his wife is 45 years old and that they have five children – four girls and a boy, the oldest daughter 20.

Police arrived and took his wife into custody, presumably for her own protection, he said.

“They saved Asia’s life, but then later a case was registered against her under Sections 295-B and C [blaspheming the Quran and Muhammad, respectively] at the Nankana police station on the complaint of Muhammad Salim, the local imam [prayer leader] of the village,” he said. “Asia has been convicted on false charges. We have never, ever insulted the prophet Muhammad or the Quran.”

Salim reportedly claimed that Noreen confessed to speaking derogatorily of Islam’s prophet and apologized. Under immense pressure from local Muslims, according to Masih, CLAAS and Sohail Johnson of Sharing Life Ministry, local judge Chaudhary ruled out the possibility that Noreen was falsely accused. In spite of repeated efforts by the Muslim women to pressure her into renouncing her faith, the judge also reportedly ruled “there were no mitigating circumstances.”

Chaudhary also fined her 100,000 rupees (US$1,150), according to CLAAS.

Ataul Saman of the National Commission for Justice and Peace (NCJP) said that lower court verdicts in blasphemy cases are usually overturned by higher courts. He said lower court proceedings take place under intense pressure, with local Muslims gathering outside and chanting slogans to pressure judges. Saman added that NCJP research showed that up to 80 percent of blasphemy charges are filed against people to settle personal scores.

Rights groups have long criticized Pakistan’s blasphemy laws as too easily used to settle grudges or oppress religious minorities, such as the more than 4 million Christians that Operation World estimates out of Pakistan’s total population of 184.7 million. To date no one has been executed for blasphemy in Pakistan, as most are freed on appeal after suffering for years under appalling prison conditions. Vigilantes have killed at least 10 people accused of blasphemy, rights groups estimate.

Noreen was convicted under Section 295-C of the defamation statutes for alleged derogatory comments about Muhammad, which is punishable by death, though life imprisonment is also possible. Section 295-B makes willful desecration of the Quran or a use of its extract in a derogatory manner punishable with life imprisonment. Section 295-A of the defamation law prohibits injuring or defiling places of worship and “acts intended to outrage religious feelings of any class of citizens.” It is punishable by life imprisonment, which in Pakistan is 25 years.

Between 1986 and August 2009, at least 974 people have been charged with defiling the Quran or insulting Muhammad, according to the NCJP. Those charged included 479 Muslims, 340 Ahmadis, 119 Christians, 14 Hindus and 10 from other religions.

Johnson of Sharing Life Ministry, which is active in prisons and has been following Noreen’s case from the onset, said he was impressed by her continued faith.

“A week before the verdict, I went to visit Asia in jail,” he said. “I asked her what she was expecting. She told me that Jesus would rescue her from this fake case.”

The verdict was shocking in that no one was expecting a death sentence for a woman, he said. Masih agreed.

“Asia was hoping that the judge would free her and she would come home to be with us, but this conviction has dashed our hopes for now,” Masih said.

He said that since the sentencing, authorities have not allowed him or other members of their family to visit his wife.

“We don’t know yet how she is, but we trust the Lord,” he said. “Asia is suffering for Jesus, and He will not forsake her.”

Report from Compass Direct News

Prospects of Religious Freedom Appear Grim in Islamic Maldives


Two years after political reforms, freedom of faith nowhere in sight.

MALÉ, Maldives, August 10 (CDN) — Visitors to this Islamic island nation get a sense of religious restrictions even before they arrive. The arrival-departure cards given to arriving airline passengers carry a list of items prohibited under Maldivian laws – including “materials contrary to Islam.”

After Saudi Arabia, the Maldives is the only nation that claims a 100-percent Muslim population. The more than 300,000 people in the Maldives, an Indian Ocean archipelago featuring 1,192 islets 435 miles southwest of Sri Lanka, are all Sunnis.

This South Asian nation, however, has more than 70,000 expatriate workers representing several non-Islamic religions, including Christianity.

Also, around 60,000 tourists, mainly from Europe, visit each year to enjoy the blue ocean and white beaches and normally head straight to one of the holiday resorts built on around 45 islands exclusively meant for tourism. Tourists are rarely taken to the other 200 inhabited islands where locals live.

Nearly one-third of the population lives in the capital city of Malé, the only island where tourists and Maldivians meet.

While the Maldivians do not have a choice to convert out of Islam or to become openly atheist, foreigners in the country can practice their religion only privately.

In previous years several Christian expats have either been arrested for attending worship in private homes or denied visas for several months or years on suspicion of being connected with mission agencies.

According to “liberal estimates,” the number of Maldivian Christians or seekers “cannot be more than 15,” said one source.

“Even if you engage any Maldivian in a discussion on Christianity and the person reports it to authorities, you can be in trouble,” the source said. “A Maldivian youth studying in Sri Lanka became a Christian recently, but when his parents came to know about it, they took him away. We have not heard from him since then.”

The source added that such instances are not uncommon in the Maldives.

“I wish I could attend church, but I am too scared to look for one,” said a European expat worker. “I have not even brought my Bible here; I read it online. I don’t want to take any chances.”

The British reportedly translated the Bible into the local language, Dhivehi, and made it available in the 19th century, as the Maldives was a British protectorate from 1887 to 1965. Today no one knows how the Dhivehi Bible “disappeared.”

“A new translation has been underway for years, and it is in no way near completion,” said the source who requested anonymity.

 

Religion Excluded from Rights

The 2008 constitution, adopted five years after a popular movement for human rights began, states that a “non-Muslim may not become a citizen of the Maldives.”

Abdulla Yameen, brother of the former dictator of the Maldives and leader of the People’s Alliance party, an ally of the opposition Dhivehi Raiyyathunge Party (Maldivian People’s Party or DRP), told Compass that the issue of religious freedom was “insignificant” for the Maldives.

“There’s no demand for it from the public,” Yameen said. “If you take a public poll, 99 percent of the citizens will say ‘no’ to religious freedom.”

Maldivians are passionate about their religion, Yameen added, referring to a recent incident in which a 37-year-old Maldivian citizen, Mohamed Nazim, was attacked after he told a gathering that he was not a Muslim. On May 28, before a crowd of around 11,000 Maldivians, Nazim told a visiting Indian Muslim televangelist, Zakir Naik, that although he was born to a practicing Muslim family, he was “struggling to believe in religions.”

He also asked Naik about his “verdict on Islam.” The question enraged an angry crowd, with many calling for Nazim’s death while others beat him. He received several minor injuries before police took him away.

“See how the public went after his [Nazim’s] throat,” said Yameen, who studied at Claremont Graduate University in California. When asked if such passion was good for a society, he replied, “Yes. We are an Islamic nation, and our religion is an important part of our collective identity.”

Asked if individuals had no rights, his terse answer was “No.” Told it was shocking to hear his views, he said, “We are also shocked when a nation legalizes gay sex.”

Mohamed Zahid, vice president of the Human Rights Commission of the Maldives, told Compass that the country has its own definition of human rights.

“It is to protect people’s rights under the sharia [Islamic law] and other international conventions with the exception of religious freedom,” he said. “We are a sovereign nation, and we follow our own constitution.”

Zahid and several other local sources told Compass that the issue of religious rights was “irrelevant” for Maldivians. “Not more than 100 people in the country want religious freedom,” Zahid said.

 

Politics of Religion

Former President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, a virtual dictator for 30 years until 2008, is generally held responsible for creating an atmosphere of religious restrictions in the Maldives, as he sought to homogenize religion in the country by introducing the state version of Sunni Islam. He also led a major crackdown on Christians.

The Protection of Religious Unity Act, enacted in 1994, was an endeavor to tighten the government’s control over mosques and all other Islamic institutions. The Gayoom administration even wrote Friday sermons to be delivered in mosques.

In 1998, Gayoom began a crackdown on alleged missionary activities.

“A radio station based out of India used to air Christian programs via the Seychelles, but the government came to know about it and ensured that they were discontinued with the help of the government in the Seychelles,” said a local Muslim source.

That year, Gayoom reportedly arrested around 50 Maldivians who were suspected to have converted to Christianity and deported 19 foreign workers accused of doing missionary work. A source said Gayoom apparently wanted to regain popularity at a time when his leadership was being questioned.

When the archipelago became a multi-party democracy in October 2008, new President Mohamed Nasheed, a former journalist and activist, was expected to pursue a liberal policy as part of the country’s reforms agenda.

Although Nasheed is the president, his party, the Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP), has only 28 members and the support of four independents in the 77-member People’s Majlis (Maldives’ unicameral Parliament). Gayoom, now in his 70s and the leader of the largest opposition party, the DRP, has a simple majority – which presents difficulties in governance. Nasheed pleads helplessness in implementing reforms, citing an intransigent opposition.

Today Gayoom’s party accuses President Nasheed of not being able to protect the country’s distinct identity and culture, which the opposition says are rooted in Islam. The Gayoom-led parliament recently sought to impeach the education minister for proposing to make Islam and Dhivehi lessons optional – rather than mandatory – in high school.

To pre-empt the impeachment move, the whole cabinet of Nasheed resigned on June 29, which caused a major political crisis that led to violent street protests. The Nasheed administration allegedly arrested some opposition members, including Gayoom’s brother, Yameen. Political tensions and uncertainties continued at press time.

Now that President Nasheed’s popularity is declining – due to perceptions that he has become as authoritarian as his predecessor – it is feared that, amid immense pressure by the opposition to follow conservative policies, he might begin to follow in Gayoom’s footsteps.

 

Growing Extremism

Both the ruling and opposition parties admit that Islamic extremism has grown in the country. In October 2007, a group of young Maldivians engaged government security forces in a fierce shootout on Himandhoo Island.

Nasheed’s party alleges that Gayoom’s policy of promoting the state version of Sunni Islam created an interest to discern “true Islam,” with extremists from Pakistan stepping in to introduce “jihadism” in the Maldives. The DRP, on the other hand, says that behind the growth of extremism is the current government’s liberal policy of allowing Muslims of different sects to visit the Maldives to preach and give lectures, including the conservative Sunni sect of “Wahhabis.”

Until the early 1990s, Maldivian women would hardly wear the black burqa (covering the entire body, except the eyes and hands), and no men would sport a long beard – outward marks of Wahhabi Muslims, said the Muslim source, adding that “today the practice has become common.”

Still, Islam as practiced in the Maldives is pragmatic and unlike that of Saudi Arabia, he said. “People here are liberal and open-minded.”

As extremism grows, though, it is feared that radical Islamists may go to any extent to extra-judicially punish anyone suspected of being a missionary or having converted away from Islam, and that they can pressure the government to remain indifferent to religious freedom.

How long will it take for the Maldives to allow religious freedom?

“Maybe after the Maldivian government legalizes gay sex,” the Muslim source joked.

Report from Compass Direct News

European parliament highlights N. Korea’s prison camps


UK-based Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW) has told ANS that the “appalling human rights violations taking place in North Korea’s prison camps” will be highlighted in the European Parliament at two key events during this month (April 2010), reports Dan Wooding, founder of ASSIST Ministries.

On April 7, 2010, former North Korean prisoner Shin Dong-hyuk, Liberty in North Korea (LiNK) and Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW) will give evidence at a hearing to be held by the Subcommittee on Human Rights.

One week later, a major documentary film, Kimjongilia, will be screened at the European Parliament in Brussels as part of the One World human rights festival. The film provides an extraordinary insight into the shocking realities of conditions in North Korea’s prison camps through the personal testimonies of former prisoners.

The film’s Director, Nancy C. Heikin, and author, Pierre Rigoulot, will attend the event in the European Parliament hosted by CSW and Human Rights Without Frontiers (HRWF) at 6.30pm in the Yehudi Menuhin Room.

These initiatives are the latest steps in a growing international campaign to raise awareness of the dire situation in North Korea’s prison camps. In November 2009, CSW hosted the visit of two former North Korean prisoners to London and Brussels, who gave evidence to a hearing in the House of Commons, including personal accounts of torture, starvation and slave labor.

CSW’s Advocacy Director Tina Lambert, who will give evidence at the hearing on April 7th, said: “We are delighted that the European Parliament is turning its attention to the desperate human rights situation in North Korea. Such a focus is long overdue and much needed, and we believe the combination of the evidence provided at the hearing, and the screening of Kimjongilia a week later, will help push the humanitarian crisis in North Korea’s gulags higher up the European Union’s agenda. It is time for the EU to seriously consider ways in which the crimes against humanity perpetrated by the North Korean regime can be investigated, and the culture of impunity addressed.”

Note from Dan Wooding: As one of the few Christian journalists to ever report from inside North Korea, I totally support this campaign to raise awareness of the terrible regime and the way it treats its people, especially the many thousands of believers there who are languishing in labor camps, or are being publically executed as an example to others.

No wonder that North Korea has again as won the dubious title of the world’s worst persecutor of Christians, according to the latest ranking released by religious liberty advocates Open Doors.

The communist nation has topped the mission organization’s World Watch List for eight consecutive years because of its long history of targeting Christians for arrest, torture and murder. California-based Open Doors USA estimates that of the 200,000 North Koreans languishing in political prisons, 40,000 to 60,000 of them are Christians.

“It is certainly not a shock that North Korea is No. 1 on the list of countries where Christians face the worst persecution,” said Open Doors USA President Carl Moeller. “There is no other country in the world where Christians are persecuted in such a horrible and systematic manner. Three generations of a family are often thrown into prison when one member is incarcerated.”

Report from the Christian Telegraph 

Church Buildings Attacked in Malaysia Following Court Decision


Muslim groups angered by ruling to allow Catholic newspaper to use word ‘Allah.’

KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia, January 11 (CDN) — In unprecedented acts that stunned Christians in Malaysia, suspected Islamists have attacked eight church buildings since the country’s High Court ruled that a Catholic weekly could use the word “Allah.”

Firebombs were thrown into the compounds of four churches in Kuala Lumpur and neighboring Petaling Jaya on Friday (Jan. 8); three more attacks occurred on Sunday (Jan. 10) in Taiping, Melaka and Miri; and another church building was hit today in Seremban. There were no reports of injuries.

Judge Lau Bee Lan delivered the controversial court ruling on Dec. 31, arguing that the Herald had a constitutional right to use the word “Allah” for God in the Malay section of its multi-lingual newspaper. The ruling caused an uproar among many Muslim groups widely reported to have called for nationwide protests after Friday prayers, asserting that “Allah” can be used only in the context of Islam. Among groups calling for protests were the Muslim Youth Movement and the National Association of Muslim Students.

Inflammatory rhetoric has emerged in the escalating conflict; at a protest in Shah Alam since protests began on Friday, a speaker at one rally urged listeners to “burn churches,” according to the online news site Malaysian Insider. The crowd reportedly stood in stunned silence.

Malaysia’s Home Ministry filed an appeal against the High Court decision on Jan. 4. Two days later, the court allowed a freeze on the decision to permit the Herald to use the word “Allah” pending hearing in the Court of Appeal.

The attacked churches were Metro Tabernacle (Assembly of God) in Kuala Lumpur, and three churches in Petaling Jaya: Life Chapel (Brethren), Assumption Church (Catholic) and Good Shepherd Lutheran Church (Lutheran); also damaged were All Saints’ Church (Anglican) in Taiping, Melaka Baptist Church in Melaka (vandalized but not firebombed), Good Shepherd Church (Catholic) in Miri (pelted with stones) and Sidang Injil Borneo (Evangelical Church of Borneo) in Seremban.

Though there were no casualties, a number of the church buildings were damaged in the attacks. Metro Tabernacle suffered the worst damage, with the ground floor of its three-story building, which housed its administrative office, completely gutted. The main door of the church in Seremban was charred.

The Rev. Ong Sek Leang, senior pastor of Metro Tabernacle, reportedly said that the church harbors no ill feelings toward the culprits and would forgive those responsible, but that it does not condone the acts.

Most of the other church buildings suffered minor damage, though the Assumption Church was spared when the Molotov cocktail thrown into its compound failed to go off. The Melaka Baptist Church building was splashed with black paint, while stones were thrown into the Good Shepherd Church building in Miri.

The Malaysian Insider reported on Friday (Jan. 8) that two other churches received telephone threats from unknown sources.

Christian leaders, government and opposition leaders, and Non-Governmental Organizations have condemned the attacks. Police have promised to increase security around church buildings, but Inspector-General of Police Musa Hassan told the Malaysian Insider that churches must beef up their own security since there is a shortage of police personnel.

Malaysia’s population is about 60 percent Muslim, 19 percent Buddhist and 9 percent Christian. About 6 percent are Hindu, with 2.6 percent of the population adhering to Confucianism, Taoism and other traditional Chinese religions.

Shocked

The spate of church attacks shocked the Christian community and nation, as acts of violence on places of worship are unprecedented in Malaysia.

Ramon Navaratnam, Chairman of the Centre of Public Policy Studies, said in a press statement on Friday (Jan. 8) that the attacks marked a “troubling trend” and “a low point in our nation’s history.”

The same day, Malaysian Bar Council Chairman Ragunath Kesavan said in a press statement that the attacks were “shocking and offensive” and that “all right-minded Malaysians must condemn it as indecent and unacceptable.”

Christian leaders strongly denounced the attacks and have asked the government to safeguard the community and its places of worship. They have also called on the government to take firm steps against the perpetrators while paving the way for greater understanding between the different religious communities.

The Rev. Dr. Hermen Shastri, general secretary of the Council of Churches Malaysia, called on the government to “show zero tolerance for the use, threat or incitement, of violence as a means to pressure the decision of the court.” The Rev. Eu Hong Seng, chairman of the National Evangelical Christian Fellowship, called on the government “to take the necessary steps to educate those who lack understanding and are ‘easily confused’ to be mature-minded in a progressive democratic society.”

Leaders on both sides of the political divide have also denounced the attacks, while a number of opposition leaders – including Anwar Ibrahim, adviser to the People’s Justice Party – put the blame on the United Malay National Organization (UMNO), the leading partner in the ruling coalition government. Anwar reportedly accused UMNO-owned newspaper Utusan Malaysia of having incited Muslims over the court decision.

A number of local commentators have also criticized Prime Minister Najib Abdul Razak and Home Minister Hishammuddin Hussein for not defusing rising tensions in the initial days of the court ruling. They have also come under fire for saying they would allow public demonstrations by Muslim groups to proceed, and that they would take action “only if things got out of hand.”

Despite the attacks, a check with parishioners of several churches in the Klang Valley showed Christians were undeterred by the acts of violence and continued to gather for worship yesterday.

Urging Christians to pray, Sam Ang, secretary-general of the National Evangelical Christian Fellowship, told Compass, “We see this as an opportunity to trust in the Lord and to revitalize our faith, especially for second-generation Christians.”

Report from Compass Direct News 

Algerian Muslims Block Christmas Service


Neighborhood residents protest new church building in Kabylie region.

ISTANBUL, December 31 (CDN) — Nearly 50 Muslim members of a community in northern Algeria blocked Christians from holding a Christmas service on Saturday (Dec. 26) to protest a new church building in their neighborhood.

As Algerian Christian converts gathered for their weekly meeting and Christmas celebration that morning, they were confronted by protestors barring the doors of their church building. Tafat Church is located in Tizi-Ouzou, a city 100 kilometers (62 miles) east of the Algerian capital, Algiers. Established five years ago, the church belongs to the Protestant Church of Algeria (EPA). Until recently it met in a small rented building. In November it opened its doors in a new location to accommodate the growing needs of its nearly 350 congregants.

The local residents protesting were reportedly irritated at finding that a church building with many visitors from outside the area had opened near their houses, according to an El Watan report on Sunday (Dec. 27). The daily newspaper highlighted that the residents feared their youth would be lured to the church with promises of money or cell phones.

“This land is the land of Islam! Go pray somewhere else,” some of the protestors said, according to El Watan. Protestors also reportedly threatened to kill the church pastor.

The protestors stayed outside the church until Monday (Dec. 28), and that evening some of them broke into the new building and stole the church microphones and speakers, according to the pastor, Mustafa Krireche. As of yesterday (Dec. 30) the church building’s electricity was cut.

One of Algeria’s Christian leaders, Youssef Ourahmane, said he could not recall another display of such outrage from Algerians against Christians.

“It was shocking, and it was the first time to my knowledge that this happened,” said Ourahmane. “And there weren’t just a few people, but 50. That’s quite a big number … the thing that happened on Saturday was a little unusual for Algeria and for the believers as well.”

A few weeks before the Saturday incident, local residents signed a petition saying they did not want the church to operate near their homes and wanted it to be closed. Local authorities presented it to the church, but Ourahmane said the fellowship, which is legally authorized to exist under the EPA, does not plan to respond to it.

On Saturday church leaders called police, who arrived at the scene and told the Christians to go away so they could talk to the protestors, whom they did not evacuate from the premises, according to local news website Kabyles.net. The story Kabyles.net published on Sunday was entitled, “Islamic tolerance in action at Tizi-Ouzou.”

“In that area where the church is located, I’m sure the people have noticed something happening,” said Ourahmane. “Having hundreds of Christians coming to meet and different activities in the week, this is very difficult for Muslims to see happening there next door, and especially having all these Muslim converts. This is the problem.”

A local Muslim from the neighborhood explained that residents had protested construction of the church building in a residential area, according to El Watan.

“What’s happening over there is a shame and an offense to Muslims,” he told El Watan. “We found an old woman kissing a cross … they could offer money or mobile phones to students to win their sympathies and sign them up. We won’t let them exercise their faith even if they have authorization. There’s a mosque for those who want to pray to God. This is the land of Islam.” 

Behind the Scenes

Ourahmane said he believes that Islamists, and maybe even the government, were behind the protests.

“Maybe this is a new tactic they are trying to use to prevent churches from meeting,” he said. “Instead of coming by force and closing the church, the local police use the Muslim fundamentalists. That’s my analysis, anyhow.”

In February 2008 the government applied measures to better control non-Muslim groups through Ordinance 06-03. Authorities ordered the closure of 26 churches in the Kabylie region, both buildings and house churches, maintaining that they were not registered under the ordinance.

Despite efforts to comply with the ordinance, many Christian groups indicated they were blocked by lack of information, bureaucratic processes or resistance to their applications, according to this year’s International Religious Freedom Report by the U.S. Department of State. None of the churches have closed since then, but their status continues to remain questionable and only valid through registration with the EPA.

“If we have the right to exercise our faith, let them tell us so,” Pastor Krireche told El Watan. “If the authorities want to dissolve our association through legal means, let them do so.”

Recent growth of the church in Algeria is difficult for Muslims to accept, according to Ourahmane, despite public discourse among the nation’s intellectuals advocating for religious freedoms. Unofficial estimates of Christians and Jews combined range from 12,000 to 40,000, according to the state department report. Local leaders believe the number of Algerian Christians could be as many as 65,000.

Increasing numbers of people who come from Islam are like a stab for the Muslim community, said Ourahmane.

“It’s hard for them to accept that hundreds of Christians gather to worship every week,” he said. “It’s not easy. There are no words to explain it. It’s like a knife and you see someone bleeding … They see the church as a danger to Algerian culture.”

The Algerian government has the responsibility to face up to the changing face of its country and to grant Christians the freedom to meet and worship, said Ourahmane.

“The local authorities and especially the Algerian government need to be challenged in this all the time,” he said. “They have to be challenged: ‘Don’t you recognize the situation here?’ I mean we’re talking of tens of thousands of believers, not just a few.”

There are around 64 churches in the Kabylie region, where most Algerian Christians live, as well as house groups, according to Ourahmane. The Kabylie region is populated by Berbers, an indigenous people of North Africa.

“There are lots of healings and deliverance, and people are experiencing new things in their life,” Ourahmane said of the Algerian churches. “They are finding hope in Christ which they have never experienced before.”

There are half a dozen court cases against churches and Christians. None of these have been resolved, frozen in Algeria’s courts.

False Accusations

In ongoing negative media coverage of Christians, last month Algerian newspaper Echorouk published a story claiming that the former president of the EPA, who was deported in 2008, had returned to Algeria to visit churches, give advice and give them financial aid.

The report stated that the former EPA president, Hugh Johnson, was known for his evangelism and warned readers of his evangelizing “strategies.” 

Yesterday Johnson told Compass by telephone that the report was pure fabrication, and that he has not set foot in Algeria since he was deported.

Johnson’s lawyers are still trying to appeal his case in Algerian courts.

This year church groups stated that the government denied the visa applications of some religious workers, citing the government ban on proselytizing, according to the state department report.

Report from Compass Direct News 

PAKISTAN: ONE WOMAN DEAD IN ATTACK ON CHRISTIANS


Would-be rapist instigates attack in response to charges leveled against him.

ISTANBUL, March 9 (Compass Direct News) – Gun and club attacks on a Presbyterian church and neighboring homes in the predominantly Christian area of a village in Pakistan last week killed one woman and left 16 people wounded.

Seeking revenge for a robbery complaint that a Christian filed against him, local Muslim Waseem Butt on March 2 led groups of his friends and family members in indiscriminate attacks aimed at the Christian community in Sangu-Wali, village, near Aroop town in Gujranwala district, reported advocacy group Sharing Life Ministries Pakistan (SLMP).

Groups of between five and 15 Muslims arriving from different directions attacked the church and area homes, said Sohail Johnson, head of SLMP. During the violence, 45-year-old Shakeela Bibi sustained bamboo rod blows to the head and died before reaching the hospital.

“The death of my wife is an irreparable loss to me and my children,” Manzoor Masih, Bibi’s husband, told SLMP. “I am concerned that Muslims are very strong here, we are poor, and we can not afford enmity with them. They will kill us too.”

Armed members of the attackers prevented ambulances from attending the scene by firing shots into the air, according to the SLMP report.

SLMP and the Centre for Legal Aid Assistance and Settlement (CLAAS) reported that the attack followed an attempt by a Christian to file a First Instance Report (FIR) with police against two Muslims for robbery and attempted rape.

Imran Masih, 18, accused Butt and Zeeshan Butt of stealing a cell phone and 3,000 rupees (US$40) before trying to sodomize him. Masih reported that he was on his way home from work on Feb. 26 when the two Muslims attacked him, and that he managed to escape before they could rape him.

“The Christians are poor and have no weight here,” said SLMP’s Johnson, so Muslims assume, “‘We are Kashmiri, we are Muslim, we are rich – they are sweepers, they are poor, they are weak, they are the minority, how are they going to move a [criminal charge] against us?’ This was in their mind.”

The mother-in-law of the woman who was killed suffered head and spinal injuries in the attack. Naziran Bibi, 80, remained in the hospital along with two others at press time. Another 10 victims, most suffering from head injuries, were treated overnight and released the next day.

Police arrested Waseem Butt shortly after the FIR was filed, and in the past few days they have also tracked down and jailed two other suspects. Widower Masih named more than 10 people in the FIR, accusing them of murder and trespassing. The other attackers have fled the village. Police told SLMP that they will continue to pursue the fugitives and bring them to justice.

Masih, however, has come under pressure to drop the case. He has received both threats and offers for financial settlement, an official with the National Commission for Justice and Peace said. Yousaf Benjamin of the commission said Muslims “see that it is very easy for a Muslim to kill a Christian and then offer some money to the family.”

“So Mr. Manzoor [Masih] has to be an example for the others,” Benjamin said. “He should not hesitate to go for legal procedures. He should not go for the money, he should go to the court and see the decision they make.”

Disregard for the rights and liberties of minority Christians in Pakistan is worsened by a culture of bribery, which often precludes the poor from fair treatment by authorities and recourse to legal protection. But investigating police officer Mohammad Riaz has promised that officers will ask for nothing and do their utmost to help the victims.

“It was very shocking to me that the culprits trespassed in Christians’ houses and attacked females of the family,” Riaz told CLAAS and SLMP investigators.

Report from Compass Direct News

AUSTRALIA: BUSHFIRES UPDATE – 2nd March 2009 (Urgent Warning)


With bushfires still burning in Victoria, residents are being warned that conditions are set to deteriorate dramatically overnight as gale force winds strike the state. Winds are expected to reach 150 km (95 miles) an hour from tonight.

With conditions expected to be as bad as ‘Black Saturday’ about a month ago, residents in areas still under threat from the bushfires are being told to flee before the winds arrive. The Black Saturday fires claimed at least 210 people (confirmed dead – 37 are still missing) and there are real fears that the expected conditions of the next day or so may add to the already shocking death toll.

Fire-fighters fear that the winds will send the still burning four major bushfires (as well as the lesser sized bushfires) across containment lines and there will be little that they will be able to do about it. Fires may spot across containment lines and change direction rapidly without warning. These conditions are extreme and grave.

The fires are the same ones that have so far taken 210 lives (confirmed), over 2000 houses and 450 000 hectares (1.1 million acres) of farmland and bushland.

In preparation for the worsening conditions the government has closed schools across the state. A total fire ban is also in force across the state. Text messages have been sent to mobile phone owners urging them to be prepared for the frightening conditions.

BELOW: Footage of the firestorm in Clonbinane on the 7th February 2009

PAKISTAN MINORITIES WILL CONTINUE FIGHTING FOR REPEAL OF BLASPHEMY LAWS


Reiterating his pledge to continue mounting efforts for a repeal of Pakistan’s controversial blasphemy laws, Shahbaz Bhatti, the Chairman of the All Pakistan Minorities Alliance (APMA) has assured the family of a blasphemy-accused that the APMA would not rest until release of Dr. Robin, a Pakistani Christian homeopathic doctor who was arrested in May 2008 after he was accused of blasphemy.

Dr. Robin was accused of passing derogatory remarks against the beard of Prophet Muhammad.

He is currently detained in Gujranawala jail. Dr. Robin’s family was forced to go into hiding as the family members of the accused cannot stay at their home after the stigma of blasphemy has been slapped on any of their family members.

The family of Dr. Robin and some 20 Christian residents of district Hafizabad had come to see the APMA Chief; Mr. Shahbaz Bhatti, after Dr. Robin was accused of blasphemy. They apprised him of the insecurity they had become exposed to after Robin was implicated in a blasphemy case.

The APMA has been extending financial support to the family as well as free legal aid to Dr. Robin since the occurrence of alleged blasphemy by Dr. Robin.

The family of the accused including Veenus, 50, Tariq 42, Waseem Bhatti, 32 and Francis Masih, a relative of Dr. Robin came to the APMA office in Islamabad on October 3, 2008.

Describing the fear and uncertainty that gripped the family members following leveling of blasphemy charges on Dr. Robin, Waseem told ANS that they felt as if a roof had been snatched from them.

“We felt secure after we met the APMA Chief Shahbaz Bhatti,” he said.

“We wanted our voice to be raised. We were desperately looking for someone to steer us out of the problem we were confronting. We were praying for some help. We prayed to God and we knew our prayers were heard when we met Shahbaz Bhatti”, said Waseem.

The young Christian man went on to say that fears of sorts were assailing the family’s mind after detention of Dr. Robin. They (fears) left us disturbed and helpless all the more, he said.

After incarceration of Dr. Robin, he said the family had lost the breadwinner and they were not in a position of hiring a lawyer.

“You need a lawyer to defend you even in a simple dispute. We knew we had to hire a competent defense counsel for Dr. Robin. It was again Mr. Shahbaz who extended free legal aid for Dr. Robin”, said Waseem as tears ran down his cheeks.

Waseem, who works as an animator in a local Non Governmental Organization (NGO) feared that it had become virtually impossible for Dr. Robin to run his clinic at the same locality.

He also ruled out possibility of any of his family members staying at the same place after leveling of blasphemy accusations on Dr. Robin.

“His (Dr. Robin’s) family members are living in hiding. They have been able to find a roof above their heads with the help the APMA Chief extended to the family but you still feel alienated. You take time to settle down at a new place. You continue to live a tension-ridden life”, he said.

“The children of Dr. Robin have been robbed of fatherly love. Michael Rose, the youngest of Dr. Robin’s children used to stay in a hostel. He does not feel comfortable staying at the hostel now”, said Waseem.

In response to a question he said that during this period of tribulation Dr. Robin had emerged as a strong Christian. He said his (Dr. Robin’s) belief in Christ had only become stronger.

Tariq, a relative of Dr. Robin told ANS that Dr. Robin wished to be released as soon as possible.

He said the incident had come as a big jolt to the children of Dr. Robin.

He said they had not been able to concentrate on their studies fully after Robin was arrested by the police.

Francis, brother-in-law of Dr. Robin called for repeal of Pakistan’s blasphemy laws.

Citing his talks with a couple of Muslim friends, he said that they were of the view that the law should be repealed.

“My Muslim friends admitted that a thorough investigation should be made before lodging of a blasphemy-related Police First Information Report (FIR)”, said Tariq.

Tariq disclosed that he had been able to record a conversation between the complainant and some family members of Dr. Robin in which the complainant tried to do a “deal” with the family of the accused.

According to Tariq, the complainant said that he would withdraw charges against Dr. Robin if his family agreed to pay him money.

He claimed he recorded the conversation on September 19, a day ahead of the hearing of Dr. Robin’s case in a lower court.

Echoing a grave concern of Pakistani Christians, who like their fellow Muslim Pakistanis want their concerns to be highlighted on national and print media, Tariq said that Dr. Robin’s case only drew marginal coverage of the incident.

Lashing out at the police he alleged that the police failed to provide adequate security to Dr. Robin’s family.

“If the Police had provided security to Dr. Robin’s family and his vulnerable relatives then they might have decided to continue staying in Hafizabad but in the absence of any such security the family was forced to go into hiding”, he said.

In an apparent bid to support his disbelief in the police, he said that police did not take initiative for rescuing Dr. Robin’s family “rather some local Christians entered Dr. Robin’s home at about 3 am and rescued the family members who had become prone to attack by the angry Muslim residents of Hafizabad”.

“Do you want us to jump into fire”, he quoted a police official as saying, who Tariq and other Christian residents of the area wanted to rescue Dr. Robin’s family members.

Post-arrest situation

Tariq said when he and some other members of Dr. Robin’s family went to Dr. Robin’s place to collect some clothes, books and some other daily use items they saw a “shocking scene”.

“Not even a single thing was at its place. There were visible signs of human presence at Dr. Robin’s house. It was not hard to conclude that some people have been living at Dr. Robin’s house. We saw crumbs of bread, chicken bones, and unwashed dishes.

Dr. Robin’s house had been ransacked”, said Tariq, who looked scared while sketching the ransacked home of Dr. Robin.

He said that the lower court rejected a post-arrest bail petition, prompting the APMA to file a petition in Lahore High Court.

Asked who could have inhabited Dr. Robin’s house after his arrest and exiting of his family members, Tariq said that the fundamentalist Muslims of the area could have maintained their presence at Dr. Robin’s house. Nobody could have dared entering Dr. Robin’s home if the police had been vigilant, he said.

Tariq disclosed that a small but angry Muslim crowd took out a rally in a bid to pressurize the court.

He said that participants of the rally were holding placards, which were inscribed with slogans, “Give death to Dr. Robin.”

He disclosed that the witnesses at a court hearing had submitted their written version on legal papers that Dr. Robin did not commit blasphemy.

He said he learned that Dr. Robin’s lawyer also gave precedents of post-arrest bails granted to blasphemy accused in the past “but even then the judge did not grant post-arrest bail to Dr. Robin”.

Talking to the APMA Chief, Mr. Shahbaz Bhatti, Veenus said that recording of the alleged conversation between the complainant and some family members further angered the local Muslims.

Thanking Mr. Shahbaz, she said she was optimistic that Dr. Robin would soon be home due to the APMA’s efforts.

She said: “I urge the Christians across the world to pray for release of my husband from prison. I cannot give fatherly love to my children. We want him back as soon as possible”, she said while talking to the APMA Chief”.

The APMA Chief told ANS that he was going to urge authorities to do an in-camera trial of Dr. Robin for security purposes. An application in this regard would be moved soon, he said.

He assured the family of the accused that Dr. Robin would soon be with them.

“The APMA is concerned. It (APMA) has been since leveling of the blasphemy accusations on Dr. Robin. We stand by you at this critical juncture in Robin’s and your life,” Shahbaz told the family of Dr. Robin who had come to see him at his office in Islamabad.

“It is the case of entire Christian community. When children of Dr. Robin talk to me by phone, I could feel the agony in their voices. I understand what they are living through. The APMA will do all it can to ensure expedient release of Dr. Robin”, said Shahbaz.

“We understand that the Pakistan blasphemy laws are being misused to settle personal scores. Religious enmity, prejudice and intolerance have been found behind filing of blasphemy cases in the past”, he maintained.

“God will move in His own mysterious way. Dr. Robin will be with you soon”, the APMA Chief told Dr. Robin’s spouse, Veenus.

Shahbaz reiterated his pledge that the APMA would continue to extend free legal aid to the blasphemy accused.

He said the APMA would continue to struggle until the blasphemy laws are repealed.

A person is reduced to the status of a refugee in his country after blasphemy allegations are leveled against him, said Shahbaz implying to the threats the accused and his family receive after slapping of blasphemy charges.

Responding a question, he said the APMA had been providing free legal aid and shelter to the blasphemy-accused since the abuse of the law became rampant in Pakistan.

The APMA, he said, wants to see the controversial laws abolished. He disclosed that he wanted to table a bill in parliament in a bid to either get the laws repealed or see them significantly amended.

He appealed to the Christians across the world to pray for the APMA and Pakistani Christians.

“I thank you for your previous prayers and support. We need your prayers to be able to continue fighting for the rights of the marginalized and the down-trodden Pakistani Christians and other minorities”, he said.

Dubbing Pakistan blasphemy laws as a death warrant in the hands of extremists, Shahbaz called for the repeal of the law, which he said had done more harm than good since their introduction in 1986.

Report from the Christian Telegraph