Two Churches Forced to Close in Indonesia


Islamists pressure officials to stop Baptist services; Batak worshippers also told to cease.

JAKARTA, Indonesia, February 4 (CDN) — Local governments have ordered the closure of two churches on Indonesia’s Java island.

Under pressure from Islamist groups, authorities ordered Christian Baptist Church in Sepatan, Tangerang district, Banten Province to cease services. In Pondok Timur, near Bekasi in West Java, officials abruptly closed the Huria Christian Protestant Batak Church (HKBP) after delaying a building permit for four years.

Tangerang district authorities issued a decree on Jan. 21 ordering all worship activities to cease at the Baptist church. At a meeting in the district offices, officials pressured church officials to sign a statement that they would stop all worship activities, but they refused.

The Rev. Bedali Hulu said that he received the government order on Jan. 26. In addition, a sign was placed on his church’s worship building saying, “Stop! This building violates government decree number 10 of 2006.”

Hulu told Compass that on Dec. 7 a banner was placed on the street leading to the housing area that said, “We Reject the Presence of Uncontrolled Churches in our Area,” and “We Reject Uncontrolled Churches in Sepatan District.” On Dec. 12, citizens presented a letter rejecting the presence of the congregation to church leaders.

The church has permission to worship from both local citizens and the Christians in accordance with a Joint Ministerial Decree promulgated in 1969 and revised in 2006, Hulu said.

“However, the pressure from Islamic groups is so strong, it’s as if the local government can do nothing,” he said.

Islamic groups stirred up demonstrations against the church on Dec. 19, when 30 people demonstrated during a Christmas celebration for children, and another demonstration followed the next day. On Dec. 27, a large crowd from the Islamic Defenders’ Front (FPI) arrived and demanded that worship cease.

Police on Dec. 29 issued a letter ordering that services stop because they violated local government regulations. The next day church leaders met with local officials but did not reach an agreement.

The church of 130 people has been facing such obstacles since 2006. It began in 2005 after reporting to local authorities and receiving permission.

Opposition from the FPI began the next year, and the church was forced to move services from house to house. On Nov. 4, 2007, as children attended Sunday school, around 10 FPI members arrived and broke up the meeting. On Nov. 19 of that year, several FPI members sent a letter to Hulu warning him and his family to leave the village within six days or the extremists would chase them out.

Hulu left temporarily on the advice of police, but his wife and mother-in-law were allowed to remain.

Last year, unidentified people burned the church building on Sept. 20; police have done nothing, he said.

Closure Order

Near the city of Bekasi, West Java, the government has given a deadline for the cessation of services to the Huria Christian Protestant Batak Church in Pondok Timur. The Rev. Luspida Simanjuntak said that services were ordered to cease after last Sunday (Jan. 31).

The government requested that church officials sign a letter agreeing to this order, but they refused, Simanjuntak said.

The pastor said a local official told them that the order was based on a meeting between the local government and nearby residents who objected to worship services. Simanjuntak told Compass that they were invited to a meeting with the residents who objected, the village officials and the head of the Interfaith Harmony Forum for Bekasi City, Haji Hasnul Chloid Pasaribu. Instead of discussing the situation, however, officials immediately gave the church a letter stating that permission for services extended only to Jan. 31.

“The letter was composed after consulting only one side,” said Simanjuntak. “The church aspirations were never heard.”

The church had been worshipping at that location since 2006.

“From the beginning we worked on the permission, starting at the block level and village level,” he said. “At that time we received permission to worship at my home. We never had problems in our relations with the local citizens.”

The church applied for a worship building permit in 2006, but local officials have yet to act on it, he said.

“Are we not allowed to worship while awaiting the building permit?” Simanjuntak said.

Rev. Gomar Gultom, general secretary of the Indonesian Fellowship of Churches, said that the organization will formulate a request to the Indonesian Senate to provide solutions for the two churches.

“In the near future, we will meet senators from the law and religion committees to discuss this matter,” Gomar said.

Johnny Simanjuntak of the Indonesian National Human Rights Committee told Compass that the government has failed to carry out its constitutional duty to protect freedom of worship for all citizens.

“Clearly the stoppage of any particular religious activity by the government is proof that the government is neglecting the human rights of its citizens,” he said.

Report from Compass Direct News 

Death threats await Christians in West Bengal


More than a year after a sudden outburst of persecution drove them from their village, a group of 14 Christians in West Bengal, India, still can’t go home, reports Gospel for Asia.

In July 2008, the Christians agreed to meet with a group of other villagers for what they thought was a routine gathering. However, the villagers turned out to be violent anti-Christians who immediately attacked the believers, threatening to murder them if they didn’t leave.

The beaten-up men and women made it to safety in a nearby village, where they found shelter with two Gospel for Asia–supported missionaries. Since then, the missionaries and their GFA leaders have been trying to work out the situation with village leaders and police. A local political party tried to help negotiate for the displaced believers to be allowed to return home.

Finally, on December 20, the Christians thought it was safe to return. So they cautiously went back, only to be called that very night for another village meeting. The memory of their last meeting was vivid, and the Christians approached hoping that this time, it would be different.

But just as before, the villagers waited to harm them. They beat the Christians mercilessly, forcing them to run once more for their lives.

Currently, the political party that tried to help the persecuted group is providing shelter for them and trying to find a permanent solution.

The GFA-supported missionaries and the believers urgently ask for prayer that God will work in this situation, and that His love will soften the hearts of the anti-Christians.

Report from the Christian Telegraph 

Somali Christian Flees Refugee Camp Under Death Threat


Flood of refugees to camp in Kenya brings Muslims hostile to his family.

NAIROBI, Kenya, December 9 (CDN) — Somali Christian Mohamud Muridi Saidi last month fled a refugee camp near Kenya’s border with Sudan after Muslims threatened to kill him.

For Saidi, a father of four, the recent relocation of 13,000 refugees from the Dadaab refugee camp near the Somali border to the Kakuma camp, where he had lived since 2002, brought its own nightmare: the arrival of Muslims from Somalia’s Lower Juba region who knew of his father’s Christian activities in his home village.

After Somalis four times threw stones at Saidi’s iron sheet home in the Kakuma refugee camp – once in mid-October, and again on Nov. 17, 21 and 22 – word spread that they intended to kill him. Case workers for a Lutheran World Federation (LWF) service group confirmed the death threat.

“I know the attackers are the Muslims who forced us to leave Somalia in 2002,” Saidi told Compass in Nairobi, adding that he was unable to bring his family with him when he fled on Nov. 23. “They are not safe, and that is why we should be out of Kakuma as soon as possible.”

Saidi has reported the attacks to the LWF service group as well as to police in Kakuma. Case workers for the LWF service group confirmed that the stoning of his home had escalated to the threat of him being assassinated.

“Saidi has security-related issues fueled by the new refugees from Dadaab,” said one LWF service group worker, who requested anonymity for security reasons, last month. “I did some investigation and found out that Saidi’s life is threatened.”

On one of the occasions in which his house was stoned as his family slept, Saidi turned on a flashlight and neighbors rose up, scaring off the assailants.

He and his family had enjoyed some tranquility since fleeing raging conflict in Somalia, but that ceased with the transference of the Somali Muslims from Dadaab refugee camp to Kakuma in August. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees relocated the refugees to ease congestion in the crowded Dadaab camps of Ifo, Hagadera and Dagahaley, where close to 300,000 Somalis had arrived to sites designed to house only 90,000 refugees.

The influx of those refugees from the Dadaab camp more than 1,000 kilometers (621 miles) away came with the quickly spreading word that Saidi and his family must be Christian, since his father was a well-known Christian while living in Somalia. A Somali Bantu from Marere, Lower Juba, Saidi’s family left Marere in 2002 after strict Muslims sought to kill them when they found out they were followers of Christ.

Saidi’s late father had coordinated activities for a Christian charity in Lower Juba. Since the death of his father in 2005, Saidi has been working as a translator for a Non-Governmental Organization. As a translator, he became known to the newly arrived Somalis from Dadaab.

Because of the dangers, Saidi has been forced to abandon his job for fear of exposing himself to other Muslims who might know of his father. He is the sole supporter for his family, including his 55-year-old mother, wife and four children.

“It is not safe for us to continue living in Kakuma – we have to move away, possibly to Nairobi,” Saidi said.

As a stop-gap measure, Saidi said he hopes to work as a freelance translator, for which he would need a computer, printer, photocopying machine and laminator.

“This would be a temporary measure – asylum for my family would be a permanent solution,” he said.

Despite the relocation of the refugees from Dadaab, overcrowding has not eased due an influx of newly displaced people fleeing fighting in southern Somalia. Earlier this month, radical Islamic al Shabaab militia recaptured three key towns, including the key town of Dobhley, in Lower Juba province along Somalia’s border with Kenya. They retook control from the more moderate Isbul-Islam militants as they each try to overthrow the Western-backed Transitional Federal Government of president Sheik Sharif Sheik Ahmed in Mogadishu.

Report from Compass Direct News 

Seminary Students in Indonesia Evicted from Two Locations


Forced departure from campground and office building leads to demonstration, arrests, injuries.

JAKARTA, Indonesia, October 30 (CDN) — In the past week hundreds of students from Arastamar Evangelical Theological Seminary (SETIA) were evicted from two sites where they had taken refuge after Muslim protestors drove them from their campus last year. 

With about 700 students earlier evicted from Bumi Perkemahan Cibubur (BUPERTA) campground, officers appointed by the West Jakarta District Court on Monday (Oct. 26) began evacuating more than 300 students from the former municipal building of West Jakarta.

In response, the more than 1,000 evicted SETIA students demonstrated in West Jakarta on Tuesday (Oct. 27), clogging traffic and leading to altercations with police that led to the arrest of at least five students. Six officers were injured.

The eviction from the former West Jakarta mayoral building came after the city settled accounts last week with the Sawerigading Foundation, which officially gained ownership of the site from the city after a long court dispute. The foundation plans to build apartments on the land, a 13,765 square-meter parcel with six buildings.

Demonstrating in front of the buildings, the students formed a blockade. A bulldozer began to level buildings, and students began throwing plastic chairs and rocks at police. Officers responded with tear gas that dispersed the crowd.

“Five people were arrested and taken for questioning by the West Jakarta Police,” Police Commissioner Djoni Iskandar told Compass at the site. The identities of the five students were not known at press time, although the head of the student senate, Alexander Dimu, said that one was identified as Adi Siwa.

Traffic Police Chief Commissioner Sungkono, who goes by a single name, told Compass that two traffic officers and four security policeman were injured by objects the students had thrown.

“Brigade Chief Charles and Sudiyanto had just gotten out of a car when they were hit by flying objects,” he said. “The same was true of four other police: Diak, Arif, Luki, and Mardiana, who had injuries to their hands, feet, and a torn lip.”

Inadequate Alternatives

The students were originally driven from their school when hundreds of protestors shouting “Allahu-Akbar [“God is greater]” and brandishing machetes forced the evacuation of staff and students from the SETIA campus in Kampung Pulo village on July 26-27, 2008.

Urged on by announcements from a mosque loudspeaker to “drive out the unwanted neighbor” following a misunderstanding between students and local residents, the protestors also had sharpened bamboo and acid and injured at least 20 students, some seriously.

The Jakarta provincial government has offered to house students at a city-owned office building in North Jakarta that SETIA officials said was unfit for habitation.

“A barn for water buffalo is much nicer than that place,” Ronald Simanjuntak secretary of the SETIA Foundation, told Compass.

The building has broken windows, non-functioning toilets, a roof that is in disrepair, and a bare cement floor, he said, adding that major renovations would be necessary.

“Our primary request is that we be allowed to return to our own campus peacefully,” Simanjuntak said. “We were in the old West Jakarta mayor’s office because the provincial government sent us there. Don’t imagine that we were trying to take over that place.”

An inspection of the North Jakarta building by representatives from the SETIA Foundation, the Sawerigading Foundation, and city officials found the building was uninhabitable and unsuitable for classes, said SETIA’s rector, the Rev. Matheus Mangentang.

“So the solution is to return us to our campus,” Rev. Mangentang told Compass. “[The North Jakarta building] needs months of renovation work; it was supposed to be torn down.”

The area secretary for the Jakarta Provincial Government who goes by a single name, Muhayat, told Compass that suitability “is a relative thing.”

“Why is the place unsuitable?” he said. “Is it the location?”

According to Muhayat, the Jakarta government plans to sell a property that would allow it to provide proceeds for construction of a new SETIA campus in the Lippo area of Cikarang, West Java Province. Officials hope a sale could be completed late this year, allowing construction to begin in early 2010.

“The students need to be patient and not act unilaterally,” Muhayat said. “The provincial government and the [SETIA] Foundation are in the midst of working on a new campus.”

The students would like to return to their former campus in Kampung Pulo, East Jakarta, with assurances of safety and security from the vice-governor, but area residents reportedly remain hostile.

SETIA’s Simanjuntak said that if students are forced to the North Jakarta building, school officials would ask the Sawerigading Foundation for time to renovate it. Sawerigading has offered 250 million rupiahs (US$26,000) to SETIA for renovations.

Of the total SETIA students, another 297 are still living at the Transit Lodge in Kalimalang, East Jakarta.

Report from Compass Direct News 

Theology Students in Indonesia to be Evicted from Campground


Government stops paying rent for site where students were driven more than a year ago.

JAKARTA, Indonesia, October 20 (CDN) — Approximately 700 students from Arastamar Evangelical Theological Seminary (SETIA) are facing eviction at the end of the month from a campground where Muslim protestors drove them last year.

Education will end for students who have been living in 11 large tents and studying in the open air at Bumi Perkemahan Cibubur (BUPERTA) campground, many of them for more than a year. Hundreds of protestors shouting “Allahu-Akbar [“God is greater]” and brandishing machetes forced the evacuation of staff and students from the SETIA campus in Kampung Pulo village on July 26-27, 2008.

Urged on by announcements from a mosque loudspeaker to “drive out the unwanted neighbor” following a misunderstanding between students and local residents, the protestors also had sharpened bamboo and acid and injured at least 20 students, some seriously.

The Jakarta provincial government has ceased paying the rental fee of the campsite in East Jakarta, a bill that now totals 2.7 billion rupiahs (US$280,000), which camp officials said will result in the eviction of the students and the end of their studies at the end of the month.

At the beginning of the month, camp officials cut off electricity and water; as a result, the students have had to go 1,500 meters to bathe and use the toilet in the Cibubur marketplace. Additionally, several of the student tents were taken down. In spite of the conditions, sources said, the students have maintained their enthusiasm and no one has quit the school.

SETIA officials said camp management rejected their request for an extension.

“The electricity and the water were cut off after the Cibubur campground managers rejected Arastamar’s request,” said Yusuf Lifire, SETIA administrator.

Other students at the seminary have taken temporary shelter in the other parts of greater Jakarta. Those living quarters, however, are so overcrowded that some of the students have become ill.

Umar Lubis, head of BUPERTA campground, said camp officials have provided the students great leeway and shown great tolerance in the year that rent has not been paid.

“We have provided water, electricity, and other facilities,” Lubis told Compass. “However, Jakarta Province has not paid us campground rental since October 2008. The government did pay 700 million rupiahs [US$75,000], but that only covered the rental fees through September 2008.”

Muhayat, area secretary of Jakarta Province who goes by a single name, told Compass that beginning in October 2008, the provincial government was no longer responsible for campsite rental for the SETIA students. The provincial government made this decision, he said, because the seminary refused to move to Jonggol, Bogor, West Java, about 50 kilometers (31 miles) from the old campus.

“We offered to move them to Jonggol, but Arastamar took a hard line and wanted to be in Jakarta,” Muhayat said.

The Rev. Matheus Mangentang, rector of SETIA, said that they refused to move to Jonggol because their school permit was for Jakarta.

“If we moved to Jonggol, we would have to get a new permit,” Mangentang told Compass. “We suspect that this would be an extremely difficult process.”

Illness Strikes

Many students are suffering from respiratory and other illnesses, and some have breast cancer. The sick are being cared for at the Christian University of Indonesia hospital.

One of the students living at the BUPERTA campground told Compass that many of the students had fever from mosquito bites.

“When it rains here, we sleep on water and mud,” said a 21-year-old student who identified herself only as Siska. Her statements were echoed by a Christian education major named Ahasyweros.

“We struggle daily in a place like this – especially after our request was turned down,” the student said. “We don’t know where we are going to go. We hope that the Jakarta provincial government will have the heart to help us.”

The staff and students were forced from their campus by a mob that claimed to be acting for the local citizens of Pulo Kampung, Makasar District, East Jakarta last year. Key among motives for the attack was that area Muslims felt “disturbed” by the presence of the Christian college. They wanted it to be moved to another area.

The approximately 1,300 seminary students were placed in three locations: 760 at the BUPERTA campground, 330 at the Kalimalang Transit Lodge, and 220 at the former office of the mayor of West Jakarta.

The fate of the students at all locations was similar; they were overcrowded and short on water, and overall facilities were substandard.

Jakarta Vice-Gov. Prijanto, who goes by a single name, had promised to find a solution. He had also stated that the government was ready to help and would pay for the students’ room and board, but this has not been the case.

Mangentang said he continues to hope for good will from the Jakarta government, which he said should return the school to its original site in Pulo Kampung. 

“Even if there is talk in the provincial government that the locals don’t accept us, we still want to go back,” he said. “After we are back, then we would be prepared to talk and negotiate about the future. Healthy discussions are not possible if we are not back in our own home. If we tried to talk now, while we are trampled upon and pressured, nothing healthy would result. It is better that we return to our own place so that we can talk at the same level.”

Report from Compass Direct News 

Islamic Groups Shut Down Worship of Church in Indonesia


Under pressure from Islamists, local officials order halt to services in home.

JAKARTA, Indonesia, October 5 (CDN) — Several Islamic organizations have pressed officials in a sub-district near Indonesia’s capital city to forbid Jakarta Christian Baptist Church to worship in a house, resulting in an order to cease services.

The Islamic Defenders Front (FPI), the Betawi Forum Group, and political party Hizbut Tahrir have told officials in Sepatan sub-district, Tangerang district, near Jakarta that worship activities cannot be conducted in a residence. The house belongs to the Rev. Bedali Hulu.

Both District Officer Ismet Iskandar and a sub-district officer support the closure and have ordered Hulu to use his home only as a residence, the pastor said. The sub-district officer, who goes by the single name of Rusdy, has sent a notice ordering an end to all worship at the house.

“But they have not put forth a solution,” Hulu said. “For a long time we have suggested that we build a place of worship, but there has been no response from the local government.”

On Sept. 27 a large crowd came to the house and demanded a stop to the Sunday worship service, Hulu said. Visibly frightened and anxious, the congregation hurried through the service.

An Islamic throng also came to the house on Sept. 13, with hundreds barging in and forcing the congregation out, Hulu said. Worship did not take place that day.

In another incident on the night of Sept. 19, unknown persons burned a vehicle belonging to the church. Hulu said the car was parked in front of his house. The next day Hulu reported the incident to police, who promised to catch the culprit, though at press time no one had been arrested.

Security forces, however, were able to maintain peace the next day when a mob showed up at the house, Hulu said; worship took place free of incident.

Church members feel terrorized by the mobs, the pastor said, but the nearest house of worship is several miles away, and many congregants do not have access to transportation. The Sepatan church has been serving worshippers, mostly day laborers, in Pisangan village since 2005.

“In the beginning we approached religious and community leaders and asked for permission to worship,” Hulu said. “They had no objections.”

Hulu established the church in June 2005 and held services in his home until December 2006 without objection from neighbors. He had obtained written permission from a local official to hold the services, and the church was registered with Religious Affairs authorities.

When the church planned to hold a Christmas celebration in December 2006, however, FPI members began an extended intimidation campaign with the express goal of ending “illegal” Christian activity in the village.

A Joint Ministerial Decree promulgated in 1969 and revised in 2006 requires a congregation of at least 90 adult members, the permission of at least 60 neighbors and a permit from local authorities to establish a place of worship. Church leaders say it is virtually impossible to obtain a permit under these terms.

The Rev. Wilhelmus Latumahina, head of the Fellowship of Pentecostal Churches of Banten Province, said that for years different groups have requested permission to build places of worship in Sepatan sub-district, with no response from officials.

He added that if the government closes a church, it is obligated to provide a solution.

Hulu said he would like to negotiate a solution. The pastor said he has tried repeatedly to meet with Sub-district Officer Rusdy but has been told that the official was not in the office.

Outside Agitators

Hulu said outside Islamists have incited local people to oppose the church.

Two years ago Islamists succeeded in closing the church, and Hulu was temporarily forced from the area. On Nov. 4, 2007, as children attended Sunday school at the church, a group of around 10 FPI members arrived and broke up the meeting. On Nov. 19 of that year, several FPI associates sent a letter to Hulu warning him and his family to leave the village within six days or the extremists would chase them out.

Hulu left temporarily on the advice of police, but his wife and mother-in-law were allowed to remain.

When Hulu filed another police report, the police summoned him to a meeting at the home of FPI leader Habib Muhammad Assegaf. While Hulu and his wife met with Assegaf, a church member sent a text message informing them that a small mob had attacked the church, breaking windows and taking church property. The mob also forced Hulu’s mother-in-law to leave the building.

Hulu reported this incident to district police in Tangerang, who informed him that he could either return to Pisangan village and cease all religious activity, or pursue the matter through legal channels. Weary of the constant pressure, Hulu filed an official complaint.

A Pisangan FPI leader who goes by the single name of Ocit then demanded that Hulu withdraw his complaint or else FPI members would raid the homes of individual church members.

Tensions were subsequently resolved through dialogue facilitated by a member of the Tangerang Parliament, Hanie Lawrence, and worship was permitted to resume. A number of radical Muslim organizations, however, have now resumed the fight to close the church.

Agus Andrianto, police chief of Tangerang district, said his forces are doing everything possible to maintain peace in Sepatan.

“It is our job to curb excesses,” he said. “We don’t want anything to get out of hand.”

Report from Compass Direct News 

MEXICO: ‘TRADITIONALIST CATHOLICS’ ATTACK, EXPEL CHRISTIANS


Evangelicals in two states lose homes, crops for refusing to participate in religious revelry.

MEXICO CITY, August 19 (Compass Direct News) – “Traditionalist Catholic” leaders last month expelled 57 evangelical Christians from towns in two states for refusing to participate in their religious festivals.

Leaders of traditionalist Catholicism, a mixture of Roman Catholicism and native rituals, expelled 32 Christians from their homes in a village in Hidalgo state and another 25 from a town in Oaxaca; in each case, the evangelicals were deprived of their property for refusing to participate in drunken festivals that included worship of Catholic icons.

Hundreds of evangelical Christians from six states of Mexico organized a caravan on Aug. 10 on behalf of the 32 evangelicals from Los Parajes, near Huejutla in Hidalgo state, who were violently torn from their homes on July 13 when the town’s traditionalist Catholic leaders struck them with machetes and ropes. They were forced to leave behind 121 acres of land planted with crops, as well as their homes and animals.

The 32 Christians in Hidalgo state, north of Mexico City, say they have lost their entire crops of corn and sesame, and they are missing the season for planting jicama.

Cars and buses forming the caravan met at noon in the town of Tantoyuca, Hidalgo, proceeding together with police escort to Huejutla, where they left their vehicles and continued on foot toward the central plaza carrying the Mexican flag, a Christian flag, and placards with messages of love and support. Pastor Carlos Del Angel of Cerro Azul, Veracruz organized the protest, with the demonstrators also bringing food and clothing to the victims.

At press time Christian lawyer Samuel Noguera had still not been able to reach a solution with authorities. One of the expelled evangelical leaders, Enrique García, told newspaper Milenio Hidalgo on Aug. 11 that local and state authorities should respect the rights of those who have been expelled.

“It seems to me impossible that once it has been proven that all of us evangelicals have fulfilled our obligations to the town, we should still be exiled,” García reportedly said. “I understand that approximately 70 percent of the population of Los Parajes is open to our return.”

In February the Christians had reached an agreement with the community allowing them to choose to follow their own faith, but when Enedino Luna Cruz became town leader he burned the document, according to the evangelicals.

At first the expelled group, including two infants, four other small children, and several older adults, took refuge in two rooms of Benito Juarez School in nearby Huejutla, sleeping on the floor and going without food and water – and quashing plans for a 15th birthday celebration, a traditional Mexican quinceanera or “coming out” party, for Alejandra Dorotea Gerónimo, according to local newspapers.

The Milenio Hidalgo newspaper reported on July 28 that townspeople in Los Parajes had offered to allow the Christians to return if they denied their faith and paid the equivalent of nearly $13,900 in “fines” for having refused to contribute to the traditionalist Catholic festivals, but they refused.

“We are being treated as though we were delinquents for being evangelicals,” one Christian leader, Roberto Hernandez, told Milenio Diario on July 21.

The men were prohibited from leaving the school to try to earn money for food and were forbidden to tend to their crops.

Milenio Hidalgo later reported that on August 4 the refugees were moved out of the school into a small house with three rooms, one bathroom, and no tables or beds. Due to lack of space, the men were unable to lie down to sleep at night. Following the Aug. 10 caravan, the Milenio Hidalgo reported that the group would be relocated to a larger house with five bedrooms and two baths.

Three years prior, town officials had cut off water and electricity service to the seven Christian families in the village for being unwilling to return to Catholicism. At that time the pastor of the group was beaten and tied up in a futile effort to force him to change his faith. Likewise, in the current case authorities told the Christians their expulsion could have been avoided if they had rejected their faith.

Death Threat

In the Yavelotzi community near San Jacinto, Oaxaca, 25 Christians were threatened and expelled from their homes for the same reasons on July 17, according to Christian support organization Open Doors.

The Netherlands-based organization said local authorities of Yavelotzi threatened to beat and kill a group of evangelical Christians on that day if they did not leave the community at once. The Christians had refused to participate in week-long parties characterized by drunkenness and worship of Catholic icons.

The 25 Christians left behind their homes, crops and communal rights – necessary for gaining access to government assistance – and were warned not to return unless they renounced their faith in Jesus Christ, according to Open Doors. They relocated to a nearby community called Rancho Tabla.

To prevent them from returning to their homes, Yavelotzi officials have taken away their land and have refused to allow their children to register for school, the organization said in a statement.

In nearby Arroyo Copete, according to Open Doors, traditionalist Catholic leaders have refused to allow the children of 10 Christian families to register for school, and are forcing the families to participate in the Catholic festivals. The officials assert that the evangelicals are not participating in the obligatory community service, but evangelicals say contributing to that service requires them to participate in “idol worship” as well.

In the Yavelotzi conflict, lawyers for both sides were to meet on July 25, but it was postponed at the last minute as the attorney for the Yavelotzi community was unable to attend.

Report from Compass Direct News 

ISRAEL: NON-ARAB CHRISTIANS SEEK IN VAIN FOR BURIAL SITES


Orthodox denominations face discrimination from authorities, nominally Christian gatekeepers.

HAIFA, Israel, July 8 (Compass Direct News) – Here in Israel’s third-largest city, it was not possible for the Russian Orthodox relatives of a 65-year-old woman who died on June 27 to find a Christian cemetery for her.

Their plight – for five days the body of Nadejda Edelman was stored at a hospital morgue – is common to Christians of foreign ancestry throughout the country. When Edelman passed away in Rambam Medical Center in this northern Israeli city, it took almost a week to find a grave for her and arrange for a funeral. Haifa, with 265,000 people, is 90 kilometers (56 miles) north of Tel Aviv.

On July 1 Edelman, a devout Christian, was buried outside of Haifa in Emeq Hefer Local Council Cemetery – a “secular” site for persons of no faith tradition. Had there been a Christian cemetery available, Edelman’s family might still have had problems obtaining a plot; the immigrant had not been able to have her ID registered as “Christian,” only as “Russian.”

“A cross on her neck and a testimony on her behalf by her close friend, as Edelman was childless, didn’t convince the authorities, and even if it would have, there are just no existing solutions for the deceased Russian Orthodox Christians of Russian origin in Israel,” said one of the founders of Sophia, an association of Russian Orthodox Christians in northern Israel. He requested anonymity.

Throughout Israel it’s not unusual for delays of days or weeks for burial of the Christian deceased of foreign ancestry. One Christian, Sergei Loper, was not buried until 20 days after his death; for another, Yuri Neverdasov, an available grave was not found for five days.

Christians make up 2.1 percent of Israel’s population, and the Orthodox denominations are a fraction of that. The issue of funeral rites and burials in Israel is especially difficult for these minorities, given the country’s complicated ethnic and religious makeup and laws that give religious institutions control over personal matters such as weddings, births and deaths.

The faith communities of Jews and Arabs in Israel each have their own designated burial societies that are responsible for arranging burials as well as religious rituals. Jewish burial societies called Hevra Kadisha are responsible for the Jewish deceased, while Arab burial societies provide services for Arab Muslims and Christians.

Such societies must obtain a special permit from the Ministry of Religious Affairs and sign a contract with the Social Security Service; this latter agency then covers the cost of burial fees in accordance with Israeli law. In theory every family in Israel is entitled to this reimbursement, but Russian Orthodox and Greek Orthodox families miss out because the funds go to the Arab burial societies rather than directly to the survivors.

Problems in addressing foreigners’ needs began in the early 1990s with a massive wave of immigration from the Former Soviet Union. Along with Jewish relatives, many Christians, Muslims and non-religious emigrants from Russia settled in Israel. Soon authorities were hard-pressed to address the needs of children of mixed marriages and of non-Jewish spouses and relatives – some with religious backgrounds other than Judaism, some holding no defined religious views and some who were atheists.

The question of foreign (especially Russian) Christians, as well as that of Jews who openly declared their conversion to Christianity, was especially disturbing, and Israel initially dealt with it by registering many people only as “Russians” without any reference to their religious belief. Later the religious designation for all people was eliminated from Israeli identification cards.

With legislation that was passed in 1992 but took more than a decade to implement, eventually authorities worked out a partial solution – establishing a few secular cemeteries and creating sections within Jewish cemeteries for “non-religious persons.” These measures did not meet the needs of people who wished to be buried in accordance with their religious beliefs, especially the Russian Orthodox and Greek Orthodox Christians.

Discrimination against Non-Arabs

The Sophia association has tried to address this complicated issue and assist members of the Russian Orthodox community and their families. Thus far authorities have little heeded their plea.

“It would be only natural if Christians would be buried in Christian cemeteries, yet the Arab local councils usually decline our requests,” said Dr. Ilya Litvin of Haifa, a member of Sophia.

In Israel’s Arab Christian cemeteries, the heads of local councils are the only ones entitled to make the decisions, but many of them are Christians by birth only; they belong to Communist parties and in reality have little sympathy for religious sentiment, advocates said.

“They claim that there is a severe shortage of graves there and little possibility for expansion, yet I believe that it’s just politics,” Litvin said. “They don’t really care about us – we are not Arabs.”

Oleg Usenkov, press-secretary of St. Nicolay’s church at Migdal ha-Emeq, added that a Christian burial may sometimes come only as a negotiated favor.

“Sometimes our priest, Father Roman Radwan, pulls personal connections and after some negotiations they allocate a grave for the deceased members of our community, but usually we hear a ‘No,’” he said.

Other options for the church are the non-Jewish section at the Jewish cemetery or the secular cemetery. It is usually not possible, however, to conduct Christian ceremonies at these sites.

Usenkov of St. Nicolay’s church said he vividly recalls a recent funeral of his friend Andrey Shelkov.

“The funeral was organized by the Jerusalemite Hevra Kadisha [Jewish burial society], and we were not even allowed to put a cross inside the coffin,” Usenkov said. “One of the Hevra Kadisha workers felt sorry for us and told me, ‘You can draw a Pisces [fish symbol] on his arm and put it inside the coffin, isn’t that a Christian symbol as well?’ Imagine that: having to draw a Pisces, just like the early Christians who had to hide their faith!”

Burials can be costly, and the Israeli Social Security Service covers burial fees only by transferring the compensation to the burial societies, not to the families of the deceased. Since there is no such burial society for Russian Orthodox Christians, state funds to cover the high costs go to local councils’ treasuries rather than to the families.

The leaders of Sophia have requested the office of Israel’s prime minister to give their association status similar to that of a Hevra Kadisha, which would allow Sophia to meet the burial needs of Russian Orthodox and Greek Orthodox Christians, but to no avail.

“In reply we received a formal letter which offers no solution,” said Litvin. “The letter suggested that we should somehow obtain a cemetery, and that then we were to apply to the Ministry of Religious Affairs for the license – which is practically impossible, and everyone knows it.”

A written inquiry by Compass to the social security office elicited the same response.

“We feel helpless and frustrated: the heads of Greek Orthodox Church choose not to interfere, or maybe they can’t, while the Israeli authorities are brushing us off,” Litvin said. “As a result, innocent people are denied of their basic right – to be buried according to their religious beliefs. Some of them are childless and poor, and there is no one to stand up for their rights. We hope that someone will take responsibility for this issue.”

Report from Compass Direct News 

IRAN: AUTHORITIES PRESSURE FATHER OF CONVERT


Government trying to quell Christian son’s human rights activities.

LOS ANGELES, May 20 (Compass Direct News) – In an attempt to silence a Christian human rights activist living in England, Iranian authorities arrested and interrogated his Muslim father for six days before releasing him yesterday .

Abdul Zahra Vashahi, a retired 62-year-old suffering a heart condition, was arrested on Thursday (May 14) in Iran’s southwestern city of Bandar Mahshahr and interrogated about the human rights activities of his son, a Christian convert who has been living in England since 2003. His son, John (Reza) Vashahi, converted to Christianity while in England and in 2008 founded the Iranian Minorities Human Rights Organization (IMHRO).

In February the elder Vashahi had received a call from local authorities telling him that if his son didn’t stop his activities, they would arrest him instead.

While his father was in custody, authorities asked the elder Vashahi many questions about his son’s activities and had him fill out forms with detailed information about his extended family and friends.

“He is very tired, because the interrogations were very long,” his son told Compass. “All the questions were about me.”

The younger Vashahi said the Iranian government started putting increased pressure on his family, whom he has not seen in six years, since he founded IMHRO.

“It is a good example of harassment even outside the country,” Vashahi told Compass by telephone today. “It is just showing how far the government will go if we let them. Inside we can’t talk, and we come to Europe and still they want to silence us; it’s a very worrying sign.”

Vashahi, unlike his father, was involved in politics when he lived in Iran. His family belongs to Iran’s Arab-speaking community, the Ahwazi, most of whom live in the southwestern province of Khuzestan.

He said that even when he was living there, police had come to his father’s workplace to ask him questions, but that after he fled the country six years ago, the pressure seemed to have stopped. It began anew when he became an outspoken Christian campaigning for the rights of minorities in Iran and especially with the establishment of IMHRO, he said.

The activist is an active member of Amnesty International, and through his own organization he publicizes Iran’s human rights violations of minorities, especially Christians. He has also started a blog called “Jesus for Arabs.”

Fighting for Minority Rights

Vashahi acknowledged that his family, which is Muslim, was never happy with his choice of faith or vocation.

Asked whether he believed the government arrested his father because of his faith or his work, the younger Vashahi said, “I think it’s both, because part of my human rights activity is in regard to Christians in Iran, and we’ve been in touch with Christians and persecuted churches.”

The 30-year-old activist said that when the Revolutionary Guard arrested his father, they confiscated all of his books and compact discs, as well as a computer and his sister’s university dentistry textbooks.

“It’s a bad situation, and I hope we find some solution,” Vashahi said, “No one has the right to talk about anything in Iran. Suppression of the church is increasing in Iran; they don’t want us to talk about that. They don’t want us to talk about it inside, and also they want to silence us outside.”

Vashahi said that despite the government pressure, he is not planning to stop his human rights activism.

“I’m not going to be silent, because if I do, then I’m accepting their logic, which means I caused the arrest of my dad,” Vashahi said. “My dad is innocent, and that system is wrong to arrest someone instead of somebody else.”

In 2008, when deciding to establish the IMHRO, he said he felt torn between confronting Iran’s injustices and wanting to ignore them from his comfortable, safe distance.

“Another part of me was saying, ‘you are safe now, but you should do your fair share, you should make noise, and if people inside can’t talk and you are outside and you don’t want to talk, how will people learn what is happening?’” he said. “I felt responsibility, and in the end that part won.”

In a phone conversation with his mother yesterday while his father was sleeping to recover from his time in prison, he said he felt that she was choosing her words very carefully. She told him not to contact them or other family and friends.

“She emphasized that we are all Muslims, and that this is an Islamic country,” Vashahi said. “So she was giving me hints that it [the arrest] had to do with the change of religion.”

Although there were no official charges against his father, Vashahi said it is possible that authorities still could take him to court or detain him again for more interrogation.

“I hope this doesn’t happen again,” he said. “In fact, they’ve taken my family as hostage. They did this type of policy to other people and they’ve always failed, and I don’t know why they keep doing it, because people like me they are not going to stop. Others didn’t stop, and they’re just bringing more condemnation on themselves and exposing themselves to more condemnation in the eyes of the world.”

New Wave of Arrests

Compass has learned of four confirmed arrests of Christians in the last two weeks in the capital city of Tehran, while sources said a new wave of arrests has rolled across the country.

Authorities have been warning arrested Christians not to speak to foreign news agencies.

“The government is treating people like they don’t want them to talk,” said a source. “The government is really afraid of international news agencies, they really don’t like them. That is why they put pressure on the believers, and they are really scared.”

Although in most cases of arrests and interrogations Christians have been released with no physical harm, a source said in some instances they were told to sign papers that they would stop Christian activities and were threatened if they continued.

“It’s happening everywhere,” said the source. “This is the strategy of the government. They are doing it everywhere.”

Maryam Rostampour, 27, and Marzieh Amirizadeh Esmaeilabad, 30, are in their second month of detention at the notorious Evin prison house in Tehran, accused of “acting against state security” and “taking part in illegal gatherings.”

Report from Compass Direct News

PAKISTAN: CHRISTIAN CHARGED WITH ‘BLASPHEMY’ FOR TEXT MESSAGE


Defender of minority rights allegedly framed for making legal challenges in church land dispute.

ISTANBUL, February 5 (Compass Direct News) – More than 100 protestors last week surrounded a Pakistani courthouse and chanted death threats against a Punjabi Christian said to be framed for sending a “blasphemous” text message on his cell phone.

Rawalpindi police arrested Hector Aleem, 51, on Jan. 22 and detained him on charges of sending a text message that insulted the Islamic prophet Muhammad. At his Jan. 27 hearing at the Rawalpindi Sessions Court, crowds gathered and began shouting death threats.

His attorney, Malik Tafik, told Compass that a local man allegedly framed Aleem for the charges because Aleem has made legal challenges on behalf of Christians involved in a land dispute. Aleem directs a small agency that often defends the rights of Christians.

Last November, a scholar associated with the national Islamist political movement Sunni Tehreek received a text message claiming to have come from Aleem. The religious scholar registered blasphemy charges against Aleem on Nov. 28 at the Rawalpindi police station.

Police raided Aleem’s house at 1:30 a.m. on Jan. 22 and assaulted him, his wife, and his two daughters. They also stole 50,000 Pakistan rupees (US$630) worth of valuables and broke pictures of Jesus hanging on their walls, according to a report from the Center for Legal Aid Assistance and Settlement (CLAAS).

Authorities charged him with violating sections 295c (blasphemy) and 109bb (abetting) of the Pakistani criminal code. Aleem was transferred to a Rawalpindi anti-terrorism court for a second hearing on Jan. 30, where an even larger crowd of protestors gathered shouting that his life would not be spared. Many of those who came to protest were associated with Sunni Tehreek, which has been involved in violent sectarian clashes with other Islamist movements in the last decade.

“There were about 150 people protesting that Aleem should be handed over to them,” Tafik said. “And there were many journalists, two news stations, and lawyers who came out to protest against him.”

Aleem is detained at the Adiyala Jail in Rawalpindi. During his incarceration, police have mistreated him and denied him adequate food and access to medicine for his heart condition. He told lawyers that police have not allowed him to meet with his family and referred to him as “choohra” (sweeper), a derogatory term for Pakistani Christians to designate them as the lowest rung of society.

At a hearing at an anti-terrorism court on Monday (Feb. 2), Judge Sakhi Mohammad Kohut exonerated him of blasphemy charges but did not clear him of abetting. A government official told Compass that the judge’s decision was heavily influenced by Islamic extremists attending the open court hearing who told the judge, “If you release [Aleem], then we will kill him outside.”

At the hearing, the judge implicated the man who allegedly framed Aleem – Bashar Kokar, previously charged multiple times with fraud – accusing him of using his cell phone to send a blasphemous message against Muhammad. Kokar was charged with blasphemy and arrested later that day. But court evidence shows the original text message came from an unregistered mobile number that pertained to neither Kokar nor Aleem, sources said – exonerating Aleem, but also making it difficult to prove that Kokar framed him. Khushdil Khan Malik, deputy secretary of Pakistan’s Ministry of Human Rights, said he believes the judge implicated Kokar as a scapegoat for the blasphemy charges in order to appease the extremists.

The next hearing will be held in March. Attorney Tafik told Compass he believes Aleem will be cleared of all charges because there is no evidence against him.

 

Targeted for Defending Christian Rights

Sources said they believe Aleem was framed due to his social activism as director of a small Non-Governmental Organization that lobbies for the rights of Pakistani Christians in Islamabad.

In November he became involved in a land dispute between a congregation and a local municipality that wanted to demolish their church building. He has been wrongfully implicated in the past for minor offenses, a government deputy said, particularly for his advocacy work against the Capital Development Authority, a municipal works agency that has been charged with unlawful confiscation and destruction of Christian property.

Aleem has been cleared of these minor offenses. The seriousness of the blasphemy charge, however, puts him and his family in danger. Besides his attorney, other legal advocates said they believe he will be cleared of all charges as there is no evidence that he sent the original text message.

Until then, his family is hiding underground due to threats of violence by Muslim extremists, said Joseph Francis, national director of CLAAS. And once he is released, it will be hard for Aleem to return to a normal life in Rawalpindi with the stigma of even unproven charges of blasphemy hanging over his head.

“What will happen after [the trial] is a matter of concern,” said Malik of Pakistan’s human rights ministry. “There have been many incidents of the sudden deaths of people charged with blasphemy.”

As many of those hostile to him are members of Sunni Tehreek who are dispersed throughout Pakistan, he and his family would be targeted by local members of the organization if they fled to another city. The only solution may be to seek asylum in another country, a source told Compass.

 

Problematic Law

Blasphemy has been used frequently in Pakistani law as a tool to silence or intimidate non-Muslims, including another case this week.

Yesterday a pastor, his son, and his father were charged with blasphemy in the village of Baddomehli, 100 kilometers (62 miles) from Lahore. Muslim classmates of pastor Shafik Masih’s teenage son claimed he had a blasphemous pamphlet in his backpack and began to assault him, according to a CLAAS report.

Realizing the danger of sectarian violence, the police chief of the region yesterday called on Christians to seek refuge as local Muslims were assembling a protest.

Christian members of Pakistan’s Parliament have moved to strike the blasphemy laws from the national criminal code.

“In the past, only a superintendent of police could file blasphemy charges,” attorney Tafik said. “But now a private person can register a case of blasphemy and it can be misused because anyone can use it.”  

Report from Compass Direct News