PAKISTAN: CHRISTIANS PRESSED AS MILITARY BATTLES TALIBAN


Residents flee Swat Valley where fight rages with Islamist insurgents.

ISTANBUL, May 13 (Compass Direct News) – Pakistani Christians in Swat Valley are caught between the Taliban and Pakistan’s military as it assaults the stronghold where sharia (Islamic law) rules.

Nearly 15,000 troops have been deployed in the picturesque Swat Valley in Pakistan’s North West Frontier Province (NWFP) and neighboring Afghanistan. Troops came after months of peace negotiations collapsed between the Taliban Islamist insurgents who have imposed sharia in the valley and the central government last month. Hundreds of thousands of Pakistanis have fled the war-ravaged area for fear of a full military assault.

On May 10 (Sunday) the army ordered residents to flee Swat Valley during a lull in fighting. Aid groups estimate that as many as 1.3 million could be displaced by the fighting, according to The Guardian.

Christians are particularly vulnerable in the mass exodus. Working as poor day laborers, they occupy the lowest rung of the social ladder and have little money for costly transport or to stock up on resources before fleeing.

“Christians are poor, and like in any conflict, the prices of transportation and commodities skyrocket,” said Ashar Dean, assistant director of communication of the Church of Pakistan Peshawar diocese. “Some had to go on foot to flee the valley.”

The Taliban had ratcheted up pressure on Christians, other religious minorities and liberal Muslims in Swat to live according to Islamic fundamentalist norms. They were forced to grow beards and don Islamic attire for fear of their safety in an attempt to blend in with Muslim residents of Swat.

Many Christians also fled for insufficient funds to pay the jizye, a poll tax under sharia paid by non-Muslims for protection if they decline to convert to Islam.

In February the Pakistani government ceded control of Swat valley to the Taliban, who imposed their version of sharia and established clerical rule over the legal system. But Christians had seen warning signs long before the formal sharia announcement. In the past year the Taliban burned or bombed more than 200 girls’ schools in Swat, including one that housed a Catholic church.

Religious minorities live in a precarious situation in the Muslim-dominated country. The legal system informally discriminates against non-Muslims, and in recent years Christian villages have been ransacked by Muslim mobs incited by dubious reports that a Quran had been desecrated.

The Taliban’s attempts to spread out from Swat into neighboring areas, however, have increased feelings of insecurity among the nation’s 3 million Christians.

“The threat of the Taliban is a hanging sword above the necks of Christians,” said Sohail Johnson, chief coordinator of Sharing Life Ministry Pakistan. “Christians could be in the situation where they would have to accept Islam or die.”

Swat Christians Flee

Approximately 40-60 Christian families lived in Swat as congregants at the Church of Pakistan. But since Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gillani on April 8 announced a military mission into Swat, nearly all have fled to nearby districts.

Most are in refugee housing in Mardan in the NWFP. They stay in a technical school owned by the Church of Pakistan, a congregation composed of Anglicans, Presbyterians, Methodists and Lutherans

The school dismissed its students for the school year early to make room for the refugees. Opening its doors to the displaced Christians was necessary due to government inaction toward religious minorities, said Yousaf Benjamin of the National Commission for Justice and Peace.

“The government is giving protection to Muslims, but the Christians are through waiting for their services,” he said.

Similar measures are being employed in hundreds of schools. To provide for the massive influx in refugees, the Pakistan government ended the school year early in districts near Swat and opened the schools to refugees for temporary housing. Teachers are also assisting in the humanitarian relief effort, Benjamin said.

Some Christians have complained of facing discrimination in refugee camps. Government relief workers forbade Christians, Hindus and Sikhs from setting up tents or eating with Muslim refugees, according to online news site Christian Today.

But ultimately Christians will not be able to return to Swat Valley unless the Taliban threat is completely removed, Christian relief groups said. Their possessions and property will otherwise always be under threat.

“Christians will face terrible persecution if the Taliban is not controlled by the government,” Johnson said. “They will easily attack churches, schools and other Christian institutions.”

Rehman Malik, the interior minister, said Pakistan’s military operation would continue until the last Taliban fighter had been ousted. Since April 8, government troops have killed an estimated 751 militants.

There are believed to be 5,000 Taliban militants in Swat Valley. The government hopes to minimize civilian casualties through precision air strikes and delivering emergency humanitarian aid.

Pakistan’s government has come under harsh national and international criticism for its negotiations with the Taliban and ceding control of Swat. They fear the Taliban could seize control of the nation’s nuclear weapons.

Report from Compass Direct News

SAUDI ARABIA: AUTHORITIES RELEASE CHRISTIAN BLOGGER


Kingdom silences convert, prohibits him from leaving country.

LOS ANGELES, April 16 (Compass Direct News) – In a surprise move, a Saudi Christian arrested in January for describing his conversion from Islam and criticizing the kingdom’s judiciary on his blog site was released on March 28 with the stipulation that he not travel outside of Saudi Arabia or appear on media.

Hamoud Saleh Al-Amri (previously reported as Hamoud Bin Saleh), 28, reportedly attributed his release to advocacy efforts by the Arab Network for Human Rights Information (ANHRI). The Cairo-based organization had campaigned for his release along with other rights groups, reported Christian advocacy organization Middle East Concern (MEC).

Gamal Eid, director of ANHRI, told Compass by telephone that he believed his organization had nothing to do with Al-Amri’s release. Rather, he said he believed officials were loath to keep a person of questionable mental stability in prison.

“He is mentally not stable, because he had the courage to say in his blog that he is a Christian,” Eid said. “Anyone in his right mind in Saudi Arabia wouldn’t do that.”

The country’s penalty for “apostasy,” or leaving Islam, is death, although in recent years there have been no known cases of kingdom citizens formally convicted and sentenced with capital punishment for the offense.

This was not the first imprisonment for Al-Amri. He was detained in 2004 for nine months and in 2008 for one month before he was re-arrested on Jan. 13 of this year, and Eid said the young blogger was tortured during the first two incarcerations.

Al-Amri’s treatment during this latest imprisonment is unknown. After his previous releases he had contacted Eid’s office, but the ANHRI director said he has not done so since being released from Riyadh’s Eleisha prison, known for its human rights abuses.

“He was mistreated the first two times he was imprisoned, but this time I don’t know, because he hasn’t contacted me,” said Eid. “In the past he was mistreated with sleep deprivation, prolonged solitary confinement and a continuous barrage of physical torture and insults.”

The advocate added that it is likely Al-Amri was mistreated during his recent imprisonment.

“I consider anyone who declares his religion to be anything than Islam to be extremely brave and courageous, but this extreme courage bordering on carelessness is madness, because he knows what could happen in Saudi,” Eid said. “I’m not a doctor, but I find this extreme.”

Al-Amri has become isolated from his family and lives alone, Eid said, but he said he was unable to comment on the convert’s current situation.

 

Blog Blocked

Following Al-Amri’s latest arrest, MEC reported, Saudi authorities blocked access to his blog inside Saudi Arabia. Google then locked it, claiming there was a technical violation of terms of service. On Feb. 5 it was reportedly restored due to public pressure – after his March 28 release, Al-Amri had credited his release to ANHRI’s efforts on his blog, www.christforsaudi.blogspot.com – but yesterday Compass found the site did not work.

Eid said he was not surprised the blog was blocked.

“That’s what I expected,” he said. “But he will probably start another blog – it’s not difficult.”

Saudi Arabia’s ruling monarchy restricts media and other forms of public expression, though authorities have shown some tolerance for criticism and debate since King Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz Al Saud officially ascended to the throne in 2005, according to the U.S. Department of State.

“Arabic countries are the worst on the list of censoring the Internet and are at the top of the list of antagonizing the freedom of the Internet,” said Eid. “But the Internet is still a good venue, because people are still able to express their views despite the government’s effort to curtail their efforts.”

In his blog prior to his arrest, Al-Amri had criticized the government for quashing individual rights.

“A nation which lives in this system cannot guarantee the safety of its individuals,” he wrote. “Preserving their rights from violation will always be a matter of concern, as the rights of a citizen, his dignity and humanity will always be subject to abuse and violation by those few who have absolute immunity provided to them by the regime.”

Eid of ANHRI described lack of civil law in Saudi Arabia as “extreme.” Citizens can be tortured endlessly, he said, adding that Saudis who openly state Christian faith face severe danger.

Although there have been recent moves towards reform, Saudi Arabia restricts political expression and allows only a strict version of Sunni Islam to be publicly practiced, according to MEC.

Political critic Fouad Ahmad al-Farhan became the first Saudi to be arrested for Web site postings on Dec. 10, 2007; he was released in April 2008.

Eid said he believes the lenient action of the Saudi authorities is a welcome move in a country where “there is no such thing as religious freedom.” In fact the move could encourage people of other faiths to speak up.

“This will open the door to whoever wants to express his belief, whether Christian, Hindu or other,” he said.

Saudis who choose a faith other than Islam and express it may face extra-judicial killings. In August 2008, a 26-year-old woman was killed for disclosing her faith on a Web site. Fatima Al-Mutairi reportedly had revealed on Web postings that she had left Islam to become a Christian.

Gulfnews.com reported on Aug. 12, 2008 that her father, a member of the religious police or Commission for Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice, cut out her tongue and burned her to death “following a heated debate on religion.” Al-Mutairi had written about hostilities from family members after they discovered she was a Christian, including insults from her brother after he saw her Web postings about her faith. Some reports indicated that her brother was the one who killed her.

She had reportedly written an article about her faith on a blog of which she was a member under the nickname “Rania” a few days before her murder.

Report from Compass News Direct