Vietnam’s Temporary Release of Priest Goes against Trend


Government granting leave to Father Ly is said to be tightening control overall.

DUBLIN, March 30 (CDN) — Vietnamese officials have in recent months tightened control over those they regard as dissidents, and the temporary release of Catholic priest Thadeus Nguyen van Ly on March 15 was a rare exception, according to Amnesty International (AI).

Officials on March 15 released Ly, now 63, from prison for one year so that he could receive medical treatment.

An outspoken advocate for religious freedom, Ly was sentenced to eight years in prison in March 2007 for “spreading propaganda” against the state. He had previously received 10- and 15-year sentences on similar charges.

“The release of Father Ly appears to be a one-off, related to his health,” Brittis Edman, Asia researcher for AI, told Compass by phone.

Human rights lawyer Le Thi Cong Nhan was released on March 6 after serving a three years in prison.  Officials have sentenced 16 other “perceived dissidents” since last September.

“Those 16 are people whose names are in the public domain,” Edman added. “There are probably others we’re not aware of.”

Edman confirmed that Ly was recently diagnosed with a brain tumor, although few details are available on the prognosis or the availability of treatment. Fellow priests told the Union of Catholic Asian News (UCAN) that Ly had suffered three strokes in May, September and November of last year, partially paralyzing his right arm and leg and making it difficult for him to walk, write or feed himself.

Following urgent requests from diocesan priests and family members, officials on March 14 granted Ly one year’s reprieve from his jail sentence. On March 15 they transported him by ambulance from Ba Sao prison camp in northern Ha Nam province to a home for retired priests in Hue, central Vietnam.

Under pressure from international advocacy groups including AI, the government may have granted Ly’s release to ward off potential embarrassment should he die in prison, Edman said.

“He’s a very public figure, and the Vietnamese government is not comfortable with being criticized.”

Religious Rights Campaigner

Ly was first jailed for one year in 1977 when he distributed a Church statement decrying the arrest of Buddhist monks and the treatment of Catholics in Vietnam, according to an AI report.

This was followed in December 1983 by a 10-year sentence served from the time of his arrest in May 1983 until his early release in July 1992. Prior to his arrest, Ly wrote a seven-point document urging officials to cease harassing Christians and announced that he was willing to be martyred for his faith.

In November 1994 Ly issued a “Ten Point Statement on the State of the Catholic Church in the Hue Diocese,” criticizing the lack of adequate training for would-be priests, the state’s interference in church teachings and its appropriation of church property.

He also became an advisory board member of the U.S.-based Committee for Religious Freedom in Vietnam (CRFV), according to AI.

In 1999, authorities objected when Ly coordinated relief projects for flood victims in partnership with CRFV. In November 2000, while U.S. President Bill Clinton and a CRFV delegation were in Vietnam, Ly reissued his ten-point statement and later made further appeals for religious freedom.

The United States Commission on International Religious Freedom in February 2001 invited Ly to address a hearing on Vietnam. Though unable to attend, Ly submitted written testimony stating that the Vietnamese government had “stripped all churches of their independence and freedom” and urging that the U.S. Congress not ratify a long-negotiated U.S.-Vietnam Bilateral Trade Agreement.

State-owned media then accused Ly of inviting “foreign hostile forces to intervene in Vietnam’s internal affairs” and inciting Catholic followers against the state.

Officials in May 2001 seized Ly during a church service and sentenced him to 15 years in prison for allegedly spreading anti-government propaganda. He was released under house arrest in February 2005 but arrested again in February 2007 and sentenced to eight years for organizing a pro-democracy event.

When the government released over 5,000 prisoners to mark Vietnam’s National Day last Sept. 2, Ly was omitted from the list despite vigorous international campaigns for his release. In a state media report quoted by UCAN, Vice Minister of Public Security Le The Tiem declared that the priest was “still in good enough health to serve his sentence.”

Report from Compass Direct News 

Judge in Tajikistan bans Baptist church worship services


Members of a Baptist congregation in the capital Dushanbe have appealed to the City Court against a ban on their activity imposed because they meet for worship in a private home without state registration. But Judge Soliya Ismailova of Somoni District Court, who handed down the ban, defended her decision and denied that this violated the Baptists’ freedom of worship.

"The Law demands that all non-government organisations register," she told Forum 18 News Service.

The court-imposed ban came after a 9 October raid on a church service by officials of the City Administration, Dushanbe city Prosecutor’s office, Police and National Security Committee secret police. Baptists told Forum 18 they are continuing to meet for worship despite the ban. State control of religious activity has been steadily tightening in 2009, including through a new Religion Law.

Report from the Christian Telegraph 

Continued violence threatens to unmoor Pakistan


Militant groups are tightening an alliance aimed at bringing down the Pakistani state, reports MNN.

The instability puts the country closer to the edge of becoming a “failed nation” says Glenn Penner of Voice of the Martyrs Canada. His sentiment was echoed in the headlines where Interior Minister Rehman Malik said that a “syndicate” of militant groups wanted to see “Pakistan as a failed state.”

When law and order fail, believers bear the brunt. “A complete failure would be a complete disaster for Christians, just as what we would see in Somalia,” says Penner.

Although the current violence is not taking place in the same areas where the persecution has spiked, the two issues are still connected. Penner says the Taliban continues to pressure Pakistan’s leaders as they try to modify the nation’s blasphemy laws. “They’re already under tremendous pressure from Islamic leaders to simply leave these laws alone.”

These laws are often used to persecute Christians, and the definition for blasphemy isn’t clear. Voice of the Martyrs Canada says many have been falsely accused under Law 295c. Courtrooms packed with militants have often pressured judges into returning a guilty verdict or continuing trials indefinitely.

Penner says after constant attacks and unjust treatment in the courts, it’s easy for believers to become angry. “And they need to understand that it’s God who brings down governments; it’s God who moves in the hearts of kings and rulers to modify their policies. So we need the Pakistani Christians to become a people of prayer and not necessarily people of protest.”

Report from the Christian Telegraph 

Christian Official’s Death in India Called Divine Punishment


Hindu nationalists say Andhra Pradesh chief’s ‘conversion agenda’ led to copter crash.

NEW DELHI, September 14 (CDN) — Hindu nationalists are calling the helicopter-crash death of Andhra Pradesh state’s chief minister, a Christian, divine punishment for his so-called conversion agenda. The same allegation of a “conversion agenda” fueled persecution in the state for more than five years.

Yeduguri Sandinti Rajasekhara Reddy, a second-generation Christian in the Church of South India, and four officials were confirmed dead when their helicopter was found on Sept. 3 in the state’s dense forest area of Nallamalla.

Since Reddy, an official with the left-of-center Congress Party, became chief minister of the southern state in 2004, right-wing Hindu groups had been accusing him of helping Western missionaries to convert economically poor Hindus in the state. Hindu nationalists have been flooding the Internet with extremist comments saying the death of the 60-year-old Reddy, popularly known as YSR, was divine retribution.

“This is divine justice by Lord Srinivasa [One of the names of Hindu god Venkateshwara, an incarnation of Lord Vishnu],” commented Jayakumar on the Express Buzz news website. “It is good that it happened so swiftly. Obviously, [Congress Party President] Sonia Gandhi is worried that her plans of completely converting India into a Christian country have received a setback. Let all Hindu-baiters of this country perish like this. Very, very soon.”

A person who identified himself only as Prakash on the website of The Indian Express daily wrote, “Anti-god demons like YSR need to be punished like this.” Another writer identified as Kumar chimed in, “YSR is the ringleader for Christian conversions in Andhra Pradesh.” Enthused a writer identified only as Ravi, “It’s the best thing that happened to Andhra Pradesh in a long time, and Andhra Pradesh people must celebrate,” and Suman Malu exclaimed, “Thankfully our country has been spared of one anti-national, anti-Hindu chief minister. Thank God for that!”

Right-wing groups also have accused Sonia Gandhi, a Catholic born in Italy, of having a “conversion agenda” since she became president of the Congress Party in 1998. The rise of Christian persecution in India coincided with her appointment as party chief.

Dr. Sam Paul, national secretary for public affairs of the All India Christian Council, said two years ago that Hindu nationalists launched a massive campaign in 2004 to raise fears that Christian conversions would skyrocket in Andhra Pradesh due to the appointment of a Christian chief minister.

“Six years later, it is fully proven that those allegations were part of a political agenda to belittle the chief minister and his party,” Paul told Compass, adding that Reddy never preached his faith, “not even once.”

He pointed out, though, that the Indian Constitution permits all people to practice and propagate their faith.

Calling the extreme comments “very unfortunate,” Paul recalled that Reddy attended Muslim and Hindu functions and participated in ceremonial traditions such as offering Pattu Vastrams (silk dresses) to Lord Venkateshwara in Tirupati every year, a long-time tradition in the state.

In addition, in June 2007, the Reddy administration enacted a law prohibiting the propagation of any non-Hindu religion in the temple town of Tirupati-Tirumala, believed to be the abode of Lord Venkateshwara. At the same time, however, he had faced criticism for tightening government controls on the state’s numerous temples.

Official Condolences

Reddy had led his party to a second successive victory in Andhra Pradesh in May 2009. He was seen as a leader catering to the masses thanks to populist measures such as financial and power programs for farmers.

In stark contrast to the hostile sentiment voiced in the cyber-world, more than 60 admirers died of shock or committed suicide following news of his death. Indo-Asian News Service reported that the deaths of Reddy’s supporters occurred in 19 of the state’s 23 districts. While most of them suffered cardiac arrest after watching the news of his death on television, others committed suicide.

“Reddy dedicated his life to people, I am dedicating my life to him,” a young man wrote in his suicide note before consuming poison, reported the news service. A physically handicapped couple, pensioners under a welfare scheme, jumped into a river to try to end their lives, but fishermen saved them.

Officially, even Hindu nationalist groups offered their condolences, including the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), India’s largest conglomerate of right-wing groups, and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), seen as the political arm of the RSS.

“We all share this unbearable pain with his family members, people of Andhra Pradesh and workers of the Congress Party,” the RSS announced in its weekly mouthpiece, the Organiser. “All the BJP-ruled state governments declared a two-day state mourning as a mark of respect to the departed soul.”

Reddy, along with his special secretary P. Subramanyam, the chief secretary ASC Wesley and Indian Air Force pilots S.K. Bhatia and M.S. Reddy, died in the crash as they flew from the state capital of Hyderabad to Chittoor district for a political function.

Hot-bed

Anti-Christian sentiment has fueled persecution in Andhra Pradesh for the last five years.

Most recently, suspected Hindu extremists burned down a newly built church building of the Best Friends Church in Mahasamudram area in Chittoor district on Aug. 20. On Aug. 1, the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (World Hindu Council or VHP) attacked Christians in Mahabubnagar district, accusing them of forceful conversion; they forced the Christians to wear tilak, a Hindu symbol on the forehead, and threatened to kill them if they went ahead with church construction.

Andhra Pradesh has witnessed three brutal murders of Christian workers since 2005. The body of a 29-year old pastor, Goda Israel, was found with stab wounds on Feb. 20, 2007 in a canal near his house in Pedapallparru village in Krishna district. In May 2005, two pastors, K. Daniel and K. Isaac Raju, were killed near Hyderabad, the state capital. Daniel went missing on May 21 and Raju on May 24. Their bodies were found on June 2 of that year.

The New Indian Express on June 27, 2005 quoted a man identified only as Goverdhan claiming that he and two friends had murdered the two preachers.

“I am not against Christianity, but Raju and Daniel converted hundreds of Hindu families,” Goverdhan said. “They enticed them with money. We have done this to prevent further conversions. This act should be a lesson for others.”

According to the Census of India 2001, Andhra Pradesh has a population of more than 76.2 million, of which only 1.18 million are Christian.

Report from Compass Direct News 

IRAN: ‘APOSTASY’ BILL APPEARS LIKELY TO BECOME LAW


International pressure sought against mandatory death penalty for ‘apostates.’

LOS ANGELES, September 23 (Compass Direct News) – Without international pressure there is little to stop the Iranian government from ratifying a bill that will make “apostasy,” or leaving Islam, a capital crime, say human rights groups and experts.

On Sept. 9 the Iranian parliament approved a new penal code by a vote of 196-7 calling for a mandatory death sentence for apostates, or those who leave Islam. The Christian and Baha’i communities of Iran are most likely to be affected by this decision.

“Unless there is a coordinated and very strong effort from the international community to place pressure on Iran for this, I don’t think there will be anything stopping the Iranian government from passing this legislation,” Joseph Grieboski, founder of the Institute on Religion and Public Policy, told Compass.

The bill still has to make its way through Iran’s policy-making process before it becomes law. Parliament is reviewing it article by article, after which it will be sent to Iran’s most influential body, the Guardian Council, which will rule on it.

The council is made up of six conservative theologians appointed by Iran’s Supreme Leader and six jurists nominated by the judiciary and approved by parliament. This body has the power to veto any bill it deems inconsistent with the constitution and Islamic law.

In the case of the new penal code, however, which appears to be a return to a strict adherence of sharia (Islamic law), sources said they do not expect the Guardian Council to reject the penal code.

The timing of the debate on the penal code is not coincidental, said Grieboski. While the international community is focused on Iran’s nuclear activities, he said, the Iranian government appears to be taunting the West with deliberate human rights violations.

“Because of the nuclear issues, ones like these get put on the backburner, which means that the regime can move with great liberty to install legislation like this with impunity, because the nuclear issue gives them cover,” said Grieboski.

Iran has been criticized for its treatment of Baha’is, Zoroastrians and Christians, who have all suffered under the current regime.

“The Baha’is and the Christians are the ones being used as pawns by the regime in its dance with the West,” said Grieboski. “Iran is a human rights black hole in the middle of the world.”

A source told Compass that when he discussed the apostasy article in the penal code with some of the reformists in Iran’s parliament, they responded by saying they were not aware of the apostasy bill. The source argued that the Iranian government was trying to bury the apostasy article in the 113-page penal code.

“I am not sure there is an adequate means of underscoring how serious this law is in terms of violation of international law and a violation of the fundamental freedom of religion or belief,” said Kit Bigelow of the National Spiritual Assembly of the Baha’is of the United States.

She urged people to write their representatives in their respective governments.

International pressure is crucial if the apostasy bill is to be countered, agreed a Christian source. He recalled how in 2005 Christian convert Hamid Pourmand was acquitted of apostasy as a direct result of international pressure.

“I don’t know who you are, but apparently the rest of the world does,” the presiding judge had told Pourmand, according to media sources. “You must be an important person, because many people from government have called me, saying to cancel your case.”

The news of parliament approving the bill comes on the heels of two Christians being officially charged with apostasy this summer. Mahmood Matin Azad, 52, and Arash Basirat, 44, have been in prison since May 15 and now await their court date.

Although their future and that of other non-Muslims looks grim, some believe this bill is the act of a government desperately trying to hang onto power.

“I have to say the Iranian regime is tightening severely its control over as many aspects of the lives of Iranian people as they possibly can,” said Grieboski. “And that, I think, is the sign of a weakening regime.”

The original penal code was passed into law in 1991 and last amended in 1996.

Report from Compass Direct News