Egyptian army accused of pushing country toward civil war after ‘massacre’ of protesters


Originally posted on National Post | News:

FO0815_Egypt_protests_C_AB

CAIRO and LONDON — Egypt’s military was accused of pushing the country towards civil war Wednesday after hundreds of protesters were believed to have been killed in a “massacre” at two Muslim Brotherhood protest camps.

Security forces used machine guns, snipers, tear gas and armoured bulldozers during a full scale assault to clear the camps in Cairo, which had been at the centre of Islamist opposition to the country’s new government. The operation left a scene of carnage on the capital’s streets and Egypt embroiled in its worst turmoil since the start of the Arab Spring.

An Egyptian Health Ministry spokesman has again raised the death toll from clashes between police and supporters of the country’s ousted president to 525.

The spokesman, Khaled el-Khateeb, told The Associated Press on Thursday that the number of injured in the previous day’s violence has also risen and now stood at 3,717.

With clashes…

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Government crackdown on missionary presence could get worse


The Kazakh government continues to put pressure on foreign missionaries attempting to obtain visas to stay in the country. The Kazakh church is prepared for matters to get worse, reports MNN.

"Foreign involvement for the purpose of missionary work in Kazakhstan becomes increasingly difficult to happen," confirms Eric Mock, vice president of Ministry Operations for Slavic Gospel Association.

Norwegian news network Forum 18 conveys a number of instances in which the Kazakh government has denied visas to foreign missionaries of various minority faiths. A missionary visa, as it is, lasts only 180 days and cannot be renewed.

Mock says there is some fear that the visas will become even more restrictive. According to Forum 18, the Nur Otan Party has even created a document calling for further crackdown on "non-traditional faiths." Forum 18 quotes a report as saying, "The Nur Otan Party should devote special attention to the activity of non-traditional religious movements of destructive character. The destructive impact of such movements is very great."

With clear contempt toward the presence of evangelical Christian missionaries as well as missionaries for other minority faiths, the church as well as ministries like SGA need to prepare for any change. "[We need to] be sure that we do not assume that the world that we minister in today is the same that we minister in tomorrow," says Mock.

Whether or not missionary presence is increasingly restricted does not directly affect SGA, since their ministry mainly focuses on helping nationals. Still, won’t a crackdown harm the church? Mock says not as much as you might think.

"There is one thing that I saw [in Kazakhstan] that mostly encouraged my heart," explains Mock. "I saw a group of ethnic Kazakh young men who God has raised up with a passion to reach their own people. I had not really seen that in the past; it [had been] more of a Russian Baptist influence, but now I’m seeing Kazakh Baptist."

As long as changes don’t happen too abruptly, Mock says he believes the church will be able to handle any blows headed their way. The energy generated by young church leaders could be just what the Kazakh church needs to become self-sustaining. "With this new generation coming up, I think even with law changes, God has raised up this younger generation to make a profound impact for the sake of the Gospel."

If laws are passed too quickly or even just gradually, their effects will still of course be evident in the church. Mock says the best thing that we can do for them now is to pray. "There is nothing more important than praying for the believers in Kazakhstan to be passionate in reaching their own people, and to see more churches planted with that same commitment to advance the Gospel."

Report from the Christian Telegraph

Christian Jailed in Ethiopia Accused of Desecrating Quran


Constitution flouted as he is jailed for two months in Muslim area without court appearance.

NAIROBI, Kenya, October 7 (CDN) — A Christian in Ethiopia’s southern town of Moyale has been languishing in jail for two months after his Muslim business partner accused him of writing “Jesus is Lord” in a copy of the Quran, local church leaders said.

Tamirat Woldegorgis, a member of the Full Gospel Church in his early 30s, was arrested in early August after the Muslim co-worker in the clothes-making business the two operated out of a rented home discovered Woldegorgis had inscribed “Jesus is Lord” on some cloth, area Christians said.

Woldegorgis returned from a break one morning to find that the inscribed words had been cut out of the piece of cloth, the sources said. He then had the words set in the machinery of their tailoring business for inscription on clothing material, only to find later that the inscribed plates were removed from the machinery as well, they said.

The Muslim associate, whose name has not been established, then went to a nearby mosque with the accusation that Woldegorgis had written “Jesus is Lord” in the Quran itself, sources said. Angry sheikhs at the mosque subsequently had Woldegorgis arrested for desecrating the book sacred to Islam, they said.

Other sources said, however, that Muslims accused Woldegorgis of writing “Jesus is Lord” on a piece of wood, on a minibus and then on the wall of a house. As he has not been brought to court, the exact charges against him are not yet known. Woldegorgis denies all accusations, and area Christians insisted he is innocent.

A church leader who requested anonymity told Compass that Christians in Moyale are concerned that Woldegorgis, a married father of two from Hagarmariam village, has not been granted a trial after two months in jail. He said that two days after Woldegorgis was arrested, two friends inquired about him at the Moyale police station; authorities responded by jailing them for two weeks.

“The Ethiopian constitution allows for religious tolerance,” said the church leader, “but to date Woldegorgis has not been taken to court. He is still in a police cell, which is quite unusual for an Ethiopian national, and given constitutional provisions.”

Jijiga, capital of Ethiopia’s Somali Region, has the largest court in eastern Ethiopia, and Christians fear that Islamic principles govern it. In Ethiopia’s federal state system, each state is autonomous in its administration, and most of those holding government positions in Somali Region Zone Five are Muslims.

“We fear that our brother might be taken to Islamic court in Jijiga for trial, which will further threaten his life,” the church leader said. “Where is justice for our brother being in prison without been tried?”

Sources also said that authorities are offering to release Woldegorgis if he will convert to Islam. Woldegorgis is physically weak but strong in his faith, the church leader said, adding that he needs food and other material assistance, as well as an attorney.

Sources said Woldegorgis has been jailed in Zone Five of Ethiopia’s Somali Region, a predominantly Somali area. Moyale, located on Ethiopia’s border with Kenya, is divided between the predominantly Muslim Zone Five and Zone Four, which is populated mainly by ethnic Oromo, with each zone having distinct administrative and judiciary systems. Preaching non-Muslim faiths is not allowed in Zone Five, in spite of provisions for religious freedom in Ethiopia’s constitution.

Hostility toward those spreading faiths different from Islam is a common occurrence in predominantly Muslim areas of Ethiopia and neighboring countries, they said. Christians are often subject to harassment and intimidation.

Ethiopia’s constitution, laws and policies promote freedom of religion, but occasionally local authorities infringe on this right, according to the U.S. Department of State’s 2009 International Religious Freedom Report. According to the 2007 census, 44 percent of Ethiopia’s population affiliate with the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, 19 percent are evangelical and Pentecostal and 34 percent are Sunni Muslim.

Report from Compass Direct News

Police Keep Indonesian Church from Worship Site after Attack


Bekasi officials unable to persuade HKBP congregation to relocate to alternative venue.

JAKARTA, Indonesia, September 23 (CDN) — Following attacks on their church leaders on Sept. 12, a West Java congregation on Sunday (Sept. 19) faced a wall of security officers blocking them from worshipping on their property as authorities tried to coax them to meet at another venue.

Hundreds of security force officers sealed off the street leading to their open-air worship site in Ciketing, near Bekasi, a week after suspected Islamists stabbed Batak Christian Protestant Church (Huria Kristen Batak Protestan, or HKBP) elder Hasian Sihombing and struck Pastor Luspida Simanjuntak with a wooden block. At the Pondok Timur location where the church had gathered to walk three kilometers (less than two miles) to Ciketing on Sunday, an official in a police vehicle announced through a loudspeaker that the Bekasi government requested they worship at the former office of a community organization.

When Compass arrived at the Pondok Timur area, there were 1,500 regular police and public order security police officers standing by, some forming ranks in front of the Nurul Hulda Mosque 500 meters away.

The official on the loudspeaker read a decree by Bekasi Mayor H. Mochtar Muhammad stating that security problems in the Mustika Jaya area were caused by the HKBP worship in Ciketing – where Islamists have staged protests in spite of a mayoral decree granting the congregation the right to worship there – and that in order to guard against further incidents, the church was no longer to hold services there.

“From now on, HKBP will hold its worship services in the [former] Organization & Political Party Building [the auditorium in back of several buildings occupied by different political parties] on Charil Anwar Street in Bekasi City,” he said.

The new mayoral decree dictating where the church was to worship was the product of a Sept. 15 meeting of the West Java governor, the Jakarta area military commander, Jakarta area police, the general secretary and the director general of the Ministry of the Interior, and the Department of Religion, he said.

“We invite the HKBP members to climb aboard the seven buses that we have prepared to take them to the [former] Organization & Political Party [OPP] building,” the official said to the congregation, which had gathered outside the Pondok Timur area building they had used for worship before authorities sealed it in June.

The HKBP congregation ignored the invitation. Muhammad Jufri, head of the Bekasi municipal legal department, then invited the congregation to board the buses. No one responded.

A few minutes later the Rev. Pietersen Purba, district head of the HKBP Pondok Timur District, along with two other pastors and two lawyers, requested that the congregation be allowed to worship at the open-air site on their property in Ciketing. Authorities denied the request.

An argument ensued between Bekasi officials and HKBP leaders.

“For our common good, both government and congregation, and in accordance with the decision of the coordinating meeting, we have prepared a temporary worship place at the former OPP building,” said Jufri, of the Bekasi legal department. “Because of this you may worship there, and while you are worshipping the municipal government guarantees your safety.”

Pastor Purba responded by requesting security for their current location.

“I am surprised that we are forbidden to worship on our own property,” he told authorities. “Our services there were sanctioned by a letter from the mayor that allows us to worship in Ciketing. We are the victims – my pastor was beaten. Are we not citizens with the right to worship in this country? Because of this we ask that the police help us with security so that we may worship in Ciketing. The congregation and I desire to worship there.”

HKBP lawyer Saor Siagian asked a policeman to open the way toward their property in Ciketing; the officer refused.

Jufri then began to read the mayor’s new decree aloud, but he had spoken only a few sentences before one of the HKBP lawyers, Sahala Pangaribuan, interrupted him.

“Sir, if you want to read, do so, but don’t prevent us from walking,” Pangaribuan said.

Jufri continued reading the entire decree.

“We heard what you read,” Pastor Purba replied, “but we don’t easily believe our beloved government, because we remember the case of HKBP Jatimulyo, Bekasi, which was sealed by the government, and then promised facilities for a place of worship. Now it has been five years, and the promise is still unfulfilled.”

The argument lasted another 30 minutes, and the congregation gave up on its request to meet in Ciketing. They were granted 10 minutes to pray in their former Pondok Timur building and additional time for congregational discussion, which was led by the national secretary general of the HKBP, the Rev. Ramlan Hutahayan.

At press conference later that day, Hutahayan said that freedom of worship was fundamental.

“We hope that every citizen will have the right to construct houses of worship to praise and glorify God together,” he said.

Bekasi officials have offered the former OPP building as a temporary venue for worship and two alternative locations on land zoned for general and/or social purposes: one owned by P.T. Timah and one belonging to the Strada Foundation. Thus far the congregation has not approved of these alternatives because they are far from their homes.

At a press conference with other Christian leaders, the head of the Jakarta Christian Communication General Forum, Theophilus Bela, said a statement by the Jakarta provincial police chief that the Sept. 12 attack on the church leaders was a “purely criminal act” was hasty.

“After arrests and investigation, it has been shown that this is not a pure criminal act, but an organized scenario with the Islamic Defenders Front as the field command,” Bela said.

He and other Christian leaders criticized government officials for closing churches and revoking church building permits that had already been approved.

“They have been passive in the face of anarchy and terrorist acts that have been done in the name of religion by groups such as the Islamic Defenders Front, the Betawi-Rempug Forum, the Islamic Congregation Forum, the Congress of the Indonesian Muslim Community, and so on,” he said.

Report from Compass Direct News

Moroccan Convert Serving 15 Years for His Faith


Christian’s sentence for ‘proselytism,’ burning poles called excessive.

ISTANBUL, September 17 (CDN) — Nearly five years into the prison sentence of the only Christian in Morocco serving time for his faith, Moroccan Christians and advocates question the harsh measures of the Muslim state toward a man who dared speak openly about Jesus.

By the end of December Jamaa Ait Bakrim, 46, will have been in prison for five years at Morocco’s largest prison, Prison Centrale, in Kenitra. An outspoken Christian convert, Bakrim was sentenced to 15 years prison for “proselytizing” and destroying “the goods of others” in 2005 after burning two defunct utility poles located in front of his private business in a small town in south Morocco.

Advocates and Moroccan Christians said, however, that the severity of his sentence in relation to his misdemeanor shows that authorities were determined to put him behind bars because he persistently spoke about his faith.

“He became a Christian and didn’t keep it to himself,” said a Moroccan Christian and host for Al Hayat Television who goes only by his first name, Rachid, for security reasons. “He shared it with people around him. In Morocco, and this happened to me personally, if you become a Christian you may be persecuted by your family. If you keep it to yourself, no one will bother you. If you share it with anyone else and start speaking about it, that’s another story.”

Rachid fled Morocco in 2005 due to mounting pressure on him and his family. He is a wanted man in his country, but he said it is time for people to start speaking up on behalf of Bakrim, whom he said has “zeal” for his faith and speaks openly about it even in prison.

“Our Moroccan brothers and sisters suffer, and we just assume things will be OK and will somehow change later by themselves,” said Rachid. “They will never change if we don’t bring it to international attention.”

Authorities in Agadir tried Bakrim for “destruction of the goods of others,” which is punishable with up to 20 years in prison, and for proselytism under Article 220, which is punishable with six months to three years in prison.

“Jamaa is a manifestation of a very inconvenient truth for Moroccan authorities: there are Moroccan converts to Christianity,” said Logan Maurer, a regional director at U.S.-based advocacy group International Christian Concern (ICC). “The government wants to ignore this, suppress it, and when – as in Jamaa’s case – the problem won’t go away, they do whatever they can to silence it.”

Proselytism in Morocco is generally defined as using means of seduction or exploiting weakness to undermine the faith of Muslims or to convert them to another religion.

Recently Morocco has used the law to punish any proclamation of non-Muslim faith, contradicting its pledge to allow freedom to manifest one’s faith under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which it is a signatory. Article 18 of the covenant affirms the right to manifest one’s faith in worship, observance, practice or teaching.

The covenant also states, however, that “freedom to manifest one’s religion or beliefs may be subject only to such limitations as are prescribed by law and are necessary to protect public safety, order, health, or morals or the fundamental rights and freedoms of others.”

There are an estimated 1,000 Moroccan Christian converts in the country. They are not recognized by the government. About 99 percent of Morocco’s population of more than 33 million is Muslim.

Between March and June authorities expelled 128 foreign Christians in an effort to purge the country of any foreign Christian influences. In April nearly 7,000 Muslim religious leaders backed the deportations by signing a document describing the work of Christians within Morocco as “moral rape” and “religious terrorism.” The statement from the religious leaders came amid a nationwide mudslinging campaign geared to vilify Christians in Morocco for “proselytism” – widely perceived as bribing people to change their faith.

In the same time period, Moroccan authorities applied pressure on Moroccan converts to Christianity through interrogations, searches and arrests. Christians on the ground said that, although these have not continued, there is still a general sense that the government is increasingly intolerant of Christian activities.  

“They are feeling very bad,” said Rachid. “I spoke to several of them, and they say things are getting worse…They don’t feel safe. They are under a lot of disappointment, and [they are] depressed because the government is putting all kinds of pressure on them.”

 

From Europe to Prison

Bakrim, a Berber from southern Morocco, studied political science and law in Rabat. After completing his studies he traveled to Europe, where he became a Christian. Realizing that it would be difficult to live out his new-found faith in Morocco, in 1993 he applied for political asylum in the Netherlands, but immigration authorities refused him and expelled him when his visa expired.

In 1995 Bakrim was prosecuted for “proselytizing,” and spent seven months in jail in the city of Goulemine. In April 1996 he was transferred to a mental hospital in Inezgane, where authorities ordered he undergo medical treatments. He was released in June. The psychiatric treatment caused side-effects in his behavior and made it difficult for him to control his hands and legs for a period of time, sources told Compass.

Two years later authorities put him in jail again for a year because he publicly displayed a cross, according to an article by Moroccan weekly Le Journal Hebdo published in January 2005.

“He has a zeal about his religion,” said Rachid. “He never denied his faith through all these things, and he even preached the gospel in prison and the psychiatric place where they held him … They tried to shut him [up], and they couldn’t.”

In 2001 Bakrim again attracted attention by painting crosses and writing Bible verses in public view at his place of business, which also served as his home, according to the French-language weekly. Between 2001 and 2005 he reportedly wrote to the municipality of Massa, asking officials to remove two wooden utility posts that were no longer in use, as they were blocking his business. When authorities didn’t respond, Bakrim burned them.

During his defense at the Agadir court in southern Morocco, Bakrim did not deny his Christian faith and refuted accusations that he had approached his neighbors in an attempt to “undermine their Muslim faith.”

The judge ruled that “the fact that Jamaa denies accusations of proselytism is inconsistent with his previous confession in his opening statement when he proclaimed he was the son of Christ, and that he wished that Moroccans would become Christians,” according to Le Journal Hebdo.

Bakrim did not appeal the court sentence. Though there have been other cases of Christians imprisoned for their faith, none of their sentences has been as long as Bakrim’s.

“They will just leave him in the prison so he dies spiritually and psychologically,” said Rachid. “Fifteen years is too much for anything they say he did, and Jamaa knows that. The authorities know he’s innocent. So probably they gave him this sentence so they can shut him [up] forever.”

Rachid asked that Christians around the world continue to lobby and pray that their Moroccan brothers and sisters stand firm and gain their freedoms.

“The biggest need is to stand with the Moroccan church and do whatever it takes to ask for their freedom of religion,” said Rachid.

Report from Compass Direct News

Messianic Jews in Israel Seek Public Apology for Attack


Christians await court decision on assaults on services by ultra-orthodox Jews.

ISTANBUL, April 23 (CDN) — After a final court hearing in Israel last week, a church of Messianic Jews awaits a judge’s decision that could force an ultra-orthodox Jewish  organization to publicly apologize to them for starting a riot and ransacking a baptismal service.

A ruling in favor of the Christian group would mark the first time an organization opposing Messianic Jews in Israel has had to apologize to its victims for religious persecution.

In 2006 Howard Bass, pastor of Yeshua’s Inheritance church, filed suit against Yehuda Deri, chief Sephardic rabbi in the city of Beer Sheva, and Yad L’Achim, an organization that fights against Messianic Jews, for allegedly inciting a riot at a December 2005 service that Bass was leading.

Bass has demanded either a public apology for the attack or 1.5 million shekels (US$401,040) from the rabbi and Yad L’Achim.

The case, Bass said, was ultimately about “defending the name of Yeshua [Jesus]” and making sure that Deri, the leadership of Yad L’Achim and those that support them know they have to obey the law and respect the right of people to worship.

“They are trying to get away from having any responsibility,” Bass said.

On Dec. 24, 2005, during a baptismal service in Beer Sheva, a group of about 200 men pushed their way into a small, covered structure being used to baptize two believers and tried to stop the service. Police were called to the scene but could not control the crowd.

Once inside the building, the assailants tossed patio chairs, damaged audiovisual equipment, threw a grill and other items into a baptismal pool, and then pushed Bass into the pool and broke his glasses.

“Their actions were violent actions without regard [for injury],” Bass said.

In the days before the riot, Yad L’Achim had issued notices to people about a “mass baptism” scheduled to take place at the facility in the sprawling city of 531,000 people 51 miles (83 kilometers) southwest of Jerusalem. In the days after the riot, Deri bragged about the incident on a radio talk show, including a boast that Bass had been “baptized” at the gathering.

The 2005 incident wasn’t the first time the church had to deal with a riotous attack after Yad L’Achim disseminated false information about their activities. On Nov. 28, 1998, a crowd of roughly 1,000 protestors broke up a Yeshua’s Inheritance service after the anti-Christian group spread a rumor that three busloads of kidnapped Jewish minors were being brought in for baptism. The assailants threw rocks, spit on parishioners and attempted to seize some of their children, Bass said.

In response to the 1998 attack and to what Bass described as a public, cavalier attitude about the 2005 attack, Bass and others in the Messianic community agreed that he needed to take legal action.

“What is happening here has happened to Jews throughout the centuries,” Bass said about persecution of Messianic Jews in Israel, adding that many in movements opposed to Messianic Jews in Israel are “arrogant.” He compared their attitudes to the attitudes that those in Hamas, a Palestinian group dedicated to the destruction of the State of Israel, have toward Israelis in general.

“They say, ‘Recognize us, but we will never recognize you,’” Bass said.

Long Battle

Bass has fought against the leadership of Yad L’Achim and Deri for four years through his attorneys, Marvin Kramer and Kevork Nalbandian. But throughout the process, Kramer said, the two defendants have refused to offer a genuine apology for the misinformation that led to the 2005 riot or for the riot itself.

Kramer said Bass’s legal team would offer language for an acceptable public apology, and attorneys for the defendants in turn would offer language that amounted to no real apology at all.

“We made several attempts to make a compromise, but we couldn’t do it,” Kramer said.  “What we were really looking for was a public apology, and they weren’t ready to give a public apology. If we would have gotten the public apology, we would have dropped the lawsuit at any point.”

Despite several attempts to reach Yad L’Achim officials at both their U.S. and Israeli offices, no one would comment.

The hearing on April 15 was the final chance the parties had to come to an agreement; the judge has 30 days to give a ruling. His decision will be issued by mail.

Kramer declined to speculate on what the outcome of the case will be, but he said he had “proved what we needed to prove to be successful.”

Belief in Israel

Bass said he is a strong supporter of Israel but is critical of the way Messianic Jews are treated in the country.

“Israel opposes the gospel, and these events show this to be true,” he said. Referring to Israel, Bass paraphrased Stephen, one of Christianity’s early martyrs, “‘You always resist the Spirit of God.’ What Stephen said was true.”

Kramer said that the lawsuit is not against the State of Israel or the Jewish people, but rather for freedom of religion.

“It has to do with a violation of rights of individuals to worship in accordance with the basic tenants of their faith and to practice their faith in accordance with their beliefs in accordance with law,” he said.

Terrorist Organization?

Bass’ lawsuit is just one of many legal troubles Yad L’Achim is facing. In February, the Jerusalem Institute of Justice (JIJ), a civil rights advocacy group, filed a petition asking Attorney General Yehuda Weinstein to declare Yad L’Achim a terrorist organization and order that it be dismantled.

In the 24-page document Caleb Myers, an attorney for JIJ, outlined numerous incidences in which Yad L’Achim or those linked with it had “incited hatred, racism, violence and terror.” The document cited instances of persecution against Christians, as well as kidnappings of Jewish women from their Arab partners.

“Israel is a ‘Jewish and democratic’ state, while the actions of Yad L’Achim are not consistent with either the noble values of Judaism or the values of democracy,” the petition read. “Not to mention the fact that it is a country that arose on the ashes of a people that was persecuted for its religion, and has resolved since its establishment to bear the standard of full equality, without discrimination on the basis of gender, race, religion or nationality.”

According to the document, Yad L’Achim went after people it viewed as enemies of ultra-orthodox Judaism. The group particularly targeted Messianic Jews and other Christians.

“Yad L’Achim refers to ‘missionary activity’ as if it was the worst of criminal offenses and often arouses fear of this activity,” the document read. “It should be noted that in the State of Israel there is no prohibition against ‘missionary activity’ as the dissemination of religion and/or faith among members of other religions/faiths, unless such activity solicits religious conversion, as stated in various sections of the Penal Code, which bans the solicitation of religious conversion among minors, or among adults by offering bribes. Furthermore, the organization often presents anyone belonging to the Christian religion, in all its forms, as a ‘missionary,’ even if he does not work to spread his religion.”

Particularly damning in the document was reported testimony gleaned from Jack Teitel. Teitel, accused of planting a bomb on March 20, 2008 that almost killed the teenage son of a Messianic Jewish pastor, told authorities that he worked with Yad L’Achim.

“He was asked to talk about his activity in Yad L’Achim and related that for some five years he was active in the organization, and on average he helped to rescue about five women each year,” the document read, using the Yad L’Achim term “rescue” to refer to kidnapping.

The 2008 bombing severely injured Ami Ortiz, then 15, but after 20 months he had largely recovered.

Teitel, who said Ortiz family members were “missionaries trying to capture weak Jews,” has been indicted on two cases of pre-meditated murder, three cases of attempted murder, carrying a weapon, manufacturing a weapon, possession of illegal weapons and incitement to commit violence.

In interviews with the Israeli media, Yad L’Achim Chairman Rabbi Shalom Dov Lifshitz said his organization wasn’t connected with the attacks of the Ortiz family or with Teitel.

Report from Compass Direct News

Pro-Democracy Advocate Released from Prison


Her new Christian faith deepens; authorities allow evangelist Luis Palau to address pastors.

HO CHI MINH CITY, March 30 (CDN) — A Protestant prisoner of conscience who had called for democratic freedoms in Vietnam was released earlier this month after serving a three-year sentence for “propagandizing to destroy the Socialist Republic of Vietnam.”

Attorney Le Thi Cong Nhan’s sentence had been reduced by one year after an international outcry over her sentencing. She was released on March 6. Remaining in prison for another year is her colleague, Christian lawyer Nguyen Van Dai.

The 31-year-old Cong Nhan had also supported a labor union that sought to be independent. Now serving an additional three-year house arrest sentence, Cong Nhan said in a surprisingly frank interview with Voice of America’s Vietnamese language broadcast on March 9 that she has no intention of giving up her struggle for a just and free Vietnam and accepts that there may be a further price to pay.

Cong Nhan, arrested in March 2007, received a Vietnamese Bible from a visiting delegation of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom – with official permission from Vietnam’s minister of Public Security – early in her incarceration, but she had to struggle constantly to retain it. Twice she went on a hunger strike when authorities took the Bible away from her.

She had become a Christian shortly before her arrest, and she told Voice of America that while in prison she was able to read the entire Bible.

“In prison the Lord became my closest friend, my teacher, and the one who carried my burdens with me,” she said. “When I was released from prison, I received many words of praise and of love and respect – I became a bit worried about this, as I do not consider myself worthy of such. I believe I must live an even better and more worthy life.”

Her prison experience has confirmed her calling and faith, she said.

“As a direct result of my prison experience, I am more convinced than ever that the path that I have chosen is the right one,” Cong Nhan said. “Before prison I was just like a thin arrow, but now I have become a strong fort.”

Luis Palau Allowed to Speak

While Christians in several parts of Vietnam are still subject to abuse from local officials, the country’s national authorities have continued to allow high-profile Christian events. On March 17, renowned U.S. evangelist Luis Palau was allowed to address more than 400 pastors in a day-long event at the New World Hotel in Ho Chi Minh City.

Palau, who had arrived in Hanoi with his entourage on March 13, had addressed nearly 200 Hanoi area pastors at an evening event at the Hanoi Hilton on March 14. The two events were streamed live on http://www.hoithanh.com, a popular website that reports on Protestant news in Vietnam. Hundreds of Vietnamese in Vietnam and abroad were estimated to have watched the presentations.

The events were deemed significant, if not historic, by Vietnam’s Christian leaders. Very rarely is a prominent foreign Protestant leader allowed to address Vietnamese leaders, especially one from the United States.

The events were significant also in that they brought together leaders from virtually all segments of Vietnam’s fractured and sometimes conflicted Protestant groups, Christian leaders said. The gatherings included leaders of open churches and house churches, registered and unregistered churches, and urban and even ethnic minority groups from Vietnam’s remote mountainous regions.

Two representatives of a Mennonite church headed by activist pastor Nguyen Hong Quang, however, were turned away by police. 

Palau and Mike McIntosh, pastor of San Diego mega-church Horizon Christian Fellowship, strongly challenged the Vietnamese church leaders to strive for unity. The assembled pastors were challenged to put aside past conflicts and suspicions for the sake of the Kingdom of God in Vietnam, with Palau saying that unity was a requirement for God’s blessing on their churches and nation.

Some Vietnamese leaders responded by expressing remorse for their divisions and committed to start working toward reconciliation.

Organizers and participants said they hope such short events will lead to larger gains. Though the Luis Palau Association had originally planned for a two-day event for 2,000 pastors, most agreed this was an unprecedented first step toward a bigger goal. With an invitation from all segments of the Protestant community in Vietnam in hand, the Luis Palau Association is prepared to help organize evangelistic festivals in Vietnam in 2011, the centenary of Protestantism in Vietnam.

“There is still a long way to go, but we are seeing miracles piling up,” said one senior Vietnamese leader. “It could happen!”

One prominent overseas Vietnamese leader wondered if Palau’s visit to Vietnam could be compared to Billy Graham’s visit to Moscow during the Soviet Communist era.

Also sharing testimonies during the March 17 event were Rick Colsen, a top Intel executive, and John Dalton, Secretary of the Navy under President Clinton.

Report from Compass Direct News