The link below is to further news concerning the resignation of Mark Driscoll from the Mars Hill Church pastorate in Seattle, USA.
For more visit:
The link below is to further news concerning the resignation of Mark Driscoll from the Mars Hill Church pastorate in Seattle, USA.
For more visit:
Originally posted on CNN Belief Blog:
By Daniel Burke, CNN Belief Blog Editor
(CNN) – Less than a year ago, Mark Driscoll, an evangelical pastor, was flying high.
His hometown Seattle Seahawks were in the Super Bowl, and the brash pastor scored a big, faith-fueled interview with five of the team’s top players, including quarterback Russell Wilson.
But in a remarkably fast fall from grace, Driscoll resigned Tuesday as pastor of Mars Hill Church, a congregation he founded 18 years ago and turned into a force in the mostly secular Pacific Northwest.
In a statement, Mars Hills’ board of overseers said Driscoll hadn’t committed any acts of “immorality, illegality or heresy” — sins that have felled many a powerful pastor.
Instead, the board said, Driscoll is guilty of “arrogance, responding to conflict with a quick temper and harsh speech, and leading the staff and elders in a domineering manner.”
Driscoll was not asked to leave…
View original 14 more words
The link below is to an article that reports on the latest news concerning Mark Driscoll and various issues concerning his ministry at Mars Hill Church in Seattle.
Christian human rights advocate Gao Zhisheng reveals further abuse.
DUBLIN, January 19 (CDN) — Geng He, wife of missing Christian lawyer Gao Zhisheng, is demanding answers from the Chinese government following new revelations of torture of her husband.
“This is the first time that I heard about the details,” Geng, now living in the United States, told Radio Free Asia last week. “My husband did not tell me – would not tell me – how he was tortured.”
After consulting with Geng, The Associated Press (AP) on Jan. 10 published an interview with Gao, an outspoken human rights campaigner, during his brief release from captivity last April, in which he revealed details of the torture he had suffered during the previous 14 months.
Speaking with the AP in a Beijing teahouse on April 7, closely watched by police, Gao described many forms of torture, including a period of 48 hours when he was stripped bare, beaten continually with handguns and subjected to other excruciating abuse.
The AP released the interview in advance of an official visit this week (Jan. 18-21) by Chinese President Hu Jintao to the United States, stating its hope that “publicizing his account will place renewed pressure on the government to disclose Gao’s whereabouts.”
Geng planned to travel to Washington this week to further highlight her husband’s case. At a U.S. State Department dinner at the White House tonight for Hu, she planned to wait outside to draw attention to Gao’s disappearance.
Gao had asked that his account not be made public unless he disappeared again or “made it to someplace safe like the U.S. or Europe,” according to the AP.
Initially seized by public security officials on Feb. 4, 2009, shortly after his wife and two children fled China to seek asylum in the United States, Gao was held virtually incommunicado for more than a year before police staged his brief reappearance in Beijing last April 6. (See http://www.compassdirect.org, “Christian Rights Activist Gao Zhisheng Released,” April 9, 2010.)
After speaking with the AP and other journalists, Gao made a supervised visit to his in-laws in northwestern Xinjiang Province. During that visit, he again vanished on April 20 while in the company of Chinese police, according to a report by The New York Times on April 30, 2009. He has not been seen or heard from since, but China watchers such as Bob Fu of the China Aid Association (CAA) believe he is “definitely in the hands of Chinese security forces.” (See http://www.compassdirect.org, “Human Rights
Lawyer Gao Zhisheng Missing Again,” May 7, 2010.)
In his interview with the AP, Gao explained that police had moved him from his birthplace of Yulin to Beijing, then back to Yulin, and from there to Urumqi, where the most excruciating moments of torture occurred.
Allowed out on an evening walk on Sept. 25, Gao was approached by several Uyghur men, members of a minority ethnic group who claimed to be part of a counterterrorism unit. They punched him in the stomach, handcuffed him and took him to the upstairs room of a building. There they tortured him for a full week, culminating in a period of 48 hours when they stripped him bare and “took turns beating him [with pistols] and did things he refused to describe,” the AP reported.
Gao said this was the darkest point in the 14 months since authorities had seized him in February 2009, and far worse than the torture during a previous disappearance in 2007. At that time, he said in a previous report, security officials gave electric shocks to his genitals and held burning cigarettes close to his eyes to cause temporary blindness.
When Gao in 2007 asked Beijing police why they didn’t put him in prison, they replied, “You’re not good enough for that. Whenever we want you to disappear, you’ll disappear,” according to the AP.
‘Words from the Heart’
Fu of CAA on Friday (Jan. 14) also called on the Chinese government to give an account of Gao’s whereabouts, besides imploring President Obama to address the fate of Gao and other prominent Chinese rights defenders during his meetings with Hu.
Fu also released a previously unpublished statement written by Gao on Jan. 1, 2009, shortly before his family’s escape from China, entitled “Words from the Heart.”
Carried out of China by Gao’s wife, the document claimed that authorities had invested a huge amount of manpower, physical resources and funds to silence him.
“Not only is it now extremely difficult for me to make my voice heard, but it is also extremely dangerous,” Gao wrote.
His faith, however, had enabled him to endure under pressure, he stated.
“I am optimistic by nature, and I am a Christian,” he wrote. “Even when I was tortured to near death, the pain was only in the physical body. A heart that is filled with God has no room to entertain pain and suffering.
Gao expressed concern for his wife and children, who had suffered greatly from police harassment. He said authorities even banned his daughter from attending school, another factor prompting the family’s flight to the United States.
Gao urged friends both inside and outside China to defend other human rights advocates imprisoned or harassed by the government, adding that “Heroes like Guo Feixiong … who sacrifice and risk their lives to defend religious freedom, are the true hope of China.”
He also urged that a network be established within China to report on “countless” abuses of human rights.
“The publication of this article will cause me to be kidnapped again,” Gao concluded. “Kidnappings are a normal part of my life now. If it comes again, then let it come!”
A Brief Biography of Gao Zhisheng
Gao was born in a hillside cave in Yulin, northern China, according to a brief biography written by David Kilgour of Media With Conscience (MWC). Since his parents were too poor to send him to school, he gained a basic education by listening outside the windows of the village classroom.
He then worked briefly as a coal miner before joining the People’s Liberation Army, where he met his future wife, Geng He, obtained a secondary education and became a member of the Communist Party.
Following his discharge from the army, Gao became a street vendor and self-studied to become a lawyer, passing the bar exam in 1994. China’s Ministry of Justice in 2001 named him one of the country’s 10 most remarkable lawyers, according to the MWC biography.
But as Gao began to represent farmers in land compensation cases, practitioners of the banned Falun Gong group and house church members, he quickly lost favor with authorities.
In 2005, after Gao wrote open letters to President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao calling for an end to the torture and execution of Falun Gong members, authorities closed down Gao’s law firm, revoked his license to practice law, and placed Gao, his wife and two children under 24-hour police surveillance, according to reports by the China Aid Association (CAA). Police even beat his then 13-year-old daughter, according to the CAA.
In response, Gao in December 2005 publicly resigned from the Communist Party and later declared that he was a Christian.
Weeks later, on Feb. 4, 2006, Gao and several other high profile Chinese activists launched a “Relay Hunger Strike for Human Rights,” in which ordinary Chinese citizens fasted for 24 hours in rotation across 29 provinces in China. The hunger strikes led to a wave of arrests.
Authorities then seized Gao on Aug. 15, 2006, and on Dec. 22, 2006 they gave him a three-year suspended sentence for subversion. Officials then placed Gao on probation for five years and allowed him to remain at home under strict surveillance.
Authorities again seized Gao in September 2007 after he wrote to the U.S. Congress expressing concern about human rights violations prior to the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing. On his release in November 2007 Gao issued a statement via the CAA claiming that his captors had tortured him by applying electric shocks to his genitals and holding burning cigarettes close to his eyes. He added that he’d been threatened with death if he spoke about the torture.
Gao was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize in 2007, 2008 and 2010 in recognition of his ongoing commitment to the advance of human rights in China, according to Kilgour’s report.
State agents abducted Gao on Feb. 4, 2009, shortly after his wife and children fled China to obtain asylum in the United States, and they held him virtually incommunicado for over a year. (See http://www.compassdirect.org, “Action Urged for Missing Rights Activist in China,” March 24, 2009.)
Perhaps as a response to international pressure, police staged a brief reappearance for Gao on April 6, 2010, CAA reported. But on April 20, during a closely-supervised visit to his in-laws in Urumqi, Xinjiang province, Gao again vanished and has not been seen or heard from since.
Chinese officials at every level have consistently denied knowledge of his current location.
Report from Compass Direct News
Government-perpetrated violence against a Catholic village in Vietnam has highlighted a series of human rights abuses in the communist nation, and three U.S. congressmen are calling on the United Nations to intervene, reports Baptist Press.
"A few months ago during a religious funeral procession, Vietnamese authorities and riot police disrupted that sad and solemn occasion, shooting tear gas and rubber bullets into the crowd, beating mourners with batons and electric rods," Rep. Chris Smith, R.-N.J., said at a hearing of the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission in August.
"More than 100 were injured, dozens were arrested and several remain in custody and have reportedly been severely beaten and tortured. At least two innocent people have been murdered by the Vietnamese police," Smith said.
The Con Dau tragedy, Smith said, "is unfortunately not an isolated incident." Property disputes between the government and the Catholic church continue to lead to harassment, property destruction and violence, Smith said, referring to a report by the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom.
"In recent years, the Vietnamese government has stepped up its persecution of Catholic believers, bulldozing churches, dismantling crucifixes and wreaking havoc on peaceful prayer vigils," Smith said.
Persecution is not limited to Catholics, though, as Smith had a list of nearly 300 Montagnard political and religious prisoners. In January, the Vietnamese government sentenced two Montagnard Christians to 9 and 12 years imprisonment for organizing a house church, and others have been arrested in connection with house churches, Smith said.
"The arrests were accompanied by beatings and torture by electroshock devices," the congressman said. "We must not forget the sufferings of Khmer Krom Buddhists, Cao Dai, Hoa Hao, the Unified Buddhist Church of Vietnam and others. The said reality is that the Vietnamese government persecutes any religious group that does not submit to government control."
The violence in the 80-year-old Catholic village of Con Dau in central Vietnam reportedly stemmed from a government directive for residents to abandon the village to make way for the construction of a resort.
International Christian Concern, a Washington-based watchdog group, reported that when Con Dau residents refused to leave, water irrigation was shut off to their rice fields, stopping the main source of income and food.
In May, police attacked the funeral procession, beating more than 60 people, including a pregnant woman who was struck in the stomach until she had a miscarriage, ICC said.
One of the funeral procession leaders later was confronted by police in his home, where they beat him for about four hours and then released him. He died the next day, ICC said. Eight people remain in police custody and are awaiting trial.
"The people of Con Dau are living in desperate fear and confusion," Thang Nguyen, executive director of an organization representing Con Dau victims, told ICC. "Hundreds of residents have been fined, and many have escaped to Thailand."
Smith, along with Rep. Joseph Cao, R.-La., and Frank Wolf, R.-Va., introduced a House resolution in July calling for the United Nations to appoint a special investigator to probe "ongoing and serious human rights violations in Vietnam." In August, the Lantos Commission met in emergency session to address the "brutal murders and systematic treatment of Catholics in Con Dau."
"The Vietnamese government justifies this violence, torture and murder because the villagers of Con Dau had previously been ordered, some through coercion, to leave their village, property, church, century-old cemetery, their religious heritage, and to forgo equitable compensation in order to make way for a new ‘green’ resort," Smith said at the hearing. "Nothing, however, not even governmental orders, grant license for government-sanctioned murder and other human rights abuses."
The U.S. Department of State declined to testify before the Lantos Commission, and the U.S. ambassador to Vietnam characterized the Con Dau incident as a land dispute and refused to get involved.
Logan Maurer, a spokesman for International Christian Concern, told Baptist Press he has publicized about 10 different incidents of persecution in Vietnam during the past few months.
"In some cases, especially in Southeast Asia, religious persecution becomes a gray area. We also work extensively in Burma, where often there are mixed motives for why a particular village is attacked," Maurer said. "Is it because they’re Christian? Well, partially. Is it because they’re an ethnic minority? Partially.
"So I think the same thing happens in Vietnam where you have a whole village that’s Catholic. One hundred percent of it was Catholic," he said of Con Dau.
Maurer explained that local government officials in Vietnam generally align Christianity with the western world and democracy, which is still seen as an enemy in Vietnam on a local level.
"As far as the official government Vietnamese position, that’s different, but local government officials do not take kindly to Christians and never have. We have documented many cases of government officials saying Christianity is the enemy. So here it’s mixed motives as best we can figure out," Maurer said.
"They wanted to build a resort there, and they could have picked a different village but they chose the one on purpose that was Catholic because it represents multiple minorities — minority religion, minority also in terms of people that can’t fight back. If they go seek government help, the government is not going to help them."
A Christian volunteer who has visited Vietnam five times in the past decade told Baptist Press the Con Dau incident illustrates the way the Vietnamese government responds to any kind of dissent.
"In our country, and in modern democracies, there are methods for resolving disputes with the government, taking them to court, trying to work through the mediation process," the volunteer, who did not want to be identified, said. "In Vietnam there is no such thing. It is the government’s will or there will be violence."
Vietnam’s constitution includes a provision for religious liberty, but the volunteer said that only goes as far as the communal will of the people, which is monopolized by the Communist Party.
"So when the Communist Party says you can’t build a church there or you can’t worship this way, those who say, ‘Well, I have religious freedom,’ are essentially trumped by the constitution that says it’s the will of the people, not individual liberty that’s important," the volunteer said.
The government in Vietnam has made efforts during the past 15 years to open up the country to economic development, and with that has come an influx of some western values and a lot of Christians doing work there, the volunteer said.
"I would first caution Christians to still be careful when they’re there working," he said, adding that government officials closely watch Christians who visit from other countries, and books about Jesus cause trouble.
Secondly, the volunteer warned that all news emerging from Vietnam must be tested for accuracy on both sides because both those who are persecuting and those who are sounding the alarm on persecution have their own political goals.
"That being said, I don’t doubt that this happened," the volunteer said regarding Con Dau.
International Christian Concern urges Americans to contact the Vietnamese Embassy in Washington at 202-861-0737, and the Christian volunteer said people can contact the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom to encourage changes in Vietnam.
"They can also directly e-mail the ambassador and the consular general in Ho Chi Minh City and encourage them to push for more reform," he said. "And they can contact companies that are having products made in Vietnam and encourage the business leaders to speak out for change in those countries. You go to JC Penney today in the men’s department and pick up almost anything, it’s made in Vietnam. That’s the kind of pressure they could put on them."
Report from the Christian Telegraph
Local Christians sense authorities, extremists and society in collusion against them.
RABAT, Morocco, June 17 (CDN) — Moroccan Christians say Muslim extremists in the country are aiding and encouraging the government to pursue them by exposing and vilifying them on social networking site Facebook.
Facebook user Gardes Maroc Maroc has posted 32 image collages featuring dozens of Christian converts, calling them “hyena evangelists” or “wolves in lamb’s skins” who are trying to “shake the faith of Muslims.” That terminology on the website, which is in Arabic, matches that of Morocco’s anti-proselytizing law, which outlaws efforts to “shake the faith of Muslims.”
The online images depict Christian converts and their families from across the country and include details about their roles and activities in churches, their personal addresses and anecdotal stories attempting to malign them.
“These are some pics of Moroccan convert hyenas,” reads one image.
Since March, the Moroccan government has expelled more than 100 foreign Christians for alleged “proselytizing.” Authorities failed to give Christians deportation orders or enough time to settle their affairs before they left.
Observers have called this a calculated effort to purge the historically moderate Muslim country, known for its progressive policies, of all Christian elements – both foreign and national.
Amid a national media campaign to vilify Christians in Morocco, more than 7,000 Muslim clerics signed a statement denouncing all Christian activities and calling foreign Christians’ aid work “religious terrorism.”
On the Facebook page, Gardes Maroc Maroc makes a particularly strident call to Moroccan authorities to investigate adoptive parents of children from the village of Ain Leuh, 50 miles south of Fez. The user claims that local Christians under orders of “foreign missionaries” were attempting to adopt the children so missionary efforts would not “go in vain.”
On March 8, the Moroccan government expelled 26 Christian foreign staff members and parents working at Village of Hope in Ain Leuh.
Now efforts against national Christians have gained momentum. One image on the Facebook page challenged the Islamic Ministry of Religious Affairs and Endowments, saying, “Evangelist hyenas are deriding your Ministry.” The page with the images claimed that Christians had rented out an apartment belonging to that government ministry.
An entire page was dedicated to a well-known Christian TV personality in the Middle East, Rashid Hmami, and his family. The user also inserted pictures of hyenas next to those of Christians, presumably to indicate their danger to the nation.
National Christians Threatened
Moroccan Christians told Compass that authorities had begun harassing them even before the forced deportations of foreigners, and that pressure from officials only intensified in March and April.
Since the deportations started in early March, it seems that authorities, extremists and society as a whole have colluded against them, local Christians said. Dozens of Christians have been called to police stations for interrogation. Many of them have been threatened and verbally abused.
“They mocked our faith,” said one Moroccan Christian who requested anonymity. “They didn’t talk nicely.”
Authorities interrogated the convert for eight hours and followed him for three weeks in March and April, he said. During interrogation, he added, local police told him they were prepared to throw him in jail and kill him.
Another Moroccan Christian reported that a Muslim had taken him to court because of his Christian activities. Most Moroccan Christians that spoke to Compass said the attitudes of their Muslim relatives had shifted, and many have been kicked out of their homes or chosen to leave “to not create problems” for their families.
Moroccan converts meet in house churches. Some of them have stopped meeting until the pressure subsides.
“The government is testing the reactions,” said Moroccan lawyer Abdel Adghirni of the recent pressure on Christians.
The lawyer, known as one of the strongest defenders of Berber rights in Morocco, said that although the government’s recent reactions seem regressive, they are part of the nation’s societal transformation process.
“The government is trying to dominate,” said Adghirni. “They are defending themselves. They feel the wind of change. All of this is normal for me – like a complex chemistry that activates as different elements come into contact. Things are moving.”
In an effort to alert U.S. Congress to the sudden turn against religious tolerance in Morocco, the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission is holding congressional hearings today on the deportations of foreign Christians from the country.
Earlier today, the National Clergy Council held a press conference at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C., to congratulate the Moroccan government on religious tolerance. Organizers of the congressional hearings said they view the council’s press conference as an effort to counter the hearings.
The Rev. Rob Schenck, who heads the council, has had numerous exchanges with Moroccan Islamic leaders and in early April met with the Moroccan ambassador to the United States.
“I have enjoyed a close friendship of several years with the ambassador,” Schenck stated on his website.
Organizers of the congressional hearings have said they are baffled that the National Clergy Council, and in particular Schenck, would speak so highly of the Moroccan government at a time when it is in such blatant violation of human rights.
“There’s good and bad in every country, but what Morocco has done on the whole to advance religious liberty in that region of the world is extraordinary,” Schenck said in a media statement yesterday on Christian Newswire. “We hope to present a fair and balanced picture of this unusual country.”
Congressman Frank Wolf (R-Va.), co-chairman of the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission, said that the Moroccan government has deported nearly 50 U.S. citizens.
“In spite of this, the U.S. government has pledged $697.5 million to Morocco over the next five years through the Millennium Challenge Corporation,” he said. Wolf is advocating that the United States withhold the nearly $697.5 million in aid that it has pledged to Morocco.
“It is inappropriate for American taxpayer money to go to a nation which disregards the rights of American citizens residing in Morocco and forcibly expels Americans without due process of law,” he said.
Among those appearing at the hearing today is Dutch citizen Herman Boonstra, leader of Village of Hope, who was expelled in March. Boonstra and his wife were forced to leave eight adopted children in Morocco. Moroccan authorities have refused re-entry for the couple, as they have for all deported Christian foreigners.
Lawyer Adghirni said he believes Morocco cannot survive and develop economically – and democratically – without national diversity.
“We can’t be free without Christians,” Adghirni said. “The existence of Christians among us is the proof of liberty.”
Police raided the Melbourne offices of the assisted-suicide advocacy organization Exit International last Thursday, seizing documents related to the alleged assisted suicide of Exit International member Frank Ward. In response to this and to the raid of another Exit International member’s home, Exit International has told its 4,000 members to be wary not to attract police activity, reports James Tillman, LifeSiteNews.com.
"We haven’t had any incidents like this for a long time," said Dr. Philip Nitschke, head of Exit International.
The raid highlights the dubious legal status of Exit International’s activities. Because assisting or even encouraging suicide is illegal in Australia, Exit International bills its workshops, books, suicide equipment, and all its activities as merely providing people with knowledge and equipment to allow them to do what they want, not as actually assisting them in the act of suicide. According to Nitschke, such was the extent of Exit International’s contact with Ward.
"[Police] were suggesting we were involved in his death but we were not," Nitschke told Television New Zealand. "We would never be actively involved in something like that, helping him end his life, which would be committing a crime."
According to Alex Schadenberg, executive director of the Euthanasia Prevention Coalition, such protestations of innocence are dubious.
"I think that this raid is long-overdue," he told LifeSiteNews.com (LSN). "Nitschke has been skirting the law for many years."
Frank Ward killed himself last June by inhaling helium, which causes asphyxia. This method of suicide is among those promoted by Dr. Nitschke. Schadenberg described to LSN how at a Right-to-Die Conference he saw Nitschke demonstrate "how a device that he claimed to have invented would regulate the flow of gas to ensure that … the act would result in their death."
"Nitschke was not concerned that he was aiding suicide by knowingly selling a device to ensure the success of a suicide."
A widespread dissemination of information on how to kill oneself, however, is precisely what Nitschke desires. In an interview
with National Review he said that someone needs to provide the knowledge of how to kill oneself "to anyone who wants it, including the depressed, the elderly bereaved, [and] the troubled teen."
"If we are to remain consistent and we believe that the individual has the right to dispose of their life, we should not erect artificial barriers in the way of sub-groups who don’t meet our criteria," he said.
The second raid on Thursday was directly related to this desire of Nitschke. Police came to the home of an elderly Exit International member in Sydney to search for the euthanasia drug Nembutal and information concerning its acquisition. They left with a small quantity of the drug and the "Peaceful Pill Handbook," a book by Nitschke and a co-author on how to kill oneself that was banned by the Australian government.
Nembutal is used by veterinarians to euthanize animals, and is tightly controlled in most places around the world. Nitschke’s organization, however, has striven to make it available to as many people as possible.
"Last year Nitschke was encouraging people to order Nembutal by mail order from a source that he had discovered," Schadenberg said. "Once again, he wasn’t concerned that people with chronic depression would access this information to kill themselves." Members of Exit International also travel to Mexico to buy the drug, where it is easily obtained.
Nitschke explained that because of the raids Exit Internatonal had sent an alert to its 4,000 members “warning them about the fact that … people should be very careful if they’ve gone to great lengths to get these drugs so that they don’t find themselves subject of any form of police activity”
Schadenberg, however, thinks it high time that such activity began in earnest.
"It is simply about time that his offices were investigated, especially now that he has set up an office in Bellingham, Washington state, where he intends to launch his group into the United States,” he said.
“He intends to grow his group Exit International and he is doing this through his recent series of speaking engagements throughout the United States, Britain and Canada."
Report from the Christian Telegraph
NEW DELHI, June 29 (Compass Direct News) – The Indian government is silent on why it refused visas to allow members of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) to visit troubled Orissa state, but there are indications that it was ducking protests from Hindu nationalist groups.
The USCIRF team was to leave for India on June 12, but the Indian embassy in Washington did not give them visas in time, the religious panel said in a June 17 statement.
“Our Commission has visited China, Russia, Saudi Arabia, and over 20 other countries,” Commission Chair Felice D. Gaer said in the statement. “India, a close ally of the United States, has been unique among democracies in delaying and denying USCIRF’s ability to visit. USCIRF has been requesting visits since 2001.”
The team was to discuss religious freedom with officials of the new government, which began its second five-year term on May 22, as well as with religious leaders, civil society activists and others in the wake of anti-Christian attacks in Kandhamal district of the eastern state of Orissa in December 2007 and August-September 2008.
The U.S. panel also intended to discuss conditions in the western state of Gujarat, where more than 2,000 people, mostly Muslims, were killed in a communal riot in 2002. The victims have reportedly not been properly rehabilitated, and many of their attackers remain at large. In 2005 the chief minister of Gujarat, Narendra Modi of the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), was denied a visa to the United States to attend the World Gujarati Meet because of his alleged involvement in the violence.
In 2002 the USCIRF, a bipartisan federal commission, recommended India be designated a “Country of Particular Concern” (CPC) following the 2002 violence in Gujarat. India was removed from the CPC list in 2005.
The Commission released its 2009 annual report on religious freedom across the globe on May 1 but put the India report on hold, planning to prepare it after the intended visit this month.
“I am profoundly surprised and distressed that it is the government of Dr. Manmohan Singh, in its second and so much secure term, which has denied visas to the USCIRF at the last moment,” said John Dayal, member of India’s National Integration Council.
Dayal, secretary general of the All India Christian Council (AICC), told Compass that such a decision would have been more expected under the previous administration of the BJP-led alliance.
“There would have been an acceptable, albeit very perverse, logic if a National Democratic Alliance, led by the BJP federal government – as existed in New Delhi until 2004 – had refused visas to the USCIRF,” he said, “because they had so much to hide and because that government’s professed ideological moorings were in fascism and theocratic arrogance.”
The United Progressive Alliance (UPA), led by the left-of-center Congress Party, won the general elections in April and May of this year with a comfortable majority in. While the UPA got 262 of the 543 parliamentary seats, the National Democratic Alliance, led by the Hindu nationalist BJP, could bag only 160.
The Rev. Dr. Babu Joseph, spokesperson of the Catholic Bishops Conference of India, said the Indian government’s decision was “very unfortunate.”
“Its visit and objective report would have helped in clearing the air of suspicion about the whole tragic episode in Kandhamal,” he said. “For, since the tragic events, there have been claims and counter-claims about what triggered and sustained the communal flare-up that caused unprecedented damage to life and property of people who were already in disadvantaged conditions.”
What USCIRF Would Have Found
The atmosphere in Orissa’s Kandhamal district has remained tense since a spate of attacks began in December 2007 that killed at least four Christians and burned 730 houses and 95 churches. The attacks were carried out to avenge an alleged attack on a Vishwa Hindu Parishad (World Hindu Council or VHP) leader, Swami Laxmanananda Saraswati.
Violence re-erupted in Kandhamal in August 2008 after the assassination of Saraswati by a Maoist group, though non-Marxist Christians were blamed for it. This time, the violence killed more than 100 people and resulted in the incineration of 4,640 houses, 252 churches and 13 educational institutions.
Had the USCIRF team been able to visit Kandhamal, Christian leaders said, it would have found the situation far from normal even eight months after violence reportedly ended.
According to The Indian Express of May 31, the deployment of five companies of the Central Reserve Police Force, a federal agency, was extended for another month. One company comprises 100 personnel. The federal internal minister had earlier decided to withdraw the force from Kandhamal, but state Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik requested he retain some of the contingent.
The Rev. Ajaya Singh of the Cuttack-Bhubaneswar Catholic Archdiocese said that around 3,000 victims were still living in government-run relief camps, and some 900 families were in village relief camps. Initially about 24,000 victims were housed in government relief camps. These internally displaced people cannot go back to their villages because of continuing threats from “fundamentalists and criminals,” he added.
Most of the people who carried out attacks remain at large, continue to pressure victims to withdraw complaints they filed against the rioters, and are still threatening harm to Christians who refuse to convert to Hinduism, he complained.
Singh told Compass that a legal aid center run by the Christian Legal Association (CLA) from a rented house in Phulbani, district headquarters of Kandhamal, had been ordered to move out after Hindu nationalist groups pressured the owner of the house.
“For the last one month, lawyers have been staying here to help the witnesses to speak the truth,” he said. “The momentum of the cases was picking up, but now the legal center itself is facing problems.”
Singh also said some witnesses were issued death threats on June 17. The witnesses were told not to go to court or else they would be killed.
“However, a complaint has been lodged at the police station and an affidavit submitted before a judge,” he added.
In addition to the 753 cases filed by police in connection with the August-September 2008 violence, the CLA has filed 63 private complaints, and 70 more will be filed in the coming days.
The Orissa United Forum of Churches (OUFC), a new interdenominational grouping, wrote to Chief Minister Patnaik recently, informing him that an administrative officer of the Raikia area had taken victims from the relief camp to their respective villages on June 6, but the local residents did not allow them even to enter their villages.
The OUFC added that there were around 2,000 Christians who were asked to go back to their villages, but that villagers chased them out. They are now living in marketplaces or on the outskirts of those villages in abject conditions.
According to the Evangelical Fellowship of India (EFI), extremists on June 2 burned down three homes that were partially destroyed during the August 2008 violence in Sirsapanda area in Kandhamal to prevent victims from returning to their villages.
The Christians were able to identify the attackers, but police advised them against naming them, said the EFI report.
“Christian properties were seized by local villagers, and having the Christians back in the village means giving back the land to their owners,” said the EFI’s Ashish Parida.
A CLA team, which recently visited two camps in Kandhamal, also said that the Christians were consistently ostracized by their neighbors.
Orissa is ruled by a regional party, the Biju Janata Dal (BJD), which was in partnership with the BJP when the violence took place. The BJD broke up with the Hindu right-wing party before the state assembly elections that were held simultaneously with the general elections.
Federal Internal Minister P. Chidambaram was in Kandhamal on Friday (June 26) to assess the law-and-order situation there and admitted police failure.
“What happened on Aug. 23 and thereafter was regrettable and condemnable. Moreover, it was the failure of the police for 30 to 40 days,” he said, according to The Hindu. “Now the situation is returning to normal but we cannot lower our guards.”
Chidambaram also said he wanted displaced Christians to return to their homes, seemingly because it will be difficult for the government to claim that normalcy has returned as long as they remain in relief camps.
“The government will ensure that no one harms you anymore. It is absolutely safe for you to return to your villages,” Chidambaram said at a relief camp in Raikia block, according to The Indian Express. “You have every right to practice your religion, build and pray in churches. You please return to your villages. I want to come back within one month and would like to see you in your homes in your villages.”
Christian leaders said that if the displaced people return home, many more reports of threats, attacks and ostracism are expected.
Why Visas Were Denied
Sources told Compass that both the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) and the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) were behind the government’s move to block the USCIRF from entering the country.
Compass persistently tried to contact the spokesperson of the MEA, Vishnu Prakash, without success. The spokesperson of the MHA, Onkar Kedia, was travelling.
According to the June 17 The Times of India, the Indian Embassy in Washington pleaded innocent, saying the visa applications of the USCIRF team had been forwarded to New Delhi, as is the standard practice for all such visits.
Sources in the government in New Delhi denied that the visas were deliberately withheld, saying the time was not “proper” for such a visit, according to the daily.
“We really don’t care about what they [USCIRF] report,” it quoted an official as saying. “But a high-profile visit seen as having government sanctions would have raised hackles in India.”
The visas were denied amid diatribes by Hindu right-wing groups against the proposed visit of the U.S. religious freedom panel. An influential Hindu leader, Shankaracharya Jayendra Saraswati, had called for refusal of entry to the USCIRF team. “We will not allow interference in our internal religious affairs by external bodies,” he said in a press conference in Mumbai on June 12, according to the Press Trust of India. “We see USCIRF as an intrusive mechanism of a foreign government which is interfering with the internal affairs of India.”
Jayendra Saraswati is known to be close to Hindu nationalist groups.
The U.S. branch of the Hindu extremist VHP had also criticized the intended visit of the U.S. Commission, calling it “incomprehensible,” reported The Times of India. “The largest functioning democracy in the world with an independent judiciary, a statutorily constituted Human Rights Commission, an independent press and other supporting organizations would appear to be quite capable of taking care of the religious freedoms and human rights of its citizens,” it said.
Later, on June 22, Ashok Singhal, international president of the VHP, said in a statement that the USCIRF was “a self-appointed committee as an expression of the big brother attitude of the USA to enquire into the status of religious freedom in other countries … This commission is concerned only about the Christians in other countries whenever there is a hue and cry by the church that the Christians are persecuted in such countries. They never bother about the status of religious and racial discriminations meted out to other religionists in the Western countries, including the U.S.”
Rev. Joseph of the Catholic Bishops Conference, however, said it was “preposterous” to construe the USCIRF’s visit as interference in India’s internal matters, “as the organization is recognized the world over as a credible watch-dog of human rights and religious freedom.”
“Everyone knows that the government of the day did/could not effectively check the communal frenzy,” he added. “And the failure of the state has to be investigated not by the officials of the same state themselves, but by someone who can objectively view and make independent judgment on it.”
The USCIRF is expected to release the pending India report in the next few weeks.
“The denial of visas seeks to make opaque an otherwise healthy transparency in India’s human rights discourse,” said the AICC’s Dayal. Added Joseph, “Probably India missed a chance to come clean on its track records on human rights and religious freedom.”
Report from Compass Direct News