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A passenger train derailed Wednesday night on a curvy stretch of track in northwestern Spain, killing at least 78 people caught inside toppled cars and injuring more than 100 in the country’s worst rail accident in decades, officials said.
Officials gave differing death tolls in the immediate aftermath of the crash just outside Santiago de Compostela, on the eve of the city’s annual religious festival that attracts tens of thousands of Christian pilgrims from around the world.
A spokeswoman for Galicia’s Supreme Court told Reuters that at least 77 people died — 73 at the site of the accident and four in hospital — when the train derailed.
Bodies were covered in blankets next to the tracks and rescue workers tried to get trapped people out of the train’s cars, with smoke billowing from some of the wreckage. Some passengers were pulled out of broken windows, and…
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The link below is to an article that reports on a rising radical Islam in the Spanish region of Catalonia.
The link below is to a report on the latest news out of the European Union, where Greek and Spanish savings are being withdrawn rapidly.
New wave of deportations raises concerns for foreigners married to Moroccans.
ISTANBUL, July 1 (CDN) — Moroccan authorities expelled eight more foreign Christians from the country last weekend, bringing the total of deported Christians since March to 128.
Two foreign women married to Moroccan Christians were included in this third wave of deportations since March, raising concerns that local authorities intend to harass the country’s small but growing Protestant community.
“They are all in fear,” a source told Compass, “because this happened to people who are married.”
One of the women, a Lebanese national married to a Moroccan, was diagnosed with cancer last month and is the mother of a 6-year old girl whom she was forced to leave behind.
A Spanish national, Sara Domene, 31, was also deported on Monday (June 28), according to news sources. Domene was working as a language teacher in the Western Sahara, a territory under Moroccan sovereignty.
Authorities called the foreigners to police stations across Morocco on Friday (June 25) and told them they had 48 hours to leave the country on grounds of “threatening public order.”
Other nationals who were forced to leave the country over the weekend came from France, Egypt, Lebanon, Switzerland, Nigeria and Spain.
A source explained that Moroccan authorities are essentially deporting Christians for “proselytism,” which is illegal in Morocco, but in order to justify the deportations they have claimed that the foreigners pose a threat to the state.
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.
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.
On June 17, the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission held a U.S. congressional hearing on the ongoing deportations of U.S. citizens and other foreigners from Morocco.
Morocco has expelled about 58 U.S. citizens in the last four months. On Thursday (June 24) authorities informed about 10 U.S. citizens that they had 48 hours to leave the country, but within 24 hours the deportation orders were rescinded.
In a statement after the June 17 hearing, Rep. Frank Wolf (R-Va.), who co-chairs the Lantos commission, said he would lobby for the U.S. government to withhold funds it has pledged to Morocco if he did not see improvements in the treatment of Christians there.
“I will continue to stay with this issue until a resolution has been reached,” he said. “Should this matter remain unresolved, it is possible that I may offer amendments in the Appropriations committee and on the House floor to restrict U.S. foreign aid from going to Morocco.”
In a letter addressed to the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission on June 17, Ambassador of Morocco to the United States Aziz Mekouar claimed that the deportations “solely and exclusively targeted proselytism activities, which are clearly and categorically forbidden by the laws of Morocco and the precepts of Islam.”
The ambassador said the Moroccan Penal Code imposes fines and prison sentences for those who “use means of seduction in the aim of undermining a Muslim’s faith or of converting him/her to another religion, either by exploiting his weaknesses or needs, or through the use, to this end, of health or educational establishments, as well as shelters or orphanages.”
Moroccan authorities have failed to provide foreign Christians whom they expelled with documented proof or official charges of their alleged proselytism activities. In his letter, the ambassador said the deportations were preferable to the “difficult ordeal” of incarceration and a trial as part of a criminal procedure against the Christians.
Wolf noted that that among those who were deported or denied reentry were businessmen, educators and humanitarian and social workers, “many of whom had resided in Morocco for over a decade in full compliance with the law. Additionally, those deported were forced to leave the country within two hours of being questioned by authorities, leaving everything behind.”
Christian foreigners who were able to obtain official deportation documents have appealed their cases in the Moroccan courts. The hearings for those cases started in May and are continuing.
Report from Compass Direct News
Hindu nationalists protest delegation as Christians cite injustices.
NEW DELHI, February 8 (CDN) — A delegation from the European Union concluded a “fruitful” trip to India’s violence-torn Orissa state on Friday (Feb. 5) amid a swirl of protests by Hindu nationalist groups and cries of injustice by Christians.
The delegation was able to hold “open and frank” discussions with Kandhamal officials on the visit, said Gabriele Annis of the Embassy of Italy.
“We had a very good meeting with the Kandhamal district administration,” Annis told reporters. “It is fruitful. We had open and frank discussion. It helped us in understanding the situation and understanding happenings over the past 15 months.”
The delegation was led by Christophe Manet, head of Political Affairs of the European Commission delegation to India and consisted of members from Spain, Hungary, Poland, Ireland, Italy, Netherlands, the United Kingdom, Finland and Sweden. A delegation from five European countries had visited Orissa earlier in November 2009, but the government of Orissa denied them permission to visit Kandhamal district, where Christians say they continue to be threatened and destitute.
Archbishop Raphael Cheenath said on Saturday (Feb. 6) that despite the claims of the state and district administrations, life for the Christian victims of violence in August-September 2008 remains far from normal: thousands still live in makeshift shanties along roadsides and in forests, he said, and local officials and police harass them daily.
“The block officers have been playing with the facts, indulging in corrupt practices and cosmetic exercises whenever political and other dignitaries come to visit or inspect,” the archbishop said in a statement. “Innocent people are coerced into giving a false picture. The chief minister must investigate the role and functioning of the entire district administration . . . It is strange that officers in whose presence the violence took place and thousands of houses were burnt are still in office and are declaring that there is peace in the district.”
Following attacks in the area after Hindu extremists stirred up mobs by falsely accusing Christians of killing Hindu leader Swami Laxmanananda Saraswati on Aug. 23, 2008, more than 10,000 families were displaced from their homes by the violence. Since then, Cheenath said, an estimated 1,200 families have left the area. Between 200 and 300 families reside in private displacement camps in the district, and more than 4,400 families still live in tents, makeshift shelters or the remnants of their damaged houses, he said.
The number of attack victims who have received financial assistance from the government, churches or Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) is unknown, but is estimated at 1,100 families, Cheenath added.
He criticized Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and the Chief Minister of Orissa Naveen Patnaik saying, “Both of them had promised to provide adequate compensation for the damages caused during the 2008 communal violence. But the victims have not been adequately compensated.”
Cheenath said the state government had decided not to compensate any riot-affected religious institutions even though India’s Supreme Court had directed the government to compensate them for all damages.
“This is a national calamity and demands a special package for the affected people, which should include land, income generation, education and healthcare,” the archbishop said.
Prior to the visit, Christian leaders expressed their shock at Kandhamal district authorities attempting a cosmetic makeover by evacuating nearly 100 Christians from G. Udayagiri.
In letters to the EU delegation, the state government and national human rights and minorities commissions, Dr. John Dayal of the All India Christian Council narrated the plight of the 91 members of 21 families from 11 villages who were living under plastic sheets along a road in the marketplace area of G. Udayagiri.
Dayal said the group included 11 married women, three widows, an elderly man with a fractured hip and thigh, and two infants born in the camp. They had faced almost daily threats, he said, as they had not been allowed to return to their villages unless they renounced their faith and became Hindus.
Soon after the decision to allow the EU delegation, the water supply to the makeshift site was cut off and police and civil officers drove away the residents, who had only plastic sheets to protect them from the cold, he said. The refugees said officers later gave them permission to come back at night but to keep the area clear.
“The families are in G. Udayagiri, they have moved in front of the road, and they are in a very bad state,” the Rev. Samant Nayak of G. Udayagiri told Compass. “They are literally on the road.”
He said that approximately 55 families were living in G. Udayagiri, where they had been given land, and a Christian NGO was helping to construct houses for them.
The Press Trust of India reported that Orissa officials were nervous about last week’s delegation visiting Kandhamal but finally gave permission under pressure from the central government. State officials finally allowed the visit with the pre-condition that the delegation would be allowed only to interact with people and not engage in fact-finding, according to a senior official in Orissa’s home department.
The Kandhamal district collector, Krishna Kumar, told Compass that all went well and “no untoward incidents took place,” but sources reported at least one minor disturbance in Bodimunda village. On Wednesday (Feb. 3), one house was reportedly damaged there in a scuffle that also resulted in two arrests by the local police.
During their Kandhamal visit, the EU delegation was reportedly forced to cancel a meeting with judges of Fast Track courts established in Phulbani, in Kandhamal district, to prosecute hundreds of those accused in the 2008 violence, due to protests from the local lawyers’ association.
Kumar, however, pointed out that the lawyers’ protest was secondary to the lack of clearance from the High court for the meeting with the judges. “The same was not informed to us prior to the visit,” he added.
The anti-Christian violence in August-September 2008 killed over 100 people and burned 4,640 houses, 252 churches and 13 educational institutions. Archbishop Cheenath said justice is critical to long term peace.
“The two Fast Track courts, and the court premises, have seen a travesty of justice,” he said in the Feb. 6 statement. “Witnesses are being coerced, threatened, cajoled and sought to be bribed by murderers and arsonists facing trial. The court premises are full of top activists of fundamentalist organizations. The witnesses are also threatened in their homes with elimination, and even their distant relatives are being coerced specially in the murder and arson cases against Member of Legislative Assembly [MLA] Manoj Pradhan.”
Though some witnesses have testified on Pradhan’s alleged involvement in crimes in depositions, he has been acquitted in case after case, the archbishop added.
“We are demanding a special investigation team to investigate every case of murder and arson,” he said. “Similarly, there is also need for transferring the cases against politically powerful persons such as Pradhan to outside Kandhamal, preferably to Cuttack or Bhubaneswar.”
Cheenath said victims have filed 3,232 complaints at Kandhamal police stations, but officers registered only 832 cases. As many as 341 cases were in the G. Udayagiri area alone, 98 in Tikabali and 90 in Raikia, he said.
“Even out of this small number [in G. Udayagiri], only 123 cases were transferred to the two Fast Track courts,” he said. “So far, 71 cases have been tried in the two courts, and 63 cases have been disposed of. Of these, conviction occurred only in 25 cases, and even that is partial as most of the accused have not been arrested or brought to trial.”
Only 89 persons have been convicted so far in Orissa state, while 251 have been acquitted, supposedly for lack of witnesses against them, he said.
“Among them is Manoj Pradhan,” Cheenath said. “It is strange that in the case of 10 deaths by murder, nine cases have been closed without anybody being convicted, while there has been partial conviction in the case of one death. Who will bring justice in the case of the nine murder cases?”
The archbishop demanded that independent lawyers be allowed to assist overworked special public prosecutors.
Hindu Nationalist Protests
Protesting the delegation visit was the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) and other Hindu nationalist organizations. VHP State General Secretary Gouri Prasad Brahma had lamented on Jan. 31 that the visit would trigger tension and demanded their immediate withdrawal.
“There is no business of the outsiders in the internal matter of the state,” he said.
The delegation also faced the ire of the Hindu extremist Bajrang Dal on the day of its arrival in Bhubaneswar, capital of Orissa, on Tuesday (Feb. 2). Hundreds of its cadres met the delegation at the airport shouting loudly, “EU team, go back.”
Five Bajrang Dal members were detained for creating trouble, Deputy Commissioner of Police H.K. Lal told media on Wednesday (Feb. 3).
After the delegation had left, the Orissa Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) heavily criticized the central and the state governments, with BJP state President, Jual Oram telling a press conference that the state had allowed the visit to “divide people on communal lines.” He said that the delegation had not met any Hindu leader during their visit to Kandhamal, which “exposed their communal agenda.”
Oram accused the delegation of violating protocol in trying to meet the judges of fast-track courts in Kandhamal, saying this “amounted to interference into internal affairs of a sovereign independent member state under the U.N.”
At the same press conference, BJP MLA Karendra Majhi said that allowing the visit was an attempt by the chief minister to win back the confidence of minority Christians. He alleged that the delegation had held secret meetings in a Catholic church at Phulbani with church leaders and select NGOs to facilitate conversions to Christianity.
“I have every reason to believe that the promised assistance of 15 million euros to Kandhamal by the EU delegation will be utilized for conversion activities,” Majhi said.
Report from Compass Direct News
After months of asking, delegation wins clearance to enter Kandhamal district.
NEW DELHI, January 29 (CDN) — Weary of international scrutiny of troubled Kandhamal district in Orissa state, officials yesterday finally allowed delegates from the European Union (EU) to visit affected areas – as long as they do no fact-finding.
A team of 13 diplomats from the EU was to begin its four-day tour of Kandhamal district yesterday, but the federal government had refused to give the required clearance to visit the area, which was wracked by anti-Christian violence in 2008. A facilitator of the delegation said that authorities then reversed themselves and yesterday gave approval to the team.
The team plans to visit Kandhamal early next month to assess the state government’s efforts in rehabilitating victims and prosecuting attackers in the district, where a spate of anti-Christian violence in August-September 2008 killed over 100 people and burned 4,640 houses, 252 churches and 13 educational institutions.
When the federal government recommended that Orissa state officials allow the delegation to visit the area, the state government agreed under the condition that the diplomats undertake no fact-finding, according to the Press Trust of India (PTI) news agency. The government stipulated to the EU team, led by the deputy chief of mission of the Spanish embassy, Ramon Moreno, that they are only to interact with local residents. The delegation consented.
Delegates from the EU had also sought a visit to Kandhamal in November 2009, but the government denied permission. The diplomats from Denmark, Sweden, Norway, Iceland and Finland were able to make it only to the Orissa state capital, Bhubaneswar, at that time.
Ironically, three days before the government initially denied permission to the EU team, the head of the Hindu nationalist Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), Mohan Bhagwat, visited Orissa and addressed a huge rally of its cadres in Bhubaneswar, reported PTI on Tuesday (Jan. 26).
While Bhagwat was not reported to have made an inflammatory speech, many Christians frowned on his visit. It is believed that his organization was behind the violence in Kandhamal, which began after a leader of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (World Hindu Council or VHP), Swami Laxmanananda Saraswati, was killed by Maoists (extreme Marxists) on Aug. 23, 2008. Hindu extremist groups wrongly blamed it on local Christians in order to stir up anti-Christian violence.
On Nov. 11, Orissa Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik told the state assembly House that 85 people from the RSS, 321 members of the VHP and 118 workers of the Bajrang Dal, youth wing of the VHP, were rounded up by the police for the attacks in Kandhamal.
It is believed that New Delhi was hesitant to allow EU’s teams into Kandhamal because it has indicted India on several occasions for human rights violations. Soon after violence broke out in Kandhamal, the European Commission, EU’s executive wing, called it a “massacre of minorities.”
Indian Prime Minister Dr. Manmohan Singh, who was attending the ninth India-EU summit in France at the time of the violence, called the anti-Christian attacks a “national shame.” French President Nicolas Sarkozy, head of the European Council, and Jose Manuel Barroso, president of the European Commission, took up the issue “strongly with Singh,” reported The Times of India on Sept. 30, 2008.
On Aug. 17, 2009, the EU asked its citizens not to visit Kandhamal in an advisory stating that religious tensions were not yet over. “We therefore advise against travel within the state and in rural areas, particularly in the districts of Kandhamal and Bargarh,” it stated.
The EU’s advisory came at a time when the state government was targeting the visit of 200,000 foreign tourists to Orissa, noted PTI.
Kandhamal Superintendent of Police Praveen Kumar suggested that the advisory was not based on truth.
“There is no violence in Kandhamal since October 2008,” he told PTI. “The people celebrated Christmas and New Year’s Day as peace returned to the tribal dominated district.”
Before denying permission to the EU, the Indian government had restricted members of a U.S. panel from coming to the country. In June 2009, the government refused to issue visas for members of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) to visit Orissa. The panel then put India on its “Watch List” for the country’s violations of religious freedom.
Local human rights activist Ajay Singh said that while the state government had made some efforts to rehabilitate the victims, a lot more needed to be done.
An estimated 300 families are still living in private relief camps in Kandhamal, and at least 1,200 families have left Kandhamal following the violence, he said. These families have not gone back to their villages, fearing that if they returned without converting to Hinduism they would be attacked, he added.
Singh also said that authorities have asked more than 100 survivors of communal violence living in an abandoned market complex known as NAC, in G. Udayagiri area of Kandhamal, to move out. He said it is possible they were asked to leave because of the intended visit of the EU team.
Of the more than 50,000 people displaced by the violence, around 1,100 have received some compensation either from the government or from Christian and other organizations, he added.
Additionally, the state administration has to do much more in bringing the attackers to justice, said a representative of the Christian Legal Association. Of the total 831 police cases registered, charges have been filed in around 300 cases; 133 of these have been dropped due to “lack of evidence,” said the source.
Report from Compass Direct News
Female visitors said to be merely attending Bible study with fellow believers.
ISTANBUL, March 31 (Compass Direct News) – The Moroccan government announced on Sunday (March 29) it had expelled five foreign female Christians for trying to “proselytize” in the Islamic country, although sources said they were foreign visitors merely attending a Bible study with fellow Christians.
The accused women were among 23 tourists, expatriates and Moroccans arrested in Casablanca on Saturday during what the Interior Ministry called a “proselytizing” meeting involving Moroccan citizens. Police seized numerous pieces of evangelistic “propaganda,” including Arabic books and videos.
But a source told Compass that everyone in attendance was a Christian and that they had merely gathered for a Bible study, which he said falls within Morocco’s constitutional right of freedom to express one’s faith.
Arriving at the meeting at 5 p.m., 18 plainclothes police officers arrested all in attendance and transported them to a police station. They were detained and questioned until 5 a.m. Sunday morning.
“This was a great humiliation for these women, most of which were of the same family, to be arrested as criminals,” the source said.
Prior to the arrest, all the materials at their meeting had received official government approval. Those in attendance included 15 Moroccan women and one man, two female expatriates of Iraqi and U.S. origin, and the five women visiting Casablanca on the group’s invitation. The women the government called “missionaries” – four Spaniards and one German – were deported to Spain via ferry, according to Morocco’s official MAP news agency.
While the decision to expel the five women indicated lack of religious freedom in Morocco, it likely has more to do with a Moroccan bias against missionary activity in general, not against Christian evangelism per se, said Elliot Abrams, senior fellow for the Council on Foreign Relations.
Morocco severed ties with Iran in early March on suspicion that the latter was supporting Shiite Islamic missionary activity, which officials believed would disrupt the unity of the 99-percent Sunni country. Earlier this month a Shiite school was closed after accusations that it was attempting to convert students, and rights groups claim that about a dozen people have been arrested for allegedly converting to Shiite Islam, according to The Associated Press.
In light of these moves, Abrams said, the government would have been hard-pressed to allow Christian activities the five women were suspected of undertaking after it shut down Islamic missionary enterprises.
“[Morocco] is generally more sensitive about missionary activity, and cannot be seen to allow Christian activity while stopping Muslim activity,” he said.
A Christian worker agreed with this assertion. He said the government may be attacking Christians “for balance,” even if they are only having a Bible study, after launching an initiative against Shiites.
The North African country prides itself on its religious freedom and tolerance. The constitution provides for freedom to practice one’s religion, but Article 220 of the Penal Code criminalizes any attempt to induce a Muslim to convert to another religion.
Official Church Leaders Pounce
Without directly mentioning the women, representatives of Morocco’s official churches swiftly condemned all forms of “proselytism” – a term with a pejorative connotation of asserting one’s will, as distinct from “evangelism,” or proclaiming Christ for people to respond freely – adding that the role of the nation’s churches is only to guide Christians on their “spiritual quest.”
Archbishop of Rabat Monsignor Vincent Landel and Chairman of the Evangelical Church in Morocco Jean-Luc Blanc issued a joint statement that Catholics and Muslims should focus on dialogue, which “by definition rules out proselytizing activities.”
“This dialogue has an intellectual and theological dimension and copes with the social and cultural realms,” they wrote. “Thus, Christians are engaged in various activities alongside Muslims, share the same values and goals and are not afraid of showing their differences.”
Blanc pastors a French Pentecostal church in Casablanca, a congregation mostly made up of expatriates from across Africa. He has criticized independent foreign mission groups, mainly out of worry that they could upset a delicate religious balance in the Sunni Muslim country.
Catholic and Protestant churches have been operating in Morocco for more than a century, and “have learned over the years to live in harmony with the country and its people,” he said in the statement.
In 2007 the Ministry of Islamic Affairs and Endowments claimed that foreign missionaries had converted more than 3,000 people to Christianity, particularly in remote areas of the country, according to the 2008 U.S. Department of State Report on International Religious Freedom.
But a source with contacts in Morocco said that radical Islam is perceived as far more of a threat than evangelical Christianity.
Report from Compass Direct News
While passengers were disembarking from the Italian-owned MSC Fantasia in Palma de Mallorca, Spain, the gangway has collapsed into the sea. The collapse occurred after strong winds caused mooring ropes to break away from their mooring, allowing the ship to move away from the dock, which in turn caused the gangway to collapse into the ocean.
The gangway with four passengers fell some 15 metres into the sea and were rescued by the ship’s crew. An eighty year-old passenger hit his head during the collapse and is now in hospital.
The MSC Fantasia is a 333 metre cruise ship owned by MSC Cruises and can accommodate 4 000 passengers, along with 1 325 crew.