Prospects Dim for Religious Freedom in Nepal

Right to share faith could harm Nepal’s Hindu identity, lawmakers believe.

KATHMANDU, Nepal, March 29 (CDN) — A new constitution that Nepal’s parliament is scheduled to put into effect before May 28 may not include the right to propagate one’s faith.

The draft constitution, aimed at completing the country’s transition from a Hindu monarchy to a secular democracy, contains provisions in its “religious freedom” section that prohibit anyone from converting others from one religion to another.

Most political leaders in the Himalayan country seemed unaware of how this prohibition would curb religious freedom.

“Nepal will be a secular state – there is no other way,” said Sushil Koirala, president of the Nepali Congress, Nepal’s “Grand Old Party,” but he added that he was not aware of the proposal to restrict the right to evangelism.

“Forcible conversions cannot be allowed, but the members of the Constituent Assembly [acting parliament] should be made aware of [the evangelism ban’s] implications,” Koirala, a veteran and one of the most influential politicians of the country, told Compass.

Gagan Thapa, another leader of the Nepali Congress, admitted that banning all evangelistic activities could lead to undue restrictions.

“Perhaps, the words, ‘force, inducement and coercion’ should be inserted to prevent only unlawful conversions,” he told Compass.

Man Bahadur Bishwakarma, also from the Nepali Congress, said that of all the faith communities in Nepal, Christians were most active in converting others, sometimes unethically.

“There are problems in Hinduism, such as the caste hierarchy, but that doesn’t mean you should convert out of it,” he said. “I believe in reforming one’s religion.”

Asked if the restriction on converting others violated the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), Akal Bahadur of the Unified Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist) said, “It may, but there was a general consensus on it [the prohibition]. Besides, it is still a draft, not the final constitution.”

Nepal signed the ICCPR on May 14, 1991. Article 18 of the ICCPR includes the right to manifest one’s religion, which U.N. officials have interpreted as the right to evangelistic and missionary activities.

Akal Bahadur and Thapa are members of the Committee on Fundamental Rights and Directive Principles, which was tasked to propose the scope of religious freedom and other rights in the draft constitution. This committee, one of 11 thematic panels, last year submitted a preliminary draft to the Assembly suggesting that a person should be allowed to decide whether to convert from one religion to another, but that no one should convert anyone else.

Binda Pandey, chairperson of the fundamental rights committee and member of the Communist Party of Nepal (Unified Marxist Leninist), told Compass that it was now up to the Assembly to decide whether this provision violates religious freedom.

The Constitution Committee is condensing the preliminary drafts by all the committees as one draft constitution. At least 288 contentious issues arose out of the 11 committees, and the Constitution Committee has resolved 175 of them, Raju Shakya of the Kathmandu-based Centre for Constitutional Dialogue (CCD) told Compass.

The “religious freedom” provision with its ban on evangelism did not raise an eyebrow, however, as it is among the issues listed under the “Area of Agreement” on the CCD Web site.

Once compiled, the draft constitution will be subject to a public consultation, after which another draft will be prepared for discussion of clauses in the Constitutional Assembly; provisions will be implemented on a two-thirds majority, Shakya said.


Hindu Identity

Thapa of the fundamental rights committee indicated that religious conversion could become a contentious issue if the proposed restriction is removed. Even the notion of a secular state is not wholly accepted in the country.

“If you hold a referendum on whether Nepal should become a secular state, the majority will vote against it,” Thapa said.

Most Hindus see their religion as an essential part of the country’s identity that they want to preserve, he added.

Dr. K.B. Rokaya, the only Christian member of Nepal’s National Commission for Human Rights, said Nepal’s former kings created and imposed a Hindu identity for around 240 years because it suited them; under the Hindu ethos, a king should be revered as a god. Most of the numerous Hindu temples of Nepal were built under the patronage of the kings.

Rokaya added that Christians needed to be more politically active. The Assembly does not have even one Christian member.

According to the 2001 census, over 80 percent of Nepal’s 30 million people are Hindu. Christians are officially .5 percent, but their actual number is believed to be much higher.

Nepal was the world’s only Hindu kingdom until 2006, when a people’s movement led by former Maoist guerrillas and supported by political parties, including the Nepali Congress and the Unified Marxist Leninist, ousted King Gyanendra.

An interim constitution was enacted in 2007, and the Constituent Assembly was elected through Nepal’s first fully democratic election a year later. The Assembly was supposed to promulgate a new constitution by May 28, 2010, but its term was extended by one year.

It is still uncertain, however, whether the approaching deadline will be met due to persistent disagreements among parties. The Maoist party has 220 members, the Nepali Congress 110, and the Unified Marxist Leninist 103 in the 575-member Assembly.

Rokaya, a member of the newly formed United Christians Alliance of Nepal, comprising a majority of Christian denominations, said Christians would continue to ask for full religious freedom. The use of inducement or force for conversions is deplorable, but the right to preach the tenets of one’s religion is a fundamental freedom, he added.

Report from Compass Direct News

India’s Christians Suffer Spike in Assaults in Past Decade

Hindu nationalists were often politically motivated in their attacks.

NEW DELHI, December 30 (CDN) — Christians in India faced a spike in attacks in the past decade, suffering more than 130 assaults a year since 2001, with figures far surpassing that in 2007 and 2008.

This year Christians suffered at least 149 violent attacks, according to the Evangelical Fellowship of India (EFI). Most of the incidents took place in just four states: two adjacent states in south India, Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh, and two neighboring states in north-central India, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh, noted EFI in its report, “Religion, Politics and Violence: A Report of the Hostility and Intimidation Faced by Christians in India in 2010.”

Of India’s 23 million Christians, 2.7 million live in the four states seen as the hub of Christian persecution. While north-central parts of the country have been tense for a decade, the escalation of attacks in southern India began last year.

This year Karnataka recorded at least 56 attacks – most of them initially reported by the Global Council of Indian Christians, which is based in the state capital, Bengaluru. Chhattisgarh witnessed 18 attacks, followed by Andhra Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh with 15 and 13 attacks respectively.

Christians are not stray incidents but are part of a systematic campaign by influential [Hindu nationalist] organizations capable of flouting law and enjoying impunity,” the EFI report said.

In 2009 there were more than 152 attacks across India, and the same four states topped the list of violent incidents, according to the EFI: 48 in Karnataka, 29 in Andhra Pradesh, 15 in Madhya Pradesh and 14 in Chhattisgarh.

Three of the four states – Karnataka, Chhattisgarh and Madhya Pradesh – are ruled by the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), and the EFI noted that the high number of attacks on Christians in those states was no coincidence.

“While it cannot be said that the ruling party had a direct role in the attacks on Christians, its complicity cannot be ruled out either,” the report stated.

In Andhra Pradesh, ruled by centrist Indian National Congress (commonly known as the Congress Party), most attacks are believed to be led by Hindu nationalist groups.

EFI remarked that “although in 2007 and 2008 two major incidents of violence occurred in eastern Orissa state’s Kandhamal district and hit headlines in the national as well as international media, little efforts have been taken by authorities in India to tackle the root causes of communal tensions, namely divisive propaganda and activities by powerful right-wing Hindu groups, who do not represent the tolerant Hindu community.”

The violence in Kandhamal district during Christmas week of 2007 killed at least four Christians and burned 730 houses and 95 churches, according to the All India Christian Council (AICC). These attacks were preceded by around 200 incidents of anti-Christian attacks in other parts of the country.

Violence re-erupted in Kandhamal district in August 2008, killing more than 100 people and resulting in the incineration of 4,640 houses, 252 churches and 13 educational institutions, according to the AICC.

Soon the violence spread to other states. In Karnataka, at least 28 attacks were recorded in August and September 2008, according to a report by People’s Union of Civil Liberties, “The Ugly Face of Sangh Parivar,” released in March 2009.

Before the two most violent years of 2007 and 2008, incidents of persecution of Christians had dipped to the lowest in the decade. In 2006 there were at least 130 incidents – more than two a week on average – according to the Christian Legal Association of India.

At least 165 anti-Christian attacks were reported in 2005. But from 2001 to 2004, at least 200 incidents were reported each year, according to John Dayal, secretary general of the AICC.

In 1998, Christians were targeted by the BJP and the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh or RSS –India’s chief Hindu nationalist conglomerate and the BJP’s ideological mentor – when Italian-born Sonia Gandhi, Catholic by descent, became the president of India’s Congress Party. Gandhi, the wife of former Prime Minister of India Rajiv Gandhi, was seen as a major threat to the BJP, which had come to power for the first time at the federal level the same year. The Gandhi family has been popular since the Independence of India in 1947.

But Christian persecution – murder, beating, rape, false accusation, ostracism, and destruction of property – had begun spreading across the country in 2001, especially in tribal-inhabited states in central India. The attacks on Christians were apparently aimed at coaxing Sonia Gandhi to speak on behalf of Christians so that she could be branded as a leader of the Christian minority, as opposed to the BJP’s claimed leadership of the Hindu majority. Observers say it is therefore not surprising that Gandhi has never spoken directly against Christian persecution in India.


Change in Political Atmosphere

After Hindu nationalist groups were linked with bombings in late 2008, the RSS and the BJP distanced themselves from those charged with the terrorist violence. The BJP also adopted a relatively moderate ideological stand in campaigns during state and federal elections.

The BJP, mainly the national leadership, has become more moderate also because it has faced embarrassing defeats in the last two consecutive general elections, in 2004 and 2009, which it fought on a mixed plank of Hindu nationalism and development. The voters in the two elections clearly indicated that they were more interested in development than divisive issues related to identity – thanks to the process of economic liberalization which began in India in 1991.

The incidence of Christian persecution, however, remains high because not all in the BJP and the RSS leadership seem willing to “dilute” their commitment to Hindu nationalism. Especially some in the lower rungs and in the regional leadership remain hardliners.

How this ideological rift within the Hindu nationalist family will play out next year and in the coming decade is yet to be seen. There is speculation, however, that more individuals and outfits formerly connected with the RSS will part ways and form their own splinter groups.

Although politicians are increasingly realizing that religion-related conflicts are no longer politically beneficial, it is perhaps too early to expect a change on the ground. This is why none of the “anti-conversion” laws has been repealed.

Four Indian states – Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Orissa and Arunachal Pradesh – had introduced legislation to regulate religious conversion, known as “anti-conversion” laws, before 2001, and since then three more states – Gujarat, Rajasthan, and Himachal Pradesh – brought in such laws, while two states sought to make existing laws stricter.

Anti-conversion laws are yet to be implemented, however, in Arunachal Pradesh and Rajasthan. The anti-conversion amendment bills in Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh have also faced political hurdles.

Although the anti-conversion laws claim to ban conversions undertaken by force or allurement – terms that have not been defined adequately – they are commonly used to jail or otherwise harass Christians who are simply following Christ’s mandate to help the poor and make disciples. The laws also require all conversions to be reported to the authorities, failing which both convert and relevant clergy can be fined and imprisoned.

Some of these laws also require a prospective convert to obtain prior permission before conversion.


Concerns in 2011

Hard-line Hindu nationalists are seeking to create more fodder for communal conflicts and violence.

In April 2010, Hindu nationalists declared their plan to hold a rally of 2 million Hindus in Madhya Pradesh state’s Mandla district in February 2011, with the aim of converting Christians back to Hinduism and driving away pastors, evangelists and foreign aid workers from the district.

Several spates of violence have been linked to past rallies. India’s first large-scale, indiscriminate attack on Christians took place in Dangs district of Gujarat state in December 1998 after local Hindu nationalist groups organized such a rally. The violence led to mass destruction of property belonging to local Christians and Christian organizations.

Law and order is generally a responsibility of the states, but how the federal government and other agencies respond to the call for the rally in Madhya Pradesh may indicate what to expect in the coming months and years in India.

Report from Compass Direct News

Burmese Officials Order Closure of Chin Church

Government punishes pastor for refusing to wear campaign T-shirt, amid other election abuses.

DUBLIN, November 18 (CDN) — Officials in Mergui Region, Burma, ordered a Baptist church to cease holding worship services after the pastor refused to wear an election campaign T-shirt supporting the military government’s Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP).

The election commission summoned 47-year-old Pastor Mang Tling of Dawdin village, Gangaw township, Mergui Region on Nov. 9, two days after the election and ordered him to stop holding services and discontinue the church nursery program, the Chin Human Rights Organization (CHRO) reported yesterday.

The CHRO works against human rights abuses, including religious discrimination, for the Chin people, a minority group in Burma’s northwest estimated to be 90 percent Christian.

Village headman U Than Chaung had given the pastor a campaign T-shirt to wear in support of the USDP, and when he refused to wear it, the headman filed a report with local authorities accusing him of persuading Christian voters to vote in favor of an opposing party.

Under Burmese law, religious leaders can be penalized for “engaging in politics,” giving the pastor a solid legal reason to decline the T-shirt. The law also bans leaders of religious groups from voting in national elections, according to the CHRO, although lay members of those groups are able to vote.

“The election law is quite vague,” a CHRO spokesman told Compass today. “One of the things we were watching out for during the election was to see if church elders or council members might be excluded from voting. But these people were able to vote. The law seems to apply only to pastors, monks and imams.”

Officials interrogated Mang Tling in Gangaw until Sunday (Nov. 14), when he was allowed to return home.

Meantime, the USDP won the election amid widespread evidence of “advance” voting and other forms of voter manipulation throughout Burma.

Previously known as the Union Solidarity and Development Association, and before that the State Peace and Development Council, the USDP was formed by a ruling junta composed largely of army generals. The junta has ruled Burma without a constitution or parliament since 1998, although in 2008 they pushed through support for a new constitution that will take effect following this month’s elections, according to the 2010 International Religious Freedom report released yesterday by the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor.

The new constitution forbids “abuse of religion for political purposes,” the report stated. Election laws published in March also banned members of religious orders from voting for or joining political parties and reserved 25 percent of seats in the new parliament for members of the military.

The 2008 constitution “technically guarantees a degree of religious freedom. But then, it’s Burma,” a CHRO spokesman told Compass.


Voter Intimidation

The Chin National Party defeated the USDP in three electorates in Chin state despite reports of widespread voting anomalies, some of which were outlined in a CHRO press release on Nov. 7.

In Tedim township northern Chin state, for example, USDP agent Go Lun Mang went to the home of a local resident at 5 p.m. the day before the election and told the family that he had already voted on their behalf in favor of the USDP. He added that soldiers in a nearby camp were ready to arrest them if they complained.

On Nov. 5, the local government had already ordered village officials to instruct residents to vote for the USDP. On Nov. 7, the day of the election, USDP agents in campaign uniforms stood at the gate of the polling station in Tedim and asked voters if they intended to vote for the USDP. Those who said yes were allowed into the station, while those who said no were refused entrance.

USDP agents also warned Chin voters in Thantlang town that they should vote for the USDP “while the door was open” or they would regret it, Burma News International reported on Nov. 5.

David Mathieson, a senior researcher for Human Rights Watch (HRW), said the intimidation indicated that the junta and the USDP knew how unpopular they were.

Reports by the CHRO show a long history of discrimination against the majority Christian Chin, including the destruction of crosses and other Christian monuments, state-sponsored efforts to expand Buddhism, forced contributions of finance and labor to Buddhist construction projects, arrest and detention, torture and particularly harsh treatment of pastors. In addition, officials have refused construction for all new church building projects since 2003.

A report issued by HRW in January confirmed serious and ongoing abuses against Chin Christians.

One Chin pastor interviewed by HRW described how soldiers held him at gunpoint, forced him to pray in a Buddhist pagoda and told him that Burma was a Buddhist country where Christianity should not be practiced. (See “Report Documents Abuse of Chin Christians,” Feb. 20.)



Suu Kyi’s Release Stirs Guarded Hope among Burma’s Christians

NEW DELHI, November 18 (Compass Direct News) – The release of democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi from house arrest in Burma on Saturday (Nov. 13) has sparked cautious optimism about human rights among Christians and the country’s ethnic minorities even as the junta does battle with armed resistance groups.

Freeing her six days after elections, the military regime of Burma (also known as Myanmar) kept 1991 Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Suu Kyi from running in the country’s first election in 20 years, but ethnic minorities are still “very happy” and “enthused with hope and anticipation,” said Plato Van Rung Mang, who heads the India chapter of Chin Human Rights Organization.

Suu Kyi is the only leader from the majority Burmese community – predominantly Buddhist – who is trusted by the ethnic minorities, said Mang, an India-based Christian originally from Burma’s Chin state, which borders India.

“We have faith in Suu Kyi’s honesty and leadership, and she has been our hope,” he added.

The ethnic Chin, Kachin, Karen and Karenni people – many of whom are Christian – as well as mostly Buddhist ethnic Shan, Mon and Arakanese (some of them Muslim) people have been fighting for self-determination in their respective states and opposing the military junta’s policy of centralized control and Burmese dominion.

“We trust that Suu Kyi can fulfill her father’s ideal and political principles which have been subverted by the Burmese military junta’s Burmanization policy,” said Mang. Suu Kyi’s father, Aung San, was the nation’s leader at the time of independence and favored autonomy for ethnic minorities.

“Just as her father was trusted and held in high esteem by the ethnic people, Aung San Suu Kyi also has the ability to work together with the minorities to build a better, peaceful Burma where the human rights of all citizens are respected and protected,” said Garrett Kostin, a U.S. citizen who runs the Best Friend Library, built by a Buddhist monk in support of Suu Kyi, in Chiang Mai in northern Thailand.

While sections of the ethnic communities have been involved in armed resistance against the junta’s rule, many local residents in the region remain unarmed but are also at risk of being killed in the post-election conflict.

In the wake of the Nov. 7 election, as expected (See “Burma’s Ethnic Christians Fear Bleak Future after Election, Oct. 22), clashes between armed ethnic groups and the Burmese army erupted in three of the seven ethnic states – Karen, Shan and Mon – mainly along Thailand and China border, reported Thailand-based Burma News International. The violence has resulted in an influx of over 20,000 people into Thailand – the largest flow in the last five years.

According to US-based Refugees International, the Thai government forced many of the asylum seekers back.

There are also tensions in Kachin and Karenni states, which could erupt at any time, between the Burmese army and the Democratic Karen Buddhist Army, the Karen National Union, the Kachin Independence Army, the Shan State Army-North, and the Karenni National Progressive Party.

Rights advocates, however, were still heartened by Suu Kyi’s release.

It’s “a wonderful opportunity for the ethnic minorities of Burma to unify in support of each other’s rights and desires,” said Kostin.

In September 2007, many Buddhist monks joined democracy activists in street protests against the military regime’s decision to cut fuel subsidies, leading to a sharp rise in gas and diesel prices. Known as the Saffron Revolution, the protests resulted in hundreds of deaths as government security personnel resisted it militarily.

In numerous clashes between the repressive military regime and political opponents and ethnic minorities, over 3.5 million Burmese have been displaced and thousands killed over the years.

Suu Kyi will continue to enjoy the trust of ethnic minorities because “she has been working so hard since the beginning [of her political career] to speak out about the plight of ethnic people with an honest and sincere commitment,” said Bangkok-based Soe Aung, deputy secretary for Foreign Affairs of the Forum for Democracy in Burma.

Chiang Mai-based Christian relief group Free Burma Rangers (FBR) recalled that Suu Kyi, the general secretary of the National League for Democracy, along with allies won more than 80 percent of the seats in parliament “in Burma’s only truly democratic election” in 1990. “The military regime, however, did not recognize the results and continued to hold power,” it said in a statement.

Last week’s election was “neither free nor fair,” FBR said, adding that “thousands of political prisoners [estimated at 2,200] are still in jail, ethnic minorities are attacked [on a regular basis], and the people of Burma remain under oppression.

“Still, we are grateful for the release of Aung San Suu Kyi as she is a leader who gives real hope to the people of Burma.”

An FBR team leader who spoke on condition of anonymity recalled Suu Kyi requesting his prayers when he met with her during a brief period when she was not under house arrest in 1996.

“The Global Day of Prayer for Burma and the ethnic unity efforts we are involved in are a direct result of that meeting,” the leader said. “As she told me then, one of her favorite quotes is, ‘You will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.’”

Some Christians, however, remained cautious.

“Although San Suu Kyi wants Burma to be a true federal country, there is no certainty in the hearts of the Karen people because they have suffered for very long, and the so-called Burmese have turned their backs on them several times,” said a Karen Christian from Chiang Mai who identified himself only as Pastor Joseph.

La Rip, a Burmese activist in China, also said that while Suu Kyi deserved to enjoy freedom, she and her party “do not seem to have a clear idea on how to solve the long-standing issues” related to ethnic minorities.

For her part, Suu Kyi spelled out a plan to hold a nationwide, multi-ethnic conference soon after she was freed. Her father held a similar meeting, known as the Panglong Conference, in 1947. Aung San, then representing the Burmese government, reached an agreement with leaders from the Shan, Kachin and Chin states to accept full autonomy in internal administration for the ethnic controlled frontier areas after independence from Britain.

Suu Kyi’s planned conference is seen as the second Panglong Conference, but it remains uncertain if the new Burmese regime, which is likely to be as opposed to ethnic minorities as the junta, will allow her plan to succeed.

In the awaited election results, the junta’s proxy party, the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), is likely to have majority in parliament to form the next government. Suu Kyi’s party had been disbanded by the military regime, and only a small splinter group ran in the election.

It is also feared that Suu Kyi, who was under house arrest for nearly 15 years since 1990 until her release last weekend, could face assassination attempts or fresh charges followed by another term under arrest.

Burma has a population of around 50 million, out of which around 2.1 million are estimated to be Christian.

Report from Compass Direct News

Islamic Extremists Execute Young Convert in Somalia

Christian accused of trying to convert Muslim teenager found shot on Mogadishu street.

NAIROBI, Kenya, November 23 (CDN) — Islamic extremists controlling part of the Somali capital of Mogadishu this month executed a young Christian they accused of trying to convert a 15-year-old Muslim to Christianity.

Members of the Islamic extremist group al Shabaab had taken 23-year-old Mumin Abdikarim Yusuf into custody on Oct. 28 after the 15-year-old boy reported him to the militants, an area source told Compass. Yusuf’s body was found on Nov. 14 on an empty residential street in Mogadishu, with sources saying the convert from Islam was shot to death, probably some hours before dawn.

“Our brother Yusuf has been murdered,” the source told Compass. “His body was dumped in Yaqshid district of Mogadishu, and his body is said to be on an empty residential street.”

Al Shabaab, said to have links with al Qaeda terrorists, controls parts of Mogadishu and much of southern parts of Somalia, as well as other areas of the nation.

Their accusations against Yusuf had led the extremist group to raid Yusuf’s home in Holwadag district, Mogadishu, sources said. After searching his home, militia didn’t find anything relating to Christianity but still took him into custody.

Before Yusuf was executed by two shots to the head, reports filtered in to the Compass source that he had been badly beaten and his fingers broken as the Islamists tried to extract incriminating evidence against him and information about other Christians. The source later learned that Yusuf’s body showed signs of torture; all of his front teeth were gone, and some of his fingers were broken, he said.

“We don’t know the time he was murdered, but his freshly killed body was dumped in Yaqshid district at around 4:30 in the morning of Nov. 14, and due to the will of the family we have buried the body at around 3 p.m. on Nov. 14,” the source said.

The clandestine Christians could not safely identify themselves to Yusuf’s Muslim family, but they were able to indirectly assist the parents in burying him with dignity, the source said.

It is not known whether under torture Yusuf revealed information about area members of the hidden church, but underground church leaders have been relocating local Christians who knew him, the source said.

“We still don’t know if the Shabaab did find any new evidence from Yusuf,” he said.

Yusuf’s Muslim parents did not know that their son was a Christian, and they had insisted to the al Shabaab militants that he was still a Muslim, the source said. The extremists accused the family of not reporting that their son had converted to Christianity, and they ordered his mother and father to appear before an al Shabaab court.

Although the Compass source could not confirm whether the parents heeded the command, he said they most likely did as it is not uncommon for the militants to behead those who defy their orders.

“I cannot confirm if they appeared before the Islamist court, but that is highly possible,” he said. “Who can dare defy them?”

The extremists have demonstrated they have no qualms about killing those they perceive to be sympathetic to any “foreign” religion, the source said. He added that the Islamic extremists did not execute Yusuf quickly only because they had no evidence against him except the testimony of the teenage boy.

“In Islam, to execute someone you need to have evidence of three witnesses, and they didn’t have it,” he said. “Al Shabaab is known to do whatever they like, and they don’t even follow the rules of their religion they claim adherence to.”

The discovery of Yusuf’s body brought an end to a strenuous attempt by his family to secure his release, but they are now living in fear since al Shabaab has accused them of concealing their son’s new faith.

The source said Yusuf’s death was typical of the Islamic extremist group, which often pumps bullets into their victims before dumping their bodies in public places to serve as a warning to those who dare to resist its orders.

Since the ouster of dictator Siad Barre in 1991, Somalia has been without a strong central government and has been at the mercy of vicious clan-based militants. Some, such as al Shabaab, are seeking to establish a strict version of sharia (Islamic law) as they fight to oust the Transitional Federal Government of President Sheikh Sharif Sheikh Ahmed that is backed by the Africa Union and Western nations.

Report from Compass Direct News 

Christian in Somalia Who Refused to Wear Veil is Killed

‘Moderate’ Islamist group had long suspected woman in Puntland was Christian.

NAIROBI, Kenya, October 27 (CDN) — Three masked members of a militant Islamist group in Somalia last week shot and killed a Somali Christian who declined to wear a veil as prescribed by Muslim custom, according to a Christian source in Somalia.

Members of the comparatively “moderate” Suna Waljameca group killed Amina Muse Ali, 45, on Oct. 19 at 9:30 p.m. in her home in Galkayo, in Somalia’s autonomous Puntland region, said the source who requested anonymity for security reasons.

Ali had told Christian leaders that she had received several threats from members of Suna Waljameca for not wearing a veil, symbolic of adherence to Islam. She had said members of the group had long monitored her movements because they suspected she was a Christian.

The source said Ali had called him on Oct. 4 saying, “My life is in danger. I am warned of dire consequences if I continue to live without putting on the veil. I need prayers from the fellowship.”

“I was shocked beyond words when I received the news that she had been shot dead,” the source in Somalia told Compass by telephone. “I wished I could have recalled her to my location. We have lost a long-serving Christian.”

Ali had come to Galkayo from Jilib, 90 kilometers (56 miles) from Kismayo, in 2007. She arrived in Puntland at the invitation of a close friend, Saynab Warsame of the Darod clan, when the Islamic extremist group al Shabaab invaded Kismayo, the source said. Warsame was born in Kismayo and had lived in Jilib but moved to Puntland when war broke out in 1991.

The source said it is not known if even Warsame knew of Ali’s conversion from Islam to Christianity.

“She might not have known, because Warsame is not a Christian,” he said.

In 1997 Ali, an orphan and unmarried, joined the Somali Christian Brothers’ Organization, a movement commonly known as the Somali Community-Based Organization. As such she had been an active member of the underground church in the Lower Juba region.

Muslim extremists have targeted the movement, killing some of its leaders after finding them in possession of Bibles. The organization was started in 1996 by Bishop Abdi Gure Hayo.

Suna Waljameca is considered “moderate” in comparison with al Shabaab, which it has fought against for control over areas of Somalia; it is one of several Islamic groups in the country championing adoption of a strict interpretation of sharia (Islamic law). Along with al Shabaab, said to have links with al Qaeda, another group vying for power is the Hisbul Islam political party. While al Shabaab militia have recently threatened forces of Hisbul Islam in Kismayo, Suna Waljameca has declared war on al Shabaab.

Among Islamic militant groups, Suna Waljameca is said to be the predominant force in Puntland.

It is unknown how many secret Christians there are in Somalia – Compass sources indicate there are no more than 75, while The Economist magazine hedges its estimate at “no more than” 1,000 – but what is certain is that they are in danger from both extremist groups and Somali law. While proclaiming himself a moderate, President Sheikh Sharif Sheikh Ahmed has embraced a version of sharia that mandates the death penalty for those who leave Islam.

Christian Servants

In 1994 Ali worked with the Belgium contingent of United Nations Operations in Somalia as a translator. The same year she was a translator during a peace conference aimed at bringing together warring clans in the lower Juba region.

Her death follows the murders of several other Christians by Islamic extremists in the past year. Sources told Compass that a leader of Islamic extremist al Shabaab militia in Lower Juba identified only as Sheikh Arbow shot to death 46-year-old Mariam Muhina Hussein on Sept. 28 in Marerey village after discovering she had six Bibles. Marerey is eight kilometers (five miles) from Jilib, part of the neighboring Middle Juba region.

On Sept. 15, al Shabaab militants shot 69-year-old Omar Khalafe at a checkpoint they controlled 10 kilometers (six miles) from Merca, a Christian source told Compass. Al Shabaab controls much of southern Somalia, as well as other areas of the nation. Besides striving to topple President Ahmed’s Transitional Federal Government in Mogadishu, the militants also seek to impose a strict version of sharia.

In August al Shabaab extremists seeking evidence that a Somali man had converted from Islam to Christianity shot him dead near the Somali border with Kenya, sources said. The rebels killed 41-year-old Ahmed Matan in Bulahawa, Somalia on Aug. 18.

In Mahadday Weyne, 100 kilometers (62 miles) north of the Somali capital of Mogadishu, al Shabaab Islamists on July 20 shot to death another convert from Islam, Mohammed Sheikh Abdiraman, at 7 a.m., eyewitnesses told Compass. The militants also reportedly beheaded seven Christians on July 10. Reuters reported that they were killed in Baidoa for being Christians and “spies.”

On Feb. 21 al Shabaab militants beheaded two young boys in Somalia because their Christian father refused to divulge information about a church leader, according to Musa Mohammed Yusuf, the 55-year-old father who was living in a Kenya refugee camp when he spoke with Compass.

Report from Compass Direct News 


As renewed violence in Mosul halts return, refugees wait in Turkish legal limbo.

ISTANBUL, November 14 (Compass Direct News) – In this Turkish city’s working-class neighborhood of Kurtulus, Arabic can be heard on the streets, signs are printed in the Arabic alphabet and Iraqis congregate in tea shops.

In 99-percent Muslim Turkey, most of these Iraqis are not Muslims. And they are not in Turkey by choice. They are Christian refugees who fled their homeland to escape the murderous violence that increasingly has been directed at them.

It is hard to tell how many of Mosul’s refugees from the recent wave of attacks have made their way to Istanbul, but finding these residents here is not hard. A middle-aged Iraqi refugee who fled Mosul five months ago now attends a Syrian Orthodox Church in the poverty-stricken neighborhood of Tarlabasi, where gypsies, transvestites, and immigrants from Turkey’s east live in hopes of a better life in Istanbul.

Declining to give his name, the refugee said there is no future for Christians in Iraq and that nearly everyone he knew there wanted to leave the country. He said the only hope for Iraqi Christians is for Western countries to open their doors to Christian Iraqi refugees.

“We don’t have hope,” he said. “If these doors aren’t opened, we will be killed.”

Since October, violence in Mosul has pushed more than 12,000 Christians from their homes and left more than two dozen dead, according to U.N. and Christian organizations. In the face of Mosul violence, Iraqi Christians flee to Turkey before settling permanently in another country, usually in a place where their family has gone out before them.


Christian Sisters Killed

Weeks after the mass exodus of Mosul Christians to surrounding villages, Turkey and other nations, around one-third of families reportedly have returned due to the presence of 35,000 army and police and the Iraqi government offering cash grants of up to $800.

But those returning Christians were shaken again on Wednesday (Nov. 12), when Islamic militants stormed into the house of two Syrian Catholic sisters, Lamia’a Sabih and Wala’a Saloha, killing them and severely injuring their mother. They then bombed their house and detonated a second explosive when the police arrived, which killed three more.

The Christian family had recently returned after having fled Mosul. Many believe this attack will deter other Christians from returning to Mosul, and there are reports of Christians again leaving the area.

There has been a steady exodus of Christians from Iraq since the first Gulf War in 1991. The church in Iraq dates from the beginning of Christianity, but the population has plummeted by 50 percent in the last 20 years. The outflow of Iraqi Christians spiked in 2003 following the U.S.-led invasion.

Although Iraq as a whole has seen a dramatic decrease in violence due to last year’s surge in U.S. troops, the flight of Christians to Turkey has grown. One-third of the 18,000 refugees who registered in Turkey last year are from Iraq. In Syria, an estimated 40 percent of the 1.2 million Iraqis who have fled Iraq are Christians, though they make up only about 3 percent of Iraq’s population.

Monsignor Francois Yakan, the 50-year-old leader of the Chaldean Church in Turkey, said all Iraqi refugees are undergoing hardships regardless of religion, but that the situation is especially difficult for Christians since there is less support for them in Turkey.

“Muslims have the same difficulty as Christians, but there are more foundations to assist them,” he said. “The government notices Muslim immigrants, but nobody pays attention to us.”

Yakan travels to other countries to raise awareness of the plight of Iraqi Christians, trying to marshal the support of government and church leaders – last week he traveled to France, Romania and Germany. If Western governments don’t wake up to this crisis, he said, the results could be catastrophic.

“People don’t know the plight of Iraqi Christians. They have no government, no soldiers, and no power,” he said. “Christianity in Iraq is ending. Why aren’t they noticing this?”


Strangers in Strange Land

The unnamed Iraqi refugee in Tarlabasi said not even pleas from Iraqi priests can make them stay.

“The church in Iraq can’t stop the people from leaving because they can’t guarantee their security,” he said.

He came to Istanbul with his family but still has an adult son and daughter in the city. He hopes to join his brother in the United States soon.

A group of Iraqi refugees at a tea shop in the Kurtulus area of Istanbul interrupted their card game to talk to Compass of their troubled lives.

“We can’t find any work,” said Baghdad-born Iraqi Jalal Toma, who acted as the translator for the group. He pointed to a young man at the table and said, “He works moving boxes and carrying things, and they pay him half as much as a Turk for a day’s work.”

All of the men are Chaldean Christians, a Catholic Eastern-rite church whose historical homeland is in northern Iraq, and came from Mosul in recent months. They are chronically under-employed and rely on financial help from family members abroad to make ends meet.

They had to flee their homes at a moment’s notice, taking along their families but leaving behind their cars, houses and most of their possessions. The men hope to join family members who live in foreign countries, but they harbor few hopes that they can ever return to Iraq again.


Offering Relief

Work is scarce for refugees and hard to come by legally in Turkey. To survive, most Iraqi Christians rely on money from families abroad or the handful of local church charities that struggle to keep up with the overwhelming volume of refugees, such as the Istanbul Interparish Migrant Program, an ecumenical umbrella group that unites the city’s parishes to assist migrants and asylum seekers.

Another such charity is Kasdar, the Chaldean-Assyrian-Syriac Humanitarian, Social and Cultural Organization, run by Yakan, the Chaldean Church leader in Turkey.

He launched Kasdar two years ago to provide a safety net for Christian refugees who live in Turkey’s legal limbo. Kasdar assists all Christians regardless of denomination or faith tradition and has 16 volunteers from an equally diverse background.

Yakan sees thousands of refugees pass through Istanbul each year. Most of them are Chaldean, and he knows of 60-70 people who fled due to the recent October violence in Mosul. He travels constantly to visit Chaldean refugees scattered throughout the country.

When refugees first arrive in Turkey, they must register with the United Nations as asylum seekers. The Turkish police then assign them to one of 35 cities to live in as they wait to receive official refugee status. These Christians face the biggest hardships since they don’t have access to the same social resources as refugees in Istanbul, said Metin Corabatir, U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees spokesman in Turkey.

“The Chaldean population faces problems in Turkey, especially due to the policy of resettling them to satellite cities,” said Corabatir. “The Chaldeans in Istanbul have NGOs [Non-Governmental Organizations] and churches to help them, but in satellite cities there is no church or community to help them.”

Most refugees send their children to school at a local center run by Caritas, a Catholic confederation of relief, development and social service organizations. Here, Iraq children receive education and lessons in basic vocational skills.

The wait for legal status can be as short as a few months or a couple of years. But complicated circumstances can push back the wait to five years, 10 years, or even 17 years – as it is now for a man who fled during the first Gulf War, Yakan of the Chaldean Church said.

Another church leader who has helped Christian refugees is 70-year-old Monsignor Yusuf Sag, vicar general of the Syrian Catholic Church in Turkey. His 350-person congregation assembles packets of clothes and food for the refugees.

Many who come to Sag also seek medical help. He has connections with doctors throughout the city, both Muslim and Christian, who offer basic treatment to refugees free of charge. Sag said he tries to help all who come to him, without asking them of their denomination or even their religion.

“Their situation is not a Christian problem, but a human problem,” he said.

Often Iraqi Christians work illegally, where they are vulnerable to extortion. Refugee workers in Istanbul said registered asylum seekers can work legally, but it is not uncommon for employers to garnish their wages or withhold them completely, with the foreigners getting little protection from police.

The Turkish government charges a refugee a residence tax of US$460 a year and will not allow them to leave the country until it is paid, making them remain in the country even longer. With all these hurdles to finding stable employment, many Iraqi refugees are never too far from homelessness.

“There was a family we found living on the streets – a husband, wife and two children,” Yakan said. “They have lived in Istanbul for six months and couldn’t even afford to pay rent.”

His foundation found the family an apartment and assisted them with rent, but they only have enough resources to help for two months.

Kasdar gave similar assistance to 54 families in October. But the organization can only help for a few months at a time and assist the most vulnerable refugees.

Report from Compass Direct News


Promise of negotiated settlement fades; Catholic leaders threatened with legal action.

HANOI, September 26 (Compass Direct News) – Authorities in Hanoi have responded to months of Catholic prayer vigils and demonstrations over disputed land by destroying the one-time residence of the papal nuncio in central Hanoi.

In suddenly bulldozing the land that once served as the Vatican embassy and residence near St. Joseph’s Cathedral last Friday (Sept. 19), the government broke its promise to Catholic leaders in February to negotiate a settlement concerning the property.

The destruction of the building held sacred by Catholics is the latest blow to Christians’ long struggle to get the government to return confiscated church properties. Catholic, Protestant and other religious leaders deemed the government response to peaceful Catholic pressure a serious setback for religious freedom.

Authorities cite Vietnamese law stipulating that lands subject to “land management and socialist land reform policies in place before 1991” cannot be considered.

On Monday (Sept. 22) the Vietnam News Agency reported that the Catholic Church ceded the Nha Chung Vatican Embassy property to the state in 1961 and that it would be turned into a library and park.

“Bookworms will soon be able to enjoy the facilities offered by a brand-new library, located at 42 Nha Chung Street, in Hoan Kiem District,” the state reported. “In addition to all of the services usually offered by a library, situated on the premises of an existing three-story, French-designed building surrounded by greenery and including a childrens’ playground, the renovation, which began last Friday, aims to better meet Hanoians’ demands for relaxation.”

Sources said Vietnam’s frequent pronouncements of new openness to religion, and the formation of a joint Catholic/government working committee regarding relationships with the Vatican and other outstanding matters, may have led Catholics to test the waters. Late last year Catholics began to hold prayer vigils outside the fence of the long-vacant Vatican Embassy seized by the government in the mid-1950s.

The historic building property on Nha Chung Street is adjacent to the Hanoi archbishop and cardinal’s residence and only a half block away from St. Joseph’s Cathedral in Hanoi’s Old Quarter.

The daily morning and evening prayer vigils began to draw large crowds, especially on Saturdays and Sundays, when thousands came to Masses at the cathedral. Authorities in a country where demonstrations are not allowed became seriously worried when warnings to stop went unheeded.

In discussion with Catholic leaders in late February, the government agreed to negotiate a settlement in good faith on the condition that Catholic leaders would call a halt to the prayer vigils. Archbishop of Hanoi Ngo Quang Kiet told Compass in April that after agreeing to a joint working committee, the government showed no sincerity in building relationships or in settling grievances.

In late August an aide to the archbishop told Compass in Hanoi that the twice daily prayer vigils had resumed. At that time about 100 people participated each time, but the number and intensity was growing. Catholic leaders made no secret of their appeal to prayer and assembled people as their only tools in their struggle with the government for redress on confiscated properties.

In recent weeks the Redemptorists at Thai Ha, also in Hanoi, also began prayer vigils to recover some of their large property. Over the years their part of an original plot of 60,000 square meters had been reduced by government confiscation to less than 2,000 square meters.

According to observers, the Catholics conducted themselves during their vigils with decorum and order as they reverently marched, prayed and sang. The government’s response however, quickly escalated from accusing the Catholics of interfering with traffic to accusing them of all night public disturbances – and then accusing Catholic leaders of inciting riots and breaking religion laws.


Catholic Leaders Warned

Authorities this week delivered a written warning to Archbishop Kiet warning him of “extreme action” if he did not stop the daily prayer vigils. They also issued a warning to four priests at a Hanoi church locked in the land dispute. The archbishop and priests are accused of “stirring the population” and encouraging illegal religious activity.

State and Hanoi city media releases and radio and TV coverage during September painted the Catholics in the worst possible light; sources said the media fabricated stories and paid people to speak against the Catholics. With no opportunity to make their side of the story known through Vietnam’s state-controlled media, Catholics are reporting events through VietCatholic News, Zenit and other overseas news sites.

Catholic calls for media to retract specific, demonstrably false stories and appeals to press laws have gone entirely unheeded. Rather, sources said, improbable accusations and vicious slander against Catholics sharply escalated.

Vietnam Cardinal Jean Baptiste Pham Minh Man, archbishop of Saigon, wrote a letter to all priests, religious and faithful on Monday (Sept. 22) denouncing the state’s media lies. Unrest is spreading throughout Vietnam’s Catholic community, believed to number more than 7 million, as the letter by the cardinal and others by bishops are read in the churches.


Thugs Bussed In

Demonstrations escalated this week with estimates of 7,000 to 10,000 people, including students gathered at Thai Ha on Wednesday night (Sept. 24). It was said to be the largest public demonstration since the Communist unification of Vietnam 33 years ago.

Wednesday afternoon (Sept. 24), hundreds of police and plainclothes officers tried to control an upset crowd of Catholics as a statue of the Virgin Mary was removed from the Vatican Embassy area under police protection and taken to an unknown location. The next day, sources said, authorities recruited gangs that included uniformed Communist youth league members and others and bussed them to the site, where they attacked Catholic protestors outside the archbishop’s residence.

Similar gangs destroyed property, including sacred items at Thai Ha, the same day.

The state media also announced that the 17,000-square meter Thai Ha Redemptorist property in Hanoi is also to be turned into a public park.

The reversion to old-style, default Communist repression involving violence cloaked in lies is also worrying to Vietnam’s Protestants, some of whom have joined Catholics in the prayer vigils.

Protestant leaders contacted by Compass were united in their disappointment in and condemnation of the government’s belligerent response to peaceful prayer vigils.

“Sadly, the government has again shown its true attitude toward religions,” said one Protestant leader. “We have doubted the sincerity of recent improvements, and now they have clearly shown everyone what is still in their hearts.”

Some Vietnam observers fear the government’s belligerence may be evidence of hard-liners’ ascendance in an ongoing struggle with more moderate reformers. The timing of this property destruction, some Vietnamese church leaders said, is calculated to take advantage of uncertainty in the United States, especially as elections draw near.  

Report from Compass Direct News