Suspected Islamists Shoot Five Christians to Death in Pakistan


Muslim extremist groups had threatened church for two years.

SUKKUR, Pakistan, July 29 (CDN) — A dozen masked men shot five Christians to death as they came out of their church building here on July 15, two months after a banned Islamic extremist group sent church leaders a threatening letter, relatives said.

Pastor Aaron John and church members Rohail Bhatti, Salman John, Abid Gill and Shamin Mall of Full Gospel Church were leaving the church building after meeting to discuss security in light of the threats they had received, said the pastor’s son, Shahid John.

“As we came out of the church, a group of a dozen armed gunmen came and opened fire at us,” said Shahid John, who survived a bullet in his arm. “Fear struck the area. The police arrived 45 minutes after the incident, and we waited for over 45 minutes for the ambulance to arrive.”

Besides Shahid John, five others were wounded in the attack.

In May church leaders received a letter from Islamic extremist group Sip-e-Sahaba (formerly Sipah-e-Sahaba until it was banned) warning the Christians to leave the area, said Kiran Rohail, wife of the slain Rohail Bhatti.

“It said to vacate the land, Christians are not welcomed here, they are polluting our land,” Kiran Rohail said.

The Sip-e-Sahaba and Sunni Tehrik extremist groups are both linked with an area madrassa (Islamic school) whose students had been threatening the church since 2008, Christian sources said.

“In 2008 a group of Muslim students started making threats for the church to vacate the land, as there are only 55 Christian families living in the area,” said the pastor’s widow, Naila John, who also lost her son Salman John in the attack.

The masked gunmen of July 15 had young physiques like those of students, Christian sources said, and their manner of attack indicated they were trained extremists.

The madrassa students that have threatened the church since 2008 belong to the Sunni Tehrik extremist group, the sources said.

Pastor John and Bhatti had reported the threats of the past two years to police, but officers at the local station did not take them seriously, said Naila John.

When they received the threatening letter in May, Pastor John, his son Salman, Bhatti, Gill, Mall and another member of the church, Arif Gill, went to the police station to register a First Information Report (FIR), according to Shahid John.

“Police just took the application but didn’t register the FIR,” he said. “The station house officer just provided two police constables for security.”

On the evening of July 15, the pastor called a meeting to discuss needed security measures, his widow Naila John said. The meeting ended around 7:30 p.m., when they left the building and were sprayed with gunfire.

“No FIR has been registered due to the pressure from the local Islamic groups,” said Kiran Rohail, referring to Sunni Tehrik, Sip-e-Sahaba and the local mosque. “The police came and took our statements, but they didn’t show up again.”

An independent government source confirmed the shooting deaths of the Christians, adding that local Islamist pressure had prevented media from reporting on it.

The church began in 1988, and Pastor John had been leading it since 2001.

Sukkur, in southwest Pakistan’s Sindh Province, has been the site of previous violence against Christians. Last June or July, area Christians said, students from the local madrassa beat Pastor Adnan John of Multan, severely injuring him, after they saw him walking in front of the mosque wearing a cross and holding a Bible. In another instance, the Muslim students prevented Christian students from holding a Christmas program at a park.

In 2006, some 500 Muslims burned down two churches in Sukkur and a convent school on Feb. 19, reportedly over rumors that a Christian threw a copy of the Quran into a trash can. A crowd wielding gasoline bombs torched St. Mary’s Catholic Church and St. Savior’s Church of Pakistan after media and government sources floated the rumor, but local sources said the violence occurred after a Muslim was arrested for burning pages of the Quran and trying to frame his Christian father-in-law, Saleem Gill, with the deed.

After torching the inside of St. Savior’s, the mob turned on Pastor Ilyas Saeed Masih’s home, then went five minutes away to destroy the 120-year-old St. Mary’s edifice.

Report from Compass Direct News

‘Pinpricks’ of Truth Making Way into North Korea


Citizens increasingly enlightened about world’s worst violator of religious freedom.

DUBLIN, April 26 (CDN) — As refugees from North Korea and activists from Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) gather in Seoul, South Korea this week to highlight human rights violations in the hermit kingdom, there are signs that North Korean citizens are accessing more truth than was previously thought.

A recent survey by the Peterson Institute found that a startling 60 percent of North Koreans now have access to information outside of government propaganda.

“North Koreans are increasingly finding out that their misery is a direct result of the Kim Jong-Il regime, not South Korea and America as we were brainwashed from birth to believe,” Kim Seung Min of Free North Korea Radio said in a press statement. The radio station is a partner in the North Korea Freedom Coalition (NKFC), which is holding its annual North Korea Freedom Week (NKFW) in Seoul rather than Washington, D.C. for the first time in the seven-year history of the event.

“We set out to double the radio listenership of 8 or 9 percent, and we’ve seen a dramatic increase in the number of people who have access to information,” said NKFC Co-Chair Suzanne Scholte. She described the flow of information as “pinpricks in a dark veil over North Korea. Now those pinpricks are becoming huge holes.”

The radio station now air-drops radios into North Korea and broadcasts into the country for five hours a day, adding to information gleaned by refugees and merchants who cross the border regularly to buy Chinese goods.

In recent years the government has been forced to allow a limited market economy, but trade has brought with it illegal technology such as VCR machines, televisions, radios and cell phones that can detect signals from across the border. Previously all televisions and radios available in North Korea could only receive official frequencies. 

“The government hasn’t been able to stamp out the markets, so they begrudgingly allow them to continue,” Scholte confirmed. “This means North Koreans aren’t relying solely on the regime anymore.”

Holding the annual event in Seoul this year sends a significant message, Scholte told Compass.

“This is a spiritual conflict as well as a physical one – some people didn’t want us to call it freedom week,” she said. “But we’re making a statement … God gives us freedom by the very nature of being human and North Koreans are entitled to that too.”

All people say they would never allow the World War II holocaust to be repeated, Scholte said, “but this is a holocaust, a genocide. I firmly believe we will be judged if we fail to intervene.”

The coalition hopes this week’s event will empower the 17,000 strong North Korean defectors in South Korea, awaken the consciousness of the world about human rights conditions in North Korea, and inform all who are suffering in North Korea that others will “work together until the day their freedom, human rights and dignity are realized,” Scholte said in the press statement.

As part of the week’s activities, the coalition will send leaflets into North Korea via balloon stating in part, “In the same year the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was passed, Kim Il-Sung was ensuring that you wouldn’t have any of those rights.”

Religious freedom in particular is almost non-existent. The only accepted belief is Juche – an ideology that strictly enforces worship of the country’s leaders.

“The regime is a perversion of Christianity,” Scholte told Compass. Juche has a holy trinity just as Christianity does, with Father Kim Il-Sung, son Kim Jong-Il, and the spirit of Juche said to give strength to the people.

“Kim Il-Sung is God; a real God can’t replace him,” a former North Korean security agent confirmed in David Hawke’s 2005 report, “A Prison Without Bars.”

While four churches exist in the capital, Pyongyang, experts believe these are largely showpieces for foreign visitors.

The government has allowed token visits from high-profile foreign Christians such as Franklin Graham, president of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, who preached at Bongsu Protestant church in Pyongyang in August 2008; and two U.S. Christian bands, Casting Crowns and Annie Moses, attended and won awards at the Spring Friendship Arts Festival in April 2009.

Worship outside limited official venues is simply not tolerated, giving North Korea first place on Christian support organization Open Doors’ 2010 World Watch List for persecution of Christians.

Ordinary citizens caught with a Bible or in a clandestine prayer meeting are immediately labeled members of the hostile class and either executed or placed in prison labor camps, along with three generations of their immediate family. Every North Korean belongs to either the “hostile,” “wavering” or “core” class, affecting privileges from food and housing to education and physical freedom, according to Hawke’s report.

There are no churches outside the capital, but the regime in 2001 estimated there were 12,000 Protestants and 800 Catholics in North Korea. In July 2002 the government also reported the existence of 500 vaguely-defined “family worship centers” catering to a population of approximately 22.7 million, according to a September 2009 International Religious Freedom report issued by the U.S. State Department.

By contrast, South Korea’s Dong-A Ilbo newspaper in July 2009 put the estimate at 30,000 Christians, some NGOs and academics estimate there may be up to several hundred thousand underground Christians.

Uncertain Future

As North Korea celebrated the birthday of Kim Jong-Il on Feb. 16, rumors spread that the elderly leader, currently battling heart problems, had chosen third son Kim Jong-Eun as his successor.

Documents extolling the virtues of Kim Jong-Eun began circulating as early as November, according to the Daily NK online news agency. An official “education” campaign for elite officials began in January and was extended to lesser officials in March. One document obtained by the agency described the “Youth Captain” as being “the embodiment of Kim Il-Sung’s appearance and ideology.”

“Kim picked this son because he’s ruthless and evil,” Scholte said, “but I don’t think they’re quite ready to hand over to him yet. There is an uncertainty, a vulnerability.”

Scholte believes this is the ideal time to “reach out, get information in there and push every possible way.”

“There are many double-thinkers among the elite,” she explained. “They know the regime is wrong, but they have the Mercedes, the education for their kids and so on, so they have no incentive to leave.”

The coalition is trying to persuade South Korea to establish a criminal tribunal, she said.

“North Koreans are actually citizens of South Korea by law,” she said. “We have to let these guys know there’s going to be a reckoning, to create a good reason for them not to cooperate [with authorities].”

Those in other countries have an obligation too, Scholte concluded. “When people walk out of the camps, it will haunt us. They’ll want to know, ‘What were you doing?’ We will be held accountable.”

Article 26 of North Korea’s constitution declares that the people have freedom of religion. The organizers of this year’s freedom week fervently hope that this declaration will soon become a reality.

SIDEBAR

The Cross at the Border: China’s Complicity in Refugees’ Suffering

Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) estimate anywhere from 30,000 to 250,000 refugees from North Korea are living in China, either in border areas or deeper inland. Few are Christians when they emerge from North Korea, but the whispered advice among refugees is to “head for a cross,” signaling a Chinese church that may assist them, according to a February 2009 National Geographic report.

Since China will not allow the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees access to border areas, Chinese Christians work with Christian NGOs to provide an “underground railroad” moving refugees via several routes to safety, most often in South Korea.

Chun Ki-Won, director of Christian NGO Durihana, admits that some of the refugees adopt Christianity to win favor with their rescuers, but others retain and strengthen their faith on arrival in South Korea.

China insists that the refugees are economic migrants and pays police a bounty to arrest and return them to North Korea. On arrival, North Korean officials pointedly question the refugees about contact with Chinese Christians or Christian NGOs. If any contact is admitted, execution or imprisonment is likely, according to David Hawke’s 2005 report, “A Prison Without Bars.”

As one refugee told Hawke, “Having faith in God is an act of espionage.”

Still others choose to return to North Korea with Bibles and other Christian resources at great risk to themselves. For example, officials in June 2009 publicly executed Ri Hyon-Ok, caught distributing Bibles in Ryongchon, a city near the Chinese border, South Korean activists reported.

China remains impervious to the refugees’ plight.

“China fears being flooded by refugees if they show compassion,” said Suzanne Scholte, co-chair of the North Korea Freedom Coalition. “But refugee flows aren’t going to collapse the [North Korean] regime. If that was going to happen, it would have happened already during the famine, so their argument doesn’t hold water.”

She added that North Koreans don’t want to leave. “They leave because of Kim Jong-Il,” she said. “Those [North Korean refugees] in South Korea want to go back and take freedom with them.”

Two U.S. Christians entered North Korea in recent months with the same goal in mind. Robert Park, an evangelical Christian missionary, crossed the border on Dec. 25 with a letter calling for Kim Jong-Il to resign.

Officials immediately arrested Park, according to the regime’s Korean Central News Agency. He was later sentenced to eight years of hard labor but released in late February after making what many experts believe was a forced confession.

Fellow activist Aijalon Mahli Gomes entered North Korea on Jan. 25, the same news agency reported. Officials sentenced Gomes to nine years of hard labor and fined him 70 million new Won (US$518,520). At press time Gomes remained in detention.

Report from Compass Direct News 

Vietnam’s Temporary Release of Priest Goes against Trend


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Religious Rights Campaigner

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Report from Compass Direct News 

Nigeria: 12 people slaughtered and tongues cut out


Attackers killed 12 people on Wednesday March 17 morning in a small Christian village in central Nigeria, cutting out most of the victims’ tongues in the latest violence in a region where religious fighting already has claimed hundreds this year, officials have said, reports CISA.

The attack almost mirrored the tactics used by those who carried out similar massacres in Christian villages last week when more than 200 people were slaughtered.

Under the cover of darkness and a driving rain, raiders with machetes entered the village of Byie early Wednesday, setting fire to homes and firing gunshots into the air to drive frightened villagers into the night, witness Linus Vwi said.

He said the attackers spoke Fulani, a language used mostly by Muslim cattle herders in the region. Officials and witnesses blamed Fulani herders for the killings last week.

Fulani community leader Sale Bayari denied that Fulanis took part in those killings, though he said the community suffered a similar massacre recently.

According to AP, six people were wounded in the overnight raid and taken to a local hospital, said Mark Lipdo, leader of a regional Christian nonprofit group. He said attackers burned down 15 homes during the violence.

The dead included seven women, four children and one man, Lipdo said. It was unclear why attackers took the victims’ tongues.

State spokesman Gregory Yenlong appealed for calm, saying the government remained on top of the situation and would bring the attackers to justice. However, killings continue despite a dusk-till-dawn curfew in a region supposedly protected by Nigerian security forces.

Attacks this month came after more than 300 people were killed in the January violence in the nearby city of Jos and its surrounding villages.

Nigeria, a country of 150 million people, is almost evenly split between Muslims in the north and the predominantly Christian south.

The recent bloodshed has been in central Nigeria, in the nation’s "middle belt," where dozens of ethnic groups vie for control of fertile lands.

Rioting in September 2001 killed more than 1,000 people. Up to 700 people were killed in Muslim-Christian battles in 2004. More than 300 residents died during a similar uprising in 2008.

Report from the Christian Telegraph 

Anti-Christian Sentiment Marks Journey for Bhutan’s Exiles


Forced from Buddhist homeland, dangers arise in Hindu-majority Nepal.

KATHMANDU, Nepal, February 23 (CDN) — Thrust from their homes in Bhutan after Buddhist rulers embarked on an ethnic and religious purge, Christian refugees in Nepal face hostilities from Hindus and others.

In Sunsari district in southeastern Nepal, a country that is more than 80 percent Hindu, residents from the uneducated segments of society are especially apt to attack Christians, said Purna Kumal, district coordinator for Awana Clubs International, which runs 41 clubs in refugee camps to educate girls about the Bible.

“In Itahari, Christians face serious trouble during burials,” Kumal told Compass. “Last month, a burial party was attacked by locals who dug up the grave and desecrated it.”

Earlier this month, he added, a family in the area expelled one of its members from their home because he became a Christian.

Bhutan began expelling almost one-eighth of its citizens for being of Nepali origin or practicing faiths other than Buddhism in the 1980s. The purge lasted into the 1990s.

“Christians, like Hindus and others, were told to leave either their faith or the country,” said Gopi Chandra Silwal, who pastors a tiny church for Bhutanese refugees in a refugee camp in Sanischare, a small village in eastern Nepal’s Morang district. “Many chose to leave their homeland.”

Persecution in Bhutan led to the spread of Christianity in refugee camps in Nepal. Though exact figures are not available, refugee Simon Gazmer estimates there are about 7,000-8,000 Christians in the camps – out of a total refugee population of about 85,000 – with many others having left for other countries. There are 18 churches of various faiths in the camps, he said.

“Faith-healing was an important factor in the spread of Christianity in the camps,” said Gazmer, who belongs to Believers’ Church and is awaiting his turn to follow five members of his family to Queensland, Australia. “A second reason is the high density in the camps.”

Each refugee family lives in a single-room hut, with one outdoor toilet for every two families. The Nepalese government forbids them to work for fear it will create unemployment for local residents.

Life was even harder for them before 2006, when Nepal was a Hindu kingdom where conversions were a punishable offence.

“When I began preaching in 2000, I had to do it secretly,” said Pastor Silwal of Morang district. “We could meet only surreptitiously in small groups. I used my hut as a make-shift church while many other groups were forced to rent out rooms outside the camp.”

A fact-finding mission in 2004 by Brussels-based Human Rights Without Frontiers found that police pulled down a church structure built by Pentecostal Christians in the Beldangi camp by orders of Nepal’s home ministry. The rights group also reported that Hindu refugees ostracized the Christians, who had proceeded to rent a room outside the camp to meet three times a week for worship services and Bible study.

When the Jesus Loves Gospel Ministries (JLGM) organization sent officials from India to the Pathri camp in Morang in 2006, they found that local residents resentful of the refugees had taken note of a baptism service at a pond in a nearby jungle.

“In August, we were planning another baptism program,” JLGM director Robert Singh reported. “But the villagers put deadly poisonous chemicals in the water … Some of the young people went to take a bath ahead of our next baptism program. They found some fish floating on the water and, being very hungry – the refugees only get a very small ration, barely enough to survive on – they took some of the fish and ate them. Three of them died instantly.”

Singh also stated that poisoned sweets were left on the premises of the refugee school in the camp. They were discovered in time to avert another tragedy.

Life for Christian refugees improved after Nepal saw a pro-democracy movement in 2006 that caused the army-backed government of Hindu king Gyanendra Bir Bikram Shah to collapse. The king was forced to reinstate parliament, and lawmakers sought to curb his powers by declaring Nepal a secular state.

Though Christian refugees are now allowed to run churches openly in the camps, ill will toward them has yet to end. When Pastor Silwal asked camp authorities to allow him to open a church in 2006, Hindu neighbors protested, saying it would cause disturbances. Camp authorities allowed him to open a tiny church in a separate room on the condition that its activities would not disturb neighbors.

Earlier in his life in Bhutan, said the 40-year-old Pastor Silwal, he had been a stern Hindu who rebuked his two sisters mercilessly for becoming Christians. He forbade them to visit their church, which gathered in secret due to the ban on non-Buddhist religions in place at the time. They were also forbidden to bring the Bible inside their house in Geylegphug, a district in southern Bhutan close to the Indian border.

“I became a believer in 1988 after a near-death experience,” Pastor Silwal told Compass. “I contracted malaria and was on the verge of death since no one could diagnose it. All the priests and shamans consulted by my Hindu family failed to cure me. One day, when I thought I was going to die I had a vision.”

The pastor said he saw a white-robed figure holding a Bible in one hand and beckoning to him with the other. “Have faith in me,” the figure told him. “I will cure you.”

When he woke from his trance, Silwal asked his sisters to fetch him a copy of the Bible. They were alarmed at first, thinking he was going to beat them. But at his insistence, they nervously fetched the book from the thatched roof of the cow shed where they had kept it hidden. Pastor Silwal said he tried to read the Bible but was blinded by his fever and lost consciousness.

When he awoke, to his amazement and joy, the fever that had racked him for nearly five months was gone.

Pastor Silwal lost his home in 1990 to the ethnic and religious purge that forced him to flee along with thousands of others. It wasn’t until 1998, he said, that he and his family formally converted to Christianity after seven years of grueling hardship in the refugee camp, where he saw “people dying like flies due to illness, lack of food and the cold.”

“My little son too fell ill and I thought he would die,” Silwal said. “But he was cured; we decided to embrace Christianity formally.”

Homeless

In 2001, Bhutan4Christ reported the number of Bhutanese Christians to be around 19,000, with the bulk of them – more than 10,500 – living in Nepal.

When persecution by the Bhutanese government began, frightened families raced towards towns in India across the border. Alarmed by the influx of Bhutanese refugees, Indian security forces packed them into trucks and dumped them in southern Nepal.

Later, when the homesick refugees tried to return home, Indian security forces blocked the way. There were several rounds of scuffles, resulting in police killing at least three refugees.

Simon Gazmer was seven when his family landed at the bank of the Mai river in Jhapa district in southeastern Nepal. Now 24, he still remembers the desolation that reigned in the barren land, where mists and chilly winds rose from the river, affecting the morale and health of the refugees. They lived in bamboo shacks with thin plastic sheets serving as roofs; they had little food or medicine.

“My uncle Padam Bahadur had tuberculosis, and we thought he would die,” said Gazmer, who lives in Beldangi II, the largest of seven refugee camps. “His recovery made us realize the grace of God, and our family became Christians.”

The plight of the refugees improved after the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) stepped in, receiving permission from the government of Nepal to run the refugee camps. According to the UNHCR, there were 111,631 registered refugees in seven camps run in the two districts of Jhapa and Morang.

Though Nepal held 15 rounds of bilateral talks with Bhutan for the repatriation of the refugees, the Buddhist government dragged its feet, eventually breaking off talks. Meantime, international donors assisting the refugee camps began to grow weary, resulting in the slashing of aid and food. Finally, seven western governments – Canada, Norway, Denmark, New Zealand, Australia, the United States and the Netherlands – persuaded Nepal to allow the refugees to resettle in third countries.

The exodus of the refugees started in 2007. Today, according to the UNHCR, more than 26,000 have left for other countries, mostly the United States. A substantial number of the nearly 85,000 people left in the camps are ready to follow suit.

Although they now have a new life to look forward to, many of Bhutan’s Christian refugees are saddened by the knowledge that their homeland still remains barred to them. So some are looking at the next best thing: a return to Nepal, now that it is secular, where they will feel more at home than in the West.

“I don’t have grand dreams,” said Pastor Silwal. “In Australia I want to enroll in a Bible college and become a qualified preacher. Then I want to return to Nepal to spread the word of God.”  

Report from Compass Direct News 

Despite Democracy, Christians in Bhutan Remain Underground


Open practice of faith could lead to more persecution, they fear.

THIMPHU, Bhutan, January 25 (CDN) — In this distant and isolated nation in the eastern Himalayas, known as the “Land of the Thunder Dragon,” almost everything looks uniformly Buddhist.

Most men and women in the landlocked country between India and China wear their national dress, and all the buildings – with their sloping walls, trefoil-shaped windows and pitched roofs – look alike, as if they were Buddhist monasteries.

There are no visible signs of Christians’ tiny presence, but they do exist. Christians, whose only official identity falls in the “others” category in the census, are estimated to range in number between 3,000 and 6,000. And they live out their Christian lives underground – no church buildings, Christian cemeteries or Christian bookstores are yet allowed.

Of Bhutan’s more than 670,000 people, 75 percent of them practice Buddhism, according to the 2005 census. Around 22 percent are Hindu, mostly of Nepali origin.

An absolute monarchy for over 100 years, Bhutan became a democratic, constitutional monarchy in March 2008, as per the wish of the former King of Bhutan, Jigme Singye Wangchuck, who served from 1972 to 2006. It has been nearly two years since democracy arrived in Druk Yul, as the country is known in its national language, Dzongkha. But little has changed for Christians.

If there is anything open about Christianity, it is the acknowledgement of Christians’ presence in the national press, which was born after the advent of democracy.

“A journalist telephoned and asked me if I was converting local people,” said a middle-aged pastor clad in Gho, the men’s national uniform, a knee-length gown woven with colorful wool. “I wondered how she got my phone number. Maybe a Christian friend of mine passed it on.”

The pastor requested anonymity – the same request that high government officials made, no matter how trivial the matters they divulged.

The pastor said he told the journalist he did not pay people to convert. “People choose to become Christians out of their own free will,” he said. “I am working within the constitution of the country.”

Still a Monarchy

Asked why the church remained underground in spite of a provision for religious freedom in the new constitution, the pastor replied, “Virtually, Bhutan is still a monarchy. The time is yet to come when we have the assurance of protection.”

His wife, wearing the ankle-length woollen skirt or Kira that is the national dress for women, smiled at what was perhaps a naïve question – the power of the monarchy is beyond question. By law all Bhutanese citizens wear the national dress in schools and certain public, government and religious places. Non-compliance can result in fines or imprisonment.

Asked what would happen if authorities found out about their underground church, the pastor said that before 2008 they would have been arrested because Christianity was banned.

“Even now, there will be serious repercussions,” he said. “What exactly will happen, I do not know. But no Christian worker will take the risk to find it out the hard way.”

To construct any building, Bhutanese citizens require a licence from the government.

“As far as the governance is concerned, the Royal Government of Bhutan is very caring,” he said. “We get free education and free medicine and hospitalization, and there is a sense of security because the crime rate is very low. But asking for a licence for a church is beyond our imagination as of now.”

The present king, Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck (selected in 2006 but not crowned until 2008) rules absolutely, said local Buddhists, though not with any regret.

“It’s democracy, but still not a democracy,” said a civil government employee requesting anonymity. “It’s the king who makes all important decisions.”

Asked about the Christian presence, he said Christianity grew even at a time when it was banned. “There are many secret Christians. They meet in secret locations for prayer.”

The clean-shaven, medium-built 31-year-old king, an avid soccer fan who studied at Phillips Academy and Wheaton College in Massachusetts in the United States and the University of Oxford in the United Kingdom, is seen as a progressive person but conservative in matters of religion and culture.

According to the new constitution, the king is the head of state, though the parliament has the power to impeach him by a two-thirds majority vote – a provision not likely to be used anytime in the future, according to popular sentiment.

Banned

Suggesting that Christian fears are warranted, a pastor from Pheuntsholing town near the India border explained that memories of a period of severe crackdown on underground churches were still fresh in the minds of local Christians.

“I was picked up from a house where I was conducting Sunday worship in Tsirang district in September 1995 and put in a prison,” said the pastor. “I was asked to leave the district with immediate effect, and I had to move to another location.”

His voice trembling as he spoke by telephone, he said, “Once the government discovers that you are a Christian, nothing will be free for you.”

The pastor said that although there are no violent attacks on Christians, they do face discrimination by the government and society.

According to the government-run weekly Kuensel of Nov. 4, 1992, the National Assembly banned Christianity in 1969 and in 1979. The edicts against Christians were said to have passed due to reports of conversions to Christianity in south Bhutan, inhabited mostly by people of Nepali origin.

In the early 1990s the government of Bhutan began a massive crackdown on Christians, mainly in southern parts, and intensified it towards the end of the decade.

The authorities identified Christians in government or business and took their signatures on a form pledging compliance with rules and regulations governing practice of religion. There were several reports, though unconfirmed, of violence against Christians by police and village heads during the period.

In April 2001, international media reported on persecution of Christians in Bhutan when police stormed churches on Palm Sunday to register Christians, many of who were detained and threatened.

Almost a decade later, the legal standing of the Christian minority under the new constitution remains unclear.

Ambiguous Laws

In May 2009, the national daily Bhutan Times quoted Interior Minister Lyonpo Minjur Dorji as saying, “It was absolutely okay if people were born Christian … The constitution supports them. But it is unlawful to convert. If we get proof of proselytization in the country, we shall definitely take action.”

The newspaper noted that there are no official churches in Bhutan. “And most of the Sunday masses and gatherings are held in the homes of pastors and converts,” noted the daily, which occasionally criticizes government policies, though mildly and without taking aim at any particular official.

The new Constitution of the Kingdom of Bhutan, drafted in 2005 and officially adopted in 2008, gives religious freedom to all the citizens of the country but also contains a virtual “anti-conversion law” as found in neighboring India.

The exotic, official website of the constitution – which displays the national emblem of two dragons and a lotus surmounted by a jewel symbolizing harmony between secular and religious powers and sovereignty of the nation – states that all Bhutanese citizens “shall have the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion” in Article 7.

But Article 7 adds: “No person shall be compelled to belong to another faith by means of coercion or inducement.”

What the terms “coercion” and “inducement” mean is not clear. Whether “proselytization,” which the home minister recently suggested was illegal, means propagation of Christianity or conversion by “coercion or inducement,” is also left unclear.

The Supreme Court of Bhutan, whose judge appointments have yet to be completed and are not yet functional, is likely to have the prerogative to interpret the constitution.

What is unambiguous, however, is that the government of Bhutan will continue to preserve the uniform culture of the country, which, it maintains, is based on Buddhist values. Article 3 of the constitution says that “Buddhism is the spiritual heritage of Bhutan, which promotes among others the principles and values of peace, non-violence, compassion and tolerance,” and “it is the responsibility of religious institutions and personalities to promote the spiritual heritage of the country while also ensuring that religion remains separate from politics in Bhutan.”

Article 4 mandates the government to “endeavour to preserve, protect and promote the cultural heritage of the country,” adding that “parliament may enact such legislation as may be necessary to advance the cause of the cultural enrichment of Bhutanese society.”

According to Article 8, it is a fundamental duty of all citizens to “preserve, protect and respect the culture and heritage of the nation.”

“Apart from religious restrictions, we are happy to be in Bhutan,” said a pastor from Thimphu. “Look at the unrest India, China and Nepal have from time to time. We are happy and thankful to God for this nation.”

Report from Compass Direct News 

Christians in Jos, Nigeria Fear Further Attacks


Churches burned following assault on Catholic church in volatile Plateau state.

LAGOS, Nigeria, January 19 (CDN) — Gunshots and smoke continued to alarm residents of Jos in central Nigeria today, with the Christian community fearing further violence from Muslim youths who on Sunday (Jan. 17) attacked a Catholic church and burned down several other church buildings.

A 24-hour curfew imposed yesterday in Jos and the suburb of Bukuru by the Plateau state government was extended through Wednesday. Police said continuing violence was initially triggered by Sunday’s unprovoked attack by Muslim youths on worshippers at the St. Michael’s Catholic Church in Nasarawa Gwong, in the Jos North Local Government Area.

Also burned were buildings of the Christ Apostolic Church, Assemblies of God Church, three branches of the Church of Christ in Nigeria and two buildings of the Evangelical Church of West Africa, Christian leaders said.

The number of casualties continued to grow, reportedly reaching more than 100 as security forces tried to rein in rioters, with both Christian and Muslim groups still counting their losses. Hundreds have reportedly been wounded.

“We have been witnessing sporadic shootings in the last two days,” said the Rev. Chuwang Avou, secretary of the state chapter of the Christian Association of Nigeria. “We see some residents shooting sporadically into the air. We have also seen individuals with machine guns on parade in the state.”

Avou said many of those who are shooting are civilians, not policemen, and that they have been mounting road blocks and causing chaos in the area. At least 35 people have been arrested.

“What we have witnessed only goes to show that the problem in the state is far from over,” he said. “Many families have been displaced. There are a number who are receiving treatment in the hospital. The dusk-to-dawn curfew imposed in the state has not solved any problem, as there is still tension in the land.”

Avou said the crisis broke out when Muslim youths pursued a woman into a church during worship on Sunday, wreaking havoc on the service.

“Some Muslim youths invaded some churches and started burning and destroying properties,” he said. “We were told that the youths pursued a lady to the church. Nobody knew what the lady did. What we just discovered was that the entire atmosphere was ignited and houses were being burned.”

A Muslim group in the area, however, dismissed claims that Muslim youths ignited the tensions. They accused Christian youths of stopping a Muslim from rebuilding his house.

State Commissioner of Police Greg Anyating stated that Muslim youths were to blame for setting off the violence.

As violence continued today, there was a mass movement of Christians and Muslims from areas where rampaging youths were unleashing mayhem on the city despite heavy security. The Nigerian army was reportedly summoned to try to restore order.

The Rev. Ignatius Kaigama, co-chairman of the state Inter-Religious Council and Catholic Archbishop of Jos, condemned the recurring civil disturbances in the state and called on all to “sheath their swords and be their brothers’ keepers.”

The secretary of the Pentecostal Fellowship of Nigeria, Pastor Wale Adefarasin, said attacks on Christians are a manifestation of terrorism in the country.

“What we should realize is that the government is not helping situations,” he said. “It is an illusion that Nigeria is safe.”

He added that terrorism affects both Christians and Muslims negatively, and that it is the duty of elected officials to ensure that terrorists are detected early and deterred.

“The Muslim fundamentalists want to take over Jos by all means,” Pastor Adefarasin said. “They claim that Jos is a Muslim state, which is not true.”

Violence hit the same area on Nov. 28-29, 2008, when murderous rioting sparked by Muslim attacks on Christians and their property left six pastors dead, at least 500 other people killed and 40 churches destroyed, according to church leaders. More than 25,000 persons were displaced in the two days of violence.

What began as outrage over suspected vote fraud in local elections quickly hit the religious fault line as angry Muslims took aim at Christian sites rather than at political targets. Police and troops reportedly killed about 400 rampaging Muslims in an effort to quell the unrest, and Islamists shot, slashed or stabbed to death more than 100 Christians.

The violence comes at a time of a leadership vacuum in Nigeria, with illness requiring Muslim President Umaru Yar’Adua to leave the country on Nov. 23 to seek treatment in Saudi Arabia.

Sectarian violence in Jos, a volatile mid-point where the predominantly Muslim north meets the mainly Christian south, left more than 1,000 people dead in 2001. Another 700 people were killed in sectarian outbreaks of violence in 2004. Located in Nigeria’s central region between the Muslim-majority north and the largely Christian south, Plateau state is home to various Christian ethnic groups co-existing uneasily with Muslim Hausa settlers. 

Report from Compass Direct News 

Muslims arrested on Christmas while trying to enter church


Two Muslim men were arrested on Christmas Day outside of St. Dominic’s Church, Bahawalpur, Pakistan, where on October 29, 2001 four gunmen entered the Church and opened fire and mercilessly killed 17 worshippers and a police guard, reports Anjum Paul and Dan Wooding, special to ASSIST News Service.

The two suspects were taken into custody by church security personnel as they tried to enter the church after the security men said they were “unknown” and “never been seen before in the church.”

A source told ANS that the men “failed to satisfy with their answers” when they were asked where they came from.

“First they said that came from Green Town Bahawalpur, but a Christian from that area said that they were not from there, and then they said that they came from Hasilpur,” said the source. “One of the suspects was holding a mobile phone and the security personnel were quite sure that the mobile phone could be used as a mean of communication with the other extremists to harm Christians being busy in their service.”

A Catechist, Sohial Nathaniel, said, “I stopped both of the Muslim suspects. I asked them to make a ‘Sign of the Cross’ and they failed to do so. They also failed to prove their residence in Bahawalpur where Christians reside. We then asked the police then to arrest them.”

Father Nadeem Joseph of St. Dominic’s Church told ANS, “The government should take strict action in this incident. This seemed to be a deliberate conspiracy. This brought to mind of when 17 Christians [and a police guard] were martyred in the same church by Muslim extremists in 2001.”

He went on to say that he was shocked when he visited the local police station on Christmas Day evening with a colleague from the church, Father Simon.

“I was astonished to hear from the Station House Officer, that both of the suspects had been released by him,” said Father Joseph.

“Due to terror by extremists, we had made all possible arrangements for the safety of the Christians. I appreciate the Christian security at the church that has really been a blessing for all of us, otherwise an incident like that that took place 2001, could have happen place.

“We are so sorry that they were released without us being told. The law and order situation here is bad and there is no improvement.

“The Christian clergy and community had already been threatened through mobile text messages when they were told that they would be targeted during Christmas. But, thanks to God, the church security and government agencies remained on high alert and no damage was caused anywhere by the extremists and terrorists at this Christmastime.”

Report from the Christian Telegraph

Muslim Relatives of Sudanese Christian Woman Pursue Her, Son


Native of Khartoum lives in seclusion in Egypt as brother, ex-husband hunt for her.

NAIROBI, Kenya, December 10 (CDN) — A Sudanese woman who fled to Egypt after converting from Islam to Christianity is living in secluded isolation as her angry family members try to track her down.

Howida Ali’s Muslim brother and her ex-husband began searching for her in Cairo earlier this year after a relative there reported her whereabouts to them. While there, her brother and ex-husband tried to seize her 10-year-old son from school.

“I’m afraid of my brother finding us,” said the 38-year-old Ali, who has moved to another area. “Their aim is to take us back to Sudan, and there they will force us to return to the Islamic faith or sentence us to death according to Islamic law.”

Ali said she divorced her husband, Esam El deen Ali, because of his drug addiction in 2001, before she converted to Christianity. She was living with her parents in Khartoum when she began seeing visions of Christ, she said.

“In 2004, I started to see a vision of Christ speaking to me,” she told Compass. “When I shared it with my friend, who is a Muslim, she said that she used to hear these things from Christians.”

This comment spurred her to seek out a Christian friend from southern Sudan, who told her about Jesus Christ and prayed with her.

“After that time, I begun to see more visions from Christ saying, ‘He is Christ the Good Shepherd,” she said.

Fearing that relatives might discover she was a Christian, in 2007 she escaped with her then-8-year-old son. Previously the family had tried to stop her from leaving on grounds that she should not travel unescorted by an adult male relative, and because they disapproved of her divorce.

“They destroyed my passport, but through the assistance of a Christian friend, I acquired a new passport and secretly left,” she told Compass by e-mail.

Her peace in Egypt was short-lived; earlier this year, while Ali secretly attended church as she stayed with a Muslim relative in Cairo, the relative found out about her conversion to Christianity and notified her brother and ex-husband in Sudan.

They arrived in Cairo in July. She had found lodging at All Saints’ Cathedral, an Episcopal church in Cairo that houses a refugee ministry, but as it became clear that her brother and ex-husband were searching for her, refugee ministry officials moved her and her son to an apartment.

Ali said her brother and ex-husband sought to kill her for apostasy, or leaving Islam – with the support of relatives back in Sudan and others in the community, members of the Shaingia tribe who practice a strict form of Islam.

“Life became very difficult for me,” she said.

The Rev. Emmanuel S. Bennsion of All Saints’ Cathedral confirmed that Ali’s ex-husband and brother were acting on a tip from one of Ali’s relatives when they came searching for her in Cairo. They went to her son’s school to take him back to Sudan. It was a Christian school, and the director refused to hand the boy over to them, Bennsion said.

“Since that time, she has started hiding and become afraid,” Bennsion told Compass.

Ali had received financial support from family in Sudan through the relative in Cairo who notified her family of her conversion; that support has since vanished.

Fearing forcible repatriation to Sudan, Ali tried to go to Israel; Egyptian authorities arrested her at the border and jailed her for two months. During that time, she said, her son was put in an Islamic children’s home. A Muslim family had adopted him, but she was able to win back custody after leaving jail in October.

“We have stopped going out of the apartment or even going to church,” she said. “My son can no longer go to school daily as before. We cannot live our lives as before. I cannot now participate in the Bible study or fellowships – I’m now depending only on myself for growing spiritually, and for prayer and Bible study.”

She said her only hope for living her faith openly in Christian community is to secure asylum to another country that guarantees religious freedom.

Report from Compass Direct News