Religious Conversion Worst Form of ‘Intolerance,’ Bhutan PM Says

Propagation of religion is allowable – but not seeking conversions, top politician says.

THIMPHU, Bhutan, April 13 (CDN) — In the Kingdom of Bhutan, where Christianity is still awaiting legal recognition, Christians have the right to proclaim their faith but must not use coercion or claim religious superiority to seek conversions, the country’s prime minister told Compass in an exclusive interview.

“I view conversions very negatively, because conversion is the worst form of intolerance,” Jigmi Yoser Thinley said in his office in the capital of the predominantly Buddhist nation.

Christian leaders in Bhutan have told Compass that they enjoy certain freedoms to practice their faith in private homes, but, because of a prohibition against church buildings and other restrictions, they were not sure if proclamation of their faith – included in international human rights codes – was allowed in Bhutan.

Prime Minister Thinley, who as head of the ruling party is the most influential political chief in the country, said propagation of one’s faith is allowed, but he made it clear that he views attempts to convert others with extreme suspicion.

“The first premise [of seeking conversion] is that you believe that your religion is the right religion, and the religion of the convertee is wrong – what he believes in is wrong, what he practices is wrong, that your religion is superior and that you have this responsibility to promote your way of life, your way of thinking, your way of worship,” Thinley said. “It’s the worst form of intolerance. And it divides families and societies.”

Bhutan’s constitution does not restrict the right to convert or proselytize, but some Non-Governmental Organizations have said the government effectively limits this right by restricting construction of non-Buddhist worship buildings and celebration of some non-Buddhist festivals, according to the U.S. Department of State’s 2010 International Religious Freedom Report.

It adds that Bhutan’s National Security Act (NSA) further limits proclamation of one’s faith by prohibiting “words either spoken or written, or by other means whatsoever, that promote or attempt to promote, on grounds of religion, race, language, caste, or community, or on any other ground whatsoever, feelings of enmity or hatred between different religious, racial, or language groups or castes and communities.” Violation of the NSA is punishable by up to three years’ imprisonment, though whether
any cases have been prosecuted is unknown, according to the State Department report.

Bhutan’s first democratic prime minister after about a century of absolute monarchy, Thinley completed three years in office last Thursday (April 7). While he affirmed that it is allowable for Christians to proclaim their faith – a practice commanded by Christ, with followers agreeing that it is the Holy Spirit, not man, that “converts” people – Thinley made his suspicions about Christians’ motives manifest.

“Any kind of proselytization that involves economic and material incentives [is wrong],” he said. “Many people are being converted on hospital beds in their weakest and most vulnerable moments. And these people are whispering in their ears that ‘there is no hope for you. The only way that you can survive is if you accept this particular religion.’ That is wrong.”

Thinley’s suspicions include the belief that Christians offer material incentives to convert.

“Going to the poor and saying, ‘Look, your religion doesn’t provide for this life, our religion provides for this life as well as the future,’ is wrong. And that is the basis for proselytization.”

Christian pastors in Thimphu told Compass that the perception that Bhutan’s Christians use money to convert the poor was flawed.

The pastors, requesting anonymity, said they prayed for healing of the sick because they felt they were not allowed to preach tenets of Christianity directly. Many of those who experience healing – almost all who are prayed for, they claimed – do read the Bible and then believe in Jesus’ teachings.

Asked if a person can convert if she or he believed in Christianity, the prime minister replied, “[There is] freedom of choice, yes.”

In his interview with Compass, Thinley felt compelled to defend Buddhism against assertions that citizens worship idols.

“To say that, ‘Your religion is wrong, worshiping idols is wrong,’ who worships idols?” he said. “We don’t worship idols. Those are just representations and manifestations that help you to focus.”

Leader of the royalist Druk Phuensum Tshogpa party, Thinley is regarded as a sincere politician who is trusted by Bhutan’s small Christian minority. He became the prime minister in April 2008 following the first democratic election after Bhutan’s fourth king, Jigme Singye Wangchuck, abdicated power in 2006 to pave the way toward democracy.

Until Bhutan became a constitutional monarchy in 2008, the practice of Christianity was believed to be banned in the country. The constitution now grants the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion to all citizens. It also states that the king is the protector of all religions.

Thus far, the Religious Organisations Act of 2007 has recognized only Buddhist and Hindu organizations. As a result, no church building or Christian bookstore has been allowed in the country, nor can Christians engage in social work. Christianity in Bhutan remains confined to the homes of local believers, where they meet for collective worship on Sundays.

Asked if a Christian federation should be registered by the government to allow Christians to function with legal recognition, Thinley said, “Yes, definitely.”

The country’s agency regulating religious organizations under the 2007 act, locally known as the Chhoedey Lhentshog, is expected to make a decision on whether it could register a Christian federation representing all Christians. The authority is looking into provisions in the law to see if there is a scope for a non-Buddhist and non-Hindu organization to be registered. (See, “Official Recognition Eludes Christian Groups in Bhutan,” Feb. 1.)

On whether the Religious Organisations Act could be amended if it is determined that it does not allow legal recognition of a Christian federation, the prime minister said, “If the majority view and support prevails in the country, the law will change.”

Thinley added that he was partially raised as a Christian.

“I am part Christian, too,” he said. “I read the Bible, occasionally of course. I come from a traditional [Christian] school and attended church every day except for Saturdays for nine years.”

A tiny nation in the Himalayas between India and China, Bhutan has a population of 708,484 people, of which roughly 75 percent are Buddhist, according to Operation World. Christians are estimated to be between 6,000 to nearly 15,000 (the latter figure would put Christians at more than 2 percent of the population), mostly from the south. Hindus, mainly ethnic Nepalese, constitute around 22 percent of the population and have a majority in the south.


Religious ‘Competition’

Bhutan’s opposition leader, Lyonpo Tshering Togbay, was equally disapproving of religious conversion.

“I am for propagation of spiritual values or anything that allows people to be good human beings,” he told Compass. “[But] we cannot have competition among religions in Bhutan.”

He said, however, that Christians must be given rights equal to those of Hindus and Buddhists.

“Our constitution guarantees the right to freedom of practice – full stop, no conditions,” he said. “But now, as a small nation state, there are some realities. Christianity is a lot more evangelistic than Hinduism or Buddhism.”

Togbay said there are Christians who are tolerant and compassionate of other peoples, cultures and religions, but “there are Christians also who go through life on war footing to save every soul. That’s their calling, and it’s good for them, except that in Bhutan we do not have the numbers to accommodate such zeal.”

Being a small nation between India and China, Bhutan’s perceived geopolitical vulnerability leads authorities to seek to pre-empt any religious, social or political unrest. With no economic or military might, Bhutan seeks to assert and celebrate its sovereignty through its distinctive culture, which is based on Buddhism, authorities say.

Togbay voiced his concern on perceived threats to Bhutan’s Buddhist culture.

“I studied in a Christian school, and I have lived in the West, and I have been approached by the Jehovah’s Witness – in a subway, in an elevator, in a restaurant in the U.S. and Switzerland. I am not saying they are bad. But I would be a fool if I was not concerned about that in Bhutan,” he said. “There are other things I am personally concerned about. Religions in Bhutan must live in harmony. Too often I have come across people who seek a convert, pointing to statues of our deities and saying
that idol worship is evil worship. That is not good for the security of our country, the harmony of our country and the pursuit of happiness.”

The premise of the Chhoedey Lhentshog, the agency regulating religious organizations, he said, “is that all the different schools of Buddhism and all the different religions see eye to eye with mutual respect and mutual understanding. If that objective is not met, it does not make sense to be part of that.”

It remains unclear what the legal rights of Christians are, as there is no interaction between the Christians and the government. Christian sources in Bhutan said they were open to dialogue with the government in order to remove “misunderstandings” and “distrust.”

“Thankfully, our political leadership is sincere and trustworthy,” said one Christian leader.

Asserting that Christians enjoy the right to worship in Bhutan, Prime Minister Thinley said authorities have not interfered with any worship services.

“There are more Christian activities taking place on a daily basis than Hindu and Buddhist activities,” he added.

Report from Compass Direct News

India’s Anti-Christian Violence in 2008 Linked to Terrorists

Christians call for agency to probe anti-Muslim terrorism ties to Orissa-Karnataka attacks.

NEW DELHI, March 25 (CDN) — Right-wing terrorists played a key role in attacking and killing Christians in Orissa and Karnataka states in 2008, one of the Hindu extremist suspects in anti-Muslim bomb blasts has told investigators, leading to renewed demands for a probe by India’s anti-terror agency.

Pragya Singh Thakur, arrested for planning 2008 bombings targeting Muslims in west India, told the National Investigation Agency (NIA) that Lt. Col. Prasad Srikant Purohit had “masterminded” the 2008 anti-Christian violence in Orissa and Karnataka, The Indian Express daily reported on Wednesday (March 23). Purohit is accused along with Thakur for the 2008 bombings of Muslims.

Thakur had met with Purohit after the August 2008 Kandhamal attacks against Christians began and told her “he was into big things like blasts, etc., and had masterminded the Orissa and Karnataka ‘disturbances,’” the national daily reported.

The NIA, a recently formed agency to prevent, probe and prosecute terrorism-related incidents on a national scale, is investigating several cases involving right-wing terrorism aimed at the Muslim minority in retaliation for Islamist attacks. Both Thakur, formerly a member of the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party’s student wing, and Purohit, who was serving in the Indian Army when he was arrested for his role in blasts in Malegaon city in western Maharashtra state, were part of the Hindu extremist Abhinav Bharat.

Thakur’s statement to the NIA came soon after a Directorate of Military Intelligence report said Purohit had confessed to having killed at least two Christians in Kandhamal and playing a role in violence in Karnataka and other states.

The revelation by Thakur was not surprising, said John Dayal, secretary general of the All India Christian Council.

“We have held that the military precision of the Kandhamal riots, which spread fast and raged for months, could not be a work of mere common people, and that higher brains were at work to ‘teach the Christians a lesson’ while sending out signals of their power lust to the entire nation,” Dayal told Compass.

The violence in Kandhamal began following the assassination of a Hindu extremist leader Laxmanananda Saraswati on Aug. 23, 2008. Though Maoists claimed responsibility for the murder, Hindu extremists blamed Christians for it. The violence began after the arrival of Indresh Kumar, an executive committee member of the Hindu extremist Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) and a suspect in blast cases, said Kandhamal activist Ajay Singh. Local media reports said Kumar was part of Saraswati’s funeral procession, which was designed to trigger the attacks, Singh added.

The RSS denies having played any role in terrorism. On March 12, Ram Madhav, an RSS national executive committee member, called the allegation against Kumar “a concerted political campaign.” Those who were dragging the RSS leader into blast cases “will stand thoroughly exposed,” The Times of India daily quoted him as saying.

Dayal and another Christian leader, Joseph Dias, said they had separately written to India’s prime minister and home minister seeking inclusion of the anti-Christian attacks in an ongoing NIA investigation. Sajan K. George of the Global Council of Indian Christians (GCIC) said he had petitioned the president for the same.

Dias, general secretary of the Catholic-Christian Social Forum, a Maharashtra-based rights group, recalled that violence in Kandhamal spread across 13 other districts of Orissa.

“In Kandhamal alone, more than 6,600 homes were destroyed, 56,000 people rendered homeless, thousands injured, and about 100 men and women [were] burned alive or hacked to death,” Dias said. “Among the women raped was a Catholic nun.”

In September 2008, as the violence continued in Kandhamal, a series of attacks on Christians and their property rocked Mangalore city in Karnataka state.

“In Karnataka, it was hundreds of churches that were desecrated, Christians brutally beaten up, over 350 false cases foisted on them, property held by the community taken over, and no relief to date [has been] received,” Dias said.

While the government of Orissa downplayed the violence as “ethnic tensions,” Karnataka officials blamed it on Christian conversions.

The RSS and outfits linked to it such as the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (World Hindu Council) and the Vanavasi Kalyan Ashram, which claims to work for tribal welfare, facilitated the Kandhamal attacks together with alleged Hindu nationalist terrorists, Dayal said.

“We want the truth about Hindu groups’ anti-national terror activities against minority Christians to come out,” said George, whose GCIC is based in Karnataka.

Dias warned that that the latest statement by Thakur must not to be seen in isolation, as the Military Intelligence report revealed that the Abhinav Bharat had targeted Christians in several states, including Madhya Pradesh and Maharashtra.

The “game plan” is to “cripple Christian religious places, property and institutions, besides eliminating its nascent community leadership at the grassroots,” Dias added.

The Abhinav Bharat was formed in 2007 by a few right-wing Hindus allegedly disillusioned with the leaders of the Hindu nationalist movement, whom they thought were too timid to make India a Hindu nation, rather than one based on religious pluralism.

Report from Compass Direct News

Supreme Court in India Rejects Bail of Orissa Legislator

BJP assemblyman convicted in two murders in 2008 violence says he’s innocent.

NEW DELHI, January 28 (CDN) — India’s Supreme Court on Tuesday (Jan. 25) rejected the bail granted to Hindu nationalist Orissa state legislator Manoj Pradhan following his conviction in the murder of a Christian, Parikhita Nayak.

Pradhan, of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), was convicted on June 29, 2010 of “causing grievous hurt” and “rioting” and sentenced to seven years of prison in the murder of Nayak, of Budedi village, who died on Aug. 27, 2008. In its decision, the Supreme Court ordered the High Court to reconsider its decision to grant him bail.

Pradhan had been granted bail by the High Court on July 6 on grounds having won the April 2009 state assembly election. Contesting the election from jail, he had become a Member of the Legislative Assembly (MLA) representing Kandhamal’s G. Udayagiri constituency. On Sept. 9, 2010 he was convicted in the murder of Bikram Nayak of Budedipada, for which he was sentenced to six years of rigorous imprisonment (see, “Court in India Convicts Legislator in Second Murder Case,”
Sept. 10, 2010). He received bail within 40 days of that conviction.

Parikhita Nayak’s widow, Kanaka Rekha Nayak, had challenged the granting of bail before the Supreme Court. She pointed out in her petition that there were seven other murder cases against Pradhan, including the second conviction.

“Being an MLA was not grounds for granting of bail,” she told Compass.

Nayak’s petition also argued that, because of his position, Pradhan intimidated witnesses outside of jail. She told Compass that, after receiving bail in spite of their convictions, Pradhan and an accomplice continued to roam the area, often intimidating her.

In the Supreme Court decision, Justice B. Sudarshan Reddy and Justice S.S. Nijjaron wrote that the High Court should have taken into consideration the findings of the trial court and the alleged involvement of the respondent in more than one case.

“The [bail] order clearly reflects that the High Court was mainly impressed by the fact that the respondent is a sitting MLA,” they wrote. “In the circumstances, we find it difficult to sustain the order.”

Pradhan was accused of stopping Parikhita Nayak and then calling together a large group of persons armed with axes and other weapons, who then hacked Nayak to death; afterward they sought to dispose of the body by burning it.

Pradhan denied all charges against him, telling Compass by telephone that they were “baseless.”

“I have full faith in the judiciary system, and justice will be done,” Pradhan said, adding that he and other “innocent people” have been arrested due to political pressure and that the real culprits are at large.

On his next move, he said he would surrender himself to police custody if necessary and then file another application for bail.

Dr. John Dayal, secretary general of the All India Christian Council, told Compass that he was pleased.

“Pradhan deserves to be behind bars in more than one case, and it was a travesty of justice that he was roaming around terrorizing people,” Dayal said. “He was not involved in every single act of violence, but he was the ring leader. He planned the violence; he led some of the gangs.”

Dibakar Parichha of the Cuttack-Bhubaneswar Catholic Archdiocese told Compass that police records showed that Pradhan was a “field commander of Hindu extremists sent to kill Christians.”

The state government’s standing counsel, Suresh Tripathy, supported this week’s cancellation of bail.


Cases against Legislator

Pradhan told Compass that a total of 289 complaints were registered against him in various police stations during the August-September 2008 attacks on Christians in Kandhamal district, Orissa, out of which charge sheets were filed in only 13 cases.

Of the 13, he has been acquitted in seven and convicted in two murder cases, with six more cases pending against him – “Three in Lower Court, two in the High Court and One in the Supreme Court,” Pradhan told Compass.

Of the 13 cases, seven involved murder; of those murder cases, he has been acquitted in three.

Cases have been filed against Pradhan for rioting, rioting with deadly weapons, unlawful assembly, causing disappearance of evidence of offense, murder, wrongfully restraining someone, wrongful confinement, mischief by fire or explosive substance with intent to destroy houses, voluntarily causing grievous hurt and voluntarily causing grievous hurt by dangerous weapons or means.

Pradhan was also accused of setting fire to houses of people belonging to the minority Christian community.

The Times of India reported Pradhan as “one of the close disciples” of Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP or World Hindu Council) leader Swami Laxamananda Saraswati, whose assassination on Aug. 23, 2008, touched off the anti-Christian violence in Kandhamal and other parts of Orissa.


Status of Trials

Expressing complete dissatisfaction in the trial system, Dayal told Compass that the two Fast Track courts are “meting out injustice at speed.”

“One of the main reasons,” he said, “is lack of police investigation, the inadequacy of the department of projections to find competent public prosecutors, and the inadequacy of the victim community to find a place in the justice process.”

As a result, he said, victims are not appropriately represented and killers are not appropriately prosecuted.

“Therefore, the two courts find enough reason to let people off,” Dayal said.

Complaints filed at a police station in Kandhamal after the violence of 2008 totaled 3,232, and the number of cases registered was 831.

The government of Orissa set up two Fast Track courts to try cases related to the violence that spread to more than a dozen districts of Orissa. The attacks killed more than 100 people and burned 4,640 houses, 252 churches and 13 educational institutions.

The number of violent cases in the Fast Track courts is 231 (non-violent cases numbered 46, with total cases thus reaching 277). Of the violent cases, 128 have resulted in acquittals and 59 in convictions; 44 are pending.

Of the 722 people facing trial, 183 have been convicted, while 639 have been acquitted.

Report from Compass Direct News

Christians Suspect Cover-Up in Pastor’s Death in Orissa, India

Police refuse to follow leads pointing to murder.

NEW DELHI, January 21 (CDN) — Relatives of a pastor who was found dead in a secluded area in eastern Orissa state’s Kandhamal district last week have accused local police of a cover-up.

The body of Saul Pradhan, a 45-year-old independent pastor whose house was burned by Hindu extremists two years ago, was found near a pond in Pakala village in Kandhamal’s Raikia Block on Jan. 11 and bore marks of assault, Catholic activist Ajay Singh told Compass.

“I spoke to the widow of the pastor, and she told me that the hands and legs of the deceased looked twisted, and there was blood in his mouth. His pants were also torn,” Singh said by phone from Orissa’s capital, Bhubaneswar. “Why should it not arouse suspicion when Pastor Pradhan was last seen with two Hindu men, Marda Pradhan and Baiju Mallick, who were among the rioters who burned houses of Christians in 2008?”

A local activist with the Evangelical Fellowship of India said he visited the site after the body had been removed and saw blood stains on a stone.

Kandhamal witnessed two of India’s deadliest waves of anti-Christian violence in December 2007 and August-September 2008; the latter killed over 100 people, destroyed thousands of homes and displaced more than 60,000 others after a Hindu nationalist leader was killed by Maoists; Hindu nationalist groups blamed it on local Christians.

Christian residents of Kandhamal say the antagonism toward them by those who engaged in the attacks under the influence of extremist Hindu nationalists remains strong.

Singh said that the two Hindu men who burned houses of Christians in 2008, Marda Pradhan and Mallick, came to Pastor Pradhan’s house the evening of Jan. 10 and asked him to come out.

“The pastor’s wife was about to serve dinner and so asked him to wait,” he said. “But he said he wouldn’t take long.”

When the pastor did not return the next day, his wife went to the house of Marda Pradhan with a few villagers. Marda Pradhan’s wife told them her husband had been in the jungle for three days because of a leg injury, Singh said.

That afternoon, the pastor’s wife and the villagers again went to the house of Marda Pradhan, whose wife claimed he was not there. They could see him inside the house, however, and asked him to take them to the spot in the jungle where he had taken Pastor Pradhan the previous night. After walking for around half an hour, Marda Pradhan ran away, Singh said.

“The villagers got suspicious and began to look around,” he said. “That’s when they found the body lying near a pond.”

Some area residents told the villagers that they had heard loud quarreling the previous night.

Police, however, say they have found little reason to suspect foul play.

“There were no injury marks on the body of the man,” Inspector Ravi Narayan Barik told Compass, refuting the claims of the dead man’s family. “The doctor who performed the autopsy said it was just an unnatural death.”

According to police, Pastor Pradhan and two other men got drunk on the night of Jan. 10. The two others were able to return to their homes, Barik said, while the pastor could not and died in the cold.

“Drinking country-made liquor is normal behavior here,” said Barik, of the Raikia police station. “We called one of the two men who was with the deceased for interrogation but did not find anything suspicious.”

An official autopsy report was still awaited at press time.

Asked what sections of the Indian Penal Code or the Criminal Procedure Code were mentioned in the First Information Report or the formal police complaint, the official said, “None.”

“The family is spreading rumors about murder in hope of receiving compensation from the government, as many victims of the 2008 violence got compensated,” the inspector said.

Activist Singh said when the family went to police to report the suspected murder, officers were unwilling to listen.

“The police scolded them,” Singh said. “They said he must have died from the cold. When the family asked for an autopsy, the police asked them to collect the body, take it to the village and bring it to the police station the following day.”

But after the family insisted, the police asked them to bring the body the same day, he said.

“So the family and friends carried the body on a bicycle and brought it to the police station,” Singh said. Asked why police did not go to collect the body, Singh said, “This is how it happens here.”

Singh also said he heard that some local politicians from the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) visited the Raikia police station after the death was reported, though he added that he “could not confirm if that actually happened.”

Until March 2009, the BJP was a ruling party in Orissa in coalition with a regional party, the Biju Janata Dal, for 11 years.

Dr. Sajan George of the Global Council of Indian Christians called for an investigation by the Central Bureau of Investigation, the Press Trust of India (PTI) news agency reported on Monday (Jan. 17).

“The killing of Saul [Pradhan] seemed to be an organized crime by a section of people who had threatened him a few months ago, his family members alleged, adding that his house was also torched during the Kandhamal riots in 2008,” George told PTI.

Report from Compass Direct News

Lao Officials Arrest 11 Christians at Gunpoint

Three leaders remain in prison; Christians in three villages forced to renounce their faith.

DUBLIN, January 6 (CDN) — Following the arrest of 11 Christians at gunpoint on Tuesday (Jan. 4), three house church leaders remain behind bars for “holding a secret meeting,” according to advocacy group Human Rights Watch for Lao Religious Freedom (HRWLRF).

Lao authorities today released six of the house church Christians, including two children ages 4 and 8, from Khammouan Provincial Prison, central Laos. Two other men were released yesterday (Jan. 5).

The charge against the three church leaders is a political offense punishable by law, HRWLRF said. It identified the three men only by their given names as Pastor Wanna from Nakoon village church, Chanlai from Tonglar village church and Kan from nearby Nahin village church, all in Hinboun district, Khammouan Province.

The other eight Christians initially arrested were identified as Sompon, his wife and two children, along with a man identified only as Wantorn, all from the capital, Vientiane; Bounma and Kay from Nakoon village church, and Pastor Sipan from Dongthai church in Takkek district, Khammouan Province.

Authorities first detained the 11 Christians at gunpoint on Tuesday (Jan. 4) after they gathered at Wanna’s home for delayed Christmas celebrations, according to HRWLRF.

In December, Wanna informed authorities that church members would gather at his home on Wednesday (Jan. 5) to celebrate Christmas, in line with official celebrations by the government-approved Lao Evangelical Church scheduled between Dec. 5 and Jan. 15.

A truckload of district police officers with guns cocked and ready to shoot burst into Wanna’s house after dark on Tuesday (Jan. 4) shouting, “Stop! Nobody move!” They then forcibly detained the 11 who were quietly sharing an evening meal and charged them with conducting a “secret meeting” without approval.

Police officers released two of the Christians yesterday (Jan. 5) and moved the remaining nine to Khammouan Provincial Prison. A further six, including Sompon’s wife and children, were released today, leaving only three key leaders from Khammouan house churches behind bars.

HRWLRF has called for urgent advocacy for the three, on the grounds that officials have charged them with a political offense that may lead to harsh prison terms.


Oppression, Re-Education, Imprisonment

Oppression in Hinboun district, Khammouan Province began in earnest after residents of three villages professed faith in Christ, according to HRWLRF.

In 2008 a handful of Christians began meeting at Wanna’s house in Nakoon village. By 2009 the number had grown to 105 people, or 25families. During that time, local officials repeatedly interrogated Wanna, threatening him with arrest and imprisonment if he did not renounce his faith and cease encouraging others to believe in God.

Wanna, however, continued to hold meetings at his home until officials arrested and imprisoned him last May. Authorities then rounded up the church members and subjected them to several days of re-education, informing them that, “We have fought the Americans for many years, and now you are being deceived and caught by their traps.”

The Christians were then forced to sign documents renouncing their faith.

After releasing Wanna in October, officials warned him to practice his faith in private and hold no further meetings at his home. Wanna ignored these warnings, and several families joined him for Sunday worship services.

In December, Wanna informed village authorities that the church would hold Christmas celebrations at his home on Jan. 5, in line with plans by the official Evangelical Church of Laos to hold Christmas celebrations between Dec. 5 and Jan. 15.

Another Christian, Chanlai (also known as Yohan), began sharing his faith in 2008 with the residents of Tonglar village, some five kilometers (nearly three miles) away from Nakoon. By 2009, a total of 15 families had professed faith and began worshiping in Chanlai’s home. Authorities arrested Chanlai along with Wanna last May, charging Chanlai with influencing residents to believe in God and holding worship meetings in his home.

Following Chanlai’s arrest, officials detained the other 14 families for a day of re-education and forced them to sign documents renouncing their faith.

In October, when Chanlai and Wanna were released, authorities warned Chanlai that he should desist from holding worship meetings or “be killed.”

Another house church was established in 2008 in nearby Nahin village, around five kilometers (nearly three miles) from Nakoon village, with 10 families or 58 Christians meeting at the home of church leader Kan.

Nahin village authorities early last year subjected the Christians to five days of re-education, announcing that, “Whoever believes in the Christian faith is caught in the trap of the enemy!” They also declared that worship meetings were considered to be “secret meetings,” a term with political connotations punishable by law.

Under great duress, five families or a total of 27 Christians in Nahin then signed documents renouncing their faith; the others refused, but they refrained from meeting together for fear of further punishment until Wanna was released last October.

Report from Compass Direct News

Murder of Governor in Pakistan Darkens ‘Blasphemy’ Case

Assassination called a blow to prospects of justice for Christian mother on death row.

LAHORE, Pakistan, January 5 (CDN) — The case of Asia Noreen, the first Christian woman sentenced to death in Pakistan on blasphemy charges, suffered a major setback when her most vocal supporter, the governor of Punjab Province, was gunned down by one of his police bodyguards yesterday (Jan. 4) in Islamabad.

The lives of Noreen and Gov. Salman Taseer were at risk since the day he, his wife and daughter visited her in the Sheikhupura District Jail on Nov. 22, after news of her conviction appeared in the media.

Taseer had openly criticized the blasphemy statutes and vowed to try to repeal the “black laws” in parliament. He also promised Noreen (also called Asia Bibi) that he would recommend a presidential pardon for her.

The governor’s assurance and his support for Noreen gave new hope to the impoverished mother of two children and step-mother to three others – and drew violent condemnation from Islamist forces, sparking countrywide protests.

“The governor’s visit gave us hope that all was not lost,” Sohail Johnson of Sharing Life Ministries Pakistan, which has pursued Noreen’s case from the onset, told Compass. “We believed that God had sent the governor to help us … his words of support boosted Noreen’s morale, and she was actually quite optimistic about the outcome of her appeal in the high court.”

He said the murder of Taseer in broad daylight had shocked all those opposing the blasphemy laws, and that “there is little hope of these laws ever being repealed.”

Johnson confirmed that Noreen’s life was at high risk ever since the governor had highlighted her case.

“The local Islamist forces believed that President [Asif Ali] Zardari would pardon Noreen on Taseer’s recommendation, and this was unacceptable to them,” said Johnson, confirming that intelligence agencies had determined that Islamists had plotted to kill Noreen inside jail to make an example of her. “Noreen was earlier allowed two hours in the morning and two in the evening to go outside her cell to relax. After the intelligence information, the jail authorities restricted her movement, and now she is kept in the cell at all times. A security guard has also been deployed with her.”

He added that news of the assassination of the governor would surely panic the Christian woman.

Johnson said Noreen’s appeal of her conviction had yet to be taken up for hearing by the Lahore High Court, but that the murder would definitely affect the course of justice. “The governor’s brutal murder has diminished our hopes for justice for Noreen,” he said.

Her family, he said, has been in hiding since Islamist parties started protests in favor of the blasphemy laws.

“Even I am keeping a low profile these days,” Johnson said.

Taseer and Noreen were declared “Wajibul Qatil” (liable to be killed) by radical Islamic clerics. A cleric in Peshawar and a local politician in Multan offered a combined sum of 50 million rupees (US$579,300) for anyone who killed Taseer and Noreen.

Protests, shut-down strikes and general uproar pressured Pakistan’s federal government to announce that the blasphemy laws would not be repealed.

Taseer, however, continued to publicly vent his opposition – even using Twitter – to the blasphemy laws, which effectively mandate death for anyone convicted of insulting Muhammad, the prophet of Islam. Although courts typically overturn convictions, and no executions have been carried out, rights activists say the laws are used to settle rivalries and persecute religious minorities.

On Friday (Dec. 31), Taseer had tweeted “I was under huge pressure 2 cow down b4 rightest pressure on blasphemy. Refused. Even if I’m the last man standing.”

The assassination is significant not simply because of the person targeted and the reason behind it, but because of the broader societal implications.

“[It points to] the presence of radical elements inside the Pakistani state apparatus,” said columnist Cyril Almeida.

He said that the fact that Taseer’s own bodyguard shot him is not just worrying because it indicates a failure of the vetting process but because it points to “the extent to which this poison has affected the Pakistani state. The investment in jihad has come home to roost.”

In the hours immediately following the killing, television anchors hosted several shows in which guests, while stopping short of openly supporting the murder of Taseer, did speak out in support of killing those deemed to have blasphemed. Some Pakistanis have reported that they received text messages on their mobile phones praising the assassination.

Pakistan Interior Minister Rehman Malik has said the guard, Malik Mumtaz Hussein Qadri, told police that he killed Taseer because of the governor’s opposition to Pakistan’s blasphemy laws. Qadri had escorted the governor from Rawalpindi to Islamabad on Tuesday (Jan. 4).

A 26-year-old policeman from Barakhao on the outskirts of Islamabad, Qadri had reportedly transferred to the Elite Force after commando training in 2008. Thus far, he has not been identified as a member of any violent Muslim extremist groups but is considered devout in his faith.

Noreen was convicted under Section 295-C of the defamation statutes for alleged derogatory comments about Muhammad, which is punishable by death, though life imprisonment is also possible. Section 295-B makes willful desecration of the Quran or a use of its extract in a derogatory manner punishable with life imprisonment. Section 295-A of the defamation law prohibits injuring or defiling places of worship and “acts intended to outrage religious feelings of any class of citizens.” It is punishable by life imprisonment, which in Pakistan is 25 years.

Report from Compass Direct News