Nepal Christians Begin Legal Battle for Burial Ground

Hindu group declares country a Hindu state; upper castes seek halt to conversions.

KATHMANDU, Nepal, April 19 (CDN) — With the government refusing to listen to their three-year plea for an official cemetery and ignoring a protracted hunger strike, Nepal’s Christians are now seeking redress from the Supreme Court.

“Every day there are two to three deaths in the community, and with each death we face a hard time with the burial,” said Chari Bahadur Gahatraj, a pastor who filed a petition in the high court on March 13 asking it to intervene as authorities of Nepal’s oldest Hindu temple had begun demolishing the graves of Christians there.

Gahatraj and Man Bahadur Khatri are both members of the newly formed Christian Burial Ground Prayer and National Struggle Committee that since last month began leading a relay hunger strike in a public area of the capital, asking for a graveyard. They said they were forced to go to court after the Pashupati Area Development Trust (PADT), which runs Nepal’s oldest Hindu shrine, the Pashupatinath temple, said it would no longer allow non-Hindus to use the temple’s forested land.

“We don’t want to hurt the sentiments of any community,” Gahatraj told Compass. “Nor are we trying to grab the land owned by a temple. We are ready to accept any plot given to us. All we are asking for is that the burials be allowed till we get an alternate site.”

Judge Awadhesh Kumar Yadav has since ordered the government and PADT not to prevent Christians from using the forest for burials until the dispute is resolved. The legal battle, however, now involves a counter-suit. Hindu activist Bharat Jangam filed a second writ on March 20, saying that since the forest was the property of a Hindu temple, non-Hindus should not be allowed to bury their dead there just as churches do not allow Hindu burials.

Subsequently, the court decided to hear the two petitions together, and yesterday (April 18), the hearings began. While two lawyers argued on behalf of Gahatraj and Khatri, a cohort of 15 lawyers spoke against their petition. The next hearing is scheduled for May 3.

Along with the legal battle, Christians have kept up their relay hunger strike. To step up pressure on the government, the protestors also announced they would lead a funeral march to the offices of the prime minister and the culture minister and hand over coffins to them as a symbolic protest. If that too failed, they warned they would have no option but to go on hunger strike in front of the prime minister’s office and parliament, this time carrying dead bodies with them.

Alarmed at the rate the issue was snowballing, the government finally responded. Yesterday Culture Minister Gangalal Tuladhar opened talks with the protestors, agreeing to continue the negotiations after three days. The government also formed a four-member committee to look into the demand. Currently, Christians are asking for cemetery land in all 75 districts of Nepal.

Protestors were wary of the government’s intent in the overture.

“This could be a ploy to buy time and bury the issue,” said a member of the Christian committee formed to advise parliament on drafting the new constitution, who requested anonymity.

Though the committee formed to look into the Christians’ demand for burial land has been asked to present a report within two weeks, Christians suspect the panel is dragging its feet.

“The new constitution has to be promulgated by May 28, but it does not seem likely that the main political parties will be able to accomplish the task,” the Christian committee member said. “And if the constitution doesn’t materialize in time, there will be a crisis and our problem will be shelved.”


Hindu Nation

Adding to their unease, Christians are now facing a redoubled campaign by Hindu groups for the restoration of Hinduism as the state religion, five years after parliament declared Nepal, the world’s only Hindu kingdom, secular.

If the new constitution had been promulgated last year, it would have consolidated secularism in Nepal. But with the country missing the deadline due to protracted power-sharing rows among the major political parties, Christians still feel under threat.

On Thursday (April 14), when the country celebrated the start of the indigenous new year 2068 with a public holiday, the Rastriya Prajatantra Party-Nepal, which seeks the reinstatement of Hinduism as the state religion, kicked off a campaign at the Bhadrakali temple in Kathmandu. As curious onlookers and soldiers patrolling the nearby army headquarters looked on, party members fervently blew into conch shells and rang bells to draw people’s attention to their demand.

The party, which is also seeking the restoration of monarchy, took some oblique shots at the Christian community as well.

“There is a deliberate and systematic attempt by organizations to convert Hindus,” said Kamal Thapa, party chief and a former minister. “These organizations are guided by foreign powers and foreign funds. If the widespread conversion of Hindus is not stopped immediately, we will have to take stern measures.”

Three days later, an umbrella of Hindu groups – the Rastriya Dharma Jagaran Mahasabha (the National Religion Resurrection Conference) held a massive gathering in the capital, declaring Nepal a “Hindu state” and meeting with no official objection. The proclamation came as the climax to a three-day public program calling for the restoration of “the traditional Hindu state.” Several Hindu preachers and scholars from neighboring India attended the program, held on the grounds of the Pashupatinath temple, which is also a UNESCO-declared World Heritage Site.

The “Hindu state” proclamation was the brainchild of Shankar Prasad Pandey, a former member of parliament from Nepali Congress, the second largest party in Nepal, now in opposition. Though Pandey was a sitting Member of Parliament in 2006, when the body unanimously declared Nepal secular, he began opposing the move soon afterwards, leading four campaigns against it nationwide.

“I consider the nation and the Hindu religion to be more important than the party,” said Pandey, known as the MP who began to go barefoot 32 years ago to show solidarity with Nepalese, who are among the poorest in the world. “Over 90 percent of the Nepalese want Nepal to be a Hindu state. However, the government is led by people whose only concern is power and money.”

Pandey’s campaign is supported by Hindu groups from India and the West: Narendranath Saraswati, who is the Shankaracharya or religious head of a prominent Hindu shrine in India’s Varanasi city; Dr. Tilak Chaitanya, chief of a group in the United Kingdom that propagates the Gita, the holy book of the Hindus; and Tahal Kishore, head of a Hindu organization, Radha Krishna Sevashram, in the United States.

Two weeks before the May 28 deadline for the new constitution, Pandey and his followers plan to step up the campaign for a “Hindu state” in the capital. Though Pandey denies it could stir up animosity between the majority-Hindus and Christians – whose minority population is said to have crossed 2 million but is actually only 850,801, according to Operation World – there are fears of religious tension if not outright violence.

The Hindu rallies continue to grow as a pressure tactic. Yesterday (April 18), members of Nepal Brahman Samaj, an organization of “upper castes” from whose echelons temple priests are appointed, fought with security forces in front of parliament house, demanding their rights be respected and an end to conversions.

More Hindutva (Hindu nationalist) campaigning is scheduled on April 29, when the Rastriya Prajatantra Party-Nepal’s Thapa has called for a mass gathering in the capital.  

Report from Compass Direct News

Seminary Students in Indonesia Evicted from Two Locations

Forced departure from campground and office building leads to demonstration, arrests, injuries.

JAKARTA, Indonesia, October 30 (CDN) — In the past week hundreds of students from Arastamar Evangelical Theological Seminary (SETIA) were evicted from two sites where they had taken refuge after Muslim protestors drove them from their campus last year. 

With about 700 students earlier evicted from Bumi Perkemahan Cibubur (BUPERTA) campground, officers appointed by the West Jakarta District Court on Monday (Oct. 26) began evacuating more than 300 students from the former municipal building of West Jakarta.

In response, the more than 1,000 evicted SETIA students demonstrated in West Jakarta on Tuesday (Oct. 27), clogging traffic and leading to altercations with police that led to the arrest of at least five students. Six officers were injured.

The eviction from the former West Jakarta mayoral building came after the city settled accounts last week with the Sawerigading Foundation, which officially gained ownership of the site from the city after a long court dispute. The foundation plans to build apartments on the land, a 13,765 square-meter parcel with six buildings.

Demonstrating in front of the buildings, the students formed a blockade. A bulldozer began to level buildings, and students began throwing plastic chairs and rocks at police. Officers responded with tear gas that dispersed the crowd.

“Five people were arrested and taken for questioning by the West Jakarta Police,” Police Commissioner Djoni Iskandar told Compass at the site. The identities of the five students were not known at press time, although the head of the student senate, Alexander Dimu, said that one was identified as Adi Siwa.

Traffic Police Chief Commissioner Sungkono, who goes by a single name, told Compass that two traffic officers and four security policeman were injured by objects the students had thrown.

“Brigade Chief Charles and Sudiyanto had just gotten out of a car when they were hit by flying objects,” he said. “The same was true of four other police: Diak, Arif, Luki, and Mardiana, who had injuries to their hands, feet, and a torn lip.”

Inadequate Alternatives

The students were originally driven from their school when hundreds of protestors shouting “Allahu-Akbar [“God is greater]” and brandishing machetes forced the evacuation of staff and students from the SETIA campus in Kampung Pulo village on July 26-27, 2008.

Urged on by announcements from a mosque loudspeaker to “drive out the unwanted neighbor” following a misunderstanding between students and local residents, the protestors also had sharpened bamboo and acid and injured at least 20 students, some seriously.

The Jakarta provincial government has offered to house students at a city-owned office building in North Jakarta that SETIA officials said was unfit for habitation.

“A barn for water buffalo is much nicer than that place,” Ronald Simanjuntak secretary of the SETIA Foundation, told Compass.

The building has broken windows, non-functioning toilets, a roof that is in disrepair, and a bare cement floor, he said, adding that major renovations would be necessary.

“Our primary request is that we be allowed to return to our own campus peacefully,” Simanjuntak said. “We were in the old West Jakarta mayor’s office because the provincial government sent us there. Don’t imagine that we were trying to take over that place.”

An inspection of the North Jakarta building by representatives from the SETIA Foundation, the Sawerigading Foundation, and city officials found the building was uninhabitable and unsuitable for classes, said SETIA’s rector, the Rev. Matheus Mangentang.

“So the solution is to return us to our campus,” Rev. Mangentang told Compass. “[The North Jakarta building] needs months of renovation work; it was supposed to be torn down.”

The area secretary for the Jakarta Provincial Government who goes by a single name, Muhayat, told Compass that suitability “is a relative thing.”

“Why is the place unsuitable?” he said. “Is it the location?”

According to Muhayat, the Jakarta government plans to sell a property that would allow it to provide proceeds for construction of a new SETIA campus in the Lippo area of Cikarang, West Java Province. Officials hope a sale could be completed late this year, allowing construction to begin in early 2010.

“The students need to be patient and not act unilaterally,” Muhayat said. “The provincial government and the [SETIA] Foundation are in the midst of working on a new campus.”

The students would like to return to their former campus in Kampung Pulo, East Jakarta, with assurances of safety and security from the vice-governor, but area residents reportedly remain hostile.

SETIA’s Simanjuntak said that if students are forced to the North Jakarta building, school officials would ask the Sawerigading Foundation for time to renovate it. Sawerigading has offered 250 million rupiahs (US$26,000) to SETIA for renovations.

Of the total SETIA students, another 297 are still living at the Transit Lodge in Kalimalang, East Jakarta.

Report from Compass Direct News 


Proposed amendment reportedly shot down after international outcry.

LOS ANGELES, June 29 (Compass Direct News) – A member of Iran’s Parliament reportedly revealed last week that the country’s Parliamentary Committee has stricken the mandatory death penalty for those who leave Islam from proposals for an amended penal code.

Citing a BBC Persian news service report on Tuesday (June 23), United Kingdom-based Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW) announced on Friday (June 26) that a member of Iran’s Legal and Judicial Committee of Parliament, Ali Shahrokhi, had told the Iranian state news agency (IRNA) of the decision to eliminate the mandatory death penalty amendment, which had drawn international protests.

The Parliamentary Committee had come under intense international pressure to drop clauses from the Islamic Penal Code Bill that allowed stoning and made death the mandatory punishment for apostates.

The new penal code was originally approved in September 2008 by a preliminary parliamentary vote of 196-7.

In Friday’s statement, CSW said that the bill must now pass through a final parliamentary vote before being sent to Iran’s most influential body, the Guardian Council, which will rule on it.

The council is made up of six conservative theologians appointed by Iran’s Supreme Leader and six jurists nominated by the judiciary and approved by Parliament. This body has the power to veto any bill it deems inconsistent with the constitution and Islamic law.

The Christian and Baha’i communities of Iran are most likely to be affected by this decision. Iran has been criticized for its treatment of Baha’is, Zoroastrians and Christians, who have all suffered under the current regime.

Joseph Grieboski, president of the Institute on Religion and Public Policy, said the timing of the announcement of the decision during protests over contested elections might not be coincidental.

“Were the regime to maintain [Iranian President Mahmoud] Ahmadinejad’s presidency then pass and enforce a restrictive penal code, the international pressure on Iran would be unbearable for the regime,” said Grieboski. “I do not consider it a sign of opening up. Instead, I see it as a sign of self-preservation.”

Security Backlash

Huge protests over the election results demonstrated considerable opposition to the Iranian government’s heavy-handed tactics, and although the official churches have taken no official stance, many Christians have supported the opposition, according to sources connected to social networking sites.

In the face of the massive protests, a spokesman for the foreign ministry, Hassan Qashqavi, released a statement condemning Western involvement in Iranian affairs and accusing the BBC and Voice of America networks of spreading “anarchy and vandalism.”

This passing of blame bodes ill for minorities in the country, including Christians, whom the Iranian government sees as pawns of the West; they could expect even harsher treatment in a feared post-election clamp-down.

“Since minorities, especially Baha’is and Christians, are often seen as fronts for the West, we can expect that they will feel the greatest backlash by the regime during the protests, and I would argue an even worse crackdown on them if Ahmadinejad and [Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali] Khamenei come out of this,” said Grieboski.

An Iranian Christian who requested anonymity told Compass that both Christians and Iranians as a whole were tired of the dictatorial regime and asked for prayers for relief.

“The people are really tired, they have no hope, mentally, financially, spiritually, it is really difficult to live in Iran,” the source said. “You can’t have a private life, you can’t make a decision about what you believe, women can’t even decide what to wear. We just pray for the whole nation.”

The Iranian source was reticent to predict how the government might react to Christians following the elections but said that if there were a reaction, they could be among the first victims.

“So what the reaction of the government will be we can’t be 100 percent sure,” the source said, “but they could have a very radical reaction.”

Iranian Christians Maryam Rostampour, 27, and Marzieh Amirizadeh Esmaeilabad, 30, who were arrested on March 5 for their Christian activities, are still held in the notorious Evin Prison. The facility has drawn criticism for its human rights violations and executions in recent years.

Compass has learned that the women have been placed in solitary confinement.

Report from Compass Direct News


According to the chairman of the Catholic bishops’ conference of Germany, the death of Jesus Christ was not a redemptive act of God to liberate human beings from the bondage of sin and open the gates of heaven. The Archbishop of Freiburg, Robert Zollitsch, known for his liberal views, publicly denied the fundamental Christian dogma of the sacrificial nature of Christ’s death in a recent interview with a German television station, reports Hilary White,

Zollitsch said that Christ “did not die for the sins of the people as if God had provided a sacrificial offering, like a scapegoat.”

Instead, Jesus had offered only “solidarity” with the poor and suffering. Zollitsch said “that is this great perspective, this tremendous solidarity.”

The interviewer asked, “You would now no longer describe it in such a way that God gave his own son, because we humans were so sinful? You would no longer describe it like this?”

Monsignor Zollitsch responded, “No.”

Archbishop Robert Zollitsch was appointed to the See of Freiburg im Breisgau in 2003 under Pope John Paul II. He is the sitting Chairman of the German Episcopal Conference, to which he was elected in 2008 and is regarded as a “liberal” in the German episcopate.

In February 2008 he said that priestly celibacy should be voluntary and that it is not “theologically necessary.” Zollitsch has also said he accepts homosexual civil unions by states, but is against same-sex “marriage.”

He told Meinhard Schmidt-Degenhard, the program’s host, that God gave “his own son in solidarity with us unto this last death agony to show: ‘So much are you worth to me, I go with you, and I am totally with you in every situation’.”

“He has become involved with me out of solidarity – from free will.”

Christ, he said, had “taken up what I have been blamed for, including the evil that I have caused, and also to take it back into the world of God and hence to show me the way out of sin, guilt and from death to life.”

However, Article 613 of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, the definitive work issued by the Church explaining the dogmas and doctrines of the Catholic religion, describes the death of Christ as “both the Paschal sacrifice that accomplishes the definitive redemption of men, through ‘the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world’, the sacrifice of the New Covenant, which restores man to communion with God by reconciling him to God through the ‘blood of the covenant, which was poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins’.”

The Catechism continues, “This sacrifice of Christ is unique; it completes and surpasses all other sacrifices. First, it is a gift from God the Father himself, for the Father handed his Son over to sinners in order to reconcile us with himself. At the same time it is the offering of the Son of God made man, who in freedom and love offered his life to his Father through the Holy Spirit in reparation for our disobedience.

Report from the Christian Telegraph


Held with no legal counsel for over a month, they suffer illness in notorious prison.

LOS ANGELES, April 13 (Compass Direct News) – Accused of “acting against state security” and “taking part in illegal gatherings,” two Iranian Christian women have been held in a Tehran prison for over a month in a crowded cell with no access to legal representation.

Amnesty International, in an appeal for urgent action last week, reported that authorities have made the accusations known but have imprisoned the women without filing official charges. The organization called on Iranian authorities to release them and expressed concern for their health.

Maryam Rostampour, 27, and Marzieh Amirizadeh Esmaeilabad, 30, who were active in church activities and distributing Bibles according to Amnesty’s appeal, were arrested on March 5. They are being held in the detention center of Evin Prison, a facility that has drawn criticism for its human rights violations and executions in recent years. Amnesty’s appeal included a call to urge Iranian officials to ensure that the women are not being tortured.

Based on a telephone conversation between Esmaeilabad and a third party on March 28, Amnesty reported that Esmaeilabad said both are suffering from infection and high fever and had not received adequate medical care. The women continue to be detained in an overcrowded cell with 27 other women. Amnesty said they “may be prisoners of conscience, detained solely on account of their religious beliefs.”

The women are allowed a one-minute call each day and a weekly visit from family. Authorities have informed their family members that the women are accused of “acting against state security” and “taking part in illegal gatherings,” according to the report, and that they would be released after payment of a $400,000 bail. The families have presented the title deeds of their homes as bail but are still waiting for approval from the judge.

Initially the Ministry of Intelligence summoned one of the women, and then took her to the apartment the two shared. There they were officially arrested, and authorities confiscated computers, books and Bibles. The two women were interrogated and held at different police stations.

On March 18 they appeared before Branch 2 of the Islamic Revolutionary Court in Tehran and subsequently transferred to Evin Prison, said the report.

Even if the women are released on bail, they still have to stand trial. Accusations have not included “apostasy,” or leaving Islam, though investigations are ongoing. It is not known whether the women are converts from Islam.

Last September the Iranian Parliament approved review of a new penal code calling for a mandatory death sentence for “apostates.” Under current law death sentences for apostasy have been issued only under judicial interpretations of sharia (Islamic law).

Under the new penal code, male “apostates” would be executed, while females would receive life sentences. The new code was sent to Iran’s most influential body, the Guardian Council, which is expected to rule on it. The council is made up of six conservative theologians appointed by Iran’s Supreme Leader and six jurists nominated by the judiciary and approved by Parliament. This council has the power to veto any bill it deems inconsistent with the constitution and Islamic law.

Converts to Christianity in Iran risk harassment, arrest and attack from authorities even though Article 23 of the Iranian Constitution grants that individual beliefs are private and no one can be “molested or taken to task” for holding them. Iran has also signed the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which states that everyone shall have the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion.

“This right shall include freedom to have or to adopt a religion or belief of his choice, and freedom, either individually or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in worship, observance, practice and teaching,” the covenant states.

The last Iranian Christian convert from Islam executed by the Iranian government was Hossein Soodmand in 1990. He was accused of working as “an American spy.” Since then at least six Protestant pastors have been assassinated by unknown killers.

Report from Compass Direct News



In Tajikistan’s latest attack on religious property, the Protestant Grace Sunmin Church in the capital Dushanbe has been given 10 days to leave their church building. Claiming they do not want to “disturb” the church over Easter, the authorities subsequently extended the eviction deadline to the end of April, reports Forum 18 News Service.

Church members strongly dispute the authorities’ claim that they do not own their own church, as well as the “ridiculous amount offered” as compensation. Mosques, churches and the country’s only synagogue have previously been demolished.

The highly restrictive new Religion Law has now come into force, despite strong protests from local human rights defenders, religious communities, and international bodies including the UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief and the OSCE.

Among other restrictions in the Law, the number of mosques is restricted, all imams must be appointed by the state, state censorship is imposed on all religious literature; and children’s religious activity and education are restricted. State officials have described protests as “baseless” and those who share the concerns of international organisations as supporting “alien ideas.”

Report from the Christian Telegraph


Thousands of Eritrean believers are languishing in military prisons, in labor camps, and in shipping containers in the open desert, reports MNN.

Carl Moeller with Open Doors reports a spot of good news: “Two elderly members of the Kale Hiwot church, who were arrested last November and held at a military concentration camp, have been released, apparently on bail. In addition to that, we also learned that another gentleman, Solomon Mengese, was released.”

Their detentions were linked to Christian activities. Though the government denies religious persecution, Open Doors notes a heavy concentration of arrests and detainment of Bible-believing Christians.

The Kale Hiwot members were men in their 80s, arrested in November, and jailed in Mitire-camp. The camp is a military concentration camp in northeastern Eritrea. Moeller says that the area is believed to be where many Christians are being held.

Mengese is a Full Gospel Church member and gas station owner who was imprisoned for six months in Asmara’s Police Station number 2. He was released two weeks ago.

Meanwhile reliable sources in Eritrea confirmed the number of Christian prisoners in Wi’a Military Training Centre. According to Open Doors, among the 2,900 believers imprisoned, there are 270 Evangelical Christians–including 135 women–kept at Wi’a.

Their sources say the prisoners are facing miserable circumstances as they refuse to deny their faith.

According to the sources, Wi’a Military Training Centre also holds 27 Muslim prisoners who were arrested in Assab for opposing the government-appointed Mufti. They have been in the centre for one year and six months and are mostly kept underground, separate from other religious and military prisoners.

Open Doors’ sources were also able to confirm that the number of Evangelical Christians kept at Massawa Police station is 50, including 15 women. According to these sources, the relatives and friends of the prisoners may bring them food once a day, but they are not allowed to see the prisoners.

Eritrea banned all independent Protestant churches in 2002. Only Islam and the Eritrean Orthodox, Catholic and Lutheran Christian denominations were given official recognition. Buildings of all other churches were closed, and private gatherings in homes were banned. Worshippers caught disobeying these restrictions have faced arrest and torture in prison camps notorious for their horrific circumstances.

Moeller asks believers to “pray that the church in Eritrea will continue to stand strong in the midst of this. We need to pray for those imprisoned, that they would know that they are not forgotten. And third, we need to pray that the denominations that have been sanctioned by the government would speak out on behalf of those who have been imprisoned.”

Report from the Christian telegraph


Accepting Islamic law in exchange for peace leaves many uncertain, fearful.

ISTANBUL, March 27 (Compass Direct News) – Just over a month since Pakistan’s fertile Swat Valley turned into a Taliban stronghold where sharia (Islamic law) rules, the fate of the remaining Christians in the area is uncertain.

Last month, in an effort to end a bloody two-year battle, the Islamabad administration struck a deal with Taliban forces surrendering all governance of Swat Valley in the North West Frontier Province (NWFP). Sources told Compass that after the violence that has killed and displaced hundreds, an estimated 500 Christians remain in the area. Traditionally these have been low-skilled workers, but younger, more educated Christians work as nurses, teachers and in various other professions.

The sole Church of Pakistan congregation in Swat, consisting of 40 families, has been renting space for nearly 100 years. The government has never given them permission to buy land in order to build a church building.

An associate pastor of the church in central Swat told Yousaf Benjamin of the National Commission for Justice and Peace that with the bombing of girls schools at the end of last year, all Christian families migrated to nearby districts. After the peace deal and with guarded hope for normalcy and continued education for their children, most of the families have returned to their homes but are reluctant to attend church.

The associate pastor, who requested anonymity, today told sources that “people don’t come to the church as they used to come before.” He said that although the Taliban has made promises of peace, the Christian community has yet to believe the Muslim extremists will hold to them.

“The people don’t rely on Taliban assurances,” said Benjamin.

Last week the associate pastor met with the third in command of the main Taliban militant umbrella group in Pakistan, Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan, Kari Abdullah, and requested land in order to build a church. Abdullah reportedly agreed, saying that Islam is a religion of peace and equality, and that his group intended to provide equal opportunities to the religious communities of Swat.

The Catholic Church in Swat is located in a school compound that was bombed late last year. Run by nuns and operated under the Catholic Church Peshawar Diocese, the church has been closed for the last two years since insurgents have been fighting government led forces, source said.

Parliamentarian Shahbaz Bhatti said Christians and the few Hindus in Swat valley have lived under terror and harassment by the Taliban since insurgents began efforts to seize control of the region. He met with a delegation of Christians from Swat last month who said they were concerned about their future, but Bhatti said only time will tell how the changes will affect Christians.

“The Christian delegation told me that they favor the peace pact if indeed it can bring peace, stability and security to the people living there,” he said. “But they also shared their concern that if there is enforcement of sharia, what will be their future? But we will see how it will be implemented.”

Although there have been no direct threats against Christians since the establishment of the peace accord, some advocates fear that it may only be a matter of time.

“These days, there are no reports of persecution in Swat,” Lahore-based reporter Felix Qaiser of Asia News told Compass by phone, noting the previous two years of threatening letters, kidnappings and aggression against Christians by Islamic extremists. “But even though since the implementation of sharia there have been no such reports, we are expecting them. We’re expecting this because other faiths won’t be tolerated.”

Qaiser also expressed concern about the treatment of women.

“They won’t be allowed to move freely and without veils,” he said. “And we’re very much concerned about their education there.”

In the past year, more than 200 girls schools in Swat were reported to have been burned down or bombed by Islamic extremists.

Remaining girls schools were closed down in January but have been re-opened since the peace agreement in mid-February. Girls under the age of 13 are allowed to attend.

Since the deal was struck, seven new sharia judges have been installed, and earlier this month lawyers were trained in the nuances of Islamic law. Those not trained are not permitted to exercise their profession. As of this week, Non-Governmental Organizations are no longer permitted in the area and vaccinations have been banned.

“These are the first fruits of Islamic law, and we’re expecting worse things – Islamic punishment such as cutting off hands, because no one can dictate to them,” Qaiser said. Everything is according to their will and their own interpretation of Islamic law.”


Launch Point for Taliban

Analysts and sources on the ground have expressed skepticism in the peace deal brokered by pro-Taliban religious leader Maulana Sufi Muhammad, who is also the leader of Tehrik-e-Nifaz-e-Shariat-e-Mohammadi. The insurgent, who has long fought for implementation of sharia in the region, has also fought alongside the Taliban against U.S. troops in Afghanistan.

He was imprisoned and released under a peace deal in April 2008 in an effort to restore normalcy in the Swat Valley. Taliban militants in the Swat area are under the leadership of his son-in-law, Maulana Fazlullah.

The agreement to implement sharia triggered alarm around the world that militants will be emboldened in the northwest of Pakistan, a hotbed for Taliban and Al-Qaeda extremists fighting Western forces in Afghanistan and bent on overthrowing its government.

Joe Grieboski of the Institute on Religion and Public Policy said the peace deal makes Talibanization guaranteed by law, rendering it impossible to return to a liberal democracy or any guarantee of fundamental rights.

“The government in essence ceded the region to the Taliban,” said Grieboski. “Clerical rule over the region will fulfill the desires of the extremists, and we’ll see the region become a copy of what Afghanistan looked like under Taliban rule.”

This can only mean, he added, that the Taliban will have more power to promulgate their ideology and power even as the Pakistani administration continues to weaken.

“Unfortunately, this also creates a safe launching off point for Taliban forces to advance politically, militarily and ideologically into other areas of the country,” said Grieboski. “The peace deal further demonstrates the impotence of [Asif Ali] Zardari as president.”

Grieboski said the peace deal further demonstrates that Pakistani elites – and President Zardari in particular – are less concerned about fundamental rights, freedom and democracy than about establishing a false sense of security in the country.

“This peace deal will not last, as the extremists will demand more and more, and Zardari and the government have placed themselves in a weakened position and will once again have to give in,” said Grieboski.

Sohail Johnson, chief coordinator of advocacy group Sharing Life Ministry Pakistan, said he fears that militants in Swat will now be able to freely create training centers and continue to attack the rest of Pakistan.

“They will become stronger, and this will be the greatest threat for Christians living in Pakistan,” said Johnson.

Thus far the government has not completely bowed to Taliban demands for establishment of full sharia courts, and it is feared that the insurgents may re-launch violent attacks on civilians until they have full judicial control.

“The question of the mode of implementation has not yet been decided, because the Taliban want their own qazis [sharia judges] and that the government appointed ones should quit,” said lawyer Khalid Mahmood, who practices in the NWFP.

Mahmood called the judiciary system in Swat “collapsed” and echoed the fear that violence would spread in the rest of the country.

“They will certainly attack on the neighboring districts,” he said.

Earlier today, close to the Swat Valley in Khyber, a suicide bomber demolished a mosque in Jamrud, killing at least 48 people and injuring more than 150 others during Friday prayers. Pakistani security officials reportedly said they suspected the attack was retaliation for attempts to get NATO supplies into Afghanistan to use against Taliban fighters and other Islamist militants.

Report from Compass Direct News


The Rev. William Reyes’ wife awaits word, fears for safety of her children.

INDIANAPOLIS, Indiana, March 23 (Compass Direct News) – Six months after the disappearance in Colombia of the Rev. William Reyes of Maicao, La Guajira, no one knows what happened to him.

This week marks six months of agonizing uncertainty for the family of Rev. Reyes. On Sept. 25, 2008, the pastor of Light and Truth Inter-American Church disappeared en route home from a ministers’ meeting in Valledupar, a city in the neighboring department (state) of Cesar.

Family members and friends fear that guerrilla fighters kidnapped the veteran minister; they have not seen or heard from him since his disappearance. Rev. Reyes and colleagues in the Fraternity of Evangelical Pastors of Maicao had received repeated threats from illegal armed groups operating in the La Guajira peninsula since March 2008.

Guerrillas or their paramilitary rivals may have assassinated Rev. Reyes and disposed of his body, and some observers even speculate that he may have fallen victim to rogue units of the Colombian army that murder innocent civilians to inflate the body counts of “terrorists” killed in battle.

But nobody knows for sure what happened to the 41-year-old father of three – William, 19, Luz Nelly, 17 and Estefania, 9. His wife and children live with gnawing fear and uncertainty.

“Some days I feel so desperate, I don’t know what to do,” Idia Miranda de Reyes told Compass by telephone from her home in Maicao. Through tears, she added, “My daughter Estefania helps me stay strong. She tells me, ‘Mama, don’t cry,’ remember that God is with us.’”

Tensions heightened for the Reyes family on Feb. 19, when armed men entered another Maicao church just a few blocks from the Light and Truth Church while worship was in progress and forcibly removed a woman from the congregation. The pastor of the church refused to disclose the victim’s identity or discuss the circumstances of her disappearance, citing concerns for the safety of the woman, her family and other members of his congregation.

Such caution is understandable in Colombia, a country that suffers the highest incidence of kidnapping in the Western Hemisphere and a homicide rate 11 times greater than in the United States.

Six months of silence in regard to her husband’s fate, coupled with this new threat to her community, has made Idia Miranda Reyes justifiably fearful for her family’s safety. Moreover, she now faces financial hardship. The Truth and Light Church kept her on the payroll until Feb. 15, when the congregation appointed a new minister to replace her husband.

She is considering a move to another city to be near her extended family but wants to wait until her daughter, Luz Nelly, graduates from high school this spring. For now, the family survives on donations from friends and church members.

“We know that God is doing something through this,” Reyes said. “I don’t understand what that is, but I’m going to keep trusting Him.”

The Reyes family has received moral support from the Christian community in Colombia. On Oct. 4, 2008, thousands of marchers from Maicao’s churches held a public demonstration to protest the disappearance of Rev. Reyes and demand his immediate release.

The march produced the only clue to his fate. Following the demonstration, the minister’s wallet turned up inside the church building with his identification documents intact. His wife took that as a message that he was still alive and that his captors would be contacting her soon.

That has not happened. But such delay tactics are not unusual in Colombian kidnapping cases, according to Michael Joseph of the Commission for Restoration, Life and Peace of the Evangelical Council of Colombia.

“It’s disconcerting that we have received no ransom request,” Joseph said. “It means he could have been killed. On the other hand, we do know that Rev. Reyes had been receiving extortion threats by phone and text message from months before he disappeared. So really it’s anybody’s guess.”

Joseph traveled to Maicao last October to interview Rev. Reyes’ wife on behalf of the commission, which then mounted a public letter-writing campaign together with Justapaz, a Mennonite Church-affiliated organization based in Bogotá. Concerned citizens petitioned the office of Attorney General Dr. Mario Iguarán to “take all steps necessary to locate Pastor Reyes and to protect his family,” and the organizations are still urging people worldwide to write to the Colombian official. A model letter can be found at .

At press time, law enforcement authorities had not responded to the petition, but this is not unusual for kidnapping cases in Colombia. The attorney general’s office reportedly faces a backlog of 1 million unsolved homicides, abductions and other serious crimes.

General lawlessness in some areas of the country means that Colombians often face retaliation from the same criminals who murder or kidnap loved ones, should they dare report such crimes to the authorities as Rev. Reyes’ wife has done. She lives in fear as she awaits word of her missing husband.

“I have three kids, and I am very fearful for them,” she said. “If it were not for the solace the Lord gives me, I would go crazy. I am trusting in God alone.”

Report from Compass Direct News