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

Pakistani Officials Back Muslim Land-Grabbers, Christians Say

Senior district authorities accused of supporting desecration of 150 Christian graves.

LAHORE, Pakistan, March 9 (CDN) — Christians in south Punjab Province are accusing senior district officials of supporting local Muslims who allegedly demolished 150 Christian graves and desecrated holy relics – and are now threatening Christians seeking legal redress.

In the Kot Addu area of Muzaffargarh district, Waseem Shakir told Compass by telephone that an influential Muslim group last Nov. 6 took illegal possession of a 1,210-square yard piece of land designated as a Christian cemetery and set up shops on it. Official records state that the portion of land was allotted as a Christian cemetery, he said.

“Local Muslims demolished 150 Christians’ graves and desecrated the cross and biblical inscriptions on the graves in a bid to construct shops on the property,” said Shakir, a resident of Chak (Village) 518, Peer Jaggi Morr, Kot Addu. “Only five marlas [151.25 square yards] are all that is left for the Christians to bury their dead now.”

Shakir said that all Muzaffargarh area authorities, including the local politicians, were supporting the alleged land-grabbers even as Christians feared a mob attack.

“The situation has come to point where even the local police have warned their higher-ups that the tension could provoke a Gojra-type incident,” he said, adding that Muslim instigators were now openly trying to intimidate him and Boota Masih, who registered a case with police, into dropping the matter.

In Gojra on Aug. 1, 2009, Muslim hordes acting on an unsubstantiated rumor of blasphemy of the Quran – and whipped into a frenzy by local imams and banned terrorist groups – killed at least seven Christians, looted more than 100 houses and set fire to 50 of them. At least 19 people were injured in the melee.

Shakir said Christians had approached police and the district administration to register a case against the Muslims for desecrating their sacred relics and hurting religious sentiments, but authorities have shown little attention to their grievance. Masih registered the complaint on behalf of area Christians, but the station house officer of the Daira Deen Panah Police, Waseem Leghari, altered it to state that Muslims had only occupied a piece of the cemetery land, Shakir said.

“Leghari registered a case against the Muslims under Section 297 of the Pakistan Penal Code [trespass of a place for the dead], which is a bailable offense, despite the fact that a case under the blasphemy law should have been registered against the Muslims for desecrating the Christian holy relics,” Shakir said.

Police took no measures to arrest the 11 named suspects, he added.

“No one seems bothered over the desecration of our cross and biblical inscriptions,” Shakir said.

Section 297 of the penal code states, “Whoever, with the intention of wounding the feelings of any person, or of insulting the religion of any person, or with the knowledge that the feelings of any person are likely to be wounded, or that the religion of any person is likely to be insulted thereby, commits any trespass in any place of worship or on any place of sculpture, or any place set apart for the performance of funeral rites or as a depository for the remains of the dead, or offers any indignity to any human corpse or causes disturbance to any persons assembled for the performance of funeral ceremonies, shall be punished with imprisonment of either description for a term which may extend to one year, or with fine, or with both.”

Shakir said that, besides the 150 demolished graves, the illegal occupants had thrown garbage on another 50 graves. The police’s indifferent attitude towards the Christian community had been hurtful, he said, and Christians had repeatedly taken up the issue with District Police Officer (DPO) Chaudhry Manzoor and District Coordination Officer Tahir Khurshid.

They did not take the issue seriously, Shakir said.

DPO Manzoor rejected the Christians’ accusations.

“It’s not as serious a case as they are portraying,” he told Compass. “The people who have built shops on the land are not illegal occupants but the real owners.”

He said Christians were furious because the shopkeepers put some of their belongings on the graves.

“No one has desecrated any Christian holy symbol, book or grave,” he said. “Any fears that the issue could lead to another Gojra are baseless.”

Manzoor said the matter would be resolved amicably.

Napolean Qayyum, leader of the Minorities Wing of the ruling Pakistan People’s Party (PPP), told Compass that open desecration of the Christian symbols and places and the police’s alleged support of the culprits showed the prejudice of the Punjab government towards minority groups.

“An application regarding this incident is lying in the Punjab chief minister’s secretariat, but it seems the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz’s [PML-N] government in Punjab wants another Gojra-like incident to take place in Kot Addu,” he said, adding that it was curious that all major violence against Christians usually takes place when the PML-N is in power in the province.

Qayyum said that he had taken up the matter with the PPP leadership.

“It’s a case of blasphemy, and the culprits should have been rounded up under Section 295-A,” he said. “I have contacted Farahnaz Ispahani, the political adviser to President Asif Zardari, and she has assured me of the federal government’s support in this matter.”

He added that stern action against local police and administrative authorities was necessary to set an example for others.

Report from Compass Direct News

Lao Officials to Expel More Christian Families from Village

Katin chief says previously expelled Christians will be shot if they return.

DUBLIN, November 9 (CDN) — Officials in Katin village, southern Laos have ordered six more Christian families to renounce their faith or face expulsion in early January, advocacy group Human Rights Watch for Lao Religious Freedom (HRWLRF) reported today (Nov. 9).

The Katin chief and the village religious affairs officer, along with local security forces, recently approached the six families with the threat after having expelled 11 Christian families, totaling 48 people, at gunpoint last January. The six families now under threat had become Christians since the January expulsion.

The eviction last January followed months of threats and harassment, including the confiscation of livestock and other property, the detention of 80 men, women and children in a school compound and the death by asphyxiation of a Christian villager. (See, “Lao officials Force Christians from Worship at Gunpoint,” Feb. 8.)

Immediately after the expulsion, two more families in Katin village became Christians despite the obvious risk to their personal safety, according to HRWLRF. The village chief allowed them to remain in Katin but warned all villagers that their own homes would be “torn down” if they made contact with the expelled Christians.

In the following months, the expelled villagers suffered from a lack of adequate shelter, food and water, leading to eye and skin infections, diarrhea, dehydration and even the death of one villager. Katin authorities also denied Christian children access to the village school. (See, “Christians Expelled from Village Suffer Critical Illnesses,” May 14.)

District officials in early May gave the Christians permission to return to Katin and take rice from their family barns to prevent starvation, said another source on condition of anonymity. Some families then tried to cultivate their rice fields to avoid losing them completely, but the work was extremely difficult as authorities had confiscated their buffaloes, essential to agriculture in Laos.


Threat to Shoot

In July, officials from the Saravan provincial headquarters and the Ta-oyl district religious affairs office met with the evicted families in their shelters at the edge of the jungle and encouraged them to return to Katin, HRWLRF said.

The Christians agreed to return under five conditions: that authorities designate a Christian “zone” within Katin to avoid conflict with non-believers; that all forms of persecution end; that their children return to school; that Christians must be granted the right of burial in the village cemetery; and that the village award compensation for six homes destroyed in the January eviction.

When higher-level officials approached Katin leaders with these terms, village officials and local residents rejected them, insisting that they would only allow the Christians to return if they gave up their faith. The higher officials invoked Decree 92, a law guaranteeing the rights of religious minorities, but village heads said they would shoot every Christian who returned to Katin.

Shortly after this discussion took place, a further four families in Katin became Christians, according to HRWLRF.

A communist country, Laos is 1.5 percent Christian and 67 percent Buddhist, with the remainder unspecified. Article 6 and Article 30 of the Lao Constitution guarantee the right of Christians and other religious minorities to practice the religion of their choice without discrimination or penalty.

Report from Compass Direct News

Legal Status Foreseen for Christianity in Buddhist Bhutan

Country’s religious regulatory authority expected to consider recognition before year’s end.

NEW DELHI, November 4 (CDN) — For the first time in Bhutan’s history, the Buddhist nation’s government seems ready to grant much-awaited official recognition and accompanying rights to a miniscule Christian population that has remained largely underground.

The authority that regulates religious organizations will discuss in its next meeting – to be held by the end of December – how a Christian organization can be registered to represent its community, agency secretary Dorji Tshering told Compass by phone.

Thus far only Buddhist and Hindu organizations have been registered by the authority, locally known as Chhoedey Lhentshog. As a result, only these two communities have the right to openly practice their religion and build places of worship.

Asked if Christians were likely to get the same rights soon, Tshering replied, “Absolutely” – an apparent paradigm shift in policy given that Bhutan’s National Assembly had banned open practice of non-Buddhist and non-Hindu religions by passing resolutions in 1969 and in 1979.

“The constitution of Bhutan says that Buddhism is the country’s spiritual heritage, but it also says that his majesty [the king] is the protector of all religions,” he added, explaining the basis on which the nascent democracy is willing to accept Christianity as one of the faiths of its citizens.

The former king of Bhutan, Jigme Singye Wangchuck, envisioned democracy in the country in 2006 – after the rule of an absolute monarchy for over a century. The first elections were held in 2008, and since then the government has gradually given rights that accompany democracy to its people.

The government’s move to legalize Christianity seems to have the consent of the present king, Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck, who is respected by almost all people and communities in the country. In his early thirties, the king studied in universities in the United States and the United Kingdom. Prime Minister Lyonchen Jigmey Thinley is also believed to have agreed in principle to recognition of other faiths.

According to source who requested anonymity, the government is likely to register only one Christian organization and would expect it to represent all Christians in Bhutan – which would call for Christian unity in the country.

All Hindus, who constitute around 22 percent of Bhutan’s less than 700,000 people, are also represented by one legal entity, the Hindu Dharma Samudaya (Hindu Religion Community) of Bhutan, which was registered with the Chhoedey Lhentshog authority along with Buddhist organizations a year ago.

Tshering said the planned discussion at the December meeting is meant to look at technicalities in the Religious Organizations Act of 2007, which provides for registration and regulation of religious groups with intent to protect and promote the country’s spiritual heritage. The government began to enforce the Act only in November 2009, a year after the advent of democracy.

Asked what some of the government’s concerns are over allowing Christianity in the country, Tshering said “conversion must not be forced, because it causes social tensions which Bhutan cannot afford to have. However, the constitution says that no one should be forced to believe in a religion, and that aspect will be taken care of. We will ensure that no one is forced to convert.”

The government’s willingness to recognize Christians is partly aimed at bringing the community under religious regulation, said the anonymous source. This is why it is evoking mixed response among the country’s Christians, who number around 6,000 according to rough estimates.

Last month, a court in south Bhutan sentenced a Christian man to three years of prison for screening films on Christianity – which was criticized by Christian organizations around the world. (See, “Christian in Bhutan Imprisoned for Showing Film on Christ,” Oct. 18.)

The government is in the process of introducing a clause banning conversions by force or allurement in the country’s penal code.

Though never colonized, landlocked Bhutan has historically seen its sovereignty as fragile due to its small size and location between two Asian giants, India and China. It has sought to protect its sovereignty by preserving its distinct cultural identity based on Buddhism and by not allowing social tensions or unrest.

In the 1980s, when the king sought to strengthen the nation’s cultural unity, ethnic Nepalese citizens, who are mainly Hindu and from south Bhutan, rebelled against it. But a military crackdown forced over 100,000 of them – some of them secret Christians – to either flee to or voluntarily leave the country for neighboring Nepal.

Tshering said that while some individual Christians had approached the authority with queries, no organization had formally filed papers for registration.

After the December meeting, if members of the regulatory authority feel that Chhoedey Lhentshog’s mandate does not include registering a Christian organization, Christians will then be registered by another authority, the source said.

After official recognition, Christians would require permission from local authorities to hold public meetings. Receiving foreign aid or inviting foreign speakers would be subject to special permission from the home ministry, added the source.

Bhutan’s first contact with Christians came in the 17th century when Guru Rimpoche, a Buddhist leader and the unifier of Bhutan as a nation state, hosted the first two foreigners, who were Jesuits. Much later, Catholics were invited to provide education in Bhutan; the Jesuits came to Bhutan in 1963 and the Salesians in 1982 to run schools. The Salesians, however, were expelled in 1982 on accusations of proselytizing, and the Jesuits left the country in 1988.

“As Bhutanese capacities (scholarly, administrative and otherwise) increased, the need for active Jesuit involvement in the educational system declined, ending in 1988, when the umbrella agreement between the Jesuit order and the kingdom expired and the administration of all remaining Jesuit institutions was turned over to the government,” writes David M. Malone, Canada’s high commissioner to India and ambassador to Bhutan, in the March 2008 edition of Literary Review of Canada.

After a Christian organization is registered, Christian institutions may also be allowed once again in the country, given the government’s stress on educating young Bhutanese.

A local Christian requesting anonymity said the community respects Bhutan’s political and religious leaders, especially the king and the prime minister, will help preserve the country’s unique culture and seeks to contribute to the building of the nation.

Report from Compass Direct News

Muslim Mob Attacks Christians in Gujrat, Pakistan

Dozens beaten, shot at, left for dead since Sept. 8.

SARGODHA, Pakistan, September 27 (CDN) — A mob of Muslim extremists on Thursday (Sept. 23) shot at and beat dozens of Christians, including one cleared of “blasphemy” charges, in Punjab Province’s Gujrat district, Christian leaders said.

The attack on Tariq Gill, exonerated of charges of blaspheming the Quran on Sept. 3, 2009, and on his father Murad Gill, his mother and the other Christian residents was the latest of more than 10 such assaults on the Christian colony of Mohalla Kalupura, Gujrat city, since Sept. 8, the Rev. Suleman Nasri Khan and Bishop Shamas Pervaiz told Compass.

About 40 Islamists – some shooting Kalashnikovs and pistols at homes and individuals on the street, others brandishing axes and clubs – beat some of the Christians so badly that they left them for dead, Pastor Khan said. So far, 10 families have been targeted for the attacks.

On Thursday (Sept. 23) the assailants ripped the clothing off of Gill’s mother and dragged her nude through the streets, Pastor Khan said.

Among the Christians attacked on Thursday (Sept. 23) were Rashid Masih and his family, he said. The critically injured Masih and his family members, Gill and his parents, and the other injured Christians were initially rushed to Aziz Bhatti hospital in Gujrat, Pastor Khan said, and then transferred to Abdullah Hospital in nearby Lalla Musa to receive more advanced care.

“The injured Christians were under the observation of able doctors at Abdullah Hospital in Lalla Musa,” Pastor Khan told Compass by telephone.

Bishop Pervaiz, central vice chairman of the Pakistan Interfaith Peace Council, said the mob was led by two members of the National Assembly, Meer Anjum and Farasat Dar, at the behest of a powerful member of the Punjab Assembly named Sheikh Islam. The three Muslim politicians were not immediately available for comment, but the Gujrat superintendent of police investigations, identified only as Hafeez, told Christian leaders they were respectable legislators who were innocent.

Also asserting that the three Muslim politicians were behind the violence, Pastor Khan said the assailants have vowed to mount an attack on Mohalla Kalupura similar to the Islamist assault on Gojra in 2009. On Aug. 1, 2009, an Islamic mob acting on a false rumor of blaspheming the Quran and whipped into frenzy by local imams attacked the Christian colony in Gojra, burning at least seven Christians to death, injuring 19 others, looting more than 100 houses and setting fire to 50 of them. The dead included women and children.

Bishop Pervaiz said the attackers in Gujrat have threatened to kill him, Pastor Khan and Bishop Yashua John and continue to roam the streets of Mohalla Kalupura looking for Christian residents to kill.

The Lorry Adda police station house officer (SHO), inspector Riaz Qaddar, has stated publicly that “no stone would be left unturned” to apprehend the gunmen, but the Christian leaders said he has refused to act.

“The SHO flatly denied indicting the Muslim mob and especially the Muslim legislators,” said Pastor Khan, chairman of Power of God’s Healing Ministry International Pakistan and national coordinator of Jesus’ Victory Gospel Assembly of Pakistan.

Bishop Pervaiz said that besides the Christian accused of blasphemy, the attacks also may have been sparked by the election victory last year of an area Christian – who was slain a few days after taking office. Yaqoob Masih won the Tehsil Municipal Authority Gujrat election by a landslide, and a few days after he took office on Dec. 15, 2009, Muslim candidates running for the same office killed him, Bishop Pervaiz said.

He added that Lorry Adda police did not register a murder case at that time.  

In the blasphemy case, Tariq Gill was falsely charged on Aug. 15, 2009 under Section 295-B of Pakistan’s blasphemy laws for desecrating the Quran, but due to the intervention of Christian leaders, influential Muslim elders and police, he was exonerated of all allegations on Sept. 3, 2009, said Bishop Pervaiz, who is also chairman of the Council of Bishops and head of the National Churches in Pakistan.

“Muslim legislators Meer Anjum, Sheikh Islam and Farasat Dar had resentment against Murad Gill’s family over this blasphemy row as well,” said Bishop Pervaiz, “and now through these assaults, which are becoming more frequent and massive, emboldened Muslims have found a way to vent their fury.”

The Christian leaders said they approached District Police Officer Afzaal Kausar about the attacks, and he sent the application for charges to Hafeez, the superintendent of police investigation in Gujrat.

“But he did not bother to watch the video we shot of the attack and shrugged off the matter,” Pastor Khan said.

He said that Hafeez told them that Anjum, Dar and Islam were respectable legislators, “and without any investigation declared them innocent.”

This afternoon Pastor Khan led a protest at the Islamabad National Press Club. He said more than 250 Christian protestors reached Islamabad despite an attempt by Inspector Qaddar of Lorry Adda police station to arrest them before they left the area.

“But the invisible hand of Almighty God helped us, and we safely made it to Islamabad,” Pastor Khan said. “Although the government has clamped a ban on all sorts of processions and demonstrations, we successfully staged the sit-in before National Press Club Islamabad.”

Saying he regretted that the demonstration had drawn little attention, he added that the protestors would remain in front of the building tonight demanding justice. The pastor said tomorrow (Sept. 28) they would protest in front of the Islamabad Parliament House.

Report from Compass Direct News

Moroccan Convert Serving 15 Years for His Faith

Christian’s sentence for ‘proselytism,’ burning poles called excessive.

ISTANBUL, September 17 (CDN) — Nearly five years into the prison sentence of the only Christian in Morocco serving time for his faith, Moroccan Christians and advocates question the harsh measures of the Muslim state toward a man who dared speak openly about Jesus.

By the end of December Jamaa Ait Bakrim, 46, will have been in prison for five years at Morocco’s largest prison, Prison Centrale, in Kenitra. An outspoken Christian convert, Bakrim was sentenced to 15 years prison for “proselytizing” and destroying “the goods of others” in 2005 after burning two defunct utility poles located in front of his private business in a small town in south Morocco.

Advocates and Moroccan Christians said, however, that the severity of his sentence in relation to his misdemeanor shows that authorities were determined to put him behind bars because he persistently spoke about his faith.

“He became a Christian and didn’t keep it to himself,” said a Moroccan Christian and host for Al Hayat Television who goes only by his first name, Rachid, for security reasons. “He shared it with people around him. In Morocco, and this happened to me personally, if you become a Christian you may be persecuted by your family. If you keep it to yourself, no one will bother you. If you share it with anyone else and start speaking about it, that’s another story.”

Rachid fled Morocco in 2005 due to mounting pressure on him and his family. He is a wanted man in his country, but he said it is time for people to start speaking up on behalf of Bakrim, whom he said has “zeal” for his faith and speaks openly about it even in prison.

“Our Moroccan brothers and sisters suffer, and we just assume things will be OK and will somehow change later by themselves,” said Rachid. “They will never change if we don’t bring it to international attention.”

Authorities in Agadir tried Bakrim for “destruction of the goods of others,” which is punishable with up to 20 years in prison, and for proselytism under Article 220, which is punishable with six months to three years in prison.

“Jamaa is a manifestation of a very inconvenient truth for Moroccan authorities: there are Moroccan converts to Christianity,” said Logan Maurer, a regional director at U.S.-based advocacy group International Christian Concern (ICC). “The government wants to ignore this, suppress it, and when – as in Jamaa’s case – the problem won’t go away, they do whatever they can to silence it.”

Proselytism in Morocco is generally defined as using means of seduction or exploiting weakness to undermine the faith of Muslims or to convert them to another religion.

Recently Morocco has used the law to punish any proclamation of non-Muslim faith, contradicting its pledge to allow freedom to manifest one’s faith under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which it is a signatory. Article 18 of the covenant affirms the right to manifest one’s faith in worship, observance, practice or teaching.

The covenant also states, however, that “freedom to manifest one’s religion or beliefs may be subject only to such limitations as are prescribed by law and are necessary to protect public safety, order, health, or morals or the fundamental rights and freedoms of others.”

There are an estimated 1,000 Moroccan Christian converts in the country. They are not recognized by the government. About 99 percent of Morocco’s population of more than 33 million is Muslim.

Between March and June authorities expelled 128 foreign Christians in an effort to purge the country of any foreign Christian influences. In April nearly 7,000 Muslim religious leaders backed the deportations by signing a document describing the work of Christians within Morocco as “moral rape” and “religious terrorism.” The statement from the religious leaders came amid a nationwide mudslinging campaign geared to vilify Christians in Morocco for “proselytism” – widely perceived as bribing people to change their faith.

In the same time period, Moroccan authorities applied pressure on Moroccan converts to Christianity through interrogations, searches and arrests. Christians on the ground said that, although these have not continued, there is still a general sense that the government is increasingly intolerant of Christian activities.  

“They are feeling very bad,” said Rachid. “I spoke to several of them, and they say things are getting worse…They don’t feel safe. They are under a lot of disappointment, and [they are] depressed because the government is putting all kinds of pressure on them.”


From Europe to Prison

Bakrim, a Berber from southern Morocco, studied political science and law in Rabat. After completing his studies he traveled to Europe, where he became a Christian. Realizing that it would be difficult to live out his new-found faith in Morocco, in 1993 he applied for political asylum in the Netherlands, but immigration authorities refused him and expelled him when his visa expired.

In 1995 Bakrim was prosecuted for “proselytizing,” and spent seven months in jail in the city of Goulemine. In April 1996 he was transferred to a mental hospital in Inezgane, where authorities ordered he undergo medical treatments. He was released in June. The psychiatric treatment caused side-effects in his behavior and made it difficult for him to control his hands and legs for a period of time, sources told Compass.

Two years later authorities put him in jail again for a year because he publicly displayed a cross, according to an article by Moroccan weekly Le Journal Hebdo published in January 2005.

“He has a zeal about his religion,” said Rachid. “He never denied his faith through all these things, and he even preached the gospel in prison and the psychiatric place where they held him … They tried to shut him [up], and they couldn’t.”

In 2001 Bakrim again attracted attention by painting crosses and writing Bible verses in public view at his place of business, which also served as his home, according to the French-language weekly. Between 2001 and 2005 he reportedly wrote to the municipality of Massa, asking officials to remove two wooden utility posts that were no longer in use, as they were blocking his business. When authorities didn’t respond, Bakrim burned them.

During his defense at the Agadir court in southern Morocco, Bakrim did not deny his Christian faith and refuted accusations that he had approached his neighbors in an attempt to “undermine their Muslim faith.”

The judge ruled that “the fact that Jamaa denies accusations of proselytism is inconsistent with his previous confession in his opening statement when he proclaimed he was the son of Christ, and that he wished that Moroccans would become Christians,” according to Le Journal Hebdo.

Bakrim did not appeal the court sentence. Though there have been other cases of Christians imprisoned for their faith, none of their sentences has been as long as Bakrim’s.

“They will just leave him in the prison so he dies spiritually and psychologically,” said Rachid. “Fifteen years is too much for anything they say he did, and Jamaa knows that. The authorities know he’s innocent. So probably they gave him this sentence so they can shut him [up] forever.”

Rachid asked that Christians around the world continue to lobby and pray that their Moroccan brothers and sisters stand firm and gain their freedoms.

“The biggest need is to stand with the Moroccan church and do whatever it takes to ask for their freedom of religion,” said Rachid.

Report from Compass Direct News

Egyptian Couple Shot by Muslim Extremists Undaunted in Ministry

Left for dead, Christians offer to drop charges if allowed to construct church building.

CAIRO, Egypt, June 9 (CDN) — Rasha Samir was sure her husband, Ephraim Shehata, was dead.

He was covered with blood, had two bullets inside him and was lying facedown in the dust of a dirt road. Samir was lying on top of him doing her best to shelter him from the onslaught of approaching gunmen.

With arms outstretched, the men surrounded Samir and Shehata and pumped off round after round at the couple. Seconds before, Samir could hear her husband mumbling Bible verses. But one bullet had pierced his neck, and now he wasn’t moving. In a blind terror, Samir tried desperately to stop her panicked breathing and convincingly lie still, hoping the gunmen would go away.

Finally, the gunfire stopped and one of the men spoke. “Let’s go. They’re dead.”


‘Break the Hearts’

On the afternoon of Feb. 27, lay pastor Shehata and his wife Samir were ambushed on a desolate street by a group of Islamic gunmen outside the village of Teleda in Upper Egypt.

The attack was meant to “break the hearts of the Christians” in the area, Samir said.

The attackers shot Shehata twice, once in the stomach through the back, and once in the neck. They shot Samir in the arm. Both survived the attack, but Shehata is still in the midst of a difficult recovery. The shooters have since been arrested and are in jail awaiting trial. A trial cannot begin until Shehata has recovered enough to attend court proceedings.

Despite this trauma, being left with debilitating injuries, more than 85,000 Egyptian pounds (US$14,855) in medical bills and possible long-term unemployment, Shehata is willing to drop all criminal charges against his attackers – and avoid what could be a very embarrassing trial for the nation – if the government will stop blocking Shehata from constructing a church building.

Before Shehata was shot, one of the attackers pushed him off his motorcycle and told him he was going to teach him a lesson about “running around” or being an active Christian.

Because of his ministry, the 34-year-old Shehata, a Coptic Orthodox Christian, was arguably the most visible Christian in his community. When he wasn’t working as a lab technician or attending legal classes at a local college, he was going door-to-door among Christians to encourage them in any way he could. He also ran a community center and medical clinic out of a converted two-bedroom apartment. His main goal, he said, was to “help Christians be strong in their faith.”

The center, open now for five years, provided much-needed basic medical services for surrounding residents for free, irrespective of their religion. The center also provided sewing training and a worksite for Christian women so they could gain extra income. Before the center was open in its present location, he ran similar services out of a relative’s apartment.

“We teach them something that can help them with the future, and when they get married they can have some way to work and it will help them get money for their families,” Shehata said.

Additionally, the center was used to teach hygiene and sanitation basics to area residents, a vital service to a community that uses well water that is often polluted or full of diseases. Along with these services, Shehata and his wife ran several development projects, repairing the roofs of shelters for poor people, installing plumbing, toilets and electrical systems. The center also distributed free food to the elderly and the infirm.

The center has been run by donations and nominal fees used to pay the rent for the apartment. Shehata has continued to run the programs as aggressively as he can, but he said that even before the shooting that the center was barely scraping by.

“We have no money to build or improve anything,” he said. “We have a safe, but no money to put in it.”


Tense Atmosphere

In the weeks before the shooting, Teleda and the surrounding villages were gripped with fear.

Christians in the community had been receiving death threats by phone after a Muslim man died during an attack on a Christian couple. On Feb. 2, a group of men in nearby Samalout tried to abduct a Coptic woman from a three-wheeled motorcycle her husband was driving. The husband, Zarif Elia, punched one of the attackers in the nose. The Muslim, Basem Abul-Eid, dropped dead on the spot.

Elia was arrested and charged with murder. An autopsy later revealed that the man died of a heart attack, but local Muslims were incensed.

Already in the spotlight for his ministry activities, Shehata heightened his profile when he warned government officials that Christians were going to be attacked, as they had been in Farshout and Nag Hammadi the previous month. He also gave an interview to a human rights activist that was posted on numerous Coptic websites. Because of this, government troops were deployed to the town, and extremists were unable to take revenge on local Christians – but only after almost the
entire Christian community was placed under house arrest.

“They chose me,” Shehata said, “Because they thought I was the one serving everybody, and I was the one who wrote the government telling them that Muslims were going to set fire to the Christian houses because of the death.”

Because of his busy schedule, Shehata and Samir, 27, were only able to spend Fridays and part of every Saturday together in a village in Samalut, where Shehata lives. Every Saturday after seeing Samir, Shehata would drive her back through Teleda to the village where she lives, close to her family. Samalut is a town approximately 105 kilometers (65 miles) south of Cairo.

On the afternoon of Feb. 27, Shehata and his wife were on a motorcycle on a desolate stretch of hard-packed dirt road. Other than a few scattered farming structures, there was nothing near the road but the Nile River on one side, and open fields dotted with palm trees on the other.

Shehata approached a torn-up section of the road and slowed down. A man walked up to the vehicle carrying a big wooden stick and forced him to stop. Shehata asked the man what was wrong, but he only pushed Shehata off the motorcycle and told him, “I’m going to stop you from running around,” Samir recounted.

Shehata asked the man to let Samir go. “Whatever you are going to do, do it to me,” he told the man.

The man didn’t listen and began hitting Shehata on the leg with the stick. As Shehata stumbled, Samir screamed for the man to leave them alone. The man lifted the stick again, clubbed Shehata once more on the leg and knocked him to the ground. As Shehata struggled to get up, the man took out a pistol, leveled it at Shehata’s back and squeezed the trigger.

Samir started praying and screaming Jesus’ name. The man turned toward her, raised the pistol once more, squeezed off another round, and shot Samir in the arm. Samir looked around and saw a few men running toward her, but her heart sank when she realized they had come not to help them but to join the assault.

Samir jumped on top of Shehata, rolled on to her back and started begging her attackers for their lives, but the men, now four in all, kept firing. Bullets were flying everywhere.

“I was scared. I thought I was going to die and that the angels were going to come and get our spirits,” Samir said. “I started praying, ‘Please God, forgive me, I’m a sinner and I am going to die.’”

Samir decided to play dead. She leaned back toward her husband, closed her eyes, went limp and tried to stop breathing. She said she felt that Shehata was dying underneath her.

“I could hear him saying some of the Scriptures, the one about the righteous thief [saying] ‘Remember me when you enter Paradise,’” she said. “Then a bullet went through his neck, and he stopped saying anything.”

Samir has no way of knowing how much time passed, but eventually the firing stopped. After she heard one of the shooters say, “Let’s go, they’re dead,” moments later she opened her eyes and the men were gone. When she lifted her head, she heard her husband moan.


Unlikely Survival

When Shehata arrived at the hospital, his doctors didn’t think he would survive. He had lost a tremendous amount of blood, a bullet had split his kidney in two, and the other bullet was lodged in his neck, leaving him partially paralyzed.

His heartbeat was so faint it couldn’t be detected. He was also riddled with a seemingly limitless supply of bullet fragments throughout his body.

Samir, though seriously injured, had fared much better than Shehata. The bullet went into her arm but otherwise left her uninjured. When she was shot, Samir was wearing a maternity coat. She wasn’t pregnant, but the couple had bought the coat in hopes she soon would be. Samir said she thinks the gunman who shot her thought he had hit her body, instead of just her arm.

The church leadership in Samalut was quickly informed about the shooting and summoned the best doctors they could, who quickly traveled to help Shehata and Samir. By chance, the hospital had a large supply of blood matching Shehata’s blood type because of an elective surgical procedure that was cancelled. The bullets were removed, and his kidney was repaired. The doctors however, were forced to leave many of the bullet fragments in Shehata’s body.

As difficult as it was to piece Shehata’s broken body back together, it paled in comparison with the recovery he had to suffer through. He endured multiple surgeries and was near death several times during his 70 days of hospitalization.

Early on, Shehata was struck with a massive infection. Also, because part of his internal tissue was cut off from its blood supply, it literally started to rot inside him. He began to swell and was in agony.

“I was screaming, and they brought the doctors,” Shehata said. The doctors decided to operate immediately.

When a surgeon removed one of the clamps holding Shehata’s abdomen together, the intense pressure popped off most of the other clamps. Surgeons removed some stomach tissue, part of his colon and more than a liter of infectious liquid.

Shehata could not eat normally and lost 35 kilograms (approximately 77 lbs.). He also couldn’t evacuate his bowels for at least 11 days, his wife said.

Despite the doctors’ best efforts, infections continued to rage through Shehata’s body, accompanied by alarming spikes in body temperature.

Eventually, doctors sent him to a hospital in Cairo, where he spent a week under treatment. A doctor there prescribed a different regimen of antibiotics that successfully fought the infection and returned Shehata’s body temperature to normal.

Shehata is recovering at home now, but he still has a host of medical problems. He has to take a massive amount of painkillers and is essentially bedridden. He cannot walk without assistance, is unable to move the fingers on his left hand and cannot eat solid food. In approximately two months he will undergo yet another surgery that, if all goes well, will allow him to use the bathroom normally.

“Even now I can’t walk properly, and I can’t lift my leg more than 10 or 20 centimeters. I need someone to help me just to pull up my underwear,” Shehata said. “I can move my arm, but I can’t move my fingers.”

Samir does not complain about her condition or that of Shehata. Instead, she sees the fact that she and her husband are even alive as a testament to God’s faithfulness. She said she thinks God allowed them to be struck with the bullets that injured them but pushed away the bullets that would have killed them.

“There were lots of bullets being shot, but they didn’t hit us, only three or four,” she said. “Where are the others?”

Even in the brutal process of recovery, Samir found cause for thanks. In the beginning, Shehata couldn’t move his left arm, but now he can. “Thank God and thank Jesus, it was His blessing to us,” Samir said. “We were kind of dead, now we are alive."

Still, Samir admits that sometimes her faith waivers. She is facing the possibility that Shehata might not work for some time, if ever. The couple owes the 85,000 Egyptian pounds (US$14,855) in medical bills, and continuing their ministry at the center and in the surrounding villages will be difficult at best.

“I am scared now, more so than during the shooting,” she said. “Ephraim said do not be afraid, it is supposed to make us stronger.”

So Samir prays for strength for her husband to heal and for patience. In the meantime, she said she looks forward to the day when the struggles from the shooting are over and she can look back and see how God used it to shape them.

“There is a great work the Lord is doing in our lives, we may not know what the reason is now, but maybe some day we will,” Samir said.


Government Opposition

For the past 10 years, Shehata has tried to erect a church building, or at a minimum a house, that he could use as a dedicated community center. But local Muslims and Egypt’s State Security Investigations (SSI) agency have blocked him every step of the way. He had, until the shooting happened, all but given up on constructing the church building.

On numerous occasions, Shehata has been stopped from holding group prayer meetings after people complained to the SSI. In one incident, a man paid by a land owner to watch a piece of property near the community center complained to the SSI that Shehata was holding prayer meetings at the facility. The SSI made Shehata sign papers stating he wouldn’t hold prayer meetings at the center.

At one time, Shehata had hoped to build a house to use as a community center on property that had been given to him for that purpose. Residents spread a rumor that he was actually erecting a church building, and police massed at the property to prevent him from doing any construction.

There is no church in the town where Shehata lives or in the surrounding villages. Shehata admits he would like to put up a church building on the donated property but says it is impossible, so he doesn’t even try.

In Egypt constructing or even repairing a church building can only be done after a complex government approval process. In effect, it makes it impossible to build a place for Christian worship. By comparison, the construction of mosques is encouraged through a system of subsidies.

“It is not allowed to build a church in Egypt,” Shehata said. “We can’t build a house. We can’t build a community center. And we can’t build a church.”

Because of this, Shehata and his wife organize transportation from surrounding villages to St. Mark’s Cathedral in Samalut for Friday services and sacraments. Because of the lack of transportation options, the congregants are forced to ride in a dozen open-top cattle cars.

“We take them not in proper cars or micro-buses, but trucks – the same trucks we use to move animals,” he said.

The trip is dangerous. A year ago a man fell out of one of the trucks onto the road and died. Shehata said bluntly that Christians are dying in Egypt because the government won’t allow them to construct church buildings.

“I feel upset about the man who died on the way going to church,” he said.


Church-for-Charges Swap

The shooters who attacked Shehata and Samir are in jail awaiting trial. The couple has identified each of the men, but even if they hadn’t, finding them for arrest was not a difficult task. The village the attackers came from erupted in celebration when they heard the pastor and his wife were dead.

Shehata now sees the shooting as a horrible incident that can be turned to the good of the believers he serves. He said he finds it particularly frustrating that numerous mosques have sprouted up in his community and surrounding areas during the 10 years he has been prevented from putting up a church building, or even a house. There are two mosques alone on the street of the man who died while being trucked to church services, he said.

Shehata has decided to forgo justice in pursuit of an opportunity to finally construct a church building. He has approached the SSI through church leaders, saying that if he is allowed to construct a church building, then he will take no part in the criminal prosecution of the shooters.

“I have told the security forces through the priests that I will drop the case if they can let us build the church on the piece of land,” he said.

The proposal isn’t without possibilities. His trial has the potential of being internationally embarrassing. It raises questions about fairness in Egyptian society during an upcoming presidential election that will be watched by the world.

Regardless of what happens, Shehata said all he wants is peace and for the rights of Christians to be respected. He said that in Egypt, Christians have less value than the “birds of the air” mentioned in the Bible. According to Luke 12:6, five sparrows sold for two pennies in ancient times.

“We are not to be killed like birds, slaughtered,” he said. “We are human.”

Report from Compass Direct News

Muslims Order Christians to Leave Village in Pakistan

Christians drew wrath by objecting to sexual assaults on girls and women.

KHANEWAL, Pakistan, June 7 (CDN) — The head of a Muslim village last week ordered 250 Christian families to leave their homes in Khanewal district, Punjab Province, local residents said.

Abdul Sattar Khan, head of village No. 123/10R, Katcha Khoh, and other area Muslim residents ordered the expulsions after Christian residents objected too strenuously to sexual assaults by Muslims on Christian girls and women, said a locally elected Christian official, Emmanuel Masih.

Most of the village’s Christian men work in the fields of Muslim land owners, while most of the Christian women and girls work as servants in the homes of Muslim families, said Rasheed Masih, a Christian in the village who added that the impoverished Christians were living in appalling conditions.

The Muslim employers have used their positions of power to routinely sexually assault the Christian women and girls, whose complaints grew so shrill that four Christian men – Emmanuel Masih, Rasheed Masih, his younger brother Shehzad Anjum and Yousaf Masih Khokhar – sternly confronted the Muslims, only to be told that all Christians were to leave the village at once.

“The Muslim villagers came to us with the expulsion order only after Christian women and girls raised a hue and cry when they became totally exasperated because they were sexually attacked or forced to commit adultery by Muslims on a daily basis,” said Khokhar, a Christian political leader.

Khokhar said the unanimous decision to compel the Christians to leave their homes and relocate them was possible because the Christians were completely subject to the Muslims’ power.

“The Muslims had been telling the Christian women and girls that if they denied them sex, they would kick them out of their native village,” Emmanuel Masih added.

Christians created the colony when they began settling in the area in about 1950, said Anjum. Since then the migration of Muslims to the area has left the Christians a minority among the 6,000 residents of the village, said Emmanuel Masih.

“There is no church building or any worship place for Christians, and neither is there any burial place for Christians,” Emmanuel Masih said.

He said that the Rev. Pervez Qaiser of village No. 231, the Rev. Frank Masih of village No. 133 and the Rev. Sharif Masih of village No. 36, Mian Channu, have been visiting the village on Sundays to lead services at the houses of the Christian villagers, who open their homes by turns.

Asked why they didn’t contact local Katcha Khoh police for help, Emmanuel Masih and Khokhar said that filing a complaint against Muslim village head Khan and other Muslims would only result in police registering false charges against them under Pakistan’s notorious “blasphemy” statutes.

“They might arrest us,” Khokhar said, “and the situation would be worse for the Christian villagers who are already living a deplorably pathetic life under the shadow of fear and death, as they [the Muslims] would not be in police lock-up or would be out on bail, due to their riches and influence, very soon.”


Couples Charged with ‘Blasphemy’

That very fate befell two Christian couples in Gulshan-e-Iqbal town, Karachi, who had approached police with complaints against Muslims for falsely accusing them of blasphemy.

On May 28, a judge directed Peer Ilahi Bakhsh (PIB) police to file charges of desecrating the Quran against Atiq Joseph and Qaiser William after a mob of armed Islamists went through their home’s garbage looking for pages of the Islamic scripture among clean-up debris (see “Pakistani Islamists Keep Two Newlywed Couples from Home,” May 27).

Additional District & Sessions Judge Karachi East (Sharqi) Judge Sadiq Hussein directed the PIB police station in Gulshan-e-Iqbal to file a case against Joseph and William, newlyweds who along with their wives had shared a rented home and are now in hiding. The judge acted on the application of Muslim Munir Ahmed.

Saleem Khurshid Khokhar, a Christian provincial legislator in Sindh, and Khalid Gill, head of the All Pakistan Minorities Alliance in Punjab, said that police were threatening and harassing relatives and close friends of Joseph and William to reveal their whereabouts.

Islamists armed with pistols and rifles had waited for the two Christian couples to return to their rented home on May 21, seeking to kill them after the couples complained to police that the radical Muslims had falsely accused them of desecrating the Quran.

The blasphemy laws include Section 295-A for injuring religious feelings, 295-B for defiling the Quran and 295-C for blaspheming Muhammad, the prophet of Islam – all of which have often been misused by fanatical Muslims to settle personal scores against Christians.

Maximum punishment for violation of Section 295-A, as well as for Section 295-B (defiling the Quran), is life imprisonment; for violating Section 295-C the maximum punishment is death, though life imprisonment is also possible.

In village 123/10R in Khanewal district, Anjum noted that it is only 22 kilometers (14 miles) from Shanti Nagar, where Muslims launched an attack on Christians in 1997 that burned hundreds of homes and 13 church buildings.

Yousaf Masih added, “Muslim villagers have made the life a hell for Christians at village 123/10R.”

Report from Compass Direct News

Pakistani Muslims Abduct Young Christian Woman, Family Says

Mother beaten on two occasions for trying to recover her; police refuse to prosecute.

LAHORE, Pakistan, May 6 (CDN) — Muslims who kidnapped and forcibly converted an 18-year-old Christian woman to Islam severely beat her mother on two occasions to discourage her from trying to recover her daughter, lawyers said.

Muhammad Akhter and Muhammad Munir on April 25 broke into the home of 50-year-old widow Fazeelat Bibi while her sons were at work and beat her because they were upset at her continuous demands that they return her daughter Saira, Christian Lawyers Foundation (CLF) leaders told Compass.

CLF President Khalid Gill said that neighbors’ calls to the police emergency number went unheeded as the men beat her in Lahore’s predominantly Muslim Bostaan Colony.

On April 18 Muhammad Akhter and members of his family had beaten her with clubs and ripped her clothes when the widow, having received a tearful phone call from her kidnapped daughter that day, went to their house to argue for her release.

In Saira’s telephone call to her mother, received at the house of Muslim neighbor Musarat Bibi, who is a constable, the young woman was crying as she said that Munir and Akhter were spreading false rumors that she had eloped with Munir, Fazeelat said. She said her daughter told her how Munir, Akhter and Munir’s sister Billo Bibi had kidnapped her, stolen the jewelry of her dowry, forced her to convert to Islam and were pressuring her to marry Munir.

At the time she was kidnapped on March 10, Saira was engaged to a young Christian man of Youhanabad, a large Christian slum on the outskirts of Lahore, Fazeelat Bibi said.

“Saira’s brothers and I were very joyful because we were about to fix her wedding date,” she said.

Previously the radical Muslim family lived next door to the Christian family. On March 10 Munir, who is Akhter’s uncle, came to the Christian family’s home and told Saira that her mother was ill at her hospital workplace and wanted to see her immediately, Fazeelat Bibi said.

“Then Muhammad Munir deceitfully abducted Saira,” she said. “It seemed as if Saira had vanished into thin air. At first my three sons and I sons searched for Saira, but our efforts were futile.”  

She accused Munir, Akhter and Munir’s sister Billo Bibi of kidnapping her daughter. They have continued to threaten to kill her if she persists in trying to recover her daughter, she said. Her daughter, she added, has called her “persistently” from Charrar village saying that she has been kidnapped, forced to convert to Islam and is being pressured to marry Munir against her will.

“This also reveals that Saira has not tied the knot with Munir yet,” Gill told Compass.

The distraught mother said she approached Kotlakhpat Police Station Inspector Rana Shafiq seeking help to recover her daughter, but that he flatly refused. The inspector told her the issue could be resolved at the local Bostaan Colony meeting, she said; the rulings of such a meeting of local elders, known as a Punchayat, have the equivalent of court authority in Pakistan.

Fazeelat Bibi said that several such meetings produced no resolution to her daughter’s kidnapping, but that while present she heard the false rumor that her daughter had wed Munir. At the meetings she also learned that the Muslim men were keeping Saira at Charrar village outside Lahore.

Fazeelat Bibi told Gill and CLF Secretary Azhar Kaleem said that she was somewhat satisfied to learn at the meetings that her daughter was at least safe, but her relief vanished after the April 18 call from Saira. Her daughter told her that she had tried to escape three times, she said.

Once again the frail, 50-year-old woman sought the help of Inspector Shafiq, and again he refused to help, the CLF leaders said. Gill and Kaleem said that Shafiq was explicitly inclined to favor his fellow Muslims in the case, and that he told her to move to a Christian slum as no one would help her in Bostaan Colony.

Gill, who is also head of the All Pakistan Minorities Alliance in Punjab Province, and CLF Secretary Kaleem said they believe that Akhter, Munir and Billo Bibi had heavily bribed the inspector to keep him from prosecuting the Muslims.

Shafiq declined to respond to Compass calls, and the registrar of the Kotlakhpat police station, Abdul Qayyum, said Shafiq was not available for comment.

Saira was just 2 months old when her father, Pervaiz Masih, died and her mother and three brothers moved from their native Yansonabad village to Lahore in search of a better life, Fazeelat Bibi said. She said that she began working as a sanitary worker at a hospital in order to support them, while her sons began working as day-laborers when they reached their teenage years.

Saira is her only daughter, Fazeelat Bibi said.

Report from Compass Direct News