VIETNAM: HISTORIC CHURCH BUILDING DEMOLISHED


Government wrecking crews arrive hours after promises of security.

HO CHI MINH CITY, April 9 (Compass Direct News) – Just hours after the prime minister’s office assured denominational leaders that there were no plans to destroy their Protestant church building, authorities in Banmethuot last month demolished the historic structure in the Central Highlands city.

Government work crews arrived at the site just after darkness fell on March 11 and quickly demolished the structure belonging to the Evangelical Church of Vietnam (South), or ECVN(S), according to local sources.

Authorities had confiscated the church building in 1975 after the Communist victory and had removed its cross. But the bright pink church stood prominently, though unused, for many years on Le Duan Boulevard on Banmethuot’s south side. Church authorities many times had asked for its return.

It was the last remaining church building of the Ede ethnic minority, who make up most of Dak Lak’s 135,000 believers.

The demolition was the latest in a series of painful developments. In early March three pastors from ECVN(S)’s Dak Lak provincial committee took up the matter of the church building with local authorities. The officials told the pastors that the request for return would soon be resolved, and that until then the building was secure.

But on March 11, rumors of an imminent plan to demolish the church reached members of the ECVN(S) provincial committee. Alarmed, they called their top leaders at Ho Chi Minh City headquarters. The church president promptly agreed to call the office of Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung and the Ministry of Public Security in Hanoi. Officials told him not to worry, that there was no plan to demolish the church.

“Nothing will happen – we are in control,” an official told the denominational president, according to one Christian source. “The ECVN(S) president called his Dak Lak provincial committee in the evening to pass on this assurance from the very top. Hardly an hour later, after darkness had fallen, government officials supervised destruction of the church building.”

A frustrated ECVN(S) leader called the prime minister’s office and the Ministry of Public Security asking how, in the light of the demolition, the church could trust them, sources said.

“He was told, ‘Sorry, but this as an action of the local officials,’” one source said. “This downward deflection of responsibility in regard to religious issues happens regularly.”

A week later, on March 20, the ECVN(S) governing board of 22 members unanimously passed a resolution.

“Numerous times the Executive Council of our church has petitioned the government concerning our many confiscated properties,” the resolution reads. “Most regrettably, not only have the petitions not been satisfactorily dealt with, but on the night of March 11, 2009, officials of Dak Lak province demolished the last remaining Ede church at Gate One in Banmethuot City.

“The Executive Council of the ECVN(S) is extremely upset and in deep sympathy with the 135,000 believers in Dak Lak province. We hereby urgently notify all churches in our fellowship. We are deeply saddened by these events.”

Calling for the church to set aside today for fasting and prayer, the resolution also stated that ECVN(S)’s Executive Council would select representatives to meet with authorities of Dak Lak province and the central government to ask that “they urgently address and solve this matter so that the events described above will not be repeated in other places.”

When the church circulated the urgent bulletin concerning the day of fasting and prayer, government authorities strongly objected, saying they feared it might lead to demonstrations in the Central Highlands. But the church did not back down.

Fallout continues. The three pastors of the ECVN(S) Dak Lak provincial committee, two Ede and one ethnic Vietnamese, have resigned, citing government betrayal. A meeting of the two ECVN(S) vice-presidents with Dak Lak officials this week was described as “very disappointing.”

Dak Lak province was also the location of the demolition of a large new church building in Cu Hat, Krong Bong district in December. It belonged to the Vietnam Good News Church, an unregistered group (see “Authorities Destroy New Church Building,” Dec. 17, 2008). Authorities disguised in civilian clothes destroyed the new structure because they said Christians had illegally cut the lumber used to build it. Virtually all homes and buildings in the area are built using such lumber.

Being unregistered or fully registered as the ECVN(S) seems to make little difference to authorities, a Christian source said.

“Leaders of both registered and unregistered Protestant groups express equal helplessness in the face of such malicious government actions against them,” he said.

Last year the prime minister promised a resolution to a major dispute with Catholics over the long-contested property that once served as the residence of the papal nuncio in Hanoi. The outcome was similar: the confiscated property was not returned, and on Sept. 19, 2008 the residence was destroyed.

Both Protestant and Catholic church leaders in Vietnam say that blatant government duplicity quickly and seriously undermines Vietnam’s recent hard-won gains in perceptions of improvement in religious freedom.

Report from Compass Direct News

LAOS: POLICE DESTROY CHURCH BUILDING IN VILLAGE


Destruction carried out while Christians attend compulsory village meeting.

WELLINGTON, New Zealand, March 30 (Compass Direct News) – Police in Borikhamxay province, Laos, on March 19 destroyed a church building in Nonsomboon village while Christian residents attended a meeting called by district officials.

A member of the provincial religious affairs department, identified only as Bounlerm, has since claimed that police destroyed the worship facility because it was built without official approval.

Tension between the Christians and local authorities escalated last year when officials ordered at least 40 Christian families living in Ban Mai village to relocate some 20 kilometers (12 miles) to Nonsomboon for “administrative reasons,” according to advocacy group Human Rights Watch for Lao Religious Freedom (HRWLRF). Local sources said the forced relocation to Nonsomboon village was an effort to control the activities of Christians in Ban Mai who were sharing their faith with other people in the district.

Previously authorities had evicted Christians from several other villages in the district and relocated them to Ban Mai village, HRWLRF reported. Families were expected to cover their own relocation expenses, including the cost of rebuilding their homes and re-establishing their livelihoods.

Initially residents refused to relocate a second time, largely because officials would not grant permission to move their existing church building or to erect a new structure in Nonsomboon. Eventually they were forced to move to Nonsomboon under duress.

Lacking worship facilities, the villagers on Dec. 10, 2008 erected a simple church building. On Dec. 26, village police removed the cross from the building, summoned four key church leaders to a meeting at the Burikan district office and subsequently detained them for building a church without government approval.

HRWLRF identified the four only as pastor Bounlard, assistant pastor Khampeuy, church elder Khampon and men’s ministry leader Jer. When the wives of the four men brought food to them during their detention, officials refused to allow them to see their husbands.

In a meeting on Dec. 27 between provincial religious affairs officials and church leaders, officials said police had arrested the Christians because they refused to tear down the church building. A senior religious affairs official identified only as Booppa, however, agreed to release the Christians on Dec. 29.

The Christians of Nonsomboon then applied for permission to hold a Christmas service in their church facility on Jan. 7 and invited religious affairs official Bounlerm to attend. When permission failed to arrive in time, they conducted the service regardless, with Bounlerm and other district officials attending as honorary guests.

During the service, district and village level police officers charged into the building and ordered church members to cease worshiping. Bounlerm encouraged the congregation to follow orders from the local officials.

Police officers then drafted a document ordering church members to abandon the Christmas celebration and demanded that the congregation sign it. When they refused, the police insisted that they disband the meeting immediately. After leaving the building, the congregation traveled to nearby Burikan town and set up a tent in an open field next to a government office in order to complete the Christmas service, as there were no church facilities in Burikan.

A campaign of intimidation followed, according to HRWLRF, culminating in the destruction of the church building by village police on March 19. At press time, no information was available on the content of the meeting called by district officials on that day.

Report from Compass Direct News

AUSTRALIA: BUSHFIRES UPDATE – 2nd March 2009 (Urgent Warning)


With bushfires still burning in Victoria, residents are being warned that conditions are set to deteriorate dramatically overnight as gale force winds strike the state. Winds are expected to reach 150 km (95 miles) an hour from tonight.

With conditions expected to be as bad as ‘Black Saturday’ about a month ago, residents in areas still under threat from the bushfires are being told to flee before the winds arrive. The Black Saturday fires claimed at least 210 people (confirmed dead – 37 are still missing) and there are real fears that the expected conditions of the next day or so may add to the already shocking death toll.

Fire-fighters fear that the winds will send the still burning four major bushfires (as well as the lesser sized bushfires) across containment lines and there will be little that they will be able to do about it. Fires may spot across containment lines and change direction rapidly without warning. These conditions are extreme and grave.

The fires are the same ones that have so far taken 210 lives (confirmed), over 2000 houses and 450 000 hectares (1.1 million acres) of farmland and bushland.

In preparation for the worsening conditions the government has closed schools across the state. A total fire ban is also in force across the state. Text messages have been sent to mobile phone owners urging them to be prepared for the frightening conditions.

BELOW: Footage of the firestorm in Clonbinane on the 7th February 2009

BUSHFIRES FINALLY ARRIVE AS HEAT WAVE CONTINUES


The bushfire season has taken a bit longer than usual to arrive this year, but in the last couple of days bushfires have begun to appear across Australia and in particular in New South Wales and South Australia.

In my region the temperatures rose to the mid thirties (Celsius), while further to the west the temperatures reached the low forties – which has been the case for several days now.

A cooler change is expected in the very near future but temperatures will remain in the mid to high thirties tomorrow before another cool change. The high temperatures will then return at the beginning of next week.

In short, the bushfire season in eastern Australia is now well and truly here and more fires can be expected over the next couple of months – especially given how dry it currently is.

There have been fires around Sydney over the last couple of days with some property (sheds, vehicles, etc) being destroyed by fire today. There have been other fires around, including near Gloucester and Singleton. In South Australia there was a particularly bad fire at Lincoln.

BELOW: Footage of the bushfires

EGYPT: THOUSANDS PROTEST, VANDALIZE CHURCH


At least five hurt as rioters stone, burn structure after inauguration of extension.

ISTANBUL, November 26 (Compass Direct News) – Thousands of Muslim protestors on Sunday (Nov. 23) attacked a Coptic church in a suburb of Cairo, Egypt, burning part of it, a nearby shop and two cars and leaving five people injured.

Objecting to a newly constructed extension to the Coptic church of St. Mary and Anba Abraam in Ain Shams, the huge crowd of angry protestors gathered outside the church at around 5 p.m. following a consecration service for the addition earlier that day.

Chanting, “We will demolish the church,” “Islam is the solution” and “No God but Allah,” according to Helmy Guirguis, president of the U.K. Coptic Association, rioters pelted the church with stones and burned part of the structure; priests and worshipers were trapped inside, and five people were injured.

“It was a terrifying moment,” said lawyer Nabil Gobrayel, who was inside the church at the time. “They were shouting ‘holy slogans’ like, ‘We will bring the church down,’, ‘The priest is dead’ and ‘The army of Muhammad is coming.’”

Police slow to arrive were not prepared for the scale of the protest. Angry Muslims swarmed to the area from a two-kilometer radius, and although estimates varied, some suggested as many as 8,000 people gathered.

Rioters’ stones broke the structure’s windows, and a nearby shop and two cars belonging to Christians were set on fire.

Reinforcements for the overwhelmed security forces did not arrive until two hours later and were then engaged in clashes with the mob until the early hours of Monday (Nov. 24) morning.

Armored vehicles brought in riot police, who used tear gas to disperse the crowd while fire services aided their efforts with water cannons.

A United Copts of Great Britain statement suggested that police were slow to arrest perpetrators in the early stages of the demonstration but did eventually detain 41 people around midnight.

Of the 38 Muslims arrested, 30 were quickly released “under the pretext of being minors,” according to the United Copts statement. Three arrested Christians, however, remained in prison without charges.

United Copts also reported that Wael Tahoon, a police officer, was said to be involved in instigating the attacks.

A source told Compass that Pope Shenouda, head of The Holy Synod of the Coptic Orthodox Patriarchate of Alexandria, ordered that prayers at the church site be stopped.

According to Gobrayel, the church will be closed for two months while officials consider its future.

 

Opposition from Outset

The newly constructed extension stands on the site of an old factory that was demolished 18 months ago, when the land was purchased using funds raised by donations from the congregation.

When building began, church members were surprised to find that construction of a mosque also started just across the street.

During construction of the church addition, Muslim radicals insulted and harassed workers, issuing death threats and urinating on the structure’s walls.

At 10 a.m. on Sunday (Nov. 23), the morning of the consecration service, the adjacent mosque began broadcasting verses from the Quran at high volume.

According to witnesses, the imam of the mosque justified the unusual broadcasts by saying that they were in celebration of the Muslim festival of Eid. Christians said this would be highly irregular, however, with area parishioners maintaining it was done to provoke them.

 

Government Role

Church leaders had obtained the necessary permits for building the extension, Coptic leaders said, but protestors said the addition was not licensed for prayer and worship.

Christians have found obtaining church building permits from Egyptian authorities rife with obstacles, with many applications never granted.

“The National Assembly cannot make a decision for 15 years about building projects for churches,” said lawyer Naguib Gobrail. “Every time they say, ‘This session we can discuss this project,’ but the session ends and we see nothing. Everything is only a promise.”

In a recent editorial, Youssef Sidhom, editor-in-chief of Egyptian weekly Watani, addressed the inequality of regulations that govern the building of places of worship.

“It now appears obvious that the government has no intention whatsoever of placing the long-awaited bill for a unified law for building places of worship on its agenda,” he wrote. “For four consecutive rounds [of Parliament], the bill has remained shelved despite the need for it to ward off so called sectarian problems that erupt every so often.”

 

Wedding Violence

Advocacy group Voice of the Copts issued a report on Monday (Nov. 24) that, a day before the attack on St. Mary and Anba Abraam, Muslim radicals ambushed a wedding party at a church just 10 minutes away.

A man and woman interrupted the ceremony shouting obscene remarks, according to Voice of the Copts, and when angered wedding guests ushered them outside, the Copts were set upon by a gang of people waiting in a shop across the road. Two were severely injured.

While Christians account for varying estimates of 10 to 15 percent of Egypt’s population and date back to the first century of the faith, churches are still seen as foreign bodies and, in the words of the Ain Shams rioters, an “infidel’s worship house in an Islamic Land.”  

Report from Compass Direct News

TURKEY: CHRISTIANS’ TRIAL FOR ‘INSULTING TURKISHNESS’ STALLS AGAIN


Case against two converts drags on; media already passed sentenced on Christianity.

ISTANBUL, November 12 (Compass Direct News) – Two years into a trial for “insulting Turkishness” that has been light on evidence and heavy on mud-slinging at Turkey’s Protestant community, a court proceeding last week brought no progress.

Another witness for the prosecution failed to appear in the trial of Turkish Christians Turan Topal and Hakan Tastan, charged with “insulting Turkishness” and spreading Christianity through illegal methods. Moreover, a Justice Ministry answer to the court about the viability of charges under Turkey’s controversial Article 301 had yet to arrive at the court last week.

In the last hearing in June, Silivri Criminal Court Judge Mehmet Ali Ozcan ordered a review of the two Christian converts’ alleged violations of the controversial article of the Turkish penal code on “insulting Turkishness.” But the court is still waiting for the Justice Ministry to decide whether they can be tried under Article 301 of the penal code.

The judge set the next hearing for Feb. 24, 2009 while the court awaits a response on whether the Christians can be charged under the controversial article.

Topal and Tastan are still charged with reviling Islam (Article 216) and compiling information files on private citizens (Article 135).

In what critics called “cosmetic” revisions of Article 301, the Turkish government amended it in May to require Justice Ministry permission to file such cases. Put into effect on May 8, the changes also redefined the vague offense of “insulting Turkishness” to read “insulting the Turkish nation.”

While the court awaited a decision on Article 301, in the hearing on Nov. 4 it did free the defendants from forced attendance at future hearings. This, according to defense lawyer Haydar Polat, was the only progress made by the court; he added that a witness or evidence would have been better. For lack of these, he said, the prosecution has needlessly dragged out the case.

“In both cases [against them], the only acceptable progress is the testimony of a witness,” said Polat. “Then again, the fact that the defendants are free from having to attend every trial is in a sense progress too.”

 

Lame Witnesses

The initial charges prepared by the Silivri state prosecutor against Tastan and Topal were based on “a warning telephone call to the gendarme,” claiming that some Christian missionaries were trying to form illegal groups in local schools and making insults against Turkishness, the military and Islam.

Despite a court summons sent to the Silivri and Istanbul gendarme headquarters requesting six named gendarme soldiers to testify as prosecution witnesses in the case, none have stepped forward to testify.

“They will be called in the next hearing as well,” Polat told Compass.

At the June 24 hearing, two teenage witnesses for the prosecution declared they did not know the defendants and had never seen them before facing them in the courtroom. Several witnesses have failed to show up on various trial dates, and last week another witness called by prosecution, Fatih Kose, did not appear.

“There is no lack of witnesses, but as far as we are concerned, these characters’ accounts are irrelevant to the truth and full of contradictions,” said Polat. “I mean there is no believable and persuasive argument, nor a coherent witness.”

Last week a police officer from the precinct where Topal and Tastan were allegedly seen doing missionary activities was summoned to court to testify. He told the court that he indeed worked in the precinct but knew nothing about the activities of the two Christians.

Eleven months ago, the appointed prosecutor himself had demanded that the court acquit the two Christians, declaring there was “not a single concrete, credible piece of evidence” to support the accusations against them. This prosecutor was removed from the case, and two months later the judge hearing the case withdrew over prosecution complaints that he was not impartial.

Two key figures pressing the Article 301 charges and promoting sensational media coverage of the Silivri trial proceedings are now jailed themselves, unable to attend the hearings.

Both ultranationalist lawyer Kemal Kerincsiz and spokesperson Sevgi Erenerol of the Turkish Orthodox Church – a Turkish nationalist denomination with no significant following – are accused of playing leading roles in Ergenekon, an ultranationalist cabal of retired generals, politicians, journalists and mafia members under investigation for conspiracy.

Since mid-January, 47 people have been jailed and face trial for involvement in the alleged crime network, said to have orchestrated numerous killings and violence as part of a nationalist plot to overthrow the Turkish government by 2009.

Asked about the chances of closing the case that has made no progress for two years due to lack of evidence against the defendants, Polat said he was hopeful his clients would find justice in the Turkish legal labyrinth.

“As lawyers, we believe that both of our clients will be acquitted,” he said. “Come February we expect that the Justice Ministry will not approve the opening of a public case on the basis of ‘insulting Turkishness.’”

 

Slandering Christians

The trial of Topal and Tastan has included its share of mud-slinging at Turkish Protestants, estimated at 3,000 to 3,500 people in a country of 70 million, deepening the nation’s prejudices against them.

This legal battle has been less about guilt or innocence and more about tainting the community’s image, according to a member of the legal committee of the Alliance of Protestant Churches in Turkey.

The Christian Turk from the legal committee told Compass that in 2006, when the charges against Topal and Tastan first came to light, there were news reports for days claiming that Christians tricked children in elementary schools, paid people to come to church and gave women away for sex, among other absurd assertions.

“The goal was to create disinformation, and they succeeded at portraying Christians in a negative light,” he said.

The source said that this was the primary goal of ultranationalist lawyer Kerincsiz’s team, which he believes is behind the cases brought against Topal and Tastan as well as the delay in the outcome.

“On the first day of the hearings, when the case opened, I told those around me that nothing would come of this case,” he said.

The legal committee member said media created a psychological war against Turkish Christians. Other members of the Protestant community believe another goal was to deter any evangelism or outreach by Turkish Christians.

“It was to discourage the whole Christian community and quash them and discourage evangelism,” said another source.

The member of the legal committee said he believes that eventually Topal and Tastan will be acquitted. But even if they win the court case, the damage from the publicity war on the church will not be as easy to repair.

“I think everything will stay the same, because the case won’t be reported in the news,” he said. “The issue was not about whether these two were guilty or not. When this first broke out it was in the news for days. When it is over it will barely make it to a newspaper corner, and we won’t be able to give a message for the public because we don’t wield media power. We comfortably carry our quiet voice, and we will until then.”  

Report from Compass Direct News