Christian human rights group concerned for minorities in Iran


Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW), a UK-based Christian human rights group says that it is concerned for the safety and well-being of non-Muslim religious minorities in Iran as violent protests over recent Presidential elections continue, reports Dan Wooding, founder of ASSIST Ministries.

Alexa Papadouris, CSW’s Advocacy Director, said: “Recent comments by the Iranian Government and Ayatollah Khamenei apportioning blame on foreign elements for the mass demonstrations is a worrying development. The linking of national unrest with international interference has, in the past, been associated with increased targeting of non-Muslim religious minorities, deemed by the regime to be sympathizers with a Western agenda.”

CSW is concerned that the situation for non-Muslim religious minorities, particularly for Baha’is and certain Christian denominations, which worsened under Ahmadinejad’s previous term of presidency, will continue to deteriorate amidst the current political chaos. As the world’s attention is drawn to the unfolding events in Iran, CSW appeals that the situation for religious minorities is not forgotten.”

CSW is a human rights organization which specializes in religious freedom, works on behalf of those persecuted for their Christian beliefs and promotes religious liberty for all.

Report from the Christian Telegraph

Advertisements

Sodom found? The quest for the lost city of destruction – Part 3


By Brian Nixon, special to ASSIST News Service

Tall el-Hammam sits in the northeast quadrant of the Dead Sea, in an area known as the Kikkar, or the “disc of Jordan.” It is an area lush with farmland, water, and natural beauty.

Geographically, it is east of Jericho, at about the same level above the sea. To this day, it is one of the most important agricultural areas of Jordan, providing many fruit and vegetable crops for Jordan and for export.

As amazing as it may sound, Tall el-Hammam may also be the location of the ancient city of Sodom.

According to archeologist, Dr. Steven Collins, this site fits perfectly with the geographical profile outlined in Genesis 13-19.

How Dr. Collins arrived at this conclusion involves years of research, digs, and textual research with many colleagues, including Dr. Peter Briggs. Drs. Collins and Briggs developed a means to determine if an ancient text is a “true narrative” through a scientific methodology called “criterial screening.”

The finding? Genesis is reliable for geographical profiles, and therefore can be used to locate sites.

With this bit of knowledge, Dr. Collins set out on a course of discovery.

“When I first had the idea that the traditional site of Sodom (in the southern region of the Dead Sea) was wrong (based upon the geographical indicators), I began to think through the text, coming to conclusion that it was northeast of the Dead Sea.”

After a 250-page research paper, hours of research—in the U.S., Israel, and Jordan— Collins concluded that the site of Tall el-Hammam was the ��?one.’

“I came to this conclusion based upon its geographical location and the biblical text. In the Bible, Sodom was mentioned first in order; therefore it must have been the largest and most prominent city in the area. We find that Scripture usually orders cities by prominence and size. With that bit of knowledge we choose the largest site.”

“As a matter of fact,” Collins continued, “Tall el-Hammam was the largest site by a huge margin.”

Under the auspice of the current dig, Tall el-Hammam’s general area is 40 hectares (roughly 100 acres), which is huge by ancient Bronze Age standards.

With the current dig well under way, the findings have been staggering.

“Not only do we have the right place geographically speaking, but it falls within the right time frame (the Bronze Age), and it was destroyed during the time of Abraham (the Middle Bronze Age). When you add in the pottery, architecture (it was a fortified city), and the chronological consistency of the region to the biblical text, it is a match made in heaven, so to speak,” Collins beams as he shares this with me.

“To make it even more intriguing,” he continues, “there is great mystery concerning this site, and all of its associated sites. For some reason there is what I call a “historical hole or LB Gap” regarding the site. Meaning, after this cluster of towns was destroyed during Abraham’s time, the area was not re-occupied until much, much later; later than the sites in the regions surrounding this particular cluster.”

“It must have been seen as a taboo site of some kind. Something terrible must have happened there that caused people to stay away for so many centuries.”

I then ask Dr. Collins for some evidence.

“Well, to start with, the Tall el-Hammam site has 25 geographical indicators that align it with the description in Genesis. Compare this with something well known—like Jerusalem—that has only 16. Other sites have only 5 or 6. So, this site has many times more indicators than any other Old Testament site. That is truly amazing.”

“Second, our findings—pottery, architecture, and destruction layers—fit the timeframe profile. Meaning, we should expect to find items, like what we are finding, from the Middle Bronze period. This is exactly what we are uncovering.”

“Lastly, we have secured internationally recognized experts to review our findings. One such person is Dr. Robert Mullins, and then there are our colleagues from the Department of Antiquities in Jordan. Dr. Mullins is an expert in Bronze Age pottery, and there are many others as well. My ceramic expertise also covers the Bronze Age. Their conclusions on the matter reflect that our findings are correct. Once again, this is incredible.”

“Though we are still digging and uncovering a plethora of material and artifacts, and much research still needs to be conducted, I feel that the evidence for this being the ancient city of Sodom is increasing by the day.”

“As a matter of fact, even some critics of the Bible are giving this site some attention. There is a host of web activity—both scholarly and downright weird—that has been spawned from this discovery. It is a wonderful time to be in archeology! I must confess that I am both humbled and excited to be a part of something as significant as this.”

Report from the Christian Telegraph

NORTH KOREA: CHRISTIAN REFUGEES QUESTION REGIME’S CLAIMS


Defectors’ descriptions add to evidence of strong but severely persecuted church.

DUBLIN, April 24 (Compass Direct News) – Eom Myong-Heui of North Korea was a loyal communist in the Workers’ Party of Korea before she became a Christian under the influence of her business partner – a missionary who was later arrested and tortured into revealing that Eom was a believer.

Authorities placed Eom into a detention center in her hometown of Moosan and tortured her into denying her faith – but her incarceration continued under appalling conditions. Officials eventually released her due to her previous national loyalty. Now an assistant pastor at a church in Seoul, South Korea after a harrowing escape from her home country, Eom relates a journey that is part of a growing body of evidence of a strong – and severely persecuted – church in North Korea.

“A lot of people ask me if there really are people in North Korea who believe in Christ,” she said. “Do you really think that the missionaries who were there and all the believers who meet underground are all dead?”

Even as the North Korean government this month allowed two high-profile, U.S. Christian bands to perform at a music festival in Pyongyang, the fear of punishment authorities have instilled in North Korean Christians keeps most of them from publicly revealing their faith. As many as 400,000 Christians are estimated to worship secretly in the country, and Suzanne Scholte, head of an association of some 60 groups campaigning for change in the country called the North Korean Freedom Coalition (NKFC), estimates that more than 200,000 North Koreans are held in political prison camps for various perceived “disloyalties” to the regime, including adherence to Christianity.

Christian support group Open Doors estimates that of the 200,000 people incarcerated in political prison camps, at least 40,000 are Christians. Under North Korea’s policy of juche, or self-reliance, citizens may worship only President Kim Jong Il and his late father, former ruler Kim Il Sung.

Jung Eun Hye, one of several North Korean refugees expected to speak about conditions in the country at events in Washington, D.C. next week, said that freedom of religion is stipulated in North Korea’s constitution, but that “Christians have to risk their lives to have a secret service away from the oppression of the government.”

Jung, who faced severe persecution after authorities caught his father and aunt with Bibles in their possession, said he did not know that any churches existed in Pyongyang until he escaped from North Korea. While a handful of government churches do exist in the capital, Jung is one of many refugees who believe that these churches exist only to “deceive the outside world.”

“Here is my question,” said Jung. “If North Korea has freedom of religion, why does the government arrest, kill or imprison Christians in camps from which they never return?”

Testimony from various sources confirms that the government actively seeks out Christian groups and meeting points and imprisons Christians solely because of their faith. The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) last year reported refugees saying that Christianity remained a key factor in the interrogation of people repatriated from China to North Korea. Border guards reserved the harshest punishment for those who admitted having any contact with Chinese or South Korean Christians.

“There is no freedom of belief or religion,” one refugee stated. “[We are taught] that if one is involved in religion, one cannot survive.”

Former police and security officers interviewed for USCIRF’s report admitted that their superiors had instructed them to play the role of Christians and infiltrate “underground” prayer meetings in order to incriminate, arrest, imprison and sometimes execute believers in North Korea.

 

‘Abyss of Death’

A delegation of North Korean refugees recently described their experiences ahead of events on Capitol Hill from Sunday (April 26) through Saturday (May 2) as part of North Korea Freedom Week.

Kim Young Soon, a refugee who spent nine years in a prison camp, said North Korean ruler Kim “is pushing the people into the abyss of death. In such a society, no one can trust anyone.”

Authorities sent Kim Young Soon and her family to prison camp No. 15, otherwise known as Yodok, after she made a seemingly innocent comment about the regime.

“Every mountain and field in Yodok was covered with dead bodies because of malnutrition and hunger,” Kim said. She described waking at 3:30 a.m. to run six kilometers (nearly four miles) to her assigned workplace and surviving on a diet of unripe, salted corn. Her parents and two of her sons died during their incarceration; border guards shot her third son when she fled with him to China shortly after their release.

Former prisoner Jung Gwangil said prison guards sadistically controlled inmates through collective punishment.

“If I did something wrong, all the members of the group I belonged to were punished,” he said. “When guards withheld food or switched off heaters in the middle of winter, fellow prisoners would sometimes beat the responsible inmate to death.”

Another former prisoner, Kim Tae Jin, described being left naked in a freezing cell and forced to sit on quicklime in the rain, resulting in severe burns to her skin.

“Even now, there are people who cut their own fingers off to avoid hard labor, who disguise themselves as madmen, or who lose their arms from beatings because they believe in a God who supposedly doesn’t exist,” she added.

While she was in prison, she said, a fellow inmate known only as Park formed a small “fellowship” of seven Christians. Prison guards eventually caught Park, beat him severely and asked him, “Who told you about the existence of God?”

“Do we have to be told about the existence of the sun to know that it’s there?” Park replied. “We learn its existence by feeling its warmth.”

 

Perilous Journey

In such conditions, the journey to faith is perilous for North Koreans – or nothing short of miraculous in the case of Eom, an assistant pastor at Seoul’s New Pyongyang Full Gospel Church (a fellowship for North Korean Defectors associated with Yoido Full Gospel Church).

She was extremely loyal to the regime until she made contact with a South Korean-Chinese Christian businessman.

“It’s very hard to live in North Korea, so if you don’t secretly do business, you can’t survive,” Eom said in sharing her story with members of another large church in Seoul, South Korea. “So for a few days I just kept being polite and agreeing with whatever he said about God, even though I knew he was wrong … but then God started to change my heart.”

Eventually the missionary gave her a small New Testament.

“I enjoyed it,” she said. “The teaching to love your enemy, give him food if he’s hungry, give him water if he’s thirsty. I also took to heart the words about loving each other.”

Eom asked a superior why North Korea didn’t have a religion other than worship of the Kim family.

“His eyes got big and he told me that religion was poison,” she said, “and that if I tried to learn about Christianity I would automatically become a traitor.”

As a teacher, Eom knew what happened to children of traitors and immediately began to worry about her two daughters. When police arrested the missionary and someone warned her that she could be next, Eom packed a small bag and assured her youngest daughter that she would return in three days.

“At the time,” she told the Seoul congregation, “I didn’t realize that this trip would bar me from ever entering the country again.”

Detained by police, she said, she could not understand why the authorities were so concerned about whether she was a Christian instead of asking about her business activities. After her release and unable to rescue her daughters, she escaped to China, where she was arrested twice and told, “If we arrest you again, we will kill you.”

From China Eom made a dangerous journey via Myanmar to Thailand, where she spent six months in a detention center before being granted asylum in South Korea in 2002.

“This is a most critical time for the North Korea human rights movement,” said Scholte, head of the NKFC and president of the Defense Forum Foundation. “We either advance these issues now with the opportunity that comes from a new administration and a new Congress, or we see another decade of death and despair for those whose great misfortune was to be born under the Kim Jong Il dictatorship.”  

Report from Compass Direct News

UZBEKISTAN: 15-DAY JAIL TERM FOR TEACHING BAPTIST BELIEFS


UZBEKISTAN: 15-DAY JAIL TERM FOR TEACHING BAPTIST BELIEFS

A court in Uzbekistan’s capital Tashkent has given a 15-day prison term to Pavel Nenno, a deacon of a registered Baptist Church, Forum 18 News Service has learnt.

Nenno was prosecuted after a raid involving the NSS secret police on his home, where he was “feeding neglected children from poor families” Protestants told Forum 18. In a separate case, 17 people associated with a registered Bukhara Full Gospel church were each fined 100 times the minimum monthly salary, following a raid on a birthday party for a church member.

The church had previously been warned for religious activity away from its legal address. In both cases, children’s religious activity was identified by the authorities as a factor in their harsh sentences. Asked by Forum 18 why she was opposed to children attending church, one Bukhara headteacher replied that “I want our children to develop.”

Pavel Peichev, General Secretary of the Uzbek Baptist Union, has published an open letter condemning “increased persecution of believers in all regions” and “a wave of arrests and searches”.

Report from the Christian Telegraph

TURKEY: LOCAL OFFICIALS’ ROLE EMERGES IN MALATYA MURDERS


Former police commander, university researcher, suspected ringleader’s father testify.

MALATYA, Turkey, April 15 (Compass Direct News) – Two years after the murder of three Christians in this city in southeastern Turkey, lawyers at a hearing here on Monday (April 13) uncovered important information on the role that local security forces played in the slaughter.

At the 16th hearing of the murder case at the Malatya Third Criminal Court, plaintiff attorneys called a heavy slate of witnesses, including Mehmet Ulger, the gendarmerie commander of Malatya province during the April 2007 murders who was arrested on March 12 for his alleged connection to a political conspiracy, and Ruhi Abat, a theology instructor at the local Ismet Inonu University.

Two Turkish Christians, Necati Aydin and Ugur Yuksel, and a German Christian, Tilmann Geske, were tied up and stabbed to death at Zirve Publishing Co. offices on April 18, 2007. Plaintiff attorneys have moved the focus of the trial away from the five suspects – Salih Gurler, Cuma Ozdemir, Hamit Ceker, Abuzer Yildirim, and alleged ringleader Emre Gunaydin – to local officials believed to be liaisons or masterminds of the murders.

The retired gendarmerie commander and the theology researcher have suspected links to the crime. In January an anonymous letter sent to Turkish churches and obtained by the media claimed that then-commander Ulger instigated the murders and directed Abat to prepare arguments against missionary activity.

According to phone records, Abat made 1,415 telephone calls to gendarmerie intelligence forces in the six-month period prior to the 2007 murders. During his cross examination, he told the courtroom that the frequent contact resulted from gendarmerie requesting information on his research of local missionary activity.

Abat was part of a team of six researchers that focused on the social effects of missionary activity within the Malatya region.

“The information I gave the police and gendarmerie was aimed at answering the criticisms that missionaries had about Islam,” he said.

When plaintiff attorneys asked Ulger if this level of communication was typical, the former gendarmerie commander said that they communicated on other issues such as translating Arabic documents and further teaching engagements. But lawyers said this level of communication was unusual.

“He called the gendarmerie the equivalent of 10 times a day, seven days a week, which suggests something abnormal going on,” said plaintiff attorney Orhan Kemal Cengiz. “You wouldn’t talk that much to your mother.”

In a heated exchange at the end of the hearing, Ozkan Yucel, plaintiff attorney representing the families of the victims, pressed Ulger to answer whether he considered Christian missionary activity in Turkey to be a crime.

Avoiding a direct answer, Ulger said no such crime existed in Turkey’s penal system, but that gendarmerie classified such activity as “extreme right-wing.”

“The gendarmerie considers this to be the same [level of extremism] as radical Islamic activity,” he said.

 

Suspected Ringleader’s Family Testifies

Onur Dulkadir, a cousin and former classmate of Gunaydin, the suspected ringleader, testified on his interactions with Gunaydin and Malatya’s local Christian community prior to the murders.

Dulkadir claimed that a few months before the crime, he and Gunaydin attended a Christian meeting at a Malatya hotel where approximately 50 people were in attendance. He said they left when someone handed him a brochure about “missionary activity.”

Dulkadir told the court that after they left, Gunaydin said, “I am watching how they structure themselves,” and, “Very soon I am going to be rich.” In past hearings, Gunaydin claimed the Turkish state had promised him support if he would carry out the attacks successfully.

Gunaydin’s father, Mustafa Gunaydin, testified at the hearing that he didn’t believe his son had led the group of five to commit the grisly murder of the three Christians, two of them converts from Islam.

“I went once a week to the jail to see my son, and every time I spoke with my son I tried to bring out the identity of those behind the murders,” said Mustafa Gunaydin. “He swore to me there was nobody behind it . . . I still believe my son couldn’t have done anything. My child is afraid of blood.”

Mustafa Gunaydin works as a technician at Ismet Inonu University. Plaintiff attorneys asked him if he was acquainted with professor Fatih Hilmioglu, recently jailed in a mass arrest of professors associated with a national conspiracy known as Ergenekon. He replied that he knew Hilmioglu, but that he also knew about 70 percent of the university personnel and did not have a close friendship with the arrested professor.

The prosecuting attorneys have frequently contended that Ergenekon, a loose collection of ultra-nationalist generals, businessmen, mafia and journalists who planned to engineer domestic chaos and overthrow the Turkish government, instigated Emre Gunaydin to commit the murders.

Ulger was arrested as part of the Turkish state’s investigations into Ergenekon.

 

Cryptic Comments

Among Emre Gunaydin’s most prominent suspect links to Ergenekon is his jailed former co-worker Varol Bulent Aral, who was arrested in February for being a possible liaison between the five youths on trial for the murders and the true masterminds.

Hamit Ozpolat, owner of a newspaper and radio station in Adiyaman, testified at the hearing that Aral made cryptic comments in regard to his connections with the criminal organization. When Aral approached Ozpolat for a job at one of his news outlets, he declined his application, which he said resulted in Aral shouting threats against him. When police came, Ozpolat testified, Aral shouted, “You can’t do anything to me, I am a member of the deep state.”

Plaintiff attorneys have suspected a connection between the Malatya murder case and Ergenekon for several months, attempting to merge the two cases since last August.

But in a strange turn, the National Intelligence Agency (MIT) has issued a report claiming that Ergenekon and Christian missionary agencies were working together to destroy the Turkish nation. This claim would seem to contradict older Ergenekon documents that make reference to church members in Izmir, Mersin and Trabzon, three Turkish cities where Christians were attacked or killed in the following years.

Malatya plaintiff attorneys told Compass the theory of Christians wanting to destroy Turkey exists in the national consciousness but has no basis in reality.

“One of the core activities of Ergenekon is to struggle against missionary activity,” plaintiff attorney Cengiz said. “They are very hostile against missionary activities, as they see them as an extension of the external enemies in Turkey.”

On Monday (April 13), police raided the home of professor Turkan Saylan, 74-year old president of the Association for Support of Progressive Life (CYDD) and a cancer patient. The seven-hour raid took place on the basis of a MIT report stating her organization had received funds from the American Board, the oldest organization in Turkey with missionary status. The American Board is known in Turkey for building schools and hospitals and funding development projects.

Police reportedly raided her home and office in an attempt to find information linking CYDD finances to the American Board and proselytizing activities. Saylan’s organization has opened three court cases against MIT for past accusations of missionary activities.

In an online report published by Haber50 today, Saylan said that her premises were raided as retaliation for the cases opened against MIT, which for years has been trying to destroy her organization’s reputation in the press.

In addition, the report says Yasar Yaser, president of the Health and Education Association (SEV), used her organization’s printing press in order to produce Bibles.

“The terrible truth is some media, including some Muslim newspapers, were very eager to cover this story,” plaintiff attorney Cengiz said. He emphasized that suspicions of Christian groups in Turkey having such a subversive agenda were baseless.

This Saturday (April 18) will mark the second anniversary of the stabbing deaths of the three Christians. Churches across Turkey will commemorate the event through special services, and the Turkish Protestant Alliance has designated the day as an international day of prayer.

The next hearing of the case is scheduled to take place on May 22.

Report from Compass News Direct

EARTH HOUR: A COLOSSAL WASTE OF TIME???


Earth Hour is to be held this Saturday (March 28) between 8.30 pm and 9.30 pm. All you need to do to take part in Earth Hour is simply turn your lights off for the hour between 8.30 pm and 9.30 pm on March 28.

Earth Hour began as an annual event in Sydney in 2007, when an estimated 2.2 million buildings switched off their lights for an hour. This year Earth Hour is going global for the second year and is giving people the opportunity to ‘vote’ for either the Earth or global warning. By switching off the lights for an hour a person can ‘vote’ for fighting global warning.

Organisers of Earth Hour are hoping some 1 billion people will ‘vote’ for the Earth and hope to be able to give world leaders 1 billion ‘votes’ for the Earth at the Global Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen 2009. The conference is the forum in which world leaders will determine policy to supersede the Kyoto Protocol on Greenhouse Gas reduction.

For more on Earth Hour visit the official website at:

http://www.earthhour.org  

However, is Earth Hour a colossal waste of time? What is really being gained by turning the lights off for an hour once a year? All other electrical devices are still on and a lot of people go for alternative lighting devices that also pollute the environment. Other than awareness of global warming (which I would suggest everyone knows about now and either believes or does not believe – turning off some lights won’t change anyone’s mind on global warming), what does Earth Hour really achieve?

The following Blog post makes for interesting reading:

http://blogs.news.com.au/heraldsun/andrewbolt/index.php/heraldsun/comments/earth_hour_crashes_to_earth/

Am I against reducing Greenhouse Gas Emissions? Am I against reducing Global Warming and other associated disasters? Am I anti-environment? The answer to those questions is no! I’m just simply saying Earth Hour is little more than tokenism by most people who are against the Rudd government Greenhouse Gas Emissions reduction policies and other policies that actually aim to make a difference.

 

 

CHURCH GOES UNDERGROUND AS IRANIAN GOVERNMENT HUNTS BELIEVERS


A great spiritual hunger in Iran has caused many to turn away from traditional Islam, resulting in an ever-increasing number of conversions. Words of Hope President Lee DeYoung says that conversion is viewed as a serious offense in Iran, and the government continues to hunt those suspected of turning to Christianity, reports MNN.

“We continue to hear reports of government inquiries,” DeYoung says, “and people being called in for questioning about alleged Christian activities.”

Many believers have taken to exercising their faith “underground” to avoid officials’ prying eyes.

“It shows that the government of Iran is still very vigilant and concerned.”

DeYoung adds that in Iran, conversion could result in punishment by death. Many Iranians are tired of the disillusionment associated with Islam and Iran’s government. The disillusionment has resulted in a great spiritual hunger in Iran. As the hunger grows, so does the number of converts to Christianity; God’s family is growing despite continued persecution.

“The work of God in Iran testifies to the power of the Gospel,” said Victor Atallah, founder of the Middle East Reformed Fellowship (MERF).

MERF partners with Words of Hope in Iran to broadcast Christian programming into Iran. Every night, Iranians tune in to God’s Word broadcast in Farsi, their native tongue. Believers are also encouraged through the Internet and Biblical training offered by WOH. DeYoung urges sustained prayer for believers in Iran as governmental pressure continues.

“People there are courageous,” DeYoung said. “They need wisdom, and they need God’s protection so that they can continue to minister in Jesus’ name both on the radio and in other ways.”

Report from the Christian Telegraph

AUSTRALIA: BUSHFIRES UPDATE – Saturday 14th February 2009


As Victorians brace themselves for hotter weather this weekend and the possible return to ‘fire weather,’ there are still some 15 major bushfires burning, a further 18 fires burning out of control and about 100 fires considered under control. Each day there are new fires and new threats, though these are not viewed with the same level of concern as the fires last Saturday and Sunday. However, as the weather conditions begin to turn more towards ‘fire weather’ status, each fire will be viewed with increasing concern. Should conditions deteriorate no further, fire-fighters can expect to be fighting these fires for a further 2 to 3 weeks.

Fire-fighters from Canada, New Zealand and the United States have now joined the thousands of Australian fire-fighters in the fight against these bushfires. Though Australia has some of the best-trained and prepared fire-fighters in the world, every bit of help that can be given is appreciated and required.

Authorities are facing growing problems associated with the bushfires and relief efforts, with rubber-neckers (sightseers), looters, arsonists and fraudsters preying on victims and the generosity of most Australians who are doing what they can for the victims. Collection tins have been robbed by a bloke without compassion (captured on security footage as seen below) and one fire-ravaged town has posted signs throughout their community warning that looters will be shot on sight. Another town is issuing citizens special stickers for their cars so locals will know who should be there and who shouldn’t be. It is a tragedy that grows worse by the day, in more ways than one.

1831 homes have now been confirmed destroyed in the bushfire emergency, along with numerous other structures including 2 police stations, three schools, a water treatment plant, a timber mill, a football club, a kindergarten, a church, etc. The damage bill will be enormous.

The death toll currently stands at 181 confirmed dead with many still missing. The death toll will reach 200 plus (possible 300). 7000 people are now homeless. 4 300 further homes remain without power.

ABOVE: Images of Fire Victims

420 000 hectares of bushland, farmland and communities have been reduced to ash by the fires. It is thought that there may be as many as 1 million animal victims of the bushfires.

 

ABOVE: Animal Victims of the Fires

With arsonists being blamed for a number of fires, one fire near Murrindindi is being blamed on a careless person who threw a cigarette from a car window. A farmer says he saw the fire begin on the side of the road near Murrindindi Mill. This fire merged with the Kilmore fire and destroyed Kinglake and Marysville.

ABOVE: Arsonist Arrested

PAKISTAN: CHRISTIAN CHARGED WITH ‘BLASPHEMY’ FOR TEXT MESSAGE


Defender of minority rights allegedly framed for making legal challenges in church land dispute.

ISTANBUL, February 5 (Compass Direct News) – More than 100 protestors last week surrounded a Pakistani courthouse and chanted death threats against a Punjabi Christian said to be framed for sending a “blasphemous” text message on his cell phone.

Rawalpindi police arrested Hector Aleem, 51, on Jan. 22 and detained him on charges of sending a text message that insulted the Islamic prophet Muhammad. At his Jan. 27 hearing at the Rawalpindi Sessions Court, crowds gathered and began shouting death threats.

His attorney, Malik Tafik, told Compass that a local man allegedly framed Aleem for the charges because Aleem has made legal challenges on behalf of Christians involved in a land dispute. Aleem directs a small agency that often defends the rights of Christians.

Last November, a scholar associated with the national Islamist political movement Sunni Tehreek received a text message claiming to have come from Aleem. The religious scholar registered blasphemy charges against Aleem on Nov. 28 at the Rawalpindi police station.

Police raided Aleem’s house at 1:30 a.m. on Jan. 22 and assaulted him, his wife, and his two daughters. They also stole 50,000 Pakistan rupees (US$630) worth of valuables and broke pictures of Jesus hanging on their walls, according to a report from the Center for Legal Aid Assistance and Settlement (CLAAS).

Authorities charged him with violating sections 295c (blasphemy) and 109bb (abetting) of the Pakistani criminal code. Aleem was transferred to a Rawalpindi anti-terrorism court for a second hearing on Jan. 30, where an even larger crowd of protestors gathered shouting that his life would not be spared. Many of those who came to protest were associated with Sunni Tehreek, which has been involved in violent sectarian clashes with other Islamist movements in the last decade.

“There were about 150 people protesting that Aleem should be handed over to them,” Tafik said. “And there were many journalists, two news stations, and lawyers who came out to protest against him.”

Aleem is detained at the Adiyala Jail in Rawalpindi. During his incarceration, police have mistreated him and denied him adequate food and access to medicine for his heart condition. He told lawyers that police have not allowed him to meet with his family and referred to him as “choohra” (sweeper), a derogatory term for Pakistani Christians to designate them as the lowest rung of society.

At a hearing at an anti-terrorism court on Monday (Feb. 2), Judge Sakhi Mohammad Kohut exonerated him of blasphemy charges but did not clear him of abetting. A government official told Compass that the judge’s decision was heavily influenced by Islamic extremists attending the open court hearing who told the judge, “If you release [Aleem], then we will kill him outside.”

At the hearing, the judge implicated the man who allegedly framed Aleem – Bashar Kokar, previously charged multiple times with fraud – accusing him of using his cell phone to send a blasphemous message against Muhammad. Kokar was charged with blasphemy and arrested later that day. But court evidence shows the original text message came from an unregistered mobile number that pertained to neither Kokar nor Aleem, sources said – exonerating Aleem, but also making it difficult to prove that Kokar framed him. Khushdil Khan Malik, deputy secretary of Pakistan’s Ministry of Human Rights, said he believes the judge implicated Kokar as a scapegoat for the blasphemy charges in order to appease the extremists.

The next hearing will be held in March. Attorney Tafik told Compass he believes Aleem will be cleared of all charges because there is no evidence against him.

 

Targeted for Defending Christian Rights

Sources said they believe Aleem was framed due to his social activism as director of a small Non-Governmental Organization that lobbies for the rights of Pakistani Christians in Islamabad.

In November he became involved in a land dispute between a congregation and a local municipality that wanted to demolish their church building. He has been wrongfully implicated in the past for minor offenses, a government deputy said, particularly for his advocacy work against the Capital Development Authority, a municipal works agency that has been charged with unlawful confiscation and destruction of Christian property.

Aleem has been cleared of these minor offenses. The seriousness of the blasphemy charge, however, puts him and his family in danger. Besides his attorney, other legal advocates said they believe he will be cleared of all charges as there is no evidence that he sent the original text message.

Until then, his family is hiding underground due to threats of violence by Muslim extremists, said Joseph Francis, national director of CLAAS. And once he is released, it will be hard for Aleem to return to a normal life in Rawalpindi with the stigma of even unproven charges of blasphemy hanging over his head.

“What will happen after [the trial] is a matter of concern,” said Malik of Pakistan’s human rights ministry. “There have been many incidents of the sudden deaths of people charged with blasphemy.”

As many of those hostile to him are members of Sunni Tehreek who are dispersed throughout Pakistan, he and his family would be targeted by local members of the organization if they fled to another city. The only solution may be to seek asylum in another country, a source told Compass.

 

Problematic Law

Blasphemy has been used frequently in Pakistani law as a tool to silence or intimidate non-Muslims, including another case this week.

Yesterday a pastor, his son, and his father were charged with blasphemy in the village of Baddomehli, 100 kilometers (62 miles) from Lahore. Muslim classmates of pastor Shafik Masih’s teenage son claimed he had a blasphemous pamphlet in his backpack and began to assault him, according to a CLAAS report.

Realizing the danger of sectarian violence, the police chief of the region yesterday called on Christians to seek refuge as local Muslims were assembling a protest.

Christian members of Pakistan’s Parliament have moved to strike the blasphemy laws from the national criminal code.

“In the past, only a superintendent of police could file blasphemy charges,” attorney Tafik said. “But now a private person can register a case of blasphemy and it can be misused because anyone can use it.”  

Report from Compass Direct News