Coptic Blogger in Egypt Threatens Hunger Strike


Authorities deny Christian’s application for release.

ISTANBUL, November 9 (CDN) — A Coptic Christian blogger in Egypt held in prison for more than a year without charge said today he will go on a hunger strike unless authorities grant his next application for release.

Hani Nazeer, a 28-year-old high school social worker from Qena, Egypt and author of the blog “Karz El Hob,” received word today that his latest application for release, sent to the Ministry of the Interior a week ago, was denied. His attorneys said they would re-apply for his release tomorrow.

The interior ministry did not “supply the grounds for refusal” according to Rawda Ahamad, Nazeer’s lead defense attorney.

“He has no charges against him,” Ahamad said. “He is not a criminal. He must be released immediately. He’s an innocent man – anyone exposed to this severe injustice would do the same.”

On Oct. 3, 2008, Nazeer was arrested by Egypt’s State Security Investigations (SSI) and sent to Burj Al-Arab prison. Although police never charged him with any crime, Nazeer has been detained for more than a year under Egypt’s administrative imprisonment law.

Nazeer ran afoul of SSI officers a few days before his arrest when a group of local teenagers visited his website and clicked on a link to an online copy of “Azazil’s Goat in Mecca,” a novel written under the pseudonym “Father Utah.” The book is a response to “Azazil,” a novel by Yusuf Zidane, critical of Christianity.

Insulting religion is illegal in Egypt, but the law is enforced unequally. Zidane’s critique of Christianity garnered him fame and awards throughout the Arab world. Nazeer’s website link cost him his freedom, despite the fact that police have never publicly produced any evidence linking Nazeer to Utah’s work. After Nazeer was arrested, posts continued on Utah’s website.

Nazeer has reported to his attorneys that he has been placed in prison with felons, some of them violent. He also claims that prison authorities have pressured him to convert to Islam.

Gamel Eid, executive director of the Arabic Network for Human Rights Information, the group representing Nazeer, stood by his client’s accusations, saying police have urged inmates to suggest to Nazeer that officers would work to free him if he were to convert to Islam.

Nazeer’s situation is complicated by the fact that his writings upset both Islamic authorities and the hierarchy of the Coptic Orthodox Church. On one hand, he criticized the increasing Islamization of Egyptian civil society. On the other, he lamented the political involvement of the Coptic Orthodox Church. In one post, Nazeer wrote that a gathering of activists at a Coptic church was inappropriate because churches were meant to be venues for prayer, not for politics.

According to Eid, Nazeer was arrested with the complicity of leaders in the Coptic Orthodox Church. In October of 2008, police detained Nazeer’s relatives at a police station and threatened to hold them until he came out of hiding. Nazeer turned himself into the police station on the advice of Bishop Kirollos of Nag Hammadi, Nazeer reported to his attorneys. Kirollos assured Nazeer he would be detained no more than four days and then be released.

Kirollos had denounced Nazeer to security, Nazeer told his attorneys.

All attempts to reach Kirollos about his alleged involvement in Nazeer’s arrest were unsuccessful. Several attempts to reach Bishop Anba Yoannes, authorized to speak about the case on behalf of the Coptic Orthodox Church’s Pope Shenouda III, were also unsuccessful. Egypt’s SSI, a political police force run by the Interior minister, routinely declines to comment on cases.

This week’s application will be sent to a court within the Ministry of the Interior. But under the emergency law, police officials have the power to ignore court orders. When local police execute a court order to release prisoners held under Egypt’s emergency law, security police commonly re-arrest them minutes later.

The law, enacted after the 1981 assassination of President Anwar Sadat, allows authorities to hold people without charge. Eid estimated that there are approximately 14,000 people imprisoned under this law. In 2005, while running for re-election, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak promised to replace the contested law. But in May of 2008, the Egyptian government extended the law for two more years.

Mamdouh Nakhla, an attorney and civil rights activist in Egypt, said oppression of Coptic Christians is common and that many police officers in Egypt are the “agents of persecution.” At best, he said, they are complicit in acts of persecution. At worst, he added, police collude with others hostile to Christianity.

“They give green lights to Islamists, and protect them, and give them the feeling that they are immune from prosecution,” he said.

Report from Compass Direct News

India Briefs: Recent Incidents of Persecution


UTTARAKHAND, India, November 3 (CDN) — Hindu extremists from the Bajrang Dal on Oct. 25 disrupted the Sunday worship of a Ministry of the Gospel service in Rudrapur and accused the pastor of forceful conversion. The Evangelical Fellowship of India reported that the extremists barged into the worship service led by Pastor Victor Massey, tore Bibles and took all Christian literature. They threatened to attack anew if the congregation continued to meet for worship, adding that they would force Hindu rituals on them. Ministry of the Gospel leader S.K. Puri told Compass that church officials reported the matter to the district collector and superintendent of police, but when Hindu nationalists heard about the complaint they accosted Pastor Massey on Oct. 30 and again threatened to force Hindu rituals on the congregation. Christian leaders have asked local authorities to provide police protection.

Karnataka – A mob of about 50 Hindu extremists attacked a church on Oct. 25 in old Hubli, burning Bibles and Christian literature. The Evangelical Fellowship of India reported that at about 11 a.m. the Hindu hardliners barged into the prayer meeting of Assembly of God Church and dragged out Pastor David Raj. The attack reportedly began after an unidentified man in attendance repeatedly went in and out of the church building; he was requested to remain sitting so as not to disturb the sermon. The man left and returned with 50 extremists, led by area Bajrang Dal leader Jayathirtha Kati. After the Hindu extremists verbally abused the church members, set fire to the Christian literature and dragged the pastor out to the street, local police arrived and, as is customary in India, detained the victims. They took the pastor, his wife and two church members to the police station and only with local Christian leaders’ intervention were the Christians released at about 5 p.m.

Assam – Hindu extremists and the head of Dayung village called a meeting on Oct. 23 to oppose a Christian ministry after a young woman who became a Christian refused to renounce her faith, a source told Compass. Tara Sabha’s family beat and disowned her after she told the village council that she would not leave Christianity at any cost, the source said. Sabha had received Christ earlier in October. The source told Compass that Hindu extremists held Enosh Lepcha of First Evangelical Church Association of India (FECAI) responsible for the conversion, and on Oct. 23 they and the village head called a public meeting in which they threatened a social boycott if the ministry continued its activities. FECAI’s Abbay Pradhan told Compass that due to extremist pressure, the ministry has stopped many activities.

Andhra Pradesh – Suspected Hindu extremists set fire to India Mission Society Church in Warrangal on Oct. 22, damaging more than half of the building. The Global Council of Indian Christians reported that unidentified people set the church building ablaze at about 2 a.m. Pastor P. Kumarswamy contacted the fire department, which arrived after more than half of the building had been destroyed. Police registered a First Information Report, and an investigation is underway.

Karnataka – Hindu nationalists forced an evangelist and other Christians to go to a police station on false charges of forcible conversion on Oct. 21 after barging into the church leader’s home and demanding money for a Hindu festival in Undedasarahalli, Chikamaglur district. The Global Council of Indian Christians (GCIC) reported that Hindu radicals leveled the charges after evangelist Kumar Nayak of the Assemblies of God refused to give a donation for the Diwali festival. Nayak and his family were about to leave home for the last of a three-day prayer meeting when nearly 30 extremists led by Prakash Nayak forcibly entered their house and tried to force them to give money for the Hindu rite. The intolerant Hindus verbally abused them, warning that they would not be allowed to stay in the village, and forced Nayak, his wife Bembitha, 52-year-old widow Lalitha Bai and her three children to go to the Banavara police station and filed a complaint. With GCIC intervention, all but Kumar Nayak were released at 11:30 p.m., with the evangelist detained until midnight on condition of reporting to the police station at 9 a.m. the next morning. After extensive questioning the next day, Nayak was released at 4 p.m. without being charged.

Andhra Pradesh – Hindu extremists on Oct. 18 attacked a worship service in Hyderabad, beating a pregnant woman and her child and seriously injuring a pastor’s ear. The Global Council of Indian Christians reported that about 15 people from the Hindu extremist Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh barged into the service led by Pastor Siluvai Kumar and two others pastors, verbally abused the Christians and accused them of forceful conversion. The intolerant Hindus tore and threw Bibles and damaged the church facility, including musical instruments. The Hindu extremists later dragged a pastor identified only as Timothy to Kukatpally police station and filed a false charge of urinating on nearby temple idols. With the intervention of the local Christian leaders, police summoned the attackers to the police station, where the parties reached an agreement in which the extremists apologized to the Christians and pledged not to attack them.

Uttar Pradesh – On Oct. 15 Hindu extremists from the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (World Hindu Council) in Pratap Garh accused Pastor Sunil Singh of the Full Gospel Church of fraudulent conversion and threatened to kill him if his church continues its worship services. A source told Compass that the extremists went to the pastor’s house to deliver the threat. The Hindu hardliners filed a police complaint against the pastor of offering money to people to convert to Christianity. Police summoned the pastor to the police station for questioning, and an investigation was underway.

Andhra Pradesh – Hindu extremists on Oct. 13 stopped construction of a Methodist church building and verbally abused Pastor M. Gabriel in Nizamabad. The All India Christian Council (AICC) reported that the Hindu extremists along with the village head, Vital Reddy, were responsible for the hostilities. The pastor filed a police complaint charging harassment and contacted the district collector and superintendent of police, but no action had been taken at press time. An AICC representative told Compass that the pastor has stopped church construction to avoid further disturbances.

Karnataka – State police on Oct. 10 arrested Christians on false charges of forcible conversion in Gowdigere village, Hubli, Dharwad district. The Global Council of Indian Christians (GCIC) reported that at 9 a.m. about 30 local Hindu nationalists barged into the house of a Christian woman identified only as Venkatamma just after the end of a prayer service. The extremists falsely accused Friends Missionary Prayer Band Mission Pastor Murthy Nayak Ganesh and evangelist Chandrakanth Gopanna Lambani of fraudulently luring people to Christianity. Later the extremists forced the Christians to the village temple, and then telephoned Kundugol police who came to the temple and took the Christians to the station, charging them “punishment of criminal conspiracy,” among others. With GCIC intervention, the pastors were released on Oct. 12, but it was not clear at press time whether charges were still pending.

Punjab – Hindu extremists in Samral Chowk, Ludhiana on Oct. 6 severely beat and stabbed a Christian worker, according to the Evangelical Fellowship of India (EFI). At About 7:30 a.m. Vijay Kumar, an Indian Pentecostal Church worker and a former student of Punjab Bible College, was distributing gospel tracts when five Hindu extremists arrived in a vehicle with a non-numbered license plate and forced him into it. Beating and stabbing him with a knife in his chest and leg while taking him to different sites, they questioned him about how much money he had received to become a Christian and asked with which Christian groups he was associated, EFI reported. They later took him to a jungle and continued torturing him. A Christian search team began looking for Kumar at 7:30 p.m., and at 2 a.m. that night they received a phone call from him saying the assailants had taken him back to his village and thrown him from the running vehicle. He was taken to Christian Medical College with severe injuries but was recovering well. A complaint was filed at Shingaar police station, but no arrests had been made at press time.

Chhattisgarh – Hindu extremists attacked a pastor and his family and later accused them of forced conversion and other false charges in Jyotipur village, Bilaspur district. Pastor Markus Das of the Assembly of God Church on Oct. 4 went to visit a family in Sadwani village along with his wife and children. On their way back their van had a flat tire, and as his friend Atul Arthur gave them a ride home, a group of people from the Rathore community – closely aligned with the Hindu extremist Bajrang Dal – attacked them. They accused Pastor Das of forcible conversion and tried to drag him and others out of the vehicle, causing minor injuries. They damaged the vehicle, smashing the windows. Pastor Das and his family managed to escape, but the next morning when he went back to pick up his van, he was told that the forest department had confiscated his vehicle after allegedly finding illegal wood in it. Pastor Das said the Rathore community set a trap. “They broke the front windshield of my car and planted the wood in my car when I was away,” he said. A First Information Report has been filed against Pastor Das indicting him for forced conversion and carrying illegal wood, and the pastor has filed an FIR against members of the Rathore Community in the Gorala police station.

Chhattisgarh – Hindu extremists in Raipur on Oct. 3 tried to pressure a Christian family into giving up their faith. The extremists also threatened to publicly dishonor Pastor Kamlakar Roa Bokade by filing charges of forcible conversion against him if he did not stop visiting the family of Modichandan Sahu, a convert who has regularly attended worship services for the past 15 years. Modichandan Sahu’s two daughters had married non-Christians under social pressure, and one of her sons-in-law, Bhuwan Sahu, a member of the Hindu extremist Bharatiya Janata Party, cut off relations with his in-laws several years ago because of his opposition to Christianity. Hindu extremists led by Bhuwan Sahu on Oct. 3 stormed Motichandan’s house, pressured her to give up her faith and tried to force her into Hindu ceremonies and ritual. The next day he began threatening Pastor Bokade, telling him by cell phone that they would frame him for forceful conversion. The Chhattisgarh Christian Forum has notified police of the harassment.

Kerala – Hindu extremist Bharatiya Janata Party newspaper The Janmabhumi Daily forced sub-editor Sredevi Nair to resign from her job on Oct. 1 after management learned that she had received Jesus Christ. Nair resigned two days before her baptism, reported The Indian Catholic. The managing editor of the Janmabhumi daily, Kummanam Rajasekharan, reportedly called her during work hours and said it was not possible for a convert to continue with the newspaper. The Indian Catholic reported that Rajasekharan urged Nair to convert her Christian husband to Hinduism and have a marriage ceremony at a Hindu temple. The Indian Express quoted Janmabhumi Editor Leela Menon as saying that that she was against conversion, and that Nair was trying to malign the newspaper after her resignation.

Madhya Pradesh – Members of the Hindu extremist Abhinav Bharat on Sept. 28 stormed into a house church in Adhartal, on the outskirts of Jabalpur. The Global Council of Indian Christians (GCIC) reported that at 12:30 p.m. about 15 of the intolerant Hindus arrived on motorcycles and broke into the house church meeting shouting “Jai Sri Ram [Hail to Lord Ram)” and vandalized the property, including damaging the cross at the entrance. The Hindu extremists threatened 51-year-old Pastor Peter Johnson with further attacks. Pastor Johnson filed a complaint with Adhartal police station in Jabalpur, and police have reportedly forwarded it to the City Superintendent of Police and Collector. GCIC reported that police assured a speedy investigation. The Abhinav Bharat is already under the government scanner for anti-Muslim bomb blasts, and some of their leaders holding government posts are in custody and on trial.

Madhya Pradesh – For the third time, radicals from the minority Jains religion on Sept. 27 attacked and threatened the church of Pastor Mukesh Pal of Rajgarh, Dhar district. About a dozen of the Jains, all members of the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party, interrupted a worship service of some 500 mainly tribal people and cursed, criticized and accused Christians of fraudulent conversion, eating cow meat and mixing harmful chemicals into anointing oil used for prayers for the sick. The Jains religion advocates non-violence and vegetarianism. After those attending the church service argued with the radicals, the extremists left but returned with five policemen. A doctor was called on the spot to test the prayer oil, and he certified it as chemical-free. Nevertheless, police arrested Pastor Mukesh Pal and Ganpat Goyal, and many from the church followed and stood outside the police station demanding the release of the two Christians. After calls from Christian friends, high-ranking officers ensured that police release the two Christians. Pastor Pal told Compass that the radicals attacked their prayer hall in June 2006, badly damaging it. They arrived again in August 2006, warning the Christians not to hold more services and accusing them of forcible conversion, although they did no physical harm.

Andhra Pradesh – Hindu extremists led by Venkat Reddy attacked a Christian identified only as Abhishek, from Hebron Church, and accused him of forceful conversion on Sept. 25 in Ranga Reddy. The All Indian Christian Council (AICC) reported that the extremists attacked the Christian while he was conducting a Bible school class at Hamamguda, mercilessly beating him and accusing him of organizing the study program to forcibly convert children to Christianity. Abhishek received treatment at Apollo Santoshnagar Hospital, reported AICC. The extremists filed a police complaint against the Christian, but later forced the Christian to agree to stop the Bible program.

Report from Compass Direct News 

Muslims in Bangladesh Seize Land Used by Church


Bengali-speaking settlers file case against Christians; one threatens, ‘I will finish your life.’

DHAKA, Bangladesh, September 1 (CDN) — Bengali-speaking, Muslim settlers have seized five acres of abandoned government property used by a church and falsedly charged Christians with damaging the land in southeastern Bangladesh’s Khagrachari hill district, Christian leaders said.

Kiron Joti Chakma, field director of Grace Baptist Church in Khagrachari district, told Compass that the settlers had taken over the church building and the five acres of land in Reservechara village in June and filed a case on Aug. 4 against five tribal Christians. The Bengali-speaking Muslims had come from other areas of Bangladesh in a government resettlement program that began in 1980.

“In the case, the settlers mentioned that the Christians had cut the trees and damaged the crops on their land and that they should pay 250,000 taka [US$3,690] as compensation,” said Chakma. “We cultivated pineapple in the land around the church. But the settlers damaged all of our pineapple trees and built two houses there.”

The government has allowed the Christians to use the land. Tribal leaders said that land-grabbing in the area hill tracts, undulating landscape under Dighinala police jurisdiction 300 kilometers (186 miles) southeast of the Dhaka, began again during the army-backed interim government of 2007-2008.

“It is still continuing, and our demands to stop land-grabbing do not rate very high with the administration and law enforcement agencies,” said one of the accused, 32-year-old Mintu Chakma.

When he went to the police station regarding the false case filed against the Christians, he said, the leader of the Bengali settlers was there and threatened him in front of officers, telling him, “I can devour dozens of people like you – I will finish your life.”

Church leaders have informed a nearby army camp of the seizure. Military officers said they would take action, but they have done nothing so far, Christians said.

“Our leaders informed the army zone commander, and he assured us they would take necessary action, but nothing has happened so far against those land grabbers and arsonists,” said 25-year-old Liton Chakma (Chakma is the name of the tribe), one of the Christians accused in the Grace Baptist case.

The Muslim settlers had burned a Seventh-day Adventist Church building in 2008 in Boachara village, close to the Grace Baptist Christians’ village, in an effort to frighten tribal people away from becoming Christian, said Liton Chakma. He told Compass that Bengali settlers had also hindered their attempt to construct the church building in August in 2007.

“Many new believers saw nothing had happened to the arsonists, and many of them reverted to their previous Buddhism,” he said. “The army and local administration allowed them to run wild. They always threaten to beat us and file cases against us.”

Mintu Chakma said that Muslim settlers seized a garden next to his house in 2007.

“They not only destroyed my pineapple garden, but they built a mosque there,” he said.

Land Ownership

Local police inspector Suvas Pal told Compass that neither tribal people nor Bengali settlers were the owners of that land. It is government-owned, abandoned land, he said.

“The Bengali settlers claim that the land was assigned to lease to them, but we did not find any copy of lease in the deputy commissioner’s office,” said Pal. “On the other hand, the tribal people could not show any papers of their possession of the land.”

Investigating Officer Omar Faruque told Compass that the Muslim settlers had built two houses there, though they did not live there or nearby.

“I told the Bengali settlers that if they [tribal Christians] worship in the church there, then do not disturb them,” said Faruque.

Dipankar Dewan, headman of the tribal community, told Compass that the tribal Christians have an historical claim to the land.

“The land belonged to the forefathers of tribal Christians, so they can lay claim to the property by inheritance,” said Dewan.

During conflict between tribal people and Bengali people in the hill tracts, the tribal people left the country and took shelter in neighboring India, leaving much of their land abandoned. Bengali settlers took over some of the land, while the government leased other tracts to Bengali settlers, Dewan said.

“Many lands of the tribal people were grabbed in the hill tracts in the two years of state-of-emergency period of the previous army-backed, interim government,” he said. “Those Bengali settlers tried to grab the land during the tenure of the army-backed, interim government.”

Members of the Shanti Bahini, tribal guerrillas who fought for autonomy in the hill tracts, ended a 25-years revolt in the Chittagong Hill Tracts area in 1997 under a peace treaty in which the government was to withdraw troops and restore land acquired by settlers to local tribesmen.

Some 2,000 Shanti Bahini guerrillas surrendered their weapons following the 1997 treaty. But the tribal people say many aspects of the treaty remain unfulfilled, including restoration of rights and assigning jobs to them.

The guerrillas had fought for autonomy in the hill and forest region bordering India and Burma (Myanmar) in a campaign that left nearly 8,500 troops, rebels and civilians killed.

Recently the Awami League government ordered one army brigade of nearly 2,500 troops to pull out from the hill tract, and the withdrawal that began early last month is expected to be completed soon. Four brigades of army are still deployed in the hill tracts comprising three districts – Rangamati, Khagrachari and Bandarban.

Report from Compass Direct News 

Missionaries attacked, fears abound as Orissa anniversary nears


Nine Gospel for Asia-supported missionaries were arrested August 10 after an encounter with a group of anti-Christian extremists in Orissa, India, reports Gospel for Asia.

The missionaries were handing out Gospel tracts and talking with people when the extremists began harassing them. The missionaries stood firm during the incident. They were taken to the police station and held there until a local Gospel for Asia leader could arrange their release.

One condition was placed on their freedom: The missionaries must refrain from preaching for the next two months to allegedly maintain law and order.

The nine missionaries refused to agree to this condition but were released anyway. Before being freed, they assured the police that they would not do anything to disturb the peace. They also made it clear that they were distributing tracts to people who wanted them and not forcing people to convert.

Christians are under constant scrutiny by other religious groups after the mass persecution that occurred in Orissa last fall. The death of Swami Laxmanananda Saraswati, who was a top leader of the VHP (World Hindu Council), ignited an outrageous persecution of Christians, even though Maoist rebels claimed responsibility for his murder.

As the anniversary of Saraswati’s death approaches on August 23, security has heightened. Followers of Saraswati plan to hold processions in observance of his death. No threats have been mentioned, but fear still lingers among some Christians because of past experiences.

Some Christians in the community plan to balance out the potential danger by observing the day as a day of peace and harmony.

A GFA correspondent said police are being very careful to not allow any situation “that would escalate the communal tension” from occurring. The district administration in Kandhamal has taken some precautionary measures “to avert any untoward incidents and violence.”

Report from the Christian Telegraph 

TALIBAN THREATENS POPE IF CHRISTIANITY IS SPREAD IN AFGHANISTAN


In the lead-up to his coming trip to the Holy Land, Pope Benedict XVI has been warned by Islamic extremists that he must stop any attempts to convert Muslims to Christianity or face “the consequences of a severe reaction,” reports Hilary White, LifeSiteNews.com.

ANSA news service reports that the Taliban issued the statement on an Islamic website after the Islamic news service Al Jazeera showed American soldiers holding copies of the Bible translated into the two local languages.

“The Islamic Emirate in Afghanistan asks Pope Benedict XVI to act to stop the foolish and irresponsible actions of the crusaders upsetting the feelings of Muslim rebels, without awaiting the consequences of a severe reaction,” said the message on the website, alemarah1.org.

“The Taleban forcefully exhort the mujaheddin [jihadis], scholars and all religious circles to control the activities of the invaders and crusaders, and not allow anyone to preach religions except Islam,” the message continued.

The US army later responded, “Any form of religious proselytism by troops is prohibited,” and assured that the bibles pictured had been “confiscated and destroyed.”

At the same time, Islamic extremists in Jordan condemned the Pope’s visit, claiming that he had failed to apologise for what they regard as insults to Islam in a speech at Regensburg in 2006. The Pope is scheduled to arrive in Jordan on Friday for the first stage of a tour that will include Israel and the Palestinian territories.

Zaki Bani Rusheid, head of the Islamic Action Front, the political arm of the international organisation the Muslim Brotherhood, told Reuters, “The present Vatican pope is the one who issued severe insults to Islam and did not offer any apology to the Muslims.” The Islamic Action Front is the Jordan’s largest mainstream Islamist party.

In 2006, Pope Benedict spoke to an audience at the University of Regensburg where he had once served as professor of theology, on the inherent unity of faith and reason. In it he quoted the Byzantine emperor Manuel II Paleologus, who wrote in 1391, “Show me just what Muhammad brought that was new and there you will find things only evil and inhuman, such as his command to spread by the sword the faith he preached.” The emperor was writing on jihad and of forced conversions of Christians by conquering Muslims.

The comments, after careful management by liberal western news media, prompted a wave of riots and violence by Muslims around the world, including attacks on Christian churches in Israel, the murder of a nun in Somalia and the beheading of a priest in Iraq.

Observers note that there are early signs that the same media that instigated the “Muslim outrage” in 2006 are setting the stage for another round.

The Huffington Post reported at the end of April that in the town of Nazareth a large banner has been stretched across the main square condemning anyone who insults Mohammad. HP’s Diaa Hadid wrote, “The pontiff may have to tread carefully with his visit to Nazareth,” and said that “many Muslims” are still angry over the Regensburg speech. Hadid quotes an Anglican head of a local ecumenical group that Christians in the area fear more violence if the Pope makes any other “contentious” statements on Islam.

The Guardian’s religious affairs correspondent Riazat Butt wrote on Tuesday that Pope Benedict “must” go to Jerusalem as a “penitent pilgrim.” Butt cites 35 Christians, Jews and Muslims who claim that “papal blunders” are sending out “‘divided messages’ on anti-Semitism and inter-faith activity.”

Report from the Christian Telegraph

VIETNAM: MASSIVE CHRISTIAN CELEBRATION ALLOWED


Officials permit rare, open-air Easter event by unregistered groups.

HO CHI MINH CITY, April 22 (Compass Direct News) – In what religious freedom advocates regarded as a breakthrough in Vietnam, authorities granted rare permission to unregistered house church groups to hold a large, public Easter-related service here last night.

More than 15,000 people gathered at Tao Dan Stadium to worship God, proclaim Christ and experience a rare sense of large-scale Christian unity, especially house church members accustomed to meeting in small groups. The only other such event granted to unregistered groups was an open-air meeting during Christmas of 2007 sponsored by the Vietnam Evangelical Fellowship (VEF, a house church umbrella group).

At the event last night, the VEF endeavored to include all house churches, not just its own members, sources said.

Unregistered groups holding an event that includes worship and evangelism outside a church building violates Vietnam’s restrictive religion laws, and the celebration – in which 1,200 people indicated they had decided to follow Christ – did not happen without struggles. Reluctant to endorse such Christian unity events, authorities demanded and got the removal of one of the organizers – pastor Nguyen Ngoc Hien, who heads a Baptist house church and a group called the Christian Fellowship of Vietnam – as a condition to consider approval.

Officials did not grant permission until 4 p.m., just three hours before the event was to begin, though event organizers had requested permission several months prior. Authorities had assured them that permission was forthcoming, but organizers were understandably nervous. Adding to their concerns was the rain that hit just before the service began, though the rainy season has yet to arrive.

Since the celebration was held in the open air, a heavy rain would have been more than inconvenient. It rained just enough to refresh the air, stopping as the service began – an answer to prayer for participants. The celebration began with congregational worship; participants said the huge crowd sang with enthusiasm and joy.

“I never heard any singing like this, even in a Billy Graham crusade,” said one overseas Vietnamese Christian leader. “It was as if they offered to God all the praise and worship stored up in their hearts during many years of oppression.”

Worship included a dance group, and a 120-voice choir sang with gusto. Pastor Duong Thanh Lam of the Assemblies of God served as master of ceremonies, pastor Vo Van Lac of the Full Gospel Church preached a gospel message and pastor Pham Dinh Nhan of the United Gospel Outreach Church made an evangelistic appeal. People responded with loud applause and raised their hands in praise, and those who decided to follow Christ included old and young, students and teachers, rank-and-file workers and some disabled people. Witnesses said some were healed as leaders prayed for them.

Leaders of the celebration and religious freedom advocates in Vietnam said the event was significant in that unregistered house churches were allowed to hold a large public celebration. They added that authorities must have felt enough pressure to consider the event less harmful than possible negative publicity from denying permission.

The sources also said the event showed that Vietnam’s house churches, widely known for divisiveness and provincialism, could cooperate with good results.

“Those who have long urged and worked for unity can be pleased,” said one advocate. “While there is still a long way to go for Vietnamese Christian groups in practicing collaboration and partnership, this Easter celebration is seen as a significant step forward.”

A prominent overseas Vietnam leader who founded the Vietnam World Christian Fellowship witnessed the event and highly commended the leadership of pastor Ho Tan Khoa, chairman of the VEF, and his committee.

Some former Vietnam missionaries were incredulous that such events can take place in Vietnam, which until recently has had a place among the world’s top persecutors of religion. Prior to the Easter-related event organized by unregistered house churches, Christmas events were similarly held by the legally recognized Evangelical Church of Vietnam (South) last December.

“That a successful Christian celebration with mass evangelism approved by the government can take place in Vietnam where in some places Christians are still heavily persecuted shows the ongoing inconsistency of Vietnam’s religion policy,” said one source. “Vietnam Christian leaders have long prayed for such opportunities. They see these events as direct answers from God, whom they believe holds the hearts of rulers in his hands.”

Three representatives of a house church group in China were present at the service; they expressed amazement. They promised Vietnamese church leaders to send missionaries to help in the evangelization of Vietnam and invited Vietnamese church leaders to visit China to learn about the church there.

Vietnamese participants said the celebration was inspiring, describing it as “spectacular,” “splendid,” “glorious” and “phenomenal.”  

Report from Compass Direct News

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

BANGLADESH: MUSLIM PROTESTS STALL CHURCH CONSTRUCTION


Pastor says an Awami League Party student leader threatened him.

DHAKA, Bangladesh, April 4 (Compass Direct News) — Bangladeshi authorities called a five-month halt to construction of a church in northern Bangladesh, for fear of huge conversions. Authorities have said they will approve renewed construction soon.

Forkan Al Mashi, 55, a pastor of Calvary Ishai Fellowship, started building a church in early November 2008 in Palashbari Mondol Para in Kurigram district, 350 kilometers (218 miles) north of the capital city, Dhaka.

Mashi told Compass that, at the urging of local Jamaat-e-Islami leaders, more than 100 Muslims gathered in a mosque on Nov. 7 to protest the church construction.

The villagers wanted to demolish the building, in which four pillars and the floor were completed. Mashi informed police when he heard of these plans.

“I informed police and instantly two platoons of police, around 25 in number, were deployed near the under-construction church building,” Mashi said. “Some of the police also went to the mosque to persuade the Muslims not to demolish the pillars and the floor of the under-construction church building.”

A police official told Compass that Muslims were concerned about huge conversions from Islam to Christianity if the church was built.

“The construction work of the church has been stopped by the protest of the local Muslims. Local people said, ‘Why should there be a church in the predominantly Muslim area?’” the official said. “This church is the first church in this area. Local people protested because they thought there would be huge conversion in this area from Islam to Christianity, and the church would be the center.”

A district official told Compass that construction would resume soon.

“Christians in this country have the right to practice their religion as well as the right to build churches,” the official said. “I think the permission of constructing the church will be given soon from the city council. If anybody actively obstructs the construction of the church, we will protect it.”

 

Administrative maneuvering

After Muslims protested construction of the church, the mayor halted construction. Generally city dwellers need building plans and permission from the city council to build a house.

“The local Muslims fired all the cylinders of the society to stop building a church in this vicinity. They want me not to work for the expansion of the Kingdom of God here. They persuaded the city council authority to stop [construction of] the church,” Mashi said. “The mayor of the city council told me that I did not have any building plan and permission from them to build a house here, so I should stop the construction work.”

One city council commissioner told Mashi that he did not need permission to construct his small, one-room church building.

Mashi wrote a letter to the district administrative chief to ask permission to resume church construction.

“A few days ago, the mayor assured me that he would give the plan and permission of the building and I can resume its construction,” Mashi said.

Mashi said the mayor also told him there was pressure from the government to resume construction soon.

 

Pastor Mashi threatened

A few days before the construction of the church, a local student leader of the ruling Awami League Party warned Mashi not to build the church.

“If you want to be ‘alive and live here,’ do not build any church in this neighborhood,” Mashi said in quoting the leader.

Mashi, who grew up Muslim, became a Christian in 1984. There are 60 registered members of his church.

“We have been worshiping Christ for 12 years in our house covertly, sometimes on the roof,” he said.

The district administrative chief has previously provided police protection to the church for its Christmas and Easter services, Mashi said.

Bangladesh’s constitution supports religious freedom.

Report from Compass Direct News

ISLAMISTS ATTACK TWO CHRISTIAN CHURCHES IN PAKISTAN


Islamist fundamentalists in the Pakistani city of Karachi in the Pakistani province of Sindh attacked two churches on the eve of New Year, report Dan Wooding and Sheraz Khurram Khan, ASSIST News Service.

Unidentified militants forcibly entered in Christ Awami Church located in Rasool Shah Colony on New Year night. They told the congregants to stop worshiping in the church, and when they put up resistance, the militants desecrated Bibles, a cross on the wall, as well as hymn books, besides smashing windows and a door of the church.

Islamists also attacked a protestant church in Zia colony in Karachi. They broke church’s door and windows and also threw garbage into the church.

Local Christians told ANS that the attitude of the police officials of the local Boat Basin police station was callous and indifferent in the wake of attack on the Christ Awami Church.

Reacting to the apathetic attitude of the police the outraged Christians protested on Clifton Road and dispersed peacefully after the police high-ups assured them stern action against the culprits.

Police lodged a First Information Report on Jan. 2, a day after the occurrence.

ANS has discovered that most of Pakistani-based electronic media organizations sent reporters to check out the story of the attacks, but then did not run the story. Three Pakistani-based Urdu newspapers, including Ummat, Daily Express and Victoria, however did run a story.

Talking to ANS by phone, a former member of provincial assembly, Sindh, Michael Javaid, said that he visited churches that came under attack in Rasool Shah Colony and in Zia colony.

He expressed solidarity with Pastors of the churches including Pastor Robi and Pastor Munir Bhatti.

Asked why the churches were attacked, the former MP said it could be due to Muslim reaction over the Palestine-Israel conflict.

He criticized the police for not lodging a sterner blasphemy case against the culprits.

Christian residents of Karachi are planning to stage a protest demonstration in front of the Karachi Press Club at 3 pm on Monday, January 5, 2009.

Report from the Christian Telegraph

EGYPT: CITIZEN WINS RARE LEGAL VICTORY TO REVERT TO CHRISTIANITY


Copt who became Muslim, then returned to Christ, gets ‘new’ faith officially recognized.

ISTANBUL, January 8 (Compass Direct News) – An Egyptian convert to Christianity who spent 31 years officially identified as a Muslim has won a rare legal victory to be officially registered in his “new” faith.

An Alexandrian administrative court awarded Fathi Labib Yousef the right to register as a Christian at a Dec. 20 hearing in the Mediterranean coastal city.

Yousef, in his early 60s, was raised Coptic but converted to Islam in 1974 in order to divorce his Christian wife. Becoming Muslim typically allows for an easy nullification of marriage to a non-Muslim within sharia (Islamic law), and conversion is often employed for this reason by both men and women in Islamic countries.

He reverted to Christianity in 2005 after an Orthodox clerical council gave its official permission, according to the advocacy group US Copts Association.

Yousef applied to the civil registry to acknowledge his change of religion the same year. But the government refused to acknowledge his re-conversion, so he filed a lawsuit against the Egyptian prime minister, interior minister and Civil Status Organization chairman.

The court awarded him the right to revert to Christianity since it is his right according to Egyptian civil law, said Peter Ramses, an attorney familiar with Yousef’s case.

Ramses said this case is an important development for Egypt to live up to freedoms promised in the constitution. Unfortunately this verdict does not represent a legal sea change, he said, but rather the correct decision of an individual judge.

“We only have some judges giving these decisions,” he said. “In Egypt we have many judges who don’t work by the law, but by sharia.”

And Yousef is not assured that his official religious identity will stand. His attorney, Joseph Malak, said other Egyptian Christians have won the right to return to Christianity only to see government officials stop implementation.

“The stumbling block is the police or civil registry office could refuse to carry it out on paper,” he said. Other measures that could block implementation, he said, include appeals against the decision by courts “infiltrated by Muslim fundamentalist ideologies.”

Last year Egypt’s top administrative court allowed 12 converts to Islam to return to Christianity, but the decision was appealed before the country’s Supreme Constitutional Court.

The court was going to rule in November concerning the legality of reversion to Christianity, but its decision has been postponed indefinitely. If the court had upheld the decision, Egyptian converts to Islam would have had the constitutional right to return to Christianity.

But for now, victories such as Yousef’s depend on the will of each judge.

“It means every judge issues a ruling at their own discretion, [even though] the law in existence is in favor of these people,” said Samia Sidhom, English editor of Egyptian Christian weekly Watani.

Changing an official religious identity from Islam to any other religion in Egypt is extremely difficult. While Article 47 of Egypt’s civil law gives citizens the right to choose their religion, Article II of the Egyptian constitution enshrines sharia as the source of Egyptian law.

Traditional interpretation of sharia calls for the death of Islamic “apostates,” or those who leave Islam, but in Egypt legal authorities give somewhat more flexibility to those born and raised as Christians before converting to Islam.

Yousef decided to return to Christianity as a matter of religious belief and doubts about Islam, his lawyer said.

Ramses said he hopes to see more decisions in favor of Christians wanting to revert to their religion. He said many in Egypt convert to Islam not for religious reasons, but to secure a divorce, attain higher social status or marry a Muslim.

Religious reversion cases are difficult to win, but far more difficult is for Muslim-born converts to Christianity to officially change their religion, although a few have tried. One such person is Maher Ahmad El-Mo’otahssem Bellah El-Gohary, a convert with an open case at the State Council Court to replace the word “Muslim” on his identification card with “Christian.”

El-Gohary, 56, has been a Christian for 34 years. His case is only the second of his kind in Egypt. Muhammad Hegazy filed the first in August 2007, but his case was denied in a January 2008 court ruling that declared it contrary to Islamic law for a Muslim to leave his religion.  

Report from Compass Direct News