Lao Christians Expelled from Village Suffer Critical Illnesses


One dead, two hospitalized; village chief threatens other residents.

DUBLIN, May 14 (CDN) — In spite of assurances of religious rights by officials in March, Lao Christians expelled from a village in Saravan Province in January are suffering from a prolonged lack of adequate food and clean water.

The lack of basic resources has led to diarrhea, dehydration, eye and skin infections, fainting and general weakness for the Christians expelled from Katin village, and one person has died, Human Rights Watch for Lao Religious Freedom (HRWLRF) reported.

A Christian who went by the single name of Ampheng died suddenly in April while praying for one of two other Christians who were hospitalized with illnesses caused by their living conditions, an HRWLRF spokesman told Compass. The exact cause and date of Ampheng’s death were not immediately known.

Expelled from their village at gunpoint on Jan. 18 for failing to renounce their faith, the 48 Christians were forced to build temporary shelters at the edge of the jungle, about six kilometers (nearly four miles) away from the village.

They have since survived on food found in the jungle and water from a hand-dug well that is unfit for cooking or drinking, sources told HRWLRF.

District officials in early May gave the Christians permission to return to Katin village and take rice from their family rice barns to prevent starvation, said another source on condition of anonymity.

In addition, some of the Christians have returned to tend their family rice fields, fearing that if the fields are completely abandoned they may lose the right to cultivate them next year. Water buffaloes essential for farm work, however, were confiscated in January along with the Christians’ homes and registration papers, according to HRWLRF.

When the Christians interred Ampheng at the local burial ground, district officials fined them for failing to produce the required proof of house registration, according to HRWLRF.

Katin’s village chief recently warned other residents that their personal possessions would be confiscated if they had any contact with the expelled Christians. If any family continued to maintain contact despite repeated warnings, their own homes would be torn down, the chief reportedly said.

Official reactions to the plight of the Christians have been mixed. In March, a delegation of provincial and district officials led by Gov. Khamboon Duangpanya visited the Christians at their jungle site and assured them of their legal right to embrace the faith of their choice and to live anywhere in the district.

Just days earlier, however, the district head, identified only as Bounma, summoned seven of the Christians to his office and said that he would not tolerate the existence of Christianity in areas under his control. (See “Lao Officials Visit Expelled Christians, Give Assurances,” March 19.)

High level officials failed to intervene last July when villagers seized a Christian identified only as Pew and poured rice wine down his throat, killing him by asphyxiation. Village officials later fined Pew’s family for erecting a cross on his grave, and then detained 80 Christians in a school compound, denying them food and pressuring them to renounce their faith.

The heads of 13 families then signed documents renouncing Christianity in order to protect their children, but most resumed attendance at worship meetings within a few months.

Provincial officials did call a meeting in September 2008 asking Katin authorities to respect Lao religious laws and allow the Christians freedom to worship, but their request was ignored.

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

Report from Compass Direct News 

Messianic Jews in Israel Seek Public Apology for Attack


Christians await court decision on assaults on services by ultra-orthodox Jews.

ISTANBUL, April 23 (CDN) — After a final court hearing in Israel last week, a church of Messianic Jews awaits a judge’s decision that could force an ultra-orthodox Jewish  organization to publicly apologize to them for starting a riot and ransacking a baptismal service.

A ruling in favor of the Christian group would mark the first time an organization opposing Messianic Jews in Israel has had to apologize to its victims for religious persecution.

In 2006 Howard Bass, pastor of Yeshua’s Inheritance church, filed suit against Yehuda Deri, chief Sephardic rabbi in the city of Beer Sheva, and Yad L’Achim, an organization that fights against Messianic Jews, for allegedly inciting a riot at a December 2005 service that Bass was leading.

Bass has demanded either a public apology for the attack or 1.5 million shekels (US$401,040) from the rabbi and Yad L’Achim.

The case, Bass said, was ultimately about “defending the name of Yeshua [Jesus]” and making sure that Deri, the leadership of Yad L’Achim and those that support them know they have to obey the law and respect the right of people to worship.

“They are trying to get away from having any responsibility,” Bass said.

On Dec. 24, 2005, during a baptismal service in Beer Sheva, a group of about 200 men pushed their way into a small, covered structure being used to baptize two believers and tried to stop the service. Police were called to the scene but could not control the crowd.

Once inside the building, the assailants tossed patio chairs, damaged audiovisual equipment, threw a grill and other items into a baptismal pool, and then pushed Bass into the pool and broke his glasses.

“Their actions were violent actions without regard [for injury],” Bass said.

In the days before the riot, Yad L’Achim had issued notices to people about a “mass baptism” scheduled to take place at the facility in the sprawling city of 531,000 people 51 miles (83 kilometers) southwest of Jerusalem. In the days after the riot, Deri bragged about the incident on a radio talk show, including a boast that Bass had been “baptized” at the gathering.

The 2005 incident wasn’t the first time the church had to deal with a riotous attack after Yad L’Achim disseminated false information about their activities. On Nov. 28, 1998, a crowd of roughly 1,000 protestors broke up a Yeshua’s Inheritance service after the anti-Christian group spread a rumor that three busloads of kidnapped Jewish minors were being brought in for baptism. The assailants threw rocks, spit on parishioners and attempted to seize some of their children, Bass said.

In response to the 1998 attack and to what Bass described as a public, cavalier attitude about the 2005 attack, Bass and others in the Messianic community agreed that he needed to take legal action.

“What is happening here has happened to Jews throughout the centuries,” Bass said about persecution of Messianic Jews in Israel, adding that many in movements opposed to Messianic Jews in Israel are “arrogant.” He compared their attitudes to the attitudes that those in Hamas, a Palestinian group dedicated to the destruction of the State of Israel, have toward Israelis in general.

“They say, ‘Recognize us, but we will never recognize you,’” Bass said.

Long Battle

Bass has fought against the leadership of Yad L’Achim and Deri for four years through his attorneys, Marvin Kramer and Kevork Nalbandian. But throughout the process, Kramer said, the two defendants have refused to offer a genuine apology for the misinformation that led to the 2005 riot or for the riot itself.

Kramer said Bass’s legal team would offer language for an acceptable public apology, and attorneys for the defendants in turn would offer language that amounted to no real apology at all.

“We made several attempts to make a compromise, but we couldn’t do it,” Kramer said.  “What we were really looking for was a public apology, and they weren’t ready to give a public apology. If we would have gotten the public apology, we would have dropped the lawsuit at any point.”

Despite several attempts to reach Yad L’Achim officials at both their U.S. and Israeli offices, no one would comment.

The hearing on April 15 was the final chance the parties had to come to an agreement; the judge has 30 days to give a ruling. His decision will be issued by mail.

Kramer declined to speculate on what the outcome of the case will be, but he said he had “proved what we needed to prove to be successful.”

Belief in Israel

Bass said he is a strong supporter of Israel but is critical of the way Messianic Jews are treated in the country.

“Israel opposes the gospel, and these events show this to be true,” he said. Referring to Israel, Bass paraphrased Stephen, one of Christianity’s early martyrs, “‘You always resist the Spirit of God.’ What Stephen said was true.”

Kramer said that the lawsuit is not against the State of Israel or the Jewish people, but rather for freedom of religion.

“It has to do with a violation of rights of individuals to worship in accordance with the basic tenants of their faith and to practice their faith in accordance with their beliefs in accordance with law,” he said.

Terrorist Organization?

Bass’ lawsuit is just one of many legal troubles Yad L’Achim is facing. In February, the Jerusalem Institute of Justice (JIJ), a civil rights advocacy group, filed a petition asking Attorney General Yehuda Weinstein to declare Yad L’Achim a terrorist organization and order that it be dismantled.

In the 24-page document Caleb Myers, an attorney for JIJ, outlined numerous incidences in which Yad L’Achim or those linked with it had “incited hatred, racism, violence and terror.” The document cited instances of persecution against Christians, as well as kidnappings of Jewish women from their Arab partners.

“Israel is a ‘Jewish and democratic’ state, while the actions of Yad L’Achim are not consistent with either the noble values of Judaism or the values of democracy,” the petition read. “Not to mention the fact that it is a country that arose on the ashes of a people that was persecuted for its religion, and has resolved since its establishment to bear the standard of full equality, without discrimination on the basis of gender, race, religion or nationality.”

According to the document, Yad L’Achim went after people it viewed as enemies of ultra-orthodox Judaism. The group particularly targeted Messianic Jews and other Christians.

“Yad L’Achim refers to ‘missionary activity’ as if it was the worst of criminal offenses and often arouses fear of this activity,” the document read. “It should be noted that in the State of Israel there is no prohibition against ‘missionary activity’ as the dissemination of religion and/or faith among members of other religions/faiths, unless such activity solicits religious conversion, as stated in various sections of the Penal Code, which bans the solicitation of religious conversion among minors, or among adults by offering bribes. Furthermore, the organization often presents anyone belonging to the Christian religion, in all its forms, as a ‘missionary,’ even if he does not work to spread his religion.”

Particularly damning in the document was reported testimony gleaned from Jack Teitel. Teitel, accused of planting a bomb on March 20, 2008 that almost killed the teenage son of a Messianic Jewish pastor, told authorities that he worked with Yad L’Achim.

“He was asked to talk about his activity in Yad L’Achim and related that for some five years he was active in the organization, and on average he helped to rescue about five women each year,” the document read, using the Yad L’Achim term “rescue” to refer to kidnapping.

The 2008 bombing severely injured Ami Ortiz, then 15, but after 20 months he had largely recovered.

Teitel, who said Ortiz family members were “missionaries trying to capture weak Jews,” has been indicted on two cases of pre-meditated murder, three cases of attempted murder, carrying a weapon, manufacturing a weapon, possession of illegal weapons and incitement to commit violence.

In interviews with the Israeli media, Yad L’Achim Chairman Rabbi Shalom Dov Lifshitz said his organization wasn’t connected with the attacks of the Ortiz family or with Teitel.

Report from Compass Direct News

Officials Threaten to Burn Shelters of Expelled Christians


Village heads tell church members they must recant faith or move elsewhere.

DUBLIN, March 16 (CDN) — Officials in southern Laos in the next 48 hours plan to burn temporary shelters built by expelled Christians unless they recant their faith, according to advocacy group Human Rights Watch for Lao Religious Freedom (HRWLRF).

Authorities including a religious affairs official, the district head, district police and the chief of Katin village in Ta-Oyl district, Saravan province, expelled the 48 Christians at gunpoint on Jan. 18.

Prior to the expulsion, officials raided a worship service, destroyed homes and belongings and demanded that the Christians renounce their faith. (See www.compassdirect.org, “Lao Officials Force Christians from Worship at Gunpoint,” Feb. 8.)

Left to survive in the open, the Christians began to build temporary shelters, and then more permanent homes, on the edge of the jungle, according to HRWLRF. They continued to do so even after deputy district head Khammun, identified only by his surname, arrived at the site on Feb. 9 and ordered them to cease construction.

More officials arrived on Feb. 18 and ordered the Christians to cease building and either renounce their faith or relocate to another area. When the group insisted on retaining their Christian identity, the officials left in frustration.

On Monday (March 15), district head Bounma, identified only by his surname, summoned seven of the believers to his office, HRWLRF reported.

Bounma declared that although the republic’s law and constitution allowed for freedom of religious belief, he would not allow Christian beliefs and practices in areas under his control. If the Katin believers would not give up their faith, he said, they must relocate to a district where Christianity was tolerated.

When the seven Christians asked Bounma to supply them with a written eviction order, he refused.

The Christians later heard through local sources that the chiefs of Katin and neighboring Ta Loong village planned to burn down their temporary shelters and 11 partially-constructed homes erected on land owned by Ta Loong, according to HRWLRF.

These threats have left the Christians in a dilemma, as permission is required to move into another district.

Both adults and children in the group are also suffering from a lack of adequate food and shelter, according to HRWLRF.

“They are without light, food and clean water, except for a small stream nearby,” a spokesman said. Officials also forced them to leave the village with minimal clothing and other items necessary for basic survival.

Village officials have said they will only allow spirit worship in the area. A communist country, Laos is 1.5 percent Christian and 67 percent Buddhist, with the remainder unspecified. Article 6 and Article 30 of the Lao Constitution guarantee the right of Christians and other religious minorities to practice the religion of their choice without discrimination or penalty.

Decree 92, promulgated in July 2002 by the prime minister to “manage and protect” religious activities in Laos, also declares the central government’s intent to “ensure the exercise of the right of Lao people to believe or not to believe.”

Report from Compass Direct News 

Court Reverses Revocation of Indonesian Church’s Building Permit


Outside Islamists had intimidated local officials into withdrawing approval.

JAKARTA, Indonesia, March 8 (CDN) — A court in West Java has reversed the revocation of a Catholic church’s building permit.

The Purwakarta regency government had revoked the building permit for Santa Maria Catholic Church when Islamists threatened local residents and officials into opposing the project, church leaders said.

The church sued the Purwakarta regency for revoking the approved building permit in Cinangka village last October, and in a little-publicized court ruling on Feb. 25, a judge in a state court in Bandung, West Java decided in favor of the church.

“The error arose when external forces pressured the Purwakarta government so much that it revoked the building permit,” the head of the church legal team, Dr. Liona Nanang, told Compass. “Government sources have admitted that this was done because of outside pressure.”

The church official said objections to the church under construction did not come from residents of Cinangka village, where the church is located.

“We called the village headman and the block captains to testify,” Nanang said. “According to them, the objections are not from Cinangka villagers, but from citizens of Cikampek, which is not even in our district [county].”

The Purwakarta government is planning to appeal the case, but Nanang said church lawyers are optimistic that construction likely would resume once the High Court in Jakarta rules.

On Oct. 16 the regent of Purwakarta regency, Dedi Mulyadi, revoked the construction permit after Islamists threatened some of the local residents whose approval is required by Indonesian law. Church leaders said members of the Islamic Defenders Front (Front Pembela Islam, or FPI) “continually terrorized” both the regent and residents who had previously given their approval.

A Joint Ministerial Decree promulgated in 1969 and revised in 2006 requires the permission of more than 60 neighbors and a permit from local authorities to establish a place of worship. The more than 60 local citizens giving their approval must provide photocopies of their identity cards.

Nanang said that the judge agreed with the plaintiff that there had not been any irregularities in the process of obtaining a building permit. The judge found that the Purwakarta government had violated basic principles of good government including justice and the rule of law.

“A building permit can be legally cancelled if there is no construction activity within six months of the date of publication of the permit,” Liona told Compass. “However, Santa Maria Church began to build immediately.”

The court also ruled that the Purwakarta government had no legal reason to revoke the building permit. The Joint Ministerial Decree Number requires not only a minimum of 60 signatures of those not using the building but a minimum of 90 signatures of those who will use it, and the church had obtained the signatures of 93 non-users and 170 church members who would use the building.

The Rev. Augustinus Made of Santa Maria Catholic Church concurred that revocation of the building permit came about from extremely heavy pressure from the FPI and other radical Muslim groups.

“We rejoice in the verdict,” he said. “We had fulfilled all of the regulations. We built on land that had been zoned for a house of worship – land that we purchased.”

At the time the building permit was revoked, land had been prepared, the area fenced and the foundation laid.

The church had planned its building on a 5,000-square meter lot in a sparsely populated industrial area on land zoned for houses of worship. The congregation of over 1,000 has been worshipping in a steel factory warehouse some distance from the building site since its inception in 2002.

The lot developer had supplied facilities for all faiths; Muslims have two large mosques and an Islamic chapel at each factory. The government plan for the Bukit Indah Industrial Park included facilities for general and social purposes, including places of worship.

Report from Compass Direct News 

Push for Islamic Courts in Kenya Alarms Christians


Emergence of Somali-related Islamic extremists puts authorities on high alert.

NAIROBI, Kenya, February 11 (CDN) — A constitutional battle to expand the scope of Islamic courts in Kenya threatens to ignite religious tensions at a time when authorities are on high alert against Muslim extremists with ties to Somalia.

Constitutional provisions for Islamic or Kadhis’ courts have existed in Kenya since 1963, with the courts serving the country’s coastal Muslim population in matters of personal status, marriage, divorce, or inheritance. Kenya’s secular High Court has jurisdiction over civil and criminal matters, and even a decision in the Islamic courts can be appealed at the High Court.

The Islamic courts have functioned only in Kenya’s Coast Province, but in a hotly debated draft constitution, their jurisdiction would expand across the nation and their scope would increase. The proposed constitution has gathered enough momentum that 23 leaders of churches and Christian organizations released a statement on Feb. 1 asserting their opposition to any inclusion of such religious courts.

“It is clear that the Muslim community is basically carving for itself an Islamic state within a state,” the Kenyan church leaders stated. “This is a state with its own sharia [Islamic law]- compliant banking system; its own sharia-compliant insurance; its own Halaal [lawful in Islam] bureau of standards; and it is now pressing for its own judicial system.”

Muslim leaders are striving to expand the scope of Islamic courts to include civil and small claims cases. They also want to upgrade the Muslim tribunals to High Court status. These demands have alarmed Christians, who make up 80 percent of the population and defeated a similar proposal in a 2005 referendum. Muslims make up 10 percent of Kenya’s 39 million people, 9 percent of the population follows indigenous religions and less than 1 percent are Hindu, Sikh and Baha’i.

The National Council of Churches of Kenya (NCCK) said the Committee of Experts (CoE) responsible for “harmonizing” drafts from various stakeholders ignored their concerns. The committee was responsible for determining what matters would be unduly “contentious” and was charged with keeping them out of the draft.

“We wrote to them, but we have been ignored,” said the Rev. Canon Peter Karanja, NCCK general secretary. “Who told the CoE that Kadhis’ courts were not contentious?”

Saying the committee ignored the crucial requirement of omitting what is “contentious,” Karanja said it did little to build consensus. He said that unless the Islamic courts are stricken from the constitution, Christians might be forced to reject the document in a national referendum later this year.

Muslim leaders, just as stridently, insist that recognition of the Islamic courts does not elevate Islam over other religions, and that if the courts are removed they will shoot down the draft in the referendum.

The 2005 referendum split the country and was followed by a bitterly disputed presidential election in 2007 that sparked rioting, reportedly leaving 1,300 people dead. The election dispute was resolved with one candidate becoming president and the other prime minister, and at the heart of the proposed constitution is an attempt to transfer presidential powers to the prime minister.

Christian leaders point out that the “Harmonized Draft” of the constitution discriminates against non-Muslims and contradicts its own Article 10 (1-3), which states that there shall be no state religion, that the state shall treat all religions equally and that state and religion shall be separate. They see the attempt to expand the scope of the Islamic courts as part of a long-term effort by Muslims to gain political, economic and judicial power.

Muslim leaders claim that inclusion of the Islamic courts in the new constitution would recognize “a basic religious right” for a minority group. Some Muslim extremists have said that if Islamic courts are removed from the draft constitution, they will demand their own state and introduce sharia.

Extremists Emerge

The constitutional issue erupted as security officials went on high alert when sympathizers of the Islamic terrorist al Shabaab militia appeared in a protest in mid-January to demand the release of radical Muslim cleric Abdullah Al-Faisal, who had entered the country on Dec. 31.

Al-Faisal, imprisoned from 2004 to 2008 after a British court convicted him of soliciting murder and inciting hatred, is on a global terrorism list. Government spokesman Alfred Mutua said Al-Faisal has been known to recruit suicide bombers and was arrested for violating terms of his tourist visa by preaching. He was reportedly deported to his native Jamaica on Jan. 21.

Eyewitnesses to the protests in Nairobi told Compass one demonstrator clad in fatigues, with his face masked by a balaclava, waved the black flag of the al-Qaeda-linked al Shabaab militia and passed his finger across his throat in a slitting gesture, taunting passersby.

Officials from the Council of Imams and Preachers of Kenya and from Muslims for Human Rights defended the demonstrations as legitimate to condemn violation of Al-Faisal’s rights. At least one person died as the protests turned violent, and Internal Security Minister George Saitoti said five civilians and six police officers were injured, with one security officer wounded from a bullet said to be shot by a demonstrator.

Al Shabaab-affiliated operatives appear to have targeted Christians in Kenya, according to an Internet threat in December by a group claiming to align itself with the Islamic extremist militia seeking to topple Somalia’s Transitional Federal Government. In an e-mail message with “Fatwa for you Infidels” in the subject line to Christian and governmental leaders in Kenya, a group calling itself the Harakatul-Al-Shabaab-al Mujahidin threatened to kill Muslim converts to Christianity and those who help them.

“We are proud to be an Islamic revolutionary group, and we are honored to be affiliated with Al Qaeda, a group of honest Muslims in which we share long-term goals and the broad outlines of our ideologies, while focusing on our efforts on attacking secular and moderate governments in the Muslim world, America and Western targets of opportunity and of course Uganda, Ethiopia, Burundi and Kenya if they do not stop their assistance to the Somali fragile and apostate government,” the group wrote in the e-mail. “Although we receive support for some of our operations, we function independently and generally depend on ourselves…”

The group threatened to shake the Kenyan government “in minutes,” calling it the “the most fragile target in the world.”

The emergence of al Shabaab and its sympathizers in Kenya coincides with the swelling of the Somali population in the country to 2.4 million, according to the August 2009 census.

Report from Compass Direct News 

European Court Rules Against Turkey’s Religion ID


Designation on identification cards used to discriminate on basis of religion.

ISTANBUL, February 5 (CDN) — A European court on Tuesday (Feb. 2) ordered Turkey to remove the religious affiliation section from citizens’ identification cards, calling the practice a violation of human rights.

Religious minorities and in particular Christian converts in Turkey have faced discrimination because of the mandatory religion declaration on their identification cards, which was enforced until 2006. Since then, citizens are allowed to leave the “Religion” section of their IDs blank.

The ruling by the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) “is a good thing,” said Zekai Tanyar, president of the Turkish Protestant Alliance, citing prejudices against Christian converts.

“[Religion on the ID] can cost people their jobs,” he said. “It has been known to affect whether they get a job or not, how people look at them, whether they are accepted for a post or an application of some sort. Therefore I think [the ruling] is a good and appropriate thing.”

Tanyar said the same principles would apply in the case of Muslims living in a country that had prejudices against Muslims. For converts in Turkey having to state their religion on their ID cards, “in practice, and in people’s experience, it has been negative.” 

The ECHR ruling came after a Turkish Muslim national filed a petition challenging that his identification card stated his religion as “Alevi” and not Muslim. Alevis practice a form of Shia Islam that is different from that of the Sunni Muslim majority.

The court found in a 6-to-1 vote that any mention of religion on an identity card violated human rights. The country was found to be in violation of the European Convention of Human Rights – to which Turkey is a signatory – specifically Article 9, which deals with freedom of religion and belief; Article 6, which is related to due process; and Article 12, which prohibits discrimination.

The presence of the “religion” box on the Turkish national identification card obliges individuals to disclose, against their will, information concerning an aspect of their personal convictions, the court ruled.

Although the government argued that indication of religion on identity cards did not compel Turks to disclose their religious convictions, the ECHR found that the state was making assessments of the applicant’s faith, thus breaching its duty of neutrality and impartiality.

In a statement on the verdict this week, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan said that the ruling was in line with the government’s intentions.

“I don’t see the ECHR decision as abnormal,” he said, according to Turkish daily Taraf. “It’s not very important if it is removed.” 

The ECHR is independent of the European Union, which Turkey seeks to join. The rulings of the ECHR are binding for members of the Council of Europe, of which Turkey is a member, and must be implemented.

A Step in the Right Direction

Human rights lawyers welcomed the decision of the ECHR, saying it is a small step in the direction of democracy and secularism in Turkey.

“It is related to the general freedom of religion in our country,” said human rights lawyer Orhan Kemal Cengiz. “They assume everyone is Muslim and automatically write this on your ID card, so this is a good reminder that, first of all, everyone is not Muslim in this country, and second, that being a Muslim is not an indispensible part of being Turkish.”

The lawyer said the judgment would have positive implications for religious minorities in Turkey who are subject to intolerance from the majority Muslim population. 

In 2000 Turkey’s neighbor Greece, a majority Christian Orthodox country, lifted the religion section from national IDs in order to adhere to European human rights standards and conventions, causing tumult among nationals.

“In Turkey, Greece or whatever European country, racism or intolerance or xenophobia are not rare occurrences if [religion] is written on your card, and if you are a minority group it makes you open to racist, xenophobic or other intolerant behaviors,” said Cengiz. “There might be times that the [religious] declaration might be very dangerous.”

International Implications

It is not yet known what, if any, effect the ECHR decision could have on the rest of the Middle East.

Because of its history, economic power and strategic location, Turkey is seen as a leader in the region. Like Turkey, many Middle Eastern countries have a place for religious affiliation on their identification cards. Unlike Turkey, listing religious affiliation is mandatory in most of these countries and almost impossible to change, even under court order.

According to Human Rights Watch (HRW), religious identification is used as a tool to deny jobs and even basic rights or services to religious minorities in many Middle Eastern countries.

“It’s a serious problem from a human rights point of view,” said Joe Stork, deputy director for the Middle East and North Africa for HRW, an international human rights organization. “It’s especially problematic when that requirement becomes a basis for discrimination.”

Stork said the identification cards shouldn’t have a listing for religion at all. He said the European decision may eventually be used in legal arguments in Middle Eastern courts, but it will be a long time before change is realized.

“It’s not like the Egyptian government is going to wake up in the morning and say, ‘Gee, let’s do that,’” Stork said.

Egypt in particular is notorious for using religion on IDs to systematically discriminate against Coptic Christians and converts to Christianity. While it takes a day to change one’s religion from Christianity to Islam on their ID, the reverse is virtually impossible. 

Report from Compass Direct News 

Mexican High Court Frees Nine Men Accused in Acteal Massacre


Joy mixes with disappointment as 28 of 57 convicted in Chiapas remain in prison.

MEXICO CITY, November 6 (CDN) — More than 35 mainly evangelical Christian prisoners unjustly accused in the December 1997 massacre in Acteal, Chiapas had hoped they would be released from jail this week, but after long deliberations the Supreme Court of Mexico on Wednesday (Nov. 4) ruled only nine should be freed and ordered new trials for 16 others.

The high court thus ended its involvement in the controversy over the ordeal of the peasant laborers, ordering the release of the nine men – without declaring them innocent – and retrials for 16 others, this time without “invented” evidence and testimony. Those 16 men, plus several others including six who had previously been granted retrials, remain in prison.

In a 4-1 vote, the court ruled the federal attorney general violated legal process, fabricated evidence and false testimonies, formulated non-existent crimes and provided no concrete argument establishing culpability of the nine men.

Supreme Court Justice José Ramón Cossío Diaz said the decision to free the men was not a declaration of innocence but recognition of “a lack of impugning evidence” against them in the Dec. 22, 1997 massacre, in which 45 people were killed, including women and children.

“These Indians were condemned and declared guilty as a result of a trial that was plagued with violations,” Cossío Diaz said, according to El Universal. “No material proving their guilt exists.”

When prisoners convicted in the Acteal slayings learned that only nine were being released, they reportedly wept – some for joy, but most from disappointment.

“Everything was invented – I did not kill anyone,” one of the evangelical Christians released, 45-year old Manuel Luna Perez, told Proceso magazine. “Many of our companions [in jail] also know nothing about who planned the massacre.”

The court ruled that federal authorities had used “invented proofs and witnesses” in convicting the men, many of them evangelical Christians supportive of the then-ruling party who had land disputes and other conflicts with their accusers – mainly Roman Catholics sympathetic to the rebel Zapatista National Liberation Army.

At least five of the nine men released were known to be evangelical Christians when they were rounded up 12 years ago: Pablo Perez Perez, Emilio Gomez Luna, Juan Gomez Perez, Hilario Guzman Luna, and Manuel Luna Perez. Also released were Mariano Diaz Chicario, Pedro Lopez Lopez, Juan Hernandez Perez and Ignacio Gomez Gutierrez.

The nine were released from El Amate federal prison in Cintalapa, Chiapas yesterday and transported to Tuxtla where they are temporarily housed.

“There must have been about 200 to 250 people who made the trip [to the prison] – many were spouses and family members anxious to see the men,” said a Compass source in Chiapas. “As per the previous occasion, the people waited patiently outside the prison for the men to be released, only to be disappointed because they were not allowed to speak with them when they left the prison. The men were put in a mini-bus and taken to where they will be housed under government supervision for the next couple of weeks.”

The relatives and others traveled on to the men’s temporary quarters in Tuxtla, where they were able to meet with them, and several of the ex-prisoners’ spouses and other family members are staying with them there, the source said.

The freed men said the government has offered them what it promised 20 prisoners released on Aug. 13, the source said: farmland, help with building houses, water, electricity and other basic amenities, as well as helping them monetarily until they become self-supporting. 

Disappointment

An attorney representing 31 defendants in the case, Jose Antonio Caballero, reportedly expressed disappointment that the high court didn’t free more of those accused. But the attorney told EFE news service that the ruling would help remedy some of the mistakes in the legal process.

In the case of the 16 men to be given new trials, the high court ruled there was sufficient evidence for prosecution to retry them in a lower court in Chiapas. This time, the Supreme Court ruled, the lower court will not take into consideration any of the fabricated evidence or false testimonies, and the charges of use of military weapons and carrying a gun without a license are dropped.

On Aug. 12 the high court ordered the release of the first 20 prisoners (freed the next day), for the same reasons the nine men were released yesterday. All the freed men, mostly evangelical believers who insisted on their innocence, had been sentenced to 25 years and had already served nearly 12.

The most recent group was to have been freed on Oct. 28, but the Chiapas government led by Gov. Juan Sabines requested extra time to present “new proofs which demonstrate the probable responsibility of previous state and federal public officials, as well as civilians” in the massacre, according to La Jornada. Over the years, lawyers have insisted that the men were tried without access to interpreters or legal defenders acquainted with their indigenous culture and customs, as required by Mexican law.

For the past several weeks, families of the condemned men had set up a form of tent protest in the central plaza of Mexico City, attempting to call attention to the plight of their husbands, fathers, brothers and cousins.

With this week’s decision and the decision on Aug. 12, the court has ordered the release of 29 of the total 57 prisoners and retrials for 22 others accused in the Acteal massacre. Those 22 plus six others remain in prison.

Controversy over who killed the 45 people has revolved around whether there was a “massacre” by numerous “paramilitary” villagers or a “confrontation” between a handful of neighboring peasants and Zapatista National Liberation Army rebels. Historian Héctor Aguilar Camín has argued that there was both a confrontation and a massacre, with some overlap between each, but that they were largely separate incidents.

Five confessed killers have testified that they and four others engaged only Zapatista militia to avenge the death of a relative, while the federal attorney general’s office charged that at least 50 pro-government “paramilitaries” descended on a relief camp hermitage full of displaced peasants bent on killing and robbing them. The testimonies of the five confessed killers – four others remain at large – agree that the nine avengers were the only ones involved in the firefights, and that the decision to attack the Zapatistas was a private family decision made with no involvement from government authorities.

They also agree that the sole motive was to avenge the assassination of a relative – the latest of 18 unprosecuted murders by Zapatistas over the previous three months, according to Aguilar Camín.

Government prosecutors unduly dismissed much of the testimony of the five confessed avengers, Aguilar Camín wrote in a 2007 article for Nexos, noting that the killers testified that state security forces were nearby and did nothing. He highlighted the judicial irregularities of the round-up and conviction of the peasants – apprehensions without evidence or warrant, charging 83 people with homicide when only 45 people were killed and lack of translators and attorneys for the suspects, Tzotzil Mayans who did not know Spanish.

Report from Compass Direct News 

Massive ‘Reconversion’ Event in India Aimed at Christians


Hard-line cleric leads campaign in Maharashtra, ideological capital of Hindu nationalism.

MUMBAI, India, October 27 (CDN) — Hundreds of tribal Christians and adherents of aboriginal religion from villages in Maharashtra state were reportedly “reconverted” to Hinduism yesterday in the Mumbai suburb of Thane at a ceremony led by a Hindu nationalist cleric.

Swami Narendra Maharaj’s goal was to “reconvert” 6,000 Christians in the so-called purification ceremony, reported The Hindustan Times, which put the number of “reconversions” at around 800. Hindu nationalists believe all Indians are born Hindu and therefore regard acceptance of Hinduism by those practicing other religions as “reconversion.”

Maharaj, a Hindu cleric known for opposing proclamation of Christ, has allegedly led anti-Christian attacks in tribal regions. On March 15, 2008, his men reportedly attacked two Catholic nuns, Sister Marceline and Sister Philomena, from the non-profit Jeevan Jyoti Kendra (Light of Life Center) in Sahanughati, near Mumbai.

The attack took place in a camp to educate tribal women on HIV/AIDS, which also provided information on government welfare programs, according to Indo-Asian News Service. The assault in Sahanughati, Alibaug district was followed by a mass “reconversion” ceremony in the area on April 27, 2008, said Ram Puniyani, a well-known civil rights activist in Mumbai.

Rightwing Hindu groups are mostly active in tribal areas. Hindu nationalists attack Christians in tribal areas because they provide social and development services, regarded as competition by rightwing Hindus seeking to woo tribal voters, said Anwar Rajan, secretary of the People’s Union of Civil Liberties (PUCL) in Maharashtra’s Pune city.

Kandhamal district in the eastern state of Orissa, where a massive spate of anti-Christian attacks took place in August-September 2008, is also a tribal-majority area. At least 100 Christians were killed, 4,600 houses and churches were burned, and over 50,000 people were rendered homeless in the violence.

Sociologists maintain that India’s tribal peoples are not Hindus but practice their own ethnic faiths. Hindu nationalists run Ekal Vidyalayas (one-teacher schools) in tribal regions to “Hinduize” local villagers and repel conversions to other faiths. These schools are operating in over 27,000 villages of India.

Dubious Claims

An anonymous spokesman of Maharaj said the plan for yesterday’s event was to “reconvert” 6,000 Christians to achieve the larger goal of “bringing back” 100,000 Christians, according to the Press Trust of India (PTI) news agency.

The rightwing spokesman in Maharashtra, a western state where Hindu nationalism originated decades ago, claimed that Maharaj and his followers had overseen the conversion of more than 94,000 Christians “back to their original faith” and plan to complete the target of 100,000 in the next two years.

Maharaj, whose followers call him Jagat Guru (Guru of the World), told PTI that those who “reconverted” were not coerced.

“We are not having a religious conversion here – it’s a process of purification,” Maharaj was quoted as saying. “We taught them the precepts of the Hindu religion, and they decided to convert to Hinduism on their own after repentance. They were not forced.”

Many reports of “reconversions,” however, have been found to be false.

In 2007, Hindi-language daily Punjab Kesari reported that four Christian families in Nahan town, in the northern state of Himachal Pradesh, had “reconverted” to Hinduism. But a fact-finding team of the All India Christian Council revealed that none of the members of those families had ever converted to Christianity.

The Hindustan Times reported yesterday’s ceremony included rituals involving cow’s milk, seeking forgiveness from ancestors, installation of idols of the Hindu gods Ganesh and Vishnu, and an offering ritual performed by priests from Ayodhya, in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh. Ayodhya is believed to be the birthplace of the Hindu god Rama.

Home of Hindu Nationalism

The basic philosophy of Hindu nationalism was expounded by Vinayak Damodar Savarkar, popularly known as Veer Savarkar, in 1923 through the publishing of a pamphlet, “Hindutva: Who is a Hindu?” Savarkar, who is from Maharashtra, argued that only those who have their ancestors from India as well as consider India as their holy land should have full citizenship rights.

A follower of Savarkar, Madhav Sadashiv Golwalkar, also from Maharashtra, further developed the Hindu nationalist philosophy through a book, “A Bunch of Thoughts,” in 1966. He claimed superiority of Hinduism over other religions and cultures of the world.

“In this land, Hindus have been the owners, Parsis and Jews the guests, and Muslims and Christians the dacoits [bandits],” he said.

The emergence of Hindu nationalist ideology from Maharashtra came in reaction to the politics of social justice by Dr. Bhim Rao Ambedkar and Mahatma (Jyotirao) Phule, said Irfan Engineer, director of the Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies in Mumbai and an expert on religious conflicts. Phule led a mass movement of emancipation of lower castes, mainly Shudras and Ati-Shudras or Dalits, in the 1870s. Ambedkar, known as the architect of the Indian Constitution, began movements against “untouchability” in the 1920s.

Also born in Maharashtra was the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (National Volunteer Corps, or RSS), India’s most influential Hindu nationalist conglomerate. It was founded in 1925 in Nagpur by Dr. K.B. Hedgewar.

Hindu society has traditionally had four castes or social classes, namely Brahmin, Kshatriya, Vaishya and Shudra. While Shudras belong to the lowest caste, Dalits were formerly known as “untouchables” because the priestly Brahmin class considered them to be outside the confines of the caste system.

During British colonial rule in the Indian subcontinent between 1858 and 1947, sections of the Brahmins felt the British were sympathetic towards the Dalit reformist movement, said Engineer of the Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies. Mahars, Maharashtra’s largest Dalit people group, have been very organized and powerful since then.

The PUCL’s Rajan said that the Brahmins have long portrayed minorities as enemies of Hinduism.

“Since the Dalit reformist movement is essentially against the Brahmin hegemony, the Brahmins had to react and get organized,” Rajan said. “As a part of their strategy to weaken the reformist movement, Brahmins projected minorities as the ‘real’ enemies of all Hindus, including Dalits and other lower castes, diverting attention away from the atrocities they meted out on them.”

Most of the founding leaders of Hindu nationalism, including Savarkar, Hedgewar and Golwalkar, were Brahmins. Since communal troubles benefited Hindu nationalists politically, the use of divisive issues became routine for them, Rajan added.

After two successive defeats of the Bharatiya Janata Party, political wing of the RSS, in general elections in 2004 and 2009, differences between the moderate and extremist sections within the Hindu nationalist movement – which blame each other for the party’s downfall – have deepened to unprecedented levels.

In frustration, the extremists have accelerated their activities, especially in Maharashtra, the ideological capital, said Dr. Suresh Khairnar, a well-known civil activist from Nagpur.

Report from Compass Direct News