INDIA: ‘ANTI-CONVERSION’ LAW CONSIDERED IN KARNATAKA


Legislation leading to anti-Christian attacks said to be planned in violence-ridden state.

NEW DELHI, March 2 (Compass Direct News) – The Hindu nationalist government in the southern state of Karnataka, which recorded the second highest number of attacks on Christians last year, is planning to introduce the kind of “anti-conversion” law that has provided the pretext for anti-Christian violence in other states.

Such laws are designed to thwart forcible or fraudulent conversion, but they are popularly misunderstood as criminalizing conversion in general. Comments from public officials sometimes heighten this misconception: India’s constitution provides for freedom of religion, but Karnataka Minister for Law, Justice and Human Rights S. Suresh Kumar said in the Feb. 22 edition of a Hindu extremist publication that the state’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government “is set to frame an anti-conversion law, as innocent Hindus are getting converted to other religions.”

“Poor and uneducated Hindus are becoming victims of false propaganda against Hinduism, and our government is planning to enact a law after studying the similar anti-conversion acts/anti-conversion bills of various states,” the BJP minister said in the Organiser, official publication of the Hindu extremist Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), the BJP’s ideological mentor.

Anti-conversion laws are in force in five states – Orissa, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Himachal Pradesh and Gujarat – and its implementation is awaited in the states of Arunachal Pradesh and Rajasthan. Cynically named “Freedom of Religion Acts,” the laws seek to curb religious conversions made by “force, fraud or allurement,” but human rights groups say they obstruct conversion generally as Hindu nationalists invoke them to harass Christians with spurious arrests and incarcerations. Numerous cases against Christians have been filed under various anti-conversion laws, mainly in Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Orissa, but no one has been convicted in the more than four decades since such laws were enacted.

Dr. Sajan K. George, national president of the Karnataka-based Global Council of Indian Christians (GCIC), expressed anguish over reported plans to introduce a law that has a history of misuse by extreme Hindu nationalists. He also indicated his concern at the government’s slackness in prosecuting those who have attacked Christians.

“Unfortunately, 2008 saw the worst kind of regression in our society as the church in India experienced a wave of violence and persecution unprecedented since the origin of Christianity in India 2,000 years ago,” George said, referring to a sudden rise in anti-Christian attacks in several Indian states, mainly Karnataka and the eastern state of Orissa, in the latter part of last year.

With the BJP forming a government of its own last year, fears within the Christian community that persecution would increase came true, he said.

“Karnataka recorded at least 112 anti-Christian attacks across 29 districts in 2008,” and at least 10 more such incidents have been reported this year, said George. Christians number slightly more than 1 million of Karnataka’s 52.8-million population.

Among the more tense districts in Karnataka are Mangalore, Bangalore and Davangere, according to George. The districts of Chikmagalur, Chitradurga, Belgaum, Tumkur, Udupi, Shimoga, Dharwad and Kodagu are also potentially volatile, he said. The GCIC reported that on Jan. 11 unidentified extreme Hindu nationalists barged into the home of a Christian convert in Amrthmahal Kavalu area near Tiptur town in Karnataka’s Tumkur district, verbally abused the four Christians there and burned their Bibles. The nine hard-line Hindus threatened to burn down the house if the Christians continued to worship at the Calvary Gospel Centre.

Besides legitimizing anti-Christian violence in the popular mind, critics say anti-conversion laws make conversion cumbersome and identify targets for Hindu extremists. In Gujarat state, the archbishop of Gandhinagar, Rev. Stanislaus Fernandes, and non-profit organizations have filed a petition in the state high court challenging a requirement in Gujarat’s anti-conversion law that co-religionists obtain prior permission from a district magistrate before performing or participating in a conversion ceremony. The Times of India reported on Friday (Feb. 27) that Justice M.S. Shah and Justice Akil Kureshi have accepted the case and issued a notice to the state government seeking explanation on objections raised by petitioners.

“The Act, by making one’s conversion a matter of public notice and knowledge, really aims at facilitating and encouraging the religious fanatics to take law into their hands to prevent even free and voluntary conversion,” petitioner attorneys contended. “In the name of maintaining law and order, the Act will invite people to disturb law and order.” Counsel added that the Act aims mainly at “preventing Dalits and adivasis [tribal people] from converting to another religion, thereby forcing them to remain in the Hindu fold.”

 

Orissa Fallout

A fresh spate of attacks hit Karnataka last September following India’s worst-ever wave of persecution in the eastern state of Orissa, where at least 127 people were killed and 315 villages, 4,640 houses, 252 churches and 13 educational institutions were destroyed. The Orissa attacks, allegedly incited by the BJP and the Hindu extremist Vishwa Hindu Parishad (World Hindu Council or VHP) under the pretext of avenging the assassination of Hindu nationalist leader Laxmanananda Saraswati in Kandhamal district, also rendered more than 50,000 people homeless. Although an extreme Marxist group claimed responsibility for Saraswati’s murder, the VHP and the BJP, which is part of the ruling coalition in Orissa, blamed Christians for it.

Even as the mayhem in Orissa was underway, VHP’s youth wing Bajrang Dal began attacks on Christians and their institutions in Karnataka on the pretext of protesting alleged distribution by the New Life Fellowship organization of a book said to denigrate Hindu gods. According to Dr. John Dayal, member of the National Integration Council of the Government of India, last September at least 33 churches were attacked and 53 Christians were injured, mainly in the Mangalore region of Dakshina Kannada district and parts of Udupi district.

The state convener for the Bajrang Dal, Mahendra Kumar, publicly claimed responsibility for the attacks and was arrested on Sept. 19, a day after the federal government ruled by the Congress party-led United Progressive Alliance admonished the state government for allowing attacks on Christians, according to The Deccan Herald, a regional daily. Kumar, however, was subsequently released on bail.

While the issue of the “objectionable” book served as the pretext for the attacks, the BJP had already become upset with New Life Fellowship because a film actress known as Nagma announced in July 2008 that she had become Christian a few years prior. BJP attorneys sent her a threatening legal notice for “hurting religious sentiments.”

In a press conference at Tirunelveli in Tamil Nadu state on July 24, the general secretary of the BJP’s legal wing, Sridhar Murthi, said that Nagma – who appeared in several Tamil-, Telugu- and Hindi-language films from 1993 to 1997 – had hurt the sentiments of others while speaking at a Christian meeting in Nalumavadi, in the Tuticorin area.

“In that meeting, she said she is ready to preach the gospel in every city and town that the Lord takes her to,” reported The Christian Messenger, a Christian news website based in Tamil Nadu state. New Life Fellowship later reportedly ordained Nagma as a minister.

Following the attacks – not only on New Life Church but also on churches and individuals from various denominations – the BJP government set up the Justice B.K. Somasekhara Commission of Inquiry to investigate. Churches and Christians had filed 458 affidavits from Dakshina Kannada district. After questioning 49 witnesses, the panel completed its five-day judicial proceeding in Mangalore on Feb. 20 and set the next sitting for March 16-20. The Commission earlier had a sitting in Bangalore, capital of Karnataka.

Karnataka also has gained recent notoriety for violent vigilantes. Last month a splinter group from the extreme Hindu nationalist VHP, the Sri Ram Sene, attacked women in a pub in Mangalore, saying only men were allowed to drink.

“These girls come from all over India, drink, smoke, and walk around in the night spoiling the traditional girls of Mangalore,” Pravin Valke, founding member of the Sri Rama Sene, told The Indian Express on Feb. 3. “Why should girls go to pubs? Are they going to serve their future husbands alcohol? Should they not be learning to make chapattis [Indian bread]? Bars and pubs should be for men only. We wanted to ensure that all women in Mangalore are home by 7 p.m.”

With national elections expected to be held in April-May this year, Christians fear that attacks could continue. Dr. Bokanakere Siddalingappa Yeddyurappa, the 66-year-old chief minister of Karnataka, has been part of the RSS since 1970.

Report from Compass Direct News

EGYPT: TWO COPTS WRONGLY DETAINED, TORTURED


Government uses brothers as scapegoat in murder; officials claim violence not sectarian.

ISTANBUL, December 1 (Compass Direct News) – Two Coptic Christians wrongfully arrested for killing a Muslim during the May 31 attack on Abu Fana monastery in Egypt have been tortured and sent to a detention camp so authorities could try to extract a false confession, their lawyer said.

Egyptian authorities sent brothers Refaat and Ibrahim Fawzy Abdo to El Wadi El Gadid Detention Camp near the Egypt-Sudan border on Nov. 22. A week earlier they were bailed out pending their court case – but never released – and held in a Mallawi police station until their transfer to the camp.

The brothers’ attorney, Zakary Kamal, said the timing of the murder at the monastery rules out any possibility of the two Copts having committed it.

Monks at Abu Fana say the Fawazy Abdo brothers were far from the monastery at the time of the May 31 attacks, which began at roughly 4 p.m. and continued until police arrived four hours later.

Security forces are detaining the brothers to blackmail the Coptic Church into testifying that the attack against Abu Fana monastery in Mallawi, Upper Egypt, was not religiously motivated, Kamal said.

“They want the whole issue to be seen by the public as if it were an exchange of gunfire and a criminal case that had nothing to do with persecution of Christians,” he told Compass.

At the beginning of Refaat and Ibrahim Fawzy Abdo’s captivity in June, police subjected the two men to electric shocks eight hours a day for three days to try to force them to testify that the Abu Fana monks were armed during the attack, sources said.

Kamal said those guilty in the attack knew the brothers were innocent but attempted to extort 5 million Egyptian pounds (US$920,000) from the Coptic church in exchange for testimony in support of the brothers during informal “reconciliation meetings.”

Such meetings are somewhat customary in Egypt, in which different parties come together to settle legal matters out of court. Egyptian parliamentarians attended the first meetings, but the parties did not reach a settlement.

Kamal said he worries that police and parliamentarians are using the meetings to pressure the Coptic Church to agree to their terms and take the focus of the case off of rising sectarian violence within Egypt.

Reconciliation meetings are part of a larger trend in Egypt of the government framing such clashes as cases of simple land disputes with no sectarian overtimes, the attorney claimed, and so far he has refused to pay money in exchange for a testimony.

“I completely refused any agreements of reconciliation, because if we accept those terms, that means we admitted [the brothers] killed someone,” he said.

The two men worked as building contractors on the walls of Abu Fana monastery when nearly 60 armed Muslim residents attacked it on May 31. The attack left one Muslim dead, four Christians injured, and three monks briefly kidnapped.

Ibrahim Tiqi Riad, the brother of resident monk Father Mina, was also kidnapped and remains missing. A Coptic priest who preferred to remain anonymous told Compass that they believe he may have been forcibly converted to Islam.

In the course of the violence, attackers tied two of the kidnapped monks to a palm tree, whipped and beat them, and forced them to spit on a cross and give the confession of Islam, according to a report by the Coptic Assembly of America.

Five days after the attacks, security forces arrested the Fawazy Abdo brothers, charging them with murder. Their case is pending.

The families of the two men are suffering in their absence as they were the sole breadwinners. The electricity in their families’ houses has been shut off since they can’t pay their bills, Kamal said.

The reasons behind the death of the Muslim at Abu Fana monastery remains a mystery. Police did not record the details of the killing in the investigation report of the monastery attack.

Bishop Demetrios Avanmina, head of the Mallawi diocese and abbot of Abu Fana monastery, is working to resolve the matter with local politicians and security forces.

Avanmina declined to comment to Compass on the brothers’ captivity, saying only that he and others were working with the police and the state to resolve the matter.

 

Government Spin

The nature of the May attacks against the monastery, located 200 kilometers (124 miles) south of Cairo, is in dispute. Coptic advocacy groups claim the attacks were motivated by growing hostility against Egypt’s Christian community.

But local Muslims say monastery leaders were illegally taking possession of land and attempting to frame the attacks in the form of religious persecution in order to gain sympathy for their cause.

Gov. Ahmed Dia el-Din said police reports have documented disputes over the land going back several years, and that Abu Fana obtained portions of its land from informal contracts, resulting in the governor’s rejection of the monastery’s claim of possessing valid land titles, according to Egyptian weekly Al-Maydan.

Following the attacks, hundreds of Coptic Christians took to the streets of Mallawi to demonstrate against the violence. They chanted, “With our blood and soul, we will defend the cross.”

The monastery has seen violent episodes in the past with its neighbors, typically over issues relating to land.

In January another group of a dozen men armed with automatic weapons burned the monastery’s library and destroyed many monastic cells, according to the Coptic Assembly advocacy group.

The Coptic Church makes up at least 10 percent of the Muslim-majority country’s population of 80 million. Its church dates back to the early centuries of Christianity.  

Report from Compass Direct News

INDONESIA: THEOLOGY STUDENTS MOVE TO ABANDONED OFFICE


Evacuated after Muslim attack in July, Christians forced to leave campground.

JAKARTA, October 27 (Compass Direct News) – Over 1,000 students forced from the Arastamar Evangelical School of Theology (SETIA) in East Jakarta have now moved into an abandoned mayor’s office in Jakarta after management at the Bumi Perkemahan Cibubur (BUPERTA) campground demanded that 700 students temporarily resident there had to leave by Oct. 14.

Urged on by announcements from a mosque loudspeaker to “drive out the unwanted neighbor,” hundreds of protestors shouting “Allahu-Akbar [“God is greater]” and brandishing machetes, sharpened bamboo and acid had forced the evacuation of staff and students from the SETIA campus in Kampung Pulo village on July 26 and 27, following a misunderstanding between students and local residents. Attackers injured at least 20 students, some seriously.

Key among motives for the attack was that area Muslims felt “disturbed” by the presence of the Christian college. They want it to be moved to another area.

Following the evacuation, some students were temporarily billeted in church offices, while others slept in the lobby of Indonesia’s parliament building. Officials then moved 600 female students to the BUPERTA campground, where they were later joined by 100 male students. A further 400 male students remained at a migrants’ center in Bekasi, while 32 post-graduate students were accommodated in a housing complex in Kota Wisata, not far from the campground in Cibubur.

Campground manager Umar Lubis sent a letter to SETIA principal Matheus Mangentang on Oct. 6 ordering the students to vacate the premises in advance of a pan-Asian scouts jamboree scheduled at the facility for Oct. 18-27. Lubis sent a copy of the letter to Fauzi Bowo, the governor of Jakarta.

Mangentang initially protested, since the campground could accommodate up to 30,000 people and there would only be 300 participants in the jamboree. He also noted that despite an agreement reached in September, Bowo had failed to repair and extend bathroom facilities in an abandoned mayoral office in Jakarta offered for use by the staff and students.

When the council made no attempt to begin renovations on the mayor’s office, Mangentang himself hired bricklayers and carpenters to install more toilets, repair damaged ceilings on two floors of the building and erect partitions to create 13 classrooms.

The students last week moved into the abandoned mayor’s office. But the building still lacks many basic amenities, according to staff. Students carry well water into the building in large plastic drums for showers, toilets, laundry and cooking.

One staff member told Compass that the water was slimy to the touch and not suitable for showering.

 

Broken Promises

Bowo had also promised Mangentang that the students could return to their original campus at the end of the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan. He then promised to find a site for a new campus and provide an official building permit, but at press time there was no evidence of action taken to fulfill these promises.

Mangentang has refused to cover costs for the campground, which now amount to some 580.7 million rupiah (US$58,418), on the grounds that since they were unfairly evicted from their campus, the governor’s office should fund the cost of temporary relocation.

Cibubur campground officials had also charged SETIA 50,000 rupiah (US$5) per day for water. When Mangentang refused to pay this fee, officials restricted the water supply so that there was not sufficient water available for laundry and shower facilities for the students.

Bowo had committed to paying those bills but said he must first meet with the local House of Representatives to request funding for them and any other expenses that would be incurred by providing a new building site and campus for SETIA.

SETIA staff sought advice from the National Commission on Human Rights in Jakarta on Sept. 7. The commission then wrote to the superintendent of police in Jakarta, asking for a police escort to return the students safely to their campus, but the superintendent did not respond. Neither has any investigation been carried out against the residents who violently attacked staff and students in July.

Last year the Muslim extremist Islamic Defenders’ Front demonstrated in front of the college, accusing it of having misapplied its permit.

Since 2007, protestors have held six demonstrations. On March 7, 2007, more than 200 Muslims set fire to construction workers’ quarters in an effort to keep SETIA from adding a fifth dormitory.

Three days later, some 300 people gathered to protest the construction, demanding that the school close. They claimed it was disturbing area residents when students sang during their classes and that students were evangelizing people in the area.

Government officials have brokered talks between the conflicting parties, without success.

Report from Compass Direct News