Christians’ fears little allayed; armed outfits mushrooming.
KATHMANDU, Nepal, September 10 (CDN) — Pastor John Vanlalhriata was reading the Bible at his home in Kathmandu valley Sunday afternoon (Sept. 6) when a friend called to give him the news that electrified the Christian community.
“Ram Prasad Mainali has been arrested by police along with three more accomplices,” the friend said. “Finally, our prayers have been answered.”
The 36-year-old Mainali, who claims to have worked in the national army, became a household name in May after the little-known underground organization he headed, the Nepal Defense Army (NDA), claimed responsibility for placing a bomb in one of Nepal’s oldest churches during mass, killing two women and a schoolgirl and injuring more than a dozen people.
Though police claimed a breakthrough in less than a fortnight, saying they had arrested a 27-year-old woman who planted the bomb in the prayer hall of the Catholic Assumption Church on May 23, the suspected mastermind remained elusive. Despite a red alert for Mainali’s arrest, he remained at large in the former Hindu kingdom, continuing to intimidate Christians by ordering them to leave the country or face further violence. He was arrested on Saturday (Sept. 5) in Biratnagar.
The NDA, founded in 2006 after Nepal deposed King Gyanendra Bir Bikram Shah and became a secular republic, claimed to be grooming an army of suicide bombers in a bid to turn Nepal into a Hindu state again. Since last year, it began to strike in earnest in eastern Nepal, Mainali’s home region.
In March 2008, the NDA bombed a mosque in eastern Nepal, killing two people at prayer, and four months later it gunned down a Catholic priest, the Rev. John Prakash Moyalan, at his residence.
“The Christian community is relieved that Mainali has been arrested,” Pastor Vanlalhriata of the Believers’ Church in Kathmandu told Compass. “They feel Mainali would now learn that it was not good to persecute the church and threaten God’s people. But they are also apprehensive that he might be released soon.”
After the initial joy, that thought is the prospect haunting Nepal’s Christian community – that Mainali and his accomplices could be released soon, either because of legal loopholes or the culture of impunity pervading Nepal since 1996, when Maoist guerrillas began an armed revolt and triggered grave human rights violations for a decade.
“We will have to wait and watch what happens now,” said Balan Joseph, a 42-year-old garment factory employee who lost his teenage daughter, Celeste, in the bombing; eight days later, his wife Buddha Laxmi succumbed to an internal hemorrhage from the blast. “Mainali’s arrest doesn’t mean his gang has been wiped out. Unless the government takes tough action, the morale of all potential killers will rise, and recruits will continue to flock to these gangs.”
Christians have been further anguished by the revelation that Mainali had been arrested previously for an explosion. There were no casualties, and a court granted him bail. On being freed, he promptly went underground, resurfacing Saturday (Sept. 5) in the tea garden district of Jhapa, in eastern Nepal, when police arrested him on a tipoff.
Chirendra Satyal, spokesperson at the Assumption Church, said the possibility of release is the overriding concern. He said a priest told him, only half-jokingly, “I hope the authorities don’t release him again.”
Satyal said he also feels that the threat to Christians has not ended.
“There is a culture of impunity in Nepal,” he told Compass. “This government may fall, and the new one that replaces it may decide to release Mainali. Or he can have a successor stepping into his shoes.”
A sense of insecurity still pervades the Assumption Church, which has not relaxed safety measures even after the arrest. Cars are not allowed inside the compound, and handbags have to be left at the gate. Professional security guards have been employed, reinforced by policemen deployed by the government.
The arrests have also failed to erase the terror from the hearts of those who were present in the church on that fatal day, especially the children. While widower Joseph said God has given him strength to bear his loss, his surviving children – Chelsea, 11, and Sylvester, 9, are still traumatized.
“My friends told me about the arrest,” Chelsea told Compass. “But I am still afraid. So is my brother. And though he too knows about the arrest, he has not talked about it with us.”
On Tuesday, authorities brought Mainali to Kathmandu valley, and he appeared before the chief district officer, who gave police permission to hold him in remand for 10 days for further investigation.
“We feel the threat of religious attacks has ended,” said Police Superintendent Devendra Subedi, whose team arrested Mainali. “A day later, we also arrested Vinod Pandey, who headed another underground organization, the Ranavir Sena, which too was demanding the restoration of Hinduism as the state religion. With the heads in the police net, the outfits are bound to collapse.”
Pandey, also arrested from eastern Nepal with an aide, was reportedly planning a series of bomb attacks in the capital and three other major towns: Pokhara, a popular tourist destination, and Biratnagar and Birgunj, two key trade hubs.
Dr. K.B. Rokaya, general secretary of the National Council of Churches of Nepal (NCCN), said the arrests of the militant group leaders will not resolve the problems of violence in Nepal.
“There are over 100 armed groups in Nepal that are engaged in extortion, abductions and killings,” said Rokaya, who is also a member of Nepal’s National Human Rights Commission. “Nepal passed through a decade of armed conflict to reach a transitional period where there is still political instability due to the weak government. Many armed groups are trying to take advantage of the vacuum. It’s not only Christians who are suffering, the entire nation is.”
In the Terai, lowlands in southern Nepal running across the open border with neighboring India, armed gangs have mushroomed since the fall of the royal government three years ago. The Believers’ Church is concentrated there. It is part of Christian Unity, an umbrella of churches of different denominations on the plains that the NDA has repeatedly threatened.
The NCCN is putting its hope in a new constitution being drafted by a 601-member Constituent Assembly in consultation with different political parties, organizations and communities. It is scheduled to be presented in May 2010. The NCCN has submitted its recommendations for protection of religious minorities to the Constituent Assembly, as well as to Prime Minister Madhav Kumar Nepal and President Ram Baran Yadav.
The NCCN’s Rokaya said the recommendations can be summed up in four points: freedom to practice the religion of choice; freedom to change it (a tacit reference to past laws that made conversion a punishable offence); freedom not to practice any religion; and the state not interfering in religious matters.
Report from Compass Direct News
International Christian Concern (ICC) has learned that hundreds of religious minorities, including Sikhs and Christians, fled Swat Valley because the Taliban had imposed the “jizya tax” required by Islamic law on religious minorities, reports Dan Wooding, founder of ASSIST Ministries.
A spokesperson for ICC explained, “The jizya tax is imposed by fundamentalist Muslims on members of other religions who refuse to convert to Islam and has been used by Muslim governments for centuries. The aim of the jizya tax and other similar restrictions is punishment and slow strangulation. It aims to humiliate non-Muslims and impoverish them so that they are forced to convert to Islam.”
ICC said that Christian and Sikh families living in an area similar to the Swat Valley, the Orakzai Agency, left their homes after the Taliban demanded 50 million rupees [$622,200]. The Taliban announced that they would provide protection for religious minorities if they paid the amount, but the tax is so financially debilitating that minorities had to flee.
It added that religious minorities living in another tribal area have already paid 20 million rupees [$248,860] as ‘tax to the Taliban after militants forcibly occupied some of their homes and kidnapped a Sikh leader last month.
The spokesperson said, “News of a planned assault on the Taliban in Swat Valley by the Pakistani Army is a welcome breakthrough in the face of this extreme violation of the rights of religious minorities.”
Jeremy Sewall, ICC’s Advocacy Director, said, “We urge the Pakistani Army to completely root the Taliban out of Swat Valley. Only the total defeat of the Taliban can ensure protection of the fundamental right to religious freedom that the Christians and Sikhs of the Swat Valley deserve.”
Report from the Christian Telegraph
A breakthrough was made for believers in India this month when Christians were among the first to vote in India’s four-week national election, reports MNN.
In the fall of 2008, thousands of believers were forced from their homes, afraid for their lives, as persecution persisted in the form of extremist attacks.
Although the persecution has died down since then, hundreds of houses were burned and dozens of people were killed in the attacks, leaving many Christians to find refuge in government relief camps. Once attacks subsided, there was some fear that this persecuted minority may not be given the chance to vote.
It appears that believers have nothing to fear, however, as Orissa state (where persecution had been highest) was the kickoff spot for India’s national elections on April 16. According to a Gospel for Asia press release, government officials claimed the elections would start there so they could focus security in one area. Be this as it may, it’s nothing but good news for Christians.
Beginning the elections in a place that has been internationally noted for its violence toward Christians hopefully will allow believers to make quite an impact on the outcome of the election. So far, Christians have not been hindered from voting, and no direct violence has taken place.
“This is kind of a historic thing where in the past, things like this would bring fear and keep the Christians from voting,” says Danny Punnose of Gospel for Asia. “But this is going to bring a very loud statement to those in power that you cannot hurt minorities without repercussions taking place.”
The elections will not be over until May 16, when the results of the election for a new prime minister and 543 other new government representatives will be announced. Christians hope that their votes will help to establish a government who will not stand for the type of persecution that Christians have suffered in the past.
Pray that the elections will yield a government suitable to Christian concerns. In the meantime, continue to pray for the day-to-day trials that face Christ followers in India.
“Pray and ask the Lord that they would be able to stand strong no matter what comes their way, that their faith would be strong, and that they would be a witness to their neighbors. And that’s the greatest thing that they long for, that more people would come to know Jesus through their life.”
Report from the Christian Telegraph
TSPM offers Bibles and “assistance,” but rights groups say efforts fall short.
DUBLIN, December 9 (Compass Direct News) – In recent months Chinese officials have attempted to build bridges with the Protestant house church movement even as police raided more unregistered congregations, arrested Christian leaders and forced at least 400 college students to swear they would stop attending such worship services.
With rights groups saying more effort is needed to address rights abuses and secure full religious freedom for Chinese Christians, two research institutes – one from the government – organized an unprecedented symposium on Nov. 21-22 that concluded with an agreement for house church leaders to begin a dialogue with government officials.
A delegation of six house church leaders from Beijing, Henan and Wenzhou provinces attended the seminar, entitled, “Christianity and Social Harmony: A Seminar on the Issue of Chinese House Churches,” along with scholars and experts from universities and independent research facilities. Members of the Minorities Development Research Institute, a branch of the China State Council’s Research and Development Centre, and the Beijing Pacific Solutions Social Science Research Institute co-hosted it.
In a report summarizing the forum, Beijing house church representative Liu Tong Su said that China’s religious institutions and regulations were clearly outdated and inadequate to meet the needs of the church.
At the conclusion of the meeting, house church delegates agreed to dialogue with the government, Liu said, though he insisted, “Only God can control the spirituality of faith. No worldly authorities have the right to control a man’s spirit.”
The government has been entrusted by God with the authority to maintain external public order, Liu added.
“If the government can limit its governing territory to areas of maintaining public order in external conduct, then according to the teachings of the Bible, the house church will definitely obey those in authority within the boundary that God has set,” he said.
Experts presented reports on the rapid development of house church networks, including the number of Christians, geographical distribution, cultural and ethnic make-up and connection with foreign Christians, according to the Gospel Herald.
A month earlier, the chairman of the Three-Self Patriotic Movement (TSPM) – responsible along with the China Christian Council (CCC) for overseeing China’s Protestant churches – told a gathering of 200 Hong Kong church leaders of his desire to assist Chinese house churches and provide them with Bibles, according to Ecumenical News International (ENI).
At the Oct. 22 conference entitled, “Chinese Church – New Leaders, New Challenges,” TSPM Chairman Fu Xianwei declared, “For those house churches without registration, we will try our best to be with them, to recognize them and to help them, so long as they have an orthodox faith, don’t stray from the truth and don’t follow heretics.”
Fu and 11 other members of the newly-elected leadership team of the CCC/TSPM also said they were willing to provide house churches with Bibles, ENI reported.
Bible distribution is largely the responsibility of Amity Press, China’s only official Bible printing company, which recently announced its intention to place more Bibles in the hands of rural Christians. Daniel Willis, CEO of the Bible Society in New South Wales (NSW), Australia, launched an appeal on Nov. 12 to support Amity in this goal.
Speaking at the launch, Willis asserted, “Smuggling Bibles into China places Chinese Christians at risk, and now with the new Amity Press operational in Nanjing, smuggling is a waste of resources.”
Amity opened a new multimillion dollar printing facility in May with a capacity to print 12 million Bibles per year. Most of those Bibles are printed in foreign languages for export outside China.
“China is experiencing a great freedom of worship,” Willis added. “With this wonderful change the church is spreading rapidly … Each Chinese Christian would like to experience the joy … that owning their own Bible brings – but unfortunately for many, obtaining a Bible is difficult and often out of their reach financially.”
The China Aid Association (CAA) issued a statement on Nov. 20 that Amity did not produce enough Bibles to meet the vast needs of the church in China or to replace lost or worn copies. It also pointed out that distribution was still strictly limited to government-approved channels.
Earlier this year, the Rev. Dr. Chow Lien-Hwa, vice-chairman of the board of Amity Press, stated in an interview with the NSW Bible Society that Amity was printing 3 million Bibles per year for mainland China. Chow also outlined a plan to allow Bible distribution through a chain of government bookshops and claimed that house church Christians could buy Bibles from TSPM churches without having to provide personal identity information.
Pastors from both house churches and official TSPM congregations have reported to Compass a shortage of Bibles and other Christian materials in Beijing, the northwest, the northeast, and the southwest. Church growth in tribal areas also has created an urgent need for Bibles in minority languages.
Raids, Arrests Continue
Rights groups pointed to recent raids and arrests, however, as confirmation that Chinese authorities still restrict freedom of worship for local house church Christians.
Police raided a house church gathering in Tai Kang county, Henan province on Dec. 3 and arrested all 50 Christians, CAA reported on Thursday (Dec. 4). Public Security Bureau officers also raided another gathering of 50 house church believers in Xiji town, Zaozhuang city, Shandong province on Dec. 2, arresting 20 Christian leaders and demanding a fine of 2,500 yuan (US$365) per person to secure their release.
CAA also confirmed that police carried out multiple raids on house church gatherings in Beijing and in areas near college campuses in Hangzhou, Zhejiang province, from late September to early November, detaining leaders of the Local Church house church network. Four leaders in Zhejiang were sentenced to labor camp for 12 to 18 months.
Officers also arrested at least 400 Christian college students. After intense questioning, police forced each student to write a statement of repentance agreeing to forsake such gatherings.
Commenting on reports of persecution in China, Chow of Amity Press claimed victims were not true Chinese citizens, but Chinese with foreign citizenship who had entered China to carry out illegal activities.
“When we go to another country we must be law-abiding citizens of that country,” Chow insisted. “The law, whether you like it or not, says you can only preach in the churches, you cannot go on the street.”
Some house churches are actively seeking registration with authorities to avoid arrests and inconveniences, ENI reported in October. Such groups, however, prefer to register outside the CCC/TSPM structure, disagreeing that different Protestant beliefs can be reconciled under the TSPM as a self-described “post-denominational” umbrella organization.
House church members also object to the TSPM’s interference in congregational practices, according toe the U.S. State Department’s International Religious Freedom Report 2008. The report notes that many unregistered evangelical Protestant groups refuse to register with TSPM due to theological differences, fear of adverse consequences if they reveal names and addresses of church leaders or members, or fear that it will control sermon content.
Released from Prison
Responding to international pressure, officials on Dec. 2 released house church pastor Zhu Baoguo of Henan province, citing medical reasons. Authorities had raided a house church gathering on Oct. 12, arresting Zhu and four other leaders, before sentencing Zhu on Oct. 30 to one year in labor camp, CAA reported.
Officials also released house church pastor Wang Weiliang from prison on Nov. 25 for medical reasons, according to CAA. Authorities sentenced Wang to three years in prison in December 2006 for protesting the July 2006 destruction of Dangshanwan Christian church in Xiaoshan, Zhejiang province. Seven other believers were arrested at the time; authorities have released all but one, who remains in detention in Hangzhou.
A Breakthrough for China’s House Churches?
At last month’s symposium on Chinese house churches, officials from government research organs, scholars from government think-tanks and universities, independent researchers and an unprecedented delegation of six house church leaders from Beijing, Henan and Wenzhou attended.
At the groundbreaking conference, sponsored by the Minorities Development Research Institute of the China State Council’s Research and Development Center and the Beijing Pacific Solutions Social Science Research Institute and entitled, “Christianity and Social Harmony: A Seminar on the Issue of the Chinese House Churches,” participants discussed every aspect of the house church movement in China.
Statistics were a key issue, with most agreeing that the number of house church members was vast and rapidly increasing. Estimates ranged from 50 million to 100 million members of Protestant house churches, as compared with approximately 20 million members of registered Protestant churches.
Delegates were surprisingly bold in their discussion and criticism of China’s religious policy, and several put forward practical plans for the abolition of institutions such as the State Administration for Religious Affairs (formerly the Religious Affairs Bureau) and the Protestant Three-Self Patriotic Movement.
They also called for serious and ongoing discussions between the government and house churches, and Christian leaders called for the lifting of a ban on house churches and a review of restrictions on church registration and appointment of pastors.
Many participants agreed that the democratic management of house churches in accordance with the rule of law was a logical step to bring religious policies into line with China’s open-door economic policies.
While certain sectors of leadership may welcome these suggestions, others entrenched in the atheist system of the Communist Party were expected to balk at such reforms.
Report from Compass Direct News