Suspected Islamists Shoot Five Christians to Death in Pakistan

Muslim extremist groups had threatened church for two years.

SUKKUR, Pakistan, July 29 (CDN) — A dozen masked men shot five Christians to death as they came out of their church building here on July 15, two months after a banned Islamic extremist group sent church leaders a threatening letter, relatives said.

Pastor Aaron John and church members Rohail Bhatti, Salman John, Abid Gill and Shamin Mall of Full Gospel Church were leaving the church building after meeting to discuss security in light of the threats they had received, said the pastor’s son, Shahid John.

“As we came out of the church, a group of a dozen armed gunmen came and opened fire at us,” said Shahid John, who survived a bullet in his arm. “Fear struck the area. The police arrived 45 minutes after the incident, and we waited for over 45 minutes for the ambulance to arrive.”

Besides Shahid John, five others were wounded in the attack.

In May church leaders received a letter from Islamic extremist group Sip-e-Sahaba (formerly Sipah-e-Sahaba until it was banned) warning the Christians to leave the area, said Kiran Rohail, wife of the slain Rohail Bhatti.

“It said to vacate the land, Christians are not welcomed here, they are polluting our land,” Kiran Rohail said.

The Sip-e-Sahaba and Sunni Tehrik extremist groups are both linked with an area madrassa (Islamic school) whose students had been threatening the church since 2008, Christian sources said.

“In 2008 a group of Muslim students started making threats for the church to vacate the land, as there are only 55 Christian families living in the area,” said the pastor’s widow, Naila John, who also lost her son Salman John in the attack.

The masked gunmen of July 15 had young physiques like those of students, Christian sources said, and their manner of attack indicated they were trained extremists.

The madrassa students that have threatened the church since 2008 belong to the Sunni Tehrik extremist group, the sources said.

Pastor John and Bhatti had reported the threats of the past two years to police, but officers at the local station did not take them seriously, said Naila John.

When they received the threatening letter in May, Pastor John, his son Salman, Bhatti, Gill, Mall and another member of the church, Arif Gill, went to the police station to register a First Information Report (FIR), according to Shahid John.

“Police just took the application but didn’t register the FIR,” he said. “The station house officer just provided two police constables for security.”

On the evening of July 15, the pastor called a meeting to discuss needed security measures, his widow Naila John said. The meeting ended around 7:30 p.m., when they left the building and were sprayed with gunfire.

“No FIR has been registered due to the pressure from the local Islamic groups,” said Kiran Rohail, referring to Sunni Tehrik, Sip-e-Sahaba and the local mosque. “The police came and took our statements, but they didn’t show up again.”

An independent government source confirmed the shooting deaths of the Christians, adding that local Islamist pressure had prevented media from reporting on it.

The church began in 1988, and Pastor John had been leading it since 2001.

Sukkur, in southwest Pakistan’s Sindh Province, has been the site of previous violence against Christians. Last June or July, area Christians said, students from the local madrassa beat Pastor Adnan John of Multan, severely injuring him, after they saw him walking in front of the mosque wearing a cross and holding a Bible. In another instance, the Muslim students prevented Christian students from holding a Christmas program at a park.

In 2006, some 500 Muslims burned down two churches in Sukkur and a convent school on Feb. 19, reportedly over rumors that a Christian threw a copy of the Quran into a trash can. A crowd wielding gasoline bombs torched St. Mary’s Catholic Church and St. Savior’s Church of Pakistan after media and government sources floated the rumor, but local sources said the violence occurred after a Muslim was arrested for burning pages of the Quran and trying to frame his Christian father-in-law, Saleem Gill, with the deed.

After torching the inside of St. Savior’s, the mob turned on Pastor Ilyas Saeed Masih’s home, then went five minutes away to destroy the 120-year-old St. Mary’s edifice.

Report from Compass Direct News

Christian Who Fled Iran Wins Asylum in Kenya

Judge rules Iranian convert from Islam requires protection from persecutors.

NAIROBI, Kenya, March 15 (CDN) — Mohammad Azbari, a Christian convert  from Islam who has fled to Kenya, knows what it’s like to be deported back to his native Iran.

When it happened in 2007, he said, Iranian authorities pressured the government of Norway to return him and his wife Gelanie Azbari to Iran after hearing rumors that he had forsaken Islam.  

“When we arrived in Iran, we were interrogated by security and severely beaten,” he told Compass in Nairobi, where he and his family fought to persuade the Kenyan government to decline Iran’s demand to deport him back. “My son got scared and began urinating on himself.”

A cousin managed to secure their release, but not before Iranian authorities had taken valuable – and incriminating – possessions.

“They took everything that I had – laptop, camera and some of my valuables which contained all my details, such as information concerning my baptism, and my entire profile, including that of my family,” Azbari said.

Azbari had been employed in the Iranian army before fleeing, he said, and authorities were monitoring his movements because they were concerned that, having left Islam, he might betray his country and reveal government secrets.

When he and his Christian wife, a native of the Philippines, first fled Iran in 2000, he was still a Shia Muslim. The previous year authorities had arrested his wife after finding a Christmas tree in their house in Tehran; Azbari was not home at the time and thus escaped arrest, but as authorities took his wife away they left their then 3-year-old son unattended.

“I was put in a small cell for two days,” Gelanie Azbari told Compass, through tears. “While in the cell two police guards raped me. It was the worst of all the nights I have had in my lifetime. Since that time I have been sick both physically and mentally.”

Authorities soon took her husband in for interrogation, suspecting he was a spy for foreign states.

Still a Muslim, Azbari allowed his wife to follow her Christian faith. He had grown accustomed to watching her pray as a Christian and watch the Jesus Film. As time went by, he developed an urge to embrace Christianity. They started reading the Bible together.

The idea of trusting in and following Christ filled him with fear, as it was against the law to convert from Islam – it would mean losing his life, he said.

“I started questioning our leaders, who see themselves as God,” he said. “The claim of Jesus as the prophet as well as the Word and spirit of God is indicated in the Quran. When I read in the Gospels of Jesus giving people rest, it made me want to decide to accept him as my Lord and Savior.”

Sensing danger, the family fled to the Netherlands in 2000, and it was there that Azbari embraced Christianity. In 2003 the family left the Netherlands for Norway.

Azbari was an avid student of his new-found Lord; while in Norway, he became seminary teacher of Christology.

Throughout, Azbari said, the Iranian government had been monitoring his movements. In 2007 Iranian officials persuaded the Norwegian government to send him, together with his wife and son Reza Azbari, back to Iran.

After their interrogation and mistreatment upon arrival in Iran, Azbari managed to call his sister, who connected him with the army general cousin who helped secure their release. His sister took them in, but his brother in-law was not happy with their Christian prayers; he began quarreling with his wife, Azbari’s sister.

“They began looking for trouble for us,” Azbari said. “Sensing danger, we then left the home and went to find a place to stay. Everywhere we tried to book in we were rejected, since we were people who had been deported.”

They began attending a church made up primarily of foreigners, where Azbari’s wife and son felt more at home than he did. His army general cousin found out and, angry that they had sought refuge in a church after he had secured their release, grew furious.

“He was very angry, as they had also discovered this information from the laptop they had confiscated and threatened that I should be arrested,” Azbari said. “I then decided to move to central Iran to look for employment, leaving my family behind.”

The couple felt they could not go to Gelanie Azbari’s homeland as the Philippines has such friendly relations with Iran, he said.

“To go back to Philippines or Iran is quite unsafe for us,” Azbari said.

In October 2009, his sister notified him that police were looking for him and his family.

“I then decided to flee the country through Turkey, then to Kenya where I was arrested and then deported to Turkey,” Azbari said. “In Turkey they could not allow me to enter the country, hence I was returned to Kenya.”

They were arrested in January for illegal entry into Kenya. On March 4, a judge at Chief Magistrate Court No. 3 of Kenya dropped the charges against him, declaring that Azbari required international protection from his persecutors. The court also directed that Azbari be given back all his documents and the 10,000 Kenyan Shillings ($US130) in bail he had deposited.

They had applied for asylum with the United Nations. Appearing before the court on behalf of Azbari on Jan. 15, a representative of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees had argued that he deserved asylum because his religious status had forced him to flee from his country of origin. On March 4 the court found that Azbari and his family require international protection under Section 82 of the laws of Kenya, and he was set free.

“We have witnessed the love of God and the sacrifices of what it means to love one in word and deed,” Azbari said moments after the decision. “We saw the love of Christ from the people who understood and stood with us.”

He thanked friends who introduced his family to Nairobi Pentecostal Church, which provided them spiritual strength. Three attorneys represented Azbari: Wasia Masitsa, a legal officer for the Urban Refugee Intervention Program; Christian lawyer John Swaka; and Laban Osoro of the United Nations. Rene Kiamba of the International Christian Chamber of Commerce had helped him post bail.

Report from Compass Direct News 

Christians Accused of Desecrating Quran Freed in Pakistan

Country’s notorious ‘blasphemy’ law used against innocent father, daughter.

LAHORE, Pakistan, December 16 (CDN) — A Christian in Faisalabad district and his 20-year-old daughter were released on Monday (Dec. 14) after 14 grueling months in jail on false charges of blaspheming the Quran.

Khalil Tahir, attorney for Gulsher Masih and his daughter Ashyana Gulsher (known as Sandal), said the case was typical of the way Pakistan’s blasphemy laws can be used to harass innocent Christians.

“Christians are the soft targets, and most of the people implicated in these inhumane laws are Christians,” Tahir said. “We Christians are fighting for the same, noble goal – to provide justice to the victims of blasphemy laws.”

Masih said that inmates beat him at least five times since he was arrested on Oct. 23, 2008. His daughter was arrested two weeks earlier, on Oct. 10.

“These long 14 months seemed like ages,” Masih told Compass. “There was one inmate, Ghulam Fareed, a rich man, who always harassed me, trying to coerce me to convert to Islam by saying he would make me rich and would send me abroad.”

Fareed, who also promised high quality education for Masih’s children, joined with Islamic extremists jailed for terrorist acts to beat him in an effort to force him to “come into the fold of Islam,” Masih said. While in jail, he said, his wife told him that their daughter had been beaten several times by the superintendent of police.

Masih and his daughter were charged under Section 295-B of the Pakistan Penal Code for blaspheming the Quran. Before charges were filed in October 2008, Masih said an initial incident occurred on Aug. 25, when Ashyana Gulsher found some burned pages of the Quran in a garbage dump outside their community of Chak No. 57, Chak Jhumra in the district of Faisalabad.

Masih said she handed the charred pages to a woman, Lubana Taj, saying, “These are the holy page of your Quran and I found them in the garbage, so you take it.”

There were still some pages left, which she gave to their neighbor, Khalida Rafiq, who burned them, he said.

“She had borrowed wheat from us a few weeks ago, and when my wife demanded it back, Khalida Rafiq said that we had burned pages of the Quran and was now accusing us of taking wheat,” Masih said. “Some other women of the village also accused my children of making paper airplanes of the pages of the Quran.”

The escalating conflict was defused with the help of other neighbors who knew the truth, he said, and local Muslim cleric Amam Hafiz Muhammad Ali also intervened, saying Masih’s daughter had done a good deed and questioning why the neighbor women were repaying her with evil.

“We thought that the matter was buried, but it arose again on Oct. 7, 2008,” Masih said. On that day 20-year-old Muhammad Qasim went throughout the village on bicycle exclaiming that Christians had burned the Quran, Masih said. Upon hearing this, village landlord Rana Sarwar called Masih and told him that his children had burned the Quran and had used pages to make paper airplanes.

“I told them that I was working in Asghar Christian Colony and never knew about the incident, and the son who had been accused of blasphemy had gone to school,” Masih said.

His accusers were unmoved, he said.

“In the evening when I was returning home, I heard announcements from several mosques that Christians had burned the Quran,” he said. “After hearing the announcement, people began pouring in. These announcements were made by Tariq son of Hafeez, Maqbool son of Hafeez and Maulana Tawaseel Bajwa.”

When Masih called emergency police, they arrested him and sent him to the Jhumra police station, Faisalabad.

“The police asked me where my children were, and when I told them that the children were in the village, the police went back to arrest them,” he said. “Rana Sarwar, Wajid Khan and Rana Naeem Khan came into the police station and argued that my children had blasphemed, so why was I the one being beaten? I told Rana Sarwar in front of the police that if my children have done this, then I was ready to bear consequences.”

Police told them that the crowd outside wanted to hang him and that this was why they had arrested him. Masih said that the next day Deputy Superintendent of Police (DSP) Yousuf Zai came and asked him why he had committed blasphemy.

“Rana Sarwar then told the DSP that it was all a political ploy, and that I had been implicated in the case for voting for the opposition party,” he said. “If that day those Christian Members of Parliamentary Assembly had spoken up, then the police complaint wouldn’t have been registered against me.”

Masih added that the station house officer felt that he was innocent but had become legally entangled due to lack of support from the community. Masih said that the next day, Oct. 8, a few Muslims gave conflicting statements against him when charges were filed.

“One said he saw me burning the pages of the Quran at 10 a.m., the other said that he saw me burning the pages at 12 p.m. and still another said that he saw me burning the pages of the Quran at 2 p.m.,” he said. “When I was sent in jail, the investigation office swore that I was innocent.”

In a further contradiction, the complainants accused him of cutting up pages of the Quran and tossing them in the air, not burning them, Tahir said.

The complainant in the case was Mohammad Farooq Alam, and other prosecution witnesses named were Mohammad Maqbool Ahmad and Mohammad Akber, according to Tahir.

Masih said that initially he appeared before Judge Zulfikar Lon, but that whenever a judge asked for witnesses, he was transferred.

“In this manner eight months passed, and then Judge Raja Mohammad Ghazanfar came” and refused to be transferred, Masih said.

After Tahir’s cross-examination of witnesses, Ghazanfar dropped all charges and ordered their release.

“During cross examination, I proved that the whole case was concocted, frivolous, fake and that the charges against the accused Christian brother were unfounded,” Tahir said.

Tahir said that he had provided only legal assistance to the victims, with Johnson Michael, chairman of the Bishop John Joseph Shaheed Trust, providing paralegal assistance. An MPA in the Punjab Parliament, Tahir is the body’s secretary for Human Rights and Minority Affairs and also serves as executive director of advocacy group Action Against Discriminatory Laws Trust Pakistan.

Report from Compass Direct News 

Church Registration in Vietnam Inches Along

Assemblies of God obtains ‘operating license,’ but quest for recognition continues.

HO CHI MINH CITY, October 23 (CDN) — The Assemblies of God (AoG) in Vietnam on Monday (Oct. 19) received an “operating license,” which the government described as “the first step . . . before becoming officially legal.”

This operating license gives permission for all of the congregations of the Vietnam AoG to “carry on religious activity” anywhere in the country for the next year. During this time the church body must prepare a doctrinal statement, a constitution and bylaws and a four-year working plan to be approved by the government before being allowed to hold an organizing assembly. These steps, AoG leaders hope, would lead to legal recognition.

The operating license is the first one granted since five were granted two years ago. The last of those five churches, the Christian Fellowship Church, was finally allowed to hold its organizing assembly in late September. According to an internal 2008 government Protestant Training Manual obtained by church leaders, this assembly was delayed because authorities observed large discrepancies between the number of followers the group claimed and the actual number, as well as other “instability.”

Vietnam News Service reported on Sept. 29 that the Christian Fellowship Church has “30,000 believers nationwide.”

Should the AoG achieve legal recognition, it would be the ninth among some 70 Protestant groups in Vietnam and the seventh since new religion legislation touted to expedite registration was introduced in 2004.

The AoG quest was typically long, and it is not yet over. Though started in the early 1970s before the communist era, the denomination was deemed dormant by authorities after the communist takeover and restarted in 1989. Strangely, the Vietnamese religion law requires a church organization to have 20 years of stable organization before it can even be considered for legal recognition.

Though the AoG had been trying for years to register, only this year did it fulfill the 20-year requirement in the eyes of the government. Sources said AoG’s resistance to strong pressure by the government to eliminate a middle or district level of administration may also have contributed to the delay.

Ironically, the official government news report credits the Vietnam AoG with 40,000 followers, while denominational General Superintendent Samuel Lam told Compass the number is 25,000. He also said he hoped the advantages of registration would outweigh the disadvantages.

With no more operating licenses being granted, the future of registration is in a kind of limbo. Sources said a lower level of registration in which local authorities are supposed to offer permission for local congregations to carry on religious activities while the more complicated higher levels are worked out has largely failed. Only about 10 percent of the many hundreds of applications have received a favorable reply, they said, leaving most house churches vulnerable to arbitrary harassment or worse.

Leaders of all Protestant groups say that they continue to experience government resistance, as well as social pressure, whenever they preach Christ in new areas. They added that evidence is strong that the government’s aim is to contain Protestant growth.

Hmong Christians who fled the Northwest Mountainous Region for the Central Highlands a decade ago, developing very poor land in places such as Dak Nong, reported to Compass that they were singled out for land confiscation just when their fields became productive. They said ethnic Vietnamese made these land grabs with the complicity of the authorities, sometimes multiple times.

At the same time, Human Rights Watch (HRW) reported on Oct. 19 that Vietnam has experienced a “sharp backsliding on religious freedom.” Among other incidents, HRW cited the late September crackdown on followers of Buddhist peace activist Thich Nhat Hanh. Some 150 monks were forcibly evicted from his sect’s Bat Nha Monastery in Lam Dong province on Sept. 27, and 200 nuns fled in fear the next day. As in recent land disputes with Roman Catholics involving thousands of demonstrators, authorities hired local and imported thugs to do the deed to present the image that ordinary local people were upset with the religion.

After a visit to Vietnam in May, the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) recommended that the United States reinstate Vietnam as a Country of Particular Concern (CPC), the blacklist of religious liberty offenders. Vietnam had been on the list from 2004 until 2006.

The USCIRF, which experienced less government cooperation that on some previous visits,  observed that “Vietnam’s overall human rights record remains poor, and has deteriorated since Vietnam joined the World Trade Organization in January 2007.”

Some key Protestant leaders describe themselves as weary and frustrated at what they termed the government’s lack of sincerity, extreme tardiness and outright duplicity regarding religious freedom. They too said they believe that the lifting of Vietnam’s CPC status was premature and resulted in the loss of a major incentive for Vietnam to improve religious freedom.

Report from Compass Direct News 


Hostilities evident in Muslim area where missionaries were slain.

NAIROBI, Kenya, June 26 (Compass Direct News) – When a young Muslim woman in northern Uganda heard about Jesus in February 2005 and began having dreams about the cross of Christ, it marked the beginning of a nightmare.

Between the dreams and otherwise sleepless nights, Aleti Samusa of Yumbe district soon converted to Christianity; her family immediately kicked her out of their home.

Economically devastated and deprived of that which is most valued in the communal culture, Samusa sought refuge in a local church in Lotongo village. There she found the man she would marry later that year, David Edema, who was raised a Christian but who began sharing in the sufferings of a convert from Islam by virtue of becoming one flesh with one.

His bride’s family did not attend the couple’s wedding, Edema told Compass, and it wasn’t long before her relatives threatened to break up their marriage. With Samusa’s family threatening to forcibly take her from Edema, the couple fled Lotongo village to Yumbe town. Their troubles had just begun.

“The Muslims started sending people, saying that I am not wanted in Yumbe town and that I should leave the town,” Edema said.

Most houses in Yumbe are owned by Muslims, he said, and since 2006 the couple has been forced to move from one rented house to another without notice.

“The owner just wakes up one morning and gives us marching orders to vacate the house,” the 29-year-old Edema said. “Nowadays, the situation is getting worse. Muslims are openly saying even in their mosques that they plan to take unknown action against my family.”

One potential danger amounts to a death threat against his wife, now 24.

“The Muslims are saying that they are going to send some Jinns [evil spirits] to my wife because she forsook Islam, and that this spirit will kill her,” he said.

Asked what steps he has taken in the face of these threats, Edema was resigned.

“It will be pointless to take this matter to court, because the people who are to hear the case are Muslims,” he said. “I feel no justice will be done.”

Area Violence

Edema said he and his wife are hoping that God will open a door for them to move to another town.

“The sooner the better for us,” he said, “for we do not know what the Muslims are planning to do with us.”

Violence in Yumbe district is not without precedent. On March 18, 2004, seven suspected radical Islamists dressed in military fatigues murdered two African Inland Mission missionaries and a Ugandan student in an attack on a college run by local aid group Here is Life. Warren and Donna Pett, both 49 and agriculture experts from the U.S. state of Wisconsin, were teachers at the Evangelical School of Technology. The slain student was Isaac Juruga.

The murder case was dismissed in February by the state attorney, who claimed lack of evidence. A Here is Life official who requested anonymity, however, said not enough weight was given to evidence that included a mobile phone recovered from one of the suspected assailants.

“We feel that justice was not done in the ruling of the killing of the two missionaries,” he said.

In Yumbe, the administrative arm of the government as well as the judiciary is run by Muslims, said Edema, who added that the district is still not a safe place for Christians.

“Sometimes they even confront me that I should stop converting Muslims to Christianity – this is not true,” Edema said. “It is just a way of wanting to pick a quarrel with me.”

Edema, his wife and two children belong to Pilgrim Church. Christians and converts to Christianity are a tiny minority in the area, but about three kilometers from Yumbe town is the Church of Uganda in Eleke, with a congregation of about 100. This church has recently sounded alarms about Muslims making land-grabs of its property.

A church leader who requested anonymity said area Muslims have seized a substantial portion of the church’s land, but when the matter went to court, the case was dismissed due to lack of a title deed.

In addition, in May Muslim youths beat a female church worker who had taken a photo of a mosque that was under construction 100 meters from the church, he said.

“Rowdy Muslim youths removed the film after destroying the lid of the camera,” he said. “The militant youths started beating up the church worker as they dragged her to the police station in Yumbe, where she was interrogated for three hours before being released.”

Peter Manasseh, vicar of the Eleke Church of Uganda, said the church has filed a complaint with the local governing council, “but we do not expect any fairness to be done because the person handling this case is a Muslim and will be partisan.”

A journalist who works for a Christian radio station, however, decided to look into the case – and was himself beaten. Ronald Oguzu of Voice of Life radio in Arua town went to Yumbe yesterday to investigate, said a senior station official who requested anonymity.

“At the mosque site, the Muslims caught hold of Oguzu, beat him and he had his tooth broken,” the official said. “He was then hospitalized in Yumbe hospital and is still receiving some medication.”

He said a criminal case has been filed, but that chances for justice were not good.

“We know that this case will be thrown out of the window, just like that of the killing of the two missionaries,” he said. “To date no arrests have been made.”

Report from Compass Direct News


Lawyers try to put financial pressure on husband to secure 13-year-old girl’s release.

ISTANBUL, December 16 (Compass Direct News) – After a judge yesterday placed new financial and social pressure on the captors of a Pakistani girl who was kidnapped and converted to Islam, attorneys have guarded optimism they can return her to custody of her Christian parents.

Judge Malik Saeed Ijaz ordered the girl’s husband, Amjad Ali, to pay a dowry of 100,000 rupees (US$1,275) and allow her parents visitation rights, two actions required by typical Pakistani marriage protocol. At press time he had done neither.

The judge gave Saba Masih, 13, the opportunity to talk with her family during yesterday’s hearing, but she remained mostly silent behind her veil, offering only blunt replies.

“I don’t want to see my parents. They are Christians and I am a Muslim,” she said, according to her parents’ attorney.

Her younger sister Aneela Masih, who was also kidnapped but returned to her family three months ago, pleaded with her older sister to return home. The 10-year-old told her that Christmas was coming and she didn’t want her sister to spend it with those “who are not our people.”

Saba Masih appeared at the Multan branch of Lahore’s High Court yesterday along with her Muslim husband and his family. Her parents filed a contempt petition last month against her captors for failing to follow Pakistani marriage protocol.

Islamic law (sharia), however, gives a wife the right to relinquish a dowry. Lawyers said they fear that the Muslim family will pressure Saba Masih to claim this right in order to offset growing financial pressure.

Lawyers hope that if her mother can visit her, it will convince her to leave her husband and come home to the family; her family believes he has threatened her with violence if she attempts to rejoin them.

At Monday’s hearing, Saba Masih still appeared reluctant to return to her family. Relatives said they were praying that she would change her mind and that the captors would lose their influence over her.

“The main thing is Saba must be ready herself to come back,” said her uncle, Khalid Raheel, the family spokesman. “But she isn’t ready to come back yet, and I don’t know how they are convincing her.”

On Wednesday (Dec. 17) the judge is expected to adjourn the case and issue a deed requiring Ali to pay the dowry at the convenience of the Masih family. The judge yesterday threatened Ali with prison time if he failed to carry out this order.

Akbar Durrani, attorney for the Centre for Legal Aid Assistance and Settlement (CLAAS), said the attorneys might try to use Aneela Masih’s testimony of kidnapping to take the case to the Supreme Court if other options fail.


Prostitution Business

The Christian family’s lawyer said the attempt to force Ali to pay a dowry was a tactic to mount financial pressure on Saba Masih’s husband and to convince her to return home. Her family and their lawyers believe she has stayed with her Muslim husband because he and his family have issued death threats.

The Christian family’s chances of winning run against the judicial status quo for Pakistani religious minorities, but the new push comes after a Sept. 9 ruling that returned Aneela Masih to her parents, a rare legal victory for non-Muslims.

“We filed this [contempt] petition so she would come into the court, see her family and hopefully change her statement,” said Durrani of CLAAS. “We also want to put pressure on the Muslim family members because they are afraid of litigation, since they have to pay all these legal expenses.”

Aneela and Saba Masih were kidnapped on June 26 while traveling to visit their uncle in Sarwar Shaheed, northwest of Multan. Their parents say local fruit vendor Muhammad Arif Bajwa and three others kidnapped them in Chawk Munda, a small town in south Punjab.

Saba Masih was married to Ali the next day. Bajwa and Ali registered a case with the police on June 28 for custody of the girls based on their alleged conversion to Islam.

Local residents regard the men as serial kidnappers with connections to a human trafficking ring. The girls’ first defense attorney believed they could have been raped and sold to a brothel.

Ironically, attorneys said, the kidnappers’ alleged desire to exploit Saba Masih may now be the best hope of her returning to her parents, as keeping her has become not lucrative but increasingly costly with court hearings continuing and legal fees multiplying.

“These [kidnappers] don’t have an emotional link to Saba,” Durrani told Compass by phone. “They are in the business of prostitution and only wanted to use these girls for their business.”

Prosecuting attorneys said they have a growing optimism that they can regain custody of Saba Masih, something they thought unlikely two months ago.


Long, Hard Battle

In previous hearings, a judge allowed Saba Masih to choose whether or not she would return to her family, even though Pakistan marriage law requires the approval of legal guardians at the age of 16.

The judge determined that her age was 17 based on her testimony and a report by a medical board pressured by Muslim groups to inflate her age. He did not accept as evidence her birth certificate and baptismal record that showed her age as 13.

Younis Masih and his wife first saw their daughters after their kidnapping at a July hearing. The girls were in the company of 16 Muslims and were said to be under pressure to claim they had converted to Islam.

After Aneela Masih returned to her family in September, she claimed that their captors threatened to kill them and their family if they did not do everything asked of them.

Previously it had been reported that she was raped while in captivity, but there was no medical evidence that she was sexually abused or manhandled, lawyers said.

Her sister appears to be suffering, Durrani said.

“The family has told us that Saba Masih is not in good condition – most of the time she cries and is not satisfied there,” Durrani said.


Recurrent Problem

Kidnapping of Christians in the Muslim-majority nation of 170 million is not uncommon. Many captors believe they will not be convicted if caught due to the penal code’s influence by sharia, which grants non-Muslims second-class status in society.

Every year there are cases of Pakistani Christian children kidnapped, killed or exploited by those who believe their parents are powerless.

Last month a Muslim family in Nankan kidnapped the 7-year-old son of Pakistani Christian Binyamin Yusef, 30, over a land dispute. Two days later police found his son’s body, which showed signs of torture and rape.

Police did not register the case when Yusef initially approached them. CLAAS representatives hope to open court action against the alleged perpetrators.  

Report from Compass Direct News


Uncertainty remains about condition of Christian charged with ‘propaganda.’

LOS ANGELES, November 10 (Compass Direct News) – Concerns about the health and safety of the son of martyred Iranian pastor Hossein Soodmand are swirling around Ramtin Soodmand as he awaits trial for “promoting anti-government propaganda.”

Soodmand was released on bail Oct. 22 after more than two months in a Mashhad prison, having originally been charged with “proselytizing.”

Before turning himself in to police in Mashhad on Aug. 21, Soodmand received a call from Fershteh Dibaj, the daughter of another Christian martyr, Mehdi Dibaj, telling him that intelligence officers wanted to meet with him. Puzzled, Soodmand asked, “Why do they want me to come there? I am living in Tehran,” according to a family member. (Compass earlier reported incorrectly that Soodmand was ordered to go from Mashhad to Tehran.)

Expecting Soodmand to be in Mashhad for no more than two days, family members told Compass that they were shocked when he remained in prison.

A family member also expressed frustration that the court repeatedly changed the bail amount before finally settling on $22,000. Soodmand’s in-laws put the deed to their home up to ensure bail.

Soodmand has been officially charged with “promoting anti-government propaganda.” But with a new penal code under consideration in Iranian Parliament this month that would mandate capital punishment for “apostates,” or those who leave Islam, friends and family worry that he may face the death penalty. A family member told Compass that the court had originally accused Soodmand of religious activity and proselytizing.

His father, the last Iranian Christian convert from Islam executed by the Iranian government, was accused of working as “an American spy.” Since then at least six Protestant pastors have been assassinated by unknown killers.

Friends and relatives of Soodmand questioned his treatment while in prison. One source told Compass that he asked about Soodmand’s health on three separate phone conversations. “The government cut off the phone three times,” the source said.

A source closely following the case said that when he asked Soodmand about his treatment in prison, he responded, “No place on [my] body is hurting.” That source believed Soodmand was saying that he had recovered from being tortured.

Another source interested in the case told Compass, “It’s odd that Mitra [Soodmand’s wife] and Ramtin were only allowed to talk by phone. She never saw his face the whole time he was in prison.”

A family friend said he believes that no physical harm was done to Soodmand, telling Compass, “Ramtin was abused emotionally by being interrogated many times but was never beaten. He was taken to a room where he was told his father had spoken his last words before being executed.”

While there are many questions about Soodmand’s treatment, those close to the family agree that Soodmand has suffered during this ordeal.

“He [Soodmand] asks for prayer because he was badly shaken,” a source told Compass.

Soodmand’s father was executed by the state in 1990, and there is speculation that Ramtin Soodmand may have been singled out because of the relationship.

“I am not sure, but … once something like this happens for you in your family, you are ‘marked,’” said a source closely following the case.

Under the past three decades of Iran’s Islamist regime, hundreds of citizens who have left Islam and become Christians have been arrested for weeks or months, held in unknown locations and subjected to mental and physical torture.

The arrests of Iranian Christians in the last few months have deeply affected churches in Iran. “There is less trust among the believers,” a friend of Soodmand’s said to Compass. “They are suspicious of outsiders or newcomers because they could be ‘moles.’”

The friend also reported that the activities of house churches he works with have been sharply curtailed because many members believe they are under surveillance.

A family member is concerned for the Christians living in Mashhad.

“We got news from Iran that the intelligence service in Mashhad arrested 15 Christian people,” he told Compass last week.

Report from Compass Direct News


Likelihood of death sentence grows as Parliament debates bill making it mandatory.

LOS ANGELES, September 10 (Compass Direct News) – Two Iranian Christians have officially been charged with “apostasy,” or leaving Islam, as a draft law making the death penalty mandatory for those convicted of the charge is set to be debated in Iran’s Parliament.

Mahmood Matin Azad, 52, and Arash Basirat (previously reported Bandari), 44, have been in prison since May 15, when they were arrested in Shiraz. When their lawyer went to authorities to inquire about the case in early August, he was informed that the two men had been formally charged with apostasy, sources confirmed to Compass.

At that time authorities gave the lawyer an official document stating that the formal charge of “apostasy” was based on the men’s confessions during interrogation. The “Interrogation Note – Investigator’s Final Order” said that their “culpability order” was based on Article 214 of the penal code and sections of the late Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s treatise on legal affairs, the Tahrir ol Vassileh. Iran’s legal system is based on sharia (Islamic law).

Previous charges of “Propaganda Against the Islamic Republic of Iran” had been dropped, according to the statement.

Sources who spoke to the lawyer explained that authorities generally do not issue written statements, and that this was an indication of the severity and complexity of the case.

With the apostasy bill to be debated in Parliament, some Iranian Christians fear that authorities are seeking to make an example of the two prisoners or give the prospective law a “test run.”


‘Interesting and Sensitive’

In February the Iranian Parliament proposed a draft penal code that demands the death penalty for leaving Islam. Under current Iranian law, apostasy is considered a capital offense, but punishment is left to the discretion of the judge.

Basirat, who suffers from diabetes, and Matin are expected to appear in court within the next few weeks with their lawyer in order to defend their case. They would not officially be found guilty unless evidence presented at the hearing were incriminating.

Meantime, the families of Basirat and Matin have tried unsuccessfully to get the prisoners out on bail before the trial takes place. The last week of August the lawyer instructed Matin’s wife to prepare a bail sum of around $40,000 to $50,000. But when the lawyer tried to get the necessary paperwork and signatures from the judge, the bail amount was denied.

Fearing that the bail amount may be doubled, the defense attorney told a source close to Matin’s family that the case had become “interesting and sensitive” for the judge and authorities, and therefore they would not “let it go so easily.”

Basirat’s family also tried to release him on bail by offering the deed of their home, but authorities have not accepted it.

The defense team has suggested that the defendants seek that international pressure be brought to bear on Iranian authorities to release Basirat and Matin and clear their names of any wrongdoing.  

Report from Compass Direct News