Turkey Arrests 20 Allegedly Linked to Malatya Murders


Suspects in Ergenekon network long sought in homicide case to be questioned.

ISTANBUL, March 18 (CDN) — In simultaneous operations in nine different provinces of Turkey, authorities yesterday arrested 20 people suspected of playing a role in the murder of three Christians in Malatya in 2007, according to local news reports.

Zekeriya Oz, chief prosecutor overseeing the investigation into a clandestine network known as Ergenekon allegedly aimed at destabilizing the government, ordered the arrests based on information that linked the suspects to both the network and to the Malatya murders, Turkish press reported after Istanbul Chief of Police Chief Huseyin Capkin announced the sweep at a press conference yesterday.

“This was an operation related to the Malatya Zirve publishing house murders,” Capkin said, according to online news agency Malatya Guncel. “They were just arrested. This is connected to the Zirve publishing house. That’s the framework.”

Those apprehended include Ruhi Abat, a Muslim theology professor from Malatya Inonu University, Mehmet Ulger, a retired commander of the Malatya Gendarmerie in service at the time of the murders, and other members of the military. Oz will question the suspects in Istanbul, according to reports.

Police also raided the guesthouse of the Izmir Gendarmerie, seizing computers and documents. News sources listed Malatya, Siirt, Mugla, Mersin and Izmir as some of the cities in which authorities conducted raids and arrests.

A plaintiff attorney in the Malatya murder case, Orhan Kemal Cengiz, told Compass that the names on the list of those arrested were suspects he and his colleagues have been trying to convince the Malatya prosecutor to pursue since the court received a tip in May 2008.

“They are all the usual suspects,” Cengiz said. “All their names were mentioned in the first informant letter. Unfortunately, despite all our efforts, we couldn’t find anyone to investigate these allegations.”

The letter was the first of many informant letters the Malatya court has received since it started hearing the case on Nov. 22, 2007. Penned by someone who identified himself by the pseudonym “Ali Arslan” but unsigned, the letter claimed that Ulger incited Emre Gunaydin, one of the suspects, to carry out the murders and that he communicated with Gunaydin through Abat and two gendarmerie officers, reported Turkish English daily Today’s Zaman.

Cengiz said that, though it was the duty of the Malatya prosecutor to pursue leads in the informant letter, the prosecutor deferred the investigation to the military court, which in turn refused to investigate, claiming that the name on the letter was fake and the letter was not signed.

“It was like a joke,” Cengiz said.

On April 18, 2007, two Turkish Christians, Necati Aydin and Ugur Yuksel, and German Christian Tilmann Geske, were bound, tortured and then murdered at the office of Zirve Publishing Co., a Christian publishing house in Malatya. The suspects, Salih Guler, Cuma Ozdemir, Hamit Ceker, and Abuzer Yildirim, were arrested while trying to escape the scene of the crime, as was alleged ringleader Gunaydin.

From the beginning of the court hearings, plaintiff lawyers have brought evidence to the court showing the five young suspects were connected to a wider plot to kill the three Christians as well as other key Christian leaders across Turkey. Known as the Cage Plan, the plot is believed to be part of the alleged Ergenekon “deep state” operation to destabilize the government.

The Cage Plan centers on a compact disc found in 2009 in the house of a retired naval officer. The plan, to be carried out by 41 naval officers, termed as “operations” the Malatya killings, the 2006 assassination of Catholic priest Andrea Santoro and the 2007 slaying of Hrant Dink, Armenian editor-in-chief of the weekly Agos.

Cengiz told Compass that new evidence in the Ergenekon case might have convinced Oz to pursue those detained yesterday, and he called the move “a very big step” in shedding light on the Malatya case. He and colleague Erdal Dogan said their efforts – especially a request they sent to Oz on Jan. 18, 2010 asking him to investigate the allegations that Ergenekon members were behind the Malatya murders – surely helped to move the process along.

“I believe our efforts had a very big influence on this,” Cengiz said. “We submitted a petition and requested this from Oz last year. He is acting with the Malatya prosecutor on this.”

At the request of the Istanbul Chief Prosecutor’s Office, the Istanbul Police Department prepared a report last year revealing links between the Malatya murders and Ergenekon, according to Today’s Zaman. According to the report, Sevgi Erenerol, spokesperson for a bogus ultranationalist association known as the Turkish Orthodox Church, described foreign missionary activity as “spying” and “provoking.”

“A piece of evidence in the report was a conference on missionary activity given by Sevgi Erenerol … at the General Staff’s Strategic Research and Study Center,” reported Today’s Zaman.

Erenerol was arrested in connection with Ergenekon in 2008. Her suspected links with those thought to have masterminded the Zirve murders may have influenced yesterday’s arrests, Today’s Zaman reported.

She is also believed to be one of the key people behind false accusations against two members of Turkey’s Protestant Church, Hakan Tastan and Turan Topal, who were arrested in October 2006 for insulting Turkishness and Islam because they openly shared their faith.

After four years of legal battle, a judge finally acquitted the two Christians of insulting Turkey and its people by spreading Christianity, but not without slapping them with a hefty fine for a spurious charge. The two men are in the process of appealing the fine.

The Turkish Constitution grants all citizens the right to speak about their faith.

Plaintiff attorneys in the Malatya murders case said they believe yesterday’s arrests bring them closer to their requests that the Malatya murders case file be joined to that of the Ergenekon trial.

“From now on, we can predict it is very possible that our case will be sent to Istanbul soon and that these two cases will be merged,” said Cengiz.

The next Malatya hearing is scheduled for April 29.

Report from Compass Direct News
http://www.compassdirect.org

Christians in Turkey Face Harassment; Murder Trial Stalls


Departure of presiding judge in Malatya case could further delay justice, attorneys fear.

ISTANBUL, March 15 (CDN) — Though the horrific scale of the 2007 Malatya murders has not been repeated in Turkey’s Protestant church, a recent report shows harassment continues to be a daily problem for the country’s Christians and churches.

Discrimination, slander and attacks against churches were among the examples of ongoing harassment that the Turkish Association of Protestant Churches (TEK) recorded in 2010.

In an eight-page report published earlier this year, TEK’s Committee for Religious Freedom and Legal Affairs outlined problems Protestants face. Turkish laws and “negative attitudes of civil servants” continue to make it nearly impossible for non-Muslims to establish places of worship, the committee reported. Three churches faced legal problems last year regarding their buildings, according to the report.

Missionary activities are still considered a national threat despite the existence of Turkish laws guaranteeing citizens the freedom to propagate and teach their faith, and children are victims of discrimination at school, according to the report. Though the Religious Education General Directorate for Higher Education and Training Committee allows non-Muslim students to stay out of religious classes, parents have reported cases in which they were not able to take their children out of such
courses.

“After four years [since the Malatya murders], Turkey’s religious freedoms have not improved as desired,” said attorney Erdal Dogan. “Christians, Alevis [a Shiite sub-community] and people of other beliefs are still not protected by law. And people of other faiths apart from Muslims have no legal status. Since racism is still prevalent in the context of freedom, discrimination in its turn has become a fact of life.”   

About a third of Turks are estimated to be Alevis.

Turkey rose to 30th place in Open Doors’ 2011 World Watch List of nations in which persecution against Christians takes place, up from 35th place the previous year. The Christian support organization cited deteriorating conditions as the secular country applied some laws in discriminatory ways against Christians.

TEK estimates that there are up to 3,500 Protestant Christians in Turkey.

 

Malatya Trial Stalled

In the trial of the five primary suspects in the murder of three Christians in Malatya, plaintiff attorneys fear the departure of one of the three judges to a Supreme Court of Appeals post in Ankara could further stall the nearly four-year-old case.

The loss of Judge Eray Gurtekin, who had presided over the case since it began on Nov. 22, 2007, could threaten to set back the progress of the court that has been examining links between the killers and alleged masterminds, according to Dogan, a plaintiff attorney in the case. Gurtekin was appointed as a judge in the Supreme Court of Appeals in Turkey’s capital Ankara last month.

“In a three-member panel [of judges], the change of one is not really helpful,” said Dogan, “because just as the previous presiding judge had started to understand and pay close attention to the case file, a new judge came in his place. I hope he will catch on quickly.”

The new judge joined the Malatya hearings panel this month, and Dogan said there could be more changes in the panel.

The 12th Istanbul High Criminal Court is expected to hear the testimony of another witness on March 29, and the court is trying to locate two more witnesses in order to shed light on the Malatya murders.

On April 18, 2007, two Turkish Christians, Necati Aydin and Ugur Yuksel, and German Christian Tilmann Geske, were bound, tortured and then murdered at the office of Zirve Publishing Co., a Christian publishing house in Malatya. The suspects, Salih Guler, Cuma Ozdemir, Hamit Ceker, and Abuzer Yildirim, were arrested while trying to escape the scene of the crime, as was alleged ringleader Emre Gunaydin.

From the beginning of the court hearings, prosecuting lawyers have brought evidence to the court showing the five young suspects were connected to a wider plot to kill the three Christians as well as other key Christian leaders across Turkey. Known as the Cage Plan, the plot is believed to be part of the alleged Ergenekon “deep state” operation to destabilize the government.

The Cage Plan centers on a compact disc found in 2009 in the house of a retired naval officer. The plan, to be carried out by 41 naval officers, termed as “operations” the Malatya killings, the 2006 assassination of Catholic priest Andrea Santoro and the 2007 slaying of Hrant Dink, Armenian editor-in-chief of the weekly Agos.

Questioned by the judges, Varol Bulent Aral – suspected of being one of the people who planned the murders and linked the killers to the masterminds – said he wanted the court to find out who was supporting the Zirve Publishing Co. He added a cryptic remark to Tilmann Geske’s widow, Suzanne Geske, who continues to live in Malatya with her three children and regularly attends the murder hearings.

“I want to ask Suzanne, what business does a German have here?”

The judges finally threw Aral out of the courtroom for contempt of court when he told the judges: “You are in the clouds!”

Prosecuting lawyers still hope judges will join the Malatya case files to the Cage Plan case, which is being tried at an Istanbul court.

The threat of violence against Christians continues. Last week Turkish news sources reported that Istanbul police arrested two suspects, ages 17 and 18, accused of plotting to assassinate a priest on the European side of the city. The Istanbul Public Prosecutor’s Office is examining their case.

Report from Compass Direct News
http://www.compassdirect.org

Egyptian Convert from Islam Devastated by ‘Delay Tactic’


Court suspends Mohammed Hegazy’s lawsuit pending outcome of separate case.

CAIRO, Egypt, May 17 (CDN) — An Egyptian convert to Christianity said he is devastated by a recent court decision to suspend a lawsuit he filed to change the religion on his identification card from Muslim to Christian.

The First District of the Court of the State Council on April 27 suspended Mohammed Ahmed Hegazy’s case until the Constitutional Court rules on a challenge to Article 47, a section of the civil code that in theory allows Egyptians to change the religion listed on their ID card.

Hegazy, 27, said the suspension endangers his children’s welfare and will force them to lead a double life indefinitely – at home they will be taught to live in accordance with the Bible, and outside it they will be taught to live according to the Quran.

If they ultimately decide to follow Jesus, Hegazy said, his children will be declared “apostates” and be persecuted the rest of their lives for “leaving Islam.” Hegazy, who has suffered severely after Egypt’s religious authorities declared him an apostate, including being imprisoned by State Security Investigations (SSI) several times, said he filed the case so his children would avoid the same fate.

“I didn’t want them to have to go through the same harassment and persecution that I went through,” he said. “My daughter won’t be able to go to school without constantly fearing for her safety. She might even be killed simply because she is my daughter.”

Hegazy is arguably the most well-known Muslim convert to Christianity in Egypt. He rose to national prominence in August 2007 when he became the first Muslim convert in Egypt to sue for the right to change the religious status on his identification card to “Christian.”

Hegazy said he became a Christian in 1998 after seeking God during a period of intense study of religion. In his final assessment, he said, he found that Islam was void of the love and forgiveness found in Christianity.

Not long after his conversion, Hegazy said, he was arrested by SSI agents who tortured him for three days. In 2001, the SSI arrested Hegazy for writing a book of poems critical of the agency, which has been accused of abusive practices to preserve the regime. In 2002, the SSI arrested Hegazy and held him for more than two months in a prison he compared to a “concentration camp.”

In addition to the government response to his conversion, Hegazy said his mother and father have attacked him repeatedly for becoming a Christian.

“In the culture in Egypt, for a person to change his religion, it’s a big deal because it’s a question of honor and tradition,” Hegazy said. “My dad and my mom took it in a really bad way and would beat me.”

Hegazy married another convert from Islam, Katarina, in 2005. Katarina also wants her ID changed but fears government reaction; there are numerous reports circulating among Egyptian Christians about female converts being arrested and tortured by the SSI or simply disappearing in Egypt’s prison system under Egypt’s Emergency Law. Renewed last week for another two years, the law grants the government broad powers of arbitrary incarceration that human rights groups have roundly criticized.

Delay Tactic

When Hegazy filed his suit in 2007, he and his wife were expecting their first child. Overnight, Egyptian media propelled him into the national limelight. And the persecution got much worse.

Two religious scholars from Al-Azhar University, one of the leading voices of Islamic thought in the Middle East, publicly declared it was legal to kill Muslims that convert to Christianity. In one incident, extremists surrounded a home where Hegazy had once lived and stayed there for several days. In another incident, a group of men ransacked and set fire to Hegazy’s apartment while he was away.

Throughout his legal proceedings, several of Hegazy’s attorney’s have dropped out of the case after receiving death threats, being sued or being arrested. On Jan. 28, 2009, a court ruled that Muslims were forbidden to convert to another religion and ordered Hegazy to pay the costs of hearing his case. He appealed.

Hegazy lives in hiding. Unable to work, the former journalist is supported by friends and other Christians. Last month’s ruling will likely delay a decision in Hegazy’s case for several years and keep him and his family in limbo.

“The court is using this decision as a way of delaying having to make an ultimate decision,” Hegazy said.

The couple’s first child, Mariam, is now 2 years old, and their second child, Yousef, is 3 months old. Because Hegazy and his wife are unable to change their ID to reflect their true faith, the government lists both of their children as Muslims. If they choose to become Christians, they will be considered apostates who, in accordance with longstanding interpretation of the guiding scriptures of Islam, must be killed by faithful Muslims.

“It makes me feel like religion in Egypt isn’t something you can choose by your own free will; it’s something that you are forced to be, and nobody has a choice to choose what their religion is,” Hegazy said. “It bothers me a lot because my kids know they are being brought up as Christians in their home and their parents are Christians, but they can’t practice their religion outside the house.”

Inconsistent Rules

Every Egyptian citizen age 16 or older must carry a state-issued ID card that is required for opening a bank account, enrolling children in school and for starting a business, among other activities. Religious identity also determines to which civil or family court one is subject.

Of primary importance to Hegazy is that the religion indicated on the ID card determines what religious education classes a child is required to take in school.

There is a stark contrast in Egypt between the treatment of Christians who want to change the religious affiliation on their ID card to Islam and Muslims who want to change their affiliation to Christianity. Generally speaking, because Muslims consider the preaching of Muhammad to be the last of three revelations from God to man, in practice “freedom of religion” in Egypt means only the freedom to convert to Islam.

Article 47 of Egypt’s constitution guarantees freedom of religion, but the constitution also states that Islam is the official religion of Egypt. Article 2 of the constitution states that Islamic law, or sharia, is “the principle source of legislation” in Egypt.

The difference between the treatment of converts to Christianity and converts to Islam is illustrated in the case of Samy Aziz Fahmy. The week before the court postponed Hegazy’s case, Fahmy, a Coptic Christian from Saayda village, changed his legal status to Islam. He received his ID card reflecting his new religion on the same day he applied for it – on the day he turned 18, the legal age for conversion.

“I think it’s very weird and not fair that when Christians want to convert to Islam there’s no problem, their papers go through and there’s no discrimination against them,” Hegazy said. “But when Muslims want to convert to Christianity, all of the sudden it’s a big deal.”

Hegazy is not alone in his legal battles. After he filed his case, other Muslim converts sought court action to change their IDs. Like Hegazy, most are in hiding of some sort. Hegazy’s lead attorney, Ashraf Edward, said he is working on several ID cases. He estimates there are more than 4 million converts to Christianity who want to change the religion listed on their ID, though the basis for that figure is unclear.

“There are a lot of people who want to change their ID, but they’re afraid of turning it into a court case because they don’t want to be persecuted,” Edward said.

International Condemnation

Human rights groups and government agencies around the world have condemned Egypt for its record on religious freedom. In a report issued earlier this month, the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom outlined Egypt’s problems with identification cards and the treatment of converts from Islam, taking note of Hegazy’s case.

“The Egyptian government generally does not recognize conversions of Muslims to other religions,” the report states. “Egyptian courts also have refused to allow Muslims who convert to Christianity to change their identity cards to reflect their conversions. In the first such case, brought by Muhammad Hegazy, a lower court ruled in January 2008 that Muslims are forbidden from converting away from Islam based on principles of Islamic law. The court also stated that such conversion would constitute a disparagement of the official state religion and an enticement for other Muslims to convert. Hegazy, who has been subjected to death threats and is currently in hiding, has appealed the ruling.”

The report cited numerous other problem areas in regard to freedom of worship in Egypt, and the country remained on USCIRF’s Watch List for 2010. Egypt has been on the list since 2002. Among the changes USCIRF said are necessary in Egypt is how religion is reported on Egypt’s national ID card.

The commission said Egypt must “ensure that every Egyptian is protected against discrimination in social, labor, and other rights by modifying the national identity card, either to omit mention of religious affiliation or make optional any mention of religious affiliation.”

Report from Compass Direct News 

Young Christian Woman Allegedly Abducted in Pakistan


Muslims said to employ various ruses; forced conversion, marriage feared.

LAHORE, Pakistan, April 13 (CDN) — A Muslim tricked a 19-year-old Christian woman into leaving her house here on April 1, and he and a car full of friends took her away, according to her family.

Sonia Mohan’s family said they fear the Muslim, Ali Raza, will force her to convert to Islam and marry him. Raza came to their home in Lahore’s Nishtar Colony claiming that her brother, Johnson Parvaiz, wanted to see her outside, Parvaiz said.

“Sonia would not have gone with them if he hadn’t told her that I wanted to see her,” Parvaiz said. “Ali Raza came to our home and told Sonia that I had asked for her, and she went out of the house with him. They had parked a vehicle outside and left, and afterwards we never heard from her.”

He said his sister’s cell phone remained off for two days. When it began to ring again they called repeatedly, and finally a man answered the phone and then handed it to Mohan. Parvaiz said she told him not to call her, that she was very happy and that they should not try to find her.

“It was obvious from her voice that she had been forced to say that,” Parvaiz said. “I fear that she will first be converted to Islam, and then married, and then it will become impossible for us to see her again.”

Initially police were unwilling to register the family’s complaint, he said. Only after the family enlisted the help of the All Pakistan Minorities Alliance (APMA) did police begin searching for Raza and Mohan.

Parvaiz added that Raza and his friends had previously told her to convert to Islam, saying that because she was beautiful she did not deserve to live as a lowly Christian. Raza and Mohan had no prior contact except that Raza had harassed his sister that one time, he said; her family complained to his parents, who live in the area.

Parvaiz added that Raza worked in a factory called Combined Fabrics, where he had a reputation of harassing Christian women. Since the alleged abduction he has been missing from work.

Nishtar Colony Station House Officer Munawar Doggar told Compass that it did not appear that Mohan, who along with the rest of her family belongs to the American Reformed Presbyterian Church, went with Raza willingly. He said he had delayed registering a case on behalf of Mohan’s family only because Raza’s family had filed a complaint that Raza himself had been abducted.

After speaking with Compass, however, Doggar said he would file a First Information Report imminently.

“I want to fully investigate the matter so that no injustice is done to any party,” he said. “But the family of the girl should now come to the police station and surely their FIR will be registered.”

On the day of the kidnapping, Raza’s uncle, Zaffar Jamil, filed a complaint that Raza himself had been abducted as a smokescreen to delay police in pursuing the abduction of Mohan, Parvaiz said.

“In this way, the police would reject my police complaint, saying, ‘Raza was abducted, so how could he abduct Sonia?’” Parvaiz said.

In his uncle Jamil’s complaint to police, Jamil had said that two men identified only as Fahad and Almas – friends of Raza present in the waiting car when Raza allegedly kidnapped Mohan – were the ones who likely abducted Raza.

Compass has obtained a copy of Jamil’s complaint. He crafted it in such a way that he can withdraw it at any point, and he says he had only a suspicion about the abduction of Raza and the identity of the supposed culprits. Otherwise police would quickly determine that Fahad and Almas had not abducted Raza, and the tactic to delay justice would be short-lived, Parvaiz said.

APMA Chief Organizer in Punjab Province Khalid Gill told Compass that previously Fahad had employed duplicitous tactics to marry a Christian woman in Youhanabad, Lahore, and that for that reason Raza had sought Fahad’s help in tricking Mohan into going with him.

Gill said that in such kidnapping cases, police often delay investigations until after abducted women get pregnant, after which legally it is nearly impossible for courts to return them to their families.

“That is the reason that APMA has been asking for revision of the family laws, and that in such cases where such tactics have been used, the marriage should be declared void so that the girl returns to the family and starts living her life from where it was interrupted,” Gill said.

Jamil and Raza’s brother, Nasir Dilawar, and Dilawar’s wife Majidan, along with Raza’s brother Muhammad Asif, have assured Mohan’s family that she will be returned soon, but that promise also was only at attempt to forestall legal action, Parvaiz said.

He added that the fact that Raza and his accomplices felt it necessary to employ the ruses to delay police investigations was further evidence that Mohan and Raza had no prior relationship.

The family fears that the longer her return is delayed, the more likely that she will become pregnant or get intimidated into giving a statement in court that she went willingly due to her captors’ threats that her father or brothers will be killed if she refuses, Parvaiz said.

Report from Compass Direct News 

Two Evangelists in Ethiopia Released from Prison


Judge acquits Christians falsely accused of insulting Ethiopian Orthodox Church.

NAIROBI, Kenya, October 28 (CDN) — The latest in a series of false charges against two Ethiopian evangelists was put to rest on Friday (Oct. 23), and they were released.

A court in Debiretabor, Ethiopia acquitted the two evangelists of insulting the Ethiopian Orthodox Church (EOC) in prison, an accusation made by fellow inmates after the two were jailed on false charges of offering money for people to convert. The charge that the two Christians insulted the EOC was orchestrated by EOC members both inside and outside the prison, according to area church leaders.

Temesgen Alemayehu and Tigist Welde Amanuel had been sentenced to prison for six months on the false charge of offering money to people to convert but successfully appealed the punishment; after a lower court in Amhara state had thrown out their appeal on Sept. 21, the State Supreme Court in Bahir Dar ordered them to be to be released after paying a 500 birr (US$40) fine.

Before they could be released, however, inmates signed a petition raising the second charge against Alemayehu and Amanuel. On this charge of insulting the EOC while in prison, the judge rejected witnesses’ testimony as contradictory and of no value.

“Thank you to those who prayed for us,” Alemayehu said after his release, adding that he was eager to return to ministry.

“The enemy has tried to frustrate us and delay our freedom,” said Amanuel. “But through prayers and God’s intervention, we are now released from prison. We thank those who prayed on our behalf.”

Alemayehu and Amanuel, of Wengel Lealem church in Addis Ababa, had gone to Debiretabor, Amhara state in July to help establish a church.

“Temesgen and Tigist are extremely happy to again reunite with the church,” said a Christian source, adding that the two evangelists would return to Addis Ababa.

On July 22 they had appeared at district court in Debiretabor to hear charges against them that they were offering money and gifts to people to change their religion; Christian sources said witnesses falsely testified to that effect. Members of the EOC produced the false witnesses, the sources said.

Alemayehu and Amanuel were incarcerated for three months and six days.

They would have been released after their sentences were reduced to the fines, but on Oct. 7 the district prosecutor claimed they would not appear for the next court date, and the judge decided to keep them in prison. Church leaders in Debiretabor said Alemayehu was suffering from kidney infections and had sought permission to get treatment, but prison officials refused.

Debiretabor is the seat for the south Gondar Zone administration in Amhara state. As in the rest of Amhara, Debiretabor’s population is predominantly EOC with hostile attitudes towards evangelicals.

The two Christians’ arrests stemmed from a July 19 incident in which passersby began to question them as they were preaching on a roadside. Christian sources said a heated argument led to a group attack on the two evangelists, wounding Alemayehu. Amanuel sustained minor injuries, the sources said .

Christian sources said a group within the EOC called “Mahibere Kidusan” (“Fellowship of Saints”) had incited members to attack the two evangelists as they were proclaiming Christ. The increasingly powerful group’s purpose is to counter all reform movements within the EOC and shield the denomination from outside threats.

In some cases, the sources said, EOC priests have urged attacks against Christians, and government authorities influenced by Mahibere Kidusan have infringed on Christians’ rights.

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 

Worship Site Demolished, Pastors Arrested in China


Officials put on alert to use military force against potential “unrest” by churches.

LOS ANGELES, October 7 (CDN) — Following a mob attack on a church in northeastern China and the demolition of their worship site last month, the government put officials on alert to use military force against churches to quell potential “unrest,” according to a leading advocacy group.

Citing reliable government sources, China Aid Association (CAA) reported that the central government on Sept. 26-27 ordered officials in “all relevant government agencies” to prepare to use military force against Christians who might react to the attack on a Fushan Church branch congregation in Linfen city, Shanxi Province. In the wee hours of Sept. 13 some 400 uniformed police and civilians bearing shovels, batons, bricks, iron hooks and other weapons beat members of the church who were sleeping at the nearly finished factory building used as a worship site.

With several Fushan County officials involved in the attack, dozens of Christians were seriously injured among the more than 100 who were hurt, CAA reported. According to the Epoch Times, a church member’s relative obtained a license to build the shoe factory and was allowing the group to meet there, as the church was growing too large to meet in homes and the building could hold up to 400 people.

On Sept. 25 Shanxi Province officers of the Public Security Bureau (PSB) detained nine Fushan Church leaders on their way to Beijing to protest the attack, and the next day authorities placed state military police inside and around the main Fushan Church building in Linfen city, the advocacy organization said.

“To have military police occupy a peaceful church is an unprecedented, tragic development in 60 years of PRC [People’s Republic of China] history, which itself shows the reality of today’s situation regarding religious freedom in China,” China Aid President Bob Fu said in a statement.

Some 5,000 of the 50,000-member Linfen House Church network had worshipped weekly at the main facility, where the central government stationed police to prevent them from entering or holding services.

“Military police now guard the building and the surrounding areas around the clock,” Fu said. “More than 30 daughter churches in nearby townships have been prohibited from gathering to worship in their churches and homes.”

Among the nine Fushan Church leaders arrested without a warrant and held in a secret location was Senior Pastor Wang Xiaoguang and his wife Yang Rongli, according to the CAA.

Other church leaders and members have been placed under house arrest and are now under constant surveillance, Fu said, adding that local authorities confiscated all church computers, TVs and other valuables as “illegal materials.”

The Beijing PSB has labeled the demolition and attack on the Linfen branch church as a response to a “violent uprising,” Fu said. The branch congregation had gathered at the Good News Cloth Shoe Factory, a building still under construction in Fushan County, when the government-led mob attacked and took money, Bibles, clothes and cell phones, among other items, he said.

Fushan PSB officials met with church leaders on Sept. 19 and offered 1.4 million yen (US$20,540) for reparations in exchange for the church not constructing a building for religious purposes, Fu said.

“Under pressure from the central government, the leading Fushan PSB officer expressed a desire to make amends for the agency’s corporate actions, with the goal of preventing any turmoil that could potentially mar the 60th anniversary National Day celebrations,” Fu said in the statement. “Angered by the brutal treatment, but willing to cooperate, the six [church] members raised their concerns, including the continued critical conditions of several hospitalized victims and the destruction of 17 buildings on the factory compound.”

The Christians reached a verbal agreement that the Fushan PSB would pay the reparations fee in exchange for the church not constructing a building, but Fu said continued arrests and state military presence at the main church site confirm the negotiations were insincere, a tactic to delay actions against the central government.

Pastor Arrested

In Beijing, the crackdown ahead of the Oct. 1 National Day included the arrest of a pastor known internationally as a house church rights defender.

PSB and State Security agents from Fengtai district in Beijing seized Pastor Hua Huiqi of Tent-Making Ministry on Sept. 17. That evening his wife, Ju Mei, received a telephone call from him saying PSB agents had forced him into a car on the highway. She received another call a half hour later saying he had been taken to an unknown location before the phone went dead.

That night a Beijing PSB officer, Ding Xu, went to his home to pick up clothes for him and refused to answer his wife’s questions, according to CAA. The director of the PSB’s Domestic Security Protection Squad later told CAA that Hua was still in custody but declined to reveal his condition or whereabouts.

“Hua has been repeatedly arrested, beaten, and interrogated by PSB officials within the last two years, and his family has sacrificed their safety for the lawful defense of human rights,” Fu said in a statement. “Hua’s mother, Shuang Shuying, was released only months ago from her two-year imprisonment for her rights defense work.”

Report from Compass Direct News 

NEW FORMATTING AT WORDPRESS BLOGS


There has been a bit of a delay in new content here as I have tried to come to grips with the new formatting requirements/rules at WordPress. Firstly I had to work out what was actually going on as there was no communication from WordPress as to the change – which was disappointing. This has been my first ‘bad experience’ here at WordPress. Hopefully communication will be better in the future.

Having discovered the issue which had to do with Microsoft Word documents being pasted into WordPress (which was causing major issues for some WordPress Bloggers – apparently), which WordPress no longer allowed to be used (they removed the formatting capability from the pasted text), I have now started to use Windows Live Writer. So the issue has produced a good result because Windows Live Writer is quite a good bit of software. I am quite impressed. So good has come from it.

COLOMBIA: SIX MONTHS LATER, PASTOR STILL MISSING


The Rev. William Reyes’ wife awaits word, fears for safety of her children.

INDIANAPOLIS, Indiana, March 23 (Compass Direct News) – Six months after the disappearance in Colombia of the Rev. William Reyes of Maicao, La Guajira, no one knows what happened to him.

This week marks six months of agonizing uncertainty for the family of Rev. Reyes. On Sept. 25, 2008, the pastor of Light and Truth Inter-American Church disappeared en route home from a ministers’ meeting in Valledupar, a city in the neighboring department (state) of Cesar.

Family members and friends fear that guerrilla fighters kidnapped the veteran minister; they have not seen or heard from him since his disappearance. Rev. Reyes and colleagues in the Fraternity of Evangelical Pastors of Maicao had received repeated threats from illegal armed groups operating in the La Guajira peninsula since March 2008.

Guerrillas or their paramilitary rivals may have assassinated Rev. Reyes and disposed of his body, and some observers even speculate that he may have fallen victim to rogue units of the Colombian army that murder innocent civilians to inflate the body counts of “terrorists” killed in battle.

But nobody knows for sure what happened to the 41-year-old father of three – William, 19, Luz Nelly, 17 and Estefania, 9. His wife and children live with gnawing fear and uncertainty.

“Some days I feel so desperate, I don’t know what to do,” Idia Miranda de Reyes told Compass by telephone from her home in Maicao. Through tears, she added, “My daughter Estefania helps me stay strong. She tells me, ‘Mama, don’t cry,’ remember that God is with us.’”

Tensions heightened for the Reyes family on Feb. 19, when armed men entered another Maicao church just a few blocks from the Light and Truth Church while worship was in progress and forcibly removed a woman from the congregation. The pastor of the church refused to disclose the victim’s identity or discuss the circumstances of her disappearance, citing concerns for the safety of the woman, her family and other members of his congregation.

Such caution is understandable in Colombia, a country that suffers the highest incidence of kidnapping in the Western Hemisphere and a homicide rate 11 times greater than in the United States.

Six months of silence in regard to her husband’s fate, coupled with this new threat to her community, has made Idia Miranda Reyes justifiably fearful for her family’s safety. Moreover, she now faces financial hardship. The Truth and Light Church kept her on the payroll until Feb. 15, when the congregation appointed a new minister to replace her husband.

She is considering a move to another city to be near her extended family but wants to wait until her daughter, Luz Nelly, graduates from high school this spring. For now, the family survives on donations from friends and church members.

“We know that God is doing something through this,” Reyes said. “I don’t understand what that is, but I’m going to keep trusting Him.”

The Reyes family has received moral support from the Christian community in Colombia. On Oct. 4, 2008, thousands of marchers from Maicao’s churches held a public demonstration to protest the disappearance of Rev. Reyes and demand his immediate release.

The march produced the only clue to his fate. Following the demonstration, the minister’s wallet turned up inside the church building with his identification documents intact. His wife took that as a message that he was still alive and that his captors would be contacting her soon.

That has not happened. But such delay tactics are not unusual in Colombian kidnapping cases, according to Michael Joseph of the Commission for Restoration, Life and Peace of the Evangelical Council of Colombia.

“It’s disconcerting that we have received no ransom request,” Joseph said. “It means he could have been killed. On the other hand, we do know that Rev. Reyes had been receiving extortion threats by phone and text message from months before he disappeared. So really it’s anybody’s guess.”

Joseph traveled to Maicao last October to interview Rev. Reyes’ wife on behalf of the commission, which then mounted a public letter-writing campaign together with Justapaz, a Mennonite Church-affiliated organization based in Bogotá. Concerned citizens petitioned the office of Attorney General Dr. Mario Iguarán to “take all steps necessary to locate Pastor Reyes and to protect his family,” and the organizations are still urging people worldwide to write to the Colombian official. A model letter can be found at http://www.justapaz.org/spip.php?article114 .

At press time, law enforcement authorities had not responded to the petition, but this is not unusual for kidnapping cases in Colombia. The attorney general’s office reportedly faces a backlog of 1 million unsolved homicides, abductions and other serious crimes.

General lawlessness in some areas of the country means that Colombians often face retaliation from the same criminals who murder or kidnap loved ones, should they dare report such crimes to the authorities as Rev. Reyes’ wife has done. She lives in fear as she awaits word of her missing husband.

“I have three kids, and I am very fearful for them,” she said. “If it were not for the solace the Lord gives me, I would go crazy. I am trusting in God alone.”

Report from Compass Direct News