Turks Threaten to Kill Priest over Swiss Minaret Decision


Slap to religious freedom in Switzerland leads to threat over church bell tower in Turkey.

ISTANBUL, December 15 (CDN) — In response to a Swiss vote banning the construction of new mosque minarets, a group of Muslims this month went into a church building in eastern Turkey and threatened to kill a priest unless he tore down its bell tower, according to an advocacy group.

Three Muslims on Dec. 4 entered the Meryem Ana Church, a Syriac Orthodox church in Diyarbakir, and confronted the Rev. Yusuf Akbulut. They told him that unless the bell tower was destroyed in one week, they would kill him.

“If Switzerland is demolishing our minarets, we will demolish your bell towers too,” one of the men told Akbulut.

The threats came in reaction to a Nov. 29 referendum in Switzerland in which 57 percent voted in favor of banning the construction of new minarets in the country. Swiss lawmakers must now change the national constitution to reflect the referendum, a process that should take more than a year.

The Swiss ban, widely viewed around the world as a breach of religious freedom, is likely to face legal challenges in Switzerland and in the European Court of Human Rights.

There are roughly 150 mosques in Switzerland, four with minarets. Two more minarets are planned. The call to prayer traditional in Muslim-majority countries is not conducted from any of the minarets.

Fikri Aygur, vice president of the European Syriac Union, said that Akbulut has contacted police but has otherwise remained defiant in the face of the threats.

“He has contacted the police, and they gave him guards,” he said. “I talked with him two days ago, and he said, ‘It is my job to protect the church, so I will stand here and leave it in God’s hands.’”

Meryem Ana is more than 250 years old and is one of a handful of churches that serve the Syriac community in Turkey. Also known as Syrian Orthodox, the Syriacs are an ethnic and religious minority in Turkey and were one of the first groups of people to accept Christianity. They speak Syriac, a dialect of Aramaic, a language spoken by Christ. Diyarbakir is located in eastern Turkey, about 60 miles from the Syrian border.

At press time the tower was standing and the priest was safe, said Jerry Mattix, youth pastor at the Diyarbakir Evangelical Church, which is located across a street from Meryem Ana Church.

Mattix said that threats against Christians in Diyarbakir are nothing out of the ordinary. Mattix commonly receives threats, both in the mail and posted on the church’s Internet site, he said.

“We’re kind of used to that,” Mattix said. He added that he has received no threats over the minaret situation but added, “I wouldn’t be surprised if we do.”

Mattix said the people making threats in the area are Muslim radicals with ties to Hezbollah “who like to flex their muscles.”

“We are a major target out here, and we are aware of that,” Mattix said. “But the local police are taking great strides to protect us.”

Mattix said he also has “divine confidence” in God’s protection.

The European Syriac Union’s Aygur said that Christians in Turkey often serve as scapegoats for inflamed local Muslims who want to lash out at Europeans.

“When they [Europeans] take actions against the Muslims, the Syriacs get persecuted by the fanatical Muslims there,” he said.

The threats against the church were part of a public outcry in Turkey that included newspaper editorials characterizing the Swiss decision as “Islamophobia.” One Turkish government official called upon Muslims to divest their money from Swiss bank accounts. He invited them to place their money in the Turkish banking system.

In part, the threats also may reflect a larger and well-established pattern of anti-Christian attitudes in Turkey. A recent study conducted by two professors at Sabanci University found that 59 percent of those surveyed said non-Muslims either “should not” or “absolutely should not” be allowed to hold open meetings where they can discuss their ideas.

The survey also found that almost 40 percent of the population of Turkey said they had “very negative” or “negative” views of Christians. In Turkey, Christians are often seen as agents of outside forces bent on dividing the country.

This is not the first time Akbulut has faced persecution. Along with a constant string of threats and harassment, he was tried and acquitted in 2000 for saying to the press that Syriacs were “massacred” along with Armenians in 1915 killings.

In Midyat, also in eastern Turkey, someone recently dug a tunnel under the outlying buildings of a Syriac church in hopes of undermining the support of the structure.

At the Mor Gabriel Monastery, also near Midyat, there is a legal battle over the lands surrounding the monastery. Founded in 397 A.D., Mor Gabriel is arguably the oldest monastery in use today. It is believed local Muslim leaders took the monastery to court in an attempt to seize lands from the church. The monastery has prevailed in all but one case, which is still underway.

“These and similar problems that are threatening the very existence of the remaining Syriacs in Turkey have reached a very serious and worrying level,” Aygur stated in a press release. “Especially, whenever there is a problem about Islam in the European countries, the Syriacs’ existence in Turkey is threatened with such pressures and aggressions.”

Report from Compass Direct News 

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Karnataka Top in Attacks on Christians in India


Through August, more violence against Christians reported in state than in any other.

NEW DELHI, September 21 (CDN) — With at least 43 incidents of anti-Christian violence, Karnataka saw more attacks on Christians in the first eight months of this year than any other state in India, according to advocacy organizations.

The figure compares with 35 attacks on churches, worship services and Christians during the same period last year in the state, which has become the center of violence against Christians. The states with the next highest incidents of anti-Christian violence from January through August this year were Andhra Pradesh with 14 and Madhya Pradesh with 11, according to figures from the Global Council of Indian Christians (GCIC) and the All India Christian Council.

Former Chief Minister of Karnataka H.D. Kumaraswamy on Sept. 11 called on Gov. H.R. Bhardwaj to rein in abuses by the state’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government to ensure that law and order is maintained, reported the GCIC. In several districts of Karnataka during the first eight months of the year, local authorities allowed Hindu extremists to beat pastors, disrupt prayer meetings and worship services, and burn, vandalize, demolish or shut down prayer halls.

After August last year the number of violent incidents against Christians in Karnataka raced up, with a total of 112 attacks on Christians in 2008, and the Christian community fears a repeat of hostilities.

Kumaraswamy noted that a Sept. 10 attack on St. Francis De Sales Church at Hebbagudi, on the outskirts of Bangalore, came just days after Gov. Bhardwaj voiced concern over the security of minorities in the state. Armed attackers broke into the church, damaged statues and other items, smashed windows and destroyed a house behind the building, according to the Evangelical Fellowship of India. Church damages were estimated at 200,000 rupees (US$4,173).

“It is unfortunate that the government did not take any action to curb communal menace even after your caution,” Kumaraswamy wrote in a memorandum to the governor, adding that Gov. Bhardwaj was constitutionally bound to stop state security personnel from violating the law.

The former chief minister said he felt that the attack on the church, located close to the Hebbagudi police station on a busy road, reflected growing religious intolerance and tension in the state, and he criticized Home Minister V.S. Acharya for terming the attack a “minor incident.”

Archbishop of Bangalore Bernard Moras told Compass that past experience leaves him little hope for future justice.

“The state government has promised to make an immediate inquiry into the recent church attack in Hebbagudi, but nothing has been done so far, and we have no results whatsoever from the Justice B.K. Somashekar Commission of Inquiry made into church attacks last year,” he said. “Sad as it is, we feel that justice delayed is justice denied.”

Former chief minister Kumaraswamy has demanded a Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) probe into attacks on prayer halls in the state. The leader of the opposition in the state Legislative Assembly, Siddaramaiah (who goes by a single name), has also demanded a CBI inquiry into all attacks on minorities and places of worship. The Hindu reported that he had asked state Chief Minister B.S. Yeddyurappa to stop blaming others for the mistakes of his government.

Siddaramaiah told media on Sept. 13 that members of the Hindu extremist Sangh Parivar were involved in the attacks on churches.

“The BJP government led by B.S. Yeddyurappa has failed to take action against those involved in these incidents that created unrest in society, and now the chief minister is blaming others for the mistakes committed by his government, which has resulted in a law-and-order problem in the state,” he said.

The Hindu reported Siddaramaiah as saying that in an effort to cover up their mistakes, the chief minister and his cabinet dismissed the accusations as efforts to topple his government.

“If the chief minister has any proof to support his statements, let him hand over the issue to the CBI,” Siddaramaiah added. “The truth will be out.”

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh also recently remarked that Karnataka has witnessed a number of incidents of communal violence this year.

“What is more worrisome is that the incidents were not limited to one or two districts,” Singh said in comments that Chief Minister Yedduyurappa brushed off as untrue; the chief minister referred to the violence as a “few stray incidents” that were “blown out of proportion.”

Tensions are high in the districts of Davangere, Mangalore, Bangalore, and also potentially volatile are the districts of Chickmagalur, Chitradurga, Belgaum, Tumkur, Udupi, Shimago, Bagalkot, Dharwad and Kodagu, reported the GCIC.

Chief Minister Yeddyurappa reportedly has instructed police to provide security at all religious venues and directed them to take steps to take preventative measures. City Police Commissioner Shankar Bidari has reportedly said the chief minister ordered security officers to deal sternly with those involved in incidents of religious violence.

The Bangalore Rural police on Sept. 12 reportedly handed over the investigation of the attack on St. Francis De Sales to the Criminal Investigation Department.

Attempted Anti-Conversion Law

Foremost among priorities of the Hindu nationalist BJP when it came to power in Karnataka last year was to introduce the kind of “anti-conversion” law that has provided the pretext for anti- Christian violence in other states.

Alarmed by what they said was an increase in conversions to Christianity, six prominent Hindu leaders on June 25 said that they had urged Chief Minister Yedduyurappa to introduce “anti-conversion” laws similar to those of Madhya Pradesh and Orissa, reported The Hindu. Passage of an anti-conversion bill has been left hanging, however, with negative publicity over communal violence and Christian protests against such a bill.

Such laws are designed to thwart forcible or fraudulent conversion, but they are popularly misunderstood as criminalizing conversion in general. The laws seek to curb religious conversions made by “force, fraud or allurement,” but human rights groups say they obstruct conversion generally as Hindu nationalists invoke them to harass Christians with spurious arrests and incarcerations.

Anti-conversion laws are in force in five states – Orissa, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Himachal Pradesh and Gujarat – and its implementation is awaited in the states of Arunachal Pradesh and Rajasthan. Several cases against Christians have been filed under various anti-conversion laws in Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Orissa, but no one has been convicted in more than four decades since such laws were enacted.

Naveen Kumar of the Federation of Christian Churches and Organizations told Compass that Christians from different districts in Karnataka have come out in protest against such a bill since August of 2008. The Christians believe that the passing of an anti-conversion bill in the state would heighten atrocities against them.

Of the 52.8 million people in Karnataka, Christians number slightly more than 1 million.

Report from Compass Direct News 

PAKISTAN: LAWYER THREATENS TO KILL CHRISTIAN CHARGED WITH ‘BLASPHEMY’


Bail denied to Christian activist for his own safety; judge also under fire.

ISTANBUL, May 6 (Compass Direct News) – A Pakistani Christian charged with abetting blasphemy against Islam was denied bail for his own safety last week after an Islamist lawyer allegedly threatened his life in a court hearing.

Hector Aleem, 51, remains in Adiyala Jail in Rawalpindi, near Pakistan’s capital of Islamabad. Judge Mustafa Tanveer dismissed his bail application at a court session on Thursday (April 30).

“If the judge does not punish Aleem according to the law, then [we] will kill him ourselves,” said Tariq Dhamal, an attorney for the unnamed complainant, according to a report by the Centre for Legal Aid Assistance and Settlement (CLAAS).

Police arrested Aleem last November when a Muslim scholar received a text message insulting the Islamic prophet Muhammad. Authorities charged Aleem with blasphemy and abetting blasphemy, sections 295(c) and 109(bb) respectively of the Pakistani criminal code.

Court evidence shows the text message came from an unlisted phone number, not Aleem’s. At an April 25 hearing, Investigating Officer Zafer Ikbal said he had concluded that evidence proved Aleem’s innocence. Ikbal’s investigation, along with a February judicial decision, resulted in charges of blaspheming Islam being dropped. The charge of abetting blasphemy still stands.

Nevertheless, at the April 25 hearing prosecuting attorneys asserted that Aleem was guilty of blasphemy on grounds that “he is a Christian and can make blasphemous comments about the prophet Muhammad,” according to Katherine Sapna, a field officer for CLAAS.

Aleem’s lawyer, Malik Tafik, said he has filed for upcoming hearings to be closed to the public for fear that Muslim fanatics could try to kill his Christian client. Tafik will present another bail application in the high court of Islamabad on May 14.

Tafik, a Muslim, has come under pressure from the Rawalpindi Bar for taking on the case of a Christian accused of blasphemy. The bar has filed an application against him for handling the case.

Dhamal, the lawyer who allegedly made the death threat against Aleem, is a member of Sunni Tehreek, an Islamist political movement involved in violent sectarian clashes in the last decade.

In the April 25 hearing, five lawyers and 180 Islamist protestors gathered around the courthouse. Tafik said he believes the crowds hoped to intimidate the judge into declaring Aleem guilty. More than 100 protestors have congregated at previous hearings, shouting that Aleem’s life would not be spared and he should be handed over to the police.

Tafik said the judge is afraid to rule in favor of Aleem for fear of his life from Rawalpindi Islamists.

“The judge is under pressure and not deciding the case based on merits,” Tafik said. “He is ready to hear on merits, but the lawyers are just [acting] on the basis of Islamization.”

Pakistan’s blasphemy laws have come under heavy fire from international rights groups. Any private citizen can file blasphemy charges, and they have been used in petty disputes as a means of retaliation as they can destroy reputation, livelihood and possibly lead to the death penalty in the conservative Islamic country.

Before his arrest, Aleem led human rights campaigns on behalf of Christians, particularly a land dispute between a congregation and the Rawalpindi Water and Sanitation Agency, which wanted to demolish their church building.

More Muslims than Christians are charged with blasphemy in Pakistan. In 2008 there were 13 cases registered against Muslims in Punjab province, where Aleem resides, and only six against Christians.

Boy Dies

Insulting Islam is a dangerous activity in the conservative nation of 170 million, but with the spread of the Taliban, non-Muslims fear their very existence will make them a target to fundamentalists.

On April 22 Christians in Taiser town, near Karachi, noticed on the walls of their church graffiti that read, “Long Live the Taliban” and calls for Christians to either convert to Islam or pay the jizye, a poll tax under sharia (Islamic law) paid by non-Muslims for protection if they decline to convert.

Armed men arrived on the scene and opened fire on Christians who were erasing the graffiti, injuring five. An 11-year-old boy shot in the attack, Irfan Masih, has reportedly since died from his injuries (see “Taliban-Inspired Attacks Hit Christians,” April 27).

Security forces fear that sectarian violence could erupt in the port city of Karachi. They have banned public gatherings and processions, according to Release International aid agency.

Report from Compass Direct News

BANGLADESH: MUSLIM PROTESTS STALL CHURCH CONSTRUCTION


Pastor says an Awami League Party student leader threatened him.

DHAKA, Bangladesh, April 4 (Compass Direct News) — Bangladeshi authorities called a five-month halt to construction of a church in northern Bangladesh, for fear of huge conversions. Authorities have said they will approve renewed construction soon.

Forkan Al Mashi, 55, a pastor of Calvary Ishai Fellowship, started building a church in early November 2008 in Palashbari Mondol Para in Kurigram district, 350 kilometers (218 miles) north of the capital city, Dhaka.

Mashi told Compass that, at the urging of local Jamaat-e-Islami leaders, more than 100 Muslims gathered in a mosque on Nov. 7 to protest the church construction.

The villagers wanted to demolish the building, in which four pillars and the floor were completed. Mashi informed police when he heard of these plans.

“I informed police and instantly two platoons of police, around 25 in number, were deployed near the under-construction church building,” Mashi said. “Some of the police also went to the mosque to persuade the Muslims not to demolish the pillars and the floor of the under-construction church building.”

A police official told Compass that Muslims were concerned about huge conversions from Islam to Christianity if the church was built.

“The construction work of the church has been stopped by the protest of the local Muslims. Local people said, ‘Why should there be a church in the predominantly Muslim area?’” the official said. “This church is the first church in this area. Local people protested because they thought there would be huge conversion in this area from Islam to Christianity, and the church would be the center.”

A district official told Compass that construction would resume soon.

“Christians in this country have the right to practice their religion as well as the right to build churches,” the official said. “I think the permission of constructing the church will be given soon from the city council. If anybody actively obstructs the construction of the church, we will protect it.”

 

Administrative maneuvering

After Muslims protested construction of the church, the mayor halted construction. Generally city dwellers need building plans and permission from the city council to build a house.

“The local Muslims fired all the cylinders of the society to stop building a church in this vicinity. They want me not to work for the expansion of the Kingdom of God here. They persuaded the city council authority to stop [construction of] the church,” Mashi said. “The mayor of the city council told me that I did not have any building plan and permission from them to build a house here, so I should stop the construction work.”

One city council commissioner told Mashi that he did not need permission to construct his small, one-room church building.

Mashi wrote a letter to the district administrative chief to ask permission to resume church construction.

“A few days ago, the mayor assured me that he would give the plan and permission of the building and I can resume its construction,” Mashi said.

Mashi said the mayor also told him there was pressure from the government to resume construction soon.

 

Pastor Mashi threatened

A few days before the construction of the church, a local student leader of the ruling Awami League Party warned Mashi not to build the church.

“If you want to be ‘alive and live here,’ do not build any church in this neighborhood,” Mashi said in quoting the leader.

Mashi, who grew up Muslim, became a Christian in 1984. There are 60 registered members of his church.

“We have been worshiping Christ for 12 years in our house covertly, sometimes on the roof,” he said.

The district administrative chief has previously provided police protection to the church for its Christmas and Easter services, Mashi said.

Bangladesh’s constitution supports religious freedom.

Report from Compass Direct News

PAKISTAN: CHRISTIAN FACES ‘BLASPHEMY’ ABETTING CHARGE, DANGERS


Human rights activist could face violence long after trial finishes.

CHICAGO, March 13 (Compass Direct News) – A Pakistani investigator has ruled out a charge against a Christian for “blaspheming Islam” but retained another for abetting blasphemy, and advocates worry the stigma of the charges could make him a target for local Islamists.

Hector Aleem, 51, remains in Adiyala Jail in Rawalpindi, near Pakistan’s capital of Islamabad. His lawyer said he believes law enforcement officers and community members framed Aleem for his social activism on behalf of Christians so that the stigma of the charges would subject him to the danger of violence.

The case began last November when a Muslim scholar received a text message insulting the Islamic prophet Muhammad. Authorities charged Aleem with violating sections 295c (blasphemy) and 109bb (abetting) of the Pakistani criminal code.

Investigating Officer Zafer Ikbal on March 4 ruled out the possibility of a blasphemy charge since evidence showed the message came from an unlisted phone number, not Aleem’s. This move followed a Feb. 2 decision by Judge Sakhi Mohammad Kohut to exonerate Aleem of blasphemy by moving the case from an anti-terrorism court to a magistrate court; with the change of court, the investigating officer had considered anew the possibility of a blasphemy charge.

Phone records in the investigation showed the original culprit had a one-hour conversation with someone at Aleem’s phone number. Aleem claimed that his assistant, Bashar Kokar, was the one who talked with the culprit. As a result, both men were incarcerated and charged with abetment.

In the meantime, Aleem’s attorney, Malik Tafik, has filed an application for bail. He said he hopes it will be approved at a session court hearing next week.

The crime of abetting does not carry a severe penalty in Pakistani criminal law. But in this case, Tafik said, its connection to blasphemy against Islam could put Aleem in danger of attacks by Muslim extremists even if he is found innocent.

“He will continue to be in danger from religious extremists after the case finishes,” Tafik said. “Even though he is only charged with abetment, he is still in danger.”

A Pakistani official concurred that those in the community opposed to Aleem’s human rights activism may have used the charges as a pretext to jail him. Khushdil Khan Malik, deputy secretary of Pakistan’s Ministry of Human Rights, said Aleem may have been framed due to his social activism as director of a small Non-Governmental Organization that lobbies for the rights of Pakistani Christians in Islamabad.

Last November, Aleem became involved in a land dispute between a congregation and the Rawalpindi Water and Sanitation Agency, which wanted to demolish their church building.

Blasphemy charges carry a particularly dangerous stigma in certain parts of Pakistan. Within Rawalpindi, there is a dedicated following of the Islamist political movement Sunni Tehreek, which has been involved in violent sectarian clashes with other Islamist movements in the last decade. When Aleem was transferred to a Rawalpindi anti-terrorism court for a hearing on Jan. 30, a crowd of 150 protestors gathered, shouting that his life would not be spared and that the police should hand him over to them.

But Malik said the case has nothing to do with sectarian tensions and resulted only from members of the municipality targeting Aleem because they opposed his campaign to save a church slated for destruction.

“Generally the relations between Muslims and Christians are good,” Malik said. “This was a false case against Aleem.”

Aleem’s bail application is pending. But due to current court strikes in Pakistan, the application may take a few weeks, said Katherine Sapna, a field officer for the advocacy group Centre for Legal Aid Assistance and Settlement (CLAAS). Lawyers are rallying against the government in a bid to reinstate former Supreme Court Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudry, who was deposed by former President Pervez Musharraf.

 

More ‘Blasphemy’ Cases

Christian legislators have called on the Pakistani Parliament to strike down its blasphemy laws, as they are frequently used against the Muslim-majority country’s Christian minority.

Punishment for blasphemy in Pakistan can potentially mean death, and the charges are easy to file. Private citizens can register a blasphemy case, whereas normal procedure calls for police officers to file charges.

According to a CLAAS report, police opened blasphemy charges against two Christians on March 1 in the village of Malukay, 55 miles southeast of Lahore. Walayat Masih and his daughter Sarina attended a fair in a graveyard to honor a deceased religious figure, Muharri Shah, revered by both local Christians and Muslims.

In the course of the celebrations, local Muslims thought that the Christians had improperly covered an Islamic inscription on the tomb. Soon a mob gathered and began attacking those Christians who weren’t able to flee. A crowd cornered Masih and his daughter and severely beat them until police arrived and took the victims to the police station, where they were charged with blasphemy.

CLAAS is investigating the case. The organization will represent the two in court if charges are not dropped.  

Report from Compass Direct News

PAKISTAN: CHRISTIAN CHARGED WITH ‘BLASPHEMY’ FOR TEXT MESSAGE


Defender of minority rights allegedly framed for making legal challenges in church land dispute.

ISTANBUL, February 5 (Compass Direct News) – More than 100 protestors last week surrounded a Pakistani courthouse and chanted death threats against a Punjabi Christian said to be framed for sending a “blasphemous” text message on his cell phone.

Rawalpindi police arrested Hector Aleem, 51, on Jan. 22 and detained him on charges of sending a text message that insulted the Islamic prophet Muhammad. At his Jan. 27 hearing at the Rawalpindi Sessions Court, crowds gathered and began shouting death threats.

His attorney, Malik Tafik, told Compass that a local man allegedly framed Aleem for the charges because Aleem has made legal challenges on behalf of Christians involved in a land dispute. Aleem directs a small agency that often defends the rights of Christians.

Last November, a scholar associated with the national Islamist political movement Sunni Tehreek received a text message claiming to have come from Aleem. The religious scholar registered blasphemy charges against Aleem on Nov. 28 at the Rawalpindi police station.

Police raided Aleem’s house at 1:30 a.m. on Jan. 22 and assaulted him, his wife, and his two daughters. They also stole 50,000 Pakistan rupees (US$630) worth of valuables and broke pictures of Jesus hanging on their walls, according to a report from the Center for Legal Aid Assistance and Settlement (CLAAS).

Authorities charged him with violating sections 295c (blasphemy) and 109bb (abetting) of the Pakistani criminal code. Aleem was transferred to a Rawalpindi anti-terrorism court for a second hearing on Jan. 30, where an even larger crowd of protestors gathered shouting that his life would not be spared. Many of those who came to protest were associated with Sunni Tehreek, which has been involved in violent sectarian clashes with other Islamist movements in the last decade.

“There were about 150 people protesting that Aleem should be handed over to them,” Tafik said. “And there were many journalists, two news stations, and lawyers who came out to protest against him.”

Aleem is detained at the Adiyala Jail in Rawalpindi. During his incarceration, police have mistreated him and denied him adequate food and access to medicine for his heart condition. He told lawyers that police have not allowed him to meet with his family and referred to him as “choohra” (sweeper), a derogatory term for Pakistani Christians to designate them as the lowest rung of society.

At a hearing at an anti-terrorism court on Monday (Feb. 2), Judge Sakhi Mohammad Kohut exonerated him of blasphemy charges but did not clear him of abetting. A government official told Compass that the judge’s decision was heavily influenced by Islamic extremists attending the open court hearing who told the judge, “If you release [Aleem], then we will kill him outside.”

At the hearing, the judge implicated the man who allegedly framed Aleem – Bashar Kokar, previously charged multiple times with fraud – accusing him of using his cell phone to send a blasphemous message against Muhammad. Kokar was charged with blasphemy and arrested later that day. But court evidence shows the original text message came from an unregistered mobile number that pertained to neither Kokar nor Aleem, sources said – exonerating Aleem, but also making it difficult to prove that Kokar framed him. Khushdil Khan Malik, deputy secretary of Pakistan’s Ministry of Human Rights, said he believes the judge implicated Kokar as a scapegoat for the blasphemy charges in order to appease the extremists.

The next hearing will be held in March. Attorney Tafik told Compass he believes Aleem will be cleared of all charges because there is no evidence against him.

 

Targeted for Defending Christian Rights

Sources said they believe Aleem was framed due to his social activism as director of a small Non-Governmental Organization that lobbies for the rights of Pakistani Christians in Islamabad.

In November he became involved in a land dispute between a congregation and a local municipality that wanted to demolish their church building. He has been wrongfully implicated in the past for minor offenses, a government deputy said, particularly for his advocacy work against the Capital Development Authority, a municipal works agency that has been charged with unlawful confiscation and destruction of Christian property.

Aleem has been cleared of these minor offenses. The seriousness of the blasphemy charge, however, puts him and his family in danger. Besides his attorney, other legal advocates said they believe he will be cleared of all charges as there is no evidence that he sent the original text message.

Until then, his family is hiding underground due to threats of violence by Muslim extremists, said Joseph Francis, national director of CLAAS. And once he is released, it will be hard for Aleem to return to a normal life in Rawalpindi with the stigma of even unproven charges of blasphemy hanging over his head.

“What will happen after [the trial] is a matter of concern,” said Malik of Pakistan’s human rights ministry. “There have been many incidents of the sudden deaths of people charged with blasphemy.”

As many of those hostile to him are members of Sunni Tehreek who are dispersed throughout Pakistan, he and his family would be targeted by local members of the organization if they fled to another city. The only solution may be to seek asylum in another country, a source told Compass.

 

Problematic Law

Blasphemy has been used frequently in Pakistani law as a tool to silence or intimidate non-Muslims, including another case this week.

Yesterday a pastor, his son, and his father were charged with blasphemy in the village of Baddomehli, 100 kilometers (62 miles) from Lahore. Muslim classmates of pastor Shafik Masih’s teenage son claimed he had a blasphemous pamphlet in his backpack and began to assault him, according to a CLAAS report.

Realizing the danger of sectarian violence, the police chief of the region yesterday called on Christians to seek refuge as local Muslims were assembling a protest.

Christian members of Pakistan’s Parliament have moved to strike the blasphemy laws from the national criminal code.

“In the past, only a superintendent of police could file blasphemy charges,” attorney Tafik said. “But now a private person can register a case of blasphemy and it can be misused because anyone can use it.”  

Report from Compass Direct News

VIETNAM: AUTHORITIES DESTROY NEW CHURCH BUILDING


Five Christians injured as officials raze ‘illegally constructed’ worship place.

HO CHI MINH CITY, December 17 (Compass Direct News) – Local government officials in Dak Lak Province this morning made good on their threat to destroy a new wooden church building erected in September by Hmong Christians in Cu Hat village.

At 7 a.m. in Cu Dram Commune, Krong Bong district, a large contingent of government officials, police and demolition workers arrived at the site of a Vietnam Good News Mission and Church, razing it by 8:30 a.m. Police wielding electric cattle prods beat back hundreds of distraught Christians who rushed to the site to protect the building.

Five injured people were taken away in an emergency vehicle authorities had brought to the scene. The injured included a child who suffered a broken arm and a pregnant woman who fainted after being poked in the stomach with an electric cattle prod. Villagers said they fear she may miscarry.

By day’s end one badly injured woman had not yet been returned to the village, and authorities would not divulge where she was.

One sad Vietnamese church leader said that the demolition of the church ahead of Christmas showed the heartlessness of officials toward Christian believers.

“They think no one will notice or do anything about what they do in a remote area,” he said.

Nearly eight years ago a congregation numbering more than 500 Hmong Christians had joined thousands of others fleeing persecution in Vietnam’s northwest provinces, migrating to the Central Highlands. They aspired to construct a church building so they could worship protected from the rain and sun.

In September they were finally able to assemble materials needed to erect a 12-meter by 20-meter church building, large enough for them to meet. Eventually they were able to put a durable tile roof on the building, and with great joy they began worshipping together in a single location.

Although virtually all buildings in this area of Vietnam are erected without building permits, local authorities accused the Christians of “illegal construction” and ordered the congregation to “voluntarily” tear it down. On Dec. 2, Krong Bong district officials made a formal decision to demolish the church within two weeks if the Christians would not do so themselves.

The Vietnam Good News Mission and Church is an organization that for more than a year has tried to register more than a hundred of its congregations without any success. Contrary to Vietnam’s new religion legislation, these requests for registration have either been denied or ignored.

 

Agony and Ecstasy

In contrast to this hostility toward ethnic minority Christians in a remote area, several Ho Chi Minh City congregations of the legally-recognized Evangelical Church of Vietnam (South) on Dec. 12-13 were allowed to hold a large Christmas celebration event in a soccer stadium.

An estimated 10,000 attended on each night of the event. The program, which featured a popular Vietnamese entertainer who recently came to faith in Christ, a U.S. soloist and Korean and Chinese choirs, included an evangelistic invitation to which hundreds responded.

In a country where Christians have suffered under communist attitudes and actions against them for more than 30 years, many Vietnamese Christians were ecstatic that such an event could take place.

Likewise, in Pleiku in Gia Lai Province in mid-October, some 20,000 Jarai ethnic minority Christians gathered to hold an unprecedented celebration of the 65th anniversary of the coming of the gospel to their people. They had sought permission for more than a year, but it was granted only four days before the event. Participants said they suspected officials granted permission chiefly because several high-profile U.S. visitors made it clear they would attend.

In contrast, authorities have worked to limit the spread of Christianity to new areas. In a remote commune of Lao Cai Province, officials pressured new Hmong Christians to recant their new faith and re-establish their ancestral altars (See Compass Direct News, “Vietnamese Authorities Pressure New Christians to Recant,” Nov. 21).

Also, Christians in Dien Bien Province are trying to verify recent reports of the torching of Christian homes in the area.

Vietnam’s large Catholic Church was also reawakened to authorities’ residual hostility toward Christianity this year, with the government reacting violently to sustained but peaceful pressure by thousands to recover church land and buildings confiscated by authorities after the prime minister had agreed to negotiations.

Vietnam gave unusually light, house-arrest sentences to eight Catholics arrested during the prayer vigils-cum-protests. Previously others arrested for similar reasons have been sentenced to prison for years.

“Unfortunately, the mostly urban bright spots are cancelled by the persistence of old-style repression among Vietnam’s ethnic minorities in remote areas,” said one veteran Vietnam observer. “The easier registration of churches promised in 2005 is being granted very selectively and is used as a means of limiting and controlling Christianity.”

That central government authorities responsible for implementing improved religion policy seem to turn a blind eye to old-fashioned thugs at the local level, he added, “is very discouraging to Vietnam’s Christians. Religious freedom reserved for some is not religious freedom.”  

Report from Compass Direct News

EGYPT: THOUSANDS PROTEST, VANDALIZE CHURCH


At least five hurt as rioters stone, burn structure after inauguration of extension.

ISTANBUL, November 26 (Compass Direct News) – Thousands of Muslim protestors on Sunday (Nov. 23) attacked a Coptic church in a suburb of Cairo, Egypt, burning part of it, a nearby shop and two cars and leaving five people injured.

Objecting to a newly constructed extension to the Coptic church of St. Mary and Anba Abraam in Ain Shams, the huge crowd of angry protestors gathered outside the church at around 5 p.m. following a consecration service for the addition earlier that day.

Chanting, “We will demolish the church,” “Islam is the solution” and “No God but Allah,” according to Helmy Guirguis, president of the U.K. Coptic Association, rioters pelted the church with stones and burned part of the structure; priests and worshipers were trapped inside, and five people were injured.

“It was a terrifying moment,” said lawyer Nabil Gobrayel, who was inside the church at the time. “They were shouting ‘holy slogans’ like, ‘We will bring the church down,’, ‘The priest is dead’ and ‘The army of Muhammad is coming.’”

Police slow to arrive were not prepared for the scale of the protest. Angry Muslims swarmed to the area from a two-kilometer radius, and although estimates varied, some suggested as many as 8,000 people gathered.

Rioters’ stones broke the structure’s windows, and a nearby shop and two cars belonging to Christians were set on fire.

Reinforcements for the overwhelmed security forces did not arrive until two hours later and were then engaged in clashes with the mob until the early hours of Monday (Nov. 24) morning.

Armored vehicles brought in riot police, who used tear gas to disperse the crowd while fire services aided their efforts with water cannons.

A United Copts of Great Britain statement suggested that police were slow to arrest perpetrators in the early stages of the demonstration but did eventually detain 41 people around midnight.

Of the 38 Muslims arrested, 30 were quickly released “under the pretext of being minors,” according to the United Copts statement. Three arrested Christians, however, remained in prison without charges.

United Copts also reported that Wael Tahoon, a police officer, was said to be involved in instigating the attacks.

A source told Compass that Pope Shenouda, head of The Holy Synod of the Coptic Orthodox Patriarchate of Alexandria, ordered that prayers at the church site be stopped.

According to Gobrayel, the church will be closed for two months while officials consider its future.

 

Opposition from Outset

The newly constructed extension stands on the site of an old factory that was demolished 18 months ago, when the land was purchased using funds raised by donations from the congregation.

When building began, church members were surprised to find that construction of a mosque also started just across the street.

During construction of the church addition, Muslim radicals insulted and harassed workers, issuing death threats and urinating on the structure’s walls.

At 10 a.m. on Sunday (Nov. 23), the morning of the consecration service, the adjacent mosque began broadcasting verses from the Quran at high volume.

According to witnesses, the imam of the mosque justified the unusual broadcasts by saying that they were in celebration of the Muslim festival of Eid. Christians said this would be highly irregular, however, with area parishioners maintaining it was done to provoke them.

 

Government Role

Church leaders had obtained the necessary permits for building the extension, Coptic leaders said, but protestors said the addition was not licensed for prayer and worship.

Christians have found obtaining church building permits from Egyptian authorities rife with obstacles, with many applications never granted.

“The National Assembly cannot make a decision for 15 years about building projects for churches,” said lawyer Naguib Gobrail. “Every time they say, ‘This session we can discuss this project,’ but the session ends and we see nothing. Everything is only a promise.”

In a recent editorial, Youssef Sidhom, editor-in-chief of Egyptian weekly Watani, addressed the inequality of regulations that govern the building of places of worship.

“It now appears obvious that the government has no intention whatsoever of placing the long-awaited bill for a unified law for building places of worship on its agenda,” he wrote. “For four consecutive rounds [of Parliament], the bill has remained shelved despite the need for it to ward off so called sectarian problems that erupt every so often.”

 

Wedding Violence

Advocacy group Voice of the Copts issued a report on Monday (Nov. 24) that, a day before the attack on St. Mary and Anba Abraam, Muslim radicals ambushed a wedding party at a church just 10 minutes away.

A man and woman interrupted the ceremony shouting obscene remarks, according to Voice of the Copts, and when angered wedding guests ushered them outside, the Copts were set upon by a gang of people waiting in a shop across the road. Two were severely injured.

While Christians account for varying estimates of 10 to 15 percent of Egypt’s population and date back to the first century of the faith, churches are still seen as foreign bodies and, in the words of the Ain Shams rioters, an “infidel’s worship house in an Islamic Land.”  

Report from Compass Direct News

INDIA: CHRISTIANS ATTACKED IN KARNATAKA, INDIA


State authorities seal three churches, order 13 others to get ‘worship license.’

NEW DELHI, September 10 (Compass Direct News) – As tensions continued in the eastern state of Orissa, Hindu nationalist groups intensified attacks on churches and Christian institutions in the southern state of Karnataka.

Hindu extremists launched attacks on churches and leveled false charges of “forcible” conversions against Christian workers as the Karnataka government, ruled by the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), prepared to close down churches.

Sajan K. George of the Global Council of Indian Christians (GCIC) told Compass that a mob of more than 200 people attacked the Mission Action Prayer Fellowship church in Bada village of Davangere district on Sunday (September 7), accusing the Christians of “forcible” conversions.

The attack took place during the worship service. Besides assaulting believers and the pastor, the mob burned the Bibles, musical instruments and furniture in front of the church. They also vandalized the church building.

Media accompanied the mob, and local TV channels telecast the attack, George added.

The Hindu daily reported that the incident occurred despite a government ban on the gathering of four or more people within a 200-meter radius of three other prayer halls in K.T.J. Nagar police station limits in Davangere town, “which have been under attack since mid-August.”

The police arrested 10 people for instigating the attack.

The daily also reported that extremists of a Hindu nationalist group, the Hindu Jagarana Vedike, carried out a procession the following day (September 9) demanding the immediate release of those arrested. The newspaper quoted the extremists as rationalizing their attack on the pretense of the alleged forcible conversions.

“Had the authorities been alert and not given room for forcible conversions, such incidents would not have happened,” one Hindu nationalist told the newspaper.

The state convener of the Hindu group, Jagadish Karanth, complained that missionaries from seven countries, including the United States, France and Germany, had been funding churches and pastors in Davangere to motivate people of other faiths to join their fold. He said he had documents to prove that a pastor had written to a Christian missionary saying he had converted 6,000 Hindus into Christians within just two years.

 

Bogus Worship License Requirement

George of the GCIC said the commissioner of Davangere City had issued notices to demolish three churches – Eternal Life Church, Divine Healing Ministry church and Jesus Prayer Hall – in the city, claiming that their buildings were illegal. The three churches have been sealed.

The order was issued because these churches were facing allegations of fraudulent conversions by the Hindu extremist Hindu Jagarana Vedike, according to The Indian Express newspaper, adding that the Davangere deputy commissioner labeled the churches “unauthorized.”

A representative of the Christian Legal Association (CLA) told Compass that the Davangere deputy commissioner had also sent notices dated Aug. 30 to 13 other churches asking them to obtain a “license” for holding worship services.

“This is a violation of the religious freedom enshrined in the Indian Constitution,” said the CLA source. “There is neither any such requirement anywhere in the country, nor is there any provision for such license in any government authority.”

The CLA representative also said Hindu extremists were going from village to village in Davangere to identify Christian houses.

“The extremists demand that some identity cards be shown to prove their religious affiliation,” said the representative. “Such a data can be extremely dangerous. We fear the Hindu groups may be planning organized attacks.”

Besides the collection of data by extremist groups, district authorities are also surveying churches.

On Sept. 8, The Hindu quoted Deputy Commissioner K. Amar Narayan as saying that he had instructed the police to conduct an area-wide survey of churches and prayer halls to check how many of them were “authorized.”

Asked if the survey would also be conducted on places of worship of other religious faiths, Narayan said that it would be “exclusively” on churches because of the present controversy surrounding them. He said the survey would be completed in two or three days.

 

Bogus Conversion Charges

Christians have been at the receiving end of a spate of “communally tinged” incidents in recent weeks in Karnataka, mainly in Davangere district, The Indian Express newspaper said on Monday (September 8).

The newspaper quoted Davangere Superintendent of Police Sandeep Patil as saying that there had been allegations of forced conversions in the district for the last 12 months. Patil added that the police had identified 75 churches across villages in the district where security was enhanced.

Some police officers of the district told the newspaper that there was “nothing new” about allegations of “forced” conversions. “Maybe because the BJP is in power they are getting highlighted,” an assistant commissioner of police said.

The Indian Express also suggested that the recent spate of attacks was triggered by the state education ministry’s show-cause notices to over 2,000 Christian schools for staying shut on Aug. 29 to protest the violence against Christians in Orissa.

All Christian schools in the country remained closed on Aug. 29 to show solidarity with victims of anti-Christian violence in Orissa that started after a Vishwa Hindu Parishad (World Hindu Council or VHP) leader, Laxmanananda Saraswati, and four of his disciples were killed on August 23 in Kandhamal district. The VHP blamed local Christians for the assassination, though Maoists or extreme Marxists claimed responsibility for it. More than 56 people have been killed and hundreds of houses and churches burned in the violence.

The newspaper also pointed out that over the past two successive Sundays, police cases had been registered in Karnataka’s capital Bangalore against nearly 25 people, leading to the arrest of as many as 12, including a U.S. citizen, on charges of “promoting enmity between different religious groups” and “insulting religious feelings.”

Local police officers at Frazer Town and Ulsoor police stations, where cases had been registered, told the newspaper they had received complaints from members of Hindu groups alleging forcible conversions and use of inducements against the arrested persons.

 

Bogus ‘Communal Harmony’

The Hindu newspaper reported that Karnataka Chief Minister B.S. Yeddyurappa, who completed 100 days in office yesterday (Sept. 9), said that “all efforts would be made to maintain communal harmony.”

What communal harmony is for the chief minister, however, was clear when he told The Hindu, “The rule of law will prevail. Nobody has the right to indulge in forcible conversions, and inducement to pave the way for conversions is banned. However, I will direct the district officials and district in-charge ministers to ensure that such activities are kept under check.”

Yeddyurappa also claimed that there has been no communal clash in the state “for long,” and “we will maintain this record.”

“I call upon the people to refrain from paying heed to rumors which are aimed at fomenting trouble and tarnishing the image of the government,” he added.

According to a 2001 Census, Christians form less than 2 percent of the total population of 52.8 million in Karnataka.  

Report from Compass Direct News