Iran: Demolishing Christian History

The following article reports on the destruction of Iran’s Christian history by Iranian officials.

Nepal Christians Begin Legal Battle for Burial Ground

Hindu group declares country a Hindu state; upper castes seek halt to conversions.

KATHMANDU, Nepal, April 19 (CDN) — With the government refusing to listen to their three-year plea for an official cemetery and ignoring a protracted hunger strike, Nepal’s Christians are now seeking redress from the Supreme Court.

“Every day there are two to three deaths in the community, and with each death we face a hard time with the burial,” said Chari Bahadur Gahatraj, a pastor who filed a petition in the high court on March 13 asking it to intervene as authorities of Nepal’s oldest Hindu temple had begun demolishing the graves of Christians there.

Gahatraj and Man Bahadur Khatri are both members of the newly formed Christian Burial Ground Prayer and National Struggle Committee that since last month began leading a relay hunger strike in a public area of the capital, asking for a graveyard. They said they were forced to go to court after the Pashupati Area Development Trust (PADT), which runs Nepal’s oldest Hindu shrine, the Pashupatinath temple, said it would no longer allow non-Hindus to use the temple’s forested land.

“We don’t want to hurt the sentiments of any community,” Gahatraj told Compass. “Nor are we trying to grab the land owned by a temple. We are ready to accept any plot given to us. All we are asking for is that the burials be allowed till we get an alternate site.”

Judge Awadhesh Kumar Yadav has since ordered the government and PADT not to prevent Christians from using the forest for burials until the dispute is resolved. The legal battle, however, now involves a counter-suit. Hindu activist Bharat Jangam filed a second writ on March 20, saying that since the forest was the property of a Hindu temple, non-Hindus should not be allowed to bury their dead there just as churches do not allow Hindu burials.

Subsequently, the court decided to hear the two petitions together, and yesterday (April 18), the hearings began. While two lawyers argued on behalf of Gahatraj and Khatri, a cohort of 15 lawyers spoke against their petition. The next hearing is scheduled for May 3.

Along with the legal battle, Christians have kept up their relay hunger strike. To step up pressure on the government, the protestors also announced they would lead a funeral march to the offices of the prime minister and the culture minister and hand over coffins to them as a symbolic protest. If that too failed, they warned they would have no option but to go on hunger strike in front of the prime minister’s office and parliament, this time carrying dead bodies with them.

Alarmed at the rate the issue was snowballing, the government finally responded. Yesterday Culture Minister Gangalal Tuladhar opened talks with the protestors, agreeing to continue the negotiations after three days. The government also formed a four-member committee to look into the demand. Currently, Christians are asking for cemetery land in all 75 districts of Nepal.

Protestors were wary of the government’s intent in the overture.

“This could be a ploy to buy time and bury the issue,” said a member of the Christian committee formed to advise parliament on drafting the new constitution, who requested anonymity.

Though the committee formed to look into the Christians’ demand for burial land has been asked to present a report within two weeks, Christians suspect the panel is dragging its feet.

“The new constitution has to be promulgated by May 28, but it does not seem likely that the main political parties will be able to accomplish the task,” the Christian committee member said. “And if the constitution doesn’t materialize in time, there will be a crisis and our problem will be shelved.”


Hindu Nation

Adding to their unease, Christians are now facing a redoubled campaign by Hindu groups for the restoration of Hinduism as the state religion, five years after parliament declared Nepal, the world’s only Hindu kingdom, secular.

If the new constitution had been promulgated last year, it would have consolidated secularism in Nepal. But with the country missing the deadline due to protracted power-sharing rows among the major political parties, Christians still feel under threat.

On Thursday (April 14), when the country celebrated the start of the indigenous new year 2068 with a public holiday, the Rastriya Prajatantra Party-Nepal, which seeks the reinstatement of Hinduism as the state religion, kicked off a campaign at the Bhadrakali temple in Kathmandu. As curious onlookers and soldiers patrolling the nearby army headquarters looked on, party members fervently blew into conch shells and rang bells to draw people’s attention to their demand.

The party, which is also seeking the restoration of monarchy, took some oblique shots at the Christian community as well.

“There is a deliberate and systematic attempt by organizations to convert Hindus,” said Kamal Thapa, party chief and a former minister. “These organizations are guided by foreign powers and foreign funds. If the widespread conversion of Hindus is not stopped immediately, we will have to take stern measures.”

Three days later, an umbrella of Hindu groups – the Rastriya Dharma Jagaran Mahasabha (the National Religion Resurrection Conference) held a massive gathering in the capital, declaring Nepal a “Hindu state” and meeting with no official objection. The proclamation came as the climax to a three-day public program calling for the restoration of “the traditional Hindu state.” Several Hindu preachers and scholars from neighboring India attended the program, held on the grounds of the Pashupatinath temple, which is also a UNESCO-declared World Heritage Site.

The “Hindu state” proclamation was the brainchild of Shankar Prasad Pandey, a former member of parliament from Nepali Congress, the second largest party in Nepal, now in opposition. Though Pandey was a sitting Member of Parliament in 2006, when the body unanimously declared Nepal secular, he began opposing the move soon afterwards, leading four campaigns against it nationwide.

“I consider the nation and the Hindu religion to be more important than the party,” said Pandey, known as the MP who began to go barefoot 32 years ago to show solidarity with Nepalese, who are among the poorest in the world. “Over 90 percent of the Nepalese want Nepal to be a Hindu state. However, the government is led by people whose only concern is power and money.”

Pandey’s campaign is supported by Hindu groups from India and the West: Narendranath Saraswati, who is the Shankaracharya or religious head of a prominent Hindu shrine in India’s Varanasi city; Dr. Tilak Chaitanya, chief of a group in the United Kingdom that propagates the Gita, the holy book of the Hindus; and Tahal Kishore, head of a Hindu organization, Radha Krishna Sevashram, in the United States.

Two weeks before the May 28 deadline for the new constitution, Pandey and his followers plan to step up the campaign for a “Hindu state” in the capital. Though Pandey denies it could stir up animosity between the majority-Hindus and Christians – whose minority population is said to have crossed 2 million but is actually only 850,801, according to Operation World – there are fears of religious tension if not outright violence.

The Hindu rallies continue to grow as a pressure tactic. Yesterday (April 18), members of Nepal Brahman Samaj, an organization of “upper castes” from whose echelons temple priests are appointed, fought with security forces in front of parliament house, demanding their rights be respected and an end to conversions.

More Hindutva (Hindu nationalist) campaigning is scheduled on April 29, when the Rastriya Prajatantra Party-Nepal’s Thapa has called for a mass gathering in the capital.  

Report from Compass Direct News

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 


Militia destroys church building in the Nuba Mountains

NAIROBI, Kenya, April 8 (Compass Direct News) — Support for Sudanese President Omar Hassan al-Bashir in the wake of an International Criminal Court (ICC) warrant is fast turning into orchestrated attacks on Christians.

A thatched-grass building in the Nuba Mountains village of Chat, used by the Evangelical Presbyterian Church and the Sudanese Church of Christ, is one of the latest targets of such attacks.

The building was destroyed by fire on March 27 by a suspected government militia. Pro-Bashir mobs have attacked those they believe support the ICC’s determination to prosecute Bashir for atrocities in the Darfur region.

As support for President Bashir escalates, especially in the North, the church faces one of the worst threats to its existence in the recent past. Today, it struggles simply to survive.

Drivers on the streets of Khartoum, even the road leading toward the airport, see huge pictures of Bashir staring down from billboards with pro-Bashir messages, such as “Mr. President, we are with you” and “You are not alone.”

Kuwa Shamal, acting director of the Sudanese Church of Christ, says of the billboard campaign: “I wish the same government assuring support to the president could have the same encouraging message for the struggling church.”


Chief Accused of Leading Attack

The Sudanese Church of Christ was forced to conclude a morning worship service prematurely on March 27 when a hostile group attacked. An eyewitness said this militia was led by the area chief, Kafi Tahir, who supports an Islamist agenda and is said to receive government support.

The eyewitness, a Muslim who requested anonymity, said the chief and his accomplices were armed. Helpless church members fled the structure, which had a capacity of about 500. The chief then ordered his accomplices to set the church ablaze and church members ran for their lives, the eyewitness said.

“The Sudanese Church of Christ is concerned of the government move to frustrate the activities of the churches in Nuba Mountains,” said Barnabas Maitias, president of the Sudanese Church of Christ. “It is alleged that the Ministry of Defense has distributed a number of weapons to individuals who are out to support Islamic agenda and the government in Nuba Mountains, including Chief Kafi Tahir of Chat village, who recently led a group of unknown people to destroy our church.”

Indeed, many Christians are worried as a new wave of intolerance sweeps the region. The intolerance could worsen as ICC prosecutor Luis Moreno-Ocampo continues to press for a court trial of Bashir.

Matta Mubarak, general secretary of the Sudanese Church of Christ, told Compass that the villagers of Chat have previously opposed the chief, who then destroyed the church building in retaliation.

“The chief fled for his life to Kadugli and he is living a comfortable life. As a result, justice for the church in Nuba Mountains has been thrown out of the window,” Mubarak said. “What kind of a world are we living in, where criminals are not charged? The church feels that the Sudanese government is not concerned about the rights of Christians in the North. The future of the church in the North is uncertain.”


Worshiping Without Buildings or Land

For a month now, members of the Evangelical Presbyterian Church have worshiped outdoors and without the help of an evangelist who had led them.

Shamal said that evangelist Aburahaman Tai of the Evangelical Presbyterian Church was attacked in early March outside the church by the same group that later destroyed the building.

“He was beaten and sustained head injuries and was treated at a local dispensary before being discharged,” Shamal said. “He is still recovering. Indeed, it is a big blow to the church, to have no place to worship and to lack a pastor. This is a big tragedy.”

Mubarak said that in some parts of Sudan, Islam has conquered the church. “In Northern Sudan, at a place called Dongola, the church building has been converted into a mosque and the few Christians forced to convert to Islam,” Mubarak said.

Church struggles extend even to land ownership. Maitias told Compass that after the signing of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement in 2005, the Sudan Inter-religious Council petitioned the government for a piece of land to be allocated to the church for worship. He said three churches were allowed to apply for land allocation for the purpose of building houses of worship: the Sudanese Church of Christ, the Episcopal Church of Sudan and the Catholic Church.

But to their surprise, the offer was given with some conditions: every year, the government must cross-check church operations and is free to repossess land at will.

“We as the church find our free operation not guaranteed,” Maitias said.

Andrea Amet Ubiu, who works with the Sudan Council of Churches in Khartoum, bought a piece of land from Zinab Adut in 1994 and constructed a temporary house at Salma village, which is about two miles from Khartoum.

“In 2005 the government began demolishing temporary structures in the area with a view of carrying out reallocations. To my surprise, when this [reallocation] was done, I was left out and was informed that the land I bought was not legitimate since the lady who sold the land to me was not entitled to it because she had no husband or children,” Ubiu said.

“But I knew it was a calculated move by the local authorities to deny me the land, because all along I had not supported the government before the signing of the peace agreement between the North and the South,” Ubiu added. “Life for me in Salma has been harsh, so I decided to forget the issue of the land and moved to a new location called Hagyouf area, five kilometers [three miles] from the town center.”

Maitias sees such discrimination as common for Christians in northern Sudan.

“Here in the North, the Church is discriminated [against] in almost everything, even including education,” Maitias said. “Christian institutions are not recognized by the government. Christian religious education is not taught in government schools. Christian programs are only given less than three hours in the national media on Sundays and Christian workers given only two hours for Sunday worship. Christmas celebrations are restricted to a day for celebrations, like marching with police security.”

Christians who wish to operate a restaurant during Ramadan must obtain a permit from authorities. “We always ask ourselves, why all this? Our identity as Christians is an anathema,” Maitias said. “Instead, the government prefers calling us ‘non-Muslims.’”

A dozen non-governmental organizations have been expelled from the country because of their vocal opposition to human rights abuses in Darfur.  

Report from Compass Direct News