Suspected Islamists Burn Down Two Homes in Ethiopia

Two thatched-grass structures belonged to evangelist who received threats.

NAIROBI, Kenya, April 21 (CDN) — A Christian near Ethiopia’s southern town of Moyale said suspected Islamic extremists on March 29 burned down his two thatched-grass homes.

Evangelist Wako Hanake of the Mekane Yesus Church told Compass he had been receiving anonymous messages warning him to stop converting Muslims to Christ. The Muslims who became Christians included several children.

“Inside the house were iron sheets and timber stored in preparation for putting up a permanent house,” said Hanake, who is in his late 30s. “I have lost everything.”

The incident in Tuka, five kilometers (nearly three miles) from Moyale in southern Ethiopia’s Oromia Region, happened while Hanake was away on an evangelistic trip. A neighbor said he and others rescued Hanake’s wife and children ages 8, 6 and 2.

“We had to rescue the wife with her three children who were inside one of the houses that the fire was already beginning to burn,” said the neighbor, who requested anonymity.

Church leaders said neighbors are still housing Hanake and his family.

“The family has lost everything, and they feel fearful for their lives,” said a local church leader. “We are doing all we can to provide clothing and food to them. We are appealing to all well wishers to support Hanake’s family.”

Hanake said he has reported the case to Moyale police.

“I hope the culprits will be found,” he said.

An area church leader who requested anonymity told Compass that Christians in Moyale are concerned that those in Tuka are especially vulnerable to a harsh environment in which religious rights are routinely violated.

“The Ethiopian constitution allows for religious tolerance,” said another area church leader, also under condition of anonymity, “but we are concerned that such ugly incidents like this might go unpunished. To date no action has been taken.”

Tuka village, on Ethiopia’s border with Kenya, is populated mainly by ethnic Oromo who are predominantly Muslim. The area Muslims restrict the preaching of non-Muslim faiths, in spite of provisions for religious freedom in Ethiopia’s constitution.

Hostility toward those spreading faiths different from Islam is a common occurrence in predominantly Muslim areas of Ethiopia and neighboring countries, area Christians said, adding that they are often subject to harassment and intimidation.

Ethiopia’s constitution, laws and policies generally respect freedom of religion, but occasionally some local authorities infringe on this right, according to the U.S. Department of State’s 2010 International Religious Freedom Report.

According to Operation World, nearly 40 percent of Ethiopia’s population affiliates with the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, 19 percent are evangelical and Pentecostal and 34 percent are Sunni Muslim. The remainder are Catholic (3 percent) and ethno-religious (3.7 percent).


Jimma Violence

In Jimma Zone in the country’s southwest, where thousands of Christians in and around Asendabo have been displaced as a result of attacks that began on March 2 after Muslims accused a Christian of desecrating the Quran, the number of churches burned has reached 71, and two people have reportedly been killed. Their identities, however, were still unconfirmed.

When the anti-Christian violence of thousands of Muslims subsided by the end of March, 30 homes had reportedly been destroyed and as many as 10,000 Christians may have been displaced from Asendabo, Chiltie, Gilgel Gibe, Gibe, Nada, Dimtu, Uragay, Busa and Koticha.

Report from Compass Direct News

Judge Exonerates Jailed Evangelist in Bangladesh

Judge rules Christian did not ‘create chaos’ by distributing literature near Islamic event.

DHAKA, Bangladesh, March 31 (CDN) — A judge this week exonerated a Christian sentenced to one year in prison for selling and distributing Christian literature near a major Muslim gathering north of this capital city, his lawyer said.

After reviewing an appeal of the case of 25-year-old Biplob Marandi, the magistrate in Gazipur district court on Tuesday (March 29) cleared the tribal Christian of the charge against him and ordered him to be released, attorney Lensen Swapon Gomes told Compass. Marandi was selling Christian books and other literature when he was arrested near the massive Bishwa Ijtema (World Muslim Congregation) on the banks of the Turag River near Tongi town on Jan. 21.

On Feb. 28 he was sentenced for “creating chaos at a religious gathering” by selling and distributing the Christian literature.

“Some fundamentalist Muslims became very angry with him for selling the Christian books near a Muslim gathering,” Gomes said, “so they harassed him by handing over to the mobile court. His release proves that he was innocent and that he did not create any trouble at the Muslim gathering.”

The judge reviewing the appeal ruled that Marandi proved in court that he sells books, primarily Christian literature, for his livelihood.

“I am delirious with joy, and it is impossible to say how happy I am,” said his brother, the Rev. Sailence Marandi, a pastor at Church of Nazarene International in northern Bangladesh’s Thakurgaon district. “I also thank all those who have prayed for my brother to be released.”

After processing the paperwork for Marandi’s release from Gazipur district jail, authorities were expected to free him by the end of this week, according to his lawyer.

“My brother is an innocent man, and his unconditional release proved the victory of truth,” Pastor Marandi said. “I am even more delighted because my brother’s release proves that he was very innocent and polite.”

The pastor had said his brother did not get the opportunity to defend himself at his original trial.

Marandi’s attorney on appeal argued that his religious activities were protected by the religious freedom provisions of the country’s constitution. The Bangladeshi constitution provides the right for anyone to propagate their religion subject to law, but authorities and communities often objected to efforts to convert people from Islam, according to the U.S. Department of State’s 2010 International Religious Freedom report.

Every year several million male Muslims – women are not allowed – attend the Bishwa Ijtema event to pray and listen to Islamic scholars from around the world. Some 9,000 foreigners from 108 countries reportedly attended the event, though most of the worshippers are rural Bangladeshis. About 15,000 security personnel were deployed to maintain order.

Bangladeshi Muslims equate the annual event with the Hajj, the Islamic pilgrimage to Mecca in Saudi Arabia. This year the Bangladesh event was held in two phases, Jan. 21-23 and Jan. 28-30.

At the same event in 2009, Muslim pilgrims beat and threatened to kill another Bible school student as he distributed Christian literature. A patrolling Rapid Action Battalion elite force rescued Rajen Murmo, then 20, a student at Believers’ Church Bible College, on Feb. 1, 2009.

Bangladesh is the world’s third-largest Muslim-majority nation, with Muslims making up 89 percent of its population of 164.4 million, according to Operation World. Christians are less than 1 percent of the total, and Hindus 9 percent.

Report from Compass Direct News

Two Indian Christians Languish in Saudi Prison

‘Religious police’ raid apartment; no official charges.

LOS ANGELES, March 28 (CDN) — Friends and family of two Indian Christians arrested after a prayer meeting in Saudi Arabia in January have tried in vain to secure their release.

The two Christians were incarcerated for attending the prayer meeting with other Indian nationals and accused of converting Muslims to Christianity, though the government has not produced formal charges, sources said.

Yohan Nese, 31 and Vasantha Sekhar Vara, 28, were arrested on Jan. 21 when mutaween (religious police) raided an apartment where the two had lingered after attending the prayer meeting. Religious police interrogated and beat them to the point that they suffered injuries, according to sources. During this time, religious police who were cursing at them allegedly tore up and trampled on Bibles and Christian material they had confiscated, said a source who spoke to the men.

Authorities asked them how many Christian groups and pastors there are in Saudi Arabia and Riyadh and asked their nationalities. The religious police also put pressure on the two to convert to Islam, according to sources.

The next morning, Jan. 22, authorities took the two Christians to the Religious Court in Riyadh. The court sentenced them to 45 days in prison. At 2 p.m., police filed a case at the local civil police station, according to a source who requested anonymity.

To date the Christian Indians have been in prison for 67 days. Their family and friends say they still have not been able to obtain a document with official charges but know from the prisoners that the charges are religious in nature, according to the source. At the time of their detention, the Christians were not engaging in religious activities.

On Jan. 22, 15 mutaween in civilian clothes came back to the apartment they had raided the previous day, destroyed valuable items and wrote Islamic slogans on the walls with spray paint, the source said.

Nese and Vara’s situation in prison is “horrible,” said the source. The two men are cramped in a prison cell with only enough room to stand.

“There is no place to even sit,” said the source. “Only two hours a day they are sleeping in shifts. When brother Yohan is sleeping, brother Sekhar needs to stand, and when brother Sekhar wants to sleep, brother Yohan needs to stand. They have been doing this for more than a month. I don’t know how many more days they have to continue this.”

Since the arrest, other Christians have been too frightened to meet for prayer.

One week after his arrest, Vara was able to use a phone to call his family and pastor in India. His wife, Sandhya Vara, who is expecting their first child in three months, said she has not heard from him since.

“There were no Muslims in their prayer meeting, but they are accusing them of converting Muslims into Christians,” she told Compass by phone. “We got married eight months ago, but he’s very far from me now and he’s in very much trouble, and I’m six months pregnant.”

She and his pastor in India have communicated numerous times with the Indian embassy but have received no response.

“I have been complaining to the Indian embassy,” she said. “They cannot call me or give me any information. There is no help. So many times I informed them and they cannot give any reply and cannot take any action.”

Vara had worked in Saudi Arabia for more than seven years. Last summer he came to India and got married, returning on Jan. 9 to his post in Riyadh, where he worked as a supervisor for a catering company.

“Vasantha is from my church,” said his pastor in India, Ajay Kumar Jeldi. “He is very God-fearing, good, prayerful, supporting the pastor and working for the youth.”

The morning of his arrest, Vara called Pastor Jeldi and told him he planned to go to the evening prayer meeting in Riyadh. After the meeting, Vara, Nese and four other unidentified Christians lingered at the flat where the gathering had taken place. At around 7:30 p.m. two mutaween in plainclothes and one policeman in uniform raided the apartment.

On the phone with his pastor back in India, Vara said he was in prison for religious reasons and that he had been pressured to convert to Islam, but that he had refused.

“If I have to die for my God, I will die for him here,” he told Pastor Jeldi. “God will help me.”

The pastor said that in his sole conversation with him a week after his detention, Vara requested prayers for his release.

Typically in Saudi Arabia, a foreign worker’s documents remain with the employers who sponsor them in order for them to work in the country. Saudi employers are typically the only ones who can secure their employees’ release on bail.

“Only their sponsors can bring them out,” Pastor Jeldi said. “He has the right to bring him out, and no one else has the right to go and pay the bail or anything. Only the sponsor can have that responsibility.”

Since his arrest, Vara’s employer has handed his passport to local authorities and told them he is no longer responsible for him, according to the anonymous source.

“He doesn’t want him to work in his company anymore,” said the source.

The Saudi “religious police” or Commission to Promote Virtue and Prevent Vice (CPVPV) is a government entity that includes 5,000 field officers and 10,000 employees, along with hundreds of “unofficial” volunteers who take it upon themselves to carry out the CPVPV’s mandate, according to the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom.

“Despite the fact that the CPVPV is not allowed to engage in surveillance, detain individuals for more than 24 hours, arrest individuals without police accompaniment, or carry out any kind of punishment, its members have been accused in recent years of killing, beating, whipping, detaining, and otherwise harassing individuals,” the commission stated.

In the raid, authorities confiscated anything of value in the apartment, including two musical keyboards, a guitar, two sound boxes, a sound mixer, four microphones, music stands, power extension boxes, a laptop, mobile phone chargers and a whiteboard. They also confiscated 25 Bibles and other Christian materials, the source said.

The other Indian Christians at the apartment escaped.

The anonymous source said he has informed the Embassy of India in Riyadh of their arrest numerous times.

“I have lost hope in them,” he said, “because the only thing they are always saying is that this is a religious case, so we can’t do anything.”

Pastor Jeldi said he thought someone must have complained about the group of Christian Indians who were meeting regularly, causing authorities to act.

Nearly 7 million foreigners live and work in Saudi Arabia, of which an estimated 1.5 million are Indian nationals.

Human Rights Watch has reported that Saudi Arabia systematically discriminates against migrant workers and has called for the government to “abolish the sponsorship system for migrant workers, in particular the requirement for employer consent to transfer employment and to obtain an exit visa.”

According to the U.S. Department of State’s 2010 Report on International Religious Freedom, with rare exception, expatriate workers fear government interference with their private worship. The reasons for this interference can range from the worship service being too loud, having too many people in attendance or that it occurs too often in the same place, according to the report.

Riyadh was the stage for another raid and mass arrest of Christians in early October 2010. Arab News and other press reported the arrest of 12 Filipino Christians and a French Catholic priest celebrating mass in a private apartment. There were 150 Filipinos in attendance. The employers of the 12 Christian foreign workers secured their release, and the Philippine embassy negotiated their repatriation. The Catholic priest was also released within days.

“Saudi officials do not accept that for members of some religious groups, the practice of religion requires more than an individual or a small group worshipping in private, but includes the need for religious leaders to conduct services in community with others,” stated the State Department’s religious freedom report. “Foreign religious leaders continue to be prohibited from seeking and obtaining visas to enter Saudi Arabia and minister to local religious communities.”

Report from Compass Direct News

One Dead as Islamist Mobs in Ethiopia Destroy Church Buildings

Total structures razed at 59; at least 4,000 Christians displaced.

NAIROBI, Kenya, March 7 (CDN) — At least one Christian was killed and others injured when thousands of Islamic extremists set fire to 59 churches and at least 28 homes in western Ethiopia in the past five days, Christian leaders said.

More than 4,000 Christians in and around Asendabo, Jimma Zone have been displaced as a result of attacks that began on Wednesday (March 2) after Muslims accused a Christian of desecrating the Quran by tearing up a copy, sources said.

“The atrocity is still going on, and more people are suffering,” said a source in Addis Ababa who is in close contact with area church leaders.

The Christian killed, believed to have been a member of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, has not yet been identified.

“One Orthodox believer, whose daughter is a member of Mekane Yesus Church, has been killed,” an Ethiopian church leader told Compass. “Ministers were injured, and many more believers have been displaced.”

A pastor based in the Ethiopian capital of Addis Ababa noted that evangelical church leaders have reported the attacks to authorities and asked officials for help, but no action had been taken at press time.

“The church requested more police protection,” he said. “The authorities sent security forces, but they were overwhelmed by the attackers.”

After the destruction began at Asendabo, it spread to Chiltie, Gilgel Gibe, Gibe, Nada, Dimtu, Uragay, Busa and Koticha, as Muslim mobs in the thousands rampaged throughout the area, sources said.

“Police at the site are not taking any action – they just watch what is happening,” said another source. “It is difficult to estimate the attack in terms of deaths, since we have no access to any location.”

Those displaced are in shelters in Ako, Jimma, Dimtu and Derbo, he said.

“We are very concerned that the attack that began on March 2 in Asendabo, which is the rural part of Jimma, is now heading to Jimma town,” he said.

The extremists also destroyed an Ethiopian Kale Hiwot Church (EKHC) Bible school building and two church office buildings, the source said. Of the churches burned, he said, 38 belonged to the EKHC; 12 were Mekane Yesus buildings; six were Seventh-day Adventist structures; two were Muluwongel church buildings, and another belonged to a “Jesus Only” congregation.

“Women and children are the most affected in this sudden attack,” he said. “It is needless to mention the believers’ houses and properties burned down. The overall estimated cost, may be worth over 60 million birr [US$3.55 million].”

Anti-Christian attacks in western Ethiopia in 2006 killed at least 24 people.

“Attacks on the church have been a common occurrence in predominantly Muslim areas of Ethiopia like Jimma and Jijiga,” the source said, adding that Christians are often subject to harassment and intimidation.

Asendabo, in Oromia Region, is about 300 kilometers (186 miles) from Addis Ababa.

The attacks erupted as heavy fighting was taking place at the borders of Kenya, Ethiopia and Somalia. Ethiopian troops were trying to repel Islamic extremist al-Shabaab troops from Bulahawo, Somalia, near Mandera, Kenya, with several casualties and hundreds displaced.

Ethiopia’s constitution, laws and policies generally respect freedom of religion, but occasionally some local authorities infringe on this right, according to the U.S. Department of State’s 2010 International Religious Freedom Report.

According to the 2007 census, 44 percent of Ethiopia’s population affiliate with the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, 19 percent are evangelical and Pentecostal and 34 percent are Sunni Muslim.

Report from Compass Direct News

Algerian Christians to Appeal Conviction for Worshipping

Church leaders fear verdict could mean the end of the country’s Protestant churches.

ISTANBUL, December 15 (CDN) — Four Christian men in Algeria will appeal a court decision to hand them suspended prison sentences for worshiping without a permit, saying the verdict could have repercussions for all the country’s churches.

The correctional court of Larbaa Nath Irathen, about 27 kilometers (17 miles) from the capital of Tizi Ouzou Province, gave two-month suspended prison sentences to four Christian leaders of a small Protestant church on Sunday (Dec. 12).

The pastor of the church, Mahmoud Yahou, was also charged with hosting a foreigner without official permission. The court gave him a three-month suspended sentence and a fine of 10,000 Algerian dinars (US$130), reported French TV station France 24 on its Web site. The prosecutor had asked for one-year prison sentences for each defendant.

Although the suspended sentences mean the four Christians will not serve prison time, Yahou told Compass that he and the three other men plan to appeal the verdict because the outcome of their case could affect all Protestant churches of the country, none of which have official permission to operate.

“If they close us, they can close all the gatherings and churches that exist in Algeria,” Yahou said. “They could all be closed.”

In February 2008 the government applied measures to better control non-Muslim groups through Ordinance 06-03, which was established in 2006. Authorities ordered the closure of 26 churches in the Kabylie region, both buildings and house churches, maintaining that they were not registered under the ordinance. No churches have been closed down since then.

Despite efforts to comply with the ordinance, no churches or Christian groups have received governmental approval to operate, and the government has not established administrative means to implement the ordinance, according to the U.S. Department of State’s 2010 Report on International Religious Freedom.

Though none of the churches have closed since 2008, their status continues to remain questionable and only valid through registration with the Protestant Church of Algeria (EPA). The EPA, however, is also trying to gain official recognition.  

“Actually, this law of 2006 has come to light: people are condemned as criminals for the simple act of thinking and believing different,” the president of the EPA, Mustapha Krim, told Compass. “If we accept this [verdict], it means we are condemned to close our churches one after the other.”

Krim confirmed that based on Ordinance 06-03, none of the churches have actual authorization to operate, nor can Christians speak about their faith to other Algerians.

“If they condemn our four brothers, they need to condemn the others,” he said.

In a sign of solidarity towards the men and to demand the abolition of Ordinance 06-03, dozens of demonstrators gathered outside the courthouse on the first hearing of the case on Sept. 26. Demonstrators carried banners that read: “Places of worship for everyone,” “Freedom of religion = freedom of conscience,” and “Abolition of the Law of 06-03-2006.”

Attending the re-opening of a Catholic church in Algeria’s capital on Monday (Dec. 13), Religious Affairs Minister Bouabdellah Ghlamallah told reporters, “Religious freedom in Algeria is a reality,” reported Reuters.

The Algerian Constitution gives the right to all citizens to practice their faith, although it declares Islam the state religion and prohibits institutions from behavior incompatible with Islamic morality.

Yahou said the judge did not pass a rightful judgment and thus had no real sense of justice.

“I think he has no conscience,” Yahou said. “We can’t be persecuted for nothing. He didn’t judge on the law and constitution, he judged on Islam. If he had read what is in the constitution, he wouldn’t have made this decision.”

The small church of Larbaa Nath Irathen, consisting only of a few families, had problems as early as 2008, when a group of Islamic radicals launched a petition against the church without success.  

Yahou told Compass that he knew very well the people in the village who brought charges against them, saying that they have tried to intimidate the church for the past few months in an effort to close it down.

“These are Islamists, and I know them in this village,” Yahou said.

Tizi Ouzou is part of Kabylie region, an area of Algeria where the country’s Protestant church has grown with relative freedom in recent years.

There are around 64 Protestant churches in the Kabylie region, where most Algerian Christians live, as well as numerous house groups, according to church leaders. The Kabylie region is populated by Berbers, an indigenous people of North Africa.

In October a court in the region acquitted two Christian men of eating during Ramadan in spite of a prosecutor’s demand that they be punished for “insulting Islam.”

In January Muslim neighbors ransacked and set on fire a church in Tizi Ouzou. In September a court in Tizi Ouzou ordered a local church to stop construction on an extension to its building and to tear it down.

Unofficial estimates of the number of Christian and Jewish citizens vary between 12,000 and 50,000, according to the state department’s report.

Report from Compass Direct News

Somali Teenage Girl Shot to Death for Embracing Christ

Nurta Mohamed Farah, 17, had fled parents who tortured her.

NAIROBI, Kenya, December 3 (CDN) — A 17-year-old girl in Somalia who converted to Christianity from Islam was shot to death last week in an apparent “honor killing,” area sources said.

Nurta Mohamed Farah, who had fled her village of Bardher, Gedo Region to Galgadud Region to live with relatives after her parents tortured her for leaving Islam, died on Nov. 25. Area sources said they strongly suspected that the two unidentified men in Galgadud Region who shot her in the chest and head with a pistol were relatives or acting on their behest.

“Reports reached the relatives in Galgadud that Nurta Farah had converted to Christianity,” one source said. “The suspicion that the family is responsible is a solid one. The sister was killed in Abudwaq, a district in Galgadud Region, and the place where the incident took place is about 200 meters from where the sister was staying with relatives.”

Relatives buried Farah, sources said. Her parents had severely beaten her for leaving Islam and regularly shackled her to a tree at their home, Christian sources said. She had been confined to her home in Gedo region in southern Somalia since May 10, when her family found out that she had embraced Christianity, said a Christian leader who visited the area (see “Family of 17-Year-Old Somali Girl Abuses Her for Leaving Islam,” June 15).

Her parents also took her to a doctor who prescribed medication for a “mental illness,” he said. Alarmed by her determination to keep her faith, her father, Hassan Kafi Ilmi, and mother, Hawo Godane Haf, decided she had gone crazy and forced her to take the prescribed medication, but it had no effect in swaying her from her faith, the source said.

Traditionally, he added, many Somalis believe the Quran cures the sick, especially the mentally ill, so the Islamic scripture was recited to her twice a week.

She had declined her family’s offer of forgiveness in exchange for renouncing Christianity, the source said. The confinement began after the medication and punishments failed.

Area Christians had reported that Farah was shackled to a tree by day and put in a small, dark room at night.

Somalia’s Transitional Federal Government generally did not enforce protection of religious freedom found in the Transitional Federal Charter, according to the U.S. Department of State’s 2010 International Religious Freedom Report.

“Non-Muslims who practiced their religion openly faced occasional societal harassment,” the report stated. “Conversion from Islam to another religion was considered socially unacceptable. Those suspected of conversion faced harassment or even death from members of their community.”

Report from Compass Direct News

Burmese Officials Order Closure of Chin Church

Government punishes pastor for refusing to wear campaign T-shirt, amid other election abuses.

DUBLIN, November 18 (CDN) — Officials in Mergui Region, Burma, ordered a Baptist church to cease holding worship services after the pastor refused to wear an election campaign T-shirt supporting the military government’s Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP).

The election commission summoned 47-year-old Pastor Mang Tling of Dawdin village, Gangaw township, Mergui Region on Nov. 9, two days after the election and ordered him to stop holding services and discontinue the church nursery program, the Chin Human Rights Organization (CHRO) reported yesterday.

The CHRO works against human rights abuses, including religious discrimination, for the Chin people, a minority group in Burma’s northwest estimated to be 90 percent Christian.

Village headman U Than Chaung had given the pastor a campaign T-shirt to wear in support of the USDP, and when he refused to wear it, the headman filed a report with local authorities accusing him of persuading Christian voters to vote in favor of an opposing party.

Under Burmese law, religious leaders can be penalized for “engaging in politics,” giving the pastor a solid legal reason to decline the T-shirt. The law also bans leaders of religious groups from voting in national elections, according to the CHRO, although lay members of those groups are able to vote.

“The election law is quite vague,” a CHRO spokesman told Compass today. “One of the things we were watching out for during the election was to see if church elders or council members might be excluded from voting. But these people were able to vote. The law seems to apply only to pastors, monks and imams.”

Officials interrogated Mang Tling in Gangaw until Sunday (Nov. 14), when he was allowed to return home.

Meantime, the USDP won the election amid widespread evidence of “advance” voting and other forms of voter manipulation throughout Burma.

Previously known as the Union Solidarity and Development Association, and before that the State Peace and Development Council, the USDP was formed by a ruling junta composed largely of army generals. The junta has ruled Burma without a constitution or parliament since 1998, although in 2008 they pushed through support for a new constitution that will take effect following this month’s elections, according to the 2010 International Religious Freedom report released yesterday by the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor.

The new constitution forbids “abuse of religion for political purposes,” the report stated. Election laws published in March also banned members of religious orders from voting for or joining political parties and reserved 25 percent of seats in the new parliament for members of the military.

The 2008 constitution “technically guarantees a degree of religious freedom. But then, it’s Burma,” a CHRO spokesman told Compass.


Voter Intimidation

The Chin National Party defeated the USDP in three electorates in Chin state despite reports of widespread voting anomalies, some of which were outlined in a CHRO press release on Nov. 7.

In Tedim township northern Chin state, for example, USDP agent Go Lun Mang went to the home of a local resident at 5 p.m. the day before the election and told the family that he had already voted on their behalf in favor of the USDP. He added that soldiers in a nearby camp were ready to arrest them if they complained.

On Nov. 5, the local government had already ordered village officials to instruct residents to vote for the USDP. On Nov. 7, the day of the election, USDP agents in campaign uniforms stood at the gate of the polling station in Tedim and asked voters if they intended to vote for the USDP. Those who said yes were allowed into the station, while those who said no were refused entrance.

USDP agents also warned Chin voters in Thantlang town that they should vote for the USDP “while the door was open” or they would regret it, Burma News International reported on Nov. 5.

David Mathieson, a senior researcher for Human Rights Watch (HRW), said the intimidation indicated that the junta and the USDP knew how unpopular they were.

Reports by the CHRO show a long history of discrimination against the majority Christian Chin, including the destruction of crosses and other Christian monuments, state-sponsored efforts to expand Buddhism, forced contributions of finance and labor to Buddhist construction projects, arrest and detention, torture and particularly harsh treatment of pastors. In addition, officials have refused construction for all new church building projects since 2003.

A report issued by HRW in January confirmed serious and ongoing abuses against Chin Christians.

One Chin pastor interviewed by HRW described how soldiers held him at gunpoint, forced him to pray in a Buddhist pagoda and told him that Burma was a Buddhist country where Christianity should not be practiced. (See “Report Documents Abuse of Chin Christians,” Feb. 20.)



Suu Kyi’s Release Stirs Guarded Hope among Burma’s Christians

NEW DELHI, November 18 (Compass Direct News) – The release of democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi from house arrest in Burma on Saturday (Nov. 13) has sparked cautious optimism about human rights among Christians and the country’s ethnic minorities even as the junta does battle with armed resistance groups.

Freeing her six days after elections, the military regime of Burma (also known as Myanmar) kept 1991 Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Suu Kyi from running in the country’s first election in 20 years, but ethnic minorities are still “very happy” and “enthused with hope and anticipation,” said Plato Van Rung Mang, who heads the India chapter of Chin Human Rights Organization.

Suu Kyi is the only leader from the majority Burmese community – predominantly Buddhist – who is trusted by the ethnic minorities, said Mang, an India-based Christian originally from Burma’s Chin state, which borders India.

“We have faith in Suu Kyi’s honesty and leadership, and she has been our hope,” he added.

The ethnic Chin, Kachin, Karen and Karenni people – many of whom are Christian – as well as mostly Buddhist ethnic Shan, Mon and Arakanese (some of them Muslim) people have been fighting for self-determination in their respective states and opposing the military junta’s policy of centralized control and Burmese dominion.

“We trust that Suu Kyi can fulfill her father’s ideal and political principles which have been subverted by the Burmese military junta’s Burmanization policy,” said Mang. Suu Kyi’s father, Aung San, was the nation’s leader at the time of independence and favored autonomy for ethnic minorities.

“Just as her father was trusted and held in high esteem by the ethnic people, Aung San Suu Kyi also has the ability to work together with the minorities to build a better, peaceful Burma where the human rights of all citizens are respected and protected,” said Garrett Kostin, a U.S. citizen who runs the Best Friend Library, built by a Buddhist monk in support of Suu Kyi, in Chiang Mai in northern Thailand.

While sections of the ethnic communities have been involved in armed resistance against the junta’s rule, many local residents in the region remain unarmed but are also at risk of being killed in the post-election conflict.

In the wake of the Nov. 7 election, as expected (See “Burma’s Ethnic Christians Fear Bleak Future after Election, Oct. 22), clashes between armed ethnic groups and the Burmese army erupted in three of the seven ethnic states – Karen, Shan and Mon – mainly along Thailand and China border, reported Thailand-based Burma News International. The violence has resulted in an influx of over 20,000 people into Thailand – the largest flow in the last five years.

According to US-based Refugees International, the Thai government forced many of the asylum seekers back.

There are also tensions in Kachin and Karenni states, which could erupt at any time, between the Burmese army and the Democratic Karen Buddhist Army, the Karen National Union, the Kachin Independence Army, the Shan State Army-North, and the Karenni National Progressive Party.

Rights advocates, however, were still heartened by Suu Kyi’s release.

It’s “a wonderful opportunity for the ethnic minorities of Burma to unify in support of each other’s rights and desires,” said Kostin.

In September 2007, many Buddhist monks joined democracy activists in street protests against the military regime’s decision to cut fuel subsidies, leading to a sharp rise in gas and diesel prices. Known as the Saffron Revolution, the protests resulted in hundreds of deaths as government security personnel resisted it militarily.

In numerous clashes between the repressive military regime and political opponents and ethnic minorities, over 3.5 million Burmese have been displaced and thousands killed over the years.

Suu Kyi will continue to enjoy the trust of ethnic minorities because “she has been working so hard since the beginning [of her political career] to speak out about the plight of ethnic people with an honest and sincere commitment,” said Bangkok-based Soe Aung, deputy secretary for Foreign Affairs of the Forum for Democracy in Burma.

Chiang Mai-based Christian relief group Free Burma Rangers (FBR) recalled that Suu Kyi, the general secretary of the National League for Democracy, along with allies won more than 80 percent of the seats in parliament “in Burma’s only truly democratic election” in 1990. “The military regime, however, did not recognize the results and continued to hold power,” it said in a statement.

Last week’s election was “neither free nor fair,” FBR said, adding that “thousands of political prisoners [estimated at 2,200] are still in jail, ethnic minorities are attacked [on a regular basis], and the people of Burma remain under oppression.

“Still, we are grateful for the release of Aung San Suu Kyi as she is a leader who gives real hope to the people of Burma.”

An FBR team leader who spoke on condition of anonymity recalled Suu Kyi requesting his prayers when he met with her during a brief period when she was not under house arrest in 1996.

“The Global Day of Prayer for Burma and the ethnic unity efforts we are involved in are a direct result of that meeting,” the leader said. “As she told me then, one of her favorite quotes is, ‘You will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.’”

Some Christians, however, remained cautious.

“Although San Suu Kyi wants Burma to be a true federal country, there is no certainty in the hearts of the Karen people because they have suffered for very long, and the so-called Burmese have turned their backs on them several times,” said a Karen Christian from Chiang Mai who identified himself only as Pastor Joseph.

La Rip, a Burmese activist in China, also said that while Suu Kyi deserved to enjoy freedom, she and her party “do not seem to have a clear idea on how to solve the long-standing issues” related to ethnic minorities.

For her part, Suu Kyi spelled out a plan to hold a nationwide, multi-ethnic conference soon after she was freed. Her father held a similar meeting, known as the Panglong Conference, in 1947. Aung San, then representing the Burmese government, reached an agreement with leaders from the Shan, Kachin and Chin states to accept full autonomy in internal administration for the ethnic controlled frontier areas after independence from Britain.

Suu Kyi’s planned conference is seen as the second Panglong Conference, but it remains uncertain if the new Burmese regime, which is likely to be as opposed to ethnic minorities as the junta, will allow her plan to succeed.

In the awaited election results, the junta’s proxy party, the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), is likely to have majority in parliament to form the next government. Suu Kyi’s party had been disbanded by the military regime, and only a small splinter group ran in the election.

It is also feared that Suu Kyi, who was under house arrest for nearly 15 years since 1990 until her release last weekend, could face assassination attempts or fresh charges followed by another term under arrest.

Burma has a population of around 50 million, out of which around 2.1 million are estimated to be Christian.

Report from Compass Direct News

Christian Jailed in Ethiopia Accused of Desecrating Quran

Constitution flouted as he is jailed for two months in Muslim area without court appearance.

NAIROBI, Kenya, October 7 (CDN) — A Christian in Ethiopia’s southern town of Moyale has been languishing in jail for two months after his Muslim business partner accused him of writing “Jesus is Lord” in a copy of the Quran, local church leaders said.

Tamirat Woldegorgis, a member of the Full Gospel Church in his early 30s, was arrested in early August after the Muslim co-worker in the clothes-making business the two operated out of a rented home discovered Woldegorgis had inscribed “Jesus is Lord” on some cloth, area Christians said.

Woldegorgis returned from a break one morning to find that the inscribed words had been cut out of the piece of cloth, the sources said. He then had the words set in the machinery of their tailoring business for inscription on clothing material, only to find later that the inscribed plates were removed from the machinery as well, they said.

The Muslim associate, whose name has not been established, then went to a nearby mosque with the accusation that Woldegorgis had written “Jesus is Lord” in the Quran itself, sources said. Angry sheikhs at the mosque subsequently had Woldegorgis arrested for desecrating the book sacred to Islam, they said.

Other sources said, however, that Muslims accused Woldegorgis of writing “Jesus is Lord” on a piece of wood, on a minibus and then on the wall of a house. As he has not been brought to court, the exact charges against him are not yet known. Woldegorgis denies all accusations, and area Christians insisted he is innocent.

A church leader who requested anonymity told Compass that Christians in Moyale are concerned that Woldegorgis, a married father of two from Hagarmariam village, has not been granted a trial after two months in jail. He said that two days after Woldegorgis was arrested, two friends inquired about him at the Moyale police station; authorities responded by jailing them for two weeks.

“The Ethiopian constitution allows for religious tolerance,” said the church leader, “but to date Woldegorgis has not been taken to court. He is still in a police cell, which is quite unusual for an Ethiopian national, and given constitutional provisions.”

Jijiga, capital of Ethiopia’s Somali Region, has the largest court in eastern Ethiopia, and Christians fear that Islamic principles govern it. In Ethiopia’s federal state system, each state is autonomous in its administration, and most of those holding government positions in Somali Region Zone Five are Muslims.

“We fear that our brother might be taken to Islamic court in Jijiga for trial, which will further threaten his life,” the church leader said. “Where is justice for our brother being in prison without been tried?”

Sources also said that authorities are offering to release Woldegorgis if he will convert to Islam. Woldegorgis is physically weak but strong in his faith, the church leader said, adding that he needs food and other material assistance, as well as an attorney.

Sources said Woldegorgis has been jailed in Zone Five of Ethiopia’s Somali Region, a predominantly Somali area. Moyale, located on Ethiopia’s border with Kenya, is divided between the predominantly Muslim Zone Five and Zone Four, which is populated mainly by ethnic Oromo, with each zone having distinct administrative and judiciary systems. Preaching non-Muslim faiths is not allowed in Zone Five, in spite of provisions for religious freedom in Ethiopia’s constitution.

Hostility toward those spreading faiths different from Islam is a common occurrence in predominantly Muslim areas of Ethiopia and neighboring countries, they said. Christians are often subject to harassment and intimidation.

Ethiopia’s constitution, laws and policies promote freedom of religion, but occasionally local authorities infringe on this right, according to the U.S. Department of State’s 2009 International Religious Freedom Report. According to the 2007 census, 44 percent of Ethiopia’s population affiliate with the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, 19 percent are evangelical and Pentecostal and 34 percent are Sunni Muslim.

Report from Compass Direct News

Iranian Authorities Release Assyrian Pastor on Bail

Accused of ‘converting Muslims,’ church leader faces trial – and threat of murder.

ISTANBUL, April 5 (CDN) — An Assyrian pastor the Iranian government accused of “converting Muslims” has been released from prison on bail and is awaiting trial.

The Rev. Wilson Issavi, 65, was released from Dastgard prison in Isfahan last week. Conflicting reports indicated Issavi was released sometime between Sunday (March 28) and Tuesday morning (March 30).

On Feb. 2, State Security Investigations (SSI) agents arrested Issavi shortly after he finished a house meeting at a friend’s home in Isfahan. Along with the accusation of “converting Muslims,” the pastor is charged with not co-operating with police, presumably for continuing to hold such house meetings after police sealed the Evangelical Church of Kermanshah and ordered him not to reopen it.

After his arrest, Issavi was held at an unmarked prison facility in Isfahan and apparently tortured, according to a Christian woman who fled Iran and knows Issavi and his family. The Christian woman, who requested anonymity for security reasons, said Issavi’s wife, Medline Nazanin, visited the pastor at the unmarked facility. Nazanin said it was obvious Issavi had been tortured, the Christian told Compass.

Issavi’s confinement cells were so filthy he contracted a life-threatening infection, Nazanin told the Christian woman.

“They took him to the hospital and then returned him back to the prison,” the woman said.

Friends of Issavi added that he is still dealing with the lingering effects of the infection.

During Issavi’s imprisonment, authorities threatened to execute him, sources close to the case said. The joy of Issavi’s family at his release was tinged with fear as they waited in agony for the possibility of him being killed by Islamic extremists, as is common in Iran when Christians are detained for religious reasons and then released.

“Sometimes they release you just to kill you,” the Christian source said.

Issavi has not been informed of his trial date.

Issavi’s friend said that low-key ethnic Christians, such as the Assyrians, are largely unbothered for long periods of time. Active Christians are treated differently.

“When you start evangelizing, then you are in real trouble,” she said.

Iranian authorities have set up a video camera outside Issavi’s church to monitor anyone going in or out of the building, according to the pastor’s friend.

Issavi was one of a few Christians in leadership positions arrested in Isfahan in February during what some Middle Eastern experts described as a crackdown on area church leadership.

Isfahan, a city of more than 1.5 million people located 208 miles (335 kilometers) south of Tehran, has been the site of other anti-Christian persecution. In an incident in July 2008, two Christians died as a result of injuries received from police who were breaking up a house meeting.

On Feb. 28, Isfahan resident Hamid Shafiee and his wife Reyhaneh Aghajary, both converts from Islam and house church leaders, were arrested at their home.

Police handcuffed, beat and pepper-sprayed Aghajary and then took her to prison. Her husband Shafiee, who was away from the house when police arrived, was arrested an hour later when he returned to the house. Approximately 20 police officers raided the home, seizing Bibles, CDs, photographs, computers, telephones, personal items and other literature.

The couple is still being held. Other details about their detainment are unknown.

Three Christians Released

Elsewhere, three Christians arrested on Dec. 24, 2009 have been released, according to Farsi Christian News Network (FCNN).

Maryam Jalili, Mitra Zahmati, and Farzan Matin were initially arrested along with 12 other Christians at a home in Varamin. Eventually they were transferred to Tehran’s notorious Evin Prison, though the other 12 prisoners were conditionally released on Jan. 4. 

Jalili, Zahmati and Matin were freed on March 17, though terms of their release were unclear. Jalili is married and has two children.

Iran has a longstanding history of religious repression. Shia Islam is the official state religion and is ensconced as such in Iran’s constitution. Every year since 1999, the U.S. Secretary of State has designated Iran as a “Country of Particular Concern” for its persecution of Christians and other religious minorities.

According to the 2009 International Religious Freedom Report issued by the U.S. Department of State, persecution of Christians and other religious minorities in Iran continued to get significantly worse.

“Christians, particularly evangelicals, continued to be subject to harassment and close surveillance,” the report states. “The government vigilantly enforced its prohibition on proselytizing by closely monitoring the activities of evangelical Christians, discouraging Muslims from entering church premises, closing churches, and arresting Christian converts.”

Report from Compass Direct News