Religious Conversion Worst Form of ‘Intolerance,’ Bhutan PM Says

Propagation of religion is allowable – but not seeking conversions, top politician says.

THIMPHU, Bhutan, April 13 (CDN) — In the Kingdom of Bhutan, where Christianity is still awaiting legal recognition, Christians have the right to proclaim their faith but must not use coercion or claim religious superiority to seek conversions, the country’s prime minister told Compass in an exclusive interview.

“I view conversions very negatively, because conversion is the worst form of intolerance,” Jigmi Yoser Thinley said in his office in the capital of the predominantly Buddhist nation.

Christian leaders in Bhutan have told Compass that they enjoy certain freedoms to practice their faith in private homes, but, because of a prohibition against church buildings and other restrictions, they were not sure if proclamation of their faith – included in international human rights codes – was allowed in Bhutan.

Prime Minister Thinley, who as head of the ruling party is the most influential political chief in the country, said propagation of one’s faith is allowed, but he made it clear that he views attempts to convert others with extreme suspicion.

“The first premise [of seeking conversion] is that you believe that your religion is the right religion, and the religion of the convertee is wrong – what he believes in is wrong, what he practices is wrong, that your religion is superior and that you have this responsibility to promote your way of life, your way of thinking, your way of worship,” Thinley said. “It’s the worst form of intolerance. And it divides families and societies.”

Bhutan’s constitution does not restrict the right to convert or proselytize, but some Non-Governmental Organizations have said the government effectively limits this right by restricting construction of non-Buddhist worship buildings and celebration of some non-Buddhist festivals, according to the U.S. Department of State’s 2010 International Religious Freedom Report.

It adds that Bhutan’s National Security Act (NSA) further limits proclamation of one’s faith by prohibiting “words either spoken or written, or by other means whatsoever, that promote or attempt to promote, on grounds of religion, race, language, caste, or community, or on any other ground whatsoever, feelings of enmity or hatred between different religious, racial, or language groups or castes and communities.” Violation of the NSA is punishable by up to three years’ imprisonment, though whether
any cases have been prosecuted is unknown, according to the State Department report.

Bhutan’s first democratic prime minister after about a century of absolute monarchy, Thinley completed three years in office last Thursday (April 7). While he affirmed that it is allowable for Christians to proclaim their faith – a practice commanded by Christ, with followers agreeing that it is the Holy Spirit, not man, that “converts” people – Thinley made his suspicions about Christians’ motives manifest.

“Any kind of proselytization that involves economic and material incentives [is wrong],” he said. “Many people are being converted on hospital beds in their weakest and most vulnerable moments. And these people are whispering in their ears that ‘there is no hope for you. The only way that you can survive is if you accept this particular religion.’ That is wrong.”

Thinley’s suspicions include the belief that Christians offer material incentives to convert.

“Going to the poor and saying, ‘Look, your religion doesn’t provide for this life, our religion provides for this life as well as the future,’ is wrong. And that is the basis for proselytization.”

Christian pastors in Thimphu told Compass that the perception that Bhutan’s Christians use money to convert the poor was flawed.

The pastors, requesting anonymity, said they prayed for healing of the sick because they felt they were not allowed to preach tenets of Christianity directly. Many of those who experience healing – almost all who are prayed for, they claimed – do read the Bible and then believe in Jesus’ teachings.

Asked if a person can convert if she or he believed in Christianity, the prime minister replied, “[There is] freedom of choice, yes.”

In his interview with Compass, Thinley felt compelled to defend Buddhism against assertions that citizens worship idols.

“To say that, ‘Your religion is wrong, worshiping idols is wrong,’ who worships idols?” he said. “We don’t worship idols. Those are just representations and manifestations that help you to focus.”

Leader of the royalist Druk Phuensum Tshogpa party, Thinley is regarded as a sincere politician who is trusted by Bhutan’s small Christian minority. He became the prime minister in April 2008 following the first democratic election after Bhutan’s fourth king, Jigme Singye Wangchuck, abdicated power in 2006 to pave the way toward democracy.

Until Bhutan became a constitutional monarchy in 2008, the practice of Christianity was believed to be banned in the country. The constitution now grants the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion to all citizens. It also states that the king is the protector of all religions.

Thus far, the Religious Organisations Act of 2007 has recognized only Buddhist and Hindu organizations. As a result, no church building or Christian bookstore has been allowed in the country, nor can Christians engage in social work. Christianity in Bhutan remains confined to the homes of local believers, where they meet for collective worship on Sundays.

Asked if a Christian federation should be registered by the government to allow Christians to function with legal recognition, Thinley said, “Yes, definitely.”

The country’s agency regulating religious organizations under the 2007 act, locally known as the Chhoedey Lhentshog, is expected to make a decision on whether it could register a Christian federation representing all Christians. The authority is looking into provisions in the law to see if there is a scope for a non-Buddhist and non-Hindu organization to be registered. (See, “Official Recognition Eludes Christian Groups in Bhutan,” Feb. 1.)

On whether the Religious Organisations Act could be amended if it is determined that it does not allow legal recognition of a Christian federation, the prime minister said, “If the majority view and support prevails in the country, the law will change.”

Thinley added that he was partially raised as a Christian.

“I am part Christian, too,” he said. “I read the Bible, occasionally of course. I come from a traditional [Christian] school and attended church every day except for Saturdays for nine years.”

A tiny nation in the Himalayas between India and China, Bhutan has a population of 708,484 people, of which roughly 75 percent are Buddhist, according to Operation World. Christians are estimated to be between 6,000 to nearly 15,000 (the latter figure would put Christians at more than 2 percent of the population), mostly from the south. Hindus, mainly ethnic Nepalese, constitute around 22 percent of the population and have a majority in the south.


Religious ‘Competition’

Bhutan’s opposition leader, Lyonpo Tshering Togbay, was equally disapproving of religious conversion.

“I am for propagation of spiritual values or anything that allows people to be good human beings,” he told Compass. “[But] we cannot have competition among religions in Bhutan.”

He said, however, that Christians must be given rights equal to those of Hindus and Buddhists.

“Our constitution guarantees the right to freedom of practice – full stop, no conditions,” he said. “But now, as a small nation state, there are some realities. Christianity is a lot more evangelistic than Hinduism or Buddhism.”

Togbay said there are Christians who are tolerant and compassionate of other peoples, cultures and religions, but “there are Christians also who go through life on war footing to save every soul. That’s their calling, and it’s good for them, except that in Bhutan we do not have the numbers to accommodate such zeal.”

Being a small nation between India and China, Bhutan’s perceived geopolitical vulnerability leads authorities to seek to pre-empt any religious, social or political unrest. With no economic or military might, Bhutan seeks to assert and celebrate its sovereignty through its distinctive culture, which is based on Buddhism, authorities say.

Togbay voiced his concern on perceived threats to Bhutan’s Buddhist culture.

“I studied in a Christian school, and I have lived in the West, and I have been approached by the Jehovah’s Witness – in a subway, in an elevator, in a restaurant in the U.S. and Switzerland. I am not saying they are bad. But I would be a fool if I was not concerned about that in Bhutan,” he said. “There are other things I am personally concerned about. Religions in Bhutan must live in harmony. Too often I have come across people who seek a convert, pointing to statues of our deities and saying
that idol worship is evil worship. That is not good for the security of our country, the harmony of our country and the pursuit of happiness.”

The premise of the Chhoedey Lhentshog, the agency regulating religious organizations, he said, “is that all the different schools of Buddhism and all the different religions see eye to eye with mutual respect and mutual understanding. If that objective is not met, it does not make sense to be part of that.”

It remains unclear what the legal rights of Christians are, as there is no interaction between the Christians and the government. Christian sources in Bhutan said they were open to dialogue with the government in order to remove “misunderstandings” and “distrust.”

“Thankfully, our political leadership is sincere and trustworthy,” said one Christian leader.

Asserting that Christians enjoy the right to worship in Bhutan, Prime Minister Thinley said authorities have not interfered with any worship services.

“There are more Christian activities taking place on a daily basis than Hindu and Buddhist activities,” he added.

Report from Compass Direct News

Moroccan Convert Serving 15 Years for His Faith

Christian’s sentence for ‘proselytism,’ burning poles called excessive.

ISTANBUL, September 17 (CDN) — Nearly five years into the prison sentence of the only Christian in Morocco serving time for his faith, Moroccan Christians and advocates question the harsh measures of the Muslim state toward a man who dared speak openly about Jesus.

By the end of December Jamaa Ait Bakrim, 46, will have been in prison for five years at Morocco’s largest prison, Prison Centrale, in Kenitra. An outspoken Christian convert, Bakrim was sentenced to 15 years prison for “proselytizing” and destroying “the goods of others” in 2005 after burning two defunct utility poles located in front of his private business in a small town in south Morocco.

Advocates and Moroccan Christians said, however, that the severity of his sentence in relation to his misdemeanor shows that authorities were determined to put him behind bars because he persistently spoke about his faith.

“He became a Christian and didn’t keep it to himself,” said a Moroccan Christian and host for Al Hayat Television who goes only by his first name, Rachid, for security reasons. “He shared it with people around him. In Morocco, and this happened to me personally, if you become a Christian you may be persecuted by your family. If you keep it to yourself, no one will bother you. If you share it with anyone else and start speaking about it, that’s another story.”

Rachid fled Morocco in 2005 due to mounting pressure on him and his family. He is a wanted man in his country, but he said it is time for people to start speaking up on behalf of Bakrim, whom he said has “zeal” for his faith and speaks openly about it even in prison.

“Our Moroccan brothers and sisters suffer, and we just assume things will be OK and will somehow change later by themselves,” said Rachid. “They will never change if we don’t bring it to international attention.”

Authorities in Agadir tried Bakrim for “destruction of the goods of others,” which is punishable with up to 20 years in prison, and for proselytism under Article 220, which is punishable with six months to three years in prison.

“Jamaa is a manifestation of a very inconvenient truth for Moroccan authorities: there are Moroccan converts to Christianity,” said Logan Maurer, a regional director at U.S.-based advocacy group International Christian Concern (ICC). “The government wants to ignore this, suppress it, and when – as in Jamaa’s case – the problem won’t go away, they do whatever they can to silence it.”

Proselytism in Morocco is generally defined as using means of seduction or exploiting weakness to undermine the faith of Muslims or to convert them to another religion.

Recently Morocco has used the law to punish any proclamation of non-Muslim faith, contradicting its pledge to allow freedom to manifest one’s faith under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which it is a signatory. Article 18 of the covenant affirms the right to manifest one’s faith in worship, observance, practice or teaching.

The covenant also states, however, that “freedom to manifest one’s religion or beliefs may be subject only to such limitations as are prescribed by law and are necessary to protect public safety, order, health, or morals or the fundamental rights and freedoms of others.”

There are an estimated 1,000 Moroccan Christian converts in the country. They are not recognized by the government. About 99 percent of Morocco’s population of more than 33 million is Muslim.

Between March and June authorities expelled 128 foreign Christians in an effort to purge the country of any foreign Christian influences. In April nearly 7,000 Muslim religious leaders backed the deportations by signing a document describing the work of Christians within Morocco as “moral rape” and “religious terrorism.” The statement from the religious leaders came amid a nationwide mudslinging campaign geared to vilify Christians in Morocco for “proselytism” – widely perceived as bribing people to change their faith.

In the same time period, Moroccan authorities applied pressure on Moroccan converts to Christianity through interrogations, searches and arrests. Christians on the ground said that, although these have not continued, there is still a general sense that the government is increasingly intolerant of Christian activities.  

“They are feeling very bad,” said Rachid. “I spoke to several of them, and they say things are getting worse…They don’t feel safe. They are under a lot of disappointment, and [they are] depressed because the government is putting all kinds of pressure on them.”


From Europe to Prison

Bakrim, a Berber from southern Morocco, studied political science and law in Rabat. After completing his studies he traveled to Europe, where he became a Christian. Realizing that it would be difficult to live out his new-found faith in Morocco, in 1993 he applied for political asylum in the Netherlands, but immigration authorities refused him and expelled him when his visa expired.

In 1995 Bakrim was prosecuted for “proselytizing,” and spent seven months in jail in the city of Goulemine. In April 1996 he was transferred to a mental hospital in Inezgane, where authorities ordered he undergo medical treatments. He was released in June. The psychiatric treatment caused side-effects in his behavior and made it difficult for him to control his hands and legs for a period of time, sources told Compass.

Two years later authorities put him in jail again for a year because he publicly displayed a cross, according to an article by Moroccan weekly Le Journal Hebdo published in January 2005.

“He has a zeal about his religion,” said Rachid. “He never denied his faith through all these things, and he even preached the gospel in prison and the psychiatric place where they held him … They tried to shut him [up], and they couldn’t.”

In 2001 Bakrim again attracted attention by painting crosses and writing Bible verses in public view at his place of business, which also served as his home, according to the French-language weekly. Between 2001 and 2005 he reportedly wrote to the municipality of Massa, asking officials to remove two wooden utility posts that were no longer in use, as they were blocking his business. When authorities didn’t respond, Bakrim burned them.

During his defense at the Agadir court in southern Morocco, Bakrim did not deny his Christian faith and refuted accusations that he had approached his neighbors in an attempt to “undermine their Muslim faith.”

The judge ruled that “the fact that Jamaa denies accusations of proselytism is inconsistent with his previous confession in his opening statement when he proclaimed he was the son of Christ, and that he wished that Moroccans would become Christians,” according to Le Journal Hebdo.

Bakrim did not appeal the court sentence. Though there have been other cases of Christians imprisoned for their faith, none of their sentences has been as long as Bakrim’s.

“They will just leave him in the prison so he dies spiritually and psychologically,” said Rachid. “Fifteen years is too much for anything they say he did, and Jamaa knows that. The authorities know he’s innocent. So probably they gave him this sentence so they can shut him [up] forever.”

Rachid asked that Christians around the world continue to lobby and pray that their Moroccan brothers and sisters stand firm and gain their freedoms.

“The biggest need is to stand with the Moroccan church and do whatever it takes to ask for their freedom of religion,” said Rachid.

Report from Compass Direct News

Theology Student Dies in Attack in Madhya Pradesh, India

Hindu extremists raid revival meeting in one area, while others attack gospel event in another.

NEW DELHI, April 27 (CDN) — Hindu extremists raided Christian events in India’s Madhya Pradesh state this month, leaving a visiting theology student dead and several other Christians injured.

The body of 23-year-old Amit Gilbert was recovered from a water well 25 feet from the site of a Christian revival meeting that 15 to 20 Hindu extremists attacked on April 17 in Gram Fallaiya, Post Pathakheda, Betul district. With covered heads and carrying iron rods and bamboo clubs, members of the Hindu extremist Dharam Sena and Bajrang Dal cut electricity at the night-time event and began striking, sending the more than 400 in attendance running, Christian leaders said.

Eyewitnesses said the assailants chased Gilbert, of Gorakhpur in Uttar Pradesh state, and beat him mainly on his legs. Police in the state controlled by the Hindu extremist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) said that for the moment they believe Gilbert accidentally fell into the well amid the chaos, but Christians present said that is unlikely.

His body was found with his head and legs submerged in the 1.5-meter deep water of the well, yet he had no water in his lungs or stomach when Christians drew him out, said Pastor Santwan Lal, organizer of the April 15-17 revival event, suggesting that Gilbert was dead before being thrown in. 

“Amit was hit first and then picked up and thrown into the well,” Pastor Lal said. “If he had fallen into the well, he would have had more bruises and at least a broken bone or two, since the well is rocky and narrow. But that was not the case.”

Pastor Lal and others Compass spoke with said they believe the posture of the body leaves no doubt that Gilbert was murdered.

“He sustained an injury on the left side of his face near the ear,” Pastor Lal added.

An autopsy was conducted, but authorities are not disclosing findings, Pastor Lal said. Hindu extremists from the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh and Bajrang Dal are reportedly exerting intense pressure on local authorities.

Betul Assistant Sub-Inspector Santosh Jain told Compass that the results of the autopsy, conducted by a team of doctors, will not be released because they have now become politicized.

Police on April 19 arrested nine people in connection with the incident and charged them with rioting, violence and trespassing, but not murder. Officers also registered Gilbert’s death under the Section 174 of the Code of Criminal Procedure, which pertains to inquiry and report on an incident involving death of a person whether suicide or otherwise.

“We are trying hard, but this case does not seem to be moving forward,” Jain said. “A report has been registered against 10 to 12 [initially] unidentified people, and we have so far arrested nine. All have accepted their involvement in the crime, and all belong to the Bajrang Dal. Not one of them is a local from Betul. Their bails have been rejected at the lower court.”

Arrested were Rakesh Dhurwe, Neeraj Rajput, Radheshyam Sahu, Sonu Rajput, Raju Kahar, Rajesh Oriya, Raju Deshmukh, Arun Thackrey, and Hemrath Bahalavi, he said.

Though police have initially determined that Gilbert fell into the well, they say they are open to the possibility that he was thrown into it.

Pastor Lal added that two women were also injured in the melee.

“As a result of the violence, two ladies attending the meeting were hit, and one of them was admitted in a local hospital for three days,” he said.

Christian leaders said Betul has increasingly witnessed such attacks since the BJP came to power in the state in 2004, with various incidents of Christians being beaten, arrested and intimidated.

The April 17 attack was sudden and without provocation or warning, Pastor Lal said. Soon after the assailants left, the Christians gathered to determine if anyone were missing. An unnamed girl and a nephew of the pastor were missing but later found, and that night Gilbert’s body was found when a Christian shined a flashlight into the well.

Gilbert was visiting as a volunteer to another pastor after having finished his Masters in Divinity degree from Central India Bible College, Itarsi, Madhya Pradesh, in March. He had reportedly insisted on staying to help Pastor Abhishek John in Sallaiya village in order to gain ministry experience.

Sources said April 17 was to have been Gilbert’s last day of volunteer service, as he was planning to return home to Uttar Pradesh the next day.

Rampage in Balaghat

In Balaghat on April 14 and 15, Hindu extremists attacked a three-day gospel meeting with fuel-bombs in spite of the presence of police summoned beforehand to provide security.

Prior to the event attended by 10,000 people in Balaghat’s Mulna stadium, local newspapers carried open threats issued by the Bajrang Dal and BJP workers against the Christian community. On April 14Bajrang Dal members threw two fuel-bombs into the stadium that did not explode.

“They had hurled petrol bombs even in the presence of the police,” Saurabh Panduria, a local Christian doctor, told Compass. “Thankfully it did not explode, or anything could have happened as there were many women, children and sick people in the crowd.”

The next day Bajrang Dal and the BJP workers attacked the event as well as the quarters where people who had come from outside Balaghat to attend the meetings were staying, including Kamla Nehru hall.

Police increased security for the April 15 meeting, but as it was drawing to a close about 150 BJP andBajrang Dal members surrounded the stadium. Some of them tried to storm in, but police repelled them. Hindu extremists responded by pelting them with stones and throwing fuel bombs at police vehicles. They also attempted to destroy stadium property.

Bajrang Dal workers Golu Thakre and Manu Yadav were among those who harassed participants at an afternoon meeting on April 15, said Dr. Amos Singh of Jeevan Jyoti Ministries in Balaghat.

“Darbari and Ganesh from Barai village in Mandla, Madhya Pradesh, and Sunil Jagne from Gondia, Maharashtra, were severely beaten by the Bajrang Dal people, and they were interrogated like they were criminals,” Singh said. “The police arrived later.”

At 5 p.m. extremists caught hold of some Christians and forced them to the BJP local office in Balaghat, where BJP and Bajrang Dal members assaulted at least three of them.

Police arrested nearly 23 Bajrang Dal members, including eight leaders. This prompted BJP Member of Parliament K.D. Deshmukh and Member of Legislative Assembly Ramesh Bhatere to lead a mob that surrounded the police station and protested throughout the night, loudly shouting slogans against the administration and the Christian community.

About 1,000 to 1,500 BJP and Bajrang Dal supporters fanned throughout Balaghat, bunching particularly around a bus stand and railway station and damaging at least three vehicles, including ones belonging to a senior police officer and an ex-Member of Parliament, Ashok Singh Saraswat. The mob attempted to set fire to buses from Maharashtra state transport corporation.

Since most of those attending the meeting were outsiders, the Bajrang Dal members descended on the railway station and bus stand and harassed passengers and broke property, damaging both buses and railway coaches, Singh said. If the extremists found a Bible in the luggage of people at the railway station and bus stand, they attacked them, he said.

“Christians who were returning from the meeting and attempting to get away from Balaghat as soon as possible were attacked and beaten with sticks and pelted with stones,” Singh said. “Women workers of the BJP attacked Christian women staying in Sindhi Dharamshala [hall], and some Christians who had come from Gondia and other places from nearby Maharashtra and Chhattisgarh had to flee for their lives, leaving behind their luggage in the Kamla Nehru hall and other places where they were put up.”

Pastor Kamlesh Nagpure said that he and his family were stuck in the stadium, unable to go to their home outside the city limits of Balaghat.

“People were driven to safety in tractors and private cars following the ruckus, and they were attacked even till early morning, 4 a.m.,” he said. “The attackers used large sticks to rough people up and indulged in brick throwing, which also damaged some vehicles. Some of us who could not get a safe ride outside town limits were forced to stay inside the stadium the whole night. Most of the crowd was composed of women and children.”

Christian leaders reportedly said the mob also damaged a Catholic church in Balaghat and attempted to attack other church buildings and houses belonging to Christian leaders. They threw fuel-bombs at the house of the Rev. Arvind Deep, where several participants had taken refuge that night.

At last the administration was forced to impose a curfew until April 17, even as the BJP declared a total shutdown of market and other activities on April 16 and 17 as part of their protest.

“Targeting participants of the meeting and beating and intimidating them continued till 10 a.m. on April 16,” Singh told Compass. “Many Christians have fled Balaghat out of fear and have gone to live with their relatives.”

Eight people who were arrested on April 15 were reportedly released the next morning.

Report from Compass Direct News 

Pakistani lawyer faces court for murder of Christian girl

No other year in the last decade has seen more persecution against Pakistani Christians than 2009. As many as 130 Christians were killed through attacks, arrests and detentions throughout the year, according to International Christian Concern. And so far, this year has not been much better, reports MNN.

Late in January, yet another Christian, Shazia Bashir Masih, lost her life at the hands of a Muslim.

"On January 22, a Muslim lawyer by the name of Mohammed Naeem tortured and killed a 12-year-old Christian girl in Lahore, Pakistan," said Jonathan Racho of ICC. The girl was rushed to the hospital after sustaining injuries "but did not recover and passed away," said lawyers of the Centre for Legal Aid, Assistance and Settlement (CLAAS).

Masih worked for Naeem as a servant for eight months to help her parents financially. Sources say the 1000 rupees (12 USD) she made a month was her family’s only income.

Naeem, a famous lawyer in the area, reportedly bribed local authorities to prevent his arrest. However, when the police failed to move against Naeem, Masih’s family staged protests outside of government offices.

Their protests attracted the attention of local media, and Pakistan’s president soon heard of the case. At this point, Naeem was arrested along with five other individuals related to the crime.

According to Aid to the Church in Need, Naeem appeared in court on Jan. 26, the day following Masih’s funeral. CLAAS, who is representing the Masih family, presented their case on Jan. 29. The hearing will resume on Feb. 3.

In addition to Naeem being a well-known lawyer in the area, he is also the former president of the Lahore Bar Association, which is the organization that issues licenses to the lawyers of the area. Because of this sway and other bribes Naeem has offered to the Masih family, they have had difficulty finding representation, according to ICC.

However, ICC also reported on a news conference of CLAAS and church leaders, "CLAAS is still determined to go the distance necessary to secure justice for Shazia and her family."

Whatever the outcome of the trial, Racho remained hopeful about the strength of Christians in Pakistan.

"Persecution cannot stop the Gospel from being preached and from Christians being faithful to Christ. On the one hand, there is an increase in persecution; on the other hand, Christians remain faithful to the faith, and they even continue to spread the Gospel and bring Muslims to Christ," said Racho.

Report from the Christian Telegraph 

Pakistani Christian on Run from Taliban Death Threat

Islamic extremist sermonizing leads to altercation at barbershop in South Waziristan.

LAHORE, Pakistan, November 27 (CDN) — A young Christian man is in hiding in Pakistan from Taliban militants who seek to kill him for “blasphemy” because he defended his faith.

In February Jehanzaib Asher, 22, was working in a barbershop his family jointly owns with his cousin in Wana, South Waziristan – a Taliban stronghold in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas in Pakistan’s northwest – when the Islamic militants showed up to try to convert him to Islam.

It was not the first time the Taliban’s Noor Hassan had delivered strident sermons to him and his relatives, and this time Asher decided not to listen silently. He defended Christianity by citing verses from the Bible, and Hassan and another Islamic militant viciously beat him – breaking his left leg and some ribs and leaving his left hand non-functional.

He told Compass that he only defended Christianity and did not comment on Islam.

“One can bear the death of one’s father or mother, but can we keep listening to insults of our religion?” Asher said.

Nearby Muslims helped him and two cousins ward off the attack. Soon the Taliban militants began spreading the word to local residents that Asher and his cousin Christopher Masih had blasphemed Muhammad, the prophet of Islam.

Before the Pakistani military’s recent offensive against the Taliban stronghold in South Waziristan, Asher said, his picture was posted at check-points in an attempt to help the Taliban and other Islamists identify and kill him.

Asher’s cousin, Zaib Masih, managed to get Asher and Christopher Masih (Zaib Masih’s brother) into a vehicle, and they fled the market area where their two barbershops are located. As barbers they were targeted for the Islamic sermonizing and attack due to the Taliban’s opposition to shaving of beards, he said.

Zaib Masih told Compass that Christopher Masih was also injured in the attack, though not as seriously as Asher. They took Asher to a military hospital, safe from the Taliban. But when military doctors asked how Asher became so badly injured, they mentioned only a “family fight” so as not to draw the ire of any Muslim soldiers who might attack them for the blasphemy allegations.

For months Asher remained at home; even neighbors were unaware of the fact that he was still in Wana, Zaib Masih said.

“We live in the army compound, but we still feared that the Taliban might tip off some one in the compound, and we might be attacked on the allegations of blasphemy,” he said.

He said that they had been born and brought up in Wana and knew many Taliban members, and with their help he approach a grand mufti to try to obtain a decree that Asher was innocent.

“I took along a lamb with me to present to the mufti in order to appease his anger, but he listened to no word and wanted to know Asher’s whereabouts,” Zaib Masih added.

Asher still walked with a limp, and the Taliban were determined to kill him, Zaib Masih said. His and Asher’s families own a house in Sialkot, and Zaib Masih said he planned to sneak him there.

Asher said the grand mufti was not present when the Taliban initially sought to kill him, and that therefore no fatwa was issued ordering his death.

“If that had happened, then I would have been killed for sure,” he said. “The Taliban were even killing the army personnel, so what capacity did we have to defend ourselves?”

Earlier this month, Asher told Compass, he disguised himself as a Muslim with a long beard and left Wana.

Initially he fled to Sialkot, Punjab Province. Soon he learned that in Wana news of his departure had spread, and that there was a rumor that three Taliban had been dispatched to Sialkot to hunt him down. Crestfallen, he fled to another, undisclosed city.

Asher told Compass that he had recovered from all injuries except for his knee, which remained swollen. He said he was receiving treatment for it at a hospital.

“Only God could have saved me from this calamity,” he said. “Otherwise, no one could save me from their hands.”

The cousins’ barbershops in Wana have been closed after the encounter with the Taliban. Zaib Masih said that two relatives have government jobs as janitors, and the two families are surviving on their meager salaries.

Since the closing of their barbershops, Zaib Masih said, the families have living hand-to-mouth – barely able to have two meals a day.

South Waziristan is the headquarters of Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan, the Taliban umbrella group fighting the government, and is a hub of Arab and Uzbek Islamic militants. In mid-October the Pakistani Army launched an offensive after the Taliban managed to take the army’s general headquarters in Rawalpindi.

Report from Compass Direct News 

Some 59 Christians are released from jails in Pakistan

On Friday, November 13, 2009, the sun came up with new hopes in the lives of 59 Christians in Pakistan after the Pakistani-based Christian organization, “Life for All,” had made a determined effort to give these people their lives back, reports Xavier Patras William, special to ASSIST News Service.

The imprisoned Christians, who have been in various jails in Pakistan, got the welcome news of their freedom after hard work made by Mr. Rizwan Paul, President “Life for All,” who had presented a petition to Mr. Asif Ali Zardari, President of Pakistan, for the pardon of these Christians who he stated had been “falsely accused of minor crimes.”

The President reviewed the petition and approved the release of the prisoners who had been accused of minor crimes, and he vowed to review the release of other prisoners after reviewing the nature of their crimes.

The prisoners that were freed had been incarcerated in Adyala Jail, Rawalpindi; Kot Lakhpat Jail, Lahore; Sialkot Jail, Sialkot; as well as Peshawar Jail and the Karachi Jail.

Now they are free, and can breathe and move freely.

Extremely emotional scenes were seen outside the jails when the prisoners were released. Family members were present to greet their loved ones and they thanked “Life for All” for their efforts.

Representatives from “Life for All” were present at the respective jails to receive the released. They took the record of the released and then handed over them over to their families.

However, there are still more than 2,500 Christians in jails all over Pakistan who cannot afford the legal assistance for their release. There are many church-based and Christian/Muslim civil society organizations who claim to provide legal aid assistance to Christians and other poor people, but the truth is that the poor in Pakistan are implicated in false cases and end up in jail for years.

“Life for All” did not get any local / foreign aid for the release of these Christians.

Rizwan stressed that the Christian organizations “need to work together for the development of the community” in Pakistan.

Report from the Christian Telegraph 

Convictions Few in Anti-Christian Violence in Orissa, India

BJP legislator, a key suspect in Kandhamal violence, acquitted again and out on bail.

NEW DELHI, November 11 (CDN) — Following six acquittals last week in trials for those accused of the 2008 anti-Christian violence in India’s Orissa state and the release on bail of a key suspect, Christians are losing heart to strive for justice, according to a prosecuting attorney.

The acquittal of six suspects last week raises the total to 121, with just 27 convicted in the Orissa violence by Hindu extremists.

“The victims are so discouraged due to the increasing number of acquittals that they neither have hope nor motivation for the criminal revision of their cases in the higher court,” attorney Bibhu Dutta Das of the Orissa High Court told Compass.

He said the acquittals are the result of defective investigations carried out by police.

“This has been done intentionally, to cover-up the fundamentalists,” he said.

Das said that in many cases police fraudulently misrepresented the ages of culprits so that the ages of the accused in court would not match the age denoted in the victims’ First Information Reports, leaving the court no option but to let the alleged culprits go.

“There can be two persons by the same name, so age is a major identification factor that is considered,” said Das.

Christian leaders in Orissa said the state government’s claims of justice for the victims of the anti-Christian violence ring hollow as the number of acquittals is far more than convictions.

An Orissa state Member of Legislative Assembly (MLA) who was facing charges in 14 cases of “murder, burnings and assaults” in last year’s Kandhamal district violence against Christians has been released on bail in one of the murder cases.

Manoj Pradhan, MLA from the Hindu extremist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in G. Udayagiri block, faces a murder charge in a slaying in Tiangia village. The Orissa High Court awarded him bail in the case, and he was released from Phulbani jail on Oct. 30.

On that day he was also acquitted of arson in a house-burning in Banjamaha village due to “lack of evidence.” In trials relating to the Orissa violence of August-September 2008, the Hindu extremist perpetrators have reportedly intimidated many witnesses to keep them from testifying.

“With Manoj Pradhan, who has charges of murder against him, released on bail, this is a big threat to the witnesses of cases against him,” attorney Das told Compass.

If Pradhan remains free, Das said, he likely will be acquitted in all other cases as he will be able to threaten witnesses.

“Pradhan is already acquitted in six cases, whereas eight cases are still pending against him,” Das said.

Special Public Prosecutor Bijay Pattnaik told reporters that Pradhan was acquitted of the arson charge as only one witness stepped forward.

“He was let off for want of evidence as there was a lone witness in the case,” Pattnaik said. “Only the victim testified in the case, and the charges against Pradhan could not be proved.”

Fast Track Court-I Judge Sobhan Kumar Das on Oct. 30 acquitted Pradhan of the house burning, which took place on Oct. 1, 2008. Earlier Pradhan was acquitted in two murder trials due to “lack of evidence.”

In another case, witnesses had testified to the involvement of Pradhan in the kidnapping of Kantheswar Digal – subsequently murdered on Aug. 25, 2008 – in Sankarakhole village, Phulbani district, but their testimony failed to convince the court to condemn the BJP politician. 

Pradhan was arrested and jailed in October 2008 and was elected as BJP MLA from the G. Udayagiri constituency while in jail.

Three Years of Prison

On Oct. 29 a fast track court at Phulbani sentenced three persons to three years rigorous imprisonment for destroying evidence in the murder of a man during the 2008 attacks in Kandhamal. Judge Das also imposed a fine of 1,000 rupees (US$21) each on Senapati Pradhan, 65, Revenswar Pradhan and Tidinja Pradhan, both 62. Failure to pay the fine would result in an additional three months of prison.

The three men were charged along with seven others for killing tribal elder Sidheswar Pradhan in the village of Solesoru, Tikabali block, on Aug. 25, 2008. 

Prosecutors said the three men clubbed Sidheswar Pradhan to death in front of villagers and family members, and that his body was set on fire. But the Judge Das convicted the three only of destruction of evidence in the case, exonerating them of the murder charges saying, “It could not be proved.”

Padisti Nayak, a 65-year-old widow, was reportedly burned alive on the same day. She had stayed back and not fled even after hearing the news of violence against Christians, believing the attackers would not harm an elderly woman.

Twelve days later Iswar Digal, her son-in-law who had fled to a refugee camp, contacted a district magistrate for information about her. When authorities inspected the family’s gutted home in Solesoru, they found only charred human remains, flesh and bones, which they collected as evidence of the violence.

The court acquitted the other seven of all charges due to lack of evidence against them.

Nabijini Pradhan, nephew of Sidheswar Pradhan, told Asia News that his family has since been receiving death threats.

“I cannot believe the murderers were acquitted,” he reportedly said. “Our family is at risk; we are getting death threats; they want to eliminate us. They killed and burned my uncle’s body to destroy every shred of evidence.”

Human rights activist Dhirendra Panda, a Hindu, told Asia News that some investigators are linked to Hindu extremists.

“Justice has been derailed, and some investigators are linked to the Sangh Parivar extremists,” Panda reportedly said. “They are determined to protect the accused, willing to manipulate cases rather than ensure justice for victims. Now not only are the religious rights of the population undermined, but also the core values of humanity and democracy.”

Report from Compass Direct News 

Two Indonesian Churches Receive Bomb Threats

Islamic groups demand halt to threatened congregation’s worship.

JAKARTA, Indonesia, October 13 (CDN) — Two churches in the greater Jakarta area have received bomb threats.

In East Jakarta, the pastor of a Batak Protestant Christian Church (Huria Kristen Batak Protestan, or HKBP) on Bogor Street received a threatening phone call before Sunday services on Oct. 4. The church building is located near the headquarters of an elite police corps.

The unknown caller to the Rev. Abidan Simanungkalit’s cell phone said the bomb would explode during the morning worship service, the pastor told Compass.

“I was startled to receive the short message,” he said. “I immediately phoned some church leaders and then called police.”

Scores of police and bomb squad officers came to the site and combed the area for a bomb, discovering a black package in a garbage container near the front of the church building. It contained four large batteries, a small wall clock and a tin can, and after a two hours police determined that it was not a bomb.

Officers speculated that the caller was unable to construct a real bomb but wanted to publicize a threat.

Pastor Simanungkalit said congregation members were alarmed over the threat and that the morning worship was uneasy.

“They were panicky and fearful,” he said. “People kept getting up to go outside and check on things.”

The church has never had problems with anyone that would lead to such a threat, the pastor added.

“Everything has been peaceful,” he said. “The close proximity of the police headquarters seemed to guarantee peace.”

Closure Sought

In north Bekasi in the Jakarta metropolitan area, a church leader of a Bethel Indonesia congregation received a similar threat the previous day, Oct. 3.

Jeffry Lalamentik said he received the threat on his cell phone, with the unknown caller also saying, “Your church will be bombed during morning worship.”

Upon receiving the threat, Lalamentik said, he contacted the Rev. Daniel Susanto, who quickly called police. A bomb squad arrived shortly after and made a thorough search, but they did not discover any explosive device.

Lalamentik said there was reason to take the threat seriously. In July a number of radical Islamic groups, including the Islamic Defenders’ Front (Front Pembela Islam), Iqra Echo and the Forum for Communication and Hospitality of the Musala Mosque (FKSMM) in Bekasi demanded that the church close.

The church meets in a private home in the midst of a housing complex.

“We are putting up a permanent church building,” Lalamentik said. “Until that is finished, we are worshipping at Pastor Daniel’s home.”

Pastor Susanto said the church had secured permission for the church building from Bekasi officials in April. The Muslim organizations, he said, have opposed the church meetings at his house, where worship has taken place since 2000.

“We normally worship at my home but occasionally move to other houses,” the pastor told Compass.

A crowd of 600 protestors from Islamic organizations have demonstrated in front of Bekasi government offices demanding a halt to the Bethel Indonesia church’s worship services, he added, and they are also fighting the establishment of the congregation’s building.

Budi Santosa of the FKSMM said that the required papers for the building permit were incomplete because the recommendation from the local Interfaith Communications Forum was missing.

The Muslim groups have met with the deputy mayor of Bekasi, Mochtar Mohammad, and the assistant leader of the Bekasi City Council, Ahmad Syiakhu, as well as several other officials. Santosa said the officials are studying the Islamic organizations’ objections to both the house church worship and its building but have taken no action.

Report from Compass Direct News 

Christians Concerned over Acquittals in Orissa, India Violence

Lax investigation, prosecution, lack of witness protection cited as reasons for injustice.

NEW DELHI, September 30 (CDN) — Only 24 people have been convicted a year after anti-Christian mayhem took place in India’s Orissa state, while the number of acquittals has risen to 95, compounding the sense of helplessness and frustration among surviving Christians.

Dr. John Dayal, secretary general of the All India Christian Council, called the trials “a travesty of justice.”

Last month a non-profit group, the Peoples Initiative for Justice and Peace (PIJP), reportedly found that as many as 2,500 complaints were filed with police following the violence in August-September 2008 in the eastern state’s Kandhamal district. The violence killed at least 100 people and burned more than 4,500 houses and over 250 churches and 13 educational institutions. It also rendered 50,000 people, mostly Christian, homeless.

Police, however, registered only 827 complaints and arrested fewer than 700 people, even though 11,000 people were named as attackers in those complaints, according to a PIJP survey.

“The manner of the judicial processes in the Kandhamal fast-track courts is tragic where all too many people have managed to escape conviction for crimes as serious as conspiracy for brutal, premeditated murder and deliberate arson,” Dayal told Compass.

Among those acquitted was Manoj Pradhan, who allegedly led mobs that killed Christians and burned their houses a few months before he became a state legislator from the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

Facing charges in five cases of murder and six of arson, Pradhan has been acquitted in three cases.

On Thursday (Sept. 24), the judge of Fast Track Court-II, C.R. Das, acquitted Pradhan and another suspect, Mantu Nayak, on charges of killing Khageswar Digal for refusing to “reconvert” to Hinduism, according to the Press Trust of India (PTI). Digal was a 60-year-old Catholic and resident of Shankarakhol area in Chakapada Block in Kandhamal.

“The court acquitted the BJP MLA [Member of Legislative Assembly] and Nayak due to lack of proper evidence against them,” Special Public Prosecutor Pratap Patra told PTI.

The Rev. Ajay Singh, an activist from the Catholic Archdiocese of Cuttack-Bhubaneswar, said Digal’s son testified in court that he was witness to the killing of his father and knew the killers, and yet the accused were acquitted.

“It was a brutal murder, possibly a case of human sacrifice,” Singh said.

Digal was dragged from a vehicle before being killed on Sept. 24 last year – one month after the assassination of Vishwa Hindu Parishad (World Hindu Council or VHP) leader Swami Laxmanananda Saraswati by Maoists (extreme Marxists), which triggered the violence as Hindu extremists wrongly blamed Christians.

Singh spoke to the son of the deceased Digal, Rajendra Digal, who said his parents left their village after the violence and took shelter in the state capital, Bhubaneswar.

The elder Digal, who owned a grocery shop and 35 goats, returned to his village to see his house and livestock. After selling some of the goats, he boarded a public bus to Phulbani, Kandhamal district headquarters, to start his journey back to Bhubaneswar around noon on Sept. 24. As the bus started, however, some assailants allegedly led by Pradhan stopped the bus and dragged Digal out. They also broke his leg.

The attackers were said to have taken Digal to his village, where they looted his shop. Then they allegedly took him and eight of his goats to a nearby forest, where they feasted on the goat meat throughout the night.

When Rajendra Digal heard about it, he informed police, who allegedly took no interest in the complaint. Twelve days later, his father’s body, naked and burned with acid, was found 40 kilometers (25 miles) from the village. His genitals had also been chopped off.

Rajendra Digal said he believes his father may have been the victim of human sacrifice involving ritual feasting and torture.

Shoddy Probe, Lack of Evidence

A representative of the Christian Legal Association (CLA) said the police had been conducting investigations improperly.

The CLA source pointed out that in another Fast-Track Court-I case in which Pradhan was one of the accused, police had wrongly recorded the age of the informant, Bhutia Digal.

“The court observed that if the police could not cite the age of the informant correctly, how could they have investigated the case properly?” said the source, adding that such discrepancies were found in far too many cases.

During the violence in August-September 2008, the BJP was part of the ruling coalition with a local party, the Biju Janata Dal (BJD). The latter recently broke ties with the Hindu nationalist BJP, blaming it for violence in March, a month before the state assembly election.

The BJP lost the April-May election, and the BJD emerged as the stand-alone ruling party. It is believed that the state administration began taking action against the assailants only after the coalition split in March – six months too late, which possibly provided enough time for suspects to remove evidence and threaten witnesses.

Witnesses are still being threatened or bribed, according to rights groups.

On Thursday (Sept. 24), the day the BJP legislator was acquitted, the fast-track court also released five others accused of arson in the Tikabali area of Kandhamal in a separate case, reported the PTI.

Singh said the witnesses were either intimidated or bribed and therefore turned hostile to prosecutors in court. Friends of the accused took the witnesses to the court in their vehicle, he pointed out.

Dayal said the Orissa High Court should have taken notice of the increasing number of acquittals.

“A man now an MLA seems to be beyond the law,” he said. “I would demand a high-powered judicial review by the High Court of Orissa itself, or failing that, by civil society, which should set up an independent commission of retired judges and senior lawyers.”

Singh said police investigations and prosecutions were a “sham.” There is also “a pressing need for witness protection,” he said.

He added that there were reports of witnesses being intimidated and threatened in various villages, such as Dodingia, K. Nuagam, Phiringia and Solesoru. “Police are not entertaining complaints of the threat to the witnesses,” Singh said.

Dayal highlighted three essential problems: The quality of the charge-sheets prepared by police; the role of the public prosecutor in pressing the charges as prepared by police; and the circumstances under which eyewitnesses, “often sons and daughters of those killed, cannot attest to the truth or are forced into silence,” he said.

“India does not have a witness-protection program, and surely Kandhamal has none at all,” Dayal said. “Witnesses have to pass through an aggressive environment which affectively silences them. They are human beings and fear future violence, having seen brutal violence in the past.”

Singh and Dayal demanded that the cases be heard outside Kandhamal, preferably outside Orissa state.


First Life Sentences Handed Down for Orissa, India Killing

NEW DELHI, September 30 (Compass Direct News) – A fast-track court in Orissa state on Sept. 23 delivered its first life sentences for those convicted of murder in 2008 violence in Kandhamal district, sentencing five people to life imprisonment for their involvement in the killing of Pastor Akbar Digal.

Digal, 40, pastor of a Baptist church in Tatamaha village under Raikia police jurisdiction in Kandhamal district, was killed on Aug. 26, 2008 after refusing the slayers’ demand that he forsake Christianity and convert to Hinduism. His body was reportedly cut to pieces and then burned.

He is survived by his wife, Ludhia Digal, and five children.

Additional Sessions Judge Sobhan Kumar Das of Fast Track Court-I at Phulbani district headquarters sentenced Sabita Pradhan, 30; Papu Pradhan, 30; Abinash Pradhan, 29; Dharmaraj Pradhan, 32; and Mania Pradhan, 28, to life in prison and a fine of 5,000 rupees (US$104). The five were arrested after Pastor Digal’s wife filed a First Information Report on Aug. 29, 2008.

Previous to these sentences, two fast-track courts had sentenced 12 people to prison for terms ranging only from four to six years. The government set up the two fast-track courts to try nearly 900 cases related to anti-Christian violence that erupted in August 2008. The first conviction was determined on June 30.

The special Phulbani court also sentenced six others to three years’ rigorous imprisonment on Sept. 22 for an arson attack on a journalist’s house in Kandhamal’s Phiringia village on Dec. 12, 2007.

Police had arrested 11 people in this case, but the court acquitted five for “lack of evidence.” Convicted were Ganpati Kanhar, Rabindra Kanhar, Parmeshwar Kanhar, Daleswar Kanhar, Tuba Kanhar and Vijay Kanhar, whose ages range from 25 to 40 years. They were also fined 4,000 rupees (US$83) each.

Report from Compass Direct News