Church Registration in Vietnam Inches Along

Assemblies of God obtains ‘operating license,’ but quest for recognition continues.

HO CHI MINH CITY, October 23 (CDN) — The Assemblies of God (AoG) in Vietnam on Monday (Oct. 19) received an “operating license,” which the government described as “the first step . . . before becoming officially legal.”

This operating license gives permission for all of the congregations of the Vietnam AoG to “carry on religious activity” anywhere in the country for the next year. During this time the church body must prepare a doctrinal statement, a constitution and bylaws and a four-year working plan to be approved by the government before being allowed to hold an organizing assembly. These steps, AoG leaders hope, would lead to legal recognition.

The operating license is the first one granted since five were granted two years ago. The last of those five churches, the Christian Fellowship Church, was finally allowed to hold its organizing assembly in late September. According to an internal 2008 government Protestant Training Manual obtained by church leaders, this assembly was delayed because authorities observed large discrepancies between the number of followers the group claimed and the actual number, as well as other “instability.”

Vietnam News Service reported on Sept. 29 that the Christian Fellowship Church has “30,000 believers nationwide.”

Should the AoG achieve legal recognition, it would be the ninth among some 70 Protestant groups in Vietnam and the seventh since new religion legislation touted to expedite registration was introduced in 2004.

The AoG quest was typically long, and it is not yet over. Though started in the early 1970s before the communist era, the denomination was deemed dormant by authorities after the communist takeover and restarted in 1989. Strangely, the Vietnamese religion law requires a church organization to have 20 years of stable organization before it can even be considered for legal recognition.

Though the AoG had been trying for years to register, only this year did it fulfill the 20-year requirement in the eyes of the government. Sources said AoG’s resistance to strong pressure by the government to eliminate a middle or district level of administration may also have contributed to the delay.

Ironically, the official government news report credits the Vietnam AoG with 40,000 followers, while denominational General Superintendent Samuel Lam told Compass the number is 25,000. He also said he hoped the advantages of registration would outweigh the disadvantages.

With no more operating licenses being granted, the future of registration is in a kind of limbo. Sources said a lower level of registration in which local authorities are supposed to offer permission for local congregations to carry on religious activities while the more complicated higher levels are worked out has largely failed. Only about 10 percent of the many hundreds of applications have received a favorable reply, they said, leaving most house churches vulnerable to arbitrary harassment or worse.

Leaders of all Protestant groups say that they continue to experience government resistance, as well as social pressure, whenever they preach Christ in new areas. They added that evidence is strong that the government’s aim is to contain Protestant growth.

Hmong Christians who fled the Northwest Mountainous Region for the Central Highlands a decade ago, developing very poor land in places such as Dak Nong, reported to Compass that they were singled out for land confiscation just when their fields became productive. They said ethnic Vietnamese made these land grabs with the complicity of the authorities, sometimes multiple times.

At the same time, Human Rights Watch (HRW) reported on Oct. 19 that Vietnam has experienced a “sharp backsliding on religious freedom.” Among other incidents, HRW cited the late September crackdown on followers of Buddhist peace activist Thich Nhat Hanh. Some 150 monks were forcibly evicted from his sect’s Bat Nha Monastery in Lam Dong province on Sept. 27, and 200 nuns fled in fear the next day. As in recent land disputes with Roman Catholics involving thousands of demonstrators, authorities hired local and imported thugs to do the deed to present the image that ordinary local people were upset with the religion.

After a visit to Vietnam in May, the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) recommended that the United States reinstate Vietnam as a Country of Particular Concern (CPC), the blacklist of religious liberty offenders. Vietnam had been on the list from 2004 until 2006.

The USCIRF, which experienced less government cooperation that on some previous visits,  observed that “Vietnam’s overall human rights record remains poor, and has deteriorated since Vietnam joined the World Trade Organization in January 2007.”

Some key Protestant leaders describe themselves as weary and frustrated at what they termed the government’s lack of sincerity, extreme tardiness and outright duplicity regarding religious freedom. They too said they believe that the lifting of Vietnam’s CPC status was premature and resulted in the loss of a major incentive for Vietnam to improve religious freedom.

Report from Compass Direct News 

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 

Copts Grapple with Cause of Fire at Church in Egypt

Many in congregation doubt investigators’ hasty declaration of electrical mishap.

ISTANBUL, September 18 (CDN) — The congregation of a Coptic church that was destroyed by fire last week is divided over whether it was a case of arson.

At 3 p.m. on Sept. 8, a fire broke out in the rear of the Church of Saint Paul and Saint Peter near the main entrance of the building. Located in the town of Shebin al-Kom some 37 miles (60 kilometers) northwest of Cairo, the church building along with its icons, relics and most of its furniture was destroyed.

According to local media reports, investigators said the cause of the fire was electrical. A sizable portion of the congregation, however, disputes this.

Gamal Gerges, a local reporter who works for the newspaper Al-Youm al-Sabeh, said police have no proof that the fire was accidental.

“The police say it is an electric fire – the police say it is no criminal act,” Gerges said. “The police did not have evidence, but said what they did to avoid strife between the Christians and the Muslims.”

The priest of the church has declined to comment publicly on the cause of the fire, other than repeating what investigators have said. He said he is waiting for the official report to determine the cause of the fire.

One member of the congregation, a 25-year-old woman, is not so quiet. The woman, whose name has been withheld for her protection, said that the electrical system in the church was largely unscathed by the fire. She said the damage did not radiate from the church’s fuse box.

She said she believes the fire was set intentionally but did not suggest any possible culprits.

Through an interpreter, the Rev. Antonious Wagih told Compass that relations between the Coptic and Muslim communities in the area are amicable. Media reports indicate, however, that prior to the fire local Muslims were harassing priests, and that people who lived around the church dumped dirty water on the congregants from balconies. Other reports state that local women cheered after the church burned down.

Reasons for the discrepancies between Wagih’s statements and media reports were unclear. Wagih told Compass that he “did not want to [get] into a struggle or argument with the authorities.” He added that he wanted to “avoid any dispute in this area.”

Roughly 400 families attend Saint Paul and Saint Peter. The woman who claimed the fire was arson said many congregants shared her view. Other church members were not immediately available, but other media reports also indicated that she was not alone in her opinion.

No one was injured in the fire. At press time there was no monetary estimate of damages.

The Coptic community of Shebin al-Kom used the Church of Saint Paul and Saint Peter for three years after they purchased the building from a group of Roman Catholics with a dwindling congregation.

The Shebin al-Kom fire was one of a spate of incidences reported by Coptic leaders during the Islamic fasting month of Ramadan.

Report from Compass Direct News 


Prosecutors suspect he’s protecting ‘masterminds’ of slaying of three Christians in Malatya.

ISTANBUL, August 25 (Compass Direct News) – Turkish murder suspect Emre Gunaydin admitted in court last week that he had again committed perjury in the trial over the savage murders of three Christians in southeast Turkey.

Gunaydin, 21, faced off in Malatya’s Third Criminal Court on Friday (Aug. 21) with Varol Bulent Aral, whom he had named as one of the instigators of the attack at Zirve Publishing Co.’s Malatya office in a previous disposition before state prosecutors. Gunaydin, the alleged ringleader of the murderers, told the court that he had lied in a previous disposition before state prosecutors by implicating Aral.

“I named Varol Bulent Aral to reduce the sentence,” Gunaydin said under questioning.

His admission came after Aral testified at length, painting an elaborate scenario of himself as a key player in the “Ergenekon” conspiracy – said to include top level political and security officials, among others – suspected of orchestrating the 2007 Malatya attack with Gunaydin and four other defendants.

“Varol Bulent Aral has no connection with these events,” Gunaydin insisted. “He is explaining things that he has imagined. There was not any threat against me, nor any instigator.”

Gunaydin initially failed to appear at Friday’s hearing where Aral was expected to testify, sending a note to the court that he was feeling unwell. But the judge abruptly announced a short court recess and ordered Gunaydin brought immediately from prison to the courtroom.

At a hearing three months ago, Gunaydin retracted similar allegations he had made against Huseyin Yelki, a former volunteer at the Christian publishing house where Turkish Christians Necati Aydin and Ugur Yuksel and German Christian Tilmann Geske were bound hand and foot, tortured and then slain with knives.

Jailed for three months on the basis of Gunaydin’s allegations, Yelki was finally brought to testify at the May 22 hearing.

“Huseyin Yelki is not guilty. He’s in prison for nothing,” Gunaydin told the court after Yelki testified. When questioned why he previously had implicated Yelki, Gunaydin said, “I did it to lessen my punishment. That’s why I said he was a missionary.”

Despite glaring discrepancies in his testimony, Yelki was released for lack of evidence. Aral was also ordered released for insufficient evidence, although he remains jailed in the Adiyaman Prison on unrelated criminal charges.

Plaintiff lawyers have expressed skepticism about Gunaydin’s two retractions, questioning whether he has been pressured to change his testimony in order to shield the actual instigators of the plot. They also remain unconvinced that Aral and Yelki were not collaborators in the attack.

Prosecution Failures

“An investigation does not just consist of claims, it must consist of proofs,” plaintiff lawyer Ali Koc told journalists on the courthouse steps after last week’s hearing. “One of the underlying missing elements of the Zirve Publishing trial in Malatya stems from the failure to pursue the investigation with sufficient objectivity, depth and careful attention.”

The only reason Aral and Yelki were charged in the case, the attorney noted, was because one of the defendants claimed they were accomplices. Koc stressed it was “the duty of the state and the judiciary to uncover those responsible for this event – the instigators, and the climate in which they emerged.”

He also declared that Aral should be investigated for his relations with intelligence officials, which he hoped would expose new evidence.

“If the Malatya case is not joined with the Ergenekon trial, then we’re probably looking at a verdict against the killers within the next three to five court hearings,” plaintiff lawyer Erdal Dogan said. “But I have hope – I hope for merging it with the Ergenekon case, in order to uncover the perpetrators behind the scenes.”

After two failed summons, Burcu Polat also appeared to testify at the Aug. 21 hearing. Now 18, Polat was Gunaydin’s girlfriend at the time of the murders. She stated that she had used two different cell phones in the weeks previous to the murders. Both telephones were registered in the name of her father, Ruhi Polat, a provincial council member of the Nationalist Movement Party previously called to testify at the trial.

The court summoned intelligence officer Murat Gokturk from the Malatya gendarmerie headquarters to appear at the next hearing, set for Oct. 16. Yelki had contacted Gokturk frequently by telephone in the weeks preceding the murders.

Detailed Informant Letter

Two months ago, an informant in the military intelligence division of the Malatya gendarmerie headquarters sent an extremely detailed report to state prosecutors regarding what Turkish media have dubbed the “Malatya massacre.”

The two-page letter fingered former Col. Mehmet Ulger, gendarmerie commander of Malatya province at the time of the murders, as a key instigator within the murder plot.

With precise, documented details, the report outlined Ulger’s targeting of the Malatya Christians and their activities during the weeks surrounding the attack, including a secret briefing for selected officials, unregistered meetings and the tapping of gendarmerie personnel named for specific assignments at various stages.

At the actual day and hour of the killings, the report said, Ulger received a telephone call from his commander while he was in a furniture shop in the city center. Ulger immediately promised to go to the scene, taking two sergeant majors and an official car, and arriving just as the police teams pulled up.

“The event had just happened, and the police teams had not yet gone to the scene, and Mehmet Ulger’s superiors informed him about it,” the report noted.

The letter goes on to describe frequent visits Inonu University professor Ruhi Abat made to Ulger’s office, where the colonel had specifically ordered his subordinates to never record Abat’s visits in the official record book.

Although Ulger and Abat testified on April 13 that they had sponsored a seminar regarding missionary activities for gendarmerie personnel, the informant declared it could be easily proved that such a seminar had never been held.

The informant claimed that 40,000 Turkish lira (US$30,800 at the time) was paid out during 2007 by Malatya’s gendarmerie intelligence staff “solely to direct close surveillance on missionary activities.” Instead of using the funds to help “break apart illegal organizations or recover a lot of drugs,” he said, a large portion of the money was handed over to Abat, he said.

The informant’s letter was sent simultaneously to Malatya Prosecutor Seref Gurkan and State Prosecutor Zekeriya Oz, who heads the Ergenekon investigation in Istanbul.

The anonymous informant claimed he had much more information that he could not pass along safely without revealing his own identity.

“Because I regret that I was involved myself in some of this, I am sending this letter to both prosecutors,” he wrote. “I hope that I am being helpful in solving this dark event.” He enclosed a CD of Ulger’s 2007 briefing as well as a list of the people whose telephones were being tapped.

It is not known how seriously the latest informant’s letter is being taken by the Malatya prosecutors.

“But we are seeing the continuation of a long chain of information coming out,” plaintiff lawyer Orhan Kemal Cengiz commented. “We have at least achieved something in the eyes of the Turkish public, because everyone is now convinced that it was not just these five young men who planned this; there were much larger and more serious forces behind the scenes.”

Report from Compass Direct News