South China Sea: Trouble is Brewing in Territorial Disputes

  1. Is war brewing in the South China Sea? Territorial disputes are raging between China and Vietnam and also between China and the Philippines over a number of island groups in the South China Sea. A recent law passed by Vietnam has added fuel to the fire. The articles and videos below look into the disputes.

Vietnam stepping up religious rights abuses, experts say

Government-perpetrated violence against a Catholic village in Vietnam has highlighted a series of human rights abuses in the communist nation, and three U.S. congressmen are calling on the United Nations to intervene, reports Baptist Press.

"A few months ago during a religious funeral procession, Vietnamese authorities and riot police disrupted that sad and solemn occasion, shooting tear gas and rubber bullets into the crowd, beating mourners with batons and electric rods," Rep. Chris Smith, R.-N.J., said at a hearing of the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission in August.

"More than 100 were injured, dozens were arrested and several remain in custody and have reportedly been severely beaten and tortured. At least two innocent people have been murdered by the Vietnamese police," Smith said.

The Con Dau tragedy, Smith said, "is unfortunately not an isolated incident." Property disputes between the government and the Catholic church continue to lead to harassment, property destruction and violence, Smith said, referring to a report by the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom.

"In recent years, the Vietnamese government has stepped up its persecution of Catholic believers, bulldozing churches, dismantling crucifixes and wreaking havoc on peaceful prayer vigils," Smith said.

Persecution is not limited to Catholics, though, as Smith had a list of nearly 300 Montagnard political and religious prisoners. In January, the Vietnamese government sentenced two Montagnard Christians to 9 and 12 years imprisonment for organizing a house church, and others have been arrested in connection with house churches, Smith said.

"The arrests were accompanied by beatings and torture by electroshock devices," the congressman said. "We must not forget the sufferings of Khmer Krom Buddhists, Cao Dai, Hoa Hao, the Unified Buddhist Church of Vietnam and others. The said reality is that the Vietnamese government persecutes any religious group that does not submit to government control."

The violence in the 80-year-old Catholic village of Con Dau in central Vietnam reportedly stemmed from a government directive for residents to abandon the village to make way for the construction of a resort.

International Christian Concern, a Washington-based watchdog group, reported that when Con Dau residents refused to leave, water irrigation was shut off to their rice fields, stopping the main source of income and food.

In May, police attacked the funeral procession, beating more than 60 people, including a pregnant woman who was struck in the stomach until she had a miscarriage, ICC said.

One of the funeral procession leaders later was confronted by police in his home, where they beat him for about four hours and then released him. He died the next day, ICC said. Eight people remain in police custody and are awaiting trial.

"The people of Con Dau are living in desperate fear and confusion," Thang Nguyen, executive director of an organization representing Con Dau victims, told ICC. "Hundreds of residents have been fined, and many have escaped to Thailand."

Smith, along with Rep. Joseph Cao, R.-La., and Frank Wolf, R.-Va., introduced a House resolution in July calling for the United Nations to appoint a special investigator to probe "ongoing and serious human rights violations in Vietnam." In August, the Lantos Commission met in emergency session to address the "brutal murders and systematic treatment of Catholics in Con Dau."

"The Vietnamese government justifies this violence, torture and murder because the villagers of Con Dau had previously been ordered, some through coercion, to leave their village, property, church, century-old cemetery, their religious heritage, and to forgo equitable compensation in order to make way for a new ‘green’ resort," Smith said at the hearing. "Nothing, however, not even governmental orders, grant license for government-sanctioned murder and other human rights abuses."

The U.S. Department of State declined to testify before the Lantos Commission, and the U.S. ambassador to Vietnam characterized the Con Dau incident as a land dispute and refused to get involved.

Logan Maurer, a spokesman for International Christian Concern, told Baptist Press he has publicized about 10 different incidents of persecution in Vietnam during the past few months.

"In some cases, especially in Southeast Asia, religious persecution becomes a gray area. We also work extensively in Burma, where often there are mixed motives for why a particular village is attacked," Maurer said. "Is it because they’re Christian? Well, partially. Is it because they’re an ethnic minority? Partially.

"So I think the same thing happens in Vietnam where you have a whole village that’s Catholic. One hundred percent of it was Catholic," he said of Con Dau.

Maurer explained that local government officials in Vietnam generally align Christianity with the western world and democracy, which is still seen as an enemy in Vietnam on a local level.

"As far as the official government Vietnamese position, that’s different, but local government officials do not take kindly to Christians and never have. We have documented many cases of government officials saying Christianity is the enemy. So here it’s mixed motives as best we can figure out," Maurer said.

"They wanted to build a resort there, and they could have picked a different village but they chose the one on purpose that was Catholic because it represents multiple minorities — minority religion, minority also in terms of people that can’t fight back. If they go seek government help, the government is not going to help them."

A Christian volunteer who has visited Vietnam five times in the past decade told Baptist Press the Con Dau incident illustrates the way the Vietnamese government responds to any kind of dissent.

"In our country, and in modern democracies, there are methods for resolving disputes with the government, taking them to court, trying to work through the mediation process," the volunteer, who did not want to be identified, said. "In Vietnam there is no such thing. It is the government’s will or there will be violence."

Vietnam’s constitution includes a provision for religious liberty, but the volunteer said that only goes as far as the communal will of the people, which is monopolized by the Communist Party.

"So when the Communist Party says you can’t build a church there or you can’t worship this way, those who say, ‘Well, I have religious freedom,’ are essentially trumped by the constitution that says it’s the will of the people, not individual liberty that’s important," the volunteer said.

The government in Vietnam has made efforts during the past 15 years to open up the country to economic development, and with that has come an influx of some western values and a lot of Christians doing work there, the volunteer said.

"I would first caution Christians to still be careful when they’re there working," he said, adding that government officials closely watch Christians who visit from other countries, and books about Jesus cause trouble.

Secondly, the volunteer warned that all news emerging from Vietnam must be tested for accuracy on both sides because both those who are persecuting and those who are sounding the alarm on persecution have their own political goals.

"That being said, I don’t doubt that this happened," the volunteer said regarding Con Dau.

International Christian Concern urges Americans to contact the Vietnamese Embassy in Washington at 202-861-0737, and the Christian volunteer said people can contact the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom to encourage changes in Vietnam.

"They can also directly e-mail the ambassador and the consular general in Ho Chi Minh City and encourage them to push for more reform," he said. "And they can contact companies that are having products made in Vietnam and encourage the business leaders to speak out for change in those countries. You go to JC Penney today in the men’s department and pick up almost anything, it’s made in Vietnam. That’s the kind of pressure they could put on them."

Report from the Christian Telegraph

Indonesian Muslims Call for Halt to ‘Christianization’

Forum highlights religious tensions in Bekasi, West Java.

DUBLIN, July 2 (CDN) — Muslim organizations in Bekasi, West Java, on Sunday (June 27) declared their intention to establish paramilitary units in local mosques and a “mission center” to oppose “ongoing attempts to convert people to Christianity,” according to the national Antara news agency.

At a gathering at the large Al Azhar mosque, the leaders of nine organizations announced the results of a Bekasi Islamic Congress meeting on June 20, where they agreed to establish a mission center to halt “Christianization,” form a Laskar Pemuda youth army and push for implementation of sharia (Islamic law) in the region, The Jakarta Post reported.

“If the Muslims in the city can unite, there will be no more story about us being openly insulted by other religions,” Ahmad Salimin Dani, head of the Bekasi Islamic Missionary Council, announced at the gathering. “The center will ensure that Christians do not act out of order.”

Observing an increasing number of house churches, Muslim organizations have accused Bekasi Christians of aggressive proselytizing. The Rev. Simon Timorason of the West Java Christian Communication Forum (FKKB), however, told Compass that most Christians in the area do not proselytize and meet only in small home fellowships due to the lack of officially recognized worship venues.

Many Christian seminary graduates prefer to remain on Java rather than relocate to distant islands, Timorason added, making West Java the ideal place to launch new home-based fellowships for different denominations. But neighbors see only the multiplication of churches, he said, and therefore suspect Muslims are converting to the Christian faith.

“The ideal solution is to have one building with a permit to be used by different denominations in each housing complex,” Timorason said. “If every denomination wants their own church in the same area, it’s a problem.”


Declaration of Intent

Kanti Prajogo, chairman of the Congress committee, had hoped to present a written declaration of intent to city officials at the mosque gathering, but officials did not respond to his invitation, according to The Jakarta Post.

Around 200 people attended the June 20 Congress, representing local organizations such as the Bekasi Interfaith Dialogue Forum, the Bekasi Movement Against Apostasy, the local chapters of Muhammadiyah and the Indonesian Ulema Council (MUI) – two of Indonesia’s largest Muslim organizations – and the Islamic Defenders Front (FPI), well known for its aggressive opposition to Christians and other non-Muslim groups.

Government officials on Monday (June 28) called for the FPI to be declared a forbidden organization, claiming that FPI members were implicated in “too many” violent incidents.

“We are not concerned about their mission,” legislator Eva Kusuma Sundari reportedly said at a press conference in Jakarta, “but we are concerned about the way they implement their goals.”

A spokesman for another large organization, Nahdlatul Ulama (NU), said Tuesday (July 28) that despite one member being present at the congress in an unofficial capacity, NU had not approved the joint declaration, contradicting a statement made the previous day by Bekasi NU official Abul Mutholib Jaelani, who told The Jakarta Post that he had asked all 56 NU branches in the city to contribute at least 10 members to the youth army.


Contributing to Religious Conflict

Rapid residential and industrial development has created huge social problems in Bekasi. Sociologist Andi Sopandi of Bekasi Islamic University told The Jakarta Post that the call for sharia was a warning signal, and that local officials should urgently pursue dialogue between Muslim and Christian leaders.

Locals and newcomers will get along well only if they share similar basic values, particularly religious ones, Sopandi reportedly said, pointing to sharp disputes over the Filadelfia Huria Kristen Batak Protestan (HKBP) church in Jejalen Jaya sub-district earlier this year as an example.

A neighbor of the church confessed to The Jakarta Post that local clerics had asked him and other residents to sign a petition against constructing the HKBP church building and threatened not to pray at their funerals if they failed to cooperate; the majority of his neighbors signed the document under duress.

Under a 2006 Joint Ministerial Decree (SKB), at least 60 local residents must approve the establishment of a house of worship, whether a mosque or a church. The congregation must also have at least 90 members and obtain letters of recommendation from the local interfaith communication forum (FKUB) and religious affairs office before gaining final approval from district officials.

These terms make it virtually impossible for churches in Bekasi to obtain building permits. Bekasi regency has a population of 1.9 million, of which 98.2 percent are Muslim, according to 2006 data from the Bekasi Regency Religious Affairs office. Protestants, who form 0.67 percent (approximately 12,700 people) of the population, and Catholics who make up 0.55 percent, are served by only 16 officially recognized churches in seven of the 23 sub-districts.

Sudarno Soemodimedjo, deputy chief of the Bekasi FKUB, told The Jakarta Post in February that even if a church construction committee gained the approval of 60 local residents, the FKUB would not issue a letter of recommendation if there were any public objections.

“The SKB orders us to maintain public order, which means we have to refuse the establishment of a house of worship we believe may trigger a conflict in the future,” he said.

As a result, many Christians meet in unrecognized worship venues, giving Muslim groups legal grounds to oppose church gatherings.

“If the SKB was applied consistently, many mosques that were built without permits would have to close,” Timorason told Compass.

The government wants each new settlement to have a place of worship, he added, “but it’s always a mosque. There should be one of each to be fair.”

“Violations against freedom of religion remain rampant [in Indonesia],” confirmed the chairman of the Setara Institute for Democracy and Peace, who goes by the single name of Hendardi, at a press conference announcing the release of its January 2010 “Report on the Condition of Religious and Faith Freedom in Indonesia.”

“This is mostly because the government is half-hearted in its upholding of the right to worship,” he said.

Of 139 violations recorded by the institute last year, West Java took first place with 57 incidents, followed closely by Jakarta at 38.

Report from Compass Direct News

‘Blasphemy Laws’ Used to Jail Elderly Christian in Pakistan

‘Blasphemy Laws’ Used to Jail Elderly Christian in Pakistan

Muslim vying for same piece of land as Christian accuses him of speaking ill of Muhammad.

FAISALABAD, Pakistan, June 29 (CDN) — A Muslim vying with a Christian for a parcel of land here has accused the elderly man of “blaspheming” Islam’s prophet Muhammad, which is punishable by death or life imprisonment, according to the Christian Lawyers’ Foundation (CLF).

Jhumray police on June 19 arrested Rehmat Masih of village No. 165/RB Jandawali in Faisalabad district under Section 295-C of Pakistan’s controversial “blasphemy laws,” and he was sent to Faisalabad District Jail on judicial remand by Magistrate Muhammad Sajawal.

Section 295-C states that “whoever by words, either spoken or written, or by visible representation, or by imputation, innuendo, or insinuation, directly or indirectly, defiles the sacred name of the Holy Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) shall be punishable with death, or imprisonment for life, and shall be liable to fine.”

Christian sources said Masih, who suffers from arthritis, is 85 years old, though the First Information Report against him lists his age as 73.

The CLF’s Rai Navid Zafar Bhatti told Compass that hard-line Muslim Muhammad Sajjid Hameed filed the charges after learning that he would not be able to secure the Punjab Province land.

“He used the weapon of last resort, the controversial Blasphemy Laws’ Section 295-C, which preponderantly unbalances the scales of justice,” Bhatti said.

CLF President Khalid Gill said local Christian residents led by Masih had applied to the Punjab government to secure it for construction of a Christian residential area, and Hameed also had applied for the same parcel for commercial projects.

Hameed has testified in court that Masih made derogatory remarks about Muhammad, the prophet of Islam, and Khadija, the first wife of the founder of the religion, Bhatti said.

Gill said Masih has testified that he said nothing “humiliating” about Muhammad or Khadija.

“I am not a blasphemer, nor I can think of such a sinister thing, which is against the teachings of Christ,” Masih testified, according to Gill.

A CLF fact-finding team found that in April the frail Masih had argued with Hameed and several other Muslim hardliners – Shahbaz Khalid, Afzaal Bashir, Muhammad Aamer, Akber Ali and Asghar Ali – about the Virgin Mary, said Gill.

“At that time the elderly Masih, who at present is languishing in Faisalabad District Jail and facing discriminatory behavior and apathy of Muslim inmates and jail wardens, did not know that this altercation with Muslim men would lead to imprisonment for him,” Gill said.

Three of Hameed’s friends who backed him during the argument, 25-year-old Aamer, 45-year-old Akber Ali and 40-year-old Asghar Ali, have testified in support of Hameed’s accusation, according to Bhatti.

The CLF fact-finding team, led by Babu William Rose, a local Faisalabad Christian representative, found that Masih was also accused because he was a politically active member of the Pakistan Muslim League-Quaid-e-Azam party (PML-Q), while Hameed supports the PML-Nawaz Sharif (PML-N).

Representatives of the National Commission for Justice and Peace also asserted that Masih’s political views played a role in Hameed having him jailed under Pakistan’s blasphemy statues, saying that Hameed was using the power of the PML-N, which rules Punjab province, to implicate Masih in the case.

Gill and Azher Kaleem of the CLF sternly condemned the incarceration of Masih and said that the blasphemy laws must be repealed at once as they are widely used to take vengeance in personal or land disputes.

Section 295-A of the blasphemy laws prohibits injuring or defiling places of worship and “acts intended to outrage religious feelings of any class of citizens.” Section 295-B makes willful desecration of the Quran or a use of its extract in a derogatory manner punishable with life imprisonment.

Masih is the father of seven adult daughters and four grown sons.

Report from Compass Direct News

Christian Woman Kidnapped in Pakistan Escapes

Impoverished father had received ultimatum from employer who loaned him money.

RAWALPINDI, Pakistan, May 31 (CDN) — A Christian woman who was kidnapped, forced to marry a Muslim farmer and told to convert to Islam amid a dispute over a loan said today she has returned home after weeks of  “captivity and torture.”

Sania James, 33, was kidnapped April 5 by armed men who stormed her parent’s house in the small town of Rawat, just outside Rawalpindi, neighbors confirmed to Compass. The gunmen allegedly told her father that he would see his daughter again only if he paid off a loan of 250,000 rupees (US$2,930) plus 30 percent interest – a rate much higher than previously agreed upon.

James said the armed men took her to farmer Mohammad Shahbaz Ali and forced her to marry him.

“I have been tortured, forced to convert and forcefully married,” said James, who escaped earlier this month.

She refused to convert to Islam and was continuously tortured, James said without elaborating.

“One night I managed to escape and returned home,” she said. “I have contacted Christian rights groups to help me.”

Shahbaz Ali reacted angrily when asked about the alleged incidents.

“I refuse to say anything,” he told Compass.

Neighbors who said they watched the kidnapping said they were unable to intervene.

“We have been warned by Shahbaz Ali that if any one tries to help these Christians, they will have to face dire consequences,” said one of the neighbors, Mohammad Hamza. “Everyone is scared.”

The kidnapping came five years after the woman’s father, James Ayub, allegedly took the loan from Shahbaz Ali, his long-time employer, to pay for his oldest daughter’s wedding.

Ayub, who worked at Shahbaz Ali’s farm for two decades, was initially told that the interest rate on the loan would be 15 percent, but the rate was later doubled, family members said. Shahbaz Ali allegedly told Ayub in February that his family would be attacked unless he paid off the loan within two months.

In a bid to raise the money, Sania James said she had begun to work on the farm along with her elderly, impoverished father. James said that her father was “thrown out of the farm,” and that she was subsequently kidnapped.

Local Pastor Faraz Samson, who tried to mediate in the conflict, said he went to Shahbaz Ali to end “the injustice, but he didn’t listen.”

Police officials reportedly said they were unable to halt the alleged kidnapping, saying Shahbaz Ali was a very influential man.

“I am shocked that a daughter of a poor man has been kidnapped, and the law can’t do anything,” Pastor Samson said.

The kidnapping was not an isolated incident, according to rights activists. They have expressed concerns that Christian women and girls have been kidnapped across Pakistan, a predominantly Muslim nation, often amid disputes over land and money.

Advocacy organizations Life for All and Peace Pakistan have condemned the incident.

Report from Compass Direct News

Chinese Pastor Sentenced to 15 Years in Prison

Harsh punishment for house church leader based on apparently far-fetched charge.

LOS ANGELES, December 8 (CDN) — Chinese authorities have quietly sentenced Uyghur Christian Alimjan Yimit (Alimujiang Yimiti in Chinese) to 15 years in prison on the apparently contrived charge of “providing state secrets to overseas organizations,” according to China Aid Association (CAA).

The charge against the 36-year-old house church leader, held for more than two years at Kashgar Detention Center in China’s troubled Xinjiang region, was apparently based on interviews he granted to media outside of China, according to his lawyer, Li Dunyong.

“The 15-year sentence is far more severe than I originally expected,” Li said in a CAA press statement released yesterday. “It is the maximum penalty for this charge of ‘divulging state secrets,’ which requires Alimujiang’s actions to be defined as having ‘caused irreparable national grave damage.’”

CAA President Bob Fu said Alimjan’s sentence was the most severe for a house church leader in nearly a decade.

“The whole world should be appalled at this injustice against innocent Christian leader Alimujiang,” Fu said in the CAA statement. “We call upon the U.N. and people of conscience throughout the world to strongly protest to the Chinese government for this severe case of religious persecution.”

CAA reported that officials had read the verdict to Alimjan while he was incarcerated on Oct. 27. Li confirmed to CAA that he had filed an appeal.

Initially the Bureau of State Security of Kashgar detained Alimjan on “suspicions of harming national security” on Jan. 11, 2008, according to CAA. As such charges are generally leveled against those considered to be an enemy of the state, Alimjan’s family feared he would be subjected to capital punishment. Local sources have said that Alimjan, a convert from Islam in an area teeming with separatist tensions, loves and supports the Chinese government.

“As a loyal Chinese citizen and business entrepreneur, Alimujiang has held to high standards, paying his taxes faithfully and avoiding a common local custom of paying bribes for business favors,” Fu said in a previous CAA statement. “He has also done his best to assimilate into Chinese culture, making the unusual decision to send his children to a Chinese language school in a predominantly Uyghur area.”

Friends of Alimjan have said he simply wanted the freedom to quietly express his faith, a right guaranteed to him in the Chinese constitution, according to CAA. Not only is it illegal for him to own a Uyghur Bible, according to the advocacy organization, but he is also prohibited from attending services at the government-controlled Three Self Church in the area because the Xinjiang constitution contradicts China’s constitution. He is also prohibited from praying with foreign Christians.

On Feb. 20, 2008 the initial charges against him were changed to “inciting secession” and leaking state secrets. Court officials returned Alimjan’s case to state prosecutors in May 2008, citing lack of evidence.

This year he was secretly tried again on July 28, only on the second charge. Previously, attorney Li had petitioned for and been granted permission to meet with his client on April 21. Witnesses had seen police and a prison doctor escorting Alimjan to hospital on March 30, and Compass sources said Alimjan had been beaten in prison, although it was not clear who beat him or why.

When Li questioned him, Alimjan indicated that he was not allowed to speak about his health.

The United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention ruled his arrest and detention to be arbitrary and in violation of international law.

“The whole case is about religious faith issues, which are being used against Alimujiang for his conversion from Islam to Christianity by biased law enforcement agents, prosecutors and the court,” said attorney Li. “The key for this case was the flawed ‘Certificate for the Evidence.’ In both form and content, the certificate was questionable. It even had no signature by the verifier at the bureau, which violates Chinese law.”

Sources said there appears to be a concerted effort to shut down the leadership of the Uyghur church in a restive region where authorities fear anything they cannot control. The region of ethnic Uyghurs has come under a government crackdown the past two years as long-simmering tensions erupted.

Disputes over ownership of Xinjiang’s land and rich mineral resources have led to resentment between Uyghurs – native to Xinjiang – and Han Chinese. Religious differences are also an issue, with a vast majority of Uyghurs practicing Islam, while most Chinese are officially atheists or follow Buddhism or syncretistic folk religions. Only a handful of China’s estimated 10 million Uyghurs are known to be Christians.

Report from Compass Direct News 

China Releases Uyghur Church Leader from Prison

Osman Imin freed after two years; concerns remain over incarcerated Alimjan Yimit.

LOS ANGELES, November 24 (CDN) — A Uyghur Christian in China’s troubled Xinjiang region was released last week after serving two years in a labor camp for alleged “illegal proselytizing” and “leaking state secrets,” according to Compass sources.

House church leader Osman Imin (Wusiman Yaming in Chinese) was freed on Wednesday (Nov. 18), sources said. Authorities had called for a 10-15 year prison sentence for Osman but significantly reduced the term following international media attention.

An outspoken leader of the Uyghur church in the northwestern region of China, Osman was first arrested in 2004 and kept at a detention center in Hotan, southern Xinjiang. Local sources said his arrest was almost certainly related to his church work.

There he was chained to a metal bed in winter and frequently beaten while interrogated. Osman was released on bail on Nov. 18, 2004, but bail was canceled in October 2006. On July 26, 2007, he was again placed under supervised house arrest and finally detained by police on Nov. 19 of that year on the charge of “revealing state secrets.”

Authorities denied him access to a lawyer, and in June 2008 a court rejected his appeal without explanation.

Authorities eventually moved him to the labor camp outside Kashgar. While in prison Osman was forced to work 12 to 15 hours a day, and his health quickly deteriorated. He was reportedly suffering malnutrition throughout his confinement.

Osman and his wife Nurgul have two young daughters.

Still in arbitrary detention in the region is another Uyghur Christian, Alimjan Yimit (Alimujiang Yimiti in Chinese). Officials initially closed the foreign-owned business Alimjan worked for in September 2007 and accused him of using it as a cover for “preaching Christianity.” He was then detained in January 2008 on charges of endangering state security and was formally arrested on Feb. 20, 2008 on charges of “inciting secession” and leaking state secrets.

Court officials returned Alimjan’s case to state prosecutors in May 2008, citing lack of evidence. Last May 21, government sources told Alimjan’s mother that the Public Security Bureau (PSB) in Kashgar planned to quietly sentence him to three years of re-education through labor, thereby circumventing the court system.

Under Chinese law the PSB, which originally filed the case against Alimjan, may authorize such sentences without approval from the court or other state agencies.

Court authorities have returned Alimjan’s case to state prosecutors, citing lack of evidence for charges of “leaking state secrets” and “inciting secession.” Family, friends and work colleagues have insisted that Alimjan is a loyal citizen with no access to state secrets, and that his arrest was due largely to his Christian faith and association with foreign Christians.

In Xinjiang’s politically charged environment, Alimjan’s family and friends fear he could face execution if he were wrongly linked with alleged Uyghur separatists.

Sources said there appears to be a concerted effort to shut down the leadership of the Uyghur church in a restive region where authorities fear anything they cannot control. The region of ethnic Uyghurs has come under a government crackdown the past two years as long-simmering tensions erupted.

Disputes over ownership of Xinjiang’s land and rich mineral resources have led to resentment between Uyghurs – native to Xinjiang – and Han Chinese. Religious differences are also an issue, with a vast majority of Uyghurs practicing Islam, while most Chinese are officially atheists or follow Buddhism or syncretistic folk religions. Only a handful of China’s estimated 10 million Uyghurs are known to be Christians.

As part of authorities’ apparent effort to clamp down on Christianity, they have disbarred several lawyers involved in the defense of Uyghur Christians, including Alimjan’s attorney, Li Dunyong. He was effectively disbarred at the end of May when Chinese authorities turned down an annual application to renew his law license.

Zhang Kai, another Beijing lawyer who had defended Alimjan, suffered the same fate.

Authorities failed to renew licenses for at least 15 other lawyers who had defended civil rights cases, religious and ethnic minorities and political dissidents, according to watch group Human Rights in China.

Report from Compass Direct News 

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 

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