This has implications for Australia.
Right to share faith could harm Nepal’s Hindu identity, lawmakers believe.
KATHMANDU, Nepal, March 29 (CDN) — A new constitution that Nepal’s parliament is scheduled to put into effect before May 28 may not include the right to propagate one’s faith.
The draft constitution, aimed at completing the country’s transition from a Hindu monarchy to a secular democracy, contains provisions in its “religious freedom” section that prohibit anyone from converting others from one religion to another.
Most political leaders in the Himalayan country seemed unaware of how this prohibition would curb religious freedom.
“Nepal will be a secular state – there is no other way,” said Sushil Koirala, president of the Nepali Congress, Nepal’s “Grand Old Party,” but he added that he was not aware of the proposal to restrict the right to evangelism.
“Forcible conversions cannot be allowed, but the members of the Constituent Assembly [acting parliament] should be made aware of [the evangelism ban’s] implications,” Koirala, a veteran and one of the most influential politicians of the country, told Compass.
Gagan Thapa, another leader of the Nepali Congress, admitted that banning all evangelistic activities could lead to undue restrictions.
“Perhaps, the words, ‘force, inducement and coercion’ should be inserted to prevent only unlawful conversions,” he told Compass.
Man Bahadur Bishwakarma, also from the Nepali Congress, said that of all the faith communities in Nepal, Christians were most active in converting others, sometimes unethically.
“There are problems in Hinduism, such as the caste hierarchy, but that doesn’t mean you should convert out of it,” he said. “I believe in reforming one’s religion.”
Asked if the restriction on converting others violated the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), Akal Bahadur of the Unified Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist) said, “It may, but there was a general consensus on it [the prohibition]. Besides, it is still a draft, not the final constitution.”
Nepal signed the ICCPR on May 14, 1991. Article 18 of the ICCPR includes the right to manifest one’s religion, which U.N. officials have interpreted as the right to evangelistic and missionary activities.
Akal Bahadur and Thapa are members of the Committee on Fundamental Rights and Directive Principles, which was tasked to propose the scope of religious freedom and other rights in the draft constitution. This committee, one of 11 thematic panels, last year submitted a preliminary draft to the Assembly suggesting that a person should be allowed to decide whether to convert from one religion to another, but that no one should convert anyone else.
Binda Pandey, chairperson of the fundamental rights committee and member of the Communist Party of Nepal (Unified Marxist Leninist), told Compass that it was now up to the Assembly to decide whether this provision violates religious freedom.
The Constitution Committee is condensing the preliminary drafts by all the committees as one draft constitution. At least 288 contentious issues arose out of the 11 committees, and the Constitution Committee has resolved 175 of them, Raju Shakya of the Kathmandu-based Centre for Constitutional Dialogue (CCD) told Compass.
The “religious freedom” provision with its ban on evangelism did not raise an eyebrow, however, as it is among the issues listed under the “Area of Agreement” on the CCD Web site.
Once compiled, the draft constitution will be subject to a public consultation, after which another draft will be prepared for discussion of clauses in the Constitutional Assembly; provisions will be implemented on a two-thirds majority, Shakya said.
Thapa of the fundamental rights committee indicated that religious conversion could become a contentious issue if the proposed restriction is removed. Even the notion of a secular state is not wholly accepted in the country.
“If you hold a referendum on whether Nepal should become a secular state, the majority will vote against it,” Thapa said.
Most Hindus see their religion as an essential part of the country’s identity that they want to preserve, he added.
Dr. K.B. Rokaya, the only Christian member of Nepal’s National Commission for Human Rights, said Nepal’s former kings created and imposed a Hindu identity for around 240 years because it suited them; under the Hindu ethos, a king should be revered as a god. Most of the numerous Hindu temples of Nepal were built under the patronage of the kings.
Rokaya added that Christians needed to be more politically active. The Assembly does not have even one Christian member.
According to the 2001 census, over 80 percent of Nepal’s 30 million people are Hindu. Christians are officially .5 percent, but their actual number is believed to be much higher.
Nepal was the world’s only Hindu kingdom until 2006, when a people’s movement led by former Maoist guerrillas and supported by political parties, including the Nepali Congress and the Unified Marxist Leninist, ousted King Gyanendra.
An interim constitution was enacted in 2007, and the Constituent Assembly was elected through Nepal’s first fully democratic election a year later. The Assembly was supposed to promulgate a new constitution by May 28, 2010, but its term was extended by one year.
It is still uncertain, however, whether the approaching deadline will be met due to persistent disagreements among parties. The Maoist party has 220 members, the Nepali Congress 110, and the Unified Marxist Leninist 103 in the 575-member Assembly.
Rokaya, a member of the newly formed United Christians Alliance of Nepal, comprising a majority of Christian denominations, said Christians would continue to ask for full religious freedom. The use of inducement or force for conversions is deplorable, but the right to preach the tenets of one’s religion is a fundamental freedom, he added.
Report from Compass Direct News
Muslim groups, city officials dictate where church can hold services.
JAKARTA, Indonesia, October 15 (CDN) — A church in Banten Province that has been in conflict with Muslim groups for more than two years was compelled to cease meeting in the pastor’s home last week in a bid to put an end to harassment and threats.
The Sepatan Baptist Christian Church (GKB Sepatan) in Pisangan Jaya village, Sepatan, in Tangerang district, conceded that it would no longer worship in the home of the Rev. Bedali Hulu but rather in the facilities of two other churches.
In exchange, officials agreed to process a temporary worship permit that would presumably remove the pretext for Islamic protests against the church, but they refused to accept a deadline for doing so. Pastor Hulu argued at the Oct. 7 meeting with officials and Islamic groups that local government officials be given a three-month deadline for granting the temporary worship permit, but the officials insisted on a “flexible” time for issuing it.
Tangerang district authorities had issued a decree on Jan. 21 ordering all worship activities to cease at the church. Officials had pressured church leaders to sign a statement that they would stop all worship activities, but they refused.
Pastor Hulu said that he had received the government order on Jan. 26. The church had permission to worship from both local citizens and Christians in accordance with a Joint Ministerial Decree promulgated in 1969 and revised in 2006, he said, but pressure from Islamic groups forced local officials to try to close the church.
Representing Islamic interests in the five-hour long deliberations of Oct. 7 was the Communication Forum for Religious Harmony (FKUB) of Tangerang City. Local officials included the Sepatan district chief, Sepatan sector police chief, the sub-district military commander of Sepatan, Civil police, and an official from the Ministry of Religious Affairs of Tangerang.
Pastor Hulu said he felt forced to accept the terms of the Islamic group and officials.
“Actually, we want the district to facilitate our worship by letting us use the function room of their office,” he said. “Also, we hope for the government to grant permission for our worship in accordance with the Joint Decree.”
A member of the Tangerang FKUB, Abdul Razak, said the talks resulted in the city and the Tangerang FKUB committing to help the congregation to worship temporarily in the nearest church buildings, which are seven kilometers (more than four miles) away in Kedaung, East Sepatan and belong to the Assemblies of God and the Pentecostal Church in Indonesia.
But those two churches use their buildings from 6 a.m. until noon on Sundays, Pastor Hulu said.
“Our congregation wants to worship between 10 am to 12 noon, because after 12 worship would conflict with family customs that are usually done at that hour,” he said.
Because of the incompatibility in worship times, the pastor said, GKB Sepatan appealed to a member of the FKUB Tangerang identified only as Zabir, who only suggested Pastor Hulu adhere to the FKUB consensus.
Although the Muslim groups and city officials were able to dictate where the church should worship in the coming months, they allowed the congregation to worship in one of the church members’ homes on Sunday (Oct. 10), as long as it wasn’t Pastor Hulu’s house, he said.
“Next week, if the local government has not been able to facilitate a place of worship to us, then we will worship from house to house,” the pastor said.
The church had worshipped in Pastor Hulu’s house since November 2008. Previously worship rotated among various members’ homes, reducing the congregation from 90 people to 30, he said, but now the congregation numbers 150.
The church has established good relationships with communities, religious leaders and local government, he said.
“First, we helped victims of the tsunami in Aceh in 2007,” Pastor Hulu said. “Second, we provided basic food, rice, blankets to flood victims in the village of Pisangan Jaya. Third, we have helped provide free medical treatment for residents affected by flooding in the village of Pisangan Jaya.”
The Oct. 7 agreement is yet to be signed. Razak said that the FKUB would draft an agreement for all parties to sign.
“If these problems can be resolved properly, then this will be a moment in history that the district of Tangerang was able to resolve religious issues, particularly related to the establishment of houses of worship,” he said.
The chairman of the Tangerang City FKUB, M. Syuro, said the meetings were necessary to forestall tensions as Tangerang is so close to Jakarta, 20 kilometers (12 miles) east.
Report from Compass Direct News
Armed group that forced over 1,500 government officials to quit now threatens pastors.
KATHMANDU, Nepal, September 16 (CDN) — A year after police busted an underground militant Hindu organization that had bombed a church and two mosques, Nepal’s Christians are facing new threats.
An underground group that speaks with bombs and has coerced hundreds of government officials into quitting their jobs is threatening Christian clergy with violence if they do not give in to extortion demands, Christian leader said.
The Nepal Christian Society (NCS), an umbrella group of denominations, churches and organizations, met in the Kathmandu Valley yesterday (Sept. 15) to discuss dangers amid reports of pastors receiving phone calls and letters from the Unified National Liberation Front (Samyukta Jatiya Mukti Morcha), an armed group demanding money and making threats. The group has threatened Christian leaders in eastern and western Nepal, as well as in the Kathmandu Valley.
“The pastors who received the extortion calls do not want to go public for fear of retaliation,” said Lok Mani Dhakal, general secretary of the NCS. “We decided to wait and watch a little longer before approaching police.”
The Front is among nearly three dozen armed groups that mushroomed after the fall of the military-backed government of the former king of Nepal, Gyanendra Bir Bikram Shah, in 2006. It became a household name in July after 34 senior government officials – designated secretaries of village development committees – resigned en masse, pleading lack of security following threats by the Front.
Ironically, the resignations occurred in Rolpa, a district in western Nepal regarded as the cradle of the communist uprising in 1996 that led to Nepal becoming a secular federal republic after 10 years of civil war.
Nearly 1,500 government officials from 27 districts have resigned after receiving threats from the Front. Despite its apparent clout, it remains a shadowy body with little public knowledge about its leaders and objectives. Though initially active in southern Nepal, the group struck in the capital city of Kathmandu on Saturday (Sept. 11), bombing a carpet factory.
The emergence of the new underground threat comes a year after police arrested Ram Prasad Mainali, whose Nepal Defense Army had planted a bomb in a church in Kathmandu, killing three women during a Roman Catholic mass.
Christians’ relief at Mainali’s arrest was short-lived. Besides facing threats from a new group, the community has endured longstanding animosity from the years when Nepal was a Hindu state; the anti-Christian sentiment refuses to die four years after Parliament declared the nation secular.
When conversions were a punishable offense in Nepal 13 years ago, Ishwor Pudasaini had to leave his home in Giling village, Nuwakot district, because he became a Christian. Pudasaini, now a pastor in a Protestant church, said he still cannot return to his village because of persecution that has increased with time.
“We are mentally tortured,” the 32-year-old pastor told Compass. “My mother is old and refuses to leave the village, so I have to visit her from time to time to see if she is all right. Also, we have some arable land, and during monsoon season it is imperative that I farm it. But I go in dread.”
Pudasaini, who pastors Assembly of God Church, said that when he runs into his neighbors, they revile him and make threatening gestures. His family is not allowed to enter any public place, and he is afraid to spend nights in his old home for fear of being attacked. A new attack occurred in a recent monsoon, when villagers disconnected the family’s water pipes.
“Things reached such a head this time that I was forced to go to the media and make my plight public,” he says.
Pudasaini, his wife Laxmi and their two children have been living in the district headquarters, Bidur town. His brother Ram Prasad, 29, was thrown out of a local village’s reforms committee for becoming a Christian. Another relative in the same village, Bharat Pudasaini, lost his job and was forced to migrate to a different district.
“Bharat Pudasaini was a worker at Mulpani Primary School,” says Pudasaini. “The school sacked him for embracing Christianity, and the villagers forced his family to leave the village. Even four years after Nepal became officially secular, he is not allowed to return to his village and sell his house and land, which he wants to, desperately. He has four children to look after, and the displacement is virtually driving the family to starvation.”
Since Bidur, where the administrative machinery is concentrated, is safe from attacks, Pudasani said it is becoming a center for displaced Christians.
“There are dozens of persecuted Christians seeking shelter here,” he said.
One such displaced person was Kamla Kunwar, a woman in her 30s whose faith prompted her husband to severely beat her and throw her out of their home in Dhading district in central Nepal. She would eventually move in with relatives in Nuwakot.
Pudasaini said he chose not to complain of his mistreatment, either to the district administration or to police, because he does not want to encourage enmity in the village.
“My religion teaches me to turn the other cheek and love my enemies,” he said. “I would like to make the village come to Christ. For that I have to be patient.”
Dozens of villages scattered throughout Nepal remain inimical to Christians. In May, five Christians, including two women, were brutally attacked in Chanauta, a remote village in Kapilavastu district where the majority are ethnic Tharus.
Once an affluent people, the Tharus were displaced by migrating hordes from the hills of Nepal, as well as from India across the border, and forced into slavery. Today, they are considered to be “untouchables” despite an official ban on that customary practice of abuse and discrimination. In the villages, Tharus are not allowed to enter temples or draw water from the sources used by other villagers.
Tharus, like other disadvantaged communities, have been turning to Christianity. Recently five Tharu Christians, including a pastor and two evangelists, were asked to help construct a Hindu temple. Though they did, the five refused to eat the meat of a goat that villagers sacrificed before idols at the new temple.
Because of their refusal, the temple crowd beat them. Two women – Prema Chaudhary, 34, and Mahima Chaudhary, 22 – were as badly thrashed as Pastor Simon Chaudhari, 30, and two evangelists, Samuel Chaudhari, 19, and Prem Chaudhari, 22.
In June, a mob attacked Sher Bahadur Pun, a 68-year-old Nepali who had served with the Indian Army, and his son, Akka Bahadur, at their church service in Myagdi district in western Nepal. Pun suffered two fractured ribs.
The attack occurred after the Hindu-majority village decided to build a temple. All villagers were ordered to donate 7,000 rupees (US$93), a princely sum in Nepal’s villages, and the Christians were not spared. While the Puns paid up, they refused to worship in the temple. Retaliation was swift.
The vulnerability of Christians has escalated following an administrative vacuum that has seen violence and crime soar. Prime Minister Madhav Kumar Nepal, who had been instrumental in the church bombers’ arrest, resigned in June due to pressure by the opposition Maoist party. Since then, though there have been seven rounds of elections in Parliament to choose a new premier, none of the two contenders has been able to win the minimum votes required thanks to bitter infighting between the major parties.
An eighth round of elections is scheduled for Sept. 26, and if that too fails, Nepal will have lost four of the 12 months given to the 601-member Parliament to write a new constitution.
“It is shameful,” said Believers Church Bishop Narayan Sharma. “It shows that Nepal is on the way to becoming a failed state. There is acute pessimism that the warring parties will not be able to draft a new constitution [that would consolidate secularism] by May 2011.”
Sharma said there is also concern about a reshuffle in the largest ruling party, the Nepali Congress (NC), set to elect new officers at its general convention starting Friday (Sept. 17). Some former NC ministers and members of Parliament have been lobbying for the restoration of a Hindu state in Nepal; their election would be a setback for secularism.
“We have been holding prayers for the country,” Sharma said. “It is a grim scene today. There is an economic crisis, and Nepal’s youths are fleeing abroad. Women job-seekers abroad are increasingly being molested and tortured. Even the Maoists, who fought for secularism, are now considering creating a cultural king. We are praying that the political deadlock will be resolved, and that peace and stability return to Nepal.”
Report from Compass Direct News
Young converts previously held in prison for Christian activities have fled country.
ISTANBUL, May 27 (CDN) — Nearly five months after releasing them from prison, an Iranian court has acquitted two women of all charges related to being Christians and engaging in Christian activities.
Iranians Maryam Rostampour and Marzieh Amirizadeh Esmaeilabad were arrested on March 5, 2009 and detained on charges of “acting against state security,” “taking part in illegal gatherings” and “apostasy” (leaving Islam) under Iran’s Revolutionary Court system.
After nearly eight months, on Nov. 18, 2009 authorities released them conditionally.
Although the court hearing their case originally set April 13 as their trial date, Compass was unable to confirm on what date the two women were acquitted, nor the conditions of their acquittal.
Senior Iranian judges and officials repeatedly intimidated the two women and pressured them to recant their faith, according to a press statement by Elam Ministries last week.
“They were warned that any future Christian activity in Iran will be seriously dealt with,” according to the statement.
Elam Ministries said the two women had fled Iran on Saturday (May 22) to an undisclosed location and were recovering.
Another Iranian convert who was forced to flee his country under similar circumstances years ago told Compass that he believed the intense lobbying efforts to release and acquit the women brought the government to an unspoken “standoff” with Christian rights groups outside the country.
“I think the court just made a political decision, ‘We will let you go, but we will not allow you to stay in the country,’” said the Iranian Christian, who requested anonymity. “That’s a pretty old-fashioned procedure they have – ‘We will let you go if you leave the country. You can have your faith, but not here.’”
In general, when Iranian authorities arrest Christians, they release them on bail within a few weeks and keep their case files open, thus applying soft pressure while allowing them to continue living in Iran. In cases where the government wants to remove Christians from the country because of their Christian activities, authorities have handed the Christians their passports and documents and told them to leave.
Iran’s government views all Christian activities as foreign intervention and thus a threat to national security. The two women’s families had hired a private lawyer.
Since their release, the young converts to Christianity had been waiting for a trial date and decision from an Iranian court to decide their fate as Christians living their faith. During this time, sources said that authorities watched them closely and that the two women were under “pressure” and received threatening phone calls.
“The government would not want them to stay in the country as heroes,” said the Iranian Christian. “It would be better for the government if they left Iran and didn’t become a positive example for the rest of the Christian community in Iran. Otherwise they would create a precedent of [Christians] who have not denied their faith, who have been acquitted and still live as Christians inside the country.”
The two women thanked Christians who have been praying for them, according to Elam.
“We hope to eventually share some of what the Lord allowed us to go through to highlight the need and the opportunity for the church in Iran, but right now we will take time to pray and seek the Lord for His will,” said Rostampour, according to Elam’s press statement.
Iran’s Constitution gives Christians “protected” religious minority status, but in practice they face substantial societal discrimination, according to the U.S. Department of State’s International Religious Freedom Report 2009.
An article mandating death for apostates in accordance with sharia (Islamic law) reportedly has been stricken from a draft penal code, but experts on Iran say The Council of Guardians and Iran’s Supreme Leader still have the final say on who receives capital punishment for leaving Islam.
Over the weekend, the Church of England introduced draft legislation putting the country’s Anglican communion on the fast track to allowing women’s ordination, reports Catholic News Agency.
On Saturday, May 8, the Church of England’s revision committee published a 142-page review in favor of draft proposals that support women being consecrated as bishops and priests.
According to Reuters, the church’s revision committee also proposed safeguards for more traditional parishes who have expressed opposition to ordaining women, including the right to request that a male bishop perform blessings and ordinations. However, the committee proposals did not meet the requests by these parishes for new dioceses or a special class of bishops.
“After much discussion the Committee rejected proposals aimed at fundamentally changing the approach of the legislation for those unable to receive the ministry of female bishops,” wrote Church of England officials in a statement Monday.
The draft proposals will now go forward for debate at the Church’s General Synod, in July in York, Northern England. If passed, the Church of England will hold the same position on female ordination as the Anglican Communion in the United States and New Zealand.
Monday’s statement also clarified that the “earliest that the legislation could achieve final approval in Synod (when two-thirds majorities in each of the Houses of Bishops, Clergy and Laity will be required) is 2012, following which parliamentary approval and the Royal Assent would be needed.”
The statement added that “2014 remains the earliest realistic date when the first women might be consecrated as bishops.”
This move is likely to increase interest among traditionalist Anglicans in the Pope’s recent invitation for Church of England members to become Catholic. Last November, the Holy Father released “Anglicanorum coetibus,” a motu propio which offered Vatican guidelines for Anglican groups to enter into communion with the Catholic Church.
The Sunday Telegraph in Britain reported on May 2 that several Anglican bishops recently met with Vatican officials to discuss the process of converting to Catholicism.
Despite the Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams reportedly urging them not to leave the Church of England, several bishops are looking to break from the Anglican Communion over their opposition to the introduction of women bishops and priests.
According to the British paper, Bishops John Broadhurst, Keith Newton and Andrew Burnham, from the Dioceses of Fulham, Richborough and Ebbsfleet respectively, all met with senior Vatican officials last week.
Report from the Christian Telegraph
The nation’s largest Lutheran denomination is splitting following a controversial decision at its August conference to allow noncelibate homosexuals to serve as pastors, reports Baptist Press.
It will take months to determine how truly significant the change to the Evangelical Lutheran Church in American (ELCA) is, but a conservative group of Lutherans calling themselves Lutheran CORE already is calling for the more orthodox churches to leave the denomination. Lutheran CORE leaders voted Nov. 18 to form a new Lutheran body, and churches nationwide are now taking sides in the dispute. It takes a two-thirds vote for a church to leave the ELCA and join Lutheran CORE, which has formed a committee that will draft a proposal for how the new church body will function. The committee’s recommendations will be released in February and voted on in August.
The ELCA claims 4.8 million members and 10,500 churches.
"Many ELCA members and congregations have said that they want to sever ties with the ELCA because of the ELCA’s continued movement away from traditional Christian teachings," Lutheran CORE chair Paull Spring said. "The vote on sexuality opened the eyes of many to how far the ELCA has moved from Biblical teaching."
Meeting in Minneapolis in August, delegates to the ELCA’s biennial conference voted 559-451 to allow openly practicing homosexuals to serve as pastors. It became the largest denomination in America with such a policy. The Episcopal Church, a smaller denomination, has a similar stance.
The Minneapolis conference was followed by a meeting of 1,200 Lutheran CORE supporters Sept. 25-26 in Fishers, Ind., where delegates to that meeting voted to authorize the Lutheran CORE Steering Committee to "initiate conversations among the congregations" toward a possible "reconfiguration" of Lutherans. That steering committee voted Nov. 18 to begin the process of forming a new denomination. The word "CORE" is an acronym for "Coalition for Renewal."
Neither side is predicting how many churches will leave or stay. In Erskine, Minn., 80 percent of Rodnes Lutheran Church members voted Oct. 18 to leave the ELCA, the INFORUM.com website reported. But in Waseca, Minn., Nov. 22, 77 percent of Grace Lutheran Church members voted to stay, the Waseca County News newspaper reported.
Richard Land, president of the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, believes the issue of homosexuality eventually will divide all mainline denominations.
"You either approve gay and lesbian sexually active pastors and clergy or you don’t," he told Baptist Press. "Opinion is divided enough in the mainline denominations that if you approve it, then you’re going to have conservatives leaving and if you don’t, then you’re going to have liberals leaving. I believe that this issue will end up reconfiguring the entire mainline Protestant landscape. It is in the process of dividing the Episcopalians. It’s dividing now the Lutherans. It’s in the process of dividing the Presbyterians, and it eventually will end up dividing the Methodists."
Land asked, rhetorically, referencing the ELCA’s namesake, "Does anyone have any doubt what Martin Luther believed about this? The question is whether you’re going to be under the authority of Scripture or not. And, clearly, there are large chunks of mainline Protestantism that have decided they are going to stand in judgment of Scripture."
Report from the Christian Telegraph
No bail required; charges of ‘proselytizing’ and ‘apostasy’ remain.
ISTANBUL, November 18 (CDN) — Two Christian Iranian women, Maryam Rostampour, 27, and Marzieh Amirizadeh Esmaeilabad, 30, were released from prison this afternoon with no bail amid an international campaign calling for their freedom since their arrest on March 5.
The two women, whose health deteriorated while in detention at the notorious Evin prison in Tehran, are at their homes recovering from their nine-month ordeal, an Iranian source told Compass. They still could face charges of proselytizing and “apostasy,” or leaving Islam.
The women were released at 3:30 p.m.
“Words are not enough to express our gratitude to the Lord and to His people who have prayed and worked for our release,” the two women said in a statement from United Kingdom-based Elam Ministries.
The women’s lawyer had been working to secure their release, and although they were expected to be released yesterday, he was not able to do so because of the high bail the court was demanding. The Compass source said that it was too soon to determine how the lawyer was able to secure their release without bail today, a rarity for Christians released from prison in Iran.
The source credited their release to international lobbying and pressure on the Iranian government.
“It was from the international pressure, and also the government couldn’t handle it anymore,” said the source. “Already their detention was illegal. At the same time, the government wasn’t ready to prosecute them for apostasy. They already have many headaches. They cannot handle everything.”
The source said he suspected the two women will be very closely watched and would not have full freedom of movement, limiting their contact with others.
“It is too soon to give all the details,” he said. “It is not just about them. When people get out of jail we need time to get information … it is very difficult.”
Rostampour and Esmaeilabad were arrested in March and detained on charges of “acting against state security,” “taking part in illegal gatherings” and apostasy under Iran’s Revolutionary Court system.
On Aug. 9 the women appeared before a judge who pressured them to recant their faith and return to Islam or spend more time in prison. The two women refused. Last month, on Oct. 7, they were acquitted of the charge of “anti-state activities,” and their case was transferred to the General Court.
The charges of proselytizing and apostasy remain against them but are not handled by the Revolutionary Court. While proselytizing and apostasy are not crimes specified in the current Penal Code, judges are required to use their knowledge of Islamic law in cases where no codified law exists.
With a draft penal code that may include an article mandating death for apostates in accordance to sharia (Islamic law) still under parliamentary review, experts on Iran fear things may get worse for the country’s converts from Islam.
Elam reported that the women were “doing as well as could be expected, and are rejoicing in the Lord’s faithfulness to them.” The women reportedly lost a lot of weight during their imprisonment. Esmaeilabad suffered from back pain, an infected tooth and intense headaches, and Rostampour got severe food poisoning last month.
Elam requested continued prayers as the women may still be called to court hearings. The Iranian source said that all Christians released from prison in the last year have pending court cases against them, but almost none of them have been given court dates.
“Maryam and Marzieh have greatly inspired us all,” Director of Elam Ministries Sam Yeghnazar said today in a press statement. “Their love for the Lord Jesus and their faithfulness to God has been an amazing testimony.”
A member of Open Doors, one of many ministries that mobilized prayer support for the two women internationally, expressed gratitude for the two women’s release but cautioned that continued prayers were necessary until they were completely out of danger.
“Open Doors is so thankful for the release of these two women, and we praise God that they are safely home now,” said an Open Doors field worker who requested anonymity. “But we continue to pray for them, for physical and mental health. Open Doors also thanks the worldwide Christian family for their prayers for them, but we urge our brothers and sisters to not stop praying. They still have a path to go.”
Compass has also learned that on Oct. 13 the leader of a large network of churches in the northern city of Rasht was arrested and is still in prison. Pastor Yousef Nadarkhani has had contact with his family and has been pressured to recant his faith and return to Islam, according to an Iranian Christian who requested anonymity. Nadarkhani is married and has two children under the age of 10.
Another source confirmed that while six of the 24 Christians who were arrested in a police raid on July 31 in the area of Fashan north of Tehran have been released, one identified as Shaheen remains in prison unable to pay bail for his release.
Report from Compass Direct News
A draft legislation introduced this month threatens to make evangelism nearly impossible in Russia. A date has not yet been released for further ruling on the law, but in the meantime, evangelicals express concern, reports MNN.
“Only religious groups that have been registered in Russia for at least 15 year will be allowed to engage in any evangelistic or missionary activity,” says Bob Provost of Slavic Gospel Association. “For example, if a North American church were to send a youth group over to help with a summer camp (which happens a lot), or if they were to send over a music group to help with evangelistic activity, it would not be allowed. Foreigners in Russia on a temporary visa would not be permitted.”
The legislation also outlaws indigenous churches from any missionary activity within hospitals, orphanages, or homes for the aged. Children, under the new legislation, will be prohibited from attending religious activities without specific permission by a parent or guardian. This part of the law, in particular, would devastate specific ministry opportunities.
“The single greatest evangelistic opportunity that the Church has there today comes at Christmas time when they’re able to hold Christmas events and invite children from the community,” explains Provost. “In many cases, parents and grandparents accompany their children to these meetings and find out that the lies that they’ve been hearing via the media or in the public schools against evangelical Christianity are not true.”
As if all of these restrictions were not limiting enough, the legislation forbids any “offers of material, social and other benefits,” leaving the range of prohibited activity almost completely open-ended.
If passed, anyone convicted of anything under this legislation (offering food to the poor, sharing the Gospel with a child, evangelizing on a short-term trip etc.) could be fined up to $517 USD. The Russian Union of Evangelical Christians-Baptists (RUECB) has responded to the absurdity of the open-endedness of the draft legislation, but it does not appear as though the government has not appeared to have made any movement.
With all of these objectives brewing, an explanation as to “why” is appropriate. But so far, there doesn’t appear to be substantial reasoning. Provost suggests that the legislation may be in defense of the Orthodox Church in Russia. Although the Baptist Church is not growing astronomically in Russia, it is growing and may well be considered a threat.
“It’s evident to me that president Putin, when he came into power, put the government’s arm around the Orthodox Church again in order to unify the country,” says Provost. As a result, “Any religion that starts to get in the way of the Orthodox Church is going to be considered a threat, and steps are being taken to remove it.”
Amid all of the concern, the Church continues to live on in Russia. “605 men have been set apart and are ready to be sent as missionaries all over the former Soviet Union. We’re praying for partners who would help us send them,” says Provost. “Nine out of ten communities are still waiting for a Gospel witness presence. In other words, nine out of ten communities have never had a Bible teaching church.”
The RUECB is asking churches in Russia to fast and pray that the legislation would not be passed in any of the stages toward becoming law. Please pray with them.
Slavic Gospel Association will continue their work in Russia and the former Soviet Union.
Report from the Christian Telegraph