BURMA: REPORT DOCUMENTS ABUSE OF CHIN CHRISTIANS


Human Rights Watch shows systematic, officially sanctioned religious freedom violations.

DUBLIN, February 20 (Compass Direct News) – A Human Rights Watch (HRW) report released in January details serious and ongoing abuses against the Chin people, a minority group in Burma’s northwest who claim to be 90 percent Christian.

HRW’s research echoes a 2004 report by the Chin Human Rights Organization (CHRO) that described targeted abuse of Christians in Chin state, with the Burmese army subjecting pastors and church members to forced labor, arbitrary arrest and detention, torture and sometimes death.

While religious oppression is extreme in Chin state, restrictions also apply elsewhere in Burma, also known as Myanmar. Most recently, officials in January forced the closure of more than 100 churches in Rangoon and ordered owners of apartment buildings and conference facilities not to rent their properties to religious groups.

Based on interviews with Chin refugees in India and Malaysia between 2003 and 2008, HRW’s report describes how an increasing number of army battalions stationed in Chin state since 1988 have inflicted forced labor and arbitrary fines on the Chin people, as well as bullied them away from Christianity toward Buddhism.

“When we meet the army, we are shaking,” a Chin refugee pastor told HRW. “Whatever they want is law.”

The HRW report, entitled “We Are Like Forgotten People,” notes that soldiers frequently forced Christians to donate finances and labor to pagoda construction projects in areas where there were few or no Buddhist residents.

They also occasionally forced Christians to worship in Buddhist pagodas. One Chin pastor described how Burmese soldiers brought him to a pagoda and prodded him with their guns, commanding him to pray as a Buddhist.

“They said that this is a Buddhist country and that I should not practice Christianity,” he told HRW.

The military forced village headmen to present “volunteers” for military training or army construction projects and secured “donations” such as food or finance for army battalions. Soldiers severely beat or detained headmen if a village failed to meet quotas, seizing livestock or property in retribution.

Pastors often faced similar treatment, particularly if church members were accused – often without proof – of involvement with the Chin National Front insurgency group. HRW listed arrest, detention and torture as methods used against those accused of being part of the Chin National Front, based across the border in northeast India. Torture included beatings with sticks or guns and electric shocks via metal clips attached to high-voltage batteries. Such measures were also used to crush dissent against army policies such as failure to pay extortionate and arbitrary fees.

The military government promoted Buddhism over all other religions in Chin state through threats and inducements, destroying churches and other religious symbols, and restricting the printing and importing of Bibles and other Christian literature, HRW reported.

A judge in 1999 sentenced one man from Falam township to three years in prison for bringing Chin language Bibles into Burma, contravening Burma’s 1965 Censor Law. Authorities also burned 16,000 copies of Chin and other ethnic language Bibles brought into neighboring Sagaing Division, another Chin majority area, in 2000.

 

‘Campaign of Ethnocide’

CHRO’s 2004 report, “Religious Persecution: A Campaign of Ethnocide Against Chin Christians in Burma,” explained that Christianity had become inseparable from Chin culture following the arrival of American Baptist missionaries in 1899.

The report, based on information gathered in Chin state, gave numerous examples of the destruction of churches and crosses, the burning of Bibles and restrictions on other religious publications and activities between 1993 and 2004 – including the extrajudicial killings of four Chin Christians in 1993.

Burmese authorities routinely denied permission for the construction of new churches and required permits for large church gatherings, although lengthy bureaucratic processes meant that most of these gatherings were eventually postponed or cancelled.

A September 2008 U.S. Department of State report confirmed that Chin state authorities have not granted permission to build a new church since 2003.

As recently as last November, a government official ordered residents of Tayawaddy village in neighboring Sagaing Division to destroy the foundations of a new church building erected by members of a Chin Christian student fellowship. A report in the Chinland Guardian claimed villagers were subsequently ordered not to rent their homes to Chin students or the homes would be destroyed.

 

Enticement to Convert

CHRO’s report gave clear evidence of government support for coerced conversions. For example, the government offered free secular education to several children from impoverished families, only to place them as novice monks in Buddhist monasteries in Rangoon.

The Ministry of Religious Affairs has also sent Buddhist monks to villages and towns throughout Chin state under the Hill Regions Buddhist Mission program, one of several Buddhist missionary initiatives highlighted on the ministry’s website. Chin residents who spoke to CHRO likened these monks to “military intelligence” operatives who worked in partnership with Burmese soldiers to control the Chin people.

According to one Chin resident, “Anyone who doesn’t abide by the monks’ orders is reported to the State Peace and Development Council [Burmese government officials] and punished by the army.”

Another Chin man from Matupi township attended a government-sponsored “social welfare” training session only to discover that it was a propaganda session led by a Buddhist monk.

“In the training we were taught the 17 facts of how to attack and disfigure Christians,” he explained.

The 17-point method encouraged converts to criticize Christian ways of life as corrupting culture in Burma, to point out weaknesses in Christianity, and to attack Christians by both violent and non-violent means.

“We were promised that 1,200 kyats per month [US$190] would be provided to those families who became Buddhist,” the training participant added. That amount of money is significant in the Burmese economy.

The instructor also ensured participants that they would be exempt from “portering” and other forms of forced labor and compulsory “donations” if they converted, and that the government would provide education for their children.

“I became a Buddhist because of such privileges rather than because I think Buddhism is better than Christianity,” the Chin participant told CHRO.

 

Religious Policy Elsewhere

According to CHRO, both the Burmese army and the monks are pursuing an unofficial government policy summed up in three words; “Amyo, Batha, Thathana,” which translates as “One race, one language, one religion” – or Burman, Burmese and Buddhist.

This policy was exemplified by the forced closure in January of more than 100 churches in the capital, Rangoon.

Officials on Jan. 5 invited pastors from more than 100 Rangoon churches to a meeting where they were ordered to sign documents pledging to cease operation of their churches or face imprisonment. About 50 pastors attended, according to Burmese news agency Mizzima.

A CHRO spokesman told Compass yesterday that a significant number of these churches were ethnic rather than majority Burman churches.

In mid-January, officials ordered several other major Rangoon churches to close, including Wather Hope Church, Emmanuel Church and an Assemblies of God Church. (See Compass Direct News, “Burma Clamps Down on Christians,” Jan. 21.)

Officials from the Ministry of Religious Affairs in January summoned the owners of buildings where churches met and ordered them not to rent their properties to religious groups, according to another local online news source, the Democratic Voice of Burma.

In the late 1990s, Burma stopped issuing permits for land purchase or the construction of new churches in Rangoon and elsewhere, leading many Burmese Christians to conduct services in rented apartments or office buildings.

The church closure orders may simply be an extension of Burma’s existing religious policies, which elevate Buddhism in an effort to solidify national identity. The country’s population is 82 percent Buddhist, 9 percent Christian and 4 percent Muslim, with traditional ethnic, Chinese and Hindu religions accounting for the rest.

In a 2007 report describing religious persecution throughout Burma, including Chin state, Christian Solidarity Worldwide cited the “Program to Destroy the Christian Religion in Burma,” a 17-point document that had circulated widely in Rangoon. Allegedly authorized by the Ministry of Religious Affairs, the program’s first point declared that, “There shall be no home where the Christian religion is practiced.”

The Ministry of Religious Affairs subsequently pressured religious organizations to publicly condemn CSW’s report and deny all claims of religious discrimination in Burma.  

Report from Compass Direct News

JESUS BOAT FOUND IN THE SEA OF GALILEE IN ISRAEL


In 1986, two brothers, Moshe and Yuval Lufan, found something beyond all expectations, reports Brian Nixon, special to ASSIST News Service.

According to Pastor Skip Heitzig, who has recently finished filming a documentary on the find, the brothers felt that they would discover something wonderful on that day.

And wonderful it was.

Tucked away in the northwestern shore of the Sea of Galilee, the brothers unearthed a 1st century boat, now named the “Jesus Boat.”

Heitzig explained to me in a recent interview that in 1986 there was a tremendous drought in Israel. This allowed the brothers access to deeper regions of the lake.

One of the brothers stumbled upon some wood, and after a little digging, determined that the wood was actually a boat. According to the brothers, a double rainbow revealed itself in the sky after the find.

The brothers retreated to the Kibbutz Ginasar to get help. The Antiquity Authorities were brought in. After a long, 12-day archeological excavation (the boat was kept in a preserving environment and sailed across the Galilee river), the “Jesus Boat” was put in a 7-year chemical bath (a wax paraffin, Heitzig explained) before it could be displayed in the open air.

Since the time of its unearthing, the boat has been officially dated to the 1st century. Almost 27 feet long, and over 7 feet wide, the boat was dated based upon the nails used and the construction of the hull.

Most scholars agree that the era during which the boat was built falls somewhere between 100 B.C and 100 A.D.

Archeologists state that the “Jesus Boat” is the first near-complete boat ever to be found in the Sea of Galilee, and is therefore a considerable discovery.

Though some have attempted to draw conclusions that Jesus (or His disciples) may have used the boat, the reality is that know one knows. Chances are the boat served its purpose for fishing and trade, and then when it got old; it was allowed to submerge in the lake.

Though scientists can’t determine if this exact boat was one Jesus would have sailed on, it can be said that it is representative of the boats the people of His day would have used.

Since the boat’s discovery, the Pope came to view the vessel- hoping it needed a home in the Vatican. The President came to see it, as did many other men of science and politics. For the past few years, the “Jesus Boat” has generated great interest across the world.

In as much as Heitzig finds the boat a fascinating and important archeological discovery, he also sees the boat as a picture of more than an ancient sailing craft. In the boat, Heitzig finds a parallel to the nation the boat was discovered in.

For Heitzig, the boat is a picture of Israel: a nation that was considered dead and submerged. But through His wonderful providence, God brought Israel forth in 1948. He reemerged it as a bud for a new generation, and established Israel as a nation.

In the soon to be released documentary, The Jesus Boat, Heitzig, as host, takes viewers on a journey through the discovery, preservation, and display of the boat (the boat can be seen in the Yigal Alon Museum in Kibbutz Ginasar), though Heitzig makes it a point to draw a strong parallel to the rebirth of the Nation of Israel.

According to Heitzig, “The Jesus Boat was way more than a documentary about an ancient boat. It’s really a testimony to the faithfulness of God. Through the film, we paralleled the story of a lost boat and a lost nation- Israel- both of which were “resurrected” after 2,000 years. It tells of a boat that wouldn’t stay buried in a land that couldn’t stay buried!”

“Just like the boat was buried under the shores for 2,000 years, the land of Israel was submerged – virtually not a nation – a dispersed people group. Yet against all odds, Israel re-emerged in 1948. As the prophet Ezekiel predicted, there was a re-gathering of Jews from the four corners of the world into that ancient piece of real estate. It would seem as impossible as dried bones, bleached and parched under the Middle Eastern sun, coming to life again.” (See Ezekiel 36-37).

“And yet it happened – 1948, the re-establishment of the nation. And why? Because God made promises to Abraham: ‘I’ll bless you, I’ll make you a great nation, your name will be great, I’ll bless those who bless you and curse those who curse you.’”(See Genesis 12:1-3).

Report from the Christian Telegraph

EGYPT: JUDGE TELLS OF DESIRE TO KILL CHRISTIAN


Bail granted to convert from Islam barred from legally changing religious ID.

ISTANBUL, January 27 (Compass Direct News) – After her arrest at Cairo’s airport on Dec. 13 while attempting to flee anti-Christian hostilities in Egypt, convert Martha Samuel Makkar was granted bail on Saturday (Jan. 24), but not before a judge took her aside and said he would like to kill her, according to her lawyer.

Attorney Nadia Tawfiq said Judge Abdelaa Hashem questioned Makkar extensively about her Christian faith during the hearing. Makkar, charged with forging identification documents, explained her reasons for her conversion, avowing her Christian faith and repudiating the judge’s claims that converting from Islam to Christianity was impossible.

“Then he said, ‘I want to talk with Martha alone,’ so we all left the room, and he said to her, ‘Nobody changes from Muslim to Christian – you are a Muslim,’” Tawfiq said. “And she said, ‘No, I am a Christian.’ He told her, ‘If I had a knife now, I would kill you.’ [Makkar] came out crying and depressed, but at least he gave the decision to let her go free.”

Makkar, 24, had planned to escape the dangers she has faced in Egypt by travelling to Russia with her family. She says that since converting to Christianity five years ago, police and members of her extended family have threatened her incessantly, the relatives vowing to kill her.

Airport security personnel had been notified of Makkar’s plans, according to a Coptic rights group.

“They had both [her original and Christian] names and maybe a picture before she reached the airport,” said Helmy Guirguis, president of the UK Coptic Association. “They did not [arrest her] to apply the law, they did it because of hate for Muslims converting to Christianity. It is like a great occasion to go and arrest some poor lady like her in the airport.”

After her arrest, Makkar was charged with carrying forged documents and taken to El-Nozha police station. Authorities also took her husband and two children into custody. The identification that Makkar carried listed her religion as Christian and bore the name she had chosen for herself rather than her given name, Zainab Said Abdel-Aziz.

Legal conversion from Islam to Christianity by Muslim-born Egyptians, and gaining corresponding legitimate documents, is unprecedented in Egypt. Egyptian law does not provide for a means to legally change one’s religion on identification papers.

According to Tawfiq, Makkar said authorities held her in a room at the airport, hit her and denied food to her children.

“People who convert to Christianity are treated exactly like terrorists,” said Guirguis of the UK Coptic Association. “This is not official policy, it’s not on paper, it’s not the law, but it’s what happens.”

 

Abuse from Police, Prisoners

Before authorities took Makkar to prison, her two children, Morkes, 2, and Amanwael, 4, were handed into the care of family friends. Authorities took Makkar’s Christian husband, 32-year-old Fadl Thabet, to the national security office in Alexandria for questioning.

The prosecution office later ordered his release after testimony from Makkar, who claimed that Thabet did not know she was a convert. Despite this order, authorities did not release Thabet but instead placed him under “emergency arrest.” This form of incarceration requires no charges and provides no recourse to legal counsel. He remained in prison until Jan. 19.

Authorities had also arrested George Abyad, 67, and Masood Guirges, 55, employees of the Coptic Orthodox Patriarchate in Alexandria, on suspicion of helping Makkar obtain false papers. The prosecution office ordered their release along with that of Thabet based on Makkar’s testimony.

Since Makkar’s arrest, she has leveled allegations of sexual abuse and demeaning behavior at police in the El-Nozha station and at personnel of the national security office in Heliopolis. Makkar said she has also suffered at the hands of fellow inmates at Al-Qanata prison, where authorities later took her.

“She has some difficulty with the other prisoners in prison,” said Tawfiq. “One of them kicked her and tried to kill her; one took the Bible and threw it on the floor, pushed her and tried to make her go back to Islam. But she is strong, she is strong.”

Makkar remained in pre-trial detention until Thursday (Jan. 22), when she was briefly released on a bail of 3,000 Egyptian pounds (US$540). She was then rearrested after prosecutors filed an appeal. The appeal failed, and on Saturday (Jan. 24) Makkar was allowed to return home to her husband and children pending trial.

Tawfiq and two other lawyers, Nabil Azmi and Magdy Shounda, will represent Makkar when her trial resumes before a different judge. Tawfiq, however, is not hopeful that they will face any less of a bias.

“I think it will be the same, because all the judges are Muslim and are naturally upset about that [conversion],” she said.  

Report from Compass Direct News

PAKISTAN: SISTERS ABDUCTED, FORCED TO CONVERT TO ISLAM


Repeatedly raped, minor and 18-year-old now face societal rejection.

ISTANBUL, January 19 (Compass Direct News) – The ordeal of two teenage Christian sisters in Pakistan is over after Muslims allegedly abducted and raped them and forced them to convert to Islam, but they fear a future of societal rejection.

Parvisha Masih, 18, and Sanam Masih, 14, said three Muslim men kidnapped them last November, raping them several times during two weeks of captivity.

“We are happy to return to the family, but we are feeling ashamed because there is no respect for us in society now,” Parvisha Masih said. “We don’t want to go back to school and have to face our friends.”

They face a long legal battle that will inevitably bring them into contact with their captors – who have already assaulted their family in court.

“We feel very afraid, and we are still receiving threats,” Parvisha Masih told Compass. “We are worried about our family and about ourselves. I don’t ever want to see those men again.”

On Jan. 2 the sisters recorded statements concerning their alleged abduction, rape and forced conversion to Islam before a local magistrate in Gujranwala. Earlier, they gave statements in Karachi, where they had been taken by their captors some 840 miles to the south. Two First Incident Reports (FIRs) have been filed.

In Gujranwala, Muhammad Irfan, Muhammed Mehboob and Muhammed Rafique, Mehboob’s brother-in-law, are charged with kidnapping.

 

Kidnapped

Irfan and Mehboob, suspected of involvement in a human trafficking ring, at first made contact with Parvisha Masih accidentally.

“Parvisha received a wrong number call and talked to Muhammad Irfan,” said Katherine Karamat, an investigative officer for the Center for Legal Aid Assistance and Settlement (CLAAS). “Some days later, Irfan called again and told her that he had a beauty salon, and if she wanted training he could arrange that for her.”

Eager to earn extra money for the family, Masih convinced her younger sister Sanam to join her in accepting the offer, according to CLAAS.

Irfan arranged to drive them to their first day of work in his car. At 10 a.m. on Nov. 12, Irfan and Mehboob picked the sisters up from their home.

“This is a common practice now,” said Michael Javaid, a Pakistani member of parliament based in Karachi. “They offer poor people from the villages a good job, and the parents are poor so they trust them, but then they bring these girls and sell them to other people.”

According to the sisters’ testimony, Irfan stopped the car after roughly half an hour to buy beverages. He offered them both a bottle of fruit juice that they drank, unaware that he had drugged it.

En route to Karachi, Irfan and Mehboob then drove the sisters to a motel in Mianwali, threatening them at gunpoint and telling them they would be killed if they tried to escape. The sisters reported that the men then raped them.

In the morning they were ushered back into the car and driven to the coastal city of Karachi, where they were held captive at Rafique’s house. Over the next five days, they said, the men raped them repeatedly.

Masih and Sanam then were taken to a madrassa (Islamic school), where a mufti issued certificates stating that the two had become Muslims. Parvisha Masih was renamed Sana, and her sister received the name Tayyaba.

Javaid and lawyers from CLAAS challenged these certificates, asserting that the sisters did not sign them.

“Anyone can get these papers by giving some kind of a bribe; [clerics] feel it is a service to Islam,” said Javaid. “They will issue a certificate without knowing the will of the person, whether this is a forcible conversion or not.”

Following their forced conversion at the madrassa, the Muslims took the sisters to the office of lawyers Nayer Zia-Ul-Din and Kokab Sahab-Ul-Din. Irfan explained to the lawyers that the sisters had converted to Islam and did not wish to return home to their Christian family, but instead wanted to stay at the government-run Dar-Ul-Aman shelter for women. Before leaving, Irfan told Masih and Sanam that they would be freed after the lawyers brought them to court the following day.

The lawyers told the sisters to sign blank sheets of paper, forging testimony from the pair that they planned to use to support their case, according to CLAAS. The attorneys told the sisters that they could stay with their family that night and took Masih and Sanam to their home, but no other family members were present.

After the sisters had fallen asleep, according to CLAAS, Sahab-Ul-Din took Parvisha Masih into a separate room and sexually abused her. Police found medication in Sahab-Ul-Din’s apartment indicating that the sisters were again drugged. Sanam said she woke up when she heard her older sister crying for help.

“I took the mobile of the lawyer and called 15 [the emergency police number in Pakistan],” she told Compass. “One lawyer had left; the other was with Parvisha.” She was able to escape the house and describe her location to authorities.

Police arrived at the scene shortly afterward, immediately referring Parvisha Masih to a hospital and arresting Sahab-Ul-Din, whom they took to the Ferozabad police station. The other lawyer, Zia-Ul-Din, had left but was later arrested at his home.

At the police station, Sanam called her father, Arif Masih, who rushed to Karachi to bring his daughters back home.

 

Assaulted in Court

The following day (Nov. 22), the sisters appeared before a magistrate to give testimony, accompanied by their father and other relatives. Defendants Zia-Ul-Din and Sahab-Ul-Din, both charged with rape, were also present. Upon learning that the sisters’ father was in the room, they located him and began to attack him.

“The magistrate was in his chambers, and so the lawyers attacked the father and relatives, beating them, even the women, there in the courtroom, which never happened before!” said Javaid. “All the police were called, the FHO [court police], the superintendant and deputy superintendant, and they took them to the lock-up for safety.”

Javaid said he plans to take a strong contingent of associates when they next appear in court to protect the sisters and deter another attack.

This is the second known case of its kind in recent months. Saba and Aneela Masih underwent a similar ordeal last July, and although 10-year-old Aneela has been returned to her family, her 13-year-old sister, forced to marry one of the men who kidnapped her, remains with her captors.

Christian girls from poor families make easy targets, and many cases go undocumented, Javaid told Compass. High legal fees often make it impossible for poor families to bring a case to court. Corrupt lawyers, easily swayed by bribes, often create further expense.

On top of this, a biased legal system that favors Muslims over Christians is particularly reluctant to pass judgments that would undermine conversion to Islam.

“Because both [Parvisha and Sanam Masih] are Christian and the accused were Muslim, to save their skin they made [the sisters] embrace Islam forcefully so they can marry them maybe or whatever they want,” said CLAAS lawyer Samson Joseph.

Report from Compass Direct News

IRAQ: COURT RELEASES CHRISTIAN GIRL SENTENCED FOR MURDER


Prison term reduced for abused niece who defended herself; family fears retaliation.

ISTANBUL, November 17 (Compass Direct News) – In prison at the age of 14 for having fatally stabbed her uncle in northern Iraq, Asya Ahmad Muhammad’s early release on Nov. 10 thanks to a juvenile court decision was overshadowed by fear of retaliation from her extended Muslim family.

Also known as Maria, the now 16-year-old Muhammad was sentenced to five years in prison for killing her paternal uncle in self-defense on July 9, 2006 when he attacked her, her mother and little brother at their family kitchen utensil store in the outskirts of Dohuk. The uncle had cut her mother with a knife and was fiercely beating them for converting to Christianity and for “shaming” the family by working in public when Muhammad stabbed him.

Clearing her of an original conviction for premeditated murder, the Erbil high court last year had reduced Muhammad’s sentence from five to three-and-a-half years, upholding an earlier decision that she was guilty of killing her uncle though she acted in defense of herself and others.

Muhammad’s lawyer, Akram Al-Najar, told Compass that following his appeal to the Dohuk juvenile court, the court earlier this month agreed to reduce her sentence to two years and four months on the basis of her good conduct and having served nearly three-quarters of her three-and-a-half year sentence.

“She deserved to be released since her behavior and attitude was excellent,” said Al-Najar. “That is why the court accepted my request and decided to reduce her punishment to two years and four months.”

Local Christians have commented that Muhammad’s sentence was light, considering that it was culturally acceptable for an uncle to beat his niece. Her jail time also meant that she didn’t have to fear reprisal attacks from her relatives.

But Muhammad’s release from prison now means a possible retaliation from extended family members for her uncle’s death, said Al-Najar.

“I am not sure she is safe right now, especially after her release, since there are still people intent on gaining revenge,” said the lawyer.

 

Father Threatened

Muhammad’s father, Ahmad Muhammad Abdurahman, who converted in 1998 while working in Beirut, said that in the last week family members have called him twice telling him his days of joy are numbered.

“My sisters called me, and my brother’s wife called me also [and said], ‘You are a shame. Don’t be happy in your family; we will never let you be happy in your family,’” Abdurahman told Compass.

He explained that his change in faith was grounds for an “honor” crime in his Kurdish family, and even more so now that blood had been shed. His father, a Muslim cleric, was enraged by Abdurahman’s conversion. Abdurahman’s deceased brother, Sayeed, on five occasions had tried to kill him and had also burned down his house. Abdurahman has seven brothers.

Abdurahman said that since the release of his only daughter, he has left his old home but remains in the town of Dohuk, unsure of what the next step is for his family. He said his only hope now is to come up with the “blood money” necessary to buy peace with his family for his brother’s death. The court has set this amount at 10 million Iraqi dinars (US$8,670).

Unable to keep a stable job, Abdurahman is not sure he will be able to come up with the amount, nor whether it will suffice to keep his family safe within the borders of Iraq.

“I just pray that God gives me provision to take my daughter and family to a different country,” he said. “We have now moved to a different house, but I am afraid they will come and contact me again. I want to keep my daughter and wife safe, but I don’t know how I will manage to do so.”

In a phone interview with Christian support organization Open Doors, Muhammad said her time in prison had been difficult and she was thankful to be back with her family.

“I am very glad because God gave me a miracle, and I am very happy to meet my mother and my father,” she told a representative of the organization. “My hope [is] in Jesus; I always prayed for God to comfort my mother [until] I see my mother, I see my family again.”

 

Relative ‘Safe Haven’

Despite the recent waves of violence in Mosul, south of Dohuk in northern Iraq, Abdurahman said that the Kurdish part of the country is still considered a safe haven for Christians, where many Christian families from Mosul have also fled in recent weeks

“Many Christians come here from Mosul and Baghdad, and the Kurdish government does a good job to protect Christians,” he said. “That’s what I see.”

He noted, however, that according to Iraqi law it is still not possible for Iraqis to change their religion on their national identification cards.

“It is my dream that one day I will be free to change my ID card,” he said. “My card now writes ‘Muslim.’ But my faith is Christian.”

Abdurahman asked for prayer as he looks for a job or a way to get out of Iraq.

“I don’t know what will come from God,” he said. “I’m not worried about that, but my family needs help, they need food and things … I’m just thanking God that he brought my sheep, my daughter, into the family again.”

Report from Compass Direct News

IRAN: COURT FINDS WAY TO ACQUIT CHRISTIANS OF ‘APOSTASY’


Tribunal tries to save face by claiming pastors never converted from Islam.

LOS ANGELES, October 30 (Compass Direct News) – An Iranian judge has ordered the release of two pastors charged with “apostasy,” or leaving Islam, but the defendants said the ruling was based on the court’s false claim that they confessed to having never converted to Christianity.

Mahmoud Matin Azad, 52, said he and Arash Basirat, 44, never denied their Christian faith and believe the court statement resulted from the judge seeking a face-saving solution to avoid convicting them of apostasy, which soon could automatically carry the death penalty.

Azad and Basirat were arrested May 15 and acquitted on Sept. 25 by Branch 5 of the Fars Criminal Court in Shiraz, 600 kilometers (373 miles) south of Tehran.

A court document obtained by human rights organization Amnesty International stated, “Both had denied that they had converted to Christianity and said that they remain Muslim, and accordingly the court found no further evidence to the contrary.”

Azad vehemently denied the official court statement, saying the notion of him being a Muslim never even came up during the trial.

“The first question that they asked me was, ‘What are you doing?’ I said, ‘I am a pastor pastoring a house church in Iran,” he told Compass. “All my [court] papers are about Christianity – about my activity, about our church and everything.”

Members of Azad’s house church confirmed that the government’s court statement of his rejection of Christianity was false.

“His faith wasn’t a secret – he was a believer for a long, long time,” said a source who preferred to remain anonymous.

During one court hearing, Azad said, a prosecutor asked him, “Did you change your religion?” Azad responded, “I didn’t have religion for 43 years. Now I have religion, I have faith in God and I am following God.”

If the court misstated that the two men said they were Muslims, it likely came from political pressure from above, said Joseph Grieboski, founder of the Institute on Religion and Public Policy.

“If the court did in fact lie about what he said, I would think it’s part of the larger political game that [President Mahmoud] Ahmadinejad and his factions are trying to play to garner political support for him,” Grieboski said.

Ahmadinejad, who is facing re-election, has approval ratings hovering above the single digits and has faced international criticism for the apostasy law.

“What he does not need is bad press and bad political positioning,” Grieboski said. “I would be shocked if [the acquittal] were not somehow involved in the presidential campaign.”

International condemnation of the law and of the proposed mandatory death penalty for those who leave Islam come as Iran faces new rounds of U.N. economic sanctions for uranium enrichment.

Upon his release, Azad said that no reason was given for the court freeing him and Basirat. Disputing the court’s allegation that they claimed to be Muslims, Azad said that he told his attorney, “Two things I will never say. First, I will not lie; second, I will not deny Jesus my Lord and my Savior.”

The two men are grateful for their release, he said, but they worry that their acquittal might merely be a tactic by the Iranian government to wait for them to re-engage in Christian activity and arrest them again. Their release could also put anyone with whom they associate in danger, Azad said.

There is another worry that the government could operate outside the law in order to punish them, as some believe has happened in the past. The last case of an apostasy conviction in Iran was that of Christian convert Mehdi Dibaj in 1994. Following his release, however, Dibaj and four other Protestant pastors, including converts and those working with converts, were brutally murdered.

A similar motivation could have prompted the judge to release the two pastors. Leaving their deaths up to outside forces would abrogate him from personally handing down the death penalty, Grieboski said.

“Even in Iran no judge wants to be the one to hand down the death penalty for apostasy,” he said. “The judge’s motivation [in this hearing] could have been for his own face-saving reasons, for the possibility of arresting more people, or even for the possibility that the two defendants will be executed using social means rather than government means. Any of these are perfectly legitimate possibilities when we start talking about the Iranian regime.”

The court case against Azad and Basirat came amid a difficult time for local non-Muslims as the Iranian government attempted to criminalize apostasy from Islam.

On Sept. 9 the Iranian parliament approved a new penal code by a vote of 196-7 calling for a mandatory death sentence for apostates, or those who leave Islam. The individual section of the penal code containing the apostasy bill must be passed for it to go into law.

As recently as late August, the court was reluctant to release the two men on bail. At one point Azad’s attorney anticipated the bail to be between $40,000 and $50,000, but the judge set the bail at $100,000.

The original charge against Azad and Basirat of “propaganda against the Islamic Republic of Iran” was dropped, but replaced with the more serious charge of apostasy.

Those close to the two pastors were relieved at the acquittal since they expected their detention to be lengthy.

“We had anticipated [Azad’s incarceration] would be a while, and then we got this notice that they were released,” said a family friend of Azad. “We were shocked by that.”

Azad described his four-month incarceration in positive terms. He said that while in prison he was treated with respect by the authorities because he explained that he was not interested in political matters and was a pastor.  

Report from Compass Direct News

CHINESE PASTOR’S SON SURVIVES ATTACK BY GOVERNMENT AGENTS


The oldest son of a prominent Chinese house church leader has regained consciousness and has spoken about his severe beating at the hands of government officials, saying he wanted to die if his story would cause people to grasp how shameless the persecution of Christians in China has become, reports Baptist Press.

Zhang Jian, the son of “Pastor Bike” Zhang Mingxuan, chairman of the Federation House Church movement, was beaten by officers of China’s Public Security Bureau Oct. 16. The next day, he was able to speak with staff from China Aid Association, a human rights organization based in the United States.

China Aid reported that Zhang Jian’s right eye is severely wounded and doctors are unsure whether he will regain sight. His nose bone and eye bone are broken, and doctors have recommended further CAT scans and surgery. Despite his serious condition, the pastor’s son left the hospital because PSB officials were watching him there and he feared for his safety, China Aid said.

“I could not believe human beings could be so evil,” Zhang Jian told China Aid by phone. “Where is law, where is justice? I was crying out to the Lord. I felt I was dying and told the Lord, ‘Lord, please take my life as a martyr.

“‘Maybe this is the only way to awaken the conscience of the world and for the Chinese to open their eyes to see clearly that this is the religious freedom in China,'” Zhang Jian added. “‘I would like to die if my life could be used as a wakeup call and could help Chinese brothers and sisters further more freedom to worship the Lord freely — to demonstrate the darkness here in China.'”

Zhang Jian explained that his mother called him around noon the day of the beating and asked him to come to her apartment because plainclothes officers “along with hired thugs” had broken in and were throwing her belongings onto the street.

“When I got there, I saw my mom lying on the ground, being knocked down by these thugs who were led by a man who claimed to be the cousin of the property owner with whom my parents had signed two-year rental contract less than a month ago,” Zhang Jian told China Aid. “My younger brother Zhang Chuang was badly beaten up already with his mouth swollen bleeding.

“I asked, ‘How can you guys throw other people’s private items on the street?’ I tried to use my body to protect my mom from being hurt by them. Then this group of 15 officers and thugs immediately surrounded me and started beating my head and body with iron bars and said, ‘You are the one. We need to teach you a lesson as troublemaker.’

“I was very angry and upset in the beginning,” Zhang Jian said. “How could this happen in the daytime? My parents do not deserve to be treated like this just simply being preachers of the Gospel. My blood ran over from upstairs to the downstairs until I lost consciousness.”

Zhang Mingxuan, the pastor, was traveling in Yunnan province at the time and was unable to be contacted. Once Zhang Jian lost consciousness, his younger brother called 110, the Chinese equivalent to 911, but police did not arrive for more than an hour, Zhang Chuang told China Aid. Chinese law requires the police to arrive within 10 minutes of a call, and the PSB office is in close proximity to the Zhang residence.

“Ironically, seeing the police arrive, one of the guys who beat up my brother pretended to fall down, claiming he was beaten up by my brother Zhang Jian,” Zhang Chuang said. “Then the police even called in the ambulance to help that guy who was not hurt or wounded at all. But the ambulance refused to come to rescue my brother whose clothes were soaked with his blood all over after our repeated plea to 110. How could he or how dare he fight back when surrounded by 15 strong guys with iron bars? It’s very evil and is a joke to claim he could beat others at that time.”

Zhang Jian told China Aid that the doctors wanted him to have surgery to correct some of his wounds, but his family did not have the appropriate funds.

“I want to see some justice to be done and I want my father to be back home,” he said. “Where can we find a place to stay? No one in Beijing is able to host us. Pray for us, especially for my mom. She is exhausted.”

Chinese officials also have attempted to shut down the house church where Zhang Mingxuan preaches. On Oct. 10, police sealed the door of the church and blocked it with two truckloads of garbage. Officials were not letting anyone enter the church and had cut off electricity, even though the government just weeks earlier had given the church permission to meet, China Aid said.

“The physical assault on Zhang Jian is the most serious of the recent attacks on Zhang Jian and his family. During the past 22 years, Zhang Jian’s father, Pastor Bike, has been arrested 26 times, beaten and evicted from his home numerous times because of his faith,” the human rights group said. “Despite the persecution, this family continues to boldly preach and help the house church Christians.”

China Aid is assisting Zhang Jian and his family with medical expenses, legal help and other needs, the association said, and concerned citizens are urged to contact the Chinese Embassy by writing to 2201 Wisconsin Ave. NW, Washington, DC 20007 or by calling 202-338-6688.

Report from the Christian Telegraph

PHILIPPINES: CHRISTIANS FEAR FAILED PACT INCREASES RISK OF REPRISALS


Frustrated Muslim demand for larger autonomous region in Mindanao could lead to war.

DUBLIN, October 6 (Compass Direct News) – Militant Islamists in the southern island of Mindanao have stepped up their attacks on majority-Christian villages following the failure of a peace agreement that would have enlarged an existing Muslim autonomous region there.

With Muslim commanders of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) in the southern Philippines yesterday saying ongoing support from the international community was necessary to prevent a full-scale war breaking out in Mindanao, both Muslim and Christian residents in the disputed territories were fearful of what the future might hold.

“The problem is that many people living in these areas don’t want to be part of a Muslim autonomous region,” a source in Mindanao who preferred to remain anonymous told Compass.

“The closer you get to these zones, the more nervous people are,” he said. “The town of Kolambugan, where most of the fighting took place in mid-August, became a virtual ghost town for a while. It had a population of 25,000. But people are slowly returning to their homes.”

A Christian family from the area said many people were afraid to sleep at night because they kept hearing reports that they would be attacked at midnight.

“When MILF forces attack Christian villages, Muslim neighbors are afraid that Christians will retaliate against them, even though they have nothing to do with the violence,” the source added. “This has happened in the past.”

He also explained that some moderate Muslims are drawn to support the MILF because the rebels claim the Christians have stolen their ancestral homelands. Communities in Mindanao often struggle with extreme poverty.

“If MILF is successful in gaining control over these lands, the people assume that their economic situation will improve,” he said. “So although they want the fighting to stop, they sympathize with the MILF.”

While the conflict is primarily political, religion plays a significant role. As a member of the Moro Youth League stated in an Aug. 5 national television interview in the Philippines, “As a Muslim, in order to live in a righteous way, you need to be living under sharia [Islamic] law and with an Islamic government. We believe we have the right to fight for this.”

Other Youth League members on the program agreed that sharia was a primary objective of autonomy, and that Islam was the only “real path of doing anything in this world.”

 

Violence Erupts

Some 2,000 MILF supporters yesterday held a protest march in Marawi city, Lanao del Sur, appealing to the United Nations and the Organization of the Islamic Conference to compel the Philippine government to revive the aborted peace agreement that would have enlarged the existing Muslim autonomous region in the south.

Breakaway MILF commanders on Aug. 18 attacked several majority-Christian villages after the Supreme Court prevented the Aug. 5 signing of the Memorandum of Agreement on Ancestral Domain (MOA-AD). The agreement potentially would have given the MILF power to establish an Islamic state governed by sharia law.

Christian leaders in Mindanao appealed to the Supreme Court when they realized that if they voted against inclusion in the proposed Bangsamoro Juridical Entity (BJE), their majority-Christian villages would become small islands in the midst of MILF-administered territory. As a result, they feared, they would be forced to move elsewhere.

Incensed by the 11th-hour stalling of the agreement, three MILF commanders on their own initiative led attacks against towns in North Cotabato and Lanao del Norte provinces on Aug. 18, burning homes, seizing livestock and killing at least 37 people. Another 44,000 residents immediately fled the area.

When some Christian residents armed themselves in defense, Secretary of Interior Ronaldo Puno warned that anyone carrying weapons would be disarmed.

The MILF has only 11,000 active fighting men, according to local estimates. But by Aug. 20, the National Disaster Coordinating Council had reported a total of 159,000 people displaced by the rebel attacks.

The Philippine army quickly retaliated, sweeping villages in an attempt to seize the rebel commanders.

After two weeks of violent clashes, the Philippine government officially abandoned the MOA-AD. Spokeswoman Lorelei Fajardo said President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo would seek a new agreement based on consultation with legislators and local politicians rather than negotiations with the MILF.

Furthermore, the government would concentrate on the “disarmament, demobilization and rehabilitation” of MILF cadres, Fajardo said.

In response, MILF leaders rejected any renegotiation of the peace deal with Arroyo’s administration.

 

Overcoming Prejudice

An opinion piece in the Wall Street Journal (WSJ) on Aug. 7 stated that the MOA-AD would only reinforce prejudices between Christian and Muslim communities.

Under the agreement, WSJ claimed, the government would further divide Mindanao into Muslim and Christian enclaves, increasing the likelihood of territorial disputes. Separating Muslims from the rest of Philippine society, it stated, would encourage a vision already held by MILF to help create a pan-Islamic state covering several countries in the region, including Malaysia, Indonesia and Singapore.

Finally, the WSJ said, less Philippine control of Mindanao would “invite even more terrorist activity in an area that already has strong ties to al Qaeda.”

While there are proven terrorist leanings in groups such as the MILF and the Abu Sayyaf, not all area Muslims approve of or engage in such activities.

Camilo Montesa, a key figure in peace negotiations, in his blog on Aug. 30 described an encounter with a young man who believed that Muslim residents would readily seize property from Christians once the BJE were formed.

Others told Montesa that, “Muslims were scouting and marking the big houses of Christians in Cotabato and staking a claim over them in anticipation of the signing of the peace agreement.”

“The hearts and minds of the people are the battlefields, and not some hill or base camp,” Montesa concluded. “There is a limit to what arms and war can produce … It is unfortunate that we are so divided as a people at this point in our national life.”

 

Reclaiming ‘Ancestral Domains’

As Islamic identity strengthened in the Middle East after World War II – and as many Philippine Muslims traveled to study in Middle Eastern countries – certain sectors of the Bangsamoro population became committed to reclaiming “ancestral domains.”

Their claims dated back to the rule of the Sultanate of Sulu, which existed prior to Spanish colonial rule in the 1500s, and the establishment of the Commonwealth of the Philippines in 1935. When the last sultan died in 1936, the fledgling Philippine government refused to recognize his heir, effectively eradicating the traditional Bangsamoro power base.

When the Philippines became a republic in 1946, its constitution allowed for the establishment of an autonomous region in Muslim Mindanao. Initially the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) fought alone for this autonomous territory; in 1977, however, MNLF member Hashim Salamat – who had studied in Saudi Arabia – and his followers seceded from the movement and founded the rival MILF.

The Philippine government signed an agreement with the MNLF in January 1987, and territories were added to the resulting Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao (ARMM) through a series of plebiscites or referendums in 1989, 2001, 2002 and 2006.

MILF commanders later laid claim to a further 712 villages outside the ARMM.

Negotiations between the government and the MILF began in earnest in June 2001. Both parties were to formally sign the resulting MOA-AD on Aug. 5, a deal which could have led to the creation of the separate Bangsamoro Juridical Entity, or fully-functioning state, replacing the ARMM by 2010.

When details of the agreement were leaked to the press, however, Christian politicians in regions of Mindanao affected by the agreement appealed to the Supreme Court, which in turn issued a temporary restraining order on the signing of the agreement on Aug. 4.

Report from Compass Direct News

PASTOR BIKE’S HOUSE CHURCH ALLOWED TO MEET AGAIN


On September 28, 2008 Pastor Zhang “Bike” Mingxuan and his wife celebrated their first peaceful Sunday in more than three months after officials restored their electricity and water service and permitted their house church to gather once more, reports Michael Ireland, chief correspondent, ASSIST News Service.

According to China Aid Association (CAA), Pastor Bike and his wife returned to Beijing on September 21 after being kidnapped and detained by Chinese police during the Olympics.

CAA says they rented an apartment, but on September 22, the couple’s water and electricity were cut off by the Public Security Bureau (PSB) office of Chaoyang District of Beijing. Officials told Pastor Bike he was not welcome in the city. Pastor Bike’s landlord was also threatened and told to stop renting to the couple.

In a report from CAA obtained by ASSIST News the organization says that Pastor Bike tried to sue the PSB, but the local court and prosecutor office refused to take up his case because of a “lack of eyewitness.”

On the morning of September 26, Pastor Bike went to the PSB office of Chaoyang district, Beijing to file a complaint against the PSB branch office in Qibahe township. The three officers on Pastor Bike’s complaint were: Qibahe Township PSB Office Director Mr. Yuan Hongwei, PSB officers Mr. Peng Cheng and Mr. Yang Bin.

CAA said an officer in charge of Religious Affairs from Domestic Security Protection Squad named Bai Tao called several officers from the Religious Affairs Bureau and the city government.

“The officials came to Bike and told him he is now allowed to operate his house church in his living area. They told him his rental apartment will not be disturbed again, ” CAA said.

“Pastor Bike thanked them and invited them to attend the third anniversary of the founding of the Chinese House Church Alliance scheduled for October 20.”

Pastor Bike wishes to thank all who have been praying for him and his family.

CAA explained this unique victory for Zhang’s house church is a welcomed and encouraging sign for our brothers and sisters in China.

China Aid Association would like to personally thank those who have contributed to Pastor Bike’s victory through their prayers, support and faithfulness to walk with those who are persecuted.

Report from the Christian Telegraph