PAKISTAN: TWO CHRISTIANS ACQUITTED OF ‘BLASPHEMY’


After nearly two and half years in jail, elderly men’s 10-year sentences overturned.

ISTANBUL, April 21 (Compass Direct News) – After more than two years in a Pakistani jail, two elderly Christian men convicted of “blasphemy” against the Quran were acquitted on Thursday (April 16) when a high court in Lahore overturned their 10-year sentence.

James Masih, 67, and Buta Masih, 72, were accused of burning pages from the Quran in October 2006 and were also tried under an anti-terrorism law because their actions were deemed to have created fear and panic. In a case that drew crowds of Islamic fanatics, they were convicted on Nov. 25, 2006 of blaspheming Islam’s sacred book.

The pair has claimed from the start that the blasphemy charges were fabricated due to a dispute over a plot of land that a Muslim neighbor wanted James Masih to sell.

“It happens many times, it is always a false story due to some other enmity,” said Father Yaqub Yousaf, the men’s parish priest. “Pastors and priests, we tell them that it is better not to speak on religion with the Muslims, not to say anything that can hurt them, so normally they don’t do that.”

After rumors erupted that the two men had burned pages of the Quran on Oct. 8, 2006, some 500 Muslims attempted to kill them. Police arrested the two Christians and held off the crowds, which stayed outside the police station through the night.

The Christian men launched an appeal soon after their conviction and have since remained in prison.

“I appeared in court 27 times during the appeal,” said Khalil Tahir Sindhu, their lawyer. “Most of the time the judges postponed the case, saying, ‘We will hear the case next time.’”

Sindhu told Compass that religious bias and public pressure led to the judge’s original decision to sentence the men and could have had much to do with the delays in hearing the appeal.

“At the last hearing [Dec. 15, 2008], the judge reserved judgment, which according to law has to be given within three months,” he said. “But it was over three months, so I went to court and told him, ‘These are old men and they are sick, so please announce the judgment.’”

James Masih was hospitalized three times during his internment, receiving treatment for a chest infection.

“Jail is totally different [in Pakistan], you hardly have proper food, and no facilities,” said Fr. Yousaf. Sources said both men were traumatized by their ordeal, an effect also felt keenly by their families, who were rarely able to visit.

 

Permanent Stigma

Articles 295-B and 295-C of the Pakistan Penal Code respectively prescribe life imprisonment for desecrating the Quran and death for insulting Muhammad, the prophet of Islam.

Although the law has not been implemented to the full extent of capital punishment or life in prison since its introduction in 1986, there have been more than 20 deaths recorded in blasphemy-related violence.

Even after their acquittal and release, Sindhu said, the men will not be able to immediately return home.

“It is dangerous now, we will not send them to their home,” said Sindhu. “We will keep them away for one to two months until the situation changes. Anyone can kill them.”

Christians previously accused of blasphemy continued to experience prejudice and sometimes violence even after being cleared of the charges.

“It is difficult for the blasphemy accused to find work,” commented Wasim Muntizar from the Lahore-based Center for Legal Aid Assistance and Settlement. “Churches are afraid to help them, because fanatics won’t hesitate to kill the ‘blasphemer’ and attack the church.”

Although the families of James and Buta Masih remain excited at the prospect of the pair’s upcoming return home, Fr. Yousaf has urged them to keep their celebrations muted.

“They are excited, yes, but I told them not to express so strongly their joy about it,” he said. “I requested them to keep it secret, because it may not be safe – some of the Muslims may say the court has not taken the right decision. In the past people have been killed after being acquitted.”

Report from Compass Direct News

SAUDI ARABIA: AUTHORITIES RELEASE CHRISTIAN BLOGGER


Kingdom silences convert, prohibits him from leaving country.

LOS ANGELES, April 16 (Compass Direct News) – In a surprise move, a Saudi Christian arrested in January for describing his conversion from Islam and criticizing the kingdom’s judiciary on his blog site was released on March 28 with the stipulation that he not travel outside of Saudi Arabia or appear on media.

Hamoud Saleh Al-Amri (previously reported as Hamoud Bin Saleh), 28, reportedly attributed his release to advocacy efforts by the Arab Network for Human Rights Information (ANHRI). The Cairo-based organization had campaigned for his release along with other rights groups, reported Christian advocacy organization Middle East Concern (MEC).

Gamal Eid, director of ANHRI, told Compass by telephone that he believed his organization had nothing to do with Al-Amri’s release. Rather, he said he believed officials were loath to keep a person of questionable mental stability in prison.

“He is mentally not stable, because he had the courage to say in his blog that he is a Christian,” Eid said. “Anyone in his right mind in Saudi Arabia wouldn’t do that.”

The country’s penalty for “apostasy,” or leaving Islam, is death, although in recent years there have been no known cases of kingdom citizens formally convicted and sentenced with capital punishment for the offense.

This was not the first imprisonment for Al-Amri. He was detained in 2004 for nine months and in 2008 for one month before he was re-arrested on Jan. 13 of this year, and Eid said the young blogger was tortured during the first two incarcerations.

Al-Amri’s treatment during this latest imprisonment is unknown. After his previous releases he had contacted Eid’s office, but the ANHRI director said he has not done so since being released from Riyadh’s Eleisha prison, known for its human rights abuses.

“He was mistreated the first two times he was imprisoned, but this time I don’t know, because he hasn’t contacted me,” said Eid. “In the past he was mistreated with sleep deprivation, prolonged solitary confinement and a continuous barrage of physical torture and insults.”

The advocate added that it is likely Al-Amri was mistreated during his recent imprisonment.

“I consider anyone who declares his religion to be anything than Islam to be extremely brave and courageous, but this extreme courage bordering on carelessness is madness, because he knows what could happen in Saudi,” Eid said. “I’m not a doctor, but I find this extreme.”

Al-Amri has become isolated from his family and lives alone, Eid said, but he said he was unable to comment on the convert’s current situation.

 

Blog Blocked

Following Al-Amri’s latest arrest, MEC reported, Saudi authorities blocked access to his blog inside Saudi Arabia. Google then locked it, claiming there was a technical violation of terms of service. On Feb. 5 it was reportedly restored due to public pressure – after his March 28 release, Al-Amri had credited his release to ANHRI’s efforts on his blog, www.christforsaudi.blogspot.com – but yesterday Compass found the site did not work.

Eid said he was not surprised the blog was blocked.

“That’s what I expected,” he said. “But he will probably start another blog – it’s not difficult.”

Saudi Arabia’s ruling monarchy restricts media and other forms of public expression, though authorities have shown some tolerance for criticism and debate since King Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz Al Saud officially ascended to the throne in 2005, according to the U.S. Department of State.

“Arabic countries are the worst on the list of censoring the Internet and are at the top of the list of antagonizing the freedom of the Internet,” said Eid. “But the Internet is still a good venue, because people are still able to express their views despite the government’s effort to curtail their efforts.”

In his blog prior to his arrest, Al-Amri had criticized the government for quashing individual rights.

“A nation which lives in this system cannot guarantee the safety of its individuals,” he wrote. “Preserving their rights from violation will always be a matter of concern, as the rights of a citizen, his dignity and humanity will always be subject to abuse and violation by those few who have absolute immunity provided to them by the regime.”

Eid of ANHRI described lack of civil law in Saudi Arabia as “extreme.” Citizens can be tortured endlessly, he said, adding that Saudis who openly state Christian faith face severe danger.

Although there have been recent moves towards reform, Saudi Arabia restricts political expression and allows only a strict version of Sunni Islam to be publicly practiced, according to MEC.

Political critic Fouad Ahmad al-Farhan became the first Saudi to be arrested for Web site postings on Dec. 10, 2007; he was released in April 2008.

Eid said he believes the lenient action of the Saudi authorities is a welcome move in a country where “there is no such thing as religious freedom.” In fact the move could encourage people of other faiths to speak up.

“This will open the door to whoever wants to express his belief, whether Christian, Hindu or other,” he said.

Saudis who choose a faith other than Islam and express it may face extra-judicial killings. In August 2008, a 26-year-old woman was killed for disclosing her faith on a Web site. Fatima Al-Mutairi reportedly had revealed on Web postings that she had left Islam to become a Christian.

Gulfnews.com reported on Aug. 12, 2008 that her father, a member of the religious police or Commission for Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice, cut out her tongue and burned her to death “following a heated debate on religion.” Al-Mutairi had written about hostilities from family members after they discovered she was a Christian, including insults from her brother after he saw her Web postings about her faith. Some reports indicated that her brother was the one who killed her.

She had reportedly written an article about her faith on a blog of which she was a member under the nickname “Rania” a few days before her murder.

Report from Compass News Direct

VIETNAM: HISTORIC CHURCH BUILDING DEMOLISHED


Government wrecking crews arrive hours after promises of security.

HO CHI MINH CITY, April 9 (Compass Direct News) – Just hours after the prime minister’s office assured denominational leaders that there were no plans to destroy their Protestant church building, authorities in Banmethuot last month demolished the historic structure in the Central Highlands city.

Government work crews arrived at the site just after darkness fell on March 11 and quickly demolished the structure belonging to the Evangelical Church of Vietnam (South), or ECVN(S), according to local sources.

Authorities had confiscated the church building in 1975 after the Communist victory and had removed its cross. But the bright pink church stood prominently, though unused, for many years on Le Duan Boulevard on Banmethuot’s south side. Church authorities many times had asked for its return.

It was the last remaining church building of the Ede ethnic minority, who make up most of Dak Lak’s 135,000 believers.

The demolition was the latest in a series of painful developments. In early March three pastors from ECVN(S)’s Dak Lak provincial committee took up the matter of the church building with local authorities. The officials told the pastors that the request for return would soon be resolved, and that until then the building was secure.

But on March 11, rumors of an imminent plan to demolish the church reached members of the ECVN(S) provincial committee. Alarmed, they called their top leaders at Ho Chi Minh City headquarters. The church president promptly agreed to call the office of Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung and the Ministry of Public Security in Hanoi. Officials told him not to worry, that there was no plan to demolish the church.

“Nothing will happen – we are in control,” an official told the denominational president, according to one Christian source. “The ECVN(S) president called his Dak Lak provincial committee in the evening to pass on this assurance from the very top. Hardly an hour later, after darkness had fallen, government officials supervised destruction of the church building.”

A frustrated ECVN(S) leader called the prime minister’s office and the Ministry of Public Security asking how, in the light of the demolition, the church could trust them, sources said.

“He was told, ‘Sorry, but this as an action of the local officials,’” one source said. “This downward deflection of responsibility in regard to religious issues happens regularly.”

A week later, on March 20, the ECVN(S) governing board of 22 members unanimously passed a resolution.

“Numerous times the Executive Council of our church has petitioned the government concerning our many confiscated properties,” the resolution reads. “Most regrettably, not only have the petitions not been satisfactorily dealt with, but on the night of March 11, 2009, officials of Dak Lak province demolished the last remaining Ede church at Gate One in Banmethuot City.

“The Executive Council of the ECVN(S) is extremely upset and in deep sympathy with the 135,000 believers in Dak Lak province. We hereby urgently notify all churches in our fellowship. We are deeply saddened by these events.”

Calling for the church to set aside today for fasting and prayer, the resolution also stated that ECVN(S)’s Executive Council would select representatives to meet with authorities of Dak Lak province and the central government to ask that “they urgently address and solve this matter so that the events described above will not be repeated in other places.”

When the church circulated the urgent bulletin concerning the day of fasting and prayer, government authorities strongly objected, saying they feared it might lead to demonstrations in the Central Highlands. But the church did not back down.

Fallout continues. The three pastors of the ECVN(S) Dak Lak provincial committee, two Ede and one ethnic Vietnamese, have resigned, citing government betrayal. A meeting of the two ECVN(S) vice-presidents with Dak Lak officials this week was described as “very disappointing.”

Dak Lak province was also the location of the demolition of a large new church building in Cu Hat, Krong Bong district in December. It belonged to the Vietnam Good News Church, an unregistered group (see “Authorities Destroy New Church Building,” Dec. 17, 2008). Authorities disguised in civilian clothes destroyed the new structure because they said Christians had illegally cut the lumber used to build it. Virtually all homes and buildings in the area are built using such lumber.

Being unregistered or fully registered as the ECVN(S) seems to make little difference to authorities, a Christian source said.

“Leaders of both registered and unregistered Protestant groups express equal helplessness in the face of such malicious government actions against them,” he said.

Last year the prime minister promised a resolution to a major dispute with Catholics over the long-contested property that once served as the residence of the papal nuncio in Hanoi. The outcome was similar: the confiscated property was not returned, and on Sept. 19, 2008 the residence was destroyed.

Both Protestant and Catholic church leaders in Vietnam say that blatant government duplicity quickly and seriously undermines Vietnam’s recent hard-won gains in perceptions of improvement in religious freedom.

Report from Compass Direct News

MOROCCO: OFFICIALS DEPORT FIVE FOREIGN CHRISTIANS


Female visitors said to be merely attending Bible study with fellow believers.

ISTANBUL, March 31 (Compass Direct News) – The Moroccan government announced on Sunday (March 29) it had expelled five foreign female Christians for trying to “proselytize” in the Islamic country, although sources said they were foreign visitors merely attending a Bible study with fellow Christians.

The accused women were among 23 tourists, expatriates and Moroccans arrested in Casablanca on Saturday during what the Interior Ministry called a “proselytizing” meeting involving Moroccan citizens. Police seized numerous pieces of evangelistic “propaganda,” including Arabic books and videos.

But a source told Compass that everyone in attendance was a Christian and that they had merely gathered for a Bible study, which he said falls within Morocco’s constitutional right of freedom to express one’s faith.

Arriving at the meeting at 5 p.m., 18 plainclothes police officers arrested all in attendance and transported them to a police station. They were detained and questioned until 5 a.m. Sunday morning.

“This was a great humiliation for these women, most of which were of the same family, to be arrested as criminals,” the source said.

Prior to the arrest, all the materials at their meeting had received official government approval. Those in attendance included 15 Moroccan women and one man, two female expatriates of Iraqi and U.S. origin, and the five women visiting Casablanca on the group’s invitation. The women the government called “missionaries” – four Spaniards and one German – were deported to Spain via ferry, according to Morocco’s official MAP news agency.

While the decision to expel the five women indicated lack of religious freedom in Morocco, it likely has more to do with a Moroccan bias against missionary activity in general, not against Christian evangelism per se, said Elliot Abrams, senior fellow for the Council on Foreign Relations.

Morocco severed ties with Iran in early March on suspicion that the latter was supporting Shiite Islamic missionary activity, which officials believed would disrupt the unity of the 99-percent Sunni country. Earlier this month a Shiite school was closed after accusations that it was attempting to convert students, and rights groups claim that about a dozen people have been arrested for allegedly converting to Shiite Islam, according to The Associated Press.

In light of these moves, Abrams said, the government would have been hard-pressed to allow Christian activities the five women were suspected of undertaking after it shut down Islamic missionary enterprises.

“[Morocco] is generally more sensitive about missionary activity, and cannot be seen to allow Christian activity while stopping Muslim activity,” he said.

A Christian worker agreed with this assertion. He said the government may be attacking Christians “for balance,” even if they are only having a Bible study, after launching an initiative against Shiites.

The North African country prides itself on its religious freedom and tolerance. The constitution provides for freedom to practice one’s religion, but Article 220 of the Penal Code criminalizes any attempt to induce a Muslim to convert to another religion.

 

Official Church Leaders Pounce

Without directly mentioning the women, representatives of Morocco’s official churches swiftly condemned all forms of “proselytism” – a term with a pejorative connotation of asserting one’s will, as distinct from “evangelism,” or proclaiming Christ for people to respond freely – adding that the role of the nation’s churches is only to guide Christians on their “spiritual quest.”

Archbishop of Rabat Monsignor Vincent Landel and Chairman of the Evangelical Church in Morocco Jean-Luc Blanc issued a joint statement that Catholics and Muslims should focus on dialogue, which “by definition rules out proselytizing activities.”

“This dialogue has an intellectual and theological dimension and copes with the social and cultural realms,” they wrote. “Thus, Christians are engaged in various activities alongside Muslims, share the same values and goals and are not afraid of showing their differences.”

Blanc pastors a French Pentecostal church in Casablanca, a congregation mostly made up of expatriates from across Africa. He has criticized independent foreign mission groups, mainly out of worry that they could upset a delicate religious balance in the Sunni Muslim country.

Catholic and Protestant churches have been operating in Morocco for more than a century, and “have learned over the years to live in harmony with the country and its people,” he said in the statement.

In 2007 the Ministry of Islamic Affairs and Endowments claimed that foreign missionaries had converted more than 3,000 people to Christianity, particularly in remote areas of the country, according to the 2008 U.S. Department of State Report on International Religious Freedom.

But a source with contacts in Morocco said that radical Islam is perceived as far more of a threat than evangelical Christianity.  

Report from Compass Direct News

CHURCHES TURN TO ASH IN VICTORIA’S FIRES; SERVICES CONTINUE WITHOUT A CHURCH


While churches continue to disappear in the onslaught of the Victorian bushfires, Ruth Close of the ESA (Evangelisation Society Association) Board has updated the earlier report on the camp center at Marysville (97km/60 miles NE of Melbourne) which was wiped out: “We praise God for the efficient and safe evacuation of all the staff and the group of 90 campers from the Marysville site on Saturday (February 7). Allan Gellert’s quick decisions and actions are commendable. Please continue to pray for the people of Marysville who have lost their homes and all their possessions. Especially pray for God’s comfort for the families who are grieving for those they loved dearly.”

Photos and updates are available here.

Meanwhile, Ken Pullen of the Christian Venues Association said that they have a membership of thirty eight Conference Centres and Camps in Victoria, reports Ramon Williams, special for ASSIST News Service. Twenty three of these are located in the currently fire affected areas of that state. From amongst the 23, the following have been lost: Camp Narbethong at Narbethong, ESA Camping & Conference Centre and El Kanah at Marysville. Mobile Mission Maintenance Headquarters at Whittlesea (MMM support Christian ministries and have been members of our association for many years). It is believed that Breakaway Camps at Taggerty has also been lost.

A further two centers remain not contactable, and a number are still threatened or on alert.

The situation remains volatile with changing winds and it is feared that many more properties and some camps will remain under threat for up to 14 days.

Reports of damage to churches are now filtering through.

The Uniting Church at Kinglake (54km/33 miles NE of Melbourne) survived; the fate of the Marysville church is unknown but presumed grim. “We lost church members, which is worse,” said the Uniting Church’s Victorian media director, Kim Cain. “We are concentrating on the pastoral response at this stage. Uniting Care put a mobile kindergarten at one emergency relief centre to let the children play out their grief and anger.”

The Catholic Church, too, lost its churches at Kinglake and Marysville.

Rev Norm Hart and his wife Patti, of the Anglican Christ Church, Marysville, have lost their church, their home and their parish. Barney Schwartz, writing in The Age newspaper, Melbourne, said: “The Marysville Anglican parish has been obliterated. But they are determined the church will continue.” When water and power returned, those left would gather at someone’s house, said Mrs Hart.

Rev. Stephen Holmes of St Peter’s Anglican Church, Kinglake, feels helpless. His 1923 church no longer exists, nor does most of his parish. “It’s devastating, it’s unbelievable; it’s worse than Iraq — it’s just carnage,” he said. “I’ve been talking to people, hugging people, listening to people, whatever I can do.”

At least one church, Diamond Valley Baptist Church, has opened its doors to co-ordinate volunteers & deliveries of food, clothing and any other useful items.

 

Calls for Prayer

Ian Worby, CEO of United Christian Broadcasters has called for everyone to “pause for a special time of prayer for our nation and the victims of these terrible events” on Wednesday, Feb 11, at 12.30pm, via their network of radio stations across Australia.

The Rev Chris Moroney, Senior Minister at St Andrew’s Anglican Cathedral, Sydney announced that a Special Prayer Service for the Victorian Bushfire Disaster will be held, at 6pm on Wednesday February 11. Rev Moroney said: “We will gather to express our concern and sympathy for all the victims of the bushfire disaster. We will pray for each one to know God’s care and comfort and healing. We will hear the latest news about the tragic events and hear about relief efforts. We will also be taking up a collection for the Archbishop’s Emergency Bushfire Appeal.

Warrnambool’s Anglican Church in Victoria, will hold a half-hour ecumenical service from 12.30pm today (Tuesday) to remember the fire victims.

Christchurch Anglican Cathedral in Darwin, Northern Territory, has already launched prayers for the whole of this week and other churches are expected to take similar initiatives.

Report from the Christian Telegraph