Algerian Christians to Appeal Conviction for Worshipping

Church leaders fear verdict could mean the end of the country’s Protestant churches.

ISTANBUL, December 15 (CDN) — Four Christian men in Algeria will appeal a court decision to hand them suspended prison sentences for worshiping without a permit, saying the verdict could have repercussions for all the country’s churches.

The correctional court of Larbaa Nath Irathen, about 27 kilometers (17 miles) from the capital of Tizi Ouzou Province, gave two-month suspended prison sentences to four Christian leaders of a small Protestant church on Sunday (Dec. 12).

The pastor of the church, Mahmoud Yahou, was also charged with hosting a foreigner without official permission. The court gave him a three-month suspended sentence and a fine of 10,000 Algerian dinars (US$130), reported French TV station France 24 on its Web site. The prosecutor had asked for one-year prison sentences for each defendant.

Although the suspended sentences mean the four Christians will not serve prison time, Yahou told Compass that he and the three other men plan to appeal the verdict because the outcome of their case could affect all Protestant churches of the country, none of which have official permission to operate.

“If they close us, they can close all the gatherings and churches that exist in Algeria,” Yahou said. “They could all be closed.”

In February 2008 the government applied measures to better control non-Muslim groups through Ordinance 06-03, which was established in 2006. Authorities ordered the closure of 26 churches in the Kabylie region, both buildings and house churches, maintaining that they were not registered under the ordinance. No churches have been closed down since then.

Despite efforts to comply with the ordinance, no churches or Christian groups have received governmental approval to operate, and the government has not established administrative means to implement the ordinance, according to the U.S. Department of State’s 2010 Report on International Religious Freedom.

Though none of the churches have closed since 2008, their status continues to remain questionable and only valid through registration with the Protestant Church of Algeria (EPA). The EPA, however, is also trying to gain official recognition.  

“Actually, this law of 2006 has come to light: people are condemned as criminals for the simple act of thinking and believing different,” the president of the EPA, Mustapha Krim, told Compass. “If we accept this [verdict], it means we are condemned to close our churches one after the other.”

Krim confirmed that based on Ordinance 06-03, none of the churches have actual authorization to operate, nor can Christians speak about their faith to other Algerians.

“If they condemn our four brothers, they need to condemn the others,” he said.

In a sign of solidarity towards the men and to demand the abolition of Ordinance 06-03, dozens of demonstrators gathered outside the courthouse on the first hearing of the case on Sept. 26. Demonstrators carried banners that read: “Places of worship for everyone,” “Freedom of religion = freedom of conscience,” and “Abolition of the Law of 06-03-2006.”

Attending the re-opening of a Catholic church in Algeria’s capital on Monday (Dec. 13), Religious Affairs Minister Bouabdellah Ghlamallah told reporters, “Religious freedom in Algeria is a reality,” reported Reuters.

The Algerian Constitution gives the right to all citizens to practice their faith, although it declares Islam the state religion and prohibits institutions from behavior incompatible with Islamic morality.

Yahou said the judge did not pass a rightful judgment and thus had no real sense of justice.

“I think he has no conscience,” Yahou said. “We can’t be persecuted for nothing. He didn’t judge on the law and constitution, he judged on Islam. If he had read what is in the constitution, he wouldn’t have made this decision.”

The small church of Larbaa Nath Irathen, consisting only of a few families, had problems as early as 2008, when a group of Islamic radicals launched a petition against the church without success.  

Yahou told Compass that he knew very well the people in the village who brought charges against them, saying that they have tried to intimidate the church for the past few months in an effort to close it down.

“These are Islamists, and I know them in this village,” Yahou said.

Tizi Ouzou is part of Kabylie region, an area of Algeria where the country’s Protestant church has grown with relative freedom in recent years.

There are around 64 Protestant churches in the Kabylie region, where most Algerian Christians live, as well as numerous house groups, according to church leaders. The Kabylie region is populated by Berbers, an indigenous people of North Africa.

In October a court in the region acquitted two Christian men of eating during Ramadan in spite of a prosecutor’s demand that they be punished for “insulting Islam.”

In January Muslim neighbors ransacked and set on fire a church in Tizi Ouzou. In September a court in Tizi Ouzou ordered a local church to stop construction on an extension to its building and to tear it down.

Unofficial estimates of the number of Christian and Jewish citizens vary between 12,000 and 50,000, according to the state department’s report.

Report from Compass Direct News

Algerian Christians Acquitted of Eating during Ramadan

Judge throws out case against men arrested during Islamic fasting period.

ISTANBUL, October 5 (CDN) — An Algerian court today acquitted two Christian men of eating during Ramadan in spite of a prosecutor’s demand that they be punished for “insulting Islam.”

Authorities on Aug. 12 arrested Salem Fellak and Hocine Hocini for eating lunch on a private construction site where they were working. Ramadan, Islam’s month of fasting during daylight hours, started this year on Aug. 11.

The incident took place in Ain El-Hammam, a town in the province of Tizi Ouzou about 150 kilometers (93 miles) east of the Algerian capital. Tizi Ouzou is part of Kabylie, an area of Algeria where the country’s Protestant church has grown with relative freedom in recent years.

Officers at a nearby police station saw the two men eating and confronted them for not fasting. When police realized the two men were Christians, they accused them of insulting Islam, according to local French-language press reports.

“I do not apologize for anything, and I regret nothing,” Fellak said before the verdict, according to Dernieres Nouvelles d’Algerie. “I have the right to not fast. I am a Christian, and until found guilty, the Algerian constitution guarantees respect for individual freedoms.”

The Algerian Constitution gives the right to all citizens to practice their faith, although it declares Islam the state religion and prohibits institutions from behavior incompatible with Islamic morality. Proposing other faiths to Muslims is also forbidden.

After police arrested Hocini and Fellak, authorities interrogated them for two hours and “admonished” them, according to a French-language news site. Authorities took them to court, where a state prosecutor questioned them. When the men explained to her that they were Christians, she said that Algeria was a Muslim country with no room for Christians and that they should leave the country, according to a local news site.

Today the judge at the court in Ain El Hamman, however, dismissed the case since “no article [of law] provided for a legal pursuit” against the two Christians, according to the BBC.

A small group of Christians standing on the steps of the courthouse reportedly shouted “Hallelujah!” when they heard the outcome of the case. After the verdict, Fellak said he was happy and that he had done nothing wrong, according to Reuters.

Local media also reported cases of Muslim Algerians arrested for eating during Ramadan.


Worshipping without Permit

The charges against the two Christians and a case of four Christians on trial for worshipping without a permit in Tizi Ouzou Province have some wondering what has caused authorities to turn their attention to this small community.

This Sunday (Oct. 10), the four men will appear in court for holding Christian meetings at a residence without permission. One of the men, Mahmoud Yahou, has told a local newspaper, “This story concerns all Christians in our country. We are a community intimidated around the country.”

Yahou cited other recent cases of persecution, including that of Habiba Kouider, who in 2008 was tried for practicing Christianity “without a license.” Her case is still pending. Another Christian, Rachid Muhammad Essaghir, has three court cases against him, all in appeals process since 2008.

In most cases, Christians have been charged under a presidential decree from February 2006 that restricts religious worship to government approved buildings. The decree, known as Ordinance 06-03, also outlaws any attempt to convert Muslims to another faith.

“This law of 2006 is contradictory to the constitution,” said a regional researcher who requested anonymity. “It creates a gray zone in which the government and police have room to act against the church. This law gives permission to the government to condemn believers for their faith or illegal worship even if the constitution guarantees religious freedom.”

Also in Tizi Ouzou city, church leaders who were expanding their building to fit their growing congregation received a letter in August from the governor of the province ordering them to stop all construction and demolish the extension.

Algerian Christians and observers say that the two court cases, along with the order to the Tizi Ouzou church to cease expansion of their building, are unusual because they happened in such a short span of time and because the region is regarded as more tolerant of Christianity.

“Perhaps a new wave of persecution is coming,” said the regional researcher. “It’s difficult to know, but in a few weeks we encountered a few problems.”

An Algerian church leader told Compass the government is finding more subtle ways to pressure Christians.

“I think they don’t want to do anything openly,” said the leader, who requested anonymity. “So they are using opportunities they can find, like not giving authorization to build the church in Tizi Ouzou, [and the men] not fasting during Ramadan.”

Report from Compass Direct News

Church under Attack in Indonesia Agrees to Change Venue

Congregation accepts offer under condition that government build them permanent building.

JAKARTA, Indonesia, September 29 (CDN) — A West Java church has agreed to move temporarily to a government-selected site following Islamist harassment that included a Sept. 12 attack on two of its leaders.

The Batak Christian Protestant Church (Huria Kristen Batak Protestan, or HKBP) in Ciketing village, Bekasi, decided in a congregational meeting on Sunday (Sept. 26) to accept a government offer to move worship services to the former Organization and Political Party (OPP) building on the condition that local officials will keep a promise to build a new house of worship for them within two years in the Mustika Sari district.

The Rev. Luspida Simanjuntak, who received hospital treatment after she was struck with a wooden plank by suspected Islamic extremists in the Sept. 12 attack, said that the church was ready to stop struggling.

“We are tired of being intimidated and terrorized,” Pastor Simanjuntak said. “We will be able to worship quietly and peacefully.”

Church lawyer Saor Siagian said that the church had accepted the temporary move with the understanding that the Bekasi municipal government must fulfill its pledge. The government will build a new church building to replace the structure the church is leaving on a 2,500-square meter lot belonging to PT Timah, the Government Tin Mining Co. in the Mustika Sari area of Bekasi. The lot is zoned for general and social facilities.

The government had suggested two alternative locations: the PT Timah lot and a 1,900-square meter parcel in the Strada Housing area. The congregation and leaders of HKBP Ciketing chose the PT Timah property.

The first HKBP Ciketing worship service in the former OPP Building took place without incident on Sunday, with the Bekasi government providing buses to transport the congregation to the new site. Pastor Simanjuntak said the congregation is thankful for the new temporary site, but it does not accommodate the entire congregation. The 10-meter by 14-meter building accommodates 250 people, but normally 300 attend services, and some had to stand outside, she said.

Dozens of police guarded the location.

Zaki Oetomo, a Bekasi city official, told Compass that the building could be used rent-free for two years, with an extension possible if the church desired. The government has offered to provide the buses to transport the congregation to and from the site every week.


20-Year Wait

The Ciketing church originally met in the Pondok Timur Indah housing development with 10 families in 1990, and therefore has generally been called the HKBP Pondok Timur Indah.

“By 1995 it had grown to 30 families,” Manorangi Siahaan, a church member, told Compass.

In those days the worship services were held in different members’ homes. Manorangi acknowledged that the house church worship did spark some small protests.

Between 1990 and 2010, the church leaders requested building permits three separate times, in 1995, 2000 and 2010. Not once did the local government respond, church leaders said.  

By 2005 the congregation had grown to 150, and church leaders bought a 2,170-square meter lot in Ciketing village, near Bekasi City, to construct a church building. They built a semi-permanent structure, which was later torn down because they lacked a building permit under pressure from an Islamic group claiming to speak for the local citizens. As a result, the congregation went back to worshipping in homes on a rotating basis.

In 2007 the congregation had grown to 300 people. They bought a house in Pondok Timur Indah, in the Mustika Jaya area of Bekasi City, to use for worship. The Bekasi government sealed the house on March 1 under pressure from Islamic groups. On July 2, the government sealed the house a second time because the congregation was continuing to worship there. Then on July 11, the church was forced to move their worship service to a vacant property in Ciketing, which had been readied for a church building. This site was about 3 kilometers from their property in Pondok Timur Indah.

Protests by Islamic groups mounted each Sunday at the Ciketing site, culminating in the attack on Pastor Simanjuntak and elder Hasian Sihombing, who was stabbed in the stomach and heart.

Report from Compass Direct News

Theology Students in Indonesia to be Evicted from Campground

Government stops paying rent for site where students were driven more than a year ago.

JAKARTA, Indonesia, October 20 (CDN) — Approximately 700 students from Arastamar Evangelical Theological Seminary (SETIA) are facing eviction at the end of the month from a campground where Muslim protestors drove them last year.

Education will end for students who have been living in 11 large tents and studying in the open air at Bumi Perkemahan Cibubur (BUPERTA) campground, many of them for more than a year. Hundreds of protestors shouting “Allahu-Akbar [“God is greater]” and brandishing machetes forced the evacuation of staff and students from the SETIA campus in Kampung Pulo village on July 26-27, 2008.

Urged on by announcements from a mosque loudspeaker to “drive out the unwanted neighbor” following a misunderstanding between students and local residents, the protestors also had sharpened bamboo and acid and injured at least 20 students, some seriously.

The Jakarta provincial government has ceased paying the rental fee of the campsite in East Jakarta, a bill that now totals 2.7 billion rupiahs (US$280,000), which camp officials said will result in the eviction of the students and the end of their studies at the end of the month.

At the beginning of the month, camp officials cut off electricity and water; as a result, the students have had to go 1,500 meters to bathe and use the toilet in the Cibubur marketplace. Additionally, several of the student tents were taken down. In spite of the conditions, sources said, the students have maintained their enthusiasm and no one has quit the school.

SETIA officials said camp management rejected their request for an extension.

“The electricity and the water were cut off after the Cibubur campground managers rejected Arastamar’s request,” said Yusuf Lifire, SETIA administrator.

Other students at the seminary have taken temporary shelter in the other parts of greater Jakarta. Those living quarters, however, are so overcrowded that some of the students have become ill.

Umar Lubis, head of BUPERTA campground, said camp officials have provided the students great leeway and shown great tolerance in the year that rent has not been paid.

“We have provided water, electricity, and other facilities,” Lubis told Compass. “However, Jakarta Province has not paid us campground rental since October 2008. The government did pay 700 million rupiahs [US$75,000], but that only covered the rental fees through September 2008.”

Muhayat, area secretary of Jakarta Province who goes by a single name, told Compass that beginning in October 2008, the provincial government was no longer responsible for campsite rental for the SETIA students. The provincial government made this decision, he said, because the seminary refused to move to Jonggol, Bogor, West Java, about 50 kilometers (31 miles) from the old campus.

“We offered to move them to Jonggol, but Arastamar took a hard line and wanted to be in Jakarta,” Muhayat said.

The Rev. Matheus Mangentang, rector of SETIA, said that they refused to move to Jonggol because their school permit was for Jakarta.

“If we moved to Jonggol, we would have to get a new permit,” Mangentang told Compass. “We suspect that this would be an extremely difficult process.”

Illness Strikes

Many students are suffering from respiratory and other illnesses, and some have breast cancer. The sick are being cared for at the Christian University of Indonesia hospital.

One of the students living at the BUPERTA campground told Compass that many of the students had fever from mosquito bites.

“When it rains here, we sleep on water and mud,” said a 21-year-old student who identified herself only as Siska. Her statements were echoed by a Christian education major named Ahasyweros.

“We struggle daily in a place like this – especially after our request was turned down,” the student said. “We don’t know where we are going to go. We hope that the Jakarta provincial government will have the heart to help us.”

The staff and students were forced from their campus by a mob that claimed to be acting for the local citizens of Pulo Kampung, Makasar District, East Jakarta last year. Key among motives for the attack was that area Muslims felt “disturbed” by the presence of the Christian college. They wanted it to be moved to another area.

The approximately 1,300 seminary students were placed in three locations: 760 at the BUPERTA campground, 330 at the Kalimalang Transit Lodge, and 220 at the former office of the mayor of West Jakarta.

The fate of the students at all locations was similar; they were overcrowded and short on water, and overall facilities were substandard.

Jakarta Vice-Gov. Prijanto, who goes by a single name, had promised to find a solution. He had also stated that the government was ready to help and would pay for the students’ room and board, but this has not been the case.

Mangentang said he continues to hope for good will from the Jakarta government, which he said should return the school to its original site in Pulo Kampung. 

“Even if there is talk in the provincial government that the locals don’t accept us, we still want to go back,” he said. “After we are back, then we would be prepared to talk and negotiate about the future. Healthy discussions are not possible if we are not back in our own home. If we tried to talk now, while we are trampled upon and pressured, nothing healthy would result. It is better that we return to our own place so that we can talk at the same level.”

Report from Compass Direct News 


Former police commander, university researcher, suspected ringleader’s father testify.

MALATYA, Turkey, April 15 (Compass Direct News) – Two years after the murder of three Christians in this city in southeastern Turkey, lawyers at a hearing here on Monday (April 13) uncovered important information on the role that local security forces played in the slaughter.

At the 16th hearing of the murder case at the Malatya Third Criminal Court, plaintiff attorneys called a heavy slate of witnesses, including Mehmet Ulger, the gendarmerie commander of Malatya province during the April 2007 murders who was arrested on March 12 for his alleged connection to a political conspiracy, and Ruhi Abat, a theology instructor at the local Ismet Inonu University.

Two Turkish Christians, Necati Aydin and Ugur Yuksel, and a German Christian, Tilmann Geske, were tied up and stabbed to death at Zirve Publishing Co. offices on April 18, 2007. Plaintiff attorneys have moved the focus of the trial away from the five suspects – Salih Gurler, Cuma Ozdemir, Hamit Ceker, Abuzer Yildirim, and alleged ringleader Emre Gunaydin – to local officials believed to be liaisons or masterminds of the murders.

The retired gendarmerie commander and the theology researcher have suspected links to the crime. In January an anonymous letter sent to Turkish churches and obtained by the media claimed that then-commander Ulger instigated the murders and directed Abat to prepare arguments against missionary activity.

According to phone records, Abat made 1,415 telephone calls to gendarmerie intelligence forces in the six-month period prior to the 2007 murders. During his cross examination, he told the courtroom that the frequent contact resulted from gendarmerie requesting information on his research of local missionary activity.

Abat was part of a team of six researchers that focused on the social effects of missionary activity within the Malatya region.

“The information I gave the police and gendarmerie was aimed at answering the criticisms that missionaries had about Islam,” he said.

When plaintiff attorneys asked Ulger if this level of communication was typical, the former gendarmerie commander said that they communicated on other issues such as translating Arabic documents and further teaching engagements. But lawyers said this level of communication was unusual.

“He called the gendarmerie the equivalent of 10 times a day, seven days a week, which suggests something abnormal going on,” said plaintiff attorney Orhan Kemal Cengiz. “You wouldn’t talk that much to your mother.”

In a heated exchange at the end of the hearing, Ozkan Yucel, plaintiff attorney representing the families of the victims, pressed Ulger to answer whether he considered Christian missionary activity in Turkey to be a crime.

Avoiding a direct answer, Ulger said no such crime existed in Turkey’s penal system, but that gendarmerie classified such activity as “extreme right-wing.”

“The gendarmerie considers this to be the same [level of extremism] as radical Islamic activity,” he said.


Suspected Ringleader’s Family Testifies

Onur Dulkadir, a cousin and former classmate of Gunaydin, the suspected ringleader, testified on his interactions with Gunaydin and Malatya’s local Christian community prior to the murders.

Dulkadir claimed that a few months before the crime, he and Gunaydin attended a Christian meeting at a Malatya hotel where approximately 50 people were in attendance. He said they left when someone handed him a brochure about “missionary activity.”

Dulkadir told the court that after they left, Gunaydin said, “I am watching how they structure themselves,” and, “Very soon I am going to be rich.” In past hearings, Gunaydin claimed the Turkish state had promised him support if he would carry out the attacks successfully.

Gunaydin’s father, Mustafa Gunaydin, testified at the hearing that he didn’t believe his son had led the group of five to commit the grisly murder of the three Christians, two of them converts from Islam.

“I went once a week to the jail to see my son, and every time I spoke with my son I tried to bring out the identity of those behind the murders,” said Mustafa Gunaydin. “He swore to me there was nobody behind it . . . I still believe my son couldn’t have done anything. My child is afraid of blood.”

Mustafa Gunaydin works as a technician at Ismet Inonu University. Plaintiff attorneys asked him if he was acquainted with professor Fatih Hilmioglu, recently jailed in a mass arrest of professors associated with a national conspiracy known as Ergenekon. He replied that he knew Hilmioglu, but that he also knew about 70 percent of the university personnel and did not have a close friendship with the arrested professor.

The prosecuting attorneys have frequently contended that Ergenekon, a loose collection of ultra-nationalist generals, businessmen, mafia and journalists who planned to engineer domestic chaos and overthrow the Turkish government, instigated Emre Gunaydin to commit the murders.

Ulger was arrested as part of the Turkish state’s investigations into Ergenekon.


Cryptic Comments

Among Emre Gunaydin’s most prominent suspect links to Ergenekon is his jailed former co-worker Varol Bulent Aral, who was arrested in February for being a possible liaison between the five youths on trial for the murders and the true masterminds.

Hamit Ozpolat, owner of a newspaper and radio station in Adiyaman, testified at the hearing that Aral made cryptic comments in regard to his connections with the criminal organization. When Aral approached Ozpolat for a job at one of his news outlets, he declined his application, which he said resulted in Aral shouting threats against him. When police came, Ozpolat testified, Aral shouted, “You can’t do anything to me, I am a member of the deep state.”

Plaintiff attorneys have suspected a connection between the Malatya murder case and Ergenekon for several months, attempting to merge the two cases since last August.

But in a strange turn, the National Intelligence Agency (MIT) has issued a report claiming that Ergenekon and Christian missionary agencies were working together to destroy the Turkish nation. This claim would seem to contradict older Ergenekon documents that make reference to church members in Izmir, Mersin and Trabzon, three Turkish cities where Christians were attacked or killed in the following years.

Malatya plaintiff attorneys told Compass the theory of Christians wanting to destroy Turkey exists in the national consciousness but has no basis in reality.

“One of the core activities of Ergenekon is to struggle against missionary activity,” plaintiff attorney Cengiz said. “They are very hostile against missionary activities, as they see them as an extension of the external enemies in Turkey.”

On Monday (April 13), police raided the home of professor Turkan Saylan, 74-year old president of the Association for Support of Progressive Life (CYDD) and a cancer patient. The seven-hour raid took place on the basis of a MIT report stating her organization had received funds from the American Board, the oldest organization in Turkey with missionary status. The American Board is known in Turkey for building schools and hospitals and funding development projects.

Police reportedly raided her home and office in an attempt to find information linking CYDD finances to the American Board and proselytizing activities. Saylan’s organization has opened three court cases against MIT for past accusations of missionary activities.

In an online report published by Haber50 today, Saylan said that her premises were raided as retaliation for the cases opened against MIT, which for years has been trying to destroy her organization’s reputation in the press.

In addition, the report says Yasar Yaser, president of the Health and Education Association (SEV), used her organization’s printing press in order to produce Bibles.

“The terrible truth is some media, including some Muslim newspapers, were very eager to cover this story,” plaintiff attorney Cengiz said. He emphasized that suspicions of Christian groups in Turkey having such a subversive agenda were baseless.

This Saturday (April 18) will mark the second anniversary of the stabbing deaths of the three Christians. Churches across Turkey will commemorate the event through special services, and the Turkish Protestant Alliance has designated the day as an international day of prayer.

The next hearing of the case is scheduled to take place on May 22.

Report from Compass News Direct


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


Churches ordered to cease services, stop meeting in ‘unauthorized’ venues.

DUBLIN, January 21 (Compass Direct News) – Burmese authorities last week increased restrictions on Christian activity in the capital city of Rangoon and surrounding areas, including the closure of several churches, Compass sources confirmed yesterday.

Orders issued on Jan. 5 had already forced many Christians meeting in residential homes or apartments to cease gathering for worship. Officials last week ordered several major Rangoon churches, including Wather Hope Church, Emmanuel Church and the Assemblies of God Church, to cease holding services and continued enforcing the Jan. 5 ban on meetings held in unauthorized facilities.

In the late 1990s authorities stopped issuing permits for land purchase or the construction of new churches, leading many Burmese Christians to conduct services in rented apartments or office buildings, according to the Burmese news agency Mizzima.

The Kyauktada Township Peace and Development Council on Jan. 5 invited pastors from more than 100 Rangoon churches to a meeting where they were told to sign documents pledging to cease operation of their churches. About 50 pastors attended, according to Mizzima.

The documents threatened punishment, including potential jail terms and the sealing of church facilities, for pastors who refused to obey the closure orders.

Another local online news source, the Democratic Voice of Burma, claimed officials from the Ministry of Religious Affairs had summoned the owners of buildings where churches met and ordered them not to rent their properties to religious groups.

Mizzima quoted an unnamed Burmese Christian who claimed that 80 percent of churches in Rangoon were affected by the order.


History of Religious Repression

Some local Christians and international observers say the crackdown is related to Christian involvement in relief efforts for the victims of Cyclone Nargis, which hit Burma in May 2008.

Despite widespread devastation and loss of life, Burma’s reclusive government initially banned foreign aid but finally accepted it on condition that Burmese officials would distribute it. Christians, however, had responded immediately to the crisis, gathering relief supplies and transporting them to the Irrawaddy Delta region. Police or army officials stopped some groups, but many were allowed to proceed. At least one such group told Compass that officials likely feared the conversion of Buddhists who accepted aid from Christians.

The military junta ruling Burma promotes Buddhism at the expense of other minority religions, according to Paul A. Marshall’s 2008 Religious Freedom in the World. 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.

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. Burma ranks high on lists of religious and human rights violators at several watch organizations, including the U.S. State Department, Human Rights Watch, Freedom House and Open Doors.

Documents declaring the government’s intention to “stamp out” Christianity have circulated for some time. Rights organization Christian Solidarity Worldwide drew attention to one such document in a 2007 report entitled, “Carrying the Cross: The military regime’s campaign of restriction, discrimination and persecution against Christians in Burma.” The report summarized a 17-point document allegedly produced by an organization affiliated with the Ministry of Religious Affairs entitled, “Program to Destroy the Christian Religion in Burma.”

The first point in this document declared that, “There shall be no home where the Christian religion is practiced.”

A military dictatorship has ruled Burma since 1962. Following the takeover, the government renamed Burma as the Union of Myanmar and the capital city as Yangon, but many news agencies and government bodies continue to use the original names. When elections were held in 1988, with the opposing National League for Democracy clearly in the majority, the generals rejected the popular vote and used brute military force to cement their power throughout Burma. A similar show of force met hundreds of Buddhist monks who initiated mass anti-government protest rallies on the streets of Rangoon in September 2007.

While almost all Burmese citizens suffer under the regime, Christians are often singled out for specific attack or repression because of their perceived connections with the West.

Reports from various mission groups suggest Christianity is flourishing under the regime, but believers must be creative with their worship – particularly in rural areas. In reports confirmed by Compass, Christians in one state began photocopying Bibles to overcome restrictions on religious publications. Others baptized new Christians during the annual water festival, where citizens douse each other with buckets of water, ceremonially washing away the “sins” of the past year.


Heightened Security, Control

Rangoon residents say a much heavier security presence has been evident in the city since early January, when political activists began distributing anti-government leaflets, The Irrawaddy newspaper reported on Jan. 13. The leaflet drops may have contributed to the current crackdown on church gatherings, as generals suspect all organized groups of having a political agenda.

At a graduation of military students in Rangoon on Jan. 9, Vice-Senior Gen. Maung Aye, who is commander-in-chief of the army and deputy commander-in-chief of Defense Services, warned students to steadfastly uphold the country’s “Three Main National Causes” to prevent “recurrences of past bitter experiences.” The causes were listed as non-disintegration of the Union of Myanmar, non-disintegration of national solidarity and perpetuation of sovereignty.

The New Light of Myanmar, a government newspaper, reported the general as saying that, “You will have learned bitter lessons from a number of world events, in which certain States have become weaker … owing to external intervention in their conflicts.”  

Report from Compass Direct News


At least five hurt as rioters stone, burn structure after inauguration of extension.

ISTANBUL, November 26 (Compass Direct News) – Thousands of Muslim protestors on Sunday (Nov. 23) attacked a Coptic church in a suburb of Cairo, Egypt, burning part of it, a nearby shop and two cars and leaving five people injured.

Objecting to a newly constructed extension to the Coptic church of St. Mary and Anba Abraam in Ain Shams, the huge crowd of angry protestors gathered outside the church at around 5 p.m. following a consecration service for the addition earlier that day.

Chanting, “We will demolish the church,” “Islam is the solution” and “No God but Allah,” according to Helmy Guirguis, president of the U.K. Coptic Association, rioters pelted the church with stones and burned part of the structure; priests and worshipers were trapped inside, and five people were injured.

“It was a terrifying moment,” said lawyer Nabil Gobrayel, who was inside the church at the time. “They were shouting ‘holy slogans’ like, ‘We will bring the church down,’, ‘The priest is dead’ and ‘The army of Muhammad is coming.’”

Police slow to arrive were not prepared for the scale of the protest. Angry Muslims swarmed to the area from a two-kilometer radius, and although estimates varied, some suggested as many as 8,000 people gathered.

Rioters’ stones broke the structure’s windows, and a nearby shop and two cars belonging to Christians were set on fire.

Reinforcements for the overwhelmed security forces did not arrive until two hours later and were then engaged in clashes with the mob until the early hours of Monday (Nov. 24) morning.

Armored vehicles brought in riot police, who used tear gas to disperse the crowd while fire services aided their efforts with water cannons.

A United Copts of Great Britain statement suggested that police were slow to arrest perpetrators in the early stages of the demonstration but did eventually detain 41 people around midnight.

Of the 38 Muslims arrested, 30 were quickly released “under the pretext of being minors,” according to the United Copts statement. Three arrested Christians, however, remained in prison without charges.

United Copts also reported that Wael Tahoon, a police officer, was said to be involved in instigating the attacks.

A source told Compass that Pope Shenouda, head of The Holy Synod of the Coptic Orthodox Patriarchate of Alexandria, ordered that prayers at the church site be stopped.

According to Gobrayel, the church will be closed for two months while officials consider its future.


Opposition from Outset

The newly constructed extension stands on the site of an old factory that was demolished 18 months ago, when the land was purchased using funds raised by donations from the congregation.

When building began, church members were surprised to find that construction of a mosque also started just across the street.

During construction of the church addition, Muslim radicals insulted and harassed workers, issuing death threats and urinating on the structure’s walls.

At 10 a.m. on Sunday (Nov. 23), the morning of the consecration service, the adjacent mosque began broadcasting verses from the Quran at high volume.

According to witnesses, the imam of the mosque justified the unusual broadcasts by saying that they were in celebration of the Muslim festival of Eid. Christians said this would be highly irregular, however, with area parishioners maintaining it was done to provoke them.


Government Role

Church leaders had obtained the necessary permits for building the extension, Coptic leaders said, but protestors said the addition was not licensed for prayer and worship.

Christians have found obtaining church building permits from Egyptian authorities rife with obstacles, with many applications never granted.

“The National Assembly cannot make a decision for 15 years about building projects for churches,” said lawyer Naguib Gobrail. “Every time they say, ‘This session we can discuss this project,’ but the session ends and we see nothing. Everything is only a promise.”

In a recent editorial, Youssef Sidhom, editor-in-chief of Egyptian weekly Watani, addressed the inequality of regulations that govern the building of places of worship.

“It now appears obvious that the government has no intention whatsoever of placing the long-awaited bill for a unified law for building places of worship on its agenda,” he wrote. “For four consecutive rounds [of Parliament], the bill has remained shelved despite the need for it to ward off so called sectarian problems that erupt every so often.”


Wedding Violence

Advocacy group Voice of the Copts issued a report on Monday (Nov. 24) that, a day before the attack on St. Mary and Anba Abraam, Muslim radicals ambushed a wedding party at a church just 10 minutes away.

A man and woman interrupted the ceremony shouting obscene remarks, according to Voice of the Copts, and when angered wedding guests ushered them outside, the Copts were set upon by a gang of people waiting in a shop across the road. Two were severely injured.

While Christians account for varying estimates of 10 to 15 percent of Egypt’s population and date back to the first century of the faith, churches are still seen as foreign bodies and, in the words of the Ain Shams rioters, an “infidel’s worship house in an Islamic Land.”  

Report from Compass Direct News


Attack mainly by outsiders carried out during Independence Day celebrations.

JAKARTA, August 19 (Compass Direct News) – On Sunday (August 17) a Muslim mob stormed a church service in Cipayung, East Jakarta, forcing Christians to flee and then erecting banners in the street declaring a ban on “churches and religious services.”

As about 20 church members were celebrating the nation’s Independence Day at the service, the angry assailants arrived at the Pentecostal Church of Indonesia in Pondok Rangon village, Cipayung, at 9:30 a.m. shouting “Allahu Akbar!” or “God is greater!” Some in the mob were neighbors, but the majority were not local residents, according to pastor Chris Ambessa.

Church members tried to close the gate leading into the church compound, but the mob forced its way in, storming into the welcoming room of the church and overturning furniture.

Ambessa managed to close a roller door protecting the room where services were held. But the attackers then chased church members out into the street, warning them not to return for future services.

The intruders then erected large banners in the street declaring a ban on “churches and religious services” in the village. Technically prior approval from district officials is required to erect such banners, but Public Order official Hadi Sumantri and plainclothes policemen present made no attempt to intervene or remove them.

Two days prior to this incident, Ambessa sought permission from district officials to hold a special thanksgiving service on Independence Day. Officials gave verbal approval, despite contention over the existence of the church.


Demolition Order

Ambessa has been in the middle of a dispute over his house church. On July 3 the Cipayung civil engineering department had ordered Ambessa to dismantle the second floor of his home, and on July 13 it ordered him to cease religious activity for an indefinite period following neighborhood protests against the house church. Neighbors had demanded that Ambessa completely demolish the building.

Ambessa, whose home has functioned as a legally recognized house church for the past 12 years, built the second floor extension to accommodate his growing congregation. Realizing the prohibitive cost and difficulty of obtaining a Religious Building Permit (IMB), and on grounds that the building was a residential home, Ambessa had proceeded with the extension without applying for the IMB.

Ambessa’s lawyer, August Pasaribu, told Compass he planned to challenge the demolition order, since the demand was in breach of local regulations.

Construction of the extension was completed on May 17. On May 21, a neighborhood group threatened Ambessa and forced him to sign a document stating that he would cease holding church services in his home. Ambessa told Compass that he had signed the document under duress, fearing attacks on his wife and daughters.

Ambessa had planned to rent a separate building for church services in another location, at a cost of 8 million rupiah per year (US$862). After Sunday’s attack, however, Ambessa said he felt disheartened and saw little point in reporting the incident to the local police station since he did not expect positive intervention.  

Report from Compass Direct News


Neighbors threaten his family, demand destruction of house used for church services.

JAKARTA, July 24 (Compass Direct News) – Officials in Cipayung district, East Jakarta, have ordered Pastor Chris Ambessa of the Protestant Church of Indonesia to dismantle the newly constructed second floor of his home and to cease all religious activity in the area.

Ambessa’s lawyer, August Pasaribu, told Compass on Monday (July 21) that he planned to submit a letter to the Cipayung civil engineering department asking it to cancel the July 3 order to dismantle the second floor of the home, since the demand was in breach of local regulations. Authorities’ order to cease area religious activity for an indefinite period followed on July 13.

Pasaribu said he also hoped to file a report with the East Jakarta police department regarding an incident on May 21, in which Ambessa’s neighbors forced him to sign a document agreeing to cease religious activity.

Ambessa, however, is still weighing the likely consequences of legal action for his family and congregation.

The pastor’s home in Pondok Rangon village has functioned as a legally recognized house church for the past 12 years.

On June 6, authorities sent a letter ordering him to cease work on the second-floor extension. Construction, however, had already been completed on May 17.

When church services continued, approximately 20 young men led by a local resident approached the Cipayung district offices on June 25, demanding that Ambessa’s house be demolished.

On May 21, a similar neighborhood group had threatened Ambessa and forced him to sign a document stating that he would cease holding church services in his home. Ambessa told Compass that he had signed the document under duress, fearing attacks on his wife and daughters.

Having established his small congregation in 1996 with the requisite permission from neighbors and civic authorities, Ambessa said he was determined to protect the right of his church members to worship freely.


A Positive Influence

The pastor began his ministry in the village in February 1995, working with young men in the village who were drinking at night and disturbing local residents.

By April 1996, the young men had given up drinking and were attending church services. The neighborhood Public Order official, a volunteer with a wide range of responsibilities from overseeing garbage collection to resolving community disputes, made a point of thanking Ambessa for his positive influence in the community.

In May 1996, local Public Order officials and the head of Cipayung district gave Ambessa permission to hold services in his rented home. Ambessa also sought and received permission from 70 neighbors to establish a house of worship, meeting the requirements of a 1969 Joint Ministerial Decree (SKB) regulating places of worship.

After purchasing the house in 2002, Ambessa decided to extend the building to cater to his growing congregation.

Officials in Cipayung, however, had created a new regulation requiring churches to apply for a special religious building permit (Ijin Mendirikan Bangunan or IMB), considerably more expensive than an ordinary building permit. Realizing the prohibitive cost and the difficulty of obtaining such a permit, and on the grounds that the building was a residential home, Ambessa decided to proceed with the extension without applying for a religious IMB.

As one Compass source noted, enforcement of building regulations is notoriously inconsistent in Indonesia. Many private homes are built or extended without building permits, and mosques are often built or extended without a religious IMB – but the law is applied more stringently to churches.


Confusion Over New Regulation

Neighbors objected to the extension based on a revision of the 1969 SKB that came into effect on March 21, 2006, officially known as Perber 60/90. Issued by the Minister of Home Affairs and the Minister of Religious Affairs, the decree spelled out conditions for the construction of new churches as opposed to existing churches.

Under the revised decree, new churches must be clearly identified as such, with a cross on the roof and a design “appropriate to a place of worship.” At least 60 immediate neighbors must approve the construction project, along with Public Order officials, the head of the village and district, and the “local community harmony forum” (Forum Kerukunan Umat Beragama), consisting of a panel of residents from different faiths.

In addition, the church must have at least 90 adult members.

The decree applied only to new church construction projects and therefore not to Ambessa’s home-based congregation, in existence since 1996. Neighbors, however, were confused about the new regulation and demanded that it be applied to Ambessa’s church.

On July 13, a contingent of local officials – including a senior police officer, the head of Pondok Rangon village and the head of Cipayung district – arrived at Ambessa’s home and asked him to cease all religious activity for an indefinite period to alleviate rising tensions.

Ambessa complied on July 15, calling a halt to church services. He then obtained a lawyer, Pasaribu, to defend both his home and his congregation’s freedom to worship as outlined in Article 29(b) of Indonesia’s constitution, which says, “The state guarantees the freedom of every citizen to hold his/her own religion and to worship according to his/her religion or faith.”

Report from Compass Direct News