Anti-Christian Sentiment Marks Journey for Bhutan’s Exiles

Forced from Buddhist homeland, dangers arise in Hindu-majority Nepal.

KATHMANDU, Nepal, February 23 (CDN) — Thrust from their homes in Bhutan after Buddhist rulers embarked on an ethnic and religious purge, Christian refugees in Nepal face hostilities from Hindus and others.

In Sunsari district in southeastern Nepal, a country that is more than 80 percent Hindu, residents from the uneducated segments of society are especially apt to attack Christians, said Purna Kumal, district coordinator for Awana Clubs International, which runs 41 clubs in refugee camps to educate girls about the Bible.

“In Itahari, Christians face serious trouble during burials,” Kumal told Compass. “Last month, a burial party was attacked by locals who dug up the grave and desecrated it.”

Earlier this month, he added, a family in the area expelled one of its members from their home because he became a Christian.

Bhutan began expelling almost one-eighth of its citizens for being of Nepali origin or practicing faiths other than Buddhism in the 1980s. The purge lasted into the 1990s.

“Christians, like Hindus and others, were told to leave either their faith or the country,” said Gopi Chandra Silwal, who pastors a tiny church for Bhutanese refugees in a refugee camp in Sanischare, a small village in eastern Nepal’s Morang district. “Many chose to leave their homeland.”

Persecution in Bhutan led to the spread of Christianity in refugee camps in Nepal. Though exact figures are not available, refugee Simon Gazmer estimates there are about 7,000-8,000 Christians in the camps – out of a total refugee population of about 85,000 – with many others having left for other countries. There are 18 churches of various faiths in the camps, he said.

“Faith-healing was an important factor in the spread of Christianity in the camps,” said Gazmer, who belongs to Believers’ Church and is awaiting his turn to follow five members of his family to Queensland, Australia. “A second reason is the high density in the camps.”

Each refugee family lives in a single-room hut, with one outdoor toilet for every two families. The Nepalese government forbids them to work for fear it will create unemployment for local residents.

Life was even harder for them before 2006, when Nepal was a Hindu kingdom where conversions were a punishable offence.

“When I began preaching in 2000, I had to do it secretly,” said Pastor Silwal of Morang district. “We could meet only surreptitiously in small groups. I used my hut as a make-shift church while many other groups were forced to rent out rooms outside the camp.”

A fact-finding mission in 2004 by Brussels-based Human Rights Without Frontiers found that police pulled down a church structure built by Pentecostal Christians in the Beldangi camp by orders of Nepal’s home ministry. The rights group also reported that Hindu refugees ostracized the Christians, who had proceeded to rent a room outside the camp to meet three times a week for worship services and Bible study.

When the Jesus Loves Gospel Ministries (JLGM) organization sent officials from India to the Pathri camp in Morang in 2006, they found that local residents resentful of the refugees had taken note of a baptism service at a pond in a nearby jungle.

“In August, we were planning another baptism program,” JLGM director Robert Singh reported. “But the villagers put deadly poisonous chemicals in the water … Some of the young people went to take a bath ahead of our next baptism program. They found some fish floating on the water and, being very hungry – the refugees only get a very small ration, barely enough to survive on – they took some of the fish and ate them. Three of them died instantly.”

Singh also stated that poisoned sweets were left on the premises of the refugee school in the camp. They were discovered in time to avert another tragedy.

Life for Christian refugees improved after Nepal saw a pro-democracy movement in 2006 that caused the army-backed government of Hindu king Gyanendra Bir Bikram Shah to collapse. The king was forced to reinstate parliament, and lawmakers sought to curb his powers by declaring Nepal a secular state.

Though Christian refugees are now allowed to run churches openly in the camps, ill will toward them has yet to end. When Pastor Silwal asked camp authorities to allow him to open a church in 2006, Hindu neighbors protested, saying it would cause disturbances. Camp authorities allowed him to open a tiny church in a separate room on the condition that its activities would not disturb neighbors.

Earlier in his life in Bhutan, said the 40-year-old Pastor Silwal, he had been a stern Hindu who rebuked his two sisters mercilessly for becoming Christians. He forbade them to visit their church, which gathered in secret due to the ban on non-Buddhist religions in place at the time. They were also forbidden to bring the Bible inside their house in Geylegphug, a district in southern Bhutan close to the Indian border.

“I became a believer in 1988 after a near-death experience,” Pastor Silwal told Compass. “I contracted malaria and was on the verge of death since no one could diagnose it. All the priests and shamans consulted by my Hindu family failed to cure me. One day, when I thought I was going to die I had a vision.”

The pastor said he saw a white-robed figure holding a Bible in one hand and beckoning to him with the other. “Have faith in me,” the figure told him. “I will cure you.”

When he woke from his trance, Silwal asked his sisters to fetch him a copy of the Bible. They were alarmed at first, thinking he was going to beat them. But at his insistence, they nervously fetched the book from the thatched roof of the cow shed where they had kept it hidden. Pastor Silwal said he tried to read the Bible but was blinded by his fever and lost consciousness.

When he awoke, to his amazement and joy, the fever that had racked him for nearly five months was gone.

Pastor Silwal lost his home in 1990 to the ethnic and religious purge that forced him to flee along with thousands of others. It wasn’t until 1998, he said, that he and his family formally converted to Christianity after seven years of grueling hardship in the refugee camp, where he saw “people dying like flies due to illness, lack of food and the cold.”

“My little son too fell ill and I thought he would die,” Silwal said. “But he was cured; we decided to embrace Christianity formally.”


In 2001, Bhutan4Christ reported the number of Bhutanese Christians to be around 19,000, with the bulk of them – more than 10,500 – living in Nepal.

When persecution by the Bhutanese government began, frightened families raced towards towns in India across the border. Alarmed by the influx of Bhutanese refugees, Indian security forces packed them into trucks and dumped them in southern Nepal.

Later, when the homesick refugees tried to return home, Indian security forces blocked the way. There were several rounds of scuffles, resulting in police killing at least three refugees.

Simon Gazmer was seven when his family landed at the bank of the Mai river in Jhapa district in southeastern Nepal. Now 24, he still remembers the desolation that reigned in the barren land, where mists and chilly winds rose from the river, affecting the morale and health of the refugees. They lived in bamboo shacks with thin plastic sheets serving as roofs; they had little food or medicine.

“My uncle Padam Bahadur had tuberculosis, and we thought he would die,” said Gazmer, who lives in Beldangi II, the largest of seven refugee camps. “His recovery made us realize the grace of God, and our family became Christians.”

The plight of the refugees improved after the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) stepped in, receiving permission from the government of Nepal to run the refugee camps. According to the UNHCR, there were 111,631 registered refugees in seven camps run in the two districts of Jhapa and Morang.

Though Nepal held 15 rounds of bilateral talks with Bhutan for the repatriation of the refugees, the Buddhist government dragged its feet, eventually breaking off talks. Meantime, international donors assisting the refugee camps began to grow weary, resulting in the slashing of aid and food. Finally, seven western governments – Canada, Norway, Denmark, New Zealand, Australia, the United States and the Netherlands – persuaded Nepal to allow the refugees to resettle in third countries.

The exodus of the refugees started in 2007. Today, according to the UNHCR, more than 26,000 have left for other countries, mostly the United States. A substantial number of the nearly 85,000 people left in the camps are ready to follow suit.

Although they now have a new life to look forward to, many of Bhutan’s Christian refugees are saddened by the knowledge that their homeland still remains barred to them. So some are looking at the next best thing: a return to Nepal, now that it is secular, where they will feel more at home than in the West.

“I don’t have grand dreams,” said Pastor Silwal. “In Australia I want to enroll in a Bible college and become a qualified preacher. Then I want to return to Nepal to spread the word of God.”  

Report from Compass Direct News 

Pakistani Muslims Gun Down Christian Friend

They order him to convert to Islam or die, after accusing him of murder.

MUREEDKAY, Pakistan, December 21 (CDN) — A group of Muslims shot their Christian friend dead this month on the outskirts of this town after saying they would spare his life only if he recanted his faith, according to the young man’s father.

The friends of Patras Masih, who died from gunshot wounds on Dec. 3 in Karol village, Punjab Province, issued the ultimatum to him after accusing him of the murder of their friend Anees Mahammad. An autopsy reported showed Mahammad died from toxic alcohol earlier that day.

Patras Masih’s father, Gulzar Masih, said his son was at home on that day, had no contact with Mahammad, and that his friends accused him of the murder only because he refused to recant Christianity and embrace Islam.

On Dec. 1, Mahammad and three other Muslim friends of Patras Masih – Sohail Muhammad, Imran Muhammad and Amir Muhammad – had arrived with unknown Muslim men and asked Masih to help them find liquor, Gulzar Masih told Compass. Pakistani law forbids Muslims from buying or consuming alcohol. Locally brewed liquor in rural areas of Pakistan can be fatally toxic; this month 14 people died from locally brewed, toxic liquor in Pakistan’s Punjab Province, news website Express India reported today.

“On that night,” Gulzar Masih said, “I also heard them saying in a commanding way in the drawing room of our house, ‘You [Patras Masih] ought to accept Islam and recant your faith, otherwise you and your family will be responsible for the dire consequences.’”   

Patras Masih held fast to his faith, his father said; leaving with his Muslim friends, he bought them a couple of bottles of liquor and returned home.

His voice full of grief, Gulzar Masih said that on Dec. 3, his son’s three Muslim friends arrived at their doorway yelling that he had killed Mahammad, and that they would spare his life only if he converted to Islam. They accused Patras Masih of serving Mahammad a toxic drink in their home the previous day.

When Patras Masih refused to recite the Islamic conversion creed, his father said, Sohail Muhammad, Imran Muhammad and Amir Muhammad sprayed bullets at his chest, killing him instantly.

“My son bravely refused to recant Christianity and clung to Christ,” Gulzar Masih said, dejected but with a small smile on his face. “He bravely embraced martyrdom.”

He said these same three friends on several occasions had pressured Patras Masih to convert to Islam, “but my son never accepted their invitation and always turned down their request to recant Christianity in a healthy and polite manner.”

When his father asked him about his friends’ Dec. 1 threats, Patras Masih told him that they often insisted that he become a Muslim. Though the young men had been friends since childhood, Gulzar Masih told his son to stop seeing them, he said. 

Sternly denying that his son was capable of killing a human being., he pointed out that Patras Masih’s friends accused him of serving Mahammad a toxic drink at Masih’s home on Dec. 2, but that Mahammad died on Dec. 3.

“Surely it is a conspiracy against him because he refused to meet their unreasonable demands,” the frail, bereaved father said. “They were ready to spare him only if he converted to Islam by reciting the holy Kalima [Islamic affirmation of faith], an emblem that one has become a Muslim.” 

He said that all four Muslim men had been friends of Patras Masih since childhood.

Gulzar Masih said that Ferozewala police have registered a murder case against the three suspects, but that they are all still at large and his family is vulnerable to further attacks.

Report from Compass Direct News 

Church Screening of ‘Jesus Film’ Attacked in Pakistan

Muslim villagers injure seven Christians, two seriously; police refuse to register case.

SARGODHA, Pakistan, December 14 (CDN) — Some 50 Muslim villagers armed with clubs and axes attacked a showing of the “Jesus Film” near this city in Punjab Province on Wednesday night (Dec. 9), injuring three part-time evangelists and four Christians in attendance.

Two of the evangelists were said to be seriously injured. The Muslim hardliners also damaged a movie projector, burned reels of the film and absconded with the public address system and donations from Christian viewers in Chak village, about 10 kilometers northeast of Sargodha, at 7 p.m.

Officers at the Saddr police station refused to register a case against the Muslim assailants, sources said.

Compass observed three part-time evangelists – Ishtiaq Bhatti, Imtiaz Ghauri and Kaleem Ghulam – screening the film within the premises of the Catholic Church of Chak, which sits within the police precincts of Saddr police station-Sargodha. Bhatti said the church compound was crammed with Christian villagers clapping as the film showed Jesus Christ performing miracles, raising the dead, casting out evil spirits and healing ailments.

Injured Christians were taken to the Basic Health Unit (BHU) of Chak village. Bhatti was treated for minor injuries, while Ghauri and Ghulam sustained serious injuries for which they received treatment at another hospital.

The evangelists who were screening the film said from their clinic beds that a Muslim cleric instigated the Muslim villagers, who were armed with clubs, spades and axes.

“They charged on us deadly and swiftly and left us injured and broke all our appliances and took away funds collected by congregants to help us,” Bhatti said. “Muslim men also injured those Christian villagers who tried to intervene and stop them.” 

The intervention of Chaudhary Nassar-Ullah Cheema, headman of the village, resulted in the rescue of the Christian evangelists and the surrender of the Muslim mob, sources told Compass. The Muslim hardliners were forced to evacuate the church grounds, but only after a stand-off of nearly two hours.

Eyewitnesses who requested anonymity told Compass that numerous Muslim villagers and their clerics had gathered outside the church compound as the film played, with some of them climbing trees to get a clearer view of the screen. The eyewitnesses said that as soon as the Muslim attackers watched the resurrection and ascension of Christ, they became enraged because their version of Islam forbids portraying an image of a living thing and especially that of a prophet.

The sources added that although Muslims hold Christ as a prophet, they believe he was never crucified, having been replaced by a man identical to him.

No doctor was initially available for the four injured Christian viewers and three preachers who were taken to the BHU of Chak, but a male nurse treated their wounds and allowed them to go home. Ghauri and Ghulam sustained critical injuries and were transferred to District Headquarters Hospital in Sargodha.

Asad Masih, a local Christian leader, told Compass that they tried to register a case against Muslim villagers for thrashing (Article 337 of the Pakistan Penal Code) stealing (Article 380), recovery of the stolen items (411) and desecrating the church building, but police scornfully rejected their application. Officers peremptorily told them to settle the dispute in a local jury of village elders, he said.

Inspector Azeem Warriach of Saddr police station told Compass that registration of a case against a large number of Muslim villagers would further create a break-down of law and order.

“Therefore, I’ve directed them to solve the problem at the local level so that they might reconcile and live in perfect peace and harmony,” he said.

Report from Compass Direct News 

Draft legislation in Russia might make evangelism impossible

A draft legislation introduced this month threatens to make evangelism nearly impossible in Russia. A date has not yet been released for further ruling on the law, but in the meantime, evangelicals express concern, reports MNN.

“Only religious groups that have been registered in Russia for at least 15 year will be allowed to engage in any evangelistic or missionary activity,” says Bob Provost of Slavic Gospel Association. “For example, if a North American church were to send a youth group over to help with a summer camp (which happens a lot), or if they were to send over a music group to help with evangelistic activity, it would not be allowed. Foreigners in Russia on a temporary visa would not be permitted.”

The legislation also outlaws indigenous churches from any missionary activity within hospitals, orphanages, or homes for the aged. Children, under the new legislation, will be prohibited from attending religious activities without specific permission by a parent or guardian. This part of the law, in particular, would devastate specific ministry opportunities.

“The single greatest evangelistic opportunity that the Church has there today comes at Christmas time when they’re able to hold Christmas events and invite children from the community,” explains Provost. “In many cases, parents and grandparents accompany their children to these meetings and find out that the lies that they’ve been hearing via the media or in the public schools against evangelical Christianity are not true.”

As if all of these restrictions were not limiting enough, the legislation forbids any “offers of material, social and other benefits,” leaving the range of prohibited activity almost completely open-ended.

If passed, anyone convicted of anything under this legislation (offering food to the poor, sharing the Gospel with a child, evangelizing on a short-term trip etc.) could be fined up to $517 USD. The Russian Union of Evangelical Christians-Baptists (RUECB) has responded to the absurdity of the open-endedness of the draft legislation, but it does not appear as though the government has not appeared to have made any movement.

With all of these objectives brewing, an explanation as to “why” is appropriate. But so far, there doesn’t appear to be substantial reasoning. Provost suggests that the legislation may be in defense of the Orthodox Church in Russia. Although the Baptist Church is not growing astronomically in Russia, it is growing and may well be considered a threat.

“It’s evident to me that president Putin, when he came into power, put the government’s arm around the Orthodox Church again in order to unify the country,” says Provost. As a result, “Any religion that starts to get in the way of the Orthodox Church is going to be considered a threat, and steps are being taken to remove it.”

Amid all of the concern, the Church continues to live on in Russia. “605 men have been set apart and are ready to be sent as missionaries all over the former Soviet Union. We’re praying for partners who would help us send them,” says Provost. “Nine out of ten communities are still waiting for a Gospel witness presence. In other words, nine out of ten communities have never had a Bible teaching church.”

The RUECB is asking churches in Russia to fast and pray that the legislation would not be passed in any of the stages toward becoming law. Please pray with them.

Slavic Gospel Association will continue their work in Russia and the former Soviet Union.

Report from the Christian Telegraph 

Gaza ‘islamization’ continues, schoolgirls told ‘cover up’

Gaza took another step towards strict Islamic law this week with the imposition of new dress codes on schoolgirls. Girls and young women returning to school on Sunday were told that they must wear jilbab, traditional Islamic sleeved robes, and cover their hair, or they would not be allowed to return to class, reports Dan Wooding, founder of ASSIST Ministries.

This was revealed in a story by Maayana Miskin and posted on the website.

“Posters hung in Gaza City schools announced that all girls would be required to wear navy blue jilbab, a white headscarf, and white or black shoes. Dozens of students reported being sent home after appearing in school in jeans,” said Miskin.

“In addition, public high school classes have been separated, with boys and girls learning in different buildings.”

The story went on to say that according to some Gaza residents, the new rules are being enforced on members the region’s small Christian minority as well, despite the fact that Christians are generally considered exempt from following Islamic law. However, the laws have not been enforced within private Christian schools.

Hamas officials denied Monday that they were connected to the new school dress codes. The decision to enforce strict standards of dress was made at the local level, by individual principals, Hamas claimed.

Most girls and their families were in favor of the new dress codes, they added.

“Reports of a new school dress code caused anger in Judea and Samaria, where Palestinian Authority loyalists accused Hamas of violating the PA charter, which forbids the enforcement of a public dress code,” wrote Miskin.

“Earlier this month, a Gaza judge ordered that all female lawyers cover their hair in court. The decision caused a wave of protest from lawyers and human rights groups in Gaza, Judea and Samaria. Hamas distanced itself from that decision as well, saying the matter was a private issue for the courts to deal with.

“Several weeks ago, Hamas was accused of enforcing an informal dress code on women living in Gaza, and of allowing local militias to enforce strict standards of modest dress and behavior.”

Report from the Christian Telegraph 


Christian woman run out of home – and beaten – while another is prohibited from leaving.

KHARTOUM, Sudan, April 13 (Compass Direct News) – When Halima Bubkier of Sinar town converted from Islam to Christianity last year, initially her husband accepted it without qualms.

“After watching the ‘Jesus Film,’ I felt I needed a change in my hopeless and meaningless life,” the 35-year-old mother of three told Compass. “I lived a life of alcoholism and lacked self control, hence tried Christianity and it worked well for me. I shared this experience with my husband, and he was quite positive about it and allowed me to attend church services.”

News of her conversion spread quickly, she said, and last Sept. 14 she came face to face with Islamic hardliners who felt her conversion to Christianity was an act of betrayal. A few weeks later, during the daily fasts and nightly feasts of Ramadan in Sinar, near Khartoum, the Islamists blocked her husband from the communal meals because of her change in faith.

“My husband was totally rejected by his colleagues,” she said. “They even refused to eat the food that I had cooked for him, saying that Muslims could not eat food cooked by infidels.”

Bubkier said she never expected her change in faith would lead to the ordeal that followed.

“He was so angry that he threw an armchair at me and injured my back,” she said. “As if this was not enough, he took out all his belongings from the house then set the house on fire. After I lost all my belongings, he then chased me away.”

She decided to run for refuge to her older brother, Nur Bubkier – who, having been informed of her conversion, responded by thoroughly beating her and trying to knife her.

Two Christians from the Sudanese Church of Christ, Maria Mohamud and a church deacon, managed to rescue her from the violence, but Halima Bubkier was jailed for three days at a police station, she said, on the false charge of “disrespecting Islam.” During that time Mohamud took care of her 2-year-old baby.

After three days in jail, she was waiting to appear before a judge.

“Before my case was heard, a Coptic priest [identified only as Sheed] knew of my case and talked with a police officer, privately telling him that according to the law, no one is supposed to be jailed because of religion,” Bubkier told Compass. “I was then freed.”

Bubkier left her two children, ages 6 and 8, behind with her husband, who is said to have married another woman. She said that although her main concern is the safety of her children, at least she is in hiding and her husband does not know her whereabouts.

“I expected my husband to appreciate my positive change, but instead he responded negatively,” Bubkier said. “Indeed there is something wrong with Islam where good is rewarded with evil. But I feel normal. Now I have a better life to live for. I was lost and in darkness. Let God forgive all those who have wronged me. I know I cannot go back.”


Home Prison

In Sahafa, five kilometers (three miles) south of Khartoum, another woman who left Islam is under a kind of house arrest by her family members for converting to Christianity.

Senah Abdulfatah Altyab was formerly a student of laboratory science at Sudan University of Technology, but today she is out of touch with the outside world. Her education came to an end after a film about Christ led to her conversion.

A close friend of Altyab, Ebtehaj Alsanosi Altejani Mostafh, said Altyab’s family closely monitors her.

“She cannot receive calls,” Mostafh said. “Her brother forbids her from moving outside the homestead or even attending [St. Peter and Paul Catholic] church” in Amarat, Khartoum.

Last Christmas, Mostafh said, she met Altyab near a public market during an Islamic celebration day, prayed with her and advised her that she should present her case to a commission dedicated to guarding the rights of non-Muslims. The Commission for the Rights of Non-Muslims in the National Capital, created by the Comprehensive Peace Agreement of 2005 following Sudan’s long civil war, was designed to advise courts on how to fairly apply sharia (Islamic law) to non-Muslims.

Made up of representatives from Muslim, Christian and traditional religious groups, the commission “made little headway in changing official government policy towards non-Muslims in Khartoum,” according to the U.S. Department of State’s 2008 International Religious Freedom Report, though it did obtain release or leniency for some non-Muslims accused of violating sharia.

Altyab said she feels the commission would do little for her case because most of its members are radical Muslims. Moreover, she said her uncle, Yusuf Alkoda, is a radical Muslim and will make her life more difficult.

“I find life very difficult,” Altyab said. “I feel lonely and isolated. How long will I have to live in this state? Life without education is miserable.”

Sudan’s 2005 Interim National Constitution provides for freedom of religion throughout the entire country, but Altyab said that stipulation is brazenly flouted. The constitution enshrines sharia as a key source of legislation in northern Sudan.

The 29-year-old Mostafh, for her part, said she converted from Islam to Christianity in 2005 and as a result was immediately fired from her job. She later obtained another job. A member of All Saints Cathedral Church in Khartoum, she told Compass that since her conversion, she has suffered total isolation from her Muslim friends. During communal celebrations, she said, she is looked down upon and seen as a lady lost and destined for hell.

“Life is very difficult for me for the last four years, since joining Christianity,” she said. “I have been living all alone in the rental house here at the Evangelical Presbyterian Church-Borri, which is something unusual for a Muslim lady who is unmarried. My former friends are saying that there must be something wrong with me.”

Her immediate family lives in Saudi Arabia. Her only chance of seeing them, she said, is to go on the Islamic pilgrimage or hajj, and that option is now closed.

“My big challenge is how I can be accepted by my family members,” she said. “For me to go to Saudi Arabia, pilgrimage is the only opportunity, but this is not relevant for me as a Christian.”

The many instances of Christians suffering in northern Sudan go largely unreported. The president of the Sudanese Church of Christ, Barnabas Maitias, told Compass of one church member, a convert from Islam identified only as Ahmed, who received Christ in April 2007 – and quickly had his wife and children taken away.

Hard-line Muslims also planned to kill the convert, Maitias said.

“The church had to take him to another location in the Nuba Mountains, Korarak area, where he is employed as driver,” Maitias noted. “Most of the churches in Khartoum are housing Muslim converts who have no place to stay or get their daily basic needs.”

Report from Compass Direct News


Converts accused of ‘insulting Turkishness’ fear ruling sets dangerous precedent.

ISTANBUL, March 27 (Compass Direct News) – Fearing that a court-ordered fine of two Turkish Christians here for “illegal collection of funds” would set a precedent crippling to churches, their lawyer plans to take the case to a European court.

Hakan Tastan and Turan Topal each paid the fine of 600 Turkish lira (US$360) to a civil court in the Beyoglu district of Istanbul yesterday. The verdict cannot be appealed within the Turkish legal system, but their lawyer said he is considering taking the case to the European Court of Human Rights.

The ruling refers to the men receiving church offerings without official permission from local civil authorities. Nearly all Protestant fellowships in Turkey are registered as associations, with very few having status as a recognized religious body, and a strict application of the law would limit the scope of churches collecting funds.

Although the punishment is a relatively small fine, their lawyer told Compass there is now a precedent that authorities could use to harass any church for collecting tithes and offerings.

“For now, this court decision is an individual decision, but we fear in the future this could be carried out against all churches,” said defense attorney Haydar Polat.

Umut Sahin, spokesman for the Alliance of Protestant Churches of Turkey, concurred that the case was worrisome for the country’s small Protestant community and could set a disturbing precedent to be against other congregations.

When originally charged, the two men were summoned to police headquarters just before church services by three plainclothes policemen waiting for Tastan at his church. Tastan and Topal were given a “penalty” sheet from security police that ordered each to pay the fine for breaking a civil law.

The court decision to fine them, enacted on Nov. 11, 2008 but not delivered until March 13, denied their request to drop the penalty. The two men claimed they were only collecting money from their co-religionists.

Judge Hakim Tastan ruled at the First Magistrate Court that the two men were guilty of violating section 29 of Civil Administrative Code 2860, which forbids the collection of money without official permission from local district authorities.

In light of the charge of “insulting Turkishness,” the two men believe the smaller accusation of collecting money illegally is merely part of a wider effort by the state to harass and discredit Turkish Christians.

“They are doing this to bother and intimidate us, possibly to pressure us to leave the country,” Tastan told Compass. “They have the intention to hinder church establishment and the spread of the gospel.”

Tastan has spoken publicly over his strong sense of pride in his Turkish identity and frustration with state institutions biased against religious minorities.

“This case is proof that Turkey’s legal system regarding human rights isn’t acting in a just and suitable way,” he said.


Difficult Circumstances

The civil court case was the second set of longstanding charges against the two men. The first involves Turkey’s notorious Article 301, a loosely-defined law that criminalizes insulting “the Turkish nation.”

On Feb. 24 a Silivri court received the go-ahead from the Ministry of Justice to try the men under Article 301. The crux of the first case – originally leveled against them in 2007 by ultranationalist lawyer Kemal Kerincsiz, now indicted in a national conspiracy to overthrow the government – focused on the two men’s missionary efforts as defaming Islam.

Due to lack of proof and no-shows by the prosecution team’s witnesses, the converts from Islam believe they will be acquitted in their next hearing on May 28.

Turkey has come under recent criticism over its handling of religious minority rights by a Council of Europe report, accusing the country of “wrong interpretation” of the Lausanne Treaty as a pretext for refusing to implement minority rights, according to the Hurriyet Daily News.

The 1923 treaty, penned between Turkey and European powers following the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, only recognizes Greeks, Jews and Armenians as minority populations in Turkey.

More troublesome, Turkey’s basis of rights for its non-Muslim minorities is built upon reciprocity with Greece’s treatment of its Muslim minorities. This basis pushes both nations to a “lowest-common denominator” understanding of minority rights, rather than a concept of universal freedoms, the report said.  

Report from Compass Direct News


Religious police, others warn key figure in expatriate church to leave.

LOS ANGELES, January 30 (Compass Direct News) – A prominent foreign pastor in Saudi Arabia has fled Riyadh after a member of the mutawwa’in, or religious police, and others threatened him three times in one week.

Two of the incidents included threats to kill house church pastor Yemane Gebriel of Eritrea. On Wednesday (Jan. 28), Gebriel escaped to an undisclosed city in Saudi Arabia.

A father of eight who has lived and worked as a private driver in Saudi Arabia for 25 years, Gebriel told Compass that on Jan. 10 he found an unsigned note on his vehicle threatening to kill him if he did not leave the country. On Jan. 13, he said, mutawwa’in member Abdul Aziz and others forced him from his van and told him to leave the country.

“There was a note on my van saying, ‘If you do not leave the country, we will kill you,” Gebriel told Compass by telephone. “Three days after that, [Aziz] said, ‘You’re still working here, why don’t you go out of the country?”

Aziz, another member of the mutawwa’in and a policeman had waited for Gebriel shortly after 9 p.m. A sheikh at a Riyadh mosque, Aziz raged at Gebriel for about five minutes, accusing him of being a Christian and trying to change the religion of others, said a Christian source in Saudi Arabia.

“He finished by telling Yemane to get out of the country or ‘measures’ would be taken,” said the source, who requested anonymity for security reasons. He said Gebriel was in genuine danger of losing his life. “In meeting with me on the morning of Thursday, Jan. 15, Yemane himself was clearly very frightened,” said the source.

That night (Jan. 15), Gebriel told Compass, four masked men – apparently Saudis – in a small car cut off the van he was driving. “They said, ‘We will kill you if you don’t go away from this place – you must leave here or we will kill you,’” he said.

Gebriel subsequently took temporary refuge in a safe house in Riyadh, and after consulting with consular officials from four embassies on Tuesday (Jan. 27), the pastor was whisked away to another city the following day.

In 2005, the religious police’s Aziz had directed that Gebriel be arrested along with 16 other foreign Christian leaders, though diplomatic pressure resulted in their release within weeks.

“No doubt Sheikh Abdul Aziz is still burning,” said the local Christian source. “Nor may such type of death threat be possibly idle words. The current situation and circumstance remind me very much of the machine-gun murder of Irish Roman Catholic layman Tony Higgins right here in Riyadh in August 2004.”


Raids Feared

Gebriel, 42, led a church of more than 300 foreign-born Christians, though because of work obligations only a little over 150 are able to meet regularly in his villa for Friday worship. He fled without his family, as his wife and children had managed to relocate in Egypt in August 2007.

Gebriel and three others started the house church in Riyadh 10 years ago, the local source said, and only a few months ago the pastor handed leadership over to others in the church.

“But right now the entire church is very frightened,” the source said. “They are expecting a raid one Friday shortly – just like in 2005. The congregation doesn’t even know yet that we have whisked Yemane away from them as well as from the religious police.”

In April and May of 2005, the mutawwa’in arrested 17 pastors – two Pakistanis, two Eritreans (including Gebriel), three Ethiopians and 10 Indians. None were deported after their release.

“Are there signs that 2009 might prove to be such a year again? I think so,” the source said. “Every three or four years, there is a clamp-down in Riyadh. It seems that we should expect 2009 to be a year of repression. However, the underground church here is far better placed than heretofore to manage any such persecution.”

The Saudi regime has reportedly begun to restrain the mutawwa’in, which historically has acted as a virtual vigilante force enforcing the kingdom’s Sunni Islamic social codes as volunteer agents of the semi-autonomous Commission to Promote Virtue and Prevent Vice. The U.S. Department of State’s 2008 International Religious Freedom Report noted that abuses by mutawwa’in have continued.

“Mutawwa’in (religious police) continued to conduct raids of private non-Muslim religious gatherings,” the report states. “There were also charges of harassment, abuse, and killings at the hands of the mutawwa’in, or religious police. These incidents caused many non-Muslims to worship in fear of, and in such a manner as to avoid discovery by, the police and mutawwa’in.”

In the past year, mutawwa’in sometimes have not respected the Saudi policy of allowing private worship for all, including non-Muslims, according to the report. Religious police are not allowed to mete out punishment, but in the past year the Saudi government has investigated several incidents in which the mutawwa’in were accused of violating restrictions on that and other activities, according to the state department report.

The mutawwa’in still wear no uniforms, but the report notes that they are now required to wear identification badges and can act only when accompanied by police. They are authorized to monitor the practice of non-Muslim faiths, display or sale of pornography, alcohol production, distribution or consumption, and adultery, homosexuality and gambling, among other violations.

While Saudi law forbids public practice of any religion besides Islam, foreigners are generally allowed to worship privately if their congregations do not grow too large.

With the Quran and sayings of Muhammad (Sunna) as its constitution, Saudi Arabia enforces a form of sharia (Islamic law) derived from 18th-century Sunni scholar Muhammad ibn Abd Al-Wahhab that calls for the death penalty for “apostasy,” or conversion from Islam to another faith, although the state department’s report notes that there have been no confirmed reports of executions for apostasy in recent years.

Saudi Arabia’s ruling monarchy restricts media and other forms of public expression, though recently authorities have tolerated criticism of the mutawwa’in and the Commission to Promote Virtue and Prevent Vice.

“The government-controlled press frequently criticized mutawwa’in activity,” the report adds.  

Report from Compass Direct News