PAKISTAN: CHRISTIAN CHARGED WITH ‘BLASPHEMY’ FOR TEXT MESSAGE


Defender of minority rights allegedly framed for making legal challenges in church land dispute.

ISTANBUL, February 5 (Compass Direct News) – More than 100 protestors last week surrounded a Pakistani courthouse and chanted death threats against a Punjabi Christian said to be framed for sending a “blasphemous” text message on his cell phone.

Rawalpindi police arrested Hector Aleem, 51, on Jan. 22 and detained him on charges of sending a text message that insulted the Islamic prophet Muhammad. At his Jan. 27 hearing at the Rawalpindi Sessions Court, crowds gathered and began shouting death threats.

His attorney, Malik Tafik, told Compass that a local man allegedly framed Aleem for the charges because Aleem has made legal challenges on behalf of Christians involved in a land dispute. Aleem directs a small agency that often defends the rights of Christians.

Last November, a scholar associated with the national Islamist political movement Sunni Tehreek received a text message claiming to have come from Aleem. The religious scholar registered blasphemy charges against Aleem on Nov. 28 at the Rawalpindi police station.

Police raided Aleem’s house at 1:30 a.m. on Jan. 22 and assaulted him, his wife, and his two daughters. They also stole 50,000 Pakistan rupees (US$630) worth of valuables and broke pictures of Jesus hanging on their walls, according to a report from the Center for Legal Aid Assistance and Settlement (CLAAS).

Authorities charged him with violating sections 295c (blasphemy) and 109bb (abetting) of the Pakistani criminal code. Aleem was transferred to a Rawalpindi anti-terrorism court for a second hearing on Jan. 30, where an even larger crowd of protestors gathered shouting that his life would not be spared. Many of those who came to protest were associated with Sunni Tehreek, which has been involved in violent sectarian clashes with other Islamist movements in the last decade.

“There were about 150 people protesting that Aleem should be handed over to them,” Tafik said. “And there were many journalists, two news stations, and lawyers who came out to protest against him.”

Aleem is detained at the Adiyala Jail in Rawalpindi. During his incarceration, police have mistreated him and denied him adequate food and access to medicine for his heart condition. He told lawyers that police have not allowed him to meet with his family and referred to him as “choohra” (sweeper), a derogatory term for Pakistani Christians to designate them as the lowest rung of society.

At a hearing at an anti-terrorism court on Monday (Feb. 2), Judge Sakhi Mohammad Kohut exonerated him of blasphemy charges but did not clear him of abetting. A government official told Compass that the judge’s decision was heavily influenced by Islamic extremists attending the open court hearing who told the judge, “If you release [Aleem], then we will kill him outside.”

At the hearing, the judge implicated the man who allegedly framed Aleem – Bashar Kokar, previously charged multiple times with fraud – accusing him of using his cell phone to send a blasphemous message against Muhammad. Kokar was charged with blasphemy and arrested later that day. But court evidence shows the original text message came from an unregistered mobile number that pertained to neither Kokar nor Aleem, sources said – exonerating Aleem, but also making it difficult to prove that Kokar framed him. Khushdil Khan Malik, deputy secretary of Pakistan’s Ministry of Human Rights, said he believes the judge implicated Kokar as a scapegoat for the blasphemy charges in order to appease the extremists.

The next hearing will be held in March. Attorney Tafik told Compass he believes Aleem will be cleared of all charges because there is no evidence against him.

 

Targeted for Defending Christian Rights

Sources said they believe Aleem was framed due to his social activism as director of a small Non-Governmental Organization that lobbies for the rights of Pakistani Christians in Islamabad.

In November he became involved in a land dispute between a congregation and a local municipality that wanted to demolish their church building. He has been wrongfully implicated in the past for minor offenses, a government deputy said, particularly for his advocacy work against the Capital Development Authority, a municipal works agency that has been charged with unlawful confiscation and destruction of Christian property.

Aleem has been cleared of these minor offenses. The seriousness of the blasphemy charge, however, puts him and his family in danger. Besides his attorney, other legal advocates said they believe he will be cleared of all charges as there is no evidence that he sent the original text message.

Until then, his family is hiding underground due to threats of violence by Muslim extremists, said Joseph Francis, national director of CLAAS. And once he is released, it will be hard for Aleem to return to a normal life in Rawalpindi with the stigma of even unproven charges of blasphemy hanging over his head.

“What will happen after [the trial] is a matter of concern,” said Malik of Pakistan’s human rights ministry. “There have been many incidents of the sudden deaths of people charged with blasphemy.”

As many of those hostile to him are members of Sunni Tehreek who are dispersed throughout Pakistan, he and his family would be targeted by local members of the organization if they fled to another city. The only solution may be to seek asylum in another country, a source told Compass.

 

Problematic Law

Blasphemy has been used frequently in Pakistani law as a tool to silence or intimidate non-Muslims, including another case this week.

Yesterday a pastor, his son, and his father were charged with blasphemy in the village of Baddomehli, 100 kilometers (62 miles) from Lahore. Muslim classmates of pastor Shafik Masih’s teenage son claimed he had a blasphemous pamphlet in his backpack and began to assault him, according to a CLAAS report.

Realizing the danger of sectarian violence, the police chief of the region yesterday called on Christians to seek refuge as local Muslims were assembling a protest.

Christian members of Pakistan’s Parliament have moved to strike the blasphemy laws from the national criminal code.

“In the past, only a superintendent of police could file blasphemy charges,” attorney Tafik said. “But now a private person can register a case of blasphemy and it can be misused because anyone can use it.”  

Report from Compass Direct News

INDIA: PRAYER TEAM BEATEN MERCILESSLY – THEN ARRESTED


Two Christians in Chhattisgarh forced to beat fellow believer unconscious under threat of death.

NEW DELHI, October 13 (Compass Direct News) – The Christian community of Chhattisgarh state is rattled after a gruesome mob attack and torture in Surguja district.

At midnight on Oct. 3 in Dumarbhavna village, 110 kilometers (68 miles) from Premnagar, three jeeps full of Hindu nationalists broke open the door of a house where a three-day prayer meeting was taking place and attacked participants as they slept – ultimately forcing two Christians to beat one of their own prayer partners unconscious under threat of death.

The mob from the Hindu extremist Dharma Sena (Religious Army) beat the participants in the prayer meeting, including women, and dragged three of them from the house of Parmeshwar Beik, dumping them into the jeeps.

“We thought that they were taken to the police station, but instead they were taken to a secluded place where they were beaten all night,” Yahoshu Kujur, pastor of Blessing Church of God, told Compass.

Muneshwar Ekka and Beik were beaten first, and then the Hindu nationalists ordered them to beat the third captured Christian, Ravi Devangan.

“They threatened to kill us if we did not beat Ravi,” Beik told Pastor Kujur. “We were so scared and left with no option, so we beat Ravi until he dropped unconscious.”

After failing to find the three Christians at the local police station the next morning, the pastor found them at the Srinagar Government Hospital, where Devangan was admitted with internal injuries and injuries to his chest, legs and other parts of the body.

“Ravi, who is a driver by profession, was just visiting Parmeshwar from Mehagai village,” Pastor Kujur said. “He was the worst hit, at home and outside during the attack.”

He added that Devangan’s wife witnessed the attack on the house.

 

Police Inaction

Pastor Kujur told Compass that police admitted all three kidnapped Christians to the Srinagar Government Hospital with Devangan in serious condition and the other two in shock.

Beik’s wife also sustained internal injuries during the attack, Pastor Kujur said.

“Mr. Ashok Sahu and four other local Christian leaders went on the morning of Oct. 4 and reported the matter at the police station, but so far no action has been taken,” the pastor said.

Police reportedly deceived local Christians into believing that no complaint would be filed against the prayer team members for “forced conversion” if they would agree not to file any complaints against the Hindu nationalists.

“They told us that they would set the three free if we did that,” Pastor Kujur told Compass.

Instead police registered a case of “forced conversion” against the three Christians under sections 3 and 4 of the Chhattisgarh Dharma Swantantraya Adhiniyam (Chhattisgarh Freedom of Religion Bill).

If convicted, the Christians could be sentenced up to a year in prison and/or pay a fine of up to 5,000 rupees (US$100). They appeared in Surajpur local court on Oct. 6. A fourth Christian, Fakir Chand Toppo, was also falsely implicated, Pastor Kujur said.

At press time all four Christians were in Surajpur jail, though attempts to secure bail for them continued.

 

Political Influence

Pastor Kujur said police officers who are friends of his informed him that police were forced to prosecute the Christians on “orders from above.”

Internal police sources told him, he added, that police in the state were working against Christians under Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) pressure that has the support of the Chief Minister Raman Singh.

Christians from Surajpur have received news from sources who wish to remain anonymous that, emboldened by the BJP government that rules the state, Hindu nationalists have announced a cash award of 100,000 rupees (US$2,092) to anyone who murders a Christian preacher.

In Premnagar, also in Surguja district, Hindu extremist mobs have mounted similar attacks, Pastor Kujur said. He told Compass that in 2004 a Christian convention was attacked during which a mob surrounded the venue and shouted anti-Christian slogans. Police intervention averted casualties.

In another incident in 2005, Hindu extremists incited villagers of Premnagar to attack local Christians, reportedly wounding many.

The Dharma Sena was relatively unknown until nearly three years ago, emerging suddenly in the central Indian states of Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh.

Attacking Christians throughout the two states, the Hindus extremist group is reportedly backed heavily by the BJP, with BJP leaders pressuring police officials not to register any First Information Reports against it.

It is widely believed that the Dharma Sena is nothing more than the Hindu extremist youth group Bajrang Dal in another form.

Report from Compass Direct News

INDIA: THREE MORE CHRISTIANS MURDERED IN ORISSA


At least two killed today, another succumbed to axe injuries Wednesday; 400 houses burned.

NEW DELHI, October 3 (Compass Direct News) – At least two more Christians were killed today in Orissa state’s Kandhamal district after Hindu extremists this week set fire to nearly 400 homes there and in Boudh district. A third man succumbed to axe injuries on Wednesday (Oct. 1).

Weeks after Hindu extremist violence erupted against Christians, this morning tribal peoples in Sindhipankha village killed Dushashan Majhi, a local influential Christian, first shooting him and them cutting him to pieces. Local Christian leaders reported that Majhi was a government servant working in the treasury.

The mob then turned on Sanyasi Majhi, also said to be Christian, who was with Dushashan Majhi. There were unconfirmed reports that a third victim was killed along with the other two.

A local Christian who wished to remain unnamed told Compass that after killing the two men, the assailants massacred cattle belonging to village Christians and burned Christian-owned houses. Sindhipankha is about seven kilometers (four miles) from Tumudiband.

Local news reporter Lalit Jena told Compass from Kandhamal that the attacks – which have continued unabated since Hindu extremists blamed Christians for the death of Hindu leader Laxmanananda Saraswati on Aug. 23 even though Maoist militants admitted murdering him – involve women first ransacking the Christian homes.

“The modus operandi of the tribal mob is such that women go first and attack the Christian houses,” he said. “They ransack and rob the household’s gold and other jewelry, TVs and all that is precious. The men then follow and burn the houses. Lately it has been reported that now they are fighting among themselves for the booty.”

Jena added that tribal peoples who lived in poverty before the violence now have obtained many heads of cattle, including goats and cows, within a short span, as well as household goods.

“They may have no electricity in their villages, but one can see lots of television sets, nearly all of it looted from the Christians,” he said.

 

Axe Murder

On Wednesday (Oct. 1), Lalji Nayak, believed to be about 80 years old, died from axe wounds after a Hindu extremist mob attacked his village of Hrudangia the previous day. Nayak and 14 others were wounded, with Nayak struck between his neck and chest.

While three of the wounded received first-aid at a health center in Kandhamal, eight others, including Nayak and his wife Mandaki, were admitted to MKCG Medical College in Berhampur. At press time Nayak’s widow, who received an axe blow just below the ear, remained in the medical center with a serious head injury.

Local Christians in Berhampur wanted to give Lalji Nayak a Christian burial, but police did not allow it. Utkal Christian Council members B.D. Das and J.R. Patro expressed strong objections to the police action.

Nayak’s brother, Junas Nayak, was taken to Cuttack Medical College for gunshot wounds. He remained in critical condition at press time with multiple gunshot wounds, and according to Jena has a total of 13 bullets in him.

“Seven are on his left thigh, and six in his right hand, but the doctors have so far done nothing to remove them from his body, even though he has been admitted in the hospital since September 30,” Jena told Compass. “We are concerned that he may develop septic [shock or infection] because of the delay.”

In the attacks, an 8-year-old boy miraculously survived after being hit by an axe in the middle of his skull.

Two pregnant Christian women, Archana and Geeta Sahu, this week were brought from Kandhamal to Berhampur hospital, where they gave birth and were said to be out of danger.

 

Houses Burned

Nearly 400 houses were burned or destroyed in Orissa state’s Boudh and Kandhamal districts this week.

On Wednesday (Oct. 1), mobs set fire to dozens of houses in the Raikia area of the Kandhamal district. Yesterday the violence crossed over to neighboring Boudh district as about 100 houses were torched by mobs in at least nine villages. Worst affected was the village of Kantamal.

The burning of houses continued this morning, with more than 400 houses reported to have been either burnt or destroyed in Boudh and Kandhamal districts.

Police have reportedly arrested five people so far in connection with the burning of the houses in Boudh district.

Additional District Magistrate Mihir Chandra Mallik told reporters, that unidentified people set fire to over a hundred houses of Dalit Hindus in at least nine villages in Boudh district.

“We have set up a relief camp at Kantamal town to provide food and shelter to the people who have lost their homes,” he added.

The administration said that the motive for burning these houses was ethnic, as Kandh tribal peoples attacked Dalit Pana homes.

Area church leaders confirmed this, but one said on condition of anonymity, “First they were targeting Christian Panas only, but now even Hindu Panas are not being spared. All Hindus who have not joined the mobs in attacking Christians are also being treated in the same way as Christians.”

Both Dalit Pana houses as well as homes belonging to the Christian Pana community have been targeted in Boudh district, he said.

In Barakhama village near Kandhamal, Christians may move to the safer Daringbadi. A local pastor told Compass that Barakhama was also targeted last December, when around 400 homes belonging to Christians were burned and demolished.

“The same continues now,” he said on condition of anonymity. “The Christians love their homes, but it is just not safe to live here anymore, for the government has failed to protect us. The Christians in Barakhama have almost decided to move collectively to Daringbadi, which is at least a bit safer.”

It is estimated that around 500 Christian families will leave the village.

 

Nun Raped

Police have finally confirmed the rape of a nun in Kandhamal two days after the death of Hindu leader Saraswati.

A mob of around 40 men attacked the nun at K. Nuagaon village, where she and a priest, Father Thomas Chellantharayil, had taken shelter after their center was attacked. The mob allegedly dragged her and the priest to a deserted office of a Non-Governmental Organization, where she was stripped and raped. The priest was reportedly doused with gas and beaten as he tried to stop the attack on her.

Police have arrested four suspects in the rape. Juria Pradhan, 52, his 22-year-old son Kartik Pradhan, Biren Sahu, 35, and 26-year-old Tapas Patnaik were arrested in connection with the assault and rape of the 29-year-old Catholic nun on Aug. 25.

The inspector-in-charge of Baliguda police station has since been suspended in connection with the incident. The Orissa government has also ordered a probe, 39 days after the initial complaint.

District Superintendent of Police S. Praveen Kumar this week told reporters that a medical examination report confirmed that the nun was raped.

The Hindustan Times reported today that although the report was filed weeks ago, police obtained the medical examination report only two days ago following media reports and the efforts of Sister Nirmala, Superior-General of the Missionaries of Charity, who wrote to the state seeking justice.

“A police official said they were busy in maintaining law and order and could not find time to look into the case,” the national daily reported.

 

Attempts at Law and Order

Since Wednesday (Oct. 1), 46 people have been arrested on charges of rioting in Kandhamal district. A police official said that they had arrested more than 300 people in the past month.

Christian leaders attributed the sudden arrest of 46 people in the last two days to new state Director General of Police (DGP) Manmohan Praharaj, who took over from Gopal Chandra Nanda, who retired on Tuesday (Sept. 30).

Hindu extremist Vishwa Hindu Parishad International President Ashok Singhal did not take kindly to the latest arrests.

“The new DGP is indiscriminately arresting leaders of Hindu organizations that are not related to any case,” he told reporters this week.

Nearly 53 companies of paramilitary forces have been appointed in Kandhamal district, and curfew was still imposed. The central government sent 1,000 paramilitary personnel in the form of 10 Central Reserve Police Force companies on Wednesday (Oct. 1) to Kandhamal district. Local sources said 10 more companies were expected by Sunday (Oct. 5).

The central government has come down heavily on the Orissa state government. Union Home Minister Shivraj Patil wrote a strongly worded letter to Orissa Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik on Wednesday (Oct. 3) asking him to take effective measures and provide security for the Christian community in the state.

“Merely continuing to ask for additional forces after every few days cannot be the solution,” Patil wrote. “The state government has to implement overall strategy for creating an environment of security.”

The letter came hours after the Union Cabinet expressed grave concern over the situation in the state, with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh directing Patil to present a report on the situation at the next cabinet meeting.

 

Peace Rally in New Delhi

In New Delhi, nearly 15,000 Christians joined in a peace march in solidarity with the victims of the Orissa and Karnataka violence yesterday.

The peace march was the culmination of the week-long sit-in organized by the Christians of Delhi and NCR (National Capital Region) beginning Sept. 26 to protest atrocities on Christians in Orissa and Karnataka. The peace march took place on the birthday of Mahatma Gandhi, father of the nation.

Many national leaders, including central ministers Lalu Prasad Yadav and Oscar Fernandes, addressed the gathering at the Dharna (sit-in). Yadav, the union minister for Indian Railways, promised to personally meet with the prime minister and urgently discuss the matter. He said that he would “take up the anti-Christian violence in Parliament and debate the hatred of Hindutva [Hindu nationalist] forces.”

Hindu leaders such as Swami Agnivesh addressed the peace march at Rajghat (Gandhi’s final resting place), saying that the “very killers of Mahatma Gandhi, are the same killers of Christians in Orissa, Karnataka, Madhya Pradesh and other parts of the country . . . The Hindutva fascists do not represent the peace-loving Hindu societies, rather they are damaging the Sanatam Dharma [eternal law] of Hinduism,” he said.

Report from Compass Direct News

INDIA: CHRISTIAN COUPLE KILLED, HOUSES TORCHED IN ORISSA


Displaced Christians survive bomb blasts as violence continues in Kandhamal district.

NEW DELHI, September 30 (Compass Direct News) – A Christian couple was found murdered, a woman killed, numerous houses and churches burned and low-intensity bombs exploded at relief camps in the past week in Orissa state’s Kandhamal district, where Hindu extremist violence began more than a month ago.

On Sunday (Sept. 28), police found the body of Priyatamma Digal, an auxiliary nurse and midwife, in a river. On Monday, the body of her husband, Meghanath, was recovered. According to The Times of India newspaper, the Christian couple was killed last Thursday (Sept. 25).

This morning attacks by unidentified armed groups in the villages of Rudangia, Telingia and Gadaguda in Kandhamal resulted in more than 100 houses burned and the death of Ramani Nayak of Rudangia village, reported The Hindu. Her religious affiliation was not known at press time.

Eight people were seriously injured in the attacks, according to reports, and about 20 people received minor injuries.

Bomb blasts yesterday rocked three Kandhamal relief camps in the Nuagaon area, Mahasinghi village and Baliguda town, reported the Press Trust of India (PTI).

No casualties were reported, but the explosions left residents of the relief camps fearing for their lives.

“Since they have been successful in exploding bombs near the heavily guarded relief camp, there is no guarantee that the explosions will not take place in other camps,” one refugee told PTI.

 

Axe Attack

The Times of India also reported that five houses were torched in Phirigia block in Kandhamal (Gochhapada police jurisdiction) on Sunday night.

Last Thursday (Sept. 25), some 700 people armed with axes, swords, and iron bars attacked a Missionaries of Charity house in Sukananda village in Kandhamal, reported Asia News agency.

“There was no one at home, because when the violence erupted against the Christians, we took our few belongings and moved to our house in Bhubaneswar,” Sister M. Suma told the agency. “We brought with us the tabernacle, the altar, and especially the Dalit and tribal girls whom we were sheltering.”

Late on Wednesday (Sept. 24), mobs burned about 30 houses and two prayer houses in Simanjodi village and 50 houses in Batingia village, reported The Indian Express newspaper.

In Rakingia village, an Orissa Disaster Rapid Action Force (ODRAF) team that had gone to clear roadblocks was attacked, forcing the accompanying police to open fire, added the newspaper.

“Two tribal people have reportedly been killed,” the daily reported. “Sources said tribals with bows and arrows launched an attack on the ODRAF.”

According to the All India Christian Council (AICC), at least 57 people have been killed, more than 18,000 injured and over 4,300 houses, 150 churches and 13 educational institutions destroyed since the Aug. 24 outbreak of violence in Orissa. Two Christian women were also gang-raped.

The violence, which later spread to at least 14 districts of Orissa, has left more than 50,000 people homeless.

The attacks began following the killing of a leader of the Hindu extremist Vishwa Hindu Parishad (World Hindu Council or VHP), Laxmanananda Saraswati, and four of his disciples on Aug. 23 in Kandhamal district. Maoists have claimed responsibility for the assassination, but the VHP has persisted in blaming local Christians.

According to media reports, Christians in Orissa retaliated in at least one incident. A man was killed in Raikia Block after “Dalit Christians of Gundhari village hurled bombs at the tribal-dominated village of Sirsapanga in the afternoon [of Sept. 24),” The Indian Express reported. “Sources said the deceased, Raghav Digal, a Dalit Hindu, was a government employee.”

 

‘Withdraw Federal Forces’

The leader of an influential tribal group believed to be instigating violence in Kandhamal demanded withdrawal of federal security personnel from the district as a “precondition” to stopping the attacks.

Yesterday Lambodar Kanhar, secretary of the Kandhamal Zilla Kui Samaj (Kui people group) Coordination Committee, was quoted by The Indian Express as saying that he was ready to give assurance that tribal people would not resort to violence if the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) personnel were taken out of the rural pockets of the district.

Kanhar accused the CRPF of having let loose “a reign of terror” on “innocent” tribal villagers.

The Global Council of Indian Christians’ Dr. Sajan K. George said Kanhar’s demand was an attempt to “complete ‘ethnic-cleansing’ of Christians.” A representative of the Christian Legal Association said Hindu extremist assailants were upset that federal forces were trying to prevent them from attacking Christians and their property.

At the same time, European Union (EU) representatives yesterday spoke to Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh during the India-EU summit in France about the government’s failure to prevent a “massacre” of Christians in Orissa and Karnataka states.

According to the AICC, in the southern state of Karnataka at least 19 churches and 20 Christians have been attacked. At least four churches and four Christian schools had been vandalized in the north-central state of Madhya Pradesh, and four churches attacked in the southern state of Kerala. Two churches had also been damaged in the national capital, Delhi.

Singh yesterday made assurances that attacks on Christians would be stopped.

Christians from various denominations, along with people from other faiths, are holding a weeklong sit-in day and night at Jantar Mantar observatory in New Delhi that began on Friday (Sept. 26) to protest the lack of security. The demonstration demanding protection for minority targets in Orissa and other states will conclude with a motorbike rally on Thursday (Oct 2).

Christian leaders such as Dr. John Dayal, the Rev. Dr. Richard Howell, A.C. Michael and Jenis Francis are participating in the protest.

This report from Compass Direct News