‘Unchecked Extremism’ behind Attacks on Churches in Indonesia

Christians, moderate Muslims blame growth of Islamism under ‘weak’ government.

JAKARTA, Indonesia, August 17 (CDN) — The country that is home to the world’s largest Muslim population celebrated its 65th Independence Day today amid a widespread sense of distrust in the government’s ability to check attacks on churches by Islamist groups.

Muslims and Islamic organizations, Buddhists and Hindus joined hundreds of Christians for an ecumenical worship service near National Monument Square in Jakarta to protest “government inaction” over attacks on Christians and “forced closure of churches,” reported The Jakarta Globe. They had planned to hold the service outside the State Palace, but the government prohibited it due to preparations for Independence Day celebrations, the daily reported.

“Why did it take President [Susilo Bambang] Yudhoyono so many days to speak against the attacks?” the Rev. Dr. SAE Nababan, president of the World Council of Churches from Asia, told Compass. “Such carelessness can be dangerous for our democracy. Officials must not forget that they are accountable to the people.”

Nababan was referring to President Yudhoyono’s call for religious harmony a day before the month-long Islamic festival of fasting, Ramadan, began here last Wednesday (Aug. 11). According to the Globe, it was the president’s “first public comment” addressing “a recent rash of violence against religious minorities.”

The president’s statement came after a fifth attack on the Batak Christian Protestant Filadelfia Church (HKBP Filadelfia) in Bekasi city, a suburb of Jakarta, on Aug. 8.

More than 300 members of the extremist Islamic People’s Forum (FUI) and Islamic Defenders Front (FPI) broke through a police barricade and injured at least a dozen people during the Sunday worship in a field. The church has faced attacks since November 2000, when it was constructing the church building. (See http://www.compassdirect.org, “Hundreds Injure Church Members in Bekasi, Indonesia,” Aug. 9)


Rising Christian Persecution

Endy Bayuni, former editor of The Jakarta Post, told Compass that churches were being attacked every week but that media were avoiding coverage because it is an “emotional and controversial issue.”

“You also risk being accused of taking sides when you report on religious conflicts,” he said, adding that Christians and the Ahmadiyya, a Muslim sect regarded as heretical because it does not believe that Muhammad was the last prophet, bear the brunt of Islamism in Indonesia.

A report by the Setara Institute for Peace and Democracy stated that violations of religious freedom of Christians had grown from previous years. It recorded at least 28 violations — mostly by Islamist groups – between January and July – up from 18 in 2009 and 17 in 2008.

The violations included forced closure of churches, revocation and delays in issuing building permits, and attacks such as torching and damaging churches. Political motives, economic interests involving illegal extortion, and ideological clashes of “intolerant groups” refusing the presence of those of a different religion impeded justice in most cases, noted the report.


Powerful Minority

Most Muslims in Indonesia are moderate and tolerant, said Nababan, former bishop of the HKBP Filadelfia church, but he added that the extremist minority poses a “great threat” to the nation.

“Extremism always starts in small numbers,” he said, alluding to alleged government inaction.

Dr. Musda Mulia, a Muslim research professor at the Indonesian Institute of Sciences, told Compass all Indonesians have a right to freedom of faith.

“It seems the government doesn’t want to deal with the radicals,” she said. “Persecution of Christians and other minorities has been my concern for many years, but the government is very weak.”

Extremism in Indonesia, now a republic with a presidential system, dates back to the country’s struggle for independence, when Islamists called for an Islamic state. The Dutch transferred sovereignty to Indonesia in 1949 after an armed struggle.

Not heeding the Islamists’ call, the country’s leaders chose “Pancasila” as the official philosophical foundation comprising five principles: belief in the one and only God; just and civilized humanity; the unity of Indonesia; democracy guided by the inner wisdom in the unanimity arising out of deliberations among representatives; and social justice for all.

In line with Pancasila, “Unity in Diversity” (Bhinneka Tunggal Ika) became the official national motto of Indonesia. The Indonesian Constitution guarantees freedom of religion, but the government only recognizes six religions: Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, Protestantism, Catholicism, and Confucianism.

Indonesia, an archipelago of 17,508 islands – about 6,000 of which are inhabited – has around 300 distinct native ethnicities and 742 languages and dialects. Over 86 percent of the over 138 million Indonesians are Muslim. Christians are around 8 percent, Hindus 3 percent and Buddhist 1.8 percent.

Islamist militant groups remain active and growing and are still fighting pluralism. According to the Globe, police recently unearthed a terror plot against President Yudhoyono, “part of a larger trend as militant groups widened their targets from Westerners to include state officials” considered to be “symbols of secularism.” One of their aims was to “accelerate the transformation of the country’s democratic system into one controlled by Islamic law.”

In 2002, over 200 people (including 164 foreigners) were killed in a terror attack by Islamist militants in Kuta town on the island of Bali. Indonesia has also fought violent Islamist insurgents, such as in Aceh Province, which now has a special status and implements sharia (Islamic law).

Mulia of the Indonesian Institute of Sciences, who is the first woman to obtain a doctorate degree in Islamic political thought, identified the FPI and the Forum Betawi Rempung (Betawi Brotherhood Forum or FBR) as two of the Islamist groups chiefly responsible for Christian persecution.

The FPI, a national-level organization infamous for vigilante violence and allegedly part of the al Qaeda network, was established on Aug. 17, 1998. The FBR, a similar group based in Jakarta, was formed to fight for the interests of the ethnic Betawi Muslims on July 29, 2001.

Both groups exist legally in the country.

In June, several Indonesian parliamentarians asked the government to ban the FPI, which “has threatened ‘war’ against Christians in Jakarta and urged mosques to set up militia forces,” reported the Globe on July 26. The government, however, thinks that banning such groups will only lead to re-formation of the same organizations under new names.

The deputy chairman of Setara, Bonar Tigor Naipospos, was quoted in the Post’s July 29 edition as saying that local administrations, especially in cities in West Java Province, see these groups “as assets for local elections.”

“They [local governments] bow to pressure from mass organizations that insist the churches’ presence and activities have caused unrest,” he reportedly said.

As for the national government, added Nababan of the World Council of Churches of Asia, “it is preoccupied with its free market economy and apparently has no time to uphold the Constitution.”


Church Building Permits

The sealing of churches and the refusal to grant building permits top the list of major violations of Christians’ religious rights in Indonesia, according to Setara. The Aug. 8 attack on the HKBP Filadelfia church was also rooted in denial of permit for constructing its church building.

Setara’s deputy chairman told the Post that churches in Jakarta mainly faced trouble in renovating and expanding their buildings, which require building permits.

“They have to start over again by obtaining 60 signatures from residents living around the church, and sometimes residents refuse to provide signatures,” he said. The Setara report recommended that President Yudhoyono review a 2006 joint ministerial decree that requires signatures from congregations and residents living nearby, as well as approval from the local administration, to build a house of worship.

According to Setara, at least three churches in east and south Jakarta were experiencing difficulties in obtaining permits for church building at press time.

Nababan complained that some local governments would not give permits for churches for years without stating any reason.

“If this current government can become courageous enough to prosecute those who break the law and allow religious freedom, including the freedom to construct churches where we live, there is hope for Indonesia,” added Nababan.

A Christian source who requested anonymity said he agreed that there was hope for minorities in Indonesia.

“Violent attacks awaken the silent majority, which then speaks up and holds the government accountable,” he said.

Report from Compass Direct News

Christians in Nigeria Decry Police Inaction in Church Burnings

Zamfara state assailants emboldened by lack of prosecution in Jos mayhem, CAN leader says.

LAGOS, Nigeria, February 26 (CDN) — The head of the Christian Association of Nigeria (CAN) in Zamfara state told Compass that he was disappointed in the lack of response by state police to recent church burnings by Muslim youths.

“It is unfortunate that there has been no response from the police, and even the state governor has refused to meet with us,” said the acting state chairman of CAN, the Rev. Edwin Okpara.

The Redeemed Christian Church of God building in Tudun Wada was partly burnt on Jan. 25, and Christian Faith Bible church and the Living Faith Foundation Chapel, both in Gusau, were partly burnt in attacks on Jan. 20 and 24 respectively. Zamfara state, one of the predominantly Muslim states in northern Nigeria, was the first in the country to implement Islamic law (sharia).

In the petition dated Jan. 26, CAN stated that the church burnings came in the aftermath of “a grand plot to unleash mayhem on churches and Christians in the state due to the religious clash in Jos, Plateau state.”

The association alleged that those who attacked the Zamfara churches were emboldened because officials made no serious move to arrest those who carried out the Jos attacks. Two pastors and 46 other Christians were killed in the outbreak of violence in Jos on Jan. 17, triggered when Muslim youths attacked a Catholic church; 10 church buildings were burned, and police estimated more than 300 lives were lost in the clash.

“We are seriously disturbed by the restlessness and panic these attacks have created among the Christian community and ask that every necessary and urgent step be taken by your command to secure the lives of both Christians and Muslims in the state as citizens of Nigeria,” the CAN petition states. “Despite these attacks and provocation, the church and Christians as peaceful people have remained calm and have no plans to retaliate, but [we are] appealing to you to act and protect our interest.”

The State Police Command was not available for comment on the CAN request.

Okpara lamented that Christians in the state have been suffering in silence with little means of drawing attention to their plight.

“The level of persecution in Zamfara is alarming, more than in any other state in the country,” Okpara said. “Not even in Sokoto or Kano are Christians subjected to the kind of discrimination we are subjected to.”

He said it was impossible to get land to build churches in Zamfara state; Christians are forced to sign an understanding binding them to refrain from using land in the state for church buildings.

“We are more or less operating underground churches in the state,” he said. “The present state government has turned out to be more anti-Christian than the former government in the state, which introduced the sharia law.”

Leaders of the Pentecostal Fellowship of Nigeria (PFN) on Tuesday (Feb. 23) decried cases of persecution and discrimination against Christians and called on the federal government to put an end to it. Virtually all churches in predominantly Muslim northern Nigeria have been refused certificates of occupancy for their buildings, they said.

“There seems to be an unwritten law that churches are not welcomed in the northern part of the country,” the PFN leaders noted in a statement.

Report from Compass Direct News 

Violent Death of Girl in Pakistan Spurs Push for Justice

Rare protest by family of tortured child puts spotlight on abuse of Christian working poor.

LAHORE, Pakistan, January 28 (CDN) — A daring protest and a high-profile funeral here on Monday (Jan. 25) for a 12-year-old Christian girl who died from torture and malnourishment has cast a rare spotlight on abuse of the Christian poor in Pakistan.

In an uncommon challenge in the predominantly Muslim nation, the Christian parents of Shazia Bashir Masih protested police unresponsiveness to the alleged violence against their daughter by Muslim attorney Chaudhary Muhammad Naeem and his family and his attempt to buy their silence after her death. The house servant died on Friday (Jan. 22) after working eight months in Naeem’s house.

An initial medical report indicated she died gradually from blows from a blunt instrument, wounds from a sharp-edged weapon, misuse of medicines and malnourishment. Key media highlighted the case on Pakistan’s airwaves, and minority rights groups along with high-ranking Christian politicians have swooped in to help.

Initially police were unresponsive to the family’s efforts to file charges against Muslim attorney Naeem, and on Saturday (Jan. 23) they staged a protest in front of the Punjab Assembly. The power of Naeem, a former president of the Lahore Bar Association, was such that officers at Litton Road police station refused to listen to Shazia’s relatives when they tried to file a complaint to retrieve her three months ago, telling the girl’s relatives, “a case against a lawyer cannot be registered,” her uncle Rafiq Masih told Compass.

Her mother, Nasreen Bibi, told Compass Naeem came to their home on the day Shazia died and offered 30,000 rupees (US$350) to keep the death secret and to pay for burial expenses.

“I refused to accept their offer, and they went they went away hurling death threats,” she said.

Bibi, a widow who subsequently married a 70-year-old blind man, told Compass that hunger and poverty had forced her to send her daughter to work at Naeem’s house for 1,000 rupees per month (US$12) – the family’s only source of income. Two older daughters are married, and she still cares for a 10-year-old daughter and 8-year-old son living at home.

Rafiq Masih said Naeem illegally kept Shazia at his house, forced her to work long hours and summarily refused family requests to see her. Three months ago, Masih said, Naeem allowed him and Shazia’s mother to see her for five minutes, and the girl complained that Naeem and his son were raping her. Shazia also told them that Naeem, his wife and sister-in-law were beating her and threatening to harm her if she tried to escape.

Enraged, Naeem promptly asked him and Shazia’s mother to leave, Masih said.

“We tried to bring Shazia with us back home,” he said, “but Naeem flatly refused to let Shazia go, and he cruelly and inhumanely grabbed her hair and dragged her inside the house. He returned to threaten us with dire consequences if we tried to file a case against him for keeping Shazia at his home as a bonded laborer.”

Masih and Bibi then went to the Litton Road police station to try to get Naeem to release Shazia, and it was then that duty officers deliberately offered the misinformation that a case could not be made against a lawyer, they said.

A Muslim neighbor of Naeem, Shaukat Ali Agha, told Compass that Naeem tortured Shazia.

“Often that little girl’s cries for mercy could be heard from the residence of the lawyer during the dead of night,” Agha said. “And whenever Shazia requested some food, she got thrashed badly by his wife, son and sister-in-law. One day Shazia was viciously beaten when, forced by starvation, she could not resist picking up a small piece of sugar cane from the lawn of Naeem’s residence to chew.”

As Shazia’s condition deteriorated, Naeem released her to the family and they took her to Jinnah Hospital Lahore on Jan. 19. After fighting for her life there for three days, she succumbed to her injuries and critically malnourished condition, her mother said.

Doctors at the hospital told Compass they found 18 wounds on her body: 13 from a blunt instrument, and five from a “sharp-edged weapon.”

A high-ranking investigating official told Compass that Naeem had given contrary statements under questioning. The police official said that Naeem initially stated that Shazia had fallen down some stairs and died. The police official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said Naeem quickly changed his statement, saying she had stolen food from the refrigerator and therefore was beaten. The official added that Naeem also said Shazia was insane, disobedient and stubborn, and “therefore she had gotten thrashed and died.”

Doctors at Mayo Hospital Morgue have taken blood and tissue samples from Shazia’s liver, stomach and kidneys and sent them to the Chief Chemical Examiner’s Forensic Lab in Islamabad to determine the official causes of death, officials said.

Family Beaten in Court

On Saturday (Jan. 23) Shazia’s family, along with many other Christians and Muslims, protested outside the Punjab Assembly for three hours, according to rights groups. Key television channels covered police inaction in the face of the violent death, and several high-profile politicians pledged their support, including Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari. He promised to give the family 500,000 rupees (US$5,835) after Pakistani Minister of Minorities Affairs Shahbaz Bhatti announced a gift of the same amount to compensate the family.

Only after this public pressure did police file a First Information Report, and Naeem and six others, including family members, were arrested earlier this week. Chief Minister of Punjab Shahbaz Sharif reportedly visited the family, promising justice.

The Lahore High Court took up the case on Tuesday (Jan. 26) and ordered police to conclude investigations within 14 days, but none of the high-level action seemed to matter at a hearing that day at District and Sessions Court Lahore, at which Naeem and his accusers were present. As routinely happens in cases where Christians in Pakistan accuse Muslims of wrongdoing, Compass observed as Naeem’s lawyers chanted slogans against Shazia’s family, threatened them and beat them – including Bibi and her blind husband – driving them from the courtroom.

Compass witnessed the Muslim attorneys yelling chants against local media and Christianity, as well. Naeem was neither handcuffed nor escorted by Defense A-Division Police, though he has been charged with murder.

At Shazia’s funeral on Monday at Sacred Heart Cathedral Church, Bishop of Lahore Diocese the Rt. Rev. Alexander John Malik officiated as eminent Christian politicians, human rights activists, Christian clergymen and many others gathered to pay their respects amid heavy police contingents.

After the funeral, her body was taken to her home in the Sammanabad slum of Arriya Nagar, where a throng of neighbors and Christian mourners gathered, chanting for justice. Shazia’s coffin was then taken to Miani Sahib Christian Cemetery, where she was buried amid cries and tears.

Present at the burial ceremonies were Provincial Minister of Punjab for Minorities Affairs Kamran Michael, Federal Minister for Minorities Affairs Bhatti, Christian members of Punjab Parliament Tahir Naveed Chaudhary and Khalil Tahir Sindhu, Bishop Albert Javed, Bishop Samuel Azariah, National Director of the Center for Legal Aid Assistance and Settlement Joseph Francis and other Christian leaders.

In a joint statement issued that day in Lahore, Catholic Archbishop Lawrence John Saldanha and Peter Jacob, executive secretary of the National Council for Justice and Peace, said that Shazia’s death was not an isolated incident, but that violence against the more than 10 million child laborers in the country is commonplace.

Report from Compass Direct News 


With attacks mounting, parishioners fear hostilities could escalate.

MIGDAL HA-EMEQ, Israel, June 22


(Compass Direct News) – When the congregation at St. Nicolay church in this northern Israeli town gathered on that quiet Friday morning of May 29, they never expected to be showered with stones.

The Russian Orthodox worshipers, including many women, children and the elderly, had filled the small building to overflow with several outside when they were stunned by the rain of stones. Some were injured and received medical care.

“The church was crawling with people – the worshipers stood not only inside the church, but also outside, as the building is very small, when suddenly a few young men started throwing stones at the direction of our courtyard,” Oleg Usenkov, press secretary of the church told Compass. “Young children were crying, everyone was very frightened.”

The church had also been attacked earlier that week, during a wedding ceremony. Stones and rotten eggs were thrown from the street, hitting guests as they arrived.

The same night, the Rev. Roman Radwan, priest of St. Nicolay church, filed a complaint at the police station. An officer issued a document to confirm that he had filed an official complaint and sent him home, promising that measures would be taken. But within 24 hours, the attackers again appeared at the church’s doorway and no police were present to deter them – although the police station is located a few dozen meters from the church.

The identity of the assailants is unknown – a police officer said the complaint “lacked the exact description of the attackers” – but eye-witnesses claimed they were ultra-orthodox yeshiva students who frequently cursed the church on their way to the school or synagogue.

“They often assault us verbally, curse and yell at us, although we tried to explain that this is a place of worship, a holy place,” said a frustrated Usenkov, adding that the police inaction amounts to nonfeasance.

Another member of the congregation identified only as Nina, born in Moscow and now living in Nazeret Ilit, said that she didn’t understand where all the hatred is coming from.

“They are heading to the yeshiva or going back home after praying at the synagogue – are they inspired to attack us during their prayers?” she said. “I hope not. We are all Israeli citizens, we pay taxes, serve in the army and are entitled to freedom of choice when it comes to religion.”

She and other members of the congregation fear hostilities could escalate quickly if measures are not taken soon. Already the small building, which barely accommodates the worshipers, is surrounded by a stone fence by order of Migdal ha-Emeq officials following a series of arson attempts and other attacks.

Members of the congregation, a few hundred Christians from Migdal ha-Emeq, Afula, Haifa, Nazareth and other Israeli cities still remember how their building was vandalized in June 2006. Under cover of darkness, unidentified men broke in and broke icons and modest decorations, smashed windows and stole crosses.

The identity of those responsible remains unknown.

Established in 2005, the church building was constructed to meet the needs of Christians who do not belong to the Arab Christian minority, mostly Russians who came to Israel from the former Soviet Union in the 1990s. Besides the Christians, these immigrants included other non-Jews, as well as atheistic Jews and Jewish converts to Christianity.

No official data on religious make-up of the immigrants are available, especially since many fear deportation or persecution for talking openly about their faith, but Usenkov – a Russian Jew who converted to Christianity after immigrating to Israel in the 1990s – said he believes there are at least 300,000 Christians of Russian or Russian-Jewish origin who live in Israel today.

According to Israeli law, non-Jewish relatives of a Jew are also entitled to citizenship, but Jews who have converted to other faiths are denied it.

Most of the Russian and Russian-Jewish Christians in Israel belong to the Russian Orthodox Church and find it difficult to adjust to Greek or Arabic services common in the Greek Orthodox churches of Israel. Since St. Nicolay’s church opened its doors, hundreds of worshipers from across Israel have visited it.

“Many people fear they might pass away without seeing a priest, or they dream of a Christian wedding service,” said Radwan, an Israeli-Arab whose family once owned the land on which the St. Nicolay church is located. “Here we can answer their needs. We do not want to harm anyone and wish that no one would harm us.”

Report from Compass Direct News


Residents flee Swat Valley where fight rages with Islamist insurgents.

ISTANBUL, May 13 (Compass Direct News) – Pakistani Christians in Swat Valley are caught between the Taliban and Pakistan’s military as it assaults the stronghold where sharia (Islamic law) rules.

Nearly 15,000 troops have been deployed in the picturesque Swat Valley in Pakistan’s North West Frontier Province (NWFP) and neighboring Afghanistan. Troops came after months of peace negotiations collapsed between the Taliban Islamist insurgents who have imposed sharia in the valley and the central government last month. Hundreds of thousands of Pakistanis have fled the war-ravaged area for fear of a full military assault.

On May 10 (Sunday) the army ordered residents to flee Swat Valley during a lull in fighting. Aid groups estimate that as many as 1.3 million could be displaced by the fighting, according to The Guardian.

Christians are particularly vulnerable in the mass exodus. Working as poor day laborers, they occupy the lowest rung of the social ladder and have little money for costly transport or to stock up on resources before fleeing.

“Christians are poor, and like in any conflict, the prices of transportation and commodities skyrocket,” said Ashar Dean, assistant director of communication of the Church of Pakistan Peshawar diocese. “Some had to go on foot to flee the valley.”

The Taliban had ratcheted up pressure on Christians, other religious minorities and liberal Muslims in Swat to live according to Islamic fundamentalist norms. They were forced to grow beards and don Islamic attire for fear of their safety in an attempt to blend in with Muslim residents of Swat.

Many Christians also fled for insufficient funds to pay the jizye, a poll tax under sharia paid by non-Muslims for protection if they decline to convert to Islam.

In February the Pakistani government ceded control of Swat valley to the Taliban, who imposed their version of sharia and established clerical rule over the legal system. But Christians had seen warning signs long before the formal sharia announcement. In the past year the Taliban burned or bombed more than 200 girls’ schools in Swat, including one that housed a Catholic church.

Religious minorities live in a precarious situation in the Muslim-dominated country. The legal system informally discriminates against non-Muslims, and in recent years Christian villages have been ransacked by Muslim mobs incited by dubious reports that a Quran had been desecrated.

The Taliban’s attempts to spread out from Swat into neighboring areas, however, have increased feelings of insecurity among the nation’s 3 million Christians.

“The threat of the Taliban is a hanging sword above the necks of Christians,” said Sohail Johnson, chief coordinator of Sharing Life Ministry Pakistan. “Christians could be in the situation where they would have to accept Islam or die.”

Swat Christians Flee

Approximately 40-60 Christian families lived in Swat as congregants at the Church of Pakistan. But since Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gillani on April 8 announced a military mission into Swat, nearly all have fled to nearby districts.

Most are in refugee housing in Mardan in the NWFP. They stay in a technical school owned by the Church of Pakistan, a congregation composed of Anglicans, Presbyterians, Methodists and Lutherans

The school dismissed its students for the school year early to make room for the refugees. Opening its doors to the displaced Christians was necessary due to government inaction toward religious minorities, said Yousaf Benjamin of the National Commission for Justice and Peace.

“The government is giving protection to Muslims, but the Christians are through waiting for their services,” he said.

Similar measures are being employed in hundreds of schools. To provide for the massive influx in refugees, the Pakistan government ended the school year early in districts near Swat and opened the schools to refugees for temporary housing. Teachers are also assisting in the humanitarian relief effort, Benjamin said.

Some Christians have complained of facing discrimination in refugee camps. Government relief workers forbade Christians, Hindus and Sikhs from setting up tents or eating with Muslim refugees, according to online news site Christian Today.

But ultimately Christians will not be able to return to Swat Valley unless the Taliban threat is completely removed, Christian relief groups said. Their possessions and property will otherwise always be under threat.

“Christians will face terrible persecution if the Taliban is not controlled by the government,” Johnson said. “They will easily attack churches, schools and other Christian institutions.”

Rehman Malik, the interior minister, said Pakistan’s military operation would continue until the last Taliban fighter had been ousted. Since April 8, government troops have killed an estimated 751 militants.

There are believed to be 5,000 Taliban militants in Swat Valley. The government hopes to minimize civilian casualties through precision air strikes and delivering emergency humanitarian aid.

Pakistan’s government has come under harsh national and international criticism for its negotiations with the Taliban and ceding control of Swat. They fear the Taliban could seize control of the nation’s nuclear weapons.

Report from Compass Direct News


Beleaguered minority has much to lose, gain in polls.

NEW DELHI, May 1 (Compass Direct News) – With elections underway in India, its 2.3 percent Christian minority – which faced a deadly spate of attacks in the eastern state of Orissa last year – is praying for a secular party to come to power.

Along with the Muslim community, Christians fear that if the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and its allies form the next government or an ideologically loose coalition comes to the helm, their already compromised welfare may further deteriorate.

Dr. John Dayal, secretary general of the All India Christian Council, said that the end of the Congress Party’s monopoly on power in the 1990s led to the rise of several major individual groups, including the BJP, political wing of the Hindu extremist Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) conglomerate.

“The rise of regional and linguistic or caste-based parties spells a danger for pan-national minorities, as parties with a narrow and localized outlook will have neither the strength nor the political need to come to their defense,” Dayal told Compass. “What is at stake now, as never before, is the stability and consistency of India’s constitutional institutions in their response to critical situations, their zeal to correct wrongs and their commitment to the welfare of the weakest and the lowest.”

Religious minorities, Dayal said, were hoping for a strong showing by a secular party, “possibly the Congress [Party],” supported by regional groups of a secular character.

“Personally, I would even welcome a Third Front [a grouping of anti-Congress Party and anti-BJP parties led by the Communist Party of India-Marxist] government supported by the Congress Party,” he added. “Certainly, a BJP-led government is the least desirable, as we fear major erosion and even regression in issues of freedom of faith, Dalit liberation and affirmative action for the poor.”

With the BJP in power, directly or as part of the ruling alliance, in 10 states – Madhya Pradesh, Himachal Pradesh, Uttarakhand, and Punjab in the north; Chhattisgarh and Bihar in the east; Gujarat in the west; Nagaland and Meghalaya in the northeast; and Karnataka in the south – he said Christians believe it is important that a strong, secular government comes into power at the federal level.

The federal government can issue warnings and ultimately dismiss state legislatures and state executives if they fail to protect the lives of their people or major unrest erupts. The federal government can also make laws applicable across the nation.

The BJP-ruled states have become “absolutely inhospitable” and “hostile” to Christians thanks to the “inaction of the federal government,” said Sajan K. George, national president of the Global Council of Indian Christians (GCIC).


Orissa, Andhra Pradesh

The eyes of Christians are also on state assembly elections in Orissa state.

Orissa is ruled by the Biju Janata Dal (BJD), which on March 7 broke its 11-year-old alliance with the BJP over the latter’s involvement in Kandhamal district violence. Elections in Orissa, held on April 16 and 23, are particularly important given that the results will either embolden Hindu nationalists to launch more attacks to polarize voters along religious lines or compel them to abstain from violence.

In December 2007, a series of brutal attacks began in Kandhamal. The violence that lasted for around 10 days killed at least four Christians and burned 730 houses and 95 churches under the pretext of avenging an alleged attack on Swami Laxmanananda Saraswati, a leader of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (World Hindu Council).

Violence re-erupted in the district following the killing of Saraswati on August 23, 2008. A Maoist group took responsibility for the murder, but BJP supporters claimed that Christians were behind the assassination.

The BJP has made the killing of Saraswati its main election plank. The party’s two candidates from Kandhamal – Manoj Pradhan for the G. Udaygiri assembly seat and Ashok Sahu for the Kandhamal parliamentary constituency – contested the elections from jail. Pradhan, a primary suspect in the August-September 2008 violence, has been in jail for the last few months. Sahu, a former senior police official, was arrested on April 14 for delivering a hate speech against Christians in the run-up to elections. He was released on bail on April 17.

In its election campaign, the BJD promised to provide protection to the Christian community in Kandhamal and elsewhere in the state, putting the blame of the Kandhamal violence entirely on the BJP.

“It was important to break up with the BJP because I don’t consider them healthy any longer for my state after Kandhamal – which I think is very apparent to everyone,” Orissa Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik told CNN-IBN on April 19. “Before Kandhamal, we were lucky in the early years of the state government not to have a serious communal problem at all. But Kandhamal was very tragic and serious.”

According to the CNN-IBN private news channel, the Congress Party could benefit from the divorce of the BJD and the BJP. Nevertheless, the BJD is expected to form the next state government in Orissa.

The Congress Party, on the other hand, blamed both the BJD and the BJP for last year’s violence.

Elections in Kandhamal took place despite the fact that over 3,000 Christians were still in relief camps and hundreds of others had fled to others parts of the state fearing more tensions. Father Ajay Kumar Singh of the Catholic Archdiocese of Cuttack-Bhubaneswar reached Kandhamal from the neighboring Gajapati district early on April 16, election day.

“Along the way, we came across numerous felled trees blocking the road in at least six places,” Fr. Singh told Compass. “The roads were deserted, and my colleagues and I were scared. But we somehow managed to reach Kandhamal.”

He added that in Dharampur in Raikia Block and in Kattingia near Tiangia in G. Udaygiri Block – where eight Christians were killed during last year’s violence – Christians were threatened if they did not vote for the BJP.

In Nilungia village, seven kilometers (four miles) from G. Udaygiri, where a Christian was killed, at least 40 Christians did not cast their votes out of fear of a backlash, Fr. Singh said.

“They feared tensions if they returned to their village and stayed out of the district,” he said.

The Catholic Church in Orissa had urged the Election Commission of India to postpone elections in Kandhamal, but polls were held as scheduled.

According to the district administration, the poll turnout on April 16 in Kandhamal was around 55 percent.

The violence following Saraswati’s murder lasted for over a month, killing more than 127 people and destroying 315 villages, 4,640 houses, 252 churches and 13 educational institutions, besides rendering more than 50,000 homeless.

The incidence of Christian persecution is high in Andhra Pradesh, too. Analysts anticipate a neck-to-neck competition between the ruling Congress Party and the regional Telugu Desam Party (TDP), which recently allied with Left parties in the Third Front. The BJP is also in the fray but doesn’t appear strong enough to stake claim to power in the state.


Obscure Prognosis

With election results not due until May 16, the outlook at this point is murky.

“About all that can be said with certainty in the resulting alphabet soup of political parties is that the BJP won’t be aligning with Congress, or with the Left. Beyond that it’s a numbers game,” The Times of India noted in an editorial today. “Most observers agree that alignments determining who will form the next government will be decided only after the elections.”

The national daily added, “As India’s long, hot election summer grinds on, with the third phase held yesterday and the fifth and final phase not scheduled before the 13th of this month, it’s regrettable that no overarching themes have emerged even at this late stage, which can define the election.”

With 714 million eligible voters of the more than 1 billion people in the country, the five-phase elections for the 15th Lok Sabha (Lower House of Parliament) and for the state assemblies of Orissa, Andhra Pradesh and the north-eastern state of Sikkim began on April 16.

The three main parties are the left-of-center Congress Party (officially known as the Indian National Congress), which leads the governing United Progressive Alliance (UPA); the Hindu nationalist BJP, a leading party of the opposition National Democratic Alliance (NDA); and the Third Front.

A party and its allies need 272 members to rule in the 545-member Lok Sabha.


Expediency over Ideology

The regional and caste parties involved include the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP), headed by Dalit (formerly “untouchable”) woman Mayawati, chief minister of Uttar Pradesh state in the north; and the Samajwadi Party (SP), also a powerful party in that state.

Other significant parties are the Janata Dal-United (JD-U) party and the Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) party in the eastern state of Bihar; the BJD in Orissa; the Trinamool Congress party in the eastern state of West Bengal; the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) and the Shiv Sena party in the western state of Maharashtra; the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) party and the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) party in the southern state of Tamil Nadu; the TDP and Telangana Rashtriya Samiti (TRS) party in the southern state of Andhra Pradesh, and the Janata Dal-Secular (JD-S) party in the southern state of Karnataka.

The Congress Party is hoping that it will be supported by the SP, the RJD, the Trinamool Congress party, the NCP, the DMK, and the TRS in case it emerges as the single-largest party post-elections. The JD-U, the Shiv Sena and the AIADMK, on the other hand, are likely to extend their support to the BJP-led NDA. The BSP, the BJD, the TDP, and the JD-S are expected to join the Third Front.

Most of these smaller parties, however, are keeping their options open and will formally declare their allegiances only after the results are announced on May 16.


Decade of Persecution

The concern of Indian Christians can be understood against the backdrop of the decade since 1998, when the BJP, under the aegis of the NDA, came into power at the federal level, marking the beginning of systematic persecution of Christians.

In January 1999, an Australian missionary, Graham Staines, and his two young sons were burned alive in Orissa’s Keonjhar district. From 2000 to 2004, around 200 anti-Christian attacks were reported each year from various parts of the nations. In March 2004, India’s second massive spate of anti-Christian attacks took place in the Jhabua district of the central state of Madhya Pradesh.

The incidence of persecution remained high despite the change of the federal government in mid-2004 – after the Congress Party-led UPA defeated the BJP-led NDA.

At least 165 anti-Christian attacks were reported in 2005, and over 130 in 2006. Including the Orissa attacks, the total number of violent anti-Christian incidents rose to over 1,000 in 2007. And 2008 turned out to be the worst year for the Christians as violence returned in Kandhamal.

“The results of the elections on May 16 will show whether the ideology of Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, the father of the nation who promoted communal harmony, will prevail in India, or that of his killer Nathuram Godse, allegedly a member of the RSS,” said George of the GCIC.

Report from Compass Direct News


Troops of the guerilla Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) have massacred over 900 people since Christmas in northeastern Democratic Republic of Congo, reports Catholic News Agency. The news reports from missionary media sources, which are not attracting attention in Europe and America, lament the inaction and “impotence” of the United Nations forces in the area.

Fides news agency reports that the LRA is a Ugandan group mainly composed of child soldiers kidnapped and forced into service. For decades the group has ravaged the land in northern Uganda and is active in Congo, South Sudan, and the Central African Republic.

The armies of Uganda, Congo and South Sudan formed a joint military operation in late December 2008 to try to stop the LRA. They moved against the LRA general headquarters in the Garamba Forest in the Congo with the backing of the U.N. and the United States.

However, the operation failed to capture the guerilla leaders, who are wanted by the International Criminal Court for crimes against humanity.

The LRA has responded with violence against Congolese civilians, sacking and destroying entire villages and killing entire families.

Fides, which is a missionary news agency, accused the U.N. Mission in Congo (MONUC) of being “yet another one of the acronyms that has become synonymous with the impotence of the international community.”

Fides claimed that MONUC members seem to be “mere spectators in the massacres of these people whom they should be defending.”

Report from the Christian Telegraph


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