Foreign Ministry spokesman asserts ‘full religious freedom’ despite arrests, torture.

DUBLIN, May 8 (Compass Direct News) – A U.S. government body cited increased harassment, imprisonment and torture of members of unregistered religious groups in China last year, which a Chinese official roundly denied.

After the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) last week recommended China remain on the U.S. Department of State’s list of the world’s worst violators of religious freedom, a spokesman for China’s Foreign Ministry said USCIRF’s report was “an attempt to smear China.”

“It is a fact that the Chinese government protects its citizens’ freedom of religious belief according to law, and every ethnic group in any part of China enjoys full religious freedom,” Ma Zhaoxu, said Tuesday (May 5) in a statement quoted by the Chinese daily Xinhua.

The commission acknowledged that “the freedom to participate in officially-sanctioned religious activity increased in many areas of the country over the past year,” but noted that abuses of members of unregistered religious groups had extended to a small handful of lawyers who dared to defend them.

In at least 17 provinces, some 764 Protestant leaders and house church members were arrested in the past year, 35 of whom were sentenced to prison for a year or more, the report said. According to the state department, the total number of Protestant house church members and “underground” Catholics arrested in the past year may be in the thousands.

Religious freedom also deteriorated significantly in Uyghur Muslim and Tibetan Buddhist regions over the past year, according to the commission report. Officials have urged “stronger management” of Protestant and Catholic activity in Xinjiang, while new laws have allowed greater control over Muslim and Buddhist community leaders in both regions.

Police detained Chinese house church leader Lou Yuanqi in Xinjiang province in May 2008, charging him with “inciting separatism” and “utilizing superstition to undermine the law.” A local court refused to accept his case due to insufficient evidence, but Yuanqi remained in detention until his release on bail on April 24.

Officials further restricted religious freedom in the autonomous regions of Xinjiang and Tibet during the period USCIRF covered for the report, May 2008 through April 2009. Ismail Tiliwaldi, chairman of the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR), urged local police and religious affairs officials to “exercise stronger management” over Protestantism and Catholicism and strictly guard against foreign infiltration and sabotage, the commission stated.

On Jan. 1, 2008, new laws gave officials in both regions greater powers to monitor the training, assembly, selection and speeches of community religious leaders. More recently, officials have enforced bans on religious education; authorities in Tibet have warned parents to keep children away from religious ceremonies, while Xinjiang officials in February and March began a campaign to halt illegal religious schools and arrest anyone engaged in “cross-village worship.”

The campaigns in Xinjiang have largely targeted Muslims, but Uyghur Christians are also affected. Unable to freely attend government-sanctioned Three-Self Patriotic Movement (TSPM) Protestant churches, they continue to meet in small groups in private homes, risking arrest and detention in labor camps.

House church Christian Alimjan Yimit (Alimujiang Yimiti in Chinese) remains in arbitrary detention awaiting trial, 15 months after his arrest. Officials initially closed the foreign-owned business Alimjan worked for in September 2007 and accused him of using it as a cover for “preaching Christianity.” He was then detained in January 2008 on charges of endangering state security and was formally arrested on Feb. 20, 2008 on charges of “inciting secession” and leaking state secrets.

Court officials returned Alimjan’s case to state prosecutors in May 2008, citing lack of evidence. The case was returned to court for consideration last October.

On April 21, attorney Li Dunyong petitioned for and was granted permission for a rare meeting with his client on April 21 after witnesses saw police and a prison doctor escorting Alimjan to hospital on March 30; Compass sources said Alimjan had been beaten in prison, although it was not clear who beat him or why. When Li questioned him, Alimjan indicated that he was not allowed to speak about his health.

Officials also continued tight surveillance of underground Catholic groups across China last year, according to USCIRF.

The official Catholic Patriotic Association (CPA) insists on selecting and ordaining clergy and forbids clergy or CPA members to have contact with the Vatican or other foreign Catholic organizations, USCIRF stated. The Vatican, however, has secretly ordained as many as 90 percent of CPA bishops and priests, the commission reported.

China watchers say pressure will increase rather than decrease as China anticipates several significant political anniversaries later this year.

Troubled Rights Advocates

The crackdown has extended to lawyers, particularly those handling religious rights cases. In March, officials revoked the license of Beijing’s Yitong Law Firm; the firm’s lawyers had been handling cases for unregistered house church Christians.

Christian attorney Gao Zhisheng, known for defending unregistered Protestant Christians and Falun Gong members, disappeared in February. Immediately prior to his disappearance, Gao had published a report of torture endured during a September 2007 interrogation. At press time his whereabouts remained unknown. (See “Action Urged for Missing Rights Activist,” March 25.)

Court officials in November 2007 sentenced Gao’s legal partner, Yang Maodong, to five years in prison for “illegal business practices.” Prison guards have reportedly tortured Yang with electric shock batons and other implements.

Earlier, in September 2007, officials beat prominent religious freedom advocate and attorney Li Heping with electric batons and ordered him to stop practicing law. When he refused, officials revoked his license.

Given these developments, the commission has urged the U.S. government to include religious freedom concerns in its discussions with the Chinese government.

Under terms of the 1998 International Religious Freedom Act, U.S. government officials are obliged to address religious rights concerns with the government of any country designated as a Country of Particular Concern.

Report from Compass Direct News


Armed militants fire into crowd, seriously injuring three; jizye tax imposed in Orakzai.

ISTANBUL, April 27 (Compass Direct News) – As Taliban control hits pockets of Pakistan and threatens the nation’s stability, Christians worry their province could be the next to fall under Islamic law.

Violence on Tuesday night and Wednesday (April 21-22) near the port city of Karachi – some 1,000 kilometers (nearly 700 miles) from the Swat Valley, where the government officially allowed the Taliban to establish Islamic law this month – heightened fears. Christians in Taiser town, near Karachi, noticed on the walls of their church graffiti that read, “Long Live the Taliban” and calls for Christians to either convert to Islam or pay the jizye, a poll tax under sharia (Islamic law) paid by non-Muslims for protection if they decline to convert.

As members of the congregation erased the graffiti, armed men intervened to stop them. Soon 30-40 others arrived as support and began to fire indiscriminately at the crowd, leaving several injured. Among those seriously injured were three Christians, including a child, according to a report by advocacy group Minorities Concern of Pakistan: Emrah Masih, 35, Qudoos Masih, 30, and Irfan Masih, 11. A Pashtun named Rozi Khan was also among the injured.

Policemen and military forces arrested seven suspects at the scene and recovered an arms cache of semi-automatic pistols and a Kalashnikov assault rifle.

The Taliban is an insurgent movement of primarily Pashtun Islamists ousted from power in Afghanistan in 2001. Pakistani media portrayed the Karachi violence as a sectarian clash between Christians and Pashtuns that escalated into a gunfire exchange and that Christians committed arson attacks. The Daily Times claimed that the Christians protested the graffiti by setting ablaze some shops, including roadside stalls and pushcarts.

But a legal advocacy worker told Compass that police scattered the Christians when they began their protests and stood by as a Taliban-assembled mob attacked them.

“The Christians do not have guns, they do not have weapons, but only a little bit of property and the few things in their houses,” said Sohail Johnson, chief coordinator of Sharing Life Ministry Pakistan. “They are poor and have no courage to fight them. How can Christians, who lived like animals here, stand against them?”

Johnson said that local Christians, terrified over recent Talibanization campaigns, may not pursue legal action against the arrested men, although Asia News reported that Qudoos Masih filed an initial report at the Sarjani town police station. The Christians fear inciting violence by taking a stand against elements connected with the Taliban, Johnson said.

Eyewitnesses to the attacks against Christians in Karachi said they were religiously motivated. A representative of the Muttahida Quami Movement (MQM) regional party told Compass that after firing on the crowd, the Taliban went through Christian houses, ransacked them and burned one down. He said they also burned Bibles and beat women on the street. Reports of two execution-style killings of Christians could not be verified.

Karachi police and administration reportedly claimed that the Karachi attack came not from the Taliban but from Pashtuns who resettled in the area from the North West Frontier Province (NWFP). The MQM, however, has long suspected Taliban presence in Karachi.


Expanded Campaign of Violence

Local officials are worried that the Taliban is making inroads into Karachi, the financial center of Pakistan, in the same way it did within the Swat Valley in the NWFP.

In mid-February Pakistan’s fertile Swat Valley turned into a Taliban stronghold ruled by sharia under a “peace agreement,” but instead of honoring the accord with an end to bombings and other violence, the Islamic militants have expanded their campaign to outlying areas and other parts of the country. Of the 500 Christians remaining in Swat Valley when sharia was initially established in February, many have migrated to other provinces while those who stayed live in fear of a rise in violence against non-Muslims.

In the Federally Administered Tribal Area adjacent to the NWFP, the Taliban this month demanded a jizye payment of 50 million rupees (US$625,000) from Sikhs living in Orakzai Agency. Those who did not flee paid a combined total of 2 million rupees (US$25,000), and Christians worry they could be next. Relegating non-Muslims to dhimmi status – the second-class state of those subject to an Islamic administration and its jizye tax in exchange for protection – is part of the writings of the founder of the Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam (Assembly of Islamic Clergy), one of Pakistan’s main Islamic parties with ties to the Taliban in Afghanistan and similar parties in Bangladesh and Egypt.

Last week the Taliban effectively took control of Buner district, just 60 miles from the capital of Islamabad, and it has begun battling government soldiers in Malakland Agency.

Non-Muslims make up 3 percent of the population in the Muslim-majority nation of 176 million. They are frequently marginalized, particularly in the sharia-influenced justice system that gives precedence to Muslims. But they fear Taliban infiltration will accelerate their marginalization in a stealth manner, as they cannot tell the difference between a Taliban fighter and a community member.

“We cannot identify who is a Taliban fighter because there are an uncountable number of people who have a beard and wear a turban,” Johnson said. “We cannot recognize who belongs to the Taliban because they penetrate every corner of Pakistan.”

The MQM official in Karachi said many of the Christians in the area are poor and illiterate. They are on the lower rungs of the social ladder and have nobody to protect their interests except for the church.

“Nobody is going to help them,” he said. “The church can help them get education, but they are not also able to give them [security] help.”

His statements were backed by MQM leader Altaf Hussein, who called on Pakistan’s Interior Ministry to take emergency preventative measures to ensure the safety of minorities against the “rising activities of armed lawless elements,” according to The News International.

A local teacher said that during the looting police only stood by, making no effort to stop the Taliban as they ransacked Christian houses.

“Rather than stopping them, they allowed them to burn the houses, [harass] the Christian women and burn Bibles,” he said.

Although Pakistani politicians and security forces have said openly in recent weeks that the Taliban was closing in on Islamabad and could trigger a government collapse, they claimed the pro-Taliban slogans in Karachi were scrawled not by the Taliban but conspirators wanting to incite violence.

Maulana Fazlur Rehman, an Islamist party leader, said talk of the Talibanization of Karachi was merely a ruse to allow the United States to invade Pakistan as it had done to Afghanistan.

“Those raising this slogan are trying to create another Osama for America in this part of the world,” he said, according to The News International.

The Karachi attacks were part of escalating violence throughout the country. The government informed the National Assembly on April 20 that 1,400 people had been killed in terrorist attacks in the last 15 months.

Report from Compass Direct News