Threat of Return to Hindu State in Nepal Looms

With deadline for new constitution approaching, Christians fear end of secular government.

KATHMANDU, Nepal, March 30 (CDN) — Four years after Nepal became officially secular, fear is growing that the country could revert to the Hindu state it was till 2006, when proclaiming Christ was a punishable offense and many churches functioned clandestinely to avoid being shut down.

Concerns were heightened after Nepal’s deposed King Gyanendra Shah, once regarded as a Hindu god, broke the silence he has observed since Nepal abolished monarchy in 2008. During his visit to a Hindu festival this month, the former king said that monarchy was not dead and could make a comeback if people so desired.

Soon after that, Krishna Prasad Bhattarai, a former prime minister and respected leader of the largest ruling party, said that instead of getting a new constitution, Nepal should revive an earlier one. The 1990 constitution declared Nepal a Hindu kingdom with a constitutional monarch.

There is now growing doubt that the ruling parties will not be able to fashion the new constitution they promised by May.

“We feel betrayed,” said Dr. K.B. Rokaya, general secretary of the National Council of Churches of Nepal. “The Constituent Assembly we elected to give us a new constitution that would strengthen democracy and secularism has frittered away the time and opportunity given to it.”

The clamor for a Hindu state has been growing as the May 28 deadline for the new constitution draws near. When a Hindu preacher, Kalidas Dahal, held a nine-day prayer ritual in Kathmandu this month seeking reinstatement of Hinduism as the state religion, thousands of people flocked to him. The throng included three former prime ministers and top leaders of the ruling parties.

“The large turnout signals that Hinduism is enshrined in the hearts of the people and can’t be abolished by the government,” said Hridayesh Tripathi, a former minister and Constituent Assembly member whose Terai Madhes Loktantrik Party is the fifth-largest in the ruling alliance. “It was a mistake to abolish Hinduism in a hurry.”

Another blow for a Hindu state was struck by the Rastriya Prajatantra Party-Nepal (RPP-N), the only party that fought the 2008 election in support of monarchy and a Hindu state. It is now calling for a referendum. As a pressure tactic, it paralyzed the capital and its two neighboring cities in February by calling a general strike.

“The election gave the Constituent Assembly the mandate of writing a new constitution, not deciding issues of national importance,” said Kamal Thapa, the RPP-N chief who also was home minister during the brief government headed by Gyanendra. “Most people in Nepal want a Hindu state and a constitutional king. If their demand is not heeded, they will feel excluded and refuse to follow the new constitution. We are asking the government to hold a referendum on the two issues before May 28.”

With only two months left, it is clear the demand can’t be met if the constitution is to come into effect within the stipulated time. Now the specter of anarchy and violence hangs over Nepal.

Nepal’s Maoists, who fought a 10-year war to make Nepal a secular republic and who remain the former king’s most bitter enemy, say attempts have begun to whip up riots in the name of a Hindu state. The former guerrillas also allege that the campaign for the restoration of Hinduism as the state religion is backed by ministers, politicians from the ruling parties and militant religious groups from India.

Effectively Hindu

Even if a new, secular constitution is approved by the deadline, there is still no guarantee that the rights of religious minorities would be protected.

Nilambar Acharya, who heads the committee that is drafting the new constitution, said it would be merely a broad guideline for the government; compatible laws would have to be drafted to protect rights.

“The previous constitution abolished ‘untouchability’ [a practice among Hindus of treating those at the bottom of the social ladder as outcasts],” Acharya told Compass. “But untouchability still exists in Nepal. To achieve all that the constitution promises, the mindset of society has to be changed first. For that, you need political will.”

Though Nepal became secular in 2006, Hinduism still gets preferential treatment. The state allocates funds for institutions like the Kumari, the tradition of choosing prepubescent girls as protective deities of the state and worshipping them as “living goddesses.” The state also gave money to organizers of a controversial, five-yearly religious festival, the Gadhimai Fair, where tens of thousands of birds are slaughtered as offerings to Hindu gods despite international condemnation.

There is no support, predictably, for Christian festivals. When the Constituent Assembly was formed – partly though election and partly by nomination – no Christian name was proposed even though the prime minister was authorized to nominate members from unrepresented communities.

Christian leaders want such religious bias abolished. Rokaya of the National Council of Churches of Nepal said Christians have recommended full freedom of religion in the new constitution: allowing one to follow the religion of one’s choice, to change one’s religion if desired or have the right not to be associated with any religion.

The churches have also asked the state not to interfere in religious matters.

“We are asking the government not to fund any religious activity, not to be part of any religious appointments and not to allow public land for any religious event,” Rokaya said.

The recommendations, however, may not be heeded. During their brief stint in power, the Maoists tried to stop state assistance for the Kumari. It led to violence and a general strike in the capital, forcing the party to withdraw the decision.

In its 2009 report on religious freedom in Nepal, the U.S. Department of State notes that while the interim constitution officially declared the country secular, “the president, in his capacity as head of state, attended major Hindu religious ceremonies over which the king previously presided.”

It also notes that there were reports of societal abuses and discrimination based on religious affiliation, belief, or practice.

“Those who converted to a different religious group occasionally faced violence and were ostracized socially,” it states. “Those who chose to convert to other religious groups, in particular Hindu citizens who converted to Islam or Christianity, were sometimes ostracized. They occasionally faced isolated incidents of hostility or discrimination from Hindu extremist groups. Some reportedly were forced to leave their villages.”

Dr. Ramesh Khatri, executive director of Association for Theological Education in Nepal, has experienced such persecution first-hand. When he became a Christian in 1972, his father disowned him. Then in 1984 he was arrested for holding a Bible camp. Though the case against him was dropped in 1990 after a pro-democracy movement, Khatri said hatred of Christians still persists.

“Christians can never sleep peacefully at night,” he said wryly. “The new constitution will make Nepal another India, where Christians are persecuted in Orissa, Gujarat and Karnataka.” The Oxford University-educated Khatri, who writes a column in a Nepali daily, said violent responses to his articles show how Nepal still regards its Christians.

“I am attacked as a ‘Rice Christian,’” he said. “It is a derogatory term implying I converted for material benefits. The antagonistic feeling society has towards Christians will not subside with the new constitution, and we can’t expect an easy life. The Bible says that, and the Bible is true.”

Christians continue to face persecution and harassment. In March, missions resource organization Timeless Impact International (TII) noted that a church in northern Nepal, near the foothills of Mt. Everest, was attacked by a local mob.

The newly established church in Dolakha district was attacked during a fellowship meeting in January. An ethnic mob headed by religious leaders destroyed the church meeting place, assaulted participants and warned them not to speak about Christianity in the village, TII said.

The situation, even now, remained unchanged.

“None of the church members have been able to return to their homes,” TII stated. “They feel completely unsafe and at risk.”

Report from Compass Direct News 

Christians in Vietnam Hold Another Historic Celebration

Largest-ever event in northern part of country encourages house churches.

HANOI, December 21 (CDN) — For the second time in 10 days, Protestant history was made in Vietnam yesterday when 12,000 people gathered for a Christmas rally here.

The event, which took place in the large square in front of the entrance to My Dinh National Stadium in the heart of Hanoi, was said to be 10 times larger than any prior Protestant gathering in history in northern Vietnam. On Dec. 11 in southern Vietnam, an estimated 40,000 people attended a Christmas celebration in Ho Chi Minh City (see “Unprecedented Christmas Gathering Held in Vietnam”).

Local sources said long-requested written permission for the event, entitled “Praise Jesus Together,” never came in spite of several reminders. But four days before the event was to take place, Hanoi authorities and police told organizers – in words as close as they would get to granting permission – that they would “not interfere.”

“One can hardly overestimate the importance of such an event in the lives of northern house church Christians,” said one long-time Compass source. “For many, this will have been the first time to join in a large crowd with other Christians, to feel the growing power of their movement, to hear, see and participate in the high quality, and deeply spiritual mass worship.”

The day before the event, Christians gathered near the stadium for final prayer and to help with preparations. Witnesses said the huge public square at the entrance to the stadium was arrayed with thousands of stools rather than chairs – plastic, backless, and bright blue and red. In 10-foot tall letters, “JESUS’ was emblazoned on the backdrop to the stage.

Invitations had been sent through house church networks even as official permission for the event was still pending. When church leaders decided to move ahead only days before, Christians were asked to send out mass invitations by text-message, leading some to speculate whether this may have been the largest ever such messaging for a Christian event.

Nearby Christians as well as those bussed from more distant areas began to fill the venue hours before the event. They were not dissuaded by a Hanoi cool spell of 12 Celsius (56 Fahrenheit) with a chill wind. Bundled in thick jackets, their heads wrapped in scarves, they waited expectantly without complaint.

They were not disappointed. Witnesses said the throng deeply appreciated a program of outstanding music and dance, a powerful personal narrative followed by a gospel message and an extended time for prayer for the nation. As at the previous event in Ho Chi Minh City on Dec. 11 that house church Christians had long worked and prayed for, the program featured music from Jackson Family Ministries of the United States.

In a world of globalized gospel and praise choruses, songs included hymns such as “How Great Thou Art” as well as classic praise songs such as “Sing Hallelujah to the Lord.” Witnesses said the music was accompanied by tasteful, emotionally engaging dance. Top Vietnamese artists performed, including news songs by Vietnamese songwriters, and a Vietnamese choir of 80 sang, as did a Korean choir.

A young man in his 30s who now pastors two house churches told the crowd how an encounter with Jesus proved more powerful than the grip of drug addiction. His story, simply and humbly told, proved an effective bridge to a Christmas evangelistic message by Pastor Pham Tuan Nhuong of the Word of Life house church. Then the winsome Pastor Pham Dinh Nhan, a top southern house church leader, gave a disarming but strong invitation to follow Jesus, witnesses said.

Organizers said approximately 2,000 people then poured forward in response, packing the large area in front of the stage.

The final portion of the program included a time of intense prayer for the nation, with pastors confessing and praying for righteousness for Vietnam’s leaders, as well as for God’s protection and blessing on their land. In their prayers they claimed Vietnam for Christ, witnesses said.

A high point for the throng was the superimposing of a large white cross on a yellow map of Vietnam on the backdrop. As the Korean choir sang a spirited revival hymn, the crowd raised thousands of hands and exploded in sound.

“The sound of crying, of praise, of prayer were blended as one, beseeching Almighty God for spiritual revival in Vietnam,” said one participant.

The event was streamed live at for Vietnamese and others around the world to see.

Until recently – and still in some places – most Vietnamese meet in small groups in homes knowing at any time there could be a hostile knock on the door, a source said.

“None of these groups is registered or recognized by the government,” the source said of the crowd at yesterday’s event. “What you see is Christians standing up!” 

In addition to this event and the Dec. 11 event in Ho Chi Minh City, a large public Christmas rally was held by the Evangelical Church of Vietnam (North) at the Hoang Nhi church in Nam Dinh Province on Saturday (Dec. 19). Some 2,500 people gathered in the church’s large courtyard, with sources saying 200 responded to an invitation to follow Christ. 

In Tuy Hoa, on the coast of central Vietnam, a Christmas program is planned for Saturday (Dec. 26) in a 4,000- seat theater. Many smaller events are also planned in other areas, part of an unprecedented public display by Vietnam’s Protestants.

At the same time, the freedom for Christians tolerated in large cities has not reached some more remote parts of the country, where ethnic minority Christians live. In Dien Bien Dong district of Dien Bien Province, authorities on Tuesday (Dec. 15) orchestrated immense ethnic social pressure on a new Christian couple to recant. The couple told Compass that police added their own pressure. 

“The police said they would beat me to death, and take away all my possessions, leaving my wife a widow, and my children orphans with no place to live,” the husband told Compass. “I folded. I signed promising that I would no longer follow God. I really want to, but it is very, very hard to be a believer where we live, as the officials will not allow us.”

Report from Compass Direct News 


Local Muslim leaders prompt officers to arrest, abuse evangelistic team.

DHAKA, Bangladesh, August 4 (Compass Direct News) – At the urging of local Muslim leaders, police in western Bangladesh have tortured a pastor and two other Christians for legally proclaiming Christ.

Habibur Rahman, 45, pastor of Boalia Spiritual Church (Boalia Ruhani Jamat) in Boalia in Cuadanga district, 220 kilometers (136 miles) west of Dhaka, said he was about to meet with 11 others for a monthly meeting on evangelism at 8 p.m. on June 8 when local police stormed in and seized him and Zahid Hassan, 25, and a 40-year-old Christian identified only as Fazlur.

The first question the police commander asked him, Rahman said, was, “Why did you become Christian?”

“Using a lot of filthy words, he charged me that I was teaching the Bible and converting people to Christianity in this area,” the pastor told Compass.

In May, a police patrol chief had threatened to seize him at a church meeting but was misinformed about the time it would take place, Rahman said.

The commander who seized him and the two others was a sub-inspector with the name Khaleque on his badge, Rahman said. Police dragged them to a nearby parked vehicle and transported them to Shamvunagar police camp.

“Police told us, ‘We will teach you in the camp how to forget your Christ,’ while dragging us to the vehicle,” said Rahman.

Police blindfolded them after reaching the camp and took them to three separate rooms.

“I heard blood-curdling scream from other rooms,” Rahman said. “I was sitting on the floor blindfolded. I could not understand what was happening around me. Later several police came to me and one of them kicked me on the back of my head, and my head ricocheted off the wall. They also kicked my waist.”

Ordering him to say how many people he had converted to Christianity in the Muslim-majority nation, the commander said he would kick him a like number of times. The official told him to call out to Jesus, saying he wanted to see how Jesus would save him, Rahman said.

“While beating us, police told us there will be no Christian in this area,” the pastor said. “Police hurt our hands, lips, thighs and faces with burning cigarettes. They beat me in the joints of my limbs with a wooden club. They beat us for one hour, and I became senseless at some point.”

Police officers told Rahman to admit that whatever he had done in his life was wrong, he said. When they sent them to Boalia police station early the next morning, dozens of Christians arrived to try to obtain their release.

Police, however, were reluctant to release the detained Christians.

“Some Christian villagers then said, ‘We are also criminal because we believe in Christ like Habibur Rahman and the other two Christians,’” Rahman said. “They told police, ‘If you do not release them, then arrest us and put us in jail.’”

Police did not release the three Christians until 9:30 that night.

The next day, June 10, thousands of Muslim villagers demonstrated in front of a local government office called the Zamzami Union Council chanting, “We want a Christian-free society,” and “We will not allow any Christians in Cuadanga.”

The frenzied mob called for Rahman to appear at the local government office, and a sub-district administrative chief called in 10 Christians and 10 Muslims including imams to try to resolve the matter. In that meeting, the administrative official told everyone to practice their religion freely without disturbing others.

“The administrative chief also said nobody should interfere in other religions, but even now we cannot attend our churches for worship,” Rahman said. “Local people said, ‘You will come in the church alive but return home dead.’”

Police Denial

Police denied carrying out any torture, saying they arrested the Christians for interrogation because villagers had informed officers that some underground Maoist terrorists had gathered in the house.

Jotish Biswas, executive director of Way of Life Trust, said the marks of torture were unmistakable.

“There were streaks of blood on their legs, hands and faces,” said Biswas, who interceded with police on behalf of the arrested Christians. “I have seen marks of cigarette burns on their bodies. They were beaten so severely that they could not walk properly.”

Biswas said he had learned that a local official and some Muslim clerics had prompted police to torture the Christians because they objected to their evangelistic activity.

“Police violated the rights of minorities enshrined in the Bangladeshi constitution,” Biswas said. “It was a gross violation of human rights.”

Chanchal Mehmud Kashem, a Christian journalist who visited the area, told Compass that the area is lacking in freedom of religion.

“Torture by police suggests that those Christians are not citizens of Bangladesh,” Kashem said. “It suggests they are illegal, alien and that evangelism is a crime.”

Kashem added that the notion that “underground terrorists” had gathered in a house was a pretext for harassing the Christians. “Rahman has been working as an evangelist in this area for one and half years,” he said.

There are 176 Christians in the area where Rahman works as an evangelist and pastor, he said.

“The local government council chairman told me two times not to come in this area,” Rahman said. “He said, ‘There is no Christian in this area, so why do you come here to make Christians?’”

Local Muslim villagers have since refused to give work to area Christians, most of whom are day laborers dependent on obtaining daily jobs to survive.

Report from Compass Direct News 


Turkmenistan continues to impose strict censorship on religious literature brought into the country, and copies data from personal computers, Forum 18 News Service has been told.

“Which commission decides this?” a Protestant complained, commenting that “they don’t have the right to interfere in my own private life.” Officials always point to an unspecified “commission” which determines what literature is acceptable.

“But who checks the commission which examines the literature?” the Protestant asked. Ethnic Turkmens appear to be more more likely to have material confiscated than ethnic Russians. Frustration has also been expressed to Forum 18 about the impossibility of printing religious literature.

No state official has been willing to explain why religious censorship exists, or who is responsible for it. Shirin Akhmedova, Head of the government’s National Institute for Democracy and Human Rights, claimed to the UN Human Rights Council that freedom of expression exists because of the Constitution. This claim, however, is contradicted by the experience of Turkmenistan’s citizens.

Report from the Christian Telegraph


Effort to replace building with mosque injures 10 Christians, ruins structure.

GARISSA, Kenya, September 29 (Compass Direct News) – A longstanding effort to replace a church with a mosque in Kenya’s northern town of Garissa culminated in an attack by 50 Muslim youths this month that left the worship building in ruins.

The gang stormed the building of Redeemed Gospel Church on Sept. 14 and pelted the congregation with stones, sending many Christians fleeing while others became embroiled in fistfights. Ten Christians received hospital treatment for minor injuries and were released.

Church leaders said the Muslim mob also destroyed pews, damaged the church building’s walls of corrugated iron, smashed the glass-mounted pulpit and burned the church banner with its stand.

“We had just started the Sunday service when, without warning, a rowdy group of about 50 Muslim youths invaded the church, pelting stones at us and destroying our structures,” said the church youth chairman, identified only as Suma.

Local media reported that the 10 church members were hospitalized, but a district nurse at the hospital told Compass that no one was admitted due to the violence. A church elder at East Africa Pentecostal Church in Garissa, about 400 kilometers (249 miles) from Nairobi, confirmed that the church members were treated at the hospital and allowed to go home.

Tensions between Christians and the Muslim-majority population in the semi-desert town of 20,000 people began simmering after Muslims built a mosque next to the church plot at No. 21 Windsor in June 2007. Purchasing its land on Nov. 1, 1999, the church had begun worshipping there by early 2001, eventually growing to 400 members.

Church leaders complained to the district commissioner in June 2007 that the new mosque was built too close to the church – only three meters separate the two structures – and that it was blocking the church entryway.

“Prior to that, the owner of that land had promised to use half of it and sell the other half to the church,” the church leaders reported to the district commissioner in June 2007. “But in 2007, she changed her mind and gave it to the sheikhs to build the mosque. We reported the matter to the DC’s office that it would not go well with the church.”

Officials had ruled that no further permanent structures were to be set up on the land by either party until a later date to be determined by the district commissioner.

“The church faithfully obeyed, but the Muslims defied the orders and began immediately to put up a permanent structure,” according to the letter church leaders wrote to the district commissioner. The building of the mosque was allegedly sponsored by M.K. Roble, a wealthy Muslim in Garissa, according to the letter.

“The problems between the church and the Muslims began and have escalated since then,” it states.

Government security intelligence had reported that Muslims planned to destroy the church if it continued to operate within the residential area, District Commissioner (DC) Alois Okango told Compass. The administration had proposed a new site for the church to worship, Jamhuri Club, but two days before the attack church leaders wrote two letters to Okango saying they would remain worshipping in their building.

“We would like to notify you that our church members have decided to have our Sunday service at our usual place on September 14 and not at the new site of Jamhuri Club,” they wrote in one of the letters, “because we have come to realize that the new site is only temporary, and we will only move out of our premise if we are guaranteed a permanent place of worship.”

Okango told Compass that to avert a crisis, the administration has decided that the church should relocate temporarily to a site near an agricultural showground. The government also advised the church to sell its property near the mosque and buy another piece of land, preferably outside Garissa town center.

This suggestion, Okango told Compass, did not augur well with church members, who felt they had already established the church at the site and that it was the mosque that should be moving.

“The Christians threatened to go and worship in the ruined premises if no action was taken,” Okango said. “They said they were ready to die for the sake of their faith.”

The government is striving to avert further incidents by preventing the Christians from returning to the ruined structure, according to a Provincial Police official identified only as Chelimo. With tensions expected to rise during the end of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, he said police were taking precautionary measures to ensure that the congregation never returned to their property.

“To allow this would be suicidal,” Chelimo told Compass. “We have deployed five security guards every day to make sure that the members of the church will not enter its structure.”


Elusive Justice

Wondering why those who attacked the church had not been arrested and charged in court, Redeemed Gospel Church pastor David Matolo said the government should punish the assailants.

“The church has the right to be protected by the government – allowing the minority Christians to suffer is quite wrong,” Pastor Matolo told Compass. “Why should the Muslims interfere with the church’s worship? I as their pastor cannot shy away when my members are ill-treated. We are ready to pay the price, but we want justice to be done.”

He said church leaders had agreed on an alternative site only to have the district commissioner suddenly revoke it.

“The DC had promised to locate us to the provincial residential area, and we had cleared the said site, only to be stopped without prior notice,” Pastor Matolo said. “Now we have no place to worship.”

A missionary from Tanzania who works in the area informed Compass that Muslims have distributed leaflets threatening to destroy all churches in Garissa. They have also threatened to burn Garissa’s open-air market operated by Christians from “down Kenya,” that is, non-Muslims, he said.

The missionary said the safety of the more than 2,000 Christians in Garissa is in jeopardy, and he appealed to the government to protect the right of worship of all people.

“It is quite unfair that the Redeemed Gospel Church has been displaced and is now praying under a tree in an open space with no amenities,” he said.

District Commissioner Okango said that the administration must protect Muslims from the noise of worship emanating from church at night that has disturbed residents, as well as prevent clashes. In both the mosque and church, loud speakers had been set up facing each other with confrontational messages blaring from each.

“The government is sensitive to the feelings of the people,” Okango said. “We cannot allow disorder to reign in North Eastern Province in the name of religious patriotism.”

Land issues alone have not been responsible for tensions in the area. The Rev. Ibrahim Kamwaro, chairman of the Pastors’ Fellowship in Garissa, said Pastor Matolo had offended Muslims when he preached to a lame Muslim man.

Muslims were said to be upset that the pastor persuaded the disabled man to stop going to the mosque and instead join his church. Pastor Matolo’s alleged promise to the disabled man of a better life offended area Muslims, Rev. Kamwaro said.

Muslims restrict churches in Garissa in various ways: Christians are not allowed conduct prayers, sing or use musical instruments in rented homes owned by Muslims. No teaching of Christian Religious Education in schools is allowed; only Islamic Religious Knowledge is taught.

Garissa has more than 15 Christian denominations, the main ones being the East Africa Pentecostal Church, the Redeemed Gospel Church, the Anglican Church, Deliverance Church, the Full Gospel Churches of Kenya, the Africa Inland Church and African Christian Churches and schools.

Report from Compass Direct News


With both minors saying they had converted to Islam, lawyers feared worse.

ISTANBUL, September 15 (Compass Direct News) – Christian human rights lawyers in Pakistan saw a partial legal victory in a judge’s ruling last week that one of two kidnapped girls be returned to her Christian parents. The judge further ruled that her sister be free to choose whether to go with the Muslim man who allegedly forced her to convert and marry him.

Justice Malik Saeed Ejaz ruled on Tuesday (Sept. 9) that 10-year-old Aneela Masih be returned to her parents – an unprecedented legal victory for Christian parents of a girl who supposedly converted to Islam, according to one lawyer – while leaving her sister, 13-year-old Saba Masih, free to choose whether to go with Amjad Ali, a Muslim man who married her after the June 26 kidnapping.

Saba Masih, whose birth certificate indicates that she is now 13 but who testified that she is 17, said she did not want to return to her parents and tried to keep her little sister from returning to them. Their Muslim captors have repeatedly threatened the two girls that their parents would harm them if they returned.

The older sister is not willing to meet with any of the family members or her parents, said Rashid Rehman of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan.

“It’s normal behavior,” he told Compass. “She was tutored and brainwashed by the family of her husband Ali, and naturally they made up her mind that her parents will hurt her and treat her inhumanely. In fact that will never happen. Her family is really peaceful, and remained so peaceful the whole time the case was heard in high court.”

After more than three hours of heated legal arguments in the Multan branch of Lahore’s High Court, the judge deemed the oldest child sui juris – capable to handle her own affairs – based on her testimony that she is 17 years old and on a Lahore medical board’s ruling that she is between 15 and 17. The medical board may have been pressured to declare Saba Masih as an adult, according to the parents’ lawyers.

Conditions set in the ruling called for the parents not to “interfere” with Aneela Masih’s religious beliefs, that they be allowed to visit Saba Masih and that the groom’s family pay them 100,000 rupees (US$1,316) according to Pakistani marriage tradition.

Raised in a Christian family in the small town of Chowk Munda, the two girls were kidnapped on June 26 while traveling to visit their uncle in Sarwar Shaheed, northwest of Multan. Saba Masih was married to Ali the next day, and the kidnappers filed for custody of the girls on June 28 based on their alleged forced conversion to Islam.

Islamic jurisprudence and Pakistani law do not recognize the forced marriages of minors.


‘Pleased with Outcome’

“We are pleased with the outcome,” said Joseph Francis, head of the Center for Legal Aid Assistance and Settlement (CLAAS). He said, however, that the verdict was not complete without the return of Saba Masih to her family.

Francis and two other CLAAS lawyers were present at the Sept. 9 judgment despite repeated threats against their office over the course of the hearings.

CLAAS lawyer Akbar Durrani told Compass that it was the first time in his life that he had seen such a decision. “In my experience they have not given us the custody of minor girls even as young as 9 years old that have been declared Muslim,” said Durrani, who has been practicing law in Pakistan for 18 years. “It is a legal victory.”

As a minor, though, Aneela Masih’s previous declaration that she had converted from Christianity to Islam was not explicitly recognized. Calling the lawyers into his private chamber to present options before ruling, according to the parents’ lawyers, the judge said he would make no mention of the girls’ supposed conversion to Islam.

“This was a very favorable thing for us,” said Durrani. “He said, ‘I’m only going to decide the custody,’ so we decided this is acceptable to us.”

In his private chamber, the judge gave them different options, warning them that if they didn’t cooperate or accept his proposals he would make his own judgment. In the end he said he would hand the little girl to her mother and set the other free.

“Wherever she wants to go she can go,” the judge told the parties. “But if she wants to go with you she can go, and if she wants to go to her husband she can go.”

The girls, their mother and Ali were then invited into the judge’s chamber, where the judge announced the decision to them.

Durrani said that Aneela Masih went to her mother willingly, while her older sister gave a cry and tried to pull the 10-year-old back to her.

“The minor resisted for a fraction of a second to go to the mother,” Durrani said. “The little girl was under pressure; every time she was instructed by her elder sister not to talk to her mother.”

Her mother hugged her, and the lawyer said the little girl seemed very comfortable in her lap. There her mother tried to remove the veil from her daughter to look at her, but she resisted. Outside the courtroom, however, Aneela Masih removed the veil herself and later accepted food and drink. The girls had been fasting during Ramadan.

The lawyers said it was clear from the 10-year-old girl’s reactions that she was confused from the ordeal.


Supreme Court Question

Lawyers for the parents are weighing the options and feasibility of getting the oldest daughter back through the Supreme Court.

On Friday (Sept. 12), the girls’ uncle, Khalid Raheel, who has spearheaded the efforts to get them back, told CLAAS lawyers that Aneela was readjusting into her life at home. Raheel asked the family lawyers that they continue to try to get Saba back.

Rehman said he does not think the case would stand in the Supreme Court. “She willingly said, ‘I don’t want to go with my parents,’” he said.

Durrani and Francis, however, said they would continue to fight for her. “We’ll go to the Supreme Court for Saba,” said Francis.

“We will try getting the statement of Aneela and then will re-open the case,” said Durrani, adding that Aneela Masih had told her family, “Please get her back from that place.”

Rehman told Compass in a phone interview that Saba Masih’s statement that she is 17, her supposed embrace of Islam and her marriage by consent will make getting her back very difficult.

“She has admitted the marriage at the court and produced the marriage papers and has claimed that she’s over 16, so it was very difficult for us to prove our case that she’s a minor girl… because it is denied by Saba herself,” said Rehman.

He explained that the only way to secure the oldest daughter’s return to her family would be by proving she is a minor, something virtually impossible at this point because of her testimony. The court has refused to admit her birth certificate as evidence.

Saba Masih still refuses to communicate with her parents.


‘Frightened, Small Girl’

In court last week, both sisters sat in hijab dress fully veiled next to a policewoman from the Dar Ul Rahman women’s shelter, where the two girls had stayed since a July 29 hearing.

Their mother tried to talk to them and show them photos. Durrani said that Aneela Masih was responsive to her mother, but her older sister would pull her away, forbidding her from talking to her.

The judge had ruled that the girls stay at the shelter in order to think of their alleged conversion to Islam away from external pressures. Lawyers for the parents said that while in the shelter the girls were continually harassed and threatened that their family would not take them back.

Aneela Masih stated to the lawyers and her parents after the court decision that Ali’s family and their captors told them that everyone was Muslim – the lawyers, the judge, society – and that their parents could not take them back.

Knowing the attention the case of the two girls had attracted, Durrani said, the judge left the case till last. Yet the courtroom, he said, was full of “those who had kidnapped the girls, their supporters, the Islamic fanatics; all these were present in the court and interested in the hearing of the case.”

From the outset at last week’s hearing, the judge wanted to ask Aneela Masih questions about Islam to extract a statement on which he could rule on her custody. Durrani and colleague Justin Gill fought against the lawyer and the judge, arguing that as the 10-year-old was a minor, her statement on faith could not be valid and that she must be returned to her mother.

“We concentrated our efforts on Aneela, that at least we should have some relief to get her back and then we can fight in the Supreme Court if we wish to go for any other thing,” he said, referring to the older sister’s case.

The judge had decided to postpone the verdict till this Thursday (Sept. 18) and place the girls back in the Dar Ul Rahman shelter, where their mother could visit them for two hours every day. But the CLAAS lawyers said they feared waiting would only work against their case in the long run, making it more difficult to gain custody of the younger sister if both were exposed to more harassment and possible brainwashing.

“Even if she is a Muslim and has changed her religion, according to Islam a mother is the best custodian of the child,” Durrani said he and Gill argued.

Rehman said that Aneela Masih seemed frightened and, according to information he had obtained, the girl was afraid of her abductors and her own family even while in the shelter.

“She was a frightened, small girl,” he said. “They told her that if she returned to her parents she’d be treated unkindly.”


Threats, Car Chase

On Sept. 8, the day before the hearing, while traveling together from Lahore to Multan, the three lawyers for the Christian parents – Francis, Durrani and Gill – received threatening calls from the supporters of the girls’ kidnappers.

That night while, on their way back from dinner to a bishop’s house where they were staying in Multan, the CLAAS team was approached by armed men on motorcycles who threatened them, warning them to not go to the judgment hearing the next day.

“They said, ‘You should not be in court or you will be responsible for the consequences,’” said Durrani.

When nearby police saw the scene and approached, the armed men left the scene.

“We were afraid, but we knew we had to go,” Durrani said.

After the hearing, while traveling back to Lahore, Durrani said that Muslim fanatics chased them for about 100 kilometers (62 miles).

“Then we went to another city and got to the highway from another shortcut,” he said.

Durrani said the lawyers have many cases like this, causing them concern for their own safety.

“It is not the first time we get threats, but by the grace of God, and by the refuge of our Holy Ghost we are safe,” he said. “Every time we know the prayers of our church and other Christians are with us, which is why we are able to get the victory for our Lord.”

Report from Compass Direct News