Sanctions, a failing economy and coronavirus may cause Iran to change its involvement in Syria



AAP/EPA/Mehdi Marizad

Tony Walker, La Trobe University

Iran’s emergence as a hot zone for the coronavirus further complicates that country’s relationships with its neighbours at a time when its economy is sliding deeper into recession.

US President Donald Trump’s “maximum pressure” campaign on Iran by tightening economic sanctions coincides with a spreading health crisis that will test a hardline leadership.

Iranian confidence in its rulers is stretched in any case – there has been persistent unrest in which violent clashes with the authorities over economic hardship have resulted in dozens of deaths.

Battered by a sanctions regime, a deepening economic retrenchment and now a health emergency, Iran’s leaders will feel they are more than usually beleaguered.

Coming on top of America’s assassination of Iran’s military commander, Major General Qassim Suleimani, in early January, these are precarious moments for the Iranian leadership.




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Iran vows revenge for Soleimani’s killing, but here’s why it won’t seek direct confrontation with the US


Now the question is whether an overstretched Iran will feel obliged to pull back from its expensive involvement in Syria and its support for allies in Lebanon, Yemen and elsewhere in a troubled region.

In other words, will its leadership, under considerable pressure at home, stage a retreat, or even decide it is in its interests to seek some sort of accommodation with a US administration that is bent on tightening the screws? US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo last week imposed additional curbs on travel by figures close to Iran’s rulers.

The alternative is for Tehran to withdraw into its shell while it rides out economic and other pressures. Given the parlous state of Iran’s economy, this will be easier said than done.

In all of this, the survival of an embattled regime in power since the overthrow of the shah in 1979 will be paramount.

Whether that prompts a rethink of Iran’s refusal to negotiate a replacement nuclear deal without sanctions being lifted first remains to be seen.

These options will be canvassed behind the scenes in arguments between moderates close to Iran’s president, Hassan Rouhani, and hardline elements aligned with Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei.

As things stand, it appears the hardliners have secured the upper hand.

Iran’s parliamentary elections last week made this clear. Hardliners achieved a near clean sweep after the powerful Guardians Council excluded thousands of moderate candidates from the race.

Appointed by Khamenei, the council vets suitable candidates for elections.

Dozens of moderate members of parliament were denied the opportunity to recontest.

Ali Vaez, director of the Iran Project at the International Crisis Group, said:

This is 2004-2005 all over again: a shift of the centre of Iranian politics to the right, harbingered by a major victory by the hardliners in low-turnout parliamentary elections, followed by a takeover of the presidency by the hardliners.

This is potentially bad news for President Rouhani, who had sought an accommodation with the US and its allies after signing a deal in 2015 in which Iran agreed to freeze its nuclear weapons program.

Iran will have presidential elections next year.

Trump took the US out of the nuclear deal in 2018. As a consequence, Tehran has been edging away from commitments made under the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) to halt its enrichment processes.

Complicating all of this is the coronavirus epidemic in a country where health services are already stretched.

By mid-week, Iran had reported 95 cases, but this almost certainly significantly understates the situation. The country is believed to have suffered the most deaths from the virus outside China.

Iran’s efforts to curb the contagion are vastly hampered by the fact that it is a destination for millions of Shia pilgrims annually from surrounding countries. These include Afghanistan, Pakistan and the Gulf states.

The holy city of Qom has become a hotbed of the virus. Multiple deaths have been reported there.

Symbolic of Tehran’s challenges in getting the coronavirus under control is the case of its deputy health minister.

Earlier this week, Iraj Harirchi had denied the authorities were covering up the scale of the outbreak. He later self-reported he was suffering from the disease.

This will have done little to engender confidence in the government’s ability to contain the disease or provide a credible accounting of its spread in a country of 80 million.

Adding to concerns region-wide is that Iran is believed to be the source of infections that have emerged among its neighbours, including Afghanistan, Bahrain, Iraq, Kuwait and Oman.

All these countries have now imposed restrictions on travel to and from the Islamic Republic. Dubai, a transit hub and home to the airlines Emirates and Etihad, has suspended all passenger and cargo flights to Iran for a week as a “precautionary measure”.

Curbs on travel will have a further dampening effect on Iran’s economy. It’s already reeling from tough sanctions, which include wide-ranging restrictions on the country’s oil exports, its economic lifeblood.

In October, the International Monetary Fund reported Iran’s economy would contract by 9.5% in 2019. This was the worst year for Iran since 1984, at the height of the Iran-Iraq war.

In 2019, the only countries to do worse, according to the IMF, were Libya, in the grip of a civil war, which suffered a 19% contraction, and Venezuela, which shrank 35%.

The IMF and World Bank had predicted incremental growth, if that, for Iran in 2020. In view of coronavirus concerns, marginal growth now seems highly unlikely.




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Iran is also stricken by skyrocketing rates of inflation. The IMF put the figure for 2019 at 35.7%. The Statistical Centre for Iran assessed the number higher at nearly 50%.

Food and fuel costs have gone through the roof. This has been the main cause of the civil unrest that continues to beset the regime. With US-sponsored sanctions in place and now a health crisis bedevilling the country, there is little relief in sight.

What is clear is Iran is facing its most challenging moment since 1988 and the end of its war with Iraq in which an estimated 500,000 Iranians were killed. War costs bled the economy dry.

In some ways, the latest situation may be more challenging for the regime given that Iranians were unified in a war effort. That unity is now a distant memory.The Conversation

Tony Walker, Adjunct Professor, School of Communications, La Trobe University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

The first charges over Russian involvement in the US election have been laid – are there more to come?



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Special Counsel Robert Mueller (centre) has laid the first charges from his investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 US presidential election.
Reuters/Aaron Bernstein

Sandeep Gopalan, Deakin University

Special Counsel Robert Mueller has issued an indictment outlining charges against the Internet Research Agency LLC (and two related entities which had “various Russian government contracts”) and 13 Russian individuals. The defendants are charged with:

knowingly and intentionally conspiring with each other (and with persons known and unknown to the Grand Jury) to defraud the United States by impairing, obstructing, and defeating the lawful functions of the government through fraud and deceit for the purpose of interfering with the US political and electoral processes, including the presidential election of 2016.

The defendants, posing as activists, allegedly created “false personas” and fake accounts to operate social media accounts and pages on divisive social issues. The indictment does not specifically state that the individual defendants were connected to the Russian government, although at least one of them is known to be close to Putin. Specific to the 2016 election, the defendants’ goal was “supporting” the campaigns of Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders, and “disparaging” Hillary Clinton.

Their activities were not merely online. They gathered intelligence, staged rallies posing as Americans (in New York, Pennsylvania, Florida) and “communicated with unwitting individuals associated with the Trump campaign.”

Some of their efforts were effective. For instance, the fake Twitter account “Tennessee GOP”, which falsely claimed to be operated by the Republican Party in that state, attracted 100,000 followers.




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The indictment lists political advertisements taken out by the defendants. These included such messages as “Donald wants to defeat terrorism … Hillary wants to sponsor it”, “Ohio Wants Hillary 4 Prison”, and “Hillary is a Satan, and her crimes and lies had proved just how evil she is.”

Their tactics were insidious. They targeted vulnerable groups such as African-Americans and Muslims to sow hate and reduce Clinton’s turnout.

The indictment provides rich detail about the Russian agency: it was incorporated in 2013, based in St Petersburg, employed hundreds of people for its online work, and had a budget of millions. It described its work as “information warfare” against the US and wanted to “spread distrust towards the candidates and the political system in general” during the 2016 election. Again, no direct link to the Russian government or Putin is mentioned in relation to these actions.

It is alleged the company and the named individuals conspired to violate the Foreign Agent Registration Act, which stipulates certain informational requirements for agents of foreign principals who attempt to influence US public opinion, policy and legislation. They also violated the Federal Election Campaign Act, which prohibits foreigners from making contributions etc relating to electioneering communications. The indictment also alleges identity theft, bank and wire fraud, and violations of visa laws.

Crucially, the indictment does not state that the Trump campaign colluded with the Russians. It clearly notes that any contact with the campaign was “unwitting”.

Deputy Attorney-General Rod Rosenstein also clarified there was no allegation of collusion in the indictment and he stated that the Russians did not affect the outcome of the 2016 election. Following the indictment, President Trump has tweeted that his campaign “did nothing wrong – no collusion!”

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The president has also tweeted:

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This marks an important step for Trump. He is now apparently dismissing Russian influence after repeatedly refusing to condemn them, seeking to downplay their involvement in the election, and labelling it a hoax.

He has since pointed out that the indictment shows Russian involvement began in 2014 – before he entered the campaign. Moreover, the evidence shows that the Russians did not support only Trump. They also supported Bernie Sanders (who has blamed the Obama Administration for not doing more to tackle it), although this fact has not been adequately covered in the media. Further, the goal of the Russians was to sow distrust in the political system and undermine the electoral process – not specifically to help Trump.




Read more:
US approach to security is deeply troubling – and it’s not just about Trump


Does the indictment mean that the president and members of his campaign are in the clear? The answer is difficult to determine at this stage. The indictment leaves open the question as to whether other US individuals might have aided the defendants.

Subsequent actions by Mueller might bring forward additional charges against Trump or his team. Further, the indictment does nothing in relation to the potential obstruction-of-justice case against Trump, although the evidence on this is likely to be weak.

The ConversationFinally, from a purely political standpoint, it is hard to see from the evidence outlined that the Russian involvement was decisive. To be sure, they propped up fringe groups and spread discord, which local groups were fully capable of doing and did throughout the election. In addition, the sums of money documented in the indictment are small change in the context of the gargantuan amounts both campaigns spent during the 2016 campaign.

Sandeep Gopalan, Professor of Law, Deakin University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

USA Accusing Russia of Assisting Syria with Attack Helicopters


The link below is to an article reporting on possible Russian involvement in the Syrian conflict.

http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/middle-east-live/2012/jun/13/syria-civil-war-attack-helicopters-live.

Latest Persecution News – 13 June 2012


Christians in Pakistan Allege Seizure of Graveyard

The following article reports on the latest news of persecution in Pakistan’s Punjab Province, where a Christian graveyard is being lost to corruption.

http://www.compassdirect.org/english/country/pakistan/article_1592468.html

 

Injuries Severe after Bauchi, Nigeria Suicide Bomb Attack

The following article reports on the bombings of Christian churches by Boko Haram and alleged military involvement.

http://www.compassdirect.org/english/country/nigeria/article_1594492.html

 

Iranian Authorities Shut Church in Tehran

The following article reports on the continuing persecution of believers in Iran and the closure of a church in Tehran.

http://www.compassdirect.org/english/country/iran/article_1595449.html

 

The articles linked to above are by Compass Direct News and  relate to persecution of Christians around the world. Please keep in mind that the definition of ‘Christian’ used by Compass Direct News is inclusive of some that would not be included in a definition of Christian that I would use or would be used by other Reformed Christians. The articles do however present an indication of persecution being faced by Christians around the world.

Pastor, Church Official Shot Dead in Nigeria


Muslim militants of Boko Haram blamed for killings in Borno state.

JOS, Nigeria, June 10 (CDN) — Muslim extremists from the Boko Haram sect on Tuesday (June 7) shot and killed a Church of Christ in Nigeria (COCIN) pastor and his church secretary in Maiduguri, in northeastern Nigeria’s Borno state.

The Rev. David Usman, 45, and church secretary Hamman Andrew were the latest casualties in an upsurge of Islamic militancy that has engulfed northern Nigeria this year, resulting in the destruction of church buildings and the killing and maiming of Christians.

The Rev. Titus Dama Pona, pastor with the Evangelical Church Winning All (ECWA) in Maiduguri, told Compass that Pastor Usman was shot and killed by the members of the Boko Haram near an area of Maiduguri called the Railway Quarters, where the slain pastor’s church is located.

Pona said Christians in Maiduguri have become full of dread over the violence of Boko Haram, which seeks to impose sharia (Islamic law) on northern Nigeria.

“Christians have become the targets of these Muslim militants – we no longer feel free moving around the city, and most churches no longer carry out worship service for fear of becoming targets of these unprovoked attacks,” Pona said.

Officials at COCIN’s national headquarters in Jos, Plateau state, confirmed the killing of Pastor Usman. The Rev. Logan Gongchi of a COCIN congregation in Kerang, Jos, told Compass that area Christians were shocked at the news.

Gongchi said he attended Gindiri Theological College with Pastor Usman beginning in August 2003, and that both of them were ordained into pastoral ministry on Nov. 27, 2009.

“We knew him to be very gentle, an introvert, who was always silent in the class and only spoke while answering questions from our teachers,” Gongchi said. “He had a simple lifestyle and was easygoing with other students. He was very accommodating and ready at all times to withstand life’s pressures – this is in addition to being very jovial.”

Gongchi described Usman as “a pastor to the core because of his humility. I remember he once told me that he was not used to working with peasant farmers’ working tools, like the hoe. But with time he adapted to the reality of working with these tools on the farm in the school.”

Pastor Usman was excellent at counseling Christians and others while they were at the COCIN theological college, Gongchi said, adding that the pastor greatly encouraged him when he was suffering a long illness from 2005 to 2007.

“His encouraging words kept my faith alive, and the Lord saw me overcoming my ill health,” he said. “So when I heard the news about his murder, I cried.”

 

Motives

The late pastor had once complained about the activities of Boko Haram, saying that unless the Nigerian government faced up to the challenge of its attacks, the extremist group would consume the lives of innocent persons, according to Gongchi.

“Pastor Usman once commented on the activities of the Boko Haram, which he said has undermined the church not only in Maiduguri, but in Borno state,” Gongchi said. “At the time, he urged us to pray for them, as they did not know how the problem will end.”

Gongchi advised the Nigerian government to find a lasting solution to Boko Haram’s violence, which has also claimed the lives of moderate Muslim leaders and police.

The Railway Quarters area in Maiduguri housed the seat of Boko Haram until 2009, when Nigerian security agencies and the military demolished its headquarters and captured and killed the sect’s leader, Mohammed Yusuf, and some of his followers.

The killing of Pastor Usman marked the second attack on his church premises by the Muslim militants. The first attack came on July 29, 2009, when Boko Haram militants burned the church building and killed some members of his congregation.

On Monday (June 6), the militants had bombed the St. Patrick’s Catholic Church, along with other areas in Maiduguri, killing three people. In all, 14 people were killed in three explosions at the church and police stations, and authorities have arrested 14 people.

The Boko Haram name is interpreted figuratively as “against Western education,” but some say it can also refer to the forbidding of the Judeo-Christian faith. They say the word “Boko” is a corruption in Hausa language for the English word “Book,” referring to the Islamic scripture’s description of Jews and Christians as “people of the Book,” while “Haram” is a Hausa word derived from Arabic meaning, “forbidding.”

Boko Haram leaders have openly declared that they want to establish an Islamic theocratic state in Nigeria, and they reject democratic institutions, which they associate with Christianity. Their bombings and suspected involvement in April’s post-election violence in Nigeria were aimed at stifling democracy, which they see as a system of government built on the foundation of Christian scripture.

Christians as well as Muslims suffered many casualties after supporters of Muslim presidential candidate Muhammudu Buhari lost the April 16 federal election to Goodluck Jonathan, a Christian. Primarily Muslim rioters claimed vote fraud, although international observers praised the polls as the fairest since 1999.

Nigeria’s population of more than 158.2 million is almost evenly divided between Christians, who make up 51.3 percent of the population and live mainly in the south, and Muslims, who account for 45 percent of the population and live mainly in the north. The percentages may be less, however, as those practicing indigenous religions may be as high as 10 percent of the total population, according to Operation World.

Report From Compass Direct News
http://www.compassdirect.org/

 

Two Christians Slain in Attack Outside Church in Pakistan


Muslim youths kill two, wound two others after dispute over teasing of Christian women.

KARACHI, Pakistan, March 22 (CDN) — Two Christians were gunned down and two others are in a serious condition with bullet wounds after Muslim youths attacked them outside a church building in Hyderabad last night, witnesses said.

Residents of Hurr Camp, a colony of working-class Christians in Hyderabad in Sindh Province, were reportedly celebrating the 30th anniversary of their Salvation Army church when a group of Muslim youths gathered outside the building and started playing music loudly on their cell phones. They also started teasing Christian women as they arrived for the celebration, according to reports.

Christians Younis Masih, 47, Siddique Masih, 45, Jameel Masih, 22, and a 20-year-old identified as Waseem came out of the church building to stop the Muslim youths from teasing the Christian women, telling them to respect the sanctity of the church. A verbal clash ensued, after which the Muslim youths left, only to return with handguns.

Witnesses told Compass by phone that the Muslim youths opened fire on the Christians, killing Younis Masih and Jameel Masih instantly, and seriously injuring Siddique Masih and Waseem. The injured men have been transferred to a hospital in Karachi, the provincial capital of Sindh.

Younis Masih is survived by his wife and four children, while Jameel Masih was married only a month ago, and his sudden death has put his family into a state of shock.

“My son had gone to the church to attend the anniversary celebrations from our family…a few hours later we were told about his death,” a wailing Surraya Bibi told Compass by telephone from Hyderabad. “I got him married only a month ago. The cold-blooded murderers have destroyed my family, but our most immediate concern is Jameel’s wife, who has gone completely silent since the news was broken to her.”

She said the local police’s indifference towards the brutal incident had exacerbated the Christians’ sorrow.

“The police were acting as if it was not a big deal,” she said. “They did not register a case until late at night, when all of us blocked the main Hyderabad Expressway along with the two dead bodies for some hours.”

Jameel Masih’s paternal uncle, Anwar Masih, told Compass that police were biased against the Christians, as “none of the accused has been arrested so far, and they are roaming the area without any fear.”

He said police had taken into custody some teenagers who had no involvement in the killings.

“This has been done just to show their senior officials that they are not sitting idle,” he said.

Anwar Masih said the families had little hope for justice, because “if we have to dishonor the dead bodies by placing them on the roads to get a case registered, what should we hope for when the investigations begin?”

He said that during their protest, some leaders of the Muttahida Qaumi Movement, a regional political party known for its secular but often violent ideology, arrived and suggested the Christians retaliate against the Muslims.

“We told them that as Christians we are not going to take the law into our hands,” Anwar Masih said.

He said that Jameel Masih’s father, Sardar Masih, and the other Christians would visit the Baldia Colony police station Wednesday morning (March 23) to see whether there has been any progress in the investigation.

“Please pray for us,” he said.

Compass made efforts to contact Hyderabad District Police Officer Munir Ahmed Sheikh to ask about progress in the case and whether any of the named suspects have been arrested by police, but the calls were unanswered.

The killing of the two Christians comes a week after another Christian, sentenced to life imprisonment on false blasphemy charges, died in Karachi Central Prison. The family of Qamar David claims he was murdered on March 15, while conflicting reports from the jail suggest that he died of heart failure.

If David died from torture, yesterday’s killings bring the number of Christians murdered in March alone to four, the most prominent among them being Federal Minister for Minority Affairs Shahbaz Bhatti, who was assassinated in Islamabad on March 2 for opposing the country’s controversial blasphemy laws.

Report from Compass Direct News
http://www.compassdirect.org

Supreme Court in India Rejects Bail of Orissa Legislator


BJP assemblyman convicted in two murders in 2008 violence says he’s innocent.

NEW DELHI, January 28 (CDN) — India’s Supreme Court on Tuesday (Jan. 25) rejected the bail granted to Hindu nationalist Orissa state legislator Manoj Pradhan following his conviction in the murder of a Christian, Parikhita Nayak.

Pradhan, of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), was convicted on June 29, 2010 of “causing grievous hurt” and “rioting” and sentenced to seven years of prison in the murder of Nayak, of Budedi village, who died on Aug. 27, 2008. In its decision, the Supreme Court ordered the High Court to reconsider its decision to grant him bail.

Pradhan had been granted bail by the High Court on July 6 on grounds having won the April 2009 state assembly election. Contesting the election from jail, he had become a Member of the Legislative Assembly (MLA) representing Kandhamal’s G. Udayagiri constituency. On Sept. 9, 2010 he was convicted in the murder of Bikram Nayak of Budedipada, for which he was sentenced to six years of rigorous imprisonment (see http://www.compassdirect.org, “Court in India Convicts Legislator in Second Murder Case,”
Sept. 10, 2010). He received bail within 40 days of that conviction.

Parikhita Nayak’s widow, Kanaka Rekha Nayak, had challenged the granting of bail before the Supreme Court. She pointed out in her petition that there were seven other murder cases against Pradhan, including the second conviction.

“Being an MLA was not grounds for granting of bail,” she told Compass.

Nayak’s petition also argued that, because of his position, Pradhan intimidated witnesses outside of jail. She told Compass that, after receiving bail in spite of their convictions, Pradhan and an accomplice continued to roam the area, often intimidating her.

In the Supreme Court decision, Justice B. Sudarshan Reddy and Justice S.S. Nijjaron wrote that the High Court should have taken into consideration the findings of the trial court and the alleged involvement of the respondent in more than one case.

“The [bail] order clearly reflects that the High Court was mainly impressed by the fact that the respondent is a sitting MLA,” they wrote. “In the circumstances, we find it difficult to sustain the order.”

Pradhan was accused of stopping Parikhita Nayak and then calling together a large group of persons armed with axes and other weapons, who then hacked Nayak to death; afterward they sought to dispose of the body by burning it.

Pradhan denied all charges against him, telling Compass by telephone that they were “baseless.”

“I have full faith in the judiciary system, and justice will be done,” Pradhan said, adding that he and other “innocent people” have been arrested due to political pressure and that the real culprits are at large.

On his next move, he said he would surrender himself to police custody if necessary and then file another application for bail.

Dr. John Dayal, secretary general of the All India Christian Council, told Compass that he was pleased.

“Pradhan deserves to be behind bars in more than one case, and it was a travesty of justice that he was roaming around terrorizing people,” Dayal said. “He was not involved in every single act of violence, but he was the ring leader. He planned the violence; he led some of the gangs.”

Dibakar Parichha of the Cuttack-Bhubaneswar Catholic Archdiocese told Compass that police records showed that Pradhan was a “field commander of Hindu extremists sent to kill Christians.”

The state government’s standing counsel, Suresh Tripathy, supported this week’s cancellation of bail.

 

Cases against Legislator

Pradhan told Compass that a total of 289 complaints were registered against him in various police stations during the August-September 2008 attacks on Christians in Kandhamal district, Orissa, out of which charge sheets were filed in only 13 cases.

Of the 13, he has been acquitted in seven and convicted in two murder cases, with six more cases pending against him – “Three in Lower Court, two in the High Court and One in the Supreme Court,” Pradhan told Compass.

Of the 13 cases, seven involved murder; of those murder cases, he has been acquitted in three.

Cases have been filed against Pradhan for rioting, rioting with deadly weapons, unlawful assembly, causing disappearance of evidence of offense, murder, wrongfully restraining someone, wrongful confinement, mischief by fire or explosive substance with intent to destroy houses, voluntarily causing grievous hurt and voluntarily causing grievous hurt by dangerous weapons or means.

Pradhan was also accused of setting fire to houses of people belonging to the minority Christian community.

The Times of India reported Pradhan as “one of the close disciples” of Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP or World Hindu Council) leader Swami Laxamananda Saraswati, whose assassination on Aug. 23, 2008, touched off the anti-Christian violence in Kandhamal and other parts of Orissa.

 

Status of Trials

Expressing complete dissatisfaction in the trial system, Dayal told Compass that the two Fast Track courts are “meting out injustice at speed.”

“One of the main reasons,” he said, “is lack of police investigation, the inadequacy of the department of projections to find competent public prosecutors, and the inadequacy of the victim community to find a place in the justice process.”

As a result, he said, victims are not appropriately represented and killers are not appropriately prosecuted.

“Therefore, the two courts find enough reason to let people off,” Dayal said.

Complaints filed at a police station in Kandhamal after the violence of 2008 totaled 3,232, and the number of cases registered was 831.

The government of Orissa set up two Fast Track courts to try cases related to the violence that spread to more than a dozen districts of Orissa. The attacks killed more than 100 people and burned 4,640 houses, 252 churches and 13 educational institutions.

The number of violent cases in the Fast Track courts is 231 (non-violent cases numbered 46, with total cases thus reaching 277). Of the violent cases, 128 have resulted in acquittals and 59 in convictions; 44 are pending.

Of the 722 people facing trial, 183 have been convicted, while 639 have been acquitted.

Report from Compass Direct News

Legal Status Foreseen for Christianity in Buddhist Bhutan


Country’s religious regulatory authority expected to consider recognition before year’s end.

NEW DELHI, November 4 (CDN) — For the first time in Bhutan’s history, the Buddhist nation’s government seems ready to grant much-awaited official recognition and accompanying rights to a miniscule Christian population that has remained largely underground.

The authority that regulates religious organizations will discuss in its next meeting – to be held by the end of December – how a Christian organization can be registered to represent its community, agency secretary Dorji Tshering told Compass by phone.

Thus far only Buddhist and Hindu organizations have been registered by the authority, locally known as Chhoedey Lhentshog. As a result, only these two communities have the right to openly practice their religion and build places of worship.

Asked if Christians were likely to get the same rights soon, Tshering replied, “Absolutely” – an apparent paradigm shift in policy given that Bhutan’s National Assembly had banned open practice of non-Buddhist and non-Hindu religions by passing resolutions in 1969 and in 1979.

“The constitution of Bhutan says that Buddhism is the country’s spiritual heritage, but it also says that his majesty [the king] is the protector of all religions,” he added, explaining the basis on which the nascent democracy is willing to accept Christianity as one of the faiths of its citizens.

The former king of Bhutan, Jigme Singye Wangchuck, envisioned democracy in the country in 2006 – after the rule of an absolute monarchy for over a century. The first elections were held in 2008, and since then the government has gradually given rights that accompany democracy to its people.

The government’s move to legalize Christianity seems to have the consent of the present king, Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck, who is respected by almost all people and communities in the country. In his early thirties, the king studied in universities in the United States and the United Kingdom. Prime Minister Lyonchen Jigmey Thinley is also believed to have agreed in principle to recognition of other faiths.

According to source who requested anonymity, the government is likely to register only one Christian organization and would expect it to represent all Christians in Bhutan – which would call for Christian unity in the country.

All Hindus, who constitute around 22 percent of Bhutan’s less than 700,000 people, are also represented by one legal entity, the Hindu Dharma Samudaya (Hindu Religion Community) of Bhutan, which was registered with the Chhoedey Lhentshog authority along with Buddhist organizations a year ago.

Tshering said the planned discussion at the December meeting is meant to look at technicalities in the Religious Organizations Act of 2007, which provides for registration and regulation of religious groups with intent to protect and promote the country’s spiritual heritage. The government began to enforce the Act only in November 2009, a year after the advent of democracy.

Asked what some of the government’s concerns are over allowing Christianity in the country, Tshering said “conversion must not be forced, because it causes social tensions which Bhutan cannot afford to have. However, the constitution says that no one should be forced to believe in a religion, and that aspect will be taken care of. We will ensure that no one is forced to convert.”

The government’s willingness to recognize Christians is partly aimed at bringing the community under religious regulation, said the anonymous source. This is why it is evoking mixed response among the country’s Christians, who number around 6,000 according to rough estimates.

Last month, a court in south Bhutan sentenced a Christian man to three years of prison for screening films on Christianity – which was criticized by Christian organizations around the world. (See http://www.compassdirect.org, “Christian in Bhutan Imprisoned for Showing Film on Christ,” Oct. 18.)

The government is in the process of introducing a clause banning conversions by force or allurement in the country’s penal code.

Though never colonized, landlocked Bhutan has historically seen its sovereignty as fragile due to its small size and location between two Asian giants, India and China. It has sought to protect its sovereignty by preserving its distinct cultural identity based on Buddhism and by not allowing social tensions or unrest.

In the 1980s, when the king sought to strengthen the nation’s cultural unity, ethnic Nepalese citizens, who are mainly Hindu and from south Bhutan, rebelled against it. But a military crackdown forced over 100,000 of them – some of them secret Christians – to either flee to or voluntarily leave the country for neighboring Nepal.

Tshering said that while some individual Christians had approached the authority with queries, no organization had formally filed papers for registration.

After the December meeting, if members of the regulatory authority feel that Chhoedey Lhentshog’s mandate does not include registering a Christian organization, Christians will then be registered by another authority, the source said.

After official recognition, Christians would require permission from local authorities to hold public meetings. Receiving foreign aid or inviting foreign speakers would be subject to special permission from the home ministry, added the source.

Bhutan’s first contact with Christians came in the 17th century when Guru Rimpoche, a Buddhist leader and the unifier of Bhutan as a nation state, hosted the first two foreigners, who were Jesuits. Much later, Catholics were invited to provide education in Bhutan; the Jesuits came to Bhutan in 1963 and the Salesians in 1982 to run schools. The Salesians, however, were expelled in 1982 on accusations of proselytizing, and the Jesuits left the country in 1988.

“As Bhutanese capacities (scholarly, administrative and otherwise) increased, the need for active Jesuit involvement in the educational system declined, ending in 1988, when the umbrella agreement between the Jesuit order and the kingdom expired and the administration of all remaining Jesuit institutions was turned over to the government,” writes David M. Malone, Canada’s high commissioner to India and ambassador to Bhutan, in the March 2008 edition of Literary Review of Canada.

After a Christian organization is registered, Christian institutions may also be allowed once again in the country, given the government’s stress on educating young Bhutanese.

A local Christian requesting anonymity said the community respects Bhutan’s political and religious leaders, especially the king and the prime minister, will help preserve the country’s unique culture and seeks to contribute to the building of the nation.

Report from Compass Direct News

Government crackdown on missionary presence could get worse


The Kazakh government continues to put pressure on foreign missionaries attempting to obtain visas to stay in the country. The Kazakh church is prepared for matters to get worse, reports MNN.

"Foreign involvement for the purpose of missionary work in Kazakhstan becomes increasingly difficult to happen," confirms Eric Mock, vice president of Ministry Operations for Slavic Gospel Association.

Norwegian news network Forum 18 conveys a number of instances in which the Kazakh government has denied visas to foreign missionaries of various minority faiths. A missionary visa, as it is, lasts only 180 days and cannot be renewed.

Mock says there is some fear that the visas will become even more restrictive. According to Forum 18, the Nur Otan Party has even created a document calling for further crackdown on "non-traditional faiths." Forum 18 quotes a report as saying, "The Nur Otan Party should devote special attention to the activity of non-traditional religious movements of destructive character. The destructive impact of such movements is very great."

With clear contempt toward the presence of evangelical Christian missionaries as well as missionaries for other minority faiths, the church as well as ministries like SGA need to prepare for any change. "[We need to] be sure that we do not assume that the world that we minister in today is the same that we minister in tomorrow," says Mock.

Whether or not missionary presence is increasingly restricted does not directly affect SGA, since their ministry mainly focuses on helping nationals. Still, won’t a crackdown harm the church? Mock says not as much as you might think.

"There is one thing that I saw [in Kazakhstan] that mostly encouraged my heart," explains Mock. "I saw a group of ethnic Kazakh young men who God has raised up with a passion to reach their own people. I had not really seen that in the past; it [had been] more of a Russian Baptist influence, but now I’m seeing Kazakh Baptist."

As long as changes don’t happen too abruptly, Mock says he believes the church will be able to handle any blows headed their way. The energy generated by young church leaders could be just what the Kazakh church needs to become self-sustaining. "With this new generation coming up, I think even with law changes, God has raised up this younger generation to make a profound impact for the sake of the Gospel."

If laws are passed too quickly or even just gradually, their effects will still of course be evident in the church. Mock says the best thing that we can do for them now is to pray. "There is nothing more important than praying for the believers in Kazakhstan to be passionate in reaching their own people, and to see more churches planted with that same commitment to advance the Gospel."

Report from the Christian Telegraph