Christians Concerned over Acquittals in Orissa, India Violence


Lax investigation, prosecution, lack of witness protection cited as reasons for injustice.

NEW DELHI, September 30 (CDN) — Only 24 people have been convicted a year after anti-Christian mayhem took place in India’s Orissa state, while the number of acquittals has risen to 95, compounding the sense of helplessness and frustration among surviving Christians.

Dr. John Dayal, secretary general of the All India Christian Council, called the trials “a travesty of justice.”

Last month a non-profit group, the Peoples Initiative for Justice and Peace (PIJP), reportedly found that as many as 2,500 complaints were filed with police following the violence in August-September 2008 in the eastern state’s Kandhamal district. The violence killed at least 100 people and burned more than 4,500 houses and over 250 churches and 13 educational institutions. It also rendered 50,000 people, mostly Christian, homeless.

Police, however, registered only 827 complaints and arrested fewer than 700 people, even though 11,000 people were named as attackers in those complaints, according to a PIJP survey.

“The manner of the judicial processes in the Kandhamal fast-track courts is tragic where all too many people have managed to escape conviction for crimes as serious as conspiracy for brutal, premeditated murder and deliberate arson,” Dayal told Compass.

Among those acquitted was Manoj Pradhan, who allegedly led mobs that killed Christians and burned their houses a few months before he became a state legislator from the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

Facing charges in five cases of murder and six of arson, Pradhan has been acquitted in three cases.

On Thursday (Sept. 24), the judge of Fast Track Court-II, C.R. Das, acquitted Pradhan and another suspect, Mantu Nayak, on charges of killing Khageswar Digal for refusing to “reconvert” to Hinduism, according to the Press Trust of India (PTI). Digal was a 60-year-old Catholic and resident of Shankarakhol area in Chakapada Block in Kandhamal.

“The court acquitted the BJP MLA [Member of Legislative Assembly] and Nayak due to lack of proper evidence against them,” Special Public Prosecutor Pratap Patra told PTI.

The Rev. Ajay Singh, an activist from the Catholic Archdiocese of Cuttack-Bhubaneswar, said Digal’s son testified in court that he was witness to the killing of his father and knew the killers, and yet the accused were acquitted.

“It was a brutal murder, possibly a case of human sacrifice,” Singh said.

Digal was dragged from a vehicle before being killed on Sept. 24 last year – one month after the assassination of Vishwa Hindu Parishad (World Hindu Council or VHP) leader Swami Laxmanananda Saraswati by Maoists (extreme Marxists), which triggered the violence as Hindu extremists wrongly blamed Christians.

Singh spoke to the son of the deceased Digal, Rajendra Digal, who said his parents left their village after the violence and took shelter in the state capital, Bhubaneswar.

The elder Digal, who owned a grocery shop and 35 goats, returned to his village to see his house and livestock. After selling some of the goats, he boarded a public bus to Phulbani, Kandhamal district headquarters, to start his journey back to Bhubaneswar around noon on Sept. 24. As the bus started, however, some assailants allegedly led by Pradhan stopped the bus and dragged Digal out. They also broke his leg.

The attackers were said to have taken Digal to his village, where they looted his shop. Then they allegedly took him and eight of his goats to a nearby forest, where they feasted on the goat meat throughout the night.

When Rajendra Digal heard about it, he informed police, who allegedly took no interest in the complaint. Twelve days later, his father’s body, naked and burned with acid, was found 40 kilometers (25 miles) from the village. His genitals had also been chopped off.

Rajendra Digal said he believes his father may have been the victim of human sacrifice involving ritual feasting and torture.

Shoddy Probe, Lack of Evidence

A representative of the Christian Legal Association (CLA) said the police had been conducting investigations improperly.

The CLA source pointed out that in another Fast-Track Court-I case in which Pradhan was one of the accused, police had wrongly recorded the age of the informant, Bhutia Digal.

“The court observed that if the police could not cite the age of the informant correctly, how could they have investigated the case properly?” said the source, adding that such discrepancies were found in far too many cases.

During the violence in August-September 2008, the BJP was part of the ruling coalition with a local party, the Biju Janata Dal (BJD). The latter recently broke ties with the Hindu nationalist BJP, blaming it for violence in March, a month before the state assembly election.

The BJP lost the April-May election, and the BJD emerged as the stand-alone ruling party. It is believed that the state administration began taking action against the assailants only after the coalition split in March – six months too late, which possibly provided enough time for suspects to remove evidence and threaten witnesses.

Witnesses are still being threatened or bribed, according to rights groups.

On Thursday (Sept. 24), the day the BJP legislator was acquitted, the fast-track court also released five others accused of arson in the Tikabali area of Kandhamal in a separate case, reported the PTI.

Singh said the witnesses were either intimidated or bribed and therefore turned hostile to prosecutors in court. Friends of the accused took the witnesses to the court in their vehicle, he pointed out.

Dayal said the Orissa High Court should have taken notice of the increasing number of acquittals.

“A man now an MLA seems to be beyond the law,” he said. “I would demand a high-powered judicial review by the High Court of Orissa itself, or failing that, by civil society, which should set up an independent commission of retired judges and senior lawyers.”

Singh said police investigations and prosecutions were a “sham.” There is also “a pressing need for witness protection,” he said.

He added that there were reports of witnesses being intimidated and threatened in various villages, such as Dodingia, K. Nuagam, Phiringia and Solesoru. “Police are not entertaining complaints of the threat to the witnesses,” Singh said.

Dayal highlighted three essential problems: The quality of the charge-sheets prepared by police; the role of the public prosecutor in pressing the charges as prepared by police; and the circumstances under which eyewitnesses, “often sons and daughters of those killed, cannot attest to the truth or are forced into silence,” he said.

“India does not have a witness-protection program, and surely Kandhamal has none at all,” Dayal said. “Witnesses have to pass through an aggressive environment which affectively silences them. They are human beings and fear future violence, having seen brutal violence in the past.”

Singh and Dayal demanded that the cases be heard outside Kandhamal, preferably outside Orissa state.

SIDEBAR

First Life Sentences Handed Down for Orissa, India Killing

NEW DELHI, September 30 (Compass Direct News) – A fast-track court in Orissa state on Sept. 23 delivered its first life sentences for those convicted of murder in 2008 violence in Kandhamal district, sentencing five people to life imprisonment for their involvement in the killing of Pastor Akbar Digal.

Digal, 40, pastor of a Baptist church in Tatamaha village under Raikia police jurisdiction in Kandhamal district, was killed on Aug. 26, 2008 after refusing the slayers’ demand that he forsake Christianity and convert to Hinduism. His body was reportedly cut to pieces and then burned.

He is survived by his wife, Ludhia Digal, and five children.

Additional Sessions Judge Sobhan Kumar Das of Fast Track Court-I at Phulbani district headquarters sentenced Sabita Pradhan, 30; Papu Pradhan, 30; Abinash Pradhan, 29; Dharmaraj Pradhan, 32; and Mania Pradhan, 28, to life in prison and a fine of 5,000 rupees (US$104). The five were arrested after Pastor Digal’s wife filed a First Information Report on Aug. 29, 2008.

Previous to these sentences, two fast-track courts had sentenced 12 people to prison for terms ranging only from four to six years. The government set up the two fast-track courts to try nearly 900 cases related to anti-Christian violence that erupted in August 2008. The first conviction was determined on June 30.

The special Phulbani court also sentenced six others to three years’ rigorous imprisonment on Sept. 22 for an arson attack on a journalist’s house in Kandhamal’s Phiringia village on Dec. 12, 2007.

Police had arrested 11 people in this case, but the court acquitted five for “lack of evidence.” Convicted were Ganpati Kanhar, Rabindra Kanhar, Parmeshwar Kanhar, Daleswar Kanhar, Tuba Kanhar and Vijay Kanhar, whose ages range from 25 to 40 years. They were also fined 4,000 rupees (US$83) each.

Report from Compass Direct News 

Muslims in Bangladesh Seize Land Used by Church


Bengali-speaking settlers file case against Christians; one threatens, ‘I will finish your life.’

DHAKA, Bangladesh, September 1 (CDN) — Bengali-speaking, Muslim settlers have seized five acres of abandoned government property used by a church and falsedly charged Christians with damaging the land in southeastern Bangladesh’s Khagrachari hill district, Christian leaders said.

Kiron Joti Chakma, field director of Grace Baptist Church in Khagrachari district, told Compass that the settlers had taken over the church building and the five acres of land in Reservechara village in June and filed a case on Aug. 4 against five tribal Christians. The Bengali-speaking Muslims had come from other areas of Bangladesh in a government resettlement program that began in 1980.

“In the case, the settlers mentioned that the Christians had cut the trees and damaged the crops on their land and that they should pay 250,000 taka [US$3,690] as compensation,” said Chakma. “We cultivated pineapple in the land around the church. But the settlers damaged all of our pineapple trees and built two houses there.”

The government has allowed the Christians to use the land. Tribal leaders said that land-grabbing in the area hill tracts, undulating landscape under Dighinala police jurisdiction 300 kilometers (186 miles) southeast of the Dhaka, began again during the army-backed interim government of 2007-2008.

“It is still continuing, and our demands to stop land-grabbing do not rate very high with the administration and law enforcement agencies,” said one of the accused, 32-year-old Mintu Chakma.

When he went to the police station regarding the false case filed against the Christians, he said, the leader of the Bengali settlers was there and threatened him in front of officers, telling him, “I can devour dozens of people like you – I will finish your life.”

Church leaders have informed a nearby army camp of the seizure. Military officers said they would take action, but they have done nothing so far, Christians said.

“Our leaders informed the army zone commander, and he assured us they would take necessary action, but nothing has happened so far against those land grabbers and arsonists,” said 25-year-old Liton Chakma (Chakma is the name of the tribe), one of the Christians accused in the Grace Baptist case.

The Muslim settlers had burned a Seventh-day Adventist Church building in 2008 in Boachara village, close to the Grace Baptist Christians’ village, in an effort to frighten tribal people away from becoming Christian, said Liton Chakma. He told Compass that Bengali settlers had also hindered their attempt to construct the church building in August in 2007.

“Many new believers saw nothing had happened to the arsonists, and many of them reverted to their previous Buddhism,” he said. “The army and local administration allowed them to run wild. They always threaten to beat us and file cases against us.”

Mintu Chakma said that Muslim settlers seized a garden next to his house in 2007.

“They not only destroyed my pineapple garden, but they built a mosque there,” he said.

Land Ownership

Local police inspector Suvas Pal told Compass that neither tribal people nor Bengali settlers were the owners of that land. It is government-owned, abandoned land, he said.

“The Bengali settlers claim that the land was assigned to lease to them, but we did not find any copy of lease in the deputy commissioner’s office,” said Pal. “On the other hand, the tribal people could not show any papers of their possession of the land.”

Investigating Officer Omar Faruque told Compass that the Muslim settlers had built two houses there, though they did not live there or nearby.

“I told the Bengali settlers that if they [tribal Christians] worship in the church there, then do not disturb them,” said Faruque.

Dipankar Dewan, headman of the tribal community, told Compass that the tribal Christians have an historical claim to the land.

“The land belonged to the forefathers of tribal Christians, so they can lay claim to the property by inheritance,” said Dewan.

During conflict between tribal people and Bengali people in the hill tracts, the tribal people left the country and took shelter in neighboring India, leaving much of their land abandoned. Bengali settlers took over some of the land, while the government leased other tracts to Bengali settlers, Dewan said.

“Many lands of the tribal people were grabbed in the hill tracts in the two years of state-of-emergency period of the previous army-backed, interim government,” he said. “Those Bengali settlers tried to grab the land during the tenure of the army-backed, interim government.”

Members of the Shanti Bahini, tribal guerrillas who fought for autonomy in the hill tracts, ended a 25-years revolt in the Chittagong Hill Tracts area in 1997 under a peace treaty in which the government was to withdraw troops and restore land acquired by settlers to local tribesmen.

Some 2,000 Shanti Bahini guerrillas surrendered their weapons following the 1997 treaty. But the tribal people say many aspects of the treaty remain unfulfilled, including restoration of rights and assigning jobs to them.

The guerrillas had fought for autonomy in the hill and forest region bordering India and Burma (Myanmar) in a campaign that left nearly 8,500 troops, rebels and civilians killed.

Recently the Awami League government ordered one army brigade of nearly 2,500 troops to pull out from the hill tract, and the withdrawal that began early last month is expected to be completed soon. Four brigades of army are still deployed in the hill tracts comprising three districts – Rangamati, Khagrachari and Bandarban.

Report from Compass Direct News 

MEXICO: CHRISTIANS JAILED FOR ACTEAL MASSACRE WIN RELEASE


Supreme Court rules their rights were violated; violence threatened in Chiapas.

MEXICO CITY, Aug. 13 (Compass Direct News) – At least 20 men accused of participating in a massacre in Chiapas state in December 1997 left prison early this morning – amid concerns over threats of violence at their home communities near San Cristobal de las Casas – following a Supreme Court ruling yesterday that their convictions violated fundamental norms of justice.

The release of the 20 men, most of them evangelical Christians, came after Mexico’s Supreme Court ruled in a 4-1 decision that they had been convicted in unfair trials in which prosecutors fabricated testimony and illegally obtained evidence. Area evangelicals view the imprisoned Christians as caught between survivors clamoring for convictions and government police and military forces eager to shift blame away from their minions following the Dec. 22, 1997 killing of 45 civilians in Acteal village.

“Acteal is a double tragedy,” attorney Javier Cruz Angulo reportedly said after the ruling. “On the one hand you have an abominable massacre, and on the other more than 50 human beings imprisoned without proofs.”

The court will review the cases of another 31 men convicted in connection with the massacre, and six more will be given new trials, according to news reports.

The identities of those released were not immediately known. As 32 of those imprisoned for the crime were Christians and another 15 received Christ while in prison, most of the previous total of 57 prisoners are Christians.

“In prison, the majority of us converted to the Presbyterian faith,” Tomas Perez Mendez, 60, told El Universal before the Supreme Court decision; at press time it was not known if he was among those released.

He told the Mexican newspaper that he bears no resentment even though his imprisonment led to illnesses that contributed to the deaths of family members. “My wife is ill, my father and one brother died from sorrow at seeing us here in prison . . . I no longer feel anger or resentment against those who accused me, and I plan to preach.”

Authorities had told a total of 57 prisoners that they would be freed after their paperwork was reviewed, a source in Chiapas told Compass.

“Naturally, those prisoners who had been informed of their impending release last week are extremely disappointed, as well wondering if they will ever be released,” said the source, who requested anonymity.

Two brothers, Pablo and Juan Hernandez Perez, reportedly said that they have no home to return to; their house was burned to the ground while they were in prison. Another hoping for release, Javier Vazquez Luna, told El Universal he played no part in the crime, and that indeed his father was one of the victims of the massacre.

The Supreme Court justices stated that they were not ruling on the guilt or innocence of the men, only on the violation of due process.

“During the investigation, their constitutional rights were violated,” the court said in a statement. “The majority of cases … were based on the use of illegally obtained evidence.”

In recent months relatives of the imprisoned men ratcheted up citizen campaigns seeking their freedom, backed by many others. For several years Presbyterian churches have carried banners outside their buildings requesting justice for those wrongly convicted in the Acteal violence. The Chiapas government had said it could do nothing because the case was under federal jurisdiction.

Pressure to reopen the case has intensified each December with remembrances of the massacre. In spite of intense political pressure to the contrary, the Supreme Court finally agreed to review the facts.

Threats of Violence

Amid statements by survivors of the Acteal crime that tensions could heighten in the area – and a grim warning from a former leader of Las Abejas, a supposedly non-violent group sympathetic to rebel militants whose members were killed in the massacre – defense attorneys and family members of the released men appealed to authorities to provide security and guarantee social peace.

“A former leader of the Abejas made a public declaration that if the men returned to their homes, the Abejas would be waiting for them, and the released prisoners would be repaid for the pain they caused 12 years ago,” the Chiapas source told Compass. “Tensions exist, and with statements like he made, the government is nervous about letting the men return to their homes due to possible violence. At this point, there are still no violent actions, but the threat of an outbreak is real.”

At press time authorities had prevented the released men from returning to the Acteal area, keeping them in a hotel in Berriozabal after loading them onto a truck through a back door of the El Amate prison at 3:35 a.m., El Universal reported.

Initially the prison director refused to see the men’s lawyers when they arrived at El Amate prison in Chiapas near midnight with orders for their release, the Compass source said.

“When he finally relented and met with the lawyers, it was only under extreme pressure from the Mexico City lawyers who refused to be dissuaded,” the source said. “There was an extended time of wrangling before the warden eventually released the prisoners, only under threat of returning to the Supreme Court and the Human Rights Commission about his intransigence.”

The released men had been promised there would be a government-paid bus waiting to take them to San Cristobal de las Casas, he said, but instead they were taken to the hotel in Berriozabal.

“The men were to meet with government officials today in Tuxtla, and we are still awaiting word on their arrival in San Cristobal after some five hours of waiting,” the source said. “It appears there are delaying tactics, hindrances and lack of cooperation in the entire release process.”

Some of the released men were able to meet with family members, and most expressed desire to return to the Acteal area, but the prison director said that authorities had determined that it was not safe for them to go back to their communities, according to El Universal. Authorities have reportedly proposed the possibility of providing them land parcels to avoid their returning to the area of the original conflict.

The evangelical Christians convicted were serving 25- or 36-year sentences and had exhausted all appeals. Some of them say they were arrested because rebel sympathizers with whom they had been embroiled in years of land disputes named them. Others said they were simply nearby when authorities made random round-ups.

Of the 34 men originally convicted, one died in prison and another had been released as a minor.

The family of one prisoner, Agustin Gomez Perez, tried to visit him in 2005. He told El Universal that they had an accident on the way, killing one small child and putting his wife in the hospital for 20 days – leaving their other five children without parents during that period.

Controversy over who killed the 45 people has revolved around whether there was a “massacre” by numerous “paramilitary” villagers or a “confrontation” between a handful of neighboring peasants and Zapatista National Liberation Army rebels. Historian Héctor Aguilar Camín has argued that there was both a confrontation and a massacre, with some overlap between each, but that they were largely separate incidents.

Five confessed killers have testified that they and four others engaged only Zapatista militia to avenge the death of a relative, while the federal attorney general’s office charged that at least 50 pro-government “paramilitaries” descended on a relief camp hermitage full of displaced peasants bent on killing and robbing them. The testimonies of the five confessed killers – four others remain at large – agree that the nine avengers were the only ones involved in the firefights, and that the decision to attack the Zapatistas was a private family decision made with no involvement from government authorities.

They also agree that the sole motive was to avenge the assassination of a relative – the latest of 18 unprosecuted murders by Zapatistas over the previous three months, according to Aguilar Camín.

Government prosecutors unduly dismissed much of the testimony of the five confessed avengers, Aguilar Camín wrote in a 2007 article for Nexos, noting that the killers testified that state security forces were nearby and did nothing. He highlights the judicial irregularities of the round-up and conviction of the peasants – apprehensions without evidence or warrant, charging 83 people with homicide when only 45 people were killed and lack of translators and attorneys for the suspects, Tzotzil Mayans who did not know Spanish.

The Supreme Court pointed out those violations in its ruling. Arturo Farela Gutierrez, head of the National Association of Evangelical Christian Churches, praised the court decision.

“We are in the presence of a court different from that of 12 years ago,” he said, according to El Universal. “The court is strengthened without fear of anything or anyone, and it’s the court that democratic Mexico needs.”

Report from Compass Direct News 

TANZANIA: RADICAL MUSLIMS DRIVE CHURCH FROM WORSHIP PLACE IN ZANZIBAR


Authorities do nothing to help threatened Christians.

NAIROBI, Kenya, May 26 (Compass Direct News) – Sunday worship in a house church near Zanzibar City, on a Tanzanian island off the coast of East Africa, did not take place for the third week running on Sunday (May 24) after Muslim extremists expelled worshippers from their rented property.

Radical Muslims on May 9 drove members of Zanzibar Pentecostal Church (Kanisa la Pentecoste Zanzibar) from worship premises in a rented house at Ungunja Ukuu, on the outskirts of Zanzibar City. Restrictions on purchasing land for church buildings have slowed the Christians’ efforts to find a new worship site.

Angered by a recent upsurge in Christian evangelism in the area, church members said, radical Muslims had sent several threats to the Christians warning them to stop their activities. The church had undertaken a two-day, door-to-door evangelism campaign culminating in an Easter celebration.

“Radical Muslims reported the church campaign to [village elder Mnemo] Mgomba, who in turn ordered that no Christian activity to be carried out in his area of jurisdiction,” said Obeid Fabian Hofi, bishop of the church.

On the morning of the attack, more than 20 church members had gathered for Saturday fellowship when word reached them that Muslim extremists were about to attack. As the radical group approached, the Christians fled in fear of their lives.

“The group was shouting, saying, ‘We do not want the church to be in our locality – they should leave the place and never come back again,’” said one church member who requested anonymity.

A Muslim had rented his house to a member of the church, Leah Shabani, who later decided to make it a place of fellowship. The church, which has been in existence for seven years, had reached more than 30 members at the beginning of this year, most of them from the Tanzanian mainland. Without their worship site, Bishop Hofi said, some members are traveling long distances into Zanzibar City to worship.

When the church reported the attack to area chief Jecha Ali, members said, he told them that he could not help them.

“This property is not mine – if the owner has refused to allow you people to pray there, then I have nothing to do,” Ali told them.

When Bishop Hofi went to police in Ungunja Ukuu about the attack, officers also told him that the landlord had the right to refuse to rent to the Christian.

“The head of police said he could not help us, arguing that it was the prerogative of the plot’s owner to decide who to lease his property to,” he said.

Police promised to investigate, but Bishop Hofi said he was not convinced they would take any action against those who had attacked his congregation.

“To date no action has been taken by the police,” he said. “I am very concerned about the spiritual situation of my flock, seeing that my appeal has landed in deaf ears. No one is ready to listen to our grievances. We are fighting a losing battle since the administration is headed by Muslims.”

Bishop Hofi said he has decided to appeal for prayer and financial support from churches in Zanzibar to buy property for a church building. He said church members have spoken with Mercy Baraza, a Muslim from the Tanzanian mainland, who has pledged to sell her Zanzibar plot to them.

“The church is now raising money with the hope that the members will soon have a place to worship,” Bishop Hofi told Compass by telephone. “I know getting the money is easy, but to get someone to sell the land might be difficult, especially for worship purpose, but we are trusting God for His providence. We shall be very grateful for prayers and any support towards the purchase of the plot for church worship.”

The prospective site is near a police station, he said, giving him optimism that if they obtain it they could worship peaceably.

“It will be a secure place for the church,” he said.

In predominately Sunni Muslim Zanzibar, the church faces numerous hurdles. There are restrictions on getting land to build churches, open preaching is outlawed and there is limited time on national television to air Christian programs. In government schools, only Islamic Religious knowledge is taught, not Christian Religious Education.

Zanzibar is the informal designation for the island of Unguja in the Indian Ocean. The Zanzibar archipelago united with Tanganyika to form the present day Tanzania in 1964.

Muslim traders from the Persian Gulf had settled in the region early in the 10th century after monsoon winds propelled them through the Gulf of Aden and Somalia. The 1964 merger left island Muslims uneasy about Christianity, seeing it as a means by which mainland Tanzania would dominate them.

Report from Compass Direct News

EGYPT: LAW GRANTING TWINS TO MUSLIM TO BE REVIEWED


Christian mother wins right to high court appeal regarding ruling that favored Muslim father.

ISTANBUL, February 20 (Compass Direct News) – Prosecutor General Abdel Meguid Mahmoud last week granted the mother of 14-year-old twins Andrew and Mario Medhat Ramses the right to appeal a custody decision awarding her sons to their Muslim father.

Muslim convert Medhat Ramses Labib gained custody of the boys last September, contrary to Article 20 of Egypt’s Personal Status Law, which states children should remain with their mother until age 15. The boys’ mother, Kamilia Lotfy Gaballah, won the right to appeal on Feb. 11.

“We all have a little bit of hope, new hope,” said George Ramses, the twins’ older brother. “Of course, they are a little afraid about everything, but generally they are excited.”

With support from the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR), Gaballah will appeal the Family Court’s decision awarding custody to the father before the Court of Cassation. Family Court decisions are not usually given recourse to the Court of Cassation, one of Egypt’s highest courts, and require special referral from a public prosecutor.

EIPR Director Hossam Bahgat stressed that the Court of Cassation will be examining the law on which the decision was based, not the decision itself.

“The Court of Cassation will pronounce a decision on the legal rule that Christian children, when one of their parents converts to Islam, should be automatically moved to the Muslim parent’s custody,” he said. “So it is very important in terms of changing the legal rule, but according to the law it will not have a direct impact on Andrew and Mario themselves.”

Preliminary hearings are scheduled to begin on March 2.

The twins will celebrate their 15th birthday in June of this year. At 15, Egyptian children of divorcees have the legal right to choose which parent they want to live with. Ramses told Compass that he is skeptical about whether his brothers will be given this right.

“The whole law is that kids should spend the first 15 years with their mum, and then they get to choose who they want to live with,” Ramses said. “[Choosing] is the second part of the rule that was not applied to us, so we don’t know actually what will be the case.”

The boys’ father, Labib, converted to Islam in 1999 after divorcing Gaballah to marry another woman. In 2006 Labib altered the official religious status of the boys and later applied for custody.

 

Covenant Breaches

The boys are now at the center of two separate disputes, both of which have roots in the complex interaction between Islamic and secular law in Egypt: whether children should be automatically awarded to the Muslim parent, and whether they therefore should automatically convert to Islam.

Custody battles between Muslim fathers and Christian mothers have typically been instances where Islamic law has predominated over secular legislation. Sharia (Islamic law), which the Egyptian constitution declares as being the source of law, states that a non-Muslim should not have authority over a Muslim.

In the case of Andrew and Mario, this sharia provision meant that they should not be left under the jurisdiction of their non-Muslim mother. The automatic and compulsory conversion of the twins, following their father’s decision to become Muslim, is the second area of contention EIPR is working on behalf of Gaballah to resolve.

The issue once again shows the contradictory stances of Egyptian civil law, which reflects both freedom of religion and Islamic thought. A fatwa (religious edict) issued by Egypt’s Grand Mufti, Ali Gomaa, regarding the case of Andrew and Mario states, “The religion of the two children should follow their Muslim father’s, unless they change their religion with full will after puberty.”

Although this statement allows Andrew and Mario the right to choose their religion “after puberty,” conversion from Islam is not only extremely difficult in Egypt but also dangerous.

Egypt has ratified a number of human rights treaties allowing advocacy groups like EIPR recourse to international watchdogs and advisory bodies. One of these, the African Commission on Human and Peoples Rights (ACHPR), has agreed to examine the case. The commission has asked both parties to submit written statements by March in preparation for an initial hearing in May.

The European Union of Coptic Organisations for Human Rights (EUCOHR) has also weighed in, petitioning the European Parliament for help.

“We have gone to the European Parliament with a legal document detailing about 30 to 40 breaches of international covenants like the International Declaration of Human Rights,” said Ibrahim Habib, vice-chairman of EUCOHR.

Habib said he hopes involving international bodies such as these will raise the profile of the case and put pressure on the Egyptian judiciary to rule impartially. Such attention could also have positive implications for the much harassed Coptic community at large.

The report filed by EUCOHR and the U. S. Coptic Foundation for Legal Assistance, which explores violations of such pacts as the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, ends with this statement:

“This is a call for justice and to save the two children from the coercion, persecution and injustice with which they are overburdened and, it is respectfully requested that a prompt action be taken to save those children and their future. Also, the annulment of the judgements against the two children is promptly requested.”  

Report from Compass Direct News

INDIA: ORISSA BRACES FOR MORE VIOLENCE AFTER ANOTHER MURDER


Suspecting cover-up, Communist investigators say 500 people may have been killed.

NEW DELHI, November 5 (Compass Direct News) – Terrified Christians already ravaged by more than two months of violence in Orissa state’s Kandhamal district braced for more carnage as suspected Maoists today gunned down a local worker of the Hindu extremist Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS).

Dhanu Pradhan was an RSS activist said to be on the Maoists’ hit list. Police said he was shot by three suspected Maoists in Kumharigaon village under Brahmanigaon jurisdiction in Kandhamal at 1 p.m., reported The Indian Express. Modern India’s worst-ever spate of violence began in the forest district of Kandhamal on Aug. 24, a day after a leader of the Hindu extremist Vishwa Hindu Parishad (World Hindu Council or VHP), Laxmanananda Saraswati, was killed.

Although a Maoist group admitted killing Saraswati and four of his aides, the VHP blamed local Christians for the assassinations. The wave of violent attacks carried on unabated for more than two months, destroying at least 4,500 houses and churches in the district.

More than 500 people, mostly Christian, might have been killed in the past few months’ violence in Kandhamal district, according to a report by a Communist Party fact-finding team. The report also suggested that the state government downplayed and covered up evidence of unreported deaths.

“The official figure for deaths has been reported to be 31, however, a senior government official on the condition of anonymity informed that he himself consigned two hundred dead bodies – found from the jungle – to flames after getting them collected in a tractor,” said the report by the Communist Party of India-Marxist-Leninist (CPI-ML).

The unnamed official estimated that, based on the intensity and pace of killings, the number of those killed was more than 500, according to the report. The fact-finding team visited Kandhamal district on Oct. 15-16 and published its report in the Oct. 27 issue of the party’s official publication, Liberation.

The report, signed by CPI-ML member J.P. Minz, also said that Hindu extremists might have used state government machinery to “minimize the evidence and possibly destroy dead bodies.”

Dr. John Dayal, a member of the National Integration Council of the Government of India, told Compass the report was startling but not surprising.

“I have been tabulating the data from independent church groups,” he said. “Even the Bishop’s House in Bhubaneswar has maintained that tens of thousands of refugees are hiding in forests, many of them with injuries of various degrees of grievousness.”

Dayal said that people must have been killed in the forests. “Even in villages, bodies have been discovered in neighboring fields,” he added.

The fact-finding team reported that the numerous attacks, acts of vandalism and killings took place “in full view of police, and the police remained mute spectators.” At least 200 Christian villages and 127 church and prayer halls were either destroyed or burned, it added.

Victims in numerous relief camps told the fact-finding team that the VHP and its youth wing, Bajrang Dal, were responsible for the tensions and violence.

“They used to organize meetings of the Kandha tribals and incite them to attack the Christian hamlets and also provided funds for doing this,” the report said.

Dayal said the Supreme Court of India should act on the report’s findings.

 

‘Great Terror’

The CPI-ML reported that Christians continued to experience “great terror,” and that Hindu nationalist groups were demanding the withdrawal of security personnel sent by the federal government to contain the violence.

“Riot victims are frightened to go back to their villages because they have been threatened that if they return they will be cut into pieces,” said the report. “The rioters are also proclaiming that only Hindu converts will be allowed to return. On the other hand, those in charge of the relief camps are pressuring the riot victims to return to their villages, saying that the life has returned to normalcy and peace has returned.”

The Indian Express yesterday reported that about 250 riot victims who had taken shelter in the Meliaputti and Mandasa areas of Srikakulam district in neighboring Andhra Pradesh state were refusing to go back to their villages “out of fear.”

“As many as 109 persons of 35 families of Sarlaguda, Raikia, Nuagaon, Baliguda, Bataguda, Barkhama, G. Udaygiri, Tikabali and Suraballi areas have been residing at Sourakaligam village of Meliaputti area, Andhra Pradesh, since the Kandhamal violence,” said the newspaper, adding that 140 others had taken shelter in Kumudhisingi village of the Mandasa area.

There are 12,641 violence-affected people in seven relief camps in Kandhamal, according to the district authorities.

 

Violence in Another District

The violence in Kandhamal has led to tensions in several other districts of Orissa. Yesterday a mob of around 400 people surrounded and beat five Christian men in the Bindha area of Bhadrak district’s Tihidi Block, according to the Christian Legal Association.

The incident took place when five men and two women, all staff of the Discipleship Centre, were returning from a few villages where that Christian organization has projects. A cyclist suddenly appeared before them and had an accident, incurring minor injuries. Soon a mob of about 300 people gathered and began beating the men, accusing them of converting Hindus, as if such activity were illegal in India.

The mob dragged the Christians to a Hindu nationalist rally where slogans against them were chanted. Police arrived and took the Christians to a police station, charging them under laws against forcible or fraudulent conversion. The seven Christians remained in jail at press time.

Police also filed a counter-complaint against the attackers, but no one was arrested at press time.

 

Nun’s Rape Case

In the case of a Catholic nun raped on Aug. 25 during the initial violence, the Kandhamal district court today issued a notice summoning her to appear for identification of the culprits, reported the Press Trust of India news agency.

The victim, who said she was raped in K. Nuagaon in Baliguda, had refused to cooperate with police, demanding that a federal agency investigate her case. On Oct. 24, she appeared before media and blamed police for not coming to her rescue. She said she was raped while police did nothing, and that later she saw a policeman talking congenially to one of the rapists.

Previously she had filed a complaint at the Baliguda police station, but officers did not make any arrests until a national newspaper, The Hindu, highlighted the case on Sept. 30. When the nun initially went to the police station to file her complaint, an officer had warned her of possible negative consequences of doing so.

 

One-Man Investigation

While Christians are demanding that a federal agency take over investigation of the violence in Orissa, the state government has appointed a one-man panel, the Justice S.C. Mohapatra judicial commission, to carry out the probe.

The commission placed an advertisement in a local newspaper, Sambad, on Nov. 3 seeking affidavits of victims by Nov. 15. It also said that people could appear before the commission on Nov. 28 in its office in Bhubaneswar, the state capital.

The commission will analyze the sequence of events and circumstances leading to the killing of Saraswati on Aug. 23 and the subsequent violence. It will also probe the role, conduct and responsibility of individuals, organizations, groups and agencies in precipitating and committing the crimes and investigate whether the measures that followed were adequate.

Mohapatra is a retired judge of the Orissa High Court.

Orissa is ruled by a coalition of a local party, the Biju Janata Dal, and the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party, which has close ties with the VHP.

Report from Compass Direct News

CHRISTIANS CONCERN: RELIGIOUS FREEDOM TO BE DEFINED IN AUSTRALIA


The World Evangelical Alliance is concerned about growing evidence of a fundamentalist religious lobby in Australia supporting same-sex relationships, stem-cell research, and abortion. Anti-hate speech legislation in Australia would put a choke collar on anyone who spoke against these practices, including Christians. The Human Rights Commission is launching a national review of what Australians believe freedom of religion means, reports MNN.

Commissioner of race discrimination Tom Calama says that a balance needs to be struck between the freedom to practice a religion and not pushing those beliefs on the rest of society. He says that people in Australia need to understand what religious freedom means in the 21st century.

“Does religious belief influence policies being determined in any country, particularly in our country?” he said.

Law in Australia provides for freedom of religion, but in October 2003 hate speech legislation affected two pastors giving a seminar on Islam. A civil suit was filed with the Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal, alleging defamation of Muslims during a seminar the pastors had given on Islam. The Islamic Council sought an apology, retraction of the comments in question, and compensation.

“These seminars largely consisted of opening the Koran and reading from [it],” said Jeff King, president of the International Christian Concern. “There was Saudi money that went into Australia; they hired the best lawyers in the country and sued these guys for defamation.”

The pastors’ lawyers argued that the complaint was outside the tribunal’s jurisdiction and that it infringed on the Constitutional right of freedom of expression. Although the pastors were convicted, the case was appealed and later settled after mediation.

Calama says that in a secular, multi-faith society, people sometimes have different expectations of what freedom of religion means and how the law should reflect those beliefs. People are invited to make submissions concerning their views of freedom of religion until the end of January.

Report from the Christian Telegraph

INDIA: SOLDIER PROTECTING CHRISTIANS MUTILATED, KILLED IN ORISSA


Two women whose houses were burned die from illnesses in hospital.

NEW DELHI, October 20 (Compass Direct News) – A paramilitary soldier assigned to protect Christians from Hindu violence in Kandhamal district, Orissa was mutilated and killed by a mob in Sisapanga village on Oct. 13.

The body of the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) soldier was recovered from a nearby forest. He was believed to have been hacked to death by tribal people in the wake of the worst anti-Christian violence in the history of modern India.

“Police recovered the body on Monday night – he has injuries on his torso and head,” District Superintendent of Police S. Praveen Kumar told national media. “It appears he was first beaten up by sticks and then killed by a sharp weapon.” Sisapanga village is under Raikia police jurisdiction.

“The soldier had been to Sisapanga village, accompanied by a driver, to buy provisions. A group of six-seven men attacked him from behind, dragged him into the jungle and hacked him to death,” Kumar told the Times of India (TOI). “The driver fortunately managed to escape.”

The death marks the first time that central security personnel have been targeted in Orissa in the riots that have raged since Hindu extremists insisted on blaming Christians for the Aug. 23 murder of Hindu leader Laxmanananda Saraswati, even though Maoists admitted killing him and four associates.

“The murder of the CRPF jawan [soldier] comes in the wake of persistent demands from the tribals to withdraw the paramilitary force,” a police spokesman told TOI. “The CRPF has made mass arrests, mostly of tribals, during the past two weeks.”

A local source who wished to be unnamed told Compass that the attackers have warned authorities through local media that they will carry out more killings of CRPF soldiers if the forces are not withdrawn.

 

Assurances, Assurances

Amid several assurances of protection by the state government, a mob demolished a Church of North India building on Oct. 11 in Sikuli village, Kalahandi district. The same day, the gang burned down two Christian houses in the village.

Two women who previously were driven from their homes when Hindu extremists set the structures on fire have died from illnesses. Minakshi Pradhan, 22, contracted malaria after fleeing to a refugee camp, later developing typhoid, and was admitted to MKCG Berhampur hospital, where she died on Thursday (Oct. 16).

“She has a 4-year-old child she left behind,” said a local source who wished to remain unnamed. Also survived by her husband, Anand Pradhan, Minakshi Pradhan was from Murudipanga village, Raikia block division, in Kandhmal district.

Another woman, Mili Pradhan, had a tumor detected in her stomach after her house was burned on Aug. 29, and she and husband Joshi Pradhan had to flee to Berhampur. Doctors operating on her detected blood cancer, and she died in the same hospital on Wednesday (Oct. 15.) She left behind an 18-month-old daughter.

Orissa Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik said in an interview to television channel NDTV that half of the 1,000-odd people arrested in the state for rioting belonged to the Hindu extremist Bajrang Dal and Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP). He added that he considered the Bajrang Dal a fundamentalist group.

In reaction, Subash Chouhan, national co-coordinator of the Bajrang Dal, said “It’s not the Bajrang Dal but Naveen Patnaik who is the real fundamentalist. . . . He is trying to show his secular character by trying to implement the Christian organizations’ agenda.”

Orissa police have arrested one of the “most wanted” in the anti-Christian riots in the state’s Kandhmal district.

Manoj Pradhan, a key tribal leader, was reportedly arrested at a lodge in Berhampur on Wednesday (Oct. 15) night.

“While investigating the case, we are finding it to be one of the most complicated cases in the state,” Arun Ray, inspector general of police, told media. “The crime was planned much before. We have identified the perpetrators of the crime. We have arrested three people and are likely to arrest some more people in the near future.”

 

Raped Nun

In the rape of a nun shortly after the violence began, police have arrested Mitu Patnaik and also implicated Muna Ghadei and Saroj Ghadei. They were arrested at a mill in Kerala’s Palakkad district on Oct. 11.

Police had earlier arrested five men – Juria Pradhan, Kartik Pradhan, Biren Kumar Sahu and Tapas Kumar Patnaik on Oct. 3 and Santosh Pradhan on Oct. 7 for their alleged roles in the crime.

Orissa police sent Patnaik to Cuttack for DNA testing. The alleged rape of the 29-year-old woman took place at the building of a Non-Governmental Organization in Kanjamendi village in Kandhamal on Aug. 25.

The nun has refused to come forward to identify any of the suspects, though inspector general Ray told media they were hopeful of making their case.

“The nun must be very scared and disturbed,” he said. “If necessary, the trial of the case can be held in any other place in Orissa.”

The nun has expressed her disbelief by saying that she would not like to “meet” the state police that remained a mute witness of her predicament.

“The nun wrote from a hospital, as she is yet to recover from the shock,” Archbishop Raphael Cheenath reportedly said.

At the same time, Hindu radicals want to reintroduce a tribal law that would obligate a rape victim to marry the man who rapes her.

On Oct. 13, some 5,000 radical Hindu women demonstrated in K. Nuagaon demanding that “the victim marry her rapist in accordance with local tradition.”

 

Refugee Camp Conditions

“With around 3,000 people in one camp, public health is pathetic in refugee camps,” attorney B. D. Das told Compass. “There is an epidemic of malaria, and water-borne diseases are spreading rapidly.”

One local source told Compass, that excess people in the refugee camps are forced to go back to their homes.

“As their homes are burnt, a plastic tent along with 10 days ration (food supply) is given to them and they are sent away,” he said. “Those in the relief camps are still better off as they at least have food. Those sent back do not have income, shelter and food.”

Christian leaders are concerned with the unhygienic conditions of the camps and people dying due to inadequate facilities.

Dr. John Dayal, member of the National Integration Council, told Compass that the chief minister of Orissa admitted that at least 10,000 people are still in government-run refugee camps, and that tens of thousands are in the forests or have migrated to towns outside Kandhamal.

“The government has admitted 40 dead, though we have details of 59 men and women mercilessly killed in the seven weeks of unabated mayhem,” he said. “For us, peace would be when the last refugee is back in his home, secure in his faith, with a livelihood restored, his children’s future secured as it should be in a secular India.”

 

Forced Reconversions

On Oct. 12 a student association, the Kandhamal Chatra Sangharsa Samiti, called for a moratorium on conversions by Christians to honor Saraswati’s lifetime of work trying to halt Christian conversions.

Christians have been forced to reconvert to Hinduism, burn Bibles and prayer books, have their heads shaved and drink cow urine (for Hindu purification). They have been placed for days under the watchful eye of Hindu groups so that they do not have any contacts with their former co-religionists.

Attorney Das noted, “700 forcible reconversions have taken place in Kandhmal since the riots began.”

Hindu extremist groups denied ever having attempted to “reconvert” tribal people, many of whom were not Hindus in the first place. “Why should we do it?” Subhash Chouhan, national co-convenor of Bajrang Dal said to the Times of India. “The Christian churches and missionaries have let them down, and the natives are making a conscious choice to become Hindus. We don’t have a single office in Kandhamal.”

Dr. Dayal told Compass that he has been distressed that while the continuing anti-Christian violence in Kandhamal, Orissa, Karnataka was forcefully detailed by Christians as well as by leaders of leftist parties, and human rights activists, “there was no assurance forthcoming as to when the more than 50,000 internally displaced persons, refugees in their homeland, can return home without being forced at gunpoint by the Bajrang Dal to become Hindus.”

Report from Compass Direct News

BANGLADESH: CHRISTIAN CONVERT’S LIFE THREATENED


Muslim family pays price for son’s conversion; father shunned, ordered confined to home.

DHAKA, Bangladesh, October 16 (Compass Direct News) – Muslim clerics and neighbors have ordered the father of a man who converted to Catholicism to remain confined to his house until retaliatory punishment can be exacted from the convert.

“Are you not ashamed that your son became Christian?” the founder of a mosque here asked Ruhul Amin Khandaker, father of a 32-year-old businessman who went to Australia earlier this year to court a Philippine Catholic woman, converting to her faith in April. “Why did you not sacrifice your son like cattle before telling the news to us?”

Khandaker has become a social outcast whose family lives under threat from fellow Muslims, in violation of Bangladesh’s constitution and international human rights safeguards. His son, Rashidul Amin Khandaker, has applied for protection from Australian immigration officials as he believes police in 88 percent-Muslim Bangladesh would do nothing to protect him from Islamists threatening to kill him.

“They will try to kill me anywhere, any time in Bangladesh, and the police and the authority will not protect me,” Rashidul Khandaker wrote in his plea to Australian authorities. “There are records that show a converted person is not protected by the police, authority and society.”

Khandaker’s life would be in danger if he returned to Bangladesh, said his brother-in-law, identified only as Siddik, adding that “we are also surviving in the society at our own peril.”

Rashidul Khandaker’s brother wrote him in May to cease all contact with the family. Rakibul Amin Khandaker stated in the letter that Muslim authorities had threatened to ostracize the family because of his brother’s conversion, and that his life would be in danger if he returned to Bangladesh as Muslim extremists believe they would get to heaven by punishing him.

Muslim leaders in Dhaka have ordered Khandaker’s 65-year-old father to disown his son and exclude him from his wealth and property.

“If he comes to Bangladesh, you must hand him over to us and we will punish him,” the founder of the mosque told the elder Khandaker.

Khandaker, who operates an oil lubricant refining business in the Kutubkhali area under Jatrabari police jurisdiction in central Dhaka, told Compass of the grief he experienced when his son informed the family from Sydney that he had become a Christian.

“My other sons and relatives informed it to the nearby cleric of the mosque so that the cleric could console me,” he said. “Unfortunately the cleric was so furious . . . [He] told me that, ‘You cannot keep any relationship with your son. A man of a noble Muslim family cannot be a Christian, and the society cannot accept it.”

 

Home Ransacked

When Rashidul Khandaker, who worked as director of marketing in his father’s business before going to Australia to pursue a relationship with a woman he met over the Internet, telephoned friends in Dhaka about his conversion, seven or eight of them broke into his house to loot his computer, scanner, printer, documents, sofa and other valuables, his father said.

“They told me, ‘We will return everything when your son comes back. Whenever he will come back, you must hand him over to us – we will take revenge for his activities. Until he comes, don’t mix with the people in the society and stay in your house.’”

The elder Khandaker said his son’s former friends also threatened to harm the family if they informed police about the looting.

“We did not file any case against them. If we file a case, they will do more harm and we can not stay in the society,” Khandaker said.

After receiving the threats from the local residents and Muslim leaders to remain confined to his house in front of his three sons and other relatives, Khandaker’s blood pressure spiked and he suffered a stroke, he said.

“Local doctors did not come to my house to treat me – they are afraid of the society and they also hate us,” he said. “I was taken to the hospital. The doctors did a brain scan and they said there was a hemorrhage on the left side of brain.”

The ostracizing of the elder Khandaker was especially painful during Ramadan, culminating with the festival of Eid al-Fitre on Oct. 2 after a month of day-long fasting and nightly feasting.

“Nobody, including neighbors and relatives, did come to my house, and I could not go to anybody’s house,” Khandaker said. “My relatives did not come lest they be in trouble. I was alone during the festival, and nothing has happened like this in my 65 years of life.”

Yet Khandaker said he does not want to deprive his son of his property and wealth. “If all of my property and wealth is destroyed, I can tolerate that, but one thing I cannot tolerate is to carry the coffin of my son on my shoulders,” Khandaker said.

Any unwillingness of authorities to defend the rights of Rashidul Khandaker or his Muslim family members against the threats against them would violate the freedom of religion asserted in the Constitution of Bangladesh, which states in Article 41.1 in Part 3 that every citizen has the right to profess, practice or propagate any religion.

“My son changed his faith according to his will, and our constitution supports this kind of activity,” the elder Khandaker said. “Why the constitutional rights should not be realized in the society?”

The social pressures also defy international human rights safeguards guaranteeing freedom of religion. Article 18 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) to which Bangladesh is a party, says that everyone shall have the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion. This right shall include freedom to have or to adopt a religion or belief of his choice, and freedom, either individually or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in worship, observance, practice and teaching.

“My son converted to Christianity according to his own will – we did not support it, and we are not converted. Why should we bear the brunt of his faith?” said the elder Khandaker. “I want to get rid of such a claustrophobic, social-outcast life for my son’s conversion to Christianity.”  

Report from Compass Direct News