Pastors are issued warnings in north; evangelists murdered in southwest.

LOS ANGELES, March 18 (Compass Direct News) – Having been sentenced to die by leftist rebels for holding Christian worship services in 2006, a pastor in Colombia’s northern department of Arauca took seriously the death threats that guerrillas issued on Friday (March 13), according to Christian support organization Open Doors.

The rebels from the National Liberation Army (ELN) phoned a pastor of Ebenezer Church in Saravena at 5:30 a.m., telling him to meet them at a site on the Arauca River at 7 a.m. When the pastor, who requested anonymity, arrived at the landing, the guerrillas took him by canoe to the other side of the river – into Venezuela – then drove him to a guerrilla camp some 40 minutes away.

For the next three hours, the rebels warned him that area pastors have three options: cooperate with the revolutionary cause of the guerrillas, leave or die.

They warned him that pastors must not preach to ELN guerrillas – the Christian message of peace contradicts their military objectives – and could not support Christian political candidates without their permission.

“We do not want pastors and those attending their churches to participate in politics,” they told the pastor. “We do not want evangelicals in politics, because you do not support our ideals. We have nothing in common with evangelicals.”

The guerrillas said the ELN does not object to pastors preaching within church walls, but that the congregation must not talk of politics, war or peace. Before letting him go, they told him that the ELN will show no compassion on church members if they continue to disobey those directives.

Such threats were not new to the pastor. In 2006, Open Doors sources said, he and his family had to leave behind the church he pastored in Fortul village and much of their belongings after guerrillas threatened to kill him for preaching and leading Christian services in both a home and a worship building.

ELN forces took control of the area in 2007 and quickly declared Christian worship illegal; by January 2008, the guerrillas had closed seven churches and prohibited preaching of Christ in rural areas.

According to the U.S. Department of State’s International Religious Freedom Report 2008, the Human Rights Unit of Colombia’s Prosecutor General’s Office is investigating killings in past years of 14 clergy members believed to have been targeted because they were outspoken critics of terrorist organizations. The Presidential Program for Human Rights reported that nearly all killings of priests by terrorist groups could be attributed to leftist guerrillas, particularly the FARC.

“Catholic and Protestant church leaders noted that killings of religious leaders in rural communities were generally underreported because of the communities’ isolation and fear of retribution,” the state department report notes. “Religious leaders generally chose not to seek government protection because of their pacifist beliefs and fear of retribution from terrorist groups.”

A human rights organization affiliated with the Mennonite church, Justicia, Paz y Acción No-violenta (Justapaz), asserted that guerrillas, former paramilitaries, and new criminal groups equally committed violence against evangelical church leaders, according to the state department report.

Leftist rebels opposed to Christian peace teachings continue to issue threats of violence against pastors and Christian leaders in various parts of Arauca department. On Feb. 28, ELN guerrillas took the pastor of another church to a guerrilla camp in Venezuela. Upset that pastors were taking advantage of the presence of the Colombian army to defy the guerrillas – publicly preaching Christ and using their pulpits for preaching peace – the rebels accused Christians of not helping with social projects.

“Preach inside churches, but do not let them die – worry how to save those that are with you,” one guerrilla told the pastor, who requested anonymity. “We will have to take drastic measures with pastors so they obey again.”

The pastor first had contact with rebels 12 years ago, when Marxist members of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) held him for several days.

In Puerto Jordán, a municipality of Arauquita, last Dec. 9 presumed leftist rebels gave 40-year-old pastor Rodolfo Almeida eight days to leave. Open Doors reported that a young man came to his house at 8:30 at night and asked for his wife. Surprised that stranger would ask for her at that hour, Almeida asked why he wanted to see her. The young man then told him that he had eight days to leave town or his life would be threatened.

The stranger refused to tell Almeida what organization he was with. He only reminded him that he had been warned. The pastor had received similar threats from ELN rebels in 2007, and by the end of 2008 he and his wife decided to leave with their three children. Almeida had served for more than two years as co-pastor of Ebenezer Church in Arauquita.

Two unnamed Christian mayors in Arauca have also come under threat from the guerrillas, and on Feb. 15 a councilman was killed. Since they took office in January 2008, the mayors of Arauquita and Saravena have been attacked by ELN rebels several times, according to Open Doors. They have drawn the ire of the guerrillas because they cannot be bought as their predecessors were, and they refuse to engage in the rebels’ illegal activities.

“In our lives we have lost the privileges of an ordinary person,” the mayor of Arauquita told Open Doors. “Now we are military targets. God brought me here, but sometimes I have wished not to continue, because being a Christian in a context like this where we live has a very high price.”

Last year, he added, guerrillas killed seven Christians in Arauca department. “Some of them were public officials, others were leaders or simply people recognized by their testimony as believers in Christ,” he said.

Open Doors reported that Councilman Francisco Delgadillo, a Christian who had received threats from the ELN guerrillas, was killed as he returned to his home on Feb. 15.


FARC Territory

Across the river, Venezuela serves as a safe haven for the ELN, which the U.S. Department of State has designated as a terrorist group. With the approval of Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez, the guerrilla forces use the country as a base from which to move into Colombia’s oil-rich Arauca department.

Although the ELN has been at odds with the Marxist FARC, in Arauca the two rebel groups co-exist without conflict; from their bases in Venezuela, according to Open Doors, the two groups amicably share paths and roads.

FARC guerrillas control the southwestern department of Huila, where last November four Christians were killed. Open Doors reported that all four belonged to the Alianza Cristiana church of Santana Ramos. Farley Cortés was killed on Nov. 5 in Plumeros village, Hermes Coronado Granado was killed on Nov. 8 in Santana Ramos, and 10 days later a married couple, Dora Lilia Saavedra and Ferney Ledezma, were also killed there.

Guerrillas seized Saavedra, 40, and the 35-year-old Ledezma from the school where Saavedra taught on Nov. 18, bound them on the floor of an old house and shot them several times. The FARC guerrillas had taken their three children, ages 3, 5 and 12, along with them and made them wait at a nearby house within hearing of the shots. The couple, married for five years, were known for proclaiming Christ in the village that borders the farm they owned.

Their pastor, Hernan Camacho, has moved with his family out of the area after receiving death threats.

The FARC accuses the families of Camacho, his brothers and Saavedra of refusing to follow its ideology, Pastor Camacho told Open Doors. “[The guerrillas] say that we, the evangelical ones, are their worst enemy because we teach the people not to take up weapons,” he said. “They accuse us of lulling the minds not to claim our rights against the government … the guerrillas say that it is our fault that the people prefer to continue with the church and not to join them.”

Motives for the killings are still under investigation, but Open Doors reported that Huila is in a zone historically known for systematic persecution of the church by guerrillas. In July 2007, pastor Jael Cruz García, 27, and another pastor, 63-year-old Humberto Méndez Montoya, were murdered in the village of La Legiosa in northern Huila. In 2002, two other pastors, Abelardo Londoño and Yesid Ruíz, were shot and killed in the same area.

Having lost three key leaders last year and been pushed out of most major urban centers by government forces, the FARC has embarked on a terror campaign to make its presence known in cities, according to The Christian Science Monitor. In the Huila capital of Neiva, on March 6 a bomb explosion damaged a hardware store and nearby businesses, according to the newspaper, and on Jan. 16 suspected FARC rebels were responsible for a car explosion at a shopping mall.

Report from Compass Direct News


Dispute over evidence stalls bid by convert from Islam to change official ID.

ISTANBUL, January 13 (Compass Direct News) – An attempt by an Egyptian convert from Islam to legally change the religion listed on his identification card to “Christian” hit a setback on Jan. 6 when a judge ordered security personnel to remove his lawyer from court.

Attorney Nabil Ghobreyal was expelled from the courtroom at Cairo’s Administrative Court following a heated argument with Judge Mohammad Ahmad Atyia.

The dispute arose after Atyia refused to acknowledge the existence of legal documents detailing the successful attempt of a Muslim man to convert to the Baha’i faith. Ghobreyal had planned to submit the court records of the decision in support of his case.

The convert from Islam who is trying to legally convert to Christianity, Maher Ahmad El-Mo’otahssem Bellah El-Gohary, first submitted his request to alter the religious status stated on his ID in August 2008. He follows Muhammad Hegazy as only the second Egyptian Christian convert raised as a Muslim to request such a change.

El-Gohary received Christ in his early 20s. Now 56, he decided to legally change his religious affiliation out of concern over the effects that his “unofficial Christianity” has on his family. He said he was particularly concerned about his daughter, Dina Maher Ahmad Mo’otahssem, 14; though raised as a Christian, when she reaches age 16 she will be issued an identification card stating her religion as Muslim unless her father’s appeal is successful.

At school, she has been refused the right to attend Christian religious classes offered to Egypt’s Christian minorities and has been forced to attend Muslim classes. Religion is a mandatory part of the Egyptian curriculum.

El-Gohary also has charged that his nephew was denied a position in state security agencies because of his uncle’s religious “double life.”

“Why should my family pay for my choices?” said El-Gohary in a report by The Free Copts.

No date has been set for resumption of court proceedings, which, due to the dispute, will reconvene under a different judge.

Ghobreyal said he plans to submit a complaint to the High Administrative Court requesting an investigation of Atyia and the expulsion from court. “I am willing to continue the fight,” Ghobreyal told Compass through a translator, saying he remains hopeful of a positive outcome.

Despite a constitution that grants religious freedom, legal conversion from Islam to another faith remains unprecedented. Hegazy, who filed his case on Aug. 2, 2007, was denied the right to officially convert in a Jan. 29 court ruling that declared it was against Islamic law for a Muslim to leave Islam.

The judge based his decision on Article II of the Egyptian constitution, which enshrines Islamic law, or sharia, as the source of Egyptian law. The judge said that, according to sharia, Islam is the final and most complete religion and therefore Muslims already practice full freedom of religion and cannot return to an older belief (Christianity or Judaism).

The seminal nature of the El-Gohary and Hegazy cases is part of what makes them so controversial, according to Gamal Eid, director of the Arabic Network for Human Rights Information.

“First, there is no experience – this is a very new question, it has made judges and lawyers confused,” he said. “The second thing is that many judges are very religious, for many of them it is based on their religion, their thoughts; the law itself allows for people to convert, so that’s what we’re trying to do, have a decision based on law not on sharia.”

Eid attributed much of the reluctance to grant conversion to this religious bias.

“If the Minister of the Interior respected the law, we would not need to go to court,” he said. “The law says clearly that people can change their address, their career, their religion, they only have to sign an application and then they can have a new ID; the law allows people to convert from any religion to another.”

Egyptian President Anwar Sadat amended the constitution in 1980 to make sharia the main source of legislation in order to bolster support from Islamists against his secular and leftist rivals. Legal experts say there are two views of how sharia is to influence Egyptian law: That it is to be enforced directly in all government spheres, or that it is only to influence shaping of law by legislators and is not to be literally enforced by courts or other bodies.  

Report from Compass Direct News


One pastor missing, three others reported killed in past month.

COCHABAMBA, Bolivia, November 4 – Christians in Colombia are anxious to learn the fate of pastor William Reyes, missing since Sept. 25, even as three other pastors have gone missing.

Reyes, a minister of the Light and Truth Inter-American Church and member of the Fraternity of Evangelical Pastors of Maicao (FRAMEN, Fraternidad de Ministros Evangélicos de Maicao), left a meeting in Valledupar, Cesar, at 10 a.m. that morning heading home to Maicao, La Guajira. He never arrived.

Family members and fellow ministers fear that Reyes may have been murdered by illegal armed groups operating in northern Colombia. Since March of this year, FRAMEN has received repeated threats from both the leftist Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and right-wing paramilitary units.

Abduction is another possibility. Often criminals hold their victims for weeks or months before contacting family members to demand ransom, a tactic designed to maximize the anxiety of the victim’s loved ones before proceeding with ransom negotiations.

In the past month, three other Christian pastors were reportedly killed in separate incidents across the country. According to Pedro Acosta of the Peace Commission of the Evangelical Council of Colombia (CEDECOL, Consejo Evangélico de Colombia), two ministers died in the northern Caribbean region and a third in Buenaventura on the Pacific coast.

At press time, members of the Peace Commission’s Documentation and Advocacy team, which monitors cases of political violence and human rights abuse, were traveling in those areas to verify the identities of the victims and circumstances of the killings.


Demand for Action

On Oct. 4, churches organized a public demonstration to protest the disappearance of Reyes. Thousands of marchers filled the streets of Maicao to demand his immediate return to his family. The FRAMEN-sponsored rally featured hymns, sermons and an address from Reyes’s wife, Idia.

Idia Reyes continues to work as secretary of FRAMEN while awaiting news of her husband. The couple has three children, William, 19, Luz Mery, 16, and Estefania, 9.

CEDECOL and Justapaz, a Mennonite Church-based organization that assists violence victims, launched a letter-writing campaign to draw international attention to the case and request government action to help locate Reyes.

“We are grateful for the outpouring of prayer and support from churches in Canada, the United States, Sweden and the United Kingdom,” stated an Oct. 26 open letter from Janna Hunter Bowman of Justapaz and Michael Joseph of CEDECOL’s Peace Commission. “Human rights violations of church people and of the civilian population at large are ongoing in Colombia. Last year the Justapaz Peace Commission program registered the murder of four pastors and 22 additional homicides of lay leaders and church members.”

Some of those killings may have been carried out by members of the Colombian Armed Forces, according to evidence emerging in recent weeks. Prosecutors and human rights groups have released evidence that some military units abduct and murder civilians, dress their bodies in combat fatigues and catalogue them as insurgents killed in battle.

According to an Oct. 29 report in The New York Times, soldiers commit the macabre murders for the two-fold purpose of “social cleansing” – the extrajudicial elimination of criminals, drug users and gang members – and to gain promotions and bonuses.

The scandal prompted President Alvaro Uribe to announce on Wednesday (Oct. 29) that he had dismissed more than two dozen soldiers and officers, among them three generals, implicated in the murders.

Justapaz has documented the murder of at least one evangelical Christian at the hands of Colombian soldiers. José Ulises Martínez served in a counterinsurgency unit until two years ago, but left the army “because what he had to do was not coherent with his religious convictions,” according to his brother, pastor Reinel Martínez.

Martínez was working at a steady job and serving as a leader of young adults in the Christian Crusade Church in Cúcuta on Oct. 29, 2007, when two acquaintances still on active duty convinced him to go with them to Bogotá to request a pension payment from the army. He called his girlfriend the following day to say he had arrived safely in the capital.

That was the last she or his family heard from him.

Two weeks later, Martínez’s parents reported his disappearance to the prosecutor’s office in Cúcuta. The ensuing investigation revealed that on Oct. 1, 2007, armed forces officers had presented photographs of Martinez’s body dressed in camouflage and identified as a guerrilla killed in combat. Later the family learned that Martínez was killed in Gaula, a combat zone 160 kilometers (100 miles) northeast of Bogotá.

Such atrocities threaten to mar the reputation of Colombia’s Armed Forces just as the military is making remarkable gains against the FARC and other insurgent groups. Strategic attacks against guerrilla bases eliminated key members of the FARC high command in 2008. A daring July 2 rescue of one-time presidential candidate Ingrid Betancourt and 14 other high-profile FARC hostages was greeted with jubilation around the world.

Yet in Colombia’s confused and convoluted civil war, Christians are still targeted for their role in softening the resolve of both insurgent and paramilitary fighters.

“I believe preventative security measures must be taken in order to protect victims from this scourge that affects the church,” Acosta said in reference to the ongoing threats to Colombian Christians. “In comparison to information from earlier [years], the cases of violations have increased.”

Report from Compass Direct News


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