Two Indian Christians Languish in Saudi Prison

‘Religious police’ raid apartment; no official charges.

LOS ANGELES, March 28 (CDN) — Friends and family of two Indian Christians arrested after a prayer meeting in Saudi Arabia in January have tried in vain to secure their release.

The two Christians were incarcerated for attending the prayer meeting with other Indian nationals and accused of converting Muslims to Christianity, though the government has not produced formal charges, sources said.

Yohan Nese, 31 and Vasantha Sekhar Vara, 28, were arrested on Jan. 21 when mutaween (religious police) raided an apartment where the two had lingered after attending the prayer meeting. Religious police interrogated and beat them to the point that they suffered injuries, according to sources. During this time, religious police who were cursing at them allegedly tore up and trampled on Bibles and Christian material they had confiscated, said a source who spoke to the men.

Authorities asked them how many Christian groups and pastors there are in Saudi Arabia and Riyadh and asked their nationalities. The religious police also put pressure on the two to convert to Islam, according to sources.

The next morning, Jan. 22, authorities took the two Christians to the Religious Court in Riyadh. The court sentenced them to 45 days in prison. At 2 p.m., police filed a case at the local civil police station, according to a source who requested anonymity.

To date the Christian Indians have been in prison for 67 days. Their family and friends say they still have not been able to obtain a document with official charges but know from the prisoners that the charges are religious in nature, according to the source. At the time of their detention, the Christians were not engaging in religious activities.

On Jan. 22, 15 mutaween in civilian clothes came back to the apartment they had raided the previous day, destroyed valuable items and wrote Islamic slogans on the walls with spray paint, the source said.

Nese and Vara’s situation in prison is “horrible,” said the source. The two men are cramped in a prison cell with only enough room to stand.

“There is no place to even sit,” said the source. “Only two hours a day they are sleeping in shifts. When brother Yohan is sleeping, brother Sekhar needs to stand, and when brother Sekhar wants to sleep, brother Yohan needs to stand. They have been doing this for more than a month. I don’t know how many more days they have to continue this.”

Since the arrest, other Christians have been too frightened to meet for prayer.

One week after his arrest, Vara was able to use a phone to call his family and pastor in India. His wife, Sandhya Vara, who is expecting their first child in three months, said she has not heard from him since.

“There were no Muslims in their prayer meeting, but they are accusing them of converting Muslims into Christians,” she told Compass by phone. “We got married eight months ago, but he’s very far from me now and he’s in very much trouble, and I’m six months pregnant.”

She and his pastor in India have communicated numerous times with the Indian embassy but have received no response.

“I have been complaining to the Indian embassy,” she said. “They cannot call me or give me any information. There is no help. So many times I informed them and they cannot give any reply and cannot take any action.”

Vara had worked in Saudi Arabia for more than seven years. Last summer he came to India and got married, returning on Jan. 9 to his post in Riyadh, where he worked as a supervisor for a catering company.

“Vasantha is from my church,” said his pastor in India, Ajay Kumar Jeldi. “He is very God-fearing, good, prayerful, supporting the pastor and working for the youth.”

The morning of his arrest, Vara called Pastor Jeldi and told him he planned to go to the evening prayer meeting in Riyadh. After the meeting, Vara, Nese and four other unidentified Christians lingered at the flat where the gathering had taken place. At around 7:30 p.m. two mutaween in plainclothes and one policeman in uniform raided the apartment.

On the phone with his pastor back in India, Vara said he was in prison for religious reasons and that he had been pressured to convert to Islam, but that he had refused.

“If I have to die for my God, I will die for him here,” he told Pastor Jeldi. “God will help me.”

The pastor said that in his sole conversation with him a week after his detention, Vara requested prayers for his release.

Typically in Saudi Arabia, a foreign worker’s documents remain with the employers who sponsor them in order for them to work in the country. Saudi employers are typically the only ones who can secure their employees’ release on bail.

“Only their sponsors can bring them out,” Pastor Jeldi said. “He has the right to bring him out, and no one else has the right to go and pay the bail or anything. Only the sponsor can have that responsibility.”

Since his arrest, Vara’s employer has handed his passport to local authorities and told them he is no longer responsible for him, according to the anonymous source.

“He doesn’t want him to work in his company anymore,” said the source.

The Saudi “religious police” or Commission to Promote Virtue and Prevent Vice (CPVPV) is a government entity that includes 5,000 field officers and 10,000 employees, along with hundreds of “unofficial” volunteers who take it upon themselves to carry out the CPVPV’s mandate, according to the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom.

“Despite the fact that the CPVPV is not allowed to engage in surveillance, detain individuals for more than 24 hours, arrest individuals without police accompaniment, or carry out any kind of punishment, its members have been accused in recent years of killing, beating, whipping, detaining, and otherwise harassing individuals,” the commission stated.

In the raid, authorities confiscated anything of value in the apartment, including two musical keyboards, a guitar, two sound boxes, a sound mixer, four microphones, music stands, power extension boxes, a laptop, mobile phone chargers and a whiteboard. They also confiscated 25 Bibles and other Christian materials, the source said.

The other Indian Christians at the apartment escaped.

The anonymous source said he has informed the Embassy of India in Riyadh of their arrest numerous times.

“I have lost hope in them,” he said, “because the only thing they are always saying is that this is a religious case, so we can’t do anything.”

Pastor Jeldi said he thought someone must have complained about the group of Christian Indians who were meeting regularly, causing authorities to act.

Nearly 7 million foreigners live and work in Saudi Arabia, of which an estimated 1.5 million are Indian nationals.

Human Rights Watch has reported that Saudi Arabia systematically discriminates against migrant workers and has called for the government to “abolish the sponsorship system for migrant workers, in particular the requirement for employer consent to transfer employment and to obtain an exit visa.”

According to the U.S. Department of State’s 2010 Report on International Religious Freedom, with rare exception, expatriate workers fear government interference with their private worship. The reasons for this interference can range from the worship service being too loud, having too many people in attendance or that it occurs too often in the same place, according to the report.

Riyadh was the stage for another raid and mass arrest of Christians in early October 2010. Arab News and other press reported the arrest of 12 Filipino Christians and a French Catholic priest celebrating mass in a private apartment. There were 150 Filipinos in attendance. The employers of the 12 Christian foreign workers secured their release, and the Philippine embassy negotiated their repatriation. The Catholic priest was also released within days.

“Saudi officials do not accept that for members of some religious groups, the practice of religion requires more than an individual or a small group worshipping in private, but includes the need for religious leaders to conduct services in community with others,” stated the State Department’s religious freedom report. “Foreign religious leaders continue to be prohibited from seeking and obtaining visas to enter Saudi Arabia and minister to local religious communities.”

Report from Compass Direct News

Orissa, India Christians Still Face Boycott, Forced Conversion

Hindu nationalists continue to oppress Christians in Kandhamal district, report says.

NEW DELHI, November 11 (CDN) — More than two years after losing relatives and property in anti-Christian violence, there is no sense of relief among survivors in India’s Orissa state, as many are still ostracized and pressured to “return” to Hinduism, according to a private investigation.

“Despite the state administration’s claim of normalcy,” the preliminary report of a fact-finding team states, “a state of lawlessness and utter fear and sense of insecurity” prevails among Christians of Kandhamal district, which saw a major anti-Christian bloodbath in 2008.

The team, consisting of local attorney Nicholas Barla and another identified only as Brother Marcus, along with rights activists Jugal Kishore Ranjit and Ajay Kumar Singh, visited four villages in three blocks of Kandhamal on Nov. 5.

In Bodimunda village in Tikabali, the team met a pastor who said he has been closely watched since Hindu extremists forced him to become a Hindu. The pastor, whose name the report withheld for security reasons, said he had to convert to Hinduism in 2008 “to save his old mother, who could not have escaped the violence as she was not in a position to walk.”

He is still closely watched in an effort to prevent him from returning to Christianity. While the attorneys and activists were still at the pastor’s house, a man who identified himself as from the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS, India’s most influential Hindu nationalist conglomerate) came to inquire about his visitors. The pastor felt compelled to tell them that they were “bank officials.”

In the same village, Hindu nationalists have also imposed a de facto ban on any private or public vehicle to ferry Christians or their belongings, said the report.

The team met the family of a paralyzed Christian, Bamadev Pradhan, whom auto-rickshaw drivers refused to take to a hospital when he recently ran a high fever. Eventually a Christian driver took him to the only hospital in Tikabali, around eight kilometers (nearly five miles) from his village of Bodimunda, but as the Christian was driving back, some local men confiscated his vehicle.

With the help of the auto-rickshaw union, the driver (unnamed in the report) got the vehicle released after paying a fine of 1,051 (US$24) rupees and promising that he would not transport any Christians in the future.

Another Christian said area Hindus extremists prohibited Christians from procuring basic necessities.

“We are not allowed to bring housing materials or food provisions or medicines, and nor are we allowed to buy anything from local shops,” he said. “We do not have any shop of our own. Here, we are struggling to live as human beings.”

The team also met a Hindu who had to pay 5,000 rupees (US$112) to get his tractor returned to him, as he had transported housing material for the construction of the house of a Christian.

In the house of a Christian in Keredi village in Phulbani Block, the team found a picture of a Hindu god. The resident, who was not identified in the report, explained that he had to display it in order to protect his family from harm.

The team found pictures of Hindu gods also in the house of a Christian in Gandapadar village in the Minia area, Phiringia Block. A woman in the house told the team that local Hindu nationalists had given her pictures of Hindu gods for worship.

“We have kept them, as they often come to check whether we have reconverted to Christianity,” she said.

Almost all Christians the team met complained that the local administration had done little to protect them and suspected that officials colluded with area Hindu nationalists.

Released on Nov. 8, the report asserts that Christians have been barred from taking water from a government well in Dakanaju village, under G. Udayagiri police jurisdiction in Tikabali Block. The village head, Sachindra Pradhan, has promised to take action “at the earliest,” it added.

Violence in Kandhamal and some other districts of Orissa state followed the assassination of Hindu nationalist leader Swami Laxmanananda Saraswati on Aug. 23, 2008. The rampage killed over 100 people and burned 4,640 houses, 252 churches and 13 educational institutions, according to estimates by human rights groups.

The spate of attacks began a day after Saraswati’s killing when Hindu nationalist groups blamed Christians for his murder, although Maoists (extreme Marxists) active in the district claimed responsibility for it.

John Dayal, a Christian activist in Delhi, told Compass that “the apparatus of 2008 remains undisturbed.” The Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) was part of the ruling state alliance with the regional Biju Janata Dal (BJD) party at the time of the violence. Although the BJD broke up with the BJP in 2009, blaming it for the violence, the former cannot be excused, said Dayal.

“While the BJP is mainly to be blamed, Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik is not entirely innocent,” Dayal said. “Not  just that he allowed the BJP and RSS cadres to run amok when they were part of his government, turning a blind eye to their  very visible anti-Christian activities, but he was his own home [interior] minister and cannot really shirk command responsibility for the carnage together with his BJP ministerial colleagues and senior officers.”

Kandhamal district Magistrate Krishan Kumar, who was on a tour at press time, could not be contacted for comment despite repeated attempts.

Of the 648,201 people in Kandhamal district, 117,950 are Christian, mostly Dalit (formerly “untouchables” in the caste hierarchy in Hindu societies), according to the 2001 Census. Hindus, mainly tribal people and numbering 527,757, form the majority.

Report from Compass Direct News

Despite Court Victories, Church Building in Indonesia Blocked

Islamists attack, issue threats to halt construction of worship center in West Java.

JAKARTA, Indonesia, September 22 (CDN) — A year after a church in West Java won a court battle over whether it could erect a worship building, Islamic extremists have blocked construction through attacks and intimidation tactics, church leaders said.

A mob of 50 Muslim extremists on Sept. 12 attacked construction workers at the Batak Christian Protestant Church (Huria Kristen Batak Protestan, or HKBP) site in Cinere village, near Depok City, in Limo district, eyewitnesses said; the 24 workers, who were on break, fled from the attackers, who chased them brandishing wooden boards studded with nails. Cinere village police arrived to restore order, but the mob left behind seven banners opposing the construction.

Three days later, Islamic groups demonstrated near the construction site on Puri Pesanggarahan IV St., demanding that all Christian activities in the area cease. About 70 Muslims participated in the demonstration, trying to approach the construction site until hundreds of police repelled them. Police have continued guarding the site.

The church won a case in West Java State Administrative Court on Sept. 17, 2009, rescinding a local order that had revoked the church’s building permit. The Supreme Court later upheld the Bandung court’s ruling, but threats have kept the church from proceeding.

Betty Sitompul, vice-chair of the church building committee, said she has received many intimidating text messages from a group opposed to the construction.

“They demanded that the church construction be halted,” she told Compass.

Sitompul added that some of the messages were intensely angry, and that all were aimed at stopping construction.

She said she an official of the Depok municipal government contacted her requesting that construction be delayed two months in order to discuss it with area residents. With a Supreme Court decision backing their case, church leaders declined and continued building.

Sitompul said she never yielded to threat or intimidation because the church construction project has a firm legal basis in the Supreme Court decision.

“There was no need to worry any longer,” she said. “I felt the problem was solved. It is normal for some to be dissatisfied.”

The Muslim Defenders’ Front (Front Pembela Islam, or FPI) reportedly participated in the Sept. 15 demonstration, but the FPI leader for Depok City, Habib Idrus Al Gadhri, denied opposing the area HKBP church.

“The rejection is from the Cinere Islam Solidarity Forum [FSUM] not from the FPI,” Al Gadhri told Compass.

He said that the HKBP church in Cinere is not facing opposition from the FPI but from the entire Muslim community.

“If FPI members are involved, I’m not responsible,” Al Gadhri said. “My advice is for the entire Muslim community in Cinere to sit down together and not demonstrate.”

The church had originally been granted a building permit in 1998. Applications for church permits are often fraught with difficulty in Indonesia, leaving many congregations no choice but to worship in private homes, hotels or rented conference facilities. Such gatherings leave churches open to threats and intimidation from activist groups such as the FPI, which in recent years has been responsible for the closure of many unregistered churches.


Congregational Concern

Despite having the law on their side, church leaders said many in the congregation are haunted with dread amid outbreaks of Islamic ire at the presence of churches in West Java, such as the Sept. 12 attack on the HKBP church in Ciketing, Bekasi, in which an elder was seriously wounded and a pastor injured.

Peter Tobing, head of the Cinere HKBP church building committee, said that some in the congregation and building committee feared that the outbreaks of Islamic opposition will lead to chaos.

The church is planning to sue the Depok municipality based on the allegation that its actions were illegal and caused deterioration at the site. When Depok Mayor Nur Mahmudi Ismail revoked the building permit for a multipurpose building and house of worship on March 27, 2009, it led to losses for the church as the congregation had to leave it unattended for a year, according to Tobing.

“Because of this, construction began with the clearing of weeds and building materials [such as paint] that had degraded,” Tobing said.

Sitompul said the bases for the lawsuit are the court decisions declaring the Depok mayor’s revocation of the building permit to be illegal.

“The Depok municipal government must take responsibility for the losses incurred when the building permit was revoked,” she said.

The lawsuit will seek compensation for damages incurred over the last two years, she said.

“We are going to submit all the data to the Depok government,” Sitompul said. “Then we will file our suit in the Depok Municipal Court.”

The church plans to construct its multipurpose building on a 5,000-square meter lot. Construction was halted in the initial stages, with the bottom floor 30 percent completed. The church had spent some 600 million rupiahs (US$66,000), with total costs projected at 2 billion rupiahs (US$220,000).

Report from Compass Direct News

Vatican Library prepares to reopen after three years of restoration

The Vatican Apostolic Library will be reopened again this month after three years of reconstruction. As its director explained to Vatican Radio, it aims to be a cultural aid, to offer a glimpse of the "great truth of the world of God," reports Catholic News Agency.

Vatican Radio interviewed the library’s prefect, Msgr. Cesare Pasini about the grand reopening set to take place on Sept. 20.

Noting a series of initiatives scheduled to mark the reopening of the library this fall, the prefect also spoke of the value of the library to all people.

He said that by reopening the library, "we not only show scholars and the world what we have done … but we remodel ourselves on this fundamental spirit, on our mission, so that we don’t just make it a place to consult books."

The library, which allows scholars from all walks and creeds to study its volumes, has an aspect of universality and cultural preservation because it conserves materials "for today and tomorrow," he said.

Msrg. Pasini also promotes culture by allowing works to be "used, seriously studied and then probed to find any further fragment of truth.

"There are many truths," he said, "historic truths, truths that make investigations into the reality of things, and these little truths form part of the great truth of the world of God."

In an article he wrote for last Sunday’s edition of the L’Osservatore Romano, Msgr. Pasini described some of the 15,000 letters and e-mails his office has received hoping for the prompt conclusion to the restoration work and describing the library’s importance to studies. Responding to the interest, he said that in looking around the now "silent and shining" library, he has seen that "only the friendly presence of our scholars is lacking." He added, "may they know that they are warmly awaited."

Archivist of the Vatican Secret Archives, Cardinal Raffaele Farina, will present the renovated, restored and restructured library in an on-site press conference next Monday.

Report from the Christian Telegraph

Prospects of Religious Freedom Appear Grim in Islamic Maldives

Two years after political reforms, freedom of faith nowhere in sight.

MALÉ, Maldives, August 10 (CDN) — Visitors to this Islamic island nation get a sense of religious restrictions even before they arrive. The arrival-departure cards given to arriving airline passengers carry a list of items prohibited under Maldivian laws – including “materials contrary to Islam.”

After Saudi Arabia, the Maldives is the only nation that claims a 100-percent Muslim population. The more than 300,000 people in the Maldives, an Indian Ocean archipelago featuring 1,192 islets 435 miles southwest of Sri Lanka, are all Sunnis.

This South Asian nation, however, has more than 70,000 expatriate workers representing several non-Islamic religions, including Christianity.

Also, around 60,000 tourists, mainly from Europe, visit each year to enjoy the blue ocean and white beaches and normally head straight to one of the holiday resorts built on around 45 islands exclusively meant for tourism. Tourists are rarely taken to the other 200 inhabited islands where locals live.

Nearly one-third of the population lives in the capital city of Malé, the only island where tourists and Maldivians meet.

While the Maldivians do not have a choice to convert out of Islam or to become openly atheist, foreigners in the country can practice their religion only privately.

In previous years several Christian expats have either been arrested for attending worship in private homes or denied visas for several months or years on suspicion of being connected with mission agencies.

According to “liberal estimates,” the number of Maldivian Christians or seekers “cannot be more than 15,” said one source.

“Even if you engage any Maldivian in a discussion on Christianity and the person reports it to authorities, you can be in trouble,” the source said. “A Maldivian youth studying in Sri Lanka became a Christian recently, but when his parents came to know about it, they took him away. We have not heard from him since then.”

The source added that such instances are not uncommon in the Maldives.

“I wish I could attend church, but I am too scared to look for one,” said a European expat worker. “I have not even brought my Bible here; I read it online. I don’t want to take any chances.”

The British reportedly translated the Bible into the local language, Dhivehi, and made it available in the 19th century, as the Maldives was a British protectorate from 1887 to 1965. Today no one knows how the Dhivehi Bible “disappeared.”

“A new translation has been underway for years, and it is in no way near completion,” said the source who requested anonymity.


Religion Excluded from Rights

The 2008 constitution, adopted five years after a popular movement for human rights began, states that a “non-Muslim may not become a citizen of the Maldives.”

Abdulla Yameen, brother of the former dictator of the Maldives and leader of the People’s Alliance party, an ally of the opposition Dhivehi Raiyyathunge Party (Maldivian People’s Party or DRP), told Compass that the issue of religious freedom was “insignificant” for the Maldives.

“There’s no demand for it from the public,” Yameen said. “If you take a public poll, 99 percent of the citizens will say ‘no’ to religious freedom.”

Maldivians are passionate about their religion, Yameen added, referring to a recent incident in which a 37-year-old Maldivian citizen, Mohamed Nazim, was attacked after he told a gathering that he was not a Muslim. On May 28, before a crowd of around 11,000 Maldivians, Nazim told a visiting Indian Muslim televangelist, Zakir Naik, that although he was born to a practicing Muslim family, he was “struggling to believe in religions.”

He also asked Naik about his “verdict on Islam.” The question enraged an angry crowd, with many calling for Nazim’s death while others beat him. He received several minor injuries before police took him away.

“See how the public went after his [Nazim’s] throat,” said Yameen, who studied at Claremont Graduate University in California. When asked if such passion was good for a society, he replied, “Yes. We are an Islamic nation, and our religion is an important part of our collective identity.”

Asked if individuals had no rights, his terse answer was “No.” Told it was shocking to hear his views, he said, “We are also shocked when a nation legalizes gay sex.”

Mohamed Zahid, vice president of the Human Rights Commission of the Maldives, told Compass that the country has its own definition of human rights.

“It is to protect people’s rights under the sharia [Islamic law] and other international conventions with the exception of religious freedom,” he said. “We are a sovereign nation, and we follow our own constitution.”

Zahid and several other local sources told Compass that the issue of religious rights was “irrelevant” for Maldivians. “Not more than 100 people in the country want religious freedom,” Zahid said.


Politics of Religion

Former President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, a virtual dictator for 30 years until 2008, is generally held responsible for creating an atmosphere of religious restrictions in the Maldives, as he sought to homogenize religion in the country by introducing the state version of Sunni Islam. He also led a major crackdown on Christians.

The Protection of Religious Unity Act, enacted in 1994, was an endeavor to tighten the government’s control over mosques and all other Islamic institutions. The Gayoom administration even wrote Friday sermons to be delivered in mosques.

In 1998, Gayoom began a crackdown on alleged missionary activities.

“A radio station based out of India used to air Christian programs via the Seychelles, but the government came to know about it and ensured that they were discontinued with the help of the government in the Seychelles,” said a local Muslim source.

That year, Gayoom reportedly arrested around 50 Maldivians who were suspected to have converted to Christianity and deported 19 foreign workers accused of doing missionary work. A source said Gayoom apparently wanted to regain popularity at a time when his leadership was being questioned.

When the archipelago became a multi-party democracy in October 2008, new President Mohamed Nasheed, a former journalist and activist, was expected to pursue a liberal policy as part of the country’s reforms agenda.

Although Nasheed is the president, his party, the Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP), has only 28 members and the support of four independents in the 77-member People’s Majlis (Maldives’ unicameral Parliament). Gayoom, now in his 70s and the leader of the largest opposition party, the DRP, has a simple majority – which presents difficulties in governance. Nasheed pleads helplessness in implementing reforms, citing an intransigent opposition.

Today Gayoom’s party accuses President Nasheed of not being able to protect the country’s distinct identity and culture, which the opposition says are rooted in Islam. The Gayoom-led parliament recently sought to impeach the education minister for proposing to make Islam and Dhivehi lessons optional – rather than mandatory – in high school.

To pre-empt the impeachment move, the whole cabinet of Nasheed resigned on June 29, which caused a major political crisis that led to violent street protests. The Nasheed administration allegedly arrested some opposition members, including Gayoom’s brother, Yameen. Political tensions and uncertainties continued at press time.

Now that President Nasheed’s popularity is declining – due to perceptions that he has become as authoritarian as his predecessor – it is feared that, amid immense pressure by the opposition to follow conservative policies, he might begin to follow in Gayoom’s footsteps.


Growing Extremism

Both the ruling and opposition parties admit that Islamic extremism has grown in the country. In October 2007, a group of young Maldivians engaged government security forces in a fierce shootout on Himandhoo Island.

Nasheed’s party alleges that Gayoom’s policy of promoting the state version of Sunni Islam created an interest to discern “true Islam,” with extremists from Pakistan stepping in to introduce “jihadism” in the Maldives. The DRP, on the other hand, says that behind the growth of extremism is the current government’s liberal policy of allowing Muslims of different sects to visit the Maldives to preach and give lectures, including the conservative Sunni sect of “Wahhabis.”

Until the early 1990s, Maldivian women would hardly wear the black burqa (covering the entire body, except the eyes and hands), and no men would sport a long beard – outward marks of Wahhabi Muslims, said the Muslim source, adding that “today the practice has become common.”

Still, Islam as practiced in the Maldives is pragmatic and unlike that of Saudi Arabia, he said. “People here are liberal and open-minded.”

As extremism grows, though, it is feared that radical Islamists may go to any extent to extra-judicially punish anyone suspected of being a missionary or having converted away from Islam, and that they can pressure the government to remain indifferent to religious freedom.

How long will it take for the Maldives to allow religious freedom?

“Maybe after the Maldivian government legalizes gay sex,” the Muslim source joked.

Report from Compass Direct News

Suspicious Actions Follow Murder of Pastor in Assam, India

Body destroyed before being identified; police try to link him with poachers.

NEW DELHI, June 14 (CDN) — A pastor in Assam state was murdered and cremated without being identified last month before family members learned of his death when they saw a photo of his body in a newspaper.

The body of Son Englang, 35, was recovered alongside National Highway 37 on May 20, with marks indicating his hands had been tightly bound before he was shot. The pastor from Mallasi village, Karbi Anglong, supported by Gospel for Asia (GFA), had reportedly been kidnapped early in the morning of the previous day as he rode his bicycle to the Bokakhat marketplace to buy paint materials for his nearly completed church building.

The unknown kidnappers, suspected Hindu extremists, reportedly took him to the jungle to kill him.

Local police took his body to a hospital in Golaghat, where he was cremated without being identified after three days.

“The hospital along with the local police cremated Pastor Englang’s ‘unclaimed body,’ as there is a provision in the hospital of holding a body for a maximum of three days,” said the Rev. Juby John, Karbi Anglong diocesan secretary of GFA.

News of his death reached his family four days after he was killed when they saw a photo of his body published on May 22 in local newspapers reporting him as unidentified.

“With great difficulty, his photo could be recognized,” said John. “It was a semi-decomposed body. Pastor Englang’s brother with a few villagers identified him and then informed the pastor’s wife.”

John told Compass that Pastor Englang had evangelized in the Daithor area for 14 years, and “many, many people came to the Lord because of his extensive evangelism.”

Anti-Christian elements in the area likely had taken note of Pastor Englang’s fearless evangelism and the church building on the verge of completion, John said.

“Pastor Englang gave me a phone call just three days before he went missing,” John said. “He was very happy and excited about the completion of the church building and said it was his dream come true.”

Along with his wife, Pastor Englang is survived by a 6-month-old son and a 3-year-old daughter.

He had served with GFA since 1996, ministering in Karbi Anglong, about 30 kilometers (19 miles) from the site where his body was recovered.

Local media reported his death along with those of three poachers who had illegally entered Kaziranga National Park to hunt rhinoceros and were shot by park guards. The bodies of the three poachers were recovered from the park the same day that police found Pastor Englang dead on the highway.

Strangely, police reported Pastor Englang as a poacher accompanying the three who were killed inside the wildlife park. Investigations are underway regarding the suspicious claim, resulting in the arrest of a park guard and a local policeman.


False Report

Questioned by media, police were unable to explain why Pastor Englang was included with the poachers given the large distance between his body and the three recovered inside the park. They were also unable to explain the marks of binding on Pastor Englang’s hands.

“There was no weapon discovered on the pastor, whereas there were ammunitions recovered from the trespassers,” John told local newspapers.

John emphasized that Pastor Englang worked day and night on the construction of his church building for the past five months.

“He had nothing to do with the poacher case,” he said. “I spoke to the villagers and his close associates, who absolutely denied any kind of involvement of the pastor even in the past. The villagers emphasized the good character and blameless record of the pastor.”

John said he went to visit Pastor Englang’s family and the church building under construction on May 24.

“The laborers working on the church construction, who personally had nothing to do with Son Englang, wept as I spoke to them about the pastor,” he said. “His death was sudden and untimely.”

Hindu extremists have a presence in the state. Hemanta Das, a 29-year-old Christian worker whom Hindu extremists had warned to stop his ministry, succumbed to injuries in a hospital on July 1, 2007, two days after extremists beat him in the Chand Mari area of Guwahati. A convert to Christianity from Hinduism, Das previously had been a supporter of the Hindu extremist Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh.

The All India Christian Council (AICC) later wrote to state officials requesting that those who killed Das be arrested and the Christian minority community protected from such attacks. AICC noted that Hindu extremist groups had warned Das of “dire consequences” if he continued preaching Christ.

At that time the Rev. Madhu Chandra, an AICC leader from northeast India, told Compass the presence of Hindu extremist groups in the state was very high.

“When I was working with a Christian organization in the state till a few years ago, many of our workers would be attacked by extremists,” Rev. Chandra said.

Report from Compass Direct News

Christians in Ethiopian Town Hit by Unexpected Attack

Orthodox church members strike two evangelical worship buildings, beat evangelist unconscious.

NAIROBI, Kenya, April 15 (CDN) — Evangelical Christians in an area of Ethiopia unaccustomed to anti-Christian hostility have come under attack from Ethiopian Orthodox Church (EOC) members threatened by their existence, Christian leaders said.

In Olenkomi, about 65 kilometers (40 miles) west of the Ethiopian capital of Addis Ababa, two church buildings were attacked by an EOC mob in Olenkomi town, Oromia Region, on Jan. 27 – leaving one evangelist unconscious and other Christians fearful of Orthodox hostility. Area Christians fear the assailants will not face justice due to the EOC’s powerful presence and impending elections.

A Mekane Yesus Church building was destroyed in the assault, while a Brethren Church structure suffered damages.

Attacks against evangelicals in the area are rare, but recently Christians have come under immense pressure as they face isolation and verbal threats, church leaders said. Located in the West Shoa Zone of Oromia Region, Olenkomi is a small town where most people there and in surrounding areas belong to the EOC. All officials in government are EOC members, and evangelical Christians encounter difficulties obtaining land for church buildings, church leaders said.

The attack followed an accidental fire from liturgical candles that burned an EOC building. EOC members blamed evangelicals, and in the ensuing assault evangelist Abera Ongeremu was so badly beaten the mob left him for dead. Another three Christians also sustained minor injuries.

Ongeremu was visiting from Neqemite, 260 kilometers (161 miles) away. After the mob stoned the Brethren Church, they next targeted Mekane Yesus Church, where Ongeremu was staying in guest quarters. A member of the mob took a Bible from his guest room and told him to burn it.

“How can I burn the book that showed me life?” the shocked Ongeremu asked.

He said that he told the mob that they could do anything they wanted, but he was not going to burn the Holy Bible. The attackers tied his hands and legs together and threw him back into the room, sprinkling diesel on the walls and roof and locking him in before setting it on fire, he said.

“I thought it was my last,” Ongeremu said. “I now understand nothing will happen to you without the will of God. That was not the day God allowed for me to die.”

Some of the assailants argued that Ongeremu should not die by burning, but by beating. Two of them dragged him out of the room and continuously beat him, covering his face in blood. He sustained wounds on his skull and right arm.

“After repeated beatings I lost consciousness,” he said. “I didn’t know how and when they left me. I only recall they argued about how to kill me.”


Federal police were summoned from Ambo – the nearest town some 50 kilometers (31 miles) away – to disperse the mob, but too late to avert the injuries and damages after their rugged journey of nearly three hours.

Prior to the attacks, according to church leaders, there was no substantial build-up of tension between the two groups, though EOC priests had expressed anger about the expansion of evangelical churches and had questioned why teachers from evangelical backgrounds were prevalent in the high school in Olenkomi.

Most of the teachers at Olenkomi Secondary High School are evangelical Christians, according to church leaders, who said this circumstance was solely coincidental. Although teachers of evangelical faith are prevalent in the school, they are forbidden by law to promote their faith in class.

The EOC members had been constructing a building for a church in Olenkomi, but because of funding shortfalls they revised the plan and built a temporary structure. Evangelical church leaders said EOC priests had seized the land without formal process, but sources said the EOC’s strong presence in the area kept evangelical church officials from protesting brazen construction efforts.

The EOC’s small structure was being used for liturgical purposes.

“The shelter-like house has faced fire disaster in various incidents,” said a church leader in Olenkomi. “The materials used to build it, and the curtains they hung on walls exposed the shelter to several fire incidents. The [candle and lantern] lights the priests used for liturgy were causing problems. We heard that a number of times the fire had lit curtains, and the priests stopped before it spread.”

Such a fire broke out on the day of the attack, this time out-pacing the frantic efforts of the priests. The fire consumed curtains inside the house and spread to roofs and walls. To douse it the priests went to a nearby government-owned water tank operated by an evangelical woman. She granted them water, and the structure did not burn entirely.

When they later returned to wash, however, they put their hands inside the tank and sullied the public water source. When the operator objected, the EOC members  spoke derogatorily of her as a “Pente” and began to spread the rumor that she was responsible for the burnt structure, church leaders said.

EOC members quickly formed into groups of various sizes, sources said, and rolled into town chanting, “This is the day to destroy Pentecostals and their churches!” They first went to the Brethren Church, located by the side of a highway that stretches through Olenkomi to western Ethiopia.

“When we first heard stones falling on the roof, we thought the wind was tearing up iron sheets,” said one evangelist. “We also heard a loud noise from outside. It was around 12:30 p.m. I opened the main door to check what was happening. The whole compound was filled by men and women who carried stones and sticks. It was a very scary sight.”

They were stoning the church building, forcing the praying believers to escape through a back door. The assailants continued breaking doors and windows, thinking worshippers were trapped inside.

Local police arrived, the evangelist said, but they failed to disperse the violent mob.

“Despite firing into the air, the officers didn’t do anything serious to stop the mob,” he said. “They later said it is beyond their capacity and would call Federal Police from Ambo town. The anti-riot police arrived two and half hours later, practically after the mob effectively carried out all the destruction.”

Of the attack on Mekane Yesus Church, one church leader said the mob broke in and set fire on everything they found.

“They gathered benches, office chairs and tables, documents, musical instruments, public address system, choir uniforms and other materials and set them on fire,” he said. “They also lit fire to the church building, which reduced it to ashes.”

The mob was not finished. They proceeded to the high school, where they attacked Christian teachers as students rushed to defend them. Church leaders said the targeting of the school was evidence that the attack had been planned before with well-considered aims.

With Ethiopia scheduled to hold parliamentary elections on May 23, government officials don’t want to upset voters by punishing those behind the attacks, church leaders said. It is likely that officials would pressure church leaders from both camps to settle for the sake of stability, but Christians fear that in doing so their complaints will be overlooked.

Some suspects have been identified, but church leaders don’t expect they will be punished.

“It is like hitting a fire ball,” said a church leader from Brethren Church. “When you hit the fire, it would round back to you. It can even burn you. You may also distribute the fire to new places.”

In spite of the violence, evangelical Christians have engaged in “fervent witnessing ministry and prayer,” he said.

“It awakens us to think, pray and unite,” he said. “There is no good in persecution. But God turned it around for the good of us. The persecution was intended to destroy our commitment, but it rather built our faith.”

As election day draws closer, said the leader, EOC priests could easily motivate followers to attack.

“That would be bad times for believers,” he said. “Let’s pray for people in Olenkomi to know the will of God and repent from evil from which they assume to serve God.”

Report from Compass Direct News 

Iranian Pastor Tortured, Threatened for ‘Converting Muslims’

Arrest, imprisonment appear to be part of larger crackdown in Isfahan.

ISTANBUL, March 8 (CDN) — An Assyrian pastor the Iranian government accused of “converting Muslims” is being tortured in prison and threatened with execution, sources close to the case said.

State Security agents on Feb. 2 arrested the Rev. Wilson Issavi, 65, shortly after he finished a house meeting at a friend’s home in Isfahan. A city of more than 1.5 million people, Isfahan is located 208 miles (335 kilometers) south of Tehran.

According to Farsi Christian News Network, Issavi’s wife, Medline Nazanin, recently visited her husband in prison, where she saw that he had obvious signs of torture and was in poor condition. Iranian intelligence officials told Nazanin that her husband might be executed for his alleged activities.

Issavi is the pastor of The Evangelical Church of Kermanshah in Isfahan, a 50-year-old church body affiliated with The Assemblies of God that caters to the local Assyrian population.

During the raid, State Security police detained everyone in the house, later releasing all but Issavi and the owner of the home. Security officials also seized personal property from the home. Typically in Christian arrests in Iran, security officials confiscate all documents, media materials, computers, and personal documentation.

Issavi is being held in an unmarked prison, according to FCNN.

Last month’s arrest seems to be part of an anti-Christian sweep that is taking place across Isfahan. In addition to the politically motivated detentions and executions that have taken place after June’s contested election and subsequent nation-wide political protests, it appears authorities are rounding up Christian leaders.

More Arrests

On Feb. 28, Isfahan residents Hamid Shafiee and his wife Reyhaneh Aghajary, both converts from Islam and house church leaders, were arrested at their home.

Aghajary was at home with a group of other Christians when police came for her and her husband, who was not at home, according to Middle East Concern, a group that assists persecuted Christians. Police handcuffed Aghajary and, upon finding boxes of Bibles, began beating her.

The assault continued until eventually Aghajary was pepper-sprayed and removed from the scene. Her husband Shafiee was arrested an hour later when he returned to the house.

Their fate and whereabouts are still unknown.

Authorities assaulted another Christian visiting the house at the time of the raid when he protested the police action. Other Christians at the house were threatened, but no one else was arrested. Approximately 20 police officers raided the home, seizing Bibles, CDs, photographs, computers, telephones, personal items and other literature.

One regional analyst, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said the Iranian government is set on crushing religious freedom within the country.

“The recent spate of church leader arrests provides clear evidence of the Iranian authorities’ desperate determination to strangle the growing church movement, along with all other forms of perceived political dissent,” he said.

February’s arrest was not the first time Shafiee has had run-ins with Iranian authorities. He has routinely been ordered to appear before police for questioning and then released. This arrest, however, was different. When family members contacted police on March 1, they were told that the couple’s case was under the jurisdiction of the Revolutionary Court and were turned away with no other information.

While the couple is imprisoned, family members are caring for their two teenage boys.

Frequent Harassment

Like Shafiee, Issavi has been harassed frequently by the Isfahan branch of the State Security police. He has been ordered to appear before the police many times, then arrested and interrogated. In addition, police have threatened members of his family and have broken into his house and taken items such as his computer.

On Jan. 2, 2010, police sealed the Kermanshah church and ordered Issavi not to reopen it. The church continued to have house meetings, and authorities charged Issavi with not cooperating with the government.

The Assyrians were one of the first ethnic groups in the Middle East to adopt Christianity. The existence of the Assyrian Christian community in Iran predates the existence of their Islamic counterparts by several hundred years. There are 10,000 to 20,000 Assyrian Christians living in Iran, according to unofficial estimates cited in the 2009 International Religious Freedom Report issued by the U.S. Department of State. The total Christian population is 300,000 nationwide, according to the United Nations. Most of those Christians are ethnic Armenians.

Isfahan has been the site of some of the worst religious persecution in Iran. On July 30, 2008, Abbas Amiri, a Christian man in his 60s, died in a hospital after being beaten by Isfahan security police. Authorities had arrested Amiri along with seven other men, six women and two minors during a July 17 raid on a house meeting. Four days after her husband died, Sakineh Rahnama succumbed to her injuries and a stress-related heart attack. Later, officials wouldn’t allow local Christians to hold a memorial service.

Iran, where Shia Islam is the official state religion, is known to be one of the worst countries for repression against Christians. The U.S. Secretary of State has designated Iran as a Country of Particular Concern every year since 1999 for its persecution of non-Shia Muslims, among others.

Last year, according to the International Religious Freedom Report, persecution of Christians and other religious minorities continued to get “significantly worse.” The state department placed the blame for this squarely at the feet of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Iran’s conservative media, who “intensified a campaign against non-Muslim religious minorities, and political and religious leaders” by issuing a continual stream of inflammatory statements.

“Christians, particularly evangelicals, continued to be subject to harassment and close surveillance,” the report states. “The government vigilantly enforced its prohibition on proselytizing by closely monitoring the activities of evangelical Christians, discouraging Muslims from entering church premises, closing churches, and arresting Christian converts.”

Evangelical Christians were required to carry church membership cards and provide photocopies to authorities, according to the report.

“Worshippers were subject to identity checks by authorities posted outside congregation centers,” it states. “The government restricted meetings for evangelical services to Sundays, and church officials were ordered to inform the Ministry of Information and Islamic Guidance before admitting new members.”

Report from Compass Direct News 

Evangelical Christians at risk from Russian government

Evangelical Christians may be at risk in Russia as Orthodoxy gains more and more governmental favor, reports MNN.

The Liberty of Conscience Institute recently discovered that the Russian government is cozying up to the Russian Orthodox Church in ways that may inhibit religious freedoms. Joel Griffith of Slavic Gospel Association says there is reason to be concerned.

"Russia’s president [has] taken the initiative to permanently assign orthodox priest army units, and they’re also wanting to introduce religious education classes at state schools."

The more power the Orthodox Church gains, the more risk there will be to the religious freedoms of all minority religions, no less evangelical Christianity. Griffith says history proves that evangelical Christians may well be targeted if such legislation is passed. A sizeable evangelical movement would well be viewed as an encroachment on Orthodox territory, and would consequently not be taken lightly.

If this is the case, evangelical movement could be very much hindered in Russia. As it now stands, some evangelical churches experience virtually no opposition at all from the government, while others experience a great deal. If a national legislation should pass, opposition will likely extend to every evangelical church.

"If this becomes a policy of the national government to freeze out evangelicals, obviously that’s going to have a pretty big impact not only on freedom of worship," cautions Griffith, "but also on the proclamation of the Gospel."

Fortunately, in order for any such government-orthodox partnership to be enforced via the military and education, it would have to pass through a significant number of hoops. As it stands, this sort of breach on the separation of church and state goes directly against the Russian constitution, not to mention Western ideals.

"The West is concerned with human rights and the freedom of conscience and the freedom of worship," notes Griffith. "And officially under the constitution, there’s supposed to be freedom of religion and freedom of worship in Russia. So any moves to do this certainly fly in the face of what the Russian constitution would say."

Unfortunately, many Russians consider Orthodoxy as a given. Historically, the Orthodox Church has, more often than not, been considered an arm of the Russian government. Pray that the obvious infringement of government policy on the basis of the constitution would be enough to stop Orthodox alliances with the Russian government from being nationally enforced.

Slavic Gospel Association helps equip churches in Russia with training and materials to prepare them for every situation as evangelicals.

Report from the Christian Telegraph