U.S. promised Israel’s pre-1967 borders as basis for peace negotiations, Palestinian officials say


Originally posted on National Post | News:

JERUSALEM — Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas agreed to resume peace talks with Israel only after U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry gave him a letter guaranteeing that the basis of the negotiations will be Israel’s pre-1967 borders, two senior Palestinian officials said Saturday.

The officials, both of whom are close to the Palestinian leader and privy to internal discussions, said the U.S. letter also stipulated that both sides are to refrain from taking any steps that would jeopardize the outcome of the talks. Israel is not to issue new tenders for Jewish settlements in the West Bank, while the Palestinians are not to pursue diplomatic action against Israel at any international organizations, the officials said on condition of anonymity because they are not authorized to brief the media.

“The talks with Kerry were about to collapse, and the letter came as a lifeline in the last minute bargaining,” one of…

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Nepal Christians Begin Legal Battle for Burial Ground


Hindu group declares country a Hindu state; upper castes seek halt to conversions.

KATHMANDU, Nepal, April 19 (CDN) — With the government refusing to listen to their three-year plea for an official cemetery and ignoring a protracted hunger strike, Nepal’s Christians are now seeking redress from the Supreme Court.

“Every day there are two to three deaths in the community, and with each death we face a hard time with the burial,” said Chari Bahadur Gahatraj, a pastor who filed a petition in the high court on March 13 asking it to intervene as authorities of Nepal’s oldest Hindu temple had begun demolishing the graves of Christians there.

Gahatraj and Man Bahadur Khatri are both members of the newly formed Christian Burial Ground Prayer and National Struggle Committee that since last month began leading a relay hunger strike in a public area of the capital, asking for a graveyard. They said they were forced to go to court after the Pashupati Area Development Trust (PADT), which runs Nepal’s oldest Hindu shrine, the Pashupatinath temple, said it would no longer allow non-Hindus to use the temple’s forested land.

“We don’t want to hurt the sentiments of any community,” Gahatraj told Compass. “Nor are we trying to grab the land owned by a temple. We are ready to accept any plot given to us. All we are asking for is that the burials be allowed till we get an alternate site.”

Judge Awadhesh Kumar Yadav has since ordered the government and PADT not to prevent Christians from using the forest for burials until the dispute is resolved. The legal battle, however, now involves a counter-suit. Hindu activist Bharat Jangam filed a second writ on March 20, saying that since the forest was the property of a Hindu temple, non-Hindus should not be allowed to bury their dead there just as churches do not allow Hindu burials.

Subsequently, the court decided to hear the two petitions together, and yesterday (April 18), the hearings began. While two lawyers argued on behalf of Gahatraj and Khatri, a cohort of 15 lawyers spoke against their petition. The next hearing is scheduled for May 3.

Along with the legal battle, Christians have kept up their relay hunger strike. To step up pressure on the government, the protestors also announced they would lead a funeral march to the offices of the prime minister and the culture minister and hand over coffins to them as a symbolic protest. If that too failed, they warned they would have no option but to go on hunger strike in front of the prime minister’s office and parliament, this time carrying dead bodies with them.

Alarmed at the rate the issue was snowballing, the government finally responded. Yesterday Culture Minister Gangalal Tuladhar opened talks with the protestors, agreeing to continue the negotiations after three days. The government also formed a four-member committee to look into the demand. Currently, Christians are asking for cemetery land in all 75 districts of Nepal.

Protestors were wary of the government’s intent in the overture.

“This could be a ploy to buy time and bury the issue,” said a member of the Christian committee formed to advise parliament on drafting the new constitution, who requested anonymity.

Though the committee formed to look into the Christians’ demand for burial land has been asked to present a report within two weeks, Christians suspect the panel is dragging its feet.

“The new constitution has to be promulgated by May 28, but it does not seem likely that the main political parties will be able to accomplish the task,” the Christian committee member said. “And if the constitution doesn’t materialize in time, there will be a crisis and our problem will be shelved.”

 

Hindu Nation

Adding to their unease, Christians are now facing a redoubled campaign by Hindu groups for the restoration of Hinduism as the state religion, five years after parliament declared Nepal, the world’s only Hindu kingdom, secular.

If the new constitution had been promulgated last year, it would have consolidated secularism in Nepal. But with the country missing the deadline due to protracted power-sharing rows among the major political parties, Christians still feel under threat.

On Thursday (April 14), when the country celebrated the start of the indigenous new year 2068 with a public holiday, the Rastriya Prajatantra Party-Nepal, which seeks the reinstatement of Hinduism as the state religion, kicked off a campaign at the Bhadrakali temple in Kathmandu. As curious onlookers and soldiers patrolling the nearby army headquarters looked on, party members fervently blew into conch shells and rang bells to draw people’s attention to their demand.

The party, which is also seeking the restoration of monarchy, took some oblique shots at the Christian community as well.

“There is a deliberate and systematic attempt by organizations to convert Hindus,” said Kamal Thapa, party chief and a former minister. “These organizations are guided by foreign powers and foreign funds. If the widespread conversion of Hindus is not stopped immediately, we will have to take stern measures.”

Three days later, an umbrella of Hindu groups – the Rastriya Dharma Jagaran Mahasabha (the National Religion Resurrection Conference) held a massive gathering in the capital, declaring Nepal a “Hindu state” and meeting with no official objection. The proclamation came as the climax to a three-day public program calling for the restoration of “the traditional Hindu state.” Several Hindu preachers and scholars from neighboring India attended the program, held on the grounds of the Pashupatinath temple, which is also a UNESCO-declared World Heritage Site.

The “Hindu state” proclamation was the brainchild of Shankar Prasad Pandey, a former member of parliament from Nepali Congress, the second largest party in Nepal, now in opposition. Though Pandey was a sitting Member of Parliament in 2006, when the body unanimously declared Nepal secular, he began opposing the move soon afterwards, leading four campaigns against it nationwide.

“I consider the nation and the Hindu religion to be more important than the party,” said Pandey, known as the MP who began to go barefoot 32 years ago to show solidarity with Nepalese, who are among the poorest in the world. “Over 90 percent of the Nepalese want Nepal to be a Hindu state. However, the government is led by people whose only concern is power and money.”

Pandey’s campaign is supported by Hindu groups from India and the West: Narendranath Saraswati, who is the Shankaracharya or religious head of a prominent Hindu shrine in India’s Varanasi city; Dr. Tilak Chaitanya, chief of a group in the United Kingdom that propagates the Gita, the holy book of the Hindus; and Tahal Kishore, head of a Hindu organization, Radha Krishna Sevashram, in the United States.

Two weeks before the May 28 deadline for the new constitution, Pandey and his followers plan to step up the campaign for a “Hindu state” in the capital. Though Pandey denies it could stir up animosity between the majority-Hindus and Christians – whose minority population is said to have crossed 2 million but is actually only 850,801, according to Operation World – there are fears of religious tension if not outright violence.

The Hindu rallies continue to grow as a pressure tactic. Yesterday (April 18), members of Nepal Brahman Samaj, an organization of “upper castes” from whose echelons temple priests are appointed, fought with security forces in front of parliament house, demanding their rights be respected and an end to conversions.

More Hindutva (Hindu nationalist) campaigning is scheduled on April 29, when the Rastriya Prajatantra Party-Nepal’s Thapa has called for a mass gathering in the capital.  

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

Taliban Ready to Negotiate in Afghanistan


According to reports coming out of Afghanistan, the Taliban may be ready to negotiate so that it can be reintegrated into Afghan society – including the government of the country. Even Western military commanders in Afghanistan suggest that this may be the way forward after years of war.

I have to say that I have some serious concerns about this policy should it become the one that is taken by both Western military forces (and obviously the governments behind these forces) and the Afghan government.

Firstly, what ever happened to not negotiating with terrorists? Does not this sort of policy suggest if terrorists hold out long enough there will be opportunity for negotiations and rewards for these negotiations? I don’t believe that this is a good message to send at all.

Secondly, was not one of the aims of the invasion of Afghanistan to drive the Taliban from power and thereby ensure that there was no safe haven for Al Qaeda in that country? Would not this policy provide a possibility for Al Qaeda to regain a lost safe haven in Afghanistan – perhaps not immediately, but in the long run – especially if the Taliban again control the country?

Thirdly, what happens with the Taliban problem in Pakistan should the Taliban gain some form of legitimacy in Afghanistan? Wouldn’t the Pakistan problem become even more difficult, especially given the close ties of the Taliban with Al Qaeda?

Just a few thoughts on the issue. There are plenty more.

Muslim Mob in Pakistan Wounds Christian Family


Assailants threaten to charge mentally ill son with ‘blasphemy’ if victims pursue justice.

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan, January 4 (CDN) — Infuriated by an alleged anti-Islamic comment by a mentally ill man, more than a dozen Muslims attacked his Christian family here last week, beating his 20-year-old sister unconscious and breaking her leg.

The woman’s father, Aleem Mansoor, said his daughter Elishba Aleem went unconscious after being struck in the head with an iron rod in the Dec. 28 attack. Mansoor said a Muslim known as Mogal beat him and his daughter with the rod on the street in front of their apartment home after falsely accusing his 32-year old son, who suffers from schizophrenia, of blasphemy.

“Elishba shouted, ‘Father look! He is going to hit you,’ and she came somewhat in front and the rod hit her head,” Mansoor told Compass. “She touched her head, and her hand was covered with blood.”

After she fell unconscious, the assailants began striking her on her legs and back, Mansoor said.

“As soon as the mob realized that Elishba was totally unconscious, they shouted that the girl was dead and fled from the scene,” he said.

Elishba Aleem had rushed down from the family’s third-floor apartment in Iqbal Town, Islamabad and was attacked when she pleaded for the mob to stop beating her father, who received five stitches for a hand wound. With iron rods and cricket bats, the mob also injured Mansoor’s wife Aqsa and his sister-in-law Aileen George. Another of Mansoor’s sons, 24-year-old Shazir Aleem, saw the assault from the apartment and also was beaten when he hurried down.

“When Shazir’s wife Sanna saw that her husband was being beaten, she rushed down with [infant daughter] Hanna in her arms and pleaded with them, ‘Why are you beating my husband?’” Mansoor said. “Someone in the mob snatched Hanna from Sanna and threw her on the ground, and then those beasts began beating Sanna as well.”

The baby girl escaped serious injury.

Initially the assailants had attacked Mansoor as he tried to leave home with his son Shumail Aleem, whom he intended to take to police to clear up accusations by shopkeeper Muhammad Naveed that he had spoken ill of Islam.

As Mansoor reached his car, however, about a dozen men with cricket bats and metal rods got out of a parked Suzuki van and surrounded them, he said, and within 10 minutes more than 100 angry Muslims had joined Naveed, his other brothers and his father, Mogal.

“Naveed shouted, ‘Why are you people looking at these choohras [derogatory term for Christians]? Catch them and kill them,’” Mansoor said. “My wife Aqsa and sister-in-law Aileen George threw their doppatas [Indian head coverings] at Naveed’s and others’ feet to humbly request that they not attack us, but they refused to listen. They began beating all of us with rods and cricket bats.”

Area Muslims resent that the family has a car and is well-off, Mansoor said.

“They say Christians should be suppressed and kept under a tight control,” he said. “They think Christians should salute them when they pass by them.”

His son Shumail has been under medical treatment for schizophrenia for more than five years, he said, and because of his condition he does not work.

“As long as Shumail takes medicine, there is no one nicer than him on the earth, but if he is not taking the medicine then he is the worst creature,” Mansoor said.

Mansoor’s daughter, a first-year college student, received treatment at the Pakistan Institute of Medical Sciences (PIMS) and eventually regained consciousness, though she remains in intense pain. Mansoor said members of the Muslim mob ensured that she did not receive a medical-legal certificate documenting her condition. 

When Mansoor told Naveed and others that he would take them to court over the attack, his Muslim adversaries said he would fail because they had paid PIMS officials 50,000 rupees (US$600) to withhold the medical report on his daughter’s injuries. He said they also told him that they had paid off officers at the Shehzad Town Police Station to pressure the family to drop the case with an out-of-court settlement.

“The assistant sub-inspector, Ghulam Gilani, of Shehzad Town Police Station, called my wife and told her that if the family pursued the case of assault on us, then we would be implicated in the blasphemy case, which would have serious consequences for us,” Mansoor said.

Gilani and hospital officials were not immediately available for comment.

‘Blasphemy’ Accusation

The comment said to have triggered the violence was uttered at a nearby general store, where Shumail Aleem had gone to buy cigarettes at about 8:30 p.m. on Dec. 28.

Dec. 28 was Islam’s 10th of Muharram, or Yom-e-Ashura, when Shiite Muslims mourn the death of Hussein ibn Ali, grandson of the Islamic Prophet Muhammad. Pakistan’s population is made up primarily of Sunni Muslims, who also honor the day on the claim that Moses fasted on that day to express gratitude to God for freeing the Israelites from Egypt.

At the store an elderly Christian man known as Baba Sadiq asked Shumail Aleem why movie channels were not being shown on the store’s cable-fed TV.

“Shumail told him, ‘Are Muslims out of their minds? Why would they show movie channels on Ashura?’” Mansoor said.

The comment apparently supported Naveed’s decision to refrain from showing films on the Muslim holy day, but the shopkeeper began beating Shumail Aleem, demanding to know why he had profaned Hussein’s name, Mansoor said.

Two weeks prior, Mansoor said, Naveed and his brothers had beaten a Christian boy so severely that when he bled a piece of flesh issued from his nostrils.

“Shumail had seen this all, and had protested with Naveed over this, and when he came home he was very upset over the beating and repeatedly asked his mother to go and ask Naveed about it,” Mansoor said. “We think that Naveed bore a grudge because of Shumail’s inquiry and protest about that beating of a Christian.”

Mansoor said that after Naveed severely beat him, Shumail Aleem returned when the rest of the family was not at home, as several had taken Mansoor’s 3-month-old granddaughter Hanna to the doctor. When they returned at 9:45 p.m., Mansoor said, he found several things in the house “thrown around or broken.”

A neighbor told them that police and about two dozen men had come searching for Shumail Aleem – who had hid in an upper storeroom – because Naveed had accused him of blasphemy. 

“We went to Naveed, who was at his shop, and inquired what had happened,” Mansoor said. “He told us that Shumail had tried to steal several things from the store and also damaged several things, and worst of all that he profaned Imam Hussein. My wife told Naveed that he knew that Shumail was mentally ill so he should have waited for us, and that we would have paid the damage, but that there was no need to go to the police.”

Naveed told them that whether their son was mentally ill did not matter, that he had filed a police report – which later proved to be untrue – and that they would search relentlessly for Shumail Aleem, Mansoor said.

The mob stopped pursuing members of Mansoor’s family only after the intervention of Pakistan People’s Party politician Malik Amir, he said, but neither police nor the hospital has cooperated with him in legal matters. An influential Muslim in the area, Raja Aftaab, is also urging the family to settle out of court, he added.

“My stance is that the entire mob that attacked us should come to our house and apologize in front of all the neighbors, and then I will start negotiations with them,” he said.

Report from Compass Direct News 

Worship Site Demolished, Pastors Arrested in China


Officials put on alert to use military force against potential “unrest” by churches.

LOS ANGELES, October 7 (CDN) — Following a mob attack on a church in northeastern China and the demolition of their worship site last month, the government put officials on alert to use military force against churches to quell potential “unrest,” according to a leading advocacy group.

Citing reliable government sources, China Aid Association (CAA) reported that the central government on Sept. 26-27 ordered officials in “all relevant government agencies” to prepare to use military force against Christians who might react to the attack on a Fushan Church branch congregation in Linfen city, Shanxi Province. In the wee hours of Sept. 13 some 400 uniformed police and civilians bearing shovels, batons, bricks, iron hooks and other weapons beat members of the church who were sleeping at the nearly finished factory building used as a worship site.

With several Fushan County officials involved in the attack, dozens of Christians were seriously injured among the more than 100 who were hurt, CAA reported. According to the Epoch Times, a church member’s relative obtained a license to build the shoe factory and was allowing the group to meet there, as the church was growing too large to meet in homes and the building could hold up to 400 people.

On Sept. 25 Shanxi Province officers of the Public Security Bureau (PSB) detained nine Fushan Church leaders on their way to Beijing to protest the attack, and the next day authorities placed state military police inside and around the main Fushan Church building in Linfen city, the advocacy organization said.

“To have military police occupy a peaceful church is an unprecedented, tragic development in 60 years of PRC [People’s Republic of China] history, which itself shows the reality of today’s situation regarding religious freedom in China,” China Aid President Bob Fu said in a statement.

Some 5,000 of the 50,000-member Linfen House Church network had worshipped weekly at the main facility, where the central government stationed police to prevent them from entering or holding services.

“Military police now guard the building and the surrounding areas around the clock,” Fu said. “More than 30 daughter churches in nearby townships have been prohibited from gathering to worship in their churches and homes.”

Among the nine Fushan Church leaders arrested without a warrant and held in a secret location was Senior Pastor Wang Xiaoguang and his wife Yang Rongli, according to the CAA.

Other church leaders and members have been placed under house arrest and are now under constant surveillance, Fu said, adding that local authorities confiscated all church computers, TVs and other valuables as “illegal materials.”

The Beijing PSB has labeled the demolition and attack on the Linfen branch church as a response to a “violent uprising,” Fu said. The branch congregation had gathered at the Good News Cloth Shoe Factory, a building still under construction in Fushan County, when the government-led mob attacked and took money, Bibles, clothes and cell phones, among other items, he said.

Fushan PSB officials met with church leaders on Sept. 19 and offered 1.4 million yen (US$20,540) for reparations in exchange for the church not constructing a building for religious purposes, Fu said.

“Under pressure from the central government, the leading Fushan PSB officer expressed a desire to make amends for the agency’s corporate actions, with the goal of preventing any turmoil that could potentially mar the 60th anniversary National Day celebrations,” Fu said in the statement. “Angered by the brutal treatment, but willing to cooperate, the six [church] members raised their concerns, including the continued critical conditions of several hospitalized victims and the destruction of 17 buildings on the factory compound.”

The Christians reached a verbal agreement that the Fushan PSB would pay the reparations fee in exchange for the church not constructing a building, but Fu said continued arrests and state military presence at the main church site confirm the negotiations were insincere, a tactic to delay actions against the central government.

Pastor Arrested

In Beijing, the crackdown ahead of the Oct. 1 National Day included the arrest of a pastor known internationally as a house church rights defender.

PSB and State Security agents from Fengtai district in Beijing seized Pastor Hua Huiqi of Tent-Making Ministry on Sept. 17. That evening his wife, Ju Mei, received a telephone call from him saying PSB agents had forced him into a car on the highway. She received another call a half hour later saying he had been taken to an unknown location before the phone went dead.

That night a Beijing PSB officer, Ding Xu, went to his home to pick up clothes for him and refused to answer his wife’s questions, according to CAA. The director of the PSB’s Domestic Security Protection Squad later told CAA that Hua was still in custody but declined to reveal his condition or whereabouts.

“Hua has been repeatedly arrested, beaten, and interrogated by PSB officials within the last two years, and his family has sacrificed their safety for the lawful defense of human rights,” Fu said in a statement. “Hua’s mother, Shuang Shuying, was released only months ago from her two-year imprisonment for her rights defense work.”

Report from Compass Direct News 

Kidnapped Christian Doctor in Iraq Freed in Critical Condition


Daughter’s ransom negotiations lead to release of Kirkuk pediatrician after 29 days of torture.

ISTANBUL, September 22 (CDN) — Islamic kidnappers in Kirkuk, Iraq last week dumped a Christian doctor in critical condition in front of a mosque after 29 days of torture and threats to him and his family.

Thanks to his 23-year-old daughter’s negotiations with the terrorists, 55-year-old Sameer Gorgees Youssif was freed but with wounds, hematomas and bruises covering his body; throughout his captivity, he lay bound and gagged.

He was abducted at around 8:15 p.m. on Aug. 18 as he was walking home from his pediatric clinic in a relatively “safe” district of Kirkuk in northern Iraq, sources told Compass.

The kidnappers, presumably insurgents, beat him and stuffed him in the trunk of a car amid an electrical blackout in the neighborhood. As they sped off, the abductors killed one of the doctor’s neighbors, identified only as Askar, with a single gunshot to his heart. He died immediately.

Sources said Askar, a Christian man in his fifties, heard the doctor yelling for help and, thinking it was one of his sons, ran to the car to stop it as it sped away.

Youssif, a father of two, is the fourth Christian doctor confirmed to be kidnapped in Kirkuk in the last two years; kidnapping of Christians in general and holding them for ransom is a regular occurrence in Iraq.

“This is a daily activity,” said an anonymous Iraqi Christian of the abductions taking place in Iraq. “They do it all the time. I don’t know what kind of government we have. They are not providing protection, and they are even afraid of insurgents.”

Hikmat Saeed, a Christian who was kidnapped in late August, was released on Sept. 11, and Salem Barjo, another Christian taken in August, was found dead on Sept. 3, according to Middle East Concern. Both men were abducted in Mosul.

Ransom Demands

The doctor’s family did not report the incident to the police, fearing negative repercussions in the event that officers were also involved in the crime.

The kidnappers called Youssif’s wife a few days later, demanded half a million dollars in ransom and threatened to kill him if they did not receive the money.

When asked where she would find such a huge amount, insurgents reportedly responded, “You are a woman; you can go and beg at the mosques or churches,” said an anonymous Christian Iraqi source from Erbil.

After twice speaking to the kidnappers, Youssif’s wife was said to begin experiencing numbness on her right side due to the stress. She was unable to resume negotiations, and her 23-year-old daughter started bargaining for her father’s life.

“I was the one talking to them and negotiating with them,” she said. “It’s all in God’s hands. He gave me the power to talk to them. I was begging them, saying, ‘Don’t do anything to him.’”

The doctor’s daughter, who requested her name be withheld, said that for two weeks the kidnappers insisted on $500,000, and then dropped the amount to $300,000.

“I said, ‘We don’t have that, have mercy on us,’” she said.

The terrorists found phone numbers of friends on the doctor’s mobile phone and called them, instructing them to tell his family that if they did not produce the money they would kill the doctor. In the end, the kidnappers lowered the amount to $100,000.

“They were threatening us all the time, and we were living in hell,” his daughter said. “We just stayed and prayed and fasted and closed the doors and locked them. We were afraid that maybe they would come here and kill all of us. God was our only hope.”

The family said they were able to collect the money through the generosity of friends; they are not sure how they will be able to pay it back.

Beyond Recognition

The doctor, who was tortured and starved beyond recognition, was dumped in front of a Kirkuk mosque on Wednesday (Sept. 16) hours after his father-in-law delivered the ransom money in an undisclosed location in Mosul. Family friends told Compass there was a police car stationed near the insurgents at the time of the ransom payment. Insurgents arrived armed in two cars.

“There is corruption,” said an anonymous source located in Erbil. “It’s normal here, in Mosul or Baghdad it is normal. People are kidnapped by [people in] police cars.”

Relatives who went to collect Youssif rushed him to the hospital.

Sources said the doctor had been bound, gagged and blindfolded and lay on his right side for 29 days developing severe pressure ulcers on his right thigh and arm and a deep wound on his right shoulder. He had a deep wound in the back of his neck and a hematoma on his left arm.

There were open wounds around his mouth and wrists where he was tightly bound the entire time he was held hostage, sources said. His left eye was infected. His forehead and nose were bashed repeatedly, and the rest of his body, especially the upper trunk, was covered in bruises.

“When I saw him, I couldn’t stand it – he wasn’t the man I knew,” said his daughter. “He looked like an old man, he had a beard, and he was so thin he looked anorexic.”

Relatives said he was afraid to speak about his experience because the terrorists threatened to kill him and his family. When he could speak, he asked his family how many days he had been gone.

“He said he kept praying, saying, ‘I know God won’t leave me alone,’” said his daughter. “He kept saying Psalm 23. He loves that, it’s his favorite psalm.”

Youssif’s pastor told Compass that there is no protection for the Christian communities in Iraq, and in Kirkuk only Christian rather than Muslim doctors have been kidnapped.

“There is no Muslim doctor who has been kidnapped in Kirkuk,” he said. “This shows that so far only the Christian doctors are kidnapped, I think, because there is no one protecting them and we have no militia. It is very easy for the criminals to kidnap Christian doctors.”

The pastor identified the other Christian doctors kidnapped in the last two years as Sargon Yowash, also from his parish, Reath Ramo and a third he could only identify as Dr. George.

Youssif’s daughter said she is convinced her father was kidnapped because he is a Christian and a doctor.

“Christians have no protection, that’s why we’re persecuted here,” she said. “We are weak here, that’s why they take advantage of us.”

The doctor was still in the hospital at press time, but his condition was improving, according to his family.

Report from Compass Direct News 

PAKISTAN: CHRISTIANS STRIVE FOR JUSTICE FOLLOWING ONSLAUGHT


Local security officials, Muslim clerics named in police complaint.

GOJRA, Pakistan, Aug. 5 (Compass Direct News) – A standoff here between Pakistani officials and Christians protesting the government’s reluctance to prosecute a murderous Islamic assault ended with officials finally consenting to file a complaint against key Muslim clerics and security officers.

On Sunday (Aug. 2) hundreds of Christians demonstrated in Gojra, where the previous day rampaging Muslims – acting on an unsubstantiated rumor of “blasphemy” of the Quran and whipped into a frenzy by local imams and banned terrorist groups – killed at least seven Christians, looted more than 100 houses and set fire to 50 of them. At least 19 people were injured in the melee.

In protest of government reluctance to name two security officers for negligence in connection with Christians burned to death, demonstrators on Sunday refused to quickly bury the dead as officials requested. Believing the government was stalling in registering a complaint, demonstrators put the coffins with the charred remains on railroad tracks for three hours before officials agreed to include District Police Officer (DPO) Inkasar Khan and District Coordinating Officer (DCO) Sikandar Baloch in the complaint filed against more than 20 named and 800 unnamed people.

Among those arrested include members of the banned Sipah-e-Sahaba Pakistan, a pro-Taliban, Sunni Muslim group, and its al Qaeda-linked offshoot, Lashkar-e-Jhangvi; officials said members of both groups were suspected of planning the attack in Gojra.

The Centre for Legal Aid Assistance and Settlement (CLAAS) reported that at least 14 Christians had been killed, and Christians in the affected areas told Compass the final death toll will likely be more than 20. The only deaths confirmed by hospital officials, however, are those of seven members of a family who died when their home was set on fire; names and ages in this report vary slightly from the hospital list as they are based on Compass contact with their survivors: Hameed Masih, 75; his son Akhlaq Hameed, 55; Asia Hameed, 22, wife of Mohsin Hameed; her mother Parveen, 50; Asifa Hameed, 30 (wife of survivor Almas Hameed), and her 8-year-old daughter Umia and 4-year-old son Musa.

With the caskets containing the remains of the dead Christians sitting in public for some time, the local administration tried to force survivors to conduct a hasty funeral, telling them to hold a service in Catholic parish hall and bury the dead as soon as possible.

Federal Minorities Minister Shahbaz Bhatti and other prominent Christians met with the local administration, but negotiations failed as the two security officials were not named in the First Information report (FIR). A Catholic priest identified only as Father Mani then told protestors that an FIR had been registered and that he had seen it, and that therefore the demonstration should be called off.

But protestors did not believe him, insisting that they would not quit until they saw a copy of the FIR. Only after continued protests, with the dead bodies on the railway track for more than three hours, did officials register a case against key suspects in connection with murder, looting and violence: more than 20 identified people, including DPO Khan and DCO Baloch, who are accused of negligence in allowing the Islamic violence to erupt, and some 800 unidentified suspects.

Nevertheless, sources told Compass, the two officers have not been suspended, terminated or arrested. Rather, they have been made Special Duty Officers – an officer who is fully paid but has yet to be posted.

The FIR also names Muslim clerics of several Gojra mosques, including the imam of nearby Chamra Mandi Mosque, called Firdausia Mosque. Muslim groups held a press conference today in Gojra calling on the government to free clerics named in the FIR, according to CLAAS. They also threatened to hang Talib Masih, father of the boy who was falsely accused of tossing cut pages of the Quran into the air as part of a wedding ceremony in Korian.

The same rumor of desecration of the Quran that led to Saturday’s massive protest and attack in Gojra, 50 kilometers (31 miles) from Faisalabad, also prompted the arson assault on Thursday (July 30) by Islamic extremists on the village of Korian, seven miles from Gojra.

In the Gojra violence, several people have also implicated Qadir Awan, president of the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) in Gojra, who was also named in the FIR. Zahid Iqbal, administrative head of a section of Gojra called Union Council-21, said that Awan had no role in the rioting.

The bodies of the seven Christians had been kept in the mortuary of Civil Hospital in Gojra, where the Christian advocacy group called Community Development Initiative (CDI) helped wash the bodies and facilitated their transfer to the families.

Government Response

Amid strict security, a funeral service for the victims of the Gojra riots’ victims took place on Sunday (Aug. 2). Punjab Law Minister Rana Sanaullah and Minorities Affairs Minister Bhatti participated in the funeral procession.

There Sanaullah announced that Punjab Chief Minister Sharif would visit the Christian community to express his condolences – “Beyond the FIR we are with you in punishing those who let this conspiracy succeed or participated in this conspiracy,” Sanaullah said – but Christians were disappointed the next day when he didn’t show.

Christians refused to speak with the representatives the chief minister had sent in his stead nor with other PML-N members. Provincial Minorities Minister Kamran Michael threatened to resign over the issue, and due to this pressure Chief Minister Sharif visited the area yesterday (Aug. 4), assuring the community that he would do his utmost to provide justice.

To assess the damage, the chief minister has constituted a 16-member group under the chairmanship of Michael.

Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani has formed a committee to ascertain the amount of damage done during the rioting, and as soon as President Asif Ali Zardari learned of the incident he sent Minorities Minister Bhatti to Gojra.

President Zardari also announced that 500,000 rupees (US$6,040) will be made available for each person killed and 300,000 rupees (US$3,624) for those whose houses were burned. Prime Minister Gilani is also expected to announce a special package for the affected families.

A report submitted by Bhatti to the president states that the Punjab government and local administration failed to stem the violence. It adds that additional troops were not sent to help local authorities in Gojra, despite the advice of the minorities minister.

Interior Minister Rehman Malik has also sought a report from the interior secretary and the Punjab inspector general.

Farahnaz Ispahani, spokesperson for President Zardari, told Compass that after Muslims burned more than 50 homes in Korian village on July 30 and 31 – following the accusation of “blasphemy” of the Quran that proved to be false – the president asked the Punjabi government to report on it. After the subsequent Aug. 1 rioting in Gojra, she said, he immediately dispatched Bhatti to the site with orders to report back.

Ispahani said that after the president talked to Prime Minister Gilani, the prime minister called Chief Minister of the Punjab Sharif over the incident. When it became clear that police were unable to handle the matter, she said, the president ordered Rangers – paramilitary troops mainly deployed along the border for security – into Gojra to take charge and save Christians from further damage.

CDI Field Officer Napoleon Qayyum told Compass that CDI had strongly objected to the route of the Aug. 1 Islamic demonstration – which had been called to protest the release of the man whose son was falsely accused of desecrating pages of the Quran – saying he had told DPO Khan that it should not pass by any churches or Christian areas. As Islamic clerics made threatening announcements from mosques the day before the rampage, Qayyum said, DCO Baloch also had ample warning that violence was imminent.

“The way things were moving in Gojra, no rocket science was needed to predict this fallout,” he said, adding that announcements from loudspeakers mounted on vehicles broadcast how Christians had supposedly desecrated the Quran.

Punjab Minister for Law Sanaullah said an initial investigation of allegations of the Quran being blasphemed indicated “there has not been any incident of desecration.”

The CDI also objected to a two-member committee set up by provincial Chief Minister Sharif regarding violence in Korian village.

“Our objection was that no Christian was on the committee,” Qayyum said, “because how could administration and police be thought to be unbiased? It was the first step where the provincial government showed partiality.”

After Korian village Christians were attacked, the government showed no interest in arresting or reining in rampaging mobs, according to Qayyum, who said that the day after that assault he saw crowds there still armed with clubs wearing green, dark brown or black turbans, an indication that “religious fanatics were still roaming free.”

Likewise, he added, the provincial government allowed the civil administration and police to use delaying tactics in June 30 violence in Bahmaniwala village, where 110 houses were plundered and ransacked in Kasur.

Christians make up less than 5 percent of Pakistan’s 175 million population, which is mainly Muslim.

Report from Compass Direct News 

PAKISTAN: CHRISTIANS BURNED TO DEATH IN ISLAMIST ATTACKS


14 believers reportedly killed; more than 100 homes burned in Gojra town, Korian village.

 

GOJRA, Pakistan, August 1 (Compass Direct News) – Islamic extremists today set ablaze more than 50 houses and a church in this town in northeastern Pakistan following an accusation of “blasphemy” of the Quran, leaving at least 14 Christians dead, sources said.

The dead include women and children, with several other burn victims unable to reach hospitals for medical care, according to the Centre for Legal Aid Assistance and Settlement (CLAAS). The attack came amid a protest by thousands of Muslim Islamists – including members of banned militant groups – that resulted in another six people dying when participants shot at police and officers responded with tear gas and gunfire.

The same rumor of desecration of the Quran that led to today’s massive protest and attack in Gojra, 50 kilometers (31 miles) from Faisalabad, also prompted an arson assault on Thursday (July 30) by Islamic extremists on the village of Korian, seven miles from Gojra, that gutted 60 houses.

Punjab Minister for Law Rana Sanaullah reportedly said an initial investigation of allegations of the Quran being blasphemed indicated “there has not been any incident of desecration.”

Because of the earlier assault in Korian, Pakistani officials were already in the area and had sought reinforcements to help control the 11 a.m. demonstration today in Gojra, but security forces were slow to respond, according to CLAAS.

“There were unaccountable people in the mob and they were out of control because only four police constables were trying to stop the mob of thousands of people,” a CLAAS report said.

Crowd size and attacks grew, and Islamists managed to block main roads and railways to keep fire brigades from fighting the house fires, according to CLAAS.

With authorities also blocking roads to keep more Muslim extremists from entering from neighboring villages, clerics at local mosques broadcast messages that those “who love Muhammad and Islam should gather with them to defend the Islam because it is in danger,” according to CLAAS.

Asam Masih, a Christian in Gojra, said that that women and children were severely burned and had no way to get to a hospital, according to CLAAS, which was helping to transport victims for medical care.

Islamists set on fire a Catholic church on Sumandri road and destroyed it using firearms and explosives, according to CLAAS.

“50 houses are burned and totally destroyed,” the CLAAS statement read. “14 people including children, women and men are expired.”

Wedding and Funeral

As Christians have begun defending themselves against the onslaughts, mainstream media have already begun referring to the overwhelmingly Islamist aggression as “Christian and Muslim rioting.”

Compass investigated the facts of the trigger incident in the village of Korian, where more than 500 Muslims, responding to calls from a mosque, attacked Christians in Toba Tek Singh district. Local sources said nearly all village Christian families fled. The fires destroyed their homes – collapsing their wooden roofs or melting T-iron roofs – and all belongings within that the attacking Muslims had not first looted.

“Our house is burnt and everything is gone, but Muslim neighbors around are not willing to give us a loaf of bread or a sip of water to us,” 80-year-old Baba Sharif Masih told Compass.

He and his wife Hanifa Bibi, 73, were the only Christians left in the village in the northeastern province of Punjab. Masih, who is paralyzed, said the attackers let them live when they pleaded that they were unable to run away.

Two church buildings were ransacked but not burned, Compass sources said.

One Christian resident of Korian identified only as Shabir said the blasphemy accusation grew out of an incident at a wedding on Sunday (July 25). During the ceremony, Christian wedding guests tossed currency notes and coins into the air according to custom, with children catching most of them as they fall. Shabir told Compass a Muslim funeral was taking place at the same time, however, and that mourners told wedding celebrants to stop their music; they apparently declined.

The next day, Muslims met with the parents of the bride, Talib and Mukhtar Masih, and told them that their sons had cut pages of the Quran the size of currency notes and had been throwing them in the air the previous night, Shabir said.

“Talib said that nothing like this has happened, but that if there was anything, ‘I’ll call my son and he will definitely apologize for it,’” Shabir said. “But then they immediately began beating them and left Talib when he fell unconscious.”

Shabir said that afterward when Christian women went to the Muslims and told them that they were wrong to beat Talib Masih, the assailants yelled at them and tried to attack them, but they were able to flee to their homes.

On Thursday (July 30), Shabir said, Muslim clerics announced from the village mosque that “if any infidel Christian wanted to save his or her life, then get out of here or they would be killed.”

As the Muslim mobs gathered, he said, Christians immediately fled – leaving their meals prepared and fires burning in stoves.

“These assailants first looted these houses and then set them on fire and closed the door,” he said. “Since then, not a single Christian is left there except a very old couple.”

Islamist’s Version

Village Muslims declined to open their doors when Compass reporters called on them.

But one of three Muslim leaders standing with a crowd of turban-clad Islamists at the entrance to the village, Qari Noor Ahmed, told Compass the story of the alleged cut pages of the Quran at the marriage ceremony.

“Because it was night, no one noticed, but in the morning we saw that the pages of the Quran had been cut to currency note size, and they were trampled under people’s feet,” he said.

Ahmed said that village authorities later met and called in Talib and Mukhtar Masih. He said that council authorities decided that their son should apologize.

“But when his son came in the meeting, he by no means seemed apologetic, rather he was aggressive,” Ahmed said. “This was the root cause, and we told Talib and Mukhtar to tell their children to apologize.”

Ahmed said that afterwards they searched for Talib and Mukhtar Masih and their sons but could not find them.

“Then Muslims became furious that first they had profaned the Quran, and now they had fled and were not apologizing,” Ahmed said. “Then the villagers attacked their houses. All the Christians who are visiting here are armed, and we are sitting here to avoid any untoward incident. It is better for you to leave now or you may be attacked.”

Munawar Masih, a 20-year-old Christian in Korian, said that he was preparing supper around 7 p.m. when he heard the announcement from the mosque that “infidel Christians had profaned the Holy Quran, and let’s teach them exemplary lesson.”

He looked outside as his family was about to sit down to dinner and saw a large mob approaching.

“We just fled from there to save our lives, and since then we are hiding in Gojra,” he said.

Private TV channel reporter Ghulam Muhauddin told Compass that after the Korian houses were set on fire, the Islamic extremists blocked the Faisalabad-Gojra Highway to keep firefighters from arriving.

“When the attack was unleashed, several people were injured and even some domestic animals were killed,” he said.

Muhauddin said that after negotiations between the District Police Officer and the protestors, Station House Officer (SHO) Jamshed Iqbal Nasir was suspended for not properly handling the incident.

Christians Accused

Officials at the Sadar Police Station, in whose precincts the attack took place, were not available for comment, but a deputy called Imam Din said that a First Information Report (FIR) had been filed under Section 295-B, or blasphemy of the Quran, against Talib and Mukhtar Masih.

He said that the complainant in the case was Muhammad Ashraf, and that police had possession of the alleged burnt or cut papers of the Quran. Din said that after SHO Nasir was suspended and Ashiq Hussein replaced him, Hussein was willing to file an FIR against those who had ransacked and burned houses of Christians. He said the accused were still at large and that police would arrest them after Christians returned to their homes.

Asked if police were under pressure from Islamists or the government, Din declined to comment.

Advocacy group Community Development Initiative (CDI) field officer Napoleon Qayyum said that the group had informed high officials about the Korian attack, including the presidency, and that soon afterward the president issued a notice. Qayyum noted that the Korian and Gojra attacks follow a July 1 attack in Kasur, where swarms of Islamists ransacked and damaged 110 homes.

“It is a clear sign that violent attacks against Christians have dramatically increased in recent days,” he said, adding that CDI would provide legal help to victims. CDI works with assistance from the American Centre of Law and Justice.

Muhauddin of the private TV channel added that Punjab Chief Minister Shahbaz Sharif had taken the notice of the attacks and was forming an investigative team comprising the Faisalabad Regional Police Officer and Faisalabad Commissioner, which will send a report to him.

A spokesman from the Pakistani president’s office, former Sen. Farhatullah Babar, told Compass that President Asif Ali Zardari had taken a notice of the attack and had asked the provincial government to investigate. He said the president has condemned the attack and that there was no justification for anyone taking the law into their own hands.

Asked why the committee constituted by the provincial government did not have any Christians on it, he responded that it was the discretion of the provincial government to determine the make-up of the panel and that the federal government was concerned only about the report. Asked why an FIR had been filed against Christians and not Muslims for ransacking and vandalizing, he said only that appropriate action would be taken after the inquiry.

Member of National Assembly Farahnaz Ispahani, wife of Pakistani Ambassador to the United States Husain Haqqani, told Compass that President Zardari had directed Federal Minorities Affairs Minister Shahbaz Bhatti to visit the area and “express sympathy with the victims.”

Report from Compass Direct News 

INDONESIA: CHURCH, BIBLE STUDENTS FIGHT DISCRIMINATION


Village congregation goes to court over loss of permit; SETIA students demonstrate for new campus.

JAKARTA, July 7 (Compass Direct News) – Christians have stood up for their rights in two key cases the last few weeks in heavily Muslim Indonesia.

Members of the Huria Kristen Batak Protestan Church (HKBP) in Cinere village, Depok, West Java appeared in court on June 29 to contest the mayor’s revocation of their building permit in March, while students of the shuttered Arastamar School of Theology (SETIA) demonstrated in Jakarta on June 15, asking officials to honor promises to provide them with a new campus.

HKBP church leaders filed suit against the decision in the state court in Bandung, West Java. Two court sessions have been held so far, on June 2 and June 29, with Depok Mayor Nur Mahmudi Ismail represented by Syafrizal, the head of the Depok legal department and who goes by the single name, and political associate Jhon Sinton Nainggolan.

Mahmudi issued a decree on March 27 cancelling a building permit that was initially granted to the HKBP church in Cinere on June 13, 1998, allowing it to establish a place of worship.

The mayor said he had acted in response to complaints from residents. Contrary to Indonesian law, however, Mahmudi did not consult the church before revoking the permit.

Nainggolan, arguing for Mahmudi, claimed the revocation was legal because it was based on a request from local citizens and would encourage religious harmony in Cinere. But Betty Sitompul, manager of the building project, strongly disputed this claim.

“Our immediate neighbors have no objection,” she told Compass. “A small minority who don’t think this way have influenced people from outside the immediate neighborhood to make this complaint.”

Sitompul added that the church had been meeting in a naval facility located about five kilometers (nearly three miles) from the church building since the permit was revoked, causing great inconvenience for church members, many of whom did not have their own transportation.

According to Kasno, who heads the People’s Coalition for National Unity in Depok and is known only by a single name, the mayor had clearly violated procedures set forth in a Joint Ministerial Decree, issued in 1969 and revised in 2006, regulating places of worship.

Legal advocate Junimart Girsang, representing the church, confirmed that under the revised decree, conflicts must not be solved unilaterally but through consultation and consensus with the parties involved. He also said it was against normal practice to revoke a building permit.

Construction of the church building began in 1998, shortly after the permit was issued, but halted soon afterward due to a lack of funds. When the project recommenced in 2007, members of a Muslim group from Cinere and neighboring villages damaged the boundary hedge and posted protest banners on the walls of the building. Most of the protestors were not local residents, Sitompul said.

By that stage the building was almost completed and church members were using it for worship services. (See “Mayor Revokes Church Permit,” May 5.)

SETIA Protest

In Jakarta, hundreds of SETIA students demonstrated in front of the presidential palace on June 15, calling on officials to honor promises made in March to provide them with a new campus. (See “New Building Site Found for Bible College,” May 11.)

At least 1,400 staff and students remain in three separate locations in sub-standard facilities, causing great disruption to their studies, according to the students. The original campus in Kampung Pulo, East Jakarta, closed after neighbors attacked students with machetes in July 2008 and remains cordoned off by police.

In negotiations with SETIA director Matheus Mangentang in May, Jakarta officials again promised to assist the school in finding a new site, and promised to work with neighbors to secure approval for a building permit.

Joko Prabowo, the school’s general secretary, said he believes officials have now reneged on these promises. When school officials recently requested relocation to Cipayung, East Jakarta, the governor’s office rejected their proposal, citing community resistance.

Deputy Gov. Prijanto, who has only a single name, had initially suggested Cikarang in West Java as a new location, but SETIA staff rejected this offer, saying the site was outside Jakarta provincial limits and a move would be prohibitively expensive.

Report from Compass Direct News