TANZANIA: TWO CHURCH BUILDINGS BURNED DOWN IN ZANZIBAR


Young radical Muslims suspected in attacks on island off coast of East Africa.

NAIROBI, Kenya, June 30 (Compass Direct News) – Two church buildings were razed Sunday night (June 28) on the Tanzanian island of Zanzibar after worship services.

Suspected radical Muslims set the church buildings on fire on the outskirts of Unguja Township, on the island off the coast of East Africa, in what church leaders called the latest incidents of a rising tide of religious intolerance.

“We don’t want churches on our street,” read a flier dropped at the door of Charles Odilo, who had donated the plot on which the Evangelical Assemblies of God in Tanzania (EAGT) building stood. “Today we are going to burn the church, and if you continue we are going to burn your house also.”

With Christian movements making inroads in the Muslim-dominated area, the EAGT church and a Pentecostal Evangelical Fellowship in Africa (PEFA) church building a few miles away were burned down as a fierce warning, church leaders said.

The PEFA church building was located in the Kibondeni area eight miles from Unguja, and the EAGT structure was in the Fuoni area six miles from Unguja. Samuel Salehe Malanda, pastor of the 30-member PEFA church, said their building doubled as a nursery school on weekdays.

“In this church building there were six benches and a blackboard,” Malanda said. “The children have no place to do their learning. What are we going to do?”

Construction of the PEFA church building was in the final stage of completion last week, area church leaders said, when Masoud Jecha, assistant sheikh of Kibondeni, visited it and threatened Malanda.

“If you do not stop your construction, we will bring down the building,” Jecha told the pastor.

Malanda said the church reported the arson attack to police, who have purportedly begun an investigation, and the congregation has also sought the help of the chief leader of the rural government. The church’s police report included mention of Muslim extremist suspects bent on stopping the spread of Christianity in Zanzibar.

Church leaders said Odilo, who had donated his plot for the EAGT church building, was living in fear of the Islamic militants burning down his house, as they are known for carrying out their threats.

Pastor Paul Makungu said his EAGT church has 29 adult members and 13 children. He has also filed an arson report with local police, who are investigating suspects including radical Muslims and the chief neighborhood leader.

Bishop Obeid Fabian, chairman of an association of congregations known as the Fraternal Churches, said Christians in Zanzibar have received several threats.

“In this latest incident, the threats were spread through pamphlets,” he said. “At other times, Muslim youths have hurled stones on church rooftops and insulted Christians.”

On May 9 Muslim extremists expelled Zanzibar Pentecostal Church worshippers from their rented property at Ungunja Ukuu, on the outskirts of Zanzibar City (see http://www.compassdirect.org, “Radical Muslims Drive Church from Worship Place in Zanzibar”).

With no help forthcoming, church members have begun gathering for fellowship in their homes, Fabian said.

In Zanzibar City on April 17, government officials ordered Christians of the Church of God Zanzibar from their rented government building effective April 19, ostensibly to pave the way for renovations. But two months later, said pastor Lucian Mgayway, no renovation work had begun, and the government has since turned it into a business site.

The church had been worshipping in the building since October 2000.

“The churches affected since attacks began in April are at a critical stage,” said Fabian. “We as church leaders find it very difficult to bring our church members together who are now dispersed with no place of worship. The church needs financial support to get worship places for members as well security. But this seems not forthcoming.”

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

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

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

Report from Compass Direct News

Underground church growing in Muslim Indonesia


Pentecostals on the tsunami-ravaged coast of Indonesia are experiencing a wave of conversions and healings, reports Charisma News Online.

In the strongly Muslim Aceh province of northern Sumatra—where 167,000 people died in the 2004 tsunami—the underground church movement is growing, with Pentecostal congregations thriving.

Indonesia has an official policy of religious tolerance, but in Muslim-dominated areas Christians face open hostility and persecution. In Aceh province, churches must register with the authorities and are not permitted to evangelize. Many Christians choose to meet in unregistered—or underground—churches.

Sumatra is one of the least evangelized places on earth, according to Operation World. But since the tsunami—which wiped out 15 percent of the population of Aceh’s provincial capital Banda Aceh—numerous underground churches have put down roots.

Pastor Nico (full name withheld for security reasons) started an underground Pentecostal church four years ago with only six members. Today 90 people from the neighborhood make up the Spirit-filled congregation. They endure persecution for their faith. One church family had rocks thrown through the windows of their home, and another family was forced to relocate because of threats.

“It’s very difficult for the Muslims to accept us here,” the 34-year-old pastor told Charisma. “If the authorities knew where we meet, they would close us down.”

Report from the Christian Telegraph

BANGLADESH: BUDDHIST CREMATION RITE FORCED ON CHRISTIANS


Villagers demand money, compel mourners to chant Buddhist mantras.

DHAKA, Bangladesh, May 21 (Compass Direct News) – Buddhist villagers in southeastern Bangladesh forced Christians to participate in a Buddhist cremation rite for a deceased family member last weekend and demanded money for a post-funeral ceremony.

Uttam Lal Chakma, 55, died last Friday (May 15) after a long illness in Dighinala sub-district of Khagrachari hill district, some 400 kilometers (250 miles) southeast of Dhaka. A member of Mynasukhnachari Baptist Church in the Babuchara neighborhood, Chakma had converted from Buddhism to Christianity two years ago.

Pastor Vubon Chakma and Christian villagers sought to give him a Christian burial the next day, but a hostile group of local Buddhists forcibly stopped them from doing so, according to a local Christian source.

The source told Compass that a member of the Buddhist group told family members, “He was born as a Buddhist, and he will be buried as a Buddhist.”

Local Buddhists prohibited the Christian burial at the behest of the village committee chairman, the source said.

“Forcefully they cremated him by wood log and forced other Christians who were present there to utter Buddha mantras,” the source said.

Christian villagers subsequently requested that they be allowed to bury the charred bones. They dug a grave and were praying and reading Bible verses when Buddhist villagers, some of them drunk, arrived and brought the ceremony to a halt.

“They said to the Christians, ‘You cannot read the Bible here,” the church source said, requesting that the names of the Buddhist leaders be withheld for security reasons.

One of the senior pastors of the Babuchara Baptist church, 60-year-old Pitambar Chakma, tried to reason with the enraged Buddhists, but they confined him and Vubon Chakma for the night.

The source added that they demanded 12,000 taka ($US177) to hold a post-funeral ceremony today, to which they planned to invite more than 250 Buddhists, including their local monk.

“They threatened that if we do not give it before May 21, we have to give them 24,000 taka, twice as much as they wanted,” the source said. “They also threatened if 12,000 taka is not given to them, pastor Vubon Chakma and his father will be evicted from the society. This is a sign of unremitting hostility toward Christians by Buddhists.”

At press time the amount had not been given, but the area Buddhists had taken no action, the source said.

The village Buddhists also protested when Christians constructed a church building eight months ago, he said.

“Always they force all the people here to become Buddhist and males to shave their heads,” he said.

Besides threats of expulsion, local Buddhists have also disparaged Christian converts in foul language, and there have been instances of torture, the source said, adding that there are 22 Christians in the area.

“We have no one to complain to about them,” the church source said. “If we protest against them, it is dangerous because they have links with an underground armed group. If we inform the administration or law enforcement agencies, they do not help us because of our conversion.”

The local Buddhists have ties with United People’s Democratic Front (UPDF) militants who oppose a 1997 peace accord between the government and the tribal people. The hill tract areas had suffered unrest for decades, and hostilities continue as a leading proponent of the peace accord urged the government to ban UPDF for alleged terrorist activities, according to today’s The Daily Prothom Alo.

Report from Compass Direct News

PAKISTAN TALIBAN MILITANTS MURDER AND RAPE CHRISTIANS


Pakistan’s military and the militant Taliban group clashed in the country’s strategic Swat Valley Wednesday, May 6, adding to fears among minority Christians and forcing thousands of civilians to flee the area, reports FCNN.

Some 40,000 people reportedly fled the city of Mingora in northwestern Pakistan and officials said a further half a million others were expected to leave as well. Wednesday’s clashes came shortly after the Taliban threatened to expand Sharia, or Muslim law, far beyond Swat Valley and reports of massive Muslim attacks against minority Christians, including murder and rape.

Since late April, militants of the Taliban group executed at least two residents in a Christian neighborhood while one child died during a crackdown on believers who protested against the Talibanization of Pakistan, local Christians and rights investigators confirmed to BosNewsLife.

United States-based International Christian Concern (ICC), which investigates cases of persecution, said the incidents happened April 21, in Taseer Town near the city of Karachi, where Christians protested against pro-Taliban messages “chalked onto the walls of two churches.”

Earlier, on the outskirts of Sargodha, a key city in Punjab province, a Christian young man was shot and killed and another Christian boy sexually molested by at least one suspected militant, although his links to the Taliban could not be established, family sources said.

 

Many bullets

On April 19, Adeel Masih, 20, was “sprayed with bullets” after returning home from work in Marrium Town near Sargodha, and died of his injuries at a local hospital, said his father Iqbal Masih. At the same time a suspected Muslim militant, identified only as Israar, allegedly raped a 10-year-old Christian boy, Waseem Sabir, in a field of Marrium Towm, residents said.

The man apparently managed to flee, but police promised to investigate both cases. Elsewhere, a nine-year-old Pakistani Christian girl was gang-raped and murdered on April 9, Christian right investigators said. Nisha Javid was reportedly abducted while walking near her home in Punjab’s Essangri village. Her battered body was found two days later in a canal, but local Christians say police has been reluctant to detain suspects. Another Christian girl in her early teens was gang raped by Muslim men twice in as many months here in the village of Gumhe-k-Lidhur near Punjab’s main city of Lahore, according to local residents.

Ambreen Munir 13, a daughter of an impoverished Christian laborer and a house wife, was allegedly kidnapped twice since February by Muslim youth, who took her to a lonely neighborhood where they apparently raped her for several hours. It came on the heels of another incident in the village of Chak # 39 NB where impoverished Christian carpenter Tariq Masih 19 was murdered because of his relationship with a 17-year-old Muslim girl, his maternal uncle, Allah Ditta said.

Churches and rights investigators have accused the Taliban of encouraging its militants and other Muslims to attack Christians, including minors, in several parts of the country. In one of the latest incidents, some 400 angry Muslims armed with clubs, iron rods and firearms attacked homes of Christians and accused five Christian villagers of desecrating the Koran, seen as holy by Muslims, villagers said.

 

Islamic extremism

Eyewitnesses told BosNewsLife the May 1 incident happened in the village of Harappa in a remote part of Punjab, considered a hot-bed for Islamic extremism. The violence broke out after police detained a Christian man Ashfaq Gill April 28 on suspicion of “tearing and desecrating” the Koran, Christian villagers said.

Soon after, Harappa police detained four other Christians, identified as Naseer Gill Madhauv, Imran Gill Naseer, Harris John Emmanuel Hero, Israar Wilson Inyat-Ullah and Ghulam Freed, under Pakistan’s controversial blasphemy legislation, Christians said. Villagers went on saying that police also accused all five Christians of bursting into the Girls High School of Harappa and “desecrating the Book of Koran” there during theft.

However the ‘All Pakistan Minorities Alliance’, a major advocacy and political group, denied wrongdoing saying all five detained Christians are its political workers in the area.

Rights groups have urged the government to investigate these incidents and arrest those responsible, amid allegations of reluctance among police to detain suspects. Federal Minister for Minorities and head of APMA Shahbaz Bhatti told BosNewsLife he would “make sure that culprits responsible for this showdown are booked and justice is served” including to the five Christians against whom blasphemy charges have been leveled.

Yet, with the Taliban gaining ground in Pakistan, extremism is spreading and Christians are among minorities with little influence in this predominantly Islamic nation, rights groups warned.

Report from the Christian Telegraph

IRAQI CHRISTIANS FACE A NEW WAVE OF ANTI-CHRISTIAN VIOLENCE


As President Obama made a surprise visit to Iraq to meet with military and government leaders, Christians in the nation faced what many fear may be a new wave of anti-Christian violence, reports Charisma News Online.

Four Iraqi Christians were murdered within two days last week. On Wednesday, Shabah Aziz Suliman was reportedly killed in the northern Iraqi city of Kirkuk, and the following day, Nimrud Khuder Moshi and two women, Gilawez Nissan Musa and Hanaa Ishaq Poulis, were murdered in Dora, a historically Christian neighborhood in Baghdad, according to The Middle East Times.

Musa and Poulis, who were buried last weekend, were stabbed more than 50 times in their home and were discovered by one of the women’s 9-year-old granddaughter, the Los Angeles Times reported. On a black funeral banner hanging near Holy Apostolic Catholic Assyrian Church in Dora, the women’s deaths were attributed to “a cowardly terrorist attack,” the newspaper said.

“The killing of four innocent people within the last two days has put a renewed fear in our hearts,” said Julian Taimoorazy, president of Iraqi Christian Relief Council, in an interview last week with International Christian Concern (ICC). “What is important is to keep these continuous atrocities in the media and on the policy makers’ radars. What we need is a more safe and secure Iraq for all of Iraqis, especially for the Christians who have faced ethno-religious cleansing.”

Report from the Christian Telegraph

PERSECUTION IN IRAQ: FOUR CHRISTIANS KILLED IN TWO DAYS


A Christian human rights organization has learned that four Iraqi Christians were recently killed in Baghdad and Kirkuk, reports Jeremy Reynalds, correspondent for ASSIST News Service.

A news release from Christian human rights organization International Christian Concern (ICC) reported that while the perpetrators are as yet unknown, Islamic fundamentalists, criminal gangs and other armed groups have been behind attacks against Christians in Iraq in the past.

ICC said that according to the Middle East Times, on April 1 Sabah Aziz Suliman was killed in Kirkuk. The following day Nimrud Khuder Moshi, Glawiz Nissan and Hanaa Issaq were killed in Dora, a historically Christian neighborhood of Baghdad.

“The killing of four innocent people within the last two days has put a renewed fear in our hearts. What is important is to keep these continuous atrocities in the media and on the policy makers’ radars. What we need is a more safe and secure Iraq for all Iraqi’s, especially for the Christians who have faced ethno-religious cleansing,” said Julian Taimoorazy, president of Iraqi Christian Relief Council, in an interview with ICC.

ICC said that Iraqi Christians have been paying a heavy price due to the instability in the country following its invasion in 2003.

ICC reported that in a recent press conference, Archbishop Louis Sako said, “A total of 750 Christians have been murdered in the past five years, including Archbishop of Mosul Paulos Faraj Rahho.” Sako is the Chaldean Catholic Archbishop of Kirkuk.

ICC said that the persecution has also forced half of an estimated 1.2 million Iraqi Christians to leave their homes. Many Iraqi Christian refugees are living in Syria, Lebanon, Jordan and Syria under difficult circumstances.

ICC’s Regional Manager for Africa and the Middle East, Jonathan Racho, said in the new release, “The suffering of Iraqi Christians has been beyond description and is not yet over. More than ever, the Iraqi Christians need our prayer and support. The latest martyrdom of our brothers should serve to awaken churches in the Western countries to come to the aid of their Iraqi brothers and sisters. We call upon Iraqi officials and the allied forces in Iraq to avert further attacks against Iraqi Christians. It is simply unacceptable to watch the extinction of the Christian community from Iraq.”

ICC asked that Christians pray for the families of the martyred Christians and all persecuted Christians in Iraq.

ICC also asked that those interested go to www.house.gov to find the contact information for their elected officials, alert them about the latest assault against Christians in Iraq and ask them to protect Iraqi Christians.

ICC is a Washington-DC based human rights organization that exists to help persecuted Christians worldwide.

Report from the Christian Telegraph

BANGLADESH: MUSLIM PROTESTS STALL CHURCH CONSTRUCTION


Pastor says an Awami League Party student leader threatened him.

DHAKA, Bangladesh, April 4 (Compass Direct News) — Bangladeshi authorities called a five-month halt to construction of a church in northern Bangladesh, for fear of huge conversions. Authorities have said they will approve renewed construction soon.

Forkan Al Mashi, 55, a pastor of Calvary Ishai Fellowship, started building a church in early November 2008 in Palashbari Mondol Para in Kurigram district, 350 kilometers (218 miles) north of the capital city, Dhaka.

Mashi told Compass that, at the urging of local Jamaat-e-Islami leaders, more than 100 Muslims gathered in a mosque on Nov. 7 to protest the church construction.

The villagers wanted to demolish the building, in which four pillars and the floor were completed. Mashi informed police when he heard of these plans.

“I informed police and instantly two platoons of police, around 25 in number, were deployed near the under-construction church building,” Mashi said. “Some of the police also went to the mosque to persuade the Muslims not to demolish the pillars and the floor of the under-construction church building.”

A police official told Compass that Muslims were concerned about huge conversions from Islam to Christianity if the church was built.

“The construction work of the church has been stopped by the protest of the local Muslims. Local people said, ‘Why should there be a church in the predominantly Muslim area?’” the official said. “This church is the first church in this area. Local people protested because they thought there would be huge conversion in this area from Islam to Christianity, and the church would be the center.”

A district official told Compass that construction would resume soon.

“Christians in this country have the right to practice their religion as well as the right to build churches,” the official said. “I think the permission of constructing the church will be given soon from the city council. If anybody actively obstructs the construction of the church, we will protect it.”

 

Administrative maneuvering

After Muslims protested construction of the church, the mayor halted construction. Generally city dwellers need building plans and permission from the city council to build a house.

“The local Muslims fired all the cylinders of the society to stop building a church in this vicinity. They want me not to work for the expansion of the Kingdom of God here. They persuaded the city council authority to stop [construction of] the church,” Mashi said. “The mayor of the city council told me that I did not have any building plan and permission from them to build a house here, so I should stop the construction work.”

One city council commissioner told Mashi that he did not need permission to construct his small, one-room church building.

Mashi wrote a letter to the district administrative chief to ask permission to resume church construction.

“A few days ago, the mayor assured me that he would give the plan and permission of the building and I can resume its construction,” Mashi said.

Mashi said the mayor also told him there was pressure from the government to resume construction soon.

 

Pastor Mashi threatened

A few days before the construction of the church, a local student leader of the ruling Awami League Party warned Mashi not to build the church.

“If you want to be ‘alive and live here,’ do not build any church in this neighborhood,” Mashi said in quoting the leader.

Mashi, who grew up Muslim, became a Christian in 1984. There are 60 registered members of his church.

“We have been worshiping Christ for 12 years in our house covertly, sometimes on the roof,” he said.

The district administrative chief has previously provided police protection to the church for its Christmas and Easter services, Mashi said.

Bangladesh’s constitution supports religious freedom.

Report from Compass Direct News

TURKEY: CHRISTIAN BOOKSHOP IN ADANA VANDALIZED


Second attack within one week follows threats from Muslim nationalists.

ISTANBUL, February 17 (Compass Direct News) – Following threats from Muslim nationalists, a Turkish Bible Society bookshop in the southern city of Adana was vandalized for the second time in a week on Thursday (Feb. 12).

Security camera footage shows two youths attacking the storefront of the Soz Kitapevi bookshop, kicking and smashing glass in both the window and the door. The door frame was also damaged.

Bookshop employee Dogan Simsek discovered the damage when he arrived to open the shop. He described security footage of the attack, which took place at 8:19 a.m., to Compass.

“They came at it like a target,” he said. “They attacked in a very cold-blooded manner, and then they walked away as if nothing had happened.”

The security camera did not clearly capture the faces of either youth, and police are still attempting to identify the perpetrators.

During the first attack on Feb. 7, the glass of the front door was smashed and the security camera mangled. Both have since been repaired.

Simsek told the Turkish national daily Milliyet that these are the first such incidents he has witnessed in the 10 years he has worked there.

“We sit and drink tea with our neighbors and those around us; there are no problems in that regard,” said Simsek, though he did acknowledge that local opinion is not all favorable. “This is a Muslim neighborhood, and many have told us not to sell these books.”

The bookshop has received threats from both Muslim hardliners and nationalists. Last November, a man entered the shop and began making accusations that the Soz Kitapevi bookshop was in league with the CIA, saying, “You work with them killing people in Muslim countries, harming Muslim countries.”

 

Systemic Prejudice

The attacks are another example of the animosity that Turkish Christians have faced recently, especially the small Protestant community. The Alliance of Protestant Churches of Turkey released its annual Rights Violations Summary last month, detailing some of the abuses faced by Protestant congregations in 2008.

The report makes it clear that violent attacks, threats and accusations are symptoms arising from an anti-Christian milieu of distrust and misinformation that the Turkish state allows to exist.

The report cites both negative portrayal in the media and state bodies or officials that “have created a ‘crime’ entitled ‘missionary activities,’ identifying it with a certain faith community” as being primarily responsible for the enmity felt towards Christians.

It urges the government to develop effective media watchdog mechanisms to ensure the absence of intolerant or inflammatory programs, and that the state help make the public aware of the rights of Turkish citizens of all faiths.

Report from Compass Direct News

PAKISTAN: CHRISTIANS ACQUITTED IN ‘BLASPHEMY’ CASE


Religious reconciliation meetings produce first such acquittal as imams issue fatwa.

ISTANBUL, January 23 (Compass Direct News) – Five Christians charged with “blasphemy” against Islam during April 2007 religious holidays were released on Monday (Jan. 19) after reconciliation meetings between Christian and Islamic leaders – the first verdict to have resulted from such efforts in Pakistan.

A Punjab court released Salamat Masih, 42, his 16-year-old son Rashid, and their relatives Ishfaq, Saba and Dao Masih after a judge acquitted them. Their acquittal and release came through out-of-court meetings between Muslim leaders and a Christian Non-Governmental Organization.

“This is a wonderful sign that has made history,” said Shahzad Kamran, a case worker for Sharing Life Ministries Pakistan (SLMP), which negotiated with the Muslim leaders. “This case can set a precedent for future blasphemy cases against Christians.”

The reconciliation meetings between SLMP and local and national imams began last November. Rather than attempt to settle the matter in court, the legal advocacy group sought out Muslim leaders directly to persuade them that the accused were innocent; the Islamic clerics then compelled area Muslims to drop their charges.

The meetings took place between four Islamic clergymen, National Assembly Representative Mushtaq Ahmed and Sohail Johnson of the SLMP. Ahmed was unavailable for comment in spite of repeated attempts to contact him.

Johnson of SLMP took precautionary measures to keep from being exposed to violence, meeting with the imams in neutral locations away from mosques and Muslim parts of the city. The SLMP team managed to convince the Islamic clerics to release the Christians by persuading them that the alleged blasphemy grew from a misunderstanding.

“There is permission granted in Islamic law that if someone unintentionally commits an offense, it can be reconciled,” Johnson said. “[The cleric] said he would do it because he did not want to bring harm and injustice to the community.”

The Islamic clergymen agreed to issue a fatwa (religious edict) declaring the accused men innocent of blasphemy. The Muslim witnesses in the case withdrew their testimony on Jan. 13, and District Judge Sheik Salahudin acquitted the five men in a Toba Tek Singh court.

The legal advocates involved in the case said they would employ reconciliation in future cases of false blasphemy charges. They said that battling such cases in court can still free innocent people, but it does not help to solve sectarian strife that leads to violence and false charges.

But with reconciliation meetings, “the word of God has affected the hearts of the Muslims and changed their behavior,” Johnson said. “With our good behavior we can change the people.”

The SLMP’s Kamran said the imams declared the defendants innocent because they knew the men did not intentionally insult the Islamic religion. The situation likely escalated because it took place during an Islamic holiday, with the April 2007 Muslim celebration of Eid-e-Millad-ul-Nabi (Muhammad’s birthday) turning into mob violence after the spread of false rumors against Christians. Local Christian Ratan Masih was severely injured. Other Christians fled for fear of their lives, according to SLMP.

Approximately 2,000 Muslims attacked Christian Colony, a Christian neighborhood, stoning houses and torturing Christians, according to an SLMP report. Initially the mob violence began over a quarrel between Rashid Masih’s younger brother Daniel, 12, and a Muslim child named Sunny. In the course of the argument, a sticker fell off Sunny’s shirt that bore the words Yah Rasool Allah, a reference to Muhammad as God’s messenger.

A local resident, Mohammed Farsal, saw the sticker on the ground and accused the Christian children of blasphemy. Violence soon broke out, and police eventually arrested all five men on charges of insulting Islam.

Blasphemy charges against non-Muslims are not uncommon in Pakistan and are typically applied in cases of sectarian violence. Islamic leaders are often under community pressure to blame Christians in these situations.

Human rights lawyers hope this case sets a precedent for future blasphemy cases, with spurious charges of insulting Islam or its prophet becoming more difficult to press.

Other legal cases of blasphemy continue in Pakistan, including the arrest of Munir Masih and his wife Ruqiya Bibi for insulting Islam. They were granted bail yesterday in Kasur.

At the hearing, 20 local Muslims pressured the judge not to grant them bail, according to a report from the Centre for Legal Aid Assistance and Settlement.

On Wednesday (Jan. 21), Hector Aleem from Islamabad was falsely accused of blasphemy, most likely as a backlash to his role as a human rights activist, the report said.

Christian lawmakers in the Muslim-majority country of 170 million hope to curb these legal abuses by abolishing Pakistan’s blasphemy laws.  

Report from Compass Direct News

IRAQ: FLEEING CHRISTIANS FACE NEW HARDSHIPS IN TURKEY


As renewed violence in Mosul halts return, refugees wait in Turkish legal limbo.

ISTANBUL, November 14 (Compass Direct News) – In this Turkish city’s working-class neighborhood of Kurtulus, Arabic can be heard on the streets, signs are printed in the Arabic alphabet and Iraqis congregate in tea shops.

In 99-percent Muslim Turkey, most of these Iraqis are not Muslims. And they are not in Turkey by choice. They are Christian refugees who fled their homeland to escape the murderous violence that increasingly has been directed at them.

It is hard to tell how many of Mosul’s refugees from the recent wave of attacks have made their way to Istanbul, but finding these residents here is not hard. A middle-aged Iraqi refugee who fled Mosul five months ago now attends a Syrian Orthodox Church in the poverty-stricken neighborhood of Tarlabasi, where gypsies, transvestites, and immigrants from Turkey’s east live in hopes of a better life in Istanbul.

Declining to give his name, the refugee said there is no future for Christians in Iraq and that nearly everyone he knew there wanted to leave the country. He said the only hope for Iraqi Christians is for Western countries to open their doors to Christian Iraqi refugees.

“We don’t have hope,” he said. “If these doors aren’t opened, we will be killed.”

Since October, violence in Mosul has pushed more than 12,000 Christians from their homes and left more than two dozen dead, according to U.N. and Christian organizations. In the face of Mosul violence, Iraqi Christians flee to Turkey before settling permanently in another country, usually in a place where their family has gone out before them.

 

Christian Sisters Killed

Weeks after the mass exodus of Mosul Christians to surrounding villages, Turkey and other nations, around one-third of families reportedly have returned due to the presence of 35,000 army and police and the Iraqi government offering cash grants of up to $800.

But those returning Christians were shaken again on Wednesday (Nov. 12), when Islamic militants stormed into the house of two Syrian Catholic sisters, Lamia’a Sabih and Wala’a Saloha, killing them and severely injuring their mother. They then bombed their house and detonated a second explosive when the police arrived, which killed three more.

The Christian family had recently returned after having fled Mosul. Many believe this attack will deter other Christians from returning to Mosul, and there are reports of Christians again leaving the area.

There has been a steady exodus of Christians from Iraq since the first Gulf War in 1991. The church in Iraq dates from the beginning of Christianity, but the population has plummeted by 50 percent in the last 20 years. The outflow of Iraqi Christians spiked in 2003 following the U.S.-led invasion.

Although Iraq as a whole has seen a dramatic decrease in violence due to last year’s surge in U.S. troops, the flight of Christians to Turkey has grown. One-third of the 18,000 refugees who registered in Turkey last year are from Iraq. In Syria, an estimated 40 percent of the 1.2 million Iraqis who have fled Iraq are Christians, though they make up only about 3 percent of Iraq’s population.

Monsignor Francois Yakan, the 50-year-old leader of the Chaldean Church in Turkey, said all Iraqi refugees are undergoing hardships regardless of religion, but that the situation is especially difficult for Christians since there is less support for them in Turkey.

“Muslims have the same difficulty as Christians, but there are more foundations to assist them,” he said. “The government notices Muslim immigrants, but nobody pays attention to us.”

Yakan travels to other countries to raise awareness of the plight of Iraqi Christians, trying to marshal the support of government and church leaders – last week he traveled to France, Romania and Germany. If Western governments don’t wake up to this crisis, he said, the results could be catastrophic.

“People don’t know the plight of Iraqi Christians. They have no government, no soldiers, and no power,” he said. “Christianity in Iraq is ending. Why aren’t they noticing this?”

 

Strangers in Strange Land

The unnamed Iraqi refugee in Tarlabasi said not even pleas from Iraqi priests can make them stay.

“The church in Iraq can’t stop the people from leaving because they can’t guarantee their security,” he said.

He came to Istanbul with his family but still has an adult son and daughter in the city. He hopes to join his brother in the United States soon.

A group of Iraqi refugees at a tea shop in the Kurtulus area of Istanbul interrupted their card game to talk to Compass of their troubled lives.

“We can’t find any work,” said Baghdad-born Iraqi Jalal Toma, who acted as the translator for the group. He pointed to a young man at the table and said, “He works moving boxes and carrying things, and they pay him half as much as a Turk for a day’s work.”

All of the men are Chaldean Christians, a Catholic Eastern-rite church whose historical homeland is in northern Iraq, and came from Mosul in recent months. They are chronically under-employed and rely on financial help from family members abroad to make ends meet.

They had to flee their homes at a moment’s notice, taking along their families but leaving behind their cars, houses and most of their possessions. The men hope to join family members who live in foreign countries, but they harbor few hopes that they can ever return to Iraq again.

 

Offering Relief

Work is scarce for refugees and hard to come by legally in Turkey. To survive, most Iraqi Christians rely on money from families abroad or the handful of local church charities that struggle to keep up with the overwhelming volume of refugees, such as the Istanbul Interparish Migrant Program, an ecumenical umbrella group that unites the city’s parishes to assist migrants and asylum seekers.

Another such charity is Kasdar, the Chaldean-Assyrian-Syriac Humanitarian, Social and Cultural Organization, run by Yakan, the Chaldean Church leader in Turkey.

He launched Kasdar two years ago to provide a safety net for Christian refugees who live in Turkey’s legal limbo. Kasdar assists all Christians regardless of denomination or faith tradition and has 16 volunteers from an equally diverse background.

Yakan sees thousands of refugees pass through Istanbul each year. Most of them are Chaldean, and he knows of 60-70 people who fled due to the recent October violence in Mosul. He travels constantly to visit Chaldean refugees scattered throughout the country.

When refugees first arrive in Turkey, they must register with the United Nations as asylum seekers. The Turkish police then assign them to one of 35 cities to live in as they wait to receive official refugee status. These Christians face the biggest hardships since they don’t have access to the same social resources as refugees in Istanbul, said Metin Corabatir, U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees spokesman in Turkey.

“The Chaldean population faces problems in Turkey, especially due to the policy of resettling them to satellite cities,” said Corabatir. “The Chaldeans in Istanbul have NGOs [Non-Governmental Organizations] and churches to help them, but in satellite cities there is no church or community to help them.”

Most refugees send their children to school at a local center run by Caritas, a Catholic confederation of relief, development and social service organizations. Here, Iraq children receive education and lessons in basic vocational skills.

The wait for legal status can be as short as a few months or a couple of years. But complicated circumstances can push back the wait to five years, 10 years, or even 17 years – as it is now for a man who fled during the first Gulf War, Yakan of the Chaldean Church said.

Another church leader who has helped Christian refugees is 70-year-old Monsignor Yusuf Sag, vicar general of the Syrian Catholic Church in Turkey. His 350-person congregation assembles packets of clothes and food for the refugees.

Many who come to Sag also seek medical help. He has connections with doctors throughout the city, both Muslim and Christian, who offer basic treatment to refugees free of charge. Sag said he tries to help all who come to him, without asking them of their denomination or even their religion.

“Their situation is not a Christian problem, but a human problem,” he said.

Often Iraqi Christians work illegally, where they are vulnerable to extortion. Refugee workers in Istanbul said registered asylum seekers can work legally, but it is not uncommon for employers to garnish their wages or withhold them completely, with the foreigners getting little protection from police.

The Turkish government charges a refugee a residence tax of US$460 a year and will not allow them to leave the country until it is paid, making them remain in the country even longer. With all these hurdles to finding stable employment, many Iraqi refugees are never too far from homelessness.

“There was a family we found living on the streets – a husband, wife and two children,” Yakan said. “They have lived in Istanbul for six months and couldn’t even afford to pay rent.”

His foundation found the family an apartment and assisted them with rent, but they only have enough resources to help for two months.

Kasdar gave similar assistance to 54 families in October. But the organization can only help for a few months at a time and assist the most vulnerable refugees.

Report from Compass Direct News