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

Blast Kills 21 outside Church in Alexandria, Egypt

Bomb explodes as Christians leave New Year’s Eve Mass.

LOS ANGELES, January 3 (CDN) — At least 21 people were killed and scores were wounded on Saturday (Jan. 1) when a bomb outside a church in Alexandria, Egypt exploded as congregants were leaving a New Year’s Eve Mass celebration.

The explosion ripped through the crowd shortly after midnight, killing instantly most of those who died, and leaving the entrance-way to the Church of the Two Saints, a Coptic Orthodox congregation, covered with blood and severed body parts.

The blast overturned at least one car, set several others on fire and shattered windows throughout the block on which the church is located.

Egyptian authorities reportedly said 20 of the victims have been identified. At least 90 other people were injured in the blast, 10 seriously. Among the injured were eight Muslims. Many of the injured received treatment at St. Mark’s Hospital.

Burial services for some of the victims started Sunday (Jan. 2) in Alexandria, located in northern Egypt on the Mediterranean Sea.

Witnesses reportedly said a driver parked a car at the entrance of the church and then ran away seconds before it exploded. Government officials have claimed they found remnants of the bomb, filled with nails and other make-shift shrapnel, at the site; they suspect an unidentified suicide bomber, rather than a car bombing.

No one has claimed responsibility for the bombing, but the attack comes two months after an Islamic group known as the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI) issued a threat stating that, “All Christian centers, organizations and institutions, leaders and followers are legitimate targets for the muhajedeen [Muslim fighters] wherever they can reach them.”

Claiming they would open “rivers of blood” upon Christians, the group specifically threatened Egyptian Christians based an unsubstantiated rumor that two Coptic women, both wives of Orthodox clergy, were being held against their will after converting to Islam. The statement came after ISI claimed responsibility for an attack on a Baghdad church during mass in which 58 people were killed.

The Egyptian government continues to suspect foreign elements mounted the Alexandria attack, but an unconfirmed report by The Associated Press, citing anonymous government sources, said an Egyptian Islamic group is being investigated.

Bishop Mouneer Anis, head of the Episcopal Diocese of Egypt, said in a written statement that he thinks the attack was linked to the Iraqi threats. He added that his church has taken greater security measures at its downtown Cairo location.

“We pray with all the people of Egypt, Christians and Muslims, [that they] would unite against this new wave of religious fanaticism and terrorism,” he said.

For weeks before the ISI issued its threat, Alexandria was the site of massive protests against the Orthodox Church and its spiritual leader, Pope Shenouda III. Immediately after Friday prayers, Muslims would stream out into the streets surrounding mosques, chant slogans against the church and demand the “return” of the two women. Before that, as early as June, clerics from at least one central Alexandria mosque could be heard broadcasting anti-Christian vitriol from minaret loudspeakers during prayers, instructing Muslims to separate themselves entirely from their Christian countrymen.

The Alexandria bombing comes almost a year after a shooting in Nag Hammadi, Egypt left six Christians and one Muslim security guard dead. In the Jan. 6, 2010 attack, a group of men drove by St. John’s Church, 455 kilometers (282 miles) south of Cairo, and sprayed with gunfire a crowd leaving a Coptic Christmas Eve service.

Three men were eventually charged with the shootings, but the case has yet to be resolved.

Egypt wasn’t the only place in the Middle East plagued with anti-Christian violence over the holiday season.

The day before bombers struck the Alexandria church, an elderly Christian couple in Baghdad was killed when terrorists placed a bomb outside of their home, rang the doorbell and walked away, according to media and human rights reports. The bombing happened at the same time other Christian-owned homes and neighborhoods throughout Baghdad were being attacked.

Estimates of the number of people wounded in the attacks in Iraq range from nine to more than 13.

Report from Compass Direct News

Muslim Extremists Murder Christian Family in Pakistan

Lawyer, wife, five children shot to death after he tried to defend Christian.

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan, September 30 (CDN) — Islamic extremists killed a Christian lawyer, his wife and their five children in northwestern Pakistan this week for mounting a legal challenge against a Muslim who was charging a Christian exorbitant interest, local sources said.

Police found the bodies of attorney and evangelist Edwin Paul and his family on Tuesday morning (Sept. 28) at their home in Haripur, a small town near Abbotabad in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Province (previously known as the North-West Frontier Province, or NWFP), according to Haripur Station House Officer (SHO) Maqbool Khan.

The victim and his wife Ruby Paul, along with their five children ages 6 to 17, had been shot to death.

“On Sept. 28 at around 8 a.m., we received a call from Sher Khan colony that people heard gunshots, and there was a group of people who ran from a house and drove away,” Khan said. “We went and found seven bodies in a house.”

Paul’s Muslim neighbor, Mushtaq Khan, told Compass that the previous day a group of armed men had threatened the lawyer.

“On Monday a group of armed men stopped Paul and took him by the collar and said, ‘Leave the town in 24 hours – we know how to throw out Christians, we will not allow even a single Christian to live here. We will hang them all in the streets, so that no Christian would ever dare to enter the Hazara land.”

The Hazara are settlers from northern Pakistan who are an ethnic mixture of Punjabi Jats and Pashtuns (also called Pathans). Drawing attention for demanding a separate province for themselves when the NWFP became Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, the Hazara community financially supports area Islamic extremist groups and is known for charging up to 400 percent interest to Christians. Paul had moved with his family to the area in February.

He had taken up the case of Robin Mehboob, a Christian taxi driver in Haripur who had received a loan of 150,000 rupees (US$1,725) from Noor Khan, an influential Muslim whose lending network extends to some parts of Punjab Province, to buy a taxi. Originally Noor Khan agreed that Mehboob would pay back 224,000 rupees (US$2,580) after one year, Mehboob said.

“I gave my property papers as a guarantee,” Mehboob told Compass, “but then the amount of the interest was raised to 500 percent because I am a Christian – he was demanding back 1.12 million rupees [US$12,893]. They have forcefully taken over my property and have confiscated my taxi as well. I am a poor man, the taxi is the only source of income.”

Paul took Mehboob and the documents of the original loan agreement to the Haripur police station, Mehboob said.

“We talked to the SHO, who said, ‘You can file a complaint, but I can assure you that no one will testify against Noor Khan, as he is supported by extremist groups,’” Mehboob said. “We filed the complaint, and one of the police officers informed [Noor] Khan that we went to the police station.”

On their way back from the police station, three cars filled with Noor Khan’s associates stopped near his house, Mehboob said.

“They came out and said, ‘How dare you Christians go to the police, don’t you know we own the law here?’ They assaulted us, beating us with fists and clubs, and warned that if we try to seek any assistance, they will kill us.”

Mehboob left Haripur that night and went to his brother in Sialkot.

Paul wrote to the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa government, Christian organizations and churches for help, explaining how Noor Khan and the extremist groups were driving Christians out of the area by taking over their property or threatening to kill them unless they sold their homes.

The Muslim extremist groups most active in the area are the banned Jamat ul Dawa, the Sunni Tahreek, and some groups linked with the Pakistani Taliban. The extremist groups were making fake documents to occupy properties owned by Christians, and Hazara investors were supporting the campaign, area Christians said.

The Muslim extremists have also threatened many Christians with death if they do not convert, they said.

Pastor Rehmat Naeem of St. Paul Church in Haripur told Compass that he had also received threats.

“Some extremists sent us threats through phone calls and letters, asking us to leave Haripur,” Pastor Naeem said. “Many Christians were forced to sell their property at very low rates and leave the area. Edwin Paul tried to help the Christians – he even talked to the higher authorities, but no one was ready to testify against the extremists.”

Pastor Naeem added that two months ago area extremists kidnapped eight missionaries; six have been released, and the two others are presumed dead.

A First Information Report has been filed in the murder of Paul and his family, and the District Coordination Officer and District Police Officer (DPO) have strongly condemned the crime and instructed the SHO to find those responsible, authorities said.

Chief Secretary of Hazara Division Ali Ahmed has released a statement ordering a police operation “under the Terrorist Act against the extremists and the Hazaras for forcefully driving away the Christians and killing seven innocent people. We will not allow anyone to threaten the religious minorities. It is the duty of the state to protect the life and property of its people. The DPO has been instructed to arrest the culprits in 72 hours and submit a report or he will be suspended.”

Report from Compass Direct News

Police Keep Indonesian Church from Worship Site after Attack

Bekasi officials unable to persuade HKBP congregation to relocate to alternative venue.

JAKARTA, Indonesia, September 23 (CDN) — Following attacks on their church leaders on Sept. 12, a West Java congregation on Sunday (Sept. 19) faced a wall of security officers blocking them from worshipping on their property as authorities tried to coax them to meet at another venue.

Hundreds of security force officers sealed off the street leading to their open-air worship site in Ciketing, near Bekasi, a week after suspected Islamists stabbed Batak Christian Protestant Church (Huria Kristen Batak Protestan, or HKBP) elder Hasian Sihombing and struck Pastor Luspida Simanjuntak with a wooden block. At the Pondok Timur location where the church had gathered to walk three kilometers (less than two miles) to Ciketing on Sunday, an official in a police vehicle announced through a loudspeaker that the Bekasi government requested they worship at the former office of a community organization.

When Compass arrived at the Pondok Timur area, there were 1,500 regular police and public order security police officers standing by, some forming ranks in front of the Nurul Hulda Mosque 500 meters away.

The official on the loudspeaker read a decree by Bekasi Mayor H. Mochtar Muhammad stating that security problems in the Mustika Jaya area were caused by the HKBP worship in Ciketing – where Islamists have staged protests in spite of a mayoral decree granting the congregation the right to worship there – and that in order to guard against further incidents, the church was no longer to hold services there.

“From now on, HKBP will hold its worship services in the [former] Organization & Political Party Building [the auditorium in back of several buildings occupied by different political parties] on Charil Anwar Street in Bekasi City,” he said.

The new mayoral decree dictating where the church was to worship was the product of a Sept. 15 meeting of the West Java governor, the Jakarta area military commander, Jakarta area police, the general secretary and the director general of the Ministry of the Interior, and the Department of Religion, he said.

“We invite the HKBP members to climb aboard the seven buses that we have prepared to take them to the [former] Organization & Political Party [OPP] building,” the official said to the congregation, which had gathered outside the Pondok Timur area building they had used for worship before authorities sealed it in June.

The HKBP congregation ignored the invitation. Muhammad Jufri, head of the Bekasi municipal legal department, then invited the congregation to board the buses. No one responded.

A few minutes later the Rev. Pietersen Purba, district head of the HKBP Pondok Timur District, along with two other pastors and two lawyers, requested that the congregation be allowed to worship at the open-air site on their property in Ciketing. Authorities denied the request.

An argument ensued between Bekasi officials and HKBP leaders.

“For our common good, both government and congregation, and in accordance with the decision of the coordinating meeting, we have prepared a temporary worship place at the former OPP building,” said Jufri, of the Bekasi legal department. “Because of this you may worship there, and while you are worshipping the municipal government guarantees your safety.”

Pastor Purba responded by requesting security for their current location.

“I am surprised that we are forbidden to worship on our own property,” he told authorities. “Our services there were sanctioned by a letter from the mayor that allows us to worship in Ciketing. We are the victims – my pastor was beaten. Are we not citizens with the right to worship in this country? Because of this we ask that the police help us with security so that we may worship in Ciketing. The congregation and I desire to worship there.”

HKBP lawyer Saor Siagian asked a policeman to open the way toward their property in Ciketing; the officer refused.

Jufri then began to read the mayor’s new decree aloud, but he had spoken only a few sentences before one of the HKBP lawyers, Sahala Pangaribuan, interrupted him.

“Sir, if you want to read, do so, but don’t prevent us from walking,” Pangaribuan said.

Jufri continued reading the entire decree.

“We heard what you read,” Pastor Purba replied, “but we don’t easily believe our beloved government, because we remember the case of HKBP Jatimulyo, Bekasi, which was sealed by the government, and then promised facilities for a place of worship. Now it has been five years, and the promise is still unfulfilled.”

The argument lasted another 30 minutes, and the congregation gave up on its request to meet in Ciketing. They were granted 10 minutes to pray in their former Pondok Timur building and additional time for congregational discussion, which was led by the national secretary general of the HKBP, the Rev. Ramlan Hutahayan.

At press conference later that day, Hutahayan said that freedom of worship was fundamental.

“We hope that every citizen will have the right to construct houses of worship to praise and glorify God together,” he said.

Bekasi officials have offered the former OPP building as a temporary venue for worship and two alternative locations on land zoned for general and/or social purposes: one owned by P.T. Timah and one belonging to the Strada Foundation. Thus far the congregation has not approved of these alternatives because they are far from their homes.

At a press conference with other Christian leaders, the head of the Jakarta Christian Communication General Forum, Theophilus Bela, said a statement by the Jakarta provincial police chief that the Sept. 12 attack on the church leaders was a “purely criminal act” was hasty.

“After arrests and investigation, it has been shown that this is not a pure criminal act, but an organized scenario with the Islamic Defenders Front as the field command,” Bela said.

He and other Christian leaders criticized government officials for closing churches and revoking church building permits that had already been approved.

“They have been passive in the face of anarchy and terrorist acts that have been done in the name of religion by groups such as the Islamic Defenders Front, the Betawi-Rempug Forum, the Islamic Congregation Forum, the Congress of the Indonesian Muslim Community, and so on,” he said.

Report from Compass Direct News

Al Shabaab Militants Execute Christian Leader in Somalia

Islamic extremists run into 57-year-old Yusuf Ali Nur after battle with rival group.

NAIROBI, Kenya, May 5 (CDN) — Islamic militants yesterday killed another leader of the underground church movement in Somalia, sources said.

Before he was fatally shot on Tuesday (May 4) in Xarardheere, about 60 kilometers (37 miles) from Jowhar, 57-year-old Yusuf Ali Nur had been on a list of people the Islamic extremist al Shabaab suspected of being Christian, sources who spoke on condition of anonymity told Compass. Al Shabaab, said to have links with al Qaeda, has vowed to rid Somalia of Christianity.

The militants fighting the Transitional Federal Government (TFG) in Mogadishu had been engaged in a two-hour battle with a rival rebel group, the Ahlu Sunna Waljamer, which had taken control of the Xarardheere area, before they came across Nur. Nur had lived in Xarardheere since leaving Jowhar in July 2009.

Eyewitnesses said that after al Shabaab took control of the area, they went from house to house looking for enemy fighters when they arrived at Nur’s rented home at about 10:30 a.m. Sources said that upon finding Nur, one of the militants remarked, “Oh! This is Yusuf, whom we have been looking for,” before they sprayed him with bullets at close range.

Nur is survived by his wife, whose name was withheld for security reasons, and three children, ages 11, 9 and 7.

This latest death comes after several execution-style murders of Somalis suspected of being members of a suppressed yet resilient underground faith movement in Somalia. A number of Christians have been beheaded by the radical Islamists out to topple the fledgling TFG and introduce a strict version of sharia (Islamic law).

Al Shabaab, which controls large parts of central Somalia, recently banned radio stations from playing music and outlawed bell ringing that signals the end of school classes “because they sound like church bells.”

Nur, who had worked on a farm while in Jowhar, had long being monitored by al Shabaab, the sources said. After settling in Xarardheere, he became the head teacher of Ganane Primary School and also taught English. The al Shabaab militants object to the use of English, preferring Arabic, and even after relocating to Xarardheere Nur realized he was in danger of the militants finding him, sources said.

Ganane is a private school owned by wealthy Somali proprietors.

In 2009 Islamic militants in Somalia sought out and killed at least 15 Christians, including women and children. This year, on Jan. 1 al Shabaab members murdered 41-year-old Mohammed Ahmed Ali after the Christian had left his home in Hodan, on the outskirts of Mogadishu.

On March 15, al Shabaab rebels shot Madobe Abdi to death on March 15 at 9:30 a.m. in Mahaday village, 50 kilometers (31 miles) north of Jowhar. Abdi’s death was distinctive in that he was not a convert from Islam. An orphan, Abdi was raised as a Christian.

Advocacy group International Christian Concern has reported that three members of al Shabaab killed Somali Christian Mu’awiye Hilowle Ali in front of his home in Afgoye on March 23, executing him with close-range shots to his head and chest.

The transitional government in Mogadishu fighting to retain control of the country treats Christians little better than the al Shabaab extremists do. While proclaiming himself a moderate, President Sheikh Sharif Sheik Ahmed has embraced a version of sharia that mandates the death penalty for those who leave Islam.

Report from Compass Direct News 

Lao Officials Visit Expelled Christians, Give Assurances

Officials led by provincial governor explain law providing for right to believe.

DUBLIN, March 19 (CDN) — Officials in Laos’ Saravan Province yesterday visited 48 Christians expelled from Katin village and assured them that they had the legal right to embrace the faith of their choice, according to advocacy group Human Rights Watch for Lao Religious Freedom (HRWLRF).

During a 30-minute visit the delegation, led by provincial Gov. Khamboon Duangpanya, read out June 2002’s Decree 92 on the Management and Protections of Religious Activity in Laos and explained its religious freedom provisions to the group, assuring them that they could freely believe in Christianity “if their faith was genuine.”

HRWLRF reported that the officials also said the Christians had the right to live anywhere in the district. Ta-Oyl district officials had expelled the Christians from Katin village at gunpoint on Jan. 18 when they refused to give up their faith. Having lost access to their homes, fields and livestock, the Christians then built temporary shelters at the edge of the jungle, about six kilometers (nearly four miles) away from the village.

The district head, identified only as Bounma, on Monday (March 15) summoned seven of the believers to his office and declared that he would not tolerate the existence of Christianity in areas under his control. The group must either recant their faith or move elsewhere, he’d said.

Shortly afterwards an anonymous source told the Christians that the chiefs of Katin and neighboring Ta Loong village planned to burn down their temporary shelters within 48 hours. (See “Lao Officials Threaten to Burn Shelters of Expelled Christians,” March 16.)

Also present at yesterday’s meeting were three other provincial officials, the deputy-head of Ta-Oyl district, identified only as Khammun, and the head of religious affairs in Ta-Oyl, identified only as Bounthoun, HRWLRF reported. During the brief meeting, the Christians asked Gov. Duangpanya if they had the right to live in Katin or other villages in the district.

He responded that as Lao citizens, the Christians could live wherever they chose. In regard to their current location, however, Khammun said he would have to “consult with the proper authorities” before granting the Christians permission to remain on land owned by neighboring Ta Loong village.

After delegating this responsibility to Khammun, Gov. Duangpanya assured the Christians that they could contact him if they needed further help, according to HRWLRF.

According to the Lao Law on Family Registration, when a citizen moves from one village to another for less than a year, he or she must request permission for “temporary changing of residence” from the original village. The paperwork is then turned over to authorities in the new village and reviewed after six months. After a year, citizens must repeat the process to apply for permanent residence in their new location.

Until now provincial officials have largely ignored the plight of Katin Christians, failing to intervene last July when villagers seized a Christian identified only as Pew and poured rice wine down his throat, killing him by asphyxiation. Village officials later fined Pew’s family for erecting a cross on his grave, and then detained 80 Christians in a school compound, denying them food and pressuring them to renounce their faith.

The heads of 13 families signed documents renouncing Christianity in order to protect their children; most of them, however, have since resumed attendance at worship meetings.

Provincial officials did call a meeting in September 2008 asking Katin authorities and residents to respect the religious laws of the nation, but four days later village officials seized and slaughtered a buffalo owned by a villager who refused to give up his faith.

A communist country, Laos is 1.5 percent Christian and 67 percent Buddhist, with the remainder unspecified. Article 6 and Article 30 of the Lao Constitution guarantee the right of Christians and other religious minorities to practice the religion of their choice without discrimination or penalty.

Report from Compass Direct News 

Officials Threaten to Burn Shelters of Expelled Christians

Village heads tell church members they must recant faith or move elsewhere.

DUBLIN, March 16 (CDN) — Officials in southern Laos in the next 48 hours plan to burn temporary shelters built by expelled Christians unless they recant their faith, according to advocacy group Human Rights Watch for Lao Religious Freedom (HRWLRF).

Authorities including a religious affairs official, the district head, district police and the chief of Katin village in Ta-Oyl district, Saravan province, expelled the 48 Christians at gunpoint on Jan. 18.

Prior to the expulsion, officials raided a worship service, destroyed homes and belongings and demanded that the Christians renounce their faith. (See, “Lao Officials Force Christians from Worship at Gunpoint,” Feb. 8.)

Left to survive in the open, the Christians began to build temporary shelters, and then more permanent homes, on the edge of the jungle, according to HRWLRF. They continued to do so even after deputy district head Khammun, identified only by his surname, arrived at the site on Feb. 9 and ordered them to cease construction.

More officials arrived on Feb. 18 and ordered the Christians to cease building and either renounce their faith or relocate to another area. When the group insisted on retaining their Christian identity, the officials left in frustration.

On Monday (March 15), district head Bounma, identified only by his surname, summoned seven of the believers to his office, HRWLRF reported.

Bounma declared that although the republic’s law and constitution allowed for freedom of religious belief, he would not allow Christian beliefs and practices in areas under his control. If the Katin believers would not give up their faith, he said, they must relocate to a district where Christianity was tolerated.

When the seven Christians asked Bounma to supply them with a written eviction order, he refused.

The Christians later heard through local sources that the chiefs of Katin and neighboring Ta Loong village planned to burn down their temporary shelters and 11 partially-constructed homes erected on land owned by Ta Loong, according to HRWLRF.

These threats have left the Christians in a dilemma, as permission is required to move into another district.

Both adults and children in the group are also suffering from a lack of adequate food and shelter, according to HRWLRF.

“They are without light, food and clean water, except for a small stream nearby,” a spokesman said. Officials also forced them to leave the village with minimal clothing and other items necessary for basic survival.

Village officials have said they will only allow spirit worship in the area. A communist country, Laos is 1.5 percent Christian and 67 percent Buddhist, with the remainder unspecified. Article 6 and Article 30 of the Lao Constitution guarantee the right of Christians and other religious minorities to practice the religion of their choice without discrimination or penalty.

Decree 92, promulgated in July 2002 by the prime minister to “manage and protect” religious activities in Laos, also declares the central government’s intent to “ensure the exercise of the right of Lao people to believe or not to believe.”

Report from Compass Direct News 

Pakistan’s ‘Blasphemy’ Laws Claim Three More Christians

Cafeteria worker, couple convicted without basis under widely condemned statutes.

KARACHI, Pakistan, March 10 (CDN) — A Christian couple was sentenced to 25 years in prison for violating Pakistan’s widely condemned “blasphemy” laws last week, and another Christian convicted without basis under the same statutes the previous week received the same sentence.

In Kasur, Ruqqiya Bibi and her husband Munir Masih were sentenced on March 3 to 25 years of prison under Section 295-B of the Pakistan Penal Code for defiling the Quran. They had been arrested by Mustafabad police in December 2008 for touching Islam’s sacred scripture without ritually washing.

Punishment for defiling the Quran is “life imprisonment,” which means 25 years in Pakistan.

Prosecution witnesses accused Ruqqiya and her husband of using the Quran as part of black magic, and that in the process Ruqqiya had touched it without it without ritual cleansing. They also claimed that the couple had written the creed of Islam, or Kalima-e-Tayyaba, on the walls of their house.

Tahir Gul, a lawyer of the Centre for Legal Aid Assistance and Settlement (CLAAS), told Compass that the Christian couple had not used the Quran for black magic. He said the matter arose out of a quarrel between Muslim and Christian children and turned into a clash of their parents. Because Pakistan’s blasphemy statues are so commonly used to settle such personal scores, they are widely condemned by human rights advocates and legislators around the world.

After police investigation, the couple was further charged under Section 295-C of the blasphemy laws, which criminalizes any derogatory remark – spoken, written or by visible representation – against Muhammad, the prophet of Islam. The minimum punishment for such remarks is also “life imprisonment” of 25 years, but the law also allows for the death penalty.

Gul said the court had absolved the couple of charges under Section 295-C, as no evidence was found of them blaspheming Muhammad. He said that when the crime report was initially filed, the couple was accused only of defiling the Quran and not of blaspheming Muhammad.

The attorney said the case would be appealed in the Lahore High Court.

In Karachi, the Additional District and Sessions Court on Feb. 25 sentenced another Christian, Qamar David, to 25 years in prison and a fine of 100,000 rupees (US$1,170) after he was convicted without basis of sending blasphemous text messages in May 2006.

David was convicted under Section 295-A of the blasphemy statues for “injuring religious feelings of any community,” and also under Section 295-C for derogatory remarks against Muhammad. Maximum punishment for violation of Section 295-A is life imprisonment, and for Section 295-C the maximum punishment is death, though life imprisonment is also possible. David received the sentence of life in prison.

His lawyer, Pervaiz Aslam Chaudhry, told Compass that the conviction was without basis as all 16 witnesses at the trial said that not David but the owner of the cell phone, who is also the subscriber to the SIM card through which they received the blasphemous messages, was guilty. The SIM card and the cell phone are owned by a Muslim, Munawar Ahmad, who was named with David, he said.

“In spite of these facts, the court has absolved him [Ahmad] of all charges,” Chaudhry said.

In May 2006, two First Information Reports (FIR) were filed against David in Karachi under sections 295-A and 295-C. The first was filed under both sections by Khursheed Ahmed Khan, a travel agent, at the Sadar Police Station in Clifton. David still awaits trial on the second FIR, also under sections 295-A and 295-C, filed by Hafiz Muhammad Hamid at the Azizabad police station in Gulberg Town.

David has never been granted bail since his arrest in 2006, and he is in Central Jail in Landhi. Chaudhry said that he would file an application in the Sindh High Court for a hearing on the second case, because no trial date has been given despite the lapse of three and a half years.

“I feel that Qamar will also be convicted in the lower court again, because we see no signs of impartiality,” he added.

David’s family members criticized the blasphemy laws and his conviction, holding a protest on Feb. 28 with the help of Save the Churches’ Property Welfare Association and the United Church of Christ. They said that David was innocent and that the court was biased.

Chaudhry said that David lived a harsh life in the jail, where he was often threatened and once attacked by fellow inmates. The attorney said his client has faced obstacles in pursuing his case, and that extremists accused him of being a supporter of “blasphemers” because he was a Christian.

“Muslims raised slogans of triumph of Islam outside the court premises on the day David was convicted,” Chaudhry said. “The judgment was expected against David due to pressure on the judge, Jangu Khan.”

David had worked in the cafeteria of a hospital in Karachi, where he served drinks and food to customers, before he was accused in May 2006 of sending blasphemous messages.

Report from Compass Direct News 

Unnamed Christians Accused after Muslim Attack in Pakistan

Armed Islamic assault following fruit stand scuffle leads to police round-up of Christians.

KARACHI, Pakistan, February 26 (CDN) — In the wake of an attack this week by 150 armed Muslims on a Christian colony in this city in Sindh Province, police have filed a false First Information Report (FIR) against 40 unnamed Christians and arrested five, Christian leaders said.

They said the 40 unnamed Christians in the FIR are accused without basis with beating Muslim men, abusing Muslim women and girls, ransacking Muslim homes and looting expensive items from Muslim homes. The false FIR is designed only to harass the Christian community, they said, adding that the five arrested Christians were visitors to the area – the only ones on the street available for police to summarily round up, as they were unaware of the FIR.

Some 150 armed Muslims assaulted the Christian colony of Pahar Ganj in North Nazimabad, Karachi, on Sunday (Feb. 21), damaging two churches, shooting at houses, beating Christians and burning shops and vehicles after a fruit stand vendor attacked a Christian boy for touching his merchandise.

Christian leaders said Muslim extremists helped gather and inflame the assailants, but they said the fruit stand vendor upset with the 14-year-old Christian boy for touching plums on his hand-pulled cart initially instigated the attack. The unnamed vendor reportedly had a previous conflict with the boy, whose name was also withheld, and in objecting to the teenager’s actions he slashed his hand with a fruit knife and threw an iron weight at him, Christian leaders said.

A Muslim eyewitness who spoke on condition of anonymity said the fruit stand was located at the entrance of the colony of more than 1,000 Christian homes. Eyewitnesses said that Christians struck the fruit vendor in the course of rescuing the boy from him.

Touching and even tasting fruit before buying is a common practice in Pakistan, according to Pakistan Christian TV, and the vendor called his fruit “defiled” not because the boy was a Christian – nearly all customers in that area were Christians – but because the vendor had a previous conflict with him and did not want to sell to him.

Social class evidently also played a role. Eyewitnesses said the Muslim fruit vendor yelled, “This Christian Bhangi untouchable has defiled my fruit.” The derogatory “Bhangi,” literally “sewer man,” is commonly used to denigrate Christians in Sindh Province. In the Sindhi language it signifies “unholy” or “untouchable,” with its Punjabi equivalent being “Choohra.”

The conflict quickly took on a religious tint. Bystanders tried to help resolve the conflict between the vendor and the boy, according to eyewitnesses, but the street seller riled up Muslims, mainly those of the Pathan clan, by saying, “My Muslim brethren, pay heed to me – that Christian Bhangi has defiled my fruit and made blasphemous remarks about the Quran.” Later that day, the Christian leaders said, the 150 armed Pathan men attacked the area Christians, who responded by pelting them with stones.

The Rev. Edward Joseph of St. Patrick’s Cathedral in Karachi said the furious Muslim mob of armed, mainly Pathan men, gathered at the entrance of the Christian slum and charged in, attacking homes and desecrating and vandalizing St. Mary’s Church of Pakistan and the Interdenominational Calvary Church. Noor Sahotra, a Christian in Pahar Ganj, said he sustained minor injuries in an effort protect St. Mary’s Church of Pakistan.

Anwer Masih, a Christian who witnessed the attack, told Compass that several shops owned and run by Christians were looted and then set on fire, reducing them to ashes and depriving Christians of their livelihood. The rampaging mob also burned vehicles and tires at the main entrance of colony, he said.    

Previously the Rev. Aashiq Pervaiz, head of Interdenominational Calvary Church, reportedly had said Christian leaders had decided not to file charges against the Muslim assailants – presumably to forestall the counter-charges that Muslims typically file as a defensive measure in such conflicts.

More than 200 Christians and Muslims reportedly gathered to resolve tensions on Monday (Feb. 22), with Pervaiz telling the throng that the Christians forgave the attackers and had not filed any charges against assailants.

Shahid Kamal, national director of the Pakistan Campus Crusade for Christ, told Compass that the FIR that Muslims filed against Christians was registered at Noor-e-Jehan road, North Nazimabad Pahar Ganj police station. He said Pahar Gangj police had arrested five Christian visitors to Christian families of the colony.

The Rev. Razzaq Mathews said Muslims have frequently leveled baseless charges of blasphemy against area Christians.

“In the sad Pahar Ganj episode, Christians were attacked for nothing,” he said. “A handful of Muslim extremists persuaded Muslims to assail the Christian residential area as well as to desecrate the holy churches and holy Christian books, including Bible.”

He said the attack lasted for almost two hours.   

Sources told Compass that local politicians and clergymen from both sides were trying to broker a truce. They said Pakistani Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gillani has taken notice of the incident and directed the deputy inspector general of Central Karachi district to investigate and submit a report.

Report from Compass Direct News 

Spike in Anti-Christian Violence Feared before Burma Elections

Attacks on Christians seen as politically expedient in majority-Buddhist nation.

CHIANG MAI, Thailand, January 21 (CDN) — As Burma’s military junta gears up for its first parliamentary election in two decades this year, observers fear attacks on the Christian minority could intensify.

Mungpi Suangtak, assistant editor of a New Delhi-based news agency run by exiled Burmese journalists, the Mizzima News, said the Burmese junta has “one of the world’s worst human rights records” and will “definitely” attack religious and ethnic minorities more forcefully in the run-up to the election.

The military regime, officially known as the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC), pledged to hold the election this year, and analysts believe polls will be held after July in the country, also known as Myanmar.

Suangtak told Compass that the Buddhist nationalist junta would target Christians particularly in Karen state, bordering Thailand, and in Chin State, bordering India and Bangladesh.

Many Christians are part of the Karen National Union and the Chin National Front, armed resistance groups that have been demanding freedom or autonomy for their respective states for decades, and therefore the junta sees the Christian minority as a threat, said Suangtak.

There are over 100,000 Christian Chin refugees in India who have fled the junta’s attacks in the past two decades, according to Human Rights Watch.

Christians in Karen state are not safe. A Karen Christian worker living in the Mae La refugee camp on the Thailand-Burma border told Compass that ethnic Christians were facing human rights abuses by the junta “on a daily basis.” Most recently, Burma army soldiers attacked a church, murdered a local farmer and injured others in Nawng Mi village on Dec. 19, 2009, reported Burma Campaign UK.

Parts of Karen state fall under the “Black Zone” – identified by the Burma army as an area under the control of armed resistance groups where its soldiers are free to open fire on anyone on sight – and the junta has been launching indiscriminate attacks to take control of village after village, said the Karen Christian.

“Those who are not able to flee across the border during such attacks are either killed or forcibly relocated in and confined to temporary camps set up by the junta,” the Christian said. “Since the army litters surrounding areas with landmines, many local people die or get injured while trying to run away from or coming to the camps to look for their relatives.”

Over 150,000 refugees from Karen and neighboring Karenni states of Burma are living along the Thai side of the border, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. More than half of them are Christian.

A representative of the Free Burma Rangers (FBR), which trains and sends teams of local people to help victims of the junta’s attacks inside Burma, said youths have been forced to become Buddhists in Chin state, where over 80 percent of the people are Christian.

Printing of Bibles is restricted, and churches are destroyed on a regular basis in the state, the source told Compass on condition of anonymity.

Access for foreign visitors to Chin state is, with some exceptions, prohibited, and the state is widely acknowledged to be the poorest part of the country, said Rogers.

“According to one Chin, the reason Chin state is denied resources, and foreigners are denied access, is specifically because the overwhelming majority of Chins are Christian,” stated a 2009 report by London-based advocacy group Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW). “The SPDC has, it is believed, taken a deliberate decision to discriminate against Chin Christians.”

The report cited a Chin Christian man who had served in the Burma army who faced discrimination.

“I had a colleague who was a Chin who became a Buddhist and he was promoted,” the Christian says in the report. “I was told to change my religion if I wanted to get promotion. I refused to convert.”

The report also quoted a Chin Christian as saying that students from a Christian youth fellowship at a university in Kalaymyo, in Chin state’s Sagaing Division, collected funds among their own community to construct a small church.

“However, in 2008 and again in 2009, ‘extremist Buddhists’ destroyed the church building, and when the students reported the incident to the local authorities, the youth fellowship leaders were arrested, detained and then released with a warning,” he said.

Religious Pretext

Suangtak said successive governments in Burma have promoted Buddhism since General Ne Win took power in 1962, leaving Christians insecure.

“There is a general feeling in Burma that the state represents Buddhism, and most Christians, particularly from conservative sections, cannot trust the regime,” said Suangtak.

Benedict Rogers of CSW said the junta doesn’t differentiate between individual Christians involved in armed struggle and ordinary Christians who have not taken up arms.

“And when it attacks villages in conflict zones, churches and pastors are often among the first to be attacked,” Rogers said.

A Christian worker from Burma’s Mandalay city, however, told Compass that thus far he has heard no reports of any major anti-Christian incidents there. He said he was hoping the junta would try to woo people with peace rather than violence.

“But nothing can be said about the unpredictable junta,” he said, adding that it was difficult to receive or send information in Burma. “Even in cities, the information infrastructure is limited and expensive, phones are tapped and e-mails are monitored. And the press is owned by the state.”

Rogers, deputy chairman of the human rights commission for the U.K.’s Conservative Party, said the Buddhist nationalist regime “distorts and perverts Buddhism for political purposes and is intolerant of non-Burman and non-Buddhist ethnic and religious minorities, including Christians and Muslims.”

Of the 56 million people in Burma, around 89 percent are Buddhist, with only 4 percent Christian.

Given that the junta merely uses religion for political power, it doesn’t target Christians alone, Suangtak said.

“The junta has no respect for any religion, be it Christians or Buddhists, and anyone who opposes its rule is dealt with harshly.”

Burma was ruled by military regimes from 1962 to 1990; at that point the National League for Democracy party, led by Nobel Laureate Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, won the parliamentary election. But the regime seized power again by imprisoning members of parliament after the election.

Rogers, who has co-authored a soon-to-be-published biography of SPDC chairman Senior General Than Shwe, said that while the armed groups are not perfect, they are essentially fighting to defend their people against a “brutal regime” and are “not in any way terrorists.”

“The armed groups have sometimes launched pre-emptive attacks on the military, but they have never attacked non-military targets and have never engaged in indiscriminate acts of violence,” he said. “Even the pre-emptive acts are conducted for defensive, rather than offensive, purposes.”

Rogers added that resistance groups were fighting to defend their people.

“Individual Christians who have joined the armed ethnic groups do so out of a perfectly biblical concept of just war, the right to defend your people from gross injustice.”

Added an FBR source, “In Burma, no one protects except the pro-democracy resistance groups, and all relief inside the country is only possible because of them.”

International Disrepute

The 2009 annual report of the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom states that Burma’s military junta had “one of the world’s worst human rights records.”

“Burma’s Christian populations face forced promotion of Buddhism and other hardships in ethnic minority areas where low-intensity conflict has been waged for decades,” the report states. “In addition, a new law passed in early 2009 essentially bans independent ‘house church’ religious venues, many of which operate because permission to build church buildings is regularly denied.”

The report also pointed out that in January 2009, authorities in Rangoon ordered at least 100 churches to stop holding services and forced them to sign pledges to that effect. Burma, which the ruling junta describes as “The Golden Land” on its official website, has been designated as a Country of Particular Concern by the U.S. Department of State since 1999.

Even after the 2010 election, little is expected to change.

The FBR source said the election was not likely to be free and fair, pointing out that the new constitution the junta adopted after an apparently rigged referendum in 2008 virtually enshrined military power.

“However, having an election is better than not having one at all,” the source said.

Report from Compass Direct News