Fear factor results in transfer of rape case; meantime, 6-year-old girl says politician is killer.
NEW DELHI, April 2 (CDN) — Due in part to intimidation of witnesses in Kandhamal district, a judge this week granted a change of venue for the trial of men accused of gang-raping a nun during anti-Christian attacks in Orissa in 2008.
The trial will be transferred from Baliguda, Kandhamal to Cuttack, near the Orissa state capital of Bhubaneswar. Justice Indrajit Mohanty of the Orissa High Court on Tuesday (March 30) ordered the inter-district transfer of the trial. The nun, Meena Lilita Barwa, had argued that witnesses would be intimidated into refraining from testifying if the trial were held in Kandhamal district.
She also argued that Kandhamal’s intimidating atmosphere made it too dangerous for her appear in court there. Christians were hopeful that the transfer would lead the administration to review police and court processes in Kandhamal district.
Police have arrested 19 people for allegedly assaulting the nun on Aug. 25, 2008 and parading her half-naked through the streets.
Hindu Politician Identified as Killer
After a series of trials in which murder suspects in the 2008 Kandhamal district violence have gone free as Hindu extremist threats have kept witnesses from testifying, a 6-year-old girl has identified a powerful local politician as the man who killed her father.
In testimony at Fast Track Court No. 1 on March 14, Lipsa Nayak of Kandhamal identified Manoj Pradhan, a member of the Legislative Assembly of Orissa, as the man who cut and burned her father to death when Hindu extremists attacked Christians following the Aug. 23, 2008 death of a local Hindu leader.
Pradhan has been accused in nine cases of murder and in 14 cases of arson. So far he has been exonerated on the murder charges against him for “lack of witnesses.” Christian leaders say that Pradhan has been intimidating witnesses because of his position as a member of Legislative Assembly. Lipsa’s mother, 32-year-old Kanak Rekha Nayak, has said that Pradhan and his associates have threatened to harm her family if they identified him as the killer.
The Nayak family lived in Tiangia, Budedipada, in Raikia block of Kandhamal district. During the anti-Christian attacks that followed the death of Hindu leader Swami Laxmanananda Saraswati, Lipsa’s parents and her sister had taken refuge in the forest to escape the fury of the Hindu extremists, but the rampaging mob tracked them down.
Lipsa, then 4 years old, along with her mother and 2-year-old sister, watched in horror as the crowd allegedly beat her father, Parikhita Nayak, for two hours and then killed him by cutting him into pieces and burning him.
Prosecution and defense lawyers questioned Lipsa for more than 90 minutes, and she reportedly answered all questions without wavering. Asked by the judge if she could identify the killer of her father, she pointed to Pradhan, the MLA from the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) from G. Udayagiri, Kandhamal.
Her mother later told media, “They played with him for a few hours before cutting him into pieces and dousing him with kerosene.”
Accused as a primary suspect in the murder along with Pradhan is Kali Pradhan. The government of Orissa has set up two Fast Track courts to try cases related to the violence that spread to more than a dozen districts of Orissa. Maoists have taken responsibility for the killing, though Hindu extremists accused Christians in an effort to spark anti-Christian violence. The attacks killed more than 100 people and burned 4,640 houses, 252 churches and 13 educational institutions.
Christian leaders have denounced the legal process in the Kandhamal violence, saying not only that witnesses have been threatened and the intimidated but that police investigations have been negligent or corrupt.
“There has been no conviction in any case of murder,” said Dr. John Dayal, a member of the National Integration Council. “More than 70 people were killed, and trial is being held only for 38 or so of those deaths. Eleven murder cases have been tried with no one being indicted or sentenced for murder so far – because of terrible investigation by the police, a poor show by the prosecuting lawyers and shoddy judicial process.”
The 123 cases tried in the Fast track courts have resulted in 97 convictions and 323 acquittals, including several cases decided on Wednesday (March 31). Seven people in two separate cases were convicted of arson and rioting cases. Nata Pradhan, Jahala Pradhan, Ashok Mallick, Bapa Pradhan, and Udayanath Pradhan from Raikhala-Gadiapada village were sentenced for two years imprisonment for destroying the house of Birendra Nayak of the same village. They were also fined 2,500 rupees (US$55). In the other case, Ratnakar Pradhan and Parsuram Pradhan from village Tatamaha, Raikia block were convicted of riot and arson.
At the same time, Fast Track Court I Judge S.K. Das acquitted 20 people persons in three separate cases for lack of evidence.
“Witnesses are being coerced, threatened, cajoled and sought to be bribed by murderers and arsonists facing trial,” said Archbishop of Orissa Raphael Cheenath in a statement. Previously he had demanded that the cases of politically powerful persons such as Manoj Pradhan be transferred out of Kandhamal to ensure proper justice.
“We are deeply concerned about the high rate of acquittals in the Fast Track Courts,” Cheenath said. “Victims filed 3,232 complaints in the various police stations of Kandhamal. Of these, the police registered cases in only 832 instances.”
Orissa Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik filed a written admission in the Orissa Assembly in November 2009 in which he said 85 members of the Hindu extremist Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), 321 persons of Hindu nationalist umbrella group Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) and 118 persons of Hindu extremist youth wing, the Bajrang Dal, had been arrested for their involvement in the Kandhamal riots.
While the government says that situation is normalizing in Kandhamal, Christian leader like Dr. John Dayal give a different story.
“While it is possible to visit one half of the district of Kandhamal and discover only peace, it is the other half of the district which speaks of the continuing tyranny,” he said. “The bloodshed has stopped because of belated police action, but the miscarriage of justice and the lost peace continue to haunt thousands of people who have not been able to go back to their homes for fear of their lives. Thousands of children cannot go to school, especially the girls. What is worse is that many girls have been trafficked.”
The district collector banned all Christian organizations from coming to the district to bring aid to victims after the 2008 violence, he added, “and it took an appeal to the Supreme Court of India by the archbishop of Bhubaneswar for much needed relief to be given to the people in the then refugee camps.”
He expressed doubts about the government portrait of normalcy in Kandhamal.
“Even if the church does its best, only half of the 5,600 or so houses burned to the ground will ever be rebuilt,” he said. “The district collector and other officers of the civil and police system who are guilty of gross dereliction of duty continue to be in control. Thousands of men continue to be without jobs. Is this normalcy?”
On March 20, a controversial leader of the VHP, Praveen Togadia, was arrested as he tried to defy orders prohibiting him from entering Kandhamal. Togadia had played a major role in whipping up passions among the Hindus of Kandhamal after the killing of Saraswati.
Togadia had led a procession with the body of Saraswati through different areas of the district for more than 100 kilometers, sparking off or intensifying violence against Christians.
The government of Orissa came under heavy fire from civil society for allowing the procession, and on the latest occasion the local administration was careful to detain Togadia under the Section 151 of the Code of Criminal Procedure, which provides for authorities to make arrests to prevent potential offenses. Togadia was later released on bail.
Togadia termed the prohibition on his visit a “ban” that was “illegal and undemocratic.” In response to the “ban” on Togadia, the Hindu extremist Sangh Parivar and the BJP protested with a 12-hour bandh (shut down) in Kandhamal on March 20, while the VHP held demonstrations in Bhubaneswar, Berhampur, Bolangir, Sambalpur and Cuttack. VHP also blocked National Highway 217 for one hour and burned an effigy of Chief Minister Patnaik.
“The state government didn’t stop foreign missionaries from going to tribal areas of Kandhamal and other parts of Orissa,” VHP leader Swadesh Pal Gupta said. “They were being provided with full support and freedom. But when a leader who is an International Secretary General of VHP tries to go to Kandhamal, the government stopped him. We are staging a nationwide protest against this.”
Report from Compass Direct News
Fellowship in Tizi Ouzou received no police protection despite repeated violence.
ISTANBUL, January 21 (CDN) — Members of a church in Algeria’s Kabylie region gathered to worship last Saturday (Jan. 16) in their new building despite a protest, vandalism and a fire that damaged the building the previous weekend.
Local Muslims bent on running the congregation out of the neighborhood set fires inside and outside the building on Jan. 9.
Before setting it on fire, the assailants ransacked the Tafat Church building in Tizi Ouzou, a city 100 kilometers (62 miles) east of Algiers. The perpetrators damaged everything within the new building, including electrical appliances.
“This last Saturday the church held a service even though not everyone was present,” said Mustapha Krim, president of the Protestant Church of Algeria (EPA). “But they continue.”
The protests against the new church building were unique in the Kabylie region, where the majority of Algeria’s Christians live.
“We are outraged,” Krim told Algerian daily El Watan. “We believe that the degree of intolerance reached its climax. In Kabylie, this sort of practice is unusual.”
The pastor of the church, Mustapha Krireche, said that the fellowship of 300 members had constructed the church building in the neighborhood in order to accommodate their growing needs. They started meeting there in early November of last year.
A short time after the first services, they received a notice from police to stop activities, as local residents had objected to their presence in their neighborhood. The pastor said he refused to sign the notice that police handed to him. Some young people threw rocks at the new building, he said.
Troubles for Tafat ramped up on Dec. 26, when its members gathered for their Saturday morning service. More than 20 local Muslims blocked the entrance to the building, keeping church members from entering. Two days later, some of the protestors broke into the new building and stole the church microphones and speakers.
The following Saturday (Jan. 2), a group of protestors entered the building and stopped the service. That day church leaders had instructed children and women to stay home for their safety, according to Krireche. After protestors became violent and threatened the pastor, church members present decided to close the building so as to avoid more problems.
In the most recent incident, on Jan. 9 protestors entered the building and started to vandalize it, leaving after police arrived. But they returned in the evening to burn anything that they could, including furniture, appliances, Bibles, hymnbooks and a cross. Nothing inside the building was left standing.
Reuters reported that the attack in Tizi Ouzou came days after a spate of attacks on Christians in Malaysia and Egypt, “though there was no evidence of a direct link.”
“The devastation of our church in Tizi Ouzou, which coincides with events in Egypt where they burned churches, leads us to ask questions about the international Islamists,” Krim told El Watan last week. “Is this an example continuing here in Tizi Ouzou? The Islam of our parents is nothing compared to today’s political Islam. To the indifference of the authorities, it manipulates people against Christians.”
Christian leaders have said authorities have not taken appropriate steps to protect the church or bring justice to their claims. The church has filed half a dozen complaints with police on attacks against them in the last two months. Krim told The Associated Press last week that authorities don’t want to intervene out of fear of Islamist retaliation.
The EPA president told Compass that church leaders met with local authorities this week to file a complaint against a Muslim and his hard-line group said to be responsible for the attacks against Tafat.
As of this week, local officials had not responded to Tafat’s request for protection.
In February 2008 the government applied measures to better control non-Muslim groups through Ordinance 06-03. Authorities ordered the closure of 26 churches in the Kabylie region, both buildings and house churches, maintaining that they were not registered under the ordinance.
Despite efforts to comply with the ordinance, many Christian groups indicated they were blocked by lack of information, bureaucratic processes or resistance to their applications, according to the 2009 International Religious Freedom Report by the U.S. Department of State. None of the churches have closed since then, but their status continues to remain questionable and only valid through registration with the EPA.
According to a government decree dating back to June 2007, local officials can prohibit non-Muslim activities if they constitute a danger to the public order or if religious adherents move from their originally planned location, El Watan reported.
Some Protestants have estimated the number of Algeria’s Christians at as many as 65,000, though the U.S. State Department cites unofficial estimates of Christians and Jews combined as ranging from 12,000 to 40,000.
Report from Compass Direct News
Neighborhood residents protest new church building in Kabylie region.
ISTANBUL, December 31 (CDN) — Nearly 50 Muslim members of a community in northern Algeria blocked Christians from holding a Christmas service on Saturday (Dec. 26) to protest a new church building in their neighborhood.
As Algerian Christian converts gathered for their weekly meeting and Christmas celebration that morning, they were confronted by protestors barring the doors of their church building. Tafat Church is located in Tizi-Ouzou, a city 100 kilometers (62 miles) east of the Algerian capital, Algiers. Established five years ago, the church belongs to the Protestant Church of Algeria (EPA). Until recently it met in a small rented building. In November it opened its doors in a new location to accommodate the growing needs of its nearly 350 congregants.
The local residents protesting were reportedly irritated at finding that a church building with many visitors from outside the area had opened near their houses, according to an El Watan report on Sunday (Dec. 27). The daily newspaper highlighted that the residents feared their youth would be lured to the church with promises of money or cell phones.
“This land is the land of Islam! Go pray somewhere else,” some of the protestors said, according to El Watan. Protestors also reportedly threatened to kill the church pastor.
The protestors stayed outside the church until Monday (Dec. 28), and that evening some of them broke into the new building and stole the church microphones and speakers, according to the pastor, Mustafa Krireche. As of yesterday (Dec. 30) the church building’s electricity was cut.
One of Algeria’s Christian leaders, Youssef Ourahmane, said he could not recall another display of such outrage from Algerians against Christians.
“It was shocking, and it was the first time to my knowledge that this happened,” said Ourahmane. “And there weren’t just a few people, but 50. That’s quite a big number … the thing that happened on Saturday was a little unusual for Algeria and for the believers as well.”
A few weeks before the Saturday incident, local residents signed a petition saying they did not want the church to operate near their homes and wanted it to be closed. Local authorities presented it to the church, but Ourahmane said the fellowship, which is legally authorized to exist under the EPA, does not plan to respond to it.
On Saturday church leaders called police, who arrived at the scene and told the Christians to go away so they could talk to the protestors, whom they did not evacuate from the premises, according to local news website Kabyles.net. The story Kabyles.net published on Sunday was entitled, “Islamic tolerance in action at Tizi-Ouzou.”
“In that area where the church is located, I’m sure the people have noticed something happening,” said Ourahmane. “Having hundreds of Christians coming to meet and different activities in the week, this is very difficult for Muslims to see happening there next door, and especially having all these Muslim converts. This is the problem.”
A local Muslim from the neighborhood explained that residents had protested construction of the church building in a residential area, according to El Watan.
“What’s happening over there is a shame and an offense to Muslims,” he told El Watan. “We found an old woman kissing a cross … they could offer money or mobile phones to students to win their sympathies and sign them up. We won’t let them exercise their faith even if they have authorization. There’s a mosque for those who want to pray to God. This is the land of Islam.”
Behind the Scenes
Ourahmane said he believes that Islamists, and maybe even the government, were behind the protests.
“Maybe this is a new tactic they are trying to use to prevent churches from meeting,” he said. “Instead of coming by force and closing the church, the local police use the Muslim fundamentalists. That’s my analysis, anyhow.”
In February 2008 the government applied measures to better control non-Muslim groups through Ordinance 06-03. Authorities ordered the closure of 26 churches in the Kabylie region, both buildings and house churches, maintaining that they were not registered under the ordinance.
Despite efforts to comply with the ordinance, many Christian groups indicated they were blocked by lack of information, bureaucratic processes or resistance to their applications, according to this year’s International Religious Freedom Report by the U.S. Department of State. None of the churches have closed since then, but their status continues to remain questionable and only valid through registration with the EPA.
“If we have the right to exercise our faith, let them tell us so,” Pastor Krireche told El Watan. “If the authorities want to dissolve our association through legal means, let them do so.”
Recent growth of the church in Algeria is difficult for Muslims to accept, according to Ourahmane, despite public discourse among the nation’s intellectuals advocating for religious freedoms. Unofficial estimates of Christians and Jews combined range from 12,000 to 40,000, according to the state department report. Local leaders believe the number of Algerian Christians could be as many as 65,000.
Increasing numbers of people who come from Islam are like a stab for the Muslim community, said Ourahmane.
“It’s hard for them to accept that hundreds of Christians gather to worship every week,” he said. “It’s not easy. There are no words to explain it. It’s like a knife and you see someone bleeding … They see the church as a danger to Algerian culture.”
The Algerian government has the responsibility to face up to the changing face of its country and to grant Christians the freedom to meet and worship, said Ourahmane.
“The local authorities and especially the Algerian government need to be challenged in this all the time,” he said. “They have to be challenged: ‘Don’t you recognize the situation here?’ I mean we’re talking of tens of thousands of believers, not just a few.”
There are around 64 churches in the Kabylie region, where most Algerian Christians live, as well as house groups, according to Ourahmane. The Kabylie region is populated by Berbers, an indigenous people of North Africa.
“There are lots of healings and deliverance, and people are experiencing new things in their life,” Ourahmane said of the Algerian churches. “They are finding hope in Christ which they have never experienced before.”
There are half a dozen court cases against churches and Christians. None of these have been resolved, frozen in Algeria’s courts.
In ongoing negative media coverage of Christians, last month Algerian newspaper Echorouk published a story claiming that the former president of the EPA, who was deported in 2008, had returned to Algeria to visit churches, give advice and give them financial aid.
The report stated that the former EPA president, Hugh Johnson, was known for his evangelism and warned readers of his evangelizing “strategies.”
Yesterday Johnson told Compass by telephone that the report was pure fabrication, and that he has not set foot in Algeria since he was deported.
Johnson’s lawyers are still trying to appeal his case in Algerian courts.
This year church groups stated that the government denied the visa applications of some religious workers, citing the government ban on proselytizing, according to the state department report.
Report from Compass Direct News
Lax investigation, prosecution, lack of witness protection cited as reasons for injustice.
NEW DELHI, September 30 (CDN) — Only 24 people have been convicted a year after anti-Christian mayhem took place in India’s Orissa state, while the number of acquittals has risen to 95, compounding the sense of helplessness and frustration among surviving Christians.
Dr. John Dayal, secretary general of the All India Christian Council, called the trials “a travesty of justice.”
Last month a non-profit group, the Peoples Initiative for Justice and Peace (PIJP), reportedly found that as many as 2,500 complaints were filed with police following the violence in August-September 2008 in the eastern state’s Kandhamal district. The violence killed at least 100 people and burned more than 4,500 houses and over 250 churches and 13 educational institutions. It also rendered 50,000 people, mostly Christian, homeless.
Police, however, registered only 827 complaints and arrested fewer than 700 people, even though 11,000 people were named as attackers in those complaints, according to a PIJP survey.
“The manner of the judicial processes in the Kandhamal fast-track courts is tragic where all too many people have managed to escape conviction for crimes as serious as conspiracy for brutal, premeditated murder and deliberate arson,” Dayal told Compass.
Among those acquitted was Manoj Pradhan, who allegedly led mobs that killed Christians and burned their houses a few months before he became a state legislator from the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).
Facing charges in five cases of murder and six of arson, Pradhan has been acquitted in three cases.
On Thursday (Sept. 24), the judge of Fast Track Court-II, C.R. Das, acquitted Pradhan and another suspect, Mantu Nayak, on charges of killing Khageswar Digal for refusing to “reconvert” to Hinduism, according to the Press Trust of India (PTI). Digal was a 60-year-old Catholic and resident of Shankarakhol area in Chakapada Block in Kandhamal.
“The court acquitted the BJP MLA [Member of Legislative Assembly] and Nayak due to lack of proper evidence against them,” Special Public Prosecutor Pratap Patra told PTI.
The Rev. Ajay Singh, an activist from the Catholic Archdiocese of Cuttack-Bhubaneswar, said Digal’s son testified in court that he was witness to the killing of his father and knew the killers, and yet the accused were acquitted.
“It was a brutal murder, possibly a case of human sacrifice,” Singh said.
Digal was dragged from a vehicle before being killed on Sept. 24 last year – one month after the assassination of Vishwa Hindu Parishad (World Hindu Council or VHP) leader Swami Laxmanananda Saraswati by Maoists (extreme Marxists), which triggered the violence as Hindu extremists wrongly blamed Christians.
Singh spoke to the son of the deceased Digal, Rajendra Digal, who said his parents left their village after the violence and took shelter in the state capital, Bhubaneswar.
The elder Digal, who owned a grocery shop and 35 goats, returned to his village to see his house and livestock. After selling some of the goats, he boarded a public bus to Phulbani, Kandhamal district headquarters, to start his journey back to Bhubaneswar around noon on Sept. 24. As the bus started, however, some assailants allegedly led by Pradhan stopped the bus and dragged Digal out. They also broke his leg.
The attackers were said to have taken Digal to his village, where they looted his shop. Then they allegedly took him and eight of his goats to a nearby forest, where they feasted on the goat meat throughout the night.
When Rajendra Digal heard about it, he informed police, who allegedly took no interest in the complaint. Twelve days later, his father’s body, naked and burned with acid, was found 40 kilometers (25 miles) from the village. His genitals had also been chopped off.
Rajendra Digal said he believes his father may have been the victim of human sacrifice involving ritual feasting and torture.
Shoddy Probe, Lack of Evidence
A representative of the Christian Legal Association (CLA) said the police had been conducting investigations improperly.
The CLA source pointed out that in another Fast-Track Court-I case in which Pradhan was one of the accused, police had wrongly recorded the age of the informant, Bhutia Digal.
“The court observed that if the police could not cite the age of the informant correctly, how could they have investigated the case properly?” said the source, adding that such discrepancies were found in far too many cases.
During the violence in August-September 2008, the BJP was part of the ruling coalition with a local party, the Biju Janata Dal (BJD). The latter recently broke ties with the Hindu nationalist BJP, blaming it for violence in March, a month before the state assembly election.
The BJP lost the April-May election, and the BJD emerged as the stand-alone ruling party. It is believed that the state administration began taking action against the assailants only after the coalition split in March – six months too late, which possibly provided enough time for suspects to remove evidence and threaten witnesses.
Witnesses are still being threatened or bribed, according to rights groups.
On Thursday (Sept. 24), the day the BJP legislator was acquitted, the fast-track court also released five others accused of arson in the Tikabali area of Kandhamal in a separate case, reported the PTI.
Singh said the witnesses were either intimidated or bribed and therefore turned hostile to prosecutors in court. Friends of the accused took the witnesses to the court in their vehicle, he pointed out.
Dayal said the Orissa High Court should have taken notice of the increasing number of acquittals.
“A man now an MLA seems to be beyond the law,” he said. “I would demand a high-powered judicial review by the High Court of Orissa itself, or failing that, by civil society, which should set up an independent commission of retired judges and senior lawyers.”
Singh said police investigations and prosecutions were a “sham.” There is also “a pressing need for witness protection,” he said.
He added that there were reports of witnesses being intimidated and threatened in various villages, such as Dodingia, K. Nuagam, Phiringia and Solesoru. “Police are not entertaining complaints of the threat to the witnesses,” Singh said.
Dayal highlighted three essential problems: The quality of the charge-sheets prepared by police; the role of the public prosecutor in pressing the charges as prepared by police; and the circumstances under which eyewitnesses, “often sons and daughters of those killed, cannot attest to the truth or are forced into silence,” he said.
“India does not have a witness-protection program, and surely Kandhamal has none at all,” Dayal said. “Witnesses have to pass through an aggressive environment which affectively silences them. They are human beings and fear future violence, having seen brutal violence in the past.”
Singh and Dayal demanded that the cases be heard outside Kandhamal, preferably outside Orissa state.
First Life Sentences Handed Down for Orissa, India Killing
NEW DELHI, September 30 (Compass Direct News) – A fast-track court in Orissa state on Sept. 23 delivered its first life sentences for those convicted of murder in 2008 violence in Kandhamal district, sentencing five people to life imprisonment for their involvement in the killing of Pastor Akbar Digal.
Digal, 40, pastor of a Baptist church in Tatamaha village under Raikia police jurisdiction in Kandhamal district, was killed on Aug. 26, 2008 after refusing the slayers’ demand that he forsake Christianity and convert to Hinduism. His body was reportedly cut to pieces and then burned.
He is survived by his wife, Ludhia Digal, and five children.
Additional Sessions Judge Sobhan Kumar Das of Fast Track Court-I at Phulbani district headquarters sentenced Sabita Pradhan, 30; Papu Pradhan, 30; Abinash Pradhan, 29; Dharmaraj Pradhan, 32; and Mania Pradhan, 28, to life in prison and a fine of 5,000 rupees (US$104). The five were arrested after Pastor Digal’s wife filed a First Information Report on Aug. 29, 2008.
Previous to these sentences, two fast-track courts had sentenced 12 people to prison for terms ranging only from four to six years. The government set up the two fast-track courts to try nearly 900 cases related to anti-Christian violence that erupted in August 2008. The first conviction was determined on June 30.
The special Phulbani court also sentenced six others to three years’ rigorous imprisonment on Sept. 22 for an arson attack on a journalist’s house in Kandhamal’s Phiringia village on Dec. 12, 2007.
Police had arrested 11 people in this case, but the court acquitted five for “lack of evidence.” Convicted were Ganpati Kanhar, Rabindra Kanhar, Parmeshwar Kanhar, Daleswar Kanhar, Tuba Kanhar and Vijay Kanhar, whose ages range from 25 to 40 years. They were also fined 4,000 rupees (US$83) each.
Report from Compass Direct News
Ministry of Justice decision suggests spreading Christianity may be unlawful in Turkey.
ISTANBUL, March 20 (Compass Direct News) – Turkey’s decision last month to try two Christians under a revised version of a controversial law for “insulting Turkishness” because they spoke about their faith came as a blow to the country’s record of freedom of speech and religion.
A Silivri court on Feb. 24 received the go-ahead from the Ministry of Justice to try Christians Turan Topal and Hakan Tastan under the revised Article 301 – a law that has sparked outrage among proponents of free speech as journalists, writers, activists and lawyers have been tried under it. The court had sent the case to the Ministry of Justice after the government on May 8, 2008 put into effect a series of changes – which critics have called “cosmetic” – to the law.
The justice ministry decision came as a surprise to Topal and Tastan and their lawyer, as missionary activities are not illegal in Turkey. Defense lawyer Haydar Polat said no concrete evidence of insulting Turkey or Islam has emerged since the case first opened two years ago.
“The trial will continue from where it left off – to be honest, we thought they wouldn’t give permission [for the case to continue],” said Polat, “because there was no persuasive evidence of ‘degrading Turkishness and Islam’ in the case file.”
A Ministry of Justice statement claimed that approval to try the case came in response to the original statement by three young men – Fatih Kose, Alper Eksi and Oguz Yilmaz – that Topal and Tastan were conducting missionary activities in an effort to show that Islam was a primitive and fictitious religion that results in terrorism, and to portray Turks as a “cursed people.”
Prosecutors have yet to produce any evidence indicating the defendants described Islam in these terms, and Polat said Turkey’s constitution grants all citizens freedom to choose, be educated in and communicate their religion, making missionary activities legal.
“This is the point that really needs to be understood,” said Polat. “In Turkey, constitutionally speaking it is not a crime to be a Christian or to disseminate the Christian faith. However, in reality there have been problems.”
The lawyer contended that prosecuting lawyers have given political dimensions to the case by rendering baseless accusations in a nationalistic light.
“From their point of view, missionary activity carried out by missionaries of imperialistic countries is harmful for Turkish culture and the country overall,” Polat said.
Tastan said that although he has always been confident that he and Topal will be acquitted, the decision of the Ministry of Justice to try them under Article 301 left him deeply disappointed in his own country.
“After this last hearing, I realized that I didn’t feel as comfortable as I had been in the past,” Tastan told Compass. “I believed that surely the Ministry of Justice would never make the decision they did.”
Tastan said he was uneasy that his country would deem his Christian faith as insulting to the very Turkishness in which he takes pride.
“This is the source of my uneasiness: I love this country so much, this country’s people, that as a loving Turk who is a Christian to be tried for insulting Turkey has really cut me up,” said Tastan. “Because I love this nation, I’ve never said anything against it. That I’m a Christian, yes, I say that and I will continue to do so. But I think they are trying to paint the image that we insult, dislike and hate Turks. This really makes me sad and heartsick.”
If nothing else, Tastan said, the trial has provided an opportunity for Turkish Christians to show God’s love and also make themselves known to their compatriots. He called the ministerial decision duplicitous.
“A government that talks the European Union talk, claims to respect freedom, democracy, and accept everyone, yet rejects me even though I’m a Turkish citizen who is officially a Christian on his ID card, has made me sad,” he said. “That’s why I’m disappointed.”
At the time of their arrests, Topal and Tastan were volunteers with The Bible Research Center, which last week acquired official association status and is now called “The Society for Propagating Knowledge of the Bible.” In the last court hearing, prosecutors demanded that further inquiries be conducted into the nature of the association since the defendants used their contact lists to reach people interested in Christianity.
“Because they think like this, they believe that the Bible center is an important unit to the missionary activities,” said Polat. “And they allege that those working at this center are also guilty.”
The court has yet to decide whether police can investigate the Christian association.
Polat and the defendants said they believe that as no evidence has been presented, the case should come to a conclusion at the next hearing on May 28.
“From a legal standpoint, we hope that they will acquit us, that it will be obvious that there is no proof,” said Tastan. “There have only been allegations … none of the witnesses have accused us in court. I’m not a legal expert, but I believe that if there is no proof and no evidence of ‘insulting,’ then we should be set free.”
The initial charges prepared by the Silivri state prosecutor against Tastan and Topal were based on “a warning telephone call to the gendarme” claiming that Christian missionaries were trying to form illegal groups in local schools and insulting Turkishness, the military and Islam.
Despite a court summons sent to the Silivri and Istanbul gendarme headquarters requesting six gendarme soldiers to testify as prosecution witnesses, none have stepped forward to do so. At a June 24, 2008 hearing, two witnesses for the prosecution declared they did not know the defendants and had never seen them before facing them in the courtroom. Several witnesses – including one of the original complainants, Kose – have failed to show up on various trial dates.
“We believe the case has arrived to a concluding stage, because all evidence has been collected and the witnesses have been heard,” Polat said. “We believe the accused will be dismissed. The inverse would surprise us.”
Polat underlined that while the case shows that human rights violations in Turkey are still a “serious problem,” it is also true that Turkey’s desire to join the European Union has brought sincere efforts to improve democratic processes. He attested, however, that establishing a true democracy can be a long process that requires sacrifices.
“It is my conviction that there is no other way for people to believe in and establish democracy than through struggle,” he said.
Tastan added that he sees hope that the notion that being “Turkish” means being Muslim is breaking. Due to exposure to media coverage of the murder trial of the April 18, 2007 slaughter of three Christians in Malatya, he said, Turks are becoming aware that there are fellow citizens who are Christians and are even dying for their Lord.
“This makes me happy, because it means freedom for the Turkish Christians that come after us,” said Tastan. “At least they won’t experience these injustices. I believe we will accomplish this.”
For the time being, though, the Ministry of Justice’s decision that Tastan and Topal can be tried under the revised Article 301 law appears to contribute to the belief that to promulgate a non-Islamic faith in Turkey is tantamount to treason. As Turkish online human rights magazine Bianet headlined its coverage of the decision, “Ministerial Edict: You Can Be a Christian But Do Not Tell Anyone!”
Report from Compass Direct News
Human Rights Watch shows systematic, officially sanctioned religious freedom violations.
DUBLIN, February 20 (Compass Direct News) – A Human Rights Watch (HRW) report released in January details serious and ongoing abuses against the Chin people, a minority group in Burma’s northwest who claim to be 90 percent Christian.
HRW’s research echoes a 2004 report by the Chin Human Rights Organization (CHRO) that described targeted abuse of Christians in Chin state, with the Burmese army subjecting pastors and church members to forced labor, arbitrary arrest and detention, torture and sometimes death.
While religious oppression is extreme in Chin state, restrictions also apply elsewhere in Burma, also known as Myanmar. Most recently, officials in January forced the closure of more than 100 churches in Rangoon and ordered owners of apartment buildings and conference facilities not to rent their properties to religious groups.
Based on interviews with Chin refugees in India and Malaysia between 2003 and 2008, HRW’s report describes how an increasing number of army battalions stationed in Chin state since 1988 have inflicted forced labor and arbitrary fines on the Chin people, as well as bullied them away from Christianity toward Buddhism.
“When we meet the army, we are shaking,” a Chin refugee pastor told HRW. “Whatever they want is law.”
The HRW report, entitled “We Are Like Forgotten People,” notes that soldiers frequently forced Christians to donate finances and labor to pagoda construction projects in areas where there were few or no Buddhist residents.
They also occasionally forced Christians to worship in Buddhist pagodas. One Chin pastor described how Burmese soldiers brought him to a pagoda and prodded him with their guns, commanding him to pray as a Buddhist.
“They said that this is a Buddhist country and that I should not practice Christianity,” he told HRW.
The military forced village headmen to present “volunteers” for military training or army construction projects and secured “donations” such as food or finance for army battalions. Soldiers severely beat or detained headmen if a village failed to meet quotas, seizing livestock or property in retribution.
Pastors often faced similar treatment, particularly if church members were accused – often without proof – of involvement with the Chin National Front insurgency group. HRW listed arrest, detention and torture as methods used against those accused of being part of the Chin National Front, based across the border in northeast India. Torture included beatings with sticks or guns and electric shocks via metal clips attached to high-voltage batteries. Such measures were also used to crush dissent against army policies such as failure to pay extortionate and arbitrary fees.
The military government promoted Buddhism over all other religions in Chin state through threats and inducements, destroying churches and other religious symbols, and restricting the printing and importing of Bibles and other Christian literature, HRW reported.
A judge in 1999 sentenced one man from Falam township to three years in prison for bringing Chin language Bibles into Burma, contravening Burma’s 1965 Censor Law. Authorities also burned 16,000 copies of Chin and other ethnic language Bibles brought into neighboring Sagaing Division, another Chin majority area, in 2000.
‘Campaign of Ethnocide’
CHRO’s 2004 report, “Religious Persecution: A Campaign of Ethnocide Against Chin Christians in Burma,” explained that Christianity had become inseparable from Chin culture following the arrival of American Baptist missionaries in 1899.
The report, based on information gathered in Chin state, gave numerous examples of the destruction of churches and crosses, the burning of Bibles and restrictions on other religious publications and activities between 1993 and 2004 – including the extrajudicial killings of four Chin Christians in 1993.
Burmese authorities routinely denied permission for the construction of new churches and required permits for large church gatherings, although lengthy bureaucratic processes meant that most of these gatherings were eventually postponed or cancelled.
A September 2008 U.S. Department of State report confirmed that Chin state authorities have not granted permission to build a new church since 2003.
As recently as last November, a government official ordered residents of Tayawaddy village in neighboring Sagaing Division to destroy the foundations of a new church building erected by members of a Chin Christian student fellowship. A report in the Chinland Guardian claimed villagers were subsequently ordered not to rent their homes to Chin students or the homes would be destroyed.
Enticement to Convert
CHRO’s report gave clear evidence of government support for coerced conversions. For example, the government offered free secular education to several children from impoverished families, only to place them as novice monks in Buddhist monasteries in Rangoon.
The Ministry of Religious Affairs has also sent Buddhist monks to villages and towns throughout Chin state under the Hill Regions Buddhist Mission program, one of several Buddhist missionary initiatives highlighted on the ministry’s website. Chin residents who spoke to CHRO likened these monks to “military intelligence” operatives who worked in partnership with Burmese soldiers to control the Chin people.
According to one Chin resident, “Anyone who doesn’t abide by the monks’ orders is reported to the State Peace and Development Council [Burmese government officials] and punished by the army.”
Another Chin man from Matupi township attended a government-sponsored “social welfare” training session only to discover that it was a propaganda session led by a Buddhist monk.
“In the training we were taught the 17 facts of how to attack and disfigure Christians,” he explained.
The 17-point method encouraged converts to criticize Christian ways of life as corrupting culture in Burma, to point out weaknesses in Christianity, and to attack Christians by both violent and non-violent means.
“We were promised that 1,200 kyats per month [US$190] would be provided to those families who became Buddhist,” the training participant added. That amount of money is significant in the Burmese economy.
The instructor also ensured participants that they would be exempt from “portering” and other forms of forced labor and compulsory “donations” if they converted, and that the government would provide education for their children.
“I became a Buddhist because of such privileges rather than because I think Buddhism is better than Christianity,” the Chin participant told CHRO.
Religious Policy Elsewhere
According to CHRO, both the Burmese army and the monks are pursuing an unofficial government policy summed up in three words; “Amyo, Batha, Thathana,” which translates as “One race, one language, one religion” – or Burman, Burmese and Buddhist.
This policy was exemplified by the forced closure in January of more than 100 churches in the capital, Rangoon.
Officials on Jan. 5 invited pastors from more than 100 Rangoon churches to a meeting where they were ordered to sign documents pledging to cease operation of their churches or face imprisonment. About 50 pastors attended, according to Burmese news agency Mizzima.
A CHRO spokesman told Compass yesterday that a significant number of these churches were ethnic rather than majority Burman churches.
In mid-January, officials ordered several other major Rangoon churches to close, including Wather Hope Church, Emmanuel Church and an Assemblies of God Church. (See Compass Direct News, “Burma Clamps Down on Christians,” Jan. 21.)
Officials from the Ministry of Religious Affairs in January summoned the owners of buildings where churches met and ordered them not to rent their properties to religious groups, according to another local online news source, the Democratic Voice of Burma.
In the late 1990s, Burma stopped issuing permits for land purchase or the construction of new churches in Rangoon and elsewhere, leading many Burmese Christians to conduct services in rented apartments or office buildings.
The church closure orders may simply be an extension of Burma’s existing religious policies, which elevate Buddhism in an effort to solidify national identity. The country’s population is 82 percent Buddhist, 9 percent Christian and 4 percent Muslim, with traditional ethnic, Chinese and Hindu religions accounting for the rest.
In a 2007 report describing religious persecution throughout Burma, including Chin state, Christian Solidarity Worldwide cited the “Program to Destroy the Christian Religion in Burma,” a 17-point document that had circulated widely in Rangoon. Allegedly authorized by the Ministry of Religious Affairs, the program’s first point declared that, “There shall be no home where the Christian religion is practiced.”
The Ministry of Religious Affairs subsequently pressured religious organizations to publicly condemn CSW’s report and deny all claims of religious discrimination in Burma.
Report from Compass Direct News
The latest U.S. State Department International Religious Freedom Report indicates Eritrea has made little positive progress on religious liberty, reports MNN.
Adelle Konyndyk with Voice of the Martyrs Canada says, “They’re trying to crackdown on evangelical Christians as a means of controlling or even ridding Eritrea of Christianity. The government basically is cracking down on anyone who is outside of those registered bodies.”
In May 2002, the government’s first step led to the ban and closure of all independent churches not operating under the umbrella of the Orthodox, Lutheran, Catholic, and Muslim religious structures.
Authorities want to quash the spread of anything they consider “too radical,” which appears to be aimed at stopping the growth of Christianity. Konyndyk says, “The military seeks to imprison key leaders, making it hard for these churches to publicly worship and spread the Gospel in Eritrea.”
“The Eritrean government, itself, maintains that no groups or persons are persecuted in Eritrea for their beliefs or their religion,” says Konyndyk. However, in 2004 the State Department designated Eritrea as a Country of Particular Concern on a list of the worst violators of religious freedom.
Further, although Eritrea provided for religious freedom in a 1997 constitution, a border war with Ethiopia delayed the implementation.
Of the more than 2,000 Christians under arrest in police stations, military camps and jails across Eritrea for of their religious beliefs, many have been incarcerated for years. No one has been charged officially or given access to judicial processes.
According to Konyndyk, that means leaders of large unregistered bodies like the Full Gospel Church and Rhema Church are viewed as threats.
Keep praying, because it is making a difference. “It is a positive sign that human rights organizations and the U.S. Department of State are publicly taking notice of the persecution that is going on here.
Report from the Christian Telegraph
Evangelist fears he will die in confinement.
LOS ANGELES, September 24 (Compass Direct News) – An evangelist imprisoned since 2006 for his Christian activities is receiving especially harsh treatment because of his ministry to inmates.
Sources said Teame Weldegebriel is on the brink of despair as he languishes at the Mai Sirwa Maximum Security Confinement prison.
“It seems that hell has broken loose on me,” Weldegebriel told Compass sources. “Please tell the brethren to continue praying for me. I am not sure I will see them again.”
Prison authorities consider Weldegebriel dangerous because of his boldness in sharing his faith. The Rhema Church evangelist has been proclaiming Christ to other prisoners, and many have converted to Christianity.
“This has made him to be in bad books with the prison wardens,” one source said.
Weldegebriel’s family is worried about his health after trying repeatedly, without success, to get permission to visit him.
Inmates at the prison often go hungry and are said to be feeding on leaves.
In Eritrea, a nation with a government of Marxist roots where about half of the people are Muslim, two or more people gathered in Jesus’ name can be imprisoned for not practicing their faith in one of the government-sanctioned Orthodox, Catholic, Lutheran or Muslim bodies.
More than 2,000 Christians in Eritrea are imprisoned for their faith, including a Christian from a Full Gospel Church who was arrested in 2001. His wife last saw him in June 2007. She and her two minor children were rounded up from a prayer meeting in mid-July and placed in a metal shipping container until their release last month, she said.
“I was arrested with my children while having a prayer meeting with 20 other Christians,” said the woman, who requested anonymity for security reasons. “They locked us up at a military concentration camp, inside metal ship containers. I remember the horrible ordeal I went through with the children. After three weeks I was released with my two children, while the other Christian soldiers remained locked in the prison cells.”
The government views leaders of large unregistered bodies like the Full Gospel Church and Rhema Church as threats, according to Christian sources in the country. Eritrean officials fear the church leaders will expose the abuses and conditions in the prisons. Hence it is extremely difficult for relatives to see those in prison, and inmates are not allowed to send or receive letters.
“The government has been transferring them from one prison cell after another,” said one Christian source in Asmara.
In May 2002 the government criminalized all independent churches not operating under the umbrella of the Orthodox, Lutheran, Catholic, and Muslim religious structures.
Arrested for Talking
In the seaport city of Massawa, police in June arrested a man and a woman, both Christians, who were talking to Muslims about Christ. Members of Kale Hiwot Church, the two were discussing their Christian faith when four plainclothes policemen arrested them.
“It took about 30 minutes talking about Jesus before they were both arrested by the police – they had witnessed about Jesus and the faith for a long time to some Muslims,” another source told Compass. “I watched the two Christians whisked away by the police. They were taken to join more than 100 Christians imprisoned in Waire prison about 25 kilometers [16 miles] from Massawa.”
A previously imprisoned evangelist with the Full Gospel Church in Asmara who requested anonymity told Compass that God is at work in Eritrea, with many people converting to Christ and receiving divine healing.
“For sure Christians are getting imprisoned, but God’s word cannot be imprisoned,” he said. “I am ready for any eventuality, including being imprisoned again. On several occasions, prison wardens warned me to stop preaching, though they still loved me. Indeed Jesus loved me. They saw God in me.”
The U.S. Department of State notes in its 2008 International Religious Freedom Report that Eritrea has not implemented its 1997 constitution, which provides for religious freedom. The state department has designated Eritrea as a Country of Particular Concern, a list of the worst violators of religious freedom, since 2004.
Many of the more than 2,000 Christians under arrest in police stations, military camps and jails across Eritrea because of their religious beliefs have been incarcerated for years. No one has been charged officially or given access to judicial processes.
Reliable statistics are not available, but the state department estimates that 50 percent of the population is Sunni Muslim, 30 percent is Orthodox Christian, and 13 percent is Roman Catholic. Protestants and Seventh-day Adventists along with Jehovah’s Witnesses, Buddhists, Hindus, and Baha’is make up less than 5 percent of the population.
Report from Compass Direct News