Malaysian Christians Seek to End Restrictions on Malay Bibles

Federation calls for removal of ‘every impediment’ to importing and printing Scripture.

KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia, April 6 (CDN) — Christian importers of Bibles that Malaysian officials detained are balking at conditions the government has imposed for their release, such as defacement of the sacred books with official stamps.

The Home Ministry stamped the words, “This Good News [Malay] Bible is for use by Christians only” on 5,100 Bibles without consulting the importer, the Bible Society of Malaysia (BSM), which initially refused to collect them as it had neither accepted nor agreed to the conditions. The Home Ministry applied the stamp a day after the government on March 15 issued a release order for the Bibles, which had been detained in Port Klang, 38 kilometers (24 miles) southwest of Kuala Lumpur, since March 20, 2009.

Another 30,000 Bibles detained since Jan. 12 on the island of Borneo remain in port after the Sarawak state Home Ministry told the local chapter of Gideons International that it could collect them if the organization would put the stamp on them. Gideons has thus far declined to do so, and a spokesman said yesterday (April 5) that officials had already defaced the books with the stamp.

The government issued letters of release to both organizations on March 15 under the condition that the books bear the stamp, “Reminder: This Good News [Malay] Bible is for use by Christians only. By order of the Home Minister,” and that the covers must carry a serial number, the official seal of the department and a date.

The Home Ministry’s stamping of the BSM Bibles without the organization’s permission came under fire from the Christian community. In a statement issued on March 17, Bishop Ng Moon Hing, chairman of the Christian Federation of Malaysia (CFM), described the Home Ministry’s action as desecration.

“[The] new conditions imposed on the release of the impounded Bibles … is wholly unacceptable to us,” he added.

Ng described the conditions imposed by the Home Ministry as tantamount to treating the Malay Bible as a “restricted item” and subjecting the word of God to the control of man. In response, Home Minister Hishammuddin Hussein has said the act of stamping and serialization was standard protocol.


Government Overtures

In the weeks following the March 15 release order, the government made several attempts to try to appease the Christian community through Idris Jala, a Christian from Sarawak state and a minister in the Prime Minister’s Department.

Idris issued the government’s first statement on March 22, explaining that officials had reduced earlier conditions imposed by the Home Ministry to require only the words, “For Christianity” to be stamped on the covers of the Bible in font type Arial, size 16, in bold.

Idris informed BSM that the Bibles could be collected in their present state or arrangements could be made to have stickers with the words “For Christianity” pasted over the imprint of the stamps made by the Home Ministry officials. In the event that this was not acceptable, the minister pointed out that BSM had the option of having the whole consignment replaced, since the government had received an offer from Christian donors who were prepared to bear the full cost of purchasing new Bibles.

In response, the CFM issued a statement on March 30 saying, “The offer made does address the substantive issues,” and called on the government “to remove every impediment, whether legal or administrative, to the importation, publication, distribution and use of the [Malay Bible] and indeed to protect and defend our right to use the [Malay Bible].”

Bishop Ng, however, left it to the two importers to decide whether to collect the Bibles based on their specific circumstances.

On March 31, BSM collected the mishandled Bibles “to prevent the possibility of further acts of desecration or disrespect.” In a press statement, BSM officials explained that the copies cannot be sold but “will be respectfully preserved as museum pieces and as a heritage for the Christian Church in Malaysia.” The organization also made it clear that it will only accept compensation from the Home Ministry and not from “Christian donors,” a term it viewed suspiciously.

On Saturday (April 2), Idris issued a 10-point statement to try to resolve the impasse. Significantly, this latest overture by the government included the lifting of present restrictions to allow for the local printing and importation of Malay and other indigenous-language Bibles into the country.

In Sarawak and Sabah, there would be no conditions attached to Bibles printed locally or imported. There also would be no prohibitions and restrictions on residents of these two states carrying such Bibles to other states. A significant 64 percent of Malaysian Christians are indigenous people from Sabah and Sarawak states who use the Malay language in their daily life, and having the Bible in the Malay language is considered critical to the practice of their Christian faith.

In the case of West Malaysia, however, in view of its larger Muslim population, the government imposed the condition that the Bibles must have the words “Christian publication” and the sign of the cross printed on the front covers.


Christian Response

Most Christians responded to this latest overture with caution. Many remained skeptical, seeing it as a politically motivated move in view of Sarawak state elections on April 16. Nearly half of Sarawak’s population is Christian.

Bolly Lapok, an Anglican priest, told the online news agency Malaysian Insider, “It’s an assurance, but we have been given such assurances before.” BSM General-Secretary the Rev. Simon Wong reportedly expressed the same sentiments, saying the Home Ministry already has a record of breaking its word.

The Rev. Thomas Phillips of the Mar Thoma Church, who is also president of the Malaysian Consultative Council of Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Sikhism and Taoism, questioned the timing of the proposal: “Why, after all these years?”

The youth wing of the Council of Churches rejected the proposal outright, expressing fears that the government was trying to “buy them over” for the Sarawak election, and that it would go back on its word after that.

Bishop Paul Tan, president of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of Malaysia, called the proposal an “insidious tactic of ‘divide and rule,’” referring to its different requirements imposed on Malaysians separated by the South China Sea. Dr. Ng Kam Weng, research director at Kairos Research Centre, stressed that the proposal “does not address the root problem of the present crisis, i.e. the Allah issue.”


Muslim Reactions

The 10-point proposal has also drawn the ire of Muslim groups, who view it as the government caving in to Christian pressure.

Perak Mufti Harussani Zakaria expressed his disappointment, reportedly saying, “If the government does this, just cancel the law,” in reference to various state Islamic enactments that prohibit the use of the word “Allah” and other so-called Islamic terms that led to the banning of the Malay Bible. Malay Bibles have not been allowed to be printed locally for fear that they will utilize “prohibited” words.

The Muslim Organizations in Defense of Islam (Pembela) threatened to challenge the 10-point proposal in court if it was not reviewed in consultation with Muslim representatives.

On the same day Pembela issued its statement, the government seemed to have retracted its earlier commitment. The Home Minister reportedly said talks on the Malay Bibles were still ongoing despite Idris’ 10-point proposal, which purportedly represents the Cabinet’s decision.

As a result, James Redas Noel of the Gideons said yesterday (April 5) that he was confused by the mixed messages coming from the government and will not make a decision on whether to collect the Bibles until he had consulted church leaders on the matter, according to the Malaysian Insider.

The issue with the Malay Bibles is closely tied to the dispute over use of the word “Allah” by non-Muslims.

In a controversial court ruling on Dec. 31, 2009, judge Lau Bee Lan had allowed The Herald, a Catholic newspaper, to use “Allah” for God in the Malay section of its multilingual newspaper.

The Home Ministry filed an appeal against this decision on Jan. 4, 2010. To date, there is no indication as to when the case will be heard.

Christians make up more than 9 percent of Malaysia’s nearly 28 million people, according to Operation World.

Report from Compass Direct News

Religious Club Closures in Schools Touch Nerve in Malaysia

KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia, August 11 (CDN) — More closures of non-Muslim religious clubs in Malaysian schools, including Christian fellowships, have surfaced since the first incident was reported on July 12.

Loh Seng Kok, central committee member of the Malaysian Chinese Association, said at a July 23 press conference that the situation was “getting worse” and that the initial incident at Klang High School was not an “isolated issue.”

Loh based his assessment on complaints received by various religious society representatives. Present with Loh at the press conference were Vice-President of the Young Buddhist Association of Malaysia Loh Yit Phing, President of the Subang Jaya Buddhist Association Chim Siew Choon and Executive Secretary of the Christian Federation of Malaysia Tan Kong Beng.

The Malaysian Insider online news agency reported that Chin Fook Khiang, a parent, disclosed that the Buddhist Society and Christian Fellowship in SMK SS17 in Subang Jaya, Selangor were ordered to stop activities in January 2009 – and that it was the second time the clubs were ordered to close by education authorities since 2005.

The religious clubs were closed even though they had been in operation since before 2000, excluding them from the need for official approval. According to Circular Bill 20/2000, non-Muslim religious clubs formed after education authorities issued the circular in 2000 must obtain their approval before they are allowed. Clubs that existed before the circular was issued do not require approval.

Malaysiakini news agency on July 23 cited an unnamed retired teacher who described the situation as “very serious,” to the extent that some teachers had been transferred because they were active in Christian fellowship activities in their schools.

Loh called for a fairer treatment of non-Muslim associations in the co-curricular activities listed in the co-curriculum management guidelines issued to schools. The guidelines only allow for Islamic religious societies to operate unconditionally without requiring prior approval from the education authorities.

Several political leaders, including veteran opposition leader Lim Kit Siang, have called on authorities to revoke outdated directives and circulars that contravene the Federal Constitution, which guarantees freedom of religion.


Public Outcry

Reports of non-Muslim religious club closures first surfaced when The Sun reported on July 12 that three non-Muslim religious student groups, including the Christian Union at Klang High School, were ordered closed by the Selangor education department last month.

Following the report, the Rev. Dr. Thomas Philips, president of the Malaysian Consultative Council for Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Sikhism and Taoism (MCCBCHST), issued a strongly worded statement seeking “immediate confirmation” and “prompt explanation” from authorities.

“Needless to say,” Phillips added, “if indeed there had been such a directive to close non-Muslim religious societies in schools or to not permit the setting up of such societies in schools, the Ministry of Education and the Ministry of National Unity should not be in doubt that MCCBCHST shall protest such a policy with the strongest possible vehemence.”

Following public outcry over the closure, Alimuddin Dom, director-general of education, reportedly said that the directive was a “misunderstanding” by the Selangor Education Department and ordered a reinstatement of the affected religious clubs.

Malaysia’s population is about 60 percent Muslim, 19 percent Buddhist and 9 percent Christian. About 6 percent are Hindu, with 2.6 percent of the population adhering to Confucianism, Taoism and other traditional Chinese religions.


Church Attack Trial

Reports of the religious club closures came amid the trial of three men who have been charged with arson in the attack on Metro Tabernacle church’s building earlier this year.

Brothers Raja Muhammad Faizal Raja Ibrahim and Raja Muhammad Idzham Raja Ibrahim, along with their friend Azuwan Shah Ahmad, were charged with committing mischief by torching the church building at 11:50 p.m. on Jan. 7. Since the trial started on July 6, however, the court has acquitted Azuwan due to lack of evidence.

Both brothers deny burning the church building, though they admit to witnessing the incident. They claim they left the scene of the burning to attend a barbeque at a friend’s house. Raja Muhammad Faizal claims he sustained burns from starting a fire at the barbeque, while his brother Raja Muhammad Idzham says he was injured in the course of helping his brother take off his flaming shirt on the occasion.  

The trial is ongoing.

Metro Tabernacle Church was among several churches that came under attack in January following a controversial court ruling that allowed the Herald, a Catholic weekly, to use the word “Allah” in the multilingual publication. The Herald had challenged the ban imposed by the Home Ministry.

The court decision angered some Muslims in the country who claim the term is exclusive to Islam.

Following the high court decision, the Home Ministry filed an appeal in February and won a stay, preventing the weekly from using the word until the case was addressed in the court of appeal. To date there has been no indication when the case will be heard.

On Aug. 1, Home Minister Hishammuddin Hussein was widely reported as saying his predecessor, Syed Hamid Albar, should not have banned the word “Allah” from being used by the Roman Catholic Church, and that the decision will continue to haunt his ministry for a very long time.

Report from Compass Direct News

Two Church of Christ in Nigeria Journalists Killed in Jos

Other Christians murdered in area that continues to be wracked by violence.

LAGOS, Nigeria, April 27 (CDN) — The killing of Christians in Jos, Plateau state in Nigeria continued over the weekend with two journalists and five other persons falling victim to Muslim youth gangs.

Nathan S. Dabak, an assistant editor at a newspaper of the Church of Christ in Nigeria (COCIN) called The Light Bearer, and Sunday Gyang Bwede, a reporter at the publication, were stabbed to death on Saturday (April 24) at Gado-Bako in Jos North Local Government Area along with an unidentified motorcyclist.

“The staff of the church were murdered in cold blood by some Hausa Muslim youths,” the Rev. Pandang Yamsat, president of COCIN, told Compass today. “This is clear because they have been using the hand phones of the deceased journalists and boasting that they are the ones that killed them.”

The young Muslim men have been boldly answering calls to the cell phones of the deceased journalists, he said; when a friend of Dabak called his cell phone number, an unknown voice responded, “We have killed all of them – you can do your worst!”

Dabak, 36, and the 39-year-old Bwede had left their office on Saturday morning and were on their way to interview local politician Bulus Kaze when they fell into the hands of young Muslim men, Yamsat said.

The church started a search for the two Christians that day but did not discover their bodies until about noon on Sunday at the mortuary of Jos University Teaching Hospital, he said. He added that the church was eagerly waiting for results of a police investigation.

“The security team of the church has been communicating with the police, but they are yet to make any headway on this unfortunate incident,” he said.

Burial of the slain journalists is scheduled for Friday (April 30).

In his statement on Monday (April 26), Yamsat lamented that “while efforts have been tailored towards the return of peace to the state by the military Special Task Force, it is regrettable that the state is confronted with a spate of killings.”

“The church is still mourning the death of its pastor and his wife killed in Boto, Bauchi state,” Yamsat said, in reference to the April 13 kidnapping and murder of the Rev. Ishaku Kadah, 48, and his 45-year-old wife Selina. “It is sad that it should again be left to face another brutal murder of two of their staff.”

The state branch of the Nigerian Union of Journalists also condemned the circumstances that led to the death of the two journalists, expressing deep concern over what it described as “a series of attacks on its members in recent times in the course of carrying out their legitimate duties.”

Four other Christians also were killed on Saturday (April 24) in the Dutse Uku district of Jos’ Nasarawa Gwom area in a revenge attack following the discovery of the corpse of a teenage Muslim who had been missing. Their names were not released at press time.

The four Christians reportedly died, three of them stabbed to death, when hundreds of Muslim youths rampaged throughout the area in protest.

Earlier, police reportedly exhumed eight bodies from shallow graves in a predominantly Christian village near Jos. The discovery of the bodies brought to 15 the number of corpses found in three days in an area fraught with Muslim aggression that has left hundreds of Christians dead.

Jos has become a flash-point for ethnic and religious tensions in Plateau state, which is located between Nigeria’s mainly Muslim north and Christian south. Previously hundreds of Christian villagers were struck with machetes and burned to death on March 7 in Dogo Nahawa, Zot and Rastat, three villages in Jos South and Barkin Ladi Local Government Areas.

On March 17, Muslim Fulani herdsmen assaulted two Christian villages in Plateau state, killing 13 persons, including a pregnant woman and children. In attacks presumably over disputed property but with a level of violence characteristic of jihadist method and motive, men in military camouflage and others in customary clothing also burned 20 houses in Byei and Baten villages, in the Riyom Local Government Area of the state, about 45 kilometers (29 miles) from Jos.

On Jan. 17, two pastors and 46 other Christians were killed in an outbreak of violence in Jos triggered when Muslim youths attacked a Catholic church. Police estimated over 300 lives were lost in subsequent clashes, in which 10 church buildings were burned.

Report from Compass Direct News 

Court Reverses Revocation of Indonesian Church’s Building Permit

Outside Islamists had intimidated local officials into withdrawing approval.

JAKARTA, Indonesia, March 8 (CDN) — A court in West Java has reversed the revocation of a Catholic church’s building permit.

The Purwakarta regency government had revoked the building permit for Santa Maria Catholic Church when Islamists threatened local residents and officials into opposing the project, church leaders said.

The church sued the Purwakarta regency for revoking the approved building permit in Cinangka village last October, and in a little-publicized court ruling on Feb. 25, a judge in a state court in Bandung, West Java decided in favor of the church.

“The error arose when external forces pressured the Purwakarta government so much that it revoked the building permit,” the head of the church legal team, Dr. Liona Nanang, told Compass. “Government sources have admitted that this was done because of outside pressure.”

The church official said objections to the church under construction did not come from residents of Cinangka village, where the church is located.

“We called the village headman and the block captains to testify,” Nanang said. “According to them, the objections are not from Cinangka villagers, but from citizens of Cikampek, which is not even in our district [county].”

The Purwakarta government is planning to appeal the case, but Nanang said church lawyers are optimistic that construction likely would resume once the High Court in Jakarta rules.

On Oct. 16 the regent of Purwakarta regency, Dedi Mulyadi, revoked the construction permit after Islamists threatened some of the local residents whose approval is required by Indonesian law. Church leaders said members of the Islamic Defenders Front (Front Pembela Islam, or FPI) “continually terrorized” both the regent and residents who had previously given their approval.

A Joint Ministerial Decree promulgated in 1969 and revised in 2006 requires the permission of more than 60 neighbors and a permit from local authorities to establish a place of worship. The more than 60 local citizens giving their approval must provide photocopies of their identity cards.

Nanang said that the judge agreed with the plaintiff that there had not been any irregularities in the process of obtaining a building permit. The judge found that the Purwakarta government had violated basic principles of good government including justice and the rule of law.

“A building permit can be legally cancelled if there is no construction activity within six months of the date of publication of the permit,” Liona told Compass. “However, Santa Maria Church began to build immediately.”

The court also ruled that the Purwakarta government had no legal reason to revoke the building permit. The Joint Ministerial Decree Number requires not only a minimum of 60 signatures of those not using the building but a minimum of 90 signatures of those who will use it, and the church had obtained the signatures of 93 non-users and 170 church members who would use the building.

The Rev. Augustinus Made of Santa Maria Catholic Church concurred that revocation of the building permit came about from extremely heavy pressure from the FPI and other radical Muslim groups.

“We rejoice in the verdict,” he said. “We had fulfilled all of the regulations. We built on land that had been zoned for a house of worship – land that we purchased.”

At the time the building permit was revoked, land had been prepared, the area fenced and the foundation laid.

The church had planned its building on a 5,000-square meter lot in a sparsely populated industrial area on land zoned for houses of worship. The congregation of over 1,000 has been worshipping in a steel factory warehouse some distance from the building site since its inception in 2002.

The lot developer had supplied facilities for all faiths; Muslims have two large mosques and an Islamic chapel at each factory. The government plan for the Bukit Indah Industrial Park included facilities for general and social purposes, including places of worship.

Report from Compass Direct News 


Judges to determine whether Malaysians of other faiths can use the Arabic word.

MUMBAI, India, July 6 (Compass direct News) – With the Kuala Lumpur High Court in Malaysia scheduled to determine the legality of the word “Allah” in non-Muslim literature tomorrow, what is at stake goes beyond the sanctioned name for God among non-Muslims in the majority-Muslim nation.

Such a limit on free speech in Malaysia is especially biting for Muslim converts to Christianity; already the Malaysian government does not recognize their conversions and marriages and still considers their offspring to be legally Muslim. With non-Muslims increasingly feeling the sting of discrimination and Muslim elites feeling a need to assert a national Islamic identity, the skirmish over “Allah” is clearly part of a greater cultural war.

Malaysian authorities and Malaysia’s Roman Catholic Church have continued to lock horns over use of the word “Allah” in the Malay-language edition of the Herald, the church’s newspaper, as they await the ruling. The newspaper had been allowed to use the term until a final court decision, but the Kuala Lumpur High Court on May 30 overturned that brief reprieve.

The Catholic newspaper has provided a panoply of historical uses of “Allah” among Christians in Malaysia. The Rev. Lawrence Andrew, editor of the Herald, quotes examples from a Malay-Latin dictionary dated 1631, and the Dutch-Malay Dictionary of 1650 lists “Allah” as the vernacular translation for God.

“This is testified by the fact that we have a Malay-Latin Dictionary printed in 1631, in which the word ‘Allah’ is cited,” Andrew said. “To have a word in a dictionary means that that particular word has already been in use in the community prior to the dictionary. The word for ‘God’ in Latin is ‘Deus’ and in Malay, it is ‘Allah.’ Upon the arrival of the Dutch…a Dutch-Malay Dictionary was produced in 1650 where the word for ‘God’ in Dutch was ‘Godt,’ and in Malay, ‘Allah.’”

According to church sources, the Malay term for “God,” Tuhan, came into vogue only after deadly May 13, 1969 communal riots as part of a national unity campaign.

Andrew noted that “Allah” is an Arabic term derived from the same roots as the Hebrew Elohim, and that the word pre-dates Muhammad, Islam’s prophet. Besides ignoring history, Andrew says, the government also conveniently ignores its universal use among Christians in the Middle East.

“Since the status quo remains, we will not use the word ‘Allah’ in our publication” until the court says otherwise, Andrew said. “In fact we have not been using it since our January edition.”

Since 1970, the government of Malaysia has consistently championed Islam as a parallel source of identity and nationalism among the politically dominant Malay-Muslim majority. Dress codes, cultural norms and the Malay language underwent a rapid Islamization in tandem with discriminative actions against minority groups.

Christians were particularly hard-hit by the effort in the name of national unity. Licences are rarely issued for church buildings in the capital city, Kuala Lumpur. New evangelical congregations had to meet at either hotels or warehouses for their Sunday services while Islamic semiotics and terminologies swamped the intellectual and official discourse. Conversion of Christians to Islam were particularly trumpeted by the media.

These efforts have largely failed. Local churches continued to grow, and the number of secret Muslim converts to Christianity began to rise.

At the same time, pandemic corruption and political authoritarianism have gradually led to a sense of disenchantment with political Islam among many. This erosion in Malay-Islam dominance has led to political bankruptcy, as evidenced by disastrous results for the ruling coalition during March 2008 general elections.

Given these political realities, Malay elites believe they can ill afford to be seen as soft on minority “encroachment,” and observers say this need to ingratiate Islamists lies at the root of the tussle over non-Muslim use of the word “Allah.” Officially, however, the government says only that use of the word among non-Muslims could create “confusion” among Muslims.

The Herald has a circulation of 13,000 and an estimated readership of 50,000. The newspaper is sold in Catholic churches and is not available from newsstands.

Malaysia’s population is about 60 percent Muslim, 19 percent Buddhist and 9 percent Christian. About 6 percent are Hindu, with 2.6 percent of the population adhering to Confucianism, Taoism and other traditional Chinese religions.

Arabicization of Malay Language

The debate over “Allah” follows an effort by the government to promote the Arabicization of the Malay language at the expense of Sanskrit and Malay terms. When a Malaysian student has to refer to a pig in an essay or test, the required term is the Arabic khinzir.

Other Malay terms such as pokok (tree) and bunga (flower), long used to refer to loan principal and interest respectively, have been expunged from school texts in favor of the Arabic kaedah (base) and faedah (benefit).

Some sources indicate that the Arabicization of the Malay language, however, has come with unintended consequences, such as making Christian mission work and translation easier. Since the Malay vocabulary has its limitations, Christians can use time-tested Arabic-derived terms to provide meaningful context.

For a long time, the only Malay Bible available in Malaysia was the Indonesian “Al Kitab,” which, included the word “Allah.” As Bahasa Malaysia (official name of the Malay language in Malaysia) and Bahasa Indonesia are very similar, the “Al Kitab” can be easily understood by a native speaker of Malay. As a result, the “Al Kitab” was viewed as an unwelcome missionary tool by Malaysian authorities. Its legal status was heatedly contested behind closed doors during the 1981-2003 reign of then-Prime Minister Mahathir bin Mohamad.

Significant Christian indigenous populations in East Malaysia use Bahasa Malaysia as a language of wider communication. The Malay-language content of the Herald reportedly serves just that need: using the national language with universal terms across a multi-lingual Babel of tribal Catholic communities in East Malaysia.

Report from Compass Direct News 


Legislation leading to anti-Christian attacks said to be planned in violence-ridden state.

NEW DELHI, March 2 (Compass Direct News) – The Hindu nationalist government in the southern state of Karnataka, which recorded the second highest number of attacks on Christians last year, is planning to introduce the kind of “anti-conversion” law that has provided the pretext for anti-Christian violence in other states.

Such laws are designed to thwart forcible or fraudulent conversion, but they are popularly misunderstood as criminalizing conversion in general. Comments from public officials sometimes heighten this misconception: India’s constitution provides for freedom of religion, but Karnataka Minister for Law, Justice and Human Rights S. Suresh Kumar said in the Feb. 22 edition of a Hindu extremist publication that the state’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government “is set to frame an anti-conversion law, as innocent Hindus are getting converted to other religions.”

“Poor and uneducated Hindus are becoming victims of false propaganda against Hinduism, and our government is planning to enact a law after studying the similar anti-conversion acts/anti-conversion bills of various states,” the BJP minister said in the Organiser, official publication of the Hindu extremist Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), the BJP’s ideological mentor.

Anti-conversion laws are in force in five states – Orissa, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Himachal Pradesh and Gujarat – and its implementation is awaited in the states of Arunachal Pradesh and Rajasthan. Cynically named “Freedom of Religion Acts,” the laws seek to curb religious conversions made by “force, fraud or allurement,” but human rights groups say they obstruct conversion generally as Hindu nationalists invoke them to harass Christians with spurious arrests and incarcerations. Numerous cases against Christians have been filed under various anti-conversion laws, mainly in Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Orissa, but no one has been convicted in the more than four decades since such laws were enacted.

Dr. Sajan K. George, national president of the Karnataka-based Global Council of Indian Christians (GCIC), expressed anguish over reported plans to introduce a law that has a history of misuse by extreme Hindu nationalists. He also indicated his concern at the government’s slackness in prosecuting those who have attacked Christians.

“Unfortunately, 2008 saw the worst kind of regression in our society as the church in India experienced a wave of violence and persecution unprecedented since the origin of Christianity in India 2,000 years ago,” George said, referring to a sudden rise in anti-Christian attacks in several Indian states, mainly Karnataka and the eastern state of Orissa, in the latter part of last year.

With the BJP forming a government of its own last year, fears within the Christian community that persecution would increase came true, he said.

“Karnataka recorded at least 112 anti-Christian attacks across 29 districts in 2008,” and at least 10 more such incidents have been reported this year, said George. Christians number slightly more than 1 million of Karnataka’s 52.8-million population.

Among the more tense districts in Karnataka are Mangalore, Bangalore and Davangere, according to George. The districts of Chikmagalur, Chitradurga, Belgaum, Tumkur, Udupi, Shimoga, Dharwad and Kodagu are also potentially volatile, he said. The GCIC reported that on Jan. 11 unidentified extreme Hindu nationalists barged into the home of a Christian convert in Amrthmahal Kavalu area near Tiptur town in Karnataka’s Tumkur district, verbally abused the four Christians there and burned their Bibles. The nine hard-line Hindus threatened to burn down the house if the Christians continued to worship at the Calvary Gospel Centre.

Besides legitimizing anti-Christian violence in the popular mind, critics say anti-conversion laws make conversion cumbersome and identify targets for Hindu extremists. In Gujarat state, the archbishop of Gandhinagar, Rev. Stanislaus Fernandes, and non-profit organizations have filed a petition in the state high court challenging a requirement in Gujarat’s anti-conversion law that co-religionists obtain prior permission from a district magistrate before performing or participating in a conversion ceremony. The Times of India reported on Friday (Feb. 27) that Justice M.S. Shah and Justice Akil Kureshi have accepted the case and issued a notice to the state government seeking explanation on objections raised by petitioners.

“The Act, by making one’s conversion a matter of public notice and knowledge, really aims at facilitating and encouraging the religious fanatics to take law into their hands to prevent even free and voluntary conversion,” petitioner attorneys contended. “In the name of maintaining law and order, the Act will invite people to disturb law and order.” Counsel added that the Act aims mainly at “preventing Dalits and adivasis [tribal people] from converting to another religion, thereby forcing them to remain in the Hindu fold.”


Orissa Fallout

A fresh spate of attacks hit Karnataka last September following India’s worst-ever wave of persecution in the eastern state of Orissa, where at least 127 people were killed and 315 villages, 4,640 houses, 252 churches and 13 educational institutions were destroyed. The Orissa attacks, allegedly incited by the BJP and the Hindu extremist Vishwa Hindu Parishad (World Hindu Council or VHP) under the pretext of avenging the assassination of Hindu nationalist leader Laxmanananda Saraswati in Kandhamal district, also rendered more than 50,000 people homeless. Although an extreme Marxist group claimed responsibility for Saraswati’s murder, the VHP and the BJP, which is part of the ruling coalition in Orissa, blamed Christians for it.

Even as the mayhem in Orissa was underway, VHP’s youth wing Bajrang Dal began attacks on Christians and their institutions in Karnataka on the pretext of protesting alleged distribution by the New Life Fellowship organization of a book said to denigrate Hindu gods. According to Dr. John Dayal, member of the National Integration Council of the Government of India, last September at least 33 churches were attacked and 53 Christians were injured, mainly in the Mangalore region of Dakshina Kannada district and parts of Udupi district.

The state convener for the Bajrang Dal, Mahendra Kumar, publicly claimed responsibility for the attacks and was arrested on Sept. 19, a day after the federal government ruled by the Congress party-led United Progressive Alliance admonished the state government for allowing attacks on Christians, according to The Deccan Herald, a regional daily. Kumar, however, was subsequently released on bail.

While the issue of the “objectionable” book served as the pretext for the attacks, the BJP had already become upset with New Life Fellowship because a film actress known as Nagma announced in July 2008 that she had become Christian a few years prior. BJP attorneys sent her a threatening legal notice for “hurting religious sentiments.”

In a press conference at Tirunelveli in Tamil Nadu state on July 24, the general secretary of the BJP’s legal wing, Sridhar Murthi, said that Nagma – who appeared in several Tamil-, Telugu- and Hindi-language films from 1993 to 1997 – had hurt the sentiments of others while speaking at a Christian meeting in Nalumavadi, in the Tuticorin area.

“In that meeting, she said she is ready to preach the gospel in every city and town that the Lord takes her to,” reported The Christian Messenger, a Christian news website based in Tamil Nadu state. New Life Fellowship later reportedly ordained Nagma as a minister.

Following the attacks – not only on New Life Church but also on churches and individuals from various denominations – the BJP government set up the Justice B.K. Somasekhara Commission of Inquiry to investigate. Churches and Christians had filed 458 affidavits from Dakshina Kannada district. After questioning 49 witnesses, the panel completed its five-day judicial proceeding in Mangalore on Feb. 20 and set the next sitting for March 16-20. The Commission earlier had a sitting in Bangalore, capital of Karnataka.

Karnataka also has gained recent notoriety for violent vigilantes. Last month a splinter group from the extreme Hindu nationalist VHP, the Sri Ram Sene, attacked women in a pub in Mangalore, saying only men were allowed to drink.

“These girls come from all over India, drink, smoke, and walk around in the night spoiling the traditional girls of Mangalore,” Pravin Valke, founding member of the Sri Rama Sene, told The Indian Express on Feb. 3. “Why should girls go to pubs? Are they going to serve their future husbands alcohol? Should they not be learning to make chapattis [Indian bread]? Bars and pubs should be for men only. We wanted to ensure that all women in Mangalore are home by 7 p.m.”

With national elections expected to be held in April-May this year, Christians fear that attacks could continue. Dr. Bokanakere Siddalingappa Yeddyurappa, the 66-year-old chief minister of Karnataka, has been part of the RSS since 1970.

Report from Compass Direct News


Assailant influenced by TV series defaming Christian missionaries.

ISTANBUL, January 12 (Compass Direct News) – A judge in Turkey sentenced a 19-year-old Muslim to four-and-a-half years in prison on Jan. 5 for stabbing a Catholic priest in the coastal city of Izmir in December 2007.

Ramazan Bay, then 17, had met with Father Adriano Franchini, a 65-year-old Italian and long-term resident of Turkey, after expressing an interest in Christianity following mass at St. Anthony church. During their conversation, Bay became irritated and pulled out a knife, stabbing the priest in the stomach.

Fr. Franchini was hospitalized but released the next day as his wounds were not critical.

Bay, originally from Balikesir 90 miles north of Izmir, reportedly said he was influenced by an episode of the TV serial drama “Kurtlar Vadisi” (“Valley of the Wolves”). The series caricatures Christian missionaries as political “infiltrators” who pay poor families to convert to Christianity.

“Valley of the Wolves” also played a role in a foiled attack on another Christian leader in December 2007. Murat Tabuk reportedly admitted under police interrogation that the popular ultra-nationalist show had inspired him to plan the murder of Antalya pastor Ramazan Arkan. The plan was thwarted, with the pastor receiving armed police protection and Antalya’s anti-terrorism police bureau ordering plainclothes guards to accompany him.

Together with 20 other Protestant church leaders, Arkan on Dec. 3, 2007 filed a formal complaint with the Istanbul State Prosecutor’s office protesting “Valley of the Wolves” for “presenting them as a terrorist group and broadcasting scenes making them an open target.”

The series has portrayed Christians as selling body parts, being involved in mafia activities and prostitution and working as enemies of society in order to spread the Christian faith.

“The result has been innumerable, direct threats, attacks against places of worship and eventually, the live slaughter of three innocent Christians in Malatya,” the complaint stated.

The Protestant leaders demanded that Show TV and the producers of “Valley of the Wolves” be prosecuted under sections 115, 214, 215, 216 and 288 of the Turkish penal code for spreading false information and inciting violence against Christians.

The past three years saw six separate attacks on priests working across the country, the most serious of which resulted in the death of Father Andreas Santoro in Trabzon. As with Fr. Franchini, many of the attacks were coupled with accusations of subversion and “proselytizing.”

Although a secular republic, Turkey has a strong nationalistic identity of which Islam is an integral part.

Television shows such as “Valley of the Wolves” may not be the norm, but the recent publication of a state high school textbook in which “missionary activity” is also characterized as destructive and dangerous has raised questions about Turkey’s commitment to addressing prejudice and discrimination.

“While there is a general attitude [of antipathy], I think that the state feeds into it and propagates it,” said a spokesperson for the Alliance of Protestant Churches of Turkey (TEK). “If the State took a more accepting and more tolerant attitude I think the general attitude would change too.”

At the end of 2007 TEK issued a summery of the human rights violations that their members had suffered that year. As part of a concluding appeal they urged the state to stop an “indoctrination campaign” aimed at vilifying the Christian community.

TEK will soon release its rights violations summery for 2008, and it is likely that a similar plea will be made.

“There is police protection, and they have caught some people,” the TEK spokesperson said. “There is an active part of the state trying to prevent things, but the way it is done very much depends on the situation and how at that moment the government is feeling as far as putting across a diplomatic and political statement. There is hypocrisy in it.”

A survey carried out in 2005 by the Pew Global Attitudes Project also suggested a distinctly negative attitude towards Christians among Turks, with 63 percent describing their view of Christians as “unfavorable,” the highest rate among countries surveyed.

Niyazi Oktem, professor of law at Bilgi University and president of a prominent inter-faith organization in Turkey called the Intercultural Dialogue Platform, said that while the government could do more to secure religious freedom, he would not characterize Turkish sentiment towards Christians as negative.

“I can say that general Turkish feeling towards the Christian religion is not hostile,” said Oktem. “There could be, of course, some exceptions, but this is also the case in Christian countries towards Islam.”

Report from Compass Direct News


Suspecting cover-up, Communist investigators say 500 people may have been killed.

NEW DELHI, November 5 (Compass Direct News) – Terrified Christians already ravaged by more than two months of violence in Orissa state’s Kandhamal district braced for more carnage as suspected Maoists today gunned down a local worker of the Hindu extremist Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS).

Dhanu Pradhan was an RSS activist said to be on the Maoists’ hit list. Police said he was shot by three suspected Maoists in Kumharigaon village under Brahmanigaon jurisdiction in Kandhamal at 1 p.m., reported The Indian Express. Modern India’s worst-ever spate of violence began in the forest district of Kandhamal on Aug. 24, a day after a leader of the Hindu extremist Vishwa Hindu Parishad (World Hindu Council or VHP), Laxmanananda Saraswati, was killed.

Although a Maoist group admitted killing Saraswati and four of his aides, the VHP blamed local Christians for the assassinations. The wave of violent attacks carried on unabated for more than two months, destroying at least 4,500 houses and churches in the district.

More than 500 people, mostly Christian, might have been killed in the past few months’ violence in Kandhamal district, according to a report by a Communist Party fact-finding team. The report also suggested that the state government downplayed and covered up evidence of unreported deaths.

“The official figure for deaths has been reported to be 31, however, a senior government official on the condition of anonymity informed that he himself consigned two hundred dead bodies – found from the jungle – to flames after getting them collected in a tractor,” said the report by the Communist Party of India-Marxist-Leninist (CPI-ML).

The unnamed official estimated that, based on the intensity and pace of killings, the number of those killed was more than 500, according to the report. The fact-finding team visited Kandhamal district on Oct. 15-16 and published its report in the Oct. 27 issue of the party’s official publication, Liberation.

The report, signed by CPI-ML member J.P. Minz, also said that Hindu extremists might have used state government machinery to “minimize the evidence and possibly destroy dead bodies.”

Dr. John Dayal, a member of the National Integration Council of the Government of India, told Compass the report was startling but not surprising.

“I have been tabulating the data from independent church groups,” he said. “Even the Bishop’s House in Bhubaneswar has maintained that tens of thousands of refugees are hiding in forests, many of them with injuries of various degrees of grievousness.”

Dayal said that people must have been killed in the forests. “Even in villages, bodies have been discovered in neighboring fields,” he added.

The fact-finding team reported that the numerous attacks, acts of vandalism and killings took place “in full view of police, and the police remained mute spectators.” At least 200 Christian villages and 127 church and prayer halls were either destroyed or burned, it added.

Victims in numerous relief camps told the fact-finding team that the VHP and its youth wing, Bajrang Dal, were responsible for the tensions and violence.

“They used to organize meetings of the Kandha tribals and incite them to attack the Christian hamlets and also provided funds for doing this,” the report said.

Dayal said the Supreme Court of India should act on the report’s findings.


‘Great Terror’

The CPI-ML reported that Christians continued to experience “great terror,” and that Hindu nationalist groups were demanding the withdrawal of security personnel sent by the federal government to contain the violence.

“Riot victims are frightened to go back to their villages because they have been threatened that if they return they will be cut into pieces,” said the report. “The rioters are also proclaiming that only Hindu converts will be allowed to return. On the other hand, those in charge of the relief camps are pressuring the riot victims to return to their villages, saying that the life has returned to normalcy and peace has returned.”

The Indian Express yesterday reported that about 250 riot victims who had taken shelter in the Meliaputti and Mandasa areas of Srikakulam district in neighboring Andhra Pradesh state were refusing to go back to their villages “out of fear.”

“As many as 109 persons of 35 families of Sarlaguda, Raikia, Nuagaon, Baliguda, Bataguda, Barkhama, G. Udaygiri, Tikabali and Suraballi areas have been residing at Sourakaligam village of Meliaputti area, Andhra Pradesh, since the Kandhamal violence,” said the newspaper, adding that 140 others had taken shelter in Kumudhisingi village of the Mandasa area.

There are 12,641 violence-affected people in seven relief camps in Kandhamal, according to the district authorities.


Violence in Another District

The violence in Kandhamal has led to tensions in several other districts of Orissa. Yesterday a mob of around 400 people surrounded and beat five Christian men in the Bindha area of Bhadrak district’s Tihidi Block, according to the Christian Legal Association.

The incident took place when five men and two women, all staff of the Discipleship Centre, were returning from a few villages where that Christian organization has projects. A cyclist suddenly appeared before them and had an accident, incurring minor injuries. Soon a mob of about 300 people gathered and began beating the men, accusing them of converting Hindus, as if such activity were illegal in India.

The mob dragged the Christians to a Hindu nationalist rally where slogans against them were chanted. Police arrived and took the Christians to a police station, charging them under laws against forcible or fraudulent conversion. The seven Christians remained in jail at press time.

Police also filed a counter-complaint against the attackers, but no one was arrested at press time.


Nun’s Rape Case

In the case of a Catholic nun raped on Aug. 25 during the initial violence, the Kandhamal district court today issued a notice summoning her to appear for identification of the culprits, reported the Press Trust of India news agency.

The victim, who said she was raped in K. Nuagaon in Baliguda, had refused to cooperate with police, demanding that a federal agency investigate her case. On Oct. 24, she appeared before media and blamed police for not coming to her rescue. She said she was raped while police did nothing, and that later she saw a policeman talking congenially to one of the rapists.

Previously she had filed a complaint at the Baliguda police station, but officers did not make any arrests until a national newspaper, The Hindu, highlighted the case on Sept. 30. When the nun initially went to the police station to file her complaint, an officer had warned her of possible negative consequences of doing so.


One-Man Investigation

While Christians are demanding that a federal agency take over investigation of the violence in Orissa, the state government has appointed a one-man panel, the Justice S.C. Mohapatra judicial commission, to carry out the probe.

The commission placed an advertisement in a local newspaper, Sambad, on Nov. 3 seeking affidavits of victims by Nov. 15. It also said that people could appear before the commission on Nov. 28 in its office in Bhubaneswar, the state capital.

The commission will analyze the sequence of events and circumstances leading to the killing of Saraswati on Aug. 23 and the subsequent violence. It will also probe the role, conduct and responsibility of individuals, organizations, groups and agencies in precipitating and committing the crimes and investigate whether the measures that followed were adequate.

Mohapatra is a retired judge of the Orissa High Court.

Orissa is ruled by a coalition of a local party, the Biju Janata Dal, and the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party, which has close ties with the VHP.

Report from Compass Direct News