Nepal Christians Begin Legal Battle for Burial Ground

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Hindu Nation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Report from Compass Direct News

Blast Kills 21 outside Church in Alexandria, Egypt

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Report from Compass Direct News


Witnesses indicate ringleader wasn’t only one planning to kill three Christians.

MALATYA, Turkey, September 15 (Compass Direct News) – Testimony in the murder case of three Christians here indicates the attack was premeditated for at least two suspects, despite the defense team’s insistence that the killers acted spontaneously.

The 11th hearing on the murders at a publishing house in this southeastern city 17 months ago took place Friday (Sept. 12) at the Malatya Third Criminal Court. Two Turkish Christians who converted from Islam, Necati Aydin and Ugur Yuksel, and a German, Tilmann Geske, were brutally tortured and killed on April 18, 2007.

Mahmut Kudas, one of the three witnesses called to testify, said murder suspect Cuma Ozdemir met with him the week before the murder and said that he was going to tell him something important.

“If you don’t hear from me by Friday, someone will call you and tell you the location of a letter. Get the letter and give it to the person who called you,” Ozdemir said to Kudas on April 13, 2007, the Friday before the attack on the following Wednesday, according to his testimony.

When Kudas asked him why, Ozdemir replied, “There are 49 house churches and priests in Malatya.” When Kudas asked him what he was thinking of doing, he replied, “Those who know this will die. I will become a martyr.”

Kudas, 20, lived in the same dormitory as many of the other suspects. When he asked Ozdemir if Emre Gunaydin, the suspected ringleader of the murders, was the leader of this operation, Cuma Ozdemir nodded in confirmation.

The five accused murderers are Hamit Ceker, Cuma Ozdemir, Abuzer Yildirim, Salih Gurler and Emre Gunaydin. They were all between the ages of 19 and 21 at the time of the murders.

Another witness, Mehmet Uludag, a former classmate of some of the suspects, said he also spoke with Ozdemir before the murders. Uludag said Ozdemir told him that he and two others were about to do something big.

Ozdemir then instructed Uludag, 20, that he would leave a letter at an undisclosed location and that he must call Muammer Ozdemir – who is expected to testify at a future hearing – to learn the whereabouts of the letter. The two must then deliver the letter to the police or the gendarme, Cuma Ozdemir told Uludag.

“If I come through, I will explain all this to you. If I am lost, then read the letter. It will explain everything,” he reportedly told Uludag.

On the day of the murders, Uludag sent Muammer Ozdemir a text message asking for the whereabouts of the letter. The latter told him it was under a bed in the dormitory, but Uludag did not retrieve it since he was questioned by the police the same day.


Aiding Murderers

The letters in question are similar to those mentioned by suspect Hamit Ceker in a previous hearing. He said in his interrogation that the night before the murder, he and another of the defendants had sat in the hall of their dormitory, writing a letter to their families in case things did not turn out well.

Both Kudas and Uludag said they did not report this suspicious behavior, as they believed Cuma Ozdemir was exaggerating rather than engaged in a conspiracy.

In forthcoming hearings the plaintiff attorneys will try to accuse these witnesses of aiding and abetting the murderers, said Orhan Kemal Cengiz, leading the team of plaintiff lawyers.

“They knew what was going to happen, so they should have talked to prosecutors or police officers,” Cengiz told Compass, criticizing the witnesses for withholding information.

The third person to testify in the trial was Gunaydin’s former girlfriend, Turna Isikli, 21. She said the day before the murder Gunaydin sent her a text message and said, “Tomorrow I will be interrogated.” She said she thought this referred to a meeting with his father about issues related to school.


Accusations, Tempers Flare

The testimonies indicate that at least two of the suspects planned the murder of the three Christians, contradicting their earlier statements that they came to the publishing house with no intent to kill the evangelicals.

In a Jan. 14 hearing, accused killer Hamit Ceker claimed the group of five men only planned to seize incriminating evidence against the Christians, although they carried guns, rope, knives and a pair of plastic gloves.

In a subsequent hearing on June 10, the five men declared their innocence and blamed one or more of the others. Most of the blame fell on suspected ringleader Gunaydin, whom the suspects claimed murdered the three Christians. The other four suspects said they only obeyed him for fear of his alleged police and mafia connections.

Gunaydin has claimed that all five planned to raid the office together. In a May 12 hearing he implicated suspect Salih Gurler for leading the attacks, saying violence exploded when Aydin slandered Islam and said Jesus was God.

Tensions flared at one point in Friday’s hearing when Gunaydin noticed one of the plaintiff attorneys drinking from a water bottle. Pious Muslims are currently observing the month of Ramadan in which eating and drinking are prohibited from sunrise to sunset.

“This is the month of Ramadan and we are fasting, but you are drinking water across from us,” Gunaydin said. “Show a little respect.”

“What shall we do, make them fast?” responded judge Eray Gurtekin, according to Sabah national daily.

Gunaydin also raised eyebrows when he stood up and lashed out at plaintiff attorney Ozkan Yucel when his cellular phone rang in the courtroom. He said, “Turn off your phone, you are disturbing my concentration.”

The case took an important twist in the 10th hearing on Aug. 21, when prosecuting attorneys suggested that shadowy elements deep within the Turkish state orchestrated the murder.

In the last hearing plaintiff attorneys requested the case be integrated with an investigation into Ergenekon, an ultranationalist cabal of retired generals, politicians, journalists and mafia members under investigation for conspiracy in various murders.

In January police uncovered and started arresting members of Ergenekon. A criminal investigation has linked these members to high-profile attacks, murders and plans to engineer domestic chaos and ultimately overthrow the government.

Ergenekon was not mentioned at Friday’s hearing because the plaintiff lawyers have not received the investigation file from Istanbul. They requested the file at the Aug. 21 hearing in Malatya.

The far-reaching conspiracy and its connection to the Malatya case, however, has had a positive impact on the criminal proceedings, plaintiff lawyers say: The judges are far more cooperative than the beginning of the case, in which they frequently rebuffed demands from the prosecution for evidence and witnesses.

“This last hearing was the first time the court accepted nearly all demands from us,” said plaintiff attorney Cengiz. “They are taking the case much more seriously now because there are many indications this is not the work of five youngsters but of dark forces behind the scenes.”


Protestants Targeted

The recent hearing comes amid complaints from Turkey’s tiny Protestant community that it is being targeted for violence.

On Sept. 5 the Turkish Alliance of Protestant Churches filed a complaint to the Prime Ministry’s Human Rights Directorate that security forces were not offering them adequate protection in the face of increasing attacks, according to Sabah.

Turkish police responded to the complaints and released information on recent attacks against Christians. They said a majority of attackers were not arrested, and those that were detained merely paid a fine and were later released.

Susanne Geske, wife of the martyred Tilmann Geske, filed a lawsuit against the Turkish Ministry of Internal Affairs on Wednesday (Sept. 10) for not taking preventative measures against the murders. The lawsuit calls for 630,000 Turkish lira (US$507,000) for physical and immaterial compensation.

Geske’s lawyer, Ibrahim Kali, told NTV, “It is the basic duty of a government to protect the rights of life and freedom of religion and conscience. But the government did not protect the liberties of religion and conscience of those close to my client.”

The next hearing in the Malatya murder case is scheduled for Oct. 16.

Report from Compass Direct News