Islamists in Pakistan are pushing for the Bible to be banned because they say it denigrates Islamic prophets.
Islamists in Pakistan are pushing for the Bible to be banned because they say it denigrates Islamic prophets.
Propagation of religion is allowable – but not seeking conversions, top politician says.
THIMPHU, Bhutan, April 13 (CDN) — In the Kingdom of Bhutan, where Christianity is still awaiting legal recognition, Christians have the right to proclaim their faith but must not use coercion or claim religious superiority to seek conversions, the country’s prime minister told Compass in an exclusive interview.
“I view conversions very negatively, because conversion is the worst form of intolerance,” Jigmi Yoser Thinley said in his office in the capital of the predominantly Buddhist nation.
Christian leaders in Bhutan have told Compass that they enjoy certain freedoms to practice their faith in private homes, but, because of a prohibition against church buildings and other restrictions, they were not sure if proclamation of their faith – included in international human rights codes – was allowed in Bhutan.
Prime Minister Thinley, who as head of the ruling party is the most influential political chief in the country, said propagation of one’s faith is allowed, but he made it clear that he views attempts to convert others with extreme suspicion.
“The first premise [of seeking conversion] is that you believe that your religion is the right religion, and the religion of the convertee is wrong – what he believes in is wrong, what he practices is wrong, that your religion is superior and that you have this responsibility to promote your way of life, your way of thinking, your way of worship,” Thinley said. “It’s the worst form of intolerance. And it divides families and societies.”
Bhutan’s constitution does not restrict the right to convert or proselytize, but some Non-Governmental Organizations have said the government effectively limits this right by restricting construction of non-Buddhist worship buildings and celebration of some non-Buddhist festivals, according to the U.S. Department of State’s 2010 International Religious Freedom Report.
It adds that Bhutan’s National Security Act (NSA) further limits proclamation of one’s faith by prohibiting “words either spoken or written, or by other means whatsoever, that promote or attempt to promote, on grounds of religion, race, language, caste, or community, or on any other ground whatsoever, feelings of enmity or hatred between different religious, racial, or language groups or castes and communities.” Violation of the NSA is punishable by up to three years’ imprisonment, though whether
any cases have been prosecuted is unknown, according to the State Department report.
Bhutan’s first democratic prime minister after about a century of absolute monarchy, Thinley completed three years in office last Thursday (April 7). While he affirmed that it is allowable for Christians to proclaim their faith – a practice commanded by Christ, with followers agreeing that it is the Holy Spirit, not man, that “converts” people – Thinley made his suspicions about Christians’ motives manifest.
“Any kind of proselytization that involves economic and material incentives [is wrong],” he said. “Many people are being converted on hospital beds in their weakest and most vulnerable moments. And these people are whispering in their ears that ‘there is no hope for you. The only way that you can survive is if you accept this particular religion.’ That is wrong.”
Thinley’s suspicions include the belief that Christians offer material incentives to convert.
“Going to the poor and saying, ‘Look, your religion doesn’t provide for this life, our religion provides for this life as well as the future,’ is wrong. And that is the basis for proselytization.”
Christian pastors in Thimphu told Compass that the perception that Bhutan’s Christians use money to convert the poor was flawed.
The pastors, requesting anonymity, said they prayed for healing of the sick because they felt they were not allowed to preach tenets of Christianity directly. Many of those who experience healing – almost all who are prayed for, they claimed – do read the Bible and then believe in Jesus’ teachings.
Asked if a person can convert if she or he believed in Christianity, the prime minister replied, “[There is] freedom of choice, yes.”
In his interview with Compass, Thinley felt compelled to defend Buddhism against assertions that citizens worship idols.
“To say that, ‘Your religion is wrong, worshiping idols is wrong,’ who worships idols?” he said. “We don’t worship idols. Those are just representations and manifestations that help you to focus.”
Leader of the royalist Druk Phuensum Tshogpa party, Thinley is regarded as a sincere politician who is trusted by Bhutan’s small Christian minority. He became the prime minister in April 2008 following the first democratic election after Bhutan’s fourth king, Jigme Singye Wangchuck, abdicated power in 2006 to pave the way toward democracy.
Until Bhutan became a constitutional monarchy in 2008, the practice of Christianity was believed to be banned in the country. The constitution now grants the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion to all citizens. It also states that the king is the protector of all religions.
Thus far, the Religious Organisations Act of 2007 has recognized only Buddhist and Hindu organizations. As a result, no church building or Christian bookstore has been allowed in the country, nor can Christians engage in social work. Christianity in Bhutan remains confined to the homes of local believers, where they meet for collective worship on Sundays.
Asked if a Christian federation should be registered by the government to allow Christians to function with legal recognition, Thinley said, “Yes, definitely.”
The country’s agency regulating religious organizations under the 2007 act, locally known as the Chhoedey Lhentshog, is expected to make a decision on whether it could register a Christian federation representing all Christians. The authority is looking into provisions in the law to see if there is a scope for a non-Buddhist and non-Hindu organization to be registered. (See http://www.compassdirect.com, “Official Recognition Eludes Christian Groups in Bhutan,” Feb. 1.)
On whether the Religious Organisations Act could be amended if it is determined that it does not allow legal recognition of a Christian federation, the prime minister said, “If the majority view and support prevails in the country, the law will change.”
Thinley added that he was partially raised as a Christian.
“I am part Christian, too,” he said. “I read the Bible, occasionally of course. I come from a traditional [Christian] school and attended church every day except for Saturdays for nine years.”
A tiny nation in the Himalayas between India and China, Bhutan has a population of 708,484 people, of which roughly 75 percent are Buddhist, according to Operation World. Christians are estimated to be between 6,000 to nearly 15,000 (the latter figure would put Christians at more than 2 percent of the population), mostly from the south. Hindus, mainly ethnic Nepalese, constitute around 22 percent of the population and have a majority in the south.
Bhutan’s opposition leader, Lyonpo Tshering Togbay, was equally disapproving of religious conversion.
“I am for propagation of spiritual values or anything that allows people to be good human beings,” he told Compass. “[But] we cannot have competition among religions in Bhutan.”
He said, however, that Christians must be given rights equal to those of Hindus and Buddhists.
“Our constitution guarantees the right to freedom of practice – full stop, no conditions,” he said. “But now, as a small nation state, there are some realities. Christianity is a lot more evangelistic than Hinduism or Buddhism.”
Togbay said there are Christians who are tolerant and compassionate of other peoples, cultures and religions, but “there are Christians also who go through life on war footing to save every soul. That’s their calling, and it’s good for them, except that in Bhutan we do not have the numbers to accommodate such zeal.”
Being a small nation between India and China, Bhutan’s perceived geopolitical vulnerability leads authorities to seek to pre-empt any religious, social or political unrest. With no economic or military might, Bhutan seeks to assert and celebrate its sovereignty through its distinctive culture, which is based on Buddhism, authorities say.
Togbay voiced his concern on perceived threats to Bhutan’s Buddhist culture.
“I studied in a Christian school, and I have lived in the West, and I have been approached by the Jehovah’s Witness – in a subway, in an elevator, in a restaurant in the U.S. and Switzerland. I am not saying they are bad. But I would be a fool if I was not concerned about that in Bhutan,” he said. “There are other things I am personally concerned about. Religions in Bhutan must live in harmony. Too often I have come across people who seek a convert, pointing to statues of our deities and saying
that idol worship is evil worship. That is not good for the security of our country, the harmony of our country and the pursuit of happiness.”
The premise of the Chhoedey Lhentshog, the agency regulating religious organizations, he said, “is that all the different schools of Buddhism and all the different religions see eye to eye with mutual respect and mutual understanding. If that objective is not met, it does not make sense to be part of that.”
It remains unclear what the legal rights of Christians are, as there is no interaction between the Christians and the government. Christian sources in Bhutan said they were open to dialogue with the government in order to remove “misunderstandings” and “distrust.”
“Thankfully, our political leadership is sincere and trustworthy,” said one Christian leader.
Asserting that Christians enjoy the right to worship in Bhutan, Prime Minister Thinley said authorities have not interfered with any worship services.
“There are more Christian activities taking place on a daily basis than Hindu and Buddhist activities,” he added.
Report from Compass Direct News
Imprisoned chief of Hindu militant group used Christianity to cover up extortion, terror.
KATHMANDU, Nepal, April 4 (CDN) — The chief of a militant Hindu extremist group sought to disguise his extortion and terror activities from behind bars by claiming he had repented of bombing a church in Nepal and showing interest in Christianity, according to investigators.
The revelation emerged when Nepal’s premier investigation agency foiled a plot to explode a series of bombs devised by Ram Prasad Mainali, former chief of the Hindu militant outfit Nepal Defence Army (NDA), in the capital city of Kathmandu. Police on March 4 arrested six cohorts of Mainali carrying powerful “socket bombs” – home-made, hand grenade-type weapons made from plumbing joints – and high-explosive powder, to be used as part of a plan to extort money from industrialists, The Himalayan Times reported.
In an interview last year, Mainali had told Compass that his interaction with Christians inside jail in Kathmandu’s Nakkhu area had led him to repent of his deeds and read the Bible (see “Bomber in Nepal Repents, Admits India Link,” Jan. 4, 2010). Mainali was arrested on Sept. 5, 2009 for exploding a bomb in a Catholic parish in Kathmandu, Our Lady of the Assumption, which killed a teenager and a newly married woman and injured more than a dozen others on May 23 of that year.
Prior to the Compass interview, Mainali had sent a handwritten letter from the prison to a monthly Christian newsmagazine in Nepal, Hamro Ashish (Our Blessing), saying he regretted having attacked Christians.
A local Christian worker who had known Mainali said the church bomber used Christianity to evade police surveillance.
“I was disheartened when I recently learned that Mainali had threatened some pastors with violent attacks, demanding protection money from them,” he told Compass on condition of anonymity.
The source said Mainali threatened him and pastors he knew by phone. He suspected that a fellow prisoner, Jeevan Rai Majhi, previously considered a convert to Christianity, had given the pastors’ phone numbers to Mainali. Majhi, formerly a notorious criminal, had allegedly accepted Christ inside the prison, and jail authorities made him the prison leader. He also led a Bible study group in the prison.
“Some prisoners who attend the Bible study in the Nakkhu Jail told me that Mainali shared the extortion money with Majhi, which aroused jealousy among other prisoners, who reported it to the jail authorities,” the source said.
Around 150 prisoners attend the Nakkhu Gospel Church inside the prison premises, though Majhi is no longer leading it. Both Mainali and Majhi were recently transferred, Mainali to the Dilli-Bazaar Jail and Majhi to the Mid-Nepal Central Jail.
Deputy Inspector General of Police and Central Investigation Bureau (CIB) Director Rajendra Singh Bhandari told The Kathmandu Post that the arrest of Mainali’s men was a “tremendous achievement” that averted “mass casualties” in the capital.
“It seems that Mainali had filled the arrestees’ minds with dreams of earning quick bucks through terror,” the daily quoted another investigation official as saying.
The Christian source said he still hoped for genuine repentance in Mainali and Majhi.
“Mainali and Majhi must have at least some knowledge of the Bible,” he said. “So I am still hopeful that they would reflect on who God is and truly repent of their ways as they spend their time in prison cells incommunicado [prohibited from speaking with any outsider].”
According to The Kathmandu Post, the CIB had been observing Mainali following complaints that he had demanded large sums of money from businessmen and others.
“He had been making phone calls and sending demand letters to them,” the daily reported on March 4.
Compass requested an interview with Mainali at the Dilli-Bazaar Jail, which officials refused.
“We have orders not to allow Mainali to meet anyone,” said one official.
Mainali had earlier told Compass that he formed the NDA with the support of Hindu nationalists in India in 2007 to re-establish the Hindu monarchy, which fell after a decade-long armed struggle by former Maoist guerrillas peaked in 2006, when all political parties joined protests against King Gyanendra.
The NDA is also believed to be responsible for bombing mosques and killing Muslims and Christians, including the Rev. John Prakash Moyalan, a Catholic priest who was principal of the Don Bosco educational institution in eastern Nepal, in June 2008. While Christians in Nepal faced persecution at the hands of the Hindu monarchy until 2006, non-state actors have been attacking them since the country began transitioning to a secular democracy.
“Several incidents of religiously incited violence directed at minority religions and their property have been recorded since the signing of the peace accord [between the interim government and the Maoists in 2006],” a local Non-Governmental Organization, Informal Sector Service Sector (INSEC), noted last year.
“Although moves have been made to promote religious tolerance and a climate of peace and cooperation, this area must continuously be monitored,” stated an INSEC report, “Commitment versus Reality,” which mentioned attacks on Christians by Mainali’s outfit.
Of the roughly 30 million people in Nepal, only .5 percent are Christian, and more than 80 percent are Hindu, according to the 2001 census. The actual number of Christians, however, is believed to be much higher.
Report from Compass Direct News
Unresolved charge of ‘defaming religion’ leaves him in perpetual limbo.
CAIRO, Egypt, December 16 (CDN) — An Egyptian who left Islam to become a Christian and consequently lost his wife, children and business is waiting to see if the government will now take away his freedom for “defaming” Islam.
Ashraf Thabet, 45, is charged with defaming a revealed religion, Article 98f of the Egyptian Penal Code. The charges stem from Thabet’s six-year search for spiritual meaning that eventually led him to become a Christian. During his search, he shared his doubts about Islam and told others what he was learning about Jesus Christ.
Local religious authorities, incensed at Thabet’s ideas, notified Egypt’s State Security Intelligence service (SSI), which arrested and charged him with defamation. If found guilty, Thabet would face up to five years in jail. But because prosecutors have made no move to try the case, Thabet lives in limbo and is subject to a regular barrage of death threats from people in his community in Port Said in northeast Egypt.
“I don’t know what is going to happen in the future,” Thabet said. “They’re making life hard for me. I can’t get back my computer. I can’t get back anything.”
Thabet said that before his search began he was a committed Muslim who did his best to observe its rules, including those for prayer and fasting.
“I wasn’t an extremist, but I was committed to praying and to reading the Quran,” Thabet said. “I went to the Hajj. I did the usual things. I followed the Quran for the most part.”
Despite his efforts, Thabet admitted that his understanding of God was based on fear and routine, nearly rote obedience.
“There was no spiritual relationship between myself and God,” he said. “In general I was always cautious about my relationship with God. I didn’t want to do anything wrong.”
Thabet started looking at Christian Web sites, but his real interest in Christianity began when he watched the film, “The Passion of the Christ” in 2004.
“When I watched ‘The Passion of the Christ,’ I was very touched by Jesus’ story, and I wanted to read more about Him,” Thabet said. “So I asked a friend how I could know more about Jesus, and he told me, ‘The Bible.’”
His friend, a Christian Copt, did not get him a Bible until a month later because, Thabet thinks, he was afraid of being accused of proselytizing. Thabet began reading the Bible, which had a powerful impact on him, especially the Sermon on the Mount.
“I felt inside myself that these were the words of God,” he said. “The Bible tells people to give and to give out freely, so these words couldn’t be the words of a human being or a [mere] person, because human beings are inherently selfish.”
Thabet was also struck by the lives that the early followers of Jesus led, especially their willingness to lose everything, including their lives, for Christ.
The final factor that led Thabet to become a Christian came from Islam’s “Ninety-Nine Names of Allah,” attributes of God according to the Quran and tradition. In the names, God is called a “healer” a “resurrecter” and “just.”
“I started to compare all these characteristics with the characteristics of Jesus, and I saw that Jesus had a lot of the characteristics that God had, not only the human characteristics, being just and being kind, but there were similarities in the supernatural characteristics, like that He raised people from the dead,” he said. “In the Quran only God could raise people from the dead. I noticed that Jesus could raise people from the dead, and that He could heal people. Once I started to notice
the similarities between God and Jesus, I started believing that Jesus is the Son of God.”
Thabet said he cared about others “going the right way,” so he started having conversations with Muslim friends.
At first, people respected Thabet or tolerated what was seen as an awkward curiosity. But after he told his friends they were “only Muslim by inheritance,” they started to turn against him. They asked him what he was going to be if he wasn’t going to be a Muslim.
“I told them I started to read about Christianity, and I was starting to believe in it, and that’s when they brought the elders to talk to me,” he said.
The meeting didn’t go well. The Islamic leaders were unable to answer his questions and ended up yelling at him. Then they reported him to the SSI.
The SSI summoned Thabet and questioned him on his doubts about Islam.
Thabet said by the time he was done with the interrogation, the SSI officer looked almost sick and told him not to talk to anyone else in Port Said about religion.
“I don’t encourage you to talk about these things with people or to open up these types of discussions, because it will just provoke people and make them angry,” the officer told him, according to Thabet.
Two days later, Thabet said, the SSI ordered him to report for more questioning, this time with an officer who specialized in religious issues and countering missionaries. The officer wanted to know what made him start to doubt Islam. He asked specific questions about what Web sites he had been on and what books he had read, and whether he had been baptized.
Thabet said that at the time of his questioning, he was still struggling with his new beliefs. Part of him wanted something that would restore his faith in Islam, so he went to Internet chat rooms for religious discussion.
“A part of me wanted to feel that I was wrong, that there was an answer to my questions,” he said. “I was looking for someone who would say ‘No, no, this is how it is,’ and that I would regain my trust back or not have any more doubts. But none of the people I talked to could answer me. They didn’t say anything to any effect.”
Thabet said he was always respectful, but Muslims found his questions provocative and became increasingly angry.
Eventually police came for Thabet. On March 22 at 3 a.m., he said, 11 officers from the SSI cut the power to his home, kicked down his front door and assaulted him in front of his crying wife and children.
Thabet quickly pulled away from the fight, once he realized they were officers from the SSI. The men swarmed over Thabet’s home, seizing his computer and every book and CD he owned. They took him to jail.
Authorities interrogated Thabet non-stop for 12 hours, took a break and then interrogated him for seven more, he said.
Initially he was held for 15 days. Then authorities ordered he be held for another 15 days. Then they extended it again. Thabet said he spent the entire time in solitary confinement, and he wasn’t informed of the “defamation of religion” charge against him until the end of 132 days in jail. He said he was not tortured, however, and that his interrogators and jailers were largely civil.
There was more hardship waiting for him at home. Muslim leaders in his neighborhood convinced his wife to divorce him and take his 10-year-old daughter and 6-year-old son.
“They gave her the money to file for a divorce, a car and another person to marry,” Thabet said, adding that the Muslim leaders had offered him money too if he would stay in Islam. “In the beginning they tried to bribe me to come back to Islam, but I refused.”
Thabet has only had a few brief moments with his children since he was arrested, mainly when his soon-to-be ex-wife came to their home to gather a few belongings. If she goes through with the divorce, according to Egyptian law it is likely Thabet will lose all parental rights to his children, including any right to see them.
In Egypt and most other Muslim-majority countries, leaving Islam is considered ample grounds for termination of parental rights. Thabet said the religious leaders consider him “lost to Islam” and are trying to “save” his wife and children.
He filed a report with police about the Muslim leaders bribing his wife – and about another man who swindled money from him – but police ignored both reports, he said.
Kamal Fahmi of Set My People Free to Worship Me, a group headquartered in Cairo dedicated to raising awareness about the problems faced by Muslims who become Christians, said that under Islam, “Muslim converts don’t have the right to exist.”
Arrests like Thabet’s are common in Egypt.
“It is a tactic used to intimidate people and scare them from leaving Islam and taking alternative beliefs or moral codes,” Fahmi said.
In Islam as it is most often practiced in Egypt, merely expressing doubt about Islam is considered wrong, Fahmi said. Questioning any of its claims is considered blasphemy and is punishable by imprisonment under a variety of charges in Egypt; it is punishable by death in some other countries.
“Saying, ‘I don’t believe in Muhammad,’ is considered defaming Islam,” Fahmi said. “Saying, ‘I don’t believe in Islam as it is not true,’ can lead to death [murder], as you are considered an apostate,” Fahmi said. “Even rejecting the Islamic moral codes can lead to the same thing. Criticizing any of the sharia [Islamic law] is considered blasphemy.”
Thabet said he is uncertain what the future holds. He was released on Aug. 1 but, because he has the defamation of religion charge over his head – with no indication of when the case could go to court – he is unable to work and cannot even obtain a driver’s license.
His savings are almost depleted, forcing him to borrow money from a Muslim friend. He is concerned about re-arrest and receives death threats on a regular basis. He is too afraid to leave his apartment on most days.
“There are a lot of phone threats,” Thabet said. Noting he had been baptized three years ago, he said he has received phone threats in which someone tells him, “We are going to baptize you again with blood.”
On numerous occasions while talking in Internet chat rooms, he has been told, “Look outside the window, we know where you are,” Thabet said.
In recent days Muslims are angry at converts and at Christians in general, he said. “They’re very worked up about religious issues.”
He said he wants to leave Egypt but admits that, at his age, it would be very hard to start over. And if he stays in Egypt, he said, at least he will have a chance to see his children, however brief those encounters may be.
Since Thabet was released from jail on Aug. 1, authorities have seized his passport and summoned him four times for questioning. He said he thinks the SSI is trying to wear him down.
“Everyone is telling me that they [the government] want to make my life hard,” he said. “The problem here in Egypt is the religious intolerance that is found in government ministries. The intolerance has reached a point where they can’t think straight. Their intolerance makes them unaware of their own intolerance.”
Report from Compass Direct News
Bekasi officials unable to persuade HKBP congregation to relocate to alternative venue.
JAKARTA, Indonesia, September 23 (CDN) — Following attacks on their church leaders on Sept. 12, a West Java congregation on Sunday (Sept. 19) faced a wall of security officers blocking them from worshipping on their property as authorities tried to coax them to meet at another venue.
Hundreds of security force officers sealed off the street leading to their open-air worship site in Ciketing, near Bekasi, a week after suspected Islamists stabbed Batak Christian Protestant Church (Huria Kristen Batak Protestan, or HKBP) elder Hasian Sihombing and struck Pastor Luspida Simanjuntak with a wooden block. At the Pondok Timur location where the church had gathered to walk three kilometers (less than two miles) to Ciketing on Sunday, an official in a police vehicle announced through a loudspeaker that the Bekasi government requested they worship at the former office of a community organization.
When Compass arrived at the Pondok Timur area, there were 1,500 regular police and public order security police officers standing by, some forming ranks in front of the Nurul Hulda Mosque 500 meters away.
The official on the loudspeaker read a decree by Bekasi Mayor H. Mochtar Muhammad stating that security problems in the Mustika Jaya area were caused by the HKBP worship in Ciketing – where Islamists have staged protests in spite of a mayoral decree granting the congregation the right to worship there – and that in order to guard against further incidents, the church was no longer to hold services there.
“From now on, HKBP will hold its worship services in the [former] Organization & Political Party Building [the auditorium in back of several buildings occupied by different political parties] on Charil Anwar Street in Bekasi City,” he said.
The new mayoral decree dictating where the church was to worship was the product of a Sept. 15 meeting of the West Java governor, the Jakarta area military commander, Jakarta area police, the general secretary and the director general of the Ministry of the Interior, and the Department of Religion, he said.
“We invite the HKBP members to climb aboard the seven buses that we have prepared to take them to the [former] Organization & Political Party [OPP] building,” the official said to the congregation, which had gathered outside the Pondok Timur area building they had used for worship before authorities sealed it in June.
The HKBP congregation ignored the invitation. Muhammad Jufri, head of the Bekasi municipal legal department, then invited the congregation to board the buses. No one responded.
A few minutes later the Rev. Pietersen Purba, district head of the HKBP Pondok Timur District, along with two other pastors and two lawyers, requested that the congregation be allowed to worship at the open-air site on their property in Ciketing. Authorities denied the request.
An argument ensued between Bekasi officials and HKBP leaders.
“For our common good, both government and congregation, and in accordance with the decision of the coordinating meeting, we have prepared a temporary worship place at the former OPP building,” said Jufri, of the Bekasi legal department. “Because of this you may worship there, and while you are worshipping the municipal government guarantees your safety.”
Pastor Purba responded by requesting security for their current location.
“I am surprised that we are forbidden to worship on our own property,” he told authorities. “Our services there were sanctioned by a letter from the mayor that allows us to worship in Ciketing. We are the victims – my pastor was beaten. Are we not citizens with the right to worship in this country? Because of this we ask that the police help us with security so that we may worship in Ciketing. The congregation and I desire to worship there.”
HKBP lawyer Saor Siagian asked a policeman to open the way toward their property in Ciketing; the officer refused.
Jufri then began to read the mayor’s new decree aloud, but he had spoken only a few sentences before one of the HKBP lawyers, Sahala Pangaribuan, interrupted him.
“Sir, if you want to read, do so, but don’t prevent us from walking,” Pangaribuan said.
Jufri continued reading the entire decree.
“We heard what you read,” Pastor Purba replied, “but we don’t easily believe our beloved government, because we remember the case of HKBP Jatimulyo, Bekasi, which was sealed by the government, and then promised facilities for a place of worship. Now it has been five years, and the promise is still unfulfilled.”
The argument lasted another 30 minutes, and the congregation gave up on its request to meet in Ciketing. They were granted 10 minutes to pray in their former Pondok Timur building and additional time for congregational discussion, which was led by the national secretary general of the HKBP, the Rev. Ramlan Hutahayan.
At press conference later that day, Hutahayan said that freedom of worship was fundamental.
“We hope that every citizen will have the right to construct houses of worship to praise and glorify God together,” he said.
Bekasi officials have offered the former OPP building as a temporary venue for worship and two alternative locations on land zoned for general and/or social purposes: one owned by P.T. Timah and one belonging to the Strada Foundation. Thus far the congregation has not approved of these alternatives because they are far from their homes.
At a press conference with other Christian leaders, the head of the Jakarta Christian Communication General Forum, Theophilus Bela, said a statement by the Jakarta provincial police chief that the Sept. 12 attack on the church leaders was a “purely criminal act” was hasty.
“After arrests and investigation, it has been shown that this is not a pure criminal act, but an organized scenario with the Islamic Defenders Front as the field command,” Bela said.
He and other Christian leaders criticized government officials for closing churches and revoking church building permits that had already been approved.
“They have been passive in the face of anarchy and terrorist acts that have been done in the name of religion by groups such as the Islamic Defenders Front, the Betawi-Rempug Forum, the Islamic Congregation Forum, the Congress of the Indonesian Muslim Community, and so on,” he said.
Report from Compass Direct News
The link that follows this post is to a story in the Edmonton Journal about a ‘church’ service held at the McClure United Church. The article relates how the service was run by clowns (it could be argued – in more ways than one), including the minister as a clown, the Lord’s Supper being mimed and a so-called ‘liturgical dance,’ whatever that means. In short, this is an example of another ‘church’ that has lost its way.
The article seems to suggest that there was another great event in the church as well – at another service children bounced balloons around the building as the minister read about the place of balloons in worship from a very ‘authorative’ book on Christian worship by Ann Weems, called ‘Balloons Belong in Church.’ It would seem that the true blueprint for Christian worship has been put aside at McClure United Church. Then there was the Wednesday Worship Hour that was spiced up by the Hawaii Night theme, complete with dress up and limbo contest – all very sad and tragic.
City officials order security police to close church under cover of darkness.
JAKARTA, Indonesia, September 8 (CDN) — The Bogor city government in West Java re-sealed the Gereja Kristen Indonesia (GKI) Yasmin Church on Aug. 28, one day after security police had removed the seal and lock.
Under cover of darkness, Bogor security police were ordered to secretly re-seal the church building at 11 p.m. the night before it was to be used for worship services.
Jayadi Damanik, a member of the GKI Yasmin legal team, said security police had removed the lock and seal after church talks with the district officer, the Bogor police chief, the head of the security police and citizens who live near the church. In those talks all parties agreed that there was no reason to question the construction and presence of the GKI Yasmin Church, he said.
The district officer and the Bogor police chief told church leaders that the original sealing of the church on April 11 was the unwarranted result of political pressure, he said.
After re-opening the church on Aug. 27, authorities placed a notice that read, “Because this Gereja Kristen Indonesia building has satisfied all of the requirements, it has a building permit, No. 645.8-372 Year 2006, and has been strengthened by the force of law according to the decision handed down by the Bandung State Court Number 41/G/2008/PTUN-BDG, which rescinded the Bogor City Government decree Number 503/208-DKTP dated Feb. 14 freezing the permit.”
But on Aug. 28 at about 4 a.m., unknown persons locked the gate of the GKI Yasmin fence and placed a banner on it that read, “Because this building is continuing to be processed under the law, it cannot be used.”
At 11 a.m. that day, the church took off the lock and removed the banner, but late that night security police resealed it with a new notice.
Besides sealing the building under cover of darkness, Damanik said, there was no formal notice and no church witnesses.
“Why did they do this at night, like thieves?” Damanik said. “Because of this, we do not accept the seal as legal.”
He added that the State Court had found the April 11 sealing was illegal.
After the resealing, the GKI legal team went to the office of the security police to ask about it. Yan Yan, head of the security police, said that his superiors, the Bogor municipal government, and the influential Bogor politicians had pressured him to re-seal it. He said his bosses had scolded him for taking off the seal on Aug. 27.
“I am astounded,” Damanik said. “Why should a security police officer who takes off a seal based on a legal decision be reprimanded rather than appreciated?”
Damanik said he appreciated the heart of the security chief, who understood that there was no reason for the Bogor government to seal the church on April 11.
“I am proud that Mr. Yan did the right thing and took off the seal, even though it was just for one day,” he said. “He did this because he understood the truth.”As a result of this incident, Damanik said he hopes that the political elites will repent and carry out the court’s order.
GKI Yasmin elder Thomas Wadu Dara said the church would protest the resealing.
“After this incident, we are going to write to the Indonesian president and the Parliament,” Wadu Dara said.
He said he hoped that the congregation would continue to be patient in meeting the challenges and not give up in their struggle for the truth.
“We are going to continue worshipping on Sunday at 8 o’clock,” he said.
Since April 11, the GKI Yasmin congregation has been allowed to worship only once every two weeks on the shoulder of the road bordering fence in front of the church building that the Bogor government sealed.
Report from Compass Direct News
Pretexts for filing charges of blaspheming Muhammad, Quran are easy to find.
BAHAWALNAGAR, Pakistan, August 24 (CDN) — Threats of “blasphemy” charges in two provinces in Pakistan have sent a Christian cleaning worker and a young inter-faith couple into hiding.
In separate cases typical of how Pakistan’s blasphemy laws enable the predominantly Sunni Muslim society to terrorize lower-class Christians, the cleaning worker in Bahawalnagar district, Punjab Province was forced to leave his job and flee with his family, and the married couple in Karachi, Sindh Province are running from threats from the Muslim bride’s parents.
In Chishtian, Bahawalnagar district, Muslim extremists accused cleaning worker Tanvir Masih of New Christian Colony with blasphemy after they found him using a broom whose handle was covered with a pharmaceutical firm’s advertisement cards bearing a verse from the Quran in Arabic that read, “God is the best healer!”
The Muslim radicals from Ghareebabad Colony intercepted Masih as he made his way home after work on July 28 and accused him of defiling Muhammad, the prophet of Islam, and the Quran, by covering part of his broom handle with the drug firm’s advertisements, sources said on condition of anonymity.
Masih, the father of a 3-year-old son and another boy 2 months old, tried to explain that others had given him the cards, written mostly in English, and that he did not understand English. The extremists, who had received a call from a group of Muslims who said they had found a Christian who had covered part of his broom handle with cards bearing Allah’s name, verbally vented their anger on him, the sources said.
A representative of a pharmaceutical company confirmed to Compass that some of the medicinal advertisement cards of A-4 size carry a small Quranic verse written in Arabic, “Ho Al Shafi,” meaning “God is the best healer!”
The parties brought the matter to Masih’s employer, a physician identified only as Dr. Arshad of the privately owned Bajwa Clinic, and a district health officer, according to a local Christian clergyman. Both Arshad and the health official decided that Masih had committed no blasphemy against Muhammad, the Quran or Islam, and the Muslim extremists initially said they accepted their decision, the pastor said.
As Masih came out of the clinic, however, he found irate Muslims had thronged the road, the pastor said. Masih made a sprint for his life, he said, and since then no one has seen him or his family there. The pastor said he was certain, however, that Masih and his family were safe at an undisclosed location.
Another clergyman, the Rev. Shamshad Gill of Bahawalnagar, confirmed that Muslims attacked Tanvir Masih last month in Chishtian on accusations of defiling the Quran, and that he fled with his children.
At press time Masih and his family were still in hiding at an undisclosed location.
Ghareebabad Colony comprises more than 10,000 Muslim families, whereas its New Christian Colony enclave has only 100 Christian homes.
In Karachi, Islamic hardliners threatened to charge a 33-year-old Christian man with blasphemy – and kill his wife for “apostasy,” or leaving Islam – after he refused to divorce the Muslim woman, the Christian man informed Compass.
In a letter to Compass, Shahbaz Javed said that since he secretly wed Mehwish Naz in a civil court in October 2008, his Muslim employer fired him from his factory job, and his wife’s relatives found out where they lived and began to threaten them unless she divorced him. The couple has a 2-month-old daughter.
One month after they married, the radical Muslim parents of Mehwish found out and began threatening to kill her.
“Her parents said it would be much better for them to kill her rather than give her hand in marriage to a Christian youth’s hand,” Javed said.
Her family appeared to have reluctantly accepted her marriage to a Christian when she assured them that she was still a Muslim, according to the letter signed by Javed and the Rev. Khadim Bhutto, a Christian rights worker for Gawahi Mission Trust.
Her parents told her to recite the Quran and offer prayers five times a day in accordance with Islamic practice, but eventually Naz began to attend church services and read the Bible, though Javed had never forced her to do so, he stated in the letter. Bhutto said her parents, Hameed Baig and Memona Naz, found out about her Bible reading and church attendance.
“Her parents warned her again that if she did not give up all this, they would file a case of apostasy against her and implicate Shahbaz Javed in a blasphemy case or kill him,” Bhutto said.
Her parents also began trying to coerce her and Javed into reciting Islamic prayers, including reciting it to their newborn, Muqadas Parveen, to “confirm” her as a Muslim, according to Javed. The couple told Compass, however, that they wanted to raise their daughter as a Christian.
Bhutto said the family was still moving from one rented home to another to avoid being kidnapped, killed or charged with apostasy and blasphemy.
Report from Compass Direct News
Two years after political reforms, freedom of faith nowhere in sight.
MALÉ, Maldives, August 10 (CDN) — Visitors to this Islamic island nation get a sense of religious restrictions even before they arrive. The arrival-departure cards given to arriving airline passengers carry a list of items prohibited under Maldivian laws – including “materials contrary to Islam.”
After Saudi Arabia, the Maldives is the only nation that claims a 100-percent Muslim population. The more than 300,000 people in the Maldives, an Indian Ocean archipelago featuring 1,192 islets 435 miles southwest of Sri Lanka, are all Sunnis.
This South Asian nation, however, has more than 70,000 expatriate workers representing several non-Islamic religions, including Christianity.
Also, around 60,000 tourists, mainly from Europe, visit each year to enjoy the blue ocean and white beaches and normally head straight to one of the holiday resorts built on around 45 islands exclusively meant for tourism. Tourists are rarely taken to the other 200 inhabited islands where locals live.
Nearly one-third of the population lives in the capital city of Malé, the only island where tourists and Maldivians meet.
While the Maldivians do not have a choice to convert out of Islam or to become openly atheist, foreigners in the country can practice their religion only privately.
In previous years several Christian expats have either been arrested for attending worship in private homes or denied visas for several months or years on suspicion of being connected with mission agencies.
According to “liberal estimates,” the number of Maldivian Christians or seekers “cannot be more than 15,” said one source.
“Even if you engage any Maldivian in a discussion on Christianity and the person reports it to authorities, you can be in trouble,” the source said. “A Maldivian youth studying in Sri Lanka became a Christian recently, but when his parents came to know about it, they took him away. We have not heard from him since then.”
The source added that such instances are not uncommon in the Maldives.
“I wish I could attend church, but I am too scared to look for one,” said a European expat worker. “I have not even brought my Bible here; I read it online. I don’t want to take any chances.”
The British reportedly translated the Bible into the local language, Dhivehi, and made it available in the 19th century, as the Maldives was a British protectorate from 1887 to 1965. Today no one knows how the Dhivehi Bible “disappeared.”
“A new translation has been underway for years, and it is in no way near completion,” said the source who requested anonymity.
Religion Excluded from Rights
The 2008 constitution, adopted five years after a popular movement for human rights began, states that a “non-Muslim may not become a citizen of the Maldives.”
Abdulla Yameen, brother of the former dictator of the Maldives and leader of the People’s Alliance party, an ally of the opposition Dhivehi Raiyyathunge Party (Maldivian People’s Party or DRP), told Compass that the issue of religious freedom was “insignificant” for the Maldives.
“There’s no demand for it from the public,” Yameen said. “If you take a public poll, 99 percent of the citizens will say ‘no’ to religious freedom.”
Maldivians are passionate about their religion, Yameen added, referring to a recent incident in which a 37-year-old Maldivian citizen, Mohamed Nazim, was attacked after he told a gathering that he was not a Muslim. On May 28, before a crowd of around 11,000 Maldivians, Nazim told a visiting Indian Muslim televangelist, Zakir Naik, that although he was born to a practicing Muslim family, he was “struggling to believe in religions.”
He also asked Naik about his “verdict on Islam.” The question enraged an angry crowd, with many calling for Nazim’s death while others beat him. He received several minor injuries before police took him away.
“See how the public went after his [Nazim’s] throat,” said Yameen, who studied at Claremont Graduate University in California. When asked if such passion was good for a society, he replied, “Yes. We are an Islamic nation, and our religion is an important part of our collective identity.”
Asked if individuals had no rights, his terse answer was “No.” Told it was shocking to hear his views, he said, “We are also shocked when a nation legalizes gay sex.”
Mohamed Zahid, vice president of the Human Rights Commission of the Maldives, told Compass that the country has its own definition of human rights.
“It is to protect people’s rights under the sharia [Islamic law] and other international conventions with the exception of religious freedom,” he said. “We are a sovereign nation, and we follow our own constitution.”
Zahid and several other local sources told Compass that the issue of religious rights was “irrelevant” for Maldivians. “Not more than 100 people in the country want religious freedom,” Zahid said.
Politics of Religion
Former President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, a virtual dictator for 30 years until 2008, is generally held responsible for creating an atmosphere of religious restrictions in the Maldives, as he sought to homogenize religion in the country by introducing the state version of Sunni Islam. He also led a major crackdown on Christians.
The Protection of Religious Unity Act, enacted in 1994, was an endeavor to tighten the government’s control over mosques and all other Islamic institutions. The Gayoom administration even wrote Friday sermons to be delivered in mosques.
In 1998, Gayoom began a crackdown on alleged missionary activities.
“A radio station based out of India used to air Christian programs via the Seychelles, but the government came to know about it and ensured that they were discontinued with the help of the government in the Seychelles,” said a local Muslim source.
That year, Gayoom reportedly arrested around 50 Maldivians who were suspected to have converted to Christianity and deported 19 foreign workers accused of doing missionary work. A source said Gayoom apparently wanted to regain popularity at a time when his leadership was being questioned.
When the archipelago became a multi-party democracy in October 2008, new President Mohamed Nasheed, a former journalist and activist, was expected to pursue a liberal policy as part of the country’s reforms agenda.
Although Nasheed is the president, his party, the Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP), has only 28 members and the support of four independents in the 77-member People’s Majlis (Maldives’ unicameral Parliament). Gayoom, now in his 70s and the leader of the largest opposition party, the DRP, has a simple majority – which presents difficulties in governance. Nasheed pleads helplessness in implementing reforms, citing an intransigent opposition.
Today Gayoom’s party accuses President Nasheed of not being able to protect the country’s distinct identity and culture, which the opposition says are rooted in Islam. The Gayoom-led parliament recently sought to impeach the education minister for proposing to make Islam and Dhivehi lessons optional – rather than mandatory – in high school.
To pre-empt the impeachment move, the whole cabinet of Nasheed resigned on June 29, which caused a major political crisis that led to violent street protests. The Nasheed administration allegedly arrested some opposition members, including Gayoom’s brother, Yameen. Political tensions and uncertainties continued at press time.
Now that President Nasheed’s popularity is declining – due to perceptions that he has become as authoritarian as his predecessor – it is feared that, amid immense pressure by the opposition to follow conservative policies, he might begin to follow in Gayoom’s footsteps.
Both the ruling and opposition parties admit that Islamic extremism has grown in the country. In October 2007, a group of young Maldivians engaged government security forces in a fierce shootout on Himandhoo Island.
Nasheed’s party alleges that Gayoom’s policy of promoting the state version of Sunni Islam created an interest to discern “true Islam,” with extremists from Pakistan stepping in to introduce “jihadism” in the Maldives. The DRP, on the other hand, says that behind the growth of extremism is the current government’s liberal policy of allowing Muslims of different sects to visit the Maldives to preach and give lectures, including the conservative Sunni sect of “Wahhabis.”
Until the early 1990s, Maldivian women would hardly wear the black burqa (covering the entire body, except the eyes and hands), and no men would sport a long beard – outward marks of Wahhabi Muslims, said the Muslim source, adding that “today the practice has become common.”
Still, Islam as practiced in the Maldives is pragmatic and unlike that of Saudi Arabia, he said. “People here are liberal and open-minded.”
As extremism grows, though, it is feared that radical Islamists may go to any extent to extra-judicially punish anyone suspected of being a missionary or having converted away from Islam, and that they can pressure the government to remain indifferent to religious freedom.
How long will it take for the Maldives to allow religious freedom?
“Maybe after the Maldivian government legalizes gay sex,” the Muslim source joked.
Report from Compass Direct News
Evangelistic team cheats death; separately, stray gunshot leads to false charges.
RAWALPINDI, Pakistan, July 15 (CDN) — Suspected Islamic extremists fired bullets into the car of a Christian evangelist with impunity last month, while in another Punjab Province town stray gunfire led to two Christians being falsely accused of murder.
Following a youth revival in Essa Nagri, near Faisalabad, the Rev. Kamran Pervaiz, a guest speaker from Rawalpindi, was in the passenger seat of a Toyota Corolla returning to Faisalabad with his team on June 25 when 12 armed men tried to stop their car, the pastor said.
Pastor Naeem Joseph, an organizer of the revival, was leading the ministry team by motorbike, and he led them past the armed men as they reached the Narawala Road bypass at about 1:15 a.m.
“I didn’t stop,” Pastor Joseph told Compass. “A gunshot was fired at me, but it missed, and instead of going straight I turned right towards the Sudhar bypass and took the motorbike into the fields.”
Pervaiz Sohtra was driving the car.
“Rev. Kamran asked me to increase the speed,” Sohtra said. “The armed men shouted to stop and directly fired at the car. I saw from the rearview mirror that they were coming after us, and I told everyone to stay down.”
The rear window suddenly broke to pieces as bullets pierced the car.
“Pervaiz [Sohtra] turned off the lights and took the car into the fields and turned off the engine,” Kamran Pervaiz said. “The attackers drove by, near the road, without noticing the fields. No one was injured. We were all safe.”
Pervaiz said he was certain that they were targeted because of their involvement in the Christian revival meeting; response to Pervaiz’s preaching jumped when a crippled man was healed after the evangelist prayed for him at the event. Muslim groups had warned the Christians to abort the meeting after banners and posters were displayed across Essa Nagri.
“A local Muslim group tore the banners and threatened us, telling us not to organize the meeting or else we would face dire consequences,” said Salman John, one of the organizers.
A police patrol responded to the ministry team’s emergency number phone call, reaching them in the field shortly before 2 a.m. and escorting Pervaiz and the others in their bullet-damaged car to Model Town, Faisalabad.
Pastor Joseph filed an application for a First Information Report (FIR) at Ghulam Muhammad Abad police station in Faisalabad. Acting Superintendent Shabir Muhammad took the application but declined to register an FIR due to pressure from local Muslim groups, he said.
“I am trying to register the FIR, but the things are out of my control at higher levels,” Muhammad told Compass.
In Gujrat, by contrast, police soon arrested two young Christian men after shots fired into the air by a drunken man killed a neighbor.
Cousins Saleem Masih, 22, and John Masih, 23, were falsely accused of robbery as well as murder, a later police investigation found, and they were released. Both worked at the farm of Chaudhry Ashraf Gondal, who became inebriated along with friend Chaudhry Farhan on June 18, according to Riaz Masih, father of Saleem Masih.
“They were feasting and then got drunk and started firing gunshots into the air for fun, and one of the bullets hit a passer-by near their home, and he died on the spot,” Riaz Masih said.
Yousaf Masih, father of John Masih, told Compass that when police arrived, Ashraf Gondal “gave them some money and asked them to take care of the matter.”
On June 22, police went to Yousaf Masih’s house asking for Saleem and John Masih. When Yousaf Masih said they were at work and asked if everything was alright, the inspector told him that the two young men had robbed and murdered shopkeeper Malik Sajid on June 18 at about 11:30 p.m.
“My son and Saleem came home around 6 p.m. and they didn’t go out after that,” Yousaf Masih told the officers. “On June 18 they were at home – they didn’t go out, so how could they murder Sajid?”
Police went to Ashraf Gondal’s farm and arrested the two young Christians. When police told Ashraf Gondal that they had robbed and murdered Sajid, he replied that they were capable of such a crime as they often asked him for advances on their pay and “they even sell alcohol.” Alcohol is illegal for Muslims in Pakistan and can be sold only by non-Muslims with a license.
Riaz Masih said he and Yousaf Masih rushed to Ashraf Gondal for help, but that he spoke harshly to them, saying, “Your sons have robbed and murdered an innocent person, and they even sell alcohol. Why should I help criminals, and especially Christian criminals?”
The two fathers went to the police station, where the Station House Officer (SHO) refused to allow them to meet with their sons. They went to Pastor Zaheer Latif.
“I’ve known Saleem and John since they were small kids, and they could never rob or murder anyone,” Pastor Latif told Compass. “They were targeted because they are Christians. The SHO and Ashraf knew that these boys would not be able to prove themselves innocent.”
The pastor referred the fathers to the senior superintendent of police operations officer Raon Irfan, who undertook an investigation. When he spoke with Ashraf Gondal, Irfan said, the landowner denied that Farhan had visited him on June 18.
“I have read the inquiry report by the SHO,” Irfan told Compass. “I am aware of the fact that this SHO is a corrupt person, and it is clearly a false report.”
Irfan said that, after talking with villagers, he concluded that Farhan was with Ashraf Gondal in Gujrat on June 18, and that they shot into the air for fun and one of the bullets killed Sajid.
“Ashraf bribed the SHO to arrest someone else and file charges of robbery and murder,” Irfan said. “Ashraf is an influential person, and he told the SHO to file the case against Saleem and John, as they are Christians and would not be able to prove themselves innocent.”
Advocacy group Peace Pakistan filed an appeal of the false charges with the Gujrat Session Court on June 25. In light of Irfan’s report, Session Judge Muhammad Gulfam Malik on June 27 released Saleem Masih and John Masih and suspended the SHO for corruption and filing a false case.
No action, however, was taken against Ashraf Gondal or Farhan. Police have not arrested either of them.
Report from Compass Direct News